Saturday, August 27, 2011

Dealing with rejection

I wrote a piece on Thursday about what it's like to write a boxoffice flop.  My point was to move on and work on something else.   A few years ago I wrote a piece more specific to dealing with rejection and thought this might be a good time to reprise it. 

Dealing with rejection is never easy. Especially when starting out. Barry Diller (the Dali Lama of sharks, pictured right) has the philosophy that when a deal falls through or is rejected, his automatic response is: “Next?!”

Writers need a thick skin, belief in themselves, and five times a week therapy (prom rebuffs linger large). The good news is if you’ve written a spec, all you need is one person to say yes. (I know, you could say that about the prom, too. Get over it already!)

I’ve saved all my rejection letters and wouldn’t you know, a number of the writers who initially said I sucked eventually submitted scripts to me looking for a job years later. (No, I didn’t just send back their rejection letters and flip flop the names…but I wanted to.)

Keep striving to improve, maybe find some constructive use in the rejection (if it’s offered and useful), but never let your worth be decided by someone else. Supposedly, Richard Wagner once wrote back to a critic who panned one of his works by saying (and I’m paraphrasing), “I am currently sitting on the toilet. At the moment your critique is in front of me. In a moment it will be behind me.”

I’ve written spec screenplays that have sold and others that haven’t. I used to ask my agent if they gave any reason for passing. I would hear such explanations as: too broad, not broad enough; too edgy, too soft; too familiar, too out there. And all these regarding the same script. My favorite rejection of all-time was from an idiot studio executive who said this about one of my screenplays:

“The writing was so good it almost fooled me into liking this script.”

How do you react to that other than laugh and drop him a note congratulating him on the success of FROM JUSTIN TO KELLY? I no longer ask for explanations. I no longer even wait to hear the reaction on one project before launching into another. I don’t consider any of my screenplays rejected, just “not having sold yet”.



David Schwartz said...

Ken, I agree with your assertions that you have to keep on trying and that all you need is one person to say "yes" to mute all of the rejections. I have an additional perspective to mention... I've had a successful writing career and made a living for the past 25 years (some years better than others). I feel very fortunate to have been able to build a career for myself as a writer. With that said, one of my regrets is that I was never able to crack the sitcom market. While I had a few meetings and had some story editors read my specs, I never was able to sell a script. And while I'd love to maintain that it was just that the producers and story editors didn't appreciate my genius, I have to say that one thing that plagued me was what I like to call "the arrogance of youth." I can remember getting notes on a script from a well connected producer who was running a network show and deciding that he didn't know what he was talking about. He gave me specific notes about what I could do to strengthen my script and at the time (I was in my mid 20's) I decided I knew better and that I didn't need to listen to him. While I'm not saying his notes made the script better(they most likely did), how could I have not made every change he requested and re-submit? D'oh!!!! I think that in retrospect this attitude held me back in my career. Looking back, I could have just as easily reworked the script, submitted it back to the same producer and probably impressed him with the fact that I was willing to take direction and improve upon my script. Of course, hindsight is 20-20, but I just wanted to mention that it's not always the people in charge who can get in our way. Sometimes (at least with me at the time) we can be our own worst enemies and our egos can hold us back as much as the producers!

bruce miller said...

Excellent take on this subject, Ken. I'm in full agreement and would like to add a thought to what you have already said. You and I go back a long way and fortunately, have not had this issue between us. However, we met after my most neurotic part of my career.....when I was starting out. The point here is that rejection when I was struggling to pay the bills is quite a bit different than when you've succeeded into a comfort zone, creatively and financially. To this day, I suffer the anxiety of rejection whenever I submit for a project, but it's a totally different anxiety since the concern of putting food on the table isn't an issue....thank god. You know me primarily as a composer for comedies. While this is not intended to be an "alert to the media" that my comfort zone and experience extends far beyond comedies into dramatic music and records, getting acceptance in those fields takes some "doing". But at this stage of the game, when I face rejection because of "current image", it just doesn't cut so deep or keep me up nights anymore. I simply get on the internet and look for those who have been rejected worse than me, and try to believe I feel a whole lot better! 25 years ago was a whole different story.
My drawn out response here is simply that the rejection is so different when it's only ego injury, as opposed to ego AND bill paying concerns. My ego will always be fragile, cause that's how I roll, but the real stomach acid deal is when both issues are at play. There you go.....I've just written you a rambling symphony, when a 3 second sitcom cue would have been even better.....maybe "they" do have it right!!!

Amy said...

Thank you for this. I just discovered your blog and this bit of advice couldn't come at a better time. I started a blog about giving up after taking my last rejection rather badly, but I recently caved and started rewriting a script I shredded/deleted! I was searching for it in the back of my wardrobe and found my rejection letters – it stunned me that I'd spent so much time feeling rejected and rubbish, but I barely have any letters! Truth is, I hardly put any work out there to face rejection – or get my foot through the door. I used to worry I'd spoil my chances by sending crappy work out there too soon, or by pestering people. Anyway, I emailed a comedy producer to ask him to read my work last week – if he declines, I hereby pledge to not take that as a damning indictment of my talent and to bother someone else instead!

Hilee Autlasse said...

Pretty good advice for almost any instance in which someone else holds 'the power' on your life- menu. In fact, "Next!" is the only realistic option for those choosing to live.

jbryant said...

Re: “The writing was so good it almost fooled me into liking this script.”

I don't know, Ken - as a former story editor/reader, I totally get this. Many times I've thoroughly enjoyed a read only to realize upon reflection that the excellent prose style and flair for dialogue momentarily minimized major problems with the story.

Not saying this applied to your script, of course, which I'm sure was brilliant. :)

purplejilly said...

Thank you Ken, these kinds of examples are things I love to hear about, because it helps me deal with the real world aspect of writing. Thanks again for this!

Anonymous said...

Asking for a REASON for rejection is more often than not a waste of time because the REAL answer would be, "I dunno - just didn't like it." Asking for a REASON forces an answer & that's when you get such conflicting nonsense. Not everyone is going to like everything you do & they don't need to. If everyone DOES like what you do it means you aren't speaking with a very distinctive voice & need to develop a writing personality. "NEXT!" is indeed the correct response.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post, thank you, though I agree with Bruce Miller that rejection as a regular part of a working writer's life and rejection while you're still scaling the foothills are two very different things.

For the 'food on the table' he mentions, but also, for 'auditionees in the first few weeks of Idol (et all)' reasons. They believe in themselves in the face of adversity, and rejection, and also, reality. These days, while rejection always stings, it's weighted against the producers who have liked and even bought my work so it's a lot easier to grit my teeth and think 'next'. Before I had some tangible proof (in the form of cash minus my agent's percentage) that this wasn't entirely a pipe dream, it was horribly hard not to wonder if I was screeching off key while imagining myself a stadium filling diva.

Which is an entirely useless thing to say really as there isn't any way to know whether or not it's a pipe dream until you make it, or, don't, so we have to grit our teeth and think 'next' regardless.

Amy said...

@claireduffy I'm so glad I'm not the only person who compares the desire to be a writer with American Idol (aka X Factor here in the UK) auditionees! Writing must be a kind of madness, so how do you know if you're just waiting in the wings for your big break or are a laughing stock..? It's so hard. There is a difference, I feel, in 'rejection' before and after getting a cheque for your work. If you haven't (yet) been lucky enough to get some kind of sign you're on the right track, it is hard not to wonder whether you're just plain deluded. A x

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure rejection is as black-and-white as some commenters think. With feature film scripts, you're basically asking a producer to spend two years of his life making your movie. He/she has to really love it to commit that much to it. There are lots of movies I like well enough to spend two hours watching, but wouldn't want to spend two years on.

James said...

@ Ken

How do you have that attitude without getting jaded?

To put this question into context, so it doesn't sound like I'm just some a-hole stirring the pot --

I've been around the block a few times. I've had my share of successes and failures. And an ever increasing number of hilariously heartbreaking "notes" and "feedback" on scripts -- both positive and negative.

My reaction, much like yours, is to just laugh (what else can you do?). But I also find myself getting more and more jaded over time.

I don't like that feeling. Was wondering (probably naively) if you had any suggestions?

Anonymous said...

As Dory in FInding Nemo says, 'Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.'
Good, practical advice that, none the less, is tough to follow through on once the rejections keep rolling.

cadavra said...

"Asking for a REASON for rejection is more often than not a waste of time because the REAL answer would be, "I dunno - just didn't like it." Asking for a REASON forces an answer & that's when you get such conflicting nonsense."

I must disagree. It's not enough to say it sucks; you have to say why it sucks and with enough specificity to prove you actually read the script. My then-producing partner and I once were in such a situation, a meeting with a studio exec whose criticisms were so generic I began to wonder. So I asked, "Didn't you at least find the water balloon fight funny?" He paused for a nanosecond, then said he thought it was okay but seemed forced in and had "no real payoff." I stood up and said, "There is no water balloon fight. You didn't read the script. You are an ass. Good-bye." And I left. My partner trailed after me and asked how I could do such a thing. I replied, "Do you really want to work for someone who didn't even read it and then lied about it?" She slumped and agreed.