The Hollywood “No”

Last week, I went to a presentation where a speaker mentioned  that rejection imprints more deeply in the female brain than the male brain. I thought this was pretty interesting, so looked online for details but failed to find any article to corroborating this, although I don’t disbelieve her. In any case, it got me thinking about rejection.

Generally I don’t need to  consciously think about rejection because it has become such an integral a part of my life.  I have a kind of “unaware awareness” of it that is constant, but not always identifiable as an irritant. It’s like after you get used to a heavy purse, a funky hip joint, or the fact that Trump is president. After awhile, you kind of forget about it until you watch a news clip, try the wrong yoga pose, or finally clean out your purse and realize you’ve been carrying THREE full water bottles it it. It takes moments of increased or decreased pain intensity to remind you that “oh yeah, that pain has been there.” 

Currently, I have a short story out to a few literary journals. Last week I received the first “thanks, but no thanks” from one of them. We can assume that perhaps someone else is actually reading my story and rejecting it right now, as I write this.

This is actually my favorite type of rejection — a direct rejection, in writing.  

In Stephen King’s On Writing, he talks about how for a long time, he collected all of his rejection notes on a nail, until the nail got too full, and he had to replace it with a long spike.  When I first read that I found it inspiring to think of rejection letters are kind of a badge of honor — evidence that you have been to battle and survived.  I’ve not done anything so romantic as hammer a spike into my landlord’s wall, and with changing times my rejections are often delivered via email… so instead I keep an excel spreadsheet with my rejections. I also enter my occasional acceptances, and then I color code them so I can see what the proportion looks like. 

The spreadsheet has been helpful in another way — it helps me see rejection more like men are trained to see it — as a numbers game.  I can see patterns — that for every ten or twelve submissions to journals, I’ll get one acceptance. I will never forget congratulating a friend for having an essay published in The Atlantic. It was an honorable mention for a writing contest they held. She told me she had submitted it sixty times. It was rejected fifty-odd times before it placed in a prestigious contest.

What is missing from my spreadsheet however, are the less obvious rejections — the “Hollywood” rejections. This is probably because when I started the spreadsheet, I didn’t have the skills and experience to recognize them.

But then a couple of years ago, I bought Stephanie Palmer’s Good In a Room and found a really excellent breakdown of rejection, Hollywood-style.  By the time I read it I had been around long enough that I was starting to “get it,” but by no means was it a natural transition for me. Coming from the straight-forward Midwest, learning to decipher a “Hollywood no” was kind of like an Asberger’s kid having to look at flashcards of faces to decipher different emotions.  When I first got to Los Angeles, I sent a script an agent’s assistant.  She told me she “liked it, but didn’t love it,” and I thought, “Awesome. She liked it!”

Yeah…no. 

Recently, talking to a friend who is newer to the writing game, I found myself trying to break it to her that the super-complimentary email she’d received from one contact about a script, and the other friend who just hadn’t gotten back to her yet were in fact…rejections.  The conversation didn’t go super well. Maybe I should have just shared the section of the book I am about to share here.  Or… maybe, I should have just kept my mouth shut.  This, too is the Hollywood way: Time is the greatest teacher, let it deliver the unpleasant news. You don’t need to. 

But, to save you a couple years of figuring things out, I will herein share from Good in a Room*:

“No” Is Silence Over Time

Chris Kelly, a writer for Real Time with Bill Maher wrote this in a recent article (crediting Merill Markoe):

“In Hollywood, ‘no’ is silence over time. The way you find out you’re not getting the job, that they passed, that they didn’t respond to the material, that they’re going a different direction, is silence. It’s the call you don’t get.” (via Huffington Post)

Other forms of “silence over time”:

  • If you can’t get an in-person meeting at all.
  • If your emails don’t get returned in one week.
  • If your calls don’t get returned in two weeks.
  • If your script has been passed along (to a star, director, or producer), and you haven’t heard back in a month.

If you pitch to a decision-maker and they want to be in business with you, they will get in touch as soon as possible. If you haven’t heard back, the answer (almost always) is “No.”

Unless They Pay You, The Answer Is “No”

That’s the title of John August’s Scriptnotes Episode 71. John’s screenwriter co-host, Craig Mazin, elaborates:

“Unless there’s money, the answer is no. Isn’t that terrible? And it’s so unfortunate because there’s thousands and thousands — so many wonderful, creative ways for people to say no to you. And so many of them sound like yes, which is horrifying really to contemplate, but it’s human nature. Nobody really likes saying no to somebody. Nobody wants to be mean. No one wants to see that look reflected back to them.” If you’re not getting any money, the answer is probably “No.”

“No” Often Starts With A Compliment

When people in Hollywood say “No,” the medicine is typically accompanied by a spoonful of sugar. Examples include:

  • “This has a lot of potential…”
  • “This is a great piece of writing…”
  • “I love the main characters…”
  • “This is hilarious…”
  • “We love it…”

If you’re getting compliments like this, they can be true, but don’t take them at face value. Most of the time, all of these compliments translate to: “You seem like a nice person and I don’t see any reason to offend you….”

“No” Usually Ends With An Excuse

After the compliment you get the excuse:

  • “… but isn’t the right fit for us.”
  • “… but we are overbudget.”
  • “… but it would be too expensive.”
  • “… but we have another project that is too similar.”

If you’re hearing reasons like these, don’t take them at face value. Most of the time, all of the reasons translate to: “…but this isn’t good enough (yet).”

“No” = Compliment + Excuse

Most of the time when you’re getting compliments on your writing followed by an excuse about why you’re not getting any money, the actual compliments and excuses are not the truth. The truth is that they are saying: “You seem like a nice person and I don’t see any reason to offend you, but this isn’t good enough (yet).”

This is a hard thing to hear because we want to believe that the compliment is real because that’s something to feel good about. We want to believe that the excuse is real because it lets us save face. The thing to understand is that if your work was good enough, you’d at least get a “Maybe.”

This last one, by the way, is my favorite, because I love that it’s an equation: Compliment+Excuse=No. 

* When this book first came out, I paid so embarrassingly much more than its current list price on Amazon, that I feel pretty justified in quoting it liberally here. (Everything from the book is in blue font.)  

 

Some other random articles about rejection.

10 Surprising Facts About Rejection

Get Rejected More, You’re Not Doing it Enough

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