Still Working…

A couple items:

  1. I got  very nice note from the editor of the Chariton Review wanting to print a short story I submitted called “How to Write Your Own Biography.”
  2. I’ve been writing a treatment for new media project and last week I got a letter saying I’d soon be receiving a contract for an actual script.

I’ll update if/when either of these things become a reality.  Even at a “contract’s in the mail” stage, I’ve had projects disappear, so that could happen.

But for right now, I’m appreciating the good news…
… and I’m continuing to develop several other projects that I’m excited about…
… and I’m “visioning” that miracle TV staffing job…

… and I’m also browsing LinkedIn and Glassdoor…  looking at “real” jobs.

Hope and gratitude and passion can co-exist with anxiety and even grief.

Back when I was diagnosed with cancer and the odds were about 50-50, I exercised and meditated and read medical articles and nutrition books with the intention to stay alive.  And at the same time, because it was a real possibility, I felt I should try to mentally and emotionally prepare for a different future where I did not stay alive. Really considering the thought that I might not live brought about an odd combination of feelings: grief  and loss, but, at times, also the possibility of relief. I figured that if it got to the point where I knew, then I could give myself a break– eat sugar, and drink alcohol and let go. I saw some of my friends reach that point, and while it wasn’t what they would have chosen, there was a kind of peace in knowing that the choice had been made. 

Saying that what I’m experiencing now has similarities to then probably seems overwrought. It seems ridiculous to say that contemplating failing to establish a writing career is comparable to contemplating dying of cancer.  Except that I have now experienced both, and in my experience, there are similarities.

I’ve invested very heavily — money, security, and years of my life, and just a lot of emotional intent — in the idea that someday I would be able to sustain myself through writing, and that that would probably involve going into a room and working and collaborating with other people to make good work. That has been the dream.

But the closer I get without getting, the more I’m having to face the idea that the odds of this happening are not in my favor. They are much worse than 50/50.

And so I’m doing two things at once: One one hand I’m hoping I can beat the odds, and to that end I’m doing the work that anecdotally helps: I’m doing the networking and writing  and producing outside projects to help break through the noise…

But I am also trying to look at things honestly, and that means contemplating admitting failure and giving up. When I visualize doing that, I feel  is the grief. I feel so heartbroken that I start to cry at random moments.

But I’ve also begun to wonder if it might be a relief.  I think about the possibility of being financially solvent, of binge watching TV just because I like it, of  casually clicking the $25 or $50 dollar donations on people’s GoFundMe pages. I think about looking for a job that isn’t just a crutch to lean on while I give myself to this industry that doesn’t seem to need me, but a job that is also meaningful and where my employer sees value in me.

Those are the two things I’m thinking simultaneously each day when I wake. Carrying them both is work.

I’m still working.

 

Another “100 Rejections” Post

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January 29, 2019.

I have a new short story that I feel like has got some legs, despite it receiving its third rejection today. It’s a story with a sci-fi twist so I’m trying sci-fi mags first, but have a feeling it’s not really sci-fi enough. The sci-fi doesn’t become apparent ’til near the end, whereas all the sample story excerpts on the magazine websites seem to start out with people floating around in space-pods. I have been gratified by how fast the genre magazines turn around though. I started submitting at the beginning of January, and although none of them accept simultaneous submissions, they have all responded within a week. By comparison, in the same batch of morning emails, I also got a rejection for a different story that I submitted to a literary journal back in August, which for overwhelmed, underpaid lit journals is about standard.

I’ve just decided, after seeing a few articles on the topic of “100 rejections per year” like this one and this one, that I, too, will aim for 100 rejections this year. I generally have in mind that rejections reflect attempts, and thus it’s good to collect a few, but 100 is a nice round number, and I will need to up my  game to achieve it. The end of January is almost upon us, and I am only four rejections in. I need an average of nine per month to hit 100. Because of the afore-mentioned long turn-around times, I am disadvantaged by my low submission numbers in the last half of last year, and for the same reason, anything I submit after summer of this year might not get rejected until next year!

I also need to change up the types of things I get rejected for. Last year, I invested a lot of time in submissions for screenwriting fellowships and labs. These often have high entry fees. I wish I could say it is the last vestiges of self-respect, but it’s probably just my extreme lack of funds that require me to take those out of the mix this year. No $100 Humanitas Prize entry for me. No $45-$65 dollar lab submissions or $45-$95 screenwriting contests. (I’m glad that my contributions over the last decade have helped all the worthy programs who sponsor these opportunities, and am sure my deficit will be covered by plenty of new aspirants.) A friend recently offered to show me how to look for article work — so that might be an option for rejection collection!

I also need to set some parameters. Like if I pitch a show and they pass… can that count? I think yes, because of the preparation involved, and the fact that I can write the company names and project names on my tracking chart. But things like requests for fee-waivers do not count–even though I can chart them and they still pack some dream-denying emotional punch, they are not actually rejecting my ideas or work or presentation of self.

2019. Bring. It. On.

 

My Cinestory Contest Review

I first heard about CINESTORY several years back when I went to a screening of an indie film called Cake. The writer talked about taking the script to the Cinestory Retreat and finding support for it there. I went to their website and thought the experience sounded amazing — spending time in an idyllic setting working with professional writers on ones project, making friends and bonding, etc.

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Who wouldn’t want this?

Over the course of a few years I submitted two or three features to the Cinestory Contest (entry fee $55-$75) and never heard back, but last year, just as I’d finished a first draft of an original pilot, I saw they’d added an episodic lab for TV work, and submitted again.

This time, I was excited to get an email notifying me that I’d made the quarter finals, and more so when I got the email saying I’d made the semi-finals!

But some of the warm fuzzies cooled and floated away when I read this:

RETREAT FEES
GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Free
CATEGORY WINNERS: $1175
FINALISTS: $1600
SEMIFINALISTS: $1700

$1700??

Let’s go back and read that submission page again. Reading more carefully than I did, you’ll see that the grand prize winner gets “free tuition,” which by implications means the the other invitees… don’t. Also, if you go to their FAQ there is a statement noting that there is a cost for the retreat.

That cost, by the way, does not cover lodging or transportation. So, for me, the question became, do I have in excess of $2000 to spend in three days?

In other years, when I have been working a day job, the answer might have been yes. This year I am mostly writing, so the cost is on the high side for me. In truth, the $55 entry fee was already on the high side for me.

For me, the $2000 buys a month of food and rent, and expenses so I guess that’s like my own personal writers’ retreat?…  Except… not. Working at my desk at home is not meeting people and making connections. What if, like with Cake, someone took a shine to my project and help shepherd it to fruition? What if someone just liked me, my writing, my work ethic, and it led to the job in or near a writers room? What if this were the opportunity  that changed my career?

I won’t ever know, because I didn’t go.

Luck, they say, is when preparation meets opportunity.  Once you’ve prepared, how far should you go –and how much should you spend — on the hunt for “opportunity?” For those little moments, those chance meetings, that might change everything …or might change nothing?

Cinestory, by the way, is a non-profit organization. None of the mentors are paid. As noted in the FAQ, “they volunteer their time for free.” The way  they say it implies I should feel good about that, though I’m not exactly sure why I should feel good that money is just going to the organizers and not the instructors.  Isn’t that just saying that if I ever succeed in my own struggles to achieve a career and reputation in the industry then I can look forward to being asked to work for free, teaching students who are paying generously for the experience?  If you want to pick a profession  (besides writer) that gets consistently undervalued — it’s teaching!

So my review of Cinestory retreat is that it looks enticing on the website.  My review of the Cinestory contest marketing is that it feels disingenuous, despite what I’m sure are genuine good intentions on the part of the organizers.

If you are an aspiring writer with a day job and want to take a feel-good vacation that will maybe give you some inspiration, friendships, connections, you should totes submit. But if it doesn’t work out, consider using the same amount of money to take three 10-week long classes at UCLA extension, also taught by working industry writers who are being paid (albeit too little) to help you with your writing.

Writing Tip: Record Your Notes Sessions

Getting notes on a script can feel either “good” or “bad.”

“Bad” is when you are hoping for accolades, for someone to tell you it’s really close, and instead you hear that things aren’t working for the reader, they don’t understand things you thought were clear, and they have thoughts — a lot of thoughts!  In the cartoon version of your life that’s happening inside your head it’s a literal truckload of notes dumped on top of you. It’s overwhelming and it’s heavy. Like this picture — but with NOTES instead of money!

A truck dumping a load of money
It’s like this, but with notes instead of money!

“Good” is when you  know there’s some problems with your script, but by some stroke of luck, you have some folks who like it anyway because they see its potential, and hopefully they are a little bit smarter than you–or smart in different ways–and they say things that they think which makes you think things that you say and then everyone is very excited about where this can go. And while you’re all talking you start to “see” it. It’s like the visual version of having a word on the tip of your tongue — it’s not there yet, but it’s totally within your grasp and probably as soon as you get off the phone it will no doubt arrived fully formed. This is fun!

After a notes call you hang up the phone,with a sense of accomplishment — either because you’ve withstood the deluge without crying, or because you’ve held your own in a great conversation! Either way you clearly deserve to decompress by staring vacantly into the fridge for a full minute and maybe taking a stick of wrapped cheese and then wandering the apartment vaguely looking for the water glass you set down before giving up and getting a new one.

Then it’s time to get to work! You return to your computer, pumped to make this next draft the Great American Script…  and realize that the whole conversation you just had is a blur.

You don’t panic. You close your eyes and think: A few moments from the conversation come back, but now you aren’t entirely sure if you and the other person were talking about the same thing.  You remember thinking thoughts that were so profound you knew you’d never forget them, but you’ve forgotten what they were.

Shit.

Check your notebook see that you’ve got a few half sentences written down, like
“she should tell him that…” or
“maybe an element of betrayal”.

Double shit.

But wait! Now you look in the upper left corner of your computer screen, see the little Quicktime audible file and remember that you recorded the whole thing. Probably, it’s STILL recording, because you forgot you were recording. So you turn it off. You NAME the file with the project and date.

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This is great! You don’t have to admit to someone that you forgot everything they said! Plus, now you can transcribe the conversation, which at a 3-1 ratio could take three hours. Three hours of typing without having to solve any problems. Hallelujah.

And while you’re listening and typing, not only will you remember what you talked about,  but you’ll hear a bunch of stuff that you missed. Stuff people said while you were processing what somebody said before that. Tossed-off comments you thought were jokes, but now realize could be the key!

Re-listening to the notes will also help you process your emotions. However you felt during the call — good or bad — listening again will make you feel less so. If you felt good — hearing yourself talk will make you feel less brilliant, for sure. But if it was bad, you might find it wasn’t as bad as you thought. And putting it on paper will give you some distance, which — at least for me — is a better, more sustainable place from which to start a re-write.

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 by Stephanie Palmer:

“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. 

 

Some other random articles about rejection.

10 Surprising Facts About Rejection

Get Rejected More, You’re Not Doing it Enough