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.

 

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

I Was On The Radio

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So, I did a little radio interview this week for a show called Let’s Get Reel on KPC Radio — which is the station run by Pierce College.

“Reel” is like “film reel”– clever, right? We get to do that for a few more years I guess, until film reels are no more…  It was the first on-air interview for my host, Sal Fariaz, and he did an amazing job!  Much better than I did being interviewed. In a way it’s comforting to know how incredibly unlikely it is that I shall ever be famous and oft-interviewed.

But of course I’m posting the interview here because… it exists.

Out of the several things I’d like to go back to say more eloquently or much more briefly (or not at all), the only one I’ll point out is last question, which was the “wrap up” question, that I should have seen coming. “What is a piece of advice you would give to someone wanting to get into screenwriting?” Anyone who gets interviewed ever should have a prepared a “one piece of advice” answer for their specialty, but of course, I didn’t.

Being a little jaded, I advised aspiring scribes to understand that for a long time, being a writer costs more than it brings in, and to brace oneself for that.  It’s actually a practical piece of advice, but I wish I’d added just a little more–which is, while you do need to do non-writing things to feed your stomach, and your landlord–you also do need to feed your soul. Make some kind of little pact with yourself to try to GET BETTER every day–whatever that means.  Maybe it’s writing a page a day, or maybe on some days, it’s just watching a TV show, but I think it’s good to plan out what your ritual is, and then do it with intention. Take little actions that will move you — even incrementally — toward your goal, and keep reminding yourself that you are a writer. So that’s my bonus, off-air advice!

I’m Teaching Screenwriting

Because this blog is sadly neglected of late, I don’t think I’ve mentioned that I’m teaching a screenwriting class this term.  A friend alerted me to the opportunity around the same time that I was leaving my other day job, and it seemed like a message from the universe saying things would be all right. That if I jumped, a net would appear…or at least enough pieces of rope would appear that maybe I could weave a net.

Teaching has been an “interesting” experience, in ways both positive and negative.  (You could say “you don’t fall into a net without getting a few rope burns,”–although probably you wouldn’t say that, because people wouldn’t really know what you were talking about.) The class was available because it was a newly commissioned “outreach” class. Outreach classes are taught at various high schools. Half of the seats are for community college school students and half are reserved for high school students, who can earn college credit for taking the class. In many cases, these classes are successful. In the case of my class, there was apparently some communication breakdown, because when I called my assigned high school liaison to make arrangements, she informed me that “no one knew” I was coming, that they didn’t have a classroom reserved for me, and that none of their students knew about the class.

The results of this were twofold.

First, I ended up teaching in a classroom with no audio-visual technology. To each class meeting I bring: a projector, a speaker, my laptop, cords and adaptors. I set all this up on some pulled-together student chair desks and project the  resultant image on a cork board in one corner, since there is also not a screen.

Second,  since half of the seats were kept empty for high school students who didn’t know about the class, my class size dropped from a potential 35-40 to about 15, which then became thirteen. Thirteen students is an amazing class size for a beginning writing class. It allows me to get to know the students more as individuals, to read and respond at a different level, to have workshops in class where we have some chance of getting to everyone’s work.  I consider this a more than a fair trade for the lack of amenities.

Here are a few more pros and cons:

Cons:

  • It is time-consuming. The class is located in the valley, To safely arrive by its 3:30 start time, I need to leave the house by  1:30. I arrive home at 7:30. So on the days I teach a two-hour-long class, I am gone for six hours. I also tend to devote another day and a half before each lecture to  preparation.  I am  preparing my lectures from scratch, looking through my various books for the best definitions, browsing YouTube and our DVD collection for the right examples. The classroom has no internet, so I need to download all my media clips in advance and embed them in my Powerpoint presentations, and, since my Powerpoint skills are limited, part of each prep session is spent Googling how to do things like embed videos or make my bullet points appear one at a time.
  • It’s awkward and clunky. I’m constantly navigating the environment. I assign free-writes at the beginning of each class partly because I’m never sure the door will be unlocked in time to set up the equipment. At least once during each class something slightly ridiculous will happen: Someone tells us we need to switch classrooms; the broken clock on the wall  randomly starts loudly ticking as the second-hand jitters back and forth like a bad horror movie; the loudspeaker squawks, followed by an announcement about late buses, or someone’s mom waiting for them on the south side of the building. Yesterday,  out of nowhere, a Linda Ronstadt song began playing over the loudspeaker, continued for about three, agonizing minutes, and then stopped.

Pros:

  • Teaching forces me to do things I’ve intended and wanted to do anyway: Review and clean up class notes from my very expensive education; go through books that I enthusiastically ordered and then didn’t have time to read; really think about what I’ve learned and what I believe about writing, and what I think is important and worthy of passing on–and then think how best to articulate that.  If you’ve ever helped a friend study for a test, you know that the process of breaking-down and explaining helps you as well. That is the case here.
  • My students are interesting. They’ve had lives and experiences different from my own, and they have things they want to say.  Often, this isn’t apparent from their official writing assignments, but from our list-making exercises and free-writes that give me glimpses into who they are. And that inspires me more to help them express themselves in writing–because the world, for the most part, doesn’t let you turn in lists and free-writes before it judges who you are and what you can do.
  • It pays money. It’s not a kingly sum, especially when you divide it by the number of actual hours instead of hypothetical hours, but in our new “creative economy” which consists largely of gigs ranging from temping to uber-driving to admin that all pay in the same range, this is a job pays as well as the others while being intellectually and emotionally engaging and feeling karmically defensible.

That said, we are moving into that difficult part of the semester, when the end feels both intimidatingly close, and yet too far off. I have so much more information I want to cram into their brains in the short time we have left, but at the same time, I am counting down the lesson plans between now and winter break. My students wince when I talk about turning in their final projects, and I can’t pretend enthusiasm at the thought of grading them.

But this is just one more thing that is like writing–you dread it, but then you start it, and find things that surprise you and things that you love, and then you are glad you did it.

Representation!

So, here’s a little news on the professional front.  I’ve got representation now! A little more than a year ago, I received an email from a college classmate, introducing me to his manager and suggesting that we might enjoy working together. I had some work ready to go, so I sent the manager some samples which he liked and thought maybe he could do something with. He suggested that we spend time working together to see 1) How we worked together creatively and personally/professionally, 2) If I could continue producing work, 3) If he could get my material read (and what the response was), and 4) If we could get me more representation in the form of an agent.

Early on, I think most aspiring writers have a vision of being “discovered,” by someone who “falls in love,” with their writing. Clearly, this scenario was a bit less romantic. After taking a moment to calibrate, I was grateful for this. There’s a certain rush that comes when people LOVE you immediately, and say you are brilliant, and “you’re going places, kid.” But I’ve now had some Hollywood relationships that began with enthusiasm and fanfare end with no fanfare at all. As the saying goes “If you let yourself  get swept off your feet, you’ll probably land on your ass*.” So, this probationary arrangement was not unappealing to me.  I figured it would keep me from getting complacent and keep us both working to impress the other.

For about the next six months we tested the waters.  I was very happy with both his notes and his work ethic. Creatively he was insightful but not too pushy, and I liked how he was responsive, detail-oriented, and didn’t over-promise. We discussed formalizing our relationship based on that, but there was an issue that we were having a hard time getting readers to respond to the work we sent out. And by respond, I don’t mean emotionally respond–I mean even glance at the material and take the time to say no. This is not surprising, because feature scripts, especially from new writers are a hard sell**. But, it was a point of concern.

Then, I tried my hand at writing a television pilot.  This time, when my manager sent it to three people, amazingly, all three people responded. They didn’t all respond with “yes, tell me more about the series,” but they all read it and responded (and one of them said, “yes, tell me more about the series.”) This seemed like some movement in the right direction, and gave my manager the confidence to show the pilot to agents and a couple of agencies. One of them was interested, and I went in and met with them. Before our second meeting with the agency, the manager and I signed a contract.

So, for this moment, I have a “team,” consisting of both and agent and manager. They cannot work miracles, and they will not be champions of everything I write. But for certain projects that they feel have marketplace potential, they can amplify my visibility…to convince more people to read a script, and arrange some meetings with people at companies who have a track record of getting things made. That, for me, is a huge step forward.

So, YAY, representation!!

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*Actually, this is not “a saying,” I think I just made it up. It’s pretty good, though, right?

**Some depressing but informative articles about selling spec feature scripts.

The Odds of Selling a Spec Screenplay (2011)

What are your real chances of success? (2012)

What Screenwriters Can Learn from Hollywood’s Dismal Spec Market (April, 2016)

2016 Spec Script Sales to date (October, 2016)