Friday, December 02, 2005

What can I learn from rejection?

Since this is going to be a staple of my screenwriting diet from here on out, I figure it's a good idea to think about how I'm going to approach the acceptance of rejection.

I know, it isn't personal. That's rule number one. Divorce yourself from your feelings. The rejection of your script is not a rejection of you as a person. It's your material.

The biggest challenge with the Disney/WB rejections is I have no idea why my script was rejected. Was it unitersting? Did I not emulate the show well? Was it the writing, the story, the dialogue...? Did the reader have a bad day, not know the show that well...? I only know two things:

1. My script was not as good as others.
2. See #1.

See, I really only know ONE thing. I know it wasn't as good as others. I still don't know the why. Sure, I can guess at the why (I freely acknowledge that my 'House' spec is far superior to my 'Lost' spec because I wrote Lost first. Had I finished House in time for those deadlines, I would have submitted it instead. But then, it wouldn't have been as good, since I learned from writing the 'Lost' and applied those learnings to the 'House'), but I won't know REALLY WHY.

It doesn't really matter too much in this case, since I'm planning to rewrite the 'Lost' spec anyway, but it would be nice to know.


Christian Johnson said...

This doesn't pertain to screenwriting, per se, but my experience with talent screening editors is the following.

Whether it is writing or art you typically get a form letter rejection.

If you get a personalized rejection letter, you will know because it will contain unique details, the editor liked your stuff and would like to see other things you have to offer.

If you receive an edited copy of your material back, or comments relating to your material and how it can be improved, the editor really liked your work and wants to work with you. At this point it is most likely that they are "cultivating" you as a part of their pen.

Naturally, the rarely happens, but if it does and you don't immediately send another submission, don't be surprised when you receive a letter a year later from the editor asking why you haven't submitted new material.

As for contests, they can be brutal. The first time my wife entered the Charles Schulz Award contest, no winner was selected. In fact, all the artists were told that none were up to the professional caliber required by the committee (which included Schulz). The next year, the very talented Frank Cho won (my wife didn't enter because she was so dejected by the prior year). Two years after her first submission, and after two years of craft development, she resubmitted and was selected as that year's winner.

Don't be frustrated by whether or not you win. The most important thing is to continue developing your craft. Self selection, and opting out, is the first obstacle to success, and it is the one most people succumb to in the end.

My advice is to immerse yourself in your work, maybe check out the "published" works of whoever won (when/if any ever becomes available) which will either cheer you up or anger you. Either way will bring some form of release. Find readers who are willing to be honestly critical, supportive, and who don't feel competitive with you. Artists don't need sycophants or competitors, they need collaborators and critics.

Good luck in your future endeavors.

Shawn said...

The best way is to put your script into trusted hands and get feedback. I'm sure you've got two or three people whose opinions on your material you trust. That's really the only way you're going to find out what went wrong, if anything, with your "Lost" spec. Because in reality, you don't know whether or not your script was any better or worse than the others. Maybe the reader simply doesn't like the show (not everybody watches it). But the point is to get some good old fashioned constructive criticism and take it from there. As for this contest, it's just one of many avenues to take. Best to get the script into fighting shape and into the hands of showrunners. Now wouldn't it be nicer to land on staff than to win a fellowship?

Anonymous said...

I just had someone read my script and he had gerat things to say (some not so good ones too) but I now have the added push knowing I do sort of know what I am doing and now elevated past Seat Of Pants level...keep pushing

The Awful Writer said...

You say you feel your House script is better than your Lost script. Perhaps the contest judges saw the same deficiencies that you see. How would you describe what is better about your House script?

Shawna said...

First of all, 'Lost' is a difficult show to write because it is so serialized. I think I did a decent job with a standalone type episode, but as my skills increase as a writer, I think I could do a better job now.

'House' was difficult because of the medical stuff. Storywise it wasn't as convoluted to write, but the medical research was tough going. I really immersed myself in the research and the upside was making the medical stuff sound plausible without getting bogged down in jargon-speak.

Everytime you write a script you get better at removing your 'idiotic stuff'. For me it was realizing that everyone 'turns' in my scripts. My sister pointed out to me in the script I rewrote for the Writer's Arc that in my action lines, people were constantly 'turning and doing X' or 'he stops and turns'. When I was visualing in my head, apparently I was a little too literal with all the turning around. Once it was pointed out to me, I saw it every time it showed up and was able to erradicate most of the unnecessary turning.

So, bottom line: House is better because I wrote it after I wrote Lost and I was a better writer.

Iain said...

My writing coach told me not to get too bogged down in the medical stuff in House - it doesn't matter if you completely make up a disease with all its symptoms - the important thing is the drama within the show. You're writing a drama not a thesis - it just has to sound plausible. In reality, they really do make stuff up on House.

Also, just because one person doesn't like you your script - it doesn't mean that someone else won't love it. Some people really like me - and some people really don't. Some people love Jazz Funk.

They really do.

Also, I've been writing for quite a while - and it doesn't follow that as you become a 'better' [or more experienced] writer that your work will increase in quality - it should but it doesn't - just ask Salman Rushdie. I wrote a MONK script just nine months ago that I thought was the dogs bollocks - I can't even look at the title page now.

We're all here to make sure you persevere - to cheer when you succeed - and to say 'bummer' when you don't. Take a breath. But keep writing. Start something new. Maybe this time next year you won't be stressing over contests or fellowships because you won't have to. You'll be a professional.

Patrick J. Rodio said...

Don't sweat it; contests BLOW, but keep rolling the dice and hopefully that right person and the right time will love it. That's what I'm hoping for!

Renegade Eye said...

The good part is you are not alone. Good scripts get tossed aside, more often than used.

I found this blog surfing. It is a good read.

Not everyone can write "The Lizzie McGuire" movie.


Guyot said...

First of all, you're completely wrong.

Being rejected by the Disney/WB type of programs does NOT mean your script was "not as good as the others."

It simply means that whoever was reading you didn't pass it on to the next phase. Maybe your reader had just read five LOST scripts in a row before picking yours up. Maybe your reader had just broken up with a sig other who loved LOST. Maybe your reader just sucks.

Remember, just because someone is involved in these programs doesn't for one second mean they know shit about good writing. Yes, a lot of the people are very smart. But I guarantee you they are folks involved simply due to political relationships, etc.

I am not telling you to rest as a writer. Nor am I telling you that you should not keep working to get better and better. I am simply saying that you have absolutely no evidence in any way that this rejection means you're "not as good" as someone else.

As for the Disney fellowship, I know for a fact that they lean heavily toward minority applicants.

You got rejected. It sucks. Take 24 hours and wallow. Then wake up, look in the mirror, say "I'm a writer" and move on to the next project.

Never give up. Never stop writing. Never stop believing.

Victor Bornia said...

Hey, you don't know that your script was "not as good as others"... You only know that it was rejected. That's it. Which could have been for any of the reasons you indicate (especially "bad day for reader"). A minor distiction, perhaps, but I find it helps to treat real life like a screenplay, sometimes: if I can't SEE it, I don't know it!

clarkman said...

I'm with ya, Shawna, and I appreciate Guyot's advice above.

Knowing how the selection process works can relieve some of the frustration. Often contests and fellowships farm scripts out to readers for evaluation. And if Sturgeon's Law mandates that 90 percent of all scripts suck, then by that maxim 90 percent of all script readers suck (Sturgeon, a SF writer, believed that 90 percent of everything sucks, and I've seen little evidence to the contrary).

If you do the math, you realize that the chances of good scripts connecting with good readers are very small.

I'll note that Deborah Pearlman of the WB Workshop says she and her tiny staff do indeed read each script submitted. Even so, think about the odds in this particular case. They accept maybe 10 writers to each workshop, out of thousands who submit. Maybe you and I weren't among the top 10 writers. But for all we know, you were number 11 and I was number 12. If we let that get us down, all we do is make it easier for numbers 13 and 14 and the thousands in line behind them.

So we hone our natures to write just as hard when we win as when we lose. Putting words to paper is the only consistency we should count on.

For those who haven't read it, here's my account of what I discovered about the readers hired by the Slamdance Screenwriting Competition. It ain't pretty. And I'll spread the word far and wide to keep other people from falling prey to it:

Bob said...


Hah. That "he turned" and "she turned" stuff in the action lines kills me's the mark of the novice, and like you, it took me until quite recently to figure out that most action sentences that include it can be struck entirely without hurting the script.

At this point, I imagine I will always feel compelled to include that kind of extraneous information in the action lines. Removing it is what second drafts are for.

Regarding the Disney fellowship, I was under the impression that it doesn't just "lean heavily" toward minority applicants...I thought it was established specifically with an affirmative action kind of agenda. Which considering the generally white character of most writing staffs, is pro'ly an okay thing. I didn't even apply to the Disney, despite being gay and therefore marginally entitled to a shot. I don't think we gays are underrepresented or marginalized on the creative side of the felt weird, and actually kind of demeaning, to "use" that aspect of my life to sell myself, so I chose not to.

Good luck. Your blog has been very helpful.

priya said...

I chose to look at my past rejections as a testament to my not being good enough. In fact, if I were to have guessed my placement in these contests, I'd have picked 7,043 out of 7,044 (come on now, I have to suck less than one person).

I'm a white woman with an ethnic background. I don't look at all like my mother. My name is Indian, my mother's heritage. But, if you were to meet me (well, you have Shawna -- heh), you'd think my mom was probably some Irish Hippie Chick who named me.

As time passed, as I wrote more specs (I applied to WB and Disney with my first spec and didn't get in -- it. was. my. first. spec. It sucked), I got better. But, I still assumed I was bottom of the barrel writer. Imagine my surprise a year later, after all those rejection letters on my first spec, I get a call from WB. I didn't get in, but it was proof that I was on the right path. So that year I was 39 out of 40 interviewees. Just meant I had to work harder.

I could have blamed it on being white. They had no idea I am Indian and they had no way of knowing (if I got in, I wanted to know that it was my writing, not my ethnicity, that got me in). So, I didn't get in. I could have blamed it on my failure to ensure they knew about my ethnicity, or I could go back to the drawing board and become a better writer. I chose the latter.

A year later I interviewed and won Disney. They didn't know anything about my ethnicity.

Everyone has a choice. You can look at a loss like, "they just don't get me!" "I can't play the race card, so I got dinked!" (though, how they can tell what your race is by your script submission is beyond me). Or you can assume your scripts suck now and decide that they'll suck considerably less next year.

There's no shame in sucking. I've sucked. All of my friends have sucked (yes, we're still talking about writing, not pornos, pervs), and we've gotten better with each script.

The truth is, it's not the reader's fault Shawna didn't get in. Even by her own admission, her submission wasn't as good as her second script. And we all know that her second script will be far superior to her third, etc.

But, please, people, don't belittle those of us who've won these contests or placed in these contests or have had any kind of success in these contests by chalking it up to us getting better readers than you, or having the right skin color (again, how you think the readers know this from a script is beyond me). If you think it's that much of a crapshoot, then don't enter them!

Personally, I've read Shawna's stuff, I know she's got something. Turns out another contest thinks so, too. She has made the semi-finals before, based off of writing she's done recently. So, clearly she's growing as a writer.

I also believe that she's pretty new at this. You're not helping her by saying "it's because you're the wrong color," or "your reader had a bad day the day he read your script," or whatever. You're encouraging her to become complacent and not push herself to write more betterer. Be her friend. Even if she's a stranger.

Shawna, you most likely didn't get in because your script wasn't good enough. You entered these contests 7 months ago or so. With your first TV script. You've written another one since. And are about to embark on a new spec. You're taking classes. You're doing everything a TV writer should be doing.

You *are* growing as a writer. Next year when you enter, you'll have a MUCH better chance than this year when you entered with your first script. Because you'll have learned so much more.

Allow yourself some time to grieve for not getting in, because it does suck. Even if you know (and you know, Shawna) that your script needed work. Then move on.
Most importantly, keep writing!

To clarkman, who did have a bad reader experience. I got the feedback from slamdance this year. You must have made an impression, because my feedback was great. So, major thanks to you. I'm sorry you had to go through what you did, but I thank you for doing so!

Ron said...

Let's see if I can leave this comment only once this time!


I think there's a little truth to both sides of the argument. Look, let's face it, there IS a component of luck in winning screenwriting awards. My Nicholl-winning script didn't make it out of the first round at Austin, and only made it to the quarters at Slamdance. Luck - connecting with a reader - matters.

But, of course, this matters in the industry, too. I've had different sets of coverage leaked to me on that script. This agency loves it. That agency hates it. This prodco loves it. That prodco thinks we should quit writing.

(No, I'm not kidding you.)

Even on the Nicholl commitee; Seth and I met the other day with a member of the commitee who - very obviously - liked what we were trying to do but thinks we miserably failed at actually doing it. Lucky for us, other people on the commitee loved us. (And one of the guys who loved us hated another one of the winners ...)

But, that being said, luck isn't enough. When I look at the work I was creating 2-3 years ago ... well, if I had said to myself, "That's good enough. I just need to get lucky and hit with the right reader" then I'd still be waiting. Oh, maybe I would get lucky - but the work is nowhere near as good as what I'm doing now.

The key is, I think, not to get caught up in any one rejection, but rather to focus on the pattern. One rejection is meaningless. Four or five, okay, that's telling you something. Ten? Maybe the project isn't there.

But don't get caught up in worrying about one or two rejections. It doesn't mean anything.

Anonymous said...

Let's all remember one thing about all of these contests. If the people running the programs knew everything, they would be making far, far, FAR more money as a television or feature writer than they make as someone who runs contests. No one has all of the answers.

The other thing, S., is that if you came up with a central idea or concept strong enough to act as a stand alone LOST episode, it's probably strong enough to support feature. So write that. Sell it. Then use that clout to get on staff. Or create your own show.

priya said...

No one has all of the answers... agreed. A little bit of luck is involved... maybe.

My WaT spec that won Disney got dinked by WB and Austin but is doing well in another contest. My Law & Order did well at Austin and WB but fared poorly in Disney and the other contest.

I know why my WaT didn't get through to the WB, I broke one of their cardinal rules: I had the episode take place out of town.

I think different contests have different criteria for how they score their scripts. I know, because Debbie and Lee have talked at length about what they don't want (no out of town scripts, nothing that takes place during a holiday, etc. they just want to see you write a normal spec for the show and hit it out of the park).

I'm not convinced that any component of a contest win is hugely about luck. I'm the unluckiest person I know and yet...

However fabulous a writer Shawna may be (and she's pretty fabulous!), this was her first TV script. LOST's a hard show to spec. I know, I've tried. I was merely commenting that it may not actually be helpful to tell her it was luck (or lack thereof) that she didn't get in. Because with some writers that encourages complacency. Clearly that's not the case with Shawna!

It's clear with her recent success that she's got the goods... unless we're playing the luck card, then it's just that she was lucky. Which kind of takes away from her success, in my eyes, because we're saying that talent doesn't play a part. Because if she's unlucky because she didn't win, then she was just lucky that she won.

Maybe I'm just an idealist, and I like to think that it wasn't luck that I won, or placed, in these contests. That it was more about I worked hard and it paid off. It takes away from the win, I think, when people say "you happened to get the right readers." I think I'm repeating myself here.

And Ron, of course not everyone will love every aspect of our writing. But everyone should be able to recognize the talent there. As you have stated with the person who liked what you were were trying to do. That says to me, even though they said you'd failed in accomplishing your goal, that they recognized your potential.

As you've said, if it's a recurring thing, these rejections, that speaks volumes. To me, even one rejection means that there was something missing from my script (I'm also of the belief that no script is perfect, save Back To The Future).

But that's my neurosis.

Actually all of this post and the earlier one is my neurosis and my insecurity as a writer that I can't stand to think that any of my success had to do with luck. So, you know, take from that what you will.

For Shawna, this is all moot, because she's doing great!

Okey dokey. I think I've rambled long enough.