How to Handle the Rejection Inherent in Screenwriting

Jeanne V. Bowerman recently wrote a great article about her own experiences with rejection (something that every single writer throughout the ages has dealt with) and how we as writers can make the best of each let down:

The life of a writer is one full of rejection. How many times have you heard, “pass,” or queried a company that didn’t even want a read? I don’t know about you, but I stopped counting.

The bigger the company or contest, the harder the fall. But this is the career we chose, for better or worse.

You can imagine our anxiety waiting to hear from Sundance Screenwriters Lab about the fate of our adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name. Weeks passed as we plugged away at rewrites and fantasized about mentors such as Quentin Tarantino reading our words. Hell, in my mind, I was already drinking bourbon with the great QT by the fire.

Then my phone pinged. The e-mail alert arrived. I raced to my laptop only to find a standard, impersonalized, form rejection e-mail that went out to every loser on their list. “Thanks for submitting, but …”

We were bitchslapped by Redford.

The black belt in me muttered the words, “Thank you, Sir; may I have another?”

When we writers put our work out there, either in contests, queries, or reads by executives, it’s similar to being single and walking into a bar. As we open that door, we dream “the one” is inside, just waiting for us to find him/her. But once we get in, the bar is most often full of drunk idiots.

Love is a numbers game. So is screenwriting.

We see so much potential for the script or relationship, and then it’s dashed with each rejection. Even if we intellectually understand the reason the connection didn’t work, it still hurts like hell. I’ve spent as much time with my therapist analyzing my writing rejections as I have love.

Her advice: “People change, opinions change, so all you have to hold tight to is hope.”

Sure, as I read Sundance’s e-mail over and over, I poured a big glass of tequila and licked salt along with my wounds. But as the reality of the rejection sunk in, so did the lessons I learned reaching for the brass ring. In fact, I sat down the next day and wrote a post, “Lessons Come With a Sting.”

As the words poured on the page, they were like salves on my bleeding heart. I learned a hell of a lot more preparing for the Sundance submission than I had realized. Suddenly, I was pushing aside the pain and onto plotting a new strategy. I found hope.

The reality is, there are a million reasons an executive or contest judge could pass on your script: maybe it’s a rom com, and they just got served divorce papers. Perhaps they have the boss from hell, and it’s easier to say “no” than “yes.” Those are situations you have no control over.

All you can do is focus on what you can control — the quality of your writing.

Don’t send your script out when it still smells like vomit on the page. Nothing will earn you a bad reputation faster. The best litmus test is to get feedback from respected screenwriters on varying drafts. If you hear the same notes from multiple writers, listen and make the changes. Be willing to do the hard work to make your script shine.

But even if you do the work, rejection and disappointment will still knock. Here’s how I handle it:

Cry. Yes, black belts cry. Over the years I’ve built up a strong wall, so it takes a lot to push me to that level now. But even if a tear slips in, I don’t beat myself up over it. I let them flow.

Examine the lessons. I believe in each script, there’s a lesson. Sometimes the lesson is the script is unmarketable and should be tossed in a drawer. Or perhaps I didn’t do the proper research and queried the wrong company. Regardless what the lesson is, I take the time to find one.

Drink tequila. Enough said.

Say, “Thank you.” Respond to the rejection e-mail thanking them for their time and asking if they’d be willing to read a rewrite at a later date. Even if they decline, but still liked my writing, I suggest they throw my name in the hat of writers-for-hire. Hey, can’t hurt to ask!

Make Voodoo dolls of those who rejected me. Oops. Did I say that out loud?

Keep a record. Add the rejection and reason (if I even got one) to the spreadsheet. See if there’s a pattern. If so, fix the problem.

Move on. Moving on is what’s most important. I was advised once to make a grid on the back of each script with 100 boxes, and put a check mark in one each time I got a pass. The theory being, it takes 99 “no’s” to hear one “yes.” It might more likely be 999, but I still found comfort in that advice.

Write with a vengeance. It takes more than one “no” to stop me. I take each rejection as a double-dog dare for me to show them they’re wrong. My ultimate revenge is becoming a better writer.

I admit the odds of this industry are sometimes overwhelming and some days make me want to crawl in my bed and never get out, but ultimately, it’s the strong who survive. Be prepared for your strength to be tested on a daily basis.

Last year, a prominent agent graciously shared with us how tough our odds were in ever getting Slavery by Another Name made despite it being well-written, an important piece of our nation’s history, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning book. I took a deep breath and simply responded, “We know this is going to take a long time, but I didn’t get to be a black belt by being a pussy. All we need is one ‘yes’.”

I stand by those words, and I have my weapon at hand: Hope … disappointment’s kryptonite.

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3 Comments to “How to Handle the Rejection Inherent in Screenwriting”

  1. As I am waiting to hear back for a response to my screenplay I came across your article. Loved it. Thank you. Ah, I feel better now. 🙂

  2. Thank you so much for sharing my piece… and experience. The support of a writing community is what we all need!

  3. Thank you for your incredibly funny and inspiring article. As a young, fledgling screenwriter, I’m happy to see there is hope amid the tears and pain of rejection!

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