Thanks but no thanks: how writers deal with rejection (June 2015)

It was 10.30am and Dave had been typing the number seven into Excel for the past three hours. He was wondering if his fingers or the keyboard would be the first to break, when an email arrived: “Thank you for sending us your script. We appreciate the time it took you to write it and contact us. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to take your work any further.”

Dave felt the familiar thud in his chest. He didn’t need to read the rest. He knew what was coming from the word “unfortunately”. At first he was angry. Why did no one appreciate his office-based sitcom ‘Dave Goes to Work’ quite like he did? Then he was sad, as if his script was a friend who had just died. Then he hated his script and wished it had never been born. Then he parcel taped over all of the keys on his keyboard, except for number seven, and vowed never to write again.

If you recently received an email from the BBC Writersroom informing you that your script wasn’t selected for this year’s Comedy Script Room, you may be experiencing similar emotions. Of course, you may be fine – in which case, great – but if you’re not, this is a blog for you (and, if he can get the tape off his keyboard enough to access Outlook Express, for Dave too).

Virtually every well-known writer has a story about their work being rejected early on in their careers. “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try,” said Sylvia Plath. “Often you have to fail as a writer before you write that bestselling novel or ground-breaking memoir,” said J. K. Rowling. There’s also the tradition of writers defiantly wallpapering their bathrooms with ‘thanks but no thanks’ letters (or, these days, emails?).

However, it’s probably easier to come up with inspirational quotes about perseverance when it’s paid off for you than when it seems to be having no effect at all. If you’ve got a bathroom full of rejection letters that only you know or care about you may feel, like Dave, that the time has come to call it a day – in which case here’s another blog I wrote: ‘Should writers ever give up?’. Everyone has to decide for themselves how they spend their time, but if you enjoy writing, why not continue doing it? If, however, you are writing to escape your office job, pay off your debts or become famous, there may be more effective ways of achieving these things.

Having spent time writing and sending out rejection letters in the past, I’ve seen how these can vary. Some contain useful information; others are brief and to the point. Some aren’t really rejections at all – for instance they ask the writer to submit more work or let them know they have been longlisted in a competition (or, in the case of the BBC Writersroom, say if a script got to a second or third round, or a full read). Sometimes, they contain a few lines of feedback; other times, a full report.

I asked writers to send me a selection of the rejection letters and emails they had received from film, TV and theatre companies, agents and competitions, and got back some interesting examples. Like scripts, the standard varied enormously – from the inspirational to the generic. Strangely, many of the letters used almost exactly the same phrases. Here’s a summary of a few of these and how they might be interpreted:

“We are not in a position to take on any more clients/ develop any more writers”
A polite no, although in my experience this would probably change if the right script or writer came along.

“Keep in touch/ Send next play”
They like your work, even though they don’t want to do anything with it at the moment. This is a very positive kind of rejection – and not really a rejection at all.

“It’s not quite right for us at this time”
Ambiguous. Will things change with time? I’m inclined to think not, but you never know.

“Evaluating scripts is very subjective”
Yes! In my experience, there are just opinions, a general consensus, and a lot of shouting in the middle.

“The standard was higher than usual”
Sometimes people say this because they think it’s what you want to hear. But sometimes – as with this year’s Comedy Script Room– it’s true.

“Keep writing!”
Are they trying to sell you a writing course? Or some feedback? Or their new book? If not, this is the most enthusiastic rejection letter ever.

“No thanks!”
Just two words long: the shortest rejection letter ever? (Actually, a comp slip, sent from Private Eye to me, aged 10).

“Our funding has been cut, so we can’t accept unsolicited scripts/ send you feedback”
Almost certainly true. Unfortunately places that used to have resources for reading scripts now have less.

“We wish you all the best with your future endeavours”
I first saw this phrase in 2001 and suspect it’s been around for decades – but it means well.

“Good luck!”
Not the hollow words it might at first seem – but an acknowledgement that success as a writer is due to luck as well as talent.

A few writers I spoke to also mentioned techniques they have developed to avoid feeling too demoralised if their scripts were rejected (let me know if you have any others). These included:

• Sending scripts to more than one place, so there is never a time when there isn’t a chance one will get somewhere
• Writing because they wanted to write, rather than to win things/ pay for stuff/ quit their day job
• Making the rest of their life so enjoyable that script rejections didn’t really matter (“Hey, at least I’m spending the summer in Barbados!”)
• Concentrating on learning from any feedback and their ultimate goal
• Thinking of something new and imaginative to do with rejection letters (and, failing that, wallpapering their bathrooms with them)
• Doing some more writing (writer and producer Robin Bell wrote about this, after his script was rejected by the Red Planet Prize)

You might be surprised to hear that a few weeks later (and after reading a motivational book by Olympic athletes) Dave was feeling much better – so much better that he decided to write a blog about ‘How to deal with rejection as a writer’. But a quick Google search revealed that someone else had done that already. He briefly contemplated suing them for copyright infringement, but then remembered Everything Has Been Said Before (including ‘Everything Has Been Said Before’).

It was thinking about the above that gave Dave an idea for a new script: a self-referential comedy about a post-modern world in danger of eating itself. He tore the remaining strips of parcel tape off his keyboard and began frantically typing, as only someone with a story that needs telling, or a dispute with a telecoms provider, can.

Some months later, and a script reader was hunched over a script, completely gripped by what she was reading. It was a wryly observed, witty and irreverent comedy about a guy called Dave writing about another guy called Dave, who was also writing about someone else called Dave. The characters were brilliant, the structure was amazing: essentially, it was the perfect script. And it was written by a normal, everyday guy who worked in an office. His name was Steve.

Written in June 2015 for the BBC Writersroom 

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