To be a screenwriter, you need a tough skin and a tough mind.
Every time you get a ‘no’; it hurts. Even when it is given in the nicest possible way, it’s still a kick in the guts. Any little doubt you have about yourself will come to the surface of your mind and jab at you relentlessly; you’re worthless. Everything you do is a waste. You’re an idiot for ever thinking you could ‘make it’. Nothing you ever do, no matter how hard you try, will ever amount to anything, ever.
When you first begin writing, if you’re honest, you know your first attempts may not be great. But, with time and practice, you believe you will become better. You look forward to the day that your diligence and dedication will pay off. You dream of writing a piece so stellar that it can’t be ignored. You long for that moment when something you’ve created will be so brilliant, so challenging, so mind-blowing, that people will fight for it. And on that day, you imagine, you will be so accomplished that the pains of rejection are nought but a distant memory.
It’s a nice dream. But it’s not real.
Rejection, like a creepy co-worker, is always nearby. No matter how good you become, you can trust he’ll be there, ready to ruin your most special moments.
The truth is, even the most experienced and skilled writers still receive their fair share of ‘no’s. Why? Because, regardless of how brilliant a piece may be, there still remain many reasons it might receive a ‘no’: We’ve already got a similar project on the go. We already have a full slate with our existing projects. We’re not looking to do a [insert genre here] piece at this moment. We’re not sure our target audience will relate to your protagonist.
And often, the most common ‘no’ response is the one where you never get to know why. You send in a query, or a pitch, or a full script, and then… crickets.
I received one of my biggest ‘no’s ever recently and, as I struggled to deal with it, I realised something: It’s often not really the ‘no’ that hurts. What hurts is the sudden severing of the dreams you had for that project. After all, you have crafted, loved and gently encouraged this piece to grow. You know the characters like family. The scenes are personal and intimate to you. The final climax speaks to you so perfectly that it makes you excited, even tearful, just to picture it all happening on a screen before an inspired audience.
And then snip – it’s dead.
A close family member once had a miscarriage and I spoke with her soon after. She said the hardest part was not the loss of a baby, but the loss of all the dreams she had for her. She had not only imagined having this new person in her life but had started planning and worrying for her. She recalled taking her family to a swimming hole a few months before and had imagined her daughter-to-be playing with her two older brothers. She had delighted in the idea of her laughing along with their fun. She also felt a concern that her boys might play a bit rough and had noted to herself that she would have to watch over their play while she was still young. All this she had been dreaming and mulling over in her mind for months.
And then… gone.
Now, I won’t be so bold as to suggest that receiving a ‘no’ for a script is comparable to losing a child. However, what I am saying is that it is perfectly normal for you to feel hurt when you receive a ‘no’ because it’s hard to let go of all you have imagined and hoped for.
What you must acknowledge is that the pain is yours. You may not have caused the ‘no’, but you are responsible for how you deal with it.
It may be easy to believe, but it’s usually not true that the person giving you the ‘no’ has an agenda to cripple your career. Yes, it may have shattered your hopes and dreams, but it was not their intention to malevolently afflict you.
It’s also true that a ‘no’ doesn’t mean that you’re a failure or that your work is rubbish. It’s not personal. And it’s not vindictive. You can stop having all those doubts and self-criticism in your head.
So, don’t pretend it doesn’t hurt. Accept it. But also don’t lash out in anger or frustration or beat yourself up. You’ve had a loss, and yes, it’s okay to let yourself grieve over it in an appropriate and suitable way. Don’t wear black for a year and drink yourself into oblivion every night. But acknowledge the ache. Commiserate. Take a breather.
… And then move on.
It will take ninety-nine ‘no’s before you get a yes. If you break down and abuse everyone every time you get a ‘no’, you’ll probably not get far. If you go to pieces and swear never to write again at every setback, then come crawling back many months later, you’re probably going to run out of years before you get to that eventual ‘yes’.
It’s a long road through ninety-nine ‘no’s. Be prepared.
But, if you want to get to that one ‘yes’, you’ll need all the practice and mental stamina you can grow from all those rejections along the way. You can’t avoid them, so learn to live with them.
Good luck. Keep writing. Celebrate the small wins. And keep moving forward.