Balls of Steel: The Sting of Disappointment

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.

Please share your tips of handling disappointment in the comments below. We writers can use all the advice we can get!

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Watch ScriptMag Editor Share Her Advice on Facing Your Writing Fears

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman shares her personal story of facing her fears in order to propel her writing and her career. Click on the image below to watch Jeanne’s advice. In just eight minutes, you might have a whole new perspective.


19 thoughts on “Balls of Steel: The Sting of Disappointment

  1. Geoff Davis

    Hi Jeanne

    You can check out our second project on youtube here …

    At this stage the second movie is still “in-progress”. The key thing for us was that project number one, as rough as it was, won enough affection from our audience that we actually found some investors with a little bit of money for the second movie.

    I should say I am not trying to plug our movie here on your blog, we are still two years away from completion. I was simply moved by your writing and I only wanted to encourage you to hang in there.

    So mate, if no one else will make your movie, take the next step and make it yourself. You will be staggered by the people you will meet out there who only want to help.

  2. Geoff Davis

    HI Jeanne

    You say above … “I write because I’d die if I didn’t. I’m prepared to work every single angle I can until I see my words on screen, even if I have to raise the funds myself and go the indie route. Right now, I’m writing a low-budget family feature comedy I can shoot in my own home if need be. My family may disown me after it, but I’ll have achieved my goal.”

    That’s the way to go, shoot it in your own home, tell everyone up front is is a love job (i.e. no money, before, after or anytime) … shoot it on digital, edit on your PC and distribute it yourself. I am halfway through my second movie using that formula. The first one was a disaster but we spent so little we doubled our money. Plus we had so much fun, the whole team returned for the second movie … and it is looking good … well … better.

  3. Pingback: How to Handle the Rejection Inherent in Screenwriting | LA Screenwriter

  4. Todd

    Hey Kids!

    I’m a musician by trade and passion. My music is either used or not used, and I don’t usually have to witness the process of selection, I only see what’s gotten put on the cue sheet – and boy, do I prefer not seeing people say “ho boy, that one sucked!”. I think by other musician’s accounts I’m successful, but even still in those moments that I have to actually hear what someone thinks of my music, I cringe and shrink back into my shell like a hermit crab.

    My point, and do I have one? Put it out there, hope for the best, but know that there has to be an alignment of your work meeting a specific need, and often that will be entangled by all manner of bullhockey by the gatekeeper at hand. Keep working on your craft, make sure you don’t suck (the fear of sucking is one of my mutant abilities), be smart about your submissions. Solve someone’s problem for them. I’m currently trying to get a second, kind of long-forgotten songwriting career off the ground before they figure out I’m too old. It’s been like opening big ol’ can of whuppass, the frustration of spending time and energy on one piece of music and waiting to hear what someone thinks of my dear baby.

    Just remember, you can always have another baby. Sure, weird analogy, but make the best baby you can, then lose attachment to the outcome – you can’t control other’s opinions….just do good work! Do good work! Good work will make a path!!

    You’ll get there. Remember, luck really is when opportunity meets preparedness.

  5. Jan Militello

    Tips for handling disappointment…

    Don’t hang your hat on any one connection, any one contest, any one project. Today that advice extends to “any one platform.”

    When I transitioned from a corporate job to screenwriting full time, I began by entering a script into competition. A director quickly latched onto it and he was (still is) determined to get it into production. I immediately got the script to an Emmy winning actor in mind for a pivotal character. Word soon came back from his manager: He liked it… quite a lot. And, he is very interested in the part.

    I thought, “It can’t be this easy.”

    Long story short, of course, it isn’t.

    That project has yet to find funding. But whenever disappointment rears its ugly head, recalling those two sentences from an actor whose work I admire can often give me the validation I need to keep going.

    I’ve learned to have multiple balls in the air. – And, they’ve morphed from skwoosh to (near) steel along they way. – It’s a balancing act from short film scripts to web series to feature screenplays.

    Writing well is a full time commitment. Networking is another. Tackling both with authenticity and integrity is key.

    I cherish the victories, learn from the mistakes, and if one project languishes or drops by the wayside there are plenty of others to keep the passion burning.

  6. Michael Maren

    If you believe in your own work, the best way to deal with it, in my experience, is to not believe the reasons for the rejection. I think that people reject scripts for all sorts of reasons that they don’t even understand themselves. Then they try, and fail, to articulate, those reasons to you. Don’t listen. Move on.

    This isn’t to say that everyone who turns down a script of yours is wrong. But I always go back and look at the history of films I love and see how many years, how much rejection, and how much faith in the project went into getting them made.

  7. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Thanks, Will. Love your story! It’s a great lesson in perseverance. I admit, I wouldn’t say “no” to your wife either 🙂 Annette is the best! The two of you have been incredible to me and to so many other writers. Really, that’s the best prize at the end of a long day of getting rejected — friends who understand the crazy road we’re on. Give her a kiss for me.

  8. Will Chandler

    I feel your pain.

    Years ago, I wrote a script called “Cyrano of Linden View.” It went to every agency in town. No one was interested. It was too small. Too soft. Too whatever.

    Did I mention that no one was interested?

    Still, soldiering on, I believed in this script and through whatever ways and whatever alignment of stars & planets, it went to every single studio and major production company in L.A. Every …single …one. And no one wanted it. It was too x, too y, too z, not enough kaPOW!

    Did I mention that NO ONE wanted it?

    Still, I believed in this script. So did my wife. She told me to submit it to the Nicholl. I was sure she was crazy. Everyone had already confirmed for me that I was a hopeless dreamer about this script. It was a waste of money. But, for the sake of marital harmony, I relented.

    You already know the punch line. It won.

    Suddenly, I had producers interested and representation at CAA. The script eventually came within a hair’s breadth of actual production before the agency failed to deliver the stars promised due to their conflicting schedules. But …almost.

    Still. It set the stage for the next spec, which sold preemptively and opened doors.

    Jeanne, I know you’ll keep the faith. You are an excellent writer. And you don’t take “no” for an answer. If Sundance says “not this year,” they’ve missed an opportunity.

    You’ve got the goods. Screw ’em.

  9. Lynn Dickinson

    D’oh! Rejection is always tough – but I find it gets easier if I’m already busy working on the next project (or if I have several irons in the fire at one time).

    The more projects I have out there, the less I experience all those extreme writerly highs and lows. It’s great when someone requests a read, but really, it’s meaningless until they’ve read it.

    And it’s terrific when someone who reads it likes it, but really, it’s meaningless unless they can do something with it (or can get someone else to like it, who CAN do something with it).

    Basically – I just keep plugging along and keep writing. Whatever happens once one of my babies leaves the nest is … well … whatever happens. I can’t control that. I can only control what I write today – and sometimes, even controlling that is a stretch! 🙂

    In the end, I guess it’s all about high involvement with low attachment – just like everything else.

  10. Henry Eze

    Hi Jeanne, I just saw the doc on Slavery by another name…these are high concept stories that everybody is scared to tell…every producer is afraid to touch…it is pure politics (…people are afraid this could inflame racial sentiments…just like my story about the Vatican (not the Church itself in all ramification, but the players like Judas that are killing the system…nobody except the very courageous ones would bring this kind of stories to the big screen…

    it would be easier to convert my story into a book…but distribution…no one reads a book anymore…everybody is on facebook, twitter or the theater…may God help us! I would just have to start writing sci-fi and action thrillers.

  11. Kathy Rowe

    Funny how your article came out at a time I’ve been struggling. Being an indie author, and fledgling screenwriter, I worry about things like not selling a book for the last 20 days. Sure, I have over 500 books out there in the hands of folks (mostly ebooks), but when you hit a slump, it makes you wonder if you’ve lost your audience. I have great 4-5 star reviews on all my book and still I wonder why no one is snapping them up, or telling friends about them. I suppose the same is true in screenwriting- which I’m sure to find out.

    Fortunately, I have another author friend who gave me a little pep talk. He’s been in my shoes, and now he’s selling 1000’s of books a month. He kept reminding me that it takes time, persistence, and patience to get it all to fall in line.

    My next blog post will be titled “Battling the Blues”- and not a reference to wearing my service blues uniform on Mondays (Why the Air Force does that drives me nuts!). I’ll focus on trying to get out of the funk I’m in and maybe learn that not everything is roses in our world. Writing is cut-throat, and if I want to make it, I need to toughen up my skin some.

    Thanks for another great post.

    K. Rowe
    Sturgeon Creek Publishing

  12. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Michael Berg, first of all, I’m humbled you read my site. If you guys think I rip the wounds open here, I do it more there. By the way, I got the gig with Script from meeting the then editor, Joshua Stecker on Twitter. His belief in me made this column possible. I write to do him proud, among other things. Yes, Sundance or Bust 🙂

    Henry, like I said, we’ll never truly know 100% why someone passes on our work, all we can do is write the best we can and never give up. If we wanted more control, we’d be novelists… and I’m going to try that too. Why not?

    Matches, yes, follow up is KEY! I wait 4 to 6 weeks, then send an email. You’d be surprised how that gooses them to read it if they haven’t yet.

    Michael Reid, thank you so much for your kind words. I write because I’d die if I didn’t. I’m prepared to work every single angle I can until I see my words on screen, even if I have to raise the funds myself and go the indie route. Right now, I’m writing a low-budget family feature comedy I can shoot in my own home if need be. My family may disown me after it, but I’ll have achieved my goal. Keep on writing!

  13. michael w. reid

    it’s amazing you write so well and still get the rejection. My writing doesn’t come close to yours but i love writing so much, if I never get as far as the screen it would have all been worth it for me.

  14. Matches Malone

    My problem is, sometimes, you don’t even get a rejection letter. Your script goes filed in some drawer, and sits for months. Follow up I guess is the key. And even the follow up isn’t guaranteed to get you to a satisfying result.

    As a guy, I handle rejection differently:

    Drink of choice.
    No crying.
    Write more.
    Repeat steps one and two, until you can move on to step three confidently.

    Voodoo Dolls optional.

  15. Henry Eze

    This article is quite encouraging…and it speaks the very truth. It takes courage to express how we feel as screenwriters. Most of us die in silence, coupled with the pain of rejection…and the last one I got was…´I just didn´t feel anything for the protagonist…I felt more for the antagonist and his family´…I was tempted to write back…´then let the antagonist be your protagonist´.

    In most cases, it is not the quality of writing or plot sequence…it is capitalism that has eaten deep into the system. Of course it takes a lot of money to make movies and …he said ´nobody goes to the theater to be educated, but entertained´…you could imagine what entertainment is for our contemporary society. The trend is sci-fi and action junks making box office success…and that is what people want to see…and this is too bad for the society.

    The truth I guess is that one need the connection to break through…and if don´t have it, be consistent with your type or style…then be persistent in pitching…then pray at all times…if you believe in Him, He will surely deliver you and me…someday.

  16. Michael Berg

    Hey Jeanne, just wanted to say I’ve seen your website, and have read several of these articles. Kudos to you for getting a gig with Script Mag first off.

    I’m an aspiring writer in midst of finishing his first feature after developing my style from a handful of shorts the last 3 years… and lots and LOTS of writing articles from the likes of Dave Trottier, Mystery Man and UNK.

    I too entered Fade-In’s 15th Annual for a 39 page short, and got up to Quarter-finalist status, but alas did not progress past that.

    So continued luck you’ll see a bright light in that venue as I saw you made it to the semifinals.

    Maybe I’ll see you at Sundance next year. (as I most likely will be volunteering, not entering.) 🙂