Surviving Screenwriting Rejections: Keep Calm and Brave the Storm!

This is not going to be an easy read. And I promise, I don’t mean to make it dire. But as my writing clients are experiencing disappointment, I thought that, uncomfortable though it might be, it would be worthwhile to learn from their experience.

(I promise you, if you read the whole way through, it’s not all doom and gloom. With that in mind, here goes…)

These past few weeks have been a challenge to a whole slew of my writers: One was a finalist for NBC’s Writers on the Verge, but despite a fun interview that went really well and a killer essay that was enthusiastically received, she did not get in. Another was a finalist for WB’s TV Writers Workshop. Even though the workshop director told him that he did everything right and that everyone loved him, he did not get in. Another writer had a pilot pitched to pods (production overall deal companies, i.e. production companies that have a deal in place with a studio or a network – you can learn more about development deals for producing entities HERE), as well as two networks; it looked like one of the networks was ready to make an offer… only to change their minds at the very last minute. And yet another pitched her take on a writing assignment for one of the studios… only to have the producer who brought her in effectively sabotage her in the room, on what would have been her first bona fide writing assignment.

Don’t get me wrong. There have been a lot of happy stories too. But I completely understand if anyone reading this is wondering: Why even do this? What’s the point? But let me assure you: New writers do break in every day. If only to illustrate this, here are just a few of the big and small wins that my clients have enjoyed over the past few months:

  • Acceptance into WB’s TV Writers Workshop
  • Acceptance into The Black List/Women in Film Episodic Lab
  • Acceptance into HBO Access fellowship
  • Awarded the Humanitas New Voices prize
  • Unrepped writer signed with her first rep
  • Previously repped writer parted ways with one ineffective rep only to sign with a next-level one
  • Staffed in a writer’s room for the first time
  • Received a paid option for a feature film for the first time
  • Landed first writing assignment
  • Sold two pitches in the room (first sale!)
  • Sold pilot to major streaming service (first sale!)

So yes, I can tell you from my own experience: It happens all the time. That’s the whole entire reason that I have a job, and why my job is deeply satisfying, and one that I profoundly love.

But there are also disappointments, and that’s what I want to dig into in this blog post. Not so much the disappointments, but how you get through them. Because there will be frustrations, disappointments and rejections at every career level.

Early on in your career, you will experience rejections when your screenplay or TV pilot is submitted to competitions but fails to crack even the quarterfinals, let alone go all the way. Not cracking the TV Writing Programs can fell even worse. You will send out queries (because you have no other way to reach out to industry reps) and not get any substantive bites. You will get a very negative set of notes from a reader, consultant or coverage service, even though you did all you could to learn structure, to deepen your characters, to make the work strong. These things are bound to happen in an industry of opinions.

As the writing gets stronger and you move from “just starting out” to “emerging,” the sting will be felt when a manager meets with you but declines to sign you, when you nail your staffing meetings but don’t get the job, when you make the final interview round for a TV writing fellowship but not the final selection, when the screenplay you developed so diligently with your rep, thoughtfully taking every note and making it your own, goes out to market but doesn’t get any traction.

When you become a professional screenwriter, there will be disappointments when a spec feature nets you tons of meetings but fails to sell, bring a big attachment or get set up anywhere, when a well-pitched pilot doesn’t find a home, or when a pilot that was picked up for development doesn’t get shot. Once again, your heart will break when you pitch your take, but the open writing assignment that represents a dream job goes to someone else.

For good or bad, when you are this deeply invested in something, disappointment is part of the journey and par for the course.

So when disappointment comes, as it surely will at one point or another even for the most successful screenwriters and TV writers, how do you push through it? How do you overcome the sometimes sting of rejection? When it feels like you have never been closer, but may never be that close again?

I asked one of my writers just this, as the storm of emotions around just such a moment finally began to settle. He is an incredibly wise man, which was very much reinforced by what he said: “You remember why you do this in the first place… you write because that’s what you love, and, if you really love it, no one and nothing should be able to stop you from continuing.”

Just to reinforce this, he sent me a fantastic blog post about how mentally strong people handle rejection

When disappointment comes…

You regroup. You take some time to be sad or mad, to mourn, to cry, to eat ice cream, to allow yourself to feel cheated or short changed… you take a time out for a night or a weekend, and allow yourself not think about writing… and then you try again.

You turn to your community, other writers who can understand you, people who are talented and smart, who believe in you and whom you look up to, because whether behind or ahead of you, they are on the same journey so for good or bad… they get it. They know how much it stings. And they understand how hard you fight in those moments to hang in there.

You watch a bunch of movies and TV shows that you love, and try to find a path to once again get inspired by the storytelling style you first fell in love with.

You talk to other writers, read interviews, listen to podcasts, and remember that for every success story they have, they also have a disappointment graveyard. You remind yourself that everyone’s journey is different. That the one thing that’s the same across the board is that the people who made it kept on fighting for it. Had their heartbreaks, licked their wounds, and found a way to get back to it, bigger, better and more daring than ever, continuing to fight for their screenwriting or TV writing career with gusto.

You turn to someone like me. Someone who has escorted and supported you along your journey, who has seen writers break in, no matter how hard they worked or how long it took them. And someone like me might just say something like this:

“This can be such an incredibly defeating and frustrating business. For all the promise and potential, there are just no guarantees. So, believe me, I get it, and totally understand how these frustrations can overwhelm everything else. But there are also positives. In every such situation. Always. There are lessons learned and relationships forged, even if you didn’t go as far as you wanted. So hang in there. Whether it feels like it or not, right now you’re in a game of attrition, and the big question is: do you love it enough to stick with it, to fight for it until you break in? I know you have the talent, and I have every faith that if you keep going you will get there.”

(Yes, that is actual language from an email I sent to an actual client).

Remember, it’s never about the one spec screenplay, the one TV pilot. It’s never about the one job, the one rep, the one relationship. It’s about the career.  And as long as your writing continues to get better, as long as you continue to push yourself, as long as you challenge yourself not just on the writing, but also on the relationship building front, to do all that you can that’s within your control to move your screenwriting career FORWARD, then in many ways it becomes a game of attrition: Will you keep at it long enough to break in, no matter how long it takes, or will you walk away? Will you continue to push, to challenge yourself, to try and try again because you can’t really imagine doing anything else, or will you decide that you’ve had enough of it and the time has come to walk away? (By the way, it’s no shame walking away either if you’ve decided you’ve had enough. To read a bit more about that, check out my interview with Eric Koenig).

The bottom line is that there are no guarantees, so I can’t promise you that if you keep doing all these things everything will work out. But I have worked with enough writers, and have seen enough writers break in, push their career forward and get to the next level to know that as long as you show up, as long as you don’t allow bitterness and disappointment to shape your attitude, as long as you continue to push and try, and try again, and challenge yourself, you are giving yourself a real fighting chance to have the screenwriting career you’ve always dreamed of having.