“Thanks, Mike. It’s not what we’re looking for right now, but…”
Getting a rejection letter is the death of beautiful hope. It’s like watching a ginger cake in the oven, salivating as it turns golden and the butter sizzles across its surface and the air turns thick and Christmassy – and you pull it out and sink a knife in, and it’s a brown charcoal briquette from the first inch downwards. It’s a fly in your milkshake – a big hairy pearlescent bluebottle struggling in the froth, and you know you’re going to fish the poor bugger out and pour the whole thing away but you watched it being poured and that’s just hurting right now. It’s that point when you can’t avoid concluding someone you’re besotted with – they’re just not into you. It’s all these things and they all feel wretched.
It’s all those moments when a possibility that made you feel alive just by thinking it, enough uncertainty to hope with, turns to bitter reality, and What Could Be becomes Deal With It And Move On.
Treasured, beautiful ideas turn to shit all the time. Ideas fall on fallow ground every day. It’s what ideas do. They’re expendable, they’re cheap, and – thanks to the way brains works – they’re a sustainable resource.
They’re also just something people make.
Here’s my biggest fear:
There’s a food plague that kills off everything except broad beans and polenta.
That’s not really relevant to this article, so let’s look at my second biggest fear:
Writing something I am certain is the best I’ll ever be capable of, absolutely rock-solid convinced, right down to my sweating, trembling DNA . . . and having it rejected.
In the future, hand-guns will look like cheap sex toys. Thanks, Blake’s 7.
Years back, I wrote a letter to the creator of the BBC TV scifi show Blake’s 7 – a late 70s slice of scifi-western in which a crew of renegades and failed revolutionaries form an uneasy alliance so they can become successful interstellar criminals. Sound familiar? The best things about it were the protagonists. They were irredeemable scumbags, and spent most of their time trying to stab each other in the back. It was everything HBO has been doing with its characters for the last decade, with a distinctly BBC twist: wild dramatics, a limited special effects budget (it’s almost unwatchable nowadays) and a very, very British view of what people in the future will have in their wardrobes.
In 1999, three years before Firefly came along, I sat and watched all four seasons of Blake’s 7 (on VHS) and fell in love with it. Then I started scribbling in a notebook. A sequel took shape – the only sequel the show deserved. I came home from business college and scribbled until midnight, and the next day, and the next. Then I wrote a 6-episode outline that captured my idea perfectly. I booted up the family Amstrad PC1512 (a metal box of wheezing crap with a printer attached), constructed a 5-page outline for how this new show should look, and I mailed it to Blake’s 7 creator Terry Nation, care of BBC Television Centre. And then I waited.
And waited. And (yep, you guessed it) waited. Years passed. I took it badly. Something in me died.
Today, on the 15th of November 2013, nearly a decade and a half after I sent that letter…
I have to face facts. It’s been 14 years. That’s quite a long time to hear back from someone. Reluctantly, I’m concluding it’s just not going to happen – maybe because my script wasn’t anywhere near as perfect as I thought . . . maybe because TV producers receive a staggering number of unsolicited submissions from amateurs every single week and back then I didn’t know what the hell I was doing . . .but probably because Terry Nation died in 1997.
I spoke to some editor friends recently about rejection.
They listed the many, many reasons why they turn submissions down, and a lot had nothing to do with the quality of what they were offered. Sometimes the timing was wrong for their publication. Sometimes they were backed up with work for a few months. Sometimes it was really great work, but it just didn’t fit. (Always study your markets.)
Their main piece of advice on the subject?
“Don’t take it personally.“
Writers are idea-factories. Their success is directly related to their production schedule. The only thing that matters is cranking words out, making them as good as they can be in the time that’s available, and then letting those words go. Professional writers ship what they make. It goes out the door, and then they get paid (or “paid”, if the rewards aren’t monetary). Then it’s onto the next piece of work – because to do anything else is to stop being a writer.
Rejection is someone saying your product, for some reason, isn’t what they need right now. That’s it. No great complicated existential smackdown of who you are. It’s simply down to your product and that market at that time. In extreme cases, it may even be because the editor died in 1997. It’s nothing to do with you.
Rejection often feels like someone saying “you suck” – with an implied “…and always will” hanging in the air. It feels like this every time you threw all your skill and all your heart into your work, and for some reason it wasn’t enough this time round. Professional writers get over this feeling by acting like the manufacturers they are – they either release another version that fixes flaws and tries to fit the market better, or they release a different product. And there are always other products to try out.
If you apply for a job and didn’t get it, it doesn’t mean you can’t get a job you want. It just means you didn’t, this time round.
If you submit a pitch or a manuscript and it comes back with a “no thanks”, it doesn’t mean you can’t write something that would get accepted.
Rejection isn’t failure. Here’s what failure is:
Deciding that rejection means you’ll never be good enough.
Taking rejection as a comment on your character and your worthiness as a human being? That’s failure. It’s a picket-line at the gates of your factory. It’s a worker’s union where all the workers are being lied to by the wrong people, and everyone is going to lose their job.
Unleash your inner totalitarian. Send the troops in. Or give everyone a pay-rise. Whatever works. Just get that damn factory working again.
I could mention famous pieces of literature initially rejected, like Tolstoy’s War & Peace, or Pirsig’s Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance (the current Guinness World Record holder at 121 rejections). Maybe you’d find it inspiring to read how other famous people have struggled. But when you get something rejected, ignore all that. Other people don’t matter. You just need to make this better, or make something else better.
You just need to make.
Because that’s what you do, and that’s who you are.
Blake’s 7 has now been rebooted twice: first on radio (really terrific, well worth getting hold of) and now in an upcoming SyFy original series directed by Martin Campbell (Casino Royale). But mine was even better. Honest.