Should we do this too? Recently Rejected opens up

There’s a new website called Recently Rejected which has artists displaying the work that, yes, well, you got it. Sometimes very beautiful work tossed aside because the intern down the hall did something for half the price.

Do go take a look: I’m not a fan of all of it and you do always wonder what got chosen instead, but there are some absorbing designs in all manner of fields.

But should we do this as writers too? It has a certain appeal but then so does have an unseen bottom drawer of material that we get to drag out, blow the dust off and pretend to commissioners that it’s brand new and just for them.

Just say no, for the love of god, say no

We writers have a habit of bowing to authority, which seems a little strange given our jobs and how we avoid regular employment. But if we pitch an idea to a producer, we feel as if we are then waiting for word on high. We do that thing of wondering whether we can dare chase them, whether we can contact many producers at the same time or will we offend them by going to several.

The trouble is that we end up convincing producers and they treat us like that. They’ll get back to us or they won’t, they’ll deign to answer or they won’t. This is changing, this is dying out and I’ve been fortunate with the producers I’ve got but let us and them all remember that this is a job. We both hope that it will also be art, but it’s a job.

I just had a thing where a sudden change meant I needed to find a different producer and I did. But time was tight and I told him straight, if you don’t fancy it, just tell me and I’ll find someone else.

I’ve yet to hear back from him. And there’s little point now as the deadline is gone. What annoys me is that the idea was good and yet it might as well be forgotten forever: there’s a very specific time that this type of thing can be pitched and when that comes around again, even I will think my idea is stale.

We dread rejections but we cope with them. I think some producers dread rejecting us, but for the love og god, get over it and just tell us no. Everybody wants a yes, nobody wants a no, but we can’t do a damn thing without one or the other.

This is the time you feel worst

When you’ve got a rejection. Or, according to The Atlantic, “depression strikes most around 7 or 8pm.”

It’s from a study that was not just solely American but also primarily about American teenagers. But it was done as an afterthought. There is a US service that’s like a texting equivalent of ChildLine or the Samaritans: teenagers can text in with their problems. You can immediately see how that would be good.

What perhaps Crisis Text Line of New York didn’t immediately see was that texts are logged and stored with a date and timestamp. With masses of texts all automatically, naturally having this information, it was like handing the charity a gigantic information resource.

So there are details about when people needing its help were feeling at their worst. And by when, it’s to the second. Do read the full piece because this technically curious secondary affect of the texting service contains some heartlifting details.

More on how to handle rejection

Easily one of the most popular sections of The Blank Screen book (UK edition, US edition) is called How to Get Rejected. This week, though, I had forcible reminders of how useful my own good advice is – seriously, is that a bit creepy, complimenting my own advice just because it’s in paperback? – and a new situation.

Shame I can’t tell you about the new situation. Haven’t the nerve, sorry. But ask me in a year, okay? Wink. (I’ve just told Siri to remind me to tell you on 17 July 2015.)

I can tell you the rest of it, the reminders and the reinforcement.

Because I had three things on this week where two of them had the definite potential to be rejections. They were the closest thing to actual interviews I’ve had in years. Actually, one of them was without question a full-on job interview. The whole thing. Me in a chair facing four people behind a table. I’m honestly not sure how I managed to talk for all the flashbacks I was getting.

That was a clear project where it was going to be a yes or it was going to be a no. Also a quick yes or no, which is so useful. A second thing was far less formal and it became the kind of thing I am more used to now, a meeting to see if my face fit and whether the work was what I could do and what I wanted to do.

The third turned out to be a yes or no, I just hadn’t a clue it would work that way. But more on this in 2015. I know it seems a long time, but that’s what I thought when the Veronica Mars movie was announced in March 2013 and the next thing you knew, I was watching it in the cinema, so.

The remind/reinforcement, right. I didn’t get the work for the interview one. I am disappointed: I won’t pretend I’m not. Rejection is normal, it’s practically my only form of social interaction, and most of the time the rejection is trivial. Genuinely, I have read emails and letters where I’ve been told that, gosh, the standard was just so high and I’ve spent longer trying to remember what this is all about than I did pitching for it.

Mind you, get enough of those trivial ones in a row and you feel it.

So the interview one was bigger, I really wanted that and it is a help that I understand why they went for someone else. Two someone elses, in fact. And as I read their names, I just thought yes. Perfect. They’re who I’d have hired too.

But what really made that rejection hurt the less is that at the time the email was sent, I was in that second thing, that sort-of interview, and I was finding out that the work was mine if I wanted it. (Literally, that’s what they said. I’m not being cocky about it and overestimating how good I was, they said those very words in that very order. I like them.)

If I’d not been doing that, I’d have got the email when it was sent and that would’ve been a punch. As it was, I came to the email during a marathon session as I caught up with all the messages I’d missed that day. The volume of them plus the success at getting a gig I really fancy, that made failing to get this other one okay.

Okay enough.

So get over your problems with rejection by being rejected – and by never waiting to hear the result, by going on to the next thing. The worst that can happen is that you get both and if that genuinely is a problem, worry about it when it happens.

Writers: decode the criticism you get

The Blank Screen (UK edition, US edition) has a particularly popular section on How to Get Rejected. In part because it explains why a ridiculous proportion of criticisms your writing work gets is bollocks.

But you have to read it all, you have to take it all, you have to smile all the time.

Nonetheless, things are moving on in the criticism world. Previously we used to get what were called praise sandwiches. Your critic starts with something great to say about your work and ends with something really fantastically constructive. But you and they know the only thing that is true is the abuse in between the two.

Now the Harvard Business Review is advising critics to cut this crap out entirely:

Never, ever, ever feed someone a “sandwich.” Don’t bookend your critique with compliments. It sounds insincere and risks diluting your message. Instead, separate your negative commentary from your praise, and don’t hedge.

Everything You Need to Know About Giving Negative Feedback – Sarah Green, Harvard Business Review (30 June 2014)

O-kay. You’re thinking that you’re going to miss the praise sandwich now, aren’t you?

Read the full Harvard Business Review piece. Put yourself in the shoes of a critic, see what they’re being advised to do, and you’ll be armed enough to nod politely before you DESTROY THEM AND ALL THEIR FAMILIES.

This is how to pitch yourself to a magazine

I had 200 unsolicited submissions when I was features editor on a magazine and I rejected 199 of them. This one would’ve made it 198: this is so much how a terrific writer should and did pitch that I’m recommending it to you even though it failed.

Eighty-one years on, I hope The New Yorker magazine is ashamed of its stupidity.

March 15, 1933


I suppose you’d be more interested in even a sleight-o’-hand trick than you’d be in an application for a position with your magazine, but as usual you can’t have the thing you want most.

I am 23 years old, six weeks on the loose in N.Y. However, I was a New Yorker for a whole year in 1930–31 while attending advertising classes in Columbia’s School of Business. Actually I am a southerner, from Mississippi, the nation’s most backward state. Ramifications include Walter H. Page, who, unluckily for me, is no longer connected with Doubleday-Page, which is no longer Doubleday-Page, even. I have a B.A.(’29) from the University of Wisconsin, where I majored in English without a care in the world. For the last eighteen months I was languishing in my own office in a radio station in Jackson, Miss., writing continuities, dramas, mule feed advertisements, santa claus talks, and life insurance playlets; now I have given that up.

As to what I might do for you — I have seen an untoward amount of picture galleries and 15¢ movies lately, and could review them with my old prosperous detachment, I think; in fact, I recently coined a general word for Matisse’s pictures after seeing his latest at the Marie Harriman: concubineapple. That shows you how my mind works — quick, and away from the point. I read simply voraciously, and can drum up an opinion afterwards.

Since I have bought an India print, and a large number of phonograph records from a Mr. Nussbaum who picks them up, and a Cezanne Bathers one inch long (that shows you I read e. e. cummings I hope), I am anxious to have an apartment, not to mention a small portable phonograph. How I would like to work for you! A little paragraph each morning — a little paragraph each night, if you can’t hire me from daylight to dark, although I would work like a slave. I can also draw like Mr. Thurber, in case he goes off the deep end. I have studied flower painting.

There is no telling where I may apply, if you turn me down; I realize this will not phase you, but consider my other alternative: the U of N.C. offers for $12.00 to let me dance in Vachel Lindsay’s Congo. I congo on. I rest my case, repeating that I am a hard worker.

Truly yours,

Eudora Welty

From Letters of Note (UK edition, US edition) via Brainpickings

To Not Do list

We've had To Do lists. A lot. We've come up with Done Lists which are very satisfying: you write down what you did as you finish it and then looking back later is immensely cheering. That's pretty much the entire purpose of my month reviews (see That Was March 2014…). But maybe we could take a further step and write ourselves a To Not Do List.

It feels risky. Like it could end up as a kind of new year's resolution fad: I will not drink so much tea, I will not keep putting off the gym.

But it could also be a good guide. I keep reading headlines lately about the first app that people use in their mornings and I've been stopping at the headline because I don't want to find out the detail. Chiefly because I want to avoid thinking about mine.

Since you're here, I'll face up to it. My first app is email. If you don't count Awesome Clock, which I use to give me an old-fashioned analogue clock face on my iPhone all night. If you don't count my iPhone's own alarm. Then it's email. As I lurch to the loo and on to the kitchen and into my office, I am checking both my main or personal email account and my public one, the address that is your best route to talk to me about The Blank Screen.

I want to stop doing this. Funnily enough, I've been training myself to make sure I check my calendar every morning and that's going fine. (See I nearly missed an event today, though I suggest you bring a packed lunch with you because that is a long, long post.) So I want to keep that new habit going, I do want to reinforce my early OmniFocus use every day.

But I have to drop the email one.

Because too often now I've woken up at 5am to start writing and been derailed by a bad email. Usually a rejection. And at that time of the morning, most rejections matter. Later on, they wouldn't, but right there and then I am somehow more open to the slap.

I'm fine with being slapped. But it also saps. There are few things worse than getting up at 5am to write but one of them is getting up at 5am and not writing. I've seen this after big projects finish when the pressure is off and I have nothing that truly has to be done then. That's a horrible time. But yet worse is this paralysing that you can get from certain rejections, when they're strong enough, when they're important enough.

All this is on my mind now because I had a rejection that would've cut whenever I read it, but it did especially stop me one 5am start.

Or it should've done. It certainly did for a time. I certainly struggled to begin working. And I didn't do the thing I was intending to do that morning. Instead, though, I worked on fiction. You know how great it is when you are reading a book and you're completely into it. Writing fiction, at times, can be similar. For whatever reason, I hit that moment that day and by the end of 2,000 words on that project, I felt better.

And I had a solution to the rejection.

Without thinking about it, without brooding on it, my noggin' had found a way around the problem.

Now, that's good. And having been able to take my mind away for 90 minutes or whatever it was, that was also good. But the solution requires other people and it requires much planning, all stuff that I couldn't do anything about at 7am that morning.

So if I'd just put off reading the emails until, what, 9am, I'd have had four hours solid work done, I'd be far less prone to the rejection paralysis and when my head came up with a solution, I'd have been able to do something about it right there and then.

Top of my To Not Do List, then, is this: I will not check emails first thing in the morning.

Do we have a deal?

How to Get Rejected – I didn’t think of this bit

The Blank Screen book (UK edition, US edition) and particularly the workshop I do based on it has a particularly popular segment called How to Get Rejected. Without fail, everyone thinks it’s a joke at first – and I’ll do anything for a laugh, it could easily be a gag – but then sees both that I’m serious and that it’s useful.

This is about what to do when you are rejected. It’s how to best deal with rejection and it’s how – sometimes – you can make it a good thing. Let’s not get daft about it. A slammed door is a slammed door. But just often enough, there is something more and the rejection is the first step rather than the last hope. I’ve even pitched things knowing that it will be rejected because it was useful. Also, I’m an idiot.

The one-line summary is that when you’re rejected, let it go. Because it’s already gone. The decision is made and you cannot change it – but you can change the future. Not always, not anywhere near always, but sometimes and it’s better for your anxiety pill intake as well as being good for your career:

Be the one writer who’s nice about all this. Steven Moffat had a particularly good line in Press Gang: ”It’s nice to be smart but it’s smart to be nice”. It’s also just easier. See a rejection as personal and you get tied up in knots; ask them for feedback and you get tied up with the reputation of being a whiner – without getting any advice that was of any use to you. Either way, you get tied up and the whole point of this book is to show you how to be more productive. So be more productive by being nice about the things you can’t control and putting your effort and your time into the things you can. 


I had a rejection yesterday that mattered. I responded the way I say we all should and it was particularly easy to be nice because I knew for a fact that the guy who brought me the news was not the one who’d made the decision. I knew he’d wanted the project to go ahead too, he’d gone to bat for me. So it was extremely easy to reply gratefully to him.

Only, this is the first time I’ve then had to pass the rejection on to other people. I still can’t tell you what the gig was because within an hour I’d thought of something else I could do with it so it’s still live, but it’s one where I’d had to get rights sorted out before I could pitch. Now I had to explain the gig was up to the rights owner.

It was a weird position to be in: I had been rejected and I was now rejecting – not literally but effectively. Just as the fella who told me wasn’t the one who made the decision, I obviously hadn’t made the decision either but he was the one telling me and now I was the one telling the rights owners. This is a project that matters to us all very personally as well as artistically and professionally so I didn’t enjoy dialling those numbers.

But the main rights owner, while as disappointed as I am, was nice about it. She took the rejection in exactly the way I believe we all should. She was nice and she understood that it wasn’t me. (We did then have a little shared grumble, because we could.) She was a pro and it reinforced for me that this works. I left that call feeling better and even energised to find a new route for the project. I’ve seen before that my being relaxed and nice about this has worked for me but now I felt it from the other side and I understand.

Being nice about a rejection doesn’t change the rejection. It may never change anything, ever. But it’s always better for your soul and your stomach. And I now believe that it is always better for the person who is rejecting you. There’s nothing wrong with making things better for them: they’re going to reject you regardless, it’s not like you’ll make them think they’ll reject you because you’ll take it better than other people. And often enough, it leads to other work in the future. That’s obviously great, that’s obviously what you want, but I see it as a bonus.

Leave ’em laughing, it’s the only way.

How to get rejected

I offer that the best thing any writer can do is get someone else to do the writing. You’re thinking they might do my blogs shorter and let you get a word in. You’re thinking Dan Brown could retain his apparently gripping stories but that you and I might be able to read beyond chapter one. (Didn’t you say you’d managed more than me?)

But I mean it and I wish it were something you could very readily do. Commission other writers and it will change the way you write. It will change how you see the whole process. And it will mean fully half the rejections you get won’t trouble you.

Best of all, you’ll no longer take it personally when an editor phones you up, skips all the polite stuff about how great your typing is and just comes straight in laughing about the very worst bit of your script. It’s happened to me and I admit I wish I hadn’t written that scene, whichever it was, but I laughed along with that editor because he was funny, he was right, it was a dreadful scene – and because I knew we’d fix it. I can’t remember the scene and I’m struggling to remember which script it was but I can tell you the editor: Alan Barnes at Doctor Who.

You want to write the best drama you can and that’s what he and all the Big Finish people want too. It’s not what every editor, producer or director I’ve worked for wants but usually it is. (I once had a director whose chief dramatic aim, I am certain, was to make sure he could catch his last bus home after the play. I never knew a human being could make me as angry but now, when I can instantly recall the bile but cannot draw his name to mind, I’m glad it happened. Because I wonder if I’d appreciate the directors I’ve worked with since. Ken Bentley, Nick Briggs and Barnaby Edwards at Big Finish; Polly Tisdall, Tessa Walker and Tom Saunders at the Birmingham Rep. I imagine I would, I imagine I must, but I really do because of this fella.)

This is going to sound all idealistic and happy-clappy but everyone wants the best show they can make. I found plenty of jaded people in journalism, maybe I’ve just been lucky in drama so far. But if the ideal is that this is what we want, the harsh practicality is that there is never any time to piddle about.

And this is one reason for rejections. Nobody wants to reject anyone, everyone wants the material to be great, everyone needs the material to be great right now or sooner, please. If your piece isn’t what that person or people need at this moment, they’re off looking for the one that is and you’re rejected.

I feel I’m telling you something you think is obvious and yet it keeps coming up. Rejection isn’t personal, it just feels as I it is because we’re writers and we are required to dig very deep and scrape very personally to make drama. Even though you know, intellectually, that it isn’t personal, it feels it. When it’s your innards on the page, it’s hard not to take a rejection as being a rejection of you.

So commission someone else and see what it’s like. I’m not sure how you can do that very easily, I’m afraid. But I’ve done it on magazines and quickly got to the stage where I had no ruth at all. You need this or that piece and you need it by a certain date: you don’t care who writes it, you just have these pages to fill and fill well.

It kills me to say this, as a writer, but we’re not the most reliable people. After my first month on a magazine, every deadline I ever gave anyone was a lie. It had to be. I had to have time for them to be late, I had to have time for me to cope if they failed to deliver at all and I had to have time to handle it if their writing wasn’t good enough.

You can of course argue that it was only my opinion whether their writing was good enough or not, but that was my job. And if I didn’t do it or I wasn’t good enough at it, I’d be rejected and replaced.

I found that there were a few writers who I could really rely on. I’d know they’d write well and I’d know they would deliver on time. I used them over and over again – and so would you. From the outside, it looked like I’d got myself a stable of writers and that it was a pretty closed bunch. On the inside, it was that I was trying to get a stable of writers and unfortunately it was a pretty closed group because I couldn’t find many more to add to it.

Getting into my stable was hard. I don’t say this to make out that anyone would want to, that it was in someway a special set, but genuinely, really, practically: it was hard to get in. I had this many pages to fill with this many articles and I had this long in which to do it. It was easier to hand over a feature to one of these writers I knew would do it. I could hand that off and forget about it for a few weeks. As those weeks ticked by, it became less that it was easy to hand it over to them, more that it was essential.

Taking on someone new is a risk and a risk that takes a lot of time. And this was just on a magazine: drama is so much bigger, so much more complex and so much more pressured. So taking on someone new is so much more of a risk and takes so much more time – that you don’t have.

I’ve never commissioned drama. I’m new to writing it. But because I have commissioned writers, I believe I get it. People can tell you rejection isn’t personal but I think you really only get it when you’ve been even briefly on the other side.

It doesn’t absolve you from trying to write better but it does stop you wanting to give up.

Even when a guy phones you and laughs down the line.