When one of your screenplays gets rejected it’s only natural that you’ll go through a kind of mourning process. You’ve invested so much psychic energy over months and even years, coming up with an idea, outlining it, breaking it down into scenes, fleshing out character arcs and writing draft after draft – and it all comes down to –what?“ Sorry, it’s not for us.”
Every day you’ve been getting up at five in the morning to write before you go to work. You’ve been guzzling coffee and eating off the two dollar menu at McDonalds. You haven’t really spent any time with your wife or your kids for —what?
“We already have something like this in the pipeline.”
After all the sacrifice, and all that emotional commitment, you finally get to the point where you feel your script is good enough –no — not just that. It’s great. Amazing. Your hopes are high. They have to be. Your reputation as a writer, your future, your family’s future are riding on this.
You turn it over to someone who’s expressed an interest –an agent, a producer. Then while you’re waiting the longest three weeks ever –to hear back, you’re playing things out in your head. You’ve allowed yourself to fantasize about a scenario where they love it –they even offer to buy it on the spot. And then the phone rings and you hear —what?
“The dialogue was stiff, clumsy and felt ‘written.’ The characters felt flat. The story petered out in the second act.”
When you hear those words despite your best efforts, it’s no surprise you’re going to feel a significant loss. Without sounding overly dramatic, it may take you a while to get over it. You’ve probably heard of the five stages of grief Dr. Kubler-Ross described in her book, Five Stage Model of Grief.
The stages are usually listed in this order, however, nobody grieves the same way, and people don’t always go through these steps in order. You might start out with anger, then feel depressed, start bargaining and eventually get to acceptance. Denial generally comes first.
Stage 1 – Denial.
When you first hear that your script has been passed over, your very first reaction might be “this isn’t happening,” or “there must be some mistake.” If you’re reading a rejection letter, you might have to reread it. If an assistant is talking to you on the phone, you might repeat the title and ask, “Are you sure?”
Stage 2 – Anger.
After denial, reality sets in and you realize there’s no doubting it. They didn’t like your script. At that point you might start feeling a little anger. That anger is generally directed at the person who passed on your script. You start thinking, “What does he know about screenwriting anyway? What an idiot.”
At this stage you have to be careful not to take your anger out on the people in your life. Try not to , kick the dog or lash out at your family, no matter how conveniently they’re available. You do need to vent – just don’t piss off your wife. She’s put up with you throughout this ordeal.
Stage 3 – Bargaining.
At this stage you’re trying to reassert control over your fate. You might call the producer or the agent and try to convince them they were wrong. “Didn’t you get the message I was trying to convey?” This is always a really bad idea.
Some writers have been known to offer to do a free rewrite. Or do a quick rewrite and ask the same person to give it another chance. Writers at this stage have been known to beg. Again, this isn’t a good idea.
Stage 4 – Depression.
A lot of regret occurs at this stage as a low-level depression sets in. You start replaying all of your creative decisions, and second-guess everything. You think about stuff like, “ “If only I’d listened to the guy in the workshop who said the third act needed work.”
At some point, the regret gives way to self-doubt. You start thinking that maybe you’re not cut out to be a screenwriter “What was I thinking? I should have gone to law school.” After that, you might find yourself wallowing in self-pity — and binge watching detective shows on Netflix.
Some writers will actually give up on their careers at this stage –especially if its their twenty-third rejection in a row. Depression can be marked, at its worst, by a lack of hope. If you get stuck at this stage, you might actually go to law school, or even worse get a job at the bank.
Stage 5 –Acceptance.
After some time goes by (the exact length of time is different for everyone), you might start seeing some hope in moving forward. Something may rekindle your love of movies. It might come from watching a film that really blows you away. It might come from watching a film that sucks so badly you convince yourself you can do better.
You’ll start feeling like you could maybe give it another shot. Maybe another great idea occurs to you. Maybe you see another way to go with the screenplay you’re mourning. You start to feel hopeful about making it as a writer again. You go back to the drawing board.
Hopefully, after reading this blog, you’ll be able to negotiate the stages of loss a little better. Managing expectation is a big part of being able to cope.
You should expect that you’ll definitely be feeling more rejection in your career. Unfortunately, it happens to every writer –everywhere — and at different times in their careers. Even after a string of successes.
The best thing you can do to get through these rejections is to allow yourself to feel the grief as it comes over you. Recognize the stages as you pass through them. Resisting them will only prolong the process. Remember to move forward through the stages with acceptance as your goal.