Just Keep Swimming

We don’t like to talk about failure.

It’s icky, depressing, and we fear it’s contagious.

But unless we acknowledge failure as a necessary condition for moving anything forward, we do ourselves a great disservice, and we risk believing in the myth of “overnight success.”

Creative people – writers, musicians, actors, artists, poets – know this all too well.

I recall living in the States when singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan became a big deal in America. She was headlining the Lilith Fair, and this “new” voice took the country by storm. She was an “overnight success.”  That success was at least 15 years in the making (that I was aware of…and probably had another 5-10 years of unknown slogging behind it) as those of us from Canada clocked her slow and steady rise from gigging performer to multi-record deal singer.

Last week,  I was updating my “pitch grid”, which is the excel spreadsheet I keep of every pitch (book, tv, some film) I make. I was struck that I was north of 400.

I did the math. Of those 407 pitches (I started tracking about 18 months ago), I have 5 projects in various states of development (i.e. third parties are paying help make them happen) and one in production.  That’s a “hit rate” of just over 1%.  That means that 99 out of a 100 times I get rejected.

I tweeted about it, and it sparked quite a conversation.

Those of us involved in a creative pursuit know that rejection hurts.

You can put a brave face on it (“it’s part of the process”, “it’s a numbers game”, “gotta kiss a lot of frogs”) but if you present your creative work  (a tv show for commission, a book for publication, a piece for a gallery, doesn’t matter what it is) and it gets rejected, it’s personal.

It’s personal, because you put so much of your self, your person, into the work.

And we’re not selling stationery here, folks!

But here’s the key….it’s not personal to the evaluator on the other side. To them (and I was once one of “them”), it’s just one thousands of pitches/scripts/work they see every day/week/year.

If you’re a creative, putting yourself and your work (which you know are one in the same), how can you best cope with the sheer volume of rejection you’re due to face?

I’d welcome your ideas in the comments below, but I can share a few thoughts of my own:

1. Think of it as an experiment. Was there anything in the pitch/rejection to learn from, change the pitch, change the target?  i.e. I always try to use every pitch meeting to get a better sense of what the person is actually looking for (or at least their taste). This is something my pal Charles Duhigg advocates in his great book, Smarter, Faster, Better.

2. A ‘No” may be a not right now. My biggest selling book series is something I co-write under a pen name. It was literally rejected by every single publisher. Every one. And then a year later, one of them realised they needed something like it and made an offer. We’ve sold over 400,000 copies of PRINCESS PONIES since then and I’ve just delivered four new books for 2017-18.

3. A “No” may actually be personal…because the person doesn’t know/trust you. When writers pitch, they often pitch cold, not knowing the producer/broadcaster until they’re in the room, telling a story. Or, if you’ve written a spec script, it may be the first time the buyer’s come across your name. Chances are, (despite any PR or noise about wanting new voices) what they really want is a script from an established writer they can sell upwards to their bosses. There’s an old adage saying “you never get fired for buying IBM.”  The flip side is that one could certainly be fired for taking a risk on a new creative voice…it’s just not worth it for some buyers.


4. Just Keep Swimming. Channel your inner Dory. Try, as much as possible, to let the rejection roll off your back and focus on moving forward.

I wish you a fair wind, masses of luck, and the determination to keep going.  Or, in the fantastic words from this Disney gem, “birds don’t just fly, they fall down and get up”….

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