Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Rejection 101

Rejection comes with the call to write. Here is my favourite rejection story.

At the University of Michigan, we have a prestigious writing award called the Hopwood. There's a different category for every type of writing possible, the judges are professionals, and they give away thousands of dollars to the winners. Arthur Miller won a Hopwood.

I first entered in spring 2008 with "The 4:05." I didn't win any awards, but I had gotten into the top ten so I received comments from the judges. I was looking forward to this. "The 4:05" is my darling screenplay, my first effort, and this was the first time I'd get academic/professional feedback on a screenplay.

I picked up my manuscripts and my comments from the Hopwood Room and found the nearest bench to dig into the comments. Two judges, two sets of comments. One set was tolerable. Critical, but not overly harsh.

I'm pretty sure my mouth dropped when reading the second set. I have never - in all my life - received comments like this before or have since. There's lots of great stuff, but this last paragraph is my favourite.

"In the end, we're left wondering why that story needed to be told. I think the writer was aiming for a small, intimate story about two people struggling with their own inner demons who find comfort, companionship and relief in one person who truly understands them, and accepts them for who they are now, not what they could be. Instead we end up with a slow, cliched, frustrating, anticlimactic story that plods along with no real structure or build. To make this script work, I think it needs better, more compelling characters who grow and change, much better, interesting dialogue, and more going on besides them together, talking in a vacuum."

Listen. I'll be the first to say that this script is far from perfect. No, the plot is not strong. The characters do, at times, come across harsh, I can see that. I did not know what the three act structure was when I wrote it. I think what gets me is that this script landed in the top ten, and in four paragraphs the nicest comment I got from this judge was what story they "thought" I was trying to tell. It was almost so harsh that I giggle a little bit when I read it.

But it was difficult - it's still rejection, right? Worst part - "In the end, we're left wondering why that story needed to be told." More than entertaining an audience, I want them to understand why this story is important, why they should feel a certain way, maybe even inspire them. To say something like that is to tell me I failed as a writer.

As with all rejection, you bounce back. I entered the Hopwoods this past spring with "Collapse." Again, I didn't win. Again, I got in the top ten. And again, I got some pretty harsh comments. But there were also some nice comments. Hopefully the improvement in the judges' response reflects an improvement in my writing.

As for those judges' comments, what did I do with those? I tossed them - right onto my growing stack of rejection letters.

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