They say, “If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.”
Famous writers don’t need to seek literary agents and publishers. They don’t have to worry if their books will sell or not. Famous writers don’t have day jobs and have the privilege of doing only what they love – write. Every road has a bump along the way.
We dream to become one of them. We wish to be where they are now. Most of them came to success through failure. Many of them even through a massive failure. For example, “The Weddings” novella was rejected by the Idaho Review Magazine in late Nov. 2015. Unfortunately, when I did some research, there were no markets for novellas. Not what I was looking for. So, I chose to publish it as a blog.
Here are some authors who failed at first. Then, they tried again. Second chances are like a fresh start.
1. J. K. Rowling
12 publishers rejected her manuscript. So if she gave up, let’s say after the 10th rejection we would never know that Harry even existed.
2. John Grisham
He was a lawyer, who loved to write. His first book “Time to Kill” was written in 3 years and rejected by 27 different publishers. But now he is one of the bestselling authors with total copies of 250 million of his books sold.
3. Steven King
Steven’s book Carrie was rejected 30 times, but once it was published it sold 1 million copies in the first year alone.
4. Stephanie Meyer
From the 15 literary agencies she wrote to 5 did not answer at all and the other 9 rejected her book. Only 1 gave her a chance and we all know what happened next.
5. Vladimir Nabokov
In one of the 26 rejections received from all major publishers he read “I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years”. Vladimir finally found a publisher in France. Later Lolita was published by all those publishers that initially rejected it and sold around 50 million copies.
6. Kathryn Stockett: The Help was rejected 60 times until someone finally published it. Then, it became a hit movie.
7. C.S. Lewis: Turned down 800 times before selling “Chronicles of Narnia.” It was eventually translated into 47 languages and sold more than 100 million copies.
8. Anne Frank: 15 publishers refused to print the “The Diary of Anne Frank.” One critic postulated, “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the curiosity level.” It seems more than 25 million were curious enough to buy it.
9. Jack Kerouac: The voice of the Beat Generation was almost silenced by publishers. Early critics were convinced “On the Road” would fail. One wrote, “His frenetic and scrambled prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don’t think so.” Millions of copies sold and a major motion picture would have us believe otherwise.
10. Rudyard Kipling: “I’m sorry Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.” The San Francisco Examiner roasted Kiping’s writing, but the author persevered. Today, millions of readers (and Disney) are thankful for that.
11. Sylvia Path: Poets weren’t spared the disdain of the publishing world. One editor attempted to hush Sylvia Plath by telling her, “There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.” Today, she’s one of America’s most celebrated poets and the recipient of a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.
12. George Orwell: “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA,” was the snippy response from one publisher to Orwell’s Animal Farm. Even T.S. Eliot, as head of Faber & Faber, scoffed at the book and its “Trotskyite politics.” Eventually, publisher Secker & Warburg snatched up the manuscript and watched it climb the bestsellers list.
13. Louisa May Alcott: One publisher advised Alcott to “stick to teaching.” She ignored the (now defunct) publisher’s advice and penned Little Women, which remains in print almost 150 years later.
14. H.G. Wells: “The War of the Worlds” received some brutal evaluations. A particularly grumpy editor attacked Wells’ piece with abandon, calling it “An endless nightmare.” I think the verdict would be “Oh don’t read that horrid book.” The verdict reads a little more like this: read by millions and the inspiration for a string of feature films, radio dramas, comic books, a record album and a TV series.
Screenwriting advice on failing:
The journey to excellence also includes rejection, failure, criticism and poorly written screenplays. The only way to get through it and become a better writer is by getting your bad screenwriting out of the way as soon as possible. Hopefully not for long, but you’ll need to get those first few horrible screenplays out of your system to get to the business of writing well. You need to listen to constructive feedback and know what to take and what to ignore. As the art and craft of screenwriting is an ongoing learning experience, if you continue to learn and master your craft, eventually you’ll be at the top of your game at any given time.
As for failure, embrace it because there is no escape from it on your screenwriting journey. The times when you fail are tests to see if you really have what it takes to weather the long slog of establishing a career as a working screenwriter. If you are open to learning—you will use the failures as a learning experience and not bristle or fight against it. Failure and success is the Yin and Yang of any artistic journey. We can only cherish the hard work it takes to achieve success, because we’ve been able to take the punches and body blows that failure delivers. You’ll come back stronger the next time and work smarter and be a more efficient writer. If you listen to any successful person, they will discuss the many failures they’ve experienced, perhaps years of failure to get to the success you see from them today.
Stare failure down and do not be afraid of it. When it does come, and it will, you’ll be ready and take the blows and you’ll get back up, stare at the blank page and start the process all over again. Failure loves to knock out screenwriters, it hates those who get up before a “ten count” and start screenwriting again.
The overnight success is usually ten years in the making. It’s rare for screenwriters to sell their first script—or their third script. Our dreams keep us going, but make sure they’re realistic dreams in a marketplace filled with tens of thousands of projects being created every year. Don’t worry about the odds but focus on always becoming a better writer and expanding your writer’s tool kit. Learn your strengths and weaknesses as you find your unique voice.
Screenwriting experience takes time—an incredible amount of time and effort. You have to respect the process and not expect that your first time typing FADE OUT – THE END will result in God’s gift to Hollywood. You will be humbled if you disrespect the craft.
On your journey, you must learn patience. Many aspiring writers are too anxious to sell their first script for a million dollars. They’re more interested in fame and fortune than becoming excellent and making a living as a working screenwriter. Or they don’t want to “sell out” and write “commercial Hollywood projects” as if they had any choices to work being offered to them. They don’t respect the incredibly long slog that is ahead of them. Relax and picture the long road you will be traveling. Every aspiring writer believes their journey will be different because they are “special.” Don’t be tempted into this mindset because you’ll wake up one day and realize you’re eight years into the journey and haven’t sold anything or had a movie produced. You just might hit a homerun with your first script, but the reality is that it’s like winning the lottery.
If you’re going to be in this for the long haul, screenwriters need time to become great writers first. You need to fire on all cylinders with every script you write. You need to look at the bigger picture and chart a course for your career—not be myopic and focus on just one script. How does the spec you are writing fit into your plans for a bigger career? Every aspect of your script must be at the highest levels if you’re going to play with the big boys and girls. Maybe structure comes easy for you, but dialogue and character development are your weaknesses? Maybe you can easily come up with ideas but maybe they aren’t all solid stories to hang a movie on? Becoming a great writer is a lifelong pursuit and if you believe Ernest Hemingway, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master,” the mastery of writing remains elusive no matter how long we practice the craft. Do you have a newfound respect for writing now? If not, the longer you work in the screenwriting game, you will eventually be humbled.
It’s a continual learning process and we’re always preparing for when opportunities arise. We also find our “voice” and style and become more confident. There’s a mysterious synchronicity in the universe, it knows when we are ready, and delivers us an opportunity at the exact right time.
Keep on climbing that ladder, and climb every mountain, and over time and respecting the craft of screenwriting, you can only write at a level your experience will afford you at any given time. If you’ve only written one screenplay and only one draft of that script, please know that you have a lot of work ahead of you—years of work and possibly a decade before you’re a great writer who is capable of working at the level necessary to score assignment jobs. During your climb, screenwriters need to fail and write badly, so they can get to a place of success and writing well.
“Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.“—F. Scott Fitzgerald
“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?”― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
“Like everyone else, you want to learn the way to win, but never to accept the way to lose – to accept defeat. To learn to die is to be liberated from it. So when tomorrow comes you must free your ambitious mind and learn the art of dying!”—Bruce Lee
“Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard. When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.”—Florida State University’s Anders Ericsson
“Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure. But the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. [F]ailure means a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself to be anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believe I truly belonged. [R]ock bottom became the solid foundation on which I built my life.” ~ J.K. Rowling
“You have to be very productive in order to become excellent. You have to go through a poor period and a mediocre period, and then you move into your excellent period. It may very well be that some of you have done quite a bit of writing already. You maybe ready to move into your good period and your excellent period. But you shouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a very long process.”—Ray Bradbury
“… The professional conducts his business in the real world. Adversity, injustice, bad hops and rotten calls, even good breaks and lucky bounces all comprise the ground over which the campaign must be waged. The field is level, the professional understands, only in heaven.” —Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
“…That’s why an artist must be a warrior and, like all warriors, artists over time acquire modesty and humility. They may, some of them, conduct themselves flamboyantly in public. But alone with the work they are chase and humble. They know they are not the source of the creations they being into being. They only facilitate. They carry. They are the willing and skilled instruments of the gods and goddesses they serve.“—Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
“If you’re worried about failing, you ought to get into a different business, because statistics will tell you that sixty or seventy percent of the time you’re going to fail. By fail I mean that the movie won’t make money. Just do the best you can every time. And if you’re going to stay in the movies, and you like movies—and I love them—you’d better love them a lot, because it’s going to take all of your time. If you want to be in the movies, it’s going to break your heart.“—Richard Brooks, director of Blackboard Jungle, Sweet Bird of Youth, In Cold Blood, Looking for Mr. Goodbar
Amazon Studios rejected “The Weddings” screenplay twice. I’m extremely persevered. I’m still looking for someone to make it into a movie.