A cautionary tale for writers

or ‘Why I spent ten years being pointlessly annoyed at Neil Gaiman when I should have been doing something useful instead’

Way back when, I was an aspiring comic book writer living in Toronto. I used to hang out with talented and successful people like Salgood Sam and Ty Templeton, and I spent my every spare minute planning huge 100 issue comic book arcs, pitching for this that and the other, and writing spec scripts.

Those were heady days. After one comic con I found myself sat between Alex Ross and Ty, opposite Jill Thompson and Mike Mignola, nattering about obscure English comedy records and “Bal-Ham, gateway to the South!” I felt comfortable and at home, and a little over-awed.

I was briefly on nodding terms with a few superstars of the genre, so it was surely only a matter of time before I got my big break and joined the gang proper.

Surely.

I was cocky, too. I used to cold call editors and pitch storylines to them down the phone. You’d be amazed how successful this approach was. Well, I say ‘successful’, I had some very nice conversations and never got hung up on, which has got to be good, right…?

So anyway, I heard that Sandman, Neil Gaiman’s magnum opus, was coming to an end, but a spin off book, The Dreaming, was in the works. This would feature multi-story arcs by different teams, all set in the Sandman universe. This was a perfect thing for me to pitch to.

I decided to eschew the simple method of writing down a proposal and posting it, instead I cold called the editor of the book, Alisa Kwitney, and pitched to her down the phone.

Alisa was absolutely lovely, and she listened to my pitch, was very encouraging, and told me to write it up and post it pronto. It might be a goer, she thought.

The pitch was in the post a day later. I called her the week after that and, deep joy, she loved it. She actually said to me that it was one of the very best pitches she’d ever received. A few days later, another conversation, and she told me that Karen Berger loved it to.

She was keen to commission the tale, and would be letting me know for definite as soon as Neil Gaiman had taken a gander at the pitch. It was a formality, I was assured, he never said no; she simply didn’t send him things he was likely to reject. I should relax and wait for a confirmation call.

Done, dusted. I was made. This was my big break. I would be writing a story arc for a major book at last.

In the meantime another cold call, this time to the guy editing a series of TV tie in novels, went very well, and he agreed to consider pitches from me once the Dreaming gig was announced, coz then he could sell me to his bosses as a successful comics bod. He sounded very positive and led me to believe that a commission wouldn’t be that hard to secure. Fab. All I needed was the promised confirmation and I’d as good as got a novel in the bag as well. Laughing.

And so I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Three months later I finally got through to Alisa, who sounded a bit embarrassed. Neil had rejected the pitch, she said. Sorry.

What, rejected one of the best pitches you’d ever had? Why? How? What?

He thought it was a bit too continuity-heavy, she said. They wanted more standalone stuff. She saw his point, she added.

Oh did she? I thought. She hadn’t been saying that three months ago!

And so I flew into a rage/depression/sulk that lasted, well, about ten years, on and off, to be honest.

I cursed Neil, although I admitted his books were fab. I glowered whenever he was mentioned in conversation, and hinted darkly and melodramatically at a mysterious grudge.

I brooded and festered and lurked.

And then, one day a few years ago, I came across the proposal in question, hidden at the bottom of a box in the loft, and I read it again. And you know what?

It wasn’t that great.

It had problems, there was too much continuity and I could entirely see why Neil had turned it down.

The awful truth dawned – I’d been nursing a grudge for a decade against someone who had, it turned out, been entirely justified.

I hadn’t been robbed of my big break by a callous hotshot, it hadn’t worked simply because my pitch wasn’t what they were looking for. And then, to make matters worse, I’d expended my precious energy being annoyed when I should simply have gone off and written something else!

(In fact I did, I pitched another Dreaming story, one I thought was much better, but Alisa had, perhaps wisely, started ignoring me by this point. She could probably hear my gnashing teeth all the way down in NYC.)

Steven Moffat recently sent a brilliant email to a mutual friend who had just suffered a crushing, and huge, rejection. Steven’s kindly given me permission to quote it here:

Look, it’s horribly disappointing. Telling you not to have an emotional reaction is pointless, I know. But try and react AS IF you didn’t have an emotional reaction. Spending an evening having cynical ravings about it is fine. Behaving as if any of your cynical ravings had the slightest truth in them is not. He just doesn’t like your pitch enough. So write something else.

You are allowed exactly ONE DAY of glowering in your armchair about how Nobody Understands (they do, they just don’t care, and why should they?) and They’re All Idiots (they absolutely are not) and then you have to write something else.

Never was truer word written. If only someone had been around to send me a letter like this ten years ago I could have saved a lot of time and energy.

So the moral of the story is simple: rejection happens all the time, and some hurt more than others because they promised more than others. But whatever the opportunity lost, whatever the pitch rejected, whoever the rejector – WRITE SOMETHING ELSE. It’s the only way.

7 Comments

  1. Brilliant.

    Didn’t realise you took that quite so hard — you covered well, at least.

    ~R

    Reply
  2. Excellent advice, whether the rejections are small or epic.

    I’m not sure I’d have the stamina to hold a grudge for 10 years though, with the best (worst) will in the world!

    Reply
    • It was a low level grudge, kind of like background radiation – spiked occasionally, then subsided again 🙂

      Reply
  3. i’ll be sure to refer to this post in times of need! thanks so much for posting it!

    Reply
  4. You could have said, “You are allowed exactly ONE tub of Ben & Jerry’s to get you through the crushing pain of rejection and your justified rant over how they’re all wrong before you move on and write something else even more brilliant.” That’ll show ’em. 😉

    Reply
  5. Thanks a lot brother! Very good advise.

    Reply
  6. Nice cleanse, but of most interest to me was that the creator actually controlled the content of the follow-on work (Mr. Gaiman in this case). I’m always suspicious that they are purely just using a name, or whether maybe there is some sanctity in these follow-on “Leanord Nimoy (or whoever) Presents” type undertakings. I’ll feel a bit better about buying them in the future.

    Reply

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