Foiled has been clipping along all week, with the usual ups and downs. Example: We thought we had a lovely opening episode until our producers said the BBC won’t countenance anything to do with people going missing. Spoil sports.
As I write this, Beth is out networking with potential famos for Series 3. She’s pulled in some wonderful guests over the past two years: Felicity Montagu (currently in This Time With Alan Partridge), John Culshaw (Dead Ringers), Ralf Little (The Royle Family) and Miles Jupp (News Quiz). Blows my mind to see them all written down like that.
When writing with someone else, you have a balancing act to perform between working alone and working in tandem. Too much of one and you fall into narcissistic solipsism; too much of the other and you die from caffeine poisoning.
I think my favourite, most productive moments of writing Foiled have come in two thankfully common situations:
Beth pacing up and down in the kitchen, and me at the keyboard frantically trying to synthesise her comic stream of consciousness into grammar.
Working in the same house, but in different rooms at our different tempos, with enough excuses to share snippets while re-boiling the kettle or filling a bowl with homemade soup, and occasionally, for a change of scenery, swapping scripts.
These shared moments are why I don’t think I could ever be a solitary novelist – or at least, not a contented one. For some people, writing is a way of life; for me, life must be a way of writing.
After last week’s missive on rejection, this week I’ve dabbled in a little rejection therapy. I can’t tell you the story of what I tried on Wednesday, but I can describe what happened when I took rejection out for a spin yesterday.
Picture the scene…
Drenched on the aptly named Fishponds Road, I walk out of the rain and into a hair salon. A lone woman sits in an armchair (I can already see that it’s a special kind of salon), footling with her phone.
‘Hi there. I’ve got a bit of a strange request.’ Oh god. That sounds like I’m going to ask for a lumbar massage. ‘Well, it’s not that strange. I’ll explain. I’m a comedy writer and – ‘ Confused looks. Legitimise, legitimise! ‘It’s for the BBC.’ Back on track. ‘It’s a sitcom set in a hair salon and I like to come into salons and, you know, soak up the atmosphere.’ What am I saying? Who, you know, knows that? ‘Would you mind if I sat here for fifteen minutes, if you’re not busy – or you can get on with what your doing, I can sit in the corner while you…’
This is a definite no.
She puts her phone down: ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’
I’ve caught Lara at a good moment. She’s got 15 minutes before her next client – an unusual occurrence at Tame The Mane, the only all-vegan, all-natural hair salon in the UK.
Teaching English to Libyan teenagers divided by Gaddafi’s Little Green Book, Lara dreamt of escaping that dead-end and running her own business. She spent 3 years writing up a business plan to set up a cafe, before her little brother had the temerity to suggest she open a salon.
Temerity because Lara hates hairdressers and, even more so, salons. She couldn’t sleep for three nights after her brother’s infuriating suggestion.
But the barb had lodged.
‘I’ve loved hairdressing since I was five or six. I used to beg my grandmother to do her hair. Every Sunday night: Can I do your hair, can I do your hair?’
As a teenager, Lara learnt hairdressing from an Italian woman and cutting hair became a great sideline for cash right through her English degree and even while she was teaching.
Then she realised that maybe her brother had a point: she couldn’t be the only one who hated your typical salons.
Sometimes we struggle to see what was right in front of us all along.
Tame The Mane looks more like a stylish living room than a styling salon. Potted plants crawl along any available surface. The walls are decorated with portraits of colourful women – not crass posed photographs, but original oils and pastels.
Lara wanted to create an anti-salon atmosphere and thought that her all-vegan, all-natural approach would draw in an exclusively (and quite possibly penniless) hippie clientele.
There’s a record player (‘Can’t play records, though, because of all the hair – didn’t think that one through’) and a bookcase where she does book swaps.
But she was far wrong about the hippies.
The mirrors are covered with scarfs, and Lara will only remove them if a client asks. So she gets a lot of clients who suffer from anxiety in other salons. ‘I get people who haven’t set foot in a salon for years.’
(Plus it’s weird, huh, having someone watch your every move while you do your job. I hate people looking over my shoulder when I write.)
Lara passes me what looks like a laminated menu. It’s a lucid explanation about why she only uses natural products, about how the salon business is so often built on convincing customers to put crap in their hair.
She offers suggestions about how we can reduce our reliance on products that aren’t all that different to Fairy Liquid, from diluting harsh shampoos to simply using a squeeze of lemon juice.
The back of the ‘menu’ has two recipes for Lara’s products: an oat conditioner and a flax gel. They sound delicious. There are more on her blog, free for you to create for yourself. If you don’t have the time, Lara’s got her own apothecary out the back.
With a mischievous smile she suggests that, if you want a protein-enriched wash, you should really just crack an egg on your head (although not in her vegan salon). It strengthens the hair, and gives a really nice shine, she says.
As an English graduate, Lara often dreams of writing her salon stories up. I’m lucky to have the chance to turn lives like hers into, well, this. And who knows what snippets from our conversation might turn up in Series 3 of Foiled…
It’s not every week that I read a book cover-to-cover in under 48 hours.
Admittedly, at only 200 pages Rejection Proof by Jia Jiang is a quick read, but I absolutely guttled those pages.
Why? Because Jiang offers a creative solution to a problem that I think almost every live human being struggles with: rejection.
This video is how I first heard about Jiang’s 100 Days of Rejection experiment. It’s a good primer for what follows. Enjoy.
Dave’s Short History of Rejection
My history of rejection is short not because my life has been an endless cavalcade of glorious successes, but because, for the most part, I have gone to great lengths to avoid sticking my neck out and asking for anything, you know, worthwhile.
Example 1: Romantic Rejection
It took me until 2013 before I first told someone I really liked that I really liked them. Terrifying.
They did indeed reject my approach, but frankly by that point I didn’t care. The panic over saying anything to this person far outweighed the disappointment of the negative response by about a million to one.
This million-to-one ratio is about the same for ‘Love interests I longed to approach’ against ‘Love interests I actually approached’.
Combined with my everyday fear of social rejection, the number of missed opportunities for connection with other human beings is staggering, and all because of an egotistic, and unnecessary, fear of rejection.
Example 2: Book Rejection
For the most part, I have avoided professional rejection by not taking a profession. When I have held jobs, I have tended to do the work and then go home, not doing anything that would call attention to my work and thus invite rejection (or, indeed, approbation).
I have, however, written several books. Occasionally, I have sent the manuscripts to agents and publishers and have been rejected every single time.
I think I’ve received about 5 rejection letters in my life, ever, including the following unexpectedly expensive one.
J.K. Rowling famously received 12 rejections for Harry Potter alone; William Golding got 20 for Lord of the Flies; Carrie by Stephen King garnered him 30 rejections before selling over a million copies in its first year and being turned into, not one, but three feature films, and, improbably enough, a musical.
It’s pretty easy to avoid rejection if you don’t put your work out there. I think it’s fair to say that I haven’t embraced professional rejection despite knowing full well that it is an essential part of the process.
Example 3: Rejection on the Road
Hitchhiking has taught me a lot about rejection. Standing on the side of a busy road with a smile and a sign, or walking up to strangers in service stations and begging for a lift: it’s a cold recipe for relentless rejection.
Even so, somehow I’ve always managed to get where I was going. Somehow, as Jiang says, ‘rejection has a number’ and persistence usually pays off if you’re willing to be flexible.
My least successful hitchhike involved about 3 hours of rejections – but I still got a ride (after changing my approach). How’s that for rejection? Pretty good, I’d say.
In most of the rest of my life, however, I give up after a single rejection (if I even get that far). Why is that?
Example 4: Critical Rejection
When me and Beth took Foiled to Edinburgh in 2016, we wanted to be judged. So much so that we actually paid a PR company to get critics in to review our show. We positively invited rejection.
The hefty weight of that judgement was shared between us, but it still wasn’t very nice when we got a stinking review from a well-respected critic.
I don’t think we ever seriously doubted our material, and it helped that the audiences didn’t seem to either, but the review was (and still is) there in black and white on the internet. A fulsome rejection of everything we’d worked so hard to create.
In this case, there was nothing we could do except rationalise what he had to say (it’s just one opinion, it was based on a preview, and we’d already addressed some of his criticisms) and use it as motivation to make the show the best it could be.
We didn’t shut down the PR company and tell them to invite no more critics. Thankfully, the critics kept coming and Foiled ended up with a couple of phenomenal reviews, which we could use to sell the show to producers and, ultimately, to the BBC.
Example 5: Reader Rejection
My Friday newsletter is a weekly opportunity for people to reject me and my work. The unsubscribe button is right there at the bottom of every single email.
Even if people aren’t unsubscribing, I can still see who is opening the newsletter and reading to the end. It’s usually just under half.
After over 2 years of newsletters, I have become comfortable with the fact that some people will unsubscribe and no longer read my words of comfort and joy.
I have eventually come to see unsubscribes in a positive light. It’s not that I’ve failed them, or that they are repulsed by the very essence of my being; it’s just that we weren’t a good fit for whatever reason.
Indeed, with the unsubscribers gone, my reader percentage numbers should go up – and that’s a good thing. Seen this way, unsubscribes are a gradual honing of my audience to the shape of my work.
Notice that, unlike my approach to publishing, I have persisted at newsletter-writing, drilling through the prison walls of ‘rejection’ to the green pastures of unbounded creativity.
(Whereupon I abuse my freedom and write ridiculous sentences like the foregoing.)
The lesson is that avoiding rejection can be incredibly damaging – not in the short term, perhaps, but certainly and abundantly in the long term.
What opportunities have I passed up through fear of rejection? Could I be a published novelist by now? Could I have found the loves of my lives?
Fear of rejection is a crime of omission. If you give yourself no chance of rejection, then you also have very little chance of progress.
As you can see, the Department for Work and Pensions are optimistic that my comedy writing career is really going to take off over the next 31 years. I’m sure that the reason they have so much confidence is that they’ve heard I write in Arcot Street. Continue reading Everyone needs an Arcot
In other news, the opening of my novel-in-progress was reliably eviscerated at Curtis Brown on Wednesday.
Fifteen different sets of educated critique of my work. Fabulous. As you’d expect, there were equal and opposite opinions on particular lines, but also a useful seam of agreement.
However, the most valuable feedback I got was completely unwitting: this is not the opening to the novel that I’ve actually written.
On the basis of my 3000 words, everyone was expecting a riotous satire of modern life as the hero wades deeper and deeper into cult worship.
It’s not that. It’s not that at all. But maybe it should be…
On Tuesday, Curtis Brown held a Q&A with two literary agents and a publisher. One of the pieces of advice the publisher gave was in equal parts useless and invaluable:
When I asked her to elaborate, she replied that readers can ‘just tell’ when an author is being truly sincere and that she wouldn’t publish anything that bore even a whiff of abdication.
But the question of sincerity cuts far deeper than the superficiality of a novel. It asks what I really believe in. What I really really really believe in. What I believe in so much that I’m willing to spend 80,000 words arguing with myself about it.
Sincerity is a fair demand to make of the author. Who wants to read anything so insipid that the creator couldn’t even muster the attention to sustain his own passions?
I caught sight of the Zac Efron A-Z in the library earlier and felt a pang of sympathy for author Alex Kincaid (That’s speczacular!).
It’s one thing sincerity being a reasonable demand for readers to make; it’s quite another to bear that weight as the congenitally doubting writer.
Is Alex sincere in his gushing (and alphabetically comprehensive) lionisation of an eminently forgettable Hollywood celebrity?
Credit if you are, Alex. You deserve every penny of your Public Lending Rights (7.82p per loan: not a route to fortune but that’s another story altogether).
But what about me? Will I discover what I believe in?
UPDATE: No. I’m abandoning novel writing, for the next few decades at least.