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Sometimes no’s are premature

by Chris Erric Maddox

One rule I’ve made for myself in Hollywood is don’t give up until you hear the word no, and even then that may be premature.

I started my first screenplay about six years ago. A close writer friend of mine said, “You should really pen your life story.” I even think he echoed the sage, old and overused saying, “Write what you know.” So believing his literal words I began to write… my biography camouflaged as fiction.

Not having any representation at the time — and armored with the idea that this was a sure thing, a great idea, and a story so close to my own that how could anybody deny its marketability — I started doing research on producers who had made films like mine. I printed my call sheets and made calls. I found addresses and sent dozens of emails. I logged who returned my calls, notating name, date, and time. I kept track of those people who didn’t respond and when I would follow-up.

If you know me, I’m very good on the phone and draft executive level emails. I don’t push but I do pitch. Nevertheless, every time I went to pick up the phone it would be a challenge, a scary battle.

Inevitably I received lots of no’s and no thank you’s. Nevertheless, and most importantly, it was and is always about creating relationships with the gatekeepers of the tastemakers, the assistants, and the junior agents. They will be the executives in a few years and will undoubtedly remember your name or script if they found you or the work compelling enough.

I don’t recommend doing what I did — seriously, I don’t — but it did teach me to fight for my work. I learned the necessary skill to hear the no and use it to propel me forward. Perhaps the reader didn’t get the concept, which means I have to be better at telling the story on the page as well as in the pitch. It’s never the reader’s fault. The ball is always in my court and I have to hit it hard enough so it never returns.

I don’t interpret one loud no as a sign that I should stop writing forever. It doesn’t even suggest that I give up on a particular script. It always means, however, that I dig deeper by using experiences from the past that will make each future creative endeavor founded in knowledge and education.

One of the first scripts my partner and I wrote is now what we call our signature sample. It expresses who we are as writers, people, and what we would like to see on television in the future. Everyone who reads it loves it, but they always say it won’t ever get made. In Hollywood talk that means no. To us, however, that’s not a good enough reason.

No’s like that always make me keep trying. It doesn’t weaken my desire, but rather feeds it.

Years ago, when we first wrote it, you didn’t see content like it on television, but today you do. If we had listened to those initial no’s, we would have killed the script. Today, it’s not dead at all. We have a producer attached, a director who is very interested, and a couple of writers who won’t stop until it’s made.

Another big yes is when we recently were accepted in the 2015 CBS Writers Mentorship Program, whereas last year we were declined admission. Last year’s no made us fight harder to write an extraordinary pilot and spec. Hard work does pay off in this town. It’s never the glossy overnight success story. The truth is that it takes years of dedication, numerous scripts, and daily appointments with my laptop in spite of the seeming rejection.

So I bet you’re wondering, “Chris, when does ‘no’ really mean ‘no’?” Never – at least when it comes to your professional career. Hear the no but always listen for the yes and steer the conversation in that direction. Right now, my partner and I are pitching a genre pilot that’s set in a post-apocalyptic world. We were going to have a heavily politicized story arc but all of the feedback was that we should create a world in which people can relate. We didn’t shut down and scrap the idea but instead refocused the premise and grounded it in a very familiar concept: family.

No’s aren’t only heard throughout entertainment circles and the wider public; they can also be heard in your head. I hear no’s a lot. No, I can’t. No, I won’t. No, you can’t do that. I am trying my best to replace those no’s with yeses. As a writer I have to stand up for myself and support the creative jigsaw puzzles that I create in order to layout plot, character arcs, and storylines.

My indoor cycling instructor, Victor Self, says, “Lean in.” Lean into the work. Find a way through, not away from. It’s too easy to pull back. The winners are the ones who do the things the losers don’t want to do. I know I want to win my creative endeavors. How about you?

Chris Erric Maddox

About Chris Erric Maddox

Chris is an actor/writer whose roots in drama grew out of his own experiences. At age fourteen, he left a lower-middle-class black neighborhood in Ohio to attend a boarding school program in an affluent white community in Massachusetts. He draws his “fish-out-of-water” stories from these two diverse worlds. He is currently a participant in the CBS Diversity Institute’s Writers Mentoring Program. Please follow on Twitter: @ChrisErric

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