Compare and Contrast

I’ve been in the acting business for a long time – by my count, some thirty years.  Long enough to know the ins and outs.  Long enough to grow a pretty tough hide.  Long enough to be called “old pro,” “experienced,” and even “an institution,” which makes me feel particularly ponderous.  Long enough to be considered enough of an expert that people even ask me to teach what I’ve learned to the wide-eyed and innocent.

This writing business, now – I’m new to it.  Not to the writing part, but to the business end.  I’ve been scribbling away for years, but it’s just been in the past couple of months that I’ve actually tried to get someone to pony up the money to publish what I write.  And when I was in a particularly bad mood this morning, I began to enumerate all the ways that the acting biz and the writing biz are the same.  I’m not talking that artsy-fartsy stuff about how both involve Creation and Communication and Storytelling.  I’m talking about the process of getting work for pay – either booking a gig or selling a book.

When you audition for a gig, you’re putting your physical self out there:  your voice, your body, your mannerisms, your speech patterns.  You may be super-talented and a hard worker and a sweetheart into the bargain, but what it boils down to is whether you’re what the director is looking for, at that moment in time, for that particular project.  It doesn’t matter how hard you’ve prepped, nor how good your audition is.   If you don’t fit the bill, you’re out of luck. As I tell my students, not getting the gig is not an indictment of your talent, just as booking the gig is not necessarily a validation of your talent, either.  It’s simply that you’re the right person, right now, or you’re not.  Next week, things could be just the opposite.

When you fire off a query letter to a potential agent or publisher, you’re also putting a part of yourself out there, but it’s a different part of yourself.  It’s not your body or your voice that’s on trial – it’s your creation, your dream, your little helpless child of a book that you birthed and laughed and wept and cursed over; your baby that you’ve nurtured and massaged and tweaked.  You’re sending it out into the world praying that someone will love it as much as you do.  And again, the cold cruel world only wants it if it’s what the CCW happens to be looking for at that moment in time.

Now Lord knows I’ve been in show biz long enough to develop the thick skin and the requisite shrug when I don’t book the gig.  But the book rejections sting more than I thought they would.  The first couple of rejections were sort of exciting (“See?  I really did submit my query to an agent and look! he/she actually responded!”) but now the excitement has worn off.  Since I started submitting in late June, I’ve sent out 15 queries and received nine responses, of which eight were form letter rejections and one was a request for a partial.  I understand that for an unpublished writer, this is a pretty good track record.  But it’s the six agents who haven’t responded that have me pacing the floor.  A lot of writers fire off a dozen or more queries at a whack, but I’ve been going slower while I figure out how best to do this, so my rule of thumb has been to send out a new query immediately upon getting a rejection.  Last week was so slow that I deliberately queried an agent I was sure would reject me, just so I’d have something in my writing inbox.  Then I went into second-guessing mode and started pinching and poking at my query letter, like one does with a stubborn zit.  Zitlike, my query got all inflamed and annoyed at me, so now I’m slapping my hand away every time I start trying to revise it for the umpteenth time.

This, too, is a parallel between the acting biz and the writing biz.  It’s rare in show biz that you get any kind of notice that you didn’t land the gig; instead, you do your audition and you either get notified that you landed the gig or you hear nothing.  Limbo Land.  So you tap into your gossip mill to find out what you can that way, and maybe you’ll learn that So And So got the gig and you’ll be pissed for about 12 hours and then you’ll (a) move on or (b) start second-guessing everything you did in the audition.  And if you pick that particular existential zit long enough, you won’t be worth a damn the next time you go in to audition.  So you learn to shrug and slap your hand away.

I whined to John this morning about  how both the Biz of Show and the Biz of Writing are rife with rejection, but after I’d passed through the whining stage and had moved on to the infinitely more satisfying Full On Sulk, I realized that what was bothering me most about the writing is that fact that it’s so solitary.  Acting is highly collaborative:  from the first rehearsal to the final performance, you are surrounded by people who are all working with you toward the same goal – to produce a show.  Even when eyeball-deep in your work, there’s always someone around to bounce ideas off, to joke with, to complain to.  You are never alone when you’re acting. 

But damn, are you ever alone when you’re writing.  Oh, there are groups and websites and forums and chat rooms where you can talk about the business and kick and compare notes, but ultimately you have to go back to your computer and write.  When the writing’s going well, it’s a great place to be, but when the writing is not going well, it’s the loneliest spot in the world. 

So now – I’ve had my whine and my sulk and now that I’ve sounded my barbaric yawp over the internet, I’m feeling less forlorn and a lot more capable as well as hopeful.  Back to the chair and the computer, back to the manuscript and the query and the long list of agents.  Thanks for listening.


  1. Kate and Alex

    Had no idea you'd written a book – very exciting! Good luck!This is probably why you always see people in cafes typing away furiously on their laptops. It never occurred to me that they might be there for the company (instead of endless rounds of coffee and scones).

  2. Peggy Strack

    Donna ~ That's why so many writers drink! I'm right there with you. Have you ever considered going to a writers conference where there are "real" agents—not like… The Unicorn Writers Conf. in southern CT. is a great one for connecting with agents. Remember, publishers are struggling right now and are rarely taking risks on new authors unless they can convince them that their book will make a profit. It has nothing to do with your talent, which is exceptional!!! ~ Peggy

  3. Lyle Blake Smythers

    Excellent piece, m'dear. You have obviously picked up a lot of wisdom along the way (but then I already knew that).I second the motion to try to make it to some conferences or fan conventions, where much of the valuable networking involves not just agents and editors but also fellow writers.Let me know if there's anything you need a second head to ponder with you about (don't ask me to diagram that tortured sentence, please).And thanks for the "barbaric yawp" reference. Good old Walt.Lyle / John Macy / Egyptian mummy

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