“Paging Mr. Ellis”: How to deal with negative feedback
At BookRoar, we encourage people to leave honest thoughts and opinions about the books they read. It’s what gives reviews through us their integrity. This principle will always be at the core of our website and what we strive to do to help authors.
But we get it. One-star or two-star reviews suck, and they are even worse when the reviewer leaves a whole list of complaints and dislikes. I’ve felt it, and I’m sure you have too. It’s a punch-to-the-gut sort-of-feeling, one which you take with you to bed at night and is still there in the morning.
But we don’t want sad, mopey authors at BookRoar and we certainly don’t want tears. We want authors who fight for themselves and for the work they have done. This article aims to help you through the negative feedback and come out the other side as a stronger, more insightful, and more self-critical person. But I don’t want to give you a load of bland advice that basically in a round-a-bout way says ‘chin up’ and ‘don’t dwell on it’. I want to tell you a story instead, one which will pick you up and get you back to your keyboard to thrash out your next bestseller.
It goes like this.
In the summer of 1964, twenty-one year old Harrison Ford left college in Wisconsin and travelled to Hollywood, California, to pursue his dream of becoming a movie superstar. Like thousands of other young hopefuls, Harrison had almost no experience of acting (other than a set of classes he had taken at college) but the glitz and glamour he encountered all but promised him fame and success.
Harrison floundered with all the other actors for a short while, but he soon got lucky and signed a contract with Columbia Pictures to take part in their ‘New Talent’ programme. It set him up for small parts, sure, but he saw it as a gateway to a promising future.
However, the months went by and Harrison struggled to land any sort of significant role in a film. He even suffered a major setback when a director sent him away and told him to come back when he had taken more acting classes. Two years after being signed with Columbia Pictures, Harrison was almost broke. His career was at a standstill.
In 1966, a frustrated (but far from defeated) Harrison was called into the office of Jerry Tokovsky, a producer at Columbia Pictures. Harrison had just completed a minor (and uncredited) role as a ‘bellhop’ in the film Dead Heat On A Merry-Go-Round (1964). In it, he walked into a hotel lobby and said the words “Paging Mr. Ellis. Paging Mr. Ellis,” and it was followed by a small and awkward conversation with one of the main characters. It wasn’t anything special, but it was Harrison’s first speaking role, and it sure meant something to him.
Harrison walked across the office and looked at Jerry. Jerry leaned across the table, interlocking his fingers in a condescending sort of manor.
“Sit down, kid,” said Jerry. “I saw the rushes [unedited footage] from yesterday. You’re never going to make it in the business.”
Harrison went silent. Jerry didn’t.
“You see, the first movie that Tony Curtis was ever in, he delivered a bag of groceries. You took one look at that guy and said that’s a movie star. I don’t get that from you. You just don’t have it. You’re not going to be a movie star.”
Harrison paused, taken aback by Jerry’s sudden comment. Then, he composed himself, leaned in, and met Jerry’s gaze.
“You know,” he said. “If Tony Curtis was such a great actor, then wouldn’t you have believed he was just a boy delivering groceries, and not a movie star?”
Jerry was furious at this smart-ass response. “Get out of my office,” he screamed. “You’re fired. You’ll never work in Hollywood again.”
Tempers flared and Harrison launched into a tirade of swearing before storming out of the office. By the time Harrison got home, word had gotten out about his outburst, and he found himself at the very bottom of the hiring list once again.
Hollywood may have not wanted Harrison, it seemed, but he needed something from it. His young wife was pregnant and their debts were racking up even faster now he had no work. Harrison was desperate for something, anything to give him a break.
And so, Harrison taught himself carpentry using a number of books from the library. He knew in his heart he wanted to be an actor, but acting wasn’t going to pay the bills. Using his limited network, Harrison managed to take on small projects building furniture and fixing doors for actors and directors all over Los Angeles, sometimes working with a carpentry book in his hand. A short while later his second son was born, and with stable work being the priority, a career in acting seemed like nothing but a far-off dream.
“Through carpentry, I fed my family and began to pick and choose from among the roles offered,” Harrison once said. “I could afford to hold out until something better came along. But I never gave up my ambition to be an actor. I was frustrated but never felt defeated by my frustration.”
By the mid-seventies (when Harrison was thirty-three), he was known as ‘The Carpenter to the Stars’. Through his carpentry, he landed small roles in The Conversation (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979), but it was nothing like he had dreamed of all those years ago. In some ways it was a cruel taunt of what might have been.
By this time, Harrison had a close friend in the film producer Fred Roos (The Godfather, 1974). Fred saw potential in Harrison even where others didn’t, and so Fred convinced Harrison to attend a group audition for a new film as a favour to him. Fred explained that Harrison wasn’t really applying for this part, he was just there to read the lines so that the other actors could pitch themselves to the director.
Begrudgingly (but not wanting to let down a friend), Harrison went to the audition and picked up the script, knowing that he wasn’t being looked at for the part. The actors came up to him and read their lines, and his job was to read them back. Angered to be used in such a way, Harrison’s responses came across as careless, grumpy, and bitter, and this back-and-forth went on all day.
But shortly after lunch, something changed, and the director started to look at Harrison differently. Harrison was reading the lines of a character who was detached from feeling, a macho-sort-of-guy who took no messing, and so far no one in the audition room had come close to what he was searching for. But Harrison, the stand-in script guy, he was sort of perfect for the role despite not actually being part of the audition. The director did not tell Harrison about his thoughts, but instead let him finish the day reading the lines.
After the last audition, Harrison couldn’t wait to hotfoot it out the studio. He was done, and he was angry at Fred for making him waste his whole day. It was then that the director George Lucas strolled up to Harrison and offered him the role of Han Solo in Star Wars (1977).*
And, as they say, the rest is history. Star Wars grossed over $500 million dollars worldwide and propelled Harrison Ford to stardom. Together, Harrison Ford and George Lucas would have similar success in other blockbuster films, such as the Indiana Jones Trilogy. Harrison had turned his dreams into a reality, and he was able to hang up his carpentry tools for good.
Years later, in the mid-nineties, Harrison Ford had just finished eating in a Hollywood restaurant when a waiter came over to him with a business card on a silver tray. Harrison took the card, turned it over, and written on it were the words ‘I missed my bet — Jerry Tokovsky’. Realising that the producer who had fired him all those years ago was somewhere in the room, Harrison began to look around for him, only, as he was looking at the people sitting at the tables, it dawned on him that he hadn’t thought about the incident in years. Furthermore, he had all but forgotten what Jerry looked like. He tossed the card aside, smiled to himself, and took a sip of his coffee.
Don’t believe me? Harrison told the story himself to Oprah Winfrey in a 1997 interview, which you can find here (skip ahead to 09:15).**
So what is the moral of this story, and how does it fit in with authors getting reviews?
Well, there will be times when people put you down. You will be rejected by agents and publishers and you will be rejected by other authors. Getting knocked down is simply part of the process of becoming a better writer.
But stand up and hold your ground, just like Harrison Ford did when he was sent back to acting class and then fired from Colombia Pictures. Take that negativity aimed towards you and learn from it. Is there any value in what the critics are saying, and if so, what can you do to improve your writing? Reflect on it, and then implement the improvements in future rewrites or even your next book. One day, those who doubted you will come back in some way, and you will look at them and have your own business-card-on-a-silver-tray moment.
So if you get a bad review, don’t fret. Lick your wounds for now, and then, when you are ready, come back fighting. Show those who doubted you exactly why they were wrong!
We’ll be right there beside you.
* It should be noted that George Lucas and Harrison Ford had worked together on American Graffiti (1973) and were on friendly terms by the time of this audition. Lucas had previously stated that he wanted a fresh cast of actors for Star Wars and did not want to work with anyone from his previous films, which was why Harrison was banned from actually auditioning for the part.
** Harrison told the story again to Conan O’Brien in 2013. He also once jokingly referred to the producer who fired him as now being his butler. Somehow I don’t think Harrison Ford is prepared to bury the hatchet anytime soon.