February 5, 2017
How Ten Years Producing “Car Talk” Helped Me Deal with Rejection
When I first got my job on NPR’s Car Talk, my friend Irwin from California emailed to congratulate me. He was a big fan of show, had even called in several times but had never gotten on.
“I guess I wasn’t good enough,” he wrote, or something to that effect.
I couldn’t believe that. Irwin was a lawyer for a downtown San Francisco law firm, turned AIDS legal activist, turned singing drag queen for the brilliant, a cappella comedy troupe The Kinsey Sicks. He was smart, funny, good hearted, and a professional performer!
Any radio producer would kill for a caller like Irwin.
“Call back!” I urged him. “Come up with another question. I would love to put you on!”
Then I settled into my job screening the calls. I learned the secret recipe that made Car Talk so very enjoyable. Two things: We thought of the callers as talent. And we put those callers together in an unpredictable, wide ranging, and satisfying mix, that brought out the very best in our hosts, Tom and Ray.
We screened the calls for geography. We were a national show; we had listeners from Alaska to Hoboken, so we needed voices from across the country. Tom and Ray appealed to both men and women, so we wanted a balance of genders. We strove for a mix of questions, some straightforward, some complicated, some gear-headed, some romance-related, some easy, some impossible to solve. And we looked for a mix of vehicles: foreign, domestic, antique, brand new, luxury, heaps, minivans, pickups, motorcycles. Once we even put on a call from the Space Shuttle!
Sounds easy, right?
Wrong! It was really hard to come up with that eclectic mix every week. Most talk-show callers are male. For shows about cars, that percentage is even larger. So I had to turn down a lot of talented men with interesting stories to let the female voices on.
Since Car Talk was based in Boston, we were always flooded with New England callers. Big radio markets like New York, Seattle, and Houston were always overrepresented. We had a surplus of calls about the most popular car makes: Fords, Toyotas, Hondas, and — hey, it’s public radio — Volvos. I jumped for joy when someone with a DeLorean or a Gremlin called in.
And then there was the California problem. Huge population. Major radio market. Obsessive car culture. Drive time traffic jams. We were inundated with calls from California. And they were good. As my predecessor once remarked, we could do a full show every week with nothing but great callers from California.
Back to my friend Irwin, a man, from California, who drove a Honda. Are you beginning to see the problem? In order to get onto Car Talk, Irwin had to be one of the best male callers in the entire U.S. Then he had to be better than all the other callers driving Hondas. If he was calling about say, his tires, his question had to be better than the guy who was calling about his exploding-tire-phobia. And finally, he had to compete with the flood of callers from the great state of California. I mean, what if he called in the same week as Geena Davis? Oops, sorry, Irwin. You’re great, but she’s a Hollywood celebrity.
But here’s the conundrum: There were plenty of weeks when, despite our surging ratings, despite the millions of listeners, despite the phones ringing off the hook, I didn’t have the calls I needed, weeks when I had huge holes to fill in the show, weeks where I was desperate for a lighthearted caller, or a straightforward problem, or something totally orginal, weeks where I would pray that someone like Irwin would pick up the damn phone.
So what does all of this have to with writing?
Rejection. And the inevitable rejection that we writers endure.
While I have never worked at a literary magazine, agency, or publisher, and I don’t know what particular criteria they are screening for, I know for sure they are screening — not just for good stories, but for variables we writers may never be able to anticipate. In many ways, they have the same challenging job I had at Car Talk: to slog through a mountain of submissions and come up with an artful, seemingly effortless mix.
I’m sure they’re trying to balance for men and women, especially now with the consciousness-raising VIDA count, and I don’t know about you, but every literary event, class, colony, or reading group I’ve ever attended, has been overwhelmingly female. So in this case, I assume being a woman is actually against me. I’m sure they’re also screening for genre, voice, point of view, setting, word count and current trends in theme and plotline. And who knows, maybe they’re flooded with unknown, sarcastic, Irish Catholic, baby boomer women from Boston.
Thanks to Car Talk, and the unrelenting demands of the broadcast cycle, I also understand why editors look for last year’s bestsellers. I did it. It’s only human. When something worked on Car Talk, I’d try it again. And again. Until my boss shouted, “Cronin! Enough questions from mystery writers looking for undetectable ways to blow up a car engine!”
So when the inevitable rejections flood my inbox and I feel like melting into a puddle of self pity on the floor, I tell myself:
You’re a Honda from California.
You will never know what behind-the-scenes decisions are being made about your submission, so don’t try to figure them out.
If you know the name of this journal/agent/editor, so does everyone else. They are swamped.
Editors make mistakes all the time. (I know I did at Car Talk.)
I also ask myself:
Is there a way for me to be the DeLorean from Montana instead?
(How can I stand out? How can I give the editor what she needs?)
Did I make it as easy as possible for the editor to use my submission?
(Or did I submit an essay to a fiction contest?)
Finally, I remind myself:
If I submit my work an average of 100 times, at the 95th rejection, I’ll know I’m getting close.
An acceptance from a little known venue feels just as good as an acceptance from a famous one.
Somewhere out there is a weary-eyed, all-too-fallible soul like me, eager for good material, and praying somebody just like me will contact her.
Are you a Honda from California or more of a DeLorean from Texas? What inner dialogue helps you process rejection and keep writing?
Louie, thank you for showing us the flip side of rejection. I don’t think I’d ever even given it much more than a passing thought. This punched me right in the feels.
“Somewhere out there is a weary-eyed, all-too-fallible soul like me, eager for good material, and praying somebody just like me will contact her.”
Spent many a happy chunk of time listening to Car Talk, and I know nothing about cars except where to put the fuel in, and that they used to require a key in the ignition. Tom and Ray were great and funny, even when I had no clue what they were talking about. It was like listening to great detectives figure out a mystery from the clues.
Anyhoo. I understand the concept of filling a void you perceive in the kind of fiction ‘out there.’ Does the world really need one more sparkly vampire? Well, yes, because some people really like those. And at the same time, no – the world wants and needs something new it doesn’t even know it needs – until someone produces it.
But when you write ‘new,’ it’s going to be a real ‘joy’ to sell it.
Rejection by readers is as real as rejection by publishers. And readers reject you by default if they’ve never heard of you. Because they never heard of a DeLorean in Montana.
On a radio show, you’re part of an ensemble. And you were in the part which auditions – and rejects – the talent. With a huge pool of talent, you could afford to reject.
From the other side, the writer has to keep going because of the burning question to be answered in the WIP. The drive, at the beginning, is individual, like your friend the California lawyer calling over and over if he really wants to get on the show. No one will call him and ask for a car question.
My inner dialogue? “You can quit when you finish the trilogy, but not before. Because, until you finish, you aren’t in a mental state to make a good decision – to quit.” I set up my own Catch-22.
This is a fantastic metaphor, Louie! We’d all love to believe that the world of publishing is a pure meritocracy–that all we have to do is write great stories and we’ll shoot to the top of the bestseller lists–but that’s just not the way it works.
I had my first taste of “real-world concerns” when I was seventeen and applying for colleges. I ranked #2 in my large California high school. I was always in the top 99th percentile in standardized tests, always took first place in music competitions and Science Olympiad. I should have been a shoo-in for the Ivy League, right?
Not right, it turns out. “You’re a cookie-cutter Asian overachiever from Cali,” other kids on the Internet told me. “You don’t stand a chance.” I was shocked and demoralized when they turned out to be right. “But I worked as hard as I could!” I cried. “What more do they want from me? I didn’t choose my ethnicity or my home state!”
In publishing, “merit” is as meaningless to editors as it is to admissions staff at Harvard. Every manuscript that lands on their desks has merit. They pick which ones to buy based on hook, genre, current market trends, and the needs of the company at that moment.
But, unlike high school seniors playing the college admissions game, at least we writers can choose which little boxes get checked on the forms. We can try different projects in different genres until we strike the right chords. We’re not stuck being cookie-cutter Asian overachievers from Cali–or “Hondas”–forever.
What a wonderful job you did. I still listen religiously to the “reruns” on the weekend. No show, regardless of medium, so relentlessly, assuredly, and gratefully raised my spirits as Car Talk. Thank you, thank you, a thousand times thank you.
I learned to write in acting school, and auditions taught me early on how random the selection for a part could be.
But even though we tell ourselves, “It’s not personal,” that sting of rejection never really subsides. Your guidance is insightful and wise. It’s a bit of a balm. But to some extent, we all have to also realize: Walking into the ring means you’re gonna get hit.
I was already planning my latest novel when my agent stopped me with: Can you make the protagonist female? That’s all I’m hearing from editors, “We want strong female protagonists.”
I replied (after swallowing my gum), “Darn tootin’.” And scrapped what I had already written and began anew.
I just wrapped up that novel and we’ll see if my agent thinks it answers the bell (excuse all the boxing metaphors).
But the additional “DeLorean” element I added was making the story’s McGuffin the supposedly long-lost love letters Doc Holliday and his cousin Mattie — who became Sister Mary Melanie, and the inspiration for the character Melanie in Gone With the Wind — wrote back and forth. I include those letters in the novel — well, my fictionalized version of them — and they provide the subtext for the present-day story line, which concerns two intersecting love triangles (just as Doc had another love interest, Kate Elder, and had to explain that to his kissing cousin).
That was my way of not being a Honda from California.
Wonderful post, thanks so much.
BTW: I was a PI for 15 years, and the first case I worked on was: US v. John DeLorean.
Don’t drive like my brother.
Congratulations on Everybody!!!
Louie (do your pals say “Looo-eeee!” when they see you?), I too had to face years of rejection—from Car Talk! I have had a long romance with old cars, and even had a ’64 Dodge Dart (much like Tommy’s ’63) that had an aftermarket 8-track player I once called about. I also called about an issue with my ’63 Mercury Monterey, once about my ’68 Mustang that should have had an apartment right next door to my mechanics, and once about the miracle of my ’48 Dodge’s “Fluid Drive” transmission.
(Not sure if I called about the ’65 Galaxie or my ’62 Pontiac Tempest, both of which were pretty reliable.)
Anyway, I forgive you for thinking I had the personality of a Honda from California—you are so right that editors work in mysterious ways, and often your ’64 Dodge just won’t fit in their editorial driveway that day. Thank you for your work on a show that always left me happy. Bless the Magliozzis, in heaven and on earth. And best success with your novel.
You’re Cronin the Barbarian? I never would have guessed!
Your advice on being rejected 100 times hits home with me. I submitted one story to half a dozen markets, reworking and refining after each “no thanks,” until it finally won a runner-up prize in the Saturday Evening Post fiction contest. Rejection can be instructive as well as character-building.
I’m not sure if any one of us (writers) ever really knows if we’re a DeLorean from Texas, but I’m sure we have our moments we feel like we are. And that’s something to recognize.
Your unique and positive outlook on rejection is a fresh voice. Thank you!
Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT (Gift of Travel)
First off, I have to say that I loved “Car Talk.” It was one of my favorite Saturday morning listens. You did a masterful job in producing it.
“In many ways, they have the same challenging job I had at Car Talk: to slog through a mountain of submissions and come up with an artful, seemingly effortless mix.”
That comment really gave me pause. I had not thought of equating the job of an editor with that of a producer, but you are so right. And this post was a good reminder that we need to work hard to be part of that artful mix.
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