Tuesday, August 17, 2010

lessons come with a sting

I have been bitchslapped by Sundance. I only have one thing to say to Robert Redford:

“Thank you, Sir, may I have another?”

If you follow me on Twitter, you’re probably familiar with my journey to get our script, SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME, into the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. Yeah, it was our dream. A big one.

Am I upset they passed?
Sure.

Did I cry?
You betcha.

Did I get angry?
Just ask my heavy bag in the basement.

Do I feel defeated?
Not on your life.

I. Am. Grateful.

I’m grateful in part because it’s with rejection and failure we learn the most.

Just ask yourself if you learned anything when things came easy to you. I bet the answer is no.

I know I haven’t. It’s only those journeys full of pain and obstacles where real growth has happened for me.

In short, this script was my black belt in writing. Hands down. It kicked my ass every single day. But, I took the beating and kept coming back for more.

On February 1, 2010, my writing partner, Doug, and I started with a 31-page outline, and 11 weeks later, we had our submission off to Sundance. In between that time, I wrote 12-hr days, never took a single day off, went to NYC to meet with Doug and Bill Pace, our fabulous script consultant, and barely saw my family.

I cried many tears while writing.  It wasn't because I was tired or thought for even a minute I wasn't capable of doing it.  I knew we'd kick this out of the park.  I cried because of the enormous weight we felt to “get it right” for the African-American community. We didn't take that responsibility lightly. Sundance accepting us wasn’t about an advance of our careers, it was about the advancement of this incredible story… and the truth being told. Note: I didn’t cry after the rejection because of my loss, I cried for the loss of an opportunity to share the truth.

I tweeted in panic one day after realizing that in the midst of getting the draft done, Sundance also wanted a 2-page synopsis. That moment nearly pushed me over the edge. Then, Jacqueline Lichtenberg wrote a post for me with synopsis advice. You have no idea what that meant. It wasn’t just her great advice; she was the hand reaching out as I felt the undercurrent pull me down. Her generosity saved my life that day. I will be eternally grateful to her.

Even after we submitted, we sought more feedback. I spent hours on the phone with Nevada Grey for consultations, Bill Pace sent added notes to work on, and we sent the script to trusted screenwriters to read and rip apart.  We continued to rewrite draft after draft, in hopes to knock Sundance off their feet when they requested the full read. It would be a total of six months before I took my first day off.

In short, we kept raising the bar for ourselves.

But they passed. Passed without that full read. Ouch.

Was it that Sundance thought the Pulitzer win and PBS documentary would already give us a leg up over other, newer writers? Perhaps they didn’t feel we really needed them, or the budget would be too big for an indie venture. Or maybe I’m just rationalizing and they simply weren’t interested. In the end, it doesn’t matter.

The bitchslap stung like hell.

Once I numbed the pain with tequila last night, I realized I learned an enormous amount from the process. Maybe that was my win.

*I learned I’m capable of so much more than I ever realized.
*I can write like a fiend under pressure.
*I absolutely LOVE feedback and editing.
*As much as I loathed writing that synopsis, I will now make it a regular part of my story preparation process (1. Outline, 2. Synopsis, 3. First draft).
*I have an entirely different outlook on writing partnerships.
*I will ALWAYS get professional feedback.
*I am blessed to have Doug’s trust and faith. In truth, I still pinch myself that I am writing with a Pulitzer winner as a partner. He is both generous and humble.
*I am a damned good writer.
*My family believes in me.
*There isn’t enough room in a partnership for both an ego and a successful project. The project always comes first.
*Patience. Patience. Patience.
*Stony Brook Southampton Screenwriters Conference kicks ass.
*You can be a determined and great businessperson, but without writing talent, an ability to take honest feedback (even when it’s ugly), and a great support system behind you, it doesn’t mean squat.  Everyone talks about having to have a business mind to succeed.  Yes, you do, but first and foremost you need to know the craft and write well.  Even the best businessperson can't sell a poorly-written script.
*Polish, polish, polish.  Do the hard work.  

The Sundance experience also taught me who my real friends are. While most were supportive, some who have known me for years weren't.  That saddened me, but I had to learn  to not let anyone piss on my flame.  I had to keep moving forward.  I grieved and moved on.  I took delight in my Facebook friends and Twitter writers cheering me on and following our #slaverybyanothername hashtag with curiosity and support. You were there for me, not expecting anything in return other than the joy of riding the wave and learning alongside me. You didn’t try to distract me.  You fought to keep me focused.  You wanted me to succeed.  I wanted to succeed for you.  You raised the bar for my standards of real-life friendships. I am deeply grateful for all of you and the lessons you have taught me.

But, one of the best things that came out of the experience was a voicemail from my mother. Our characters and story moved her to tears. That trumps Redford’s seal of approval any day. My mother has never read any of my scripts before… and she rarely cries. She’s the toughest bird in town.

I take Sundance’s bitchslap with pleasure. No regrets. No “what ifs”. We tried. We put our baby out there. I’m damn proud of our script and of us.

However, I will be drinking tequila yet another night to continue the writer’s anesthetic. I’ll also be making voodoo dolls of the 12 winners. I am Sicilian after all. Just sayin’.

What have you learned from the setbacks in your life? Those goals you thought mattered so much… did they really matter in the end?

43 comments:

  1. I'm bookmarking this wonderful post. I will read this every time I get a new rejection letter. Writers without rejections are wusses who never submitted. We are no wusses, we're undiscovered winners. Love you, sweetie!

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  2. No wusses in our treefort! :)
    Yeah, I've gotten enough rejections to not let the cuts go too deep. This one was a little tougher to keep the armor on for, I admit. It's the importance of the script's subject matter that leaves me more vulnerable than I usually am.
    Thanks for your continued support, Kim.
    xo

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  3. Great advice here. Thanks!!!

    And no, this is not a robo reply, it's an actual post from one of your followers on Twitter. I'm pretty sure you can guess which one by now... :)

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  4. Heehee... I've always loved the masked man and his fight for justice.
    Thanks.

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  5. You know Jeanne, I think you might have hit it on the head when you speculated that they might have thought you really didn't need them. Because, face it, it's the truth. It would have been a nice affirmation, but your script isn't really meant for an indie, it will be a major hollywood production, it's too important that it reaches a huge audience. Go ahead with one more 'lost weekend' moment, and then get back to work!

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  6. Thanks, Rog. One more night of tequila comfort ought to do it, then I'm back to kicking ass and taking names. On to plan B... which usually is a better plan anyway :)

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  7. Not being around much lately as I'm in my own slog with my damn rom-com of a .... wait, no. This isn't about me.

    It's about you. You who have taught me so much in the year I've been fortunate to have known you. It was you who taught me the need for long vision (something obviously Sundance lack). It was you who taught me the joy of discovering something new, fresh and exciting (something Sundance seem to have forgotten). It was you, Jeanne, who taught me to say "F*&k em!" to those that fall into the category of naysayer (Yeah Sundance... I'm looking at you!).

    I was fortunate to read Slavery By Another Name and in so doing learnt I needed to raise my own game (which is probably why I'm struggling with my damn rom... leave it, Jp. Walk away).

    You are blessed with a great talent, Jeanne. One that will guaranteed produce startling results.

    Chin up... the tequila's dribbling.

    XX

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  8. Bravo on turning this into a learning experience that lifts you instead of drops you. Great read and I'm sure it'll help other screenwriters who are still fighting the good fight to be read and one day, one fine day, have a script bought and turned into a visual on the big screen. BRAVO and keep pluggin' - I know you will!

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  9. dear jeanne:

    as i always say: this or something better. and something better may be right over the hill.

    i've represented many screenplays in my day as an agent (anc a producer) and have seen many scripts get made after suffering numerous painful rejections. i have learned that "no" is never "no" until all possibilites are exhausted because there are so many ways to put a film together and get a script produced.

    so, my friend, one rejection, albeit a seemingly important one is nothing. keep going. i look forward to reading it.

    from one stubborn sicilian to another. annette

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  10. Dear Jeanne,

    Allow me to share one of my favorite quotes:

    "I am sitting here in the smallest room of my house with your letter of criticism in front of me. Soon it will be behind me." — HL Mencken

    My script "Flying Lessons" was rejected by every single studio, production company and agency in L.A. ...Every. Single. One. Then ...

    It won the Nicholl Fellowship.

    CAA and others couldn't wait to rep it. It was optioned by a gifted writer/producer who taught me more about rewriting than any school ever could. And it came -this- close to getting made.

    That's Hollywood, baby.

    Talent is great. Persistence is essential.

    Have a feeling that tho things might get in the way, sometimes - there's nothing that's gonna stop you from making this happen.

    Cheers,

    W

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  11. Fabulous post Jeanne. And you will succeed and this story will get told with your words.

    I have no doubt.

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  12. In any competition (and all submissions are competitions) it doesn't matter how well you do. It matters how poorly others do.

    In writing, "well" and "poorly" are subjective. "Well" means complying with "their" expectations. "Poorly" means not complying with their expectations. In both cases, "they" don't tell you what their expectations are because "they" don't know!

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg
    http://jacquelinelichtenberg.com

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  13. Just a beautiful post! Yes, you ARE a damned good writer!

    When you are ready, onward and upwards. :)


    P.S. I have Sicilian blood, too.

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  14. Wow... now my tears are purely tears of joy. For my readers who may not know, Annette Handley Chandler is THE woman behind the Stony Brook Southampton Screenwriters Conference, and Will is her amazing husband and script consultant @Screenwriter911. I am honored, humbled and encouraged by your words and advice. Ain't nothin gonna keep me down, baby. I promise! xo

    Jonathan, I can't tell you how happy it makes me to know the screenwriters you have met on Twitter have brought so much to your life and learning, myself included. I am proud to be on this path with you.

    Christina... your support has been endless. Thanks for reading the script too. You are one of the few Twitter people who I have shared a margarita with in real life. You are also the one who taught me to release those who "piss on my flame." I owe you for that! xo

    Vivi Anna, I appreciate your belief in me. See, this is why I love Twitter so much. You all make me want to achieve it not just for me but for all of you. I know without a shadow of a doubt it would mean as much to all of you as it will to me. I won't quit.

    Jacqueline... my synopsis-freak-out life saver. :) Yeah, the competitions are the killers. I've never held much importance to any of them. This one was a bit different though because it was a competition that involved a learning opportunity as the reward. Five days at Sundance with mentors working our scripts with us. THAT was what I wanted, not the title, not the accolades, but the opportunity to learn.

    But.... I got that at Stony Brook :)

    Cup overflowing. Thank you all so much.
    xo

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  15. Jeanne, don't give up on your script. You just have to submit to Sundance as a package pretty much. Check out this post and it will explain why your script didn't make it.

    http://dizzydentfilms.blogspot.com/2010/06/im-breathing-all-right.html

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  16. I will never give up on our script. But your post certainly does add light to the issues.

    May I recommend to all who want the amazing 5-day of workshop experience with incredibly talented writers to skip Sundance and go to Stony Brook Screenwriters Conference. Yes, you have to be invited, but I promise you, they DO read the submissions. I applied and was invited this summer and had the most amazing learning experience of my life.

    I was hoping to continue that in January at Sundance, but alas, life has a different path for me. Now I'll have time to go to the Writer's Digest conference in NYC instead :)

    God closes the door and opens a few windows. I've been known to pry them open if necessary.

    Life goes on...

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  17. Damn, I only just heard about this. Damn! What a shitty break.

    Having had my fair share of high class rejections, I can only say that in my experience there is very rarely any useful information to be gained by trying to figure out why? The truth of the matter is the selection process always comes down to one person's interpretation of what the judging criteria are. People are fallable (by that I mean stupid) and full of their own idosuncratic idea (by that I mean stupid) of what makes a good or bad project.

    One of the reasons I hate writing synopsis and treatments is exaclty because it takes focus away from the most important document, the script.

    So, what I'm saying really is... don't worry, they're all idiots.

    ;-)

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  18. Clive, I absolutely love you. I burst out laughing reading your comment!

    I've been rejected by the best. And I'm pretty most of the production companies will be bitchslapping some more lessons my way. But what I'm finding interesting is my reaction. It's making me want to push through the next script and write a novel for the Nano challenge.

    It hasn't deterred me, it's strengthened me.

    Take that Redford! :)

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  19. Sending big hugs and lots of encouragement your way, Jeanne! Got get 'em, Jeanne. You have already achieved so much success - the other "success" will soon be yours!

    xo

    Deb

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  20. As someone who's read SBAN, I know that it's a quality piece of writing. I also know that you're not going to wither at the first rejection letter. Yes, it stings not to get picked, but SBAN is worth your time, it's worth the fight.

    I can't wait to read the post where you tell us how great it feels to get ACCEPTED, PAID, and OFFERED now opportunities. Now get to work!

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  21. Thanks for your continued support, Debra. And while I'm at it, thanks for having me on your blogtalkradio show! What a riot that was! Here's a little pimping if anyone wants to hear the interview: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/dreamitthendoit/2010/08/11/dream-it-then-do-it--power-lunch
    :)

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  22. Julie, I think my favorite, most moving piece of feedback from our trusted readers of SBAN was yours, "I wish I'd written this." I respect the kingisafink's work so much that those words were priceless to me. You even made Doug say, "wow". We are honored to have shared our work with you. Deep respect.

    Moving on... and up.

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  23. I have been there Jeanne and I feel your pain, frustration and anger. When I walk out of theatres thinking of how poorly a script was written or see trailers of films that just make me shout out WTF I say to myself just to dumb down my screenplays and write what will sell. Problem is I don't know how to do that nor would I if I knew.

    I won't drop names but I've met with some heavy hitters. They've wined and dined me but never took me to the proverbial bed. The only thing that keeps me going is that I love to write screenplays. My only word of advice, which you already know, is that you can only write for yourself.

    Thanks for sharing your post!

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  24. I rarely go to theatres anymore. It has to be a great flick to get me there, especially since we live in the country. When I see trailers on TV, I vomit in my mouth. The only time I consistently go to the theatre is for our local film festival, which shows all indies and a lot of foreign films. We'll get one or two commercial films, like Pirate Radio or Up in the Air, but for the most part, they are all amazing dramatic films you'd never see at cineplex. It's my favorite four days of the year.

    I'm starting to think SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME might be best served as a cable mini-series. The subject is so intense and detailed, it deserves more than two hours of someone's time.

    Have you ever thought about novels? I'm giving nano a shot this year. Trying to decide between a beautiful friendship story or a psychological thriller. It's always been my dream to write a novel. I'm going for it.

    Thanks again, John, for stopping in and giving your support to a fellow, frustrated writer. It's but one setback of many I've had over the years.

    I'll tell you one thing, I no longer have a crush on Redford haha

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  25. Dear Je-anne

    thank you for sharing such an honest post. i am so disheartened that i am in tears so i can't even imagine what you went and are going through.

    and yah yah yah lovely lessons learned---we are resilient women, been through too much not to dust off and start over---but it stings. hard.

    that being said, i believe, the story is big and it will be told.

    you may have read this before. it is from the main page of my blog.

    i share again. i read it every day before i write be it my sundays post or tuesdays. or the wip.

    When the weight of your message through your project, art, performance, or words outweighs your desire and need to share as compared with the need for the world and universe to receive it, the enterprise takes a life of its own.

    i believe that.

    don't lose heart. the world isn't ready. it will be soon.

    love,

    annie (the madhatter)

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  26. Great, great post. Thanks for sharing with us all. I've learned a lot from my "failures". It's the only way anyone can really grow and advance. I don't look at my failures as "setting me back" as see them as "setting me straight". They keep me on course, and actually strengthen me.

    Once again, thanks for sharing!

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  27. Annie, your message is perfect. I will read it often. I've been in the business long enough to know rejections are many, and all it takes is one yes, but like we've all said, some are bigger than others. You've all been a wonderful salve on my wounds. Hey, and I bet Austin wouldn't have gotten into Sundance either! heehee

    Jamal, I LOVE your "setting me straight" philosophy! It's exactly my feeling too! I have friends who keep repeating the same patterns over and over again, stuck in their misery. I've finally realized perhaps they like misery and being a "victim." I choose a different path. Growth.... which will eventually lead to happiness. But mostly, it leads to never having to say "What if". My least favorite words. ... well, besides "It's a pass" hahaha

    Thanks again.
    xo

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  28. I will not use Redford’s salad dressing any more in protest.

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  29. HA! I'm cleaning out my pantry right now ;)

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  30. Here's what Sundance did give you: a deadline and project requirements that you were willing to extend yourself to reach. None of this "someday I'll write a script" stuff. You knew you'd have to be in top form to win, place, or show at Sundance so you worked hard and pulled in good resources--and learned lots.

    And now I'll put on my editorial hat: this line "This project isn't right for us" isn't just pablum--a good fit between the project and the people is important to getting it done right. As you point out, there are other venues that may even be better (and now you have the full script and the synopsis to take them!).

    Hugs, Jeanne and Doug, and I look forward to hearing more!

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  31. I don't know what's more touching to read - your brilliantly honest post or the comments of those people whose lives you've touched through your words (because via Twitter and blogging you only have words).

    Jeanne, you are a talented writer and every competition has its own criterea - and especially one like Sundance. But your script has already started its journey and with persistence and application, something will come of it and I can't wait to see it on the big screen.

    On another note, I must admit, I actually love rejection. Though admittedly, I don't see rejection as rejection anymore but rather as another opportunity to grow. That's what I was thinking this morning and I was wondering if it was right to love rejection. Fact is I do and you're right - it makes you grow.

    Jeanne, you have grown some much in the time we have been Twitter pals. It's been less than a year and you have achieved so much already. So all I can say is that you have the right attitude and I can't wait to see what else you accomplish in the next six months.

    Big love, mxo

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  32. Ann Marie, you are absolutely right! Deadlines are my friend, and as a journalist, they are Doug's. We realized 16 months into outlining, that we needed something to push us over the hump. Bingo... Sundance! It served that purpose and so much more. We were both amazed how much we learned in applying. The emails he sent me after our Sundance rejection had me rolling on the floor laughing. It's an honor to work with someone with as much experience with rejection as he has - hahaha. You can't be professional writer for over 20 yrs without a tough skin. He has taught me well. We've already bounced back and have new strategic plans. Just enjoying the wild ride.
    xo

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  33. Mina, I'm humbled by your compliments. Twitter has been an incredible learning experience for me. The supportive writer community is outstanding and something I wasn't prepared to find. I'm deeply grateful.

    I've watched you grow as well, Mina. I'm quite confident six months from now, we'll both be farther up the ladder of learning. Thank you for all you've taught me.
    xo

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  34. I was a 6th grade teacher In NYC's Hell's Kitchen for 35 years, and I am now retired. I have been doing stand-up comedy for 20 years... and, I recently started a cartoon blog.
    I got several rejections to queries for "blog to book," but I am happy that I can share my cartoons in small scale ways.
    They are up up on the internet at:
    www.marjorie-cartoons.blogspot.com
    and if visitors to that blog enjoy the "bad art" and the captions, I am happy.

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  35. I just ordered the book from Amazon. I need to learn more about this and I am sorry I missed the PBS documentary.
    Do you have any idea why the Sundance Screenwriters Lab passed? Is there great competition? How many writers apply and how many places are there?

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  36. Marjorie, the PBS documentary will be out fall of 2011, so you haven't missed it.

    Sundance only chooses 12 out of what I assume are thousands who apply. The goal was a long-shot to begin with, but that never deterred us.

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  37. maybe you don't need one other person in here cheering you on, but dang, I'm glad to know you. like I said the other day to a writing buddy--being a writer, man, whose idea was this anyway? but we just keep bouncing up to go more rounds, for some god-knows-why reason. there are stories to be told. keep duking it out, slugger.

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  38. Thanks, Laura! It is a fight, isn't it? But man, I'm going to kick ass in the writer ring if it kills me. E

    very writer in my life is my motivation. Sometimes I think we all want to succeed for each other as much as for ourselves. I know that's how I feel.

    In fact, when I discussed Sundance's rejection with my therapist, the ONE time I started to cry was when I said, "I feel like I let them down." I wasn't talking about Sundance, my family, or my writing partner... I was talking about my writing community. To me, I'm but one writer who represents us all.

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  39. Wow Jeanne, how did I miss this post?
    I guess I have been offline quite a bit.
    Let me just say, I wouldn't have expected anything less. Asking Redford for another slap? Only you. ;-)
    This really would be a black belt in writing - for anyone. Adapting a book/story like that is no mean feat. And you did it with such style, strength and incredible resilience. And Ann is right, if nothing else, Sundance gave you a deadline. Plus the voicemail from your mum - priceless.

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  40. Thanks, Karen. You guys all kept me grounded and focused during the process. I can't imagine having survived it without your support.

    xoxo

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  41. Incredible story. I highly admire your resilient spirit and honest positivity. I've learned from my setbacks that as long as I don't give up, there's always a chance for me to succeed in the end. Happy Holidays.

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  42. Thank you. Life brings us our greatest lessons in the strangest ways. Its why I'm enjoying your Everyday Learning blog so much :)
    http://everydaylearning365.blogspot.com/

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  43. Having come out of the lab, one thing I do know is that they're looking for projects a bit rough around the edges -- projects that need the kind of shepherding the lab offers.

    Polished projects or projects that are already "there" tend not to make it through.

    -- c.

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