If you’ve never heard of T.J. Newman, you can be forgiven. Until fairly recently, T.J. was a flight attendant. To be more precise, she was a flight attendant with a dream. T.J. wanted to be a writer. In her spare time–and at times while she was working as a flight attendant–T.J. wrote a novel about a pilot who has to choose between purposely crashing his plane, killing everyone onboard, or having terrorists kill his family. It seemed like a great plot idea. Agents disagreed. Forty-one agents turned her down. Many of them didn’t even bother to read her writing. Forty-one rejections.
T.J thought about giving up. Who wouldn’t? But she reached out to a forty-second agent, and this one said “yes.” A few months later, T.J. had a two book deal and an advance of $1.5 million. Since then, her first book, Falling, has gone on to become a New York Times bestseller, has been distributed to more than thirty countries, and is soon to become a major motion picture. T.J. has another book, Drowning: The Rescue of Flight 1421, coming out at the end of May 2023, and a $1.5 million movie deal.
T.J. recently penned an “Open Letter to Dreamers” in which she encourages creatives to never give up on their dreams. Here’s what she had to say:
*Originally published on Deadline.com (May 9, 2022)
I know that a lot of famous people — writers, directors, agents, lawyers, and powerbrokers — read Deadline every day.
But so do a lot of dreamers.
I know because for many years I was one of them.
This is an open letter to all the dreamers reading Deadline today.
After nearly two decades of trying and failing — and being rejected by 41 agents — last month, Warner Bros purchased the film rights to my second book, Drowning: The Rescue of Flight 1421, for $1.5 million against $3 million in a heated bidding war where five separate studios and streamers put up seven-figure offers. This is the part where I would normally say I never dreamed of something like this happening to me. But I did. I did dream. And dreams are important. They’re what keep us going. My dreams kept me going.
I’m writing to you now because I wish someone would have shown me a story like this after my first, second, or third round of failures; when I was ready to give up, when I was wondering why I was ever so foolish to think that my dreams could come true.
I know I’m the exception, not the rule. And I know it’s tough as hell out there because until very recently, I was out there with you. I know the odds are stacked against you. I know the industry is in a transformative year. I know the Writers Guild just went on strike and we have no idea how long it might last or what it will ultimately mean. Right now, everything feels unstable and uncertain.
But I also know that the pessimistic, doubting voices saying all that — both externally and the ones inside your head — shouldn’t be the only voices you listen to. Yeah, the odds are tough … but why not you? Why shouldn’t it be you?
The hardest part when you’re trying to get in the door is that so many of the people who reject you do so without ever meeting you or seeing your work. I don’t believe for one second that the 41 agents who rejected me all read my sample chapters, much less an entire book. Just as most actors never get into the room, most writers’ work never gets read. It’s one thing to have a casting director cut you off with a “Thank you” without even looking up. That leaves a mark every time. But it’s another kind of torment altogether when you feel like you’re screaming into the void — and no one even has the decency to shout back, “No.”
I look back now at my long history of rejection and think of how close I came to not being where I am now. It would have been so easy to have just accepted what each rejection was telling me, because Lord knows, it’s what I was telling myself.
I’m not a good writer.
The story’s not as interesting as I thought.
I’m not good enough.
I wanted to quit and give up. There were so many times I almost did. But every time I almost pulled the plug, I’d come back to this:
I didn’t come this far just to come this far.
And I’d pick myself up and keep going.
Growing up in Arizona, some ’90s kids were mall teens, others arcade teens. For my friends and me — it was the movies.
After prom, we didn’t go to parties. We went in our tuxes and gowns to see Spider-Man opening weekend at the AMC Centerpoint 11 in Tempe. Before that, when I was still too young to drive, my parents dropped us off at the theater six separate times to see Titanic (which completely drained my allowance savings, by the way). Later, as a struggling actor in New York living in a crappy apartment in Queens, my roommates and I kept The Dark Knight DVD playing on a loop and when we’d hear our favorite scenes start, we’d all come out of our rooms to watch and discuss.
Film, books, theatre. In sum: stories. My whole life has revolved around experiencing and creating entertaining and meaningful stories. I assume you share the same passion. And I assume you agree with me here, too: pursuing that passion as a living is not for the faint of heart and the people who don’t do it rarely understand it.
Years of pursuing my dreams in New York ended with me and my embarrassingly thin resume buying a one-way ticket back home to Arizona. My mid-20s were spent sleeping in the twin bed in my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house, trying to figure out what a person with a degree in musical theatre (who failed at working in musical theatre) was supposed to do with the rest of her life. For years, I wrote “figure out my life” on every to-do list I created. I meant it sincerely. It never got scratched off.
After the multitude of assorted “survival jobs” I had in New York (personal favorite: you know the people in Times Square who stand in the rain, or snow, or summer heat and pass out flyers for the Disney on Broadway shows? Hello, that was me), I knew it was time to find what society considered a “real job.” I took a stab at teaching. I worked at a natural history museum. I was a secretary at a commercial real estate firm. I took seminars in entrepreneurship. Still, nothing fit. Nothing felt right.
The first glimmer of hope that I was going to figure out something meaningful for my life came when I got a job as a bookseller at Changing Hands, the local indie bookstore in Tempe. Once again, I was surrounded by stories and people who loved them and who wanted to talk about them. I had finally found somewhere I belonged.
I began to write again. When I would shelve a book of an author with the last name Newman, I’d cover their first name with my thumb and pretend I was shelving my own book. It was hazy, but I was beginning to imagine a future that made sense for me. Those days at the bookstore were when my life-long dream of being a published writer turned into a concrete goal.
After the bookstore, I became a flight attendant. I was always on the road making $35K a year while being yelled at and called names by passengers. One day at work — standing at the front of the plane during a cold, quiet redeye to New York— I had a thought. What if a pilot were told, mid-flight, that his family had been kidnapped and that if he didn’t crash the plane, they would be killed? What would he do? I knew instantly that I had the makings of my first book.
I wrote much of the first draft of my first novel, Falling, by hand in the forward galley while my passengers slept. On my days off, I edited. When the story was as good as I could make it, I started submitting to agents.
The first 41 agents rejected it. (Apparently, an unpublished flight attendant without a platform is a tough sell. Who knew?) The 42nd was my one and only yes.
Number 42 — Shane Salerno of The Story Factory — took a big chance on me. He saw something in me that I’d always believed was there, but after decades of failure was no longer so sure.
He saw my potential.
Shane slipped the book to Avid Reader, a division of Simon & Schuster, on a Thursday and told them they had an exclusive until Monday after which he would take the book to auction. They didn’t take the weekend. Instead they called the next day and put a seven-figure, two-book offer on the table. It was more money than I ever imagined. Before I could catch my breath, the book was sold in more than 30 countries for an additional seven figures. Next came the film deal. At the time, I remember Shane calling and saying, “We’re in a bidding war, it’s at one-point-five.” To which I replied, “…One-point-five what?” My brain could not comprehend these numbers or even what was happening. I’d gone from 41 rejections to half of Hollywood chasing my book. After days of offers and counters, the film rights to Falling were sold to Universal and Working Title for $1.5 million. In a short period of time, I had gone from a $35,000 salary to three separate seven-figure deals and my first book was still six months from publication.
Falling, the book that was rejected by 41 agents, debuted as a No. 1 national bestseller, No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list and then became Simon & Schuster’s fastest-selling hardcover fiction debut since 2004.
On May 30, the second book of that two-book deal comes out. Drowning: The Rescue of Flight 1421 tells the story of a flight that crashes into the ocean minutes after takeoff, then sinks with crew members and passengers, still alive, trapped inside — including a father and his 11-year-old daughter. Now, their only hope of survival lies with an elite rescue team on the surface led by her mother and his soon to be ex-wife.
Massive, epic stories are what I’ve always loved to watch, read, and write. But they’ve never been the stories women typically get to tell and they’re not the stories women get publishing or screenwriting deals to write. I don’t know who gave men the monopoly on writing action thrillers, but I’d love the 41 agents that rejected my manuscript to tell me that didn’t play into their decision.
This book, Drowning: The Rescue of Flight 1421 — a book I almost couldn’t write because I was so afraid that my first success was a fluke and that I didn’t have what it takes to truly make it (For the record, the doubting voices don’t stop with success; they get louder) — that’s the book that Warner Bros bought the film rights to for $1.5M against $3M. That’s the book that five separate bidders — Apple with Jerry Bruckheimer; Paramount with Damien Chazelle; Warner Bros; Legendary with Nicole Kidman; and Universal Television — put up seven-figure offers for.
There’s something insane about the fact that I fell hopelessly short of my Broadway ambitions, and yet I just hired and approved five-time Tony Award nominee Laura Benanti to narrate my second book. Or that my main route as a flight attendant was LAX-JFK, and that last month I had a Zoom meeting with a producer I remember serving a First Class chicken entrée to.
It’s a strange business. None of us know when, or if, we’re ever going to get our shot. I got lucky (the 42nd time around), but I just as easily could have not. Had I given up, had I stopped putting in the work, my good fortune wouldn’t have known where to find me. Picasso famously said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” The same thing is true of Lady Luck. If there is anything you take from my story, please let it be this.
I didn’t know anyone in publishing or in the film business. I didn’t have a family name or family money. I didn’t study writing or screenwriting. I didn’t have a resume, a platform, or any experience that would support the notion that I should be given a shot. If it feels like the gatekeepers want you to think that it’s impossible to get where you want to go without any of those things going for you, I’m living proof that that is not true.
Create something you believe in and that you want to see. Believe in what you created and in yourself. Find a partner who believes in you. And don’t stop until you get everything you’ve ever wanted.
I didn’t come this far just to come this far.
And neither did you. Keep going. I am rooting for you. And when you get your break, when you’re fortunate enough to get paid to do what you love, make sure you tell others the story of how you did it and encourage them that they can do it, too. A key part of seeing more dreams realized is having the people who break through share their stories of how they did it and pull up others behind them.