Still on the hunt for a dayjob, still struggling day to day, and still encountering more failures than successes. In light of that, here’s a post from 5 years ago about dealing with failure.
Human beings, being mortal creatures, are bound to mess things up sooner or later. This is true in every endeavor an individual undertakes. And sometimes, it falls to others to inform us that we’re incorrect in the manner with which we’ve been proceeding.
In other words, sooner or later, you’re going to be told you’re doing it wrong.
Marital disagreements, family drama, storytelling, cheeseburger construction, you name it. It’s going to go pear shaped on you. It could be because of outside influence or because of your direct actions, but the bottom line is the end result is going to be a mess. In writing terms, maybe your protagonist is more annoying than you think. In family terms, you could have maybe timed or worded something a bit differently. Regardless of how you arrived at this point of failure, the question is not so much how you failed but how you recover from it.
First, of course, you need to realize you’ve failed. Sometimes this is obvious in the moment of value – those “oh shit” moments when your sphincter tightens as you brace for the physical or emotional impact that comes on as a result of the events that’ve been botched. Other times, you could be cruising along happy and content, and it’s pointed out to you that something isn’t working out the way you imagined. You might rail against the idea, but when you calm down and re-examine the situation, you’ll see what they’ve pointed out and agree with them.
But rather than dwelling on the failure itself, a more constructive goal is: how do you correct the failure?
Just like admitting you’re wrong, fixing the problem isn’t always easy. A workplace misstep can haunt you for quite a long time depending on the nature of the management. Some family members may be forgiving but others might have long memories that focus especially on slights. And finding a failing in a work may be as simple as excising a line or going back and doing a complete rewrite.
Funnily enough, this post is turning out to be something of a failure. It’s ambling a bit more than I expected and seems to be talking about things in a very broad sense rather than having the tight, narrow focus required for good writing. Hopefully upcoming posts will be a bit more cohesive.
In the meantime, here’s a parting bit of advice:
When I realize I’ve hit a wall of fail, at times I picture getting the bad news from Carla Gugino.
This is as relevant today as it was five years ago. Also, I’ve been running this blog for over five years. Yikes.
Maybe you got a letter. It could be something you received electronically. One way or another, a submission or entry upon which you’ve spent time and energy has been rejected. Now, I’m not talking about receiving constructive criticism. That’s always a good thing to get. Iron sharpening iron and all that. What I’m on about is the cold shoulder, either in the form of a bland photocopy of a generic letter or a complete and total lack of recognition for your efforts. It’s like fancying yourself a comedian, telling a joke and waiting for the laughs which never come. It breaks the heart and erodes the soul.
If you’re anything like me… well, you might need a shave. But in terms of this sort of thing, after a few rejection letters or seeing a publication for which you wished to contribute which doesn’t include what you sent, you probably went back over your submission with a fine-toothed comb. What did I do wrong? What could I have done differently? The questions inevitably leave to negative emotions. Maybe you’ll feel put out by the rejection, thinking your work isn’t good enough. There could be some frustration at the difference that ended up existing between what you envision and what you submitted. And maybe getting rejected for whichever time you’ve just been brushed off just pisses you off.
Not to re-tread old ground, but I’ve said over and over that negative emotions do not need to lead to negative outcomes. There a lot of things you can do with your feelings. One thing you should not do, however, is sit on your ass. There’s work to be done.
Pop the hood on your work. Strip out parts that rattle or shake. In other words, take a look at your creation and figure out the parts that work. Maybe you have a character or two that really connect with readers, or you’ve gotten some feedback telling you that a particular passage really hammers home the good things about your writing. Maybe there’s that one shot in your portfolio that really jumps off the page.
What about it works? Why does it connect while the rest of the work falls away? Step back and examine the situation, the environment and the construction of the parts that work. Once you recognize what makes those portions successful, strip out everything else and rebuild the work around that core of goodness. This might mean you only need to make a couple small changes, or it might mean you need to all but start from scratch. Don’t fret, though: declaring a do-over could very well be a step in the right direction.
One thing you don’t want to do is rush. There’s no need. Take a deep breath. Make some cocoa. Instead of tearing down what you’ve done and smashing it around with a wrecking ball, lay it out and take a scalpel to it. In the course of doing so, you’ll find things that you’re proud of in spite of the rejection and you’ll also likely find something that makes you smile and shake your head in that “What the hell was I thinking?” sort of way.
It might also be the case that you can’t bear to look at the project that’s been so callously rejected. That’s understandable. But you still have a bunch of bad feelings that need to get vented. You have the old stand-by responses of games, movies, booze and cocoa but the best thing to do, in my opinion and experience, is to do something in the same creative vein to get you thinking about what your next step will be. It could be back to what caused you to feel this way or it could be in a new direction entirely. You won’t know, however, until you take that step.
Whatever you do, no matter how many things you find wrong with your work, no matter how much cocoa you drink, no matter how many rejections you’ll have to deal with in the future, don’t give up. You’re trying to do something new and different. Creative people are inevitably going to face a great deal of opposition because the environment out in the world is one where creativity is seen as a secondary concern to efficiency or profitability, if creativity is acknowledged at all. You want to be fast in your process, efficient in your use of energy, but it can be difficult to bang out work promptly if you’re wrestling with bad feelings or unsure of where to go next. Don’t worry about that. Worry about getting from bad to good first. Then worry about getting things out quickly.
Don’t quit. Especially if your ideas and the need to express them get you out of bed in the morning and motivate you to expend your time and energy of turning them into reality. Screw the rejection and the idea that your creativity doesn’t matter because it doesn’t help you file TPS reports more efficiently.
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Harold Whitman
Drinking your cocoa from a mug of Shakespearean insults doesn’t hurt, either.
Technically, this is a From the Vault entry. But it’s Thursday! So let’s call it Throwback Thursday instead, just to mix things up. I’ve been running this blog for over five years now. This is an entry from the very early days. Enjoy!
So you’ve written the next great American novel, or at least a Twilight-killer. It sits pristinely on your desk or hard drive and you can’t wait to get it into the hands of the public who are hungry for something new and interesting to take them away from the dark soul-draining mire of everyday life, spinning your words into gold. But there’s something you need to do first.
You need to sell yourself.
Now I don’t mean that it’s time to pull on the fishnet stockings and hit the streets of the nearest slum. No, I mean you need to send the right queries to the right people.
Would You Buy This?
I might go into more detail and give examples on what not to do in a query letter in another Thursday post, but suffice it to say that the old adage of KISS applies – Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Open with a hook. Introduce a character or situation that you think will drive the work.
Give a synopsis of the plot. Let the reader of your query know what they’re in for in general, but don’t give away all of your twists & secrets.
Thank them for the time they’ve taken to read the query.
Offer them an outline and sample chapters if you’re pitching a book.
Let them know you’re looking forward to a prompt reply.
Again, I’ll elaborate on these points at another time. Let’s talk about where these queries are going.
The Knife Guy
I have an old edition of the Complete Guide to Novel Writing, and one of the authors describes agents as “knife guys.” Basically, the agent’s job is to cut through the slush piles and red tape of publishing houses, going right to the heart to someone they know on the inside who can help your work see print.
Finding an agent is the most expedient way to get your work published. And by most expedient, I mean that if you get your work accepted, an agent will be more prompt in responding to you than a publisher will be, in most cases. This is because an agent is part writing partner and part mercenary. They understand your need to express yourself and tell your story, and they’re willing to do your dirty work if you pay them enough, usually on commission from your advance & sales. If you win, they win. I’d advise going this route, even though I myself have had zero success in hooking one. Though it has occurred to me I might be fishing in the wrong pond.
Go to the Source
You can, if you prefer, send queries directly to the editors at publishing houses. While this means you don’t have to share your spoils with an agent, it also means it’s much harder for your work to stand out. An agent tends to work face-to-face with publishers, whereas your query letter is one of quite a few that flood into publishing houses on a regular basis.
However, a work that is unique enough or fills a void a publishing house is hungry for might survive the bucket of swamp run-off that is your typical slush pile. Your mileage will vary depending on your genre and the nature of your work. While nobody else on the planet can write exactly in your style on the subject you’ve decided to work with, there might be enough similarities between you and another author that the recipient might decide neither are worth an investment.
Don’t Give Up
Sending queries is a long, thankless, and depressing process. You’re facing entry into a field of entertainment that is crammed with both existing authors looking to continue their careers and new talent frothing at the mouth to get noticed. Know this: you are going to get rejected.
Maybe you’ll get lucky and get a letter of interest within the first wave of your queries. But it’s more likely that you’ll get a bunch of form letters saying that your work isn’t quite what they’re looking for and thanking you for your effort. Try not to think of it as a reflection on your work, but rather an increase in your chances of getting a positive response.
Another book I own, I believe it’s What Color Is Your Parachute? says something about the interview process that applies to sending queries. Your responses are going to look something like this:
NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO YES
That “Yes” will make the mountain of rejections disappear so fast it will make your head spin.
Do It Yourself
You could always try to publish your book yourself, but this is an expensive and time-consuming process and you’re better off writing instead of going through it. Even if it’s just writing & sending more query letters.
How’s NaNoWriMo going? Are you frustrated? Angry? Maybe feeling some despair? Read on. This might help.
Nobody feels fantastic all the time, at least not without heavy drinking or severe medication. Creative people are, by and large, emotional and thus emotional blindsides getting hit can knock you right off of the rails you’d been riding towards the completion of a project. How do you deal with this sort of thing, other than reaching for the nearest bottle of hard liquor or happy pills?
You use it.
Instead of wallowing in the negative feeling, take it and run with it headlong into your project. If you’re unable to focus on the project, write something on the side that uses the feeling. Here are some examples.
I know I’ve covered using your anger previously, but invoking a Star Wars reference never gets old. Still, if something is making you furious, with fists and teeth clenched regardless of how other people are telling you how to react (doesn’t the words “Oh, you’re over-reacting” make you want to punch someone in the face?) you need to expend that energy, and preferably without damage to property or invoking personal injury lawsuits. If you’re a writer, what do you do?
Write a fight scene.
Get into the headspace of a person involved in a barroom brawl. Hell, write about someone starting said brawl. Did someone say something to a significant other you didn’t like? Is someone chatting up a friend of yours without permission? Not enough booze in your drink? Write about how it makes you feel, how the fury wells up inside you and how the sensation of wheeling around and letting someone have it right in the face touches off the kind of chair-breaking bottle-throwing grand melee unseen since the days of John Wayne.
You’ll probably feel a bit better, and nobody will be suing you.
Let’s face it. We’re all afraid of something. It could be bugs, rejection, alienation of friends, cars, bacteria, being laughed at, loneliness… I could go on. The bottom line is, sooner or later your fear is going to grab hold of you. Grab hold of it right back and go dancing.
Try a ghost story.
Something goes bump in the night. You catch an unfamiliar or unexpected motion in the corner of your eyes. The lights go out, and the shadows seem to grow to fill the empty space. Do you start sweating? Does your hand start to shake? How fast is your heart pounding? What voices do you hear? What do you imagine is lurking there in the darkness? It could just be the cat. It might be your spouse in the next room unaware that you’ve hit the light switch. Or it could be a phantasmal fiend from beyond the grave. Write it out and see where your fear takes you.
More than likely, it’s not a place as frightening as you thought it might be.
Despair, anxiety, paranoia… they’re all cut from the same cloth. “Should I have said that?” quickly becomes “I shouldn’t have said that,” which leads to “I’m an idiot for having said that.” Sure, sometimes you make a legitimate mistake and need to clean the egg from your face. Other times, something with good intentions turns out getting tossed under a steamroller paving the road to Hell. Whatever the cause, you’re left with this cloying feeling of inner doubt and depression, and you need to do something about it, otherwise it’s going to consume you.
Time to write a walk through the rain.
Rain is an evocative weather condition. The sky’s the color of gunmetal, the sun or stars hidden from view, the rain cold and relentless on the weary traveler and the wind makes sure that every surface of the body is wet. Yet people walk through it, alone with their thoughts. “What if I’m wrong? What could I have done to keep this from happening? How much have I lost, and can any of it be rescued? And what the hell am I going to do now?” Write through the thought process. Describe the rain drops, the thunder, the looks of people cozy in their warm homes or places of business, the way others are ignorant of your inner conflict. Work with the emotions. Coax them out of the shadows and into your hands where you can change them from a disability to an advantage.
No matter what you decide to do with your negative emotions, be it one of the above or simply focusing on a project at hand, the sooner you do it the better off you’ll be. This is experience talking here, folks – if you’re unable to shake off the darkness, if you let this sort of thing fester and grow unexpressed in your heart, it’ll creep into every aspect of your life. You’ll lose the motivation to create, you’ll lash out at friends and family and the depths to which your emotions can sink are more frightening than anything ever put on paper by Poe, King or Lovecraft. If nothing else, talk about it. Get things off of your chest.
Negative emotions are a lot like a badly-prepared meal you’ve just eaten: better out than in. Sure, things might stink for a bit, and you may feel inclined to flush afterwards so nobody else has to deal with your vomit, be it physical or creative. But once it’s out, chances are it won’t come back. I’ll leave you with a bit of Emerson’s advice, since he’s far more experienced and eloquent than I.
Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.
This morning I read a rather brief guide on Writing Believable Characters from the Young Adult Fantasy Guide. It’s a great overview of what to do right and what to avoid when putting your characters together. I highly recommend you go give it a read if you’re thinking of starting up a new creative project any time soon.
When you think about it, creating characters for a story isn’t really all that different from going through the character creation process in a current generation video game, provided you got the game from BioWare or an MMO studio and they allow such things. Good luck trying to customize Nathan Drake from Uncharted or Issac Clarke from Dead Space. You’re stuck with them as they are, for good or for ill.
Instead of tweaking the character’s race, class and talent build, however, you’re going to be tweaking their background, outlook and personality. Granted, you can do this is MMOs as well, provided such things are supported in the game either with mechanics or community & developer support. Some studios can’t or won’t support such things directly, but that’s a subject for a different discussion.
Your characters came from somewhere. And I don’t just mean the deep recesses of your brain. Unless they’re vat-grown genetically-engineered super-soldiers, they had a family. Parents. Maybe some siblings. Perhaps a childhood bully. How about a high school sweetheart? Who did they admire growing up? Who did they despise? What was their first kiss like? Their first heartbreak?
These are things you can talk to any person on the planet and get a different result. What would the answers be if you asked your characters? Think about it. They got to where they are at the start of your story by coming from the places that’ll come to light when you answer these questions.
Oh, and if they are a vat-grown genetically-engineered super-soldier, how do they feel about it? Are they jealous of people with families? Do they feel they live in a world of cardboard due to their super-strength or whatnot? Do they understand things like emotions, prejudice, philanthropy and zealotry? How are they programmed? Do they want to break that programming? And if they weren’t grown in a lab, do they remember their family? If not, will they remember them later? What happens when they find out about the past they used to have, if they don’t remember it at the beginning of the story?
I should mention that you should be doing this as soon as possible in the creative process. If you go back and fill in a character’s background later, it might make something of a mess.
Tied into background is how a character sees the world around them. Like the questions asked of our SPARTAN super-soldier, it’s the sort of thing you can discern from people around you. Who’s in favor of the current state of things in the world? Who wants to see change? Who’s in it for the money? What motivates people, and by extension, your character?
Altruism can surprise people when it emerges. And some people get shocked when they look back on an event and realize how selfish they were. It’s natural for people to veer one way or another from their baseline behavior, but first they need to have a baseline. And the reason it’s called a baseline is that it’s consistent. It will change over time, since static characters are boring, but this is a gradual change, and sudden shifts away from it should not only shock the reader, it should also shock either the character or the people around them. If not both.
Note that outlook and personality are two different things. The way one sees the world is not necessarily how one interacts with it. People who are just in it for the money have to at least put on a facade of tolerance and goodwill from time to time in order to further their goals. The difference between one’s outlook and their personality can be a matter of inches or of miles. It depends on the character.
Sometimes these can move closer together, as the hard-bitten out-for-themselves mercenary starts to care about the people she’s thrown in with, or the kindly priest becomes gradually disillusioned with the church and, by extension, the people he’s been nice to for years. These are exciting, interesting changes that can and should be chronicled. It can make a story with very little action, suspense, gore or sex jump off the page and make room for itself in the reader’s imagination. Which is what writing fiction’s all about, right?
How do you distinguish your characters? How will you do so in the future?