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On Writing and Failure

States of mind

A memoir of what went wrong
With mixed feelings, I’ve been reading Tom Grimes’ memoir Mentor, an account of his life as a writer, especially as concerns his time learning with Frank Conroy, who for some time directed the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I don’t know if you have heard of Grimes; I don’t think I had. He’s had some partly-successful novels, some reviewed well, some not so well–but Mentor, as he writes it, is an account of his failure as a writer.

His first book felt unimportant to him when it came out, but it got excellent reviews in some very important venues. However, as far as I can tell it didn’t make him much money or do much to combat his desperate struggle to prove his self-worth. (I’m not inferring what he thinks here; Grimes is extremely candid about his feelings in the book.)

His second book was finished with huge expectations of success, but from the beginning of its publishing journey yielded mixed signs and mixed reviews. In the end, it appears, it made back only 10% of its advance, which is certainly a financial failure, and also a sharp slap to the face for the writer.

His memoir seems to have gotten some good reviews, although judging by the Amazon ranking at the time I read this, it isn’t taking the world by storm.

Failure seems to be a huge and important subject for Grimes. Reading his memoir at this particular moment, as I’m about to launch into a new project that’s not like anything I’ve attempted before, may be a very good thing for me, because it’s good to face the failure bogeyman right at the beginning.

Is that you, Failure?
I should explain about the new book: for several years I’ve been researching the psychology of motivation and habit intensively. For about ten years, I’ve been writing prolifically and working to build a career as a writer. I had planned on being a professional writer since the third grade or earlier. But of course “writer” isn’t a position like “systems analyst” or “pastry chef,” where you can get a job, go in to do it each day, and feel more or less successful every time you bring home a paycheck. It’s more like being an entrepreneur, or a salesperson who works only on commission, or a painter: you put everything you can into each new project, and then innumerable people other than you–customers or end users or the general public–decide whether it will succeed or not. This would be easier to take, I think, if it were always clear that it was only this final audience that made the decision–that books always sell well when they’re well-written, or that a quality widget sells itself–but unfortunately there are also gatekeepers, timing issues, competing or distracting products, editors or agents or supervisors or clients getting sick or getting pregnant or moving on, good or bad marketing, and all the rest.

Why does a book fail?
If you write a book and it flops, how do you account for it? Did the book just suck? Or to speak more gently, perhaps the book didn’t have a large enough audience to succeed? Or maybe the publisher didn’t get the book out to reviewers as they were supposed to do (as happened to a friend of mine with an excellent trilogy of his that is still attracting new readers, despite rather than because of the original publisher)? Was it marketed to the wrong audience? (It could be argued that my book Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures should have been marketed as a general interest book rather than only, as it was, to writers–but that was potentially my mistake and my agent’s in placing it with a publisher that specifically caters to writers.) Was it released at a bad time? Was it mislabeled or miscategorized? Did that awful cover doom it (though I was very pleased with my book cover)? And so on.

I don’t know about you, but I would love to have hard numbers on that. If I were to put out a book that only earned back half of its advance (this hasn’t happened to me; my first book earned modestly more than the advance–but hey, look at me being so quick to assure you that I’m not a failure.) I would want to know why, if it were possible, even if the answer was that the cover and the marketing strategy only accounted for 7% of the failure and the rest was squarely on my shoulders.

But here’s what I assume: I assume that a book most often succeeds or fails on how much the text itself makes people want to read it. There are exceptions: for instance, while I’m sure The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a fine book, it seems likely to me that its continuing success is fueled in part simply by the fact that it’s selling so well, as potential readers think “Well, it’s got to be good: millions and millions of people are reading it.” In a way, success builds success.

And obscurity builds obscurity. If no one knows about a book, the chance that they’ll stumble on it and pick it off a knee-height shelf at Barnes & Noble where a single copy is wedged in between books by two other obscure authors, or that they’ll dig it up and buy it from Amazon despite no one having rated it and it showing up at the bottom of the search results based on nonexistent sales, is poor. To some extent success for a book requires an inciting incident–or better, a dozen of them–meaning a review in a venue that a lot of people read, a news story, a mention in mass media, an event, piggybacking on the success of something else (especially the author’s other books), an ad in the right place (if ads really do help books), etc.

But now I’m just rambling about the publishing business, of which I know something but not nearly as much as a lot of other people who blog on the subject much more skillfully (Nathan Bransford comes to mind, for example). What I really want to talk about is the role of failure in a writer’s life as it affects self-motivation.

Failure: not as bad as death
No writing failure is complete if the author is not dead, in which case literary success takes a distant second in importance to being deceased as far as the author is concerned. The nature of a failed book is usually that hardly anyone has heard of it. This is merciful: as writers, it’s our successes that are well-known, while our failures tend to be of great interest mainly to ourselves and our publishers. Not so with movies, for instance. Will Bennifer ever live down Gigli? I’ve never seen the thing, don’t know what it’s about, and had to double check to be sure I got the “Bennifer” thing right, and yet here even I am making fun of it. Obscurity is nice sometimes, if you ask me.

So here I am entering on this book project, and it’s higher-stakes for me than previous ones. First, it carries the weight of years of investigation into the human mind, and if the book doesn’t fly, there’s a temptation to imagine that effort to have been a waste (though it’s already repaid me several times over, truth be told).

Second, it carries the weight of a decade of very serious writing efforts and a couple of decades more of on-and-off writing before that. If I can’t write a successful novel after all this practice, study, hard work, and even networking, what the hell is wrong with me?

Third, the new novel will be a mainstream novel, not a science fiction or fantasy novel. In fantasy and science fiction, it seems to me, we don’t take ourselves with the deadly seriousness I often associate with mainstream (let alone “literary”) writers. The F&SF community is comfortable and friendly and already understands that one failed novel does not determine a career. If I were to get a $5,000 advance and just barely earn out with a fantasy or science fiction novel, it would more or less be a success. This is not my feeling about a mainstream novel. I’m bidding for a wider audience, and it’s a churning metropolis of authors rather than a friendly neighborhood.

Embracing the whatever
And yet … this book can fail. That’s OK. I can put a year into writing it and two years into seeing it sold and published, assuming it even gets that far, and end up back where I started or worse, and that’s still OK. Believe me, I won’t be pleased if I get that outcome, but it’s possible whether I like it or not, so I intend to accept this from the outset, and that gives me strength. Not fearing what will happen, I don’t have to cling to ideas about the novel that seem essential for its success (but which, as I don’t really know for sure what will make for a success or not any more than anyone else does, could be its doom). I don’t have to take myself too seriously. I can screw around in the book, please myself, and hope readers will come along.

Fearing failure, I might handle things differently–hold off submitting the book when it’s ready, clamp down on my natural voice out of anxiety that I’ll sound stupid, fail to engage with the book because I don’t want to engage with the fear I would have created around it, and so on. Fear creates resistance: that’s its job. Fear of a predator in a jungle could make us run like hell or fight desperately. With writing, we don’t want to be running from or struggling with: we want to be diving into. It’s hard to execute a good dive into something that scares you, or when you’re scared of what will happen when you come back up.

So failure: yes, possible. Maybe every book you (if you’re a writer) or I will ever write will flop miserably–never getting a read from an editor or agent or never selling to a publisher or never getting read even though it’s been published. Maybe I’ll write the best novel in the history of the universe and it will come out in the wrong form at the wrong time and be completely ignored due to an unexpected invasion of the United States by Canada. We could say the same of everything else: every romance has a chance of dying, every child has a chance of being hit by an ice cream truck, every job has a chance of disappearing, every friend has a chance of turning on you. It doesn’t matter. I mean it actually doesn’t matter at this stage. This is the stage where we create and throw things out. When it comes back, maybe it will matter enough to be worth learning from, and maybe not. Sooner or later, if it fails, it will be worth moving on from.

Or maybe this time around it won’t be failure: it will be wild success. Maybe every major thing you try to do from this moment on will succeed beyond your wildest dreams. Who can know for sure? For now, I think I’ll ponder that.

Photo by blmiers2

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Recovering After a Failure of Willpower

States of mind

We’re well into a season in which, for Americans at least, restraint isn’t very popular. We start out with a holiday that celebrates eating as much as possible, work up to a holiday that celebrates spending as much as possible, and cap it off with a holiday that celebrates staying up late and drinking.

All right, I admit that this isn’t the kindest or even most accurate depiction I could give of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, but the point is that whether or not you happen to celebrate any of these holidays, it’s likely you run into times when you don’t exercise the amount of willpower and restraint you would like to. Practically everyone does sometimes. Over time we can get better at exercising restraint even when we’re receiving messages to do otherwise, but what do we do to get back on track after losing our willpower for a while? Here are some specific things that can help:

  1. Don’t beat yourself up. Feelings of guilt, shame, frustration, disappointment, and depression are common after a failure of willpower. These are traps: avoid them. If you get caught up in destructive emotions, it will be hard to learn well and regain your focus. Identify broken ideas that aren’t doing you any good, then repair them: see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair.”
  2. Get smarter. After a failure of willpower, you have an ideal opportunity to learn from your mistakes. Start a feedback loop to figure out how to change your behavior next time, and keep using it to see how well your new approaches work. Your feedback loop (which could be journaling, talking with a friend, talking to yourself, etc.) will include a description of exactly what you don’t like that you did, what you were thinking when you did it, and some ideas for changing what you do in the future. It will also include acknowledgments of any good decisions you made.
  3. Look ahead. One of the best ways to do well with willpower is to prepare solutions in advance. For instance, if you ate much more than you wanted to at your last family gathering, you might want to plan what you’re going to eat before you go to the next one. See “How Preparation Enables Stronger Willpower.”

You might also be interested in reading “How to Recover When You’ve Completely Blown It,” which talks more about failure in general and its role in successfully pursuing a goal.

Photo by kharied

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Mental Schemas #9: Failure

Handling negative emotions

This is the ninth in a series of articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.

 

“Now Linus, I want you to take a good look at Charlie Brown’s face. Would you please hold still a minute, Charlie Brown? I want Linus to study your face. Now, this is what you call a Failure Face, Linus. Notice how it has failure written all over it. Study it carefully, Linus. You rarely see such a good example. Notice the deep lines, the dull, vacant look in the eyes. Yes, I would say this is one of the finest examples of a Failure Face that you’re liable to see for a long while.”

— Lucy Van Pelt in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

There are a good number of articles on The Willpower Engine about failure: what to do when it happens, why certain kinds of tactics generally fail, and how to deal with the worry that failure will happen. Some people feel as though they’re basically incompetent, with no good skills or resources (for more on this, read “Mental Schemas #6: Incompetence“). Others, when they’re successful, assume that it was by mistake or only achieved because they’ve fooled everyone into thinking they’re good enough (for more on this, read “Impostor Syndrome“).

What failure schemas look like
People with the failure schema may or may not feel incompetent, and may or may not feel like impostors, but regardless they believe that they are failures, that successes don’t happen to them. Often such people were brought up in environments where the people important to them would tell them over and over that they were failures, or where this idea was always pushed on them in some other way. Sue of Healthy Within Journey describes just such a childhood in this post:

“Then I remembered that every time I brought home a sewing project (from home ec class), my mom would criticize my work, rip out my stitches and resew the project. She also critized how I practiced the piano and would often ‘show me’ how to play a piece correctly. She discounted my academic success by telling me that I may be good at school but I didn’t have any common sense so I would never succeed in life. No matter how much I succeeded she reminded me that my cousin and/or brother were successful in other, more important areas. Even years later whenever I had difficulty with any project, I could hear her criticizing me and telling me I would never succeed at anything important. I feared even a tiny ‘failure’ would mean she was right, that I would never succeed.”

Some people with failure schemas make themselves fail through their beliefs: they assume they can never succeed and therefore never try hard when it’s most needed. Others work away desperately out of fear of failure, but none of their successes convince them: they continue to feel in their hearts that they are essentially failures, even when the evidence says otherwise.

Overcoming a failure schema
As with many negative ideas, overcoming a failure schema requires both facing the fear of failure and refuting the idea that failure is inevitable. This takes work over time to change deeply-ingrained thoughts. Facing the fear means some form of recognition that sometimes we fail, and that this is just a normal part of life and is not catastrophic. Refuting the idea that failure is inevitable means really understanding on a gut level that it is possible to succeed in some things at some times, regardless of what other people may say.

On a day to day basis, feelings of being doomed to failure can be handled as broken ideas: in other words, it’s necessary first to recognize when a thought has come by that is contributing to this unrealistic idea of failure, and then to take the falsehood out of the thought and rephrase it in a fully truthful way, as described in the article How to Repair a Broken Idea, Step by Step.

Some examples of broken ideas about failure:

  • “I’m a failure.” (labeling)
  • “This is going to be a catastrophe.” (fortune telling)
  • “Nobody believes I can do it.” (mind reading)
  • “The only reason they picked my submission is because everybody felt sorry for me.” (disqualifying the positive)
  • “See how badly that went? I fail at everything.” (overgeneralization)

Photo by Behrooz Nobakht

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Organization: Useful Principles

Strategies and goals

A reader got in touch with me the other day asking about where to start with task management. While I’ve written a number of articles about different kinds of organization, I don’t believe that I’ve ever tackled the question from the basic question of where to get started with organization as a whole … so here that article is.

Five kinds of organization
At least five kinds of organization can demand our attention, and it’s helpful to separate them in our minds, because each one requires a slightly different approach. Those kinds are:

  • tasks (anything that needs to be dealt with, from a quick decision to a massive project)
  • paper (including mail, reference materials, the kids’ schoolwork, bills, receipts …)
  • e-mail
  • physical clutter
  • information (I won’t go into this in any detail in this article, but see “Eight Ways to Organize Information and Ideas“)

Useful principles of organization
Some approaches to organization are much more successful and rewarding than others. The following ideas can help move things along:

  • Have a clear system for decisions – It’s much easier to get through a pile or list of items if you have a strict and clear way to deal with them. A detailed working example: if you’re dealing with a stack of papers (or even boxes upon boxes of papers), take a look at the system outlined in “The 8 Things You Can Do With a Piece of Paper.” Process one item, then go back to the top and repeat for the next one.
  • Don’t get bogged down when planning – One of the difficulties with, prioritizing a task list or clearing out an e-mail box, for instance, is that it’s easy to get bogged down trying to do one specific item instead of finishing the task of organizing all the items. Except for one situation I’m about to mention, it tends to work best to only organize when organizing–not getting sidetracked onto one specific item, no matter how appealing or pressing that item might be (short of an emergency).
  • Do very quick things right away – Whenever we’re organizing and we come across a form that can be filled out and readied for the mailbox in a few minutes, or a task that will take a very short time to complete, or an e-mail that can be put to rest with a two-sentence response, taking care of that task immediately shortens the to-do list or stack of papers or list of e-mails to handle, and it saves time having to organize and review the item. This is the exception to not doing tasks while planning, because these short tasks won’t bog things down.
  • Categorize & prioritize – It’s great to get down a list of everything that needs to be done, but if we don’t prioritize tasks then we’ll end up doing whatever seems most appealing, easiest, or most obvious instead of whatever will make the greatest positive impact. Categories make it easier to attend to one kind of thing at a time, and priorities are essential for repeatedly answering the question “What’s the best thing for me to be doing right now?”
  • Review regularly – When organizing tasks and e-mail,  regularly going over the lists is an important part of organization in order to remove things that have been completed, bump up the priority of items that have become more urgent, recategorize, and revisit pending items that have gotten stalled. Along with the obvious benefits of this practice, doing regular reviews also helps us have confidence in our own organizational systems. If we just sweep things into categories and never look at them again, then we’ll our system will start failing this, and knowing this, we’ll be reluctant to put important items into it. As soon as we start keeping things out of an organizational system, that system has failed: it then needs to be handled differently, re-energized, or revamped.
  • Organize items once – When an item comes into an organizational system, it’s important to make a decision where to put it then and there. If we set things aside to consider later, then later we’ll just be faced with the exact same choice. By making the choice with each item as it comes up, we can make clear forward progress.
  • All tasks should go to one place – It’s easy for tasks to start growing, like weeds, in many different places. Apart from very basic separations like “work tasks” and “home tasks,” though, that way lies confusion and failure. If I have a computerized task list, a handwritten list for some other tasks, a file on my computer for some other tasks, a few sticky notes, and some e-mails in my inbox that I want to use as reminders, then I have no way to look at all of my tasks together and prioritize them, which means that my system can’t tell me the one thing I need to do next–and a good organizational system can always answer the question “What should I do next?”

In a follow-up post, I’ll provide links to some of the most useful organizational articles on this site and talk about the one book I would recommend above all others for getting organized.

Photo by Rubbermaid Products

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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Leah Bobet on Literature as a Conversation

Society and culture

This is the sixth interview and the eighth post in my series on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction. You can find a full list of other posts so far at the end of this piece.

In today’s post, we get to finish the discussion we started some time back with writer Leah Bobet.

LUC: In our first round of questions, you mentioned Poppy Z. Brite’s book Drawing Blood, saying “Besides all the vampire sex and killing, what I took from that was that gay people are just people with relationships and problems and to do lists and lives to run and stories,” and you went on to describe how that has affected how you see and understand many kinds of people in the world. Are you consciously trying to create “aha” moments like this for your own readers? Are your goals for inclusivity in your writing explicit and specific?

LEAH: I’m not, no – and I’m not sure if one deliberately can create that moment.  Every reader’s set of experiences and stories and, well, their brains are different.  The “aha” moment is when the story being told combines with the rest of your life and data and experiences in a way that tips over a realization you’ve been on the verge of making.  It’s so very rooted in the reader that I’m not sure crafting it is possible.

What you can do, I think, is present the world as you see it, or the questions you’re sitting up nights asking yourself.  And people will either agree or disagree with what you show them, or go off asking all new questions that you never could have predicted.

As for goals for inclusivity, mostly the goal for me is to have it — which could be read as extremely explicit and specific, or not at all!  But to be clearer:  I don’t write to a moral point, or to proselytize in any way.  It didn’t take more than five minutes’ experience as an editor to learn that there’s a difference between a story and a piece written To Make A Point ™, and that the latter is very difficult to make into an interesting or engaging read.

What I do try to write is the kinds of stories I want to read as a reader, and those are stories that challenge me; stories that can both sweep up my heart and make me really and truly think; stories that examine social values without trying to sell them to the reader.  The stories I write are populated by all kinds of people because I want to read stories like that, and because that’s the world on my block, in my neighbourhood, in my city.

LUC: When a writer tackles a story that includes someone from a group they’re not a part of, what tests or steps or touchstones should be used, in your opinion, to do the job right?

LEAH: Youch – I am not at all qualified in any fashion to say how one can do the job right.  You can do all sorts of recommended things and still drop the ball on this sort of thing, or do none of them and do a really productive job.  It’s all situational, and it depends, also, on what job you’re trying to do.

I think there are two main factors to look at when you’re writing characters from a marginalized group, however you choose to tackle them.  The first: What’s the existing social and literary conversation around how that group is portrayed?  What are the in-person stereotypes about them, and what are the fiction stereotypes?  Because even if you’re not aware of or writing out of that stereotype, literature’s a conversation, and your comment (to stretch that metaphor!) will be taken as part of the larger conversation.  If it’s just reinforcing that, or not acknowledging in certain ways that there is a conversation going on, then it’s very easy to do harm.

I’ve tripped on that one myself: Thinking I knew the ground around how a minority is treated in fiction, and not in fact knowing it at all.  That particular piece of work hurt readers, and I can tell you unambiguously that causing harm with your work – using the trust a reader grants you carelessly, or using it ill – is a horrible feeling.  It’s not one I personally care to repeat.

The second factor?  Remember that your characters are people.

This sounds small, but it’s actually pretty big.  Remembering someone’s a person can mean remembering that someone from group X will have things that make them laugh and cry and roll their eyes just like someone from group Y will.  It can mean that they’ll be more or less attached to the culture and religion and society they grew up in, or in different ways, depending on their personality and experiences.  It can mean looking at their reactions as not something opaque and Other and strange, but as reactions to people around them being kind or cruel, or what has been expected of them, or what success and failure were laid out to mean when they were young.  It also means that they have a personality, and that there isn’t a standard, textbook way for people of group X to react to those things: anyone who’s ever had an argument with their siblings can pretty much back that one up.

In short, you are writing a human being.  Treat them as such: as someone complete.

This means, a lot of the time, learning not just to watch, and to see, but to empathize.  Which doesn’t mean to feel bad for someone; it means to, to the best of your ability, shift your own perspective.  What might your street look like to someone with mobility issues?  What would a character who grew up on a farm notice when they walk into a city park, and what would one who grew up in Manhattan notice?

This isn’t just a tool for writing characters different than you; it’s a tool for writing any characters well.  And it’s a tool that ends up bleeding, like all the best ones do, into your life: Because real people are complete and complex humans too, and once you’ve gotten into practice in taking other perspectives and not assuming your own is the only perspective?  You’re seeing people.  And that will reflect in your interactions; in how you treat your neighbours in the small things; and in how they notice, and treat you in return.

LUC: We’ve talked a little about Drawing Blood. Are there other books or stories that, for you, stand out in this regard? If so, what did they do right?

LEAH: Actually, this might appear to come a bit out of left field?  But: Anything by Sean Stewart.  Specifically Galveston, or Nobody’s Son.

If you subscribe to the theory that every author has a couple themes or problems they keep returning to, picking at around the edges, then one of Stewart’s is about realizing that you’re actually a complete asshole, and then what you do after that realization hits.  This is useful to everyone, I think, because I have not yet met a person of any identity makeup who hasn’t been an asshole to somebody.  In activism or just in daily living, the skill of what you do after you’ve been hurtful to someone else is a very useful one to practice, no matter who you are.  They’re flawed books about flawed people, and I’m not put off by either the books or the protagonists being flawed, because they’re also clear-eyed and kind.

So, what did those books do right for me, as a reader?  Aside from being quite well-made in a lot of ways – Stewart has a real skill with subtlety and nuance, especially when it comes to his characterization – the thing that affected me about them was that they’re so non-judgmental.  They let you in close to people who are wounded and recognize those wounds as valid and real, and then show how the behaviour that woundedness causes hurts other people, and how that pain is valid, too.  And I think that’s the key: That pain is valid too, not instead.  There’s an immense compassion in recognizing that we’re all capable of simultaneously being the people dealing the hurt and receiving it, or acting out of old hurt while acting well or badly.  Rendering that into fiction is a very tricky thing – almost as tricky as practising that kind of compassion in life.  And it’s just as worthwhile, I think.


Leah Bobet is the author of Above, a young adult urban fantasy novel (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2012), and an urbanist, linguist, bookseller, and activist. She is the editor and publisher of Ideomancer Speculative Fiction, a resident editor at the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, and a contributor to speculative web serial Shadow Unit.

She is also the author of a wide range of short fiction, which has been reprinted in several Year’s Best anthologies. Her poetry has been nominated for the Rhysling and Pushcart Prizes, and she is the recipient of the 2003 Lydia Langstaff Memorial Prize. Between all that she knits, collects fabulous hats, and contributes in the fields of food security and urban agriculture. Anything else she’s not plausibly denying can be found at leahbobet.com.


 

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Wait, You’re Not a Real Writer at All!

Writing

The original version of this article first appeared in my column “Brain Hacks for Writers” over at the online publication Futurismic. I’m editing and republishing each of my BHfW columns here over time.

Writing professionally, or even just aspiring to write professionally, requires a weird combination of hubris and humility. You have to be willing to believe, at least for the 15 minutes it takes to put together and send out your submission, that the stuff you make up and write down is so fascinating that thousands or tens of thousands of people would pay good money to read it. The Hollywood Bowl has a seating capacity of about 18,000, but even a modestly successful midlist novelist or someone who sells a story to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction reaches more people than that. Who the hell do we think we are?

At the same time, we have to embrace humility if we’re not going to drive ourselves nuts. Actors and salespeople are among the few who compete with writers in the “getting rejected” department–and even those professions don’t spend two years on a project, send it out, wait eighteen months, and receive in return a form letter saying “No thank you; good luck elsewhere.”

Impostor syndrome
So is it any wonder that writers are often susceptible to Impostor Syndrome? If you’re not familiar with Impostor Syndrome, you might be interested in the article “Impostor Syndrome” on this site, but short version is that it’s when you see your successes and you think they must be due to someone making a mistake. Any time you sell a story, get a bite from an agent, or receive a positive review, it seems like a fluke. Obviously these people don’t understand that I’m really a big faker, you might think, or if I wrote something good, it was just blind luck and will never happen again.

Many many writers I know struggle with impostor syndrome. From a certain perspective, it makes sense: if you spend years and years looking up to people who are getting regularly published in certain magazines or whose novels are making it into the hands of thousands of satisfied readers, and if during this time you get a constant barrage of polite but generally impersonal messages that say “No, this thing that you poured your heart and every ounce of skill you have into really isn’t any good,” then you’d have a pretty inflated view of yourself to not ask yourself if the sale you finally get isn’t some kind of anomaly. (No disrespect intended to those who, like me, lean more to the hubris side than the humility one.) Maybe the editor who bought your story was drunk when she read it. Maybe your new agent is confusing you with another writer who’s actually good.

Misdirected expectations
It can get even worse when you have a little success: maybe you sell a story or get an honorable mention in a major contest. What happens if the next story you send out fails miserably? It just reinforces the idea that the first success was a fluke–even though any decent statistician with access to writers’ track records would predict a few failures with a high degree of confidence, even for writers who overall became very successful.

It doesn’t help that we writers are not particularly good judges of our own work. (See “Your Opinion and Twenty-Five Cents: Judging Your Own Writing”). We may think a particular piece we’ve done is the best thing ever written, or may think it’s utter trash, and in either case we can be right on the nose, tragically wrong, or even both.

Thinking your way out
So how do you stop feeling like a faker? Well, there’s thought and there’s action.

In the thought department, we’re better off when we avoid telling ourselves things that are either false or questionable and instead stick to things we know are true. For instance, instead of thinking “I know this story is going to be rejected,” we can substitute the thought “This story might sell or it might not. If it doesn’t, I’ll send it somewhere else.” That process, called “cognitive restructuring” (or my preferred term, “idea repair”), may seem elementary, but it’s surprisingly effective, as research and clinical results have shown. If you’re interested in idea repair, which is useful for far more than just addressing Impostor Syndrome, you can find articles, books, and other resources on the topic here.

Where does confidence come from?
On the action side of things, one of the most productive things to do is more. Write more, send more out, and get more used to the rejections–and the acceptances. I was at my son’s high school yesterday for a parent presentation, and I was powerfully impressed to see what complete confidence and self-possession every one of his teachers showed when presenting to groups of parents. How can they be so confident? I asked myself.

The answer to where the confidence came from was quickly obvious to me: these are teachers who enjoy their jobs, and they stand up and talk like this for most of every workday. They have get in more public speaking in the typical week than many people will do in their lifetimes. Effective practice makes you better and better at what you’re doing, and it also quells concerns about whether you have any right to do it. I’ve written about 15,000 words of fiction in the past week. I know from critique responses (we sometimes get very rapid turnaround on critique in my writer’s group) that at least some of those words worked well for a good sampling of readers, but I have no way of knowing if the stories I’ve put together will sell or just become more rejection magnets. However, having written all that, and especially doing that and then sending the work out, I know that I’m a writer. Whether or not editors buy what I write is up to them and out of my direct control. All I can do is keep plugging away, always working on something new, concerning myself not with whether people accept what I’ve written but with how well I’m doing the job of churning out words worth reading.

The thing is, regardless of how successful your writing is now or ever, if you bust your hump putting out new works, and if you push the envelope to try to make yourself better at what you do, then you’re a writer–and you might as well be proud of it.

Photo by V’ron

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The Help: Kathryn Stockett Achieves Resounding Success After Years of Rejection

Projects

Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, has become my new favorite example of the power of persistence. She certainly hasn’t made me forget about Jo Rowling, whose first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishers before finding a home at Bloomsbury, but Rowling got representation from the second agent she tried, while Stockett reportedly got at least 45 rejections for The Help before even finding an agent (see this article for a bit more on that).

If you don’t happen to be involved with publishing, I should explain that even after an author finds an agent, the agent then has to submit the book to publishers, so even finding an agent can be a long way away from getting a book published.

The Help is an engrossing, insightful novel about black maids and their white employers in the American South in the early 1960’s. I finished reading it (actually, listening to the audio book, which is very well performed) the other day, and it has taken its place among my favorite novels for its involving story, entertaining style, and heart. As you may know, Stockett’s novel has been made into a hugely successful movie and has sold millions of copies. After reading it, I found myself hoping that it had to do with direct experience, that Stockett was one of the children who were raised by the kinds of maids we get to know in the book. This turns out to be true, although Stockett is about a decade younger than the children in her novel.

Try, Improve, Try Again
Flying in the face of Robert Heinlein’s famous advice (“You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order”), which reportedly even Heinlein himself didn’t quite follow, Stockett kept making changes and improving her manuscript as she received rejection after rejection, though she doesn’t seem to have been at all immune to the painful process of having a work you’ve slaved away on repeatedly turned down and spoken ill of. This brings to mind Harper Lee’s process with To Kill a Mockingbird: she edited that novel over a long, laborious period with her editor, Tay Hohoff. While we know that there are great successes that come out more or less great from the beginning, others, clearly, are crafted over time.

It’s tempting to think that when many agents or publishers reject a book that later becomes successful, that they’re simply foolish or short-sighted. This can certainly be the case, as with the book publishers who said children would never read a book as long as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, or the editor who told Emily Dickinson that her poems were “generally devoid of true poetical qualities.” Sometimes, though, these people are just being truthful about work that doesn’t fit for them, or are responding to something that isn’t yet fully realized, a diamond in the rough that as far as the rejecting party knows may never really be cut to its proper shape.

Does persistence always pay off?
So should we take from this that, like Stockett, all we have to do is to hang in there, keep trying, and success will eventually come? I would suggest that the complete answer to that is “Yes and no.” Persistence seems to be a very important quality to have if we want to be successful at anything great. Actually, maybe “persistence” doesn’t quite cover it. Maybe the word I’m looking for is devotion, when we don’t simply show up, but put our whole selves into our efforts.

With that said, persistence alone isn’t necessarily going to get us anywhere. The Help is reportedly Stockett’s first novel, but she has a background in writing and editing, and most of the published novelists I know wrote at least one other novel or a lot of short stories (sometimes both) before selling a book.

Diamond in the rough or practice project?
So it is possible to stick with a project too long. With that said, I’m not sure it’s possible for us to stick with projects we really believe in, profoundly, for too long. Practice is essential to developing great skill, and realistically, some of the projects on which we set all of our hopes will eventually turn out to have been practice projects: practice books, practice jobs … even practice relationships.

Other projects need improvement. There’s no such thing as practice parenting if real kids are involved, so despite any past mistakes, all we can hope to do with parenting is to improve ourselves and do the best we can going forward. Some books just need a lot of editing or rewriting. Some businesses need a new direction to survive or thrive.

How do we tell the difference? That’s the hardest part, of course, but the keys seem to be

1) We are most successful when we pursue goals we’re passionate about
2) Failure and rejection are not, in themselves, evidence that we’re on the wrong track
3) If we continue backing one specific project or effort, we need to be open to improving it if the opportunity presents itself, and
4) Experience and insight sometimes show us that a previous attempt is no longer worth pursuing.

That last point is tricky, but the core of it is keeping in touch with our passion for our work. If that passion has died away because we come to see that we can do more or better, than that’s all right: it may be time to start a new project. If we’ve simply been worn down by not achieving what we had hoped for, though, the danger is of giving up too soon. Success is sometimes a long road, but personally, I’m inspired by the example of people who, like Stockett, have followed it to its end however long that takes.

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Readercon: Science Fiction, Creativity, and Fascinating People

Events

Every July, science fiction and fantasy readers, writers, editors, and reviewers gather in Burlington, Massachusetts (outside Boston) for Readercon, a literary science fiction convention. Readercon is special because it is devoted to speculative fiction in novels, short stories, and other writing–setting aside games, movies, TV shows, and the like.  It’s a great place to go to talk about everything from bug-eyed monsters to feminism, science fictional politics to Sherlock Holmes–not to mention to bump elbows with and listen to discussions between noted authors and poets. (See the full program here.)

Guests this year include Peter Straub, Caitlin Kiernan, Ellen Datlow, Michael Swanwick, Barry Longyear, Nick Mamatas, Neil Clarke, and others–myself included.  (See the full guest list here.)

This year Readercon starts on Thursday, July 12th with free programming and continues for members Friday through Sunday. Memberships are $70 at the door, less for single days.

A panel at a recent Readercon. Photo by Ed Gaillard

My own participation includes discussions on motivation and creativity (including my 1-hour Writing Motivation Toolbox presentation Saturday evening), a panel on transcending the human body, and readings from my book of flash fiction, Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories.

This will be my second trip to Readercon, and if it’s anything like my first, I plan to have a spectacular time. Hope to see you there.

Luc Reid’s Readercon Schedule

Friday July 13

5:00 PM    G    Why I Stopped Writing. Erik Amundsen, Nathan Ballingrud, Steve Berman (leader), Geary Gravel, Jennifer Pelland, Luc Reid. We’ve all seen writers logging their word counts, charting their progress toward the next novel or short story. And we’ve heard the advice to keep writing and submitting. But is it ever a good idea to just stop? What can we gain from getting off the publishing merry-go-round, at least for a while? Is stopping a sign of failure, or just another stage in a writer’s career? The panelists discuss how and why they stopped writing (and maybe started up again).

Saturday July 14

6:00 PM    RI    Writing Motivation Toolbox. Luc Reid. Leveraging recent psychological and neurological research, Luc Reid offers a brief tour of human motivation mechanisms as well as specific ways to get past writer’s block, inspire enthusiasm, sharpen focus, and get words onto the page. Many of the ideas from this talk about writing can be carried over to other areas of life, such as health, business, organization, and relationships.

7:00 PM    ME    Kurzweil and Chopra, Ghosts in the Same Shell. Athena Andreadis (leader), John Edward Lawson, Anil Menon, Luc Reid, Alison Sinclair.Transhumanism (TH) has been a prominent strain in contemporary SF; cyberpunk is in many ways the fiction arm of the movement. Athena Andreadis and discussants will explore core concepts of TH (longevity, uploading, reproductive alternatives, optimization projects from genome to organism), investigate which are strictly in science fiction versus science territory, and examine the larger outcomes of these tropes within the genre as well as in First Life, aka the real world.

Sunday July 15

10:00 AM    ME    The Seven Deadly Myths of Creativity. Andy Duncan, Joe Haldeman, Steve Kelner (leader), Toni L.P. Kelner, Matthew Kressel, Jennifer Pelland, Luc Reid. What is creativity, really? How does it work? Many people think of it as somehow magical, but in fact there has been considerable neuropsychological research devoted to the process of creativity, and current evidence makes it clear that it is inherent in the human brain: everyone is creative; the question is how to harness it. There are many myths about creativity that not only are unhelpful but have actively blocked or inhibited writers. Fortunately, many of these myths are entirely explicable and avoidable. Stephen Kelner, a research psychologist who is also a professional writer, will give an overview of the myths and the realities, and discussion will further explore individual participants’ questions or challenges.

11:30 AM    NH    Reading. Luc Reid. Luc Reid reads ridiculously varied flash fiction from his collection Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories. Topics include a virulent outbreak of happiness, alien cheesecake focus groups, and Cinderella’s divorce.

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Research Suggests Self-Awareness Helps Maintain Willpower

The human mind

I’ve extolled the virtues of mindfulness here on LucReid.com in a number of articles, such as “A Very Clear Example of the Power of Awareness” and “Mindfulness and Deer Flies.” A 2011 article  by Hugo Alberts, Carolien Martijn, and Nanne deVries in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (“Fighting self-control failure: Overcoming ego depletion by increasing self-awareness“) offers some insight on why and how mindfulness–specifically self-awareness (which we might also call “mindfulness of self”)–may aid willpower.

You may well have heard the ideas of Dr. Roy Baumeister and others, who describe willpower as being a resource that can be used up. Although this idea is popular, I’m inclined to think it’s off the mark: some of the concerns are described in my article “The Debate Over Whether Willpower Tires Our Brains.” Alberts, et al’s work seems to support the idea that willpower isn’t used up so much as misplaced.

In their study, the authors had participants work at a task that required willpower: holding an exercise handgrip closed for as long as they could. They would test a subject with this task once, then have them perform a slightly tedious task or else a highly annoying task that according to previous research should cause them to have reduced willpower on their next attempt. However, before that second attempt, they had one group unscramble sentences with the word “I” in them and another group unscramble sentences about other people, reasoning that the people who unscrambled the “I” sentences would think more about themselves–i.e., be more self-aware.

What happened? The group that unscrambled sentences about other people, as expected, had reduced willpower on their second attempt in holding the handgrips–the normal result. The group with the “I” sentences, however, did just as well as they had the first time: their willpower wasn’t diminished.

How cool is that? Paying attention to yourself, it appears, can help you maintain willpower. This is good news in situations, like dieting, where exercising willpower repeatedly is essential.

Thanks to Dr. Art Markman, whose post about this study brought it to my attention, and Vince Favilla for tweeting about that post.

Photo by _ado

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Writing a Novel in One Week

Writing

How fast can you write well? Don’t mistake slowness for quality: what speedy writing lacks in deliberation, under the right circumstances and with enough writing practice behind it, it can more than make up for in involvement, awareness, and momentum.

James Maxey, author of numerous successful short stories and of the Dragon Age trilogy of novels, has been used to a goal of 10,000 words written per week. This is pretty ambitious by almost anyone’s standards, and he doesn’t always hit the mark. Recently, though, he found he suddenly and unexpectedly had a full week without obligations, and he asked himself if for that time he might be capable of writing 10,000 words a day. Working like that for a week, he reasoned, it should be possible to write an entire novel.

Maxey planned a roughly 60,000-word sequel to his superhero novel Nobody Gets the Girl (Phobos Books, 2003; available in paperback and for Kindle), wrote an outline based on ideas he’d been having for years, and psyched himself up. At about 4:00 am on August 8th, he started writing. Stopping for little more than food and sleep, he pushed hard and completed the book in a 58,829-word first draft on August 14th at about quarter to three in the afternoon, with more than 13 hours to spare. His novel, appropriately enough, is called Burn Baby Burn.

And not only did he complete and survive the project, but he also kindly agreed to let me interview him about it a few days later.

Let me jump in with an obvious question: what in the world made you think you could write a novel in a week?

I knew that crime and adventure novelists from the pulp era often cranked out multiple short novels per month. Michael Moorcock claims to have written some of his Elric novels in a week, and I’d heard that Jim Thompson wrote The Grifters in a weekend (though I tried to Google that factoid this morning and couldn’t find it, so I may have been working under a false premise!).

Like most writers, I have a day job. I’ve pretty much been continuously employed since I left college. The vast majority of my writing takes place in stolen moments. When I’m in the zone, I can produce roughly 1000 words in an hour. But, it’s so hard to get in the zone. After I get home from work, I’m too burned out to sit down and write immediately. After I start feeling like myself again and get to work in an evening, right about the time I’m feeling warmed up, it’s bed-time, since I have to get up at 5:30 in the morning to punch the clock again.

And I’ve always wondered: What if I was punching the clock to write? Could I put my butt in a chair and leave it there for eight hours a day? Every now in then on a day off, I managed to do this. My record for a single day was 13,000 words. But, it’s rare I have a day off when I have a free eight hours. On weekends, I like to go biking and canoeing with my fiancée. My vacations are normally spent with family at the beach. I don’t want to be a recluse and cut myself off from all human contact. So, most weeks, I only get about 10 hours of writing time.

Then, in a surprising plot twist, my employer announced they were shutting down my workplace for a week to rewire the building for new equipment. I had only a month’s notice. Suddenly, I found myself with a week of time where I’d be home all day while my fiancée and all my friends would be at work. I had no plans to travel, no obligations at all. After fantasizing for the last twenty years about how much writing I could do if I wasn’t employed, it was suddenly time to discover if I had what it takes to write a book in one week, or if I’d been kidding myself all along.

I know this is already a long answer, but there are two more elements that play into this: 1. I discovered this year that I had a severe thyroid deficiency. One way I discovered this was that the records I keep of how many words I produce a week showed a declining trend. I’ve now been taking medication for several months to compensate, and just in the last few months have felt my brain wind back up to full speed. I wrote the bulk of my last novel, Hush, when my thyroid deficiency was at its worst, I felt like I’d been running a marathon wearing lead boots. Now, the boots were off, and I felt faster than ever. 2. The novel I had in mind was a novel I’d wanted to write for years, but hadn’t because I didn’t think I could sell it. But, the publishing world has been upended by e-books, and now I can write whatever I want to write secure in the knowledge that I can bring it to readers via Kindle and Nook. Knowing that what I’m writing is definitely going to see print (or pixels, at least) is a tremendous motivator.

What obstacle threatened to hold you back the most, and how did you get past it?

I would say that my biggest obstacle was that I can type a heck of a lot faster than I can imagine story details. So, after a big rush of words on the first day, each subsequent day got a little tougher as my imagination buffer kept running dry. By Wednesday, I really wondered if I should pull the plug on the project. I wrote a very clunky chapter that was also pretty short, but which still took hours to produce. I worried I’d reached a point of diminishing returns, and continuing might actually ruin the book if I kept cranking out bad chapters.

Fortunately, I was posting chapters to my blog at dragonprophet.blogspot.com as I wrote them. I’d announced I was going to finish a novel in a week there, and on Facebook, and on Codex. Failing to keep posting chapters would have been a pretty public failure. So, mostly to avoid embarrassment, I kept writing on Thursday morning. And, yay! I liked the chapter I wrote. I didn’t spend as much time at the keyboard Thursday – Sunday as I did Monday – Wednesday, when I was pretty much glued to the computer. I would walk away and think about what happened next, then what happened next, and not come back until I had three events to flesh out. Three events didn’t require a huge effort to think up, and proved sufficient to let me keep typing without feeling like my brain was running dry.

I do think that, if I hadn’t been so public with my goal, the temptation to quit after I’d gotten 30k words written for the week would have been difficult to overcome. I’d never written that much in a week before. It would have been very easy to call it a win and finish the rest of the book before the end of the month at my old 10k words a week pace.

How do you feel the book came out compared to books you’ve written at a more usual speed?

The plot was definitely more stream-lined. It’s still a fully developed main plot, but it only has two or three sub-plots. Through the book, there are only three point-of-view characters. Sunday and Pit’s POVs drive the main story, while the superhero known as Ap has a few POV chapters where the primary subplot is developed.

In comparison, my Bitterwood novels all have at least a dozen point of view characters, and more interweaving subplots than I can count.

But, I wasn’t aiming for epic fantasy. I was shooting for a page-turning pulp adventure featuring atomic supermen and space aliens drifting along dark desert highways. This is the sort of novel I used to devour on a single summer afternoon when I was a teenager. On the other hand, this novel isn’t mental junk food filled with empty calories. I think I manage to get to moments in the book that will prove thought provoking, and other moments that will provide genuine emotional catharsis. It’s a book I’m proud of, and can’t wait to get into the hands of readers.

You can also read James Maxey’s post “Five tricks for writing a novel in a week” here. The full text of the first draft of Burn Baby Burn is available permanently for free on Maxey’s Web site, though Maxey says “it may be a bit of a slog to read since I didn’t bother fixing the formatting for the web,” while you can get the finished and polished book for Kindle here. The result was entertaining and fairly engrossing, I thought. You can read my review on the book’s Amazon page.

By the way, James has a habit of coming up with pithy things to say about writing. You can see some of his writing quotes here.

This piece is adapted from my Futurismic column “Brain Hacks for Writers”

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