On Rejection

On Rejection

I’m querying my first manuscript. The process involves receiving a lot of impersonal rejection letters and reading a lot of articles about ‘writing the perfect query letter’. Querying has made me realize how much of a novice I am when it comes to traditional publishing and how much an expert I am when it comes to rejection.

When I graduated college in 2010, I entered teeth first into the great recession. It took me three years of near constant searching to find a job that even remotely justified the money spent on my degree. Dating has been even more instructive and humbling. If you really want to know rejection download Bumble.

I don’t bring either example up looking for pity. Rejection to me isn’t a bad thing, it’s just something that happens. It’s almost never about you, at least not the way you think it is. It’s just the world saying ‘no’, and it’s only dangerous if you fear it or misinterpret it.

Rejection to me is different than failure. It’s usually much less informative. I can try to run a 5k and fail and learn a lot about running and how to succeed next time. Failure is personal, internal. It is me not meeting a goal. I have all the steps, all the insights. Rejection is external. Another person or organization giving me a flat NO. It’s often coming from a source that I can’t get feedback from or any real explanation as to why I was rejected. When I send a query letter to an agent and they respond with a form ‘thanks, but no thanks’, I don’t learn anything other than that agent isn’t interested in my story.

Rejection to me is most instructive when there’s a lot of it. Most of the things we get ‘rejected’ from are a numbers game: dating, job applications, query letters, etc. A certain amount of rejection is excepted in each and we all do things to try and strengthen our odds: apply for jobs in fields we have experience in, ask for dates from people with similar interests, and so on. If you’re continuously getting rejected, then it might be a good idea to try a new approach. Do further research, ask for feedback from friends or colleagues, or other experts. Try a new strategy, go to local events to meet new people, try networking rather than job boards, try to get a short story published.

If feasible, ask for feedback from someone who rejected you, but if you do this understand, you will not change their mind. If someone has rejected you for whatever reason, it is not an invitation to debate them. The answer is NO, and you must accept that. Maybe that person will change their mind about you later, it’s a big random world out there, but its super unlikely and it will never happen from you trying again and again and again to change the NO to a YES.

Also, if you do get a reason for your rejection understand that it will probably have little to nothing to do with you. If I query an agent that’s tired of epic fantasy stories or hates orcs or just isn’t feeling the title, there’s not much I can do. If I don’t get the job I interviewed for, maybe it’s because there was an internal candidate or the company had a surprisingly bad quarter and couldn’t afford the position, or the manager didn’t think I was a good culture fit. The list goes on and the answers are never satisfying.

Rejection is about acceptance. You have heard a NO, from someone that isn’t you. The intensity of your will, wants, and desires do not matter. The reason does not matter, you will not receive closure from asking. The rejection means nothing beyond the NO. It doesn’t mean you aren’t talent, good, or worthy of love. It just means NO. It’s not a puzzle, it’s not problem, accept it and let it go. I understand it sucks. I understand that it stings. You get rejected enough and you will feel bitter and sad, and it’s okay to feel that. But you don’t need to linger there and if you do, that’s on you, not the rejection.

If rejection has taught me anything it’s to understand what I have control over and what I don’t. Love and success are things that will require a YES from someone else, but you can’t make anyone say yes. What you can do is work on yourself. Expand who you are, what you can do, and keep trying, keep looking for new opportunities. There is a lot of rejection in life, don’t fear it, don’t build it into something it’s not. Accept it, keep trying, I don’t know if we’ll get there, but trying and moving past rejection is the only way forward.

How to Create Habits for the New Year

How to Create Habits for the New Year

I started this series talking about setting goals, last week I talked about meeting goals, this week I’m digging a little deeper and talking about habits. Habits are the unconscious or semi-conscious behaviors that we routinely carry out each day, like reaching for our phones first thing in the morning or getting a candy bar from the work vending machine every afternoon. It’s something automatic, programmed, we’re barely aware we’re doing it.

Some habits are good, some habits are bad, some are neutral. Everyone has them, and they can be hard to control or change or even understand. But setting the right habits can have major impact on your productivity.

Why are habits important?

Habits are the small little things you do everyday that build to large goals. Running every morning will eventually let you compete in a marathon. Writing for an hour every day will eventually lead to a 200,000-page manuscript, but more than that, habits are nearly automatic.

As a society we mythologize willpower, but in truth we’re creatures of habits, reaction and emotions. We can’t will ourselves to achieve our goals, the best thing we can do is manage ourselves. Anyone who has tried to lose weight knows exactly what I’m talking about. Intellectually you understand that you have to stop eating junk food. But if you keep those Oreos in your house and try to will yourself not eat them, guess what, eventually you’re going to eat some Oreos.

The Habit Loop

To set good habits we have to first understand them. Habits are made of three components that act together to form a ‘habit loop’. These are ‘the trigger’, ‘the action’ and ‘the reward’. First, we see or experience something that causes us to do an action, and then we are rewarded for that action. The most famous example of this Pavlov’s dog. The dog heard the bell: ‘the trigger’, it started to salivate: ‘the action’, and then received a treat: ‘the reward’.

If you want to set up a habit you need to think of these three components. The trigger doesn’t need to be a literal alarm, it can be a time or a location. I used to write at the same coffee shop every day before work; being in the coffee shop acted as a trigger to start writing. The reward was I could get a cup of coffee on my way out.

The reward too doesn’t need to be a physical treat though. It can be something you were going to do anyway, or even just a dopamine hit. Going to the gym to lift weights always makes me feel better after I’ve done it, it’s a purely chemical thing. Likewise, to prevent me from laying in bed and playing with my phone, I put it in the other room to charge and only let myself look at it after I get dressed. My reward for that action is I get to check my phone.

Bad Habits

The habit loop is something that happens to all of us constantly, and you probably have habits right now you would like to break. The only successful way to get rid of a bad habit is to replace it with a good one. Dismantle the habit. You probably already know the action, figure out the ‘trigger’ and ‘reward’ and replace them.

Now this is admittedly, easier said then done. Almost anything can be trigger and it’s hard to figure it out exactly. Rewards too can be something different than you initially expected. I used to get up and get a candy bar every afternoon at work. I thought that the reward was the sugar from the candy bar. But when I went to break the habit, I realized that while I was eating the candy bar I wasn’t working. I tried replacing the candy bar with a walk instead, and it worked. I realized that the reward I was seeking was really just a break from my desk.

If you have a habit you’re trying to break write down what you did right before the action and what you did right after. Experiment, change your environment, pay attention to the time of day, your physical state, are you tired or hungry? What’s the consistent thing that seems to trigger you?

The Willpower Myth

Willpower is not a limitless resource. Everyone, even the most successful people, only have so much of it. Try to focus on managing yourself, you’re not a create of pure logic, you’re going to mess up or have a bad day or just feel too exhausted after work to do something. That’s okay, give yourself that break, figure out a way to decrease those barriers.

If you want to do more of something make it easier for yourself to do it. Pack gym clothes the night before, to get yourself out on a run. If you want to not do something make it harder for yourself to do it. Don’t carry cash to work so you can’t use the vending machine. You’re still going to mess up, but the harder you make the task the more willpower it takes, it’ll be easier to say ‘no’ if it takes too much.

Habits, focus, goals, these things aren’t easy. They take work. I hope these blog post helped you get started. If you’re looking for more information on habits check out The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I also can’t recommend this article on self-control enough.

After you do some reading go out there and create some habits! (like following this blog)

How to Meet Goals for the New Year

How to Meet Goals for the New Year

Last week I discussed setting goals, this week we’re talking about how to actually meet them. The truth is, that while important, setting goals is the easy part. It takes at most a couple of hours to map out your goals, but meeting them requires daily attention and will, and that’s tough. Here’s some tips to get you started.

Get Things Done Early

Okay, I admit this one is a little groan inducing. There’s definitely a wing of the ‘productivity world’ that fetishizes getting up at 4am and getting all your work done before noon. But when I say ‘early’, I don’t mean 4am. I mean trying to do your most important task first, as soon as possible, as early as you can.

Most days all you really need to do is one important thing. If you can get that out of the way before anything else, you have already succeeded. If you want to be a novelist get up at 6am and write for an hour before work. If you can’t get up early because the kids need to get to school, or your work begins at 6am, write the second you clock out. I stay at my desk at work and write for an hour before I go home and have dinner.

Willpower is a limited resource, it drains from the second you get up in the morning so make sure you spend it on what matters. This is especially true if you’re starting a new habit. You’re going to face a lot of resistance at first.

So, pick one task, and one task only, and make yourself do it as early as you possibly can. I know this sounds stupidly simple. But in practice it can be extremely difficult. We tend to procrastinate and the thing we push off the most is the thing that is often the most important. We do this because with importance comes weight, anxiety and pressure. Wake up and it get it out of the way before all that pressure can build.

Consistency is Best

Getting up at 6am and writing for an hour might sound realistic on paper, but there’s going to be that Monday were you stayed up too late last night binging Narcos on Netflix because you were depressed the weekend was over and didn’t want to go back to work; that Monday is going to suck and when you first start you’re going to have a lot of those Mondays.

The important thing here is not to go back to bed and try again on Tuesday, it’s to get up. Yes, that’s going to be hard, yes, anything you write is probably going to be awful, and yes, you almost assuredly aren’t going to write for a full hour. But that’s okay. The most important thing is that you consistently get up and try. If the idea of an hour is too intimidating that day, tell yourself you only have to do twenty minutes. If you’re worried about quality, give yourself permission to suck, just do it.

Goals are not met by crushing it one day a week and sleeping in all the others. They are met by consistently doing a little every day. Some days are going to be a wash, but that’s fine, if you got up and write, then you succeed, even if you’re just deleting it all the next day. You learned something, you strengthened a habit, you earned yourself a gold star.

Track Your Progress

When I say ‘earned a gold star’ I mean that literally (or, kind of literally? The word ‘literally’ has been in a weird place for a while now.) Rewarding yourself for completing a task is an important part of building a habit. And tracking tasks can help you set more realistic goals and modify goals you’ve already set.

I keep a white board where I give myself a tally for every day I write for an hour or for every query letter I send or even for every blog post I write. I then feed all my tracked goals into a spreadsheet, so I can figure out how much I’ve progressed or where I need to improve. The tallies also have the added benefit of acting as a reward. I feel a rush of dopamine every time I put up a mark on the board.

Tracking your goals helps build momentum and rewards can keep that momentum going. Pick rewards that are manageable or that will link the habit in your mind. Maybe you write in café every morning and the reward is a cup of coffee. Maybe you can only listen to your favorite podcast while on the elliptical at the gym. Think of small, pleasurable things that you can often repeat.

The end goal is to create good habits, habits are the building blocks that goals are constructed out of. They assure that you keep going without having to put in much will or thought. I’ll discuss habits in greater detail in my next post, for now pick that one important thing and get started!

How to set Goals for the New Year

How to set Goals for the New Year

January is the beginning of a new year, a time for renewals and resolutions. I find this period to be extremely cathartic. For the last five years, I’ve spent every January 1st reflecting on the previous year and setting goals for the new one. If you don’t set yearly goals, it’s not too late and it can really help you push forward with your writing, weight loss or anything else you’re looking to accomplish. Here some tips to help you start.

Pick the Right Goal

Goal setting is tough. Most people have a general idea of what they want: more money, a romantic partner, a three-book deal (Yes, please!). But it can be hard to deconstruct these general desires into achievable goals. A goal should be something you can track and something that can be broken down into further steps and due dates. Getting a new job, is a good example. You don’t have the ultimate say in being hired somewhere, but you can plot ways that can improve your odds or output like apply to five jobs a week, or go for a certificate, or go to a conference to do some networking.

It’s important to pick something that is achievable, but not easy. Losing five pounds in a year is doable, losing fifty might be unrealistic. You want something in between, something that feels slightly out of reach. This is a ‘Stretch Goal’. A Stretch Goal is a goal that while, not impossible, feels unlikely. It requires dedication to meet and creates just the right amount of pressure to force you to think creatively.

My stretch goal this year is to write a new novel draft in six months. I have never completed a draft in less than nine months. This goal forces me to reevaluate my novel process, maybe do an outline first, or pick a smaller project (100,000 rather 200,000 words) or find a more consistent writing schedule.

Steps and Due Dates

Once you have your goal it’s important break down the steps you need to complete in order to achieve your goal. For example, another goal I have is to get Ghets published. In order to do that, I need to find a literary agent. A literary agent will want a query letter and a summary, so I’ll need to write those. They’ll also want a trimmed and edited draft, so I better make sure I finish entering my line edits first.

Once I have all the steps needed to complete a goal, I’ll assign a due dates. I do this by breaking the year into quarters and see what I need to accomplish by the end of each quarter to achieve the goal by the end of the year. I then focus on this first quarter and I get more granular. I figure out what I need to have done this month to meet my quarter goal and then what I need to have done this week to meet my month goal. Personally, I like to get so granular that I have a set of daily tasks that I can do each day to move forward on my goals like enter twenty pages of line edits or write two thousand words a day.

You don’t need to go as specific as I do, but it’s important to set markers and due dates. Goals should be fluid, you’re going to mess up or life is going to get in the way and it’s good to have points where you can sit down and reevaluate, see what you need to do or cut in order to stay on target. I use the months and quarters for this. If at the end of the month I’m lagging because something is taking too long to achieve, or I had to move or whatever, I modify my steps and adjust the quarter goals, so I can still meet my year goals.

If you’re looking for a tool to use, try trello. It’s free and it’s easy to make lists, categorize tasks and see it all in one big board.

Don’t Put it Off

Planning goals feels good. Plotting and a declaring a major life achievement can make you feel like you’ve already done it. You’ve written the equation and now time will answer it for you. Or maybe the opposite, writing all that down made you realize how daunting a task this really is, and you feel like you’ll never get it done. I often feel both those things at the same time (I know, right?).

That’s why it’s important to start immediately, don’t put it off, grab that momentum and start working. It’s thrilling to take things off your to-do list, that’s why I like goals that can be broken down into daily chunks like exercise for twenty minutes or research for an hour. I keep a white board where I track my daily completed tasks. It’s nerdy, but I feel a pinch of happiness each time I add a tally and it helps me push forward to the next one.

I hope you found this helpful, next week I’ll have a post on maintaining goals and building habits. Until then, start setting some goals!

Novel Update: Yes, I’m still writing a novel

Novel Update: Yes, I’m still writing a novel

It’s been awhile since I wrote about my creative work, so I thought I’d give a year end update. I’m working on a novel called Ghets (you can find out more here!) It’s a fun, fantasy adventure about guides who lead Lord of the Rings style Fellowships on quests. My pitch is Guardians of the Galaxy meets Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve been working on it for about…three years? It’s in its third draft which is mostly polish and line edits and hopefully I’ll have a concrete launch day by the end of the year.

Ghets is not the first novel I’ve written, it’s not even the first novel that’s made it to beta readers, but it’s progressed farther than any other I’ve attempted. It’s my longest novel too, a 205,853-word behemoth that will be a big ask for any literary agent or publisher to take on from a complete unknown like myself. I’ve put off querying a literary agent a long time because of the length and angst in general.

I’ve never written a novel and not felt queasy levels of anxiety. The anxiety is detached from the work, it lurks along the edges, coiling around me and occasionally squeezing. The closer I get to querying or finally self-publishing, the tighter the anxiety grows. Like everyone who writes a novel, I want my novel to succeed, I want three years of work to cumulate in some manner of validation.

I’ve gotten good at the mechanically aspects of writing novels. I can sit down and crank out pages. I like to think my prose is decent, and entertaining. I know from my beta readers I can construct a good hook. I don’t get upset or give up in the face of sharp criticism and I’m always trying to learn to write better. I know intellectually that most novels only sell a few thousand copies and with self-publishing I’d be lucky to hit a hundred.

But something about going to the next stage, about sending out letters or trying to promote a self-published work still frightens me. I can’t tell if it’s a fear of failure or success or both. Either way, I want to share my stories. I like writing them and I think people would enjoy them. So, the first inquiry letters are going out by the end of next week. While I query, I’ll be working to finish up the line edits and trim Ghets as much as I can, hopefully getting it below 200,000-words. I’ll share more updates as they come and let you know my experiences trying to get a giant fantasy novel out there.

Next week I’ll share some of my writing goals, and I’m planning a couple of posts on goal setting and productivity for January, which might help with any projects you’re working on. Also, I finally joined twitter after resisting it for years, so far it hasn’t been that bad. You can follow me @Arthurpenwright for retweets on comic book and fantasy novels, as well as plenty of puppies and the occasional writing stuff.

See you in the new year!

Taking a leap into the Spider-verse

Taking a leap into the Spider-verse

Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse had a near impossible task. It had to establish yet another marvel, spider-man universe, introduce seven spider-people, explain multi-dimensions, act as origin story for Miles Morales and give us a satisfying hero journey all within a 117 minute run time. Like an unstable super collider it could have been ripped apart by competing goals and focus. Instead it pushes through, celebrating it’s comic book complexity and it’s amazing lead, all the while building to a climax that bursts with color, style, music and pathos. It’s a good movie, a great movie and even more than that understands a problem that Marvel and DC have been grappling with for the last decade, how do you do legacy heroes?

Marvel and DC have super heroes that have been around for decades and occasionally those super heroes temporarily retire or die, (also temporarily), leaving their mantles to new characters. In the 90s Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman all gave up their titles to completely new characters. Captain America’s two former sidekicks: Bucky Barnes and Falcon have both spent time as Captain America in the past. These legacy changes used to follow a similar script: a new character takes the mantle, tries to live up to the legacy, gets a new costume, does things differently, has some victories, but ultimately the weight of that legacy is too much for them and they give it up when the original hero triumphantly returns. 

 The legacy character usually stuck around, getting a new costume or super hero name or returning to their old one. Bucky goes by Winter Solider now, Falcon is still the Falcon. They don’t live in the legacy of their mentor, they don’t get to make it their own, outside of Green Lanterns, legacy heroes have to forge a different path. Into the Spider-verse offers a different, more complex answer to the legacy problem. One that might only work for Spider-men like Miles and Peter.

Miles Morales is more than a modern Peter Parker from a diverse background. He’s a kid struggling to find his place, figure out what makes him special and how to relate to his family, especially his dad who he’s drifting apart from, much like his uncle did previously. Miles is extremely relatable. His failures are not big, dramatic moments, but honest setbacks that make him feel a mixture of humility and helplessness. He doubts himself more than Peter Parker ever did, and it manifests in powers he has trouble controlling.

Part of his doubt come from just being a kid who has all this thrust upon him, but a lot of doubt comes from Spider-man’s own legacy. Miles had a Spider-man to live up to. Unlike the audience, who knows that Peter Parker is just some schmuck from Queens trying to do the right thing, Miles knows Spider-man only from his victories and success. This is were Into the Spider-verse does something brilliant. It introduces us to a 40-something Peter who has made a mess of his life. 

The two Spider-men learn from each other, with this older Peter redefining what Spider-man means to Miles, while Miles forces Peter to comes to grips with a legacy he never expected to have. When Pete finally decides what it means to be Spider-man he tells Miles to take a leap of faith. Ultimately Parker sees Spider-man as someone who doesn’t know if he’s ready, probably isn’t, but takes that leap because he has to. This message doesn’t come from a perfect hero, but imperfect one. Someone who Miles knows doesn’t always land when he jumps and that makes it more real than any pep talk that Superman or Captain America could ever give their legacy heroes.

 One of the reasons the Spider-verse works (in comics and movies) and characters like Spider-Gwen and Miles Morales took off is because Spider-man’s legacy is unique. Yes, it’s about spider-powers, but it’s also about power and responsibility. Peter Parker, Miles Morales, Gwen Stacy, they weren’t born with their abilities like superman. Trauma is something they all have to face, but it’s not what defines them like Batman. They’re people with responsibilities who have powers and are trying to balance the two. None of them feel ready to handle it all, and they all fail sometimes. This makes Spider-man’s legacy unique amongst super-heroes, he can be anyone. Anyone who’s willing to take a leap. And because of that Miles doesn’t live in Pete’s shadow in the end, he swings alongside him.

(Seriously go see Into the Spider-verse it’s amazing and if you want another gushing Spider-man post you can find it here)

Ralph Breaks more than just the Internet

Ralph Breaks more than just the Internet

***This Post contains Spoilers for Ralph Breaks the Internet***

I loved 2012’s Wreck-it Ralph. It was a near perfect video game movie. Its references weren’t meaningless call outs, but tools to build a colorful, storybook world. It was a writer’s story too, a tight character driven piece of work that understood Ralph and Venellope’s desires and conflicts and weaved them together in a tidy braid. Even if you didn’t like the movie, the craftsmanship was something to appreciate. So, I was expecting to like Ralph Breaks the Internet and I didn’t. I wouldn’t say I disliked it either, I don’t really have any reaction to it other a bland sense of disappointment.

Ralph 2 isn’t bad. The internet world it creates, like the arcade world of the previous film, is a colorful, beautiful place that would be a delight to explore (unlike the real internet, save for gems like this blog of course…please follow). There are charming characters like the search engine Knowsmore, and the pop-up con-artist Double-Dan. I loved the constant costume changes of the Taraji Henson voiced Yesss and the energy she brought to the character was perfect.

The returning cast is just as good. Venellope and Ralph are adorable together, especially as they stumble through the internet lost and naïve. And scenes remain sharp and interesting, like the Disney Princess bit halfway through the film. The ingredients are all there, but the recipe never comes together. The issue is the plot. The problem that brings Ralph and Venellope to the internet essentially gets resolved with little to no effort, or at least little to no conflict. That leaves the movie asking, what are we doing here? What’s the fuel that moves us from scene to scene?

It finds answers, but they feel forced and the final conflict is heavy handed. It boils down to a lack of honest communication between Ralph and Venellope. Ralph unleashes a virus on Venellope’s new game ‘Slaughter Race’ in the hopes of slowing it down so that Venellope will get bored and go back to the arcade with him. It’s selfish for sure, but Ralph doesn’t understand the extent of the virus he unleashes and regrets it almost the second he does it. But, the virus escapes and builds a literal monster out of Ralph’s insecurities.

It’s too much, and a product of the film not having a defined antagonist. Ralph is clingy, but the big bad at the end is really himself? The film didn’t do enough for me to buy into that. I wouldn’t be surprised if an original draft of the movie had Yess as a villain. But maybe the writers thought that making the personification of click culture evil was too preachy or they just found Yesss too much fun to turn evil.

It’s possible they never had any villain planned at all, because the film seems to care less about its plot and more about what new fun internet-thing can it incorporate next? The world building is enjoyable, but it’s not as purposeful as the first film. Ralph and Venellope feel out of place, surrogates, the most easily adaptable Disney property to take this journey. Manic GTA meets Disney Princess musical numbers and creepy Dark webizens are bizarre enough to be entertaining, but Ralph 2 feels more like a series ‘Buzztube’ videos than a story. Much like the internet itself, it’s lesser than its potential.