The Isekai Genre or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Conflict Free OtherWorld

The Isekai Genre or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Conflict Free OtherWorld

The pandemic saw me return to ‘comfort food’ media which meant an absolutely embarrassing amount of anime. A lot of those shows were Isekai. I found the Isekai genre to be both the most interesting and yet the least compelling of the anime I watched. They violate a very important element of storytelling, but they do so intentionally, and the results are shows that feel less like dramatic tv and more like eating a big bag of chips.

The Isekai genre is about someone from our world being transported to another world. The other world of Isekai is almost exclusively a fantasy land based off video games, MMOs in particular. Some of these worlds even are MMOs, like ‘Sword Art Online’ and ‘Log Horizon’. The video gameness of the world is never questioned, and it can run deep. Isekai leads can ‘level up’, have job classes, use health potions, gain ‘skills’ and ‘attributes’ in mechanical RPG-like ways and even have magic that functions like an RPG UI.

 At their core Isekai shows are fantasy’s about being transported into your favorite video game, where the mad skillz you picked up by dedicating hours to leveling up and constructing a perfect character have a real world pay off. Inherently, there’s nothing wrong with that. A lot of great stories are built off power fantasies. I’ve received a ton of pathos and comfort from Spider-Man over the years and he’s about a nerd who finally gets to be a superhero. Isekai though, tend to go a bit further.

In Isekai shows the hero is almost insanely OP. They are a god tier entity that can call on crazy powerful spells or abilities almost from the beginning. There is no challenge that they can’t surpass or trump card they can’t pull. At times fights in Isekai shows are just characters shouting abilities at each other, followed by colorful effects and then smirking knowing that they still have a yet even more powerful ‘ability’ to call upon. There is plenty of fighting but no conflict.

The lack of conflict extends beyond physical confrontations. Isekai heroes are almost immediately liked by everyone they meet or if not, soon find a way to befriend or impress every member of true authority or cute girl they come across. By the midway point of a given series, an Isekai lead will have a minimum of three girls who are into him and at least one king or powerful being will have praised their strength.

Even the shows that try to establish some sense of conflict fail to do so or only use it as a pretense to give their lead an edgy vibe. ‘Arifureta’ and ‘Shield Hero’ are the two that come to mind, with some truly cringe results. ‘The villains’ that betray the heroes in each are so thinly drawn that they have no motivation or goals outside of being mean to the unfairly maligned lead. The conflict they create lasts at most a couple of episodes and is used as a springboard to make the hero more powerful and disgruntled.

Shounen, a genre that shares a lot in common with Isekai with a similar male audience in mind and fights that can also be described as shouting with colorful effects and endless trump cards, differs markedly from Isekai in terms of it’s dramatic conflict. Shouen shows like ‘My Hero Academia’ and ‘Naruto’ are about kids becoming the chosen one or a super strong hero. But the process of becoming that hero is important to the story. The main character often endures trials. They have rivals, and shortcomings that their classmates don’t. They don’t win every fight and usually suffer pretty bad defeats forcing them through grueling training.

In Shounen shows the hero usually has a clear motivation, Midoriya wants to be worthy and be able to wield All-Might’s power. Tanjiro wants to turn his demonic sister back into a human. Isekai leads might have worlds to save, but they feel less invested and sometimes are just there to chill. Isekai leads are genre savvy nerds from our world who know exactly what role they’re playing and they often treat the other world they fall into like a game rather than a real place. This meta focus can make an Isekai fantasy world feel less real and lower the stakes.

This isn’t to say that there is an inherent lack of conflict in the concept of Isekai. ‘Grimgar, Ashes and Illusions’ takes a hard look at normal people falling into a DnD style world and finds drama in their survival and growth as adventures. Re:Zero, one of the most popular Isekai shows, has a genre savvy lead in Subaru Natsuki, but that savviness can make him entitled which has real consequences for him. The show also refuses to give him any powers save a groundhogs day style curse that activates when he dies. It’s not my favorite, but it’s definitely focused more on story and conflict than a lot Iesaki.

But for most Iesaki the lack of real conflict, of drama, is intentional, a feature, not a bug. My favorite drama free Iesaki is probably ‘That time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime’ (yes, that’s the title). The lead is a slime, the most basic monster in nearly every RPG. He somehow manages to become a powerhouse and defeats, befriends and/or charms about everyone he meets. The result is a series that is light, chill and largely inoffensive (if you ignore some of the female character designs…). It knows it’s a pleasant, guilt-free power fantasy that you can enjoy on the couch like a bag of chips.


Why are you the Person to Tell This Story?

Why are you the Person to Tell This Story?

I found that question in a query form for an agent that I reached out to. For those of you who don’t know querying is like your book applying for a job, save with more rejection. Agents want various degrees of things to query them. The most essential being a query letter…that and a completed, edited, beta-read, edited several more times, novel. But the query letter is the most important because most aren’t going to make it to your novel.

Why are you the person to tell this story?

I stared at that question for a very long time, but not because it was difficult. I knew the answer right away, it escaped me like a gasp, like a laugh, like a god damn growl. “Because it’s mine.”

As writers we all bump into stories that aren’t ours and sometimes tell them anyway. Maybe it’s something that happened to a friend, or anecdote we heard at a party, a footnote in a history book that we found intriguing, or an article we read online that begged to grow a plot and expand off the page, something that needs research and care and that question ‘Why are you the person to tell this story?’ But a novel? But my novel?

The pitch for my novel, The Beast of Domarr Fell, is Beowulf meets Yojimbo. I’m not the person to tell this story because I can read Old English or have a deep understanding of the works of Akira Kurosawa, I can’t and I don’t. The pitch is the pitch, the novel is the characters, and they are made of me.

Fianna’Dale bard to the High King of the Vottr, is filled with my confidence and shaped by my humor, formed from what I think is clever and what I think is brave. Isha, young seer, daughter of warriors and thralls, lost to angst and power and struggle of identity, is shaped by teenage years and battles with insecurities and the constant search for self. Dayur, the Red Druid, reluctant monster hunter, tired old man forged of guilt and fear with a paunch, baldhead and red beard is so very obviously made of me.

Dayur is bond to a familiar, called Whisper. She is a half-formed ghost covered in a cloak made of moth wings and is always hungry. She screams and throws tantrums and rages within him and her needs determine much of Dayur’s life. Dayur and Whisper were bond when Dayur was twelve and forever he has questioned if there is something wrong within him. The other druid children received familiars in the shape of birds and foxes, while he received a banshee that can’t touch or move or live without him.

Much of my childhood felt fragile, made up of responsibility and failure and the constant sense that I had done something wrong, that sense grew and transformed into a fear that I, in fact, was something wrong. And from there, were struggles with phantoms that raged and hated me and called me the worse possible things and yet also needed so much of my attention. 

My life is not dramatic. I didn’t team up with my anxiety and depression to slay monsters. I didn’t confront or resolve my phantoms the way Dayur does. My pain was not epic like his. It was born of small days and likewise quiet and small defeats that I eventually overcame. And I have had love and support and second chances that Dayur never got.

He is also quite different from me and not just because he’s a Viking warrior with a battle axe. He’s kinder than me with near infinite patience. He’s quiet and solitary and I’m not. I talk way too much, especially when I get nervous like Fianna. Dayur has trouble talking to people at all. He is of my image, made from parts I wish I had and parts I’m glad I don’t have, but all of them are of me.

Even the characters that feel farthest from me have my philosophy, have my understanding of the world or are shaped in opposition to it, or come from questions of it. At the very least they are born of a world that works by my logic and are funny or stupid or cruel by what I deem to be so.

Now, because it’s my novel, it’s imperfect. Hell, it might even be bad. I don’t think so, but it’s possible. It’s probably too long. I keep wading in and trimming it, but I never can seem to get it down as much as I would like. The plot might be too cliched, it’s certainly not revolutionary, but I’m proud of it. I’m proud of my characters, mined from me, shaped by my words but living their own lives. Me and not me, but certainly all mine. Just as ‘The Beast of Domarr Fell’ is mine.

So why am I the person to tell this story? Because I’m the only one that possibly could.

Writing in Pandemic

Writing in Pandemic

I love to write. Nothing in this world makes me feel as instantaneously contented and accomplished as sitting down and working on a novel. Since 2011, I’ve always had a book I’m working on. I could have a bad day, hate my job, feel all alone, get terrible news and I would sit down and write. And after I wrote, I would always feel better, always. You would think then that during 2020, I would have written a lot.   

But I didn’t.

I look back and search for reasons: I chose the wrong projects, I made the mistake of hoping too much after a couple literary agents asked for a previous manuscript, I was too depressed after I lost my job. All of it feels true and yet none of it is satisfying.

2020 was a bad year for everyone. The pandemic still rages across the US and I’m very much in the same spot right now as I was a year ago (don’t worry, I got a new job). It’s hard to try and wring a lesson out of the year. When we frame the stories of our lives, they take the structure of cause and effect, they become struggles, battles fought and lost.

2020 doesn’t feel like a dragon I slayed, nor one that consumed me. It’s more like a dragon that I lived beside which occasionally snapped at me or blew smoke in my face. It changed the environment around me, made everything seems suspect and different. It was existential, proof that the rules of our time are so very arbitrary. It turned the future murky, robbing us of the gift of expectation as well as the necessity of other people.

My writing slowed in 2020, but it didn’t disappear. I found that the normal cycle of my ‘productivity’ where, I’m usually good for two weeks—to a month and then collapsed into a couple of days of funk, got supercharged. I’d write for a week and then spend all weekend playing video games or lying on the couch eating chips (poppcorners are my favorite). It got so bad at times that it felt like every other day I was hitting a ‘funk’.

I never found a solution to the ‘funk’ problem or 2020, but I kept going. I have a project now that feels light in tone and yet substantive enough to pursue and after a couple of rocky first draft chapters it’s starting to enter a good flow. I don’t know how long that flow will last.

It’s hard to hold on to much of anything during pandemic, everything fuses together. There is no slaying the dragon, no triumph that gives us closure, just a hundred thousand little struggles that stretch, and stretch and stretch. I don’t know when things will be back to ‘normal’ and normal itself will change from this. But I do know that for right now, today, that after I finish writing this, I will feel contented and accomplished and I’m going to hold on to that feeling for as long as it lasts.   

What Game of Thrones didn’t learn from Mass Effect

What Game of Thrones didn’t learn from Mass Effect

As I watched the final episode of Game of Thrones, I felt a sinking sense of ‘eh’. The episode was like a lot of season eight, at times visually impressive (Daenerys’s speech in front of the Unsullied,) occasionally rewarding, (Sansa becoming Queen of the North, Jon finally petting Ghost!), but also confusing (wait, why is Arya leaving to explore?) and often muddled or unsatisfying (Jon stabbed Daenerys real quick, and Bran?). Ultimately, I felt, well, not much of anything. And as the week went on and I struggled with GoT’s rushed finish, I started to feel flashbacks to the ending of another epic that was near and dear to me, Mass Effect.

GoT and Mass Effect might be separated by medium and genre, but the two share some surprising connections. In Mass Effect, the player character, Shepard, must amass an alliance of fractures alien species to face a greater threat, the mysterious Reapers. Much of the later seasons of GoT were focused on Jon Snow’s struggles to build an alliance of the warring Westeros kingdoms to fight the mysterious Night King and the White Walkers. Both GoT and Mass Effect were huge, beloved franchises that focused on a massive cast of characters that fans got invested in and both had trouble sticking the landing, for largely the same reasons.

Mysterious Villains

The original Mass Effect pulled off one of the best, most satisfying twists I’ve seen. It’s revealed that the villain, Saren, is being controlled by his ship, Sovereign and that Sovereign isn’t a ship at all, but an ancient, near unfathomable life form. It takes an entire fleet to kill Sovereign and they just barely pull it off. The game ends revealing that Sovereign is one of thousands of Reapers, a race of synthetic beings that arise once a cycle to destroy all organic life.

The first game did a lot to establish just how devastating the Reapers are. I remember having no idea how Shepard was going to beat them. Likewise, some GoT’s best episodes and moments helped to establish how much of an unstoppable, inevitable force the White Walkers were. Hardhome showed how futile fighting the dead was, and season seven showed how effortless the Night King could bring down even one of Daenerys’s dragons.

The Reapers and the White Walkers were mysterious, powerful and terrifying. Both wanted to wipe out all life and the audience desperately wanted to know more about them. Who made the Reapers? What was the Night King’s deal? And in the writer rooms of both Bioware and HBO, no one had any idea how to actually beat these unstoppable monsters.

Both the Reapers and the White Walkers fall after a brutal final stand in their respective stories, to plot conveniences. The Reapers have an off switch, the Night King is a final boss, beat him and you win the game. The answer to both the Reaper and White Walker problem turned out to be unsatisfying and did a lot to sap both the Reapers and the White Walkers of their menace and mystery.

A Massive and Beloved Cast

ME and GoT had a problem that most franchised would have killed for, a huge cast that people loved. Mass Effect 2 basically put the problem of the reapers on hold to tell a side story and shove even more characters into the mix and it was the best game of the series. GoT was at its best in the early middle seasons where it wasn’t clear if anyone would survive and you clung desperately to your fav.

Perfect little character moments became memes. Favorites developed and the creators listened. Tormund’s role expanded and his crush on Brianne, a throw away joke, became a full-on love triangle (kinda). Garrius and Tali both became romance options. Everyone was having fun, shipping their favorite couples, hoping the character they hated died and that their favorite would get more screen time; then came the ending.

A massive and beloved cast means that you have to give everyone a detailed and satisfying end to their individual story and that is just not going to happen. Mass Effect 3 seemed to pick squadmates out of a hat, side lining some of ME’s beloved cast and introducing new characters like the roided up Vasquez that nobody asked for (he was voiced by Frieddie Prince Jr and I actually liked him by the end). Some characters got little to no time and their endings felt unsatisfying because of it.

Game of Thrones whittled it’s cast down almost arbitrarily at the end, moments that should have felt immensely satisfying, like Cleganbowl, felt very ‘meh’. Some characters like Missandei were done away with for very obvious plot motivations. Both ME and GoT also spent time introducing villains that did nothing and nobody liked. Looking at you Euron Greyjoy and Kai Leng, seriously you two could be the same person for all the impact you had.

Rushed

This all leads to same poor conclusion. In both ME 3 and GoT the plot took over, the pacing picked up a maddening tempo and both rushed, fumbling to the end. You could feel them running out of budget, time or interest and just trying desperately to get it all done. Characters did things that didn’t make sense because they had to be at X place because the plot said so. Moments that both should have been building to like Jon stabbing Daenerys and Shepard selecting the fate of the universe, felt hollow and forced. The excitement that fans had been feeling for years, petered out and turned vicious, there were online petitions, hate mail, cupcakes!

It’s unfortunate, because I actually don’t think that ME 3 and the final season of GoT are bad. Rushed and unsatisfying at times, sure, but they have their moments, points where you remember why you loved the series to begin with. I also believe that both had an Icarus problem, they flew too close to the sun. ME 3 was never going to be able to resolve all it’s threads and beat the Reapers in 3 games, they needed a fourth one for that. GoT too needed a full season just to give the White Walkers a satisfying end and probably another season after that to make us believe that Jon would go so far as to actually kill Daenerys and that Daenerys was really a tyrant, or at least to muddy the waters better. Instead it got one little small season to do both.

For both series it’s interesting how the questions that drove most of the plot and fan speculation turned out to be the least important part. It never mattered what ending Shepard chose, or who sat on the iron throne. In both series, it’s hard to move past the ending because so much of the story was building to–something. We’re now left wondering what do we do with the rest of it? For GoT fans feeling let down, ME might have answer, you let go of the ending and you focus on what you loved in the first place…or you bake cupcakes.

A Tormund and Ghost Adventure

A Tormund and Ghost Adventure

Hi readers! I know it’s been a while and it’s strange to return with a Fanfic post, but here we are. I promise to have more book reviews and post on writing soon, but with the end of Game of Thrones I thought it might be nice to post something fun.

***Minor Game of Thrones Spoilers***

Tormund took a deep breath, feeling the stiff air, the frost that still lingered even as the world thawed. He smiled. He was home, beyond the wall, back where he belonged. He waited as Ghost sniffed and pawed at the frozen earth. The dire wolf raised his head, flicking his torn ear.

Tormund had taken the wolf down from Castle Black where they had been staying with the other survives of the battle of the dead. It had been cramped and crowded in the castle and both the wolf and the wilding needed some space. Tormund thought a walk would do them both a measure of good.

“Find something?” Tormund asked. Ghost stared back at him, before trotting up, tail swaying behind him. “Nothing?” Tormund asked as they continued on. The wolf kept his snout focused on the path ahead.

Tormund grunted, ahead was always better than behind. He took big steps to keep up with the wolf. They traveled in silence for a bit, Tormund taking the measure of his silent companion.

“Do you miss him?” Tormund asked, after they stopped to drink from a stream thick with ice melt.

Ghost looked at him. “It’s alright if you do, I miss him.” Tormund admitted. They continued, “Don’t be sad about him leaving you behind.” Tormund said, “His name’s snow, he belongs here as much as you or I. He’ll be back come summer when the green returns. The Crows never could never handle a true winter.”

Ghost snorted.

“I know it’s hard.” Tormund said, his eyes fixed on Ghost’s missing ear. “We fought the dead, we survived only to get our hearts broken.” Tormund grunted, thinking of the big woman. “It’s the way it is, but it’s better here, we’re free.”

Ghost whined as they turned down the path.

“I know it hurts. Jon is a good man, a king if any man is a king, but he’s from the south.” Tormund said. “They might make good iron there, but they make shit men. It’s their lords, and kings, and keeps. It makes them mad; they fight wars over stone and metal and who owns who, they aren’t free, their minds aren’t right.” Tormund stopped, blinking at the insanity “They ride dragons!”

Ghost stopped. He looked down, before craning his head up in mournful howl.

“What?” Tormund asked. Ghost looked at him, ear tucked behind his head. “No!” Tormund said shaking his head. “He didn’t leave you for the dragon! He’d never do that.”

Ghost gave out a panting bark.

Tormund came over and padded the wolf on the stomach. “I mean it, he wouldn’t! The dragon’s not even his! It’s that dragon queen lady.” Tormund titled his head, “What do you think of her? A woman that can ride a dragon, that’s quite a woman. But the people that follow her, you know the Unsullied don’t drink? Not even after he we killed the dead! Who doesn’t drink after that?!”

Tormund grinned, “But her horsemen, the Dothraki? They drank, they drank well.” Tormund laughed, “Jon should bring some of them when he returns, they would do well here.”

Ghost nestled Tormund’s hand looking for more rubs. Tormund abilaged, nodding to the wolf. “I know, I know, it hurts, come, come on, the cold makes it better.”

They kept walking, talking of the battle and the future for the Free Men now that the dead were gone. Tormund talked for so long he didn’t realize how far they had traveled from Castle Black. He didn’t smell the smoke of their fire until he was on them.

Ghost growled. Tormund stopped. There were four Wildlings in front of them, two with bows, a big bastard with an axe, and a hairy fucker with two long knives. Tormund remembered the hairy fucker.

“Korse?” Tormund said, “You’re alive?”

Korse blinked, “Tormund fucking Giantsbane? I was going to say the same thing about you!” Korse girned, his yellowing teeth parting his hair fucking face. “I thought you went with the Crows to fight the dead.”

“I did.” Tormund said, “We won.”

Korse looked to the others, they looked back at him and then up at Tormund. They were afraid, Tormund smiled, they should be.

“So, the Night King’s dead? What a thing,” Korse shook his hairy fucking head.

“It was.” Tormund said, looking at Korse. “Where were you? Everyone from Hardhome to Wall was supposed to be dead; was hoping you were one of them.”

Korse laughed and his men laughed. “No, we’ve been doing great! Stayed back from the dead but followed close.” Korse leaned in like he was telling a secret, “See, when people die, they leave their stuff and if you’re not dead you get to take that stuff, with everyone dead, we got a lot of stuff.”

Tormund nodded, “Ah, so you’re wearing extra furs Korse. I thought you just got fat.”

Korse laughed again, it was rattling, not-all-together laugh. “Not fat giant fucker—”

“Fucker?” Tormund said snarling, “I didn’t fuck any giant. I suckled on her tit, she was like a mother to me!” Tormund shrugged, “I did fuck up her husband, but—”

“I get it big man,” Korse said, “So what you doing back? You the only one to survive?”

“No,” Tormund said, “Many Wildlings did. I’m leading them, we’re wintering in Castle Black, but come summer we’ll be heading home.”

Korse looked to his men. Tormund noticed that they had a lot of stuff. They had on extra furs, armor, weapons. They wore roped necklaces full of trinkets: spoons, dog teeth, feathers, needles, arrowheads. Every time they moved their stuff rattled. They looked at each other with sunken eyes and twitching fingers. Tormund remembered the frantic flight from the dead, how they had fled like mice. He couldn’t imagine Korse and his men surviving for so long in the Night King’s shadow. They couldn’t be right in the head after that.

“If the Wildlings are coming back, they’re going to want their stuff aren’t they?” Korse said.

“Yes,” Tormund agreed, “How much stuff do you need?”

“What’s mine!” Korse said, “And I got a lot now Tormund, a lot.”

“Good for fucking you, Korse.” Tormund said, watching as the archers took a step back. The big bastard’s hands tightened on his axe.

“Thing is Tormund, when you get a lot of stuff, you always want more.” Korse said, his grey eyes searching Tormund.  “You kill the dead with that axe? Be nice to have.”

Tormund grunted, so Korse wanted a fight? Good. Tormund hadn’t fought anyone since the dead and that wasn’t a good fight. Tormund took his axe off his back. “I’ll give you the sharp end, Korse. Chop some of that hair off you.”

Korse laughed madly. One the archers let loose. Tormund felt the arrow smack into his shoulder. He let a cry of rage and pain. It felt good, he lifted his axe ready to charge—but stopped mid swing. He looked around axe still over his head. Korse and his warriors looked at Tormund weapons out, ready for a fight.

“What the fuck is it?!” Korse asked nervously.

“Have any of you seen a big fucking wolf?” Tormund asked. He had forgotten about Ghost and couldn’t see him anywhere, didn’t he want to fight to?

“A big fucking wolf?” Korse said, sparing a confused glance back to his men.

One of the archers screamed. Ghost pounced on him knocking the archer onto his back. The dire wolf tore into the man’s neck and shoulder and his screaming stopped. Ghost lifted up his head, gore streaked his white snout. He growled and was on the next archer before the man could run.

“There he is!” Tormund laughed, before attacking the big bastard. Tormund dodged a swing of the big fella’s axe, and swung his own axe low catching the big one in the knee. The man buckled, glaring at Tormund. But before Tormund could finish him off, Korse charged, knives flashing. Tormund bought up his forearm to block the blades and they gave him two deep cuts.

Tormund let out another roar of pain before bring the haft of his two handed axe around and smacking Korse in the head. Tormund heard the satisfying crunch of bone and saw the man real back. Tormund swung his axe, catching Korse in the side. The axe dug deep and Korse let out a gasp, hot blood splashed on the snow.

With Korse down, Tormund turned looking for the big fella. Ghost was already over him, teeth pulling on tendon and muscle. “Hey!” Tormund shouted as Ghost tore at the big fella. “He was mine!”

Ghost flicked his ears back apologetically but kept at it. Tormund sighed, swinging his axe onto his shoulder. Korse was kneeling on the ground panting, a fogging wound burning at his side, his daggers still clenched in his fist. Tormund considered the man. Their eyes met.

“I’m coming back as a fucking Wight and I’m going to cut your fat head off, you redhead, fire kissed fucker.”

Tormund hefted his axe. “Fire-kissed? They call us gingers in the south.”

“What the fuck is a ginger?!” Korse asked.

Tormund shrugged, “I don’t know, bet it’s pretty like a flower.” He brought his axe down on Korse before the man could say more.

Tormund nodded at Ghost and his work. The wolf trotted over. Tormund inspected the arrow, it was in his shoulder good and tight. He nodded, it wouldn’t impact their walk. He swung his axe back over his shoulder and let Ghost take the lead.

“So, the way you disappear, is that why Jon calls you Ghost?” Tormund asked, as the pair continued on further into the wild.

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!