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!

The Problem of Progression

The Problem of Progression

Publication; that is the elusive goal that I, and many other writers on this site, are after. We envision it as finish line, a medal we can wear that says ‘Author’. If you’re published you’ve made it, you’ve moved from dreamer to doer, amateur to professional. Lay people out in the world will take you seriously, you’re not just that guy at the party ‘working on his novel,’ you’re legitimate.

I know thinking that way is a trap, but it’s one that I often fall into. There are so few tangible bench marks in writing that publication becomes alluring. A clear sign that you are doing something right; that you’ve progressed. Often in my day to day writing I can’t tell if I’m getting better, if I’m challenging myself enough, if I’m too afraid to share my work, if I’m really ‘moving forward’ or what that even means.

We like the idea of progression, that one step leads to another. It’s one of the reason RPGs are so fun, you level up, you have real rewards for your experience. The stories we hear about success follow that same linear structure and when we look back on our own success we often organize our history into a clear path of progression.

But that path is never clear. It’s marked by failure, experimentation, stalling and hurdling leaps. You don’t move forward as often as you move in an angle, you’re footing never certain until it is, the demarcation lines of success only visible when you turn around, what’s head is nothing but fog.

I’m at a point in my writing that I know that I’m not a beginner and I know I’m not an expert. I would love to be intermediate, but I have suspicion that I’m several style books behind that (seriously, I’m in dire need of regular line editing). I’ve been writing consistently for close to ten years, mostly creative work, mostly creative work that no one’s read.

When I started writing, the path forward was easy to see and the goals tangible: write a short story, write a novella, write a novel, edit a novel. Writing advice was easier to find or at least more relevant. There’s a lot advice out there about ‘finding time to write’, hell I’ve got some if anyone wants to hear it, but I’ve found the time and done a fair bit of writing and now I’m not sure the way forward. The more I learn about writing, the less I seem to know.

When everything is murky like this it’s best to get out of your own head. Talk to someone who knows you. I have a friend who is a creative too. He’s read my work and we bounced ideas around together. He was able to explain how arriving at the murky part of my goal meant that I had gone farther than before. I’ve progressed to a point where I have no real experience to base it on and need to do some experimentation. I need to prod different avenues, I need to fail a little and find out what works and what doesn’t. The unknown can be exciting; an opportunity.

If you don’t have a friend, you have yourself. Tell yourself your story, look back, see the points where you’ve done well and how they’ve led you to this moment. Remember the missteps, the rejections, the work you’ve abandoned. They are part of the path, they’re not so much dead ends as circular steps, spinning you around and leading you forward. When facing the fog, pick a direction, any direction, work out the steps to it and start moving. You’ll find that you stumble and slide and maybe it’s not worth going there, but at the very least it will eliminate a heading.

Writing is art and art isn’t neat. It can be hard to define. It can be nebulous and therefore it’s success can feel that way too. Embrace it. It’s okay to get lost for a little bit, if you keep trying different ways to move forward, you’ll eventually improve. Don’t focus on one goal other than to be better, to grow, to learn more. Or at least, that’s what I’m going to try. I’ll let you know when I find my way out of the fog.

Ghets Update

Ghets Update

I don’t update this blog as much as I should (my incomplete StarWars Trilogy is proof of that). But the reason I don’t blog as often as I’d like, is that I’m hard at work cranking out a new novel ‘Ghets’!

I already wrote about Ghets after I completed the rough draft last year. Well, now I’ve completed draft two. Ghets has ballooned to 210,169 words, plot holes have shrunk, characters that were previously named ‘BLANK’ have proper names, and the world of Ghets has further solidified.

I’m in the process of rereading this giant monstrosity so I can share it with Beta-readers. This is the first time I’ve read the novel as a novel and not a series of chapters since the rough draft. And the reread is breaking me.

Does that mean the novel is bad?

I don’t know.

Does that mean it’s a huge, unwieldy mess that only it’s author can understand?

I don’t know.

Does that mean that it’s a boring slog that most readers won’t put up with?

I. Don’t. Know.

Does that mean that it’s just okay?

You guessed it, I have no idea whatsoever.

I have read the first five chapters together a dozen times, and like an optical illusion, it’s always different. The novel goes from being the most hackney, amateurish pile of garbage sentences every dumped into word document, to an enjoyable, breezy fantasy novel to something else entirely. I have stayed up until two in the morning studying those chapters like arcane scripts, trying to divine their quality and still have no idea if it’s any good.

There are many parts of me that go into being a writer. There’s Matt the creator, Matt the editor, Matt the reader, Matt the critic, and they are all at war with each other. I start to see the repetitive patterns of my chapters, the limits of my skill to convey emotions or reactions, the scenes that are devoid of description to the point that they feel lifeless. And did I mention the repetitiveness? I did? Well, let me repeat myself, because I do that a lot in my novel work.

That’s not to say it’s all bad, there are moments when I get lost in the flow, like a magician fooled by his own tricks, the critical part of me pulls back and the reader takes over and I find nothing, but joy in it. It’s a fun story and it’s meant to be fun, it’s not the great American novel, it’s not going to win a Pulitzer or a Nebula or a teen choice award, but it’s something I enjoy.

The problem is that I’m not just seeking joy when I read, I’m seeking validation. Just as there are many Matts that go into being a writer, writing itself means a lot of very different, but mostly important, things to me. It’s not just a hobby, it’s a dream. During my drafts I can sit down for a couple of hours a day and write and edit without feeling that weight. Drafting is granular, piratical. But when I read it as whole, the enormity of what I made, and of what I want, hit me and it’s a difficult emotion to navigate.

Even so I’m making progress. I’ve finally made it past the first five chapters and I’m not looking back. I hope to have a shareable version of Ghets available soon. Unfortunately, I won’t have it ready before I go to Japan next week (a subject for another post, maybe). But by the end of the week I will post the first chapter, so you can finally read what I’m talking about.

A Novel Process

A Novel Process

I started this blog writing about being a failed novelist,( Here.) And I’m proud to say that I’m still very much one. I’m currently working on my next possibly failed project ‘Ghets’ and thought it might be insightful, or at least interesting, to talk a little bit about my novel writing process.

I just got done with my rough draft of Ghets. It took me almost fifteen months from February 15th 2016-April 8th 2017 and clocks in at 162,040 words. Fifteen months is a long time and novel drafts usually don’t take me so long. Dex’s four drafts were each about nine months, but Dex largely took place in the modern world and didn’t require much world building. Ghets takes place in its own world, so there were pauses to settle on cultures and creatures.

When I started writing, rough drafts like ‘Ghets’ were torture. I’d begin with energy and optimism. There’s a thrill in creating something new, like beginning a journey, you have no idea where you’re going. But that’s also its biggest challenge. I’d hit a stride and quickly make it through the first third of the story. But when it was time to shift from the first to the second act I would hit problems.

I would have forgotten to write a vital scene or would realize too late that the surprise I was setting up all first act wasn’t going to work. Like many creators, I suffered from perfectionism. I would go back and add those scenes or fix the surprise and that’s the exact opposite of what you should be doing.

Rough drafts are supposed to be rough. You’re there to throw down all your ideas about the story and keep going. You realize that you need an extra scene to explain something? Pretend you wrote it. You decide your villain should be someone else? He was never the villain, it was always the new guy. The subplot about opening a café isn’t working? Forget it, it didn’t happen, keep writing.

The idea is to run, to not let missed chapters or poor writing stop you. You’re going to be editing this thing for at least the next year you can worry about your mistakes then. Besides you might end up deleting half the story, or going in a completely new direction, don’t get attached. It’s hard a lesson to learn, but it’s vital one.

If you want to be good at anything, then you must first accept that you’re going to be bad at it. No one begins great and very few of us end up great. You must be willing to make mistakes and fail. Writing a rough draft is a great way to do that.

Think of rough drafts like a marathon, how quickly can you make it to the end, while still hitting all your story beats and getting out all the scenes you wanted? It takes grit, but with enough perseverance you’ll get it done. The real complicated stuff happens next.

After I complete the rough draft I reread it. It’s a painful process because now I’m being critical and looking for what doesn’t work. What characters are unnecessary, annoying or otherwise problematic? What scenes are confusing? Where do I lost the thread? I try to nail down themes, figure out with the story is about. I also do my first outline at this point.

When I start a rough draft I have an idea of where I’m starting and where I’m ending. (Always know your endings!) But the parts in between are murky. Once the rough draft is done and I have those parts fleshed out I start to rearrange and evaluate them. Some writers are more orderly, with outlines from the start. But I don’t like things to be too neat going in. I want to surprise myself.

After the reread and outline is done I start the real work and rewrite. This is my new obstacle, were my perfectionism now shows itself. I want to do too much, add too many scenes or do too much editing. The second draft isn’t supposed to be perfect either. It’s just supposed to make your novel workable.

If you were to read ‘Ghets’ right now large portions of it wouldn’t make any sense. There’s a ton of locations or characters with place holders for names. There’s scenes and character arcs that get completely abandoned and one of the villains changes his name mid book. My second draft is meant to clean that gunk up so that someone who isn’t me can actually read the story and give their input.

A second draft shouldn’t be polished, just have the main plot and characters largely formed with as little chaff as possible. The idea is to invite other people to read and have them give big picture critiques. Point out if your plot has too many holes or what they think of your main character. The second draft should have the form of the story, but still some of that nebulousness rough draft in it. Your story might need a major edit, one you can’t see. If enough readers come to you and tell you they love the end of the book but it was slog to get there. You’re going to have a lot you’ll need to cut or change.

After I gather all those critiques I try to digest them. I target the parts that most people hated or found confusing because if just one person hates a story then ‘that’s just like your opinion man’, but if most people do, you’ve got some sort of problem on your hands. I do another reread, or two, chopping off as much as I can and then start draft three.

Draft three is much closer to the finished story. You’ve hopefully fixed most of your plot holes (you’ll never get them all) and have characters that all work and who you understand. Your story should be ‘readable’ at this point. I don’t mean that every sentence is polished and perfect, but that people can read and comprehend what you’re looking to be comprehended.

At this point I hit my beta-readers up for more insights and more granular critiques. After I have that it’s on to draft four which will hopefully be the draft I seek an agent or a publisher for. Even draft four won’t be the end. I’ll still be rereading and editing, chipping away at this or that until I publish it. Or I never stop pecking at it, and leave it to wither out of exhaustion, because art is never finished it’s only abandon.

Either way this has been my process for my last couple of projects. I’ve heard every novel is different and they feel that way. Every writer is different too, some people publish two novels in about the span it takes me to eek out one rough draft (it’s impressive). Regardless, expect to see more posts about Ghets in the future as well as a call for beta-readers in the next 6-9 months!