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!

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!

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.

When something bad happens

When something bad happens to me, the first thing I want to do is write. I want to understand what I’m feeling, I want to express it, to see it. I want to expel every thought and emotion that it stirs into one blank space, vomit it out. And like vomit it’s messy and gross and even if it made me feel better immediately afterwards, I know I’m going to do it again soon.

Emotion, the big, bad emotions: sadness, anger, they are like that to me. They swell searching for an outlet, to cry or to be screamed out, I indulge and for a moment it passes. There’s a rational part of me that feels above these emotions. It can acknowledge that my reactions are self-indulgent or that I’m taking an offense to something that wasn’t attended as such. The rational part can see that these expressions of grief or rage are useless, that it would be better to sit down and plan, map out a response to the trauma or try to fix the problem.

For the longest time it felt like the rational and emotional parts of me were at war. I’d want to sit down and focus on doing something to fix my issue, but the emotion just felt like this bigger, more ravenous thing that craved attention, thrived on it. I would explode in displays of emotion and feel embarrassed afterwards (rarely in public and never to anyone other than close friends or family, I’m from Connecticut, we are biologically incapable of making a ‘scene’). I would always chastise myself for these outbursts, hate myself for them. I used to think that getting in control of my emotions meant not feeling them.

I’ve come to understand that there is no ‘defeating’ a trauma, repeated exposure can dull the effects, planning can sometimes mitigate one. But trauma and rage, cannot be outwitted. Once sparked they will come, and they will storm. The most I can do is accept them, let them happen, analyze my thoughts, know that they will pass and neither encourage them nor feel ashamed of them. And most of all, understand that they will come again; for there is never only one reaction to something horrible. We don’t feel sad for a day, or a week, or a year and then never feel it again. Trauma is like the sea, it’s deep and it comes in waves.

The most surreal moment for me is when the horrible thing has just happened. I often don’t know how to feel. I just have this anxiety. I know it’s going to come, but I don’t feel it yet. I go on walk. I see the world, I experience it intensely. I am never more in the moment then right before the emotion hits, the point where you are cracking, where there is a you that exist before the trauma and a you that exist after it and you have not yet metaphorized. You are still in a world where everything is okay, it’s a Monday, the sun’s out, it’s wet and cold, but those are your only concerns. And yet, you know, you know it’s there, you know the world has changed, a demarcation line has opened in your life. There is the before and there is the after, and you will now live only in the after. You know at some point things will be okay again, that it will be Monday again, and wet and cold, but you are a long way from that moment. And there is nothing you can do but wait.

*Note*: I’m fine, just got some potentially bad news and nothing permanent just wanted to share what I wrote in response  

Fantasy Genre Theory

Fantasy Genre Theory

Fantasy and Sci-fi often get lumped together, and while there’s a lot of cross over between the two genres, both in terms readers and concepts, there is one vital difference. Sci-fi is representation of how we think of the future, while fantasy is often about how we view the past.

Fantasy novels are clearly not history books or even historical fiction (though they do share some DNA). Fantasy isn’t a verbatim retelling of past events, but rather seeks to capture the overall ‘feel of the past’, that’s why so many have magic and fantastical creatures, those things feel realer, or were believed to be realer, in pre-modern times. And while magic and fantastic beasts appear in almost every fantasy novel, they are not the defining element of those worlds. The setting of a fantasy novel is not so much a magical place, but an old one.

One of the reasons Game of Thrones became so popular was that people thought it was a more ‘realistic’ fantasy story. Most of its seasons don’t deal with magic at all, but rather brutal medieval combat and court intrigue. It shows a Hobbesian past where life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. In part we watch it because of all the nastiness, it intrigues us even though we wouldn’t want to live through it ourselves. It’s a past that we’re grateful to have move beyond.

In contrast Tolkien envisioned a gentler past, his hobbits live simple, pleasant lives, suffering only village gossip and British passive-aggressiveness. War comes, and it is brutal and requires sacrifice, but the lines are clearly drawn: good and evil. The enemy are literal inhuman creations, spurred on by an evil god. Men are mythical heroes, taller and stronger than the simple hobbits who themselves have more in common with the reader than the mankind of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Tolkien’s past is both idyllic and epic, it’s something we feel we’ve lost.

Both Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings speak to the way we view history rather than to any particular period of history itself. And while it’s true that both Middle Earth and Westros invoke some of the more exciting elements of Medieval Britain: knights in full plate, maidens in long gowns, the remnants of a more advance people (the Romans), barbarian invaders, etc. They have as much to do with actual Medieval Britain as Blade Runner’s 2019 Los Angles has to do with modern LA.

Outside of the hobbits, dragons and white walkers Medieval Britain also didn’t have taverns, smoking pipes, sewers, full plate armor (until the very end), banks, or large population centers. Medieval combat rarely involved pitched battles on the field and was mostly castle sieges. Trial by combat was exceedingly rare.

Tolkien’s Hobbits have a lot more in common with 18th and early 19th century British farmers than they do with Medieval peasants. Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series has Norse style Northmen raiders, but they’re duking it out with Union soldiers who use fencing foils, a technology appearing more than five hundred years after the Vikings. Michael J. Sullivan’s Heir of Novron series takes place in a world of knights and a tyrannical church, but also has early 19th century style ships, with sailors that would have fit in during the Napoleonic wars.

The British Empire itself looms large in most of our Fantasy. The attitudes, manner of speaking and social economics of a great deal of supposedly medieval fantasy worlds instead come from late 19th, and early 20th century Britain. Medieval Britain was poor and splintered, with dozens of ethnic groups and a ruling caste that considered itself more French, or Norman at least, than English. The arrogant western like kingdoms in fantasy who refer to other people as savages and who think of themselves as more advance come from our living memory not our distance past.

None of this is to belittle or attack these works, I’ve enjoyed every series I mentioned here. None of these writers are trying to create a historical place. Their worlds are constructed from a hodgepodge of myth, different historical periods, and imagination. But all of them are trying to conjure the past and when they do so they are speaking to our comprehension of it. The use of so much British empire in our fantasy works shows the impact that the British empire has had on us and how we distinguish our modern selves as people distinctly different than the Imperialist of old.

And as the fantasy genre has spread out it has begun to leave behind both the trappings of Medieval Europe and the attitudes of the British Empire. Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series takes its inspiration from early Chinese history (as well as the Odyssey, and the Vikings again). S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass and Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon both focus on myth and history from the Muslim world, while Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti brings in influence from African history and culture. The expansion of Fantasy genre is an expansion of our understanding of the past, of who’s past has value, and who’s past deserves to be mythologized and critiqued.

As we grow, becoming more multi-culture our fantasy will as well. The genre will ask us to explore new pasts, new combinations, new understandings of where we come from, who we are and who we are not. The past might be the past, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change.