Category Archives: Craft & Skills

Made to Be Broken – A Guest Post by Hamilton Perez

A guest post by Hamilton Perez.

I was just starting out in college when I first decided to be a writer, and I set for myself the goal of publishing my first novel before I graduated. Seemed reasonable, I thought. It’s an uncertain field, after all, I should try to break in as soon as possible so I don’t just sit on my degree afterward. Now, several years after graduating, I still haven’t finished that first novel, let alone published one.

To be a writer is to be a dreamer. But that’s only half of it. To be a writer is to be disappointed. It’s easy, in the beginning to be blinded by imagination, ambition, by the colorful worlds sprouting and blooming inside your head. You can do this, you think. It’s all possible.

And therein lays the unsolicited rub.

Being a writer, or any artist really, is essentially an act of faith. It’s surrendering any sense of control in your personal (read: financial) destiny in pursuit of a creative field that’s harder to crack than a macadamia nut.

That’s why goals are such alluring creatures to an artist. They allow us to believe (for however brief a time) that we have some control over our pitiful fates. They’re lies we tell ourselves to get us moving when the doubt creeps in. But as with art, goals are often born from an excess of ambition. You learn that quickly as you fail to write your thousand words a day, then your five hundred words, then one hundred, until that day comes when you don’t write at all and spend three hours on the couch, watching The Flash with your dog who’s clearly disappointed in you.

Once you fail at your goals, you realize that the same imagination that fuels stories also fuels your hope of what you can accomplish in the one or two hour window you’ve set aside between work, relationships, and nap time. Little did you know when you set those goals that you were setting yourself up for failure.

O cruel, twisty irony!

It’s easy at this point to be discouraged. Indeed, that part’s encouraged. Wallow, dammit. You’re an artist. But once you’ve finished your wallowing, take a look at your work. You might have failed to meet a daily word count, but perhaps you reached half of it. Maybe you found a new plot device or story title. There’s always a silver lining hidden amid the dross. You’ve made something, which is the first step away from making nothing.

Before you can be a successful writer, you have to be a bad one. Before you can set reasonable goals, you have to chase the crazy ones. You have to know what your limits are, what you can handle and what you can’t. The good news: you’re doing it! The bad: you have to fail, you are going to fail.

Embrace that failure.

But setting goals and working towards them isn’t enough. You have to recognize when those goals aren’t working and are actually holding you back. Writing 250 words a day isn’t going to make you a better writer if you’re just typing “Why am I doing this?” fifty times. When that failure comes, you need to either change the goal or abandon it. It’s better to only write a promising first chapter during National Novel Writing Month than to write a terrible novel that had some potential in chapter one.

In 2016, I tried the popular NaNoWriMo for the first time. I planned out the story a month ahead. I did my research beforehand. I calculated how much I needed to write in a day and when I could afford to take a day off. And the first week I was on a roll, churning out one to two thousand words a day. But in the second week, I started to slip. I wrote less and I was less happy with what I wrote. The dream of having a completed novel to work with and develop in December was slipping away. I had a choice: I could either slog through and try and reach the final word count, or readjust my goals and develop the parts of the novel I liked to see where the story actually wanted to go.

The exciting result: I still haven’t finished that novel… But I absolutely love the three chapters I’ve got so far. Most of what I’d written after that point has been scrapped or reworked, and the novel is so much better for it. But because of the work I did during NaNoWrMo, even though I technically failed at the goal, I now know where I want the story to go.

Like rules, creative goals are made to be broken. They aren’t for life planning. They’re for now. For getting you moving, getting you writing. Whether you meet them isn’t really the point. The point is you keep going. Sometimes slowly, sometimes quick. You keep going. You write and you create.

So set your goals. Set reasonable ones. Set ambitious ones. Just set some goals, something—anything—for you to shoot for. Then abandon them when they stop working for you. Wallow a bit. Clear your head. Set some new goals, and write.

Rinse, repeat.

 

About Hamilton Perez

Hamilton Perez is a writer and freelance editor living in Sacramento, California. When not writing, he can be found rolling 20-sided dice or chasing squirrels with the dog. His stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Metaphorosis, and Syntax & Salt. You can follow him on Twitter @TheWritingHam.

The Goal Post

I’m a football fan. Apparently that’s somewhat rare in the world of writers. I love a lot of different sports, including baseball, golf, basketball and swimming. By some crazy coincidence I am writing this post smack in the middle of the NFL playoffs. And this month’s Fictorian’s theme is all about goals.

So, this post is about goals, ergo, it is the goal post. See what I did there?

OK, I’m sorry. Still, it’s a decent lead in, and the sports reference is useful too. Because I happen to be one of those people who think goals are a critically important part of life. Goals give us something to strive for, something to measure our performance against, and something to appreciate when they are achieved.

Sports is famous for setting goals. If you talk to just about any world-class athlete, they will pepper you with their goals. Each goal achieved is one more step forward in their quest to achieve the greatness to which they aspire. Each goal achieved opens the door to new goals beyond.

I approach writing that way. Well, I approach a lot of things that way. But writing is one of them. That doesn’t mean I always achieve goals, but if I don’t achieve a goal, I don’t abandon my dreams, I re-calibrate and reset. Then I work toward my new goals. The more goals I achieve, the closer I am to the dreams I have.

Goals can be far-reaching and ambitious, like “I’m going to write a novel.” Or they can be direct and practical, like “I’m going to write 1,000 words tonight.” Then, the next night, “I’m going to write 1,000 words tonight.” If you string enough successful 1,000 word nights together, you can achieve your over-arching goal, “I’m going to write a novel.”

When I started writing, I used to keep a spreadsheet of how many words I wrote every night. I had nightly, weekly, and monthly goals for words written. If I came up short one night on a nightly goal, I could buckle down the next night and get back on track for a weekly goal.

Some people give themselves rewards for reaching goals. That’s fine, it probably helps some people, but for me the main reward for reaching a goal was… you guessed it, reaching the goal.

I’m just now wrapping up my fourth novel. I’m already planning my fifth. I remember when my loftiest goal was “I’m going to write a novel,” and that goal seemed light-years away and nearly impossible to reach. In truth, it wasn’t really that much effort, it was mostly all about sticking to my goals until I achieved them.

One of my favorite Robert Browning quotes is “Ah that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” That’s one way of saying that goals can help us achieve great things. It’s similar to “Reach for the stars, if you fall short, you might still reach the moon.”

Set some goals. Make them specific. Make them meaningful. Track your progress. Reward your successes. That’s not a bad way to get through life in general, and it just might finish that novel you’ve been working on forever.

In Favor of Failure – A Guest Post by Colton Hehr

A guest post by Colton Hehr.

“Don’t quit” is  one of the most common adages passed around the writing community. Don’t quit writing, don’t quit submitting, don’t quit your day job. We’ve all heard some variation or another and it’s not bad advice. Writing as a career requires playing the long game, so consistent effort is a prerequisite. Yet, at the end of each year, most of us can look at a check list of projects and find that we stopped working on one or set aside another. At some point in our efforts, we quit. 

If you asked most of us, we’d probably admit to quitting more readily than to failing, not only in writing but in other areas of our life: you rarely hear someone say “I failed my diet.” They say “I quit my diet.” Or “I quit going to the gym.” Or “I quit playing guitar.” We almost always couch these situations as quitting rather than failure. Failure has negative connotations and if we quit before we fail, then the failure never really occurs, does it?

I want to argue in favor of failure. I think it’s more useful to us as writers than quitting is. The terms might be synonymous to some people, but let me split hairs for a moment. Quitting and failure are only similar because they happen at the same time. To use a sports analogy, quitting is when you stop playing the game because you’re losing, and failing is when you play to the end and accept your loss.

The first reason I prefer failing to quitting is an unfortunate reality of commercial writing: I know that I’m probably going to suffer some failures or setbacks in my career, at some point, purely from circumstances outside my control. Maybe my manuscript gets passed in the slush pile because an agent has too many books from that genre. Maybe I send in a short story to an online market that goes under.  Any number of things could affect my career negatively, all completely outside of my control.

By holding myself accountable and acknowledging my own personal failures, I’m more prepared to deal with those uncontrollable failures.  It might be disappointing, but it won’t be debilitating. Our personal failures are sort of like callouses, they help us come to grips with whatever the world might throw at us.

The second benefit to failing is that I think we learn more from it than from quitting. When something ends, whether in failure or in success, there’s a sense of closure that quitting doesn’t provide (or, at least, that I’ve never felt from quitting). Failure is an important teaching tool in several endeavors, from music to athletic, and it can serve the same purpose for writers. 

Think of failure as a diagnostic tool.  When we acknowledge that we’ve failed, we can step back from the situation and examine it to find out what went wrong. When we’re at the point of failing, there’s three questions that we ought to ask:

1. What caused the failure?

2. Is it something that can be fixed?

3. If so, is it more beneficial to accept the failure and move on or to try and fix it?

As an example, I recently stepped away from a project in its outlining stage. I had been worldbuilding and outlining for what was supposed to be a horror novel. At some point, it evolved into a train heist story and I found myself stuck in a rut. Before I made the choice to set the project aside, I asked myself: 

1. What caused the failure? The setting gave me the opportunity to write a horror story, but my focus in the outline had drifted away from that and towards an adventure story. I’m not against organic story development, but the project had shifted completely from my original intent and it stopped me dead in my tracks.

2. Is this something that can be fixed? Yes. I could walk my way back through the outline and rework it from the beginning. I could set aside the first outline and start fresh with a new story, new characters, and a more conscious effort to focus on what I had originally wanted to write.

3. If so, is it more beneficial to accept failure or to fix the problem? In this case, I had another idea that I wanted to write, one that I felt was much more tightly focused. I also realized that, while the train heist wasn’t what I wanted to do in the first place, it still had the germ of a good story. In the end, I accepted my failure, set the project aside, and moved on to something else. I still have all the material, so I can come back to it another time, free from any of the frustrations that came from my initial failure.

Of course, a lot of the answers to the first question are outside of our control. Sometimes the “failure” is that we’re depressed, or that our day job has grown more demanding, or that unexpected opportunities have brushed aside other obligations. That’s okay; because failure isn’t negative, we don’t have to beat ourselves up over it. We can accept it for what it is and move on. When I looked over my list of 2017 projects, quite a few boxes were left unchecked. Each one of those was a failure and I did my best to learn from all of them. I don’t feel bad about a single one. 

Neither should you. Next time you feel like you need to quit a project, give yourself permission to fail and then learn from it.

 

About Colton Hehr:

Colton Hehr currently works as a direct care counselor in a residential treatment center for teenagers and adolescents. When he isn’t writing, reading, or lifting, he tries to pet as many dogs as possible. He lives in Norman, Oklahoma with his girlfriend Ariana. Colton’s first professional sale will be in the upcoming Writers of the Future 34.

Quitting with feeling

Quitting, as a word, has a real negative connotation to it. In the context of writing, I prefer to think of it as re-prioritizing my resources. Knowing when I’m not using my valuable writing time to the best advantage is a valuable skill to have. Like the song says, know when to walk away and know when to run.

There are any number of writing goals where the decision to quit or keep going might come into play, but I would like to focus on when to walk away from a story. The moment when you make that decision is an individual one, and will vary from writer to writer. My only goal is to provide the method that works for me, and that is a goal I will not quit.

To give my approach, I need to provide a little context on my professional life outside writing. For many years I have provided high-level technical support to customers on various pieces of network infrastructure equipment. Some of this is done through email, but a lot of the interaction is over the phone. Over time, a support engineer develops a relationship with the phone itself and its ability to provide the engineer with his or her task, which is the customer at the other end.

When that phone rings, you feel something. Excitement perhaps, or anticipation. Where the alarm bells start to go off for me is when that ring would produce negative emotions like irritation or even anger. Now I don’t like this customer and I haven’t even spoken to him or her yet. That’s a problem, and a sign that I needed a break or a change of pace.

For me, writing is the same. When I sit down at the keyboard I should want to be there. I don’t have to completely like all of my characters all the time, but I have to be excited to write about them. If I’m not – if I’m dragging myself to the keyboard with a grumble as I dread another session with this story, that’s when I think about walking away.

The nice thing about writing stories though is it’s a job you can quit and come back to as many times as you want. I have ‘quit’ many stories for a time, only to come back at them fresh some weeks or months later. Many of them I ended up enjoying and finishing, and if I didn’t I at least learned something by thinking about why that story didn’t grab me in the end.

So, quitting is not bad thing and it doesn’t have to be forever. The skill of knowing when to quit is just another tool in your writer’s toolbox.