Category Archives: Failures

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.

To Goal or Not to Goal, that is the Question

The first week of the year, my Facebook stream was full of irate friends who, apparently, loathe those who make New Year’s Resolutions. Anyone who had the words “Resolution” or “Goal” in their post got blasted by angry people who didn’t agree with their declarations of self-improvement. Mostly because said angry people all admitted to not being able to keep a resolution past day one. Their plan for the year, “Quit, before you commit yourself to something you’re going to fail at.”

Is that really healthy? You can answer that question for yourself, because it’s different for everyone.

For myself, I love making goals, and the only thing I hate about them is not hitting them.

The thing is, the moment I finish making a goal, I can tell if I’m going to be able to do it or not.

For instance, last December, I made the goal that I would finish the novel I’ve been working on before the end of the year. However, I knew better. To get something accomplished in December is like walking up a hill made of ice in women’s dress shoes. But I was desperate to get it finished, so I made the goal with the hope that it would spur me on.

Did it? Nope? And I simply felt guilty about it all month.

So what did I do? I spent the first week of January working on the outline until it was shiny, then when I was finally satisfied with it, I made the goal to get the stupid thing to my editor by midnight on January 31st.

An easy goal? Uh, no. I’m having to rewrite the last half of the book for the third time. That’s 50k in two and a half weeks. Sounds crazy? Yes. But I know I can do it, especially since the outline feels solid.

I’m hoping this is going to be my last insane, self-imposed deadline for the year. Because, while hitting them makes me giddy with joy, missing them makes me crazy, and sometimes the stress makes me cranky.

For me, there’s a fine line between pushing myself in order to grow, and laying completely unrealistic expectations at my own feet. And I know the difference.

So my “goal” this year is to stop pretending I don’t know my own limits and the limits of my time. Think through the plans. Break it down. How much can I realistically do each week? Will it cause other parts of my life to suffer? Is that acceptable for a short amount of time? If not, do I change the timetable, or skip this “thing” all together?

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.

The Stories that Just Don’t Sell

What do you do with your “dog stories”–the ones that just don’t sell?

I have a few of those. There’s the story that was written the day of the deadline, because I really wanted to submit something but I had too many other deadlines due first. There’s the story that was written for a very specific anthology call that feels as though it will be hard to place. And there’s the story that just wasn’t a good fit anywhere.

These three stories ended up meeting different fates.

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Day-of-Deadline story ended up being okay. That’s it. Just “okay.” It’s a passable action-adventure story, but when I reread it, I don’t see anything special about it. The characters aren’t that unique. Their world feels like a generic steampunk-ish setting. When I finish the story, I don’t feel that I have anything to “take away” from it other than “well, that was 15 minutes of entertainment.”

There are enough good stories out there that editors are unlikely to buy a story that’s merely “okay.”

I have this story on hold until I can give it a more unique identity. Maybe that’ll be by developing the setting, which in turn will give the characters new challenges. Maybe that’ll be by making those characters more complex. I might be able to rework the story I have, or I might have to rewrite it almost entirely.

The moral of this story is that this tale needed more time than the 24 hours before deadline to be refined into something memorable. Without a heavy rewrite, this story isn’t good enough to sell.

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Specific-Anthology-Call is a Weird Western with horror and fantasy elements. I wrote it for a horror-themed anthology, but it quite fit the “feel” that the editors wanted for the book. Now I’m stuck with this bizarre story that’s struggling to find a home. I don’t think it has enough classic horror elements for most horror calls, but it’s too scary and gory for kid lit, and there’s no steampunk elements in it.

This story’s got a unique identity…it’s just that the identity is so quirky. I’ve shopped this one around to one Weird Western call since, and I’m waiting to see another before submitting it again. It’s going to take patience to find it a home.

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Finally, there’s a short story I wrote that I liked very much. I didn’t write it for a call–I wrote it because this was a specific kind of tale I wanted to tell. I gave it to some beta readers, all of whom said they found it confusing. They missed the in-text hints that suggested the true reasons behind the characters’ motivations.

I rewrote it, and received the same feedback. I didn’t want to write down to my audience, or explain the obvious, but with feedback like this it was clear to me that my subtle suggestions were too subtle. My readers were missing them, and therefore didn’t understand what was going on.

I rewrote it again, in a clearer form, and when I thought I’d gotten a good balance between “make sure the reader doesn’t have to guess too much” and “beat the reader over the head with the clue-by-four,” I submitted the story. And submitted it. And submitted it.

Over three years, I received five rejections.

After each rejection I reviewed and revised. I got two “this is a serviceable story, it’s just not our kind of story” replies.

Unlike Day-of-Deadline Story, Specific Anthology Call, and my rejected flash fiction, every time I reviewed this story, I felt more faith in it. I believed that this was a good story, not just an okay one. I believed that it was unique and interesting. I felt that there was something to take away from it. I believed in this story–for logical reasons, not just because of ego-driven reasons. I knew I could, and have, written crap; I just didn’t believe this one was crap. And so I kept cleaning it up and sending it out.

Then.

A call for submissions, to a magazine where I felt the story might be a good fit–but the story had to be 1000K shorter than its current state. I wasn’t sure I could make the story clear enough to follow, without cutting out any critical plot points, and also pare 1000 words. I decided to try. I focused on wordy sentences, repetitive descriptions, non-crucial detail. Any word that wasn’t essential had to go.

I got the story under maximum length…barely. I submitted it.

It sold.

There’s an art in knowing which of your stories are fundamentally flawed–the ones where you’re better off chalking them up as learning experiences and starting fresh–and which of your stories are good stories that just need to find a place to fit.