Encouragement from Discouragement

Encouragement from Discouragement


NOVEL SPOTLIGHT (Aaron): The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

This is another staple in my English classes. I first read it while at Antioch and fell in love with it. In his collection of short stories (that some argue is more of a non-linear, non-chronological novel because the characters are the same from story to story) Tim O’Brien gives such vivid descriptions of characters and setting. He’s able to really move you with his stories of these men in battle. The language is rough (it’s a war novel), so content warning. However, what most impresses me with this book is what it has to say about “truth.” It argues that, in some cases, fiction can be more real than facts. The way he explains it is poignant and thought provoking. This is well worth your time to read.

Firsts in Fiction

Encouragement from Discouragement (What to do when you want to quit)

Yes, you will want to quit. We all do at some point or another. Sometimes more often than not. Let’s be real–writing is hard. And it’s hard to ignore the voice in your head that says you’re no good and you’ll never make it. Even experienced writers want to give up from time to time.

AL: Humans are emotional creatures and emotion is a powerful force. Often too powerful. This is especially true for creatives. Most of us handle emotions badly. We tend to act the way we feel. What is better is acting the way you WANT to feel. We have it backwards. We quit because we don’t like the feeling of rejection and discouragement. This is really a battle of reason versus feelings.

Times when you want to quit:

  • Rejection letters: Do a quick search for famous authors who were rejected. It’s a pretty safe bet to say that every famous writer has his or her share of rejection slips. If you want to be professional, you need to start collecting these now. Remember, rejection slips don’t mean “You’re a terrible writer.” They mean, “This project isn’t right for us.” There’s a BIG difference between the two. One of the reasons I got into publishing (The Citron Review) is to send acceptance letters. I read plenty of great works that weren’t right for us, and I sent appropriate rejection letters. Here’s how to tell the difference between bad rejections and good rejections.
    • Bad rejection are typically very short and impersonal. They have the feel of a “form.” If they begin with “Dear sir/madam,” it’s probably a bad sign. They do not say why the work was rejected (other than the very vague “does not fit into what we’re doing). They do not recommend any edits.
    • Good rejections are personal and can often be longer. They are specific (that is, they will say something specific about your project such as, “We’re not hooked on the prologue,” or “the characters seemed a little flat,” or “the detail was great, but there was too much of it.”) They often will recommend ways to improve the work. The best ones encourage you to submit again later.
    • AL: Don’t expect a lot of comments. Acquisition editors don’t have time to edit your work. They might list, as Aaron shows, a few reasons for the rejection.
      • What should you do when the rejections come rolling in? Start your collection and celebrate the fact that you’re finally a professional! You’ve already made it farther than 90% of the other would-be writers who are too afraid to submit. This is real, baby! You’re doing it! Look at you with an actual letter from a real publisher (even if it is a tiny press). A bunch of bad rejection letters? Guess what–now you know where not to submit next time. It’s like a relationship–if you have a bad first date, move on until you find the right person (or publisher) for you. Remember, you’re on your way to having the same number of rejections as Stephen King or J. K. Rowling. See if you can land a book with fewer rejections than they piled up. Make it a game. Frame the “good” rejection letters, and be sure to send a “thank you” note to the publishers who took the time to read your manuscript. Keep that relationship positive, and you’ll be surprised how hard they work to get you a deal later on. Heck, write a thank you letter to the publishers who send you bad rejections, too! You’d be surprised how far a positive attitude can take you.
      • AL: It surprises some new writers to learn that even best selling authors still get the occasional rejection. Not as often because once a writer is established with a publisher, their submission process is very different. Often it is very casual. Still, I have an author friend who has over 100 books published and is great at her craft. She had a manuscript rejected. That means she had a contract, wrote the entire book, then the publisher sent it back. Usually, they ask for changes, but there are times when they just kill the deal. That stings.
  • Writer’s Block can be excessively depressing, especially if it goes on for some time. This is when the negative voices in your head are usually the loudest. Because the work is more difficult, more challenging, you find yourself tempted to do other, easier things. You begin to think the entire project is a failure, not just the particular scene(s) you are struggling with.
    • What to do when you’re blocked and want to give up:
      • Give up. For exactly one day. Or one hour. Or two. See a movie. Get some dinner. Go for a walk. Take a shower. Read a book (poetry, even!). Make some tea. Call up a friend (or be a good son and call your mother–she misses you!). Then, roll up your sleeves and get to work. You can even phone a friend, one who will encourage you and reaffirm you. I also suggest Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, which is a very encouraging book indeed. She’s got an entire chapter devoted to this topic.
        • AL:  I call this “The Walk Away.” I have found that stepping back is the quickest way to step forward (sounds like an Al’s Axiom). I used to do a crossword puzzle a day. I noticed that if I got stumped and set it down for awhile, then came back to it, the answer would be obvious. I have found that true for my writing. Sometimes the best thing I can do is quit for a time and then come back.
      • Just keep swimming (or writing, as the case may be): Keep writing, even if you know it’s no good. Sometimes, just writing will help get the juices going again.
  • When others succeed. Yes, we’re human and we’re petty and envious. And we have writer friends, and we KNOW we’re better than they are, but they’ve landed a book deal and we haven’t! The nerve of them! Or you read a novel and it’s garbage and you wonder how your wonderful work can be ignored! It will likely happen.
    • What to do when friends succeed before you: Celebrate with them. Bite your tongue and tell them how happy you are for them. Remember, they called you, right? So celebrate that. Maybe later they’ll pass your MS along to their publisher.
    • Re-evaluate your work. Is it as good as you think it is? Have you been sending it to the right places? Do a little more research and try again.
    • Remember, this isn’t a reflection on your or your talent. Sometimes publishing is right-time, right-place. All you can do is be diligent in improving your craft and your business.
    • AL: The success of others has nothing to do with you. Focusing on that distracts you from your work. It’s easy to feel cheated, wronged, and overlooked. It takes wisdom to stick to the work before you.
  • When you stop writing for any length of time. You’d be surprised at how easy it becomes to not write when you haven’t written for a while. It starts to become habit. You get to like the things you’re filling your time with other than writing. And then, you start to lose the dream, and you think things like, “Do I REALLY want to be a writer?”
    • What to do when you question your personal motivation to be a writer: If you can quit, do it. Probably not a writer anyway. If you can’t quit, roll up  your sleeves and get back to work. That novel won’t write itself. It needs you.
  • When you get bad reviews. Yes, they’re coming. Brace yourself. Remember, these are often written by people who have never written a book. They’ve never published anything, many of them. Also, you can’t control how carefully people read your book. It takes guts to put your book out there for the whole world. It invites criticism. And that’s fine. But rest on the positive reviews. Remember those. Fill yourself with the positive. Or, better yet, don’t read your reviews. At some point, there’s not really anything you can do about it anyway.
  • We live in an age of trolls. It doesn’t matter what you do or believe. There will be those who feel the need to find fault. All you can do is focus on the work.
  • [MJ] I very recently went through a bout of writing depression and seriously thought of quitting, but it wasn’t for any of these reasons. As y’all know, my manuscript is finished. At least the first draft. My discouragement came as a culmination of emotion (as Al points out, creatives are very emo people) during a severe case of the flu during which I was medicated. That never goes well for me. Combine that with a few rejections from agents and publishers, and no response from others, and I was really ready to say it doesn’t matter. So I did what Aaron suggests: I had heart-to-hearts with three of my intimate friends, and they basically Gibbs-slapped me back into focus. Now I have a better direction for how to edit and rewrite NOLA and a game plan and schedule to get it done on my terms. *For those who don’t know, Gibbs is a character from the TV show NCIS, who slaps his team on the back of the head when they need to refocus on the case at hand. It’s really a sign of affection. And it always works. [Read today’s blog post: http://franklymydearmojo.com/2018/02/20/that-one-time-i-forgot-i-was-a-writer/ ]

Remember, when you want to quit, you’re in good company (Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Herman Melville). But you only stay there if you don’t quit.

1 thought on “Encouragement from Discouragement”

  • Tim O’Brien … a name from my past. We both attended at graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, in 1969. He’s the brilliant writer; I publish some.

    Great article/blog/podcast. Rejections are tough to take. I always try to give suggestions when I reject an offering because I can visualize the face on the other end of the email. The trick is to keep on keeping on–give yourself a Gibb’s slap!

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