On Rejection

So let’s talk about rejection.  It’s the inevitable and unpleasant companion in the journey of every writer.  The Rejection Beast walks before us and beside us, it eats up our energy and dogs at our heels and bursts into the room to knock you down when you least expect it.  No writing career is free of it.  It’s only a question of how to handle it.

So, how does one handle it?

Well, like so many aspects of the writing life, the answer is, it depends on the writer.  So if you find yourself with this unwelcome house guest, here are some strategies you can try out.

View rejection from a different angle. This is my preferred strategy.  I look at rejections not as signs of failure but signs that I’m actively sending my stories out into the world.  I may not always succeed, but I am making the attempt.  Trying is better than doing nothing.  After all, the presence of the Rejection Beast in my living room is only a reminder that my front door is open for when Acceptance finally arrives.

Make like a mad scientist and take the “I’ll show them!” route.  This is a good strategy for those who need a little bit more fire in their belly to keep them going.  As Neil Gaiman once famously wrote,

“It does help, to be a writer, to have the sort of crazed ego that doesn’t allow for failure. The best reaction to a rejection slip is a sort of wild-eyed madness, an evil grin, and sitting yourself in front of the keyboard muttering ‘Okay, you bastards. Try rejecting this!’ and then writing something so unbelievably brilliant that all other writers will disembowel themselves with their pens upon reading it, because there’s nothing left to write.”

Granted, Mr. Gaiman probably has less to worry about when it comes to rejection these days.  But using rejection as fuel to push your own improvement and perseverance is a win-win.  It’s a hard climb up the mountain, and sometimes you need to hit the red button and fire up the turbo-boosters.

Get yourself a cheerleader. Let’s face it:  writing is a lonely business, and it’s easy to get deep inside our own heads.  That’s why it’s good to have companions on this road:  beta readers, fellow writers, and cheerleaders.  Sometimes people will fill more than one of these roles for you; but when the Rejection Beast squats in your best writing chair and just Will Not Leave, the cheerleader is there for you, giving you a much-needed boost when you’re feeling down or adrift and the words just aren’t coming out right.  And cheerleading can be a reciprocal act, too!  Let’s face it, it’s incredibly fun and uplifting to stan* your friends when they need it.

Remind yourself why you’re doing this. Whenever I hit a slog, when the words aren’t coming and I need a little more motivation, I love reading books where writers talk about their experience living the writing life.  It helps to put me back into a good mental place, reminding me why I want to keep doing this, despite the obstacles.

Those are just a few strategies I know off the top of my head.  Whichever one you try, the important thing is to keep trying, to find the strategy that lights that fire in you.  The Rejection Beast will come, whether we want it to or not.  And we can yell at it, or blend it in with the décor, or call up our friends to vent about it.  But eventually we need to keep doing what we love doing, and refuse to let this Beast stop us.

*Yes, I know ‘stan’ is a trendy new word that All the Kids Are Using These Days, but it fits so neatly into a hole in my vocabulary that I find myself using it a lot!  It’s a great mash-up that encompasses cheering, supporting, and promoting something/someone you love in one easy one-syllable verb.  What’s not to like?

Story and Theme

“To my mind the master is the one who can simultaneously give the effect of simplicity and restraint–yet you can go right up to it and explore it endlessly with the greatest joy.” -Andrew Wyeth

Let’s talk theme in storytelling.

As I’ve been on another dragon kick in the wake of Fort Fest, I recently sat down to rewatch one of my favorite dragon movies, How to Train Your Dragon 2.  I love both the movies in this franchise, and I’m looking forward to the third, the trailer for which just recently dropped.

And while I’m aware that movies and books tell stories differently (and there are some ways movies do this that shouldn’t be used to guide the writing of books), there are some universal lessons that can translate over.  Theme is one of them, so that’s what we’re going to look at.

At this point in my life, I’ve read enough books and seen enough movies to have seen the same plots and character archetypes over and over again.  So often, what makes a story stand out to me is what it does differently:  how it plays with and subverts my expectations, how it pushes against cliches.  How it blows me away with sheer technical mastery, or provides me with extra “meat” to chew on in the form of a story working on multiple levels.

It’s this latter one I want to talk about, because that’s where theme lives.  Theme goes deeper than a surface-level “message” or moral.  Theme is the idea behind the story, the concept that it’s exploring.  In a masterfully told story, this theme will be reflected in almost everything that happens.  Plot points shouldn’t occur in a vacuum, as discrete events.  Plot points stem from everything that’s happened before, and if you’re doing it right, each of them will speak to or react against the same core conflict or idea.

For example, in the HTTYD movies, it’s a straightforward coming of age/boy and his dog story (though in this case, the “dog” is actually a cross between a cat, a bat, the alien Stitch, and a B-2 stealth bomber).  But go deeper, and it’s really a story about masculinity and leadership.  It’s a story that looks at the emotional and physical crippling that occurs when violence and brutal competition is considered the only “proper” way to achieve manhood.  It looks at how a boy who is intelligent, inventive, and gentle grows up desperate to prove he’s a man by performing toxic masculinity, because the society he’s born into has not given him a place to thrive as he is.  Over the course of the story, he brings about positive change by presenting a different way to “be a man,” one that leaves room for peace, friendship, and the strength to own up to your mistakes and try to fix them.

And the second movie again comes back to this theme, with its own visions of positive and negative (male) leaders:  empathy vs. coersion, strength used to protect all vs. strength used to conquer and subdue the Other.

Go through the movies, and see how they come back again and again to this theme.  The characters and relationships we focus on, the events that move the plot:  everything reflects, explores, and supports the theme.

So, how do we as storytellers go about creating a story that has a strong theme?  It’s not necessarily something that needs to be focused on in the first draft; in fact, sometimes you just want to tell a story, and that’s fine!  As you work on it, as you go back for later drafts, a theme might emerge that can guide your editing.

Can you use theme as a starting point?  Sure, but I’d give a word of caution.  On one hand, a theme can be a guide to help you figure out where the story should go.  But on the other hand, if you’re not careful, using theme as a starting point can lend itself to a story that’s too pedantic or obviously leading with a message.

The key, I think, is to keep it fairly broad.  “Broccoli is the most morally upright vegetable” might be too narrow a starting point; “Vegetables” might be a better starting theme, or “Food and Morality”.  And then if you get stuck, thinking “I want my hero to confront the villain but I don’t know how to make that happen,” you go back to your theme, and decide that they should run into one another in a grocery store.

This is an incredibly reductive and silly example, but hopefully you get my drift.

My husband actually uses this technique when writing the plot for the LARPs we run.  It will always be a (usually) single word that encompasses what our focus is.  That way, if we ever get stuck, we come back to the theme and decide what to do based around that.  So, as a writing prompt/example, I’ll give you some of our past years’ themes:

Greed – Normalcy – Harmony – Insurance – Robots – the Breakdown of Friendship

Try writing a story guided by one of these themes.  See what happens!  You might end up in some interesting places.

On the Choosing of Ideas

The past couple of weeks, I’ve been talking about the nature of ideas and where to find them.  Let’s assume you’re at the point where you have plenty of ideas, and need to know where to focus your time and effort.

How do you know which ideas to nurture?  Well, that is a slightly trickier proposition.  The trunks, desk drawers, and hard drives of writers are full of half-baked and discarded ideas.  And that’s okay.  That’s normal.  It’s all part of the process, another brick in the road.

Honestly, there’s no magic formula.  A story that seems brilliant as you start it can shrivel and die on the vine, or hit a point where you realize the effort to fix it won’t be worth what you get out of it.  For me, I’ve found that practice helps me determine the mileage I might be able to get out of an idea:  how intrigued am I by this?  Can I shape it into something interesting?  Is it missing a vital component, like conflict?

I generally don’t start a story until I have, at minimum, a character and a conflict or goal.  If an idea doesn’t have that yet, I either poke it with a stick till it does, or toss it into the back of my mind and let it simmer.  But that’s just my process;  other writers might start with an image, or a scene.

When I begin a story, I don’t always know where it’s going to go. I start as a pantser, and usually find the plot as I chew on the idea and let the beginning play out.  Sometimes I find the way as I write it out.  And sometimes I hit a thorny patch with no discernible way to get from Point A to Point B.  Sometimes I look at that thorny patch and decide I can find the path underneath it with a bit of elbow grease and persistence.  Other times I shrug and turn to another project.  I ask myself, do I love the story enough to put in that extra work to find the path?

Seriously, don’t sweat it if you find a story isn’t working and you put it aside.  It happens to all of us.  With time and practice, you can improve at taking the temperature of an idea before expending a lot of effort on it, but sometimes you just have to make a go of it and see what happens.

On the Finding of Ideas

Last week I talked about how ideas are everywhere.  Still, writers are asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas?”

Well…where does one find ideas?  Anywhere, I suppose.  The human mind is always processing and reacting to the world.  Ideas flit into and out of our minds all the time.  It’s just a matter of cultivating the mindset of paying attention to these random ideas and holding onto them, playing with them and seeing where they’ll go.  That can take time and practice, but it gets easier.  The imagination is a muscle, and improves with regular exercise.

I’m a pretty visual person, so I find that intriguing photos and art can be inspiring, especially if the image implies an unspoken story behind it.  Or I’ll mishear something, song lyrics or a snippet of conversation, and the mishearing twists the words into something strange and thought-provoking.  Sometimes I will transcribe my dreams, which (with a little bit of elbow grease) can be turned into the start of a story.

Of course, your imagination might work differently than mine, and latch onto ideas from other places.  Maybe music inspires you, or abstract art, or a brisk walk in the park.

Whatever your source, I find writing these seeds down helps a whole lot, especially if it is an idea I may not get to working on right away.  I have a few different places I keep these:  one is a small sunflower tin full of scraps of paper, each one containing a couple of words or a phrase, nothing longer than a sentence or two that could imply…something.  Anything larger than that, a scene or a character or a setting, goes into a Scrivener file I have. (This is also where I keep lists of interesting names for people, places, and imaginary bands.)

In addition, I have a little jar full of hand-written writing prompts given as a gift from a friend, and a finely-carved wooden box full of story prompts from another friend.  These I turn to when I’m stuck and need a little push, or just want to try a writing exercise to get the wheels turning.

Some of these ideas I snap up and play with right away, and some I hold onto and put aside, throwing them into the giant stew pot that is my mind and letting them simmer.  And sometimes, when I least expect it, two or more ingredients in that stew pot react and create something greater than the sum of their parts.

That’s really all there is to it.  The world is full of idea potential.  It’s all just a matter of cultivating your imagination, learning to listen and hold onto and to play with the ideas that are just waiting for you to discover them.

On the Value of Ideas

One truism of being a writer is that, somewhere along the way, someone is going to ask you where you get your ideas.  It is also not uncommon, if one is a famous enough writer, for people to approach you claiming to have a brilliant instant-best-seller idea, and they will share that idea with you and you can write it and you will both split the profits of this sure-to-be-blockbuster 50/50.

Here is the truth about ideas: they are literally everywhere, and they are worth exactly nothing.

Most of us have heard variations on the Edison quote “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”  This is true of writing, as well:  the idea isn’t the story.  The idea is a seed, and you have to roll up your sleeves, nurture and water it, prune it and pull up the weeds that threaten to choke it off.  The fruits (or flowers or vegetables) of your labor are the source of its value, in the end.

Authors give away ideas all the time.  We share prompts, we read and react and respond to others’ works.  A hundred authors with a single idea between them will come up with a hundred completely different stories.  The story is not the idea, but how we nurture and grow that idea.

(For an example, Tor.com once gave five authors the same surreal image and asked them to write a story inspired by it. You can read the fascinating and varied results here.)

There is no best-seller idea because people don’t buy ideas, they buy the finished product.

For example, here are a bunch of ideas and prompts I have sitting around in my idea stash:

  • “He ate an embarrassing amount of oranges.”
  • “Monday is a day of lies.  Friday is Opposite Day.”
  • “That’s my favorite pony!”
  • “Our coffee table was gnawed by wolves.”

Have at them.  I bequeath them to you.  Roll up your sleeves, play with them, see where they will take you.