Failure is only a word

Frustrated by rejection, new authors can feel like failures. Their feelings of impatience, even anxiety, can lead to bad career decisions. Or to even give up on their dream.

Failure is only a word
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Frustrated newcomers can begin to do silly things to get the attention of publishing pros. A friend who edits romances for a major paperback publisher told me how at one conference an overeager author followed her into the ladies room—right into an empty stall—in order to pitch her manuscript. Did it work? No way!

Typically, authors express their anxiety in more subtle ways.

What is this anxiety really about? It can be experienced as the desperate feeling that no one in book publishing cares a damn about you or your manuscript. One can feel it as anger over slush piles (stacks of unrequested, waiting-to-be-read manuscripts), fury over long response times, frustration with uncaring editors or agents—one can even begin to resent the success of others. What began as bliss can turn to utter misery.

I would like to suggest that these overt signs of anxiety actually mask fears of a more fundamental sort. One is the fear of failure, the terrifying possibility that one has wasted years of one’s life. A second is the fear of humiliation—so many expectations to fulfill!
Especially one’s own!

Most fundamental of all, I believe, is the anxiety that derives from the need for validation. Above all things, writers want acceptance. They long to be judged worthy of publication. They want to be assured that they are not crazy. They need to know that all this time and effort have not been for nothing. If the breaking-in period becomes too lengthy or too frustrating, most writers will sooner or later get desperate. Some will start to avoid the whole process, refusing to push themselves. Others will keep at it doggedly but cynically, losing all excitement and hope.

That is too bad, because that kind of burnout can lead to ill-considered career decisions. And, these days, there is little room for error in the big, bad world of book publishing.

Donald Maass. The Career Novelist: A Literary Agent Offers Strategies for Success

James, a single, 31-year-old Caucasian male, is an aspiring actor and screenwriter…It became clear during the initial treatment sessions that it was his dissatisfaction with the current state of his life that was most distressing for James. He was frustrated with the lack of progress in his career and was struggling with thoughts of not having accomplished enough to this point in his life and fears of being a “failure.”

Through a series of direct experiential exercises in session, James gradually became less emotionally reactive to the word “failure.” For example, when presented with the word “failure” written on a flash card, James reported wanting to rip up the card and throw it in the trash. The therapist then asked James whether he was willing to put the card in his lap, simply read it, let it be, and have the card touch him as a thought. James agreed and was surprised to notice that he could do this without getting tangled up in what the card says. He was also willing to take the card with him over the next week everywhere he went. In addition, James and his therapist did an exercise in which they rapidly repeated the word “failure” for approximately 30 seconds while observing what happens to the quality of the word when doing so. James reported that after saying the word repeatedly “failure” was reduced to merely a string of almost unrecognizable sounds and he could see that it was ultimately just a word.

Exercises such as this helped James to become a better observer of his own thinking and he learned that he does not have to take his thoughts, even historically difficult thoughts, so seriously and do what they say. For example, during the course of treatment James completed his screenplay and put together a team of actors to present his screenplay to an audience for the very first time, despite experiencing occasional thoughts of failing throughout the process.

Georg H. Eifert, John P. Forsyth, Joanna Arch, Emmanuel Espejo, Melody Keller, and David Langer. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: Three Case Studies Exemplifying a Unified Treatment Protocol.

Character growth

Find the essence of your fictional characters, their roots, to see how they will grow. It might reveal something about yourself too.

character development
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The soil above the seed is hard to push through, but this very handicap, this resistance to the soil, forces the young sprout to gather strength for the battle. Where shall it get this additional strength? Instead of fighting ineffectively against the topsoil, the seed sends out delicate roots to gather more nourishment. Thus the sprout at last penetrates the hard soil and wins through to the sun. According to science, a single thistle needs ten thousand inches of root to support a thirty- or forty-inch stem. You can guess how many thousands of facts a dramatist must unearth to support a single character. By way of parable, let a man represent the soil; in his mind we shall plant a seed of coming conflict: ambition, perhaps. The seed grows in him, though he may wish to squelch it. But forces within and without the man exert greater and greater pressure, until this seed of conflict is strong enough to burst through his stubborn head. He has made a decision, and now he will act upon it. The contradictions within a man and the contradictions around him create a decision and a conflict. These in turn force him into a new decision and a new conflict.”

Lajos Egri. The Art of Dramatic Writing

Ask the question, “Who am I?” The question should be deeply rooted in you, like a new seed nestled deep in the soft earth and damp with water.

Thich Nhat Hanh translated by Mobi Ho. C
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Create a character worth following

Define your characters’ morals and values to discover which way they would go in a crisis, and your readers will be more likely to follow too.

Create characters you can follow
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If your deepest beliefs drive your writing, they will not only keep your work from being contrived but will help you discover what drives your characters. You may find some really good people beneath the packaging and posing—people whom we, your readers, will like, whose company we will rejoice in. We like certain characters because they are good or decent—they internalize some decency in the world that makes them able to take a risk or make a sacrifice for someone else. They let us see that there is in fact some sort of moral compass still at work here, and that we, too, could travel by this compass if we so choose.”

Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

‘Defining a valued direction produces a more consistent compass heading to direct action during the storms of life, when waves of emotion crash and the screaming minds of the wind blast. Anyone who has engaged in mindfulness meditation for any period of time is aware of how fickle and changeable emotions and thoughts can be. However, values tend not to change so rapidly over time. If the therapist can help clients describe their most basic values for their life, clients can contact a source of stability in an often-chaotic landscape of changing thoughts and feelings. Once clarified, stated, and committed to, values can be like a lighthouse, providing direction during dark psychological nights and story situations.’

Jason B. Luoma, Steven C. Hayes, Robyn D. Walser. Learning ACT: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Skills-Training Manual for Therapists

Forgiveness isn’t earned

Forgiveness is free. It’s a gift. And it’s one you can give yourself. Even after you’ve written a really crap first draft.

The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman
The Magician’s Land

One of the first tasks of the writer, I have found, and not the easiest, is forgiveness: You must forgive yourself for writing crap first drafts. Perform whatever ritual of absolution you have to, pray to whatever cruel god or gods you have to, but do that for yourself. Only once you’ve forgiven yourself can you begin the serious work of writing, which isn’t writing at all. It’s revising.

Lev Grossman. Writing Advice From George R.R. Martin, Karen Lord, and Other Sci-Fi/Fantasy Authors, Flavorwire.

‘Most clients have a hard time with forgiveness, because it sounds like a change in judgment or evaluation. It sounds like ‘I used to think you were wrong, but now I’ve changed my mind.’ Worse, it may appear to be equivalent to emotional avoidance: excusing, denying, or forgetting old angers and hurts. But the word forgive itself suggests a more positive way to approach this difficult topic: We can take it to mean ‘give that which came before’—literally, fore-giving. It means repairing what was lost. Gift comes from the Latin gratis, or free. In that sense, fore-giving is not earned: it is free. However, the gift of forgiveness is not a gift to someone else. Giving what went before is most particularly not a gift to the wrongdoer. It is a gift to oneself.’

Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl, and Kelly G. Wilson. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change

Don’t let excuses stop you

Everyone makes excuses. It’s a part of what we do, just try to recognise them as excuses and don’t let them get in the way of your dreams.

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson
The Great Lover: A Novel

Lots of the people I meet on courses say that they’re waiting till their kids grow up, they’re waiting till they retire till they have time, and that’s when they’ll start their novel. My advice has been consistent for the twenty-odd years I’ve been teaching creative writing: don’t wait, there’s never a perfect time. Do it now.

Jill Dawson. Five top tips on writing from Jill Dawson. Retrieved March 11, 2014, from The Guardian.

‘As soon as you have to face any sort of challenge, your mind will come up with a whole list of reasons not to do it: ‘I’m too tired’, ‘It’s too hard’, ‘I’ll only fail’, ‘It’s too expensive’, ‘It’ll take too long’, ‘I’m too depressed’ etc. And that’s okay, as long as we see these reasons for what they are: excuses.’

Russ Harris. The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living: A Guide to ACT

Don’t be bullied by your thoughts

You don’t have to let your thoughts lead the way. Find out what’s important to you, what truly matters to you, and let those values guide your actions.

The Writers Journey by Christopher VoglerTom Dunson, played by John Wayne in the classic Western Red River, makes a terrible moral error early in his career as a cattleman, by choosing to value his mission more than his love, and following his head rather than his heart. This choice leads to the death of his lover, and for the rest of the story he bears the psychic scars of that wound. His suppressed guilt makes him more and more harsh, autocratic, and judgmental, and almost brings him and his adopted son to destruction before the wound is healed by letting love back into his life.

A hero’s wounds may not be visible. People put a great deal of energy into protecting and hiding these weak and vulnerable spots. But in a fully developed character they will be apparent in the areas where she is touchy, defensive, or a little too confident. The wound may never be openly expressed to the audience — it can be a secret between the writer and the character. But it will help give the hero a sense of personal history and realism, for we all bear some scars from past humiliations, rejections, disappointments, abandonments, and failures. Many stories are about the journey to heal a wound and to restore a missing piece to a broken psyche.

Christopher Vogler. The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition.
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Often we know full well when we’re making excuses—we just need to be honest with ourselves. But if you’ve set a valued goal, and your mind gives you a reason not to attempt it, sometimes it’s not so clear that this is just an excuse. So if you’re genuinely unsure whether the thought is merely an excuse for inaction, or a statement of fact about something that truly is impossible, just ask yourself this question: ‘If the person you care about more than anyone else in the world were kidnapped, and the kidnappers told you they will never release that person until you take a particular action toward your goals, would you then take action?’ If the answer is yes, then you know that any reason (for not taking that action) is merely an excuse.

‘Ah, yes,’ you may be saying, ‘but that’s just a silly hypothetical question. In the real world, the person I love has not been kidnapped.’

Right you are. But what’s at stake in the real world is something equally important: your life! Do you want to live a life in which you do the things that are really meaningful to you? Or do you want to live a life of drifting aimlessly, letting your demons run the ship?

‘Okay,’ I hear you say. ‘I agree that I could attempt this goal, but it’s not that important to me.’

The question here is, are you being honest with yourself? Or are you just buying into another thought? If the goal you’re avoiding is truly unimportant to you, fine, don’t attempt it. But make sure you check in with your values. And if this goal really is something you value, then you are faced with a choice: either act in accordance with what you value, or let yourself be pushed around by your own thoughts.

Russell Harris. Introductory Workshop Handout.

Developing character – in fiction and life

To create great characters, writers need to understand their own thoughts and feelings first.

Story by Robert McKeeWe all share the same crucial human experiences. Each of us is suffering and enjoying, dreaming and hoping of getting through our days with something of value. As a writer, you can be certain that everyone coming down the street toward you, each in his own way, is having the same fundamental human thoughts and feelings that you are. This is why when you ask yourself, “If I were this character in these circumstances, what would I do?” The honest answer is always correct. You would do the human thing. Therefore, the more you penetrate the mysteries of your own humanity, the more you come to understand yourself, the more you are able to understand others.

Robert McKee. Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting.

Often many people we meet in our daily lives seem to have it all. They seem happy. They look satisfied with their lives. You’ve probably had the experience of walking down the street when you’re having a particularly bad day, and you’ve looked around and thought, “Why can’t I just be happy like everyone around me? They don’t suffer from chronic panic (or depression, or a substance abuse problem). They don’t feel as if a dark cloud is always looming over their heads. They don’t suffer the way I suffer. Why can’t I be like them?”

Here’s the secret: They do and you are. We all have pain. All human beings, if they live long enough, have felt or will feel the devastation of losing someone they love. Every single person has felt or will feel physical pain. Everybody has felt sadness, shame, anxiety, fear, and loss. We all have memories that are embarrassing, humiliating, or shameful. We all carry painful hidden secrets. We tend to put on shiny, happy faces, pretending that everything is okay, and that life is “all good.” But it isn’t and it can’t be. To be human is to feel pain in ways that are orders of magnitude more pervasive than what the other creatures on planet Earth feel.

Steven C. Hayes and Spencer Smith. Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

Inspiration from the inside

Find inspiration to write a truly great story by examining the things that matter most to you.

Write Something That May Change Your Life

First, write down your wish list, a list of everything you would like to see up on the screen, in a book, or at the theater. It’s what you are passionately interested in, and it’s what entertains you. You might jot down characters you have imagined, cool plot twists, or great lines of dialogue that have popped into your head. You might list themes that you care about or certain genres that always attract you.

The Anatomy of Story by John TrubyWrite them all down on as many sheets of paper as you need. This is your own personal wish list, so don’t reject anything. Banish thoughts like “That would cost too much money.” And don’t organize while you write. Let one idea trigger another.

The second exercise is to write a premise list. This is a list of every premise you’ve ever thought of. That might be five, twenty, fifty, or more. Again, take as many sheets of paper as you need. The key requirement of the exercise is that you express each premise in one sentence. This forces you to be very clear about each idea. And it allows you to see all your premises together in one place.

Once you have completed both your wish list and your premise list, lay them out before you and study them.

As you study, key patterns will start to emerge about what you love. This, in the rawest form possible, is your vision. It’s who you are, as a writer and as a human being, on paper in front of you. Go back to it often.

Notice that these two exercises are designed to open you up and to integrate what is already deep within you. They won’t guarantee that you write a story that changes your life. Nothing can do that. But once you’ve done this essential bit of self-exploration, any premise you come up with is likely to be more personal and original.

John Truby. The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller.

In ACT, the values assessment process serves a variety of assessment and intervention purposes. First, the client may become aware of long suppressed values. This process is motivational in the sense that the client may find major discrepancies between valued versus current behaviors. Second, the process of values assessment can help highlight a place in the client’s life in which everything is absolutely perfect and pristine.

Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl and Kelly G. Wilson. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change.

Ernest Hemingway in the moment

A writer has to learn to feel the present moment in order to reproduce the sounds, actions and emotions for the reader.

Hemingway on his boat the Pilar
Hemingway on his boat, the Pilar

Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exactly what it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you that emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion, what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling you had.’

Ernest Hemingway. Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter.

‘To allow ourselves to be truly in touch with where we already are, no matter where that is, we have got to pause in our experience long enough to let the present moment sink in; long enough to actually feel the present moment, to see it in its fullness, to hold it in awareness and thereby come to know and understand it better. Only then can we accept the truth of this moment of our life, learn from it, and move on.’

Jon Kabat-Zinn. Wherever You Go, There You Are