Okay, let’s not mince words. 2020 has been one hell of a year. This is how it’s felt:
Getting whapped in the face over and over is not fun. But, as the Stoics used to say, it is what it is. It’s what you do with the “is” that counts.
This applies to any field of endeavor. No one gets to have a successful career without confronting and overcoming setbacks. Some will be big, some small, but come they will.
Steve Jobs built Apple into a powerhouse, only to be forced out in 1985. Twelve years later Apple was circling the drain. Jobs was brought back in and turned Apple around. When he died at age 56, Jobs was worth $7 billion.
Wally Amos started Famous Amos Cookie Company in 1975. I was there. I was walking along Sunset Boulevard one day that year when a friendly man in a cool hat and holding a plate of cookies stopped me. He was standing outside a little A-frame store with a giant cookie on the sign. So I sampled one of his little beauties and was hooked. I bought a bag. And shook hands with Wally Amos.
But then came the setback. In 1985 Amos was forced to sell the company. He was prohibited from using his name to start another. So what did he do? He started the Uncle Noname Cookie Company. Faced more setbacks. Started another company, and at age 84 is working on another. This is called never giving up.
Writers have their unique challenges. When their career is in the hands of another, there’s always the possibility of being dropped if things don’t work out financially. This can lead to some depressing conversations. The screenwriter played by Albert Brooks in his movie, The Muse, had one such talk:
Setbacks are often due to circumstances beyond our control. I know one writer who got a mega book deal, the first hardcover coming out with great fanfare on the usual release day, Tuesday. Only this Tuesday happened to be September 11, 2001. Suffice to say the book stalled and so, for a time, did the author’s career. But he came back.
So did a guy named Gilstrap. Back in 2003 “everyone told me that my career as a writer was over.” Now what have we got? A hit series and another one on the way. (Read John’s account of what happened here.)
Among my writing friends are several “midlist writers” who were phased out, dropped, or otherwise shown the door by their former publishers. Most of them are now happily publishing independently—which in and of itself is the most amazing “comeback machine” ever handed to the writing community.
Then there are setbacks that come from life itself: pandemics, family issues, physical challenges, mental fatigue. All this can affect our work.
How to handle them? My advice has always been along the lines of the flippant doctor’s prescription for insomnia: Just sleep it off. I’ve counseled writers to keep writing, or “write your way through” whatever it is that knocks you flat.
But I know that’s easy to say and hard to do. So let me suggest an exercise I call writing sprints. This is where you set yourself a goal of writing 250 words—a nifty 250—as fast as you can. The three rules of writing sprints are: 1) Write without stopping; 2) Don’t judge what you’re writing as you write; and 3) Wait ten minutes before you look over what you’ve done and decide what to do with it.
I’ve broken writing sprints into five categories:
1. Scene sprints
That scene you’re about to work on? Pick a spot in the scene, any spot, and write 250 words. It could be the beginning, or it could be the “hot spot” where the meat of the scene is taking place. You can also write an ending, too. There is no wrong decision.
2. Emotion sprints
This is my favorite. Find a place where your viewpoint character is feeling something deeply. Then write 250 words just on that feeling. Expand it. Use internal thoughts. Use metaphors. Follow tangents wherever they lead. Later, you’ll use the best of this in your writing. Even if it’s only one line, you’ll have found gold.
3. Dialogue sprints
I love dialogue. It’s fun and easy. In a sprint, don’t use quote marks or attributions. Just the dialogue between characters. Let them improvise. Let them argue. Let them reveal things. Usually you’ll find something that is delightfully surprising (and it will delight your readers, too).
4. Description sprints
Go wild on describing a person, place, or thing. I often close my eyes for this, and let my imagination give me pictures.
5. Random Word sprints
Open a dictionary at random (I used to carry a pocket dictionary for this, back in the days when it was acceptable to write in a coffee house). Pick the first word you see that is a noun, verb, or adjective. Write 250 words on whatever that word triggers. You can apply it to your WIP if you like. Example: You find the word bloodhound. You can just start writing and follow rabbit trails (hey, just like that dog!) Or can ask yourself, “How might a bloodhound figure in my story?” and then go. Maybe your Lead can have a memory of a bloodhound. Or maybe he feels like a bloodhound. Okay: what does he think about that feeling? Keep writing!
Here’s another benefit. After you’ve done those 250 words, you’ll almost always feel the flow. You’ll want to write some more. So write! Because setbacks won’t stop a writer who produces the words.
What’s a setback you’ve faced as a writer? What did you do to overcome it? Or are you still in process?