Fail Differently

During the Christmas break, my son, Sam, found a unicycle for $15 at a thrift store. He hollered, “Mom! Look!” Then he ran to see if his older brothers wanted to pool their money with him to buy it. But he struck out. Neither of them were interested.

Sam still wanted the unicycle though. He carried it around the store saying, “Should I buy it? I don’t know if I should buy it.” 

He wondered if he could learn how. And what if he didn’t? Would it be a big ol’ waste of money? He didn’t have a clue where to even begin. How do you even start to learn how to ride a such a vehicle? 

I think Sam would’ve talked himself right out of buying that unicycle. Luckily, I was there to give him a bit of encouragement. 

It sounded something like, “You can do it. We’ll watch some YouTube videos.”

After all, you can learn anything from YouTube, right? I mean, if I could learn the right way to tie my shoes, then surely we could find videos about riding a unicycle.  

That did it. It was just enough to bolster his confidence.

YES! He could do it. Why not? So, he bought it.

As soon as we walked through the doors of our home, he asked me to find a video to watch. I found this super nifty one made by Coach Bob. 


Doesn’t that make you want to run out and get your own unicycle? 

Sam immediately went to a wall, leaned against it, and attempted to push off and stay upright on his unicycle.

He didn’t. 

But he tried again. 

And again. 

And again.

He started to stay upright…for a few inches. And then a few feet. But then he found he was messing up in the same way. He wasn’t progressing. He could only stay on for a few feet before losing his balance and toppling over.

“Fail differently!” I told him reminding him of Coach Bob’s final tip. 

Oh, man. I love that! Fail differently. Sam needed to try something else. He kept doing the same thing, moving his body in the same way, hoping for different results, and then losing his balance.

He needed to lean farther forward or backward. He needed to find the sweet spot that kept his center of gravity balanced on his precarious one-wheeled mode of transportation. And if he kept trying the same thing over and over again, he wouldn’t be able to do it. He had to try something else, even though there was a pretty good chance he’d probably lose his balance by doing that, too.

He HAD to fail differently in order to succeed.

Wow. I’ll tell you what. It’s like that metaphor became a sentient being and decided to wallop me upside my head. The lesson couldn’t be clearer.

I’ve been failing to meet my personal writing goals for years. And always in the same way. I don’t make the time to work on my craft that I need to in order to find my own balance, to become the writer I want to be.

Instead, I lean forward in the same way over and over, squeezing writing here and there, only finding time to drip tiny drops of work into the cracks of my days, imagining there will always be more time in the future. Or waiting for inspiration, for new ideas, for the solution to a problem before getting to work. I don’t make writing a priority in my life. And you know why?

Fear. Yep. Good old fashioned fear. I’m just like Sam when he was afraid he couldn’t really learn how to ride the unicycle. I’ve been wandering around the shop, wondering if it’s something I can really do, and worrying it’s not. I’m afraid I won’t actually learn how to be the writer I want to be. So, instead of just going for it and trying, putting everything I have into it, I hang back. I wait. I  imagine things will get easier. That the right idea will come. That I’ll simply wake up one day and be a brilliant writer? (Ha!) 

It’s hard to waste time or money on something you might fail at. But Marina Abramovic, the brilliant performance artist said, “I think failure is important because if you go, if you experiment, you can fail. If you don’t go into that area and you don’t fail, you are actually repeating yourself over and over again.”

I’ve been repeating myself for years. Repeating the same failure. 


So, now I need to fail differently. I need to write. Every day. Just show up for it like a job. Because I’d much rather fail by writing and getting things wrong, whole scenes or characters or stories and learn from those failures than fail by simply not writing. 

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll eventually end up as cool as my Sam.  



How can you fail differently?

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Erin Shakespear
 writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are also full of quirky creatures, magic, strange adventures, and…loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, sewing, and pretending she’s a grand artist. 

On Getting Unstuck

What do you do when you’re stuck in your writing? When you know you have a beautiful swan of a story, but there are messy, muddy parts you don’t know how to fix, or maybe even how to finish? What then?

There are excellent compilations of quotes by world-famous writers on overcoming writer’s block, but for this post (and for a panel I was asked to be on at a recent workshop), I wanted fresh material. So I turned to some of my equally wise and wonderful author friends, who’ve written everything from the hilarious to the serious, fiction and non-fiction and poetry, kid favorites and even a Newbery Honor. Here’s what they had to say:

Ruth McNally Barshaw: Take a walk. Look through magazines. Make a zillion lists. Exercise. Go someplace you haven’t been before. Go to an art gallery or museum and look at art. Commune with nature — walk in the woods. Talk with someone who inspires. Read a good book. DRAW.
Edith Thornton Cohn: Usually if I’m stuck, I’ve taken a wrong turn in the manuscript. So I back up & rethink it.
Anna Staniszewski: I second what Edith said. I go back to where the story was working and try to figure out went wrong. I also close the document and brainstorm on paper.
Janet Sumner Johnson: A blogging friend of mine once suggested making a bullet list for what comes next and go from there. That’s always really helped me. But I agree with all the other suggestions too!
Cynthia Levinson: For me, it’s insufficient research. But I’m a NF writer. Yet…it might still apply.
Kristin Wolden Nitz: I often make forward progress when writing by hand in accordance with Natalie Goldberg’s strategy she put forth in WRITING DOWN THE BONES. The short version is that you “rent” a table at a coffee shop for office space. Then you sit down and start writing without stopping for the next hour or more. No editing. Sometimes I call this Thinking with a pen…I used to get my best ideas when I was mowing the lawn or shoveling snow when I lived in Michigan. There was something about the long straight lines of snow or grass.
Kami Kinard: Usually I switch projects for a while… hours or days… or I read. So far, those two methods haven’t failed me.
Maggie Moris: A couple of things: I just got the book, “Around the Writer’s Block. Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance,” by Roseanne Bane. Several writers recommended it. Also, if you physically move your body for a short series of exercises where the left hand taps the right shoulder/side/knee/toes – pick one, and vice a versa, this apparently lights up the brain’s cross wiring. I also agree with painting, or playing with modeling clay, or other forms of making art.
Margarita Engle: Scribble! Don’t expect perfection. Just let the pen flow, knowing that you can make corrections later.
Susan Hill Long: Setting a timer and writing till it goes off. Over and over. On the rough days, that’s what it takes for me. I love my timer.
Peggy Harkins: Take a walk. Somehow when my body gets moving, my brain does, too.
Tracy Holczer: Usually I get writer’s block when I’ve made a wrong turn somewhere in the narrative. It’s my brain’s way of telling me I’ve hit a dead end. The only way for me to break through is to go back and figure out where I went wrong. Sometimes that means taking a break from the writing and doing research, reading craft books or brainstorming with writing friends. The answer always comes and then the writing flows again.

Louise Galveston: I get blocked when I’m dreading a scene, especially if it involves a new world with lots of description. So I focus on dialogue on the first pass. Also I use the same playlist for a project so my brain hears the music and is conditioned to be productive-helps me, anyway.
As always, I’m overwhelmed by the wisdom and generosity of my fellow writers. Thanks to all who contributed to this post. And readers, what advice would you add?

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Elaine Vickers is the author of LOST AND FOUND (HarperCollins, 2016) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. She’s a member of SCBWI and represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption. 🙂 
 

Take Care of Yourself!

Last Saturday, I ran a 50-mile relay with two of my siblings and two close friends. This does NOT mean that I ran 50 miles; I ran two five-mile legs of the relay with a couple of hours to relax in between. As I was reflecting on possible blog post topics for this week, I first thought of the relay as a metaphor for writing–I draft a manuscript, and at various points, I pass the baton to my critique partners or beta readers or agent or editor, and I can take a breath and a break while the manuscript still moves forward.

But then I realized that what I did last Saturday doesn’t just have to be a metaphor for writing. There are valuable, direct lessons from that race that influence all of us as writers, and the overall message is this:

Take care of yourself!

Here are some important aspects of that message, all of which probably seem obvious, but all of which writers have a particular temptation to ignore:

First, and most obviously, EXERCISE! This is extra important for me because I get grumpy when I don’t exercise, in much the same manner that I get grumpy when I go too long without writing time. Physical activity is valuable for all writers, whether this means walking, running, swimming, team sports, dance… Whatever gets your body moving will make you healthier and happier, which will clear your mind and improve your writing.

Second, EAT BETTER! I’m not advocating radical or extreme measures here, but again, you will feel better and think better and write better if the fuel you’re putting the right kind of fuel into your body, and the right amount. (Full disclosure: I eat junk food and drink soda almost every day. But I do make sure to eat more good stuff than bad stuff!)

Third, SLEEP! Our critique group has an ongoing (and hilarious!) Facebook conversation, and one of the things some of our members do sometimes is post the gibberish lines they typed when they fell asleep at the computer. Although they are loads of fun to read (“God only knows what the guardians would do to him if they ever found out about pigs…”), they do illustrate the principle that our best writing doesn’t happen when we’re overly fatigued.

Fourth, BE OUTSIDE IN THE SUNSHINE, BREATHING FRESH AIR! Enough said.

Fifth, SPEND TIME WITH PEOPLE WHO MAKE YOU HAPPY! Whether you go to lunch with a friend, snuggle up with your kids, go on a date with your significant other, or gab in a car while asphyxiating yourselves with your own relay-induced BO, spending time with people who make you happy is an incredible boost, and one that even the most introverted writer needs on a regular basis.

After all those tips, here’s my final one: ALL THINGS IN MODERATION, INCLUDING MODERATION! There will be times when you sit at your computer, day and night, binge-scarfing chocolate and isolating yourself from the world. And that’s okay–sometimes that’s just what you need during or after your endurance is tested. Sometimes that’s how you take care of yourself, for a little while anyway.

Readers, we love you. So, one more time, take care of yourselves! Your writing will thank you.

What tips do you have for writers to take care of themselves? Which of the above are the most important to you? Which are the hardest and the easiest for you to live by?

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Elaine Vickers is the author of LOST AND FOUND (HarperCollins, 2016) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. She’s a member of SCBWI and represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption. 🙂



The Life of a Writer on Submission

It’s my turn to join in the “Life of a Writer” series, started Monday by the fabulous Erin Shakespear. The stage I’ll be talking about? Being on submission. *cue scary music*

There are so many great resources for querying writers, and I think I assumed it would be the same once I went out on submission. Unfortunately, it’s not. If you’re on submission, the unwritten rule is that you don’t talk about the process in a very public way, and the result is that there are fewer online resources for this stage of the writing process. So here’s my attempt to give a little helpful information without breaking that particular rule.

My own submission process had its highs and lows (wasn’t that gloriously vague?), but the high of receiving “the call” absolutely made the whole thing worth it. So, based on my own experience, here are some observations and thoughts about the submission process, as well as some of the resources I’ve found for “being on sub” survival.

1. Ways being on submission is like querying:

  • Your work will be read by professionals in the industry whom you respect and with whom you would love to work. Eek! Yay!
  • Your work will be read immediately and thoroughly, or…less thoroughly, and after waiting for weeks or months. This is beyond your control, so make peace with it.
  • Querying and submissions are both like digging a tunnel; you’re doing everything you can, but you have no idea when you’re about to break through. You could be years or hours away from the good news, but keep digging! It would be so sad to walk away when you’re about to break through into the light. If you’re discouraged by querying or submissions, please read this powerful post on surviving the “Nearly There” stage of writing.
  • My #1 rule for querying is the same as my #1 submission rule: WRITE YOUR NEXT BOOK! Also, THIS SHOULD NOT BE A SEQUEL TO YOUR FIRST BOOK! Write a new, independent project, and invest your energy and emotions into this new project. (See Erin’s post for more info.) Revise your formerly-finished project as necessary when you get feedback, but focus on something completely different the rest of the time.

2. Ways being on submission is totally different than querying:

  • You’re not in charge. It’s called “submission”, my friends! 🙂 If you like being in control, this could be difficult. For me, this was a HUGE relief. Either way, you have an expert on your side who is helping you make the decisions and guiding you through the process.
  • Submissions are often sent in smaller batches than queries. This is likely true for two reasons: There are fewer editors out there than agents, and perhaps agents have more self-control when it comes to sending things off than writers. But the bottom line is this: you should expect that the process will take longer and be slower in every regard. (Then you can be pleasantly surprised if it doesn’t, and isn’t. 🙂
  • Ideally, you’ll only go through the query process once. But if you’re pursuing a traditional publishing route, you will be on submission for every manuscript you write, again and again. Even if you get a multi-book deal, you’ll be submitting future manuscripts to your editor and hoping for good news. So learn to love the process! And then let me know how you did it! 🙂

3. Additional Resources for Writers on Submission:

  • Deeanna Romito’s Query. Sign. Submit. interview series gives accounts of each of these processes from the perspective of authors and agents
  • Mindy McGinnis’s interview series “Submission Hell–It’s True” with its appropriate acronym has some author interviews and insights into the process
  • Dahlia Adler’s Perpetual WIPs series, with posts appropriate for every stage in the writing process, including submissions
Best of luck with submissions, everyone! And let me know if there are great resources out there that I missed!
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Elaine Vickers is the author of LOST AND FOUND (HarperCollins, 2016) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. She’s a member of SCBWI and represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption. 🙂

Defeating Discouragement

When we become passionate about something, often we expect that, because we really want it and are working hard, we will be rewarded equal to our efforts.  But often it is a dusty, dirty crash into you head on like a semi truck road of discouragement.

I started playing the piano when I was four.  When I think back over my experiences, the dedication cannot be questioned.  I practiced every morning from 6th to 12th grade at 6:00 in the morning for an hour, and more after school if necessary for a particularly difficult piece.  But thinking back over my experiences with the piano, there are also many times when I was in tears or pounding on the ivories with the grace of an elephant because I just couldn’t get my fingers to do what my brain was telling them to do.  And then there was the time when a judge tore into my 16 year old self without a shred if dignity or encouragement when I almost gave up. 
Anyone who is alive has experienced discouragement, but somehow, when it is something you have invested yourself into, when it is something that you believe is filling your soul with life, when it is something that you can’t imagine not having anymore, every realization that the goal hasn’t been reached yet feels like a blow from a heavy weight hitter.  
In the last few weeks, our writer’s group has experienced complications and delays with buying and closing on a house, bringing home a very preemie baby, having a whole pivotal chapter lost and receiving *nice* rejections after full requests.  It can be frustrating.  It can turn a regular day of the week into a double-fisting Diet Coke I’m going to eat all the cinnamon bears I want kind of day.  
But we are ALL going to have these soul sucking days.  There is only one thing we can do on these kinds of days and that is to find something that is guaranteed to help us recharge, weep (literally or figuratively) on the shoulders of our greatest supporters and tell life to keep looking for the weakling because s/he doesn’t live here.  As creative people, we simply need to refill the creative tank and keep plugging on, because if we don’t, we end up in a rut.  And as everyone knows, the only difference between a rut and a grave is the time spent digging.
How do you conquer life (and a little bit yourself) when it’s trying to defeat you?  

The Difficulty of Having a Dream

Chances are, if you are reading this blog, you have a dream.  It might be to teach someone to write, to write a story yourself, to achieve publication, to become famous…whatever.  And if you think about it, many of the conversations we have as kids and then again with our kids revolve around the power of the dream.  This is why kids want to be astronauts and president and a mermaid and a princess, why they want to train dragons, have an owl show up on their 11th birthday and walk in coat closets just in case.

What we don’t tell our kids is that while imagination will take them places beyond dreams, it is hard work, blood, sweat, tears, frustration, defeats and bruises that is the real work of dreams.  I sometimes wonder why we don’t share this with them – it would probably hinder the imagination, and that would be a true loss.

This is also probably the reason why there are so many adults who can’t dream anymore.  As you go throughout this week, really look in the eyes of the people you pass (but not too long or you might be considered a creeper…unless you are into that sort of thing – I’m not judging.  Out loud anyway).  The dreamers still have something in their eyes, those who dwell in reality only just exist.  I can see it in the teens I teach – many of them have lost their imaginations and dreams already.

There really is only one problem with being a dreamer.

If you don’t believe in the dream strong enough, hard enough, if your gut doesn’t ache a little at the thought of not achieving that dream, you won’t make it.  Just chasing the writing dream, there are questions if the story is good enough, if I’m a good enough writer to tell the story.  Then queries, critiques, pitches, presentations, editors, reviews.  This dream HAS to be strong – like clad in iron, steel and titanium, armed with determination and incredibly thick skin.

But, I can still imagine.  And when I’m there, it is very clear that every ounce of effort is worth it.

Why I Won’t Fail

I recently watched a Ted Talk called Why you will fail to have a great career.  It’s about 15 minutes long, but no visuals so you could listen and do whatever else (yup, I’m all about multi-tasking).

Here’s the basic idea – a life full of interests is going to result in a life not lived.  A life full of excuses is going to probably end up being good, but not great.  And we are better, can be more, should be more.

I’m showing it to all my high school juniors, students who, in five quarters, will be graduating high school and entering the pseudo-real world, full of decisions about their future.

But I thought about my own life each time I’ve watched it.  For a long time, I dismissed the idea of writing because I had my kids to take care of, my husband to spend time with, etc, whine, excuse…you get the idea.  And I had some decent animosity to these people for making me miss out on my dreams, but I didn’t really tell them what they were in the first place, certain they would scoff and point fingers or something.

But my family is the most supportive thing out there because they can see that mom is chasing a dream, has a goal, is full of ambition and not the reincarnation of the wicked witch of the west anymore.

Is it a juggling act?  Like no other I’ve ever had before.  Each of us who post on this blog work, have children, service projects/endeavors, etc.  But twice a month, we get together, with the pages that we managed to do, because we have the deadline, external motivation, what have you, and our writing is progressing.

But even better than that, for me, is that my kids see that, with some group work and lots of dedication, I can still chase dreams.  And if I can, so can they.

What are you doing to make sure you don’t fail to be great?  How do you overcome the inevitable complications that could make you end up good?  What or who has motivated you to be better?