Starting is the toughest part of it. Inertia is a very real condition, and getting started when you would rather be in bed or at the beach or anywhere except there at your desk takes guts. I am going to let you in on a secret: Only the writers with guts succeed. Have you ever wondered why writers of mediocre talent get published while greater talents do not? The answer is guts. Drive.
Perseverance. Talent is not enough. You must have the drive to overcome all obstacles, including your own inertia.
Judith Krantz put it this way: “To be successful you must have talent joined with the willingness, the eagerness, to work like a dog. I write seven days a week from ten until four, and I begrudge every minute I have to spend on the phone or away from my typewriter.”
– Ben Bova
I admire people with persistence. Mostly this is because I haven’t got much of it myself. I tend to dither around, collect belly button lint and dream about how great things will be when I’ve managed to do whatever it is that I’m procrastinating about.
So I decided to train myself to be more of a doer. And while I haven’t managed to go all the way yet I do crank out a lot more work than I used to. How? Simple.
(And please do not that I did say “simple” not “easy”.)
First off, you’ve got to realize that your brain is a muscle. Ok, it’s not strictly a muscle but we aren’t biologists here. Except you. Get out.
Now that we’re all on the same wavelength: the brain can be exercised to be stronger and more skilled at any mental activity you care to name.
Believe that IQ is given? Think again. With two weeks of practice you can raise your results on an IQ score by some 20 percent. That’s right, you can go from average to the top tenth percentile in two weeks. There are even books that teach you how (it’s boring though, rote solving lots of type questions). My point is that you can increase your IQ, that “God given, inane, genetic ability” that authors, poets and politicians favoring a certain shade of brown clothing tend to rave about.
The same goes with willpower. Want to increase your willpower? Deny yourself. That’s right. Deny yourself the luxuries you crave. Want a slice of cheesecake? Look at it. Think about it. Don’t take it. The more you act like this, the better you will become at controlling your cravings and the more successful you will become at whatever you want to do (that’s right, remember the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment). Practice enough and you will experience the Triumph of the Will (and I’ll better knock it of with the brown jokes before Leni Riefenstahl’s ghost firebombs my house).
That’s psychology speak for “Don’t eat that cheesecake and you’ll grow rich”. But I promised you that I’ve found a simple way of not eating cheesecake. Here’s what I did.
I started out with the stuff that I dreamed of doing, writing, designing games and getting published. And I noticed that I could create just fine when I was in the mood but I had a hard time doing it when I wasn’t in flow. So I started to think about what knocked me out of the flow and came to the conclusion that it was A) fear and B) uncertainty.
I was afraid of being seen as an impostor, the old “if you follow your dreams people will laugh at you, you’ll lose your family and little children will pee on your head”. And that would be absolutely, completely, definitely horrible.
No it wouldn’t.
See, no one really cares about your bad attempts at art. Even if you send them in, editors don’t gather in secret ceremonies where they wear flowing robes covered with intricate print marks and laugh at the tribulations of beginners (well, no more than twice a year at least).
Truth is that an editor will look at a manuscript, or a game, or a piece of art and decide whether they like it enough to buy or not. If they like it, they might remember your name the next time something of yours comes across their desks (horray!). If they don’t like it the only person to remember your rejection is you.
That’s where persistence comes into the picture. Being able to act decisively isn’t a matter of being without fear. It’s a matter of feeling fear and still managing to take the next step. This is what I practiced on. I’ve got a small stack of rejections. More than 50, less than 100. I know of writers with hundreds of rejections. One online acquaintance collected 287 rejections before he managed to land an agent. Stephen King collected rejections on a large nail on his wall until the nail broke. Rejections aren’t the end of the world.
It took me a long time to realize that. The first time I submitted to Writers of the Future I ended up a semi-finalist. This was my first fiction submission ever, my third submission in total. I ended up a semi-finalist. What I saw was “I didn’t win”. It stopped me from writing for years. Literally.
Takes a lot of work to grow a pair and get persistent.
Today I get rejections on a weekly basis. I started to submit on a weekly basis as well. I send out stories and when they come back I send them out again. Working through my fear had taught me that it is possible to overcome it.
Not that I don’t feel fear, I do. Every time I’m about to submit I feel that gulf in my gut. When I accidentally submitted simultaneously to two markets that didn’t allow it I didn’t sleep for days (both markets rejected my story). But I keep submitting, and I keep working on my fear and I keep building my ability to be persistent (and I’ve got five acceptances, including three from paying markets to show for it).
On to uncertainty. When I’m uncertain about where to take something, or if something will work, I procrastinate. I don’t want to, I can see that I’m doing it but I still procrastinate. Lots of small excuses that make a big mess.
So I’ve started trying to force myself to write, or playtest, even when I’m not sure that I want to. I try to keep going even though I don’t know what to write, or if a certain mechanic will work or not. Here my main obstacle isn’t fear. Fear is sharp, you can feel it. Uncertainty is slow, dull, a heavy, wet blanket covering my mind. It feels a bit like being depressed. No idea will come, no solution is visible. I can go in this state for days, weeks, even months.
So I’ve devised two work arounds. One is to have several projects going at once. Right now I’m world building one novel, I’ve got another on “pantser-improvisation”, I’ve got six short stories that are in need of finishing and another fourteen that are in various stages of editing.
I’ve got one game that’s got an editor request for changes that I’m working on, one that I just sent back after changes, three other that are in various stages of being looked at by publishers. I’ve got another four that are in various “soon to be prototyped” stages.
This is way, way, way too much, and as sign of my procrastination. So here’s where my persistence comes into the picture: whenever I don’t have any ideas I pull up one of my “working on” projects and dive in.
Which sounds a lot easier than it is.
I go days without doing any real work. Then I go days without accomplishing anything meaningful. I haven’t managed to get as far with my uncertainty as I have with my fear. I need to work on my persistence here some more. The important thing isn’t to succeed every time. The important thing is to get up after I fail.
And that’s what persistence is all about.