Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Uncertainty/risk as a writer

The biggest reason I think uncertainty/risk is good for a writer to understand is that, in general, I think it's good to recognize larger patterns. We are a community of thinkers, and by stepping back, stripping away all the BS, and analyzing about how we think, how we make decisions, how we gather information, how we react, how we view reality, I think those are worthwhile pursuits, because they help us create more vivid and realistic characters and subtext.

Personally, for writers, risk/uncertainty enters our daily life, maybe in ways we don't think about.

For example, some agents post year-end query stats, which I always find really interesting to read. I’m going to make up some numbers, just to give you an idea of what I mean.

Agent A received 250 queries/week in 2014. Out of those 250 queries, s/he requested 5 manuscripts. That’s 1000 queries a month, 20 manuscripts to be read/considered. In a year, that’s 12,000 queries, 240 manuscripts to read/consider.

Out of those 240 manuscripts, Agent A takes on 3 new clients.

Do you want to do the math?

Just like wave after wave of Canadian soldiers getting gunned down, the success rate is dismally low, but every writer sends off a query letter convinced that they are going to be that 1% who survive.

Now, I’m not saying that to be discouraging.

Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

If we believe we’re going to fail, we will.

But I think it’s important to think about in terms of managing our expectations as writers. Writing is an extremely solitary state, and it can be really discouraging when others around us are succeeding -> but they are that 1%. By understanding the numbers, it puts into perspective how many other writers are in the exact same circumstance as our own. It transitions from ‘uncertainty’ to ‘risk’ when we have that awareness, when we allow it to enter our frame of focus.

Another writer I follow recently re-tweeted this article by Robin LaFevers, and the author Laini Taylor linked to a post about the blessings of not being happy all the time.

As a culture, we don’t like to talk about failure. We don’t like to be seen as losers, or whiners. It hurts our pride to be proven wrong. It’s the prevalence of this attitude that propagates stigmas around mental illness, infertility, addictions, etc. It's why people put up with abusive relationships or jobs they hate.

I myself am guilty of this. I try to only post about good things in my life, and not dwell on the bad. I often talk about my dyslexia, but it’s framed in such a way to focus on what I’ve learned, what I’m better at, or simply for humour to lighten the mood.

But for years and years I wouldn't admit to anyone that I had a learning disability because I thought people would think I was stupid. And I'm not. There's a reason I was able to hide it for 20+ years of my life.

I haven’t been blogging consistently for a while, partially due to the number of deaths/illnesses in my family, but partially because I separated with my soon-to-be-ex-husband a little over two years ago (yes, it is STILL not done...). It’s been a heavy/stressful couple of years, and often I don’t have the emotional/mental capacity to re-frame things in a good light or to see the humour in it.

I choose silence out of embarrassment, out of not wanting to look like a failure, or a whiner.

And I’m not alone in that.

This is why we deal with uncertainty the way we do: we rationalize it or we blame others. It’s to protect our fragile ego, and all that does is propagate more uncertainty.

So, again, what does this have to do with writers? Well, as I said, we’ re pretty solitary, so we're already prone to the dangers of uncertainty. When we are hit with something bad, especially failure or rejection, what do we do?

Well, if we talked more as a community, shared more of our collective experiences, ‘uncertainty’ becomes ‘risk’. We would have the benefit of other people’s experiences, and knowing that we are not alone is a big deal in making something more manageable.

And I’m not just talking about our mental/emotional/psychological state, I’m talking about our writing.

I wrote a post last year about mining emotion from past experiences and recycling them in stories. Well, why not mine other people’s experiences as well? Wouldn’t having that range give us a wider perspective on what is and could be possible for characters, for plot?

Earnest Hemingway famously said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be our blood on the page. We can reimagine our own experiences/emotions, it doesn't have to be 'write what you know' in the literal sense. We can ask other people questions, especially about the hard stuff we don't usually talk about out of fear, so we can gain knowledge/experience from them.

Do you know how many people have thanked me, in comments or via email, for being so blunt in these posts about my struggles with dyslexia? I really have no idea... but a lot.

Something I felt ashamed of for years... talking about it has helped other people.

And it's changing my perspective on it. I still will never be proud of having a learning disability, but by not hiding it, by having that conversation, it puts into perspective how many other people are/have been dealing with similar things.

Maybe my experiences can be something I pass along, for others to use.

Margaret Atwood said, “Storytelling is a very old human skill that gives us an evolutionary advantage. If you can tell young people how you kill an emu, acted out in song or dance, or that Uncle George was eaten by a croc over there, don't go there to swim, then those young people don't have to find out by trial and error.”

Writing is about sharing experiences, especially in YA/MG stories. There’s a huge push for authentic characters, authentic *voice*, authentic reactions/actions. We want readers to connect to our characters, to our stories.

And for that to happen, there has to be an emotional connection. Now, that doesn’t mean everyone has to love your main character, but they have to be interested in them, they have to understand why a character chooses something and why they react to something else. 

If the character is “too dumb to live”, the reader will put down the book in anger/frustration.

We want to believe the character is real, that if a reader was placed in a similar circumstance, with similar knowledge/skills/experience that they might make similar choices.

Notice what I did there?

Next post will be about uncertainty/risk in terms of character.


  1. I really needed to read this post, Kristen. I agree that because the nature of writing is so solitary to begin with, it makes it harder to deal with rejections and things we don't want to hear. It helps to have a solid group or even just one other writing friend to text with and vent with. I know that the rollercoaster has toyed with my emotions a ton in 2014, which is why I'm taking this whole year off to remember why I write in the first place. And thanks for always being so honest and forthcoming with your uncertainties and pressures - I think that it helps also to read other writers' blogs and see that we're not alone in struggling or feeling the way we do!

    1. Well, you tweeting that link was one of the reasons I wrote this incredibly nerdy series in the first place, so thank you for prompting me to think about focus :)

  2. I think some of it is definitely that writing is solitary by nature: one sits, broods, and 90% of writing tends to be not actually writing so one gets all bent out of shape over something not working quite right,. trying to fix it, worrying about audiences and editors -- and I doubt the internet has helped this too much. It requires a lot of ego to be a writer, in the sense of facing back rejection, going "HAH! Take this one then," and hurling another story/novel out into the ether. One can only do it is often in many cases; those who become part of the 1% can do it and keep on doing it.

    I think the trick is to turn failure into a weapon, insofar as one can.

    I remind myself that the fact that so many don't succeed is no reason any one particular person/story/concept will necessarily fail.

    I remind myself that writing is basically an exercise is trying not to become paranoid. ("That editor hated my story because...." etc.) Sometimes it works :)

    1. Hahaha. Yes, tricking yourself out of paranoia is probably a good path to take ;)

      I'm already paranoid enough whenever someone compliments my writing, I immediately look around for the other shoe to drop ;)

      I'd like to hear more of your thoughts on 'turning failure into a weapon' though... care to expand?

    2. Hm. I suspect it's a matter of figuring out WHY a story fails, and trying not to repeat that failure again. One learns something from all writing, after all, even if it doesn't feel like it at the time. "This failed, so I figure out WHY, strip that out and try again." I've had entire novels where, re-reading them, I found find the precise scene where the entire story fell apart, so it's a bit like that.

      In terms of risk and uncertainty, one risks a lot of time (and energy) in rewriting a novel, as one does in discarding it and writing a different story entirely. Sometimes I feel that success comes from finding a way through uncertainty, not only finding your own voice but finding the right story and character to FIT that voice. There may be more than one, and some authors can alter their voice rather well to fit other stories, but I think in general one has to learn from failure what can be kept, the small bits that worked, and try and get something out of all that.
      .... I am not sure this made any sense at all :)

    3. Excellent explanation :) It made complete sense :)

      ...and perhaps that's the same reason I'm always asking 'why' when I critique something? Because when something doesn't work for me, I want to know 'why'.

      I am mentally toiling with one of those big 'whys' in TRoRS right now... tension... because I feel that, if I don't understand what I'm doing wrong, there's a very good chance I'm going to repeat it.


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