About Other Stories · About Writing

Inception’s Lesson for Novelists

Today, I’d like to share an analysis of the movie Inception that I posted on my original blog in December 2013. I’ve made some minor corrections, but otherwise, this is the same as it was then.

Inception poster: Four men and one woman with guns standing around on a road that's weirdly folded

A common theory states that the popular movie Inception, directed, written, and produced by Christopher Nolan and starring Leonardo DiCaprio (plus half the cast of the Dark Knight trilogy), is in fact Nolan’s metaphor for film-making. If you haven’t seen Inception, I recommend you stop reading now and go watch it a) because there are tons of spoilers in this post and b) because it’s one of my favorite movies and thus you must watch it.

Basically, Inception is a science fiction movie about an “extractor” who gets into dreams to steal ideas/secrets/information. He’s been separated from his family because of this ability and is now doing it illegally. In Inception, he’s given the task to instead implant an idea, which is considered impossible, and is told that in return for completing the mission he will be allowed to return home.

If you want to know more about the film-making theory, here’s one article about it. As I said, it’s very commonly accepted. What I’m going to talk about today is a slightly altered angle on the topic. Because the arts are so intermingled, I think it is very possible to make a case that Inception is also about writing. Here’s how it reflects the process of writing a novel.

WHAT THE CHARACTERS’ ROLES ARE

In the film-making theory, each character has a specific part to play that relates directly to the roles of film-making. Because novel-writing is a slightly more solitary task, many of these characters can be combined to represent different personas that the author takes on in order to build the perfect story.

The main character, Dominick Cobb, played by Leo DiCaprio, is said to reflect Nolan himself, i.e., the producer. In terms of the writing metaphor, Cobb thus represents the core author persona. Cobb is the leader of extraction missions and of the inception. As stated in the above-linked article, “Cobb can literally create a whole new world. Not only does he determine how he wants his target to feel, not only does he invent a story to inspire these feeling, but he also supervises the creation of an environment… in which his story will unfold.” 

Dominick Cobb

Cobb has many qualities of the stereotypical author. He has a tough life and an even worse past, which is common among artists. He struggles often with what’s real and what isn’t, which is a theme I’ll address later on. He is, in the end, alone and suffering. He makes the hardest decisions and deals with the most heartbreak of all the characters in the movie because he’s the one with the strength to do it. 

Arthur

In the film-making metaphor, Cobb’s right-hand man, Arthur, played by Joseph Gordan-Levitt, stands in for the writer/director. In this metaphor, he is merely a different side of the author. Arthur is the most practical and logical member of the extraction team, focused on how to best put the scenarios presented by Cobb into effect. He balances Cobb’s more wildly human, passionate, and conflicted nature with clean-cut decisions. Arthur also has a bit of a critical and sarcastic edge. 

As such, Arthur is the editor persona, the side of the author that balances and counteracts the other personas by presenting logic that organizes Cobb’s ideas and by questioning anything that Cobb is starting to run too far with. This persona creates the parameters of the story and works to keep those parameters running.

Ariadne, played by Elliot Page, is often overlooked in the film-making theory. Fans argue over whether she represents the writer or the production designer, all the while failing to see her most key role in the movie. Yes, she was brought into the extraction team to design and build the setting of the dreams, but this is not the reason she features so predominantly in the story. Her job did not require her to enter the inception. She chose to enter it because she alone knew what Cobb was facing and she needed to be there to help him deal with his emotions while protecting the rest of the team from the dangers his subconscious presented.

Ariadne

Thus, Ariadne is the final member of the author’s triad of psyches, the counselor persona. This side of the author contrasts the editor persona by working with the author’s emotions and the deeper meanings that they bring into the story, where the editor persona would overlook or shut those feelings down. The counselor persona helps the author overcome their personal problems while protecting the core of the story itself. The name “Ariadne” originates from the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, in which Ariadne is a princess who guides Theseus out of the Labyrinth. The counselor persona (and this Inception character) fits this exactly, pulling the author through the twists and turns of their story in order to reach the purest truth at the end.

Besides the core three, there are three other members of the extraction team, plus one important character outside the team.

Saito

First, there is Saito, played by Ken Watanabe, the man who requests the inception in the first place. Saito provides the money and the proper incentive for Cobb. In the film-making theory, he represents the studio executive, who pays for the creation of the movie. In the novel-writing theory, he instead represents the publisher, who grants the author the chance to do something real with their work, something that will give them the creative catharsis they desire, in return for what the publisher wants, which is business success. 

Eames, played by Tom Hardy, is a forger brought into the inception in order to pretend to be the subject’s godfather. This trick is used to implant the idea in the most vulnerable place of the subject’s mind. In the film-making theory, he is the actorin novel-writing, he is the basic frame of the main character. Notably, as the inception progresses, Eames no longer has to act as the subject’s godfather. The godfather begins appearing himself as a separate identity in the dream, a reflection of the subject’s own mind. This represents one of the most important parts of writing: the ideal character, after being created, takes on a life of their own and begins making decisions that the author leads them into but cannot and should not control.

Eames
Yusuf

The final member of the team, Yusuf, played by Dileep Rao, is also much debated in terms of the film-making theory. He’s a bumbling side character brought onto the team partially because they needed an extra hand to hold the inception in place, but predominantly because he created a sedative that keeps the subject locked into the near-impossible three-layer dream. Most people have concluded he represents special effects or perhaps production design, and while that might be true, I see him as actually an abstract conceptsuspension of belief, the phenomenon that allows readers to enter a story where impossible things happen and believe in those things for the sake of the story.

The final character to examine is the subject of the inception, Robert Fischer, played by Cillian Murphy. Saito seeks out Cobb because he needs Fischer to come to a momentous business decision. The purpose of the inception is to implant the idea in Fischer’s head in a way that will make it truly take. Fischer thus, very obviously, represents the audience. Fan theorists note that the way Cobb’s attitude towards Fischer changes throughout the movie, from impersonality to actual understanding and even empathy, reflects how the producer/author, views the audience as time passes in the artistic process.

Robert Fischer

WHAT THE MOVIE’S PLOT TEACHES US

Inception begins rather confusingly with an old man and guns and Leo DiCaprio on a beach. This scene does not make sense until much later, but it’s presented first as a hearkening to the “dream within a dream” concept of the entire inception, showing how fine the line can be between reality and fantasy.

Then we move back to the actual beginning, where Arthur and Cobb are working to steal information from Saito’s mind. One of their team members fails them, and a woman named Mal shows up to betray Cobb. Because of this, Cobb and Arthur fail to acquire the information. However, Saito has in fact been auditioning them. He presents his offer: if Cobb can create the inception to convince Fischer to break up his dying father’s company, Saito will give Cobb the option to go home again.

It has been pointed out by theorists that home represents not just the producer’s personal life, but also his creative fulfillment. Though at the beginning we don’t know what it is that’s keeping Cobb from home, it’s fairly clear it has something to do with his work. This point will be discussed more later.

Cobb assembles a new team, keeping Arthur by his side and recruiting important characters like Ariadne. Through Ariadne’s lessons, we learn about how the extractions work and about the mechanics of dream-building. One important fact is that the dreams built by the extractors are filled by people created by the subject’s subconscious. This is a reflection on how readers play a large part in the interpretation of a story.

Another subject of interest appears after Ariadne builds a bridge in the dream taken directly from her own memory. Here, Cobb warns Ariadne not to use full scenes from her life, only pieces. This is a very important issue in writing as well. The author cannot help but include their experiences in their writing, but this must be done subtly or the story will fail. Soon after this, Ariadne goes too far in changing the setting of the dream, and the subconsciously created people attack her. This is a further statement on suspension of disbelief. If you take it too far, the reader’s mind will turn on the author. 

Inception poster featuring the team on collapsing city streets

Ariadne also creates for herself a totem, which is a unique object that tells her whether she’s in a dream or not. The totem is an important motif in Inception. It further centers the idea of reality vs. fantasy, that the author must work to stay aware of the lines between their real life and the story they are creating. Also of note is that the only three totems we actually see are the ones that belong to the main trio of the author’s psyche: Cobb, Arthur, and Ariadne; the top, the die, and the chess piece.

One more fact we learn from Ariadne’s training is that time in a dream moves more quickly. This is true as well for stories, which can span across years of time while in real life, only hours have passed. (It also takes way longer to create a novel than it does to read it, as you’ll know if you have any idea of the publishing process.)

At this point, the team begins planning the inception. It’s pointed out that the only way to make the idea legitimately take is to make Fischer believe it’s his own. In order to do this, they have to go to the heart and seek out a way to affect his emotions. Cobb insists that positive emotion, some sort of catharsis in the strained relationship between Fischer and his dying father, is the best way to do this, a point that might be argued. But people do love a happy ending.

As time passes, Ariadne grows more and more curious about Cobb’s subconscious. She’s seen Mal once already and finds the situation worrisome. So she connects herself into Cobb’s dreams, which are actually comprised of a series of moments that he regrets. In this, Ariadne learns of Cobb’s dark past: how Mal, his wife, went mad and killed herself, leaving behind evidence that Cobb had murdered her and forcing him to leave his children behind. Since then, Cobb’s personal life has intruded on his work, causing havoc. Horrified, Ariadne insists that she accompany the team into the inception in order to protect everyone from Cobb’s mind.

When Fischer’s father dies, Saito arranges for the team to be taken to the place of Fischer’s father’s funeral. They sedate Fischer and go into the first layer of the dream. Here, they kidnap Fischer, but during the process, Cobb’s subconscious creates a train where it shouldn’t. The team is then attacked by Fischer’s subconscious, which has been trained to recognize intruders. This, as has been pointed out by others, is a commentary on how audiences today are more aware of the media and harder to hold in a suspension of disbeliefSaito, who insisted upon coming into the inception, is shot and badly wounded. Normally, if you’re killed in a dream, you wake up, but because of the sedation they’re using, the dreamer will instead become trapped in Limbo, deep unconstructed dream space. The fact that Saito is placed in danger after having forced his way into the inception is said to mean that higher-up business people (like studio executives or publishing companies) shouldn’t risk interfering with the creative process.

With this urgent problem, the inception is forced into double-time. Eames, disguised as Fischer’s trusted godfather, Robert Browning, pretends that the kidnappers are torturing him because they want the code to Fischer’s father’s safe, in which there is a new will that would split up the company. This is where the first part of the idea is planted: that Fischer’s father doesn’t want Fischer to keep the company intact. Fischer indicates at this point that he believes his father was disappointed in him. In order to appease the “kidnappers,” however, he gives the team a random set of numbers.

At this point, the team places Fischer in a car and begin driving towards a bridge. While Yusuf drives, the rest of the team takes Fischer down into the second dream level, where time moves still slower. In this level, Cobb reveals to Fischer that they are in a dream, but places himself in the role of a trusted representative from Fischer’s subconscious. This speaks again of the growing complexity of creating fictional worlds in a culture that fights suspension of disbelief. The author must convince the reader that they are only reflecting the psyche of the reader, not working towards another motive. 

Cobb leads Fischer back to his team, and they set up in a hotel room, at which point Robert Browning appears, no longer played by Eames but now created by Fischer’s own mind. The new twist is that Browning was in fact working with the kidnappers to gain the code so that he could hide the will. Browning states that he didn’t want Fischer to rise to his father’s “last taunt”, but Cobb says that Fischer is lying.

Inception poster featuring Cobb standing in water on city streets

The team then tells Fischer he should attempt an extraction on Browning. In this way, they make it so that Fischer is actually helping them infiltrate his own mind. Arthur stays behind in level two while all the others move on to three. Here, the team splits up to enter a fortress in a snowy mountain area where, supposedly, Browning is keeping the secret Fischer needs to find. In the midst of this, however, things go wrong again, and the “kick” meant to wake them up goes off too early. The team makes a decision to try to hit the next kick, and Arthur, on the second level, constructs a new kick of his own using an elevator. The team then tells Fischer he should attempt an extraction on Browning. In this way, they make it so that Fischer is actually helping them infiltrate his own mind. Arthur stays behind in level two while all the others move on to three. Fischer and the team cut through the fortress, but then Mal appears and kills Fischer, sending him down into Limbo.

As Cobb and Ariadne arrive, Saito also dies, and they realize they have to enter Limbo in order to save both Fischer and Saito. As they do so, Cobb reveals more of his own past. Before Mal had killed herself, she and Cobb had entered Limbo, spending almost a lifetime there building a fantasy world. They had killed themselves finally in order to leave Limbo, but Mal, still believing they were in their dreams, had killed herself again to get back to “reality.” The evidence she’d left against Cobb was designed to make him join her, a trick which failed but forced him into illegal operations away from home.

Cobb and Ariadne find Fischer being held captive by Mal in a home Cobb and Mal built, and the final confrontation occurs. Cobb finally admits that he is the reason that Mal killed herself. Mal wanted to stay in Limbo, believing it to be real, and Cobb performed an inception to make her realize it wasn’t. But when they came back to reality, the idea was still there, and it drove Mal to madness. The theme behind this is fairly clear: ideas are incredibly powerful and can thus be dangerous. 

Cobb orders Ariadne to escape Limbo with Fischer when the kick comes and tells her that he is done being haunted by Mal. He will seek out Saito and find a way for them to both return to reality. So Ariadne kills herself, Mal, and Fischer and returns with Fischer to the third dream level.

On that level, Fischer faces a wall with a key code. He enters the code he spoke in the first dream level, and it opens to reveal his dying father. As Ariadne watches, Fischer speaks with his father, who says that he is disappointed, not because Fischer wasn’t like him, but because Fischer was trying to be. This implants the final part of the idea, that Fischer’s own father wants him to break up the company and make his own way in the world. The final kicks go off, and most of the group wakes up. 

We return then to the first scene, where Cobb confronts an aged Saito in Limbo, asking him to take a leap of faith and come with him back to reality. Saito agrees, and he and Cobb awake on the plane a bit later than the others. Cobb goes through the airport into America and returns home at last. He begin spinning his totem top, but then his children cry out in joy, and he runs to them, leaving the top spinning on the table. The ending throws a lot of people off because it leaves the question open as to whether Cobb is actually in reality or not. The point, as other theorists have remarked, isn’t whether it’s real or not; it’s that Cobb doesn’t stay to see. He no longer cares. The catharsis that occurs in the dream is real, even if the dream wasn’t, and that’s all that matters now. 

(I would like, however, to affirm another fan theory: some people have pointed out that the top couldn’t have been Cobb’s totem because it started out as Mal’s. They note that his wedding band appears in scenes where he’s dreaming and is gone in reality. In the last scene, the wedding band isn’t there. So the ring is his actual totem, and in the end, he is really back home. It’s a helpful note for people who need something more definite, LOL.)

WHAT MAL REPRESENTS

Mal

In that analysis, you may have noticed that I skipped around the more personal conflict, where Mal appears from Cobb’s subconscious and causes chaos and death as Cobb struggles to confront her. Let’s talk about that now!

As I said before, Cobb’s home represents creative fulfillment. If that’s so, then what does Mal represent in her constant thwarting of this goal? Well, in another article, the author proposes that Mal represents the Muse. The conflict forces Cobb to choose between Mal and Fischer, or the Muse and the audience. In other words, the producer must choose between his own personal vision, directed by the Muse, and the effect the story actually has on the audience. While this isn’t a bad theory in terms of film-making, I have a slightly different (but compatible) view.

I believe that Mal represents Cobb’s personal life. A huge issue throughout the movie, and not just with Mal, is that Cobb’s subconscious keeps leaking into the dream. Basically, he struggles to keep his personal life from destroying the story. When you’re writing a novel, it is hard to find the right balance with how much of your own emotional experience to put into it. The line is thin between a good story that uses deep truth bolstered by personal feeling to affect readers and a desperate novel-writing therapy exercise where the author tries to fix everything in their life by “escaping” from reality. I know because I’ve struggled with it when writing many of my books. It’s not wrong to cope with your personal problems through writing–that’s a lot of what you’re there to do, hence the importance of the counselor persona–but for the sake of good storytelling, you have to focus on the book, not what’s happening in your own life. You have to pick Fischer over Mal, Saito over Mal, home over Mal.

At the beginning of the movie, Cobb has let his personal life take over too much and has thereby lost his creative fulfillment. The only way to get it back is to get over Mal and focus instead on completing the inception. That is the central meaning of this movie. It’s the truth for which Inception itself became an inception in our lives.

Images via IMDB.

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About Writing

The Publishing Process

Today’s post was originally published in September 2012 on my old blog and has undergone minor edits. It provides an overview of the traditional novel publishing process for anyone who wants to brush up on the basics! Authors may deviate from this path in a variety of ways, but this is the standard journey.

White feminine hands typing on a typewriter on a wooden desk with baby's breath in a vase nearby and written pages

1) Write a novel. Contrary to popular belief, you do have to have a completed book before you try to publish it, haha. Nonfiction operates on proposals and is a whole other kind of process, but for fiction, you want to have the manuscript ready first.

2) Edit your novel. Most of writing is, in fact, editing. You want your work to be as polished and awesome as possible before you start putting it out there. You are selling this to the industry, and they want as great of a piece as they can get. Yes, they’re going to do a lot of editing themselves. No, that does not mean you can let it slide. Make the best product you can on your own.

Start by stepping away from your work once you’ve finished your first draft. It’s important to get some space to improve your perspective. You won’t be able to see your mistakes until you’ve had some time away from them. Come back later to get the job done.

One important part of the editing process is getting readers who can offer even more perspective. Be sure to seek out varied views from people with different skill areas, some of whom tend to be harsher and some of whom tend to be more complimentary. Then look over the responses, consider what you want from your story, and figure out what you need to change.

It’s a good idea to start with the bigger storyline stuff before you get down to editing the exact wording. Over time, as you write and edit new manuscripts, you’ll also find your own special writerly weaknesses and learn how to counter them. For example, I am a plot-rusher. I’m so excited about the big picture and seeing what happens that I tend to leave out important filler. So in edits, I get to go back and fill it in! When it comes to words that are overused or that weaken the prose, like those listed in The Elements of Style, my personal weaknesses are passive voice and iterations of the words “look” and “eyes.” There are lots of tools online that can help you find yours, including word cloud apps!

Once you run out of notable issues to edit, it’s time to move to the next step.

3) Finalize the pitch material.
You may actually find it helpful to draft these documents while you’re in the midst of the previous two steps, but whether or not you do that, you need to polish them afterwards. These documents are key. They’re what you send to literary agents in order to obtain their interest in representing you. Because pitch material is all about summarizing, organizing, and marketing your ideas, it has the side effect of clarifying your ideas. Getting it right is so important.

Here’s what you need:

  • a query letter
  • a plot synopsis
  • a finished manuscript

This step is where you fully switch from artist to business thinking, which means being smart, professional, and exact. It’s similar to what’s required when applying for a regular job. A query letter is a mix between a cover letter and a project proposal. A plot synopsis is like a more detailed project proposal. Samples are often requested, which is why you need that book ready! You also may be asked for an author bio or a marketing plan, and if you attend special writerly events, you’ll have to condense your query letter down even further: 140 characters for a Twitter pitch online or a minute-long verbal “elevator pitch.”

The query letter is the central piece here. It begins with a pitch of your manuscript (make it exciting, specific, but professional, like on the inside flap of a published book), either followed or preceded by a paragraph stating the title, category/genre, word count, and a couple of comparable titles. You don’t want comps that are so blockbuster-popular that you’ll sound egotistical, but you want some well-written, recent titles that have a similar theme, style, and/or genre as your manuscript. Then include a paragraph with any writing credits you may have, followed by a closing where you offer the manuscript to the agent and thank them. You may also want to share your reason for choosing that particular agent to send to. Make sure that your final query is one page only! 

There are all sorts of resources online to help you write a top-notch query, but I recommend seeking out other writers who are familiar with the process, at places like WriteOnCon, to specifically critique yours.

4) Choose who to send your materials out to.
This step involves a lot of research. There’s no point in marketing your novel if you’re marketing it to the wrong people. It’s important, first, to know that it is very rare to get a publishing deal without a literary agent as an intermediary. The agents select the clients whose work they most love, prepare them more, and then send them to editors at publishing companies, who know that these novels are higher quality because the agent chose them. Agents also assist with the entire rest of the process, including contract negotiations, which makes them indispensable.

Second, Writer’s Market and the website QueryTracker are two great reference tools that can help you find agents. Each agent has different genres they specialize in. Narrow down the field to the agents that work with your novel type and look at their websites. Be sure you’re considering not just the overall agency, but the individual agents to find which one fits you best. You will be expected to address that person directly in your letter, and it’s to your advantage to know a good bit about them. Check places like Writer Beware and Absolute Write online to make sure they aren’t scamming you. Find with whom the agents have worked and what books they’ve sold. You can also look at their social media to see how they interact publicly with others.

Third, once you have a list of agents you’d like to work with, find what their submission requirements are. Each one will have slightly different rules about which materials they want sent where, and they’ll have different response times. (Many of them are so busy they don’t respond at all unless they want to read more.) Get that information and follow it to the letter. Again, professionalism! Be the person others want to work with.

5) Send out your work.
Once you’re ready, I recommend sending out to a handful of agents at a time. You want to query multiple agents because you’re very unlikely to get a yes the first few times, but not too many agents because it can get confusing and you need time to correct your materials based on the responses. Keep track in a spreadsheet so you know if they’ve exceeded their response time and if it’s time to a) check in or b) move on, depending on what their website says. 

Remember that you will be rejected. It happens to all of us. For example, I’ve been rejected 111 times so far! If I’m not your prime example, you can look up any author and see what their experience was like. Rejection happens. It’s part of the process. Be strong, never give up on becoming a published author, but be ready to move on to another manuscript if the time comes.

If they haven’t asked for the full manuscript up front, which is rare, agents who are interested will ask for that once they read your query. Based on where in the process you’re getting rejected most often–whether it’s with the query, the first few chapters, or the full manuscript–you can figure out where you need to focus your edits. Reconsider your materials. Get more opinions from people you trust. A lot does depend on the current market and individual taste. Agents may also ask for a revise and resubmit (R&R), where you edit your manuscript based on their critiques and they check whether it’s right for them afterwards. You don’t have to make those edits if they don’t feel right for you–just move on to somebody else.

If it’s really just not happening, you might reach a point where you have to “trunk” that novel. If you’ve been writing another book while you’re been querying (which you should do!), you can move on to that one. Sometimes a manuscript you write ends up just being for you. That’s valuable in so many ways, so don’t feel bad that it wasn’t meant for more. Move forward until you get to the book that does work.

6) Here’s what happens after an agent makes an offer.
Hopefully, you’ll reach a point where one or more agents decide they want to represent you. At this point, you need to notify the others who have not yet responded. There will be a phone call so you and the agent can discuss your visions for the manuscript and your future career. That’ll help you figure out if you’re the right fit for each other. Your agent is your business partner, so you need to be able to communicate with and trust them. Once you and an agent officially decide to work together, with a signed contract and all, take a moment to celebrate! This is such an important step forward. (One I haven’t yet reached myself!)

Done celebrating? Okay. This is a business relationship, and like all relationships, it takes mutual work. You might do some editing together. Then your agent will start sending out to editors at publishing houses who the agent sees as a good fit–and you’ll get more rejections in the process. With luck, you’ll find the right editor, but things can go wrong. You might still have to move on to a different manuscript. It’s also possible that someone might end up breaking the writer/agent contract, and you’ll have to start over. This is a difficult, messy industry, but if you’re really here for this, it’s worth it.

Once you’ve negotiated and signed a contract with a publisher (which requires the okay from multiple editors, usually), there are still more ways it can go wrong. It often takes a year or two for the book to actually hit the market because there are multiple levels of editing that you have to undergo along with designing and formatting and marketing. Your agent will help you through it all. Together, you and your publishing team will hopefully be able to kick off your authorly career!

Then you can look at how far you’ve come. You made it to publication. YOU WIN! (I mean, you still have a whole career to manage, and there are a million more ways it can go wrong. Your book sales will determine how likely you are to get published again, and you don’t have much power over that! The best determiner is actually how much marketing the publisher chooses to do for your book. There’s also all sorts of complications with payment schedules and advances and taxes and a sad lack of health insurance. But that’s life! This moment is still monumental and deserves congratulations.)

Thanks for reading! I hope this overview proves to be of assistance to my fellow writers tramping through the publishing wilds. I’ll be back again later!

Image via rawpixel.com.

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About My Life · About Writing

Figuring Out What Works for You

This post, about a vital epiphany I had about my writing, was originally shared on my old blog in November 2019. I’ve made minor edits.

Over the years, as I’ve developed as a writer, I’ve had many moments where I realized that everything I had written so far was just not original enough. I’d write a bunch of manuscripts, try to get an agent with one of them, fail repeatedly, and then realize, I still haven’t figured this out. My writing’s still too derivative. It’s still not marketable.

Success/Failure road signs

One of those realizations hit me in September 2019, and it was crushing. Years of failure have sapped a lot of my hope and excitement about publication. That makes the hard moments even harder. I kept thinking, How can I be such a slow learner in my writing career when I’ve always been a fast learner in everything else? But then I realized something, something big. And now I understand that it’s not an issue of being a slow learner. I’ve likely been improving at a decent enough pace.

The problem was that I wasn’t writing in the way that works best for me.

When it comes to writing advice, the cardinal rule is that you need to do what works for you. Quite simply, not every piece of writing advice will be right for every writer. I knew this. What I hadn’t realized was that finding what works for you doesn’t always come naturally. It won’t always be the first method you try. You have to experiment. You have to apply those pieces of writing advice and see if they improve your work.

I tend to be stubborn, which I think is an important trait for writers, but it has downsides. Right from the start, I settled into one method of writing, and I never really considered the alternatives. I started out each of my books with an ending or a climax in mind and then blazed a path towards that. I never planned any other part of the story before I began to write. On top of that, I was a “plot-rusher,” someone who moves so quickly through the first draft that it ends up skeletal. Instead of needing to delete a lot of content the way most writers do in editing, I needed to add scenes and bulk it all up.

And I was proud of and enjoyed my way of doing things! I was proud to be the person who wrote nineteen novels before turning twenty-one. I was proud to be a repeat NaNoWriMo winner who once managed 50,000 words in two weeks. I had settled into that identity, and I felt loyal to it.

But then my chronic illness crisis hit.

It’s strange to think of my chronic illnesses as being positive. My chronic illness crisis was difficult and traumatizing, and it shifted my entire life in so many ways I consider negative. But it turns out that this crisis also did me an important favor: it forced me to slow down. It’s been a frustrating struggle, going from blazing to glacial, from Stephen King to George R.R. Martin. Nevertheless, a few months ago, as I realized it was time to trunk my old manuscripts because of their unoriginality, I also realized how important slowing down had been for me.

I am not really a creative thinker. I’m a rule follower, Lawful Good, not great at getting outside the box. This is exactly why I had been failing at originality over the years. Someone like me cannot thrive as a pantser and a plot-rusher. All my obsessive enthusiasm, along with my longtime distaste for outlines, has kept me from realizing that slowing down is exactly what I’ve needed, at every stage of the process.

"SLOW" painted on a road surrounded by trees

I seem to get book ideas at the rate of about one per year. But when I became sick, I wasn’t able to write a new book for a handful of years. That means the ideas started piling up, and I had more time to consider them and add to them. Apparently, ideas for novels are kind of like Lego blocks: you have to take multiple pieces and snap them together before you get something special. So now, instead of having basic ideas with a couple of components, I have ideas that are taking on more pieces before I ever start writing.

My slowness once I get to the writing stage has also caused a number of important changes. When working at this rate, I have to write every day or I lose both momentum and perspective. I forget too much of what’s come before and have to go back to the start. Outline or no, I think every writer works off of instinct to some degree–you have to develop a “sense” for the story, and if I don’t write every day, I lose that. But writing every day is actually the first writing process advice I’ve ever tried out. It’s showed me how changing up my style might be good. It’s certainly improved my mental health.

Additionally, writing this slowly gives me time to consider my options. When I was racing through my stories with my basic, non-outlined ideas, it was very easy for my Lawful Good brain to default into overused tropes instead of thinking in more complex ways. I believe that I’ll be able to be more original and creative now that I’ve slowed down. The slowness further allows me to layer on more details and do more research during writing instead of doing it in editing.

The slower rate even helps during editing, because I have more time to consider and list all the changes that would improve the story before I send it to my beta readers and critique partners. They get a better product, one that I’ve already done a lot of work on, to critique. I’m also having them read it one at a time instead of all at once now, which I think will increase the potential for improvement.

Without my illnesses slowing me down, I don’t think I ever would have discovered what I needed. I don’t think I would’ve realized how important it is to write using the methods that are best for you individually, and I never would’ve realized that I needed to test methods out in order to find that right path. But now I know that I need to experiment not just with what I write but with how I write it. Little by little, this will bring me to a place where I can write better–not just because I’m learning writing skills but because I’m discovering how to write in a way that maximizes my unique potential.

This epiphany also emphasized for me the importance of this piece of writing advice. In the linked Tumblr post, the writer discusses how J.R.R. Tolkien exemplified someone using what they know and are passionate about to write a story that’s both high-quality and uniquely personal. I was struck by that piece of advice from the moment I first read it. Now, I see that it aligns with this concept of finding what works best for you.

Close up of a fountain pen writing in a notebook

Initially, I didn’t know how to apply the advice because I see my passion as mainly being “stories.” That’s just too broad a topic. But as I’ve thought it over, I realized, first, I had to let go of what is typical for speculative fiction stories. I think most writers struggle with this; after all, there’s a reason we love the genre(s) we write! While it is important for us to examine what we love in our favorite authors/stories, it’s also important to consider what fits us.

As much as I love epic sci-fi/fantasy, I am not a strategist, and I don’t know much about war or political schemes. That kind of thinking doesn’t at all come naturally for me. So the stories that fit me aren’t big epics with worlds in need of salvation. The stories that fit my skills and interests are more personal and focused. These smaller-scale conflicts don’t have to be smaller intensity–what people usually connect to in stories are the characters. And that’s what I’m best suited to focus on, with my interest in human-related topics in general!

Writing small-scale stories does mean I’m less likely to become a Harry Potter- or Hunger Games-type phenomenon, but my vision of a dream career has changed anyway. I’ve realized the better goal isn’t to become a phenomenon, but rather to have a long and steady career with many published books. After all, you don’t have to touch millions to make a difference in the world. Even just one can be enough.

So instead of writing epics, it’s better for me to write about what I have more experience, knowledge, and interest in. I have experience in complex family relationships, in mental and chronic illness, in music, and in social media use. I have a slightly more-than-average amount of knowledge about psychology, sociology, religion, and medicine. I also know a lot about cats, should that ever become relevant, LOL. Though I wouldn’t say I’m knowledgeable about it, I am very interested in romance. Finally, what draws me to speculative fiction is its focus on all the potential in the future, the universe, and ourselves. Between that and the many tropes I enjoy, there’s a lot I can work with in my writing to make it more unique! And of course, experiences and interests can change over time, offering even more possibilities.

Throughout my small and unsuccessful writing career so far, I’ve had a few “most important pieces of writing advice” to offer. I think it’s important for writers to become stubborn enough to never give up on their dreams. I think it’s important for writers to explore as many different stories from others as they can. I think it’s important for writers to recognize the autonomy of their characters. Now, I’m adding this to the top of the list: I think it’s important for writers to experiment with different writing methods so that they can find what works the best for them personally.

For me, this is a career-changer, and it might very well turn out to be a career-maker. Because of my chronic illness crisis, in multiple ways, my writing will never be the same.

Images via ccpixs.com, Kimchi.sg on Wikipedia, and Free-Photos on Pixabay.

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About My Life · About Writing

My Authorly Bucket List

Hey, friend! For this month’s reposted content, I’m sharing my authorly bucket list, which I first published on my original blog in April 2020. A couple of items have been added since then–but none have yet been crossed off. Here they are: what I’d like to accomplish as an author in my lifetime!

My Authorly Bucket List

1) Sign a contract with a literary agent. I have yet to achieve the very first step towards traditional publication despite many attempts. I look forward to making this professional connection and having another person on my team!

2) Publish a novel. This is the big one I’ve been looking forward to for years and years! It’s only the hoped-for beginning, of course, but it would be a huge step all by itself.

3) Run a book giveaway. Once I have a book to promote, I plan to run at least one giveaway. Since I’ve won many books from giveaways in the past, I’m excited to offer the same chance to others.

4) Hold a book release party. I’m not sure where I’d have one–the library is the only place in my little town that seems appropriate–but I’ve seen photos from the parties authors hold when they release a new book, and it looks delightful. There are cupcakes with book covers on them, y’all! Even if it was very small, I’d love having such a party.

5) See my book on a shelf in my local library. I’ve had this image in my head ever since I first realized I wanted to be a novelist, I love the library, and I’d be thrilled to see my book there among the others I’ve enjoyed! I’d also be excited to see it in “shelfies” of all kinds from all over. 

6) Publish another novel. People say that the second book is the hardest, and a lot of writers do end up dropping out of the field after their first book comes out. I want to make a career of this, and that means getting past the second book hurdle.

7) Earn out an advance. In publishing, you receive an advance payment when you sign a book deal with a publisher. You then don’t see any more money from that book until the book has earned a larger amount than your advance was. This is called “earning out,” and a lot of writers never see it happen! I hope I do; I hope I get some royalties someday.

8) Receive a fan letter. Even just a single positive letter would buoy up my soul so much. To know that I’ve had an impact on a stranger’s life through my writing would be huge. 💜

9) ​See fanart made of one of my books. I adore fanart, and I know ​I’d be all over any fanart that was made of my creations. I’d save it on my computer and maybe even buy it for display in my house if it was for sale!

10) Hit a bestseller list. There are a few of these, of which the New York Times version is the most famous. I know from what others have said that the bestseller list is a bit of a crapshoot–it’s not the most accurate as to actual sales, and there are ways to game the system. I’d like to get on one anyway.

11) Get a starred review. I don’t know a whole lot about this, but I know that starred reviews from professional reviewers like Kirkus are a big deal! So yeah, I’d like one.

12) Get a book published outside the U.S. Some American books end up getting foreign rights deals, where a publisher from outside the U.S. will publish it, often in another language. I think it would be amazing to have that happen.

11) Have one of my books featured in a book box. I haven’t ever gotten one myself, but I love looking at pictures of subscription book boxes that feature newly released YA novels along with themed merch from various fandoms. I think it would be awesome to have one of my books be in one!

12) Participate in WriteOnCon as a published author. I’ve been a fan of WriteOnCon, a low-cost online kid lit writers conference, for years. It’s done a lot to improve my query game, if nothing else. I’d love to give back by being a part of the other side of the conference, whether through a panel, a blog post, a video, or official forum participation.

13) Attend an in-person conference or event as a published author. Because of my disabilities, I won’t be able to attend as many in-person events as most published authors. However, I loved the conferences I attended before I got so sick, and I love online conferences too, so I do want to go to at least one in-person event once I’m published.

14) Be in someone else’s book acknowledgements. I already have a few writing friends, but I hope to make more in the future, and I’d love to be an important enough part of their lives to earn a spot in the acknowledgements of one of their books!

15) Win a book award. I don’t know much about this either, but some books I adore have won big awards, including Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, which won the 2015 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. I’d love to achieve something like that!

16) Have one of my books made into a movie or TV show. Since I joined Netflix and started watching TV show book adaptations there, I’ve realized that TV shows tend to do a better job at adapting books (or at least book series) than movies do. I think the extended time allows for a more direct interpretation. However, most of my writing is in the form of standalone novels, so I’m not against the idea of a movie either. This is a stretch goal, of course–most books do not get adapted–but it would be truly awesome.

BONUS: Have a long-term romantic relationship
Get married to a good guy.
Travel somewhere outside the United States.
See a musical live in person.

Learn more Spanish.
Have a whole library room in my house dedicated to books (preferably with a cool secret entrance).

There you have it! What do you think? 

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