Please welcome guest poster John Vorhaus to Writer Unboxed. John is the author of the “sunshine noir” con artist novel, The California Roll, and the classic comedy-writing textbook, The Comic Toolbox: How to Be Funny Even if You’re Not. He twitters at @TrueFactBarFact, and meets the world head-on at johnvorhaus.com, where he welcomes allies of all stripes. He’s funny as hell and we think you’ll enjoy his slant on writing and the industry. Enjoy!
In clocking my progress as a writer, I often muse upon a certain metaphor, the metaphor of the hope machine. The hope machine is like a slot machine, only I feed it with effort, not coins. I feed it with hopes, dreams, sweat, and loud frustration, and sometimes it pays off with accomplishment, achievement and paychecks. Real writers (and I like to consider myself one, as I’m sure you do) invest heavily in the hope machine. To put it more prosaically, we just simply never give up. We keep putting nickels in the hope machine, and pulling that handle as fast as we can. We want the jackpot, of course: the blockbuster bestseller that makes every other book in the bookstore sick with jealousy. Still, we’ll settle for any kind of payout, so long as it’s enough of one to stay in the game. That’s all we want: just to stay in the game.
My hope machine is fed with query letters and sample chapters. It pays off with book deals and exercised options. The jackpot would be just a growing group of people who see my name on the jacket and think, “Another Vorhaus book? Cripes, I can’t wait to read that!” Smaller payoffs include, you know, good reviews, foreign rights sales (for literally tens of dollars!), and the odd and never, ever unwelcome word of praise from a reader. The smallest payoffs come from anything – anything – that involves trading my words for money. Hell, I’ll write cereal boxes if there’s a paycheck in it.
How does your hope machine work? What would your jackpot be? What would constitute a smaller, yet still satisfying, payout?
(You should know that I’m all about the Socratic method: I ask; you answer. So any time you see that little arrow up there, it’s me being Socrates and you being the Greek geek waving your hand in the air. So go ahead and answer the question, and don’t be afraid to write that answer down. Trust me, you won’t be graded, on the curve or otherwise.)
Okay, so hope. We know all about hope. We mainline the stuff. And we have goals, definable ones large and small. What we need now is patience. Anyone know what aisle they sell that in?
Interestingly, the achievement of patience is connected to the question of goals. If your target is to improve as a writer, you’re a lock to succeed – you do it every day, just by writing – and it’s easy to be patient. If your target is bookstore superstardom, your odds are much longer and you’re going to have to grind it out over time. But if you take a long enough view, patience is possible there, too.
What if the odds seem impossible? What if you can’t visualize any kind of win from where you are? Your hope machine is broken. It never seems to pay off. How do you practice patience in the face of that bad news?
Know that you’re wrong.
You’re already some kind of writer. You’ve already experienced times of swift productivity, and times of unspeakable frustration . You know what it’s like to just coast, waiting for the next strange wave to break upon your beach. Sometimes a writer’s life rises – the hope machine pays out – sometimes it falls, and sometimes it just poots along. Whatever state you find it in now, know this for sure: It will change. A writer’s life is subject to change without notice.
So at the worst of the worst moments, when writing feels like a hole you can’t climb out of, just remember when it wasn’t. Reacquaint yourself with a past feeling or experience of triumph, to remind yourself that more such moments lie ahead. Hope lubricates patience.
But hope needs help, so here’s an approach that might prove utile: Simply ask yourself, What was my most awesome moment? Then write about it. This will do two good things. First, duh, it’s writing, it’s working at your craft. Second, you’re mentally entering a time and place when you were on top of the world. Scientists call this a resource state. I call it psych, and some of that psych is bound to rub off.
So, what was your most awesome moment? Describe two if you’re so inclined.
In practical terms, of course, there are many more ordinary moments than there are awesome moments in a writer’s life, so it’s good to be in touch with your ordinary moments too. If all is going according to plan, even the ordinary moments will become brighter, more incisive, more completely realized, and more deeply understood over time. Writers get better. Sure they suffer setbacks, but they grow in their craft, as a function of their hard work.
We confront the same sort of issues over and over again in our writer’s lives. Is this the sort of work I want to be doing? Will all my sweat equity ever pay off? Does any of this even matter? Does my mother secretly think I suck? With practice we become better at confronting these issues, just as we become better at typing with practice.
Hope lubricates patience.
Thus we arrive at the point of this post: Have hope. Practice patience. Above all, practice your craft. Viewed through a certain filter (the one I use every day), there’s no such thing as bad writing, because every word we write contributes to our growth, our experience, the evolution of our writer’s lives.
And keep sticking those nickels in the hope machine. For writers like us, doomed to strive, it’s really the only machine we’ve got.