Writer’s Craft #108 Blaze your own trail

J.R.JohnsonJ.R. Johnson is a writer, cook, archer, social scientist, and unlicensed librarian. She finds fantasy and science fiction appealing because she likes the idea that there is more to the world than meets the eye, and that the human race has a future. She now lives in Ottawa, Ontario and on the web at jrjohnson.me.

One terrific part of being a writer is the opportunity to blaze your own path. You get to decide where to go, what to focus on, and how fast or slow you want to travel. That’s an amazing experience, or it can be. But when you are the one breaking trail, how do you know that you’re heading in the right direction?

In the largest sense, most of us don’t “know.” We hope. We plan. We analyze, speculate, triangulate. We consult our inner compass. Then we risk. For writers, one of the biggest risks is that of rejection.

No matter how good you are, writing for others is awash with rejection. That’s ok, that’s part of the package. In fact, I kind of like it. Rejection isn’t my only guide, but it’s a useful one. It lets me know that I’m doing what needs to be done, producing work and sending it out for others to see. It’s both depressing and inspiring by turns. “Look, Ma, I’m a real writer, I’ve got the rejections to prove it!”

In 2012, Neil Gaiman said that he likened his goal to a distant mountain, and would judge decisions based on whether they would take him closer to or farther from that mountain. It’s a great idea and a lovely speech, full of useful stories and funny advice. I watched the video and felt inspired. In fact, I should probably watch it again.

That’s the thing. Blazing your own trail also means adding your own signposts: “Beware of Bad Television,” “No Internal Editors Allowed, Next 2,000 Words,” and “Coffee Break, Next Right.” Feedback from others also helps, I find, as external perspective can be invaluable.

If you’re reading this, you probably know that when you blaze your own trail, internet access is a godsend. As Google will be happy to tell you, you aren’t the first to confront the challenges of rejection, of self-direction, of uncertainty. Thank goodness. I’ve dealt with them. You’ve dealt with them. Famous, thoughtful, and successful people have dealt with them.

At one point in her 2008 speech at Harvard on the benefits of failure, J.K. Rowling said that after hitting rock bottom she was able to use it as a foundation on which to build the rest of her life:

“Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun.… So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential.… Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way.”

I found her realization to be admirably perceptive. Failure, by this light, can help provide a clear view of who you are and what you want to achieve. That sounds damn useful, if not exactly comfortable.

Failure, of which rejection is one form, isn’t something to be avoided at all costs; that’s impossible. It is something to be used. It is the feedback that keeps us going, motivates us, lets us know that we are on the path, and when we are straying from it. The rumble strip of life, if you will.

How do you judge your progress? Whether you’re a full-time accountant with a writing habit or a full-time writer with your own table at the local cafe, how do you know that you’re on the right path?


13 thoughts on “Writer’s Craft #108 Blaze your own trail

  1. Failures are the stepping stones to success. If you want something badly enough, you have to be willing to fail at it, because that’s always a possibility for any endeavor. Ever had a cake recipe that didn’t turn out like it was supposed to? Ever been desperate to hit a home run when the team was behind by one point–and whiff on every swing? We all fail, all the time. It’s how we get to be good at something. Writing is no different. If you’re trying, you’re improving. The only real failure is not trying, because that will get you nowhere. The first few rejections hurt, but then you develop a rhinoceros hide and it becomes simply a business transaction. Every rejection is one step closer to success.

    1. I agree, Marti, staying focused on improvement, and your final goal, is very helpful. And I love this quote by Richard Bach: “You are never given a wish without also being given the power to make it true. You may have to work for it, however.”

  2. Excellent post, and a good chance to reference Neil Gaiman’s excellent speech. 🙂 I empathize with a lot of what’s being said here, but part of me can’t help but put my fingers in my ears and go LALALALALA because the thought of failure – and the crush to self esteem it brings – is sometimes hard to take (other times, though, I say “bring it!” like an MMA fighter). Sometimes it all feels like blind hope on par with hoping to win the lottery.

    1. Thanks, mossfoot, and I’m sure that most of us have those dueling feelings about failure. For me one of the keys to failing successfully, if you will, is to not let it stop you, to keep moving ahead. Yes, failure is unpleasant, but the best place for it is in your rearview mirror. I’ve also realized that for me, getting something done, anything, is better than being perfect. (Honestly, I think that’s the key to most things in life, I just wish I’d figured it out when I was twenty.) Any step along the path we’ve set for ourselves is one step closer to the goal. And the closer you can make the work feel like play, the less any course corrections will hurt. (Not, “You’re on the wrong path, idiot!” but, “Hey, that other road looks good, let’s check it out.” 🙂 Since I’m in a quote-y mood, here’s one from Mary Anne Radmacher: “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes it’s the little voice that says I’ll try again tomorrow.”

  3. You may have to blaze your own trail, but it helps a lot to have an editor handy. Every writer has to find the editor they trust to reject the false starts that need to be rejected, and to validate the routes that are worth following even when everyone else says its a dead end. I know that I have done very much better since finding an editor whose judgement I trust: even though it is disheartening that she just told me my latest story sucked, that the character was awful and the story made no sense, that was very useful because there is no point putting more effort into a story that isn’t ever going to work; and better she rejects it than I make a fool of myself in public. By the same token, another story that she loved I might well have abandoned after it was rejected several times had she not assured me it was one of my better ones and worth sticking with. And by god I did sell it and to a better market than the ones that had rejected it.
    I think the key to rejection is that it keeps us from getting lazy. Having had a couple of successes, I think I started to assume that I had hit my pace and that everything from then on would automatically be a gem…Well, not so much, apparently. It’s one thing to be rejected by a market because the story wasn’t quite the right one for that market; it’s another thing when it gets rejected because its just not very good. The former requires us to immediately submit the story elsewhere; the latter should make us get over ourselves, and get back to improving our craft.

    1. Astute observation, Robert, and if you’re fortunate enough to have such an editor I think that’s terrific. One real issue that writers face is that most of us are very alone with our work. It’s an isolating job, and that makes it harder to know if you are heading in the right direction. Joining a critique group (online or in person) can be a big help, if only to see how you stand among your peers.

      Even those of us whose editor lives only in their own head can benefit from a sense of perspective. I find it very useful to work on some other project, be it another person’s problem or knitting or shoveling snow, to gain critical mental distance. After reading a good book in another genre or cooking something tasty, when I come back to my writing I find that I’m not quite as close to it. It’s easier to see it from a reader’s point of view, and to highlight the next best structural or conceptual steps to take. It also helps to realize that I’m not abandoning the project, I’m letting it rest, like good bread dough:)

    2. That’s the thing: finding an editor you can work with. If you’ve ever been in a book group or a critting group, you know how wildly opinions can vary. The exact same passage or book can elicit opposite reactions from different people. Even professionals. One will praise it to the skies; others will say it failed utterly. Which one is correct? How do you know? You can’t. The best you can do is find someone you respect with whom your work resonates, and run with them. Even then, sometimes you will disagree. And whom should you believe? Again, no sure answer. It can depend on the reader.

    1. Nice, Lynda, and I think that’s exactly right in many ways. Not only are we trying to break trail to an imagined destination, but we’re trying to do it in our own way, creating the path and the guidebook as we go.

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