How to Turn Setbacks Into Progress


quimby via Compfigh

Your novel was turned down by a publisher.

You just received a form rejection letter – the worst kind-  from an agent.

Or maybe the feedback from your workshop flattened you to the point of paralysis.

You thought your story was so much closer.

Setbacks can crush us. And cause even the most resilient writers to believe they lack the requisite talent to write anything worth publishing.

But talent has little to do with success.

And failure gets a bad rap.

Mind The Gap

There’s a gap between your vision – what Ira Glass calls your “good taste” – and what’s on the page.

A divide between what you know and what you’re striving to do.

Those gaps are part and parcel of any artistic endeavor.

And they lead to your biggest breakthroughs.

The gap is the struggle. It’s where you’re forced to slow down, to see precisely where you need to course correct in order to make your story or book the absolute best it can be right now.

Progress isn’t linear.

It’s a bumpy road of plateaus, successes, failures, doubts, confusion, and painful setbacks.

All that elegant, graceful prose you admire from your favorite authors is the end result. Not the hours upon hours, the months, years of frustration, setbacks, dogged persistence, practice, and yes, rejection –  that went into making the book crystallized into it’s ultimate, polished and gleaming form.

Writing, just like any other art or sport, requires rigorous practice.

It’s not about practicing harder, but deeper.

Deep practice means struggling consciously. You’re writing at the edges of your ability, right where you make mistakes, where it feels most frustrating and impossible –the impasse, the dip, the place where many of us give up.

Those obstacles are inherent in the writing process which is, by necessity, messy.

Robert Bjork, chair of psychology at UCLA, who has spent his career studying how we learn, describes our brain as a living structure, a complex scaffold that’s nearly infinite in size. The more we encounter and tackle difficulties in our writing, the more scaffolding we build. We create impulses. And we excel faster.

Deep practice is stepping back from your work subjectively, or with a writing coach, with a keen eye to what’s not working yet. You capture failure, collaborate with it and ultimately transform it into skill. You make more progress in less time.

Target the Struggle

Revising blindly doesn’t lead to improvement. Reaching just beyond what you’re capable of does.

In writing, there are a plethora of elements we need to be concerned with, and there are only one or two of those elements we can focus on at any given time. There’s the clarity of our sentences. Point of view and narrative distance. Language and imagery. Selection of details. Conflict that exists, not just in the story itself, but right on the sentence level. Beginnings and endings to consider and reconsider. And then there’s all that comes in between that gets our characters from A to Z.

When we focus on one or two elements at a time, it impacts the entire work.

No discussion of point of view, for example, is separate from character, conflict or imagery. No discussion of conflict is separate from character, structure, scene creation or plot. It’s all an intricate weave. But if we tease out certain elements, we can practice deliberately, with clear focus and intention.

It’s akin to a ballerina learning to pirouette. She works first on balancing on one foot. Then up on the toes of that foot. This alone requires strengthening the ankles and core, attention to where the pelvis and head weight are placed. Once she gets those mechanics down, she practices quarter turns. Then half turns. Full turns. And eventually, multiple turns. All the while she hones the timing between the plie’ with the movement of her arms so she can get the right amount of rotation and momentum. She practices spotting – keeping her gaze fixated as long as possible on a single spot so she can rotate with steadiness.

So there are several small components that go into one single turn. And she practices each one separately over time so she can pull it all together and make it feel and look effortless.

Tiny shifts make a huge difference.

Have you ever seen before and after Photoshops? Where women are transformed from average looking to drop-dead gorgeous? It’s all in the math. There’s a golden ratio of symmetry we innately find alluring. For example, when your eye width is the same as the distance between the bottom of your nose and upper lip, that one millimeter can be the difference between pretty and beautiful.

The same holds true for writing. When you hit a roadblock in your work, when it feels impossible, you’re always one or two millimeter shifts from major improvement.

Those small, incremental efforts produce big lasting results.

Mastery isn’t built on the broad strokes, but on the small wins over time.

The struggle is where you have the most leverage.

Writing requires a balance of patience and persistence.

To be patient is to know that whenever you’re reaching to get better than you are, setbacks are a given.

To be persistent is to practice deeply. To target the struggle. To celebrate every small, incremental success.

Remember, you’re always only one or two millimeters off from writing your best work yet.


Writing Success Redefined

How do you measure your success as a writer? Is it by how much money you earn from your writing? Is it the publishing contract? Nailing an agent? Sure, those are external markers of success. But what does success as a writer mean to you? Years ago, when I began writing in earnest, a dancer…

Writing to Draw Readers in Emotionally

Flannery O’Connor once said that, as writers, we can’t create emotion with emotion. We need to provide it with a body, to “create a world with weight and extension.” Love on its own, for example, is too broad and abstract for the reader to feel. If we write about something as ethereal as love without anchoring it…

7 Ways to Write Better (That Have Nothing to Do With Writing)

 When it comes to unleashing our best, most potent writing, it’s not only about the hours we have, it’s the quality of mind and body we bring to those hours. There’s the skill of writing and then there’s our physiological, mental and emotional state. Ultimately, you can’t separate them. Here are some ways to improve…

Going From Stupid to Cool

In February of last year, I attended a weekend west coast swing dance intensive with dancer, choreographer, teacher extraordinaire, Robert Royston. The weekend was ultra light on footwork and dance patterns and high on technique; the physics of movement, partner dynamics and connection, how to spin from a low to high center of gravity, musicality, and…

What is Writer’s Voice?

We hear it prescribed in workshops and countless writing books. “Find your voice!” We’re encouraged to develop a “unique voice.” Literary magazines say they’re looking for “fresh new voices.” But what is writer’s voice, exactly? Years ago, during my first semester as an MFA student, my mentor told me the first draft of a story…

Getting Under the Skin

 It’s one thing to understand a character. It’s another thing to become them. Readers crave the latter. In my early twenties, at Columbia University’s Summer Writing Program, I was fortunate to have novelist and short story author Ethan Canin critique my first completed short story. The story centered around a love triangle of sorts: two…

The Difference Between Plot and Story

My first writing workshops in NYC included a few lawyers with novels-in-progress based on real life cases they’d defended throughout their careers. They were writing what they knew. Intricate and wild criminal cases brimming with drama and excitement. Endless twists. Mega suspense. Their plots were riveting. But there was no story. No character development. No…

What Is Your Story About?

“So what are your stories about?” someone at a party recently asked. “Hmmm,” I said, mentally scanning my most recent collection, grasping for a cogent response. “Loss. Regret. Grief. Disillusionment. It’s hard to explain. I actually have no idea what my stories are about.” If you’re anything like me, you routinely trip over this question….

What It Really Means To Write What You Know

  It’s a myth that writers write what they know. We write what it is that we need to know. ~ Marcie Hershman “Write what you know” is one of the most misunderstood mantras. And one of the most limiting rules to write by. Here’s how writing what we know can limit us: We write…