Every once in a while, Present Charlie has to reach out to Past Charlie to help out Future Charlie. That’s what this post is for. It’s a re-run of sorts, combining these three posts into one, while making a few updates along the way. Feel free to read along, but mostly this is just for me. I could really use the reminder.
Part One: On Giving Up
Once upon a time there was a young man named Pete Becker. You may have heard of him. He was the software developer who created MOS 865, a suite of productivity software used by every office in the world. His combined technical expertise and knack for business made him a multi-millionaire by the time he was thirty.
Now, your average ordinary Joe would be happy with that kind of life. Beyond happy. But Pete was no ordinary Joe. Because in spite of all his conquests, he also wanted to become the Ultimate Fighting Champion. Crazy, right? But who are we to judge someone else’s dreams?
So Pete hired a ring designer and invested fifty thousand dollars on a gym. He hired Hoshi, one of the world’s best personal trainers. He practiced, conditioned, and worked out every day. Hard. Eventually he landed a professional bout where he faced off against UFC champion Tank Abbott.
In spite of all his training and preparation, Pete lost. He lost bad. Like, not even close bad. The fight was over in less than a minute. It was clear that Pete was, in every sense of the phrase, out of his league.
After the fight, he met up with his girlfriend Monica Geller back in the training room. She assumed that this one fight was enough to “get the bug out of his system”, so to speak, and that he would leave fighting behind. Makes sense. But Monica was wrong. In spite of the odds against Pete and his clear lack of talent, he quietly but firmly replied to her with “I’ve got to do this.”
Perseverance. Determination. Tenacity. Some of the undisputed traits of success. Giving up is wrong. In fact, it’s not just wrong, it’s about the worst thing you can do. We learn about it from a very young age. Our parents, mentors, heroes — basically everyone — they’ve all told us that giving up is not an option. Think of all the sayings and phrases and quotes we have on the topic:
“Winners never quit and quitters never win.” — Vince Lombardi
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” — Joseph P. Kennedy
“Never give up! Never surrender!” — Commander Peter Quincy Taggart
Why is this? Well, clearly it’s just to make me feel bad about myself. If inspirational phrases didn’t give us the opportunity to stop and think about how little we’ve accomplished, why even have them? Haha. Just kidding.
I think the real answer is: nothing ever got done by quitting. That is to say, on a global, human, civilization-wide scale. What would the world be like if everyone gave up before the wheel was invented? Or the compass? Clocks? The printing press? Harnessing electricity? And let’s not overlook the greatest invention ever: mashed potatoes.
It’s drilled into our heads at every opportunity. If you stick with something, if you just “hang in there” you will change the world. Or you’ll get a job. Or you’ll pass a test. Or maybe even just fix some toast in the morning. But if you quit? Oh, my friend, you are doomed.
But an important question always gets left out of all this “inspiration”: what if you simply can’t do it? Not as in: you’re lazy, or you let them get the best of you, or you didn’t get back up after that last knockdown. What if, like Pete Becker, you just can’t do it? At some point wouldn’t the worst thing you could do be: not quitting?
Let’s take the case of a hypothetical young man whose lifelong dream is to build a rocket ship out of egg cartons and fly to Saturn? (“Stick with it! Hang in there, kid! You can do anything if you just put your mind to it!”)
Or a young woman who decides her lifelong dream is to take a plastic spoon and dig a hole straight through the center of the earth? (“Follow your heart, little lady! Don’t let anyone put you down! You are strong and powerful!”)
Wouldn’t any sane person deem that kind of positive encouragement wrong? Would you not be serving someone better by saying, “Hey, you’re not giving up. You’re simply accepting reality.”
The astute reader may already see where this is heading. I’m not talking about space-boy or mining-girl. I’m not even talking about Monica’s erstwhile boyfriend Pete. I’m talking about me.
For whatever reason, back in the early 1990s, I got it in my head that I could write a novel. I don’t know why, but let’s just blame a billion chaotically firing neurons. So I tried. And tried again. And then again. This isn’t news to anyone following me for any length of time. But here’s the thing. I can’t. After decades of digging with my plastic spoon, I’ve made it a full inch toward my eight-thousand-mile digging goal. Having an idea for a book is the easiest thing in the world. Turning that into a gripping, page-turning tale, as it turns out, takes a little more.
Am I giving up? It sure feels like it. But when I step back to a safe distance, it really feels more like pruning a tree. Think, for a moment, about pruning. Why do we cut dead, odd, or useless branches off a healthy tree? Easy answer. Because everyone wins. We can eliminate the danger of a dead branch falling and hurting someone. We can give the rest of the tree more energy to grow. And sometimes it just improves the view. I don’t know about you, but those all seem like really great benefits.
Part Two: On Closure
Ross had been infatuated with Rachel since high school. But by the time they were in their late twenties, and after many failed attempts at starting any sort of relationship, Ross had more or less given up while Rachel remained oblivious to his feelings.
But then one day while Ross was overseas on a business trip, Chandler inadvertently let it slip to Rachel that Ross harbored romantic feelings for her. While initially shocked and unsure what to do, Rachel soon came to discover she had feelings for Ross too. She decided to do something about it by meeting him at the airport upon his return.
Fortunately (from a story-telling point of view, not from Rachel’s point of view) Ross did not disembark alone. Much to Rachel’s shock and dismay, Ross stepped off the plane with his new girlfriend, Julie. What came to pass over the next few weeks was what we in the storytelling business call a “role reversal”: Rachel now pines for Ross while Ross is oblivious to her feelings.
Some time later, while out on a date with one evening, Rachel complains incessantly about her situation. Her date Michael, in a dual play to help this floundering woman and cut his miserable evening short, suggests that Rachel’s true problem with Ross is that she never attained “closure” in the relationship.
“How do I get that?” Rachel asks. Michael wisely suggests, “Whatever it takes so that you can finally say ‘I’m over you.’”
This clicks with Rachel.
It doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume all writers want to see their published works succeed. But success comes in many forms. Modern popular culture sets a rather high bar. In particular, authors who:
- Sell millions of books
- Cut movie deals
- Earn merchandising royalties for decades
These rare and select few sit at the top of a very large pyramid. But that’s just one of many possible definitions of success, and perhaps the most narrow of them all.
Writers who “only” sell one thousand copies of their book are also successful. I can make an argument that selling one hundred copies counts as well. And for some, success might be the solitary act of having one’s book accepted by a publisher, irrespective of anything that comes after.
The important take-away is that there’s no single definition of author success and that the only definition that matters is the author’s.
Almost all neurologically advanced organisms come with an innate fight-or-flight response system, including me. (We’ll just set aside any discussions of my inclusion in “neurologically advanced” for now.) In Part One, I attempted to convince myself that under the right circumstances, flying can be just as intelligent a response as fighting. After all, who would fault the mouse that chooses to run when confronted by a lion?
Well, I can answer that question. The mouse could. We, the third-party observers would not fault the little guy. But I can easily see him scrambling back to his hole and thinking, “I hate myself! I should’ve stood my ground! Am I a man or a . . . ? Well, never mind that. Still, I shouldn’t’ve run!”
The mouse isn’t dumb. He knows running was the right (even the only) choice. But mouse society has indoctrinated him with inspirational phrases: “Success is everything! Don’t give up! Follow your dreams!”
After his moral failure when confronted with a lion, about the only thing that will comfort this poor mouse is the same thing that helped poor Rachel:
Since I first got the itch to write fiction in the early 1990s, I’ve cycled through about every definition of success there is. In the end, however, I’ve landed on a single definition. Well, a single definition with three prongs:
- To write
- To be read
- To be appreciated
As the song goes, “it’s not about the money, money, money.” It’s not fame. It’s not jet-setting about the planet rubbing shoulders with the other award-winning authors. It’s not about having people lined up for blocks at book signings. No, it’s simply about assembling words in a pleasing manner, sharing the words, and having a non-zero number of people say, “Wow, I enjoyed those words Charlie assembled in a pleasing manner.”
And I’ve experienced that already to some extent. Here are all the books on my author page at Amazon:
But in spite of the work I put into them, and how much readers have liked them, in my brain they don’t count because I still haven’t produced a novel. And that’s where I get back to my mouse-vs-the-lion issues. In Part One, I admitted I can’t do this. But I’m still not over Ross yet. I need closure.
Part Three: Plan B
After Rachel left Barry at the alter and moved in with her high school friend Monica, she quickly found herself way out of her depth. Her father had taken care of her, financially, for her entire life. But now her sudden swan dive into independence generated a good deal of mental strain. Topping her list of issues: she no longer had a plan for her life.
“Y’know, it was clear,” she lamented. “It was figured out. And now everything’s just kinda like — ”
“Floopy?” suggested Monica.
Monica pondered her own circumstances anew and then realized that she didn’t have a plan either. They checked with Phoebe who noted, not only did she not have a plan, she didn’t even have a “pl.”
Well, unlike them, I have a “pl”.
At this point in my life, it’s clear I’m not going to sell millions of books and cut movie deals. I’m not going to attend the premiere of one of my books adapted into a big budget film. And I definitely will not be invited to the grand opening of “Underhaven World” in Orlando, Florida.
But I can attain closure. I have a backup plan. It’s a good one and I know it will work. How? Whelp, because I’ve done it before. Check it out:
Exhibit A: Timekeeper. My biggest software pet project has been Timekeeper: a Windows-based application that tracks all the time I spend doing things. The project began in 1999 and I used the (simply awful) Version 1.0 for about eight years. I finally got around to writing Version 2.0 and moved to that in 2008. By 2013 I’d been talking about how cool the hypothetical Version 3.0 would be for five straight years.
Unable to put it off any longer, I finally began work on the third version on March 1, 2013. I kept at it in my spare time: mornings, evenings, weekends. The list of features grew. I changed directions once or twice. I built new software libraries to drive it.
The months wore on. I grew to hate it. I just wanted it to be over. By October 2014, I decided it wasn’t good, but it was good enough. While it didn’t have all the features I wanted (and it definitely had bugs), it passed my minimum requirements for usability. I slapped the “beta” label on it, uploaded it, and *snap* just like that, my brain considered it done. I can still remember how good I felt. Not out of any sort of sense of accomplishment but by just having this self-imposed weight lifted from me.
Over the course of 592 days of development, I’d put in 801 hours, 35 minutes, and 51 seconds of work on it. (A figure I know is accurate because I use Timekeeper: a Windows-based application that tracks all the time I spend doing things.) And even though it wasn’t finished, the act of releasing it to the public gave me closure.
Exhibit B: Personal Mail Service. I’m in the habit of using a different email address for almost everything. This keeps my private email address spam-free while disposable email addresses are handed out to everyone from Amazon to Zoho. However, creating and maintaining them was a pain. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, so I came up with an idea: my own mail service.
I needed a web-based tool where creating and maintaining dozens, if not hundreds, of email addresses would be easy peasy. But as I began looking into the sheer programming effort, I thought, “No. I can’t spend 592 days and 801 hours on another pet project.” So I found an existing service that already provided everything I needed. I tried it out and *bam* just like that I had closure on a project I barely even started.
Get On With It Already
I know, I know. Over two thousand words now, just to get to the punchline.
So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to just write the novels I have in progress. Straight through. Start to finish. I don’t make them awesome. I don’t spend forever perfecting them. I dump the story in my head onto the page, slap a cover on it, and self-publish it. It will sit alongside my non-fiction publications at Amazon.com and my brain will thank me for lifting another great weight. Thanks for coming to my TED talk. Any questions?
“Charlie! That’s horrible! Anything worth doing is worth doing right! What’s the point of this?”
“Charlie! Why waste the time and resources to just do something half-hearted?”
“Charlie! Who on earth is going to take the time to read a novel even you yourself didn’t care about writing well?”
All good questions! And I have one good answer to address all of them: I can’t write a novel, I can’t stop thinking about writing novels, and I want to — nay, have to — stop thinking about writing novels. So Plan B is all I got.
“Charlie! Don’t you think you’d find greater satisfaction in producing one really solid and well-written story than one that’s just meh?”
Another good question! You would think so, wouldn’t you? And I’ve thought about this a great deal. More than you’d think, most likely. So let me splain:
Remember my cancer memoir? Sure you do! Well, according to Timekeeper 3.0, I spent 337 hours, 14 minutes, and 11 seconds working on it. The project began back in 2014 and I finally published it in December 2017.
To date I have sold 42 copies and earned about $75 in royalties. That comes out to about twenty-two cents an hour. And I’m pretty sure I spent more than $75 in copies for myself, giveaways, plus other overhead. But, for the sake of argument, let’s just say I made zero monies on it.
But that isn’t the half of it. The book contains a little over 44,000 words. The generally-accepted bare minimum for a novel is around fifty thousand. Here are word counts for a few other novels, just for comparison:
|Why Your Last Diet Failed You||64,913|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||76,944|
|Pride and Prejudice||122,685|
|A Game of Thrones||298,000|
|Gone with the Wind||418,053|
My 44,000 word memoir had no storyline, no plot, no character arcs. It was little more than a giant blog post. In theory, it’s the easiest (and fastest) kind of writing there is. And yet I still spent over three hundred hours working on it.
If this were my full-time job, that’s not a big deal. Only about two months, adding it all up.
But, and I can’t stress this enough: this isn’t my job. My real job takes up anywhere from forty to seventy hours a week. Sometimes more. I spend most of my evenings with my family for dinner and watching television. I have chores and other grown-up responsibilities. Which is why a straightforward, simple, two-month writing project stretched out over four calendar years.
I look at that and can’t help but extrapolate. A novel is ten times more demanding. For starters, it’ll be double the word length. And great care and attention must go into the plot, characters, narrative, voice, and everything else. If my past performance is any indication, my first novel will be published in 2083.
But for the sake of argument, let’s say I do that. Let’s say I commit, not 337 hours, but two thousand hours on it. And let’s say by some miracle, I get it done in just six short years. I’ll put it on my website. And launch a marketing campaign. And I’ll post it all over social media. And . . .
And I will sell 42 copies and earn about $75 in royalties. Why? Because selling books is difficult. I’m an absolute nobody. This will be just one novel in a sea of a quarter million other new novels that come out that same year. In fact, the only real good that will come of it is that I’ll get that feeling of closure.
And that’s the heart of Plan B. Why spend six years and thousands of hours to get to a place I know I can reach in a tenth of the time? This isn’t being defeatist, it’s just being realistic about my capabilities. And like the smart mouse who decides against fighting a lion, I’m okay with it.
So What’s the Plan?
First up is Ronald and the Curious Bookshop. This is a story idea I had in 2013, and one I’ve talked about here before. It’s both the most-developed storyline I have in my head as well as being the least complicated.
After that? Well, let’s just get one done and go from there.
I wrote the above words nearly two years ago, in the spring of 2019. Since that time, I’ve made some progress, albeit a bit more slowly than I’d hoped. But it’s better than nothing, I guess. Ronald has gotten some attention, some of which I even posted here.
But apart from moving slower than a herd of turtles stampeding through peanut butter, my main issue is that I’m still trying to write well. I’m having a really hard time just spitting out mediocrity. On purpose, that is: it’s very easy for me to do it without thinking. That small voice saying “anything worth doing is worth doing well” won’t go away. That’s exactly what will keep closure at bay indefinitely.
As will this three-thousand word blog post. Going to wrap it up here!