Pixar, CREATIVITY, INC., and Learning How to Fail

Failure is not a word I would associate with Pixar.

Over the last couple of decades, the animation pioneer has created some of my family’s favorite movies, including Up, Finding Nemo and Toy Story. Not a bad track record!

But when I read CREATIVITY, INC. by Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar (with Amy Wallace), failure was one of the recurring themes.

Catmull says early on that wrote the book to reflect on Pixar’s success and offer a blueprint for business administrators who manage teams of creative professionals on how to maintain a successful creative company over the long haul.

But I found the book to be so much more than another entry in the business self-help genre. Instead, it was a fascinating peek into a visionary company that put story, creativity and excellence at the center of everything they do…which is what I aspire to do every time I sit down to write.

“To be a truly creative company, you must start things that may fail.”

Catmull believes that one of the things that dooms creative companies (and by extension, creative people) is refusing to risk failure. He spends an entire chapter — and a significant portion of the book — talking about the various failures he and his company faced as they reinvented animation for the computer age.

And even though I’m not an animator, it all really resonated with me. Because in my work as a copywriter and in my second life as a fiction writer, I have found that my very best work walks hand in hand with failure.

When I started out writing, I didn’t feel the same way – at all! I vigorously avoided anything that might lead to failure. I tried to keep plots simple, thinking that being too ambitious was a sure road to failure. I relied on tropes because they had led to success for so many other writers – and success was something I wanted.

Fear of failure can be incredibly debilitating. I know writers who have honed and polished their work for years, never querying for fear that they will be rejected. I know writers who send a few queries, get a few rejections, and abandon their project because they don’t want to know that the project of their heart has failed. And I know writers who refuse to budge from the plans they’ve laid out for their work or their career because they think to do so would mean they have failed.

At one time or another, I’ve been those writers, too.

But over the years I’ve learned that when I try an idea that seems too bold, too big for me to handle — when I risk trying something that might fail — I usually end up creating something more interesting than I ever thought possible.

“While planning is very important…there is only so much you can control in a creative environment.”

For me, one of the scariest things about taking a creative leap is the fear that I might not be able to pull it off, that I might fail.

As writers, we can’t control how our readers respond. Or whether an agent will resonate with our work. Or whether a publisher will choose to add it to their list.

Even once we get agents and publishing contracts and sales, our control is minimal, and failure is inevitable. How we respond can make all the difference between getting stuck and moving on.

In essence, I think welcoming failure into your writing is a letting go of control. And most of us writers – I’d argue most of us people! – don’t enjoy not being in control.

In CREATIVITY, INC. Catmull has a few suggestions on how to deal with the failure and loss of control that are inherent to the creative process:

  • Embrace it. Once you can start to see failure as part of the gig, you’ll have an easier time moving past those moments when you inevitably fail to meet your goals.
  • Share it. Get feedback at every stage of your work. As Catmull says, “I do not believe creative products should be developed in a vacuum.”  And having support on your journey can make those failure moments sting a lot less.
  • Realize that failure helps you. The bolder and fiercer your work, the closer you walk to failure. If you’re failing, it means you’re pushing yourself.

The bottom line: don’t be afraid of failure. It’s there to help you become the best writer you can be.

And if you’re interested in Pixar, animation, or how the creative process works and is nurtured at one of the most enduringly creative and successful companies in the country, definitely check out CREATIVITY, INC.

 

rm-picRICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.

MYC: Two Opinions on Revising While Drafting

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we looked at the saggy middle. Today we’re tackling a somewhat controversial subject: revising while drafting.

Two of our Pennies sat down and discussed their different approaches to revising your manuscript while you’re still drafting it.

Richelle: When I say I revise while drafting, I don’t mean major revisions. Those I save for after I type “THE END”. But in an effort to ease myself back into my story world, I’ll often read over what I wrote before and do minor edits/cleanup on that section. I look for typos first and foremost, but also ways to make it voicier or fix pacing issues. I usually pace too quickly and have to find ways to slow down, which means I’ll sometimes expand setting or beef up emotional arcs. This usually takes up the first 10-15 minutes of my writing time, and after that, I dive into writing new. In essence, it’s like the warm-up song in spin class! Once I get my brain and fingers moving and coordinated, then I can get to the main workout.

I’m not alone in doing this! I’ve seen other writers talk about doing a light edit as a way to ease into their drafting sessions. That said, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, especially to newer writers. The temptation to polish and perfect is strong and can easily keep you from moving forward, particularly if you’re in a stuck spot. Plus, chances are you’ll end up throwing out at least some of your first draft, and having to throw out a scene you spent hours on hurts a lot more than one you only spent fifteen minutes scouring for typos and inconsistencies.

I do have one major exception to my don’t-make-big-revisions-while-drafting rule. Despite my best efforts to pre-plan and hash things out before I draft, more than once I’ve realized halfway through a manuscript that I’ve gone wrong somewhere. If it doesn’t change the entire plot, I can make a big note for myself (REMEMBER TO FIX FIRST HALF TO SAY HER DAD’S ACTUALLY ALIVE!). But if my wrong turn sends me off a cliff, I may have to go back and do a big revision before I can move on. That actually happened to me recently when I realized 30K into my WIP that I was writing the wrong story…UGH! That was painful! But in that case, I had to go back and work through the first half of the story so I could write the second half.

Julie: Although, like Richelle, I sometimes read over the previous scene as a warm-up for my next writing session, I am fairly militant about not revising while I write. I am a fast-drafter (often drafting during NaNoWriMo and CampNaNo because I love the rigor of the daily word count goal), so it doesn’t take much tinkering with what I’ve already written before I’m way behind on my goal. And my inner editor is brutal, so I need to keep her silent or I might never finish a story. This latest work-in-progress was particularly hard to draft because I’d just finished revising for the first time ever with my agent, so of course my finished manuscript was highly polished after rounds and rounds of beta reads and lots of great agent feedback. That made completing the draft, no matter how rough, an important emotional milestone for me too. Because the doubt demons were hard at work telling me that this piece of junk first draft was never going to measure up to my previous project.

So unlike Richelle, even if I make a major change to the story while I’m drafting, I don’t go back. Here’s an example. I fast-drafted my next project, a middle grade adventure, this past April and realized the last week of the month that I had missed an opportunity for a mystery element to the story that would tie in really well with the main character’s arc. I was 32,000 words in to a 38,000 word draft when I realized this and the change not only required a bunch of tinkering with little things, but a whole series of new really fun mystery/problem-solving scenes that didn’t exist in the draft I had nearly finished. I literally jotted the new mystery subplot down in my Messy Synopsis document and kept writing the final 6,000 words just like I’d already made the change. That allowed me to get to the end of the month/end of the story, and reach my goal without being sidetracked by what will be a lengthy revision. Since I typically spend about six months doing the prewriting exercises for a book, I was surprised that this fun subplot didn’t occur to me until I was writing. But hey, plot twists happen in real life too.

One technique that has worked really well for me as I fast-draft is a revision spreadsheet. My brain is constantly trying to sabotage me brainstorm new totally fabulous plot bunnies, and having a place to jot them down gets them off my mind so that I can focus on the task at hand–writing the draft. The great thing about this is that when I get to the end of the draft, I already know what I’m going to work on for my first pass revision. I group the items on the list by theme and sort them by size so that when I do start revising, I can tackle some easy fixes first until I get into the flow. Does it sound like I play a lot of mind games with myself while I write? Because I totally do.

The Bottom Line: Both Pennies agree that whichever way you choose to move through your first draft, make sure that you keep moving forward. After all, the most polished half a novel in the world is still only half a novel.

Tune in next week when we start to look at the long, exciting process of revising your novel!

MYC: Two Steps to Make the Saggy Middle Berry, Berry Good

Blackberries in a pottery colander

 

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we covered Facing the Blank Page. This week, I’ll discuss the “saggy middle”.

Note: Handy list of Master Your Craft topics so far.

The “saggy middle” happens to the unsuspecting at any time. Some are struck down during plotting or drafting, others during revising.

But if your story is suffering from a lack of baking powder, there’s hope!

Blackberries in a pottery colander
Fixing the saggy middle is as easy as picking blackberries. © Laurel Decher, 2017.

The middle doesn’t have to stay a muddle. Managing the middle is very much like blackberry picking. There are two basic rules.

A. Make decisions. The middle of any story can look like vast, uncharted territory, but there’s really only so much room. If you can’t tell how much, try fitting your scenes into a recipe–a story structure–that appeals to you. (See Resources below).

Choose dark, sweet-smelling blackberries that give to the touch. You want scenes that excite you and:

  1. develop the story you want to write,
  2. tie into your theme, and
  3. show your main character’s growth/failure.

That way your plot is always flavored with juicy goodness!

B. Keep on picking. Don’t get so caught up finding the perfect berry patch/story shape, that you stop putting scenes in your story. As long as you keep on, you’ll eventually get enough of the good stuff. When it’s early in the writing process, ripe scenes are mixed in with undeveloped, green “berries”. Leave them until later. When it’s late, watch out for old berries (read: dried-up story “darlings”) and wasps (apparently unsolvable barriers that yield only to patience and calm).

Don’t let the deciding make you stop picking. You don’t have to visit every blackberry bush in your neighborhood to get the overview. If it looks like a blackberry, (see short list above), put it in.

Resources:

Use these wisely, writer friends! If you find one that works, run away and WRITE. Reading about berry picking does not a berry cobbler make.

Darcy Pattison’s list of 23 ways to fix the saggy middle: draws from the Hero’s Journey, the Snowflake Method, A list of handy Act II “meta-metaphors” via Syd Field for the outline averse among you, and a quick refresher of Peter Dunne’s Emotional Structure, a.k.a. what each Act in the story is for.

Libbie Hawker’s Take Off Your Pants: helped me see the connection between the story, i.e. the character’s necessary growth to overcome a weakness or release themselves from a lie, and the plot, i.e. the series of events that happen in the book for the hero to achieve or fail at the physical/external goal. She shows how to draw from the “Story Core” to populate your plot.

James Scott Bell’s Write from the Middle: the book on what to do when you get to your story’s exact middle and how it helps you shape the rest of your story. Most of my highlighting is from Chapter 5 “The Magical Midpoint Moment”.

Writing Excuses 15-minute podcast. Episodes related to the saggy middle for outliners, discovery writers, and some-of-eachers:

  • Q & A on Outlining and Discovery Writing talks about outlining scenes, index cards, when to stop outlining, and whether the writing process changes for every book
  • Creating Great Outlines covers a variety of outline techniques from a list of the “details you’re afraid you’re going to forget” to extensive outlines as long as a middle grade book, and outlining backwards.
  • Retrofitting Structure into a First Draft is about revising once you have a draft, but it’s also a handy list of things to do with the middle of your story to make it more fulfilling. Try/Fail cycles, fulfilling story promises, introducing new characters too late in the story.

Come back next Wednesday when we’ll discuss Tricky Plot Bunnies.

photo of Laurel Decher

LAUREL DECHER writes stories for middle graders about things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. You can find her on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany.

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MYC: Conquering the Dreaded Blank Page (and other drafting tricks)

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we reviewed our treasure trove of pre-writing posts. Today we’re on to starting — and keeping going on — your first draft.

You’ve finally arrived. You’ve got your coffee (or tea), your snacks, your favorite writing socks. Your writing space is perfectly set up, and you’ve got an hour or two of quiet uninterrupted writing time.

You open your computer, gently rest your hands on the keyboard, and…

Now what?

Many, many writers are daunted by the sight of a blank page. It’s a little unnerving to open a new document and realize that you’re exactly zero words into a 60,000+ word manuscript.

And even when you’ve tackled the blank page, there will come a moment when you sit down to write, and nothing comes out. You’re stuck. Where is this scene going? What happens next? It’s easy to waste a lot of time staring at the blinking cursor, trying to find your way back into your story.

While we can’t eliminate the fear and frustration completely, we can help you overcome.

Here are some of our favorite Winged Pen tips for conquering the blank page and pushing through the sticky spots:

Julie: I have a lot of time to stare at the blank page built into my writing process, since I usually prewrite for about six months and then draft in a month or so. But I also try to stop mid-scene at the end of each writing session so I can pick up the next day knowing roughly what needs to happen.

I also use a placeholder [TK] in the ms when there’s a fact or bit of research I need to look up. So I’ll write something like [TK research what moon jellies eat] and just keep going rather than stopping and going down the worm hole of doing research, which can pull me off track for days. I also use [TK] when I know something needs to happen but can’t figure out what. So I might write [TK Nic bickers with Mom over something to introduce frustration].

Jennifer: You know, the blank page has never been an issue. The beginning is always the easiest part for me. It’s everything past the first few pages that is hard. But getting past being stuck? For me, if I’m stuck, it means I took a wrong turn, and I need to go a few pages back and decide if this is really where I want to be. Sometimes I push through, but usually, I need to figure out what the problem is.

Michelle: I stop and have a heart to heart with my MC to ask (her usually) what the problem is. I also use the tricks that were in my Creativity to the Rescue post.

Halli: I tell myself I’m just going to write notes about the MS. Nothing official, just whatever comes to mind. Usually I find a place to start. I have also been known to write a scene or scenes out of order if that’s what strikes me at the time, but that is not my preferred method.

Gabrielle: Long walks and hot showers. Looking at art.

Gita: I give myself a very small amount of time to write. It could be 1 minute, 5, or 10–whatever seems very easy, no problem at all. I set the timer and usually I find myself needing more time. I repeat until I don’t need it anymore.

Richelle: From my years of writing to hard deadlines, I’ve learned that a blank page is far, far worse than bad copy. So I write something down, even if it’s complete garbage. I can always fix it later! I don’t remember where I read this, but one of my favorite pieces of writing advice is that your first draft is you telling yourself your story. Subsequent drafts are you telling it to someone else. I keep that in mind while drafting, and it eases a lot of my anxiety – after all, I’m just telling myself a story, not writing the next best-seller!

As for stuck spots, like Julie, I stop mid-scene – or sometimes mid-sentence – to keep my momentum going and give myself a road map for the next writing session.

And if that’s not enough inspiration, try these tried-and-true drafting tips:

  • Check in with your outline or other pre-writing work. Chances are there is a pivotal scene, key character motivation, or even a phrase of inspiration that will propel you back into your story.
  • Backstory is a great way to remind yourself where your characters have been and where they’re going. For best effect, connect your backstory scene with the current scene…and then watch as the ideas start flowing for what comes next. (For more on backstory, check out this post.)
  • If you’re stuck on a scene, try writing it in a different tense, or from a different perspective. Have the main character’s mom or best friend tell what happens next, or change from first person to third (or vice versa).
  • Often, when our scenes aren’t sparking enough for us to want to write them, it’s because we’ve made it too easy for our characters to get what they want. Toss a new obstacle or two into your scene and see what happens. It can be as simple as making their environment a bit more challenging, like having two characters try to talk over a fight happening nearby. Or if your MC is just trying to get to her bestie’s house, make it difficult for her. A sprained ankle? A lost child who needs her help? Those obstacles could add a spark to your scene and help you find new ways to keep going.

Above all, when you’re in the thicket of drafting, remember that perfect is the enemy of done. You don’t need anyone else to understand what you’re trying to do right now. You just need to get it down, to tell yourself what happens next.

Revisions are the magical place where your own bedtime story gets shaped into a book that we all want to read.

Tune in next week when we will look at ways to overcome the dreaded saggy middle!

Introducing Master Your Craft: A New Series by the Winged Pen

Master Your Craft

The last month has been an exciting time here at The Winged Pen as Pennies have been hard at work behind the scenes coming up with a surprise for you.

Today, to coincide with Camp NaNo – the virtual writer’s retreat that helps you fit writing into your busy life – we’re excited to launch our new blog series: Master Your Craft with the Winged Pen (#WPMYC).

Every Wednesday for the next several months, we will take you through the entire process of writing a novel – everything from getting the Big Idea, all the way to the final, ready-to-query manuscript.

Our Pennies will share with you all of our best techniques and tools, starting with pre-writing tricks, including character development, research and world-building, to make your drafting as painless as possible.

Of course, writing a novel is going to include some pain, so we’ll walk you through the drafting process, too. We’ll help you fight that terrible enemy of the drafting novelist: the fear of the blank page. And we’ve got a host of tips and tricks to help you overcome the stalls, blocks and annoying plot bunnies that threaten to derail every first draft.

And once you’ve got your story down on paper, we’ll give you all of our favorite techniques for making a story shine until it positively gleams.

Each of our Pennies has a slightly different process and does each of our steps in a different order, so don’t feel like you have to follow this formula exactly. Instead, think of it as a compendium of writerly advice designed to help you on your novel-writing journey.

Writing a novel can be a lonely, demoralizing process. But it doesn’t have to be. Let us help you – and help each other – to shape the vibrant and enduring stories that are living so vividly in our heads into the best manuscripts we can possibly make.

We can’t wait to start sharing this treasure trove of posts with you! If you’re not already following us, go ahead and sign up so you won’t miss a single tip. And if you know someone struggling to write a novel, tell them to sign up, too. The fun starts next Wednesday, so don’t miss out!

Finally, if you have questions, comments or just want to cheer us on (sometimes we need cheering, too!), comment away here or on any of our Master Your Craft posts. We love to hear from you!