Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Things Never Work Out As Planned

And sometimes that can be a good thing.

My dad read The Hobbit to me when I was in elementary school, and it got me fascinated with fantasy and quests and epics. So, when my fourth and fifth grade teachers asked me to write stories, I'd always start writing an enormous quest, describing the characters and their cool swords, all the wacky stuff they had in their backpacks, and how they were going to kick the bad guy's butt.

Inevitably, I'd get bored of writing this after a page or two, and I'd find a quick way to end the story. I'd set up the storyline so that the characters were going to have to overcome big obstacles and fight the villian, and I'd end it with "And they did."

It was a lot more fun for me to look at the beginning of the story and imagine the possibilities than to actually bother with writing it out. I just assumed that everything went according to plan: my awesome characters did awesome things, the bad guys were defeated, and everyone was happy.

But stories rarely go according to plan--we'd hate it if they did! We don't want to see a hero easily defeat every foe and waltz into a victory; we want to see him try and fail, and try and fail again, and barely crawl across the finish line against all odds.

One of the great military philosophers, Carl Von Clausewitz, wrote the following about battle:
"In war more than anywhere else things do not turn out as we expect. Nearby they do not appear as they did from a distance."

Clausewitz refers to this as friction: nothing goes according to plan because there are so many variables; the slightest thing could change (ruin) everything.

"...[A] general in time of war is constantly bombarded by reports both true and false; by errors arising from fear or negligence or hastiness; by disobedience born of right or wrong interpretations, of ill will, of a proper or mistaken sense of duty, of laziness, or of exhaustion; and by accidents that nobody could have foreseen. In short, he is exposed to countless impressions, most of them disturbing, few of them encouraging...."

The obvious comparison with all of this--especially in the context of this blog--is to our writing: it's this friction, these try-and-fail cycles, that make our stories interesting. They provide surprises and conflict and drama and suspense.

But that's actually not the point I wanted to make. Yes, things not going to plan can be good for our stories, but they can also be good for our lives.

In the Spring of 2009 I graduated with my MBA. Normally, the program boasts a 97% job placement rate at graduation, but the economy had just fallen apart and most of the graduating class was unemployed. We'd expected jobs approaching or above the six-figure mark, but that salary target dropped and dropped over the following months, as we became desperate for a job--any job.

My wife and I (and our three kids) only lasted for a couple of months before moving back in with my parents. Bills went unpaid. We were uninsured. Things were definitely not going according to plan.

Every day I'd go to my dad's office and work--I'd tweak my resume and call leads and scour job listings. And then I'd write, because I had nothing else to do.

In the fall, my brother, Dan Wells, came to me and told me that if I had something to pitch, he'd pay my way to the World Fantasy convention, and he'd introduce me to agents and editors. There were only two problems with that plan: I didn't have anything sci-fi or fantasy (which is what editors at the con would be interested in) and the con was only two months away.

So, I wrote VARIANT. I pounded through the first draft in a little under two weeks, and then spent the next month and a half revising and polishing. I went to the con and pitched very poorly (and unsuccessfully), but Sara Crowe (my agent) picked me up about a week after that.

VARIANT sold in April to HarperTeen in a fantastic three-book deal.

But here's the thing that just blows my mind: if things had "gone to plan", then I'd have an MBA job (that I'd probably dislike, because business has always been the backup plan), and I'd still write novels in the evenings and and on weekends. But things didn't go to plan--I failed to get a job. And there were dozens and dozens of try-and-fail cycles in those months of unemployment.

If things had gone to plan, I'd have never written the book. I'd have never gotten an agent. I'd have never gotten a book deal.

Sometimes it's great when things don't go to plan.


At 10/12/2010 4:59 PM, Blogger Don said...

Amen. Life is full of plans that didn't come together, and results that turn out far better than the plans.

At 10/12/2010 7:12 PM, Blogger Debra Erfert said...

I haven't had a A-Team moment my whole life. I guess that's what make my days exciting.

At 10/13/2010 12:10 AM, Blogger L.T. Elliot said...

So glad things "didn't" turn out for you. Congratulations, Rob!

At 10/13/2010 10:52 AM, Blogger Michael Knudsen said...

Great post. When you're talking about "according to plan", you've got to think about whose plan you mean. Our own plans, to which we become so attached, are often swallowed up by the plan of Someone who wants more or better for us.

At 10/13/2010 1:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm really happy for you Rob. For your new book. For your new agent. For your new series. For you contract. And for your amazingly terrific writing in general. Just really, really happy for all of that.

But even happier that you didn't give up when you felt like it. What an inspiration this slog has been! You didn't throw in the towel through all those health problems. And you didn't croak. Which, if you think about it, is a conquest in and of itself. You didn't come down off that crazy 24th of July float and toss in your hammer. Did that boat eventually sink? You just sort of muddled through it all. And waited. Patiently. And sometimes not so patiently. But you waited. And your family and friends waited with you. Sometimes not so confidently, but they did wait. Which, if you think about it, takes a lot of confidence in the future. And you moved in with your folks. Who muddled with you.

I'll bet that in all your muddling you even prayed harder than usual. Maybe turned over some of the worry, born of muddling, to God. Maybe asked for a little divine providence. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that you've got more faith in a God who hears prayers because of all that muddling. Maybe not, but I can guess can't I?

So I'm happy for you. I hope your Variant books are a raging sucess. I hope your life is a raging success. And I hope the next time you're muddling along you remember the intensity of this particular muddling and have the strength to say, "hey, this is all going to work out, somehow".

I think the conquest isn't in pulling the sword out of the stone, rescuing the princess from the tower, or slaying the dragon. The conquest of any quest comes of the muddling.

At 10/13/2010 5:39 PM, Blogger Kristine N said...

That's a great way for things to not go according to plan. Hope your plans continue to be foiled in similar manner in the future!

When does Variant come out?

At 10/19/2010 3:01 PM, Anonymous Roger Billings said...

Very encouraging to aspiring writers. Thanks for sharing!
It sounds like how Bernard Cornwell got his start. He got married and moved from the UK and a good job to the US and no job. He figured that the only thing he could do without a green card was write fiction, so that was how the Richard Sharpe series started. Now he has published something like 40 novels.
Here's to a great career!

At 10/20/2010 7:18 PM, Blogger Julie Wright said...

i get it! I should stop PLANNING on getting national contracts ;)
Seriously , rob, I am totally happy for you and the way things went for you.


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