April 15th, 2015

Seeking Serenity Amidst Uncertainty

Vaughn RoycroftVR headshot cropped

Certain I’m Uncertain: I don’t know squat. Not about writing. There, I said it. Glad that’s out in the open.

I came upon this realization while pondering what I could share here, as a guest on Writers In The Storm (thanks for having me, ladies!). Yep, while seeking some sort of solid ground, some credible and measureable wisdom I could impart in this venerable space, I was suddenly sure of it: I got nuthin’.

I’d gladly lay odds that each of you reading knows as much or more than I do about grammar, POV, or three-act structure. So if you clicked over to this wonderful blog thinking you could gain some tangible bit of certainty about the craft of writing fiction—some of the usual insight and wisdom found in this spot—I’m sorry to tell you that after ten years of writing, the only thing I’m sure of is that there’s nothing about it I am sure of. In fact, I wouldn’t blame you if you clicked away. Thanks for reading this far! Good luck! (I suppose I am “certain” you’ll need some of that.) Farewell!

Allow Me to Quantify… Er, Qualify: Still here? Good. Now, for those of you who don’t know me, allow me to tell you a bit about myself. I came to writing fairly late in life, after a twenty year stint in the lumber business. For the purposes of this post, there’s only one thing I need to convey about the lumber business (and it should be fairly self-evident): It’s measureable.

In other words, everything about my previous occupation could be almost instantly gauged for effectiveness. How well we were doing day by day, even hour by hour, could be—and was—measured. I could instantly assess my progress at almost any given time, for any aspect of my professional life, by simply plugging in the numbers. Of course there were qualifications, and non-numerical decisions to be made (e.g. should we add this line of products; promote this employee, invest in this equipment?). But after making them, there was always a measurement for gauging their success.

Originally I thought to bring this quantifying mentality to writing. I would monitor word counts, how long each manuscript took, how many pages I could edit per day, etcetera. Until I found out that quantification is damn near meaningless to defining my writing success.

The Kindergarten Novelist: I recently finished a draft of a manuscript. Despite this section’s subtitle, I am not new to this (the subtitle is more about a state of mind). This is actually my fourth completed manuscript. Or fifth, depending on how it’s counted. It feels like it’s new. It’s freshly composed, but the story is the first third of a lengthy manuscript I finished in 2012, and I’ve decided to split it into a trilogy.

It also seems new because of what feels like new progress in my craft. At least it feels that way on “the good days.” Due to the generosity of a few wise mentors, and some fabulous insights gained at a wonderful craft-oriented conference last autumn, I feel I’ve made strides in my writing capabilities. For this manuscript, I seem to have internalized a few lessons. On the good days, the progress is apparent to me in the work. Mercurial as it may be, even my capacity for self-analysis feels like a breakthrough.

But there are still bad days, too. There are still days when I feel like that kindergarten writer. How can I be sure I’ve grown? Who will give me a gold star? I can’t check my board-footage shipping tallies. At this stage of my writing life, there are no sales charts. Sure, perhaps one of my beta-readers will tell me they think this manuscript shows improvement, or perhaps that they found the pages turning faster. But it’s unlikely. Most of my current crop of readers either don’t know the story, or have never read my work before. They have no yardstick to wield. Those who have read my stuff are likely to simply tell me what’s working and what isn’t—rightfully so. One person’s praiseworthy element will likely be another’s irritant. Even if I submit it and it lands me an agent or a deal, there will be no way to ascertain precisely what is working better or worse than before, or exactly how I’ve grown.

I will not receive a gold star for the growth my gut tells me I’ve undergone. Even a kindergartener has a better idea of their artistic progress. Damn. I need a nap. And a cookie.

Internalizing a Lack of Externals:

“Do your work, then step back. It is the only path to serenity.” ~Lao Tzu

In spite of this lack of measurability—in spite of the imprecise nature of quality and the nebulousness of writerly success—something feels different this time around. It’s funny, but one of the ways I feel I’ve grown has to do with getting in touch with the internal goals, motivations, and conflicts of my characters. Which makes the thought of seeking external validation for those same progressions seem a bit absurd.

One of my few goals for the new year was to strive to overcome self-doubt. Or at least to have more good days than bad ones. And I’ll be darned if I didn’t feel pretty good about this piece after I finished it. And on more days than I felt the opposite. I sent it to a group of writers and mentors whose work and opinions I greatly respect. And yet, that moment of hitting the send button was among the most angst-free I’ve experienced. I think it’s because I’d made my peace with this project. I’m less fixated on its publishing marketability, and more on its worthiness in relation to my journey. I’ve decided it’s been worthy of my time and effort. I like the characters and the story. They feel fresh and yet intimately familiar. It’s a satisfying feeling.

Don’t get me wrong—I know there is work yet to be done on this one. Indeed, I’ve already received the first few critiques, and they are concurrent and emphatic on the point. But the negative aspects of critique matter less to me this time around. I used to think of them as setbacks, like a stalled forklift is to lumber production. And that mentality led to bad days. I now better see their intent as direction toward more growth. I now better understand that ongoing growth, steady and enduring, is the pathway to success. Hence, more good days.


“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart… Live within the question.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke

“Effort only fully releases its reward after a person refuses to quit.” ~Napoleon Hill

Returning to my original point, it seems the more I learn, the more I fully comprehend how little I know about writing. Not in the form of tangible craft advice, not for a group of pros and enthusiastic aspiring pros like you, my fellow WITS readers. Yet I have found something of value. And I hope I’m effectively conveying it. What I’ve recently discovered is a measure of peace amidst the storm of uncertainty that is a career in fiction writing. And I’ve realized that this little bit of peace, this semi-serene feeling regarding my work, is the reward. It came at the price of persevering effort—a refusal to quit. And it came of patience with the things that are unsolved in my heart. I have accepted that I must live within the question.

So I may not know squat, but when I search my heart I see that I’ve grown as a writer. Most days lately, I’m able to say I’m sure of it. And I know you’re growing, too. I hope you’re able to recognize it—at least on the good days.

All in all, I’d say that as a writer, I’m mostly at peace, or semi-serene. And that, my friends, is progress. Particularly for a former quantification junkie. I might even give myself a gold star. Nah, I’ll just have a nap. And a cookie. Then I’ll get back to work on book two, secure in the knowledge that there are many good days to come.

Your turn! Do you know squat about writing? (Never mind, I’m sure you do.) Have you found your way to serenity in the storm of uncertainty? Semi-serenity? Would you like a gold star? Or will you settle for a cookie, and then get back to work?

About Vaughn:

In the sixth grade, Vaughn’s teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and history. After college, life intervened, and Vaughn spent twenty years building a successful business. During those years, he and his wife built a getaway cottage near their favorite shoreline, in a fashion that would make the elves of Rivendell proud. After many milestone achievements, and with the mantra ‘life’s too short,’ they left their hectic lives in the business world, moved to their little cottage, and Vaughn finally returned to writing. Now he spends his days polishing his epic fantasy trilogy.

40 comments to Seeking Serenity Amidst Uncertainty

  • We’re all apprentices, in an endeavor where there can be no masters, Vaughn. My goal is to learn something new, and get better, with every book.

    BTW, trust that instinct that tells you this one is good. I did – championed my book through 120 rejections. It won a RITA.

    Your gut knows more than your head ever will . . .

    Write on!

    • A hard lesson for me, Laura. In the words of Chaucer, “The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne.” I love the attitude of your goal. I think starting from a position of humility helps us to better appreciate what we achieve.

      And speaking of achievements–wow! Kudos to you for trusting your gut and persevering, and congrats again on that RITA. Thanks, Laura, for the great comment, and thanks to you and the others for having me!

  • Thank you for your post. I understand where you are coming from although I have worked with written words most of my life having worked as a secretary and paralegal. I can confirm on the bad days I feel so frustrated I could burst, however then I will totally surprise myself by writing something that just flows, makes sense and has meaning, usually when my inner goals and outer experience meet. I don’t think I know anything about writing either but the need or passion is there and I don’t want to stop. I am trying to write a novel but the inner need is not really for fame it is to bring realisation or inspiration to others. That’s whyI usually end up writing poetry or blog posts. As for being calm, serene, on the good days when I feel I have achieved a goal then that is there. Usually it is outside pressure of trying to make ends meet or in difficult situations when I am trying to remain calm for the benefit of others that need that calm exterior that I get most stressed. I look forward to reading your trilogy. Please let me know when it is going to be published. I do review and edit stuff to earn an income, however, from what you have written perhaps you don’t really need that kind of help and I think your books will be really interesting to read when you have finished them. Please let me know.

    • It’s the times when we surprise ourselves–“when inner goals and outer experience meet” (love that!)–that keep us coming back, isn’t it, Keith? It sounds like you’ve got the right motivations to achieve your admirable goals of connection. And don’t downgrade your poetry or blog posts. Writing will beget more writing. There are no wasted words. Wishing you the serenity and freedom from externals to continue to strive, and find your way to that finished novel. Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Vaughn, this post reminds me that writing is a lot like how I felt about taking Psych 101, the course I still call “what we don’t know about human behavior.” The mysteries are endless, which is insanely seductive, right?

    And my husband will tell you I am always looking to get a gold star! I do collect them, in a way—thank you notes from readers and writers whose lives I’ve touched, jotting down moments when my purpose feels clear and true, even comments on blog posts that show me I have used my words to truly connect with another. Gold star, my friend—I get you.

    • The final line of your comment caused a genuine LOL, and I’m still beaming. Love that psych course description. Yes, it is alluring. It’s a big part of what brings us to the page (I think I can speak for most writers on that).

      Good point about the letters and notes. I love the thought of remembrance of moments “when our purpose feels clear and true.” These are gold stars worth striving for and collecting. Thanks so much, Kathryn, for the reminder. And for the morning LOL and lingering warm smile.

  • Vaughn,

    I tweeted during the UnCon something like “The more I learn here, the more I realize how little I knew. Dammit.” And even with that tweet, I’m not sure if I should have written ‘Damn it.’ Talk about self-doubt. 😉

    But I plug along, putting one word in front of the other, hoping for a book to come of it. Oh…a good book. Maybe two (or three). Had to clarify that.

    I think your gold stars and cookies come in the form of people like me who look to you for inspiration and guidance if nothing more (although there is so much more). Other than your essays here, on your site, and WU, I’ve not read your masterpiece, but I can tell you with certainty that it is good. How? From your tenacity and desire to get it right before putting it out for consumption. Like Paul Masson, you will sell no book before its time. Or would that be it’s? I guess it could be either. Again, self-doubt!

    Thanks for sharing your truth—that as writers, we really don’t know squat, or never feel like we do. We hope our words resonate, that they entertain, thrill, teach, etc., but in the end, does our squat smell good? Personally, I love digging deep in the manure.

    Great essay! Thanks for your showing us your vulnerabilities. 🙂

    • The UnCon had a way of doing that, didn’t it, Mike? It was humbling to hear our masterly mentors making it sound so easy and yet so hard at the same time. I feel like I came away with a huge bag of new tools, but in my excitement for a few of them, I sort of lost sight of the big picture. I found myself internalizing a few things, though. And although I know it didn’t all come through in this draft, I know–as I say–that there is growth.

      I really appreciate your vote of confidence, my friend. I feel the same about your work, and look forward to reading your fiction. Here’s to truth and the fertilizing properties of manure, even though it still stinks. 😉 You’re the best!

  • Nicole L. Bates

    I agree, Vaughn. I don’t know squat! The more I work at writing, the more I realize that I have so much more to learn! With my latest revision and request for readers, I found it funny that I so willingly sent of my story to be dissected by so many people. When I began this process I was quite paranoid about anyone reading my story before it was “perfect” and about someone stealing my story. Now I realized the story will never be perfect, but what’s the point of spending seven years on it if no one ever reads it! And, if someone steals it and gets it published, at this point I might be pretty excited about that. 😉 We could figure out the whole copyright issue later. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

    • I can honestly say, having been lucky enough to read a previous draft of your excellent story, that no one else could tell it. Not like you. You have such a unique perspective on culture, such a resonant voice. It’s such a applicable sci-fi story. Let them have it. Only you can possibly do it the justice it deserves. And I know you are, and it will be worthy of the connection with readers you’re sure to find.

      Thanks for weighing in today, Nicole, and for standing with me through this exciting journey. We have sunshine downstate, Sunshine. Hope for you and the kids, too! Have a great day!

  • Vaughn, I used to want a cookie but my Italian hips told me to settle for a gold star if I could get one. For certain, we need feedback … but we mostly need to listen to our gut. I am still in Pre-K myself and coming to this very late in life … I will be the first to admit I wanted to get skipped to at least the first grade. Nope … no short cuts. Those first floundering steps are what teaches us the craft.

    So we keep on the road and watch for crossroads and the next bend … believing that we will find our way … often not realizing there is no end … the journey is the joy. Somewhere along the way I will fulfill my dream and then as life dictates … I will continue to the next bend of the road. Maybe the first of your trilogy is one of those stops … continue and when that is done … get back on the road and find another place … tell another tale and have a wonderful time 🙂

    • You have a great point, that those gold stars have better effect on our waistlines. Lord knows I need to be careful. Great advice and perspective about the crossroads and coming bends in the road, and finding our joy along the way. Here’s to the late bloomers! Thanks for enhancing the conversation!

  • Orly Konig Lopez

    What a wonderful way to start the day, Vaughn! Thank you!! 🙂

    There’s so much I love about this post, but especially this: “I’d made my peace with this project. I’m less fixated on its publishing marketability, and more on its worthiness in relation to my journey.” I was so focused on the publishing marketability that I lost the passion for the story. Sometimes we have to let go of the things we have learned in order to find the love in what drew us to writing in the first place.

    • Thanks again for having me, Orly! It’ll probably sound odd, but I needed to reread my words this very morning. I’ll admit, I’ve had a few of the bad days I mention in the post since I wrote it. But I’d allowed myself to be sucked back in to that “pub marketability” mentality. You know what brings me back every time? The characters and the original joy found in storytelling. If I can steer my journey by that compass, I’ll stay in much gentler waters. It’s only when I get distracted by other, less pure, lures, that I end up roiling.

      Thanks again, for everything! Particularly for the opportunity to remind myself. 🙂

  • Fae Rowen

    As a mathematician who was trained for perfection, your words are balm to my writing soul, Vaughn. The concept of “good” days and “bad” days–and that’s okay–well, it’s foreign to me. But it’s an idea to embrace to help me not beat myself up on those less-than-perfect days. Thanks!

    Oh, I want it all. Gold star, nap, and the cookie!

    • My wife is a mathematician at heart, so lumber was right up her alley. I think she gets as frustrated by the lack of quantification for this gig as I do. Here’s to not beating ourselves up. Thanks again for having me, Fae! You deserve the gold star, nap, and cookie, each and every one.

  • Dot

    I actually gave myself gold stars to get through my first rough draft (and cookies and naps too). For every day that I met my writing goal (2,000+ words), I stuck a big gold star on my desk calendar. I was so proud of those stars that I kept writing day after day just to see them accumulate, and by day 28 I had 50,000 words done. Rewards do help, especially during slogging times.

    • I think you’re on to something, Dot. I do believe that rewards help. And the cookies aren’t going to help me get back into last year’s summer shorts. And, wow, 2K a day is nothing to sneeze at. Good for you! Gold stars it is, and yours are well-deserved! Thanks for reading and for sharing your system!

  • Thank you for this post- it rallied me in knowing that others feel the same way. I recently finished Writing Down the Bones and the author talks about this serenity and living in the question. She calls writing a practice, very much like meditation. We have to come to it, willing to be still and open, and that means understanding there is always more to know, to discover about our inner worlds (whether they be full of Vikings or ghosts). A lot harder than it sounds, am I right? Gold star? Hell, you deserve a lobsta roll and a good IPA.

    • I love coming to the practice of writing as if it were a sort of meditation. As you know, my “hat-brim-pulled-down” time is critical to my actual composing of words on the page. And I know you require deep thought and observation, too, Tonia. It’s sort of hard to find the ghosts (or Vikings) without it. I can’t wait to share lobsta and IPAs again, my friend. Thanks for sharing Writing Down the Bones, and for your usual awesome and unique outlook here today!

  • Vaughn,

    What a gift. Your post imparts serenity, an immeasurable “measurable.” Old sailors know how to smile at the typhoon on the horizon. Their ease isn’t a solid, but it helps them handle their craft.

    I’m learning my work fares better when I see writing as a fluid–even though symbols appear and create seemingly solid pages, every word can be changed. No passage or chapter is gold-plated; my ego can sit down and distract itself in a cookie. The joy is there are unlimited ways to express the points we want to make. In time, our confidence will end up on the page; some readers will drink it in.

    Hey, and when it doesn’t, there are editors to point it out. What could go wrong?

    • I love the thought of your old sailors, Tom. Something to aspire to. It’s funny how experience helps us roll with the tide. Even though the shore seems distant, I know we’ll arrive at the day when we can share that single-malt in the dockside pub. As we toast the solid ground underfoot, we can admire the beauty of the vista before us, knowing full well we will be out there again, some days rockier than others. But the satisfaction of the moment will be just and deserved.

      Here’s to editors… and others, to point the way. Cheers!

  • Timely post. This is exactly how I’m feeling today! I feel like I’m on stage, ready to sing a solo, and I’m terrified of what will come out. Will all of that practice pay off, will it sound good like in rehearsal? Or will I bomb and everyone will wonder what in the world was I thinking. Will they think I’m delusional and full of myself?
    But I love the creating, I have to create. So I take a deep breath and pray that what’s in my head and in my heart is what will come out.
    And no matter what, I still want a cookie. 🙂

    • It’s cool that you are a living that metaphor–bringing your experience and confidence from your musical talent to your writing. It’s also great that you know from that world that we *can* rely on our practice. I am so very confident that what is in your head and your heart will come out, and it’ll be even more amazing than you hope. You’re just too full of awesome for it to come out any other way.

      Congrats again being published this week, Valerie! I’m so happy for you, and proud of you!

  • Thea

    Sometimes I’m so scared I don’t know what to do. I feel like Stuart Smalley doing pep talks into A mirror.

    • I happen to know for a fact, Thea, that you’re good enough, smart enough, and – dog gone it – people like you. Plus, you’re friggin’ hilarious, to boot. Write on, my friend!

  • If someone had told me there would be cookies, I’d have started writing sooner!

    For real, I relate to everything you wrote up to the point of finding serenity. I still feel like a fraud most of the time, except when I’m actually writing.

    Good luck with your latest project!

  • I’ll admit to having felt the same, Eric. If we were talking in person, and you asked me how recently, I’d look at my watch and say, “What time is it?” (That always kills. 😉 ). The good news is you find your genuine self–your creative joy–while writing. And I suspect that genuineness will be evident to readers one day soon. Hence, not a fraud at all. Starting today. That goes for both of us.

    Thanks for your honest addition to the conversation and for the well-wishes. Keep on keeping on!

  • Hmmm, I know when I’m really percolating along in my WIP, I’m at peace; yet, as I struggling with how to progress within a scene, I want to stop and head to my pantry, pull out a package of double chocolate cookies! Not a good idea for a diabetic! Also, I’m in the ‘home-stretch’ of the first draft, which COULD explain the impatience–maybe?!

    • Ah, the impatience during the home-stretch. I know the feeling. It’s anxious-making to be so close. Then to struggle with a scene, when you’re excited to get to the exciting closing scenes, already playing in your head. Wishing you the best for a finished draft!

  • I’ve never thought about writing that way, but as I read your blog post, I found it really resonating with me. So very true.

  • Vaughn,
    I have wasted so many years beating me up because I couldn’t seem to include all the stuff I was given in workshops and books I’ve read on the correct way to write a novel. I would morn over the lack of knowledge I had in grammar and sentence construction. But I did have a talent for making up and telling stories about anything. I feel like your article was placed here just for me. Just last night before I read you piece I set down and read 3 chapters of a rewrite on a book I gave up on in 2004 because the critiques were so harsh and since I usually did thing the first time out I didn’t realize I was writing Woman’s Fiction and had Romance writers reading and critiquing my story. Last night when I read the story I had created (been months since I wrote it) I felt giddy and smiled on the outside and shouted and jumped up and down inside. I liked what I read. I found a couple of places I needed to add some made a check and read on not feeling like throwing it or crying about it not being great. What a wonderful feeling. Think I may be able to pick my miserable attitude, mindset and constant feeling of failure and feeling like a fake when I told people I was a writer. Thanks so much for your timing and article.

    • Oh my. This has to be one of the most meaningful comments I’ve ever received. I’m so humbled and honored to have played even the smallest role in your finding your creative joy, in being moved again by what you’ve written. I’m delighted for you!

      Coincidentally, one of my dearest writing friends had this very thing happen to her. She’d written something she thought was going to be a romance, and subbed it and found nothing but rejection. Until she came upon an agent who told her… it was Women’s Fiction! She went back to revise it, adding depth and layers, and not only was the book a bit different. Her story as a writer changed quite a bit, too. She’s now well-published and highly respected, and one of my favorite authors (honest, not just because she’s a friend!).

      I’m beyond thrilled for you. Thank you so much for honoring me by letting me know. You’ve made my day. No week! Best wishes to you! Write on!

  • Your story sort of reminds me of Larry Brown, the author from Mississippi. He didn’t work in lumber; he was a fireman. He started writing stories and, I think like many of us, didn’t feel that he knew much about the technicalities you’ve mentioned, but he read, and read, and wrote and wrote, and asked for opinions/critiques, and got better and better. I don’t recall all the details of his publication journey, I just know Algonquin picked him up and the rest was history. He wrote quite a few books before he unfortunately passed away in 2004, in his early fifties. One was adapted into a movie recently (JOE) and the MC was played by Nicolas Cage.

    I don’t know a darn thing either. I just write, and read – a lot. You’re not alone in this way of thinking. Good luck with your trilogy!

  • I hadn’t heard Larry Brown’s story, Donna, so thanks for sharing it. Knock on wood, I’ve still got time, but I do often think that I need to get these darn things right and out there before my time to go arrives. 😉 I’d heard the story of fantasy author Terry Goodkind. He was a cabinetmaker and carpenter till his mid 40s, then while he and his wife built their dream getaway cottage in Maine, he started penning Wizard’s First Rule on the side. That’s pretty similar to my start. I was actually waiting for a concrete truck to pour a foundation for a porch I was building for a house I flipped when I first put carpenter’s pencil to jobsite notebook. It’s a hoot to look back at those story notes. They rough, but the seeds of my story world are so evident. And much in carpentry leaves time for the mind to wander into world-building.

    Yes, great plan. Let’s go the Nike way, and ‘just do it’ – read and write, a lot. Thanks for the great comment, and the well-wishes! Best to you and your work, as well!

  • Jay Jay

    “I have accepted that I must live within the question.” Thank you so much for this nugget of profound wisdom. If you are a kindergarten novelist, I am a nursery school novelist. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was ten years old, but I didn’t do anything about it until I was, well, AARP material.

    • There is beauty in kindergarten (or nursery school). We get to paint with our fingers. If we allow ourselves to be uninhibited, it’s very freeing, and we should embrace our newbie status. But, as for being AARP material (me, too), we also bring a boatload of life experience to the canvas.

      Kudos to you for keeping the dream alive. So yes, we live within the question. Now we have but to be both, Jay–uninhibited and experienced. I’m positive we’ll both get great results, if we stick with it. Thanks for letting me know. Here’s to late bloomers! Have a great weekend.

  • “I’m less fixated on its publishing marketability, and more on its worthiness in relation to my journey.”
    …No wisdom, eh? 😉
    Great post!