The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines perseverance as "continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition."
I don't usually check definitions, but I knew perseverance meant more than stubborn, even when I was confronted by the word for the first time. By the chair of the Department of Physical Sciences. My first week at college.
After attending his "demonstration lecture" during a College Week visit, I enrolled in the only undergraduate class Dr. Gelbaum taught. Instead of beginning with a review of what we should already know or a syllabus or rules, he opened with, "What is the most important characteristic of a math major?"
In the class of over a hundred students, surprisingly few hands went up.
"Intelligence." Helpful, but no.
"Memorization skill." No.
"A big coffee pot." Chuckle.
"Lack of fear." Closer.
When he'd called on all the raised hands, he looked at us and sighed. "No more hands? No more guesses?
"I asked you this question because you will never make it as a math major at this institution if you don't have perseverance."
A few gasps. One person got up and walked out of the lecture hall.
I wish I could remember all of the rest of his opening as well as the beginning, but here's what I remember.
“Perseverance makes other people think of you as stubborn, because you fail, then you try again. And again. And again. Not exactly the same thing, but you try to solve the problem in another way, with another tool. You work on the same problem for weeks, looking for a thread of logic that will unlock a solution or find a way to finesse a more elegant, shorter way to the answer.
“When you're in physics or German class, your mind wanders to the rough edges of a solution. When you're playing a game of pick-up basketball or sitting on your board out in the ocean surfing, an approach you haven't tried surfaces and you stop, look for paper and pencil and sketch out a new idea.
“When you fail a homework quiz because you couldn't make headway on just one out of the twenty problems and that was the one problem on the quiz. When you fail a test because there was a new kind of problem on it, one that forced you to analyze and synthesize what you've learned to create a whole new technique and you didn't have time to finish it once you figured out the approach. But you attend quiz sessions, visit your professor during office hours, and burn that proverbial midnight oil until you've figured out something new, something you'd never been able to do before, you are a math major.
“Because you have perseverance. When things get hard, when you don't understand what's going wrong, when you don't know how to make it better, you keep working on it. You find research. You talk to others. You read papers. You start and stop. You throw away a lot of attempts. But you keep following your dream, you keep working on your problem, because it's become the most important thing in your world and, eventually, you will solve that problem and present it to others to enjoy, to learn from, to build into the future.
"End of lecture. Read the first chapter in your textbook. Do all the problems that you can't."
Dr. Gelbaum's first lecture coalesced everything I needed to hear and remember about perseverance. And it gave me a very important word for my adulthood. I persevered and got that math degree, then a master's. I persevered in my career as a mathematician.
And when I decided to write, I persevered when a friend read my first book and offered the name of a writers' group I should join. Every time I receive a chapter back from one of my critique partners, I persevere and edit words that need some finesse, even though they were the best words I could think of at the time. When my editor tells me my character arcs aren't strong enough, I go back and analyze what is missing, then I synthesize a solution.
To be successful, writers need every characteristic mentioned by Dr. Bernard Gelbaum. We have to persevere in the face of all the changes in the publishing industry. We have to persevere just to finish a book that has a chance of being bought by readers who are hungry for our stories. We have to persevere and market our work so readers can find us. All while life swirls around us.
But if we can juggle all that's necessary, if we push through every rejection, every less-than-five-star review, every time we don't think we can make a deadline, that perseverance muscle gets stronger. And we're better for it. We soldier on.
We know that we can do anything. Be anything. And we are. Writers.
How have you soldiered on—in your writing life or in life? What character trait helps you the most to get through the times that make you willing to quit and give up your dreams?
Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.
I had no idea what I was going to write about this month. I felt like I'd done it all. Then I read Jenny's post from Brené Brown (If you haven't read it, it's HERE). #7 hit me in the heart. See, I'd forgotten. Vulnerability is my super-power.
I went through a pretty traumatic childhood and then bad decisions on my part left me with thick armor. At one point in my life, I was afraid of good things happening, because I thought the Universe wanted balance, and that meant something bad was coming. Yeah, sad, I know.
My natural buoyancy pulled me out of the sludge. I'm not special; no one gets through life without being battered, besieged and challenged. I mention it only to give context.
This is about being open, laying out what you have to say on the page. I've heard writers who were afraid to write what was in their heart, for fear of what family and friends would think. Hell, what perfect strangers would think! (Because that's what reviews are, right?) I get their fear. I really do.
But think back, to when you first decided to write. What did you choose to write? I don't care if you wrote Paranormal, Rom Com, Sci-fi, or end-of-the-world dystopian--I know one thing. Deep down in the conflict of that work, you were writing what was in your heart. Genre doesn't matter—that's just how our brain chooses to cover our heart's exposure.
I'm here to challenge you to open yourself. Lay yourself bare in your writing. Strip off the mask we all wear. Why?
- Because you want to. Dig deep—you know it's true.
- Because that's the best writing you'll ever do.
- Because that's why readers read—they want to connect, on an emotional level with other humans. Here's proof. What books are on your keeper shelf? I'll bet if you were to look, you could tell me what each book meant to you—what chord it touched in your heart.
- Because readers will love and respect you for it. Our heroes are, after all, those who risked it all, in spite of the dangers and the odds. Right?
- Because it's good for your soul, putting out your truth out there in black and white that will exist after you're gone. But also because, when people tell you your work touched them, it's the hand clasp you needed when you wrote it. We all need those. The world needs those. Desperately.
This is a risk. It's scary. Believe me, I know.
I wrote a book to my sister, my soul-mate, whom I lost at 32 to cancer. There is nothing autobiographical about Days Made of Glass, but the bond between the two sisters is one I shared with Nancy. I had to wait 15 years until I thought I was good enough to write it. I opened my heart and spilled the contents on the page. I couldn't do anything less and do the book, and my sister, justice.
And guess what? That book is the highest rated of any I ever wrote. I had readers contact me, and tell me what it meant to them.
Isn't that why we write?
Go. Be brave. Be vulnerable. I promise you it'll be worth it.
Have you risked being vulnerable in your writing?
Have I convinced you to try?
Shared blood defines a family, but spilled blood can too.
Harlie Cooper raised her sister, Angel, even before their mother died. When their guardian is killed in a fire, rather than be separated by Social Services, they run. Life in off the grid in L.A. isn’t easy, but worse, there’s something wrong with Angel.
Harlie walks in to find their apartment scattered with shattered and glass and Angel, a bloody rag doll in a corner. The doctor orders institutionalization in a state facility. Harlie’s not leaving her sister in that human warehouse. But something better takes money. Lots of it.
When a rep from the Pro Bull Riding Circuit suggests she train as a bullfighter, rescuing downed cowboys from their rampaging charges, she can’t let the fact that she’d be the first woman to attempt this stop her. Angel is depending on her.
It’s not just the danger and taking on a man’s career that challenges Harlie. She must learn to trust—her partner and herself, and learn to let go of what’s not hers to save.
A story of family and friendship, trust and truth.
by Jenny Hansen
Over the last year or so, I've shared "Top 10" lists from several amazing people on the topics of writing and success. And, I've got to confess it: these last few months have been incredibly challenging for me and I'm not feeling very successful.
I don't know who you turn to when you need courage and a re-boot, but for me it's Brené Brown. When I'm feeling beat down by life, nothing perks me up like hearing from a gal who researches shame and vulnerability.
The millions of views on her TED talks tell me I'm not alone.
Here are some of my favorite quotes from Brené Brown, on success and living a whole-hearted life:
1. Don't be a perfectionist.
"When perfectionism is driving, shame is always riding shotgun and fear is the annoying backseat driver."
She believes we struggle with perfectionism in areas where we feel most vulnerable to shame. We give ourselves the subliminal message that, "If I look perfect, live perfect, work perfect, I can avoid or minimize criticism, blame and ridicule."
Think on this, y'all. The next time you push for perfection. Since it's born in fear, it is the direct opposite of creativity. Perfectionism keeps you from being seen. And we all want to be seen.
Have the courage to be imperfect.
2. Be brave. Show up.
"It's not about winning. It's not about losing. It's about showing up and being seen." The one sure thing about this, according to Brene, is "when you step into the arena of being creative, you will get your ass kicked."
We can write anything as long as we show up to the page. And often, we will get our asses kicked. Showing up is an act of great courage. Some days, showing up is the only courageous thing we do as writers.
Showing up is always the first step. If you're showing up, I am proud of you.
3. Connection is why we're here.
"In the absence of love and belonging, there is always suffering."
True belonging is not just about having a tribe, although that is important, it is also about belonging to yourself. YOU are enough, just the way you are.
4. Set boundaries.
What is okay and what is not okay? This is the simple view Brown takes on boundaries. When people allow behavior that is not okay, they are resentful. Resentful people aren't happy. Period.
She uses the acronym of B.I.G. - What Boundaries need to be in place for me to stay in my integrity and make the most generous assumptions about other people.
“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”
She believes that creatives are the worst about boundaries because they are afraid to put value on their work. They are afraid to charge for it, because it is a piece of you and you are stating, "Me and my talent are worth it."
5. Believe in your self-worth.
"Stop walking through the world looking for evidence that you are not enough. Because you are going to find it! It's something that we need to carry internally in our own wild hearts."
Brown encourages every person to see their own value and love themselves first.
6. Discuss failure.
"Talk about your failures without apologizing."
Most people are terrified of failure. Their biggest terror is public failure. What could be more public than writing, at least if you plan to publish what you write?
Brown loves a quote from Theodore Roosevelt, often called the "Man in the Arena" quote:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Dare greatly, my friends.
Do you remember that our own Laura Drake was rejected more than 400 times before she published? Jack London's Call of the Wild was rejected more than 900 times. Kathryn Stockett's book, The Help, was rejected 60 times before it finally sold millions and was turned into a movie.
Dare as greatly as you can.
7. Embrace vulnerability.
"The biggest myth about vulnerability is that it is weakness. People were raised to believe that to be vulnerable and exposed is to be weak." Brown argues that vulnerability is all about strength.
"Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage."
She believes vulnerability is the birthplace of so many positive emotions:
We have to yank emotions and ideas out of ourselves and ask others to look at them (and offer an opinion). What could be more vulnerable, and more courageous, than that?
8. Get rid of negativity.
The first person you must be positive about it yourself.
“Talk to yourself like you would to someone you love.” Shame runs a couple of negative tracks in most people's heads: What are you doing and You are not worthy.
Get off that track! “When you get to a place where you understand that love and belonging, your worthiness, is a birthright and not something you have to earn, anything is possible.”
Brown believes we should also surround ourselves with people who are positive, about themselves and us.
“I carry a small sheet of paper in my wallet that has written on it the names of people whose opinions of me matter. To be on that list, you have to love me for my strengths and struggles.”
9. Offload shame.
You will never be able to be positive and kind about yourself until you offload shame. “Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.”
She wishes that, instead of telling kids to strive for perfection, we told them this: “You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.”
10. Embrace your story.
“You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story & hustle for your worthiness.”
Own your story. Be authentic in its telling.
Brown believes: “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”
“If you trade your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.”
Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston who has spent two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. Her books include: The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, Braving the Wilderness, and Dare to Lead. She believes you must walk through vulnerability to get to courage, therefore . . . embrace the suck.
Is there a quote above that stands out to you? Do you have another quote to share down in the comments? Who do you run to for inspiration when you're feeling battered by life?
* * * * * *
About Jenny Hansen
By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 20+ years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.
Everyone judges a book by its cover, and that judgment happens in two seconds or less on the internet these days. That’s it. In two seconds your cover icon must grab the reader and hook them into wanting to learn more by clicking. That’s a lot of heavy lifting in a very small space.
What that means is all the tiny details in your artwork mean absolutely nothing. They won’t even be noticed, and that’s a good thing! You can stop sweating the small stuff and instead focus on the important bits that will get the right reader to click on your cover.
Before you get busy designing, or hiring a designer, keep in mind these tips for what makes a good cover.
A good cover is not:
1. A representation of every plot point in the story.
In fact, there’s no need to represent any of the plot points. The plot of the story doesn’t matter. The type of story (genre…get specific) and tone of the story do.
2. A factual representation of how the main characters actually look.
Unless the fact that the girl has blonde hair is integral to the plot (only blondes get to be President, let's say), it really doesn’t matter if the model on the cover has the specific shade you envision. Most people won’t notice or remember what was pictured on the cover once they start reading.
3. A chance to show off every subplot in graphic form.
There is no need to put the safe from chapter one, the gun from chapter three, the ladder from chapter twelve, the three love interests, the main character, a winding road and a full moon with a hint of cloud, and a dozen trees with signs on them onto the cover. Something like that tells the reader that this author does not know how to edit. If the cover looks that convoluted, how could the story possibly be good?
A good cover is:
1. A hook.
A good cover is an attractive tease that entices the reader to click and find out more. Simple is key here. When you look at the cover at icon size, the genre (Romance, Mystery, Fantasy) should be immediately clear. Ideally, your name will be legible. If done right, the title will be visible, but it’s not vital. It’s the overall image that will get them to click, not the words.
A side note about the genre: Pick one. Just one. This story will have to go on a digital shelf. If you can’t focus on one genre, then you don’t know your customer well enough yet. Go back and think about how and where they look for books like yours. Study what keywords they type in, what aisle in the bookstore they linger over. The story can’t be all things to all people. It must be the right thing for the right person.
2. A promise.
A good cover is a contract with the reader that this story fits in the genre they’re looking for.
If you’re writing a thriller, the cover should broadcast that. Don’t put a couple staring longingly into each other’s eyes on the cover if it’s not a romance. If you do, you’ll get romance readers picking up the book and then throwing it at the wall when they discover you lied to them. This is why narrowing in on the exact genre is so important.
3. A marketing tool.
A good cover is an icon that will drive all of your marketing efforts going forward. When you step into the wild world of advertising, you’ll use the cover and the background art of the cover on everything from your website to Facebook Ads to BookBub Featured Deals (if you’re lucky). It’s important that the cover connect with the right reader…the one who would love your story.
A Case Study
There’s nothing like making a few mistakes to teach you what works and what doesn’t. For example, let’s take a look at the first cover I designed for my book Stronger Than Magic.
At first glance, this cover gives the impression of high fantasy because of the title and the use of a large symbol over a moody background. The problem is, Stronger Than Magic is urban fantasy, not high fantasy. So what should it have looked like? After taking a casual stroll around the internet, the urban fantasy genre features covers like this:
Most urban fantasy has the protagonist on the cover. Usually the mood is darker in color and tone, the texture is rich, and there’s a hint of magic (special effects such as sparkles, glowing swords, spooky fog, that sort of thing).
My first cover didn’t have any of that really. Sure, it was pretty. But it set the expectation of an epic hero’s journey in an archaic land filled with magic runes and such (because of the symbol). Instead, my story has a protagonist from our modern day who loves to hang out at a coffee shop in Philadelphia and who wields elemental power, but not a wand or sword. Hers is not an epic hero’s journey--it’s a coming to grips with magic in our modern world story.
It doesn’t do me any good to have artwork that stands out from the rest in the wrong way. It needs to fit within my genre tropes in order for it to be a successful marketing tool.
Here’s the new cover, with all the previous points in mind:
Now the high fantasy reader will know right away this story is not for them, while the urban fantasy reader will, hopefully, click. It has a city in the background to tell you this is modern, not archaic. It has a protagonist on the cover, obviously controlling the element of water. I kept the symbol, but it’s a background, not center stage. It does make the cover stand out, but overall it’s more in line with all the other covers in the urban fantasy genre.
Obviously, every genre has its standard tropes for cover art, but once you do a little bit of investigating it’s easy enough to see what those are. The smart marketer uses those tropes to their advantage. No matter who actually designs your cover, keep these tips in mind and you’ll have a great marketing tool.
Melinda VanLone writes urban fantasy, freelances as a graphic designer, and dabbles in photography. She currently lives in Florida with her husband and furbabies. When she's not playing with her imaginary friends, you can find Melinda playing World of Warcraft, wandering aimlessly through the streets taking photos, or hovered over coffee in Starbucks.
We’ve all read books with page after page of backstory. Okay, we’ve all skimmed books with page after page of backstory. We likely have even some of those books ourselves. Where does that extra verbiage come from, and why do we put it in?
There is an easy answer. Excess backstory is the visible evidence of we writers telling ourselves our stories. That backstory is there for us, not for our readers. It is the evidence of the sausage being made, and it is drawn from the period of time when our ideas are taking shape. Put simply, when we don't know what we're writing about before we write it, backstory is a dead giveaway.
I know what you’re thinking. . . . One more blog on the virtues of plotting.
No. This is about the virtues of forethought and how that forethought naturally eliminates undue backstory in our manuscripts.
But I’m a pantser! My story must be free to unfold at will and unfettered by the bondage of forethought!
Forethought this: Writing is an art, but publishing is a business. Any successful business requires forethought.
We all write for different reasons:
- Therapy—because it’s easier than talking
- Therapy—because we love words
- Therapy—because we’re unemployed
- Therapy—because writing is the closest thing we have to talking to adults while we care for our babies
- Therapy—because stories are swirling inside our heads and must get out
- Therapy—because a world where we don’t write is simply inconceivable
- And some of us write for therapy.
Regardless of our reasons, forethought is our most powerful tool for shaping a story and actually getting it on the page.
To be clear, when I talk about forethought, I’m not necessarily talking about plotting.
I’m talking about people. The characters. Also, for all of the sci-fi folks, I'm talking about world building. I recommend that sci-fi writers read through this article a second time and exchange the word “characters” for “world building” so that pages aren't wasted telling us how the planet was formed in the belly of a lizard and coughed out in the hairball of the cat that ate the lizard on the night the cat was locked out of the house because it had gotten mad when its owner ran out of soft food and only gave it hard food so it had peed on its owner's clean laundry. In other words, to naturally eliminate backstory, sci-fi folks need to know characters and the world before diving into a story.
The single best way to eliminate backstory for our readers is to know our characters and our world inside and out before we write the first draft. That prevents us from having to tell ourselves our stories when we should be telling them to our readers.
- How old are they when the book starts?
- What do they look like?
- Where were they born?
- Where did they grow up?
- Did they go to school? Where?
- What is their religion? Do they believe it, practice it, play along with it, or reject it?
- What were their relationships with their parents?
- What were their parents’ occupations and educational levels?
- Who was their first love? How did it end?
- What were the watershed events in their lives, and how did our characters change because of these events?
- How did they meet the other characters?
- What are they afraid of?
- What are their inner conflicts?
- What are their emotional wounds? How did they get those wounds? How old were they at the time?
- What do they want?
- Who is keeping them from getting what they want?
- Absolutely anything else we can ask ourselves about our characters.
In other words, we don’t just need to know our serial killer, Terrell, is a psychopath. We need to understand exactly how Terrell became a psychopath, what sort of a psychopath he is, and why he is where he is when the book starts.
I recommend answering this list of questions for the antagonist, the minions, the protagonist, the love interest, the allies, the mentors, and anyone other character who has more than twenty lines in the book.
So how does knowing all of this about my characters minimize my backstory?
The answer is summed up in a quote from Hemingway. “You could omit anything if you knew that you omitted, and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” In other words, we can leave out anything as long as we know what we are leaving out.
This is twice-true with backstory. So we must know our backstory, in order to leave it out. On the other hand, if we DO know it, we don’t feel compelled to put it in. We can focus on telling our story to our readers, instead.
As an added bonus, when we know our characters, they will tell us our plot.
We never have to wonder what’s going to happen next, because our characters will behave in characteristic fashion. We avoid moments of “Oh, no! What is Frida going to do now that Gomez has left her?” Easy. We can look at Frida’s character profile and let Frida do Frida. If Frida’s a whiny brat, she will whine about losing Gomez. If she has anger management issues, she will hunt down Gomez and run over him with her car. If we know our characters, our plot is less likely to stall or leave us hanging.
Let me reassure you of this method with a little of my own backstory. My first manuscript SUCKED. No, seriously. It sucked with capital letters. My editor spent five hours (count ’em—five) on the phone telling me just how bad it sucked. That manuscript is now being used for enhanced interrogations at Guantanamo, and no one has lasted past page twenty-five without spilling the goods on their own mother. The US Navy sends me thank you notes and cookies for my birthday each year.
Out of 157,000 words (really) I threw out all but five—a, and, the, but, or—and I started over by getting to know my characters.
When I sat down to re-write the book, I discovered something. I naturally left out everything except the actual story. It was an epiphany. As a result, I have a far better story. That book became my debut dystopian thriller, Firelands.
Once I knew my characters' stories, I didn't have to spend the whole book figuring them out. It makes all the difference.
What are your issues with backstory? Do you develop your characters before you write?
Piper Bayard is an author and a recovering attorney with a college degree or two. She is also a belly dancer and a former hospice volunteer. She has been working daily with her good friend Jay Holmes for the past decade, learning about foreign affairs, espionage history, and field techniques for the purpose of writing fiction and nonfiction. She currently pens espionage nonfiction and international spy thrillers with Jay Holmes, as well as post-apocalyptic fiction of her own.
Visit Piper and Jay at their site, BayardandHolmes.com. For notices of their upcoming releases, subscribe to the Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing. You can also contact Bayard & Holmes at their Contact page, on Twitter at @piperbayard, on Facebook at Piper Bayard or Bayard & Holmes, or at their email, BH@BayardandHolmes.com.