Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Rob: 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 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.


  1. Wow! Congratulations. That is an incredible story and I expect Variant to be a remarkable read.

    My husband started me reading fantasy and I'm trying my hand at MY version of epic fantasy. We'll see how that turns out :P but I have to say it's fun.

  2. Sometimes we need to be happy we don't get what we wish for.


  3. Amen. It sucks not knowing the future—that's why we make plans. Life feels like running a race of unclear distance with an invisible finish line. But finish or not, you've surely passed a milestone. Allez, allez, allez!

  4. And to think I was cheering for your job search for all those months. So glad I get to cheer for your huge success instead. (I can truly say I knew you when. Come to think of it, even before "when.")

  5. Uh, you pounded out a draft of a novel in two weeks, and polished it in the next month and a half? What am I doing wrong?!

  6. Great post - I'm going to show it to a friend of mine. He just got laid off from a job he hated and he said maybe it's for the best because now he'd have time to write. I think this story will really cheer him up.

  7. Awesome. I'm a big believer in that whole - when one door closes, another one opens thing. Or is it a window? Well, however it goes, yeah. I like it. :)

  8. What a fantastic story. Looking forward to your books!

  9. I can definitely relate to this post.

    I graduated with a business degree in December of 2009. After not being able to find a job thanks to a limited visa, my parents supported me as I moved to California and wrote my book, Somewhere Over the Sun.

    Things haven't gone according to plan again, since I couldn't find an agent and had to self-publish in order to try to get a visa in time to stay in the country longer. That didn't work out either, but I have lots of faith in my book, in myself, and in how things will turn out.

    Congratulations on things not going according to plan! :)

  10. Can you tell us a little more about what to do (and what not to do) pitching a story at a con? I'm actually driving out to World Fantasy in Columbus in a couple weeks hoping to pitch my first novel, so any advice you might have would be much appreciated.

  11. bryguy - I'm not Robison, but thought I'd point you to these blog posts that has some great advice on "pitching" at a conference.



    Good luck!

  12. "Life is what happens when you're making plans."
    I agree. I had quit my jobs (3 of them - none in my field - graphic design) and taken a year off to spend time with my son. I, for some odd reason, got an idea for a story. I hadn't written anything in years and had no thoughts of becoming a writer. But I started to write. And it clicked. More than anything else ever had. And now five years later I'm working on my third novel.
    So you never know - I likely would have never written a thing if I had kept my fast-paced life. I'm there with you!

  13. What an uplifting story. Thanks for sharing, and best wishes for the future.

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