robot mode

I just want to be loved. Is that so wrong?

Jon Lovitz (as Harvey Fierstein), Saturday Night Live

Writing would be so much easier if we could only see it as a job to do: Go mop the floor. Go empty the trash can. Go polish the silverware. People love doing jobs, once they warm to the task—it’s human nature. Even if you’ve never mopped a floor before, you can tackle it, step by step:

  1. Find a mop.
  2. Find a bucket.
  3. Fill the bucket with warm, soapy water.
  4. Et cetera.

Now, go cut 250 words from chapter 6.

My kids and I recently discovered Helpsters, a puppet show on Apple’s new streaming platform. The premise is simple: the Helpsters help people break large goals into smaller tasks and then tackle them one at a time. It’s Problem-solving 101. Like critical thinking and statistics, problem-solving is a foundational skill that few of us are explicitly taught in school.

My ten-year-old son couldn’t stand how simplistic the show is, the way they explain how to systematically think things through. My five-year-old daughter and I, on the other hand, were enthralled. For her, it’s probably the puppets. For me, well, I struggle with systematically thinking things through. Those puppets really helped me. I need to be reminded on a daily basis of how simple it can be to just do the job, step by step. If you want to make a sandwich, you’re going to need some bread. So go get bread. What’s next? With that mindset, I can write anything.

Writing is problem-solving with words. Unfortunately, the psychic toll of potential rejection blinds us to that simple truth. Our egos get involved. If the material is flawed, we are flawed. Revising the work, we become Leonid Rogozov, the Soviet-era Russian doctor who performed a self-appendectomy while stationed in Antarctica. When we submit our finished work for someone else’s evaluation, it’s no longer our work, it’s us, naked and exposed. And if the work is rejected, we have been deemed unworthy by, it seems, the universe. No wonder sitting down to write can be a trial. We put ourselves on trial instead of the work.

If we can learn to look at writing a chapter like making a sandwich, things become very simple, very clear. In my recent interview on the Cool Tools podcast, Mark Frauenfelder and I talked about using checklists to break our days down into a series of manageable tasks. We assign work to ourselves. At any moment of the workday, all we have to do is tackle the next item on the list. Mark called this style of working “robot mode.” Robots have no ego. They mop the floor, make the sandwich, and, one day, edit the chapter.

I’ve rejected as an editor and I’ve been rejected as a writer (and then had the necessary personal relationships to find out why). Here’s the truth I’ve learned: It’s almost never for the reasons you fear. The aspects of your work that you’re self-conscious about, forget them. They didn’t even notice those things. If you found out the real reasons your work wasn’t accepted, you’d probably shrug. Most of the time, it’s due to factors outside your control, or factors you wouldn’t change even if you could. Usually, they just wanted something else.

Editors and agents add to the confusion. In an effort to be nice, they sometimes explain why they’re passing on a particular manuscript. Not with the real reasons, mind you, but with palatable ones intended to be helpful. Generic “shoulds” that had no real bearing on their decision to pass, and might end up sending you on a wild goose chase. In an effort to spare your feelings—and forestall any attempts to be won over—they muddy the waters. I’m guilty of doing this myself.

Stick to solving the problems you can identify, one by one. If a gatekeeper says they’d be willing to work with you once you make certain changes, sure, consider doing so—if those changes make sense to you. But if they’re passing on your work definitively, they have no skin in the game. Take their suggestions with a fist-sized chunk of salt. Better to work with a trusted friend or a pro on making further revisions.

Now go cut 250 words from chapter 6.