The Failure I Needed to Succeed as a Writer by Jan Karlo Lopez
by Writing Workshops Staff
A year ago
We're excited to share former student Jan Karlo Lopez's excellent short story "Heartbreak Heist", published this fall by OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters. We're also happy to publish Jan's personal essay on his journey as writer, which you can read below.
They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same process and expecting a different outcome. As a writer, how can you not be insane? I’m not referencing the imagination used to create these words of art but the fuel needed to succeed as a storyteller of any form in any field.
I started my descent into insanity early in life, as a preteen sitting in front of the family Compaq Presario desktop. Before the internet, before social media, before the distractions, I hacked away at my first attempt at a story; based on a stolen plot from a Goosebumps episode. It was my first time writing something that wasn’t assigned by a teacher. Throughout my academic career, up until my short stint in community college, my English teachers praised me and in high school, some requested parent-teacher conferences. I was a smart kid that made stupid decisions.
After graduation, there are no more deadlines or homework, only due dates for bills, and interest on late payments. Thanks to corporate America, I lost touch with my younger self but I tried to keep my creative habits. I stayed active by producing and recording music in my room. I occasionally wrote songs and choruses for some of the artists. Years later I would base my approach to writing on my experience with marketing and releasing music.
My first mentor at my second job at a record store put me onto self-help books and some random film student at my third job in a gun warehouse told me I should write scripts. From there I slowly fell back in love with literature. It didn’t happen overnight but happened, then I jotted a journal entry here, posted a personal blog there, and wrote my first short script. Nothing public. I didn’t release the majority of this material, some withered away with time, others aged like fine wine.
My first attempt at filming was the failure I needed to succeed as a writer. When I focused on writing I didn’t have to wait on an actor or worry about the lighting and audio. I didn’t have to wait on an artist, or producer. With writing, it’s only me and the blank screen. But I still hadn’t gone completely mad yet, I danced on the thin line and lost my balance but I still stayed on the sane side for the most part.
I wrote mostly about the feelings I couldn’t voice, or stories I couldn’t tell. I put my emotions in my characters and the worlds they live in. Sometimes I put my truths in their sins, other times I put my lies in them. My notebooks sat on my headrest, gathering dust in between entries. My rough drafts remained unedited. The files on my brothers’ laptop remained unfinished.
It wasn’t until my 30th birthday in 2020 at the start of the official lockdown that things changed indefinitely, not just for me, for everyone. I was deep on my first mushroom trip when I realized two things.
- I’m a great writer.
- None of it matters if no one reads it.
Like most Millennials I took to social media to vent and commit to releasing my first project, “No Happy Endings,” it was a collection of old and new material. It was my reintroduction as an official writer. The feedback I received was overwhelming and what I needed. Within six months, I released three more anthologies. Kick Door Galore, False Profit$, and Tales From The Cliff, donating all the profits.
This is where I came face to face with insanity during another mushroom trip. I could continue releasing my material, hoping somebody of importance reads it and takes it to the next level, while getting paid from the people who purchase my projects, but in reality, most of them don’t read the material, they do it to support me. Which is all appreciated.
Or, I can go completely insane and attempt to become a published writer. Joining other greats that went through hundreds of rejections before receiving an acceptance letter. Waiting years for manuscripts to be published and even more years for some, very few, to make the jump to the screen. If ever.
Never one to shy away from stupid decisions, I did the inevitable and settled with insanity by submitting my first short story.
As much as my process differs from others, essentially we are all the same. Submit, wait, rejection, submit, wait, rejection, submit, wait, rejection. It’s here where insanity fuels hope. That somewhere in between those tsunamis of submittals, the endless wait time, and consistent rejections, a piece gets accepted. Or at least that a rejection is accompanied with some feedback.
What could be more insane than awaiting validation on deep personal work from a stranger? And if the editor is well known? That rejection digs that much deeper.
As chaotic as the system may be, there is a way to build structure in the storm. As an emerging writer, I aim for smaller publications, mostly without a reading fee. Mainly because they must be bombarded with submissions and standing out in that sea is a confidence boost, and I did.
I’ve been lucky enough to have one piece published at the time of this writing because that’s the major factor when submitting. The writer has to be lucky for the reader to feel the same about their work and to feel that it is better than everything else submitted. Feelings factor in and feelings change like Texas weather.
That wait time can be dreadful but the easiest way to kill it is by creating more material. Become a factory of fables, a stable of stories, churn out work that can be edited later. It’s a numbers game, more material, more submissions. Seeds planted now can grow to be something different with time. Some stories get thrown in the trash, others get edited and updated and sprout to a full story. I don’t get too caught up in the rejection, or my one acceptance, while I waited for the piece to get published. It was still submit, wait, rejection, submit, wait, rejection.
I don’t write for money. If I did, I would’ve kept the profits from my online projects. I don’t do it to get published. I wasn’t even aware that someone without some sort of degree could get published until I took a writing workshop years ago. I write because I have to and because I’m great at it; the goal is to get better. Getting published is only a part of the path.
Jan Karlo Lopez is a pathological liar turned writer. His self-published short-story anthologies, No Happy Endings, Kick Door Galore, Tales From The Cliff, False Profit$, and most recently Noxious Norms have generated over a thousand dollars of revenue on GumRoad. All the profits have been donated to a foundation that buys shoes for underprivileged kids in the Oak Cliff community and to purchase items for teachers based in Oak Cliff schools. Needless to say, Jan Karlo is Oak Cliff born, raised, and a resident. He has been published in Open: Journal of Arts & Letters. Find Jan on Twitter and GumRoad.