The Post About The Shift

As I promised here, I’ve noticed a both intended and unintended substantial change I’ve made over the last few months. I suppose it’s been percolating for years, but because I’m often slow about absorbing or accepting ideas when they pertain to or affect me, I’m only just seeing it now.

Way back when, I was, bluntly, a mess. I was a dishonest, manipulative, arrogant, obnoxious bully of a guy. I can write that off to unchecked mental illness or addiction, but I don’t entirely want to excuse it. I saturated and perpetuated a climate where I was encouraged to stay not-nice, because it was easier to be a death metal porcupine with flaming quills than anything sensitive, empathetic, or sincere. That stuff was scary, because honesty always carries with it a pile of potential rejection or judgment.

Granted, yes, being a complete dick carries judgment and rejection, but I very artfully was able to say that was the fault of other people. How dare they not want to hang out or love or get to know the guy who treated them like shit! What was so wrong with them, because clearly John-in-his-20s was perfect.

I would love to say that this shift away from that trash-human was all due to sobriety, but I think the roots of this shift come from three elements: the sobriety, the people I put around myself after I realized how important happiness was, the material I chose to put my focus on instead of where it was before.

So let’s break this down.

The Sobriety
It’s undeniable that getting off booze, pills, and the wealth of poisons I was stuffing into my body played a huge role in how I lived. Sure, it revealed some way-less-than-great health issues that have some serious and big-time consequences, but between one thousand one hundred and thirteen days ago (at the time of this writing) and today, I am less engaged in efforts to actively kill myself because I’m angry at the world for not giving me enough love or success or attention or validation, like it’s all portion controlled and not the all-you-can-plate buffet that I’ve come to discover it is. I didn’t want to do the work of going out and asking or seeking those things I needed because I thought I wouldn’t get them, and when it became apparent to me that I had just as much right as the person next to me to be happy and cared about, this big personality and productivity and professional shift began. Sadly, I don’t remember the exact moment that switch was flipped, but I can ballpark it to a particular week and roughly say it was snowing that day, based on my recollections.

I’d be dead by now if I wasn’t sober. Period. Full stop. I am proud of my efforts, I have zero doubts that it was the right thing to do, even though the path to get me there wasn’t the easiest and along the way I had to change along the way. The clarity of mind and the appreciation for being alive matters in a way that’s greater than blog follower count, or client list, or bank account. I can grow and improve anything now that I’m not actively playing a part in my own destruction.

The People I Put Around Myself After I Realized How Important Happiness Was
Okay, let’s go back to me being a dick in my 20s and even my early 30s. I had friends. I had some good friends. I may have treated them poorly, we may have treated each other poorly, but this is where my life was. It wasn’t about being happy because I’d helped people (like now) it was about getting happiness in the misery of others to create some paradigm that I get my jollies from knocking other people down. It’s not healthy. I am zero percent proud of what I did and said back then.

Even after sobriety I didn’t know any other group of people to cluster towards, and I admit I did myself very few favors moving through the orbits of people back then. I was trying to make good and smart and healthy choices without recognizing that it’s hard to find them when you’re not seeing the red flags.

I discounted happiness as I thing I qualified for because I thought I had to atone for living poorly. I thought that these people around me would provide that happiness just because I was around, but my silence about how I felt and what I wanted didn’t clue them in that there was a thing to address. That’s on me. They’re people, so they’ve got their own issues, but I can only be responsible for myself.  I gotta put on my oxygen mask before I can help somebody else with theirs.

So, after painfully extricating myself from groups of people who I never meshed with the way I wanted, I floundered a little. I felt like that grape that sits at the bottom of the package – it’s not part of the cluster, but it’s not an inedible grape even though it gets overlooked because it’s not part of the cluster.

The best advice I can give to someone when they feel like that grape is that the only way you’re going to get different results is to take different action. And yes, you need to accept that the new action has risks to it, but that’s the cost for taking it. I took risks.

Okay wait, that makes it sound like I went skydiving into a volcano. I didn’t. I mean I started talking to new people. It only felt like skydiving into a volcano.

Here’s where I start name-checking people.

Bar none, the best improvement I made to my life was letting good people who legitimately care about me help me go forward one day and one action at a time. I would be completely and totally lost without Jessica Pruneda. She is at once my sherpa, my confidante, the kindest and best human source of compassion and caring I’ve ever met, and someone I am deeply pleased to go through life with. Also, she makes sure I do things like nap and drink water and not lose my shit. Her fondness for tacos also makes lunchtime a treat. I cannot say enough good things about her, even though she blushes super hyper easily and will totally deny most of it. She’s amazing.

Without Jeremy Morgan, Matt Jackson, and Mark Richardson, my life would be missing some of its crucial colors and scope (Cinemascope, the best of all Scopes, take that peri-!). They make me laugh and think and encourage me everyday. They make it easier. They’re awesome.

I cannot understate how crucial it is to do the tough act of looking at the people and habits you surround yourself with if you’re not getting what you want from life. Whether that means business or personally or casually or creatively, the climate you osmose affects your work and life. Tricky here is the idea that it’s not their fault if you need to change things. Nor is it a complete sign that you’re doomed to suck, it’s just a thing you need to change to do better, be better, and go forward. It’s fixable.

Happiness is vitality. It isn’t this thing you earn or work up to like trading in tickets at some prize counter, it’s a kind of lifeblood all its own, and despite what angry or loud people will holler on the internet, there’s nothing wrong with you that you don’t deserve to be happy. And other people can be happy concurrent to your happiness even and especially with the things making them happy aren’t the same as the things that make you happy.

People can contribute to your happiness, but you can’t expect them to fill the tank. It’s not all on them to be your everything-resource. Tough lesson, but worth it.

The Material I Chose To Put My Focus On
Before you can affect a change in yourself, you have to first accept that you’re a product of the environment and scaffolding you’ve built around your day-to-day life. If you’ve built an echo chamber, if you are only steeped in one particular avenue of thought or action, then what you’re doing and thinking is only going to show the hallmarks of that influence. We all do this.

Sometimes, this isn’t an issue, because the people and thoughts around us elevate and illuminate us. Sometimes though, it’s building sycophancy and perpetuating codependence.

For me, I put media and content around me that was disguised as intellectual or provocative, but was really no different than the stuff I was spewing in my 20s. It had some new window dressing, it had all new jargon, but it was still … people treating each other poorly under the guise of “educating” or “correcting” them, a position that no one appointed them to, and a position that wasn’t actually doing anyone any favors.

It stopped being funny or interesting to hear the same tired opinions or outrage or jokes. The horses were dead and beaten. It was time to move on, and when these other people didn’t, that meant it was time for me to go.

I found Movies With Mikey. I found Epic Rap Battles of History. I found the WWE Network. I stopped listening to angry dudes and ladies making mountains out of molehills. I started checking out people making stuff that was fundamentally not about how awful things were and how good things could be. Not counting the shirtless guys hitting each other with chairs. That’s more nostalgia.

It was a simple thing, to prune the Youtube subscriptions, to cull the blogs I read, and find new outlets. I asked this question – Is this bringing information and giving me something I can take away, or is this something I’m watching because I find the emotional outburst attractive?

It’s a question about whether or not I want to be actively engaged in checking out material or passively checking out because I’m checking out an echo chamber different than the one I just left.

You add all these things up: the decisions and the people and the thinking, and you can track me moving towards being a different John. The tweetstorms began to add in elements of motivation, I blogged less because I was focusing on learning how to do things in new ways and more ways that reinforce the vector I’m on. I started a Patreon as one more place to put out content where I could speak when typing didn’t cover all the bases I wanted.

In the very near future, over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to start talking about and sharing interviews and experiences I’ve given and had this year where I think (and hope) you’ll see this changed me.

I can’t twist your arm and make you see it, all I can do it is be that guy and do the best I can every day.

Thanks for reading this, I really appreciate it. Happy creating.

The Messy Filing Cabinet

Next to the left leg of the table that I use as an office desk, there’s a two-drawer filing cabinet. It’s littered with magnets. There’s a Thoreau quote. There’s a whole pack of that magnetic poetry and two buttons that reference clutter, genius, and being underpaid. Some of this stuff has been on these drawers so long I can’t remember where I bought them or when.

In short, it’s one more overlooked and underused part of the office.

Hold on to your seats, we’re going deep in today’s blogpost. SEO be damned, we’re on some personal tracks today. All aboard the John-train, destination: realizationville.

I have this habit, and if you’re a long time reader of the blog you can guess this, this habit where I get really great plans for stuff then barely follow through in the way I intended or hoped for. Sure, we can all write this off as the results of living with mental illness or actively sabotaging myself on a regular basis, but I’ve come to think of this as my looking for a best-fit. Best-fit is important to me: I was a kid who didn’t feel like he fit in anywhere, and I’m an adult who doesn’t think he easily fits in to categories about expertise and job description and experiences.

So back to this double drawer. It’s the best fit for the space under the table. There’s maybe a quarter inch of space between the top of the drawer and the bottom of the table. It fits, it belongs there, I don’t give it a second thought.

Again, no surprise for the long time readers, I have had a life with some twists and turns, and I’ve documented them, as both an effort to salvage-stroke my ego when appropriate, but also as a way to render toothless the venomous serpents and snarling beasts before me. In those two drawers, I dumped things. Things I fully intended to use later, things I wish I felt good enough or smart enough to say “Oh yes, I have these things here in my drawer, one moment please” but more often than not, the drawers became a graveyard for things that are best kept behind whatever metal this is.

I’ve recently come back from a trip, a week away from the house, and I spent a lot of time on this trip reading books about improving my mindset, dealing with self image, successful principles and maxims, as well as finding your purpose. Usually these books are in some way masturbatory (not like that), I mean that I read them so I can say I’m making some effort to improve myself, but it’s very detached: I read, but I don’t apply. Or more like I won’t apply until something takes me right to a precipice where my status quo is going to radically be affected … then after that I’ll change, and I’ll be all enthusiastic, but that just becomes the new status quo.

Are you seeing this? Does this sound familiar? Am I putting words to a thing in your life? Or is this a guy writing out a stream of thoughts because he doesn’t know what else to do with himself, and he’s too tired to clear off the bed?

Right, the drawers. Last night I came home from 13 hours of travel and saw the state of the room and felt like I was coming back from this great experience to a soiled oasis. This is my office, this chair and this creaky old table are where I connect to people and share work and share passion … and it seemed like this corner of this room was just the sewage treatment plant for a city best remembered in a Springsteen song.

It was more than just dusty, it was cluttered and heavy with everything. It didn’t fit me anymore. It isn’t how I wanted things to be. It had to change. No precipice. No imminent radical upheaval. I was just sick of there being two drawers of shit in the corner of a room.

Out comes the last giant trashbag in the house (something poetic about that). And I start filling. I pull open the first drawer, and sort it out. Then the second drawer. No drug paraphernalia, but here’s SOME of what I found:

  • An empty box of condoms that I neither remember buying or ever using.
  • A note inside said box of condoms about a series of blogposts about Plot (more on that in a second)
  • Three halves of three different mobile phones I’ve had
  • A bottle of long-expired horny goat weed that I remember vaguely getting as a freebie from a job I had 15 years ago
  • A small plastic box of pen caps, three WCW Nitro trading cards, and a keychain from Borders bookstores
  • Eight DVDS (and assorted notes) from seminars on building confidence that I am very deeply ashamed that I ever spent money on (more on that in a second too)
  • A broken Neti Pot
  • Two web cams, their cords and plugs removed
  • Three credit card bills for cards I no longer have, all from at least 4 years ago
  • A pile of discharge paperwork from various colleges that no longer requested my attendance (they were in a folder labelled “Fuck ’em”)
  • A half-completed application for information regarding becoming a private detective
  • A page of notes I wrote when I was high all about how I wanted to lose thirty pounds and start making YouTube videos with fancy graphics to talk about writing
  • A page of notes explaining how I should beg, borrow, and steal the equipment and software necessary to make those videos
  • A page of notes about how to quickly lose weight without tapeworms, self-harm, or crossfit (my solution was apparently saunas because women in towels … again, I was really high)
  • An aborted note to myself about how I should throw the lamp out the window because it never worked (I did get rid of the lamp when I got clean)
  • A stack of business cards in a folder labelled “Scary”, these cards are all from companies and people who I to this day am still intimidated by, even though I know them and have been paid by them to do work

Basically, it was two drawers of shit living in the corner of a room that I “filed” (can’t make the airquotes bigger) away to be forgotten, rather than acted on.

And now it’s in a bag at the top of my stairs (I’m gonna need help getting it out to the curb), and what’s in the drawers now?

  • My business card holder, all nicely filed
  • Eleven boxes of pens
  • Six packs of notecards
  • A mini 3-hole punch
  • The VIP pass I got when I saw Dave Matthews in concert
  • Three of the six portable hard drives I use to catalog my creativity

That’s it. My past sits in a bag at the top of the stairs, I can’t even see it from where I’m sitting in this chair. It’ll sit there until it goes out to the curb, and then it’ll be gone. I can’t think of a better way to signal that I changed something without having to have someone threaten to leave me or that I was ruining a life or that I was a disappointment or that I was bankrupting them emotionally and financially.

I got tired of cluttered drawers, and I did something about it. All me. By myself. Took maybe twenty minutes of effort to open drawers, make a pile, sort pile, and dispose of it.

So I’m sitting here now, writing one of the longest blogposts I have in months, and I feel better. I feel good, even. Like this is the way the books I’m reading about self image and goals and success are supposed to make you feel. Fuck you clutter, I’m succeeding!

I’m sorry if my life has derailed a lot of the ambitious plans I set out. I would hate to think that’s the definition people have of me, that I’m the guy who starts like a bat out of hell then quickly calms away to an occasional breeze. Hey look, I just cleaned these two drawers and realized that my passion and on a greater scale, who I am and how I identify as a creative was cluttered up too.

Cluttered up in expectations, in panicked “reality checks” where I talk myself out of attempting things for irrational reasons, in fear of rejection, in fear of losing control of the rudder that steers me so that I don’t go back to the paranoia and depression, in fear of losing what makes me me, even if I’m never really sure who that is unless I’m writing about being passionate and being brave and being good when it’s not easy.

I don’t know if any of this reaches you. I don’t know if this matters to you. Maybe this one’s just for me. And I’m way more okay with whatever the answer is.

I want to end with a quick note: Part of that trip that had me hours away from the house, and reading all these books was that I finally took the big professional risk of having Noir World recorded on One Shot, as well as giving a really candid and intense interview for Talking Tabletop. The game was great (it was a new experience for me, I don’t think I actually did a lot of talking, and yeah, I’m shocked too), and I think the interview was maybe me at my most honest and sincere. I’m excited for you to hear them both.  (Other note: Save some bucks for March, Noir World’s gonna go to Kickstarter then)

Thanks for reading this long blast of thoughts. I hope you found in it something to take away, even if you’re just shocked about the amount of shit a person can pack into two small drawers.

Go create, be happy, and don’t you ever give up. We’ll talk real soon, I’ve got this whole page of notes on Plot blogposts that I need to decode and write for you…so that’ll be fun.

The Intersection of Knowledge and Skill

The bag of onions was only $1.99. Which doesn’t make sense to me, because there are like 19 onions in it, each about the size of a tennis ball. But it’s 9:15 on a Sunday morning, and there’s a three pound chuck roast needing onions and au jus, so I go to the store.

It’s empty, the sort of empty that should only exist in movies and video games where there’s going to be something terrible happening once I get just a bit more inside the building. Maybe evil cannibals, maybe zombies, maybe ravenous nomadic clowns. But there’s nothing bad that happens. I come away from the store with a single bag of goods – the onions fumbling around the bottom of the bag.

It’s 9:38 when I started writing this post. With luck, it’ll go up later today, before I go to bed. I really don’t want to delay it to Tuesday, I’m worried that the freshness of the ideas will have faded, and it’ll be some stale sludge of ideas, like old coffee you’ve forgotten to purge from the machine.

On mornings like this, I am aware of just how much of life can be described as a series of intersections. There’s an irony here apparent to anyone who’s ever been in a car with me — I get lost incredibly easily, even on streets I drive regularly — so for me to talk about the meeting of two asphalt ribbons it’s amusing.

Intersections like the lives of two people meeting. Or a job in a field you’ve got a degree in. Or the moment where you realize you actually put together a piece of furniture and didn’t have any pieces left over. Two concepts, two items, two people, crossing paths. There’s a reason why we consider crossroads to be an important part of life, because at crossroads (intersections) we become aware of a choice to make – do I do this, and possibly change course, or do I skip the change, skip the potential good or bad that might happen, and keep doing as before? (Let’s skip the quantum discussion that interacting with the potential opportunity for change is in itself a change that will have effects on action, it’s a rabbit hole for another time.)

The intersection we’re going to cover today is where Knowledge meets Skill. Today, we’re going to get self-assessy, and we’re going to use me as the example, but I want you to do this for yourself on yourself. As a creative, being able to figure out what you’re doing, where you going, and whether you’re getting there or not (and I don’t mean in that plagued-by-self-doubt-so-assume-you’re-not-and-won’t-ever way)

We need to start with definitions. Can we agree that Knowledge is the sum total of information about a subject through study and observation? We know how to pour a drink into a glass, we know the capital city of where we live, we know that no one likes getting bad news in a text message.

Knowledge is a consequence of being alive. We learn as babies that our actions cause reactions (cry and get fed), and we continue add to our knowledge pools until we cease living (eight packs of cigarettes a day and a bad case of syphilis will do you in). Despite many people’s efforts and protests, there’s no way to skip gaining knowledge. I make a distinction here between knowledge and “learning”, because learning is the method by which we gain knowledge, and “learning” becomes synonymous with “school.” For some people (myself included) the structured education of K-12 and university was not the best way for me to increase what I knew, but since I was still alive, I was still gaining information. I worked jobs, I wrote, I was an unpaid intern, I put myself in situations (smart and otherwise) where I’d come out with more knowledge than when I went in.

So that’s one half of our intersection. We have knowledge. If we were to make a list of what we’re knowledgeable about, it would be pretty sizable, once we got past the worry that other people may judge us for how we perceive ourselves or what goes on our list. Here’s my list:

Knowledge I Have

————-

Writing

Speaking

Cooking

Motivate people

Internet piracy

Video games

RPGs

Publishing

Marketing

Film noir

Rex Stout

Movie critique

Screenplays

Tv writing

Detective stories

Sobriety and addiction

Writing critique

Editing

Social Media

Cartoons

Pop culture

That’s a whole lot of stuff, in no particular order, and in no way is that list complete. But I stand by what I’ve written there. No, it wasn’t easy. I had to really wrestle with some of the ideas there – were they worth mentioning? are people going to think I’m a jerk for saying I know that stuff?

The hard part was getting to a place where I was okay writing it down (which is why I’m writing this part of the past at 12:10pm having started almost 3 hours ago). It took work, I had to talk it over with people. I had to pace around the kitchen and talk myself into and out of writing it. But I got to a point where I was okay going forward, so there it is.

Make your own list. It does not have to be complete, it does not have to be ranked or prioritized. Just list stuff. There are no wrong answers.

Skill is the other half here. We can define skill as knowledge used properly. That “properly” isn’t a subjective opinion, it’s more about relevant purpose. You wouldn’t use your knowledge of cooking when you’re raking leaves. There’s a time and a place to apply a particular knowledge to a particular situation. It’s that kind of properly.

Unapplied knowledge isn’t wasted, there is no wasted knowledge. No one other than you can compel or encourage you to do something with the stuff you know. Not your spouse, your friend, your boss, not some guy on the Internet. It’s my hope that everyone will find a way to apply what they know in a tactical and practical way to make themselves better happier productive creatives. What that application looks like, ideally, is completely individual. No two people are going to demonstrate skill the same, even with knowledge and skill (somehow) being 100% equal. And that’s the important part here – how you show off your skill(s) doesn’t have to and shouldn’t have to look like someone else’s. Yes, multiple can do the same thing (write books, make food, etc) but their individual compositions aren’t the same. That’s to be celebrated and encouraged. More authors. More creatives. More ideas. Different ideas. Ideas that conflict with each other. Ideas that provoke. Ideas that prompt actions. Bring all the distinct people to this party, bring all the skills and their demonstrations to bear. We’re all made better when we can contribute to our best abilities.

Listing the skills I feel most passionate about, I get this:

Skills

——–

Writing

Editing

Public speaking

Developing and encouraging writers

Writing critique

Watching TV

Using Social Media

 

What does your list look like? Yes, the list of knowledges should be longer than the list of skills, because you’re always going to know way more than you can act on.

Making these two paths intersect is where we find creativity at its most fertile. It’s where what you know meets what you can do about what you know. And it’s at that intersection you’ll find things like this blog, or a person’s YouTube channel, or a series of one-person plays about inventing random items or whatever a person is fired up enough about to share with other people.

Now, yes, I’m sure some of you reading this are saying, “But John, I’m not really excited about anything I’m knowledgeable about.” And to that I say, what’s something that you’d love to know more about it, and can you dedicate some part of your time to learning about that thing? Maybe you’re secretly into Taylor Swift songs, so you spend some time watching the videos and singing along. Maybe you’re fascinated by soap making, so you start talking to soap people. And even if that immersion doesn’t inspire you to at least try and apply the knowledge, I’m going to ask you one more question – what are you afraid of? If your attempt fails, then you’re right back to this spot, the same spot you’re in before you started. Fine, you want to grouse about time and money, okay, but if you’re letting money be the arbiter of whether or not you pursue a thing I’ll point out that email newsletters and YouTube videos are free. I can’t stop you from making excuses. I can’t stop you from finding ways not to do anything. Speaking personally, I’m great at finding ways to avoid doing stuff. But since I didn’t want that to be a thing I share with other people, it didn’t go on the above lists.

There’s such ability to discover and grow at this intersection, and you have to do it when you’re there. Trying to capitalize on Knowledge A by using Skill Q is like trying to learn how to swim while sitting in an airplane at 35,000 feet. You need to be in the place, you need to be in that intersection, in order to make use of it.

Here’s the genius of this intersection – even if you don’t have that much skill, if you stick around and keep gaining knowledge and then applying that knowledge, you’ll get more skill. And if you think you have a good amount of skill but want more knowledge, stick around and you’ll gain more knowledge. That’s the point of the intersection – you’ll get plenty of access to both things.

So make your lists. Make yourself a little roadmap of where you are and where you want to be. Get encouraged, and get active. Don’t let the doubt and the possible responses be the gatekeepers on what you want to do, it’s not up to other people to determine how you feel satisfied.

I’ll see you later this week when we’ll expand on this idea.

 

Happy writing.

Why Am I Getting Rejected? Part 1

Today’s question: Why does my MS get rejected?

I get this question maybe 1 in every 7 emails, and then it usually gets followed up with a question about why I didn’t answer that rejection question.

Today I answer it.

In the past I haven’t been wholly explicit about the reasons for rejection because they aren’t codified or standardized. What might get you rejected in submission #1 might be the thing that gets accepted in submission #2.

So what I have for you today is a few reasons why your submission gets rejected. I’m splitting this into several parts – issues with the query; issues with the manuscript; issues with other author-y things – because otherwise this would easily be the longest and most rambly post I’ve ever written, and judging by my blog stats, my long posts get as much traction as a puppy on a wood floor.

Go get your query letter. I’m going to make a very large and very strong cup of tea, and together we’ll have some realtalk about how that query might be the thing getting you rejected. Meet me back here when you’re ready.

Let’s do this.

Issue 1 – The query does not make me want to read the MS.
When I read a query, I should not want to put the query down and go watch the lawn grow. A dull query, even when it’s just a few paragraphs, can feel like an abstract for a lengthy obnoxious/pretentious academic work that I can’t believe people get degrees for. (Shout-out to all the dissertations about shoes or the comparison of gender and its effects on pasta)

A query’s job is to encourage, tease, and drive the reader to manuscript to see how the promises of the of the query get paid off in the MS.

You can have all the interesting names and ideas and scenes and decisions in the universe in your book, but if your query doesn’t express them in a way that makes the reader want to check them out, then it won’t matter.

This is why queries can’t be slow burns. There’s a minimum of space, and word choice has to be at a premium. Start where the action is, don’t detour into fluffy things, and keep the focus on getting the reader into that manuscript.

Issue 2 – The query is unfocused.
The compensation for trying to keep the query exciting is that there’s so much going on in it, so much stuff described, that it’s unclear what exactly the MS is about, or what’s the more important element(s) warranting attention.

This is not about there being a lack of information, this is about an abundance of information and little (or none of it) is prioritized. And it needs to be.

As the query writer, you’ve got to help the reader get through the query, get excited, and get into the MS. To do that, build us a path we can navigate. Start somewhere exciting, somewhere intriguing, and work us forward through the ideas.

I say ideas, because you can’t keep us orbiting one idea where you just find different synonyms (the MC is brave! the MC is courageous! the MC knows no fear!). Segue us from one idea to another, so we can get a taste for the world, the character, and the plot (not necessarily in that order). Make decisions, lead us in a direction that ultimately gets us into the MS.

Issue 3 – The query is too short.
Scanning my inbox, 80% of the query letters I have rejected have been a paragraph inside an email where they’re also mentioning how they like this or how they read that.

It’s a query LETTER, not a query paragraph. Spend more than 2 sentences making the reader interested. Aim for a sweet spot between 90 and 300 words, and that count includes things like your name, info to reach you by, and the sentence ‘Thank you for your consideration.’

When the query is so short, my first thought is that the person either isn’t really interested in me reading anything they write, or they’re not actually as serious about getting published as they claimed. If they were, why wouldn’t they say more?

Issue 4 – The query is too long.
This doesn’t happen as often as Problem 3, but it does still happen. Much like Problem 2, this is a case where things aren’t prioritized and decisions aren’t made, so every possible idea gets thrown into what is often a block of text in the hope that somewhere in the word-glacier the reader can unearth the interesting bits.

They probably could, but they shouldn’t have to. Here’s another case where the decision-making process is critical, because the reader gets a selection of material that would increase the likelihood of going into the manuscript with an enthusiasm and interest.

Again, sweet spot. Make choices.

Issue 5 – The query talks about A, but the MS presents B.
We’re wrapping up with part 1 with a great bridge element to where we’re going next. The query’s promise of manuscript potential has to pay off. On the surface, this is something as obvious as saying, “don’t bait and switch”, where the query talks about the MS being a fantasy epic about chicken farmers and the MS is actually a bisexual love triangle of teenage poltergeists, to something as nuanced as the promise of an action thriller that misses core genre beats and staples like the villain’s demise or the romantic subplot.

This isn’t limited to insidious skeevy tactics. This comes up in the course of any manuscript that doesn’t deliver on its promises or premises. And when I say ‘doesn’t deliver’ I mean that the elements in the query aren’t found in the MS, not that they’re poorly developed. (Poor development goes back to Issue 1)

Inconsistency, nerves, over-ambition … there’s a number of reasons why this happens (you know how movie trailers have scenes and lines that don’t get into the film, but because they’re in there, you go see the film? This is that, but for books) It’s an entirely correctable problem that you can solve by putting only the stuff that happens in THIS ONE BOOK in THIS ONE QUERY.

You’re writing a series? Great, tell me that you are, but you only have to query this MS I’ve got in front of me, so I don’t need to know the plot of book 4 when you’re trying to get book 1 published. Tell me about book 4 AFTER we say yes to book 1. It’s the horse and cart, or eggs and basket metaphor, maybe a little of both.

This series will continue on Monday, where will look at how the MS can get you rejected. See you then. Happy writing.

 

On Creation and Feelings

Good morning everyone. I know I promised you a continuation of The Force Awakens, but if you’ll permit me, I want to take today and speak about something more personal and a bit more intensive than how I’d rewrite a movie with a seven-foot-tall furry guy and some people with laser swords.

The world lately has been a strange, scary, frustrating, and confusing place. Political candidates want to talk more about what keeps us apart than any plans they have to connect us. The fundamentally interesting and beautiful things that make people different also make them targets for bullets and bombs. Countries a world away access violence as their best tool for change, and it seems that we as a collective people have placed a premium on the short-term not-so-tough things to do and think about instead of constantly steeping ourselves in some brew where plenty of people on the Internet want to spend more time telling you what’s wrong and how virtuous they are for pointing out all the ways you and other people are wrong.

The world seems to be spinning differently, on some different axis, and to say that it does not in some ways affect a person’s native ability to create good in the world (be it art or butts or words or music or potato skins) is to perpetuate the idea that those oh-so-wacky creatives don’t care about the world, they just go live in their communes and kibbutzim espousing their collectivist or regressive ideals to an echo chamber built on feelings and bureaucracy.

I find myself deeply troubled, and I’m not a member of any of the affected groups, and depending on you who talk to or what you read, I’m a member of the groups responsible for the problems that led to these horrors happening. What jams me up the most is the assertion made by others that my complacency is worsening all these situations, as if I must abandon anything that isn’t full-throated support in the same manner they do it, and then spend a disproportionate amount of time telling other people how I’m in support, as if other people seeing me be supportive isn’t enough.

These are not popular ideas. I know that my having them and expressing them has cost me work and relationships with peers and potential audience. I know that there are people out there who will read this post and never come back, not to read storycraft information, not to check out some tweets. I know that it is not popular to swim against several river currents, and here I am doing some of my best salmon impersonating.

Creativity does not exist in a bubble. And it is imperative that people realize that both the ills of the world and the protests against them have the potential to be poisonous to other activities and beliefs. If so much time and energy is spent pointing out an emperor has no clothes, when is it possible to be compassionate to oneself? Does that not happen ‘so long as there is this problem in the world?’ How is that a rational and actionable response to anything? How would that help?

In no way do I assert I am superior to or above both the problems in the world or the people doing things about those problems. I’m not disinterested in the problems either. Too often those are the conclusions reached by others when so much of the chatter, so much of the world’s noise seems to focus on ladies in a movie with a glut of CGI effects, or abusive law enforcement or other countries rattling sabers and red phones alike.

Why isn’t the counterbalance to this weight a push towards creativity? Wouldn’t a world so divided and soon to be divided more be ameliorated by unity and inspiration. I don’t mean those Facebook fitness memes where someone’s doing one pull-up a day, because what they’re really lifting is themselves (yes, I gagged a little typing it), I mean why must creation and creativity be sacrificed for substantive progress?

No, this is not me donning my marketing and salescopy hat to say that many of these protests needs better slogans and chants (they do), this is me saying that I believe if we are to ever stop looking at our ugly parts long enough to go forward, we must find the beautiful parts. And it’s not like we lost them, though I am sure there are professional victims and soapboxers who will tell you that the days of beauty are gone. But that’s a crock of horseshit, and all that idea does is justify their own victimhood and soapboxery.

I suppose this post is as much a permission slip to myself as well as hopeful encouragement to others that we can still hold onto, propagate, and promote the idea that creativity need not be limited to the shallow ends of the pool, where it’s all about Pokemon-going or lady-ghostbusting or whatever ephemera sails downstream at us. There’s still a reason and a need for the discussions of books and art and music, parallel and along with the discussions of freedom and liberty and equality.

More to that point, remember that so long as one group gets the short of end of some stick, be it about gender or race or identity or faith or preference for steak doneness or whatever, then it’s not equality. And equality doesn’t come from a subordinate group turning the tables and giving into the childish notion that turnabout is fair play so they can hold some other group down “to see if they like it.” Who’s going to like that?

It’s our creativity, our passion for making things and expressing ourselves that can carry us through and past what appear like horrific times juxtaposed with a society that can carry a computer in their jeans and use it to order a pizza, sex, and a taxi at 4 in the morning.

Scan back through history and see that in other dark spots, creativity was a path forward. During World Wars, theater, radio, film and television flourished. During times of civil unrest, we traveled to outer goddamned space. Outer space!

We have put machines onto comets and taken pictures of things only written about seventy years ago in pulp magazines. We have created machines that can rebuild bodies. We have robots. We have made theatre productions that speak to generations. We have used technology to connect and support.

It’s a choice we make to be divisive. It’s a choice we make to act and react out of fear. It’s a choice we make to think our creativity is finite or that it needs certain conditions to operate at all, let alone at peak efficiency.  We make a choice about who we listen to, and about who we decry. And if I can ask anything of you at all, please think before you choose. Choose with not just the immediate or short term in mind. Choose not just what’s fastest or least taxing on you. Really consider that for not just your creativity but also possibly your very life, you’re not alone in any sense, and our interconnectivity depends on our choices and our understanding of each other’s choices, even when we don’t agree with them.

I’ll see you guys later this week. Happy writing.

The Sisters of Crime Discussion

Good morning. How was your weekend? Did you do anything exciting? Was the weather a sweltering furnace? I had a good one, since I always enjoy my chances to speak to groups of writers. This weekend I was in front of the local to-me chapter of the Sisters of Crime, talking about mystery and story development.

The conversation we had was excellent. But let me describe where this conversation took place.

Picture a very old colonial church, wooden, not brick and mortar. Okay, now take whatever you’re picturing and have Tim Burton re-shape it. Exaggerate the spire. Gloomy-goth-art-student the interior. Make the parking lot a Stephen King land of angry weeds up through cracked asphalt. Don’t forget that every door squeaks and every floorboard groans.

Now add a 48-star flag:

Yes, 48 stars. I counted.

 

And add a Kennedy era bingo machine:

The dust on this thing was incredible.

If you’ve ever been to one of my events before, you know I don’t make a whole lot of notes, and I swear enough, and well enough to make stevedores shocked. But, because this event was a big deal to me, and because I was really trying to make a good impression, since I’d like to do more speaking like this for other groups, I cut the 300+ usually profanities out of my discussion points and examples. The Batman examples stayed in though, because Batman.

Not every place I speak does audio recording, and the acoustics in the barn-sized room weren’t the best, so there’s no audio. Instead, I’m going to take my notes and expand on them, a point at a time. While this event was targeted at mysteries, it’s not that hard to extrapolate the general craft elements out of what I’m saying.

Cool? Awesome. Let’s do this.

A mystery is a story where the central conflict is a question and there are character(s) compelled to answer that question or face consequences. Those consequences may be short-term (if I don’t catch the murderer, they get away with it), or they may be larger in scale (the serial killer will strike again!), but there are always consequences to not answering whatever the question is, and the fear about how the world will be with those consequences in place is the driving force behind the character(s) taking action.

Unlike other genre where the conflict is an action (thriller, horror, action, etc) the fact that the conflict is a question – often a who/how/why – means that the character(s) trying to answer that question need external elements because they’re only going to start the story with some assumptions. Assumptions about how the world works, about how people behave, that sort of thing.

Side note: Rather than have the assumptions be provided just by the experiences in this story, you can build a better character by basing those assumptions on character philosophy and motivations

Because the character(s) have a set of assumptions, and need to gain knowledge to dis-/prove those assumptions, mysteries are built on an economy exchanging assumption for knowledge. Like this:

The detective (the character trying to answer the question at the conflict’s heart) gains knowledge that challenges the assumptions (whatever they might be) WHILE the antagonist (the character looking to benefit from the actions related to the conflict’s question) makes and acts on assumptions in the face of knowledge.

That knowledge comes from clues which are pieces of information (not limited to objects, but they’re most commonly objects) that increase the detective’s knowledge. There are three kinds of clues to keep in mind:

A) the inciting clue
This is whatever piece of information indicates that there’s a conflict to resolve. In most murder mysteries or television shows, this is the body. This clue incites the detective’s efforts.

B) “body” clues
“Body” refers here to “body of the story”, and there will be more body clues than any other kind in a mystery.  The clues that follow the inciting clue are all body clues. And this can cover everything from the murder weapon to the ATM photos to the piece of spinach stuck in someone’s teeth.

C) the confirming clue
This is the clue that gives the detective that last piece of knowledge to shore up the mystery. We’ve all seen that moment in TV where a secondary character says something innocuous and the protagonist gets up from wherever they’re sitting and when we come back from commercial, the detective is explaining the solution to the whole case.

It’s the sum of all these clues that guide the character(s) forward into answering the conflict’s question.

But (and here’s my last point) … this forward pursuit of the answer has to INTERSECT with the character’s arc without being the entirety of that arc.

Because your MC should be greater than just the operator/actor within one story. What they do is not the complete package of who they are, anymore than it is for you, the person reading this. And when I say ‘greater’, I mean they should have more depth and more to them. Yes, the plot events are a big deal (hopefully), yes the plot events are a challenge for them (hopefully), but you can do better than the stale-from-the-can “troubled past.” I know you can.

And if you’re just not sure how, come ask.

This week is a short one from me, since DexCon is Wednesday-Sunday. We’ll do InboxWednesday for sure, and let’s put a ‘maybe’ on Friday’s post … it depends on if I can write it Tuesday.

Go write good stuff. Follow me on Twitter and Snapchat (johnwritesstuff) for more info and other things of wordly nature.

Happy writing.

Fear and Loathing Of The Blank Page

Picture this scene as I sat down to write this blogpost.

INTERIOR – JOHN’S OFFICE – MORNING

A man in an Alice In Chains t-shirt and a pair of basketball shorts coughs three times and sits down in a beat to all hell office chair with a cup of tea in hand. He sips, stares out the window and sighs. 

He touches the mouse and the PC’s screen flicks to life. He sips the tea and stares at the white space on the screen. Then he stares out the window. Then back to the white space. Then out the window. Then he thinks about butts and that makes him giggle. Then he has a giggle contest with himself. The white page is still blank.

He makes a disgusted “Ugh” noise, and picks up his phone instead. 

Yeah, that’s how today started. This post will go up on Monday, which is Memorial Day, and I know that the majority of people will be off, and I did have loads of thoughts about “just put up a fluff piece then go strong on Wednesday”, but skipping a day means I can find ways to procrastinate (yes, I know I have editing and translations due in 2 weeks, so it’s not completely procrastinating, but like, blog procrastinating, blogcrastinating), and I’m not gonna skip a day.

So what do I do? I think of my tiny muse. Yes, I have a tiny muse. Imagine a way cooler Tinkerbell who totally gets memes and eats Mexican food and ditch the wings. I’m not sure about the whole constant shed glitter like it’s dandruff thing, I think that’s a weird question to ask a muse (hey do you have glitter dandruff, did I just make you nervous about your hair, wait, where are you going?), so let’s not get hung up on the muse’s awesome hair and go back to what the muse does for me.

In my head, there’s this churning sea of ideas. I always want to be talking about something, explaining something, giving out information. The hard part is that transmission is work, and like a lot of people, I don’t want to work. I want to sit there and have the world come to me, mainly so I can sit on the couch. But that’s grossly unrealistic, so if I’m going to manage the waves of ideas, I have to do the work to get them out. The blog posts don’t write themselves. The edits don’t happen while I’m playing Prison Architect or Sentinels of the Multiverse or watching Netflix.

Bridging that gap is where the muse comes in. So that the blank page changes from “Ugh”, as in oh-dear-sweet-alleged-deities-what-the-mothersizzlestickbits-am-I-going-to-do-with-this-melonfarming**-blank-page-and-the-pressure-I-feel-to-write-something-so-damned-amazing-that-hundreds-of-people-see-it-ugh, to “Okay this space is mine, and I’m going to use it to convey an idea.” **note: yes, I said ‘melonfarming’.

Here’s the idea – the blank space is blank not because it’s a daunting sheet that requires only perfection touch it, but because it’s an empty space hungry for anything to go up on it.

That urge to be perfect is inextricably tied to the idea that only perfect things get read by people. I have over a thousand twitter followers and they can read everything from a writing tweet to my random observations that make me laugh, so I know that I say plenty of imperfect things that people can see, and I don’t think twice about them unless the spelling errors are egregious or the idea is presented unclearly.

So what makes the blank page intimidating? I have conducted extensive scientific research (meaning: I had a second cup of tea and listened to Metallica) and discovered that I’m afraid of being judged negatively. With the potential for the words to go up and stay up there, and be judged negatively (depending on the topic it’s totally possible) while out there, I keep a lot of my dissenting views (dissenting when compared to the majority of my professional and personal circles) to myself. #somanyparentheses

The tricky bit is that I don’t know if the words are going to be judged negatively. I don’t know if they’re going to be judged positively either. They’re Schrodinger’s Words. So if I want to see how they’re going to be received, I have to put them out there. I need to pump the brakes on the page-fear, and think of that page as an opportunity. To help. To explain. To do the stuff I love to do.

And then suddenly, that “Ugh” goes to “Ooh” when I realize that I just found a blogpost and put it together.

See you guys Wednesday. Have a great Memorial Day. Happy writing.

Our Plate And Buffet

It’s Monday, and I hope you had a great weekend. I had a pretty good one, the weather was warm, I got to wear shorts, and I remembered that there were soft pretzels in the freezer. It was awesome.

Today I want to start the week somewhat picking up where we left off on Wednesday with social media, because it was pointed out to me over the weekend that while knowledge of social media is good and critical, you have to make the time to use it. And people frankly suck at that. So let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about sucking at making time to do stuff.

Normally I think this argument is a load of applesauce and horsefeathers, because if something is important to you, you will make time for it. You enjoy the procrastinating, so you spend an extra hour watching television. You like the comfy spot in bed, so you sleep an extra half hour past your alarm.

Just like a diet or a fitness plan, where you’re trying to change your weight or your exercise habits, there are sacrifices to make. Gone is the double portion of daily dessert fudge. The extra steakchos are given the heave-ho. These sacrifices are tough initially, because we crave the feelings and/or brain chemicals they used to provide, and our brains panic because we’re not getting flooded with the same stuff we used to, and change is scary so let’s all freak out.

It’s right around this time that people start getting a little huffy, because when I say “make sacrifices” they don’t mention the binge watch on Netflix, or the weekly phone call with a family member that just sucks the life and joy out of them. They mention the time with the kids, the bills they have to pay, the spouse who feels overlooked, the house tasks that need to happen. And they get defensive because they make this jump where I’m saying success comes at the expense of “the important stuff.”

Where I think people go off the rails is in how they define “the important stuff”, because when I talk to them, they list other people and other things. Their family. Their job. Their income. Their bills. They skip themselves.

Now maybe I see this because I don’t have a family the way they do, and I don’t have a lot of the bills they do, but you have to count yourself as important, because making that time to create a thing, making that decision to do more than just hobby around, is important.

Your book isn’t going to get out the door if you treat it like the ten other things you’d do if you had more time or more money. People aren’t going to even know that they can buy it unless you take the seconds or minutes to compose a message saying so.

If writing is a hobby for you, great, then relegate it to the time when Tiny House Hunters is over and just before you look at different flowering plants to put in the bucket in front of the house.

But if you want to make that transition from “this is the thing I do when I think I can, and I don’t take it seriously like that (more on that in a second)” to “I’m getting this book out the door, this is what I want to do, it’s important to me”, then Tiny House Hunters and those begonias are going to need to wait.

When the “take it seriously like that” part comes up, and it comes up quite a bit in my workshops and seminars, some people get upset. If this weren’t writing, if we were talking about you spending more time with your kids, then we’d talk about how you’re gonna have make that effort to do more with them on a regular and consistent basis, even when initially it feels super weird and your brain throws off a ton of excuses about why you can’t. But you have to agree that you can’t say you’re committed to spending time with your kids when you’ve only added in an extra 3 minutes every other Tuesday just before they go to bed. That’s an insult to the concept and a disservice to your kids.

I don’t see much difference between that and writing.

Maybe it’s in our definition of “serious.” To me, a serious writer is someone who sets time out of their day, every day, to do something that advances them towards their goal. If they need to be writing chapter 11, they’re doing it. If they need to communicate with people to build an audience, they’re going for it. Maybe just one thing, maybe both, maybe fifty other things. But they’re not screwing around and talking more while doing less. They’re doing what they want, they’re taking the steps, they’re not letting the excuses keep them back. How are you defining it?

All this is good, but this isn’t the practical side. People bring that up like they’ve trumped me, and the truth is I don’t know your schedule, I don’t know how you work, so I can’t give you (the non-existent) one-size-fits-all schedule. What works for me does so because I can divide my time a certain way to play to my strengths. I figured out this schedule because I was honest about how I spend my time, and took a guess as to what I thought I could do about my goals within that time frame.

I wrote down all the things I did. I spent a Saturday breaking down my not asleep hours in 30 minute segments. I tracked what I ate, when I ate, how long it took me to eat, how long I dicked around on Facebook, how may times I stared out the window. I wrote it all out. I didn’t judge it, I just documented it.

The judging came later, when I looked at my schedule and saw all the places that could get trimmed or changed. Gone was the 35 minutes on Facebook during breakfast where I vainly hoped someone would tag me and say nice things about me. I cut my “number of stares out the window” from 30 to 26.

It’s not like I gained hours. I didn’t. There weren’t hours to gain unless I shifted my sleep schedule and gave up the go-to activities that relax me. But I was able to repurpose those minutes so it felt like my plate – the way I was spending the day – got bigger, because what I was doing was more productive.

Instead of 35 minutes reading about people complaining about politics or social inequality or sharing pusheen pictures, I got 35 minutes to read a book about how to write. Or 35 minutes to read a chapter in a biography. I could sneak in part of a podcast, so I started my day with a laugh rather than a “oh good grief, this is what people are complaining about today? Can they just not be the center of the universe?

Your writing isn’t going to be revolutionized by hurriedly and radically changing your schedule. That sort of massive transformation can often be an impulse, a knee-jerk reaction to perception or anxiety, like a fad diet over a weekend so you can wear an outfit on a Monday. Those changes aren’t often sustainable because you can’t mistake a burst of energy for the inertia of routine.

We talk about “having so much on our plate”, when it’s our plate at the buffet of our own design. These are our choices and their consequences portioned out to us on our plate. Here’s that eight hour chunk of time at the job you sort of like and stay at because it allows you to take those two weeks off and go to Vermont. Splat. Here’s that relationship with the people you grossly disagree with that you maintain only because you’re afraid to jettison it and get flak from other people. Splat. Here’s a heaping helping of impossible goals you set because you want so badly to be praised and be successful while making other people happy so that you aren’t abandoned or ignored or belittled. Splat.

I’m not saying give up the job. I’m not even saying give up the negative stuff that you’ve built into your day to day life. I can’t ask you to do that. What I can ask you to do is look at your experiences, look at where you are, look at where you want to be, and exercise some portion control. Where you likely want to be, what you want to do, that’s going to call for a little less time doing A so you can do a little of B, since B better gets you towards your goal.

Yeah, it’s your buffet, and it is all you can eat, but you gotta be willing to say no to extra spoonfuls of the stuff that doesn’t get you where you want to be.

I’ll see you guys Wednesday. Happy writing.

 

 

InboxWednesday – Social Media

Holy mother of chicken fingers, Wednesday crept up on us pretty quick there. Next thing you know, it’ll be Friday and I’ll get a tweet from someone about to get turnt up for the weekend. (The first time I heard that phrase, I thought someone said turnips, and pictured someone having a really good weekend playing Stardew Valley.)

But we’re not there yet, creatives. So until then, let’s do what we do on Wednesdays and grab a question from my inbox. Remember, you can ask me any question you want, because even the ones that don’t go on the blog get answered.

Let’s do this.

John, I’m a 57-year-old man writing his first novel. My two kids are in college, my wife works full-time. I am financially stable, and I thought writing would be a good thing to do. My question is: what’s the point of social media? What good does it do me, when I’m not a teenager or not really good at it, and what platforms should I use for what purpose? My schedule in the evenings and weekends is open, so time is not a problem, but how do I best use these apps? – J.

J. (you asked not to use your real name, no sweat), thanks so much for your question. Congrats on taking the dive into writing. What you’re asking is big and good and it’s got some moving parts, so let’s do this in pieces.

These are my opinions, other people may disagree, and that’s totally alright. I want you to first know that you need social media. NEED it, like critical in the modern day NEED, because the traditional publishers aren’t going to dump buckets of money at your door to do the marketing for you. You know your book, and you know who you are way better than they ever will, so there’s freedom to being your own marketing machine. You can develop a system that’s custom  to you, and because it’s playing to your strengths, you’ll use it with less difficulty.

What I’ll do is breakdown each platform with a definition, an example where I can, and the pros and cons. Then I’ll use my social media as a case study. J., follow me on this, this is gonna be a lot of words, but you can do this, it’s just one step at a time, it’s not overwhelming unless you let it be. Don’t quit on this, let’s rock and roll.

Can I give you two ground rules? These are important. Write this on a post-it note. Carve them into the foreheads of your enemies:

1. Social media IS NOT just sales link spam. There’s a reason it’s called “social” media – being a person who does X (in your case, writes books) is the honey to the sales spam vinegar when you’re building a group of people you interact with.

2. Practice using it. Regular use, even if you’re just goofing around with filters or hashtags or puns or whatever will help you get better when you do have something important, like links to a blog post or a fundraising page or a promo for an event you’re attending.

Primary Platforms
What I call a “primary platform” is the social media where you’re the most comfortable. Maybe you’ll develop more than one of these, and that’s awesome. A primary platform is where you can reach a certain number of people, and you’ll know you can reach them without having to do anything that you haven’t already done before.

Secondary Platforms
A secondary platform is social media that’s new to you. You’ve never used it before, or you barely use it, and if you gave it more time, and did a little research, you could get better at it, but you’re maybe okay with it being more on the perimeter of your social media stuff.

I’m going to spot you one free primary platform – email. You’ve written emails before. It’s pretty comfortable. And along with the ability to write emails, you’ve got a list of people to sends email to, so that’s a prepped audience. I know what you’re thinking, “John I can’t email these people that I’m writing a book.” And I’ll go ahead and ask you what about being creative is so bad that these people would run from you like your a clown on fire handing out mayonnaise and guacamole? It’s okay to let the world know you’re creative.

With me so far? Let’s look at specific platforms then. Each platform is going to take some time, especially when you’re just learning how to use it. No, you don’t have to be perfect at it, there is no perfect at it, but you’re going to need to take seconds/minutes to write things occasionally. Even if/when they’re wholly unrelated to the specifics of the book you’re writing.

Facebook
For me, professionally, Facebook isn’t my best option. It’s great when I want to tell people about work like we’re sitting on the porch with drinks and I’m just chatting about the day, or I want rant a little about video games or my weird neighbors, but I have a hard time turning that into sales. That’s not to say it’s impossible to do it, I know plenty of people who make that happen, but I know just as many people who keep the sales off Facebook, and use it more as a social pool for communication – one more way they can be a person first and a selling entity second.

The Pros: Everyone’s on it. Okay, not my mom, not that one guy I know who believes in chemtrails, lizard people, and nanochips inside vaccines that will one day activate and subjugate us, but like, loads of other people. Whether you just have an account for yourself, or you get a Page together where you specifically interact with an audience because of something you do or a way you identify (an author, a publisher, a whatever-er), you can communicate with other humans. It’s pretty easy to use, you just type in a box at the top of the page, you click Post, and boom, done.

The Cons: There’s a lot of people on it, and they’re going to talk about everything from politics to babies to work complaints to strange anime references to screeds about how they deserve preferential treatment to questions about robot apocalypses. That signal-to-noise ratio can be tough to parse through, and something as earnest and interesting as your “Hey I started writing a book” can totally get blown out of the water by your friend Sharon going on a rant about how the brown people are ruining this country and how we need to feel guilty about something that happened three hundred years ago that started our alleged national dumpster fire rolling down a hill.

Twitter
Twitter is my jam. I love Twitter. Each tweet is 140 characters, and that includes spaces. Yeah I know, there’s talk about expanding that, but even if they did, I’d keep it to 140. The concision Twitter has trained me to develop is critical when I’m speaking and editing – words are potent, and having to pick and choose how I describe something means I put a premium on clarity over flashy vocabulary.

The Pros: You can find a lot of like-minded people on it. I follow a heap of writers, creatives, editors, agents and people whose opinions and ideas interest and encourage me. Also, because of its fluid nature, I can jump into conversations or start my own pretty easily.

The Cons: It can feel like you’re shouting into the Grand Canyon while standing in London fog. You may have no idea that your words are reaching anyone, and especially at the beginning, it can be discouraging. But every once in a while, you may get surprised about who reads what you’re saying, who replies, or who shares what you say with their heap of people. (I have had a few “Oh shit, that person knows what I write!?” moments in the last year, they’re awesome).

If you do go with Twitter, and need a person to start with, start with me

Google+ (Google Plus, G+)
I have to admit J., I fell out of love with Google+. We grew apart because we both changed – G+ changed its layout, I found my groove with Twitter and other platforms. But Google+ is a viable longer form platform that you can use and build circles of people with. These communities share interest (you can build a writing circle), and there are large and active groups of people doing the same stuff you do, but as with any large mass of people, check that signal to noise ratio and don’t let the negative people poison your progress.

The Pros: It doesn’t have the glut of extraneous content the way Facebook does. It isn’t capped at 140 characters the way Twitter is. You can say a lot on a topic, you can read a lot about a topic, and you can get eyes on what you say. It sounds ideal, right? But …

The Cons: In a world where you’ve got other, more visual social media popping up, where there’s more immediacy and speed and interest, G+ can become an afterthought. Even with this blog, G+ is just one more place where I put posts, and occasionally chime in to specific groups, but otherwise, my attention is elsewhere.

Snapchat
This is a new one for me, as in I really started getting serious about it less than a week ago. This is the first of three platforms I’m going to talk about where you can use stills, video, and audio to get a concise message across. I’m hugely in love with the concept, and it’s easy to use once you check out how other people are using it.

The Pros: Again, concision is valuable. Short video can be personal and effective. Captions and filters can help put together an idea and package it for the current moment.

The Cons: A lot of snapchat is aimed at fashion or celebrity, and a lot of snapchat (at least when you google people you should follow on snapchat) skews younger than you or I, J. But don’t let that throw you off, because you don’t have to interact with that userbase if you don’t want to. It’s not the most intuitive interface, so you might have to fumble a bit early on to get a handle on it, but the good news is that the snaps you do send out only last 24 hours, and so there’s no great lasting shame in the snap of the inside of your pocket while you went to the grocery store, as happened to me earlier this week.

Instagram
There’s an intimacy possible in the visuals we present to the world. They’re a glimpse into our lives that goes beyond “buy my thing”, and I think the sharing of you-see-what=I-see is super important if you want show that what you do is not mysticism or impossible, and that you’re grateful for life. Instagram is tons of photos, it’s primarily visual, and it’s a great tool for showing (literally) more than telling.

The Pros: The peek behind the curtain is interesting. It’s honest, or at least it should be. It’s got a great interface, you can knock it out with a few clicks on your phone. Getting comfortable with hashtags (think of them as indexing tools) will make your production that much easier.

The Cons: If you’re like me, you suck at taking photos you’d call interesting. This is in part due to a lack of practice, and also due to a pressure I feel from the signal-to-noise discussion that Instagram is “supposed to be” all pictures of lunches and random bragging selfies of people better looking than me doing things I can neither afford nor have the means to do.

Periscope
Here now we’re at the fringe of my expertise. Periscope is a video broadcasting tool, that allows you to stream video to an audience. It’s not something I’ve really gotten my hands dirty with yet, but I’m going to be changing that over the course of this week.

The Pros: Streaming video! Live broadcasts! That’s huge. Gone are the static walls of text (said the guy writing the blogpost), and interactivity is at a premium. This is a big deal if you have something to say and want to get it out with immediacy and emotion. But …

The Cons: Building an audience to check out the broadcast takes time, as it does for any of these platforms. Also, given the projected nature of this content, you’ll need something to say or show – a lot of “Uhh” and “Um” won’t hold an audience’s attention. No, I’m not talking production values, I mean pure content. Figuring out what your content is goes a long way to helping steer it out of your head and to other people.

Anchor
Another new one for me, it’s an audio platform where you record short notes and receive other short notes or responses in return (they’re called waves, because nautical theme). I have barely tried this once, and haven’t even set myself up yet, but that’ll change over this week too.

The Pros: If you’re like me, you tend to have a logjam of thoughts that sear your mind and need to be let out, and quick bursts of audio are great for me when I’m feeling particularly laden with urgent purpose. And because you don’t have to see me, I don’t have to feel as awful about being one of the not-pretty people as I do what I do (note: this discomfort comes up for me on Snapchat something fierce) I need to play around with this more.

The Cons: If you’re like me, as you talk, you gesture. You work in the visual space in front of you, making air quotes and hand-based diagrams. They don’t always translate to audio, because despite allegedly having moves like Jagger, you can’t hear my hands make the “so this is like this and that’s like that” gesture.

Pinterest
Pinterest is a repository for static content (like blogposts), where you can collate information about a particular topic. You can have a board (a group) of pins (links) about whatever topic you want, although I have to say they’re a little draconian about butts, curves and intimacies.

The Pros: If you’ve got a lot of blog content to give out, if you want a lot of content to read, Pinterest can be a gold mine. With one of the big two browsers (Chrome, Firefox), you can get an extension to allow you to pin stuff through a simple right-click context menu, and it is an easy way to have a lot of resources at hand.

The Cons: It can be a swallower of your time. There’s so much stuff out there, and so much of it more signal than noise that you can blow a day pinning material one thing after another, stepping away from that writing that needs to happen because “just one more Pin” turns into “three hours later” pretty quick.

Blogging
I was on the fence about calling blogging a form of social media, because social media is becoming more and more conversational and concise, and blogging can range in length and frequency of use. But blogging has a communal aspect, so it’s social media for our discussion.

The Pros: You can say what you want, how you want, as often as you want. Your blog can be a home base for what you’re doing, giving you an unfettered and uninterrupted space to paint your internet real estate how you like.

The Cons: Audience growth is slow, and you can get discouraged by staring at views and thinking you’ll never get past ten or thirty or whatever. You can, you will, you just need to consistently put out good ideas in clear ways. Good content gets read, so make stuff that expresses clearly what you want to say and how you feel.

*

So let’s use me as a case study. Out of the nine social media platforms I just talked about, I’ve got accounts on all nine, but I would call Twitter and this blog my primary platforms. I’m more comfortable here and at 140 characters professionally than anywhere else. Facebook sees daily use, but that’s more personal or anecdotal. I talk about what I do, but I don’t really do what I do with the people on Facebook. It feels weird to me, like I’m asking my family if they want to help me out, and I suppose that idea will need to change, but right now, I like this divide between pro-John and off-hours-John.

Snapchat has been my new vector for socializing, and my small as all get out following is clients, friends, a few celebrities who don’t get annoying, and professionals I learn from. My goal there is to get better at using the service, and I’m not going to do that without giving it a go myself. If you want to find me on Snapchat, I’m at johnwritesstuff.

Instagram and I don’t really know what to do with each other. It’s there, I am following some interesting people, but I don’t post much, mainly because I don’t know what to post. I don’t work visually, so I struggle to put up anything other than various doughnuts or foods I’ve eaten, which perpetuate that social pressure and make me feel bad, so then I use it less, and onward and onward that cycles. But I’ve got a youtube video queued up to watch after I write this post, so maybe I’ll learn some new stuff.

Pinterest is my recipe and idea hole. It doesn’t seem very conversational, but it’s a great education tool for me. Want to learn about business strategies,  enchiladas, candle-making, and old movie posters? I can do that all in one fell swoop.

The remaining platforms are on my “To check out” list, and I said on Twitter the other day that I wanted to try Periscope later this week, I’m thinking Friday. Hmmm.

On the whole, I divide part of my workday into check the various feeds, but not all at once. I’m on twitter throughout the day, I check Facebook in the morning and while I eat lunch, I snapchat now when an idea hits. I blog three times a week. I pinterest or read pinterest usually after work, because some of that relaxes me.

Because time is the most precious business commodity, I’m picky about allocating it. Were I new and starting out, I’d pick one or two platforms and get comfortable. I’d give myself a wide deadline of like 3 months with daily experimentation to see how it fits for me. If a platform didn’t work out, I wouldn’t go back. You don’t need to have all of them going in order to market your work successfully, and you certainly don’t want a pile of responsibilities that take you away from the writing when they’re supposed to be supporting it. So, J., you do what works for you, and if that’s one thing, awesome, if it’s eight or more (because there are more platforms I didn’t cover), awesome too.

I believe you (and anyone regardless of age or gender or genre or whatever) can learn to use this stuff and connect with other people both professionally and personally. It might not be instantaneous, but it can be done.

Hope that answers your question J.

I’ll see you guys on Friday for more blog times. Have a great middle of your week, don’t let the jerks get you down.

Happy writing.

The Lessons of 400 Posts

Wow, 400 posts. I’ve been on this blog longer and more seriously than some relationships I’ve been in. Do you think we should be wearing tuxedos? I’m wearing a blue t-shirt and Captain America pajamas as I write this paragraph during breakfast, is that celebratory enough?

I’ve blogged on several platforms for years about many topics, but it’s here, in this incarnation of my voice and content that I’m happiest. I take an enormous pride in these posts and building an audience, and I want today to break down some of the things I’ve learned in 400 posts. This won’t just cover blogging, I’m going all over freelancing, writing, and publishing.

Before I get into this list, THANK YOU. Thank you to every one of the thousands of readers I’ve had over this blog’s lifetime, and thank you to everyone who I don’t know about who’s read my words after they ended up on Facebook or Tumblr or tweets. It means a lot to me that anyone would even look my way, and I am grateful for every view, share, comment, and like. When this blog started, it was because I wanted to get people talking about publishing and writing, and I think that’s happening now more than ever. THANK YOU. Whether this is the first time you’re reading my stuff or the 400th, this success is as much yours as mine.

Alright, it’s lesson time. Let’s rock and roll.

i. YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH not only to chase after your dreams, but you can also make them happen. I want to start with this idea, because there are days when I just can’t put two words together if you handed me velcro and a blowtorch. There are days when I just want to skip all the work and play a video game or stare at videos. There are times when I see what other people are doing, when I see how successful they’re being, and how effortless that appears, and think to myself that a bag of paperclips and rabbit poop is more talented and successful than I am.

It’s wrong. Plain and simple. I might not have an agent. I might not have 300+ clients yet. I might not be at the forefront of coaching writers, I might not be the editor everyone goes to for all the things, but that’s no indicator that I should retreat and go back to folding towels and getting yelled at by entitled mall customers.

Opportunities are the byproduct of effort, and by that I mean, when you work and hustle, when you put all your energy into being your best self, doing your best work, you’re going to find yourself is situations where doors open up to you. It might not be the door you expect (to date none of my screenwriter friends have tweeted to say, “Hey John I’m writing the new Nero Wolfe or the new Macgyver, do you want to jump in?”) but I’ve been lucky enough to get interviewed by talented people, guest spot on blogs, give presentations and do Q&As all over the place.

My dream is simple: I’m going to help as many people as possible get their stories, games, scripts, comics, and ideas made.  I’m going to give writers and creatives the best tools they need to make that stuff happen, and I’m going to do it in a way where I’m happy with the efforts and outcomes.

Therefore, I need to do stuff that helps make that happen. I need to blog. I need to tweet. I need to snapchat (yes snapchat, you can find me at johnwritesstuff). I need to give more seminars, presentations, and workshops. I need to play my game and help people tell their stories.

This isn’t to say I’m not doing other stuff while that happens. I’m playing with a lot of Lego, I’m playing video games, I’m hanging out with friends and family. You can say that those things don’t make me an entrepreneur or as successful as possible, but those things fulfill me. They keep me going.

You can make your dream happen. Whatever it is. There are actions to take, some big and some small, but you can succeed.

ii. Life throws plenty of curveballs, and they don’t all get knocked out of the park, but you have to keep swinging at them. My medical history is packed with bad diagnoses, hospital visits, illnesses and big scary concepts like “terminal” this and “depression” that. I could, and it’s been suggested to me, that I pull all the way back on what I do and spend the next few years just “being happy” while I can. That advice is probably among the worst I ever received, because it comes from the premise that doing what I do doesn’t make me happy.

Yeah, my health sucks. Yeah, it’s going to suck harder in the future. But that doesn’t mean that right now, I still can’t do the best I can to get to my goal (see above). Having said that, I gotta talk about the obstacles poor health puts in my way: things like not being hired or contracted because people don’t want to stress me out, or because fear that I’ll get sick for a week or month will throw their project schedule off, or that my quality of work will suffer. And I get that. And yes, I think for a few weeks there, my work did suffer, I can own that. But to totally cross me off the list in the present because I have a rocky medical future ahead is frankly cowardly, short-sighted, and discriminatory.

I wasn’t kidding when I said I’m doing my best work ever. Talk to my coaching clients and they’ll tell you and show you the effects of an hour meeting with me. Talk to my editing clients and they’ll point to finished books on the shelf. Talk to my marketing clients and they’ll point to high sales. Good work is good work, and while the future isn’t the super field of daisies and rainbows, that’s no reason to give up, run away, or not keep going after the dream.

Is it hard? Oh hell yes. There are days my chest capital-H HURTS. There are days where I get so tired the fifteen minute nap turns into a two hour nap. There are days I have to dictate from bed or the couch. But hard doesn’t mean “nothing gets accomplished”, hard just means I have to adapt and keep going forward.

You’re going to face all kinds of problems and obstacles. Some you’ll have zero control over, some you’ll manufacture without always realizing it. But you have this goal right, you want to be a published author, a professional painter, a screenwriter, a whatever, and you can go do that. You should go do that. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

iii. It’s a drama culture. Outrage is popular. You don’t have to buy a ticket to that circus. The number of people I know who use social media as a soapbox to espouse criticism, complaint, and hostility instead of support, success, and compassion is staggering. Two minutes scanning down the tweetdeck stream, and I really start to wonder if some people are only ever happy when they’re complaining or pointing out other people’s faults.

One of my least favorite parts of social media is the idea that if you don’t agree with a particular point, you’re wholly a member of the opposition. If you don’t think this one person is right and should be automatically supported, you’re just as bad as the person who aggrieved them, and in fact you’re re-aggrieving them by having your own opinion.

That, friends, is friggin’ stupid. We need everyone to have their own opinion, to make up their own minds. Social media has given us all the ability to share that opinion, but the loudness of your projected voice is not the same as the quality of your projection. Spending your day screaming over the problems rather than putting your head down and doing something about how the problem specifically affects you is not getting your work done. It does however, give you the convenient excuse of “Well I can’t do what I want, because of X problem!” Remind me again: Was your goal to live behind the excuse wall, or was your goal to make your creative stuff happen?

If it’s better for you, if it’s helpful for you getting to your goal, to complain and spew venom, and be a black hole where nothing’s right because of A B C factors, great. Do that. Do the best you can at it. Some of us, and I’d argue many of us, won’t be doing that. That doesn’t mean we don’t care, or that we’ve sided with the “enemy” in your us versus them model, it’s just that our individual path doesn’t look like yours, and that’s the cool part about living and taking steps towards goals.

iv. Rejection means quit if you either want it to, or wanted to secretly have a reason to quit. Rejection letters are thing that happen. You write a thing, you query it, it gets rejected. The specific reason doesn’t matter at this second. It hurts. I know. It sucks to hear that your work didn’t meet the criteria or expectation (yours or theirs). It can really mess with your head. But a rejection letter is not a mandatory eviction of your creativity, and it’s not a permission slip to stop being creative, unless that’s what you want. No one is in charge of you giving up, except you.

I know a lot of people who queried, got rejected, and stopped writing. They point to the letter as evidence of them not being good enough, and that other people pushed them in this creative direction against their will, and this letter is proof they weren’t then, and never will be, good enough.

Except a rejection letter doesn’t say that. Believe me, I write rejection letters and rejection letter templates. It’s never [YOUR NAME HERE], We don’t want your work so stop writing, stop making that thing, in fact, just stick to breathing air, but like, go way away and do it, because your cooties are really a problem. Signed [PROFESSIONAL PERSON].

A rejection letter just says that the query didn’t make someone want to read the manuscript or that the manuscript wasn’t what the reader was looking for at the time they read it. That’s it. If you get rejected, change the query, work on the manuscript, and keep trying. Remember too, that the query-and-publish model is just one way to get your story out into the world. Don’t you dare give up.

v. Answering your email promptly and fully moves you towards your goal. You can also say “making phone calls, answering phone calls, replying to tweets and messages, being more than a one-way distributor of awesome” moves you towards your goal.

I’ll put on my Parvus Press hat for second. Let’s say you send in your manuscript. Let’s say I dig it, and email you on Monday saying I want to talk. If you don’t answer that email until six Mondays from now or eleven Thursdays from now, do you know what that tells me? That you’re not serious about going forward. And I wanted you to be serious. I hoped you would be, because getting your book out into the world helps every one of us.

Prompt email response, even the “Hey, I got your email, but I’m picking the kids up from school, so a lengthy reply will happen in like 3 hours after dinner” matters (I want to point out that writing that sentence took me 38.78 seconds, yes I timed it, are you saying you don’t have 40 seconds while the kids clamber into the car to write a response?) because the people involved in that correspondence know they didn’t just scream out into the void. No one likes void-screaming, so please answer your emails. Reply to those tweets. I know, it takes time, but it’s nowhere as long as you think.

vi. If you’re creative, you’re going to have to do things that support that creativity, even when those things aren’t creative, or you think they suck, or that you suck at them. The era of the giant advance is dead. The era where all you have to do is sit back and write while other people handle everything else (ever notice how that makes the writing part sound so easy?) is dead. I’m sorry. I’m sorry because it means now you, the creative, are going to have to be responsible for some of the business-y stuff that other people used to do for you.

I’m talking about marketing. I’m talking about talking about what you’re doing and that you’re proud of it. I’m talking about getting the word out that you’ve got this stuff available and you’re willing to accept cash in exchange for your stuff.

You might not like doing that. You might resent that you have to do it. You might feel like you’re no good at it, and that you’re not-goodness at it is actively hurting you. You might feel stupid doing it. It might be hard. It might be awkward.

You still have to do it. Look, I wasn’t always great at Twitter. I used to use it like glorified text messaging, and it wasn’t until someone pointed out that reading my Twitter feed was like hearing half of really interesting conversations that I got my shit together. I’m not great at Twitter, but I do well enough. I just started really getting into Snapchat, because it’s going to be the next big thing. I’m super not good at Snapchat. It is a little embarrassing, and I have to remind myself to do it. But that won’t always be the case. I’ll get into the habit, and it will get easier.

And it’ll do that, not because I’ve got a superhuman aptitude for social media, but because I’m going to do it more often and learn from my mistakes. I’ll get better at doing it. So, it might be weird now, but I have the confidence that it won’t be later. And that’s where I’m aiming – this place in the future where I am all over social media delivering knowledge and encouragement. See the goal, work towards the goal, even if the work is hard or scary or frustrating.

vii. Write everyday. Even if that’s one word. It’s this point where some of my friends say it’s impractical or impossible. They’re so busy with work and kids and bills and whatever else that there’s just “no time.” I don’t buy it. I roll d20 and disbelieve. I think it’s a crock and it’s just an excuse. There IS time. Remember earlier when it took me 38 seconds to write an email reply? I refuse to believe that you can’t muster at least a minute to write something.

What I really think is going on here is that people have an expectation of what writing should be. They think it should take a big block of time, and involve a big block of words. If that’s possible, do it. But it doesn’t have to be this dedicated chunk of the day in order to prove that you’re really a writer. Besides, who are you trying to prove that to?

I so passionately believe you will either make time for the stuff that interests you, or you’ll make excuses why you’ll never be able to make that happen. I see it in my own life. It’s way easier to sit and talk about how it would be nice to have X happen, or I could go take the time to do X, but X sounds like it’ll take time, be hard, maybe I’ll get tired, and like, it means I’d have to get off the couch and I’m just in the middle of a good episode of the West Wing. Excuses are avalanches. Excuses are momentum-eaters.

Even one word a day, one more word than you started with, is progress. It might not be progress in big huge giant strides, but the size of progress doesn’t legitimize it.

Write everyday. Write or have your idea starve to death.

ix. Writing is power dynamics, risk, gain, and arc. If I had to boil down writing a manuscript, not counting genre, a story is about power and change. Who has it, who wants it, who’s losing it, how are they losing it, how are the people getting it, what benefits are there to getting it, what’s everyone risking, how do those risks change or challenge the characters?

Most manuscripts stall because power is either challenged by too many or the dynamic isn’t suitably challenged enough. Let’s say we’re writing high fantasy and there are twelve factions vying for the crown. That’s TWELVE groups to follow and develop in a story. TWELVE! How different can number 4 be from number 11? Why so many? Does it show that the writer is trying to get praise for complexity? Complexity isn’t always the best storytelling element to hang a hat on.

Or let’s say we’re a group of mercenaries infiltrating a corporation in a cyberpunk world. We’ve breached security somewhat, because we need to get the weapon plans from the vault, but the writer really wants to show just how  gritty they are by stacking the odds against the protagonists. It’s not that the heroes always have to succeed, but how is there any room for growth against steep odds?

Don’t neglect character arc. A character starts somewhere and has to be somewhere else, for better or worse, at the end of the story. No arc despite plot invalidates the plot. No one’s going to save all of time and space then go flop back down on the bed and read comics. If it’s big deal, show it.

x. Write for yourself, not the market. Unless some company called “The Market” contracts you to write a thing, you’re not writing for the market. Never ever write for the market. It’s faceless, it’s ephemeral, it’s vague, and hard to please. Just because futurist stories are hot right now does not mean you have to write one in order to get published. Write what you want, seriously, someone out there will want it. It might not be the someone you expect, but there’s a home out there for good work.

And while I’m at it, don’t just write to appease the audience. Audiences are way too fickle and can feel too entitled. You can write the exact topic they ask for and still get one-star reviews, because of how you wrote the topic. You’re not going to please everyone, and you shouldn’t spend your time trying to.

Give the audience what they need, and that’s most often your story in the best shape of its life. Know the market it’s going to, so that the story can find the hungriest consumers. A well told story in its best shape will always have an audience, so long as the writer gets the story to that audience. At least until we have instantaneous brain downloads, teleporters and that Star Trek food machine so I can have a Roy Rogers roast beef sandwich right this second.

Thanks for 400 posts. Here’s to 400 more. I’ll see you wonderful creatives back here next week for more awesome words. In the interim, find me on twitter and come check out snapchat.

Happy writing.