Letting Them Know You Create

Congratulations on reaching Friday. We’re going to celebrate with cocktails and potato skins out on the veranda, but first let’s sit and talk about something that has made eleven appearances in my inbox this week, only slightly more than my friend the Nigerian Prince and his genital enlarging cream he’ll share but only after I order a Russian bride and give her my bank account info.

I’m talking about the excuses people make to cover up the fact that they write. Or, in a sort of roundabout way, cover up the fact that they’re afraid they’ll be judged for writing. Now whether that judgment comes from friends, family, non-specific professionals, that weird lady who stands just a little too close to you in the checkout line, or whoever, I don’t know, but sometimes people hide what they’re doing, even if they love it, because they don’t want to be ridiculed or be told they’re wasting their time. To build this cover, they trot out some excuses and masks. Maybe you’ve heard some these…

I would write more but my kids have so much going on…
I would write more but I’m just so tired at the end of the day I just want to space out…
I would finish this book, but you know, life is just so busy right now …
I would finish this book, but it’s getting close to [INSERT SEASON HERE]…
I’d make time to write, but there’s just so many other things to do first…
I’ll write more when my kids [INSERT FUTURE EVENT/MILESTONE HERE]…
I’ll start that book when my husband [INSERT EVENT/ACTION HERE]…
I’ll start blogging next month…

Now, maybe there are legit reasons for that sentence being a thing you say. Maybe yes, your kids are super busy. Maybe yes, you work a grueling job that physically and mentally exhausts you to the point where sitting on the couch and staring at the television is the only relief from the crushing existence that is you right now. Maybe yes, like the $10 Founding Father, there are a million things you haven’t done. But, no, I don’t think you should just wait.


Sidebar!

We talked support networks before, and I’d like to expand on that a bit. At the core, the bright center of your support network, should be the most trusted people you know. They’re the base. You confide in them, you care about them, you want them to do well and be well. By my reckoning, I’d call those people family. Do not let biology limit or constrain this notion, because you can transcend the gene pool, which may be useful if you’ve got some really unhelpful and unhealthy people sharing chromosomes with you.

So this supportive network needs a point of reference within your home, since it’s the place you’re supposed to feel the safest. Maybe for some people, that home is just a building you occupy temporarily (looking at you, college students) or maybe it’s not the “ideal” place (looking at you people living in an apartment while you wait to hear back from the bank about your credit and mortgages), but wherever you’re at, you need to build a firm root for that supportive web. For me, I get the majority of that online. The majority of my friends and family are hundreds of miles away from me, and so the bulk of our communication and support happens via text messages, emails, and social media. And while it’s difficult to maintain those relationships the same way I could if they were in the same building or even the same timezone.

But it’s not the distance or the separation that I’m talking about here. Despite the geographical space, we’re still in touch. We maintain that support network through whatever media available. And even via media, it’s still a supportive atmosphere.

The fear or shame about rejection or confrontation or chastisement or judgment isn’t really acted upon. I might feel really nervous telling my close friends how frustrated I am about a situation, thinking they’ll tell me, “John it’s no big deal, get over it,” but they don’t. They listen, they support, they encourage me to think and not give up. I might feel like they’ll be critical, but I won’t know if they will be or not until I take that action of telling them. And 99.999% of the time, the response isn’t critical (there was one time I got told I was doing something stupid, but that’s because I was doing something stupid.)

A support network isn’t a judgmental network. When you find a node of support that’s far more critical and judgmental and unjustly negative, it’s time to restructure the network and give that person the heave-ho.

Okay, sidebar over.


The fear is reasonable, I guess. I mean, it makes sense that you’d have doubts as to how something is going to be received. It’s the same sort of thing when you submit an MS for publication, because someone else is going to say or do something that you can interpret as evidence your time was either wasted or not. Sure, that makes sense, but that means you’ve also decided to let someone else have the ability to approve your choices and decisions. The important question remains: Did you feel or do you feel like writing is a waste of time?

Recently, a five-year-old asked what I did. My response of “I help people tell stories better” was not met with derision or a questioning about how viable that job is in this economy, I got an “Oh” and then he dashed off to play. He didn’t want to be critical, he just wanted to know what I did when I said I was working.

I could have danced around the topic, or gone over his head with some lengthy explanation of how language works, but that would have been boring and it would have been easier to just go straight at the problem. And really, even if he thought it was silly, would that stop me? Am I going to pack up all my books and tweets and go back to selling furniture and towels because someone thinks what I do is silly? They’re not the boss of me, last I checked. It’s what I want to do, I’m capable of doing it, I’d like to think I’m good at it, I enjoy doing it, so I’m going to do it .

The fear is only as big and as well-equipped as we make it to be. Yes, we might have all manner of problems, or disabilities, or obstacles, but being defined by them (or using them as rationalizations for NOT doing things, or putting them ahead of all else as your identity), isn’t going to help you get done what you want. If you want to go after that goal, pursue it in whatever means possible, by any means necessary. Your path to success isn’t going to look like anyone else’s, and that’s a good thing. It’s a challenge, but challenge is what we need for growth as human people beings.

So where does this fear come in? It’s the unknown. It’s the unknown in a new dress that isn’t entirely flattering. Like that time Aunt Mabel tried a maxi-skirt and just … no. Big no.

We don’t know how our stating our goals, plans, wants, desires, and dreams is going to be received, so we (thanks to conditioning, a few previous experiences and a lack of confidence) assume it’s going to go over about as well as a petting zoo at a child’s funeral.

But we don’t know how it’s going to be received. It’s Schrodinger all over again – well received and not well received or dead in a box at the same time.

With 50/50 odds, why not try?

And even if your enthusiasm isn’t reciprocated as you’d hoped, why let that stop you? It’s your time, you’re presumably not hurting anyone, you’re the boss of you, so go for it.

I’m not saying rejection or doubt from others doesn’t hurt or slow momentum or inject cloudy doubt onto your sunny day, but it’s up to you as to whether or not you let the clouds gather into hurricane season.

Axe your excuses. Rather than give up on your project, why not put your excuses to the curb? Yeah, I know, that sounds like ten bajillion times harder, but take a deep breath and give it a try. And no, don’t think about making an excuse for why you can’t get rid of your excuses about why you can’t tell people what you do or why you can’t go do it.

If you’re about to ask, “how?” the answer is this: Go do the thing you want to do and tell people about it.

This is a combination of accountability (people will ask you how it’s going, and having good news is better than making up a lie) and enjoyment (when you love what you do, you talk about it excitedly.) And by taking advantage of accountability, you can develop that discipline necessary to make progress. By taking advantage of enjoyment, you’ll get satisfaction from what you do, which will make you more likely to do it again, which will feed into more discipline, and more good stuff to talk about … and onward the cycle turns.

Try it for one week. And if you’re about to say you don’t have anyone to talk to, come tell me.

I’ll see you guys next week. Enjoy your weekend. Go do awesome stuff. Happy writing.

Stop Aspiring, Start Doing

I’m an aspiring author.”

I hear those words a lot. I read them a lot in tweets and emails. And we’re going to talk about them this morning.

Good morning, welcome to Friday, good job getting through another week. Got any good weekend plans? I’ll be playing video games and editing manuscripts, which is a pretty good time. Oh, and I might treat myself to a steak.

Today we’re going to talk about aspiring, and why that word isn’t doing what you think it does. Because I don’t want you to be aspiring, I want you to be doing. Doing what? Doing whatever it is you do creatively.

So many people talk about aspiring, so let’s look at the definition first. Here:
Aspire1Aspire2Aspire3

Aspiring, from what I get in these 3 definitions, is wanting to do a thing or having a plan to do a thing. I don’t see in these definitions the actual effort, just the preparations.

There’s nothing wrong with preparation, it’s how we improve and effort towards success. But preparing to do X isn’t actually doing X, and that’s the important point.


I want to take a second to point out that moving forward from aspiring to doing can bring a lot of people and their opinions into whatever you’re doing. They may say things like “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” or “Are you sure you want to do X that way?” or they become some sort of oracle when previously they had just been critical. Take their feedback with a few handfuls of salt. Critics are not the boss of you. It’s okay to move forward and do the best job you can, even if that job requires time, patience or learning some new stuff. You’re allowed to make mistakes, and you’re allowed to get better. Okay, sidebar over.


We use aspiring to talk about stuff that hasn’t happened yet, but we’d really like it to happen. As if we’ve placed the order with a server, and we’re waiting on our entrees. This suggests that what we want is subject to external forces, and while that is partially true depending on circumstance (selling a million books means a million books need to be produced), the bulk of what we aspire to do is within our ability.

Maybe it’s not automatic. Maybe we’ll need to raise money, get training, change a habit, start a new habit, talk to some people, take a risk, fill out a form, get on a plane, write an email, or whatever. But we can still do those things. We’re not wholly incapable of performing the task, it’s that we’ve mentally resigned ourselves to a position where we think we can’t accomplish the task.

It would be expensive to travel. Equipment to do that thing is expensive. Getting something done takes time. You don’t know who to talk to. What if people laugh at you? What if other people, society, the universe, determines you’re awful? Note: It’s been pointed out to me that awful people can run for President and get their party’s endorsement, so don’t give up hope.

We imprison ourselves in a little comfortable low-risk cage, with shackles made of fear and excuses and projection. We could be doing stuff, but “our place” is over here where we don’t let ourselves take whatever steps necessary, or even take the steps beyond those. Because we might fail. Because we might be rejected. Because we might find out we’ve wasted time or money.

Says who?

Who’s going to laugh at you for taking that vacation? Who’s going to think you’re a failure because you’re taking noticeable steps towards your goal? How is making an effort the same as failing?

It’s time to stop aspiring, and start doing. This is how we got to the moon, landed a dishwasher on a comet and know what DNA looks like. This is how we created national parks, got a black guy elected, and learned that graham crackers get even better with chocolate and marshmallow.

But how? How can we excise this word and this idea out of our heads when we see it repeated over and over?

We prove it wrong. We prove it to be an inadequate descriptor of what we’re doing.

We’re not just people staring out the window, diddling around, with big hopes and blank spaces. We’re creatives. We make stuff. We tell stories. We make art out of cheese. We shake our moneymakers. We hammer metal into shapes. We do stuff, sometimes with pants on.

Every day, every chance you get, not just when convenient, not just when you remember to, do something substantive that gets you towards your goal.

A writer? Get more than 1 word on the page. Aim for multiple sentences. Not revising them. Fresh ones.

A maker of stuff? Sketch, prototype, develop.

What I’m saying is do more than just think about it. Do more than fire up the imagination and wouldn’t-it-be-nice engines. You can make this stuff happen.

No, not right away, nothing happens right away. It’ll take time. But you have time, more than you realize. And you’ll accomplish the goal, you’ll get where you want to be, you just need to make progress.

No, it won’t always be easy. Some days you’re not gonna wanna do anything. Some days you’ll feel like you haven’t done nearly enough. The goal is going to look a million billion miles away.

But that’s when you look at the work you’ve done. The actual work, not just the time spent thinking or staring out the window watching the neighborhood pass you by. See the words on the page? They weren’t there before. See the sketches? They didn’t poof into existence. You did that. You took a step forward. Good job.

And celebrate when you take that step forward. I know, it’s not the goal, but if goals were only one step away, you probably wouldn’t be lamenting them not happening, would you?

This is all predicated though on taking your goal and breaking it into reasonable steps. And the key there is “reasonable.” Reasonable means not only a manageable size given the current time frame and all the other stuff you have going on, but it also doesn’t require extraordinary intervention. Winning the lottery so you can pay off your crushing student debt is not as reasonable as say, having 2 and not 3 drinks when you go out, so that eleven dollars doesn’t leave your checking account is reasonable.

Your goal shouldn’t always means an end to your life as you know it. Sometimes, yes, it can, if you wanted to become a monk and live in a cave, you probably don’t want to living in downtown Seattle going out to microbreweries every night. But on the whole, you can develop incremental steps towards your goal (those steps are goals themselves, don’t forget), where the rest of your life doesn’t detour.

My point is, you don’t have to keep aspiring. You can go do it. One step at a time. Set up your own steps, and make your goal happen. I believe in you, even if I’m just a guy on the internet blogging three times a week and tweeting a lot.

 

Have a great weekend, happy writing, I’ll see you back here Monday.

The Issue of Anxiety And Worry

Good morning, my friends. My apologies for missing time with you earlier this week, I hope you’ll forgive me, I neither wanted to bring you inadequate thoughts, nor did my body want to cooperate and be in less pain for a few hours. But I’m here with you today, and it’s good to be here with you at the end of the week.

While I’m writing this, it’s in the mid-60s, the sun is out, and I hear the scrape of neighbors’ rakes. Normally that sound would lead me to turn the stereo louder and grumble, but frankly I’m pleased to be surrounded by ambient sounds right now.

Let me further apologize for not speaking to today’s issue sooner. I have been meaning to, the outline for this post has called my Drafts folder home since FiYoShiMo, and this was almost going to be one of the early days, but the thoughts hadn’t congealed to more than day old pudding, so it sat around, fermenting, until I was pleased with it.

Today we’re going to talk anxiety, but not the specific anxieties. I want to focus on the anxiety about writing, the worry about what you’re writing being “good enough”, the idea that you’re being “original enough”, and the fear that you’d be better off yelling at a sock puppet instead of querying.

I hear this fear a lot. I hear it directly as people doubt that they’re doing the right thing. I hear it indirectly as people downplay a day’s work, or shrug off a compliment from a reader. It’s an insidious pirate, sailing the high seas of creativity and plundering your word and publishing booty. It’s a legion of cockroaches in power armor, marching strident towards your couch, even with the lights on. It’s a jerk and a bastard and a bitch.

But what can we do? We can’t let the pirate scuttle us, we can’t let the roaches set up an embassy and Starbucks franchise, can we?

If the worry is that what we right isn’t “good enough”, shift your focus from ‘good’ to ‘enough’, and realize that ‘enough’ assumes you have a context and contemporaries to whom you can be judged. Think about the face of it: if you’re talking about your not-complete manuscript, and you’re saying you’re comparable to finished book X, on how many levels are you judging yourself?

Their book is done. Yours isn’t.
Their book is about … space weasels. Yours has housewives.
Their book is published and available in paperback. Yours is available in that folder on that thumb drive you keep in the bottom of that old plastic cup you got from that date you took to the carnival and you thought you two were totally gonna kiss then they decided that just after getting off the Ferris wheel with you, they were going to go meet up with their friends and they’d totally call you later, so you raced home, only they never called you, but you eventually saw then about eight years later, they became a skiing instructor with a spray-on tan and a bad boob job and you decided not to call her back either. (I may have said too much)
Their book is the fifth in a series. Yours has barely got five chapters so far, but you’re like, really close on figuring out what happens in the sixth.

There should be a law, so let’s call it … the Adamus Law of Judgmental Comparison, because it’s my blog, and I need more ego strokes. (Make with the stroking…), which says: For every point of difference you can find between your work and someone else’s, you knock down your own sense of value and quality ten per cent on average.

I say this because there’s a huge difference between comparing and contrasting two items, and putting one on a telescopic pedestal so you can always fall short.

This is particularly the case if you’re not done writing and you’re judging your words on the paperback you picked up in the airport bookstore. An incomplete thing, whatever it is, cannot measure up at all to a finished thing. Even if what you’ve got is already bigger or more complex, or has better LEDs, you can’t let the finished state of one thing be the judge of your incomplete work … unless you’re comparing completeness. And if you do that, it’s binary: you’re either finished or you’re not finished.

Will it be “good enough”? What does that mean? Do you mean “Will people like it?” How about you finish it and then go find out? Neither you nor I know whether or not your book is going to be liked, but being liked doesn’t make it good “enough”. It doesn’t even make it “good”, because there are loads of things people like that aren’t good (political discussions, victim social politics) and loads of things that people dislike that are good (episodes of Maury not about finding out who the father is).

Also, you and I will define “good” by different definitions, based wholly on our subjective experiences, our educations, our own tastes, and a host of other influences.Neither of us is wrong, we just disagree. (It’s important to remember that people can disagree, and neither has to be the wrong one)

Instead of chasing good enough for other people, go after good enough for yourself. This isn’t a call for narcissism, for blind arrogance, or intransigence. The internet has plenty of that, often in a variety of hair colors, funny hats, suits, and photo filters.

Don’t move the goalposts on yourself, that’s not the same as setting a new goal and accomplishing it. What’s wrong with setting a goal, accomplishing it, feeling good about it, then setting off to achieve a new goal? Do you just want to cut out the part where you feel good, because you don’t think you’ve earned it?

Remember please that feelings aren’t facts, so your feeling that you don’t deserve praise is noted, but in no way does it need indulgence. You’re better than that, and you should hear that more often. Set a goal, celebrate its accomplishment, and set another.

As for your fears of originality, so long as you’re not lifting wholesale story chunks and badly filing down the serial numbers (sorry, writer of Winged-Rodent Young Woman), and so long as you’re doing you, to the best of your ability, you’re good. Keep going.

Oh, you want more? Sure. While there are only so many basal stories for our foundations (I covered them here), anything you do creates original content. Yes, anything. So, yes, you’re being original “enough.”

Will any of what I said allay your worries? I don’t know. I hope so, it would be nice to be less worried, wouldn’t it? But ultimately I cannot know how you’re doing unless you tell me, so I look forward to hearing from you.

Have a great weekend, make amazing art. I’m going to see a very heavily promoted and poorly reviewed movie this weekend, so Monday’s blog will likely be called, “What the hell did I see at the movies?”

See you then. Happy writing.

Of Identities and Legacy

I write this post on Sunday afternoon, starting less than twenty minutes after returning home from a friend’s memorial service. This post is not to detail what was said by whom and how, nor is it to eulogize a man the vast majority of you never met, but it is to talk about two elements brought up in this service.

To do this right, I have to sit you next to me. There, in bleached yellow church, in the old cherry pew, on a burgundy cushion that’s likely been in place since the Nixon administration, though it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that the cushion was somehow responsible for the Croatoan mystery. We sit here in a large room of stale air, where the stuffiness reminds you of old people’s living rooms just after they invite you in, and the atmosphere fills every gap and space with a kind of foamy quiet. And we listen.

We listen to people speak, and people grieve, and we’ll go past that, because really what else can we do as writers, our minds forever swirling away with how these moments of our raw lives might be mined later with either delicacy or vulgarity, everything influencing us, intentional or otherwise. We’ll sit and listen and dissect. Not on the merits of the speaking, not their technique, but the undercurrent. There, in those favorite quotes they pick, and in the memories they share.

In so much of this pomp and circumstance, we grab onto the sadness. We wad up tissues, we stifle sobs, we feel the emotions like blades carving us apart. We hurt. Our pain fades over time, our ache morphs into not a raw wound with ragged edges, but a dull weight that takes hold in some part of our being. It’s there, in between all the happy times and funny memories, and those weird quirks that you start to see mirrored elsewhere and then take them as a sign from elsewhere that the person is with you.

But today I saw the legacy of a person. And that is sadly only something truly appreciable in their absence. So let’s talk about legacy and identity today. Who we are, who we were, who we effort every day to be and become, this is the path to legacy.

Will we be known by our pretense? By our attention seeking? By our victimization? By our faults? By our incomplete lists? By our successes? By our ambition?

It’s easy to forget that we have a great deal of control over what we provide the world as to how they can remember us. I, for instance, assume I am forgotten easily, that I am unremarkable, just a guy who writes and talks to people, punctuating the rants about grammar and technique with complaints of ill health or mention of food and video games.

I have an appalling sense of how I am remembered, and a worse one still of how I am regarded. In every glance, in every person moving out of the way without seeing me, I read disgust or shame. That I am contemptible in some contexts by some people is irrefutable, because I make no attempt to hide that I spent many years being a rotten little shit of a person, and only recently have I begun to climb my way from the slag heap and cesspit to hopefully scratch out at least a tolerable sort of pleasantry usually reserved for that aunt you only see every third holiday. At least my eyebrows are natural, and not carved into leathery flesh with a sharpie and dime store hope.

Identity is not the fact that I prefer a t-shirt to a suit, or John to Mr. Adamus, or cold soda to fancy wine lists. Identity is not my physical or mental health, my abilities or disabilities, my vices or virtues. What I broadcast as my identity is not bound in my heterosexuality, my gender, my age, my hair color, my astigmatism, or even my education. These these do not define me alone, and I routinely snarl at the forces and people who look to say that because of them I can be so easily categorized.

And you should too. It shouldn’t matter who or what you are, and it is, I tell you, very likely that the reason it matters is because you’ve brought it up like it’s a sticking point rather than a simple fact like you enjoy a certain food, or prefer your sandwich served a certain way. Creativity transcends all these labels, who you are informs what you make, but does not, should not, and cannot limit it.

Your art doesn’t suffer because you’re a woman. Or because you’re genderfluid. Or because you’re in a wheelchair. Or _________ (that’s where you fill in the blank with whatever element you like). You can and should still go make art. And it won’t be like anyone else’s art, because it’s yours. Your identity is within the art, it’s not separate from it.

And when you keep making art, when you stay true to your identity, not the politics of it, but the substance of it, so that you can do away with the ephemeral nature of buzzwords, that becomes your legacy.

What you leave behind, who you leave behind, that’s all going to get judged, and there’s a big pile of nothing you can do about it. People will try and slap labels to you, try to make you posthumously conform to their narratives, even when you spent all your life trying to establish your own.

Let the art do the talking when your own words can’t. That partnership, let that be the reference for people when they try to affix some label on you.

Build that identity in your art. This is what you make, to the best of your ability, no matter who gives it one or five stars, who buys it or pans it, who calls it ruinous or sings it praises.

But beware, there’s an edge to this, that you become only identified by what you create. That you forget the other elements of identity, the things not found in what you make. Your love of trout. The way you like sunrises. How you feel about conversations with someone through a closed bathroom door. Or whatever.

You are more than your creations, you are more than the things you don’t get around to, you are more than the things you’re still working on. You are a person who creates. And your life extends past the easel, the keyboard, the legal pad, the potter’s wheel.

Bring that life into your creativity, and your creativity into life. It’s not something to hide, or keep tucked in the back of the cupboard until everyone’s fast asleep and only then are you permitted to indulge. It doesn’t need to be some secret. It’s creativity, not the technologies we acquired from the lizard people who live among us and wait for the day of their uprising when their leader is elected on the Republican nomination, after all.

We can spend so much time looking forward to our legacy that we forget we’re still standing in the present. These are our opportunities, right here, one word at a time. We may draft them in our heads during the lulls of a memorial service, but we give them a half-life when we put them out into the world for consumption.

Let your words and worlds and whirls live. They carry with them the silhouettes and fingerprints of who you are. They matter, just as much as you do.

*

I’ll see you Wednesday when we dive back into the inbox.

Happy writing.

BonusInbox – Writing & Focus

Good morning. We’re going to deviate from what I had planned for today’s blogpost (you’ll see that on Monday), because I wanted to bring you an extra question and answer from the inbox. It’s an important question, and honestly, I think it’s got elements that need to be discussed more often, so I’m going to do that along with my answer.

Today’s question comes from PJ:

This is a difficult question to ask because like the problem itself, it’s rather complex. I have an issue with over plotting and too many characters. I get to the middle or even the end of a first draft and realize I’ve packed way too much into one story. Which seems a simple enough issue to deal with; just edit it down. My real problem is the thought process I go through that leads me to these messes.
I think the writing itself is okay and that makes it even more frustrating. I have stories to share but it’s like I can’t settle my brain down enough to get one finished. My mind wanders, my attention span is a tad bit short and I’m on a few different medications that make me a little foggy. So with all that and the desire to just get a well-written story out there I get extremely overwhelmed.
Now I’ve written with & without outlines. Both methods fly off course, just one a little less than the other. So I guess my question is should I just admit to myself that being a writer just isn’t going to work? Is it possible to have the skills to tell a story with a mind that is incapable of keeping it on track? Or is there a way to settle myself down and salvage these stories?
On a personal level I’ve lived with a lot of health issues both physical and mental throughout my life and it’s sad to say but I’ve gotten used to wanting to do something but either my body or mind won’t let me. I was hoping this wasn’t one of those and I really don’t want to quit. I just don’t know what to do or when someone in this situation should just throw in the towel.

There’s a lot to unpack here PJ, so let’s go a chunk at a time.

“Too Much”
There’s always caution to be taken when we start tossing around “too” when we’re getting creative. Because the more “too” we spread around, the more judgmental we’re being of our work, and by extension, ourselves. Granted, there’s some wisdom in seeing that you’ve put too much in, so other people may agree with you once they read  it, but there’s still that risk that maybe you’re being overcritical and there isn’t actually too much. Holding yourself back, overthinking the process is a great way to breed frustration about the process, which can lead you to doing less and less of it over time.

Did you write too much, PJ? I don’t know. But your frustration is palpable in the question you wrote. My answer there is get someone to read it. A beta reader, someone who isn’t going to be biased in your favor, someone who you haven’t said, “Hey I think there’s too much in this story, give it a read?” and have instead said, “Could you read this for me?”

Over-plotting, Too Many Characters
Let’s suppose we have a popular television show. Let’s call it “Contest of Chairs.” And on our show we have, oh I don’t know, 180 characters. Sure, we’ll kill off a third of them, leaving us 120. Since we can’t have too many plots, let’s find a nice divisible number for 120, like 5. With 5 plots, that’s 24 characters to a plot.

Wait, you say, this television show is serial, so we can split these five plots over, I don’t know, 50 episodes. So let’s do some math.

50 episodes * 60 minutes to an hour = 3000 minutes
3000 minutes / 5 plots = 600 minutes per each of 5 plots

600 minutes / 24 characters per plot = 25 minutes per character per plot

So over the course of 6 seasons, each character per plot gets 24 minutes of narrative focus, according to my crude math. That’s about 4 minutes per plot per character per season.

Conclusion: Too many characters. Too little time spent focusing on them diffuses the story arc, making it hard for an audience member to do anything other than stay on top the show. The onus is on them to do whatever possible not to skip or miss an airing, and not be confused, because this story train is a-running, and we got not time to be slowly down.

Don’t confuse complexity of plot or character quantity for any mark of quality. Some of the movies collectively loved and appreciated don’t have many featured characters. Do you know why? Because too many characters makes it hard to follow along. And when you get into trying to distinguish Sal from Salvatore from Sally from Sal Jr, you’re doing yourself no great service as a writer.

You don’t need more characters, you need to focus more on the characters you do have.

As for plot? As we learned in FiYoShiMo, plot is a conflict that the character(s) effort to change, and as a result, change themselves. The more complex it is, the more you’re requiring the reader to follow along, and making it harder for them to do so.

I get it, you don’t want to be boring. You don’t want to be like all the other books on the shelf. You want to stand out. Let the quality of what you do be the thing that puts a spotlight on your work. How well you tell a plot, even if it’s “simple”, says way more about your craft than whatever the plot is.

What this tells me PJ, is way more about you as a writer than the specifics of your writing. Whether it’s fantasy or sci fi or Regency romance or who knows what, what your question tells me is that there’s an element of frustration and self-doubt floating around. I don’t know if you’ve asked yourself why you have to make things so big and twisty, and maybe you’ve often chalked it up to, “That’s just how I think of these things…”, but before you answer, this is going to segue us to our next section.

Schedule and Focus
Let me draw back the magic writer curtain. No matter what author you want to talk about, no matter the era they live in, no matter the genre they produce, the single greatest unifying trait, the strand that ties all writers together is that they write. Whether that’s foolscap and ink, typewriter, Macbook Air, dictation to a secretary, or even interpretative dance, a writer writes. And looks for opportunities to keep writing.

You’re on the right track with outlines, and good for you for trying them out, but the downside to an outline is that they can be just as complex as the MS they support.

But PJ, there’s no magic bullet. There’s no one solution to put in place so that all anyone needs to do is outline in this one particular way, and then write paragraphs of a certain length, then draft a certain number of times. There just isn’t.

In that space though, you have freedom, and I think it’s a double-edged sword. Yes, you can go about creating this MS in a dozen billion million different ways, but that can also be paralyzing. Like looking at a closet and not knowing what to wear, but knowing you need to put on something. Like looking at an open fridge and not knowing what you want to eat, but knowing that if you don’t eat, a tiny muse will appear in your office and insist you eat because otherwise you get grumpy and then you’re way less fun to talk to (I may have said too much there, PJ).

Couple that with whatever anxiety, shame, frustration, and anger you’re feeling about being foggy and having some expectation of success (see next section), and it’s little surprise to me that you’re often discouraged. It’s entirely possible for you to write, and write well, with whatever meds and attention span you have. It’s gonna require some discipline and you’re gonna have to challenge yourself, but you can do it.

Smaller successes queue just as nicely as larger ones, although we seem to value them less. We prize getting a promotion at work as being “better” than being able to walk up and down a flight of stairs. We tout qualifying for a mortgage over the sheer fact that last Wednesday you got out of bed. Just because we don’t put it in a Facebook status update or a tweet doesn’t mean it’s not worth celebrating (says the guy who shuffles when he walks and occasionally feels like there’s a conga line of blue whales on his chest). Give yourself credit for the small stuff as well as the large stuff. It’s not small or large, it’s just stuff.

So when you sit down to work, work in small chunks, as your attention span allows. Is that five minutes an hour? 3 minutes a day? Two words at a time? 46 minutes straight? Whatever your attention span, make the most of it. And then, give yourself a fucking break. You just put words on the page, stop judging them, and be proud that you did it. You can hash out if they stay or go when you finish writing and start revising. Play to your strengths.

Expectations
PJ, a big part of your question seems to be about expectations. That you need X Y and Z elements to happen in certain ways in order to be successful, and if you don’t write this, or do that, or submit here, or whatever then … what exactly? Does the world end? Are you going to smash your keyboard on the cliffs? Rigidity in expectation can be a killer.

If your goal is to get published traditionally, so long as someone signs you and the terms are amenable, are you going to quibble over the name on the letterhead? If your goal is to sell a certain number of books, are you going to be upset if it takes more than a week? Especially if the number is large and has a comma in it?

There are many ways to skin the success cat, but holding on too tightly to the idea that there’s only ONE way to have “success” (I’m making airquotes because I mean success in a broad sense), is a great way to never be satisfied and keep those fires of self-doubt and not-good-enoughness burning.

This is also a great way to keep blaming yourself and feeling bad for having attention issues and being on meds for them. I don’t know if that’s what you’re doing, but if you are, I gotta say, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. It doesn’t make you less of a person or a creator if you gotta go take a pill for something. You’re not a bad person for needing meds. I’m sorry they make you foggy, but you’re still capable, so long as you play to strengths and don’t give up.

Find your goal. Boil it way the hell down. Is it to be a published author? Is it to just have a complete story that someone will buy?

And then start questioning it. Would you feel like less of a writer if you serialized the story? Or if you recorded it as audio? Or paired with, I dunno, a theater troupe to perform the first four paragraphs?

How you measure that success is going to often provoke the frustration. Don’t live up to some standard or bar that you’ve set, and you can easily drive yourself to feeling like you should quit. But you shouldn’t. Because you didn’t “fail.” You did something, you wrote, you produced something on a given day, and sometimes it’s just gotta be good enough, because you’re always good enough, whether you wrote 1 word or 10,000.

So What Do You Do?
Start small. Way small. Set tiny goals that you can demolish. Set goals that you can demolish where you can accomplish multiple goals then reward yourself.

When you map out the story, don’t limit yourself to just an outline. Try note cards. Try audio notes. Try visual diagrams.

And keep it small. Write out your characters. Read about plot. Go slow, stay organized.

Maybe this video will help.

BUT DO NOT GIVE UP.

THERE IS NO NEED TO GIVE UP PJ.

FIGHT BACK. KEEP WRITING. DISCIPLINE AND SUCCESS. MEASURABLE PROGRESS AND GIVING YOURSELF SOME CREDIT.

Keep going.

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I’ll see you guys Monday. It looks to be a good weekend here at Castle Adamus. There are things to read and new shows to feast upon. Have a great time doing what and whoever it is you do.

Happy writing.

Of Writers and Scotsmen

Welcome back to the week. Hope your weekend was a good one. Mine wasn’t too shabby, thanks for asking. The weather’s getting warmer, so I’m encouraged to leave the blinds up and I’m counting those days until the clocks shift an hour when we’re one step closer to me having windows open and music blaring – it remains my favorite stretch of the year.

Also, on a personal note, I’m getting better. The meds are working, I can afford them now (yay insurance!), and I’ve got more energy than I had last week. I’m not completely up to speed again, but this is definitely a big step forward.

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Before we get into today’s topic, I’ve got a favor to ask. I’ve put together a short anonymous survey (you don’t need to give your name or e-mail address) that I’d appreciate you taking. It’s 10 questions, and won’t take more than a few minutes.

Check it out here. Thanks.

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Today we’re going to talk about sort of a hot button issue, depending on how often you frequent message boards and forums for writers, though the problem exists outside of writerdom. I want to talk today about the No True Scotsman fallacy and how it kills rather than strengthen writing and its communities.

What is the No True Scotsman? It’s an assertion that a “true” (read: “real”) __________ wouldn’t do whatever it is they’re doing.

Like this:
A: No writer succeeds without an MFA.
B: I’m a successful writer, and I don’t have an MFA.
A: Yeah, okay, but no real writer succeeds without an MFA.

Swap “writer” for any label you can think of, and swap the back half of the sentence  (start with the verb and go forward), and you’ll see this a lot. Here are some examples I’ve heard and read over the weekend.

No real writer writes children’s books.
To be a real larper, you need to be out there every weekend.
No real feminist thinks penetrative intercourse is acceptable.
No real chef makes a casserole.
A real writer would know that only trad pub makes you legit.
No real parent lets their child eat a doughnut.
To be a real gamer, you had to have played Dungeons & Dragons first edition.
No real patriot thinks we need to get rid of guns.

Maybe you’ve heard this sort of stuff before. Maybe it hasn’t been in the form of a single sentence, but the idea gets put out there that there are “real” writers and then there are “not-real” writers based on what people do or don’t do. You see this a lot on message boards when people ask questions or challenge assumptions or just plain don’t know because they’re new or unsure.

What this does is create an unnecessary division within a group, so there’s an opportunity to create an us-versus-them environment, where one group can deny access, praise, legitimacy, information, or experience from another group. It’s another form of gatekeeping, since it makes one group have to validate themselves to the other group, if they want to be considered “real.”

It’s a giant crock of applesauce and horsefeathers.

Because a real writer is someone who writes. Period. A real gamer is someone who plays games. Period. A real ____ is someone who does/is _______, because the act of doing a thing is  what makes you a person who does a thing. To suggest that someone isn’t legitimate because they don’t conform to your metric says that you’re somehow the arbiter of other people’s efforts and talent and thoughts.

I just checked. You’re not the arbiter of other people.

I’ve also noticed that the people who want to spend their time talking about who is or isn’t a “real” writer are often doing so at the internet watering holes for writers, and often do so repeatedly over the course of several hours. I watched one user write 7 or 8 posts over the course of 2 hours, feuding with anyone within 60 virtual feet about how you shouldn’t go to Author X’s blog, that Author Y’s blog was better, how you can’t trust any editors, how you need to be doing A and B and C things … all this talk, when they could instead let the writing and production of writing be a meritocracy.

Want to be a real writer? Then be writing. Make good art. Art hard. Challenge yourself. Don’t poison the watering holes by pissing in it. That time you spend yapping about who is and isn’t a writer is time YOU could be writing, helping yourself rather than shutting down others. Unless, of course, you feel you need to shut down other people to feel better about yourself.

We’re all true Scotsmen. We’re all real writers, even if we disagree with each other or work differently.

See you later this week for #inboxwednesday.

Happy writing.

 

 

 

The Post-Dreamation Post

This post is coming to you on Monday the 22nd of February. If it sounds a little janky, it’s because I’ve been writing it in sections while I’ve been at Dreamation, one of my local conventions.

I’d also like to point out that this is the ONLY post you’re going to get from me this week, I’ve got some surgery scheduled for mid-week, and I’m not going to be anywhere near any shape to be blogging later this week. It’s kind of a big deal, and yes I hope I’ll be okay too. On to other points.

Normally I do not shy away from giving panels to anyone, but catch me at the end of a day, or a bad day, or just when I’ve reached the end of whatever rope, and I would much prefer to sit and talk casually. Since I didn’t give a panel on Sunday, allow me now to write out what I would have said. Here goes.

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I believe, absolutely and fundamentally, that people should create art, and that art is not all that impossible to create. We face a lot of problems though when we make that decision, and while I have never yet successfully predicted the order in which these problems are faced by creators, I have to date always seen these problems in one form or another, creator after creator, no matter if we’re talking manuscripts or screenplays or little origami notions. They are universal, and I think the first step in unifying and normalizing our experiences is to get rid of the idea that you’re alone as a creative. Yes, you might be working by yourself, but that doesn’t mean you’re alone on a blue orb that hurtles through space. I mean c’mon, you’re not a Jedi on a rock watching the ocean.

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There’s the idea that what you’re making has to be of some certain level, whether that’s quality, or how marketable it is, before you’re allowed to proud of it, or think it’s a good idea. And that, I’m sorry, is complete horseshit and applesauce brought to you by whatever assumptions you’ve made or inherited that you’re only good because of bank accounts and sales figures. This idea shows up a few times in development, first in the idea stage, where people question whether the idea they just had is good enough, then again while they’re working on it, and it moves from some larval stage of notes to drafts or prototypes. Lastly it shows up in latter stages, like when it’s nearly done or when people can support crowdfunding it, or when there’s a big shiny “submit” button on an email or uploader for self-publishing.

The question of is it good enough is the same as the question of whether or not you, specifically you as a creative person who’s done this thing, are good enough. Good enough to be proud of your efforts. Good enough to be rewarded with other peoples’ time and attention and money, as if you wouldn’t be good enough without that manuscript or box or doohickey.

You must remember that you are not your product. Whatever the hell it is. However long it took you to think up, draft, revise, tool, develop, or create. You are good enough thanks to the sheer facts of being human and being creative and being brave enough to take an idea and birth it into the world.

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Along comes then the question as to what art is? Does art have any responsibility to do something? Not “do something” in the press-a-button-get-a-pellet way, but more like serve as advocate or soapbox or broadcast beacon for some cause or group or idea. By its very creation, art is a challenge, an attempt to fill a void that people haven’t perceived or thought about, so existence is already advocacy and broadcast. The contents need not take on some extra potence in interpretation thanks to cultures of politics or victimhood: sometimes it’s just a story of a trans man trying to buy his partner a Mother’s Day themed dildo, and not a treatise on lost culture. Don’t lose perspective, and certainly don’t adopt messages that you don’t want to stand behind.

Art exists, the artist cannot control how it gets interpreted, nor should they try. You might paint the word “Garbage” on canvas and tell me you’re discussing American politics, but I’ll tell you it’s awfully reminiscent of a 90s grunge band who had music that got stuck in my head. The question is not if I agree to your premise, but if I had a reaction at all, and can I, as an audience, appreciate the work, even if it’s not something I like? So when you’re making a thing, just make it. Make it for you. Make it your way. If that way means you get to give voice to people not often heard, or shed light in often dark spaces, or make conventional what so many believe abnormal, do it. But do not take on the extra baggage in some attempt to win points and curry favor. This is creativity, not the lightning round of a game show.

*

Whenever there is a question of is it bad or wrong to do a thing or to do a thing this way, whether we’re talking about having a flashback at some point in a story, or having a piece of salescopy mention a product feature, or a character saying they drink Pepsi, I always respond the same way – no it’s not wrong, no one’s going to take your keyboard away for doing it. This is different than doing the thing wrong, like messing up how dialogue goes on the page, or misspelling congeniality. Doing the thing wrong means correction should happen, but just having something happen is not in itself reason enough to break out the knout and cilice, begging forgiveness from people on message boards and social media alike.

Permission isn’t meant to come externally, and in too many cases, the older models of publishing, with their emphasis on gatekeepers and exclusion, permission was this piece of meat dangled in front of the starving artists, so that there might be dancing for the amusement of those in ivory towers. That model isn’t dead so much as it’s had its control fractured, as new mediums and methods of publication offer a variety of options in place of waiting for anonymous people to respond to queries and dispense pronouncements. Because the power now sits in the hands of the author right up until the moment of submission, that permission has to derive internally, and be persistent through all the stages of creation. You can write whatever the hell you want, it can get edited and shaped into whatever will be clearest for the reader, and it will find an audience. Of course, the previous sentence has assumed you’ve given yourself permission to write and finish something without fear of later judgment, that you’ve given yourself permission to have drafts not be the finished product, and given yourself permission to go do the work necessary to figure out and find who the product’s audience is.

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Now let’s suppose just for a minute that you’re like me – a creative with some health issues (mental and otherwise), a few responsibilities, not as much time in the century to do all the things that can be dreamed in those moments when work is supposed to be happening – these are all factors that can erode the idea that you’re supposed to be making anything at all. How can you? There are bills that need to be paid, the phone never seems to stop ringing, no one at the office seems to care that you just totally figured out how to kill Maude in chapter 5, and that last night you wrote seventy-seven words about the way the car sighed like an old person sighing in a church pew. Life seems to make some distinction from the creative process, that one has to be separate from the other, that a creative has a life, and then goes off to some secret lair where they can create when the rest of the world isn’t looking, so long as they don the cloak of a pen name.

Creativity is not life’s kryptonite. It’s not to be kept in the shed like your zombie best friend, or locked away in the tower until you get miles of split ends. Creativity infuses life with necessary color and hope and imagination. Creativity takes the mundane into extraordinary places, and challenges conventions while inspiring everything from debate to contention to interest. So what’s wrong with admitting that you’re creative and that you’re making something?

Is it scary to do that? Sure. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
Does that mean that someone could judge you? Sure. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, and it also doesn’t discount the fact that you be judged right now, and not even know it. So why the hell give it that much mental real estate? Is that helping you in any good ways?

*

Look, don’t give up. Tell the doubt and the doubters to go suck lemons. Like the man says, they’re going to laugh, but you keep writing. Don’t go down without a fight. And don’t give up the keyboard, the canvas, the microphone, the whatever. Not until you’re done doing your best.

There are loads of problems you can face – rejection, lack of appeal, poor technique. Don’t shovel extra weight like crushing doubt like Jupiter’s gravity and fear of a future that hasn’t happened yet compound whatever you’re doing with some grievous notions that it’s supposed to be some way or else it’s not good enough. You are the definer of your own success(es). You are the definer of when you give up.

What you do every day is up to you, creative. You’re good enough, and this guy on the internet believes in you.

 

Go make cool stuff. Go be awesome. Rock on.

A Letter to Younger John

Before we begin today, let me make an announcement. If you’ve been following me on Twitter, you’ll know that I’ve accepted a position as a Consulting Editor for Parvus Press, a digital publisher specializing (for now) in science fiction and fantasy manuscripts. For more details on how you can submit your manuscript to them, check out their website here.

Additionally, I’d like to put a trigger warning on this post today that I’m going to mention suicide and depression. I don’t get into it very deeply, but I do want to tell you that it’s in here as we discuss the idea of being good enough and/or being rejected.

Dear Younger Me Who’s Thinking About Being Writer While Dealing With Suicidal Depression,

Good news! This letter is written by a time-traveling 37-year-old version of yourself.

So, this is you from twenty years in the future. By the time you’re me, you have accrued quite a list of names I can’t put on a business card. By the time you’re me, you have said some honestly horrendous things on the Internet. You do that, and you don’t run from that. Yeah, these things are your opinion, and you’re about five-ish months from learning that opinions aren’t concrete facts, they’re just expressions from other people.  You haven’t really had what you call “joy” stomped out of you yet. It’s coming, sorry dude. But you’re going to get through it. You’ll get through it professionally. You’ll get through it personally. People don’t have to agree with you in order for you to be liked or loved or good at what you do.

You work freelance because of health concerns and a massive dislike of corporate desk jobs and dehumanized bureaucracy. Don’t freak out, you’re going to go that job interview thing and you’re going to think you lost your mind, but no, you didn’t. You still don’t believe profits should come ahead of people, and  that writers should jump through hoops to sate the caprices of entrenched ivory towers. Oh, and the ivory towers still exist.You never do get a chance to knock them over like Jenga towers. But, don’t forget to loot the office supplies before you get fired. Seriously, we still love the mason jar for pens.

You’re living a pretty sheltered life right now. But you’re going to go on many excellent adventures, and you’ll reach the conclusion that people’s race, age, gender, or orientation shouldn’t be the reason they aren’t get published. You’re going to meet people who think being a white heterosexual man should render that previous sentence null and void, and you’re going to tell what you think in response. In those moments, I urge you to remember Obadiah Holmes. Hooray genealogy. And remember that scene from Back to School. Do not go softly, John. And keep questioning the hell out of everything.

You’re going to have no patience for professional victims. You’ll have dated some. You’ll have put up with too many in your life. You’re going to think it was a terrible decision to move on, but seriously, it’s a great idea. Just trust me.

You’ll have no patience for bigots or trolls. You’ll be a pest at some point. You’ll be a jackass on the internet for awhile, but bigotry and intolerance will always hit deeply placed buttons in you. Just remember that tolerance doesn’t mean condoning idiocy or accepting raw deals. Treat people well, help them where possible if possible, and do the right thing. Yeah, you’re not going to always know what the right thing is in advance, we don’t even have that technology now, but you’ll get a pretty good handle on it in your thirties.

Some people will look at your resume once you get fired a few times and see few things they’d say “count.” They don’t think freelance editing is a viable thing writers need. They think coaching is overpriced and unnecessary. You’re going to have to get used to that feeling of being a second-class citizen and creative commodity. Yeah, you’re going to make friends with amazing people who will have astronomical success that’s maybe in some ways because of what you said or did, and that’s going to sound like it’ll offset that bullshit about being good enough, but you and I both know you haven’t felt good enough since you were about twelve. I hate to tell you this, but we’re still working on that as we near 40. On the plus side, you’re going to develop this awesome ability to help people, and you’ll feel very good enough when people accomplish stuff after talking to you.

Twitter is going to be huge for you. It’ll totally help you communicate, and you’ll misunderstand what it does for a few years, but you’ll figure it out. And you’re going to spend a lot of time just throwing ideas out into the world, and sometimes you’re going to see them get a huge reception, other times, not so much. But keep doing it. Not everyone has to like what you’re doing 100000000% for you to be happy doing it. This isn’t Sunday dinner with the old man. This isn’t even 1st-period English class. You get to be an adult, and it’s seriously fucking awesome most times. You won’t always think so, but dude, it’s got some really great parts. Again, people are gonna jaw at you, you’re going to want to recant and crumble, but don’t. Your time-traveling older self is telling you that it’s okay, and the world’s gonna keep turning.

You’re not running for student council president, you’re a guy helping people write better and get their stuff published or created. You’ll live if a tweet gets only 3 retweets. You’ll get over the sting that a blog post only got seen by 20 people.

This is probably a good time to point out that you’re going make a lot of mistakes. You’re going create some stuff, and it’s going to crash and burn. Books won’t get published. TV shows won’t get out of development talks. Theater productions will collapse. You’re going to get hosed on some writing credits. You’ll get the money, but it’ll be an uphill climb some days. Some of that’s gonna be your fault because of health issues, bad habits, poor choices, and listening to idiots. Some of that won’t be your fault. Don’t give up. Don’t mistake the failures for universal demands to stop living. Mistakes happen. It’s what you do post-mistake that matters.

I’m tell you/me all this because it’s important that you don’t marry yourself to the idea that everyone has to like you in order for you to be successful. You don’t. There are going to be people who don’t like you or what you’ve done, and that’s okay. They might seem like the majority, but that’s their volume distracting you. One guy yelling doesn’t count more than ten people nodding. Unless you let them. And you’re in charge of what sticks in your head.

You have to remember you define your own sense of who you are and how you identify. You’re not just your work. You’re not just the guy who sits behind a desk. You’re a whole you, wrinkles, scars, bruises, and everything. And you’re good enough. Rejection will be an element in your life, and it’s going to feel like someone Mortal Kombat-ripped your spine out, but they didn’t, and you’re going to be okay. Wiser, but okay.

Don’t let it stop you. Don’t let the irrational fear that some legion of clawed hydra and wailing poltergeists will shout you down forever keep you from trying to succeed. You’re going to learn that you need to define success on your own terms, and while you have a tendency to set really unrealistic bars to jump over, you’ll rein it in somewhat and really appreciate the pleasures of emails answering questions and the moments of quiet when you get out of your own way.

In short Adamus, you’re gonna kick a lot of ass, deal with many doubts and doubters, have a lot of tough experiences, and find a lot of positives. Like Red Squadron, stay on target.

You’re gonna be okay.

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See you guys next week. Have a great weekend. Enjoy yourselves.

Happy writing

How To Talk About What You’re Doing

You’re writing stuff. I’m writing stuff. You’re making stuff. I’m making stuff. That lady over there is doing a thing. That guy you sort of have a friendly relationship with because you can both laugh over that thing on your commute is doing stuff.

Loads of people are doing stuff. Doesn’t matter what that stuff is specifically, it can be writing or making decorative candles or producing presidential busts made of navel lint or poetry or competitive gargling, whatever you’re doing, you need to know how to talk about it. To other people. Often out loud. Often in some other form of media.

There’s this weird switch that flips  when someone has to go speak in front of people. Maybe it evokes that social conscious fear of being vulnerable, maybe it calls back to our neolithic elders taking turns around the fire at the cave wall. Maybe it’s all about the eyes staring back at you, waiting with a pregnant urgency and some kind of unspoken need to have things communicated at them.

It’s a tangle of nerves, a flushed weight in the stomach, jellyfish and razor edged burning butterflies hacking and quailing in the guts. The air seems to be at once frozen and fiery. Your tongue grows fat in your mouth. Your voice cracks like someone dropkicked a bagpiper down a flight a stairs. Cue the possible vomit. Cue the cold sweat. Cue the stack of “uh” and “um” that you swear you don’t do. Cue the weak knee rumba.

Scary. Awful. Intimidating. Awkward. Terrible. While we seem to lose the dictionary for positive words about creation, we can draft plenty for how bad we’re talking about what’s created. I spend a lot of time thinking about that imbalance.

And that’s not because I’m somehow immune to it. I’ve visited many garbage cans and bathrooms en route to speak or seminar or play a game. Many porcelain gods received my offerings before and after many things I’ve done in my life. I get it.

Do you like doing that? I don’t. If you ever find anyone who likes doing that, please introduce me. I have many questions.

So let’s talk today about how not to do that. Let’s talk about how to build a better experience.

At the core of talking about what we’re doing, there are three concepts. There’s pride, an internal sense that we’re doing a thing well, because we’ve got tangible evidence (words on the page, yarn … yarned, etc). There’s doubt, that volcano of insecurity that our words and creations are crystalline and there’s a hurricane on the horizon. And there’s interest, the curiosity and want for the world to have whatever you’re creating in it.

Slide any of these elements up and down the intensity scale, and you’ll watch pride swing to arrogance or self-defeat, doubt leaps to blind surety or denial, and interest bound to obsession or avoidance. Why we move them in the extremes more than anywhere else is probably the subject of another post or another blog altogether, so let’s go past whatever arbitrary scales we can build, and talk practical things we can do.

Don’t lose that interest. Yes, you can think it’s a good or bad idea to go make whatever you’re doing depending on the minute or hour or day of the lifetime, but somewhere, at some point, you thought that what you’re working on should be a thing that existed outside the realm of your imagination. The world would be better with your story in it. The world needs your product. And that’s true. You should get your stuff out there. It would make the world a better place, and more importantly, the journey you’ll undertake to get your stuff into the world will substantially help you too. Also, maybe, you’ll make a few dollars, which can be helpful for buying tacos or paying for streaming video services.

There’s a passion under that interest. You may not acknowledge it, you may not believe it, but beneath the “I want to do this thing” sits the potential tinder to spark a fire to keep you making this thing even when it feels like you encounter “don’t do this thing” from all corners. There is nothing wrong with passion. Passion is half the caduceus along with ability when we’re talking about talking about what you’re doing. You have to steel yourself that your internal fire will keep you warm and ward off the predators and doubt that stalk the perimeter of your brain campfire.

How you light that fire, how you send flames skyward is up to you. Maybe you listen to a playlist everyday, maybe you don the writing bathrobe, maybe you look at yourself in the mirror and make action movie explosion sounds. Do something, proactive and out loud, to give yourself the permission to go do stuff and enjoy doing it. Yes, even when it’s hard. Even when you’re not sure where the course goes. Even if you hit a wall and you need to change direction or get some education. You’re still allowed to love what you’re doing and keep doing it.

And then keep doing it. I mean practice. Practice often. Write often. And if you’re about to tell me that you’re preemptively shaming yourself because you’re somehow convinced that no one’s going to like the thing you’re doing before you’re even done doing it, let me tell you the bread story.


You decide to have a fresh loaf of bread with dinner. You have time, you have all the ingredients, so why not? Bread is cool. So you follow your favorite recipe. You mix the dough. You set it to rise. You’re looking forward to making the kitchen smell awesome. The dough rises, and you’re super pumped. You got the oven ready to go. You put the dough in the proper pan, you slide the pan into the oven.

And then you’re gripped with the absolute realization that you don’t know the first damned thing about bread, that other people make bread that’s better than yours, that no one would like your bread. So you pull the dough out of the oven, about four minutes into baking.

It’s not even bread yet. It’s warm dough. Of course warm dough isn’t bread, it’s not done yet. But you’re absolutely certain that this dough won’t ever turn into bread, which is why you’ve stopped it from ever becoming anything more than some goop you hashed together some afternoon.

You deserve to have bread. Taking the dough out of the oven early so you can judge against fully baked breads is not going to do anything positive for you. Please let your dough bake. That’s how the bread happens.


In that story, replace “bread” with “whatever it is you’re working on.” It takes time to turn ingredients into dough, and more time after that to make dough into bread. Don’t get angry at the flour that it isn’t bread yet.

You’re going to make bread, yes, but you have to go through the steps. You have to spend the time. You have to put in the practice. Mix this. Pour that. Beat like it owes you money. If you didn’t want bread, why did you lay all this stuff out on the counter?

Ability, that other caduceal serpent along with passion, comes from invested performance repeated often. When I say “invested” I mean “not half-assed.” If you want crappy bread, do a shitty job following the recipe and see what happens. Since no one ever sets out to intentionally make bad bread (or bad whatever-it-is-you’re-doing), expect that practice to take time, sometimes be challenging, and to warrant exertion.

The more procrastinatory or anxious may be sitting here at this point saying, “But John, how do I know I’m able?”

Good news: you won’t know until you try.

Rehearse positively. This is the part of trying where people find themselves backed into a corner, but they still squirrel some way into lacking commitment. Sort of like when we dust. Sure, we do the big stuff, but how often are we getting behind that one piece of furniture in that corner of the room where no one ever even looks?

This is the object of your passion we’re talking about here. Are you really going to treat it (and by extension yourself) like that? Do you think so poorly of yourself, do you feel so undeserving of enjoying a thing, or (gasp!) even being good at a thing, that you find reason upon reason not to do it. How serious are you really then about making this thing?

Which means practice. Before I go speak somewhere, for days in advance, I stalk through the house going over my points. Before I blog, I talk to myself or the dog about what I’m going to say, what’s the best way to say it. I ask myself how my wordy heroes would say it. I craft chunks of it in my head.

Don’t let the editorial seizures consume you. This isn’t where you write a line, then delete it, write it again, delete that, then pick up your phone to check your text messages and wander into the kitchen for another drink. Rehearsing positively is where you do a thing with the assumption it’s going to be received well. Not tepidly. Not “ehh”. Well. Picture that however you like. Maybe that’s people saying nice things. Maybe that’s sexy pantsless happy times with people as a result of your creations. Maybe that’s getting cake.

When you prepare, do it with every bit of focus you can muster that what you’re doing is working.

Distinguish mistake from failure. You’re going to suck at stuff from time to time. You’re going to blunder through describing what you’re doing. You’re going to monkey some emails. Not all mistakes are proof from the great beyond that you never should have started doing whatever you’ve been doing. They’re mistakes. They’re opportunities to learn, change course, and try again. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, the ultimate decision to pack it all in and give up comes from you, not the outside world. You can thank that passion and interest mentioned above for empowering that decision and keeping it from the hands of any doubters who aren’t you.

Failures are few and far between. They’re the dead end in the maze, but where you don’t double-back and try again. They’re the great surrender. They’re weighty decisions. They’re totally separate from mistakes.

Mistakes are the errors we make because we don’t know better. Maybe you’ve never tweeted before, so you mess up your first few tries. Maybe you never asked a human if they wanted to chat, so you try to make a joke and it doesn’t land. These moments are temporary. It’s that bastard doubt that makes them appear monumental.

Yes, there’s a danger from compounding mistake upon mistake out of delusion or stubbornness, but that’s not the same as failure either. That’s a pile of mistakes and a lack of recognition that there’s at least one change to be made.

Mistakes do not last forever. They might hang around for a while, but remember that you’re the bouncer of your internal nightclub, so you can toss those mofos anytime you like. Failure’s forever. (Note: If you fail, then try again, it’s not a failure, it’s a mistake.)

Cover the obvious. If you’re going to talk about what you’re doing, and there’s a vocabulary specific to it (like names or verbs), learn the vocabulary. Learn how to use those terms properly, and learn how to express them in multiple ways. The more ways you can describe or apply that vocabulary, the more you’re going to assure the listener that you’re on firm ground, and the more you’re going assure yourself that you’re not duct-taped to the passenger seat of a garbage truck on fire as it plummets off a cliff into the dark ocean below.

This is also true for questions. People who aren’t you, people who don’t share your level of awareness or expertise, are going to have questions. Let them ask them. Don’t trot out responses that shut people down (so axe the “it’s not my job to educate you” and “you really should google that” from your response list). Someone’s question, even if you term it as off-base or completely screwball, deserves a response. That’s not necessarily a full answer, but you do have to say something other than “Go suck eggs and get that weakass interrogative out of my face.”

Prepare for questions. Make them part of the rehearsal. It will reinforce your comfort in explaining what you’re doing if you’re geared up to answer a question about whatever it is you’re doing.

Slow down to go faster. That panic and fear shoots us out of the gate at blistering speeds. We cram all the words together, like the oxygen is getting sucked from the room and the only way to get some back is to answer this lady’s question. So you open mouth and let fly. It’s a verbal firehose. It’s hard to understand. It’s hard to know what do to with the amount of information coming out.

Speed is a learned skill. It’s a sign of comfort with material. It’s a sign that you’re flexible with what’s happening. Have you noticed that when you were learning to write or bake or art or yodel or whatever, you started slowly, in halting steps? And then as you got more comfortable, you got faster? The same is true for talking about what you’re doing. You’ll gain speed along with fluency, trimming wordfat out of your explanation as it grows more clear and understandable.

Jumping and stumbling over your words, goofing up a tweet, missing that call to action in an email, they’re chances to learn and try again. You might be tempted to get in over your head, because you think maybe that if people see how much you’re doing (even if you’re doing it poorly), they’ll think you’re really really good at it. The same is true for going quickly. Instead of a vector of depth (burying yourself in so many things, getting so many plates spinning at once), you get an outward vector where hastily done material misses the quality mark, or invites doubt to come party when you’re not seeing the successes you want.

Want to get faster? Keep trying. Keep pushing forward for more progress. Go at a pace that’s just the right amount of challenge and comfort.

Admit newness if you’re new. This is one of those points where you can find some disagreement. I’m not sure why that is, but this seems to really divisive. There’s an attitude of “fake it till you make it” that this somewhat flies in the face of … but maybe I should back up and break this down.

“Fake it till you make it”, for me, has been horrendous advice, because I’ve never been comfortable faking something I don’t already have a knowledge of. It seems incredibly foolish for me to fake a thing I’ve never done before, risky in some way, especially because the things I’ve never done are often undone because they inflame some kind of emotional or mental issue with me. This is why I don’t go all in on teaching or why I never got one of them corporate jobs. Those things scared and rubbed at me the wrong way, so I didn’t pursue them. Naturally, I didn’t want to fake anything and pretend like that’s what I should be doing, because I fundamentally disagreed with them. And why fake anything? Why prop up any artifice, even if it’s to trick yourself? I don’t want to trick myself, I want to go do stuff and get better at it.

Which is why I advocate for admitting you’re new at doing something if you’re new at it. It doesn’t excuse the mistakes, it doesn’t white them out. But it does reduce the urge to castigate yourself for making them in the first place. Yes, you’ve never tried something before. Great! Anyone who gets furious with you that you’re not doing it right is a jerk, so don’t concern yourself with their opinions. Don’t dogpile on yourself because this is your first time. Everyone’s had a first time. Chances are, everyone’s had a second time too. And after you do whatever you’re doing, you won’t be as new at it. Keep doing it, get less new. That’s the beauty of the idea – you don’t trick anyone, you’re honest, you don’t fall into the thresher of doubt that you’re “supposed” to be at some level other than inexperienced. Just be patient, keep at it. It will get easier. You’ll get better at it.

*

Throughout these nearly 2800 words, I’ve used “doing something” (or some variant) a lot. Just replace “something” with whatever you’re doing or creating. And then talk about it. Wherever. Social media. In person. Both. Get a skywriter. Throw yourself a parade. Make the neighborhood kids get tattoos. Mow a billboard into your lawn.

Just talk about what you’re doing. You’ll get better at it the more you do it.

See you later this week for #InboxWednesday.

 

 

Some Thoughts on Professional Stuff

I’m writing this post in the throes of the weekend blizzard, punctuating each paragraph with a sip of cocoa and a disbelieving stare out a window upon a world that looks like some off-white hellscape.

Originally, I meant to write about the importance of determination, of being diligent, and of staying the course when so many voices (internal and otherwise) may form a chorus to chase you away from whatever you’re creating. And then I fell into a bit of a rabbit hole.

A friend of mine talked to me a bit about a situation he found himself in, where he received criticism for what he was doing (he’s an editor), and his critic was taking a roundabout way of saying he was exploiting writers and profiting from their newness in creating. It’s a completely bogus claim because my friend, let’s call him J, is one of the most forthright people I know. I don’t always agree with him, but I respect his work, and I think he’s smart enough, talented enough, and good enough, to help people create amazing things.

In reading what this critic said, it brought to mind a number of experiences and a number of frustrations I’ve encountered in the last two decades as a professional. Today, I’m going to detail some of them.

1 A freelance editor is not required if you’re going to submit your work to be traditionally published.

There is an editorial process that occurs during publishing, and it’s not a quick skim of a document and a cursory pressing of F7 in Word. There is no etched in stone rule that says you need to get an editor before you get published. I can’t make you get an editor. But I can tell you that if you’re serious about getting your work published, then you should be serious about doing everything you can to get the MS in the best shape possible before it leaves your hands to face some kind of judgment or decision about its acceptance or rejection.

If we weren’t talking creative arts, if we were talking cars, we’d be discussing how you go show off your car, and how you’d want it polished and tuned and waxed, right? You’d want it in its best show shape. Now you could clean it yourself, wax and buff each piece with a cloth diaper or a cloth of baby eyelashes or whatever car people use, or you could spend the money and have a professional service detail it. And likely, you’d justify that expense by saying, “I’m getting the car cleaned up so that it stands a good chance at winning a prize at the car show.”

Maybe you built that car by hand, laboring on weekends or late nights. Maybe you sunk a lot of sweat equity into the process. You learned things about refitting pieces, about upgrades. You busted your ass to make your car the best it could be. This is no different than what a writer does working on that manuscript. It doesn’t matter if it’s their first or their ninth, a manuscript gets built by the author a piece at a time, and there’s sweat equity invested in the production.

Do all you can to get your MS in the best shape possible so it can be sent off with the best possible chance for a positive reception. Often that means getting an editor. You don’t need to get the car professionally detailed before the show, but going that extra step might make the difference between the blue ribbon (or whatever award you get at a car show, maybe a gold wrench) and going home watching someone else celebrate.

2 An editor’s job can be accomplished by a good friend who reads a lot.

There is more to an editor’s job than reading. Yes, reading is a part of it, but there’s constructive technique also. Techniques about language usage, about understanding story structure, about being able to look objectively at components or looking at emotional elements dispassionately. I’m sure a good reader can point out that sentences don’t sound right, or that some parts of the story fall flat, but I wouldn’t expect that reader to be able to tell you what you can do to change it for the better specifically.

Likewise, that “good friend” may not want to be as objective with you as someone you don’t know. A friend is going to want to maintain that friendship, and that decision will often prevent the objectivity a situation calls for.

Oh I can’t tell Gary that his short story sucked, because Gary brings that chili dip to poker night.”

As before, the goal is to have the best manuscript possible, Gary’s chili dip be damned. So that professional you’re bringing in, part of the expense there is a level of objectivity. The editor doesn’t know Gary’s chili dip, and doesn’t know if Gary has a tell where he always exhales before he bluffs anything higher than two pair. Gary’s non-manuscript existence doesn’t factor into whatever the editor does. The job is to produce the best manuscript, no matter how nice Gary is. That requires a level of disconnection between Gary-the-person, and Gary-the-writer.

If the issue is that Gary won’t show his MS to anyone except a friend because he doesn’t trust anyone else to see his work, then that issue is Gary’s. It’s also an issue likely not easily solved with hugs and tacos. But we’ll talk trust in a second.

3 An editor can’t be trusted to understand what the writer is trying to do. The editor is going to change the MS (presumably for the worse).

This is the part of the blogpost where I really struggled. I can take this idea in two directions. I can say on one hand that a writer has to go into that working relationship with the editor knowing that the MS on the start of work isn’t going to be the MS at the end of work. The changes might be small, just commas. The changes might be deletions of text. But change is gonna happen. That’s just the nature of development.

On the other hand, I can come at this and say that the writer-editor relationship is not fueled or aided by ego. Both the writer and editor are presumably human, and presumably fallible. Thinking the MS is so untouchable and perfect is a trap that results in little productivity and high resentment.

If a writer cannot trust that the editor is saying whatever they’re saying with the intention of getting the best work out of the writer, then the writer needs to reconsider their expectations around editing. Editing is not sugarcoating or rectal smoke blowing. If a character is weak, if a motivation is unclear, if participles dangle, and plots don’t resolve, the writer can expect to hear about it.

Would you trust the plumber to fix your leaky sink? Would you trust the bus driver to deliver your kids safely to and from where they need to be? Yeah, you maybe don’t know these people intimately, and even if you vet them, there comes this decision where you have to trust this other person to perform the task set before them. If it doesn’t work out, if the bus driver is late, if the sink still leaks, if the editor is tough to work with, make other arrangements. That’s what contracts are for.

4 An editor doesn’t care about anything other than getting paid.

I can say with 1000000000% certainty that there are some real scumbag editors out there. I can say with 1000000000% certainty that there are some real scumbag publishers out there. There are people in this world who care more about paychecks than people, and more about a list of credits than a list of experiences.

Those people are the minority. Maybe for some people they’re the majority, because some people have only been operating in the figurative waters just around the pipe where the sewage spills out, but the rest of the body of water is far less murky and far less packed with weird lifeforms best left to nightmares.

There are good editors out there. Plenty of people who really care about seeing the writer succeed. As cheerleaders, trainers, sparring partners, collaborators, sounding boards, and whatever role the editor is tasked to play, the editor has an interest that extends past the invoice.

Let’s suppose you (yeah, you) and I are working together. It’s our best mutual interest for this working relationship to be successful. If we each do our parts, you end up with a manuscript you can publish. We work together on revisions, we go back and forth to get the words into their best shape. In the end, you’re satisfied with your MS, and I’m satisfied with how I helped you. When this works out well, maybe you tell people to look me up when they need an editor, and I’ll tell people to stay on the lookout for your book. People helping people.

There are the cynics out there who say what I just described is the unrealistic pipe dream, it’s the impractical daydream of someone who has never done “serious” work and someone whose opinion can be discounted and discarded because “the right people don’t know who I am.” There are plenty of people who look at my words, my Twitter stream, this blog, and say I rub them the wrong way. That’s fine. I am not out to be the world’s best friend. I am here to be the best me I can be. And quite frankly, maybe we could spend some time collectively trying to make the world less cynical and shitty, shake up the establishment and maybe, just maybe, see more success all around.

I don’t know anybody who says, “Oh I love what I do, but that whole receiving paychecks thing really messes up my day.” Yeah, I know many people feel they deserve more pay, but I don’t know anybody who says they hate getting paid. Yes of course, people like getting paid. But that doesn’t mean the only reason people do whatever they’re doing is because there’s a paycheck waiting.

5 An editor doesn’t need a contract or need to get paid because the writer has been working on this book in their free time, and no one’s been paying them.

Yes, an actual sober human said that to my face at one of my panels at a convention some years back. And as you’d expect, the panel was about hiring freelancers and working with them. This sober human then went on to say the same thing about layout people, artists, graphic designers, and any other freelancers I had spoken about at the panel, just so no freelance stone goes unturned.

I’d like to think I laughed. I am reasonably certain I made a face and insisted this person is entitled to their opinion before extricating myself from the room. I don’t think I told this person to engage in sexual relationships with themselves or with their mothers. I’m sure I was thinking it.

When someone does a job, they deserve to be paid in a valid form of currency as would be spelled out in a contract that details the structure of whatever work needs doing. Paying with “exposure” does not pay bills. You can die from exposure.

It’s shocking to me that some distinction happens where someone wouldn’t stiff the electrician or the dog groomer but they can find some corkscrew-y rationalization for not paying the people who helped them make something creative. It can’t be the lack of tangible product, because when the electrician is done, the lights work, and when the editor is done, the manuscript is in better shape. Maybe it’s a sense of entitlement that they should be paid for writing it, that publishing is some great bleeding of money, death by a thousand expenses. Whatever it is, it’s patently stupid and asinine.

Contracts help structure the working relationship. Someone does a job, they deserve to paid for their hard work. If the writer is about to balk that no one paid them, then they need to do something to reward themselves. Go get a sundae. Go to the movies. Drink root beer and watch monster truck rallies. Do something. Hard work gets paid, period.


Originally, there was a 6th item here, about professionalism, but I thought it would be better to address that one personally before we wrap this post up.

“Professionalism” is a big subjective concept that relies on a lot of expectations and assumptions. It’s something that I spend a lot of time thinking, analyzing and worrying about. I wasn’t always concerned with how professional I was, but then again I wasn’t always aware of there being much in the world beyond myself and whatever itch I needed to scratch.

I don’t have a big fancy office. I don’t wear a tie to work. I don’t work for a big publishing house. None of those things mark me as unprofessional. Rather than let some commute or dress code or address define me as a professional, I let me work do the talking. That distinction, for me, is a huge one.

Good work, and good workers, are worth the cost. You hire me, you’re going to get someone who wants to see you succeed, but also someone who’s going to use the word “suck” in a comment about what your character is doing on page 9, because it sucks. I’m also the guy who’s going to write “Oh snap!” in a comment when your heroine starts kicking ass, because that’s awesome.

I’m not an editron-8000, some robot that just edits dispassionately.  I’m John, a guy who edits. My professionalism is defined on my own terms. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put my bathrobe back on before I have another cup of cocoa.

See you for #InboxWednesday. There’s a great question queued up.