WRITE MORE GOODER – Do Not Give Up

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So, do anything exciting lately? How about that local sports team? Crazy weather we’re having, huh?  Let me show you what I’ve been up to, I think you’re really going to like this.

Write More Gooder, for those that don’t know is the podcast I’m putting out to talk about craft and writing and motivation. I’m proud of it, I think I’m getting better with every episode. By that reasoning, this is my best one yet.

In fact, this one is so awesome and intense, I can’t directly link to it in WordPress (it’s 52 MB too big) or over on Patreon (it’s 2MB too big), so here’s the Dropbox link to it.

The TL;DR on it? Do not give up. Not on your dreams. Not on your project. Not on yourself.

This message is so critical, so important, and so necessary. There’s so much stuff out in the world that tells us to give up, that encourages us to be discouraged, and it can be hard to stand up against that. But remember that we stand up every time we create. That’s our activism. That’s how we hold the line. That’s how we turn the tide. We create because it burns inside of us to do so. We create because the alternative is infinitely worse.

Nope, it’s not easy. Not easy by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s worth it. You’re worth it.

I hope you enjoy the audio. If you want more stuff like it, or if you’re a fan of the tweetstorms every morning, I ask that you pop over to Patreon and check out what I’m doing. Your very generous contributions of $2 are what make this stuff happen.

See you next week for more blog action (insert that ennh ennh ennh triple-horn sound from dubstep and rap here). 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.

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.

Self-Promotion Is Not Mayonnaise Or Clowns

Welcome to Friday. Hope your week was good. How’s the creating going?

We’re going to talk today about self-promoting, which means we’re going to talk about what we’re doing and talk about talking about it. We need to distinguish a vending business (like you’re going to make sandwiches or knit hats) from an arts business (writing a book) because the vending business has a greater overhead like utilities and building costs that I can’t document as effectively, but I can talk at length about writing and creating art.

I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t discuss dealing with contractors and permits about electrical code, or the overhead costs of acquiring refrigerators. It’s not something I’ve dealt with directly, so I won’t pretend to discuss brick and mortar business. We’re talking business, yes, but we’re going to talk today about talking about your business.

We start though by establishing some boundaries for the conversation. I hate mayonnaise. It’s a disgusting color, texture, smell, and substance, sort of like a sad hobo’s ejaculate or third-rate tile grout that people elect to slather on perfectly good meals.

And I hate clowns. They’re not human, they’ve long since traded their souls for greasepaint and supernatural powers previously held by dead teenagers, tortured souls, and things with jagged bloody teeth.

I’m telling you about mayo and clowns to point out the extremes of my scale. Nothing. no activity, no conversation, no job, nothing in this world is as bad as mayonnaise and clowns. Self-promotion is scary, yes, but it’s not mayo or clowns. Meaning you can do it. Meaning you should be doing it.

Where To Start
We start with some rules.

1. What works for one person may not work for you. There are a lot of methods to self-promote, even if we compare them while only talking about one medium. Sure, you and I can both tweet about what we’re doing, but we’re doing so in different ways. I’m going to sound like me, and you’re not going to sound like me. If we try to ape each other, then despite all our best efforts, we’re still lacking the authentic, realistic construction and communication people have come to know from us. A trial-and-error approach is going to be optimal here, at least until you build a comfortable repertoire.

2. Who you are and how you identify are only barriers to promoting what you’re doing if you choose to let them be barriers. Your gender. Your age. Your race. Your identity. Your faith. Your orientation. Your socioeconomics. Your political affiliations. Your social life. Your kinks. Your preference for snacks. There are plenty of people in the world who will judge you based on these things. There are plenty of people in the world who will tell you for one reason or another why these choices of yours are limits as to how or why you promote yourself and your work. And maybe, if enough of these voices congregate or get loud enough, you may start to believe them. But that doesn’t make them true (hint: they’re not). You’re going to erect your own barriers, and there are plenty of humans who are counting on you doing that so that they won’t feel as insecure or threatened or annoyed that they’re the only people playing whatever sandbox. Fuck those people. Just fuck them with a fiery mayonnaise covered sex toy and leave them for the clowns to eat. Don’t buy into their applesauce. Don’t think they’ve got any right or ability to govern how you are or what you do because they disagree with it. (If anything, that difference is precisely the reason why you need to promote yourself)

3. You’re not going to be, and you don’t have to be, perfect at this right off the bat. Self promotion is difficult, and if you’ve never been in the habit of talking about yourself, it can feel like you’re gargling burning ball bearings while walking a tightrope being chased by laser weasels. I used to think Twitter was another way to send text messages. Seriously. I used to think Twitter was a great way to tell people where I was in a large crowded club or wherever. It didn’t occur to me until way later that I was completely wrong about it. You’re going to use things incorrectly. This doesn’t mean you’re stupid or that you should sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done while the rest of the village gathers around to shame you, it just means you need to change from one way of doing things to another. You’re not serving time in a penalty box, just try again. You don’t need to hold yourself to some ridiculous standard and pressure yourself to only deliver the best premium super good material or else the universe will end.

4. You need to do it regularly, not constantly. Unless you’re selling me cans of soup at my local grocer’s, you need to promote yourself more often than once a season. The distance between promotional bits (and I’m distinguishing between promotion and communication here, but we’ll cover that in the next section) can be jarring. Like you see a trailer for a movie months in advance, but you never see any other material for it, you may forget that you wanted to check it out. On the flipside, if all you’re doing is seeing advertising for the same thing over and over again (I’m looking at you, 5-same-commercials-during-football-playoffs), you get put off from engaging with the material, no matter how actually good the product is. There’s a balance to strike there, and that’s best done through a schedule (something else we’ll talk about later on).

With these 4 rules in place, it’s time to pick your media. This is more like picking your avenues for broadcast and less like picking what weapons to duel with, because you’re not locked into these decisions. Remember the trial-and-error part? It also extends to how you promote.

Maybe you want something concise and conversational? Try Twitter.
Maybe you want something targeted and partially unobtrusive? Try paid Facebook or Google Ads.
Maybe you want something semi-dynamic, or at least audience-facing? Try a Facebook page.
Maybe you want the space to write and interact at length? Try a blog or Google+.

Is that list comprehensive? No. I just picked promotional sources off the top of my head. Aside from the Facebook or Google Ads, I picked free ones, because I think it’s easier to engage without cracking open the checkbook and adding some kind of pressure to deliver, especially when you’re just figuring out what to do.

No matter what media you pick, get a sense for how they work. Go check them out. Go watch some videos about Google Ads. Go read some Twitter. Check out some blogs. See what elements you like, see what you do, see what you’d do differently. Do this homework.

What Comes Next
Now that you’ve picked how you’re going to promote, you actually have to go do it. Yes, you can totally farm this activity out to a human, but you need to pay that human, and you may find it’s cheaper to do it yourself once you get a handle on how to do it. Also, for me, it seems really silly to pay someone $45 an hour to write 5 tweets that took maybe 30 seconds  each to develop.

As we’ve talked about in the past, you need a schedule. Schedules are great ways to introduce a new habit with some structure. The boundaries on a schedule also mean you know the activity your doing is only happening for a certain window of time, and that you can go do something else the minute it’s over.

Building that schedule means picking times of the day or days of the week, or otherwise dicing up your time and allotting some portion of it to talking about what you doing. Maybe you promote every morning at 8:30, before you go have a second cup of coffee. Maybe you do it on your lunch break from the day job you can’t wait to leave. Maybe you only do it Tuesdays and Thursdays before you attend your support group for people who think they should clone Daniel Radcliffe.

Pick some times. Put them into your existing schedule. Start small and work your way into a more comfortable groove. Don’t come at this like buckshot and say you’re going to do it eleven times a day every day for 3 months. That’s a great way to burn yourself out. Build up to that. Build up to a comfortable competent fluency.

What To Talk About
The big question that comes up when you talk about promotion is some flavor of, “What do I say?” While I can’t give you a super catchall answer, I can point out some elements:

a) If you’re wanting to draw people to a site (like a blog), you need the URL.
b) If you’re offering a promotion, include any promo codes
c) If you’re talking about progress you’ve made, include word counts or percentages
d) If you’re showing physical progress, include photos
e) If you’re selling something, include a link to where the item can be purchased

And I’ll include two precepts:

i. Sound like a person
ii. Know when to shut up

Sounding like a person means you’re not just filling a tweet with links to where someone can buy your book. Sounding like a person means you’re actually doing more than just offering a commercial break so that people buy stuff before they get back to the regularly scheduled lives. You’re a person, communicate like one. In the course of using SOCIAL media, among all the things you’re talking about, talk about what you’re making or selling.

Knowing when to shut up means you know when not to talk about your product being available for purchase. You know how you wouldn’t roll up at your grandma’s funeral and start talking about how someone can get a great deal on windshield wiper blades? There’s a time and a place to talk about products and availability. Learn how to gauge the landscape, sound like a person, and pick and choose your spots. Sometimes it really is best to let there be a little pocket of silence in conversations, even when they’re digital.

How you talk about what you’re doing is going to entirely up to you. I can tell you what I do, and maybe it’s both a cautionary tale as well as illustrative. I tend to be great at speaking broadly about things (follow me on Twitter and get a ton of writing tweets) or speaking about personal things (mental health, chronic or terminal illness, food, films), but completely not great at talking about business things (that I have books available for sale, that you can hire me to help you become a better writer or creator). Maybe that’s my fear of success, maybe that’s my over-analysis about sales and sounding like a cliche car salesman always out for a buck.

You’ll figure out what to say as you practice. You’ll see what works and what works based on the reception you get. You’ll get inspired by what others say or how they do things. Allow yourself to be influenced that way, but remember that you can’t do what they do and expect the same results. Take what you see others doing, put your own spin on it. Trust yourself to be savvy enough to do that. (I believe in you, you should too)

Anything else?
Yeah. Don’t give up. You may not see a sea of people rushing to throw billions of dollars at you right away. You may have long gaps where you’re sure it’s not working. Don’t give up. Don’t beat yourself up. Yeah, I know, it’s super tempting because there aren’t those results hot and fresh in your hand. I do it. I sit here and have these exact same thoughts.

We’re going to make mistakes. We’re not going to let other people dictate how you we talk about what we’re doing. We’re going to do our best. We’re going to be okay.

See you next week.

The Hustle, 2016 edition

Good morning, welcome to Friday. I think were I a wacky morning zoo radio DJ, this is where I’d play some sound effects and then tell you the time, temperature, and traffic. Let’s all be thankful I’m not a DJ and get down to business.

We’re going to talk hustle today. Not the dance, I mean the Rocky chasing chickens, training montage, people doing stuff and getting stuff done hustle. WordPress was being pissy today, otherwise you’d be seeing images not just text right here.
So let’s define “the hustle” as all the things you’re doing to get better at being the best creative you can be while accomplishing your goal. That includes writing regularly. That includes blogging often. That includes … I don’t know, making sure you knit or paint or seed torrents everyday.
The goal, whatever it is, is where we’re going to start today. You need a goal.
There needs to be something driving your creative efforts. Maybe you’re trying to get a book written or published. Maybe you’re writing a script and aiming to get on the Blacklist. Maybe you’re trying to get a business off the ground. Maybe you want to be a wacky morning zoo radio DJ.
Without a clear goal, your efforts don’t have a trajectory – you’re just sort of doing stuff while time ticks by. Sure, things get done, but there’s that “why am I doing this” question hanging around.

What’s your goal? Why are you doing what you’re doing?
Picking that goal, if you haven’t already, is one of those simultaneously simple and scary decisions to make, like when you decide that Taco Bell is a good choice for lunch, or when you decide to call your aunt to see how she’s doing.
The lure of the goal is the end result. If I do all this writing and revising and querying, I’ll have a published book when all’s said and done. If I do a little coding, I can set up a website.
But there’s a trap with goals. It’s a trap of perspective and it’s one I fall into a lot, so let me pry my leg loose and tell you about it.
Yes, sure we can all set a goal. But is that goal set because you can reach it or because you want people to see you reaching it? What’s your reason for doing whatever it is you want to do? Want to see your book on a shelf? Want to earn enough money to take a vacation? Want to get over your fear of weasels? Those are goals for you, based on your own wants and thoughts. There’s this danger though, and I know it well, that you can set up a goal so that someone else will come along and tell you that you’re so brave or good or strong. And you keep at it, because as you work on it, they keep praising you. And there’s nothing wrong with praise. But (and here’s the tough part) some of that praise has to come from within you. You have to love what you do and like doing it and enjoy doing it even if no one sees you doing it.

Yeah, I know, it can suck sometimes.

I’m right there with you on getting my internal I’m-good-enough motor to kick over.
I’m saying that not because I want you to tableflip and walk off, but because part of the hustle is being honest and clear in your efforts. It’s not a bad idea to open a business selling socks, but it might be beyond your scope to start a business where you put all other sock makers out of business. There’s this concept called “target focus” at work here.
Target focus is seeing the small goal(s) within the larger one, and working to accomplish them, while realizing that you’re also accomplishing the larger goal.
Think of a marathon runner. There’s 26 miles to run from start to finish. That 26 seems huge and maybe that makes the runner worry about sore legs or blisters. But, if they think about just running that first mile, then another, then another, a mile at a time, the marathon gets done. They complete the marathon (the goal they set out to do), but there were smaller targets along the way that got done. And each target completed gave them a little momentum and incentive to keep going.
Take that goal, and break it down. What smaller targets can help you build to the larger one? I want to clean a room, I can stare at the voluminous mess and feel overwhelmed or I can quadrant off the room and work in 2 square feet of space at a time until I’ve finished. Or I can do one pass through the mess to collect all the laundry, and a separate pass to pick up all the books off the floor. There’s no wrong way to make targets.

A target is defined by:
a) A practical simplicity that advances you to completing the bigger goal
b) It’s something you can do that is actively productive

That (b) part is critical, and I was hesitant to talk about it until recently. Because anyone can take a goal and break it into pieces, but you can break pieces down again and again until you’ve sucked the effort and challenge out of them, until they’re inert. It might look like you’re doing something, but you’re not making a lot of headway. That lack of measurable progress can lead you to frustration.

Go back to that messy room. I can clean in 2 foot squares, which might be physically taxing or time consuming or I could at each pass, just pick up one piece of paper at a time and throw it out. I’d be here cleaning all day. Sure, I’m making progress, but I’ve slowed down to the point where it’s almost not seriously going to matter. And moving towards your goal should matter. You should want to accomplish your goal, for you, for your own reasons.

I say that as someone who knows what it’s like to set a HUGE goal that generates a lot of buzz, and then feel overwhelmed and undermotivated to go accomplish it. Maybe undermotivated isn’t the right word, so let’s pick a new one … how about terrified? Terrified of failing, terrified of succeeding, terrified of discovering I’m either good or not good at it … just plain scared to make progress.

Setting target helps. You can reach targets. Targets are realistic and not scary, they’re activities that happen every day. Set targets that have a bit of challenge, but that you can do. It’s not being anti-ambitious, it’s tempering that super-ambition down to a practical level. So that shit gets done. Try it, let me know how it works for you.

Geared up with a good goal and a motivation to do it, targets focused on, we get to the obvious yet not-obvious part of the hustle: <strong>you actually have to do whatever it is you want to do</strong>. If you want to be someone who makes soap, you have to make soap.

Here we find all kinds of distractions. The Internet. Relationships. Other goals. That whole stupid part where you have bills and taxes. Day jobs. Pants.

Keep that goal and its targets in mind. Remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. The distractions will still be there for you to handle later, but when you’re on the hustle, when you’re being that creative doing that creative stuff, tell the distractions to wait outside.

I know, I know, some of that stuff doesn’t feel like a distraction. You need that Spotify playlist so you can write. You need your coffee. You need to make sure the dog has water. You just need to check one more thing. You say that’s not a distraction, you just need to be doing it instead of hustling towards your goal. (Feel free to repeat this paragraph out loud a few times, I’ll wait.)

You’re not working in a vacuum. Unlike Matt Damon, you haven’t been stranded on Mars. There are interruptions. That phone’s gonna ring. The kids are gonna need something. The dog has to go out. Yes, there are things that are going to break your momentum.
Let me give you a tool for getting back to hustling after you take a break (either intentionally or not). This is what I do, maybe it’ll work for you.
You’re going to come back to your work after whatever paused it, and you’re going to picture, in your head, in as much detail as you can give a single snapshot, your goal being accomplished. See that book on the shelf. See your foe vanquished at your feet. See the Kickstarter funded. See the yolk not breaking when you flip your eggs. Get that in your head, then count to 10. Then push yourself into work.
You can get the momentum back. Really. You just need to push. And that push (I don’t have a fancy term for it, if you have one, tell me) takes energy, force of will, whatever you want to call it. But you’ve got your goal in mind, right, so getting back to work is what’s going to make that goal a reality.
You lose the momentum, you lose that vector, you get it back. Trip, fall, get back up again. There’s no penalty for however many times you stop, stall, stutter, tumble, break down, pause, uhh, or swear you’re going to give it up but keep going anyway. You’re not a bad creative because you didn’t do whatever you’re doing in one super long productive period. You’re not a bad creative because you tried and failed and then had to try again.
The important thing is that you got back up and tried again. That you put your fingers back on the keys. That you didn’t just close the laptop and say you were right all along about never getting your dream made.

Get back to work. Hustle. Make it happen.

The “Are You Ready To Get Published” Checklist, John-style

There’s been a lot of talk about self-publishing about it being good or it sucking or it being the salvation of stories or the whatever-it-is-to-whomever-needs-it. And because at the moment, it’s a pretty expedient route to getting something published (in this context, I mean getting something into a format or structure where someone else can consume it, sometimes in exchange for money), that means lots of people can write something and put it out for people to come running like thirsty animals at the watering hole.

This also presents an interesting wrinkle in that when people don’t come running, as if you’re Prometheus delivering fire (as opposed to Prometheus delivering a terrible movie), you get to bitch about. Loudly. Frequently. On social media. In public. At workshops. At conventions. To your dog. To any human who lucks into your path.

Further, it gives a tease of pleasure, as if there’s more to come later, when those first sales trickle in. And then like the Muppet, you start counting sales. One, Two, Three (ah ha haa) sales. Maybe you get up to like 40 or 400 over the course of a month or a quarter or however you obsessively slam the refresh on your browser. And that pleasure is narcotic. I can speak about the joys of narcotic rushes. I can tell you just how addictive it is to feel good. I can also tell you that you will do stupid things (like bitch on twitter, or pick fights with authors or editors or agents) to get another hit. I mean, in a publishing sense. I guess you could sell your stuff for book sales, or commit sex acts in alleyways for pageviews. I never really thought about that. (Now I can’t help but think of a sign that says, “Will swallow for blog hits” and expect one of those websites to scoop it up in a hot minute)

All this is divisive and great for fomenting argument and message board chatter. And it obscures the facts:

  1. People are going to write things.
  2. Some of those things are going to exist in stages where the manuscripts are rife with errors, either within the context of the story (cliched characters, plot holes, stuff like that) and also with the words and structure (spelling, grammar and punctuation errors)
  3. People want to get published.
  4. There are lots of ways to get published, or more broadly, get people to pay for things you’ve written.
  5. Some people are going to see one way to get published as superior to another, either because of things involved in getting published that way (agents, labels on books, etc) or because of expedience (upload a file, start “selling it”) or because of some other thing I’m not aware of but I’m sure someone will tell me about once this post goes up on the blog.
  6. If you rush to publication, regardless of route, you may encounter difficulty in the form of rejections or negative feedback because your manuscript may have any/all errors described in #2.
  7. You may get your work(s) published and still require a day job.
  8. You may have to publish several books/things in order to get some sort of income that you can live on consistently without fear of financial dire straits.
  9. Not every thing you write needs to be or is going to be published.
  10. Editors who aren’t you (or aren’t immediately related to you and are therefore biased) are useful to developing your work and your ability to produce that work, even if you’re focusing on a route to publication that puts editing after a submission and acceptance process.
  11. Not many people agree on the “best” course of action.
  12. Lots of people espouse all manner of philosophy, panicked thoughts, emotional reactions and BS statistics to try and persuade or dissuade people from certain actions or avenues in publishing.

Now, I’m sure I’ve forgotten loads of things because I’m writing this late at night when I’m tired, but I think I’ve put down some nice basics there. To that end, here’s a nice checklist you can use to help you produce whatever it is you’re doing.

Question 1

Is your manuscript complete? Before we go anywhere else, the thing you’re writing has to be done. And by “done” I mean the particular manuscript has to be finished, that you’re not adding more to it or fiddling with it. Even it’s a part of a series, this book (whatever number it is) has to be a whole book. Sure, it can end on a cliffhanger. Sure, it can leave some parts of a greater plot unanswered. But by itself, it has to be a complete story. However long that is. However many words. Complete.

Sub-Questions under Question 1

Does your manuscript have a main character that we can easily pick out and follow through the course of the story? A story needs a protagonist. The audience has to have some character we follow more than all the others (yes, even in an ensemble story where you have a group of characters together), so that they can see the plot and the character(s’) response to it. If there’s no clear protagonist (as in The Phantom Menace, several films from the ’70s and anything I wrote while in college), then audience won’t have an easy access point to the story, which means they won’t be as invested as they could be, and that may mean they put the book down to pick up something else. (And that’s not ideal if you want a stable audience or good reviews or repeat sales.)

Are your characters NOT stereotypes, cliches, “Mary Sues”, overpowered unchallenged uber-folk or one-dimensional cardboard? Here we can talk about the character spectrum. If you’ve got characters that are ‘too’ anything (too perfect, too beautiful, too good for the challenge of the plot, too troubled as to be unmotivated, etc), as per above, people aren’t going to have an access point into your story and created world. They don’t need to be super flawed either, it’s more about writing characters that someone somehow and in some way can relate to.

Did you spell-check it? Seriously, in my writing program of choice, spell-check is a pretty accessible, either by a menu or a keystroke. Use it. It shows respect to your readers and helps solidify the impression that you actually give a damn about what you create and didn’t just rush to stick your name on something in the hope that money would soon thereafter follow.

Is there a plot? And are you getting to that plot within the first twenty pages? A story needs a reason or a conflict or a crisis or a problem that the characters can solve. It makes the reader feel things, it creates a sense of “will this work out for our heroes” and generally gives the book a point to being read. The sooner you can introduce the plot and its effects on the protagonist(s), the sooner we can get into following their efforts to do something about it. Bloating the story up front with details because “you need to know this in order to understand stuff later” doesn’t demonstrate that you’ve paced or planned the story out, and in a way tells me that you’re more concerned with your telling the story than my liking it. (Sort of like a party where the person cares more about the praise or attention being paid to their storytelling rather than the story’s reception or the listeners’ enjoyment – are you writing just to show that you can do it?) Lastly, does this plot build to a climax and then resolve? Yes, even if you’re writing a series, each component needs an internal structure and not just act as setup to books later “when you’ll really get into it”. I don’t want to get into it later, four books from now. I bought this book, I want to get into it NOW.

Question 2

Since your manuscript is complete, have you formatted it according the particular requirements of the route it’s going to take in publishing? Just about every way to publish a story requires it be formatted a different way. Some places want it formatted with certain spacing and margins. Others want a particular file format. This isn’t just caprice. Formatting it a certain way shows that not only can you (a) follow directions but also (b) that you give a damn about the thing you’ve created, and you want to give it the best possible shot at getting out into the world. If you don’t know how to format it for your particular publishing method, ask someone affiliated with that method or check online, nearly everywhere has ‘Submission Guidelines’ or an email address where you can talk to someone about it. And when you actually get those guidelines, follow them. Being a rebel here doesn’t do you any favors, and often leads to your work being rejected since you didn’t follow directions. (For example if Company X wants the document formatted a certain way, with inches and spacing, chances are it’s for easier reading and quick printing. Not helping Company X read your thing is not going to help Company X say yes to you.)

Question 3

If you’re going to engage an agent or publisher, have you queried them? And if so, did their response say “Please send us stuff?” Again, we get to the importance of following directions and doing yourself a favor and putting your best foot forward. Imagine for a minute that we’re not talking about books, but something more practical – let’s say you’re making a snack chip. If you want me to buy your chip and tell my friends to buy your chip, are you going to let me test one chip to see if I like it, or are you going to assume that I’ll automatically like it because you (who I don’t know) made it, and you’ve gone ahead and made me a whole giant bag? The query letter is that test chip. It helps set up the dialog and relationship between agent and writer, so that communication (like spice) can flow and deals can be struck. And just like the start of any relationship, coming on too strong is a great way to get yourself rejected. Don’t throw whole bags of chips at people, invite them to make up their own mind with a test chip. Then see where things go.

Question 4

Are you on social media? Are you available somewhere on the Internet, in terms of contact information or some other repository of your thoughts and stuff? I’m not saying you need to be all up on every form of social media. You don’t need to be an Instagram junkie or go crazy with Vines and know the difference between Tinder and Tumblr. But you are going to need some kind of spot on the Internet where people (people interested in talking to you about you and your stuff) can reach you. For me, that’s Twitter and this blog. Yeah, there’s some Facebook too, but not so much anymore. Notice how I didn’t ask about your personal life or about your family or your financial habits or whether or not you’ve got pictures of your kids I can see. Having a presence on social media DOES NOT MEAN you need to show everything to everyone all the time. You choose to show and share what you want, with the caveat that it’s called “social” media and not “I only whore my work and provide links to buy things” media. Social means you can and should expect interactions with other humans, some of whom you’ll agree with and some you won’t, and some of whom will like your work and some who won’t. Growing some thick skin isn’t a bad idea, but it’s applesauce if you think you need to wear plate armor against everyone. The nice thing is that a lot of social media is free (and this blog isn’t all that pricey either, I think it’s like $18 a year or so.)

Question 5

Did you get some people to look at your work? Did “some people” include professionals who can point out errors and issues with your creation? When you write a thing, people are excited. Maybe they’re a little envious. Maybe they just want to see you do well. Who knows. Their reasons are their own. And chances are it’s not hard to find people who want to read your stuff. Friends. Family. Relationships. Co-workers. Maybe you expand by getting librarians or bloggers. Maybe you have a writing group and you take their feedback weekly or monthly. They’re all great resources for encouragement and on-the-spot help. But have you considered getting a professional to help you? Sure, those other people are giving you free advice on some night or an afternoon, and the professional is going to cost you money, but remember how we’ve been talking about doing all you can to put your best foot forward? Getting an editor (and later, beta readers) to apply their expertise (that’s what you’re paying for with professionals) to help your work be the best it can be?

Sub-Question under Question 5

Are you relying too heavily on the editorial process after an expected acceptance? Yes, if you go by some routes in publishing, the editing of your manuscript happens after you sign some paperwork and have been accepted as an author-under-contract. It can really tempting to hold off on editing your manuscript until that part, because it’s going to a pro, and that’s they’re job and it’s out of your hands. Yes, it is out of your hands. But do you think your work is the only thing they’re doing? That they don’t have deadlines or pressure from their bosses to get a certain amount done? And do you think that even at that level they can’t say no to you and say, “This thing is a mess and a nightmare, let’s go back to like square 2”? Publishing in its many incarnations is a marathon, not a windsprint. The better condition your work is in before the race kicks off, the better it’ll hold up to all the rigors your work is going to face.

Question 6

Are you prepared to handle the numbers? I don’t often talk about my own numbers, but I’ll give you some here. I have a series of small monographs available on Smashwords, and to date, they’ve earned me about $34. Thirty-four dollars. Contrast that to my editing income, which is about three thousand times times greater (tax brackets kicked my ass), give or take a percent. Granted, I talk way more about editing novels and games and content than I do about writing my own stuff, and even my own fiction production has slowed since more and more I’m editing to pay bills and live, but thirty-four dollars fills my car up with gas ONCE, or buys me 5 burritos. That’s not a lot, but I’m grateful for it. Writing, in terms of being a writer that produces book upon book, that’s a job, and that means contending with things like sales numbers and expectations and the cost of living or what you’re comfortable owning or not owning.

Question 7

Can you do it more than once? Maybe writing is just something you want to say you tried one time. Maybe it’s to honor a promise or just a goofy thing you started ages ago and now you’re just seeing where it goes. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe you’re writing things because that’s your retirement. Or because your career is going to put your kids through college. Or because this is what you’ve always wanted to do, so out of your apartment in your city, you write ferociously and still make time to do things like go grocery shopping. Chances are that once you’re published, someone somewhere is going to ask or expect you to do it again. Now if you’re planning a series of books, this is a given. But if you’re just lobbing one word-grenade out there, someone’s going to want you to have extras handy. Which means writing more, possibly faster than you did the first time, and possibly on a schedule and deadline other than your own (especially if you didn’t read that contract you signed too carefully). Ready to do it again?

* * *

I write this not to draw a line in any sand and say “Publish this way and not that way.” I think the “hybrid” model, where you do whatever works best for the project is ideal, even if it means you straddle “fences”. I do think that even work that goes out to agents and publishers can stand to edited, and I do think it’s critical we start pointing out emperors that have no clothes on and talking more about what makes for good writing and not just good sales. I do think sales are a consequence of a well-made product, and I know you can point to tons of material that’s well-made but sold poorly, but I think it’s also time we change our collective thinking about how we perceive writing as art and craft. I think we need to do all we can to produce the best not so that we can demand fat checks, but so that we can bring our stories to people who want them, and we do so with the best polish and construction possible.

I take a lot of heat for saying “You should be writing everyday.” and I’m still going to say it. Because I do think ANYONE can take ten minutes to write down an idea so they don’t forget, then take ten minutes the next day to write a little more, and then a little more the next day. Some people get on my about my privilege, that I’m discounting peoples’ responsibilities. I’m not. I don’t have the same responsibilities, but that doesn’t mean I’m not cognizant of the fact that hours of a person’s day gets consumed by other things. I’m not asking for hours a day. It’d be nice, I think practicing a craft works best when you devote time to it, but even ten minutes regularly counts. 10 minutes. That’s not much. Can you do more? Then do it. Write. Create. A little at a time. If you feel that it deserves more, or that you should be giving it more because 10 minutes is unfair or sounds like I’m yanking your chain, that’s on you. I do think it deserves more. I do think you should do it at least an hour as often as possible. I do think it should be taught more (and better) in schools, and I do think that words can elevate and change minds. I don’t understand how people can ask me “to understand”, when they just tell me I’m being privileged or I don’t know what it’s like. I admit I don’t. Now just tell me how you can say writing or making a thing is as important as you claim when you’re not regularly making time to do it?

Go write things. Produce art. Art hard.

Happy writing.

Chapters!

Hello again everybody.

Thanks so much for your very kind feedback about my previous post. For the record, no, I’m still not my usual super cheery amazing self, but it hasn’t gotten worse either. So onward we march.

I asked on Twitter for some blog topics, and got a few very interesting ones. One in particular stood out, because the minute I said, “Yeah I like that” quite a few people (twelve I think) were very excited in response.

So let’s look at the suggested topic:

 

TWITTERPOST01

Josh is curious about what a “good” chapter looks like. And while it’s super easy and incredibly tempting to tell him not to think in terms of good and bad, because they’re crazy subjective, that’s not going to help him. And it is worth noting that a chapter does have a structure, and ideally that structure should help, not hinder, whatever’s going on.

The problem though is that not every chapter in every book in every genre by every writer is going to be the same. Sometimes we’re reading love stories, sometimes it’s horror, sometimes it’s a lengthy rant about the dangers of single ply toilet tissue. Further, the second question about exciting parts of a larger story is kind of misleading. Exciting (like good and bad) is subjective, and there are some parts of some stories that you don’t want to be exciting. For instance, I don’t want to see excitement and/or tension in the part of the chapter where the hero falls asleep or the heroine washes her hair. It’s not exciting. It might be really nice for the character to do, but it doesn’t need to rivet me to the chair, because I can deal with a sentence or two about sleep and hair care, and as a writer, I’m not worried that at the first mention of something not-as-exciting as other parts of my book, people are going to flee and hate me. So let’s look at the components of chapters in terms of when they work to serve the story versus when they don’t.

Positive Elements In A Chapter

Does this chapter introduce new information? If we’re telling a story with a plot (doesn’t matter what it is), does this chapter give us more detail? A chapter is a step forward in information, we should be able to move from this chapter to the next one and say we learned something we didn’t know before. Yes, this chapter might not be a step forward chronologically in the story, time might not advance, but what the chapter tells us about the characters, the plot, the created world, should be new and in addition to what we already know. Now you can make a case and bring up a good point about first chapters, since there’s nothing new in front of a first chapter, but the rule still holds true here – only instead of relying on whole chapters before it, first chapters are built on a sentence-by-sentence case, where we gain information a discrete unit (sentence) at a time.

Does this chapter cement what we already know (or think we know)? Whether a first or fiftieth chapter, once we see this chapter is providing new data, we have to make sure this chapter is also affirming existing data. This is often called continuity, but outside of fiction this also pertains to contradictory instructions (where you earlier said X but now you’re saying Y) and shifts in assumption (suddenly the author assumes the reader knows more because the reader is deeper into the document). Since our most fundamental building block of knowledge is a word, because it evokes a concept and a memory and a feeling all simultaneously, and we compile words into sentences to give them vectors and focus, we have to be able to trust that the application is constant, that is, that the word we used back seven pages ago still means the same thing it does later on, unless we’ve expressly and obviously changed its definition. Inconsistency in language means that we aren’t conveying in an easily understood way and that our readers will possibly not want to keep reading because “all of a sudden the book got weird/dense/strange”. There’s often a whole editorial pass for continuity, because leaving plot holes and resorting to hand-waving is ultra lazy. Also, since the writer can’t be everywhere constantly to explain things to people whenever they get to a particular part of the story, why not make it easier on them by just avoiding this potential problem from the start?

Is this chapter a complete package? Chapters should start somewhere, even if the action being described is carried over from previous chapters (like chapter 4 opens with the car crashed into a pole, because chapter 3 ended with the car skidding on the highway) or that the chapter is called “Combat” and contains all the game rules for fighting. It has to start somewhere, and even if you’ve established some really funky variable chronologies in your story, there still has to be a starting point, even if a particular starting point differs from others throughout the book. In fact, it’s impossible to have a chapter that doesn’t have a starting point. Likewise, chapters should have endings, sometimes with summaries of what you’ve just covered (like study questions) or a push into the next action (cliffhanger) or just the cessation of that line of thought. Chapters have to end somewhere just like they have to start somewhere. The trick isn’t in having them or not having them, the trick is in knowing where the story is served best with those starts and stops. Manipulation of those starts and stops across the span of chapters is a lot like the push/pull we’ve discussed elsewhere about carrying the reader forward throughout the flow of the words.

Things You May Want To Avoid In A Chapter

Does the chapter do too much? As said above, chapters have beginnings and ends. They should ideally contain a progression of material, either introducing it fresh (as a first chapter would) or perpetuating it until it can be closed later (the way a middle chapter would) or tying things up (the way an ending would). Not every chapter in fiction is going to do all three of these things, of course, but it’s important to recognize the role a particular chapter plays as introducer, perpetuator or closer, and making sure the chapter does those things. When a chapter oversteps, and information loses its individuated spot (like cars double parking), then you start creating situations where material isn’t given appropriate weight by the reader, because they have to squeeze more stuff into their head, because you keep shoveling it onto them. This discourtesy, this lack of respect, most often comes up as nervousness on the part of the writer, the idea that they have all this information that they swear they prove its all relevant and has to be used right-this-second, and if they don’t get it out right there in that particular part of that exact page, it has no other place in the book and everything (including all of time and space) will fall apart as your created world is torn asunder. Which isn’t true. It’s in fact fabricated bullshit you’ve convinced yourself is super mucho important because things are going well in your writing and you’re freaking out. You have all the pages in the world to get these ideas out, and even if you’re working within a constraint of a word cap on a project, chances are you have the ability to do multiple drafts and possibly even an editor to help you find the best-fit for all the ideas, even if the best-fit for that idea over there might be not-in-the-thing-you’re-writing-right-now.

Does the chapter repeat other chapters? At some point, and I don’t know when it was, our attention spans took a nose-dive. Maybe it was when it became super easy to look at porn. Maybe it was whenever we all decided to stop wearing hats. Maybe it was when we invented the machines that propel us into outer space. But collectively, specially, our attention span tapered right off. Some people will go all gloom-and-doom at this notion and say things like “You only have three seconds to keep someone’s attention because they’re soooo busy!” (I really hope you made up your own arm waving at that one) but when you later question them as to what people do that has them so busy, the answers seem to all suggest that a lot of time is consumed in a lot of short actions like looking at phones, blinking at monitors and feverishly responding to other stimuli. To compensate for all this, we started repeating ourselves, as in the case where you can post tweets to facebook and to your blog and you can stick blog posts to twitter and facebook and other blogs … all that. This isn’t a bad thing, when it serves a purpose (like getting information out quickly to a wide audience), but when the same information shows up again and again, it’s annoying. Yes, we get it. This thing got written. Yes, you said she was blonde already. Yes, I know, the gun has only one shot left. Recycling this information more often than not is proof that the writer really doesn’t trust their reader to remember things they’ve read, and/or to some degree, that they don’t trust themselves to establish a fact and then leave it alone with bringing it back up. There is also something to be said for over-saturation, where a detail too oft mentioned loses the specialty it needs. If the response to a fact is a huge sigh, chances are you’ve said it enough times.

Does the chapter fit? In the progression (not arrangement, I don’t mean something arbitrary like in a game or manual) of the story, does the particular chapter belong in the space you’re assigning it? Does, for example, that chapter about the kid bored at school belong between the two chapters of the kid’s parents fighting robotic farm animals? Would it make sense to hold off showing what happens to the protagonist trapped on the roof (for a whole chapter) because you totally want to show the flashback of how the protagonist first learned to love being on a roof ? (by the way, the flashback-as-teaching-tool-as-a-chapter is way super totally overused, especially if you bring us out of the flashback at chapter’s end and practically quip). Stories, remember, are progressions of actions and emotions, carrying the reader from their starting point, educating them and delivering them the world you built and leaving them back in their world, changed by experience of sharing yours. Huge bumps in that road jar the reader, and too many times jarred can lead the reader to lose interest. Make sure there’s a clear path from A to B to C.

 

Josh, I hope I answered your question. I know it probably wasn’t the answer you looked me to give, but I am partial to this one.

Everyone, stay well, keep writing and be good to one another.

Shame Is The Yellow Starburst

Note: I don’t know if this post is going to have any sort of triggering material, but please consider this a trigger warning for rape, assault, eating disorders, physical handicaps, mental illness, victimization and trolling

Yep, still rocking this stomach virus-whatever. Let’s have more conversations!

Have you seen my circle of friends?

Some are men. Some are women, Some are one who identify as the other. Some are people who wear the clothes normally worn by another gender. Some are gay, some are straight, some are both, some are none of those things. Some are rocket scientists. Some are comedians. Some are parents. Some are single. Some are teachers, some are students. Some are big, some are small. Some are a picture of health, some are sick. Some are dying. Some are paralyzed. Some are bed-ridden. Some have crazy colored hair. Some have no hair. Some have survived assaults and rapes. Some have never had sex. Some have all their limbs, some don’t anymore. Some are mentally well, some suffer from terrible depression or psychosis or hallucinations or mania. Some take drugs. Some refuse drugs. Some believe in a god. Some believe in lots of gods. Some don’t believe in any god. And (gasp!) some aren’t even white.

I love them all, for a host of reasons, and in a host of different ways. I don’t always agree with some of the things they say, either to each or to the world, but I still care about them.

And to be honest, I don’t always know what to do when I hear about the things other people (people who aren’t my friends) say.

I don’t understand why it’s important for someone, when they see a person who weighs more than they do, or who weighs more than some idea that a person should only be this weight or that weight, to call them “fat” in a derisive way. Yes, they have fat. We all have fat. We’re mammals. Fat is part of our body structure. Some humans have more of it than others, for a variety of reasons that go far beyond “they must love dessert”. I don’t know what to say when I hear about fat-shaming. This negative person has pointed out an obvious thing, that this other person is indeed heavier than others, and somehow that devalues them?

I’m fat. I am technically heavier than I should be, according to my doctor. And while I do love desserts and large meals, my weight gain comes entirely from the fact that the medications I took in the past (not the recreational ones, I mean the ones I needed) goofed with my metabolism and of course, I kept right on drinking and not exercising while this happened and I have a belly now as a result. It’s not as big as some people’s, but I have one, I’m well aware and embarrassed about it, it’s the reason I don’t like my photo being taken, and the reason why I hate tucking in shirts, or wearing suit jackets. But I am not so large that people would point it out in a negative way, and in fact, I’ve been called “skinny, except for my midsection”, which was both flattering and embarrassing simultaneously.

A person’s weight is something that is sometimes under their control. Sometimes the body has a disorder that inhibits or retards weight loss. And other times, people have illnesses that arrest weight loss for a variety of reasons, medication being one of them. Calling attention to their weight, because you have some sort of expectation or desire that the world all appear a certain homogeneous way to your whims is childish and unrealistic.

Yes, they need to buy clothes in a larger size. Yes, they may need to patronize a different section of a store, or an entirely different store altogether. Yes, maybe that means they’re uncomfortable being in certain places or under certain conditions. I know I’m not a huge fan of being shirtless, and will only do so intimately or in relative comfort and privacy. Yes, their size may reduce their energy levels or mean they take up literally more space in an aisle or in a seat. Yes it may not be healthy for them to be that size, it may tax their joints or their heart. But, is it your place to tell them these things? Do you think this is news to them? Do you think they just woke up on a Thursday, didn’t look in a mirror or look at themselves and you’re telling them something new? And even if you are their friend, even if you do love them, do you have to tell them in such a way that makes some manner of their appearance more valuable to you than who they are as a person?

I’m crazy. I’ve been through a variety of mental health treatments. I currently see multiple therapists, take multiple doses of medication a day and am a member of several support groups to help me cope with the realities of my mental health. Sometimes, it’s a nuisance that hums in the background of my life. Sometimes, it’s a big deal that paralyzes me for hours, days, or weeks. Sometimes it scares me and scares other people. It’s not that how my brain receives, perceives and structures information that is wrong, mind you, it’s just that it does so in a different and sometimes deficient way. Medication and therapy help make up for the lacking areas, and help me manage the on-going symptoms so that I can productive in a job, so that I could interact with other people, so that I could live more than a life where I wake up, stare out a window for hours, then go back to sleep. I get to call myself crazy. It’s my own joke with myself. It’s not a healthful joke. It’s not a truly kind thing to say about myself, I know this. But I can say it, because I’m living it.

You, on the other hand, you don’t get to dismiss me as crazy. I will first point out that you likely have your own insecurities, your own quirks, your own things that upset you, and while yours may not always be as amplified as mine, you are in no way free from the same issues. Just because there are pills taken every day at set times, just because I live with a particular structure that keeps me from losing myself to illness, just because I avoid situations out of a fear that it will do more harm than good for me, does not make me less capable of being a friend, a lover, a colleague, a peer, a confidant or more broadly, human.

Maybe yes, you are a therapist or a doctor or a trained professional in the area of mental health, so yes you have some passing knowledge of the intricacies of the medical issues I face. Maybe you learned everything you need to know about certain illnesses from television (Because that’s never been false, right?). Maybe you’ve read a book about a famous person who had an illness, and it’s easy to say “Well if that person’s illness presented like this, everyone with that illness presents like this.” Maybe it’s time you consider that everyone is different and everyone’s experience is different, and difference does not invalidate their feelings.

I am a survivor of assault. While my assault is different than other people’s, it happened. While I am a man and they may be women, none of us deserve our experience trivialized, marginalized or used as a punchline. What happened, regardless of details, is terrible. The scars, physical and otherwise, persist and can influence any number of future decisions, and they do not warrant being laughed or shrugged off because of a perception that people “asked for it” or “deserved it” or “had it coming.” I didn’t ask for what happened, and I can’t imagine that anyone actually would deserve the fear, physical pain, injury, medical bills, recovery and shame I bear and sometimes continue to experience.

Where, praytell is the humor in suggesting someone get sexually violated? Where do you start laughing about the time you were threatened and and scared and couldn’t stop something from happening? How many chuckles can I share about scars that mark a body I am already sensitive about? Please point the “lulz” out in a situation where you don’t walk somewhere alone, or don’t dress a certain way or you don’t engage in certain activities because bad things could happen again? Please tell me, because I enjoy humor and laughter, and based on many accounts on the internet, these incidents, consequences and experiences and just gold mines for people to enjoy.

I’m a straight, white male. I engage in heterosexual intimate practices. I am an educated man, who has never experienced true discrimination due to the presence of external genitalia or a lack of skin pigment. My work is seldom second guessed, I do not receive lower wages than others for any reason I’m aware of, and I hold all rights and abilities as other citizens and people like me – I can vote, shop, own things and live how I want. I am lucky this way. Others aren’t.  How they have to amend, alter and go about their lives is different than what I have to do. Sure, yes, there are things we all can do – like go get fast food, have a glass of water, watch paint dry – but what if you were uncomfortable about going to the bathroom, because you were pressured to using one you didn’t like? I don’t mean the one with the toilet no one enjoys, I mean the one for the gender you aren’t. What if you really enjoyed wearing a nice dress, but someone told you long ago that you really shouldn’t do that because even it’s not “what you’re supposed to be wearing”? What if you really liked a person, felt strong feelings of attraction to them, but knew that when the two of you were in public in a group, you couldn’t share or enjoy anything intimate, because other people would react negatively, maybe even to the point of violence? What if you were told you were sick, with an illness without a cure, an illness that would surely land you in hospitals on numerous occasions, that may erode your sense of sanity, that may cause you to hear and see things that others don’t, and that most other people, were you to tell them that you have this illness, which isn’t contagious, would assume that you’re two seconds away from killing people or burning down buildings or harming kids?

What if you experienced all these things, and rather than being accepted as being more than these things, you were laughed it? Mocked? Ignored? Treated as if you didn’t matter?

Making people feel shame or guilt or wrong for being a certain way or for experiencing an event is terrible, and should be criminal. It should be exposed for the cancer that it is on society and expunged. Not that the speakers of these statements need to be cast off to a remote island or butchered publicly, but the behavior must be called out. Yes, sometimes it will be like whistling in a hurricane. Yes, sometimes it will be like spitting into the ocean. Addressing a problem sometimes means that you have go against the grain, but how else can things change?

Now, a caution – there is an equal danger in letting this passion and this belief in calling out wrongfulness turn into a biasing crusade, that exposure to the wrongs of people will over time poison perception, rendering this just another assumptive lens: that everyone, excluding themselves or at most a very small portion of people, and possibly none as dedicated as they are, is at fault for fomenting and perpetuating these problems and it falls to them to save or reform, rather than educate and demonstrate alternatives.

See, I don’t like yellow Starburst. I think they taste like the way Pledge smells. I think they’re particularly waxy, the shade of yellow annoys me, and when I buy a bag of Starburst, I dump out the whole bag, sort out the yellows and relegate them to a bowl that I keep next to my microwave. I used to just throw them away, but then a friend of mine said, “Oh, I love yellow Starburst.” so I began to save them. Now when I see him, he gets a ziploc bag of candy I can’t stand.

What I was doing was shaming the yellow candy. I didn’t like them, I thought them inferior, so I excluded them from my sight (since I don’t normally eat candy when I’m next to the microwave), or disposed of them. There are people who like them, and while I may disagree with their assertions, that doesn’t change the fact that there are people who do think the yellow Starburst contribute something to the bag of candy, and that they are worth enjoying.

Now, I’m not in charge of Starbursts. I am not Great High Emperor of Candy (I can’t even get on the ballot), so while I have an opinion and preference as to what I like, I don’t hold sway over what others like. And part of being an adult is recognizing that I might not like what you like and vice versa, and because of that, no one is less than someone else. We’re just different, and difference doesn’t invalidate.

I don’t cosplay. It’s not something I enjoy, but I can appreciate when it’s done well. I’m even envious that people can do it well.

I like structure and having things a certain way. When people cut or color their hair in new ways, I don’t handle it well. This is not because I’m offended they did it, but because I have trouble distinguishing people if they’ve changed their appearance (they literally don’t look like the people I know). And yes, I do have a preference against short hair, because in my partners and relationships, I prefer and am attracted to long hair. But since the whole world is not comprised of only my partners and relationships, and because there are people I’m not attracted to, I don’t get to make the blanket statement that my word is law, and I must have my way.

I’m not gay. It never occurred to me to try and be gay. I’m not aroused by men, but I can appreciate a good looking one. Not because I’m secretly gay, but because I can appreciate beautiful people and maybe go so far as to envy them.

I don’t dress as a different gender. This is both because it doesn’t appeal to me, and because I have a terrible sense of my own appearance and body image. I can appreciate it when it’s done well, because again, I’m able to appreciate beauty and enjoy people expressing themselves.

None of those things make me less of a person for not doing them, just as the people who do those things aren’t less human than I am.

Calling attention to our differences in ways that belittle or subordinate is fruitless and cowardly. What’s gained in making someone feel bad for being who and what they are? What great prize gets awarded for making someone embarrassed to express themselves? Why reduce something that happens to people (the statistic is something like 78 an hour or 1.3 a minute) to a poorly constructed joke?

What I always ask people is – if you were on the receiving end of these statements (rather than the giving end), would you enjoy it? And if the response is “Well, if that was me, I’d exercise or be less gay or fight my attackers, etc etc”, let’s suppose that the problem didn’t have a solution you could act on. Let’s suppose your weight was metabolic and not dietetic, let’s consider that being less gay is like being less blue-eyed, and let’s consider that your attackers may be larger, stronger, more numerous or done something to reduce your resistance (drugs, emotional manipulation, coercion). What then, troll?

There’s always someone who digs the yellow Starburst, even if that’s not you. There’s plenty of candy for everyone, and everyone can dig what they like.

86 Things I’ve Said On Twitter, Part 1

If you’ve been following me on Twitter over the last two days, I’ve just been bombarding social media with punchy little lists of writing tips and advice. I hope I didn’t upset or offend anyone in blasting a stream of thoughts, it wasn’t my intention.

In part this is because I have a Workshop (I’ve recently found the phrase “creativity workshop” which is pretty great) coming up Tuesday night (details here) and in part because these thoughts constantly rocket through my brain and I usually just bite my tongue because some other editor or a respected writer says these things at a much slower pace. And frankly, it’s felt pretty good to just throw all these things out there, and see how they help people.

So, rather than just drop all 86 without explanation, I’m breaking them into chunks. Here are the first six.


1. Don’t think about writing in terms of “getting published”, think about it in terms of “I want readers to read stuff”. Aim for audience. 

It’s really tempting, and a lot of books reinforce this idea that publishing is some be-all, end-all that once you get published, it’s all sunshine and roses and puppies. But, talk to published authors, and a lot of them are working harder now than before they were first published — almost as if publishing isn’t the end of the marathon, but the start of a new one. To that end, I caution you not to go so far down the “must get published to be legit” road, and think instead of what publishing translates to, which means readers get their hands on your creations. The goal is to get readers (as that assumes they’ve spent money to purchase your things, right?). Think of all the books that sit unread on a shelf. Sure, they’re published, but are they being read?

2. How long should a book be? Long enough to show me a plot arc, some interesting character growth and some insight about you as a writer.

One of my favorite amusing things to Google, aside from “the A-Team theme song”, is “how long should a book be” because the answers are so varied, yet so certain of themselves. Novels have this many words. Novellas have that many words. Oh you have some other number that’s just a hair over? Well then you fall into this third category.

See, these categories are imposed on authors by publishers for a lot reasons (read: costs to print, edit and produce) and aren’t really indicators of quality or requirement. A novella is a short novel, but a short novel is also a short novel. A book of poems might just be ten words, but a children’s book might also be ten words. The labels and connotations of those labels don’t always translate well to the people writing whatever they’re writing – because if you get it into your head that you have only a certain number of words to say what you have to say, then you’re going to panic as that number approaches.

Take a different tack. Let the story be however long it’s going to be, so that over the course of the story, the reader can see the plot get introduced, developed and solved as well as the character(s) involved get some expansion and maturation as well. How you do this, however you choose to accomplish those goals will share some insights about who and what you are as a writer. (Because you’ll favor certain terms, build sentences in a certain way, shy away from some details while promoting others, etc)

3. If you’re writing for young adults, the keyword is “adults” – treat them smartly, accept them. Don’t lecture or talk down to them.

I have a lot of cousins. And while they’re older now, for many years family gatherings were packed with children, running around, making noise and generally being children. Universally though, across age ranges and gender, every single one of them would roll their eyes, sigh and take a tone with an adult who got it in their head that as an adult there was a great deal more superiority than there actually was.

As an author, you’re the adult. But, don’t be THAT adult. You’re not doing these kids a favor by coming down from on high to grant them a little morsel of word-ambrosia. You’re SHARING a story with them, you’re SHARING this experience of “I made a thing, I hope you enjoy it”.

Children aren’t miniature adults, you can’t expect them to express the full depth of maturity and understanding that adult readers do – but not because they lack the understanding, merely because they lack the experience. Let your book be something that gives them an experience they can take forward.

4. Not every kiss is fiery. Not every embrace is passionate. Not everything a character does is at 100% efficiency. Let them be wrong

I’ve talked about this here and elsewhere – that a character who never fails and always super-succeeds is kind of a let-down. It’s the risk in a character’s actions, the chance that they’ll fail, that makes us care about the character.

And while that talks about big potentially bad things that the character faces, we can also apply it to the not-dangerous behaviors as well. What’s interesting about a character who always kisses the best kisses on the planet? Or who always makes the best omelets? Hyperbole aside, if everything is special, nothing is special. Also, the more perfect the character becomes, the less connection to them we (the imperfect audience) feel. Because our kisses aren’t always earth-shattering. Because we burn breakfast. Because we get really nervous talking to one another. It’s our mistakes AND our successes that define us, so why isn’t that true for characters?

5. If you’re setting the story in a kingdom and we’re not learning about politics or social class, why do we need to know it’s a kingdom?

This is about focusing and distributing details. As readers we assume that what you’re giving us is important, because you’re, well, giving it to us. Telling us about something, tossing some adjectives about down on paper draws our focus to it. And if you spend even more than an adjective on it, we conclude that it has to be even more important than that, so when you talk about it and then move on without ever coming back, we feel deprived and a little misled. (I’m looking at you numerous unfinished plots in TV dramas)

If the scale (how big the set pieces within the story are) doesn’t include or involve the big landscape details you’re giving them, why are you giving them? (Hang on a second, we’ll talk more about this)

6. When figuring out which details to keep and which to cut, ask “Does this detail show me a new thing or explain an old thing?” Stay new.

Just like we talked about above, it’s important to know WHY you’re giving detail X at the moment you are. If I’m describing…the room I’m writing this in, I may talk about the way to the desk is worn and aged. I may talk about the view out the window to my left. I may talk about the mess of papers to my right. Those details help you paint the mental picture about what the desk looks like and tells you a little about how I keep my office space. But…do you need to know the color of my shirt? Sure, you can find out about it later (purple t-shirt), but how does knowing the shirt’s color tell you more about the desk or the office? It’s a stretch to say “oh he’s wearing a t-shirt, that explains a lot about how organized he is” — that’s you imposing your conception of how an office should run onto my story. And that’s not fair to you or to the story.

When it comes time to edit and trim, one of the things I look for is why details are in the places they’re in. That question above asks “what’s the purpose of this detail?” which is key for knowing what has to stay in a draft and what has to come out. Likewise it helps pare down the number of different ways I express the same detail. How many various ways can I call my desk “full” or “active”? Breaking out the thesaurus doesn’t further the story, it just moves things laterally, heaping similar repeated statements atop one another in a slowly stalling strata of story.

Part 2 (the next ten) will be out on Monday. Have a great weekend. Hope to see you on Tuesday night.