The Marriage of Facts and Emotions

This post started as a series of complaints and muttered grousings made to a sleeping dog over the course of the last week. It later coalesced as what was going to be an audio post I just sort of fired off, and now, after pacing the first floor of the house, it’s a blog post.

When you spend time reading manuscripts and manuscript excerpts, be they for submissions or for contests or just for critique, you see a lot of the same mistake made again and again. Even if the specific words are different and the topics covered are different, the same mistake crops up.

And this is where we make sort of a record scratch noise and have a little sidebar.

Look, I know that this post is about to go out to a lot of people who haven’t really read much of this blog, and while I am thankful for your reading it, I would be completely unhappy with myself if I didn’t disclaim that I am not in the business of rectal smoke or being a cuddly kind resource that flounces around and doesn’t address the art and craft of writing with practicality and an edge to it, because my job and passion isn’t to be your friend. It’s not to make you all warm and fuzzy when you’re clearly treading water. It’s to make you better. Because I want you to be the best you can be, and if you’re about to say, “You can be nice about it” I’ll nod and still tell you that if your shit sucks you can and should fix it and if you’re clutching your pearls and feeling attacked just wait until you get beset with years of rejections and no feedback because you stepped out of your echo chamber unprepared. My job is to help you get better. So let’s get you better. No illusions, not a lot of hand-holding. This is art. This is craft. Here, we work for our successes. You want to masturbate over the dream, head elsewhere. 

Okay, back to the post.

So many openings make a critical error in their openings. No matter the genre. No matter the POV. The text lays there sort of flat like old soda, and doesn’t interest people. It’s boring. It doesn’t grab people. No matter how many carriage returns you use. No matter how many swears you use. It’s limp. It’s old spaghetti. It’s not going to make someone read more.

That error is the imbalance between fact and emotion.

Fact, for our discussion here, is any statement that provides information to the reader that they either didn’t have or need to have because some other fact benefits from it. This can be anything from a setting description to saying what kind of boot a lady wears. It’s all about telling the reader something they need to know going forward. And we assume these facts are always true, unless something in the presentation tells us otherwise.

Emotion, for this discussion, is any statement that evokes or educes a feeling from the reader. It’s describing how someone feels sad when the other lady kicks the bucket. It’s describing how the clouds inspire hope. It’s everything from the flowery to the straight -up assignment of feelings to a character.

Fact without emotion is dry. It would be like reading a few pages of dictionary. It’s informational, yes, but does it really make someone want to turn the page to the next columns of S-words? Information alone is not engaging, and it is not the thing that makes people turn pages, give a shit, buy books, leave reviews, or say nice things in tweets.

We are led and driven by emotion. Emotion, when you partner it with fact, gives a context and a reaction. It’s that reaction we’re looking for. Here’s an example.

It kept raining all night. Gary snarled when it thundered.  Gary hated the rain.

Those are 3 facts. It establishes several pictures in your head, and it doesn’t matter if Gary is a dog, a grizzled detective on a stakeout, or the king of horseshit cliche magical creatures, because it’s not until we get to the word “hated” that we have a context for the images in our head.

We want context. Context helps provide depth and engagement with the reader or audience. Context isn’t going to just appear because you provided a paragraph of facts about what two people did in a room, it’s going to show up when you take the facts and add some kind of character development to them. Evocative language (verbs, nouns, adjectives, whatevers) is your key to building context.

You want to avoid any situation where you can be asked, “What do you want me to do with this info?” or “Why should I care?” as they’re both signs that there’s a lack of context through which the reader can clarify or connect to or want to connect more to the basal picture you’ve put in their heads.

We’ve previously established that characters need to feel human so that we can connect with them and without them giving some kind of emotional reaction to the world around them, those characters might as well be the colored cut-outs we used to make on popsicle sticks in art class – flat, not terribly precise, limited – story tools.

This is not a call where every fact needs an emotional element following shortly thereafter like a kid brother who just won’t leave you alone when all you want to do is stare at the girls on the bleachers down at the park.

You can have groups of facts get shepherded by an emotion (like my dog and the toys she wants to have near the couch versus those she brings to a spot under the desk) when related or necessary as in the description of your dystopia all getting the label “oppressive” either overtly in text or implied by other word choices you’ve made.

Now, yes, your reader will supply some emotions because they’re human beings with experiences and naturally they want to correlate their emotions with their imagination that you’ve been fueling and prompting by giving them images for the movie screen in their head. But you’re not just letting them assign any old emotion to your story, right? You’re trying to take them down a particular path, and to do that you want them to experience and think about certain emotions more than others, right?

So your persecuted lovers in a medieval kingdom shouldn’t feel like a casual comedy when you’re trying to make people feel bad when Gwen nearly gets her head taken off by the axe before Bill confesses being the wizard before the evil Duke.

So your fish-out-of-water has an appropriate sense of wonder when they, the abused orphan of prophecy gets the cliche acceptance into a cliche brand new world that will forever cliche dazzle them as they cliche proceed over many stories with cliche villains and cliche tools that allow them to cliche deal with the cliche prophecy in a cliche way so that they learn a cliche lesson.

To associate emotion with fact, you need to be clear on what emotion you’re intended, and how you’re going to use sentence structure to deploy it. If you want X emotion to be felt as a result of reading Y paragraph, what words do the emotional creating and propagating?

Here’s a delightfully merciless exercise.

  1. Go double-space and print out your first page, or the page of the MS you’re the most proud of, no matter where it is in the story. And grab one highlighter and one pen (or two different colored pens, but I’m going highlighter/pen combo here).
  2. Choose either the highlighter or pen. If you’re using the highlighter, mark all the facts. If you’re using the pen, circle the facts. Yes you can mark a whole sentence if you want, but try to focus on whatever you think the facts are.
  3.  Now pick up the other thing you didn’t use in Step 2 (for me, this is where I get the highlighter because I just used the pen) Again, if you’re highlighting now, mark all the parts of the text that convey emotion. Or if this is the pen, circle them.
  4. In the margin, at the end of every paragraph, I’d like you to write down the number of facts in that paragraph. If this number seems very high, consider what you’re trying to do deploying info piece after info piece.
  5. In the margin, at the bottom of the page, I’d like you to write down the number of total emotions conveyed on this page.

Now because I sense that some of you are going to say, “I don’t get it.” Here’s an example page. EMOTIONFACT

Notice how the emotional stuff helps build voice and the factual stuff frames what I want you to picture in your head. And if I didn’t have the emotional stuff, you’d have a very boring recitation of A to B to C to D events, without many points for reader connection.

Voice is important. Facts are important. But you have to partner the two together for the whole page to lead us forward to the next page.

One of the major reasons why queries and manuscripts get rejected is because the mix of fact to emotion is skewed as to either bore the reader or under-detail the pictures intended to keep us reading.

To close here, let me point out that when I say emotion I’m talking about 2 types.

First, the emotions of the characters that help establish the voice and tone of the piece. And second, the emotion intended to be brought out of the reader.

By showing the character having an emotion (or even just emotions in general, a whole lot of stories start with boring people not feeling anything yet able to fully explain what they do as if telling me that they’re a tired worker is an emotional incentive to invest in a person for 300+ pages), and then be able to reference that emotion by coming back to that scene (think of a movie soundtrack where every time a theme comes back into play we feel a thing) or a shade of that scene, you reinforce the emotion in-character without bludgeoning the reader by always saying that Ronald is sad.

A lot of people pause here to say, “What about pacing?” What about it? If you’re early on (first page or pages), it’s obvious that you haven’t built pacing yet and that you’re building it there, so we know that you’ll hit 60 miles an hour after you accelerate up from zero. Also, good detail that paints a picture in the mind and reinforces voice does not slow down, it escalates it. Because the picture in mind will be clearer and the inertia will sweep me along like an avalanche.

Instead of a second sidebar, let’s rock a little wrap-up.

Hey creative. How are you? Ready to get up and give this a try? I know, there’s a lot here. But I want you to do me a favor – just think on this as you write:

I’m in charge of putting a movie in the reader’s head. So I need to control what the person sees, how clearly they see it, how they feel when they see it, and how they understand why I’m showing it to them. This book is my film. I need characters and emotions and arcs and decisions and risks and goals, not buzzwords and GIFs and excuses and fear. I’m going to make this movie on paper, and then share it with people because it’s awesome and it makes me happy to do so. None of the shit that the barnyard chickens cluck about matters, it’s just me and this movie and my want to get it out. 

You can do this. Even if you think you can’t right now, even if you tell me a whole host of reasons why all these other things need to be a certain or how other people need to act in a certain way or whatever fluffy cloud of shit you dredge up, you can do this if you keep at it. One word after the other, one idea moving into the next. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It has to be yours. 


Happy creating.

Why Am I Getting Rejected? Part 2

Hello! How are you? Was the weekend good? Can you believe that thing that the person said or did with the thing about the thing? Yeah, I can’t either.

Okay, enough chit-chat, you’re not here for my palaver.

We’re back at the Rejection Series. On Friday we talked about how the query can reject the MS before the MS even gets looked at, and now we’re going to come at this from a different direction. Today we’ll look at how the early pages of the MS can reject you.

Let’s assume for all these five cases that the query was interesting enough to lead the reader to check out the MS.

Whereas last time I told you to get your query letter, I want you to go get the first five pages of your MS. Yes, seriously. Double-space them. Print them out. Meet right back here when you’re ready?

Cool? Then onward we go …

Issue 1 – The opening paragraphs don’t encourage the reader to go forward.
This might be the big manuscript killer. The opening page is critical, like absolutely vital, to establishing the tone you’re trying to convey to the reader, regardless of the information.

You want to talk about weather, or blow something up, or write a quip, fine, but remember that whatever is in those opening paragraphs is the impression I’m taking forward. Yes, I’m beating the drum on word choice and decision making, but I don’t know any other way to stress to you that if you want me to go forward and ultimately say yes to your MS, that opening has to engage me.

Maybe that engagement is provocative, or it’s funny, or it’s new/a new take on a common idea. That engagement won’t happen if you’re trying too hard to be something or some author you’re not. It won’t happen because despite all camouflaging efforts, that try-hard blanket will hang over you. It’s visible, like a bad comb-over. Just be you, express whatever idea you have in as sharp and as “you”  as possible (this is a great time to mention the importance of voice), and you’ll be engaging.

Issue 2 – The tone of the first page (or so) does not match the tone of the subsequent pages. 
One of the ways people try and correct Issue 1 is by really working the hell out of that first moment in the book and then the next moment or scene in the book winds up feeling jarring and strange because it didn’t get the same intensive scrubbing. My example for this is a TV show, the newer version of Battlestar Galactica, where the SyFy tv-movie presented one feel and vibe and setup, then the first episode (and particularly the second) felt like I was watching a completely different, and not good) TV show.

I use that example because I hoped what I saw in the front would carry forward, and when it didn’t I made a variety of sighs and curses before never watching another second of it. Don’t let that happen to your MS. Yes, word choice and story-decision-making help this, but so does editing. NO, not self-editing, I mean getting other eyes on it. YES you need to get other eyes on your work before it goes out into the world.

Also, let me point out that this problem is fixable by applying the same strategy to every scene/moment in the MS. Assume the reader looks at this page, this moment, this scene, wherever it is in the book. Is it going to be interesting on some level? Don’t confuse ‘interesting’ with ‘perfect’, because interesting things are often imperfect and they’re supposed to be. Every word on the page helps paint a picture in the reader’s mind, so what will you do with their blank canvas?

Issue 3 – The pages have errors, big and small, that don’t encourage the reader going forward.
One of the big concepts I battle with is the idea that editing is both someone else’s job, as well as it being too expensive if you out-source it directly. It’s this duality that keeps authors from investing in things like editing or coaching, so that they can improve what they write, so that when they send the MS anywhere (to publisher or consumer alike) it’s in its best position to have a positive reception. Errors are catchable and fixable, and it’s worth the time (and the money, where appropriate) to get your work edited.

When I blog, I know there are typos and words I skip because I think I’ve typed them. I know I flub punctuation. I’m not perfect. No writer, no editor, no publisher, nobody is perfect. Errors happen, but there are (or there are supposed to be) steps in place to catch them.

For instance, I can send my drafted blog posts to people who will tell me that I’ve misspelled camouflaging again. Or I can get to the desk ten minutes earlier to re-read the sales copy before definitely approving it. These are things within my power to get whatever is in front of me into great shape.

When I open that MS, and the first page has things like tonal shifts, hopping POV, missing words, and/or substantial grammar issues, I sigh and tell myself that here’s one more for the rejection pile and grumble a little that 99% of that could have been caught and fixed if the person gave a shit about their work, my time, and their efforts.

Because that’s the message it conveys to me. I don’t know the writer. I know them by name and email address, but I don’t ‘know’ them. When the first pages are badly tossed word salad, and because I’ve got a lot to do on any given work day, I have to go with my gut-based first impression that this author, no matter how well intentioned, couldn’t be bothered to give me their best. If they can’t treat their work and the jobs we both have to do as editor and author with respect, what other conclusion can I draw?

Issue 4 – The MS has a load of potential and suggestion, but never pays off.
Last week, we talked about the bait-and-switch between query and MS. Here’s an extension of that. This is the MS version of ‘talks a big game and doesn’t deliver.’

If Issue 1 wasn’t the killer, this issue is. And that’s because the issue crops up not on page 1, but in the later pages, after I’ve read a bit and invested my time, interest, and energy. I read it, I start making notes, I start telling people to make time so they can read it and make notes, and then I get a rug pulled out from under me when the “good stuff” never happens.

Maybe it’s the subplot that doesn’t pay off. Maybe it’s a whole book of plot setup that will pay off a little in book 2 and 3 and 4, meaning I have to be willing to take a chance on the whole series (this is especially irksome if the later books aren’t drafted yet, and I’m suppose to take the hope forward that the idea of a series is publishable/saleable.) Maybe it’s the climax that’s not satisfying. Loads of elements in the story can peak too soon, weakly, or not at all and leave the reader unsatisfied, but not in that positive hungry-for-more way. More like how I felt when hype exceeds product, as in restaurants or video games.

And this is another treatable issue. Take the MS to multiple readers who have no emotional stake in being biased. Not the partner, spouse, child, friend, beloved co-worker, bestie (is ‘bestie’ still a thing?). Beta readers. People who aren’t well known. Writing groups. Editors. People who don’t have to say nice things because of non-creative agendas. Fresh eyes, objectivity, and feedback that might not be all rainbows and kittens can help get the MS into better shape.

Issue 5 – The MS turns out to be a soapbox for the author’s agenda. 
Most manuscripts are written by people who want to tell a particular story because the story is interesting and because they think they have an approach to the material that others don’t.

However, there are a number of authors who write stories as vessels and disguises for their opinions about material they otherwise can’t say for whatever reasons. These are the manifestos about government control disguised as protagonist dialogue. These are the stories of sexual violence fetishized and glorified. These are the stories where a hard stance can be taken, but the author can gain some distance from it because, “it’s not them, it’s their character(s).”

There’s a sincerity to seek for here. On the minor elements, the unobtrusive stuff isn’t a soapbox. But when an author disguises (often poorly, though you’ll never convince them of that) their belief under some narrative veneer, and that belief gets brought up again and again as if they’re saying, “DO YOU GET IT, HUH? DO YOU SEE WHAT I AM SAYING?” in a great stage whisper, it doesn’t matter how masterful the other MS elements can be portrayed – the soapboxing overshadows many other elements.

Let’s back up a second, because this assumption of agenda also extends to readers. How many great books are marred by one-star reviews because of reader misinterpretation and sentiment? How many authors see sales suffer because of the trolltastic machinery of ne’er-do-wells and the hypersensitive dogpile?

As part of a publisher, I’ve got a responsibility to look for manuscripts that can be made into books that people will buy. As an editor, I’ve got a responsibility to help the author produce the best book possible, not the best soapbox possible.

You can’t totally excise your personal opinions from your work, and it’s folly to think you can, since your opinions and ideas are part your voice. But that voice is for sharing, not for proselytizing. It’s for sharing without the agenda of conversion. The world is big enough for all the voices of all the people, and it’s not a numbers game of social politics. Nor should manuscript development happen with the express purpose of furthering a brand, but that can be our segue to our next (and last) installment in this series.

See you all later this week. We’ll talk soon. Happy writing

The Writer, The Professor, The Worker

Good morning. I know, it’s another Monday, and for some of you that meant commute and re-shackling yourself to a cubicle, something something TPS reports.

For me, I have made the commute from the bedroom to the office, so its now time to rock and roll some blog goodness.

Today I want to do something a little different and show you three different ways editors work. I’m going to do this with three different editors: me, The ProofProfessor, and Old School Editor X, who just wrote me an email saying I couldn’t use their name, because they are too busy being not-an-editor in their very professional career where they have to wear dress clothes all the time.

Here’s the disclosure – no one paid me jack to talk about these methods or their businesses. I am not under any obligation to say people are awesome and that they’re perfect, nor are their methods perfect and flawless. But these two people were nice enough to answer some email questions, so that’s why they’re here. Cool?

Now you be you, and let’s say you want an editor to look at your manuscript. Let’s assume your MS is 75,000 words. Let’s give it a genre … it’s historical fiction. So now we’re going to look at what would happen next, if you picked one of these editors to give you a hand.

Old School Editor X
It starts with an email. You’d hash out a price (.09 a word because it’s the low-end of the old school rates) and a schedule for how the work happens (a chunk of chapters a week at a time or 15000 word sections over 5 emails or one giant email when it’s all done, etc.)

Then the editing happens. The manuscript gets triple-spaced and marked with various editorial marks and lengthy notes in margins, but no in-line editing.

The Pros: There’s no doubt that editing your manuscript has happened, because you get novella-length notes in the margins and a pile of hieroglyphs that you’ll end up googling to decipher.

The Cons: This can be pricey. (.09/word for our sample 75000 would be $6750)  And the length the comments can be incredibly overwhelming, because maybe a comment ends up longer than the sentence or paragraph it references. The lack of in-line edits can seem cold, with a sort of sterile work-at-an-Apple-Store atmosphere. Lastly, the tone of this relationship can be adversarial, where the editor knows best and the writer needs to be led out of darkness and ignorance. (I can speak from personal experience that this sucks. I drank this Kool-Aid, and oof. My bad, you guys.)

The Proof Professor
Let me tell you about Matt. He’s a cool guy. We’ve exchanged a few emails, and I totally get the sense he’d be pretty pleasant to have at a dinner party. He’s the Proof Professor, a UK-based editor with a really unique twist – he’s got software to work through the manuscript and compile a list of edits.

Seriously, dude’s got software. I’ve seen it. I’ve had it run through a manuscript of mine and see the output list of problems and reasons-the-problem-is-a-problem (like this: further || farther when talking distance)  This software doesn’t do the editing for him, it’s a compliment to the rest of his editorial toolbox.

You’ll pay in blocks of words, so for our 75000 word MS, you’re paying £348. (The whole breakdown is on the website here.) and you’ll get your MS edited in-line, software’d, and commented on.

UPDATED INFO: Matt also offers a “pay per error” option, which is the first I’ve seen of its kind. You pay for a set number of errors, in groups of 10, at a flat rate. If they find fewer than than amount (say you pay for 20 and they find 9), they refund you for the 11 you didn’t use. It’s an amazing system, great for those eleventh-hour publishing needs, and really dovetails nicely with the software. (chances are I will figure out my own version of this and shamelessly use it)

The Pros: The software adds a unique touch to this, to the point where I want my own copy of this proprietary material (Matt totally doesn’t have to share, it’s all you dude). Also Matt gives a shit. He care about his clients, he cares about their success, and he’s a genuinely nice person, judging on our correspondence. Editor X also gives a shit, but they’ll never admit to it.

The Cons: I’m not a fan of the per-block editing payment system, it’s always felt square peg-round hole to me, but it works for other people. Also, if you’re in the US, don’t forget there’s not only the financial conversion but also the time delay between here and there. I know those sound like minor points, but they’re worth highlighting if you’re racing a deadline of some kind or have a tight budget.

The Writer Next Door
We’re wrapping this part of the blogpost up by talking about me, because it’s my blog, and because I felt like putting myself first was way too obnoxious.

Just like the other editors mentioned, we toss some emails back and forth to establish a price (let’s go with .03/word) and a schedule (you want this done in 60 days), then put all the relevant info into a contract and I get down to business.

Editing is both in-line and marginal comments, along with emails detailing points when they’re egregious or I think I wasn’t clear enough within the orange-salmon comment box in Word.

The Pros: I care about your success. I am not out to rub your nose in your mistakes like the puppy encountering a carpet that needs to know who’s boss. I do my best to be clear about flagging the problems as well as why they’re problems, because  I think the knowing the “why” helps prevent the problem from perpetuating itself, and people feel better with a reason instead of just “because someone else says so.” I’ll also help spread your marketing goodness, show you how to do it (or do it better), and walk you through any part of the process you have questions on.

The Cons: Even at 3 cents a word, it can be considered expensive, which can make people think that editing is luxury, to which I counter that a plumber is expensive, and do you consider a not-leaking sink a luxury? Also, sometimes, I come in like a ball of fire, and that can off putting for some people, but that’s just because I want to see you be your most awesome creative self doing your most awesome creative work.


So, writer, what should you do? Which editor is best for you? I can’t say. I so badly want to say I’m the best, but I know I’m not. I’m human. I make mistakes. (Even Matt’s software isn’t perfect, but nothing’s going to be).

I believe you should use an editor, even if you’re going to traditionally publish and they’ll have an editor in their process too. I think getting your manuscript into the best shape possible, and getting better at the craft of writing will only benefit you in the long game of your career, even if that career ends up being one or two books ever. Being better at something never hurt anyone (if you can prove that false, someone will give you invisible internet dollars).

Shop around. I DO NOT MEAN send 2 pages of your manuscript to 40 editors as a “test drive” so that you don’t have to pay for a whole edit, because that’s completely reprehensible. I mean talk to the editors and see if you can get along with them. I’m not a fan of “test pages” because while a few edited pages can give you a technical awareness of the problems the MS has, it doesn’t say much about the person you’re going to work with, and that relationship is critical, so find a good fit.

My great thanks to [EDITOR NAME REDACTED] and Proof Professor for letting me talk to them and mention them on the blog, I hope I’ve done them justice where appropriate.

See you guys Wednesday for a swim through the inbox … I think we’ll do a social media question.

Happy writing.

InboxWednesday – Reach, Platform, and Audience

Hello again everyone, I hope you’re doing well. How am I? Oh, not too bad thanks for asking. I spent the weekend recuperating and generally enjoying myself, and have taken advantage of the warmer temperatures to break out the lighter bathrobes. Because jobs have uniforms. #becomfortablewhileworking

So it’s Inbox Wednesday, and that means I reach into the inbox and answer questions. If you’ve got a question, and would like to see it answered on the blog, send it to me.

Today’s question is from Mike, who has actually a pile of questions all tossed together. Here I’ll just let you read it:

John, I don’t know what to do. I got my Writer’s Market, I’ve been putting out queries and getting rejected. I’ve been reading a lot of blogposts that say I need to develop my reach and use my platform to build a community and not just a consumer base. When people talk about platform, do they mean social media? Isn’t it enough that I’m blogging 4 times a week and doing videos? What exactly is a community, and how is that different than an audience? What do I do? – Mike

I will disclaim that I edited that paragraph to insert some punctuation and capitalization.

What Mike is worrying is separate from the manuscript’s completion, but isn’t necessarily contingent on the MS being done. Yes, I know, there are blogs out there that say you start building that audience after the MS is done and out the door, but I’ve always felt like doing that is like inviting people to dinner while you’re doing the dishes already.

Yes, you can’t build as strong or as large an audience mid-writing as you can post-writing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be writing while building the audience. If you’ve had three or four or two or ten books out the door already, I’m assuming there’s some measure of audience already present, so to that portion of my readership, frame this in terms of expanding the audience. For the first-time crowd, we’re coming to this without the established elements.

The tough part in publishing, be it self-publishing or tradtional publishing (though this applies also to loads of things outside of writing and publishing) is navigating the jargon and buzzwords. People love them. They dress up everything with a term like it’s a hat on Derby day, as if that’s going to give the substance of their words, their content, more importance.

Buzzwords are not fairy dust. They will not allow us to sail over the streets off to Neverland with the creepy kid in green tights. If your content is clear, actionable, and engaging, then you shouldn’t need to trot out the buzzwords to validate credibility. Speak clearly, honestly, passionately, and you don’t need to crutch on anything.

Here’s where the gasps come in, when I start talking about clarity and people start questioning things like professionalism or tone. So now we move from one minefield about buzzwords to another about tone and assumptions.

A platform is whatever medium you use to communicate whatever ideas you have to whomever listens. On the internet, there’s a gap between you the speaker and the audience, built out of time and distance. It’s totally great that people in Guam and the Seychelles can read your blog at 4 in the morning, but 4 in the morning over there may be 2 in your afternoon, when you’re out walking the aisles of the grocery store trying to choose raisins. Likewise, any comment they leave for you on the blog, even if you get a notification message on your phone, still has a gap between them expressing it and you receiving it. These gaps are baked in, and we can easily take them for granted or rage about them as it suits our purpose.

It doesn’t matter if you blog about your teacup collection, or your love of bad dye jobs, or if you write blistering thinkpieces about how what kind of breakfast you eat reflects your political views. It doesn’t matter if it’s all tweets, all Facebook updates, Peach notes, Slack channels, or whatever. What matters to you is that you use your platform and that you’re comfortable with it.

Let’s look at the other side, put on your publishing professional hat. Mine has a pom pom on it. Traditional publishing is going to look favorably on people with a large audience or a large potential audience (that’s called “reach”), because there’s a chance/hope that audience will go buy products they sell.

There’s no guarantee that if you’ve been self-published and have a large audience already, that a traditional publisher will come along and acquire the book and put their machine behind you, catapulting you to even bigger heights. Remember, we’re still wearing our publisher hats, so we need to consider the expense of working with a self-published author versus acquiring a new author and giving them a bit of direction and grooming.

Take off the hat now. Your platform is more your tool than anything else, because you can put anything on it. But the more erratic your content, the more undisciplined (and that’s not the same as scheduled) stream of material you produce is going to make it hard for the audience to get a handle and become interested. Mike, it’s great that you’re posting so much, and keep at it if you’re digging it, but don’t think that throwing a ton of all-0ver-the-place content out there is going to keep people coming back. Find your message, find the core idea you burn hot for, and focus on it.

Because you’re not out there video after video, post after post, repeating a sales link over and over, right?

Be a person. Yes, you’re a person who’s making stuff, and would love for people to buy that stuff, but I don’t know many people who feel comfortable building relationships with sales robots.


Some robots have all the luck.

The “community” buzzword is as much a group of people who regularly enjoy your content, as well as being the group of people you could reach and “convert” (meaning they’d buy a book). The more sales-y these buzzwords, the more I slink away with a sneer.

Think of the community as the people who you want to communicate with regularly. Treat them well, because they’re people, even if you’ve never seen their faces since you do all the word-making and they do all the reading. You grow that community not by throwing sales links out over and again, but by bringing injections of reality into your platform.

Talk about the rough writing days. Talk about the days you’re taking off to go parasailing around Costa Rica. Talk about the book fair, conference, convention you’re going to, and how you’re totally going to go all gelatinous in the knees when you meet your writing heroine. Basically, Mike, be a person who writers, not just a writer who exists among people to produce pages and receive money for them.

This isn’t to say the money isn’t there, or that it’s a hostage negotiation to liberate the dollars from wallets, but you’re going to have a way easier time doing that when you treat the audience like they’re as much a person as you are. The money will be there. I’m assuming Mike, that your MS cashes the check your query and platform write.

Everything goes out the window if that MS doesn’t work. This is why I say over and over that the MS has to be in its best shape possible before you go query, and in addition to editing and beta reading, another form of shaping up that MS is holding yourself accountable to that platform. Say you’re going to do something, then do it. No, I’m not perfect at this at all. I suck quite a bit at doing this. I say I’m going to do a ton of things, and forget about half of them until I randomly look at my Dropbox and say. “Oh yeah, I was going to break down Jessica Jones, wasn’t I?”

Here’s a great way to think about reach – Do I come across as someone who has a passion/skill to produce something that people would want to buy?

Here’s a great way to think about platform – Do I comfortably (because if you hate doing something, you won’t be likely do it often, see: holiday resolutions) discuss and share my creativity and passion in ways that encourage other people to take an interest and communicate their own creativity and passion back to me?

Here’s a great way to think about conversion – If I keep doing what I’m doing in the way I’m doing it, will people want to exchange money for what I’m doing, or do I need to change the way I get the word about what I’m doing?

Here’s a great way to think about audience – They’re people. I’m people. I can’t control how each and every person will respond, so all I can control is how well I do my work and how openly I communicate and share it. I do me, they do them, we all get together and benefit over common intersections.


Mike, I hope that answered you question. Thanks so much for asking it. I’ll see you guys Friday for more bloggity goodness.

Happy writing.


A Letter to Younger John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re gonna be okay.


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

Happy writing

How To Talk About What You’re Doing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

See you later this week for #InboxWednesday.



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.

FiYoShiMo – Day 26 – Revisions!

Note: I know in the original outline this day was called “What Comes Next”, but as you’ll see, I changed it for a good reason.

I’m assuming that for this last week of FiYoShiMo your manuscript is done, or nearly done. “Nearly done” is at least 80%, for the sake of today’s topic.

Oh right, this is the final week of FiYoShiMo. And today we’re talking about revisions and editing. Yes, we’re going to talk editing on the editor’s blog. Weird, I know. But we’ll get through this together. I have confidence in us. And in your friend’s mom.

The First Thing I Look For When I Edit –> Consistency in Names
Technically, the first thing I do with a manuscript is read it all the way through, just to make sure it’s complete and to see if there are any giant glaring errors or red flags that prevent me from going forward (see below).

For the moment, let’s assume the story is complete and there aren’t any huge problems. I read it through, probably in chunks over the course of a workday, or printed out and triple-spaced while I hang out on the couch with a cup of tea and the dog.

Depending on the length or complexity, that read can take between a few hours or a few days. During that reading, I make a list of all the proper nouns – character names, location names, object names. Then I go back to the MS on the PC and count the number of times each name shows up. If character A is named “Tom” 390 times (I’m making up numbers), but then turns into “Steve” 1 time, I know to flag it. Likewise if a named thing (city, power, object, whatever) changes names, I know it gets a comment.

The Second Thing I Look For When I Edit –> Arcs
Every character of substance in the MS should be on a journey, from a start-state to a changed-state. And their progress should be trackable, not necessarily quantifiable. I don’t need to see 3% growth every chapter like the character is a mutual fund, I need though to be able to see the character moving in some direction based on their actions, philosophy, motivations, and intent.

Then I make sure the plot goes somewhere, and that the characters intersect with that plot. A plot that doesn’t move, or it slows down without reason, or characters that don’t engage with the plot (or just in general) all get flagged with comments.

The Third Thing I Look For When I Edit –> Sentence Construction
We all fall into patterns when we write (or speak). When you start seeing someone use “really” (it’s my example) in paragraph after paragraph, and then you notice that every paragraph happens to be three lines long, and that each line has a comma followed by an “and” … and that there are more “I” in the sentences … You see where I’m going with this?

It’s a function of the fact that I’ve been doing this over half my life. I see patterns. I like patterns. They’re very telling. Was something written by a man or a woman? Have they gone to college? How much? Are they a parent? Is this their first book? What bad habits do they have? These are some (but nowhere near all) the questions I can answer by reading the first few pages. (Ask any client of mine, they’ll tell you about it)

Sentence construction can also lead to problems in grammar. Incorrect tenses of verbs, misused punctuation, weird structure, and spelling all get checked at this point. Comments begin to swell here if they haven’t already started to.

The Fourth Thing I Look For When I Edit –> Character Engagement
Okay. There’s this thing called a “Mary Sue.” Maybe you’ve heard of it. Maybe not. It’s used pejoratively to describe any character who is too perfect and goes unchallenged regardless of situation. It comes from Star Trek fan fiction (seriously), and involves a lot of wish fulfillment or the projection of a “strong” character who can handle everything.

Maybe you’ve been to the movies lately, and seen the Internet burble forth some applesauce that a certain female character in a very successful space opera franchise that involves a distant galaxy in the past with laser swords is a Mary Sue, because despite having a limited character history, she seems pretty capable in any circumstance. (I danced around some spoiler stuff there)

She isn’t a Mary Sue. She’s just a character who’s capable of doing stuff. Compare her to pre-existing characters, she’s pretty much on par.

No, this isn’t where we’re going to talk about how “it’s about time for a woman to be strong”, because that’s not what FiYoShiMo is all about, we’re just looking at how the character is going to connect to the audience. This character in particular DOES connect, and I think will continue to do so in subsequent films. In this regard, her gender is not relevant, since she’s not a character with an active sexual agenda, and she’s demonstrated to be an equal or peer among the non-female cast.

Does that address the charge that she’s not challenged by circumstance? Not entirely. I can answer that though by saying this: We didn’t expect the other protagonists to be out of their depth, and we never claimed they were Marty Stu (the male equivalent of Mary Sue). Being a “fish out of water” doesn’t mean a character is a quivering mass of incapable gelatin, it just means they’re in a new circumstance, and the only thing they can do is apply the skills they do have to their new situation. It’s what a character does, regardless of gender.

This editorial pass is all about concepts like Mary Sues. Does Character A (and B and C and however many more) feel realistic and could a reader connect to them? Even if they have powers or abilities or stuff that the reader doesn’t or couldn’t have, is there some avenue for the reader to invest?

The Fifth Thing I Look For When I Edit –> Good Parts
I realize that I’ve spent about a thousand words talking about how I look at the wrong stuff. But even the manuscripts I send back to authors saying, “This needs way more work”, it’s not all bad. There are good ideas, they might just be poorly expressed. There are good characters, they just need more developing. There are good things. I do call them out in separate comments. They’re worth mentioning.

There are additional passes for dialogue (does it sound like a person would say this?) and pacing (how quickly does the plot happen, is it sensible), but I could spend another thousand words detailing all the different passes I can do, or I can talk about the big giant red flags.


No one is perfect. No draft is perfect. Mistakes happen. There are plenty of chances to change things, plenty of chances to make new decisions. A writer is never without options. And that’s all important to remember when these red flags come up.

Red Flag #1 Dull characters doing dull things for no discernible reason.
We all get a good laugh out of how Seinfeld was a “show about nothing”, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Your characters should be sufficiently developed that they can do stuff and we figure out why they’re doing it. Ideally, they’re doing whatever they’re doing because the plot requires these things get done, or because the character believes that they need to do them so the plot can get done.

The good news is that you can fix this by making the character(s) and/or what they’re doing more interesting, and the motives for doing whatever clearer. Yes, it requires you to make some decisions, so maybe don’t do this while you’re shotgunning cold medicine, but this is fixable.

Red Flag #2 A plot that gets resolved too conveniently.
The saying “No driveups in the third act” works for a reason. The later you introduce something into a story, and the more that thing does to resolve the story, the less satisfying the story becomes. This is why it’s so important to build the characters and their efforts over the course of the story, not just reach some arbitrary page number or chapter and dump the big action in there.

Don’t rob the reader of the satisfaction of the ride the story takes them on.

Red Flag #3  Dialogue that sounds like it came from ransom notes fed through a paper shredder, then Google Translate, then shredded again.
People talking is supposed to sound like people talking. I don’t care if those people are aliens or robots. Or sentient yeasts. If you want the reader to connect to them, the character(s) need a bridge to them, and how they speak is ONE of the ways you build that bridge.

So read your damned dialogue out loud. Then let someone else do it too.

Red Flag #4 Unnecessary and confusing elements that are just there to show to someone (no idea who) that you (the writer) are “good enough” to be a writer.
Ever want to watch me lose my shit? I mean, as much as a guy with a heart condition is medically able to freak out? Show me writing that’s embellished with flashy, poorly crafted, even trendy elements.

Look, just because ((FAMOUS AUTHOR NAME HERE)) writes ((FAMOUS STORY)) this one particular way, does NOT mean you have to write your story that way. Yes, really. Even if you and AUTHOR are in the same genre. I swear.

You’re good enough to write. I know this, because I’ve got your manuscript in front of me. You made it this far. Your “good enough”ness is not in question. Don’t listen to the fuckstains and dipshits who convinced you that you’re only good enough when your book is on some store’s shelf. You get to decide what success is for you. Always.

And that also means it’s your decision as to how you tell your story. No, I don’t mean you get to invent a new verb tense or poorly break all the rules. I mean you get to do your best, inside (and outside) of the rules, to the best of your ability. Tell your story your way. Your best way.


I’m going to always advocate that once you’ve gotten the manuscript written, and you think it’s complete, get an editor to look it over. No, not your friend who you have lattes with while your kids eat their socks, although she can read it too, but I mean AN EDITOR. Someone with training who can take your MS from where it is to where you want it to go.

It’s not a sign of failure that you need to ask for help. It’s a sign of strength, recognizing that you’ve gone as far as you can, knowing what you know and doing what you do. To take those next steps, you need help. So get some.

Tomorrow we’re going to talk about series, serials, and how to tell a story across multiple parts. I look forward to seeing you back here for that.

What I’ve Learned In The Last 30 Days

So, it’s nearly Christmas. Did I mention that I’m not currently sick with bronchitis or pneumonia? Did I mention that I got all my shopping down weeks ago, and all the items wrapped (badly) several hours ago? The last time this happened I spent two days very very miserable and hungover, because I thought celebrating this with many pints of rum was a good idea. Instead, I’m celebrating this with some oatmeal cookies.

The thing I want to talk about, I kind of need to be a little vague about, and I hate having to be this way, but if I’m not, it’s just going to lead to a series of conversations with family members that are going to really not be very comfortable and really sort of suck the happiness out of future oatmeal cookie celebrations. (Some of my previous posts found their way into the gossip of people I can’t stand, and since I don’t talk to them, I think some people have been doing some Facebook reading and lack the boundaries and good sense given to horseflies, so I’m going to very politely tell people to go suck eggs and keep their fat mouths shut)

Over the last month or so, I’ve been on a very intense and incredibly personal mission to better myself. Moreso than in previous efforts, because modern medicine and therapy have combined to form a pretty good toolkit that have, at the time I write this, completely eliminated my depressive symptoms. Gone. Poof. Done. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to hurt myself. I don’t want to engage in behaviors or substances that make me want to hurt myself. I don’t want an escape from my feelings. I don’t want to run away from my problems. All that stuff has over the course of thirty days, evaporated and been replaced with better feelings.

I’d like to take a few minutes to talk about some stuff that’s been on my mind. (Note: I’m writing this post on Sunday, although it’s going up Monday, hours after the 30th day)

1. If there’s something you want to do, make every effort to do it. I have spent three decades-ish desperate for a cure for my condition. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 18, and I wasn’t diagnosed accurately until I was in my thirties, but I have spent years trying to find treatments, pills, therapies and cures for suicidal depression. I failed out of colleges for looking for cures (because I spent days in the library reading medical texts and psychology notes). I lost relationships looking for treatments (apparently unhealthy people being around unhealthy people will not spontaneously generate a cure). I lost jobs looking for therapies (retail jobs prefer it when you show up there rather than in doctors’ offices, I guess). The point here is not to point out that I lost things, but that I didn’t stop looking. Ask anyone who’s ever talked, kissed, hung out, humped, drank, done drugs, eaten or worked with me and they’ll all tell you I’m not someone who gives up and lets things go. Even when a lot of people told me that doing [fill in the blank here with an activity] was stupid or hard, I did it. Now, if I later found out that what I did was a waste of time, or that it was less positive than advertised, that’s another issue, but the point I want to make here is to find the things you want to do and absolutely go after them

2. De-clutter, de-clutter, de-clutter. I don’t know if you know this, but one of the side effects of not wanting to be alive is not really caring about the state of things around you while you are alive. This can lead to packing a house full of stuff in various states of repair or organization, where you never throw anything out (in case you one day get better and find a use for it) or where you never bother to organize anything (because who cares you’ll be dead soon anyway). It’s a point of shame for me that I let things get as near-Hoarders-episode as I did, and how skilfully I got at hiding stuff when people came around. I also can’t say I take a lot of pride in getting rid of things, or at least not as much pride as I’d like to, because I think this is something people are supposed to be doing anyway, so catching up to everyone else is good, but I’ll take pride in the maintenance long before I take pride in initiating the change. Part of this cleaning has been domestic (cleaner house), part of it has been professional (cleaner job), part of it has been relationships (cleaner friendships), but the overall effect has been one where I like my better. It’s nice to have rooms I can say now have distinct purposes beyond “space for things”, and it’s nice to have a desk and cabinets laid out the way I want, and it’s great to have cut out the particularly stress-causing people out of my life. Like an engine after service, everything runs better.

A note about trimming friends – It’s hard to be objective. It’s harder still when other people want to chime in with their own biases or justifications or efforts to prove they deserve your time. Here’s what I’ve learned – you’re in charge of you, and you don’t have to justify anything to anyone. An unhealthy relationship or stressor is unhealthy, period. Why voluntarily engage people who stress you out? Why let their negativity (complaining, lack of kindness, whatever) wreck what you’ve got going on? Do you think you can’t find better people? Do you think you’re not deserving of better people? I did. I had to prove myself wrong, and I’m really glad I did.

3. If what you’re doing works, keep doing it. I have a really hard time understanding that there’s a grey area between “everything I do is awful” and “everything I do is barely passable”. There is in fact a whole range of qualifiers on what I do, because there’s a whole range of qualifiers on what everyone does. We’re pushed (usually through media or social pressure) to be critical of other peoples’ processes while clinging to some sense that our methods are better. The issue there is that not everyone else is capable of adopting your methods. Not everyone is going to stay up late the night before something is do and write. Not everyone can make it to the gym more than two times a week. Not everyone can edit thirty to ninety pages a day. And there are loads of reasons (actually valid ones, not those excuse ones we trot out to buy us a way out of talking about it) why they can’t — but that doesn’t make what you do less special if other people don’t jump on board with it. If you and the person to your left both do the same activity but with two different approaches, so long as you both get the results each of you are looking for, who cares about how you got there? My preferred method for sorting out my head is a combination of talking it out (or spewing words at a listener), thinking about it experimentally (I should write a blogpost about that), and thinking about the possible outcomes while listening to music. This process has helped me figure out what jobs to take, what habits to keep, and where I should put my focus. Contrast that with your own process, and you might prefer to sit quietly and not talk about your problems, sort of handling them in some tiny chunks during the off-minutes before you go to bed or while you commute to work. If it works for you, keep doing it.

4. Try new things that push yourself to new places. All too often I find myself falling back into a soft net of excuses or ideas I accepted as true. I took what people were telling me as true, I let a few people speak for a whole group, I made some generalizations based on assumptions, that sort of thing. It gave me no end of frustration when I had to interact with circumstances but it always let me justify why I was stressed or unhappy because it just proved what I thought. I didn’t have to test it – because that’s just how it was. And that’s really short-sighted of me. Let’s say for example that a friend tells you that Person X is really a jerk, and they list all these times Person X made them feel bad. Because you care about your friend, you color your interactions and have an expectation of Person X … but when Person X is none of those things to you, what then? Will you decide this is part of some clever ruse Person X concocted so that you don’t like them but they don’t benefit from it? (That’s what I did, and it made no sense). Once I started to test things out, I began to see a pattern, that my friend wasn’t really a friend, and that I really didn’t need that sort of attitude or behavior around me. And as for Person X, I’ve got no reason to think they’re a jerk, they’ve always been nice to me with no agenda hidden or otherwise.

But this is bigger than people. If you’ve been keeping yourself from doing an activity for some reason, and that reason isn’t something obvious like “I can’t take up marathon running tomorrow because I’ve got two broken legs.”, chances are that over time, you can eventually do that activity. Got two busted legs but you want to run? Heal your legs first, get some shoes, get conditioned for it, then run. Want to wear a particular outfit at an event eight months from now, but it’s a size too small? Take the time to get into a shape where you can. Don’t ever assume that because you’re [fill in the blank with whatever you think you are or whatever you think about yourself] that you can’t [do a thing or have a thing or be a thing]. Want to open a supper club? It just takes a plan and some investors and some risk. Want to ask that other human to read your book? It just takes a conversation and some risk. Risk isn’t proof of limitation, it’s proof of possibility. Why not try? If you lose, if it doesn’t work out, you’re right back to the spot where you were before you started.

5. It’s okay to be scared, but don’t lose sight of the goal. I can measure, in hours, the amount of time I’ve spent thinking I’m good enough to live well. I can measure, in years, the amount of time I was scared to try or do or question or speak up or fail. Being afraid doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Being afraid means that you have concerns over the future outcomes. Whether you’re about to fight a bear or whether you’re about to start writing chapter 2 (and really, are those two activities all that different?), you control where you put your focus. If you want a bearskin rug or want to be writing sexytimes in chapter 3, looks like you’re going to have to get through that fear and do some stuff. You can do great things with focus, discipline and support. But you need a goal, a sharp goal, a tangible goal. And you need a plan to get there. No, don’t say, “I’m going to lose 60 pounds” once, say “I’m going to lose one pound” sixty times. When you bring the goal some focus you make it easier to plan and accomplish. It’s scary because you don’t know how it’s going to go. But wait, if the goal is small enough and you’ve got a plan you can stick to, you DO know how it’s going to go. Going one step further, if you know how it’s going to go, and you know the end result you want, who cares how your process differs from someone else’s? Don’t lose the goal.

Given the infrequency of my posting, this may be my last post for 2014. I’m not a fan of resolutions (see number 5 above), but let’s promise to talk to each other more about writing, okay?

Go be excellent to one another.

Of Coming Storms And Terrible Nights

Trigger warning for depression, suicide, mood, body dysmorphia and other things I can’t think of right now.

This blogpost starts in the cold. The room was dark. I don’t know what time it was when this starts, but I assume it was pre-dawn, because my memory of this moment is tinged blue-white with morning light squeezing past blinds in windows onto institutionally dull walls. I was cold. I’m in a bed, I’m awake for some reason, I don’t know if it’s because I sometimes wake up with the tiniest dust mote lands on the thinnest strand of hair instead of always being able to sleep through the advance of an infantry force, but I’m awake. And I’m cold. My very wonderful soon-to-be wife put a blanket on the bed at some point, I don’t remember when, but somehow I’ve managed to avoid it. Initially that was unintentional, I just didn’t roll over and take some blanket. But as I lay there in the cold room, my brain began to spool a new set of thoughts.

This is how it starts. This is the decline. She doesn’t want you to have any blanket. You’re supposed to be cold. You deserve to be cold. 

So I laid there, cold, curling in on myself like a spent match, trying to accept this fact that I had no evidence to support. But it sounded good, so it’s got to be true. It’s about my depression, and I’m a pretty good judge of how that goes, so this can’t be some bullshit my mind cooked up because I’m somehow torn between being “a man” who can take the cold and someone with a crystalline immune system who so much as looks at someone coughing on TV and ends up with bronchitis or worse. Nope, I deserve to be cold, so cold I was.

That was this morning (Sunday). I imagine my very fantastic partner is going to be way unhappy that I’ve shared this story, I suppose it embarrasses her to some degree, or tells of our nighttime rituals where I try to feel comfortable and seldom let myself, but we’ll talk more about that in a bit.

Since one of our early dates, maybe date 5 or 6, I have been trying to express to her what the bad times are like. Not the bad times I used to have in the pre-relationship era of dating and stupid choices. I mean the bad times where I seem to think about killing myself on an hourly basis. The bad times where I both simultaneously want someone to hug me and am sickened by the very idea of having to interact with someone else so that I don’t get my stain on them. The bad times I measure in scars and ideas about how much better off people would be if I weren’t around to be a downer or anchor around their necks. Those times.

I tried and tried to warn her off. To tell her that there on the map there be monsters. To tell her that those are the days that don’t have a lot of good to them, where the expectations for success sometimes begin and end with “I showered and brushed my teeth”. She nodded, she smiled, she said it would be okay. I imagine that’s sort of like anything else you in March when you talk about October: distant and almost theoretical.

Flash forward to later this morning. She’s not smiling. She’s emotionally exhausted. She’s physically drained. She’s stressed over a million things, and I feel responsible for most of them. I spend the meal staring at the knife the waiter brought her to cut her Eggs Benedict. Something in my head is soothed by the idea that I can get to the knife faster than she can, plunge into myself before she can stop me, and I make all the pain go away. Breakfast, as you can imagine, is a meal of chewing punctuated by silences. I feel like a failure in a diner booth. Things hurt.

That’s what I try to get across to her – that things hurt. That I hurt, and as a result, other people are hurt. I know I hurt her. I deprive her of her life. I ask that she spend time with me. I ask that she do one thing instead of another, because it sounds fun. I ask her to be part of a pair of people where one of the pair hurts for six months straight. I give her something to worry about. I give her a reason to sleep poorly. I distract her brilliant creative mind from fun and freedom. I am a life ruiner.

She, for her wonderfulness, continues to tell me it will be okay, but she knows she’s giving up things for me. I counter with the idea that I’m not worth giving anything up for, and would just as soon send her on her way to be happy again, because her happiness trumps anything else I can think of. I leave the diner further down the slide I started the morning on. I’m still cold.

Maybe you know someone with depression. Maybe you’re the depressed one. Maybe you’re married to them, or living with them, or are related to them. Maybe their depression doesn’t look like my depression. In any case, I want to get some ideas out of my head, because I just woke up from another nap, and it seems easier to write now than it would to try and clean or do dishes or unpack from the weekend. But we’ll get there. Here are some ideas, presented in no particular order:

  • Some of us are “lucky” enough to know when the depression strikes. We might not be able to map it to a specific calendar date, but it comes up over us like a rising tide. Or a tidal wave. Or a straight jacket made of burlap and razor blades and some other fabric with unacceptably uncomfortable material. For me, this is overdue. I expected this the week after Labor Day, since that’s when it hit last year. I’m pretty sure this hit last week, on that Monday where I felt “fuzzy” and scattered. Knowing when it’s coming pales in comparison to knowing that it’s coming. Like watching the bully march down the hallway shaking down nerds for lunch money, you know eventually it will happen to you, there’s no real way to stand up against it when it’s staring you in the face. In that moment, in that moment it falls on you, you can only hope it’s quick.
  • Some of us already take pills and seek medical attention, and it still happens. One of the things that really hurt me this weekend was the idea that because I’m as I am right now, my therapy isn’t working and I’m just throwing hundreds of dollars away a week. I don’t know how the people who said this expect to me be, maybe I’m supposed to be turning cartwheels or pooping rainbows and patter songs from the 1940s, but I do take the pills and go to therapy, and it’s still hard work. Week after week I slam facefirst into my problems, dissecting them, getting answers for my questions, building coping strategies and techniques to replace broken strategies. I do this willingly. I take the pills because the pills don’t erase the problem, they keep it from worsening. I go to therapy not so I can hand some woman money, but so that at points when I run into a problem, I have tools I can use to handle that problem. If people are unhappy with how I’m using those tools or how (in)frequently I’m using them, the fault is mine, not the therapist’s. Hearing that people thought it wasn’t working, didn’t make me question my therapist, it made me question myself – maybe I’m not doing enough, maybe I am actually the failure these same people tell me I’m not.
  • There’s this terrible catch-22 in how tiring this all is, how sometimes desperately we all want to stop hurting, but we feel so guilty for thinking that, which only makes us more tired. It’s hard work. It’s hard to not let this spread and leak out from between fingers like you’re holding jell-o in wet hands. We’re bombarded with messages that it’s selfish and cowardly to give up, that it hurts other people, but we’re also bombarded with messages that people, even people we think can and should make it, lose their struggle. Because it is tiring. It’s tiring spending even the happy months knowing this is the future. It’s tiring while you go through it, when you’re laying in bed again crying because you just want your brain to stop chewing itself apart and how you can’t muster a reason why someone shouldn’t just leave you and go be happy again. It’s tiring to sit and write about it. I don’t know where the energy is supposed to come to refill these reserves, because you can’t go outside yourself for that. Those people you care about, they’re already bearing this, and it’s draining them. You can see it in their faces. You read it in their gestures. You track it by all the times they turn away or turn you down. How you’re expected to keep mining for strength remains unclear to me.
  • We’re well aware that stress doesn’t take a holiday just because we’re already down in a hole. Yes, I have work to do this week. Yes, I have money in the bank account. Yes, I have a calendar loaded with different projects in the coming months. Yes, I have decisions to make about changing my life. Yes, there are things looming in the future over which I have zero control. These things don’t hang out on the sidelines while depression holds us under oily waters of doubt and fear. I’ve never needed the reminder that I have a lot of responsibilities. I’ve needed the reminder that I do things well, that I matter to people. I’m acutely aware of the stress.
  • There’s not always a clear “thing to do”. As I tumble down this depressive hole, as I struggle between having the mental focus to put chicken fingers on a tray in the oven and not smash my face through the glass window because maybe that would hurt less than how I do now, I’m reminded of all the times people have said, “I wish there was something I can do.” Well, if there was a clear answer to you, I’d give it in a heartbeat. I know it’s tempting to read what I just wrote and say, “Obviously the thing to do is take away John’s windows” and sort of baby-proof my life so that there’s no pain. I’m pretty sure that even if you put me in a room of foam, marshmallows and soft blankets, I’d find something that would cause me to hurt (hint: it would be the fact that I need a room like that in the first place). Maybe you’re thinking, “Well what I can do is drop everything and help him out.” I’d like to remind you know about how guilty I already feel that I’m even writing 1800 words about how I feel, and knowing that you, a perfectly capable person, gave up whatever you’re doing, even if it was just a few seconds, while it would make me grateful in the immediate, it would make me guilty later. Read that as I-would-feel-so-bad-that-people-had-to-give-fill-in-the-blank-thing-they-do-because-I-am-not-worth-any-manner-of-sacrifice. I don’t know what I’m to do when my partner says she’ll give up this thing on her calendar or that thing because I’m depressed. I don’t want her to give up those activities, I just don’t want to die alone and unloved. The two things are not in a causal relationship.
  • I just don’t want to die right now. Sure, life hurts. Life hurts so excruciatingly that I feel worse for saying life hurts, as if you were unaware that things are hard. People are bankrupt. Businesses are failing. Countries are at war. How self-absorbed am I to be complaining about my feelings? How narrow-minded must I be that I focus on how this hurts when I’m not dodging sniper fire or wondering how I’m going to feed my kids on a 27-hours-a-week job? (I read a lot of Facebook updates, I know those are things people are going through right now.)  This makes me feel guilty and ashamed to have a problem of any size beyond “Oh I’m out of corn chips”, because to me, there are far more important things to focus on. Me and my nattering is quaint, but I’ve struggled with this for more than half my life, and I don’t have the energy to die right now. I just want to sleep more. I just want to feel less hurt.
  • I have lost half my life (to date) to this battle. I am used to doing the trench-fighting on my own. I am used to losing more ground than I gain, and I completely expect to lose this fight. On numerous occasions, I have talked about depression like drowning. This suffocating feeling of awfulness punctuated with moments where you catch your breath. I guess it’s more like water-boarding that way. In any case, there are few respites from this siege. What’s worse, my respites tax other people, and I know they do. Sexy times might help me feel better, not feel like a failure, not feel like I’m in an ever blackening hole, but they’re not on demand or on tap. I can’t snap my fingers and under the covers we go. I can cook and cook, but food needs to be eaten, not wasted. I would enthusiastically churn out finger food and entrees if I had people who wanted to eat. I can sit on the couch and play video games or watch Netflix, but ultimately, it’s very passive, and I worry that being seen doing that means I’m not doing the hard work of fighting off depression (see above points where therapists want money and I’m not magically better). Also, that screams “lazy” at me in a voice that sounds very much like my father’s when I was in middle school, so being lazy is just out. Besides, how serious could I be about getting better if I’m not constantly vigilant? How dare I get a breather. And yes, I expect that after a long fight, I’ll lose. Not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But this fight is tiring, and I am ashamed and guilty and so sorry I’m in it.
  • Knowing that this hurts other people is the second-worst part. When I talk about how I feel, people make faces. I spent months in therapy learning that those faces are faces of concern, not mockery, though some of them are all pity or judgment. But I know this stuff drains my partner, leeches things from my friendships, erodes my professionalism and strained my family relationships to the point where several unraveled. I don’t want to hurt people due to my life hurting me. I don’t want them to get caught in the blast radius or AoE of some misery ‘splosion. It’s shitty collateral damage, wholly unintended and I want nothing more than those people to go be happy. Go be what I struggle to be. Go be better than me. I don’t want to be the anchor or albatross or tether. People don’t deserve that.
  • I make a lot of apologies. I apologize for not listening, mis-hearing, for taking too much bedspace, for not taking enough, for being in a mood, for being in the mood, for being down, for being tired, for not being excited enough, for not eating, for overeating, for worrying, for worrying about worrying, for playing a video game when I could be doing something else, for doing something else when I could be blogging, for blogging instead of watching football, for watching football and liking it, for knocking over a stack of hand towels i just folded, for feeling guilty for knocking over the stack of hand towels I just folded, for explaining all of that to the dog, for not throwing the dog toy father into the room, for not finding a succinct way to write a blogpost, for knowing that today I made people cry, for crying, for wanting to be less alive, for wanting to sleep more, for wanting to have someone to sleep next to, for calling someone a bitch, for not calling someone a bitch, for forgetting to turn the chicken fingers in the oven so one side crispier than the other, for not having the energy to go to the store and buy more sauces for the chicken fingers, for being embarrassed about owning new clothes, for hating my body to the point where I would prefer a transfer into another vessel, for hating that I didn’t make clothes shopping easier for my partner, for being a problem at all. (See how tiring that is?)

I’ve rambled enough. I still have chicken fingers to eat. I still don’t feel great. I just hope my soon-to-be-wife isn’t angry with me and that the dog doesn’t run away to find better company. Everything else is fluff.

Thanks for reading.