1,000 Days (Musings and Feelings)

A very wise woman told me “Perfectionism isn’t about pleasing yourself, it’s about pleasing others and protecting yourself from criticism.” She’s right, because I’ve been working on some variation of this post for two days, but more broadly, I’ve been working these ideas for the last several hundred days. And it doesn’t have to be perfect. Because I’m not perfect.

Let’s start at the top. Today, while also being Halloween and the last day of October, is my 1,000th day sober. No booze, no pills, no drugs. To be honest, I never thought I’d last this long, because while there have been some great moments of happiness and pleasure in these thousand days there’s also been a whole lot of really tough and intense things going on. It’s a balance, even though when you compare quantities, it seems like the scales are way tilted.

Do I need to back up? I feel like I need to back up. In early February 2014, my life was (in not very Fresh Prince style) turned upside down by the honest and necessary decision to stop trying to end my life either actively or passively by putting stuff in my body that was creating a buffer I felt was necessary between me and the outside world.

This decision didn’t have a lot to do with the fact that I made it in a hospital room, or that I argued with myself about it as I was getting driven from one place to another. It was about hitting what I describe as “the bottomest bottom.” I can describe it to you like this: Life is reduced down to just existing on such a primordial level that you start to question why you bother breathing. There aren’t colors in the world (think Wizard of Oz), and sounds don’t have fidelity. You’re experiencing someone else’s world while you’re underwater wearing an old-fashioned diving suit that’s been filled with flavorless gelatin. Disconnectedness, a loss of any sense that you matter, and a loss of all the feelings and ideals you believe to be primary (for me that’s creativity, humor, sensuality, and a sense that people can-slash-deserve to be their best). The feelings didn’t evaporate, they migrated to other people.

And it’s not like you’re angry that they’ve ditched you, you find new and exciting ways to agree with the exodus. Of course you don’t get to feel good things anymore, look at you, (INSERT NEGATIVE REASON DU JOUR HERE). Likewise it’s absolutely reasonable that everyone else should be happy and do better (than you) because they deserve it. You don’t, they do. That’s the gap under the self-esteem door under which slide all manner of broken coping mechanisms and bad decisions to float into your personal bubble.

It’s those bad decisions, made and reinforced over so many years that had to stop. I wasn’t happy, I was pseudo-happy. I was pretend-happy. I was happy for others when necessary, because that was the right thing to do, but I was as hollow as a chocolate holiday bunny. That had to stop.

So on February 4, 2014, I found myself sitting in a room, in one of a few uncomfortable chairs, telling a group of strangers how I was a mess, and how I messed up my life. There wasn’t an immediate sense of camaraderie, we weren’t all sharing stories of how we messed it all up so we could earn some kind of “woe is me” cred. I had to put all my guts and thoughts and fears and feelings out of my body in that room, and hope that someone could help me be better than how and what I was doing.

Dudes, ladies, brothers, sisters, that was HARD. It was Day 1. I wept giant tears and wiped a lot of snot off my face. I got hugs from strangers. I wiped my nose on a lady’s shoulder as I blubbered. Day 1. In the books. Come back for Day 2.

And I have consistently come back for the all the Days. Seldom is it easy, but I have the tools to stay on this path, and I know this path is a better one for me. It’s been a messy path. It’s been a lonely path. It’s been an awkward path. But it’s taught me so many things. Here’s a few of the big lessons.

1. Not only should you have dreams, you must be relentless in your pursuit of them, should you truly and honestly deem them important to you. We all have dreams, and while some are fantasy-in-waiting, not all of them are. You can’t term all your dreams to be so far out of touch that you won’t even bother taking the steps to reach them. I’ve met people who think that all life provides is a series of opportunities for disappointment and rejection, no matter the effort taken. That life is rigged against them and they’ll never meet the unknown criteria to “make it.” This, fine and good creatives, is applesauce.

Even if the criteria is at times unknown, we do not exist simply to live out a series of fretful failures. Skip for a minute any sense of faith or spirituality and look at the math of it – eventually we have to succeed somewhere. Which is why it’s so important to continue trying. Because that success could be up ahead. And if that’s important to you, if you have a goal and want to have it happen, then go towards it with all the effort and experience possible.

2. There’s zero shame in making a plan, adapting an existing plan, or following a plan to get you to your goal(s). I used to be plan-averse, because I thought that only if I were spontaneous would people want to be near me. That was a complete disaster because in the absence of structure, I become a hedonistic vacuum cleaner sucking up whatever experience is within ten feet. So I swung the pendulum the other way, and became inflexible. The plans I made were everything, and while it took longer to get things done, because I was thinking about all the permutations and outcomes so I could tailor a plan to reduce (or eliminate, I thought) failure.

Rigidity in this way does not make the goal easier. The goal isn’t rigid, it’s your view of possessing it that’s unyielding. Don’t confuse rigid with concrete when you’re talking about goals. A concrete goal is defined and has boundaries – you want Book X published, you want to sell 20 widgets – but a rigid goal is over-defined – you want Book X published by Company Q with an advance of Amount G.

Adaptation will keep you from seeing a success (getting published) as a not-good-enough-thing (published but not by Company Q). So many people partner rigidity with legitimacy – that things have to go in a certain way else the things aren’t good or right. There are loads of ways things could go that will net you your desired end result that don’t look anything like the one specific way you had in mind. I thought the best solution for resolving addiction was not being alive. I was pretty firm on that plan, until this other chance presented itself, and I’m glad I was able to ditch the rigidity.

  1. Take failure as a moment of instruction or reflection, not as some sign that you’re supposed to give up. You’re in charge of quitting. It’s up to you and nobody else if you walk away from your dreams or goals. So when you fail, and you will fail, and you will even feel like some of the successes are failures because you’re just “not there yet” (wherever “there” is). The problems you encounter, those setbacks large and small, it’s only failure when you don’t try again. Keep going, and it’s a setback. Stop, and it’s a failure.

  2. Invest time every day in doing what you love, even if you have no idea how to make that switch flip from “I just love doing this” to “I make money doing this.” Whatever the “this” is, it’s never an instantaneous consistent success. It takes time to produce the “this”, it takes more time to get it out to the hands of people who want to trade money for a “this” of their very own. So since it takes time, make time and use your time to be productive.

“Productive” doesn’t mean be perfect, it means make progress. Remember this is firmly in marathon territory. I invest in myself everyday by working on sober living. I invest in my creativity every day by building a business and a legacy I’m proud of. Get in the habit of listing and doing the activities you invest in, and keep an eye to the goal of why you’re doing it – what’s the end result? How is what you’re doing getting you there?

  1. Rewards and milestones aren’t evidence of anything other than your progress. Along this marathon journey of creativity, you must remember that the course is not going to be, nor should it be, run all in one day. There’s a whole lot of distance between where you are and where you’re going, and it’s important you be able to look back and see how far you’ve come instead of always looking forward and feeling like you’re coming up short. Little rewards help you. They perk you up. For me, those rewards are snacks or an extra long nap or taking an hour to read a book I like. The reward for doing X doesn’t have to be X in order to help keep you motivated about X. In fact, I’ll argue that getting space between you and X from time to time will help you when you need to make headway on X.

You’re more than your projects, or your lack of progress, or your inflexible deadlines that of course you missed because anyone would miss them. You are not your perfectionism. You are not your dreams that forever exist in drafts and outlines. You are not your incomplete work.

Though you may yet be a work in progress, you are so much more than you may ever realize or appreciate. That’s my greatest takeaway from these 1,000 days. I am committed to delivering the best help I can to those who need it, and I am committed to being the best me I can be, scars on arms and all. I don’t need to be perfect to be me.

I’ll be at Metatopia the rest of the week. As you can tell, I’m in the process of getting this new blog into shape. Your continued patience is appreciated while I work out the kinks.

We’ll talk soon. Happy writing.

The Post-Dreamation Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

What’s Up With Beta Readers?

I hope your weekend was a good one. Mine was good. It was brutally, nastily cold here in NJ, so I bundled myself up and worked. Lots of editing, some reading, loads of emails (Wait until you see #InboxWednesday).

This week we’re going to talk about a part of the writing process that I don’t really talk about a lot. We’re going to talk beta readers.

The reason I don’t usually go into a great heap of detail is because I have a mixed relationship with beta readers. Some experiences have been great, some way less than great, and it’s a part of the creative process I probably should spend more time on, because it’s becoming more mainstream to rely on them.

Let’s start at the beginning. A beta reader is someone asked to read the manuscript and provide critique, generally as one of the later stages of post-writing pre-publication. As their name says, they read.

They’re not editors. I mean, they may be an editor as their job or something, but their service to the manuscript is not a directly editorial one. They read and provide feedback. If you’re asking a beta reader to edit (aside from whatever things they randomly catch, I mean specifically wanting them to read and edit), then you’ve merged proofreading and beta reading.

I believe that anyone who does a job should be paid. So yes, I believe beta readers should be paid. Flat fee, per chapter, whatever, they’re helping you out just as much as the editor, and you’re paying them (right?), so make with the payouts.

But wait, you cry, where am I supposed to get the money? Or worse, why do these people deserve to get paid, they’re just reading?

And that, right there, is the reason why this post exists.

They’re not “just” reading. Their job is to read with a particular eye on story elements. Some authors provide a list of specific questions (hopefully they avoid the fluff ones like: “Did you like it?” or “Did you like X character?” because a beta reader is a lens for getting feedback focused on specific elements. What elements? Here’s some of the elements:

+character arc
+plot development and pacing
+tension
+story pacing
+number of characters
+the ease of readability
+narrative tone
+gauging how exciting the climax was
+gauging how satisfying the resolution was

These are story elements. They’re subcutaneous to the ego stroke of whether or not the person liked the story and can therefore blow smoke up the rectal cavities of authors. If you’re looking for praise, let your grandma read the story. A beta reader is not a praise factory, they’re a critical eye with a bit more objectivity than the editor who’s spent weeks with the MS or the author who’s been tapping the keys about it for a year.

Because they’re not being asked to fellate the insecure author (I talked to quite a few beta readers over the weekend whose feedback was irrelevant to their playing some kind of “you did good enough” validation), we come back to this idea that the author is the superior in whatever relationships concern the MS.

Let’s see how we get to this way of thinking.

The author has the option to hire an editor, and if they do, then the author employs the editor. There’s a servile power dynamic there.

The author tells the beta readers what to look for, so there’s another servile power dynamic there.

Pretty much anybody pre-submission serves the author’s needs. For some people, this power, particularly over a manuscript that they are very emotionally tied to or invested in, is ripe for abuse.

It doesn’t help that some pinheads mistake the “beta” in beta reader for a subordinate position off the bat. For the record, a beta reader is a text beta-tester, the surrogate audience member. Considering their role as audience, I would challenge any power dynamic because the beta reader is your resource for how the story will engage the marketplace. Confuse a beta reader, disinterest them, and you expose the fleshy story underbelly and possibility that your MS isn’t the polished gemstone you think it is. This is not to say it’s on the other extreme of formica or whatever zirconia gets sold on late night television, but there’s no reason to disregard or belittle the feedback because it isn’t the radioactive glowing praise that your MS is a bestseller waiting to happen.

Which is why I advocate for paying your beta reader. Treat them as a peer, not a tool, in your process and value their feedback. If you have (I’m making numbers up) 3 readers, and 1 says that the story is bloated with too many similar sounding names, or you’ve got the story all over the place in the first few chapters, consider what they’re telling you. Don’t blow it off just because it’s not as praising as what your other two readers might say. Remember that your MS may not be liked by everyone, that should you go forward and traditionally publish, an agent or editor may possibly have similar concerns, that your MS may languish in rejection hell for a while until those concerns get revised.

You want a beta reader to push you, to flip your MS judo-style, beat it up a little (or a lot), because you’re trying to get the best MS possible. So why not beat it up a little? Does that mean more work for you? Yeah. Is that bad? No.

Not every beta reader is going to extol your praises. Not every beta reader is going to spew hot lava at you. Like so many other things, it’s about the combination of all feedback, rather than the authorial power dynamic. It’s okay to get feedback that’s harsh, I’d go so far to say it’s vital, unless you want to just live in a clueless bubble of faux-perfection where you don’t push yourself or your craft out of some fear that your emperor will be exposed as a nudist.

Getting to stage in production where you need to engage beta readers is not the end of the marathon that is publication. You still have to get the story packaged and either submitted, or into the hands of readers. So let’s talk for a minute about a different kind of power dynamic, where the author puts them on a pedestal. Which isn’t the point either.

Yes, the beta reader, to some extent acts like a surrogate audience, but again, they’re not just reading your story for enjoyment. Giving them concepts to keep an eye out for helps you steer through the parts of writing where you may find or think yourself weak. They’re useful, like so many other things I’ve talked about on this blog.

To suggest the beta reader is superior in some way is to suggest that you’re writing as to earn the praise of the audience more than the pleasure of writing or the want to see your story in the world. Yes, there’s an element of praise to be had by an audience, but it can’t be the only reason you sit down everyday to write. Not everyone is going to like your work, and they’re not supposed to.

Treat your readers like people, because they are people. Don’t be a dick, don’t throw some alleged superiority in their face. They’re trying to help you, let them.

I’ll see you later this week for #InboxWednesday, where we’re going to hear from Tonda.

See you then. Happy writing.

Starting The Year Off

Blank pages and I never had this relationship before. I didn’t think twice about them. I never became aware of their size. I never courted their infinite potential. They were just the space where I put words. They weren’t scary. They weren’t ominous.

So when I spent the whole of December filling them, day after day, the blank page was just this workspace. It had no greater meaning to me than a legal pad or the notepad I keep in the kitchen to write grocery lists.

But then I took a much needed day off. Technically, it was a weekend off, as I’m rewriting this post on Monday morning. There was a post here, but it was raw and a little desperate … but we’ll get there. I took that day off, and looked backwards. That’s not something I normally do, but we’ll get there too.

Reflection is a trap. Reflection can lead to nostalgia, envy, comparison, and a host of other distractions. And into that trap I fell.

The blank page of the blogpost became prison and torturer all at once.

To fight it, I did what I always do, I did what I tell everyone to do, you go spit in its eye and you get to work. Writing with that edge of proving the doubt wrong. Full throttle, no brakes.

Now I could tell you that just bull-nosed slogging through that moment of doubt or fear fixed everything and I’m all 100000000% back on track, but that would be a lie. Sure, making my fingers put words on the page helped there not be a blank page, but reflection doesn’t just evaporate just because you do something.

Oh no, reflection takes the words you’re making and snacks on them. It sees what you’re doing and (if you’re like me) it starts to compare them to other words. Maybe other words you wrote, maybe other words other people wrote.

Now I’ve done some checking and I am not Tesla, Pressfield, Doyle, Wendig, Stout, Miranda, McKee, Dawson, Baker, Henry, Engard, Balsera, Hicks, Macklin, Edison, Ford, Foley, or King. I am none of those people. I am a guy in a bathrobe that smells like woodsmoke. I am a guy who sees success like it’s a light at the end of a tunnel. A tunnel that I’ve been running like a marathon, with both my legs chained together, dragging behind me the assorted cement covered ghosts those who doubted me, adults who abused and infected me with doubt and fear, a number of rejection letters, professional faux pas, and unspoken envies and regrets. One foot in front of the other. I feel the ghosts clawing at my shins and ankles. One foot in front of the other.

What I’m saying is, I see what other people are doing, I look at what I’m doing, and I often feel bad about what I’m doing. It makes me melancholy. It makes me desperate. You won’t see the blogpost that I originally wrote, where I went on and on about how much pneumonia sucks. You won’t see the stream of consciousness I needed to exorcise from me. That was the frustration and vulnerability and fear taking my ideas and tinting them.

Sure, it was a good post, some of those sentences have so far been repurposed here, but this mess of reflection and comparison feels like quicksand. Struggle in it, become aware of it, and you’re going down.

And because now I’m aware of it, the blank page is white quicksand.

When that pull grabs you, when you start going under, you start grabbing at anything to stay afloat. For me, it’s shocking transparency and raw honesty. Tell the world how I’m hurting. Tell the world how tough, hard, scary, and grim the world can be. Talk about mental health. Talk about poverty. Talk about health care and heartache and fleeting happiness. Be vulnerable, so that people won’t just read my words, but they’ll feel something. They feel something, so I’ll feel something.

That doesn’t stop the quicksand, it still pulls, but at least then I’m not sinking so quickly. But I’ve lost something along the way. It’s not terribly “professional” to be talking so horrifically about the downsides of being me. It’s not encouraging for people to come hire me if I’ve spent blog page after blog page talking about chest pains and hospital visits. It’s not the start of a great working relationship if I get angry at one group of people for not hiring me while I do get the chance to work for another group of people.

So what to do?

I go look for the magic sword. mastersword

There’s this moment in Legend of Zelda, where your little guy is wandering around the maze of woods, trying to get his shit together, trying to overcome obstacles, trying to keep going (does any of that sound familiar?) and eventually, after a few adventures and some hard work, you come to this clearing and there’s this sword in a stone. You of course have recently discovered the ability to wield said sword, because quest logic, so you yank the sword from its pedestal, and it’s go time.

Armed with that magic sword, you are ability to mow down your opponents and feel pretty sweet while doing it. It’s a pretty awesome sense of accomplishment. I’ve always liked that moment. It’s wonder this little warrior guy doesn’t slice his thumb off, but he does alright.

To find my own magic sword, I go find things that inspire me: today it’s a hardcore wrestling match where I watched a man fall twenty feet and not die, and a little boy building with Lego, and turn that perseverance, turn what those things mean to me, into my own I-can-do-this magic sword, which I get to wield because it’s my own damned magic sword.

Armed now, I go attack the voices in my head that tell me I don’t know what I’m doing, or that I’m not good at doing whatever it is I think I’m doing. I stab and swing and carve a swath of “Go fuck yourself, voices” into that screaming chorus of no-one-loves-me-and-no-one-could-because-look-how-bad-I-am-at-doing-things and I equate bad with failure with wrong. So of course I need to stab the ever loving hell out of those ghosts. There’s good work in me, I just need to get this crap out of the way first.

All this came from the reflection, remember, from taking time away from writing daily. I see this, I hear the voices, I swing the sword, and say to myself, “To avoid doing this on the regular, I should probably stop reflecting, I should probably stop stopping.”

Yeah, that’s a completely reasonable solution (that’s sarcasm). Swinging from one extreme (go full super work) to the other (do nothing) is not a solution for anything that isn’t turning on a light switch.

Which means my only option is to put the words on the page and keep trying.

I don’t know how to be that ideal professional. I don’t know how to blog “Effectively” according to Pinterest articles. I don’t know how to do a lot of that stuff.

What I do know is writing. Word craft. Story structure. Creativity. Words.

So let’s spend 2016 getting better at things. Let’s go together on this trip where I go get FiYoShiMo published. Let’s march through lessons about writer’s block and story structure for bad TV and movies. Let’s talk professionalism and audience building and good networking. Let’s have a laugh at the number of stories I have that start with, “So I have vague recollections of meeting this person when I wasn’t sober…”

Let us make 2016 a year where we do good work together.

And don’t worry, I’ve got this magic sword.

 

FiYoShiMo Day 30 Writer’s Toolbox

On my desk in the office, I keep a rolodex. There’s a second one in a binder in the first drawer of the desk. There’s a digital one in my inbox. There’s a supplemental one in a folder in my Dropbox. There are a number of large D-ring binders on my bookshelf. I’m 37, and I’ve spent twenty years collecting information for writers during my time as a writer, editor, word consultant, story developer, game creator, marketing guy, teacher, coach, and professional creative.

And it occurs to me that me having all this information is great, when you know I have it, and when you know you can access it. Hoarding the info does neither of us any good. So today for FiYoShiMo Day 30, I’m opening my rolodex and notebooks and giving you some material so you can start your own toolboxes.

Software You Can Use

While there is no perfect software that will do everything for you, I have recommendations for you as to software that will make your working easier.

Scrivener – For writing things
I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t Scrivener to the fullest. I use it, I love it. It makes my writing feel more polished and substantial, thanks to a lovely UI and clean lines, but I’m likely not cranking it up to 11 the way I think many other people do. It’s worth the $40.

Evernote – For collecting info
Guess what? I don’t Evernote to the fullest either. Again, I use it, I think it’s great now that I’m using it in more organized ways, but again it’s something that I will over time get even better at. Don’t let the tiered price tag scare you off, it’s worth a little money if you tend to assemble heaps of research. Or just different articles to read later when you should be writing.

Scapple – For clarifying ideas
The Scrivener people have a great piece of mapping software that I use even when I’m just making goofy ideas for games. Scapple is incredibly versatile and in using it to build FiYoShiMo, it’s very much helped my decision making process. Totally worth the $15.

Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Prime Music – For focusing on things
You can track what I’m doing during the day based on what sounds are coming from the office. Lots of music without singing? I’m writing. Lots of music I’m singing along to? I’m working on Noir World. Lots of music and I’m cursing? I’m probably losing at a video game. I can no longer work in silence since I got sober. So I work in stereo. Spotify Premium is my go to, though Pandora and Amazon Prime Music make any work I do on the couch pretty awesome too.

Need a playlist while you work? Try this one or this one.

Amazon Prime – For getting things
FREE Two-Day shipping on any office supplies, food, tech, gifts, random stuff? Access to movies, cable TV, and TV shows? A huge library of music to listen to? How have you not signed up for this already?

Old-Fashioned Tech

A Pen
These are the best pens I’ve ever used, lost, left at friend’s houses, or accumulated in cups throughout the house.

Notepads
Need to write things down? I have dozens of these, all color coded.

Business Card Holder
Stop stuffing a stack of them in your pocket with a rubber band around them. Put them in a case. Look like the professional you’re becoming.

Business Cards
Yes, get some.

No, it doesn’t matter if you go Mac, PC. Your OS doesn’t matter. Your phone doesn’t matter. What matters is that you find the best tools that you can use comfortably that help you do the stuff you want to do. What works for me may not work for you, so if you’re already doing something and it works well, stick with it.

Tomorrow, we wrap up FiYoShiMo with a breakdown and my closing thoughts.

See you then.

 

 

The Passionate Professional

Good morning. I’m throwing a bit of a wrench into our work with query letters because something has come up recently and it needs to be addressed before we get back to work. So, for a minute or two, put down your manuscripts, listen up and stay with me on this ride. Ready?

We write, we produce, we create, we make things out of passion. Yes, you’re going to say that’s imagination. You’re going to say that it’s an intense want to make a statement. You’re going to say that it’s an effort to generate an audience and satisfy some creative itch, maybe for bags of cash or not. I’m going to say that’s all passion.

It’s passion that puts the words in your head so that you can put them on the page. It’s passion that fuels us forward. It’s passion that makes us want to do this crazy craft in the first place. The storyteller is the one in the group of hunter gatherers with the awesome task of telling the gatherers what’s up. The storyteller is the teacher, empowering and awakening minds to join the group and from that fertile mental soil, the next leaders and storytellers are born. We are the sum of our teachers before us, the good and the bad, and we mark the good ones by their infectious passion, and tag the bad ones by their bitterness, their frustrations and the decay of their own passions.

Passion is not something pulled from an exterior source. You won’t find it at the bottom of a bottle. You won’t find it in a packet of foil. You won’t find it in a bag of chips or cake or kale or coffee. It’s not even in the praise of a friend, peer or lover. Your passion is in you, always. The wellspring of “I want to make a thing, I will complete the task of making it” is always in your soul, and the more you chase passion like it’s an external fuel tank that needs external replenishment, you’ll find a long and twisty route of frustration, procrastination and otherwise unspirited work.

Passion is forged in basal want and tempered out of risk. It’s a risk to write a thing, to send it off to official people and await their assessment. It’s a risk to make a game, to see if people can have fun doing something. It’s risk that compels the actor on the stage to go to those emotional places and educe those concentrated feelings into a point of clarity and then broadcast it. As in so many other things, the great rewards follow great risk, when there’s nothing else to lose, when you exhaust all the ephemeral methods of effort, that’s when the purity of what you say hits the page. You put your heart into every word, every paragraph, every chapter, every book and you will be rewarded. That reward might start with simple praise or a sale, but when you continue, when you re-invest in it and keep going, and keep risking and keep putting everything on the line in new and explorative and scary ways, the reward grows. Audiences. Attention. Opportunities. All are the offspring of risk.

Now maybe you’re sitting there, looking at those 500 or so words and saying, “Who are you John, to tell me this? You’re just a guy. You’re not a publishing expert. You’re not listed in this index or that. Your readership is tiny and your blog lacks all the flash and awards and sigils and earmarks that other editor-blogs do. Who are you and how can you presume to tell me what I need?”

I’m just a guy. I’m just a guy who spent his adult life trying and failing and running from risk. I’m just a guy who had his heart broken and who has lost a lot time and again. I’m just a guy who has a talent and an ability to help others do things with words they didn’t think possible. I believe so fundamentally in the power of words and the power of creatives and the power of passion that I’m not doing this to point to a shelf of awards or degrees or fancy blog traffic or rehashing the same eight pieces of advice only to sycophantically fellated by an audience that will yes-John me until I’m older and grayer and spent. You want to call me unprofessional, fine. You want to say I’m not like the others and mean that in a derisive way, great. But you cannot question my passion. And if you really took a look at things, I’m not sure you can question my talent either. But many people won’t get that far. They’ll see a tiny blog and big prices and assume that I’m either stupid or a boy playing pretend. I don’t feel particularly stupid most days. And regrettably, I haven’t been a boy in over twenty years.  And thank you for doing more to point out your assumptions and fears and feelings far more than you pointed out mine.

Because that’s what happens when you roll up to someone and make blanket statements. Judgments on what someone is or what they are doing or how some field operates under rules you might not have bothered to fully learn or adapt to. The misinformation and assumptions that you reinforce by not risking, by not being willing to try and see new horizons and in new ways affects you far more than it does anyone on the receiving end of your remarks. You won’t risk? Then you won’t see the reward.

It’s scary, I know. You can prop yourself up under shields of excuses all you like: you don’t have time; publishers are fickle; people will steal my ideas; you don’t know how to get started. What’s under them? Are you afraid of failing? Afraid of succeeding? Scared about step 6 when you’re on step 2? Projecting ahead? Get under the excuses, pry them up and find the heart of them.

Then take that heart, and bludgeon it with passion. Or come to terms with not doing that and all that entails and be willing to jettison the successful outcome you wanted.

Because if you can’t summon the passion to create, then lens it through discipline into craft, then you’re squandering imagination and your abilities. You’re not wasting time, because time’s bigger than you, but you’re taking the good potential of really making a thing and doing a thing and tossing it away. The roads from “I’ve never done this” to “I’m good at doing this” are lined with a thousand billion husks of jettisoned efforts, because fear leeched in and stalled creation. Fear is a motherfucker, and it wants to poison and consume passion for a meal.

This isn’t a call to strangle fear, this is a call to be passionate. To be the burst of sunlight that sends shadows running. To be the craftsman/woman/person who has the finished idea in their head and knows it the way they know their own breathing and can draw it from the resources. It’s not a focus on the reward, it’s a focus on the effort. You’re either going to write, or you’re not. You’re either going to create, or you won’t. Yes, it would be phenomenal to write for this company or make a thing like someone else did. And you’re either going to have the passion and discipline to shelf your excuses and your fear, or you’re not. And it’s not up to a blog post to throw that switch in your head. I can call you a coward all day and thrice on the weekends, and I can write hyperbole and vitriol to disgust or motivate or shock until stars die, but that’s all external to your passion. That’s all outside. Where’s your spark? Where’s your drive? Where’s that gut-burning knowledge and surety and want and hunger to grab the page and produce art? Not on my demand. Not on a publisher’s. Yours. Always yours. Forever yours.

So, go, make art. Tell stories. Produce works. Do things and come back and tell the rest of your clan or tribe or cluster or house or pack or team or people about it. Be the voice that creates and kindles other voices to do the same. Risk everything, as much as you can, put yourself on the line and put all your cards and chips on the table and see what happens. It’s scary, but be brave, take heart, focus on your efforts and your end goal, not the rewards or expectations. Get the statue out of the block of marble. Write the story that blooms in your head. Make the game that stirs your guts. Art hard. Then art harder.

Happy writing.

RECIPE – Chicken Thighs With Prosciutto, Stuffed with Foie Gras

A note here about foie gras – I find it delicious. I’m not going to argue with you about how I’d feel if I were goose crippled and tortured for my liver, because if I’m not a goose and frankly my liver is wretched. If you have an ethical objection, skip this recipe, since the only substitution I can think to provide you is a combination of herbed butter, bacon fat and six spices, but even that’s not going to come close. No, you can’t even sub a cheese, because it’s both the wrong texture and the wrong flavor.

WHAT YOU WILL NEED

8 ounces foie gras pate
12 skinless, boneless chicken thighs
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
8 ounces thinly sliced Italian prosciutto
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, or to taste
very little salt and pepper to taste
A dinner plate lined with plastic wrap
Space in your freezer
1 large bowl for mixing things
1 skillet
1 chunk of bitter
Paper towels (way more than you think, just to play it safe)
1 oven capable baking dish, the sort of thing you’d make brownies in
1/4 cup corn oil

LET’S COOK

Cut pate into 12 rectangles (or as many rectangles as you can get, assuming you’ve played Tetris), and place onto the plate lined with plastic wrap. Place into the freezer. Combine chicken thighs and Worcestershire sauce in the mixing bowl. Seal with plastic wrap (I cover this with a clean towel), and get this into your refrigerator to marinate for 1 hour. Now, if you want to fiddle a little with the marinade, I’ve had good luck with mixing Worcestershire with a little grainy mustard, a little bit of fruit preserves, some five-star spice and a bit of not-spiced rum or cooking sherry.

Fry the prosciutto in a large, nonstick skillet over medium heat until crispy. Drain, cool and crumble (I usually do this into a cereal bowl). Season with garlic powder, pepper to taste; set aside. Try not to eat all of this, you’re going to need it later.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).

Remove chicken thighs from the marinade and pat dry with paper towels. Discard marinade, and make sure you wash that bowl out immediately, lest it smell sort of funky. Lay the chicken thighs out flat on a clean work surface (like a cutting board that you specifically use for chicken as to avoid getting some mutant strain of salmonella). Season with salt and pepper, then sprinkle crumbled prosciutto in the center. Place a cube of pate on top of the prosciutto, then wrap the thigh around the filling and secure with toothpicks. This is basically a joint, with a chicken wrapper. Don’t roll too tightly, but do your best to toothpick these things shut. And don’t forget to wash your hands.

NOTE: Use wooden toothpicks. Those plastic colored ones? Well, they’re plastic. And in an oven, they’ll melt. Avoid that and just use wooden ones. If you’re a little worried about wood in an oven, feel free to soak them in water, but don’t freak out, they’ll be fine.

Heat corn oil in a large skillet over high heat. Place thighs (USE TONGS) into oil, and cook until browned all over, about 5 minutes. When browned, place thighs seam side down into a glass baking dish. You can always find the seam side because presumably that’s where the toothpicks are.

NOTE #2: Okay, hopefully you’re using tongs and you’re not just dropping chicken into oil with you standing at ground zero for splatters. If you like, wear an apron. Or a blast shield. Don’t worry Luke, trust your instincts and USE TONGS. Here’s a nice pair. Remember to wash them after you’re done.

Bake in preheated oven until the chicken is no longer pink, and the juices run clear, 25 to 30 minutes, depending on size. I like to aim for about 27 minutes, that seems to work nicely for my oven.

Note #3: You’re going to want to pull the toothpicks out before you eat. I know, it might fall apart. If you’re just whipping this up for one person and it’s not like a dinner party or big deal, don’t sweat it. If this is your chance to impress someone, either for a date (this recipe has never worked on a date for me, the frying bit freaks out people) or some dinner party, when you go to plate, serve them seam side down, and just as you get them onto the plate, slide the pick out, sort of like how you pull on underwear while you’re still wearing a towel post-shower if you’re dealing with people. (What, I’m the only one who’s done that?)

You can serve these with quite a few options: brown rice with lemon, a delightful couscous, some roast vegetables (I like carrots and cauliflower for this dish, asparagus just makes your pee smell, and if you’re hoping to get lucky later, that can torpedo you, let’s be honest) or even a salad with a decent (meaning not-creamy) dressing drowning hopefully crisp and/or peppery greens.

Is this dish one of those “John you’re being a foodie again” meals? Absolutely. I can’t help it. This is one of my favorites.

Post-GenCon – The Ups and Downs

I’m writing this after spending 2 hours in traffic (it’s normally about 15-20 minutes in the afternoon), so if this is a little plodding, it’s entirely because I’m tired and am torn between the age-old debate of eating versus sleeping. I’ve decided to eat something (egg whites) while I figure out what else there is to eat (I think I should go grocery shopping).

So, I’m home from GenCon. It was such an amazing and wonderful and overwhelming experience that I’m not sure I can chronologically track it all. I mean, I wanted to, but there was just SO much going on and so much that happened (all of it good, even if at times it was a bit more and a bit new), that I’ll just hit you here with the highlights in a semi-broad sense. The personal details, well, those are just going to be for me and the people involved.

I disclaim right now that I’m going to cover a lot of topics and speak personally here. If that’s too much for you, or you’re not interested, just know that I had a good time and we’ll talk more soon.

1. I benefited from a space to getaway. There’ s a lot of things going on at this convention — tens of thousands of people make a lot of noise and generate a lot of sensory overload. Really critical for me was the ability to get away from that, even for an hour or so and head back to the hotel room, where the environment was more stable and I could unwind.

2. I can’t say it was flawless, but I am really proud of myself. Okay, honesty time – I had some ups and downs. The specifics aren’t really for this blog, but just know that they weren’t anything catastrophic or ruinous, and I still have all my fingers and toes, and my heart and soul are still kicking. Several of the events, being big huge anxiety-triggers (few things make me go all shallow-breathing and fidgety like the idea that I’ll meet ALL the people I admire in rapid succession), did lead me to pop a pill, but that’s what I have them for right?

And sure I pushed quite a few comfort zones for five days straight. But I came out okay. I made great new wonderful beautiful fantastic friends, made great incredible memories (some of which I’m not sharing with anyone who doesn’t already know), and in general had a great experience.

Order and structure prevailed. Those days where I made sure I ate regularly, stayed hydrated, got rested and took charge of my thoughts and moods were days I was this great new me that I am really coming to love. That’s not to say that when my head got the best of me, or when I didn’t eat and got all fidgety and wan I was sub-human…but there was a clear difference between John-in-charge-of-his-shit and John-at-the-mercy-of-rising-mental-floodwaters.

I did it. I fucking did it.

3. In the face of fears, I took the chances. I can cross quite a few things off my bucketlist after this weekend. I won’t give you the whole list (that’s not for you, gentle readers) but I’ll give you some highlights:

a. Ran a game at GenCon (for people I didn’t know) — I don’t know why I waited so long to do this…I should have been doing this sooner. Okay, yeah that would have taken more prep, but seriously, to have absolutely new people get so into a game and enjoy themselves sincerely (it’s hard to doubt people screaming “Hell yeah” and “That was awesome!”) is deeply gratifying.
b. Ran a game (for people I did know) — Yes, I do this all the time, but here it was different. I ran a hack of a game I am deeply in love with. And it was a HUGE HUGE success. Again, I cannot believe I was so afraid to be expressive with my friends.
c. I went out to eat with people. Sure, that’s not a big deal. No, that’s a very big deal. I tend to eat with, at best, one or two other people. Maybe three on weekends or holidays. I tend to prize my meal times since I’m actually a little embarrassed by how fast I eat (well, ate, I’ve slowed down since beginning treatment). There was a group of people, sometimes upwards of 8, and we all ate together. Indian food, grilled meats, whatever. It wasn’t awkward. It wasn’t scary, even though those people do somewhat affect my livelihood and I do answer to some of them on occasion. But this…this was a meal. With friends. Together, and happy. I could seldom ask for better.
d. I saw my name in A LOT of print. There were piles of books that all had my name in them, and it was very humbling (I admit now that after seeing my name in 2 piles of books and watching people buy them like mad, I did walk away crying happy tears)
e. I was recognized. People sought me out. And not in that we’re-going-to-find-you-and-chase-you-away style I was expecting. I had a lot of great people come tell me that the blog is wonderful, that I’m a good person, that they’re happy for me, that they’re following my progress and it’s inspiring them to do things. Better still these people were happy to see me and put a an actual personage to my online presence. I even signed a few autographs and got a shout-out in an acceptance speech.

Speaking of which….

4. I WON AN ENNIE. (There’s a photo of me with said ENnie floating around Facebook). If you go here, then scroll down to “Fans Favorite Publisher” you’ll see that Evil Hat took the silver. Evil Hat is one of the companies I work for. It was also pointed out to me afterward that I was entitled to go up on stage and receive the award, but at the time it didn’t register (much of the work I’ve done hasn’t really come out yet in full force) nor did I feel like I really did anything to deserve it.

And then the scope of the award was explained to me, as was my role. I shall spare you a lot of that summary, suffice to say it was incredibly moving to know just how well I am regarded and how people I respect see me in such positive ways.

So yeah, it was a great first GenCon.

Have a great evening. I’m off to eat something and crash out on the couch.