Stop Aspiring, Start Doing

I’m an aspiring author.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Says who?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A maker of stuff? Sketch, prototype, develop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

InboxWednesday -Racing, Reviews, and Respect

In case you missed it Monday, the survey (still free, still anonymous) about editing and coaching is up. If you could take a minute or two and fill it out, I’d really appreciate it. Check it out right here.

Welcome to the middle of your week. We’ve made it this far, I think we can get through. I don’t know why we’d want to put noses to grindstones, that seems like a great way to end up like Voldemort or Skeletor, so how about we instead jump into the inbox and answer some questions?

John, I’ve been trying to finish this MS for 4 years, ever since my daughter went into school, and have days to myself when the house isn’t a wreck. I’m writing a little nearly every day, but it’s so discouraging seeing other people talking on social media about how they’re querying manuscripts they wrote and revised in half the time. What am I doing wrong? – Danielle

Danielle, you’re not doing anything wrong. I’ll say that again, you’re not doing anything wrong. Publishing (like so many other things in this world) isn’t a sprint with a gold medal on the line. There’s no bonus prize award for speed. There’s no achievement you unlock for writing a novel in less than thirty drafts. Writing is meritocratic, meaning the good work goes forward, and the duds don’t (even though all work teaches us stuff).

I know what you’re talking about. That sense of near-failure or struggle that you’re taking so long to do something that other people seem to do in the blinks of a few eyes, and then to top it off they talk about all the other good things going on in their lives and you start wondering if you’re doing anything right at all because you’re not done writing AND your kids just spilled juice on the rug AND your spouse forgot to get the eggs AND you’re supposed to be out of the house within the next 10 minutes. Yeah, it’s a maelstrom of suck, or at least you keep telling yourself it is, so long as you lens everything through whether or not that manuscript is complete.

But, Danielle, you are not your manuscript. You are not your rejection letters. You are not your to-be-done text file of ideas. You are not your Pinterest boards and daydreams.

You’re a whole person, and the only one driving you to compare your manuscript to someone else’s is … you. The reader over there? They don’t care how many drafts it took you. They’re not aware that you wrote chapter 23 while you were sick with flu and ran to the bathroom every six sentences. They just want the book. And since they’ve made it this far in life without your book, I’m pretty sure they’ll be happy to wait for the thing they didn’t realize they would enjoy.

What I’m saying is this – make the  best manuscript you can Danielle. Be bold and fearless and take risks. Put your guts on the page. Write as best you can, when you can. Don’t fall prey to the comparisons about other writers. You’re not other writers, and they’re not you.

Write your story. Finish your story. Keep going.

Hi John! I just got my first book published last year, and the first months of reviews were positive. And for a while, I would run into people who read the book, and they really liked it. But now it’s been nearly a year, and the reviews have slowed down, and I started getting a few negative ones. What do I do? Is this normal? – C.

Hi C. Congratulations on getting your first book published, and I’m glad to hear the reviews have been positive. Yes, what you’re experiencing is typical. There’s a great surge up front, and then things cool off. There are a couple reasons for this.

First, that initial surge probably had some promotion behind it. You were tweeting about it, you were blogging about it, you had friends talking about it when it first came out. It was a new experience, and there was a rush behind it. After a bit of time, it’s no longer as new.

Second, there’s something called “initial push and conversion” which is the immediate reach you have to audience, with a little bit of extension. What that means in English is this: how many people can you directly talk to about your book, and how many of those people will go pick up your book, read it, AND review it. I have 1520 Twitter followers, so while I can reach that many people, I can’t control all 1520 to read my blog, nor can I many all or any of them share what I post with their friends. That’s a lot of people who have the potential to read the blog, but I can’t go to each of their houses and make them not only read, but also comment. Past those 1520 people, my blog is just out there in the wild, so some element of the traffic is based on people googling stuff or just stumbling upon it.

Third, it’s always tough to get readers to leave reviews. That’s not the book’s fault, that’s a combination of factors like assuming someone else will do it so they don’t have to, the perceived amount of time it would take to do more than just click on a number of stars, and the amount of time it would take to sign into a website people may use all the time anyway. And while it’s great that Mary from Anchorage gave the book 5 stars, you’re hoping that Mary takes a few minutes to put some words down along with her 5 stars, so that people read the review and want to buy the book.

The funny part is where you may struggle to have people write lengthy praise, you may have no trouble getting them to bomb your book, especially if it somehow pisses in their cornflakes, upsets their apple cart, or challenges their previously held thoughts. Oh, how the heavens shall tremble when you make a character a race other than what they’re expecting. Oh, how the world shall fall asunder when two characters of the same gender decide they want to go hang out without pants on.

Yes, I should say here, I am a believer in the idea that even bad press is press, and you can use this to your advantage (without the horseshit of generating your own controversy so you can play the victim though, I have no patience for it, and if you want that, there are plenty of websites where you can go for that experience) with sharp marketing copy like “Come check out the book everyone says is ruining all of mankind because two ladies go out for latte.” or “Do you agree with X number of reviewers that anthropomorphic hot dog aliens are the worst thing ever since ‘we let the gays marry’?” But that’s just me, and maybe your preferred response to bookcritic4lyfe88 is to get your ice cream and beer on.

What you do is this – keep writing. Go make that next book, tell that next story, don’t lose yourself to tending the garden of reviews when you have so many other seeds to plant and watch bloom. Just keep going.

Hey John, love the blog. Glad to hear you’re recovering from surgery and I’m happy to see you posting again. I’m not sure you’re going to answer this email, but I wanted to tell you that I’ve taken the plunge and starting writing. I’m a SAHM, so I squeeze my writing in during irregular hours when I’m not being a chauffeur or referee between two kids. My husband has started working from home two days a week, but I’m having trouble convincing them that I’m seriously trying to write. Any tips? – Allison

Allison, thanks for the question. Yes, I have some tips.

First, one of the things that you need to look at are those “irregular” hours. Yeah, I know, kids can throw a wrench in a lot of routines sometimes, but that’s not always the norm is it? Sometimes, yes, there are just regular downtimes and a sort of unspoken schedule. Spend a few days really trying to figure out what that schedule is and write it down.

If your kids are both in bed and asleep by 8:30 (I’m making times up here), and your husband is happily content doing his own thing by then too, then you’ve got let’s say 8:30 to 10pm to yourself. Explain to your husband (always start with the adults) that you’re going to make a habit out of writing from 8:30 to 9:15 (again, I’m making up times Allison), and that during that time, you want to keep the distractions to a minimum. Now I don’t know what you consider a distraction, maybe you want him to yell at the Xbox a little less loudly, or when the kids pop up because of whatever reason, you send them to see your husband first before you. Yeah, there might be some grumbling, there always is when a status quo changes, but if you stick to it, people will come around.

You deserve the opportunity to have your time and interests respected. But the other people around you aren’t going to know what’s up without you putting down a boundary and enforcing it. Sure, some distractions are going to require your intervention, and that is going to cut into that writing schedule, but by and large, you can set up a schedule and stick to it, so long as you ride out that initial anxiety you have that people will freak out because you’re going to go be creative. It’s worth pointing out that you don’t know how they’re going to react until you start, so start, and trust the people around you to be supportive. You’re good enough to respect yourself and be respected by others.

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If you have a question you want to see answered on #inboxwednesday, send me an email. Yes, I really do read them all.

Go create. We’ll talk Friday.

 

 

The Machinery of the First 3 Pages

It’s Friday, good job making it through week.

Before we talk about today’s topic, I want to give you some updates:

1. The #FiYoShiMo manuscript (see the index) is still under construction. I’ve had a lot more to say about some particular topics. Combine that with health and work, progress is slow, but steady. I like steady. Especially with this, where I’m making sure each idea is presented as clearly as possible.

2. Noir World sees more players later this month at Dreamation. Not in a “test this out” way, but more like “hey come do this cool thing with me.” The MS lives on three separate files and I’ll cohere it into something greater than its parts, probably starting over the weekend. Depends on my energy level.

3. Remember the Johnversations? The Youtube videos I did? They’re making a comeback. I might record one tonight. But I want to have one out for the Monday blogpost of next week. I have a few possible topics in mind, and if you’ll forgive the fact that I’ll be likely wearing a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, I sincerely think you’ll get something out of it.

4. I’m talking to some really smart people about what I can do to make better use of Smashwords. If you haven’t already checked out the stuff I have available, get the books while the price is still $3 each.

Okay enough with the updates. Let’s see what we’re talking about today.

There’s an old saying that an MS lives and dies by its first three pages. I tend to agree with it, and I know many readers (meaning: editors, agents, publishers, consumers) do as well.

What makes those three pages critical? The fact that they set tone and expectations for the reader. Whether that reader is someone with the power to move your MS towards publication, or whether that reader is someone’s mom who plunked down the bucks and got something for her Kindle to read while on vacation, you have to bear in mind that your first three pages are a machine with a purpose: to make the reader want to stay and invest time and energy and thought with the MS.

I know this can sound like it’s a compounding problem, since so many writing resources tell you with bootcamp intensity that your first paragraphs have to be strong and they’re important, and I don’t mean to up the anxiety you may feel about trying to keep all these plates spinning, but since paragraphs are part of the first pages, the whole shebang is important.

During #FiYoShiMo, we talked tone. And we got a little into expectations, but now I want explore that some more. What expectations would your reader have, where do they come from, and what do you do with or about them?

So that we don’t have to get all literary theory on a Friday, we’re going think like readers for this discussion. We’ll come back to being writers in a bit, just go with me here.

Find up any book you’ve never read. Doesn’t matter what it is. I don’t care if you’re in a bookstore aisle, or if you’re looking online at Amazon, or if you’re rooting through dead Aunt Jean’s grocery bags of crummy novels. Assuming this book has a cover on it, or at least a title page, you already have a lot of information, and that’s before you’ve even fanned through the pages.

a) You have an author’s name, and presumably can search for that author on the internet. While I’m writing this, I’ve timed myself to see how long it would take to pick up my phone, google an author and get to their blog. Total time: 11.71 seconds

Are you about to tell me that you don’t have seconds to look something up on your phone, or in a separate browser tab? Sure, yeah, I’m on a strong wifi connection right now, but we’re not saying this is hours spent digging around for info on an author’s name.

b) You may also find reviews for the book, depending on if you search the title, or the author is a magnet for controversy and all people ever talk about is how their book is somehow ruining all of existence.

c) You may also find other titles this author has written. Were they prolific? Was this a one-and-done deal? Are they still writing? Again, this is all accessible information.

d) We haven’t even considered the idea that you’ve looked at the book’s cover. Is there a picture? What does that picture tell you about what possibly may be going on in the book? Naked model holding other naked model while naked model number one stares to the side? Maybe that’s romance. Is anyone shooting a laser? I bet it’s science fiction. The cover art can color and create a lot of expectations.

e) Flip the book over. Any back blurb? (For you internet people, scroll down the page) What’s the summary tell you? Any quotes from other authors? Do those quotes sound sincere, or are they just streams of pro-sales adjectives like “amazing” or “great” or “couldn’t put it down”? Again, you’re being presented with expectations of genre and rough concepts of story.

f) Is it a thick book? Is the font tiny? How many pages? Now go and fan through. With that brief glance at paragraphs (don’t get into the text yet, just skim), do they look substantial, or do they look like tight sentences with white space all around? This is an expectation, not a fact, that you might have to labor to read this thing, so maybe you approach it timidly.

After all that, crack it open and read the first paragraph, then the first page, then go all the way until the middle or bottom of page 3. I don’t care if it stops mid-sentence. (If you’re on the Kindle, get the free sample and follow along)

What did those three pages show you? What things did you picture in your head? Here’s a list of questions:

i) Did you get introduced to the main character?
ii) Did you learn anything about the main character?
iii) Was there an action beat? What was happening in it?
iv) What did you learn about the world this story takes place in?
v) What did you learn about the setting specific to the story?
vi) Did you find out what the central conflict of the story is?
vii) Did you get introduced to the antagonist?
viii) Anybody die?
ix) How many conversations were there, and between whom?
x) Was anything foreshadowed?
xi) Was anything, in your opinion, underexplained or glossed over?
xii) Was there a chapter break?
xiii) Was there profanity or sex?
xiv) Did you get bored?
xv) Would you keep reading?

That’s fifteen questions, off the top of my head. You may have more, I could have asked more. But that’s FIFTEEN. And they’re not limited by genre or age of the book.

This is what’s important about three pages: it gets you started. This is the turned key in the ignition. Your picking up the book and opening it was the key going into the ignition, so now you want to get in gear and get moving.

I wish there was a simple formula to tell you that said that X number of paragraphs on the first page have to be about the character, then Y paragraphs have to be about the world, then Z paragraphs have to be about conflict. But there isn’t a formula like that. There’s no set percentages of text that need to be reached in order for your first pages to be engaging. Any combination of character, world, and conflict can lead to reader interest.

The question they teach in school is this: Who’s doing what, where, and why? It’s not a bad question. Whether you’re introducing Poe Dameron on Jakku, Ishmael boarding the Pequod, or Nick Charles mixing a cocktail, you’ve got a blank stage and a willing audience waiting for whatever you present.

So make it count. Don’t think of this like a long fuse that can slow burn before finally doing something. Rare are the people and situations where a reader sticks around until page 40 to see if “it gets better.” Rarer still are the professionals who stick around to page 10 in hopes that the MS gets its shit together.

It’s to your advantage to take a big swing and put together a good scene. It might not be the start of the specific plot, but it’s the reader’s access point to the plot, because you’re connecting them to a character and their world, and together they and this virtual being will (hopefully) get up their necks in the specific plot.

What does that look like? That’s up to your story. How are you going to get the reader immersed in your world, introduced to your character and convey the sort of vibe you need to in the face of their expectations? Here are three ways:

Sentence structure
It’s the primary mode of broadcast for your ideas. Vary that sentence length. Use push/pull to draw the reader in deeper as you provide details.

Word choice
No, this isn’t a permission slip to go adverb and adjective wild. Pick the best word or word phrase for the job.

Pacing
What information are you giving in what paragraph, and in what part of the paragraph? Why is it going there? Could it go sooner? Later? What’s your thinking behind that piece going where you have it? If I’m working to follow along, does that information in that spot help or hurt? Ease or retard my progress?

I wrap today’s 1600-something words with a reminder that you don’t have to do this perfect the first time. You don’t have some finite number of drafts to make this happen. No one’s coming to take away your keyboard or something-something-other-topical-American-political-commentary. This takes time, and yes, I swear to you, I promise you, if you keep doing this, if you keep working at it, you will see it pay off.

See you next week. Happy writing.

Some Thoughts on Professional Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-Promotion Is Not Mayonnaise Or Clowns

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where To Start
We start with some rules.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I’ll include two precepts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next week.

The Hustle, 2016 edition

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

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

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

Yeah, I know, it can suck sometimes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get back to work. Hustle. Make it happen.

FiYoShiMo- Day 1 – Beats, Beats and More Beats

So here we are. The first of December. NaNoWriMo has wrapped up, and regardless whether you wrote 50k or not, this is Day 1 of FiYoShiMo, or Fix Your Shit Month.

What we’re going to do every day in December (not on Christmas though), is take a look at what you wrote in November, and we’re going to take it apart, so that you can see the moving parts, and figure out what parts work and what don’t. This isn’t meant to convince you that you are completely worthless and shouldn’t be writing, this is going to show you that what you’ve written in November HAS merit and value, and that you have some ability to write – you just need to focus and practice, and learning some writing craft would be good.

For today, you’re going to need some of what you wrote. Get some scenes. Doesn’t matter if they’re sequential, or even if they’re from the same chapter. Go grab some text from your manuscript. How much? How about 3 scenes? I’ll wait here.

We good to go? Awesome.

Before we get our hands dirty, we have to look at the craft element we’re talking about today – beats. A “beat” in a story (whether that’s a novel, a script, a short play, a whatever) is a moment of action or reaction. It’s something happening. In screenwriting, you get a beat about every 5 minutes or so. In novel writing, you get a beat just about every paragraph or two, unless you’re running a long stretch of description or set-up.

By most accounts, the beat is the smallest unit in storytelling. A bunch of beats together forms a scene, a bunch of scenes together forms a plot, so really, beats build your plot. Beats come in a couple

different flavors, all with their own purposes. A beat always has some kind of consequence. There are a few different kinds of consequences to talk about. The expected consequence is the reasonable assumption and reasonable outcome of a beat. The gun goes off, the bullet has to go somewhere. The timer hits zero, the bomb has to detonate. You step on the gas, the car goes forward. When the expected consequence happens, the reader is (ideally) satisfied, excited and is encouraged to move forward in the story to see how the rest of the dominoes topple as the story progresses. More often than not, you’re going have more expected consequences than any other kind.

The unexpected consequence is the outcome that doesn’t happen, even if it’s expected. This is less frequent than the natural consequence, and ideally, it’s a small boost of tension to a scene. A gun jams or a clip runs dry. The car doesn’t start, even though it’s got a key in the ignition. You take the expected outcome and you deny it, for whatever reason (you need a reason for it to be an unexpected consequence). This doesn’t generate reader satisfaction usually, but it does propel them forward, it makes them want to keep reading to find out what’s next. The danger here is that if you have a lot of unexpected consequences, they become expected, sort of like how everyone expects M Night Shyamalan movies to have some kind of twist. (This is separate from the expectation that Shyamalan movies are going to be awful suckfests that you’ll only find enjoyable through mockery.) What makes them exciting and special is their rarity.

The unnatural consequence is the outcome that happens, but we don’t know why it happens and often it shouldn’t have happened the way it did, so we’re driven to read more of the story to find out why. These are most often big moments in a story that set up a significant element – like why didn’t Harry get killed by Voldemort or why can’t Jason Bourne remember who he is. Again, these consequences are rare in frequency, and rarity often leads to significance.

An action beat is a moment of something happening. Not necessarily limited to something blowing up or a fight or a gun shot, but something physical that happens is the most common way to describe an action beat. An action beat is decisive, and the story gains momentum through them.

Action beats are the cornerstone in most genres. Again, don’t think they’re just physical, you can have mental action beats where you have your great detective puzzling out the solution to the mystery and builds an elaborate maze of string on a corkboard, or social action beats where the team is rallied by a passionate halftime speech. A beat is a moment, and practically everything you’re writing is either a moment unto itself, it expands on an existing moment, or it sets up a future moment.

There are also investigative or mystery beats (I’m going to call them both). Whereas the action beat is a moment where something happens as a result of often a physical stimulus, the investigative beat happens due to the need to gain more information, and it’s often the search for information that leads to other things happening. Your intrepid detective sits down, lamenting to their sidekick that the mystery is tough, then the sidekick says something and whoosh, the detective is out the door with the solution. Or the detective scours the crime scene, and the text describes how odd this looks to other people (because oddity is evidence of genius). Or the suspicious mother presses redial on her daughter’s phone. Or the nervous student asks a follow-up question. Yes, you can argue that investigation is itself an action, but the critical part of the investigation beat is the stuff going on in a character’s mind.

Now if we’re in first-person, and we have access to this character’s mind, the investigative beats become responses to the world around the character, all of which we interpret as narration. However, if your character is mystery-adjacent (if they’re the civilian who won’t have access to the material the cops do, for instance). then mystery beats require there be some sort of way for the character to reach the same conclusions as the cops, just by taking a different route. This is most often accomplished by going through a second character referred as a knowledge proxy (often someone with a specialization in the exact stuff the character needs to know to solve the mystery). In The Dresden Files, Bob the Skull is your knowledge proxy. In Harry Potter, it’s most often Hermione, though occasionally it’s Neville or a ghost or someone else just roaming around the fifteenth chapter or so.

If we’re in third-person, there’s a tricky line to tow around the show versus tell balance. Show versus tell, for me, is always a barometer about how much or how little the writer trusts/likes their audience.

Showing them, allowing them to reach their own conclusions or have their own feelings, shows a great deal of trust, it suggests that the writer knows the reader will “get it” (whatever it is). Telling them, dictating how or what they should think or feel suggests the writer thinks the audience won’t “get it” (and this is where you’ll often see a writer desperate to be recognized as good enough or smart). Hitting that balance, frankly, means doing a little bit of both from time to time. It’s experiential, and my best advice to you about it on day 1 of FiYoShiMo is to aim for more show than tell, but know that telling can be a great way for a reader to get a starting point for showing. Again, this is a practice thing.

Action beats are telling that masquerades as showing. We are shown the gun going off, but we’re told the response. Mystery beats are showing that masquerades as telling. We’re told how the detective solved the crime, but we’re given enough room to see if we can piece it out ourselves.

Where do those consequences fall here?

The expected consequence to a mystery beat is that the plot advances. We see that the gun found at the scene is or isn’t the murder weapon, and then we’re led further into the story. A mystery beat’s expected consequence (at least prior to the mystery’s solution) should lead the reader to ask a question, often “What happens now?” Once you reach the moment of the mystery’s solution, the question shifts to “How does this wrap up?” which is the obvious question to ask at any story’s conclusion. Expected consequences in mystery beats act like accelerators. They often move the story forward, possibly too fast, and they can lead to boring scenes. If we always know what’s coming, what’s the incentive to read? Where’s the challenge? For minor developments, expected beats confirm reader thinking, but keep them small and incremental.

The unexpected consequence to a mystery beat is also plot advancement, though often with changes to the mystery-information we already have. (Another word for mystery-information is clue.) With an unexpected consequence, we change the amount of suspects, motives, alibis, and other clues. The pieces of the mystery that we’re building don’t connect in the way we expected, so that drives us into the story to find out both how the pieces connect, or what we’re missing to make them connect.

This makes unexpected consequences a regular occurrence with mystery beats. The unnatural consequence to a mystery beat is often an action beat. Look at any crime-solving show with a male protagonist. Rockford Files. Magnum PI. Even the formulaic CSI shows. They find something out, even if it fits perfectly with existing information, it segues into action. The footprint means that guy really is guilty, go arrest him. The butter melted an extra eighth of a centimeter, she totally killed her husband. (Note: this is also true for shows with female protags, though often the action beat is indirect, since other people get called in to do the action … but we’ll get to direct and indirect tomorrow). Whereas with action beats the unnatural consequence is rare, they’re pretty common with mystery beats, since you have to winnow down suspects and increase tension.

The emotional beat, also called the meaningful beat if you suffered through some of the same classes I did, is the third major kind of beat we’re talking about today. Yes, others exist, but I want to keep the focus here for Day 1. When the others crop up, we’ll talk about them this week.

The emotional beat adds an additional layer to whatever is going on, no matter what it is. This often happens through dialogue and reactions to dialogue (and when it does, we call them emotional dialogue beats, isn’t that original?).

The crying child embracing his mother. The tearful man being vulnerable to the love of his life. The farmboy staring off in the distance under his desert’s planets twin suns. Film underscores the emotional beat by usually having a swell in music (especially true when there isn’t talking, but there needs to be some sound to help convey that this is a moment where the audience should be feeling something — see the show, not tell — but it’s left to them to feel whatever they do). Emotional beats help punctuate and emphasize scenes. They provide signposts to the reader suggesting that they should be so far along in their commitment to the story, and points out the path to go forward. A story without emotional beats can seem like a summary, or leave the reader wondering why they should invest any further. Don’t neglect these beats.

The expected consequence of an emotional beat is by definition unclear. That’s what makes it tricky (and vital) to a story. It isn’t about the gun or the gunshot, it’s about the feelings of the people involved and the moment they’re in. Is this the moment where you can’t believe that they’re going to kill Sean Bean (again)? Is this the moment where you reveal he’s been dead the whole time (I either mean Sean

Bean or your character)? The story is free to go in whatever direction you want, but remember that you’re going to need to give the story momentum here – an emotional beat might be important, but it can eat inertia. A little push is often a good idea here. Keyword is little, though that’s variable depending on what you’re doing or the scope of what you’re talking about.

The unexpected consequence of an emotional beat is called subversion, which is where you set up a scene to suggest that it’s going to pay off a certain way, then pay it off another way. This is where you, for example, get the classic double-cross, where a character turns on another character as plot advancement. An unexpected consequence is most often an action beat – something happens and that’s what left our jaws hanging.

The unnatural consequence is reader confusion. If your reader is left scratching their head about why this effect follows that cause, you’ve raised a red flag. Don’t do that. Always make sure you and your

reader can time the emotional beat to something. Yes, they might not fully understand what you’re

putting together when they reach page 20, but by page 120, they should be well on their way (I’m making page numbers up here). There’s a difference between needing more information and having no freaking clue what’s happening. Usually a reader looking for more information will keep reading, but if this is part of a pattern they’ve experienced with your story, expect them to discover alternate uses for the pages. Maybe an end table needs leveling. It’s wintertime, tinder is always a good idea.

Having now laid out three types of beats, I want you to take a look at the scenes you have in front of you. Can you spot the beats? Can you find the moments that build this story’s skeleton? When you find one, mark it in the margin: A for action, I for Investigation, E for Emotion. You can track consequences if you want, marking them little “e” for expected, “un” for unexpected, and “x” for “unnatural”.

Once you get all the A’s, I’s, and E’s marked, do you see any patterns? Are there not many E’s on the page? Are there way more A’s than you expected? Do your beats fall in one consistent order, even when you think you’re trying a new approach?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a single unifying theory that says how many of each beat-type you should have. But here are three things I want you to look at today so we can go forward with this tomorrow:

You should be able to tie an emotional beat to an action beat that brought the reader to it, and to an action beat that leads from it. Like we’re making an action-emotion-action beat Oreo.

An investigative beat should produce new information that leads to an action beat somewhere, if not right away. Even if that new information is a unit of “we eliminate old info”, there’s a corresponding action beat prompted by what’s been learned.

Your expected consequences should vastly outnumber your unexpected and unnatural consequences.

Tomorrow, for FiYoShiMo Day 2, we’re going to look at Direct and Indirect beats, which is going to build on what we’ve got here.

See you then.

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.

The Writer and How Perfectionism Almost Killed Him

Fire up the trigger warnings for self-harm, suicide, depression, self-loathing, body dysmorphia, overdose, anxiety, paranoia and shame.

I made some mistakes today. I’m sure we all have days where that happens, and maybe it’s everyday or maybe just some afternoons, but whatever, I wasn’t perfect today. Without giving too many details (especially since I’m going to give tons of details about more things in later paragraphs), I’ll say that I finished working on a really high-profile thing for a really high-profile company and really want to be relevant to them and really be thought of as good at what I do, so I still get opportunities to do more things. I will admit I felt really pressured by a looming deadline, I was stressed by trying to anticipate writer-feelings and I was rather obsessively trying to make it the most perfect manuscript that’s ever been manuscripted, even though part of my brain knows that this copy is for testing, and very likely lots of bits where I made mistakes are going to end up changed, and I’ll have another chance to improve and try again later.

Perfectionism is the boogeyman for me. I want a thing (a manuscript, an outfit, a conversation, a date, a recipe, a whatever) to be perfect so that people-who-aren’t-me tell me I’m good or that they’re proud of me. In a nutshell, I didn’t hear a lot of that growing up (and what I did hear was sarcastic or insincere), so I don’t have the best internal sense of “Yeah I’m a good person who is capable and successful”. In fact, I have a pretty deficient sense of it, and routinely expect my efforts to not just fail but fail spectacularly in such a way that anyone around me is caught in some kind of area-effect blast zone of failure. I don’t want to be a roving miasma of failure, I’m very happy to be isolated from all the people I assume are by default exponentially better and more perfect without even trying. It’s just that this is how I am, and while I’m working every day to change it, it’s one of the hardest thing I’ve ever gone up against.

I’d like now to tell you a story that not many people know. I’m going to omit a few details and names for personal reasons and privacy, but I’ll make sure to include the majority of the big stuff. I want to tell the story of how perfectionism almost killed me.

It starts in winter. Most of my terrible true stories take place between October 1 and April 1, because that’s when I believe the sun vanishes and takes my happiness along with it. No, we’re not just talking seasonal affective disorder, we’re talking polarizing extreme depression. The kind where it takes incredible energy to do anything beyond laying very still, breathing and blinking. Forget meals. Forget socializing. Showers are luxuries. Shaving is a double luxury.

This story takes place on a Saturday, and let’s go one step further and say it was the Saturday right before a major sporting event known for its commercials and entertainment spectacle that occurs between the first and second half. I came across one of these commercials that promoted body positivity in women, carefully veiled in soap sales (or maybe the other way around?), and it had a significant impact. Significant like the way the asteroid really improved the quality of life for dinosaurs.

Now, so you better understand why a commercial about young girls taking photos affected me, I will point out that I have a pretty firm belief that I weigh somewhere in the neighborhood of 450-495 pounds minimum, and that my scale only says 217 at the time of this writing because my bulk broke its sensors and it just can’t show any higher number. I’ll also point out that I’m pretty sure I’m blimp-shaped and that my skinny arms and knobby legs are like strange sticks poking out of a potato in a child’s science project. To put a point on it, I am unattractive to the max, yo. As further evidence of this, I point to months of solitude, dating misadventures and an inability to find happiness.

So on this February night, the weight (heh, size pun) of just how not-perfect I am smacks me around in moment after moment of young girls in a video smiling and looking pretty and receiving compliments. It doesn’t matter that I’m two decades older than some of these girls, it strikes me rather intensely that these girls are beautiful, and I’m not even on the scale for beauty. This is worthless compounding worthless, and I’m a waste of space and I’ve accomplished nothing in my life. No kids, no long career, no wife, no masterworks of literature authored, no accolades for speaking or editing, just some super-less-than-mediocre fat creepy man who doesn’t need to be here anymore.

Things in this story get very fuzzy, but that’s what happens when you try to kill yourself. And carve a word into your forearm that you spell wrong because you’re doing it upside down. Let’s fast forward a few days and some stitches later.

I wanted to be perfect, which is not so much the 100% A ++++ that you get in school, but rather I wanted to clear the chasm that seemed to separate me from everyone else. It seemed bigger than the Grand Canyon and I had no idea how I was going to just get through the next minute. Everything hurt. The potential fear and frustration of future minutes hurt too. I could not be perfect. I could not live perfect. I could not even die perfect. I was trapped in some failure pit and would stay there until I either figured out how to die better or until my body just gave out from under me. I wasn’t going to write a novel people would want to read. I wasn’t going to get hired to work in television ever again. I wasn’t going to find love. I couldn’t even get flirted with. No woman would pay attention to me. I was some carcass with a thready pulse and bandages. That’s not perfect at all.

And when you find yourself in emerald scrubs and under observation, and you spend a few days with an IV in you and your skin is the color of grade school chalk, you’re just so tired. You don’t sleep so much as you’re just less awake. Perfect is no longer some social construct, perfect is just when the pain of life goes away.

Little by little, you regain bits of a life. You get to use a phone. You get to check your email. You play with your dog. And then the worry, which might have gone out for coffee, comes back. You start worrying that word of your most recent “episode” or “incident” will take away what friends and what work you do have some feelings for. You start worrying that even if you get lucky enough to have some kind of existence, it would have to be even more cut off from everything, because in trying to die, you’ve just made it that much harder for people to love you. And all you really want to do is not be perfect, but to be loved. To be cared for. To feel safe. To feel secure. To not hurt so much.

You stuff that worry in your pocket a little while longer, because the act of regaining that life has brought you some interesting experiences. You have a renewed appreciation for how food tastes. You discover a weird almost aggressive pleasure in talking about your problems and getting feedback on them. You come to see that when you have to start over, you always do so fresh, and you can pick and choose what goes and what stays in this new rebuilding of your life. You start to think that maybe you can build a life where it hurts less than the last one. You don’t hope, because hope is for suckers and children and romantics, and you have to believe in something to be any of those things. But you hear enough people tell you that it’s possible, and given that the alternative is to hit the bottom of a hole that you’re only a few inches above in the first place, you try.

Perfect sort of factors in here. You want to try your best, whatever you can muster, because maybe if you do XYZ perfect and without error, a little of that pain will go away. You won’t be so lonely. You won’t feel so worthless or stupid or fat or forgotten or unimportant because you can XYZ now. And when you pressure yourself to do XYZ, whether that’s squeezing a racquetball in your hand or drive a car to Wendy’s for a cheeseburger, you have zero mercy for yourself when you need to correct yourself. You drop the ball because you’ve been squeezing for six straight minutes? You’re a fuck-up. You exceed the speed limit just because you’re thrilled to feel the wind on your face for the promise of melty meaty goodness? What the fuck dude, don’t ruin this. It’s no longer about like everyone else, you just want to do things so you don’t hurt.

Time passes in this story, and you find yourself back in familiar spaces, but everything’s different because you’ve spent weeks in your head ripping out problems and installing new tools. It feels strange and foreign, the way it does when you take cold medicine, but when you’re not quite unconscious and drooling from it. You’ve talked to people, and they seem supportive, but you figure they just don’t what to tell you and you think that maybe if they say anything other than nice things you’ll shatter like a brittle pane of glass.

Still with me? Don’t worry we’re coming out of the bad part.

For a while, you give up perfect. It goes on some virtual shelf alongside the plans you’ll do “later” or when “you’re feeling up to”. This is a tremendous reprieve, as if two thousand tons just evaporated away, and in its absence, you find joy in things. Showering undisturbed (with hot water). Cooking. Fresh sheets. Even porn and croutons and clipping toenails become joyful. Perfect is on the shelf so it’s not something to deal with – you’ve got to get better before you can even have the mental energy to take on perfect. The activities you’d grade yourself a D in previously all turn into high A’s.

I better jump back to first-person here, because we’re up to the good part.

So I was rediscovering the small joys and feeling like some things didn’t hurt. I didn’t worry about my size. I didn’t worry about who I was going to date or who would kiss me or where I would go for some holiday months away. I just was wherever my feet brought me and I was doing whatever that moment needed me to do. Speak? Sure. Set up a conference room with tables that gave me wicked splinters? Yep.  The funny part was, without perfection hanging like a weight around my neck, I just didn’t care about anything other than expressing myself. Someone casually implies they’ve gone a long time without intimacy? Tell them how long it’s been since I had anything meaningful that wasn’t my own hand. Someone talks about what they want to do? Simply tell them that all you’d really like is a Coke and to sit very quietly. What they don’t know, or what you don’t think they can perceive is that you’re talking about activities where you don’t hurt. Where you don’t have to be perfect, you just want some physical attention, a Coke, or a place to sit down.

In doing all that, in letting go of perfect for a little while, I discovered something that I thought I compacted and buried away. I discovered how passionate I am about things and how when I can express that passion, I don’t hurt. Sometimes, and don’t tell anyone I said this, sometimes when I express passion, I’m even a little proud of myself.

Without lying, I can tell you that I never thought I’d connect with another person ever again that cold winter night in February. I thought that if I didn’t die, I’d forever be the puzzle piece that doesn’t belong in the box, but somehow ended up included. I never thought that being me, broken, really disliking myself and worn down from trying to catch perfectionism as it ran faster away would make anyone want to have anything to do with me. And I don’t just mean date me, I mean sit and talk to me. Hold my hand. Tell me it’ll be okay. Tell me they care.

I’m beyond lucky to be able to tell you that after all that perfection chasing, I finally found one of the things I have wanted since I was 19 and writing “JA + ??” in black sharpie on bunkbeds in a college dorm – I found a woman I truly and absolutely connect with, click with and mesh with. She listens. She cares. She supports. She laughs. She makes faces. She calls me on my shit. She loves me, and more and more every day I believe her when she says it.

Though, she isn’t perfect. See, I dated women before who I thought were perfect, either because they were so different from me, or because I inflated their appeal (boobs, butt, sexual prowess, access to stimulants, money, etc) to make them perfect. That’s not the case this time. She smokes. She has hobbies I don’t really understand or like sharing. She’s so fiercely her own person that sometimes I have to say out loud, “Let’s do something together.” She can’t even cook eggs. But for all those problems, for all those things that used to be reasons NOT to be with a person, here I am, about I-think-its-gotta-be-but-I-suck-at-math ten weeks into the most complete, communicative and healthy relationship I’ve ever had. It’s so unlike all the others – sex or booze or whatever isn’t the escape of problems, we talk instead. We make plans to do things. I actually leave the house and attend social functions. I wear shirts with buttons and I even catch myself saying, “I’d like to have _____ experience.”  She’s not perfect. Our relationship isn’t perfect, but it’s exactly what I need.

So on days like today, where I muck up work and feel like I can’t even show my head on social media (I do a pretty good job of John-shaming), I stop and figure out if what I’m doing is me looking for perfection again. And then, when I see that it is, because what I’m really looking for is praise and continued work relationships, I remind myself that some of the best things in my life have come when I put perfect on the shelf and just did whatever the moment needed of me.

I don’t know if I’ll always be able to say I can do this. I don’t know if I’ll even remember writing this much about it come next winter. But I can do it now, and I see the dividends it’s paid me. I have made new friends. I have found another human I can share my life with. I leave the house and do stuff. I get hugs. I laugh again. I take on challenges rather than run.

Another benefit is professional. I fell apart and rebuilt my life and found that I really want to do more things and take on more challenges, because I see my friends getting new amazing opportunities and I’m envious. And it’s a lot healthier for me to say, “I want to try and have something like that happen” than say, “Something like that will never happen to me.” Because eleven weeks ago, I never would believe anyone if they told me I was going to make a joke combining sex puns and game mechanics and have that catapult forward into a stable, communicative anything, let alone a deep and meaningful partnership with an amazing person.

Routinely I hear, “You don’t have to be perfect, you have to be you.” This is hard for me, because I’m not always a fan of myself, and I get really critical about myself. But being me means I get to admit that rather than hide from it, and with that admission comes more freedom from expectations that I have to be a certain way or do certain things or reach certain milestones in life to measure up to others. It’s done wonders for my writing voice, and while I’m writing less frequently, I’m writing for longer stints when I do. The reason I’m writing less? I’m doing more – I’m editing more, I’m consulting more and I’m looking for new opportunities to reach writers and schools and students and anyone who will listen. I think that’s a pretty good trade, when I remember to put perfect on its shelf.

My advice to you, wherever you are, whoever you are, is to remember that you are greater than perfect. You are not measured by what you do or don’t do well. You define your own measurements. And do your best, even if only for a few minutes everyday, to put perfect on its shelf and find something or someone you enjoy and engage with them. Talk to that person. Play a game. Turn up some music. Eat something. Walk outside. You don’t need perfect over your shoulder. You don’t have to be perfect, you have to be you.

Happy writing and being.

The Cycle of Praise, Competition and Insecurity

Let’s put ourselves in a very large comfortable room. It’s a writing seminar. You’ve paid money to come here. You’ve made all these travel and work arrangements. You have waited for this seminar for weeks. You’ve got a charged laptop, some pens, a legal pad and a bottle of water – everything you need to take notes or do whatever’s asked of you in this seminar.

Let’s go one step further and say that I’m not giving this seminar, that Published Author X and Author Y are. Published Author X is a big deal. They’ve got a lot of books to their name, they write a popular blog, they have loyal fans. They play up the role of cantankerous maverick, equal parts grouch who hates “the establishment” and practical rebel who occasionally fires off big, shouty rants. Published Author Y has fewer books to their name, is less angry and ranty, and could be mistaken for aloof. Author Y isn’t terribly practical, and is known for stressing the importance of theory and frequently references academic sources and studies and papers while Author X is ten times more likely to cite their own work.

Got it pictured? No, the genders don’t matter. No, the location doesn’t matter. Make it ideal. Make your supplies infinite.

Now, put me in the back of the room, Obi-Wan Kenobi Force Ghost style.

Use the words, Luke.

Use the words, Luke.

Ready?

Author X and Y tell you that this seminar isn’t just going to be them talking to you, but they want you to write and they’re going to move around the room and check your progress. This might freak you, but they cage it as “a chance to get help from experts”. So you smile and start writing.

The first hour goes past. They move through the room, and while they haven’t gotten to you yet, you can hear what they’re saying to others. People look upset, dejected and disappointed. A few tear up. Someone loudly stormed off behind you. Author X and Y both say to keep writing.

The second hour rolls along, and it’s your turn. Author X comes over, asks to see what you’re writing. They scrutinize it, and call over Author Y. They both look at it. You might ask questions, but all you get out of them are the non-answers of “Hmm” and “Oh.” Their faces are a mix of frustration, constipation and that face your old neighbor makes when the kids up the block are too loud. Seconds stretch. Then they speak.

It’s not bad, could be better, I guess.” and “Well, yes, it could be better, but it’s, you know, alright.” It doesn’t matter who says what. Their answers are vague and deflating. (If this isn’t deflating enough, insert your own pair of really uncomfortable sad things).

Now the question becomes – do you stay and try harder? Do you head out the door? Did you just waste your time? Are you disappointed?

Sadly, that scene happens in some variation to a lot of people. They come to a seminar looking for something more than the inspiration they get just from reading a post, they come for more than the awkward guilt or shame of knowing they could do more or do it with less difficulty. I believe that people come to a seminar or a workshop or a convention looking for answers or a route to whatever their next step in their journey is. They have questions they need answers for, they need feedback on their progress, they want to hear what they can do, how they can do it better and what they should avoid or work on not doing.

How Praise Helps The Writer

Writing is a solitary and often emotional activity. We accept a lot of risk in the production of what we create, often enduring lengthy periods of rejection or lengthier periods of anticipating/expecting rejection and feel a deep attachment to the characters, the stories and the ideas. We generally write by ourselves, sitting at tables and desks and often with a schedule that differs from everyone else’s comings and goings. It’s an activity that puts you in your head, drawing the story out and onto the page. Sure, you might get up and complain at your pet or potted plant about how the scene is or isn’t working, sure you might argue with coffee pot or ice dispenser when you can’t quite get something right, and yeah, I guess you might sit and write with your spouse or significant other on the couch over there folding laundry and staring (why can we always feel them staring?) at us while we type frantically away. When the bulk of creation is internal (meaning in YOUR head), there’s not a lot of praise. We’re slow to praise ourselves, maybe we grew up that way or we just had poor role models for praise, or like me, you were told that praise is short-lived and really only given when you “truly” deserve it … but never get told the conditions when you deserve it.

Little Praise, Then What?

Back in our imagined seminar, let’s go back to the Authors X and Y standing over you. We’re going to talk about the actual standing part in a second, but go check out their faces. The tension in the eyebrows. The pursing of lips. The somewhat blank stares. We’re taught at an early age (and through stressful experiences develop) to read faces for signs of danger or upset, and sometimes for some of us those systems are built on bad code. For me, if I can’t immediately register a positive response, I assume the super negative. I’m pretty sure a lot of people fall along that negative part of the spectrum if they’re creative.

Criticism might come from other people, but we define it. At the most basal, all Authors X and Y are doing are opening faceholes and passing air over cords in sound patterns. Our brains have to process those vibrations as sounds we know, then further process them into speech, then go one more step to put them into definitions and draw conclusions. Try thinking about that while listening to someone tear you a new one over the phone, or getting yelled at by a boss at work. It’s sound waves. The definitions at the end of that chain of brain processes? That’s up to you.

I’m not saying you should disregard what someone says, but I am saying to consider it before you lock onto the negativity of it. I’m also not saying you should jump the gun in the other direction and assume they hate it because they’re jealous of you. That’s a possibility, but no more so than your piece needing work or them being unable to properly express themselves and be able to maintain their personas and egos.

So What Can I Take Away From This?

Okay, let’s talk a little about this room we’ve imagined. See how you’re sitting and their standing? And how they’re standing over you when they walk around? We’re wired to accept them as authority figures. It’s how teachers interacted with as children. It’s how parents used to tower over us as we toddled about. Some of us tend to question authority and rebel and chafe at it, but most of us all get a sense that the standing person, the leader-person is more knowledgeable than we are.

This is not necessarily true. They might be more knowledgeable, as knowledgeable, or less knowledgeable than us. They’re just people. They do the same things we do. They’re fallible. They poop. They forget their keys and spill things and put off doing chores just like we do. They are human.

Yes, they’ve been published. They might have been doing this activity longer than you. They might have learned some things you don’t know and be able to help you do things you had trouble with before. On that basis, give them respect. But do not confuse respect for surety. This is not a case where you follow them into the mouth of hell. This is where you accept what they say then choose how you want to interpret it. No, you don’t get to be a dick about it, you do so graciously and sincerely.

“Thank you for [the feedback]. I appreciate you bringing that up.”

Don’t deliver that quote in that passive aggressive tone like you’re all sarcastic or worse, “killing them with kindness”. No, I mean really sit there with your feelings, compose yourself and thank them for saying whatever.

The Magic Trick

Okay, so Author X and Y? What you know of them are some facts (they’ve published books, they have a certain persona online, they’re hosting this seminar) and some abstracts (their personas, any emotion you believe them to have). You give them those abstracts. You project that. That’s stuff from you to them. In short: you expect them to be a certain way, they’re either going to act in accordance with that (live up to it) or you’re going to filter and color what they did or said to fit that expectation. We’re human. We do this. We expect the controversial person to be controversial, and when they’re not, we either claim the actions as poking fun at normal or we suffer a disconnect and have to change how we feel. We expect the aloof-looking person to be rude and we prep for it, and don’t give them a fair shake.

(Wait, the person I imagined WAS rude. So, yeah, they gets no fair shakes.)

The magic trick is that these people aren’t experts. There are no experts. There are people who have found ONE way to accomplish a goal, and there are people who are still looking. Instead of looking to duplicate what they did, look for your own path to goal accomplishment. Their path is not and won’t be your path. And only some of their advice is going to help you. Discern. Think for yourself.

Then What About Competition?

Stay in that imagined seminar, but I want you to add something to it. Picture the first things that come to mind when you read this phrases: legitimate publishing, traditional publishing, real writing success. A lot of people, upon coming across those words think about agents and editors and big offices and books going on bookstore shelves. For a long time that WAS publishing. Over time, we’ve seen a lot of different ways to get written things into the hands of people who want to read them. These new methods are different than the old methods for a lot of reasons – different end product, different steps in the production chain, omission of gatekeepers, whatever – but assuming the old method is “legit” and the new method isn’t is a lot like assuming the author at the front of the room holds some exclusive knowledge and has to decide if you’re good enough to know it. For me, that’s not legitimacy. That’s exclusion, and a loss of my control over my craft.

When teachers or agents or editors or publishers promote scarcity or exclusivity as a proof of legitimacy, they’re reinforcing the behaviors that deny praise and encouraging the anxiety and presumption of wrongness. First of all, they’re the decision-makers for that legitimacy. That makes the assumption that the person you impress speaks or has knowledge about what your audience likes. I might have been occupied for much of the day, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t vote this agent/editor person the power to determine what I like. They’re ONE person. If they don’t like your work, find someone else.

In our virtual seminar, look at the other people. You might think they’re all currying for Author X and Y’s favor, and you might think they’ll get it before you, but that assumes you’re not good enough to be liked. Now, let’s really shake things up. What if you didn’t buy into it? What if you didn’t write like you’re competing? What if there was no competition?

That's some deep shit, John

That’s some deep shit, John

There is no competition. None. Not because you’re better than they are, or they’re better than you are. They write. You write. You all have the same goal: to get your work out into the hands of people who want to read it (ideally in exchange for money).  Yes there’s scarcity in some models of publishing. But not in all of them. There are plenty of ways to accomplish that goal, why get rigidly attached to one? Yes, there’s a lack of praise all over the place. Negative feedback outnumbers (but not necessarily outweighs) positive feedback. We’re quick to give low reviews to things so that people can see how superior we think we’d be and so that we can get a moment of spotlight by sharing that negativity.

Can We Be Positive?

Yes, I hear you, you check out blogs and leave positive comments and tell people you’ll buy their books and you retweet and favorite their tweets. You promise you’ll talk to them when you finish your work. You tell your friends all about the books. That’s nice, but that’s the tip of the positive iceberg.

I am here to sink your Titanics of negativity.

I am here to sink your Titanics of negativity.

The 80% under the surface can be split into:

30% you learning something from what they’ve written (a model for dialogue or character or tension or something), 50% you writing. Yeah, you’re not going to escape that writing part. Sorry. It’s why we do this. But you can thank them. And not just, “OMG I <3 ur bookz! nbd tho” (or however the kids say that, I think I forgot a “squee” or something). I mean track down a method contact longer than a tweet and drop them a note. Tell them how their book got you through a rough part of your own writing. Tell them how you really enjoyed spending your lunch breaks escaping your hated job by exploring the world they made. Tell them how a character’s strength gave you hope when things looked bleak. Tell them how a moment in the story moved you.

It just got real dusty up in here, didn't it?

It just got real dusty up in here, didn’t it?

Put your guts out there.  See what you get back. You’ll be surprised to see what not being a negative fuckhole can give you.

The Cycle Has To End

If there’s little praise, then we are competing for it, then we’re not focused on getting guts on the page – we’re trying to divine what will please the praisekeeper – and they might be some fickle people. Snapping that cycle is as easy as looking at what you’re writing, remembering why you’re writing it and being aware that you (not others) are in charge of it. Yes, you can hand it off, but only do so to the people you know share the same intensity of care and enthusiasm you do. And when someone rains on your parade, understand that you don’t have to quit on account of storms. They pass.

Happy writing.