The Indiana Accords

I started drafting this post in the car during the twelve hours I spent hauling myself and a car full of stuff from Indiana post-GenCon to New Jersey, so if it’s a bit incoherent, it’s because I drafted it out loud in 45-minute chunks throughout Ohio and Pennsylvania.

As I’m told repeatedly, you can’t manufacture moments, you can’t force or make them happen, they’re a confluence of circumstance and things lining up with some coincidence. And every time I hear it, as you’d expect, I think that might be the third most-maddening thing someone can say to me, because what’s basically being said is that you can’t control a moment, and lacking control is one of those things that doesn’t go so well for me. I like control, I like order, and I like being charge of me and what I do.

So of course I love moments, and I chase them, because whatever’s uncontrollable and just out of reach is always the most desired thing.

I spent much of GenCon on a sly pursuit of moments. I wanted there to be little crystallized pockets of experience with specific people. To go to a meal with this or that person. To hug that person. To tell this other person I had missed them. To have, just between the two of us these little bubbles where nothing else mattered.

Now go contrast that with how badly I wanted to speak to rooms with 100+ people and make them all laugh and nod and walk out of the room thinking and feeling and energized.

This is the duality I think a lot of people struggle with, and my own struggle with it transcends the specific knowledge of writing craft of story development. It should, frankly, be bigger than what I know about query letters or marketing or dialogue, because life is more than the total of what you know, it’s the expression of what you know in way(s) that build(s) a bridge between you and the next person.

GenCon this year was about building a whole lotta bridges and moving away from demanding there be a-moment-or-else-right-now-goddammit.

See, there was this woman in the audience on Friday at my last panel of the convention,  I remember exactly where she sat: a row back from the front, on the the interior aisle. She wore a green dress, had dark hair, and kept her hands in her lap a lot. I don’t say any of this in a creepy way, I’m saying this because this woman changed the trajectory of my weekend, my plans, and my entire outlook on what I do.

It was a panel on setting goals and not giving up, and it had okay attendance for a Friday afternoon panel. Of course I would have liked to see more people in the room, but it’s okay, the people who were there were the ones meant to be there. And there was this woman. I cannot for the life of me remember her name, I’m not even sure she said her name, but I remember she was a seamstress, a costumer, and she was nervous.

Now I don’t know if she was nervous because she was asking a question of three people on a stage who had microphones or if she was just nervous in general, but she sticks out so sharply in mind. Now I’m going to paraphrase our interaction:

Her: I’m a costumer, and what do I do when I get discouraged about what I’m doing? I know the flaws in my work, and how do I keep going and doing this this when I know it’s  going to be tough and have problems?

Me: Tell me what you love about costuming.

And it was right there, everything turned. It was like a light switch flicked on her soul and she wasn’t this nervous person who sat quietly and timidly, she was this person who loved a thing and was excited about a thing and it mattered to her.

Her: I love that I can make a dress, an outfit, something out of nothing, and it’s really good and I love doing it, I love how it looks, and the work that goes into it because it’s fun and it makes me happy.

Me: Remember that every time you feel like it’s too hard. Can you do that for me?

Her: Yes. Thank you so much.

There was something about this reaction, this conversation, that wiggled its way into my brain and it took a long time the rest of the weekend to sort itself out. It wasn’t a bad thing, it was a great thing, the best of things, and I couldn’t stop seeing in my head.

The look she had on her face when she described how costuming made her feel. The eye contact when she said she could remember that. The way I asked her if she could do that for me.

Boom.

Moment.

See, up until that point, all the panels I was on were there to give information ahead of ego stroke. Yes, I’ll cop to it, I love the sound of my own voice, yes I love the fact that people come up and thank me. I love attention and I love the fact that I’m smart and good at a thing. And I know that this is not the healthiest space to constantly be submerged in for four days. I don’t want to be “on” for a whole weekend because it makes me an insufferable asshole who doesn’t relax and who is generally unbearable to be around. I’m conscious of that, and I wanted to avoid doing that.

But in the absence of that, I was feeling really lost. And when I feel lost, I try to focus on things that make me feel grateful, and things that make me feel like I still matter, because of course I need to ride the pendulum swing from it’s-all-about-me to I-don’t-matter-at-all and back again.

I look at the people who inspire me: here, here, and here (for starters) and one of the dominant feelings I take away is that they’re aware of the bigger audience, but they’re not talking to the group telling us that blessed are the cheesemakers, they’re speaking to each person one-on-one.

One-on-one, even when there’s this group.

One-on-one, just like the costumer and her question.

One-on-one, just like how a moment …

Boom.

Again.

The moments I felt best were not the moments where the whole room laughed or the whole room looked up at me. Those were nice, but they couldn’t touch the moments where a single person came up and said something nice.

Going forward, I’m committing myself to putting the one-on-one ahead of the group.

I’ll panel the hell out of everything every chance I get because I’m comfortable when I’m talking and teaching and encouraging, but I want anyone who comes in the door to feel like it’s just me and them.

I’ll put out videos and audio where the priority is one-on-one because that’s where the good connectivity and truly helping someone lives. Me talking to and with you. Not at you. Not over you.

And I’ll coach and edit with this same conversation, this same discourse in mind, because as a client, it’s me and you, riding to the end.

Because when I say I believe in you, I believe in YOU. You, person reading this. You, person wondering if they should get something edited. You, person who isn’t sure if coaching will help them. You, right there.

Let’s talk. Let’s work. Let’s get better and grow good things and expand and throw light out against the dark and be happy and make great stuff. Let’s be awesome.

Don’t you dare give up.

Happy creating.

Filling Your Notebooks

My brother and I aren’t very big gift people. Sure, we’ll spend money on other people, but for ourselves and each other, we don’t really go for it. For years we’d skip each other’s birthdays or christmases, maybe making a token effort if a parent or someone else prodded us with guilt.

That changed a bit in the last few years, as our financial situations and personal situations evolved. My brother moved away and got an amazing job with stable income. I got clean and sober and treated. It’s two different kinds of stability, I guess.

But we started giving a shit about gifts, when budgets (mostly mine) could stand it. Now it wasn’t just “hey I got you a gift card” it’s “I got you this one gift card for this one thing that I know you value because your time is precious to you.” We don’t make a big show of trying to do that gift thing that maybe happens near you – there’s a great big production made of showing off how much you can afford or how much you know the person values it, as if the being seen giving this gift is more important than the why you gave the gift.

This year was a slightly better year than expected financially. I can’t say it was the best, but I ended the year with a few checks that got me a bit of cushion during the holiday season. I wanted to get my brother something nice, so my mom and I pooled some resources to get him a few housewares and some fun stuff.

What he got me was a complete set of moleskine notebooks. Here they are on the desk beside me as I write this post.

Probably one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.

Now if you’ll notice, there’s still plastic wrap on two of them. And up until about two minutes before I started writing this post, there was plastic wrap on a third.

It meant a lot to me that he got me notebooks. That on some level it was him recognizing that I do a lot of thinking and writing and notation, so notebooks are a perfect gift. I really appreciate these gifts.

I appreciate them so much, I feel like I don’t have ideas worthy enough to put in them. As though I haven’t earned the privilege and honor to use these pieces of paper because none of what I have done to date is “good enough” to be immortalized in these little notebooks.

Sure, I’ll save it to one of a dozen thumb drives or a portable hard drive or Dropbox like it’s no big thing, but there’s … something suddenly more concrete about writing it down in a notebook. That’s what I want to talk about a little today.

Initially, I didn’t unwrap these things because I was too busy telling everyone how much they meant to me, that it was just really nice to carry them around in my bag. That it was one of those elusive “Writer Bucket List” items where I got to carry a moleskine.

And after I think everyone got sick of me saying I was grateful, the shock of it set in. And up until about 5 minutes ago, I couldn’t express that shock beyond just saying that I didn’t think I had an idea good enough to go in them.

See, the other issue I have with them is that they’re finite. There are only so many pages to each notebook. Space in them is precious. The digital stuff, that’s practically infinite, because I can Ctrl+N a new document out of the ether and because the content in a document disappears when I tap the Backspace. That digital space seems infinite.

It’s in that gap, in that difference, that the paralysis lives. We see it in other places: people who say they’re going to pursue a resolution or a lifestyle change versus those who do the work or in politicians who make campaign promises and then upon election act wholly different.

We all possess the ability to talk a big game and make these big plans, but when we have to act on it (hell, even our language speaks to it in an aggressive way, when push comes to shove), there’s not just the inertia of activity to overcome, but there’s this whole ocean of doubt – is my idea good enough, am I going to get rejected, is this going to fail, am I wasting my time and energy, will it matter, do I matter?

So here these notebooks sit. Only one of them has any info in it. One of the smallest ones has four addresses written in it – all possible places to eat. I could have done that on my phone, so why did I write that down, but I can’t crack into the larger books?

Because the little notebook is about the size of the post-it notes I often write things down on. It doesn’t have the same weight (psychologically) that the bigger books do. It’s practically disposable, and I’m sure if I left it in my jeans pocket and it went through the wash, it would be disposed of.

Maybe for you, you don’t have these notebooks. Maybe you don’t have a stack of physical products in actual shrink wrap. Maybe you come at this from another direction – maybe for you, the act of typing your idea up and saving it as a file has more heft to it than the scribbling you do in that little notebook you keep tucked somewhat away. Either way, an idea becomes more real when it is made more concrete.

One of the toughest things we can do as a creative is make the idea (something intangible, it lives in our heads and dreams and we can describe it, but it’s hard to share exactly and precisely) into something tangible. But we have to do it. We have to find a way to do it.

But, you ask, having read the 1024 words that precede this one, what about those questions of doubt and possible future rejection? What if I type my MS up and it gets rejected, what if you write down an idea in that notebook and it doesn’t pan out, haven’t we both wasted time and stuff?

There are two  points lurking under the water here.

a) That you’re saying your time is wasted if you do a thing and it’s not perfectly received, and you need to know how a thing is going to be received before you do it

b) That if the idea gets rejected then you’re a failure, so writing it down hastens defining/discovering/confirming that you’re a failure

Look how precarious that is. Look how they’re both points about control – In (a) you need to control the future so that you can control how you spend your time and effort and in (b) you need to control how you’re thought of or labeled by other people.

All because of writing something down! That’s how we got to these two points.

I can name on one hand the number of people I’ll show the contents of these notebooks to. They’re not going public, I have a blog and Twitter for that. Now, yes, maybe later, an idea from a notebook will make its way to some other medium where other people will see it, but as the notebook, not so much.

You cannot control how other people perceive your efforts, and naturally, yes, you don’t want your first draft to set the standard for how we regard later drafts (though isn’t it interesting we treat first impressions of people so seriously?), but you can’t make the people like you to such a degree that they’ll never have a bad thought of you – you’re not in charge of them and their thinking. The best you can do is be you, and be the kind of you that makes you feel best while inspiring others to feel and be their best, all while everyone is doing the stuff that makes them feel good and inspires others to go do stuff too.

We all live with, we’ve all adopted, this notion that we’re seconds away, one tweet, one draft, one email, one pause, one word away from another human finding out that we’re undeserving of their love and help and attention and respect because of what we do, who we are, who/what we love. We all have this feeling, and we all perpetuate this idea that we’re the only one who has this feeling, that it’s unique to us.

It’s not. It might not always take the same form with every person, but the feeling isn’t just yours. This one version is bespoke to you for a variety of reasons, but we’re all there.

We are who we are, and we’re never undeserving of love and respect and care and attention and help. No matter what we make, who we love, where we go, how we are, what stuff we do. We might not all agree on things, we might present each other with differing points of view or ideas that don’t fit neatly with other ideas, but we’re all capable of existing in a world where there are multiple people and multiple ideas. I checked.

So open your notebooks. Write down that stuff. Make the transition, one step at a time, to doing something more than worrying about whether or not you’re good enough. Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll all find new reasons to keep thinking we’re going to be revealed as impostors later, but for right now, let’s just take a few seconds to take some steps forward.

Here’s mine.

I think that’s a pretty good start, don’t you?

Happy creating. One step at a time.

Why You Need To Promote Your Own Stuff

Would you believe this is the third attempt at an opening? Or maybe that I’ve already tried everything from imagining a conversation to a start with some fire like this was a Killer Mike mixtape, and nothing so far has seemed to capture that intersection between why I feel you need to understand this and how I think you can and should approach it?

Okay, here we go.

If there’s a Family Feud big board of topics that come up in my conversations with writers, one of the top three answers on the board has to be “I’m not very good at marketing, I don’t want to market my stuff, and why do I have to market it

Yeah, I know. That’s three things all by itself, but let’s just assume this is a really wide Family Feud board, and maybe Steve Harvey is shot in IMAX or something. (don’t picture that or googling it, please)

What I’m going to talk about now is that I think if you’ve ever said that trio of ideas, I think what this all boils down to is this – you don’t want to take the risk of promoting a thing and getting either no response or worse, a backlash.  We can dress that up with the notion that you don’t know how to do it, or that you don’t have money to spend on it, but I’ve talked to people who do know how to do it, and I’ve talked to people who have the money, and it comes down plain and simple to that fear of rejection.

So let’s take a second and point out that it’s entirely okay to be afraid of the possibility of rejection or the ignoring of your efforts. That’s a thing that can happen. But there’s an equal chance of it being not-rejected or not-ignored. Because you haven’t done the thing yet, there’s a 50/50 shot. Them’s good odds, honestly.

But oh no, you’re saying from whatever seat you’re in while you read this, you need there to be this one kind of response in order to be worth the trouble and effort. It’s not enough just to get 1 sale, you need 100 sales, or 1000 views, or 16 reviews or whatever. There’s some hurdle to jump, some hoop to pass through, some point you have to surpass in order to give yourself the permission to entertain the idea that you’ve succeeded.

Applesauce. Horsefeathers.

The nice thing about setting up those hoops is that it gives you something to point to when you don’t achieve it, and it becomes something a bit more concrete every time you fail, so that you get to stay in that bubble where you’re not good enough and can’t-ever-be-so-long-as-X-or-Y-or-Z-is-a-thing. Rather than loosening up on the self-imposed mandate that you need to hit some particular target to justify yourself, you double down, and that ratchets up all the pressure and tension on the situation. Which, and I don’t know if you know this, isn’t actually conducive to you being in a headspace where you can produce at the level necessary to reach the target. The notion that “pressure bursts pipes and makes diamonds” (which is a mixed metaphor) is great when you want to be known for pressuring yourself in order to produce, rather than getting yourself known for what you produce.

Too often we assume the worst is going to happen, particularly when something is more out of our control than in our control. And audiences are very much out of our control. We can’t make people act a certain way forever, we can’t make everyone conform, we can’t accurately predict the vastness of potential in response and its degrees.

This isn’t to say we have to be desperately grateful for every .000001 of every percent of every metric, as if we’re only good enough to warrant getting that much. You’re not. You deserve whole numbers. You deserve actual recognition. But that’s gotta start from within yourself and then radiate outward so that it can come back to you at all.

Being “bad” at marketing and promotion is something you can improve. Write more tweets, learn how to take 140 characters and get your idea across. Write readable blogposts. Learn 2 format, newb. If you’re writing ads, you can practice your salescopy. These are all skills that you can improve, with practice. Which means investing the time, and then following that up with money AFTER you feel more comfortable doing it – there’s loads of free ways to promote yourself and what you’re doing, so long as you’re willing to put that pressure building gotta-hit-this-one-target stuff to one side.

Marketing is as much about setting up expectations (in others) as it is about managing your own. When you write the copy, the tweet, the blog post, the whatever, going into it with the idea that “like everyone I know is gonna see this and love it, and then I’m gonna get like all the supporters and people will finally bring me what’s mine!” is a recipe for frustration when you realize that out of all the infinite possible responses you could get, you’ve set a very narrow gaze on this one particular one, and likely this one particular one requires a lot of other factors to align and move in specific ways and times. Basically, you’ve tried to control so much of the uncontrollable and unknown that you’re ensuring more frustration than success if it doesn’t go how you want.

Let’s talk about success. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that part of success is defined on your own terms, and that chasing other people’s definitions often keeps people from reaching their goals while mistakenly enforcing some notion that they’re “humble and hungry.” So let’s make it clear here – your success comes on your own terms. You don’t have to meet someone else’s criteria in order to be happy, because it is not your job to please them.

Other people can have their metrics and their ideas of success, and they can go apply them to their own efforts. Maybe their metrics and barometers are great, and by all means, you’re free to employ them if you like, but you’re not beholden to them.

Managing your own expectations means not only assuming the worst is going to happen. Expectations aren’t just two extremes, and I urge you to stop and take a deep breath before you go do a thing where expectations are involved – Are you assuming total failure? How high is the bar set? Take responsibility for your expectations.

And in that responsibility, I tell you to go one further. You’re the best resource to talk about your creation, because it came from you. In addition to being able to talk about what it is, you can also talk about the process, the emotions, and the decisions you experienced while you made it. When you rely on other people to talk about your stuff (like when you put your eggs in that basket where you expect a publisher to do the heavy lifting of making people aware of your book, but we’ll get there in the next paragraph), any information they have is secondhand – you’re the primary source, and if you’re truly proud of what you’ve made, why wouldn’t you want to talk about? (This is where, again, I point to expectations assuming failure and then point back to that 50/50 earlier)

There’s nothing wrong with having other people assist you in getting the word out about what you’re doing. It’s super helpful to you. It builds bridges, it makes connections, it strengthens networks. It helps create and direct the flow of positive information.

This is your creation, whatever it is, and you need to get out in front with it. Show it the hell off. Even if you don’t want to make it about you because you’re worried that who you are is somehow a disincentive to enjoy what you’ve made (and frankly I’m not sure if that says something about your ego or your work’s quality), make it about the work. What it is, what it means to you, what you are trying to do with it, all that good stuff. Put the focus where you want it to be. You get to the control that.

Several writers I’ve spoken to in the last eight months have talked to me about when they make it “big” (meaning: get traditionally published), they’ll be really relieved that they won’t have to do anything other than just write the books. I’m going to put on my Managing Editor of a successful publisher hat (shout-out to ParvusPress! airhorns! other celebratory sounds you can imagine!) and tell you straight –

A creator has to work even after the creation is made.

There are blog tours, there are interviews, there’s tweets to make, there’s people to email, there’s a lot of work that the author does. This is in addition to what happens on the publishing end, which is setting up all those things AND doing promotional stuff to aid the author in having a product that generate sales so that people earn paychecks. (You’re following @ParvusPress on Twitter, right? I’m just asking)

Maybe you’ve heard this before: If you want the rewards or results, you gotta do the work.

Marketing is no different, and everyone from Big-Fancy-Author-Number-Three to mid-list-Author-Eleven to random-creative-who-publishes-slash-fiction-about-Law-and-Order has to do SOMETHING (or more likely multiple somethings) so that people know that there’s something in the world they should check out.

It might not be easy, but it’s doable. And if you do it often enough, you’ll get better at it. Yeah, you’re gonna make mistakes, but it is through our mistakes that we can figure out what to improve so we can see better results.

You gotta do the work. And I believe in your ability to do it.

 

Happy creating.

Of Curses And The Nature Of Creating

So, it’s 2017. We’re about to face another monster of a year. Who knows what could happen. Meteor strikes. Twitter hashtags. Various grocery stores running out of ginger ale. It sounds like anarchy ahead. All the more reason to be creative and declare ourselves creators … but we’ll get there,

I used to think I was cursed. Not by some old lady on the outskirts of my town (why do old ladies always live on the edges of towns? Do they get better cell phone reception?), because I have always done my best to be nice to old ladies (in case they turn out to be the cursing type).

Instead, I assumed it was a vengeful former relationship breaking out the altar and making with the incantations. That’s probably incredibly presumptive and short-sighted of me, but when I look back at my life I measure it by the relationships I was in, and the work I was doing.

And for a long time, I wasn’t doing a lot of work. I worked, I did stuff, but I had this habit of looking over at what my friends were doing. They were doing big things, with big names, big money, and big ambitions. It made me feel about four inches tall. It made me feel inferior. I still struggle with a lot of those feelings, on the days when my body doesn’t want to cooperate and I’m asleep on a couch by 2pm because I just can’t keep myself upright.

I had to be cursed, or so I thought, because I was working, admittedly not very regularly or hard, but I wasn’t getting the same rewards as people who were working concurrent to me. Where was my success, I’d ask myself. Why am I not good enough to have enough money to buy things and be famous and be a big deal? What am I not doing that they’re doing?

And the answer was the work. (Hint: The answer is almost always doing to the work.) I wasn’t doing the work.

See, I thought I was cursed because that’s easier than admitting I wasn’t working efficiently, honestly, or productively. It’s easier to blame something outside ourselves than look at what we’re doing and assess our efforts as falling short. No one wants to stew in that marinade of self-defeating applesauce, so we just … don’t look at it. Like the dust bunnies under the bed.

When I say “working efficiently” I mean working in the best manner possible, playing to my strengths and my best understanding of HOW I work. That means writing in the mornings, and meetings with people in the afternoons, because it’s just enough social interaction to take the edge off my fight against loneliness, while also leaving me freed up to put words on pages and things.

When I say “working honestly” I mean working in a way that is accurate to what and how I’m feeling. Even before my heart started to want to kill me, even before I was aware of what I ultimately doing, I spent far too long trying to be like those friends of mine who I imagined swam in McDuck-ian money vaults because they were asked to write book after book, script after script, game after game. I was trying to be them to get their success, and then when it didn’t arrive for me, I spent a lot of time complaining and perpetuating that wish-cycle while looking longingly out the window at the invisible strands of success that wafted by my door like a cartoon dog tracking scents. I wasn’t being honest with myself. Those other people, whomever they might be, they’re not me. They have their own lives, their own issues, their own stories. Me trying to be like them isn’t going to make me have their successes. I have to be me, we all have to be ourselves, and we all have to live out our own stories, using and infusing them into our creativity. We must be honest with ourselves, not so that we can perpetuate some idea that we all suck, but rather that we have a package of skills and talents and feelings worth sharing, unlike everyone else’s.

When I say “working productively” I mean actually working, putting in that time and energy to make stuff. I spend and spent a lot of time hastily writing little piddly bits of text, a few lines at most, then I would say ‘I’ve written today, that’s enough’, just so I could go move on to something else. I’d flit and float through things working in these little chunks where I never really got up to a working speed and never really broke and efforting sweat. And that, dear friends, is some bullshit on a croissant. Think of this – you want to go to the gym to get into better shape. So you get some workout clothes, you find a gym you like, and you walk in. You even get on the treadmill and take a whopping three or four steps on it, before leaving for the day. That’s not working out. That’s not putting in enough effort and energy to help you reach your goal, which is what you have to do if you want that goal as badly as you say you do. For me, that means not just doing the work I have in front of me, but also going out and looking for more work opportunities. It’s not just about a few steps on the treadmill, I gotta get a-runnin’.

If there’s a curse in all this, it’s self-inflicted, and that’s the hardest part to stomach. I brought my lack of success on myself, and I perpetuate it every time I don’t put the time into the work. Success isn’t going to get dropshipped to my door just because I’m in the phone book (are phone books still a thing?), success is the result of effort done mindfully and skillfully, with a subset of that success often being financial gains.

Creativity is more than just a thing you occasionally bump into or catch a snapshot of. We tell ourselves that so we can perpetuate the idea that it’s hard to be creative, or that we’re supposed to struggle, or that we’re not good enough to succeed, etc etc. Creativity is always there, always a surging river, and we’re always able to ride it.

If I can ask you one thing, it’s this: I don’t want you to keep holding yourself back. You don’t have to struggle in order to be a “legit” artist or creative. The “starving” doesn’t make your work better. The idea that you’re not good enough to succeed at making a thing because of who or what or how you are is bullshit.

You’re you, and that’s fucking great.

So let’s be us. You be you, I’ll be me. And let’s make stuff. Let’s not anchor ourselves to the fearful ideas that we have to be this-cool-to-do-the-thing, and let’s put aside the curses and “supposed to”s that we’ve dragged along on this ride so far.

Let’s go make stuff. Make it when it’s tough, make it when it’s scary, make it when you’re scared. Make it when the world seems like it’s 140 characters away from global hellscape. Make it because you have the ability to express yourself. Make it because you deserve to have your voice, your idea, your passion, your created thing, out into the world.

Because you’re you, and that’s fucking great.

 

It’s not just Happy Writing anymore, it’s Happy Creating.  I’ll see you soon. Don’t give up.