#ProjectCardiacPhoenix

We start with a medical update: Today has so far been a good day. I’m writing this with a blanket wrapped around me. The chest pain isn’t too awful. I’ve eaten something. I’m feeling up to writing this post. I have very little to substantially complain about.

My heart is for the moment stable. I’m responding to treatment, and doctors are hopeful I’ll continue to respond as well as I am, with my immune system holding strong and my bloodwork on the upside. This all gets punctuated with oxygen tanks and assistive devices, because while I’m declining, I’m not in the period of time the doctors refer to “The Decline”, which is the economics-sounding way of saying “the last few months of life.” I’m not there, I’ve got a few years between today and there.

I’m still not out of the woods, and frankly, short of miracles and transplant, I won’t ever be out of the woods. I’ve decided that if I’m going to be in the woods, I’m going to build a cabin there.

I want to introduce you to #ProjectCardiacPhoenix. The goal of this Project is to keep me going, not just financially, but also productively. One of the elements not often talked about with long-term illness (terminal or otherwise) is that it has a lot of downtime. You wait in a lot of offices, you wait for a lot of test results. You wait for things to change. And waiting is corrosive. Waiting is a forever-hungry beast with open jaws. It is corrosive to hope, which so often feels fleeting when you stack up all the medical updates, insurance bureaucracies, and physical issues.

See, one of the frustrating things, the gnawing mental shit, is that I’m 1000000% confident that I’m doing the best work of my career, lucky enough to do what I love to do for a living, and it’s just that the rest of my body is failing to keep up with my mind as it races along to being a better coach, editor, and writer.

I know so many of you have asked how you can help, and I have always struggled with guilt over giving you more than a polite answer, because I have felt like I was a burden to at least one other person since I was a small child. Now I’m an adult, and I still feel like a burden even talking about this, but as my excellent caretakers have all pointed out, “You need to do something while you can.”

Here are some ways you can help:

  • I’m releasing FiYoShiMo 2.0 all this month on my Patreon. It takes all the material of FiYoShiMo 1.0 (available here) and expands on it. I’m so proud of the work I’m doing. It’s this sort of material that I think is among my best, and I encourage you to support it (and the tweetstorms and me) by checking it out. I know I’m a few days behind, and I’m going to push out several days of content in one blast over the next few days.

  • Later this week, I’m going to add donation buttons to the site.

  • Share my posts and tweets with your writer friends, your creative posses, and your social media tribes. There’s a lot here and on Twitter that I think can really help someone.

  • In 2017, Noir World will be Kickstarted. If you’re a fan of film noir, role-playing games, or my writing, please check that out.

  • Consider coaching if you’re a creative unsatisfied with what and how much you’re creating. It’s not just for motivation or just for writing technique, it’s all that and then some. It’s designed to help you become a better writer and creative one hour at a time. And yes, writer’s block, publishing woes, query letters, and editing are all topics that coaching covers.

Let’s end with a bit of good news. I spent the morning talking to doctors and laying out plans to get insurance off my back somewhat, as well as sorting out the changes to my Obamacare and soon-to-be-Trumpcare-question-mark medical paperwork. Everyone, myself included, is in relatively good spirits.

Please, help #ProjectCardiacPhoenix in any way you can.

Why Am I Getting Rejected? Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

Cool? Then onward we go …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Post-Dreamation Post

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

 

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

Some Thoughts on Professional Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-Promotion Is Not Mayonnaise Or Clowns

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where To Start
We start with some rules.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I’ll include two precepts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next week.

The Hustle, 2016 edition

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

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

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

Yeah, I know, it can suck sometimes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get back to work. Hustle. Make it happen.

The Tease Of The Bookshelf

So, it’s Wednesday. Middle the week. Hump day. That day where I always feel like it’s too early to make weekend plans, but that if I don’t make those plans, I’ll let it go too far and miss out on something.

First, let me take a minute to thank all the new people who have come to the blog within the last few weeks. I am sincerely thankful for all of you, and if given a chance would write you all emails expressing how much it means to me that people even take a few minutes to read my words. My reach is never something I understand, but it is something I’m very eager to expand. Sort of like a toddler, or a small drunk dictator. I suppose there’s very little difference between the two.

Second, let me give you an update on #FiYoShiMo. If you’ll look at the toolbar, you’ll see a FiYoShiMo index page. That’s a whole list of links that will take you to each post in the month. Yes, I know day 2 is a pdf, but that’s because WordPress is a jerk, and I have no idea where the post went. The entirety of the posts exists now as an MS, which I’m busy polishing (read: fixing the internal links so they’re text, and formatting) and my next goal is to get it proofed and start querying. I’ll be putting everything from the querying process onward on the blog as a series of posts. It’s been far too long since I was in the publishing trenches, and I’d prefer to be in the thick of things and not upon some pedestal looking down. I may fail, I may succeed, but no one will be able to say that I didn’t try.

On we go to today’s topic, which was suggested to me via Twitter conversation. Maybe conversation is too broad a word, it was more: “Hey John, write something about this, I’m struggling with it.” And the good news is that I struggle with it too, so I’m going to spend some words expressing my own experiences. I’m hopeful you’ll find a parallel in your experiences. Maybe together we can work this out.

So I’m writing this from the upstairs office (read: the computer in my bedroom) of the house. I could have written this in the actual office in the house, but I didn’t. I could have written this on my phone, and then I wouldn’t have had to get up from the couch, but I didn’t. The majority of my writing takes place in this chair, on this machine, and it’s so ingrained me as a process that writing anywhere else feels awkward and even a little scandalous.

The problem with writing in this room (aside from the fact is that there’s no fireplace and no couch), is that there’s this bookcase on my right. It’s currently a post-holiday mess, as I haven’t filed away any of the new books I’ve picked up over the last month, and I haven’t cleaned up the spilled business cards from my last convention. It is an obelisk to and a microcosm of my writing career – crammed with material, often in need of organizing.

On those shelves are all the books written by the people who influence and inspire me. Some are friends. Some are authors deader than disco. Some are clients, or were once. I look at that bookshelf every few sentences when writing. Because it is one of the many lighthouses by which I orient myself. Yes, I have several in my life. We’ll talk about that some day.

That bookshelf is where I go when I need a boost. It’s there when I don’t know how to structure something, it’s there when I need a reference. All useful stuff. It’s a bookshelf, it’s a tool to aid me, and also it keeps clutter off my floor.

But stacked along with all my references and notes, is anxiety. And to be blunt about it, envy is a jerk. Anxiety is a huge fucking jerk, the amalgam of every bully, every blowhard, every abuser, every torturer you can imagine. And that’s because anxiety is armed with a barbed nagyka of self-doubt.

Anxiety uses it competently to flay the nerves, skewer assumptions, and scourge confidence.

And here’s how it happens.

So you’re writing, or you’re thinking about writing. Maybe there are words on the page, maybe they’re still forming semi-orderly lines in your head before they paratroop down screen or page. All things are going well. You’ve got something to drink. The dog doesn’t need to go out. The phone isn’t ringing. You’ve got a good playlist queued up. No one’s knocking at the door. It’s go-time, writer. Time to make the words happen.

In that instant, in that small moment of pause between one word and the next, you catch the faintest whiff of worry. You have words down, your fingers are dancing over keys, but the pace is slowing. The worry grows. The writing stops. Your stomach does a little toddler’s tumble. And so begin the questions.

Is this okay? Am I good enough to do this? Is this going to do alright? Will an editor shred this in their toothy maw? Will anyone buy this stuff? What the hell am I doing? Crack crack crack goes the flail. In those wounds, already festering and raw, more self-doubt seeps in. Until you’re comparing yourself to other people. Until your fingers aren’t on the keys. Until you’re unsure of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

Now this is even before we can talk about anxiety burgling its way into your head when you’re not writing. There’s material there for a dozen lifetimes of blogs by a thousand billion people. I’m looking at the panic, worry, and doubt that comes when the words are supposed to be coming out.

I look at my bookshelf, and see the names. Would I ever be as good as them? Would they recognize me as talented? Would they let me into whatever fantastic club I believe them a part of? Am I good at anything? Will I leave a legacy like theirs? Am I shouting into some void? Would I be better off moving to some orchard and picking fruit? (I bet I’d be a great orchardeer, or orchard caretaker, orchardtaker or whatever)

There was once I time where these thoughts would send me angrily to pull the shelf down, and throw the books every which way in the room. There was a time when I’d write a very large “Fuck Everything” on social media, or any media and just go play video games and sulk. That anger has been pulled from me, with regular leeching of comfort and wisdom. And I’m thankful. Because now I get to sit here and see the anxiety coming. Now I maybe know what to do about it.

See, I don’t know if I’ll leave a legacy. I have no idea if anyone but a few people will remember me when I’m gone, let alone remember me fondly. I have no idea if there’s a secret good-writer club. I don’t know if some of the people whose books are on my shelves know I exist.

It’s hard to say that I don’t care. Because I do care. I just try not to care so much. That’s not easy. I know it’s not easy. But it’s what I need to do to get my fingers back on those keys. It’s what I need to say to myself, over and over, even out loud, even at meals, even just before I post to the blog, so that I assure myself that these efforts aren’t lost.

No, no, this isn’t some blather where I’m seeking your praise. Sure, I’d love some right now, but I’m trying to be objective here, don’t you see? The answer to the anxiety is reassurance. We can debate whether it’s best from yourself or others later, the fact remains that reassurance from somewhere is often enough to kick anxiety to the curb.

So I look to my lighthouse again. And yes, there are plenty of writers to be envious of there. Book after book share the same names. But tucked between them, there are the books I worked on. The things I’ve done. My name may not be on many covers, but my name’s in there. Reassurance.

Here’s where you tell me, John, I’m just (WHOEVER YOU ARE)) and I haven’t been published. What good does your lighthouse do me? All I have are these books by other people, and I feel so small and insignificant.

And I will say to you – the act of writing is reassurance. Yeah, I know, it’s not as reassuring as being published, but I’ll tell you that plenty of people I know have been published more than once and they’re never coasting on some idea that they’ve “made it.” There’s that hunger, that drive, that hustle. (We’ll talk hustle Friday)

Do whatever you can to reassure yourself that what you’re doing, what you’re making, belongs on a bookshelf. Even if it’s your bookshelf. Maybe you go play with your kids when you’re done writing for the day. Maybe you go look at SpongeBob porn (I just found out that was a thing). Maybe you go into the backyard and stare at clouds. Maybe you play Spider Solitaire until your fingers cramp. Whatever you do, whatever balm you can provide yourself, go do it.

And then go write. One idea, one word, one step at a time. You lose your bearings, you look to that lighthouse, you look to that waiting reassurance, and you get back to writing.

Let’s make a deal. I’ll believe in you, you believe in me, and we’ll go shake anxiety down for its lunch money and buy tacos when we’re done writing for the day.

You’re good enough to do the amazing things. You’re good enough to write what you want. You might need help, it might take a while to write what you want. but you can do this.

Don’t give up. You’re not alone. (maybe I’m saying this as much to myself as to you) Go write.

See you Friday, when we talk hustle.

Some things to do now that you’ve read this post —
Check out the Google Community where you can congregate with other writers doing writer-stuff.
Want more John-words? Got a few bucks? Check out Smashwords.
Find me on Twitter, and see what I’m talking about today.

How To Hire and Afford An Editor

Good afternoon everyone,

I usually don’t write afternoon blogposts, but this post spawned from quite a few comments, emails, and tweets, and I think it’s really important that we’re honest about this stuff.

We’re going to talk money. We’re going to talk realities about writing. We’re going to talk about seriously making a go of being a writer. Let me start off by saying that I am not a definitive expert, I’m not saying my way is the best way in all the universe, I’m just going to tell you how I work, and arm you with knowledge so you can go forward, no matter where your writing life takes you. If that’s cool with you, keep reading. If not, I’ll see you Monday where we’ll talk about … something that I’ll figure out over the weekend.

In order to have this all make sense in an orderly way, you (the reader) and I have to agree on some stuff. What we’re going to talk about will be a hypothetical situation using real-world numbers, so while I may make up things like the name of a book, or a particular schedule, I’m using my actual rates and actual planning strategy. If this paragraph sounds vague, don’t worry, this will all make sense when we get into it. So let’s agree on some things:

1. You’ve written something that needs editing. Let’s say it’s 20,000 words. The genre or title doesn’t matter right now, we can make it up later.

2. You’ve selected to work with me out of all the editors you could have chosen. This is convenient because I’m the one writing this post. It would be super weird if I started writing about someone else.

3. You’re willing and wanting and interested in moving your MS forward. This isn’t some fact-finding mission where you’re dipping your toes in the water as you dilly-dally out of fear, you’ve committed to making this happen for yourself.

All set with those three things? Then let’s get to it.

How To Hire An Editor, and What An Editor Does

Step One: Email the Editor

This is a pretty straightforward step, but it’s a big one. It’s scary to do. Maybe the person won’t answer. Maybe they will. Maybe they’ll be a dick. Maybe they’ll brush you off because you’re new to this (I’m assuming in our example you’re new to this, is that cool?)

What’s the email look like? It’s polite, first off. It mentions your name, it addresses the person by their name (Mr./Mrs./First name/whatever title they like), it describes what you’re interested in doing without sounding like you’re a four-year-old desperately in need of a cookie before dinner. When you talk about your MS, you mention the word count and maybe the title. You thank them for their time, and you leave the door open for them to reach you when it’s convenient for them. There’s no template, but those are the basics.

Then you wait. You wait for the response, and hopefully it’s a positive one that moves things forward. The response usually starts a correspondence, a few emails get tossed back and forth, and during this exchange, that’s where you figure out if you can work with the person. You get a handle on how they treat you, you get to gauge their interest. There’s always going to be some element of uncertainty, there’s always going to be some part of your brain that isn’t wholly sure, but that’s where the next step comes in.

Step Two: Get a Contract, Give Your Manuscript To Them

Here’s the big part. Here’s the nervous part. Once you start to hash out that you want to work with this person, you’ll need to figure out how much it’s going to cost you, and when you want this work done by. Yes, this costs money. No, this isn’t free. Just like calling a repairman or going to a doctor isn’t free, getting your MS professionally worked on isn’t free. This is ideally a definitive step up from the work that a beta reader or a critique group can offer, as you’ll be getting more technical and more intensive advice. We agreed already that you’re serious about doing this, and it’s really a dick move to say you’re serious, get an editor all set up to work with you, then bail on it when the talk turns to money. This is someone’s job here, this is how they pay their bills, feed themselves or their families, and keep themselves going. Just because it has to do with this thing you make in your off-hours, lunch breaks and weekends while the kids are asleep doesn’t reduce it’s importance as a product of your hard work or theirs. They’re taking this seriously, and you should too.

The contract is anywhere from a page to a few pages long (Mine’s 4, if you count the glossary on the back page), and it has some critical elements to it.

a) It has the name of the editor and the name of the writer (this is actually important)

b) It has the name of the project

c) It has the word count of the project

d) It has the amount of money to be spent on this project

e) It has either one due date or a schedule of milestones, where X-amount of progress is made by a certain time (like 5k done every week for 4 weeks)

f) It has the method of payment spelled out (Paypal, actual paper check, money in an envelope to be handed over, whatever) and how that payment will happen (one lump sum, in installments, half up front, half at the end, etc)

g) It has a ‘kill clause’ which is a set of instructions that spells out what to do if this relationship between writer and editor doesn’t work out (this is usually a statement about how much is owed based on the work already completed, or a flat fee to cover time and work done)

h) It has a section on what exactly is being done to the MS (developmental edit, copy edit, changing every character into a poodle, whatever)

i) It has a statement on how the MS will be delivered and when/how comments will be made and given (as a Word *.doc, *.docx, a cunning use of flags, etc).

j) It has the dated signatures of everyone involved

If a contract is missing any of those things, don’t sign it. Ask for them to be put in. You can do that. You can also ask for anything in the contract to be clarified. You’re the client, you can have things explained to you, that’s not unreasonable or stupid, especially when you’re new to this whole process. Ask your questions. If the person balks at you for asking, don’t sign the contract.

If you’re looking at the above breakdown and saying “John, what about rights? Who owns the MS while it’s getting worked on?” I’m going to very patiently offer you a cup of tea and ask you who scared you about rights being lost. I know we can all find horror stories about people stealing work, and it can be scary to deal with legalities when you’re just a person who wrote a thing in Starbucks and while the laundry was on its rinse cycle, but please PLEASE promise me you’re not going into your writer-editor relationship with some notion that everyone is out to get you and steal your work. The vast majority of people don’t do that. If you ever ask me for a recommendation for someone to work with, anyone I send you to will never do that. I don’t do it. It’s bad practice. It’s awful living. If you do have that experience, I’m sorry. It’s not the norm. Don’t hold everyone to the bad example.  To the technical point, the work is yours and remains yours. I just looked at the contract I use, and while there’s a section about how it’s not my fault as an editor if you get a rejection letter, there’s no section that says I assume ownership of your MS while I’m working on it. Note: I’m not a lawyer, I know some though, and this can get discussed later if the need arises.

When you sign, you’re committing. And the editor is committing. If the situation changes, say more work needs to be done, get a new contract. If you need to change dates, get a new contract. If you’re going to change the arrangement in any way, get a new contract. It shouldn’t be a problem to have a new printed. If it is, if for some reason there’s any weird hinky sense that something’s amiss, feel free to exercise that kill clause and extract yourself from the situation.

That kill clause though is a two-way street. Yes, you’re hiring a person to do work for you, but they’re not your slave or story-puppet. You as a client can get fired too. Make too many unrealistic demands, fail to live up to your end of the deal, jump on social media and start trashing the person you’ve just hired to work for you, and you can very easily find yourself holding an unfinished manuscript, an invoice, and a curt letter telling you to suck some eggs. Both you and the editor are in this together, so it does neither of you any good to treat the other poorly.

If you’re cool with all that, sign the contract, send your MS over, and commence more waiting.

Step Three: Getting feedback

I think this is the part where people start drinking. I don’t drink, but I have heard from people that when you’re waiting for and when you receive feedback is when you crack open your preferred adult beverages and start heavy pours into large glasses.

Most feedback, at least when I do it, is in Comments and Track Changes, two functions of Microsoft Word. I like Word. It’s pretty universal, and while it has some flaws and hiccups, it does a better than decent job at highlighting things. Here’s are two examples of things I edited recently:

EDITEDTEXT01

EDITINGPASS01

(no, those examples were not written by the same person, and no they’re not part of the same MS)

So, this is what the editor does. They go through the document, a line at a time, a word at a time, and flag things. They chop sentences that need help. They leave comments as to why things get chopped, or why things need to be changed. Yes, your work is going to get all marked up. No, that’s not the end of the world.

Because you still have the ability to ignore the change(s). These are suggestions. Yes, they’re influenced by the editor’s experience and knowledge. Yes, they’re informed based on the context of the MS, but they’re still optional until you click Accept Change (this is an okay but not great picture of one way to do that, I tried to get a shot of the right-click menu, but couldn’t figure it out)

ACCEPTCHANGE

You retain an enormous amount of power in this relationship because you don’t have to accept every change suggested. Because the editor isn’t always right. You may have a context where you don’t want to change a particular word or phrase, you may have a good reason to use the word you did where you did when you did, and frankly, your ability to stand up for yourself and say “I’m good with what you’re doing except that one thing over there” is critical. Personally speaking, I’d make a face at you if you blindly accepted all my suggestions without at least reading them.

This process of comments and in-line changes is called “a pass”, and usually a number of passes happen while the editor is working on the document. The number varies on a few factors like how much work the MS needs (if you bring something that’s early in development, assume it’ll take more time), the timeline, the word count, and the type of editing that’s happening (there are more factors, this isn’t a comprehensive list). Every editor is different, so mileage varies. I usually do 2 to 3 passes, looking at a different aspect each time. The first pass is almost always big ticket items like plot and description and structure, but later passes zero in on things like characters and word choice and plot pacing.

Passes happen, lines of communication stay open between editor and writer (no, neither of you get to fall off the face of the earth, sorry), until everyone involved is satisfied with the MS. Then it goes back to the writer who does with it as they planned to do. I cannot stress enough how important it is that everyone involved with an MS answer their damned email in a timely fashion. People who are unreachable are seldom worked with a second time, and since lots of editors and writers fraternize often, it’s tough to shake a label of “slow to respond” once it gets stuck on you. Answer your emails. Promptly. Fully. Honestly.

That’s the process. The whole process. Unmasked.

How To Afford An Editor

So, we’re going to say that our example MS is a 20,000 word part of a serial about a farmpunk syndicate of chicken and dairy farmers. Sure, that sounds pretty badass, let’s go with that.

You email the editor, and the math shakes out to this:

20,000 words X .03 cents per word = $600

Now you have your contract, and it says (I’m making it up here) you’ll pay $100 a week for 6 weeks. (Me personally? I usually do half up front, half at the end). How you get that $100, that’s up to you. Yes, it might mean you go a week without a rug shampoo’ed, or little Billy only gets to buy thirty things from Amazon not forty – sorry Billy.

I know $100 a week for 6 weeks is a lot of money. It’s money that comes maybe out of the fund that pays for mortgages or tuition or medical bills or rainy day savings. I know that it’s money earned through hard work, and you may have a lot of things in this world that take enough money from you already. I get it.

That doesn’t change the fact that this is what you want to do, and it’s the editor’s job to help make that happen. Because on the other side of the coin, it’s their job too, and this is how their mortgages, medical bills and whatever else get paid.

As a writer, you’re more than just the storyteller who types or writes. If you’re going an indie route of publishing, you’re also the publisher and marketer. Having your work edited is part of those publishing and production costs. It’s easier to market and encourage sales when what people are buying is less fraught with errors and is presented effectively. Editing helps turn your story into a book (margins also do, but that’s a different topic), and you want this to be a book, which is why you sought out the editor and signed that contract.

When you were working out the math on cost and payment, figure out a strategy that works for both of you. Yes, sure, you could pay a dollar a week for 600 weeks (that’s eleven and a half years, give or take), but while that’s super fair to you, how is that fair to the editor? And what does that say about how much you care about getting this work done?

Be willing to cut out that sixth latte a week. Question if you need to buy that third box of Cheez-Its, or that artisanal tissue dispenser. When you were serious about writing the MS, you made time in your schedule for it. Now that you’re serious about getting out into people’s hands, make room in your budget. It’s a sacrifice, but look at the rewards. Is the satisfaction of having a finished MS turned into a book that people can buy and say nice things about worth the spending of our example $600? That’s the choice you need to make.

Over time, I’ve stopped challenging everyone who balks at the cost of an editor. Some people just aren’t going to come around, because they’ll point to a college degree or a day job or kids or cats or a stamp collection as reasons they can’t afford an editor. Other people will just point blindly at any old reason, because some part of moving forward scares the snot out of them, and it’s easier to be upset at how expensive something is than it is to admit they might be scared about what happens next, and there’s a comfort in playing the familiar roles of “not good enough” or “victim” or “it’ll never work out for me”. I think it’s all a bucket of horsefeathers and applesauce, but people gonna people.

It’s my hope that this information helps you, it’s my hope that the 2700-something words here has de-mystified some elements of what happens post words-going-on-page. I don’t think publishing should be a scary hidden process behind curtains and in ivory towers. I think knowledge is for anyone interested and anyone who pretends like this is destroying “how things should be”  isn’t someone I want to have a root beer with. You there, reading this, you’re good enough to keep writing and keep getting closer to your dream. Whatever the hell it is. I want to see you succeed, and if I can help you get there, awesome. If I can’t, then it’s still awesome, because I bet there’s someone out there who can help.

If you have questions or comments, speak up. If you want to chat in 140-character bites at a time, find me on Twitter. For longer stuff, email me.

I’ll be back on Monday and we’ll talk … something. I don’t know yet. I’m open to suggestions.

Happy writing.

In The Late Hours …

I should be asleep. I should have been asleep an hour ago, but I fell down a winding hole of Robin Williams clips and Carson monologues and some random infomercials. I meant to be asleep, and I wanted to be, but I was also wrestling with the words you’re now reading. And I’m sorry if you’ve heard me talk about these things before, or if your evening was just a deluge of tweets and posts of all flavors and I understand if you’re tired of it and you just want me to go back to talking about commas or pacing or book blurbs or whatever. I promise I will soon, just please either be patient with me here, or come back next week. At least, I hope you come back. Hell, I hope I come back – there are loads of times I feel like I’m shouting in the Grand Canyon trying to get people to read what I say. It’s frustrating and scary, and at times I leave with more questions than I started with. But I keep doing it, because the alternatives are pretty lame.

A lot of what I’m about to say is going to be expanded on at GenCon, but I thought that something should be said now, because it’s late and I can’t sleep and I feel like someone’s kicked me in the heart.

At five minutes to midnight as I write this, it’s been 190 days since I tried to kill myself. Clearly, it didn’t work, but it’s been 190 days since I last thought that the pain of living was greater than the joy of living. Granted, 191 days ago, I could not have imagined any of the life I have now, since I didn’t have the relationship I have or the appreciation for how much can and has changed since then. That’s the funny thing about severe suicidal depression, it muffles and mutes any sense of appreciation or perspective or joy or interest. The naked pictures on the internet don’t arouse. The comfort food has no taste. The music seems too loud or too out of tune. The point of things seems dulled and worn down. What’s worse is that you know these things are supposed to be provocative, rousing your senses and urges and drives, but like trying to move through rising tidewaters, you just can’t seem to make the amount of headway you perceive you’re supposed to be making, or worse, you feel like you’re not making the headway you think other people are wanting you to be making.

This becomes pressure, and when you don’t feel like you’ve fallen into some morass of sharp needles and bleak colors, that pressure would probably push you to greatness by challenging some sense of who you are and who you could be. But down in that hole, the pressure seems like one more pair of hands suffocating you. Keeping you down. Holding the life from you until there’s nothing to do but surrender.

I’ve gone through a lot in the last 190 days, most of it I’ll start talking about way more openly post GenCon (that’s when many cats come out of many bags), and if I had to rank in some perverse Buzzfeed or Thought Catalog article the mental anguish and suffering, I’m putting suicidal depression as a lock in second place, with an easy shot at the title as number-one contender depending on factors as variable as the breeze, email subject lines or whether or not I have enough milk for Cocoa Krispies.

What I’m saying is that there’s this wellspring, this open fount of hurt, this constant sore that weeps lies and doubt to us, and there isn’t an easy fix. You can’t just “get happier” or “stop being depressed” or “focus on the power of the Universe” or whatever hokum gets said by the discompassionate or ill-informed. The toxicity of it might be a matter of chemicals, but those chemicals produce feelings and those feelings produce behaviors, and behaviors yield habits and habits beget personality and lifestyle. Yes, there are little pills I take every morning, and many doctors I see on a regular basis both to give me more little pills or just to listen to me navigate living while hurting.

That’s significant, the use of “while”. Life doesn’t get paused, work doesn’t stop, things don’t just wait while suffering rolls through like the evening bus to the big city. You can tell plenty of people “they have to understand” and request kindness and compassion, but outside of the tasks others ask of us, outside of what we seek to do professionally or socially or whatever-ly, those who suffer and hurt have to request kindness from themselves, for themselves. It might be easier to tell someone to walk the earth and meet every human on the planet within a calendar year.

Because in this era of narcissism and criticism and outrage and activism and -phobes and -ists and who knows what else, so many standards are erected, like crystalline frameworks across yawning chasms. As if spider silk lines can stand up in a hurricane of our own making. As if we can offset our own pain by turning the pointy bits outward, as if the spears aren’t double-sided. So many people say, “I feel like I should be doing something despite this mental illness.” or that “I need to be better than it.” It doesn’t know you’re competing. It is not winning some race ahead of you. It is as much the course as it is your fellow race runners. It’s so tempting and easy to judge yourself (or others) based on these moments of pain or limitation, to underestimate or belittle or compound situations. It’s not like people who hurt don’t know they’re hurting. It’s not like people who hurt don’t know that this state can confuse, scare, frustrate or anger others. It’s not like people signed up for this gleefully like they’re trying to get advance movie tickets. No one camps the box office to get front row seats to doubt, anxiety and a sense of pervasive failure.

The unreasonable countermeasures seem reasonable because the reasonable measures seem passive or insufficient. They’re not. Taking care of yourself when you’re hurting is one of the hardest things I can imagine, and something I frankly suck at. I skip meals. I get clingy and codependent. I get bored. Or grouchy. Or mopey. But taking care of myself is how I keep moving. It’s how I don’t let the things I want to do or am doing slip into some nebulous space of “one day I’ll get back to them”, instead of pushing myself, pressuring myself to show other people that I’m more than an illness or bad spell or a moment. It’s taken 190 days to realize that in order for me to show that, I don’t need to be Hercules, I just need to be me. No one is asking me to bear Everest on my back, they’re asking me to take on no more than I can comfortably. I interpret the request as some mandate to take on so much, but that’s a function of skewed perspective and having spent so long being gnawed hollow by hurting.

I get asked a lot, “Well, what hurts?” because I don’t have physical chronic pain and I suppose people are looking more for something obvious to indicate “Aha, yes, John is in fact hurting.” Or maybe it’s just a matter of being able to see the hurt, so that it can be bandaged or iced or Advil’ed. But what people see are the scars on my wrists and arms. What they see are my sad eyes. What they can’t see is how I feel at times like the good things – the sun, love, warmth, comfort, happiness, color, all those abstracts and concepts that make people smile – are in a constant countdown and that despite all my efforts to hoard or overdose, there will come a time when the inventory is gone, and I will be left with memories of months past. Memories in place of sensations. Good times will seem ages away, all ghosts and phantoms, as if you’re speaking about someone else. And that hurts. That leaves an ache and a weariness in some sick slug trail right through the core of me. (I’ve described it as having my sternum cored by a hot ice cream scoop while drowning and watching puppies suffer.)

What I do is talk about this. I talk about it a lot. I talk about it so that someone somewhere can read it or hear me say it and feel like they are not alone, even if just for a moment. I cannot think of anything better to offer someone other than the kindness of saying “You don’t suffer alone, you are not forgotten or overlooked. You are not worthless or useless. You matter, and though you hurt now, you don’t have to shout from the Grand Canyon and think no one has heard you.”

This hurt is real, and it is scary and it is a sorcerer of lies and tilted perceptions. I do not know if my voice cuts through any of this, if anything I say lets you know that it is possible to make it through one day and ten days and one hundred and ninety days. None of that is easy, even on the days when you can be kissed or have ice cream or get presents or see a friend. But you can do it. You can do it if want, and I sincerely hope you want to.

It is my hope that when the roles reverse, and I’m hurting again, that someone offers me a reminder that I am not alone, that I am hurting but help and love and care are available, that I need not think surrender and death are the only balms to pain. I have to keep that hope, because without it, the hurt flares like an angry volcano, and I’ll never get to relax. I have to keep the hope that there is love and care for me, and that my friends, and partner and colleagues and maybe even my detractors can recognize the value people have and that awareness of that value is so often what we seek, that we can matter and maybe that takes some fraction of some percent of the pain away for some sliver of a fraction of a second. I have to hope that I am loved for more than my deeds or credits or writing. I have to hope because the alternatives are lame.

I leave you with this: Help is available. It might be embarrassing or shameful or tough to endure, but you can get help. You are not alone, and you need not be silent. You’re not braver for staying quiet. You’re not a better person for handling this without assistance. Loving yourself might sound impossible, and I can swear to you that some days it feels like trying to make fish into camels, but you can do this. I believe in you.

 

See you at GenCon.

My Birthday, Like Winter, Is Coming

Big trigger warning up top for suicide, suicidal thoughts, emotional abuse, body shaming, guilt, disordered eating, body dysmorphia, loneliness, addiction, codependency and shame.

 

This goes through my head every day between now and August 6th

 

This didn’t start as a post. It started as medium-length Facebook update, but it grew into a post once I started putting words together.  And if we’re going to get into this like I want to get into it, then I need to express to you my enduring memories from past birthdays:

  • The time I was in maybe third or fourth grade and one of my classmates couldn’t attend my party and I felt so useless, as if someone who I thought was my friend didn’t think I was good enough.
  • The time I was thirteen, and how so many family members told me I was on my way to being a man now, and I sat awkwardly on a lounge chair, and became acutely aware of them staring at me, as if I’m supposed to say something. When I couldn’t find the magic thing to say, and sat there uncomfortable on the verge of tears, I remember them not understanding that I seriously wanted to be left alone and did not want to be pressured by their gaze.
  • The time I was in my twenties and got completely trashed, and had quite a few people tell me I was the ugly friend in my friend circle, as if I was not aware of this. The fact that they all then went off to hump the rest of my friend circle in the room I was sleeping in, did nothing to help.
  • The time I was in my late twenties and had boxed myself into a go-nowhere relationship because I was too afraid to be alone, and yet all I wanted was to be alone.
  • My birthday last year, when I was worried I’d be alone forever, that even the dog would die eventually, and I’d end up like some Byronic man on a bluff watching stormy melodramatic skies.

This of course doesn’t count any of the suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts or any shame I associated with them. This doesn’t count the times I would be sternly lectured about not being happy on my birthday, how I was letting down all the people who came to see me and give me things, how ungrateful I was or how, if I kept up like this, I’d have something else to really cry about.

This doesn’t count any of the times I was told to enjoy that cake, but not too much, you don’t want to end up with a fat gut, because I’m pretty lazy.

This doesn’t count any of the times I was told that I wasn’t going to get what I wanted, because no one really ever gets what they want, so it’s foolish to ask.

This doesn’t count any of the times I got gifts that people thought I should use to do the things they wanted me to do (go to school, get an office job, that sort of thing), rather than you know, asking for something that had some meaning in my life or even just a simple thing I wanted. Like a poster. Or a t-shirt. Or whatever a kid would want for themselves.

This doesn’t count any of the times (over 20) that I decided it would be wiser just to be numb on my birthday, just fake whatever emotion I thought people expected me to have, and then later, when no one was looking, I could do something reckless or suicidal or self-harming and escape the hurt.

I can count on one hand the number of gifts that I actually treasure. Ignore completely that a few of them came from absolutely unhealthy relationships. I like to look past how screwed up I was, or we were, or they were, and see that just for a moment, someone gave a shit about me. (The answer is 3, by the way)

See, I grew up in a place and around people that existed in this sort of conflicted state where you weren’t supposed to be demonstrative, you weren’t supposed to hug or show emotions, but birthdays are supposed to be happy occasions. Let me map out what a typical birthday included for me:

  1. A group of people who didn’t like each other would gather under the pretense of giving me things, remind me that I was a “miracle baby” (born months premature, one of those babies that science saved, etc etc) in case I had forgotten, and sat around complaining about anything not nailed down, except when they had to make eye contact with me, which is when they plastered on some ridiculous smile and nodded. Then I was told in what order I was to open what gifts, and that I shouldn’t ruin the paper. On the occasions I did tear the paper, I’d get yelled at later. When there wasn’t yelling, I was just made to feel guilty.
  2. This group of people would gather and stare at me, as if expecting me to deliver some wisdom or to do more than meekly thank them for coming, as I hoped that if I thanked them, they’d go away. They didn’t. The non-demonstrative people attempted to be demonstrative, and it would make my flesh crawl.
  3. Someone in this group would ask me how my birthday dinner was (if they weren’t there for it), and I’d have to lie to say it was wonderful and very nice. Lots of things were very nice. The part where my father would complain about how expensive it was to take me out was very nice. The part where I had to have a toast in my honor when I instead wanted to either vomit or run was very nice. The guilt of making my father spend money, of being seen doing this, of being some burden was all very nice.
  4. I’d receive about 5% of what I asked for, having to lie profusely about how I had secretly wanted pants or socks or the ugliest shirts known outside of leisure suits and just didn’t think I’d get them, so I didn’t ask. Forget the times I asked for a video game or a book or a new stereo. Obviously when I said “stereo” I meant pleated-front Dockers that make me feel fat. Naturally. I’d also have to lie that really what I had truly wanted was a nice crisp ten dollar bill. I mean, especially when you’re in your late 20s.  Or that time it was suggested I use the money towards a gym membership to “work off that gut”.
  5. Anytime I felt awkward or embarrassed or really any feeling at all, I was told to “shut up and get through this” and “you can go be miserable later”. I’m not sure people understood that over time ‘miserable’ became code for “try and kill yourself; try and puke up the meal so people don’t call you fat; cry hysterically for hours because no one even really asked how you were feeling or seemed to give a shit when you said anything or than “I’m fine.”; or a host of other completely terrible things that detailing out now would only make me cry.

Every birthday from about age 13 has some variation on these things. Even now. Sure, now a lot of this can be dodged with phone calls, but at some point, people show up to my house and I have “family obligations”, and when I say, “Okay everyone can leave now.” they just laugh because oh that John, he’s a kidder.

I don’t know how to be on my birthday. I have spent so long being however other people want, or how I thought other people wanted me, that I just don’t know how to enjoy my birthday. Am I supposed to drink and fuck and sleep all day? Am I supposed to host some party in my own honor? Am I supposed to just sit and watch cartoons? No, sincerely, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, so that when people ask, “What do you want to do?” my first answer is “I don’t know, what do you want me to do.” I don’t even get to say “Nothing” until AFTER someone tells me that it’s my birthday so I’m supposed to have an idea.

No, I’m not sure if I like my birthday. I know this year I’m committed to not wanting to die on my birthday. I know this year for my birthday, I’m pretty sure at least one human on the planet gives a shit about me in a way I can actually perceive it. (Oh, that’s the other thing – the “nice” part about growing up as I did, I have no idea if people are being sincere or if what they’re doing is some forced social obligation). I know I’m *supposed* to like my birthday, that I’m supposed to scream “Woo!” and go do some shots at the bar or wear a stupid hat and be sung to by people who allegedly love me, but really in truth, I don’t know.

There are times when I feel worthless. Times when I feel like I’m not worth making a fuss over. Times I feel like I’m just making everything worse by even having a birthday. To go through familial obligations, to endure dramatic productions of passive aggressive and abusive nature, to be told that any feelings I have are worthless, it’s frankly worn me down.

There are times I feel guilty. Times when feeling as I’ve just described for the past 1500 words or so makes me feel like I should hide it. Like me having these thoughts is ruining other peoples’ fake good time with me. Like I’m only making this all worse.

The love of my life is a social butterfly. I consider this a great irony, that the perfect woman and soulmate of mine should be someone who adores groups and is demonstrative, and I’m forced to confront all these feelings and fears and figure out what to do with them. She loves parties, and I love her, but parties … I immediately think of being stared at, of not laughing, of not being happy. I talked to her about this and I worry I’ve kicked her puppy. I’m many things but I just don’t know if gregarious party bon vivant is one of them. I feel like it should be. I don’t want to let her down.

My birthday is coming and I’m sitting at the desk writing, my stomach in knots, the taste of vomit rich in the back of my throat. I should have been in bed 30 minutes ago. I could be asleep right now.

Birthdays aren’t supposed to hurt, right? They’re not supposed to be things that send you running to a toilet when you think of them, yeah?

This is not to say I’m not proud of myself. I have climbed out of some deep dark places in the last 6 months or so, and I’m so proud of myself – I just don’t know how to show it, but that’s probably a blog topic for later.

I have every confidence in her when she says she loves me and she’s planning something nice. I have less confidence in myself. I should probably work on that.

What’s that, you say, how can you help? Well, for starters, don’t give me shit about my birthday. Past that, once we get past the “Oh John, cheer up” and similar helpless advice delivered when depressed, you can go have a good day on August 7th. If we interact, sure, yes, be sincere and say something nice. But that day is just as much a day for you as it is for me, so take advantage of it, and do something brilliant.

I should probably try sleeping. Let’s talk again soon.