How Much Is Too Much?

When you’re creating something, whether that’s a new life or a new book or a new workflow, you have to remember you’re human.

Seriously Luke, you're just a person - more man than machine.

Seriously Luke, you’re just a person – more man than machine.

And part of that humanity is a recognition that we have limits. There’s only so much we can lift. There’s only so fast we can run. There’s only so much we can do in one day, if we’d like to do tasks with a reasonable amount of skill. Sure, yes, you can train yourself to lift more or run faster. Sure, okay, you can breeze through a lot more tasks if you’re willing to sacrifice details like “thoroughness” or “objectivity”. But even if you add more things to your plate, the fact that the plate can still be filled is inescapable.

For me, the idea of a full plate represents a few things:

  1. That I’m not a failure (because, look, I have all this stuff I do)
  2. That I’m not useless (because, hey, people are counting on me to do these things)
  3. That I have a value to others and am not worthless (if I were, I wouldn’t have so much to do)

There’s a point to me saying this – because more often than not, what I’m not telling you is that I have had for the better part of 18 years, a default setting of worthless, useless and valueless. Now, okay, I didn’t start out that way. But thanks to a father who told me those things in a variety of forms every day (or sometimes every other day, as to build tension in the moments where nothing got expressed), and who remains one of the least demonstrative or praising people I know (praise comes with strings – “You did okay, but you could have done better if …” is still a popular statement ), one of the only ways to know that I’m fitting in, doing well, or am loved and accepted, is when I’m doing stuff for other people. When my plate is full with work. When I’m making my future wife happy. When I’m getting my blood pressure up past 130/95 with anxiety and cold sweats and the shakes trying to make Noir World the best World game written by someone who isn’t as smart as Rob Donoghue or as talented as Brian Engard.

I learned that if I’m not doing something, if I’m not busy, then I have zero value or worth to anyone, in any circumstance. I learned that you’re only as good as your work. I learned that when praise comes, it has strings, even if they’re invisible or time-delay. I learned that your two best friends in creating stuff are “a pervasive sense of stupidity” and a “nearly firm knowledge that you’re not good at anything”.

If you’d like to duplicate this abuse, I have a pretty handy step-by-step guide:

  1. Make sure you keep the number of times you tell someone you’re proud of them under double digits for the duration of the time you know them.
  2. Make sure you have physical contact with them past maybe a handshake.
  3. Make sure that any positive comment you give is laced with enough doubt or complaints that you’re confident the other person won’t start thinking they’re capable at whatever you’re talking about.
  4. Make sure that any actual positive things that the person experiences, you play off as less important than what you’re doing, or less “legit” or “real” because what they do is different than what you do.

What’s the end result?

You build a person who doesn’t know their limits. Who doesn’t know how to take any praise or compliments. Who doesn’t know any measure of “good work” unless there’s a paycheck in hand. You erode their confidence, their courage, their sense of self and their sense that they’re knowledgeable or credible all without even touching them, so it can’t possibly be abuse if you never hit them, right?

This desert of support turns anyone who does say anything good (of any size) into an oasis you never want to leave. Whether we’re talking the significant other who makes some benign comment about kissing or humping or whether we’re talking about a soon-to-be spouse who uses the phrase, “Holy fuck honey, you’re fucking brilliant.” or whether we’re talking about an employer who says, “Yeah I’m gonna work with John for a long time.”, these things are huge moments, craved into the stone of the memory landscape.

Just not for the reason you think. Not for the positivity of them. But for their uniqueness. The aberrant positive statement flies in the face of the negative status quo, and as soon as that possibility of “Oh maybe I am an okay person” creeps back in, the swift reprisal and crushing of that confidence is expecting. Criticism and doubt are eternal. Positive things are ephemeral. There’s your terrible cycle.


 

On a sidebar, if you understand this cycle, you can tell some really juicy stories with an amazing depth of tragedy.


 

The reason I stay so busy, the reason I tweet for work all the time, the reason I have 4 health professionals actively telling me to slow down, learn to be positive, try to de-stress and remember to eat and breathe, is for the very simple reason that pre-February 2014, I was one good failure away from a fatal heart attack (let’s take the suicidal depression off the table, just for a second). The consequence of being so high strung, of being so hungry for support is that I was KILLING MYSELF by working-for-praise. (Is it irony that I was also trying to kill myself anyway? No clue.)

When I talk to writers, especially new ones or the ones who are insistent on being published in one particular fashion because of “legitimacy”, I see that working-for-praise come back. They want to know if the work is “good enough”, they want to know if I think someone will like it (this is usually dependent on my saying that they have to show it to someone first). It’s a trepidatious first set of steps, new feet finding purchase in unfamiliar territory, and all too commonly, people think the best course of action is a marathon, not toddling.

On the first night I met the woman I’m going to marry, she put her hand on my chest. It wasn’t overtly sexual. It wasn’t anything more than a hand on a chest while sharing a moment and making plans for a first date. But in those fingertips, I felt an emotional pull stronger than really good drugs. It felt good to be touched (and I’m someone who has come to loathe hugs because I don’t trust them), and I didn’t want it to end. I wanted more. More touching. More time with her. More activity. I wanted to spend all night in that moment, regardless of it being 3 in the morning in the cold winter. I wanted to marathon. I thought that if I didn’t take it all the way past super-maximum levels, that it would evaporate, because positive things are ephemeral, right?

Don’t let this be your case. Don’t think that your creative process isn’t legit or good enough because other people don’t think of it the same way you do. I work in a gaming industry that gets called “nerdy” or “a hobby” or “childish”, but it isn’t any of those things to me if it makes my friends happy and puts food on my table. It’s as much a livelihood as being a tax attorney or a dishwasher repairwoman. I work with authors on creating written work that span all genres and media, things that get called “avant garde” or “strange” or “derivative”, but when I hear the excitement in an author’s voice that someone liked their work or that they sold a copy, the sound of their joy makes it seem very much worth it.

I wish I could tell you I cope well with this. I wish I could tell you that this is me talking about John of the distant past. I wish I could tell you that the cure for all these ills is furious masturbation or copious drinking or a particular video game or film. But it isn’t. The best treatment for feeling worthless, useless, stupid, or like a failure is to pursue what you love. Not with the tenacity of a thousand racehorses, eager to prove someone wrong, but simply to do it because you love to do it.

And tell yourself that “too much” is totally a thing, that you don’t need to fill the holes in your heart, guts and soul all at once, and that sometimes, you do actually need to step back and recognize that you have value. Even if that value is in writing a blogpost you assume never gets read. Even if you assume that value is in applying for a job that you want so bad you can taste it. Even if you assume that value comes only in the interactions with just one person, and even then only when you’re alone with them. Value is value is value is value, and existence dictates it, not the alleged strings other people want you to believe exist.

You gotta love yourself, or so I’m discovering. And it’s tough, because I spent over half my life thinking no one does, did or ever could. But here I am, one day at a time.

Happy living.

The Writer and How Perfectionism Almost Killed Him

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy writing and being.

The Simple Art Of The Impossible

This is later than when I normally write, usually by now I’m playing Mario Kart on the DS, or having a lovely chat with a lovely person or I’m impatiently waiting for something to download so I can watch it later. Usually when I sit down to write it’s morning, and it’s grey and I bang the keys to birdsong and I do my best to get it done in an hour, because I like to have my own writing done before I sit down to edit someone else’s – I can’t stand splitting my attention like that, it feels like I’m shorting the client.

A lot of talk has popped up on my Twitter feed and my G+ whatever-the-hell-you-call the full media assault of Google Plus’ opening page about writing, more the act of it and the effort behind it than any intricacies of particular plots or characters, and I see a lot of workshops popping up that promise to teach how to make a psychopath on paper in two hours or how, if you buy the accompanying book, you too can build a plot that doesn’t have holes in it. A lot of this talk comes from people I respect, and a lot of this talk comes from people who I don’t know, so I can’t say their worth my respect or not. It’s not something I dish out, like rose petals before a bride, it’s more something I hold in reserve, a good cognac in fancy tumblers for members of a little club that John hosts in his headspace.

The truth of it all is that writing is hard. Making a book might as damned well be sorcery for all the conjuring of will and discipline and the alchemy of taking snippets of ideas and concepts and weaving a spell that results in pages being turned and people wanting more. The truth is that there’s a lot of ways to do that, and a lot of teachers, good and bad, who can act as signposts or speed bumps when a writer wants to get from Point A to finished novel B. The truth is, it comes down to you expressing your ideas.

There’s no Coltrane-esque nuanced jazz there, there’s no deeper meaning that you’re supposed to divine or decode – just put your ideas on paper. Write your guts out. Bleed in every paragraph, chapter and scene. If your character’s going nowhere? Burn something down, blow something up, send someone through the door, spoil the milk in their fridge. Make something happen.

You know why your book keeps getting rejected? Because your writing is soft and unclear, you’re bringing cake batter to the neighborhood bake sale, but not everyone wants to lick the beaters. (Seriously, I tried a cookie dough metaphor there too – and have realized that both dough and batter are tasty, but I hope you see what I’m saying) Maybe it’s worse than soft, maybe it just plain isn’t any good. Maybe you need some fresh eyes, or harsh eyes or eyes that aren’t attached to a mouth puffing sunshine up your blowhole to take a good hard look at it. What makes it better? More writing. More reading. Not so you can ape the style of someone else, but so that you can dissect and see examples of how things work. See how Gaiman writes a beat. Look how King phrases dialogue. Don’t copy them, you’re not a Xerox. But learn from them. And that means you might have to loosen your chokehold on your assumptions, even the ones that tell you how precious a snowflake you are.

POV, point of view, stop trying to innovate it. Stop trying to put feathers on a zebra. Stop hopping from head to head in your characters and tell the story. There’s a reason why first and third person are popular. It’s not defeat if you use them anymore than you’re a bad human if you use matches or a lighter to start a fire.

Those achingly dull subplots, why are they there? Are you just padding space because you saw other people do them? Put down your membership card to the Lemming League and just tell your story. YOUR story. YOUR story. Tell it.

Did you just make up a new genre? Why? Okay, so lean a little closer to the monitor. STOP IT. I get it, you don’t want to be pigeon-holed, man, your work is so out there you’re on the bleeding edge of the bleeding edge, you’re a pioneer, a loner Dottie, a rebel. Maybe you are, and maybe seventy years from now kids are going to be gathered around their holo-trons to watch the robots enact your stories. But that would require your stuff to get published first, wouldn’t it? A genre is not a straightjacket, it’s a homeroom on the first day of high school. It groups you together with other people, and gives you a starting point. You’re not prisoner 24601, you’re you. Stop making paper shackles.

There’s a variety of words I can use to tell you what I think of the current resurgence in people who espouse “platforms” and “brands”, most of them I reserve for driving in traffic and instructions to lovers. Platforms are for diving. Brands mark cows. You’re an author, communicate with people. And let them communicate with you. Oh for Pete’s sake, it’s 2014, don’t give me that Fox News your identity might get stolen crap if you have an email address or even a single page with some links to write you an email or places you’re gonna be signing or speaking or dicking around or whatever. Get on some form of social media. LEARN, don’t play Excuse Roulette. You want to know where the agents, editors and writers are? Twitter, Google-Plus. Yeah I know there’s a whole lot of people out in the world who prop themselves up as little gurus (I know, I used to do it), but there comes a point where you can either sit on the plastic folding throne and treat people like peons or you can go out and be an asset to yourself, your efforts and other people. In short, communicate with other people about what you’re doing.

And while we’re talking about communication, can we just knock off this whole “I don’t want anyone to steal my idea” garbage? I’m not saying that hasn’t or doesn’t happen, but I liken it to this: You can go to a mechanic or dealership to get your oil changed or your car checked out, and it’s what bazillions of people do. Or you can go talk to that guy missing teeth who smells like mold, cat urine and burning plastic who is drinking the oil he says he can put in your car. It’s a damned shame that in this day and age, the fearful panicked and stupid decisions of people have spread like a bad case of head lice to infest others, giving the impression that there are more thieves than helpers in this industry. That’s the same poisonous impression that would tell you me and my site are suspect because I don’t have a whole sidebar of splashy graphics or busloads of commenters (who I always have to scratch my head at – because for all the commenting, they could be writing). I don’t have those things because instead I have a Dropbox full of clients’ work. I’ll take the work over splashy graphics any day. This is the judging a book by its cover portion of the post, by the way.

Writing is the art of the impossible. It’s using a common set of tools to plant subjective pictures and feelings into the heads of others. It’s tough to do well, and simple to do poorly. Get a bank account and fill out some forms and you too can be part of the drek that bloats websites and confounds people who want to exchange monies for entertainment. It can be done, but there’s discipline and effort and will and practice and failure and stress and joy and ache and love and anger and not-knowing to navigate as you hit those keys, pick up that pen or dictate into the mic.

I pause here a second to look at my fingers, knuckles pre-arthritic, hands dry, wrists scarred and forearms more like chicken legs. I’m not Raymond Chandler. I’m not Chuck Wendig. I’m not Dashiell Hammett, Seanan McGuire, Stephen King, Gail Simone, Jim Butcher, or Delilah Dawson. I’m not Janet Reid, Colleen Lindsay, Stacia Decker or that guy who’s name escapes me at 11pm, but you know who I’m talking about, that agent. I’m a freelance editor, a word ninja and book ronin, walking the landscape to help people make art. I’m not in many indices, I’m not asked to play reindeer games. I don’t live in New York or Los Angeles. I am a guy with talent and 20 years of writing, editing, game making, filmmaking, scriptwriting, radio producing and puppet making experience. I’m a guy who talks openly and passionately about mental health, about anxiety, about depression, about addiction, about love and loss and art and failure and dating and cooking. I do all those things AND talk about making books and games and art. Because I believe that you, reader, you, writer, you, maker of art, deserve a shot at your dreams.

I don’t know if you’ll make it. I know there’s loads of people, myself included, who can help, if you’re willing. And I know that being willing and taking your best shot is great way to find success.

 

Happy writing.

Writer Excuse Bingo

Hello, and welcome to your Friday.

I thought we’d play a game today. I remember being in elementary school and enjoying fifth grade where we’d have some sort of ball-tossing game where we sat on top of our desks, and I thought it was the coolest and transgressive thing. No idea what the game involved, something about catching it and saying something positive, but it was a good way to kill the five minutes before the dismissal bell rang. And I do wish we as adults had more opportunities to bring games into our work, even if that work IS gaming.

Part of my job, maybe half of it, comes from the interaction and conversations between the writer and me as an intermediary, either as part of a company’s project, or as a freelancer helping someone prepare a manuscript for whatever it is they want to do with it. There’s a structure and a rhythm to it, the back and forth of ideas being generated, words getting put together and there’s that palpable sense of a writer pushing into new territory. It’s hopeful, it’s encouraging, it’s my favorite part of working with writers.

What I don’t like, what I hate pretty much the same way I hate clowns and stealth mayonnaise (that’s mayo you suddenly discover on your burger even if you know you said ‘No mayo’), are the truckload of excuses writers seem to carry in their pockets next to their business cards. And what I still don’t fathom – a lot of writers are as quick with excuses as they are with their intention or hope to write a new thing.

Yes, full disclosure, I make excuses too. I lose a lot of time to mental illness, I lose a lot of time to other responsibilities. There are days I don’t want to work, just like there are days I’m jazzed to work, but things seem to conspire against me. But that doesn’t make the excuse “okay”. To my mind, that doesn’t speak very highly of your want to do a thing, whether that’s create a book or get a haircut or teach your dog a jig, if you regularly put out an excuse.

And let’s take  a minute to distinguish between legitimate issues and excuses. That time you straight-up broke your hand? Yeah, you’re not in any shape to produce anything. The whole day you lost waiting for jury duty, or tending to sick kids or that time you ate bad mushrooms? Understandable. But really, honest and for true, how many times are you going to trot out the “I don’t wanna” before you have to sit down and evaluate whether or not your heart is actually invested in something?

To that end, I came up with this Bingo Card.

Feel free to make this big enough to be played with shotglasses

Feel free to make this big enough to be played with shotglasses

 

It covers a pretty full (but by no means complete) list of excuses ranging from “You gotta understand…” (No, no I don’t.) to “I’ve just been so busy lately…” (I’m glad you’re active, but you said writing was important to you.)

Do I hate writers? No. I hate excuses. I hate the reasons that get inflated to be firebreaks and the small gaps that grow into canyons that later erode belief in yourself, interest in an idea and the discipline to follow it through. This triangle:

this one

this one

is something we’ll come back to probably next week, because it’s a great tool for recognizing where you think you are on a project, where you actually are, and where you think you’re supposed to be.

So, play some Bingo. Spend some honesty-time chasing down why you make the excuses. Here are some great questions to ask yourself.

  1. Am I afraid of failing at doing this thing?
  2. Am I afraid of succeeding at doing this thing?
  3. Am I afraid I will be ridiculed for doing this thing?
  4. Am I afraid that I will never be successful (based on how I determine success) at doing this thing?
  5. Do I confuse being busy with being productive?
  6. Do I confuse being busy with being successful?
  7. What am I running from by not doing this thing?
  8. Am I making excuses because I’ve got something I don’t want to admit to myself or others?
  9. If I believed in myself more, if I believed myself “good enough” or “smart enough” or “talented” or whatever, would I stop making excuses?
  10. Are other people affected by my excuses? And if so, does that bother me, motivate me to change or reinforce the excuses?
  11. If I did 1% more than I’m doing now (regarding the project), would that be difficult?
  12. Am I making unreasonable demands and expectations on myself by thinking the way I do and/or making excuses?

If these questions get you to think, great. If they get you to try and change your habits, even better. If they start a conversation and that leads to finished work, all the better.

It’s worth pointing out that this stuff isn’t personal. This isn’t where I say a writer has to be a certain gender, age, race, color, size, persuasion, complexion or whatever. This isn’t where I say if you’re making excuses that YOU as a person are a failure or a waste of carbon molecules. This is where I want you to look, I mean really examine, your thinking and your behavior in and around your creative process. YOU aren’t the problem, the excuses are. So nuke them. It’s the only way to be sure.

As to how you nuke excuses? Effort. Doing stuff. Doing stuff without concern for judgment and without the assumption that any response you get will be negative, because you don’t know what the response will be. If you’re dying, just absolutely aching to get that negative response, then it’s simple: keep making the excuses and not creating stuff. Anything you do that isn’t an excuse is an improvement and warrants some sort of response that isn’t all together damning.

Now, go, play Bingo. Nuke excuses. Art, art even though it’s hard, art because it’s hard, art because you have a burning passion to produce something and share it with others.

Have a great weekend, happy writing.

Here’s the link to your own Bingo chart.

The Passionate Professional

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy writing.

Aggressive Language & Words To Avoid In Queries

This week, we’re taking a look at query letters. We’ve talked about broad things to avoid, we’ve deconstructed some sample queries, but now we’re going to look at some finer points. Back on Monday, I mentioned “aggressive language” to avoid, and gave a couple examples. Let’s get more into it.

I make a distinction between aggressive language and threatening language, because in a threat, there’s a clear target, and it’s usually the reader. There’s also usually a demand of some kind, like publish-my-stuff-or-else. It’s extreme, and pretty easy evidence in a legal proceeding or criminal matter. Aggressive language though is different, because there’s no direct threat, but it just feels uneasy. It feels like the writer has their claws out and sort of like a wounded animal, they’re growling and snapping at anything that comes their way. When the purpose of a back-and-forth communication is to foster a relationship with mutual goals, nothing is accomplished in snarling and fighting.

But I sort of see why an author would get that way. There’s a lot of frustration, confusion, misleading information, predatory jerks, less-than-helpful people, weird senses of competition and scarcity, rejection and feelings that you are or have wasted time. It makes sense to me that if you’ve only ever seen the downside that you don’t have your hopes up, are discouraged to do so and don’t see a point to it. So, this turns you angry. And in your anger, your tone changes. No longer are you a passive author trying to get “in”, you’ve had enough and you’re not going take any shit laying down. Rawr.

The problem is that what you were getting wasn’t shit. Those rejections? Evidence that you can and should change your approach. That list of agencies and people to avoid? Those are signposts to help you. The frustration? Tests your discipline and resolve.

Language that you use passive aggressively or outright aggressively isn’t going make someone (gatekeeper or not) want to work with you or associate with you, if you’re going to become known as a source of headaches or a potential minefield when someone says something and you fly off the handle on a soapbox-y rant to “correct” them. I’m not saying the person might not be wrong, but look at where and how you’re doing this correction. This other person might be someone who can help you publish your book, and you’re going to get on their case about a phrase they used and didn’t think twice about? Do you know how self-important that makes you sound?

Here now are some forms of aggressive language that don’t belong in your query, even if your book is ABOUT that kind of material.

Statements about flaws in gender equality or recognition of orientations Even if your book is your personal memoir about you coming to terms with your own sexuality in the face of thirty flavors of persecution, your query about your manuscript is not the place where you launch into a speech about how “the establishment” has been keeping you down. Queries are about manuscripts.

Statements about political views You might very well believe that our President is from another nation, hell-bent on enforcing extreme leftist policies that neuter freedom and rend your firearms and property from your hands, or maybe you think there are layers of conspiracies where citizens will be segregated by wealth into camps or something. And maybe you’ve written a book to that effect, but your query should be trying to make those ideas accessible and interesting to publishers, not accuse them of being part of the problem.

Statements about social justice and acceptance Again, to complete this trio (And before we get into other stuff), your query is about your book and not a chance for you to rage against people for whatever their belief system is and how much or how intensely you believe it to be incorrect or lacking.

But let’s get more specific. Here now are words and phrases you don’t want to use in your query without SUPER good reason and specific placement

1. “You have to understand” No, the reader of your query doesn’t have to understand anything, especially if you’re about to follow that phrase with anything that explains how you’ve had a hard time doing something. Don’t seek pity. Just show off what you’ve done.

2. “_____ is problematic” You can fill in that blank with any idea you disagree with, be it how this particular publisher doesn’t produce a certain type of work, or only produces one type of work or how the agent is some kind of -ist or -phobe. This is not a great way to start any sort of correspondence or channel of communication, because it’s like walking up to a stranger and saying, “Hello, you’re a racist and I don’t like you, but can you please help me out?”

3. “legitimate” Don’t use this in any context where you’re weighing a publisher or agent or publishing method against another. It’s not going to help prove the case that your book warrants recognition and chances are exceedingly good that the person you’re writing to is going to contact the other person you’re trashing in your letter and let them know what’s going on. This is a great way to turn two people against you. Don’t do it. Your job isn’t to question legitimacy, your job is to create art and make things for fun and profit.

4. “hate” Unless you’re talking about your character and what they cannot tolerate, “hate” shouldn’t come up in any context about you-the-writer. The query isn’t where you get to talk about how YOU don’t like mayonnaise or clowns or this actor or that one. You’re the invisible force behind the query and the manuscript. It’s not about you.

5.  “I want” Lots of people want things. I want it to be warmer. I want some company. I want more speakers for my stereo. But wanting something and writing it down sounds a lot like begging for it, and in this query communication, I can want until the cows come home and the only thing the other person can do is CHOOSE to publish my work if it merits.

6. “I need” Lots of people need things. Air. Food. Love. Decent internet speed. When you toss need into any mix, you’ve moved the conversation from hopeful mutual arrangement to negotiation and leverage, which is coercive not cooperative. Don’t blackmail your reader.

7. “You” In this case, I mean “you” like you the writer is talking to you the reader, outside the frame of the query or manuscript. Again, this reads a lot like desperation or demand, and that’s not professional or helpful in getting your manuscript published, which is the goal of the query overall.

I hope that helps prune your queries of subtle language cues that might be jamming up your path towards publication. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about more query bits, like courtesy and patience.

Happy writing.

You’re Not Seriously Going to Publish That, Are You?

Good morning. I know I said there’d only be one post between now and Tuesday, but this isn’t it. Call this post bonus content.

What’s it a bonus of? How about a faceful of publishing and writing info?

See, the other day I sort of fell into a Google+ community and did my absolute best to be polite and straightforward in my post, and overall found the experience a little like trying to fish in the middle of a hurricane and wondering why you’re having such a hard time. It wasn’t a bad group of people, I didn’t encounter hatespeech or anything, but what I did encounter didn’t really sit all that well with me. And when things don’t sit well with me, I jump on a form of social media to talk about them.

What follows are a few things I’d like to clarify, debunk, rebut and otherwise wave a big giant neon sign at.

1. Apparently, quite a few people think that editing boils down to just applying grammar rules and some red pen corrections to manuscripts. Yes, they’re right. Grammar is a part of what an editor does, but saying that grammar is the bulk of editing is saying that the bread is the bulk of a roast beef sandwich. Grammar is one part. And to think that you can “just learn grammar and then edit on your own” tells me that you’re not only incredibly near-sighted about what editing entails, but that you’re either and-or both afraid to have your precious snowflakes shattered or you’re just cheap (we’ll talk more about cheap in a second).

Yes, it’s important to know the rules of grammar, so that you can break them in the course of writing, and so that you can abide by them when you need to. My understanding grammar helps me help a writer navigate the language to tell the best story. But if Writer X thinks that when I’m flagging sentences left and right, I’m only flagging the dangling participles or the need for a semicolon, Writer X might need to take a deep breath and realize that just like their story isn’t only a string of words in a sensible order, it’s also an idea trying to be expressed. Grammar helps, but what about story construction? Character development? Pacing? Tension? Readability? Minding your grammar isn’t going to fix those elements. Other tools of editing can.

2. People are incredibly cheap and quite happy to skip things that might be difficult or cause them to spend money or change whatever they’re doing. The question arose as to the cost of editing. Someone mentioned a book being a certain length (the number escapes me, but it was over 100K), and it wasn’t very difficult to multiply it by a rate of a few pennies to determine the cost to the writer as being somewhere in the neighborhood of around $4500 (I think). This number stopped a lot of people and rather than say, “Oh, I’m paying for a service.” they said, “That’s ridiculous, I’ll just get some readers to do my editing.”

Let’s put the publishing aside for a minute. Let’s say your sink stops working, or that it shoots water all over the place. You probably would call a plumber for that, because they’re an expert with pipes and sinks. The plumber comes in, assesses the problem and quotes you a price. Now how is it that you’ll nod your head and cut that guy a check, but when someone gives you a price on something that can help your manuscript, you go the other way and hand the errors to your friends? Would you do the same thing with your sink? (I wouldn’t. I’ve seen my friends.)

Sure, your friends can bang around your kitchen with a wrench or three, or tap pipes and look sagely. Maybe even one would get lucky and twist the right thing into place and fix it – maybe. It probably wouldn’t cost you much, maybe lunch or something. But it also might not work. Had you gone with the plumber, it would cost you more, but it would work, assuming your plumber wasn’t awful. So why aren’t you saying yes to an editor?

Don’t you believe in your work? Don’t you want it to be in the best shape it can be? Don’t you want it to be well received and well reviewed? Editing can improve the structure, tone and contents of a manuscript into something that will do better than a manuscript that hasn’t been edited as thoroughly or by someone without the experience.

Because that’s what you’re paying for when you write the editor that check. You’re getting their experience, their eye for detail and information, their ability to put things together and not just tell you what’s wrong but hopefully why it is and how to fix it. And just like plumbers, good service is going to cost you.

Okay, that’s the money. But maybe it’s not the money. Maybe you’re afraid of what editing will find. That your story has some holes. That you’ve got some weak areas in your writing. That you make the same mistake over and over again. It can be really easy to get back a page with the text all marked up with cross-outs and comments and notes and say, “Look at all this, I must be such a failure if the editor is writing this much in response.”

Yeah, you MIGHT suck at writing. I don’t know why no one’s told you that’s possible, maybe they did and you ran from them like your hair was on fire. And yeah, if what you’ve written has problems, an editor’s going to find them: it’s their job. But it’s also possible that what you wrote wasn’t awful, just incomplete or poorly fleshed out. Ideas that are somewhere on the page, somewhere in the text, can be salvaged and patched up and polished, but in order to excavate and discover them, the manuscript needs to be marked up. And you’re not going to be able to know whether it’s a total wreck or if there’s treasure hidden within until you read those comments.

And seriously, you’re getting into publishing a book. Thick skin is necessary.

3. “Fantasy Heartbreakers” don’t just exist in gaming. A ‘Fantasy Heartbreaker’ is a game that’s grown swollen and immobile due to clutter and bloat and the writer(s) trying to do too much with it. The project doesn’t feel focused, it’s trying to serve too many masters and be all things to all people. It’s like offering a Swiss Army knife when all someone asked for is a pair of tweezers. Sure, it has tweezers, but it’s also got these 690 other functions that get in the way. Heartbreakers happen, and they can be demoralizing. I wrote a heartbreaker game once. Got no credit. No paycheck. Just ridicule. Chased me away from all of gaming for years.

I’ve written some heartbreaker fiction too. I got it in my head I could write a thriller-cyber-dark comedy-horror story once. I wrote screenplays for things I wouldn’t show store mannequins. I wrote short stories I wouldn’t even use for scrap paper. The stories lacked focus, they were just files with words in them, and I’d stoke them like maniac fires but adding whatever new fuel I was consuming at the time. Read Irish fiction? Start writing punchy dialogue. Watch old movies? Draw out some scenes. Watch a British comedy? I’m scribbling nonsense into exposition to see if anyone’s reading.

When people tell me how big their book/game/script is, I’m willing to say about 85 – 90% of them are WAY too long. 150k isn’t a “short story”. It’s not a short anything. A single poem likely doesn’t need to be 20k. That great fantasy novel? No, really, there’s no reason it has to be 790k.

Pay attention to my next sentence. Stop what you’re doing, focus your efforts and be willing to admit you need help. Yeah, that’s not an easy sentence, because we don’t like talking about what we might have done wrong or what we’re not good at. It can be embarrassing, it can be shameful. Look, I’ve tried to die. I’ve ruined cars and relationships and homes and families and opportunities. All of that is embarrassing. The fact that you might need to split that monster book into two? Less so.

You know how you can tell you’re writing a heartbreaker? When the feedback you get stops being objective. Because as something inflates and takes on a shape of its own and you’re worried it might grow to consume a city, it’s hard to be able to spot the comparatively “little” things at its heart that cause the problems. If you’ve got 50-something chapters, it’s going to be really tough at a glance to point out that in chapter 3, you’ve got some run-on sentences. And what’s worse, when you’ve got something so engorged and bloated, YOU‘ve lost objectivity.

4. No, you can’t be objective about your own stuff, I don’t care what it is or who you are. Recently, I cleaned out a closet in my house. I filled bags with my old clothes. Old shirts, old pants. Some stuff I never wore, it still had tags on it. Some stuff I wore constantly. And for those worn items, each had a memory. I wore that shirt when I went on a date. I wore those pants when I was in this school concert. I bought that jacket so I could go to that wedding. Cramming those things into bags was meant to be cathartic, a release of old life and leaving my closet open to have new stuff put in. But you know what happened? As I went through the closet, it got harder and harder, as though the clothes were filled with cement, to part with things. I can’t get rid of that shirt, ex-girlfriend #4 said I had really nice eyes that one time when I wore that shirt. If I get rid of it, am I saying I don’t have nice eyes? Nope, can’t get rid of that pair of black pants, because that’s the pair I wore on that job interview, and those are my interview pants, even though I haven’t been on a “corporate” interview in 8 years. What this grew into was a closet half full of old stuff and a pile of laundry baskets on my floor that I live out of.

The solution? Bring in other people. People who don’t have any attachment to the project and who can stop you from listing off some sad rationalization as to why you really need all eleven black leather belts. The same is true with whatever it is you’re making. You’re not objective about it, not without a great deal (I’d go so far as to say 3+ years) of time between viewings. But you can bring people in who are objective. As an editor, I love my clients, they’re some of the greatest, kindest and most creative people I’ll ever meet, but they’re not objective about their work. They crab at me about why I cut this or trimmed that, but they aren’t paying me to agree with them – they’re paying me to help them get their words into the best shape, so they can stop living out of metaphorical laundry baskets with a cramped closet of memories and justifications.

5. Publishing shitty things isn’t proof of talent. Yes, in this great age of technological wonder, anyone can publish anything. You can write anything and get it up on Amazon. Here now is an actual conversation I have overheard at that bastion of writers, my local Starbucks:

Lady 1: I’ve just published my 30th book.

Lady 2: You did? You’ve been at it, what, like 3 months? Congratulations.

Lady 1: You know that Harry Potter lady, she only published like 10.

Lady 2: I’m sure your stuff is way better, you’ve got three times as many credits to your name in like half the time it took her to write one. You’re so talented!

This is why I stopped going to Starbucks for tea. Just because anyone with a bank account and internet access can mash their fingers and genitals and face against a keyboard (isn’t that how you’re writing? I learned it from a book!), doesn’t mean they should. This doesn’t mean the writer is a bad person, it means that just because something can be done, it doesn’t mean it should be done poorly or half-assed or done just because you’ll get money. That’s … well, to me, that’s kinda shitty.

Look at your reasons for writing. Why are you doing it?

  • For money? There are easier ways to earn money, especially more stable ways to produce a living income that can support more than yourself at a minimal level.
  • For praise? There are easier ways to get smiles and congratulations for your efforts. Feed the homeless. Donate blood. Help someone load groceries into their car.
  • For validation? Writing is a tough route if you’re trying to patch a hole in your sense of self-worth. There are too many critics, too many dissenting voices, all of whom get louder thanks to immediate gratification on the internet.
  • For fame? There’s a difference between being famous for something ephemeral like tabloid headlines or a sex tape and being famous for a big production of work. Guess which one takes longer.

It seems to me that we love to trash things, that it is easier to destroy than build, and we revel in something’s collapse far more than stand in awe of its creation. We pass judgment on TV shows, movies, books, actors, actresses, commercials, sports teams, clothes, sexuality, and a bajillion other things so quickly, and even when we build someone up, we love knocking them down later. Nothing seems safe from that intense spotlight and our vicious snark.

That is, except for our art. We mystify art, and nod our heads staring at gallery walls like we have any idea how the splotches of blue on a canvas are somehow representative of President Millard Fillmore’s sex life. We cheer on self-published authors like they’re striking great blows in a grand revolution. But it’s not a revolution. It’s evolution. It’s not that we’re going to self-publishing because trad-pub is our hated foe, and soon we’ll all have a catchy revolution musical to celebrate, except for that annoying Cockney kid you only like once he gets shot, it’s that we have more options available to accomplish a task.

So why not be critical? Why not call authors out for poor writing? Why not tell the book charlatans and conference predators to go fuck off? Sure, yes, it’s easier to point fingers away from ourselves and say that we’re surrounded in garbage, but we can also and must also take a look at ourselves as well.

What can we do to improve ourselves and our work so that we’re not adding more crap to the mountains? (Here’s where I like to point out that just like you might feel that Writer Z is dogshit in a snow hat, they might feel the same way about you) Here are some ideas.

  1. Get over yourself. You are not a special snowflake. You’re a writer, a creator, and a producer of art, motherfucker.
  2. You’re human. You will suck at things until you learn to get better.
  3. You do not exist nor create in a vacuum. Thinking and acting so reinforces item #1 on this list.
  4. In order to get better, you should solicit help from people who are not biased towards you. Seek help from your friends, your enemies, experts and random people. Weigh all the data, make informed choices.
  5. It’s easy to get comfortable and surround yourself with material and people who like you, love you, accept you and enjoy you, but not necessarily challenge you. Challenge is an important part of love and life, because people who can call you on your shit and hold you accountable are the people who you likely don’t want to let down and are the people who you know absolutely care about you and what you do.
  6. If you’re not being challenged, find people, places and things that will. I’m not saying you need to leave Comfort Village forever, I’m saying it’s time to explore past those mountains. Or die trying.
  7. Thick skin is a good thing. Being unable to accept critique, comments, or feedback isn’t. If you’re wondering why people are telling you bad things along with the good, see item #1 on this list.
  8. However you get your art into the hands of an audience, someone else is doing it differently. Neither of you are wrong.
  9. It’s not about us-versus-them, this way over that way. You’re either going to challenge yourself to make something the best it can be, or you’re going to dick around and half-ass something that doesn’t really challenge you and lets you lie to yourself about what you’re doing and how good you are it. Chances are your greatest enemy in this effort isn’t the faceless corporation sending out rejection letters, but whatever crap you’ve stuffed into your head along the way. Brain enemas are tough, but worthwhile.
  10. How long will it take to produce your thing in the best shape it can be? As long as it needs to take. How large should your book/game/art/thing be when it’s in that best shape? As large as it needs to be.
  11. How will you know when you’re done creating something? When you’ve satisfied all the questions you asked at the start. Did the plot resolve? Did the character(s) change? Is this action over?
  12. What do you do after you’re done creating something, and you’ve let it sit untouched for a while? Give it to someone else, give it to professionals, give it to people who will challenge and encourage and teach and help you and see what comes next. Apply items #1, #2, #3, #4, #6, #7 and #10 as needed.
  13. Most of the questions you have can be solved by you working on whatever it is you’re making.
  14. Most of the questions that aren’t solved by #13 can likely be solved WITHOUT running to extremes or extremists or yes-men/women or the internet community of your choice. Likely your answers will be found in returning to the core concepts of why you want to write, what you’re trying to say and how best to say it.
  15. Work is improved through critique, revision and development. If you fear them, production is almost futile. Revision and critique are scary and overwhelming, but time in the crucible forges better material by burning away impurities.

I’ll close with this last item.

6. If you’re worried about theft, predators, wasting your time or wasting your money, you’re looking at this the wrong way. Lately I’ve been talking to a lot of new authors and creators. And when I ask them, casually, usually after we’ve exchanged a few messages, if they want me to take a look at what they’re doing, they retreat into a shell. Usually this is a fear-shell, that I’m going to burst their balloon or find fault and shame them. Sometimes though it’s because they’re afraid I’m going to steal their work.

Okay, I make a pretty decent living doing this. I edit things, and do a little writing on the side. I have a group of friends who I regularly hang out with and play games with. I watch a lot of TV. I read a lot. I’m writing my own game. I’ve got manuscripts squirreled away all over the place. When do I have time to go around stealing? And what makes you so special (snowflake) that I’m going to steal YOUR stuff?

Right, yeah, it’s kinda weak to say “trust me I’m not a predator” when you don’t know me, or when you’ve heard that before from people who said it and then ran off with your stuff. So instead of me saying it and gesturing around like I’m directing invisible air traffic, how about you check out my work, or ask about me (Twitter is a great place for immediate feedback)? Do your research. Price shop. Don’t rush into anything. Interview. Ask questions. Go to workshops. Ask more questions. Be an informed consumer.

Just stop assuming that you’re under constant threat of theft or ruination. There are horror stories out there, some legit, some conflated for pity or attention, and there are really some shitty people (writers, agents, editors, publishers, game companies, etc etc) out there, but thinking entirely about the number of people producing things and the number of people receiving accolades for producing things, do you think the bad really outweigh the good?

I don’t concern myself with the watchlists of bad editors and bad publishers and awful whatevers. I know a lot of nervous writers put a lot of stock in it, because it’s a list, and it’s on the internet, but I know just as many professionals who aren’t on that list who wouldn’t take a napkin without asking, let alone steal your work.

Bad analogy time: With all the hysteria around assholes in this industry, I liken it to those old films they used to show in school about the dangers of marijuana or rock music. Remember those old beeping filmstrips with scratchy audio that used to talk about how Betty went to a party where Tommy had a mary-jew-onna cigarette and Betty took a puff and now Betty is banging sailors down on the docks after school? Or the one where Susie went out with Janie and they encountered “that negro classmate Tyrone” and they listened to some swell new tunes, and now they’re all pulling jewelry heists? Yes, smoke a joint, you might run into some trouble. Listen to Nickelback, you’re going to want those three minutes back. But those scare tactics are the extremes of the spectrum, meant to enforce a behavior that isn’t too rowdy, not too ambitious and pretty tame.

So what do you do when you find a predator? You get out of whatever arrangement you’ve set up (if any) and then you go tell everyone who will listen about the jerk you just encountered. De-fang that snake. Scare away the wolf. But then, get back out there. How else is your art going to be produced?

I’m at Dreamation over the weekend. I’m giving a Writing Workshop on Sunday (12-3pm), so if you’re coming, I look forward to seeing you there, otherwise, I’ll catch you next week.

Happy writing

What I Do Isn’t “Horseshit”

Hi. I want you to read this post, then come back here.

The short version? Someone paid $800 to someone who didn’t deliver.

The part I have a problem with? Right here:

This is utter and complete bunk. Horseshit of the finest kind.  When I see agents doing this, I actually interrupt them on the panel and howl “horseshit.”
There’s nothing wrong with hiring an editor. I’ve recommended it several times myself. I have an ongoing relationship with a very good editor who reads manuscripts I’m thinking of taking on.  The problem is not editors at all.
The problem is WHEN you consult them.  IF you’re getting rejections, and you’ve been to writing conferences and taken classes, then maybe you invest some dough. 
You don’t hire an editor as step one of the query process. 

Um, okay, we need to unpack the “this”. Janet’s referring to the idea of hiring an editor to go through your work before you send it off to possible publication. She’s calling that idea horseshit. Now, I’d like to point out that I make a part of my living as an editor hired to go through work before it goes to publication. So, thanks to logic, she’s saying part of my living is horseshit.

Granted, there’s no reference to me, my blog, my resume or the things I’ve worked on in that whole blogpost. And I’m willing to bet that if asked, Janet Reid has not the first clue who I am. Which is fine, I don’t need to be known by all of humanity or editorkind. This isn’t a megalomaniacal rant.

What I do isn’t horseshit. I don’t take the money people give me and run. I don’t deliver poor quality work. I do my best to deliver thorough work done quickly. Yes, I can always be more thorough, and yes, being thorough is something I’m working on improving, because I think it only helps my clients and my projects to be so. Granted, in the Fast-Good-Cheap pyramid:

You're supposed to pick two.

You’re supposed to pick two.

I’ve got Fast and Good on lockdown, so comparatively, I’m not cheap. And I’m not. But I provide a service that isn’t inconsequential. If you want me to make sure your spelling is okay and your margins are spiffy, I can totally do that. If you want to know if your story makes sense from beginning to end, I can do that. If you want to know why people are rejecting your work over and over again and why your manuscript is a mess and you don’t know how to fix things and you don’t like your plot or your characters are out of whack, yeah, I can help with that.

My job, my greatest love in life, is helping people make their ideas into things they can share with other people. Sometimes, that’s the novel they always wanted to write, or the game they’d love to play with their friends, or it’s the start of a career in development and design or whatever. That’s my privilege to have the skills that can help make this happen. To call it horseshit is to tell me that what I’m good at and what I’m proud of is meaningless or worse, detrimental to others. That’s not cool. What I do helps people. Is it going to cost them money? Yep. Are they going to see improvements? Yep. Is that a bad a thing that I make my living doing that and charging people for it? Nope.

I’ve talked before about how I used to feel super guilty for charging people, and how I’d grossly undercharge. One of the reasons for this was because I wasn’t attached to a big publishing company, and at the time, being outside the system meant I really wasn’t seeing a lot of work, since the expected model of publishing (the “traditional” model) teaches people that they’ll get edited post-query acceptance. With the explosion of self-publishing models, I found more work, because now the bulk of development fell to the author, assuming they weren’t just uploading error-packed files to a server and charging money. And with that development process, I found I could help people. In helping them, I could help myself (it’s wonderful what a full work schedule does to feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness). Charging wasn’t an easy decision, since I tied it to my self-esteem, but it’s worked out for me, since now I can make my living doing this.

What Janet’s talking about is a legit problem – people get hosed in shitty deals when they try to make stuff, and it’s important to be careful and clear in what you’re trying to do. Yeah, people do go too far and get super guarded, holding back even talking about their ideas lest someone “steal them”. That extremism makes it super difficult to work with a person if they can’t even share the idea with the person who can help them. But, it speaks to a level of intimacy and trust – the project is near and dear to them, they don’t want to see what they love smacked around, treated poorly or wrecked. And they don’t want to lose money over it.

Totally understandable. And I get that it doesn’t help to say “I’m not an asshole who will take your money” if you don’t know me and you’ve had assholes take your money before. But you can find people who I’ve worked with who will tell you (some of them even emphatically) that I’m not going to take the money and run and that I can in fact help you learn to make awesome things.

While I was getting dressed, sorting out what I was going to say in this post, it occurred to me that there’s maybe a hint of this-how-things-are-done-don’t-question-it. The editing process can exist in a variety of spots in the publication process. What’s wrong with getting your stuff looked at before you send it off to someone who has a great deal of sway over its publication? Isn’t that like getting someone to check your outfit before you go on a big date? One of my good friends compared editing to “being told there’s spinach in your teeth before a date”, which is a great way to look at it.

Maybe it’s a sense of Don’t-question-me-I-have-an-audience-and-a-big-job-and-fame. I don’t really think this is an ego bullying trip. But for a second, let’s talk about validity. To do so, I’ll pull another quote from the post.

 “She certainly was legit-had an author featured at the conference, great website, several agents in her firm, etc.
THIS IS NOT HOW YOU DETERMINE IF AN AGENT IS ANY GOOD!!!

Here, there’s a discussion of what makes for a good agent, and the idea that it’s not found in a website or conference attendance or co-workers. So … by extension, you can’t measure quality based on how things look, or who they work with or where they’ve been, and the post goes on to say that you measure goodness based on accomplishment. Now, if you’re about to point out that Janet has a huge reach, and a big audience and posts way more regularly, and likely not about mental health or food or game design, and instead only looks at queries and publishing, I’ll just point you back to this paragraph. Measure the validity based on how something/someone helps you accomplish something.

An easier version – I can help you make your thing. It might involve dealing with bad habits, it might take time, but if you do the hard work, you can make a thing. I’m not here to take your money or let you down or leave you in a worse position than when I found you. I know there are predators out there who will rain on your parade and kick you while you’re down. And I know saying “I’m not a predator” when you don’t know me is about as comforting as being told “Hey I’m not going to rob your house” by someone walking by. If I wanted to make gobs of money, I would have paid way more attention in school, or learned to sell drugs by the kilo or something. Instead, I learned how to be really good with language, and how I can use that skill to help you make stuff. Less lucrative than drug kingpins or lawyers or plastic surgeons, but to my mind, way more rewarding.

Does this mean I’m out shilling in front of every conference room or seminar? I can tell you that I used to, when I was young and stupid and didn’t know any better. And I can tell you that it got me NOWHERE. This doesn’t mean I don’t shamelessly plug myself in panels, both seriously and humorously. Yes, of course, I want to build my business, and yes I want to have more blog readers and get more emails and help more people. Sure, yes, I like getting paid for it too. I ask on Twitter for work, I post openly about my work schedule, I stick my rates on my blog, so that people can hire me. I do that, because I don’t have a company behind me or guaranteed work waiting for me. I have to hustle and pursue it. So I do. That’s not a sign of predatory behavior, that’s a sign of I need to have money to afford travelling to conventions and I like paying bills on time.

Over the course of my writing this post, as my stomach has grumbled (must be time for lunch), my initial sense of being slapped in the face for being “new” or “freelance” or “small-time” has faded somewhat. I do think that bad practices need to get called out, no matter who’s they are or what the fallout could be. Many emperors wear no clothes, and we as a consumers and creators need to be aware and willing to point out the bad practices and be equally able to point to the good ones as well, and then do better all around.

I’m going to keep telling people “You should get someone to look that over before you send it off to publication” NOT because it’s money in my pocket, but because that can make your project better, and isn’t that the point?

Happy creating, I’m going to go eat something before my stomach gurgles any louder.

My Problem With ‘Problematic’

Alright, let’s get into something. This is gonna be maybe messy, so let’s start off with a musical moment. Rock out to this first

So, how many people have heard things like this:

“This game’s content is problematic.”

“This person’s writing is problematic.”

Now maybe there’s a back half to that sentence, something that mentions racism or sexism or another -ism. 

I can agree that the second half of the sentence can be a legit problem, because -isms can be really bad and dangerous and not good. But that first half of the sentence, the part where problematic is carted out like it’s a mighty Rancor to eat guilty parties? Well, that’s weaksauce of the highest (lowest?) caliber. 

“Problematic” is not a blanket behind which actual complaints or statements should hide. Nor is it something that should evoke cringes and fevered runs to change habits. It’s just a word, and a conflated one at that. 

Look, if you’re producing racist or sexist or some other -ist material, that’s not cool. That’s not going to go over very well, it’s going to be controversial, and you’re going to smash a lot of peoples’ buttons. Also, it’s weak craft. I have enough faith in you as a creator of things that you’re able to avoid resting on tropes and bias so long as you’re willing to give a damn about what you’re making. 

But back to this word that gets tossed around like it’s the herald of other problems. Like it’s a red flag before the red flags. Or, as is becoming more the case, it’s the substitute for actually mentioning the problems. 

I was tempted to pull tweets from my friends where this word gets tossed around because it fits into 140 characters and evokes a sense of “this is wrong and I don’t like it”, but I was afraid that they’d thing I had a problem with their opinions or them having them. So, to be clear…

I HAVE NO PROBLEM WITH YOUR OPINIONS OR THE FACT THAT YOU HAVE THEM, I AM CALLING YOU OUT ON THE WORDS YOU USE TO EXPRESS THOSE OPINIONS

Why? Because there’s a whole big wide action-packed language to use, and trotting out problematic like it’s Silver Surfer to your annoyance-Galactus is sort of like me saying saying winter is cold. Yeah, cold is totally a fair word to use to describe my impressions or thoughts on winter, but it doesn’t really tell you how I feel. No, I’m not talking like going on some lengthy monologue as to the desperation of the dark months, but I can certainly string a few sentences together to express my thoughts. No shield-words, no brow-beating either. Just my opinion on a thing. It isn’t wrong, it isn’t right, it’s just my feelings and we can totally agree or disagree. You might even be able persuade me to change my mind. 

When a word like problematic gets used over and over and in a variety of contexts (even if you can group all of them together as “indicative of things that I/we don’t like” – even if there’s some “we” you just appointed yourself commander-in-chief of), it loses meaning. It’s not a word-spokesperson, and using it like it’s a red letter on your blouse or a sheet of yellow paper you have to show people forever doesn’t speak too highly of your position. You want to make that impact and get people to reconsider their ways or make a change, then break out the language toolbox and build an argument. 

If you’ve just had a thought that perhaps I need to reconsider this in light of the fact that Twitter only fits 140 characters at a time, I want you to reconsider how your structure your argument. I don’t want to draw some juvenile line in the sand and say, “Use your adult words”, but like, use your adult words. It’s a big language. I bet you can totally find new ways of citing problems you have with things and expressing feelings and even possible solutions without blanketing them in words that you’re hoping the audience intuits to mean “oh this person really has a problem, I should do something about it”, because let’s face it, that’s what you’re asking them to do – read your mind, share your level of upset and then cater to you. Which is a way ridiculous expectation. 

A better expectation? That you speak your mind and going forward someone somewhere, maybe not affiliated with this situation at hand, changes what they’re going to do. And then, there’s a domino effect as more and more people react to that change. Is is instantaneous? Nope. Does it totally change the thing you’re talking about? Nope. (The downside here is that in your complaining, you likely sound kinda spoiled, entitled or expecting the world to deliver unto you things they way you want) Does the world revolve around you? Nope. (It doesn’t revolve around me either, I just checked, and it sucks.)

Use clearer language. It might take longer. You might have to think harder about how to say what you want, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, is it?

Happy writing (and I guess, arguing?) 

The “Are You Ready To Get Published” Checklist, John-style

There’s been a lot of talk about self-publishing about it being good or it sucking or it being the salvation of stories or the whatever-it-is-to-whomever-needs-it. And because at the moment, it’s a pretty expedient route to getting something published (in this context, I mean getting something into a format or structure where someone else can consume it, sometimes in exchange for money), that means lots of people can write something and put it out for people to come running like thirsty animals at the watering hole.

This also presents an interesting wrinkle in that when people don’t come running, as if you’re Prometheus delivering fire (as opposed to Prometheus delivering a terrible movie), you get to bitch about. Loudly. Frequently. On social media. In public. At workshops. At conventions. To your dog. To any human who lucks into your path.

Further, it gives a tease of pleasure, as if there’s more to come later, when those first sales trickle in. And then like the Muppet, you start counting sales. One, Two, Three (ah ha haa) sales. Maybe you get up to like 40 or 400 over the course of a month or a quarter or however you obsessively slam the refresh on your browser. And that pleasure is narcotic. I can speak about the joys of narcotic rushes. I can tell you just how addictive it is to feel good. I can also tell you that you will do stupid things (like bitch on twitter, or pick fights with authors or editors or agents) to get another hit. I mean, in a publishing sense. I guess you could sell your stuff for book sales, or commit sex acts in alleyways for pageviews. I never really thought about that. (Now I can’t help but think of a sign that says, “Will swallow for blog hits” and expect one of those websites to scoop it up in a hot minute)

All this is divisive and great for fomenting argument and message board chatter. And it obscures the facts:

  1. People are going to write things.
  2. Some of those things are going to exist in stages where the manuscripts are rife with errors, either within the context of the story (cliched characters, plot holes, stuff like that) and also with the words and structure (spelling, grammar and punctuation errors)
  3. People want to get published.
  4. There are lots of ways to get published, or more broadly, get people to pay for things you’ve written.
  5. Some people are going to see one way to get published as superior to another, either because of things involved in getting published that way (agents, labels on books, etc) or because of expedience (upload a file, start “selling it”) or because of some other thing I’m not aware of but I’m sure someone will tell me about once this post goes up on the blog.
  6. If you rush to publication, regardless of route, you may encounter difficulty in the form of rejections or negative feedback because your manuscript may have any/all errors described in #2.
  7. You may get your work(s) published and still require a day job.
  8. You may have to publish several books/things in order to get some sort of income that you can live on consistently without fear of financial dire straits.
  9. Not every thing you write needs to be or is going to be published.
  10. Editors who aren’t you (or aren’t immediately related to you and are therefore biased) are useful to developing your work and your ability to produce that work, even if you’re focusing on a route to publication that puts editing after a submission and acceptance process.
  11. Not many people agree on the “best” course of action.
  12. Lots of people espouse all manner of philosophy, panicked thoughts, emotional reactions and BS statistics to try and persuade or dissuade people from certain actions or avenues in publishing.

Now, I’m sure I’ve forgotten loads of things because I’m writing this late at night when I’m tired, but I think I’ve put down some nice basics there. To that end, here’s a nice checklist you can use to help you produce whatever it is you’re doing.

Question 1

Is your manuscript complete? Before we go anywhere else, the thing you’re writing has to be done. And by “done” I mean the particular manuscript has to be finished, that you’re not adding more to it or fiddling with it. Even it’s a part of a series, this book (whatever number it is) has to be a whole book. Sure, it can end on a cliffhanger. Sure, it can leave some parts of a greater plot unanswered. But by itself, it has to be a complete story. However long that is. However many words. Complete.

Sub-Questions under Question 1

Does your manuscript have a main character that we can easily pick out and follow through the course of the story? A story needs a protagonist. The audience has to have some character we follow more than all the others (yes, even in an ensemble story where you have a group of characters together), so that they can see the plot and the character(s’) response to it. If there’s no clear protagonist (as in The Phantom Menace, several films from the ’70s and anything I wrote while in college), then audience won’t have an easy access point to the story, which means they won’t be as invested as they could be, and that may mean they put the book down to pick up something else. (And that’s not ideal if you want a stable audience or good reviews or repeat sales.)

Are your characters NOT stereotypes, cliches, “Mary Sues”, overpowered unchallenged uber-folk or one-dimensional cardboard? Here we can talk about the character spectrum. If you’ve got characters that are ‘too’ anything (too perfect, too beautiful, too good for the challenge of the plot, too troubled as to be unmotivated, etc), as per above, people aren’t going to have an access point into your story and created world. They don’t need to be super flawed either, it’s more about writing characters that someone somehow and in some way can relate to.

Did you spell-check it? Seriously, in my writing program of choice, spell-check is a pretty accessible, either by a menu or a keystroke. Use it. It shows respect to your readers and helps solidify the impression that you actually give a damn about what you create and didn’t just rush to stick your name on something in the hope that money would soon thereafter follow.

Is there a plot? And are you getting to that plot within the first twenty pages? A story needs a reason or a conflict or a crisis or a problem that the characters can solve. It makes the reader feel things, it creates a sense of “will this work out for our heroes” and generally gives the book a point to being read. The sooner you can introduce the plot and its effects on the protagonist(s), the sooner we can get into following their efforts to do something about it. Bloating the story up front with details because “you need to know this in order to understand stuff later” doesn’t demonstrate that you’ve paced or planned the story out, and in a way tells me that you’re more concerned with your telling the story than my liking it. (Sort of like a party where the person cares more about the praise or attention being paid to their storytelling rather than the story’s reception or the listeners’ enjoyment – are you writing just to show that you can do it?) Lastly, does this plot build to a climax and then resolve? Yes, even if you’re writing a series, each component needs an internal structure and not just act as setup to books later “when you’ll really get into it”. I don’t want to get into it later, four books from now. I bought this book, I want to get into it NOW.

Question 2

Since your manuscript is complete, have you formatted it according the particular requirements of the route it’s going to take in publishing? Just about every way to publish a story requires it be formatted a different way. Some places want it formatted with certain spacing and margins. Others want a particular file format. This isn’t just caprice. Formatting it a certain way shows that not only can you (a) follow directions but also (b) that you give a damn about the thing you’ve created, and you want to give it the best possible shot at getting out into the world. If you don’t know how to format it for your particular publishing method, ask someone affiliated with that method or check online, nearly everywhere has ‘Submission Guidelines’ or an email address where you can talk to someone about it. And when you actually get those guidelines, follow them. Being a rebel here doesn’t do you any favors, and often leads to your work being rejected since you didn’t follow directions. (For example if Company X wants the document formatted a certain way, with inches and spacing, chances are it’s for easier reading and quick printing. Not helping Company X read your thing is not going to help Company X say yes to you.)

Question 3

If you’re going to engage an agent or publisher, have you queried them? And if so, did their response say “Please send us stuff?” Again, we get to the importance of following directions and doing yourself a favor and putting your best foot forward. Imagine for a minute that we’re not talking about books, but something more practical – let’s say you’re making a snack chip. If you want me to buy your chip and tell my friends to buy your chip, are you going to let me test one chip to see if I like it, or are you going to assume that I’ll automatically like it because you (who I don’t know) made it, and you’ve gone ahead and made me a whole giant bag? The query letter is that test chip. It helps set up the dialog and relationship between agent and writer, so that communication (like spice) can flow and deals can be struck. And just like the start of any relationship, coming on too strong is a great way to get yourself rejected. Don’t throw whole bags of chips at people, invite them to make up their own mind with a test chip. Then see where things go.

Question 4

Are you on social media? Are you available somewhere on the Internet, in terms of contact information or some other repository of your thoughts and stuff? I’m not saying you need to be all up on every form of social media. You don’t need to be an Instagram junkie or go crazy with Vines and know the difference between Tinder and Tumblr. But you are going to need some kind of spot on the Internet where people (people interested in talking to you about you and your stuff) can reach you. For me, that’s Twitter and this blog. Yeah, there’s some Facebook too, but not so much anymore. Notice how I didn’t ask about your personal life or about your family or your financial habits or whether or not you’ve got pictures of your kids I can see. Having a presence on social media DOES NOT MEAN you need to show everything to everyone all the time. You choose to show and share what you want, with the caveat that it’s called “social” media and not “I only whore my work and provide links to buy things” media. Social means you can and should expect interactions with other humans, some of whom you’ll agree with and some you won’t, and some of whom will like your work and some who won’t. Growing some thick skin isn’t a bad idea, but it’s applesauce if you think you need to wear plate armor against everyone. The nice thing is that a lot of social media is free (and this blog isn’t all that pricey either, I think it’s like $18 a year or so.)

Question 5

Did you get some people to look at your work? Did “some people” include professionals who can point out errors and issues with your creation? When you write a thing, people are excited. Maybe they’re a little envious. Maybe they just want to see you do well. Who knows. Their reasons are their own. And chances are it’s not hard to find people who want to read your stuff. Friends. Family. Relationships. Co-workers. Maybe you expand by getting librarians or bloggers. Maybe you have a writing group and you take their feedback weekly or monthly. They’re all great resources for encouragement and on-the-spot help. But have you considered getting a professional to help you? Sure, those other people are giving you free advice on some night or an afternoon, and the professional is going to cost you money, but remember how we’ve been talking about doing all you can to put your best foot forward? Getting an editor (and later, beta readers) to apply their expertise (that’s what you’re paying for with professionals) to help your work be the best it can be?

Sub-Question under Question 5

Are you relying too heavily on the editorial process after an expected acceptance? Yes, if you go by some routes in publishing, the editing of your manuscript happens after you sign some paperwork and have been accepted as an author-under-contract. It can really tempting to hold off on editing your manuscript until that part, because it’s going to a pro, and that’s they’re job and it’s out of your hands. Yes, it is out of your hands. But do you think your work is the only thing they’re doing? That they don’t have deadlines or pressure from their bosses to get a certain amount done? And do you think that even at that level they can’t say no to you and say, “This thing is a mess and a nightmare, let’s go back to like square 2”? Publishing in its many incarnations is a marathon, not a windsprint. The better condition your work is in before the race kicks off, the better it’ll hold up to all the rigors your work is going to face.

Question 6

Are you prepared to handle the numbers? I don’t often talk about my own numbers, but I’ll give you some here. I have a series of small monographs available on Smashwords, and to date, they’ve earned me about $34. Thirty-four dollars. Contrast that to my editing income, which is about three thousand times times greater (tax brackets kicked my ass), give or take a percent. Granted, I talk way more about editing novels and games and content than I do about writing my own stuff, and even my own fiction production has slowed since more and more I’m editing to pay bills and live, but thirty-four dollars fills my car up with gas ONCE, or buys me 5 burritos. That’s not a lot, but I’m grateful for it. Writing, in terms of being a writer that produces book upon book, that’s a job, and that means contending with things like sales numbers and expectations and the cost of living or what you’re comfortable owning or not owning.

Question 7

Can you do it more than once? Maybe writing is just something you want to say you tried one time. Maybe it’s to honor a promise or just a goofy thing you started ages ago and now you’re just seeing where it goes. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe you’re writing things because that’s your retirement. Or because your career is going to put your kids through college. Or because this is what you’ve always wanted to do, so out of your apartment in your city, you write ferociously and still make time to do things like go grocery shopping. Chances are that once you’re published, someone somewhere is going to ask or expect you to do it again. Now if you’re planning a series of books, this is a given. But if you’re just lobbing one word-grenade out there, someone’s going to want you to have extras handy. Which means writing more, possibly faster than you did the first time, and possibly on a schedule and deadline other than your own (especially if you didn’t read that contract you signed too carefully). Ready to do it again?

* * *

I write this not to draw a line in any sand and say “Publish this way and not that way.” I think the “hybrid” model, where you do whatever works best for the project is ideal, even if it means you straddle “fences”. I do think that even work that goes out to agents and publishers can stand to edited, and I do think it’s critical we start pointing out emperors that have no clothes on and talking more about what makes for good writing and not just good sales. I do think sales are a consequence of a well-made product, and I know you can point to tons of material that’s well-made but sold poorly, but I think it’s also time we change our collective thinking about how we perceive writing as art and craft. I think we need to do all we can to produce the best not so that we can demand fat checks, but so that we can bring our stories to people who want them, and we do so with the best polish and construction possible.

I take a lot of heat for saying “You should be writing everyday.” and I’m still going to say it. Because I do think ANYONE can take ten minutes to write down an idea so they don’t forget, then take ten minutes the next day to write a little more, and then a little more the next day. Some people get on my about my privilege, that I’m discounting peoples’ responsibilities. I’m not. I don’t have the same responsibilities, but that doesn’t mean I’m not cognizant of the fact that hours of a person’s day gets consumed by other things. I’m not asking for hours a day. It’d be nice, I think practicing a craft works best when you devote time to it, but even ten minutes regularly counts. 10 minutes. That’s not much. Can you do more? Then do it. Write. Create. A little at a time. If you feel that it deserves more, or that you should be giving it more because 10 minutes is unfair or sounds like I’m yanking your chain, that’s on you. I do think it deserves more. I do think you should do it at least an hour as often as possible. I do think it should be taught more (and better) in schools, and I do think that words can elevate and change minds. I don’t understand how people can ask me “to understand”, when they just tell me I’m being privileged or I don’t know what it’s like. I admit I don’t. Now just tell me how you can say writing or making a thing is as important as you claim when you’re not regularly making time to do it?

Go write things. Produce art. Art hard.

Happy writing.