Stop Aspiring, Start Doing

I’m an aspiring author.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Says who?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A maker of stuff? Sketch, prototype, develop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Showdown at the NaNo Corral

It’s day 2 of NaNoWriMo, and if you’ve been a long-time reader of this blog, you know I’m not NaNo’s biggest fan. While it’s a great tool for building discipline, the amount of production (50k isn’t a novel, you’d need at least 25k more by most metrics), and the competition disguised as community keep it from really being anything substantial for me. And that says nothing about there being a whole other side of writing a novel that isn’t discussed – the actual crafting of characters and plot and themes and beats, The nuts and bolts get replaced for thirty days of slog-it-out writing, and that’s not all that you need to be a writer. It’s like saying you’re going to give up chocolate or a month. Sure, maybe it’ll stop you from buying a Snickers early on, but maybe you’ll be right back at the vending machine because 30 days isn’t enough to instill a habit in you. One-size-fits-all is a hard template to fill with every creative.

So do your NaNo. Write your 50k. Go ahead. And when your 30 days is up, I want you to come here in December, or as I’m now calling it Fix Your Shit Month or FiYoShiMo.

FiYoShiMo is going to spend 30 days (that’s the whole month of December, minus Christmas Day off), helping you assess what the hell happened in November. No, it’s not a check to see if your work sucked, or if you suck, or if you wasted your time, because none of that is the case. It’s a month spent taking however much you wrote and getting it into a better state. It’s super likely that your 50k would benefit from the toning, sculpting, and examination.

Here’s the map:

Part 1 (December 1 to December 5) – Five Days of Beats, Theme, and Tone
Part 2 (December 6 to December 12) – Seven Days of Character
Part 3 (December 13 to December 19)  – Seven Days of Plot
Part 4 (December 20 to 24) – Five Days of World Building
Part 5 (December 26 to 31) – Six Days of Pitching, Packaging, and Wrap-up

30 days of posts to take what you wrote in your previous 30 days and make it better. Learn to analyze it. Learn what makes it, and by extension, you, tick.

That’s 30 days of posts, designed to help you with your MS.

Five Days of Beats, Theme, and Tone
We’re going to look at the most fundamental elements in story, and how they click and stack together to get a picture in the reader’s mind.

Seven Days of Character
We’re spending a whole week dissecting what makes people tick and what they’re doing or not doing for you.

Seven Days of Plot
We’ll talk about how story momentum can be tracked, built upon and modulated to suit the story you’re telling.

Five Days of World Building
We’re going to talk about the big stage upon which your story plays out.

Six Days of Pitching, Packaging, and Wrap-Up
We spend the last chunk of the month talking about what comes next, whatever that might be.

No, that’s not going to be easy. No, you might not always like what you find, or what you don’t find. But stick with it. The goal isn’t to expose you as some writing fraud, but rather show you what you can work on for your next foray into writing.

I believe in you, I know you can do this. Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer also believe in you too.

We totally do.

We totally do.

So what do you say? Will you be my writing huckleberry in December?

One last note – our final Plot 201 audio will go up WEDNESDAY this week, because I’m out this weekend at Metatopia, so no Friday blogpost.

Happy writing.

Ten Art Commandments

I have a less than secret love for hip-hop. I was in school during the East Coast West Coast rap feud, and I eventually went West Coast in it because I thought Puffy/Puff Daddy/P Diddy/ Penelope/P-whateveriddy was irritating, and I thought what he did to a Police song to “tribute” Biggie warranted him being exiled to a small Pacific atoll so he could think about what he’d done.

But my love for all things Dre, early Snoop and Death Row Tupac doesn’t mean I wasn’t aware of the Ten Crack Commandments. Now maybe it’s because I grew up very religious, but the idea of commandments always stuck out to me. In a world of such fluidity and turbulence, I’ve always been impressed that anyone can erect a set of concrete rules.

Writing and publishing is one of the most creative turbulent and dynamic industries I can think of, next to fashion. What’s popular is forever ephemeral, even if in some ways there are cycles as old things are made new again. And perish the thought that you’re wearing or crafting something out of style, although the hipster movement seems to keep everything around, either for irony or straight purposes.

So I spend a lot of time wondering if I can codify some concepts for creatives (alliteration!). Here’s what I have so far. My apologies to my religious friends, but I’m cribbing your format.

I. Your art is yours, not the audiences, not the critics. 

Whenever you make stuff, whatever it is, whatever you write, or art, that’s yours. I don’t mean selling it, I don’t mean signing publishing deals, I mean the creative engine under it. You create what you create because it pleases YOU. Critics are always going to find something to pick at (because they’re critics), and audiences are far too tempermental, so there’s little sense in trying to satisfy the unknown demands of an unknown number of people. Create for yourself.

II. Never get high on the critics’ lines.

You’re never going to please everyone. Never ever. Someone’s going to complain about the presence or absence of a thing, or a word choice, or a description. They’ll trot out hypersensitivity and words like “problematic”, and maybe some people will even take the time to explain what they don’t like, or spend their time trying to make you feel guilty for liking whatever you like. Don’t buy into it. Don’t drink their Kool-Aid.

The world is big enough that people can all like different things, and even disagree about it. And not be wrong in the process.

III. There’s no reason you can’t talk about what you’re doing.

I’ve tried for years to understand why people don’t share their writing. They hide the fact that they do it. They hide what they write. They hide their progress. They hide their failures. The usual answers I hear range from “If I talk about it, people always want to butt in” to “if I talk about it, someone is going to steal it”. To first one: See Commandment one. To the second: Who? Who is going to steal it? The person you’re sharing it with? Why would you pick that person then? Can you find another person?

Talking about whatever you’re doing is a way to demystify and destagmatize  the craft of writing and its practitioners. There isn’t a badge of shame to avoid because you’re writing something that will give someone else the vapors and cause them to blush at the church social. Being a creative doesn’t make you a pariah. Get out of the cave and share with the tribe.

IV. Communication is more than selling.

At my last check, I’m following 1889 people, and I’ve got 1444 followers on Twitter. I love Twitter. It suits my patience, my need for stimulation, and it requires concision. And while I’m not known for brevity, I’m pretty handy with effective word choice. So, I do a lot of tweeting. The frustrating thing for me is that not everyone uses social media as an avenue for communication. I suppose there aren’t any hard rules for usage, but I’m confident we’ve all seen messages like this:

 Hi! Thanks for following me! Check out this link for more great information!

Sure, the length varies, and that link goes anywhere from a shopping cart to a blog with some annoying popup requiring you to give an email address, but the concept is the same. Social media is SOCIAL, If you just wanted to broadcast the opportunity for sales, you would just need some strong SEO and a visually appealing website. If you’re saying, “John, the point of social media is to bring customers to my platform” then I’m going to make an increasingly displeased series of faces at you until you go sit in the corner. Platforms are for Mario to jump on. People are not automatically customers. We’re people first, and we all deserve to be treated as people even if we’re not in the mood to fork over the cash to buy your stuff.

Communicating with people, true audience building, is about sharing your experience and listening to the experiences of those around you, so that you can take all this information and let it further evolve your life as it all moves forward towards the hot or cold death of the universe.

And it’s not just the good stuff. Yes, sure, the good stuff when things are doing well is way more exciting and less heartbreaking to hear than the tales of insecurity, rejection, and disappointment, but as we’ll see in Commandment V, it’s not something to hide.

V. Share the good, share the bad, take them both and there you have … a theme song stuck in your head.

Your life, creative and otherwise, has good and bad moments. You totally find five bucks in your jeans. You forget why you walked into the kitchen. You spend a day writing a great chapter. You get told you have a terminal illness. It’s folly to think in that all-or-nothing way that you’re the only recipient of all the universe’s bad shit, because everyone else always seems to be talking about so many successes.

I see it all the time. So many people have great announcements of projects to do, projects completed, families starting, major undertakings succeeding, and big things on the horizon. And that announcement, while generating happiness, also brings in some envy (why and how are they doing these things and I’m not) and a sense of inadequacy (wait, they’re doing all that stuff, and all i have is this little stuff over here).

I don’t have a good answer for you. I don’t know how to make those feelings permanently vanish and never dog you again. The best I can tell you to do is that when you find yourself looking over the fence at someone’s far greener pasture, remember that while you’re seeing the verdant loam, what you’re not seeing at the roots and weeds. And because people aren’t likely to comfortably talk about the problems, it’s easy to look at your problems and compare them other peoples’ not-problems. Which isn’t ever going to be equitable. My illness, for instance, can’t be compared to someone’s announcement of a new job, because they’re not equivalent.

This is why I urge people to talk openly, bravely, even passionately about all the facets of what they’re doing. Is it going to drive people away? Maybe. Is it going to help someone feel better or maybe not alone? Maybe. Does that make it worth trying? Yes.

VI. Do not be afraid of the new. 

I think we are all creatures of habit. We like to do the same things at roughly the same times over and over. We like to eat certain kinds of food, we like to read certain kinds of books. We wear clothes in some styles and not others. For me, that’s t-shirts, jeans and warm, soft fabrics. Maybe for you it’s something dressy. I like to watch far more Netflix that regular TV now, maybe you’re all about America’s Next Top Whomever. I prep for work this way, you do it that way.

At some point though, when we trace our way back, we didn’t always do those things. Someone had to introduce us to these ideas before we made them habits. It’s normal to be scared when you’re trying new things. There’s the fear that you’ll be judged, the fear that you’ll fail, the fear that you’ll succeed, the fear that you won’t be as good at it as you hoped, the fear that you’l be let down if it sucks, etc. Often, we let those fears stop us before we even begin. We see the fear first, we decide to not try in advance. For all the talk we do about something failing, it might also succeed!

New is not a synonym of bad or wrong. New is opportunity, it’s a shot to change circumstances. It’s worth taking.

VII. Treat yourself well.

We have a regrettable trend of glamorizing and sensationalizing things that don’t need it. We say that drinking and drugs make us better, freer, writers. We say that mental illnesses are acceptable fodder for inaccurate portrayals that reinforce stigma. We say that in order to be as good as other people, you have to be willing to cross a lot of uncomfortable boundaries to earn success. We give attention to murderers and demagogues in equal breath. We discard material that might be hard to learn or hard to accept in favor of lighter stuff that has no substance but looks pretty. In short, we glut ourselves at the buffet of easy choices, cowardice, closemindedness, apathy, laziness, and cruelty.

We could treat ourselves so much better. No, I don’t mean you need to start eating pesticide-free lawn clippings and drink a varieties of liquids extracted from berries and nuts you can’t spell. I mean taking the time to learn craft, make better choices about what material we read and watch, make time to talk to each other without looking down at cell phones or monitors. We could be honest with ourselves, even when it scares us, and make those passions of ours a priority, rather than the thing that fuels our complaints, inadequacy, or daydreams.

You deserve every bit of quality living. Even as a “struggling” artist, you deserve to be kind and even helpful to yourself. Get rest. Hydrate. Share life with friends. Eat a cookie now and then. Make yourself laugh. Feel good about the slow death of all life on the planet that we stupidly recognize as autumn. Do the stuff you like without fear that you’ll be ostracized for it. There are enough people in the world seemingly eager to chase people out on rails for what they say and do and believe, you don’t have to join that circus just to get on your own case.

VIII. Remember there are multiple kinds of support

I suck at being taken care of. It makes me feel like a helpless child. It makes me feel weak. I don’t enjoy being coddled (see, I immediately call it being coddled, when all I’m picturing in my head is someone handing me a blanket). That’s just one kind of support. That’s the physical support we all need sometimes. But what about emotional? What about having people who listen? What about people who can celebrate successes? (If you want a central place for creative support, you might want to look here)

With so many people putting out material, using resources like crowdfunding and Patreon, it’s easy to see that support is financial first, before everything else. And yes, it’s great when you can support people making cool things and doing cool stuff, but cracking open your wallet and purse are not the only ways you can help people continue to do what they’re doing. Yes, it often gets framed that way because I have yet to figure out how to pay bills or cover expenses with love and patience, but that doesn’t discredit non-financial types of investment or support.

If you can’t spare the dollars, spread the word to your friends that there’s something they can check out. Take two seconds and write the creator a supportive note. Do what you can to strengthen those communal bonds, so that when roles reverse and you find yourself needing support, people know that they can reach back to you too.

IX. It’s not going to be perfect.

I don’t care what you’re doing. I don’t care what you’re mapping out right now. Doesn’t matter whatever it is. Doesn’t matter how ambitious or small it is. Whatever you’re doing, it’s not going to be perfect. Your draft will have typos. Your prototype might have squeaky parts. Your recipe might need an extra two minutes cooking time. Yes, eventually you can make a thing that exceeds every expectation, but nothing is perfect right off the bat.

So don’t hold yourself to the unrealistic impractical standard that it has to be. It’s not like there’s some rule we’ve all been trying to follow and fail that says we need to be perfect in our first attempts and drafts. That’s why revision and testing and second, fifth, tenth, two-millionth chances are things that exist.

Perfection is the refuge of the unrealistic and out of touch.

X. Don’t you dare give up.

Over the course of your creative lifespan, you’re going to face obstacles. You’re going to face rejections, critics, disinterested people who you just can’t persuade otherwise, people who want to tell you everything that’s always going to be wrong, people who want to mock you for even trying to make a thing, hard drive crashes, overbooked flights, financial insecurity, financial windfalls that you get a little too excited about, overcommitment, underemployment, frustration, deadlines, competition for limited opportunities, bad weather, illnesses, pets that demand attention when you could be making stuff, hunger, distractions, nagging spouses, children who just need to show you one more thing, legos to step on in the middle of the night, impatience, batteries that die just when you need them the most, cold streaks, hot streaks that die out too quickly, dayjob stress, anxiety, disappointment, tough choices, a lack of things to eat in the fridge despite having gone to the store two days ago, spotty internet connection, bills, phone calls that interrupt your workflow, fears, jealousies, petty people who want more attention so they can continue being victims, idiots, doubters, printers running out of paper, emails not getting read, dropped calls, stubbed toes, soreness, boredom, envy, anger, apathy, insufficient cookies, times where you forcibly have to wear pants, lacks of anything to say, confusion, brain freeze and about four trillion other things I can’t think of right this second. You’re going to face all those things, and you’re going to feel like you can’t keep going forward. Or that instead of walking a nice straight flat path forward, somehow there’s a whole mountain range in front of you. Covered in glass. With lava. And clowns. And you can’t find your shoes. And it’s snowing out.

Do not give up. Do not let the obstacles, no matter how numerous or sizeable, overcome that voice inside that tells you that holy shit, you are someone who makes stuff, and that stuff is good, and that people like that stuff. And you can do more stuff, new stuff, and even more people will dig it. You just have to try. You just have to put one word in front of the other, one brush to one canvas, one finger to one key, and just go do it.

You’re in charge of when you stop. You’re in charge of when you start. You’re in charge of what happens next. Always. Forever. Don’t you dare give up.


I’ll be back on Friday with Plot 201.  See you then. Happy writing.

Motivation: Internal, External, and Why You Need To Figure It Out

Good morning everyone.

So many of the things I write have an idea that gets birthed in a conversation where at some point I’ve reached a critical mass of frustration or passion.

For many years, I have considered myself a man driven by passions. I have a love for a thing, so I go do that thing. I get excited to learn something, and I go pick up books and find information and immerse myself in it. It’s how I’ve learned a lot of things, and I don’t think that will ever be a bad outcome.  As I’ve gotten older, as I’ve slowed down, I’ve noticed that by following passion more than anything else, I’ve built a hopscotch pattern of discarded efforts and attempts. It’s not something I’m proud of.

When something starts passionate, I find that it can wear off quickly, when it gets difficult or when something new and shiny comes along. And I, somewhat blindly, jump to the next thing after finding some way to rationalize whatever investment I made in the last thing. In the past, this has led to arguments and discussions alike as to my maturity, as if this is a phase I’m supposed to grow out of, as if part of settling down means the cooling of passion into sort of an acceptance of whatever is in front of you. I’ve always felt that through that lens, passion is something for children, not adults. This conflicts with my thinking that a lot of the passions you have require that you be an adult, both in terms of affording the pursuit, but even the more realistic sense that you need to be tall enough to reach things on shelves or be able to do things without a permission slip.

Breaking this down, putting the newness or excitement about a thing aside (it doesn’t matter if we’re talking a new book, television show, video game, project to work on, or whatever) I start to think about how motivation and passion co-mingle. I think the two intertwine and merge, like highways, carrying us forward through life experiences. Maybe that’s the inner Romantic in me. Maybe that is childish. I couldn’t, and frankly don’t want to say.

What is motivation? Where does it come from? Where can it come from?

This droid had a bad motivator. Don't be this droid, else a farmboy will whine.

This droid had a bad motivator. Don’t be this droid, else a farmboy will whine.

Motivation is the want to do something. That’s all. We can dress it up and get very woo-woo over it, describing it as some quantum force of vibration that needs congruence with the capital-U Universe, and we can get biological about it and say it’s a bio-electric and chemical reaction to a thought, but that means we have to figure out what and how thought works. Because motivation starts with a thought. Your thought. And that’s the critical thing. You’re not going to be motivated without a thought.


A note here before we go further – we can’t talk motivation and have the ideas stick in our minds unless we can agree that honesty, even when painful, is essential for understanding motivations. You have to be willing to be honest with yourself, and that’s no small feat. This is likely not something that will be forever transformed permanently and perfectly because of a blog post, and I’m not looking to do that. I just want to get you thinking, get you moving, and get you challenging yourself. Okay, back to it.


There are two kinds of motivation, and this dichotomy fascinates me. The circumstances where both emerge, and the ways they disguise themselves as the other has become something of a focal point in my work as a coach and editor. I think we should do some defining before we go further.

Internal motivation is your feelings, thoughts, interests, and efforts to do a thing for yourself, or for some reason you supply. Maybe it’s sating a need like having a meal, maybe it’s going to bed, but no matter what the activity is, the itch for it gets scratched because you start a chain of events to accomplish that task. When we create a thing, internal motivation partners with discipline to put our butts in the seat and create, even when so many other things could distract us. For me, internal motivation trumps nearly everything else, even if external motivation seems more intense.

It is internal motivation that sits at the base of wanting to do a thing, of wanting to see that book in-hand or on-shelf. It is internal motivation to commit to the craft, even if external motivation is what it may take to get you started, but we’ll talk about that in a second. I believe that everyone has the capacity to be internally motivated to some degree, and that what catalyzes that is (and should be) different for everyone. I’m driven for my own reasons, just as you are for yours. We may have some overlaps, but we can distinguish our drives from the other.

I write and create because I feel better about myself when I do. That’s not something someone pointed out to me, that’s something I discovered in the eighth grade when I wrote a story about a man taking on the mafia. I edit and coach and help people develop things because it makes me feel useful and good and it seems to be the best thing I’ve ever done in my life today, and again, that was a self discovery. No one can divorce or disintegrate those reasons and those moments of decision from me. The external motivations have and likely will change again, or a dozen agains in my lifetime, but I can always count on the internals.

The external motivations lure us towards effort by bringing stress or expectation. We have to do this thing so that we can make money so that we can keep the lights on. We have to do this thing because a teacher and class expect us to this. We do this to make other people proud of us. We do this so that we can call ourselves members of a group, and it’s important that we have a sense of membership and belonging.

There’s nothing wrong with having external factors motivate you. We all have them, and I think as we get older, and navigate the waters of adult life, they outnumber the internal motivations. But do not confuse quantity for quality. Just because there are more does not make them superior. I leave it to you as how you decide which are superior, though I will give you a hint: look for the satisfaction.

Would you, for yourself, be satisfied with your efforts because they’re done, or because you did this thing so that someone is off your back? Yes, sure, you might be relieved to have someone leaving you alone and not pressuring you to go faster or do something urgently, but is relief the same thing as satisfaction? In your quiet moments, when there isn’t a pressure exerted on you, how do you feel about what you’re doing?

External motivations are ephemeral. You have certain ones based on the job you’re doing, or from the specific circumstances at the time. A parent’s motivations evolve along with their child. As a writer, the motivations to start a project are different from those to continue or conclude a project. The problem with anything ephemeral is that you lose perspective. These issues don’t seem as momentary or as motile as other things in life, so we inflate them and treat them only in their larger and scarier states. And then, when things vanish as ephemeral things are wont to do, you’re left with this sort of void to fill, which naturally leads you to find some other temporary motivator.

Is this good? Is this bad? That’s not for anyone who isn’t you to decide. Yes, we can all have opinions about how someone gets motivated, but ultimately, it’s not our circus and those are not our monkeys.

I lean away from framing motivation as good and bad, and see it now as helpful versus not-as-helpful. Knowing I have to write because people benefit from help is more comforting to me than knowing I have to write because the silence is frightening. Yes, I want to work to support myself and a family one day, but what I do for that work is up to me, and I am at a point in my life where as a follower of passion, I cannot easily settle without making sure I’ve taken my shot.

You can go ahead and blame @snarkbat and @d20Blonde on Twitter for exposing me to Hamilton.

You can go ahead and blame @snarkbat and @d20Blonde on Twitter for exposing me to Hamilton.

It may be tempting to judge someone’s motivation, thinking it will give us a sense of certainty, that through comparison we’ll find where we rank. But, question whether we need to rank in the first place. Why are we competing? What’s the prize? Do the other people know we’re competing?

Spend some time making a list of motivations, then sort out the external from the internal. It may prove tricky because the internals might really be externals you’ve just really buried and bought into for so long, and maybe you won’t even be able to tell the difference with some of things that motivate you, and that’s okay.

Are you motivated? Good. Then go relentlessly, furiously, aggressively, smartly, thoroughly towards whatever your goals are. Run into an obstacle? Educate and train yourself so that you can adapt and keep going forward. Run into doubters, critics, and haters? Don’t let them taint your efforts with their negativity. Keep moving forward. Keep working.

Keep writing.

We’ll talk Wednesday, see you then.

Coaching, Its Benefits, And You

Good morning writers and creators of cool things, often with words. On Wednesday of last week, I announced the return of my Coaching program, and am happy to say that more than a few (certainly more than I was expecting) people have expressed interest. And although I answered everyone’s email over the weekend, I wanted to collate their questions and answers into a blogpost to talk more about coaching, why it’s different than editing, and what it can help you do. I’ve set the post up like an FAQ.

What is Coaching?
Coaching is editing and then-some. Yes, you end up with your MS worked on, but you also get a deeper look at the mistakes you commonly make, and most importantly why you’re making them and how to stop doing it going forward. Built on a simple premise that you’re always going to create better when you’re supported and when you’re aware of how you work best, coaching aims not to just produce a quality manuscript, but also produce a better overall writer (who produces quality manuscripts).

What are some things coaching can help me with?
(this isn’t a complete list)
Self-doubt
Self-rejecting (rejecting yourself before someone has a chance to)
Query letters
Proper grammar
Plot development
Character development
Procrastination
Transitioning from one genre to another
Transitioning from one writing style to another
Making time to write
Transitioning into other media
Finding inspiration to write new things
Dialogue
Finishing projects
Building a practical writing schedule that you actually enjoy following
Point of view efficacy
Correct use of tense

When does the editing happen?
The writing and editing happen WHILE the coaching is happening. (Not like at the same time, because I’m not standing behind you … or am I?) You keep working on your MS, we work on all this stuff together, as it comes up.

How do I know if I need coaching? Isn’t editing enough?
Editing’s enough if you just want to keep the focus on the current manuscript. Coaching is going to help you on the current one and the next manuscript(s).

What kind of editing happens during coaching?
It’s developmental, and it has to be. Just proofreading or even a line edit isn’t going to get to the hows and whys of writer habits.

Wait, remind me what developmental editing is?
It’s a comprehensive type of editing that looks at the MS in the broadest ways (who’s going to read it, what the author intends to do with it, etc), the craft ways (the characters, the plot, the dialog, the exposition, etc) and the technical ways (sentence structure, word choice, spelling, grammar, etc).

And what’s the point? Is this going to help me?
You’re going to get out of it whatever you put in. If you’ve been banging your head against the wall or desk about how you’re going to get yourself writing, or how you’re going to get your MS back on track if you’ve put yourself in a corner, coaching will absolutely help you. If you’re eager to get started and have no idea where, coaching will help you. In short – coaching can help you get writing, and writing well.

This sounds like it’s going to cost me an arm and a leg. Is it expensive?
As you can see on the Rates page, it’s $80 an hour. You pay for each hour of coaching, though if you want to  split the payment up, we can work that out. Just send me an email.

Is there a contract?
There is. It’s straightforward, and it spells out what we’re doing, how many hours we’re doing it for and all the payment particulars. It’s very similar to the contract discussed here.

As a client, how would we communicate?
We’d work in whatever way(s) work for you. Email, phone call, Skype, Google+ Hangout, Google Chat Window, In-person meeting (if you’re in NJ, parts of PA, DE, MD, NY, or CT) are all possibilities, though I’m flexible to others you may suggest.

When would the coaching happen?
We’d set up a date and time. I don’t do reminders, so that responsibility is on you, but we’d set up when a session would happen each time. I don’t schedule sessions on Sundays or holidays.

What if I need to cancel?
Cancel up to 8 hours before your session without a problem. Cancel sooner than that, and I invoice you for half a session. Exceptions apply, but don’t abuse the policy.

I get invoiced?
Yes, after every session, I give you an invoice.

$80 is steep for me. If I do half an hour, can I get a reduced rate?
Email me, and we can talk it out.

Is it possible to do a package of coaching?
It will be in the future (I don’t have that mapped out yet), but again, write me an email and we’ll talk it out.

What if I have questions?
Email or Twitter are the best places to ask them.

This Q&A is now also available on the Coaching page.


There are good coaches out there. There are bad ones. You pick the one who you think can work best with you. The goal isn’t just to feed you the same sort of info you can get with a quick Google search and then collect your money, the goal is to get you writing and get you writing better than you were before coaching started. That’s my goal – I want to see your stuff on shelves, in people’s hands, available for downloads, read in smoke signals and semaphore flags, or whatever you want to do with it. It’s your story, it’s your idea, get the best help you can to tell it.

As an editor, as a giver of workshops on writing and editing and publishing, as someone who pores over writing advice, it’s critical to me that people feel empowered enough to write. One of the most common questions I hear from people starts with, “Is it okay if ….” or “In my story, I have …” as people are just looking for the permission, the validation, to do a thing they think is cool. And yes, it’s cool that you did that. The word police aren’t coming to the door to take your keyboard and fingers away. As an editor and coach, my issue is not that you did it, but that you did it effectively, so it gets the desired result you want. I’m a huge fan of results and production, and I cast many side glances and headshakes towards those resources, people, “experts”, blogs, books, and videos that lose themselves in highbrow artsy discussions of what is or what isn’t writing. So many voices out there get silenced by the fear and doubt that some nebulous shadowy story-illuminate will decry their efforts because it’s not “legit”. Coaching isn’t about getting “legit”. It’s about remembering that you already are “legit”, and that there’s someone in your corner to keep you going.

You feel like you've been knocked around, it's my job to keep you fighting. I believe in you. You're no bum.

You feel like you’ve been knocked around, it’s my job to keep you fighting. I believe in you. You’re no bum.

I take this seriously. We can too easily make mountains of things to discourage ourselves, keep us from trying to do new things, keep us thinking we’re not good enough, or we’re too stupid. We are so quick to heap negatives onto our backs and in our minds that the positives become both mirages and oases in the vast wasteland of trying to get shit done.

It can feel a lot like this when you're trying your best.

It can feel a lot like this when you’re trying your best.

It can be tough admitting that you need help. It be can really intense and jarring to realize that you’ve reached some kind of limit and that you don’t know what to do next or how to do it. If I can tell you anything, it’s that you always have options, there’s always something that can be done, even if it’s unpleasant, scary, or embarrassing.

Writer, creator of things, you’re not alone. This is an opportunity to get your idea even beyond where you thought it could go. Taking control, not letting the doubt, fear, anxiety, frustration, naysayers, or lack of knowledge stop you is empowering. It basically makes you as cool as this guy:

Seriously, we all want to be this guy sometimes.

Seriously, we all want to be this guy sometimes. I mean he’s still wearing his pajama …

I’m here to help. I want to see you succeed. I think coaching is a great tool to have in your arsenal.

We’ll talk again Wednesday. Have a great day, write well, rock somebody’s face off.

Realism, Created Realism, and Creative Liberty

While you’re reading this, I’m a doctor’s appointment. But since almost anything is going to be better to hear about than my thrilling adventures paying $11 an hour for parking and shuffling from exam room to exam room, let’s talk writing. And we’ll start by talking about my dad.

I seldom paint my father in flattering lights, because at times our ‘relationship’ (loosest possible air-quotes there) ranges somewhere from cruel to cold to hostile to indifferent. I think this story falls in the indifferent region.

My dad has an obsession with realism. He wants to know things that really happened, he will comment loudly and often as to how realistic something is or was, and generally be dismissive of anything that isn’t grounded in hard verifiable fact. I think this ties into his obsession with honesty, since the minute anyone says anything different than what has been said previously (even as a correction) he will label them a dishonorable liar, and state that nothing they say can be believed. This proclamation lasts anywhere from twelve to forty-eight hours and dogs them long after, and is not limited to people. Movies and books are also held to this scrutiny.

He’s called out a movie like the Hobbit for both obvious reasons (there aren’t wizards in the world, and that guy isn’t a dwarf, he’s an actor he saw in another movie) and the not-so-obvious (a dragon would have just burnt the entire town, not saved one wooden tower from where someone could fight back). He’s sighed and grumped his way through comedies like the Naked Gun because a pratfall would lead to actual injury. Even media he likes (James Bond, Civil War movies and books) aren’t immune from this, because he’ll make a point of telling you that while it has things he likes, “you can’t really believe the author, because they weren’t there and they might be lying just to make money, because that’s what people do, make things up for money.”

This happens so frequently that I now avoid any opportunity to watch television with him, outside of football. But, I tell you this story because there’s an important creative point buried in among all my father’s obsessions – realism is subjective, malleable and under the author’s control.

We accept a certain amount of realism if we’re not outright told about it. A thriller about a Washington insider uncovering a conspiracy is assumed to have Earth-based gravity and physics, for instance. The high fantasy war between clans of elves is going to involve some weapons or terms you can see actual pictures of like castles, longbows, or catapults. This realism is the foundation for whatever we do change when we write, and we count on the reader passively agreeing to a base amount of uncommunicated information before we get too far, even on Page 1.

And we use that realism because to detail all the things that are the same as the reader’s experience would eat up pages and likely be lethal boring. Even in a simple expositive paragraph or point of narration like “And many things were exactly as they were on an average Earth day.” (Go on, read that in Stephen Fry’s voice, I dare you.) is kind of dull sentence that can clog up whatever momentum you’re building. Yes, narration confirms tone, but every sentence confirms tone, even when it isn’t explicit.

In light of the assumed commonalities the made up stuff has with our real life stuff, we’re free then to talk about what’s different. It’s the differences that make the story not only stand out when compared to other stories on the shelf, but also distinguish the writer’s efforts and craftwork.

The fiddly bit here is that while the differences are made up by the author, they’re real within the context of the book. There’s a fancy I-went-to-school term for this (one I actually like) called created realism.If you’re writing a space opera and you decide that the currency of your space realm is a cube of some precious metal, and you name them blortblatts, then blortblatts are a thing in your story, as real as the trignominium that powers your FTL drives and the quantodecaoscillators that fire your space soldier’s graser shotgun.

Maybe this is something you’ve always understood, but didn’t know there was a name for it. Maybe you didn’t realize how critical this is for all storytelling, from children’s books (it’s how the animals talk) to bestsellers (a secret government program of assassins exists, and one has amnesia). This concept is limited only by our decision making-process (remember Rule 1 – writing is the act of making decisions).

This is a good spot to point out that judging a story (book/film/tv show/whatever) on how realistic is can make for a disappointing experience. What my dad does, discarding or disregarding media because it’s not so deeply and almost inflexibly rooted in real life stuff, means he doesn’t let himself enjoy things as much as he could. From a production standpoint, taking this idea on means you can paralyze yourself in trying to make the fake stuff you made up while writing notes in that coffee shop last week sound as real as the stuff you saw at Costco yesterday. You can grind yourself to a halt trying way too hard to do a thing you don’t actually need to do.

Lack of realism isn’t always a bad thing. Just like anything else, if you take it too far, then yes, it can render anything you make hard to follow, but used effectively, you can make made up stuff sound just like a real thing. Here are some examples:

A brand of gun or car someone uses; a corporation; the CEO of that corporation; a brand of cereal; currency; slang used by characters; names of battles or maneuvers; landmarks within a region; species of animal or plants; type of drinks; fast food offerings; television networks; people; places; things

See what I’m getting at? It’s through created realism that we draw creative liberty. If poetic license is where you take an existing thing tweak it just a little so that it suits your need, then creative liberty is where something is made up entirely, even if it has real world models or references.

And it’s okay to do that. It’s completely fine. It doesn’t make you a bad person, a bad author, or a bad creator. Yes, my dad might never read your stuff, but my dad doesn’t read a lot of stuff, and he certainly couldn’t be bothered to write a review either way (because, surprise, you can’t trust anything on the internet … though the man does trust television news … hmm)

Take liberties. Make stuff up. Design and create what you want to, and do it the best ways you know how. You’re the boss of your writing, so you can do whatever you need to do to get the story from Point A to Point B, or point Q in your head to point Z finally on paper.

Keep writing. Keep going.

Personal Note: Hopefully today’s trip to the doctor has more good news than bad. Cross appendages. We’ll talk soon. Follow me on Twitter for loads more writing info, especially next week while I’m traveling.

Jumping Out Of The Plane

Let’s take a break from the discussions of my terminal condition and the heartache, and talk about something positive. I’m in a fair bit of pain so let’s talk about something practical and safe and worthwhile.

Jumping out of planes.

Not the “oh man, I’m plummeting towards the earth as a bajillion miles an hour and allegedly woo this is fun so oh man isn’t this cool as I possible die” jumping out of planes, I mean the sort of risk taking where you can really make a difference to your world without even needing to wear goggles.

I use the phrase “jump out of the plane” whenever I talk to someone about pushing themselves in a new direction, in the hopes that they actually make the transition from all-talk to talk-plus-action, because I believe that when you take action, your dreams become a bit more realized and tangible, and the results of those first actions motivate you to find additional things to do, and before you know it you’ve built up this momentum AND accomplished your goal.

It doesn’t matter if the goal is learning a new skill or starting a family or a relationship or even and apparently more frightening than both of those things, starting a new career path. What makes all those things scary is the unknown-ness of it. You don’t know how it’s going to go. You don’t know what’s out there, you don’t feel like you have a lot of control because you’ve done a bit of thinking and are overwhelmed by the variables you worry about than take pride in the elements you can control.

I encourage you to look at what you have, not what you don’t, and then rally your courage and remember that this goal is what YOU wanted, not what someone else wants or what someone else expects. (It isn’t right? You’re living your own life, right? If not, start back at the top of this post and re-read it until you are).

What you have is ambition. What you have and might not count as having is resources. An awareness and knowledge of both is critical.

For the purposes of our very broad example, let’s suppose you want to change jobs and get yourself into a situation where you can write for a living. It’s a tough choice, for sure, because maybe you’re leaving a job that’s provided insurance and stability but has thus far left you stressed and unsatisfied. I understand that stability is important, but ask yourself, what’s the point of stability and playing it safe if it requires you to feel so uncomfortable? What if there was a way to not be those things AND get what you want? Aren’t you good enough to at least deserve the basics of hope? Shit, I’m dying and I just lost my engagement and people are jerks to me and I still deserve hope. You do too. Even without all the emotional turmoil I’ve had lately (Sidenote: Sometimes there are really good people and really good things that happen and it becomes easier, go #TeamJohn) So let’s take your hope and your want to be a writer and go forward.

But what’s next? What are the next steps? Use your resources.

First, I’m going to assume that you write. You want to be a writer, the activity is in the job title. You’re going to need to be writing regularly, setting up a disciplined schedule where you write more than just one word a week, where you know this is your dream and your goal and you designate appropriate time towards it because it’s important to you. Sorry League of Legends, random television shows with laugh tracks and Law and Order re-runs, you’re on a mission. There’s no going back. Just like you can’t un-jump out of the plane, you can’t let your goal stop being a goal because you’re scared. Fear is not the boss of you. So write. Put your words on the page. Put your soul and your guts out there. Take the risk. Your efforts will be rewarded. Maybe not right the second you write them (If you want to test that, write the sentence ‘Please send [INSERT ATTRACTIVE PERSON’S NAME HERE] into my room right now, then wait 25 seconds. If they don’t show up, I’ve proved the point. If they do show up, I’d love to know if you can teach me this sorcery), but eventually with persistence, your efforts will find a reward. You have to believe in yourself, believe in the fact that you can accomplish your goal in some way/shape/form and that you can do this. No one should be a louder cheerleader for your success than yourself. So write.

Second, I’m going to assume you’ve at least looked at the playing field. It’s far more diverse and open than you may have realized. You can head out on your own, self-publishing or traditional publishing manuscripts. You can serialize work, you can start a podcast, a Patreon, a comic book, a screenplay… etc etc. You have options.

But let’s take a second and talk something with a little more structure and a little less “I have some many options I don’t know what to do”. Suppose you wanted to ease yourself into writing. Let’s say you wanted to write for pay. There are many great websites and online magazines that will take submissions and pay by the word. How do you find them? Check social media. Talk to writers. Ask questions.

What if you wanted a career writing for someone else? I’d super strongly advise you to consider this, especially if you’re coming out of school, because while I never had the pleasure of student loans, I’ve heard they suck and I’m guessing you’d want to be able to have a little stability as you emerge from some academic cocoon. Check out TheLadders, for instance, get used to the idea of promoting yourself, and make use of the opportunities that career hunting can offer you. Again, just know your goal, demonstrate to people that you have skills and a want to work, and see where it takes you.

When I say promoting yourself, I sometimes hear that people are discouraged from doing that, that it’s selfish or arrogant or somehow defies a gender role, so let me say this — All people, regardless of who they are or what they are or how they identify or how they live their lives deserves an equal chance to speak their minds, advocate for themselves and have an opportunity to prosper. Ladies don’t ruin gaming or publishing or writing, you guys. They don’t get lady-cooties on your stuff, and they aren’t monsters who want to dumb things down. They’re ladies. They’re humans.

And ladies, the bulk of the male population is not spoken for by the very loud cretins of the internets. Do not mistake volume for clarity of message. Put down the paintbrush and the victim attitudes and treat everyone better. We’re all in this together, we can all work together, we can all coexist. Let’s all agree to stop being jerks and cooperate. There’s plenty of room at the table for all our awesome.

So promote yourself. Get on social media. Talk about your life, talk about your goals. Don’t just shout your sales potential into the void, that’s like walking into a job interview screaming “Hire me” over and over. Put away the idea that you’re a brand. Brands are for cattle and horses and caffeinated beverages. You’re a person. Share your person-ality with people.

And over time, pursue opportunities. Go after those writing contests. Submit things to open calls. Follow accounts on social media that tell you when companies are interested in work (@Submittable on twitter, for example)

Be brave, you can do this. Don’t let rejection stop you. Rejection doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing this at all. Rejection can mean anything from “your approach was off, re-adjust and try again later” to “it’s not you, it’s me, so try again later.” The key part is “try again later”. Don’t give up. Fight back. Stand up for yourself. You can do this, if you make the effort.

So jump out of the plane. It’s not a freefall, it’s about taking the risk armed with parachute of certainty in your goals and ambition and the parachute of education (not necessarily academic).

I’ll see you when you touch down.

Stay awesome.

Love What You Make

Trigger warning for suicide, addiction, recovery, self-harm. But it gets better.

First of February. Super Bowl Sunday. Many people will be happily around a TV, beer in hand, cheering on a game marked by terrible commentary (give me commercialless RedZone and Scott Hanson all day) and commercials that seem to promote controversy or conversation rather than products. People go banana for this, and I can’t say I share their unbridled joy.

Because last year, I was dying. Blood on the floor sort of dying. The serious kind. I hated myself. I hated what I had become. I hated what I was doing to other people. Life was not an experience in joy and happiness, it was torture for hours on end, punctuated by a few hours of sleep where my brain lectured me on what I was doing wrong. To put it mildly, it sucked.

Life as an addict is not what they show you on TV. There’s no orchestral swell, there’s no tight close-up on someone’s face as they hit some rush of bliss, which then allows them to solve the mystery of the week or grants them insight to handle a problem. It’s also not some glamorized crime cycle. It’s dull. It’s tedious. It’s a craving and inserts itself into your life with all the bluster of a roommate who doesn’t pay rent and who thinks anything in the fridge is fair game. You find yourself lost to it. Lost to the mechanical process. Begging every situation to let you cater to a chemical. And we’re not even talking about the social pressure, guilt, and shame that you feel when you realize this is the sort of “disgusting” behavior that you’re “not supposed to do.” Forget criminal activity, our culture makes an addict a glamorous leper.

So, I’m less concerned with the game, and more focused on the distance between that life and this one. This post goes live on Sunday, which means it’s my 364th day sober. And the old me, that guy who existed more than lived, that guy who wrecked friendships and relationships and who left a trail of destruction tornadoes could be proud of, he died on that bathroom floor. He had to. There weren’t any other options after you carve a misspelled word in your arm (hey’s it’s hard to spell upside down, and you have to do it upside down, so that other people can see it later). He’s dead. I’m still mourning him. I’m still pissed at him.

But in his place, I showed up. The me now started that Monday, all bandaged up and in a fog of what-the-hell-do-I-do-now. I landed myself in a really nice facility and cleaned up. I give no specific details, but you won’t need them for what I’m going to talk about now.

Somewhere, about a week in, when people were pretty sure I wasn’t going to escape or hurt myself, about the time when I got to enjoy sharing meals with people (Because I could taste food for the first time in years, rather than having about a third of my palette working), I was told I’d need something to do between the hours of therapy and sleeping. I had options, and was told if I was good at it and well-behaved, I’d be given a few more rewards (I think an extra phone call was on the line, I don’t remember). I chose to work in the kitchen.

Now this wasn’t an institution, this was a private facility, so the food was fresh and seasonal and not too far from what I would make at home. I still had to be supervised (because knives), but I got to do something that I was good at. I got trusted to do a thing that other people were counting on. If I slacked, people didn’t eat. If I slacked, I’d be back under lockdown and they’d probably take away something I earned for myself.

But in that kitchen, I wasn’t doing it just so that I didn’t get in trouble. That was one of the primary directives of the dead-me: Do work just enough so that people don’t yell at you or think you’re lazy. I was in that kitchen because I can love people in that space. I can put food on plates that makes people feel good. Something I create not only cares for people (filling them with nutrients to live) but also expresses how I feel about them. Love someone? Make food they’ll smile about. Hate someone? Make food so good they’ll reconsider how they feel about you.

Food is love. Making things is love. You care enough to show people that something you’re making or doing is important to you to the point where you feel driven to share it … because not sharing it would be depriving good people the chance to share in something beautiful and awesome.

So in that kitchen, I held a knife and helped cook. It was sort of like having your child on a stepstool next to you while you do the serious work, but help is help and everything in the kitchen comes together to give an experience. It’s a machine, it’s either going to work or it’ll seize up and not get anywhere. I helped. It was the first thing this-me ever did, and the fact that it was a demonstration of skill and love is fundamental to who I am now.

It was simple food (compared to what I’m doing lately), but I cared about doing a good job – not so that people would praise me, but because if I did good job, I could feel good about it. That’s important – the times I deviate from that and do things to get praise, it stresses me right out and I’m a wreck.

I love what I make. I don’t care if it’s something simple like meat and egg breakfast or more complex like eastern european paella . I don’t care if we’re talking my game or my character in someone else’s game. I love what I make. There’s joy there. There’s peace there. It makes life fun.

I still believe in “Do what you love”, but I think there’s a corollary about loving what you do. Sure, there are tasks that you’re doing because of responsibilities or obligations or expectations (that day job so you can afford rent and electricity so you can come home and do something you’re excited to do, for instance), but I’m not talking about the stuff that has to be done to make room for other stuff. That other stuff? That’s where you live. That day job or obligation-stuff is Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne, your cover story until it’s time to get your cape and groove on.

There’s no denying that the stuff you love can be hard work at times. It can be tough to compete with the build-up you give it in your head, it can be tough to actually make yourself do the thing (like writing regularly or spending time blogging or whatever), but when you love what you produce, the hard work has an undeniable value – either in the lessons learned along the way or by the end result (ideally both).

Today I cross another thing off my bucket list, and I will (work hard to) spend the day celebrating the me that is here, not fighting the me that’s gone.

Go tell people you love them. Go make some happiness for yourself and others.

You’re awesome.

On Teflon and Over-commitment

The original seed for this post is from months ago, and I’ve toyed with several drafts of it since then, but it’s only been in the last week or so that I’ve been able to express the ideas in a way that I feel is appropriate and not colored by situational emotion. 

Teflon

Let’s suppose you’re a person making a thing. For this example, it doesn’t matter what that thing is or who you are specifically, you’re just a person and you have some goal in your mind. Got that? Now let’s further suppose that you were raised and you’re used to a culture around yourself that doesn’t fully encourage you. Sure, it encourages you a little, maybe in snippets here and there, maybe it’s done on the sly or whatever, but with each dose of “you can do it”, there’s also a big heap of “you can do it but …” followed by some sort of excuse or limitation that someone else expresses to you. Here are some examples:

  • A parent telling you that what you’re trying to do is really hard, so don’t get your hopes up.
  • A friend telling you that what you’re doing sounds stupid.
  • A spouse or partner telling you that if this doesn’t work out, that it will have been a big waste of time or money or resources.
  • A friend telling you that what you’re doing shouldn’t be done, because no one will notice or pay attention.

See where I’m going here? There’s a trend of negativity that comes along either in place of or along with encouragement. For me, this was almost entirely parental, and then repeated by a few early relationships. Praise was (and remains) non-existant from one of my parents, save when someone else is watching, and even then it has to be something significant. This meant my other parent had to sneak encouragement in on the sly, like believing in myself was some kind of taboo that we shouldn’t be doing.

The effects of that abuse (and let’s be clear, it’s pretty abusive to erode someone’s sense that they’re able to do things) are potent. I grew up and have lived for years with the entrenched ideas that I’m either not good enough to accomplish things, that the things I want to accomplish are insignificant or fruitless or dumb and that praise is something absolutely fought for, not earned and not easily doled out. Also, the criteria for praise is unknown to me (even to this day, and will likely remain so, since this one of those verboten topics of discussion like my mom’s cancers, my depression or what I was doing over the last ten years.), so I can’t even create a situation where praise would be given.

What that does for me is make it hard to accept praise. It’s so foreign and unknown to me that I spent months of therapy just learning that people can say nice things without some kind of addendum of negativity. The compliments, the praise, the encouragement slides right off, like I’m Teflon-coated.

Is it that way for you? Are you someone who does whatever-it-is-you-do, and when that goes well you “don’t know what to do with the things people say if they’re not negative”? Maybe you’re the sort of person who rebounds from a compliment with a “You’re just saying that.” or “You’re biased” or “That’s great but I don’t believe you.”

As I get healthier, I have come to find that believing in yourself is the hardest part of being alive. Period. It’s the lack of belief, the absence of the knowledge that I’m good enough that drove me time and again to suicide attempts. It’s the lack of knowledge that I matter (independent of whoever tells me I matter to them), that brings up all kinds of resignations and beliefs that I’m worthless or useless or stupid.

You can and should believe in yourself. You’re doing a thing, you’re writing that book, you’re making that game, you’re providing for yourself and maybe even a family, you’re shaking what your momma gave you, you’re doing things that make you feel good about yourself and things that earn you an income and things that you’re proud to say you do.

Do I know how to make you do this? Nope. I barely know how to do this myself. Hell, I’m in therapy to learn how to have hope, so don’t expect this blogpost to have some super formula to generate belief. I just want to erect the signpost on all our maps that we might stop wandering through this bullshit forest that we don’t deserve to believe in ourselves and have good things happen, and lead ourselves out to better things.

Here’s a story: I know a person. They have often said, “Oh John, I wish I could do XYZ.” and I have often replied, “You should go do XYZ, I think you’d be really good at it.” They answer back, “I guess so, maybe, but …” and then attach any number of excuses or limitations as to why I’m wrong for saying they’d be good at a thing. But eventually, they give XYZ a shot. And they accomplish what they set out to do. When I go to congratulate them, they respond with “But I still don’t know if I can do XYZ”, and then I almost always make a face and walk away.

If you’re doing XYZ, and there’s no one screaming at you to stop, there’s no war breaking out, there’s no people dying, there’s no sudden outbreak of evil creatures from the far side of existence, then you can in fact do XYZ.

At some point, you have to stop thinking you can’t do a thing and either realize that you’re already doing it, so you already have the permission you think you need or you should walk away entirely from XYZ until you realize that the first line of permission to do something comes from yourself, not some outside source. Sure, the outside source can give you access to the materials, they can make it easier for you, but you have to let yourself do a thing, and be good at it, eventually. Over time, you’ll get better at a thing because you keep doing it, whether that’s writing or juggling or knitting or playing with yourself or making pickles or whatever. You’re in charge of you. Loads of people want to do XYZ too, and if you get the opportunity to do it, seize the shit out of it, make the most of every second, and give it your all.

It takes work to scrape the teflon off yourself, and that scouring process exposes vulnerable flesh underneath. But trust yourself, keep reminding yourself about that permission you already have, and instead of panicking and reaching for some thick armor (passive aggression, sarcasm, deprecation, hostility, etc), remember that over time, you’ll get used to it, and maybe even like the fact that you’ve given yourself permission to do or be someone or something.

Over-commitment

Let’s tell another story as we change topics. I know a person. They love to tell anyone who will listen all the things they’re doing. Oh they’re going over here and doing this. Now they’re going over there and doing that. Later, they’ll go to this third place and this other thing. They do so much. They look forward to the stack of praise or income or recognition. Sure, you might think ‘Oh John, is this a story about how you should look at the process and not the end result?. No, it isn’t. This is a story about what the end result means to you. Because this person I know conflates the end result with the measure of their self-worth, so in order for them to be a good person, they have to be a busy person, they have to be seen as a person doing all those things.

So what, you ask, they’re doing stuff, who cares? True, this isn’t a big deal … if all the stuff they’re doing is sequential, and all the stuff they’re doing is manageable in that same sequence. But the minute you make things overlap, or introduce many moving parts to the things being done, reconsider the busyness. What if that person is now so busy and juggling so many things that all this busyness doesn’t pay off. Drop the ball once, sure, that’s human. Drop it multiple times, in different ways, back to back to back? Now the busyness looks far more like a hunt for validation, a chance for the spotlight to fall on them and illuminate their greatness, a chance for them to feel proud about their accomplishments, right?

Over-commitment is a poisonous quicksand. It’s evidence of poor time management, poor scheduling and poor discipline. Any one of those can doom a freelancer to a short career, and any two or more of those leads to a bevy of stunted, short term interactions, bad working relationships and far more dead ends than success stories.

Tempting as it may be to hunt for the reason, or play the blame game or find some way of excusing it every time it happens, over-commitment is a behavior that’s often a pattern, and it’s a tricky one, especially if it’s hanging out with its buddies emotional manipulation and denial.

Over-commitment wants you to dig yourself into a hole, so that you can perpetuate whatever negative crap you have floating in your head (that you’re not good enough, that you’re a victim, that other people are better, etc) because “obviously other people are better and I’m screwed up, because other people don’t seem to be over-committed and I do”. Over-commitment is the lead bully in your 80s movie, giving you swirlies and forcing you to learn karate from a janitor.

Emotional manipulation is the toady who always gets away clean. It’s not your fault, there’s these other problems. There’s nothing that could be done, this had to happen. It’s always someone else’s fault, always something to blame, and always making the other people have to justify or take on guilt for their actions instead of the acceptance of responsibility and the active correction of really shitty behavior. It’s the weaselly toady with the obnoxious laugh that eventually folds in the face of actual effort.

Denial is that other toady, the one who maybe just wants you to put someone in a body bag or the guy who just sort of sits in the car and looks menacing, but doesn’t really act on their own. Because denial isn’t good on its own. It’s need the other people and things to blame, so that as a tag team with emotional manipulation, no ownership of problems actually occurs. Whatever the problem is, it’s always happening to other people far more than it’s happening to them, and even if it is (here comes the manipulation), there’s a few things that need to be known so that other people are made to feel guilty rather than let them feel their feelings and maybe, I don’t know, be angry about situation.

What do you do? Crane kick the shit out of over-commitment. Here’s four steps.

1. Get in the habit of taking ownership of your mistakes without adding extra guilt. That extra guilt is just going to make people feel sorry for you, and spread a little more of that manipulation around. Knock it off. Own your shit.

2. Get a schedule, be it a calendar or a day planner or whatever and use it. Keep track of what you do and when you do it. Take the time to keep yourself on target even if that means you have to miss thirty seconds of your favorite show or you don’t get to tweet that one thing one more time. When you blow an appointment or miss something you’ve scheduled, see item 1 above.

3. Learn to say “No”. You don’t have to do all that stuff. You’re going to get praise for doing one thing the same way you’ll get praise for doing ten more at the same time. You don’t need to busy yourself up so that people recognize your greatness. Greatness comes from effort and accomplishments, not lengthy to-do lists and nebulous plans.

4. When you make a mistake, see items 1, 2, and 3. No one is perfect. You’re going to make mistakes. When you do, apologize, make amends, and try again, with the plan to do better. Now yes, sometimes, when you burn some bridges, you won’t get a second chance with some people, and that’s the consequence of your actions. It sucks, but there it is. Now go see item 1 and move forward.

As you get better at this, I bet that karate-teaching janitor is going to be really pleased at your progress.

See? Told you so.

                            See? Told you so.

Happy writing and creating.

The ‘Welcome To Writer Fight Club’ Sale

The road to publication is a tough one. Putting aside for the moment the fact that you actually have to write a book, the expense of getting it looked at, edited, and published can be far more than a simple “this is just something I wrote on the weekends” budget can bear. It’s not uncommon for edits to cost hundreds of dollars or more. And those might be hundreds of dollars you don’t have.

So what can I do to help you, writer?

How about a deal for the next 30 days?

The Welcome To Writer Fight Club Sale

If you’re writing and come to me for editing or developmental advice**, your first 9000 words WILL COST YOU A PENNY EACH.

(** “editing and developmental advice” is defined as ANY kind of edit, from copyediting to developmental)

What Happens After 9000 words?

Starting with word 9001, the rate returns to its variable amount, based on whatever kind of editing you need (so anywhere from .02 to .11 on average) – but that’s something we work out. You’ll know well in advance.

How Do I Know What Kind of Edit I Need?

Here’s a quick guideline:

  1. If you need the sort of grammar/punctuation/continuity edit that you’d receive from an English teacher (commas, periods, quotations, sentence fragments, vague sentences, etc), that’s a copy edit.
  2. If you need a deeper edit that looks at dialogue, pacing, and just a little plot and all of the above, that’s a line edit.
  3. If you need a deeper edit than that, one that looks at character development, plot development, actions, genre appropriate material, mood, tone, POV, and all of the above, that’s a developmental edit.

To give you a frame of reference, without this sale, these edits would normally cost you:

  1. Copy Edit of 9000 words = $180
  2. Line Edit of 9000 words = $360
  3. Developmental Edit of 9000 words = $540
  4. 9000 words edited during this sale = $90

BUT FOR THE NEXT 30 DAYS (until May 22, 2014) YOU CAN GET ANY OF THESE EDITS FOR $90.

$90 to get your novel off the ground isn’t a bad deal.

How Do I Get Started?

If you’re interested, send me an email (thewriternextdoor@gmail.com) and let’s talk. Don’t let budget be the obstacle keeping you from telling your story and making art.

Welcome to Writer Fight Club.