Patreon And Other Things I’m Doing

Hey everyone!

Hope you’re doing well.

So, I’ve been doing some stuff, and that means you get a quick little note about some of those things. Let’s go straight down my to-do list.

Patreon
Yeah, I know, I’ve had like 4 different versions of Patreon set up, I know I have decried it before. Feel free to jump into the comments and call me a hypocrite or an idiot. What I’m going to tell you is twofold: first, I didn’t “get” it and second, a lot of my screwing it up had to do with being incredibly afraid to try.

See, I’ve had a good case of the yips lately. (For those that don’t know what that means, it’s a way of saying I’ve been really gunshy and unsure about what I’m doing and whether or not I’m good at anything). And thanks to those yips this blog has been quiet. And thanks to those yips I don’t think I’ve really done well with tweeting. And because I think I didn’t do well before, I carry it forward, and it cycles over and over, cementing the yips and making it hard to throw the brakes on and change momentum.

Patreon is a way to do that. I’d love your support, I appreciate every dollar, and it’s all getting dumped right back into this blog and my passion for doing what I do. Here’s the link, thanks for checking it out.

Write More Gooder
For years, and by some estimates it’s up to a decade now, I’ve been talking about “one day.” One day when I do X. One day when I have Y happen. I’m always waiting for that one day like it’s a city bus downtown, even though I spend a lot of time telling people that if we want “one day” we have to go seize it.

One of my “one days” was this – One day, I’ll have a podcast. And I could talk about a lot of things, and I’d like to talk about a lot of things, but I’ve always resisted talking about things because I was so concerned with what other people would think or if they’d even pay attention (sound familiar to anyone?). I’ve made a lot of excuses about why this particular one day would never happen – I didn’t have a microphone, I can’t get Audacity to work, I don’t have the means to make something really polished, etc etc. While a lot of those things are true (I still can’t get Audacity to work 100% of the time and I don’t have the means or horsepower to do a lot of polish work), I do have a microphone, and I really should get off my ass and make this happen.

WRITE MORE GOODER will start in October. Here’s the lovely logo that I assume all my vastly more talented friends will tell me is garbage:

podcast2

Let’s not talk about how hard I worked on that.

The Traveling John RoadShow of Writing
Another of the “one day” issues was that I have always wanted to speak to more writers. Any writers. Usually this nets me a small local group here in Jersey, sometimes I get to Skype in with some group in PA or Delaware. But last I checked, the world is way bigger than that, and I am pretty sure there are writers out there who might like to hear some of the things I say.

So I’m going on the road. I’ve been putting together a list of conventions, groups, cities, and writers, and while there’s not a lot of money yet so that I can reach all of these people and places, I’m confident that with enough time and work, I can get some. I want to bring what I know to you. Patreon is one way we can make that happen. (Editing and Coaching are others)

Yips or not, this is me getting back up on the horse. I love you, I believe in you, I want to make awesome stuff with you. Happy writing.

Writers and Envy

We start this week with a post that I’ve been toying with for a while – you’ll find I do that, my Drafts folder has 30+ posts in some state of ideas or partiality – today we’re going to talk about jealousy, and not as a story concept.

Let’s start today with a trip to any convention, awards show, or bookstore. Doesn’t matter which one. Here’s the scene:

So we’re standing (or sitting) there, and we’re watching other people’s success. Maybe they’re going up on a stage to get an award. Maybe they’ve got a whole room full of people lined up at a signing, maybe the bookstore can’t keep their books on the shelf. We’re right there, watching this, and no matter if we’re clapping or not, no matter if we’re in the line or not, no matter if we’re holding a book to buy it or not, we feel this yank somewhere down around the stomach, and it coils its way back through the spinal cord and its malevolent fingers snarl and hiss their way into our brains, and we start getting this feeling, maybe yours comes with a voice (mine sounds a little like Stewie Griffin if he hissed on his s’s)

That other author, that other creative, it hisses, you could be doing that. That could be you, hell that should be you. Why aren’t you the one doing the winning? Don’t people like your work. I guess not. I wonder who does like your work. Probably no one. I mean, the good work is what gets rewarded, and it looks like you don’t have any rewards right now.

That voice is a real bastard.

You know what? Let’s go one more. We’re in your house, and we’re in your favorite reading spot. You just picked a book that a friend recommended. Doesn’t matter who wrote it or what genre it is. You sit down to read it. Everything’s great until you hit that one sentence. That one damned sentence that expresses an idea so beautifully it hurts. The sentence might be long or short (it doesn’t matter), it’s just exactly what needs to be on that page, and back comes that voice.

You’re never going to write anything as good as that. Don’t you wish you could? Don’t you wish your author-voice looked like that? You know what? Let’s get the Pussycat Dolls stuck in a loop in your head too. You deserve that too.

Total. Dick. Move.

I don’t have a fancy term for it, but it’s envy. We get envious of what other people can do, what they win, what they have, and then as a bounce-back from that jealousy, we start measuring ourselves against it and always find a new way to make ourselves woefully inadequate. Some of us could even go professional in our lack-of-measuring-up-ness. If we could make a living doing it, we’d own mansions and yachts.

Envy is when we look at what other people are doing or what they have and believing that we should have it instead or the other person shouldn’t have it at all. It’s a feeling that in a comparison between us and them, because our brains love to separate along us/them divides, we’re getting the short end of not just one stick, but a whole forest full of sticks.

There’s a few things at work here, so let’s unpack them.

A) It suggests that you think you’re work, incomplete or not, is shit when compared to other people’s work. Fun fact: You can’t measure your unfinished work against someone else’s finished work. They’re not comparable on the same terms. Of course the house still being built isn’t as nice as the fully furnished one. Of course the pencil sketch you just started a second ago where you drew one line isn’t the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Even if it is done, here’s another way to look at it – can you compare a garter snake to a king cobra? They’re both snakes, they’re both found on the planet, they’re both things you can google or run away from, so why can’t I get really specific about weighing them against one another? Because one’s going to kill you and the other is a nuisance in a cornfield.

Authors: your crime thriller and that lady’s epic fantasy novel are both books the same way the garter and the cobra are both snakes.  But aside from being printed on paper, and having ink on that paper, and a few other bits that we use to define them as “books”, the similarities stop. I’ll even give you a pass on them being in the same language and using the same font size. They’re still very different things. A different thing is not automatically a bad thing. Just like how you’re different from me, and that doesn’t make either of us wrong or bad. Unless you’re a clown, because then I doubt you’re human at all.

What we do is different from each other, and that’s one of the best parts of being a creative. We can all take the same writing prompt and tell completely different stories. No one’s wrong that way, just different.

B) It suggests that there’s a reason someone shouldn’t be having the experience (that you’re aware of) them having. This two parts to this one – first let’s all take a moment to recognize that you’re not the one who dispenses permission slips for people to do what they do. There isn’t a person who does that. That’s not a thing. Our individual attempts to control are often efforts to manage a sense of powerlessness. (Johnfession: I had that yelled at me once during a breakup fight, and I’ve kept it rattling in my head since)

You’re not in charge of other people’s experience, so you don’t get to determine if they’re allowed to have it. Now I know there’s a great deal of social controversy in that statement, and I don’t care. Everyone, yes even the people you don’t like, gets to have their experience, because you know, they’re like alive and stuff. Likewise, they’re allowed to create whatever they like, even if you don’t like it.

Second, you’re not them, so you don’t know the whole picture of their experience. You see the end result that got them to that convention or awards stage or bookstore, but you don’t know if the effort to get them there cost them a marriage or they had to do it while dealing with kids and a mortgage or a dying parakeet or a drug problem or coming to terms with the fact they like Ke$ha and Taylor Swift music.

Only they know how hard they worked, because they did the work. Everything and everyone else with a thing to say (positive or negative) is reacting to their own opinion of that work. Opinions aren’t the arbiters of experience, facts are. We don’t have all the facts about how someone worked, so our concept of it is limited. And with a limited picture, we can’t accurately say that they do or don’t deserve the results they’re having.

C) What they’re doing is no indication of whether or not you can do it too. How we create is unique to us. We might all be making books, or phat beats, but how we go about it, even with the same tools in hand, is specific to us. Just because we can all write a sentence using the word “callipygian” doesn’t make my sentence or your sentence better than everyone else’s. We might like certain sentences better for a variety of reasons specific to us, but we’re still talking opinions. About things external to us.

Could you have strung together the same words and done the same as some other author? Not necessarily. Remember that when we’re looking at that convention or stage or store shelf, we’re seeing factors beyond the words – there’s the audience, the marketing, the cover. That success they’re having that you wish you were having is a confluence of a lot of factors. You have your own factors, and that’s where I suggest we take this post so we can wrap it up.

It’s so tempting to look at how well someone is doing and knock ourselves down a few pegs because of it.But we’re not capable of having their experience, at best, we can have a version of that, provided we do the work to get us there.

Want an audience like that other creative? Go build an audience.
Want a book cover like that? Find an artist, make it happen.
Want to do a signing? Finish the damned book and arrange one.

Yes, of course it always come back to the work. As in doing the work. Not using other people to chart and justify and reference your position. Positions are too motile and fleeting. The minute you put down another word, make another blogpost, meet another person, you’re in a different place than you were. They’re ever changing. Learn to roll with that, and take advantage of it – today’s hard day is often the catalyst for tomorrow being a better one.

And of course, I believe in your ability to do the work, no matter how well someone else is doing.

 

See you later this week. Happy writing.

Social Media For The Anxious & New, part 1

Good morning. Welcome back to the blog. (I’m saying that as much for myself as for you)

As promised on Twitter, today we start a new series: Social Media for the Anxious & New, where we’re going to talk about how authors can use social media in productive proactive ways without sinking hours they may or may not have into it. We’ll also look at some pitfalls and strategies for avoiding them.

Now this post came about in the wake of the ‘Getting Rejected’ series, and was further germinated by my week at GenCon, where I talked to rooms full of writers who thought social media was about as easy to do or as necessary as brain surgery in the dark with your eyes closed.

Previously, I’ve talked a bit about social media, but it was brought to my attention that in that discussion I forgot a significant element – that people aren’t as ready to go running out into oncoming verbal traffic and build their own place to work from. I will admit now that I usually make a conscious effort to look past that part, because getting wrapped up in the assumption that people won’t easily take to a new tool in their writer toolbox is a great way to kill creative inertia and get aimless really fast.

I don’t want people to feel overwhelmed, but that does not mean the only prevention means the tiniest of baby steps. That’s a gross simplification and misjudgment of people’s talents, and I just won’t do it. So, here, writers, this is what I’m saying:

You can do this. You can get better at it if you’re doing it already. You can start if you haven’t already. Yes, it’s important. Yes, you should be doing this. Let’s talk about how to do this.

Take a deep breath, and we’ll get into the first part of this.

Item 1 – Making Mistakes

The first thing we’re going to talk about can be summed up with this image:

LEARNMISTAKESPNG

I bet you didn’t know I had access to outdated Adobe products.

There’s no shame in making mistakes. We talk about this up front, because a lot of writers assume that when they do something involving social media, because of that pesky word ‘social’, that whatever they do has to be PERFECT. Like flawless. Like it should be a model for all future generations and species.

It doesn’t. It can’t. Do not pressure yourself by thinking that every missive is the perfect embodiment of information. You’re not perfect. It’s not perfect. There is no perfect.

What you’re doing instead is communicating. Openly. Messily. Honestly. Imperfectly.

And because it’s imperfect, there are going to be mistakes. You’ll have a typo. You’ll skip a word in a sentence because you’re typing too quickly. Autocorrect will turn your statement into some bizarre mention of camels (or something).

But mistakes are not where we stop and give. They’re where we stop, regroup, repair, and try again.

Item 2 – Being A Person

I don’t know how to explain this to you, but if you want to make the most of your social media experience, you need to be a person. I mean, you need to share your human experience with other humans, and not just spit out “Buy my book” every 8 hours as automated by some scheduler.

We’re all tired of reading spam, we are all annoyed by bots and form letters, so why would you resort to those tactics to get attention?

rock-1996-movie-review-nicolas-cage-goodspeed-flares-ending

Yeah, I know, it can feel like this.

Before I try and tell you that you’re going to get something something flies and honey, let me point out that it’s not a fast process. You have to know this going in. It’s going to take time. I’ve got 1667 followers, and I’m far from a celebrity or even a “known” commodity in writing. I do what I do in a little corner of the internet, and I am always thankful when someone likes it or shares it or replies to it.

That encourages me to keep doing what I do, which I can summarize the following way:

a) Share my life, however imperfect, even when it’s not just about editing or coaching or publishing
b) Make sure that the words sound like me. No fancy polish. No trying too hard to be anything other than me.
c) Use social media often (and yes there are times when I’m more comfortable with it than in conversation, and no I don’t think that’s inherently a sign of the end times)

My challenge to you is commit thirty days to social media, and I’m going to put together this series of posts on how you can punch, strangle, and chase off the anxiety and put a really strong and versatile tool in your writing toolbox.

See you next week. Enjoy your weekend. Happy writing.

Of Writers and Scotsmen

Welcome back to the week. Hope your weekend was a good one. Mine wasn’t too shabby, thanks for asking. The weather’s getting warmer, so I’m encouraged to leave the blinds up and I’m counting those days until the clocks shift an hour when we’re one step closer to me having windows open and music blaring – it remains my favorite stretch of the year.

Also, on a personal note, I’m getting better. The meds are working, I can afford them now (yay insurance!), and I’ve got more energy than I had last week. I’m not completely up to speed again, but this is definitely a big step forward.

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Before we get into today’s topic, I’ve got a favor to ask. I’ve put together a short anonymous survey (you don’t need to give your name or e-mail address) that I’d appreciate you taking. It’s 10 questions, and won’t take more than a few minutes.

Check it out here. Thanks.

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Today we’re going to talk about sort of a hot button issue, depending on how often you frequent message boards and forums for writers, though the problem exists outside of writerdom. I want to talk today about the No True Scotsman fallacy and how it kills rather than strengthen writing and its communities.

What is the No True Scotsman? It’s an assertion that a “true” (read: “real”) __________ wouldn’t do whatever it is they’re doing.

Like this:
A: No writer succeeds without an MFA.
B: I’m a successful writer, and I don’t have an MFA.
A: Yeah, okay, but no real writer succeeds without an MFA.

Swap “writer” for any label you can think of, and swap the back half of the sentence  (start with the verb and go forward), and you’ll see this a lot. Here are some examples I’ve heard and read over the weekend.

No real writer writes children’s books.
To be a real larper, you need to be out there every weekend.
No real feminist thinks penetrative intercourse is acceptable.
No real chef makes a casserole.
A real writer would know that only trad pub makes you legit.
No real parent lets their child eat a doughnut.
To be a real gamer, you had to have played Dungeons & Dragons first edition.
No real patriot thinks we need to get rid of guns.

Maybe you’ve heard this sort of stuff before. Maybe it hasn’t been in the form of a single sentence, but the idea gets put out there that there are “real” writers and then there are “not-real” writers based on what people do or don’t do. You see this a lot on message boards when people ask questions or challenge assumptions or just plain don’t know because they’re new or unsure.

What this does is create an unnecessary division within a group, so there’s an opportunity to create an us-versus-them environment, where one group can deny access, praise, legitimacy, information, or experience from another group. It’s another form of gatekeeping, since it makes one group have to validate themselves to the other group, if they want to be considered “real.”

It’s a giant crock of applesauce and horsefeathers.

Because a real writer is someone who writes. Period. A real gamer is someone who plays games. Period. A real ____ is someone who does/is _______, because the act of doing a thing is  what makes you a person who does a thing. To suggest that someone isn’t legitimate because they don’t conform to your metric says that you’re somehow the arbiter of other people’s efforts and talent and thoughts.

I just checked. You’re not the arbiter of other people.

I’ve also noticed that the people who want to spend their time talking about who is or isn’t a “real” writer are often doing so at the internet watering holes for writers, and often do so repeatedly over the course of several hours. I watched one user write 7 or 8 posts over the course of 2 hours, feuding with anyone within 60 virtual feet about how you shouldn’t go to Author X’s blog, that Author Y’s blog was better, how you can’t trust any editors, how you need to be doing A and B and C things … all this talk, when they could instead let the writing and production of writing be a meritocracy.

Want to be a real writer? Then be writing. Make good art. Art hard. Challenge yourself. Don’t poison the watering holes by pissing in it. That time you spend yapping about who is and isn’t a writer is time YOU could be writing, helping yourself rather than shutting down others. Unless, of course, you feel you need to shut down other people to feel better about yourself.

We’re all true Scotsmen. We’re all real writers, even if we disagree with each other or work differently.

See you later this week for #inboxwednesday.

Happy writing.

 

 

 

InboxWednesday -Epilogues, Prologues, and Immediate Series

It’s Wednesday, so pull on your waders and let’s head out into the inbox and see what we can find. Today we’ve got 3 questions: 2 about writing technique, and 1 about a publishing concept. Remember, if you have a question about anything writing, publishing, story, or really anything, you can get it answered on InboxWednesday, you just need to ask it.

I’ve written a dystopic MG love story set fifteen years after the melting of the ice caps. It’s sort of like Castaway meets When Harry Met Sally, […] if there were cannibals and pontoons. It’s nearly complete at 190k, I’m just writing the ending now. Any thoughts on an epilogue? – Mark

Hi Mark. Thanks for writing in. Before we talk epilogue, I want to point out that you’ve written 190,000 words, and that’s before you’ve written an ending. It’s possible that your ending could take your MS over 200,000 words. There’s an older rule that says anything over 110,000 qualifies as an “epic” novel. Ulysses is 265,222 words. Order of the Phoenix is 257,045.

I’m calling your attention to it because you’ve identified your work as MG, and middle grade generally falls between the 22,000 – 55,000 word range because it’s aimed at tweens. Even upper middle grade fiction is about 40,000 – 55,000, so be careful that the size of your story doesn’t do you in.

But that wasn’t what you asked me.

An epilogue is “the final chapter at the end of the story that reveals the fate of the characters that may or may nor occur some time after the novel’s events and possibly hint at sequels or loose ends.” Now whether you interpret “final” to be the last chapter you write after you write the chapter where you resolve the plot or whether it’s just the last chapter in the book, that’s up to you. However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you need to advance time after you resolve plot so you can Harry Potter-style fill us in on our now-older protagonists. You don’t.

It’s okay to have some stories just end with a satisfying conclusion. Yes, even with the loose ends from chapter 12 still untucked. Yes, even without hinting that you’re going to crank out 6 other books with this main character. Sometimes a book is a single book, and that’s okay.

I’m not a fan of epilogues just for the sake of adding a nice smile and sigh at the end of an already satisfying story. It’s always struck me as sort of indulgent, maybe even a little flash and smug to have the need to keep demonstrating how talented an author is by giving an extra portion of character and content when we’ve already been sated.

So, Mark, my answer to you is tread carefully. How much resolution do you think is necessary? How much would a reader think necessary? Get the MS out to a beta reader and see how they feel with the story’s conclusion. (And seriously take a look at the word count, please.)

John, I’ve got a 46,350 word fantasy novel that I’m about to query, but I’m thinking I need a prologue, because a lot of books I’ve read this month all had them. Do I need a prologue? – Elise

When I wrote the first draft of this answer, I was sort of in a mood, so I said, “Take some of Mark’s words and add them to your MS”, but that’s kind of a dick answer, so instead I’ll mention that 46k is on the lean side for fantasy novels (most in the genre range from 90k to 110k), but there are a lot of venues who want novellas, which range from 20k to 52k usually. Now I don’t know where you’re querying, but you might want to look at calling it a novella and finding novella specific resources if you’re not getting much novel traction.

The prologue you asked about is an opening to a story that “establishes setting and gives background details.” In fantasy and science fiction, the prologue doesn’t feature the characters we’ll follow for the other chapters. Time is a factor, some prologues take place prior to the main story (as in Lord of the Rings, when you learn about Isildur and Agent Smith in the war), or they involve lesser characters who are just around for a few pages to set up the fact that we’re on a distant planet in a remote solar system and today’s taco day.

There’s no reason why you can’t do that world building in the beginning of the story. And frankly, even with a prologue, you’ll often need to do more building and setup in addition to whatever’s in the prologue if you do write one. And no, you can’t fit all the worldbuilding and setting into the prologue and expect the reader to understand it all before you get into the substance of the story.

Like epilogues, I don’t think you need a prologue every time, and especially not every time you dive into the SF/F waters. Often I read an MS with a prologue that sets up there being a prophecy and a single character fated to create massive story upheaval. Sometimes prologues are a few pages where the nigh immortal badguy sets up his reign of terror that will span generations. What I’m saying Elise, is that prologues often cover the same well-walked ground, and they can be mighty dull.

The solution? If you’re going to prologue, go with the amuse-bouche approach. Give us a little world building so we see how you work your craft. You don’t necessarily have to tease the plot, you don’t have to tease the characters, but take a few pages to show your writing chops in the created world-space and vibe of your story. make it a place where you show your technique, giving us an appealing entry point to the more specific story.

Good luck Elise.

John, what’s an immediate series? I read about it on a message board and didn’t understand what it was. – Karen

Karen, an immediate series is an old idea made new, but it didn’t always have that name. A long time ago, a lot of publication was done serially, with monthly installments showing up in periodicals like Collier’s or Black Mask, depending on genre. This episodic breakdown was good for publishers since it meant readers had to buy issue after issue or subscribe to follow a story from start to finish. It was also good for writers, in that it called for stories to be divisible into publishable chunks, and that work on craft helped form the foundations for how we produce stories today.

Serialization often focused on chapters. The immediate series focuses on more than chapters, often looking at novellas or near-novellas in length, that can be quickly published with very little lag time (because they were already written, it’s just a matter of getting them out the door). For instance, you may write 3 novellas about anthropomorphic samurai appliances and then self-publish one every 21 days in the Spring.

It’s about taking a shotgun approach to the reader’s shelf – get a lot of material out there, so that there are a lot of purchasing options, which can build an audience and financial base.

Doing that is not bad or wrong Karen, it’s one of many perfectly feasible approaches to publishing and marketing. For some people, it works, thanks to the strength of the first book, or the series premise. For some, it’s just emetic, you deluge the reader maybe too hastily and the books aren’t as strong, so a reader can skip any of the 15 you throw out there and you don’t build that audience or base.

Hope that answered your question Karen, thanks for it.

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Looking at the inbox today, I think Friday’s post might be about MS length, which is sort of a contentious topic, but it’s worth weighing in on. See you then.

 

Happy writing.

The Machinery of the First 3 Pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next week. Happy writing.

#InboxWednesday -Detail Swarms & Dialogue

Hey everyone. How’s your day going? Do anything exciting?

We’ve got two questions to answer today for #InboxWednesday. If you want your questions answered, send me an email.

It’s February, which means a new month, and that means a new calendar page. I have openings for coaching AND for manuscript edits. If that’s what you’re looking for, or you’re not sure, but kinda sure that you want to take your writing to the next level, today’s a great day for you to find out. Email or tweet, and let’s talk.

Onto the questions. We’ve got two craft questions today, they’re good ones.

In FiYoShiMo, you talk about finding details that push and pull the reader through the story. How many details is that, and which details do that better than others? – Mary

To start, I don’t want you to think that there’s a detail pecking order. There’s no set in stone hierarchy that says you always start with a detail about color or weight then move to a detail about smell or feel. If there were, writing would get formulaic and an author’s unique or personalized construction goes out the window.

One of the decisions you make as a writer is choosing the details you’re going to provide. Decision making is critical to writing, because what you choose is what we’re going to picture in our heads as we read it.

I say that, Mary, and sometimes an author starts thinking that they need to give me all the details possible, so that the picture in my head is 100% a copy of the picture in their head. A duplicate picture sounds like it should be ideal, right?

It isn’t. Because there’s no room for the reader to fill in any gaps on their own. Not sure what I mean? Here’s an example:

Bad example: The desk is cluttered. There are three glasses of water, two half full, one empty. The jar of pens is crammed, with nine black, three blue, a red and a purple pen top jutting out like a gothic editorial bouquet. The iPhone charging cord snakes across the space, dividing the fourteen square inch parallelogram of left side desk real estate into two right triangles. One is littered with three poker chips, one orange and two white. The other is filled with a steno pad, with six lines of notes. The first three are phone numbers, the fourth is a time for an appointment, the fifth and six are reminders of what to do before noon.

Yes, that helps you to know what to see, but it reads stiffly. What good does knowing all those details do for you? See the first sentence about cluttered? Why does that sentence need the further and specific expansion so that you know how it’s cluttered?

This isn’t a Chekov situation, where those poker chips are going to be hurled at rodent assassins from the future, so does knowing they’re on the table really provide that much insight into the character who owns the desk?

Let’s find the concepts about that character that we want to convey. We want to say this guy works a lot, doesn’t stay super tidy for long, and tends to work in a familiar space. Aside from the tidiness, how does our bad paragraph convey the other two concepts (hint: it doesn’t). Since it doesn’t, you come out of the paragraph not aware of the character concepts, so in that paragraph, you can’t invest in them. And woe to anyone who starts off the first page with those details, because you’ve also slowed any potential momentum to a crawl as you picture each item and its placement.

The rewrite: A cluttered desk sits in the corner of the cramped room. With all the pens and notes in a pile on the left side, a good breeze could spill days of information in too many directions. Light from the dirty window fractures as it passes through an empty glass, leaving a small rainbow on a steno pad. I decide not to touch anything.

Introducing “I” into the paragraph gives the story a bit of momentum. The bulk of the details are entrusted to the adjective “cluttered”, and amplified with the idea that a breeze could scatter the contents on top of the desk. If I needed to write additional and specific details, I could do that in a subsequent paragraph, using momentum to make the detail matter. I’d prioritize the critical details as the details essential for plot, rather than having them be on the page so you know where and how every atom is organized.

This is an unspoken contract between reader and writer. Trust your readers to want to be swept up by your story, which isn’t measured in the volume of details but in their application.

Dialogue is supposed to sound like people, right? But I need to make sure the audience knows what’s happening, so should I just have the characters talk any plot once and never call it back? – Steve

Yes, dialogue is supposed to sound like how people speak. It’s supposed to be natural, and feel authentic. Whether you accomplish that with slang or profanity or grammar or whatever, make sure you never sacrifice that sound.

As in Mary’s question, there’s an element of trusting your reader. Dialogue is one of the ways people invest in characters, because they sound like people they know, and in part that allows for the reader to project some relativity to the fiction.

The problem with your idea is that the distance between talking about doing a thing and the thing getting done could be huge. Not just single pages, but chapters, especially if you’re doing the change-narrators-each-chapter concept.

While people are smart enough to remember story details, these are also the same people who misplace their keys or who forget items off a grocery list and forget why they’ve walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge. Memories are great, but hardly perfect.

Also, when you have people who sound like people, they’re gonna talk about whatever shit is going on in their lives. It’ll have some feeling of “Can you believe this shit right here?” to it, and that’s a good thing.

Dialogue is a character’s reaction to the events of story, and a way of sharing the experience of the story with the other characters along with the reader. In doing that, you’re conveying to the reader that the characters exist in a larger sense than just a string of words with some capitalization. You’re treating them like people, which also means you’re treating the reader like people, which means the reader can invest into what’s going on.

It sounds, Steve, like you’re as much asking for permission as well as a specific answer. You don’t need permission from anyone. You do you. The editorial process can suss out if the dialogue falls flat and belabors the plot when it comes up.

*

A ton of thanks to Mary and Steve for their questions today. I’ll see you Friday for more blogging goodness. Until then, do something good for yourself. You’re worth it.

Also, if you have a second, come celebrate 2 years clean and sober with me on social media.

Happy writing.

Some Thoughts on Professional Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Writer and Icons

It’s Thursday morning as I write this. The week has been rough. With the passing of first David Bowie and now Alan Rickman, I am affected, and it’s a little shocking to me how much I’m affected. And because this blog is my little imperfect home on the internet, this is where my I write out my feelings.

If me talking about things that aren’t writing is a problem, if that causes you go find your writing advice elsewhere, I understand. You do what you need to do. But me putting my guts on the page is important to me, and it’s a part of who I am that matters to me, I won’t and shouldn’t change that because I’m worried about my business failing. I apologize that I let the numbers get in the way.

About two years ago, when Philip Seymour Hoffman died, I was similarly affected, though that was more because of the addiction aspect of it. 710 days later, I’ve got new reasons to hate cancer. It took my grandmother. It took a dog of mine. It took two of my icons this week. Very much fuck cancer.

I never met David Bowie. I think I saw him once, eating a slice of pizza in Greenwich Village, but I thought maybe it couldn’t be him because I thought David Bowie wouldn’t eat pizza, he’d be nourished by the creative energies of the planet, or he was powered by belief like Tinkerbell. Pretty sure it was him though.

Bowie let me be me. Not like he came to my house and said everything was cool, but through his music, I learned that it was cool to do things that went against the trends, whatever they were, and that you could stand out based on talent and clarity of voice, without being some demagogue. To a guy who never felt like he fit in anywhere, who felt his talent didn’t belong into any category on Career Day, who felt weird about having people believe in him, Bowie made it alright to be the Writer Next Door. I was just a guy, doing this stuff with words, and maybe it helped people, maybe it made them laugh, maybe it was just floating around digital space along with all the blogs about agriculture and nail polish. But it was okay, because I was getting my voice out there.

It made Bowie seem to be thirty feet tall, some endless wellspring of creativity. He’d never die, he’d return to the nebula from whence he came, off to visit some other civilization on some other planet in some other galaxy where people needed to learn it was okay to do things that didn’t conform.

For as ethereal as Bowie seemed, Rickman felt grounded to me. I remember seeing him in movies, and that sent me to his biography blurb on Wikipedia. I learned about his jump into acting, how he had this line in the sand moment where it was act or not. I admired that about him, I admire that about anyone, really, who sees what they want to do, and then jumps out of that plane to pursue it. That’s the sort of courage that puts people on the moon, and brings us airplanes and iPods and new flavors of candy.

I met Alan Rickman twice. It was 2011, I was working (barely) as a writer by this point, and I was in and out of New York City for professional and illicit reasons alike. A play I was writing that would never see the stage led me to meet a friend at a small bookstore. My friend never showed up, he was too busy being arrested, but I waited in that bookstore, browsing old mysteries. Alan Rickman came in and managed to be somewhat anonymous. It helped that maybe 5 people were in the shop.

Stopping people to talk to them is something I don’t do anymore. I don’t want to invade their space or their time, I don’t want to interrupt or be dismissed and have my view of them diminished as a result. But I had just seen him on Broadway in Seminar, and I wanted to thank him for the portrayal of Leonard, the writer who led this writing seminar. It was the stage version of what I was doing, and I felt compelled to tell him so. So I did.

He was gracious and kind, and I wasn’t interrupting or wasting his time I said. We didn’t talk very long, because I had no idea what to say, and he thanked me for seeing the show and taking the time to say hello. He was nice, and he made me want to be nice.

Some weeks later, I had seen Seminar a second time, and was uptown at a party I didn’t want to be at, pretending to be interested in people I was never going to be interested in, and really wanted to be anywhere else in the world. As I scrambled for a polite way to get my coat (I guess it never occurred to me that I could just ask for my coat), there was a bit of a flurry, and Alan Rickman, with his wife (they weren’t married then, just together) came in. They didn’t stay very long, but it was my second meeting.

Again, he was nice. He remembered me. He asked me how my friend was, and how I was. He asked how the writing was going, I told him I was thinking about giving it up and finding a desk job. He listened, and after a moment said, “Oh please don’t. What you’re doing is important and good and worth it. Get your voice out there.”

Which I wasn’t expecting. I think I was expecting this great actor to pat my shoulder or shake my hand and dismiss me. He didn’t. He went on to tell me that it’s important to do what you love, and that sticking with what you’re doing matters. I don’t remember crying, but I do remember thanking him. I cried later when I got home.

I felt like I found comfort. At time I felt like I had strayed off the path of my passions and had wandered into some thorny brush where I was preoccupied and self-absorbed. Alan Rickman pointed me back to the road. I haven’t lost sight of it since.

Again, he was someone I never thought would die. He’d just cease living, after saying something dramatic, then go on to be a Force ghost that would hang out wherever cool ghosts go. Some place with minimal dress code and good food I guess.

A long time ago, I read a book that says smart people often picture a dinner party of other smart people, where they can seek counsel. I thought that was so cool. I could picture these famous people hanging out with me and ask them what they’d do. I never thought Roger Williams would be all, “John, you should totally have a milkshake”, but I liked the idea of convening this parliament of talent when I needed to figure stuff out. Bowie and Rickman had long since earned their invitations. They’re still there now, eating mozzarella sticks and fresh fruit, waiting for me to take a minute and think about things.

I wish I had something big to think about.

To realize that your heroes and icons are mortal, just as you are, is a tough lesson for me. I’m aware of my own mortality, but not the people I think so much better than me. They’ll outlive me, they’ll be around like mountains. They’re Everest to me, and always will be, no matter what happens to me.

So here’s my advice to you, if you’re thinking that being creative, making stuff, chasing your dreams is too tough and you should go throw in whatever towel you have on hand, oh please don’t. What you’re doing is important and good and worth it. Get your voice out there.

 

Starting The Year Off

Blank pages and I never had this relationship before. I didn’t think twice about them. I never became aware of their size. I never courted their infinite potential. They were just the space where I put words. They weren’t scary. They weren’t ominous.

So when I spent the whole of December filling them, day after day, the blank page was just this workspace. It had no greater meaning to me than a legal pad or the notepad I keep in the kitchen to write grocery lists.

But then I took a much needed day off. Technically, it was a weekend off, as I’m rewriting this post on Monday morning. There was a post here, but it was raw and a little desperate … but we’ll get there. I took that day off, and looked backwards. That’s not something I normally do, but we’ll get there too.

Reflection is a trap. Reflection can lead to nostalgia, envy, comparison, and a host of other distractions. And into that trap I fell.

The blank page of the blogpost became prison and torturer all at once.

To fight it, I did what I always do, I did what I tell everyone to do, you go spit in its eye and you get to work. Writing with that edge of proving the doubt wrong. Full throttle, no brakes.

Now I could tell you that just bull-nosed slogging through that moment of doubt or fear fixed everything and I’m all 100000000% back on track, but that would be a lie. Sure, making my fingers put words on the page helped there not be a blank page, but reflection doesn’t just evaporate just because you do something.

Oh no, reflection takes the words you’re making and snacks on them. It sees what you’re doing and (if you’re like me) it starts to compare them to other words. Maybe other words you wrote, maybe other words other people wrote.

Now I’ve done some checking and I am not Tesla, Pressfield, Doyle, Wendig, Stout, Miranda, McKee, Dawson, Baker, Henry, Engard, Balsera, Hicks, Macklin, Edison, Ford, Foley, or King. I am none of those people. I am a guy in a bathrobe that smells like woodsmoke. I am a guy who sees success like it’s a light at the end of a tunnel. A tunnel that I’ve been running like a marathon, with both my legs chained together, dragging behind me the assorted cement covered ghosts those who doubted me, adults who abused and infected me with doubt and fear, a number of rejection letters, professional faux pas, and unspoken envies and regrets. One foot in front of the other. I feel the ghosts clawing at my shins and ankles. One foot in front of the other.

What I’m saying is, I see what other people are doing, I look at what I’m doing, and I often feel bad about what I’m doing. It makes me melancholy. It makes me desperate. You won’t see the blogpost that I originally wrote, where I went on and on about how much pneumonia sucks. You won’t see the stream of consciousness I needed to exorcise from me. That was the frustration and vulnerability and fear taking my ideas and tinting them.

Sure, it was a good post, some of those sentences have so far been repurposed here, but this mess of reflection and comparison feels like quicksand. Struggle in it, become aware of it, and you’re going down.

And because now I’m aware of it, the blank page is white quicksand.

When that pull grabs you, when you start going under, you start grabbing at anything to stay afloat. For me, it’s shocking transparency and raw honesty. Tell the world how I’m hurting. Tell the world how tough, hard, scary, and grim the world can be. Talk about mental health. Talk about poverty. Talk about health care and heartache and fleeting happiness. Be vulnerable, so that people won’t just read my words, but they’ll feel something. They feel something, so I’ll feel something.

That doesn’t stop the quicksand, it still pulls, but at least then I’m not sinking so quickly. But I’ve lost something along the way. It’s not terribly “professional” to be talking so horrifically about the downsides of being me. It’s not encouraging for people to come hire me if I’ve spent blog page after blog page talking about chest pains and hospital visits. It’s not the start of a great working relationship if I get angry at one group of people for not hiring me while I do get the chance to work for another group of people.

So what to do?

I go look for the magic sword. mastersword

There’s this moment in Legend of Zelda, where your little guy is wandering around the maze of woods, trying to get his shit together, trying to overcome obstacles, trying to keep going (does any of that sound familiar?) and eventually, after a few adventures and some hard work, you come to this clearing and there’s this sword in a stone. You of course have recently discovered the ability to wield said sword, because quest logic, so you yank the sword from its pedestal, and it’s go time.

Armed with that magic sword, you are ability to mow down your opponents and feel pretty sweet while doing it. It’s a pretty awesome sense of accomplishment. I’ve always liked that moment. It’s wonder this little warrior guy doesn’t slice his thumb off, but he does alright.

To find my own magic sword, I go find things that inspire me: today it’s a hardcore wrestling match where I watched a man fall twenty feet and not die, and a little boy building with Lego, and turn that perseverance, turn what those things mean to me, into my own I-can-do-this magic sword, which I get to wield because it’s my own damned magic sword.

Armed now, I go attack the voices in my head that tell me I don’t know what I’m doing, or that I’m not good at doing whatever it is I think I’m doing. I stab and swing and carve a swath of “Go fuck yourself, voices” into that screaming chorus of no-one-loves-me-and-no-one-could-because-look-how-bad-I-am-at-doing-things and I equate bad with failure with wrong. So of course I need to stab the ever loving hell out of those ghosts. There’s good work in me, I just need to get this crap out of the way first.

All this came from the reflection, remember, from taking time away from writing daily. I see this, I hear the voices, I swing the sword, and say to myself, “To avoid doing this on the regular, I should probably stop reflecting, I should probably stop stopping.”

Yeah, that’s a completely reasonable solution (that’s sarcasm). Swinging from one extreme (go full super work) to the other (do nothing) is not a solution for anything that isn’t turning on a light switch.

Which means my only option is to put the words on the page and keep trying.

I don’t know how to be that ideal professional. I don’t know how to blog “Effectively” according to Pinterest articles. I don’t know how to do a lot of that stuff.

What I do know is writing. Word craft. Story structure. Creativity. Words.

So let’s spend 2016 getting better at things. Let’s go together on this trip where I go get FiYoShiMo published. Let’s march through lessons about writer’s block and story structure for bad TV and movies. Let’s talk professionalism and audience building and good networking. Let’s have a laugh at the number of stories I have that start with, “So I have vague recollections of meeting this person when I wasn’t sober…”

Let us make 2016 a year where we do good work together.

And don’t worry, I’ve got this magic sword.