The Intersection of Knowledge and Skill

The bag of onions was only $1.99. Which doesn’t make sense to me, because there are like 19 onions in it, each about the size of a tennis ball. But it’s 9:15 on a Sunday morning, and there’s a three pound chuck roast needing onions and au jus, so I go to the store.

It’s empty, the sort of empty that should only exist in movies and video games where there’s going to be something terrible happening once I get just a bit more inside the building. Maybe evil cannibals, maybe zombies, maybe ravenous nomadic clowns. But there’s nothing bad that happens. I come away from the store with a single bag of goods – the onions fumbling around the bottom of the bag.

It’s 9:38 when I started writing this post. With luck, it’ll go up later today, before I go to bed. I really don’t want to delay it to Tuesday, I’m worried that the freshness of the ideas will have faded, and it’ll be some stale sludge of ideas, like old coffee you’ve forgotten to purge from the machine.

On mornings like this, I am aware of just how much of life can be described as a series of intersections. There’s an irony here apparent to anyone who’s ever been in a car with me — I get lost incredibly easily, even on streets I drive regularly — so for me to talk about the meeting of two asphalt ribbons it’s amusing.

Intersections like the lives of two people meeting. Or a job in a field you’ve got a degree in. Or the moment where you realize you actually put together a piece of furniture and didn’t have any pieces left over. Two concepts, two items, two people, crossing paths. There’s a reason why we consider crossroads to be an important part of life, because at crossroads (intersections) we become aware of a choice to make – do I do this, and possibly change course, or do I skip the change, skip the potential good or bad that might happen, and keep doing as before? (Let’s skip the quantum discussion that interacting with the potential opportunity for change is in itself a change that will have effects on action, it’s a rabbit hole for another time.)

The intersection we’re going to cover today is where Knowledge meets Skill. Today, we’re going to get self-assessy, and we’re going to use me as the example, but I want you to do this for yourself on yourself. As a creative, being able to figure out what you’re doing, where you going, and whether you’re getting there or not (and I don’t mean in that plagued-by-self-doubt-so-assume-you’re-not-and-won’t-ever way)

We need to start with definitions. Can we agree that Knowledge is the sum total of information about a subject through study and observation? We know how to pour a drink into a glass, we know the capital city of where we live, we know that no one likes getting bad news in a text message.

Knowledge is a consequence of being alive. We learn as babies that our actions cause reactions (cry and get fed), and we continue add to our knowledge pools until we cease living (eight packs of cigarettes a day and a bad case of syphilis will do you in). Despite many people’s efforts and protests, there’s no way to skip gaining knowledge. I make a distinction here between knowledge and “learning”, because learning is the method by which we gain knowledge, and “learning” becomes synonymous with “school.” For some people (myself included) the structured education of K-12 and university was not the best way for me to increase what I knew, but since I was still alive, I was still gaining information. I worked jobs, I wrote, I was an unpaid intern, I put myself in situations (smart and otherwise) where I’d come out with more knowledge than when I went in.

So that’s one half of our intersection. We have knowledge. If we were to make a list of what we’re knowledgeable about, it would be pretty sizable, once we got past the worry that other people may judge us for how we perceive ourselves or what goes on our list. Here’s my list:

Knowledge I Have

————-

Writing

Speaking

Cooking

Motivate people

Internet piracy

Video games

RPGs

Publishing

Marketing

Film noir

Rex Stout

Movie critique

Screenplays

Tv writing

Detective stories

Sobriety and addiction

Writing critique

Editing

Social Media

Cartoons

Pop culture

That’s a whole lot of stuff, in no particular order, and in no way is that list complete. But I stand by what I’ve written there. No, it wasn’t easy. I had to really wrestle with some of the ideas there – were they worth mentioning? are people going to think I’m a jerk for saying I know that stuff?

The hard part was getting to a place where I was okay writing it down (which is why I’m writing this part of the past at 12:10pm having started almost 3 hours ago). It took work, I had to talk it over with people. I had to pace around the kitchen and talk myself into and out of writing it. But I got to a point where I was okay going forward, so there it is.

Make your own list. It does not have to be complete, it does not have to be ranked or prioritized. Just list stuff. There are no wrong answers.

Skill is the other half here. We can define skill as knowledge used properly. That “properly” isn’t a subjective opinion, it’s more about relevant purpose. You wouldn’t use your knowledge of cooking when you’re raking leaves. There’s a time and a place to apply a particular knowledge to a particular situation. It’s that kind of properly.

Unapplied knowledge isn’t wasted, there is no wasted knowledge. No one other than you can compel or encourage you to do something with the stuff you know. Not your spouse, your friend, your boss, not some guy on the Internet. It’s my hope that everyone will find a way to apply what they know in a tactical and practical way to make themselves better happier productive creatives. What that application looks like, ideally, is completely individual. No two people are going to demonstrate skill the same, even with knowledge and skill (somehow) being 100% equal. And that’s the important part here – how you show off your skill(s) doesn’t have to and shouldn’t have to look like someone else’s. Yes, multiple can do the same thing (write books, make food, etc) but their individual compositions aren’t the same. That’s to be celebrated and encouraged. More authors. More creatives. More ideas. Different ideas. Ideas that conflict with each other. Ideas that provoke. Ideas that prompt actions. Bring all the distinct people to this party, bring all the skills and their demonstrations to bear. We’re all made better when we can contribute to our best abilities.

Listing the skills I feel most passionate about, I get this:

Skills

——–

Writing

Editing

Public speaking

Developing and encouraging writers

Writing critique

Watching TV

Using Social Media

 

What does your list look like? Yes, the list of knowledges should be longer than the list of skills, because you’re always going to know way more than you can act on.

Making these two paths intersect is where we find creativity at its most fertile. It’s where what you know meets what you can do about what you know. And it’s at that intersection you’ll find things like this blog, or a person’s YouTube channel, or a series of one-person plays about inventing random items or whatever a person is fired up enough about to share with other people.

Now, yes, I’m sure some of you reading this are saying, “But John, I’m not really excited about anything I’m knowledgeable about.” And to that I say, what’s something that you’d love to know more about it, and can you dedicate some part of your time to learning about that thing? Maybe you’re secretly into Taylor Swift songs, so you spend some time watching the videos and singing along. Maybe you’re fascinated by soap making, so you start talking to soap people. And even if that immersion doesn’t inspire you to at least try and apply the knowledge, I’m going to ask you one more question – what are you afraid of? If your attempt fails, then you’re right back to this spot, the same spot you’re in before you started. Fine, you want to grouse about time and money, okay, but if you’re letting money be the arbiter of whether or not you pursue a thing I’ll point out that email newsletters and YouTube videos are free. I can’t stop you from making excuses. I can’t stop you from finding ways not to do anything. Speaking personally, I’m great at finding ways to avoid doing stuff. But since I didn’t want that to be a thing I share with other people, it didn’t go on the above lists.

There’s such ability to discover and grow at this intersection, and you have to do it when you’re there. Trying to capitalize on Knowledge A by using Skill Q is like trying to learn how to swim while sitting in an airplane at 35,000 feet. You need to be in the place, you need to be in that intersection, in order to make use of it.

Here’s the genius of this intersection – even if you don’t have that much skill, if you stick around and keep gaining knowledge and then applying that knowledge, you’ll get more skill. And if you think you have a good amount of skill but want more knowledge, stick around and you’ll gain more knowledge. That’s the point of the intersection – you’ll get plenty of access to both things.

So make your lists. Make yourself a little roadmap of where you are and where you want to be. Get encouraged, and get active. Don’t let the doubt and the possible responses be the gatekeepers on what you want to do, it’s not up to other people to determine how you feel satisfied.

I’ll see you later this week when we’ll expand on this idea.

 

Happy writing.

Social Media for the New & Anxious, Part 3

Good morning. Here we are on Friday, the day that for some will end with margaritas, pantslessness, and a few “Woo”s. If you’re among that number, I wish you and your liver all the very best. If you’re not going to Señorita Yolanda’s for their 9 shots for $2 happiest of happy hours, I’ve got some potato skins we can share.

Before we rim our glasses with salt and get ready to shout over Tex-Mex techno (this imaginary bar is of course infamous for Selena remixes), let’s continue our series on social media. I mean, we’re here, we might as well talk about something while we sit in offices and wait for the end of the day.

We’ve talked so far about being new, we’ve talked about what goes into a message, so let’s look at another thing that happens with social media – mistakes.

We all make them. And when we do, we’re all sure that death by immediate asteroid impact to the face would be preferable.

See, I don’t mean the mistakes where you accidentally send an email to Tom A when you meant Tom B, and they’re just too close together in your Gmail. And I don’t even mean the time you spelled a person’s name wrong, because those are trivial mistakes in the grand scheme of things, and they’re easy accidents. Any apology would be quick and simple.

No, I’m talking about the times you really step in it. Like when you write that email in anger and in that automatic way you click ‘send’ rather than delete. Or when you suggest that the someone enjoys sexual relations with their mother. Or when you pointedly tell someone to savor the flavor of your genitals to the point of orgasm in their mouth. You know, good proper gut-wrenching mistakes that can dog you.

Did you know I used to use Twitter as a fancy text messaging service?

Did you know that I once told a room full of actors they could all go have violent sex with themselves using broken objects because I didn’t like what they were doing to the genius I had spewed onto the page?

Did you know I once sent all the angry emails I used to store in my Drafts folder to all their respective addressees?

I bring these things up because I own doing them. Even if I don’t remember writing the tweets, and only have a hazy recollection of telling actors what to do (interesting – one of them went on to do several years on a hit TV show), I did these things. There’s no doubt. I wasn’t hacked by Russians or Republicans. I didn’t leave my computer on so my wacky roommate could take over. I straight up did really stupid shit that affected me personally and professionally for months and years after.

I say this because you’re going to make mistakes. Own them. You don’t have to flail and objurgate afterward, you don’t need to withdraw for a 60-day isolation period. No, you’ve got to one harder – admit you were wrong and sincerely make an effort not to do it again.

And no, it’s not easy. Responsibility is not always easy. But it’s the better path to take if you want to move forward and onward in a better way towards your goals and towards repairing relationships. Hashtag realtalk. Hashtag adultmoment. Hashtag burritoface.

See, here’s the thing about mistakes. Saying, “Yes I did this, and I’m sorry I did” (or the like) is actually a good thing. Yeah, there are consequences, and even after you handle them, some people might not be so willing to change their minds about you, but then again, you’re not in charge of how they think and you can’t control how they think. So, politely, tell that bit of anxiety it too can go have sex with itself on this Friday morning.

One of the problems with mistakes I’ve seen people make and am guilty of myself is that we sometimes inflate them to Macy’s Thanksgiving proportions. We enlarge and engorge what we did wrong, the assumptions we make about how the fallout will be, and what the appropriate punishment and restitution might be. It’s really hard to put a mistake into  perspective, because there’s an emotional component (“I can’t believe I did that!”) we need to first contend with – yeah, you did do that – before you can work the problem into a solution.

It’s also worth pointing out that there are going to be people out there who will spend a great deal of time, energy, and emotion giving you a lecture about what you did wrong, so that you understand the depth of your wrongness presumably so that you feel informed/guilty as to never do that sort of thing again. Rather than take a tolerant position that if you know it’s wrong you won’t do it again because you’re a human capable of understanding error, they break out a soapbox or pulpit to tell you what’s wrong while implying their fecal matter is without odor, or that they’re a better brand of person who could never make the same mistake as lowly you. This, to me, is applesauce and horsefeathers. We all make mistakes. The lectures can be spared and people can trust each other to do what’s right.

There’s a side note here that sometimes those corrective lectures come from an opinion, and we might not all agree with all opinions, but there’s a difference between recognizing that two people have differing views, and one person telling the other person that they’re subjectively wrong because reasons great and small. There’s nothing wrong with correcting an error, provided there are grounds and substantiated ideas to prove it was an error. (Again, we’re talking bigger problems not typos.)

Lastly, and often accompanying the lecture is someone saying publicly that they’re unsubsctibing, blocking, unfollowing or otherwise not engaging with a person who’s made a mistake. The publicity of their statement is often the telling element – why do they have to make a show of their action? What’s to be gained other than adding potential fear and shame to the mix? You, as the creative on social media who made the mistake in the first place, cannot control what other people do. You cannot and should not sweat the loss of one person because for all you know, people come and go without saying a word. Social media is a river with a current, and sometimes people float away. You’re not responsible for their actions or decisions, and you’re under zero obligations to keep them around. They want to go, let them go. Others will come. (Also, if these people are leaving over a mistake that other people have forgiven, and the majority of people have moved on, are you really concerned?)

This post ran a little long, so let me break out a TL;DR – you’re going to make mistakes. Own up when you do. Make the apologies and amends where possible, and move forward making every effort to be better. You can do this. I believe in you.

See you guys next week. Happy writing.

Why Am I Getting Rejected? Part 3

Today we conclude the series on rejection. We’ve talked about rejection from the query, we’ve talked about rejection from the manuscript, and today, we’re going to look at rejection caused by other things, because yes, there are other sources of rejection that aren’t the query or the manuscript.

It’s unfortunate, and this is the part about rejection that’s really difficult – some of this stuff is under your control, and some of this stuff isn’t. The big giant red flag here is that people often read the “some stuff isn’t” and take that as a permission slip to blame their rejection on somebody-else’s-problems and not address any of their errors that might actually be in the query or MS.

This is where I propose a bold step – ask for feedback on the query or manuscript following rejection. Maybe you won’t get it from every publisher, but there are those of us who will. And yeah, it’s an emotional risk to take, since you’re admitting you missed the mark, but I see it also as a huge point of courage and strength – yeah, you missed the mark, but you don’t want to miss it again. You’re going to try again, you’re not going to give up.

Don’t let what I’m sure may be quite a few voices saying publishers don’t have time or that feedback is not in their job description be a reason you won’t take a bold step forward in producing your MS and getting it out into the world. Yes, a lot of people are going to just say the query and MS aren’t for them, say something dismissive, and leave you hanging. But there are going to be publishers and individuals (hello!) who would be happy to work with you to take a look at what you’re doing and give you pointers. You’re not going to know until you ask. And you are good enough, and you should believe enough in your work, to ask.

Now, onto our list of 5 things that aren’t your MS or your query that can get you rejected.

Issue 1 – Your query and/or MS is good, but it’s not what someone is looking for.
This might be the most discouraging issue in the list, because there’s no explicitly wrong thing to point out. It’s not that the query was vague or the manuscript was too wordy, it just didn’t meet the other person’s criteria. Criteria, I should point out, that you as the author aren’t going to know and couldn’t possibly predict.

Yes, you can write in-genre, your story can be well-constructed, the query can be gold star material, and the other person can still say no. And that’s on them, not you. Maybe they don’t think they can sell it. Maybe they just got a directive from their superiors that they need to look for submissions going in a different direction. Maybe they read your MS and query about 15 minutes after they spilled coffee and cherries on their only good top and they have less than 6 minutes to send an intern to the bodega for club soda. Who knows … but it means they can’t say yes right now to that manuscript.

It sucks, but it happens.

Issue 2- Your social media presence is very controversial (due to an agenda or attitude)
Okay, here’s a Johnfession: I spend a good deal of time on social media. Usually that’s Twitter, and when I’m having a good hair day and don’t feel like I should climb back under a bridge to harangue goats, I’m on Snapchat (johnwritesstuff). And because I’m on Twitter so much, I say a lot (at the time I’m writing this paragraph I’ve got 55.3k tweets). Some of what I’ve said, and some of what I’ll likely say isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. I don’t agree with some ideas, be they professional or social. I have thoughts and ideas about a whole lot of stuff, and social media gives me an outlet to express those thoughts. I don’t do it with the express intention to be shocking (my shock-jock era was over at least a decade ago), but I know that I can’t control, nor do I want to control, how other people perceive my expressions. Other people’s outrage is not my flock to shepherd.

This means that there are times in my life where what I’ve said has cost me friendships, jobs, relationships great and small, and even (gasp!) opportunities for free swag. And I’m okay with that. I don’t muzzle well, and I think I’m actually getting better at expressing myself with slightly fewer daisy chains of profanity.

I’m willing to stand by what I say, what I think, and what I’ve written in places. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea. It might controversial. And it’s the bed I made, so I shall be laying in it.

When I go check out an author, before I go send the MS up whatever food chain, I check to see if the author is on social media and if they’re active. Are they active enough that I can trust them to do their own promotion of their book? Are they active enough that they’ve built an audience? Are they saying anything particularly -ist or -phobic that I might need to damage control or is it bad enough to disqualify them? Looking for those red flags is a pain, and honestly yes, there are times when I wish I didn’t have to, but to ignore the potential means I be having to spend more time fixing situations rather than doing what I’m paid to do, which is helping make books happen.

A controversial social media presence can give a publisher some pause. How you define “controversial” is subjective, and I’m probably one of the more permissive people, because I don’t want a silent author but also don’t need one advocating for the abject murder of people based on gender, race, orientation or identity for instance.

Issue 3 – The author has zero social media presence and (bonus!) an active disinterest in using it.
I think this one bothers me moreso than the previous issue. This seems so outdated, so out of touch, especially when some of the best ways to fix the problem are free and don’t take more than a few minutes a day.

Maybe this stems from the idea that there’s an expectation that the publisher will just pay the author to sit somewhere and sippy froo-froo drinks while they do “their part” and promote the books that the author churns out from various bungalows on various tropical beaches. Maybe it comes from the idea that because building an audience takes time and isn’t automatic or easy then it shouldn’t be done. Maybe it comes from a fear that someone doesn’t know how to do it. Whatever the case, I run into a LOT of people who want to be traditionally published while remaining wholly averse to the idea of promoting any percentage of what they’ve done.

No, the audience doesn’t immediately come running. No, they’re not going to suddenly ‘just know’ that you’ve done a thing and it’s available without you saying something. No, marketing and audience development is not a part of the writing job/career that you can afford to skip out on.

Pushing back on using social media and doing anything other than dropping a sales link in a tweet every other day (the old “Buy my book LINK HERE” sales tactic) can very often sound like you’re just about to join the Old Person Doesn’t Want Kids On Lawn Club or you just got your subscription to the Back In My Day newsletter. Social media isn’t scary. That fear that you’ll be exposed and shamed or ignored? We all have that. We use the media anyway.

That audience gets built because you sound like a person, preferably you sound like yourself, and you start talking to people and interacting over and over, regularly and naturally. You can do this.

Issue 4 – The market is saturated in material that looks a lot like the manuscript.
Faerie courts. Werewolves. Zombies. Grizzled soldiers back from war to avenge dead brides. Long lost heirs to kingdoms and riches. Prophecies about one person making a global difference because of some very small character trait they have. The market is cyclical, and eventually everything swings back around.

Sometimes, people are ahead of that curve, so it doesn’t look like they’re catching trends. Other times, they’re adding one more manuscript to a caravan en route to inboxes already full of the same material.

The author has zero control over the cyclical life of trends. Even without meaning to, even while working in secret, late at night while the house sleeps or in the wee hours while it’s just you and a cat, you can be writing X right alongside a ton of writers also writing X. And then you all finish at the same time, and you send the manuscripts off at the same time, and then the publishers have stacks and stacks of X. How can they differentiate? What’s going to make yours stand out?

If you said “Query letter!” and “A strong engaging manuscript!”, thanks for paying attention, but let’s suppose that everyone else also said it too. In a big pool of X, X-number-81 or X-number-23 are going to get rejected, even if they’re not bad. Because there’s a load of factors outside authorial control and market saturation and the affect of a bloated inbox on a reader are two things that no amount of great chapter 1s can fix.

No, that doesn’t mean you have to give yourself aneurysms trying to make the most original original-thing possible so that there’s no doubt that you’re not chasing a trend or being routine. It means you need to get comfortable with your craft and your voice and make decisions that put your creative self into situations where your work is going to stand out when it’s in the big pool of X.

Issue 5 – There’s no reader checking the inbox where the MS and query are sent.
This happens a lot with smaller publishers, and you wouldn’t think that would be the case, because you’d think a smaller publisher would be super pumped to see any submissions. And small publishers are pumped for submissions, but there are some small publishers who don’t have any interest in publishing, they just want to say they’re a publisher, all while engaging in predatory behavior that colors part of the industry as a crooked bunch of wheeler-dealers, while forcing authors to be overly cautious and assume that the bad folk outnumber the good.

The bad folk exist, just like they exist outside of publishing (like those mall kiosks that wash your hands with salt), and you should try and avoid eye contact (this also applies to the salt kiosk people), but you can’t assume that everyone out there is coming to get you and your manuscript too.

Sending your work out into the world and not hearing back even a “Thanks so much for submitting” or a “Expect a reply from us within # of days” can be disheartening, but like everything else in this series, don’t take that as a permission slip to give up.

Yes, it’s possible that you send your MS and query to a dead mailbox. Maybe the contact info changed, maybe no one thinks to check it because it’s an off-week and the boss is away, maybe it’s pushed off for someone else to handle “later.” But none of that should stop you. Keep writing, keep submitting. Keep persisting.

Track who you send it to, track the response, and follow the hell up. Seizing that initiative is going to have way more and larger benefits than passivity or negativity.

To wrap up this series, I want to say that in no way have I covered the whole of the bell curve as to why manuscripts and queries get rejected. But I wanted to at least point out the big ticket items, and maybe hopefully help you with a map through somewhat otherwise hazy territory.

The response I’ve gotten to this series is huge, and not just in terms of number of readers, but also who has been reading it. Editors, publishers, published authors (all of whom I’d get super nauseous and panicky about saying hello to if not for the comfort of social media), as well as writers who wouldn’t speak up normally have all checked out these posts, and I’m grateful. It’s a big deal, and I hope that some of you out there stick around to see what’s coming, and go check out the archives to see what else I’ve done. Thanks for taking the time to read my words.

I’ll see you guys next for more. Happy writing.

The Sisters of Crime Discussion

Good morning. How was your weekend? Did you do anything exciting? Was the weather a sweltering furnace? I had a good one, since I always enjoy my chances to speak to groups of writers. This weekend I was in front of the local to-me chapter of the Sisters of Crime, talking about mystery and story development.

The conversation we had was excellent. But let me describe where this conversation took place.

Picture a very old colonial church, wooden, not brick and mortar. Okay, now take whatever you’re picturing and have Tim Burton re-shape it. Exaggerate the spire. Gloomy-goth-art-student the interior. Make the parking lot a Stephen King land of angry weeds up through cracked asphalt. Don’t forget that every door squeaks and every floorboard groans.

Now add a 48-star flag:

Yes, 48 stars. I counted.

 

And add a Kennedy era bingo machine:

The dust on this thing was incredible.

If you’ve ever been to one of my events before, you know I don’t make a whole lot of notes, and I swear enough, and well enough to make stevedores shocked. But, because this event was a big deal to me, and because I was really trying to make a good impression, since I’d like to do more speaking like this for other groups, I cut the 300+ usually profanities out of my discussion points and examples. The Batman examples stayed in though, because Batman.

Not every place I speak does audio recording, and the acoustics in the barn-sized room weren’t the best, so there’s no audio. Instead, I’m going to take my notes and expand on them, a point at a time. While this event was targeted at mysteries, it’s not that hard to extrapolate the general craft elements out of what I’m saying.

Cool? Awesome. Let’s do this.

A mystery is a story where the central conflict is a question and there are character(s) compelled to answer that question or face consequences. Those consequences may be short-term (if I don’t catch the murderer, they get away with it), or they may be larger in scale (the serial killer will strike again!), but there are always consequences to not answering whatever the question is, and the fear about how the world will be with those consequences in place is the driving force behind the character(s) taking action.

Unlike other genre where the conflict is an action (thriller, horror, action, etc) the fact that the conflict is a question – often a who/how/why – means that the character(s) trying to answer that question need external elements because they’re only going to start the story with some assumptions. Assumptions about how the world works, about how people behave, that sort of thing.

Side note: Rather than have the assumptions be provided just by the experiences in this story, you can build a better character by basing those assumptions on character philosophy and motivations

Because the character(s) have a set of assumptions, and need to gain knowledge to dis-/prove those assumptions, mysteries are built on an economy exchanging assumption for knowledge. Like this:

The detective (the character trying to answer the question at the conflict’s heart) gains knowledge that challenges the assumptions (whatever they might be) WHILE the antagonist (the character looking to benefit from the actions related to the conflict’s question) makes and acts on assumptions in the face of knowledge.

That knowledge comes from clues which are pieces of information (not limited to objects, but they’re most commonly objects) that increase the detective’s knowledge. There are three kinds of clues to keep in mind:

A) the inciting clue
This is whatever piece of information indicates that there’s a conflict to resolve. In most murder mysteries or television shows, this is the body. This clue incites the detective’s efforts.

B) “body” clues
“Body” refers here to “body of the story”, and there will be more body clues than any other kind in a mystery.  The clues that follow the inciting clue are all body clues. And this can cover everything from the murder weapon to the ATM photos to the piece of spinach stuck in someone’s teeth.

C) the confirming clue
This is the clue that gives the detective that last piece of knowledge to shore up the mystery. We’ve all seen that moment in TV where a secondary character says something innocuous and the protagonist gets up from wherever they’re sitting and when we come back from commercial, the detective is explaining the solution to the whole case.

It’s the sum of all these clues that guide the character(s) forward into answering the conflict’s question.

But (and here’s my last point) … this forward pursuit of the answer has to INTERSECT with the character’s arc without being the entirety of that arc.

Because your MC should be greater than just the operator/actor within one story. What they do is not the complete package of who they are, anymore than it is for you, the person reading this. And when I say ‘greater’, I mean they should have more depth and more to them. Yes, the plot events are a big deal (hopefully), yes the plot events are a challenge for them (hopefully), but you can do better than the stale-from-the-can “troubled past.” I know you can.

And if you’re just not sure how, come ask.

This week is a short one from me, since DexCon is Wednesday-Sunday. We’ll do InboxWednesday for sure, and let’s put a ‘maybe’ on Friday’s post … it depends on if I can write it Tuesday.

Go write good stuff. Follow me on Twitter and Snapchat (johnwritesstuff) for more info and other things of wordly nature.

Happy writing.

RealTalk Pitches, Part 2

Pitches, pitches, pitches!
It’s Monday, and we’re on part 2 in our series on pitching. You can catch up on Part 1 here.

Reading some feedback on Friday’s post, I want to make clear that there’s no one single “best” way to pitch, and that there are a lot of different ways to find success with a pitch. What I’m talking about is the composition of the pitch. The goal isn’t to make you follow one format over another, the goal is get you to see that pitch success is possible, it’s about avoiding red flags and making a passionate expression of your idea.

Today I want to look at 3 red flags in pitches, and offer some fixes. Then on Wednesday we’ll wrap up this series with a look at converting your pitch for different media or opportunities.

Red Flag #1 A Boring Pitch
It might be a great idea, but how you’re expressing it doesn’t make it sound like someone would want to read it. Remember our example from Friday (The story of an outlaw who robs the rich to feed the poor, ROBIN HOOD is the story of a man against dangerous odds)? Based on that string of words, would you read the manuscript? Maybe you would, if you already like the subject matter.

Let’s assume though that you’re not already a huge Robin Hood fan, just like you should assume that whoever you’re pitching to is not a super-fan of your work … yet (but they will be, once you rock their face off with this pitch). To make a pitch not so boring, it’s about word choice and word placement. The words you use and where you put them in the sentence plays a big part in how your idea comes across (not that different from the Let’s eat grandma meme about punctuation).

Knowing that, we can improve the Robin Hood pitch like this: When a nobleman returns from the Crusades, he begins another – to stand up to the oppressive puppet regime of the kingdom, even if he has to live like an outlaw to do it.

That’s not as boring, right? We get a bit of worldbuilding, we get a sense of the conflict, and we get an interesting plot element, the nobleman-as-outlaw.

Red Flag #2 A Pitch That Doesn’t Go Anywhere
It can be really exciting and nerve-wracking to have to pitch to someone in an authority role, whether they’re an agent, an editor, or even a whole writing group. One of the toughest parts of those nerves is that people respond to them differently. One of those responses is rambling, or point digressing, or point loss. You’ve heard or even done this – as the conversation goes on for more than a minute or two without the expected response, someone becomes aware that they’re talking too much, so they double down and talk more and gets even more away from the thing they started talking about. I am super guilty of this. It’s how I can start talking about paragraphs and end up talking about the 1997 wrestling pay-per-views I like least (Calgary Stampede tops that list)

To fix this, stick just to the topic, and be okay with the response even if it’s a moment a silence before a spoken response. And if that means saying less than you think you should, so be it.

I know, there’s so much you *could* put into the pitch, and so many things you think are not just important, but critical. Double-check to see if they’re so critical they need to be spoken or written. Would they have greater impact being found out over the course of reading? Is this thing you’re dying to say strong enough to stand on its own and be in the manuscript to be discovered by the hungry reader?

It’s important to remember that you don’t have to say everything in a pitch … And that is an awesome segue to our last red flag of the day.

Red Flag #3 A Pitch That Gives Too Much/Everything Away
As I say on Twitter a pitch (similar to what a query letter does) encourages people to get to the manuscript, the same way a movie trailer makes you want to see the movie. And just like a trailer, it can easily give you all the best info and all the plot.

A pitch isn’t a synopsis. You don’t need to talk about how it ends to interest someone in reading the whole story. This isn’t all that dissimilar from the idea that you need to give all the details so that people “get” it, and sometimes it’s exactly the same thing. Now sometimes this is fueled by excitement, sometimes anxiety and all the words come racing out.

The fix is to get okay with leaving the reader hanging, and knowing how much you need to say and what you don’t need to say to keep the reader hanging. Let’s go back to our Robin Hood pitch and see if we can tweak it a little to keep the reader wanting more.

First version: When a nobleman returns from the Crusades, he begins another – to stand up to the oppressive puppet regime of the kingdom, even if he has to live like an outlaw to do it.

New version: A nobleman turns noble outlaw in his efforts to strike back against a corrupt regime oppressing the poor.

Granted, I’d keep both of those pitches and use them in different places, because it’s about having many tools in the toolbox, not just one super-tool that we keep trotting out over and over. (That’s for Wednesday).

Looking at our examples, the new version has fewer specific details (missing the Crusades, for starters), and is shorter. I could use this on Twitter, for instance. In place of the specificity, the focus tightens on what words are there. The “noble outlaw”, the “corrupt regime” stand out, because they’re broad ideas (even though for me, both are inherent in Robin Hood and other Chaotic Good stories.

The hard part here is not being married to specific phrases in specific orders, so that you have a breadth of options when you need to express what your MS is about. The funny thing is that you get better at letting the ideas go by coming up with as many different (and complete, don’t half-ass the idea once you start writing it down or saying it out loud) sentences to express your idea. Rehearse the hell out of it. Yes, even in the car. And at the grocery store. And while taking out the trash. You can do this.

We’ll wrap up our series on Wednesday where we’ll talk about a pitch toolbox and where you can use your pitches. What do you think of the series so far? What other series would you like to see?

See you later this week. Happy writing.

More Character Thinking

It’s Friday, and like the kings and queens that we are, let us celebrate by having meat cakes, or however that saying goes. Anyone got any good weekend plans? Anyone playing skee-ball?

We’ve been talking thinking and how to express what a character thinks. We closed Wednesday with a brief mention about psychic distance, and the idea that the more obvious you make the act of character thinking, the farther away you set your reader against that.

Put another way, when you put a big neon sign on ‘My character is thinking!’, you make the reader aware of the fact that they’re reading, which pulls them out of the imaginative world you’re both cooperating in. And you want to limit how often and how intensely you yank them from the act of picturing and sharing your world.

A little of this is inescapable. There’s no way to completely eliminate the awareness that a book is being read or an audiobook is being heard, nor can you limit the infringement from the outside world, that phone is going to ring, or they’re going to yawn or something. But small intrusions aside, people will stay in the world as often and as long as you encourage them to do so, like when we have a warm bath or we get into the ocean when we’re five and the water seems to go on forever.

But there’s a great number of manuscripts I’ve read where the jump-cut from thought to action, regardless of first- or third-person, is so jarring that I lose track of what’s going on, even if the idea being thought is critical to whatever moment it’s happening in.

Like I mentioned on Wednesday, there are three ways to demonstrate thinking: With thought tags and italics; with italics but no thought tags; with no tags or italics. Let’s look at each.

With tags and italics
Here is the broadest and most obvious method for indicating thought. You’ve got a thought tag, which is a verb that informs the reader that the idea around/near it is a thought, and you’ve got the visual cue of italics to indicate that you have to make a distinction between this idea and the same idea being spoken, as well as the different consequences thereof. (If you don’t know what I mean, it’s the difference between walking up to someone and calling them a jerk versus just thinking they’re a jerk)

There’s a place for this in a manuscript. Depending on how you want to spike the separation between thought and speech, depending on how you want to express a character’s line of thinking, tags and italics can serve you well.

When taken too far though, you shift into a hard “tell” where the character’s thought(s) shortcut the plot development and eliminate the reader’s opportunity to figure out what’s going on and then enjoy it. This happens, for instance, when the cop trying to solve the murder thinks about all the clues in order, all as thoughts, and then concludes the thought train with Doug being the killer because he was the only one who mentioned liking yams during sex.

Because this expression of thought is so obvious, it can very easily wind up as a whole mess of tell in the show-vs-tell scale. Does that mean never do this? Does that mean tags and italics makes you a poor writer? No. It just means you need to deploy this skillfully.

Italics but no tags
Now we get a bit more nuanced. Without the tags to cement that the action being taken is a thought, you’re relying on the visual difference between italics and non-italics to prompt the reader to make the internal/external switch.

Sounds easy, right? That’s what makes this ripe for abuse. Authors often think they’re being “better” (better than other authors) because they’re not using tags. And that’s horsefeathers. First, there’s no ranking based on using thought tags. Second, there’s a time and place to use tags, just like there’s a time and place to not use them.

Don’t use the tag when you need the thought itself needs to be clearly seen on its own (I don’t mean on its own like its own line in the MS, I mean making it distinct from the rest of the text) as part of context in the scene. When there’s a line of text called out by typographic difference (italics), you’re suggesting it to be special from the other lines nearby.

This is doubly so in the context of the moment within the fiction. Doug and his sex-yams might be so intriguing to Kim that she has a thought about it while she’s grooving to some polka in the conservatory after dinner. That thought, because it’s part of what helps build the Doug/Kim arc, needs more weight for the benefit of the reader and story than just exposition (since that’s not giving Kim a chance to have her own thought).

Abuse creeps in when so much of the text ends up italicized. The words of the thought get italicized. If the character isn’t thinking about another character or action, and is instead thinking of a whole scene or fantasy (like Kim about Doug), that IS NOT italicized, because it would lead to multiple paragraphs. Yes I know, those are what Kim is thinking, but imagination isn’t thinking. Break out of the fantasy back to exposition.

No tags or italics
Let’s swing the pendulum a little bit and go back to that author who thinks they’re being smart(er) by not having any italics or tags. Maybe they think that’s edgier than my neighbor’s manicured lawn.

Except it’s not edgy. In first-person this isn’t so bad, because the line between narration and thought is already translucent. But in third-person, it’s a demand posed as a request for the reader to follow along closely, and that’s something earned by having the text not … well, not suck.

The problem with trying this in third-person is that if your thought uses “I” or “we” or “my” (or a variation thereof), you’re suddenly jumping from the top-down view of third-person and individuating into the head of a character. Even if you double super pinky-swear promise that you’ll jump right back out when you’re done, it’s still a POV-shift, which gets the editorial red flags flying.

Working in the past tense makes this easier, but still, it’s a careful deployment designed to collapse psychic distance and drive us to the present minute (like when Kim picks up yams and walks to Doug’s hotel room)

To sum up, there’s a time and place for all three of these techniques. Use them throughout an MS to distinguish and develop the story you want to express.

See you guys next week. Have an awesome weekend. Happy writing.

 

InboxWednesday – What Characters Think

It’s Wednesday. Better caffeinate, hydrate, and other -ate, because I don’t know how else we’re going to get through this week. Is it just me, or are these early summer days sloth-crawling along?

In sifting through the inbox looking for a juicy question, I found several questions asking about how to handle expressing to the audience what a character is thinking. Questions like this:

* How do I show what a character is thinking in the third-person when they’re not the POV character?
* Do I italicize every thought the character has in first person?
* How do I show and not tell what a character is thinking?
* How much do I tell the reader what the character is thinking if I want it to be a surprise to the reader later?
* How do you format character thinking from the rest of the exposition?

There’s about a dozen total questions including those above, so I’m going to break them into chunks and do some today and have the rest on Friday. This way, you don’t have to sit through what could have very easily been 8000 words about the nature of thought and how to express it.

Here we go …

For characters in first-person
First-person has the most direct exposure to thoughts, because those thoughts become part of the narration of the story. “I couldn’t let her pull the trigger” is the same as “Bill didn’t let Hannah pull the trigger” in third person. The nice thing about first person is that you can go directly to the thoughts via verb choice, like I “think/thought”, and thanks to other tools of first-person the narration requires that those thoughts be woven together so that we see and experience the “complete” story through the character’s ideas, actions, beliefs, and emotions.

For characters in third-person
This is where the waters can get muddy when people misunderstand show versus tell, and/or when they want to try and tell the “complete” story (not in that E True Hollywood Story way, but in that I’m-going-to-give-you-ever-bit-of-info-so-that-you-can-“get it”-way).

Here’s the thing, a “complete” story doesn’t mean there are no spaces where the reader can’t, doesn’t, or hasn’t filled in some gaps on their own using whatever imagination they may have. A complete story is the story that’s got all its necessary moving parts installed and working as smoothly as an Imperial battle station blowing up a planet of people with intermittent British accents.

The most common way the distinction between action and thinking is through italics. I’m not sure where we learned this, I can’t find a unified theory that says one book was its genesis, but I have read plenty of manuscripts by all different authors all over the world who use italics as a way to indicate what is or isn’t a thought.

And that’s not bad. It’s not wrong. Anything can be done well if done consistently and in moderation (see the -ates we started off this blogpost with), it comes down to setting your own system up and doing it that same way throughout the book.

Or does it?

Because yes, I’m always going to tell the author to be internally consistent, but there’s a level past token consistency that we need to address as we close this blogpost – and that level is part of psychic distance.

Psychic distance, if you’ve never heard me talk about it before, is how close the reader is to the characters and the actions they’re reading. You treat the text as though it were a film camera, and the story as though it were a movie. Are you zoomed in, reading description and seeing well-defined objects, or are you pulled way out, so that you get a sense of the scope of worldbuilding or as a setup to what comes next?

When you italicize, because you’re changing the nature of the text, you’re creating distance between reader and story. It might be a teensy little amount of it, less than millionths of a space between thought atoms, but it’s still a space. It’s still a division. We’re going to break this down in more detail on Friday, but I’m going to wrap today with a pretty straightforward idea:

You can use italicized thoughts and thought-tags (thought, wondered. etc) to create distance between the owner of the thought, what the thought is, and what its context is:

I can’t believe it, he thought, it’s not butter. The knife skidded over the toast.

You can eliminate the thought-tag to go even closer to the thought owner and thought context.

I can’t believe it’s not butter. The knife skidded over the toast.

You can skip the italics AND the tags, so that the thought is indistinguishable from exposition.

I can’t believe it’s not butter. The knife skidded over the toast.

The more you call out the fact that someone’s having a thought, and the more you call out what that thought is, you’re making the reader more and more a detached observer, like they’re seeing the story from eight rows back or from the bleachers.

We’re going to talk the nuance and development of this stuff in Part 2. See you Friday. Happy writing.

Fear and Loathing Of The Blank Page

Picture this scene as I sat down to write this blogpost.

INTERIOR – JOHN’S OFFICE – MORNING

A man in an Alice In Chains t-shirt and a pair of basketball shorts coughs three times and sits down in a beat to all hell office chair with a cup of tea in hand. He sips, stares out the window and sighs. 

He touches the mouse and the PC’s screen flicks to life. He sips the tea and stares at the white space on the screen. Then he stares out the window. Then back to the white space. Then out the window. Then he thinks about butts and that makes him giggle. Then he has a giggle contest with himself. The white page is still blank.

He makes a disgusted “Ugh” noise, and picks up his phone instead. 

Yeah, that’s how today started. This post will go up on Monday, which is Memorial Day, and I know that the majority of people will be off, and I did have loads of thoughts about “just put up a fluff piece then go strong on Wednesday”, but skipping a day means I can find ways to procrastinate (yes, I know I have editing and translations due in 2 weeks, so it’s not completely procrastinating, but like, blog procrastinating, blogcrastinating), and I’m not gonna skip a day.

So what do I do? I think of my tiny muse. Yes, I have a tiny muse. Imagine a way cooler Tinkerbell who totally gets memes and eats Mexican food and ditch the wings. I’m not sure about the whole constant shed glitter like it’s dandruff thing, I think that’s a weird question to ask a muse (hey do you have glitter dandruff, did I just make you nervous about your hair, wait, where are you going?), so let’s not get hung up on the muse’s awesome hair and go back to what the muse does for me.

In my head, there’s this churning sea of ideas. I always want to be talking about something, explaining something, giving out information. The hard part is that transmission is work, and like a lot of people, I don’t want to work. I want to sit there and have the world come to me, mainly so I can sit on the couch. But that’s grossly unrealistic, so if I’m going to manage the waves of ideas, I have to do the work to get them out. The blog posts don’t write themselves. The edits don’t happen while I’m playing Prison Architect or Sentinels of the Multiverse or watching Netflix.

Bridging that gap is where the muse comes in. So that the blank page changes from “Ugh”, as in oh-dear-sweet-alleged-deities-what-the-mothersizzlestickbits-am-I-going-to-do-with-this-melonfarming**-blank-page-and-the-pressure-I-feel-to-write-something-so-damned-amazing-that-hundreds-of-people-see-it-ugh, to “Okay this space is mine, and I’m going to use it to convey an idea.” **note: yes, I said ‘melonfarming’.

Here’s the idea – the blank space is blank not because it’s a daunting sheet that requires only perfection touch it, but because it’s an empty space hungry for anything to go up on it.

That urge to be perfect is inextricably tied to the idea that only perfect things get read by people. I have over a thousand twitter followers and they can read everything from a writing tweet to my random observations that make me laugh, so I know that I say plenty of imperfect things that people can see, and I don’t think twice about them unless the spelling errors are egregious or the idea is presented unclearly.

So what makes the blank page intimidating? I have conducted extensive scientific research (meaning: I had a second cup of tea and listened to Metallica) and discovered that I’m afraid of being judged negatively. With the potential for the words to go up and stay up there, and be judged negatively (depending on the topic it’s totally possible) while out there, I keep a lot of my dissenting views (dissenting when compared to the majority of my professional and personal circles) to myself. #somanyparentheses

The tricky bit is that I don’t know if the words are going to be judged negatively. I don’t know if they’re going to be judged positively either. They’re Schrodinger’s Words. So if I want to see how they’re going to be received, I have to put them out there. I need to pump the brakes on the page-fear, and think of that page as an opportunity. To help. To explain. To do the stuff I love to do.

And then suddenly, that “Ugh” goes to “Ooh” when I realize that I just found a blogpost and put it together.

See you guys Wednesday. Have a great Memorial Day. Happy writing.

Paragraph Building Blocks, Part 2

Good morning, welcome to Friday, let’s get down to business.

Earlier this week, I began to answer some questions about paragraphs. Today, that discussion continues.

Looking at our list of questions:

a) What defines a paragraph?
b) How long should a paragraph be?
c) Should some paragraphs automatically be of a certain length because of where they are in the story?
d) How many paragraphs should there be in a chapter?
e) How many beats per paragraph?
f) When writing, should [the writer] be thinking about the bigger picture of story construction (as in I just wrote 4k, so that’s a chapter), or is it more important to get the story out whole then divide into chapters as an after-thought?

We’re halfway through, and I want to throw in a bonus question:

g) How do paragraphs affect dialogue?

i. How many paragraphs should there be in a chapter?
We need to define “chapter” I think, if we’re going to be able to answer this question. A chapter is a collection of scenes wherein some amount of plot and/or character development happens. What that “amount” is (and yes, that amount can be zero, though it really shouldn’t be) depends completely on the size of the development over the course of the whole manuscript, as well as how you want to present it.

If, for instance, you have a really short progression, something you can break into three steps, then each step would likely make sense as a chapter. But if these three steps require a lot of moving parts or there’s some complex imagery (I’m imagining a lady walking to her closet, picking a shirt, and wearing the shirt, but between the walking and picking there are some extensive thoughts about all the kinds of influencers on her choice), then you might have a chapter that isn’t the progression, but the build-up to progression.

That might be unclear. So let’s think about pizza. We can slice it into thirds. But if we need to feed more people, we can slice those thirds down the middle and get six slices. The act of subdivision is an option for extending (and slowing) progression so that you can give it more weight and emphasis. BUT (and this is a large one, like your mom’s) padding out the chapter count can also be a great way to bloat your manuscript and lose the readers when there’s too much padding and the pace slows to a crawl (again, like your mom).

Which is why a chapter has as many paragraphs as it needs. Because the chapter, and in turn the paragraphs, are delivering plot and/or character development.

ii. How many beats in a paragraph?
A beat, for those people who may not have checked out FiYoShiMo, or who might not know, is the smallest unit of storytelling information, and it’s when something happens, is felt, or is discovered.

A beat fits into a sentence, and yes, a beat can have multiple actions in it, so long as they’re all related to the same moment (like a guy who sees his friend get shot, screams, picks up his buddy’s gun, then shoots the aliens while tears stream down his face).

Since we can put a beat in a sentence, and a paragraph is made of sentence(s), then we should be able to put multiple beats in a paragraph, right?

Nope.

Here’s why.

A beat is a snapshot of activity. It’s a moment in the story, it’s events or ideas that we visualize as we read, and we need those moments to be clear and distinct so that we can picture them, then add them to what we already have. These jigsaw puzzle pieces have to fit together to show us the whole picture, but each piece has its own curves and nubs and spaces. You could pull a beat out and have it stand on its own as a vignette, though I don’t know why, outside of marketing.

When you cram lots of beats back-to-back, even when they’re related, they’re not distinct. They lump together and congeal into a larger whole that might lack the definition and clarity of the individual pieces (like how you add eggs, flour, sugar, and water together to make a dough but once the blending happens it just becomes … dough). Keep your beats per paragraph to a low minimum of one, maybe two.

Of course there are edge cases and I’m sure someone on the internet will go to great lengths to prove me wrong.

iii. When writing, should [the writer] be thinking about the bigger picture of story construction (as in I just wrote 4k, so that’s a chapter), or is it more important to get the story out whole then divide into chapters as an after-thought?
When we’re drafting a story, it can be really tempting to take a day’s chunk of writing, especially when it’s large, and call it a chapter. That’s part of what this question is asking – is there an auto-cutoff for chapters based on wordcount? The other parts have to do with breaking the story into that progression I mentioned about then figuring out the chapters in advance or just writing the whole thing then slicing it up.

The answer has some different parts, all moving together. Chapters don’t have a set length, and when you’re thinking about writing the MS, the number of chapters isn’t a factor. Whether or not you think about what development happens in each chapter does matter though.

For instance, I tell clients to map out their development by chapter, because I want each chapter to have the beat(s) relative to how the story is playing out.

Like this:

1 – John wakes up, gets set up to start his day
2 – John reads the news, has breakfast, gets discouraged at the state of the world
3 – John puts his butt in the chair, clears his head, and starts writing

I could have easily condensed that into 1 chapter of “John starts his day and then gets to work”, but I can spread the whole concept out over multiple chapters and give the components some depth. In this example, the “gets discouraged at the state of the world” might have been only a sentence or two if this were in one chapter, but it can be the whole load-bearing pillar of its own chapter this way.

That said, you can divvy up the chapters after the fact, so long as you place the breaks in reasonably expected times – before or after major developments, mid-action moments so you create tension, spots where you shift from following one character to another, etc. It’s just not something I’m a fan of.

BONUS QUESTION TIME.

iv. How do paragraphs affect dialogue?
For a long time, there was an unspoken prohibition on dialogue being long and paragraph heavy, because people don’t speak in giant paragraphs. Even the most well-crafted political soundbite is a sentence or two. One of the reasons we call a Bond villain speech cliche is because it can be so cumbersome to work your way through the text and think that there’s supposed to be an actual human doing the speaking.

Paragraphs in dialogue aren’t verboten. No one will come kick you out of the writer clubhouse when they read your MS and find out that Marcelle spent a page and a half telling Julian where he can stick his infidelity and passive aggressive comments that her sister Lucia is hotter.

But a paragraph, even as a ramble, has to still sound like a person could say it. That’s the big rule for dialogue. No, I don’t care if the “person” saying the lines is a half-alien cyborg, the reader is presumably a human, and humanistic speech patterns make sense to us.

If you’re asking what that looks like on the page, here you go:

She looked out her window to watch her beloved city burn.
      “Everyone knows that out of all the Good Humor desserts on a stick, the Strawberry Shortcake is clearly the best because strawberry and the strange freeze-dried cake crumbly bits that sheath it in deliciousness.
     “Good Humor, has for years produced quality desserts on sticks, rich with nostalgia and taste alike, because what the world needs now is not our arguing on this, our veranda, but true love and cooperation before Emperor Trump’s cyborg racist troopers kick down our door because our gardener is slightly too swarthy according to National Color Gradient Chart 16.
     “So, here, do you want the damned ice cream or not?”

Start each paragraph with an opening quotation mark, and only close the quotations when you get to the end of the last paragraph.

If you’re gonna sneak tags in there, then punctuate just like you would if the dialogue and tag were on its own line.

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

The Lessons of 400 Posts

Wow, 400 posts. I’ve been on this blog longer and more seriously than some relationships I’ve been in. Do you think we should be wearing tuxedos? I’m wearing a blue t-shirt and Captain America pajamas as I write this paragraph during breakfast, is that celebratory enough?

I’ve blogged on several platforms for years about many topics, but it’s here, in this incarnation of my voice and content that I’m happiest. I take an enormous pride in these posts and building an audience, and I want today to break down some of the things I’ve learned in 400 posts. This won’t just cover blogging, I’m going all over freelancing, writing, and publishing.

Before I get into this list, THANK YOU. Thank you to every one of the thousands of readers I’ve had over this blog’s lifetime, and thank you to everyone who I don’t know about who’s read my words after they ended up on Facebook or Tumblr or tweets. It means a lot to me that anyone would even look my way, and I am grateful for every view, share, comment, and like. When this blog started, it was because I wanted to get people talking about publishing and writing, and I think that’s happening now more than ever. THANK YOU. Whether this is the first time you’re reading my stuff or the 400th, this success is as much yours as mine.

Alright, it’s lesson time. Let’s rock and roll.

i. YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH not only to chase after your dreams, but you can also make them happen. I want to start with this idea, because there are days when I just can’t put two words together if you handed me velcro and a blowtorch. There are days when I just want to skip all the work and play a video game or stare at videos. There are times when I see what other people are doing, when I see how successful they’re being, and how effortless that appears, and think to myself that a bag of paperclips and rabbit poop is more talented and successful than I am.

It’s wrong. Plain and simple. I might not have an agent. I might not have 300+ clients yet. I might not be at the forefront of coaching writers, I might not be the editor everyone goes to for all the things, but that’s no indicator that I should retreat and go back to folding towels and getting yelled at by entitled mall customers.

Opportunities are the byproduct of effort, and by that I mean, when you work and hustle, when you put all your energy into being your best self, doing your best work, you’re going to find yourself is situations where doors open up to you. It might not be the door you expect (to date none of my screenwriter friends have tweeted to say, “Hey John I’m writing the new Nero Wolfe or the new Macgyver, do you want to jump in?”) but I’ve been lucky enough to get interviewed by talented people, guest spot on blogs, give presentations and do Q&As all over the place.

My dream is simple: I’m going to help as many people as possible get their stories, games, scripts, comics, and ideas made.  I’m going to give writers and creatives the best tools they need to make that stuff happen, and I’m going to do it in a way where I’m happy with the efforts and outcomes.

Therefore, I need to do stuff that helps make that happen. I need to blog. I need to tweet. I need to snapchat (yes snapchat, you can find me at johnwritesstuff). I need to give more seminars, presentations, and workshops. I need to play my game and help people tell their stories.

This isn’t to say I’m not doing other stuff while that happens. I’m playing with a lot of Lego, I’m playing video games, I’m hanging out with friends and family. You can say that those things don’t make me an entrepreneur or as successful as possible, but those things fulfill me. They keep me going.

You can make your dream happen. Whatever it is. There are actions to take, some big and some small, but you can succeed.

ii. Life throws plenty of curveballs, and they don’t all get knocked out of the park, but you have to keep swinging at them. My medical history is packed with bad diagnoses, hospital visits, illnesses and big scary concepts like “terminal” this and “depression” that. I could, and it’s been suggested to me, that I pull all the way back on what I do and spend the next few years just “being happy” while I can. That advice is probably among the worst I ever received, because it comes from the premise that doing what I do doesn’t make me happy.

Yeah, my health sucks. Yeah, it’s going to suck harder in the future. But that doesn’t mean that right now, I still can’t do the best I can to get to my goal (see above). Having said that, I gotta talk about the obstacles poor health puts in my way: things like not being hired or contracted because people don’t want to stress me out, or because fear that I’ll get sick for a week or month will throw their project schedule off, or that my quality of work will suffer. And I get that. And yes, I think for a few weeks there, my work did suffer, I can own that. But to totally cross me off the list in the present because I have a rocky medical future ahead is frankly cowardly, short-sighted, and discriminatory.

I wasn’t kidding when I said I’m doing my best work ever. Talk to my coaching clients and they’ll tell you and show you the effects of an hour meeting with me. Talk to my editing clients and they’ll point to finished books on the shelf. Talk to my marketing clients and they’ll point to high sales. Good work is good work, and while the future isn’t the super field of daisies and rainbows, that’s no reason to give up, run away, or not keep going after the dream.

Is it hard? Oh hell yes. There are days my chest capital-H HURTS. There are days where I get so tired the fifteen minute nap turns into a two hour nap. There are days I have to dictate from bed or the couch. But hard doesn’t mean “nothing gets accomplished”, hard just means I have to adapt and keep going forward.

You’re going to face all kinds of problems and obstacles. Some you’ll have zero control over, some you’ll manufacture without always realizing it. But you have this goal right, you want to be a published author, a professional painter, a screenwriter, a whatever, and you can go do that. You should go do that. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

iii. It’s a drama culture. Outrage is popular. You don’t have to buy a ticket to that circus. The number of people I know who use social media as a soapbox to espouse criticism, complaint, and hostility instead of support, success, and compassion is staggering. Two minutes scanning down the tweetdeck stream, and I really start to wonder if some people are only ever happy when they’re complaining or pointing out other people’s faults.

One of my least favorite parts of social media is the idea that if you don’t agree with a particular point, you’re wholly a member of the opposition. If you don’t think this one person is right and should be automatically supported, you’re just as bad as the person who aggrieved them, and in fact you’re re-aggrieving them by having your own opinion.

That, friends, is friggin’ stupid. We need everyone to have their own opinion, to make up their own minds. Social media has given us all the ability to share that opinion, but the loudness of your projected voice is not the same as the quality of your projection. Spending your day screaming over the problems rather than putting your head down and doing something about how the problem specifically affects you is not getting your work done. It does however, give you the convenient excuse of “Well I can’t do what I want, because of X problem!” Remind me again: Was your goal to live behind the excuse wall, or was your goal to make your creative stuff happen?

If it’s better for you, if it’s helpful for you getting to your goal, to complain and spew venom, and be a black hole where nothing’s right because of A B C factors, great. Do that. Do the best you can at it. Some of us, and I’d argue many of us, won’t be doing that. That doesn’t mean we don’t care, or that we’ve sided with the “enemy” in your us versus them model, it’s just that our individual path doesn’t look like yours, and that’s the cool part about living and taking steps towards goals.

iv. Rejection means quit if you either want it to, or wanted to secretly have a reason to quit. Rejection letters are thing that happen. You write a thing, you query it, it gets rejected. The specific reason doesn’t matter at this second. It hurts. I know. It sucks to hear that your work didn’t meet the criteria or expectation (yours or theirs). It can really mess with your head. But a rejection letter is not a mandatory eviction of your creativity, and it’s not a permission slip to stop being creative, unless that’s what you want. No one is in charge of you giving up, except you.

I know a lot of people who queried, got rejected, and stopped writing. They point to the letter as evidence of them not being good enough, and that other people pushed them in this creative direction against their will, and this letter is proof they weren’t then, and never will be, good enough.

Except a rejection letter doesn’t say that. Believe me, I write rejection letters and rejection letter templates. It’s never [YOUR NAME HERE], We don’t want your work so stop writing, stop making that thing, in fact, just stick to breathing air, but like, go way away and do it, because your cooties are really a problem. Signed [PROFESSIONAL PERSON].

A rejection letter just says that the query didn’t make someone want to read the manuscript or that the manuscript wasn’t what the reader was looking for at the time they read it. That’s it. If you get rejected, change the query, work on the manuscript, and keep trying. Remember too, that the query-and-publish model is just one way to get your story out into the world. Don’t you dare give up.

v. Answering your email promptly and fully moves you towards your goal. You can also say “making phone calls, answering phone calls, replying to tweets and messages, being more than a one-way distributor of awesome” moves you towards your goal.

I’ll put on my Parvus Press hat for second. Let’s say you send in your manuscript. Let’s say I dig it, and email you on Monday saying I want to talk. If you don’t answer that email until six Mondays from now or eleven Thursdays from now, do you know what that tells me? That you’re not serious about going forward. And I wanted you to be serious. I hoped you would be, because getting your book out into the world helps every one of us.

Prompt email response, even the “Hey, I got your email, but I’m picking the kids up from school, so a lengthy reply will happen in like 3 hours after dinner” matters (I want to point out that writing that sentence took me 38.78 seconds, yes I timed it, are you saying you don’t have 40 seconds while the kids clamber into the car to write a response?) because the people involved in that correspondence know they didn’t just scream out into the void. No one likes void-screaming, so please answer your emails. Reply to those tweets. I know, it takes time, but it’s nowhere as long as you think.

vi. If you’re creative, you’re going to have to do things that support that creativity, even when those things aren’t creative, or you think they suck, or that you suck at them. The era of the giant advance is dead. The era where all you have to do is sit back and write while other people handle everything else (ever notice how that makes the writing part sound so easy?) is dead. I’m sorry. I’m sorry because it means now you, the creative, are going to have to be responsible for some of the business-y stuff that other people used to do for you.

I’m talking about marketing. I’m talking about talking about what you’re doing and that you’re proud of it. I’m talking about getting the word out that you’ve got this stuff available and you’re willing to accept cash in exchange for your stuff.

You might not like doing that. You might resent that you have to do it. You might feel like you’re no good at it, and that you’re not-goodness at it is actively hurting you. You might feel stupid doing it. It might be hard. It might be awkward.

You still have to do it. Look, I wasn’t always great at Twitter. I used to use it like glorified text messaging, and it wasn’t until someone pointed out that reading my Twitter feed was like hearing half of really interesting conversations that I got my shit together. I’m not great at Twitter, but I do well enough. I just started really getting into Snapchat, because it’s going to be the next big thing. I’m super not good at Snapchat. It is a little embarrassing, and I have to remind myself to do it. But that won’t always be the case. I’ll get into the habit, and it will get easier.

And it’ll do that, not because I’ve got a superhuman aptitude for social media, but because I’m going to do it more often and learn from my mistakes. I’ll get better at doing it. So, it might be weird now, but I have the confidence that it won’t be later. And that’s where I’m aiming – this place in the future where I am all over social media delivering knowledge and encouragement. See the goal, work towards the goal, even if the work is hard or scary or frustrating.

vii. Write everyday. Even if that’s one word. It’s this point where some of my friends say it’s impractical or impossible. They’re so busy with work and kids and bills and whatever else that there’s just “no time.” I don’t buy it. I roll d20 and disbelieve. I think it’s a crock and it’s just an excuse. There IS time. Remember earlier when it took me 38 seconds to write an email reply? I refuse to believe that you can’t muster at least a minute to write something.

What I really think is going on here is that people have an expectation of what writing should be. They think it should take a big block of time, and involve a big block of words. If that’s possible, do it. But it doesn’t have to be this dedicated chunk of the day in order to prove that you’re really a writer. Besides, who are you trying to prove that to?

I so passionately believe you will either make time for the stuff that interests you, or you’ll make excuses why you’ll never be able to make that happen. I see it in my own life. It’s way easier to sit and talk about how it would be nice to have X happen, or I could go take the time to do X, but X sounds like it’ll take time, be hard, maybe I’ll get tired, and like, it means I’d have to get off the couch and I’m just in the middle of a good episode of the West Wing. Excuses are avalanches. Excuses are momentum-eaters.

Even one word a day, one more word than you started with, is progress. It might not be progress in big huge giant strides, but the size of progress doesn’t legitimize it.

Write everyday. Write or have your idea starve to death.

ix. Writing is power dynamics, risk, gain, and arc. If I had to boil down writing a manuscript, not counting genre, a story is about power and change. Who has it, who wants it, who’s losing it, how are they losing it, how are the people getting it, what benefits are there to getting it, what’s everyone risking, how do those risks change or challenge the characters?

Most manuscripts stall because power is either challenged by too many or the dynamic isn’t suitably challenged enough. Let’s say we’re writing high fantasy and there are twelve factions vying for the crown. That’s TWELVE groups to follow and develop in a story. TWELVE! How different can number 4 be from number 11? Why so many? Does it show that the writer is trying to get praise for complexity? Complexity isn’t always the best storytelling element to hang a hat on.

Or let’s say we’re a group of mercenaries infiltrating a corporation in a cyberpunk world. We’ve breached security somewhat, because we need to get the weapon plans from the vault, but the writer really wants to show just how  gritty they are by stacking the odds against the protagonists. It’s not that the heroes always have to succeed, but how is there any room for growth against steep odds?

Don’t neglect character arc. A character starts somewhere and has to be somewhere else, for better or worse, at the end of the story. No arc despite plot invalidates the plot. No one’s going to save all of time and space then go flop back down on the bed and read comics. If it’s big deal, show it.

x. Write for yourself, not the market. Unless some company called “The Market” contracts you to write a thing, you’re not writing for the market. Never ever write for the market. It’s faceless, it’s ephemeral, it’s vague, and hard to please. Just because futurist stories are hot right now does not mean you have to write one in order to get published. Write what you want, seriously, someone out there will want it. It might not be the someone you expect, but there’s a home out there for good work.

And while I’m at it, don’t just write to appease the audience. Audiences are way too fickle and can feel too entitled. You can write the exact topic they ask for and still get one-star reviews, because of how you wrote the topic. You’re not going to please everyone, and you shouldn’t spend your time trying to.

Give the audience what they need, and that’s most often your story in the best shape of its life. Know the market it’s going to, so that the story can find the hungriest consumers. A well told story in its best shape will always have an audience, so long as the writer gets the story to that audience. At least until we have instantaneous brain downloads, teleporters and that Star Trek food machine so I can have a Roy Rogers roast beef sandwich right this second.

Thanks for 400 posts. Here’s to 400 more. I’ll see you wonderful creatives back here next week for more awesome words. In the interim, find me on twitter and come check out snapchat.

Happy writing.