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.