One Step Ahead

summer in january

It’s Friday man and I’m still half young. Two things worth celebrating in 2017.

This is how I look after two hours of Muay Thai training. Now matter how whiny I wake up feeling, how stuck, how full of self-loathing… I’ll always be smiling and skipping by the end of a good workout.

There’s something about movement that directly combats the feeling of stagnation. Depression is a kind of stagnation (nothing is changing, nothing is getting better, nothing seems to help). Physical movement takes that snow globe world where nothing ever changes, flips it on it’s head and sends an army of serotonin snowflakes to sparkle your city towers.

We all experience depression, minor or major, daily or weekly. But I’ve never once felt depressed during a backpacking trip.

I don’t know what the doctors say and anyway, I don’t trust them as much as I trust myself. I can distinguish some very clear patterns if I look back on my life with an objective eye.

When I was trail-running in Alaska this past summer, I quickly learned that I had to stay in a constant state of motion, otherwise I’d get blanketed by bitch-crowd of mosquitos in no time.

Depression is a buzzing black cloud of mosquitos. No amount of sitting and swatting will make them fly away. The universe is yelling over the megaphone that I need to move. I need a change and I need it fast.

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Me vs. Me: Wednesday, August 19th

When I was in third grade I tried writing a novel. My teacher was a saint – she would always ask, “how’s the story coming?” I was basically copying my favorite stories of the time, but I changed the names and I reworked the plot. In my three-ring binder I scribbled away, in my room, at church, on the living room floor…

Somebody said, “Measure yourself against yourself and nobody else.”

It’s the most sensible thing I’ve ever heard about success.

When I compare myself to the rest of the world, I go against 7 billion competitors. I have 7 billion chances to fall short. In that big of a pond, the odds are low that I’ll be anything special, anything significant, or have any sort of measurable impact on the world.

When I compare myself to myself, the problem of success scales down to a workable level. I’m either better or worse than I used to be. It’s true that we’re either growing or wilting. There’s no sitting on the fence.

I’m either stronger or weaker than I was 5 years ago. Faster or Slower. More cheerful or less. I take more sick days or less. I’m more stressed or less stressed. More apt to forgive. Less motivated. More inspired. More jaded. Better at Chess, or worse.

People have potential. We have the potential to sink into a sucky version of ourselves. And we have equal potential to work harder, to do the right thing, to surprise even ourselves.

Kids come into the world with a unique potential. Kids have wants, dreams, quirks, obvious desires and talents.

If nothing else, I owe it to myself to keep improving. Forget the rest of the world. I don’t know what they’re doing and I don’t care. The news is depressing. If I watch the news, then I start to absorb all the problems and trauma and crisis’ of 7 billion people. It’s too much for anyone.

Focus on you. Focus on the kid version of yourself. It’s good to be selfish.

It’s not that other people don’t matter. The opposite is true. Because when you become a superhero, you save everyone around you.

I never finished that novel that I started when I was in third grade. I don’t know why. It was a big project. I got scared.

The kid version of myself was innocent. He meant well, his intentions were pure. I want him to be proud with how it all worked out. I want him to be happy.

Advice from the Sages: Wednesday, August 12th

1) Writing Advice from Anne Lamott:

“For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

2) Writing Advice from Kurt Vonnegut:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

3) Writing Advice from Annie Dillard:

“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place…. Something more will arise for later, something better.”

7 Things I Learned From Walter Mosley: Tuesday, July 28th

When I’m stuck for things to write about, when I’m stuck for writing inspiration, I usually turn to traveling down the youtube rabbit hole. “Author interview”, “writers on writing”, and “Charlie Rose author interview” are my favorite searches.

This time around, I got drawn into an author named Walter Mosley. He is captivating speaker, easy to like, easy to listen to. I wasn’t planning on it, but pretty soon I was taking notes on everything Mosley was saying.

It’s a lovely thing to grab on to the wisdom of someone who’s put their whole life’s work into a craft or a pursuit. And I can just take all of his advice for free! It’s too good to be true…

Here are 7 things I learned from Walter Mosley:

1) The Writer’s Spirit: Mosley likens writers to explorers. He says that with every new character, writers are exploring the possibilities for new matter, new subjects.

2) Regarding Character: Novels are about the development of character. It’s how my character comes into the world, how they affect the world, and how the world affects them. They have to change. They have to find out something.

3) Windows into Other Worlds: A writer’s job is to answer the question, “what’s it like?” For example, “What’s it like to be a boxer in the ring?” “What’s it like to be a detective?” “What’s it like to be at sea for 90 days?”

4) Regarding Character and Conflict: Sometimes in books, you have a character (especially in the thriller or mystery genre) who is traveling down very straightforward path. For example, the detective is looking to solve a murder; or, the lawyer is trying to solve the case. But really, Mosley says, life is not that simple. In real life you have a lot of things, a lot of problems going on. It’s a lot of things coming together to create a much larger affect on the character. It’s not just that they have one, straight track to follow, or one single conflict to solve.

5) Writing Routine: Mosley claims that he writes 1,000 words a day. The next morning, he briefly edits that 1,000 words, then he writes the next 1,000.

6) Writing Schedule: His schedule is to write every day for about three hours, usually from from 6am to 9am, or from 7am to 10am. Mosley says, “Writing is almost a place of dreams for me. I do my writing early in the morning before most people are even up and going. Then for the rest of my day, I can go about my normal life. I don’t have to think about writing again until tomorrow.”

7) Regarding Younger and Older Generations: Mosley says, “The older you are, the more you live in the past.” A lot of older people get upset at young people, saying they’re shallow or selfish or whatever. Young people live exactly today, in the immediacy of their world. It’s important for old people to realize that a lot of their notions are no longer valid. They have to remember that young people are living in the now – for now it’s all they know.

My Problem Is: Friday, July 10th

So here’s my problem.

I spend approximately 10 hours / week writing these blogs. Maybe 15 hours if I’m enjoying myself. Never less than 5.

But that’s not the problem. The problem is that I’m not writing as much “story” content as I’d like. I’m getting at least one short story finished each month. But I think that I could do more. And I want to write novels at the same time.

I want to be writing stories, every damn day, because that’s the only way to write better stories.

Every minute of every day counts. So when I think about 10 hours per week of blogging, or 40 hours per month, well that’s a lot of valuable hours. And maybe more of those should be spent writing stories instead of writing about writing stories.

Now I’ve been going 4 months of blogging 5 days a week. I’ve never missed a day and I’m proud of that. But what are goals worth if they’re not steering you in the right direction.

But I can’t just quit blogging. I can’t even just say, “OK, now I’ll cut back to two days a week.”

Because I’m afraid that, if I did that, it wouldn’t actually lead to more story writing. Maybe it would just lead to more Youtube Watching, or more Bike Riding, or more Sleeping in on Sundays.

So here’s my brilliant solution / compromise.

I’m going to keep posting 5 days a week. Only some of those posts will not be “nonfiction blogs”, they’ll be some kind of story, some kind of serial or ongoing fiction plot-line.

That way, I’ll keep the daily posting, which I like because it kicks my ass into producing every day whether I like it or not, but I’ll turn more of those hours into “story producing hours.”

***

Now that I’ve had the idea. I know this needs to happen. But I’m scared to do it. Because it will probably mean even more weekly work. It will mean I need to plot a full story arc (or two) before I can begin the first installment. And it will mean publishing more stories at a faster rate, which for me feels more high stakes than just a nonfiction blogpost.

So because I’m scared to start this, I’m gonna go ahead and say, “to begin at an undetermined date.”

So, hopefully in the next month of so… (that’s the anxiety talking again)

I’ll jump into a slightly different routine of… 1 short story per month. 2 blog posts per week about writing. And 3 installments of a short story series per week. Or something along those lines.

Obviously I’ve got a lot to figure out. But right now the idea feels right. More to come.

***

Have a fluffy, feathery weekend everyone!!

The World’s a Dream: Wednesday, July 8th

Inception. The Matrix. Vanilla Sky. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Shutter Island.

My favorite movies are the ones where the bottom falls out of the floor of reality. The curtain gets pulled back and we realize we’ve been deceived all along. The center does not hold.

It’s not always easy to classify these stories into specific genres. They might be action, adventure, thriller, psychological thrillers, mysteries…. they are thick, brain bending, revelatory, uncomfortable types of stories.

I’ll never forget that last scene in “Inception”, where the top is spinning and spinning and it’s about to fall… and suddenly the credits roll.

Lost is still one of my favorite TV shows of all time. It’s popular for writers to turn their noses up to the show, because of it’s complexity eventually got out of hand and the plot couldn’t be tied up in a pink ribbon. But even though I didn’t get all the answers in the end, that show and those characters took me for a wild ride. The ride itself was thrilling as hell. The journey of that show, for me, far outweighed the conclusion.

****

Right now I’m in the middle of a year long project to blog five days a week and write at least one short story a month.

What I hope this year will start to teach me is…

Where is the intersection between what “readers want” and “what I like to write”.

I have no idea yet. But I know there’s a market for fantasy, and those types of stories seem to be the ones that interest me the most. The only way to find out is to do it.

And I’m excited as hell at the thought of one day finding that sweet spot.

 

KDP Select: Monday, July 6th

When you publish a book on Amazon, you have a choice to make.

You can choose to enroll in KDP Select (kindle direct publishing) or can choose not to enroll in the program.

(I’m not ready to publish just yet. But I’m trying to plan my strategy. Most of the advice in this article is based on the “Author Strong” podcast by Mat and Nancy. Because they have recently done a few episodes on the topic of Kindle Publishing).

Possible advantages to enrolling in KDP Select:

  • Your book is placed in the Kindle Unlimited program.
  • Promotional perks. You can set your book to “free”, or choose a handful of days in which to “discount” your book to go along with promotional deals.
  • The contract only lasts for 90 days. So you can always choose to pull out of the program after 90 days. If you don’t pull out, the contract will automatically renew.

Possible disadvantages to enrolling KDP Select:

  • Exclusivity. You cannot sell the same book on other platforms (itunes, kobo) while it’s in KDP.
  • You can’t make your book “perma-free”. It must be priced .99$ or higher.

Unfortunately there is no universal advice for how to publish your book. Every author and every individual case is different. That’s why self-publishing is so great for those people who are willing to get involved with the process, try new things, experiment with different strategies, and find what works for them.

To me it seems like a good strategy to start with Amazon and KDP, simply because Amazon is the largest retailer. And because for 1st time authors it will be easier to focus on one thing. In the long run, I think any self-publisher would say, “at some point you want to cast your nets wide,” and experiment on multiple fronts. But for beginners, Amazon and KDP are the simplest, fastest way to jump in.

One popular strategy is to write a trilogy, or a series, and give away your first book for free. This way you attract readers to your series. You’re just trying to get them interested, and if they are, they’ll continue to read through your series.

For this reason, you might want to keep that first book OUT of KDP so that you can keep the price at free. From what I understand, the best way to do this is to use a service like “Draft to Digital” who will publish your book and distribute it to platforms like kobo and itunes. Then, since Amazon price matches works form other platforms, Amazon will also sell your book for free, even though you’re not in KDP, and of course that book won’t be available on KU either.

I have heard many success stories of people who put all their time and gusto into one novel. They had one work that they really believed in. They did their research, paid a lot to promote it, and had great success.

But I know that for most people it doesn’t work that way. Most self published authors have 5 or 10 or 15 works before they start making decent income.

For now, my rough plan of entering the self publishing world is to write a three-novel series. I’ll give the first book away for free, and then sell the second and third books for $1.99 or $2.99.

It’s definitely daunting to think about all the options. But the only way to learn is to jump in there and learn from your own experience. It makes sense to me that publishing medium to short fiction, and publishing often (every couple months) is a good way to align yourself with the growing trends.

The self-publishing podcasts have been enormously helpful for me. By far the best ones are:

The Creative Penn with Joanna Penn

and

The Rocking Self Publishing Podcast with Simon Whistler

But I also listen to the “Sell More Books Show,” “The Self Publishing Podcast,” and now “Author Strong” for self publishing advice.

The Casey Niestat Creation Hierarchy: Friday, July 3rd

I believe in the gospel of “make stuff.” Every human soul is like a character in a video game. We have the potential to be wimpy, selfish versions of ourselves. OR we can become a stronger, super version of ourselves. We can be baby Mario, Super Duper Mario, or somewhere along the spectrum in between.

I believe that creativity is a legitimate measure of the well-being of our souls. Here’s why:

  • It’s impossible to create in an artistic arena that doesn’t inspire you
  • Therefore, creativity always comes straight from your core, is always pure
  • Therefore, creativity makes you more like yourself
  • Therefore, your life is less dominated by fear and more propelled by joy. (In the sports world they say, “he’s playing to win, instead of playing not to lose”)
  • Creation, like Joy and Happiness, is contagious. So by creating and becoming more like yourself, you naturally make the world a better place. A single flame can light a thousand candles.

 

Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 10.39.21 AM

 

I’m a huge fan of Casey Niestat’s Vlogs. My wife and I watch them every morning while we eat breakfast.

Casey also believes in the gospel of make stuff.

What I find interesting about this hierarchy is that it moves along an axis from selfishness to selflessness (from few –> many).

  1. In the beginning you make stuff for your own enjoyment
  2. In the second tier you start to bring happiness to others
  3. And in the third tier, you’re now bestowing the gift of creation itself

Also known as,

  1. You’re a fisherman
  2. Others see you and are inspired to fish too
  3. You give them the lightest strongest lures, teach them the knots, show them the spots. And now they can feed themselves.

Casey’s Hierarchy ideas have got me running wild through a jungle of spinoff analogies:

First and foremost it reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s hero journey. How the hero always moves from selfish intentions to the point where he would sacrifice his own well-being for the greater good that he believes in.

Next, I always liked the idea that, if God created the world, then the best way for his people to become “like god”, would be for them to become creators themselves.

Finally, it makes me think of Stephen King, who has passed through all of three of those tiers. He wrote. Then he wrote really good stuff. Then he wrote “On Writing“, the ultimate book about the writing process. So that now King has inspired a whole generation of writers in his wake.

***

Whew. That’s all for now.

Happy Weekend everyone. And don’t forget to Make More Stuff!

Build a Ladder to the Sky: Thursday, July 2nd

A piece of writing is only a failure if it goes unfinished. At all costs, you must bust through that finish line ribbon.

But it’s hard to finish a project and write “the end.” It’s easier to keep revising forever and ever. And that’s because we know that once a piece of art is finished, it ceases to be ours. Now it belongs to the universe. The child is independent of the parent.

10 yards from the finish is when all the insecurities come on stronger than ever before. The fears have been barking all along, but now they’re snarling and spitting in your face. They want you to keep that piece of art “in progress”, away from any potential rejection or failure or negative feedback.

But the road from amateur to expert involves practice, failure, and experimentation. As an artist you aren’t allowed to skip spaces on the game board. There are no shortcuts, no freebies, no “advance to go” cards. You can only get better by progressing slowly through each stage.

And that’s why unfinished works don’t help us. They don’t move us forward. While a finished piece, even if it isn’t a masterpiece, is always a lesson learned and another brick added to the foundation.

Nearly every successful writer says, “My first three novels are still sitting in a drawer somewhere. Nobody has ever read them.” I hear it all the time on author interviews. Those first few novels were garbage, so why did they even bother? Because those lackluster stories were the critical bottom rungs of the ladder.

So write your crappy songs. Paint your ugly pictures. Tell your scatter-brained stories. And in doing so you’ll slowly build a ladder to the sky.

 

Publishing Revolution: Wednesday, July 1st

I haven’t yet broken into the self-publishing world, but I really love what the whole movement stands for.

Amazon and the global marketplace. Kindle and Ebooks. Shopping online. Anyone can be an author. Anyone can be a reader. Writers talking directly to readers. Writers publishing a LOT of work quickly. Readers consuming more and more. Specialized genres and niches. Stories easily translated to other languages and cultures. Listening to Audiobooks. Renting books on Kindle Unlimited. Podcasts and Meetups and Facebook groups and Nanowrimo and all of it.

What Youtube did for movies, what the Ipod did for music, and what Amazon is doing for publishing – all of these changes are good because they make it easier for artists to reach consumers.

Any innovation that encourages creativity is a good thing in my book. Everyone has weird quirks and interests, and now thanks to the internet we can connect to other people who are just as crazy as we are!

I like to follow authors who are real people. The experience shouldn’t stop once I finish the book. I also expect to to find them on facebook and twitter, and read what else they have to say on their blogs or newsletters. When I find somebody I really like, I devour their content as fast as they can put it out.

I listen to self-publishing podcasts every day. I’m sure I’ve tried them all, but new ones keep popping up.

What annoys me is when I hear people still arguing about “traditional publishing” versus “self publishing.” And asking those silly questions like, “is self publishing legitimate?” or “I still need the validation of a traditional publisher.”

Those debates are downright silly. They’re played out. The new generation doesn’t care about who published what or where it came from. The new generation has a natural talent for sifting through a lot of bullshit and finding the good stuff. Anything is possible for the new generation. We want it faster, sharper, transparent, no BS, democratic, respectful, well-intended… and we want it all immediately.