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Bridging the gap between creative intention and creative work

A bit more than a year ago, I dumped 75,000 words into a book manuscript over the period of about a month.

Judging by word count alone, I had written a book.

But of course, like all first drafts, it was a crappy book. I sent it to my editor with the false hope that she would magically fix everything. But of course, she called me out: “Um, Dan. This book is a mess.”

What I want to talk about today is what to do in that moment — when you’re glowing with immense pride in what you have created, but you realize it simply isn’t enough. That to truly craft a work of high quality that has a positive effect on the lives of others, you have to commit so much more than that first, messy draft.

As I write this, the annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) event has just ended. Thousands of people have written a novel in a month. They dumped tens of thousands of words down on paper.

That is a towering achievement. But it is also just the first step in a much longer journey. So let’s talk about that process… what you do when you realize you have a strong vision, and a pile of crap, on your hands.

Understanding My Goals Clearly

The book I’m working on is nonfiction, and called Dabblers vs. Doers. Along the lines of this post, it focuses on how people can bridge that gap between dabbling with their creative work, to truly doing it.

For the next phase of crafting my book, I had to be super clear about my goals. That took time.

Part of me did want to rush through editing, and get this thing done in an insanely short period of time. Setting such a goal felt empowering. It would feel like I was in control. It would feel bold.

And it would be total bullshit.

There is that desire to be able to say, “I’m a published author!” that can take you off track. Shopping it to agents and publishers too soon would have felt immensely validating at a time when I had little confidence in the quality of the manuscript. These actions would have been a crutch, masking the time it takes to craft something truly original. And let’s face it:

Dependence on external validation is death for creative work.

So I backed up. I realized that my goals for this book were much longer term, and much deeper. So I went back to the well to assess what this book meant to me, and what it could mean to others. At the end of that internal audit, I realized I was pursuing this book to:

  • Craft a work that would be wholly unique from anything I had done before.
  • Craft a work that was relevant 10 years after publication, not just 10 days.
  • Learn how to become a better writer.
  • Develop incredible partners in this process; specifically, an agent and a publisher. To do so, I had to deliver to them something uncommonly good. Not something adequate.

All of these things take time.

A Year of Research

In the past 12 months, I have done very little writing on the book. Instead, I have had hundreds of conversations about themes within it.

Now, there were quite a number of times that I sat down with the 75,000 words with the intention of “just fixing it.” Each of those times was a pathetic failure. Did you know that there are cat videos on the internet?! These are the realizations that came to mind when I tried to tackle the 75,000 words before I was ready.

So I set out to really understand how I can make this book amazing. I had a vague sense of the themes and why I was writing this, but I didn’t feel it in my gut.

That’s a problem.

So I spent the past year doing the following:

  • I made everything public. I announced the book when it was still a mess. I shared blog posts on the the process as I went through it (Heck, you are reading one right now!). I shared interviews for the book as a podcast. I added “Book” to the navigation on my website. I announced the current title of the book, registered domain names, and shared social media updates on the process. In other words, I committed publicly, inviting anyone around me to know that I’m on the hook for this. If I fail to finish this, it will be a very public failure. You can see most of this work here.
  • I did primary research. The book focuses on how people can bridge that gap between dabbling with their creative work, to truly doing it. But some of it was really weak. I made a rule for myself: “No Steve Jobs stories in this book.” Which meant I had to cut out all of the Steve Jobs stories I had already included. Why? Because it was incredibly lazy of me to include them. To pull from the same over-used stories from the one man that everyone cites whenever they want to make a big dramatic point about something. Writing about Steve Jobs just makes you feel Steve-Jobsian. And if I truly wanted this book to be something unique, it had to be a Steve-Jobs-Free-Zone.

    This commitment prompted me to seek out new stories — original stories that no one else was talking about. To that end, I began seeking out mid-career creative professionals and interviewing them. I would do loads of research on each person and spend an hour asking them everything and anything that didn’t turn up in the research. The truth is, I have no idea if all of these people will end up in the book or not. But I will say, that I have spent hundreds of hours studying how the theory of Dabblers vs. Doers matches up to the reality of what it looks like for people.

  • I vetted the concept via thousands of conversations. Because I had made everything public, because I was seeking out people to interview, I got in the habit of talking about themes from the book constantly. What was great about that was that none of this was promotion for the book, and nuggets of insights would show up in the oddest of places. I became comfortable enough with the topic to be able to have light casual conversations with family, friends, strangers, colleagues, and really anyone I came in contact with. I can’t tell you how many authors I meet who are firmly in book launch mode, who are wildly uncomfortable talking about their book for even a moment. I’m still more than a year away from publication, and I have to say, it feels great that this book doesn’t feel like a product to pitch, but a conversation to explore.
  • I launched courses, webinars, and blog posts experimenting with themes from the book. These weren’t subtle things; they took me and my team months to create, and we made huge efforts to not just get them noticed, but for the courses in particular, have them earn real revenue. It’s one thing to tell someone an idea and have them say, “Wow, that is interesting.” It is another entirely for them to say, “Sign me up, here is my credit card. “For the book, this is a critical distinction. If I partner with a publisher, there is a reality that publishing is a business. They need to know that the idea of my book is not just something I can write, but something I can sell. That there is a thriving market of people waiting to spend money on these ideas. In the process of crafting and launching webinars and courses, I had to understand how to talk abut these topics in a way that attracted attention, and were compelling enough for people to pay for. It’s not easy. I even wrote a blog post that alludes to this called “This isn’t easy.
  • I did marketplace research. This focused on creative professionals, art, podcasts, courses, workshops, books, events and so much else. The book I am writing will exist in a marketplace filled with others exploring the themes in their own ways. So I need to immerse myself in this marketplace to understand it
     

    I read a lot.

    Other books new and old that explored themes I was obsessing over. This helped me learn where my book was unique, and how I can help it align to the market, while being unique within it. It also gave me a deep sense of respect for so many writers. I looked at anything that touched aspects of the book. I reviewed blogs, podcasts, speeches, workshops, courses, articles, and anything else I could find. To me, this helps my work become stronger. But again, this will make me a better partner with my publisher. I need to understand the marketplace deeply because they will need this book to stand out. To be well-positioned, instead of being “yet another book on the same staid topics by yet another wannabe who doesn’t know how to sell it.” I want to be an amazing partner for my publisher. Someone who delivers a book that is incredibly well-crafted, and knows how to connect it to the hearts and minds of readers.

  • I forged relationships with people who focus on these topics. I can’t even tell you how many people I have researched this year. Those who do creative work in a wide range of fields. For many of these people, the research ended there. But for some, I reached out. I emailed, I called, and we met. Can I just tell you how amazing this felt — to get to know these people? If nothing else ever comes of this book, just getting to know these people is an incredible gift, and made the investment of time worthwhile. To have my life filled with those whose ideas and work I admire.

The bottom line is, I immersed myself in the topics of the book, until now I can say, “YES, I feel this book in my gut. I know its purpose.”

But let’s face it, everything I did above will also help this book find an audience, make me a better partner for an agent and a publisher and help it succeed in the marketplace.

Knowing When Research Is Done

It’s easy to feel safe and comfortable in research. It protects you from having to actually finish your work, to put it out in the world, and see if it succeeds or fails.

But then, the other day, something happened. I received an email that as a writer, you both dream about, as well as dread. It read:

Just found WeGrowMedia online and am loving your work!

Have been searching around but can’t find the answer to this… approximately when is your book coming out?

Looking forward to its arrival!!

Obviously, you dream about receiving an email like this because it means that someone cares about your work.

But you dread it, because there is now an expectation that you have to live up to in your creative work. And immediately you fear that you will let this person down. Even worse, that you will let yourself down.

I mentioned above how external validation can be a trap for a creative professional. But sometimes it is exactly the kick in the pants that you need.

So I have now moved onto the next stage of the book: finding the right partners. My intention is to publish this traditionally, and the first step there is to find an agent.

Why do I want to publish traditionally? This video by John Green pretty much sums it up. I deeply value great partners, and have a profound respect for the work that agents and publishers do.

Now, the nice thing about moving ahead is that I don’t have to make all 85,000 words (yes, it grew by 10,000 words over the course of the year) of the manuscript perfect. That was just some crazy idea I had. The reality is that when you are trying to sell a nonfiction book, you just need a great proposal and a few sample chapters.

So that is what I’m working on at the moment.

As usual, my friend, book coach Jennie Nash, is helping me with this process. In case I haven’t said it often enough before, Jennie Nash is a genius. If you are a writer, you should obsess over everything she is doing.

Going the traditional publishing route, the fact of the matter is that the book wouldn’t be published before 2017. Ideally, it would be published in 2017, but it could be later.

What if I don’t find an agent and publisher that I LOVE? Partners that just feel right, that I think add more to the mix than I could ever do on my own?

Well, if that happens, I will 100% self-publish this. I have zero qualms about that. As I said before, I have a deep respect for what agents and publishers do, which is why my intention is to partner with these incredible folks. But it, of course, has to be the right fit.

If it isn’t, that doesn’t stop me or my work, but simply changes how I will traverse this path. I definitely prefer to have an agent and publisher as my partners on the journey. If that doesn’t happen, I am making the journey regardless.

That’s what I love about writing and publishing today. It has nothing to do with “traditional vs. indie,” and everything to do with the choice for the creator. I am never boxed into a corner with zero options. Instead, I have choices to make. That kind of empowerment is profound in the history of mankind.

And I plan to take full advantage of it!

I would love to hear about how you are traversing your own creative journey. As you end 2015, how are you reinvesting in sharing your work with the world?

-Dan

  • Dan, I know I shouldn’t seek external validation, but this post made me feel better about what I’m doing!

    As I bring the Friend Grief series to a close, I’m working on a much bigger book on the legacy of straight women in the AIDS community. I started the research in earnest last month; it will take a year. I wondered how to work towards publication, expected to be around May, 2017.

    In September I announced the project. Last month I started a Facebook page just for the book. I asked for research help in the FB groups related to the topic. I started applying for funding to cover research expenses. I began researching non-digitized archives in Chicago and NYC.

    By asking for help, I realized recently that I have one degree of separation from almost anyone I want to interview for the book (including celebrities). I’ve made friends with research librarians who are helping me navigate their collections. I’ve blogged about the book. I made my first public presentation related to the topic this week, with more to come. And I also launched a crowdfunding campaign on RocketHub a couple days ago.

    I knew the people who were willing to help – with research, promotion, donations – would be my street team. Some of them I know; many of them I only know online. Because they, too, believe in the project, I have lots to use already. Two bookstores have committed to host launch parties (Chicago and NYC). A group in London has invited me to speak on the topic.

    When will the research be done? Hopefully in a year, but if past experience means anything, I’ll have more than enough information to share in guest posts, presentations, freelance articles, etc. when the book is finished.

    At some point I’ll start pitching it to agents, I suppose, but I’m prepared to self-publish. Regardless, it’s important to build momentum and interest. My blog was 2 years old before my first book came out, so I’m not a stranger to this strategy. And though I’m feeling quite overwhelmed by it all at the moment, I feel confident that I’m on the right path.

    • LOVE THIS VIKI!!!! Congratulations on all you are doing!
      -Dan

  • Congratulations, Dan. I’m so impressed with the work you are doing and the vulnerability with which you are sharing your journey with others. Taking a long term view of our lives as writers is so much more important than instant gratification. I’m so happy I took the time to have conversations about my work, do additional research, and let ideas percolate before I published my book. Can’t wait to read yours!

    • Marilyn,
      Thank you so much! I also LOVE seeing how your own publishing journey unfolds. I appreciate your comment.
      -Dan