Don’t Make It Perfect. Just Make It Better.

“I have bits & pieces but don’t know how to construct a coherent plan from all of it.”

These are words an author shared with me this week, and it sounded so familiar. This is a challenge that many writers go through. They are super smart, they have read so many “helpful” articles and blog posts, and read books and attended conference sessions, etc to learn how to develop an audience for their books. BUT… they are drowning in a sea of “wonderful” ideas, without any process by which to move forward.

I had a conversation with another author who was considering hiring me for consulting. As we talked about his goals, he seemed vacillate between two emotions:

  • I’M SMART & HAVE SKILLS
    In describing his specific goals it was clear that he could feasibly go through the book launch and marketing ideas on his own. He has the basic skills to do so, and is obviously very smart.

  • I’M OVERWHELMED
    In describing his plans, he quickly became totally overwhelmed when he realized how many balls he had in the air, and how adding any more would adversely affect his other obligations at work and home.

Talking through this, I told him that my biggest fear, and the thing I see most often with other authors, is that 12 months from now, his plans will remain undone. That even though he is smart (he knows what he wants), he has skills (he knows how to get it done), that the last part (I’m overwhelmed) will overshadow these things.

That sometimes, you bring partners into a process because doing things together is not only less lonely, but more effective. In the past, I used the Weight Watchers system as an example:

A primary reason Weight Watchers works is that it is inherently social. You are encouraged to show up to a group meeting for a weigh-in, to chat with other members, and the Weight Watchers staff. This process offers encouragement, you learn how others are finding success in losing weight, and you build powerful relationships with those who have similar goals. Over time, you may want to lose weight not just for your own sake, but to ensure you don’t let the group down. Your purpose has become communal, and you feel a sense of accountability.”

Another important aspect to build momentum is the value of process. That a simple process that encourages small actions can be more powerful than a complex plan. I have been considering a simple prompt that a friend shared with me months ago:

“How can I make it better?”

This seems like the simple challenge that each of us face in our lives.

Whether these are issues of craft.
Of work/life balance.
Of interpersonal relationships.
Of lawn care.

That the goal is not “how can I fix everything and make it super awesome!”
Because that road is long and twisting. Because to reach “awesome,” is often more of a process than a destination or achievement.

For instance:

  • Can you write bestselling novel after bestselling novel?
  • Can you find total fulfillment in every aspect of your career and total complete peace at home?
  • Can you make everyone like you?
  • Can your lawn be perfect?

Honestly: probably not. Sorry.

But you can make each better. Within 30 days, you can learn how to:

  • Write a better sentence.
  • Feel better about specific task in your job.
  • Repair one aspect of a broken friendship.
  • Get 20% of your lawn 10% greener.

I’ve written in the past about how bored I have become with chasing “best practices.” (see: Why “Best Practices” Lead to Mediocre Results) That there is often a false promise in these (e.g.: “5 simple ways to make your book go viral using Goodreads!”), and that the describe things that works for a handful of people two years ago, but have since been diluted. That I’d rather see authors:

  1. Be more focused on honing their craft.
  2. Better understanding their audience.
  3. Get clearer on the motivations and messaging that connects those two things.
  4. Have meaningful conversations that lead to trusting relationships, and doing this often.

Why?

Because these are all things that were critical for success 30 years ago.
Are critical for success today.
And will be critical for success 30 years from now.

Too many people are pursuing “best practices” waiting to “go viral.” They are hoping to find some “secret” way of using Amazon that is akin to winning the lottery.

Success comes from relationships and empathy, not buttons.

Many authors are starting in a place they are slightly unsure of.
Slightly embarrassed about.
Slightly afraid of.

So they need to start one thing: make it better.

Not amazing. Not perfect. Just better than a day ago. Than a week ago. Than a month ago.

Oftentimes, this is about establishing the right habits. Perhaps it could be:

  1. Write daily
  2. Change one work habit that gives them an extra 15 minutes of breathing room each day
  3. Have a conversation with one ideal reader each week
  4. Understand one new thing about how your stories connect with that reader’s heart and mind

If you are hoping to build processes such as these into your writing life,
I just announced the next session of my 8-week online course: Get Read: Find Readers and Build Your Author Platform, which begins May 5.

Thanks!
-Dan

Your Life is Not Tetris – Stop Trying to Shove More Stuff Into It

Your life is not Tetris. Stop trying to re-arrange the pieces so you can shove MORE stuff, more activities into it.

Working with authors, I find that many (most? ALL?!) are overwhelmed. They are trying to fit so much into their lives: writing, publishing/marketing, a day job, family, home, friends, hobbies, personal health, lawn care, and so much more. And on top of this, they are constantly hearing others tell them about other stuff they need to be doing to. Things like: “Oh, well you HAVE to be active on Pinterest too!”

… as the writer is slowly crushed under the weight of horribly arranged Tetris bricks…

So today I want to talk about the opposite of “productivity” as most people talk about it. I don’t want to “optimize your life” so you can squeeze out an additional 20 minutes of time per day that we can then shove more work into.

I want to STOP trying to spin those Tetris pieces of your life around until they fit in some inhuman form that crowds out any feeling of calm and focus.

Instead, let’s talking about honing. Focusing. Cutting away everything except that which matters most. Okay, let’s dig in…

ZERO-BASED CLEANING

My dad shared a concept with me when we had lunch recently: “zero-based room cleaning.” We were talking about the best way to organize the stuff in someone’s house in order to get rid of clutter that is in the way and completely overwhelming and unmanageable.

He got this from an economic term – zero-based budgeting. The basic idea is that you don’t go into a cluttered room and begin removing what you think you don’t need. Instead, you empty the room, you start from zero. Then you put back in ONLY what you need or love. It basically aligns to this quote:

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
― William Morris

I was a huge fan of the TLC TV show “Clean Sweep,” and organizer Peter Walsh’s methodology here and in his books. Each week, the show went to the home of someone whose life was disrupted by an overwhelming amount of stuff. This was basically his process for helping them:

  1. Select a room or two. Put a limit on it, don’t attack the whole house at once. Define the purpose of this room as it applies to your daily life. If multiple people live here, include everyone’s input. Be careful to not define a large main space as something that is only used for a single yearly party. The idea is to not feel overwhelmed in your daily life.

  2. Remove everything from this room. In the show, they moved everything out onto the lawn. (at this point, the room would be cleaned, and perhaps painted, but that is not a necessary part of the process)
  3. Sort all items into three piles: trash, sell, keep. The idea is that most of the stuff will get thrown out or sold, with just select items in the “keep” pile. This is by far the toughest part of the process, the one filled with the most difficult decisions, arguments, and emotional confrontation.
  4. Only put the “keep” stuff back in, and design the room in a way that feels refreshing and useful.
  5. Create systems to ensure the clutter does not pile up again. For instance, some people have a “one in, one out” rule. If someone gives their child a new toy, then one toy must be given away. Same with clothes and lots of other stuff.

This aligns perfectly to my dad’s zero-based cleaning concept. Clearly, my dad should have been a professional organizer.

SELF-IMPOSED BARRIERS THAT PROTECT US FROM THE RESPONSIBILITY OF TAKING ACTION

I have become a student of productivity, and made sweeping changes in my life during the past five years to not do more, but to do only what matters most to me and my family. The way we live is actually pretty unusual compared to most folks I know. I work from home, never step on a plane, and spend goo-gobs of time with my wife and son each day. My life is intensely focused on helping writers and spending time with my family. So much else has been cut out.

I know, you are likely thinking, “Well la-di-dah, isn’t that special for you Mr. Dan.”
🙂

But I say this to talk about the next point: that most barriers in your way are self-imposed. For many people, their lives are cluttered not just with stuff, but with obligations that don’t align to their goals, whether they are personal or professional.

An author recently mentioned that the problem she has with productivity is the “The 50+ hours a week thing.” That every single hour beyond that is an hour she begins exhausted because she puts so much creative energy into her job. So the point she is making is that she is starting with an unmoveable barrier that prevents action.

Now, there is a lot to dig into here, and my response to her was not “Well then, quit your job!” I immediately began asking about goals, and looking 3, 5, and 8 years out. Fine, you can’t move the 50 hour a week job. I get that. But what about in the future? What are your true goals? How can we take steps that pay off down the road?

The issue I have with self-imposed barriers is that they let us off the hook from the personal responsibility of taking action. The classic one is “the mortgage,” and yet, I am always driving by houses where people can’t fit their cars in the garage because it is filled with stuff. All that stuff took time to buy, to dust, to organize, and now to store. And it took time away from family, from hobbies, and likely from paying off that mortgage.

Much like zero-based cleaning, I don’t want to start with the barriers. I want to talk about goals, and about the life you want to lead. Because without STARTING there, we can’t focus your resources to make them happen. We simply justify the challenges, which justifies inaction.

THIS IS A HIGHLY EMOTIONAL PROCESS

The most amazing part of the “Clean Sweep” show was the emotional attachment people have to their stuff. That a collection of old toasters can represent someone trying to recapture the love of their mother; that a rusting lawn mower is someone’s way of honoring their grandfather; that a closet full of clothes that don’t fit is someone’s way of being in denial about their health.

What does the “stuff” in your life really represent? How does this affect your ability to take action? And where in this process are they creating barriers that prevents action.

So, I have always collected toys, and follow a bunch of YouTube channels where people review toys. I recently watched a 1.5 hour conversation between six grown men about their Star Wars collections. At one point, one of these people confessed that they collect toys today to make up for the love they never felt they received from their father. Then, one by one, similar “confessions” came out among the other folks in the video. It was incredible to watch, and nice to see how open they were about this.

Being aware of the underlying reasons why you do things is the key to changing habits.

For many people, the ultimate challenge in terms of limits on their time and energy is kids. And I will not pretend to have any easy answers for that. And from my personal observation, this is about a 100 million times more complicated for women.

This was really highlighted for me when I interviewed author Bella Andre last year:

“Our chat took place in front of a live audience online, and there was this moment where people went from being “Wow, I am super impressed with Bella,” to “This woman is not human, she is a superhuman.” That moment is when, after talking about so much of what she works on day after day, she made a casual mention of dropping her kids off at achool. You could just sense people’s jaw dropping. And one person in the audience even left a comment such as: “Well, that’s it… my excuse was kids, but now I don’t have it anymore.”

People’s reaction when the realized that Bella Andre’s passion and output was amazing, and THEN realizing she had kids too! It was unbelievable to consider someone working past these limits. Again, I will not simplify how complicated that can be, and that having very young kids is a particular kind of challenge in and of itself.

That said, limits can actually help you focus on the actions that matter most…

THE IMPORTANCE OF LIMITS

There is this false promise in “productivity” and “time management” topics that you can move past all limits. But I tend to find that limits are GOOD, and that they help make things stronger because you have to make difficult decisions of what to take action on, and what to leave out.

For instance, I am a strong believer that creative energy is the most important resource to manage, not time.

That to feel that you are meaningfully accomplishing your goals, it is not about rearranging your stuff into new and more complex storage systems. It is about carefully defining goals and limits.

This works both with “stuff,” with obligations (e.g.: the art of saying “no”), and with what fills your days and leads to a meaningful body of work.

Limits in the creative process are USEFUL. They help create great work.

WORK IN SMALL BATCHES WITH CLEAR GOALS

Work in small batches. WHAT CAN YOU GET DONE TODAY. Or this weekend. Or this week. If you are cleaning a room, don’t start a system that will require 8 weeks before the first object leaves the door. Work in small batches. (In the “Clean Sweep” example above, they selected individual rooms, and literally did all the work within three days.)

I can’t remember where I heard this, but someone made the point about what you feel the most efficient system would be to do a basic mailing of flyers: to print, fold, sort, address, and stamp the mailings. They asked people their thoughts, and most came up with the assembly line process, because it FELT more efficient. In other words: print them all, then fold them all, then stuff them all, and give one person each of the jobs. So one person is a folder, another stamp, etc.

The expert in this story said that it is actually more efficient to have each person do the mailings from start to finish in small batches. That there is a process of discovery in seeing how each part of the system works together, and that in doing so, you find any flaws in the system very early, and that efficiency actually increases.

Why do I make this point? Because small batches work, and because oftentimes what FEELS smart and efficient is actually just an illusion we try to convince ourselves of.

SOCIAL FOCUS

For some reason, social media has become a lightning rod for people feeling overwhelmed. My guess is that anything “social” brings back our adolescent attempts to try to balance being authentic, while still being validated by others. In other words: “how can I be the odd duck that I am, and not have people make fun of me?”

What I end up seeing are writers approaching social media in ways such as:

  • Pretending it is useless crap, and that they are better than it.
  • Diving in head first following every one of the 1,000 rules they have heard about. The result: too much talking, not enough listening.
  • Doing the bare minimum (“I Tweet once per week”), and then wondering why no one is being “social” with them.
  • Taking dramatic breaks from it whereby they reach nirvana. I’ve read quite a few of those “I didn’t log in to social media for a month, and am now ready to tell you the secret meaning of all life because I have reached a higher plane of existence than you. Please LIKE this wisdom on Facebook!” articles.

This is not to say I don’t believe in taking a sabbatical, I do.

But I do believe in thoughtful iteration, in eschewing best practices to ensure that meaningful connections are a result of social media, not “likes” and “retweets” and “PLEASE REPIN THIS!!!” This year, I have been reconsidering how I use social media.

That basically, I have given up on spinning 100 Tetris pieces on a dozen social networks at once, hoping to somehow “go viral.” That no, I cannot meaningfully be active EVERYWHERE my audience could possibly be. That trying to do so seemed to suck all of the enthusiasm out of why I want to connect people in the first place, resulting in loads of scheduled Tweets, postings to social networks I didn’t have the time to properly engage with, and “listening” for the purpose of finding things to ReTweet.

After a few months of “zero-based cleaning,” I now have links to three social media feeds on the top of my website:

  1. A Facebook Group for writers
  2. Instagram
  3. Twitter

Should I also be very active on Google+, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Pinterest and YouTube? Absolutely I should. Am I? Nope. I do frequent those sites, and do a lot of listening there. But if you want to know where I engage, where I focus on being a human being on a social network, it is really limited to the three listed above.

This is my way of removing everything from a room so that I can focus on what truly matters. On not pretending there is a magical way to do everything, and instead do what creates a true body of work, and true connections with other people. On respecting limits. On encouraging emotion of empathy, not of feeling overwhelmed and social pressure to “do it all.” On caring.

I have said this before, and it is worth saying again: this is the process that seems to work for me, but may not be right for you.

That I don’t have much interest in using a brand new program that allows me to quasi-spam 15 social networks at once with every update. That the promise of these tools to “increase productivity” and have you feel clever while doing so, may not be the only option.

I love looking back at older posts on social media and consider the narrative – the body of work that is created over the course of years. The connections this creates with others, and the legacy it may leave in their hearts and minds.

That my life will not benefit by one more Tetris piece shoved awkwardly into it.

Thanks.
-Dan

How I Am Trying to Create a Book Giveaway Filled With Enthusiasm & Fun, Instead of Spammy Self-Promotion

So I have been working with two amazing people on creating a book giveaway, Miranda Beverly-Whittmore and Julia Fierro. It doesn’t really begin until next week, but I wanted to share a bit of behind the scenes on the process, and the value being created even BESIDES the books being given away.

So much of being a writer and launching a book is an emotional journey. It’s different for everyone, and in my role partnering with an author, I basically OBSESS about “how things feel” at each stage of the process. The goal is for every step of the process to feel meaningful. That, yes, this is a lot of work, but where the work is filled with ENTHUSIASM, as opposed to a dreaded sense of skepticism. And heck, let’s try to make it fun when we can! So that is the lens by which I am talking about everything below.

For months now, I have been sharing the the process in helping Miranda launch of her novel Bittersweet. (You can read more about that here and here and especially here.) What I love about how public we have been with the process is that I can talk so openly about not just the steps, but the emotions.

On Monday, Miranda, Julia and I begin this: “OMG! All the Books! Giveaway.” It is a daily giveaways with 24 authors, plus a grand prize winner over the course of a month.

Okay, let’s dig into what this has looked like so far…

UGH, WE HAVE TO DO A GIVEAWAY?

Yes, this whole giveaway started off with feelings of apprehension and obligation. There was a line in our book marketing spreadsheet that said “giveaway.” It’s expected, right? It’s pretty normal to see a giveaway somewhere in the book launch process. So we had listed out a bunch of obvious ideas, brainstormed months ago, and added to the spreadsheet as a placeholder.

The fear around doing a giveaway is that we will be instituting another spammy promotional thing that has to be Tweeted about endlessly. You know the drill, it’s an author’s nightmare:


Buy my book!
Enter my giveaway!
Buy my book
Enter my giveaway!
Buy my book
Enter my giveaway!

So our first goal was to have this process not suck. To have it feel like a FUN little project. I mean, if this giveaway doesn’t work at ALL, I at least want to have had some fun with it. Which leads me to…

HAVE FUN. CREATE SOMETHING UNUSUAL, AND IF POSSIBLE: BE GENEROUS

Miranda and I put off defining the giveaway until it seemed like we couldn’t do so any longer. This is our first text message thread in really trying to frame what the giveaway would be, my messages are in blue on the right, and Miranda’s on the left:

I don’t normally curse like this with clients, but Miranda and I are pretty close by now, and it was a way to illustrate that we need to brainstorm without boundaries. Just play with crazy ideas and remove the sense of fear about the process. I can’t explain why, but sometimes foul language does that. Sometimes cookies do that.

After this thread, Miranda made a comment that she went from dreading this whole giveaway idea, to feeling like it would be a fun opportunity. That was key – focusing on how it should FEEL first. Enthusiasm matters.

We began to hone in on the main concept (yes, I edited out lots of other weird ideas!) You can see us immediately thinking of Twitter hashtags for the giveaway too:

WE IMMEDIATELY MADE IT SOCIAL

With the seed of an idea, Miranda looped in Julia Fierro, and that’s when we switched from ‘Ermeghad’ to ‘OMG,’ and gave up our illusions of the “insidery-ness” of Ermeghad. Yes, this is a messy process.

Bringing in Julia, and eventually 20+ other authors was our way of making this immediately social and communal, instead of some “campaign.” Bottom line: it is more fun doing things WITH authors. The goal quickly evolved from: “How can I shout about my book” to “how can we encourage a sense of community and support with other lovely authors?”

Can I just say that Julia was just freaking amazing from the very start. She was instantly enthusiastic, and it was shocking how quickly emails were flying back and forth just pushing everything forward. In a couple of hours, I think Miranda and Julia framed the core list of 25ish authors to invite. It just came together in a flurry.

Soon after, Miranda and Julia began to invite around 25 authors to be a part of a huge giveaway idea. Here are some of the responses we received from them:

“Already this email chain has been the best part of my week.”

“Thank you for including me! I feel like I’m hanging out with the cool kids.”

“You are the BEST for doing this.”

“I am so thrilled to be a part of this, thank you for asking me.”

“The publicity team at [my publisher] is also so elated and will do anything you guys wish for this!”

“I’m really excited, and quite honored to be included with so many amazing authors.”

Again: enthusiasm matters in this process.

You can tell that just taking authors out of isolation does so much for their spirits.

Obviously, there is a flip side to this which is ‘why didn’t we invite so and so to be involved?’ Why a cap at 24? Why THESE authors? The honest truth is that this happens quickly, happens with enthusiasm in the moment, and in the end, if we left someone out, or left A LOT of people out, it is the nature of how these things come together. Sorry.

And it’s probably worth noting that this whole giveaway is entirely UNREASONABLE to do! Three people coordinating with 24 authors, all who are busy, for a total of 25 separate daily giveaways over the course of an entire month, all while Miranda & Julia are launching their own books.

But I think unreasonable is exactly what I was hoping for in this process. Because I am entirely bored of “best practices” in the book launch process. EG: expected actions that feel professional, but do very little to engage readers or make the author feel good about the process.

The “cool kids” mention from above is also worth talking about. The reality is that after this giveaway comes together, it might really seem like a “thing.” Possibly something special.

But BEFORE it happens, and WHILE we are creating it, each of us feels as isolated as everyone else. Miranda and Julia and I are all saddled with the same fear that any author has:

“How do I spread the word about this book without being an asshole.”

That basically sums it up.

And even now, before the giveaway really begins, we have no idea if it will work. This could flop in a big way, and be an enormous drain on our resources right around book launch. Who knows? We will will find out by doing.

THE BALANCE BETWEEN BEING CREATIVE AND SETTING LIMITS

Whenever I begin a project, I love finding a visual that acts as the emotional center of it. Once the “OMG! All the Books!” idea formed, I found this image, and emailed it to Miranda:

Can I explain to you why I selected THIS image, and what my intention was at the time? Nope. It just felt right. In the end, we modified it to create a single image to represent the giveaway:

And it is worth noting that there is a place for LIMITS in this process. We shot back and forth lots of ideas, and we had to reject and throw out many of them because there is a point at which some fun ideas simply bog down the process and begin to crowd the overall idea.

This is NOT a process where every fun idea is rewarded and pursued, we threw out WAY more than we moved forward with.
Boundaries are critical to the creative process.

BALANCE PERSONALITIES

In her own recap of this process, Miranda talked about the value of doing this as a team effort:

“The logistics of this giveaway—from the legal side of things, to the workflow, to the day-to-day organization—is something that neither Julia nor I would have ever had any interest in/knowledge about; frankly, it would have kept us from organizing such a thing. Meanwhile, Dan actually thinks all that is FUN (can you believe it?).”

And this is so true. At every step of the process, there was some aspect which one of us wanted to tackle, and the other two were SO THANKFUL because it was a task we dreaded.

We each have different enthusiasms and skillsets. I am constantly feeling as though I am learning so much from Miranda and Julia, they are both amazing.

As we looped in authors and the folks on their teams, we got even more feedback and enthusiasm. This allowed us to hone the idea again and again, something I feel like we will do throughout the entire giveaway.

HONESTLY, THIS HAS BEEN A GREAT DISTRACTION

Let’s face it: there is so much you can’t control about how well a book does during launch. For all the best intentions, for all of the INCREDIBLE things Miranda’s publisher is doing for her, nobody can guarantee how well the book will do in traditional terms.

We are inherently aware of that. We are preparing, but we can’t plan for success.

All this to say: there is an element of the giveaway that gives us something to control at a period in the book launch when there is very little control. And that feels good. And it keeps us busy in a GOOD way.

Above, I referenced the dreaded series of Tweets you sometimes see from authors: “Buy my book, buy my book, buy my book!” This often happens because the author does not want to feel idle during a period of time they have dreamed of for years, the book launch.

My impression is that for Miranda, this little project between three friends, and then 24 authors has been a wonderfully positive thing to focus on during an otherwise intense time period. We are still focused on the book, but it gives us something actionable to do outside of it.

SUPPORTING AUTHORS IS FUN!

Without the giveaway even beginning yet, I think we already feel as though so much value has been created. Emailing with the other authors, working with Julia, and the initial enthusiasm has been amazing. I am learning more about these books, and it feels so wonderful to feel as though you are doing anything to help these authors spread the word about their books.

Miranda and I had coffee yesterday, and she admitted there was another little benefit I had never even thought of. She hired me for the year-long process of launching the book, and this was her way of scaling my resources to a bunch of her friends and colleagues. I loved that. The idea that she was trying to generous with her own resources.

YES, THIS IS STRATEGIC TOO

It’s worth noting that YES, this giveaway IS a strategic tool for Miranda and her book launch. For instance: 20+ other authors (and their publishers and marketing teams) are now aware of who Miranda is and that her book is coming out in May.

To run the thing, we are hosting it on Miranda’s website, which means anyone who enters or even looks at the giveaway will become aware of Miranda and her book. That all of this could possibly not only raise awareness of her and her book, but encourage people to feel good about it.

Will this whole thing work? Who knows. You can stay on top of it by following the giveaway here, and by looking for updates on the Bittersweet Book Launch blog.

Thanks!
-Dan

Who Reads Your Work Matters More Than How Many

In measuring your success as an author, focusing JUST on numbers is a sure way to always feel like crap about yourself. Why? Because there is always someone with more – someone who represents a “next level,” that you have failed to achieve. Someone who has sold more books, has a more popular blog than yours, way more Twitter followers, or who has standing room only at their readings. This article on money addiction illustrates how there can never be enough, in a somewhat terrifying way:

“In my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million — and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough.”

An author I’m working with, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, recently wrote a series of blog posts about how she uses John Truby’s book The Anatomy of Story to outline her novels. (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 of the series)

How “well” did those blog posts do in terms of page views? Behold:

Not exactly, “going viral,” is it? So, with just dozens of page views each, these posts were a failure, right? A failure, because they didn’t reach a mass audience, right?

Well, the other day, Miranda received this email from John Truby’s office, and this message from John:

“It’s exactly what I intended when I wrote it. It’s also very gratifying to see someone who is obviously a serious novelist get so much benefit from the book.”

John asked if he can share excerpts from Miranda’s posts in his monthly enewsletter which goes out to 15,000 subscribers. I think it’s kind of amazing that if these posts had to reach one person – that John would be it. For him to see how his book has created possibilities in the life of an author. And of course, Miranda wrote these posts in response to writer friends who asked her about her book outlining process. Helping other writers with this posts is another primary audience that she is serving here.

Who she reaches matters more than how many people.

This extends to the entirety of the blog Miranda and I have been collaborating on, which has never had very big traffic, and yet we hear from writers all the time who are finding it incredibly useful. Would it somehow feel nice if suddenly we had 10,000 visitors per day? Sure. Validation like that always feels nice. But is it THE POINT? Nope.

Another author I know, Bill Murphy Jr., recently wrote a piece for Inc. titled “7 Sales Strategy Secrets from an Expert Panhandler.” I read the article when he posted it, but then saw this update on his Facebook page at the end of the day:

Would you rather have 10,000 people read your post, or 14 of the EXACT right people, those who don’t just fit the “ideal audience description,” but actually take the effort to email you regarding your article? That level of engagement is priceless – these are the people who don’t just click on an article and then flit away; they don’t just “consume” the article, but they engage with the ideas within it, and with the author. In other words: it creates an interaction and an experience.

In working with authors, I have recently found many of them are shocked at how hard I push for them to start email newsletters, to begin building their email lists. For one author, I recently said that I would rather see her start a newsletter even before they built their website or started on social media. She couldn’t believe it. Why? Because everywhere she looks, everyone is promoting this idea of “going viral” on social media; the idea that starting out with a tiny email list just seemed old fashioned.

The reason email is so critical is that it represents that one-to-one connection with just the RIGHT people. Again and again I have heard writers say that they will start newsletter lists only AFTER they become popular. And while I won’t say that is “too late,” it does leave a lot of value on the table. Most successful authors I speak to who have really built a grass roots following talk about how critical their email list is to that growth.

Developing an email list also helps writers solve that one huge question mark: “who is my audience,” a question they often struggle with. My advice is always: start now. Start with 10 people – friends, family, colleagues, anyone you know and who may support your writing. Start a weekly newsletter and ask folks if they want to sign up.

I sent my first newsletter out to 10 people back in 2005. It completely changed my career, in the best of ways. What is great about starting with a small manageable number is that you:

  1. Have a clear sense of who you are writing to.
  2. Aren’t crushed under the pressure of having to stand on a stage in front of 1,000 people when you are still finding your voice. That seems to be the fear that many writers express to me when they describe their fear of starting on social media, such as Twitter. It seems too open, too public, and they have some awareness that the world (and the Library of Congress) is watching, waiting for them to say the wrong thing. But starting with just 10 people that you know, that is a bit easier, isn’t it?

What’s also nice is that you can work on doubling that number of subscribers, which can happy rather easily: from 10 to 20, 20 to 40 subscribers, etc.

Another benefit of developing a newsletter list: start with your base – the people you know who are most engaged with your work. Focus on engaging with those who have raised their hand, who have shown up to say “Gee, I kind of like your writing.”

For instance, how often have you seen this scenario: a book reading where only 5 people have shown up, and the person in charge is frantically going outside to encourage more folks to come in, or busy on their cell phone to check to see if people are coming. What they should be doing is spending their time talking to and learning about the 5 AMAZING people who actually did show up! Make the event extra special for them. Buy them cupcakes.

This is certainly something I am keeping in mind as Scott McDowell and I continue to run our monthly meetups for creative professionals in New Jersey. I honestly never know how many people will show up, and I honestly couldn’t care less. Interesting people ALWAYS show up, and whether it is a group of 4 or 20, we have always had lovely conversations – the type where you check your watch and you can’t believe how late it has gotten.

Further reading: The Fallacy of Going Viral.

Thanks!
-Dan

Investing in the Future, While Honoring the Past

How, as a writer or creative professional, do you make room for the new, the future? How do you create potential for yourself, your writing, and those who you hope to reach?

How does one leverage the wisdom of experience, respecting the events of the past, and honoring those who came before us, while still pushing forward into new territory?

How do you, as a creator, create new work, establish new processes, new habits, and in doing so, open up new possibilities?

I’ll admit, I get sad when I see an old house destroyed. Recently, I watched this happen in the town I live: a 100+ year old house was torn down, and the acre of land it sat on was cut up into three lots, making way for three new houses. This is the house:

And let’s watch the destruction and rebuilding, shall we?

Here it is from another angle, this time focusing a bit more on what was backyard. In the end, that yard fit two large houses in it. The third house is still to be built, that will occupy the space that was formerly the front yard of the old house. You will see that the property was very overgrown in the beginning, filled with trees and shrubs:

Did you get sad while viewing this progression? Did it stir up something inside of you about preservation of beautiful old relics? Did you feel something was lost? Me too.

But…

I’m challenging myself to see the other side of this. I had walked by that house what seems like hundreds of times, and my wife and I always talked about how amazing it was. But the reality is, it always seemed as though maybe just 1 or 2 people lived in it. It was sort of run down in many ways.

I spoke to someone who went inside it during an estate sale they held just before the house was torn down, and while he loved the craftsmanship of the old house, he admitted that it needed an extraordinary amount of work to bring it “back to life.” I didn’t get into details about the age of the systems, the structural integrity of the house, or the aesthetics of the walls, woodwork, and floors, but a renovation of that scale could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Someone would need to take this on, to invest. And if they did, in all likelihood, with an acre of land, they would have gutted it to it’s core, expanded it greatly in the back, and turned it into a much larger home, at least 3,000 – 4,000 square feet.

We live in a small town, most of the lots are smallish, so a 1 acre piece of property is pretty unusual, and a lot for a normal family to take on. Again – someone would want to make a huge commitment not just to “save” the house, but to maintain an acre of land in an area where most people live on 1/5th of that. What they take on is much more than a financial investment.

The point I am making here is to move beyond simple statement such as “Oh, someone should have saved it!” because it implies that someone ELSE should have saved it. We are bestowing that responsibility and investment and commitment onto someone else. It’s probably worth noting that the old house sold for more than $1.3 million, solely on the value of the empty lot alone.

What will happen with that piece of land? Three new houses with three families living in them, each creating new experiences and memories in that previously overgrown lot. What is the other “value” created in this process:

  • The original owner got a lot more for the lot than they paid, and it should be noted that their choice to sell, and who to sell it to was indeed a CHOICE. They accepted the tradeoff.
  • The builder will turn a good profit, each of those new houses will likely each sell for somewhere around a million dollars each. (new houses in New Jersey tend go for a premium)
  • The town itself will receive more tax revenue from that lot. They received around $16,000 per year from the old house, but will likely receive more than $60,000 total per year from the three lots combined. (and yes, I understand that this money offsets very real costs to the town, including schooling, public works, etc – that this is not somehow “profit.”)
  • Three new families will be able to live in this town, and in new homes they dreamed of.

Beyond the dollars and cents, what is being created are EXPERIENCES and POSSIBILITIES. For some, that is indeed measured in profit and the new possibilities that comes with that. But for others, it is created every day, in small moments. Everyone in this process made an investment, and from an outside perspective, all seemed to have benefited in ways that they actively chose.

So I am asking myself: should I be sad at the loss of this beautiful old house?

I recently wrote about “the good old days,” and the perception that things were always simpler and better when they have safely defined boundaries because they are in the past. The present and the future, on the other hand, are filled with gray areas, and questions marks of where they will lead.

I work with writers and creative professionals every day, and tend to see a fair number of blog posts and articles where people talk about a “battle” going on in publishing between “the old ways” and “the new ways.” Or among different “sides” representing opposing ethos in how to share one’s work.

I don’t see that, not at all.

I mean, if I take anything away from the past 5-10 years in publishing it is that there are MORE options, MORE possibilities for inclusion, and MORE ways to both honor the past while investing in the future.

And these are personal choices.

The beauty of what it means to be a writer today is that you have MANY potential actions, and that the path you choose is your own.

Regardless of what anyone tells you EVERY PERSON’S PATH IS UNIQUE TO THEM. There are not two paths (traditional publishing vs self-publishing) or even three paths (hybrid publishing!) There are as many paths as their are writers, and each of those writers can change their path at any given time.

The concept of “sides” in this or “battles” seems to miss the point. There are more options for us to come together, to choose our own path, and to craft and share the work we are most proud of. And of course, how this work affects the lives of others in positive ways.

So, am I sad that the old house above was torn down. Yes, I am. I am just sentimental that way. I love the idea of a place having a sense of permanence, even though I realize how laughable that is in the bigger scale of things. I won’t get all “nothing last forever” on you.

Even though I have a great deal of respect for that old house – for the past it represents – I am working hard to also honor what is being created here. Notably, the experiences of the good folks who move into those new homes, and become a part of this community.

And let’s face it, I did nothing to “save” that old house. I invested zero time, money, or energy to “raise awareness,” to try to create other options. Without that investment, how could I expect others to not invest in their own futures on this land? It’s easy to sit on the sidelines – or in this case, the sidewalk – and observe and judge. It takes a lot more to truly get invested, make hard choices, and create potential for oneself and for the community.

What I love most what writers face today is this: it is up to them. Choose to craft the work YOU believe in; choose the path to sharing your work – to publish – that seems right to you; and connect with readers in ways that make sense for who you are as an individual, and for what ensures your work has the lasting effect you hope it will. Invest in yourself, your work, and those you hope to reach. How you do so is up to you.

As it should be.

Thanks.
-Dan