maybe you’re the only one reading this

You don’t actually know whether anyone else is reading this, do you? Not really. Would it matter if you were the one and only subscriber of the Maven Game? If so, would you enjoy reading it any less? (Could you enjoy reading it any less? I’d better not ask.)

Maybe you’d feel special getting a newsletter written just for you. More likely, it would feel weird knowing that I know you’re the only one out there and that I’m just, like, typing these words at you. Sure, that’s what an email is, but there’s a big difference between a conversation and a single stand-up comic bombing in front of an audience of one. Picture one of those awkward “personal concerts” acts like Robin Thicke or Chicago give couple on The Bachelor

An L.A.-based metal band recently booked a tour of Europe and the UK and nobody came. Not poor attendance—no attendance. Venue owners were, understandably, somewhat distressed. The (fake) booking agency had presented (fake) footage of packed shows. There were plenty of (fake) likes and comments on social media from all the band’s (fake) international fans. In fact, hundreds of (fake) tickets were sold to each performance and all the (fake) attendees marked their intention to go on the Facebook event page. (The Facebook event page, it turns out, was genuine.) In the end, the friends and family of each opening act were usually the only ones in attendance.

Sacre bleu, I imagine a French venue owner proclaimed, after spitting a bite of croissant onto his copy of Le Monde.

A German one might have said: Mein Gott! (Holding a monocle up to one eye in order to see the empty theater better.)

What in tarnation? an Old West prospector venue owner probably shouted, firing two six-guns in the air and kicking his legs out to the side in a higgledy-piggledy, back-and-forth manner.

You have questions. It’s only natural. Who…what the…why? Don’t expect answers. It’s still unclear what happened. It doesn’t matter. Ultimately, there are no answers when it comes to audience in today’s world.

Bucks and butts, people. Those are the only metrics, and they only matter for you. Fake butts are plentiful and you never really know where someone’s bucks are actually coming from. Instead of worrying about (or believing) how many people read someone else’s book or blog, pay close attention to the people paying close attention to you.

As of today, you are one of 830 subscribers to the Maven Game. Somewhere between 300 and 350 of you open each one. The beauty of this little list is that it’s not little at all. Hundreds of people are reading this. Some of my clients and authors over the years have had very, very large lists, but did they? Often, book sales didn’t reflect anything like a genuine following in the hundreds of thousands or millions—not even close.

I don’t know much, people, but I know there are a few hundred actual people actually reading this, and I know many of you personally. That makes it worthwhile for me. If you were going to go on-stage with your metal band and this many people were in the audience, you’d be in serious danger of stage fright. Why should this be any different? We just buy into the bullshit, that’s all.

Canadian e-reader company Kobo just announced the “most completed” books of 2018. (That’s the beauty of being an e-reader company. You can see the truth of people’s reading habits.) The difference between that list and all the other best-of lists is, well, complete. There is no overlap.

Who’s actually reading your stuff? Forget the rest.

No more essays until after the holidays. See you in the New Year!

maven game: left-handed edition

Finally, you’re thinking (assuming you’re left-handed): a Maven Game written just for me. Left-handed people are finally getting the respect and attention they deserve.

Yes, I’ve carefully constructed this week’s email to suit the distinct needs and preferences of my left-handed readers. The ideas, inspiration, the obscure references—every aspect of today’s newsletter is a custom fit for the Sinister Few. I even typed these words using, among other things, my left hand.

Advice is general; people are specific. If you want to get through to some folks, you simply have to frame your advice as though it was designed just for them.

Treat people the way you’d like to be treated.


Sure, I guess. But:

Treat customers the way you’d like to be treated.

—Best-selling Business Author

Now you’re talking.

I do none of these things, of course.

I treat you, the loyal left-handed readers of this newsletter, the way I would like to be treated.

—David Moldawer, Best-selling Newsletter Writer

Never underestimate the power of this effect. I saw it as a book editor and I saw it with online courses. Marketing is all well and good, but Marketing for People Who Sell Stuff to Customers enters TED talk territory.  People prefer advice that is explicitly labeled just for them, however they identify. It doesn’t matter if you initially crafted the advice with them in mind and it doesn’t matter if the very same advice applies to many other groups of people. Sure, everyone goes to heaven, but if all dogs go to heaven, you’ve got yourself a very respectable 6.7 score on iMDb

So, to all you left-handers: Even if it feels like you’re saying the same thing, it’s worth the effort of repeating yourself to reach a different group of people.

Next week, back to our regularly scheduled right-handed programming.

DIY writing retreat

In South Korea, people now pay to be locked up. The daily grind there is so stressful, prison has become a viable alternative: no deadlines, no performance evaluations, no commute. This could be the next big South Korean import since The Good Doctor… 

It’s been a while since the last Maven Game. Short version: a realization struck me after I wrote that essay about Forged in Fire. Who was I to scoff at the hapless smith trying to forge two blades at once and failing at both? I’ve got six blades going. Seven! So I decided to take a hiatus and focus on my larger projects.

Yeah, I needed the break, but, ultimately, too many things annoy me about the writing life—I actually need this outlet or I might go crazy. Plus, it didn’t hurt that fellow newsletterers like Margo nudged me to get back in the traces. When I told Margo the reason for my silence, she wrote:

Tell your readers they are not crazy for also trying to do all the things. There is a lovely lesson here on keeping your head down and focusing on the work. As wonderful as email newsletters are there are some weeks where it feels like that’s the only writing that got done, which can be a problem (especially if you care about your work). 

There’s an expression that goes, “Polish here, shine there.” The idea being, there are helpful things you do that may not actually give you that tingling sensation in the moment: “That tingle means it’s working.” In fact, the stuff that makes dandruff shampoo tingle is not the active ingredient. Manufacturers know that we look for that tingle. Whenever we put effort in, we want results or reassurance. Unfortunately, the highest uses of our time don’t deliver immediate results. Nor do they tingle.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never experienced a runner’s high. I’ve never left a workout feeling a relaxed glow or concomitant surge of well-being. Exercise of any kind leaves me cranky and filled with resentment at the world. This doesn’t mean it isn’t good for me, only that I have to look harder to see that it’s helping. Polish here, shine there. Over the course of a week or a month, I can see how regular exercise lifts my mood and elevates my spirits. In the moment, however, just rage. RAGE!

Same with writing the Maven Game. No tingle, plenty of frustration, but the long-term benefits to my psyche and skill-set are more than worth the investment of time and effort. I just have to remind myself of that from time to time.

This is why it’s helpful to keep a journal or otherwise document your work. You start to see some patterns. What works for you, long-term? What behaviors once did, but got lost in the shuffle?

Here’s a vote in favor of a sabbatical, however short: In college, I had too much time to write, if anything. Once I got a day job as a writer, my own creative output ground to a halt. I decided I needed a writing retreat. Not having the ambition to chase down a prestigious spot at Yaddo or Bread Loaf, I adopted a DIY approach. Taking out a paper map—this is a while back—I looked for someplace unpopular (read: cheap) and close to the city. Next thing I knew, I was driving to a motel in New London, Connecticut, to spend a few days writing fiction.

The room was small and boring and so was New London—perfect. Over a few days, I completed four or five stories, never having really completed any before. I’d started many stories by that point, but I’d only ever finished plays. The next week, I fired the results off to various literary journals I’d dug up at the library and got one published at the Missouri Review. Literary fiction bucket list item, checked. In the end, I enjoyed all the benefits of a true writing retreat without any need for a prisoner jumpsuit.

So, back to the weekly cadence. Let’s see if we can make it all the way through 2019 without another service outage. 

One last thing: We took the kids to see Santa at Macy’s for the first time. Afterward, my son said, “You should ask Santa for something for yourself. Like a stapler. Or an autobiography of David Lynch.” How did he know I was nearly finished with Lynch’s Room to Dream? He explained his reasoning: I like “books about weird people” and “weird people named David like David Bowie.” Too true. 

go where the audience is

As a child in London, George Benjamin exhibited extraordinary musical gifts. As Rebecca Mead writes in The New Yorker:

Whereas other inventive children might ask to be allowed to make up a story before bedtime, [Benjamin] begged to be permitted to invent a song in his head before going to sleep. He worked his way through a Golden Book of myths, setting the stories to music that he composed in real time. “I would take an hour and make up some opera that was never to be written down, or heard, by anyone else,” he recalled.

How adorable. Benjamin went on to become a composer, naturally enough, but there was a small problem:

Benjamin’s passions were not especially consonant with the times. He was born in 1960, and when he was entering adulthood narrative had fallen out of fashion amid the European avant-garde, not only in music but also in fiction and in painting. Stories set to music, which Benjamin had generated so guilelessly as a child, were derided as facile, hidebound, and decadently nostalgic. What was the point of writing an opera, an art form beloved by the Nazis? Where did you go after that?

Nowhere. The answer is nowhere. Might as well write him off. Let’s close up the bridge. Let’s get out of here. Close it up. Lights out.

Right? I mean, if you enjoy composing musical narratives in the second half of the 20th century, you’re just…out of luck. It simply isn’t done. Tear up your composer card and get a job at the old mill. Hum on your water breaks. Nothing atonal, of course.

With Benjamin’s maturation and intellectual awakening, a crippling self-consciousness set in. The operas in his head were silenced. Instead, he wrote mostly for smaller ensembles or soloists, slowly and with great effort—that is, when he wasn’t blocked.

I read this bit and found myself nodding along, at first. After all, the plays and videos and stories I wrote as a young man were always inconsonant (?) with the times, where my teachers and then professors were concerned anyway.

Here’s the thing, though: I graduated from school and entered the real world. In the real world, you don’t have to please your professors or the European avant-garde or any avant-garde. You just need an audience who likes your stuff. I mean, hadn’t this dude ever heard of a musical? Britain has produced its share. Andrew Lloyd Weber didn’t spend decades writing music he didn’t want to write “slowly and with great effort” before deciding, the hell with it, let’s put Biblical figures in diapers.

Go where it’s warm. If the snobs don’t want your “musical narratives,” roll up your sleeves and adapt La Bohème for the AIDS epidemic, or turn a doorstopper on American history into a series of show-stopping rap numbers. You’ll have an audience. You’ll have money. If you feel guilty about taking money from audiences, take your audience out for milk and cookies.

(Don’t stick your nose up at me about musicals, buddy. They can avant the garde like nobody’s show business. Do I need to remind you of Seussical the Musical, the Un Chien Andalou of Broadway?)

Look, I’m glad Benjamin has had an artistic reawakening—I wonder if he used The Artist’s Way?—and that he’s happily composing operas again.

“I waited a long time to do it,” he told me. “And I would like, before I depart this mortal coil, to have written lots of operas. If I had started when I was twenty, or thirty, I would have written more. It’s something I wanted to do since I was a child, and something which I eventually accepted I would never do, and then gave up.” Having begun as a wunderkind, he has become a late bloomer. “When starting a new piece, every decision is as difficult as it always was, and I can’t see that changing,” he went on. “It remains a very strange occupation. But to have my pieces played to this degree—of course, it’s what I dreamed of as a child. Yes.”

My point is, we’re all vulnerable to the “making other people’s music” trap. As writers, we set ourselves on a certain genre or a certain milieu—”the European avant-garde”—and put all our eggs, all our self-worth, in that basket. Education plays a major role here—we want an A+ from teacher. Benjamin studied with the French avant-garde composer Olivier Messiaen, “known for his radiantly complex harmonies.” That’s going to put an inflection on anyone’s sensibilities.

To survive as a professional creator of any kind, you have to reexamine your upbringing. You may think your milieu is somehow better or more elevated than the ones most people currently appreciate, but frankly most of us just go with what our teachers or parents told us were “best.” Have you really given the other stuff a try? The stuff people pay money for, not because they’re “sheeple,” but because the work brings them pleasure and enjoyment? You might prefer an 1898 audience, but 2018 audiences have the advantage of, you know, being not dead.

Plus, read any account of an actual theater-watching experience from the old days. People talked through the entire show and often threw rotten fruit. Sometimes they rioted.

Yes, go after your genre—assuming you genuinely enjoy it yourself, which is a big assumption—but if there isn’t an audience for the kind of stuff you’re making, remember: There is stuff with an audience. This is why I start every book proposal with a competitive analysis. Too many would-be authors don’t enjoy the kind of book they think they want to write. They have no idea what people want to read in that category and yet they want to spend a year writing in it. It’s a little hard to write something you would never want to read yourself.

Creators: If you don’t read or watch or listen to the kind of thing you’re making, why are you making it?

p.s. One more thing this week: I helped out with a book and I’m really proud of the end result. If you need clients for your business to succeed, I highly recommend The Snowball System by Mo Bunnell.

Yes, I’m biased because I was involved, but I have to say that I use Mo’s techniques in my own business all the time. I really wouldn’t be “too busy to write this newsletter” every week if it weren’t for what I’ve learned from Mo. His approach to winning new business is practical, utterly non-scuzzy, even fun.

I have no financial stake in the success of the book, by the way. I just think (based on experience) that it’s the best book out there on getting clients and doing more business with your existing ones.

p.p.s. It only took three years to work an Airplane 2 reference into a Maven Game. Check another one off the old bucket list.