the scary thing about writing and what should actually scare you

Writing is scary. Does the fear fade with experience? I don’t know. I’m only a few years back into writing as a full-time profession. It was scary the first time around. It’s even scarier now. Ask me in a decade—I’ll be the Renfield-looking guy arguing with a lamp post. For now, I’m just terrified. I’m starting to suspect that the fear factor involved in writing is intrinsic. That if I’m not scared, I’m not writing.

Everyone wants to be a writer in theory—it’s the shift to practice that’s tricky. I have a theory about this: in your brain, your ideas always sound great. It feels like they’re so convincing not because you don’t challenge them but because you challenge them badly. You are your own best straw man. In your head, your ideas feel like they hold up under scrutiny but that’s because the inside of your head is the last place you should be scrutinizing them.

It’s like singing in the shower. In the shower, you’re Meat Loaf. Then it’s karaoke night in front of your co-workers, and all of a sudden: you’re Meat Loaf.

When it comes to ideas, your brain has fantastic acoustics.

Continue reading “the scary thing about writing and what should actually scare you”

lies, damn lies, and big idea books

I’ll start this by saying that coming up with stuff is hard. By “stuff,” I mean: ideas, assertions, advice, findings, etc. The juicy bits that get called out in bullet-points at the end of a chapter or summarized in those business book summaries for “busy and successful executives.”

(Actual busy and successful executives are the ones who read the most actual books, business or otherwise, in my experience. Lazy online MBA students looking to crush it with their first startup, on the other hand…)

Coming up with stuff is only hard for genuine-article experts. Any dude with a rented lambo and a GoPro can start a YouTube channel for “winners who want to dominate and/or win” and start firing off world-class life-coachery. It’s easy. You just read lots of best-selling business books (or summaries) and start parroting the juicy bits with the occasional “dude, you just gotta…”

To the YouTube dude—and it’s not just YouTube, and it’s not just dudes—there’s a real or feigned naïveté. “I’m just trying to help people here, so it doesn’t matter who came up with this first.”

A while back, an author friend discovered that a would-be “thought leader” had copy-pasted my friend’s entire (well-known, best-selling) book onto his own website. When confronted, the guy said, “Yeah, that’s because I’m your biggest fan and I’m trying to help people. I didn’t think you’d mind.”

Well, first he deleted the whole site and denied ever having done it, but my friend had already archived all of it and documented it with lawyers. So then he said the other stuff.

Experts, people who’ve invested a lot of effort in learning stuff and building a wheelhouse for themselves, they know what’s been said in their area because they’ve read most of it and they know how much work went into figuring out what’s already been figured out. They know they have to bring something new to the table. Sure, some ideas are universal and can be expressed in many ways, but you also have to come up with your own stuff.

Often, this comes down to science, some form of experimental research. If you’re familiar at all with the replication crisis facing behavioral psychology (and lots of other areas), you can see how much nonsense even well-intentioned scientists can get up to in their hurry to publish. If we were really doing science, research journals would be 99 percent negative findings. “This doesn’t work, this doesn’t work, this doesn’t work…” Right? But nobody cares about an experiment proving that chocolate doesn’t cure cancer.

Let’s take a single example. I could offer so many. But let’s start with just one: Ever heard the finding that judges are tougher in their sentencing before lunch than after because they’re hungry and no longer able to deliberate carefully and fairly?

Read this excellent article debunking the finding.

Sure, it might just be the researchers’ lack of understanding of how statistics work. But let’s be honest here. These people go to science school. The truth is, they need to publish and it’s hard to come up with stuff.

Science nowadays is difficult and slow and boring and it only gets worse as we figure more and more stuff out. Back in the caveman days, you had all kinds of things you could discover with a little effort. Fire, the wheel, buttons—heck, you could get credit for inventing jumping jacks, or that thing where you press your fingers to your palm and say “pfft.” And they say, what’s that, Og? And you’re like, I’m pretending I have web shooters. And they say, what are web shooters? And you’re like, what Spider-Man uses. And they’re like, who’s Spider-Man? And you’re like, you’ll see.

Even during the Renaissance, you could get away with being a chemist, a mathematician, and a pretty good painter in the same lifetime. “One day,” people would say, “you’ll be considered a true Now Man.”

In today’s world, genuine invention is rare—wonderful, but rare. And yet, we have books to book, talks to talk. Tick tock TED.

Boy do I savor myself some schadenfreude when a best-selling, TED-talking expert (whose book I lost at auction) gets called out on some bullshit. But the truth is, I’m a hypocrite. I have not a leg to stand on. I’ve already falsified data and I haven’t even talked a single TED.

It was the summer of 1995. TLC’s “Waterfalls” and Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” were on the radio. If you were lucky, you went to see Apollo 13 and The Usual Suspects. If you were unlucky, you also went to see Congo and Judge Dredd.

As a high school junior, I thought I’d major in chemistry. So, that summer, I attended a pre-college science program at Syracuse University. For several weeks, we worked with DNA, lasers, bacteria, and circuit boards. A guy came in and delivered a whole PowerPoint about how animal research wasn’t such a big deal—if it wasn’t done on a pet. Because ethics. Something. Who was that guy?

When we weren’t busy “slinging beakers to the max,” as the cool kids in 1995 would say, we were “kicking it new school” (more cool kid lingo) in the Syracuse computer labs while surfing on the “World Wide Web,” which was basically Compuserve with photos.

Near the end of our session, we were divided into groups and told to design and run a simple experiment on campus. On our own.

The other members of my team were pretty checked out by this point, so I took the reins. I had the idea to test whether the amount of food on a person’s cafeteria tray corresponded to their height. (This may have been a subconscious attempt to justify my eating habits at 6′ 3″.)

We quickly ran into problems. For one, we had no standard metric for measuring the amount of food on a tray, especially at the speed folks were heading to their tables. For another, we were absolutely useless at eyeballing heights. No time to re-design the experiment. We just stood there at the end of the cafeteria line for half an hour gathering “data.”

Back at a computer, I showed my compatriots how to create an Excel spreadsheet with the “data” we had “collected.”

Naturally, our numbers amounted to nothing but a bumpy line that went straight into inevitable academic failure and a career in pharmaceutical sales.

I knew that getting my research team to continue helping me with this half-baked project would be a reach—this camp, after all, was something they’d chosen to do in lieu of sitting in front of a PlayStation all summer. Motivation levels were low; I had to act fast.

“Let’s just fix the numbers,” I said. “Make it look better.” Even as I proposed it, I wasn’t sure how the idea would go over. I’d never cheated before, not once, but I knew cheating was rampant at my high school. I was curious how this particular group of disinterested collaborators (and, in theory, future scientists) would react to the idea of outright fabrication.

They expressed precisely zero misgivings.

Ten minutes of Excel later, we’d found a strong, though not suspiciously so, correlation between height and lunch food volume. Later that day, we won a $50 gift certificate for our remarkably intuitive finding. (In the end, most didn’t even want to schlep to the campus store to spend it. I got an orange T-shirt. It’s a Syracuse thing.)

I didn’t go into chemistry, and from that day I just assumed that “real” scientists figure out how to do science properly. They didn’t just run out of time and decide to fudge things. They planned things out carefully and did their work with consistent professionalism, pride, and integrity.

Then I turned into a grown-up and realized that we’re all up against the clock, and coming up with stuff is hard, and yeah, we all feel pressured to find that finding and move on to the next thing.

I don’t know what to tell you. Don’t. Don’t do it. Come up with stuff. I mean, look around. 2017 is no 1995. We desperately need some stuff.

do you have the art spirit?

If we’re friends on Goodreads—friend me, I’d like to see what you’re reading—you may know that I’m (slowly) wading through Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit. Don’t interpret my glacial pace with this one the wrong way. The book is just full of gems. I keep putting it down to make notes for a post. At a certain point I just had to give up. Go read the damn thing along with me. It’s about painting, sure, but if you squint it’s about writing books and about everything else you might want to create.

I picked the book up—in Portland’s legendary Powell’s Books, naturally—because David Lynch always points to it as having played a pivotal role in his own development as an artist. What’s good for David Lynch is good for me, except for cigarettes, transcendental meditation, and buttoning the top button of your shirt without a tie, of course.

Henri was an art teacher a century ago. This first excerpt is from an address he made to students of the School of Design for Women in Philadelphia in 1901:

I know men who were students in the Academie Julian in Paris, where I studied in 1888, thirteen years ago. I visited the Academie this year and found some of the same students there, repeating the same exercises, and doing work nearly as good as they did thirteen years ago.

At almost any time in these thirteen years they have had technical ability enough to produce masterpieces. Many of them are more facile in their trade of copying the model, and they make fewer mistakes and imperfections of literal drawing and proportion than do some of the greatest masters of the art.

These students have become masters of the trade of drawing, as some others have become masters of their grammars. And like so many of the latter, brilliant jugglers of words, having nothing worth while to say, they remain little else than clever jugglers of the brush.

Jugglers of words. Yes. This is a big problem. Do you have something to say? Worry about that first, especially on your first draft. Technique is utterly secondary. Usually, phenomenal technique on the page has a lot more to do with revision—i.e. quantity thereof—than with any innate ability to write masterfully on the first go. Get it down and get to the point.

From another essay in the book:

Insist then, on the beauty of form and color to be obtained from the composition of the large masses, the four or five large masses which cover your canvas. Let these above all things have fine shapes, fine colors. Let them be as meaningful of your subject as they possibly can be. It is wonderful how much real finish can be obtained through them, how much of gesture and modeling can be obtained through their contours, what satisfactions can be obtained from their fine measures in area, color, and value. Most students and most painters in fact rush over this; they are in a hurry to get on to other matters, minor matters.

This is the same advice I give every one of my authors. Figure out the big pieces and get them sorted first. The rest of the project will figure itself (relatively) easily out if you get this right.

One last, and then I’m done:

It is harder to see than it is to express. The whole value of art rests in the artist’s ability to see well into what is before him. This model is wonderful in as many ways as there are pairs of eyes to see her. Each view of her is an original view and there is a response in her awaiting each view. If the eyes of a Rembrandt are upon her she will rise in response and Rembrandt will draw what he sees, and it will be beautiful. Rembrandt was a man of great understanding. He had the rare power of seeing deep into the significance of things.

Hint: the model is your idea. Get it?

During nearly every first editorial discussion, an expert (who isn’t a total phony, anyway) will express the concern that some aspect of his or her book has been “done before.”

What authors don’t understand is what Henri expresses here. The idea is wonderful in as many ways as there are pairs of eyes to see it. Different readers need to hear the same idea expressed differently. You are not Malcolm Gladwell. (Unless you are. Loved that thing you wrote about ketchup.) You can’t write like Malcolm Gladwell, nor should you want to. Write like you. Cultivate the “rare power” to see deep into the significance of things.

immolate yourself in your writing

When you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely. If you do not burn yourself completely, a trace of yourself will be left in what you do.

—Shunryu Suzuki

I’m not a highlighter per se, but when I read the above quote in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, I wanted to score it deep into my brain. Yes, I thought. I want to be a good bonfire. I want to burn myself completely in my work.

It’s wonderful training for this, helping others write books as a ghostwriter. Nobody wants a smoky ghostwriter leaving traces of themselves behind in what they do. Ghostwriting brings clarity to the writing process I’ve grown to appreciate. For example, you never would have guessed that I was the one who wrote the last four Harry Potter novels. Right? Those read exactly as though J.K. Rowling wrote them all by herself. As, in fact, she did. But if she hadn’t, and I had, you never would have guessed—because there was no smoke.


I continue to find it paralyzing when I’m writing “my thing”—if you’ve figured out what my thing is, you’re way ahead of me—which may be one reason these things are written so infrequently. Tell me to write someone else’s thing and, well, things suddenly open up.

Continue reading “immolate yourself in your writing”

you are cool and important

I know I don’t write these very often. It’s not that I don’t have fascinating things to share all the time. Rather, I employ a deliberate content strategy based on artificial scarcity. Like DeBeers does with diamonds. Is it working? …hello?

I gave the site a quick design refresh. If you’re recommending this to a friend, you know what to do.

(That was a trap. We never recommend the Maven Game, remember?)

Also, rocket scientist and law professor Ozan Varol interviewed me for his new Famous Failures project. (I didn’t have the heart to tell him about the famous part.)

Creativity isn’t about keeping your nose clean; it’s about getting into trouble.

—Jeffrey Tambor

My son and I went to see Wonder Woman this weekend. (My wife was too busy taking care of our daughter. Men, amirite?)

There’s a moment in the film—no spoilers—when our heroes are pinned down in a British trench along the Western Front. Diana wants to go help some innocent people in the distance. Her “guy-Lois” Steve mansplains to her that the ground between trenches is known as “No Man’s Land” for a reason.

No man can cross it!” (Emphasis Chris Pine’s, bless him.)

Can you imagine a better setup for Wonder Woman to pop on her Amazonian tiara and charge a machine gun nest? You can’t, don’t bother.

Continue reading “you are cool and important”

I don’t like anything

I like Repo Man. I’ve seen it a million times. Repo Man is what we used to call a “cult film.” Remember those?

Cult films were very good in some ways, weird or flawed in pretty much every other. Cult films were “not for everybody” even though, by definition as expensive feature films, they were intended to be. However intensely they pleased a few, they failed because they alienated the many…

Miller: A lot of people don’t realize what’s really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidents and things. They don’t realize that there’s this, like, lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. Give you an example, show you what I mean: Suppose you’re thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say, like, “plate,” or “shrimp,” or “plate of shrimp,” out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It’s all part of the cosmic unconsciousness.

Otto: You do a lot of acid, Miller? Back in the hippie days?
Repo Man (1984)

I like Repo Man. I’ve seen it a million times. Repo Man is what we used to call a “cult film.” Remember those?

Cult films were very good in some ways, weird or flawed in pretty much every other. Cult films were “not for everybody” even though, by definition as expensive feature films, they were intended to be. However intensely they pleased a few, they failed because they alienated the many.

Continue reading “I don’t like anything”

everything you believe about talent and quality is wrong

Oh, the strange notions we hold about talent and quality.

As a kid—if you were lucky—you were encouraged to read a lot of junk. Every week, your parents would take you to the library to fetch a pile of slim paperbacks with shiny, eye-popping covers and curling, thumb-worn pages.

There were nights I’d get in bed and happily read two Piers Anthony books in a row, falling asleep an hour before dawn. I’d spend the following day nodding off in class without the faintest memory of what I’d enjoyed reading so much the night before.

(I didn’t have a bedtime, per se.)

As a parent, I understand it much more clearly now. At first, you’re worried that your children will never learn to read. You read to them every night and get them phonics workbooks and just do everything you can to get them over that hump.

Once they learn to read, you worry that they’ll never like books, and thus never climb the corporate ladder by speed-reading Peter Drucker on the commuter train in from Greenwich. So you try to get them hooked on the process of reading. You think like a drug dealer: how do I get them so addicted to reading that they can never stop? After all, I don’t want them spending every evening of their adult lives trawling Netflix for obscure reality shows. (“I learned it from watching you, Dad!”)

Continue reading “everything you believe about talent and quality is wrong”

the trick is to write more—much, much, much more

I’ve come to terms with it: commercial success for authors boils down to quantity. That’s it. I wish I could say that talent plays a part, but it doesn’t, guys. It just doesn’t. The writer who wins is the writer who just kept writing.

Here’s the truth: if you figure out how to establish and maintain a heavy, relentless routine for writing, you will find an audience. Maybe not right away, but eventually. (You have to share what you write, of course.)

As you increase your productivity, you will increase your audience. Again, eventually.

Explosive growth comes down to luck, but when you write and share regularly, you make your own luck.

Continue reading “the trick is to write more—much, much, much more”

in 2017 quit everything that annoys you—except this

(A quick note: The inimitable C.C. Chapman interviewed me about writing and editing for his new podcast, Why I Write—check it out.)

I’m bummed, guys. Bummed about blogs. Blogs are dead. “RIP blogging,” for the umpteen millionth time.

To be clear, I don’t mean company blogs or magazine blogs. I mean real blogs by real people where they write about what they’re really interested in. Like Boing Boing and (Both are still around, but they’re the exceptions that prove the rule.)

We all know it and we’ve known it for years: Twitter and Facebook killed blogs. Meanwhile, Twitter and Facebook suck.

Continue reading “in 2017 quit everything that annoys you—except this”

PR will not save you

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If a young man tells his date how handsome, smart and successful he is—that’s advertising. If the young man tells his date she’s intelligent, looks lovely, and is a great conversationalist, he’s saying the right things to the right person and that’s marketing. If someone else tells the young woman how handsome, smart and successful her date is—that’s PR.

—Sylvia H. Simmons

Last week, I promised to address publicity and PR. First, definitions.

Public Relations (PR): What the public sees, hears, and reads about you.

Publicity: Getting placement: TV, radio, magazines, newspapers, blogs, podcasts. (This is changing rapidly. In 5 years, author interviews will be conducted in VR by intelligent self-driving cars.)

So publicity is a tool you use in your public relations campaign. PR is the umbrella term for getting people to care who you are and then getting them to like you once they do.


Continue reading “PR will not save you”

I can’t help you—writing is hard

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Janine: I bet you like to read a lot, too.

Egon: Print is dead.

Janine: That’s very fascinating to me. I read a lot myself. Some people think I’m too intellectual.

Ghostbusters (1984)

Learn how to learn

A quick recommendation: Learning How to Learn is a popular Coursera course co-taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley, professor of engineering at Oakland University. I liked it so much I got Dr. Oakley’s book, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra).

Remember when I wrote about packaging your book? This is a book about learning deep, difficult concepts—period. Unfortunately, the title sends the wrong impression. Sure, Oakley draws stories and examples from the sciences, but the advice applies equally to the task of absorbing any demanding subject.

The book itself is anything but demanding, a light and compelling read I’d comfortably recommend to a middle school student. Let alone a brilliant and accomplished professional like yourself.

Continue reading “I can’t help you—writing is hard”

writing when you’re not on fire

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“Not in the mood? Mood’s a thing for cattle, and loveplay, not fighting!”

—Gurney Halleck, Dune (1984)

The real challenge is writing when you’re not on fire. Steven Pressfield calls doing this “turning pro.” I call it “time to fire up Netflix with a large bowl of cashews.”

Collect techniques for entering flow all you like. To finish a book, you’re going to spend many hours writing with the fire extinguished. I call this “writing damp.”

Writing damp is excruciating. Worse than listening to a friend’s dream or watching Big Bang Theory.

In Daily Rituals, writers spur themselves through damp writing with whatever works. Discipline, or chaos. Routine, or shock. Coffee, or, well, coffee. They all drink coffee, if only to wash down the amphetamines. (I’m looking at you, Ayn Rand!)

We expect pilots and doctors to perform at high levels for extended periods of time with lives on the line. Can you imagine your surgeon saying he’s not in the mood to remove your appendix? We can learn from them even if the only patient on our table is a bloated manuscript with an infected, er, appendix.

To fly planes or fix brains, you rely on:

  1. Practice
  2. Checklists

Continue reading “writing when you’re not on fire”

marinate to excellorate

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In response to the last Maven Game on “factiness,” Marina Krakovsky pointed me to Adam Gopnik’s essay collection Paris to the Moon.

Gopnik explains the difference in how Americans and the French see facts. I found it relevant to The Situation.

Not this Situation.

This Situation.

This post offers the Gopnik excerpt with some context. Thanks Marina!

Nobody knows how the sausage gets made, and nobody wants to know. That is, unless they’re an aspiring sausage-stuffer.

I’m talking creativity-sausage, of course. I can’t get enough of seeing that sausage get stuffed. (Tweet that.)

Continue reading “marinate to excellorate”

factiness, truthiness, and baudrillard

Luke: “Is the dark side stronger?”
Yoda: “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

In a post on his personal website about the election—this is not about the election—social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson coins a useful term:

On the right, they have what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness,” which we might define as ignoring facts in the name of some larger truth…Perhaps we need to start articulating a left-wing version of truthiness: let’s call it “factiness.”

Factiness is the taste for the feel and aesthetic of “facts,” often at the expense of missing the truth. From silly self-help-y TED talks to bad NPR-style neuroscience science updates to wrapping ourselves in the misleading scientism of FiveThirtyEight statistics, factiness is obsessing over and covering ourselves in fact after fact while still missing bigger truths.

Factiness appeals to the ideas of the objective, empirical, and the disinterested apprehension of reality. When philosopher Jean Baudrillard spoke of “simulations”, he wasn’t talking as much about places like Disneyland as much as how Disneyland obscures the fact that everything else is a simulation. And throughout the campaign, what’s called the mainstream media has been desperate to pretend everything outside Trumpland is real politics.

Factiness. Boy, does that nail it on the tête.

First of all, authors, purge factiness from your repertoire. Stop, in other words, picking cherries. Instead of asking yourself whether you can “support” an assertion, ask yourself whether you believe it yourself. Start there. Do you find it to be true? As a tool of rhetoric, factiness suffuses our writing and speaking. I’m starting to think it’s poisoning us.

I also sincerely believe that factiness is not necessary to sell lots of books. Shall I supply well-chosen examples of authors who don’t employ factiness to prove it? Wait a second…

Yes, some of the biggest authors in business and popular science are factifiers of the highest order. Many others, however, are not. These authors don’t fling facts; they face them. They acknowledge uncertainty and help readers wrestle with it. They don’t try to turn the world upside-down just to get attention, firing isolated research findings and Tufte-esque graphs at us until we’re stunned into agreement.

The world has had enough factiness—and truthiness—for three consecutive Presidential terms. (Hey, if Bloomberg went for three as mayor of NYC, we all know what Trump’s thinking.)

As an acquiring book editor, you’re soaking in a factiness brine, swimming through cherry-picked facts that point toward one author’s truth without any real context. When you’re looking for a forest, all those trees start to look the same.

For example: When I was acquiring for Current, Penguin’s now-defunct popular science imprint, an agent submitted a book proposal positing a new fundamental law of nature.

You know, like the second law of thermodynamics. That sort of thing.

I won’t bother explaining this fundamental law. Doubleday published the book. Decide for yourself.

The point was, this submission didn’t come in over the transom. I received it from a major, reputable literary agent. My colleagues and I were smart, well-educated people. And we considered this thing for days. We read it and re-read it and shared it with scientist friends and we still had no idea whether or not it was valid.

All we knew for sure was that it was peppered with convincing facts and, if true, it would be fascinating.

In the end, I took the cynical approach over the skeptical one. Whether or not I was personally convinced, or even intrigued, by this new law of nature, I decided the guy didn’t have enough juice to convince others of a discovery so fundamental and yet relatively unacknowledged by his peers.

If a bunch of liberal elites were so vulnerable to factiness—and I’ll repeat that Doubleday published the book—how the heck is the rest of society supposed to protect itself from the barrage of “facts”?

I’ve always known we have truth problems, but now it strikes me that establishing truth is the existential threat of our time. Mark Zuckerberg may deny that fake news on Facebook affected the election but it’s undeniable that the internet and our society are interacting in unforeseen and frightening ways when it comes to agreeing on which way is up.

What’s more, while people have disagreed in the past, a society has never before been so blind to the nature and size of those disagreements.

Books are a source of truthiness and factiness. They are also stubbornly, wonderfully resistant to algorithmic filtering or being taken out of context. As large, rigid, coherent chunks of thinking, they present the perfect antidote to wherever Facebook and Twitter are taking us.

Whether you found yourself terrified or elated by the results of the election, consider the power of this tool, the book, and how you might use your next one to bring a little more actual truth into the world. One brick at a time, folks.