butt out or beware the mighty zeus

Writer and woodworker Jim Dillon wrote to me after last week’s essay:


Jim has been reading the Maven Game long enough to know how to capture my attention: emphatic compliments in ALL CAPS.

My work (writing, making a video, building a piece of furniture) flows most copiously when I can put myself in the mindset of (respectively) “taking dictation,” “cutting out the obviously not needed stuff,” or “making the mark on the wood and cutting to the mark with a saw.” My writing is like taking dictation because most of what I do is essentially process narration: “First you get the wood ready, then you cut the joints, then you put the cabinet together.” But because of ego I often sit there thinking about the work of the best woodworking writers ever, and comparing the sentence in my head against their best work, instead of just writing down the next step.

All writing should feel like taking dictation. Get out of your head so your head can work while you type.

In The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (which I honestly cannot believe I’ve never mentioned here previously because, wow, that book), psychologist Julian Jaynes proposes that consciousness is a relatively recent development. Prior to a few thousand years ago, according to Jaynes, human minds were divided into two halves: doer and thinker. The “unconscious” doer would robotically obey instructions from the thinker, usually perceived by the doer as a separate, divine entity. This is why, Jaynes says, the characters in The Iliad never reflect or exhibit any self-awareness in the text. The gods tell them what to do and they do it.

(I’m not trying to convince you of the book’s thesis. Jaynes spent 500 pages making his point and people still aren’t convinced. So give me a break with my 100 words.)

Whether or not the book is correct, it’s right. The breakdown of the bicameral mind is the worst thing that ever happened to writers. It tricked us into thinking we have a role to play in our writing. We don’t. The creative part of the brain is a separate entity, supernatural and fearsome. If you told me that mine was a grouchy old dude who hurls the occasion lightning bolt, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

Let Zeus run the show or he’ll give the order to release the kraken. (The kraken is a metaphor here, although for what, I’m not sure.)

Anyway, Jim had one more story to share with regard to being your own worst critic. As a craftsperson, you’ve got a craftsperson’s eye:

Years ago, my ex and I took our car to a body shop to replace a quarter panel after the car was hit in a parking lot. The body man was a friend of a friend, and he had seen some of my woodworking. Nice guy, told us the work would take two weeks and then finished it in a week (underpromise and overperform!). I went to pick up the car and he was on the phone. He covered the mouthpiece with his hand and said “JIM! WAIT TIL I GET OFF THE PHONE!” and went back to his call. Of course I walked straight to the car and inspected the fender he had replaced. I was APPALLED. The thing looked like the surface of the moon! It wasn’t shiny and new-looking at all! I sensed him walk up behind me and turned to face him, simultaneously inhaling to launch the complaint, and he put his hand on my shoulder and said “Jim, come look at the left front fender.”

That took the wind out of me, so I let him lead me to it. “Check it out.” So I looked at the left front fender and it was EVEN WORSE. The body man said “That’s what the factory finish looks like. I told you not to look because I know you have The Eye. In your line of work you have to see the flaws, and you automatically focus closer and closer until you see them.” I burst out laughing. So cool! It was like he had done a magic trick inside my head! He very generously spent the next half hour answering my questions about spraying finishes, something I was then dabbling in with kitchen cabinets, and it turned into one of the most valuable teaching sessions I ever had. But that lesson about The Eye has stayed with me. Some have it, some decidedly do not. It’s not a good vs evil thing, just a thing.

If you have The Eye, you’re going to need to close it firmly whenever you’re blinded by the faults in your own writing. It is, indeed, doing a kind of magic trick inside your own head. Ironically, closing the Eye is the only way out of Zeus’s labyrinth.

(Again, the labyrinth is a metaphor. Maybe it’s writer’s block. Or maybe the kraken is writer’s block and the labyrinth is anxiety. You know what, before I write anything else, I’m going to order a stack of books on Greek mythology off Amazon so I can get these metaphors sorted out…)

robot mode

I just want to be loved. Is that so wrong?

Jon Lovitz (as Harvey Fierstein), Saturday Night Live

Writing would be so much easier if we could only see it as a job to do: Go mop the floor. Go empty the trash can. Go polish the silverware. People love doing jobs, once they warm to the task—it’s human nature. Even if you’ve never mopped a floor before, you can tackle it, step by step:

  1. Find a mop.
  2. Find a bucket.
  3. Fill the bucket with warm, soapy water.
  4. Et cetera.

Now, go cut 250 words from chapter 6.

My kids and I recently discovered Helpsters, a puppet show on Apple’s new streaming platform. The premise is simple: the Helpsters help people break large goals into smaller tasks and then tackle them one at a time. It’s Problem-solving 101. Like critical thinking and statistics, problem-solving is a foundational skill that few of us are explicitly taught in school.

My ten-year-old son couldn’t stand how simplistic the show is, the way they explain how to systematically think things through. My five-year-old daughter and I, on the other hand, were enthralled. For her, it’s probably the puppets. For me, well, I struggle with systematically thinking things through. Those puppets really helped me. I need to be reminded on a daily basis of how simple it can be to just do the job, step by step. If you want to make a sandwich, you’re going to need some bread. So go get bread. What’s next? With that mindset, I can write anything.

Writing is problem-solving with words. Unfortunately, the psychic toll of potential rejection blinds us to that simple truth. Our egos get involved. If the material is flawed, we are flawed. Revising the work, we become Leonid Rogozov, the Soviet-era Russian doctor who performed a self-appendectomy while stationed in Antarctica. When we submit our finished work for someone else’s evaluation, it’s no longer our work, it’s us, naked and exposed. And if the work is rejected, we have been deemed unworthy by, it seems, the universe. No wonder sitting down to write can be a trial. We put ourselves on trial instead of the work.

If we can learn to look at writing a chapter like making a sandwich, things become very simple, very clear. In my recent interview on the Cool Tools podcast, Mark Frauenfelder and I talked about using checklists to break our days down into a series of manageable tasks. We assign work to ourselves. At any moment of the workday, all we have to do is tackle the next item on the list. Mark called this style of working “robot mode.” Robots have no ego. They mop the floor, make the sandwich, and, one day, edit the chapter.

I’ve rejected as an editor and I’ve been rejected as a writer (and then had the necessary personal relationships to find out why). Here’s the truth I’ve learned: It’s almost never for the reasons you fear. The aspects of your work that you’re self-conscious about, forget them. They didn’t even notice those things. If you found out the real reasons your work wasn’t accepted, you’d probably shrug. Most of the time, it’s due to factors outside your control, or factors you wouldn’t change even if you could. Usually, they just wanted something else.

Editors and agents add to the confusion. In an effort to be nice, they sometimes explain why they’re passing on a particular manuscript. Not with the real reasons, mind you, but with palatable ones intended to be helpful. Generic “shoulds” that had no real bearing on their decision to pass, and might end up sending you on a wild goose chase. In an effort to spare your feelings—and forestall any attempts to be won over—they muddy the waters. I’m guilty of doing this myself.

Stick to solving the problems you can identify, one by one. If a gatekeeper says they’d be willing to work with you once you make certain changes, sure, consider doing so—if those changes make sense to you. But if they’re passing on your work definitively, they have no skin in the game. Take their suggestions with a fist-sized chunk of salt. Better to work with a trusted friend or a pro on making further revisions.

Now go cut 250 words from chapter 6.

the tourist trap

First of all, yes, I wrote “your” instead of “you’re” in last week’s essay. (I’ve since corrected it on the site, of course.) Sue me, nitpicker.

Second of all, I’m back to using Grammarly, which now offers “tone detection.” As I type this, it’s displaying a happy face to indicate that this text is “friendly” and “joyful,” even though I just called you a nitpicker and dared you to sue me. So Grammarly detects tone as well as it distinguishes “your” from “you’re.”

Third of all, an author friend texted me in response to last week’s essay about “saving it for the stage.” (No, he didn’t mention “your” versus “you’re.” We’re moving on.):

Enjoyed your latest post—first one I’ve disagreed with in a while.

My friend is a contrarian, so this makes sense, sort of. (It also implies that he hasn’t enjoyed one in a while, but that’s OK, I have to be willing to get as hard as I give.) He continued:

I chose a deliberate front-loading strategy for [my last book.] All of the research/best bits in the first three chapters, with the later chapters reinforcing and showing application of those insights.

Receiving this, I sat back contentedly, waiting for yet another confirmation from the universe that I’m universally right. Alas:

Based on reader feedback, I wouldn’t do it again. A common perception was that the remaining chapters were “fluff,” since the research/insight was concentrated in the early chapters. The case studies were intended to (1) show the principles in practice; (2) demonstrate efficacy; (3) establish trust in the method. That was the case for some readers, but not for others. For many, it was “no new ideas after Chapter 3” unless they were interested in the specific skill I was using to demonstrate. If I wrote it again, I’d tie 1-2 specific principles to each skill. (Or scrap the case study approach entirely.)

Opinions among professionals vary. Execution matters. More important, however, reader feedback? That’s cheating. This is the Maven Game, not the Maven Research Academy of Science.

My friend’s response got me thinking about hot dogs. Manhattan is peppered with basic, yellow-umbrella food carts selling boiled hot dogs, stale giant pretzels, and the occasional roasted chestnut or knish. As food goes, this stuff is not. There are larger food carts, and they can be pretty good—the King of Falafel and Shawarma cart on 53rd and Park is spectacular—but the small hot dog carts are pure dreck, relics of the bad old days of NYC. They tend to congregate in touristy areas, which makes sense because what they offer isn’t designed around repeat business. You come out of the zoo or museum or concert, you buy a hot dog, you eat it, you regret it, and then you catch the next flight back to Boise.

The good food carts cater to locals. King of Falafel and Shawarma draws a line of midtown professionals halfway down the block during lunch hour. But the incentives are all wrong for the basic carts. They don’t even have the accountability of Yelp reviews like the larger and more stationary carts do. For them, it’s only about appearances. Hence the pretzels and chestnuts, which look and smell great but nearly always disappoint. (The hot dogs already look and smell terrible so there’s nothing disappointing about them at all. In a way.) The locals avoid these stands (aside from the occasional nostalgia visit, immediately lamented). The tourists, on the other hand, don’t know better and aren’t coming back whether they like what they eat or not.

Perverse incentives lead to tourist traps. I suspect this is why business and self-help books tend to operate by a different set of rules than books in other categories. Most of the readers are tourists who don’t read many other books in the category. You’re writing for people who have no idea what’s been done before, which ideas are fresh and which are played out. Nor do they read the book in its entirety even if they find your advice valuable—they tend to read as little as they can get away with. Once they’ve caught on to the main ideas, they’re usually gone. Personal branding also plays a role—it can be useful to publicly claim you liked a certain book, even if you thought it was lousy. In the face of all of this, there isn’t much incentive for authors to dig deep and set the bar higher, as my author friend always does. It can turn even well-intentioned experts into the thought leadership equivalent of Guy Fieri.

Fiction readers are mostly honest. They reward quality and consistency. If they like a book, they read it all the way through. If they don’t, they complain—unless it’s a classic—and they certainly don’t come back for the next one. Everyone’s incentives are aligned. As a consequence, we have many King-of-Falafel-and-Shawarma-quality novels to enjoy.

Things are tougher on the practical nonfiction side. If your book is going to be excellent, you’re going to have to hold yourself to a standard no one else will.

save it for the stage

Give ’em the old razzle-dazzle
Razzle-dazzle ’em
Give ’em an act with lots of flash in it
And the reaction will be passionate
Give ’em the old hocus-pocus
Bead and feather ’em
How can they see with sequins in their eyes?
–Billy Flynn, Chicago

People put so much thought into their work. A handful even put work into their work. That’s fine, within reason, but becoming a better writer means learning when not to put the effort in.

I didn’t stay in the theater for very long before switching to a “career” in publishing—those quotation marks are required by the Chicago Manual of Style—but I learned valuable lessons being limelight-adjacent for a time. The most valuable one: Make every dollar count. “Count” meaning “visible to the audience.” Theater is all about appearances. If you’re going to invest effort in doing anything, it had better make a difference to the audience’s experience of the show or you’re wasting your time. Save the blood, sweat, and/or tears for something else that will. You don’t clean a costume stain no one can see from the front row. You don’t paint the backs of the sets. And Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t actually have to be murdered in a duel at the end of Hamilton. (Spoiler alert.)

That’s the gift of an audience—or a reader: The clarity of knowing who will look at your work, and, crucially, how they will look at it. It allows you to prioritize your efforts. You can choose to fight only the worthy battles. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to fritter away the lion’s share of your energy and inspiration before you get to the part where you really could have used them.

People tend to read novels they enjoy all the way through. In the world of business and self-help books, however, they tend to enthusiastically recommend before chapter 2 and stop reading entirely after chapter 3. (Scoff all you like, but you’re as guilty of this behavior as the rest of us.) As an author of practical nonfiction, you can grumble about this while finessing the prose in Appendix C, or you can accept it by front-loading your best material in the first third of the book where most of your readers will actually see it.

This is not to say the rest should be filler. Simply that you don’t put your book’s strongest idea in chapter 6. Stun them early. Consider the remainder of the book backstage. Backstage is still important to the functioning of a Broadway show: The sets must be properly constructed, the props laid out where they belong, the cables taped down to avoid trips and falls. But backstage is practical, utilitarian, designed for function over form. Savvy entertainers save the sparkle for the stage itself.

In a book proposal, you might even consider everything past the overview backstage. (You’d be wrong to do that, it’s actually everything past the pitch letter, but I don’t want to give the literary agents reading this a heart attack.) In a blog post, backstage might be everything past the opening paragraph or, in some cases, everything past the link.

In the documentary I Need You To Kill, comedian Pete Lee calls the opening moments of a stand-up act the “flash.” Your flash can be as simple as the particular way you walk on stage and pick up the mic, or it can extend into the opening joke. In a way, the audience makes its decision about you in that moment. Get it right and they’ll relax and give you the benefit of the doubt. Flub it and you’ll have a hell of a time winning their confidence back. Certain comedians get this right. They start things off in a way that not only elicits a laugh but reassures the audience that they’re in capable hands.

It’s painful but necessary to grapple with the ugly truth of reading behavior. But as a writer, you can’t sweat every detail. You simply can’t. There are always more details! What you can do is figure out where to sprinkle your limited supply of pixie dust.

p.s. You might think I ignore this advice when writing the Maven Game, but that’s because it’s all pixie dust.