vocation runs deep

Busy few weeks. Has it been a month? I’m checking—yes, it’s been a month. Ugh. In the interim, we finished our move (to sunny Montclair, “The Park Slope of New Jersey”) and I completed a staggering amount of client work. (This is no exaggeration. I have been, truly, staggered. No, I don’t want your pity. Unless it’s very, very sincere.)

Believe it or not, despite the brusque, business-like tone I adopt in these essays, I actually enjoy writing the Maven Game to you. Unfortunately, as Dr. Ian Malcom might put it, life found a way. Today, however, things are different: I have an office. I have a desk in that office. I have a chair in front of that desk. I even have a clickety-clackety new mechanical keyboard that “breathes.” In fact, it’s breathing right now, as I stroke it. (That came out wrong.)

(No, it didn’t.)

Room. Desk. Chair. Keyboard. By their powers combined, I am Home Office Man. Looking back, I don’t think I’ve had a proper setup like this since I left Amazon Publishing back in 2013. Prior to that, we had a room I used for work for a hot second, but then my son was born and that was that. You might take your desk for granted, or you might be hunched up on your bed or at your kitchen table as you read this. All I know is, it feels weird to be so not-uncomfortable while I’m working. Almost too not-uncomfortable…

A while back, I dug up a stack of unlabeled floppy disks from the late 80s and early 90s and decided to have them converted. After letting the enormous folder of mysterious files overwhelm me for a few months, I instituted a practice of going through ten or twenty each day. They’ve been homework, mostly, there’ve been some pearls. I even dug up an old Maven Game from the early years, sparing me the effort of writing a new one myself this week. The following is twelve-year-old me in an essay for 7th grade “Home Career Skills,” a class I have no memory of taking:

Being a writer is a very challenging job. It takes a lot of dedication, and a lot of practice. Its good to have a college education, high school is an imperative. If you plan to write fiction, a degree or two could increase your chances of getting a good publisher. Starting yearly incomes vary greatly. It all depends on what kind of mind you are working with. If you put out an average of about two or three books a year, you could make about $35,000 starting salary. After some years, it could go up to $45,000, or more.

To be a writer, it takes patience, and know-how. Publishers are very finicky and with so many competitors already, its hard to get started. Three Needs of A Writer: 1) Education, 2) Imagination, 3) Practice.

As a writer, you must make many choices on everything you write. Will you write a magazine article, a novelette, a short story, a set of volumes, there are hundreds of ways to get the idea across. Magazine articles are easiest, and, of course, pay the least (usually). Then it goes to short stories, novelettes, novels, volumes, etc… Then, will it be fiction, or non-fiction. If non-fiction, a biography, or who knows what? If fiction, just plain fiction, science fiction, fantasy, etc… Once you’ve made a decision on what to write, think up characters. Have you developed a style? Once you’ve got it in your head, maybe jot it down, make an outline. Don’t start out with too big a job. You could get discouraged easily.

Well, you’re all ready. Set aside about an hour at first, and sit down at the old typewriter, or maybe a PC. Maybe you’d prefer a pen or pencil and some lined paper, if you’d like to do a children’s book with your own pictures. If it’s a short story, which magazine to send the completed manuscript to? Science Fiction & Fantasy, Merlyn’s Pen (if your still a kid), who knows? Maybe a collection of short stories in book format. If it is a book, which publisher will you attend. Have you inquired about them? Seen their track record? Well, get started early, because experience is the key.

Apparently, the Maven Game is almost three decades old. Where’s my medal?

(It took everything I had not to copy-edit this. I hope you appreciate the vulnerability on display.)

Personally, I think this newsletter has aged like fine wine. If you want to be a writer, get yourself some Education, develop an Imagination, and start Practicing. I’m not sure I’ve improved on that advice in all the time since.

dance like somebody’s watching

You want advice? I’ll give you some advice. Get out there and upgrade those Zoom pants. (Assuming you’re wearing pants at all.) Let’s not kid ourselves: all our standards are sagging under the weight of months of lockdown. Time to shore them up! You’ll feel better and you’ll be more productive to boot.

Sure, this situation feels interminable, but it will terminate. Not every aspect of our current mess, of course—some battles are just beginning—but the coronavirus part, that is going to come to a definite conclusion. (Thank you in advance, scientists. Sorry about, well, a large portion of humanity. Forgive them—they know not what they do.) One day, months or years from now, someone will knock on your door with a vaccine (and, presumably, a Bill Gates mind-control chip) to welcome you back into post-COVID society.

When that blessed day arrives, do you want to come to the door as a dapper, composed Dr. Livingstone? Or do you want them to find you like Colonel Kurtz, lying on the floor, sweaty and monologuing? The other day, I realized that puttering around the house in my ragged PJ pants wasn’t doing my mental health any good. “The horror…” So I ordered a couple of pairs of the Wirecutter’s pick for lounge pants. Not all that formal, of course, but it’s black tie by comparison. Today, I feel like a new man. I may even start wearing shoes again. For important calls, anyway.

It’s the little things, folks. Long before coronavirus struck, Gay Talese made a practice of donning a suit before heading to the basement to write. Doesn’t matter if anyone else sees you. Acting like a pro has a way of putting you in a professional mindset, especially when all the external markers of your vocation go away. (Editors and agents can’t even do lunch anymore!) Without constraints, we must create our own frame or risk turning into a puddle of mumbling mush à la Marlon.

In a larger sense, I’m talking about maintaining yarak, “a falconry term meaning when your falcon is superalert, hungry, but not weak, and ready to hunt,” according to Patagonia’s founder (and avid falconer) Yvon Chouinard. Or, as the world’s second-most-interesting man liked to say: “Stay thirsty, my friends.” Creators need that edge. We can’t afford to get too comfortable. It’s the grain of sand in the oyster that forms the pearl.

They always tell graduates to dance like nobody’s watching. That is terrible advice. This is what it looks like when you dance like nobody’s watching. I suggest dancing—or writing, painting, composing, whatever it is you do—like somebody is watching you very, very closely. Stand up straight. Brush those crumbs off your shirt. Get that finger out of your nose. You’re a human being and, more important, an artist—are you going to let a little global pandemic rob you of your work ethic, let alone your hygiene? If you find it impossible to stay civilized without an audience, then get yourself one. It’s easier than ever. Throw up a Twitch stream and broadcast your writing sessions to the world. Why not? It’s not just for gamers anymore.

p.s. Some rare footage of Yvon Chouinard and his favorite falcon.

wicked problems this way come

Happy Independence Day to my fellow Americans!

For every other passenger on Spaceship Earth: The United States is currently experiencing technical difficulties. Please stand by for our regularly scheduled home of the free and land of the brave.

I don’t know about you, but there are times I wish you I drape a tarp over the whole damn country. Give us minute to get our stuff figured out and make ourselves presentable. Would everyone please do us a favor and avert their eyes until, I don’t know, January, at the earliest?

Moving on. My friend, author and publisher Rohit Bhargava, has assembled a “virtual summit” on book marketing, It airs this Wednesday. Completely free, it features Rohit’s conversations with many top-tier book experts: authors, marketers, speaking agents, publicists, booksellers, and more. So many good names from nearly every corner of the industry, all offering their best book marketing advice to you. For free. Sign up here to watch.

(All the guests are good, but my segment alone is worth the price of admission.)

(Because it’s free. Get it? Price of admission?)

Sometimes I wonder how many of my jokes come across in these essays. Informal polls indicate: few. Worse, I’ve offended a number of Maven Game readers over the years with my klutzy stabs at humor. I’m not saying I worry about getting canceled—what’s there to cancel?—but getting jokes to land in an email, without the benefit of facial expression, tone of voice, and/or clown nose, is a unique challenge that I have yet to master. (Yes, I’ve tried appending “wokka wokka wokka,” but the only Muppet most people know nowadays is Baby Yoda.)

I rarely crack wise in my clients’ manuscripts and book proposals. It’s usually inappropriate, although occasionally I slip something clever in. If it passes muster, I’m just delighted. Mostly, these newsletters serve as an outlet for the kind of thing I can’t do in my day job. The Maven Game has always been a learning tool for me as much as anything. Sure, I try to offer you, the reader, actual advice, but I follow a steak burrito content strategy. The beans, rice and guac are the jokes, riffs, and references—the material I’m trying out in my little email “act.” The steak is the stuff that’s useful and relevant to authors and experts like you. Have you ever opened a steak burrito before eating it? How much steak did you see? Cow is expensive.

David Epstein, author of Range, recently wrote about deliberate practice in the context of the passing of Anders Ericsson. Ericsson was one of the originators of the idea of deliberate practice and the so-called “10,000-hour rule” made famous by Malcolm Gladwell (a notion Ericsson later disavowed).

(While you’re at it, sign up for Epstein’s newsletter. It’s all steak.)

What’s interesting isn’t whether or not 10,000 hours of deliberate practice will make you a master at violin, chess, or tennis. Skills like that are easy to acquire. All you need to do is invest enormous amounts of incredibly demanding effort. Move the racket like this. Did you hit the ball? Great. Do that again. If not, try something a little different. Rinse and repeat multiplied by your wasted childhood. Immediate feedback, unequivocal results, and the game itself never changes.

Valid or not, deliberate practice has absolutely no bearing on the work of an aspiring author. Sure, writing a successful sentence, paragraph, or chapter is a craft that can be improved with practice—to an extent—but writing a successful book is a wicked problem: “a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.”

In other words, making a book work or, as editors and agents do, trying to figure out which book among many will be successful in the marketplace, is not one of those reliable and predictable skills that you can practice and master with however many hours. The rules change constantly. Success is hard to measure and based on countless interrelated factors. You can do everything “right” and still get it wrong. And it’s not like you can publish the same book over and over, trying different approaches until you get it right. It’s impossible to achieve mastery in the traditional sense when you’re dealing with a wicked problem. Luck will always play an outsized role.

This is all very confusing for people who have achieved high levels of expertise in a domain that does respond to deliberate practice: engineering, for example, or medicine. They don’t understand why you can’t just work really, really hard for 10,000 hours and then know exactly how to make a book successful. This blindness extends to the suits from sales and finance who inevitably wind up running things at large corporate publishing companies. They’re the ones who decide to fire world-class book editors when a particularly expensive book tanks. Nothing could be more absurd. Picking winners ain’t a science, folks. Nor is becoming one.

None of this is to say that you can’t develop some best practices and improve your odds with experience. But it’s hopeless to seek certainty in the realms of creativity and popularity. You get the best data you can, you plan things out based on sound principles, and then you go with your gut, accepting the very real possibility—in fact, the likelihood—of failure. If you learn a single true, universal lesson from publishing your book (or sending your weekly newsletter), consider yourself very lucky. Unlike chess, the rules will all be different next time. So will the pieces. So will the board.

in praise of the poor devil of letters

Editing’s a thankless job. Turns out it always has been.

According to the historian Anthony Grafton in this piece at Lapham’s Quarterly, book editors—who began as “correctors”—have been underpaid and under-appreciated ever since Gutenberg:

One of the most striking facts about correctors was, and is, depressing: for all the utility of what they did, they usually found themselves the objects less of gratitude than of anger, pity, or derision. As early as 1534, when Viglius Zuichemus described Hieronymus Froben’s printing shop, he mentioned the chief corrector there, Sigismund Gelenius, only to say how much he regretted seeing him employed in this capacity. Gelenius, he explained, was “an extraordinarily learned man, and worthy of far better things.” Pretty much everyone agreed.

Many of my book publishing peers aroused the same pity in me (regardless of the fact that I was toiling right alongside them). One humble copy-editor at Penguin always astonished me with the breadth of her knowledge, the sheer sagacity displayed by her corrections. You have to understand a subject pretty well to make truly useful suggestions as an editor. It’s like being the cameraperson for a footrace—you have to run a little bit faster and carry a big camera to boot. On any project, this copy-editor clearly knew more about the subject at hand—whatever that subject was —than the person being given a six-figure advance to write about it. But what choice did she, or any of us, have, other than to toil away on her corrections? To paraphrase Churchill (who was actually quoting someone else), being a book editor is the worst form of employment, except for all the others. I mean, if you’ve got the chops, what else are you gonna do for a living?

In Grafton’s words, it’s the “quintessential fate of humanists” to suffer this way. Blessed with “discriminating tastes,” you are qualified to be nothing more than “a poor devil of letters.” Clearly, the best job would be reading all day, but that’s not a job. Consequently, some extraordinarily talented people—highly educated, perceptive, curious, articulate—do the next best thing. Which is downright awful.

Back in the 16th century, correctors were jacks-of-all-trades:

They corrected authors’ copy as well as proofs. They identified and mended typographical and other errors, to the best of their ability. They divided texts into sections and drew up aids to readers: title pages, tables of contents, chapter headings, and indexes. Some correctors composed texts as well as paratexts, serving as what might now be called content providers. At times, correctors acted as expert intermediaries between an author and his publisher.

Today, we specialize, although terms differ and there is no agreement on where to draw the lines: developmental editing, line editing, copy-editing, and on and on. When I face a manuscript, I don’t know what I’m doing from one moment to the next beyond fixing. That’s what I do. I fix what needs fixing and call it a day. But the nature of the fixing varies. You work your way down from gross to fine correction depending on the scale of the task and the time you have available. Though I still have a habit of correcting typos early in the process, a.k.a. arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Imagine it this way. Your dog makes a mess on the floor. What’s the first thing you’re going to do? There’s no time for niceties. You’ve got a big date and they’re coming over soon. You’re going to scoop what you can scoop. Once the ugliest part of the task is out of the way, you can afford to be a bit more particular. You spray the floor and wipe it down. You get out the wood polish and the air freshener. You step back, look at the floor from different angles, take the occasional sniff. Eventually, you decide you can live with what’s stuck in the nooks and crannies and you move on to the next mess.

You probably think I should have chosen a nicer metaphor. Unless you’re an editor, of course.

This is why it’s tough when people ask me what kind of editorial support I can provide, or what kind of help I think they need. I never know until I get a good look at the mess.

How big is that doodoo?