be patient and pay close attention

Learn to look; compare what is before you with your familiar or secret ideas. Do not see in a town merely houses, but human life and history. Let a gallery or a museum show you something more than a collection of objects, let it show you schools of art and of life, conceptions of destiny and of nature, successive or varied tendencies of technique, of inspiration, of feeling. Let a workshop speak to you not only of iron and wood, but of man’s estate, of work, of ancient and modern social economy, of class relationships. Let travel tell you of mankind; let scenery remind you of the great laws of the world; let the stars speak to you of measureless duration; let the pebbles on your path be to you the residue of the formation of the earth; let the sight of a family make you think of past generations; and let the least contact with your fellows throw light on the highest conception of man. If you cannot look thus, you will become, or be, a man of only commonplace mind. A thinker is like a filter, in which truths as they pass through leave their best substance behind. [emphasis mine]

—A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life

Several years ago, an acquaintance enthusiastically introduced me to the work of author Robin Sloan through Sloan’s iPhone app, Fish. The app is essentially a digital essay/PowerPoint presentation. You tap your way through it. It summarizes this original account of the profound teaching method of Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz, a 19th-century Harvard zoologist. Agassiz’s approach was very much in line with that of good old Father Sertillanges, above.

To learn, look. Pay attention, to all of it. Be patient. And, as Sertillanges and Agassiz would both have added today: put down the damn phone. (Unless you’re using it to read innovative interactive essays like Fish. I’d like to see more of those.)

Sloan emailed his mailing list a few weeks back. Apparently, Fish needs to be re-compiled for the new iOS App Store and Sloan no longer has the source code. Digital entropy strikes again! Thankfully, you can buy paper editions of Sloan’s other books. I’ve enjoyed several of his short stories as well as his debut novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I’ll read Sourdough one of these days.

Speaking of books, my own experiment with “lean publishing” continues apace. Thanks to those of you who’ve already purchased a copy of Book Into Battle, my guide to writing books that need to be written. (As opposed to the other kind.) Having an actual paying readership from the start helps my brain tremendously. I hope you enjoy what you find in its burgeoning pages whenever you choose to dip in. I won’t ask for feedback because, let’s be honest, feedback is hard work. I’m just glad you’re reading it! That said, if you have thoughts about the direction I’m taking, it would be very valuable to hear them. Using this tool, I’m supposed to “pivot” a lot. You know, like a startup. Depending on the customer response, it might end up being a religious tract, or an autobiography of James Polk. Lean publishing! 

This week, I added a new introduction as well as a cover designed by my lovely wife, Samantha Hahn, who should really be spending her valuable time on actual book covers like these.

How does it look?

Book Into Battle: How to Write What You Mean So It Matters

Book Into Battle will continue to be updated weekly. I’m using Pacemaker to stay on track. It lets you set goals and track progress on large writing or editing projects. I’m targeting 40,000 words by October 1. In 2018, 40K feels like a good number. That’s just enough book.

Leanpub takes an interesting—and underappreciated—approach to publishing, one worthy of investigation and experimentation. Even if readers in general aren’t interested in keeping up with an iterative book, the “live” method really does change the way you write. And I needed a change. It took me a few days to get the hang of the site itself, but I’ve got a solid workflow now: I write using Atom—avoid Ulysses for this purpose—with some Markdown-friendly modifications. The text files sync via Dropbox; when I’m done writing, I click Publish and updated PDF, MOBI, and EPUB are automatically generated. Neat, right?

When I’m done, I’ll do a small print run of a hardcover edition. All on my own, including typesetting and proofreading. That cover deserves a nice glossy jacket, don’t you think? Plus, I wouldn’t want to fall prey to digital entropy like Robin Sloan did. In fact, I’ve been preparing for a GoldenEye-style EMP attack since 1995. That’s why I print all my tweets. (Come to think of it, GoldenEye was probably the last big spy movie to feature Russians as the bad guys. That streak is ready to be broken, sadly.)

Where was I? Books! Books, guys. Read them, closely. Write one, with an end in mind. This struck me the other day: Of the many things on my phone, all of them (!) leave me feeling worse. News, email, social media, Reddit, Hulu, all of it. My phone is a depression machine. I come out of using it in a degraded mental state. Except for the Kindle app. When I read books, I feel better. Even sad books. Even bad books. How easy it is to forget this simple and obvious truth and open a browser instead.

publish till you can’t publish no more

Iteration. Good for iPhones. Also, Terminators. The T-800 is a perfectly adequate time-traveling murder robot, but Skynet gave the T-1000 a crucial feature: laminate flooring mode. (Who needs to transform into a beat-up Chevy? Bumblebee’s got nothing on Robert Patrick.) Plus, the latter model dispenses with the odd Austrian accent option.

To iterate, you put something out there quickly, improve it based on feedback, and put it out there again. Rinse and repeat. If it works for Mission: Impossible movies, why not books? Sure, I’ve worked on the occasional second edition in traditional publishing, but those iterations arrives years or even decades apart. Digital changes the equation.

Todd Sattersten makes this case recursively in Every Book Is A Startup, a book he originally published on O’Reilly’s website in 2011. It’s an argument for rapidly iterating books in the form of a rapidly iterating book. Now, Todd has re-released the book on Leanpub, an elegant tool that allows you to publish and sell an e-book while it’s still in progress. Buying the book gives you access to all future updates. (Todd’s is the second book I’ve purchased on Leanpub. The first, Cognitive Productivity, is probably the geekiest book I’ve enjoyed next to, of course, Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing.)

We all need to get a heck of a lot less precious about what we publish and start cranking stuff out. How else are we going to get better at writing what people want to read? How else are we going to figure out what it is that we’re supposed to be writing?

Kent Beck makes this argument in a Facebook post: Publish Everything (Pretty Much). After a tweet went viral—one he never expected to resonatehe realized there’s simply no predicting what will become popular. (This goes back to the Dale Chihuly quote from a few weeks back. “You don’t know when you’re at your best.”) Ultimately, the responses you get from your audience will fall on a standard statistical distribution: a tiny percentage of your published work will get the vast majority of the attention. And you can never know which percentage. 

Of course, Beck includes the caveat that publishing tons of crap will change the curve. But, he adds, “if it’s not so bad as to actively damage your reputation, get it out there and pay attention to the feedback.” In other words, iterate.

Eat your own dog food, Dave. As an experiment and in solidarity with my pal Todd, I’ve just created an iterative book myself. I had a little chapter of something I’d put together and it seemed like it might be part of something larger. So, in the spirit of this week’s essay, what the heck? It took about an hour to get the file up on Leanpub. I’ve decided to call it Book Into Battle: How to Write What You Mean So It Matters. (“Book As Battle”? You tell me.)

If I can do it, so can you. Take something—even a fragment—and throw it up on Leanpub. Share it with me. Then iterate.

compare and despair—with flair

Compare and despair: maybe there’s no use fighting it.

A college writing prof once told me that fury about the success of her peers gave her the strength she needed to continue working. Comparisons tire me out, personally, but if resentment fuels you, why not use it? Even the DeLorean runs on garbage.

The trap is trying to learn how to succeed from these comparisons. They can be deceptive.

A book proposal’s strength rests on its comparative and competitive analysis. The comp analysis explain how your book fits into the larger picture. Crafting a convincing one isn’t easy, though, and most proposals fail here to one degree or another. The most common error is a comparison with a bestseller written by an author with an enormous platform. That’s easy to avoid: if the other gal’s way more famous than you, steer clear.

Sometimes, however, false comparisons aren’t so obvious. If it isn’t completely clear why something else originally took off, tread carefully. It comes down to what I call entry points. The thing isn’t always the thing.

I’ve written before about reader experience design, i.e. publishers drawing lessons from the world of user experience design. If you’re doing UX for a website, you start by mapping out all the different ways users will end up there: in-store sign with a URL, linking from other sites, search results, etc. You think really hard about discovery—the entry points. 

Popularity begets popularity, but it has to start somewhere. For books and other creative works, there’s no equivalent of Google Analytics to tell you where all those first fans originally came from, why something became popular in the first place.

Go ahead, listen to a song by Phish, if you never have. Do you feel the sudden urge to climb into a van and follow them from venue to venue for the rest of your life? Of course not. Listening to a song by Phish is not the entry point for Phish. The thing isn’t always the thing.

Just because entry points can be hard to uncover doesn’t mean you can skip this crucial exercise. If you want to learn from your (apparently) successful competitors, you have to at least try to understand what sparked for them in the first place.

For sequels and genres, the entry point is obvious. If you bought Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle: Part 2, your entry point was My Struggle: Part 1. Likewise, if you bought The New Testament, it’s probably because you were a big fan of the meticulously crafted genealogical lists of the Old Testament and you wanted to see what happened to all the characters from the first part. We crave familiarity.

What about original work, new voices? That’s where the study of entry points gets interesting. How do we first get hooked on something? Business and self-help are unusual categories in that two books can be on the same shelf and offer wildly different kinds of advice for wildly different kinds of readers. In a sense, we’re always fighting this battle, creating new entry points from scratch. Authors of “cozy mysteries,” for example, just need to hit their cozy mystery marks and they’ve got a good chance to win over cozy mystery readers. Just send a cat-loving amateur sleuth to a bed-and-breakfast on the coast of Massachusetts and shoot somebody. Done.

Authors fall into the trap of thinking that a particular book must have succeeded because of the idea, i.e. the cover and the bookstore placement, as though people just wander Barnes & Noble looking at jackets. I mean, they do, I guess, but not really.

I spotted Who Moved My Cheese?  prominently displayed once. The title caught my attention, but it left me flummoxed. What is this?  It was surrounded by business books. But it appeared to be a novel, a novel about ambitious rats. I opened it, tried to read it, looked at the cover again, put it down, picked it up. Picture one of the apes poking at the Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

These WTF moments happen more and more frequently to all of us. We see something—a book, a show, a 14-year-old YouTuber being interviewed on The Tonight Show. We’re told, explicitly or not, that this new thing is massively popular. Millions of people love this thing.

You look at it and think, am I crazy?  What is this? Everyone else saw this and liked it?

It’s a bit like the classic Asch experiment into judgment conformity. We instinctively believe our tastes should generally agree with the masses (or we decide to hate popular things on principle, but that’s essentially the same thing). But with many of these new things, we’ve missed the entry point and we can’t like it even if we’re disposed to do so. We start to doubt our own sanity because the aspect of the work we’re seeing is not the thing that made it popular.

And that aspect can be the work itself! There are bestselling books that are utterly unreadable—but if you saw that phenomenal TED talk…

The thing isn’t always the thing.

It’s getting weird out there and nobody has a complete picture of why each thing succeeds anymore. I passed an Amazon Books this week. The front window display promised great gifts for Dads. Right in the center: Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. Considering Peterson’s toxic beliefs about forced monogamy and his popularity among the “incel” community, there’s a certain irony in that placement. Even if an algorithm decided it belonged there, the human employee—empowered by Amazon’s leadership principles—should have overridden that decision for a window display in midtown Manhattan.

Unfortunately, the guy who physically put it there probably had no idea how and why Jordan Peterson is popular. (Peterson’s true entry point is a smoky mix of MMA, Joe Rogan’s podcast, and hate.)

We do this to ourselves every day. It goes back to what I’ve written previously about cargo-cult thinking among creators. If there’s something that’s really, really popular and you don’t understand how, you’ve missed the entry point. Either suss it out, or stop comparing yourself and wondering why your thing—which may be superficially similar—doesn’t enjoy the same success.

Think of all the people who injured themselves trying to lean like Michael Jackson in the “Smooth Criminal”  video. He had magnetic locking shoes on!

If you can’t figure out the secret, your best bet is to assume you’re out of your league. If you don’t know who the sucker at the poker table is, you’re it. Pity the indie filmmaker who asks the stylist to give his lead actress Rooney Mara’s hairstyle from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It won’t work. David Fincher used CGI to make Mara’s bangs part the same way in every sceneRooney Mara’s hair is literally impossible.

In 1938, Action Comics #1 featured a man in blue tights and a red cape holding a car over his head.

“I don’t know what the S stands for, but I’m curious to know more about this piece of intellectual property,” said that newsboy kid from 1938 whose only alternative for entertainment was rolling a hoop down a hill with a stick. “Assuming it relies on very few retcons and maintains a consistent tone throughout the franchise’s extended universe, of course.” 

Superman was a good thing to copy because its appeal was obvious and everyone understood why kids loved it. And copy we have, with great success, for eight decades and counting. (Side-note: Did you know The Greatest American Hero is streaming on Hulu? I sure didn’t!)

If you want to paralyze yourself with your comparisons, keep on trying to write Malcolm Gladwell’s next book without a regular gig at The New Yorker. If you want to be a productive and happy writer—to the very limited extent that’s possible—pad your media diet with plenty of failures. Read the stuff that doesn’t make the front window display. That can actually be a good filter for finding worthy books. For a publisher to tackle something that isn’t already a platform slam dunk, the book itself must be pretty darn good.

More important, sticking with the failures means that, when something does suddenly break out of obscurity, you can resent that success on an apples-to-apples basis.

tuck yourself in to write your cozy masterpiece

Roald Dahl was not a nice person. In fact, he was a real BFG. (The F does not stand for “friendly.”)

The legendary Bob Gottlieb was Dahl’s American editor at one point. When Dahl threw a fuss about pencils—we’ll get to Dahl and his pencils in a minute—Gottlieb reached his breaking point:

You have behaved to us in a way I can honestly say is unmatched in my experience for overbearingness and utter lack of civility. Lately you’ve began addressing others here—who are less well placed to answer you back—with the same degree of abusiveness. For a while I put your behavior down to the physical pain you were in and so managed to excuse it. Now I’ve come to believe that you’re just enjoying a prolonged tantrum and are bullying us.

I’ve worked with the occasional Difficult Author. One lost his temper and yelled at me over the phone. The next day, I received a styrofoam cooler filled with dry ice. Nestled inside, six pints of Ben and Jerry’s—his flavor. I’ve never enjoyed an amends so arrogant yet so delicious. 

Dahl was a giant something, but it wasn’t a peach. That said, he could write; if we can learn from him, peachy. Like Larry David, I have no problem whistling Wagner.

So what can Dahl teach us?

When I went out on my own a few years ago, I got a standing desk. Because health! But my productivity ground to a halt. Crossfit-crazy VCs might be able to fire off a day’s worth of Slack messages from a wobble board, but as a writer I was getting nowhere. Eventually, anxiety about deadlines was doing far more damage to my cardiovascular health than prolonged sitting ever could.

Then I saw this video of Roald Dahl in his writing hut:

I’ve taken a great deal of trouble with the actual chair I sit in, and the place I put my feet, which is tied to the legs of the chair, so I don’t shove it away when I press my feet against it. Also, I get into a sleeping bag, and that’s right up to my chest.

Clearly, Dahl has given his writing environment a good deal of thought. This is the kind of lifehacking I can get behind. Dahl made himself cozy as hell before going to work. He also prepped his tools with care. 

I always use six pencils. And they always have to be sharpened before I start.

Writing is hard. It calls on absolutely everything you’ve got—or it should, but you don’t have everything to give if you’re simultaneously fiddling with a new app or hunting down a lost file. You want to get comfortable. You want everything in its place. If you’re lucky enough to get into a groove, you don’t want to disturb it under any circumstances.

Dahl continues: 

Finally, you get settled. You get into a sort of nest. You get really comfortable. And then you’re away.

Today, I write comfortable. The only upgrade I could imagine to the luxurious ensconscement I currently enjoy would be one of those shiatsu chairs they have at airports. (Come to think of it, that would be spectacular.) Are you comfortable when you write? If not, are you creating work in the quantity and of the quality you’d prefer?

Why do we take this masochistic attitude? Work is work. It’s already hard.

Next time you’re facing a blank document, take a cue from Dahl. Get comfy. Toss another cushion on there. Climb into a sleeping bag. Ensconce! No amount of comfort and familiarity is too much when it comes to doing your best work.

I’m reminded of David Lynch’s tantrum about time constraints on Twin Peaks: The Return

Somebody arbitrarily says you gotta do it in two days. That fucking really pisses me off. It really does. We’re always up against the fucking—I’m not working like this again. Ever. This is absolutely horrible. We never get any extra shots. We never get any time to experiment. We never get to go dreamy or anything…I could have spent a week in the Fireman’s, I love that place, and dream up all kinds of stuff. It’s sick, this kind of fucking way to do it. You don’t get a chance to sink into anything. It’s not a way to work.

To write, you need to be able to “go dreamy,” to “sink into” it. You’re not going to do that while balancing on one leg.

Once Dahl was settled in his nest, he too would go dreamy:

The pencil doesn’t very often touch the paper. It’s looking and musing and correcting and then, then you do a little writing. In the end, you get something done, but your concentration is fairly intense. You’re lost.

When you’re really writing, you go someplace else. Where? Maybe the Firemans’s. It’s dreamy there.