Two Articles on Never Being Too Old to Go After What You Want

Longreads: Is it ever too late to pursue a dream?

In September 2017, Stoddard enrolled as a freshman at Algonquin College, one of Canada’s largest public colleges. Not long after, the accounting major joined the basketball team. But Stoddard wasn’t just acting on a whim, a loosely conceived midlife crisis outfitted in size 14 Air Jordan 8s: Stoddard, who is known around campus as “Old Man Dan,” has serious hoop dreams. “You can call it lunacy,” he told me over tea with honey at Tim Hortons on campus. “I’m not saying I’ll make the NBA or go play overseas, but I want to get to a point where I can do it.”

Can a 39-year-old play college basketball? Absolutely.

LitHub: When 80 Famous Writers Published Their First (and Last) Books

In compiling these figures, I found it interesting to see how the length of a writer’s publishing career didn’t necessarily have any bearing on their current level of fame. Just look at the ten writers with the shortest number of years spent publishing: Shirley Jackson, Zora Neale Hurston, J.D. Salinger, Flannery O’Connor, Roberto Bolaño, Toni Cade Bambara, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Sylvia Plath, Nella Larsen. You wouldn’t exactly call any of these people “minor” or “forgotten.”

It doesn’t matter when you start doing THE WORK. It doesn’t even matter whether you can devote your whole life or just part of your life to THE WORK. All that matters is that you do THE WORK you want to do.

Whether it’s writing or singing or playing basketball. ❤️

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Two Articles and One Podcast on the Media We Choose to Consume

LitHub: The 25 Authors Who’ve Made the Most Money in the Past Decade

Some takeaways: 1. Franchises make money, and so do adaptations, but if you want to be a literary millionaire, you really have to write a) for children or b) a mystery (or romance) that strikes fear (or lust) in the hearts of the world. 2. It’s hard to beat James Patterson, but a true phenomenon (Harry PotterFifty Shades of Grey can do it). 3. Some years were good for writers in general, others were (relatively) lean across the board. A full accounting follows. Good luck, aspiring writers.

Maybe you really should be going after the “older woman younger man humorous romance where the younger man has a really cute dog” niche.

The Millions: Women and Small Publishers Dominate 2019 Man Booker International Prize Longlist

The prize honors the best translated fiction from around the world and splits the £50,00 prize evenly between authors and translators. This year, the longlist features authors from 12 countries and books translated from nine languages; it is dominated by women and independent publishers.

This is the first year in a while where I haven’t read any of the books on the Man Booker longlist. Do you have any recommendations?

The Indicator From Planet Money: The Economy Inside Your Head

LEIGH CALDWELL: American adults are now spending 11 hours a day consuming media. And media is the ultimate immaterial good. It’s something that really plays within your head. You might — it’s triggered by something outside, but really, all of the benefit that you get, all the enjoyment you get is inside your own mind.

What about the enjoyment you get while consuming media WITH FRIENDS? Is that inside your own mind, or outside of it?

What about when media moves you to laughter or tears? Or when you talk to the characters on the screen because they’re about to go into the abandoned house full of zombies and THEY REALLY SHOULDN’T GO INTO THE ABANDONED HOUSE FULL OF ZOMBIES? Is it “just inside your head” when your head is making sounds that come out of your head?

For that matter, why isn’t a live concert or sports game something you only enjoy “inside your mind,” since the sitting-and-watching principle is the same?

And what about actual sports? You feel the running and jumping and stuff in your body, but you enjoy it in your mind — because most of the time your body is like wow this is a lot of work you’re asking me to do right now and your brain is like wheeeeeendorphins!!!!!

Anyway I enjoyed this podcast episode but I have a LOT OF QUESTIONS about its “inside your mind” assumptions, PLEASE DISCUSS. ❤️

Why Hank and John Green Argue We Should “Diversify Our Identities” (and Why I Agree)

I love the Dear Hank and John podcast, to the point where it gets bumped to the top of my podcast queue every time it releases. I haven’t listened to today’s episode yet, but I will this evening — and in the meantime I wanted to share a quote from last Monday’s episode, The Queen’s Dream Job, featuring John Green in conversation with Danielle Bainbridge of PBS’s Origin of Everything.

The quote comes about 15 minutes into the podcast, when John and Danielle answer a listener’s question about getting hired for a dream job. “How can I think of this as just another opportunity,” the listener asks, “and not the opportunity that I’d better not waste? If it doesn’t work out, how do I not see it as it’s all downhill from here?

In response, John Green describes the various emotions he went through after learning that his first novel, Looking for Alaska, would be published by Dutton Books — specifically his worry that he would never be able to write (or publish) another novel, and his subsequent realization that “If I hadn’t gotten to write another novel, I would have been able to do other things.”

John continues:

“I think one of the problems we have is that we often think, like, when we talk about what are you going to be when you grow up or what are you going to do with your life we imagine that you’re only going to be one thing or you’re only going to do one thing, and of course life isn’t like that. You end up doing a lot of things, and some of them you do professionally and some of them you don’t do professionally, but, you have to kind of… my brother always says that you have to diversify your identity. You have to see yourself not only as one thing. If you see yourself just as a YouTuber and your YouTube influence declines, it’s, like, catastrophic to your sense of self-worth.

“But if you’re able to diversify your identity, and understand that you’re also a brother and a father and a son and lots of other things, an AFC Wimbledon fan and whatever else, it becomes less of a devastation. I really do believe that.”

I agree with John — and, by association, Hank — but I’d also suggest that you have some identities that aren’t dependent on your relationship to someone else.

Right now, for example, I am a blogger and an author and a teacher and a freelance writer and a daughter and a sister and an aunt and a friend and a member of a choir, and all of these aspects of my identity are balanced in such a way that if one of them disappears (say, the one where I ran a LLC that should end up getting legally closed this week) I am not unmoored.

But this set of identities requires readers and clients and family members and friends and so on. They are dependent on how I am viewed by other people.

My identity as a pianist does not.

Yes, in the past I have worked as an accompanist and a lounge pianist and a church organist, but the thing about playing the piano is you can do it without being observed or evaluated and it still counts.

You can do it just for yourself.*

Same with biking or journaling or reading or knitting or dozens of other activities that serve as play when the rest of your life is going well and as anchors when the rest of your life isn’t. (You already know how much time I put in at the piano as The Billfold LLC was shutting down.)

Remember: play is a gift you give yourself; performance is a gift you give an audience.

So make sure at least one of your identities doesn’t require an audience to exist — and then you’ll exist too, even when when no one is watching. ❤️

*You can even play certain masterworks in ways you know the composer probably never intended, with intense shifts in dynamic and tempo, just because that’s how you want to do it and there’s no piano teacher hanging over your shoulder to tell you you’re doing it wrong.

THE LIFE Takes Work

So… this morning I was updating my post subheds using techniques I learned from Jane Friedman’s Magical Marketing Trifecta webinar, and I accidentally updated and published the first draft of my post THE LIFE Takes Work.

I didn’t end up using this draft because I thought it was too much about me and not enough about takeaways for the reader, but since my accidentally clicking “publish” meant it went out to all my email subscribers and RSS subscribers, might as well share it with everybody.

Have fun comparing and contrasting the two versions, and feel free to let me know which one you like better. ❤️

I remember exactly where I was (in my dorm room, in college) when I realized that sending a birthday card was not a single-step task.

First, you needed a birthday card. A blank card could do in a pinch, or a thank-you card with the words “thank you” crossed out and the words “happy birthday” written instead, if you were the kind of person who could pull that off; you could even fold a piece of printer paper in quarters and draw your own card, but you’d still need an envelope to put it in.

Then you needed to write the message.

Then you needed to address the card, which — if you didn’t have the address immediately at hand — could become a step of its own. You might have to dig your address book out of the back of a desk drawer (after searching two other desk drawers first, also, I went to college in the year 2000 when people still used address books). You might have to call your mom to get the address, which meant setting aside an hour for the chat that would come afterwards.

Then you needed to put a stamp on the card. If you were the kind of think-ahead person who bought stamps in books, you might already have one; if not, you’d have to go to the post office or to a place that sold stamps (and although drugstores and grocery stores do occasionally sell stamps, they don’t advertise it; you have to go to the special customer service desk and ask).

Then you needed to find a mailbox. I don’t remember exactly where the mailboxes were in college, but when I lived in Seattle the nearest blue mailbox was a half-mile away (which meant that mailing a letter involved a 20-minute walk; also no, there wasn’t any place to leave letters in my janky dump of an apartment) and the nearest post office was two miles away. (There were a few third-party “Sip and Ship” services that were closer, but there are some things you can only do at a USPS.)

So sending a birthday card, if you were willing to pay extra to buy the card at the post office, and if you had the address close at hand so you could write it on a scrap of paper before you left for the post office, could take a single 40-minute trip. (The extra minutes are for waiting in line at the post office to buy the stamp, or book of stamps if you’re feeling flush.)

But it would more likely be three individual errands: the procuring of the card, the writing and addressing, the stamping and mailing.

I currently have a box of 50 blank cards in assorted designs (though there are probably only 30ish cards left), but I’ve used up my most recent book of stamps. So instead of being able to write the cards and drop them off in the mail slot at my current (non-janky) apartment, I’ll need to block off 30-40 minutes to go to the post office.

I could order stamps online, but when I tried putting them in my cart and checking out, the USPS said I needed to create an account first, and I instinctively noped out of the tab even though I’m sure creating yet another account for yet another retailer would be fine, just fine.

Except it’s supposed to rain all day today, and tomorrow we’re scheduled for 40 mph winds. (I should mention that I don’t own a car; I walk, bike, bus, and take occasional rideshares.)

Which means I might need to order the stamps online after all.

I’m telling you this story because I, like most of the internet I follow, read Anne Helen Petersen’s How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation this weekend — and in my case I didn’t identify with it quite as much as everyone else on the internet seemed to.

Like, I get that something like “mailing a birthday card” is a task that your brain thinks should take five minutes, so you keep putting it off until the next day because it’ll only take five minutes, except when you finally think “I should write that birthday card” you realize you don’t even have a birthday card to write on, and then you think about the amount of steps it requires to get the card and the stamps and the rest of it and it feels overwhelming so you don’t do it.

I get that.

And part of me wants to say “well, if you implement a system like David Allen’s Getting Things Done then you can identify the birthday card task as three discrete errands and schedule them as such, ask me how I know,” but I also know that isn’t what Petersen is really writing about here.

She’s writing about the fact that work and life both take work, and that sometimes the work of work and the work of life are so much work that there isn’t any time left over for the actual life.

I’m not capitalizing work or life in these instances because neither are THE WORK or THE LIFE as defined in last Friday’s post — that is, Petersen’s not writing about the work we’d like to be doing or the life we’d like to be living, she’s writing about the work and life we’re stuck with, partially due to economic crises and late-stage capitalism and the increase in shadow work and smartphones keeping us tethered to our jobs and so on and so forth.

I actually liked Petersen’s post on how she wrote the burnout piece a lot better than the burnout piece itself, btw; it was more personal, and included details like (paraphrased) “maybe the reason why we hate running errands is because they take longer than they used to, thanks to companies cutting staff and forcing us to wait in ever-longer lines, etc. etc. etc.”

But the response to the burnout piece made me want to write about the idea that THE LIFE, and this time I mean the capitalized ideal LIFE you’d like to have, where there’s time to do the work you need to do (capitalized or not) and manage your responsibilities without feeling constantly burned out, takes work to create.

In fact, you could call THE LIFE a creative project of its own.

***

The first time I thought seriously about the life I wanted, and what I needed to do to create that life, was after grad school. I finished undergrad in 2004, moved to Minneapolis for an internship that fell through, and became a telemarketer. When I couldn’t stand telemarketing anymore I started temping at an insurance agency, which paid $13 an hour instead of $9 but was a much worse job; my two major tasks were stuffing envelopes in a silent, windowless room and, four times a day, pushing a heavy cart of copy paper around the office to refill the copy machines. This was before earbuds were a thing, so I kept my brain busy by reciting poems and song lyrics and chunks of text from my favorite books in my head, and decided — whether accurately or not — that the only way out of this type of work was to go back to school.

Like Petersen, I went into grad school with the idea that I would become an academic; I graduated knowing that it was unlikely I would ever become one (or at least not the tenure-track kind), and so I asked one of my professors what kind of job I could get, with my skills, that paid $50,000 a year.

He told me to become an executive assistant.

This is all the uninteresting part of the story, except maybe the part where I committed myself to earning at least $50,000 a year. That was the first step in my decision to create my own life, and maybe it was the most important one (money plays such a huge role in both THE WORK and THE LIFE, after all), but as soon as I got that $50K+ admin job (after a move to Washington DC, a stint on my sister’s air mattress, and a temp job as a receptionist) I took two more steps towards building THE LIFE I wanted:

  1. I told myself I would only rent an apartment that was two miles away from where I worked, so I could walk to work and back every day. This was because a few years prior I had done some housesitting for a professor who lived two miles away from campus, and that morning/evening walk made me happier than just about anything.
  2. I also told myself I wanted to be near an Ashtanga yoga studio, because I had studied yoga off-and-on in the past but now I wanted to start studying seriously.*

At this point I need to acknowledge just how much luck was involved here.** It was August 2007, so we had recovered (mostly) from the dot-com crisis and had yet to fall into the Great Recession. I would not have gotten a starting salary of over $50K if I had been hired six months later. Without that salary, I would probably not have gotten my apartment, though I might have been able to find another one within the desired two-mile radius. There’s a lot that went right for reasons out of my control.

Still, I went into this next phase of my life with deliberate intention, which I’d never really done before. I knew the work I was doing as an executive assistant wasn’t THE WORK I wanted to do with my life. But I had a few key components of THE LIFE I wanted to live, including THE MONEY, all of which probably prevented the burnout that might have come otherwise.

***

Since then, I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to get closer to THE WORK I want to do, THE LIFE I want to live, and THE MONEY I need to fund it all. I’ve made a lot of specific, active choices in the process, some of which led me closer to what I wanted and some of which turned out to be not what I wanted at all.

One of those choices was to get really into time management (in the Getting Things Done sense), which is why I have a box of 50 blank cards at my desk and a list of tasks I need to complete, by day, scheduled a month in advance. Homemaking takes work too, after all.***

Other choices involved — well, I think I’ll save some of those choices for later this week, because this is long enough (and because I want you to have a reason to come back tomorrow, mwah ha ha).

I will note that choosing what you want your life to be like includes some very difficult decisions; in the past year I made the choice to move closer to my parents, for example, which has given me the chance to know my parents better and take advantage of living in an affordable, artsy, bike-friendly Midwestern city, but which also separated me from several close friends, tied me to a particular location, and set up the shape of what my life might look like in the future (a larger caretaking component, probably). I also recently made a choice to take on a creative project that did in fact lead me very close to burnout, and when I realized what that choice had done to my life I had to finish my commitment to the project and then accept that I could no longer take on projects like that; I had too many responsibilities and long-term goals and physical needs for sleep and etc. that took priority.

Plus — and I figure you’re going to put this together on your own at some point, so I might as well make it super-clear — I have chosen and embraced spinsterhood, which gives me certain freedoms (such as the freedom to relocate to an affordable Midwestern city without considering how it might affect a partner or children).

But I’m not telling you all of this because I think your life should be like mine. I’m telling you this because I think making choices about THE LIFE you want takes work, and it’s really easy to find yourself in the life you have instead, and it’s that disparity, as much as the birthday cards and the post office and the rest of it, that causes burnout.

Also money, because money is always involved.

Also there’s a question of whether there’s always a choice you can make, in the “even if your life is nothing like THE LIFE you want, you can still recite poetry in your head at your terrible job and by doing so keep a bit of your own soul” sense, and I will note that during that particular job I did feel relatively soulless, and maybe the only reason I’m writing this now is because I got lucky.****

But more on this tomorrow. ❤️

*I did find a studio, and I’ve kept up my Ashtanga practice ever since.

**Privilege was also involved, of course. In 2007 I was both privileged and ordinary, in the sense that I had advantages that many people didn’t but people with my advantages were a dime a dozen.

***I was once on this panel where someone asked me how I found the time to do all of the creative work I get done, and I explained that I went at it the other way around — I set aside the time to do all of the life-stuff that needs doing (including rest/recharge time) so I could give the rest of the time to my creative work. It was at the point where I said “and the dishes take 20 minutes every night, so subtract 20 minutes for that…” that the audience started laughing.

****And privileged.

Three Articles on BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS

The Cut: What I Bought With My Oprah’s Book Club Money

Five months before my fourth book, An American Marriage, was published, I was driving in my car late in the evening and I got a call from Oprah. At first I thought it was the books editor at O magazine. I’ve written for them in the past, and she told me she had a little review or something that needed to be done, so I was expecting her call. Oprah played a trick on me! I picked up the phone and she said, “Hey, girl. This is Oprah.”

I loved Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, and I love this piece in which she explains how it did (and didn’t) change her life financially.

Reedsy: The 15 Best Books on Writing: A Reading List for Novelists

1. On Writing by Stephen King

Perhaps the most-cited book on this list, On Writing is part-memoir, part-masterclass from one of America’s leading authors. Come for the vivid accounts of his childhood — and his extended “lost weekend” of drinking and drugs in the 1980s. Stay for the specific, actionable advice on what it takes to become an author. Among the many craft-based tips are King’s expert takes on plot, story, character, and more.

From the book: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

I still haven’t read On Writing. I just put a library hold on a copy.

The Morning News: The 2019 Tournament of Books

Here’s how it works. Throughout the year, we gather, read, and assess the works of fiction we think would make worthy tournament competitors. In December we present our findings in the form of a “long list.” We then cull it to a final shortlist of 16 or so books. (Some years we expand the list beyond the core 16 to include an extra set of two or more books that compete in a pre-tournament play-in match.)

Yes, it’s March Madness for books. As far as I know, there aren’t groups of people forming office pools to bet on the brackets, but if I were putting money somewhere, it would be on Tommy Orange’s There There.

Three Articles About Building a Creative Career

Here’s what I’ve been reading and thinking about this week:

Afford Anything: Give Me Money! How to Find Freelance Work

Trying to build a business when your financial footing is shaky is like trying to hang beautiful wallpaper in a house with a rotting foundation.

First you need to pour a solid foundation. Then you can take on the higher-level, long-term projects.

Step 1: If you’re not earning enough to pay the bills, use the Pepsi Method. Grab as many projects as you can, even though they don’t pay you what you’re worth.

Step 2: Do this until you’re earning enough to meet your minimum monthly bills.

Step 3: Switch to the Versace Method for all your additional work.

Step 4: With each Versace-level project you start, fire at least one Pepsi-level client.

Have I mentioned how much I love the Afford Anything blog? ❤️❤️❤️

Whatever: The Limits of My Knowledge, Professionally (and Otherwise)

It’s fine for creative people to go through stages in their career, where the knowledge useful to an earlier stage falls away and knowledge useful to their current stage takes its place. Time happens, whether we prefer it to or not. Experience likewise happens. My experience is valid, and the information I have can still be useful, but all of it exists in the context of this is who I am and where I am now in my professional life. Additionally, it should be viewed in the context of survivorship bias — which is to say, I have made it to a particular place in my career, and while I can offer you information based on my experience to tell you how I got here, it might be more useful to examine the careers of people who haven’t landed where I have, despite having similar starting points and early career arcs.

John Scalzi explains the stages writers go through as they build their careers, and why he might no longer be able to give entry-level career advice.

Kameron Hurley: Why Do So Many Artists Suck at Business? Because Businesses Like It That Way

Back before I’d published any books, but after I’d gone to Clarion, I’d heard about a meet up for mid-career writers that new writers weren’t invited to. I felt that was horseshit. Surely I, as a newer writer, would need to know mid-career things?

But now I get it. Most writers three books, eight books, twenty books in, have far different concerns and priorities and most of all, experience, than writers who haven’t been through the grinder. Newer writers want to talk craft. Pros are talking about their first or third career reboot, shitty sales, and how to get out of noncompete clauses and shitty contract language.

This piece is about the business of writing, but it’s also about going through various career stages and what you prioritize during each stage. (KIND OF LIKE THE OTHER TWO PIECES I PICKED FOR TODAY, DO WE SEE A THEME HERE?)

It also makes me think of Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, because it’s been 44 days since I last referenced The Magicians on this blog and that is at least 30 days too long.

Specifically, the part where hedge witches get star tattoos to represent the level of magic they have accomplished, so they’ll know instantly whether another witch is at their level.

Because when you’re an early-career writer/freelancer/hedge witch, it’s easy to find peers. As your career continues to grow, the number of people at your level starts to shrink.

Which — I mean, you can always use what you know to help other people get to your level, and those types of interactions can be both emotionally and socially fulfilling for both parties.

But sometimes you just want to go to a bar with people who have the same number of stars as you, and those kinds of spaces aren’t always easy to find.

Three Articles About Doing THE WORK

I’m going to start doing Sunday link roundups, first because I wrote “daily posts” at the top of my blog, not “weekdaily,” and second because I look forward to the Seattle Review of Books’ Sunday Post all week because they always share a collection of thought-provoking articles that I might not have found on my own, so… why not share a few thought-provoking articles myself?

Make a Living Writing: Stop Whining: How to Crush Your Freelance Writing Excuses

Not a huge fan of the headline (it’s not as much “whining” as it is “time-management issues” and/or “not understanding how to break a freelance project into easily-completed components”), but Linda Formichelli’s advice is exactly what I’d give an early-career freelancer:

Q: What if you get bored with an assignment and don’t feel like writing?

Formichelli: I’ve heard that kind of writing excuse from freelancers a lot. “I don’t feel like doing it.” “I’m not in the mood.” “I’m not inspired.” “I’m tired.” “I’m sick.”

If any one of these things makes you want to put off writing, don’t just do nothing. Choose tasks you can work on based on the amount of time and energy you have. If you have a half an hour and you’re really tired , maybe you update your website, or file your expenses, or just do something that doesn’t take a lot of brainpower.

But if you find that you always have the time and energy for research or posting on social media, and you never seem to have the time and actually writing, you know you’re in writing excuse territory. If you want to learn more about how to deal with this problem, go read this blog post by Mark Manson: F*** Your Feelings. It’s perfect advice for this situation.

Afford Anything: The Incredible Power of 10x Thinking

I have become obsessed with Paula Pant’s Afford Anything blog, because personal finance and the way you can use money and skills to shape the life you want will always be my jam.

Also, the tagline is “You can afford anything… but not everything. What’s it gonna be?” which means it’s all about making choices, and that’s my peanut butter.

This particular “making choices” post focuses on taking actions that support your goals:

Better questions yield better answers. So ask yourself: How can I separate what’s worthwhile vs. a waste of time?

Try this:

Step #1: Write a five-year goal.  For example:
* I earn $45,000 per year in passive income.
* I run a company with $1 million in annual revenue.
* I manage a nonprofit, no-kill animal shelter with capacity for 25 dogs and 40 cats.

Four tips to help you craft this vision:
* Write in the present tense — “I earn,” “I manage,” “I run.”
* Focus your goal into one sentence.
* Shoot for specific numbers.
* Read this aloud daily (in present tense). Your mind will believe its a foregone conclusion.

Step #2: Judge every activity by a single question: “Is [X] the most important step I can take towards my 5-year goal?”

Elizabeth Strout: How I Paid the Bills While I Wrote the Book

This interview is part of a Medium series titled Day Job, in which Mike Gardner asks various authors how they earned the money to support their writing (especially during the early stages of their career). If you aren’t a Medium member, you’ll only be able to read three of these pieces before you get hit by the Medium paywall; I was a particular fan of the Elizabeth Strout interview because she and I made nearly identical educational decisions for nearly identical reasons:

Medium: Did you study writing in college?

Elizabeth Strout: I studied theater. It was like writing, because I was always trying to be another person. But I never took a creative writing class. I can’t say anything more than my intuition was “it will not be good for me to sit among my peers and hear what they have to say about my work and to say things about their work.” But I was always writing. There was one professor who knew that, and he was the chairman of the English department. He believed in me. I would show him my stories, and when I had a paper due for his class, he would give me a short story instead. It was our secret.

If you have other articles worth reading that you’d like to share, leave ’em in the comments!

Dana Sitar on Making Sure Your Creative Work Fulfills a Real Person’s Needs

Continuing our discussion of building THE AUDIENCE — this morning, The Write Life ran a must-read post by writer and editor Dana Sitar titled How the “Ideal Reader” Myth Hurts Your Writing Process:

When you set out to define your “ideal reader,” you’ve probably already decided what you want to write — maybe even written it.

You’re sitting on that romance novel, self-help book or blog about what cats have taught you about love, and now you’re ready to market it. So you dream up a reader who fits the bill. They’re male orfemale, between ages 18 and 54, probably own cats and are single. So, obviously, they’ll love your blog.

Voila. You’ve got your ideal reader.

Except that’s useless. All you’ve done is reverse engineer an audience for yourself, and you can’t do that with real people.

If you want to attract actual readers, you’re going to have to do it the other way around: Learn what real readers want, and write it for them.

Go read the whole thing.

Read it twice.

Read it eight times.

Sitar’s formula for making sure your creative work fulfills a real person’s needs — or, as I described it earlier this week, convinces a person to give you money in exchange for an emotional experience — is applicable to nearly every creative project, from the artistic to the commercial.*

I’m not going to share the formula here, because I want you to go to The Write Life and read the entire piece.

But I am going to start applying it to my upcoming work, whether I’m drafting NEXT BOOK or completing a freelance gig.

I should probably even figure out how to apply it this blog.

*I can hear you thinking but what if I just want to create something from the heart and see what happens? DO IT DO IT DO IT, nobody is stopping you! Those kinds of projects are often amazing because they come with a level of emotional connection and personal vulnerability that are absent from more calculated works. BUT BEFORE YOU PUBLISH, remember the difference between play and performance. Make the thing from your heart. Make it just for you, if you want. Then figure out how to turn it into a gift for an audience.

Jane Friedman on Strategy vs. Tactics

First, a weather update: as predicted, I will not be flying to NYC on Thursday. (Both Chicago and NYC are experiencing EXTREME WEATHER — as is Cedar Rapids, for that matter — and the flights have already been canceled.) Depending on how all this rescheduling goes I may still make it there on Friday, which should give me plenty of time to make it to the Maggie Stiefvater writing seminar on Saturday.

We’ll see.

In the meanwhile, I’m going to suggest you read Jane Friedman’s article “How to Reduce Marketing Anxiety and Confusion” at Publishers Weekly, because even if you don’t plan to self-publish your book you’re still going to need to think about the marketing component, and even if you aren’t ready to think about marketing right now this advice also applies to the work you are currently doing on your creative project.

In short: there is strategy, and there are tactics.

Tactics are the steps you take to achieve results, and strategy is why you take those steps.

Why you make those particular choices, knowing that any individual choice both limits and shapes your remaining choices.

Friedman argues that most people launch into tactics without first creating a strategy, and I agree with her.

Some tactics may seem essential—because everyone is using them and thus they are required to play the game. But always question and assess. Is Amazon advertising going to be effective for the book you’re trying to sell (factoring in your book’s pricing, packaging, and positioning)? Is social media a suitable tool for your genre/category, given the amount of time that you have to wait to see results? Do you know enough about your target readers to understand how they discover books to read?

For example, I’m repeatedly told that I should get into podcasting because it’s big and growing. But should I adopt that tactic when it would require me to stop accepting paid work or stop other activities that are effective and even growing? Possibly—but only an evaluation of my strategy would lead to an informed answer.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t ever, like, try things just to see what happens. TRY ENERGY can be a powerful thing, and you’ll learn a lot from putting a harebrained scheme into action.

Sometimes your TRY ENERGY is inspired by what a specific audience needs at that very moment — I’m thinking of Twitter user @leftistthot420, for example, who made a joke about how someone would create a Twitter account featuring Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dancing to every song and then immediately created the @aoc_dances account herself.

Sometimes it’s just something you really want to do, and you can’t not do it.

So do it!

But if you’re thinking about taking on some best practices (whether for the novel you’re writing or the marketing campaign you’re creating) simply because you’ve heard they yield certain results, it’s best to consider your overall strategy, and how each tactic might help or hurt that strategy, first.

As Jason Fried of Basecamp (one of my favorite productivity softwares) wrote about the myth of low-hanging fruit:

In my mind, declaring that an unfamiliar task will yield low-hanging fruit is almost always an admission that you have little insight about what you’re setting out to do. And any estimate of how much work it’ll take to do something you’ve never tried before is likely to be off by degrees of magnitude.

In other words, don’t start a podcast just because you’ve heard that podcasting might get you an audience for your next book. You have to get a whole separate audience for that podcast first,* and that takes time away from the work of building the audience for your book (unless your readers are the type who are likely to try out new podcasts).

But go read Jane Friedman’s post on strategy vs. tactics, because she’s got more to say on the subject than what I just summarized, and then go read her blog because it is full of excellent information about both writing and publishing.

*This comes after the work of learning how to create a podcast that doesn’t sound like amateur hour. One of the reasons I stopped doing my Writing & Money podcast was because I wasn’t able to get my kitchen-table recording to sound professional enough, and I knew that taking the time and money to create a better podcast would take away from the bigger goals I wanted to accomplish.