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.

On Cli-Fi and Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Flight Behavior’

I’ve hinted before that climate change is one element of NEXT BOOK, which feels a little odd to write because at this point it’s like saying NEXT BOOK will include air, or food. NEXT BOOK, though technically a fantasy novel, begins in our immediate present, and so of course climate change is a factor.

How could it not be?

But since many novels aren’t really dealing with climate change, beyond an offhand comment by a character (like the way Meredith in The Biographies of Ordinary People notices that there’s no longer snow at Christmas), the novels that specifically include climate change as an element of the story have been lumped into a subgenre called cli-fi, which is a TERRIBLE NAME.

Still, The Millions recently listed a bunch of cli-fi novels that included everything from The Parable of the Sower, which makes sense, to Station Eleven, which — I mean, if acknowledging that climate change played a factor in the spread of an infectious disease is all it takes to get your book slapped with the label cli-fi, A TERM THAT IMPLIES CLIMATE CHANGE FICTION, LIKE SCIENCE FICTION, IS NOT BASED IN REALITY, then we are doomed.

But The Millions also suggested reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, a cli-fi novel set in our immediate present that did not include speculative or fantastical elements, and since that sounded different enough from NEXT BOOK that it wouldn’t corrupt my writing work, I did.*

Flight Behavior was published in 2013 and, though the story itself is fiction, centers itself on a real-world, climate-change-based event: monarch butterfly migration patterns.

Or, to quote Harper Perennial:

Flight Behavior is a brilliant and suspenseful novel set in present day Appalachia; a breathtaking parable of catastrophe and denial that explores how the complexities we inevitably encounter in life lead us to believe in our particular chosen truths. Kingsolver’s riveting story concerns a young wife and mother on a failing farm in rural Tennessee who experiences something she cannot explain, and how her discovery energizes various competing factions—religious leaders, climate scientists, environmentalists, politicians—trapping her in the center of the conflict and ultimately opening up her world.

Flight Behavior reminded me a bit of The Overstory, in the sense that it’s also about a person who experiences a real-world, climate-change-based event and changes her life because of it, but I found it somewhat more compelling than The Overstory simply because Dellarobia Turnbow did not give up her day-to-day responsibilities and climb into a tree. (In fact, she has some thoughts on the people who make that choice.)

She’s like us, especially those of us who grew up in tiny rural towns and dreamed of getting out (aka me), and her actions are in line with actions many of us might take — that is to say, realistic.

Flight Behavior is also firmly based in science, in the sense that the beginning of the novel posits that the butterflies might have migrated to this particular town for mystical or spiritual reasons but, by the time you get to the end, you understand every environmental factor that got them there. This isn’t about God or faith or love or any of those intangibles. It’s about observable, measurable changes.

And yet people also observe and change, and those changes often involve God and faith and love and all of those intangibles. I think the biggest reason I loved Flight Behavior is because it acknowledged the importance of both love and science. The world that exists and the world we create.

Anyway, I wanted to recommend it — because you can’t have a writing practice without a reading practice, and Flight Behavior is well worth reading.

Even if your next book isn’t about climate change at all.**

*What I mean by “corrupt my work:” my mom recently suggested I read Stephen King’s 11/22/63. As soon as I figured out that the first chunk of the book would be about a man deciding whether to go through a portal, I noped out. I didn’t want my protagonist’s choices or thought processes to be influenced by this other guy’s thought processes.

**In which case I assume it’s… historical fiction? Set on another planet? Fantasy kingdom? It had better not be contemporary, is all I’m saying. With love.

How to Earn Money From Your Creative Work: Part 3 (Getting Your Work In Front of People)

Before I get started on the work of getting your work in front of people, let’s recap what we’ve covered so far:

To earn money from your creative work, you need to create a piece of work and decide how the payment aspect will intersect with it. As I wrote in Part 1, there are a bajillion ways to make money from your creative work: you can sell the work, you can give away the work for free but put ads on it, you can give away the work for free but sell T-shirts, etc.

But before you can earn money from your creative work, you need to find your audience. That’s what we discussed in Part 2: you won’t get any money from your work, no matter how good it is, unless you put your work in front of people who might be interested in it.

Today we’re going to look at how you do that.

As far as I can tell, there are four basic ways of getting your work in front of the people who might become THE AUDIENCE.

I’ll present them in order of difficulty:

Share your work on multiple channels.

This is both the easiest and in many cases the least effective way of getting your work in front of people. On the one hand, sharing your work on your website and your Twitter and your Facebook and your Instagram and your Tumblr and your Snapchat and your YouTube account and your mailing list and your local open mic (or the equivalent thereof) can help you pick up a few additional audience members.

It can also tell you where your audience is likely to be located. Maybe they hang out on Wattpad but don’t spend much time on Facebook, for example. Maybe they prefer mailing lists to Instagram stories. (Knowing something about your audience’s demographic and which social networks your demographic uses can be useful here.)

On the other hand, sharing your work across every possible channel can be viewed as placing tactics before strategy. Or, more specifically, wasting time on actions that doesn’t give you much value in return.

Collaborate with someone who already has an audience.

This is the ABSOLUTE BEST WAY I’ve found to build an audience.

It isn’t about making the perfect post/book/podcast/video and tagging a bunch of influencers with the hope that one of them will share it with their networks and you’ll go viral and everyone will love you.

It’s about finding a way to offer value to a person or entity that already has an audience, and by doing so grow your own.

Write a guest post for someone else’s blog.

Pitch a website that runs content related to the creative work you do.

Go on HARO and offer yourself as an interview source.

Etc.

I realize that this method favors people who can write well, because so much of the internet is still about writing, these days.

But there are other ways of getting this work done, such as volunteering at an art gallery* or auditioning for a local theater group.

Figure out who’s giving opportunities to new creators, and then go after those opportunities.

And remember — you can always pitch me.

Invite people to collaborate with you.

I’m listing this step below “collaborate with someone who already has an audience” because if you’re in the early stages of your creative career, it’s going to be a lot easier to get a guest post on someone else’s blog than to convince someone else to write a guest post on yours.**

This is where being part of a community of creative peers can really help — and I do mean “peers” literally.

When I was at VidCon 2011, for example, I heard Hank Green give a talk on the art of growing your career through collaboration. He suggested working with people who were at your level or just above your level, because they were likely to be the people most interested in working with you.

Also because — for lack of a better phrase — a rising tide lifts all boats.

If you find your community of creative peers and begin collaborating with each other, and if one of your peers gets a bit of additional creative success that grants them access to a larger audience, that person might recommend your work to their audience or collaborate with you on a project that’ll go in front of that audience or etc. etc. etc.

And it goes without saying that if you are the person with the additional creative success, you should do the same.***

There’s another way of using this technique to grow your audience: if you are an established creator with an established audience that you’d still like to grow — because audiences are constantly shifting and changing and attrition is a real thing — you can give opportunities to other people. These people may only have a small audience (for now), but if they get excited about their guest post or podcast interview, they’ll share it with their followers and some of those followers might become your followers.

This is the other reason why you should pitch me.

Create new work.

This is the final and hardest step in building your audience, because THE WORK is both the most important part of your creative career and the most time-consuming part (and the part where you’ll agonize that it’s not good enough, or worry that you haven’t made enough revisions, or feel disappointed that it doesn’t look the way it did in your head, or feel like you need to rush to get it out there).

A single piece of excellent work might get you THE AUDIENCE.

But you’ll need a steady flow of new work to maintain and grow your audience — as well as convince your audience to give you money in exchange for the emotional experiences they’ve come to expect from your work.

So keep working. ❤️

*Volunteering can be tricky, because some organizations are really happy to let artistic types hand out tickets and pick up trash, even though everyone involved knows the volunteers want to do more than that. If you volunteer with an arts organization as a way to meet people and form artistic collaborations (vs. volunteering because you want to help with the grunt work) and your volunteering work isn’t helping you connect with other collaborators, FIND ANOTHER ORGANIZATION.

**If you have a well-written guest post, you are offering value to someone else — specifically, the value of giving them something to put on their blog without them having to do the work of writing it. You can offer this value regardless of the number of followers you currently have, if the work is good. (ASK ME HOW I KNOW.) On the other hand, if you don’t have many followers yet, asking someone to do the work of writing a guest post for you takes away time they could have put towards a more valuable project.

***There’s a really hard moment when you have to decide that a former creative peer is no longer someone you want to collaborate with, either because their work hasn’t grown and improved or because they don’t share your values. I’m not going to write much beyond that, except to note that it’s a really hard moment.

Pitch Me

So… one of the things I loved most about editing The Billfold was getting to work with freelance writers.

Specifically, helping writers develop thoughtful, thought-provoking pieces (and/or running pieces that didn’t need much development because they were already amazing) and then PAYING THE WRITERS.

And then I thought “well, why can’t I keep doing that?”

For obvious reasons, I do not have the budget to run as many guest posts on Nicole Dieker Dot Com as I did on The Billfold.

But I can run two per month, at $50 per piece.

If you are interested in pitching Nicole Dieker Dot Com, I am looking for posts that lend personal insight to any aspect of the creative practice.

Such as:

  • How you balance your creative work with your other responsibilities.
  • How you fund your creative work.
  • How you make money from your creative work.
  • The rituals you do when you begin or end a work session.
  • The planning you do (or don’t do) before you start a new project.
  • What you do when you get stuck.
  • How you are building your audience.
  • Etc.

I am interested in pieces from both people who are beginning their creative practice and people who have spent some time sustaining a creative practice. However, I’m only interested in pieces that are about actions you’ve already taken and what you’ve learned from them.

In other words, I’m not interested in “I’m going to wake up an hour earlier every morning to write my novel.” I’m interested in “I tried waking up an hour earlier every morning to write my novel and here’s what happened.”

It doesn’t have to be novels, btw. Any type of creative work in any medium counts.

Minimum 1,000 words. Maximum AS LONG AS YOU WANT.

Send pitches to dieker.nicole@gmail.com.

I won’t be able to accept all of the pitches I receive, so if I turn your pitch down please don’t take it personally.

But I look forward to working with as many of you as I can. ❤️

On Being Vulnerable Online

So… I kinda forgot that being vulnerable literally makes you vulnerable.

In the “if you reveal a weakness, people will poke at it” sense.

It’s not all “being honest about your own struggles will help you strengthen your relationships with other people and the world,” even though that’s the message you might take away from the TED Talk.

It’s also understanding (and accepting?) that people are going to refer to you as the personal finance writer who tanked her business due to her own financial ignorance.

And that’s both true and not true.

I’m also the personal finance writer who tried something new, realized she was in over her head, and quit before she lost a bunch of money.

Or the second entity to stop running The Billfold in just over a year.

I could have announced The Billfold’s closure in a way that made it sound like I hadn’t made any mistakes — one of those standard “going to pursue other opportunities” things. You would have known that wasn’t the real reason, because we all know what that particular line of text means, but I would have wrapped myself in boilerplate armor.

I could also have announced The Billfold’s closure in a way that placed the blame far away from me. It wasn’t my fault, I got bad advice! It’s true that I operated for most of the year under a particular set of assumptions and then learned that the majority of those assumptions were wrong, and it’s also true that those assumptions did not come fully-sprung out of my head. In some cases I did get bad advice. In others I didn’t know the questions I was supposed to ask, and so I didn’t get the answers I needed.*

But the two faults at the center of everything — my not talking to a lawyer or CPA before setting up the LLC, and my not bringing in enough money to support myself and the site simultaneously — are mine.

So I’m going to be honest about that, which is vulnerable in both the good way and the bad way.

Because it’s hard to admit to the world that you failed at something.

Some people will say “it’s all right.”

And other people will say “yep, you sure did.”

*I do plan on writing a piece about “the questions you should ask before setting up a business,” because the best thing I can do right now is share what I learned.

On Shutting Down The Billfold

This morning I announced that The Billfold would stop publishing new articles after February 20.

I’ve known this would happen for a while, long enough for me to process the loss and make plans for the future.

But breaking the news is still a very hard thing to do. (I mean, why would I write “still?” Telling someone that something they cared about is going to end is always hard.)

I’m at the point where I see The Billfold’s ending as a new beginning, and I did my best in the shutdown announcement to communicate that possibility to Billfold readers.

But they haven’t had the chance to process the loss yet.

So, Billfolders, know that I’m thinking of you and feeling for you today. ❤️

How to Earn Money From Your Creative Work: Part 2 (Finding THE AUDIENCE)

Before you can make money from your creative work — before you can even ask for money for your creative work — you need to find your audience.

Which, in keeping with the conventions of this blog, we’re going to call THE AUDIENCE.

Finding THE AUDIENCE is a creative project in and of itself, which is one of the reasons some creative people hire other creative people, e.g. publicists, to help them.

It’s also one of the reasons people sell the rights to their work to a larger company, e.g. a publishing house or a record label. These entities are theoretically supposed to find the audience for you, although lately it’s become more of a collaboration and many artists feel pressure to prove that they already have an audience (you’ll see this called “the platform”) during the early stages of this process, e.g. when querying agents.

At its core, finding THE AUDIENCE is a simple process.

All you have to do is put your work in front of people who might be interested in it.

Repeatedly.

Until you have enough people to form THE AUDIENCE.

You also have to maintain the interest of the people who initially showed interest in your work, but you can generally do that by creating NEW WORK on a REGULAR BASIS and putting that in front of them as well.

In fact, every time you create NEW WORK, you have the opportunity not only to maintain and/or grow the interest of your current audience, but also to share your work with new people who might become part of THE AUDIENCE — and might be interested in both the NEW WORK and your back catalog.

That’s also how you make money from your creative work. You put it in front of people who might be interested in it, over and over.

Then, when enough people are interested, you give them the opportunity to participate in the creative work by paying for it.

I’m using the word “participate” deliberately; as you might remember from my post on play vs. performance, a successful piece of creative work is an experience that includes THE AUDIENCE — and people are very eager to pay for experiences.

Think about the types of creative work you’ve paid for in the past month. Why did you make those purchases? I support artists like Mikey Neumann and Lindsay Ellis on Patreon because the stories they tell about storytelling help me see the world in different ways, and I want them to keep providing me with those types of experiences.

When I went to the Maggie Stiefvater Portraits and Dreams writing seminar earlier this month, I bought a copy of a book I had already read multiple times, for free, at the library because I wanted the experience of meeting Maggie in the book signing line.

I own a red Steven Universe T-shirt with a yellow star on it because maybe someone will see it and say “hey, I also like Steven Universe,” and then I’ll have the experience of meeting someone new.*

None of this is about making sure artists get paid or wanting to show my appreciation for their work or anything like that. I mean, it kind of is, in that I understand that if people like Mikey and Lindsay don’t earn money they’ll stop making videos, but mostly it’s about ME ME ME.

So. If you were to email me and ask how you can earn money from your creative work — and people do — I’d suggest:

  1. Create the type of work that takes an audience through an experience.
  2. Put that work in front of people.
  3. Create new work.
  4. Put that work in front of people.
  5. Give those people the opportunity to pay you, either for the work itself or for accessories related to the work.

When we continue this discussion, we’ll look at how to put your work in front of people, because — as I noted at the beginning of this post — that’s a creative project in and of itself. ❤️

*I also own a red Steven Universe T-shirt with a yellow star on it because some days I want the experience of feeling courageous and thoughtful and empathetic like Steven.

How to Earn Money From Your Creative Work: Part 1 (of Many)

There are one bajillion ways to earn money from your creative work.

You can make a single unique piece of work and sell it for a lot of money.

You can make an easily duplicated piece of work and sell each duplication for a smaller amount of money.

You can give away your primary creative work for free, but put ads on it.

You can give away your primary creative work for free, but sell community-identifying accessory materials such as T-shirts.*

You can give away your primary creative work for free while creating an online community of financial support through services like Patreon.

You can do the above while also selling your work, i.e. you can sell the primary creative product and the T-shirt and have a Patreon going at the same time.

You can sell the rights to your creative work to someone else, e.g. a publishing house, and collect royalties.

You can sell tickets, either to watch you perform the work, to watch you create the work, or to watch you give inspirational lectures on how you created the work.

You can teach classes on how to create the work.

You can write a book about how you created the work.

Etc.

But you can’t do any of this unless you have a group of people who want to give you money for your work.**

In other words, you can’t do any of this until you have an audience.

That’s where we’ll start tomorrow. ❤️

*I don’t need to explain that we wear the T-shirts to advertise ourselves as a member of a certain community or fandom, and/or to connect with other people in that community, right?

**The enthusiastic consent model works really well here.

THE WORK, THE LIFE, and THE MONEY

Yesterday I asked whether “does it make money” should be a factor in determining a creative work’s success.

This, by the way, is one of the oldest questions in the book, we were debating it back in grad school, but in grad school we were also all on food stamps because that was literally part of the orientation process.*

Since then, I have had varying levels of income — specifically, two periods of earning at or above the median income in the United States, separated by a few years during which I earned significantly below the median income — and I’ve become less interested in the philosophical question of whether creative work should make money then the practical question of how to earn money from your creative work.

Here’s what I have come to believe:

  1. The big creative work you want to do with your life — aka THE WORK — should include a money-making component.
  2. THE WORK might not earn enough money to be your sole source of income. (If it is, congratulations!)
  3. You will probably need to do additional types of work to fund THE LIFE you want to live. If possible, choose work that complements and/or supports both THE LIFE you want and THE WORK you want to do.
  4. A successful piece of WORK should, at minimum, earn back the cost of producing the WORK. This cost may or may not include your time.

None of these foundational beliefs address the question of how to earn money from your creative work — we’ll get to that, probably next week — but, at least for me, they set up a framework through which I can structure THE WORK, THE LIFE, and THE MONEY while simultaneously evaluating the success of all of the above.

This brings me to Grant Sabatier’s new book Financial Freedom: A Proven Path to All the Money You Will Ever Need.

Sabatier wrote this book as a sort of unofficial sequel to my very favorite personal-finance book ever, Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez’s Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence. (Vicki Robin wrote the foreword to Financial Freedom, making it an official unofficial sequel?)

Your Money or Your Life teaches you how to interact with money; how to calculate your true hourly wage and identify jobs that give you the most value for your time, how to avoid blowing your cash on impulse buys and poorly-thought-out purchases, and how to save and invest for the future.

Financial Freedom teaches you how to earn more.

Financial Freedom also provides an updated guide to the whole saving-and-investing thing. The original edition of Your Money or Your Life was all about savings account interest and U.S. Treasury Bonds (both of which are no longer performing at a rate that can lead a person towards long-term financial security), and Financial Freedom focuses on newer strategies such as index funds and Roth IRA conversions.

If that’s not where you are in your financial journey, you can skip that part.

But I would argue that every creative person should read both Your Money and Your Life and Financial Freedom, if only because these books will cement the connection between THE WORK, THE LIFE, and THE MONEY.

If your job is not giving you enough time and/or money to live THE LIFE and do THE WORK, these books will help you find and/or create a better job, preferably one with a higher true hourly wage.**

If THE LIFE you want to live does not match the life you are currently living, and especially if you are spending extra money because you are dissatisfied with your life, these books will show you how to shift your habits and your spending to get you closer to THE LIFE you want.***

If you want to go all Marie Kondo on your everyday expenses and ask yourself “do I really want to spend $780 every year maintaining my pixie cut or do I want to invest that money and turn it into three months of financial freedom,” well… guess what, I started growing my hair out.

(Financial freedom, by the way, translates to “the amount of time you can live comfortably without earning another dollar.” You can stack up your months of financial freedom to provide security for the future, or cash them in for a big purchase such as a house or a sabbatical or an indie-published book.)

Most importantly, if you want to figure out how to turn THE WORK into THE MONEY-MAKING WORK, Financial Freedom has several excellent suggestions.

That’s all for today. Next week we’ll continue discussing how to make money on your creative work, so… see y’all on Monday. ❤️

*The orientation, which was student-led, consisted of two components: don’t sleep with the undergrads and here’s how to get on food stamps.

**I know jobs don’t grow on job trees and getting a new job is not always easy. But if you are going to do the work of job-hunting, it’s worth knowing what kind of job you’re hunting for.

***I can hear you saying “I don’t earn enough money to change any of my spending habits,” which, believe me, I’ve been there. I first read Your Money or Your Life in 2004, when I was making $9 an hour working as a telemarketer. (That’s the equivalent of $12 an hour today, if you were curious.) I could make very few changes to my spending, but I started doing things like making peanut-butter-and-raisin sandwiches because a tub of raisins was cheaper than a thing of jam, and taking the bus during off-peak hours because it was less expensive, and finding a job that paid $13 an hour, and within nine months I had saved $500, which was NOT A LOT, but also proved that the system worked.