The Nature of Magic (and the Magic of Nature)

It took me about three weeks to read Maggie Stiefvater’s newest book Call Down the Hawkwhich should say something about how much free time I have these days—and I can’t stop thinking about how one of her characters described the nature of magic:

If you’ve ever looked into a fire and been unable to look away, it’s that. If you’ve ever looked at the mountains and found you’re not breathing, it’s that. If you’ve ever looked at the moon and felt tears in your eyes, it’s that. It’s the stuff between stars, the space between roots, the thing that makes electricity get up in the morning.

[…]

The opposite of magical is not ordinary. The opposite of magical is mankind.

Part of me wonders if this is a direct response to all of the readers (including me) who read The Raven Cycle and wished they lived in a world that had actual magic in it—not like Harry Potter do-a-spell magic, but mystical set-your-intention-and-see-what-responds, draw-a-Tarot-card-and-see-what-it-inspires magic.

But you can only see what responds and what inspires if you have time enough to look.

***

There’s this thing I’ve been trying to do lately, which is basically “no laptop after work,” and the nights I can pull it off are remarkable. The evening stretches into presence, whether it’s me and a group of people singing in a church or me with a book and a candle and a piece of jade in my left hand.

I let myself use my smartphone for podcasts and ebooks and streaming video (the latter because I don’t have a television) but try to stay away from email and social media and web browsers and all the rest of it—which is hard, because that means getting every little fiddly piece of modern life management done during my work breaks, whether I’m ordering groceries, depositing checks, or applying for health insurance (which I really really really need to do this week).

But, as you might have guessed from the fact that it took me three weeks to get through a 480-page book, I don’t get as many no-laptop evenings as I’d like. Sometimes I have to make the choice between “no laptop after work” or “no opportunity to draft MYSTERY BOOK today.” Sometimes it’s more like “if you do not complete your passport renewal application tonight, your passport will expire.”

Which, like, of course adult life has always been like that. I can remember my mother spending her evenings paying bills and balancing the checkbook. You either get those tasks done while you’re “on break” (which can mean feeling like you’ve gone eight hours without a break), or you fit them in after work and on the weekends.

But I don’t yet have the self-discipline to finish my passport renewal application without also deciding to check Feedly and The Washington Post and The New York Times (I have successfully broken the social media cycle, though I may have just substituted feeds and articles for social scrolling), and then the majority of my evening is gone.

And there’s been no magic in it.

Only mankind.

***

We’re coming up on the holidays followed by the fresh start of a new year, which means that I’m thinking about everything I’d like to reshape and recast and resolve and revise and make holy.

Earlier this year, I started doing shutdown rituals at the end of every workday, which really meant turning off email (though I could still use my laptop for literally everything else) and, once I got back from my after-work Les Mills class at the YMCA, lighting a candle.

Now, while there are still a few days left in the year, I’d like to start making a little more space for magic—which seems to mean making more space for nature (yes, plants and candles and baking bread all count as “indoor nature,” also, ask me about the three loaves of bread I’ve ruined in the past week) and more evenings with no laptop and no internet and nothing but the world in front of me.

And then, see what responds. ❤️

Three Articles on the Creative Process

Here’s what I’m thinking about, right now (in addition to my freelance work and my mystery novel and body budgets and the nature of magic, which… um… we’ll get to the latter two topics later, I promise).

The Independent: Lee Child on Jack Reacher: How the best-selling author writes his mysteries

“This isn’t the first draft, you know.” He’d only written two words. “CHAPTER ONE.”

“Oh,” I said. “What is it then?”

“It’s the only draft!”

Right then, he sounded more like Jack Reacher than Lee Child. More Reacher than writer. “I don’t want to improve it. When I’ve written something, that is the way it has to stay. It’s like one of those old photos you come across. From the 1970s. And you have this terrible Seventies haircut and giant lapels on your jacket. It’s ridiculous – but it’s there. It is what it is. Leave it alone.”

Maggie Stiefvater: The Gift of Penciling It In

I used to wonder why I always began every novel so wrong. My process generally goes like this: for months, I arduously research and plan. I begin to write. I amass ten or twenty or thirty thousand words of novel.

Then I throw it away.

The New York Times: The Mister Rogers No One Saw

Fred and I commiserated about the creative process. We would often sit and talk about confronting the blank page, the blank canvas, the blank song sheet. That place of vast possibility and bottomless terror. “Why is it so scary?” he would say. “It’s so hard.” He told me he would sometimes freeze before being able to jot down a word. He had a writing room, away from the office, away from home, where he showed up on writing days no matter what. Take it on. Enter it. Sometimes in Studio A he would show me how he worked out his doubts about himself and his emotions at the piano. Banging out anything angry or anything glad. He said it helped. I told him my outlet might be something more like shopping or maybe napping. He said either of those could work.

And if you want one more thing to read (that isn’t necessarily about the creative process), go check out John Scalzi’s thoughts on the things you outgrow. ❤️

Another Novel-Drafting Update

So I gave myself the goal of writing 10,000 words in MYSTERY BOOK this week, and… well, so far I’ve written 3,729, which means that if I count Saturday and Sunday as part of “this week,” I only need to write 1567 words per day for the next four days.

Which is, theoretically, doable.

I don’t know if I’ll actually do it, but I’ll try.

The big reason I’m behind on my word count is because I wrote my characters into a corner—basically, I knew they needed to discover Plot Element X to proceed in their amateur detectiving, but the way I had them go after the plot element turned out to be unrealistic. (Because I am transparent about pretty much everything, I’ll admit that I got them into this corner because I didn’t realize attorney-client privilege extended after death. Whoops.)

So then I was like “I’ll figure this out later and jump ahead to the next scene,” but I couldn’t do it—every chapter in this book builds on the last one, and I didn’t know what I was building on. I wrote 651 bland words that had no specificity because they had no foundation, and then gave up.

That was yesterday.

But also, yesterday, I was re-reading Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races because last year I was part of this book club that read The Scorpio Races over Scorpio season and I decided to do it again this year, and in the back of the book there’s this Author’s Note where Maggie Stiefvater explains that she tried to write this book several times before she actually wrote it, and she kept getting derailed because she was focusing on a specific technical detail that pushed her novel into a story she didn’t want to tell.

So she found a way to write the story without that detail, and it became the story she wanted to tell, and then she had her book.

Which meant I also spent part of yesterday scribbling down a bunch of notes, on paper, about how I could get my mystery novel back to THE STORY I WANT TO TELL instead of THE CORNER I HAD WRITTEN MYSELF INTO.

This is, ultimately, a story about a broke Millennial who, after years of foundering and wandering, moves back in with her mother and has to figure out how to be an adult. (More specifically, she has to figure out how to be an ordinary person, now that all of her childhood dreams of fame and fortune are crushed. I write to a theme.) There is a murder, of course, and there are some car chases and on-foot chases and costume parties, but the real mystery is the friends we made along the way.

Of course, this also means that I have to do a lot of rewriting, since I spent the past few chapters of this story leading my characters down the wrong path. (Also because writing down the notes, which I did not count towards my word count but maybe should, helped me to clarify a few themes and details that aren’t yet present in the story.)

Soooooooo… that’s where I am with this process right now.

And maybe I will get 10K words down this week. We’ll see. ❤️

Three Quotes on the Way Your Life Changes as You Get Older

I have been 38 for a week and a day, and in the past week I read (or heard) these three quotes that—well, I agree with the first two full stop, and the third one makes me feel a little grody inside, but here they are:

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, age 34, in Vogue:

I think the first half of your life, you’re trying to find out who you are, and you’re kind of knocking yourself against things, and testing things the whole time, to help kind of sculpt yourself. Then later, when you’ve got as close to sculpted as possible, you’re like, Don’t touch anything, in case it changes me.

Maggie Stiefvater, age 37, in a Reddit AMA:

I hit the NYT list with my third book (Shiver), the second year of my career, and I had to completely rethink the way I thought of my life shape. Because it is a very different thing to KEEP success versus GAIN success. It’s an entirely more disagreeable thing, I think, because the opposite of KEEP is LOSE, unlike the opposite of GAIN, which is really just STRIVE, which you can do forever quite happily, I think, or at least I can.

John Green, age 42, in the Dear Hank and John podcast episode Crime Dentures:

One of the things I love about being 42 is that people are accusing me of being a Baby Boomer. It’s almost like all these things are made up, and what really happens is that as people get older, they seek to conserve the power that they have acquired or have had handed down to them, regardless of what the name of their generation is.

Remember how I wrote that adults don’t realize that adulthood includes specific developmental phases, just like childhood? This seems to be the phase I am currently in—for at least the first two quotes, anyway. I don’t feel quite as aligned with John Green’s quote about conserving the power I’ve acquired, though I am very conscious about the way I spend my time and my energy and my resources.

I mean, I don’t really want power—and I hope I don’t start wanting power when I turn 42, although the future is consistently unknowable. I want a balance of contentment and discovery and creative fire. I want a small, comfortable home and the opportunity to build friendships with good people. I want enough money that I’ll never have to be a telemarketer or live in a moldy apartment ever again.

I also want to visit every Disney park in the world, which is the kind of goal that can be achieved with budgeting and scheduling and patience, and I secretly want to create something extraordinary someday, though the majority of my work (including this current MYSTERY NOVEL) is about coming to terms with the idea that you can be creative and ambitious and interested in the world and still be, like, ordinary.

And now, because I’m in my late 30s and have spent the past two years becoming part of the Cedar Rapids community, I’m thinking about how to maintain the life I’ve built so far (which is very different than when I was younger and thinking about the life I’d like to have someday).

So that’s what I’m thinking about, a week and a day after turning 38—and it looks like I’m not the only one. ❤️

On Writing Distinct Characters Who Aren’t Just Versions of Yourself

The second big question I have to answer, as I work on revising NEXT BOOK, is how to avoid making Ellen Everton too much like Meredith Gruber.

This was one of the topics Maggie Stiefvater discussed in the Portraits and Dreams seminar I took last February: how to ensure your main character wasn’t always the same main character (who, in turn, wasn’t always a loose translation of yourself).

Ellen is a lot less like me than Meredith was (although in The Biographies of Ordinary People I really poured myself into both Meredith and Jackie) but the two characters have some obvious similarities:

  • They are both single women.
  • They are both oldest siblings.
  • They both live in their heads.

They also have some obvious differences:

  • Meredith is ambitious. Ellen is not.
  • Meredith wants to find her place in the world. Ellen does not believe the world owes her anything, including satisfaction with her own life.
  • Meredith is language-oriented. Ellen is systems-oriented.
  • Meredith cares about how she presents herself to the world, in terms of clothing choices, hair styling, social interactions, etc. Ellen does not.
  • Meredith’s happiest moment in The Biographies of Ordinary People comes when she is onstage, sharing a story she wrote and then singing in harmony with her sister. Ellen’s happiest moment in the first chapter of A Coincidence of Doors is when she is finally alone at the end of the day and can take 20 minutes to read the latest swords-and-sorcery paperback she got at the library.

But… Ellen and Meredith both go to the library, and they both like reading, and they both compare death to falling down the pit in Super Mario (that part I should for sure change). At one point both Ellen and Meredith make a to-do list, and maybe that makes them too similar, but maybe people just make to-do lists?

Both books also feature a Midwestern Shakespeare festival—the same Shakespeare festival, in fact, though I never refer to it by its full name in either book. It’s the one I spent three years working for, and it popped up in this story because (like Biographies) it’s mostly set in the Midwest, and I really love giving my novels a distinct sense of place.

But… well, Ellen would never want to be onstage performing Shakespeare the way Meredith would, and yet she still ends up attending a Shakespeare play, and yes you can tie that back to her interest in swords-and-sorcery novels and her desire to connect with hundreds-years-old traditions like Solstice and her dream of escaping into another world, and you can also say WELL, NICOLE CAN’T WRITE A BOOK WITHOUT PUTTING SHAKESPEARE INTO IT.*

I mean, maybe I will someday.

I also think that as long as I go through and pull out the inadvertent similarities like the Super Mario thing, Ellen and Meredith will read as distinct characters. However, they’ll read as distinct versions of the same type of character, which is another trap writers often fall into, and I am NOT GOING TO NAME NAMES but I bet you can think of a few examples on your own.

Which is pretty much what Maggie Stiefvater said would happen, in a typical writer’s early novels. Your first protagonist is you. Your second protagonist is not you, but still contains a lot of you-ness because that’s what you’re most familiar with. The more you write, the more you learn about how to write fully-realized characters who are fully themselves—and, honestly, I’m not sure I’m there yet.

But I’m still writing. ❤️

*Fun fact: the novel I wrote in high school, in which a bunch of characters with swords battle an evil empire, also included a chapter where the characters had to disguise themselves as actors and put on a verse play. So no, I can’t write a book without putting Shakespeare, or a Shakespeare analogue, into it.

On Storytelling and Tension

We’re in the final week of rehearsal for the Brahms Requiem, and I was going to use this blog post to share the lyrics to the piece and make an observation about how Brahms crafts a narrative arc that takes us from “I am mourning a loved one who has died” to “This mourning reminds me that I am anxious about my own death” to “I have accepted death by accepting God’s love.”

Of course, this particular narrative arc requires a little bit of interpretation on the listener’s part—I mean, Brahms doesn’t come out and say any of this in his lyrics, he just drops in quotes like this:

Lord, teach me
That I must have an end,
And my life has a purpose,
and I must accept this.

Translation © 2010 Ahmed E. Ismail

And then he lets us put the piece together (literally).

So I was all ready to write about what I thought Brahms meant to do with this piece and how it fit in with the Hero’s Journey, and then I had a conversation with our conductor.

Basically I babbled out a bunch of thoughts about whether Brahms was a character in his own piece, and whether Brahms-the-character was discovering that death had no sting or communicating something he had already discovered, and whether we, as a choir, should treat it as a revelation we’re just now learning or a statement meant to comfort others.

“Treat it like a release of tension,” the conductor said.

And my immediate thought was of course, that’s exactly what it is, I should have realized it myself.

Not just because it’s difficult, if not impossible, to do something like “sing the Requiem as if you were Brahms discovering its message in real time” in a way that effectively communicates that to an audience. (You could always write a note at the beginning of the program telling everyone how to interpret your interpretation, or put up some projections of an actor playing Brahms as he walks back and forth and worries—but if you have to explain it in a matter extraneous to the text, you’re failing at your job of performing the text.)

Nor because everyone in the audience is going to come up with their own interpretation of the piece, the same way I created my interpretation of Brahms’ narrative arc. (In other words: if you’re listening to the music, you’ll understand that it is about coming to terms with death. Any additional thoughts or emotions you experience while listening are your own.)

It’s because of this: when I attended Maggie Stiefvater’s Portraits and Dreams writing seminar, she explained that storytelling, at its core, was about tension and release. A good story has the right amount of both, and puts them in the right places.

Tension and release are what provide the emotional journey—and after you’ve experienced that journey, you can sit back and ask yourself whether Brahms meant to write himself as a character in his own Requiem, or what Sean wished for in The Scorpio Races, or whether The Wizard of Oz is really just a giant allegory about the gold standard or whatever.

I feel like a bit of a goober for not having figured that out on my own.

But I’m glad I’m thinking about it now. ❤️

On Storytelling and Perspective and Re-Watching Game of Thrones in Two Weeks

Last Wednesday, I made an extremely foolhardy decision: I was going to re-watch Game of Thrones, in its entirety, before the final season.

Here’s the background: in 2012, I dated this guy who was all “you haven’t seen Game of Thrones, let me fix that for you” and so I watched the first two seasons and read all of the books.

I continued watching Game of Thrones after that relationship ended, in part because I started dating another guy who was also a GoT fan, and after that relationship ended—and after going to a Game of Thrones Season 5 premiere party by myself and getting inadvertently alcohol poisoned*—I was all I am done with this show, it has only led to heartbreak and vomit.

But I’m a sucker for cultural phenomena—especially when it’s related to storytelling. I started showing up at Harry Potter midnight release parties not because I cared about Harry Potter (I enjoyed the series, but it didn’t shape my soul the way other stories did), but because I cared about experiencing this story simultaneously with the rest of the world.

So I decided I didn’t want to miss out on the pleasure of discovering how Game of Thrones ends at the same time as everyone else, which meant I needed to get myself caught up.

I have re-watched 30 episodes of Game of Thrones in the past five days. (Yes, I could have started with the first episode I hadn’t yet seen, but I figured that if I was going to do this, I wanted the emotional experience of the entire epic.) Turns out you can watch a lot of TV, without cutting back on any of your other commitments, if you just leave the TV on all the time. I’ve been making dinner while watching Game of Thrones, folding laundry while watching Game of Thrones, etc.

It has been surprisingly exhausting to pay 30 hours’ worth of attention to a story in such a short period of time—and I have 40 hours left to go before the Season 8 premiere on Sunday. (I suspect I won’t get fully caught up until the second episode of Season 8, which is fine by me. As long as I’m ready to watch the series finale with everyone else, I’ll be satisfied.)

But none of this is the point.

The point is that, a day into my rewatch, Maggie Stiefvater posted an analysis of contemporary storytelling that focused on our relatively recent shift from single-POV narratives to massively-multi-POV narratives.

The shift from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones, as it were.**

Now, I know that A Song of Ice and Fire was written before the Harry Potter books were published (though not by much; the first ASOIAF book published in 1996, and the first HP book published in 1997). But Harry Potter became a cultural phenomenon before Game of Thrones did, and in between 2007, when Deathly Hallows released in hardcover, and 2011, when Game of Thrones premiered on HBO, the type of stories our culture valued had changed.

To quote Maggie Stiefvater:

Readers and viewers no longer believed in the straightforward hero’s journey. No one was that simple. Batman got rebooted, James Bond got some consequences. Heroes got more and more morally gray. The world was getting more and more morally gray, too, after all, and narrative kept up. What was the price of privilege? What was the price of winning? Was this really a happy ending?

Narrative answered the question by glancing at the situation from other points of view, and those glances got longer and longer and longer. One POV became two. Became three. Became four.

One of the responses to Maggie’s blog post identified television as the impetus for this trend-shift:

The format of television shows almost REQUIRE several multi-character arcs, because the main goal of a show is usually to stretch the story into as many seasons as possible, and you can’t easily do that with just one protagonist. You need viewers to stay to watch every episode every season, and you need a lot of different types of stories to keep their interest. Of course, this leads to a big cast that grows as the show goes on, and viewers get more and more used to connecting with several different characters. Think of Friends, which started with Monica as an everygirl kind of protagonist with a group of eccentric friends, and then gradually morphed into a show that gave equal weight to every character in the main group, because that’s what the show needed to be to keep its viewership. 

If we’re citing television, of course, we have to go further back than Friends; this type of narrative has propelled soap operas, for example, for as long as they’ve existed.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if the internet, with its ability to provide us with thousands of points of view at once, has made us more interested in telling stories that feature a multiplicity of perspectives—and if authors don’t provide us with these perspectives (and even if they do), we write them ourselves, fanfic-style.

The other point of all of this is that I am currently writing a novel that is told entirely from a single character’s perspective. I have asked myself, more than once, if I should pop into someone else’s head for a bit, or if I should do the thing where I divide the book up into multiple sections and give each section to a different character.

But that doesn’t feel like the story I want to tell, even though that’s what the SF&F genre is all about these days. I want the readers to have the same experience my main character has: to be given the call to adventure, to have to choose whether to follow that call, and then SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER.

To write a chapter from the perspective of the character who asks my protagonist for help, for example, would feel like giving my reader more information than my protagonist has, which would make her emotional journey and her discoveries less compelling.

I’m not even jumping to the omniscient viewpoint; you only get to experience what the protag experiences, and her limitations are your limitations.

One of the reasons I made this choice was because I just finished writing two books from a multi-character perspective and wanted to try something new.

The other reason, I think, was because I wanted to cycle away from stories like Game of Thrones, where we follow multiple characters and multiple plots and ask the audience to choose where their alliance lies and create surveys that determine which house we belong to.

I wanted to explore humanity by focusing on one human, the same way other writers wanted to explore humanity by focusing on many different people.

We’ll see if I made the right choice. ❤️

*The party was at a bar, and every attendee got one free cocktail with their ticket. I was not aware that the cocktail, which was handed to me as I walked in the door, was nearly pure alcohol (think Long Island Iced Tea but with a Game of Thrones-inspired name). I knew something was very wrong about five minutes after finishing the drink. I generally vomit after three ounces of liquor, which is why I try not to drink more than two at any given time. That night, I puked so much I had to throw away everything I was wearing including my purse.

**Yes, I know there are these little blips in Harry Potter where we step outside of Harry’s POV, but the books are still Harry’s story.

On Writing for the Reader, Not (Just) for Yourself

My NEXT BOOK draft is currently at 8,916 words, and I’m hoping to break 10,000 by this weekend.

(Remember, I started drafting on February 21, so… two weeks ago.)

This draft is delightfully messy and somewhat ridiculous, in the “I don’t know which vivid description is the vividest so I’m just going to write three different options in a row and pick one later” sense. It’s a very different process from The Biographies of Ordinary People, in part because it’s a very different book — this story is about mysterious strangers and hidden doors and unexpected worlds, and since I’m not doing the whole “let’s just describe the library in my hometown but make it a little different” thing, there’s a lot more “is it this? is it that? let’s get something on the page now and we can make it more specific later.”

There is one area in which I am trying to stretch myself, and it has to do with something I learned at the Maggie Stiefvater Portraits and Dreams seminar: whenever possible, make the most exciting choice.

This has made this draft… a lot more fun. 😉

The trouble is that I’m second-guessing myself, a bit, on what I might find exciting compared to what a reader might find exciting. For example: at one point in the story our heroine sees the Mysterious Stranger, for whom she’s actively been looking after committing the grievous error of refusing his initial call to adventure. (Because that’s how heroes journey, y’all.)

So.

Option one: she goes to Mystery House and there he is, just hanging out in the lobby. Meh.

Option two: she goes to Mystery House, thinks he isn’t there, and then when she turns around to leave THERE HE IS. Slightly more exciting. Also kind of cinematic, but in a cliched way. What you’d expect, really.

The option that’s currently in the draft: she goes to Mystery House, does not find him, gets frustrated with this whole biz, pushes her way through a group of people who are getting ready to tour the Historical Landmark House That Is Definitely Not Full Of Hidden Doorways, opens the coat closet, and MYSTERIOUS STRANGER IS THERE AND HE PULLS HER INSIDE.

Now, I’m already seeing as I write this blog post that the way to fix this scene is to change the PULLING ASPECT, which is EXCITING TO ME (because I have had the specific experience of being pulled into a secret makeout nook by this person I had a crush on, and even though I had not verbally consented I had already consented multiple times in my imagination, so I was all, like, finally*) but PROBABLY NOT EXCITING TO EVERYONE FOR REASONS THAT SHOULD BE OBVIOUS, to a BECKONING ASPECT.

I can probably keep the part where he takes her hand. That’s exciting! His mysterious touch is mysteriously electric! I can definitely keep the part where they hang out in the closet until the tour group goes by and then sneak out so they can go into one of the Hidden Doorways, because that’s also exciting IF WE KNOW AS A READER THAT OUR HEROINE WANTS TO BE THERE.

Which I’ve totally established with the whole “she goes back to Mystery House looking for adventure” thing, but could make a little clearer by having him take her hand — or even just hold it out, Aladdin-style — and say something like “Come in,” or “you can hide in here,” or whatever, you get the idea. An exciting version of that.

I mean, there’s got to be some balance at this point in the story, because our heroine isn’t full-on ADVENTURE LET’S DO THIS yet. She’s more like “I can’t stop thinking about that mysterious guy and his stinkin’ mystery doors, so I’d better go back to the mystery house so I can just stop asking myself whether I should go back to the mystery house.” This part of the story shouldn’t be THIS IS EXCITING, it should be more like IS THIS EXCITING? YES IT IS! BUT ALSO A LITTLE SCARY.

But the scary part shouldn’t be WORRYING THAT THIS GUY JUST PULLED HER INTO A COAT CLOSET WITHOUT ASKING.

Okay, so I think I just solved this problem.

Anyway, MAKE EXCITING CHOICES! And then figure out if they’re equally exciting to the reader, for the right reasons.

Also, feel free to take bets on whether any part of the “getting all flirty in a coat closet” thing will make it into the final draft. It’s a little Chronicles of Narnia-esque, plus there are connotations associated with the words “hiding in the closet” that I may want to avoid. So maybe he invites her to hide in the pantry, instead. Or something else. I’ll figure it out. ❤️

*I should note that, although being pulled into Secret Makeout Nook by Secret Crush ranks as one of the best makeouts I’ve ever had, it was also a good prognosticator of the way that very brief non-relationship was going to go (he got to decide when and where and how we interacted, I got the anxiety of sitting around waiting for him to decide to spend time with me). INTERESTING.

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.