why strong author branding = passion & soul (and should not be cause for despair)

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A writer’s idea of a writing career has to change.

Jane Friedman said this in a webinar I attended recently, and I’ve been mulling it over ever since.

I’m also wondering if a writer’s idea of a brand has to change.

I wrote about the importance of developing your author brand in my last post. Jane retweeted it (thank you Jane, you’re fabulous) and I noticed that one of the responses was a tweet that said, This kind of thing makes me despair utterly.

So I wanted to stress that I write about brands not as a marketing tactic, but as unmarketing. And unmarketing means that your brand is so remarkable that you don’t have to market it; it markets itself.

And you develop a remarkable brand by being a remarkable writer.

Online, you are your content. You are your voice. And your voice and your content combine to form your brand.

So great, well-written content = great brand.

Mediocre content = mediocre brand.

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The reason why a brand is necessary for survival is because it doesn’t just promote, it filters and curates. As the distribution barriers collapse and more and more people publish online, readers need to know where to go and who to trust in order to find great material without sorting through all the crap. If readers trust you, and your well-defined creative vision, they will go to you to find cool stuff to read, and also to share and recommend to their friends.

(This doesn’t just apply to writers, by the way, but also to publishers and editors. These brands can “riff off each other” and bring different kinds of benefits to the writer/editor/publisher relationships. Which makes me wonder if, in the future, we’ll see prominent and recurring author-editor partnerships the way we see director-actor partnerships in the movies.)

Your brand stands for who you are and what you write about. It stands for a personality and set of values that readers can identify with. In the new, still-emerging model of publishing, your brand is no longer solely defined by your books. It is defined more and more by your online presence – your blogging and microblogging and interaction with your community – and supported by your books.

This gives your brand the opportunity to grow and evolve, because your readers can share that process with you. In the old model, a writer switching genres also had to change names, so as not to confuse the reader. Readers did not want to pick up a Stephen King novel and discover that it was a romance. As a result, writers got trapped in a ‘box’: expected to deliver a certain type of novel each time. Once a horror writer, always a horror writer (or secretly a romance writer under a different name).

In the new model, things will work a little differently. You can’t hide who you are online (and if you’re not willing to be online in the first place, editors and publishers will be much less enthused about working with you). So a pseudonym will work not to disguise a writer’s identity but to signal a different type of novel (for example: it’s a well-known “secret” that John Banville and Benjamin Black are the same guy, but Banville novels are literary novels and Black novels are mystery-thrillers). And since, as Dean Koontz once observed, “readers will follow you anywhere” – because readers become addicted at least partly to your voice, your worldview – readers will have the chance to follow the writer into a genre they might not have considered otherwise. So instead of being trapped in a box – or two or three boxes separated from each other – writers can use pseudonyms to develop different dimensions of the same central, defining brand. The box disappears, and the “brand molecule” takes its place: one aspect, idea or message gradually developing out of another aspect, idea or message.

What holds the brand together will no longer be a specific type of book, but the voice and worldview of the author herself.

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A writing career will no longer present itself to the audience as a succession of books with long gaps of silence in-between.

A writing career will be more like an ongoing and steadily evolving process, shared online and interacting with readers….with few, if any, gaps of silence at all. The process won’t be so easily divided into writing and marketing; the writing is the marketing.

Writers should no longer think of themselves as just one type of writer – just a novelist, or a poet, or a short-story writer. Writing on and for the Web will demand different manifestations of your talent.

And if you’re going to be online on a near-daily basis, it’s not just about socializing and chatting people up. It’s about having something to say, consistently, that will attract the right type of reader (who will go on to pay money for your work).

Which means you have to be passionate about whatever it is that you’re blogging and filtering day-in and day-out for the people formerly known as your audience. Otherwise you won’t be motivated enough to put in the work and time that the process requires, and your writing won’t be charged with the kind of electricity that draws in new readers or keeps old ones hanging around.

Because you have to love the process. You have to embrace it – all aspects of it – as an expression of your soul.

In other words, you develop your brand by writing close to your soul.

Which means that, over time, your brand has the chance to take you — and your readers — to some unexpected places.

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the online art of developing your author brand molecule global microbrand thing

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People don’t respond to marketing. They respond to vision.

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In this engaging and well-written post, blogger Siddhartha states that “authors shouldn’t have to be social media experts”.

Writing and marketing are different, require different skillsets, and most artists just want to do their art anyway. So let the writers do the writing and the marketers do the marketing of it. The ideal would be a partnership between a writer and a social media expert.

And it makes a lot of sense.

And writers can hire cutting edge PR agencies like this one to help them do the stuff they likely don’t want to do in the first place.

But leaving aside the whole notion of ‘social media expert’, which is kind of problematic to begin with, I think what writers need to remember is that there’s a difference between marketing your book and marketing yourself as a (for lack of a better term) ‘brand’, or ‘author brand’ or ‘global microbrand’ (I love that latter term, the pleasing contradiction between ‘micro’ and ‘global’).

When a key element to survival on the Web is authenticity, and when a key element to a successful brand is its level of engagement, can anybody else ultimately be responsible for defining (to the extent that it can be defined) and marketing (to the extent that it can be marketed) the brand of…you?

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The Web is about unmarketing. People don’t want to be spammed, marketed or sold to (they’ll promptly click away from you). They want to be intrigued, attracted and engaged. The idea of unmarketing – at least as I understand it – is that the marketing is built in to the brand itself. In other words, the brand is so engaging and remarkable that people talk about it, share it, feed it forward, etcetera.

People don’t listen to marketers – they listen to each other.

I don’t want some brand promising me that their coffee will transform me into a sexy beast with bouncy glorious hair and charisma to spare.

I want the brand to to offer consistent value in my near-daily life. I want the brand to have a purpose…and possibly to connect me to a sense of larger purpose.

So how to apply this to the idea of an author brand?

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A brand used to be a fixed, controlled, one-dimensional message that was beamed out from radios, televisions and billboards to the masses, who passively received it. A brand meant one thing, and one thing only, because to step outside the message would only confuse the audience and dilute the impact of the brand.

An ‘author brand’ conveyed– and still does – the type of book you could expect to get, the type of reading experience you would have, from a certain author. If a writer dared to step outside that ‘message’ – that genre – he or she was told to use a pseudonym so as not to confuse the reader. Dean Koontz used a multiciplicity of pseudonyms before he became just Dean Koontz. Literary writers like Joyce Carol Oates and John Banville write more ‘commercial’ fiction under nom be plumes like Rosamund Smith and Benjamin Black.

Now, however, a successful brand is interactive, organic, and multi-dimensional. THE BRAND INNOVATION MANIFESTO teaches the idea of the brand molecule, where a brand grows through its interaction with the people formerly known as its audience. The brand goes out into the audience, who adapt it or ignore it in whatever way they see fit, and then talk back (via the Internet) so that the brand senses what works and what doesn’t. And the brand evolves accordingly. It still has a central, coherent identity, but it explores new cultural ideas that can grow naturally out of that identity.

For better or worse, an ‘author brand’ – that shared mental imprint people think of when thinking of a certain author – is no longer defined by the books she releases every now and then and the interviews she gives (when she chooses to give them, or when people care enough to pay attention), but also by the writer’s online presence. And that presence is constant, and constantly accessible, because whatever you do on the Web tends to stay on the Web.

I still remember when the president of a dot.com company told me, years ago, how he had advised a (now very successful) nonfiction author that “his books support his blog, and not vice-versa.” At the time I found it a radical and slightly dubious concept, but now I think I see what he means.

Your books come out intermittently.

Your blog (or tweetstream or Youtube channel or whatever you decide to use) is always there, always discoverable, always conveying a sense of who you are and what you care about. It doesn’t mean that the books themselves are any less important – in today’s cluttered chaotic marketplace, it’s more important than ever to be as kick-ass as possible.

It does mean that the personality of the author is front and center in a way that perhaps suggests that the whole idea of a ‘writing career’ has to be re-envisioned. Neil Gaiman’s fans can experience him everyday – through his blog and Tweets – in a way that Stephen King’s fans, when I was growing up, could not (except by reading his books). And Neil doesn’t engage his fans by bleeting “buy my books”; he provides them with stuff they find interesting.

It doesn’t mean that a fan can expect to have a personal connection with Neil himself (although that sometimes happens), anymore than I can expect to have a personal interaction with the CEO of Starbucks (even though I go there everyday). But fans can expect to have a personal experience of the ‘brand’ of Neil, and if they want they can connect with other fans and talk about Neil’s work and become a part of the community that’s grown up around it (and him). And this experience could prove so positive that a casual reader soon turns into a fan (and future purchaser of Neil’s book) and perhaps even a ‘brand’ loyalist and evangelist who turns other people onto Neil and continues to expand his already staggering audience.

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I like this definition of brand as a “driving force” with: “a sense of purpose so compelling that it will move customers and employees to action.”

So for writers, maybe it’s “a compelling sense of artistic mission that compels readers and the writer herself, to action.”

That sense of mission extends to what you do on the Web (and how often you do it), and forms the core of who you are (or become) in the minds of others.

Rather than thinking of socialmedia or blogging as the marketing element that is separate from yourself and your work, perhaps it is more helpful (and inspiring) to think of it as the opportunity to explore and grow your brand – your brand molecule – in a way that wasn’t possible before.

Which ties into your own evolution as a person and an artist.

Because it’s all connected.

Online, you have the chance to ‘own’ your audience and develop a level of artistic freedom that isn’t restricted to one genre or one central defining ‘message’ about what readers should expect from you.

Online, you have the chance to build out your vision in a myriad of ways that aren’t interrupted by the long stretches of silence between novels. Readers can see how everything weaves together (whether or not they choose to read all your books) into the bigger picture of…you, your brand, your body of work.

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In my last post I wrote about the writer as “creative entrepreneur”. I also think writers are what the book KARMA QUEENS, GEEK GODS AND INNERPRENEURS refer to as “innerpreneurs”:

Innerpreneurs let their moral compass and passion for exploration guide their lives. Innerpreneurs have an inborn need to be creative, challenge assumptions, seek new pathways, and define new horizons….Work and life are inextricably tied together for [them]…Innerpreneurs have recognized that which makes their heart sing and have followed its siren song [and are] translating that passion into a career.

It’s that kind of authenticity and passion that makes for a compelling online presence. So while writers can (and probably should) seek out advice and coaching when it comes to marketing (and unmarketing), I suspect the real key is to figure out how social media can help you explore, refine and expand your creative vision through regular interaction with the people formerly known as your audience. This transforms social media from a marketing chore (and likely an unsuccessful one) into another opportunity for personal and artistic growth which can’t help but feed back into your ‘real’ writing.

It’s through your vision that you differentiate yourself, that you specialize, that you “rise to the top of the Google list by sounding one, clear, strong note” as Christina Katz put it.

But you have to know what your vision is, what your passion is: you have to “let love burn away the inessentials” (to quote from from THE CULTURAL CREATIVES).

Which means that the question isn’t necessarily, “How do I get on Twitter?” or “Should I have a blog?”

But rather: “Who am I and what do I want to accomplish as an artist? What do I stand for? What is my mission? What are my passions? What is the experience that I can provide for people? What can I contribute?”

(And then you can figure out how to get on Twitter. In fact, you can read this article here!)

It’s not easy to figure out those questions. It’s hard, challenging work.

But it’s work that we’re uniquely cut out for.

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pave your way to creative domination: the writer as creative entrepreneur

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I was speaking on a panel at the Literary Orange writer’s conference the other weekend and heard myself say, “Writers are creative entrepreneurs now.”

To which the guy sitting next to me responded, “That sounds hard.”

I’m not sure it’s any harder than writing an actual publishable novel. But it requires a flexibility of thinking and a different way of perceiving yourself and your work. (I for one am still working on it.)

What is creative entrepreneurship anyway?

From Wikipedia:

Creative entrepreneurship is the practice of setting up a business – or setting yourself up as self-employed – in one of the creative industries. The focus of the creative entrepreneur differs from that of the typical business entrepreneur or, indeed, the social entrepreneur in that s/he is concerned first and foremost with the creation and exploitation of creative or intellectual capital. Essentially, creative entrepreneurs are investors in talent – their own and/or other people’s.

John Howkins defines creative entrepreneurs as people who “use creativity to unlock the wealth that lies within themselves”.

Mark McGuinness at the great blog Lateral Action elaborates:

The value they create lies not in their physical products (if any) but in intangible assets such as their brand, reputation, network and intellectual property. They are adept at projecting a desired image and creating a personal brand, both online and offline. They also understand the principles of intellectual property law and use copyrights, trademarks, patents and licenses to exploit the full potential of their ideas.

This falls in line with what writers are expected to do now. In the era of the long tail, writers are advised to find their niche and dominate it. This enables you to create an author brand: a focused set of ideas, values and associations that symbolize the ‘you’ of you.

Which means that, before anything else, you have to have the chops. You have to put in the time and deliberate practice to become an excellent writer and storyteller.

Then you start developing your author platform. This includes your network, your community, your tribe: the friends, fans and followers who will be glad for the opportunity to support you and pay money for your work.

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It used to be that there was a nice, neat division of labor: the gatekeepers who published and promoted you, and the creatives who did the creative stuff. As the world goes digital that division starts to disappear: creatives can bring their work directly to their audience and no longer require a middleman to negotiate access.

But this means the role of writer is also changing, and writers have to adapt, engage, or (quite possibly) die.

This involves a new way of thinking about content. Used to be that content was inseparable from the medium that delivered it, otherwise known as a book. The end goal and ultimate dream for aspiring writers was to have a novel published by one the major publishers who could get your book in bookstores all across America (and perhaps the world).

Now content gets delivered in different ways through different devices that create different kinds of reading experiences. Writers need to think of content as fluid and shifting, something that can be developed or repackaged across different platforms.

Your book is no longer just a book; it can also be serial installments delivered through a blog or an iPhone app or a podcast. Create a rich, compelling storyworld and your content could expand into other forms of storytelling such as video games or comic books or episodes of a web series (otherwise known as transmedia storytelling).

At her blog There Are No Rules Jane Friedman emphasizes

the need for writers to think beyond the book when envisioning their careers. If writers desire to spread a message, have an impact on a readership, and be heard, then there are many ways to do that aside from publishing a book.

Sometimes a book, or a book traditionally published, is not a smart or efficient way to spread a intemessage or to gain a readership. A book is just one form, one component, of a larger career.

In his post The Reality of Digital ContentSeth Godin compares traditional publishing to fortune cookies. Writers got paid for writing the messages you put inside the fortune cookies. But what happens when you take away the cookie? Writers need to find new ways to generate streams of revenue, which includes capitalizing on the thing that can’t be turned into a shareable digital file: the writer herself.

It’s time to think beyond the cookie:

What happens when the people with great ideas start organizing for themselves, start leading online tribes, start creating micro products and seminars and interactions that people are actually willing to pay for? It’s possible that someone like (nsfw) writer Susie Bright is never again going to make a good living just writing. Instead, she could make a great living coordinating, organizing, introducing and leading a thousand or ten thousand true fans. Each of them will gladly pay for the privilege, because the connections and insights and benefits she brings are worth it. She didn’t wake up this morning thinking of herself as a coach or a tour leader or a concierge or a leader, but that’s the niche available to her.

The Grateful Dead spent thirty years without a record label that understood them, thirty years being their own boss, leading their own tribe, connecting people who wanted to be there instead of shilling for their tiny share of record sales.

If you want to write the fortunes for the cookies that don’t exist any more, you may need to make your own organization, lead your own tribe and hire yourself.

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Content also becomes a form of marketing, or rather unmarketing. When you’re online, blogging or microblogging, you are selling yourself (or not) through what you say and how you say it: through your content.

You are your content.

Your content is your ‘pull’: it has the power to invoke what Shama Kabani (The Zen of Social Media Marketing) calls her ACT Methodology: it Attracts people to your site, Converts them into consumers and Transforms them into fans (hopefully True Fans).

Which means your content needs to be so remarkable that it markets itself. It has to be what people genuinely need and want (even if they don’t know they want it yet). A writer (at least when online) shouldn’t have to ‘sell’ her work: she just has to make sure that the right readers can find it.

Which means she has to be everywhere: living in the niches and communities where her potential readers congregate and attracting them back to her website.

The sum of all this content – the accumulated impression the reader has of you, the mental thumbprint you leave behind – helps to naturally grow your brand, which over time becomes multi-faceted.

Tom Peters first introduced the idea of “Brand You” pointing out that a great personal brand transcends any company or organization you work for – or publisher who puts out your books.

A great brand gives you power and freedom.

Hugh MacLeod talks about building a global microbrand which he describes as

A small, tiny brand, that “sells” all over the world.

The Global Microbrand is nothing new; they’ve existed for a while, long before the internet was invented. Imagine a well-known author or painter, selling his work all over the world. Or a small whisky distillery in Scotland. Or a small cheese maker in rural France, whose produce is exported to Paris, London, Tokyo etc. Ditto with a violin maker in Italy. A classical guitar maker in Spain. Or a small English firm making $50,000 shotguns.

…. With it you are not beholden to one boss, one company, one customer, one local economy or even one industry. Your brand develops relationships in enough different places to where your permanent address becomes almost irrelevant.

Blogging and giving away your writing for free plays a crucial role in establishing your brand. Once you have people believing in your brand, and loyal to it, you have people who will pay for your work.

In his article in Writer’s Digest, Chris Guillebeau talks about the “three main models” for making money once you’ve attracted people to your ‘hub’ – your home base, usually your blog – and converted them. There’s the donation model, the advertising model, and the products and services model.

Chris is an excellent example of the latter.

I publish most of my writing for free, but enough people are willing to pay for the additional content that I can support myself well. I don’t lack for anything, and I’m building strong relationships with readers that will continue for a long time.

When writers grumble about “all the writing we’re now supposed to give away for free” I often think about my years in Silicon Valley and the work ethic I witnessed there.

To be an entrepreneur means you work your ass off. You sleep under your desk (when you sleep at all). You sacrifice your social life (or blend it with your working life so that the line between work and play disappears altogether). You understand that you have to build something that people actually want and are willing to pay money for, before you can expect to see profit. You learn to live with risk and ambiguity. You listen closely to the world so that you can recognize and stay open to opportunities.

And you do it because you’re one of the lucky few who discovered your passion in life. You do it because the process itself is what rewards you, and the prize – the freedom to own your time and live a creative and remarkable life – is worth it.

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the thing every artist needs to do

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In his book MAKING IDEAS HAPPEN Scott Belsky (founder and CEO of Behance) makes the point that a successful creative life isn’t about (or just about) being genius or having genius ideas. For all the emphasis we put on the ‘creative’ part of ‘being creative’, an artist needs to execute and ship.

Often it’s the discipline of shipping that separates the creatives from the wannabes.

Seth Godin talks about the importance of shipping in his book LINCHPIN. He quotes poet Bruce Ario: “Creativity is an instinct to produce.” If you’re a writer, you need to be someone who actually sits down and writes. It doesn’t have to be great. It just has to get done. (And the more you sit down and do it, the better you’re likely to get.)

And then you need to show it to people.

Reading and writing are two halves of the same whole: to get good at the latter you have to do a lot of the former. Same with listening and communicating (it’s hard to have something powerful and worthwhile to say if you’re clueless to the conversation that’s going on around, behind and before you). With creative work, one half is the making of it…and the other half is the showing of it.

The shipping.

Shipping is the connecting point between your work and the world. Shipping starts to create the space where your art will find an audience. For all the time an artist spends inside her head, she needs to stay tethered to the reality outside it.

Seth writes:

Artists don’t think outside the box, because outside the box there’s a vacuum. Outside of the box there are no rules, there is no reality. You have nothing to interact with, nothing to work against…

Artists think along the edges of the box, because that’s where things get done. That’s where the audience is, that’s where the means of production are available, and that’s where you can make an impact.

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Seth Rose (founder of Digg) advises young dot.com entrepreneurs to build cool stuff and get it out there soon as possible. You need to see what your audience is actually going to do with it…or if they’re going to bother with it at all…and go from there. This reminds me of a conversation I once had with Jason Calacanis, who introduced me to Twitter when most people had no idea what it was. Twitter, Jason told me, would evolve in ways that even its creators wouldn’t expect; people take these new technologies and find their own uses for them, so that technology both shapes and is shaped by its connection with its audience.

When you show your creative work to people, when you get stuff out there – when you are disciplined and productive enough to ship on a regular basis – you’re engaging in a relationship with your audience that helps you evolve as an artist. You see the message that you’re communicating (as opposed to what you intended or thought you were communicating). You develop a sense for what works and what doesn’t. Your audience becomes a kind of mirror reflecting back your strengths and weaknesses, and you can use this self-knowledge to create more powerful projects. You also start to discover who your audience actually is…which might surprise you.

In short, you get feedback. And honest and timely feedback is one of the requirements for the deliberate practice necessary to achieve greatness in anything.

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I like the term shipping because it is so mundane and banal. It grounds the idea of “being creative” within everyday routine. It orients the dreamy, creative mind toward what Belsky calls an action bias that translates ideas into reality, creating value and meaning for others.

When you ship, you’re forced to accept your work as it is…and then let it go, and move on to the next thing. You’re forced to trust that there will be a next thing, that your pool of creativity isn’t some finite source soon dried up, that there’s always something in the box. You learn that your job as an artist isn’t to wait until the Muse strikes you with inspiration, but to show up at your work, day after day, so that the Muse has the opportunity to come find you and move through you.

(Elizabeth Gilbert has a great TED talk on the creative genius in all of us. )

Seth writes:

Sometimes, shipping feels like a compromise. You set out to make a huge difference, to create art that matters and to do your best work. Then a deadline arrives and you have to cut it short. Is shipping that important?

…I think it is. While some artists manage to work for years or decades and actually ship something important, far more often we find the dreams of art shattered by the resistance*. We give in to the fear and our art ends up lying in a box somewhere, unseen.

…Not shipping on behalf of your goal of changing the world is often a symptom of the resistance. Call its bluff, ship always, and then change the world…

The only purpose of starting is to finish, and while the projects we do are never really finished, they must ship.

Or as Steve Jobs put it: “Real artists ship.”

* Godin takes the concept from Steven Pressfield’s book THE WAR OF ART.

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fight like hell in the war of art

I was Twitter-tagged as part of a 100-people experiment involving Hugh MacLeod. I was delighted to take part.

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If you want to be a writer, or any other kind of artist, cartoonist, blogger and bestselling writer Hugh MacLeod has some advice for you.

It’s easy to tell somebody to get into The Zone. Much harder to live it. But fight like hell to get there, regardless, every friggin’ day, or else you’ll never make it.

The idea of the artist as a fighter, a warrior, permeates Steven Pressfield’s excellent book THE WAR OF ART:

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.

The Resistance is the enemy. The Resistance is procrastination, distraction, self-sabotage, a friend’s negativity, hurtful criticism, or anything else that keeps you from making art.

The irony is that you can never escape Resistance, because the presence of Resistance is a sign that you’re moving toward your true work:

The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.
Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore, the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance. […]
The professional tackles the project that will make him stretch. He takes on the assignment that will bear him into uncharted waters, compel him to explore unconscious parts of himself.
Is he scared? Hell, yes. He’s petrified. […]
So if you’re paralyzed with fear, it’s a good sign. It shows you what you have to do.

To grow as an artist is to learn how to battle the Resistance every day — and win.

Both MacLeod and Pressfield are referring to the necessity of ‘deliberate practice’ or deep practice: the kind of focused, goal-oriented practice that pushes us to the edge of our abilities and beyond. This is the kind of practice that puts us in The Zone, that relaxed, alert, highly focused state of mind in which we lose ourselves in our work. Put together 10,000 hours – and more – of this kind of practice and chances are that you will have achieved a level of mastery at whatever it is that you do.

Because the road to mastery requires so much time and effort, it’s important to love the process itself (instead of caring so much about the outcome). So when you’re fighting all the forces that would have you lead a conventional life, bog you down in mediocrity, and prevent you from entering the Zone…you’re fighting from a place of love.

Love and war: you bring together two opposites, and the strengths of one help you in the domain of the other.

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What are you fighting for?

You’re fighting for a remarkable life. You’re fighting to be remarkable, to offer the world something remarkable, because that kind of life has to be earned.

You’re fighting for your voice to rise above the fray and the clamor.

Your voice is you. It is the stripped down essence of you. It is your brand, your signature, and your art.

A fully developed voice is a distinctive voice: a fan will recognize it five miles off.

And a fresh and original voice is what people are constantly searching for. It’s what editors are hoping for every time they pick up a manuscript. They want a great story, and but more importantly they want a great voice. Story, as one editor pointed out, can be revised and reworked. But the voice is either there, or it isn’t, and if it isn’t, no editor can magically summon it into being.

I recently came across the phrase “point of differentiation” as applied to relationships: your point of differentiation is your clear sense of self, the things you cannot and will not change for anyone.

Your voice, your art, is your point of differentiation. It marks you apart from everything and everyone else. It conveys an identity.

Your true voice is passionate, authentic, and original. Passionate and authentic because it is you, consistent and truthful and fighting for what you believe in; original because it is composed from your mind and personality and influences and experiences and everything else that goes into the unique creation of you.

To find your voice is to know who you are.

To succeed as an artist, then, requires mad skills earned through deliberate practice, combined with deep self-knowledge.

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To speak — truly speak your truth, your art — requires the ability to listen.

The book HALF THE SKY talks about the effort to reduce the spread of AIDS in Africa. “Four different strategies were tried in randomly chosen areas, and the results were compared to results in control areas. Success was measured by pregnancies averted (compared to the control areas) since they presumably reflected the amount of unprotected sex that could also transmit AIDS.”

Training elementary school teachers in AIDS education did not reduce pregnancies. Neither did encouraging student debates and essays on condoms and AIDS.

What did work?

Providing students with free uniforms. This encouraged (and enabled) students to stay in school longer, and the more educated the person, the less likely to become pregnant.

But “by the far the most cost-effective approach was also the simplest: warning of the perils of sugar daddies.” Schoolchildren were shown a video informing then that older men have much higher HIV infection rates than boys. Few students knew this, in a culture where teenage girls “often become the baubles of middle-aged men” in search of a better life.

This success came about through listening to the local culture and responding to it in a sincere and genuine manner. It was not the result of blundering into a new place and stamping some pre-existing opinions on it.

Before you speak, be sure to listen. And learn.

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Part of that listening needs to be to yourself: your inner, intuitive voice. You need to fight for the silence in which that can happen.

When you’re cut off from your inner voice, you get trapped in a world of surfaces, where the image is taken for the truth. You’ll believe what other people want you to believe, the masks and manipulations and distortions they present as reality. They’ll tell you what you want…which is what they want you to want. They’ll tell you who you are….which is who they want you to be.

Your inner voice, composed of hunches and dreams, gut feelings and intuitive knowledge – the communications of the subconscious – is what tethers you to the reality behind the surface, the truth behind the image. Your inner voice is also your point of differentiation: the art you need to make, the story you need to tell (instead of the one you think you should tell).

Because your inner voice, your insight and opinions, are inconvenient for them and don’t fit into their agendas, there are people in your life who would snuff that voice out. Who would replace it with their own, so that you are no longer you, but merely an extension, an echo, of them.

Fight them like hell.

Life is too short to be someone’s echo.

5

You are your voice. Your voice is your art.

Through art, you make yourself a gift to the world.

And that is something worth fighting for.

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plot is a process, and how to work it

1

There’s something beautiful about plot.

Yet plot seems to be a four-letter word, associated with generic or formulaic fiction. But if there isn’t any plot, there isn’t any story (no matter how creatively it’s been constructed), and story is why we read (or at least most of us).

Plot gives the juice and forward thrust to fiction, but more than that: plot is about pattern and meaning. Any exercise in storytelling is an exercise in making meaning: taking the seemingly random and disparate elements of life and showing how they weave together, and why, and the point of it all (even if the point is that there’s no point, which is a point in itself and so undermines that particular thesis, but whatever).

There’s a rich intellectual satisfaction in that.

The human mind is geared towards patterns and relationships and filling in the gaps; we want to know how everything connects, whether we’re scientists puzzling out the mysteries of the universe or novelists investigating the mysteries of the human heart.

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Perhaps one of the problems with plot is the visual metaphor through which it’s so often presented. Plot — and I’m just as guilty of this as anyone — is often described as the scaffolding or skeleton on which you hang the elements of your story. This gives the idea of plot as something constructed and workmanlike….and solid, and fixed, as if the ‘bones’ of plot are the bars that hem you in creatively.

This is what took me way too long (and three published novels) to figure out about plot:

Plot is a process.

As Ronald B. Tobias puts it in his book on MASTER PLOTS:

We tend to talk about plots as if they were objects. All of our plot metaphors describe plot as if it were some tangible thing that came in a box. We categorize plots like items in a story inventory. We talk about plot as if it were a dead thing, something static…Plot is dynamic, not static.

Tobias makes the point that “plot is diffusive; it permeates all the atoms of fiction. It can’t be deboned…It is [like] electromagnetism — the force that draws the atoms of the story together. It correlates images, events and people.”

Everything connects.

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The idea that plot is process illuminates, to me, why outlines are problematic. Don’t get me wrong — I believe in outlines, and I outline my own projects like mad. But I learned — repeatedly — that adhering to my outline often worked against the novel, and what the novel wanted to be. In order for the outline to be effective, I had to keep revising it as the novel progressed, so that the outline informs the novel but the growing novel also informs the outline. Since plot isn’t static, the outline couldn’t be either, nor the relationship between the two.

I think there are two reasons for this:

1. Your first ideas are never your best ideas — often your second, third and fourth ideas aren’t your best ideas either (I call these your ‘surface ideas’). Since an outline is written before you start writing the novel, it’s often composed of a bunch of surface ideas.

2. Creativity is a process. Action begets action. You can plan and outline all you want (and I do) but the actual story doesn’t take shape until you actually write the damn thing.

The act of writing — good writing — draws from the deep part of our mind. We go into a kind of zone — a writing trance, a waking dream — that slows our brainwaves and allows us to access our underground storehouse of memories, images, associations.

We think on two different levels: there’s our so-called rational, conscious mind that insists on explaining the world to us (whether or not that explanation is accurate), and our subconscious mind which absorbs all the bits of information that life is constantly beaming into us. Most of this information our rational mind filters out because, in the moment, it doesn’t seem relevant, and because preservation of sanity is a good thing.

But when we write, we’re drawing on the stuff that we don’t know we know, as well as on the stuff we know we know (or think we know but don’t).

Which means we’re also writing two different stories: there’s the surface story, the one we think we’re writing (which is the one we have in outline), and the true story, the deep story, the one that our subconscious is working on behind the scenes and sending up to us in flashes of insight if only we slow down enough to pay attention.

(I highly recommend Steven Pressfield’s post on Depth of Work and also his book THE WAR OF ART, which is awesome).

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What this process requires, however, is a tolerance for ambiguity. For what I described in an earlier blog post as “the muck and murk of writing”: the sense that you’re slogging through a dark swamp with no exit in sight (and whether or not you have a full outline, at least in my experience, doesn’t seem to matter).

We like to have a plan in place, we like to move through an orderly and predictable checklist, but creativity doesn’t sequence so easily. The process works off itself. You show up, you see what you already have, you descend into the muck and the murk, and let the process take you further along.

You do what Eric Maisel describes as encountering the work.

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Plot is the electromagnetic force that brings together premise and character. If, as Tobias points out, plot is the pattern of action, then character is the pattern of motivation, and you can’t have one without the other. You can’t have the what without the why.

Premise is the central idea, or theme, that gets your story going. According to Lajos Egri in his classic THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING, a good premise is

composed of three parts, each of which is essential…The first part of his premise suggests character…The second part suggests conflict, and the third part…suggests the end of the [story].

So the premise behind Othello is: Jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love.

Macbeth: Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction.

Romeo and Juliet: Great love defies even death.

And so on. The point of your central premise is not to be original. Originality comes from you: that mash-up of mind and personality and beliefs and obsessions and quirky worldview, as well as the unique framework of life experience (and reading) from which you draw your material.

As you slog through the mudwork of process, your premise is your compass. It points you in the direction you want to go. It also informs (or is informed by) your choice of characters. As Egri points out, character dictates plot. Would Macbeth have ended the same way if it wasn’t Macbeth but Gandhi in the central role? Or Luke Skywalker? You get my point.

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Plot is cause-and-effect, and although this seems elemental enough I didn’t fully begin to grasp this until the (extensive) revisions of my third published novel.

But cause-and-effect gets compared to links in a chain, and the process seems more involved…and embroidered…than that.

Plot is one thing growing out of another thing growing out of another thing growing out of another thing…etcetera. The end result could be as expansive as a tree with a dripping canopy of branches, but it all traces back to the original seed that sparked off the process in the first place.

That strange biological life force that holds the tree together, and keeps it a tree instead of a horse or cow or random bits of bark and leaves — is your plot.

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Plot is also artful. As Tobias puts it:

No writer wants his fiction to be so obvious as to flash a neon sign that says PLOT! You don’t want [the causes of your cause-and-effects] to be so obvious that the reader can’t fall victim to the charms of the story. You want to write in such a way that what you write about seems just a natural part of the story you’ve created.

In other words, you don’t digress, or go on tangents, or use asides — these dilute the power of the story. Tobias quotes Ford Maddox Ford: “A good novel needs all the attention the reader can give it.”

You only appear to digress, or go on tangents, or use asides (this is the “art that conceals your Art”). Because in the end, everything connects. As Ford says, “Not one single thread must ever escape your purpose.”

You work the cause-and-effect in a casual manner, so that the elements of your plot are not obvious (which I suspect is what people really mean when they say something is ‘formulaic’ or ‘generic’ or ‘predictable’).

But nothing in fiction can be incidental. If something doesn’t serve the story, no matter how beautifully written, you have to kill it. You have to slaughter those darlings. Your job as a writer is to keep growing your premise and advancing your story. The trick is to distract your reader with your right hand so that he or she can’t possibly know what the left hand is doing.

Tobias elaborates:

Let me explain it in cinematic terms. We’ve placed the props on the set of the first act. The shotgun is on the back wall. Depending on the director’s shot, he can make the shotgun obvious, with a close-up of it, or he can camouflage the shotgun among the other objects in the room with a medium shot. The close-up calls attention to the shotgun, and anyone who’s ever seen at least one murder mystery knows exactly what’s afoot. But if the director is coy and doesn’t make the shotgun obvious, it will appear unimportant*. Only later…will the viewer realize how important it was.

This same rule applies for conversations and characters. By making the causal world appear casual, the reader accepts the convention that fiction is [as random and casual and digressive] as life.

Only writers know it just ain’t so.

* the movie MATCH POINT, one of my all-time favorites, is an excellent example of this

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the three key parts of your author platform framework

One of my goals is to learn about author platform through study, trial and error so that you don’t have to.

If your tactics involve the actual tools you use (blogging, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), your strategy involves an overarching sense of how everything fits together: what Chris Brogan calls a simple presence framework or Michael Hyatt calls a social media strategy or many others refer to as a social media framework…and what you might come to think of as “that freaking platform thing.”

I’ve been playing around with my own sense of visualizing the different components of a social media framework/strategy and how you move through it.

Because you do have to move. If one of the first things you need to do is identify who your potential readers are, the second thing is to identify where they like to hang out…so you can go there and win them over. Your goal is to discover your Tribe — those people most likely to develop into your True Fans who will make a writing career possible — and gather them to you. And discover is an active verb: it doesn’t mean you can sit on your ass on your blog and expect magic to happen.

It also doesn’t mean you can spam people with invites to be your Facebook fan or push yourself at them in any way. It’s a slow and long-term process of seduction. The first issue is knowing who to seduce. Not everyone will respond to your charms, and that’s fine; you’re not interested in everyone. You want those with the magnificent taste to appreciate your work, your style, your voice, your content, all of which adds up to the experience of you online (otherwise known as your brand). Let it be a self-selected group. Show up, say interesting things, give people stuff that they actually want, be witty and attractive. Don’t be pushy. Pull them to you through the dazzling power of your charisma, your ability to engage and entertain (otherwise known as “offering value”).

Your strategy has three different layers. I am going to refer to them as your house, your downtown, and your suburbs.

YOUR HOUSE.

This is where you live on the Web and offer your books and services. It is your lair. It is where you wish to lure the hotties. Usually it’s your blog…preferably your self-hosted blog which no one owns but you.

You build and furnish your house with excellent content that is frequently updated and keeps people coming back. You must aim for quality and quantity. Your home then becomes the “meaningful social object” that people gather round, in what hopefully becomes a growing little community.

A blog is different from a novel, and the blogger plays a different role than a novelist. A blog becomes something that is co-created by you and the readers who extend your blog post and burnish it with their own insights through their comments. Comments increase the value of the blog post, which increases the “value of meaning” for the community, which increases the value for you. It’s like the circle of life. You enrich them, and they enrich you, which allows you to enrich them more, which enables them to enrich you more…and so on.

In other words, the more you give, the more you get (but you should not give just to get, because people see through that, and as soon as they think they’re being manipulated or marketed or sold to, they’re gone).

Give your face off.

So content creation leads to community which leads to collaboration which, hopefully, leads to collective action: your community supports your work, buys your books, and creates that awesome white magic known as “word-of-mouth”.

Yes, it’s easier said than done. And yes, it takes the kind of time that nobody has (I am writing this at 3 am while my kids sleep next door and downstairs). Which is why you have to genuinely want to do this. Passion finds a way.

YOUR DOWNTOWN

These are the places, the microsites or social networking sites, that are like the favorite cafes and bars where you go all the time. You become a regular and strike up conversations with the other regulars and soon everybody knows your name (okay, maybe not everybody…)

You go to these places to discover new potential tribe members and deepen connections with existing ones. Chris Brogan refers to these places as “outposts” and Jon Dale calls them “embassies”. (My downtown, for example, is my Twitter and Facebook and Livejournal). If people like you enough, are intrigued by you, and curious to know more about you, they’ll click on a link that you thoughtfully and conveniently provide in your profile that takes them to your house. If they really like you, they’ll keep going back to your house, and maybe bring a friend or two. They might even crash on your couch.

YOUR SUBURBS

These are the places on the outer edges of your involvement: you might not be a fully participating member, but you show up now and then and look around and listen to what’s going on.

You set up profiles.

These profiles do two things: they allow other people to stumble across you, and they allow you to join in on conversations you might discover while you’re there, or follow from another site. Some of these suburban areas might eventually get incorporated into your downtown (for example, I aspire to be more active on Goodreads and Youtube).

Evolving and developing a social media strategy allows you to be there before the sale: when your book comes out, you’ll have established enough of a (hopefully) influential and trusted presence that people will be willing to buy it. In its crudest definition, an “author platform” is the number of people willing to buy your book at any given time. It doesn’t happen overnight, or in a month, or in three months (Seth Godin puts the process at three years). It involves enthusiasm, exploration, and a hell of a lot of listening, which is so important it deserves its own blog post.

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