Nov 112015
Let's see ... working at the computer. While on the phone. While listening to something. Good luck with that.

Let’s see … working at the computer. While on the phone. While listening to something. Good luck with that.

I think it was in the 1980s or 90s when McDonalds tried to expand its dinner menu. With pizza.

Many fast food aficionados were waiting in line for that first slice. Myself? Not so much, but that’s only because I’m something of a downer.

“Well,” I remember saying, “That’ll be two things it can’t do.”

When people talk of multitasking these days, I still think about McDonalds pizza. (If all this is making you hungry, you can still get McDonalds pizza in West Virginia and in Ohio.)

When people mention multitasking, I flash back to Mickey D’s pizza abortion. Trying to do too many things usually means nothing gets done. At least not well.

Is this what your brain becomes after multitasking enough?

Is this what your brain becomes after multitasking enough?

But in the day-job world, they like multitaskers. If you can do many things at once, so much the better. With today’s uncertain economy, employers want the workers to take on more tasks to offset labor costs and replace a few people. Without the bump in pay, of course.

If you’re the creative/artistic type, multitasking is also a big deal. So many irons in the fire, and we may be more prone to squirrel-chasing than the average person.

Here’s the deal. You’re really not multitasking. You’re switching back and forth from one task to another. You’re switching from email to writing, from Facebook to playing music, from taking that robo-call to getting back to work.

Okay. So what? Maybe this article from Fast Company gives you a clue:

“We found about 82 percent of all interrupted work is resumed on the same day. But here’s the bad news — it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.”

Wow. That’s almost a half hour. Per switch. Considering the number of switches you’re asked to do in a day, how does anything get done?

It’s official. You interrupt me, I charge you for a half hour at my going rate. Time and a half for ticking me off.

Think a 9-to-5 boss will go for that?

How about that robo-caller?

Applications …

So how do I cope with those interruptions? I share my favorite method in my email newsletter, plus I have a whole bunch of linkage and further reading.

View the latest issue here. If you like what you see, subscribe there.


Jul 312015

I’m here. Now what?

It’s really weird how it happens. I’m on top of the mountain and things never look the same/

It’s always fun nailing a big goal or finishing that huge project, but then I have no idea what I’m supposed to do next.

My own career track — and later my frelance pattern — runs something like this:

1) Work like a deranged beaver toward some goal.

2) Achieve said goal.

3) Decompress.

4) Holy crap, this job suddenly got difficult and I can’t stay interested.

5) Not giving a rip.

6) Career change just to keep me interested in something.

Maybe I’m not the most stable person around, but a Harvard Business Review piece suggests it’s not just me:

“High-stress situations and the adrenaline rush they produce can be addictive. When the constant sense of urgency we’ve adapted to comes to an abrupt halt, we experience withdrawal.”

Okay, so I’m an adrenaline junkie. Tell me something new.

But again, I’m not the only crazy fool around here. A 30-year-old Michael Jordan did this in ’93 when he abruptly retired from basketball. He wanted to try his hand at baseball (and the tabloids suggested he had other reasons for quitting) but he’d already established himself as the best baller known to man. So what’s a guy like that do next?

HBR suggests things like gearing down a little to restock the pond, finding a fresh new project or being a mentor.

I don’t have a real answer here. Best thing I can think of is to do it again. While I was doing final draft on my most recent fiction work I was already scribbling out scenarios for the next one. Fifteen days after hitting Publish I was pounding on the typewriter for yet another first draft. So I had 15 days to decompress, semi-sorta outline, prewrite some scenes and maybe take a day or two off. Oh yes, and do a little something to celebrate and mark the occasion. Can’t forget that. But get ready to hit that next project.

How about you? Any suggestions or ideas? Please share.

May 222015

Nut graf: I already know I’m not as good as the masters, but does it really matter?

I can't compare myself with somebody else until I've been through his trash.

I can’t compare myself with somebody else until I’ve been through his trash.

Of course I fall into the trap of comparing myself to others. It’s an occupational disease that any creator in good standing can tell you about.

There’s always going to be someone who can kick my tail. I get that. I’ll never be as good as John Steinbeck or Miles Davis. It’s just not in the cards even with those extra aces I keep in my shirt pocket.

But someone called this to my attention. Self-comparison isn’t a fair fight anyway. I can compare myself to the other writer or musician across town, but I haven’t surfed his dumpster lately.

Any creator who enjoys even a bit of success is going to generate a lot of hot garbage. Might even have a commercial account with the local waste haulers for all I know.

Let’s say you went back in time and you’re in Havana or Key West or wherever Ernest Hemingway was working. You see his trash can and, looking both ways — ratting through someone’s garbage late at night looks pretty suspicious — and you go through it.

What would you find?

Besides the whiskey bottles and cigarette butts you’ll find pages and pages of handwritten or typed work. This is a real find, right? You read through them and realize you could do better than that. Maybe the whiskey bottles are a clue here.

What you see on the open market is the best of Hemingway’s best. Many drafts. Much fine tuning. Polished beyond polished. Even his worst published work is awe-inspiring. But the stuff in his dumpster? Not so much.

Kind of changes the equation, huh?

That’s the fallacy of self-comparison. I only see my rival’s or virtual mentor’s best work.

With mine, I see all of it. The good, the bad, the butt-ugly.

For my own reasons I like to work the old-school way. On paper for the first drafts. I keep them in a 12″x12″ box, and not quite halfway through 2015 I filled it halfway up. That’s a lot o’trash.

My current work took up more than a ream of paper, and it’s all going to get thrown out anyway. Or saved in that box as a visual reminder of how much written BS I can truly generate.

All of it is fixable. Each time I rewrite the quality improves by a couple of degrees. As far as the first drafts go, though, they’re totally experimental and I don’t have to admit to doing them.

The truth is that I know I’m not in the same league as these guys.

What’s equally true is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is doing the things that fall within my own strengths, and knowing the great ones are every bit as capable of turning out terrible stuff as I am.

Mar 062015
Do I take my chances hitting the dip, or just deep-six the whole thing?

Do I take my chances hitting the dip, or just deep-six the whole thing?

Seth Godin wrote about The Dip some time ago, and you can almost guarantee you’ll hit it when you’re doing a great work.

The only way to avoid that dip is to quit the project before you get there, but for me that’s not an option.

I’m completing my latest novel (Desert Vendetta) and will publish Part I on Amazon in about a week (there’s a preview .pdf here), and it was touch and go whether I’d finish.

Sure, there’s resistance all through the course, but the big bohunkas is at the end … real close to the end … when you hit that dip.

Hit it wrong and you’ll tear your bottom out. Or worse.

Don’t hit it at all, and that means the project will never get done.

Hit it nice and easy, and you’ll feel it. But you’ll get past it.

This project was a bear. It almost croaked in the starting blocks.

It almost was forgotten because some other projects looked so much better at the time.

It almost fell by the wayside as I dealt with a family tragedy. Okay, that’s a good enough reason; if you continue working through something like that there may be something wrong with you. But at some point it’s time to pick that back up again. I almost didn’t.

Then, the third draft. Dip approaching.

You can tell when you’re at that point. The work is no longer fun. In fact, you’re beginning to hate it. You see all these miles of bad road in front of you and wonder what you were smoking when you decided to take this project.

Sometimes it’s best to just cut the losses and go. A bad boss. A relationship gone south. That investment in hairless chinchillas isn’t as promising as it looked. The Dip is a good time to bail.

But if it’s your own project, your own baby, you might want to push on. Like the man said:

I felt it. Rather than bouncing out of my rack every morning ready to attack it I’m finding other things to do. The palm trees are taking over the yard and I need to tear them down. I need to clean the cobwebs and rat carcasses out of the attic. I’d rather bob for French fries before doing this project.

(Fast disclaimer: I don’t think I’ve ever bounced out of bed all ready to go in my life. But you get the idea.)

All the mental talk started ganging up on me:

  • This work is so not good.
  • I have too many highly inappropriate scenes that don’t move the story.
  • That scene is just not realistic. Rip it apart and redo it. Doesn’t matter if I did that five times already, it needs a wrecking ball.
  • I need to do more research, editing or mental (fill in the blank) before I can go.
  • I hate my computer.
  • I hate this project. Been working on it for nine months and it gets worse and worse every time I look at it.
  • You mean I put nine months into the process and all I got was this butt-ugly baby?
  • I have more personal roadblocks.
  • If I run out of those personal roadblocks I’ll have to invent some more.
  • Etc.
  • Etc.
  • Etc.

I’m not sure why I even bothered.

Maybe because I thought maybe the baby might turn out beautiful despite what I had to work with?

Maybe I hate the thought of investing all this time into the project and basically flushing it away?

Maybe because, at this stage in life, quitting isn’t an option?

Maybe I’m too dumb to know when I’m shovelling horse dung against the tide?

Maybe I was being intentional about making it through the dip.

Sit down, buckle up, shut up and hang on.

(What do you think? Have you hit that dip yet? How did you approach it? Please share in the comments below.)

Disclaimer: The book links are either a) through an affiliate program and I get a small commission for each sale, or b) my own product. Either way, we both gain.

Jan 302015
If that great idea gets in the way of the story, it might need killing.

If that great idea gets in the way of the story, it might need killing.

We’ve been on the subject of killing things lately, which suggests I might need to have my medication changed. But have you ever had a project going and you absolutely loved it and discovered it just won’t work?

Or how about that nifty turn of phrase or a great scene that doesn’t move the story along? That amazing instrumental solo that does more to derail the song than make it work? That incredible innovation that you’re in love with but actually scatters energy from your business?

I’m guilty of that. I tend to get a little picturesque in my language when I talk or write. Perhaps a particularly graphic one-liner, like “I’d rather gargle razor blades than do ________,”

Okay. That’s great. Expresses the mood very well. But somehow the listener/reader homes in on that description and loses focus on the message or story. Breaks the chain of thought. It’s effective but it’s not.

Creating can be bloody work, especially when editing.

Creating can be bloody work, especially when editing.

Stephen King urges the writer to “murder your darlings.” Yeah. Rip it out of the typewriter and deny ever seeing it. For the good of his story.

By inference this concept holds true for any artist or innovator.

Let’s say you’re developing a whiz-bang computer program. Maybe a writing app, just for the sake of the discussion. You might include a couple million lines of code that will make that program brew your coffee and go online to find some writing music for the user. You as the designer might be in love with these extra bells and whistles, but how about the user? He just wants to write, and he can brew his own coffee and find his own music. Meanwhile, the program itself is so bloated from all this extra code that it hangs up the computer.

Okay. Stupid illustration, but you get the idea. Better to eliminate that extra code.

I hate having to get rid of that pet phrase, that instrumental solo. But if it gets in the way of moving the work along, it’s time to murder my darlings. Again.

Jan 232015
Ever felt like doing this to your work?

Ever felt like doing this to your work?

John Steinbeck almost killed The Grapes Of Wrath before he even sent it out. He almost ate his young.

He already completed it and hated it. He wrote a letter to his editor saying his work was unpublishable. Didn’t meet his standards. A bad book.

“I know, you could sell possibly 30,000 copies,” he wrote. “I know that a great many people would think they liked the book. I myself have built up a hole-proof argument on how and why I liked it. I can’t beat the argument but I don’t like the book… Not once in the writing of it have I felt the curious warm pleasure that comes when work is going well.”

Ol’ John was ready to chow down on his offspring. Ewww!.

According to Live Science, quite a few animals eat their young. Some species of finches do, and if you’ve ever had tropical fish you might have seen momma give birth to a litter (is that what they call them?) and scarf them down right away. While researching for this piece I pulled up Youtube videos of hamsters and cats munching on their little ones, but I’m not going to provide links here. If you’re that sick (obviously I am) you can do your own stinkin’ Web search.

Artists also eat their young. I’ve done that by forgetting about a project and coldly deleting all traces from the hard drive.

In one of my novels I related a scene where the protagonist read the first draft of her work and didn’t like what she saw:

“This sucks.”

She read for the next two hours, liking less and less of her work. The red ink flowed across the pages, and her floor was covered with paper. More fix-it notes went down in her notebook.

“This really, really sucks.”

She went into her kitchen and pulled out her empty metal wastebasket from under the sink. Loaded all her work – all 75,000 words of it, a good size for a novel – in it and placed it in the middle of the kitchen floor. Opened all her apartment windows, turned on her window fans, went back to the wastebasket, and struck a match.

She felt better as she watched the paper burn.

You know I was taking it a little personally as I wrote this. Funny thing, when I read that chapter to a writer’s critique group many of the listeners winced. That’s when I knew I struck a chord, but then it could have been the quality of my writing.

That manuscript, by the way, was from a project that saw a little retroactive birth control. I wrote a different story line some years ago and eventually trashed it (through a more peaceful means than by fire) but I liked the characters enough to keep them.

I’m not sure why I killed that project. Maybe the time wasn’t right. Maybe it needed killing. Maybe it just needed some work, a little tweaking, a different perspective. Maybe I needed to practice my craft more, or live life more, or something. Maybe it was my brain telling me lies again.

Good thing Steinbeck got on the ball, maybe fine-tuned his manuscript a bit, and finally released it. It’s the novel that, probably more than any other, is most closely associated with Steinbeck’s name.

Maybe eating your young is a necessary step in the process, but be sure to save some leftovers. They may be salvageable.


You tell me: Have you eaten your young?

(Disclaimer: One of the links is an affiliate link and I get a commission for each item sold. Another is a link to my own book where, duh …)

Dec 112014
You don't want to know what goes in.

You don’t want to know what goes in.

A few of us get together every week for a jam session and try new and creative ways of screwing up familiar and unfamiliar songs.

And you know what? It’s a lot of fun.

There are four in the core group: a lead guitarist, a rhythm guitarist, a bassist who doubles on piano, and me. We have others, but these are the ones who show up every week.

We also have a few people coming in just to listen. Love ’em. They must be really tolerant or totally deaf, because sometimes what we do sounds pretty bad. Like geese farts on a muggy day? You bet.

We have our moments, but we call that thing we do “making sausage.” You don’t want to know what’s in it and you probably don’t want to watch us make it. Unless you’re brave.

That’s the creative process for you. It’s ugly. You don’t want to watch. It’s embarassing. If you want to project the image that you have your stuff together all the time, you’d avoid doing this at all costs. And you sure don’t want to do this stuff in front of people.

But that’s where we grow. Forget about grabbing the side of the pool at the shallow end and working on the kick, you’re learning to swim by jumping off a boat. But that’s not an apt analogy. A better one would be if there are people in deck chairs watching you struggle to stay afloat, holding signs like 6.4, 5.5 and the like. You’re not going to see any 10.0’s.

Making sausage is one bold act. But it’s an essential part of the creative process, with or without the audience.

Talk to me: What messes are you making this week? Please share.

Nov 152014
Got to love this old ad. Despite the lack of political correctness it did give birth to a great catch phrase.

Got to love this old ad. Despite the lack of political correctness it did give birth to a great catch phrase.

Quickly: Who said, “Getting there is half the fun?”

If you said Cunard Lines, congratulations. For what, I’m not sure — either for collecting that useless nugget of information or for being seriously old. The pitch is from the early 1950s, before I was even around.

Okay. Is getting there half the fun of creating?

My first shrink seemed to think so. She was into that oo-ee-ooey stuff about presence and mindfulness and the sound of one hand clapping, so in my mind her credibility was shot. But she suggested the idea of enjoying the process.

Who? Wha’? I’m all about results. Did I complete x work? Is it up on Amazon? Is it getting read? Those are the important things. Enjoy the process? What kind of foolery is that?

Except she may have been right.

Seth Godin recently said enjoying the process takes guts. You’re working without the end in sight. This runs counter to the way I’m wired, and maybe it’s the opposite of how many others like to work.

But it’s fun. It’s getting into that high-performance car that might even scare Tony Stewart. You fire it up, feel the vibration of the engine, listen to the roar, take off in a cloud of dust and burnt rubber.

Not because you’re in a hurry, but because it’s fun.

For me, the act of writing is sometimes a drag. I have word counts. I have deadlines. I have standards (believe it or not!). I have mental shutdowns when the words don’t come, distractions that look a whole lot more attractive than my work, a hangnail that’s killing me when I type.

But I also have the opportunity to play what-if with my characters. To build a whole world, even if it’s not as elaborate as those of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis or J.K. Rowling. Shall I use an existing city that I know for my setting or build a whole new one? Who gets to play? What kind of characters do I want? How shall I move the story along — lime pit or mine shaft? How about the good old-fashioned wood chipper?

Now that’s fun.

Practicing scales is not fun. Playing that same piece for the 40th time today is not fun. Diving into a musical hole so you can find your way out — now that’s fun.

But Seth’s right. I’m not even thinking about the end product. Deciding what species of shark to feed the body to — or deciding whether to transpose from C to A minor — doesn’t necessarily take the result into consideration. Shoot, it might not even make it into the final product. It’s just fun.

Maybe getting there all the fun and the actual result is anticlimactic. Reckon?



Oct 172014
That great idea sure outlived its usefulness. It neds to go.

That great idea sure outlived its usefulness. It neds to go.

I killed a project this week. Took a rag and some Mr. Clean and wiped all evidence of it from my whiteboard at home.

That’s the first step. Some of my social media sites give reference to this project and those also need to be changed. Everything must go.

This project was a longstanding blogging-for-hire idea. Now is not a good time to implement it, I keep thinking about it, and it’s now a distraction. It’s another squirrel to chase while I have other projects that are more in tune with my goals.

It needed killing.

Sometimes I have to do this. Go through my list of projects and do triage. Which ones live? Which ones die? This is a job that requires an itchy trigger finger.

This does sound like that ol’ debbil Resistance at work, but in truth maybe it was Resistence that gave birth to some projects. Or maybe they seemed like a good idea at the time. Maybe they were expedient. But after a while it became evident they weren’t the right ones.

I’d written about this before, but there are a few signs that a project needs killing:

You’re not enthusiastic about it

This could mean anything, including the fatigue that comes with the long slog of any creative endeavor. Bit if my heart is not in something, it most likely means it’s not the right project for me. At least I hope so, and there’s some measure of faith needed here.

Your proposed delivery date is “soon” rather than something definite

“Coming soon” means about the same as “later.” “Sometime.” “When I get around to it.” It’s intention, which changes just about whenever the wind does. If your six-year-old wants to know when he can grow a Duck Dynasty beard, chances are your answer is “soon.”

Ooo … kayy. Soon? Like when the Cubs win the World Series? Are we talking days, weeks, human years, dog years?

Robert D. Smith, a marketing/branding expert who we Web types know as TheRobertD, puts it succinctly. “Coming soon” is a tease. “I feel you’ve wasted my time, because I came wanting more information and nothing was there,” he says.

Ouch. That one kinda hurts. But think about it.

It’s the kiss of death for so many of my projects. That album I was going to record? Soon. That novel I started writing in college? Soon. That blogging-for-hire business? Soon.

So it becomes time for me to stop fooling myself. “Soon” is just something that gets bumped further and further back on my priority list. Right now it’s just clutter, and even when I cast a few stray thoughts that way it’s still too many. Kill it.

But here’s the rub. Those two factors could also mean the project is important and I’m just delaying much-needed implementation. It’s that roadblock designed to throw me off course. How do I tell the difference?

Short answer: I don’t know. Or maybe I really do know, but my own insecurities are telling me tales. But I have some clues. What am I doing instead of that project that needs killing?

  • I could be working on that novel that’s been possessing my brain for many months.
  • I could be working on yet another unattainable project or one that looks good in the short term. Another shiny object. Sometimes it’s hard to tell that from the real deal, though.
  • I could be watching daytime TV and drinking a lot of beer. That one’s a dead giveaway. According to the rules of creative engagement and resistance, the more-attractive project is usually something like that.

In my case the more attractive project is the novel. But I think what makes it the real deal is that it’s getting done. Real work. Actual writing. A couple of roadblocks, but the thing is in second draft right now. Plus it’s more in line with my goals.

At least I hope I’m right.

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