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.

Feb 192015

In his colossal bestseller The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey spends a lot of time discussing what he calls “sharpening the saw.” As if it’s important or something.

Abe Lincoln put it this way:

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Sharpening the saw — or axe — is basically what you think it is. Investing in your craft. Investing in yourself. Working on your, uhh, chops. But there’s a whole lot more to it than that.

That thing needs to be sharpened.

That thing needs to be sharpened.

Anyone who knows about knives will tell you about it. A dull blade is dangerous. You’re more likely to slip and chop off fingers. Also consider this: They tell me it’s a whole lot more painful to chop off your fingers with a dull blade than with a sharp one. That’s what I’m told, though I am not going to check on it myself. There are limits to good journalism.

Okay. At first glance this whole saw-sharpening thing runs counter to the whole just-do-it emphasis of this blog. At least until you take it within the context of creativity.

You might have noticed I oppose the thought of sitting around waiting for inspiration. That just doesn’t happen. And I resist the idea of making sure you have the right tools to do your work. For writers, I mean not waiting around until I have the latest whiz-bang writing program, a computer that does everything including making your coffee, the right brand of pen and a Moleskine note pad.

I’m not talking about acquiring new tools. I’m talking about taking care of the tools I already have.

Sharpening the saw is like an athlete’s training. A guy’s not gonna get up from the couch, throw away the empties and through-hike the Appalachian Trail. Not without logging some serious time on some other trail with 35 pounds on his back, anyway.

For a musician, the saw-sharpening means a lot of practice. Developing the muscle memory and speed on his instrument. But most of it is in listening, and not just to music. Time to listen to the sounds around you, musical or not — a train, birds tweeting, conversation, even traffic.

For my writing it’s things like getting out and hanging with people, listening to good music, taking a long walk with my dog, getting into some good reading even if it’s not in my genre, and drinking strong coffee. Basically living life.

I guess you could say I spend a certain number of hours hammering out my work. All the rest of my waking hours are spent with the whetstone.

All of this off-hours saw-sharpening activity clears the way for inspiration, even though it looks like it has nothing to do with my at-the-keyboard time.

But it does.

If my saw is sharp enough to shave with, then I’m right where I need to be. I’m ready for The Muse, if and when she does pay a visit.

And if she doesn’t, fickle little wench that she is, it doesn’t matter. I’m in position, using my sharpened and oiled tools, getting stuff down.

Again, though, there’s that right balance. I could spend so much time sharpening that saw that I don’t have time to actually do anything with it. I can only read so many books, listen to so many podcasts, listen to so much music that I never get around to doing some of that myself. Overpreparation is nothing but procrastination that sounds good.

That’s why I assign myself daily word counts and make actual dates with the keyboard. At least that crazy lady knows where to find me should she arrive with the Muse dust.

But I still need to spend serious time honing my tools. That saw must be sharp.

# # #

Disclaimer: This link is through my affiliate account, so I get a commission for any sales. That said, I still recommend the book. I’m reading it now, in fact.



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 …)

Jan 162015
If there's an exit in sight, I'll take it. Therefore ...

If there’s an exit in sight, I’ll take it. Therefore …

I up and did it. I’m tooling along on a draft and had no idea what to do next. Not a clue.

Red alert.

Now, here’s the thing. If I had just a hundred pages or so, it would be easy. Just junk the whole thing, or set it aside and revisit it a couple months or years or decades later. But I had way more than that invested.

No way out.

Funny thing. When my back is up against the wall like that, interesting things happen. It’s what Andrei Nana called it in Psych Central: The no-exit strategy.

Simply put, if there’s an escape in sight I’ll take it.

If my only option is to complete the work, I’ll complete the work.

This idea isn’t new, Nana says. A couple of thousand years ago Sun-Tzu laid it out in the Art Of War:

“Throw your soldiers into positions whence there is no escape, and they will prefer death to flight. If they will face death, there is nothing they may not achieve. Officers and men alike will put forth their uttermost strength.”

Implementing any sort of change often requires the no-exit strategy. If someone decides to lose a whole bunch of weight to look good in a bathing suit, it may or may not happen. But if a doctor tells that person to lose that weight in order to stay alive, that ups the ante considerably. The only exit is feet first, so that becomes the commitment strategy.

Okay. Changing a habit to save your life is a whole different animal than finishing a writing project. The stakes are different. However, the strategies remain the same.

Get rid of the exit strategies and there’s only one way to go. Through it.


Jan 092015
If necessity is the mother, "what if" is the daddy.

If necessity is the mother, “what if” is the daddy.

What if you built a golf course in the desert?

What if you made a computer so simple your grandfather could run it? Then, what if you made that computer into a work of art rather than just a plain white box?

What if you made a car that even working folks could afford?

What if a military-grade superflu wiped out 99 percent of the world’s population and the survivors had to recreate society? What if they had to choose between good and evil while doing so?

What if a company tries a contest to attract customers and everything goes wrong? What if it decides killing the winners is the answer? (Whoops, that one was mine.)

What if you took a pop tune and gave it a jazz treatment?

What if you were able to replicate a dinosaur’s DNA and turn that idea into an amusement park? (Don’t try this at home, kids.)

What if you could create a hamburger that can be made quickly, in enough volume to serve billions and tasting the same every time?

“What if” is one of the roots of all creative processes. Architect David Rockwell thinks so. He says he’s into hybrids — nailing together two things that were never nailed together before, as George Carlin once said.

Mel Brooks told the Los Angeles Times about the birth of one of his movies, and how it came from actor Gene Wilder’s what-if:

“I was in the middle of shooting the last few weeks of Blazing Saddles somewhere in the Antelope Valley, and Gene Wilder and I were having a cup of coffee and he said, I have this idea that there could be another Frankenstein. I said not another — we’ve had the son of, the cousin of, the brother-in-law, we don’t need another Frankenstein. His idea was very simple: What if the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein wanted nothing to do with the family whatsoever. He was ashamed of those wackos. I said, “That’s funny.”

The result, Young Frankenstein, gave us one of the great comedy scenes of all time:

That same question, in some iteration or other, gave us things like Palm Springs, the MacIntosh and iEverything, the Model T, Stephen King’s The Stand, John Coltrane’s greatest works, Jurassic Park and McDonalds. Yeah, some of these innovations worked out a little better than others, but you get the idea.



Jan 022015
Without that creative outlet, who knows what will happen?

Without that creative outlet, who knows what will happen?

I found this post in Buffer Open, a site put together by a pretty decent Web service. Call it a primer of the creative process.

You may already know most of this stuff, but it’s a good way to start the year. The writer, Kevan Lee, lays out the following 17 ideas here. The comments are my own:

1. You’re as creative as anyone: What I create is the sum of my life and experiences, good and bad. I try to use everything in my writing and music, and hopefully it puts my own unique spin on things. I think the prerequisite to creativity is living a life.

2. Never underestimate the value of a creative outlet: Musicians gotta play, writers gotta write, and entrepreneurs gotta start a new business. Without these outlets, I get into a lot of hey-y’all-watch-this moments. Scary.

3. Make time for creativity. The same time. Every day: I have my evenings for that. Start at six, shut down at 10 to make dinner. My dog stands guard at the door during that time to warn me of intruders.

4. Embrace constraints: A job? A family? Crappy computer? The only creative time available is 15 minutes reclining in the head? Just finding the time/tools to get going takes creativity.

5. Trying and failing is better than never trying at all: I won’t even know if the idea is any good unless I take an honest whack at it. It takes me a while to know whether the story line is the bomb or is just gonna bomb until I’ve read through the completed first draft.

6. Be prepared to toss your best ideas: For each blog post I write, I have two or three that will never see the light of day and those are flat-out brilliant. I have several book projects in me that won’t work now. I can find them on my computer and I can revisit them later. Some, again, will never be written. That’s okay too.

7. Soak up all the influence you can: I’m a big reader because that’s what writers do. Maybe some ideas — even word usage or ways to turn a phrase — might stick to my brain.

8. Collect what inspires you: That’s why I love biographies. According to my Goodreads log I’ve read a few good ones: Steve Jobs (Walter Isaacson), American Sniper (Chris Kyle), Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand), My Cross To Bear (Gregg Allman), everything by Steven Pressfield. Currently reading: Wild (Cheryl Strayed).

9. Creativity is about making connections: I try to seek out peers, other writers and musicians, entrepreneurs and r&d types. I still need to connect up with a few movers and shakers. But it’s better to connect with these people because I enjoy their company rather than just a career move.

10. Others will be better than you. And that’s a good thing: They tell me life really stinks when you’re at the top. Even as ambitious as I am, I hope I never find out. It’s like running out of goals. Bad thing. Besides …

11. Surround yourself with greatness: If you can, include the people from #10. If I can’t hang out with them in person, I’ll study their work. Some of it will rub off on me.

12. Create without thinking: That one’s for me because I’m an overthinker. But some of my best work is almost stream of consciousness. It’s also terrible, but that’s why I edit.

13. It’s okay to create alone: Even though so many people pay lip service to creativity, it scares many of them. They won’t be on board with me. But that’s fine with me.

14. Start something today: While it’s still called “today.”

15. You’ll love the rush when you ship it: I published my first novel standing up at a table in a McDonalds in Charleston SC. I know I did a happy dance as soon as I hit “submit” and everyone moved away from my table. I didn’t care.

16. Go big with your goals: Of course, cracking the bestseller list is always good, but it depends too much on other people. So shipping two novels and two nonfiction ebooks in 2015 looks pretty good.

17. Create what you enjoy: I moved away from writing crappy web content for questionable sites because, although they were paying me fairly well, I hated it. I think creating what I enjoy will be my theme for 2015.

Thoughts, anyone?


Dec 192014
Your crowd is one of the things that shapes you.

Your crowd is one of the things that shapes you.

I can’t remember who said it, but if you want to know what someone is like, look at his five closest friends. If they hang out at the tavern every night and watch football, you can bet the person in question does the same thing.

If the person runs with people who live from paycheck to paycheck, you can almost guarantee it. You know our friend also does. Especially true if our man (gasp) asks his friends for investment advice.

I totally believe this. Which is why I like to hang out with talented people. Writers, musicians, entrepreneurs. It’s likely I’ll catch what they’ve got, or at least pay more attention to those special things I bring to the world.

I think I wrote about it once … matter of fact, I built an entire novel around that concept. But the idea remains the same. Talented people band together even if they’re not involved in a group project, and the end result is greater than the parts.

I’m not even thinking about folks I might want to work with or people who might buy whatever it is I’m pushing. These are folks who can set an example for me, who might encourage me, and especially people I might encourage.

It’s even better if the people I run with are at about the same level as I am, with some who are ahead of me. This isn’t a contest to see who’s the smartest guy around; I’d rather have at least a few folks who can show me a thing or two. Even better if they’re willing to push me.

Hang around with the pros. That’s a good recipe for growth.

Gregg Allman said in his autobiography that if you moved a bunch of random people into a strange town, the musicians will find each other faster than anyone else. I’m finding this is true as I set up shop in this strange town I live in now.

I’m using sites like Meetup to run across other writers and musicians. Going where the people hang out. Getting into networking. As 2015 kicks off one of the #giantsteps I plan to do is hook up with a Toastmasters group. That organization is top-heavy in high-achieving types, just the ones I want to hang with.


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.