Fear and the writing life

There’s nothing particularly scary about writing. You’re not in any imminent danger sitting down at your computer to type a few words and there aren’t any life threatening consequences to missing a looming deadline or not finishing that novel, yet there are so many out there that struggle to get started.

Fear is insidious. It’s not as if we go around avoiding work because it is scary, instead we dress it up and call it procrastination. Nobody likes to face uncertainty and maintaining focus gets more difficult the larger your goal.

The urge to procrastinate is directly correlated how much a writing project means to you. The reason is that larger goals mean higher personal stakes and the consequences for failure can feel like it’s going to crush you.

Procrastination is a mechanism to avoid dealing with the fear of failure. It’s impossible to fail if you don’t attempt it at all, but you can’t achieve anything without trying. If you are not careful, It’s easy to fall into a cycle of putting things off until anxiety builds up to the point where you are forced to take action.

This is an inefficient and very stressful way to work that rarely leads to consistent results  because forced action is not positive. Writing projects quickly become a slog through the mud then it won’t take long before your goals will feel unattainable.

Following through with a large writing goal takes patience, persistence and a healthy dose of courage. It requires facing the fear of failure and working in spite of it time and again. There are plenty of instances to quit when your dreams take weeks, months or even years to complete so it’s important to have a plan for following through when faced with the inevitable doubts that may lead you into the procrastination trap.

Here are my five rules for following through:  

1. Acknowledge the fact that you will face many obstacles
2. Accept it will be difficult.
3. Try your hardest when it’s time to work.
4. Celebrate when that time is up.
5. Repeat until you’ve achieved your goal.

Procrastination also means choosing to work on things that are not important. It can still feel like you’ve accomplished something like beating a video game or finishing a movie you’ve always wanted to watch, but it’s still time spent on something other than your goal.

The other side of following through is knowing whether you’re simply “working” or working toward something. Here are a few tips that may help get back on track:

• Personal organization- It is about clarity. It’s about knowing what you are up against so that those tasks that seem so daunting look a lot simpler. Fear is predicated on the unknown so when you don’t have a plan then it’s easy to procrastinate.

• Make sure first things are really first- The first step is to figure out what it is you truly want then how to achieve it. Next is a matter of acting with integrity and making those steps a priority in your life. Making a choice to follow through doesn’t happen on paper, it done through actions. The only way to show you’re serious is to put the important things first and foremost in your life.

• Know how to struggle- Nothing worthwhile is ever easy so just accept you’re going to hit obstacles and work through them. There is a difference between working hard and struggling to achieve something.
Working hard is aimless and without direction. You can work hard at reading, cleaning your bathroom or washing the dishes. Struggle means overcoming an obstacle. It implies there is an obstacle in the first place and you can’t have an obstacle without a goal.

• Make sure you want it bad enough- We’re conditioned to be motivated by something whether it’s external or internal. The ticket to overcoming fear is being motivated by the latter.
External motivations foster resentment, a feeling of “doing it because you have to.” This is a very disempowering way to work because you are never really in control over what you are doing.
Struggling to achieve a goal is difficult as it is, but it’s even harder when you haven’t really taken ownership over it in the first place.
Internal motivation means the goals are your own. It’s something you’ve thought about, decided on and are committed to achieving. These type of goals may be suggested by others, but only belong to you. These goals can’t be manufactured and you can’t be ordered to do them because you’ve made a choice to try and achieve them.    

• Trust your instincts- If you’re really clear about what your goals are then it’s easy to know what is the right or wrong thing to be doing with your time. Guilt is a good indicator that you are making the wrong choice or about to make the wrong choice. The goal in all this is to feel good about what you are doing so if a task does not foster a sense of real accomplishment then think twice about doing it or attempting it again.

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Confidence and an organized writing life

Confidence doesn’t work the way it does in the stories. It’s not something that is imbued on a select few people like some character trait. It’s a skill that is honed and developed, but also gets dull if you don’t use it.

An organized writing life means having confidence in your own ability to finish a project no matter what it is. That confidence grows with every finished story and carries with it the necessary momentum to begin the next project with little delay. If you don’t feel confident about your writing despite the amount of work that you are doing then it’s time to take an honest look at the results and ask yourself “What did I really accomplish?”

The primary goal of organizing your writing life is to help you move forward and if something doesn’t feel like a step in the right direction then its time to reassess why you are doing it.


Hallmarks of Confidence

Principles are accepted rule of action or conduct. As you go about organizing your own writing life, it’s worthwhile to think of the principles that make a confident person so that you can judge whether you are on the right track or not.

Being clear about how any of these principles apply is essential because defining any number of these things will tell you if the steps you are taking to get organized are working or not.

Conviction-
Regrets are a good indicator that you are disorganized because it means you really want to be working on something else. A person with conviction is so sure that the things they are doing will benefit them that nothing will stop them from completing a task.

Developing the conviction necessary to finish something takes patience and effort.  It requires serious thought and asking the tough questions. Take some time to find out what writing projects you can apply this principle to. Think about what you are most passionate about. If there were no limits on your skills or abilities, what would you want to be working on all day long?

Vision-A confident well organized person thinks with the end in mind. When you are getting organized, shoot for the best and plan on obtaining it. Decide what it is that you want and then work backwards.

Having vision doesn’t mean being able to see what’s in front or behind you, but what lays ahead.  A confident person can’t necessarily tell the future, but they have a good sense of the future they want to create and never let go of it.

Integrity
The world can be quite complex, but the confident person is not. A confident person has integrity meaning— they mean what they say and do what they say at all times. When a course of action is set and all the organizing is finished, your ability to execute and follow through is the only way to adhere to this principle.

What’s sounds so simple is never easy because there will always be temptations to do something else. The more important it is, the more appealing procrastination looks because the fear of failure is amplified and we tend to run away from scary things.

If you have conviction and the vision to clearly define what it is you are doing then it is much easier to be a person of integrity. It’s hard to be fearful if you have a good sense of what your end goal looks like and have no doubts that this is the correct course of action.

If you’ve done things properly then the only thing you need to do is focus on the step that is right in front of you.


Faith
Faith is often brought up in the religious sense, but that is not what I am talking about here. I’m talking about having faith in your abilities so strong that it is unshakable.

There is a term in sports called being a bandwagon fan. Those are the people that root for a team when they know it is good and stop watching when things get ugly. If all the players on a team actually thought this way then they would never have a winning season.

When it comes to cheering for yourself, don’t be a bandwagon fan.

So often we come up with qualifiers for ourselves, reasons to say that we can’t do something. Having access to so much information can make things worse. It’s easy to “research” our way out a goal that is entirely possible.

Information is a tool, research allows you to measure the risks involved in doing something. Neither should be the rock that any particular goal or action should stand on. A confident writer— a confident person— stands on actions and goals built upon principles.

At some point the doubts have to stop, you have to draw a line in the sand and say “fuck it” I’m capable of doing this.

That may sound like harsh language, but the confident person is bulldogish about their inner space. Yes, there are doubts, but if you adhere to all the other principles: conviction, vision and integrity then there really shouldn’t be any more questions about it.

Organizing your writing life

The writing life tends to revolve around projects not necessarily a schedule. Writers tend to think in terms of the next story, article or novel, but not necessarily how much time it takes to finish.

It’s easy to get lost in a project and lose track of time working on something that matters, but it’s also easy to get frustrated if you don’t have a clear idea about when something is supposed to be finished and what the finished product is supposed to look like.

Personal organization is essential for a writer because setting boundaries ensures that you are clear about what needs to be done, how it needs to be done and when it needs to be done. Proper planning before getting started fosters a feeling of accomplishment and removes all doubt about the necessary steps to “finish something.”


Organization basics

• Figure out what matters most to you: Before starting anything, it’s important to always work on things that really mean something to you. Without passion there won’t be the will to finish. Don’t skimp on this; really think hard what you want to spend your time doing and then commit fully to getting it done.

Define the ideal: Dreaming big means defining success in the context of an ideal situation. Think from the end first by defining what you want to achieve by completing a project then go for it. When doing this, don’t compromise. Pretend as if there are no limits on your skills and everything is going to break right for you.
In the end, real life may prevent you from achieving the exact end goal you had in mind, but it’s critical to shoot for the best possible scenario. That way you will never have any regrets about making the effort.  

Set deadlines for yourself: Projects without deadlines have no weight behind them.  People tend to prioritize tasks based on urgency so if there is no deadline then there isn’t a whole lot of motivation to finish something in a timely fashion.
I feel the most resistance when it comes to this. There is always a sense that it is impossible to rush creative process; that you can’t force a novel, short story or any creative work to completion or else it will end up being bad writing.
Part of that is true, if something doesn’t feel ready then don’t move forward until it is. That might time a week or it might take a month, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set a deadline for yourself.
Deadlines allow the creative process to keep on moving. If you know that deadline for finishing that 5000 word short story is coming up in five days you are more apt to tell yourself ‘alright if I write 1000 words each day this week then I’ll be fine.

Make a list and prioritize: A journey of 1000 steps starts with one, but you also need to know what step one is. Lists are the basic tools of any organized person because making one takes out all the indecision. A large project looks far less daunting when you you know all of the things that need to be done in order to complete it.
The best way to make a list is think of every single thing that needs to be done then prioritize them in order of first to last. After that, set a realistic timeline for completing each one.

Short attention span reading and writing

Part of writing effectively is being able to make your point with an economy of words. This is a necessary skill because your audience has a short attention span and won’t wait long.

The internet makes information accessible, but it also makes people impatient. The burden that comes with being able to access vast quantities of information is making time to read all of it.  There is a reason things like Google reader, RSS feeds and any news aggregator are popular. It saves time finding relevant information so time isn’t wasted finding articles to read.

Also, most of the time people don’t finish everything they start reading anyway. Most people aren’t there to admire your wonderful writing style, they are there to gather the most relevant information then move on to the next article.

The popularity of smartphones as a medium for reading information also necessitates short attention span reading. Reading a 20 page epic post on that tiny screen is uncomfortable. Also, people who read on their phones are probably on the go and looking for 10 to 15 minutes to kill. If they don’t finish reading what you write in that span, chances are they won’t get to it later.

There are a lot of great bloggers out there with outstanding reporting skills. They know how to find information, talk to the right people and have a good sense of where the story is, but they fail to cater to the short attention span readership. There are some bloggers out there that could learn a few basic tenets of news writing because it emphasizes brevity and getting to the point quickly, which is critical to keeping short attention span readers interested in what you write.

Here are some of the basics that you could use in organizing your future writing.


Reverse pyramid

When essay writing is taught in american high schools the model is a five paragraph essay with an introduction, three points and then a conclusion. Academic writing, also teaches us to slowly build to our point by providing all the basics and background information and then hit the reader with your point.

Short attention span writing requires you to think the opposite way. You reverse the pyramid and lead with the conclusion or the “news” first and then provide all of the context after that. While many articles are more than five paragraphs, those first few graphs are the most important  because your typical reader will not finish reading what you write.

A common mistake is burying the most relevant and interesting information under a sea of background information. Avoid this by asking yourself “What’s the most relevant information here?” then begin your story from there.

Short is the best
Brevity and simplicity go hand in hand when it comes to short attention span writing. I have two hard and fast rules when it comes to writing style. No more than three sentences per paragraph and if you need more than two commas to write a sentence then find another way to say it.

Big chunks of text are your enemy and should be avoided. It’s intimidating to the short attention span reader to see long paragraph. Three sentences is more than enough to make a single point.

Long sentences with multiple clauses are difficult for the short attention span reader to get through. If you find yourself going crazy with semicolons and long dashes then break it up. One good test is to read a sentence aloud. If you need more than one breath to get through it then it’s probably too long.

Ledes, Nutgraphs and Kickers

Ledes, nutgraphs and kickers are just fancy journalism terms for parts of a story.

Typically, a lede answers the question “What’s the news?” If you want to get one part of your story perfect, it’s this one because it’s the only part that the short attention span reader is guaranteed to get through.

The lede of your story can be as short as two paragraphs or as long as five. The most important part is that a reader should come away knowing the most relevant information right off the bat.

Here is an example of a lede from a game story I wrote:

The opening round of Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs rested on the wind and a prayer on Thursday night.
Fortunately for the Benicia High School boys soccer team, the ball bounced in its favor on a blustery day at Drolette Stadium as the Panthers tied their game against Cordova 1-1 on a stoppage time goal by senior Dante Arias in the second half. They later won 4-2 on penalty kicks after 20 minutes of scoreless overtime.


Your lede usually ends when you deliver the nutgraph, which is the  second paragraph in this story. The nutgraph delivers the less interesting context in one concise chunk. It answers the basic questions of “who, what, when where and how.”

Feature stories are more complex and require longer ledes then a breaking news stories. This lede required six paragraphs with a break in between before you got the gist of what was going on.

It’s been seven years, but Bethel High School coach Jeff Turner never lets any of his players forget about Mike Pennerman. The players break the huddle during practice chanting “Ball for Dawg” in honor of a teammate they have never met.
“That’s part of our past. It’s been a standard for our school since 2004,” Turner said. “The one thing we always do is to tell them how lucky they are and to take advantage of the time they have. It hits real close to home.”
Mike Pennerman was just 16 when he collapsed on the Bethel sideline after a botched extra-point play. He died two days after taking the field with his teammates on the Jaguars football team.

*

It’s been just four weeks, and the Vallejo High School girls basketball players are still reeling from the Nov. 17 death of Vallejo Officer Jim Capoot.
For Lovina Akauola, the shooting death of Capoot still brings her tears. She still struggles with the loss of her basketball coach, mentor and father figure.
“I try to forget about what happened and act like our coach is still here,” Akauola said. “I didn’t really believe that it was him at first. There are a lot of police officers out there. I didn’t really believe it until it came from one of the campus supervisors.”

*

Sports is where real life rarely intersects with the game between the lines. But when it comes to death, there isn’t a sport out there that will erase the emotional wounds often left behind. That’s been true in the case of two Vallejo tragedies. While different, they are similar in how the community and athletes reacted to them.


The nutgraph at the end marks the end of the lede and ties together the two subjects that will be explored in this article.

The kicker is a term that simply refers to the end of your story. It’s the last impression a reader will have after reading your story. It’s more useful for a feature story where you know a reader is going to finish it.

The best kickers usually involve a relevant quote or telling detail. Here’s the kicker from the above story.

For the Bethel football team, Pennerman will always have a presence on campus.
“I don’t know if you ever get back to normal. Me personally, (I) don’t want to get back to normal,” Turner said. “We want to have him be apart of us. It hurts forever and that’s not a bad thing. That shows you how important (Mike) is. It shows you how much influence Officer Capoot had.”

Resistance with the big “R”

The one thing that is garaunteed to kill creativity and stop your writing career in it’s tracks is Resistance with the big “R”. The kind of resistance I’m talking about is the preconditioned part of ourselves that really doesn’t like things to be different. It’s the part that craves comfort, wants assurances that things are going to be ok.

Resistance strikes everybody, but more so for the innovators, the creatives, the artists and writers of the world because that is the nature of what they do— making something out of nothing. It’s also scary as hell and anybody that doesn’t tell you so is lying or really just won’t admit it to themselves.

At it’s core, Resistance is the refusal to accept that things change. The problem is that change will happen whether we want it to or not  so we resist by searching for the things that will make us feel like we are on stable ground.

The success and failure of others is one source of Resistance.

I read a story  that tells me the economy is bad, so it becomes a reason that I wait till it gets better before quitting my stable job to pursue something I am passionate about. The problem with that is you could be waiting forever. The economy that looks weak now could get stronger and when it does  those who took a risk during down times usually benefit the most.

The data tells me that that there is no money in a writing career so I should steer clear and do something more stable. Well there isn’t a career out there that is stable forever. The field that looked like a sure bet now is an innovation away from becoming obsolete.

There are many out there refuse to do what they are most passionate about because of some dim night light in our mind that tells them to take the “sure bet,” but when you realize there really is not such thing there is no reason why you shouldn’t pursue the career that you are passionate about.

Resistance is insidious and takes on many forms, but the one sure characteristic is that it gets stronger and stronger the farther you step out of that safe path. Staring at the blank canvas, the empty page tends to bring it out in the artist. The internet suddenly seems so alluring in those moments.

It can also take the former of people that will come out and question your choice. Sometimes it can be family or friends and often the amount of people that question you is proportionate to how radical your idea is.

Self actualized people, the ones that are truly able to make things happen for themselves, are not just aware of Resistance they embrace it. They  think with the end in mind and  follow through with the plan that may not be comfortable or safe, but feels true to them.

Writing is a production business

Writing is different than most professions because it’s one where you are not judged on potential. An author doesn’t get his book published by filling out a resume, he gets it by having a solid manuscript in the hands of an editor.

This isn’t the business of potential it’s the business what do you have to show me. Editors don’t care about your potential as a writer all they care about is what you have written and whether it can sell.

This is different then how much of the world works if you think about it. You don’t work for a company and then get hired. You go through a process and then they hire you based on your potential to perform. An employer is taking it on faith that the person they read about on a resume and talked to during an interview is the one that will be working for them.

Being able to effectively market your book and create a platform for yourself is certainly important.  Unless you are a celebrity or an author with the star power of a J.K. Rawlings or Stephen King establishing yourself to a target audience is important, but you can’t forget the core part of your business— the writing.

Often, people go to get a degree or certification with the idea that it will get them a better job. Getting a Masters in Fine Arts at a university or majoring in Creative Writing will improve your techniques, but unless you want to become a writing teacher that won’t necessarily make you a professional writer.

A query letter doesn’t highlight your degree, it’s selling the promise of a manuscript filled with good writing. Remember, it’s hard to sell something if it hasn’t been finished yet.

I think what scares a lot of people when it comes to pursuing a career in writing  is the uncertainty. There is no guaranteed paycheck or hourly salary until you finish the work and even if you do finish a piece it still might not sell.

That is a risk that writers have to accept. Professional writers are the ones that have a plan for finishing their pieces with the assumption that it is going to find a home somewhere. Even if those rejection letters do come, they take it as a learning experience and do the next one better.

When I was working as a writing tutor in college, students used to brag to me how they could get away with waiting till the last minute to write their term papers. They justified it by telling me “well I got an A in it didn’t I?” I always told those students ‘Well, there’s a reason you’re here seeing me.’

Taking shortcuts you’re writing means the manuscript is coming back to you with a rejection letter. There is no faking hard work and the quality of your writing will always reflect back your attention to detail and skill as a writer.

If there is any profession comparable to fiction writing, it’s farming because your profits are directly tied to the work that you put into it. If you don’t do all the planting and preparations in the fall then you definitely won’t have a good harvest in the spring time. Without those crops then you don’t have a business.

The writer that fails to produce on a consistent basis has a business that will wither on the vine.

Managing creativity

Managing your creativity is one of the difficult parts about being a writer. Now this may sound like an odd concept because most people view creativity as something that we react to. We often describe inspiration as something that strikes, is fleeting, it rarely comes when we want it to. There seems to be so much waiting around that It’s no wonder that Greek mythology described inspiration as a bunch of fickle spirits called called muses.

While creativity may seem like a passive process, it really isn’t. When writing is your business, you really can’t wait around for inspiration or else you might be flat broke. It’s the worst feeling in the world to sit down to write and inspiration is nowhere near your computer, but that should never deter you from attempting to write anyway.

Creativity is an active process that needs stimulation and proper direction to surface. To put it another way, the muse does not reward the writer that simply waits around for her. She rewards the writer that seeks her out and wants to put her to work.

Two sides to the Coin

Creativity becomes necessary when we are challenged to do something. We turn to it when there are problems that need to be solved and we create space for it when we are totally focused on finding a solution.

When writing fiction, finding creative solutions to narrative problems both large and small is the biggest challenge. On a small scale the hardest part is writing scenes that are coherent and flow well. That requires me to solve problems that have to do with point of view, believable dialogue and proper description. On a larger level it’s plotting the story so that all these disparate scenes form a coherent narrative.

In both of these cases I’m challenged to find solutions to the many obstacles that get in the way of good writing. In this context, inspiration and being creative is when you are so focused on solving these particular issues that you begin to work through them on instinct. You know exactly what you are doing and how to do it without much thought on the matter

Creativity needs space to operate. It require you to allow room for solutions and new ideas to flow through. Often the challenge is keeping your inner space clear enough to be inspired. If you’re worried or distracted about something, then you are crowding out creativity.

There is such a thing as creating too much space for creativity. I’m the type of writer that gets easily absorbed in my work. When the muse strike, she comes in a flood that won’t ever leave me alone until it’s down on the page. I can get so absorbed in a concept or idea that it consumes all of my focus.

Until that idea is written down and articulated in some way, I can be very distracted and often lose touch with what is going on around me. If I’m not careful, a single piece of writing can take over my life to the point where other important projects can fall by the wayside.

Managing your creativity is essential to being successful. Creativity can become unwieldy when you can’t put down the Muse for a while and focus on things that are equally important to your writing life.

Blogging went on a two week hiatus because an idea for a short story took hold and simply would not let go. It’s now completed and in the editing process, but it made me realize that working this way isn’t efficient.

The flip side of this is not creating enough space for yourself to be creative. There are the people that wait their entire lives for inspiration to come and often never get around to starting a creative project. Or they ride the initial momentum then burn out before they even get to the finish line.

People like this can wait around their entire lives before ever starting that book, poem or painting. Often, they don’t schedule time to do their art and let themselves be swept away by other things that are “more important” than the creative project they hope to finish.

Striking a Balance

Creativity rewards active people. It lends itself to those who seek to use it and becomes most effective for those who know how to manage it.

The first step to doing this is to set the edges of all the projects that you have. You can’t apply your creativity to something if you really don’t know what you are doing. Think about all the steps necessary to accomplish a goal. Be specific, make sure to write them down and review them as much as possible.

Creating space for creativity also means knowing when you’ve started and when you’ve finished. The Muse is more likely to visit if she knows you will be working at 6 a.m. every morning to finish a short story due by Sunday.

The second step is to be aware of all your commitments so you do not neglect any one aspect of your life. Disappearing off the face of the planet for long periods of time simply because a single project took over your life is not a healthy balance.

Know when to put down the pen and work on something else. Make sure that you are still taking the time to properly deal with other issues aside from writing that allow you to be successful like planning, market research and maintaining your social media presence.

Third is to make sure that you are always in the moment. Worry, fear, doubt and distraction are not proper places for creativity to show up. If you were thorough in defining your goals for a project and you’re clear about how you are going to deal with all the other commitments that surround your writing life, then you’ve done much of the work to clear your inner space and allow creativity to come through.

Realize that obsessive focus on the end goal is not a good thing either. If you are constantly thinking about the end of a project rather than the step you are taking at that particular moment then that tends to choke off creativity. Remember that creativity thrives on being active and in the present. If you are worried about something in the past or obsess about the end goal to the point where you neglect the present then you leave no room to be creative.

Clarifying values is first step to becoming a writer

There’s a big difference between being a professional writer and being an amateur. The amateur chooses the safe path and gives himself an out when it comes to writing. Often when the moment comes to choose between writing and to do something else he will choose to do something else.

The amateur does not have his heart into his choice to become a writer.

This isn’t an easy choice nor is it one that you make by simply declaring to the world “I am a professional writer.” Really it’s a paradigm shift that may require you to change the way you approach the decisions that you make.

I say this because you don’t make the choice to become a professional writer one time. I make it perhaps hundreds of times in a week. Writing is a choice that I make every day that isn’t motivated by paying the bills or making an honest living for myself. It’s the simple fact that I have something to say and I believe it’s worthwhile to share it with other people.

The reasons I write are important to me and the only way to show that commitment is by doing.
John Wooden, the great UCLA baksetball coach had a saying “Little things done well.” The difference between an amateur and a professional is that the pro makes the right choice on all the little decisions that they have to make.

Consider all the decisions I have to make each day: Sleep in or get up early and read, watch television after breakfast or write this post, plod around on facebook or start writing this short story, Watch a movie after work or spend an hour or two plotting my novel.

Those are all very small decisions, ones that are made every day without much thought, but they are important because they are  choice to act.

The first step in becoming a writer has nothing to do with learning any particular skill or taking a specific class. It comes down to making that choice— are you a professional or an amateur?

The Personality ethic

I’m a big fan of success literature and a big chunk of my reading time is devoted to books on personal development. What I’ve found is that the true mark of a professional is the same whether you want to be an artist, writer or the head of a Fortune 500 company.

Professionals are people that let character dictate personality. To be clear,  character is the way we truly are while personality has to do with perception.  Indecision, regrets and negativity— all the things that hold you back— stem from trying to live based on perception rather than character.

The emphasis these days is on the personality ethic meaning we strive to project a certain image of ourselves based on the way we want people to see us.

The basis of a job search is selling your potential to prospective employers. So you acquire skills and learn specific techniques with the idea of becoming attractive to future employers. Employers looking to hire the type of personality that fits in with their company.

We project that image of ourselves in several ways. The obvious one is our cover letter and resume.  Others include personal websites, blogs and social media. Even certain face-to-face interactions are often done with an air of projecting a certain personality.

When you go in for a job interview or meet with a client there is a certain decorum that is expected that is different from meeting with friends or family. When an employer asks you for an interview what they really want to know is if the person you exhibit on paper is the same one that is standing right in front of them.

The personality ethic does not just apply to your job search.

Marketing campaigns are built on selling you on the fact that their product fits in with the specific image you have of yourself. Social media like Twitter, LinkdIn, Pinterest, Facebook and many others are built on the principle of sharing your personality with others.

Personality is just the tip of the iceberg though and where people miss the mark is not taking the time to figure out who the real person is underneath all the layers of personality.

Living from the inside out
Personality is easy to fake. The easiest way to lose credibility among your peers is to expose yourself as a phony. The best example of this is Tiger Woods. Think about the way you viewed him 10 years ago then now.

It’s almost like looking at two different people, but really what happened is that his character came to the surface in a very public way. He was an untouchable personality for nearly a decade–at least that was the image fans and the media came to know.

The error was ultimately believing that he actually was untouchable in all aspects of his life.
Woods could not live up to the personality other people created for him and ultimately that wasn’t necessarily the man he was or wanted to be. The results speak for themselves.

Think of character, or the person we really are, as a series of concentric circles much like a dart board. At the heart of it are your values, which is the relative worth you hold for yourself.

The values you regard highly form the core of your character. Love, hard work, perseverance are positive values while on the opposite end are greed, selfishness and laziness. These values in turn drive our beliefs, which is the next ring on the circle.

Beliefs are our opinions and convictions about ourselves and others. If you value hard work, then you will believe that others are hard working as well. If you love yourself then you will believe others are loving as well.

Beliefs lead to the next ring, which are our expectations. If you really believe that you will persevere through anything then you will expect that out of yourself in every situation. Contrast that with the person that believes that they will fail, chances are they will enter a situation with the same expectation.

The outermost ring are our actions, which is the one that we ultimately judge ourselves and others by. What we do is a reflection of our expectations, beliefs and values.

In the end, character is the basis of personality or the image we hold of ourselves and others. Anytime we are dealing with other people, what we are really doing is taking it on good faith that personality and character are one in the same.

When we say one thing and do another then we are violating that basic agreement that who I think you are is the same as who you really are. Once that happens it’s very hard to to get that trust back.

Negative emotions happen when what we are doing is not in line with our core values. When somebody is not happy with their job, what they are really saying is that deep down the work that they are doing does not have much personal value.

Clarify, Clarify, Clarify
The professional strives to be clear about every aspect about their lives. If they don’t know something then they strive to learn about it so they can be clear about what they are getting into. This is what people call being solution oriented.

If you are thinking about switching careers or making a life altering decision, the best place to start is within. Clarify your values and figure out what is really important.

Love, perseverance and hard work are just concepts, but what do they really mean to you? How do they apply to your work?

Choose the values that are important to you then apply them to your own life by working outward on each ring of the character circle. Inevitably you will reach the outmost ring. At that point you will be thinking of actions that will embody the things that are most important to you.

Clarifying your actions is the process of planning and goal setting. If you’ve worked from the inside out then this is the process of constructing a personality that is in line with your true character.

If in the end this means you need to change careers or pursue something different, then you have a decision to make. If not, then at the very least you will feel much better about the job that you are doing right now. Gaining that kind of clarity over your work situation is enough to give you peace of mind and in turn you will do your current job better.

Measuring success

Clarifying your true values is ultimately fruitless if you don’t take the steps necessary to achieve them. The steps you come up with may not be easy and ultimately it’s your decision to do them or not.

Perhaps what you truly want is to pursue a career in writing, but quitting your current job would make it difficult to support your family. That is a difficult choice and one you would have to think very long and hard about.

This is different from choosing not to do something out of fear. This kind of resistance is mental and stems from worrying more about the perceptions of others then what we truly want. If you truly seek to live from the inside out then your actions will be the measure of the values you hold dear.

That might mean standing up to your parents who think that giving up a steady job is foolish, or making the decision to give up a certain lifestyle in order to make room for the career of your dreams.

Sacrifices and change go together, but the professional is an expert at dealing with failure.

Our current culture equates success with winning and that goes hand-in-hand with our obsession with personality and image. If that is what you truly value then in the end you will never be happy or content with your life.

The moment money, fame and glory are gone then what is left for you? Only amateurs strive to hold on to things that that are beyond their control. The real professional measures success by the quality of effort they put into their actions at that moment not by winning or achieving the end goal.

When I sit down to write, my goal is to put forth maximum effort in the time allotted. Whether that’s a 15 minute session or six hours of straight writing I am happy and feel successful at the end.

The reward is in the process and in the end that means I never really fail.

Profiling professionals: Writer Nick Mamatas

Writing is hard work that requires you to be in your own head so much that it can be easy to lose perspective on what you are trying to accomplish. I tend to lose myself in the short term goals of trying to finish a particular scene or story that I lose perspective on how it fits into the bigger picture.

I’ve always dabbled in fiction. I usually have a story or two in the works to break up the monotony of doing daily journalism, but never took it very seriously. Without a clear goal in mind none of these stories were ever really completed, but in the past few months I’ve had the urge to really take it seriously.

I took my usual approach when it comes to learning how to do something— read every single book that I could get my hands on. After a while, I felt confident enough to pay the money and take a writing critique class on genre fiction through the Writing Salon in Berkeley.

It was humbling to know that your writing isn’t as good as you think it is, but the critiques also made me reconsider my approach.

My instructor for the class was Nick Mamatas  who was a great teacher in addition to being a talented writer. I encourage you to take his class at the Writing Salon Fabulous Fiction: Thrillers, Romance, Fantasy, Sci Fi & More! available this spring. His lessons were on point and the criticisms were honest and useful.

It dawned on me that reading all the craft books in the world won’t make you a better writer (trust me I’ve read them all these past few months) so I sought a different tact— ask the expert and try to learn from what they did.

I met with Nick again at FogCon, a convention for genre fiction writers  that was held in Walnut Creek. He was kind enough to answer all my questions and even pay for lunch so the least I could do was offer you his insights in the hopes of helping all of you learn what the writing life really looks like.

Taking the Plunge

Take a look at the bibliography on Nick’s website and you’ll see that his writing credits are numerous and far ranging. There are works in fiction, short fiction, feature articles, essays, cultural criticisms, reviews, interviews, peer reviewed articles, comic strips and even a little bit of poetry.

The lesson here is really simple, but often gets lost. In order write well, you have to write a lot. Merely writing reams of pages is not enough though. You need to write with a purpose or you may find you aren’t getting anywhere.

Professionals have ambitions to put their work out there for people to see. There really is no way of getting around the fact that in order to be published you must impress all the people (i.e. editors, publishers and fellow writers) that really matter.

How long that takes is really up to you.

For Nick, it took two years from the moment he decided to make the commitment to write full time to the time his first article made it into a magazine. Up until that point he was working in the film industry.

“Well on some level I always wanted to be a writer. On some level I wanted to work in film. Then I realized that I didn’t want to wake up early and wanted to work from home.”

Nick got his first writing job by responding to an ad in a newspaper. He wrote term papers for college students while working on sets and doing lighting for various indie films.

He lived a rather bare-bones lifestyle in a New Jersey tenement.

Nick said that the term paper work was “feast or famine” and often in the summer months there really wasn’t any work to be had. It was during this time that he would explore the marketplace and really work on his stories.

He stopped doing movies and television in 1996 and switched to strictly term paper work in 1997. His first story “Your Life 15 minutes from Now” was published in Talebones magazine in 2000. His second story came out a year after then his third and fourth stories came out a year after that.
“(Two years) is pretty short. The cliche is it takes six years to teach yourself how to write. What you think in your mind and what ends up on page are two different things. When I first started writing, they were ideas I saw on TV. Slowly I moved to thinking of things only I could write. That’s when the (rejection) letters  started to change.”

Accept the fact that this isn’t easy

Publishing four stories in two years does not necessarily make you a decent living, but building a writing career takes time, patience and perseverance. In my final class at the Writing Salon, one of Nick’s remarks struck a chord with me.

To paraphrase, he said that that writers have something inside of them that they want to say and that if they are truly committed to the work then nothing will really stop them from saying it; not sleep, not your day job and you may even leave your dog alone to piss in the corner.

He put it more succinctly in our interview.

“If you don’t have a love for words then really it’s not worth doing.”

There’s no getting around the fact that your commercial success is dependent on being known and the fastest way to do that is to make sure your writing is in front of as many members of your targeted audience as possible.

Getting published requires you to finish stories and then put those stories in front of editors that will decide if they are worthy to be published. The lead time between how long it takes to hone your craft enough to get the attention of editors is the barrier that stops people.

Although it isn’t for everybody, writing short fiction is the fastest way to do this because they can be turned around pretty quickly and allows you to practice all the skills necessary to produce much larger work.

Nick says that he likes to write short stories because they don’t take hours and hours to churn out. He said that by 2006, 40 to 50 of his short stories have been published.

These days, Nick doesn’t have to solicit people to publish his works anymore. Many times publications come to him asking him for stories and he gets to pick which ones he gets to do. He said that the big breakthrough came when his first novel was published in 2004, but really the foundation was built long before that with the reams of pages he wrote that were never published.

He also wrote other things aside from fiction to pay the bills. In addition to writing term papers, he also did service journalism writing features on technology during the height of the .com boom in the late 1990’s.

He moved from Jersey City to the Bay Area the first time in 2004, moved back to the east coast then later moved back to the Bay Area where he now lives in Berkeley.

Often the most difficult part of the writing life is balancing writing with real life. Right now Nick has a job with Viz Media, which affords him healthcare and a regular 9-to-5 job, but he finds the time to write all the things that he wants to.

He said that for a while there wasn’t a real good balance between writing and real life as he struggled through health and money problems that caused him anxiety.

“This was the hardest way to do it. I had to struggle.  When you have no choice; it’s either write or starve then you have to write. I love working at home,” Nick said. “I enjoy my job at Viz, but I always think I should be at home.”

Successful writers read A LOT

For all the craft books that I’ve read about writing, being successfull really comes down to doing two things— reading and writing. All other things are really just ancillary and if you don’t do both of things then it’s impossible to be good.

Nick said that what stops people from being successful writers are the quality of work, which stems from the fact that they don’t read enough.

The reasons people don’t read are far ranging. Maybe they don’t have the time or patience for it. Perhaps they feel resentful about reading rather than spending time writing, but in the end all of those things are excuses. Watching television and movies or playing video games with a critical eye aren’t a substitute for reading.

Writers read a lot and there isn’t any way around it.

The way you read is also important. Read your books on multiple levels as a writer, reader and also a critic. In an ideal world you would reread your books on multiple times with those three perspectives in mind.

Nick says that he doesn’t read books multiple times, but he does keep those three perspectives in mind when he does read. He admits that he does miss some things by not rereading books.

“You look for a  story that makes sense and works together, whether all the facts are together,  whether it’s persuasive or not, whether it shows the limits of language.”

Don’t put any limits on the things that you read. Read anything and everything that you think is good. If you are a fiction writer then read some non-fiction books. Read features in magazines and articles on the internet. As long as it’s good writing then it’s worthwhile to take a look at.

“I read tons of non-fiction, political science and tons of articles. I read features and all the hard news. There are  some great feature writers out there and it’s good to know how the world works.”

Some notes on habit and parting advice

Being a successful writer really comes down to the choices you make each day. Every successful writer differs in the way that they produce their work, but they all make the decision to write something and follow through.

Being selective about the things what you do aside from writing is often the thing that either holds you back or ensures your success. Just remember that time spent watching TV, movies and going out with friends is taking away from the time you could otherwise be using to write.

The key is being able to balance those things with the two things you have to do— read and write. If it’s getting in the way of doing enough of both those things to be successful then maybe you need to reorganize your priorities.

Here are a few tidbits from Nick on various subjects.

• On copying the style of your favorite authors:

“I do it purposefully. I’m a  pretty talented mimic and I’ve done stories in the voice of Jack Keruac. I like mimicking other people’s voices, but they are still  Nick story.”

• What a typical day looks like.

“Back when I was freelancing, I’d wake up goof around looking at email, read the new, have lunch, walk my dog, and mess around online. I’d do everything aside from writing, but while doing all this procrastination, I’d be thinking in the back of my brain about my story. When I write novels I try to make myself write a page a day if it’s going great then I’ll go until I get tired.”

• On writing toward a certain market.

“I have firm idea in mind of what I want and I don’t care if it’s commercial or not. I just do what I like to do. It’s very destructive (to write to what the market wants.) It’s all about the gap between in knowledge between that is produced and what is not.”

A day at FogCon

I’m an admitted convention newbie. My first experience was Animation on Display in San Francisco this January and now FogCon at the Walnut Creek Marriot yesterday. FogCon is a convention that brings together genre fiction writers (and their fans) of different of types together to talk about issues that surround this field.

I heard about this really late after my teacher at the The Writing Salon Nick Mamatas told me about it a couple of days ago. It was a great experience and worth the money. This won’t be the last convention that I go to this year.

The biggest things that I got out of this were the contacts and also some inspiration for my own writings. So often writing is an individual task, but writers need to commiserate with their own kind and network. I felt inspired just hearing people talk about the things they are passionate about and that made me want to write a lot more.

I went to three panels on Friday. The first was a 75-minute writing session. The writing session was fun for the idea-generation exercises, but the biggest benefit was meeting other writers with the same goals as me. I’ve met a few people with stories similar to mine that have agreed to exchange their work with me.

The first Panel I went to was called “Apple Pie, Rayguns and Galactic Ovelords,” which dealt with the tropes that show up in genre fiction. The panel featured talked about how writers use different tropes and how readers view them. It’s something I knew about before, but I’m now a lot more aware of them when I read. I’ll definitely research this issue a lot more

The second panel was “Equal time for Non-Vampires” which dealt with the prevalence of vampires in genre fiction and other monsters in mythology that have shown up in writing. This was particularly interesting for my story Goddess INC, which deals with a variety of spirits so now I have some new myths to research and possibly incorporate into my story.

The third panel was on the “The Redefined Body” which dealt with body modification, cybernetics and how non-fiction and fiction authors deal with that issue. One of my favorite anime and manga shows is Ghost in the Shell, which deals specifically with the issues that come of from this. This panel certainly sparked a few short story ideas that I want to pursue.

There a still a couple days left in the convention so if you want to go check it out here.