I can’t help you—writing is hard

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Janine: I bet you like to read a lot, too.

Egon: Print is dead.

Janine: That’s very fascinating to me. I read a lot myself. Some people think I’m too intellectual.

Ghostbusters (1984)

Learn how to learn

A quick recommendation: Learning How to Learn is a popular Coursera course co-taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley, professor of engineering at Oakland University. I liked it so much I got Dr. Oakley’s book, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra).

Remember when I wrote about packaging your book? This is a book about learning deep, difficult concepts—period. Unfortunately, the title sends the wrong impression. Sure, Oakley draws stories and examples from the sciences, but the advice applies equally to the task of absorbing any demanding subject.

The book itself is anything but demanding, a light and compelling read I’d comfortably recommend to a middle school student. Let alone a brilliant and accomplished professional like yourself.

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writing when you’re not on fire

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“Not in the mood? Mood’s a thing for cattle, and loveplay, not fighting!”

—Gurney Halleck, Dune (1984)

The real challenge is writing when you’re not on fire. Steven Pressfield calls doing this “turning pro.” I call it “time to fire up Netflix with a large bowl of cashews.”

Collect techniques for entering flow all you like. To finish a book, you’re going to spend many hours writing with the fire extinguished. I call this “writing damp.”

Writing damp is excruciating. Worse than listening to a friend’s dream or watching Big Bang Theory.

In Daily Rituals, writers spur themselves through damp writing with whatever works. Discipline, or chaos. Routine, or shock. Coffee, or, well, coffee. They all drink coffee, if only to wash down the amphetamines. (I’m looking at you, Ayn Rand!)

We expect pilots and doctors to perform at high levels for extended periods of time with lives on the line. Can you imagine your surgeon saying he’s not in the mood to remove your appendix? We can learn from them even if the only patient on our table is a bloated manuscript with an infected, er, appendix.

To fly planes or fix brains, you rely on:

  1. Practice
  2. Checklists

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marinate to excellorate

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In response to the last Maven Game on “factiness,” Marina Krakovsky pointed me to Adam Gopnik’s essay collection Paris to the Moon.

Gopnik explains the difference in how Americans and the French see facts. I found it relevant to The Situation.

Not this Situation.

This Situation.

This post offers the Gopnik excerpt with some context. Thanks Marina!


Nobody knows how the sausage gets made, and nobody wants to know. That is, unless they’re an aspiring sausage-stuffer.

I’m talking creativity-sausage, of course. I can’t get enough of seeing that sausage get stuffed. (Tweet that.)

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factiness, truthiness, and baudrillard

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Luke: “Is the dark side stronger?”

Yoda: “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

In a post on his personal website about the election—this is not about the election—social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson coins a useful term:

On the right, they have what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness,” which we might define as ignoring facts in the name of some larger truth…Perhaps we need to start articulating a left-wing version of truthiness: let’s call it “factiness.”

Factiness is the taste for the feel and aesthetic of “facts,” often at the expense of missing the truth. From silly self-help-y TED talks to bad NPR-style neuroscience science updates to wrapping ourselves in the misleading scientism of FiveThirtyEight statistics, factiness is obsessing over and covering ourselves in fact after fact while still missing bigger truths.

Factiness appeals to the ideas of the objective, empirical, and the disinterested apprehension of reality. When philosopher Jean Baudrillard spoke of “simulations”, he wasn’t talking as much about places like Disneyland as much as how Disneyland obscures the fact that everything else is a simulation. And throughout the campaign, what’s called the mainstream media has been desperate to pretend everything outside Trumpland is real politics.

Factiness. Boy, does that nail it on the tête.

First of all, authors, purge factiness from your repertoire. Stop, in other words, picking cherries. Instead of asking yourself whether you can “support” an assertion, ask yourself whether you believe it yourself. Start there. Do you find it to be true? As a tool of rhetoric, factiness suffuses our writing and speaking. I’m starting to think it’s poisoning us.

I also sincerely believe that factiness is not necessary to sell lots of books. Shall I supply well-chosen examples of authors who don’t employ factiness to prove it? Wait a second…

Yes, some of the biggest authors in business and popular science are factifiers of the highest order. Many others, however, are not. These authors don’t fling facts; they face them. They acknowledge uncertainty and help readers wrestle with it. They don’t try to turn the world upside-down just to get attention, firing isolated research findings and Tufte-esque graphs at us until we’re stunned into agreement.

The world has had enough factiness—and truthiness—for three consecutive Presidential terms. (Hey, if Bloomberg went for three as mayor of NYC, we all know what Trump’s thinking.)

As an acquiring book editor, you’re soaking in a factiness brine, swimming through cherry-picked facts that point toward one author’s truth without any real context. When you’re looking for a forest, all those trees start to look the same.

For example: When I was acquiring for Current, Penguin’s now-defunct popular science imprint, an agent submitted a book proposal positing a new fundamental law of nature.

You know, like the second law of thermodynamics. That sort of thing.

I won’t bother explaining this fundamental law. Doubleday published the book. Decide for yourself.

The point was, this submission didn’t come in over the transom. I received it from a major, reputable literary agent. My colleagues and I were smart, well-educated people. And we considered this thing for days. We read it and re-read it and shared it with scientist friends and we still had no idea whether or not it was valid.

All we knew for sure was that it was peppered with convincing facts and, if true, it would be fascinating.

In the end, I took the cynical approach over the skeptical one. Whether or not I was personally convinced, or even intrigued, by this new law of nature, I decided the guy didn’t have enough juice to convince others of a discovery so fundamental and yet relatively unacknowledged by his peers.

If a bunch of liberal elites were so vulnerable to factiness—and I’ll repeat that Doubleday published the book—how the heck is the rest of society supposed to protect itself from the barrage of “facts”?

I’ve always known we have truth problems, but now it strikes me that establishing truth is the existential threat of our time. Mark Zuckerberg may deny that fake news on Facebook affected the election but it’s undeniable that the internet and our society are interacting in unforeseen and frightening ways when it comes to agreeing on which way is up.

What’s more, while people have disagreed in the past, a society has never before been so blind to the nature and size of those disagreements.

Books are a source of truthiness and factiness. They are also stubbornly, wonderfully resistant to algorithmic filtering or being taken out of context. As large, rigid, coherent chunks of thinking, they present the perfect antidote to wherever Facebook and Twitter are taking us.

Whether you found yourself terrified or elated by the results of the election, consider the power of this tool, the book, and how you might use your next one to bring a little more actual truth into the world. One brick at a time, folks.

there’s something fishy about creativity

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Writing, we’re tapping directly into the unconscious.

It’s weird: “you” are up here, above the water. What you need is down there, below the black and rippling surface. You have no idea what’s down there, but you want it anyway.

As writers, we’re all just fishing, praying for a tug on the line. Aside from a lucky few, most of us spend far too much time fiddling with our rods. Eventually—hopefully—we coax ourselves into actually casting. That’s the hardest part. You have no idea what’s down there or whether there’s anything down there at all.

The creative miracle is that as soon as you start casting, you start reeling in fish. Every time. Writer’s block, as professional writers will tell you, doesn’t exist. Rod-fiddling exists. Once you start casting, the fish start biting. You immediately remember what you somehow forgot the instant you stopped writing last time: the water is teeming with fish.

(I always wondered why my mom would constantly tell me there are plenty of fish in the sea. She must have been talking about my writing. Thanks, Mom!)

Of course, you can’t be too picky. Turn up your nose at too many flounders and you’re in trouble. You’ve got to reel in every fish, no matter how slimy, and take a good, hard look at it. Skin it, fillet it, figure out how to incorporate it into a meal. You may end up tossing it later, but you can’t just throw it back in if it doesn’t look right at first.

Yes. Writing is like fishing. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe writing is like rappelling, or freediving, or double-entry accounting.

Does any of this resonate? When ruminating on your own epic struggles with the Muse, to what strained metaphors do you turn?

Either way, I’m sure I got the fish words all wrong—even though I did, once, edit a book on fishing. I’ve only ever actually fished once. I caught a fish and it was slimy and I turned my nose up at it. Haven’t caught any fish since.

“Working” on my book, I’ve been on a deep dive into the creative process. As “research,” I’ve watched or re-watched a number of excellent documentaries about the creative process. (If you’re going to be honest, talking about your book requires copious quotation marks.)

Some of the best bits follow. In this era of cord-cutting, I suggest using JustWatch to quickly check where each movie is available: Hulu, Netflix, etc.

Last Dance (2002)

Maurice Sendak in a still from Last Dance

I’m only attracted to subjects of a tragic dimension. It has to be serious. It has to tell a story that’s a little hard to take. It has to draw blood.

—Maurice Sendak

I first saw this PBS documentary, about Sendak’s collaboration with the dance company Pilobolus, when it debuted. So, well over a decade ago. This line stuck with me all that time. Boy, did it.

Recently, I decided to dig up a copy just to make sure I had the wording right. “It has to draw blood.” I remember my bell ringing when Sendak says that. Whatever I was going to do as a writer, that.

This guy wrote and illustrated children’s books. Yet in his work there is always truth and weight and a deadly seriousness. Sendak, whether he took us to the night kitchen or to where the wild things happen to be, was not fucking around.

Regardless of what you’re working on, ask yourself, does it draw blood?

If not, why are you still working on it?

Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts (2007)

Philip Glass

You get up early in the morning and you work all day. That’s the only secret.

—Philip Glass

I’ve liked Glass for a long time. I like his work for opera, like Einstein on the Beach, and I like his work for film, like the soundtrack for The Truman Show. That said, I don’t think you have to see the merit in minimalism to appreciate this film.

Glass is a worker. He’s one of the lucky few I mentioned above. He has succeeded and endured through an unshakeable discipline. The guy casts his rod, every day.

You can hear the edge of contempt in Glass’s voice when he says these words. How could you work any other way? he clearly wonders. What else could it come down to, over the course of a career?

To do what he does, Glass sits down at the piano in the morning and he composes music with a pencil and a stack of staff paper. Nothing could be simpler—or harder.

That said, I’m not sure I want to actually be the guy. It takes a toll on Glass’s personal life, as the documentary makes all too clear. There is a lesson, however, for any creator in the clarity of this composer’s relentless work ethic.

The next time you’re debating whether to sit down at the keyboard—alphanumeric or otherwise—think about Glass at his piano with his pencil and staff paper. There is no secret beyond the work.

Woody Allen: A Documentary (2012)

Woody Allen at his typewriter

Speaking of personal lives…let’s not. What struck me in this documentary was what Allen reveals about the mechanics of his writing process.

Whenever he has an idea, Allen writes it down in ballpoint pen on yellow legal paper. Then it gets stuffed in a drawer next to the bed. Whenever he starts working on a new script—which happens the day after he completes work on his previous film—he pulls out his pile of scribbled notes, shuffles through them, and selects an idea that interests him.

I can only look at the crazy amalgam of high-tech writing tools and databases I’ve assembled and shake my head in embarrassment.

Idea in hand, Allen sits down to write:

I bought this when I was 16. Still works like a tank and it’s a German typewriter and it’s an Olympia portable. I’ve had it my whole life. It cost me 40 dollars, I think. The guy told me it would be around long after my death, and I’ve typed everything that I’ve ever…written every script, every New Yorker piece, everything I’ve ever done, on this typewriter.

Allen edits himself by cutting out the good parts with scissors and stapling them to a fresh page.

The simplicity of this. Again, simple and hard, like all truths.

This is not to say you should imitate Allen’s practice. I’m just saying that simple tools are all you really need. I’m always getting carried away with my toolset. Often that’s been valuable—writing for the web solo is vastly more difficult than handing off a typed screenplay to a team of assistants.

That said, tools have also been a massive distraction from my work: rod-fiddling of the highest order. Whenever I get carried away now, I bring myself back to the mental image of Allen at work: Where’s my yellow legal pad? Where’s my typewriter? OK, back to work.

Speaking of which, back to work.

better to surf your own turf than mac on someone else’s cheese

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You know how I told you to stop recommending this newsletter last week?

I was joking.

That was a rhetorical device.

Listen 👏 to 👏 my 👏 words: don’t 👏 listen 👏 to 👏 my 👏 words.

OK, let’s put it behind us.


New topic: go elsewhere for advice immediately.

This is not a joke or a rhetorical device. Crumple up this newsletter, pop it in the old recycle bin, and move along.

“Maven Game face.”

I see that I’m going to have to explain this one.

I recently attended a panel talk for writers. In the audience sat the last 19 people on Earth who haven’t yet discovered Ask Jeeves.

Each attendee had brought along their most pressing questions about publishing and book marketing. The stuff they couldn’t find answers for anywhere else.

They had already consulted both the June 1992 issue of Writer’s Digest and the “book publishing” entry in the Encyclopedia Brittanica. No dice.

Obviously, attending a writers conference in another state was the next logical step.

“How many MySpace friends guarantees a bestseller?”

“Which agent should I hire to negotiate my book deal with Lulu.com?”

“I have 18 rarely updated blogs—one for each of my extreme religious and political positions. Which one should I use to market my science fiction novel?”

The three experts on the panel fielded these questions, and more along these lines, calmly and patiently. (I’m assuming they were medicated to the hilt.)

They answer questions like these at every event. They will continue to answer questions like these until the very last post-apocalyptic dystopian YA novel is thrown on a radioactive bonfire by the jump-suited stooges of a totalitarian government.

These experts chose this life by positioning themselves at the widest part of the author funnel, right at the gaping maw, where undiluted ignorance meets baseless ambition.

For an expert, there are pros and cons to this approach.

When cultivating your own flock of followers, you may feel the pressure to target beginners. After all, there are many more of them.

However, even if you wanted to, you may not be built that way. Some experts are like hungry orcas imitating the success strategies of humpbacks. Good luck straining the sea for plankton if you weren’t born with baleen.

There is another way.

In 2005, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne wrote Blue Ocean Strategy. They argue that competing over the same turf is a race to the bottom. Real profits are made by carving out a new, untapped market space.

I’ve seen this to be true over and over again. A book comes out of left field and succeeds in a brand-new way. Yet authors (and publishers) keep trying to re-do the last definitive book in their category.

It makes me sad.

As they like to say in Silicon Valley, “books are the Uber of ideas.” “Nothing scales like words, bro.” “Karl Ove Knausgaard absolutely crushed it with My Struggle: Book 4.”

OK, they don’t say any of those things in Silicon Valley. But books really do scale like nothing else. When you write something, you’ve written it for all time. Books don’t even go out of print anymore.

If you write a book about something, you wrote the book on it.

Once the book is written, it frees the rest of us to solve other problems. When someone has already written the go-to resource on a subject, don’t chase their tail. Find another angle. If they aim for beginners, tackle the intermediate tier. If they don’t use stupid animated GIFs, use stupid animated GIFs. Differentiate yourself.

I do my very best each week to drive away readers who aren’t going to find this useful. And yet, you may still be here for the wrong reasons. Let’s fix that.

Do you have questions about how book publishing works? Read Jane Friedman. You can stick a fork in writing a book proposal or self-publishing your novel. Those topics are done.

Burned out? Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. She’s the McDonald’s of high-octane creative recovery; 1 billion authors served. There is no need to go any further. Morning pages. Artist dates. Writer’s block, solved.

Typography? Matthew Butterick’s Practical Typography. Margins. Kerning. Fonts, solved.

No-nonsense business writing? Josh Bernoff’s Writing Without Bullshit. Bullshit, solved. (I’ve read it, but don’t hold this newsletter against Josh.)

Each of these folks comprehensively tackles one of the fundamentals of the craft. There is no need for another resource. If you’ve got #1, there is no need to go #2.

I write the Maven Game to address the existential crisis that is writing for an audience in the 21st century. I’m only interested in tackling the big questions: Why am I writing? Who am I writing for? Is there anybody out there? Love, what is it good for? I’m not going to waste your time with stuff you could easily find elsewhere.

As I continue to develop my own book, it’s on me to keep a careful eye on the landscape. I have no interest in duplicating efforts, and neither should you.

Nothing beats paddling in your own patch of blue ocean.