Unstable Variables

From The Psychology of Prediction · Collaborative Fund

There are stories of Tiger Woods hitting 1,000 balls at the range without a break. And of Jason Williams practicing dribbling for hours on end without ever shooting a ball.

That’s how you become an expert. That’s how you get amazing results.

At least in some fields. In fields with stable variables like golf, where the rules and objectives don’t change – the correlation between effort and skill is obvious. But it breaks down in fields where outcomes can overwhelmingly be tied to one or two tail events that change over time.

Finance is one of those fields.

And so is publishing.

This excerpt made me think of something my coach Joe said—Joe, who has published something like dozens of novels, edited collections, etc., etc. He’s seen and done most of the things around “being a novelist” that I would like to do. And we were talking about the emotional rollercoaster of doing this job, and he said the publishing world doesn’t make sense. In short, your outcome is not a straightforward function of the effort you input.

And that’s crazy-making.

Writing and publishing fiction is not a game with stable variables.

What does that mean?

It means that success is not guaranteed, for any given definition of success. Assuming that what you want is to put a book, a story, out into the world that will be loved by its readers, and then, even further, that said love will translate into monetary reward for you, it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you might not get it.

The thing to realize is that isn’t an indictment of you. Maybe it means you’re not good at writing a compelling novel. Start there, look into that. But it could also be that you wrote a pretty good book that doesn’t have a market right now. It could be that, even though the first four books in your series found an audience, book five doesn’t land for some reason. If you’re beholden to a publisher1, that adds a whole other set of unstable variables.

Perhaps for our emotional well-being we need to redefine success—or be very careful and deliberate what definition of success we’ll allow our ego to twine its gleaming black tentacles around.

I’m working on my first novel, and I believe I’ve eliminated any lingering bits of my imagination that picture this one, first book achieving any kind of substantial success in terms of audience or profit. Instead, where my imagination goes is the point in the future where I’ve written three, six, a dozen novels, and the business that is steadily growing around the entire body of work.

But effort correlates with outcomes in so many fields that it’s hard to accept situations where it doesn’t. So it’s natural to assume that effort put into a forecast should increase its accuracy. That can bring the worst of both worlds: high confidence in model with low, or no, foresight.

He’s talking about financial forecasts, but we can see the same thing in novel-writing: it’s the idea that this one book we’ve been working on for ages will be our masterpiece. I don’t know about you, but, like I’ve said, I haven’t even shipped a novel yet; the idea of a masterpiece, if it enters into my imagination, is off in the future somewhere. We need to earn the right to think in terms of masterpiece, or we have to earn the right to even think about a book’s likelihood of success. When you haven’t done anything yet, how do you make a prediction? Better not to predict, and just to act and then observe. But even later, when you find yourself in a position to predict how a book might perform—I’ve seen it all, kid—remember that the publishing game doesn’t have stable variables: if what looks like a perfect shot somehow doesn’t make it to the hole, I guess you have to just shrug it off… and take another shot.

  1. As opposed to the market directly, which appears to be the case when publishing independently. ↩︎

So Can You or Can You Not Write 100,000 Words in a Day?

I know this gentleman by the name of Sean McCabe and, a few months before he offered me a job, he responded to this blog post in this way:

…but little did Dan know that he would accidentally inspire me.

Sorry, Dan. I love you, but I have to prove you wrong.

I will prove it’s possible to write 100,000 words in a day.

And then he did this: Writing 100,000 Words in a Day

And he failed spectacularly.

So… I was right, right? And it feels good to be right, so, victory lap for me. Right?

Not so fast.

I started drafting my novel, after a couple months of planning, right around New Year’s 2019. I’ve written 46,562 words! But now it’s July and I haven’t added a word to the draft in weeks. This isn’t the first time I’ve ground to a halt, as this blog demonstrates1.

I came across Sean years ago and started paying attention because his podcast is inspiring. His message, and the work that he’s done to back it up, says: you are capable of great things. And I want to do great things, so that’s a message I tuned into.

If you also want to do something great/nutty like write a whole goddamned book, I recommend you tune into such a message as well. It doesn’t have to be Sean, but if you’re at all like me you need something to keep your head in the right space, to not just give up when you hit the wall, when your habits break down, again and again and again.

The other day I walked into a local café for lunch and a friend I hadn’t seen in months just happened to be sitting there working. I sat down with her for a few minutes and chatted. She’s also a novelist, with one or two published books under her belt. And when I admitted I hadn’t touched my draft in six weeks, her response braced me up: “Six weeks? That’s nothing.”

She’s right, six weeks is nothing. Six weeks is a blink of the eye in the unfolding saga of your life,

But also, six weeks is more than enough time to write a book.

If Sean can write a book in a day, given enough practice and preparation, do you reckon I can spit out the twenty thousand or so words I probably need to finish the first draft of my novel in the next six weeks?

Sure I can.

Will I?

Well, that remains to be seen. But you see someone you respect and admire write 55,000 words in a day and you think… maybe writing 500 words today isn’t such a big deal. Maybe, even though I don’t really know where this phase of the book is going and there’s this weird amorphous boulder of fear, uncertainty, and doubt that, like a truant Sisyphus I am staunchly avoiding pushing uphill, maybe I can just keep writing a little. One sentence, one scene at a time.

See, this is what I’m learning, and I’ve mentioned it before: writing a tiny bit every day doesn’t feel satisfying, really, not when you have a whole novel in front of you, but the only way you fail to write a novel is to not write it.

The difference between 0 words today and any words at all today is everything.

Everything I write on here, every exhortation? Especially those emphasized by swear words? They’re for me. I need to hear them. God willing they’ll jam their way through my thick skull and I’ll get to work. The reason I put them here and not in my cryptographically-secure journal is, I labour in the hope that I’m not the only one who (a) wants to write novels and (b) is having a hard bloody time of it, and maybe what helps me… will help you, too.

If so, reach out. Let me know. It’s a we’re-in-this-together kind of thing, you dig?

Go in peace, and throw some words at that book.

  1. I’ve also ground to a halt on the blog, too, haven’t I, which is a related issue we’ll touch on soon ↩︎

Don’t Call It a Comeback

I ain’t been here for years… but someday, I will have been. Straight up: here’s how many words I’ve thrown at my draft in the last sixty-seven days:

67 Days of Word Count

Not many. Why not? It’s not like I broke my arm skiing and I haven’t been able to type. The habit just… slips away, and next thing you know winter’s over and, if you’re lucky, it isn’t six years hence.

I gotta admit the truth: I might have dropped this novel like I’ve dropped most other projects except this time I’ve got a secret weapon: someone else, whose word on writing novels I trust.

I’ve got a coach. We have a one-hour call every two weeks. Doesn’t sound like much, but it makes a difference.

It makes a big difference to know, for real, that it’s not just me, that it’s not, “maybe I’m just not cut out for this writing thing”. Here’s a guy who’s published dozens of novels, telling me how he goes through the same slumps I do. And the trick is to make it a slump, not a capitulation. I’ve tried ways of doing that… they weren’t working.

So here’s what has been working, for the last five days: My coach said, look, every day by 8 PM we have to send each other at least 100 words of the project we’re working on. So far, that level of accountability is working for me where lesser forms failed. Knowing I would need to send Joe an email at 8 owning up to not writing even a mere 100 words today keeps me from spending the rest of the evening playing Stardew Valley, or cooking, or taking a nice walk before the sun sets. I can still do all those things, but I’ve gotta do some writing first.

My brain provides all the standard objections, among them: but I’ll never get the novel done 100 words at a time!

No. You’ll never get the novel done if you keep talking yourself out of ever writing it. If you write 100 words a day it might take a year or two to finish your novel but you’ll finish it. This is the trick: to let that impatience drive you to actually do stuff, instead of drive you away from doing stuff.

Like everything else I talk about here, I can describe that trick but I’m still trying to learn it. Maybe you are, too. Got something else that works to break the slump? I want to hear it. Easiest way right now is, shoot me a DM on Instagram: @djjacobsonauthor – I’ll read whatever I get, and respond whenever I can.

A Week is Not a Lot of Time

A blink and it’s Monday night again, and you’re supposed to have published a post on your blog. In fact, by now we were supposed to have a queue of content so we don’t have to decide at 10 p.m. on Monday, do I post to my blog or do I go to sleep? Right? But you lower your head and the week flies by. A week is not a lot of time.

When you start getting impatient with yourself, that’s worth remembering.

It sucks to let a whole year go by without working on your novel. But if a week goes by, if six weeks go by and you haven’t thrown any words at the draft, it doesn’t mean you’re dead in the water. Doesn’t mean you don’t have what it takes to create the work that you love. A week is not a lot of time. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to seize that week. To do everything you can to be as productive as possible. I’m saying that if a week goes by and you don’t get anything done, here’s a radical suggestion:

The right thing to do is not to whip yourself.

It’s not to curse yourself. Especially not at that low-volume, almost subconscious level where you say, “Goddammit, I thought you were better than this by now.” Don’t do that. I’m done doing that.

When I catch my inner monologue going to that place, I’m going to reel him back in, and not with my hands around his throat. I’m going to maybe give him a gentle hug and, with my arm around his shoulder, say, “Come this way. Let’s go back to a happier place. This isn’t, after all, such a big fucking deal.

I go back and I read my journal sometimes, the entries I made a couple of years ago, and I’m such a ball of angst. I mean there were times when I was going through things that were legitimately stressful, but those aside my overall attitude towards my desire to write and lack of action was so negative.

That journal sure contains a lot of the exhausting mental activity of beating myself up. Treating myself like there’s the good part of me and the bad part, and the good part is at war with the bad. Maybe that sort of militaristic fantasy works for some people, but I tried it for a long time and I’ll level with you: It did not result in the production of a great deal of work.

Instead, it resulted in the production of a great deal of stress and feeling bad and probably acting like a fucking nutjobtortured artist towards the people close to me a lot of the time.

It didn’t help. And I’m done being mad at that guy; past me, and present, who’s sitting here right now weeks into a slump of not writing his novel. I’m done kicking my own ass. I know I’m going to go back and write it. I’m working on ways to bring myself back. (I’m just going to tell you as a sidebar that having a coach to encourage you certainly helps.) But the big change for me is my own attitude towards myself—my own mindset.

Listen: you are too precious to yourself to mentally punch yourself in the face over and over again. Your life is too precious to treat yourself like shit. And I’m going to just take a wild guess that treating yourself that way is not getting your novel written. It might not be hip to talk about loving yourself. Or to use the word “hip”, for that matter, sorry, Millennials1. But you only get this one life and maybe you’ll create your art and maybe you won’t (but I think you probably will). Just don’t beat yourself and curse yourself like you’d never do to anyone else you cared about while you’re making it. No art is worth that.

And I am more and more inclined to think that operating from a position of loving yourself is the only thing that’s really going to get that art made in the first place.

  1. Come to think of it, it’s probably hipper to talk about loving yourself now than it was when “hip” was a hip word. The future is confusing. ↩︎

No Words Are Wasted

This is not a triumphant blog post. But it’s something.

The worst days are the ones when I just don’t sit down. Then I find myself at 9 PM wanting to get in bed with a book but feeling like I have to try to squeeze 500 words of novel out of a brain that’s already been exhausted by a day of screwing around on my iPhone.

On the other hand, when I do sit down to write, even when I don’t know what’s going to come out I almost always produce something of value. Sometimes something I never expected.

A lot of the time I still don’t get around to working on the novel. It’s been several weeks now. It’s much easier to just write down my thoughts which might turn into a journal entry or a blog post (hi). It’s much easier to avoid doing the work that’s the hardest, that makes us feel the most like despite writing for our entire adult lives we have no idea what we’re doing.

But there’s still no solution that I can see other than just sitting down and starting to write even when we don’t know what’s going to come out and would rather just be looking at the Internet instead.

Take something that’s in your head and get it out of there. Even if it’s misshapen, even if you never share it with the world. It changes you, just a little. You’re not quite the same as you were before you wrote; you’ve taken a step.

That’s why no words are wasted.

The Fear of the Unknown Versus the Fear of the Personal

H.P. Lovecraft wrote a well-known essay called Supernatural Horror in Literature, and there’s a pull-quote from it I remember from the cover of the first HPL collection I owned:

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear… and the oldest and strongest fear is the fear of the unknown.

It’s true, I’ll demonstrate. Thomas Harris wrote a trilogy: Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal. Maybe you’ve heard of or read them, or seen the movies. They’re all books with serial killers in them.

In Red Dragon, someone’s murdering entire families in a creepy and ritualistic way and when I read the scene near the beginning where the criminal-profiler protagonist is walking around a crime scene imagining how it all went down, I was so terrified I had to get up off the couch and walk around the room, I literally couldn’t sit still.

The murderer was unknown at that point, essentially a force of nature, which somehow makes the fear more visceral: your hindbrain is thinking, “this could happen to me!”

In the course of the story, the killer, Francis Dolarhyde, has a character arc. It’s the sort Gollum has in Lord of the Rings, let’s call it the “broken redemption arc”, where he almost overcomes his urge to murder, but in the end surrenders to it and attacks the protagonist and gets put down. By the end, you’re almost rooting for the guy—this guy who slaughtered families—to overcome his demons, because the story makes you see him as a person. However you might feel about that, the end of the story, while still thrilling, isn’t scary the way the beginning is scary—it was exciting but I didn’t pace around the room.

Because now the murderer isn’t an unknowable force—maybe a force which could kill any of us—it’s this guy, and I might be scared of him but he is just a guy and not a tornado.

In the end, Harris has to pit Dolarhyde against the characters for whom we have even more sympathy, otherwise you might even be sad he gets killed.

You weirdo.

In Silence of the Lambs, the killer is also a damaged human being. You don’t really know much about him except he’s a bad, bad man, and sure he has his damaged-in-youth reasons but you never really feel conflicted when Clarice Starling empties her revolver into him.

This killer, Jame Gumb, is stuck between the unknown and the personal, and so you’re not really either afraid OF him or afraid FOR him, the way you are with Francis Dolarhyde.

Last, we’ve got the shadow looming over the whole series, and the star of the last book: Hannibal Lecter. He’s one more human being who slaughters other human beings because he likes it, and yet not only is he not an antagonist, he’s more of an antihero. So… is he scary?

He’s more fascinating than scary; you wouldn’t necessarily want to be in a room with him yourself, but you get the feeling he isn’t going to murder anyone you care about. In fact, he only seems to kill people who, for the most part “had it coming” in the grey morality of a novel, which is how Harris gets away with having a third white male with a kill count in the dozens who you’re nonetheless cheering for in a way you’d never cheer for Dolarhyde and certainly not for Gumb.

By the third novel, Hannibal is in danger from his own enemies, and you’re perhaps more afraid FOR him than of him. The fear has slid all the way across the continuum from unknown to personal. You fear for him the way you fear for a protagonist: instead of projecting yourself as their victim (I’m afraid of the unknown murderer because I fear being murdered) you project yourself as the character (I’m afraid FOR the protagonist because I fear what will happen to them the way I fear for myself).

I don’t know if I’m totally satisfied with this thesis, but there’s something here. What’s something you’ve read that started off scary but got less so as you grew familiar with it? Has anything ever gone the other way?

When the Levee Breaks

Look, I’m gonna be straight with you: it’s been a bad couple weeks for writing the novel.

The lack of numbers speak for themselves. We could spend a thousand words right here delving into the reasons why I’m not writing right now, and I daresay that’d be ironic—spilling ink on analysis instead of on writing. Not today. Today I’m just setting this assertion down:

I’m still here.

You know what? I’ve still written more novel in the last couple months than in the last seven years. And the thing is, this time? I know I’ll be back. Two weeks, three weeks? That ain’t nothing looking back on the dozen novels that’ll pop up on my shelf over the next couple years.

I never had the attitude to say that with confidence before. Now I do. I might write some novel tomorrow, I hope so, and it’s possible that I won’t. But I’ll be back, see? I’m cut out for this thing, and I know that in a way I never used to. Maybe it’s just that my writing coach told me so—in fact, that’s probably a big part of it—but that’s fine. I’ll take the mindset where I can beg, borrow, or steal it.

Because if I’ve learned anything over the past year or two? Since I decided to take this writing thing for serious again?

It’s all a head game. All of it. Always.

That’s about all I have to say tonight. Not much of a blog post, but a necessary one; at the very least, necessary for me, right now.

And I know it’ll be necessary for the Dan of six months or two years or two decades from now that needs reassurance that stumbling off the path isn’t a header over the edge of a cliff; it’s just a stumble.

And if there’s a version of Dan with another name that comes across this at just the right time? That’s even better.

You stepped off the path? I feel you. It’s fine. Just step back on.

Next time perhaps I’ll share what I have been doing to coax my uncooperative self back into line. But one thing at a time.