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. ↩︎

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.

Terrible Lure Continued: Time-Blocking

Put writing on the calendar. Multiple people have said this to me, and it doesn’t work at all. That is to say, it hasn’t worked at all so far. I want it to work because I want writing to be my job, but here’s what’s really happened:

  1. One day, put an appointment on my calendar that says “Write” from 10:00 AM – 11:00 AM, for example
  2. 10 o’clock comes around and I’m in the middle of doing something else… so I keep doing it
  3. 5:30 comes around and I never did go and write
  4. Well, that didn’t work
  5. Don’t try it again for a few months

Writing out the above list quickly unearths some problems. First, there’s the problem of giving up on something when it doesn’t work the first time, a corollary or reflection of the pursuit of novelty, where I’m more likely to try some new thing (or, let’s be honest, try nothing) when I don’t see immediate success. But I’ve been building a writing habit for the last month or so quite successfully: writing every day, at least a little, usually empowered by getting up early and writing before I do anything else.

There’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to show up somewhere at a specific time and do specific things; after all, I remained gainfully employed for about fifteen years before deciding to strike out on my own.

Some ideas for making the time-blocking approach more successful:

  • Block out a whole week at a time (that is, a block at the same time every day)
  • If you miss one block or don’t start at quite the right time, don’t worry: just try again the next day
  • I bet you’ll sit down at the given time at least one day out of that week
  • Have a preparation ritual (h/t Atomic Habits, again); if you know you are going to sit down at 10 AM, don’t wait until 10 AM to stop whatever you were previously doing. Realize you have to stop at, say 9:50 or 9:45
    • Wrap up whatever it is you’re doing as best you can, maybe that’s just putting the iPad down or hitting the pause button
    • Do whatever preparations you need to do to start writing at 10
      • So, if you want something on your desk to drink, get it now
      • Go to the bathroom, damn you
      • Even if you don’t want either of the above things, do something consistent to signal to yourself that you’re shifting into writing mode
        • Even if it seems goofy
        • So making a cup of tea or some favourite beverage isn’t a bad idea; associate the anticipation of mmm a cup of coffee with sitting down to write
          • I’d argue part of my problem right now with writing before breakfast is, my anticipation centres on ceasing to write so I can make coffee…
        • I’m 100% in on the idea of having, like, a writing hat or writing sweater, or something you change about your environment (lighting) that you put on or do to say it’s writing time
    • Now when your calendar appointment rolls around, you’re ready to start immediately
      • And, as experience shows me over and over again, starting is the toughest part. Sometimes continuing is tough, sure, but even if you have to switch away from the thing you want to work on and just free-write1, it’s worth it to have spent the time making the words come out
    • Come to think of it this is the same way you treat any calendar appointment with an external party
      • If you have a meeting in the conference room, you gather your notebook and lock your desktop and maybe get another coffee with minutes to spare: you don’t start doing that at the meeting time, because then you’ll be late
      • If you have a date across town you backtrack and think, ok, I want to be there a few minutes early, the travel time is about forty minutes, so I want to leave the house no later than 5:00, so I need to start getting ready at 4:00…
    • So another big part of this is the fact that, sadly, tragically, it’s much easier to break a commitment to ourselves than it is to break a commitment to others
      • There are things you can do here, like ‘accountability partners’ where you tell someone else you’ll do a thing at a certain time, but admittedly this isn’t something I’ve tried a lot, it’s another thing I kind of bailed on when it didn’t work great right away…

I hope something in that brain-dump is helpful! To me, as much as to you… 😉

  1. which is basically what I’m doing right now by the way

The Terrible Lure of the Next Thing

I’m on too many mailing lists. This happens every few months. I remember before I got an iPhone, circa 2007, I remember talking to a workmate about how whenever we had a situation where people are away from their computers and disagree about a piece of information, how you could just take your phone out and look it up, get the facts.

And wouldn’t that be marvelous!

And it’s come to pass, sort of, not that we don’t engage in wild conjecture even though Wikipedia is right there. But the other thing that happened is that there’s so much information available all the time that seeking it out has become a default activity.

For me, anyway. Some people spend all their free time playing Candy Crush or looking at their social network of choice. I don’t tend to do those things, not that I think it makes me a better person than those who do1.

But I have my own default activity, and that has become the consumption of information: in my case, information about writing and business. And this has two three problems:

  1. I end up in sales funnels for online courses and sometimes spend hundreds of dollars on them but don’t necessarily do the work to get my money’s worth back out
  2. Seeking the information eats up a lot of time
  3. And, related, it’s easy to feel like that time was productive, and not spend a similar amount of time producing instead of consuming.

I’ve been thinking about why information is so… addictive. And the phrase that came to mind was “the terrible lure of the next thing.

As humans we seem programmed for novelty: we don’t just want a given thing— information, a relationship, food—we want the next, new thing, and there’s probably some mechanistic evolutionary explanation for this but for once I don’t feel like exploring it. I just want to talk about the problem of novelty in a life where most of the best things come out of consistency.

It’s so much easier to seek out the next course or blog post instead of, say, re-reading the one you already have and taking notes and studying the notes and applying the lessons.

Sigh. Everything I just said sounds so boring, doesn’t it? I’m already reaching for my phone so I can check Twitter.

The terrible lure of the next thing keeps us from the boring work that we nonetheless need to do, not just to keep a roof over our heads but to fulfill whatever drive it is that makes us want to type out words and send them off into the world to link our brains up with other brains.

That magical act of telepathy. Isn’t that more important than the next morsel? And yet.

I don’t think the solution is to cut off all sources of input yet, although some days I’m headed in that direction2—and look, we know as storytellers we need an ongoing stream of input to keep our idea factories hot and humming—but somehow, somehow, we have to manage our own pursuit of novelty.

And it’s easy, especially if you were born in the 1980s like me, to reflexively think “Just say no!” because you saw those War On Drugs ads on every arcade game you ever played.

But, like, haven’t you picked up a smartphone before, bro? We have built a machine whose whole job is to demand our attention. We have filled it with supernormal stimuli3, and we can scoff at each other for being weak and enslaved by our little pocket gizmos, but the very same we, that is, humans, all of us, we built these machines to have this effect!

Why are we surprised that it worked?

Humans are good at this stuff, at understanding the little levers that make us run around in circles and then producing things that exploit the levers.

What we’re not particularly good at is using that knowledge to overcome our short-term desires.

Next time, I’ll share what I’m trying… and how well it’s working.

  1. Just between you and me, I’m pretty sure it does make me a better person. Don’t tell anyone.
  2. I call these “that’s it, I’m going to go live in the woods” days.
  3. Oh, there’s plenty more to say about this ten-dollar phrase