9 minute read
Ignore the Siren Call of the Easy Button
I subscribe to a lot of guru newsletters, and I’ve taken a number of paid courses from some of them. I’m pretty good at finding salient nuggets of information I can actually implement. However, their marketing engines selling new courses and opportunities can really make me question what I should be doing and if I need to change my direction yet again.
I’m twenty published books into my career now, not including short story anthologies or collections and box sets. I’ve always been a goal setter and a planner. I’m disciplined about working the plan while being flexible enough to make incremental changes that evidence suggests is needed. Though I am making money, I have to say I thought I’d be doing better than I am.
Two years ago, I gave up on my goal of becoming a six-figure author (though I wouldn’t turn the money away if it happened). But after investing time and money following “best processes” over the past decade, I did believe I would be at least making $50,000 per year fairly consistently. I’m not. Yet, in my mind, I’m doing everything possible all of the time.
I now realize my expectations and my actions were formed by other people’s marketing and me not completely understanding that their own income streams were not made with books but with selling courses and services. There are some authors who do make six figures with their books and also market services. But they are few and far between.
Desperation is Dangerous
The more desperate I became about not meeting my expectations, the more I fixated on the idea that certain people had the secret key to finding the “easy button”. Why does a mature woman with a long background of business success believe there is an easy button? The answer is because I couldn’t conceive of quitting and investing another decade into something else.
You may have heard that phrase: “Desperation is the mother of invention.” For me, I would say desperation is the mother of magical thinking.
In the digital world, writers and marketers are exhorted to be brief and pithy in order to capture the ever-wandering attention of readers. Blog posts, social media imagery, and articles in publications are designed to grab the reader’s attention and provide a satisfying promise within less than two thousand words. In a number of publications, the rule of thumb is eight hundred words maximum.
Everything has now been simplified and numbered into steps. This isn’t just for advice to writers and entrepreneurs. This also applies to general life lessons. Here are some headlines I’ve seen recently and the promises they make along with the article approximate word count.
- Find true happiness by implementing these ten simple steps (800 words)
- Using these five key metrics will turn your company around in one year (500 words)
- Jumpstart your novel-writing income by changing these seven things in your book (650 words)
- Make the Amazon algorithms work for you with these three simple steps (600 words)
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Yes, I know it is unreasonable to expect any listing of steps to be comprehensive. That is not the problem. The problem is that any statement that indicates following a specified number of steps will work every time is a lie. Yet it is a lie we’ve been conditioned to, and want to, believe.
In our digital lives and in the increased acceptance of short-format writing, we’ve been trained to think two things: 1) Success is only defined in terms of statistical metrics and marketing funnels; and 2) If we aren’t successful after following the given steps, there is something wrong with us. The unwritten subtext is: this works for everyone else.
Falling Into the Abyss
I consider myself a pretty self-assured and savvy person. I’ve been successful in other careers because I believed in my vision and how to get there. Of course, I also adapted and learned from others. However, I’ve always had my own approach on learning, synthesizing concepts, and discovering new integrations of those concepts in a way that made a leap forward. Sometimes those leaps were in short time frames like three to six months, other times it was two or three years depending on how much I needed to learn.
But this full-time writing business is going on year seven and hasn’t met most of my goals. Neither my strategies or my integration, nor the steps people were suggesting would make a difference, have worked. I started questioning my core belief that I was a good writer and that there was a larger audience for my books. The more I questioned that core belief, the more my creativity was stifled and replaced with anxiety that not only would I have to give up this career but that I had no idea what I would do instead.
Eventually, the time I spent writing — the creative part of my business that I love — was whittled to only 10–15% of my day. The pursuit of all the things I believed I had to do to make bank became 80% of my day. That meant squeezing family, church, volunteer work and me time into the remaining 5%. Not a happy place to be for me or those I love.
I was living someone else’s life and expectations, and it had to stop. The problem was I didn’t know anymore what I really wanted or how to change what I was doing. I’d been so buffeted by constant learning and implementation that I could no longer recognize what part of my career was of my choosing and what part was in the pursuit of goals I’d never articulated.
That’s what desperation looks like for me.
I needed to go back and identify what was truly me in my career. Where do my skills lie and what is the best way to use those skills in moving forward? Here are two key things I realized when answering those questions.
First, I get joy out of sharing what I learn. The feedback helps me learn more and sometimes helps others. This has been consistently reinforced throughout my life. It is why I wrote textbooks when I was in Academia. It is why I was a counselor for a good part of my career. It is why I wrote software to help others. It is why I always take time to answer questions even when I probably should be doing something else.
Second, my fiction fans have told me repeatedly that what they love about my books is that they are emotional journeys. My characters are relatable. The problems they have, whether in a contemporary setting or in a fantasy or science fiction world, are human problems. The way they solve those problems reinforce their humanity and sometimes helps a reader to consider a new way to solve her own issues. In short, my fiction deals with universal truths that speak to many readers.
Finding Joy in Human Connection in Nonfiction
The first answer has been the most eye-opening for me because I’d put my nonfiction writing on the back burner. It has never sold as well as my fiction, so it seemed that it wasn’t something I should invest more time into. In hindsight, I now realize that I was giving up something that brought me true joy.
All the signs were there, but I ignored them. Writing my nonfiction books have always been easier for me. I thought that was because I was writing about the lived experience instead of creating a fictional world. It is easier because I love to share what I’ve learned and when I get feedback on how useful a book is, I know I’ve made a human connection. When I answer questions in blog posts or read a different experience to the same question that someone else shares, I learn and again experience that human connection.
The warmth of human connection has been lost in the brief, emoji-driven interactions I experience on social media every day. And the firehose of content that is delivered to me with three hundred emails, close to one hundred Facebook posts in my feed, and thousands of twitter post I receive daily, doesn’t allow me to make those human connections apparent.
I’m constantly making choices between selecting an emoji to express my feelings in a quick click versus taking the time to write a short but meaningful in response. It’s almost as if choosing only a few posts to respond to, among thousands of possible interesting posts, is saying that all the rest aren’t worthy. That is not the case at all.
Understanding the Underlying Human Connection in My Fiction
In terms of my fiction, knowing what my fans love about my writing was integral to the brand I built. Because I write across several genres, I was stuck on how to market that. I knew I embedded many of the same themes in each book, no matter the genre, but I had difficulty articulating that. I needed a brand that spoke to the humanity of my characters and my stories. I needed a cogent promise I could make to my readers no matter what world my characters inhabited. After several tries and about six months I was able to summarize it in a tagline: “stories of making heroic choices one messy moment at a time”.
Finding that tagline has restored the human connection to my fiction writing, as much as helping people with my nonfiction has restored that connection for me. It has also been very helpful in determining my marketing message. Instead of selling one book at a time, I am selling all of my books with a brand.
It also informs my writing, both in fiction and nonfiction. It is a reminder of why I write and the promise I am making both to myself and to my readers. That promise is that life is full of challenges and hardships. We are making small and large heroic choices every day. Those choices reflect our values, our relationships, what we want to see in our future. We don’t always get it right — those messy moments. But, if we stick it out, I believe we become the best version of ourselves we can in that moment. Being that best version catapults us forward to the next messy choice. But we have learned in the process and at each step we grow in confidence for getting through the next challenge.
How Does This Change My Direction?
First, it takes me back to where I started. It tells me that I should spend equal time in nonfiction and fiction. This is not the direction I was heading over the past eighteen months. It also tells me I need to regularly schedule more in-person time — both with family and friends and with my readers.
Nonfiction Direction Change: This is one of the reasons I began writing on Medium. I wanted to share what I’ve learned in a longer form than the ideal Facebook or Twitter post. I craved more of the human connection and feedback. I also needed a means to share updates from the content in my nonfiction books because things change constantly. I am always tweaking my views on best practices as both software and processes change, and what I may have recommended even two years ago has been changed in some cases.
It also means I’m going to seek out opportunities for in-person sharing. I’d given up on that all together in the past year — not attending conferences, not doing writer panels, not accepting invitations to talk with writer groups. But I now realize I miss that part. It often pays very little, but it is soul-restoring.
Fiction Direction Change: On the fiction side, it means I’ll be cutting back on my output. I’d been scheduling five books a year and sometimes six. I’ll cut back to three books for 2020, or mix in some novellas instead of novels depending on which genre(s) I decide to continue writing.
Though I will continue to grow my mailing list and implement my funnels, I’m no longer going to make that the centerpiece of my time commitment. Instead, I’m going to look at the best ways to make that human connection with my fans. Probably more frequent newsletters that have nothing to do with the next book but everything to do with the major themes of my writing.
Like most things in life, this is not an overnight fix. I’ve been tackling this change over the past fourteen months. I’ve already implemented some things like changed branding and how I share my messages differently. Other aspects are still a work in progress, like what I’m going to write and in what format it will be delivered. What fiction genres and series are still going to be important to me and what will I let go? Will I write more nonfiction books, or will I only use the more flexible options of articles and updates for my nonfiction? Or both? And I’m sure there are many things I haven’t begun to consider.
If you are stuck in that creative quagmire yourself — where there is never enough time in the day and you are bombarded with all the things you have to do in your career — please take a moment and ask: Am I looking for the easy button? Am I following someone else’s dream? Am I willing to bet on myself instead?