I’ve started writing fiction again, with the intent to improve.
But I know that simply “writing a lot”, while being a necessary condition to improve, isn’t enough.
For a long time, I used the “project-based” approach to learning instead. This involves picking a project that uses the skills you want to improve, and implementing it. While it’s fun and sounds like you’ll be improving by doing this, the truth is that it’s only effective in the very early stages. There’s simply too much happening at once, and not enough repetitions, to be able to improve.
What I should have been doing is deliberate practice. If you do any reading on self-improvement, it’s likely that you’ve come across the term “deliberate practice” before. If not, here’s a post summarizing it.
How am I applying this to fiction writing?
Simple: I find a short story (1000 words or less, on flashfictiononline.com), and I cut off the bottom 100 words without reading them. Then I copy the story into Gingko, read it, and list out a few ideas for endings, and then write my own version. Then, and this is very important, I read the original ending, and compare the two, writing notes on what I find.
This simple exercise has already revealed my weak areas and where I need to focus. And it’s easy to scale up, to keep increasing the challenge level (write 20%, write 50%). Or to move the part I’m rewriting, to focus on writing beginnings, for instance. More importantly, it removes the major block of focusing on what to write, and allows me to focus on how to write it.
I’m still working on my endings, but I’ll probably be writing about more deliberate practice exercises I come up with as I find more areas I need to focus on.
Do you have any practice exercises that allow you to focus on one area of your writing at a time?
Can you think of ways of applying this to other creative fields?
It’s unavoidable that sometimes we’ll have to slog through a part of our writing that feels like a bore. Whether you’re ghost-writing a book for a client, writing your thesis literature review, or even when you’re smack in the middle of that novel you always wanted to write. Chances are you’ll hit a spot where you just… can’t … keep … writing.
There are a hundred reasons why this might be the case, but today I want to tackle just one: boredom.
Here are a few scenarios that most would find boring:
Filling out your tax forms.
Playing a mindless kid’s board game with your 3 year old nephew.
Sitting in a hospital waiting room (in Quebec, this can stretch out for 6 hours+, even in the “emergency” ward).
Meditating: just sitting and focusing on your breath.
But notice that in all of these, there are examples of people who don’t find it boring:
Are you reading several books a month, but somehow you “don’t have time” to write?
Do you read for inspiration, but avoid writing even when it strikes?
I read. A lot. If I’m into a good story, I can hardly stop. My wife will see me gravitating to my Kindle during every random time pocket, and she’ll tell our son “Oh, looks like we’ve lost papa to a book again!”
I also think of myself as a writer, though I have very little writing to back that claim. Why is that? I didn’t understand why I read so much, and wrote so little, until I read this quote:
“If you’re a perfectionist of the paralyzed sort, it’s almost guaranteed that you watch a lot of TV. Perfectionists and procrastinators love TV because nobody watches TV incorrectly. It is completely passive, which makes it an automatic, simple, rewarding, and mistake-free “win”.”
– Stephen Guise, How to be an Imperfectionist
Now, I read this book more than once (of course!) but the first few times I did, that quote just slid right over me and made no impression. We’ve never owned a TV. My wife and I watch shows on Netflix at her prompting, not mine. I do watch a lot of productivity videos on YouTube, though… but at least that’s “productive” (notice a pattern?).
It took another pass to finally see that those words were written for me… I just had to substitute “watching TV” with “reading” for it to apply.
Ouch. I might not be a couch potato, but I’m the literary equivalent. An armchair beet? A rocking chair parsnip? Never mind… humor isn’t my strong suit. Must be all serious, all productive, all the time.
Reading is worthwhile, it’s fun, and it does build perceptual exposure that can improve your writing. But the key is to focus on your production/consumption ratio.
Seeing things as either production or consumption left me no room to hide. Reading classics of my chosen genre: consumption. Reading a “how-to” book on writing: consumption. Watching YouTube videos on time management: consumption. Consumption is fine, but it needs to be balanced with the appropriate amount of production. What’s “appropriate”? Enough that you feel satisfied.
Since I started seeing things this way, I’ve started writing again after a hiatus of over a year.
The mechanics of this are simple: figure out how much time you spend in each category, and adjust it slowly until it feels right. But the key is simpler still:
Start the habit of asking yourself: “Am I producing, or consuming?”
If you’re struggling to start writing, or struggling to continue, here are a few things you can try to get unstuck.
Expose yourself to bad work. Get some examples of terrible work in your genre, and read them. Here’s a video I made describing why this works.
Be playful. If you’re stuck in the middle of a piece, save your draft, then try throwing out all the rules for a while. You can pretend that you’ve stumbled on someone else’s work, and want to be devious as you continue. Kill off darling characters, throw in a crazy twist… the point isn’t to find a path forward, but instead to loosen you up.
Set your bar at “existence”. Do the words exist on the page? Success. Are they in the ether of your mind? Failure. We tend to get paralyzed when we compare our current state (nothing/blocked) with what we imagine (some perfect, or even “good enough” finished piece)… and the gap between now and then is overwhelming. But really, we should be comparing “non-existence”, which is the default state of everything, to “existence”, which isn’t too hard to achieve.
Forget ordering. This is why writing in index cards, or software like Gingko is so effective. You can write without worrying too much about structure.
Work at a different level. If you’re stuck with a scene or description, jump up to writing rough overviews of entire chunks of your book. If you’re stuck on the overall structure, zoom in to one part and write out all the details.
Cut off all input. Being stuck comes from unrealistic expectations, which comes from repeated exposure to Quality. If exposing yourself to bad work (point 1.) isn’t enough, then cut off your exposure completely for a week or so. Don’t read, watch, or listen to anything related to what you’re hoping to write.
These strategies aren’t meant to help you find the correct path forward. The more you try to do that, the more stuck you’ll be. These techniques are meant to allow you to discover for yourself that there is no one true path.
As an example, take the art of sculpture. It’s good to have an idea of what you’re aiming for, but the process hasn’t started until you have clay in your hands, and are molding it into shape.
Writing in your head is like sculpting without clay. You need some words in front of you (any words), in order to start shaping the story you want to tell.
However, I realized that I can achieve the same effect by dropping Intercom and replacing it with something free or much cheaper. Intercom is an incredibly powerful tool, but I am just using it as a second inbox for support.
Why did I jump to “raise prices”?
I believe this is a perfect example of a “Cascade of Costs”.
Intercom has raised $66 million over 5 rounds of funding, and so it needs to do more than cover its costs, pay to continue developing the product, and have enough of a buffer to survive hard times. It is forced to grow rapidly, and forced to charge more, to make a profit for those investors.
Because Intercom is a tool for businesses, that means that every single business that uses it also needs to charge their customers a little (or a lot) more to cover their expenses and make their own profit. If those businesses serve other businesses, the cascade of higher costs/higher prices continues down to all their customers.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Intercom, and I believe they’re making the best choices out of the ones they have. It’s just that the pattern of “move to San Francisco, get funded, get big, raise prices” is so ingrained into the tech world that it’s not questioned half as often as it should be.
I just got back from a trip to San Francisco. It’s a nice city. But frankly, I was very underwhelmed. The single most striking thing I noticed is the absolutely out-of-control cost of rent and living.
Which means that every body on Earth pays more for software (with money or attention), because of the cost-of-living in Silicon Valley.
Also, fewer kinds of software are developed, because the focus needs to be on the few that can make a vast profit for a corporation, not the many that can make a decent living for individuals.
I don’t question the logic of this, only it’s seeming inevitability.
For myself, I might still raise Gingko’s prices. After all, it’s evolved a good deal since launch. But because I’m free of investor pressure, and mobile, I am not tied to just that option.
For instance, to better support ourselves, we might move somewhere cheaper. Right now I’m travelling Spain with my wife and son, to escape both the (relatively) high costs and (insanely) low temperatures of Montreal.
Who knows, we might fall in love with some white-washed small town on the Spanish coast, and make our base here instead!
Freedom and profit don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
But if they were, I’d choose freedom any damn day!
How many times a week do you think “I should be writing”?
For some reason, even when reaching the end of their PhD, most people have trouble actually starting to write the thesis.
“Just a little more data.”
“There’s just one more source I have to cite.”
Or the seemingly rational “but I don’t have my key results yet!”
The truth is, we procrastinate on starting because we don’t know where or how to start. We imagine The Thesis as a complete whole, as a monolithic slab of pages; and we cringe and avert our inner eye. If you’re at the beginning of the PhD, you also feel it’s probably pointless to start, because you don’t have results or even a firm topic.
Sorry, but these are all excuses. When should you start?
Whether you’ve just chosen a supervisor, or you’re ABD and a year away from having your funding cut off, the answer is the same: Start today.
Easier said than done? Not really.
After all, a thesis is nothing more than a big document. Whether you’re writing in Word or LaTeX, it’s just a file of text, like any other.
But if we imagine that we have to write a coherent argument over 200 pages, and we’re starting at page 1, it’s no wonder we’re overwhelmed! That’s like saying “You have no idea where you want to go in these woods, but you have to take the first step right now. Here’s a backpack with a few supplies. Go on, get moving!”
If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, you wonder “What if I step in the wrong direction? I could end up 2000 miles from where I’m supposed to be!”
The problem here is linear thinking. Because our documents are linear, we start to think linearly, and so anything big instantly becomes overwhelming. By thinking “non-linearly” I don’t mean to jump around, and write things out of order. I mean that you need to think holistically, and in slowly increasing detail.
Plant Your Seed, Watch It Grow
The solution is simple.
Write a mini-thesis.
Then grow it, daily.
Imagine the following:
What if your thesis only needed to be 100 words long?
Oh, and quality doesn’t matter, because you’ll have regular feedback and hundreds of revisions. Also, you don’t have to worry too much about “making a unique contribution”… even a semi-coherent plan to get results is enough.
Could you do it? Absolutely!
Once you’ve done that, all you have to do is expand and elaborate on your mini-thesis!
Here’s how it works.
Write your title.
Write your seed: the “100 word thesis”.
In a separate document (or, if you’re using Gingko, right there next to the seed), write a slightly more detailed version of each section you mentioned in the seed.
Repeat, each time expanding and refining what you have, rearranging as necessary.
Of course, Gingko is ideal for this (after all, I designed it while struggling with my own PhD in physics). But you can use any other word processor as well (my competitor Scrivener is a good alternative). Simply create a new view/document/column, so you can have your current iteration to the left, and the version one you’re expanding on to the right.
In fiction, this is sometimes called the “Snowflake Method” . But the principle is far deeper, and can be found in all kinds of different fields. For instance, artists often make small sketches, which expand to bigger studies, before tackling the full-sized canvas. Digital Images are often compressed so that no matter how small a chunk of the file you get, you still have the whole picture (albeit at lower-resolution). For the physicists and mathematicians among you, all we’re doing is taking the writing process from linear space, to Fourier space. I call this process “Sketching with Words“, but I digress…
Growing your thesis has a number of advantages over other methods.
Instantly kills overwhelm; it’s easy to start small.
You always see the question you’re trying to answer, making it less likely your thesis will turn into a “project” instead. A “project” thesis is much harder to work on, trust me.
You always have a sense of the whole, lending coherence to your argument.
You can get early feedback and expose major flaws, before you’ve written walls of text. This makes it easier to get feedback (less to read), and to make changes (less to change, and you’re less attached to your ideas).
At each pass, you know exactly where you’re going, because you’ve already written that section before (though not in as much detail).
So, now you have no excuse. If you can write a shoddy 100 words, you can start your thesis today. Just remember the steps:
I’ve been giving this blog a great deal of my mental space over the last couple months, and it’s been extraordinarily valuable. Here are a few of the lessons I learned:
On Wealth: To have more doesn’t mean other must have less. Wealth is neutral: it can arise out of competition or out of creation. Creating wealth is a worthy goal.
On Time Scarcity: Whatever we feel we lack captures our thought processes and forces us to blindness. Just as people get into negative spirals of debt and low income, I was in a negative spiral of time debt and “never enough time”. Time investments are immensely powerful.
On the Fixed Mindset: perfectionism, procrastination, blaming others, and fear of making mistakes, all have the same root cause: the belief that our intelligence/strength/personality are fixed and cannot be changed. Whether we think highly of our abilities, or feel inadequate, doesn’t matter. Whether we think we can change those abilities or not makes all the difference.
Investing in Focused Time
A few posts ago, I also made a commitment to action. In order to fully do this however, I needed to address the two largest recurring time commitments I had:
In Kuwait, where I grew up, one can still find local fisherman using funnel cage traps. I used to watch them throw their cages into the sea, and found myself wondering about the funnel.
“How wide does the mouth need to be to capture enough fish?”
“How narrow does the funnel end need to be to keep them?”
and finally, “I wonder what it feels like to be the fish?”
Recently, I had a chance to find out.
I came across an online version of one of these traps, and became the fish being funnelled into it. I was fully aware of it, but I kept going deeper into the sales funnel because I wanted what was inside: a productivity program I had been interested in for some time.
I did end up purchasing a trial, but it was entirely in spite of the funnel, and not because of it. I purchased because I believed in the creator’s work, his vision, and his product; all beliefs I had held from material I had seen outside the funnel.
The sales funnel is the way we usually discuss, visualize, and track online marketing. This model is so prevalent and unquestioned, it is very likely that it lies underneath all of your marketing efforts. It might even be the reason why you hesitate to market in the first place, as it is for me.
Holding this model in your mind is damaging to your customers, to your business, and to you.
The funnel treats people as indistinguishable data points, and leads to a single path to sustainability: burn a large amount of fuel, get as many page views as possible, convert as many as those into leads, and keep shoving people through the funnel until the numbers work out and the system runs on its own.
This is what I call
the “Ramjet” model of marketing.
It works very well in a few narrow situations, but utterly fails in the ones that matter most to you.
I’ve been exploring an alternative mental model that works no matter your level of funding, your scale, or your market. And most importantly, it flows naturally from you, and doesn’t require you to join the life-draining shouting match that is advertising.
Let’s first look at how the sale funnel model works.
First, you need an intake wide enough to capture the customers you need to survive. Then you need to plug all the gaps in the funnel, even if it means being slightly sneaky about things (disabling navigation, hiding content behind opt-in forms, etc). You also need to move fast enough to have enough people coming in at the top to continue fuelling forward motion. And finally, you need to spark powerful emotions at the right time, by whatever means necessary, to make a sale. There are only two ways to sustainability: get bigger, or move faster.
In all, this works exactly like a ramjet.
A ramjet is a kind of engine that can move incredibly fast, once it hits a particular velocity. It can do so because it uses its forward motion as part of the thrust process. This is efficient, but it has a number of drawbacks.
A ramjet only works at high speeds. Which also means it needs assistance to take off. The stresses involved are very high, the body needs to be extremely lean. There is no distinguishing characteristic of the air entering the engine… we just need a lot of it, very very fast. Ramjets are expensive to test, because you can only find out if they will succeed once you’ve hit supersonic speeds.
The only way to find out if a ramjet works is to propel it with an external engine, hurl it through the air, and see if it flies, or if it explodes.
If you’re in startups, this might start to sound a little familiar.
Try these substitutions:
A startup based on the ramjet model is a very stressful place. Sure there’s an adrenaline rush, but it’s very much shaped by the requirement to get to a certain scale and speed in order to function properly. Once there, it’s a beautiful piece of human engineering. And the model can reach breathtaking speeds/profits.
However, is it any wonder that 9 out of 10 of these ramjet startups crash and burn?
In a ramjet startup, there is constant pressure for more volume, plugging gaps, and getting to the point where the engine runs itself (often requiring several stops of refueling/refunding).
The lean startup cult is just a scale model version of this.
Sure it’s smaller, but the principles and the mental model is the same.
“Will it fly?” is still the primary question.
The key drawbacks of this model are:
It will not work unless you have enough external propulsion to fully test your engine.
It treats people as indistinguishable particles to be captured.
It is too simplistic. Hardly anyone goes neatly from “prospect” to “customer” in linear steps.
It forces you to hide everything except the funnel mouths, leading to unnatural and forced linear paths determined by the marketer, not the customer.
It contradicts the excellent advice to “narrow your focus” and “find a niche”. People are afraid to focus in part because they can imagine the funnel narrowing, and assume it will lead to fewer sales.
The model leads to a zero-sum competitive landscape, where the only way to get ahead it to be bigger, louder, and faster than the competition.
It’s time to put an end to the ramjet model of business.
Let’s talk resonance.
In common language, when something “resonates” with you, we say it “speaks to you”, reflects you in some way, or is somehow “aligned” with who you are.
In a rare occurrence, the physics definition of resonance is the same. A deep understanding of resonance leads to a far more powerful mental model for marketing.
The goal of marketing is simple, but a concise statement eluded me for some time.
Ideally, marketing connects the value you create with everyone who would derive a net benefit, and with no one who wouldn’t.
Let’s imagine every one of us is broadcasting ourselves into the world. Every time we speak, write, share, or create, we are emitting a part of ourselves into space, for it to be received by someone else.
What are the aspects of these signals that we can tune, in order to achieve maximum reach with minimum energy and waste?
1. Natural Frequency & Resonance
Every oscillating system, whether it’s a pendulum, a swing, a tuned radio circuit, has its own natural frequency.
If you try to force the system at an other frequency, the system will resist you. If however, you give the system the slightest nudges at the natural frequency, it will respond powerfully.
This is resonance.
When you’re pushing a swing, the slightest nudge at the right frequency is all it takes to keep swinging.
Sing any note but the right one, and a crystal glass does nothing. Sing at precisely the resonant frequency, and it shatters.
Resonance is what allows your tiny low-power cell phone transmitter to reach the nearest cell tower, up to 13km away.
The first and most important step, is to decide what signal you’re broadcasting, and make sure it resonates with you. You have your own natural frequencies as well. The language you use, the things you’re drawn to, and the values you hold, all form the spectrum of your being.
When you speak, write, and create in a way that resonates with yourself, broadcasting becomes effortless.
There is also resonance in receiving signals.
In fact, resonance is the essence of receiving signals.
[A system] will easily vibrate at those [natural] frequencies, and vibrate less strongly at other frequencies. It will “pick out” its resonance frequency from a complex excitation, such as an impulse or a wideband noise excitation. In effect, it is filtering out all frequencies other than its resonance.
– Acoustic Resonance, Wikipedia
In order to be heard above the noise, you don’t need to shout louder.
You just need to resonate with your audience.
But resonance isn’t solely about finding your natural frequency.
Focus is as important.
2. The Quality Factor
There is no such thing as a perfect frequency. It’s physically impossible to create. Every signal has a spread, and so we need a way of quantifying that spread.
The “quality factor” is a measure of how focused a signal is around the resonant natural frequency.
A crystal glass, a bell, and a tuning fork all have high quality factors. It’s what keeps them ringing long after they’re struck. Radio signals also have quality factors (often called “bandwidth”).
There is a trade-off here.
If the quality factor is extremely high, then the signal can be received many km away, but only if the receiver has precisely the same frequency. If the receiver is simply scanning the band, it’s very likely to miss your narrow broadcast.
On the other hand, if the quality factor is low, your signal starts to blend in with neighbouring signals, your broadcast energy is spread thin, and you need a lot more power to reach the same number of people.
When you pick a niche, you are increasing your quality factor. When you refine your message, you are increasing your quality factor. Any time you reduce the spread in your signal, you’re allowing it to go further and resonate more powerfully with the people you want to reach.
How narrow should you go?
Far narrower than you’d expect. The only way to cut above the noise is to resonate very strongly with a very small number of people. Your signal is then amplified by them, and will reach more people with the same narrow frequency.
If you go too broad, however, your message is filtered out by everyone equally, and just passes through without affecting anyone or anything. It leaks out into space as wasted energy.
3. Channels and Barriers
You can have the most powerful, most focused signal on Earth, but if you’re broadcasting in a lead box, it’s just going to bounce around you and go no where. Probably frying you in the process.
Your signal has to overcome the natural barriers that exist in the world.
This is simple, but it can be overlooked. You need to place your broadcasts in the channels that are likely to reach your resonant audience. But while it’s important to avoid being in an echo chamber, it’s a waste of time to try to maneuver your signal around every single obstacle.
In other words, make sure you can be found by search, using search terms that resonate. Choose one or two social media outlets. But don’t waste your time trying to optimize your SEO, and your social media presence in 6 different outlets. It dissipates your limited energy.
Your goal is to be findable.
Resonance and quality should do the rest.
Amplitude, or how much power you’re putting into broadcasting your signal, is the last thing to tune.
With the ramjet, you need to pump power into the system, get it up to a certain scale, before you do anything else, in the hopes of tuning it mid-flight until it works. When you look at this approach with a signal mindset, however, the futility is striking.
There is nothing more wasteful than to pump a great deal of energy into broadcasting a message that will resonate with no one.
A World Of Broadcasts
I despise advertising.
I don’t have a television, and my browsers have ad-block. So every time I come into contact with the “normal world” of commercials and ads, it’s jarring. Why do we tolerate this noise?
It is a distraction based economy, one that rewards the biggest and loudest players. They play to our lowest selves, by bypassing our consciousness and reaching into our lizard brains, our base instincts.
The ramjet model plays this game very well. We get sucked into the engine, and have no choice but to try to escape, or be forced out the other side, sometimes with less than we came in. It’s these images as modes that give marketing a bad name.
But if we change our perspective, marketing becomes a beautiful thing.
It’s a world of broadcasters and receivers, each resonating in tune with each other, amplifying each other. It’s a world where people don’t need to shout, they just need to create, refine, and share.
So which would you rather be,
a ramjet operator, or a resonant signal?
“THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.”
– “Harrison Bergeron”, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
“Harrison Bergeron“, is a dystopic short story (a 10 min read).
It asks and answers the question: What if everybody were forced to be equal?
I understand now that to produce a dystopia from equality requires a set of false assumptions. The very same false assumption that I’ve uncovered lately: that there is a measurable and fixed amount of intrinsic worth available to each human being. For one person to have more, of anything, another must have less.
Taken to the extreme, this fixation of the fixedness and limitedness of the resources of the planet and the internal resources of each person, combined with a desire for equality, leads directly to a world of mediocrity.
What’s incredible to me is that we don’t need a “Handicapper General” to diligently limit people’s abilities. We limit ourselves.
I feel like we’re all Harrison Bergeron: great in our own unique way.
We’re also our own Handicapper: putting on our own shackles and distractions, weights and masks…
On the morning of April 4th, my “self reliance” ritual was cut short when I looked at the calendar and saw the day before was an empty box, where there needed to be a checkmark. I felt a dull ache rising in the back of my gut.
“Did I forget to write yesterday?”
“Did I break my unprecedented 123 day streak?”
“No no no! This can’t be!”
My panic rose steadily, but I simply wasn’t sure. So, I seized the benefit of the doubt, slowly filled in the missing checkmark, and went about my days, trying to forget this lie I told myself.
It’s now 3 weeks later. My mini-habits of writing, programming, and exercising daily have lost all their former power. Even my morning ritual is starting to slip.
Rationally, I know that one misstep shouldn’t matter. That I should brush it off, learn from it, and keep going. But I can’t stop myself from feeling that it does matter.