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I pre-ordered a copy of Jeff Goins Real Artists Don’t Starve last week and had a chance to sit down and read it when I was house sitting for a friend.
Before I begin my review let me just say this is not one of those “YOU CAN DO IT!” books where you feel exhilarated and motivated after you read it. This is one of those books that starts by pumping you up, then it hits you in the gut with your own failures by showing you all the times when you could have been successful with your art, but weren’t.
This makes book makes you reflect on all of the missed opportunities you had. It confronts you with your sloth and cowardice. That’s what it did to me. The worst part is that Jeff Goins doesn’t write to offend or accuse. He is a competent writer with an academic style, using historical narratives from many different artists to make his points. In many ways this book feels like a book of history.
The book strikes a cord.
Essentially, Real Artists Don’t Starve debunks the myth of the starving artist. The person who must suffer financially for their art because they have no audience to sell too, or the market is too crowded and depresses prices, or whatever reason society offers for why artists aren’t well off.
Jeff Goins breaks the book into three sections. Mindset, Market, and Money. Goins covers everything from defining patrons and finding mentors to giving you permission to steal liberally and knowing when to sell out.
This book is cogent, thoughtful, and intelligent.
Jeff Goins redefines what a mentor is and what a patron is, for our modern audience. He makes the elegant argument that genius happens in groups. After reading this book, you will be compelled to re-evaluate your art, but your approach to the business of your art.
See, too many people have accepted the lie that to be a great artist you need to sequester yourself in a cave with your art tools and slave away in obscurity. That the only way to mastery is to abandon the world, normative society, and your loved ones so you can dedicate yourself to your art.
At the same time, the renown artists crave for can only had if artist leave their cave. (And, Goins has a word for those artists who say “I don’t
crave that stuff. I make art for me.”) How can the world enjoy your work if you never tell us about it? How can you earn a living as an artist if you never know your worth?
The Lies about Art
All of the bad mojo, the misconceptions and outright lies about art and business of art are confronted here in a nice volume just over two hundred pages. I read this book and thoroughly enjoyed it. I found myself fist pumping in the air at times while sitting in shock during others. It is that good.
I really enjoyed all of the historical research Jeff Goins did for this book. He had anecdotal stories from artists as varied as Michelangelo to
Earnest Hemingway to Dr. Dre. He talked about Paris in the 1920s and Silicon Valley in the 1980s. He showed me the business sides of artists and struck a cord.
Right now there is no paperback copy. You can get it in hardback or as an e-book. If you consider yourself an artists, or know an artists, get this book. But be warned: Your conceptions about art will be challenged and you might find yourself re-evaluating some of your life choices. I know I did.
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Like a lot of young men, I was obsessed with sports in my teens. I watched everything except baseball and golf. (I got nothing against baseball or golf, just not my cup of tea.) Basketball, football, hockey, you name it I watched it. I would even pay attention to high school sports in Los Angeles, reading the game summaries in the Pasadena Star News, keeping track of standing and statistics. Oh, and I didn’t want to be perceived as a snob, so I watched tennis, soccer & camped out every two years to watch Olympic bobsledding, downhill skiing, cycling and track & field.
But as I got older, I realized a couple of things.
- I didn’t really care for a lot of these sports.
- I was wasting a lot of time on something that didn’t really have a direct effect on my life.
So I stopped. I turned off the NFL draft and the NBA lottery. I stopped buying season tickets for the Colorado Rapids and turned the TV off during the NFL season. It was no longer fun, so I stopped.
The One Exception was College Football. I Love College Football.
I won’t bore you with my apologia on why college football is awesome, just know that it is. When I transitioned to being an aspiring author, I began to see some parallels between professional writing and my beloved sport.
1.) It Is Easy to Get Tunnel Vision
I am a BIG Southern Cal fan. I have been for about thirty years. About six years ago USC was hailed as the premiere college football
program in the land. They whupped everybody and I loved talking crap.
But there were problems in the Land of Troy. Many of the SC football players were coming to class wearing expensive clothes and driving leased Cadillac SUV’s. Pete Carrol, the head coach, knew a lot of these kids were from poor homes and simply decided not to ask questions. That lead to the university getting sanctioned by the NCAA and Carrol’s resignation. He got tunnel vision, deciding to ignore the things he didn’t want to know about.
The same is true in writing. I see people all the time who ignore really good advice from their peers. Or they don’t want to join a critique group because “They won’t get what I’m trying to do.” Listen, Jeff Goins says “Art needs an audience.” That means you’re going to get criticized – and that’s a good thing! An inspiring writer has to put their egos on the shelf and take criticism. Remember that fiction writing is an art and a business. If you can’t prepare your work for the market, than why are you writing?
2.) There is Room Enough for Everyone
College football has a great four team playoff system. It’s really increased visibility for the game. However, every year there are thirty plus bowl games going on. This year’s national Champion was the University of Clemson. They had an awesome season and earned every accolade. My beloved Trojans won the Rose Bowl against a resurgent Penn St. in a game for the ages. USC didn’t make the college playoffs this year. That doesn’t there season was a failure. Little Western Michigan University came out of nowhere to receive an invitation to the prestigious Cotton Bowl, where they proceeded to get pounded by Wisconsin. But they won 12 games this year, got on national television and won their conference. Is there season defined by one game? Of course not!
The same thing is true in writing. Just because I don’t have the success of James Paterson or Diana Gabaldon, doesn’t mean I’m a failure. People like to spout statistics about how hard it is to be a professional writer. But success looks different to different people. Local authors Quincy J. Allen and Dave Butler both write steampunk fiction. Yet their audiences are vastly different. One’s success doesn’t mean the other is failing. The scarcity world view is a lie. There is room enough for both of them, for all of them, in the marketplace.
3.) The Details Count
Twenty years ago in college football the University of Miami was the Galactic Empire in the sport. Everyone hated them. They were brash, cocky and talented. They were 1 play away from becoming the first back-to-back national champions in twenty years. Conversely, the University of Oregon was in a wilderness of losing. Today, the Oregon Ducks are a perennial winner and Miami struggles. What happened?
See, high school kids are wowed by shiny things. Oregon built a new stadium, a new athletic facility, and made rotating special uniforms a thing. High school athletes ate it up and decided to play for the ducks. Miami thought that kids would want to go to school there because of their winning tradition, so they never upgraded their athletic buildings. Now they struggle to keep Miami kids at home. They didn’t take care of the details.
Many times writers don’t want to do anything but write. They want to immerse themselves in story. But being a professional writer is about more than your book. It’s about sales and marketing. If you want to put food on the table writing, you’ve got to sell your book. You’ve got to meet fans, put together an email list and have a decent looking website. Author Jeff Goins says you must build a tribe.
I know an author who self-published a couple of space opera style Sci-fi books. Really good stuff. I suggested he get a table at the ComicCon in his town. The guy looked at me in horror. He said “I’m not going to be around those wierdos.” I told him, “Who do you think is going to buy your book? Physics professors?”
His discomfort lead to no one reading his book. He thought all he had to do was write something awesome (and it was awesome,) and viola, instant financial success. You gotta take care of the details.
4.) There is a Community of People Who Want to Help.
Did you know that college football coaches go to clinics about coaching every year, put on by other coaches? That they actively teach and network with one another? Did you know that coaches actively mentor other coaches they compete against? Every year summer Punt, Pass & Kick clinics go on where assistant coaches from many different programs get together, teach high school kids and actively pass on recruiting information to each other. Why? Because they know mentoring is an active part of coaching. Many successful coaches want to give back to the game by taking new people under their wings.
The same is true in writing. I have many new writers seek out and receive mentoring from professional writers who simply want to help. I too, have benefited from this mentoring. Authors like Aaron Michael Ritchey, Quincy J. Allen, Mary Wine and Suzanne Spann have all mentored me and helped me along the way.
There is an old saying, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Sometimes you have to ask for help. This shows a humbleness and a passion for the craft. I have never met people more open, more celebratory of others, or more helpful, than my fellow writers in Denver writing community. Mentorship, guidance, community and fellowship is out there. You just have to ask.
5.) Success Entails Hard Work.
You knew I was going to end with this, right? You have to put in the work. Clemson just didn’t recruit super talented football players to win a national championship. It took years of preparation, flying all over the country and talking to skeptical parents about how the coaches were going to guide, teach and mentor their young men. It took hundreds of hours of watching film, guiding kids in the weight room, having hard conversations about dedication, keeping an eye on kids grades, and about a hundred other things I don’t have time to talk about here, before Clemson was in a position to win that championship.
The same thing is true in writing. Research, re-writes, learning grammar, going to critique group, learning marketing, doing more re-writes. It’s all part of the process. If you’re willing to do the work, eventually you will be successful.
When I wrote my first, unpublished novel, I realized that I had made a bunch of stupid mistakes. So in January of 2016 I decided to do a complete re-write from page one. It was daunting. But I did it. I then wrote a second book later that year. A lot of people would have quit, or dragged their feet.
Look, I get it. It hurts to know the labor you put in was not enough. But if you go an extra mile, write a little more, ask for a little more help, you can be successful.
In a lot of ways, it really isn’t about the extra work. It is about this question. If I work harder, will I see the success I think I deserve? I think this is the real reason why people quit. They work hard, pour their emotions into a book and take their failure personally. They give up the fight before the fight is over. But writing is a craft. It’s more about the skills you acquire than the talent you have. As you learn more, you stop making those early mistakes. Your writing gets better.
I will leave you with this. At the University of Southern California, they have a saying. Fight On! To be successful in anything, you have to keep working. When you think you’ve reached your limit and that little, cowardly voice is telling you to quit, you have to simply Fight On!
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So I am writing this in my local Panera, on 38th Avenue in Denver, Colorado. Why am I here? Because I am frustratingly slow sometimes when it comes to writing. No. That’s not true. The truth is that I slow down. I get distracted.
I refuse to call what’s happening writers block. In fact, I don’t believe in writers block.
See, my understanding of writers block has to do with not knowing what to write next. But that seems to be a problem for pansters, not planners. (People who write by the seat of their pants. Me, I’m a planner.)
Since I outline every beat, every scene, I know exactly where I’m going. And even when I’m not motivated to write a scene, if I just get in front of a computer screen and do it, the words usually come. Sometimes there in the 1,000-1,200 range. Sometimes there in the 1,500-1,800 range. Sometimes I blow the roof off and write 2,500. But the words do come.
Yet here I am, five months into the first draft of a historical fiction and I’m only half way completed. My goals now are all askew and Nanowrimo is looming.
At the beginning of this year I published a goal of writing four books. Baring a miracle, that ain’t happening. I’m not really angry with myself, or disappointed. I’m just frustrated that I can’t get this together a little faster. These are first drafts.
In addition, my writer life, outside of the actual writing, has been extraordinary the last six months. (I will blog about that later.) I have been amazed and humbled by my greater tribe of writers here in Colorado.
In addition, I have reached out to some agents recently and they’ve been very receptive to what I’ve pitched. People want to read my stories. So it’s frustrating that I can’t (or won’t – self sabotage is an old friend of mine.) write faster.
I do see a pattern, however.
I have attempted three novels. I have done a complete top-to-bottom re-write of one of them, so I guess I could argue that I’ve attempted to write four. In every case I have trouble with the first half of Act 2.
I follow the late Blake Snyder’s screenplay outline called “Save the Cat.” The first half of Act 2 has three parts in it: The B Story, Fun & Games, and the Midpoint. I think I’m getting better at the Midpoint. I think that’s also true for the B Story. (Usually where a love story begins in many films and books,) It’s the Fun & Games, where we see the protagonist in their in their element, doing what they do best, that I struggle with. Each time I write I struggle with this.
I don’t really have an answer here, but I just wanted to share how hard it is to write a book. Even a crappy book requires time, patience, and dedication. Things I am willing to commit on this journey, but things that require effort. If any you have any suggestions, I would be happy to hear them.
Alright, this book ain’t gonna write itself.
I had quite the Christmas break this year. My actual Christmas holiday was very good. I got some surprising presents, spent time with the family and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
My friend Brett came over for New Year’s Eve and we sat around grazing on Fondue, (a New Year’s tradition in my house,) and watching way too many bad college football bowl games. Brett is also a writer so we even chatted about our stories and our writing processes. We don’t get a chance to do that often so it was a lot of fun.
In between Christmas and New Year’s I thought a lot about what happened in 2015. I also thought about what 2016 might look like. I started thinking about work, goals, resolutions and themes for the upcoming year.
See I don’t just do New Year Resolutions, I give each year a thematic bent. (Geez, am I a writer, or what?)
Looking back I can see that the theme for 2015 was asking for what I want. I jumped out of my comfort zone in 2015 and I asked people for what I wanted. I got new friends, new opportunities to write, I sat on literary panels on three different conventions, including Denver ComicCon.
2015 was also the year I learned to ask for help in my writing. I was frustrated with a book draft I wrote in 2014. To be honest, it was crap, but I didn’t know why. My critique group wasn’t very helpful, so I asked a friend. I then found another critique group that fit me better. Finally, when I realized that I needed a romantic subplot – and I didn’t know how to write romance – I asked for help and got it Mary Elizabeth Wine, a dear friend and a pro on romance.
I also became an editor for an online magazine. Something I’m very proud of, all because I asked.
I also got a new job in education. I won’t get into it too much, but let’s just say that the last two years I was underemployed. Having a full time job was really nice around Christmas time.
Looking forward to 2016, I realized that I have to produce more. I won’t call it The year of work, because it’s not about just work, but about producing finished stories. So here are my Goals for 2016:
#1.) I will produce FOUR professional level, book length manuscripts. That’s around 85,000 words. That includes research and editing. Writers write and its time I get going.
#2.) I will receive a book contract by a publisher in 2016.
#3.) In addition to writing those four manuscripts, I will publish at least two.
#4.) I will lose 50 pounds by July 1st. I will lose 100 pounds by January 1st, 2017. My weight has been out of control for quite some time. (Really, all my life.) I’m tired of it and I want to change. This goal scares the crap out of me. I have avoided dealing with my weight my entire life. I’ll be 45 this month and the weight has really begun to affect my quality of life. So it is time I make it a priority.
#5.) I will update my blog once a week in 2016.
I will probably not meet all of these goals and that’s alright. The growing is in the attempt. I invite you to join me in my progress, cheer me on when I succeed and call me on my bullshit when I make excuses. Buckle people, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Many of my friends know that I am member of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. It’s an organization of people who care about writing. Many of them are amateurs, many are professionals, and many of us are somewhere in between.
Every year they hold a competition for writer of the year. On a Saturday afternoon in July, RMFW held a cocktail party to announce who would win the award for 2015. I decided to go because these are great opportunities to meet other writers and network.
This year the winner was another California transplant, like me, named Susan Spann. I was expecting Susan to say what was expected; thank you, I’m so humbled, what a surprise, etc. After doing that she said this.
We all turned to writing because at some point we felt we didn’t belong in this world; so we had to make our own.
Those words hit hard. Harder than almost anything I’ve heard, outside of church, for the last five years. It was so true.
I’m going to admit something; I have never felt like I belonged, anywhere.
In high school I tried playing sports and embarrassed myself.
I joined half a dozen clubs, too, and none of them fit me.
In my early twenties I coached high school sports, tried acting, joined a gym, role-played and got heavy into politics. I enjoyed most of it, but always felt like an outsider.
The closest I got to belonging, really belonging, was acting at the Renaissance Faire.
I was a teacher for 14 years. Every day I walked the halls I felt alienated. I didn’t get along with other teachers or my administrators. I felt closer to the security staff and the custodians than anybody else. I thought they were petty and small people. I thought some of them shunned me because of my politics, or my big mouth, or my weight. In a faculty meeting of 60 people I felt utterly alone.
Now I know it wasn’t any of them; it was me. I wasn’t meant to be there. I was the fish trying to work in a factory; I didn’t fit.
When I compare my teaching days to what I do now, I am overwhelmed by how happy I am. I have created a tribe of people around me. A tribe of writers who understand me, celebrate me, and accept me.
I don’t know where you are in life, but stop worrying about what you’re supposed to do and start figuring out what you want to do. Listen to what your peers say to a point; be open to every opportunity; work hard and what you enjoy; be humble and help others along the way.
I know everyone says this, but I have found it to be true. Don’t wait until you’re 43, like I did. Go out there and take a chance.
In the last six months I’ve been asked to run an online magazine, I sat on panels at Denver Comic Con (more of that in my next blog), did a book pitch which lead to a sample request, and I’m going to teach online classes in writing.
I never thought I would fit in. I never thought I would belong, but I do.
If you’re reading this and you’re unhappy in your life, make changes today. Ask for help, take calculated but bold steps, and move in the direction of your happiness; find your tribe.