Category Archives: Being your own boss

The writer’s guide to self-care

Writers are notoriously bad at self-care. Here’s a non-exhaustive questionnaire to get you on track to focus on getting the words out.

  • Have you brushed your teeth?
  • Have you had a glass of water in the last couple of hours?
  • Have you eaten today?
  • If you consume caffeine, have you had a reasonable amount of it?
  • Have you taken a walk today?
  • Have you stretched in the last 30 minutes?
  • Have you taken vitamin D supplements today, if it’s fall or winter where you live?
  • Have you taken at least five minutes to breathe deeply and meditate, if you do so?

Once you’ve brought your mind and body back into balance, this writer-specific self-care checklist can help you get past a block.

  • Have you read or watched something you enjoy?
  • Do you have a full glass of water nearby?
  • Have you skimmed Chuck Wendig’s self-care checklist lately? (It’s less tactical than this one, but good nonetheless.)
  • Have you warmed up by writing for at least five minutes about whatever’s on your mind?
  • Have you given yourself the freedom to spend some of your writing time on what you want to do, not what you have to do?

Dogfooding your art

For a while, when I was a wee overachiever, I was often called a perfectionist. It wasn’t true, though. I was (and am) just good at spotting things that could still be improved.

A perfectionist can’t bear to put something out into the world until it’s perfect, and thankfully I’ve never really had that problem. (I’ve been posting my drafts online since 2001.)

When I started working at Microsoft nearly five years ago (!!), I learned of a business term that crops up in software development a lot: dogfooding. It’s short for “eating your own dog food,” or, “using your own damn product.” It’s great. I think it’s really vivid and kind of nasty, and that’s why it’s the right word — because at the point at which you’re dogfooding something, it’s probably not ready for your real audience. It’s a messy, uncomfortable process that’s absolutely necessary.

Dogfooding usually refers to software, or on occasion other products like cars or soft drinks, but I like to use it in regards to my art. You might stop me here and say, “August, how the heck am I supposed to use my own art?”

Great question! Start by reading it out loud, or sending it to a different device from the one you create on. Break out of the way you’ve been creating to experience it in another way. Turn it upside down if you have to. Read it backwards, sentence by sentence.

And then get your art out to your inner circle. Your squad. Your superfans who exist because they’re obligated by other social contracts: those people who, by blood relation or professional association or creative conglomeration, will happily consume what you make and then tell you what they think.

Bombard them with your art. Get a channel you’re comfortable with — whether that means making something private that’s invite only, or choosing a fresh username unassociated with your other online identities, or even just dumping your drafts on your regular social media platforms. Whatever you prefer, find a channel, set it up, and make it simple for you to post to it. Regularly.

That’s the secret. You have to constantly be updating, and pushing the latest to your dogfooders. The faster you get stuff out there, the faster you get feedback. And that’s what this is about: go forth and gauge your (limited and likely captive) audience’s reaction to what you create.

You don’t always need honest opinions from your dogfooders, or detailed breakdowns of their opinions. In fact, no answer at all can be very telling. Does your little sister “like” and comment on every one of your posts? Did she only “like” it this time? Take that as a tiny little point in the “no” column, make a few changes if you think she’s right, and test again, quickly.

Sometimes you might be uncertain of a detail or an approach you’re taking. That’s when you reach out and specifically ask for others’ perceptions of what you’re up to. You’ll be surprised to find out how often your audience is unable to see the flaws you’re stuck on, or how readily someone will offer exactly the perspective you needed to make it right.

If you want to improve, and if you want to truly speed up your ability to create, then you have to start getting feedback early and often. It turns out that the crappiest part of writing a novel is revising it; it’s tedious, frustrating, and confusing. And you’re only going to make any revision steps of your process easier on yourself by learning how to make good content the first time.

You get there by dogfooding.

Taking myself seriously

Earlier this year, squadmate Amy sent me a Sarah Cooper article. Beyond the fact that the article was painfully spot-on (I’m guilty of all of them except maybe the one-handed typing and the moustache), it was well-written and enticing. I went deeper into her catalog.

And I found “Do You Take Yourself Seriously?

My heart sank as I read through it. Because no, I didn’t, not really.

These three quotes stood out to me, as what happens when you don’t take yourself seriously:

“You can no longer tell the difference between what you want and what other people want from you.”

“You resent people who do [take themselves seriously]. You look at people who promote themselves and their ideas and you think they’re egotistical or ridiculous.”

You rush through a half-hearted execution and don’t give yourself the time you need to learn something new, or do it the right way. And when it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted you decide it was a total waste of time.”

Oh. Ouch. That’s familiar.

Cooper even expresses her own doubts about writing the very piece that I was reading, published on Medium. Her thoughts, as transcribed, sound so much like my own inner monologue does on a regular basis: “Why am I writing this? This is stupid. This is repetitive. Hasn’t someone else said this before but better? Do I even know what I’m trying to say?”

Oh. Ouch. That’s familiar too.

If those lines hit you in the same feels they hit me, I recommend a full read-through of the article, because Cooper takes you swooping over those immense pits of despair she bitingly describes in perfect detail, and then up, up, towards the light, in a way pull-quotes don’t capture.

The thing is, what Cooper’s talking about is very simple, though not very easy. It’s “just” a change in mindset. “Just” an attitude adjustment.

That is to say: It is both an overnight and a lifelong change.

After I first read this article about four months ago, I decided to take myself seriously. How did it go? One clue: I finished Portent after just over two months of really working on it. Another clue: I still had to edit myself in the above sentence from “I decided to try and take myself seriously” to “I decided to take myself seriously.”

Progress is happening, it just ain’t easy.

Such tiny differences — making a conscious effort not to pre-judge myself, giving myself as much benefit of the doubt as I would give someone I love, and treating my ideas like cherished possibilities — have made some huge changes in the way I’ve done things since September. I think about my art as a business in a clearer way, and I’m reading and learning and writing (privately, so far) about how to make my publishing model work. I pitch myself and my ideas to people I’ve just met (admittedly, they’ve mostly been online).

I know the magic of this revelation could fade, and that I might need a reminder in a few months to read Sarah Cooper’s article again. But that’s okay. It’s a damn good article.

Mischievous mice: A short history

I’ve known Nicole longer than I’ve known either of my siblings (by a solid year) — we decided we didn’t want to play house with the girls in our Sunday school class, we wanted to play animals with the boys. We went to the same college. We got married within a couple months of one another. Oh, and she stole my original last name.

Pictured here at Nicole’s wedding. We rarely look this normal in photographs together.

And now she’s opening up her own shop, Mischief & Mouse.

I’m beyond proud.

***

Besides the fact that Nicole went to public school and I was homeschooled, we spent more time together than most childhood friends I know. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly when we started collaborating artistically, but it couldn’t have been much later than age 8 or 9. Nicole was always the visual artist of the two of us, and I the more prolific writer, but we traded off those roles often enough to stay sharp.

The carnage of our collaboration, circa 2007.

Those hours upon hours spent art-ing together were foundational to how I operate today. I wouldn’t have half the graciousness in accepting constructive criticism that I do if it hadn’t been for how many times Nicole gently gave me her input on how I could make our shared project better. I hope my constant bothering for her to show me everything in her sketchbooks made it more compelling to produce art more often.

These days, we’re a little more honed in on what we were always really good at. I do my novel-and-UI thing, and Nicole — well, she did something incredibly brave this month: she quit her corporate job to start her own business based on her art. She sews up tiny woodland friends, paints gouache scenes, and designs adorable prints.

She’s following her dream, and trying to make art for a living. It’s opportunity meets hard work. It’s damn cool.

One last note: it’s always been mice. We loved the Redwall series together, and Nicole helped me take care of my mouse farm (long story for another time) and my pet rats, too. To see that mouse logo on her store takes me right back to when there was nothing but art to fill our time, and we filled it well.

Pictured here: typical.

It’s MY platform.

One of my very enterprising peer-friends, Nikki, told me about a year ago that I needed to start getting my brand in order. My…brand? was my clueless response.

She meant the brand of my online presence, the composite virtual face I was presenting to the world. At the time, I had little more than a LinkedIn page and a personal Twitter account used for silly interactions with my colleagues.

Nikki’s advice was sound. I’ve been trying to be a self-published author who wants to make a living off her words. A blog is a terrible thing to waste.

It’s been slow going, this “building a platform” thing. I started cross-posting to my Twitter and Facebook page, tried to keep up a more regular rhythm of public writing, and even finally put together a Medium page last month. All these little bits of digital progress…and I still don’t feel like I have a coherent whole yet.

Today I sat down to think about that.

I’ve done a lot of work. I’ve refined my brand messages a few times, picked at my bios, and read numerous times through each blog post I do finally publish (though I still miss things). I’ve started, and then deleted, a lot of posts that I deemed incapable of carrying The Brand forward. I’ve evaluated the drafts of various lengths sitting in my digital folders with the critical twin lenses of Audience & Salability.

In fact, I’ve worked really hard to second-guess myself.

Wait, didn’t I just realize something just like this in another recent post? Funny. Almost like there’s a common thread here.

OK, so the problem has clarified: I’m not giving myself enough credit or taking myself seriously enough. What’s my solution?

For one thing, every time I feel the urge to write, and then stifle it with self-criticism, I’m going to tell myself: It’s MY platform.

Nikki was right. I do need a brand. My brand. My weird, off-beat brand of silly, lyrical storytelling — which is the same, if more thoroughly edited, in my novels. This is MY blog. Who cares if “the Medium audience” will read it? I want MY audience to read it.

Because here’s the thing. Writers write. Writing isn’t always fun. If I’m going to make writing a life-long, every-day kind of habit, not to mention summon the motivation I need to go through the editing and publishing processes on my own… Well, I’d sure as hell better write what I want to write.

And sometimes, all I want to write are sappy space pirate drabbles. Yes, sometimes, I do want to write serious essays about things in the world that make me think. Then there are times I’m struck with a spark and just want to re-capture the magic of a remembered moment.

This is where the brand part, the platform part comes in. If I want to establish who I am, what I’m about, and what kinds of writing my audience can expect from me, I have to put what I write out into the world. A lot of it. Quantity will beget quality, and hopefully, when there’s enough, a clear and simple identity will emerge.

And if what I write is space pirate drabbles, serious essays, and magical moments, well… that’s what I’ll be putting out into the world.