Writing

We all need mentors. They’re essential for growth, but they aren’t created equal.

An average mentor will give you a map; a detailed list of guidelines and instructions for how to get from A to B (where they assumedly are).

An excellent mentor will give you a compass; they’ll point you in a direction, warn you about the perils you may encounter along the path, and send you on your way.

“The type of mentors who tend to be the most helpful are those who don’t necessarily give you an answer, but they give you a better way of finding that answer.”

Tim Ferriss

An excellent mentor understand that your journey will not be the same as theirs was. Times change. Safe roads become perilous and vice versa.

Excellent mentors are less focussed on what you should do, and more focussed on dangers you should avoid as you navigate your own path.

Find people who model the life you want to lead and allow them to guide you, but never mould yourself into an exact replica of someone else. It’ll never work. Even if you follow their map religiously, you may find that you wield different tools.

You’re too much like you.

Mould your own excellence.

Diction is the process of word selection.

Writing well involves choosing words which play nicely with one another, then killing off as many as possible; leaving only as many as necessary to clearly articulate your point.

“I think I might like to apply for that job. The pay is pretty good, and Sarah said she could probably help me to do up a resume if I wanted a hand.”

Is far easier to read when we apply this logic;

“I’m considering applying for that job. The pay is good, and Sarah said she’d help with my resume.”

When writing, we add words that we use in speech, despite them adding no value to our sentences in writing. We use words like “pretty”, “very” and “probably” to buy time; forcing them to fill gaps in our trains of thought, or jamming them into awkward silences.

These don’t belong in our writing. Consistently considering diction helps break the habit.

Word selection is also what makes writing funny, witty, or clever.

Humour lives in surprise. It’s why comedians spend their lives honing timing, and why bad jokes get big laughs at funerals; things are funniest, and therefore most interesting when they are least expected.

When introducing a character, never write;

“Joy is a little bit strange sometimes.”

When you could write;

“Joy adores the smell of petrol.”

Why would you write something vague and boring when you could write something specific and intriguing?

Make a choice.

On average, it takes two months for a new behaviour to become automatic.

It’s 11:37pm, and I haven’t published this blog post yet. I got distracted with another project, and here we are.

I will publish before midnight. But I wish I’d given myself more time.

This particular feeling lingers with a bitter familiar aftertaste.

Many of us taste this feeling often.

Two months is a tremendous amount of time for someone with an attention deficit disorder to routinely achieve something.

I’ve only just managed to do this with early mornings (well, at least three early mornings a week), and it’s required taking on a huge amount of social responsibility to keep me accountable.

I can’t write consistently or get out of bed unless I know that someone else will be impacted if I don’t.

I still find this very silly. But there’s no telling that to my zombie brain when it has a trigger finger poised over my snooze button.

I think this is why I’ve always favoured tasks and jobs which commend impulsivity over large scale organisation.

I thrive in places where quick thinking and dynamic problem solving are required to float, and I flounder when I think I have a month to do something, or when I don’t think anyone else really minds if I’m not working.

I believe this is why I first dropped out of uni.

I believe this is why I burned through seven jobs in three years, but wasn’t fired from any.

I believe this is why it has taken so much effort to structure my life in a fulfilling way.

If you recognise this feeling, the lurching of anticipated regret as a deadline looms closer, I beg you to stop whatever it is you’re doing, and ask yourself this question;

What could I do right now, which I’ll be proud I did tomorrow morning?

And do it.

It’s 11:48. I’m calling it a night. If there are typos, I’m sorry.

I promise I’ll wake up proud I published this anyway.

What does a good game and an excellent piece of writing have in common?

They both get finished.

Neither make the audience too scared, nor too bored to continue; they create just enough challenge and just enough reward to keep the audience engaged, and intrigued.

Games aren’t interesting if they don’t present a challenge. Writing isn’t interesting if it doesn’t tell you something you don’t know.

Fundamentally, all games and all forms of writing operate as stories. Even Rock-Paper-Scissors has a beginning middle and an end.

Good games and good writing must surprise the audience, regularly and effectively.

Neither can afford to be predictable or confusing.

Failure to achieve this balance means that the book you’re writing will pile up in Tsundoku, and the game you’re making will sit unplayed.

Stories must exist in the goldilocks zone between the audience’s anxiety and boredom in order to be finished.

This zone is called the ‘Flow Channel’, named such because stories which occupy this space effectively maintain audience attention in a way which minimises resistance.

When audiences experience flow, they don’t think about whether or not they’re going to turn the page, or play the next level.

They just do.

Consider this diagram from Peter Turchi’s A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic.

What’s wrong with it?

All good stories exist within the flow channel from start to finish, but not all stories worth finishing are good stories.

Flow alone is not enough.

Imagine riding a rollercoaster without any hills, turns or bumps.

It wouldn’t be a rollercoaster, it would be a big mechanical slide. While its novelty might pull you in for one ride, you won’t be lining up to ride it again.

In principle, the secret sauce of rollercoasters is the same as that of your favourite games and writing;

The tension between anxiety and boredom must be variable, while still existing within the goldilocks zone.

Think about the moment of relief after you complete a hard level, or finish an intense chapter.

Without this variability. Without peaks and troughs of tension throughout the audience’s journey, audience attention cannot be sustained.

This is why every story arc has multiple peaks – moments throughout the piece where the stakes are high, and times of low pressure in between.

story structure

If tension flatlines, the story dies.

The end.

Life is short, right?

But how many times have you looked at your phone today?

My answer is: too many.

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.”

Lucius Seneca, On the Shortness of Life

The letters of Ancient roman philosopher and dramatist Lucius Seneca are core to the bedrock of stoic philosophy.

His stunning essay, On the Shortness of Life, is one of his most valuable works, and is perhaps more relevant now than it was when he wrote it.

Time is our most valuable resource. We all have much more time than anyone did two thousand, or even a hundred years ago, but we haven’t developed the skills to use that time optimally.

Midway through his essay, Seneca distills the three types of time we dance with;

“Life is divided into three periods, past, present, and future. Of these, the present is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain.”

He argues that those who squander the present rarely reflect of the past, because to do so is to understand their failure to seize moments and opportunities which have passed them by.

The past is painful if you’re in the habit of wasting your time in the present.

Although, those who focus too narrowly on the present without considering the future, the ‘busy’ people, those slaving away doing something they hate crossing their fingers that it’ll all pay off in the long run, are at risk of squandering their drops of time too; for the future is inconsistent and lady fortune is largely unpredictable.

The past is precious, he claims;

“It cannot be disturbed or snatched from us: it is an untroubled, everlasting possession.”

So if you wasting time guarantees future despair, and being too ‘busy’ with things which do not guarantee a future worth slaving for is a recipe for tragedy – what’s left?

Ask yourself;

What can you do – this very second – which will guarantee that you will be able to look back on today with satisfaction tomorrow, a month, and ten years from now?

Put your phone down, and do that.

Can’t think of anything? Start by reading The Tao of Seneca; a stunning free e-book, and relish in the beauty of Seneca’s stoic mindset.

You can’t go wrong.

To read the full version of On the Shortness of Life, skip straight to page 215.

Listening to Neil Gaiman talk about fountain pens made me want one.

He writes all his first drafts on paper because he believes the process of selecting your best work and committing it to a digital second draft is more motivating and productive than the process deleting work from a first draft which started as a soft copy.

The psychology of this is simple; when it comes you your second draft, the one which should begin to put things in order, would you rather focus on your best work, or your worst?

For years I’ve done the latter. I think this is why I dread the first few edits of a large project.

I often stall this phase out because I know that there are hours of focusing on the worst parts of my writing ahead.

If only I had started on paper. My first big edit would be solely focussed on the pieces I wanted to keep…

So I picked up the exact starter pen Gaiman suggested: A Lamy Safari.

There are a few advantaged to writing with one of these bad boys:

  • You can write considerably faster with a bit of practice.
  • They require much less pressure to get ink flowing on the page, a typical ballpoint requires a tighter grip and more force to be applied.
  • The nibs on the end are interchangeable, and comes in thicker or thinner sizes.
  • Makes you feel like a 19th Century poet.

As a side-writing left hander, I had some troubles adapting the the pen initially. But after spending some time adjusting, I don’t think I’ll find it easy to go back to my tacky ballpoints.

Anyone who knows me well knows how appalling my handwriting is.

For the first time since acquiring my pen license in year five, I feel incentivised to become a neater writer.

‘Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.’

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I have a very bad habit of writing the word ‘very’ before words I want to emphasise. It’s very annoying.

When I use ‘very’, it doesn’t usually add anything to my sentence. I only write it because it it feels like it does.

In fact, the sentence, I have a bad habit. Is more powerful because it is more succinct.

If the habit in question is so bad that I can’t use ‘bad’, I should select a new word. I should have said;

I have an awful habit. I put the word ‘very’ before words I want to emphasise. It’s frustrating.

I subconsciously throw ‘very’ into sentences which I know aren’t yet complete, but don’t know how to deal with in the moment.

My subconscious surely hopes that ‘very’ charges the sentence with a sense of importance. Unfortunately, all it does it water the sentence down.

Since noticing this habit, ‘very’ has become a red flag. Whenever I see it, I know that I probably need to reword or restructure the sentence I’ve jammed it in.

This blog has made me better at this already, but I’m sure I have more bad habits which I’ll discover along the way.

This approach to simplifying your writing is effective across all mediums.

Next time you’re writing a tweet, a message to your Mum, or an email to your boss, focus not on adding words to articulate meaning or emphasis, but on carefully selecting as few words as possible to clearly communicate what you’re saying.

My favourite example of how effective succinct writing can be is this tragic six word story;

While it’s a cause of debate, the story was allegedly written by Ernest Hemingway, who was famous for his use of short sentences and direct prose.

Either way, there’s no arguing that those six words tell a more evocative story than anything else I’ve written in this post.

It paints a picture which makes you feel something, then leaves you with questions to ponder.

It’s beautiful. It’s powerful. It’s concise.

It wouldn’t operate if you removed a single word, and I challenge you to think of any word to add which could improve it while still telling the same story.

My bet is that you can’t. All the fat has been trimmed. It’s as close to perfect as it can get.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery (albeit the lowest form of creativity), so I’ll leave you with a six word tale of my own;

New blog: Amateur writer. Trying hard.

When do you decide that an idea is worth committing to?

When do you kill your darlings?

Why are both of these questions difficult?

Why are they so loaded with resistance?

Yesterday I wrote about ruckus; about the fact that in the internet age it costs next-to-nothing to create things which bring people together.

If we are so inclined, we can all be people who start things regularly, because it’s free to try out ideas which might not work.

Theoretically, we can continue to try ideas out until one sticks.

In Western Australia, where I live, it takes six people and $121.80 to register a nonprofit organisation. If you add value to the life of just one person, that’s time and money well spent. I’ve done this, and I believe that almost anybody can.

You can launch an online store for under $100. If it works, congratulations, you have a business. If it doesn’t, you almost certainly learnt enough from the process to justify the expense, and can consider it a valuable investment in your own skills.

You don’t need a shop front or millions of dollars in donations to make change any more.

If starting things is so easy then, why doesn’t everybody do it?

Honestly, I think it’s because making things is fucking scary; Putting your name on a thing is scary, and telling people that you’re making a thing is scary (especially if it’s something they’ll want to see).

So lots of people don’t.

They still have ideas. Everyone has ideas, many of which are good ones. But they don’t commit to any. None of their ideas get seen through.

Until you make the shift from ‘having an idea’ to ‘doing the thing’, you idea doesn’t mean much to anyone but yourself. Making this shift towards your idea meaning something to other people is where the fear lives, but it needs to mean something to other people for it to become a thing in the first place.

This is particularly tragic when a person generates lots and lots of ideas, but struggles to commit to any of them. This is called thrashing.

We all know people who are thrashing.

They are usually wonderful people with brilliant minds, who are always talking about the next project they’re planning, or the next thing they want to write, but aren’t doing the vulnerable work of turning any of their ideas into things. Their ideas might be fantastic, but their work can’t speak for itself because it doesn’t exist.

I used to be a thrasher. I was thrashing over this blog until yesterday.

The solution to thrashing is to decide on a deadline for every idea. A pivotal moment where you make a serious decision;

Am I going to turn this idea into a thing, or am I going to kill it?

If you commit to the project, you have to finish. You owe it to yourself, no matter what. The product must ship, the website must launch, or the book gets written. No excuses. No backing out.

If you kill it, you’re making the promise to yourself that you’ll stop thinking about the idea, and shift your focus to another. You’ll stop talking about the idea, and if anyone asks you about it, you’ll tell them it’s dead.

If you can’t bring yourself to kill an idea, it’s probably a good one.

If you can’t bring yourself to commit to it, you are probably harbouring fear.

Starting things is scary work. Fear is an entirely natural part of the creative process, but we get to choose what we want to do with it.

We can resist fear, but deep down we know that never works.

I do not think you can get rid of the fear.

I think that the harder you push back against the fear, the louder it becomes.

But I think you can dance with it.

Seth Godin

This is the trick. This is what transforms thrashing into sinking, or swimming.

Let your fear energise your work. Thank it.

I was petrified to launch this blog.

Until yesterday, it was a website I’d made and written some notes on, which around five people knew about.

I thought to myself;

‘I’ll launch after a few weeks. Once there’s a build-up of content for people to read back through.’

I was scared, and I wanted to leave myself an escape route available for as long as possible. I didn’t want to share it until I was 100% certain that I wasn’t going to embarrass myself, but another few weeks of writing posts wasn’t going to get rid of that feeling.

Nothing can get rid of that feeling. I was never going to feel safe pressing the share button.

Someone clever told me to push it anyway, and here we are.

My fear was rational. To an extent, so was the logic behind my plan to build up some content. But if I’m honest with myself, the only reason I didn’t launch a week ago when I wrote my welcome post was because I was scared of you reading it, and scared that I wouldn’t be able to deliver on my promise.

I was scared of telling you that I was going to publish a post every day, and that you’d take a look in a month and nothing would be there.

I was scared of you, I was scared of myself, I was scared of committing to do the thing.

Thrashing wins games of Pictionary, but in real life you need to do more than just have the right idea to come out ahead.

Yesterday was the day I made my commitment.

This blog is now a thing.

It will be until at least the 13th July 2020. I’ll publish something, even if it’s not much, for an entire year and then reassess.

Fingers crossed it’s a good idea.

Our world is loud, but we don’t always have to listen.

For those of us distracted easily, the act of not-listening to sonic distractions can prove difficult.

I had no idea how distracted I could become by the clinking of a teaspoon in my kitchen, even if I didn’t want anything to drink.

We are built to investigate audible feedback.

Who’s in the kitchen? Are they making tea, or coffee? Can I smell anything? Am I hungry? I could pop into to the kitchen and get all these answers in an instant. Whatever I was doing can wait.

While trivial in isolation, that single decision to investigate the mystery teaspoon can derail my entire morning, and has. Because once I find my sister in the kitchen making tea, a whole new world of potential distractions open up.

Four hours later I’ve watched three excellent episodes of Peaky Blinders, consumed more Tim Tams than I’m comfortable admitting, and discussed – at length – whether or not I could pull off a newsboy cap.

Meanwhile, my notebook sits lonely on my desk, my to-do list groans, and my bed shivers, its blankets curled up in a ball – unmade.

Until noise cancelling headphones. I hadn’t spent serious money on headphones before these, so I splashed out a little. I picked up some Sony WH-MX1000XM3s, and they have been one of the best investments into my productivity to date.

Let’s run through the clinking fiasco again.

It’s the morning. I’m sitting at my desk, headphones on, getting stuff done.

My sister is clinking away in the kitchen, really going for it.

The potentially catastrophic sound-waves she’s making travel through my closed door and approach my head – their pavlovian Tim Tam magic rippling dangerously close.

Headphones to the rescue.

With a their in-built microphone, they catch the teaspoon’s sound-waves, and generate an identical, but opposite sound frequency to that being produced in the kitchen. This is called an anti-frequency, it peaks when the sound of the teaspoon troughs, and vice-versa. My headphones play both sounds to me.

The result? Silence.

I tick everything off my to-do list, I write, I make my bed. I even read a little. The satisfaction from this productivity reverberates throughout the rest of my day, and I’m energised to do the same tomorrow.

All because I managed to avoid the devilish clink of an anonymous teaspoon.

For a more detailed explanation of ANC technology, check out this video with James May:

When Neil Gaiman sits down to write, he gives himself two options;

“You can sit here and write or you can sit here and do nothing, but you can’t sit here and do anything else”

He described this as the biggest rule of his writing practice on a recent episode of the Tim Ferris show.

In an age where distraction is easier to access than ever before, this simple nugget of wisdom is immensely valuable.

The beauty in his method is that Neil gives himself permission not to write if he doesn’t want to, making the decision to write an active choice.

I’m absolutely allowed not to do anything. I’m allowed to sit at my desk. I’m allowed to look out at the world. I’m allowed to do anything I like, as long as isn’t anything…

All I’m allowed to do is absolutely nothing, or write.

After a time, Neil ensures us, writing becomes a more interesting proposition than doing nothing. Then you do it.

If you make the decision to write because it’s the most interesting thing you can do, you’re going to feel better than if you’re writing because you feel like you have to.

It’s simple. Its beautiful. And it translates to everything.

Got a book you’ve been meaning to finish? Sit down with it, and do nothing.

Until you want to read.

No checking your phone. No turning on the TV.

You read, or you do nothing.

I’m using this to gamifiy my writing process, and it’s wonderful.

I’d love to know whether it works for you.