Unreliable Narrators

I did something interesting this morning. I read through my diaries from twenty-five years ago. It was fascinating to see what I wrote about versus what I remembered. And it was fascinating too to see what I wrote about and didn’t know I was writing about.

Often in writing we hear about the unreliable narrator. The person who is telling you a story and maybe not telling the whole story or telling the story their way instead of telling the truth. And there’s always this idea that maybe that’s deliberate.

But the funny thing about reading those diary entries was that eighteen-year-old me was telling the truth as I saw it at the time and completely missing some things that were right there on the page. I wasn’t trying to be unreliable. Who tries to be unreliable in their diary? But I was being.

Even more interesting is that I went reading back through those entries because I’d started to wonder if a close friend of mine had maybe been not so close and if I’d just failed to see it at the time. (They ended up dating both someone I’d had a complicated situation with and my best friend which prompted the question all these years later. Coincidence? Or something more?)

And what I realized after doing so is that when you hold memories in your mind and have no record of them when they happened that they grow and shift and take on different forms than they actually had at the time.

Turns out we’re all unreliable narrators. (And more so, whether real or not, the stories we tell ourselves about what happened in the past are more important than what actually happened because the stories we tell ourselves are what we let shape our future.)

Data Principles for Beginners

I forgot to announce that I released a new title a few days ago called Data Principles for Beginners. If you’ve read the Excel titles you’ll note that I make mention throughout those books about issues I’ve run into on data projects I worked on with respect to structuring data or analyzing it.

Well, this book takes all of those little mentions and puts them in one place as well as exploring a few other key principles that will make life a lot easier for anyone trying to work with their data.

Data Principles for Beginners

 

Possibilities vs. Probabilities

As you might have noticed, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about writing success and what counts and what doesn’t and what’s realistic and what isn’t. That’s what happens when I reach a big milestone. I’m kind of go, go, go and then I hit it and I stop and assess.

So Thursday I went to the monthly writers’ group dinner that I attend and I shared my little happy milestone about grossing six figures and one of the guys said that’s a really rare level to reach, like that was sort of an anomaly and be all, end all. Nowhere to go from there.

My response was that, sure it was hard to hit, but I compare myself to the people netting six figures a year and so all I think of is how far I still have to go.

That’s guy’s response was that it basically wasn’t possible to net six figures a year at this because only about 1 in 10,000 people manage to do it.

My response to that was, well, why can’t I be that one in 10,000?

(I’m pretty sure everyone at the table was like, who would think that highly of themselves that they’d even image they could be that person?)

But, see, that’s the thing.

Just because something isn’t probable doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.

Yeah, so most people fail at this. Seen and understood. Witnessed. How many people have I known over the years who wanted to write a novel and never wrote the first draft? How many wrote the first draft and never wanted to edit it? How many tried to get a trade publisher, didn’t manage it, and then quit? How many self-published and then quit when they didn’t have instant success? How many are still publishing and not seeing success?

It is unlikely to see a lot of money from publishing books. I will agree with that 100%. It is not probable that any given author who sets out to make a lot of money writing will ever reach that goal.

But it is absolutely, 100% possible to do so.

Can anyone do it? No. I don’t think so. I think some people are just not in a position mentally or life-wise to make that happen. I think some people are just never going to click with enough of an audience to make it happen.

But it’s possible.

I realized then that that guy reminded me of my grandma. In the sense that my grandma, every single time I talk to her and every single time she sends me a card (and she sends lots of cards, bless her), tells me to “be safe”.

It occurred to me the other day that I’ve been getting that message from her for over forty years now. Be safe. Be safe. Be safe.

Why not say, “Get out there and take some risks.” “Be adventurous.” “See if you can fail today.” “Do something you’ve never done before.”

But no, it’s always “be safe”.

Because she, like the guy who said these things to me, lives in the world of probability.

It’s a comforting world. If you don’t exceed what’s likely to happen then it’s easy to say, “well, this is how it is for everyone, right? I didn’t make it because most people don’t make it.”

But the possibility mindset is very different. It says, “If one person could do it, why can’t I? What makes them so special that they can succeed where I can’t?”

The possibility mindset pushes through. It keeps driving for the goal when the probability mindset is ready to sit back and admit defeat.

Which one is smarter? Probably the probability one. It’s why I hope my friends with good jobs who’ve worked steadily at them for 20+ years have a guest room with a nice couch when I finally crash and burn. But it’s the possibility mindset that has the potential to achieve what no one thought was possible.

Two interesting ways to frame a problem if nothing else.

You Have to Do the Work

I wrote that on the board across from my desk just now to remind me of the fundamental truth of my life.

My brother and I had lunch on Tuesday and we were talking about work and life and what not and he made the comment that he sometimes wished there would be some rich relative we never knew existed who’d suddenly step out of the woodwork and give us millions of dollars.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Or winning the lotto. It’s fun to imagine buying some ticket on a whim one day and waking up to find that you’d won $300 million and can now be and do whatever you want to be and do.

My response to my brother was that I long ago resolved myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to be saved by some rich relative, rich spouse, or lucky break. But that what I do have is a work ethic and drive that lets me keep going day after day, week after week, year after year. (He has it, too. We had a good dad.)

That’s something I can rely on. Steady forward progress brought about by my own efforts.

But working from home it’s easy to spend an entire day doing nothing. Check this forum, read that blog post, play that solitaire tournament, rinse, repeat.

Hence the note on my board.

YOU HAVE TO DO THE WORK

I can’t hope for a five-figure release if I don’t actually write and release the book, right? The work comes first (the lead indicator), the riches come second (the lag indicator).

A Very Proud Yet Humbling Moment

As of today I’ve passed the $100,000 mark in terms of gross income from my writing. That feels like an incredibly big accomplishment to me, especially considering the fact that my first three years of self-publishing I only grossed about $5,000.

Really the bulk of that happened in the last two years after I published a few titles people actually wanted to buy and figured out advertising that worked for me. Funny how that works.

It’s a proud moment.

At the same time I know so many who are doing so much better or have done so much better that I still feel like a little prawn struggling to make it.

(And compared to what I walked away from, well, let’s not even go there. I have a long ways to go to make up for that decision.)

I haven’t chosen the easiest path, that’s for sure. Or the smartest path. But I’ve enjoyed the journey and I’m enjoying the life I’m living right now far more than I would have if I had taken those other paths.

Here’s to the day when I can post that I’ve hit six figures in a year instead of a career. Hopefully it’s just around the corner.

Expectations Can Kill You

I’m reading a very interesting book right now called Late Bloomers by Rich Karlgaard. It essentially makes the argument that not everyone is wired to be immediately successful nor are they wired to be successful following the standard path of high achievement in high school, elite university education, and then wonderful high-powered career.

Ironically, because of my first career and my elite university education I don’t really fall into the “we” he talks about throughout the book. But as someone who stepped off that path the idea behind the book attracted me and I think it’s a good read and will probably recommend it to all of my friends with kids because I’ve been firmly convinced for a couple decades now that expecting your kids to attend college and become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, investment banker, etc. is very unhealthy for kids that don’t fit that path.

While the book is interesting and worth a read I’ve been thinking in broader terms about the argument it’s making and applying that to writing. Because I think we have that same unhealthy mindset in self-publishing. Or at least we did when I started out.

There was this expectation that you’d publish a book and it would just sell as if by magic and then you’d publish a couple more and you’d be killing it and able to quit your job and make six figures no problem. And behind that was this idea that if you failed to do that you were somehow flawed or lesser and just didn’t get it. You didn’t have what it takes to be successful.

There are authors who disprove that theory–Annie Bellet being one of them who has spoken about it publicly. She struggled for years before it finally all clicked and came together and she found tremendous success.

But yet there’s still this expectation hanging around of immediate sales and reviews and praise that makes any author who doesn’t find that kind of success feel like a failure.

And there’s a certain scorn that gets voiced at times by some of the authors who’ve made it. Like, “Oh, if only they knew…I mean, can’t they see what they’re doing wrong? That cover. And that blurb. And, oh, don’t get me started on the writing. Who doesn’t know the difference between reign and rein?”

Those two attitudes combined make it really hard to push through and persevere for those who don’t hit right away.

Not only are you struggling with your failure to meet your own expectations but then you’re also faced with this niggling feeling that people out there are looking down their noses at your pathetic attempts to make it. And with self-publishing you tend to be failing in public unless you use pen names and don’t tell anyone about them.

So you either toil in darkness and alone or you trip and fall on your face in front of the crowd. Neither option is fun.

The irony is that an author can actually be doing pretty well for where they are. They can be on the right path and headed in the right direction. Maybe they just need more books out there. Or a better understanding of marketing. Or just more realistic expectations.

But the problem is that no one likes to publicly talk about their failures and struggles, so it’s really hard to see that. Which means to succeed if it doesn’t happen immediately you have to have this gut level belief in yourself that basically defies everything everyone around you thinks.

That is not easy.

I’ll give a personal example here.

I had a Bookbub on my YA fantasy novel a few days ago.

It bombed. By Bookbub standards it was horrible. They said to expect 2,200 sales and I had about 1,000. Not even half of the expected average.

It really hurt to have it perform so poorly. Because I should’ve been able to hit the average, right? I mean, come on. At least close? I looked at the book and thought there was something wrong with it. I thought to myself that maybe I just can’t write fantasy even though it’s my first love. Maybe what I want to write just isn’t what people want to read. I had some dark moments of the soul.

But here’s the thing.

That promotion, which cost me $700, is already profitable after four days. I brought in a thousand new readers to that series. I made it into the top 100 authors in teen fantasy on Amazon for two days.

It was actually a really good promotion. If I hadn’t had that stupid average number to set my expectations, I would’ve been thrilled with how it turned out.

So if you get into one of those dark places where you’re wondering what you’re doing and why you suck so much when everyone else is doing so well, step back.

Ask yourself how realistic these expectations you’re trying to meet really are. As the book I’m reading mentions, reframe your situation.

Look at the positive reviews. Look at the sales. Look at the fan mail.

Or look at what you’ve learned. Look at what you now know about your writing or the market. Give yourself a pat on the back for taking one step closer to your goal. And remember that not everyone succeeds the first time out even if that’s what it can look like sometimes.