It’s a Numbers Game

63308251I love numbers. They are so starkly factual. They are so comfortingly irrefutable. There’s no wiggle room with numbers. As a creative, I like the security of facts. And there is nothing so factual as numbers. They either add up or they don’t. I once had a friend who was both a writer and an artist. She said the main reason she preferred painting to writing was because she said she always knew when she was finished when she was painting. She could look at it and know: That’s it. I’m done. With her writing, she was never certain. Let’s face it. We can always tweak and rethink most of what we write. It must be lovely feeling to look at a project you’ve labored over and know for sure that it was truly finished. Numbers give you that certainty. They’re either right or they’re not and we can all agree—from Toledo to North Korea—on whether or not they add up.

I think there’s a place for this kind of firm grounding in life—especially if you’re a “creative.” I look at it as a sort of infrastructure within which I might take chances or break the rules a bit. That makes me feel safe when I take big leaps.

Where numbers drive me crazy, however, is when we attach a value to them not based on anything but opinion or maybe personal pathology. They still add up as they should but now the numbers aren’t comforting or supporting, they’re indicting and debilitating. The most obvious way this occurs, I guess, would be in your checkbook or your family budget. But since having more money than you’re spending is a pretty universally accepted idea of a positive situation, I’d be inclined to point out other more insidious areas where numbers add up to grief.19209376

The weight on the scale, for example. There are probably very few people reading this blog who haven’t jumped on a scale only to find the numbers ruin what had up until then been a very nice day. Why, if your clothes fit as well as they did the day before and you’re basically in a good mood, would anyone let a number on the scale—a number YOU put in your head as a RIGHT number—mess with your mood or your day? Furthermore, why would you then, do this over and over again, day after day? Some days letting the numbers give you joy, and other days, letting them bring you down when—if you’d never looked at them, you’d have been perfectly happy. I’ve heard of the power of numbers before but this is nuts.

Numbers are good. I love numbers. But I believe a détente with their power is definitely in order. Numbers don’t—even IQ or test score type numbers—determine your worth from day to day. They just don’t. They don’t measure or predetermine or fulfill or prove or disprove your worth. They only label. That’s a very good thing when you’re trying to figure out how much corn syrup or GMOs are in a can of applesauce.

Less so when you’re using them to determine how you feel about yourself.

I think, as with everything, numbers are best seen as tools to enhance our lives. Using them to gauge how well my last book promotion did in the way of sales or downloads is one thing. Looking at them to determine how I feel about myself? Not so much.

Okay, now the jacket is REALLY poufy and I have about ten layers of sweaters on underneath, you realize.

Okay, now the jacket is REALLY poufy and I have about ten layers of sweaters on underneath you realize.

Mind you, having just returned from a week in Germany and Switzerland—land of the heavy, filling and ubiquitously draped melted cheese over potatoes and fried pork diet—I may be a little more hesitant to find out what the trip’s final cost was for me (and I’m not talking Euros) than at other times.
Anybody else giving more power than is probably good for you to a predetermined number in your head?

In Search of an Ordinary Life

JESSICA MCCLUREAbout 20 years ago, a crisis occurred in a Texas suburb which captured the attention of the country—and then the world. A baby, named Jessica, fell down a well. Rescuers worked for 58 hours to free “Baby Jessica” from the eight-inch-wide well casing 22 feet below the ground.

The fame that came to the people involved in this drama was intense and, like so much in our over-stimulated American culture, fleeting. The young man who did, without thinking, what he thought he should do, was lauded as a “hero,” which, no one doubted that he was. He was told how super-extraordinary he was on talk shows, radio shows, he appeared on Good Morning America, was the focus of best selling books and a made-for-TV movie. When all the excitement died down and the cameras turned else where, when the next “hot” story eclipsed the Jessica story, this young man was faced with going back to living his ordinary life. But for him, there couldn’t be ordinary ever again. How, after you have tasted being a superstar, after you have had Presidents shake your hand, after you have been made to believe that you were so special? How could you go back to pumping gas and living in your hometown after that? He couldn’t. After ten years of trying, he killed himself. His sister said:

“After being famous for a bit, he just couldn’t settle back down to living an ordinary life.”

What is this so-called Ordinary life? Do any of us really aspire to have one? Can you blame this poor guy for not being able to go back to life before all the fame and excitement? Even though he was happy before he got famous? Could he really go back to pumping gas after he’d been interviewed by Diane Sawyer?

I think the onslaught of on-demand, 24-hour cable shows, reality shows, movies (and news), helps to undermine our sense of reality because it suggests that life is constant high drama.

Let’s face it, it’s pretty difficult for a developing chrysalis on the backyard oak tree to compete with the excitement of saving the world from invading aliens or making a Super Bowl touchdown. (The virtual experience derived from the most basic of video games.)  While Mr. Draper (Kevin, not Don) is the extreme—he didn’t just watch high drama unfold, he was a participant in it—I think we all lean in the direction of wanting something bigger and more dramatic in our lives.30898733

Ordinary life is subtle. It’s the slow but resulting proficiency borne from years of tedious piano or guitar lessons. It’s housework, watering the garden, and staring off into space as you do it. It’s preparing a meal. And most pleasures in real life are small ones…a hot shower, a beautiful sunset, a bowl of soup, a good book. When did we all start looking to win the lottery? Or star in our own TV shows? When did the manic fantasy of what could be, take the place of what is?

While it’s possible that you or I might be able to handle the five minutes of fame better than poor Kevin Draper did, it’s also possible that this young man is, in himself, a cautionary tale. A tale that suggests that the further we get away from what’s real, the more we layer on the superlatives, the over-the-top praise, and pile on the possibilities for superstardom that are really only achievable for a lucky, gifted few, the further we get away from who we are in a true, organic sense. (Or as Mr. Incredible once said, “When everyone is special, then no one is.”)19316210

I am sure that we should all strive to be the best we can be and to try to achieve great things. But, in the process of doing all the hard work required to achieve those great things, it might help to remember what perfection there lies in an ordinary life, lived with pleasure and enjoyment of our surroundings and each other.

The 6 Road Blocks to Happiness

I debated titling this post “The 6 Barriers to Success” or “The 6 Reasons why your book won’t sell,” but bottom line, these barriers work across all goals, all genres, all endpoints. Whether you’re a writer or just a person trying to be happy in this life, fill in the blank where I’ve put “happiness” and you’re good to go.

  1. Availability. Here’s the example I always think of: I am constantly monitoring my weight and would no sooner buy grocery store cupcakes to have on hand in my kitchen than I would spoon sugar directly into my mouth. And yet, when there’s a party at work or when my local Whole Foods is giving away free samples of just about anything, I line up at the trough as if the calories don’t count. (This is also true with just about every job I ever said “yes” to.) The idea behind this barrier is that we often settle for what’s convenient or available instead of holding off for what we really  want.
  2. Momentum. Self-explanatory, really. If you’ve been doing the same thing forever—regardless of how happy or successful it makes you—the sheer fact that you’re familiar with it can keep you doing it ad nauseum or until you die. Whichever comes first. This goes for your book marketing efforts, or your job, your hobby. If whatever you’re doing is not so good, it’s time for self-examination. Which brings us to…
  3. Ignorance. If you’re unhappy or unsatisfied, maybe you don’t know how to change that fact. If you don’t know how, you could get off your butt and learn what you need to know to change your life. (This kind of overlaps with Momentum.) Ignorance is only bliss if you’re blissful. If you’re dissatisfied, you need to wise up and figure things out.
  4. Group decisions. As an ex-advertising agency copywriter I can tell you for a fact that committees spoil everything good. They take the magic out of a great line, they stomp the crap out of any subtlety, and they put you on the fast track to mediocre. Whether you’re trying to please a client (and honestly, what do they know?) or just a half dozen people-with-opinions, your end result will always and absolutely be the lowest common denominator.
  5. Comfort Zone. This is my particular sticking point and I bet it is for a lot of people. While you might not know it from the way I rabbit on in this blog, fact is, I’m a little shy around people-in-the-flesh. Not unlike a lot of writers, the idea of a bookstore signing is weighed and equated by me with the same relish as anticipating a root canal with no Novocain. I’m not exactly the Unabomber, but I like my comfort zone. And that’s no place to be if you want to be  successful. It’s always going to be easier to stay home, to not make that phone call, to stay in the corner instead of approaching people, to watch TV instead of knocking out word count. I used to have a line that went off in my head when I would collapse on the couch instead of at my desk: “Stress-relieving is not goal-achieving.” I think we give too much weight to our so-called stress-relieving activities. Nothing relieves stress like success.
  6. Passivity. It takes a lot of energy to be obstreperous and practically none to go along with the crowd. Somewhere in the middle is probably where we all need to shoot, but once you see how easy life gets when you just agree to most things, you may be tempted to make it a habit. Or, more likely, you won’t have any say in it becoming a habit. It just will. It takes energy and focus to examine what feels right to you and then stand up for it. It also pays off (or so I’m reliably told) in forward movement toward your goal, whatever that is.

So there you have it! Six roadblocks to happiness or success that you might not have even realized you were allowing to set up camp in your life. Do you agree? Can you think of any more?

Because Avocadoes Need Plenty of Sunshine, That’s Why

Like many people from my generation I have a few personal heroes to whom I look to for inspiration. I know everyone is flawed and everyone screws up here and there and the hero I want to highlight in this post absolutely did, (for one, she ditched her only child in order to go off and have her amazing life) but, while I couldn’t do it myself, in a hard-to-describe-way that just made her dossier that much more fascinating to me.

Whenever I talk about Beryl Markham—and I do it not infrequently—I always mention the Avocado Farm. In some ways, this seemingly insignificant and certainly boring chapter in the famous aviatrix’s life engages and intrigues me more than any other.

First a little background: Beryl Markham was a British citizen born in 1902 and moved to Kenya as a toddler. Her childhood, depicted briefly in the film “Out of Africa” as the wild-child “Felicity” tearing up the countryside on the outskirts of Isak’s Dinesen’s farm was singular in many ways, not the least of which was the fact that she spent most of her time with the Nandi natives training to be a young male warrior. Her mother, horrified at what she considered primitive conditions in 1904 Kenya, fled back to England, but little Beryl wouldn’t budge. She was beautiful as all great heroines must be, strong-minded and smart. A natural with horses, she became the first licensed female horse trainer in Kenya. Her lovers included Bror Blixen, Dinesen’s husband, Denys Finch-Hatton, Dinesen’s lover, and Prince Henry, brother of King George VI. She learned to fly with Tom Campbell Black (both Finch-Hatton and Black died in plane crashes) and was the first person to fly the Atlantic east to west in a solo non-stop flight which she did in spite of prevailing Atlantic winds, fog and almost total darkness.

On top of all that, she wrote a book. An amazing book. “West with the Night.” To give you an idea of her ability as a writer—up to this point undiscovered—here is a comment on the book in 1942 from Earnest Hemingway—notoriously sparse with literary praise:

 “I knew (Markham) fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer’s log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and some times making an okay pigpen. But this girl who is, to my knowledge, very unpleasant…can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people’s stories, are absolutely true. So, you have to take as truth the early stuff about when she was a child which is absolutely superb… I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody, wonderful book.”

So I hope I’ve set the stage for you to see what an astonishingly incredible person Markham was. A super nova in every sense of the word. Which is why the Avocado Farm stage always intrigues me to the point that I cannot let it go. I keep mulling it over and trying to make it fit into her biography—and maybe my own?

You see, after Beryl had done all these amazing things and was a mega-celebrity on all continents worth mentioning, she married Raoul Schumacher and moved to California where the pair ran an avocado ranch. Mary S. Lovell’s book “Straight On Till Morning” says that she and Raoul spent their days drinking and watching the avocados grow. After years of intense  international celebrity, of partying hard with the famous and the infamous and filling world headlines with her world-firsts accomplishments, she spent what we might consider today to be her peak years drinking herself to sleep every night and staring into space for nearly ten full years. She didn’t party or socialize. She didn’t do anything except fight with her third husband and drink.

And then.

In 1952 she left the avocados and the third husband and returned to Kenya. She started raising and training horses, and from 1958 to 1972 she was the most successful trainer in Kenya, winning all of the major racing prizes. Before she died in 1986 at the age of 84, West with the Night was republished and became an instant best-seller.  

So, okay. Back to the Avocado Farm. What was that? Do we all have a period in our lives where we’re growing avocados before we get back to being amazing? Or, as I suspect with my own biography, are our whole lives one big avocado farm with a few interrupting glimmers of awesomeness peeking through here and there?

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

I think this is a great line for those of us obsessed with trying to control our creative products  as we steer our way through life. The perfect is the enemy of the good. How could trying for perfection end up creating imperfection? I think the line is really a warning against going to extremes. Obviously, perfection is pretty extreme. I mean, it’s perfection! Some would say perfection is so extreme as to be unobtainable. I’m not talking about formatting issues or typos in your epub doc (although surely one might strive for perfection in that case?) but I get it. Trying to make things perfect can keep you from moving on and doing other things as important or even more important.

It’s easy to see this principle in play when I’m in the process of obsessively tweaking or twiddling with a paragraph in a book I’m writing. If I believe that book sales lie not in social media prowess (as I do) but rather in having available a fat inventory of awesome books, then making  any paragraph “perfect” is a barrier to what I say I want: mega book sales. Because I don’t write literary PD-James-type fiction, a belabored but beautifully descriptive paragraph of a country lane that brings tears to your eyes is not going to get me where I want to go—writing my kind of books, women’s lit and thrillers, quickly. But I’m a writer so I can get sidetracked into the aforementioned paragraph tweaking until my afternoon is gone and the day’s word count not even touched.

Okay, so I believe that less is more in the writing  department but I definitely believe that more available books are more in the book sales department. By that I mean it makes more sense for me as a genre writer to knock out a great fast-paced book and move on to the next one than it does to try to get any book I’m writing “perfect,” which I don’t believe I can do anyway. Once you accept that basic tenet, it’s just a quick step to applying it to our trickiest project of all which is knowing when your book marketing efforts are taking up too much of your time because trust me that is one endeavor you will never get perfect no matter how many books you read about it or how many hours in your day you dedicate to it. As with writing, you need to know when to step away from the keyboard and let it go for the day.

Like anything in life, I think it comes down to asking yourself the question: what do I want out of all this? Do I want to write literature or tell a good story? Do I want to sell lots of books to average-Joe readers or do I want a write-up in the New York Review of Books that I can frame? Do I want 10,000 Twitter pals or ten emails from people who have read my book?

Personally, I don’t have to be JK Rowling famous. I just need enough readers who like my kind of books to allow me to make a living doing what I love.

Now that doesn’t seem too extreme, does it?

Are Amazon’s Five-Star Reviews the Road to Success?

I have a friend whose grown daughter teaches drama for preschoolers in DC.  I asked how she ended up doing that when all we’d ever heard about Casey for years was how she was going to be an actress. (She was gorgeous, sang, danced, went to Tisch at NYU, performed at Disney World every summer, and made it to off-off Broadway.) Her mother said Casey came to the point where she finally knew her big break probably wasn’t going to happen. (She was at the point where “ingénue” didn’t fit any more and she was now skating very close to the point where the go-be-a-wife-and-mother option was almost off the table, too.) So she bailed. Her mother said: “Casey never had that fire in her belly that you need to make it in a very competitive business. She didn’t have that stab-your-bestfriend, sleep-with-whomever, step-on-whomever, do-whatever you-need-to-do-to-make-it-happen mindset.” I think about Casey sometimes when I’m looking at some young, fresh faced actress (who isn’t related to someone famous.) I wonder how nice they are or did they have to kill someone to get their present measure of fame?

I bring this up because there is a thing that we authors believe (probably accurately) will help us in our quest to bestsellerdom (or at least a consistent fifty books sold a month). That is the Five-Star Amazon Review.

First, it’s amazing to me that we are still trying to directly control our sales numbers. We’re still trying to do the three-steps-to-amazing-book-sales thing because the alternative: writing the next awesome book while we’re waiting for success to happen doesn’t feel like it’s directly addressing the problem of low book sales. The key here is the word “direct.” Going back to the keyboard for another three months of labor isn’t directly affecting your book sales. It’s a slow, down-the-road kind of process. But we are a people who “want it NOW.” The idea that the best way to sell books is to write a great book in the first place and then turn around and write another one (all the while praying for one of them to “hit”) is just too passive to be believed, let alone lived.

We still want to believe we have direct control over obtaining book sales success. It’s just another demonstration of the fact that we can’t accept there’s not something we can do to ensure our success will happen. We’ve seen so many Disney movies, so we know how it all works out and if we have to help it along a little, like maybe lie or misrepresent the truth, well, since the happy ending is what we’re all aiming for, what does it matter?

When you’ve been fed a constant diet of “you can do it” and combine it with a national tendency not to put too many restraints on our desires or wants (witness our national obesity problem), you have a situation where cheating or lying can be justified in the process of achieving the Big Dream.

I know writing up a bunch of fake reviews for your pals to post on your books on Amazon isn’t treason or Sin with a capital “S,” but I do think it’s a little shameful. I know you can justify writing a glowing five-star review for yourself by thinking “if they would only give it a try I’m sure they’ll love it!” Plus, you know a lot of other writers are doing it, too, so it’s not unlike when you were in high school working your butt off to get A’s while the C students were cheating and pulling down the very same GPA. It wasn’t fair but climbing down into the hog pen with them wasn’t the solution then and it isn’t now.

I say, be passionate. Absolutely use that fire in your belly to write until the wee hours, push past exhaustion to make those deadlines, buck yourself up in the face of a few bad reviews, smile when your friends and family are condescending to you about being a writer—do what you can to keep your dream alive and keep your keyboard smoking. But have some self-restraint for pity’s sake. (And think about it: if you’re really asking your friends to do this, maybe there’s a reason why they don’t take you seriously as a “writer.”)

As Peter Bowerman, author of The Well-Fed Writer, said in an article in the November 2011 issue of the IBPA Independent:

“The currency of a five-star review is becoming devalued day by day…Focus on making your books as good as they can possibly be, in every way—better than they have to be, in fact (a part of the publishing process, over which, incidentally, you have 100% total control). Do that and the praise will be genuine and will come naturally. But, more important, your book will benefit from priceless word of mouth, which will build an enduring demand for the title. And that’s something the author of a mediocre book who’s resorted to fraudulent reviews can never hope to enjoy. For when real reviewers and real readers really read the real book, and speak the real truth, the jig’s up.”

Amen!