The Hidden Danger of Business for Creative Workers

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“I just want to create things. I’ll let someone else handle the business and marketing side of things.” I hear this all of the time. I thought the same thing for a very, very long time.

That mindset may have been the most damaging mistake for my creative work. It laid a foundation for a myriad of other mistakes, resulting in hours and hours of work for books that suffered from my ignorance. Had I actually understood the business of publishing, how the industry has evolved, and where I fit into it (the hardest piece to sort out), I could have invested significantly more time in projects that would have been both creatively fulfilling and financially sustainable.

I’m not alone with my mistakes when it comes to the business side of creative work. I’ve seen friends literally lose control of their books because an inexperienced agent made a bad publishing deal with a new publisher who went out of business right after the book released. I’ve seen colleagues get more of less dropped by their publishers before or during their book releases, with publicists offer very vague, limited support.

Other professional writers and bloggers have suffered from SEO changes that hurt their websites or social media shifts, such as changes to Facebook’s author pages, that sent their click-throughs and ad revenue diving.

There are so many things that I wish I had done differently 5-6 years ago that could have helped myself immensely today. That isn’t to say that I wish I had given myself over completely to the business side of the publishing and writing industries. Rather, I wish I at least knew what I was missing and had been more intentional about the direction of my creative career.

Creative workers can mistakenly think that ignorance of business is a virtue that makes their work pure. 

Ignorance of the business end of creative work is by no means a virtue. It may actually hold your work back, deprive you of opportunities, and even prevent you from being generous with your work. For instance, some publishers make it very difficult to share a high quality eBook with potential readers and reviewers. You would think publishers understand the value of putting books in the hands of reviewers who can help improve your ranking on Amazon by putting your book over the 50-review threshold. However, there are many, many cases of employees at publishers shipping PDF’s of the book’s print file to reviewers, which appear as a mangled garble of words and punctuation in most eReaders.

The more you know about business and marketing going into creative work, the better off you’ll be in choosing the direction that is most sustainable and consistent with your values. I have taken one self-directed crash course after another in the publishing business and marketing. I’ve made enough mistakes over the years that I’ve been very motivated to sign up for industry publications and blogs such as Digital Book World, Jane Friedman’s blog, Writers Digest, Joanna Penn’s podcast, and many more. I’ve read books about the craft of writing, the business of writing, and how independent authors make it work. I’ve read about the marketing strategies and tactics that are available.

None of this has taken away from my creative vision. I’m not changing my plans dramatically. Rather, I’m learning where my creative work can overlap with the strategies that work best today.

Here’s the ironic part of this shift: the more I understand the publishing business and where I fit into it, the more I’ve been able to invest in the kind of work that I love. Back when I was completely ignorant of the publishing industry, I wasted so much time on social media, chasing influential people, and more or less wringing my hands about the things that didn’t work out.

With a better picture in my mind of what works and what doesn’t work, I’ve invested in tools that make my work time more efficient so I can focus on my creative projects and the freelancing that will help pay the bills.

Understanding the business side of my creative work means I can choose what to ignore and compensate for the gaps that creates. For my independent books I spend very little time courting endorsements or reviews on top blogs. Rather, I focus on sharing guest posts and give out the books liberally to all who will read and review them. It runs against some of the industry advice, but it feels like a good path for my work. It’s a choice that I’ve made with full awareness of my options.

These are the decisions that no one else could make for me. I couldn’t just “trust” the experts to tell me what to do. The experts can tell you what has worked for them and for other people, but they can’t tell you how to chart your creative career.

Most importantly, if you don’t set your own course with the backing of research and self-knowledge, you could end up running from half-baked ideas to half-hearted projects over and over again. It’s far better to spend time focusing on what you need to do and then jumping in with both feet and playing the long game. It’s a risk and you’ll certainly need to make adjustments along the way. However, it’s far better to give yourself to a particular plan in order to know with a fair amount of certainty that it doesn’t work than to dabble in three different directions without a clue about what would actually work if you give yourself fully to one of them. 

There’s a danger for creative workers when it comes to the business side of their work, but the danger in most cases is ignorance of business, rather than selling out. I only have my own network to go on, but I think the number of sell outs to business are far fewer than those who flounder because of ignorance of the business side of their work.

Authenticity and integrity do not demand ignorance of business.

If you value integrity and your creative vision, there’s no harm in learning about the business side of your creative work. Dig in and sort out which advice rings true and which doesn’t. Take a look at how you fit into your industry and how your creative work can either reach more people with this knowledge.

If any particular practice in your creative industry strikes you as troubling or unsustainable, no one will blame you for avoiding it. It’s better to see the opportunities and obstacles with clarity than to avoid them both in ignorance.

 

 

Rohr for Writers: How to Find the Enlightenment We Cannot See

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“Any attempt to plan or engineer your own enlightenment is doomed to failure because it will be ego driven. You will see only what you have already decided to look for, and you cannot see what you are not ready or told to look for.”

-Richard Rohr, Falling Upward, 66

 

The most important turning points of my life and my faith have come when I have felt least prepared for them.

Rohr says it well here: we cannot see what we are not ready or told to look for.

Ironically, when God breaks into our world and pushes us beyond what we know and have experienced, that is the moment when we are “ready” to see it, even if the moment of realization is overwhelming and disruptive.

If I could hold onto an explanation of what prayer is capable of doing, it’s this sort of enlightenment where God takes us beyond ourselves. It’s the transforming power of the Spirit in our lives that makes the life of God apparent in us.

This is why prayer and writing can be particularly powerful when they work together: writers are seeking clarity and enlightenment through our creative work. We’re trying to get a slight edge, and it’s often very slight, on how everyone sees the world. We’re pulling back the fabric just a bit to say, “Hey, have you ever looked at things from this angle?”

If we’re just repeating what everyone already knows, why would they bother reading our work? That’s why the commonplace tropes such as, “Everyone knows…” or “It’s a time-honored adage…” are such terrible ways to begin any piece of writing. Every college composition teacher surely has hands raised, shouting “Amen!” at that point.

Prayer is a leap into the void of the unexpected. We don’t know where God will take us. If we have a clear map in mind of what’s supposed to happen when we pray, then we’re not actually praying. We’re just paying God lip service rather than entrusting ourselves to God’s loving presence. It’s not up to us to set the agenda when we’re in God’s presence.

Writing is a similar leap. We begin the creative process and submit ourselves to it. We go where it leads. Yes, we outline and take notes and write drafts, but we can only go where the process takes us. At a certain point we either ditch the project or polish it for wider distribution.

Whether writing or praying, the most important part of either process is the part you can’t plan out or see coming. They’re both leaps of faith, acts that put us in positions where could end up in a place that is beyond ourselves and leaves us forever changed.

What Could Writers Learn from Monastic Ministry?

writing ministry like monastic ministryWhen I started to take my writing seriously, I hit a point where I had to cut out some interests and leisure activities from my life, including most sports (except hockey OF COURSE), television shows, radio, and almost all of “pop culture” (I dare you to ask me about the latest top 40 songs or movies in theaters). That was the only way to make some space for my work.

There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do it all, and if I wanted to take writing seriously, I had to make some sacrifices. When I saw how badly I wanted to write, these weren’t very difficult sacrifices to make. In fact, I’ve sometimes made a loose connection between my calling to write with the calling of a monk.

Mind you, these are “loose” connections, but it’s not so far-fetched to compare the calling of the writer to the calling of a monk—at least a writer who is committed to seriously writing. In fact, I’d suggest that many writers could stand to learn a bit from the commitments of the monastic way of life.

Without minimizing the commitments of monks, here are a few ways writers resemble monks:

 

Monks and Writers Withdraw

Monks devote their lives to prayer and work. Some may be more in tune with the times than others, but generally the task of the monk is withdrawing from the pleasures of this world in order more perfectly align themselves with God.

Monks serve as a living signpost of sorts that the goals and promises of our world are fleeting and feeble.

Withdrawing is essential for writers. Writers can’t just hammer out 1,000 words while watching a hockey game or while a kid hammers on your leg with stuffed rabbit—not that I’ve tried to do either…

We have to withdraw for contemplation and reflection in order to feed our writing time. Time for reflection is needed in addition to the actual time we sit down to write.

Those of us with kids and other commitments will need to withdraw in small chunks of time, be that while doing the dishes, showering, driving, or taking a walk. I’ve had to cut way back on my podcasts over the years just to make sure my mind has time to develop ideas before I sit down to write.

If you keep saying, “I don’t have anything to write about,” there’s a good chance you need more time to withdraw and let your mind wander.

 

Monks and Writers Develop Awareness

From my outsider perspective, it strikes me that a major part of monastic work is learning to become aware—especially aware of what can get in the way of God’s presence. If a monk’s primary task is to commune with God, the first step is to remove the obstacles that get in the way of God.

Writers learn a similar kind of awareness—identifying their emotions, stories, and contexts and then sharing stories and ideas that flesh them out. We have to recognize what drives us, what stirs our anger, and what leaves us devastated.

When we write from this place of awareness, we create meaningful connections with readers. We’ll hear people say, “You put my experiences into words perfectly.”

I don’t think writers have a special “writer sense” that allows us to see the world differently. The main difference is that good writers take time to become aware of the world and then reflect longer.

There aren’t extra hours in a day that writers get. We have to develop our awareness and then let it flow into our writing, testing out different phrases and metaphors as we work on putting it all into words.

 

Monks and Writers Practice and Practice and Practice

Monks take vows of long-term commitment to their way of life. It is a life-long apprenticeship that they won’t get right overnight.

Writers commit to the long term with their work. Developing a personal style and learning how to effectively communicate with readers in print is no small matter. I started writing for publication back in 2005, and I’m just now starting to understand what I need to aim for in my writing—whether I can actually succeed at connecting with readers in the end is another matter entirely!

Keep working at your writing. Keep practicing draft after draft after draft. I have found that new writers, myself included, tend to overestimate their abilities, even if they have to overcome their insecurities in the first place. There’s no way around it. We have to labor over our words, absorb feedback, and keep hammering at our keyboards and scratching with our pens.

 

Monks and Writers Serve

Writing serves others just as monks have a calling to serve the church. They create a space for the holy through both their monasteries and their practices. Whether monks host retreats, intercede for others, or provide for the needs of others, the monastic life is not self-serving.

Writers learn this lesson as they figure out  how to write for an audience, providing what their readers need and connecting with them on a level that matters to them. When I started out as a writer, I tended to “preach” to my readers. I ranted and lectured.

I’m still learning to this day the art of writing books that say, “Do you struggle with this? Me too, here’s my story…” It’s far easier to just tell people what to think. That can be a ministry I suppose, but ministry is far more likely to happen when we share the stories of our imperfections and struggles, inviting readers to join us as we try to sort things out.

 

Is This a Stretch?

It may be a stretch to compare writers and monks, but if Micha Boyett can compare stay at home moms to monks, it’s worth a shot. My experience of monasticism is limited to what I have read and to a few conversations with monks. It’s not exhaustive by any means.

Nevertheless, I can’t help noticing the connections between the ministry of monks and the ministry of writers. And if we can’t imagine how a writer could possibly be like a monk, perhaps we’d be better off if we could start imagining such a notion and give it a shot next time we struggle to focus or hit a creative roadblock.

Your Writing Problem Isn’t Too Little Time

bombI’m all for peaceful, non-combative metaphors that describe the work of writing and any other creative pursuit. However, when it comes to time management and creating space to write, only military metaphors can truly capture what’s going on today.

Brands, companies, and marketers are waging war against you. The battle is for your time and money.

Companies are on a full war footing, invading your visual and audio space through any means possible. Cell phones are mobile advertising tools that just happen to be phones. Computers are being turned into ad placement billboards that happen to provide productivity tools. Television and radio dump ads into our lives at a blinding speed along with our favorite shows and sports.

When I walk down the street I see ads on billboards, newspaper stands, buses, and benches. I could be listening to a podcast sponsored by a company. I could also browse the internet on my phone and buy anything from shoes to a new computer.

With so many companies desperately working to catch your attention so that they can sell you something and keep their profits rising, your only choice is to counterattack by working all the harder to guard your mind and your creative time.

Today, you don’t just happen to write. There are far too many distractions around, and many of those distractions are linked to selling products for companies that need to keep selling products in order to survive. They NEED to distract you. That is a huge part of their marketing plan. With so many options for how we can spend our time, writers must be equally intentional and strategic.

Here are some of the ways I fight back:

How to Start the Day

I make a list of everything I need to do each day. The night before I leave my to do list on my desk and note what I’ll do first. I have a backup project in case I get stuck.

Social Media Boundaries

I only look at social media on my tablet while standing in the kitchen in the morning. Once I sit down to work, I try to avoid the internet altogether until after two hours of work. I don’t visit Facebook unless I know what I’ll be doing next.

Use Pen and Paper

By using pen and paper to outline and draft my chapters, I can provide myself with extremely focused writing time. In addition, I usually revise my first drafts significantly, so drafting it on paper makes it easier to revise a chapter when I enter it into a computer. When I get into the hard work of book editing, I often print out my chapter and make changes with my pen first.

Understand How Habits Work

I learned that my first move when I get stuck on a writing project is to bail out and check my email. That has been my habit for years now. Once I realized that I was using email as a pressure relief valve, I started using Freedom to cut off my internet connection while working on an offline project. If I need to be online, I try to set time goals for myself so that I have a better incentive to stay focused.

Take Breaks that Make a Difference

The sweet spot for advertisers is the bored, listless, or frustrated consumer who is looking for something to make him/her feel better. I’ll be the first to admit that I like wearing my new hiking shoes and our new car is a pleasure to drive. Buying new things brings a measure of happiness and a rush of sorts. However, if your goal is to write a book, to post to a blog regularly, or to get published in a magazine, you’ll need clearly defined work time and leisure time.

Read books that will expand your imagination or teach you something you can write about. Take a walk without a phone or headphones on to clear your mind (bring along a little notebook too!). Watch a creative or inspiring show that will help you relax without tuning in for an all-day marathon. Leisure is great, but only if you use it to refresh yourself rather than making it the goal of your life.

 

Does This Resonate with You?

If developing a strategy for your writing and creative time makes sense to you and you live within driving distance of southwest Michigan, consider joining myself and fellow writer Kristin Tennant for the Renew & Refine Retreat for Writers on May 24-26.

We’ll provide professional, creative, and spiritual sessions for writers looking to take their work to the next level. And best yet, our early bird rate of $225 includes all sessions, meals, and lodging (It increases by $50 on April 1st).

Learn more at www.renewandrefine.com today!

Download the Kindle Bestseller-Creating Space

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This brief manifesto on creativity is for everyone. Whether you doodle, sing in the shower, knit scarves, or scribble poems, Creating Space will encourage you to make space in your life in order to fulfill your creative calling, using your gifts to their fullest extent.

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Are You Creating Something?

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“Are you creating something?”

The news screams about scandals.

Facebook promises an easy laugh.

NHL.com makes my heart skip a beat.

Lost in the midst of the noise is my calling to write.

Are you creating something?

That is a question that came to mind a few weeks ago. I wrote it down in a few places, and it has helped me cut through the distractions and focus on my work.

I used to tell myself that checking my e-mail or Twitter was important for networking and staying organized. This question has forced me to face the truth: I seek distractions in order to avoid creating.

In addition, there are two kinds of creating I do: one is for business clients and one is for my own projects. The faster I accomplish my business work, the more time I can devote to writing and editing the books, book proposals, articles, and blog posts that I long to create full time.

Last week I had a really productive run where I knocked out my freelance business work quickly and editing work was scarce. For a few blissful afternoons, I created ideas for future book projects.

As two new projects took shape in my mind, I felt something come alive inside of me. It was like some force within me started shouting, “This is what you were made to do!”

When I ask myself, “Are you creating something?” I’m driving myself back to that centered place where I’m tapping into my calling—the stuff God made me to do.

“Are you creating something?” isn’t a guilt trip. It’s about freeing myself to focus on what I care about most. It’s a reminder that I was made to do something important and that distractions can send us off course if we don’t stop them with the truth: we were made to create something.