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Some Thoughts About Writing is my new collection of back pocket wisdom for those who wish to be successful writers. This guide will give you all you need to know about what it takes — especially for those looking to write for an online audience.
In addition, the eBook is a “living” guide. It will be updated as more questions, feedback, thoughts, and topic ideas not yet covered come up. The book currently contains a lot more than the preview below. And there are even more great sections to come. As updates are made, those who have purchased a copy will receive notification of future versions available free download.
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Let me save you some time…
As someone who has found a way to make a modest amount of money from my writing, I’m often asked by others what the secret is. So, let me get straight to the point as to not waste your time…
Show up. Be yourself. Write. Put it out there for people to read.
If it is good, people will enjoy it. People like to share their enjoyment. If that fails, keep repeating the first three steps. If that works, keep repeating the first three steps.
That IS the big secret…
You see, people think this building an audience thing has some special secret formula. More so, people think those that have one know it. I don’t. And, I don’t believe anyone who says they do.
I only do those steps above over and over. It is all I have been doing for as long as I could write. In fact, I recently came upon the first thing I remember publishing — I was in 6th grade. Even as a kid I just followed those steps and never stopped.
There, now that you know the “big secret”, let’s talk about the steps themselves…
Successful online writing is almost always measured in years…
Sure, there is the rare overnight success. But, for the most part, if there is an online writer that you respect or whose name is recognizable in the circles in which you read, it is likely they have been at it for many years.
I get a lot of people who are relatively new to online writing asking me what it takes to be successful at it. I think one of the main things is simply showing up and doing it for a long time. Not only are you bound to get better at it from such constant long term practice, but audiences are built reader by reader over the long term as well.
If you want to get better at your art, you have to make your art every day. If you want your art to spread and gain an audience, you have to put what you make out there into the world. And, more often than not, that means looking for something to inspire that art. Some days, that may mean some deep, soul moving, insight never before explored. Some days, it may be blogging your breakfast. Some days that means the great stuff. Some days that means the less than great stuff. Some days that means the truly boring stuff. But you have to find the courage to put it out there for others to see, share, shred, or otherwise speculate on it. You often may not like what you hear but you take it and go back and make more art tomorrow.
So, why write stuff and put it out there with no promise of anyone reading it, let alone making money?
That’s easy. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “To make your soul grow”.
Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.
— Kurt Vonnegut, Letter to Xavier High School
My personal site, patrickrhone.com, is 10 years old as of November 7th, 2013. I had been writing online in one form or another long before that, of course. I published poetry, prose, short stories, and essays on an early writer centric BBS. I co-published a general interest magazine for handheld devices called HandJive Magazine. I had written technical documentation, tips, and news on company intranets. In all, I have been publishing my work online in a iety of ways for about 20 years now.
Do you know when I started making any amount of money at all from my writing? A little bit more than 3 years ago.
You see, I’ve never done it for the money or success. I did not get upset because, for the first 10 years at least, I could count on one hand the number of people that read my work regularly. When I pressed publish, I had no illusions that I would become some famous writer or that my work would be read by thousands, hundreds, or even tens. And, even today, I am absolutely gobsmacked by anyone that is willing to exchange their hard earned dollars for the work I do (thank you, once again, for doing so). Don’t get me wrong, as I stated above I’m over the moon happy that after only twenty years of doing this that other people also feel it helps them too. It is just that none of these things are my motivation.
I do this now for the same reasons I always have, to make my soul grow. Because, when I create it helps me become the best version of me, for me. And, I put it out into the world so that person I call me can point to it whenever someone else bothers to ask what it is that makes me happy and proud. I do it so I can reply, “My children, my wife, and that thing right there”.
That thing that I felt was good enough to hang up and not care who sees it. That thing that took every ounce of courage I could muster to share. That thing that this same me, twenty years ago, had neither the courage nor talent to write. That thing that I’ll likely look back on twenty years from now and cringe at because it is not as good as what I’m putting out then. But, I’ll always know that — no matter what — in the moment that thing made me tremendously happy and proud. That thing made my soul grow.
I think a lot of people put stuff out there for a few years, just like I did. And, because success does not come after three, four, etc. years or they don’t get the attention they deserve or they don’t meet even the lowest bar they set, they feel like they are wasting their time. As if their art is a cell on a spreadsheet that needs to have some dollar sign attached to it (it does not and should not). I think there is a lesson here that could help them…
Create daily. Don’t have any other measure of success other than making something you are happy and proud of, right now, and put it out there for the world to see. Do this for twenty years. Then, even if the world does not come to see, ask yourself if this made your soul grow. Did your art get better? Is it something you can point at and be proud of? I can guarantee the answer will be yes.
Then, keep doing it for another twenty. Eventually, you might find your true self along the way.
The most important step…
Be yourself (that’s why I put it in bold). Never lose sight of this. Don’t go into this trying to be anything else. It will always come back and bite you in the ass. No matter what it is you are writing — fiction or nonfiction or your life or someone else’s — what you ultimately put on that blank page is a piece of you. And, it is what people are coming to read. And, if they enjoy it, it is really you that they ultimately what they enjoy.
And, the interesting thing is, you don’t even have to know who you are going into it. Writing, like all art, is a never ending exploration of the subject of you. Not really knowing who you are is a part of who you are. Be comfortable with that.
As a teen, I published my first book. It was a book of the most painfully bad and emotional poetry that, thankfully, few have (or will ever have) seen. Yet, having re-discovered a copy recently, I realize how important it was to my path. That the seed of selling my writing — that one really could do such — was planted. That, even if not perfect (or even really that good), people who want to support you, your work, your further development, are out there. They are paying as much for the work now as the work they know could come. They were paying for the hope that me then would one day become an even better version of me.
So, I keep showing up in a never ending quest to keep being me.
Do you call yourself a “blogger”?
You are a writer.
I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the title “blogger”. I think this term cuts wrong in several directions.
First, I think it reduces the respect and credibility of those who write and publish online. Especially those who perform this craft well and are deserving of the same recognition and respect society has long bestowed upon writers in other mediums. In fact, take any of your best journalists, authors, etc. and I could show you an equal number of “bloggers” that write just as well if not better.
Secondly, I think it helps to absolve many of becoming better at a craft that they choose to participate in by giving it a label that divorces it from the very thing it is. Writing, editing, publishing – These things that have been happening for thousands of years. The methods and medium may be different but the craft is exactly the same. It does not need a new noun. The fact that technology has progressed to the point where we can do it ourselves does not make the means of the labor different. What technology has done is allow anyone who wishes to write and publish the ability to do so — no matter if they have the talent to write or not.
As with any art, part is talent but I would argue that an even larger part is also learning how to write. Once learned, practice (lots and lots of it) is what will help you eventually find, what we writers like to call, your “voice”. That little something in your writing that is uniquely you. Once you find that (and only when you find it), you will be able to cast off any other term that the collective may chose to bestow upon you. You are a writer.
Finally, the only way one can ultimately become a better writer is to write. Reading and listening to things about writing will only help if you apply them while you are writing. So write!
But first, you need something to write about…
People often ask how it is I come up with topics, thinking, and ideas to post on my site. The truth is, I have a lot of help. I have said before that one of the keys to writing is to live a life worth writing about. Such a living is intentional. It is not enough to live through it and let it happen to you. You must surround yourself with interesting and inspirational, friends, family, children, environments, situations, etc.
I’m very lucky (and remember that luck shows up for those already working). I have a regular start of the week coffee meeting with a friend who is one of the smartest people I know. I discuss some of my ideas and thinking with him and our discussion always leads to ways to improve or expand them. I also am married to one of the other smartest people I know and our conversations often produce similar fruit. Then, there is Beatrix. My little girl is always a study in creativity and unrestrained joy. There are also the places I choose to go and the things I choose to do. And I do my best to be present for and observe as much as I can about all of it.
For instance, before Christmas a few years ago, I was standing in line in IKEA. Specifically, I was waiting to check out in the food store which is a store-within-a-store of the main store itself. I’m not sure if all of them are configured this way. This one is.
I had gone first to get gravy. The cream gravy. The same that they serve with the meatballs in the restaurant upstairs. It comes in a packet that you can mix with cream on the stove top at home. It is my favorite gravy and far better and easier than I could muster on my own.
We celebrate the holiday on Christmas Eve with a large dinner and present opening. As my wife’s family heritage is Norwegian, and they constitute the majority in attendance, we prepare a traditional Norwegian meal. The gravy for the meatballs, though Swedish, is very close to that served in Norway. Close enough for our liking.
I often wonder if I’m the only Black man in America making Lefse (traditional Norwegian potato flat bread) for Christmas.
In any case, I’m standing in the long line with my four items… Yep, four. IKEA is one of those places where you go in to get one thing and, well… Two packages of cream gravy, lingonberry sauce (I wasn’t sure if we had some already — better safe, than sorry), and some moose-shaped pasta my daughter likes. After about 20 minutes, I had only made it up to number three in line. The lady in front of me was clearly restless with the lack of speed. At the front of the line is an elderly lady, slowly taking each of her 20 or so items, one by one, from the cart. It really does look like she is caught in some TV sports-like instant replay. The lady in front of me turns around, looks at me, exasperated, and lets out a long sigh. She throws up her hands and says without saying “Can you believe this?!”
I shrug my shoulders and ask her, “What can we do?” I have a lot of patience for things like this. In fact, in many ways, I look forward to them. Stuck in a line with things I have to buy and no control over the time that it is taking. It is these times I’m forced to do nothing but appreciate the moment. To observe the details of a life that goes by too fast. Mostly because, if not for these forced breaks, we run through it without recognizing that it will be over sooner than we ever think.
What I wanted to tell this lady in front of me was that I was quite enjoying the elderly lady at the counter taking as much time as she needed. That, this waiting was the first break I had had in a very busy day. That, most importantly, it is times like these that, as a writer, I took the time to feed my writing the only nourishment it needs — observation. That she and the instant replay lady and the moose pasta, and cream gravy, and lingonberry sauce were going to end up in an essay written by America’s Only Black Christmas Lefse Maker and she should just shut up and enjoy the silence of waiting but that her doing that would make my story far less entertaining…
It reminded me of the grand opening of the first Trader Joe’s here in Minnesota. I’m a big fan and, before that store opened here, would make a point of stopping at their locations in other states when I traveled and stocked up on all of my favorite items that are only available there.
The place was a zoo. Crazy busy. My wife and I got the things we absolutely felt we needed and got into the long line to check out. The line moved very slowly. Unusually so. And when it was our turn we soon realized why…
The young lady checking us out was named Anastasia. If I had to guess, they flew her out from California to help with the grand opening — likely having rescued her from a SoCal commune where she was a member of a cult. She had long brown-blond hair, several ill considered tattoos, and piercings in places that were, um… interesting. Her blue eyes had that wake-n-bake glaze that I have not seen since my college bathroom mirror.
Anastasia was friendly enough. Too much so, in fact. As she slowly removed each item from our cart, she audibly pondered its greater purpose in the grand scheme of existence. She suggested all of the traditional and innovative ways such a pre-packaged and microwaveable food item might serve us. She then attempted to scan each item, several times. And, if she failed after a half-dozen attempts, just shrugged her shoulders and threw it in our bag and moved onto the next. She did this for each item. Every. One.
I seriously think it took almost a half hour to check out. If was comical. To this day, whenever my wife and I get an especially chatty or spacey clerk, we look at each other and say, in unison, “Anastasia!”
And here I was, in IKEA, alone. If I screamed “Anastasia!” there would be no one else there to understand…
Are you getting the point here? This is where writing begins. All of these experiences, stories, circumstances, details, and observations.
Your life is full of them. Write about your morning coffee. Write about your messy desk. There’s a hundred stories in every seemingly boring moment if you simply take the time to notice them. And all of those stories are connected to each other in beautiful ways. Each one by itself is an essay. Yet, find those woven threads and they just might make an interesting book. Even something as mundane as waiting in a checkout line is an opportunity to spin an interesting yarn or insightful tale (perhaps the title of this one might be Stuck! Stories Of Tuning In While Checking Out).
Live life. In there is all the stuff you need before you get to step one.
The work starts here…
Sit your butt, in a chair, and write. That’s it. That’s all there is. Take your hind-quarters and, with purpose, plant it in a seating utensil of your choosing. Preferably, with something to write with. That’s step one (Well, not really. There’s actually a whole lot that has to happen before that step but I’ll get to that later).
It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Surprisingly, for most, that is the the hardest part of all. Because there are a whole host of things that keep us from taking that seemingly simple step. Here are some of the more common excuses which I’m going to express in the first person because I have battled all of them and lose more often than I win:
I have something else to do.
I don’t have anything to write about.
I am not good enough.
I am not talented enough.
No one will read it anyway.
You know what those are? Lies and excuses and moot points. You know what those aren’t? Your butt, in a chair, writing.
OK, fine. You don’t like to write sitting. You’d rather stand like Hemingway or lay down like Capote (That’s what I’m doing right now — on my iPhone!). That’s fine. I don’t care. The point is just write. WRITE!
Look, don’t worry about what to write about. Just start writing the first thing that comes to your mind. Write about the wall color. Write about the dirt on the floor. Write about the crazy fantasy you are currently having about tracking me down and killing me in my sleep for even suggesting such insanity. I don’t care. The world does not care.
You know who should care? You. You have a hundred million stories just sitting there, inside of you, waiting to get out. How do I know? Because we all do. It’s called “living a life” and each moment is another chapter, another story. Look, it’s like this: If you don’t have a story to tell then you are not living a life worth telling stories about.
I write most stuff on my iPhone these days. The reasons? I always have it with me and it is the closest tool I have when the mood strikes and my butt is commanded by my muse to find a chair. I don’t think about the “right” tools or the “right” environment or the “right” time. The right tool is the one I have with me. The right environment is my butt in a chair. The right time is now.
Don’t worry about the next step. That step does not matter right now. The only thing that matters is you, writing, now. So, stop making excuses and start.
But, it’s really hard too…
It takes a tremendous amount of courage to show up and face that blank page. Even for me. Because, my fear is perfectly represented here. The fear of the unknown. The fear of failure. Because I can’t even see the finished product of what this page will be once filled with words and ideas. The hardest part of writing, of anything really, is starting. Many days, I just don’t know where to start. Then, even if I manage to start, will I even know what finished looks like?
Sometimes, rarely, the page pops into my head. Completed. Finished. Before it is even started. I approach the blankness and type it and ship it and people love it and they let me know and I never reveal my secrets. The secret that it took me so little time or real effort. The secret that it almost never, ever, ever, works that way. That, most days, I spend hours completely paralyzed in front of the grave in which I’m sure my talent is destined to proceed me, long before it is time for my body and mind to follow.
I have to force myself to sit here and stare at it. To look into my fear and let it mock me with the possibility that it will beat me. That I won’t be able to start and it will remain perfectly fine. In its natural state. Blank. Therefore, I too will remain in my natural state. Afraid.
But, I know somewhere deep and primal, it is a matter of time and a test of will. That I can overcome my fear. That I have plenty to fill that empty space with. That it does not require some rare moment of clarity or enlightenment. That all it requires is the courage to write one word. Then, follow it with another. Pretty soon you have a sentence. Then, a paragraph. Then, soon enough, ideas will form. Those could turn into a letter. A post. An essay. Or, eventually, a book.
But that is true of waking up and getting out of bed in the morning too. We step into the same unknown. Anything could happen. Yet, we do that with little fear.
It starts right here — with every step and every page. For me. For everyone. Every day. A hole we are required to face our fears to fill.
Put it out there for people to read…
Look, don’t overthink this part. If you do, it is likely because you are avoiding facing the fear of putting it out there and letting people read it. And, I get that. Facing the blank page and filling it is hard. It is even harder to take the result of that courage and summoning more to publish it and risk criticism — or worse, apathy. I get it. I really do.
But, I see people fretting the platform on which to publish al the time. WordPress or Squarespace? Tumblr or Medium? Hosted yourself or somewhere else? Gah! It’s baffling to me.
Guess what? It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that wherever and whatever you post, you take ownership of what you put out there that you care about.
Taking ownership can mean many things to many people. What it means to me is that, wherever you decide to publish your work, you make sure you always retain the ability and right to put it out there for people to read no matter what changes may come. That starts at the blank page, not at the publish button.
One of my other sites, Minimal Mac, is published on Tumblr. Tumblr just happened to be the right way for me to execute my vision and purpose of the site. And, being that Tumblr is a free service whose business plan I don’t entirely understand, I have no illusions that Minimal Mac will be able to live there forever. But, it doesn’t matter. I own the domain and I own the writing that matters to me (i.e. the original work I have done for the site). If it suddenly goes FUBAR tomorrow I can rebuild it elsewhere. I own it.
In fact, everything here on my personal site could literally disappear into the ether tomorrow and it wouldn’t matter. Every single post exists as a text file backed up to no less than three separate places. It may be a pain in the butt, but I can rebuild that work anywhere. Heck, I could print it out and photocopy it and sell it via mail order. I own it.
See what I’m saying here? The platform that you publish on only matters as far as it being easy for you to publish to, easy for you to share that work (and for others to do so as well), and easy for people to find it and read.
Taking ownership means something deeper too…
You have to be able to stand behind what you write. You have to be able to be proud of it. This is why the “be yourself” part is so crucial. Because you will be less proud and take less ownership of what you put out there if it is not really who you are.
This is not a popularity contest. No one is going to give you a tiara for congeniality if that is not who you naturally are. If you are cranky and cantankerous and curmudgeonly, own that. People will come to read what you have to say if you do. Even if you piss them off they will at least be able to rationalize that with who you are. I can point to plenty of online and offline writers who fit this mold perfectly. People did not tune into the last five minutes of the TV show 60 Minutes for years to see Andy Rooney be kind and gracious and forgiving. That was not who he was. And, because he was who he was, people loved him for it.
In order to own your work you must first own who you are.
If you have enjoyed this preview…
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