April 2020: The Stories We Tell Ourselves

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Last month, I talked about how progress isn’t linear. Things are often quietly compounding while they appear dormant, only to explode upon hitting critical mass (the inflection point).

Other times, however, things are truly frozen in place. This could be a plateau, where nothing you’re trying is working. That, however, is just another name for the dormancy described; indeed, while progress might appear to be temporarily suspended, the process of experimentation and expending effort will ultimately produce results when given time.

The tricky part is discerning this scenario from stagnation, where things are flat and will not improve with time. This has two telltale signs: either no work at all is being done or one is attempting things the exact same way as before (i.e., stubbornly deploying the same ineffective strategies over and over with no experimentation).

It is here where I find myself some third into the year: hitting an inflection point in one part of my business (non-fiction/consulting/courses) while frozen in another (fiction). But the reasons for the latter are hardly mysterious: the word and published book counts tell the tale.

There have been a lot of zeroes in the word column as of late (and not so late, too). And so, as the calendar ticks into May, I find myself in the same position as May 2019: with no novels published for the year, and the days ticking by.

So, for a little while at least, I got to reflecting on why it’s been so long since I’ve released a new book (21 months and counting).

And I settled upon this.

It came down to the story I was telling myself.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

To accomplish anything as yet undone demands belief and faith in no short supply. These reserves are fueled by stories: those we’ve heard of others, suggesting that we, too, can do the same. And the specific narrative we craft regarding our own journey, fashioned from books, groups, our life, and a myriad of other sources, like a collage for a school project.

The details might differ. But the structure is generally the same: that if we put in the time, and invest in the books, and learn how to market, that we can make it.

At the heart of this story is a simple core belief: that this is possible. That our books are good enough, entertaining enough, to build a following. And to build up enough of a following for that to snowball into a part-time or full-time career (which is, after all, the objective for most authors).

This is a helpful belief. Here’s where things go wrong.

First, reality clashes with your story from the moment you press publish. Especially in the beginning, where there is a gap between what you believe is possible and the feedback the market gives you (which is often harsh). Yes, part of the story is that this demands time. Patience. But it’s often drowned out by the shinier aspects: readers. Sales. Money.

So in the moment, there is a disconnect between expectation and reality. Which is when a lot of people quit. One novel, no more.

Another word for story is that word seen above: expectation. When one’s expectations diverge from reality it is normal to get discouraged. When these are wildly divergent, then the outcome is something different entirely: being crushed.

We’ve all experienced discouragement. It’s part of the journey, and it never goes away. Sustaining this writing thing long-term is mostly about avoiding the latter. When you’re flattened to the pavement, steamrolled by unrealistic expectations, then it’s hard to pick yourself up and brush things off. It feels like getting hit by a Mack truck instead of just being tackled.

There is a world of difference between the two. And there’s another difference, too: you don’t have control over being disappointed or discouraged. That will happen.

But getting crushed? That’s a matter of the stories we tell ourselves.

Having high long-term expectations is not necessarily a bad thing. Ambition can be a powerfully motivating force. The issue is thus: it can be devastating and demotivating if you bring those expectations into the short-term. It is one thing to preach patience; it is another to practice it, deep within your bones.

The goal is to build brick-by-brick. Each promo, book, marketing effort – they all are another step along the way, bringing us closer to making that story a reality. The breakdown occurs when we expect much more in the immediate moment. To lay down two bricks, or five, or seventeen – or the entire house all at once. Occasionally any of these can happen, which makes them flit at the edges of our psyche, whispering empty promises in our ear. Which is when our story transforms from a long game into one where we expect things now.

That shift makes a successful career brick – a $2,000 launch, or selling 50 books – seem like a grand failure. And we don’t even have to experience that failure for it to stop us cold. It can stop us before a word is written.

At this point, I’ve run enough launches and ads to know that this next book is unlikely to kill it. I have to rebuild my platform. Write a series that can be advertised and scaled profitably. That’s four or five books. Perhaps even multiple series, if the first doesn’t prove to perform the way I’d like. Knowledge is indeed powerful, but it can be a double-edged sword.

Because yes, the story I’m telling myself – that this is possible, that there are 6-figures, millions to be made – is true. I know this because I talk with people almost every week who are making things like this happen. I work with them. I often help make it happen.

But with my own stuff, I know it’s not going to happen with the next book. And where I am now, and where I’ll be after the book is out is seemingly so far from where I expect to eventually be that it seems pointless. Naturally, it’s not. This is how compounding works: you have an ember, and then you turn that into a flame. All that is hard work, though. Perhaps not even hard conscious work, but hard mindset work, patience-wise. And I think what really concerns me, when I drill down into it, is a scenario tucked away in the paragraph above: that it might take multiple series. That this series I’ve stopped and stalled on over 21 months might not even be it.

I’m especially wary of this because the I had astronomical expectations for the last series I published. Those were not met. Not even close.

The story I’d told myself then was totally incongruent with reality. And it seemed like the whole endeavor had been futile.

But that’s not true. A bomb is progress. Revisit the very first part of this somewhat abstract strategy breakdown, and you’ll see it right there: if you’re on the plateau, and you’re trying, experimenting, then you’re actually making progress. It only feels like you’re stuck in place or ceding ground. Learning what not to do, though, is just as important as learning what to do.

In fact, that’s the only way to learn what to do.

There is no way to analyze my way out of this situation or craft some unbreakable book that is guaranteed to immediately deliver whatever future ambitions I have swirling in my head. The chips will fall where they may. But there are no chips on the table if I never even step up to play a hand.

In this business, we imagine that there is a risk-reward calculus swirling. That if we make the wrong move, release the wrong book, and that readers do not like it, everything will vanish and the house will crumble. But the truth is, unless you bring dynamite or napalm, the true risk to the house is not self-destruction.

It is disrepair. Where the bricks become covered in ivy. The stairs crumble. And your publishing platform is reclaimed by the Amazon jungle.

So the reason one half of my business has hit the inflection point, and the other is slowly sinking into the earth? Because with the non-fiction, I am free to write something like this. I’m equally free to do the same with the fiction, of course. But the stakes feel higher. None of that is true. Like everything else, it is just a story; a figment of my imagination.

But the end result is that I’m taking swings constantly with non-fiction, while the bat sits on my shoulder, novel-wise.

And so, like all the stories, expectations, shoulds, and shouldn’ts, these reflections must be left at the door…for the solution is simple. I just need to write. And it’s that simple for us all. Because maybe the story that ends up being written isn’t what we envisioned. But there is no story at all if we never pick up the pen.

APRIL KPIs

  • TOTAL WORDS: 0 fiction
  • URBAN FANTASY ORGANIC SUBSCRIBERS: 1,867 > 1,948 (+81) (+165 on year)
  • NON-FICTION ORGANIC SUBSCRIBERS: 1,846 > 1,861 (+15) (+495 on year)
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