2017, A Few Notes

Ah, yes. Reflection time. Every blogger / online commentator’s opportunity to throw together a good list of “me moments”. One last shameless self-plug before the new year rings in. And since I’m not beyond shameless self-promotion, I did want to talk about a few things. Some worthy of note for progression’s sake. Some not-so-much but certainly worth mentioning.

So, here goes:

Worthy of note: I started a podcast. I have a small background working in radio and looking back, I’m sad I didn’t pursue it way back when. The Writer’s Lens has opened a lot of healthy dialogue and a lot of doors too. Not to mention (but I will) I was able to start the podcast because of the generous gift of a microphone.

Worthy of note: I got connected with many other creatives. And I was able to support them via my podcast while keeping up with them throughout the year.

Not-so-great: I got really sick. I didn’t share this publicly, but I went through a strange time this year where I became ill for a really long time. In short, I was having stomach issues for a couple months and things got a little scary for a while. I don’t write this as a please-pity-me moment, but rather, acknowledging how much this put my 2017 plans on hold. When 2017 started, I was hoping to finish my second book, The Shadow of Mars, and simultaneously start a few other projects. But, all that changed right around the end of January. Creatively, I was brought to a standstill. I found my downtime filled with anxiety rather than freedom and it really took a toll on me. Thankfully, I got pain-free in summer and just in time too, as that’s when the gift of a microphone came my way (to do that whole podcasting thing).

Worthy of note: I grew bolder. Not just in my creative pursuits, but in my faith too. This year my faith was tested more than any other previous year. But instead of retreating into a safe space, I learned how to present myself in a manner that was both gracious and firm. By no means did I master the technique, but I know I made leaps and bounds in this area.

Not-so-great: Social media drained me. And I’m pretty sure it drained a lot of others too. Since I’m a self-published author and Internet surfer, I check in to social media daily. However, I didn’t do it as much as I used to (which is probably a good thing according to current studies on the topic). The angriest voices became dominant voices. Or the ones who were most controversial. Or the ones who were the most divisive. That being said, I found that dipping out – even when I didn’t plan on it – turned out to be a good decision. Every time.

Worthy of note: I got handier. This is not necessarily a creative endeavor, but I wanted to make note of it. Well, maybe it is. Let’s just say I can do more than change lightbulbs around the house now.

Worthy of note: Lastly – to keep this post relatively short – 2018 holds potential. For anyone, really. Hope is a powerful ally. It’s an ally we forget we have when things don’t go as planned. My faith in Christ is something I’ve had to learn to grow in as I’m such a cerebral guy. When I find out about something new – and it interests me – I dive in deep. I find as much information on the topic as I can. And I don’t rest until I come to some kind of conclusive end on the subject. One which I can stand on. Faith is not always as black and white as that and contrary to what some may think, this does not make it illogical or foolish. Rather, it builds a new awareness in us.

Here’s to 2018 and learning to grasp onto hope – even more than I did in 2017.

I want what you have; I want to do it better; and I want you to fail

Within the Ten Commandments, there is one in particular that focuses on our thoughts. And that commandment says this: “Do not covet.”

Depending on whom you ask, this may or may not be one of the richer and philosophically deep commandments among the bunch. Not as straightforward as “do not murder” but just as thought-provoking as “you shall have no other gods before me”, I’d argue. Those three little words give us some major insight into our thought life. How we interpret other people’s successes. How we measure ourselves against our neighbors. How we relish the thought of usurping another’s ideas and then watching as they fall.

If there’s one thing social media has taught me, it’s that looks can be deceiving. A person may tout their perfect relationship one day only to break up horribly the next. Tis a fickle place, the Internet. But, when applied to online entrepreneurship – like, self-publishing – the journey to start a following can be demoralizing. Especially when you are witness to all the other success stories that are out there.

Such becomes the tendency to compromise ourselves. Throwing money at fruitless ventures. Or adopting habits that don’t work for us. I can attest to buying business cards that didn’t make much sense for me to do so.

These are the pitfalls to avoid. But, even as I type this, I understand the difficulty in doing just that. Because we are always comparing, sizing up, and measuring ourselves by the ones we wish we could be like. I have found during my own journey that one needs to establish a healthy balance of. And even more importantly, establish a mindset that doesn’t revolve around getting everything that think is necessary.

Rather, seeing what others might desire and then trying to help them achieve it. More on that in this week’s episode.

 

Do you have deadlines? Or do you have ‘creative checkpoints’?

I have a love and hate relationship with deadlines. I love it when I make my own. I hate it when they are handed down to me (with completely unrealistic expectations for completion). But, on the other hand, I love getting deadlines from other people. It makes me want to prove myself. I have a goal and an objective that forces me to make things happen. Because if I’m honest with myself, I know how making my own deadlines can go: I get lax. I put things off. I don’t have anyone holding me accountable but me.

Such is the struggle.

Since I started writing books, I never gave deadlines much thought. I could always work at my own pace. Nobody was looking over my shoulder. Yet as I began to release more stories and I saw people reading them, the pressure began to mount.

How soon can I get the next one out? 

If I don’t finish this next project by the end of next month, will I lose the interest of my readers? 

Should I move on to something else? 

A lot of questions began to circulate; the majority of which revolved around uncertainty. And where uncertainly festers, so does anxiety. It didn’t take long for me to realize that if I worked at a pace dictated by my audience, then I was going to sink fast. I would never be able to keep up and the quality of my work would diminish. So instead of trying to create unrealistic deadlines for myself, I decided I needed to work smarter, not with a sense of fear. I needed to make checkpoints, not hard stops. I needed to give myself space to breathe; not suffocate.

As much as creatives want no borders – no barriers to their creative impulses – it is of the utmost importance that we structure ourselves around a schedule. In that way, we can allow for our creativity to flow, not constrict.

For more on that, I’ll be discussing in my latest episode: “Do you have deadlines? Or do you have creative checkpoints?” 

 

Should we separate art from the artist?

Human beings can create extraordinary things. Human beings can also do horrendous things to one another. And yet, somehow, the same people who are capable of doing horrible things may also be capable of making beautiful things. It doesn’t seem logical. Yet, humans defy this simple equation every day.

So, when an artist does something – say morally unacceptable – do we immediately negate everything he or she has ever done? On the basis that we disagree with his or her personal life? Or do we let it slide because hey, it’s not the art we disagree with, it’s the person. And one’s art – be it story, film, a painting –  ought to stand on its own. Right?

Bestselling author Andrew Klavan tends to think so. His admission that once a piece of art – written, painted, sculpted, etc. – is made for the masses, then it’s no longer the artist’s; it’s in the eyes of the beholder, so to speak. It takes on its own identity. And thereby is apart from its source.

This is a tough call, I’d argue. After all, one of art’s primary functions is to invoke a response. Good or bad. It’s up to the consumer. But, if we are more aware of the person who made it, then we might have a different outlook on what has been produced.

This perspective is becoming increasingly difficult to hold to by today’s standards. After all, we live in the age of social media. People’s thoughts and knee-jerk emotions can be plastered all over the world in a matter of seconds. So if you’re someone of influence, those words or phrases can spread like wildfire. As can allegations against your name, brand, and image.

Such has been the case of many starlets and celebrities in 2017. Kevin Spacey was fired from his hit television show. Harvey Weinstein’s entire legacy was left in tatters. And to go back aways, Bill Cosby’s wholesome stand-up comedy now looks like a cover for his secret life of seduction (this one has really hurt me).

All that being said, do we marshall on knowing that these people had the best intentions in mind? Or do we reject their work because they’ve offended us? The jury may still be out on that one.

Until then, I’ll continue debating this very topic.

Who is rooting for you?

In prep for my next episode, I’ve been thinking a lot about this question. Writing a story – well, writing anything – tends to be a solitary vocation. Like, shooting a free throw; or running a race; or giving a speech. You’re alone in every sense of the word.

So with that in mind, who is in your corner? Who is helping you along the way? Who is waiting on the other side of whatever it is you are doing? I’ll be honest, I didn’t give the idea of “teamwork” much thought when I started writing books. I’d always understood writing to be something akin to a self-help journey. It was me against the paper (or laptop, if you prefer). I wasn’t interested in asking for assistance. And I wasn’t inviting anyone’s approval either. That would only muck up my progress; deter me from ever finishing.

But, then I finished my passion project – let’s say, my first book. And there was joy. There was some relief too – only now, what was I to do with it? I hadn’t told too many people about what I was doing. I was actually a little embarrassed to tell people what I’d been up to. I mean, doesn’t everybody want to write a book nowadays? And yes, several folks were intrigued, even interested. But, here’s the thing – none of the people I told had been eagerly awaiting its release. There’d been no anticipation. No build up. I’d simply dropped in one day and said what I’d done in my private time.

This may sound contradictory to what I said earlier, but those experiences had me completely underwhelmed. Only later did I realize – and this may sound foolish – that I had expectations I wasn’t even aware of. And to have nobody there at the finish line saying, “Great, here’s what we do next”, I was back where I began: just me, my laptop, and my idea. Without a team of helpers, I was still going to face the uphill battle… alone. Yes, I had people willing to purchase my book out of the gate, but I had no “brain trust”; I had no “think tank”. I was simply off in space, wondering if I’d wasted my time with I’d done.

At that point, I understood I needed more than myself, my laptop, and my idea – I needed people in my corner. I needed a team helping me from start to finish. Jeff Goins refers to this concept as a tribe; created not for the purpose of trashing my ideas or giving me new ones they thought was best, but a group to confide in and help me think beyond the story I was crafting.

It was a hard lesson, but with some patience, I found myself a part of a local writer’s group. One that would grow exponentially into almost 10 members. And I must say, I would not have made it as far as I did without the accountability and help from fellow creatives. So now, here I am, finishing the second installment of my Mars series and I can say that having people in your corner is paramount. Yes, it’s nice having Mom or Dad and Aunt or Uncle cheering you on, but who is checking in with you? Who is challenging you on meeting deadlines? Who is reminding you why you started all this in the first place?

Because let’s be honest, if you aren’t gathering those voices around you, then you’re most certainly hearing the opposite ones. The ones who want you to fail; they aren’t rooting for you to win. They only want you to lose. So, again I ask – who is it that is rooting for you

“Our memories aren’t perfect.” – Brent McLaughlin, writer

In my latest interview, I posed a question to my friend, Brent McLaughlin, what it was like to journal on a regular basis. Aside from giving our thoughts a place to rest, Brent summed up his experience like so: it’s a means to look into where I’ve been; where I’ve come from. Because as he put it, “our memories aren’t perfect.”

I couldn’t have agreed more with that statement.

I’ve never been good at keeping a journal. I make time for reading in the morning. I make time for writing the next chapter of my book. But, when it comes to decompressing my thoughts in a journal form, I just don’t do it. And as of late, I wish I did.

Rushing from one thing to the next in life can make us feel like hamsters on a wheel. Most of us are good at setting goals. We look at our resources. We set our parameters – and we go for it. Yet we don’t always know how or what brought us there once we make it (if we even do). I believe if we took more time to reflect on what it was that got us through, we might appreciate our accomplishments more. We may slow down more. We may even enjoy our lives more.

Because, again, our memories aren’t always perfect. And we need those little reminders as often as we can get them.

The Writer’s Lens – On YouTube now!

I’m happy to announce every one of my podcast episodes can now be found on YouTube.

So not only are my interviews on YouTube, but every one of my individual episodes too.

And if you’re someone who doesn’t like doing the YouTube thing – no worries – you can still find me at iTunes and Podbean.

Because not everyone needs a visual to go with their audio, of course.

 

“How old are veterans anyway? I wanted to change that perspective.” – Dr. Robert Snyder, author of “What is a Veteran, Anyway?”

Veterans’ Day has come and passed. Yet, I am reminded of a great conversation I had with a veteran – and author – who was kind enough to let me interview him. On both fronts: being an author and being a veteran.

Dr. Robert Snyder is a professor, author, and former Iraqi war veteran whom I had the pleasure of meeting at a book signing back in October. He was covered from head to toe in military garb, and when I asked what he’d written a book about, I was (somewhat) surprised to find that he’d penned a children’s book. Its title was What is a Veteran, Anyway? And after some conversation, I asked him to appear in an interview for my podcast, The Writer’s Lens. When he agreed, we were able to dig deeper into the inspiration behind his book.

Turns out, Dr. Snyder had a vision for teaching young people about war veterans – a concept I found as intriguing as his rationale for doing it (and I’ll paraphrase): “When you think about a war veteran, you may visualize someone well into his or her’s later years. But, not all veterans are like that.”

In addition to that, Dr. Snyder hopes to educate others on what a family may experience when one’s parent is overseas. I can say I’ve never had that experience as neither of my parents served in the military. But, I have had the experience of family (my eldest brother) and friends / acquaintances being in active duty. The strain of these circumstances can be relationship-threatening both abroad and back on home soil. Dr. Snyder tackles these bigger concepts in picturesque form that isn’t too gritty and isn’t too “child-like” either. His work has earned him the distinction of being the 2017 winner of the Notable Social Studies Trade Book award for young people and a rather rigorous tour schedule (see his photos from recent events here). 

To see my full interview with Dr. Snyder, you can hop on to YouTube. Or, if you’d rather audio over my smiling face, you can find the audio-only version on iTunes or going here.

You can also find Dr. Snyder on Facebook and Instagram.

 

“I was more invested in the process; not the product itself.” – Daniel Luketic, entrepreneur

A lot goes into getting an idea off the ground. Careful planning. Risk-taking. Gathering one’s resources. Creative endeavors are never small undertakings. And though one may think intangibles like divine inspiration or sheer determination separate the winners from the losers – there’s another trait I’d argue to be equally important: the willingness to fail.

When I interviewed my (former) college roommate, Daniel, we agreed beforehand that our main topic of conversation would be his first business venture. After graduation, I ran off into the insurance world while he got busy working for a startup. And while I was loathing my existence – drowning in insurance policies – Daniel was building technology for insurance agencies. A project which culminated with him selling the business off.

Sounds like not a happy ending. Or, rather, perhaps a failed one. But, Daniel had a different perspective.

I wasn’t interested in the product necessarily. I was more interested in the process. Learning how to troubleshoot. Learning to come up with solutions. 

I wanted to ask Daniel, why insurance? Aren’t there more lucrative and exciting industries to get involved in? That wasn’t the point though. In fact, the point wasn’t about insurance – it was about building a skill set and cultivating one’s strengths.

This was my greatest takeaway from interviewing my one-time bunk-bed-buddy. Yes, one ought to find a niche. But, we ought to be just as invested in learning how to build better work habits, i.e. troubleshooting, presenting solutions and then actually carrying out. How many times have you been in a workplace where nothing happens until something bad happens? I’ve been in those environments. They aren’t fun. And they don’t grow either. Personally or on the macro level.

Yet, by taking the vantage point of: what am I willing to learn from this experience? Then we’ve already put ourselves miles ahead of our competition. But, we must be willing to put ourselves out there. Make mistakes. Then keep going.

If you’d like to forego our smiling faces and listen to the audio-only version of the interview, you can check it out here.

 

“…often their last book and their first book are different. They’ve changed.” – Darrick Dean, author of Among the Shadows

My freshman year of high school was a landmark in my life. I started the year with dyed blond hair. I ended it with brown. I started with no experience playing varsity sports. I ended it as our baseball team’s starting shortstop. I started with no braces and ended it with a consultation that would lead to braces (again).  Lastly, I started with no girlfriend…and wait, I ended without one too.

Okay, so it wasn’t a complete landmark experience. But, there was plenty happening that year.

My friends, and especially my family, noticed the changes I was going through the most. Especially when it came to my outward appearance. I shot up about five inches. It was a much-needed growth spurt. For the majority of guys in my eighth-grade class had apparently been taking horse pills during the summer break. So I needed to grow. And thanks to father time, I’d been given the chance to do so.

But, I’d also changed on the inside. I’d gotten more confident. I made decisions faster. I prioritized things. I even broke some rules that year. I stayed out later with friends. I took risks. And though it was uncomfortable at times, I was beginning to navigate who I was as a young adult.

Yet, I did my best to stay grounded. I liked doing things outside the norm. But, I didn’t want to lose who I was as a person. Yes, I wanted to become more independent; more

Writing is often seen as an outward expression of inner workings. The things that make us tick, boiling to the surface and out. How we feel about our world and what we think it ought to look like according to us. Ernest Hemmingway once said about writing, “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” And there you have it – minus the blood.

When I interviewed Darrick Dean, a fellow author, he and I were discussing how writers cand change over time. How even the most seasoned scribes like Stephen King can sometimes change their habits. How writers can alter their styles and even deviate from their core content (see my first book vs. my last).

And though this can be true of the writing world, I don’t tend to stress about it. Style can change; much like a teenager in high school. The only thing I do want to concentrate on is my message; the themes I am engaging. The feelings I am leaving with my readers. This is something I want to have some consistency in. For I believe any great writer knows his words will outlast his lifetime. That he will be regarded (and remembered) by the messages he left behind.

In my case, I can look back and see how I’ve changed; some ways more drastically than others. Yet, I must be aware that this is all part of the process. Finding a voice. Owning it. And being cognizant of how to utilize it. Every writer ought to be aware of this; every good writer, that is.

Because even if you aren’t recognizing every little change in you, your readers most certainly are.