Monthly Archives: September 2011

Are You a Maker or a Seller?

Vincent van Gogh was a brilliant painter who died penniless because he wasn’t a brilliant salesman.

Sound familiar?

You’re probably no van Gogh (let’s be honest), but you do have talents.  You’re good at some things, and you may even be great at something.  But unless one of the things you’re good at is convincing other people to pay you for the work you do, it’s probable that you and Vincent do have at least one thing in common:

You’ll probably die broke, too.

Creators Are Rarely Marketers, and Vice Versa

While interviewing Matthew Ebel on the Freelance 4 Real podcast this week, I realized that those of us who are truly passionate about art and creation are often horrible at selling the very things we make.

Not only are we our own worst critics, but we’re also our own worst self-promoters, and it’s usually for the same reason: we know all the flaws in our work.

When I look at something I’ve made, I see what it could have been, and that makes it almost impossible for me to convince someone else that it’s wonderful, because — to me — it’s fallen short of what I want it to be.

Meanwhile, when someone approaches my work as a viewer, a reader, an outsider, they might love it because they have no idea what it could have been, or what I intended it to be; they can only appreciate it for what it is, or by comparing it to other things that also exist (and which have also probably been dismissed by their own creators).

So, as artists or musicians or filmmakers or other voluntary devotees of the aesthetic life, when it comes time for us to put on our business hats, we often have trouble thinking about (and pricing) our skills and services objectively.  We’re inclined to charge too little for what we do because we’re comparing our work to our own idealized version of ourselves — which is priceless — rather than pricing ourselves reasonably, or in honest comparison with our peers.

We might even feel like expecting people to pay us for our work is an affront or a burden.  (After all, we know what head cases we can really be; how can we saddle someone else with a bill for putting up with us?)

And this is why I think independent artists who have even a vague amount of self-awareness should do something radically practical:

Hire an agent.

Pay Someone Else to Pimp You

Maybe you only need one buyer or one contract to get by, or maybe you need as much work as you can handle.  Whatever the case, if you have trouble selling yourself, hire someone else to sell you instead.

An agent only makes money when you make money, which means your agent needs to find ways to sell you to the right buyer(s).  And that means your agent’s skill set is drastically different from your own.  While you might be great at creativity, problem solving and general efficiency, your agent is good at networking, pricing and sales.  S/he understands that creative types can’t see themselves for what they are, so s/he makes a business of convincing other people of how you should be seen.

And when that business model works, you both profit.

There’s a reason aspiring actors, writers and athletes rejoice the day they land an agent: it means someone with connections believes they just found an asset (AKA you) which their connections will believe is worth employing, AND it means you can now focus on your craft, rather than on convincing someone else that your craft is worth paying for.  (That’s your agent’s job now.)

But what if you’re not the kind of person who even wants long-term contracts?

What if the act of selling yourself is so unpalatable to you — even when someone else is doing it for you — that you’d almost rather revert to a 9 to 5 job than ever have to go to another pitch meeting again?

There’s a solution for you, too:

Make things that sell themselves.

Productize So You Can Prioritize

One of the dirty little secrets about freelance is that if you’re spending all your time trying to land new jobs, you’re never really focused on the work.  (When you’re part of a small agency, the same rules apply — there, your creatives are your salespeople, and they’re burning their candles at both ends.)

If chasing paychecks isn’t your idea of a fulfilling life, and if having someone else chase them for you just feels like screwing yourself with a condom on, change who you are: stop being a freelancer and start being a craftsman.

A freelancer goes where the work is.  A craftsman makes things that inspire the buyers come to him.

Sure, you still need to advertise.  And if you’re a typical self-loathing artisan (or, worse, if you’re delusional about your own talents), you may want to ask someone with a level head to do your advertising for you.

But this way you’ll be focused on making great work that people want or need, instead of needing to convince someone that you’re worth investing in over long periods of time, and then repeating that same sales cycle every time the work runs out.

As long as you keep making things that delight your audience or solve their problems, you can stay in business.  And isn’t making great work the whole reason you want to wake up in the morning?

Sometimes, freelance isn’t about convincing people you’re worth it.

Sometimes it’s about being worth it, and then handing out maps so people can find you.

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Our Brave Last Days of Giving a Damn About Anyone Else

One day, when I was a child, it occurred to me that there’s no way to know, without a doubt, that anyone else in my life was actually real.  What if they were all robots?  What if they were all aliens?  What if this was all just some sort of a game, or a dream, or an experiment, and I was the only real person in existence?

Thirty years later, I still haven’t found any proof, but that’s never stopped me from caring about other people… until now.

Because it’s suddenly occurring to me that even if everyone else on this planet is real, they’re all acting like they just had the same realization I did years ago: if none of us are real, then nothing we do matters.

And now we’re all starting to live like it.

The Death of Empathy

I used to believe empathy was something all humans naturally possessed, but now I’m not so sure.  In fact, I think empathy may soon be a completely foreign or antiquated practice, like chivalry and honor — attributes that future generations will regard with nostalgic fondness, due to their extinction from our daily lives.

And I don’t think I need to conduct any kind of officially controlled experiment in order to study our eroding empathy; I just look at my own ever-dwindling ability to care about my fellow humans, and I alarm myself.

But what’s scarier is that I’m not alone.  Because we’re all alone, voluntarily.

I Couldn’t Care Less… Really

We’re living in the culture of Tosh.0, in a world where others exist solely to be mocked and any pain or suffering someone else is experiencing can be shrugged off because there’s always another cultural car crash begging us to rubberneck it before it ceases to be newsworthy.

We’re also living in a political and theological landscape where anyone who disagrees with our beliefs is branded as “the other,” and then caricatured beyond any recognizable human traits so they can be written off as threats to be expunged, savages to be feared or problems to be solved.  Reasoning with your ideological opponents is impossible because your opponents aren’t really people, are they?  (And, anyway, compromise is failure.)

Within this worldview, I find it hard to honestly care about what happens to anyone else.

You have cancer?  You lost your job?  Your car got totaled?  Your kids are sick?

Wow.  That sucks.  Now get over it, or don’t.  Life goes on, or it doesn’t.

I’m starting to wonder if my occasional fits of cultural outrage or my shocking instances of actually giving a shit about something are really just an artificial exercise.  Do I really care about these things, or am I just going through the motions so I don’t forget what caring is supposed to feel like?

There’s a coup in Libya?  Someone drowned in a Pittsburgh flood?  Troy Davis may have been wrongfully executed?

Wow.  That sucks.  Now get over it, or don’t.  Life goes on, or it doesn’t.

I also suffer from tragedy saturation.  The scope of the world’s catastrophes has become so mind-boggling, from the debt crisis to the uprisings in the Middle East, that it’s no longer possible for me to view them in a relatable context.  Everything seems like a crisis, which means nothing is, because the world keeps turning whether Mississippi floods or Wall Street burns.

There’s a tsunami in Japan?  There’s an earthquake in Haiti?  There’s a gulf oil spill?

Wow.  That sucks.  Now get over it, or don’t.  Life goes on, or it doesn’t.

And then there’s the social media problem: now that we can share our most immediate thoughts at any time of day, we all do.  And since most of our thoughts are about how wronged we’ve been by the world, it sometimes seems like the Internet is just an endess scrawl of teenage goth poetry, in which everyone on the planet secretly believes everyone else is out to get them.

Granted, these aren’t the only factors contributing to the death of empathy; they’re just the most obvious.  Meanwhile, our ever-growing perception gap between the rich and the poor, our technological isolationism and our muted sense of local identity in the face of globalism are all helping to render the idea of caring about someone other than ourselves an increasingly alien concept.

Maybe the Tin Man Had It Better Than He Thought?

This is the part where I’d normally say, “wait… how do we stop this?  What do we do about it?”… except I’m not ultimately convinced that we should reverse this trend.

Maybe empathy should die.

Maybe we’re all better off not wasting our time caring about other peoples’ problems.

Have you ever noticed that you have your own problems?  Maybe you could fix them if you weren’t spending so much time helping others.

Have you ever noticed that you’re poor?  Maybe you’d be less worried about money if you spent more time making it.

Have you ever noticed that you’re unhappy in your relationship, and that your family is more of a burden than a benefit?  Maybe you’d have a better life if you left your family ties behind and hit the road, ignored other people’s problems and finally admitted that you’re the only creature on this planet that really matters.

Maybe Ayn Rand was on to something.  (That would certainly explain her astronomical rise in popularity over the last few decades.)

Maybe we’re all better off as islands.  (Or living on them, alone.)

Maybe you don’t matter.

But if you don’t… who’s to say I do?

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Better Storytelling Through Structure

I talk a lot about ways to tell better stories, but one of the aspects I rarely discuss is story structure.  That’s because structure is one of those underlying mechanisms that works best when it doesn’t stand out, so it can be hard to find an obviously good example that’s also a compelling tale.

Luckily, I just read a book that should be taught in college writing classes because of its structure alone, but it also happens to be so good that I couldn’t put it down.  The book has nothing to do with writing, really; it’s a story about professional videogamers.  It just happens to be really, really well-written.

Game Boys: Professional Videogaming’s Rise from the Basement to the Big-Time started out as a New York Post article by author Michael Kane.  As he explains in the book’s introduction, Kane and his editors presumed he’d investigate one of pro gaming’s annual competitions, write a casual profile about a wacky American subculture, and move on to the next gig.

But once Kane was exposed to the human drama of the pro videogaming circuit, he found a story he couldn’t let go of, so he flipped his newspaper assignment into a book following two warring Counter-Strike clans over the course of a year, on their quixotic quests for money, fame and legitimacy in the eyes of the mainstream media.

Without giving too much away about the plot — because, honestly, Game Boys is worth reading for the story alone, and I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you — here are some of the reasons Kane’s book is such a good example of solid story structure, and why having one can benefit your story (and your readers’ experience) immensely.

1. Show Your Audience Their Own Way Into the Story

Unless you’re a professional videogamer (or you aspire to be one), you probably know nothing about the book’s core topic.  That’s okay; neither did Kane when he started.  Everything he knows about competitive videogaming, he learned firsthand by covering it as a journalist, and he’s practical enough to realize his audience will likely have all the same questions as he did when he began — things like “Who are these people?” and “What are they doing?” and “Why does any of this matter?”

Those questions are universal for any story, but when the milieu involves a subculture with its own rules, lingo and habits, writing (or reading) about it can feel more like cultural anthropology than journalism.  So Kane does something shrewd: he boils everything down to conflict.

The story opens at an annual gaming competition in Dallas. The reader enters this world by following a gamer off an elevator and into the hotel ballroom where the competition is being held.  Once we understand the physicality of the gamers’ world — playing wargames for profit on video screens wired across cafeteria tables in run-down hotel basements — we’ll naturally want to understand the scope of the stakes.  “What’s the best (or worst) possible thing that could happen to these people, within the context of their reality?”

And that’s all we need to keep turning pages until we find someone to root for (or against).

2. It’s Never About the Plot; It’s About the People

Conflict without personality is just numbers.  Fortunately, Kane introduces you to his two dueling CounterStrike clans, Team 3D and CompLexity, in the book’s opening anecdote.  The contrast in their gaming styles, and the way in which each clan is regarded by their peers, sets the stage for the book-long showdown Kane will document.  And most deliciously of all, the clans don’t even square off this early in the book: they’re each, in their own way, underdogs, and Kane gives their rivalry time to pick up speed before their actions really start to matter.

By then, you’ll know all the gamers’ names, personalities and skills.  You’ll know what’s really at stake, what each person stands to gain or lose, and the obstacles they need to overcome.  But none of that would matter of you didn’t care about who wins, and to care, you need to see these people as individuals, not as one-dimensional names on a page.

3. Every Story Is a Mystery, So Reveal Your Information Strategically

At its core, Game Boys boils down to: “Who wins?”  That’s the mystery, and we’re heading toward the answer on every page.

To get there, we need clues.  But this isn’t a mystery about unraveling a crime that’s already happened; it’s about providing the right context to shape the audience’s expectations of what’s still to come.  If you don’t understand how this world works, you can’t appreciate the actions the gamers take (whether onscreen or behind the scenes).  And if you don’t understand each character’s motivation, you won’t appreciate the choices they have to make.

Kane knows that immersing you in this world too quickly would kill the story — too much lingo, too many names, too much exposition all at once would obliterate the story’s human element.  So he spends chapter after chapter highlighting certain people and anecdotes that serve a dual purpose: they reveal something about the gaming world that you didn’t already know, while simultaneously clarifying the personalities and needs of the players involved.

In other words, knowing that fRoD is the world’s greatest AWPer on page 2 of Game Boys means nothing, but learning it midway through the book suddenly means everything.  And Kane is an expert at knowing which information to reveal at which stages of the book, so that you keep seeing these people and their story in new ways that changes what you already thought you knew.  In this fashion, Game Boys reads less like a piece of nonfiction and more like a season of The Wire.

4. Use Backstory to Fuel the Plot

The central conflict in Game Boys takes place on computer screens, but the games themselves are just a MacGuffin.  The gamers’ play would mean nothing if the gamers themselves didn’t have something deeper at stake than simple wins and losses.

To truly appreciate (or predict) their choices in-game, or in practice, or when they’re negotiating deals, the readers benefit from knowing who these gamers are and where they come from.

Jason Lake may be CompLexity’s coach, but he’s also been funding them out of his own pocket for years, to the tune of $300,000 that he may never earn back.  Team 3D’s manager, Craig Levine, is the born hustler that Lake isn’t built to be, which means CompLexity is always playing catch-up on the business end even when they’re better at the game itself.  And each of the gamers has a personality quirk or family history that directly informs his in-game performance and his off-screen aspirations — all of which creates a variety of soap opera-like storylines worth getting immersed in.

5. Kick Every Ball Forward at Its Own Pace

Keeping track of each gamer’s individual story, plus each clan’s goals, plus the business of professional videogaming as a whole, could be overwhelming to any reader.  But Kane’s pragmatic strategy is to nest smaller stories within the larger set pieces of each head-to-head competition, so the primary plot is fueled by — and, in turn, directly affects — each “minor” story happening in its shadow.

For example, when we first meet Team 3D, Ronald “Rambo” Kim is their undisputed leader.  But shortly after their loss in the book’s opening tale, Rambo is replaced by Dave “Moto” Geffon, which creates immediate tension within the group.  Meanwhile, fRoD’s reputation as the best Counter-Strike player in the world is colored by his own family’s perception of his “work,” and the uphill battle he fights to earn his father’s respect in an industry his family disregards.

These kinds of mini-conflicts evolve throughout the rest of the story, as new facts and incidents color the reader’s opinion of these situations and constantly challenge our own expectations of what we think (or hope) will happen next.

6. Use Lingo to Unite Your Audience, Not to Alienate Them

Frags.  Strats.  AWPs.  Dust 2.  None of these terms means anything if you haven’t read the book (or played Counter-Strike), but they (and countless others) are integral to understanding the story Kane is telling.  But instead of drowning you in useless acronyms or endless glossaries, he explains the terms as they come up, and only as needed.

As we study Team 3D at practice, we’re bombarded with necessary details about Counter-Strike, but they’re presented within the conflict between Rambo and Moto.  We barely realize we’re learning anything important until Team 3D’s next match, when all the lingo we just learned comes flying off the page and we realize — exhilaratingly — that we get it.  We’re “in.”  And our ability to understand all these terms without needing footnotes means Kane’s story can race ahead at the speed he intended.

7. Establish Dueling Expectations Within Your Audience

In theory, there are only four ways Game Boys can end: Team 3D wins, CompLexity wins, both teams win, or no one wins.

To his credit, even after he establishes CompLexity as the outsiders and Team 3D as the team to beat, Kane continually tinkers with our expectations through his strategic use of narrative and clues.  If Team 3D is so good, why do they have such a hard time winning?  If CompLexity really is the better team, why can’t they ever catch a break?  If fRoD is the best player on the planet, why is he with CompLexity in the first place?  Every question opens another door, and gives us an opportunity to second-guess our own presumptions about how the story — and each subplot — will end.

8. Harvesting the Seeds You Planted Long Ago Creates Closure

One of my favorite aspects of Kane’s writing is his Wire-like ability to introduce characters, situations and details that won’t pay off for dozens of pages, which creates increasing levels of enjoyment as a reader realizes that paying attention to all these little details really does pay off.  Kane’s narrative benefits from all kinds of seemingly insignificant structural choices, like…

  • the order in which the key characters are introduced
  • the “colorful” details revealed in the gamers’ backstories
  • “side commentary” about the ethics, culture and public image of gaming
  • descriptions of the locations where the games are played
  • the functional operation of Counter-Strike’s in-game navigation

… and much more.

Described in a different order, or with other details emphasized (or missing altogether), the plot points in Kane’s story would still be compelling.  But Game Boys elevates itself above other nonfiction books through a structure that simultaneously makes its story and its characters more interesting and less “alien” to an outsider.

And if that keeps you turning the pages as fast as I did, you’ll appreciate Kane’s greatest trick of all: by the time you’re done, you’ll feel like you’re part of this culture, and you’ll wonder why everyone else isn’t obsessed with it — which is the same thing the gamers themselves have been wondering all along.

Perhaps Game Boys will help solve that riddle, one new reader at a time…

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12 Things I’m Thinking After PodCamp Pittsburgh 6

Actually, make it 13. Because number 13 is, “when you try to edit a WordPress photo caption after you publish your post, you break your blog.”

So, the original post is gone. Whoops.

I’d rewrite the whole thing, but we all have lives, so here are the salient points I think I made the first time around about my thoughts after attending PodCamp Pittsburgh 6 — a social media peer learning event I co-founded in 2006, and which has grown up before my very eyes (sniff).

  • Having dancing zombies at your icebreaker is underrated.
  • Location matters. Sometimes, more space = less community.
  • If the veteran attendees are teaching the newbies, who’s teaching the veterans?
  • The food at Jane Pitt‘s restaurant Las Velas is f*cking delicious.
  • The camera in my Droid Eris is nearly useless.
  • We should make more content at PodCamp, because hands-on learning rocks.
  • Bar Louie may have run its course as our PCPGH after-party drinking spot.
  • You’ll never please everyone at a live event or in a speech; just do your best.
  • We need PodCare: daycare for the attendees with kids
  • The concept of a Nirvanopera sounds like something you’d go see, right?
  • We should find better ways to support the newbies online after the event.
  • What would happen if someone ran PodCamp Pittsburgh full-time?

And of course, my new #13: Just don’t caption your blog photos.  It only causes problems.

Sorry for the “digest version” of this post. Hopefully you can find a world of context in the comments below, and add your own voice to the discussion.

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5 Short Questions to Change Your Life

It really doesn’t take much to change your life.

Sometimes it only takes 30 seconds.

Sometimes it takes a shot or two of well-placed bluntness.

Sometimes, it just takes a story.

Earlier this year, Joe Posnanski shared this memory of Seve Ballesteros.

Ballesteros was driving all over the course when he saw Ian Woosnam looking at his ball in the woods. He was in trouble. And if there was anything that Seve Ballesteros understood, perhaps more than any golfer who ever lived, it was how to get out of trouble. He drove over and looked at Woosnam’s situation. And then he saw the way out.

“Do you see that crack up there on top of the tree?” Seve asked.

Woosnam squinted and looked hard for the crack. He did not see it.

“No,” Woosnam said.

“Up there,” Seve said more insistently. “Between the branches? See?”

Woosnam looked harder.

“No,” he said again.

Seve Ballesteros died early Saturday from a malignant brain tumor. He was just 54 years old. He spent his too-short life getting in trouble and, even more, getting out. He could see the openings others could not see. He always found a way out.

Your Life Is a Work in Progress.

The key word there is “progress.”  So, without further ado…

Whom do you like spending time with? Make a date.

What part of your job makes you happiest? Do more of it.

What causes you the most stress in your life? Stop doing it. (Right now.)

What did you always want to do when you grew up? There’s still time. (Start now.)

When you’re looking back, what will you want to remember most? Make it happen.

Time passes.  Lives begin and end.

You still have one.

Use it.

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