Key points: Identify professional behavior you like, then build that work habit into your own behavior. Look professional. Use the art of the personal narrative to affect public perception. Don't apologize for being a writer, don't bluff about it, just be matter-of-fact about it. Beware affirming the consequent. If you feel like you're an imposter, you're probably not. Act the part and fake it till you make it.
[Mary] Season Eight, Episode 13.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Fake It Till You Make It .
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm an imposter.
[Brandon] All right. Howard, you pitched this one. Tell us about it.
[Howard] When I first started cartooning... I wanted to be a cartoonist and I looked at the sort of things that I liked, the professional behavior that I liked in cartoonists. First and foremost among them was the comic is always there day after day. Whereas a lot of webcartoonists, it wasn't there day after day. So I assumed that in order to be a professional cartoonist, you just had to work far enough ahead that there was never a hiatus. So when I very first started doing it, I built this work habit in that said, "You know what? I don't have to cartoon every day. But there must always be an update. I must always work a certain level ahead." I also, although the early writing now that I look back at it, it doesn't seem to show this, I also wanted to make sure that I didn't just go for the easy jokes, that I really pushed myself as a writer. From the very beginning, I thought that these were things that professional webcartoonists did. In more recent years... I say more recent. Around 2008, there were pictures of me taken at conventions that I looked at and I thought, "Man. That guy looks like a slob. That guy does not look like a professional anything. He just looks like a slob. That's not how I want to look. I want to look professional." So I decided to change that story about myself. I figured it's not going to work if I just do it at conventions. So I completely changed the way I dressed. Starting in late 2008...
[Mary] He stopped wearing pants.
[Howard] Yup. Right about the time we started podcasting. Thank you, Mary, for... I was going to say going for the low-hanging fruit, but that would be entirely inappropriate here, wouldn't it?
[Brandon] Clean rating!
[Dan] Oh, my.
[Mary] So... Is that a banana in your pocket?
[Howard] [laughter] Okay. Brandon, save us!
[Brandon] Yes. I think this is very important for an aspiring professional. You want to look like a pro first. This is... When we were talking to editors early on, Dan and I, the editors... We actually asked them and they would say things like, "It's good that you dress like a normal person. It's good that you look professional." This isn't saying go in a suit and tie. This is saying go... Save your cosplaying for the days when you're not going to be approaching the editors. Because when you're wearing the hat of the writer, the aspiring writer, you want to look as much like the pro as you can.
[Dan] Well, with the caveat that your pro might not be the same as somebody else's. Jay Lake dresses very distinctively. But that's his writer uniform, and he's very recognizable for it.
[Mary] What actually I find very interesting is that the fashion for what the writer uniform is has shifted. Because right now, the writer uniform for a lot of people is the Hawaiian shirt. If you look back to the Bradbury Asimov days, the writer uniform was the large sideburns and the very blocky glasses.
[Brandon] This goes beyond though the way you're presenting yourself. If you think of yourself like a pro and you are submitting like a pro and say, "I want to submit my submissions to editors as much like a pro as is possible," you're not going to do these silly little tricks that we always used to talk about. Now everything's going electronic, so the silly little tricks... I'm sure there are different silly little tricks. The silly little tricks used to be like putting perfume on your submission letter or sticking two pages together to see if they pulled them apart to read them and all of these little tricks. There's got to be some new ones for the electronic age, but you want to format your letter as a professional letter. Make yourself seem like a pro. You want to approach it... Think of yourself as if you are already making a living at this, and go from there.
[Mary] I sometimes talk about this as using the art of the personal narrative to affect public perception of you. For instance, I have a temper in real life. That is not part of the personal narrative that I want to have. I don't want to be that person. So when they left out the first sentence of my novel, Glamour in Glass, my first reaction... There was a lot of cursing. There was a lot of cursing. But that was not an interaction I wanted to have with my editor. It was certainly not the interaction that I wanted to present to my audience, to the public. That is not who I wanted to be perceived as. I knew from stage, there's this rule, "You can fix it or you can feature it." There was no way to fix that the line was gone. So I... When they talk about spinning something, this is where that personal narrative comes in. I spun it into a promotional opportunity. The personal narrative that I put forward was that I was very relaxed and understanding and easy-going, which I learned to be in part because I acted the part of being understanding and reasonable and easy-going, after I got my cursing out of the way in private.
[Brandon] Right. I mean, this happens a lot in the professional world. You'd be surprised at... Like for instance, in... When I hit the New York Times list for the first time. It was like a tiny, miniscule hitting the New York Times list. I was like number 23 of 25, and I hit it by... I think I sold 1700 copies of a book. No, no, it was more than that, it was 5000. So it was... But 5000 copies, that doesn't sound like a lot. It really... It actually is a lot in our business. 5000 hardcovers in the first week. But it probably sounds miniscule to you, because a blockbuster movie is not going to be having 5000 people see it. But that's... That hit and I'm like, "Nothing's changed." My editor is like, "Oh, no. From now on, you act like and say you are a New York Times bestseller. And everything has changed." It's that simple. You just start acting like you're a New York Times bestseller. It's the same sort of way. I think that you listeners, when you're publishing your fiction, you want to act like a professional. You don't want to... This is particularly important, I think, if you're self-publishing. Go... Don't act like the... Don't throw a tirade when someone gives you a bad review. Now, granted, there may be some pros who throw tirades. But any time you throw a tirade, it makes you look unprofessional.
[Howard] Act professional. Just not like that professional.
[Brandon] Not like that professional. Yeah. Act like the nebulous sense of professionalism.
[Mary] Act like the people that you respect. Pick this is who I want to be when I grow up. Not because they have a lot of money, but because... Pick the role model, and say, "Okay. That's the behavior I want to do, because I like that person." The other thing, if I can jump in, in terms of things that new writers do that... I know I did... Is the pre-apology. It's the... "So are you a writer?" "Well, you know, not really. I'm just... I've got some things. I'm submitting." You are telling people that you're not... You don't take yourself seriously when you do that, so why should they? So when someone says, "So are you a writer?" You're like, "Yes. I'm an aspiring writer. I submit regularly." Or "Yeah. I just sent in a couple of stories." Or "I write science fiction and fantasy. I haven't published anything yet, but it's just a matter of time." Just be matter-of-fact about it.
[Howard] I had somebody in a panel ask me, "So when am I allowed to tell people I am a writer?" I answered the question, "Well, do you write?" "Yes." "Then you are a writer. Every qualifier you throw after that is something that can just unfold as part of the conversation."
[Mary] Exactly. There is... The flip side of this is that you do not want to bluff to the extent that you puff yourself up, "Well, I've published 30 stories... In my mother's newsletter."
[Brandon] That's true. Part of being professional, I would say, is that... Professionalism we're shooting for, not how some professionals act, is to be very confident, be very self-assured in your writing, but also not covering anything up. Not pretending you are something you are not, but you are... Well, you are presenting [your own image?], presenting yourself as a professional, but you're not inflating your credentials in any way. We're not saying go apply for a job and write down all sorts of things you don't have. But go for a job and act like you belong in that job.
[Howard] Well, honestly, the difference between the writing of someone who's been writing regularly for 20 years and hasn't had a breakout sale yet and the novelist who's been writing for 20 years and has been getting paid... The difference between the writing may not be noticeable. That's... You can't say that one is... One reads like a professional and the other doesn't. No. The difference is one of them's getting paid and the other one isn't. So the level of pretense when I say, "Fake it until you make it..." The only thing that you're faking is how tall you stand, how you dress...
[Mary] There's a post that Justine Larbalestier did that we should link to which is "I'll know I'm a real writer when" which is this long list of things starting with when I sell my first story... Well, I'll know I'm a real writer when I've sold two stories... When I've sold it to a professional market... When I've sold a novel... When I've sold a novel that someone besides my mother has read. It's just this long list of increasing things. The thing to understand about this whole journey is that pretty much every writer has been where you are right now. It doesn't matter where you are on your journey. Pretty much every writer has been the person who has not sold anything yet, the person who has just sold the one story, the person who has sold three stories and then has a five-year streak where you don't sell anything. Everybody goes through this. So we all understand. Well, everybody except Brandon.
[Brandon] [laughter] Hey! I wrote 13 before I sold one. Thank you very much.
[Mary] I know. I'm teasing.
[Brandon] Book of the week! I want to... Rob doing nonfiction reminded me of some of the great nonfiction books that I have read that have helped me become a better writer. I do think we should be doing more nonfiction, because as writers, nonfiction is going to help you a ton. I want to promo A History of Warfare by John Keegan. This was a book recommended to be early on. I can't even remember who it was. I picked it up and read it. It has been fundamentally and foundationally and extremely important for me as a fantasy writer, understanding the nature of warfare and how small developments in science can change the way that war happens, and how societal factors change the way war happens. It talks about why in small tribes wars happen in one way, and why they happen in a different way in large-scale. It talks about science. It talks about the stirrup. It talks about all these cool things that if you know, can help you develop your fantasy and science fiction worlds to a more realistic extent. So. This is A History of Warfare by John Keegan.
[Howard] audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Start a 30 day free trial membership. Get yourself a copy of...
[Brandon] A History of Warfare.
[Howard] A History of Warfare.
[Mary] Just fake it.
[Howard] Sorry, I blanked on that. Yes, I faked it by gesturing at the person who could maybe help me through the conversation and pick up the lull. Anyway, after you buy that one book, you can pick up a number of other titles at 30% off.
[Brandon] All right. So, Howard, when you first pitched this episode, you said that there's a fallacy involved that you want to make sure to talk about.
[Howard] Yes. The flip side of fake it till you make it is the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent. The example that I like to use of this logical fallacy is Nathan Fillion has 10 million Twitter followers, and he's a famous actor who got to be in Firefly. So, if I can accumulate 10 million Twitter followers, I will also be a famous actor who gets to be in Firefly. You can see how patently absurd that is. If you look at the authors that you admire, if you look at the writers whose work you adore, if you follow them on Twitter and follow them on Facebook and suddenly start equating their social media presence as a precursor to their success instead of as a consequent of their success, then what you are doing is affirming the consequent. You need to be careful not to do that. It's one thing to dress a little nicer when you're making a pitch to an editor. It's another thing entirely to be so desperate for Facebook followers that nobody takes you seriously.
[Dan] Yeah. So the story that Howard started the cast with, about when he started cartooning, he picked very intelligent things to strive for. I'm going to try to hit updates every single day. I'm going to try to stretch myself as an author. Those are the kinds of things that you need to be striving for as you try to be professional, rather than I want to make sure I have... That I max out my Facebook friends. [Garbled]
[Howard] I'll give you a mistake that I made. I had seen lots of comics that had popular T-shirt merchandise. I thought, "Well, part of being a popular cartoonist is having T-shirts." So back in 2001, I printed a T-shirt, and was sure that this was just going to sell like hotcakes. I lost money on the shirt run and realized, "Oh, wait a minute. Maybe that cart has to actually go behind that horse. There's something else that has to drive this."
[Brandon] So, what could writers be looking at that is kind of affirming the consequent like that? Other than the Twitter followers and things like this?
[Howard] [Brrr...] I used social media as an example because it's always there in our face.
[Dan] A good one is the New York Times bestseller, which we've talked about. I have never been on that list. I've got six books out and I've never been on that list. You don't have to be on that list in order to be successful.
[Brandon] I think a lot of newer writers tend to look at something like the Amazon sales rank. If I can just get my Amazon sales rank here, and they'll put so much effort into getting up there for one hour.
[Howard] If you attempt to game the system in order to have some sort of badge of honor, whether it's a sales rank or an award of some sort, then potentially what you're doing is affirming the consequent. Because that sales rank, that award, are not going to make you a professional.
[Mary] There's also one, and this one is a little bit tricky to talk about, but... The collecting of famous friends.
[Brandon] Or being in a writing group for many, many years with some famous people that came out of it, or being a member of the community and kind of acting like... There are these people that science fiction and fantasy communities attract who are writers but never sell anything and never really write anything, but like the idea of being a writer. So they will buddy up... And this is fine, I don't want to denigrate these people. But they will buddy up, and they will get in writing groups, and they will be... You'll talk to them and find them at everything. This one person who is at all the cons and stuff and acts in all ways like a writer except never actually writes anything.
[Mary] I want to say that these people... That they do no harm. This is not, "These are bad people." But this is... Recognize that this is the logical fallacy. Like doing all of these things does not make you a professional writer. This is not going to sell anything. That's... If you're looking to have a career, that's the kind of behavior that we're warning you away from. Not because it annoys people, but because... And it does not. But because it's not going to help you.
[Brandon] Let's just...
[Howard] The one that I've seen where I've been able to personally observe the disappointment as the individual has realized that they've been affirming the consequent is if I can be on a panel with...
[Brandon] Right! Oh, that's a great one.
[Howard] The following people, then I will suddenly be... They realize they're on that panel. They get to say a couple of clever things. After the panel is over, the panel's over. Everybody walks away and nothing changed. Now I love getting to be on panels with wonderful people, but I treat these as fun opportunities. It's like a roller coaster ride. Hey, I got to do this. But at the end of the ride, I had to get off, I had to go back to work.
[Mary] One of the most affirming and terrifying things for me was... I was talking with Nancy Kress, and I was talking about the fact that I have... Was having serious imposter syndrome. Understand that I was having imposter syndrome the week before I went to Denver, where I won the Campbell award. So this is completely unjustified imposter syndrome. I mean, at this point, I cannot pretend that I am not a writer. I'm talking to Nancy about imposter syndrome, and she says, "Oh, I have that all the time." This is a woman who's won... I don't know how many nebulas and Hugos, she's... Everybody knows her, she's a fantastic writer, and she still gets imposter syndrome. On the one hand, I feel like, "Oh. Okay. Then it's okay for me to feel like I'm faking it." On the other hand, it's terrifying because it means I won't ever get to a point where I don't have this.
[Howard] I had an artist... I'm not going to name him... Who... I was talking to him about imposter syndrome. He said, "Really? You get that? Because I don't." I remember having that conversation and being terrified that, "Wow. There are people out there who are so confident and so competent." This guy's had multiple Hugo nominations. Well, now you know that he's male and he has multiple Hugo nominations and that he and I were at a convention together. He poked me and said at one point during this convention... I was the Artist Guest of Honor... He poked me and said, "Hey, Artist Guest of Honor! Smile!" I was kind of tired and was sitting on the couch. When he said that, I realized, "As tired as I am, I need to fake it until I make it. I need to act the part of this paid guest." So I got off my butt and walked to 20 different room parties, realizing that even though I'm not a social butterfly, the convention kind of wants me to go be visible. I had a fantastic time. Popped my head into the parties and said hello and collected stickers and met neat people. If I get convention invitations in the South in coming years, it may be a direct result of me getting off my butt.
[Mary] Can I give the writing prompt this week?
[Brandon] Go for it.
[Mary] Because this is not actually a writing prompt. This is a submission prompt.
[Mary] What I want you to do is I want you to submit to a market that you think you will never sell to.
[Brandon] A story... Oh, you mean like a high...
[Mary] Yeah. High-level market. Pick the market that you would love to have your story in, that you think you will never sell to because you aren't good enough yet.
[Brandon] Okay. Don't submit a romance story to a science fiction market, which is what I immediately assumed you were...
[Mary] No, no. That is not what I meant.
[Brandon] Okay. Shoot for the stars.
[Mary] Take the story and send it to the best possible market for it.
[Brandon] That's a great prompt. All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
[Howard] You really are out of excuses.