How to be Awesome

Working-Out

I was at the gym the other day and a guy I see there all the time asked me what I did for a living. I wasn’t sure what to tell him.

I go to the gym at around noon on every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Pretty much everyone who sticks to a gym routine is as regular as I am, so I see the same people every time, but I don’t know any of their names. I know them as “the older guy with the white teeth,” “the big guy with the crew cut,” “the Australian woman,” and “the cop.” They know me as “the guy who broke his arm doing a squat clean,” but that’s another story.

We all kind of smile and nod, but few of us talk. Especially me. I’m outgoing on podcasts, but when going about my business, I prefer to keep my head down and do that business without unnecessary distractions. I’m close to antisocial in such situations — the opposite of Sean. I even have a few shirts I won’t wear because I know they’ll invite conversation. I don’t want to talk about what I’m wearing at the gym. I’d rather lift heavy things then go home.

But after enough time nodding and saying, “Hey” to this one huge gentleman, I found myself stuffing my bag into a locker beside him. He asked me what I did for a living that allowed me to hit the gym in the middle of the day. He was there in the middle of the day too, but I already knew that he drives a construction truck and apparently works at off times. Others are retired. Some are stay-at-home moms who drop their kids in the daycare room. Some are college students. But me? Seeing as I never talk to anyone, I’m a mystery.

“I’m a writer.”

He asked what I wrote.

“Books,” I said. I wasn’t trying to brush him off. I just wasn’t sure what else to say. If you’re behind Sean in line at Starbucks, he’ll blab all about his unicorn book whether you’re on your phone at the time or not. Me? I don’t want to go into it. Most people can’t fathom the idea of writers who don’t work for a magazine or an advertising agency. Novelists — those who write stories as their only job, and aren’t being supported by someone else’s income — aren’t common. There’s too much explaining required.

But I was being too terse, so to be more friendly, I added, “I write novels. Like, stories.” And I smiled — which, again, is easy when I’m among friends but not natural when out in the random public, trying to get things done.

He was interested in hearing more. He asked me what kind of stories I wrote. I told him about The Beam, because it was what I’d been writing that morning and because it’s so accessible. Everyone understands science fiction, whereas an explanation for Unicorn Western would take too long.

“How long does it take to finish a book? Do you write like a book a year or something?”

I told him that I write a book of a length most people consider typical in about two or three weeks. I added that last year, we published a couple dozen, amounting to around a million and a half words. Then I discovered that if I’d wanted to get about my business quickly, this was the wrong thing to say.

“How can you write so many words?” he said, aghast.

I mumbled something about it taking practice to learn a craft, but that was only because the real answer sounds incredibly obnoxious when said aloud.

That answer, of course, is “one word at a time.”

legendary_cover_3d_small_transparentHow To Be Legendary

Not terribly long ago, Dave revealed on the podcast that before he got to know me, he was hard at work making fun of me.

Again, I should explain.

See, if you’re reading this blog, you probably know me as an author and a guy who talks about self-publishing. But I lived a different life before I started writing about fat vampires, nanobots, and grizzled gunslingers who ride unicorns.

I was a blogger. Not a very focused blogger, either. I blogged about technology, then about business, then about scattershot topics from Fight Club to getting tattoos. Finally I settled into what I thought of as “human potential,” which was a dressed-up way of saying “self improvement.” People said I was like Tony Robbins, if Tony kicked you in the crotch for your own good and said “motherfucker” a lot.

At the peak of this phase, I wrote a manifesto called How To Be Legendary. I was trying to be equal parts inspiring and ridiculous with my brand’s over-the-top nature, but initially Dave took me at face value. “Face value,” in this case, meant “like a pompous dick.” Everything I did was about being awesome, and Dave is suspicious of awesome. The website’s tagline promised awesomeness. I wrote blog posts about awesomeness. And yes, I released a manifesto about dedicating your life to the awesome pursuit of becoming legendary — a manifesto, by the way, that features an Army of Darkness-style cover illustration depicting me shirtless, holding a chainsaw above my head, fending off zombies. I figured it was hard to miss the irony in all that, but Dave carries a decoy wallet and comes prepared for everything … including dickbags who might turn out to be full of themselves.

I maintain that I was never full of myself, but was instead using absurdity to make a point. Eventually Dave agreed and declared me to not be a dickbag, but I suspect this only happened because throughout all of my awesome-calling, I never claimed that anyone could instantly become awesome just by flicking a switch — or by giving me $97 for a miracle cure. Over and over, I repeated the message we hammer home in our self-publishing book: You’ve gotta do the work. You’ve gotta put in the hours. There are no shortcuts. Success requires an infinity of effort that, over time, makes so-called “luck” more or less inevitable.

How do we publish as much as we do? One word at a time.

The guy I was talking to at the gym is huge, and instead of ducking the real answer, I should have just told him. He can bench press a small house, but if I’d asked him how he reached that point, I suspect his answer would have been similar: One pound at a time.

I talked a lot about awesomeness and legendariness when blogging about human potential, but the message was never fireworks or quick-fixes.

How do you become legendary? How do you become awesome?

One little tiny bit at a time.

That’s all there is to it.

To achieve amazing things, keep making small improvements every day. Want to walk a thousand miles? Walk one mile today, then another tomorrow. Want to learn to play the piano? Play horribly today, then a minuscule amount less horribly tomorrow. Want to write a whopper of a book? Start with a page, because if you keep that up for a year without missing a day, you’ll end up with 365.

None of us here are able to publish so often because we woke up one day as fully realized publishing machines. You see how I write today, but you aren’t seeing how I wrote when I was 15, or how Sean wrote just five or six years ago. You aren’t seeing the fact that Dave had never completed a book before meeting Sean. We were all terrible when we started. But terrible is good, because terrible gives you a foundation. Once you do something terribly, you have a baseline.

Be glad for the things you’re shitty at. Being shitty at something means you’re light years ahead of those who’ve never dared to be awful.

AwesomePolish the Turd

There’s a line in the movie Christine where garage owner Darnell offers some sage advice about Arnie’s busted white-over-red 1957 Plymouth Fury.

“You can’t polish a turd.”

But what the hell does Darnell know? Later in the movie the car turns evil and crushes him against the steering wheel. Which, I’m pretty sure, is Stephen King’s thematic way of agreeing with this post. You know what, Darnell? Nope; you can polish a turd. But nobody fucking likes turds. They think everything should come out polished and shiny, but that’s not how life works.

Here, for once and for all, as approved by us and Stephen King, is the way all great things evolve:

Stage 1: Turd.

Stage 2: Garbage.

Stage 3: Bad.

Stage 4: Decent.

Stage 5: Good.

Stage 6: Great.

Stage 7: Awesome.

Stage 8: So motherfucking awesome that it’s like Ted Nugent had babies with a shark and the shark exploded into a monster truck.

You see, everything starts with a turd.

The problem, when people feel they’re stuck somewhere in life where they aren’t happy, is that they believe the hype. “Look at this job I don’t like!” they’ll say. “It’s a total turd, and I’ll never have anything better!” Or they look at the turd their gut has become in the mirror and despair, or bang away a few times a year on their boondoggle of a manuscript and decide that no matter how long they work on their story, it’s doomed to stay a turd.

It’s not true. You can start a sideline gig today and, after slow and steady work, realize that your sideline is doing well enough that you no longer need your turd job. You can polish your turd gut to the tune of a donut’s worth of savings per day and end up thin, if that’s what you want.

Writers, because they’re artists, are even worse about this turd thing. Writers want to be amazing right out of the gate. They want to write well, write fast, and hit a home run their first time at bat. But guess what? It doesn’t work that way. You might write a book and it’ll fail, write another and it’ll fail, and then write one that fails slightly less, putting you on your way.

And if even completing a book feels daunting, you can inch your way there, too. Write a page a day. 500 words a day. 100 words a day. Even at 100 words a day, those words can be shit. NOBODY CARES IF YOU PRODUCE SHIT. Shit gets you going. Don’t publish your shit. Write that shit out of you, then move past it and write something better. Get the words on paper or on a screen. Polish your turdy manuscript a few dabs at a time, and eventually it’ll shine.

It’s alchemy.

Rumplestiltskin took straw and spun it into gold. You do the same with your turd.

ImprovePolish the Awesome

Here’s my polishing story in a nutshell:

Once upon a time, I worked in a lab, counting fruit flies and pulling aside the ones with red eyes. It was soul-numbing work, and was causing me to have panic attacks. I thought life was over, that I might die soon.

I remember sweating all of these existential issues in the months leading up to my wedding, eventually ditching my lab job out of fear of becoming a basket case. It was a trial by fire for my wife and in-laws, who stuck with me for some reason.

Things slowly improved once I severed those ties. Working at home for pennies, I started writing copy. Then I wrote better copy. Then better copy. A few years later, I was writing magazine articles and was bored out of my head every day, but at least I was making enough to keep our rent paid. (Barely.)

Things were looking slightly less dingy as I polished more and more, day by day.

Around that time, I started a blog. It was fun, but it brought with it another learning curve — this time with my mood starting at “panicky” instead of “I think I’m going to die.” That blog didn’t make money at first, and I was poor. My blog was popular but worthless. So I polished, day by day. I got rid of my Adsense ads when I realized they sucked. I got rid of my boring copywriting work when my tech business started to make money. I got rid of my tech business when consulting started to bring in income. I got rid of my consulting gigs after launching a few really cool online courses. I got rid of boring blogging by writing more engaging posts that interested me.

Then, just a couple of years ago, as I finally started writing novels, I stopped blogging on my old site entirely. But I’d kept one piece of my old business — an inexpensive membership community — because it brought in money and because the people in it were pretty damn awesome. Life, in fact, had gotten pretty damn awesome.

But “awesome,” in this case, was a trap.

As cool as that last piece of “Johnny 1.0” was, running a membership site and producing content for it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing most. I’d gotten a taste of telling stories — something I’d wanted to do since I was a kid — and I wanted to do more and more of it. But I only had so much time, and there wasn’t room for both.

My choice, in other words, wasn’t between bad and good. It was between awesome and astonishing.

Given that choice, it was far less clear what to do. I felt stuck. I couldn’t let go of something that was awesome, could I? When I thought “I’d rather be writing books,” I felt guilty. Was I really complaining about a life I’d have killed for back when I was counting fruit flies and having panic attacks?

But as tricky as this part of the journey is, you can’t stop improving when things get better. So, fighting to overcome inertia, I closed that community, forever shutting the door on Johnny 1.0. That phase had been great, but I wasn’t willing to settle for “great”… and neither should you.

A lot of people think they’ve got it made when things stop being sucky and start getting good. In our humble opinion, “good” isn’t where you stop. “Good” is where you step hard on the gas, because it only gets better from there.

When things start to go well, decisions get tricky. It takes effort to polish a turd, sure … but at least you know it’s a turd. Polishing is much harder when you realize it means jettisoning parts of your life that aren’t actually bad — but are instead “slightly less amazing than you’d like.” You’ll find it hard to summon the motivation to make things better if those things are already fine. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” you might say, but that’s loser talk.

Fixing unbroken things to make them better is what separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls. 

Fixing unbroken things, ladies and gentlemen, is our mission statement — phrased perhaps a bit more elegantly as “How can we do better?” That idea is how we write as much as we write today — and, if we may be totally and shamelessly immodest, how our stories keep getting better.

When I talked to my enormous friend at the gym, I was nearing the end of the first draft of the second season of The Beam. Sean asked me around that time if I thought it was better than the first season. I told him they were different, and that I couldn’t say for sure. But then I thought about it, and was finally ready to give a less-waffling answer: Of course it’s better. It’s so much better. 

The Beam: Season 1 wasn’t broken. The reviews have been stellar — and, really, kind of embarrassing in some of their flattering comparisons. Yet, we wanted to see if we could fix it anyway. We’re always doing things like that — screwing with products and systems that, by all manner of measure, are doing just fine.

Except for that one thing we keep meaning to get around to fixing someday but never have.

Yet again, I should explain.

Space-Shuttle_Optimized-682x1024The Ballad of Space Shuttle

Do you know the very best way to inspire people?

Fuck up.

Seriously. It’s magic. Do something badly, fall on your face, land an epic fail. People love it. It’s not about giving watchers an opportunity to engage in schadenfreude (joy in the failure of others), but rather about demonstrating that everyone fucks up. We’re trained to believe that if you’re good, you’re always good and you never fuck up.

That’s a lie.

The only way to become good is to fuck up a lot … then to get up and keep walking as if nobody saw you trip.

Here’s the story of our fuck-up.

In the middle of last year, Sean and I decided to take the temperature of our readership. We had six projects that interested us, but only had time to write two. We wanted to do one serious serial and one comedic serial, but didn’t know which of our six ideas to pursue. We wrote pilot episodes of all six, released them, and asked readers to let us know which ones they wanted us to continue writing.

In that original batch, there were three “sitcom” pilots (Space Shuttle, Greens, and Everyone Gets Divorced) and three more typical serial pilots (Namaste, Cursed, and Robot Proletariat). All of the pilots did well … except for Space Shuttle — a ditty we thought of as “Taxi in space, with every sci-fi cliché tossed into the mix.”

This wouldn’t ordinarily have been a big deal, but it just so happened that Space Shuttle was the first of our six to hit the virtual bookshelves. The loud roar of “meh” that met its debut rolled like a tumbleweed across the indie landscape. Dave, who’d already mocked us for the stupidity of our genre-hopping ways, said “I told you so.” Faithful R&S reviewers left reviews that were almost apologetic, pointing out the fact that they liked the book cover because they couldn’t think of anything else nice to say.

We soldiered forward, buoyed by the much better receptions of our other five pilots. Then, because we secretly hate ourselves and/or have focus issues, we decided to write all six projects to completion. Namaste became a full novel and episode one turned into what we now call Vengeance. Robot Proletariat got a full season. Cursed became a series of short books. And the sitcoms were given six-episode seasons — all of them, including Space Shuttle.

In the end, the full season of Space Shuttle made up for the “meh” first episode, and as of this writing has the best rating average of the full-season sitcoms. We were able, to some degree, to hand Dave’s “I told you so” back to him. The book closed on our pilot experiment, and all was well with the world.

It was awesome to finish — to have six story lines out there on the booksellers with their free introductory products, and to begin selling those books. Given that, you might say that in the end, the mediocre job we’d done on Space Shuttle’s first episode didn’t break anything, so there was no need to fix it, because everything turned out more or less okay.

But that’s not how we roll.

We don’t rest just because things are working well. We could be done with that story forever. It’s done. It’s “sufficient.” It “does the job.” We have other things we should be working on. Who cares about one little dumb space sitcom? The people who read the full season loved it. It’s just the pilot that should maybe be better.

And that’s good enough, right?

We don’t think so.

Never settle if you want to achieve amazing things. Never be satisfied, if “satisfied” means “complete.” Celebrate your wins and give yourself credit, then turn around and do better. The world is too big for you to ever be done. Good enough is a trap. Don’t allow yourself to be less than you can be.

We would leave Space Shuttle alone if we didn’t care about the franchise, but we do. We think the full season turned out fantastic … and we don’t think the first episode represents it fairly. “Good enough,” in the end, isn’t.

We fucked up. We can do better. We can make that first episode shine, so that people who might love the full series will have a chance to love it from the start.

We could let it go, but we aren’t willing to settle.

So in tomorrow’s blog post, I’ll talk about how we re-wrote Space Shuttle‘s first episode completely. We postponed a project from our already-overflowing plates to do it, but it was important. Because those three comedies are now part of a brand new imprint here at Sterling & Stone called LOL — and just as we’ll run two other serials here on the blog each week (ForNevermore, already running, and Robot Proletariat, soon to come), we want to give LOL its due as well.

We’ll be running Space Shuttle’s first season on the blog each Saturday, then following it with the bigger, better, so-much-funnier second season. Because we believe in the series. We think you’ll like it if you give it a try. And because we wanted to make sure our biggest turd got its polish.

Be sure to watch the blog tomorrow to see how we went back to the drawing board to fix what was “good enough but not good enough” … and how a fuckup got fixed!

About Johnny B. Truant

Johnny started out as the writing everyman, barely managing a novel a decade. From there, he has become a storytelling superstar, pounding out a novel a month. He's the co-founder of Realm & Sands, as well as the host of the Self Publishing Podcast.

Comments

  1. I’m sure you know Dave Tate’s 4 Stages of Anything:

    1. Shit
    2. Suck
    3. Good
    4. Great

  2. Stage 8 looks promising. Nice post, Johnny.

  3. This was the perfect post for me on the perfect day. Thanks Johnny. Now I’m off to to shit all over Scrivener.

  4. An entertaining and motivating, ass-kicking post as always. I’ve still got a long way to go to polish that turd, but hey, one word at a time. Thanks Johnny.

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