Five years. 28 posts. Here’s everything I’ve learned.
It’s five years since I opened this blog, it’s my three-year anniversary of quitting my job (via a terrifying heart scare) to become a full-time writer – and it’s almost two years since I started helping people as a storytelling consultant.
Here’s everything I’ve learned so far. I hope you find it useful.
(If anything resonates, leave me a comment – I’d love to hear from you.)
FREELANCING & BLOGGING
“If a blog makes you feel something, you’ll cleave to it in a way that mere facts cannot achieve. If it makes you feel something and it’s super-useful, you’ll probably become totally obsessed – but utility isn’t a requirement for you to become besotted with it.
A common feeling is hope. You really want to do something, you’re riddled with insecurity about doing it – and then you read how someone else got there and decided to document the whole journey online. I normally hate the “i” word, but…that’s usually really inspiring. It may even inspire you to act on that feeling – at which point, no bullshit, that blog just changed your life. (Woah.)”
“Can’t we just bung all the best stuff in the first couple of paragraphs and largely ignore the rest, if that’s how people are reading?
If this was truly how people were reading, then anything over 300 words would just die. However, research suggests that blog posts of 1000+ words (way too long for conventional short-attention-span thinking) are doing really well right now. Traditional thinking is looking outdated. It looks like we love reading online – more than ever.”
“Social media is a fun way to build an audience (even though it does its best to kid you about how big that audience really is) – and on social media, you definitely feel you’re part of something greater.
But for making people care about what you’re doing, e-mail wipes the floor with it.”
“The mere act of intending to get paid for your work will put the right pressure upon you. The more real and immediate that pressure is, the harder you will have to work and the better you will get. This isn’t a law of creative writing. There are exceptions, especially in the ever-fluxing online world. But it’s a damn reliable guide.”
“If you read a Bill Bryson book, it’s obviously written by Bill Bryson. You hit the first rambling self-assassination, the first “Of all the things I am not very good at, living in the real world is perhaps the most outstanding,“ and it couldn’t be written by anyone else.
Bill Bryson has got his Bill Bryson impression down to a fine art. It’s downright uncanny. I don’t know what Bill is like in real life, but interviews suggest yup, that’s him.
Bill Bryson is a veteran journalist, best-selling author, has lots of money and quite frankly doesn’t give a flying buggeration about what you think of him. He can speak his mind with total confidence. He doesn’t need to work on his written voice (although I’m sure he does, every day). But the rest of us, lacking that confidence…we probably need a bit of help.”
“This is what the fold in the napkin is all about, just under that line/curve. It’s a mountain you have to climb. A mountain made of enormous amounts of hard work, business planning, Art, applied psychology, smart, non-spammy marketing and all sorts of heart-on-sleeve public-facing transparency and vulnerability. It’s a process of learning how to make something those people will genuinely find meaningful. In business, this is the hardest thing in the world. It’s a mountain littered with the remains of failed expeditions, and it’ll probably end up littered with some of your own.
However, get over that mountain, and you have reached the 99% – your audience, and everyone they know, and everyone they know – in a way that will get them to hand over the princely sum of one dollar.”
“A bunch of lovable screw-ups walk a long, long yellow-brick road in search of someone who will magically fix all their problems in ways they never, ever could.
Everyone loves this story.
Particularly people in positions of power and control. And people who run lotteries. And anyone with a vested interest in keeping people happy and docile and locked in place, fooled into thinking that someday Everything Will Be Okay, So Who Cares About Today? It’s the ultimate philosophy of delayed gratification and, ultimately, of shattered dreams. It’s the death of learning.
If you can’t take your blog where it needs to go without the help of magic, it almost certainly will never get there.”
“Most bloggers – maybe even 95% of bloggers – have no idea what they’re doing.
That’s not meant as a criticism or a judgement. It’s not even terribly original to say. It’s a situation that has little to do with writing talent or online savvy. It’s not a dividing line between amateur and professional, or hobbyist and Serious Blogger. There are bloggers doing toe-wigglingly terrific work on a daily basis who, by their own admission, barely know where they’re going with it all.
But they are far, far outweighed by people not doing great work because they don’t know where they’re going.”
“While way too many people are hosing our eyeballs with raw data, some cannier souls are concerned with ideas. They can’t help it — they’re so brimming with exciting leaps of intuition and they’re so snowed under with working through what they already have (because they’ve always been this way) that they just . . . get rid of them. They blog them out to their followers. They bundle them into books and make some money off them.
But they don’t use them.
These people are worth hanging out with.”
“This is a post about the lies I tell myself when I’m writing.
So I think it’s quite fitting that for the whole of this article I’m going to liberally swap out the word “me” (or the letter “I”) for the word “you”. It’s nothing personal, and I’m not suggesting you’re as much of a procrastinating warzone of neuroses as I am. (Although if you’re a writer, you probably are).
Anyway, let’s begin. The sooner I get this over, the sooner I can claw back some professional credibility.”
“When you are stressing because you’re not making rent, or you’re panicking because there’s a bill in a few weeks and you still don’t have the cash…you would be dumb to do anything other than seek the money to cover these things. Furthermore, your brain knows it. Try to do long-term legacy work without covering your basic running expenses first? If you’re like me, you’ll be a jittery self-doubting mess. Your work will suffer – and you’ll be twice the basket-case when it’s the end of the month and you need to pull money out of thin air.
This is not the kind of uncertainty that cattle-prods your creativity into a useful frenzy. This is the kind that kills it.
Some risks are not worth taking.”
“Treasured, beautiful ideas turn to shit all the time. Ideas fall on fallow ground every day. It’s what ideas do. They’re expendable, they’re cheap, and – thanks to the way brains works – they’re a sustainable resource.
They’re also just something people make.
Here’s my biggest fear:
There’s a food plague that kills off everything except broad beans and polenta.
That’s not really relevant to this article, so let’s look at my second biggest fear:
Writing something I am certain is the best I’ll ever be capable of, absolutely rock-solid convinced, right down to my sweating, trembling DNA . . . and having it rejected.“
” “Needed: freelance writers to write short, timely pieces on tight deadline: payment $10 for 20 articles.”
This is one of the biggest traps for new writers. While I’d never be so pompous as to forbid anyone taking on any kind of paid work…really, you’re worth better than this by even breathing.
It’s my firm opinion that seemingly unpaid writing on your own blog – with your own name against it – has far greater value than anonymous nickel-and-dime work like this. Added to which, this is the way to burn out really fast. It’s unsustainable. You’ll be a cinder in 3 months.”
“Last year I was testing the waters with travel-writing as a job. It turned out that the water was really cold. Writing as a career is generally as precarious as a career in archaeology, and having switched from the latter to the former, I don’t feel terribly reassured of my own sanity. But travel-writing is far shakier a prospect as a source of income. Better writers than I have decided against it, and the intrepid few that do it are very honest about its shortcomings as a profession. Sometimes it feels like an ideal that has nothing to do with reality, the same way archaeology isn’t about plucking idols off altars, fleeing boulders and punching Nazis. (Usually.)
But it’s become clear to me that there is a way to do it. And like being an archaeologist, it involves wearing lots of hats.”
“Top Ten Types of Cheese. 15 Most Beautiful Houses With Verandas. OMG 85 Best New Susan Boyles You’ll Ever See! 158 Places You Have To Go To Before They’re Destroyed By Sarah Palin. 26 Top Things To Do When You’re on Holiday Or At Home. 183 Best Things Involving Other Things – Ever! On and on, eroding the sanity of our newly collective consciousness in tiny but distinct increments. If we’re doomed, it’s this way. (Top Ten Ways We’re Totally Doomed! Please RT.)
I hate these. (I’m not alone). But the way to respond to such a list is simple and logical: you say “OK – prove it.”
“Wanting to procrastinate isn’t a sign that you’re a lazy wretch: it’s a sign that your brain is awake and ready to get to work. It’s itching for something to do, and if you don’t suggest something quick, it’ll go its own merry way. To repeat: procrastination isn’t laziness – it’s misguided energy.
No – it’s not you, it’s everyone else. So what you really need to do is to remove all distractions that might mislead your eager intelligence.
You need to destroy the world.”
“Welcome, adventurer! You’re about to embark on the most difficult challenge known to any creative artist – ACTUALLY STARTING WORK.
Millions have tried, and millions have failed!
Will you be one of them?
“A few years ago, I got really annoyed with storytellers. They seemed to be junking up my Twitter feed almost as much as those “social media gurus” with no followers and a stream of updates so lacking in warmth they made Terminators look like care workers. I wanted to rant about them, but lacked the data for a good argument — so I went digging.
Less than a year later, I was talking about storytelling at a travel blogging conference, after which I wrote this. And then I was talking about it at another conference, and another and yet another. Storytelling is now my thing. I am now that which I railed against – and the reason for this is simple.
Like many people, I totally misunderstood what storytelling is.”
“We are all curiously drawn to darkness. And if you want your story to hook like nothing else, take it to places that will unnerve, even scare, the reader – not for cheap thrills, but to get under their skin. If you’re writing to entertain and inspire, don’t assume that painting everything in a rosy light will have the intended effect. If you’re wanting your readers to invest in your story, dig into your vulnerabilities and hunt for things they’ll empathize with – after all, in the words of Emma Coats of Pixar, “you admire a character for trying more than for their successes”. If you’re writing about providing a vital service, tell the customer what could go wrong if you weren’t around to help…
Embrace the dark side. It’ll make your stories better.”
“Andrew [Evans] travels the world and records what he sees. He’s a terrific storyteller – but his method of telling travel stories isn’t the traditional one, where battered notebooks filled with scrawled notes are processed into nice, neat Kurt Vonnegut style story curves. He doesn’t give himself that rewriting, rescripting time. Instead, he trusts that the real-world experiences he finds will be great stories without the need to massage the facts in any way, or impose an artificial structure on them. He takes what happens and conveys it to his audience as best he can, asquickly as he can, using all his communicative expertise. The result? A travel blog like no other – and a travel blog that is packed full of good stories.
Thus endeth the lesson for the rest of us.”
Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.
Waiting – Ha Jin
“Problem: how can a man divorce his wife more than once? It’s possible (maybe even common in, say, certain corners of Vegas) but it requires a lot of remarrying. More likely is that Lin Kong fails to divorce his wife every year – but why? How on earth can you continually fail to divorce someone, and why only every summer?”
“Ever read a story that gripped you from the first line? It probably did it with a moment of profound dramatic tension – or a mystery. It also probably gave you half of an ending, so you were left on the edge of your seat, ravenous for answers. Good fiction immediately give the reader compelling reasons to keep reading. With non-fiction, that starts at the headline – most notoriously the variety made popular by Upworthy. The first line is key. Could you resist a story that starts “it was the day my grandmother exploded“?”
“I’m on this holiday because I want to be the hero of my own life again. Things haven’t been right for a while. I left school with a vague yearning towards being a writer but no clue about how to make it happen. I quickly decided I needed some other career first, because, young people didn’t write, did they? They went off on wild adventures, did reckless stuff that would turn their parents white, and got into the kind of trouble they’d always be absurdly proud of. Me? I was working in a pottery for the minimum wage, gluing handles onto cups. I couldn’t imagine Odysseus doing this, or Bruce Wayne, or Gandalf.
Something was desperately wrong, and I needed to fix it.”
Want more? Sign up to my free e-mail course by clicking below:
“Orkney is an archipelago of 70 islands to the north of Scotland, it covers roughly 200 square miles and its administrative capital is Kirkwall, which is nothing to do with the one in Dragon Age 2. It is windy.
This isn’t your kind of travel writing, the kind I love. It’s too….factual, you know? Blahdy-blah, yadda-de-yadda, plod plod and then we’re done. So come on. How did it make you feel? How big was the sky? Was it so deliciously quiet that after a while you started to hear all your demons and all the pressing worries in your life, and you went a little nuts? (Hey, me too).”
“The only time you should use a cliché is when it’s correct. If you’re down the Kimberley Mine, you’re allowed to use the phrase “hidden gems”. Please only use “local colour” when referring to community-sponsored murals. And a Smörgåsbord is a Swedish buffet. Does the thing you’re describing look anything like a Swedish buffet (for example, is it a Norwegian buffet)? If it doesn’t – put a lid on it.”
“Do you like the name of my blog?
Around The World in 80 Days With Michael. I see. Did you run that title past Google?
I guess that answers my question. Well, as titles go, it’s a bit long. And somewhat restrictive if you want to blog for more than 3 months. And there’s the small matter of an extremely famous person having all the rights to the name already.”
“Good travel storytelling is about two things: identifying good yarns, and telling them.
For the latter topic, we can turn to any number of mentors, writing schools and How To guidebooks. But what about finding things to write about? How can you spot a good story in the wild? This is a much slipperier topic. It requires instinct, experience, skill, gut feelings, all the things that fall under the label “individual creativity” – too subjective to be generally useful?
But maybe there’s another way to get at this skill. Things we can all do to attract inspiration, to better make ourselves available to it. Maybe there are ways to find good travel stories that are near-universally applicable, whoever and wherever you are in the world…”
“I read because I’d be a bloody awful writer if I didn’t.”
Images: Waleed Alzuhair, Daniel Lee, Jason Howie, 401(K) 2012, Lance Shields, Jonathan Kos-Read, fakelvis, fdecomite, Jimbohayz, thecrazyfilmgirl, How I See Life, Generation Bass, e-magic, Stewart Butterfield, Katie Tegtmeyer, _Zeta_, Venture Vancouver, Alexandre, Dulaunoy, sergis blog, jurvetson, JD Hancock, Bowy Gavid Bowie Chan, Janet Ramsden, koalazymonkey, markcbrennan