The Scurrilous Sin of Soft Hitting

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My beloved and departed sensei Lee Sprague used to say “If you hit a man, kill him.”

If sounds macho, brutal, and unnecessary, but what he always said next demonstrates why he’s right.

“If you have to go hands-on with somebody, fight the best fight you can or he has a better chance of killing you.”

That follows, and it’s tactically sound, but still seems to fall squarely in the macho warrior thug box. But his second insight is what makes this some of the best advice in the world:

“And if you don’t feel comfortable killing the man, you shouldn’t hit him in the first place.

There’s huge wisdom in that, as applied to all endeavors. So much that Our Most Badass President ever said similar words:

The unforgivable sin is soft hitting. Do not hit at all if it can be avoided; but never hit softly.

Apply this to your writing…

If you’re going to bother writing at all, it’s a sin to write soft. Don’t write what comforts you. Don’t write what the market suggests will give you a soft life. Write what scares you, what hurts you. Write the yucky stuff that will help you grow as you pour it out onto the page with a feeling exactly like what you get when you pour alcohol on some road rash.

And don’t write just stuff from that space, but write it hard. If you have to drop an f-bomb to make it real, drop an f-bomb to make it real. If one of your characters is an ignorant hillbilly from Kentucky, don’t you dare not write the word “nigger” for fear of offending some middle-class white book reviewer. If the story calls for ugly, write the ugly and put it boldly on the page. If it calls for beautiful, write a rainbow that leaves people weeping. If it calls for staring at the abyss, stare hard until it blinks and asks you about the weather.

Write hard. Leave your reader feeling like this:

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Apply this to your life…

Same goes for your hopes and dreams. If you want to do something, do it. Don’t halfway do it. Don’t go through the motions while giving most of your attention to safe, familiar other things. Don’t wish and whine and hold back until your time and life and opportunities are all spent. Hit it hard and try to kill everything in your way just as ferociously as you would kill a human attacker that stood between you and seeing your family again.

A close friend of mine recently experienced the importance of this. Last summer, he needed to make a Big Life Change which involved having a very hard conversation with somebody he cared a lot about. He did it exactly wrong, having instead a series of soft conversations that left room for equivocation and negotiating.

Six hard months with lots of tears later, he had to have the very hard conversation anyway. The stuff that happened during those six months irrevocably (probably) destroyed that relationship. They are no longer friends, because he hit soft when hitting was necessary.

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Most of us have been there or seen it from reasonably close up. That hit should be hard, and clean, and decisive. End the fight so everybody can move on with the least amount of damage possible.

The exact same thing applies to the big things you want out of your life. You can say to yourself “I want this thing” and approach it in tiny steps that never amount to anything. Years of frustration later, you will either decide it wasn’t really for you, or decide to finally hit it hard.

Or you can decide to hit it hard from the beginning. Decide nothing in the world will get between you and this accomplishment, then map it out and work the plan you make. Ruthlessly eradicate everything in between you and that goal (including and especially your bad habits, which will amount to 80% of what’s in your way). Fucking commit to it and make it happen.

And if you’re not ready to make that kind of effort and commitment? Just like killing a man, maybe that means you shouldn’t get started on that road in the first place.

Hell Yes or Fuck No

Derek Sivers is a smart guy who recorded a video with the best message about commitments I’ve ever read: Hell Yes or No. You can watch the video, but I’ll explain it in three points.

  • You are overcommitted
  • When asked to commit to something else, check to see if you feel a physical “Hell Yes!” response in your body.
  • If you don’t, the answer is “No.”

I added the “Fuck” because to me just saying “No” to myself is hitting too softly. Whether or not you need the f-bomb in there, the point is easy to understand. Only commit to responsibilities and social engagements you’re actually excited about. The stuff you can go in whole hog on. The stuff you look forward to.

If you say yes to things you’re luke warm about, you hurt yourself by stealing time from what you value. And you hurt the person who asked you by doing something half-assed…or worse, by beginning to resent and ultimately dislike that person because of an unnecessary series of soft hits against you.

To Review

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If you’re going to write something. Write it hard.

If you want to be or do something in your life, attack that goal it with total commitment.

If you’re going to do something or help somebody, do what you can engage with passionately.

Don’t leave life just swaying against the ropes. As they say in a famous video game…finish him!

Austerities and Celebrations

Once upon a time I had an idea. 

When I say “I had an idea,” what I mean is a lot of people had ideas that got into my head and moshed around like the front quarter of the floor crowd at an Anthrax concert. After they’d bumped into each other long enough, those ideas formed a thing that was a little bit original, a lotta bit derivative, but inspiring to me.

maxresdefault (2)I called the idea “austerities and celebrations.”  It owes a lot to Dan Millman, Thich Nhat Hanh, Tom Callos and Ray Bradbury, plus NaNoWriMo and Movember. This will be my fourth year I’ve been doing them. By coincidence, the VOLT planner (called the SPARK planner last year) has a similar idea baked right into its structure and presentation. I want to challenge each of you to try these in the coming year. It works like this

Austerities

Choose a month. This month. Next month. Stop doing something for the whole month. What you stop doing really depends on your goals. You can do it to quit a habit you’ve meant to. Or to experiment with quitting a habit you’re not sure is good or bad for your life. Or to simplify your social calendar. Or anything else. A few of the things I’ve cut out during austerity months includes:

  • Drinking soda
  • Swearing
  • Answering phone calls in real time
  • Using, um, “adult” websites for recreation
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Screen time without somebody else participating with me
  • Arguing on Facebook
  • Eating fast food
  • Spending money on new durable objects

My first austerity in 2017 will be to say “no” to commitments I’m not truly excited about. I get offers literally every day, and I’ve found my family connections and work have been suffering from having too many hands on my time. I’ll be practicing “Hell yeah or no thanks.”

Some of these things I never picked back up. Others I took on because I liked my life better with them in. Others I recommenced just because the habit was stronger than the practice. The point isn’t really successfully eliminating something from your life forever. It’s getting enough distance from that thing to make an intentional, mindful decision about whether or not to welcome it back inside.

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Celebrations

This is the opposite of the austerities. Take a month and every day, do something. This can be a habit you wish you had, or something you really like but don’t usually make happen. It could be daily progress toward a goal that’s really important, or that you just keep putting off. Aim for things that make your life better, or you think might make your life better. Here are a few of the celebrations I’ve commenced over the past years:

  • Repair one small item in my house
  • Play chess with my oldest son every night
  • Write 500 words on a book project
  • Meditate for 10 minutes in the morning
  • Do the physical therapy exercises for a borked up knee
  • Run a kata from kenpo or goju shori
  • Wake up without hitting the snooze button
  • Make an unsolicited FB contact with a distant friend
  • Read a blog article about a topic I wish I knew more about

This month, my celebration is to make one step daily to get my finances in order. I’m not broke by a long stretch, but a combination of things has made my money a tangled rat’s nest. By taking one positive step forward each day, I’ll end the month with things clean and automated and simple like I like them.

As with the austerities, some celebrations became parts of my daily life. Others turned out to be less fun than I thought they would be, and are back to being just a thing I do once in a while. Others still let me cross something off my lifetime to-do list, never to enter my mind again. The point is building discipline with daily reminders to do stuff while improving the quality of my life for a month at a time.

Serenity

We Are the Sum of Our Habits

Tony Robbins says we are the average of our five closest friends. I don’t know if that’s true — the influence of parents, siblings, mentors and personal heroes has a tidal effect even if our peers are the water we swim in. But I do believe that we are the sum of our daily habits.

3f675e5e9a54b2c8846e9dbb84fc7fd7Austerities and Celebrations are a way of looking hard at habits and deciding what to do about them. As Bruce Lee famously said of Jeet Kun Do, keep what serves you and ruthlessly eradicate everything that doesn’t.

Austerities and Celebrations are a way I’ve found to really up my game in carving myself into the person I want to become. I alternate between them: celebration in January, austerity in February, celebration in March, etc.

Maybe they’ll work for you. Maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll inspire you to do something similar to (or wildly different from) what I do and make your life a whole bunch better. But if you’re looking for something to try, why not give them a shot?

Comment here or hit me up on the Facebooks and let me know how it goes.

Budgeting, Scheduling and Not Getting Killed

I recently had a conversation with a smart friend about security, safety and thinking the best in others.

Her point was it’s better to assume the best of people and spend your life happy, with occasional big pains when they do you dirt, than to experience constant little pains by assuming people are going to do you dirt all the time. She’s a smart person, and one of the happiest I know, and her basic framework is right.

Except for a thing security people know. If you’re alert for people doing you dirt all the time, it doesn’t make you unhappy. It’s neutral input that doesn’t make your life worse. What’s better, by being alert for signs and taking proper action — you avoid those occasional big pains by taking steps so they don’t happen. By paying more attention, you worry less.

The point is: by being alert for danger you live a happier, less painful life because you know you’re safe.

Budgeting is the same way, whether you’re budgeting your money or your time.

With money it’s simple. People who don’t like to live on a budget think that it restricts their freedom. The argument is they’d rather spend freely and enjoy the money they have.

Except they don’t really spend freely. They have to check their bank balance from time to time, and need to decide if they really need that new jacket, or that night out. Then there’s the guilt and buyer’s remorse.

By contrast, if you budget your money you actually get to spend freely. You earmark a hundred bucks for fun and frivolity, and you can spend it all every month without a second of worry or guilt or remorse. You know what’s going on, so you worry less about money. Taking on a little extra responsibility for yourself frees you from lots of extra stress.

The same goes for time. If you don’t plan and schedule your day, it’s hard to know when you’re done working. It’s hard to really relax in your off hours because you’re never quite sure that you’ve done all the things you promised yourself you would do. There’s a slight, constant nagging in the back of your mind even when you’re trying to relax.

If you do budget your time (which is really what scheduling is), you know when it’s time to work. More importantly, you know when it’s time to stop working. So you can really enjoy that time with your kids, your jujitsu class, or just sitting in the hammock reading a book. You can focus mindfully on your free time, confident you haven’t forgotten anything.

Not getting killed means paying attention to your environment. It’s a matter of being in “condition yellow” unless you know you’re perfectly safe…and it actually makes life feel safer and be more fun. Since stress-related diseases are three of the four biggest killers in the developed world, paying attention to your time and money isn’t just superficially like not getting killed. It is not getting killed.

And it makes life more fun while you’re living it.

Planning and Accountability

2017 Is Coming…

What are you going to do over the next twelve months to make your life exponentially more satisfying, enjoyable and inspiring than it is right now?

Ask 100 different people and you’ll get 100 different answers — 200 if you ask again in six months. But here’s one thing science tells us over and over again: organized people’s answers turn out to be right more often than people who don’t plan how they work toward their goals. 

So here’s what we’re going to do about that:

Next year I’m putting together a planning and accountability gang. We’ll set goals this December. We’ll break down those goals. We’ll meet regularly, using planners, to keep each other on the straight and narrow. We’ll celebrate our victories, bemoan our defeats, and cheerfully mock each other when we’re standing idiotically in the way of our own progress.

If you’re interested, email me today. 

But Wait! There’s More!

Readers of my blog might recall I had a planner-off last year, where I used two and picked my favorite. We’ll be using the VOLT planner as the core of the project, because it’s the awesomest bar none. Check out this video about it, but read what’s below it because that’s important, too.

This is really cool!

The good folks at Volt got a fan letter from me, and are sending me two free planners because I said such nice stuff about them on my blog.

I will be posting this all on my blog shortly, as well, so get cracking. If you have questions, email me with the links above. I won’t hold you to anything, but I won’t ship you a planner if you’re not going to use it.

Ready…set….GO!!

8 Ways Not to Fuck Up Your Query Letter

angry-computer-guySo I’m hanging out this morning with several professionals in the publishing and writing industries, after almost two weeks of doing the same. We’re all raging against the obvious mistakes people make before sending a query letter to an agent or editor.

For publishers, agents and editors it’s just a part of the job. They’re inundated with unprofessional queries by people who obviously didn’t bother to Google either how to query or even the most basic facts about their publication. The good news here is the letters do mean they can ignore the query quickly and spend less time in the slush pile on that particular day.

Professional writers, we rail against how that misrepresents us. For every terrible, terrible query letter an agent receives, that agent becomes a little more hardened against queries from good writers who do the proper research. The good news is it does mean we stand out against the crowd if the editor gives us a chance to prove ourselves.

Over the course of many conversations in various states of inebriation and sobriety, I found common threads for the nine best ways to avoid fucking up the query letter:

1. Don’t miss basic facts. 

Don’t query a science fiction magazine with a detective story. Don’t email a nonfiction agent with your epic fantasy novel. Don’t get the name wrong in your greeting, or misspell the name of the magazine. Don’t lie and say you’ve loved somebody’s work for 20 years when he started editing last month. Get your facts straight. If you’re not sure of your facts, make a phone call. If you can’t find the information, find a way to avoid bringing it up.

2. Keep it simple, stupid.

Average time an agent or editor gives an unsolicited query is under a minute. One agent I talked to burns through 100-120 book queries an hour when buckling down and getting to work. A long, complex description of your work and process and emotional state ain’t gonna fly here. Terse sentences in short paragraphs in a letter nobody has to scroll down on to get all the important details.

3. Remember who’s doing who a favor here. 

Yes, you and your agent or editor are in a symbiotic relationship. Yes, you are peers and equals in most senses. But you’re the one sending somebody else unsolicited sales material. Be polite. Several of the folks I talked with ranted at some length about how frequently the initial queries (and especially follow up communication) read like a missive from a spoiled preteen who wrote Santa a flamer over not getting everything on his Christmas list. Seriously. Be nice. WTF?

4. Spellcheck.

If you think you’re going to impress an agent or editor with your writing skills if you can’t proofread your email, you are wrong. There’s not much more to say about this.

5. Grammar check.

If you think you’re going to impress an agent or editor with your writing skills if you can’t proofread your email, you are wrong. There’s not much more to say about this, either.

6. Follow the damn rules.

Almost every publication or agency has a page on their website telling you exactly how they want to be queries. Almost every publication or agency has a method that’s slightly different from all the other publications and agencies. That’s just life. When you query, read and follow those instructions to the letter. Some places use it as a test to see who’s going to be reasonably easy to work with. Others might let it slide if you miss a trick or two, but why be rude about it? It’s their house. Follow their rules.

7. Understand the process.

Failing to understand the basic process of publication mystifies me. If you want to go flip burgers at McDonald’s, you’ll know the basics of what hamburgers are and how they’re made before walking in. If you want to be a neurosurgeon, you won’t apply for work until you’ve mastered the skill. I was shown some query letters from people who obviously didn’t understand what agents or editors actually do, or how long things take, or what reasonable payment for a book or article even looks like. On one hand, I feel a little bad for folks who make this mistake. Everybody has one or two things where they’re so clueless they don’t realize how clueless they are. But if you want to get published, don’t make this one of those things.

8. Now is not the time to show off.

Even if your work is an avant garde piece of noneuclidean sentence structure held together with multiple, colorful fonts in a truly cohesive whole, never apply that to your query. Do not play with fun tense structures or flowery language. Save that for your book or article. Agents, publishers and editors are exhausted, overworked and undercoffeed. Make your query easy to understand. Always.

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Do you have any embarrassing stories about how you fucked up a query letter? Or a fucked up query letter you received? Share your tales in the comments and tell us all where the bad words touched you.