What’s Your Test of Humanity?

Alert readers have probably figured out by now that I’m a huge nerd.

As a huge nerd, like all nerds, I read Dune. I loved Dune. Early in Dune, protagonist Paul Atraedes takes the Gom Jabbar Test of Humanity. It works like this.

Step One: Make a high tech box that, if one puts a hand in the box, stimulates the nerves so that the hand feels just like it’s being burnt to the bone…though no damage is actually done.

Step Two: Take a subject (in this case Paul Atraedes). Explain exactly what the box does. Make certain the subject knows that no matter what the hand feels like, no harm is being done.

Step Three: Tell the subject to put a hand in the box.

Step Four: Kill the subject (in this case using a needle full of cyanide called the Gob Jabbar) if the hand comes out of the box before a certain time has passed.

The Bene Gesserit (notable authors of the Litany Against Fear and sundry galaxy-spanning conspiracies) use the Test of Humanity to tell if somebody can place their awareness and rational thought above their natural instincts. Can you let pain happen to your hand because you know it’s not being hurt? If so, the Bene Gesserit consider you human. If not, well…it’s cyanide and tsk tsk.

This got me to thinking…

What was your Gom Jabbar Test of Humanity?

Part of being a grown-ass, adult human is being able to take your lizard brain and tell it to sit the hell down and shut the hell up. It happens when a customer at work is less than polite, when your romantic partner is less than kind, when your kids are less than responsible. It’s part of grown-up life, so much so that most of us just do it automatically as part of our daily responsibilities.

But lots of us can think back and remember the first time (or one of the first times) we successfully did it when it was really, really hard.

That one time, often in our early 20s, when we wanted to rage or cry or snark or fight…but knew we shouldn’t. Then we made the conscious decision to keep our hands in the box of pain and, as the Bene Gesserit witches might say, choose to be a human being. 

Chances are you weren’t having your hand burnt to a crisp, and you probably didn’t have a poison needle against your neck (either that, or your life is way, way more interesting than mine). Chances are you were dealing with something other people might have found boring. But you didn’t find it boring. You found it stressful, emotionally fraught, painful, maybe humiliating.

But you held it together.

You chose to be a human being.

So I ask you:

  1. What was your Test of Humanity?
  2. Afterward, how did passing help you deal with the next challenge in your life? And the next?

We’re all of us way more powerful than we suspect. My Test of Humanity (and some harder tests later in my life) help me to remember that when the next bad stretch hits. Have you thought about yours?

9 Habits of Profitable Freelancing: Writing Lots

Professional Writing ServicesIn my book The 9 Habits of Highly Profitable Writing, one of the habits I list is “Write Lots.

When I first thought about writing professionally, I had the problem of underestimating the scale of available work. Now that I’m in my 6th year of writing full time, I have a better grasp on just how much work — and how many different kinds of work — is available for writers willing to chase it.

And you have to be willing to chase it. It’s not like it will be coming to you.

(Well, after a while it will start coming your way…but only after several years of doing the hunting yourself)

In the past six months, I’ve gotten paid to do the following kinds of writing:

  • Ghostwriting on religion
  • Web content
  • Print magazine articles
  • Travel & food writing
  • Advertising copy
  • Martial arts instructions
  • Social media profiles
  • E-books on writing
  • Ghostwriting on international business
  • Presentation scripts
  • Game rules
  • White papers
  • Young adult fiction

In the same time, people I know in the industry have been paid to do the following other kinds of writing:

  • Catalog text
  • Calendar color commentary
  • Travel guides
  • Movie and TV scripts
  • Research summaries
  • Grant proposals
  • Business plans
  • Nonfiction books
  • Fiction books
  • Short stories
  • Brochure copy
  • Flyers for businesses
  • Corporate employee manuals
  • Social media engagement

The bottom line is this. It doesn’t matter what you want to write. You can find somebody willing to pay you to write it.

Go find that somebody.

Get paid.

Two New (to me) Tools for Writing Professionals

Picard Facepalm D’oh!

When I say “New Tools” in this context, what I really mean is “Tools That Have Totally Existed For a Very Long Time That I’m Finally Putting to Use and Making My Life Easier With.”

Yes, I’m a professional writer and business writing coach. Yes, I make part of my living teaching writers and other kinds of solopreneurs how to be effective and organized.


No, I didn’t adopt either of these no-brainers until May 2nd of this year. And they’re already making my life much, much easier. If you’re not using them, try both for a week. You’ll be glad you did.

My Professional Writing Dillemma

My email inbox is often a freaking mess. I answer about half of my emails one the same day I get them, then archive that bad boy since the response will bring the conversation back into the queue. That works fine, but there’s another species of email that’s a thorn right in the side of my back.

You get them, too. Emails you’re not responding to right away, but need to keep in the front of your mind. For me, these fall into two broad categories:

1. Emails containing a meeting date and time I don’t want to forget.

2. Emails I can’t respond to until a certain date, or until something specific happens.

Each of the two tools I put into place this year fixes one of those two emails. Without them, both cluttered up the bottom of my inbox and stressed me out. Worse, there were usually enough of them down there that the emails didn’t grab my attention…and grabbing my attention was the main reason I kept them in my inbox in the first place.

Seriously. It was a problem. Middle-class, first-world problem.

But still a problem.

Solution #1: Siri

writing business coach

If you don’t know what this has to do with Siri, you don’t love science fiction.

Did you know you can pick up your iPhone 4s or newer and say “Siri, remind me to XXX on YYY” and she’ll set an alarm that shoots you a message on YYY telling you to do XXX?

Yes, you did.

So instead of leaving that email to fester in my inbox until I get new information during a meeting on the 10th, I archive that son of a bitch and say sweetly to Siri “Siri, remind me to email that dude on the 11th.”

And she does.

I’ve heard Skyvi does the same sort of thing for Android phones, and the awesomely-named Cortana might do it for Windows phones. I have no experience with them, but the functionality is easy and awesome.

Solution #2: Google Calendar

business writing coachI didn’t promise either of these tools was innovative or new. I’m just saying I love that I’ve started using them.

It’s possible I’m the last person in the world to start immediately putting any appointment I make via email into my Google calendar so I can find it on my phone or computer any damn time I need to.

I don’t care. It’s freaking’ great. Especially with the new “Pencil it In” feature that sometimes automates it for me. Open a new tab. Write in the details. Send invites to everybody involved to make me look on top of things. Tell Google to send me an alert 48 and 24 hours ahead of time to remind me.

Bam! Instant flakiness remover. Like dandruff shampoo for my worklife.


How about y’all? What tools that have been floating around in your workspace for years have you only recently put into place and immediately kicked yourself square in the giblets for not using far earlier? I’d love to hear about them.

About Productivity — A Workflow Plan

Yesterday, due to a nexus of opportunity to work and volume of committed projects, I put just over 17,000 words down — not counting emails and Facebook conversations. That’s an unusually busy day for me, but 10,000 words of one sort or another isn’t that unusual anymore.

A lot of my writer friends ask how I do that, especially since I’m also taking care of my house and kids. Here’s the answer.

I divide my workday into “cycles” which consist of a writing goal, a housework goal, a business goal, time with the toddler and exercise. Each takes between 40 minutes and an hour. Any given day, I’ll do between 4 and 6 cycles.

For example, the cycle I’m in right now includes the following:
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Why Orange is the New Black Sucks

download (4)I don’t have to tell any of you what Orange is the New Black is. (If I do, go do some research. I’ll wait.)

The first season was interesting. I watched the fuck out of it in two binge sessions, in part over respect for the book, in part for Captain Janeway, in part for the objective quality of the story and production.

But then it started to suck. And why it sucks is an important thing for writers to learn from.

Thing is, as the second and third (and fourth) seasons developed, they gave us insights into the backgrounds and lives of the (at least from the perspective of the first season) secondary characters. This wasn’t a bad idea exactly, but the execution was a problem.

I’ve seen this problem before. I might have mentioned once or twice how I’m an avid player of role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons and GURPS. For those who don’t know, those games often simulate combat. Some folks say they want those rules to be as realistic as possible. I disagree, because “roll to see if you pee yourself” isn’t fun for anybody. The rules should instead create an entertaining illusion.

Too much realism makes entertainment not entertaining.

In the case of Orange is the New Black, they overcorrected toward realism with the stories of those secondary characters. Occasionally interesting and relatable people end up in prison. Most of the time, though, inmates tend to be kind of stupid, kind of mean, and really boring.

Which describes all of the characters we’ve been exploring in the subsequent seasons of Orange. They made the characters too damn realistic. They made them like (unusually attractive) inmates. Stupid. Mean. Boring.

Not folks I’m going to relate to. Not folks I’m likely to root for.

Rory Miller, a man I deeply respect and actively like, wrote Violence: A Writer’s GuideIt’s a solid work on some of the realities of violence, and important for people who think they know violence to understand. It dives deep into the yucky of that world, and does provide excellent insight into the psychology of violence and of violence professionals. A writer who wants to write the motivations of criminals and cops well should read this book.

On the other hand, his advice on how to write violent scenes makes the same mistake. Realistically written violence isn’t entertaining. Writing violence well consists of myriad small skills, very few of which are related to writing a realistic scene.

Which brings me back to Orange.

The stories they tell touch on some important social issues, in a highly visible way that might actually change some minds or at least raise awareness. And if that’s their plan, then the realistic portrayals of these unfortunates might be exactly what’s called for.

But as writers, our job is to entertain. Even if we’re making a point. Entertaining stories grab more readers. Convert more thoughts. Engage more people. Don’t make the mistake of making realism more important than entertainment.