Look in the Mirror: 10 Principles for Authors

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Look in the mirror. What do you see? Right now?

There’s a fit person inside every out-of-shape person. I’ll do one better; there’s an athlete inside every couch potato. When I’m at the gym, I can push harder and farther if I lift weights in front of a mirror, because I’m actually looking at Strong Me, not Weak Me. As far as I’m concerned, Weak Me is on the couch with Netflix and a tub of ice cream, somewhere in an alternate universe. Strong Me is the Me in the mirror who doesn’t want to watch herself give up on the fifth rep, so she grunts her way through eleven and is annoyed that she didn’t get to twelve. Giving up is no longer an ugly truth that I can conveniently turn away from, since I’m actually looking straight at it. But at least I’m looking at muscle failure at eleven, not five, and I’m not looking at Weak Me on the couch.

I’ve chosen Strong Me.

Tomorrow, when I’m sitting on the couch and thinking about ice cream and Netflix, Strong Me will shudder with disgust and firmly direct me off the couch and out the door to the gym. Because I’ll look into the mirror of my mind and decide that I prefer the view of the sweating, straining Strong Me over the relaxed, cheerful Weak Me on the couch, even though Weak Me is having quite a nice time, thank you very much.

After all, I get to be the star of my own story, with a script that I write myself. Why shouldn’t I? After all, it’s my life. And sure, things get thrown my way that I can’t expect. I have kids, a husband, friends with crises, knees that hurt. But Shawn Coyne tells us in the Story Grid podcast that we need to go back and forth, macro, micro, macro, micro…and that scene of me on the couch with Netflix and ice cream is the micro in a macro story that I don’t like. I don’t like that story and I don’t want to live that story. The couch and ice cream would work as an all-is-lost moment in an uplifting performance genre story with a bittersweet ending of loss and learning, but…yuck, that’s not the story I want to tell.

That’s not the story I want to live.

I’d rather live a different one, and that’s my choice. You, too, can choose, from among thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of different narratives. Your particular micro scene will fit nicely into many of them. Which one do you want?

There is an Author Me inside of each of us, with the opportunity to be the screenwriter to our life’s movie. But there is also a Silent Me who chooses to never go public with his story.

You have to make a fundamental decision. Will you live as Author Me? Or Silent Me?

Who succeeds? Who fails? You can’t actually predict this ahead of time, because surprisingly, the wobbly kid with the glasses might have the attitude and the DNA that the ten year old T-ball star lacks. But since we don’t know the winner before the game starts, this makes it a fair game for you, me, and anyone who wants to live the lifestyle and attain the dream. It could happen! But it doesn’t tend to happen to people who are in denial and refusing to live the life of a warrior in training.

Fundamentally, that’s what we are, warriors in training against Resistance, whether your Resistance offers you ice cream every fifteen minutes, whispers alluring tales of the basketball player who skips practice but gets recruited to the NBA, or tells you that there are millionaires who write ten books a year and live the high life in between book signing gigs.

Look in the mirror. Do you look like a warrior in training, an athlete in training, an author in training?

There’s a lifestyle choice involved in any storyline choice. If you say your goal is to write and publish books, your lifestyle had better reflect it. Here are ten principles that seem to turn up again and again when writers are struggling to act out the obligatory scenes and conventions of the author’s life.

It’s a long game.

Think about it. We’re still reading The Great Gatsby. We’re still reading The Lord of the Rings. We’re still reading Little Women. It’s a long game, this author game. The consequences are eternal. Or not.

This is why you get blocked, this is why you get stuck. Because it matters. Things that don’t matter, aren’t hard to accomplish. Understand that the author game is inherently a long game. When you are playing for stakes that may not come into focus for years, stakes that are high enough to mean something to people you haven’t even met, long after you have left the planet for greener pastures, it only makes sense that what you are doing comes at a cost to your peace of mind.

An “inciting incident,” remember, is something that turns the protagonist’s world upside down and prods her into action. This nagging thought that you could inhabit Author Me, is an inciting incident.

Start at the beginning.

When Seth Godin tells us to “ship it,” he doesn’t mean that we should put out an inferior product and feel good about it. Shipping means that as we ship, we get better and we learn. You have to start somewhere.

But we need to start at the beginning. Dreaming about the end isn’t a good way to look at the beginning. Look at the beginning for what it is, the beginning. You need to have a beginning. ALL stories have a beginning.

It’s helpful, of course, to know how you want the tale to end. But planning your book launch isn’t a good way to start your book.

Act your way into the truth.

Strong Me doesn’t need to qualify for the Boston Marathon in order to train for it. Strong Me just needs to pretend that she qualifies.

In other words, look in the mirror and appreciate that the person you see is Author Me, not Silent Me. Author Me is breaking a sweat and doesn’t want to write this scene, but stays in her seat and keeps at it. Silent Me is raiding the fridge, scrolling through Twitter, telling people at the water cooler that this author crap is so hard. Author Me is typing out a version of Goldilocks because it’s a desperate attempt at word count. Hey, they’re words, right?

Author Me writes. That’s truth. Watch yourself in the mirror. Are you writing?

Technique matters.

There’s a lie that coaches love to say to kids. Teachers say it. And parents say it, too.

“Just work hard. The sky’s the limit, as long as you work hard.”

This isn’t actually true. You do not need to become the writer version of a Navy Seal. “Efforting” isn’t actually going to help you write your book. I’m sure you already know that—if you’ve gone to the Story Grid website for help, chances are you know that you need help, and you know deep inside that work ethic and the sincere desire to succeed are not enough. Writing more and harder, isn’t going to solve the problem, because if it could, you would have done it already.

Often, when we begin to look for help, it’s because we are in a place of profound “cognitive dissonance,” as Shawn Coyne would say. Something doesn’t feel right. We are lost, out of sync, not in “flow.” We’re worried, anxious, fretful. And if someone were to say to you, “just work harder” to achieve your dreams, you’d probably want to belt him a good one.

When you watch Author Me in the mirror, make sure that you are working on your craft. Technique matters. That’s what you’re practicing, day in, day out. Lots of good scenes are more useful than lots of bad scenes. If you can’t help it, then of course write lots of bad scenes, because Author Me writes. But bear in mind that what you are practicing is the writing of lots of bad scenes.

Look at those bad scenes, straight in the eye. Challenge them. Don’t let them tell you that your story is that of the writer with bad technique. You’re the boss of the narrative. Act like it. Dominate it.

Stamina means showing up.

If someone told you that there was an athlete who never trained or practiced, would you believe it?

There are a lot of people who believe that story. Why? Because it protects you from the truth, which is that there are no athletes who skip practice and excel. Athletes train. It’s what they do. Remember, those are the “scenes” in their narrative. You need enough scenes that make sense in a sports story that ends up at the Super Bowl or the Olympics. How many scenes of passing up practice in order to play video games do you think that narrative will tolerate?

A few, certainly. We all have subplots to our lives. And we all have progressive complications. And we all have crises. Every once in awhile, go macro and ask yourself, does this make sense in my story? Does that person in the mirror look like Author Me? Where would I slot that in? Or does it need the delete key?

Talent matters up to a point.

Sure, some people are preternaturally talented. Some swimmers can avoid practice for a month and then hop into the pool and blaze through a sprint freestyle, beating everyone else by half a length.

We both love and hate to see this.

First of all, if we can say that talent dictates results, that lets us off the hook (yay!) because we’ll never be that good.

Second, if we can say that talent dictates results, we wonder why we’re bothering (boo!) because we’ll never be that good.

Yes, that kind of talent is a gift. But it also boxes the athlete into the gift. That sprinter will never find out if maybe he’s a lousy sprinter and a gifted distance swimmer. Maybe that fantabulous sprint was ultimately a terrible swim for his Athlete Self. We’ll never know, will we, because he chose to live the story of what he could do with no work and all talent.

If that’s your goal, to figure out how much you can do without really trying, that’s cool. Just realize that when all is said and done, when someone out there Story Grids your life, that’s what will remain.

(And by the way, “I don’t need to train for that marathon, I’ll just show up on race day,” said no marathon winner, ever. You might be able to pull off a 100-meter dash, but 30k is going to humiliate you if you didn’t train for it. And writing books is a marathon, not a sprint.)

You need coaches and colleagues.

Author Me cannot do it alone. No one learns by himself.

You can be self-taught up to a point, but eventually we all need coaches. Not courses, not schools, not MFAs. Coaches. And not teachers. Teachers impart information. Coaches help you to pull a particular skill out of yourself. Their job is to coax, cajole, demonstrate, scold, and occasionally to give up in disgust. Whatever it takes to get you there.

Author Me cannot see the narrative, because it’s too difficult to see your own macro, given how deeply buried we all are in our own micro. A coach sees the narrative. A coach sees that you have many narratives, and is helping you to focus on the one that you say matters.

We have different coaches in our lives. Spouses, friends, bosses are all coaches. They focus on the micro that makes sense in the larger narrative they want to have happen. Because remember, we all have thousands of possible narratives. Often, they will be self-interested, and try to get you to focus on the narrative that they want, not the narrative that you want.

That’s why you need to invest in yourself, your own narrative. It’s your story, the screenplay of your life, really the only thing on the planet that you get to control to this extent. If you can afford it, hire someone. If you can’t, read widely. Ask Tolstoy to be your coach, or Hemingway. Beware of other people’s agendas. Even your writing group colleagues have narratives that often involve their success relative to yours. Guess whose success they are rooting for, first and foremost? Hint: it’s not yours. And that’s okay. What kind of ridiculous narrative would it be if they rooted for you and stomped all over themselves?

Invest in yourself. All those athlete profiles that the network makes us watch during the Olympics, with tear-jerking music in the background. The theme is always the same: I didn’t get here by myself.


Love the suck.

This one is easy. Because no one really loves the suck.

What we love is the outcome of the suck. And since we are presumably not at the end of the entire story arc yet, we want the outcome of the micro perspective that we’re looking at in the mirror.

And the outcome is: when we’re done it doesn’t suck anymore.

Finish that lift. Finish that run. Finish that set of pull-ups.

Finish that sentence, that scene, that chapter.

Enjoy the fact that you finished the one small segment. Look at the mirror.

Done! You can stop now. Until tomorrow.

You don’t control the outcome.

Maybe you were an A student. Maybe you went to a college with a name we’d all recognize. Maybe your great aunt Viola won a Pulitzer.

And maybe not.

It doesn’t matter. It’s a long game. There are no guarantees, and when you start writing, you’re probably not going to be very good. Most people aren’t, regardless of their circumstances. Even people descended from the greats of literature start out bad. Everyone had to learn to read and write from zero. Everyone. People are not born spouting poetry and declaiming on the nature of the human race.

You only control the scene you’re working on. Right now. And you might be bad, you might be good, or you might be in between. You can only focus on what is in front of you right now.

Furthermore, tomorrow there might be an earthquake, a hurricane, a riot, a revolution, a death, a mental breakdown.

Or you might get married, win the lottery, move to Thailand, adopt a rescue dog.

In the middle of the marathon you might have an asthma attack, your first one ever. You might get food poisoning at the Olympics. You might sprain your ankle as you warm up for the Super Bowl.

Make peace with this now. There is no guarantee that you are going to get the thing that you want, whether you thought you were genetically advantaged or whether you were determined to do without sleep for the next twelve years. You can only control this moment.

If you can line up enough good moments, you have a shot. Isn’t that what is required, a shot?

Put the Story Grid to work.

And last but not least.

When I sat down to write this article, I thought about you, my audience.

What am I trying to tell you that you don’t necessarily see yourself?

How am I trying to change you?

What have I learned from watching the many wonderful people (clients, kids, writing buddies) around me succeed and fail?

What crisis can I provoke such that you will feel compelled to stop reading for a moment and DECIDE?

Inciting incident: Look in the mirror.

Turning Point Progressive Complication: Person in mirror is eating ice cream and watching Netflix despite protestations to the contrary.

Crisis: I can’t fit that scene into a narrative about a person who becomes an author! I’ve got too many of those! That looks like a story about a person about to be diagnosed with something awful!

Climax: ?

Resolution: ?

The last two are for you. Make that decision. See what happens.

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Maya Walker