Monday, January 30, 2012

How writing a novel is like starting a company

Lucky or unlucky, I’m an action oriented person. Always happy to jump into new challenges I must hold myself back…recognizing that time is a limited commodity and doing a thorough analysis before undertaking a major commitment is essential (otherwise lots of unfinished projects!).

Currently, I’m buried deep in revising draft one of a sequel to Captive (at over 400 pages) and nursing a business plan. How to allocate my time and give each their proper attention and chance at success? Well luckily the two projects aren’t as diverse as they may sound and the skills required are very similar in many ways. But first I want to draw a distinction between writing a novel and writing non-fiction: in my opinion, non-fiction is much more predictable and structured, though not necessarily less creative.

So how is writing a novel like starting a company?

1. Creativity is an absolute must. One could argue that all stories have been told and indeed the best ones are variations of the classic story lines. Likewise, many new companies are only reinventing what has already come before or tweaking a new reality. Thus in both cases, seeing the possibilities in the marketplace or on the page differently is key to success.

2. Start with an outline or business plan but be prepared to deviate as necessary. Characters and marketplaces take on a life of their own and evolve seemingly beyond our control. When that happens, react (not over react) appropriately to meet the new realities and create a better end product.

3. Life changes: adapt. Selling and marketing a novel is so different from the standard paths of even last year with digital and bookstore realities evolving as we watch. Creativity and adaptability are now required off the page as well as on the page. When starting a company change also has a big impact on the original idea’s long term prospects. Markets, competitors, regulations, consumer choices, and the like all evolve and any new (or old) company needs to be reactive to these changes.

4. The idea is only the beginning; more important is the execution. Stephen King wasn’t the first to write a Kennedy book but his may sell the most when all is said and done. Neither Facebook nor Google was the first company in their industry sector.

5. Steal ideas if you want to succeed; just tweak them in a new way. Different from point one in that you can do better by learning from others and shouldn’t be ashamed to try. This point in is response to a shared post I saw earlier today mocking “piracy” and “plagiarism”. Don’t steal if doing so is illegal (such as with piracy or proprietary and protected technology) and don’t plagiarize. But do model the best and steal freely their ways.

6. Discipline and complete absorption into the new world you’re creating is essential. Starting something is easy; finishing and succeeding at building something great is very difficult. Successful people always work hard.

7. If you don’t market, what you create is just a hobby.

8. You will face a lot of naysayers. While I’d like to say that most are just jealous or too scared to do the same sometimes they are just more able to see that the risks of success are small. So be it. Not everyone wants to change the world.

9. You can change the world through your efforts! Not all novels or companies will do so but by innovating and creating something new and different you at least have a shot.

10. You will doubt yourself, your abilities and your judgment at some point. Get over it or you won’t succeed. No fully sane person ever sits down to write a novel or start a company (the risks are too high); find the inner resources to keep going.

11. Once done you will have created something new and (hopefully) different. You are an innovator and driver not spectator. What could be cooler than that?

I’m sure I could keep adding to the list but would only cloud my point. With the costs of self publishing or starting certain types of businesses plummeting and the traditional career paths not working as well, right now is a great time to try something new. The basic requirements are few but essential. Dare to dream?

Now, back to writing a long piece and not a blog….

Picture by Lauren

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The importance of drafts

My drafts aren’t always very good. In fact, my first drafts are usually pretty bad. Right now I’m doing a cram revision of something I wrote about ten years ago so that I can (hopefully) submit it to the forthcoming Amazon novel competition.

The good news is that reading something I wrote so long ago shows me how much my writing has improved. The bad news is that I may not be able to get it in submission shape in time (I’ll submit it anyway as only the first 20 pages show up on the site so I can keep on revising it after the submission; If I lose so be it, but I can’t even place if I don’t submit).

But drafts are the bones that form the eventual finished product. They lay out the map upon which I can build something more substantial or better. Some people can write a more complete and polished first draft than I can. For me, these blog postings end up needing (in my opinion) only the faintest of touch ups while longer thought pieces are just jots of notes (which go through more than one massive re-write). We all write differently.

What have I learned revising something I wrote so long ago? When starting on pieces that are hundreds of pages long I was much too wordy and didn’t build the backgrounds well enough. The book needed little research but the fact that I did none is glaring. The story is there but it needs to be better developed and the characters need to shut up once and a while. I can see in the narrative all of the lessons I later learned from my writing teachers at UCLA.

I’m learning about my writing and myself (all writing is ultimately about ourselves…at least in fiction…). Most of all I’m seeing firsthand how persistence and a dedication to creating the best piece I can is worth the time and effort. Most things worth having don’t come easily but there is a reward for that effort. Work pays off; in unexpected ways somehow but there’s always a reward. I’m so excited to find a draft of something that may never be a great book but that I can craft it into a really very good one. The process is grueling but I can see a good story emerging!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Punk Rock Circa 2012

This post I originally put on my investment banking blog (IBLA.US) but think it belongs here as well
Or, why iterative changes matter more than disruptive ones.

Punk rock erupted in 1974 as a response to the excesses of the mainstream 1970s rock world (big bands, big shows and big hair; more focused on business than music/audience; arrogance; bad music). Punk music was hard, fast paced and raw, with shorter songs and less instrumentation. Oftentimes a political or anti-establishment message was worked in. Audiences loved the authenticy and accessibility. And what is rock music if not rebellious (corporate wasn’t cutting it)? These artists struggled in the real world like we did. A subculture developed. The movement spread.

Remind you of YouTube and the Arab Spring?

The online content world (today) is exciting, original and creative. It’s raw and funny, inappropriate and not subject to committee. It’s fun and not (as) interrupted by commerciasl. And it’s engaging, at a personal level. My son’s YouTube favorite, Nice Peter (and his partner Epic Lloyd) comment on the related YouTube videos made by their fans, even those with little traffic. How cool is that!
Online content can be produced at such inexpensive levels (my own Captive related videos were shot on a Flip and edited with iMovie). It’s also audience focused with a lot of online content driven in response to viewer feedback and suggestions. My son discusses the viewer suggestions for future Epic Rap Battles of History with great excitement. Best of all, the cost structure allows it to avoid a generic “mass” audience appeal; creators can afford to make mistakes and take related risks. Spared star salaries and expensive marketing, content can be posted quickly and doesn’t have to look perfect to justify a $15 movie ticket or $1.29 download.

Those new rules hold true for video, music and books (education, too, btw).
Watching my children I see how they personalize and customize their content. They don’t watch anything on a pre-set schedule. They multi-media. And my kids prefer YouTube to television or movies (they like television and movies too; but as I’ve already commented here, my daughter at nine had already stated that movie sequels were made to trick children). They read both paper books and Kindle books, choosing based on convenience and availability (those instant downloads are a huge selling point).

Taking over from my (fired) publisher, I’ve learned how easy book distribution can be (marketing is very, very hard). Online, it’s also inexpensive and price points can change at will. I’m pondering all sorts of possibilities in the book world and find the options more empowering than limiting. I’m not alone as online content continues to explode. My costs to play around with business models are nominal to the extent that I’m even pondering starting an online publishing house (interested writers?).

Media is tough because the market is so cluttered that building a loyal audience can be a challenge. But people succeed; in all industries. For a writer, the large publishers offering digital books at $16 plus dollars is insanity. Is that book sixteen times better than one at $.99? What about the free one? Do you want people to test the alternative waters to make that decision?

I grew up in and out of Silicon Valley and love to watch an evolving industry. My one conclusion to this post is to point out that iterative destruction is more potentially damaging that is creative destruction. People can figure out how to watch a video online (an iteration combining the internet and television). They may not embrace bigger and more disruptive changes so readily. The creation of the Internet didn’t damage the traditional media business; people incorporating it into their lives over time did. No laws can limit digital content consumption

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Cliché s on New Year’s day

Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened
Dr. Seuss

Sure, I should have posted this two days ago; see above, I got busy (and will stay smiling in my lateness).

Dr. Seuss was about as far from cliché as cliché gets. We aren’t all so original. I personally couldn’t imagine such vibrant and unusual characters). I had a writing professor at UCLA Extension (Les Plesko) who used to hammer us about clichés in what we read aloud from our writing during class. He was always right; and the resulting words could be painful to hear. We all cliché. defines a cliché as: a trite or stereotyped expression. Yes. The great (or not so great thing) about writing classes is learning how much we (me) say/write that falls under that rubric. And when you want to shock people don’t use the obvious cliché (which can often be the social answer or statement in a situation). Even the imaginative fall into the easy altogether too often.

My New Year’s day was full of clichés! Both in word and action (I even had Champagne the night before with a friend). At yoga I wished everyone a happy new year. Smiled. Did my down dog. I called my family. I relaxed by the fire. Even got just a little bit of work done. Read. Socialized. It was comforting. And that’s why clichés survive! They’re easy, comforting and get the point across in a non-threatening way.

So I enjoyed my cliché day.

And my trite New Year’s resolution is to be more active on my blogs, social networks and Twitter (its own category). I work at it (so hard!) and then get distracted (a cliché excuse and one that many others will use with respect to their own resolutions).

Happy New Year (cliché)