How Watching Jerry Maguire Can Help You Raise Money

Five minutes before my first-ever pitch to an investor, I practiced Jerry Maguire in the mirror.

“Show me the money,” I told myself six or seven times, and then just once, just as a final pump-up tactic, one epic shout: “SHOW ME THE MONEY!” When I emerged from the Starbucks bathroom, a young woman peeked inside, visibly nervous and probably searching for the body of a murdered drug lord within.

Interestingly enough, I’ve done this before. Not the show me the money bit necessarily, but I’m no stranger to talking to my reflection. Quite a few of my loved ones have caught me serenading myself with highly complimentary statements that serve to over-inflate my ego. But this time, the pep talk had a real purpose. For the next 2 hours, I’d need to be absolutely unshakeable. I’d need to be unrealistically optimistic about tremendous obstacles I had yet to fathom.

This prospective investor was a professional schmoozer, and he thought he’d warm me up first. He told his business partner, also present at our meeting, that I’d make the ideal CEO, that I was bright but stern, that I clearly had experienced enough adversity in my past to face the struggles of entrepreneurship. The empty compliments reflected off my surface, but like the mirror had taught me, I smiled back at him, showing him only what he wanted to see. Long ago, I made it my policy to ignore both criticism and praise that rode on the shoulders of motive. This policy has served me well.

Towards the end of the hour-long coffee, he made his move. He put a check on the table. I didn’t look down at it. I knew the zeros would hypnotize me. All I had at that moment was a concept, a painful desire to solve a problem I had personally suffered, and four thousand of my own dollars in the bank. I had just finished college a few weeks prior, and the ink on my bachelor’s degree in creative writing was probably still wet. This man had nearly 50 years more experience than I, five decades more practice sizing people up, dozens of perfected negotiation tactics than I didn’t even know existed, and he knew. He knew he had the advantage, but I knew something he didn’t, one thing that made all the difference. He thought I was living in the present, a college kid desperate for someone to pat me on the back, but I’d already made a home in the future. I already knew, without a shadow of a doubt, who I could be and what I could do a few years down the road.

So when he suggested that he would own 10 percent of my company for that check amount, a sum that at that time he expected would impress a recent graduate, I refused. And he wouldn’t negotiate, certain that I would give in by month’s end. I thanked him for his time and departed.

Three weeks later, I had a check in my hand that was quadruple the size. The investors cared about the publishing industry, and the deal was fair. It valued both the people who were taking a gamble on a young entrepreneur, and myself, the one who was about to be sleepless and stressed and overworked for the next two years.

Only then did I allow myself a Rod Tidwell victory dance. And then I deposited that check and looked further into the future.

 

published originally on The Huffington Post

I graduated. I’m a writer. Now what?

I change endings. It’s what I do. Some of us enjoy the concept of finality, taking comfort in the fact that there are some things we simply cannot change, bathing in the charm of uncertainty, lounging in the pool of the unexpected and the unknown, accepting that some things just are.

I am not one of those people.

Perhaps it is not so surprising, then, that as a kid, I couldn’t get enough of the Choose Your Own Adventure series. You know the books- the ones where the reader gets to choose the path of the protagonist. There are choices at every significant stop in the road. The reader’s choice can either lead to an outcome that is great, favorable, mediocre, disappointing, or catastrophic.

Don’t remember? Then let me introduce you to Lyla.

Lyla is a writer. She has spent the last 2 years writing a novel and 4 months just writing and rewriting the first chapter. She has spent 6 months workshopping the piece with peers and another 2 getting feedback from friends of friends who act as unbiased readers. Yesterday, she hated her novel. But today, she is excited, happy, and ready: she is finally going to publish her manuscript.

Path A:

Lyla applies for the Assistant Editor position at a major publishing powerhouse in the hopes that learning the industry and creating connections will make the publication process less daunting.

Path B:

Lyla decides to self-publish her novel.

Path C:

Lyla sends 100 unsolicited query letters to agents and publishing houses, attaching a copy of her manuscript to each.

Choose a letter and scroll downward until you see your choice.

Path A’s Adventure:

For the first few weeks, Lyla is in pure bliss at her new job. The Editorial Director of her imprint says her edits are impressive and the team offers multiple compliments about her new organization system of the filing cabinets. A few months in, Lyla asks if she could take a look at the unsolicited manuscripts, and she is directed to an email account with 10,000 unopened manuscripts. She decides to hold off just a bit longer on sending her own manuscript out, believing it will need a few more edits before it can stand out in an avalanche of competition.

Ten years later, Lyla is an Editorial Director herself and a successful editor in the industry. She tells the new intern that she once considered being a writer but then grew up.

When everyone leaves work, Lyla pulls a notepad out of her top drawer and begins the final chapter of her 6th unpublished novel. She promises herself that one day she’ll actually submit this one somewhere.

Path B’s Adventure:

Lyla follows the directions on the self-publishing site. She reads her manuscript once more to find any final errors, loads it to the publishing platform, and blows it a kiss for luck. She sends an email to her family and friends informing them that she is now a published author. She gets a couple “yays” and “proud of you” messages and then hears back from her grandmother. Gran wants to know who published the text. When Lyla tells her she did it herself, her grandmother replies: “That’s a grand idea!” and publishes her own set of poems.

Five months later, Lyla has sold 12 of her books and Gran has sold 17 of her own – to each lady in the weekly workshop at the community center.

Lyla removes her novel from the site and locks her original in her drawer where it will remain until the pages fade yellow.

Path C’s Adventure:

As soon as she mails her letters, Lyla tries to distract herself, certain that she will hear back from at least a quarter of the agents and publishers in just a few weeks. She picks up new hobbies, babysits her nephews, and in a slight bout of weakness, pays a friend to build a website for her in preparation of her imminent publication. With each passing month, Lyla is more disheartened. After four months, all she has received are three letters, all uniform rejections with no indication that her manuscript was even opened.

So, the situation seems pretty dire for good old Lyla. But what about higher education? Surely that must change Lyla’s options a bit. Well, considering her higher education options, her new array of choices might look something like this:

Path 1:

Lyla applies for the Assistant Editor position at a major publishing powerhouse in the hopes that learning the industry and creating connections will make the publication process less daunting. (See Path A)

Path 2:

Lyla decides to self-publish her novel. (See Path B)

Path 3:

Lyla applies for MFA Programs, in the hopes that a higher degree in writing will enable her to acquire an agent with ease.

Path 3’s Adventure:

Lyla applies to both funded and unfunded programs. Since the rate of acceptance in funded programs is less than 1%, Lyla is not too disheartened to be rejected from the top 10. She decides to attend a program in the top 50 that lacks the ability to fund its students. Two years later, Lyla graduates.

With only fleeting interest from agents and 100K in educational debt, it’s back to the original set of options: Path A and Path B.

Certainly, one of these paths could have led to publication and success, but since only 3 out of 10,000 unsolicited manuscripts are published each year, Lyla represents the average person’s odds. Actually, considering that Lyla was talented enough to be accepted to one of the top 50 MFA Programs, her odds are greater than average.

This tale isn’t meant to be cynical, and neither were the Choose Your Own Adventure books.

I remember quite a few peers of mine crying when they chose the wrong path in the CYOA novels. They were frustrated and broken when an option they’d chosen led to failure of a mission, or even more brutally, the end of the protagonist’s tale. They’d sit back and sulk and swear never to touch another novel from the series again. And they shook their heads and closed their ears when I tried to tell them what they were missing.

The idea of Choose Your Own Adventure was never meant to be discouraging. The books weren’t meant to make us hate the concept of choice or turn our backs on free will– or even to make us refuse adventure. The goal wasn’t to make us give up– it was quite the opposite, actually. The concept was a massively simplified preparation for adult life.

Fairy tales and happy endings are easy and comforting, but are they conditioning us to be weak? In all likelihood, your life’s knife won’t cut quite that clean. In these stories they attribute all success and failure to fate, but fate is just a fancy word for helplessness. Fate is just an easy way to avoid the trials and heartbreak of determination. Accepting that you are powerless doesn’t make it true for everyone. It only makes it true for you.

Because ultimately, both in CYOA or in Lyla’s case above, we have choices. That’s about the only certain thing in life; choice is just about the only thing of which we can always be certain. If you don’t like the path you’ve chosen, choose another.

And if you don’t like any of them? Create your own.

 

published originally on The Levo League

Setting Sail Without A Map

One of the most daunting things about being a CEO of a startup is that no one else has done it before you. Sure, people have been CEO, but no one has been the CEO of this startup. This puts you in the position of navigating a directionless ship.

Think: Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. Throughout the entire series, he always knows what he wants, but he constantly finds himself without a map. But at least he has a compass to lead him in the right direction.

You have your gut.

So here’s where you find yourself. You have a problem, a solution, a concept, and a method for implementation. What next? What is the next step, the most correct path to choose? There is none.

If you are a young entrepreneur, no doubt this will be the moment when you begin to wonder why you’ve chosen this path and if you should stay on it. Your friends all chose conventional jobs, a steady stream of money providing some very reliable comfort. You’re not sure if this idea is worth the risk, the stress, the sleepless nights of brainstorming that are to come. If you feel this way, get out now.

Because for the older entrepreneurs – who have already felt dissatisfied and unchallenged at a conventional 8 to 5 – and the young ones who know what they want, all of this is part of the appeal. Their minds are quite creative, their souls crave risk. The idea of being in a cubicle from 8 to 5 seems to them like a slow descent into an early death. They would be captured. They would be trapped.

The beauty of this moment in the decision process doubles as the most frightening element. There is no map. What you have is a blank parchment with a key on it – dare I reference Pirates once again? You know what you want, but you have no idea how to get there. You could ask people, learn from the experienced ones before you, but chances are, they will be wrong. For you. Each particular case will require a different next step. Ask yourself, what do you think you need?

In my case, I knew my perspective was lacking. I had the problem of the industry from one angle. I couldn’t understand in its entirety until I pushed myself to experience it from another. So before I embarked on starting my own company, I went to work for another.

And good thing I did, because what I found there was far from what I expected. The villains in my plan suddenly became a part of the victims. This was the first moment when I began to learn that our concepts should be fluid, flexible, molding along with our educations. If you are set in stone, your startup will be too. When tossed into the ocean with more buoyant prospects, it will sink to the bottom.

Allow change, embrace it, and develop a well-rounded perspective… regardless of what stage you are in. Because if you don’t, your competition will. And you’ll be left decorating the bottom of the ocean with pretty-colored stones.

 

published originally on women 2.0

My Greatest Fear Is That I’m Ordinary

That one day I’ll wake up and discover I’m average. That nothing stands out about me.  That I have no discerning qualities, no noteworthy characteristics, that nothing within me thirsts for more.  That one day, I’ll discover I’m unremarkable.  That one day, I’ll just be a shadow.

I know a few things about this must seem ridiculous. Firstly, that from all the fears in the world, from venomous snakes to crazed killers to the uncertainty of death, that being ordinary would be what petrifies me.  But I’m not afraid of anything else, and I’m not ashamed to admit the cause of my deepest anxiety. Or that the first time I finished Don Quixote, I sat back in the stillness of the dead night and struggled to steady my breath. On those last pages, within which he stopped believing in his fantasy world, in his kingdom of virtuous knights and epic battles, and he died.  And I knew him too well, understood that too deeply.

Secondly, that I’m sharing something so intimate with a universe of people I do not know.  But if you’ve ever felt this way, I think I do know you.  I know that your friends suggest you put too much pressure on yourself, that your family tells you to stop pushing so hard. That if you stop worrying and focus on the things you can control, you’d enjoy life a whole lot more. That if you just stopped reaching for things so far out of your grasp, you’d be happier. That you should learn to relax. To unwind. To be.

They have a point. If you stopped, you would be happier. Your every day would be calmer. Your waking moments would be filled with peace instead of crippling desire, with tranquility instead of pulsing ambition, with delicious gratitude instead of unquenchable thirst.

But some of us simply cannot.  Like Don Quixote before us, if we stop fighting, we will cease to exist. Our armor will rust, our spirits will wilt, and our souls will fade until we are unrecognizable.  All that will remain will be a memory of the people we once were. Because without our dreams, who are we?

The only way to become unremarkable is to believe that you are. To give in to your fear. To hang your sword and turn away from the battle. In Don Quixote’s own words: “I know who I am and who I may be, if I choose.”

It’s your choice. Choose to believe.

 

published originally on Thought Catalog

You Need Romance In Your Startup

Ever since I started a company, I’ve been living in a cocoon. My cocoon. It’s a safety layer that allows me to fully focus on my company, keeps me from the anxiety of everyone’s questions, and enables me to keep my sanity. It’s also a cop out.

Last weekend, I went out for the first time in a long while. And I was shocked. Within moments, friends and friends of friends and acquaintances of friends were asking me questions about the startup world. Months and months of built up meddling. The influx of questions wasn’t a surprise considering the understandable catalyst equation: recent Kickstarter campaign success + first announcement of mission statement to the world + power of social media + my dedicated lack of comment on everything prior to this moment = sizeable spike in curiosity.

What was surprising, however, was my reaction to their comments and the questions. Everything sounded so romantic to me. You have your own company, one girl swooned. You’re such a fucking rockstar, another giggled. As for me, well, I gaped at them openly. It was too early in the evening to blame everyone’s reactions completely on inebriation. I contemplated whether my shock to their positive comments was due to the fact that I had been up close and personal in the battle, sustaining wounds and managing plagues, for the last year. Had I once looked so bright-eyed myself?

It took three of my own journal posts from early May 2011 to answer the question. Yes, I had been bright-eyed, seemingly much more so than the individuals who had posed the questions.

As humans, we romanticize. If we knew that love would lead to a series of heartbreaks, would we still date? If we knew it would take us two decades to find our ideal job, would we still start our careers with such enthusiasm? If we knew what we were up against before we started a company, would we bother starting? As I considered these questions, a realization set in. Perhaps being hopelessly romantic isn’t a flaw in our making, but our greatest weapon. Maybe naïveté is a survival mechanism, and the only one we can consistently count on to start us out?

When I set out on this path, I didn’t consider the obstacles. I didn’t even give them a moment of thought. I didn’t think about what would happen if I failed, didn’t ask what the chance was of success, didn’t request anyone’s thoughts on the matter at all. When people shared their unrequested opinions, I shrugged them off.

As the road became bumpier, I receded into my protective layer. I hid from people, and it wasn’t for the reason I’d expected. I wasn’t avoiding their negativity. That had never had an effect on me. I was avoiding their excitement. Because if I stood among them for too long, they might convince me to return to this state. My naïveté might return. And I couldn’t remember the positive effects.

There’s nothing wrong with an overdose of enthusiasm every once in a while. Actually, it’s necessary. Being a founder means being able to balance. You must choose which advice to take and which to disregard, which tasks have priority and which take the back seat, which problems to tackle and which to ignore. You will have to choose how to judge your own progress. And a little enthusiasm here isn’t a bad thing.

In battle, soldiers survive serious injury because of the adrenaline boost. The natural human reaction to extreme pain: its coping mechanism, its survival tactic.

The most legendary founders saw something others couldn’t. And when they succeeded, we all saw their public wins. But oftentimes, we missed their private losses. To make it to the end of the game, they both criticized and encouraged themselves. They knew how to balance their attention on both the successes and the failures. Because if all they saw were the misses, it might be hard to convince themselves to stay in the fight.

So the next time you’re feeling stressed, the next time your company hits a wall, find the romance again. Instead of avoiding the light of day, throw your windows open. You might be surprised what the sun can do.

 

published originally on women 2.0

A Founder’s Tale: The Kickstarter Kraze

Every time you support, I tear up. I know I’m not supposed to say that. Founders shouldn’t show a soft side. Because we’ve been told that showing emotion is equivalent to being weak. That admitting to feeling pain is a shade of cowardice. I disagree.
 

We’re not supposed to tell you that business is personal, to share the secret we all know is true: we care. If we didn’t care – obsessively so – we wouldn’t be spending every waking moment and rare sleeping moments researching and thinking and perfecting a product that’s invisible to a judgmental world.
 

For a long time, it’s just you and the problem. And then, it’s you, the problem, and the solution you birthed, and it’s tremendously difficult to see anything else from that point on.
 

During the first night of our Kickstarter campaign, I didn’t sleep. On the second night, I napped for 15 minutes. On the third, I knocked out with my day clothes on, my contacts still in, my laptop on my chest. That’s how close I am to Writer’s Bloq. Even after the 20-hour days, the 7-day weeks, with the late nights transitioning into the dawn, it’s there, on me, in me. Because it’s not work. It’s personal.
 

When you spend every waking and rare sleeping moments working on something, you care. You do it because you care. You feel elation at the smallest successes and desperation at the inevitable failures. This is the life of a founder. We’re manning an enormous hot air balloon, only it’s not running on hot air.
 

It’s running on emotion. Our balloon inflates and deflates at your touch. We’re not supposed to say it, but I will. Because if you don’t hear it, you’ll never know. You won’t know that what you do matters. That your reaction is a big deal. That you can actually make a difference.
 

Showing emotion is one of the hardest things in the world, and creating change is another. Those who attempt both are brave. They are taking a risk on the riskiest thing: faith. It’s the grown-up equivalent to a fairy tale.
 

But thinking about creating change is not the same as creating it. So next time you see something and think I should do something to help, do it.
 

Create a solution, spread someone else’s, contribute your time, your effort, your money, your faith to one or two or many. And next time you see a hot air balloon, you can smile, and know it’s running on you.
 

published originally on women 2.0

Risking It: How to Conquer Fear to Drive Success

We fear failure. We avoid the unknown to evade defeat. We lean away from risk, run from it, push back as hard as we possibly can. Because life is so uncertain already, why should we take on any additional risk? In a world where nearly nothing is absolute, how can we bear any more maybes, mights, or possiblys? How can we persuade ourselves that taking a leap is worth the almost inevitable fall? In the face of reality, how can we have hope?

I’m not going to claim that reward always follows the risk. Far from it, actually. Last November, I completed my first manuscript, and I sent out 93 individualized query letters to editors, agents, and publishers. Waiting to hear back was a struggle. Admittedly, patience is not my greatest suit, and the anxiety left behind in the wake of my unanswered letters was practically palpable. I distracted myself skillfully, each day nearly forgetting about my one-sided correspondence with the start of my career. But three months later, I was less willing to compose the creative excuses that had comforted me for the last ninety days: maybe they are all on vacation, maybe I accidentally wrote each note with my invisible ink, maybe the CIA intercepted my manuscript because they knew my writing would cause a national frenzy. I had been ignored nearly one hundred times. There was no amount of sugar that could coat it.

The first thing you do when you’re rejected is deny. You pretend it didn’t happen, that something went wrong, that it’s all just one enormous misunderstanding. The second thing, you fight back.

During the year that followed, I personally spoke to nearly 500 writers. I accepted a position at Simon & Schuster, tore up my manuscript and pasted it back together with just my faith to hold the pieces. I dedicated my time to reading about the industry that had shunned me, studying the movement that had overlooked me, memorizing the facts that were supposed to comfort me. That out of every 10,000 manuscripts submitted to publishing houses, 3 are selected for publication. That the average self-published novel sells less than 20 copies in its lifetime. That most writers quit long before they are predicted to be discovered. The article called it finding their calling elsewhere. I called it learned helplessness.

Eventually, during my research, I uncovered the most important fact of them all, and it wasn’t in a book or on the Internet or in someone else’s words. It was in me, and it was pretty simple. I had faced my worst fear; I had been rejected, I had failed. But I had survived. I was alive with a new story to tell, one that I knew would resonate with all tried and failed heroes and heroines of present and past. There is nothing more delicious than resilience, nothing more empowering than discovering just how strong you really are. We convince ourselves that failure is the end of the game. That if we’re defeated, it just wasn’t meant to be. But the only thing standing between us and our most desperate desires is the bullshit reason we fabricate for comfort, and repeat over and over to ourselves for why it couldn’t, can’t, and won’t be.

Upon this realization, I began discovering the rewards of investing in the unknown. If something is nearly impossible, then the only thing you can possibly do is disprove someone’s theory. When everyone expects you to fail, you have nothing to lose. You have everything to gain.

Create your solution, believe in it, and if you do it right, it will become other people’s solution as well. When I founded Writer’s Bloq this past winter, I had no idea that I’d be aiding in the discovery of writers much more talented than I. When I decided I would help great writers get discovered, I couldn’t have known that I would find my new favorite authors, that my own writing would improve just by reading other bloquees’ work, that mingling with writers would create an independent forward motion that would propel us into literary goldmines of our own prose.

We have some of the most talented writers in the world on the Bloq, and look forward to welcoming more. Just a few minutes ago, we launched our first Quarterly, our first two novels, and our first tour, the Bloqparty, on Kickstarter. And you’re the first to hear about it.

We don’t have a choice about much of what happens to us in this life, but we absolutely have a choice about how we respond. We can either make failure a painful end to our story, or a beginning to new tale. We ultimately choose how we write our story. And as for this tale’s ending? Well, the quill is in your hands.

 

published originally on The Levo League

Risky Business

People discuss startupland as though it is mythical. They discuss creation as though it is the elusive Aphrodite. They wish for her, long for her, describe her beauty, desperately wish to see her just once. They discuss every detail of how they would pursue her, what they would do to seek her, how they would approach every step towards her, why they deserve to be the one who wins her.

And then they do nothing. There’s something so attractive about possibility, something so simple about the thought what could be. All the glory and none of the pain. All the sizzle and none of the burn. Because as soon as the imaginary pursuit becomes reality, the risk of it all dims the flame. The possibility of what might not be creeps into your mind. And you become immediately aware that the dream is infinitely more delicious than the reality.

Let me be more clear: starting a company is impossibly hard. Certainly you’ve already heard that, but honestly, that one wasn’t for you. It was for me. Because the best thing you can do when you start a company from scratch is to recognize this fact. The best thing you can do is tell yourself how impossible it is every single day. The best move you can make is to remind yourself of the insurmountable odds, of the impossibility so often that you become immune to the concept.

Because what you’re doing isn’t normal. Because the choice you’ve made is about to hurt. Because you will work 20 hour days, with no pay, and have your friends texting you about forgotten dinners and missed birthdays and vacations in dreamy islands and your parents will want to know when you’re coming home and your legs will ache from lack of exercise and your brain will sting from overwork. Because you’re about to feel incredibly alone.

Because no one is going to understand. Because even those who have been there haven’t been exactly where you are. Because no one has. Because at some point, even you won’t get it. Because, trust me, there will be a moment when you regret it. There will be a moment when you sit at your desk, slam your poor old Macbook shut, and burst out yelling, WHY THE HELL AM I DOING THIS?

You’ll take a venting break. You’ll text everyone you know to say hi. You’ll try to distract yourself from the fact that you made this choice, and you’ll blame everyone around you for not staging an intervention stopping you from yourself. You’ll go for a walk in a rainy park and you’ll stop under a tree. And lightning will strike, and it will hit you.

Not the lightning, but the thought. The secret that all innovators share: the subtle sweet-minty taste of success. Because you knew it all along. You just forget sometimes. That the line between success and failure is so ridiculously fine. That it is composed of small part luck, medium part brilliance, and largest part determination. That if you extend your tongue, you can just taste it on your smallest bud. And once you’ve tasted it, how can you turn away?

Because the heroes of mythology knew what you do. That you will never see Aphrodite if you don’t seek her. That you can’t win the war if you don’t show up to the battle. That the dream might be more delicious but it’s also so very fickle. That life is a game of risk, and there’s only one way to eliminate it: you must take the risk off the table. Each day, you must take just a bit more, mount it on your back and bear its weight until it just can’t fight you. Until the risk stops doubting. Until you beat it.

Because to others, what you’re doing might seem impossible. But to you, impossible doesn’t translate.

 

published originally on women 2.0

Unpublished? You don’t actually suck.

I’m going to tell you a story, but I must warn you, you’ve heard it before. It’s the one about Dr. Seuss’s rhyme genius being rejected 30 times and Stephen King’s manuscript of the famous thriller Carrie being tossed into a trashcan by the author himself and yes, even J.K. Rowling’s being homeless before the magic kicked in. Tired of hearing these examples? I am too. Luckily, I have a fresh sequel to the tale, though it doesn’t have a very happy ending. It’s 2012, and writers still cannot get discovered. Talk about a thriller.

We use these anecdotes to comfort ourselves, not realizing that the success stories of authors past are so rare that we all repeat the same ones. There are so few who have made it that we have no choice but to share the same beacons of hope, to use and reuse them until there is nothing except the creases and fold-overs on a piece of paper where our resilience was once sworn. Each year, we’re offered an example of a self-published author’s million sales and expected to clap furiously, nod fervently, agree that the industry has been fixed that the holes have been filled. But each time you hear this story, you should ask yourself: for every new author turned famous, what happened to the million unopened submissions?

I wish I could offer you a scapegoat, point to a person or company who’s to blame. I tried that route once. While I was studying in Columbia’s Creative Writing Program, I sent out my first manuscript. I was enthralled, giddy even, as I slipped the packages into the mail. (Note, that the word mail used in the prior sentence is not for effect. I actually mailed some of these letters just for good old school writer karma). And then, with a smug smile, I waited.

Three months later, the smirk had faded. The act was over, and it was clear to everyone: the joke was on me. Four uniform rejection letters sat on the nightstand where my perfectly packaged manuscripts once rested. The irony was toxic. They hadn’t even used my pen name on the four envelopes. I had been ignored by nearly a hundred people. And so, as is often the case after rejection, I sought an excuse. Surely it couldn’t be me. So it had to be them. I blamed the agents and the publishing houses, the ones who couldn’t see my genius. What fools, I thought. What an enormous mistake.

Soon there were fissures in my unshakeable self-confidence. What if they had a point? What if my writing didn’t deserve to be opened? I had to know for myself. I made my way into the trenches, accepting a position at Simon & Schuster and preparing to face my foes. Only when I arrived, the foes were not to be found. The publishers were bright, they were talented, and they were facing significant obstacles themselves. 10,000 of them, in fact.

During that time, I learned. Each year, a publishing house can expect to receive about 10,000 unsolicited manuscripts. Out of every 10,000 manuscripts submitted, about 3 are published. The odds are horrifying, which is perhaps why so many undiscovered writers turn to self-publication. Unfortunately, on average, a self-published book sells about 10 copies in its lifetime. I can only hope those authors have small families; either that, or even their loved ones chose not to buy their work. Ouch.

That’s the pickle. There’s no one to blame. It’s not the publishing houses. It’s not the literary agencies. It’s not even you. With so much talent in the publishing world, it’s opportunity that’s the problem. It’s too scarce for all the skill. Publishing houses can’t take a risk on everyone. They can only print the people who come with an advantage, the ones who have a guarantee to sell. That means taking on books by pets and memoirs by reality stars and sex scandal anecdotes by famous athletes. Quality isn’t always compromised but there’s no shortage of compromising decisions. It’s the catch-22 of a brand that has two conflicting goals: reputation and profit.

Self-publication doesn’t have that issue. There’s no shortage of opportunity, no limit to what is distributed. Unfortunately, when everyone is included, some are excluded. Admittedly, this paradox is nonsensical, but nothing personal makes sense. Many writers simply shy away from self-publication because it seems too cold, too distant. There’s no one to edit the text and shape the writing and assure you it’s finally ready for the world to judge. There’s no guaranteed reader. There’s no one to spread the word. There’s no one at all.

Enough is enough. We must fill this gap. We must create a solution where writers can have both quality and opportunity. There is an audience for everyone; the trick is finding them. There is enough to go around: enough skillful editing, enough talented writing, enough devout reading. There is more than enough of everything to create a significant opportunity for the inbetweeners, the ones between doing it themselves and the publishing deal.

That’s how Writer’s Bloq came about. After operating privately with peers at Columbia for a few months, a community of talented writers blossomed. Short stories, poems, essays, and articles filled the platform, and so an event was hosted for the top writers on the Bloq to share their writing. The Rare Book Room at The Strand was packed, dozens of writes, readers, and industry professionals listening intently to the compelling pieces read aloud. The alcohol was plentiful and so was the conversation, and by the end of the event, four of the eight readers had been contacted by industry professionals.

Not long after, one of our top writers approached us. She had an MFA, years of experience as an agent herself, an unpublished novel, and even an opportunity to publish her book. Unfortunately the opportunity came with a heavy price: she would have to remove an entire third of the plot to make the novel conform to industry standards. Conformity: something to which we should all aspire.

Writer’s Bloq doesn’t believe in conformity and neither should you. If your novel doesn’t fit, maybe it’s not meant to. After all, isn’t that why we write? To stand apart from everything and everyone, to see the world differently, to have just one moment of true individuality to share with the world? If the sharing opportunity doesn’t exist in the places you know, it’s time to find new doors on which to knock. If your work doesn’t have a home on the streets you recognize, it’s time to start a new path. If your writing simply doesn’t belong to the neighborhoods you’ve visited, it’s time to join our Bloq.

 

published originally on The Huffington Post

Imagine a World Without Innovation in Literature

My favorite season is pre-spring. Not spring, the trees overly arrogant, the flowers showing off on each turn, the birds chirping as if to say we knew it all along, we told you it would come. But the moment before all this, when none of us can be sure that spring will ever arrive. The time when we all doubt it, with winter winds and icy streets and nude branches entrapping us in a snow globe. When the mulch on the ground is made of leaves from fall past, pine needles of winter present and ever-so-slight hints of green desperately attempting to push through. Right then, when all we have is anticipation, anxiety’s delicious cousin, because we know that despite the impenetrable winter, spring will come. The moment when faith matters.

When I attempted to write this all down on the page, I twisted in my seat. My feet tapped the floor, my fingers cramped in frustration at my words. I couldn’t get it quite right. It didn’t sound the way it should. My words didn’t sound the way the leaves did as they collapsed to the unforgiving ground below them. The hushed defeat was somehow absent.

I tried anyway because someone must. There must be an account somewhere of the secret shared with me while I walked in the park, the melody after winter, when the cold begins to lose its grip; when winter begins to thaw.

A writer is an artist of perception. They are secret keepers, observers of the truth, masters of illusion. They are not painters in the conventional sense for they do not aim to take paint to a blank canvas, ask you to see the perfect version of an imperfect thing, offer you a snapshot of something beautiful. Instead, they stroke the paintbrush across an already murky canvas, across an unbeautiful thing, lull you in, ask you to put your own paint on their path. Break the image, see the glimmer of beauty in the crevices of the fractioned pieces. They ask you to really see.

Upon arriving at Columbia, I was fascinated to find that my peers in workshop and I all shared this sense of obligation. The need to share our intimate experiences with those around us, to connect with another by clutching onto the coattails of a word. Writing was our only certain mode of expression, even if it sometimes failed us. It was both our outward and inward appearance, both our safe haven and our source of discomfort. Because though close observation of people and things came naturally to many of us, writing forced us to be honest about what we had seen. It asked us to do the sounds and feelings justice.

Imagine my surprise, then, when after years of plucking words and dripping my intimacies onto the page, a completed first novel in hand, the real skepticism arrived. It was heavy and gray, and settled around my head in suffocating patches. Because the source of the skepticism was unimaginable; it came from other writers: the people I respected most in my own industry telling me the struggles I would face. The expected nod at my 93 rejections from agents and publishers, the pseudo-comforting phrase that it would take 4-5 years to be discovered, the feeling at seeing my own name in the slush pile at work, and the straw on the camel’s back: sitting in the audience of various programs’ MFA panels, uninvited and startled, as the speakers offered suggestions for alternate careers. The girl who sat next to me was the best writer I’d ever read in workshop, and as she scribbled the words paralegal and teacher, her letters collapsed into each other as though they too had been defeated.

If you succeed, no one ever questions the validity of your choices.  Until you do, others constantly attempt to push you off path, their cynical words simply an abbreviated version of the methods through which they comfort themselves for giving it all up; the dark words they dress in pastels and pass off as realism.

These were the best writers of my generation around me, and no one would ever know. The Sylvia Plaths, the Ernest Hemingways, the F. Scott Fitzgeralds of this lifetime were putting down their pens and no one was mourning as they abandoned their art. They themselves couldn’t know how they had just damaged the world, for self-doubt is an unavoidable tenant of writing.  But I knew.

In digitizing an industry, we both lose and gain. With Napster’s birth, we saw the rise of unknown musicians, but also the lowering of our standards. With more content available, the masterpieces become that much harder to find. With the initial quality control eliminated, the reader is left to his own devices to determine the new standard of skill.  But without this initial judge of content, we seek immediate gratification.  Why wait 200 pages for a moral of sadness, for an ending that makes you think? Why read a stale classic when you could peruse a fan fiction tale, exciting and familiar? After all, what real difference is there in these works besides the fact that one of these novels would be easier on the mind?

In revolutionizing an industry, must we sacrifice quality? As writing approaches its revolution, what are we willing to trade? Would you give in your copy of Lord of the Flies or To Kill a Mockingbird or Where the Red Fern Grows in exchange for something a little less painful, a little less uncomfortable? My greatest fear is that your answer will be yes. That you might think why not? That if you weren’t required, these novels would go overlooked. Because if you’re not looking, it is nearly impossible to discern quality in a text. If you weren’t seeking it, you might not realize that every sentence in these novels was nursed from just a word, carefully weaned into full bloom by the writers’ delicate hand. You might not realize that it took years to plant the subtle hints of morals that seem to conveniently appear at the opportune time, the ones you seem to stumble upon so effortlessly. You might not be aware that the smile that crosses your face was created by the stroke of another’s hand, that he stared at a hole in a sentence for months until he found the right word. You might not know that it took the author a decade of studying a craft, fawning over it, reading and editing and obsessing over other writers’ work, to invoke the sigh that escapes your lips as you turn the last page.

Without these writers, the magicians of literature, we would be different people.  Our reading lists would be simple and our minds would be at ease. We would be comfortable, happy, unaware. We would be bliss. But blissfulness also requires no depth. And if we avoid the crafty, subtle writing long enough, we would lose the ability to comprehend the genuine meaning beneath a piece – and with it, another individual’s take on life as a whole.

“How can you like this season?” my friend had asked, pulling her jacket tightly around her as we walked to class. She kicked at a branch, and the needles fell to the ground, suddenly solitary. “The ground smells like slaughtered Christmas.”

I shrugged, knowing she had answered my question. She hadn’t understood my piece. She couldn’t see it. She wanted the wall-to-wall, life-size, fake image of the beautiful. One piece, ever true, could never satisfy her. I worried that no one would relate to that moment the way that I had. I had failed the secret; I had been unable to do it justice.

But in workshop, one of my peers grinned as she said it, the words that proved me wrong: “It’s like the trees never really die.” And against my desire, I smiled. Because suddenly, we were inextricably linked. Because we shared a moment we didn’t physically share. And all I wanted was to share it with others, spread it, so that somewhere, sometime we could all live in a moment that never really was.

That’s what Writer’s Bloq is: a way to share words. A platform where those words could first be crafted and shaped by writers we know and admire, then carefully streamed from writer to writer to the reader who needed to know someone else felt that way. A network, a central location, a hub for quality writing; where the most skillful writers of our generation could meet in the Parisian Parlor of the net. A community for writers who dedicated their educations to writing, who apprenticed long enough in the craft to know how to create that subtle layer; where strangers could live in an imaginary shred of time, all perceiving the same words differently, except for the slightest shard of glass, shattering the snow globe into the immortal pine needles below.

 

published originally on Forbes