Business Planning For Writers: The Five Word Benchmark

Hardworking. Prolific. Savvy. Surprising. Great.

I figure I can lay claim to maybe one of these words, if I’m on-point with my writing, on any given day. More often I aim simply aiming for one, and falling frustratingly short.

But as of today they’re taped to the wall, beside my projects list. A reminder of what I’m striving for with this whole writing thing. Not necessarily in the work, but in terms of what I’d like to think when I look back over my career.

They’re not set in stone yet. I’m going to live with them for a few days, stare at them the same way I stare at the active projects list. Ponder whether each word is right, and change it as needed. Savvy was originally smart, for instance, when I wrote the first draft of the list in my notebook. Smart didn’t cut it as a long-term ambition.

Savvy worked better, captured that feeling of knowledge put into practice rather than hoarded for its own sake. You can be savvy about your career. You can be savvy about the genre you’re writing in. You can be savvy about craft, in general.

I want that. Just like I want the other things.

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I backed away from talking about business models for writers last week, but then, I backed away from everything last week. My CPAP machine was broken and I was subsisting on very little sleep. Existing on very little sleep meant the depression meds weren’t working as well as they should, and so my ambition dropped down to sit on the couch, watch TV for sixteen hours, just so I could really get a good bout of self-loathing up-and-running.

At the same time, a whole bunch of people were basically hitting me up on social media and saying yo, more of this, please. And, occasionally, you’re over-simplifying this, yes? 

Yes. Because it’s enormously complex. And blogs don’t handle complexity well, in isolation.

But it did get me to sit down and start thinking through the problems of talking about business planning and business models. And, in particular, the problem of me talking about those things.

I dance along an interesting line, when it comes to blogging. I enjoy sitting down and writing about writing, for the same reason I enjoy teaching writing – it feeds into one of those five impulses that gets me to sit down and write. It lets me display savvy, or talk about process in a way that highlights being prolific and/or hardworking.

Usually, that works as part of my process, but when my sleep gets interrupted or I start heading into particularly negative ruminative thinking, blogging replaces my process. It’s work that feels like moving forward, without actually doing so. It becomes talking about what I want my career to be, rather than actually doing those things.

And this is actually a business planning problem, believe if it not, in addition to me dealing with my dodgy brain chemistry.

If you don’t define success, you can’t achieve it.

And while success seems easy to define – I get a book published, or I earn enough from writing to quit my dayjob – those are false benchmarks. Writing purely for the money isn’t going to make you happy, or even be sustainable

But when you put together half a definition of success – the kind where you’ve identified what you want, but not how you realistically expect to get there – it’s easy to get diverted. You scrambled down rabbit holes and follow false leads. You invest your energy in ways that aren’t the best use of your energy.

I’ve never had much illusion about what I want from writing. I got started as a writer because I was looking for a sense of connection, a way of finding people who liked what I liked and saw the world in the same way I did. I kept writing because I could start seeing career paths that seemed possible and pleasurable – not full-time fiction writing, but I’ve been in jobs that required writing skills and writing practice since I was twenty.

And, over time, I laid goals over the top of that. It wasn’t enough to be in writing-adjacent careers – I wanted to actually write fiction. It wasn’t enough to just write fiction – I wanted to be prolific and I wanted to be good.

People are complex. We rarely distil out motivations down to a singular thing.

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The problem with talking about writer business models is this: there’s a chicken and the egg kind of relationship going on. You can’t figure out what your business model is until you know the kind of writer you want to be. You can’t figure out what kind of writer you want to be, until you’ve looked at the business models and see what’s possible.

One continues to refine the other, and vice versa.

I’ve been particularly confused about all of this recently, thanks to a few years of health and mental health issues. So, over the weekend, I went back to first principles. What kind of writer do I want to be? What kind of words do I want associated with my career, when I look back over what I’ve done.

Hardworking. Prolific. Savvy. Surprising. Great.

Hitting two or more of those benchmarks is the point where I stop feeling like I’m flailing against the darkness and start feeling like I’m progressing towards the kind of writer I want to be.

It might not seem like a list that has a big impact on the kinds of career choices I make, but it affects everything. Those five words are the beginning of the research phase, the high-level strategy that guide everything else.

They don’t tell me what success is, but they tell me how to recognise it.

And I figure that’s a decent starting point, if you’re trying to figure this out. Take the week, figure out the five words that you’re chasing as a long-term description of your writing career. Put them down somewhere, all concrete and solid, where you have to see them often.

They don’t have to be set in stone – shouldn’t be, in fact – but they aren’t a bad foundation to have as you start contemplating everything else.

five-word-foundation

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

I’ve just come off a very quiet week – the replacement CPAP machine had some problems with its power cord, which meant every goal outside of the day-job was a write-off until I got the replacement cord on Friday (I swear, the universe is giving me these little glimpses of what my life used to be like just so I’ll never go back there).

So this week, CPAP and depression meds willing, I will actually finish the crocodile story and get the first act of Float started. I’m also firing up the pomodoro technique on the four days of the week when I’m not at the day-job, in order to give my writing days a little more structure and focus.

What’s inspiring me this week?

I mainlined the first two seasons of UnReal this week. I think someone recommended it in their Circle posts earlier in the year, which is what actually got me to sit down and watch it – whoever that was, THANK YOU.

If ever there was a show that really broke down the difference between empathy and sympathy in writing, UnReal is it. *Everyone* in this show is a reprehensible human being, particularly during the first season, and yet you care about everyone and get deeply invested in their drama. Constance Zimmer and Shiri Appleby are both brilliant, and I am deeply happy to see Craig Bierko teamed with Zimmer again after their fantastic run in Boston Legal a few years back.

What part of my project an I avoiding?

I’ve been working on the first sequence for Float and it keeps giving me an uneasy feeling. Partially it comes from playing with the genre I’m playing with – doing the John Wick-esque story means setting up stakes really efficiently, usually by setting up a character who is important to the protagonist and killing them off incredibly quickly. I’m trying to do this inside of five scenes, and it’s not going well.

And so I’ve fallen into the trap of worrying at it, trying to figure out how to do it better, rather than just getting the rhythm of those scenes down and moving on with the next sequence of the story.

Which, again, I’m avoiding because I haven’t put as much thought into it, and it involves a series of relatively daunting scenes that I should probably sit down and sketch out before I write them…

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

I seriously just spent about a half-hour staring at this question, because I am very fragmented after a week of bad sleep and my attention splintered a whole bunch over the last few days. Gathering the threads together and performing a little triage, I’m throwing the bulk of my attention behind getting the Crocodile rewrite ready to submit by next Sunday. My new writing time will be spent working on the opening chapter of Float, but I’m largely consigning that to the short bursts of writing I do before work and on lunch breaks.

What’s inspiring me this week?

I went to see St Mary’s in Exile last night and it is one of the strongest pieces of theatre that I’ve seen in year. Incredibly strong cast, incredibly strong staging, and a script that only hits one hollow note in nearly two hours of performance. My mother initially pitched it to me as its a play about an excommunicated priest, but that’s underselling it a whole lot. It’s basically about the intersection of social justice and the traditions of the catholic church, and what happens when they come into conflict, and it’s perfectly willing to embrace all the complexities of the real-life situation it’s based upon.

The play’s in its final week this week, but i’d encourage anyone who is in Brisbane and a fan of theatre to get along and see it.

What part of my project an I avoiding?

Focus. I did a bunch of work last week, but none of it had the kind of focused drive towards a goal that had characterised the month before that and I’m feeling kinda frustrated with my output right now. Need to sit down and put together a cohesive plan now that I’ve ticked off the PhD application and give myself some goals for the rest of the year.

Poem

It’s 1994 and I’m sitting in a cinema with tears on my cheeks. Gareth has just died and Matthew is at the pulpit, reading W.H. Auden’s Funeral Blues as the eulogy for his friend. It wrecks me as few things have wrecked me, in my young life. John Hannah delivers a performance that makes me a fan for life. A fan that will follow him through the third Mummy film and Sliding Doors, professing an affection for both.

Three years later I see Auden’s poem on the page. I’m twenty years old, studying poetry, getting ready to spend two years writing an honours thesis about poetics and space and the city I live in. I’ve been published, as a poet. Performed my work at festivals. I wander the streets with notebooks in my backpack, writing draft after draft, hundreds of poems every year. I embrace the idea of quantity as a means of learning craft. It turns out, that’s not a bad way to learn.

I write some okay poems in those two years. I write a lot of bad ones. They were about girls, mostly. That’s why I started with poetry, why I kept at it for years afterwards. I was young and awkward and funny-looking. I didn’t know how to talk to people at all, let alone the opposite sex.

And I was foolish enough to believe that writing poetry would be my way of forging connection with the world around me. And foolish enough to happy, when that finally worked.


My favourite poem begins from a place of heartbreak and sorrow. Pablo Neruda doesn’t bother trying to hide it; everything is right there in the opening: Tonight I can write the saddest lines. He sets the parameters and everything progresses from there: the night is shattered; the immensity of loss grows larger; the inevitability of change is both a hurt and a solace.

I read Neruda as younger man, long before my heart was even bruised, let alone properly broken. I admired the exquisite longing of his words, back then. I craved the intensity of the feeling.

Years later, after my heart had been properly broken, re-reading Neruda’s poem wasn’t the same. I didn’t crave intensity anymore, could barely handle the feelings that roiled inside me. All I wanted was a release, the promise that the hurt would stop.

I read it again, very recently. It’s brilliance is dimmed, after all these years, but there is no doubt that it still shines.


In his book, Making Your Own Days, Kenneth Koch outlines a theory that explains poetry better than anyone else I’ve read. Poetry is the language inside language, he says, his analogy inherited from Paul Valery. It’s the language we turn to when words themselves are inadequate to the task.

It’s the language we turn to when I hurt is not enough. When I love, or I grieve, or I feel will not get the job done.

Poetry is the place we turn when words can no longer contain our sentiment, and we need the other elements of language to pick up the slack.

You can tell a good poet from a bad one by their ability to recognise more than this. To acknowledge that poetry conquers the immensity of feeling through more than the recognition of feelings.

A good poet see through the emotions and looks to the feelings, searches for ways to wring more meaning from words through tone and rhythm and language. They create structures, edifices that bolster the words and hold the weight of meaning upright.

A good poet works magic with all the diligence of a stage magician, utterly aware of how they’re directing the audience’s attention in order to pull off their trick.

And when they’re done, you don’t see the training. You don’t see the smoke or the mirrors or anything but the trick they want you to see.


It takes effort to love poetry. Books are hard to track down, and skew towards the classics. You spend more time reading the poets of yesterday than you do the poets of tomorrow. You trawl second-hand stores, breathing in the smell of dust and cellulous and lignin.

You find other poets and talk to them, because they talk about poetry in ways that other people do not. ­


My second favourite poem begins from a place of warning. Alice Walker states it clearly:

Do not give you heart
to someone who eats hearts
who finds heartmeat
delicious.

I read that poem for the first time just before the end of a relationship. Right before my heart was properly wrecked, like a car driven over the edge of a cliff and left to burn in the chasm below.

That opening sucked my breath away, left me trembling as it dawned on me that things in my life were not good. The rest of the poem barely mattered, although I found myself reading it again and again as the years went by. Slowly, I saw the other verses, building to more than heartbreak.

Years later, it occurred to me that I had more in common with the carnivore in Walker’s poem than I ever had with the victim.


At twenty, I would have told you that I wrote poetry to meet women, and it would have been true enough that I would not feel like I liar. It’s easier to retreat behind true statements, even if they aren’t the whole of the story.

At thirty, I would have told you I didn’t write poetry anymore, and that people are reluctant to let you stop. For years after I gave up writing verse, people would introduce me using poetry alongside my name: this is Peter; he’s a poet. Poetry stained my life the way ink stains the fingers, and it proved even harder to scrub free.

Today, I sit on my couch and gather books around me. I re-read Auden, and Neruda, and Walker, and other poems I loved almost as much as those three. I think about the years I devoted to writing verse, pursing poetry with a dogged persistence I’ve never truly brought to any other form of writing.

Not because I wanted to meet women, or because I loved the poetry itself. Not because of the attention, although I craved that for a while. Not because I thrilled at the magic of poetry, or enjoyed the diligent study of form and structure that came with it.

Our motivations for doing anything are far more complex than any of that. I wrote poetry for all those reasons. I wrote poetry for none of them.

I wrote because I wanted to be heard and the discovery that I could be was heady as drinking my first glass of wine. I wrote poetry because I craved connection, and was not good at establishing it in any other way. I wrote poetry because it presented me with opportunities, gave me a way of navigating a writing degree that wasn’t quite sure how to handle my proclivity for writing fantasy, connected me with other writers I could not connect with any other way.

I wrote poetry, drew what I needed from it.

Then, I stopped. Acknowledged that I wasn’t a poet, not in any way that counted.

I regret nothing about that decision.

It’s one of the few I can say that about, with any degree of surety.


What I love about Neruda’s poem is this: there is nothing special about heartbreak and longing. We all want. We are all denied. Even before your heart is wrecked, you know what is coming. There is nothing interesting in the longing.

But we want it to be special. We want our pain to be unlike any other. We want to be unique. For the world to acknowledge that we hurt like no-one has ever hurt before.

That feeling is there, in Neruda’s work. For years, I adored that recognition, blind to the obvious irony.


It’s 2016 and I’m sitting on my couch, watching youtube. I’ve searched for John Hannah and Funeral Blues, revisiting the moment I first truly fell for poetry. I’m not crying, this time. The room is brightly lit. Hannah is still magnificent, and so are Auden’s words, but they don’t feel the same at thirty-nine as they did at seventeen.

What gets me, this time, are the words before the poem, the acknowledgement of poetry’s necessity. Matthew describes his friend through other people’s eyes, then turns to his own feelings: Unfortunately, he says, there, I run out of words.

There, I run out of words.

For nineteen years now, the words have been there. I make my living articulating things, making them pretty and comprehensible, arranging things so words do what I want them to do.

And I know that it will not last. It cannot last. Words have been adequate for the situations I find myself in, but there are situations coming where they will fail me. I have both parents. I’ve lost no-one close to me. The day will come when those are no longer true. A day when I need words to be there, and they will not bend to my will.

When that happens, it’s comforting to think that poetry will be waiting for me, ready to fill the gaps. And John Hannah, reading Auden, will no doubt make me weep again.

melbourne-parks

Creed and the Subtle Build of Stakes

I sat down to watch Ryan Coogler’s Creed last night, and immediately started thinking about what a remarkable film it is. Fortunately, I don’t have to, because the inimitable Grant Watson has already written the best review of the film you’re going to see. So good, in fact, that I immediately went back and re-watched bits of the film that he talks about so I could appreciate them all over again.

But from a writing point of view, I do have things to add, because there are things that Creed does that are worth learning from.

In this case, it’s a film of enormously subtlety, with a script of enormous subtlety. It isn’t afraid to set things up, then let them pay off without you noticing.

Case in point: There is a scene, early in the first act, where our protagonist Adonis Johnson tells his mother, Mary-Anne Creed, that he plans to be a full-time boxer. She immediately tries to talk him out of it. “Do you know how many times I had to carry him up those stairs because he couldn’t walk?” she asks. “How many times I had to wipe his ass, because he couldn’t use his hands?”

It seems like a throw-away series of question, three seconds of dialogue that demonstrates the dangers of boxing and establishing the stakes. And they do that, admirably, but they also do more, because both of those questions and the way they are phrased set up stakes for things that happen later in the film in ways you’re not even thinking about as a regular audience member, because they immediately connect Adonis Johnson to the two most important people he meets in the second act.

The first question – do you know how many times I had to carry him up those stairs – is all about Mary-Ann Creed’s history with her husband. It’s a warning, yes, but it’s also a testament to the connection between her and her husband. It’s about the past, and shared experience, and one that only happens because the two of them are bonded.

Then the second act of the film introduces our B-Plot: the beginning of a surrogate father-and-son relationship between Adonis Johnson and an aging Rocky Balboa. And while the thing that lays Rocky low in this story isn’t boxing, there is a particularly loaded moment in the finale that involves Johnson carrying his father figure up a flight of stairs, and it’s incredible.

The film never hits you over the head with this. It doesn’t actually care if you notice or not, ‘cause that stair scene will make you feel if you’ve got a goddamn heart of stone, but the resonance sings through the movie.

The second question – about losing the use of his hands – proves to be just as big a set-up. One of the first people Johnson meets when he hits Philadelphia is Tessa Thompson’s Bianca, a young musician with a degenerative hearing condition that will eventually take her hearing. She explains it during the pair’s first not-really-a-date, teaching Johnson the one piece of sign language she well and truly remembers in preparation for the date. Johnson mimics the sign, and they bond, the whole love-interest vibe sealed.

And it’s a beautiful moment, because even though the film never touches on it again, the threat of what losing his hands could really mean for Adonis Johnson’s future is immediately contextualised and given an external metaphor.Of course, that metaphor is also a musician committed to following her dreams today, before the inevitable happens,which makes her simultaneously a warning and a cheerleader urging the plot forward.

I’ve got an incredible amount of admiration for the layers in this film. Now either of these things would have been unbearable if they had attention called towards them. It would have seemed schmaltzy and sentimental, drawing away from the other parts of the film.

But because they are inserted into the script, and used with a deft hand, the viewer is free to make the connections themselves and lose nothing if they do not. It’s a little thing that pays off if you choose to do a closer reading, and it shows the level of control and craft that’s gone into every aspect of the film.

It’s a technique worth stealing, when you get the chance.

Reporting In

I’ve grown complacent about travelling in recent years. I went from doing very little of it, to doing a whole lot, and somewhere along the line I stopped fretting about the logistics of getting places and packing things.

I paid for that, over the weekend. Three nights in Melbourne with antidepressants and a power chord for the CPAP machine meant I was feeling particularly blunted by the end of the trip. I yawned a lot. I got light-headed in the afternoons, just like I did before the apnea was treated. I had headaches and wasn’t quite so in-charge of my emotional state as I’ve grown used to in recent weeks.

Now I am home and medicated and catching up on sleep. Still blunt, but getting sharper, and vowing not to leave things behind again.

I went to see Nerve last night, and it was terrible, but exactly the right kind of terrible for my mood and mental state. If you’re okay with cheese, teen melodrama, and a plot that takes common sense out back and shoots it, Nerve is not a bad C-grade movie to pass an idle hour or so. The script is bad, the depiction of the internet makes 1995’s Hackers look state of the art, and the leads are charismatic enough that you almost don’t mind too much.

A photo posted by Peter M Ball (@petermball) on