This past September at the STORY Conference in Chicago, I got the privilege to meet and hang out with Jeff Goins. He works for Adventures In Missions and writes a very popular blog on all things writing (one of the top 10 blogs for writers in 2011). We were hanging out with a bunch of guys at a pub late one night and after hearing that I had a nasty sore throat, he suggested that I get a Hot Toddy (to which I said, “What’s a Hot Toddy?”). The second I tasted the peppermint-chocolate goodness, I knew I liked this guy. I’ve since learned boatloads about writing and influence from him.
In an effort to spread his wisdom I asked him to do an interview for my blog. So please do enjoy and learn a thing or two. And if you are a writer of anything, please pick up the 2 eBooks he just released (Every Writers Dream and Before Your First Book). They are incredible and helpful, I promise.
Jeff, anyone in the writing blogosphere knows that your blog has absolutely blown up in under a year’s time, which is quite astounding. How did you do it?
Good question. Short answer: I don’t know. I’ll tell you how I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it by planning for it. I didn’t set goals; I didn’t try to make something happen. Nor did I do it by comparing myself to some mega-blogger that I held on a pedestal (and there are a few of those for me).
What I did do was I took my writing more seriously than I ever have before. I wrote my heart out. I listened to conventional wisdom. I broke a few rules (on purpose). I stole from what I saw “experts” doing and made it my own. Mostly, I just wrote. I didn’t grow as quickly as some (there’s always someone better), but I’m pretty happy with the past year. It’s been surprising and fun.
What are the most important things you have learned along the way?
Plans don’t work. For years I “planned” to write a book or become an author. It didn’t happen.
What did work was creating new habits — doing the dirty work of getting up every day and writing. Even when I was tired and unmotivated and even uninspired.
If you really want to do something, you have to make it habitual. And the only way to do that is to make room in your life for something new. It won’t be easy. There will be a cost, and you may have to sacrifice important things. So it had better be worth it.
What are your two new eBooks about?
They’re about publishing.
Every Writers Dream is the barebones guide for how you create a platform that will attract publishers so that you never have to pitch your work again. Anyone who does any kind of freelance writing — anyone who’s ever written a query letter or book proposal — knows the pain of pitching (and rejection that often comes with it). This book will help you build an asset that attracts attention. It’s basically what I accidentally did this past year.
Before Your First Book is an add-on to EWD. It’s a more practical guide to getting your writing noticed now (including some sample pitches I’ve written), so that you can create a portfolio that leads to your not having to pitch anymore.
In other words, EWD is more theory, and BFB is more practice. Both are some of the most important pieces I’ve written so far on the craft of writing.
Let’s chat about self-promotion…everyone knows that artists and writers have to self-promote and really put themselves out there if they ever want anyone to read their work. But many people in our generation are very weary of self-promotion and balk at the term “platform” because it can reek of pomp and pride. Many artists find themselves in a conundrum of wanting to share their art but not wanting to be “that guy”. So how can we be intentional about sharing our work (and therefore building a following) without being sleazy?
Well, first of all, don’t create crap. This should be a given, but it’s not. A lot of people are creating mediocre work and trying to pass it off as excellent. Start by creating something you can be proud of.
Then, build meaningful relationships where you help people. Serve your way into influence. Don’t make cold calls or asks. Earn the right to be heard. Make friends, real friends.
Then, demonstrate your competency. Send the occasional email; bring your portfolio to a coffee meeting. Don’t be afraid to share your work with someone. There’s nothing wrong with emailing a friend a blog post or sharing an article with someone whom you think it will help.
The trick is permission. You become “that guy” when you make asks without permission. Oh, and if you build a platform (a blog, podcast, speaking career, whatever) that attracts an audience, you avoid a lot of the awkwardness of asking. It can be difficult, and you have to earn your dues, but it’s possible.
You have a book coming out later this year…can you tell us what it’s about and when we can get it?
It’s called Wrecked: When a Painful World Slams into Your Comfortable Life. In short, it’s about how we find our life’s purpose in midst of the world’s pain and suffering. Things like HIV and world hunger and homelessness can, in fact, be avoided, but those who are making a difference refuse to look the other way. The book describes my own experiences as a missionary and how that’s shaped my worldview — as well as lots of interesting stories from other people. It’ll be available “wherever books are sold” (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase) in the fall.
You are currently one of the most prolific writers I know of, pumping out blogs, guest posts, and eBooks like it’s your full-time job (which I know it’s not–yet, at least). How do you produce so much great content? Do you ever get tired or do you just buy truckloads of Five Hour Energy?
Okay, not really. Just coffee.
Thanks, I suppose. I think what I do is try to never work from scratch. I’m terrified of the blank page. So I am always capturing ideas with little notes that I write to myself. Then why I want to write an article or eBook or whatever, I have something to start with. That’s how I blog, write articles, etc. I am always repurposing things (including emails, phone conversations, etc.). I try to never waste a single creative thought. It’s paying off well, because when I started writing my book, I found I had about half of it already written on my computer (albeit, in a pretty rough form).
Here is a quote from Before Your First Book: “Remember: This is about forming relationships as much as it is about creating content.” That seems really important. Can you expound a bit more on that?
You’ve heard this before. You’ve wondered if it was true, even suspected it. I can confirm it as fact for you. It’s true: It’s not just what you know, but who you know, that matters.
For writers, this means you can’t just be a good writer. You have to do the hard work of building intentional relationships. You have to earn the right to be heard. This doesn’t mean you can terrible at the craft; it just means that content is not enough. You need people. Like I said, you already know this. Time to act on it.
What do you dream of doing long-term with your writing?
Is it disingenuous to say that I am doing it? I’m writing, and my words are changing people. I’m even earning some money and having a blast as I do it. What more could I ask for?
Of course, I’d like to write many more books — memoirs and novels and all kinds of new endeavors. I’d also like to speak more on the topics I write (I’m doing some gigs this year, which I’m excited about). And a super-big pipe dream would be to have a short story featured on NPR’s This American Life. I love that show. So yeah, those are some dreams. But if all I ever do is keep doing what I’m doing, I would be pretty content. Fortunately, though, I think the best is yet to come.
You once told me that if I came to Nashville, you’d buy me a Hot Toddy…is that deal still on?:)