Man Plans and God Laughs


"Man plans and God laughs" is currently, my favorite Yiddish proverb.

My second favorite Yiddish proverb is "If Grandma had wheels she would be a wagon." (I just ran into that one searching for the origin of "Man Plans and God laughs")

The reason that this is on my mind is that I'm trying to make a plan for 2021. But, honestly, I'm flinching like a hand shy dog over the whole thing. Every time I sit down to give it some thought, I wince and shy away, expecting the next cruel blow of fate.

I had such a great plan for 2020. Honestly. Going into 2020, I had my act together as much as I ever had. Business-wise the year was going to be tremendous. It felt like it was all just laid out in front of me, for the taking. And then... and then...

Man plans, and God Laughs

It all got 2020'd. And in some ways, this was a very good thing. For one thing, it lit a fire under me with my writing again. You see, I had been putting off my own writing so that I could be available for and provide for my family.

You almost can't overestimate the amount of time and effort young children take, especially in the first three years of life. From what I understand of both the research and my experience with actual people, those years are the crux. After that, you've got what you've got. But proper nutrition, safety, love, physical affection, structure, and discipline in those early years are very important. And all of this can be collapsed into the single phrase, spend attentive time with your children. As a family we've made sacrifices to make that happen. Most of me not writing and not podcasting, was, part of the plane.

And I think that's the correct thing to do. I mean, unless something very unusual happens, my greatest creative works, in terms of impact and longevity, are going to be my kids. If I screw them up (more than the amount required to make them funny) then that mistake is going to compound, possibly across generations.

But when everything shut down, I got mad. I felt like I had made a spurned sacrifice -- or at least a mistake. I felt, like I think everyone felt, that I wasn't in control. This too is a gift of 2020. I got snapped around to how little input I had in the course of events. And that's a gift when it makes you focus more intently on the things you can control.

The way I look at it like this, when you concern yourself with things you can't do anything about, your power, your ability to affect change in the world, shrinks.

Think about that friend you know who is unreasonably obsessed with national politics. Wild emotional swings. Destroying friendships and straining family reunions. And their ability to change the course of politics is infinitesimal, if not non-existent. Yet they get so worked up, that they neglect to do the things they should or could do to make their situation and the situation of those they love better. You know someone like this I'm sure. They rage and their life falls apart more and more, while their attention is devoted to things like correcting someone who is wrong on the internet.

But, when you focus on the things you can do, your ability to create change in the world grows. This effect can seem eerie, but honestly, it's one of the truest things I know.

So what can I control? My output. Writing is a matter of time and will. So I tore into How to Succeed in Evil once again.

In some ways, this is a stupid thing to do. Satire is a very difficult genre to crack. But I had the series outlined. So I followed the outline and threw my hands at the keyboard. In frustration and fear, I wrote.

I'm really sketchy on psychotherapy. I think it's a load of horseshit, and the true benefits that someone gets from therapy are accountability and simply having someone to talk to. I don't doubt that depth psychology -- the idea that there is more going on in us than we know -- is correct. But I'm not convinced that delving into the depths of someone's personality is a good idea. The way to unite the plurality of urges and thoughts and evolved needs that is a human being into a strong and working personality is not through analysis, it's through synthesis. I think you have to make something to make something of yourself.

This is not to say you should tackle things alone. Talking to someone about your problem, really being heard, is like a gift from God. And it is the lonely tragedy of the modern world that the average person isn't truly listened to. But that kind of coaching and counseling is a far cry from psychoanalysis as I understand it.

All of this is a long-winded digression to say, if you are in trouble in your life, my suggestion is to immediately create something. It might not work for you, but it has always worked for me. And it has worked for everyone I've seen who's tried it. So, it's worth a shot.

Plunging into 2021

So as I stand here on the precipice of 2021, I have basically, three books completed. The second evil book, currently titled, "Half-man, Half-alligator, Half Plumber" is complete. It's been proofed, I'm giving it the final pass as I read the audiobook, and as soon as I am done, I will release the ebook, say Jan 15th at the latest. After editing and mastering the audiobook will be available.

I'm also about 5,000 words away from a first draft of the third book in the series, "Guy Who Amputated his Body" which is the story of Brainitar, who has featured in every iteration of How to Succeed in Evil, but was never really explained. My plan is to finish that up and release it in the Spring.

Writing more books seems like the highest leverage thing I can do.

And the question for 2021 is, "What now?" And whither the content of this Substack? I'm getting a lot of joy out of these essays and I hope you are too. But the overwhelming feedback from my reader survey (which if you haven't taken, you totally should, it's right here) is that I should write more fiction.

So the question I have is, do I continue to podcast every chapter of these new Evil books? Or do I do a podcast the first few and make the whole book available to subscribers for free? And for sale, etc.

Or do I make the books available on another feed?

It's tough to figure this stuff out, and I have recently come to grips with the fact that I suck at it. After I overcame the pain and embarrassment of this realization, became fascinating to me.

See, I have always assumed that the road to success was to become a better writer. To try new things, to grow, to seek out wider and more experimental horizons. But I have come to realize that that is not the case. Not that I shouldn't do those things. But the fault isn't the writing. There are people who don't write as well as I do who are making a better living than I am writing.

They're better at authoring. And by that, I mean some alchemy of promotion, networking, time management, and whatever else it is that I don't know.

At first, this realization is humbling, but then it is liberating. Realizing what you don't know is, in itself, a map.

Hey, look at this blind spot.

Well, what shape is it?

And once you've named the blind spot and outlined it, you can fill in your knowledge. You can ask for answers. You can make a plan.

So, the plan…

Which brings me back around to planning for 2021. You see, every time I start to make a 2021 plan, I start by saying something like, "If I could just find a way to grow by readership a little faster..." And then I hear a voice in my head saying, "Yeah, and if Grandma had wheels she would be a wagon."

My number one problem is that my audience isn't growing fast enough. I'm not getting my work in front of enough new people. I'm not putting myself out there enough. Any suggestions that you (dear reader or listener as the case may be) have are most welcome.

The good news is that my audience is growing. And for six-and-a-half months of cranking out words, I've made a lot of headway. But the nature of the world has become more increasingly winner take all. Those who are at the top of a field, have a greater share of the spoils than ever before. Now, you could say, why should you care about that. The work should be its own reward. And I agree with you completely. But right now my attention is fragmented. What I'm doing now, is a fraction of what I am capable of, because I can't focus solely on writing and thinking. And what I want to do is get to the point where this generates enough income so I can really give it everything and see what I've got in the tank.

Right now, every word I write is written on stolen time. I'm not complaining. It's hard and, it's good that it's hard, But that's just a fact.

I heard Werner Hertzog talking about what it takes to be a filmmaker, specifically what he saw lacking in some younger filmmakers, and he said, "A certain criminal element". He was not referring to a method of financing, but rather to being creative and ruthless with the world in pursuit of getting work done. Success in any creative field is impossible. But some people do succeed. So, the conclusion I draw is, you're going to have to break, or at the very least ignore some rules.

So, while God is laughing, here is my current, rough plan for 2021.

I'm going to publish less frequently, but with higher quality. I will write essays as the spirit moves me. Because, honestly, writing these things really help me work through what's troubling me. And I turn a good phrase in them every now and again, which I take as evidence that they don't completely suck.

My target is one piece of new fiction a month. 5-10k words. So short stories. What you might think of as preludes to larger works. I've been noodling stories set in space for 10 years. And I've been trying to get the world-building right. Not the politics or the economics, but the physics of it.

Not the actual physics, you understand. Spend time on Atomic Rockets and you will realize, in great depth and with great rigor how scientifically inaccurate all sci-fi you love really is. But what I have struggled with is how to have the story grounded in a physical reality, such that the kinds of stories you tell are a natural outgrowth of the reality, just as much as a cowboy story is grounded in the plains or high desert.

I could spend another 10, scattered, years at this task, but honestly, I've made enough progress to just write one and see how it turns out. At its core, all writing is like this. You prepare as best you can, but at some point, you just have to grab the parachute, jump out of the plane and figure it out on the way down.

Undergirding all of this is a feeling that a long-form story running in serial form is not friendly to new listeners. It seems like a three-hour episode would be fine. And a 10-minute episode is fine. And letting someone binge an entire book right away is fine. But asking someone in our distracted age to keep track of a week over week chapters -- or search back through a feed for the first episode, seems like it just asking for too much focus. Any feedback you might have on this question is very welcome.

The other thing that I'm playing around with is a series of videos called "How It's Written." The topic has great keyword juice on YouTube, and I see a way to talk about how books are made in a way that nobody else does. Looking at things from the highest levels - plot, theme, characterization - right down to the way individual authors use words, sentences, and paragraphs.

I've put the first one up on YouTube. It is for Game of Thrones. It was easy because I did a pretty detailed outline of it a few years back. I think this is a great first attempt and totally works, but I have ideas of how to make the next one even better.

You can watch the video here:

And here's the infographic.

What's great about this is its content, but it's all practice for me. And, the kind of thing I should be doing on a regular basis anyway. So I thought I would shoot for one a month in 2020. It's really modeled on Rick Beato's "What Makes This Song Great?" series, which, if you haven't checked out yet, I highly recommend.

So that is my, admittedly somewhat discursive plan. To summarize. Each month, one new piece of fiction, one "How It's Written", excerpts from "How to Succeed in Evil" and various essays and oddments as the spirit moves me.

I don't know if this is the best plan, this is just what I think I should test next. So if you have any suggestions or comments, please reply to this email, or leave a comment. Help me plan, and that way God can laugh at us together.