Action Creates Clarity

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone that I read.  I read a lot. I buy a lot of books and my family frequents the library so often that everyone there knows us by name.  When we had a chance to go on vacation, but it meant missing the kids' monthly book clubs, the kids begged to stay home and go to Book Club.  And yeah, I swelled with pride just a little.  I'm raising readers.  (And we scheduled the vacation for another time.)

One of my favorite things to do while the kids meet to discuss books?  I like to stretch my boundaries. I check out the new books, I look through books people leave on library tables, and I explore areas of the library less familiar to me.  Last week I pulled a book out of the business section:  Flip by Peter Sheahan.

Honestly, with business texts, I find I'm a skimmer.  I look through a book and some idea catches me, bounces around inside my head, and I quit reading. If it's a particularly good business book, I do this several times.  Sheahan's book had a couple bouncy ideas.

The way Sheahan defines "flip" intrigued me from the start:  "A shift in mind-set and thinking; often a counterintuitive approach that reflects the hard reality of the business landscape as it is today, and not as it used to be."

I think Sheahan went on to say stuff about business models and strategies, but by the third mention of CEOs, I was off in my own thoughts completely.

Sheahan used the word intuitive to mean familiar.

I'm an intuitive person. I trust my gut about things all the time.  As novelists, many of us rely on intuition. Why did we add that weird device in the third chapter?  Who knows.  But when it reappears in chapter ten, we think we must be brilliant.  There's something in our creative psyche that knows how to do this.  We're amazing, yeah?

Plus: we get better at following our intuition as we write more books.  So: our brilliance multiplies the more we write. Man, we are so good.  Intuition must rely on deep, creative talent, yeah?

Or it could be familiarity.

After we see a device or strategy working in our novels, we try again the next time with more confidence.  We trust ourselves more.  The path becomes familiar--and we call it intuitive.

So, okay, that's kind of damaging to our notion of collective brilliance, but it's also so very exciting.  Why? Because it blows away the myth that "real writers" borrow their talents from gods or muses and simply channel wisdom to the page, fully-formed and ready to publish.  The fact is that real writers write.  The more they write, the better they get. The more they write, the more intuitive the process becomes.

Maybe intuition is primarily (not exclusively) a path of conditioning.  We act without thinking and we choose the familiar.  If this is the case, Sheahan's proposal that we act counter-intuitively makes a ton of sense, especially in publishing.

I mentioned this Jane Friedman interview a bunch of times on twitter last week.  The woman is brilliant.  Or intuitive.  Or conditioned really well or something.  I suggest downloading the mp3 and listening to it more than once.  Friedman talks about the dream of "the published author" and how that dream has not changed with the reality of the industry.  She calls it "a process of re-education." Keep in mind that this is a transcription, so the words flow better when you hear rather than read them, but I know some of you won't take the time. This is important:

"Where I encounter the most embittered people aren't necessarily the ones who are unpublished. It's the ones who did kind of achieve that first book publication, or maybe they're even a little further down along, but now they're like frustrated that all that they thought that was going to happen---hasn't."

Are you getting this?  Yeah?  The dream is broken.

And the dream isn't just broken for those yearning to see the name of a big publishing house on the spine of their book. The dream is also broken for most people who do.

So why do we continue looking for something that isn't there?  Friedman says, "A lot of books that are traditionally published aren't selling that well, but people do still want that validation."

Wow.  And holy crap and stuff.  This is such a game-changing thought.

No wonder agent rejections hurt so much.  Authors are seeking validation!

Oh wow.  Talk about looking for love in all the wrong places.  If this were the plot of a book, all of us writers would be telling the hero to move on.  This isn't going to end well.

And I'm not saying there isn't a place for agents.  If you're dealing with a big publisher, you're going to want a literary agent.  There's a practical need.  But if you haven't established a big audience (see "Readers Are Everything"), then you probably aren't going to need a big publisher.  And if you don't need a big publisher, you're probably not going to need an agent.

So what to do?  Peter Sheahan would say you need to "flip" the idea.  Act counter-intuitively and embrace the reality as it is today.

What does that mean?  Quit looking for validation from agents and publishers. Just stop it.  If you're waiting for your book to be published by Scholastic or Penguin so you feel brave enough to admit to your parents that you wrote a book?  Stop it.  If you don't expect anyone to take you seriously as an author until you see your book taking up key shelfspace at Barnes and Noble?  Stop it.

You are an author once you author something. You owe it to yourself and your work to hone your craft and improve your skills. You don't need anyone's validation to write a second book.  Dude, you don't need anyone's validation to write a third or fourth or fifth book.  Forget that.  Forget it.  Okay? Gone.

Do not stop writing because your first or second or umpteenth book was rejected by an agent. Do not do that.  Okay?  You're working through the steps of an old, broken dream. You are not broken.  The dream is broken.  You see the difference?

What you need to do?  Listen to smart people like Jane Friedman when she talks about re-education.  Listen to someone like Peter Sheahan.  When the old is gone, you have to flip the old ideas into something new. Sometimes this means acting in ways that feel counter-intuitive.  Why?  Because in this case, counter-intuitive means unfamiliar. That's all it means.  You're not giving up.  You're exploring.  You're finding a new way.

And this brings me to another of Sheahan's ideas that keeps bouncing around in my head.  This one resonated with me because I'd just experienced the truth of it:


I'd been looking for clarity.  You know, the way you look for a lost dog: I'd been calling her name. "Clarity!  Clarity!  Where are you, Clarity?"  I asked around even.  "I lost Clarity!  I looked in all the places I expected to find her, but she's gone.  Have you seen Clarity?"

When looking didn't work, I waited.  I studied where she might be.  I went to conferences and listened.  I stayed open to possibilities.  And you know what?   No Clarity.  None.  I considered the fact that Clarity might be dead---gone forever.

Then an agent request for revision pushed me back into the world of Claire Morgane and I found something amazing:  my work seriously did not suck.

If you're laughing, I know it's because you've had similar thoughts about your own work---especially if it's gone through a round of agent submissions and rejections.

After spending time in Claire's world, I made a decision.  Forget Clarity.  The dream is broken anyway, so I may as well have some fun.  I decided to stay in Claire's world.

This is what Sheahan calls "action orientation."  He says you have to "do away with your commitment to microplanning everything and let loose with some bold and courageous action."

Isn't that funny and delightful?  Talk about validating! It's okay to take the unfamiliar path. (Yay!) It might even mean that you're brilliant.  Or at least very smart.  Or that you learn from experience.

But this is the big, serious, weird, wonderful thing:  as soon as I made a decision and moved forward, CLARITY appeared, knocked me on my ass, and started giving me big, slobbery dog kisses.

Agent rejection means, "I can't sell this to a publisher."  Publisher rejection means, "I don't have a ready-made audience for this work."

The broken-dream approach is to mold yourself into what sells.

The new approach?  Improve your work on its own merits and build your own audience. Readers are everything. I know.  I said that a couple blog posts ago, but it's still true.

But wait!  I'm not just repeating myself.  Here's the twist:  you need to find your own clarity.  It might be similar to what I'm doing.  It might be completely different, but I wish I'd read Sheahan's book last January rather than discovering this on my own:  Action creates clarity.

Do something.

You might even try doing something counter-intuitive.

Let loose some bold and courageous action.

Be brave.

Create your own damn dreams---and follow them.


  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Johanna Harness, Johanna Harness, Johanna Harness, Whiz Buzz, Reader Writer and others. Reader Writer said: Action Creates Clarity: It probably comes as no surprise to anyone that I read.  I read a lot. I buy a... #writerblogs [...]

  2. Groovy post! Love it!!

    The path is unknown, the future isn't clear - just do stuff and act like you know what you're doing. That's my motto. The universe really does rush to your aid once you get off your "bookend" and take action. :D

    We so have a physic connection today, Jo.

  3. Congrats for your first podcast Johanna! I hope you will find it very rewarding for you and your listeners.
    Readers are definitely everything, but listeners are also wonderful!
    Thanks, Joanna

  4. Awesome post/podcast. I loved this. I'm sending my own tweet on it!
    Thank you!

  5. Squeee! I did a podcast version of my latest blog post: Action Creates Clarity (you can also read it)

  6. Yay! TY! RT @thecreativepenn: @johannaharness great you're doing a podcast! Send me the link when you're done!

  7. @johannaharness love the podcast. was it hard???

  8. @jayelkaye I had zero experience and did it today. Followed directions from @thecreativepenn ( It was challenging.

  9. @johannaharness yes, perhaps I need to expand that post! I am now doing more videocasts as well - exciting times!

  10. This is a terrific post. From your refutation of the muse myth to the understanding of what publishing a book will (and will not) do for your self-image, you are spot on.

  11. Very nicely done. Lots to think about.

  12. @johannaharness Just found U & Action/Clarity post last evening. very fine, even for only a blog poster such as I. Thanks for posting that.

  13. @barnestorm2004 Thank you, John! There is no ONLY w/ writing. Blogging is a serious medium!

  14. Excellent post. Good catch on how Sheahan was using "intuitive." Obviously you are an excellent writer, but the Claire stories seem to beautifully express your vision. Publishing houses, if they were worth their salt, would be using their marketing powers to bring Claire to a large audience. Still, I agree completely that we are moving toward a new paradigm. No time to waste on the old, especially if it is not working for us. I think the writer of today is attempting to construct a new way of "doing business" in how they market, but also through what they are writing. There is a different quality to it, better and more free, I think. When we can connect laterally to our communities, instead of vertically to the agents and publishers, and when our libraries, bookstores and schools accept us as valid for our works rather than for our industry connections, then we will be entering the new paradigm. And you have already won an award for leading the way!


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