Writing Excuses 17.50: Consistency, Inconsistency, and the Crushing Weight of Expectations
Key Points: What does your audience expect, when can they rely on you to provide new content, and what commitments have we, as creators, made to the audience? Seasons and breaks, or a never-ending juggernaut? Focus on regularity or focus on content? Under-promise and over-deliver.
[Season 17, Episode 50]
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Consistency, Inconsistency, And the Crushing Weight of Expectations. 15 minutes long.
[Dongwon] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Howard] This episode was my idea. Because today is December 3… Is it December third?
[Dan] It is.
[Dongwon] It is December third.
[Howard] It’s December third. Wow, look at that. We’re recording this on December 3 for December 11 because we realized we had a hole in our schedule of episodes. We could not let that stand. Then we took a step backward and had to ask, well, why not? What was our original commitment to publishing an episode every week without fail? I’m actually going to throw this question to Dan. Dan, do you remember 2008? Do you remember back then when we decided how often we were going to do this?
[Dan] I have [garbled] memories of 2008. I don’t remember if there was a specific decision made other than if we’re going to do it weekly, let’s make sure we do it every single week.
[Howard] Yeah. See, that was my memory as well. That was a 2008… I guess it was the only 2008 any of us got. But back then, I was eight years in on what would become a 20 year run of Schlock Mercenary where the daily web comic updated every day without fail. That was a thing that, and I’m not mincing any words here, made me feel important and special. So I thought it was something that we should do with our podcast as well. So we have inherited that. Here it is 2022, very nearly 2023, and we are still insisting on putting this stuff out every week. Now, fair listener, we’re not recording this episode in order to tell you that we’re going to change that. We’re going to explore how the crushing weight of your expectations drove this recording session and what the alternatives might be for those of you who publish newsletters or do other sorts of social media things, Patreons, whatever else. Let me throw it out to the august body of two…
[Dan] I just want to say really quick that us doing an episode about how we never miss an episode kind of feels like the radio station constantly interrupting songs to tell you how they never interrupt the songs…
[Howard] Yeah. Yeah. There’s… For my pitch to this episode originally to Dongwon, I said, “Oo, oo, I have a silly meta-meta-idea.”
[Dongwon] Dan, it’s important to let them know what they’re getting and so you need to remind them of what it is we’re doing here.
[Howard] It is.
[Dongwon] Howard, question for you, actually. Is your streak completely unbroken? Are you at 20 years of not missing a single day?
[Howard] Yes. 20 years from June 12 of 2000 was the first strip through July 20 of 2020 was the final strip. Every day has a strip on it, and all of those strips aired on the day which they were scheduled. There was this one time where the strip aired about eight hours late because a universal… Err, uninterruptible power supply in the server farms was configured incorrectly and power cut out and the generator didn’t come on and then the UPS exploded. We had to move to another host. I think that was in 06. That was the point at which everybody just insisted I was metal and I couldn’t be stopped. When, in point of fact, that was I know people who can solve the technical problems and I have a buffer.
[Dongwon] How stressful has that been for you? Like, what does that feel like to know that every day I got to get this out? I mean, obviously, you’re banking some, those are in the bank in advance, but what’s that process felt like?
[Howard] It’s like… I couldn’t have accurately described it until I was out the other side of it. You ask a fish what water taste like, and they’re like, “What? What does the world taste like?” No. I am now like the fish who has crawled out onto dry land. I’m like, “Hm. Water was nice. Air is different.”
[Howard] There was a constant pressure, but it was also a piece of what I used to motivate me, to get me moving. The idea that a strip, that a day could go by without a strip was just absolutely unthinkable to me. Because I knew that if I missed one day, then it would be okay, and I would just start missing days over and over and over again.
[Howard] So… But that’s me. That’s… I don’t want to project that mindset on to other people. That’s where… With this whole discussion, we have to be careful.
[Dan] Well, that’s what I want to bring up next, is… I honestly, despite doing two of them, I don’t listen to a ton of podcasts. So is never missing a week, is that actually a rare thing? Or does everyone do that?
[Dongwon] I think, as one who listens to an insane amount of podcasts, it depends on the podcast. There are many that I follow that are religious about weekend, week out. Then there are some who are like, “Yeah, we missed four or five over the course of our several year run.” Then there are some who update irregularly, and you just get new content when you get new content. I think one way that podcasters sort of get around the burnout component is by bundling them into seasons. Right? So we’ll do 10 episodes weekly, and then take a break for two months while they prep the next season, and then come back for another 10 episodes. I think that’s a way to sort of manage that schedule and manage expectations because really that’s what it comes down to. So much of what this is what does your audience expect, when can they rely on you to be providing new content, and what commitments have we, as creators, made to that audience.
[Howard] Yeah. With some of the more produced… Produced is the wrong word, and I don’t want to put a negative connotation on it. The more heavily produced… The higher production value podcasts run a lot like television seasons would run, which is, hey, we’re going to do a run of a couple of dozen episodes, and then we take a break. During that break, what is happening is we are arranging for the sponsors and the ads and the content and whatever else for the next season. That’s… When you’ve got five or 25 people working on a thing, that makes a lot more sense than insisting that this is a weekly juggernaut that just never stops rolling and outputting a thing.
[Dongwon] Well, so much of the advice for authors these days, is integrate multiple touch points for the audience. Right? So, you have your books, but then you’re also maybe you have a podcast, maybe your Patreon, a substack, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter. All these are ways in which you’re interacting with your audience on a regular basis. So I think the reason I found this topic interesting was what’s the logic behind how you structure that, how do you approach that, how do you manage your own burnout and audience expectations at the same time.
[Howard] Yeah. On the subject of authors, we should have a book of the week. Dan, did you bring us… Did you bring one?
[Dan] I did bring a book of the week. So, I am a big fan of Sylvia Moreno-Garcia. She has a relatively new one, I think it’s a month or so old, called The Daughter of Dr. Moreau. Which is a retelling of The Island of Dr. Moreau, set in the Yucatán Peninsula in the either early 1900s or late 1800s. I’m not deep enough into it to know exactly where. But Sylvia writes a very distinct subset subgenre that I adore. Which is historical Mexican feminist horror. If you’re into that, she is so good. Her… Last year, she put out one called Mexican Gothic which was a haunted house story. This one is much more kind of that H. G. Wells Dr. Moreau thing, but all from the point of view of this daughter, transplanted from France, growing up in the Yucatán Peninsula, raised by a Mayan nanny. Then, at the center of this giant culture clash, written with this delightful core science-fiction element on top of it. It’s really good stuff. I’m not done with it yet, like I said, but it’s fantastic, and I recommend it. So that is The Daughter of Dr. Moreau by Sylvia Moreno-Garcia.
[Dongwon] That’s tremendously exciting. Mexican Gothic was really one of my favorite reads last year.
[Dan] Oh, it was so good.
[Dongwon] Just terrific.
[Dan] This one, thus far, I’m liking even more.
[Howard] That’s… It’s cool, and I love the way you described… And I’m going to make a point out of this… When you said the genres. Name those off again.
[Dan] Historical Mexican horror.
[Howard] Okay. Historical Mexican horror. One of the things that’s fun about following authors on social media is that discovery that if you like, for instance, horror, branching into a historical horror is not a big stretch. You start seeing some of these overlaps. If you like historical, branching into Mexican and horror at the same time, that is not a big stretch. So, yeah, when you say Mexican historical horror, if you are into that thing, no, if you are into any of those things, there’s a really good chance that you’re going to like this new thing. This is one of the reasons why having some sort of presence on social media or whatever is useful to us so that we can find those places where we overlap with people’s existing interests and say, “Oh, well, you know, you liked The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you might actually like Schlock Mercenary. It’s not a book, and it’s not British, and it has pictures, and it’s not as funny, but…”
[Dan] There are enough parallels.
[Dongwon] Yeah. I think with the social media component, like having sort of these regular contact points like I was talking about earlier is… Can be really, really important. Right? I think having the daily updates, the regular updates, that you were talking about from Schlock Mercenary. I think the basic advice for Instagram is, like, post a reel a day. Right? For TikTok, it’s like regular… Make sure you’re regularly updating your content. That can be really important. But that can also create an enormous amount of pressure on creators. I think it holds a lot of people back from even trying to start to build their brand that way. I launched a newsletter a few years back, it’s called Publishing Is Hard. I really love doing it. One thing that I decided before I launched it was I’m not going to commit to a regular schedule. Because I know me. I know what my life is like, I know how much work I have on my plate at any given time, and, as a literary agent, the amount of work that I do goes up and down wildly. One week will be completely insane, the next week will be quiet. Right? So it just wasn’t realistic for me to make a commitment of I’m going to send a newsletter every week. Now, my colleague Kate McKean also has a brilliant newsletter called Agents And Books. She does two newsletters a week. Right? We both have different audiences, different strategies, different approaches, and it’s really cool to see what she does and what I do slightly different because I, at the beginning said, “I’m going to send these irregularly.” When I first created it, it was in sort of the copy that I made. Anybody who has followed it has known that there will be periods where you won’t hear from me for a minute, but then I’ll send a new one out. The balance is you can sort of focus on regularity of getting the piece of content out, and it’s usually a little bit shorter, it’s a little bit more pointed, or, what I do, is make sure that what I’m giving somebody… I’m trying to make sure every piece is pretty special to the audience. Right? I’m putting a lot of care and craft into what I’m writing. Not that you don’t for a daily update, but I’m giving something a little bit more emotional, I think, then what my colleague Kate does. Right? So I think finding that balance point between okay, if I’m not doing a weekly update, what am I offering my audience that sort of makes up for the lack of regularity in a way that balances it out for them.
[Howard] Yeah. To be sure here, if we had decided that Writing Excuses was going to be a 30 minute episode instead of a 15 minute episode, the weekly schedule would have crushed us.
[Howard] Because the recording sessions, we just wouldn’t have had enough time to do the things that we wanted to do.
[Dongwon] Yeah. Those people who do like weekly three hour podcasts? Unimaginable, to me, how they do that. I mean, it’s just a bigger part of their lives. I think we all have primary things that we’re doing that are incredibly time-consuming. So we can fit in these 15 minute a week episodes. Which is, just, again, a really different balance point.
[Howard] Dongwon, you talked about how the crushing expectations can prevent people from even getting started. For a while, I had a twitch stream… I still have technically, a twitch stream, I just haven’t streamed in forever. A twitch stream in which the art that I was doing for the X DM books was showing up as part of the stream. Then something happened, I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I realized the effort of configuring things so that I can stream this is preventing me from getting the work done. The stress of having an audience in front of me is preventing me from doing the really hard work where I have to be unafraid of making mistakes. I’m just not comfortable doing that on stream. Which is weird to hear from the guy whose 20… Or whose year 2000 artwork is available for everybody to look at. But, long story short, I stopped streaming and started getting the work done. So, yeah, the decision to create regular content can be a decision that results in less productivity. That’s not what any of us want.
[Dan] Well, I’m glad you brought that up because one of the points I want to make here is this is not an episode about how you should start a podcast.
[Dan] Or about how you should have a TikTok. Right? We are not telling you that any of these outlets are necessary for an artist’s career. What we’re trying to get across is the idea that you need to look at your own output, at your own schedule, decide for yourself if one of these extra peripheral activities might be valuable to you, and then see what would be the best format to stick that into. If you want to do a podcast, you want to do a quick and dirty weekly one like we’re doing, you want to do something longer and research that comes out in discrete chunks once a year, how do you want to structure that? Maybe the answer is nothing at all. All three of us used to be on Typecast which ran for about three years with different cast members here and there. We really worked hard to make that a weekly thing as consistent as possible. It wasn’t always. Eventually, we had to let go of it because our schedules became such that it was not worth our time anymore. Sometimes that happens.
[Dongwon] Yeah. I think an important point here…
[Howard] I still miss it.
[Dongwon] I do miss it too, actually. Yeah, it was fun. If I have any point here, it’s… Yeah, don’t feel like you have to do these things. If you do do it though, if you’re thinking about it, don’t be afraid to experiment. Right? Don’t feel like just because most or some newsletters are weekly, that this is a thing that you’re tying yourself to, but you’re going to have to do every week. I think that expectation can actually limit you more than open things up. Right? So, don’t be afraid to experiment, try new things, and don’t feel like you have to do the one piece of advice that you’ve heard elsewhere. You can do in a regular schedule. My only advice is as you do that, to under-promise and over-deliver. If you’re not sure you can do weekly, don’t tell people upfront you’re doing weekly. Right? Just say, “I’m trying this out, this is an experiment, let’s see how it goes.” Right? I’m currently launching a monthly twitch stream and I’ve said many times, this is experimental. We’re trying this out. I’m trying to figure out how do I do scheduling, how do I coordinate this, how do I get guests on. All of this stuff. It’s been super fun so far, pretty easy so far. But we’ll see where I’m at in six months. So, just make sure that you’re being realistic with yourself and realistic with your audience. Because where this goes wrong is when people feel really misled. Right?
[Dongwon] There have been times where I’ve under-promised and under-delivered. Right? Like, that happens. But I think if you have that relation with the audience, you can work with them and sort of make it up to them and find a way to balance that out.
[Howard] If you take away anything from this episode, under-promise, over-deliver. That’s your soundbite. Thank you, Dongwon.
[Dan] That’s a very good one.
[Dongwon] You’re welcome. Words to live by.
[Dan] Let me throw out one more thing that I’ve learned with my newsletter. Which I do try to send out regularly. But regularly for me use… It is not tied to a day of the week or a day of the month. I try to do a monthly newsletter, but it is more important for me to get it out on a Monday than it is to get it out on the first Monday of the month. Just because I know that that is the time when it is most likely to be seen and clicked on. So that’s a different kind of consistency, and a different kind of schedule keeping to keep in mind.
[Howard] Yep. Hey, Dongwon, you want to send us home with some homework?
[Dongwon] Yeah. So, here’s what I’d like all of you to do. Make a list of all of your regular commitments, the stuff that you’re obligated to do every week. Whether that’s going to therapy, picking up your kids, whatever it is that you have that is a regular thing. Put that on the list somewhere. Then, once you have all of that together, consider your bandwidth for adding new items to that list. Is that a daily Instagram post? Is that a weekly TikTok? Is that a newsletter? Is that this, is that another thing? Really think about what do I actually have time for. Then make a rough schedule of what content updates you could do in a sample month. Right? What feels realistic, what feels manageable. Then reduce that by a little bit. Right, in that under-promise kind of component. Right? Think about what feels realistic now, and then realize that you’re probably not going to hit that target. What’s a little bit under that that you could shoot for. Yeah. I think that’s a good place to get started in terms of putting together a content plan for yourself.
[Howard] Outstanding. That’s… It almost sounds like a life hack. Hey, I think we did it. I think we filled our December 11 hole.
[Howard] So. Fair listeners, this has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.