Monday, February 20, 2012

Tone: What John Is Working On

I'm dedicating today's post to three people, all of them have been incredibly, unbelievably and entirely nice, awesome and I am so fortunate to know them, work with them and talk to them. To Fred Hicks, Amanda Valentine and Chuck Wendig, thank you all so much for the support, encouragement and ass-kicking-when-necessary.

Today's post is a big personal admission. I'm doing this because I want to be transparent, and because I want to get better at something I really struggle with. And because I know if I say it here, people I know can then call me out on it when I have problems.

I struggle with my tone. And tone is incredibly important. I should explain what that is before this goes on....

Tone is how you sound to other people.

I don't want to say I suck at it, but let's agree to say that I need to work on it.

There are times when you want to sound professional. There are times when you want to sound casual. There are times when you want to sound superior to the people you're interacting with. There are times when you want to sound like the smartest person in the room. These are all, generally, separate times.

My problem is that I all too often fail to separate them. So there will be times when I'm talking to people I deeply respect, and I sound like a jerk. Or times when I am supposed to actually be the guy in charge and I sound like I just strolled in from the hammock in the back yard.

This comes from a few things, which I'll now detail. [Note: If you're looking for a place to escape this post, this would be the moment to bail. From here until the end, this gets personal, emotional and possibly raw.]


  • I am not used to being seen as 'professional'. Yes, I've been doing what I do for more than a decade. Yes, I possess quite a few skills and talents in the fields I work in. But to me 'professional' has been a term I sought to avoid being tagged with, because it conjured images of suits and ties and hating your job and coming home tired. I wanted to avoid all that. I still want to avoid all that - I love what I do and love that I can help people. But there is a way to be professional about it without being 'professional' in comportment. 
  • I'm used to being the very smart fish in a very small isolated pond. Part of this is fear. I was afraid until very recently (read: last year) to step out of my little pond and check out other waters available to me. The problem with staying in the little pond is that I got to thinking I was the only smart fish. Anywhere. In all the waters. Forever. This fish's head GOT HUGE, so by the time I found out there were other waters, I thought I was god's gift to ichthyology. I was in fact not super-fish, just one more good fish. And more critically, there are in fact lots of other good fish in a lot of waters.
  • My self-esteem fluctuates like the national voting sentiment. Yes, I know, it's shocking: A writer whose emotions and confidence aren't the most regulated. Some days I feel great, and I can weather any storms, and other days, I just want to hang back and eat Oreos and goof off. Lots of people go through this, you say. Lots of people have it way worse, you say. And I totally know this, and I am thankful to be better off than most, believe me, I'm just admitting that my faith and belief in myself aren't always rock-solid. (Wearing the bathrobe does help, seriously, it's like a superhero cape)
  • I have not always had (or listened to) any supporters I may have. Funny life lesson: When you have a huge ego, it's really hard to see if anyone is supporting you. Not so funny life lesson: When you have a huge ego, it's really hard to get anyone to support you. So when that deflated a little (both through some failings and really uncomfortable but vital moments of 'hey-get-your-head-out-of-your-ass') into the created vacuum rushed supporters, as if they were just waiting for me to make one adjustment. I like to think they were just waiting, it sounds cheerier than the alternative. 
  • I do not socialize easily. I can be social. I can even be mirthful and outgoing, but without some sort of context (like work) to bridge the gap, I often prefer not to socialize with new people, usually for the reasons mentioned above, but also because at times I come across poorly (read: bored, boring, distracted). If you know me, if we've broken that ice (even awkwardly or uncomfortably), I'm happy to fraternize with you, and even look forward to it. I think this comes from working essentially alone for 12+ hours a day, even with assistants and a dog, I don't see a lot of people, even if I dash out dozens of emails and hundreds of tweets. I need to do something about that.
So, I'm working on sounding better, sounding situationally-appropriate. Professional when I need to be (like mid-draft when I don't need to try so hard to make an impression - I already have the job), and comfortable when I should be (like in actual person-to-person conversation where I can/should do more than just being quiet and waiting for my turn to speak) 

I am getting better at this, but oh man this is NOT easy and NOT fast. This isn't something to be corrected in one conversation one afternoon, I realize that now. (I mean I sort of understood that from the outset, I just thought I'd be better at it faster.) This is an on-going effort to break the old habits and drill into my head some new experiences and new perspectives so that I don't have to fall back on the "be the smartest guy in the room, be superior...or else" attitude. 

What I'm asking you, yes you reader of my blog, is to help me out. When you and I get together, when we work together, when we meet and chat, help me be better. Let's have that conversation, let's talk about working together or  laugh about that funny thing. I'm not saying push my tone to the limit, but I am saying, please, give me the opportunity to practice. And be patient. If I get all lecture-y or egoic, you likely don't have to jump down my throat and point a finger at me - I'm getting way better at catching myself (except in written comments, still have to work on how I come across on paper/screen), and when I apologize, I mean it sincerely. I am committed to getting better at this. Because you deserve better, and because I deserve better.

Dreamation approaches at the end of the week. I think it'll be an excellent road test of what I've learned so far, don't you? 

Happy writing.

PS Later this week (Wednesday) I'm announcing the contest I should have announced last Friday. 

PPS I promise we'll go back to talking about writing theory and practice this week. Thanks for reading this though.