He’s an English author of novels, comic books, and films. He’s won numerous awards for his works. He’s the first author to win the Newberry and the Carnegie Award for the same book. He’s Neil Gaiman, and here’s my take on his top 10 rules for success. Rule number one is my personal favorite. And make sure to stick around all the way to the end for a special bonus clip.
Neil Gaiman’s Top 10 Rules For Business and Success
Rule #1: Make Good Art
Remember, whatever discipline you’re in, whether you’re a musician or a photographer, a fine artist or a cartoonist, a writer, a dancer, a singer, a designer. Whatever you do, you have one thing that’s unique. You have the ability to make art.
And for me, and for so many of the people that I have known, that’s been a lifesaver. The ultimate lifesaver. It gets you through good times, and it gets you through the other ones. Sometimes life is hard, things go wrong. In life, and in love, and in business, and in friendship, and in health, and in all the other ways that life can go wrong.
And when things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician, make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor, make good art. IRS on your trail, make good art. Cat exploded, make good art.
Someone on the Internet thinks that what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before, make good art. Probably things will work out somehow. Eventually time will take the sting away. And that doesn’t even matter. Do what only you can do best. Make good art. Make it on the bad days. Make it on the good days, too.
Rule #2: Do What You Care About
Write things people want to read. Write things you care about. I get puzzled and lost when people start asking me questions about what they should be writing for the market, whatever, there is no market. There’s nobody, there’s nobody in the whole world of marketing, ever, would of woken up one day and said, “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is exactly what the world needs.
Nobody would have turned around and gone, ah, your market niche is do a sort of reply to Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” and set it in the graveyard. That’s not, you know, things like that happen because somebody wants to tell a story and because you have an idea and because you think you can tell that story better than anybody else.
Rule #3: Do New Things
I always mean to write sequels. People say why don’t you write sequels? Neil Gaiman does not write sequels. And I go, well, actually. It’s not like I’m standing up going “I shall never write a sequel.” There are sequels that I’d love to write.
But I’m much more likely to go, oh, shiny, when confronted by something I have no idea how to do. Find something over here that I really do know how to do. And I’ve figured it out, and I’ve learned how to do it the last time, and everybody loved it, and there are people waiting.
And then over here is something that I have no idea what it is, and nobody’s waiting for it. And I don’t think even anybody’s going to really like it, I will do that thing. Because that’s cool, and it’s new.
Rule #4: Ignore The Rules
When you start out in a career in the arts, you have no idea what you’re doing. This is great, people who know what they’re doing know the rules, and they know what is possible and what is impossible, you do not. And you should not.
The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them, and you can. If you don’t know it’s impossible, it’s easier to do. And because nobody’s done it before, they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone from doing that particular thing again.
Rule #5: You Are Unique
Saying that we have enough artists is like saying we have enough scientists, We have enough designers, we have enough politicians. We have enough politicians. But you know, nobody gets to be you except you. Nobody has your point of view except you. Nobody gets to bring to the world the things that you get to bring to the world, uniquely get to bring to the world except you.
So saying there are enough writers out there, enough directors out there, enough people with points of view, well, yeah, there are. But none of them are you. And none of those people is going to make the art that you will make. None of them will change people and change the world in the way that you could change it. So, if you believe somebody who says no, no, we’ve got enough of those, then all it means is you’re giving up your chance to change the world in the way that only you could change it.
Rule #6: Just Do It!
Man: So do you have any advice for someone who would like to start doing creative writing but has no idea where to start whatsoever?
Depends. Are you the kind of person who… do you read a lot?
Man: I read a lot, yes. and I write snarky emails, but That’s about it. I’ve been told they’re very good.
When you say creative writing, do you want to write fiction? do you want to write humorous essays? Do you want to, there’s an awful lot
Man: Fiction I would think.
You want to do stories.
Okay. So my advice is start writing stories.
Man: Just like do it?
Really, it’s almost as simple as that. It’s start writing stories, pick a style, pick a theme Look at the kind of, you know, you are not expected straight out of the hat to be a brave and original voice producing fine and wonderful fiction.
It’s much more like the first pancake on the griddle which is going to be this weird black messy thing that you either give to your dog or to a child.
Trying to convince them yeah, it’s nice, you know, you write, you finish things, you start the next thing, you write that, you finish it, somewhere in there you get reasonably good, and the point, I always found that I would always learn more about what I’d done the moment I saw it in print or these days probably the moment you see things up on the web, but yeah, show ’em to people but the most important thing when you’re just starting out is write the next one, assume that you have a million words inside you that are absolute rubbish, and you need to get them out before you get to the good ones and if you get there early, that’s great, that’s really my biggest advice, read everything you can, read outside your comfort zone, and write a lot.
Rule #7: Walk Towards The Mountain
If you have an idea of what you want to make, what you were put here to do, then just go and do that, and that’s much harder than it sounds, and sometimes in the end, so much easier than you might imagine, because normally there are things you have to do before you can get to the place you want to be.
I wanted to write comics and novels and stories and films, so I became a journalist, because journalists are allowed to ask questions, and to simply go and find out how the world works, and besides, to do those things I needed to write, and to write well, and I was being paid to learn how to write economically, crisply, sometimes under adverse conditions, and on deadline.
Sometimes the way to do what you hope to do will be clear cut, and sometimes it’ll be almost impossible to decide whether or not you’re doing the correct thing because you’ll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work, settling for what you can get.
Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be, which was an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics, making good drama, and supporting myself through my words. Imagining that was a mountain, a distant mountain, my goal, and I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain, I’d be alright, and when I truly was not sure what to do I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money, because I knew that attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain, and if those job offers had come earlier I might have taken them because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at that time.
I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work.
Rule #8: Persevere
One of the things that happens, especially when you’re starting out is you write stories, and you send them out, in my head as a young man whenever I would send out a story, what I would expect to have happen was the following morning a limo would show up at my house and people would get out of it and they would say this is yours, we loved your story so much, you never have to work again, just thank you, thank you for writing this story which we are going to publish, and make sure everybody in the whole world reads, and instead, you know, six weeks later it would come back with a little slip saying not quite right for us, or whatever, it was okay, you know, what you do is, I did two different things, what I did as a very young man was get things back and go either I’m not very good, which I do not choose to believe, although probably was kind of true, or I’m just doing this wrong, and I need to find out how this all works, so that was the point where I became a journalist, and I became a journalist specializing in publishing, in books, and I found out how it all worked, and two months later had sold two books, and then got a quote from Muddy Waters which I stuck to my typewriter, which tells you how long ago this was, and it just said don’t let your mouth write no check your tail can’t cash, that was my quote, and I went, I just sold two books, I’d never written a book, what am I doing? And got through it, my tail cashed those checks, but really I kind of dealt with it by just vowing to myself that I would try and write things that were so brilliant that nobody could reject them.
Rule #9: Try More
Do lots of things, try lots of things, the comparison of dandelion seeds, think dandelion seeds, dandelions, mammals traditionally spend a lot of time building a new mammal like them, it’s a lot of time and investment and food, and investment and everything.
Dandelions, they just have a head with lots of dandelion seeds on it and they let them go, and the idea is that some of them will survive, most of them won’t survive but that’s okay because a few dandelion seeds are going to go off, and they will make more dandelions.
And I would counsel people to think like that now, starting off, in the world that we’re in, this peculiar world where we don’t know what the rules are, everything’s changing so do lots and lots of little trial projects, send your trial balloons out, float your dandelion seeds. Absolutely be happy for five things that you do to fail, if one succeeds and succeeds well. Just try more, don’t be locked down, that would be my big piece of advice.
Rule #10: Enjoy The Ride
So when I agreed to give this address I thought, what is the best piece of advice I was ever given? And I realized that it was actually a piece of advice that I had failed to follow, and it came from Steven King, it was 20 years ago at the height of the success the initial success of Sandman, the comic I was writing Oh thank you, I was writing a comic people loved, and they were taking it seriously, and Steven King liked Sandman, and my novel with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens, and he saw the madness that was going on, the long signing lines, all of that stuff, and his advice to me was this, he said this is really great, you should enjoy it, and I didn’t, best advice I ever got that I ignored.
Instead I worried about it, I worried about the next deadline, the next idea, the next story, there wasn’t a moment for the next 14 or 15 years that I wasn’t writing something in my head or wondering about it, and I didn’t stop and look around and go, this is really fun, I wish I’d enjoyed it more, it’s been an amazing ride but there were parts of the ride I missed because I was too worried about things going wrong about what came next to enjoy the bit that I was on, that was the hardest lesson for me, to let go and enjoy the ride, because the ride takes you to some remarkable and unexpected places, and here, on this platform, today for me, is one of those places, and I am enjoying myself immensely,
Thank you so much, I made this because Benjamin asked me to, so if there’s a famous entrepreneur you want me to profile next, leave it in the comments below and I’ll see what I can do, I’d also love to know which of the top ten rules had the biggest impact on you and why.
Leave it down in the comments, and I will join in the discussion, thank you so much, and continue to believe, or whatever your one word is, and I’ll see you soon.
Audience Member: If you’re feeling particularly at a creative low point, where do you get your inspiration from to come up with such amazing tales and amazing subject matter to write your stories about?
What you’ve actually done there is ask the question that must not be asked of writers, you’ve rephrased it ever so slightly, but what you’ve fundamentally done is say where do you get your ideas? And writers are awful to people who ask us where we get our ideas.
We get mean, we don’t just get mean, we get mean in a writer-y way, which means we’ll then make fun of you, and we do that, the reason we do that is because we don’t really know, and we’re terrified the ideas will go away, and so every writer I know has a funny answer, and you know, Harlan Ellison used to say he got them from an idea shop in Schenectady I knew a writer who when asked he would say he gets them from the idea of the month club, and people would say oh really, he goes oh yeah, every month they send you an idea, oh good.
The truth is I think for me inspiration comes from a bunch of places, desperation, deadlines, a lot of times ideas will turn up while you’re doing something else, and most of all I think ideas come from confluence, they come from two things flowing together, they come essentially from day-dreaming, it’s that point, and I suspect it’s something that every human being does, writers tend to train themselves to notice when they’ve had an idea, it’s not that they have any more ideas or get inspired more than anything else, we just notice when it happens a little bit more, but you’re just thinking, you go well, you know, everybody knows that if you get bitten by a werewolf when the moon is full, you will turn into a wolf, you know that, it’s that moment where you’re sitting thinking, so what happens if a werewolf bites a goldfish? Or that moment where you start thinking well actually, what happens if a werewolf sinks its fangs into a chair, and what if you’re sitting in that chair and the moonlight touches it, and slowly it starts feeling more and more wolfish, and then it growls, and you know, what about the, oh my god, then you’d have to set it in the winter cos you’d need the snow for people to try and figure out why you’ve got chair leg marks in the snow by the body that’s had its throat ripped out, and suddenly you have a story.
So that’s, a lot of it is day dreaming. I wish there was something, I always feel I’m in some ways disappointing people when they ask where do you get your inspiration, because what they really always want is the answer, they want you to be able to say well, what you do is 11:58 at night, go down to the cellar, you roll the goat bones, there’ll be a banging on the door, it will open, this thing will fly in, it will explode, you’ll have a, something like a chocolate, you eat it, you have an idea I dunno, you make ’em up out of your head.
Don’t Chase Money
When you start out, you have to deal with the problems of failure, you need to be thick-skinned to learn that not every project will survive, a freelance life, a life in the arts is sometimes like putting messages in bottles on a desert island and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles and open it and read it, and put something in a bottle that will wash its way back to you, appreciation or a commission, or money, or love, and you have to accept that you may put out hundreds of things for every bottle that winds up coming back, the problems of failure, the problems of discouragement, of hopelessness, of hunger, you want everything to happen and you want it now and things go wrong, my first book, a piece of journalism I’d done only for the money, and which had already bought me and electric typewriter from the advance, should have been a bestseller, it should have paid me a lot of money if the publisher hadn’t gone into involuntary liquidation between the first print run selling out and the second print run never happening, and before any royalties could be paid, it would have done, and I shrugged, and I still have my electric typewriter, and enough money to pay the rent for a couple of months and I decided that I’d do my best in future not to write books just for the money, if you didn’t get the money then you didn’t have anything, and if I did work I was proud of and I didn’t get the money, at least I’d have the work.
Every now and then I forget that rule, and whenever I do, the universe kicks me hard and reminds me. I don’t know that it’s an issue for anybody but me but it’s true that nothing I did where the only reason for doing it was the money was ever worth it, except as bitter experience. Usually I didn’t wind up getting the money either. The things I did because I was excited and wanted to see them exist in reality have never let me down and I’ve never regretted the time I spent on any of them.
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