Why it’s more important than ever to question the rules

By the end of the week, I’ll finish the final draft of a novel I’ve been writing. It will then go to a few people who’ve agreed to give it a first read for me, and unless one of them says something very surprising, The Bialy Pimps will be for sale on Kindle by the end of the month.

But there’s more to this story. See, I wrote the first word of that novel on October 15th of 1999. For the past twelve years, my previous “final” draft has been sitting in the back of my closet, forgotten.

So in case you’re keeping score, here’s what happened:

Man writes novel.
Man shops novel around to literary agents, to no avail.
Man puts novel away for over a decade.

Then, in the middle of his busiest time, with a shit-ton of “brand-aligned,” “profit-generating,” and “strategically sound” projects on his plate that have absolutely zilch to do with fiction, man pulls novel out of closet and begins spending thirty hours or more a week working on it instead of on his more important stuff.

Why? Because this project matters to me, and because it doesn’t make sense to dogmatically follow any rules about how things “should” be done — including your own.

Question your assumptions

Here’s something we believe: Making money is important.

I’m not going to argue with that. I love money. I want more of it. If you feel you have too much money, go ahead and send it my way. I’ll give it a good home.

But the assumption that follows the belief that making money is important is that we should spend a lot of our time on what we know will make us money, and fit things that seem less likely to make a buck into whatever spare time remains.

I don’t buy it. Not this time, anyway.

I have no idea if this book (which is humor, by the way… think Catch-22* and you’ll be in the ballpark) will make me any money. I don’t care. Several things happened recently that created a perfect storm of disobedience, compelling me to work on a long-forgotten and less-than-lucrative project instead of creating products and writing sales copy, regardless of what it meant for business as I know it.

For one, I’d always wanted to write fiction, but I’d given up on it. When I graduated college, I was trained to be a geneticist but my dream was to be a novelist. Unfortunately, everyone knows that you can’t actually make a living as a novelist. A few lucky people win the publishing lottery, and everyone else has to settle for doing it as a hobby.

But a new medium recently came into play. Kindle. The Kindle revolution meant that authors could publish in a meaningful way (and for no cost) without getting the approval of agents or publishers. You still had to write quality and it wasn’t a magic fountain of cash, but you didn’t have to jump through everyone else’s hoops, either. So long, gatekeepers.

It just so happened that I’d been investigating and talking about Kindle for a while now . You know, coincidentally.

I knew from talking to my friend Sean Platt that thanks to said Kindle revolution, it’s now entirely possible to actually make part (or all) of your living writing fiction, even if you’re not Stephen King. Unthinkable!

And there was one more thing. With a decade’s distance from the first drafts of my novel and a hell of a lot of practice writing, I finally knew how to rewrite my book in a way that pleased me (pleased me a LOT, as it turned out) and make it feel ready to ship.

A perfect storm.

But there was one problem, and you can guess what it was.


I’m a business guy. A marketing guy. If you’re really generous, maybe I’m a “thought leader.”

What I’m not is a fiction writer. Not in the eyes of the internet, anyway.

It makes no sense for me to release a novel. Once I finish this one, it makes no sense for me to begin another, which I’m going to do. And it sure as hell didn’t make sense for me to push back some very relevant, very current tasks and spend six or eight hours a day working on a project that I hadn’t touched in twelve years.

Or did it?

I’ve mentioned how I’m okay with being abnormal because the usual definition of “normal” sucks. In the same way, I’m okay with doing stuff that doesn’t make sense because “making sense” is just someone’s opinion.

Who says that if you’re a writer, you shouldn’t write whatever strikes you, even if it’s a departure from your norm?

Who says that you shouldn’t follow where inspiration compels you to go?

Who says that you can’t be a novelist and… and whatever I am currently?

I don’t care if this book makes me any money, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it just might do so anyway. I’ve got a track record. I’ve got a network. I’ve got a readership. I understand marketing and promotion. And, now that I’m remembering how much I love writing fiction, I’m going to keep writing books and keep putting them out, which gives me more chances to hit the big dartboard. I have a sneaking suspicion that given persistence and patience, there’s no reason that book sales couldn’t eventually be a significant portion of my business, just as it is for not only J.A. Konrath, but also a hell of a lot of the people who comment on his blog. I’ve never heard of most of these people, and yet they’re making hundreds or thousands of sales each month. That’s paltry in the old world of book publishing, but it’s entirely livable with Kindle’s 70% author royalties.

Twelve years ago, I wanted to make my living as a fiction writer. After a twelve-year detour, I might actually be able to do that. But this way, this time, it would be even better than I’d imagined in my twenties. Back then, I’d have simply been a novelist. Today, I’m a blogger/business guy. And going forward, I can be both.

Maybe it doesn’t “make sense” for someone like me to write and publish a novel.

But I’m the one defining the terms here, and I say that ignoring all of the above simply because some rule says I shouldn’t mix fiction with business is the thing that wouldn’t make sense.

Question the rules

You may remember my course Question the Rules. Well, I’ve been planning a 2.0 release — adding new modules and new interviews, spiffing it up for the new 2012 kids — for months now, but never quite got around to it. I even did a new interview with Julien Smith for it this summer that’s absolutely amazing, but I’ve been sitting on it. The QTR 2.0 project just never felt very urgent. But recently, while working on this novel that it doesn’t make sense for me to be working on, all of that stuff about how arbitrary rules hold us back started to resurface in my head.

It suddenly started to feel urgent.

As the world and work continues to evolve, we need to look harder than ever at the rules that we follow, and decide if we should be following them at all.

2011 was a tough year for a lot of people. The economy still sucks. Everything is made in China. Companies are still laying people off. Many people still hate their jobs. People are still spending more of their time doing stuff that they don’t like than they spend doing stuff that they do like. Depression rates are climbing.

That’s “normal.” That’s what you get if you follow all of the rules.

And while I was working on my novel that doesn’t make sense, setting aside my logical and profitable projects because 1) I believe that I can be both “a business guy” and “a successful novelist” and 2) because I fucking felt like it, I figured now was the time to start talking again about doing things in unconventional ways.

Question the Rules, which has the lengthy but rather descriptive tagline “The nonconformist’s punk rock, DIY, nuts-and-bolts guide to creating the business and life you really want, starting with what you already have,” will launch in its 2.0 version next month.

Existing QTR members will simply get the new content for free. New folks will be able to get it all for a steep discount during the launch. And dude… the amount of content we have up there is just getting stupid. It’s going to be nearly 50 hours of assumption-challenging, life-changing information before I’m done, from a lot of the best minds in the business. (And in life, and in art, and in travel, etc.) PLUS a bunch of bonuses. It’s kind of ridiculous.

And you know what? Fuck it. Here’s a signup form, right in the middle of this post. I’m questioning the rule that says I should put it at the end. Go ahead and drop your email address in the box below if you want to know when QTR 2.0 launches, so that you can get it at launch-week prices:

Here’s what I think might be true.

I think that if you’re failing, it may be because you’re playing by rules that you don’t have to play by.

I think that if you think you can’t have what you want, there’s a decent chance that you’re not actually pursuing what you truly want. Once you do some introspection, you may find that your goals are closer than you think.

I think that even if you’ve never realized it before, the fact that you read this blog means that you are seriously punk rock. If you keep trying to follow the normal, non-punk way of doing things, you’re going to be frustrated and bored.

I think that if you’re unhappy with the hand that you’ve been dealt, you can reshuffle, or you can play it a different way. Are you holding a five and a two of different suits in the card game of life? Fuck it. Start playing a new game. Call a five/two off-suit a “Royal Awesome” and declare yourself the winner.

I think that even though there’s no reason for an internet marketing, business coach, thought leader kind of a guy to begin publishing novels, that I’m going to fucking do it anyway.

There are rules that it makes sense to follow, but only you can decide which ones they are.


* In case you’re actually paying enough attention to notice that I have described my book in the past as “zombies meet Fight Club,” that’s a different book. That’s the next one.


  1. @OhJeffRamos says:

    This is why I think you’re the best.

    This is the year I’m doing things my way. You’re always a punk rock inspiration.

  2. Very inspiring as usual. i will say that since meeting you my whole perspective on life has changed. Why do we eat the way we do, sleep the way we do, send our kids to school… the list is huge. I can’t wait to read the newest brainchild! Thanks for being awesome!

  3. Thanks for this post. We put so many arbitrary boundaries around ourselves, even as ‘artists’ … The pond we swim in is much larger than we think. Keep swimming. We won’t leave you hanging out there. See you on the edges…(of course, they don’t actually exist).

  4. Follow your Muse, baby. She might knock twice, but she might also stop knocking and move on to the next house. But she’s knocking for a reason.

  5. Mo says:

    Johnny, as usual you´ve given me a lot to think about. I´m just going to fire off here since I´m also an aspiring novelist. I agree on the one hand that the rules are set up – and owned – by the most unartistic, privileged of people. On the other hand, it would be useless to deny that now the “means of production” are open to all, including those of us who are not part of the literati. I think there´s a tension there between the time worn tastes and processes of the literary class and the new parameters of access of the computer literate author. However, if we live on that tense elastic band, are we willing to give Amazon the right to discern writing ability – which I believe exists – and accept all comers, only to sell writing at knock-down prices? How do we know that what we write as fiction is quality? Will Amazon tell us? Or can we decide for ourselves, or let the market decide? Is Amazon a kind of vanity press for the 21st century? I´m not confident that my novel is art – and whether that sounds pompous or not that´s what I want it to be, the result of craft and thought and not just marketing expertise. I wonder what your understanding of your own novel is and would love for you to share some more thoughts on this. In any case GOOD LUCK and GOOD HAR D WORK! I´d love to see your work published and acclaimed as good!

    • Johnny says:

      Great questions to raise, Mo. I think that the answer is that the public ultimately decides. In one sense, it is the modern vanity press, but only in the sense that it pretty much allows you to “see your stuff in print” for anyone and everything. But only the novels deemed acceptable by the readers will prosper. Some people think it’s a gold rush, but that’s short-sighted. Quality always wins.

  6. Jen Adams says:

    What a great post – and something I really needed to see today. My life is only about half awesome at the moment, and pushing through that extra bit to go for all awesome, all the time definitely includes reminders like this that the rules for a “normal” are a streaming pile of shit you need to get over. Thank you!


    OH SNAP.

    This is great news, Johnny. I look forward to reading it! 🙂

    • Johnny says:

      Did I tell you about it? That’s astonishing. Only a handful of people in this world knew I even had a novel until recently, and I thought I’d only mentioned the actual title once or twice.

      You’ll probably like it. Your sense of humor if I’ve got you pegged at all. 🙂

  8. Athena says:

    Your destiny will continue to nudge, or in your case, bite you in the ass, until it’s pursued fully. Your book clearly has a mind of its own. Congratulations on bowing at the alter of the Muse before she knawed your leg off.

    “Creativity” in punk rock terms: the fart you can’t keep in!

  9. To me, a good majority of the world’s most successful creators are the one’s that

    a) Distill themself into a brand (well-done, sir)
    b) Refuse to be caged or pigeon-holed by that brand or people’s perceptions.

    See: Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, Jay-Z, Richard Branson, and oh-so-many more.

    Oh, and Johnny B. Truant 😉

    Congratulations man, you’ve joined a rarefied circle 🙂

    By the way, speaking of brands, I launched my new brand ( RyzeOnline.com ) on New Year’s Eve and since then it has EXPLODED on the scene. I won’t link it, but click my name if you’re feelin’ it.

    Ryze up!

  10. Congrats on the novel! Good stuff, as always! No matter how the times are, people always complain about the economy and blablabla…

    They do it because they want the goverment or their company to be responsible for them and their life. Be responsible for you life, actions, relationships, income, health and you fulfillment shall be yours.

    Disclaimer: This is just my opinion.

    • Johnny says:

      Dude, you don’t need the disclaimer. I blast that opinion out there all the time as if it were irrefutable truth.

  11. Thanks, Johnny. I’m doing pretty much exactly the same thing right now. I’ve wanted to write fiction for a living since I was 12, which is nearly 33 years if anyone’s counting. Gave up on the dream multiple times.

    Now – when my personal development blog is finally starting to make headway – I’m suddenly much more engaged with writing The Gryphon Clerks, a steampunk-fantasy novel of heroic civil servants. Because it’s turned up in my head and I want to.

    I’m sure it will all shake out eventually.

    • Johnny says:

      I think that “because I damn well felt like it” is a totally legit reason for doing things, personally.

  12. Barb Bemus says:

    I am so grateful to have the pleasure of seeing out of the box thinking and anti-normal in action.
    I am on my own search for what matters and a life that I can stand.
    I have at least figured out that if I am being adventurous and following my hunches I can be happier.
    Of course the experts would tell you that just can’t be.
    But in true Johnny style
    Fuck You Experts!
    For all you depressed people out there, get off your butts and do something exciting!
    I’m betting you may just find life doesn’t have to suck but you have to be ready to change it yourself.
    Good luck and happy travels to us all!
    Thanks Johnny!