Painters like painting, the saying goes, writers like having written.
Are there exceptions to both sides of this rule? Of course. But anyone who has run the gauntlet and written a full-length book can tell you, it’s a grueling process.
You wake up for weeks, months or years on end, and at the end of each working day you are essentially no closer to finishing than you were when you started. It’s particularly discouraging work because progress feels so elusive. Not to mention that the pages you find yourself looking at rarely match what was in your head.
It’s for this reason that “wanting” to write a book is not enough. It’s not therapy. It’s not an “experience.” It’s hard fucking work.
People who get it into their heads that they “may” have a book idea in them are not the ones who finish books. No, you write the book you HAVE to write or you will likely not write it at all. “Have” can take many forms, not just an idea you feel driven to get out. You know, Steig Larsson wrote the Dragon Tattoo series to pay for his and his wife’s retirement.
If you honestly think you might be fine if you nixed the project and went on with your life as though the idea never occurred to you–then For The Love Of God, save yourself the anguish and do that. If, on the other hand, this idea keeps you up at night, it dominates your conversations and reading habits, if it feels like you’ll explode if you don’t get it all down, if your back is to the wall–then congratulations, it sounds like you’ve got a book in you.
-Writing a book is not sitting down in a flash of inspiration and letting genius flow out of you. Most of the hard work is done before you write–it’s the research and the outline and the idea that you’ve spent months refining and articulating in your head. You don’t get to skip this step.
-One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever got was to–before I started the process–articulate the idea in one sentence, one paragraph and one page. This crystallizes the idea for you and guides you on your way.
-Taleb wrote in Antifragile that every sentence in the book was a “derivation, an application or an interpretation of the short maxim” he opened with. THAT is why you want to get your thesis down and perfect. It makes the whole book easier.
-Don’t think marketing is someone else’s job. It’s yours.
-Envision who you are writing this for. Like really picture them. Don’t go off in a cave and do this solely for yourself.
-Do you know how a laptop feels when you think you’ve closed it but come back and find out that it’s actually never shut down? That’s how your brain feels writing a book. You’re never properly shut down and you overheat.
-Expect your friends to let you down. They all say they are going to give notes but few actually will (and a lot of those notes will suck).
-Work with professionals. If you’re self publishing, that means hiring them out of your own pocket.
-When you hit “writer’s block” start talking the ideas through to someone you trust. As Seth Godin observed, “no one ever gets talker’s block.”
-Plan all the way to the end, as Robert Greene put it. I am talking now what the table of contents and the bibliography are going to look like and what font you’re going to go with. Figure out what the final end product must look like–those are your decisions to make. Or someone else will and they’ll make the wrong choice.
-Good news: You used to have to worry that no one would ever see this thing you put your whole soul into. (It’s such a scary thought that John Kennedy Toole killed himself over it.) Well, you don’t have to worry about publishers rejecting you anymore. Obviously, it’d be better to have a major house backing you, but remember, you can always self-publish. So fuck ‘em if they reject you.
-Have a physical activity you can do. That will be the therapy. Trust me, you’ll want the ability to put the book down and go exert yourself. Plus the activity will keep you in the moment and many of your best ideas will pop into your head there. (Personally, running and swimming work for me.)
-Have a model in mind, even if you’re doing something totally new (read The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry if you’re interested in this psychologically). Thucydides had Herodotus, Gibbon had Thucydides. Shelby Foote had Gibbon. Everyone has a master to learn from.
-Plan for it to take longer than expected. Way longer.
-As Fitzgerald wrote in The Crack Up, avoid the temptation of “going to somewhere to write.” You can write anywhere–the idea that you need to travel or go away to put words down is often just a lie or a procrastination. (That being said, for my first two books, I moved thousands of miles away to places I didn’t know anyway. This can work.)
-Don’t talk about the book (as much as you can help it). Nothing is more seductive (and destructive) than going around telling people that you’re “writing a book.” Because most non-writers (that is, the people in your life) will give you credit for having finished already right then and there. And you’ll lose a powerful motivation to finish. Why keep going if you’ve already given yourself the sense of accomplishment and achievement? That’s the question the Resistance will ask you at your weakest moment and you might lose it all because of it.
-“Don’t ever write anything you don’t like yourself and if you do like it, don’t take anyone’s advice about changing it. They just don’t know.” – Raymond Chandler
Everyone has their own tricks and rules and they’re going to be a little different than mine. I’m not saying every single one of the tips above will work.
But the idea around which they are based is not a controversial one. Books are hard. As in one of the hardest things you will likely ever do. If you’re only marginally attached to your idea or the notion of writing a book, you will not survive the process. “Wanting” is not enough. Write the book you HAVE to write, and if you’re not at that point yet, wait, because the imperative will come eventually.
The good news is that everyone who has been there understands. They remember and empathize with Thomas Mann’s line, “A writer is someone to whom writing does not come easily.” You can ask them for advice. They will be, in my experience, incredibly understanding and approachable.
Good luck. And don’t let this kick your ass.
Note: Ryan has written three books. The first, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator was a Wall Street Journal bestseller. His follow up, Growth Hacker Marketing will be released in September. The third is about Stoicism.