September 5, 2022
I had a question this morning from someone looking at getting some advice on writing a book about an epic trip. Seeing as I went on for a very long time in this email, I thought I’d try and recoup the investment by sharing it on my Substack.
Hope this isn’t too random a thought dump on writing and books, and please don’t view anything that sounds negative as being anything but actual hard headed practical advice (Oprah style magical thinking can only get you so far, as you I‘ve probably seen on the trial!).
1. Writing is hard, if you’re going to write something worth reading, and add another bunch of words to the humanity word count (around 40 quadrillion at the moment), then it’s not going to be easy, which is part of what makes writing great, like lifting weights for the brain.
2. The opposite is also true, that bad writing is very easy indeed, with some even making a career out of it, and with print on demand and e-books, you have no-gate keepers there to slow you down (although the one star reviews and zero sales is the only payback).
3. When people often tell me, at the age of retirement, they’re going to ’start writing’, as if it just requires a pen, some paper, and the desire. They don’t really understand that it’s you said you were ‘going to build a yacht” to a 60 year old yacht building it would be a little disrespectful. Yes you could do it, but it will take ten years, and the yacht would probably sink at the sight of the first storm, and even if it didn’t, the more you understood about boat building, the less you’d trust the boat you where building. Probably, instead of a shiny yacht, you’d get a rotting half built hulk jamming up your garden.
4. Making bread is easy, and yet to make great bread takes years of study and practise. Writing books is harder than making bread.
5. Although some are born genius writers, the reality is, even genius are just geniuses because they understand earlier than non geniuses that writing is probably 99% skill, and 1% talent. Just like how someone who has immersed themselves in music, or coffee, can both identify what is good, as well what is bad, and why, in a thing, so can someone who’s immersed themselves in words.
6. Take note of Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law. Writing books eat up all your time, so you have to ask if you’re willing to give up what time you have (when you could be doing something better) for a book.
7. Writers, like farmers, are not happy people: because they write books.
8. Making money from writing is a bad idea, and instead of sitting in a coffee shops 12 hours a day trying to write (or answer a question about writing books), best to just get a job in a coffee shop.
9. You can write one book for free, as in on your time, but if you want to write more than one, then you have to make it pay. The former is easy to do, the latter is harder than writing books.
10. The way to make money writing books is to either be an ex-first lady, and get a $60 million dollar advance, or find a niche, write book that good, but not so good that it takes years, and sell it print on demand via amazon, rather than a publisher. This means you make 60% on your book, rather than 10% (or less), meaning you can sell less books, and still make enough to be a writer, and if you sell lots of books, then you’ll also be more successful than the majority of writers (most writers have full time jobs, or are supported by someone who does, or live in poverty, or are so wealthy they can play at being a writer…a bit like most poets).
11. As for writing your book? Before you start write down in one word what it’s about (only one!). A typical word would be ‘more’, or ‘who’, or ‘why?’. Now write down in one line what it’s really about. Expand again into a sentence, then a paragraph. Check what you’re writing out is still aligned your one word description.
12. You can now do the three acts of the book in three bullet points, the beginning, middle and end (departure, initiation, return). Study the hero’s journey as a guide.
13. Now re-read your favourite book, a classic, thinking both about the book you’ll write, and the books underlying structure and frame.
14. If you really want too fast track your own book, take a load of coloured markers and mark each paragraph in the book, one for action, tension, dialog, mood, humour, memory etc, and try and understand how and why these things work so well (you can also read hundreds of books and articles on creative writing).
15. Once you’ve worked out what your book is about, let it sit somewhere and let it ferment a little. Ask yourself if you’re doing your story justice, or if your story is the story you really want to tell, or are you just telling the story you think people like you tell? Often people have a much better story that they can write, but they’re too afraid to go off the reservation. Very often, someones real honesty and openness is actually the big lie, and their ’sharing’ is all about holding something back. Whatever the zeitgeist is at the moment, consider the opposite, as this will make your story pop out. For example, instead of a woman writing a book about a women’s journey of self discovery and empowerment, proving to the world that women are strong, and can do what men do (“men told me I was too weak, and girls can’t do X”), what if she wrote a book about how tough and hard and badass she always thought she was (“no man ever questioned what I could do or not do), but how she realised - on her journey - that she could not do everything, be a man, as she began to discover there was a differences she could not control. The author demonstrates in this story arch that she is actually vulnerable (rather than a vulnerable women who finds she’s a bad ass), and has to adapt (grow), and actually be truly honest, and say things that all women (and men), actually feel, but cannot say out load (like “I’d rather be bringing up happy and healthy children, rather than having a bullshit job that makes me stressed and unhappy”). When To Kill a Mockingbird was written, I guess it stood out because the idea of defending a black man accused of rape went against the zeitgeist, and although I’m sure there were many books about black men being the bad guy, the fact TKAM puts society on trial, including the reader, that’s why it’s a classic.
16: So, let your story sit, and make sure you’re telling the write story, and then write that, as you’ll only get one chance to write it as it should be written.
17. Once it comes to the actual writing. Work out the structure in bullet points, aiming to tell the story as concisely as possible, no padding or fill. If a chapter requires one paragraph, so be it. Imagine you’re making a film, and you only have a one hour runtime. Every thing you add must serve the story, and move the story along.
18. What needs to be added and what needs to be cut, or not even written, becomes clearer in the first edit (you need to edit it a few times), and so it’s generally easier to just ’shoot’ everything. I think if you can sit down for one hour a day, five days a week, and write 500+ words, even if they’re crap words, then doing that will give you the raw footage fast enough.
19. When writing, don’t edit anything, or re-read what you’re writing. Just go line by line, as if you were using a typewriter. You can edit the line you’re writing I suppose, but don’t keep going back to the start and reading down back to the end, fiddling as you go. Just think about what you’re trying to write (based on your bullets points), and write that.
20. Once you have a chapter written, let it sit while you work on the next one, and only come back to it or you can’t progress, or you’ve written all the chapters.
21. One reason for banging out the words is that you’re never too attached to them, which stops you holding onto chunks of text that serve no purpose to the book, but you spent hours on. You’ve got to be ruthless remember, because the words you have, the easier it is too spot you’re learning by doing (the moment you start to think ‘I’m getting really good at this’, is the moment to check yourself before you disappear up your own anus!).
22. Don’t take too long on writing your book, as you will easily lose your gains as a writer if you take long breaks, and you need to complete the first draft in one block. Think of it not like an oil painting up in your study, but more like a 1000 piece jigsaw on the dining room table (in a house full of kids). Don’t think of yourself as an artist, but more a plumber being paid by the hour.
23. Once you’ve finished your draft, go over it quickly, avoiding getting too bogged down, but rather to knock the story into better shape. Let it sit awhile, and then go over it again, only this time aiming to make every paragraph 80% perfect (100% would mean you’d take a lifetime to make one paragraph perfect).
24. The process of writing and editing will be making you a much better writer and editor, and what you don’t pick up at the start of the process, will jump out at you a few months down the line. Think of it like laying a brick wall a hundred feet long with no experience of brick laying. The start will be terrible, misaligned, probably unstable, you can see this, but with each brick you place, you start to work out how to do it. By the hundred foot mark the wall seems perfect, while the 1 foot marks is terrible. You begin to knock down the start of the wall, using your new skill, trying to match the end of the wall, but keep going until you’re at the 100 foot mark once again, only now, the 1 foot mark looks terrible again. And so you carry on this Sisyphean task until you go mad (“perfection is the enemy of good” or more like, perfection is the enemy of done!).
25. Now it’s time to hand the book over to someone else to read. Note, you can only ever ask someone to read your book once, so once it’s read, you cannot ask for them to re-read it with your edits. This needs to be noted, as you need to give your book to once person at a time, edit it, and then pass it on to another.
26. The worst people to ask for feedback are people who like you, or who want to tell you what they think you want to hear. No, you need people who are brutal. You need one star reviews, not five (even if it is five stars!).
27. Remember that 1% of people will hate you no matter what, and 1% will love you, but this is a spectrum, so take all advice on edits and chances as advice, not a prescription for a perfect book. Very often you’ll remove something for one person, then the next will ask why you don’t have it in the book. By now you should have a clue to what you’re doing, so have a little self confidence, and understand that only a limited people will be set alight by your book (just think about how broad music tastes are amounts your own family, and then understand that literature is 100 times more diverse).
28. Once the book has been through multiple hands, and you’ve shifted through the good and less-good advice, maybe do one more edit, again, being ruthless. If you’re 200,000 epic ends up at only 50,000 words, or a long piece for Outside magazine, then that’s better than a 200,000 book that no one reads, plus most people don’t judge books by their weight.
29. Now you have your manuscript you can either send it out to lots of publishers, but really publishing is a pretty closed and rigged game, and is only worth it if you can get a great advance, and not worry about the book selling (your advance is simply the book monies you’d get, and it can take decades for some authors to start receiving payments beyond their advance). Having Random house pushing your book can bring you the kind of expose that makes you more money than your book can ever bring (make you a ‘motivational’ speaker), as can prize money, but the window for pushing a book is short, and most publishers now depend totally on the author pushing their books (that’s why you have all these ghost written books by done-nothing celebs).
30. Holding onto your book, and writes, is much better, and so self publishing through Amazon, or through Lightning Source, is far better, and you do all your own marketing, even selling direct to fans, local book shops. This model also allows you to sell internationally, which means even if you appeal to a tiny fraction of the world population, a niche within a niche within a niche, that can add up. To do this you just need to learn some basic publishing software (you only need to upload a pdf to the print on demand service, plus a JPG cover), which can now be done from most Word/Pages apps. Kindle versions are a little harder, but are not that hard, as it’s just a version of HTML. You just set up an account, upload your files, and people can start buying them. If you don’t want to deal with Amazon, then Ingram (Lightning Source), does the same thing.
I’ve been typing this crap for 2 hours now, rather than writing my own book, so I’ll leave it there, as I could write for 100 more. Hopefully it gives you a few things to think about, and although writing books can be a very long and depressing and frustrating undertaking , one that is more likely to fail that end up in a actual printed book, it’s also one of life’s real achievement benchmarks that really means something, so why not try? Someone’s got to write books don’t they, why not us?
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