Writing a book is hard

Tips from a first-time author

We’ve just completed our first (and hopefully not last) book.

Here’s the story: Back in November of 2014, Tom and I launched a Kickstarter campaign for Diner Porn (safe for work, promise). The successful completion of this campaign allowed us to travel around the country for a month the following spring, capturing the stories of America’s favorite greasy spoons. We returned from the trip in May 2015, and though I had originally planned to complete the book the end of that summer (a goal which seems laughable to me now), it was just a few months ago that the final printed books were mailed out. Here’s what I’ve learned over the past year and a half: writing a book is hard.

“Well, duh!” you may be saying to yourself. “Any writer could have told you that!” Well, you’re right, but no writer did—probably because I didn’t ask. I assumed that because writing is my profession, because I spend day after day at my computer creating essays, blogs, articles, and academic papers, that I’d be able to complete this easily. I studied writing! Shouldn’t I understand how to finish a book? (No—I learned plenty about developing a voice and avoiding dangling participles but almost nothing about designing a productive writing routine. Take note, writing professors.)

That is why I am here. First-time authors, take heed, and learn from my arrogance.

Writing a book is at least a part-time job.

Like any form of creative production, if you want to finish your book in a reasonable amount of time (let’s say, less than one year), you have to treat it like it’s a part-time job; you have to schedule blocks of time for writing as you would schedule time at any job. This may mean reducing hours spent at other, real jobs, jobs that pay you, in order to chase your dream of authorship.

Hopefully you have a small cost of living, a grown-up savings account with actual money in it, or a well employed partner (or patron) who can help you pay the bills while you spend your time trying to find le mot juste. I suggest you obtain at least one of these before embarking on your book journey. Before I began, I didn’t even have a savings account, let alone one with a balance that could allow me to cut my working hours, and my husband is also a creative. I was saved a bit by the relatively low overhead of living in a cabin in the Catskills, but work cut into my writing hours on countless occasions.

An alternative I feel I must note here: if you fund your project with a crowdfunding campaign like we did, you could, as many do, structure your budget to include payment for yourself. There was just something about that that didn’t feel right to me at the time that we launched our Kickstarter; I felt like we were lucky to be able to do our creative work, period, even if we weren’t making any money. However, if we were to do it again, I might make a different choice. Writing is work, and the book you produce and send to people is the result of that work—you’re doing yourself no favors by not getting compensated for that work.

Writing a book requires long, uninterrupted blocks of time.

I recently read an article by an author discussing how she completed four books by dedicating just 15 minutes a day to writing. This seemed completely impossible to me. The only way I was able to make any headway on this book was by giving myself long blocks of time. For the first 10–15 minutes of any writing session, I was what I’ll call “getting my head in the game”: rereading what I’d written last time, familiarizing myself with the voice and the subject matter again, reviewing the notes and transcribed interviews I was using, and organizing my thoughts. Only after I was thoroughly re-engrossed in the world of the book could I make any progress on new pages or chapters.

Perhaps, this is partially due to the fact that, as previously mentioned, I also have a real job—as content director here at Eberhardt Smith—that was butting up against my writing time. Psychologists have long recognized that interruptions, or what they call “context switching,” make us less productive, because every time we switch from one project (or context) to another, we need to reorient ourselves to the work; we need to get our head in the game all over again. So what I really needed was not only long blocks of time, but time devoid of interruptions and distractions (more on that later) in order to focus on progress as opposed to rehashing the same material over and over.

It’s easier than ever to procrastinate.

Here are the things I often did instead of writing the book: Read other people’s books. Read other people’s Tweets. Wash laundry. Put the laundry in the dryer. Fold the laundry. Put the laundry away. Make elaborate dinners for myself and my husband. Plan my finances. Plan my grocery list. Write bad poetry. Watch makeup tutorials on Youtube. Watch makeup tutorials on Tumblr. Nap. Walk the dog. Attempt to apply the skills gained by watching makeup tutorials to my own face. Wash off my failures. Compulsively check social media and e-mail. Write the bulk of this article (yes, I started this before I even finished the book).

You get the point.

I don’t believe in the lazy creative stereotype. My primary antidote to this stereotype is my husband, the visual media director at Eberhardt Smith, who spends every day working without tire on commissioned and personal projects, staying up until the wee hours of the night sometimes if inspiration hits. However, I’m the first person to admit that I have a problem with intrinsic motivation. Tell me I have to do something because a client needs it now? It’ll be in their hand in an hour. Tell me I have control over when something is completed and I only have to answer to myself? I’ll find every excuse not to finish it. And it’s not because I don’t enjoy writing. I genuinely love it. It’s because—guess what—writing is hard, and requires a lot of concentration and research and dedication, and doing laundry and walking the dog and writing bad poetry is easy. And because—thanks to technology like smartphones and the Internet—it’s easier than ever to accidentally get distracted or purposefully procrastinate.

I’ve tried a few different methods to motivating myself and preventing procrastination. The Pomodoro technique is helpful (though more for professional work than creative, I’ve found), and the right background music or sounds is key (I need beats with no words or relaxing sounds, like a crackling fireplace). But really, the only thing that’s actually worked for me long-term is cutting myself off cold-turkey from sources of distraction. I mean turning off the Internet, putting my phone on “do not disturb,” and working alone in a quiet location. I did the bulk of the writing for Diner Porn during the fall and winter of 2015–2016, after we began renting a quiet office/studio space instead of working from home. For me, that really made a world of difference.

There are lots of time-consuming steps to writing a book that you might not expect.

Since Diner Porn is nonfiction and based on research and interviews, I knew I’d have to spend lots of time during the trip talking with owners, managers, and regulars. I also knew I’d have to do my homework before I entered each diner to make sure I was asking the right questions.

What I neglected to consider was all of the time I’d spend after the interviews were complete, doing what essentially amounted to administrative tasks: transcribing the audio of my own interviews (it takes about an hour to transcribe 15 minutes of audio, and I had done interviews that were up to 45 minutes long), typing up notes that I’d scribbled down in my notebook, and fact-checking tiny details like the spelling of a manager’s name or whether a the name of a road was followed by “Street” or “Lane.” If you have an assistant, you can delegate some of this work, but for the common lowly writer-peasant (most of us), these are unavoidable bullets on your to-do list.

I also didn’t realize that, though I’d done plenty of research before, my interviewees would often bring up entirely new topics, requiring me to perform even more research as I integrated these interviews into my stories. As an example: at a diner in Memphis, the manager gave us a tour of the basement under the restaurant, mentioning that it was connected via tunnels to other portions of the city. Tunnels under Memphis?! What?! I had never heard of such a thing, so as I sat down to write the diner’s story, I began to dig. Several hours later, I emerged from Internet research and old, digitized newspaper articles with a full understanding of the topic, allowing me to write a whopping four sentences. Cue confetti.

Don’t get me wrong—this type of exploration of context and history is absolutely positive, for me as a person and a writer and for the quality of the book. I just hadn’t factored this time commitment into my initial calculations of how long it’d take me to write the damn thing.

Planning a book is different than writing a book is different than editing a book.

Because I spent a few years as a freelance writer and editor before Tom and I started Eberhardt Smith, this is something that was already familiar to me, but I think it bears repeating. The “planning,” “creating,” and “refining” phase require three totally different mindsets. In the process of finishing a book, the planning phase is the outlines and the research, the creating phase is the writing, and the refining phase is the editing—but this same formula could really apply to all creative work that I can think of.

For example, I started with my notes, my interviews, and my research, which I then arranged into a basic outline. This outline wasn’t good writing; it wasn’t poetic or beautiful; sometimes it wasn’t even in full sentences. It mostly said things like “describe pancakes here” or “compare ambiance of diner to grandmother’s house.” But this stage was really, really important (at least to me), because it allowed me to see the shape of the story, where it started and where it was going—which allowed me to make appropriate decisions as to word choice, tone, and structure in the next phase, creation.

Then, finally, after the story is written, you can take it line-by-line and edit. Lots of my writer friends would call this phase “killing your darlings”—scrutinizing each word or phrase choice, determining whether it serves the greater purpose of the writing, and, if it doesn’t, replacing it with that does.

In my experience, it’s fruitless to write before you plan, or to attempt to edit while you’re writing. Your writing will be better, more focused and poignant, if you can see the target at which you’re aiming; likewise, it will be more creative if you allow yourself a little poetic license while you’re writing (with the understanding that you’ll come back and clean it up later). Factoring each of these three phases into your overall book-writing schedule will help you progress more smoothly toward completion.

Writing burnout is real.

Like I mentioned above, Diner Porn is a passion project of mine and Tom’s. It’s definitely connected to our work here at Eberhardt Smith, in that it utilizes the skills we offer to our clients: storytelling, visual identity, copywriting, photography, design. But we don’t make any money from it, and it’s not for a client. That means that, simultaneously while we were creating this book, we were offering the same services to numerous other clients.

On a daily basis, my role as content director here at Eberhardt Smith might include: writing or editing a blog post for a client’s blog; editing print materials for a client’s education or marketing purposes; writing and scheduling Tweets, Facebook posts, and social media ads; brainstorming taglines and brand messaging; crafting and distributing a press release or a press kit; developing a brand platform or content strategy for a client; or putting together a written proposal for client work. The thread that connects all these responsibilities? Words. I spend all day, every day, writing, in a variety of voices, for a variety of platforms. My “writing brain” is on almost constantly.

When we first made the move from Brooklyn to upstate New York, before we founded ES, my primary day job was nannying. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was most prolific in my personal writing during that time—I was firing off blog posts, short stories, and essays like it was my job. Because it wasn’t.

That’s not to say that I’m regretful that I made writing my “day job.” I’m good at it, for one, and it’s important to find work that’s challenging yet rewarding, which writing is. But writing all day, every day, can certainly make writing more in your free time seem totally unpleasant. So for those of us who are living the dream and writing for work, we should consider that—unless we take some time off to pursue our passion book project (see my first point)—it might take a while.

But you can do it.

Sure, it took longer than we expected. But less than two years after our successful Kickstarter was completed, a bunch of huge, heavy cardboard boxes arrived at our door, containing hundreds of copies of a beautiful book with our names on ‘em, and I have to say—nothing has ever felt better. (Well, one thing has, actually: getting texts, emails, and Tweets from loved ones and strangers alike that say “We LOVE the book!” That’s definitely the best feeling.)

Yes, writing a book is hard, and it requires planning and concentration and support and everything else I wrote about above. But if you have something important or beautiful that you want to share with the world, it’s worth it. So open your calendar app, block yourself a few hours for writing, get yourself a quiet space, make a plan, and chip away at it, piece by piece. Go on. Get started.

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