Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Writing Five Books (of varying sizes and qualities) A Year: How To Be A Disciplined and Productive Writer

We're still building the blog, so some of the pages are currently in the fragmentary and incomplete stage. Feel free to look around, but it's not a sterling display just yet. About us  will probably be your best crash course to the site. We really wanted to get started with the actual writing, so posts are going to take precedence while the appearance and format are an ongoing effort. 


Here's the "too long, didn't read version": Go do some writing. Then do some tomorrow as well. Do that many times. One day you'll be done. Trust yourself.

When you have published a book--my memoir The World's Strongest Librarian was published by Gotham Books in 2013, and the paperback just came out in May of 2014--many aspiring writers get the idea that you know a secret. Questions follow.

How did you do it?

What's the secret?

How did you find an agent?

What's your writing process?

All of these questions can be filed under two larger questions, lurking behind the scenes:

1. How did you get a book published? 

I'll give you a quick recap of how my book got written and published. Here's the timeline:

Roughly five years ago: I decide to start writing a blog called World's Strongest Librarian, just to keep track of my workouts.

Two months later: I receive an email from Seth Godin, which says, "You should be writing a book, I'm sending this to my agent!"

Two days later: For no reason whatsoever, I have a literary agent. When she says, "What's the book?" I say, "What book?"

Two months later: She submits my book proposal to publishers.

Two weeks later: There is a modest offer for a mass market paperback. They envisioned a goofy book full of weird stories about my Tourette Syndrome. I decline because I know things are going to be easy. After all, with Seth Godin in my corner, how long will I have to wait before a MEGA OFFER comes in?

Four years go by without another offer: I rework the proposal. Again and again. All of the rejection feedback is similar enough that it is hard not to be discouraged. I write an entirely new proposal. The proposal itself is 250 pages long. The finished book will only be 80 pages longer than the proposal!

October of 2012: The book sells for a way bigger advance than I (or my agent) had expected.

May of 2013: Publication. Fame and glory to follow. Still waiting on each of them, but it works, since I don't care about fame or glory.

The takeaway from this story

I've worked very hard and I'm good at some things. I have a lot of natural ability. However, it took some dumb luck and chaos for any of it to get started. Now that I've been through it, I have a better idea of how to improve your luck, your chances at writing a great book and getting it noticed. But I'll never pretend that it's not going to take luck.

That goes for your first book and my next book.


2. How did you/do you write? (this can be read as How do you finish books? How do you keep going?)

This is definitely the most frequent question people ask me. Just so you know why, I do talk about my writing quite a bit on social media. Most of my readers are aware that I finished the librarian book, that this year I have also finished a Young Adult horror novel (due in August) and a Middle Reader (shooting for November), in addition to currently working on a massive western and a short story collection.

The interest seems to come from the fact that I rarely miss writing days and that I can say I know I will finish all of these super long projects. I will write five books this year. They may not all be prize-winners, but I'll get them all done.

I talk about writing a lot. I also write a lot. If I had to choose one, I'd stop talking about writing, but you don't have to choose!

Crack that whip

Okay, time for the discipline and productivity talk. Actually, most writers I know are adept at disciplining themselves. A more self-flagellating, hand-wringing bunch you shall never meet, so let's just talk about productivity and replace discipline with habits. 

Writing a book is a deceptively simple process. And the person you are most likely to deceive is you. There will be times--perhaps even the majority of times--when nothing about it feels simple, easy, satisfying, or productive.

But this does not change the fact that writing a book is, at its core, sitting down and writing down enough words so that at least you have a book-length mess to work with.

If you read a lot of books about writing--I probably read 50 before I decided to actually sit down and try, you know, writing--it's easy to get hung up on the habits of other writers. Hemingway did this. Toni Morrison writes  before it's light outside. Stephen King says 2000 words a day. Ian McEwan shoots for 600. Some writers says it should feel hellish. Terry Pratchett seems to have a blast.

You get the idea. We're suggestible fools. I see this all the time in the fitness world, where I occasionally work as a trainer. If a guy walks up and says "I want to put on 20 lbs of muscle," it's very easy. I say, here's how much you eat, and just do this and this and this and sleep a lot, but give it six months." 

Unfailingly, this works wonders. Until that guy reads a blog post or a magazine article that says everything he's doing is wrong.

With fitness, everything works for a while. When you plateau, then you start asking questions.

With writing, whatever works for you is the right answer. How do you know if it's working? Because you put words down on the page! Good words, bad words, mediocre or stellar, until you're locked into the habit of consistent progress, these are not questions you need to be asking.

If you are producing, tune out the noise and ignore what anyone else says. If you land a big contract and your editor is steering you or questioning you, it's probably worth listening. If you are just someone trying to finish or start a project, you only need to be listening to yourself. And when you listen to yourself and don't like what you hear, you can still sit down and write. Sometimes it's the best way to drown out that voice.

Something you can always do

Tonight, turn off the internet and write 250-300 words. That's roughly one double-spaced page. 

"Yeah but, yeah but." 


There is no way to argue with this. If you write one page a day for 200 days, you will have written 50,000 words. That's pretty much the only math I know. 

If you think, "Aw gee I only wrote 250 words today," then you're never going to make it. If you can't view the pieces as part of the big picture, you're going to drive yourself nuts and feel like a failure. 

I wrote and finished my first book in about 20 minutes a day. It's all the time my tics would allow me (I'll write more about Tourette's on another post so that makes more sense). Twenty minutes a day, for enough days, let me to finish a book that I am so proud of. It's full of blurbs from authors who were my heroes. 

I didn't do anything special. I just got myself to the place where I could see that every single word was part of the whole. I shoved it down my own throat and forced myself to acknowledge that writing a book is not one big task. It's a million little ones. 

If you can lift a weight one time, you know how to get stronger and fitter. You just do it more times and add refinements or resistance. 

If you can write one paragraph, you can write a book. You just have to be willing to do it day after day after day after day. 

Are you willing to do it? Then stick around and let's all help each other out. 

Are you unwilling? Unsure? Second guessing? In that case, I'd seriously recommend that you find a way to cut yourself some slack and find something else that you can fill your time with. 

Unless you're under contract, or you have a legion of readers clamoring for your book, nobody cares but you. 

But if you're sitting down to write, then you are choosing to write. Nobody's making you. Nobody's going to be sad if you don't. 

Just kidding. I'LL BE SAD IF YOU DON'T. 

Don't fuss and whine. Just write. Write badly, write well, but write often and keep going. At least give yourself the chance to find out what one of your long, completed projects looks like. Then you'll know something and can be realistic about your abilities.

You can only control you, and nobody owed us anything. So just focus on good habits, being patient and loving with yourself, and striving to improve your skills at every session.  And talk to us and with each other. 

This can be a big lovey dovey support group if that's what we want, but I don't want commiserating with other writers to ever feel like writing. It's only writing if words are on the page. 

Just get that first page. Or the next one. Wherever you're at. 

And welcome! 

PS: The next post will be about how I actually spend my writing time. 

photo credit:


  1. Glad to see the blog launched! I'm having to work a bit on the discipline piece, but I shall get there. Good advice all around.

  2. Susan, what are you trying to do? how often do you write?

  3. Love it, I'm in !

  4. Just finished your book. Thank you for writing so freely. I feel like I actually know you through your words. I look forward to reading more advice about being more dedicated to my writing.