You want to write a book, but you can’t find the time to get started? I’m not impressed. I’m going to write an entire novel in one day, sitting in a bookstore.
If I can do that, then you can surely write your book! I’ll share seven keys to getting started, but first let me answer the question I know you’re asking right now: why am I writing a novel in one day in a bookstore?
I’m doing it as a fundraising effort on behalf of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, to support my April 15 Boston Marathon run. People will come by the bookstore or visit my race website, MikeRunsBoston.com. In exchange for making a donation to cancer research and prevention, they will be able to dictate a plot change, a new location, a character name, or pretty much whatever they want.
This Sunday, you’ll find me at the Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Massachusetts from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m., pounding away on my laptop, with the goal of creating a novel based on the suggestions of the donors, by the time the store closes.
I’m a New York Times bestselling author, and that’s my idea of a good time.
But what about you? You’ve always wanted to write a book – a memoir, a novel, a family history, a business book. But you’ve never gotten started because you weren’t exactly sure how to start. Well, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve taught new writers on and off for the past 30 years at the UCLA Writers’ Program, at New York University, and around the world. Let me share with you some suggestions about how to get going:
1. There’s no such thing as writer’s block.
People say, “Michael, do you ever get writer’s block?” and I always respond, “No. That’s because I’ve got writer’s mortgage.”
Seriously, there’s a very simple way to eliminate writer’s block from your life…forever. It’s simply to recognize that organizing, whether a novel or a nonfiction book, is a left-brain activity, while actually creating and writing is a right-brain task. Your brain does not like to shunt back and forth between left-brain and right-brain tasks. When you do that, it triggers a pain message, which writers misinterpret as “being blocked.” You aren’t blocked, you’re just asking your brain to do something it doesn’t want to do, and it’s rebelling.
So to eliminate writer’s block, start off with a plan. If you know where you’re going, then your brain can settle comfortably into its right hemisphere and you can create to your heart’s content.
2. Low quotas are the key to success.
I always tell my writing students that they are obligated to write two “rotten, stinking” pages a day. Why just two pages? Because that’s manageable. Anybody can bang out two pages. And why “rotten, stinking?” First, because it’s impossible to say those words without smiling, and you write much better if you’re in a positive frame of mind.
The serious reason is that when writers obsess about quality, they typically freeze up and get nothing done. If you instead view your first draft as just something that needs to exist in the world, and then you can layer in quality when you get to the second draft, it takes all the pressure off of you.
3. Stop worrying about quality.
Recognize that you cannot write any better than you can write right now, and you cannot write any worse than you can write right now. This is true whether you had a great night’s sleep, a bad fight with your partner the night before, are hungover, stone cold sober, or whatever else. The quality of your writing will be undiminished and unimproved by any of these states. So just sit down and get your two rotten, stinking pages done every day. If you do that, within 90 days, you’ll have at least 120 pages of manuscript done. You’ll be well on your way to completing the first draft of your first book.
4. Never look back.
You have only so much energy, excitement, or “juice” for any given story. If you expend all that emotional energy on rewriting and trying to perfect the pages you’ve already written, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Your brain can do the math. If you write, say, 10 pages the first week and then rewrite them twice before you move on, your brain will say, “You just had me write 30 pages! The manuscript is supposed to be 200 pages, but if I have to rewrite everything twice, that’s 600 pages! Forget it – I’m outta here!”
Or words to that effect.
Seriously, just assume that whatever you wrote the day before is perfect. Only glance at the last line or so to remember where you left off. Do not read anything that you’ve written until you get to the very end. Then wait a few weeks before you dive in.
Why? Because when we read, we are delighted by a “double shock of the new.” First, we are reading someone else’s ideas which we have never experienced before, and we are reading them in someone else’s syntax. When we read our own stuff, it’s our own ideas, which have been kicking around our head for decades, expressed in our own syntax, word choice, and so on. So we expect that double thrill, and instead, what we find ourselves reading by nature must look boring to us.
That’s why you never want to look back at what you’ve done, or, Heaven forbid, start editing anything until the whole first draft is complete.
5. Only share the fact that you are working on your book with those who are following their own creative dreams.
Human beings were meant to be creative, as is the case with everything on planet Earth. We’re either creating and growing, or dying. If you share the fact that you’re working on your book with someone who is not following his or her own creative dream, that person will feel frustrated…and take it out on you.
“Who do you think you are to write a novel?” that person will surely ask.
So keep this a secret among you, me, and your friends who are actively pursuing their creative dreams. Maybe those dreams involve writing, painting, sculpting, or even tending a rose garden. Nobody else gets to know until the whole thing is done.
6. To plan your book, first think about the audience, not the content.
As America’s leading ghostwriter, I have planned more than 700 books over the last 25 years, which is probably more books than anyone in human history. I’ve learned that successful books start with the reader in mind. Who is your primary intended reader? Where do you want to take that person – how do you want to influence your key readership? What steps do you want them to take in their own lives, or with you, as the result of having read your book?
When you can answer those two questions – who is the audience, and where will you take them – the essential content of the book will be clear to you. Anything that would not influence people in your target audience to take those specific next steps doesn’t go in the book.
7. Recognize that books are tools of influence, not just stories.
Our role as authors is to enlighten and entertain. We hold up a candle to light the way, and a mirror to reflect back where society is. We do that whether we are novelists, memoirists, business book authors, or what have you. We are compensated as authors to the precise degree that we entertain and educate our audience. But we cannot do that unless we know exactly whom we are writing for.
If you keep these seven guidelines in mind, writing your first book will become considerably easier. It will certainly be easier than the task I’ve set for myself, which is to sit at a table in a bookstore for twelve straight hours, accepting suggestions from anyone who donates, as to where to take the story next. It’s a combination of a crowd-sourced story, improvisational comedy, and performance art.
And if I can do that, surely you can sit down in the privacy of your own home, or coffee shop, or wherever, and punch out those two pages a day, until you have made your own dream of authorship come true. And while you’re at it, go to MikeRunsBoston.com and offer me a suggestion for the novel (and a donation for cancer research!). We authors need to stick together!