So You Want To Write A Book? “Want” Is Not Nearly Enough

November 15, 2013 — 8 Comments

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.

Some tips:

-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.

-Read The War of Art and Turning Pro.

-James Altucher wrote a very good post on “Publishing 3.0” over the weekend. Read that.

-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 about 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.)

-You’ll “lose your temper as a refuge from despair.”

-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.

This post originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com. Comments can be seen there.

How I Did Research For 3 New York Times Bestselling Authors (In My Spare Time)

November 4, 2013 — 7 Comments

I’m going to talk about research. No, research is not very fun, and it’s never glamorous, but it matters. A lot.

If you want to be able to make compelling case for something — whether it’s in a book, on a blog, or in a multi-million dollar VC pitch — you need stories that frame your arguments, rich anecdotes to compliment tangible examples, and impressive data so you can empirically crush counter arguments.

But good research doesn’t just magically appear. Stories, anecdotes and data have to be found before you can use them.

You have to hunt them down like a shark, chasing the scent of blood across the vast ocean of information. The bad news is that this is an unenviable task … but the good news is that it’s not impossible.

It’s not even that hard … once you learn what you’re doing — and I’m going to teach you those skills.

By the time I was 21, my research had been used by #1 New York Times Bestselling authors like Robert Greene, Tim Ferriss, and Tucker Max (all of whom helped me immensely and improve as I went along). Was I a slave to study? Did I have to become a library hermit to accomplish this? No, I did it all in my spare time —on the side, often with just a few hours of work a week.

Here’s how I did it…

Step 1: Prepare long before gameday

In The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb proposes a test.

Someone walks into your house and sees your many books on your many bookshelves. Have you really read all these? they ask. This person does not understand knowledge. A good library is comprised in large part by books you haven’t read, making it something you can turn to when you don’t know something. He calls it: the Anti-Library.

I remember once in college, the pride I felt about being able to write an entire research paper with stuff from my own anti-library. We all have books and papers that we haven’t read yet. Instead of feeling guilty, you should see them as an opportunity: know they’re available to you if you ever need them.

When I met Robert Greene and he asked me to become his research assistant, the only thing that changed was that I started getting paid.

I’d already marked and organized hundreds of books with interesting leads and material and many other relevant books I had yet to get to. I had a Delicious account with countless links to articles and pages that might “someday” be of use. I’d been practicing on my own by researching examples of some of the famous laws in his books after they’d been published — in case I ever got called up to the big leagues. What Robert did was show me how to organize and channel this energy in the right direction.

This is the mark you must aim for as a researcher, to not only have enough material — and to know where the rest of what you haven’t read will be located — on hand to do your work. You must build a library and an anti-library now … before you have an emergency presentation or a shot at a popular guest post.

Google is great, don’t get me wrong, but you’re screwed if you haven’t prepared beforehand.

Step 2: Learn to search (Google) like a pro

How do you find a needle in haystack? Get rid of the extra hay.

What seems like an overwhelming mass of information is often mostly noise. Eliminate it. Take a tip I learned from Tim Ferriss. When he was researching for the secrets behind health and diet, he used a few specific hacks to drastically reduce the search area he needed to cover.

For example, if he was looking for a high level athlete, he’d go on Wikipedia and find the world’s first and second-best athletes in that sport from a decade ago. Why? It meant there would be plenty of available material and unlike athletes currently on top of the world, these would be willing and available to talk.

He’d search Google with phrases like “[My closest city] [sport] ['Olympian' or 'world champion' or 'world record']” A search for “San Francisco bobsled Olympian” might get him a recently retired team doctor — the perfect lead to start with.

In other words, don’t look for just any needle in your haystack of choice. Look for the right needle.

Me, I like to look for phrases, in order to find unlikely subjects.

Let’s say you were looking to talk about a great fighter pilot — not some legendary WWII figure but someone current, relevant to today. You’re not in the military, how are you supposed to find this guy? I like to think about it from the perspective of the writers who came before me, how would they have described the person I’m trying to find? What superlatives would they use? Probably stuff like “The Last Ace,” “Living Aces,” or “America’s greatest living airman.”

You’re looking for words that will appear in a profile or even in the headline of an article about the person you are looking to find, so that you can troll LexisNexis, Google News Archive, and even Google itself to find that person.

The phrase “The Last Ace,” as it turns out, happens to be the title of a fantastic article in The Atlantic by Mark Bowden and now you’ve got your fighter pilot (and one of the main subjects of Robert Greene’s new book).

Step 3: Go down the rabbit hole (embrace serendipity)

A couple years ago, I was contributing to a project and needed to make an analogy to mountain climbing — about a climber’s feel for the mountain.

Well, I don’t know anything about rock climbing. But I did remember seeing a commercial once with the founder of Patagonia talking about how he loved it. I found my example but decided to take a chance with something more: buried in the founder’s Wikipedia page was a mention of his friend, a named Fred Beckey. Who is he? I had no idea, but I started reading about him and it turns out he was awesome. And he led me to another climber, who ended up supplying me with the perfect quote.

You have to embrace the accidental.

In researching my first book, which was sold to Penguin for a major, six-figure advance, I read nearly everything I could find about the history and ecology of media. But that’s not where I found my best material.

In a book about media (and my own personal experiences) I somehow made my strongest citations from Ender’s GameThe Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton, and a handful of other books.

Directly, these books had nothing to do with what I was writing about, but because my mind was primed to see connections, I found them in the most unusual places.

I can’t tell you how many leads I’ve tracked down from random Wikipedia citations. Explore what you’re curious about and know, and let it lead you to what you don’t.

One of my rules as a reader is to read one book mentioned in or cited in every book that I read. It not only solves the problem of ‘what to read next’ but it sends you on a journey down the rabbit hole.

Step 4: When in doubt, turn to the classics

Remember, there is nothing new under the sun. And if we’re all just saying the same things with new words, what quote is going to have more authority: one from Tacitus or some flavor-of-the-month blogger?

For me, when I research, the blank icon of an out of print book on Amazon is a clue not just that I have found something unlikely to have been overused by others, but something I can mold to my purposes (plus they only cost like $.01!).

There’s a character in Murakami’s Norwegian Wood who wouldn’t read books unless the author had been dead for 30 years. That’s a little ridiculous, but it’s a start.

The Classics are “classic” for a reason. They’ve survived the test of time. Consider it the survivorship bias put to your advantage. Von Clausewitz once said that military historians love to cite Greek and Roman history because, as the oldest and most obscure, it is the easiest to manipulate. I don’t see that as an admonishment, I see it as a helpful suggestion from a master of persuasion.

Step 5: Keep a commonplace book

While researching an article I wrote for Tim Ferriss’ blog, I discovered (and subsequently borrowed) a tool used by the famous essayist and experimenter Montaigne.

Montaigne kept what he called a “common place book” — a book of quotes, sentences, metaphors and  miscellany that he could use at a moment’s notice. I keep a more modern — but still analog — version of this book. I write everything down on 4×6 note cards, which I file in boxes. (You could do this digitally, I suppose, but the physical arrangement — being able to lay them out on a desk — is critical to my work). I picked up this system from Robert Greene, who also used it for his books.

This means marking everything you think is interesting, transcribing it and organizing it. As a researcher, you’re as rich as your database. Not only in being able to pull something out at a moment’s notice, but that that something gives you a starting point with which to make powerful connections. As cards about the same theme begin to accumulate, you’ll know you’re onto a big or important idea.

For me, I have two book ideas percolating, each about 200 index cards full. Will something come of them? I don’t know, it depends on how many more connections I make, how many random coincidences align to bring those connections to light.

All I know is that my last book (close to 1,000 cards) came together this way.

Why research?

Maybe you’re not a writer or a blogger. But, we’ve all found ourselves in a position where we need to convince people to do things they are not inclined to do.

When force is not an option, what do we do? We use the next best thing: persuasion. And when it comes to persuasion stories are important.

Anecdotes are persuasive.

Data dominates.

These things do not appear from thin air, or fall in our lap. We must search for them like a professional.

But as I’ve shown, this doesn’t need to consume your life. It can be done efficiently and expertly by focusing our efforts on the right levers. With preparation, we lengthen our runway. By eliminating noise, we drastically reduce the size of the search. With serendipity, we set ourselves up to be lucky and by relying on the classics, we give our arguments more weight. And by organizing and collecting this information properly, it is there wherever (and whenever) we need it.

Even if our research isn’t used today — or even tomorrow — it can still have immense value for us throughout our lives. I’ll leave you with Seneca’s persuasive case for noting, repeating and memorizing material …

My advice is really this: what we hear the philosophers saying and what we find in their writings should be applied in our pursuit of the happy life. We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application — not far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech — and learn them so well that words become works.

This post originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com and Copyblogger. Comments can be seen there.

“We want more. We want more.”

October 29, 2013 — 14 Comments

Yesterday I read this interview with a famous popstar and after I finished, I said to myself, “She is just not very smart.”

This is ridiculous if you think about it. What the fuck do I care if she is not very “smart?” Being smart is not her job. And to judge someone who is, in other areas, incredibly skilled and talented, as being somehow deficient because they lack some other additional thing? Selfish and entitled are the only words.

Bill Simmons wrote a good article Tracy McGrady a few months ago. He talked about car washes and how they usually have a couple packages, the most expensive one having basically a complete list of amenities (even though the cheaper middle packages have pretty much everything you could reasonably want). People don’t like T-Mac because he may or may not have been gifted with it all–and didn’t make the most of it.

But that’s kind of the problem huh? We go around expecting everyone to be the “Everything Package” and then we write them off as being failures if that turns out not to be true. We do this for professional athletes. For musicians. For politicians. For potential boyfriends or girlfriends. For the people in our own lives. When the reality is that the full package is extraordinarily rare. Only children don’t understand this.

Yet, we sit around expecting more and more from people, instead of accepting them as they are. We somehow tell ourselves that they’re letting us down instead of the other way around.

We’re the asshole. We’re the one with a glaring hole that needs to be fixed: Whether Tracy McGrady is making the most of his talents is not our concern–at least not one we’re allowed to get genuinely upset about. What other people do and how they are is up to them. Going around expecting more, more, more out of people is a recipe for a very unhappy existence.

It’s called setting yourself up for disappointment. It’s called distracting yourself from the task at hand (your own life). It’s called wasting your energy on things you can’t fix.

So You Want To Be A Writer? That’s Mistake #1

October 28, 2013 — 62 Comments

There are two types of writers, Schopenhauer once observed, those who write because they have something they have to say and those who write for the sake of writing.

If you’re young and you think you want to be a writer, chances are you are already in the second camp. And all the advice you’ll get from other people about writing only compounds this terrible impulse.

Write all the time, they’ll tell you. Write for your college newspaper. Get an MFA. Go to writer’s groups. Send query letters to agents.

What do they never say? Go do interesting things.

I was lucky enough to actually get this advice. Combine this with the fact that I was too self-conscious to tell people that I wanted to be a writer, I became one in secret.

I’m not saying I’m great at it or anything, but I am a bestselling author at 26. I have a column with a major newspaper. I get paid to write professionally. A fair amount of aspiring writers are nice enough email me questions about becoming a writer. I usually have the same answer: Well, wanting to be a “writer” is your first mistake.

The problem is identifying as a writer. As though assembling words together is somehow its own activity. It isn’t. It’s a means to an end. And that end is always to say something, to speak some truth or reach someone outside yourself.

Deep down, you already know this. Take any good piece of writing, something that matters to you. Why is it good? Because of what it says. Because what the writer manages to communicate to you, their reader. It’s because of what’s within it, not how they wrote it.

No one ever reads something and says, “Well, I got absolutely nothing out of this and have no idea what any of this means but it sure is technically beautiful!” But they say the opposite all the time, they say “Goddamn, that’s good” to things with typos, poor grammar and simple diction.

Good writing saves nothing. On the other hand, a deep, compelling or stunning message can float writers who struggle to even complete a sentence.

So if you want to be a writer, put “writing” on hold for a while. When you find something that is new and different and you can’t wait to share with the world, you’ll beat your fat hands against the keyboard until you get it out in one form or another.

Everything that is good in my writing came from risks I took outside of school, outside of the “craft.” It was sleeping on Tucker Max’s floor for a year. It was working as Robert Greene’s assistant. It was working at American Apparel, watching the office politics and learning how to get stuff done. It was dropping out of college at 19. It was saying yes to every meeting and introduction I got, and hustling to get as many as I could on my own. It was reading dozens of books a month.

It was going to therapy. It was getting into pointless arguments. It was having friends who are smarter than me. It was traveling. It was living (briefly) in the ghetto. I was able to write about the dark side of the media because I put myself in a position to see it firsthand.

All these things gave me something to say. They gave me a perspective. They gave me a fucked up writing style that makes my voice unique. They gave me opinions that tend to piss people off.

It also gave me money and the marketing experience to make my projects a success.

I don’t know the first thing about how to write (as you probably noticed in this post). I nod along and pretend that I know what things like “subject” and “predicate” and “passive tense” actually mean. I mean, I think I have an idea, but it hasn’t held me back so far. To quote Schopenhauer again, “to have something to say” is “by itself virtually a sufficient condition for good style.” I’ll take grade school dropout writing passionately in his prison cell over some empty, superior Yale MFA any day.

Part of what I’ve said here is my opinion. There are many ways to become a writer and though my way worked for me, you may prefer a different route. So you can take that part or leave it. But another part of it is an undeniable change in the economics of the business of writing.

See, it used to be that getting “published” was the hard part. You had to impress some gatekeeper and that gatekeeper was an agent or an editor at magazine, at a newspaper or at a book publisher (all of whom were typically trained writers). Well, today there are essentially an infinite amount of outlets to feature your writing. And no matter where you ultimately do get your writing out, you’ll have to bring your own audience with you anyway.

Getting published is easy. Getting anyone to care? Well, that’s the hard part.

What matters more now than any other single thing is that what you’re saying is different–that it’s interesting, that it provokes some response from people. You’ll only accomplish this if you’ve got something you have to say. Better yet, you need to have something that you can’t NOT say.  If what you’re writing is a compulsion rather than a vehicle for your display how smart and well practiced you are.

So think about it one more time. Is it that you want to be a writer? Or it’s that you have these things inside you that you want very badly to communicate to people and writing is the best way to do it?

Getting the answer to that question right is the day you really become a writer.

This post originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com. Comments can be seen there.

How To Read More — A Lot More

October 15, 2013 — 49 Comments

When you read a lot of books people inevitably assume you speed read. In fact, that’s probably the most common email I get. They want to know my trick for reading so fast. They see all the books I recommend every month in my reading newsletter and assume I must have some secret. So they ask me to teach them how to speed read.

That’s when I tell them I don’t have a secret. Even though I read hundreds of books every single year, I actually read quite slow. In fact, I read deliberately slow, so that I can take notes (and then whenever I finish a book, I go back through and transcribe these notes for my version of a commonplace book.

So where do I get the time? (Well for starters I don’t waste any of it asking dumb questions).

Look, where do you get the time to eat three meals a day? How do you have time to do all that sleeping? How do you manage to spend all those hours with your kids or wife or a girlfriend or boyfriend?

You don’t get that time anywhere, do you? You just make it because it’s really important. It’s a non-negotiable part of your life.

I think there are three main barriers that hold people back from making this happen and I want to disassemble them right now so you can start reading way, way more.

Time

The key to reading lots of book begins with stop thinking of it as some activity that you do. Reading must become as natural as eating and breathing to you. It’s not something you do because you feel like it, but because it’s a reflex, a default.

Carry a book with you at all times. Every time you get a second, crack it open. Don’t install games on your phone–that’s time you could be reading. When you’re eating, read. When you’re on the train, in the waiting room, at the office–read. It’s work, really important work. Don’t let anyone ever let you feel like it’s not.

Do you know how much time you waste during the day? Conference calls, meetings, TV shows that you don’t really like but watch anyway. Well, if you can make time for that you can make time for reading. (Or better, just swap those activities for books)

Money

If I had to steal books to support my reading habit, I would. Thankfully you can buy some of the best literature ever published for pennies on Amazon.

But forget money entirely when it comes to books. Reading is not a luxury. It’s not something you splurge on. It’s a necessity.

As Erasmus, the 16th century scholar once put it, “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”

On top of that, books are an investment. I hear from people all the time who tell me they plan to buy this book or that book. Plan? Just buy it. I promised myself a long time ago that if I saw a book that interested me I’d never let time or money or anything else prevent me from having it. Not money, not time, not my own laziness. Don’t wait around for some book you want to read to come out in paperback–trying to save $2 or $3 is the wrong mindset. If it’s a book you’ll read, then read it now, not in a year.

(One related note: I don’t check books out from the library and haven’t since I was a child. This isn’t like renting a mindless movie. You should be keeping the books you read for reference and for re-reading. If you are OK giving the books back after two weeks you might want to examine what you are reading).

Purpose

Perhaps the reason you having trouble is you forgot the purpose of reading. It’s not just for fun. Human beings have been recording their knowledge in book form for more than 5,000 years. That means that whatever you’re working on right now, whatever problem you’re struggling with, is probably addressed in some book somewhere by someone a lot smarter than you. Save yourself the trouble of learning from trial and error–find that point. Benefit from that perspective.

The walls of my house are covered in books from floor to ceiling. The last time I moved, I had to rent a U-Haul exclusively for books. At first that frustrated me, and then I remembered that books paid the rent on both those houses. They kept me sane, they made me a lot of money.

The purpose of reading is not just raw knowledge. It’s that it is part of the human experience. It helps you find meaning, understand yourself, and make your life better.

There is very little else that you can say that about. Very little else like that under $20 too.

-

Look, you either get this or you don’t. Reading is something you know is important and want to do more of. Or you’re someone who just doesn’t read. If you’re the latter, you’re on your own (you’re also probably not that smart).

Think of someone like Frederick Douglass, who brought himself up out of slavery by sneaking out and teaching himself to read. Books weren’t some idle pursuit or pastime to him, they were survival itself. And despite this dire situation, he managed to read  and, as the writer Thomas Sowell once put it, “educate himself to the point where his words now have to be explained to today’s expensively under-educated generation.”

What excuse do you have?

If you want to read more, there’s no real secret. It’s about adjusting your priorities and your perception so that reading becomes an extension of who you are and what you do.

When that happens, you’ll be the person that people now ask: How do you do it? And the answer will be: I just do.

This post originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com. For more comments, view it there.