My wife is reading Neil Gaiman’s “Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions.” As she was doing so this past weekend she read the following out loud, knowing that it would make me smile:

“People talk about books that write themselves, and it’s a lie. Books don’t write themselves. It takes thought and research and backache and notes and more time and more work than you’d believe.”

In some sense, this is a good thing. Writing that is worth reading often seems effortless, but it can be a double-edged sword. When a consumer reads something that looks “easy” to create, they then expect the writer to churn out content as if it were rumbling down an automotive assembly line. It doesn’t work that way.

Readers of this blog know that I’ve been chipping away at my own book for perhaps eight months whenever time permits. If one were to liken writing a book to building a house, then I would say that I successfully laid the foundation and then realized that I wasn’t a very good plumber. Do I build a house with crappy plumbing and hope to sell it to people who aren’t too concerned about water pressure, or do I take the time to learn how to lay pipes?

For my own book, there is a character who is a former Army Special Forces team member. I found myself saying during the writing process, “Okay, I have infantry friends who have been deployed overseas, but wouldn’t it be better to actually talk to some guys who are Special Forces operators?” I’m now in the process of taking care of that task. That sort of thing takes time, which is something that friends and family and coworkers are usually in the dark about.

Likewise, all of my characters are men of faith (to different degrees). Months ago I found myself saying, “Wow, this is really hard because I’m not nearly as well-versed in my own faith as I thought I was!” What followed was three months of devouring the best and brightest work put forth by religious men that I could get my hands on. Again, that takes time (especially with a full-time job and a blog to keep fresh), but how do you explain that to friends who ask, “How is the book coming along?”

The answer: you don’t.

Unless you’re talking with fellow writers about the creative process, then I would suggest not discussing your book with friends and family and instead concentrating on writing in isolation. If you are a blogger, then I would also suggest refraining from talking about your book unless you plan to have open and honest discussions about the writing process.

Personally, I feel as though I would be done with my own project by now if I could tear myself away from this blog for more than a few days at a time, but my readers are like the mob — every time I think I’m out, you guys pull me back in!

If you’re a writing a book of any kind, then feel free to let me know what you do to stay focused. Or, if you have a question you think I might be able to help you with, then ask away. I’d be happy to give it my best shot in the comments section below.

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About the Author Douglas Ernst

I'm a former Army guy who believes success comes through hard work, honesty, optimism, and perseverance. I believe seeing yourself as a victim creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. I believe in God. I'm a USC Trojan with an MA in Political Science from American University.

13 comments

  1. What can be frustrating is rewarding; I am backloaded on so many books and articles; because to follow your metaphor- the plumbing is never good enough for me….so many things to learn about. Perhaps a paradox of age, the smarter I think I get the less I realize I know.

    What I do know is that nothing comes naturally for people, even the best in their field work at their craft tirelessly. We just didn’t see famous musicians practicing endlessly in their basements or shabby apartments; we don’t see Jordan for hours and hours at the gym perfecting those shots; and we only see the finished product of authors- not the preperation.

    Even for hobbies; my father was recently impressed I could remember different football playoff scenarios that played out from seasons thirty years ago- a lifelong passion of the game I spent countless hours watching, reading everything I could about it (Pre-Internet), and studying all my childhood football cards. Carl is a beacon of info about comics because its obvious he spent time immersed in the hobby.

    But the point is, it is rewarding in the end when the hard work gets results; and I’m sure the book will show that. We’re all looking forward to it!

    1. Perhaps a paradox of age, the smarter I think I get the less I realize I know.

      I agree. I think one of the important steps on the road to becoming a wise man is to be smart enough to know…that you don’t know much at all.

  2. Hey Doug, as a book writer whose barely gotten past the first chapter of ONE of his innumerable ideas… what is the maximum amount of time you allotted to just focusing on that book of yours without distractions and the like?

    1. Thanks for the question, vunderguy. I’m easily distracted, so when I write I like to have nothing else on my plate and no one around. This is increasingly difficult now that I’m married, working full time, etc. … but it can be done! 🙂

      I’ve had nights where I started at maybe 8:00 p.m. on a Saturday and then wrote until midnight. I usually like to write in big blocks of time where I won’t be disturbed. However, since I’m busier lately I just basically write or research for my book on Mondays (my day off). I’ll usually allot myself two hours of writing time, or until I finish a scene. Then I put it away and come back to it the following week.

      I think the most important thing is to basically get into a routine. It’s the same with exercising. If you just tell yourself, “Okay, I’m going to do this at ‘x’ time in the morning for a duration of ‘y’,” then you’ll be setting yourself up for success. For the longest time I would resist writing unless I had a full Saturday all to myself with nothing to do. Well, that gets harder to do as you get older. So, basically, you just have to fit it in whenever you can.

      Basically, I try and write my blog posts a couple times a week, work on my book in some capacity on my book, and exercise. I have a few hours each morning to engage in those activities, so it comes down to juggling my priorities. I know that if I write a blog post I can’t be working on my book. I know that if I start lifting weights, then I’m not able to work on my book. What’s most important to me? At this point I just decided that chipping away a little bit each week works for me. Likewise, you’ll have to figure out what works with your schedule. Like I said, the most important thing is just getting into a routine.

      Hope that helps. 🙂 I can expand on anything if need be.

    1. I think there is something to be said about striking while the iron is hot — if you wait too long to return to a story then it may be hard to get back into the groove, or you may have changed too much as a person to really create your initial vision — but I don’t think your own writing should ever bore you.

      If you’re not moved by your own work, then you can’t really expect others to be. I had a four hour car drive this morning (I’m now in a Panera eating breakfast), and I was thinking about a book that I half-completed in high school. I was wondering if I would be able to complete it even if I wanted to. My guess is that it wouldn’t be possible. I’d have to start over from scratch because I’m so different now.

      Likewise, I have a book for young adults that I finished in college, but I never seriously shopped it around. I read that recently and I still like it a lot. I had a teenager read it, who shared it with a couple friends, and they seemed to like it. I think it can be polished up, but I’ll probably make some changes that could have never been made 15 years ago when I initially wrote it.

      J.K. Rowling once gave an interview about how she started crying while writing one particular scene in her Harry Potter series. I think that’s a very good sign. Readers are finicky to begin with, but if you can write something that brings you to tears then I think you’re giving the project a fighting chance.

      To me, even unpublished work is not a waste of time. You’re learning as your write. You’re learning how to become a better writer, and you’re learning about yourself. I have at least three completed screenplays collecting dust from my college days, but I don’t really care because in each case I learned something while going through the process.

      One other thing that might help you is to outline the story beforehand so you have an idea of where you’re going. That way you won’t get “stuck” as much trying to figure out where to go next, which will cut down on the time you have to step away from the piece.

    1. I’m actually not a big Gaiman fan, to be honest. I thought Neverwhere was a great book, but some of his other books (such as American Gods) didn’t do much for me. Neither did his comic The Sandman, to be honest. His Doctor Who episodes were lackluster, in my opinion, although the last one he wrote was a better effort.

  3. As an aspiring writer who is also attempting to work on a novel myself, Douglas, I’ve definitely come across a lot of advice when it comes to focusing on writing. Some of the more helpful tips I’ve seen are:

    *Find a time in which there are the least amount of distractions and interruptions, preferably early in the morning or late at night, depending on whether or not you’re an “early bird” or “night owl.” That’s because if it’s really early or really late, you’re less likely going to have family members, spouses, or kids coming into your writing space at random times since they’ll most likely still be asleep, or getting annoying calls from telemarketers since they only seems to call between 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

    *Get off the grid during your writing time. That includes not watching TV, answering the phone or making phone calls, and especially surfing the internet, answering email, or blogging. After all, if you unplug your router or cable modem or what have you before you write, and then as you’re writing you get the temptation to look up something online (telling yourself it’s for research purposes, of course) you then have to stop what you’re doing, plug all your cables in, wait for your PC or laptop to receive the signal, then click on your browser, you start to think, “Gee, this is such a hassle. I could be writing instead of having to go through all this trouble. Maybe this can wait until after I finish for the day.”

    *Another way to block out potential distraction…write with music in the background. Preferably classical since it doesn’t contain any lyrics.

    *Depending upon on how productive you are, write between 2 to 4 hours, or between 1,000 to 2,000 words, whichever comes first…but don’t do to all at once. Instead, break up your writing time into manageable chunks. There is method of time management known as the Pomodoro Technique which was created by an Italian named Francesco Circillo during the 1990s. The idea is to get yourself an egg timer, and set it for 25 minutes, and keep working during those 25 minutes, non-stop. When those 25 minutes are up, stop, then take a 5 minute break. After the 5 minute break, start another 25 minute session. Repeat this process four times, and after the fourth time, take a 15-30 minute break, then start again if you wish. This way, you’ll potentially get a lot of work done while still allowing yourself to recharge. After all, athletes work out and build their muscles in intervals, so why not writers?

    *Another time management method I found recently comes from comedian Jerry Seinfeld. First, buy a wall calendar which has the whole year on a single page and a magic marker. Whenever you get done with a writing session, mark that day off the calender. Over time, you’ll see a “chain” of “Xs.” And whatever you do “don’t break the chain,” i.e. skip a day.

    *One method from Stephen King’s On Writing is to write two drafts, “the one with the study door closed and the one with the door open.” In other words, for the first draft, just write without worrying about grammar, punctuation, spelling, word choice, etc. Just get it down on paper. (This is also what writer Anne Lamont called the “Sh***y first draft” Then, after you finish, go out and celebrate on a job well done, but don’t look at your work right away. Wait a few weeks and, in the meantime, write something else. Then, after those couple of weeks, you rewrite, this time looking at grammar, punctuation, spelling, word choice, etc.

    *One way to make sure your story doesn’t go completely off track is to use index cards, preferably several with a variety of colors. Each card represents a scene, and each color represents either a point-of-view character, a subplot, or a storyline. Set out 20 to 30 cards of the scenes that are the strongest in your mind, and write a one or two sentence summary of the scene on each card. When you have your 20 or 30 cards, arrange and move them in the order you see fit either on a cork board, wall, or floor. When you find the order you like, start writing using the cards as a guide. If you find as you write that a scene you planned doesn’t work, toss the card out. If you find as you write you have an idea for a better scene, make a new card. This way, you’ll have a makeshift outline that while allow for organization but still be flexible enough to allow for spontaneity while writing.

    *Then, of course, there’s the method Ernest Hemingway used, which was to always stop writing in mid-sentence. That way, you’d be able to have something to write about for next time.

    Those are the methods I feel are the most useful for me, but of course, everyone has a different style of working, just like there are different styles of writing.

    1. Wow. Great comment, Mike! I don’t even know where to start. I think you’ve included a whole host a great suggestions.

      Find a time in which there are the least amount of distractions and interruptions, preferably early in the morning or late at night, depending on whether or not you’re an “early bird” or “night owl.” That’s because if it’s really early or really late, you’re less likely going to have family members, spouses, or kids coming into your writing space at random times since they’ll most likely still be asleep, or getting annoying calls from telemarketers since they only seems to call between 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

      This really resonated with me. Most of my writing these days takes place in the morning, although I’ve been doing research for my own book late at night after my wife goes to sleep at night.

      One method from Stephen King’s On Writing is to write two drafts, “the one with the study door closed and the one with the door open.” In other words, for the first draft, just write without worrying about grammar, punctuation, spelling, word choice, etc. Just get it down on paper. (This is also what writer Anne Lamont called the “Sh***y first draft” Then, after you finish, go out and celebrate on a job well done, but don’t look at your work right away. Wait a few weeks and, in the meantime, write something else. Then, after those couple of weeks, you rewrite, this time looking at grammar, punctuation, spelling, word choice, etc.

      I read that book years ago and I thought it was very helpful. I’m glad that you referenced it. I give it a thumbs up. For whatever reason, on this particular piece of advice, I’ve never been able to do that. I’d rather write for four hours and have four paragraphs that I absolutely love, then to write for four hours and end up with four pages that I have to cut and trim to death at a later time to finally get it to a point I’m happy with.

      Those are the methods I feel are the most useful for me, but of course, everyone has a different style of working, just like there are different styles of writing.

      I totally agree. Every writer needs to just sort of find out what works for them. But, like I said, you’ve offered people a wealth of suggestions to consider. Thanks again!

      Update: For anyone whose interested, check out Mike’s work over at Spider-Man Crawlspace. He does a great job.

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