Books are mysterious. Until you’ve written one, it’s hard to imagine how anyone ever manages to write one.
I wasn’t one of those kids who always dreamed of writing a book. I became writer by accident. I wrote a blog post, and I got a book deal for my first book.
I got lucky the first time around. For my second book, I had to shed many false beliefs about writing a book.
Here’s what I wish someone would have told me years ago:
1. Writing doesn’t have to be hard
When you don’t have much experience writing, chances are it’s hard to string together 250 coherent words. Logically, you would then expect that writing 25,000 or 50,000 words would be unbelievably hard.
But getting good at writing isn’t a linear process. Writing 25,000 coherent words doesn’t have to be one-hundred times as hard as writing 250.
Growing your writing skill is like going to the gym. The hard work you do makes it easier to do the same amount of exercise later on. You get stronger, and what seemed impossible becomes easy.
You write 250-word pieces a bunch of times, and writing 250 words becomes easy. You write a bunch of 500-word pieces, then those get easy. Then you do 1,000.
Somewhere around the point that you can come up with 2,000 words that make sense together, you can confidently imagine entire books, which may actually be 25,000 or 50,000 words.
Writing does not always have to be hard, and your writing skill grows exponentially. The more you write, the easier it gets.
2. Books aren’t written straight through
I used to think that to write a book, you’d just sit down and write until it was done. This makes writing a book seem impossible. Especially when you’re just starting out, and 250 words is hard.
Books are easy to write if you are writing what you know. The trouble is, it’s hard to really know something until you’ve gone over it dozens of times.
One of the best ways to know something is to write about it. One of the best ways to write clearly, is to write about the same thing over and over again.
A book presents a point of view about a topic. You can construct that point of view more easily if you write about one piece of a topic at a time. Those pieces will naturally overlap, and they can be stitched together like a quilt.
I tried to power through writing my first book in six months. I traumatized myself so much, I didn’t release another book for six more years.
This time, I didn’t try to write my book straight through. Instead, I wrote a bunch of 500-word pieces. I constructed a point of view about getting creative work done. I stitched some of those pieces together, and — with a little editing—I had a book.
3. Giving your writing away makes it worth buying
When most people think of writing a book, they imagine launching it to a rabid market of readers who want to buy their book.
Because of this fantasy, they believe they shouldn’t give their writing away. After all, people are going to pay for their book.
If you think all of your writing has to be paid for, then all of your writing needs to go into a book. This makes it impossible to build the skill of writing, and to know how readers react to your writing. Writing a whole book is a tall order for a beginning writer. You find yourself in a Catch-22 situation.
Your writing has to compete with every other form of entertainment that exists: This means you’re competing against Facebook, Game of Thrones, and even sex. These are practically free, so if you insist on only allowing people who have paid to read your writing, you are in for an even more uphill battle than writing a book normally is.
When you’re giving away your initial writing for free, you’re not really giving it away for “free.” Think of it more as a barter exchange: You’re exchanging your writing for feedback that will make your writing worth charging for. You’re also building a small army of advocates for your writing. Counterintuitively, the people who got your writing for free will also be the first ones to pay for it.
Need examples? E. L. James posted her Twilight fan fiction for free before republishing it as Fifty Shades of Grey, which sold over 125 million copies, and has been adapted to three feature films.
After being rejected by literary agents, Andy Weir put The Martian online for free, one chapter at a time. The film adaptation alone has grossed nearly a quarter of a billion dollars.
Before writing my latest book, I had a call with Nir Eyal, who knows the value of free. He gave away Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, and later got a publishing deal. Hooked became a Wall Street Journal best-seller.
In preparation for writing my second book, I was resistant to giving my writing away for free. Nir explained to me that if the ideas are good, they will spread. If they don’t spread, at least you didn’t waste years of your life writing something nobody wants to read.
Writing a book is easier than ever. But you may have some false beliefs you have to shed first. If you write consistently enough to make it easy, you construct a point of view, and you give your work away for feedback and an initial audience, before you know it, you will have written a book of your own.