3 Steps to Get Your Writing Done

I was recently chatting with an author friend of mine about his process for writing and here was his answer:

Tim, there are three things writers are good at:

1. Not writing

2. Complaining about not writing

3. Self-loathing about not writing

As a writer, I’m sure you can relate to this in some fashion.  Even the great Paulo Coelho, who has sold over 65 million copies of his books, says that when he’s on deadline “I start procrastinating in the morning, I check email, I check news, I check everything that I could check just to postpone [writing my book]”.

If one of the most prolific writers of our time can’t seem to stop procrastinating, how can you even hope to get your manuscript finished?

After talking with a lot of successful writers about their process, a common theme has come up and it all boils down to three simple rules.  But before I give you those, I want you to make a commitment to follow through with trying them.  I give you a homework assignment at the end and I guarantee that if you follow through, you’ll be well on your way to finally finishing that book.

Here’s your three steps to writing:

1. Do it in the morning.  You are freshest in the morning and this keeps you from being distracted later in the day.  Life happens.  Work goes nuts, kids get sick, you hit a deadline and before you know it, the day is gone and you haven’t written a single word.  Or, when you finally sit down at 10pm to write, you’re too exhausted to think.  Jean Chatzky says when she’s writing a book she gets up two hours before her kids every morning until it’s done.  Write first thing in the morning, every morning.

2. Put it on your calendar.  One to two hours a day.  For my writing, I schedule it on my calendar for first thing when I get to the office.  It’s on my calendar so I can’t get pulled into other meetings or phone calls.  Family obligations don’t interfere because I’m at work.  Make it a non-negotiable part of your day that can only be interrupted by emergencies — someone better be bleeding.

3. Never start without knowing what you are going to write.  All planning for your writing should be done at least by the night before.  Any outlining or research also has to be done prior to the time you’ve set aside for writing.  When you sit down to work, you should know the topic, scene or portion of your book that you are going to work on.  As soon as you sit down, start putting words on the screen.  It is too easy to get distracted by things “around” writing that feel effective, but aren’t.  Get those out of the way first so you can immediately start typing.

Picture from Drew Coffman

The Marketing Power of Externalizing

Promoting your book is often a huge psychological hurdle for authors. One that many never get over. The interesting thing that I hear from a lot of authors is the word “self-promotion” when it comes to their book. This is the same person that can easily promote their speaking abilities, consulting services or their company’s product. The word they use for this is “marketing” or “sales”. Even if, in the first two examples, they are merely selling their advice, somehow this does not translate over to their book.

When you sell your book, the phrase gets switched to “self-promotion”. Why is that?

What is the power of going to a therapist? Or hiring a business coach (the same thing from all I can tell)? Sure, the insight of said therapist or coach is important. You don’t want to go to someone that will give you bad advice. However, I believe the most important thing they do is force you to externalize what is so caught up in your head. Often, as you start talking, you’ll become extremely surprised and appalled at the destructive thoughts that are cycling through your brain.

The power here isn’t in the person sitting across from you, it’s in taking something inside of you and setting it out in front of you so you can objectively make decisions about it.

My wife’s therapist calls these internal monologues that define behavior “scripts” and the trigger word for these is “should”. Any time the word “should” crosses your mind you are to stop, externalize the script that comes after that and then decide objectively if it’s a good or bad script. For instance:

Bad: “I’ve had a bad day so I should be able to eat a box of brownies.”

Good: “I spent and hour at the gym this morning so I should take a shower.”

The truth is, your book is a good thing. If you didn’t believe this, you would not have gone through the excruciating process of writing it. If it’s a non-fiction book, you are sharing knowledge, wisdom and insights that are going to change people’s lives for the better. If it’s a fiction or entertainment book, you are adding hours of enjoyment to people’s lives they wouldn’t have otherwise. Your book is a good thing.

If this is true, then by not promoting your book and getting it into as many people’s hands as possible, you are doing them a disservice. Your selfishly keeping something out of their lives that could better them in some way just because you’re afraid of something you call “self promotion”.

However, it’s not “self promotion”. It’s just “marketing” — like any other product that will improve people’s lives.

Somewhere along the way you get a script in their head that by promoting your book it is self-serving and anything else you do is somehow not.

Let’s take a look at the numbers.

The typical author makes about $2 per $20 book that is sold. That’s a 10% margin. If you happen to be one of the very few authors that sell at least 10,000 copies of your book, you end up making about $20,000.

Of course writing a book can take a very short time or a very long time, but let’s just throw a time frame out there of 9 months. So you spend 9 months of early mornings, late nights and working lunches pulling together a manuscript. That’s not even counting the editing, rewrites and many other things you end up doing just to get it done.

9 months of work for $20,000. That’s well under $30,000 a year as a salary. Now let’s look at a few other numbers.

As any author will tell you, there is a lot easier ways to make money. Most professionals can start making thousands of dollars to show up and speak somewhere. Consulting services are often priced by the hundreds of dollars per hour. And if you are selling a product for your job, odds are that you make more than 10% off of each one and even so, it’s not a two year process (the typical length from book contract to book shelf) before you start getting a return on your time investment.

The idea that your book is “self promotion” and everything else you sell is just “marketing” or “sales” is ridiculous and false. It’s a script that was given to you at some point in your life and it’s time to let it go.

Here is your takeaway: Anytime you think about what you need to do to promote your book, and words like “self promoting” pop into your head, that’s your trigger to stop, externalize it and realize that by selling your book you are helping people and nobody else is going to do it like you will.

The cost of shoe leather

There are two types of successful authors.

  • Authors who sell a lot of books
  • Authors who sell a lot of books and are adored by their tribe.

Brent Weeks is a fantasy fiction author published out of Orbit Books. He hit the scene at the end of 2008 when he released all three of the books in his debut trilogy in just three months. And although he is now a New York Times bestselling author, it took six months for him to hit the list.

Conventional publishing wisdom says that if you don’t make bestseller status in the first week, the odds of you making it are extremely slim. By then, all of the marketing by the publisher has fizzled out and they have long since moved onto other books. The initial excitement by initial fans often dies out and your books start getting pulled from the Barnes & Noble shelves and shipped back to the publisher.

So how did Brent Weeks pull this off?

Besides the fact that the wrote three fantastic books, he put himself out there. He blogged on a regular basis and even started a little social network so fans could interact with him and each other. Just recently he started a series of blog post teaching his fans how they can get started in the world of writing.

Brent loves his fans. And in return, they adore him.

Dan Pink is sitting on top of the author world. His latest book, Drive, was an instant bestseller and continues to sell extremely well over a year after it’s release. His last book, A Whole New Mind, has sold millions of copies and was endorsed by Oprah.

But how did he get to this point? Was it a fluke? Was it luck?

In the paperback version of his first book, Free Agent Nation, he told readers that if they lived within 50 miles of Washington D.C. (his hometown) and there were at least two people reading the book together, he would drive and meet them in person and talk about the book. If they lived outside of the 50 mile D.C. radius, he would do a phone call with them.

He travels extensively to speak and meet readers. When you meet Dan Pink, you come away feeling like he thinks you are just as important as any other reader of his book including Oprah. He truly appreciates every single person that buys his book and proves to be regularly giving of himself on his blog and in person.

On Dan’s first book tour, he often spoke to crowds of 1 or 2. On his Drive book tour, he was filling out every venue he booked.

Dan loves his fans. And in return, they adore him.

Recently I asked Dan what it takes to have his kind of success. Here was his reply:

“Lots and lots of shoe leather.”

A couple years ago I got into gardening for the first time. After an argument with my 3 year old over his belief that vegetables come from the grocery store and that it is a gross idea that they come from plants, I went out and spent a bunch of money to start a garden on my porch.

Recently, when discussing gardening with a friend of mine, he shared with me that he wasn’t very good at it. “I’m the type guy that goes out and works really hard for a couple days on a garden and then forgets about it for two weeks. Plants don’t respond very well to that. You have to do a little bit every day.”

It struck me that this is also what it takes to build a tribe of readers that adore you. You have to show up every day. Writing your blog, attending conferences, answering people on Twitter, emailing fans and even driving 50 miles just to meet with a couple readers… it’s all about “lots and lots of shoe leather”.

I often talk to authors that point at people like Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki, Dan Pink, Pamela Slim and others that are adored by their fans and they say “I want to be like them. How do I do that?” My answer now?

“Lots and lots of shoe leather.”

Your Art and the Tools to Share

I work on the fringes of the publishing industry. Our clients are authors and looking to build a following so they can spread their ideas and change the world. It is very satisfying work to be part of helping someone reach more people with their art and ideas.

And, of course, the question gets asked of me from time to time:

“Have you written a book yet?”

On one hand, it completely makes sense that I should have a book or at least be working on one. I know a lot of great book agents and editors at the big publishing firms. I know plenty of great authors that would share their contacts with me and endorse the book. I also am the creator of the Instant Bestseller Formula so I know a thing or two about launching a book.

So why haven’t I written a book?

I don’t have anything worth saying yet.

Publishing a book now is easier than ever. Editors are more accessible and they are more desperate than ever to sell books. And if you want to skip the whole trade publishing process, you can self-publish your book and have it for sale in the biggest book store in the world in a matter of weeks.

However, just because the tools exist does not mean you should use them.

Earlier this century everything changed with the advent of blogging software. All of a sudden you didn’t have to rely on a handful of geeks that knew how to put content online. You could do it yourself free and easy. Fast forward a few years and the number of ways to publish your content are more than you could ever keep up with.

But If I take a cursory glance at how they are being used by a lot of people, I come to the same conclusion:

Just because the tools exist does not mean you should use them.

Even if you take out the clearly horrid things that people accomplish by spreading their bigotry and hate, so many of the tools are used for vapid and useless things. Facebook is used as a narcissistic cry to the universe to prove that you are interesting and matter. Twitter is used to spew useless drivel 140 characters at a time. “Internet marketers” start dozens of blogs and post thousands of words of worthless content in the hopes of gaming the system and making a few bucks.

And we have all read a least a few books that should have never been allowed to reach the light of day.

I haven’t published a book yet because I don’t have anything worth saying yet. When I start thinking through what I could write, my mind immediately goes to what a published book could do for my career, speaking rate and social status.

Until I’m writing a book for the people that are going to read it, instead of for myself, I’m not going to do it.

The tools exist. They are there, easily accessible, for you to use. If you’re reading this, odds are you are using at least a couple of them. So what are you using them for? Merely to make a few bucks? To prove to yourself and the world that you exist?

Or, are you trying to make the world a better place by putting your art and ideas out for all to see?

The #1 thing publishers care about (or how to get your book published)

At the 2011 SXSW Interactive conference I attended a great panel discussion titled “Care and Feeding of Blogs and Book Contracts” moderated by Pam Slim of Escape From Cubicle Nation. My favorite part of the discussion was the insight offered by Mary E Glenn of McGraw-Hill and Matthew Holt of John Wiley & Sons. Statements like “You don’t need agents anymore” and “Hiring a PR firm is bulls*** and a waste of money” stood out the most to me. However, the hardest part was listening to the questions from the audience. Here’s a sampling:

  • How big of a readership does your blog need to have to get a book contract?
  • Does it matter if you can get published in major trade magazines?
  • What if you have a big email list but you don’t blog?

If you are asking these questions, you’re focusing on the wrong thing. This is not what a publisher actually cares about.

Back in December I spoke at the BizBookLab hosted by Todd Sattersten. There were a lot of publishing folk present and lots of conversations erupted around this idea of what it takes to get a book contract.

The same questions kept coming up about blogging, speaking, Twitter following, etc. And then finally somebody got it right.

It all boils down to this one fundamental question that all publishers care about:

“Can you sell books?”

What if you snapped your fingers and skipped all of the writing, editing, designing and printing of your book? Instead, this afternoon somebody dropped a pallet of 2000 of your books in your driveway. Could you sell them in the next 30 days? If the answer is “Yes” you can probably get a book contract. If the answer is “No”, you’re going to have a hard time persuading a publisher to invest in you.

Last year over a million books were published. Often when an author sits down with a publisher, the first question to come up is not “What is your book about?”. Instead, it’s “What is your platform?”. In other words, “We want to make sure you can actually sell your own book before we invest in publishing it.”

It’s about the tribe, not the tools. Blogging, social media, public speaking, etc are all tools for building and engaging your tribe. If you have a large tribe of passionate followers that are actively engaged and willing to spend money on your book, it doesn’t matter what tools you are using, you’ll be able to get a publishing deal.

Publishers are in the business of selling books. If you can sell books, they’ll be interested in what you have to say.

Photo by The Digital’s

Are book publicists good or bad?

“What do you think of book publicists? Good or bad?”

I get some form of this question on a regular basis. This is always an interesting conversation and I usually talk about my own interactions with publicists.

Here are my top three:

The “We can’t make any promises” publicists

Last year I spoke at an author marketing workshop and hung around to participate in some of the other sessions. The most awkward was the one the one led by three publicists from three different firms. The majority of the workshop was spent lamenting about how much media has changed and how they can’t promise that anything will work. The most depressing of the group was the publicist that focused 100% on getting newspaper coverage.

I guess I would be depressed too.

The “Bloggers are stupid and online media is a waste of time” publicists

I recently had a phone call that included a client, a publicist and myself. The publicist was openly hostile to the online tribe building suggestions I was making. When I suggested that the author spend time in every city he visits interacting with readers, the publicist said it was a “waste of [the author’s] time”. When I suggested that bloggers be invited to media events, the publicist said “bloggers can’t be trusted and don’t drive many sales anyway”.


The “We are actually good publicists” publicists

Then there are a very few publicist firms that do a fantastic job. They have great connections and do their best to get you the media coverage you want.

They also cost over $50,000.

Who hires a publicist?

Last year I got a behind-the-scenes look at an author buying their way onto the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists. If you hire a couple top tier publicists, run full page ads in the major, national newspapers and buy ad spots on major TV and radio networks, you can absolutely force your way onto the bestseller lists.

If you have more money than time and you care more about selling books than connecting with an audience, hiring a publicist is the way to go.

What about the rest of the authors out there? The ones that care about building a platform and making a difference over a long period of time? What are their options?


What is so amazing about the brave new world of online media is that you already have all the tools for being your own publicist right at your finger tips. You can develop relationships with journalists yourself. You can build your own following instead of spending a bunch of money to borrow someone else’s.

Now, when the topic of book publicists come up, it’s no longer a discussion of whether they are good or bad, it’s about imagining a world where they are rendered irrelevant. A world where spending over $50,000 and no guarantee of results is ludicrous because you already have direct access to your readers.

That is the world I want every author to live in.

photo by William Brawley

Published authors are better than everyone else

Have you noticed how most people have an incorrect view of their social status? They either consider themselves more important or less important than what is reality. I find authors are often skewed to not thinking highly enough of themselves.

In most cases, this isn’t a bad trait. Nobody likes someone that is too full of themself. However this will also hold you back from successfully marketing yourself as an author. I’ll get to that in a minute but first let me offer some reasoning behind the bold title of this post.

Let’s take Brad Pitt for example. On one hand, he’s just a normal guy. Gets up the morning, feeds his cat, brushes his teeth, etc. On the other hand he’s freaking Brad Pitt. Movie star, millionaire, activist, etc. He probably won’t answer the phone if you call.

You, as a published author, are better than everyone else in a similar fashion.

Sure you’re just a normal person, but you’ve also convinced a publisher to spend money on your words. This automatically establishes you as an expert and puts you on a different playing field than most people. Even with a million books being published every year, you’re still a part of an extremely small community. A community most people dream of being in.

That said, until you get over selling yourself short, you’ll never be able to lead, grow your tribe or market yourself.

What are people looking for in a leader?

  • Authority in their ideas and beliefs
  • Guts to go first and put themselves on the line
  • Willingness to put their own skin in the game
  • Confidence to give direction on where people should go and how they should act
  • Create a culture around their movement. Establish who is “in” and “out”
  • Effectively communicate their vision
  • Challenge the status quo

All of this is much easier to do sitting behind a computer screen and turning in a manuscript to the editor. To truly lead your tribe you have to step out into mediums that are much more risky and takes the confidence of knowing you and your ideas are superior enough to call other people to join you.

What is that feeling you get when you get a book autographed or get an email from an industry icon you have huge respect for?

To lead your tribe, you must embrace the fact that this is how people will feel when they connect with you.

Photo by internets_dairy

Interview: Penelope Trunk

penelopeI recently came across Penelope Trunk’s blog and promptly lost a couple hours of my life reading through the archives. While she is known for her career advice and authoring Brazen Careerist, I found her personal openness on topics such as divorce and postpartum depression to be extremely refreshing.

From her site:

Penelope is the founder of 3 startups — most recently, Brazen Careerist, a web service to help companies find candidates. Her career advice appears in more than 200 newspapers and magazines including Time magazine, San Francisco Chronicle and Boston Globe. In a review of this blog, Business Week called Penelope’s writing “poetic.”

After reading through much of her archives, I had some questions I wanted to ask her and she was nice enough to answer them.

Me: What makes you happy?

Penelope: I don’t know. I keep trying to figure that out. I think the answer sort of comes to us in pieces. I try to put them together so they make enough sense that I can take action. Change things.

Me: I was taught there are three things you don’t discuss at work. Sex, politics and religion. This isn’t necessarily the case anymore and you seem to think this is a good trend. What initial steps would you suggest someone take to inject more of themselves in to their work?

Penelope: Make a friend. Take the normal steps toward making a friend, which do not typically involve any of the above topics. At least at first. And then add those topics once the person is your friend. Tim Rath, a researcher from Gallup, found that if you have two friends at work, it’s nearly impossible to hate your job. That’s a good endorsement for making friends. You don’t need to be close to everyone. Just two people.

penelope2Me: I see a trend of people deeply intertwining their personal goals with their career goals. Is this a healthy practice? Will this cause people to be more or less successful in the business world?

Penelope: We each define success differently. There are tradeoffs to everything. We need to acknowledge that when we decide our priorities for our goals.

Me: You’ve written about the importance of practicing vulnerability in the workplace and how this is connected with choosing silence over talking. Why is vulnerability so important? In what ways is silence connected to this?

Penelope: If we are not vulnerable then we’re not open to new experiences, and life will get boring and lonely. You can’t let new things in if you never shut up. Talking all the time is a way to put an artificial wall between you and a the world. The unexpected parts of life happen in the silences.

Me: What personal activities do you regularly do to keep yourself in check both personally and professionally?

Penelope: I go to the gym and I read a lot. I blog three or four days a week. That’s a lot of alone time in my head. If I don’t do that, I start to fall apart in my head. So probably writing is something that I need to do to keep myself steady. I’m lucky that it’s part of my job

Thanks again to Penelope for agreeing to this interview. Be sure to:

The guilt free process to breaking a bad habit

We all struggle with bad habits in our life. Some are dark and scary and some are merely frustrating.

You’ll be offered lots of advice from other places:

  • Figure out the triggers – While we can do plenty to keep stress out of our life, there will always be triggers in our life in the forms of clients and kids that can set us off. Identifying this did me absolutely no good.
  • Try really hard for 30 days – This has got to be the worst. The mere fact that it’s a habit that I want to quit implies that I can’t control myself. Trying really hard only produces guilt when I inevitably fail, which helps no one.
  • Accountability – People lie. To themselves and to others. Especially when they feel ashamed. I’ve found having accountability works until you fail after a long stretch of doing good. Then I don’t want to admit that I’ve failed.

Two and a half years ago when I quit my job to run Out:think full time, I had no idea that amount of bad habits I had. It’s amazing how surfing YouTube for three hours a day has a different impact when you’re paycheck isn’t guaranteed anymore.

While wasting time online is relatively harmless, I’ve also battled and defeated darker habits in my life with the process I explain below.

The problem with all of the above advice is that you’re focusing on the problem. You need to focus on what you’re life would be like without your bad habit.

Have you ever watched a tight rope walker? They never look down. Their eyes are always on the end of the rope. Looking down is death.

All of the solutions I listed above are ways of “looking down” at your current situation. Looking down is death.

This process for breaking bad habits keeps your eye on the benefits of breaking the bad habit. If you follow it, you’ll quickly stop caring whether you break the bad habit or not. The end become the focus instead of the process that gets you there and before you realize it, you’ll make it to the other side.

1. Decide that it’s acceptable to fail

You have to do this first. You have to believe it. No more beating up on yourself. No more wishing it would just go away. You’ve got a problem and you’re taking steps to deal with it. No more guilt.

You are going to fail. A lot. And it’s ok.

It’s been drilled into our collective heads that we need to move fast on everything in life and once we’ve started something it needs to move as quickly as possible. If you’ve developed a bad habit over a long span of time, it’s going to take a long time to break it.

Let the guilt go.

2. Decide that you are going to stop trying to break the bad habit

I’m assuming by now you’ve already tried really really hard to stop. It’s normal but it’s how our bodies run. For this process to work you have to give up on trying to stop from sheer will power. It’s time to try something different.

3. Write down a list of all the negative results of your bad habit

Be specific and thorough. Write down every possible way this bad habit is has a negative impact on your life. Here’s part of my list from wasting time instead of working:

  1. I don’t make money which means I can’t pay my bills
  2. I have to make up the time later, which means time away from my kids. i.e. I traded playing with my son for watching dumb internet videos.
  3. I have to make up the time later, which means time away from my wife which causes a strain on our relationship.
  4. I fill my head with useless information.
  5. I come home feeling stupid and worthless.

This is not about guilt. We took care of the guilt in #1. This is about having clarity on your situation. Once this list is written down, move on to #4.

4. Write down a list of all of the positive things that will be added to your life once your break this habit

Again, be specific and thorough. Obviously most of these will be the antithesis of what you wrote in #2 but this step is still very important. Here’s part of my list:

  1. I will follow through on my work which means I will get paid and have money in the bank.
  2. I will be able to come home on time or early and spend time with my kids.
  3. I will be able to come home on time or early and spend time with my wife.
  4. I will come home with a sense of pride and accomplishment.

These are the goals we want to focus on. This is what we really want. It’s not really about the bad habit. It’s about what we are missing out on because of it.

5. Spend 10 minutes every morning meditating on the first four steps

  • Every morning before your day starts, take ten minutes to be still and quiet.
  • Remind yourself that today you will probably fail and that’s ok.
  • Remind yourself that you’re done trying to break the bad habit. You’re trusting the process.
  • Thoughtfully meditate over your lists from steps #3 and #4.
  • Live your life.

Once you remove the stress and guilt you constantly place on yourself to break your bad habit and begin focusing on the positive results, your patterns will begin to change. It will happen slowly and it will be surprising, but it will work.