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11 Lessons From Writing A Book

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“Writing is hard for every last one of us… Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.” Cheryl Strayed

The Vague Direction book is finally available. It’s called… drumroll… Vague Direction: A 12,000 mile bicycle ride, and the meaning of life. [It’s available here: Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com]

It’s been a difficult creative process to figure out. There’s been plenty of ups and downs involved, but it’s turned into something I’m pleased with, simply because it was very tempting at times to stop and not see it through. The jury’s out on whether it’s actually any good, mind, as I honestly have no clue anymore. But hopefully it’s something that some people who read this blog may enjoy.

As this is my first book, and the long-form writing process was something new to me, inevitably some tidbits from the trenches have been picked up along the way. So, to any of you out there who’re wanting to write a book, hopefully these lessons come in handy. They’re not for everyone, but maybe they are for you?

  1. Don’t tell anyone you’re writing a book

    Not until you’re really close to having it finished, at least. I wish I’d never told anyone until the final three months. Two things can happen when you speak too soon. 1) People gloss over and don’t believe you, because pretty much everyone is “working on a book.” And 2) talking about it too early will drive you crazy, because there’s hundreds or thousands of hours still to go, and thinking of the end goal prematurely will throw all sorts of motivational spanners in the works. When it becomes easier to talk about writing a book, instead of actually writing it, something is wrong, and that’s why 95% of people who say they’ll write one, never do. Keep quiet, put your head down, and get on with the work. I wish I’d known this earlier.
     
  2. It will take far, far longer than you originally think

    “Two months. I’m going to rent the cheapest AirBnB imaginable, start writing, and in two months I’ll come back with the book done.” A complete idiot said this once. I won’t tell you who, other than to say he fully believed it at the time. Writing a book is not quick, not if you want to produce something that you think might be half-decent, and certainly not if it isn’t your full-time gig. Books take massive amounts of time to create. Even ones you think are bad have taken someone, somewhere, a desperate amount of time. Count on the process taking far longer than you think it will, and be okay with that. 

  3. At times you’ll hate it, and yourself

    You absolutely will be hit by wave upon wave of self-doubt. These are the moments in which people give up and never finish their project. You think what you’re doing is pointless. You think it’s no good and your story is rubbish. You think no-one will care and no-one will read it. You remember that you could be using this time to have a life instead of staring at a computer creating something that might not even generate any money or opportunities. These are all reasonable doubts, sensible even, and it is completely rational to act on them by giving up. But if you want it enough, you have to be fiercely stubborn by getting to the end at all costs.

  4. Avoid critical blows 

    Some people aren’t good for your project. They might mean well. They might not even realise that what they say has a long-term effect. But someone who gives you criticism when your book is at a vulnerable stage can destroy it. The world is full of different personality types, and some people are wired to give spontaneous criticism. You should ignore these people, for your own sanity. Remember – they don’t make stuff, they just take petty delight in knocking the work of others. Your first book will always be at a vulnerable stage, so do everything you can to not let these people affect you. Do not show them your work. And if you do get metaphorically punched in the balls by anyone early on, brush it off, tell them to jog on, and don’t take it to heart for too long.

  5. Stay active or the process will destroy you

    Here’s a dirty secret. At the end of the Vague Direction bike trip, I was physically fitter than I’d been in about 6 years. In contrast to that, at the end of writing the book, I was (am) really unfit. With Proper Work™, plus the writing, I spent pretty much a year sat behind a computer for hours upon hours almost every day. This is NOT a good way of doing things, and I will never do it again. Please, don’t do what I did! Build exercise and time off into your everyday schedule. 

  6. Don’t be a hermit

    Here’s another dirty secret. I messed up. Writing a book did not play nicely with having much of a life. I didn’t make much time for anything other than staring at a computer, and would make excuses to not see people because being ‘in the zone’ was something I wasn’t willing to lose. The flow is important to the outcome of the project, but remember to have perspective, and if in doubt, make more time for hanging out and leisure. Don’t be a fool. Time is something we never get back. 

  7. Do it your way

    There’s so much noise online about “best routines” and how you’re most creative first thing in the morning, or how any writer worth their salt has three and a quarter cups of organic Hima-frickin-layan grown coffee before writing, or yadda yadda. Here’s the thing – what works for some doesn’t work for others. Ultimately, you need to do whatever you need to do to get the damn thing written. Routine absolutely is important, but it’s your routine, not anyone else’s. I did all my best work late at night, often from 10pm onwards. So (and I’m aware of the happy irony here) ignore the advice, and do what works for you. 

  8. Cut the shiitake

    I mean this in two ways. 1) Don’t be a pretentious jerkmuffin when you write. A good rule of thumb is – if in doubt be short and snappy, not long and drawn out. 2) Cut more than you think you should. No, not mushrooms. Words. When you get on a roll, you’ll fly, and your word count will go up and up. You’ll probably do about 100,000 words before you consider the book close to being done. That’s a solid place to start, but a book this length is long. It’s hard to bin words that have taken toil to create, but you should. Aim to do your first draft and then, through iteration, lose 30-50% of your word count to make it tight. 

  9. Don’t fear the procrastinator 

    You sit down to write, and suddenly, BANG, three hours have gone by, there are still no words on the page, and you’ve just watched three back to back episodes of a HBO drama. It happens. Obviously there’s a point where procrastination becomes laziness, but a little bit of non-focus every now and then is okay. Sometimes, you can’t force it, and procrastination has actually been proven to help you synthesize your thoughts. Then, like magic, and completely out of the blue, BANG. You’re just casually watching a documentary about labour camps in North Korea, when you’re suddenly hit with a great idea or a solution to a problem.

  10. Take drugs

    Don’t do anything stupid like take Speed to write faster, LSD to be more creative, or Nootropics to stay focused. That’s silly, probably illegal and your work will be sloppy. Plus the film Limitless is only fiction. However, certain drugs can help – caffeine, I mean. Placebo or not, the most productive sessions I had in front of blank pages were powered by it. Warning: will ruin your body clock. 

  11. Typos stick like glue

    Whn “you’re done”, you’re not done at all. Whoever you are, and however reliable you think you’ve been, your final draft will be full of typos. Even if you’re J.K. Flippin’ Rowling. Read it through with a big red marker pen, marking all the errors. Then do it again, and again, and again. Seriously, go through your book 5 times. Then give it to a copy editor and have them go through it a few times. Then go through their version 5 more times. Only then can you be confident your book isn’t full of typos. And even then, some will probably slip through.

That’s everything that comes to mind. I hope this helps someone out there.

For some people, writing is easy. Maybe for them, this list seems ridiculous. Maybe they can bash a bestseller out every few months, don’t require a slice of pizza and two doughnuts before every typing session, and remain baffled about why people keep talking about something called “procrastination.” But for the rest of us, I wholeheartedly promise you, that if a bozo like me can do it, so can you.

You don’t gotta know about grammar, or the difference between verbs and nouns. You don’t have to use fancy words to sound smart. You just have to want it enough, try to believe in your story as much as you can, and stay in the fucking game until it’s finished.

There’s probably a sleazy and explicit metaphor somewhere in there too.

“Nothing any good isn’t hard.” F. Scott Fitzgerald



Vague Direction: A 12,000 mile bicycle ride, and the meaning of life.
Available now: Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.com



Follow Dave on Instagram for adventure photography and behind-the-scenes updates about his new courage project.
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