10 Things I learned from writing a book

Way back in 2011, I opened up a new document on my computer called Trolling for Olives*. Not knowing how else to begin, I just started typing. This week, I completed the final revision of that project. It is now a memoir called HURT ROAD. If you had told me back then that I would have seen this through to completion AND that it would take me almost six years to get to that point, I would have said you were crazy. Yes, I have learned quite a bit through finishing my first book. I thought it might be a worthy exercise to share with you a few of the more important lessons I’ve learned through this process.

1. The premise of the book will evolve. When I started out, I didn’t know what I was doing. I wrote about 25,000 words of autobiographical bullcrap. It was horrible. I then tried to change it into a Christian living book. But it had this preachy vibe that just felt wrong, so I changed it back. Later, with the guidance of a literary agent, I did a major revision that seemed to find a balance between the two. At the beginning of your project, come up with a premise. But don’t chisel it in stone. Know that it will change and that’s OK. You have a goal to write towards, knowing that you’ll figure out the next step when you get to it.

2. The editing is the real work. If you’re like I was, you’ve started several books. You’ll write chapter one, then go back and edit it several times, hoping to get it right before moving on. DON’T DO THIS. Author Michael Stackpole has likened this to digging a hole in the ground, then shoveling all the dirt back. You’ll never make any progress. You will learn the skills you need through writing the book. Then, in subsequent drafts, you will be in editing mode. Don’t get these two phases of the process mixed up.

3. Write the dang thing already. If editing is the real work, the sooner you can get to that stage, the sooner you’ll get to the real work. The NaNoWriMo crowd is on to something. Crank out that crappy first draft and then roll up your sleeves and get to editing.

4. The quality of the work is completely unrelated to how you feel at the time. Some days, the writing came free and easy. Other days, it felt like an exercise in futility. And I can’t tell you how many days I wasted, putting my writing off until I was in a better frame of mind. But a funny thing happened during the editing phase: I couldn’t tell the difference between what was easy to write and what was pulling teeth. Just get the words down.

5. It takes a lot longer than you think. I honestly thought it was going to take me a few months. Here I am, almost six years later. Writing a book has been an exercise in keeping the end goal in mind and staying on task. For years. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but one of the most rewarding. Don’t let the time it takes scare you away. The time will pass whether you write or not. You’ll probably like your future self better if they’ve written a book.
6. It will change you. You will be a different person at the end of the process. Your confidence level will skyrocket having accomplished a big goal. This will spill over into other areas of your life. It’s not all good though. Your relationship with words will be different having written a book. You used to read strictly for pleasure; now you have an editorial eye that you will have to try to turn off, and it’s not easy.

7. You’ve got to stick to it. There’s a made up word that football coaches and other motivational types love to use: STICKTOITIVENESS. Believe me, I have learned the meaning of this word. I went back to school online and had to put this book on the backburner. I worked on new music in the studio. I went on tour. This book morphed into a Christian living and back to memoir before landing somewhere in between. I almost scrapped the project in favor of fiction until my sweet wife talked me off the ledge. But through it all, I doggedly kept at it.

8. There is a big difference between memoir and your “memory scrapbook”. This is the biggest thing I learned through my agent. She patiently read my book and highlighted the parts that helped tell my story and which parts I had written more for me than for an audience. She called that second category “Mark’s memory scrapbook”. Learn to tell the difference between these two things in your writing. I can’t begin to tell you the importance of this.

9. So what? Whether you’re writing a novel or a memoir or a how-to book, people are reading your work thinking about how to apply it to their own life. So you’ve got to get out of your own head and think of potential takeaways for the reader. It’s quite a balance to strike — you’re telling a story that’s unique to you but in a way that involves the reader. But it’s a necessary part of writing a book.

10. Everybody has a story. Yes, it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. But it’s also one of the most rewarding. And I think anyone could do it if they put their mind to it. Everybody has a book in them. Everybody has a story to tell. So what are you waiting for? Get started on telling your story. I can’t wait to read it!

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*Trolling for Olives is an R.E.M. inside joke. Every time they were in the studio working on an album, they’d create a list of potential album titles. And every time, drummer Bill Berry would write “Trolling for Olives” as a title suggestion. As a huge R.E.M. fan, this was the perfect working title for my writing project.