I loved Elizabeth Gilbert's Instagram post on the top-ten of effective writing.
Of her successful, audience-tested suggestions, a few merit special attention, especially #1: Tell your story TO someone; #4: Don't worry if it's good, just finish it; and #9: What gets you [to keep going on a writing project] is not pride but mercy.
Although Gilbert's expertise is in memoir and memoir-adjacent genres, every writer I know (including me) can benefit from the reminder that a story is always for someone. If you haven't yet determined their identity, it's you. Sometimes it makes sense to tell yourself your story, but the choice of audience will rigorously shape your delivery, so don't abrogate the power.
Of course, it's easy for a bestselling author to tell us that we shouldn't worry if our work is good. But Gilbert is right: Perfectionism is the enemy of good; the challenger of completion; the rival of fulfillment. Getting the words down on paper is often the hardest thing writers do, but words can be revised, refined, and rarefied. Simply put, if you can't get the words out, you can't make them good. End of story.
Because getting the words out is so hard, writers do well to show themselves and their work mercy. Writers often write in spite of the difficulty and weakness of words, in spite of their inevitably truncated expressions. But writers who learn to view their efforts as temporary rather than permanent failures are better prepared to view revision as a compulsory part of their work. Unlike the writer motivated by pride and tripped up by missteps, a compassionate writer already understands that their words will never be quite good enough: They aim instead to make the words as resonant and meaningful as possible.
Writing is hard, but as Gilbert intimates, it can also be easy: Just pick your story, your listener, and your words...and then keep going until you've reached the end.
The internet can be wild and wonderful marketplace, but it can be wily and—let’s get real—wretched, especially for an emptor who is not expert at cavere. Evidently, scams flourish in a personless exchange.
Most prospective self-published authors know to exercise caution when vetting publishing, marketing, or promotional schemes. But most will (and should) spend relatively significant sums on hiring help to write, edit, design, format, convert, print, market, promote, and distribute a book.
According to a recent NetGalley Insights post, reporting on a joint NetGalley and Independent Book Publishers Association survey of author-publishers, “the majority of authors spent between $1,000 and $6,000 on their books”:
Self-published authors may expect a front-end expense to actualize their ideas as books, but traditionally published authors can (and should) allocate funds for their books, too.
Traditionally published authors will receive an advance and/or royalties for their work, and these are more likely when an author has a finished (and excellent) manuscript in hand. Of course, completion takes time, and time, as discussed in a prior post, is discrete and therefore valuable.
While the advance (and/or royalties) can offset costs, it rarely compensates for time already spent, much less extras such as marketing and promotion beyond that offered by a traditional publishing house. That’s why traditional authors can benefit from building in a line item for marketing and promotion expenses, too.
Not all traditional authors will need or even want to spend money on a PR or other promotional plan, but quantifying the expense in a book budget can help make good on the time already invested.
Whether you subscribe to the manager’s lament that time is money or consider the matter more poetically, writing a book requires a budget—in terms of cash and commitment.
Most people know that writing a book takes a lot of time, but—ironically—foreknowledge doesn’t make reality less surprising. This is particularly true for authors who have been mulling over their ideas for years, have reached the now-or-never precipice of action, and are ready to work.
In the case of a book, the "work" is often slow and circuitous. It can take a long time to think of and test out ideas, outline and draft and revise and outline and draft and revise again, solicit readers and reviewers and editors, and efficiently integrate the best and most applicable feedback.
That's why our nonfiction authors take nine months to two years to develop an idea into a book that can be pitched to and secured by a traditional publishing contract. On average, our nonfiction authors who begin with an idea but not a draft work sixteen months before they are ready to approach publishers.
For memoir writers, the timeline can be longer. This might be because memoir writers, although they frequently arrive with a draft in hand, must do strategic work to identify and understand their audience. Further, unlike argument-based nonfiction, the parameters of memoir writing are nowhere near fixed. An author must decide which of the almost infinite moments that make up a life will meaningfully move readers.
The point of this post is not a reality check, though, I swear! Whether or not authors keep their expectations realistic is a moot point: The difficulty of finding time to write and then actually writing makes reality almost impossible to avoid.
The point of the post is to develop your book with a plan that budgets not just money (which I’ll discuss next) but hours, days, weeks, maybe months, possibly years. When you enter a line item for time, you make a wise investment.
In The Moves that Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life (slated for November release), Jonathan Rowson calls chess a meta-metaphor. He means that chess—in its constrained freedom, broad competition, and negotiated relationships—provides a library of comparisons to help us think deeply about life. But Rowson also claims that there’s a sense in which the metaphor of chess “has greater reality and resonance than the game itself” (13).
Rowson’s point deserves unpacking, which he capably does in his book, but it’s his identification of a metaphor’s practical power that matters here.
In etymological terms, metaphor breaks apart into meta-, for change, and phor, for carrying. It’s typically consigned to the literary, but it’s used powerfully (also pitiably) in public and political discourses—think of Trump’s expedient invocation of a “witch hunt” or his specious claim to “drain the swamp.”
While politicians know that well-chosen metaphors influence people’s opinions, research confirms that metaphors change behaviors, too. In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers present a study focused on the continuation of preferred behaviors after goal completion. What, for example, helps people continue eating healthfully after completing a diet program? Or, what helps college students keep at their study habits after they've aced the test?
What did researchers find? The metaphor matters. Participants who considered their attainment of a goal as part of "journey" were more likely to continue the behaviors that brought about achievement. The two other participant groups—one of which considered goal attainment a "destination," and one of which applied no metaphor at all —demonstrated no such likelihood of continuing preferred behaviors.
While metaphors will almost always add panache to your work—be it a speech, an article, or a book—it turns out that they also help us reflect on our lives and, according to recent research, live better ones.
English PhD, former arts administrator, obsessive cook, native East Coaster, mom to two rabblerousers.
English PhD, former high school teacher, obsessive organizer, native Midwesterner, mom to three troublemakers.