Do you want to become an author?
Take a lesson from Arnold Schwarzenegger.
As a teenager, he started lifting weights in the Athletic Union in Graz, Austria.
On the wall next to where they lifted weights, each athlete listed exercises like ‘Dead Lift’, ‘Bench Press’ ‘Clean and Jerk’, ‘Shoulder Press’ and so on.
The athletes chalked a row of hash marks next to each exercise, each one representing a set.
After an athlete completed the reps comprising a set, they marked an X through the first line. To complete a session, the athletes, including Arnold, had to mark an X through each of the five or six lines.
In his biography Total Recall, Arnold writes:
This practice had a huge impact on my motivation. I always had the visual feedback of ‘Wow, an accomplishment. I did what I set out to do. Now I will go for the next set, and the next set.’
Arnold applied this mentality of completing reps and sets to find success as a bodybuilder and actor. He even completed his ‘reps’ to campaign for Governor of California.
There’s a famous scene in Terminator 2 where Arnold drives down a Los Angeles drainage canal on a Harley.
He pulls out a shotgun, fires it, spins and re-cocks the weapon, fires again and so on until he reaches a chained gate with a padlock. Then, the Terminator shoots the gates and drives through.
Arnold practised using a weapon and bike for this scene hundreds of times for weeks beforehand. He worked through his reps and sets so much that he tore the skin off his fingers. He writes:
I couldn’t wear a glove because it would get stuck in the gun mechanism, and I tore the skin off my hand and fingers practising a hundred times until I mastered the skill.
While governor of California, Arnold prepared for a big campaign speech by renting a studio. There, he visualised his audience. Arnold delivered his speech over and over for three days. Each time, he marked his reps on the front page.
1. Ask ‘What Would The Terminator Do?’
If you’re worried your book isn’t good enough, work through your reps.
Arnold bled into his stunts, and you can bleed into your first lines, your books and your craft.
The more sentences you write, the stronger your command of language will become. The more clichés you terminate, the better you’ll become at editing.
The more chapters you write, the better you’ll be at articulating stories and ideas. And the more books you finish, the more you’ll know how to write a book.
And the next book.
And the next.
No, They Won’t Judge You!
In December 2016, a friend asked me to help with a street collection for a charity in Dublin. Being introverted, I procrastinated about it for two weeks before agreeing. Then, I donned a luminous bib for the charity, and I wandered out onto the rainy, cold streets.
I held out the bucket as strangers walked up and down the street. They looked at their phones their shoes, ahead, behind me. They looked anywhere and everywhere but at me and my half-empty bucket. (I couldn’t blame them. I’ve done the same many times.)
I was jingling the coins inside and studying a billboard for a new Star Wars film when a well-dressed middle-aged woman tapped me on the shoulder. She said:
I want you to know why I can’t donate today. They organised a big collection at church on Sunday, and I gave a lot, a lot.
“That’s good to know,” I wrapped my hands around the bucket. “I best get back to it.”
The woman nodded, pulled her handbag onto her shoulder and walked down the street.
That night, I wondered why this well-heeled woman was so concerned about what I thought of her refusal to put a few euro into my lonely bucket.
(I wasn’t even thinking about her!)
Many new writers worry their audience will judge them or what people close to them will think of their book or creative works. So they look away from the page, and they hold something back from their book.
I get it. I do it too.
2. Tell Your Messy Personal Stories
Those messy personal stories – the party where I drank too much, called the host the wrong name and passed out in the bathroom.
Or the time they fired me because my maths wasn’t up to the task. Those don’t frighten me. I know how those stories turn out. It’s telling you about them. I care too much about what you think.
Even professional writers worry their readers will judge them.
Last year, I was one hundred pages into a non-fiction book by a New York Times best-selling author. I was enjoying the author’s way with words until he teased a personal story.
He told his readers about a time of inner crisis, only to announce it was too personal to reveal. Then, he promptly moved on without revealing anything more. I threw his book across the room.
What was the point in reading on?
This author, as accomplished as he is, was too worried that his readers would judge him. He could do with some tips on becoming an author!
Well, your readers want to know they’re not alone. They need you to share some essential truth from your life with them.
In a world of click-bait, fake news and cute cat videos, they crave authenticity. So instead of worrying they’ll judge you, be as honest as you can.
3. Learn How to Get Unstuck
When I was in my mid-twenties, I spent years struggling to become an author.
I wrote dozens of short stories and abandoned them. I researched articles I wanted to write for newspapers, and then I never wrote them.
There wasn’t any one moment when I learnt how to finish my work. Instead, I got a job as a journalist writing for a newspaper. There, I had to finish my articles by a deadline because if I didn’t, the editor would fire me.
I know this because he called me into his office after I missed a deadline and said so.
So I overcame perfectionism.
I stopped polishing my articles until they were perfect and I finished them. On more than one occasion, my editor sent articles back to me, saying I’d left out an important paragraph or my introduction needed reworking.
After listening to his criticism, I wanted to quit.
On other occasions, the sub-editors of the paper reworked my articles. This process felt like a brutal dressing-down, but at least I was getting paid to write.
4. Act Like a Professional Author
If you want to act like a professional:
- Write every day and not just when you’re inspired
- Commit to reaching a certain word count each day.
- Set artificial deadlines for each chapter, and stick to them.
- Tell your editor or readers you’ll have a draft ready by the end of the day/week/month.
The chapters you finish are akin to the threads of a cable, and you’ll weave them together day by day until your work feels secure.
Then, you’ll have more opportunities to gain feedback about your book. In turn, you’ll gain the confidence you need to finally finish it.
5. Conquer Your Fear of Failure
So the reviews are in.
So your work sucked.
So your book wasn’t any good.
Accept it. Move on.
I don’t mean to be harsh.
If you’re anything like me or other writers I’ve met, you’ll have far more failures to your name. You’ll have more unpublished disasters on your computer. And you’ll know more about disappointment than success.
I failed to build a career as a news journalist. I failed to hold down a well-paying contract with a magazine I read. I failed to turn a well-paying freelance job into a profitable permanent job.
Worst of all, I failed to write and publish a book before I was 30 (a life-long goal).
On good days, I felt restless, and on bad days I felt depressed by my lack of progress.
Writing is a personal thing, and not something you can fake or dial in. If you want to finish writing your book and become a successful professional writer, you’ll fail many times before you get there.
6. Fall Forwards
Falling forwards means making a mistake only to use it as a learning opportunity that helps you reach your goal.
Instead of wallowing in self-defeat, though, salvage what you can, and use the experience as a lesson to improve your craft.
You see, failure and rejection are pit stops along your journey to becoming a better writer.
Wondering if you’ve got what it takes, blaming your editor and suffering from a martyr complex won’t help you write a better book next time. Feedback is invaluable. It’s your chance to learn how to become a better writer for free.
Neil Gaiman offers lots of tips on becoming an author.
My favourite is his writing advice:
Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.
Learn what you can from the experience, and write a better book next time.
Besides, when you finish writing 62,386 words, your career gains momentum.
You become the kind of writer who thinks of an idea, fleshes their idea out, edits, rewrites, polishes and the rewrites some more, then presses publish.
That takes guts.
7. Conquer Your Fear of Success
One new writer emailed me to say she worried what would happen if her book was a success and she became famous. After asking for more tips on becoming an author, she said:
I want to tell stories, and I want people to read them and get joy and satisfaction from them, I just don’t want to become a subject under a microscope!
I get it.
Publishing a book can feel like you’re walking out onto the street wearing no pants.
Will people treat you differently?
How will you react when they talk about the stories you told?
And will this change you?
Yes, your imagined answers to these questions may feel embarrassing, but your real problem isn’t what people think. It’s getting their attention in the first place.
Tips on becoming an author aside…
I’ll Let You in on Secret
The prospects of becoming Malcolm Gladwell-famous for your work are slight. That said, it’s natural to worry how those around you will react to your book.
It’s normal to wonder what will happen if you become known for being a writer.
Well, it’s impossible to please everyone, so if some people aren’t comfortable with your success, that’s their problem. If you succeed, you’ll discover a new side to yourself and your craft, which will only enrich your life.
After all, you will regret not having the courage to see your ideas and your book through later. So hold through to your values, and finish writing your book.
At the very least, you’ll be able to afford some new pants or a gym membership.
Arnold would be proud.
Becoming an Author
Most people spend more time telling their friends they have this great idea for a book. But, they don’t spend much time turning their vision into reality.
No matter what tips on becoming an author you learn, please understand it takes a tremendous amount of hard work and mental discipline to write a book.
While it’s smart to release the best possible version of your work, you’re going to need some self-knowledge to finish it.
There will always be a gap between what you want your book to be about and what comes out on the blank page.
The best way to narrow that gap and improve the quality of your book is to put in your reps: write more often, finish your book and publish it.
Because when you’re done, you’re done.
Practical Tips on Becoming an Author (The TL;DR version)
- Work on your book a little bit every day (just like Arnold)
- Write a book that you’d love to read
- Learn from your writing mistakes
- Tell honest personal stories that make you blush,
- Don’t worry about what other people think about your writing
- Set a realistic date for sending your drafts to early readers and an editor
- Accept it’s more important to finish writing your book than to ensure it’s perfect
- Work with professional editors and designers who can help you create a beautiful finished product
- Finished? Great. Start the next book.
This is an edited extract from The Art of Writing a Non-Fiction Book.
Terminator Movie location by Chris Yarzab — http://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisyarzab/5698222882, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18072380
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