How I wrote my first book after failing for decades
I just wrote my first book in a year after failing to do so for decades.
I’ve been writing since I was a child but never quite figured out how to complete a book: the number of half-finished novels and short story anthologies that I’ve created could probably fill a bookshelf.
Sometimes it was an issue of motivation, but usually, it was an issue of organization.
Halfway through a story, I would find that my character’s motivations completely changed or that I had no idea to tie it together. The lack of organization, combined with inconsistent output, always led to things falling apart.
So when I was provided an ideal opportunity to write a book, I wanted to make sure I succeeded. And I finally managed to do it in less than a year.
Here’s how I did it.
A perfect chance, and starting over
I was one of the lucky ones when it came to taking part in the world’s largest Working-From-Home experiment. There were no logistical issues that I had to worry about, and my hour-long one-way work commute had suddenly disappeared.
It can be hard to carve out a consistent time for writing, but I had been gifted 2 hours each weekday, and I didn’t want to waste that.
I didn’t want to end up with a half-finished novel again, though, so I decided to revamp the way I wrote entirely. By doing so, I essentially threw out any preconceptions that I had.
One of the first things that I did was admit what type of writer I wasn’t.
It was clear, struggling with plotlines, characters, and consistent motivations, that I wasn’t a fiction or fantasy writer.
Since I was a kid, I always imagined myself writing the next Lord of the Rings, but I hardly had a track record to prove it. My novels were bloated, inconsistent, and nonsensical, while my short stories never seemed to resonate with my audience.
On the other hand, I’d been writing on Medium for a year, and my non-fiction pieces got some positive feedback. Not only that: when I shared those articles on LinkedIn or other places, people seemed to appreciate what I had to say.
So if I wanted to write a book, I needed to go down this new non-fiction path. Which meant I had to re-evaluate the way that I would approach writing.
Slow and steady wins the race.
I’m not writing full-time for a living, so I have a little bit of flexibility here. But I’ve tried many different writing approaches when writing on Medium.
When I first started, I tried to sprint: I wrote an article every day for 30 days. And almost all of them were awful.
They ranged a wide range of topics, from productivity to swimming to psychology, so it was hard to build up a consistent audience.
Much of the research I did for those articles consisted of glancing at Wikipedia and then trying to come up with something to tie it together.
That wouldn’t cut it if I wanted to write non-fiction: I needed to know the subject beyond just a cursory glance. I needed to read and research a topic significantly in-depth to have any hope of gaining the expertise necessary to talk about a particular subject.
So I took an approach some might consider the bare minimum: I wrote one article a week. When thinking about top writers on Medium, it’s easy to spot gifted writers who can produce compelling articles every day.
But before you try to emulate them, ask yourself: is being a top writer on Medium your goal?
My goal was to write a non-fiction book about a specific topic (Data Visualization). To that end, my approach was significantly different than theirs.
I would write one article a week, but only about Data Visualization.
By doing so, I’d cultivate an audience that cares about my writing on the subject. I’d also establish myself as someone knowledgeable about the subject.
Eventually, after a year, I’d have 52 articles about the subject, which I could then use to create my book.
Time and knowledge management
Next, what I questioned was how to make use of my time best. You don’t have to look far to find quotes about how important it is to find a daily writing routine:
I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. — Haruki Murakami
But one thing that I knew, from the way my days went, was that I could not write in the afternoon. My creative juices flowed early in the morning and dried up after lunch.
But I had been gifted one hour in the morning and one in the afternoon. So what should I do about that?
Well, when I thought about it, I realized I could use the afternoon to fix two of my problems: I didn’t feel like I had much to write about, and my organization was usually crappy.
Finding new angles to write about the same subject is a challenging process: by the middle of the 3rd week, I felt like I had written everything I knew about Data Visualization.
So I had to read and learn more to continue with my pace. The only way I’d find new things to write about was by learning and synthesizing them first, so I usually spent my afternoon hour reading or learning.
But after I had written a few articles, I started to feel overwhelmed by what I had, similar to what I had experienced many times over.
So I would sometimes use that time to organize what I’d written in Scrivener: which articles belonged in which groups, how should they be managed, and am I missing chapters or concepts that I need to talk about to bridge specific gaps?
More than a few times, this organization process would lead me to realize that there was either a gap in my knowledge or the flow, which led me to an article topic for the next week.
After that, the only other thing I had to do was come up with a feedback loop.
Creating a feedback loop inspired by WebNovels
I’m a UX Designer by trade, which means that I know the importance of user feedback.
So when I tossed out everything about my writing process, one of the things to go was my thinking about hiring an editor.
In the old model, writers are essentially alone in the corner, creating their works in isolation before handing off completed work to an editor.
That didn’t quite sit right with me, based on what I knew from my professional career. Given that my job was about iterating design based on user feedback, I wondered if I could take the same approach with my writing.
That’s when I learned about Web Novels.
These were novels published on the internet, one chapter at a time, which allowed authors to see reader feedback, ask their readers' questions, and understand how their audience perceived the direction they were taking.
The web novel approach wasn’t just a small-scale, either: one of the most popular fantasy works of recent times, the Witcher, was written in a similar format.
So it sounded perfect for what I wanted to do. Therefore my approach was simple:
- Publish an article about Data Visualization to a Medium Publication (in my case, UX Collective)
- Get both editor and audience feedback (was the article accepted, and how well it performed) from each piece.
- Either rewrite the piece (based on poor audience feedback) or incorporate it into my book.
By doing this, I could build a book, one chapter at a time, and make sure it would resonate with my audience.
Writing a book through Systems instead of Goals
“If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.” — Scott Adams
One of my favorite authors, Scott Adams, talks about how creating systems will increase your odds of success versus having a goal.
We all know that writing is a skill that requires practice, so creating a system that involves regularly practicing, even if you don’t realize what you’re practicing for, has several benefits:
- You’ll be well-practiced instead of out-of-practice when the time comes.
- You’ll have higher visibility, assuming that you’re publishing publicly.
- You’ll have an easier time powering through tough days when the writing is hard.
I had failed to write a book for decades because I was pursuing it as a goal. I’d write when inspiration struck me, which led to inconsistent quality.
I’d only pursue one goal, which meant that I didn’t dare try anything out of fiction or fantasy even though I never had any talent for it.
But by building a system, I was able to accomplish my dream in a single year. I did this by:
- Writing in the morning every day, while reading or organizing in the afternoon.
- Publishing an article once a week about Data Visualization in a Medium publication
- Getting editor and audience feedback on my article
- Revising or assembling the works into a book
So if your current system is not working for you in building the writing you want, think about how you can change your approach. By doing so, you too might be able to accomplish your writing dreams.
My first book, Data Persuasion, is the story of my journey to learn Data Visualization from a Designer’s perspective. It contains lessons I’ve learned from Data Science, Journalism, and UX Design.