Write Like A Second Time Author
TLDR: First-time writers just sit down and start writing their book; second-time authors start by creating a 'Learning List' of all the things they're learning and could write.
"That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run. So I ran to the end of the road. And when I got there, I thought maybe I'd run to the end of town. And when I got there, I thought maybe I'd just run across Greenbow County. And I figured, since I run this far, maybe I'd just run across the great state of Alabama. And that's what I did. I ran clear across Alabama. For no particular reason I just kept on going. I ran clear to the ocean. And when I got there, I figured, since I'd gone this far, I might as well turn around, just keep on going. When I got to another ocean, I figured, since I'd gone this far, I might as well just turn back, keep right on going."Forrest Gump
There's a moment when you decide to write a book. For some authors I talk to, they are told by others they should write a book. For other writers, the idea just strikes them out of the blue. For yet others, they have a smaller project that they can't just put down.
But for all authors, there's a moment when you decide to write a book.
And like Forrest Gump, you decide to do a little writing.
After all, if you're writing a book, you have to actually write it, right?
Assumption: Just Start Writing.
"Right after our call to nail down my book topic, I just sat down and wrote – and it was amazing but I've already written 1,200 words,"shared one of my recent authors.
When the spirit strikes you to write a book, it almost feels electric. The first story – usually something personal or personally inspiring – just flows. It feels pretty easy. I can't remember who told me this, but another author once said to me, "If writing your book feels difficult, you're probably writing the wrong book."
But it's not the first 2,000 words that are the toughest…it's the next 30,000. Writing a book is a long, tiring, challenging process. You're going to hate it at times and you're going to find yourself stuck, not knowing what to write next. That's the worst…feeling like what you had in your head just isn't enough for a book anymore. Those first 2,000, 4,000, or 8,000 words were easy to crank out, but now you're staring at what's left to write for your book to have the heft you need and you feel 'stuck.'
The challenge is you've started writing based on inspiration – and it's a good emotion for a writer to harness. But it's not enough. Wring a book – a full, valuable, fulfilling book – requires depth. And if you don't prepare yourself for the journey with the tools and the content, you're going to hit the wall.
Imagine if one day you decided you wanted to build a house. You'd been thinking about the house for a while and so you just went out in your backyard, looked at what was in the alley or just lying around and started building.
It sounds ridiculous. Why would anyone ever do that?
I did it for my first book. And nearly told my publisher I couldn't fulfill my end of the bargain.
Reality: Invest (More Time) Figuring Out What to Write
Heather Ingram shared this image with our author group, and it's spot on. The journey up to the top of the mountain is hard and certainly requires grit, heart or whatever you want to call it, to succeed.
Most first-time authors think that the top of the mountain is a draft manuscript.
The top of the mountain is actually when you have a bunch of stuff you're READY to turn into a manuscript. It's the stage where you've got a lot of raw content (stories, scenes, quotes, research) that you can organize into a manuscript. The flow stage is when you start to organize it all into something consumable for others.
But very few authors can 'write' their way up the mountain. Instead, you 'learn' your way up.
Nearly every second-time author I've interviewed starts their book with a 'learning list' – all the things they're learning and could include in their book.
Author Nir Eyal described this stage as 'figuring out the answer to the question by talking to people, interviewing, reading and learning.' Once you've actively learned and created a bunch of raw content, you build the manuscript from it.
It might not be the 'flow slide' yet, but you know it's worth writing.
Create Your Learning List
Most of us are constantly learning. When you write a book, it's about purposeful learning.
In the startup world, Steve Blank came up with the advice to "get out of the building – there are no facts in the building to help you with your startup." And he's right! You learn by talking to people, listening to people talk (in their recorded speeches, interviews and writings) and observing. Every second-time author I've interviewed described a very similar process:
- Have a notebook or a document on your computer or phone.
- Interview, talk to people, research and consume content.
- Write down stories and insights you might like to write (but don't write them yet).
- Once you have a big list of stories, anecdotes, insights and concepts, look for patterns in the ideas.
- Start writing.
For me, my list is usually about 20-35 ideas, people, research studies, personal stories, stories from others, speeches, interviews and more. It's not organized. It's just a list. I did some light writing, but it wasn't until I had a list of a bunch of stuff that 'could be written' that I found myself in the flow to really write.
When I coach other authors, we call this list their 'Content Index.' It's where they build an initial list of ideas and eventually start writing those ideas up into raw content.
Have Conversations with Smart People
Great books live outside of our brains. Novelist Maurice Ruffin shared how a big part of his book came from a series of conversations in a New Orleans restaurant. It was the conversations and the location that really inspired big elements of his book that became one of the breakout successes of 2019. For him, the conversations he had were designed to help him learn – he targeted smart people he respected and let them teach him. Over time, this kind of purposeful learning unlocks new connections, confirms elements of our thinking, and builds up more things to write.
There's only so much in our heads. It'll get you started, but it'll fade pretty quickly.
Every conversation about your book and themes tied to it will give you more things to write. It's about adding to your learning list.
Daniel Pink starts his books with a list of people to talk with and tries to get a story from each of them. Those stories will direct where the book goes – he follows the 'flow.'
In my first month with an author, we focus on learning – zero writing – talking to people or listening to people talk. I call this the 'get smart' phase. And it's the same whether you're writing fiction or nonfiction.
Everything you learn, add it to your list.
Rule of 6
My advice is to speak to at least 6 people before you do much writing. Once you have those first 6 or so conversations, then start a little writing and when you hit a lull, have a few more discussions.
But these don't need to be professional writers or experts in the field – these are just great conversationalists. I had a conversation with a friend who owns 30 bars in DC and it turned out he shared a story that would become a brand new chapter in my book.
These can be fellow writers, family members, experts, professors or whoever. Find people who push you, question your assumptions and offer more places to explore.
Not everyone has direct or easy access to the experts who could help your book. Sure, it would be great if you could interview the dozen smartest people about your topic or get access to famous names by snapping your fingers.
Even though YOU might not be able to talk to someone directly, you can still listen to people talking to you. The internet offers a bevy of conversations you can download and transcribe – podcast interviews, speeches, panels and more are accessible for you to 'simulate' a conversation. Want to interview Angela Duckworth, the author of Grit?
- Use Google Video search and type in "Angela Duckworth Grit" and there are 13 unique videos of her speaking on the first 3 pages of google results.
- Go to iTunes podcasts and type in "Angela Duckworth" and there are 10 podcasts featuring interviews with her in the past 2 years alone.
Yes, it would be great to interview her, but you can simulate something pretty darn close by listening to a collection of what she's said elsewhere.
I urge nonfiction writers to find 10-20 pieces of content to help them learn more about their topic – focused on 'first person' content like a TEDx talk, a speech or an interview.
The first part of the climb is hard, but by not pushing to write it all up yet, you’ll save yourself from the dreaded 'massive revision' syndrome.
That's the power of your 'learning list.'
The first part of the 'book climb' is much less writing than most authors realize. It's much more about learning. It's figuring out what to write and maybe doing some raw content creation, but it's rarely structured into anything consumable as you climb up that hill. At the top, you've got a bunch of learning, a bunch of notes, some story content, some interview transcripts.
Once you've pushed up the hill, then it's not a matter of if you can organize what you've learned into a first draft manuscript. You can. Then it's about getting to a first draft for feedback so you can make it better.
First-time authors sit down to write a book; second-time authors sit down ready to learn about everything they need to know to write it. This doesn't mean it'll take you years, but it means it'll take intentionality.
Talk to people, simulate conversations, and create the raw content you'll eventually turn into a book. Then it's all downhill from there, but in a good way!