What Was Most Surprising About Writing ?

A friend asked me an interesting question over the weekend: What was the thing about writing the book that surprised you the most?

Lots of things about the process were pretty much as I expected. The deadlines, the structural changes, the battles with publishers/editors — were all pretty much as you would imagine. The importance of having good researchers was also what I anticipated.

It was my first book, and as it turns out, quite a few things about the entire process were not what I expected:

It took much longer: When McGraw Hill approached me about doing a 30,000 word book, I figured, no big deal! I write 5-10,000 words a week — how hard can it be to bang out 30,000?

Answer: A lot harder than I thought. The subject matter kept shifting, my original focus was wrong, and had to be modified, oh, and the book ended up being about double that length. (Mike Panzner was dead on about this being more than you would expect).

Books last a long time: About half way through, you realize that this thing could easily outlive you. Suddenly, a sense of ownership and pride and desire to do a really good job begins to gnaw at you. A book could live many years beyond its author. The time pressure begins to wear, and you realize that you need another solid month (or three) of rewrites and polish — and you don’t have it.

Lack of socializing is wearing: Yes, writing is quite solitary. From June to December, there was almost no social interaction outside of work and home. I never expected to become such a pariah — no weekends at the beach, very little in the way of going out with other couples. It was, not surprisingly, isolating. Its a small niggling thing that begins to eat at you and becomes more of an issue than you would have guessed.

Need input! The process of researching and writing meant limited tv, NO movies, NO (non-bailout) related books, NO NOVELS. It was all encompassing, somewhat overwhelming, and a little bit depressing (need input!)

I haven’t been to movie theater since before June 08.

Since the manuscript went in, I have seen: The Lady Eve, The Bank Job (2007), Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Casino Royale, There Will Be Blood, Something About Mary, Stalag 17, The Dark Knight, I am Legend, Iron Man, Michael Clayton, 300, Elizabeth, Hairspray, Ratatouille and Superbad.

Writing and Speaking use two different parts of your brain. I have voice recognition software at home and in the office. I’ve always known that speaking and writing were different — certain brain damage (aphasias) leaves its victims the ability to write but not speak (and other surprising variations) — but they were so utterly different, so surprising in the ways they used such different cognitive skills, that I found I simply could not dictate the book. Dictation seemed to read terribly.

If you are counting on dictation to write a book — don’t. Not at least until you try it.

Forget trying to be encyclopedic: In my mind, I thought of this book as the be all end all on the subject. It slowly became apparent that wasn’t going to happen.

Being narrowly focused turned out not only to make it easier to write, but kept the emphasis on what mattered most. I think this made the book better than if it were more exhaustive.

Collaboration can be a joy: I originally tagged my Street.com editor, Aaron Task (now at Yahoo Tech Ticker) to edit the work. As the deadlines ticked past — I was maybe 65% done with a month left to go — I decided I needed more of a collaborator than an editor.

And I was horrified at the thought of it.

I was pleasantly surprised by how easy the process was. Aaron put everything on Google Docs, we could both edit the same docs back and forth; leaving notes for each other about content, style, order. He organized things much better than I, kept the editing and writing process on schedule, allowed me to refine the structure without going too far astray. He is one of those rare editors that actually makes your work better, yet let’s you retain your own voice.

Being stuck indoors all the time sucks: During the Summer, I put curtains up in the home office so I didn’t have to see what gorgeous weather I was missing. I tried to write outdoors on the laptop, but it was a pain.

My new motto: Never start writing a book in the Spring. Begin writing in the Fall, pound the keyboard throughout the miserable Winter weather, and finish before the boat goes in the water in May.

Deadlines are flexible — until they are not. I missed the August 15 deadline with no problems. Thank goodness, too — imagine a book on Bailouts omitting most of the bailouts? Next deadline, November 15, went by with nary a peep. By December 1, McGraw Hill was freaking out. Everything was in by 12/15.

It physically beats you up.  I never expected writing to be so physically demanding. My lower back ached, my torn rotator cuff flared up, my mouse arm was always sore. I never had carpal tunnel, but damned if my hands and forearms didn’t ache all the time. Years ago, I worked in a firm in where a masseuse visited every other week — this girl gave hand massages that were better-than-sex; I would kill to find her again.

Look, no one is going to confuse writing with picking cotton or rice farming or moving furniture — but those are supposed to be back breaking labor; This wasn’t.

Dorothy Parker was onto something when she said “I hate writing but love having written.”

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