I’ve come to terms with it: commercial success for authors boils down to quantity. That’s it. I wish I could say that talent plays a part, but it doesn’t, guys. It just doesn’t. The writer who wins is the writer who just kept writing.
Here’s the truth: if you figure out how to establish and maintain a heavy, relentless routine for writing, you will find an audience. Maybe not right away, but eventually. (You have to share what you write, of course.)
As you increase your productivity, you will increase your audience. Again, eventually.
Explosive growth comes down to luck, but when you write and share regularly, you make your own luck.
It’s not enough to write more. I’m saying write a lot more, consistently. Isn’t it amazing when you discover a “new” writer whose work blows your mind? Inevitably, when you dig into their early work, the stuff they did prior to their breakout success, you discover that they’ve been writing essentially the same book for a decade or more. Five or more previous books, all unheralded, all containing an impure, undercooked version of the book you’re reading today.
You have to be willing to repeat yourself. Keep digging in the same spot. If you put something out there and it doesn’t click with the audience, chances are you just haven’t developed it properly yet. Don’t move on to something else. Keep digging in that same spot until the water comes up clear.
This seems too simple, but I’ve seen it work too often (and seen the failure of “talent” and “originality” too often) to believe it works any other way. I’ve seen terrible writers succeed because they just kept writing and I’ve seen talented writers crumble right out of the gate because they couldn’t maintain their level of output waiting for lightning to strike.
Some of the lousy writers developed into terrific ones. Others didn’t. Yet they all found an audience and a career.
Consistency. Repetition. Volume. Writing is powerlifting.
This can be hard to swallow for the “talent first” crowd, but if you accept it, you can act on it. Build a world-class routine and trust it.
I’m obsessed with routines. I’ll admit that it’s an unhealthy obsession, but part of my job is to help others improve their own. After all, the idea here is for writers to write more, not to spend more time reading about routines.
My guilty pleasure is reading the “Sunday Routine” column in the the New York Times. It’s awful; I highly recommend it.
Take this week’s Routine, for example. Malay is a music producer. He lives in a Williamsburg high-rise with his girlfriend, a singer. They have dogs instead of children. (If you want to live like the people in the Routine, this is essential, unless a hedge fund or trust fund is involved.)
Malay works 16-hour days in the studio, except on Sundays, when he limits himself to 5 or so. Don’t worry, Malay has also found the time to become an excellent home chef who smokes his own food. (People in the Routine who work 70+-hour weeks and keep a weekend home in the Hamptons still manage to master and enjoy a number of expensive and prestigious hobbies. Trying to figure out how this is possible is the central joy of reading the Routine.)
I come back to the Routine week after week to enjoy that same sensation you get as a kid pushing at a loose tooth. It’s a good pain.
I recognize that the Routine is filled with illusions. I believe about 20% of what I read there. That said, it has confirmed one thing for me: successful artists are not like normal people. They work much, much more. They work a colossal amount. Non-negotiable.
Instead of comparing your output or work habits to those of a wildly successful writer, ask yourself how much you actually like writing the way you do it now. Do you look forward to it? Do you hate it when you have to stop?
Forget about everyone else. Envy is a hole in your bucket. The real question—if you don’t generate a lot of work—is whether you enjoy doing it in the first place. Nobody worries about watching enough TV. We watch as much as we can get away with because we love doing it.
Today, give some thought to making your work environment and your work routine not just efficient but fun, pleasant, wildly enjoyable.
That Puritan work ethic you learned won’t do you any good here. If your writing isn’t enjoyable, you may be able to crank out a book every few years, but you’re not going to work through the 10 or 15 drafts necessary to get to the book that will make your name. That’s what it takes to write a great book (spoiler alert).
The advice-givers hate to admit this. It scares off their students. But it doesn’t have to be torture. Writing can be life’s greatest pleasure. You know this is true because it is clearly true for successful writers. You can only twist your own arm so long before it breaks. You have to love doing it to do it all day long (and 5 hours on Sundays).
Don’t stop tweaking your own routine until (1) you’re absolutely thrilled when you have an opportunity to go to your desk, and (2) incredibly frustrated when it’s time to leave it again.
Make the experience of writing magical and magic will begin to happen for you. Eventually.
If you have a routine or workspace element that really works for you, please share it with me. And now, feeling some (but not enough) frustration, I’ll stop writing this newsletter.