on getting back to work

The singular secret to finishing your book is putting your butt in a chair and writing…Nothing else matters.

—Mark Teppo, Finish Your Novel!

I know that, Mark. Come on. I’m a professional. What fundamental fact of writing life could be more obvious? To have written, one must write. Must! And so I will, write that is, as soon as I’ve freshened my coffee. This one’s warm. Drinking warm coffee would be barbaric, Mark. I’m sure you’d agree. Then, as I enjoy my piping hot caffeinated beverage, I’ll kick into gear with a quick Reddit break. To clear my head. Then I will write. A veritable storm of words will buffet the page. A textual tempest.

Hm. Now that I’m writing—a comment on Reddit, to keep clearing that head—I’m noticing that this keyboard feels a bit weird. Sticky? No. Mushy? Let’s call it indistinct. Can’t have that—I’m a professional. So, new plan: finish coffee, finish Reddit break, shop for a new laptop, then write. Come to think of it, I should probably make a list so I don’t go off-track. First item: settle on a new list-making app.

Why are you looking at me like that, Mark?

And scene.

It’s time to get back to work, guys. Break’s over. Put your phone on “do not disturb” and put it on the other side of the room. (I moved my charging cable over there—it helps.) Turn on Focus in “hardcore mode.” Buckle down. Buckle up. Buckle in.

Like you, I’m finding it difficult. Whatever fragile momentum I’d built up has evaporated.

We spent the week before Labor Day up in Cape Cod. It was my first time “on the Cod,” as the locals probably say. Great beaches, though I’m not much for beaches. On vacation, my preference is to skim the shelves of local bookstores. Among other charming indies, I discovered Main Street Books in Orleans, Mass., where I finally picked up Robert Gottlieb’s memoir of his legendary career in publishing, Avid Reader.

I’d been curious about Gottlieb ever since reading about his scissors-and-glue editorial work on Catch-22 (originally Catch-18, until he changed it) in Michael Korda’s Another Life: A Memoir of Other People. Korda and Gottlieb were colleagues at Simon & Schuster. Reading both books offers a rare dual perspective. S&S in the 60s reminds me of St. Martin’s Press during my own tenure a decade ago. Freewheeling, unstructured, full of possibility.

At S&S, this lack of constraints was due more to a power vacuum than culture, but regardless, the editors were unusually free to pursue their interests and make things happen with relative abandon. Gottlieb didn’t have much support, but he had boundless energy and enthusiasm and participated in every aspect of the book publishing process from conception through marketing and sales. There were no silos.

I wish I’d known how rare an environment like that would be after leaving St. Martin’s, not only in book publishing but across the creative landscape. What better place to learn your trade than one where you’re free to try—and fail—at any part of it?

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

—Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

Learn your trade, writers. Your whole trade: that’s the ambition. Not just word-slinging. Matthew Butterick, the Gus Fring to my Walter White, just published a revised and expanded edition of his indispensable Practical Typography. Writer: read it. I count typography a foundational skill of the trade along with grammar, punctuation, style, touch-typing…honestly, I’d scrape the parchment for the Maven Game myself if my wife weren’t a vegetarian.

In Gottlieb’s day, a (male) author could scribble away in indecipherable, grammatically questionable longhand all day and count on an array of helpers—beginning, all too often, with his wife—to type, correct, re-type, edit, re-type, design, typeset, proofread, etc. Today, each and every one of us is a publishing house. Learn your trade. I’m not saying I’ve mastered any of it, of course. You just keep working at it until you die, quill in hand. My next area of inquiry is graphic design. I plan to lay out Book Into Battle in InDesign as soon as it’s ready for print.

It isn’t yet, because writing a book is hard. Working on multiple book projects at once: very hard. I’d be lost without the Pomodoro Technique. Francesco Cirillo, who invented the technique decades ago, once published a free guide to the technique but took it offline. Now you can buy it. And I have! Before I’ve read it, the best Pomodoro-related investment I can recommend is the new version 3 of Vitamin-R for Mac. It’s Pomodoro for pros, with unparalleled power and flexibility.

Speaking of which, my timer’s up and my butt needs to move on to the next project. Once I’ve freshened up this coffee.