author as prepper

Many "writing problems" are really just prep problems. Do the prep, solve the problem.

Professional chefs understand the importance of prep, of thinking ahead. They get their tools clean and sharp. They organize their workstations. They bring the steak to temp, chop the necessary vegetables, and thaw anything frozen before the recipe "suddenly" calls for them. When they start cooking, creative flow takes care of itself. (To see what happens when cooks don't prepare, watch The Bear.)

Writers tend to be less diligent. Is it because they see themselves as "artists"? I'm not sure—people describe chefs as artists all the time. Chefs still prepare. I suspect part of the problem with writers is a healthy instinct against overpreparation. No one wants to be the person who spends years researching a book and never actually writes it. Martin Sherwin compiled 50,000 pages of research for his Oppenheimer book before a co-writer helped him get something on paper. American Prometheus was a great book, but it shouldn't have taken 25 years to write.

So I get the instinct to just plunge ahead. Except don't. You won't become a Sherwin by spending a morning planning out your writing process and getting your desk in order. Come on, dude.

For instance, how will you secure your data? I've been writing on computers since my dad brought home an Apple II+. I quickly learned that backups were a must. Losing a file a couple of times would drive the lesson home. My dad, who'd been working on mainframes and mini computers for years, would get mad if I left a floppy disk flat on a desk. "Store it vertically in the box," he'd say. "Fewer cosmic rays." Sounds crazy, but that's actually a thing. Cosmic rays knock bits of data out of alignment all the time. Today's computers can maintain data integrity, but in the early days of computing, files would get corrupted this way.

In high school, other kids would lose hours of homework to a crash or power outage. I thanked my headstart for good backup habits, but as we got older, people kept losing essays, papers, and manuscripts, first in college, then at the office. Next week, I'm turning forty-five, personal computers have been around for about forty of those years, and clients still manage to lose their only copy of a manuscript draft.

Time Machine. Dropbox. Backblaze. Make a plan. Keep it simple, but get it done. And backups are just a microcosm. Conduct your competitive research so you understand where your book fits into the larger constellation of that subject. Assemble an outline so you can direct your research efforts proportionately. Map out your word count plan using a spreadsheet or dedicated tool so you don't find yourself halfway to your deadline with a quarter of your manuscript.

Going pro also requires a shift in financial mindset. Book publishers operate at their own pace. Publishing people read long, boring books for a living, so maybe it's a cultural thing. Regardless, a book deal is a beautiful thing, but don't count those eggs until you've become chickens and those chickens are busy filling their 401Ks. A run-of-the-mill contract can take months to finalize. Once it's signed, publishers don't rush the check out, either. (No offense, publishers.)

As an editorial assistant, I fielded more than a few panicked calls from authors who had naively pinned their financial solvency on an expected book payment. This is, in a word, dumb. Longevity in any freelance or contract work depends on a healthy spending reserve, but this is doubly true of writing. Setting something aside makes it possible to weather the inevitable gaps and keep on writing. Don't wait until you need those onions to start chopping.

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