So You Want To Write A Book


Clearly I lied to you on my birthday.

Exhibit A. On June 29 I said that my latest book, “Borders, Bandits & Baby Wipes” (about my time on the Mongol Rally) was with my editor and that you would be able to read it at the end of the summer. Well, the end of summer is precisely now and you’re not reading my book. I didn’t so much as lie as I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Here’s what happened.

This “editor” was a friend who was going to check the grammar mostly. Luckily, after a couple of weeks he told me that he just wouldn’t have time to give it the attention it needed. Maybe that was a blessing in disguise because even after I had sent it to him I kept finding typos and other odds and ends that I should have been correcting on my own. So I told him to not worry about it and then edited it again myself over another a couple weeks.

Now it’s done, I thought. I then sent it to my good friend and colleague, Antonio Neves, on July 23 for a cursory read. I was excited to hear his feedback.

Around the time that he was reading it, I also started to ask my friends in the publishing world how would I go about getting a book published. Yeah, I could self-publish again but I wanted to at least understand the process of traditional publishing. The information came back and they said that if I ever wanted to get a book agent and get it published, I’d first have to invest in an actual editor. This isn’t a grammatical editor but a thematic one. One who tells you what works and doesn’t work in the story arc itself. How much would an editor cost? I was told somewhere between $4,000 – $7,000.

Ok, good to know, but I wasn’t sold yet.

When Antonio did call a week and a half later, I already knew in the tone of his voice and how he started the conversation what he really thought. Oh for sure, he did what any good friend would do by front loading the positives, but I wanted to hack through the compliments and get to the “…but” because I knew it was lurking in the verbal distance. He almost didn’t have to say it though.

“The book was good,” he said, “but it could be better.”

He shared with me his points as to where and how, and I felt myself nodding as if I already knew everything he was saying.

Part of me really wanted to be done with it though. 8 months of pouring over one particular thing in your free time is enough to get you to be annoyed by that thing. So I had convinced (see: blinded) myself that it was good enough. I could self-publish, people would enjoy it, and I could move on to the next thing.

So there I was talking with Antonio about my book and the pros and cons of hiring an editor and he said something that changed the course of the book and my approach to it. He said, “You’ve lived in a comfortable writing world. You’ve always been your only judge. I challenge you to get uncomfortable and make this financial investment. Find out what a pro thinks about your book. Find out how good you really are.”


To self-publish and be done with it or to pay for an editor and see how deep this rabbit hole goes? For a few days I flipped flopped back and forth about what was worth it and what wasn’t. For a minute the argument on the table was, “Well if I make the financial investment and I don’t get a book deal out of it, is it worth it or have I just wasted my money?” I didn’t know if I wanted to take the financial leap if there wasn’t a guarantee.

But as I so often do, I let it marinate for a bit and I redefined the equation to be, “Traditional publishing and self publishing aside, is the financial investment of an editor worth it to make my book the best it can be?” And that answer was a resounding yes. I needed to get uncomfortable. I owed it to myself to make this book better than I thought I could and she could help me. The investment would be about making me a better writer and learning about a process I didn’t know about, not about getting a book deal.

So, I agreed with the editor and paid my deposit on July 30. I then had 6 weeks to send her the manuscript as she wouldn’t be able to start before September 14 due to other work she had on the (ahem) books. I was tempted to send her the version I currently had and see what she thought but something funny happened on the way to taking myself seriously.

I suddenly knew that my book wasn’t good enough.

The intro was lazy and puddle deep. There were bits that were disconnected, repeated, etc. It was almost like I had to give myself financial permission to take myself seriously. I suddenly saw all the gaps I had in the book.

Over the next 6 weeks, I disemboweled what I had written, reassembled things, deleted some, added others; sweating over alliteration, verbs, metaphors, depth and all that stuff to give you – the eventual reader – the sensation of sitting shotgun in the car. I would be in the middle of a meeting and I’d hear a word that I liked and I’d write it down; not sure where it was going to go but at least I had it. I’d gloss over sentences that disinterested me and then I’d stop in shock and thought, “Crap, if I’m glossing over this sentence, what is a stranger who doesn’t care about me going to do? Fix it, Bassam!”

And then it was Monday, September 14.

Man. 10 months. 10 months of writing during most of the free minutes I had in that time. 10 months of researching, editing, of not good enough, of sculpting sentences that couldn’t be what they became without the foundation of 3 shitty sentences underneath them. I was happy with the energy I poured in and I finally sent off my 90,000-word, travel opus of a book to that editor on Monday. In a month, she’ll have her notes and I’m sure this current stage of the game is just the start of the perfecting process, but I’m all in.

Here are my quick pieces of advice for all those who think they want to write a book or who are trying to write a book:


Know Why

I once wrote (There I go… quoting myself again!), “Before we go to war with the blinking cursor, we best be sure we know why we’re heading to battle in the first place.” I didn’t write this book to get a book deal, I wrote this book a) to see if I could and b) because I wanted to inspire people to travel. Even if I make $20 off of it, I was ok with that.

I needed to have this conversation with myself early on. If I needed to become a New York Times best seller, I would have sabotaged myself long before I got anywhere. Know your why when it comes to writing, otherwise you’re just a lost raft at sea with no provisions within reach.


Say No To (Mostly) Everything

People would ask me, “Where do you find the time to write?” and I’d answer, “When I’m not hanging out with you.” I wrote when I wasn’t at brunch, when I wasn’t partying, when I wasn’t watching TV, when I wasn’t at work, when I wasn’t on a date, when I wasn’t working out.

The world wants your minutes and your attention. You choose if you are going to give it to them or your efforts. An undisciplined life is someone’s else’s life. When writing a book, you have to say no to a lot of requests so that you can choose you for that amount of time.


Paint, Don’t Write

I touched on this in an earlier post but maybe the single best piece of advice I can give is that when writing, especially in the beginning when momentum is hard to come by and the only thing you can think about is how much you haven’t written yet, do not judge how good your writing is. Just get it out of your head like you are applying the first coat of paint to your bedroom wall. You know you’re going to put a second coat down later so don’t stress how perfect the first coat is.

Most wannabe writers, pre-edit in their heads to the point that they don’t write anything because what’s in their head isn’t perfect yet. Note: Your first draft will suck, but just get the idea down. You can have the greatest idea in the world but if you can’t communicate it, it is the worst idea.


Sculpt, Don’t Write

After you’ve painted your room, you think you’re done but you’re not. All you’ve done is now allowed me to wheel a rectangular piece of marble into your room. The rest of the writing process will be to take what you learned painting a base and now apply that to sculpting the marble block into something worth looking at. Do your arguments agree? Are you contradicting yourself? Have you said this already? Could those verbs be stronger? Is there a better analogy? How hot was hot? What did he look like? What did his voice remind you of? What did it smell like? How does this sentence continue the narrative/story?

If you try to do all these things when you’re still “painting your room,” you’re going to want to commit seppuku.


Bury Don’t Delete

An important note in the sculpting process. Sometimes you’re writing about an argument so large that it’s hard to know what your overarching point ends up being. You might have a great sentence  but it ends up being a tangential part of a bigger argument. Don’t delete that tangent, save it for later.

What I do is that I put a dashed line like this:


under which I put things that don’t necessarily fit in the direction I’m going at that particular part of the story. This sentence or paragraph that I put down here could be used later or maybe not. In my final manuscript, I had 7,000 words below the dotted line. Stuff that was pretty good, that lasted all the way until the last day, but stuff that ended up not having a home. That’s ok! Some great shit that you write will not make the story because it doesn’t fit. The most frustrated I got with writing was when I tried to jam a square sentence into a round arguement. Man the square was beautiful though. You should have seen it! But every time I’d try to sneak it into the paragraph, it would destroy the point I was trying to make or disrupt the flow of the words.

You will have to eat some of your best writing. Save it for another book someday.


The Cherry Always Goes On Top

That super cool analogy or word or sentence you’re so enamored with, save it to the end. Keep it below that dotted line for now. It’s hard to build a cake around the cherry. Paint then sculpt, then apply the shine. More on this in a previous post: Write First. Zing Later.


It’s Not Supposed To Be Fun

If writing a book was fun, people wouldn’t have so many nervous breakdowns trying to write them. A little dose of melancholy from time to time is good for your writing. It makes your words more real. No, I’m not saying you have to write while strapped into a guillotine, but some days are going to suck. Of course, I hope you’re writing the book because you know your why and that you enjoy the art of writing. It’s fun, but it’s not “water park fun.” It’s “getting there fun,” like the Mongol Rally itself. Know this before you start.


You’re Not Done

Oh you think your sculpture is done? It’s not. It’s great that you have a sculpture that you think looks like a human but it’s a mongoloid actually. You still have a ways to go. But feel good about where you’re at. Take a break. Go do something else and come back later with your hammer and chisel ready to go. How do you know when it’s good enough?

I don’t know. All I know is that I feel sick having “shipped my baby off” for adoption on Monday. I didn’t feel this way when I thought it was done the previous times. So maybe that’s my advice for how you know when you’ve done enough.

It SHOULD hurt when you let it go. It means that you’ve given it all that you had in the process. Let it burn. Never stop creating. Never ever stop.

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