43 Folders

Back to Work

Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.

Join us via RSS, iTunes, or at 5by5.tv.

”What’s 43 Folders?”
43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

NaNoWriMo: A Pep Talk and a Warning

I honor any project to write something — especially to write a long piece of fiction. It's something I've always wanted to do but, like most people, I have always been too scared to attempt it.

So, kudos.

But, here's the thing: it's hard to start writing, and it's almost as hard to keep writing. Believe me, I know. And, there will be times every day when you get discouraged or you want to throw in the towel because you feel lost or depressed or useless or just plain tired. Empty. That's the word. Empty.

All I want to say is, keep at it. You can do this.

Every time you sit down to write represents a new chance, and I really encourage you to make yourself see it that way. That means set aside the time (with a beginning and end, if possible), take it seriously, and, most importantly, try not to think. Thinking is not writing; thinking is thinking. Thinking does not make books.

So, keep your hands moving [PDF], don't self-edit, and above all, don't let past failures (or successes) have any place at your desk during the time you've set aside to do your work. There's no good that can come out of trying to see the present, creative moment through the overly emotional, shaded lenses of either the past or the future. Just be in the room with yourself and, as my pal Andy says, keep moving the cursor to the right.

And, the warning? Don't read too many blog posts like this.

The hounds are out this month, guys, and they smell your fear and self-doubt. So, shovelbloggers will be offering you a tantalizing Vegas-style buffet of endless writing "help" that will range from the indispensable to the stupid to the unconscionably poisonous. And, smile though they might, those folks could care less if all those page views end up killing your word count or distracting you at the one delicate moment you were about to figure out your troubled third act. Their job is to make you stop working. Don't let them. Okay?

Just as thinking is not writing, advice is not writing. Got it? So, don't blow your day on metajunk.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't treat yourself to the best advice about becoming a better writer (see below), but it does mean you sure as shooting better not be reading blog posts about "surprising writing tips" during your Special Writing Time. Personally, I love books about writing, writing advice, and just plain talking about writing. But, I also know (all too well) that something that seems or feels helpful can quickly turn into an anti-pattern. Especially when it does anything to stop that cursor from moving rightward.

Seriously. Read the next sentence out loud to yourself three times. No, do it:

When I'm reading about writing, I'm not writing.

And, of course, the irony is, nearly every (good) book on writing will eventually end up telling you -- or leading you to see -- the same handful of things.

  1. Set reasonable goals and honor them
  2. Draft with complete abandon; edit with surgical precision
  3. When you sit down to write, focus without distraction; when you're not writing, keep it off your mind
  4. Read great books (actual big books, not blogs or magazines) as often as you can
  5. Just write, and just keep writing, and just keep writing, writing, writing. Then write more.

Good luck with your novel, and have fun. For what it's worth, here's a few of my favorite books on writing (alphabetically, by author). Just remember: if you read them during Writing Time, you must smack yourself. Hard.

  • Bolker, Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day; Sounds like a BS title, but it's not. Again: process. How to think and when. How to approach a daunting project sensibly by "parking on a downhill slope."
  • Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones; Shut off your monkey mind, get past discursive thinking, and keep that hand in motion. Like meditation, writing is a practice. You do it because you do it, that is why you do it.
  • Hart, A Writer's Coach; Failures in non-fiction writing are almost always failures of process (especially during pre-writing). A must-buy for journalists (and serious bloggers).
  • King, On Writing; Writing is a craft, and it's difficult, and it matters. If you don't believe it, get hit by a goddamned van. (N.B.: If you need to pick just one of these, get On Writing. No question. It's the best.)
  • Lamott, Bird By Bird; Just so very, very wonderful. Heartfelt, funny, and desperately useful, if only for learning "The Shitty First Draft."
  • Zinsser, On Writing Well; The Grandaddy of writing-as-craft books. Learn how making prose is like building furniture. You're an engineer of words. Friend, you'll close this book with a new obsession for tight and precise prose writing. I don't pull it off every day (let alone every sentence), but it's damned sure on my mind all the time.

About Merlin

Merlin's picture


Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


Subscribe with Google Reader

Subscribe on Netvibes

Add to Technorati Favorites

Subscribe on Pageflakes

Add RSS feed

The Podcast Feed


Merlin used to crank. He’s not cranking any more.

This is an essay about family, priorities, and Shakey’s Pizza, and it’s probably the best thing he’s written. »

Scared Shitless

Merlin’s scared. You’re scared. Everybody is scared.

This is the video of Merlin’s keynote at Webstock 2011. The one where he cried. You should watch it. »