A friend asked me an interesting question over the weekend: What was the thing about writing the book that surprised you the most?

Lots of things about the process were pretty much as I expected. The deadlines, the structural changes, the battles with publishers/editors — were all pretty much as you would imagine. The importance of having good researchers was also what I anticipated.

It was my first book, and as it turns out, quite a few things about the entire process were not what I expected:

It took much longer: When McGraw Hill approached me about doing a 30,000 word book, I figured, no big deal! I write 5-10,000 words a week — how hard can it be to bang out 30,000?

Answer: A lot harder than I thought. The subject matter kept shifting, my original focus was wrong, and had to be modified, oh, and the book ended up being about double that length. (Mike Panzner was dead on about this being more than you would expect).

Books last a long time: About half way through, you realize that this thing could easily outlive you. Suddenly, a sense of ownership and pride and desire to do a really good job begins to gnaw at you. A book could live many years beyond its author. The time pressure begins to wear, and you realize that you need another solid month (or three) of rewrites and polish — and you don’t have it.

Lack of socializing is wearing: Yes, writing is quite solitary. From June to December, there was almost no social interaction outside of work and home. I never expected to become such a pariah — no weekends at the beach, very little in the way of going out with other couples. It was, not surprisingly, isolating. Its a small niggling thing that begins to eat at you and becomes more of an issue than you would have guessed.

Need input! The process of researching and writing meant limited tv, NO movies, NO (non-bailout) related books, NO NOVELS. It was all encompassing, somewhat overwhelming, and a little bit depressing (need input!)

I haven’t been to movie theater since before June 08.

Since the manuscript went in, I have seen: The Lady Eve, The Bank Job (2007), Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Casino Royale, There Will Be Blood, Something About Mary, Stalag 17, The Dark Knight, I am Legend, Iron Man, Michael Clayton, 300, Elizabeth, Hairspray, Ratatouille and Superbad.

Writing and Speaking use two different parts of your brain. I have voice recognition software at home and in the office. I’ve always known that speaking and writing were different — certain brain damage (aphasias) leaves its victims the ability to write but not speak (and other surprising variations) — but they were so utterly different, so surprising in the ways they used such different cognitive skills, that I found I simply could not dictate the book. Dictation seemed to read terribly.

If you are counting on dictation to write a book — don’t. Not at least until you try it.

Forget trying to be encyclopedic: In my mind, I thought of this book as the be all end all on the subject. It slowly became apparent that wasn’t going to happen.

Being narrowly focused turned out not only to make it easier to write, but kept the emphasis on what mattered most. I think this made the book better than if it were more exhaustive.

Collaboration can be a joy: I originally tagged my Street.com editor, Aaron Task (now at Yahoo Tech Ticker) to edit the work. As the deadlines ticked past — I was maybe 65% done with a month left to go — I decided I needed more of a collaborator than an editor.

And I was horrified at the thought of it.

I was pleasantly surprised by how easy the process was. Aaron put everything on Google Docs, we could both edit the same docs back and forth; leaving notes for each other about content, style, order. He organized things much better than I, kept the editing and writing process on schedule, allowed me to refine the structure without going too far astray. He is one of those rare editors that actually makes your work better, yet let’s you retain your own voice.

Being stuck indoors all the time sucks: During the Summer, I put curtains up in the home office so I didn’t have to see what gorgeous weather I was missing. I tried to write outdoors on the laptop, but it was a pain.

My new motto: Never start writing a book in the Spring. Begin writing in the Fall, pound the keyboard throughout the miserable Winter weather, and finish before the boat goes in the water in May.

Deadlines are flexible — until they are not. I missed the August 15 deadline with no problems. Thank goodness, too — imagine a book on Bailouts omitting most of the bailouts? Next deadline, November 15, went by with nary a peep. By December 1, McGraw Hill was freaking out. Everything was in by 12/15.

It physically beats you up.  I never expected writing to be so physically demanding. My lower back ached, my torn rotator cuff flared up, my mouse arm was always sore. I never had carpal tunnel, but damned if my hands and forearms didn’t ache all the time. Years ago, I worked in a firm in where a masseuse visited every other week — this girl gave hand massages that were better-than-sex; I would kill to find her again.

Look, no one is going to confuse writing with picking cotton or rice farming or moving furniture — but those are supposed to be back breaking labor; This wasn’t.

Dorothy Parker was onto something when she said “I hate writing but love having written.”

Category: Apprenticed Investor, Bailout Nation, Film, Intellectual Property, Psychology, Television

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

22 Responses to “What Was Most Surprising About Writing ?”

  1. Daniel Hudson says:

    Barry — It is interesting to hear your thoughts on what surprised you in the writing process. I am intrigued by your comments about how different your writing would be had you dictated it instead of truly writing since I have no expertise in this area. Do you have any insights into why dictation led to terrible text and/or any good examples of where you had dictated something and just thought “Wow, there is no way this is going into the book.”

  2. pmorrisonfl says:

    I once wrote a 20,000 word paper (MS thesis), and had a microcosm of all of the same issues. Thank you, in advance, for taking this on, and for sharing your experiences.

    I read your friend’s question in a different way than you answered it. I took it that he wondered about what the writing process taught you about your subject. Sometimes I’ve found that I’ve sat down to write down one viewpoint/agenda and that the process of deeply thinking things trough/researching/wrestling has revealed some angle I hadn’t considered. Did you find this to be true?

  3. AGG says:

    Barry,
    Thank you for those insights. I tried to write a science fiction book several years ago. I had all the chapter names and a full outine. I wrote about 20% of the book, put it away for a month and came back to read it and continue. I was bored to tears so that was the end of that. My hat is off to you for writing and finishing a book of this nature during the worst financial crisis in the history of the world.

  4. AndrewBW says:

    The isolation is the thing I hate most about writing. I miss seeing people, I miss going places, I miss traveling. You’re right, summer is the hardest part – you want to be outside lying in the yard or at the beach feeling the warm sun.

    Per pmorrisonfl, I always tell people that the most important aspect of writing is that you learn just how much you don’t know. You write something, then go back and re-read it again a week later and you see all these giant HOLES, just staring back at you.

    Anyway, congratulations on finishing the job, and good luck with it when it comes out.

  5. KJ Foehr says:

    Very informative, thanks. I have always coveted being an author, but, alas, I don’t have real verbal talent.

    I laughed when reading how dictation didn’t work. I don’t know why it struck me as funny, but it made initiative sense to me, as I was reading your words, that dictated words wouldn’t read well. I had fantasized a little about getting the software and trying dictation as a cheat to quicker writing, but after what you said it sound like it would just lead to even more time spent editing.

    As far as the movies:

    [BR: The older ones I have seen before]

    The Lady Eve – never heard of it. [BR: Preston Sturges. Brilliant, Must See]
    The Bank Job (2007) – haven’t seen it yet
    Forgetting Sarah Marshall – heard of it but don’t know anything about it
    Casino Royale – yes! go for it, and then check out Quantum of Solace – it’s a new darker Bond, There Will Be Blood – definitely! a must see – Daniel Day-Lewis is compelling, I never saw him much before, but his performance in this one blew me away.
    Something About Mary – really? this is an old one, but if you haven’t seen it, then yes, by all means do.
    Stalag 17 – don’t know it [BR: Rent it !]
    The Dark Knight – I’m not into Batman, but it got rave reviews by moviegoers
    I am Legend – yes
    Iron Man – not my cup of tea, but haven’t seen it
    Michael Clayton, a little slow, but good
    Hairspray – this one’s is a hoot, and the gal was born to play the role. She auditioned for the part of Broadway, but was turned down because she was too young. She is perfect for it.
    Ratatouille – not into animation [BR: Not into Pixar?!?]
    Superbad – no interest, never saw it.

    If you aren’t aware of it, a good place to get ratings and other info on movies is IMDB.com.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0469494/
    There Will Be Blood is #107 on their top 250 list of top (website visitor) rated films.

    I’ll add a recommendation of my own, if you haven’t see it – V for Vendetta (2005) [BR: saw it]
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0434409/

    Congratulations on what I expect will be a best seller, and what will probably be the first of many yet to come.

  6. KJ Foehr says:

    off topic — movies

    While I’m in the mood, here are a few more recommendations you might have missed,
    No Country for Old Men
    The Bourne Ultimatum
    National Treasure: Book of Secrets
    Hot Fuzz –British comedy
    The Mist – fun Stephen King flick
    Rush Hour 3
    Wild Hogs
    Charlie Wilson’s War
    Across the Universe – based on Beatles music — psychedelic
    The Bucket List
    3:10 to Yuma
    Atonement – a good drama
    Cloverfield – yes, it’s much better than you would expect
    Vantage Point
    21 – a little slow, and I think it could have been better, but you might like it

  7. investorinpa says:

    Hand massages that were better than sex? Yeah Barry, you do need to get out more!

    My personal writing story is that I was asked to pen 2 chapters on commercial real estate, about 20-30 pages in length as part of an “expert panel” of authors. It took me nearly 5 weeks to get one chapter done. By the time it was done, the author decided to change focus of the book and thanked me for my writing. Needless to say I was furious but did also realize that its part of the nature of non-fiction writing that the topic may be subject to change. This gives a great advantage to fiction writers as they are not bound by the same constraints.

  8. Wow !!!

    Well said, Barry.

  9. DL says:

    You’ll probably end up writing another one before long.

    How about:

    Bailout Nation: The Aftermath.

  10. strat575 says:

    Congrats Barry. When I wrote my last (and thus far only) long form research piece, I remember going through many of the same trials. It’s horrible when you get to the end, and all you’ve done is sit inside for months. Finally, you go outside…your eyes burn and lungs feel funny. You run to the end of the driveway and find yourself out of breath. Try to lift a weight and pull out your back; and try to have a conversation with someone without bringing up what you’ve been working on and all that comes out is ubernerd.

    You’ll never want to do it again…for four months.

    I know you’ve spent a lot of time talking about how regulations need to be of a newer, better model as this crisis continues. Now you’ve written a book that is the popular forensic account. Great. Now, how do we build a better system? You say we need the traders, market specialists, and private sector to play an important part here, rather than just rely on the lawyers, government types, and public sector plus the powerful few who push the creation of a number of rules specifically designed for them. How do we build Taleb’s capitalism 2.0?

    If you have ideas for the next book, they’d be great to hear. One book usually turns into more on similar topics. Again, congrats and happy holidays.

  11. Whammer says:

    @ DL:

    Son of Bailout Nation
    Bailout Nation 2: The Bailoutening
    Bailout Harder
    Bailout Nation Daddy Day Camp

  12. BrianSJ says:

    Very insightful post indeed. I’ve only found your site recently and have a book in the background. The book on writing that has really been helpful (and I suspect will continue to be) is Weinberg on Writing. Gerry Weinberg has a blog on this at
    http://weinbergonwriting.blogspot.com/

  13. pmorrisonfl says:

    I’ll second “Weinberg on Writing”. I got my copy signed by the author on a page where he sets the rule “Never attempt to write something you don’t care about”. Brilliant book, brilliant man.

  14. Scott F says:

    I’ve tried to pen monthly commentaries for my investors, and its quite the pain in the ass. My hats off to you

  15. jnutley says:

    Congratulations on finishing your book!

    “…my mouse arm was always sore. I never had carpal tunnel, but damned if my hands and forearms didn’t ache all the time.”

    Stop moving your arm! I use this:

    http://www.logitech.com/index.cfm/mice_pointers/trackballs/devices/166&cl=US,EN

    Only my fingers and thumb have to work with that trackball. Far superior to a mouse imo.

  16. gms777 says:

    I’m curious about the details of your book deal.

    Did you decide to get as much as cash up-front, or did you decide to take less cash in return for the possibility of royalties?

    ~~~

    BR: I took a small upfront (used it to pay editors, researchers, and license other materials).

    The back end is more than typical.

  17. greenie says:

    The isolation, stuck inside, no movies, limited TV, books etc…pain the back….

    Sounds a lot like having young children at home; at least you control what goes in the book. The kids can turn against you..

    Kidding (sort-of)

  18. rob says:

    Barry: I definitely agree with your dictation vs. writing aspect. May I give you a suggestion on the writing, get away from the computer! Long time ago I experimented with hand writing vs. banging on a keyboard. I use to think “Save time, just type it as I go.” The hypothesis turned out flawed. The flow is MUCH better when you hand write. I assume it is because it is slow and you don’t notice typographical errors. By handwriting, it seems the brain can run through all the “ways” of saying something and you end up transcribing the best one. By doing this, my reworks dropped off significantly and the organization and flow of my work improved markedly. While one data point is hard to draw a trend from, I know it works for me and I’d be willing to bet your productivity would skyrocket also. Forget about the “not going outside.” When I write I make a point to get out of the office and the house, (usually on the boat in the middle of the Gulf!) and just scribe with pen and paper! Creativity boils up through the surface of routine when you’re in that environment. Interestingly, Hemingway use to scribe on onion skin! Ran across that bit of trivia a few weeks ago and thought it odd.

  19. super_trooper says:

    You seem to be up to date with movies. I would recommend going to the movie theater and watch Slumdog millionaire.
    I remember one author’s recommendation to approach writing the way you do “normal” work: get up at 8 and write for x hours. Don’t wait for inspiration. And never really ask yourself why you’re putting yourself through it. There are already too many failed books out there. Dow 36000 comes to mind.

  20. Gerald M. Weinberg says:

    Hi Barry,
    First of all, that was a great article. You’re going to help a lot of would-be writers. I’ll reference it on my writing blog (which I tend to neglect).

    Second of all, it’s an interesting coincidence that for many years I published a column in Contract Professional called “the Big Picture.” I suspect from this evidence that we have similar minds, though different experiences.

    Third, as a couple of your readers say, you might have eliminated some of those surprises had you been guided by my book, Weinberg on Writing. Not all, though. Each would-be writer has to experience these things for themselves. For instance, where I live, in New Mexico, I’d rather stay inside and write during the beastly summer. (Though I do have a place in the mountains where I can hike in the woods every day, while also setting aside time for writing.)

    At the very least, I might have helped you save your back.

    If you’d like me to post this as a comment, I’d be glad to. I could also extend it by addressing some of your other points.

    BTW, this was dictated, not typed. It took me a while to learn how to dictate the way I would type, just as it took me a while (50 years ago) to learn how to type in the same style as I wrote longhand.

    Jerry (Gerald M. Weinberg)
    author of Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method

    p.s. I LOVE your reading list.

  21. gms777 says:

    Barry–

    Make darn sure, darn sure that your publisher is going to promote your book. Your first 2-3 weeks in the stores are make or break. You want to be on TV like crazy right out of the gate. Lots of radio and print interviews, too. Get the magazine stories set up 6 months in advance.

    But it’s like the movie business…even if you get great publicity, there’s a weird magic that happens with the public….either people will take to the book/movie, or they won’t. Unpredictable.

    Ultimately, though, the book is a billboard that brings more traffic/business to you….good luck…..

  22. A few people have given me the same advice — go crazy for a few weeks, promoting the hell out of it. After that, it develops its own momentum.

    There is an excerpt scheduled either for The Atlantic or Harpers, set up by the publisher. (I assume there will be lots of print interviews their team will set up).

    I’ll crank up my own network of media contacts, get the book into the right hands. My own contacts include CNBC, Bloomberg, PBS, Fox, CNN — when the book comes out, I assume that will get heavy rotation.

    I’ve been holding off on doing a few other shows — notably, the Daily Show for one of the short little segment. I will be more than happy to do an author segment on Stewart or Colbert. Then there are the other longer form interviews — like Bill Moyers and Charlie Rose — that I would be thrilled to do.