I’m a bestselling author you’ve never heard of, an invisible man. While ghostwriting, I’ve collaborated with New York Times bestsellers, concepting and writing stories that have reached audiences worldwide and topped sales charts.
It’s been a unique gig, and some of my friends don’t understand why anyone would work in the shadows. But in a culture where traditional apprenticeships are rare, ghostwriting has been the best learning experience I’ve ever had.
Not only has it given me a chance to hone my craft but, more importantly, it’s offered me a firsthand, on-the-ground perspective on how top-performing writers work differently from everyone else. The lessons have transformed my writing life, and they’ll do the same for anyone else who applies them. Best of all, there’s nothing magic about any of them.
1. A Deadline Is All the Writing Inspiration You Need
Inspiration is nice but unnecessary. In the end, writers win the war of art because they set a specific goal and move toward it with relentless focus and commitment.
Deadlines are essential because commitment is never proven by what we believe or think. Where creativity is concerned, ideas are a dime a truckload and talk is cheap. All that matters is what we consistently do. Commitment is measured in completed projects.
Every successful author forms the habit of working on deadline long before he signs his first contract. If you hope to find time to write, there will never be enough time. Having a publishing contract doesn’t change that.
Only what is scheduled gets done, and deadlines are the only inspiration you need to turn pro. They keep you honest, they never lie, and you can’t hide from them. Ever.
2. Writer’s Block Is a Choice
Google “writer’s block” and you’ll get close to four million results, mostly articles on hacks and cures to the dreaded disease.
Yet, most professional authors don’t believe in writer’s block. They see it for what it is: fear. And fear, ultimately, is a choice. It’s choosing worry over action and doubt over faith in the creative process. It’s turning away from the resistance instead of leaning into it.
Really, we’re afraid we won’t write something worth reading. We fear the barbed question, Do I really have what it takes?
Whether you think you do or don’t, you’re right. If you want to be successful, though, you must get words down as quickly as possible without judging their worth. All that matters is the writing, getting the raw material down. You can always go back and edit, but you can never fix words that don’t exist.
It’s quite simple, and once you defeat fear a few times, you’ll surprise yourself at what you can do. After a while you might stop believing in writer’s block too.
3. Don’t Forget to Play
Something tends to happen to us as we grow up. In the rush to pay bills and keep up with our busy lifestyle, it’s easy to lose our sense of play and wonder. Children are wiser in that way than we are. They know how to play because they don’t know what’s impossible.
That’s why people read books and watch movies. They want to experience what it’s like to marvel at the world. Most people stumble through life numb, and writers offer them an escape into wonder once again so they can see things anew.
If you want readers to have an emotional experience, you must first have it yourself. You must first go where you want readers to go. The audience will forgive a lesser craftsman if she touches their hearts and reminds them what it is to play and grow young.
But first, you have to play. You have connect with and enjoy your work. Approach it with lightness and playfulness and that will shine through your words.
4. Selling Millions Doesn’t Make You Feel Secure
What is it like to finally “make it” and achieve your dreams? Over the years I’ve asked dozens of authors who, collectively, have sold hundreds of millions of books worldwide. What does it feel like to be at the top of your game?
The answer: It doesn’t feel much different.
I’ve been surprised at how many bestsellers feel like beginners. Every time they sit down, they wonder if this will the book that proves them a fraud. They wonder when it will get easier, or when they’ll stop doubting themselves.
Even heroes are human, and most wrestle with crushing doubts and insecurities. Selling millions and hitting various bestseller lists doesn’t take that away. Sometimes it worsens it.
Achieving a certain level of success magnifies the comparison game. There’s always someone farther ahead than you, or selling more books. The temptation to compare yourself never goes away, which is why the most important lesson I’ve learned is…
5. The Work Is the Point
On some level, we’ve all bought into our culture’s definition of success. Yet, those who set out to write for money, fame, or validation will be disappointed. Your job is to tell the best story possible, and to share that experience with others.
Don’t make stuff because you want to make money—it will never make you enough money. And don’t make stuff because you want to get famous—because you will never feel famous enough. Make gifts for people—and work hard on making those gifts in the hope that those people will notice and like the gifts.
Maybe they will notice how hard you worked, and maybe they won’t—and if they don’t notice, I know it’s frustrating. But, ultimately, that doesn’t change anything—because your responsibility is not to the people you’re making the gift for, but to the gift itself.
I once attended a book signing for an author for whom I had ghostwritten. Standing off to the side, where I could quietly watch the long line of readers as they met the author, I had an experience that I’ll never forget.
A woman stepped up to the signing table, tears in her eyes, and a book in her hands. It was a book I had written. Even from where I stood I could hear her say how much the story meant to her. It was the strangest mix of emotions I’d ever felt–equal parts joy, pride, and disappointment that I couldn’t talk to her about it.
It reminded me like nothing else could that storytelling is a co-creative process, and we must release our work into the world once it’s finished. After that, it belongs to the world.
If your dream is to write to entertain or move other people, the only way to find joy and be free is to give your gift to others with no strings attached. Take the journey and then let it go. The work, in many ways, must be our reward.
The work is everything. If you can learn that early in the process, you’ll find more freedom than you believed imaginable, and your work will reflect that creative freedom.
The End and the Beginning
Being invisible is a mixed bag, I’ll be the first to admit. Yet it has been my greatest pleasure, and it has shaped me as an artist.
More importantly, it’s reminded me that anyone can make it. Bestsellers aren’t necessarily the best writers. They’re simply the most tenacious. They persevere a little longer than everyone else. And they acted like bestsellers long before they sold their first book.
There’s a lesson in that.