Six Lessons from Writing the Book I Swore I Wouldn’t Write

Six Lessons from Writing the Book I Swore I Wouldn’t Write

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Confidence, Mental Health

“Never again.” – Neil Hughes, after writing a book

After winning four Olympic gold medals, Steve Redgrave famously said that if anyone found him close to a rowing boat again, they could shoot him.

Four years later, he won a fifth gold. 

Let’s be real—I am not as good at writing as Steve Redgrave is at rowing. But after my first book came out, I knew how he felt. I wasn’t sure that I’d ever write another. 

Some writers say they couldn’t stop writing if they tried—they just love it so much that even death might not stop them writing another book. I am not like those people.

For me, writing is an exercise in facing my own inadequacy, day after day after day, while constantly being taunted by others who are more talented than I. Writing something as massive as a book is months (at least) of self-punishment, with an uncertain, possibly even negative, reward.

And yet, I have written a second book.

One potential—and valid—conclusion from this is that I’m an idiot who has no idea what he wants. But after reflecting on the whole experience, I’ve been able to determine some more helpful lessons. Whether you’re working on one huge project or many smaller ones, I hope they’ll be helpful to you too.

Lesson #1: There’s always a new challenge to be found, even in what appears to be a repeat project

Part of me wondered if I’d tick off “write a book” from my list of ambitions and never do it again. I think this is actually a common fear for some multipotentialites: that we’ll be eternally condemned to doing everything exactly once.

But there’s always something new to learn, even in a repeat project. For example, my first book is non-fiction, while my new book is fiction and each genre brings different challenges. In this case, I found it difficult to choose just one branch from the literally infinite possibilities for the story—as a multipod, this skill does not come naturally! I had to learn how to fix elements in place to craft the story I wanted to tell. 

Even if I were to attempt to write the exact same story again, it would be hard not to challenge myself somehow. My fear that doing the ‘same thing’ might lead to stagnation was unfounded.

Lesson #2: Internal resistance can be a positive signal

On the whole, I avoid unpleasant things, and I wasn’t keen on the difficulty of another big writing project. But some challenges become more enticing due to their difficulty.

On reflection, a few factors have helped to decide whether to complete such huge, scary projects:

  • Stretching: Might this project take me out of my comfort zone, and how far? Not at all, a little growth… or too much difficulty?
  • Complete-ability: given enough effort, can I do it?
  • The “work-to-eventual-satisfaction” ratio: can the eventual completion justify the effort involved?   

And perhaps the most important thing is being consistently drawn back. If an intimidating project keeps preying on my mind, and the answers to the above questions are positive, then I know now that it’s at least worth starting. After all, we can always stop!

Lesson #3: Perfect doesn’t exist, and that’s fine

For many projects—arguably most projects?—there’s no such thing as “perfect.” I could tweak any piece of writing I’ve done over and over and over and over… forever. And there’s still no point when it is Officially Done.

As someone who likes an authority figure to come and pat me on the head and give me a sticker saying “full marks!”, this is a tough reality to come to terms with.

I expect this is a lesson I’ll have to learn repeatedly: “good enough” isn’t a destination, it’s a range of destinations. (And sometimes “bad enough” is okay too!)

This is particularly hard when there’s no right answer. I agonized for a long time over two nearly-identical options for my book’s cover, before I finally admitted to myself that the very fact I was agonizing over it so much meant that it definitely didn’t matter.

In future, if I’m choosing between two similar options I’ll try to remember that—by definition—they’re similar, and the choice ultimately won’t make much difference. It’s better to just choose one and not agonize for days on end over it!

For your interest, the cover ended up looking like this… and I guarantee you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference from the “other” version:

Lesson #4: Actively plan a fresh (and very different) project for when your current project ends

I’ve learned that once I finish a project, I need to do something very different. I can’t pick up a similar project immediately. After my first book, I drifted. Many writers gave me the common advice: “start writing the next one.” But that felt like being advised to eat more dessert right after a whole dessert banquet.

This time, after finishing, I jumped straight into a very different project: a video game. This turned out to be perfect. I got to learn some new technology I’d been meaning to play with, and I designed it to tie into the book, so it still felt cohesive. (You can play it here if you like!)

Lesson #5: Judgement is less scary the second time around

When my first book came out—or the first time I hit ‘send’ on a blog post, or gave a performance on stage—it felt like my entire personality was going into the world to be judged.

Every time I do those things, I worry less about judgement. I’m not sure that I’m growing a thicker skin, exactly, but repeat exposure definitely makes it less scary.

I didn’t die when any less-positive reviews of the first book came in, so I know I won’t this time either. Those who love it, will love it; others won’t. It’s all fine.

Lesson #6: Tell the world when you’ve done a thing!

I’m not sure where I absorbed the idea from, but whenever I do something, part of me feels as if it’s somehow inappropriate to even mention it. Apparently, part of my brain believes I ought to spend years creating something, but then never tell anyone.

Many multipods seem to share this sense of shame at saying “Hey, I worked hard on a thing–would you like to see it?” But it’s not only okay to share the thing, it’s essential.

The reasons why we hide our work are many and varied. Perhaps we’re afraid people won’t like it, or that they’ll be confused that we’ve done something so different, or that we’ll no longer fit into an easy box in people’s minds anymore. Regardless of why, if we don’t share what we’ve made, those people who would like it will never get a chance to enjoy it.

Whatever you’re doing right now—whether working on something big, or looking for a refresher, or struggling to share your own work—I hope there’s something useful in this for you.

(Oh, and if you’re interested, you can check out the book here. And I’ll try not to cry if you hate it ;) )

Your Turn

Do any of these lessons resonate with you? More importantly, what lessons have you learned from projects you’ve completed? Share with the community in the comments!

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a hilarious and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a novel set in the prelife. He also spends his time on humorous talks about mental health, standup comedy, physics, computer programming, and everything from music, video games, languages and pub quizzes. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello at enhughesiasm.com.

9 Comments

  1. Megan Chan says:

    Thanks for writing this, Neil. Point #3 really resonates with me. When I was finishing my book “Still Be You” (Ten principles to finding your purpose) I kept on revising it, thinking that it wasn’t “perfect” yet. Ironically, one of the principles I talked about in my book is “being unique is better than being perfect”. After reading this reminder, I submitted my book to Amazon and got it published. Then seeing my first five star book review on Amazon last week confirms that it doesn’t have to be perfect. Just as I wrote in my book, “perfection is a myth, a misconception, and just an opinion.”

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I’m glad it’s not just me that feels this way. Thanks so much, Megan. For me, sharing these vulnerabilities and fears takes away their power, and it’s reassuring to hear it helped you to let go of your similar worry :)

  2. Marie Lamb says:

    I think I needed to hear this, too, and even share some of the lessons. I just finished the ‘hard book’ t hat has been in my mind for five years. And it totally took me by the tail and rewrote its own ending in a way that I didn’t really appreciate. And yet, I knew it had to be that way, and I self-published it. It is all the ugly torment and worries I’ve had thrown up into the air and put back together into someone else’s fractal story. It ends in hope even after all hope seems lost and even against my own instincts. And I needed that, so I published it anyway (as ‘Time in December’), with illustrations that wouldn’t come and wouldn’t come and then all in two days they poured out. Maybe someone else needs to read it, too, and that was finally my reason for pushing the button.

    But – where to go from THAT? I have two other projects on my table that are happy regular-plot young adult type books and they are progressing but have none of the deep pain raking things that made me work on the first book – calling me even when I didn’t feel like writing. So, now I’m at where you are with the second lesson – internal resistance, and why? I admit some of it is a little of whoever reads the first book is going to think I’m just full of pain and never want to read anything else I write afterwards…

    Maybe there is some other book that is going to come attack my subconsicous and make me write it in the meantime, and that is why I am so resistant to sitting down and working on what I have going.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      That’s interesting, Marie. I think it’s hard to know what resistance is really about. Your comment made me realise that my first book was similarly motivated by fear/anxiety/pain, and it took me a while to discover motivation that wasn’t based on these things.

  3. Isabella says:

    Neil,

    I look forward to reading your articles especially when the wind is howling, snow is flying on the plains, and I am alone with my thoughts. I sit at my kitchen table looking out over the windswept prairie, and I think hope is running out for me. I find new hope through your ideas—your original thoughts that resonate within my soul. And I think, okay, maybe I can persevere and get through these moments of deep self-doubt.

    Never stop writing. You may never know how much your words will inspire and change the course of someone’s life, from moments of endless despair to exhilaration. I look forward to your perspective, your tangents, and the weaving of your words into a tapestry I can see in my mind. Inspiring words are your gift to the world. Never stop writing. For those of us who may be lost, you are a beacon of hope.

    • Maryske says:

      I concur! Wholeheartedly!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Oh wow, thank you Isabella..! This is so lovely to hear. I’ve saved your comment in a folder to cheer me up on those (regular!) days when I feel that I have nothing to offer. Thanks for sharing your own inspiration with me in return :)

  4. Maryske says:

    Especially 2, 3, 5 and 6 resonate with me.

    #2: I have this crazy internal resistance when a project is *nearly* finished. Either I keep coming up with excuses for not working on it, or else I fall into trap #3: endlessly editing and altering and changing and improving and… It always makes me wonder if that comes partly from the scary ideas of a) having to actually make the decision that *this* is how it’s going to be, and b) what the heck am I going to do with myself once it’s finished? (Um… there’s always multiple other projects I’m working on, too, but still…)

    #5 is something I struggled with a lot in the past, but not so much anymore. #6 however… ohi… It often feels too much like boasting for me to actually tell someone about the great thing I’ve created. So in general, I just don’t mention it at all. Or maybe only with a best friend with a similar interest or something like that. Then again, in the majority of the cases I’m not trying to sell it, so…

    I do have my boardgame that I’m delightfully procrastinating on, but if I want to have it made for real, I’m going to have to ask an artist’s permission – which I suppose will mean explaining the whole game and then hope hope hope that they’ll be okay with having just a few copies made for me and some friends. Though it would be nice indeed if they’d be okay with bringing it out commercially. To be honest, I do intend to ask that as a possible option, maybe, some time in the future one day, but that’s a whole new level of scariness…

    (repost of a reply that never showed up; feel free to delete if it ends up a double post!)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Ahhhh, I totally resonate with that resistance right at the end of a project. The process of letting go of something is always painful.

      By the way, the boardgame sounds very exciting and I’d love to see it (and play it with my friends!) so I hope you do push through and find an artist to collaborate with. I’m sure there are many people who’d love to be part of creating something like that, even if just for fun and a few friends.

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