By Joe Federer
when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.
-Charles Bukowski, so you want to be a writer?
Six years ago, I started typing into a Word document. I was rereading Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, when I tripped over an insight about how the Internet expresses its own Id, Ego, and Superego. Six years ago, I’d never spoken to a book publisher. I didn’t know what a literary agent did. I had no idea what turned a text document into a book.
Today, my first book, The Hidden Psychology of Social Networks, is available on Amazon and at most large book retailers. I imagined my path to becoming an author would follow the romantic thread from Bukowski’s poem, but it could not have been more different.
Writing is a passion I’ve nurtured since my kindergarten teacher picked me to read my essay about penguins in front of class. That’s also the moment I developed my deep-seated fear of reading in public. What I love about writing is how personal and introspective an experience it is.
But if Bukowski is the gatekeeper for “true writers,” then I’m not among his “chosen.” Writing doesn’t come “bursting out” of me every time I sit down in front of my laptop. The chaotic dance of notifications, the allure of background windows, the expediency of tabbing open Reddit—above all else, a 2020 writer’s most important skill is discipline.
My first few sessions of writing what would become The Hidden Psychology of Social Networks were spent romantically outside a coffee shop in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. Crisp fall days contrasted with a hot, pretentious cup of pour-over emblazoned this aesthetic into my mind—this was what being a writer was like.
The first few sessions spent honing a new idea are magical—or they can be. The first pages, rough as they were, came pouring forward from this seed of an idea that could be endlessly unpacked. Connections between disparate concepts, applications to content in the wild, potential uses for my clients—I obsessed over this Freudian analysis of social media.
Passion helps you start. Discipline helps you finish.
Passion helped me sit down to write for those first few sessions. Passion has trouble focusing, though. Passion wasn’t there after a full day of work. Discipline forced me to sit down in front of my computer every night for at least one hour.
That was my rule. One hour in front of the computer whether something came out or not. For most of those six years, my daily routine looked something like: work my full time job until 7PM, work out until 9PM, get home and sit in front of The Document until (at least) 11 p.m.
Writing isn’t necessarily fun for me. But it’s meaningful. It’s rewarding. My sister calls this “Type B fun”—things you’re happy you did later but that aren’t necessarily “fun” in the moment. When I write, I push myself to the edge of what I know, and I discover what I don’t. I’m an introspective person, and I enjoy the process of exploring the things floating around my mind.
If you’re set on becoming a writer, you need to understand that your brief love affairs with passionate writing are momentary and unpredictable. Discipline and consistency are the only faithful guiding lights. You also need to understand that writing is only part of the job.
Writing becomes a comfort zone. Never stay in a comfort zone.
After about four years of dedication to The Document, a thought that I’d been trying hard to repress surfaced—Who the hell is going to read a 300 page Word document?
Writing wasn’t easy, but it became part of my “workaholic” comfort zone. I could sit in front of the computer until something came out. It was challenging, it tried my patience, there were often other things I’d have liked to do. But like anything that starts off challenging, it soon became a comfortable challenge.
Telling people about my Word document—and getting them to care—was an entirely different project. When something new and chaotic shows up in front of me, I have the terrible tendency to ignore it until I absolutely can’t. My 300 page Word document forced that confrontation.
Uncomfortable as it was, I started to reach out to people in publishing who’d worked on other books in the social media space. I received responses from about 1% of the people to whom I reached out, most of whom couldn’t help me anyway, and I decided to simply embrace that as a law of the universe. I sent emails to literary agents and publishers, talked to authors at conferences, and eventually connected with a literary agency called Levine Greenberg Rostan.
Do everything I did, but do it backwards.
If you want to write a book, you should know this—you don’t actually have to write it until someone is interested. That’s the first step in the wrong direction that I took. (That said, I do think the extra rewrites helped me process my ideas much better.)
When I started working with LGR, our first step was to take the 300 page mess I’d created and turn it into a ~50 page proposal suitable for a publisher. Literary proposals will change depending on your genre, but they’re easily Googleable. Proposals explain your concept, outline your proposed chapter list, offer a summary of the book, point to similar titles in the genre, etc.
Once I’d written a proposal we both liked, we pitched the proposal to a round of publishers. Some of those publishers didn’t respond, and some asked for follow-up conversations. In these conversations, the editors (who work for publishers) and authors connect to decide if they’ll have a good working relationship and share a vision for the book.
The book I was interested in writing wasn’t a typical social media tactics book. I wanted to explore these deeper underlying reasons for why people are so different across the Internet. I didn’t want to write a marketing book full of tactics— I wanted to use great marketing examples to illustrate these broader truths about the Internet. We received a few offers, and I decided to work with McGraw-Hill because my (now) editor saw the value in how I wanted to differentiate this book from others in the genre.
A contract, a thousand hours of work, and about a year and a half after signing, the book is now on Amazon and in most large book retailers. I have no real information about how the book has performed so far or what exactly it will mean for my career. But as I picked up my first physical copy of the once-manic 300 page Word document I started typing in a cafe six years ago, I have brief respite in the knowledge that I followed the path through to the end.
(Followed quickly by the itch to start again.)