The Truth You Don’t Want to Know About Writing a Book

Donald Miller

The edits came back last month on my newest book and I was thrilled.

The changes weren’t going to be too difficult and most of the feedback was positive. I figured I could set aside a few mornings, wrap up the book and send it in.

But that’s when I was reminded that writing a book, unlike writing a blog post or a sales email or just about anything else requires direct and focused attention. A book is like a two year old in that way. You just can’t take your eyes off it to do anything else or it’s going to get into trouble.

Sure, I set aside a few mornings but I’d sit there looking at the manuscript unable to get my head back into it. Then, I’d make one edit only to create a domino effect throughout the rest of the book. I did this a few times before I started to believe the book was a total disaster and would probably never be published. Then, I broke the news to Betsy.

*Photo Credit: Randen Pederson, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Randen Pederson, Creative Commons

Babe, I’ve got to get a cabin. I’ve got to get my head back in this book and I can’t do it running my usual schedule.

Betsy obliged. She had a friend coming to town and was going to be tied up anyway. So I rented the cabin and Lucy and I hit the road.

My first night in the cabin went terribly.

Once again I couldn’t get my head inside the book. It all felt like fits and false starts, as though I couldn’t land a point. The second day felt the same. In fact, I started wondering, once again, if I’d only fooled myself into thinking I had something to work with. I talked with Betsy that night completely defeated. It’s the worst book I’ve ever written, I told her. I don’t think it can be fixed.

That night, though, I slept twelve hours. I woke up starting to feel a little refreshed and half willing to dive back into the book. And because I’d been away from people for 3 days now, and because I’d gotten enough sleep, and because I wasn’t answering my phone, I finally found my way back into the book. I could clearly see it’s flaws and, even better, I knew how to fix them.

Is getting away to work on the book fun? Absolutely not. It’s mind-numblingly lonely work and half the time you’re battling the demons in your own head.

But it’s necessary. You don’t come in and out of a book the way you can any other project. You’ve got to live inside a book, set up camp in the book, sleep inside it, go for walks inside it and you can’t under any circumstances come up for air otherwise you’ll have to go through the reentry process again.

I can’t tell you how many people I meet who want to write a book in their free time.

But here’s the reality — a book will demand your all. That great line won’t come to you on a schedule (though you should keep one anyway) it will come to you when it wants and you have to be sitting there when it arrives or you’ll miss it.

If you’ve got a book brewing, rent a cabin. I know you have kids and a job and can’t afford the luxury and I’m sorry if that’s true because the reality is it probably isn’t true. The cabin I’m staying in is a dump and I’m busier than anybody I know but I’m still convinced it’s the only way to get the work done. There’s nothing luxurious about it.

Betsy and I call my writing sessions the “coal mine” because often that’s what it feels like, going into the coal mine of our souls to find the words, polish them and set them on the page so it looks like they were born there.

Every writer hides the dirt. It gets taken out with the trash, outside a cabin, deep in the woods where the words were.

Best to you in your writing.

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller has been telling his story for more than a decade, now he wants to help you tell yours. He’s helped over 1,000 companies clarify their message through the StoryBrand Workshops. For an introduction to what he’s doing now, check out the 5 Minute Marketing Makeover.

  • Paul Dragu

    I so feel this. Whenever I think about the finished project and all its wonderful possible perks, I feel good about being a writer. But when I dive deeper and think about the next session’s particular goal on the project, I dread my life. There’s a big scary wall that never seems to crumble, between the time you get to work and the time you actually write. I think it will always be there.

  • “Every writer hides the dirt” love that.

    I think this can be relative to not only writing a book, but even illustrating a book or building a product of almost any kind. When all you have is free time, you begin to learn you have to sacrifice something. You have to give yourself the time and the energy to invest all of yourself into it.

    Thanks for sharing this today. Fantastic message. Bitter, but sweet wisdom.

  • Yes. Yes. Thx for saying it so well.

  • Absolutely true. Writing a book isn’t like writing blog posts. It demands so much more of everything. Especially time and focus.

    After half a year of writing and editing a book, I put the manuscript away for a few months. Now that I’ve returned with fresh eyes, I’m seeing so much I didn’t see the first twenty times through. But the end product will be better for it.

  • “…find the words, polish them and set them on the page so it looks like they were born there.” Brilliant line!

    I found this article sad and encouraging. Sad because “cabin time” seems impossible. Encouraging because I will aspire to make it happen at some point. Clarity of thought comes at a cost.

  • WOW. I have repeated virtually the exact same words to my wife. I call it “going into the cave”. It takes a while to get in, but once you’re there, you need to stay for several hours. That, and some super glue for your rear end to stay on the chair. Well said, Don. The cabin in Normandy was awesome. The one in the Arkansas woods scared me. I’ve seen too many movies! 🙂

    • Joanhh

      And your ‘cabin’ can be whatever you choose it to be. An attic room, the library.. as long as it works for you. A place you go to in your mind will do. Great article, just when I needed it.

  • Smeeta

    Absolutely true. I get so frustrated when I fight with myself on why can’t I block times during the day in between my work but the transition time is so long for me.
    And its not just the transition time but the quality of attention and immersion I can do feels subpar. Thank you for a MUCH needed post on this so I can finally feel its ok to get to that “cabin” and do my best work.

  • Ditto what Jeff Kinley said. Thankfully, my wife is the one who tells me to “get away” so I can write…

  • patriciastrefling

    This is true. I can never start another book until I’ve seen the last of the other one! Demands like a two-year-old…very good comparison!

  • Not true. People work and write in different ways, and a lot of glorious books have been written at kitchen tables, with children underfoot. Universalizing one’s experience is rarely accurate and never helpful.

    • Right on. I wrote my first book at my
      kitchen table in a tiny studio apartment as a single dad. Barely had
      time to do anything but I made the time. I think the whole myth of
      getting a cabin romanticizes writing and the escape of it all. Hard
      work and discipline are far more important than three days out in the
      sticks.

      • sethhaines

        Agree with you Malcolm, and KWP, too.

        • I’m in this camp. Sure, the aloneness may be just what you need, but that is based on so many factors (personal preference, ability to handle distractions, etc.). There are times when I am more creative alone and other times when the noise around me helps. But I love how taking a strong position encourages comments and discussion!

    • David

      “Universalizing . . . never helpful”

      humorous

    • Alan Prescott

      That is a good point, but people probably work more efficiently when working alone in a creative environment.

  • Jenna B

    Ugh

  • Lauren Taylor

    Thanks for sharing. I’ve dreamed of writing a book since childhood and now, as an adult with a full-time job who is barely able to cook edible meals for myself, that dream just gets harder and harder. There is so much comfort, though, in knowing I’m not alone in those writing struggles.

  • Great advice! So many distractions at home, and even doing it in free time. Need that intense time of focus..

  • Claudia Chapman

    I’m so glad you’re wrong about this!

    Writing a book in nothing but the tiny cracks of your life is painful and frustrating (and it takes a lot longer than it would otherwise) but it can be done. I think that women, particularly, are good at driving little wedges into those cracks and creating tiny moments to mine coal in our kitchens, on our lunchbreaks and while supervising the real, breathing two-year-olds who are having their bath. A cabin would be great, but for some of us, at some points in our lives, its really really not possible. You say its not luxurious, but all that time? The ultimate luxury. When the cabin (no matter how grotty) is unattainable, you find out how much you *really* want to get that book done.

  • I think what your post meant to say was that writing a book takes sacrifice. Instead, it communicated that writing a book takes expendable income and copious free-time, luxuries that a lot of people in this life really cannot afford. This statement especially came across as incredibly classist:

    “I know you have kids and a job and can’t afford the luxury and I’m sorry if that’s true because the reality is it probably isn’t true.”

    I find your thoughts here incredibly ignorant of others’ socio-economic realities. Essentially that statement implies that only the people that can “afford the luxury” of writing a book deserve it. I don’t know, maybe I’m just not your target demographic anymore? But I’m a writer that’s admired your work for a long time and I was on the same page with you until you started implying that people like me aren’t trying hard enough to fulfill our dreams because we can’t afford to take time off of our day jobs.

    What takes more sacrifice? A bestselling author retreating away from the world to finish his next book, or a person writing a book despite facing difficult financial circumstances that don’t allow them to just drop everything to pursue it?

    Seriously, if I could actually afford to do it any other way than to write in my “free time,” this book would already be done and published right now. My memoir is about losing my mother to breast cancer, and this book I’m writing in all of my copious “free time” was her idea. She started it herself; between her full-time job, being a parent, and getting cancer treatments, she wrote her story. If she could have afforded to take time off and make the book happen, it probably would have been published before she died, like she dreamed.

    But life’s not convenient like that. Life is messy, and not everyone gets the same opportunities and luxuries. I do believe that if you want something to happen bad enough, you find a way to make it happen, but “making it happen” doesn’t always look the same for everyone, especially if one person is living paycheck-to-paycheck and the other person is a bestselling author. People can’t always plan their way out of difficult circumstances, but they can start where they are.

    My question for you is whether you want to empower people to do things the Don Miller way, or whether you want to encourage people to “live good stories” and write about them in their own way?

    • Alan Prescott

      I completely agree. To write you do need time and some money, but it ultimately takes a sacrifice to do it. To be a good write you have to be willing to let everything go and focus solely on writing.

  • Donald, thanks for sharing Donald’s process with us. Kudos.

  • mskathykhang

    The luxury isn’t about the cabin.

  • Anita

    I wrote a book too, and understand the need to camp under it, and take walks in it–even tho it’s completely the last thing you want to do. The getting-away concept is sound, and you can be creative with it. One day, I used an empty hotel room that my friend was managing. Another day, I used another friend’s porch swing by her forest cabin. Never spent a penny for either one, plus they brought me food!

  • Toni Hammer

    I’ve been a fan of yours for a long time and, sadly, that may have ended with this post. I’m a stay-at-home mom of two kids under two and have been dutifully working on my book whenever I can, but you’re telling me I need to run away to a cabin, that it’s the only way to get it done, and that the only reason I haven’t done it is because I want too nice of a cabin in which to do it?

    Wow.

    Also, you have a typo. “I could clearly see it’s flaws and, even better, I knew how to fix them.”

    • Di

      Kind of a lame reason not to follow him again though don’t you think? I think you misunderstand him also.

  • Hmm. Not all writers have the luxury of time alone in a secluded cabin. All of my books were written and edited between 10 pm and midnight, and then the next morning from 6 am to 7 am, every day of the week, for months at a time. Why? Because that’s when my kids, and my wife, were asleep. And because I was holding down a totally separate full-time job. And because that was the only way it was going to happen. I couldn’t wait for inspiration or focus. I had those hours, and only those hours.

    When people ask me why I haven’t written a new book since 2009, I usually can give them a variety of reasons. But one of the biggest ones is: I don’t have that kind of energy anymore. I still have a family, and a separate full-time job, and I’m not willing to put in the hours.

    THAT’s the problem. It’s not my lack of a cabin.

    • Seth Alan Taylor

      Dude! Boyett is rockin some truth! I love your stuff man!

    • Christy LeRoy

      You sir, have made a new fan! Well said and I went and checked out your blog!

  • Alexandra Kuykendall

    So you’re coming to Denver next week, we’ve got some great mountain cabins here…but really the all consuming nature of the one and only book I’ve written so far was exhausting for me and my family. We are all still recovering even though I turned in the manuscript almost two years ago. But I also know that IS the nature of writing a book, at least one you care about. I do like the suggestion at some creative options on those “getaway” places that don’t require money, like a friend’s basement or where I spent long hours, our local college library’s “quiet floor” (I want one for my house thank you.) The key….no internet access, then we aren’t distracted by all of these blog posts and such.

  • Seth Alan Taylor

    After reading through all of the comments, it is interesting how many people took offense from Don’s apparent lack of inclusiveness of other people’s processes as he writes about his. Maybe there needed to be a note at the bottom which says something like: “Understand that the cabin is not to be taken as only a literal cabin. It can be understood as a metaphor – you must find the cabin in your world in order to be able to accomplosh this.” Jason Boyett’s comments would speak to this – his “cabin’ was at some very ungodly hours, but he blocked these hours out in order to accomplish a goal. I am finishing my first book right now and I have had two kids in the last two years and been trying to finish grad school and work full time also – of course I can’t do a literal cabin, but I have discovered a place inside I could call “my cabin in the woods”. To get the work done, I have to go there. On the outside, it appears to be whatever coffee shop I can make it to for the next hour while my toddler naps, but inside, that’s a different world.

    • I appreciate your trying to smooth over some disagreement, but it’s clear he meant a literal cabin. And also that he is busier than anyone so no one else’s excuses for not getting a cabin are good enough. I like your interpretation/approach much better.

  • I find that for me, writing is like giving God my loaves and fishes. “This is what I have. Make it enough.” And always, he does. Yes, the focus needs to be there. But everyone’s writing processes look different. And it’s God, not a specific place, that helps us step out of the mundane and inhabit the work he has us doing.

    • Amy e Patton

      Addie, Thanks for adding these thoughts. I am at a “stuck” place in finishing my book. Like, Don, the more I look at it I feel like it’s awful and that I just need to start over. I’m trying to figure out how to keep my head in the book now that summer is here and everyone is home driving me batty. Finding the place to do my work is going to be key, but offering up to God all that I have and asking Him to turn it into something satisfying and more than enough is the grace I need in the process.

  • Laura Beth Lloyd

    This was awesome! Thank you for this post. I love how you said that in order to write a book you have to live inside it. Good luck in your writing!

  • Sheesh. Some pretty harsh comments here. I totally get your point of view Don. As I’m plodding away at my first manuscript and honing down a book proposal, I’ve seen my need to find that cabin time. And we’re barely making ends meet, have just enough to pay the mortgage and have 3 kids. Blah, blah, blah. All of that makes the thought of time away nearly impossible. But, my husband and I both agree that taking the time and whatever little resources we can to bring this baby to birth is worth it.

    Sure, I don’t have the luxury of time alone in a cabin. But I do the ability to manage my schedule and make time for what’s important. I have the luxury of taking care of myself, and for me right now taking care of myself looks like writing this book.

    Thank you for the the encouragement, Don.

  • Beth

    Don, I so very much appreciate when you talk about your writing process. It encourages my own, and as a writer, your blog is one of my favorite places to come and learn from another. This is one of my favorite posts of yours; I so resonate with much of what you are saying here. Thank you, with all that you do, for taking the time to share about your own process with the craft. It greatly helps me as I take a stab with my own pen. Thank you for being a giver!

  • As big a blocks of undistracted time as possible is my cabin. Some days i grab 1/2 hour, occasionally it’s most of the day. A good reminder to keep persisting in grabbing whatever blocks of time i can.

  • Matthew Jason

    I have to read between the lines when I read these types of posts because, although they come off as directed towards and exclusive demographic of writers, I think there are parts that any artist can take away from this. I don’t write books (not yet anyways). I tell stories through songwriting, and I think it’s safe to say that we have some things in common. Don, you live in “Music City” so I’m sure you’ll understand. Like any other creative person, swimming in the abyss of their soul to find the right words (or notes), I have to set time aside to devote to my work.

    The truth is, we’re never outside of our work (or maybe it’s better to say to that it’s never outside of us… depends on how you look at it) and THAT is what makes the lives of so many creatives so unique. Even though life can be busy and difficult, some of us just can’t “check-out” of the creative process. It’s exhausting, especially when we’re not being productive. It’s like we’re constantly running multiple engines on a single gas tank. We’re going to burn out faster if we don’t change things up.

    Can I afford a cabin in the woods? HA! Did I mention that I’m a musician? Any cabin right now is probably out of the question for me, but I do own a tent.

  • Clark Bunch

    I find my coal mine around 5 or 5:30 in the morning. Our 4-year-old has to be at pre-K at 8 so that means she and my wife crawl out around 7:15 or 7:30. If I want to read, study, blog or write in peace and quite I do it between 5 and 7 in the a.m. (It does take a few minutes/sips of coffee to see the screen clearly. Reading the Bible is the same way.)

  • I can’t wait to read your new book! Also, thank you to your website team who changed the comment feature so non-Facebook users can join the conversation. 🙂

  • Kameron Hurley

    I sure hope this is meant to be satire.

  • James Ray Tuck Jr

    Yep. Four novels, four novellas, 100+ short stories, a handful of terrible poetry, two screenplays, and a collaborative novel underway and I have yet to get a freaking cabin. lol. But I will admit to wanting one sometimes when the world wont shut the hell up.

  • Andrea

    “…and I’m busier than anybody I know”. That is probably the most egotistical and narcissistic sentence I have ever read. C’mon, give your readers a break.

  • Finding Ecstasy

    I love this article, and believe there’s a lot of truth in it. I, however, disagree for myself on one thing–I LOVE getting away to write 🙂 Hiding away in a cabin appeases my introvert nature, and fills me with bliss. There are many shades of personalities and preferences….but I love the way you articulate your truth 🙂 Keep it coming! ~Rebecca http://www.findingecstasy.com

    • Di

      Don’t forget the fireplace. Gotta have the fireplace lol.

  • Anees Rehman

    The forum posting is a unique and
    interesting

    African real estate

  • Alan Prescott

    I really enjoyed this article and the thought of going to a peaceful place when writing to think. As a writer I would probably put myself in an area that represented what I was writing and I would have to be alone. Say I was writing a book about country life, possibly I would find a barn and set up inside it. I would be alone so I could gather my thoughts, but at the same time I would play animal noises on my phone to really feel like I’m in the book I’m writing. If I was passionate about my novel I would spend all the time and money it needed to perfect my writing. In the end you could end up making that money back plus some more.

  • Di

    My husband the writer is BEGGING for that cabin lol