Q&A: The writing process

The third book, as our series continues, is: Survival is Not Enough.

Andy Levitt and others wrote in to ask about my writing process. Many authors have one. Erle Stanley Gardner, one of the most successful authors of all time, dictacted each Perry Mason book to his secretary, who wrote them out. It took 21 days for each book, and he didn't even need to edit them.

I confess to not having a process. Some books, like The Dip, were created Gardner-style (without the secretary part). I wrote Ideavirus in less than ten days. I might think about a topic for months or years, but then, whoosh, there's a book.

That's not what happened with this book. I grew up with science fiction, and one of the elements I like about the best novels is the way the author establishes a few assumptions about the way of the world and then explores the implications of those assumptions. Dune is a fine example of this, as are Asimov's Robot novels.

After writing Unleashing the Ideavirus, I was reading a lot of books about memetics, evolution and evolutionary biology. A few (like The Red Queen and Darwin's Dangerous Idea) were profound in their eloquence and implications. It seemed to me that combining memetics (the analysis of the evolution and spread of ideas) with modern thinking about evolution could give us new insight into how organizations work.

And so I headed down the rabbit hole. Eight hours a day for a year. I read hundreds of books, filled notebooks with ideas and wrote more than 600 pages, less than half of which I ended up using. The result is certainly the book I've worked hardest on, and perhaps not coincidentally, the book that sold the fewest copies. So few that my publisher took the unusual step of firing me, showing no interest whatever in my next book, Purple Cow.

There were probably two reasons that Survival didn't do very well. The first is that it came out right after 9/11, when much of the nation was grieving. The second: science fiction novels lend themselves to complexity, new vocabulary and flights of theory. Popular business books, not so much.

At one level, every author writes for himself. I'm proud of my process here, of how hard I was able to push on this book and how much I learned doing it. On the other hand, we write for our readers, and my readers told me that more concrete examples and fewer footnotes were the way to go if I was intent on starting conversations and fostering positive change.

The goal in blogging/business/inspiring non-fiction is to share a truth, or at least a truth as the writer sees it. To not just share it, but to spread it and to cause change to happen. You can do that in at least three ways: with research (your own or reporting on others), by building and describing conceptual structures, or with stories that resonate.

Both Linchpin and Icarus found me returning to a more heavily-researched approach to writing. It's exhausting, but the work is its own reward. The process is a choice, though. You can write without becoming a monk, by bringing your voice to those that want to hear it.

The biggest takeaway for anyone seeking to write is this: don't go looking for the way other authors do their work. You won't find many who are consistent enough to copy, and there are enough variations in approach that it's obvious that it's not like hitting home runs or swinging a golf club. There isn't a standard approach, there's only what works for you (and what doesn't).

In the words my late friend Isaac Asimov shared with Carl Sagan, "You are my idea of a good writer because you have an unmannered style, and when I read what you write, I hear you talking."

The process advice that makes sense to me is to write. Constantly. At length. Often. Don't publish everything you write, but the more you write, the more you have to choose from.