A Simple Hack for Writing a Book

Here’s a story someone told me about how Brian Koppelman, a relative unknown at the time, wrote the script for the movie Rounders.

Apparently, Koppelman decided that he really wanted to find a way to join two of his obsessions: screenplays and poker.  His answer was combinatory: he would write a screenplay about poker.

Once he made that decision, and after seeking his wife’s blessing, he came up with a plan.  He would rent a storage space below his apartment and meet his writing partner there for two hours every morning before work.  During these two hours, they would work, exclusively, on the script.

After writing, they would go to work and tackle the day’s challenges.  After work and some family time, they would research (in this case, that meant playing poker at tables around New York City).  During their research, they would notice and collect as many authentic details as possible.  Phrases, mannerisms, setting, slang, etc.

They developed an outline that could only be changed if a better idea came along.  And if that better idea came along, the outline would shift to allow for its inclusion.

They stuck to this schedule six days a week, taking off Sundays, until they accomplish their goal.

Once the script was finished, they worked to sell it, which also required tenacity and discipline and rejection and adjustment.

Let’s break down Koppelman’s story to derive some clear lessons:

  1. He started with serious passion — poker, writing — and decided that he wanted to pursue it.  (Without that initial decision, you’ll just be floating around or dedicating fits and spurts of energy to a project.  See also Austin Kleon’s banker’s box approach, which he borrowed from Twyla Tharp.)
  2. Next, Koppelman spoke to his family.  (In considering a big side project, it’s important to realize that it will most likely pull you away from you other responsibilities.  At home, in particular, it can make you less attentive, less present, less engaged.  It can cause you to be irritable.  And it’s best to be honest with your family, if you have one, about all of these side effects.  You should work hard up front to set out some lines of demarcation and to negotiate the demands on your — and their — time.)
  3. After squaring things with his wife, Koppelman found a barricade in which to write.  (While writing, this space allowed him to cut out all possible distractions and the temptation to deal with easier work or life’s urgencies.)
  4. He showed up at the barricade every day, at the same time, rain or shine.
  5. He kept his day job, allowing him to survive.  (This is the first rule of making art on the side — you have to survive.)
  6. He fed his side project with fertilizer from the outside world.  (His nightly research no doubt gave him the energy he needed to return to his morning writing with gusto.)
  7. He allowed his idea of the project — his outlines — to evolve.  (Stubbornness is fine, but it should be worn lightly in the arena of ideas.)
  8. After finishing his project, he shifted gears and figured out how to sell it. (When you finish a project, your work is not going to sell itself.  You’ll need just as much tenacity, and just as thorough of a plan, to sell it as to write it.)

So that’s it.  The simplest hack I know for writing a book is that there is no simple hack.  You didn’t think you were going to find something else here, did you?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s