Writing At Speed 2: the book review

Book Review

20K a day: How To Launch More Books and Make More Money by Writing Faster, Better and Smarter by Jonathan Green

This is the second blog post about the writers’ advice book, “20 K a Day”. I didn’t name it overtly before, but this is the one. I think the title is fairly self explanatory. I’d love to do that! So I read it and I followed it. Here is my report.

TLDR: This would work. If you were exactly like the author of the book, for whom it works. And if you understand that your 20K a day is only calculated on days you spend dictating your draft text into a voice-recording device. It does not include time spent planning, researching and daydreaming or transcribing, editing and correcting. For people who cannot or don’t want to devote their lives to this process and methodology, your mileage will vary. I have tested all the productivity tips here and I can verify that they are good and based on sound reasoning and worthwhile principles of workflow and productivity. I don’t want to, and indeed cannot, bend my life and its circumstances to this method, so my gains have been much more modest than 20K a day. But I have still benefited.

Long Version:

The Charm

What struck me about this book, aside from how charmingly candid it is, is the frequency of reference to the author’s lovely life on a paradise island, relaxing on the shore while his children frolic about at a near distance. There’s a certain frantic anxiety underpinning the emphasis placed on how wholesomely lovely it is, exactly like those ads on YouTube which are always telling you what a fabulous laptop lifestyle you could have if only  you dumped everyone and everything you knew, liquidated all your assets, set up an online retail store and spent your time in jumbo jets hopping from one exotic AirBnB destination to the next, like a sort of penny-wise James Bond of the internet. Stick it to The Man! (This book is part of the Serve No Master series, after all, so I’m fairly sure the whole set is a big SuckIt message for the 9-5). So far so good.

The Reality

There was one mention, I seem to recall, of a child going missing at one point when her father became too absorbed in his work (I may have imagined that, but the implication kept cropping up). And there were a few references to an unfortunate afternoon in a restaurant where he was trying to dictate in the zone whilst staff went about their business of filling in the empty hours on minimum wage by dragging chairs around and playing pool. There may be a nanny in the background. There was certainly an accommodating spouse dealing with (I assume) at least some of the domestic chore load so that the author had a good few uninterrupted hours to hang out with a large armoury of wifi-enabled linked-up devices. Anyway, he did a good job of persuading that he was a hands-on family guy doing his best to make ends meet and create the ultimate lifestyle for his loved ones all paid for by writing and publishing a massive load of ‘content’ online and in print. He compared his output to that of a literary friend in terms that were really quite fair. 20k vs 500 words. Yep. And without loss of quality, although we’re not writing the great novels of the world here either. I can’t say anything about his other books, although this one was breathlessly chatty, but I can confirm that it is exhausting just keeping up with the go-getting.

The Check-My-Ride

Oh, and there was a lot of check-my-inches chat about being a hotshot can-do write-anything kind of guy who ghosted a ton of books, fiction and nonfiction, at the drop of a contract. I enjoyed this. It feels good to think you are being taught by a successful master. I think the implication was that if you are very intelligent, competent, have good working methods and no ego in the way (well, not in the way of your writing at least) then you can make a good living being the fixer in a world desperate for product. I’ve got no reason to think this isn’t true but I don’t think that many people would be able to follow in his footsteps for the simple reason that he is a rare combination of two things. Very smart (OCD definitely) and completely, ruthlessly focused. He would have sorted Brexit in four days, leaving one day for negotiations and two for everyone to unwind with a few rounds of golf and drinks on the patio after. That kind of mind. Most people don’t have anything like that kind of mind for good or ill.

The Down and Dirty

I can do the first one (smart). The second (ruthless microfocus) – let’s not kid ourselves. I’m struggling with my envy at the kind of focus he brings to bear. In fact, when I followed his working practices I did have that kind of focus, for a few days, and it did not make me a happy camper. I was an achievement monster running on adrenals and after 3 days I crashed fairly hard into the exhaustion wall. When I was younger this might not have happened but I’m in menopause and I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. Had to take a week out, so, that was not productive at all in the end. If you’re young and in your prime this might not happen to you, I don’t know. I have not yet learned to manage that kind of fatigue whilst remaining a human being tolerable to other lifeforms or functional in the non writing part of my life where my kids rely on me to stay alive. To be fair to Jonathan he does talk about managing yourself so this does not happen. He thought of everything. But only trial and error will reveal the inner tortoise that is your true writing self.  This is the main reason I have not excelled, bought a bunch of dictation software and started filling your inbox with mailshots. You’re welcome.

If we take out human failings of physiology then these methods do work. The author correctly identifies every single issue holding back writing projects the world over and gets them down to ‘you’re failing to make decisions and plan actions in a timely way’. Factually I couldn’t fault him. All blocks and delays are never down to the fact you’ve suddenly forgotten how to put a sentence together and always down to the fact that you don’t know what you’re writing about and have to pause and try to marshal some sense and purpose. It can happen a multitude of ways and for all kinds of reasons but the delays are all down to not knowing your shit.

If you do enough research and planning, his theory goes, you can plan the hell out of a project to the point where you will never find yourself in the position of not knowing what comes next.

The Hard Truth

Usually I never do this. I only plan a short distance ahead, maybe one or at most two scenes. I have a vague outline of the whole thing. It exists in different levels of detail. When I trie the methods in this book the most difficult challenge was learning in what detail things had to be planned in order for them to be clear enough that I could compose the draft without pausing even for a second. The first few times I got it very wrong and realised that what I thought was detail wasn’t even close. To get to the no-pause limit you really need every beat of a scene nailed down in every specific.

Two things I didn’t like about that. It doesn’t leave room for creative inspiration. It means you have already written the thing, more or less, and second it requires that you imagine it in the same way you would if you were writing it, not planning it. It’s like a predraft. The first of these objections he does cover, noting that when innovation happens you do have to readjust your plans (no shit, this is why I don’t plan a long way ahead in detail. I know I’ll trash it.) The second (nearly done but for the actual words) he doesn’t seem to have an issue with, but I do. It’s like doing the whole job twice, and the second go feels like a massively boring experience which would leave my mind already rocketing off to the next job rather than focusing on creating. I’d never make it through.

One of my ‘delays’ as I switch between detailed plan and actual writing is the game I play with myself to keep it sufficiently interesting all the way through that I don’t burn out my fuel for the journey. I definitely don’t write with the aim of crashing some product through the sales gate. I have another agenda at work which is to entertain myself on the way. This explains a lot about my output, I reckon. (I can do 5k on a good day).

The Summary – Surprisingly Good for a book with that title

On the whole though, without giving away any of his tips in particular, I think all the advice in the book is sound and well-presented. It could get you to a high speed of production and it is very good in forcing you to face the worst procrastination-generation features we all share. You can see the same kinds of work-relaxation structures operating in other systems for getting things done, and some of these he does employ, like the Pomodoro method. Mostly it’s all about organising the right part of your mind to do the right job at the right time and never to get these tasks mixed up and out of order. Analysis, research, decisions, execution. That’s what efficiency is made of. Oh, and turning up for work ready to go instead of spending hours noodling around. On the negative side it has all the downs that you can already experience for free online as you watch people posting their word counts every day while you sit and stare into the computer screen wondering what you’ve done with your life. Ultimately it is a work advisory tool. Use with caution.

All work and no play makes Jill a dull girl. All work and no play makes Jill a dull girl…etc. You know how this goes. If not please refer to Mr Stephen King’s works.

On a final note I think that this book was worth the cover charge for the realisation that the only thing that holds me back on a daily basis is fear, put into many various forms of one kind and another. Now if I am delaying some decisions I’m aware it’s a luxury I’m playing with rather than something to dread because I might make the wrong choices and damn my future by writing a total pup of a project. (I mean, I might do that anyway, even if I wait for ages while I mull things over so we may as well rush to our doom). Quite a liberating experience all around as well as a humbling one. Recommended for its no-nonsense practicality and truthful, well considered solutions. I hope you make your fortunes and that Jonathan Green achieves his dreams. He’s worked hard enough for them.

Meanwhile I will settle for a cup of tea and the theme tune to Hawaii Five-O.

I have put in lots of headers because WordPress claims I am unreadably verbose. It still says that. How very dare you, WordPress.