Last week I published my first book, “Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!”
One question people ask me a lot is how long did the book take to write.
There are a few answers to that.
I took book leave in May 2014 and I turned in my first draft in the middle of August 2014.
So you could say four months.
But I signed my book contract in September 2013, so maybe the answer is a year.
I started working on a big, 20,000-word biography of Mayer in 2012.
So two years?
But if the question is, how long was it between when I wrote my first sentence and when I wrote my last? The answer is about six weeks.
I started on July 4 and sent the epilogue to my editor on Aug. 22.
The book is 93,000 words long, so I wrote, on average, 2,447 words a day.
This speed floors people, so I thought it might be useful to share some productivity hacks I discovered while I was writing.
I went to bed and got up at the same time every single day for the whole six weeks. I went to bed at 10:30 p.m. and got up at 6:30 a.m.
I had long, lazy mornings. After I woke up at 6:30, I would brew a cup of coffee, make breakfast (fruit-and-vegetable smoothie), and read Business Insider, The New York Times, and Twitter. I would lounge for as long as an hour. Then I would walk to a nearby park and meditate on a bench for 10 minutes. Then I’d walk home and start working.
I worked in hour-long, concentrated bursts and took frequent breaks. When I got back to my desk about 8:30 or so, I would set a timer for an hour. As soon as the timer started I would force myself to either write or stare at the screen until the hour was over. (I would pause the timer if I needed to make coffee or tea or go to the bathroom.) Then, when the hour was over, I would get up from my desk, go outside and walk around a city block — leaving my iPhone behind. Then I’d come back to my desk and do another hour of writing and staring. Then another walk. Then one more hour.
Then I would take an hour-and-a-half lunch, during which I would walk to a restaurant, eat, and then walk to a park. After lunch, I did three more cycles. I’m just guessing, but I think this pattern worked for me because an hour isn’t a very long amount of time to work, and it always felt like a real break was just around the corner — and after that, lunch or the end of the day.
I caffeinated — for a while. At the beginning of the six weeks, it would take me three cups of coffee to get through the morning and a Red Bull to get through the afternoon. But after about two or three weeks I didn’t need the caffeine anymore. I went back to one cup in the morning with my news reading.
I told myself, “Don’t strip the screw.” When a screw is screwed in too tight, you can get it stuck forever if you strip it by turning too hard too suddenly. Sometimes, when I was working, I would hit a tricky passage, get very anxious and want to force myself to START WRITING NOW. This never helped. So I imagined my brain was a screw that I didn’t want to strip. I gave myself a break and allowed myself to just stare at the screen if that’s all I was able to do at that moment. I did not allow myself to look at my phone, check email, or otherwise distract myself.
I chewed so much gum. During each hour-long writing-staring session, I would pretty much constantly have a piece of gum in my mouth. I really liked Trident Layers. There is a store on my block that sold four varieties. I would buy one of each just about every other day. My home office started to smell a little like Trident Layers. Whatever, they say chewing gum helps you take a test. I found it helped get my brain moving when writing.
I would start every hour by revising the last section I wrote. I don’t get writer’s block, but I do start the day with a sluggish mind. It helped me to go back to the last section I wrote and revise it. By the time I got to the end of what I had written, I was in the flow again.
I worked out at least three times a week — outside. I was usually done working by 5:30, and it was summer, so I spent a lot of time on my bike, zipping up and down hills in Central Park. After, I felt entirely refreshed and totally jacked up with endorphins.
I quit drinking. I love a good martini and will drink a bad one if you hand it to me. But during my book leave, I found that even having one drink in the evening would greatly slow me down the next morning. I couldn’t afford that, so I quit drinking. My sleep was better. My concentration sharper. Words flowed easier.
It’s too complicated to get into here, but the other reason I was able to write so fast was that I had a 30,000-plus-word outline. I built it directly from my reporting news (transcripts and documents) using Evernote. You can learn all about that process in a post I wrote a couple months ago.