Earlier this year, I published my very first book on Amazon. The physical copies arrived at my house a couple of weeks ago. When I flew home for my dad’s birthday a couple of weeks ago, my grandmother showed up with 10 copies and insisted that I autograph each of them for her.
That was probably the highlight of my year: my grandmother asking me to autograph books that had my name on the cover.
If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be a published author right now, I would have laughed at you. I didn’t think it was possible to write and publish a book as quickly as I did. But it turns out that I had a book in me, and all it took was a crisis halfway across the planet to get me started writing it.
The story of how I wrote my first book started last year when I was in the middle of Eastern Europe, alone and crying in a brand new Airbnb in Bulgaria, stranded and breaking up with my girlfriend.
Two hours earlier, I was packing my suitcase and walking away from the apartment we had been sharing and moving to a foreign city where I couldn’t even read a menu. I hit the pavement totally alone, and wandered around the city till I could check into the Airbnb.
You don’t know what alone is until you’re sitting on the floor of an Airbnb in Bulgaria wondering how you ended up across the planet breaking up with someone you thought you were going to spend your life with.
I wanted to reach out and feel a bit of my home, so I got on Google Hangouts and called my little sister. I explained what was going on, but honestly wanted to talk about anything else, so she started talking about the startups where she was applying for jobs.
I’ve spent my entire career in startup companies, so if there’s something I can talk about, it’s what it takes to get a job in one.
But my sister was still trying to figure this world out. She was a brand new college graduate, and wanted the downlow about how to interview at tech startups, what they were looking for in new hires, and how she could maximize her ability to get hired and get paid.
I was happy for the distraction, so I ended up talking to her for a while about it. After we got off the Hangout, I started writing her an email with a bunch of other advice that started rolling out of my head. Before I knew it, I had fired off a 1500-word email that was basically a start-to-finish blueprint for getting hired at a startup.
I went to bed and woke up the next morning thinking about the email, so I opened my laptop and re-read it.
As I read, I realized that I had spent a lot of time the past year helping people improve their resumes and land jobs at tech companies.. I realized that I had accumulated a lot of “insider” knowledge about getting highly sought-after jobs that most people, frankly, didn’t have. The skills I’d learned about getting hired and working at tech companies was valuable information that wasn’t being taught in college, or passed onto students by their parents.
So I started expanding the 1500 word email into a outline, figuring I could at least get a handful of really good blog posts out of the exercise. I was basically trying to fill my free time in Bulgaria with something productive and semi-therapeutic.
As I expanded the outline, and its word count grew, I realized that if I wanted to be a bit more ambitious, I could probably turn this outline into a complete ebook. Something I could sell on Amazon.
By the time I finally got home, I had a bunch of ideas about getting hired at companies in the outline that I wanted to test out on people who were actually in the job market. So I posted a big status on Facebook explaining that I had been helping my friends write resumes and ace interviews at tech companies, and asked anyone who wanted help to reach out to me.
I got a few dozen replies, and started working with a handful of my friends who were looking to upgrade their careers a bit.
The ideas that I’d sketched out in the book worked really well. People were getting hired, and by working with them I was effectively doing more research on what was starting to look and feel like a book.
I kept testing the ideas, publishing a couple of blog posts with material from or inspired by the outline. Those posts got a lot of traffic – another encouraging sign.
At this point, I felt like I actually had a book on my hands, so I focused in to flesh out the outline into something coherent that I could send out for feedback. Those initial feedback rounds were incredibly valuable to point out information gaps, gave me additional sections that I could add to the book, as well as sections that weren’t adding any value that I could remove.
My iterative process was working. Something was finally starting to take shape.
Finally around March of the next year, I had over 10,000 words written, but I had stalled a bit. I wasn’t working on it every week, and I hadn’t set myself a goal to get the book finished.
I had a conversation with a buddy of mine who is an entrepreneur to ask him what he thought and to get some motivation from him. He delivered.
He told me, “Look, Austin. You can talk about being a writer all you want, but unless you actually do the work of writing, you really should question whether or not you can call yourself a writer.”
Those words stuck with me.
I knew that I was a writer, but if I wasn’t writing and if all I had was this unfinished book, how credible could I really be?
I knew that I had to finish the book.
The outline was as good as it needed to get. It was time to start doing the damn work. So every week, I’d set aside a few hours over a couple of evenings to write. I’d come home from work, have a quick dinner, put my headphones on, and sit in my living room while my roommate watched TV and I’d write.
The book started to take shape and grow. I had this massive Google Doc that I’d crack open and attack a few times a week, for 3-4 hours at a time. I rearranged my life to do this. Went out less. Stayed up later than normal. But overall, nobody noticed that anything was different unless I told them what I was working on.
As I would write, people continued to reach out to me about their resumes, and I’d send them the Google Doc to read to see if what I was writing was useful.
My training has been in startup companies, where getting user feedback on what you’re building as often as possible is crucial to making sure you’re building the right things. So every chance I got to get someone to read what I was writing, I took it. I learned something every time, even if it was only that I was saying useful things that helped them think through their careers differently.
After a month or two of writing, I knew that I needed to set an artificial deadline for myself that would force me to finish the book. An undertaking as big as writing a book requires you to force your hand with a deadline to get the work done. Without that deadline, I might still be tinkering around with a big Google Doc rather than with a couple hundred printed copies of my book sitting in a box in my bedroom.
To set a deadline, I reached out to a podcast owner that I knew to see if I could appear on his show to announce my book. That was May. He said, “Sure, let’s do it on July 18.”
I didn’t really do any math in my head about whether that was feasible, I just said “let’s do it,” hung up the phone, said “oh shit” to myself, and realized I had to start cranking.
I budgeted 3 weeks of review time, which meant I had to get my final draft ready before July.
That deadline set a fire under my butt, and I went to work. And when I was happy, I sent 10 copies off to 10 friends and mentors whose opinions I trusted, and gradually began integrating all their feedback into the book.
Meanwhile, I found a designer to create a cover for me.
I did the research about how to self-publish on Amazon, and created a plan to pimp the book. This was the least thought out part of the process. And had I talked to Chandler beforehand, I would have done a lot of things differently. But at this point, I had a deadline, and I knew that I was going to make it live.
It was real. My first book.
So where do you come in?
How does my story relate to you?
Well, I figure that if an average guy like me can find the ability to start a book in one of the darkest moments of his life, then there are a lot of other people who have books just waiting to be written.
And I believe if I can write one that you can write one as well.
The point of this blog post is to give you the following takeaways
- You’ve got an idea for a book inside of you that you are probably overlooking. It’s that thing that you know that nobody else does. Or it’s the thing that everyone is asking for your advice on. Or any number of things. If you start paying attention, you’ll discover what it is.
- Writing a book doesn’t really look like writing a book at first. It looks like you spending some time fleshing out an idea on paper. Maybe it’s going to look like a bunch of blog posts. Maybe it’s going to look like something else. All that matters is that you have an idea that you start turning into an outline.
- Writing a book is an iterative process. Keep chipping away at the outline, and you’ll see things begin to take shape. The first drafts I sent off to people were SO much worse than the later drafts, and astronomically worse than the final copy.
- When you’re courageous about getting feedback on what you’re writing, you learn faster and the book gets good faster. Getting early feedback on the book was essential to how good it got. If I had been afraid of sharing unfinished drafts, I wouldn’t have moved as fast.
- Writing a book doesn’t have to consume your life. Set aside time every day to write, and you’ll get it done. You can watch less TV or spend less time on Facebook. I’m sure you’d be blown away by how much time you actually have.
- You have to set an artificial deadline, otherwise you’ll never finish. Go make a promise to someone that you’ll have a book they can buy on a certain date, and then go figure out how to make that real.
– A transatlantic breakup sucks, but it sure frees your time up to do something more useful.
I hope this helps.
Austin W. Gunter