On 37signal’s Rework: a Writer’s Perspective

Book Talk

I just finished Rework by the lads at 37signals. I’ve used a couple of their products in the past for managing writing projects (the text to note function of Backpack was especially handy), but I’ve lost track of their Signal vs. Noise blog over the last year. They’ve put out a book which is intended for the small business audience, but I found a number of their examples and aphorisms to be equally valid for writing projects. Because, after all, we are but businesses of one, aren’t we?

Planning is Guessing. I’ve come to realize that I prefer writing to planning, and invariably any given outline never survives any contact with the actual writing process. Which isn’t to say that an outline isn’t useful, but it is a guide to where your thinking is right now. This is the direction you point yourself. Modifications to your course must be allowed to happen. If you know the true shape of the book you are about to write before you start, then where is the possibility for discovery? It does depend on your comfort zone, certainly, but part of the act of writing is discovery.

Scratch Your Own Itch. And if you allow that discovery is an important part of this process, then the book is offering you some enlightenment, some realization about your own thinking, or the world around you, or human nature. Yes, Pulp is about entertainment, and pure entertainment has a different reward, but I challenge any writer to not come clean that their current project isn’t scratching some itch of theirs. It may be as simple as a tool by which a specific technique is explored, but ultimately there is some reason the work is being done beyond the fact that it equals a paycheck. James Patterson can, of course, disagree, and I won’t fault him for it.

No Time Is An Excuse. We never get the time we want, and we rarely appreciate the time we have. Incremental work means the book gets done–eventually–versus never being started.

You Need Less Than You Think. Lightbreaker is a bit overwritten because I was afraid I didn’t have enough story to fill out a full novel. Heartland is thirty thousand words longer, and I still don’t know where those words are because I felt like I was dropping every other line out as I was writing it. James Ellroy leaves out 80% of every sentence in White Jazz, and it feels denser for it.

Embrace Constraints. Let’s use White Jazz as the example. Ellroy chose a very idiosyncratic style, and it forced him to write the book in a very distinct way. If you look at the transition from The Big Nowhere to L. A. Confidential to White Jazz, you immediately know the sort of cop that David Klein is on the very first page. You know you’re going to have to buckle up and knuckle down if you’re going to survive the ride. “Downtown. A dress for Meg. I do it every time I kill a man.”

It’s probably been ten years since I’ve read White Jazz, and yet I can still quote those lines (and a few others). Embracing constraints gives the work its own life.

Start At The Epicenter. See Kurt Vonnegut’s Rules For Writing. “Enter the scene as late as possible; leave as soon as you can.” Keep your focus. Know the point you’re trying to make. Trim the fat.

Tone Is In Your Fingers (and Who Cares What They Are Doing?). You can’t NOT be aware of what others are doing, but it is what they are doing and has little relevance to your own work. Your work is YOURS, and that is a large part of why you are writing it. Because you are the best candidate to write THIS book. So, be comfortable in your skin, and let the muse work your fingers. That is the proper way of things.

Launch Now. This one is a bit harder to properly quantify, given that a book does take some time to complete, what with drafting, panicking, trimming, editing, and other fussing that writers like to do. The software world has a theory of Good Enough, which is a call to iterate often. Writers don’t iterate; they finish and move on. To that end, “launching now” may seem to be paradoxical, but more critically, it should be thought of as “Write Now.”

Good Enough Is Fine and Quick Wins (aka Build An Audience). Again, while we don’t have the luxury of iteration, finishing the current book and starting the next one and the one after that is important. A career is not built off one book (statistically speaking). The career rises out of a body of work. A key part of the recent self-publishing success stories is the presence of a body of work. Write Now. Write Often. Finish Occasionally.

Estimates Suck. It will always take you twice as long to write it, and it will also be half again as many words as you thought it would be. This is okay. George R. R. Martin says the book after A Dance With Dragons will be done when it is done, and given the tortuous wait on ADWD, his fans have learned the value of patiently STFU.

Don’t Scar On The First Cut. Their point is more toward the creation of internal policies, but for writers, the same sort of intent is in practice: don’t get sidetracked by the actions or opinions of one person. Stay your course. Correct as necessary. But hold true to your vision.

I wish more books on writing were like Rework, because we don’t need more lessons on how to actually write, we need more observations on how to approach writing.

Do more. Think about what you are doing less.

One thought on “On 37signal’s Rework: a Writer’s Perspective

  1. These are good pointers for magic as well. Stage magic and real, straight from the spirit magic. Working with words is a true magic of the mind that changes the universe with words. As I say in my poem “Blood Secrets”:
    “Do you know of Indra’s net
    The interconnection of all beings?
    It sounds so impossible to our mind
    That a butterfly moving its wings in Brazil
    Could cause a Typhoon in Hong Kong”

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