How to write a book

Or, how producing a manuscript is like digging a swimming pool

This week in Ask a Publisher, from subscriber Brent: “I have a book I want to write but I don’t know how to fit it into my schedule: should I work on it every morning, or on weekends, or should I take a few months off work and write like a maniac?”

First, Brent, it depends on what kind of book you’re writing. We focus on non-fiction, and we like our books to have some substance so we’ll answer with that in mind, knowing that books take time and presuming that you have other things going on in your life, including, maybe, a day job.

Welcome to the eighteenth edition of SHuSH, the official and free non-fiction newsletter of Sutherland House Inc. Subscribe to get SHuSH in your inbox weekly:

Every writer is different, and there are whole books out there on writing habits. The most recent one we’ve seen is Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. There is a clue in that title. Daily work is the best way to approach a book. We know people who have been able to finish books writing only on weekends, and others who have produced manuscripts in four-month book leaves from journalism jobs, but what seems to work best for most writers is the daily habit.

A year or so ago, in an email to a writer struggling with this very problem, we stressed the importance of doing some work (a bare minimum of twenty minutes) every day, even on bad days. We used the following analogy:

Writing a book isn't like writing a song or a poem or even an article or a short story. It's like digging an Olympic-size swimming pool, by yourself. You have to move about 50,000 cubic feet of dirt with your shovel. It will take you 500 days if you move 100 cubic feet a day. So you will have to fill your shovel about 250 times a day and throw the dirt over the side 250 times a day. It does not require inspiration or peak energy, although some days you will feel inspired and energetic and brilliant. Most days, you will just be shovelling dirt. And many days will be bad days. The dirt you throw to the side will tumble back into the hole. It will rain and the dirt will get heavy. You'll get sick of dirt, looking at it, smelling it, washing it off your hands, dreaming about it. And you'll wonder how filling your shovel with dirt every day can possibly make sense. And it won't make sense until at the end of 500 days you look down and you've got a hole big enough for an Olympic-size swimming pool, and you're filled with awe. It doesn't matter at that moment that the corners are not perfect and the bottom is not level. You've got plenty of time to fix that. You can pretty it up, pour the concrete, paint lines on the bottom, and fill it with water, but the real work is digging the hole. Fifty thousand cubic feet of dirt = 100,000 words = one solid manuscript. Just get the words down, in good weather and bad, and the rest will take care of itself.

We’ve tried working only on weekends, and we find that most Saturdays are spent trying to remember where you were the previous Sunday. We haven’t tried digging a swimming pool on a short leave from work but we’ve seen others break their backs in the attempt. Again, everyone is different, and there is no one way to do the job, but daily work is sustainable, and the progress you make every week, every month, is noticeable and reassuring. Highly recommended.

Ask a Publisher is a regular feature of SHuSH. Send your questions to

A book written with his eyes

Still Life is one of the most astonishing stories you will ever read. We don’t make a habit of promoting our own books in SHuSH but it is one of two new Sutherland House releases to make big media splashes this week. On Sunday evening after the Emmys, CTV National News correspondent Avis Favaro delivered her report on Dr. Jeff Sutherland and his memoir. We could write a lot about this book but you can see for yourself here.

On Tuesday, Angela Mailis’s Smart, Successful & Abused was featured in a Macleans’ special report on intimate partner violence. Dr. Mailis, a world-renowned expert on chronic pain management, turned her attention to the unspoken problem of domestic abuse and high-achieving women after her colleague, Dr. Mo Shamji, murdered his wife, Dr. Elena Fric Shamji.

We tend to think of the battered spouse as someone weak, uneducated, dependent, isolated — a person without options or the capacity to stand up for herself. Yet highly-educated, well-connected, high-earning, confident entrepreneurs and professionals also wind up toxic relationships. Often their very success is a leading factor in the abuse.

In addition to the excellent article in Maclean’s, Smart, Successful & Abused has received a lot of attention on the talk-radio circuit in the U.S. this week. We officially launched the book Wednesday night in the beautiful offices of Toronto Life. Many thanks to the magazine’s fine publisher Ken Hunt for his hospitality. In the photo above, Dr. Mailis (right), a Harley-Davidson enthusiast with a black belt in Taekwondo, poses with author Sylvia Fraser.

Are more books making big mistakes?

The New York Times ran an article this week suggesting that we can no longer trust what we read in books. Its reporter rounded up a few high-profile examples of disinformation in recent non-fiction releases to make her case. Exhibit One was Naomi Wolf (above left) author of Outrages, the publication of which has been delayed in the U.S. because of faults found in the edition released in the U.K. Other authors mentioned were Jill Abramson, Jared Diamond, and Malcolm Gladwell (above right) whose most recent books, according to the newspaper, are guilty, innocent, and guilty (respectively) of significant error.

The Times seems to think that a lack of fact-checking rigor at publishing houses has created an epidemic of mistakes. The evidence presented in the story is slight and a more likely explanation is left unexplored. Twenty years ago, readers finding errors in non-fiction books simply noted them and turned the page. Now they take the errors to social media. That is often embarrassing for writers, but it is progress.

That’s it for this week. Don’t forget that Sutherland House is always looking for non-fiction book proposals and manuscripts, and you really should hit the button below and get SHuSH in your inbox weekly.