Advice for authors

I receive a lot of emails from authors asking for advice. This is where I send them.

My advice:

Don’t listen to advice, including mine. Live your life. Pay attention. Follow your curiosity. Spend less than you earn. Read books you love. Write books you want to read. Share them with people you care about. Write more books. Make every story better than the last. Pour your heart into every scene, every moment. Take your work seriously and yourself much less seriously. Ask hard questions. Challenge assumptions. Take charge of your career, build direct relationships with your readers, and put their interests above everyone else’s. Eat, sleep, and exercise. Be kind, generous, patient, and brave, especially in the face of adversity. Take the long view. Engage in deep conversations. Experiment. Have fun. Forge your own path.

Ideas and resources that I’ve found useful forging my path:

PSA for writers, artists and entrepreneurs: “Nobody knows what they’re doing. Not even the ‘successful’ people whose work you admire. Everyone is making it up along the way. You can too.”

In the Fellow Travelers series, I interview my favorite authors about their craft, big ideas, and lessons learned. It’s a goldmine for insights into creative process.

The Book Business by Mike Shatzkin and Robert Paris Riger is a concise, comprehensive guide to the publishing industry based on many decades of insider experience. An absolute must-read for aspiring or experienced authors, editors, publishers, analysts, reviewers, or bookworms curious about the story behind their favorite stories. Complement with Mike’s blog posts on what many people don’t realize about the current state of publishing and the trends he believes will shape its future.

Creativity is a choice: “Go make the thing you dream of making, the thing you wish someone would make for you. We’re here, waiting for it.”

In this thought-provoking essay Craig Mod maps out why newsletters have become so influential in publishing. Complement with Craig’s top-notch newsletter, The Roden Explorer’s Club.

Three pieces of advice for building a writing career: “Write. Read. Make your own way.”

Art Matters by Neil Gaiman is an inspiring manifesto on creativity from of my very favorite writers. Gorgeously illustrated by Chris Ridell, this little book will replenish your creative energy, set off an avalanche of new ideas, and show you how imagination can change the world. Complement with Neil’s interview on the Tim Ferriss podcast.

In addition to the many other authors he’s interviewed on his podcast, Tim Ferriss has an excellent how-to guide to publishing on his blog.

Peers make the best teachers: “I’ve learned so much more from peers than from experts. Seek out kindred spirits, grow alongside them, help them achieve their dreams, and accept their help with grace. We are each other’s catalysts.”

Maria Popova captures shining nuggets of wisdom from Ursula K. Le Guin in this essay exploring how we can use storytelling and imagination to fight injustice and oppression.

Quantity is a route to quality, not its opposite: “There are few routes as simple, difficult, and effective as doing work you believe in for people you care about, gleaning what you can from the process, and then rolling up your sleeves and starting all over again.”
So You Want to Publish a Book? by Anne Trubek is a practical, accessible, and concise guide to book publishing that should be a must-read for authors and anyone else curious about the complex and too-often opaque business of literature.
Adii Pienaar had me on his podcast to discuss how stories help us make sense of the world.
This Is Marketing by Seth Godin is a principled, actionable field guide for anyone looking to share their creative work. Seth strips away all the self-serving bullshit that taints so much marketing advice and cuts to the heart of what it means to do work you’re proud of for people you care about. As a novelist, reading this book challenged me to examine what about my own work resonates most deeply with readers, and how I can better serve them. Complement with these two blog posts in which Seth explicitly lays out his advice for authors (here and here) and his Akimbo podcast.

How to build an organic fanbase if you write novels: “Write. Write a book you love. Read. Do things that improve people’s lives. Fans are humans, so treat them like people.”
The Spark by Lyn Heward and John U. Bacon is a lovely parable of rediscovering the creative spark that burns inside all of us, revealed through one man’s journey behind the scenes of Cirque du Soleil. Populated by a diverse cast of artists, acrobats, clowns, riggers, and choreographers—each with something universal to offer—this story will give you the gentle push you need to take a leap of faith into fulfilling your unrealized dreams.
Italo Calvino on what makes great writing great: “I am convinced that writing prose should be no different from writing poetry; both seek a mode of expression that is necessary, singular, dense, concise, and memorable.”
The Bestseller podcast interviewed me about sharing creative work and how to earn an audience.

Kevin Kelly’s short essay 1,000 True Fans outlines a simple idea that has deeply influenced my approach to publishing.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is packed with invaluable pieces of wisdom for anyone making anything. Whether you’re an artist, entrepreneur, writer, or dreamer, Steven will immediately sway you with his all-too-true observations about the creative process, thoughtful perspective, and actionable advice for getting to the heart of what you do best. I found myself marking page after page to come back and reread.

The Practice by Seth Godin is a brilliant, generous codex of stories and ideas to fuel your creative process. Each of the 222 short chapters is a key that will unlock a door standing between you and making things you’re proud of for people you care about.
John McPhee on writing as selection: “You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got.”
Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk is a captivating, pragmatic guide to writing fiction illuminated via gut-wrenching real-life stories that simultaneously communicate and exemplify the lessons Palahniuk learned writing Fight Club, Choke, Invisible Monsters, etc. A toolkit and a treasure chest.
The Geekiverse interviewed me about the creative process behind the Analog trilogy: “I’ve always felt like I’m slipping quietly between worlds. I’m from Oakland, which is a powerful gravity well for cultural and technological revolution. My dad’s Dutch and my mum’s Canadian but I grew up in California, so no matter where I went, I always looked at things from a weird angle—like a future historian reporting on the present or an alien anthropologist filming a nature documentary about Planet Earth.”

Impro by Keith Johnstone is a concise masterclass in improv from one of the 20th century’s great acting teachers. Johnstone’s ideas and practical exercises for developing creativity, storytelling, and imagination can be applied far beyond the stage.

Stories are bicycles: “The characters are the pedals driving everything forward. The stakes are the gears ratcheting up and down. The plot is the wheels that take you where you’re going. The theme is the frame holding everything together. The power comes from you, the rider. You embark in one world and travel to another.”

In this standout episode of the reliably excellent Scriptnotes podcast, Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin lays out his philosophy of how to write a movie, much of which is transferable to books and other forms of storytelling.

Cultivating a sense of presence: “For me, writing fiction often boils down to cultivating a sense of presence, of being fully immersed in a scene, of stepping outside of self and into a character. It feels surprisingly similar to runner’s high or meditation, only in this case thoughts are displaced by imagination.”

Anything You Want by Derek Sivers is an insightful and inspiring account of the author’s journey from circus performer to founder and CEO of CD Baby—the largest online distributor for independent music that made $70 million for musicians before Derek sold the company and donated the proceeds to support music education. This powerful memoir distills his lessons learned into a concise, compelling philosophy for living a creative life.

I went on the to talk about how Veil grew from an idea into a published novel, and the lessons I learned along the way.Most successful people have no idea what made them successful: “They weren’t executing a clever plan, they were riding a rocket they don’t understand. When we ask them how they did it, the post facto narrative is rationalization, not explanation. Even if they are the insightful exception that proves the rule, their path is unlikely to be replicable.”

Your People and Music by Derek Sivers is a compelling, pragmatic guide for musicians, writers, podcasters, programmers, artists, and creators of all stripes seeking to build an audience and make an impact. In a world overflowing with tactical advice that encourages short-term growth hacking, Sivers’s considerate, generous commitment to process and principles is exactly the kind of actionable balm you need to make change happen by making good art.Formal instruction is never a prerequisite for making good art: “When I wrote my first novel, I opened up Microsoft Word and started typing. I didn’t take any classes, attend any workshops, or join any writers groups. Many writers learn a lot from all of those things, but formal instruction is never a prerequisite for making good art.”

Atomic Habits by James Clear makes a compelling case for the compounding impact of what appear to be tiny changes in behavior. Like many of the best self-help books that purport to offer advice, Atomic Habits actually provides something far more valuable: motivation to do what you already know is right.

The Minimalist Entrepreneur by Sahil Lavingia is a hands-on guide to building a business yourself from scratch. Through stories that educate, inspire, and entertain, Sahil shares what he’s learned building Gumroad and befriending many fellow founders. Lots of actionable wisdom for authors, artists, entrepreneurs, or anyone making anything on the internet.
Chapter 0: “How you describe what you make is a crucial part of how other people experience it.”
The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu is an accessible and provocative history of the attention industry from yellow journalism, to World War I propaganda, to MTV, to Facebook. These dynamics are especially important not just because they shape public discourse, but also because they form the business model underlying so much of the internet. Between powerful theses and data-driven conclusions, Tim weaves in factoids and anecdotes sure to ignite your curiosity. This context on the media landscape is crucial for authors to understand. Complement with this blog post from music industry analyst Bob Lefsetz.
Broken, but not irreparable: “If you’re doing something you already know how to do, you’re not being creative, you’re being productive. It’s only when you throw caution to the wind and yourself into the unknown that you’ll discover what you’re capable of and learn what the project has to teach you.”
The Making of Prince of Persia by Jordan Mechner is a collection of the diaries Mechner kept as he was developing the computer game that would go on to become a mega-hit. Wonderfully candid, occasionally cringe-worthy, and packed with creative insight, his journals are so fun and illuminating in no small part because they are not a memoir written after the fact, but contemporaneous, fractional glimpses into the mess of a life spent making great things.

Kerelyn Smith interviewed me about my publishing journey: “When people talk about publishing there is a lot of noise in the room. When writers talk about publishing, it is just how you share your writing with the world. Your work is your intellectual property. So that means read your contract and understand all the terms. Know where your rights are. It’s the same with self-publishing: you are in charge and you need to realize all the stuff you are getting into. Being an artist is being an entrepreneur, because you are putting your work out into the world. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be fast. But it is the only way.”

Deep Work by Cal Newport is an inspiring, practical guide to doubling down on concentration in an age of distraction. With overflowing inboxes, packed schedules, and social media only a click away, it’s amazing we get anything done at all. Cal taps research in fields as diverse as neuroscience and economics to show the results focus can yield and dispenses no-nonsense advice for protecting and investing time and attention. This book provided great motivation as I finished up the manuscript of a new novel.

Hell Yeah or No by Derek Sivers is a generous, wise, and hilarious collection of true stories from the author’s life that will inspire you to get out of your own way and do the creative work you’re forever putting off. Sivers will remind you of truths you already know, but conveniently forget: that you have something to offer, that art is anything made with care, and that it’s better to seek to contribute than to succeed.

Three writing tips for novelists: “Only write the important/exciting/dramatic/conflict-filled bits. Think of your characters as friends, not fictional figments. Pour your whole self into your writing.”

How to overcome the post-launch blues: “Post-launch blues are one of the things authors talk about amongst ourselves but rarely mention publicly: the emotional low immediately following the release of a project you’ve sunk years of life and energy into.”

Hit Makers by Derek Thompson is a titillating deconstruction of the science of popularity. If you’ve ever wondered what really happens behind-the-scenes when a song, movie, book, or idea “goes viral,” this is the book for you. In a series of brain-teasing anecdotes, Derek weaves together Impressionist painters, Hollywood hits, and social media phenomenons into a compelling analysis of what makes blockbusters tick.

Lasting value: “One filter I use for choosing creative projects is: will this be of lasting value? Only time will tell, but asking the question helps weed out what the culture is overflowing with: fleeting commentary on current affairs.”This brilliant experiment from Duncan Watts reveals how music, books, movies, network effect tech, and other cultural products become blockbuster hits. In an echo chamber of post facto rationalization about the mechanics of popularity, Duncan’s rare scientific rigor is a breath of fresh air.

Courtland Allen interviewed me about writing and publishing for Indie Hackers: “It’s important to remember how significant a role luck plays in success, particularly in a hit-based field like literature. Nobody knows what will work and what won’t. Instead of trying to engineer popularity, we need to focus on making truly amazing things that add far more value than they capture.”

The Man with the Golden Typewriter by Fergus Fleming is a fascinating collection of personal letters written by Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. Ian’s correspondence with his friends, editors, partners, and publisher provides a unique window into the driven, conflicted life and creative process of a man who was a (rather mediocre) spy himself before inventing 007.

A brief anatomy of story: “Every story is about getting lost in a dark forest and trying to find your way to the other side. Who you are (character) shapes what you do (plot) which defines the lessons you learn (theme) which changes who you are (transformation) at which point you stumble into sunlight.”

What MUST happen next?: “The faster I advance the action, the more the momentum builds, and the more richness, depth, and conflict develops between the characters.”

On the suspension of disbelief: “Realism and suspension of disbelief seem like they should go hand in hand, but actually operate on independent axes. We don’t believe in stories because technical footnotes justify every leap of faith. We believe in stories because the characters believe in them, and we believe in the characters.”

Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday dissects the process of making and marketing classics. Drawing on examples ranging from To Kill a Mockingbird to Craigslist and Iron Maiden, Ryan distills the timeless principles shared by Winston Churchill, Lady Gaga, and Stefan Zweig. Perennial Seller deserves a spot on every author’s bookshelf. Complement with his blog post about wanting to become a writer.

Richard MacManus had me on Creator Interviews: “I shared work I was proud of with people I cared about, people whose work I respected and championed, people who had real, personal, specific reasons for wanting to take a chance on my novels. Over time, that group of people grew.”

Get Together by Bailey Richardson, Kevin Huynh, and Kai Elmer Sotto is an actionable manifesto for how to go about building a community from the ground up. Whether you’re an activist, an artist, an entrepreneur, or simply someone who wants to find new ways to be there for your friends and loved ones, you’ll find many useful insights in this lovely, concise, accessible book.

A pop band that talks about complicated emotions: “You don’t have to choose between fun and depth.”

The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander shares the paradigm-shifting life lessons of a veteran therapist and celebrated conductor. Reading it challenged me to question deeply held assumptions and reframe my worldview. This book is a gift to the world—and makes a great gift for absolutely anyone. (With both authors narrating and integrated clips of referenced classical music, the audiobook is in a league of its own.)

Simple and difficult: “Listening, doing your best work, cultivating an open mind and heart, seeking inner truth, being there for your loved ones—the important things in life are simple and difficult.”

On Writing by Stephen King is an insightful memoir on craft from one of the greatest storytellers of our time. Funny, personal, and thought-provoking, Stephen delves deep into his creative process—unearthing many gems for aspiring and experienced writers alike.

What is a story?: “A story is anything that makes you want to find out what happens next. A good story doesn’t leave you feeling cheated at the end. A great story changes your life and becomes part of who you are.”

To write a novel: “To write a novel is to spin up a black hole that sucks in your fears, hopes, dreams, fascinations, doubts, ideas, speculations, and memories until it collapses into itself under its own weight. And there, in the dying light of fading plasma jets, sits a manuscript.”

Hugh Howey published a series of blog posts that contains some of the best writing advice I’ve ever come across. Reading Hugh’s blog has been a big inspiration to me over the years and his candid insights into the world of writing and publishing helped convince me to write my first book. This series is an invaluable resource for experienced or aspiring writers. Complement with Hugh’s blog post about how to make sense of the different publishing paths authors can explore and his interview on the Shane Parrish podcast.

Reedsy interviewed me about working with Amazon Publishing: “No matter what publication path you choose or who you publish with, you are in charge of your career. Always put your readers’ interests before anyone else’s. Start from first principles and never accept ‘this is just how things are done’ when something doesn’t make sense. Build your own audience on your own terms. Be kind. Be generous. Be patient. Every artist is an entrepreneur, so embrace, understand, and grow the business of your creativity.”

In The Age of the Essay, Paul Graham deconstructs why the traditional essay format can be so maddening, and provides a thought-provoking guide for how to write them much, much better. Complement with Paul’s essay collection, Hackers & Painters, which is so dense with big ideas that it might set off a Geiger counter. He will challenge your assumptions on everything from software architecture and Renaissance history to business strategy and the craft of writing. More than anything, these essays capture and illuminate a comprehensive philosophy of Silicon Valley, providing a rare glimpse inside the worldview of hackers and founders seeking to build the future.

Franco Faraudo interviewed me for the Chicago Review of Books about inspirations, creative process, and how our feeds create our reality: “When I write about possible futures, I think in terms of human stories. Technology has implications for every part of our lives, from how we fall in love to how we make our living and where we choose to go on vacation.”

Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including, and, most recently, Foundry. He also works on special projects that accelerate innovation. The best way to follow is writing is to subscribe to his newsletter.