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How to Write the Next Great American Novel

February 21st, 2020 | 8 min. read

By Jacob Schroeder

This is a story about dreams and money.

After all, financial planning starts with one personal question: What is your vision of an ideal life? To rewrite it in more affecting way: What would you most regret not having done if you were to die tomorrow?

Your answer(s) form the foundation of your financial plan. If you’re honest, you may discover they’re so exceptional that you’ve never given yourself permission to pursue them. So exceptional you may not have even told your partner. Perhaps, you thought the risk was too high. Or, the fear of failure and the judgment of others was too great.

In the book The Top Five Regrets of Dying, author Bronnie Ware writes the most common regret of palliative care patients she spoke to was: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” She found that “most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.”

Maybe you’ve dreamed of visiting every continent or to open your own business. Or, maybe you’ve always thought you had what it takes to write the next great American novel.

Finally sitting down to write that book you’ve been thinking about for years sounds like a trope from a retirement living ad. But there may be some truth to it. Writer Joseph Epstein claims that “81% of Americans think they’ve got a book in them.”

Whether or not every single one of those books is worth reading is hard to say. What is clear is that most people’s dreams likely have nothing to do with material objects. They are about living a life filled with meaning and purpose.

Dreams are hard to achieve. They require a lot of time, effort and potentially money. They are made even harder when faced with all of life’s other demands. That is why fulfilling your dreams can depend on your financial choices as much as your habits. Wealth can give you greater ownership of your time and access to helpful resources.

Writing a book may not be your dream. But it is a dream. And, learning how to write the next great American novel, along with its many financial lessons, can apply to all the things that will help you live a life without regrets.

1. Commit to a consistent schedule

When working on a novel, the author Haruki Murakami wakes at four a.m. and writes for five to six hours every day. Ernest Hemingway was a morning writer, too, toiling at his standing desk until he could put 500 good words down on the page. Stephen King aims for 2,000 words.

What separates good writers from bad isn’t so much talent as it is consistency. Good writers show up to work whether inspiration strikes or not.

E.B. White put it this way: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

There are no short cuts. Consistency is also a necessary part in creating the financial conditions for pursuing your dreams. You can’t just bank on a large financial windfall to become financially independent and time rich.

Taking consistent financial steps is the only proven method that works for everyone. Consider that Americans who follow a financial plan have almost double the savings than those without a plan ($460,000 average savings vs. $239,000), according to one survey.

2. Make it a priority

It’s not a coincidence many household-name writers worked in the morning. They prioritized writing over all other daily distractions. Mark Twain, for example, woke up early, ate a large breakfast and then worked without interruption until dinner. Should his family need something, they blew a loud horn to call him.

Whatever you’re passionate about should be relatively nonnegotiable. Of course, that’s challenging when you have a family, full-time job, other interests, etc.

The trick is to prioritize. Track how you spend your time and money, then reallocate them based on what matters most to you. That could even mean adjusting your lifestyle—driving a less fancy car, moving closer to your office or switching to a more flexible job.

Such a calculated approach allows you to focus your finite resources on the things you truly value, which can lead to an improved quality of life. In a study from the University of Arizona, people who followed a budget and were more conscious of their spending reported higher levels of happiness and less stress.

Simply put, what you value and genuinely know makes you happy is worth making a priority.

3. Optimize your efforts

With any big dream, it helps to have some luck. But taking care of the things you can control goes a long way toward success.

In every city Maya Angelou lived, she rented a hotel room nearby for the sole purpose of writing in an undisturbed space. Neil Gaiman, as told on the Tim Ferris podcast, works under a self-imposed rule that he can sit down at his desk and write or do nothing else other than stare out the window. Eventually writing becomes more attractive than watching grass grow.

Paradoxically, restrictions often unleash your creativity. It’s all about implementing controls that put you in the right mindset and keep you focused.

If you dream of becoming a writer, then maybe it’s standing as you write like Hemingway or turning off your smartphone like bestselling writer Nathan Englander. Whatever your dream, think of ways you could optimize your efforts.

And, apply the same tactics to your money. One method is taking yourself out of the equation by automizing your finances. For example, automatic deductions from your paycheck into a retirement account and/or savings account.

In a study comparing 401(k) participants who had to opt in a target date fund with participants who were automatically invested in the target date fund. Researchers found this second group could raise their retirement wealth by as much as 50% over a 30-year time period. Essentially, being restricted in their investment decision-making kept them from making costly mistakes, such as choosing the wrong asset allocation at the wrong time. 

4. Don’t start without a story idea

Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, speaking of her writing process, said, “I always know the ending; that’s where I start.”

When you know where you want to go, you can develop the actions to get you there. In a novel, it’s the characters, scenes, themes, etc., that all lead to your catharsis and conclusion.

The story you want to tell about your life should guide your choices. How else can you make the right decisions if you don’t know what outcome you’re working toward?  

Which is why you shouldn’t make financial decisions without first establishing financial goals. They determine how much money you need, when you need it, how much risk you can take, and so on.

Open-ended conclusions are acceptable in literature; not so much when it comes to your money.

5. Keep it simple

You won’t find many books about writing that don’t include Mark Twain’s famous rule: Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.

Good writing is clear and concise. Yet many inspiring writers think they must write flowery prose on the level of Shakespeare or Proust. This notion of perfection though can do more harm than good.

Take it from Anne Lamott who said: “I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

It is a relevant metaphor for many things we do.

Case in point: investing. Who wouldn’t want a perfect portfolio that earns a maximum return every time? The problem is that chase for perfection, unless you can predict the future, will inevitably set you up for failure.

A Morningstar study found the average investor underperformed the funds they invested in over multiple 10-year periods. It was a result of chasing performance. Many investors succumb to greed and fear, buying high and selling low. Whereas, setting a diversified asset allocation and just sticking to it, can produce better results over time.

6. Develop your own voice

One of the most important qualities of a writer is their voice. It encompasses the way you put words together and your outlook of the world. It is what makes your writing stand out.

A writer’s voice is wholly unique. So, it’s not worth trying to write in the same voice of another writer.

It’s equally as unproductive to compare your success to others. Prolific short story writer and novelist Joyce Carol Oates put it this way: “Writing is not a race. No one really ‘wins.’ The satisfaction is in the effort, and rarely in the consequent rewards, if there are any.”

You may share dreams or goals with others, but all our situations are unique. If you are constantly comparing your life to others, you could find yourself on the dreaded hedonic treadmill. Always striving for bigger and better to keep up.

Consider that personal savings rates remain lower than a few decades ago. A paper from a team of economists posits one significant contributor is the propagation of media. We are now more exposed than ever to how other people spend money. Subsequently, we spend more and save less.

7. Be patient

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel, The Great Gatsby, took two and half years to write. J.K. Rowling worked on the first Harry Potter book for six years. Meanwhile, J.R.R. Tolkien spent 16 years writing The Lord of the Rings.

Rarely are masterpieces created in a day. So be patient and use your time wisely.

Time is a powerful tool, especially when working toward long-term goals. Your skills can improve, your habits can sharpen.

For building your financial resources, the effect of compounding cannot be overstated. Ten years can be a difference of more than $500,000 for someone who earns $55,000, saves 15%, plans to retire at age 60 and chooses to start saving at age 25 versus age 35 (assuming an annual return of 6.5%).

8. Never think it’s too late

Raymond Chandler was 51. Annie Proulx was 57. Frank McCourt was 66. These are the ages each respective author published their first book. The moral of the story is that it’s never too late to get started.

If you have a dream, there are ways to make it possible.

From a financial perspective, even people who are behind on saving for retirement can get there. You can delay Social Security, work a few years longer and start maxing out your retirement accounts. Hypothetically, you could start saving at age 50, maximize your 401(k) with catch-up contributions and end up with more than $1 million by age 70 (assuming an 8% annual return).

9. Live a life worth writing about

Some writers are known to carry around pocket-sized notebooks or index cards to write down daily observations that could be used in a story. Life is rich with inspiration, if you know where to look. 

It could be argued then that the more enriching your personal experiences, the greater the material you’ll have for writing a book. However, plenty of homebodies, from Emily Dickenson to J.D. Salinger, have had successful writing careers.

Still, it is the formula for living a more meaningful life. Essentially, your well-being is improved by what you do rather than what you own. Research suggests people feel more satisfied and happier when spending money on experiences than material things.

In other words, pursuing experiences that are worth writing about is money well spent.

Listen to writer Colum McCann:

“Step out of your skin. Risk yourself. This opens up the world. Go to another place. Investigate what lies beyond your curtains, beyond the wall, beyond the corner, beyond your town, beyond the edges of your own known country.”

10. Don’t expect to do it alone

Writing is a solitary endeavor. But publishing a book is a group effort. To make it all possible, you generally have to rely on the efforts of a publisher, editor, publicist, booksellers and, of course, readers. Not to mention supportive spouses and family who give you the space to chase your dreams.

Whatever you dream of doing, don’t neglect the people around you. It is through the company we keep that we find most meaning in life.

Lydia Denworth, author of the book Friendship, told the Wall Street Journal about a Harvard study tracking the lives of men from age 20 to 80. It turned out that the best predictor of their health and happiness by age 80 was not their wealth or careers. It was their relationships at age 50.

The fact is time with your loved ones is a limited resource. You can never earn it back. All the books you’ve written, accolades you’ve received, places you’ve gone, will mean little without the people you love.

Ultimately, creating a plan can increase the chances of turning your dreams into reality. And, the things you do in your financial life can help facilitate that.

Part of the financial planning process is to put your dreams to paper. 

So, what would you most regret not having done if you were to die tomorrow?

Now, start writing.