On Book Writing: Tim Ferriss and Neil Strauss


Neil Strauss was the guest of the 15th episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, released June 24, 2014.1  Strauss, perhaps most famously, is known for writing The Game,2 in which he assumes the pseudonym Style and apprentices with a pick-up artist and magician who refers to himself as Mystery.  Strauss is also known for his work as an interviewer and writer and editor for Rolling Stone, and ghost writing the autobiographies of Marlyn Manson3 and Motely Crue.4

The podcast mostly covers Strauss’ process of writing a book.  It ends with a discussion of interview tips.  My notes, organized by time and topic, follow.

On Drafts

Strauss separates his book writing process into three phases or drafts.

The First Draft Is For Yourself

No one sees the first draft other than Neil.

Strauss, citing his work as a journalist with deadlines and as someone who has interviewed “rock stars,” does not believe in writer’s block.  Rather, he describes writer’s block as impotence based on performance anxiety, like erectile dysfunction, or something.

He suggests writing a first draft while delaying judgement, which he distills to the phrase, “write to the end,” and says that sometimes you won’t know what a book “is” or “should be” until it’s been written.  Tim, similarly, relays the wisdom-quote, “you don’t know the first sentence of your book until you’ve written the last.”

The Second Draft Is For The Reader

Neil’s writes his second draft with the reader in mind, or with himself in mind as a target reader, kind of.  Essentially, the second draft is his first attempt at editing.

He feels “most of your ideas and life aren’t iteresting to other people,”  and said, of his most recent book, that he “just cut out a 125 page chunk,” which left “about 675 pages on a computer screen,” which indicates he cut ~16%.

The Third Draft Is For The Hater

 Strauss attempts to edit the third draft from the perspective of hypothetical critics, living in the future, and, I guess, present, leading to them being alive in the future, when they become critics of Strauss’ books.  To prepare for them, Strauss highers fact-checkers and solicits feedback from “anyone” who will read the book.

As an example, during its third draft, Strauss said that he tried to remove objectifying descriptions of women from The Game, to lessen the ability of hypothetical future-critics to dismiss the work as misogynistic.

On Draft-Reader Feedback

Strauss said he typically lets a couple people read parts of “the early stuff,” and gets as many people as possible to read the nearly-finished, third version, describing the feedback process as “a catcher’s mitt,” trying to catch as many opinions as possible, to look at each one, to throw away bad or incorrect critiques, show other people the potentially-but-not-necessarily-true critiques for additional reactions, and to keep the useful opinions.

Ferriss, who has previously read and provided feedback for Strauss’ drafts, said Strauss would make Ferriss meet him in a hotel, where he would give him the book in increments of 50 pages.  Strauss said that with his current book, he makes readers come to his home to read as much as they can in one sitting.  This is partly for a legal protection, since some characters still have the real names of people upon which they are based (as an aside: Strauss says he tells “the real people” that they’re a mix of multiple characters, and, laughing, says most people just find the good parts of their character and assume that’s what represents them).  These methods are also, of course, a means preventing “leaks.”

Ferriss and Strauss agree that feedback that keeps coming back is probably true, though testing “should only be one element” considered during editing, along with intuition, etc.  Ferriss, who normally gives draft readers 3-5 chapters at a time, says that if anyone loves a chapter, it stays in, and vaguely that if someone hates a chapter he’ll solicit more feedback, then maybe cut it, or something.  Ferriss feels that if no one has a strong negative response, no one will be moved to have a strong positive response

On Productivity

Ferriss and Strauss agree that “a writer will do anything to avoid writing.”

Strauss cautions that a writer shouldn’t take much time off, that if you take 3 weeks off, it may take 1 week to bring together all the connections again.  Ferriss thinks you shouldn’t write a book unless you can write for a year, full-time.  Both seem to agree that you shouldn’t start think about sales and marketing until after a book is done.

Both use software to prevent internet usage and interruptions while writing:

  1. Ferriss uses Rescue Time5 to lock his laptop from accessing the internet
  2. Strauss uses Freedom6 and Intego Family Protector7 to limit his internet usage to 5-6 PM and 11PM-12AM each day

On Live Interviews

Strauss summarizes his interview preparations process in three points:

  1. Research anything they’ve ever done and watch/read all interviews
  2. Write down as many interview questions as he can on a piece of paper
  3. When the interview starts, he folds the paper of questions, puts it in his pocket, and never looks at it again

Strauss feels the key to interviewing a celebrity is to attempt to connect with the interviewee as a person.  He then describes a variety of techniques, I felt, were taken from his experience with The Game.  For instance, Strauss relates a successful interview flow to fractionation or hypnosis.  Strauss will attempt to put the interviewee in a trance, take them out of it, and put them in a second, even deeper trance, by breaking the interview into fractions, to do a piece of the interview, then to go have lunch and continue the interview, whereas the second span of time will feel less like a formal interview, causing the interviewee to loosen up, or something.

Strauss says to ask questions from the perspective of how their life is lived.  For instance, when asking about dating, say “what’s it like for you for everyone to be speculating about who you’re dating,” not “who are you dating right now.”

When being interviewed as a writer to promote a new book, Ferriss and Strauss feel you shouldn’t directly attempt to sell the book.  Ferriss describes this as getting the audience to “trust  the messenger, not the message,” and Strauss says you “don’t go on to sell, go on to represent.”

On Book Recommendations

At the end of the podcast, Ferriss asks Strauss to recommend a few books, of which Strauss included:

  1. On the Shortness of Life by Seneca8
  2. A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez9
  3. The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinksi10
  4. Life Is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera11

1. Download here: Apple iTunes

2. Purchase here: The Game on Amazon

3. Purchase here: The Long Hard Road Out of Hell on Amazon

4. Purchase here: The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band on Amazon

5. Rescue Time

6. Freedom

7. Intego

8. On the Shortness of Life by Seneca on Amazon

9. A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez on Amazon

10. The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinksi on Amazon

11. Life Is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera

12. The podcast episode companion page can be found on Tim Ferriss’ website, FourHourWorkWeek.com, here

Posted in Barely Interesting Non-Fiction, Matt

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