The 2 Deep, Dark Secrets of High-Producing Novelists

Today’s guest post is by international best-selling author Jerry B. Jenkins. Many know him as the coauthor of the Left Behind series, but Jerry has written more than 100 novels, and I’m honored to have him share his expertise and insights with Live Write Thrive readers:

Magicians are not to reveal their secrets. No such code exists among novelists, so allow me to let out of the bag our two deep dark secrets:

1. Neither the secrets, nor the novelists, are actually deep.

2. Neither the secrets, nor the novelists, are all that dark (with the exceptions of Mssrs. King and Koontz).

Before you assemble with pitchfork, table leg, and torch, I promise to reveal what can make you a high producer. What separates the actively selling storyteller from the dilettante is something you’ve suspected all along, and it’s achievable.

You don’t see me saying it’s easy. If it were, everyone would be doing it. Neither did I say it was original. I’m just reinforcing it as one who’s proved it.

With a few reasonable caveats—and I’ll spell them out—you can become a highly productive novelist.

It comes down to how badly you want it. How badly do you want it?

And here come the caveats.

Do you want it badly enough to overcome the roadblocks all writers face every day? Developing self-discipline is no secret. It’s something we either do or don’t do. Think Nike. Just do it.

I could write a book (in fact, maybe I will; my wife says she’s going to have engraved on my tombstone: “Never an unpublished thought”) on the myriad excuses people use to avoid writing, while they claim their life’s dream is to what? Be a writer!

But let me touch on the top five I’ve heard over the decades that I’ve been teaching writers all over the world. (And, believe me, I can identify with these, having had to overcome them myself.)

1. Fear of Failure

When I was first exposed to the idea of positive self-talk, I thought it was a bunch of hooey, or just a comedy sketch. (Remember Al Franken’s hilarious Stuart Smalley bit on Saturday Night Live? “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me!”)

The fact is, we do talk to ourselves all the time, and too often it’s negative. We talk ourselves out of doing what we know we should, usually because we’re afraid of failing.

Being a person of faith, my self-talk often takes the form of prayer, asking God to remind me of the value I feel from Him. Whatever form it takes for you, before you roll out of bed in the morning, be thankful you’re alive, that you’re privileged, that you have food and shelter and safety and the ability to use your mind and your imagination.

And if you’re really afraid of failing, one thing you had better not do is fail to get your writing done—because that guarantees you’ll fail. If you produce nothing, you’ve failed before you’ve had a chance to even try to sell your work.

2. Fear of Success

To quote that great philosopher, Jay Leno: shut up. I’ve been hearing this drivel all my life, and I have yet to have someone explain it to me in a way that makes sense.

Really? You’re not writing today because you’re afraid you’ll succeed? Your stuff will be better than mine, better than John Grisham’s, Stephen King’s, Anne Rice’s, J. K. Rowling’s? (See how I worked myself onto that list? You won’t see that anywhere else!) That’s what you’re afraid of? You’ll be too busy to be on Oprah or The Tonight Show or you won’t know what to do with unlimited means?

Shut up.

3. Distraction

This is real, valid, ubiquitous, and maybe worse than ever because of the age of technology we find ourselves in. The more gadgets I own, the more beholden I feel to each one. I can identify with the need to be atop every vehicle of social media, checking my tweets and Facebook and e-mail—you name it.

I’m too eager to know who just drove up, what’s in the mail, who’s on the phone, what that deliveryman just said to my assistant . . .

But there are also programs that will block your social media for as long as you tell them to (like Anti-Social). And you decide what’s most important to you. It’s on you to prioritize your life. Sound familiar? How badly do you want to be a highly productive novelist?

I remind myself that I started in the writing business in a newspaper office in the 1960s in one big room crammed with forty metal desks with clacking manual typewriters, teletype machines, sucking and thwocking pneumatic tubes delivering copy, and people yelling conversations to be heard over the din, most of them smoking (yes, indoors). And we were all writing stories fast, on deadline.

And now I have the luxury of a writing cave where I have peace and quiet and solitude? I am without excuse.

4. Procrastination

We’re back to Nike and just doing it again. How badly do you want it?

I have learned that procrastination is part of the makeup of writers, yes even us high-producers. The key is to keep deadlines sacrosanct and not to stress over the frustrating, seemingly self-imposed delays. Assume your subconscious is working on the story and then be delighted at what it gives you during the writing process.

Just don’t let procrastination dominate you and win in the end. An accountability partner can help with this. Give each other failsafe dates on which you must hit certain page or word counts.

How badly do you want it?

5. Writer’s block

This is my favorite fallacy. Yes, fallacy—don’t look at me like that. And put down that table leg.

I’m not saying I don’t know the feeling of rising in the morning with an empty writing tank and sitting before a blank screen with zero motivation and not an idea or word picture on the horizon.

But please. Writer’s block? What kind of conceit must we enjoy to be the only profession on the planet with the gall to claim such a malady?

Imagine anyone else in any other profession—executive, factory worker, athlete, entertainer, anyone anywhere—calling in and telling their boss, “Sorry, I can’t come in today. I have worker’s block.”

They’d be laughed off the phone, then told to go ahead and stay home—forever.

We’re novelists. We have a job. Can’t write a word? There’s always something to do. Research. Plan. Edit. Rewrite. Do something, anything.

You Can Do This

Want to just keep going to writers conferences and playing author? You can dress up like one and even pretend to be one.

It’s no secret. Dreamers talk about writing.

Writers write.

Jerry Jenkins headshotJerry B. Jenkins has written more than 185 books, over two-thirds of them novels. He has had 21 New York Times best sellers, including the Left Behind series, and has sold more than 70 million copies. He now blogs at, where he reveals advanced writing secrets to aspiring authors.  Click here to discover his 5 most crucial tips for anyone who wants to write a book—free.

Feature Photo Credit: Nebojsa Mladjenovic via Compfight cc

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  1. Excellent post, and yeah, it all comes down to “How badly do you want it?”

    I used to have a cartoon on my desktop, showing a match-stick man with a coffee mug, starring out the window. The text said, “Procrastination for Creative Writers – A 10-Week Course”, and of course it included tasks like “workspace arrangements”.

    It was a funny cartoon, but it helped me recognize my own excuses for not writing.

    And since writers write… That’s the way to go.

    My daily goal is 4 pomodoros (4 x 25 minutes) but as little as one can do it. It took me a while to even get over the feeling that writing fiction was a luxury. Now it’s part of my daily routine.

    Soon I’ll be prolific and take over the world. 😉

    1. I have lots of fun posts on procrastination on my blog. If you find yourself procrastinating about writing, snoop around and read them.

  2. I’m affirming the words(using first person) each morning: “We have a job. Can’t write a word? There’s always something to do. Research. Plan. Edit. Rewrite. Do something, anything.”

    Thanks for the motivating words and thanks for exposing the procrastination that I carefully hide in a corner of my mind.

    1. I think forcing oneself to write when you’re just not in the mood or drained in some way (I get that way a lot editing and critiquing manuscripts for hours each day) is unproductive and can be just plain hard on oneself. So, yep, Jerry is spot on. Some days I just do research. I read great novels–because we all must do that to fill back up and get inspired (as well be reminded that some people really do write amazingly well!). So many things tie back into helping us improve as writers. Study some writing craft books, write down great points or great, creative lines from novels. Reread a novel you love and see why, again, you love it. Life, in all aspects, can be homework!

  3. This is EXACTLY what I needed to read to day. Thank you for the in-your-face honesty. The only difference I’m seeing between those who have a dream and those whose dreams are becoming reality are the adherence to your prescription for success. Desire, persistence, pushing through the tough moments. I’ve been asking myself for weeks if I really want to keep doing this. One thing I do know—If I don’t keep going, I’ll regret it forever.

  4. I realized some time ago that writer’s block was a state of mind. Usually the state better known as “I don’t feel like writing” or “I don’t want to write.” That realization helped me see how best to combat writer’s block: Just keep writing.

    But fear. Ah. That’s where the battle lies these days.

    Fear of success has always been what I called it. What if my book is successful? How do I know I’ll be able to follow up with another successful book?

    As I read this post, though, I realized that that’s really a fear of failure. The failure to follow through with another novel and prove the first wasn’t a fluke.

    I appreciate not only the down-to-earth comments on each of these five obstacles, but your straight forward advice on getting past them. It doesn’t help me to have others beat around the bush in dealing with such things.

    Thank you for not beating bushes!

    1. Something Cec Murphey said to me years ago really stuck with me at a time in which I agonized over my career and worried about failure (daily …). He said, to paraphrase (since my memory ain’t so good), that you write the best book you can, and put every effort into making it as perfect as possible. Then, when you are finished, you just let it go.

      Whether you self-publish or submit it to agents, you let go emotionally to the outcome. God has that, no matter how hard you work. Yes, you want to plant your seeds since you don’t know which ones will grow and where (Ecclesiastes), and send your bread out on the water and all that (market, promote, network, etc., etc.), but it’s the emotional letting go and letting God that means the difference between joy and peace and contentment vs. continual fear, frustration, and anguish. I have a lot of posts on this blog about this topic!

      This letting go (surrendering) is something I’ve learned in my walk as a Christian to be perhaps the hardest of all goals. But it is a wise one, in every aspect of life. Surrendering isn’t giving up; it’s an act of faith, really. We are all going to fail at lots of things lots of times. How can we get good at anything until we fail a lot? Like Einstein saying he didn’t fail, just found 1,000 ways to not make a lightbulb. The key is to get up, dust yourself off, get help (when you need it), and learn from the fall. Next time won’t be so bad.

  5. I needed to read this. Particularly, “Want to just keep going to writers conferences and playing author? You can dress up like one and even pretend to be one. It’s no secret. Dreamers talk about writing. Writers write.” A cold, hard truth to start the day and get me back to work. Thanks, Jerry. Great post.

      1. I keep a jar of an imaginary substance called “butt glue” on a table beside the door of my office. I’m easily distracted (curious about everything), so that jar is a helpful reminder to stay put.

  6. Thank you, Jerry, for not hand-holding us through this, for telling us how it is. This is the first post I’ve read in my feed all day that had me shaking my head and uttering, “yep, uh-huh”. I’ve enjoyed my career in church communications the last 12 years. But writing and getting ready to pitch my first novel for publication is the first experience I’ve had that keeps me up at night with an unspent energy. I can’t wait to write the next day. I can’t wait to network with other authors. I can’t wait to learn more about the industry. I want it. Badly. Not for the success factor, but because I want to do my part in spreading the Good News of God’s grace. And I happen to be gifted with the ability to write well. So, here we go. Let’s do this.

  7. As I was dressing this morning, and planning my day, writing was the only item on my agenda. I had thoughts flying through my mind, and was on the road to being super productive.

    Then, my stomach told me that it was going to challenge every intention I had.

    So far, the stomach hasn’t decided whether to knock me off my feet, er chair, or to churn away the rest of the day, and slow me down.

    I’m opting for putting up with it, and it’s a battle I’m determined to win. But my stomach has super powers this afternoon.

    Will mind over matter win this one? We’ll see. But it won’t be for lack of trying on my part. If I do give in, I’ll try to look at the situation as being merely a hurdle, and not a roadblock.

    Sometimes, events are out of our control, so we have to accept reality, deal with it, then get back to writing. Hey, maybe those events will lead to a writing idea. I’m wondering how to work ginger ale and saltine crackers into an interesting story.

    1. One thing I’ve learned after writing numerous novels over 30+ years is that a writer who is writing for life (hence the inspiration for my blog title and this section title as well), needs to have a big picture. Sure, we have short-term goals, many of them. They can range from how much we want to write on any given day to what projects we plan to start and complete by the end of the year. (See my posts on strategic planning, starting with this one:

      Part of having the big picture makes me think of this line: A day spent writing isn’t necessarily a good day. But a life spent writing can be a good life. (I borrowed and paraphrased that …) We can procrastinate, as Jerry adeptly shows, but we can also push ourselves unreasonably at times, with too-high expectations. We’re running a marathon, not a sprint.

      I like your attitude about taking life’s roadblocks and viewing them as lessons, which they often are. And life is the fodder for fiction, so I say, bring it on!

  8. Donna: I’m so sorry that you’re not feeling well. I’d recommend leaving the writing behind while you recover. Writing is WORK, hard work, as tough and sweaty as pulling two oxen and one plough across a field of ripe Brussels sprouts. Give the writing your best, when you are feeling better.

    Best wishes,
    Polly Whitney
    a new kid in town

  9. What an inspiring and useful post. Thank you, Mr. Jenkins. And, btw, your interview with me and Joshua Graham on Dialogue is STILL one of the top listened-to chats.

    Not a surprise with your great faith, knowledge and encouragement.

    Thank you! -Susan.

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