When you hear the term “minimalism,” you might think about stories of people living in stark, empty rooms, or simple cottages and cabins in the woods, or maybe those people who live entirely out of a backpack or suitcase, relocating to a new country every six months. You may not think of it as something you want to try.
The truth about minimalism as a philosophy is that it has less to do with “getting rid of all of your stuff” and more to do with “shift away from consumerism and materialism.” It’s ok to own things, in other words. It’s even ok to buy things. You’re just aiming to prevent owning and buying things from being the characteristic that defines who you are.
When it comes to self publishing, minimalism is a philosophy that can help you build a writing and publishing career that is manageable, stress free, and empowering. It’s a way to frame your indie author career as something that happens for you, instead of something you have to constantly work toward.
Here are some tips for approaching your writing career from a minimalist perspective:
When I talk to will-be authors, people who want to write a book but haven’t yet taken the leap, they usually have lots of questions about what I’ll call “the mechanics.” They often want to know a definition for “a book,” such as “how many pages or words should I write?” Or “how much time should I spend writing each day?”
But another set of questions I get falls into what I call “the hardware.”
Although that may be a little misleading, as a term, because sometimes the “hardware” is actually “software.” But the question usually goes like this:
”What should I be using to write my book?”
Should I write using pen and paper? Should I use a laptop? Can I write on my phone? What word processor should I be using? Word? Scrivener? Google Docs? Apple Pages?
The answers I usually give can sound a little glib, but I typically start with “whatever will get you from the first page to the last page.” Because ultimately, finishing the book is the most important first step in having a writing career.
That answer skips a lot, though. Because often the will-be writer is looking for more than just a list of approved tools. They’re sometimes looking for validation. And it often isn’t enough to say “start from where you are.” But that’s exactly what you have to do, if you want to finish what you’ve started and then take it to new levels.
Start from where you are.
If all you have is a stack of legal pads and a Bic pen you found on the sidewalk, that’s good enough. It really is. Pick up that pen (clean it with some hand sanitizer) and start scribbling your masterpiece one line at a time.
In a recent interview in O Magazine, Oprah chatted with Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, author of The Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois, about her experience and process in writing the book. Honorée revealed that she wrote the 800-page manuscript by hand, over 11 years, in a stack of Moleskine notebooks. She could just as easily have been using those legal pads from above. And if she could, you could.
But most of us have some form of electronic device handy at all times. Laptops, desktops, smart tablets, even smartphones—you can write on any and all of these. Which means you have the tools to start and complete your book already.
Don’t fret over software. I like to use Scrivener, but I know thousands of authors who prefer a standard word processor such as Microsoft Word or Google Docs (which is free). But even if you use something like Notepad or Apple Notes, the important part is that you’re putting the words down.
Which brings us to the next topic…
“How often should I write?”
”How many words should I write per day?”
”When should I be writing, in the morning or in the evenings?”
As I write this blog post, I’m sitting in the waiting area of an RV service center. There’s a TV blaring “The Today Show,” so I’ve had to plug in my AirPods and listen to some LoFi hip hop, with “Do Not Disturb” active on my phone to block Siri from reading out text messages, so I can concentrate. (To the topic above, I’m writing on my iPad, directly in the WordPress interface).
This isn’t my usual writing setup, nor would I consider it particularly ideal. But it’s where I’ve found myself this morning, and the work goes on.
The point, though, is that the process I have in place is not only minimal, it’s flexible. It doesn’t matter that I’m not sitting at an oaken desk in a posh home office, or on the deck of a private yacht, or just in a cozy coffee shop. My process doesn’t depend on any of that. It’s all about using the tools I have to do the work I need to do.
That’s what you’re aiming for.
How many words or pages should you write per day? That’s a number you determine for yourself using a few variables: How many words do you want the book to be? When do you want the book completed? So how many words per day do you need to write to meet that deadline?
Substitute “pages” for “word count,” if that’s your preferred metric. But the point remains the same: Your process should allow you to move forward to your goal, without getting in the way of it.
If you simply cannot write unless you are sitting in your favorite chair, with an oat milk latte at hand, using the monogrammed fountain pen you were given by Dan Brown to jot your thoughts into a leather bound journal, there’s nothing at all wrong with that. It’s a simple and minimal process all its own. But if you’re unable to have those things because you live in a 400 square-foot apartment in the Bronx, your only chair is a wooden kitchen chair you fished out of a dumpster, your only writing tool is a beat up HP netbook from the early 2000s, and you’ve never even met Dan Brown—well, your process is getting in the way. Time to rethink it.
Give yourself the best odds of success. Make your process something that can be adjusted, that can flow with you. Get yourself into a mindset that the important part is telling your story. And determine that you’re going to do “whatever it takes” to do that. Even if Dan Brown never gives you that pen.
Authors are kind of self-destructive sometimes. I say this as one of those self-destructive authors myself. I am absolutely guilty of coming down hard on myself because I haven’t written in a few days, or just because I might not feel like writing (even when I’m pushing myself to do it anyway). Cut yourself some slack, this is a tough business.
In her book Big Magic, author Elizabeth Gilbert gives the creatives reading her book a pretty profound permission: It’s ok to not demand that your art pay for your life.
I know, I know… in an industry where the primary question we and every other author asks is “How do I make more money from my books?” it’s almost sacrilege to suggest that making a living might not be the most worthy goal for writing. It’s not that you can’t do it, and definitely not that you shouldn’t do it. But if you’re anything like me, you probably didn’t start writing just because you thought it would make you “buy my own castle” money.
Or maybe you did… in which case I have terrible news for you. Writing just for the money almost never makes you any real money. It can… it just typically doesn’t. The writers you end up making the most from their work are fueled by something bigger than money. Passion, usually. The kind that makes it so that you can’t not write.
Most successful writers start from a place of having an overpowering story to tell. And in telling that story, and in improving their craft and their business and marketing savvy, and yes, sometimes just getting plain lucky, they start “making bank.” Your definition of “bank” may vary.
The point I want to leave you with is this, though: If you’re always focused on how much you are or are not making as an author, it’s going to stress you out. And stressed-out authors tend to be non-writing authors.
It’s ok to want to make money from your books. It’s more problematic to put the pressure of making a living on books that haven’t yet found their audience.
Give yourself better odds by taking that pressure off.
When I first started writing and publishing, I had a copywriting business that paid the bills. Eventually I connected with Draft2Digital, and turned my passion for helping indie authors into a career. And because of that I was able to write even more books on the side, and those books started doing really well.
The pressure was off. So I could experiment. I could change my pace. I could try out ideas for both the stories and the marketing, and if they failed I wasn’t suddenly living on the streets, eating free condiments from fast food restaurants.
It’s ok to have a day job, in other words. If you need something to take the pressure off of your work, so that it has time to take root and succeed, don’t beat yourself up over it. Use that experience to allow yourself to take chances. Taking chances is how you find new opportunities and reach higher levels of success.
Minimum Viable Product
No minimalist list would be complete without mentioning “MVP.”
Perhaps the single most misunderstood term in the self publishing world, a “minimum viable product” does not mean “finish your book and rush it to market.”
Creating an MVP means producing a book that is as close to perfect as you can make it with the resources you have.
You’re going to get tons of advice and directives about what a “good” book is. You’ll be told you need editors, cover designers, marketers. But when you’re just starting, you’re likely going to be the only person you can afford to hire for all of those jobs.
Don’t sweat it.
Instead, get creative.
Did your best friend get an English degree? Ask if they’ll edit your book. Buy them a pizza as payment.
Use Canva to make a cover.
Watch YouTube videos about how to market your book for free or for low cost.
Read the Draft2Digital blog… we cover all of the above in several posts.
The point is, until you have access to more resources, you’ll need to get creative with the resources you do have. And it’s true—your book may not be as perfect as it could be. But the beauty of digital publishing is that you can always upgrade later.
As the book finds its audience, you can turn any profit from royalties over into hiring an editor or paying a cover designer or setting up some paid advertising. And because you went through the process on a shoestring before, you’ll appreciate what it means to be able to pay for these services. You’ll have the advantage of knowing what goes into it all.
As an indie author minimalist, you have the advantage of being in complete control of your book’s destiny (and your own). You get to decide on where things go, and how they’ll look. You get to be the one who builds an author career that can become everything you ever wanted it to be.
Keep it simple, and you’ll be around for the long haul.