Why Real Creativity Requires Significant Work, Part 1

I just returned from the Re:create Cruise 2011. We had a magnificent time aboard the Celebrity Century. The theme of the conference was “The Creative Life.” I was one of four speakers, including Pete Wilson, Ken Davis, and our host, Randy Elrod.

A Writer’s Desk - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/pablohart, Image #743945

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/pablohart

I spoke on “The Role of Work in Creativity.” I began by telling the story of getting my first book published. I will share that with you in this post. In my next post, I will share the four principles, I learned from my experience.

The Work of Getting Published

In 1997, a friend of mine urged me to consider writing a book that would eventually become The Millennium Bug. He was a well-connected literary agent and was confident he could find several publishers interested in buying it.

So, I prepared a formal book proposal. He then began the process of trying to sell it. He pitched the book to thirty publishers. The first twenty-nine rejected it. I was discouraged and wanted to throw in the towel. My agent persisted.

Finally, Regnery, the thirtieth publisher, agreed to publish the book and offered me a contract. I was thrilled—until I realized I now had to write the book! That’s when the real work began (or so I thought).

The Work of Writing the Manuscript

I was determined to meet my deadline, so I mapped out a writing plan. I calculated how many words I had to write a day to meet the deadline. I worked from 4:00 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. daily and then went to my day job.

Unfortunately, as I approached the finish line, I started falling behind in my daily word count quota. It was becoming clear that I would miss my deadline. This was unacceptable, so I checked myself into an extended stay hotel for two weeks to finish the book. I wrote every day for twelve hours.

I then hired a professional editor to copy-edit the manuscript. Miraculously, I turned in my manuscript by the due date. I was proud of the finished work. I envisioned my editor saying, “Wow. This is the cleanest manuscript I have ever seen.”

I didn’t hear a word from the publisher for almost three months. Then suddenly, without so much as a phone call, I received the edited manuscript back in the mail. My editor had marked up almost every page with red lines and notes. Some pages were completely crossed out. My heart sank.

I hadn’t factored into my schedule time for the editing and re-write process. As I would later learn, this was a common rookie mistake. I spent the next thirty days—early mornings, evenings, and weekends—revising, editing, and polishing my manuscript. But I finally finished and resubmitted it to the publisher.

The Work of Promoting the Book

Six weeks before the official pub date, the publisher called. He explained that his sales staff had been unsuccessful in trying to place the book. “The bookstore buyers just don’t get it,” he explained. “They don’t know if it’s a computer book or a current events book. I’m afraid we are going to have to cancel publication.”

Drawing on my previous sales experience, I talked him into continuing with the book’s publication. However, he said it would be “a small print run of no more than 2,500 copies.” I was disappointed, but didn’t have another alternative.

Regnery then assigned me a publicist to help promote the book. However, she would not return my calls or emails. The publishing date was fast approaching, and I was growing desperate. Finally, another publicist called me.

After a brief introduction, she said, “Your original publicist is not going to work on your book. The publisher doesn’t think it has enough potential, so they have assigned it to me. Frankly, I don’t get the book at all.”

Great, I thought. Maybe this book is just not meant to be.

But, again summoning my best sales skills, I explained who the audience was for the book and why I thought it would work. She reluctantly agreed to write a pitch letter and fax it to the top media outlets. She didn’t seem particularly hopeful.

The Work of Success

To our surprise, radio and TV stations began calling to book me as a guest. In the first thirty days after publication, I appeared on more than one hundred shows. The book began to take off. Within the first week, the publisher had to go back to press.

Six weeks after publication, the book hit the New York Times bestsellers list, where it remained for twenty-eight weeks. During this time, I did more than one thousand interviews. Some days, I would do 12–14 interviews in a row. It was demanding and draining work. On top of that, I still had my day job.

(Sidebar: After turning in the original manuscript but before publication, I came to work at Thomas Nelson. I explained to my new boss that I had agreed to promote my book. He and I both assumed that this would require no more than 20–30 interviews, and then I would be done. Regardless, he agreed that I could do whatever it took. To his credit, he kept his word and supported me throughout the process.)

The book eventually sold about 360,000 copies. It was an incredible outcome for a book that almost didn’t get published. If I had known how much work the publishing process would require—both in writing the manuscript and in promoting the book—I am sure I would not have signed up.

In Part 2 of this series, I share some of the lessons I learned about creativity and work.

Question: How do parts of my story reflect parts of yours? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • http://twitter.com/davebaldwin Dave Baldwin

    Can’t wait to work through today’s post. It has been crazy around here. However, enough to say that through your e-book on life-planning, the ideal week and a book I’m reading by Brian Tracy (Eat That Frog), God is getting my attention about how to better manage my personal life and thus make a larger impact for Him in the Kingdom.
    Thank you Michael.

  • http://stevencribbs.com Steven Cribbs

    On a smaller scale, this really relates to blogging for me.

    When I started, I had a basic idea of what I was called to do; but, I had NO IDEA what it would take to REALLY DO THINGS WELL. After getting started, I began to learn the difference between high-quality and low-quality blogs – ones that will sustain and make a difference versus ones that will quickly fade into the bleak realities of life.

    Knowing up front what was involved in the process, I might have procastinated longer or even given up before starting. I still have a long ways to go; but, I will take one step at a time and keep climbing.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      This definitely applies to blogging—or, really, any creative endeavor.

  • Lynette Sowell

    I have not had overnight success, but any progress has been through more work than I imagined at the very beginning of my freelance writing career. I think some writers believe it’ll get “easier” once publication comes, but that’s not necessarily true. For example, I am currently in the final round of content and copy edits on my eleventh title releasing in December, which through circumstances beyond my control is releasing several years after the book was first contracted and completed. These are the most difficult edits I’ve worked through, but thanks to the help of my gem of a content editor (who at one time worked for TN), I feel more confident now than I did when the edits began.

    I’ve also learned that a great idea will require lots of GREAT follow-up…

  • http://thoughtsaboutnothing.com @kylereed

    Wow, love that story.

    I think in some ways this story reflects a part of mine when I was ambushed by 2 guys who basically tore me apart for 2 hours and told me I had no business working with bloggers or designing blogs.
    I say ambush, because I thought I was there some future job stuff and conversation.

    Instead they told me that I did not have the experience or skill and that what I was doing now was not going to work. It would fail and no one would even notice.

    Now that I am a free lance designer and consultant I have realized that sometimes believing that God is leading you in a direction is the most important thing, not what others are thinking.

  • http://abisomeone.blogspot.com AbbessBrown

    After my Dad retired from teaching at our local Christian university at 74 (he had already retired from the preaching ministry after 55 years), he spent his days writing down his memories. He “finished” about 6 months before his 80th birthday … and when I was in town for my Mom’s 80 birthday, I saw it for the first time. My brother and one of my sisters had read through it and told Dad was a great thing it was to have these memories written down … and was he going to make copies (like spiral-bound down at Kinkos) for all six of us kids.

    Being the desktop publishing/word processing guru of the family, I told Dad that I would be happy to work with the document a bit so that it had consistent formatting, etc. So he sent me the file attached to an email … and 18 months of my life just kind of disappeared!

    First, after reading through it once, I realized that he told pieces of the same stories in many different places … and suggested that perhaps I might try to move things around some so that the story was told in its entirety in a place where it made the most sense to tell it.

    Then I began to ask him to fill in spots here and there to make things flow a little better.

    Then I organized things chronologically, and then topically within each time frame.

    Then we started talking about including pictures … oy vey! Scanning, sorting, labeling….

    When I had a document that was looking really pretty cool, he ran into a writer friend who had self-published … and Dad decided that he was going to get this printed (ended up with 70 hard cover editions (with jacket) and 300 soft cover).

    Formatting went to an entirely new level — with all the specifications and requirements from the publishing company.

    Then there was cover art … which ended up being beautifully done by two nephews in graphic arts, because the cover Dad and I worked with the publisher just wasn’t “cool” enough. And the end product was, really, very cool.

    Then there was proofing the final copies … oh, my aching eyes!

    During this process, my folks made the trip from LA to Vancouver three or four times to work face to face — especially for the final review. That was precious time for my sons (ages 6, 8 and 11) to spend with my parents … and was the last time my parents were able to travel here. (Dad was already slipping mentally and was unexpectedly diagnosed with Parkinson’s the following year. At least he had been able to share his book with his family and friends during that year and see what a wonderful gift it was for us all.)

    We were able to get them all printed and delivered to his home in time for him to personalize copies for his six children and 17 grandchildren … and give them to us at our family reunion celebrating my parent’s 60th Anniversary.


    The amazing thing was that I would not have even considered (or been able to accomplish) this project if I hadn’t done a whirlwind writing and self-publishing project of my own four years earlier, while I was an associate pastor in charge of Community Life/Small Groups at a large church, during the 40 Days of Purpose craze!

    Having some significant theological differences with Rick Warren and his Purpose Driven Life book, our pastoral staff still wanted to participate in the 40 day event … so I undertook to write our own version of the book and small group curriculum, using their themes but with our distinctives, while still using the rest of the structure and look of the Saddleback event.

    Turns out that I ended up writing, editing, formatting, and publishing (at Kinkos!) this entire project in about 40 days — started over the 4th of July holiday and finished Labor Day weekend for our October 1 launch. How did I manage this over the summer with three boys, ages 2, 4 and 7? Only God knows, truly!

    We had over 1,000 persons participate with us (in over 100 small groups!) in one of the most successful coordinated discipleship activities in the history of this congregation. There were even a number of other congregations in our fellowship who were able to use these materials for their own 40 Days experience.

    God, in his love and grace and mercy, provided me with a two-fer for my church family and my birth family — one building on the other to produce products that far exceeded anything any of had ever hoped or even imagined.

    …and, boy did I learn lots of lessons in the process … and, no, I would totally not have been willing to do either if I had known what I (and my family!) was signing up for.

    • http://twitter.com/BobEwoldt Robert Ewoldt

      That’s a great story.

  • http://www.momentsofgracelotr.com Anne Marie

    Thank you especially for the parts about sticking with your book, even when no one, including the publisher, wanted to. That is heartening to know how well it turned out and something that I must keep in mind if it happens to me and I’m tempted to give in. I am in the final draft (I hope!) of my book and it’s taking a lot longer than I was expecting. I do indeed feel like Erica that I have two full time jobs – my ‘real’ one and the book. But working on it gives me a sense of contentment and purpose nothing else can. Thank you for your encouraging testimony!

    God bless, Anne Marie :)

  • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

    I was once asked to write a book by the editor in chief of a gossip magazine I briefly worked for. I refused. Then someone else hired me to edit and ghostwrite their book. I quit. Are you saying in your post that one should take on and then, God forbid, stick with projects even though they may seem difficult, if not impossible, to pull off?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      No, I think you sometimes need to abandon projects. Seth Godin talks about this in his wonderful little book, The Dip. It’s all about discerning when you need to press on and when you need to give up.

  • http://twitter.com/hdnspringscoach Kenneth Gonyer

    Something that struck me: although you worked the hardest, you were one of many people in a publishing partnership. You may not have been able to succeed in selling the proposal or publicizing the book on your own. We really need the support of others in any great task!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      So true. It doesn’t just take a team; it takes a village!

  • http://terripatrick.wordpress.com/ Terri Patrick

    Thanks for sharing. In hindsight, do you think if you had the options today of self publishing this book, would you have done so?

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I don’t think so. I still value the role of traditional publishers in not only “curating the content” and making it better, but giving me wider distribution than I could have gotten on my own.

  • http://www.idelette.com Idelette

    Thank you so much for sharing this part of your story. It meant a lot to hear it from you.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for coming with us on this adventure, Idelette. I loved your post summarizing your experience!

      • http://www.idelette.com idelette

        Thank you so much! I really appreciated your feedback.

  • Tracey

    This is EXACTLY what I needed today … Thank you!

  • http://www.donbrobst.com Donald Brobst

    Michael, in your response to Terri Patrick you indicated that you would not have self published. Do you not recommend self publishing?

  • http://www.brianjones.ca joshaidan

    The Millennium Bug

    Man this is gold!!! You have to give away a few autograph copies of this book on your blog as a contest. I love this quote on Amazon:

    “move to a small town with a volunteer fire department, stockpile food, secure access to a reliable source of fresh water, and buy a gun and ammunition for fending off looters. The winter of 1999-2000 will be a hard one, Hyatt predicts, and the crisis may last a long time indeed–have reading material on hand.”

    hehe… I think you’ll have to add a new chapter to your series on creativity, when what you wrote in the past comes back to haunt you. :)


    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Yea, well at least I admitted it! (I did all those things, too.)

  • http://twitter.com/ThatGuyKC K.C. Pro

    Wow! What an amazing story. Thank you for sharing this chapter from your life.

  • Heather

    I found this extremely encouraging–thank you. When I first wanted to write a novel a few years back, it was just that, a want. But now I believe deep inside it’s a call. When God started dealing with the nitty gritty in me I began approaching it more like a job than a hobby. I believe He told me to just ‘show up’ at a certain time each day, and led me to set goals, as well. Now, I’m finding myself three quarters of the way done in just a couple of months. And it’s the most exciting thing ever! In fact, I don’t even really care what happens next–being able to do this most every day is just about the best thing God has ever given me. Not only do I know it’s imperative I see this all the way through–whether no one ever sees it but me, I just know it’s going to be good. :)

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  • Anonymous

    I enjoyed hearing you tell this on the cruise. Thanks for sharing. I hope to have a similar story (soon).

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I hope you do, Laurinda. I enjoyed meeting you as well.

  • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

    Your post reminds me of the saying “Rome is not built in a day”. I understand that ‘things take time’.

    Currently, I am in the process of writing articles and research reports for technical journals. Your advice kindles and ingnites my interest to write books.

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  • Dave Fessenden

    Great post, Michael. I learned all over again that my experience on my first book was a fluke. I sent a proposal and the first chapter or so to only one publisher (a contact at a writers conference), and got a fairly quick response that they wanted to see the full manuscript. I finished the book, showed it to a few people to make sure it was clean, sent it off with my proposal. Didn’t hear anything for at least a couple of months. The editor finally called and was talking about the process of typesetting the book, and I asked, “Uh, aren’t you going to send me a contract?” The contract arrived in the mail only days later. I got the galleys and reviewed them; they seemed fine, and the book was published — I think it was within six months of submitting the proposal. When I saw the editor at a writers’ conference the next summer, I asked if he had any trouble editing the book. He laughed, shook his head and said, “Changed about three words.”

    I sent out my next proposal with an overabundance of confidence — OK, we’ll call it what it was: pride. After a couple of years of peddling it around at conferences, I was sick of getting told that it was “just not what we’re looking for.” A friend said he knew a VP at David C. Cook, and could he have my proposal to show to him. By that time, I had been an editor myself for a few years, and knew that this was a bad idea (or so I thought). But I gave the proposal to my friend anyway, and forgot all about it. Several weeks later, I got a phone call asking if I had time for a conference call with three editors from Cook — they loved the book, and wanted to publish it right away!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      This proves that every creative’s path is different. However, your first experience was definitely an exception to the usual process. Thanks for sharing it.

    • TNeal

      I had a similar path with an entirely different ending. I pitched at a writer’s conference and had an editor ask for my first few chapters (a fiction piece). Then she asked for the entire manuscript. The manuscript went as far as committee but got turned down there. That was my first dip into the publishing world’s pool. As I spoke to more seasoned authors, I felt charmed (like you, let’s call it what it was: pride).

      Thankfully, and I do mean thankfully, the road has been tougher and failure has sharpened me and my focus as a writer. I’ve had to choose between getting better or quitting. I choose to get better.

      I again appreciate Michael’s sharing his story because it reminds us all that the journey toward published author can be tough.

      Thanks as well for sharing your story because it shows the tunnel doesn’t always have to be long before we see the light.

  • Dean Deguara

    Longing to write my first book…good to know it can be a painful process like anything that is successful!

  • http://frankjkenny.com Frank J. Kenny

    Thanks for writing this Michael.

    I have a self-published ebook coming out in a few weeks and have no idea if all the work could possibly be worth it. Just like anything else, we just have to give it our best shot and let the chips fall where they may.

  • http://twitter.com/samdavidson samdavidson

    Thanks for sharing this story. This is further proof that hard work – in any industry – and quality craftsmanship are what produce real success.

  • http://www.adjuvancy.com/wordpress Roy A. Ackerman, Ph.D., E.A.

    As usual, Michael, another great post. It works for any ideation effort- from publishing, to product design, to process development.
    I have passed it along to my colleagues and friends- for learning and re-learning!

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  • shona cole

    You are so right about the work it takes. I wrote an art ‘how-to’ book, which was published by North Light in 2010. During the writing the worst part for me was realizing that I had repeated some ideas in different parts of the book. I had had a plan, but somehow in the writing I lost track of the wood for the trees. I was shocked at how much editing it required! Fortunately my editor could ‘see’ it and while I handed her a repetitive tome she helped me reduce it down about 50% and straighten it out. Looking back I actually preferred the editing to the initial writing process! I enjoyed reading your first time author story, makes me not feel so silly admitting mine!

  • http://lovedoesntletgo.blogspot.com Israel Sanchez

    This is really encouraging. My dream, as I’m sure like many who have commented, is to be an author. I learned so much from your insights, tips and even mistakes. Thanks again.

  • Danpind35

    I understand the trials that you spoke of while writing your first book. I just completed my first book and have began a second. I was wondering why you sought out a publisher. I found that it is quicker and much easier to self publish your work than from what I have read about going through a publisher. I had my book online after only a month after completing it and on the kindel after five weeks.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      For starters, it was 1997 when my story took place. Self-publishing wasn’t really an option then. Also, I doubt the book would have done as well as it did without a publisher to get it on the shelves. Amazon was just beginning; the industry was much less consolidated.

    • TNeal

      I’ve spent at least four years in the process of getting published and haven’t arrived yet. I recognize self-publishing is an option but, for me, having to go through the submission process has been like a sander on a piece of rough-hewn wood. I’ve needed the polishing to better tell a story. That, of course, has been my experience. It’s not necessary for everyone. Congrats for traveling a different path and getting your work out there.

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  • Niah Harding

    Would you help us pick one of our Plays we should submit first ?
    Using the best commercial log-line….
    MARRIAGE & BEER:   (Romantic Comedy)A frustrated Wife; a prescription Drug-addict; a Courtesan; and  a religious Zealot all set-out to seek the perfect husband.  But there’s one thing these Four women over-look.  Just when JFK was elected President,  abortions were illegal and divorce was a…  sin.  NEGRO THE LIE:     (Social Drama)African American man accused of killing a White-woman when driving drunk. The prosecution is a secret KKK member, and the accused is a confessed alcoholic. But watch what changes the heart of this racist Klan member, during a time when drunk-driving in Maryland is a misdemeanor-crime. THE SIX OF US:  (Family Drama)Teenage male facing a racial identity crisis during the JFK era. A time when Mom prefers to be called Colored; Dad preferred to be called Negro; Auntie preferred to be called African; Big-sister preferred to be called Afro; Cousin preferred to be called Moorish, and you better-better not call any of them Black. ALL to glorify Christ;
    Niah Harding

  • E T

    Thanks for spelling out your experience, which I relate to in so many ways.  I found the goalposts moving during my prolonged efforts to attract a publisher and the demands differed considerably.  But I persevered with my lyrical voice for children, in spite of being turned away because of ‘co-editing issues’.  On the plus side, I wrote a series during the difficult times (also the frowned upon at the time) and utilized the material, in collaboration with an illustrator/animator (tut-tutted, to create a literacy project for elementary schools.  I will soon be published by an educational publisher and the material is attracting multi-national interest.  So, therein lies my story.

    Merry Christmas and good luck to everyone with their endeavours in 2012

  • Precious Miriam

    I didn’t realize how much work went into publishing book either. My book is still in the revision phase. That alone was hard for me especially with three small children and a husband. I haven’t begun the marketing stage. I thought doing what I loved would be easy, but I’ve noticed that everything that you do in life requires hard work.