The path to getting your book written is the same one you follow to complete any other large, complicated project. You break the work down into manageable steps, create an action plan with realistic deadlines then follow the plan.
If you overthink or romanticize the writing process, it’s very likely you will tumble down the rabbit hole that is writer’s block. Or worse, you’ll quit all together.
This post gives you a simple and practical framework so that you can create your own action plan. It also identifies several specific points where people tend to get stuck and shows you how to avoid those traps.
Embrace Your Deadlines
The first step in drawing up your plan is to determine the final deadline, the date your manuscript must be finished.
If you have a traditional publishing contract, your editor will set the date. It’s critical that you meet it.
If you are self-publishing, you will have to set your own deadline. And – most importantly – you will have to commit to it. Doing so will allow you to structure your work, which increases the likelihood you will finish.
Regardless of whether you or your editor sets the deadline, the next step is to assign dates when specific pieces of writing will be finished.
Let’s go back to the example of a town history book we used in the last post. Here’s the book’s rough outline.
- Founding and early families
- Putting down roots
- Tough times and the big flood
- Arrival of Irish immigrants
- Civil War
- Victorian boom town
- The 20th century
- Looking to the future
The rough outline will be the framework for our action plan. But we need to do some rearranging and add a few items before we set our internal deadlines.
Sticking Point 1: First Things Last
Move the Intro to the bottom of the outline. This simple trick may do more to get you to the finish line than anything else.
Writing the Intro is like writing the first sentence of a blog post or an article. Many people get stuck rewriting, revising and trying to make the opening perfect. Even if you manage to avoid that trap, writing the Intro first is a waste of time. You won’t know what needs to be included until you’ve completed the manuscript.
If you write the Intro first, you’ll probably end up deleting much of what you wrote and worked so hard to perfect. Not only will it will be much easier to write the Intro at the end, what you write will be better, more concise and more relevant.
Sticking Point 2: Editing and Revising
You need to build time into the schedule for editing. You are going to write three drafts. The goal for the first draft is simply to get the material written, to get to the end. Author Julia Cameron described this phase of the work as laying track.
Your first draft is going to be a mess but that’s okay. Every first draft is horrible. If you try to edit as you go, you’ll never finish.
When the first draft is done, step away from it for as many days as your schedule will allow. A week is great.
Your mood and mindset have a lot to do with how you view your own work. I’ve gone back to pieces I thought were brilliant at the time I wrote them as well as those I thought were awful. I was almost always wrong. It’s amazing how a little distance from your words changes your perspective. Use that to your advantage.
After your break take a deep breath and go through the entire manuscript. Now is the time to rearrange sections, delete redundancies, expand on certain topics, add transitions and clean up spelling and grammar. I often find I’ve written things out of sequence. Sometimes moving paragraphs or even just a sentence is all you need to transform incoherent word goulash into acceptable prose.
Allow the second draft to cool for a few more days then take a final pass through the manuscript. Make your writing as polished as you can. But beware. This is another place people get stuck. We all want our work to be perfect. But at some point you must stop editing. That point arrives with your final deadline.
Paul Valery summed up the urge to keep editing when he said, “A poem’s never finished, only abandoned.” You will undoubtedly feel that way about your manuscript. Pretty much everyone does. It’s part of being a writer.
Sticking Point 3: Research
If you haven’t completed your research, you’ll need to build time to do so into your schedule. This is another place people tend to get stuck.
Research is fun. It’s interesting. And it’s safe. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds. It’s also easy to view the hours you spend on research as time spent working on your book. Don’t kid yourself.
As novelist E. L. Doctorow wisely pointed out, “Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you're doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”
Sticking Point 4: Germs, Appliances and Your Husband’s Mother
If at all possible, build time into the schedule to accommodate life’s inevitable complications. Your fridge dies. You have to dump the melted ice cream and spoiled meat, buy a new fridge and replace all your groceries. You get the flu. Just as you’re getting over it, your daughter gets strep throat. Your in-laws drop in for an unexpected week-long visit. All sorts of things can throw you off schedule.
Adding extra time to the schedule dulls the impact of unforeseen events. If nothing goes awry and you manage to complete your manuscript before the deadline, good for you! That probably won’t be the case, however.
The Moment of Truth
Let’s put it all together.
Returning to our town history book example, pretend it is late July and your deadline is November 30. You basically have four months to complete the manuscript. Can you do it? Let’s find out.
Set your own deadline two weeks before the official due date. That’s November 16. Now work backwards and add internal deadlines for each chapter and task.
- Research completed – July 27
- Founding and early families – August 3
- Putting down roots – August 10
- Tough times and the big flood – August 17
- Arrival of Irish immigrants – August 24
- Civil War – August 31
- Victorian boom town – September 7
- The 20th century – September 14
- Looking to the future – September 21
- Intro – September 28
- Break – October 5
- Edit 1 – October 12
- Break – October 19
- Edit 2 – October 26
- Pictures, Bibliography, Index – November 2
- Final edit – November 9
- Break – November 16
- Break – November 23
- Submit or self-publish – November 30
This is a workable schedule with two open weeks at the end, one of which includes the Thanksgiving holiday in the US. Reality interfering with our plans again. No problem. Because we have that slated as an open week we’ll still meet our deadline.
The next step is to start writing.
From Zero to 35,000
The target length for our town history book is 32,000 – 35,000 words. (Refer to the previous post for more on how to determine appropriate book length and word counts.) We have eight chapters plus the Intro. That means each chapter should average 4000 words with 2000-3000 words for the Intro.
According to our schedule, we’ll write one chapter a week. Writing 4000 words a week is doable, but it’s not something you dash off in your spare time. You need to set aside a few hours a day and stick to it. That means you need to show up and write whether you feel like it or not. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike, for the muse to send you a text or until you get a new chair.
Just start writing.
You do not have to write the chapters in sequence. Some chapters are going to be easier, more fun and faster to write then others. Start with those or with Chapter One. When you finish a chapter, start another. The important thing is to keep writing. Think of yourself as a word machine. You’re laying track.
Resist the temptation to re-read everything you’ve written and don’t get hung up rewriting and editing. We have built time for that later in the schedule. At this point in the process it’s all about output. Keep going.
If the prospect of spending a few hours writing each day gives you palpitations, try this. Tell yourself you’re only going to write two paragraphs about a small, specific topic - how the town’s streets got their names, for example - and no matter where you are at the end of 30 minutes, you’re going to stop. Then you can go to the movies, have a beer, watch TV, clean the cat’s litter box, whatever it is you’d rather be doing.
This technique works because the hardest part of writing is starting. Once you get going, you'll almost always write longer, better and more than you expected.
When you finish for the day and realize you wrote several hundred words, the payoff is enormous. There’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishment you get from having written.
Momentum is a powerful thing. As you watch your manuscript’s word count rise, the odds that you’ll actually get to “The End” will increase too.
Next time we’ll look at traditional vs. self-publishing options.