It occurred to me this morning as I bore down on writing the hundredth page of my latest book project that the current situation might offer people the perfect opportunity to start writing a book of their own. After all, you have one of the hardest parts—namely, cutting yourself off from outside the world—already covered.
No doubt, the very idea of writing a book is daunting. I remember sitting in a cold kitchen early one morning while grinding out Tracking the Wild Coomba, staring down at the page count, and realizing that it had taken me nearly two years to write just sixty pages. I genuinely felt like the book would never get finished.
I learned a lot of hard lessons during the four years it took me to write my first book. But as with all pursuits, I reapplied those lessons into my next book, The Road to San Donato, which I completed in a quarter of the time. Today, I’m currently working on my third book in three years and am continuing to fine-tune the process.
So if you are indeed interested in using this unique period to put pen to paper, fingers to keys, and embark on the mental marathon that is writing a book, I pulled together a number of steps that have worked for me in the past.
1) Pick a book topic that you find both fascinating and terrifying. This must be a topic you can obsess over or a character you’re willing to be locked up in a cell with. Like a member of your family, you won’t always like your book idea, but at the end of the day, you have to love it.
2) Plot the rough arc of your story with a simple list of sentences describing key events that sew the narrative together. Like a painter sketching a loose and light pencil drawing that people will never see, the author must start by putting ideas on the page that he or she can connect. Remember that nothing is set in stone at this point. Instead, you are planting seeds that will grow organically through the writing process.
3) Expand upon each of these sentences to create a chapter-to-chapter outline. Write a down-and-dirty paragraph summarizing what will happen in each chapter, why it’s important to the story, and how it contributes to the overall arc. Don’t get precious with the writing, just dump your brains on the page and move on.
4) The chapter-to-chapter outline that you just spewed on the page is now your road map. Like a modern day GPS, you might find faster ways to reroute to your destination, but this outline will serve as the compass pointing you in the right direction throughout the journey. Take each of those paragraphs, one-by-one, plop them on their very own Word Doc, and start writing. This way you’ll never be staring at a blank page.
5) Get it on the page. This is the most critical lesson I’ve learned in the process of writing a book. The first draft is all about writing words, or as my friend Nat Philbrick told me: “Just type…all you’re doing is typing.” Of course, the inclination of most writers is to review what they’ve just written and edit, edit, edit until it’s perfect—and then move on. But that’s a mistake. Put your blinders on and get it down on the page. Don’t worry about how horrible you think it reads. No one is watching! As Tracy Kidder once said, “All prose improves with editing.” But you can’t edit what doesn’t exist.
6) To finish a first draft set a daily word count and meet it no matter what. I set out to write 500 words a day for my book projects. Sometimes I write 1,000, sometimes, although rarely, maybe even 2,000—but I don’t let my ass off the seat until I’ve at least hit 500. On the unexpected occasions when life gets in the way—emergencies and the like— and I can’t hit 500, I force myself to write 1,000 the following day.
7) Write every single day. This was a lesson I learned early in my writing career—when I didn’t have a career to speak of. If you want to write for a job, you need to treat it like a job. Builders don’t hit the construction site when the spirit moves them—so why should you? You need to punch the clock everyday like any other working stiff. So grab your hard hat and lunch pail and bang out those 500 words. At that rate, you’ll hit book length (around 230 pages) in about five months.
8) Find a time and setting that works for you. I’m always fascinated to hear other writers talk about the times and settings that are most conducive for them to write. One of my friends likes to sit in a bar, another writes in the middle of the night with the television on. For me, I thrive off getting up at ungodly early hours in the morning and writing while the rest of the world is asleep. It can be anywhere, any time—but figure out the conditions that best suit you and play them on repeat.
9) Don’t tell anyone you’re writing a book. Or least try not to. The voice in your head naysaying the 500 words of drivel you’re putting on the page every day is enough to compete with—why add more voices? Stephen King calls this stage of writing as “closed door.” During this time, don’t show your writing to anyone. It is for your eyes only. In doing so, you ratchet down the inevitable self-consciousness that comes with writing.
10) Repeat after me: There’s no such thing as writer’s block. Yes, sometimes the Muse is taking a vacation and you can feel like you’re writing in a completely foreign language, but there are tactics to hitting your word count when your ink well feels bone dry. Go for the low hanging fruit. Does your book require quotes? Then spend the morning typing them out. Quotes fill up word counts quick. Another trick is to focus on an incredibly specific detail or event that you’ve already written and then expand upon it. Sure, you may prune it back months later in the editing phase, but you’ll inevitably bring forth a new bit of writing that will enrich the overall story—even if it’s just a single word.
11) When you’ve finally reached the finish line of your first draft, put it aside and step away. Your brain is beaten to a pulp at this point. If you’ve stuck to a daily word-count practice, trudging forward without looking back, then the last five or six months seem like a blur and you have absolutely no idea what you have just written. Well, now is not the time to find out. Take a break. You deserve it. See you in two weeks.
12) Alright, now print that puppy out and edit. While I hate to sacrifice the trees, I find editing far more effective when working on a physical copy with pen in hand. If nothing else, this will prevent you from getting discouraged and falling into the procrastination abyss. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself 37 minutes into an Andres the Giant documentary on Youtube, having absolutely no idea how I ended up there. Take each chapter and staple them together separately. One by one, work your way through each chapter. Now is the time to fine-tune.
13) Fend off discouragement. Know from the very beginning of this editing stage that a lot of what you wrote is going to look like a steamy pile of garbage. It’s supposed to! Imagine if Michelangelo stopped carving his sculptures after he lopped off the major chucks of stone with his chisel and didn’t get in there with his nitty gritty tools and sand paper to bring in the details. So shape and polish your writing. Now is the time to get it right.
14) Once you’ve gone through the entire draft once, open up the doors. Pick one reader who will be honest with you and tell them you want them to be honest. For my first book, my resounding instructions to my friend-turned-editor Will was: “Tell me if this sucks.” I didn’t mean tell me if the whole thing sucks, but if parts of it can be improved, I want to know. I’d rather get smacked in the face now while I still have the opportunity to fix it, then have someone “yes, yes” me into a knockout later. Don’t take it personal. If it sucks, it sucks. Fix it.
15) Press print...again and again. If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably starting to wonder how you get your masterpiece published and into the hands of your readers. This really is a whole topic unto itself, which would actually be a preamble to the process I’ve just outlined. If you’re writing non-fiction, a proposal is your ticket to ride. It essentially includes a one-page summary of your book, a chapter-to-chapter outline, a market analysis of how your book might sell, a description of your target audience, a general plan for marketing, a sample chapter, and a bio. If you’re writing fiction—something I know absolutely nothing about—the general rule is to have the entire book written. There’s a lot of different approaches to the publishing game. Do you self publish? Do you get an agent?
What I will say is that no matter which route you take, you have to be your own best advocate. You must grind just as hard as you did writing the book to get it published. My first book got rejected over and over by publishing houses big and small. Finally, I got strategic and researched the publishing houses that printed books like mine. I then got the physical addresses of a slew of people working for each of those publishing houses, from the top head honchos to the lowly interns, and snail mailed them my proposal. Some proposals I literally hand delivered. Three days later, I started calling their offices trying to get someone on the line who may have come across my proposal. When I finally found someone—who in this case was in fact an intern—I hounded them mercilessly until they moved it up the line. That process was repeated with every single person up the ladder until it reached the publisher’s desk. That’s when I turned my effort into overdrive, and essentially pleaded with her to take a risk on a no-name author like me. It took around six months to get the green light. But had that publisher turned it down, I was entirely ready to start process from the mail room all over again.
16) My final words of advice are to write with honesty and empathy. In writing a book, you are opening your mind and your heart to readers who are honoring your efforts by spending the time to read your work. It’s your responsibility to treat them with integrity. For as long as your book is in their hands, they’ve agreed to trust you. So from the very beginning when you start penning that list of topics, pledge to be as honest and empathic with your writing as much as possible. In doing so, you can will forge a rare bond with your readers that will have them turning your pages.
PS- Here's a list of books that have helped me:
Good Prose, Tracey Kidder and Richard Todd
The War of Art, Stephen Pressfield
On Writing, Stephen King
Make It Till You Make It, Brendan Leonard