[This article was written by guest contributor Janet Goldstein of BookBreakthrough.com.]
The more important a project is to us, the harder it can be to start and continue–and take it all the way to publication. The more we care, the more we fret.
When we attempt to take our writing to the next level with a more ambitious project such as a complete novel or nonfiction book, a change-the-world manifesto, or even essays or stories that are intellectually or emotionally more rigorous–it’s easy to get lost in the complexity of all we want to say and accomplish.
What I tell myself over and over is, Just begin!
Here are 7 strategies that can help you get–and keep–your writing sea legs and create work you’re proud of.
1. Practice Writing.
Find one pinky fingernail bit of your idea, one corner where you can sit at your screen or with a yellow pad and write out several paragraphs, pages, or a whole thread of an idea. Develop small chunks of writing. Getting even a few pages of a chapter opening, one section of a topic, or a single scene drafted can be a huge boost.
For non-fiction (including memoir) you can develop starter pages with bullet lists of information you want to fill in. For fiction you can plot out a particular bit of action that can be woven into a seamless whole over the course of writing and rewriting process.
When you make your idea concrete, it becomes easier to look at your work as a “project” and not as “you.” Believe me, just push forward.
If you’re farther along in your writing process, don’t spend all your time on the first 10, 20, or 50 pages of your project. The juiciest, most compelling, and freshest work often comes in the second half. That’s when we get to the stuff we haven’t thought through completely. There’s an urgency, creativity, and flow that sets in. So keep going if you’re at the midpoint. Okay?
Find a writing partner, thought partner, friend from a class or mentor group, writing coach, editor, graduate student, or intern. You want to find someone who cares about what you’re writing–and who will care about you. Together, you can brainstorm the overall themes of your concept and/or the content of one small section at a time. You can talk your ideas out loud and record and transcribe them.
Experiment with these conversations and discover how powerful it can be in opening up your thinking, filling in the holes, and developing your voice and story-telling. Through conversations you can get below the surface of your idea while finding fresh insights and clarity.
3. Make Folders.
Develop low-tech or online tools to collect ideas, clips, quotations, resources, case examples, and inspiration. I use manila folders for each chapter or key idea of a book I’m working on. I label mine in black marker at the top right corner, on the tab, and along the fold. I have a separate folder for working outlines, too–because they get revised just like your chapters do!
With folders, you can toss in your notes, drafts, relevant older writings and blog posts, vague ideas, references you might write down during dinner with a friend, and possible anecdotes. You can “smoosh” them into a very rough working draft down the road. It gives you a running start.
4. Plan (shhh, Structure).
Structure is a frightening, evil, deadly, restrictive, creativity-squelching enemy to many, many aspiring authors. Yet experienced writers and editors know that structure is your friend. Structure is your support, your buoy, your velvet rope, your Hansel and Gretel breadcrumb trail leading you and your reader on the journey through your ideas, story, and teaching. Call it what you will, find a way to lean into structure.
If you’re working on a book, you can think of your chapters as building blocks of ideas that are comprised of a mix of elements that move the reader through a narrative arc, or flow, from beginning, middle, to end.
Building blocks. Each chapter might be comprised of 3-6 key concepts including an introduction or overview and possibly some conclusion or concluding story. These are your main “chunks” or building blocks. If you’re writing very short chapters, then each chapter is comprised of a single building block.
Elements. The chapters themselves can be made up of a range of narrative elements: expository writing, case examples, lists, side bars, quotations, interviewee excerpts, research data, storytelling, memoir (personal narrative), and so on. You might find that 3-4 of these elements form the core of your chapters. You can then look to blend in these elements as you write and revise.
Narrative Arc or Flow. A book, a chapter, a story has a beginning, middle, and end. The outline or annotated table of contents represents that through line. It’s the story of the book that moves the reader through the ideas, concepts, transformation, growth, or plot of your work. You can rehearse the arc of your book out loud (and with your thought partner). You’ll see if the ideas build on each other and if there’s a logic and compelling flow to your plan.
Whether your writing place is a special desk, a nearby coffee shop, a friend’s studio, or your bed, create sacred writing time and space to do your work. You can get into retreat mode by putting a message on your email (“I’m writing and will get back to you this afternoon, next week, or next month–ha!”). You can get into retreat mode by working at the same time and place every day. You can play a particular piece of music, develop a ritual, or simply pray in your own way.
When I froze while writing my first book (a collaboration), I literally could feel my voice stuck in my throat. I was told to imagine my throat chakra as turquoise-colored and to imagine exhaling from my throat, releasing the flow of energy. I’m sure I’m bastardizing the advice, but it became part of my writing practice and it worked.
Beyond daily writing rituals and a sense of daily retreat, writing immersions are powerful, fun, and freeing. Consider planning for a 3-day weekend of writing (without family and friends nearby), a week at an empty house or writing program, or a full, month-long retreat, especially if you have a real deadline.
6. Create Deadlines.
The most effective and powerful way to crystallize your ideas and complete a project of any scale is having a deadline. That’s one of the unsung yet major benefits of traditional book publishing. There’s a contract and a deadline and the risk that the project could be cancelled if it doesn’t get done!
Find a way to create a deadline for yourself, however small–or big. Announce a blog series or a free class, start a newsletter, apply to give a paper or doing a reading at a conference, take a class that requires sharing your work, register for a publishing workshop [www.bookbreakthrough.com] or class where you can share and promote your work. Tell someone and let accountability (and healthy fear) inspire you.
7. Understand What You’re Working Toward.
Many different publishing paths and formats can lead to immediate and longer term “success”–and there are as many definitions of success as there are authors. Understanding your goals, your genre, your audience, and why starting small (but excellently) really works, can help you take your perhaps wobbling “sea-legs” first draft all the to a publication and a launch you can be proud of.
Remember–our creative work doesn’t develop in straight line. So, push yourself. But also sit with your work, let it percolate and evolve, and grow as a writer and the CEO of your book and message.
Janet Goldstein is a publishing and strategy consultant [www.janetgoldstein.com] who works with independent authors, experts, and nonprofits as well as the biggest NYC publishers. As co-founder of BookBreakthrough.com [www.bookbreakthrough.com], she’s co-leading this summer’s 4-week online “master class” to help authors at every stage develop their ideas, platforms, and strategies to realize their publishing dreams.