Think you can’t write – or finish – that book that’s inside of you? Here’s how to stop the self-intimidation and finish your first book.
If you don’t think you’re capable of writing a book, you’re in good company. A lot of authors feel this way; I know I do. Even after publishing three well-received business books, with a fourth on the way, I still don’t feel capable of “writing a book,” at least not if I let myself think about it as a single, fearsome entity.
I’d suggest, in fact, that there’s little that’s more crippling to a writer than to set out in the morning with the daunting goal of “writing a book” and that there are very few authors who are capable of doing such a thing when you put it in those terms. Instead, we keep our eyes on the work, and keep the self-intimidation level low, by writing sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Then, one day, we have something that resembles a complete and bona fide book. It’s rough, practical magic, but it works.
I’m not trying to understate the importance of properly putting a book together. All of those paragraphs, pages, and chapters that you work on piece by piece? They can’t just be put together haphazardly. The actual book does need to be an actual book, not a collection of chapters. For more on this, I refer you to “Structure,” a striking essay from The New Yorker on how to bring structure to your nonfiction, written by John McPhee, one of the greatest nonfiction writers of our time. There’s also Good Prose, a fabulous full-length book on the subject by nonfiction great Tracy Kidder and his longtime editor, Richard Todd.
There are many authors, of course, who don’t follow the piecemeal pattern I’ve just laid out. These authors, it could be argued, come closer to organically writing a complete book than do those who write the way I do. I’m talking about J.K. Rowling, perfectly mapping out, in the span of a single train ride, the plot strands that would take her characters through the course of multiple novels. And there’s the novelist Ann Patchett, who conceptualizes her works entirely before she types a single stroke on the keyboard.
Yet even such writers, who come up with an impressively complete concept early on, aren’t creating their books so entirely all-at-once as it sounds. They may get down the grand scheme of things all at once, but there are still the sentences and paragraphs to write, the dialog that needs to sound convincing, the adjectives and verbs and adverbs and nouns to pick and re-pick and cross out and re-pick again. Finishing the concept doesn’t mean finishing a book; far from it. As Patchett puts it, you still have to “make all the trees and all the leaves and then sew the leaves onto the trees.”
In fact, if you look at a dramatic story like Ms. Rowling’s more closely, it looks grittier and more piecemeal than it might at first blush.
Here’s the part of Rowling’s story that’s the stuff of legend:
“I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.”
And here’s the less sexy part of Potter’s origins, the part people overlook. Although Rowling “began to write Philosopher’s Stone that very evening,” she concedes “those first few pages bear no resemblance to anything in the finished book.”
So what I’d encourage you to do today is to give yourself a break on this whole first book thing and spend your energy getting to work. Even if you don’t feel capable of writing a book, it is possible to write a sentence. A paragraph. To pick out an adjective, to tweak that outline. And keep moving, moving, moving ‘til you have something that resembles, at last, a book. Written, somewhat to your own immense surprise, by you.
There’s a broader point here, if you don’t mind me moving past writing as writing and on to writing as a metaphor. The people who are successful – not only at writing books but at starting companies, building organizations, mentoring hard-to-reach students, and other daunting tasks – are the ones who don’t psych themselves out by thinking they have to get it all done at once. Instead, they get these projects started, and trust that they’ll find a way to finish them as they ride the momentum they generate along the way.
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