Thursday, June 11, 2015

5 survival tips for the long, uphill journey to a finished book.


You’re standing at the foot of a mountain.  Don’t look up, or you’re done for – there’s just so far to climb when you’re just starting out.

I started a new nonfiction book this week.  I love writing them, gathering photos, putting the information together.  But it’s soooo much work.

Short picture books come easily, but longer stories, like chapter books, are an uphill slog.  Some chapters in a longer book are fun to write – others, not so much.  And when I’m right at the beginning… well, some days I feel like I don’t have the strength.

Does that happen to you, too?

Here are some ideas that get me up that mountain.  I’d love to hear yours, just leave them in the comments at the end of this post.

1.  Sit down and write

“Writing is a struggle against silence.”
― Carlos Fuentes

Writer Cory Doctorow says, “Write every day. Anything you do every day gets easier. If you’re insanely busy, make the amount that you write every day small (100 words? 250 words?) but do it every day.” (read more here)

Esther Freud agrees.  “Find your best time of the day for writing and write. Don't let anything else interfere. Afterwards it won't matter to you that the kitchen is a mess.” (read more here)

Just get the words down.  At least, this is what I tell myself.  They do not have to be the best words.  You’ll have time enough to edit the book later on.

2.  Get over yourself

There is nothing particularly precious or special about writing a book.  Writer Scott Berkun says, “If you want to write, kill the magic: a book is just a bunch of writing. Anyone can write a book. It might suck or be incomprehensible, but so what: it’s still a book.” (read more from him here)

“Writing a good book, compared to a bad one, involves one thing. Work.”
― Scott Berkun

Don’t get too hung up on this idea that you’re an artist.  Yeah, a book is art, there’s no doubt about that.  But it’s also pure slog – words on paper, over and over:  lather, rinse, repeat.

On the other hand, Roddy Doyle says, “Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph ­– until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety – it's the job.”  (read more here)

3.  It’s all about the finish line

The main difference between successful writers and unsuccessful writers is that the successful ones have made it to the finish line.  That may be brutal, but it’s true.  I’ve known so many people with half-finished novels on their hard drive.  That’s why NaNoWriMo was so revolutionary:  finish that book NOW, it says.  And people listen.  They finish their book.  They succeed.

Lois McMaster Bujold says, “It's a bizarre but wonderful feeling, to arrive dead center of a target you didn't even know you were aiming for.”

That’s the feeling of finishing a book.  This is or should be almost every author’s meter stick for success.  Forget whether the book finds an agent, a publisher, or even sells at all.  Simply by finishing the book, you’ve reached that target, and emerged head and shoulders above most of the authors out there. 

Like Mickey Spillane said, “Nobody reads a book to get to the middle.”  That finish line… it’s what it’s all about.

4.  Get unstuck

Margaret Atwood says, “Don't sit down in the middle of the woods. If you're lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.”

Are you getting stuck because of distractions at your own computer?  Jonathan Franzen says, “It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”  (read more here)

“Anyone who says writing is easy isn't doing it right.”
― Amy Joy

Writer Deborah Blum adds this advice, “The best advice i got in writing narrative non-fiction was to get my hero in trouble and keep him there. “  If you’re stuck in the middle of your story, it could be because you’re hero isn’t in enough trouble.  Here are 6 cheats for getting the plot moving again.

5.  Switch it up

Writer Geoff Dyer says, “Never ride a bike with the brakes on. If something is proving too difficult, give up and do something else.“  No, it’s not the same as quitting.  Break away and write another chapter, a chapter that will thrill you.  (If what you’re currently writing bores you too much, maybe it doesn’t belong in your book?)

Or, when you’re stuck and words won’t come, gather up pictures (if it’s that kind of book).  If you can’t work on words or pictures, write a great author bio.  Or edit some chapters or sections that are already finished, or another book entirely that’s finished already. 

Just don’t forget to get back to Step 1 sooner rather than later – it’s all about writing and getting to that finish line… eventually.

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”
― Terry Pratchett

Whatever you do, don’t worry about whether what you’re working on is going to be successful, or even – gasp! – commercially viable at all.  Writer Geoff Dyer says, “Never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project. That stuff is for agents and editors to fret over – or not.“ (read more)

A few days ago, I started work on a science book, all about the human body, for kids ages 8-12.  It’s a follow-up to my book Spineless Wonders, a non-fiction book for older kids that I released last year.  It hasn’t been a huge commercial success, but I love hearing from Jewish homeschoolers who are thrilled to find a book – at last – that reflects our faith perspective while also giving kids a solid scientific foundation.


Yeah, I’d be surprised if I make much from this book, despite all the work I’ve put into it.  But I’m writing the next one anyway, because I love the topic, and I feel like these homeschoolers are, to some extent, my tribe.

That’s sort of what you’ve got to do.  This isn’t my only project right now, but it is one that’s important to me, and I’m not giving it up just because it’s not commercially viable.  (Neither, however, am I going to sink hundreds of dollars into it!)

Assume you’re NOT going to get rich as a children’s writer… and then, do it anyway. 

For the love of sharing ideas, and the smile on a kid’s face, or the pleasure of knowing they’re getting good information in a fun new way from your nonfiction books.

Day after day after day after day. 

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice, practice, practice.  Books, too.  Writers, too.  That’s how you’ll get that finished book in your hands at last.

What gets you up and over the mountain?  Let me know in the Comments!


Post a Comment

As always, I love to hear from you.