Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Finishing your book–the “nibbled to death” way


I'm working on a book.  I've been at it for a while, in fact.  Years.  And guess what?  I'm on page 11 already!

So... okay. 

Go on. 

Say it to my face - exactly what you're thinking.

Which is probably something like, "That's not much for years of work."

"Page 11?  That's not very good."

"Eleven pages?  I could do better than that."

"A turtle could do better than that."

Yes, it's true.  Page 11 is not very far into a book.  It's going to take a loooong time to finish.  A year, to be exact.

But I will finish, I do know that.  And in a year, I will have a book under my belt.

When I started looking for images to use as the heading for this post, I was thinking seriously about a turtle, because a turtle is a great symbol for slow and steady winning the race.  We all recognize this guy from the Aesop’s Fable story, right? 


Yeah, yeah, turtles.

But really, a better image is ducks.  This guy:


There’s an expression I hadn’t heard before a few years ago, and it sums up my strategy for getting this book DONE, and that is:  "Nibbled to death by ducks." 

What does it mean?  Well, look at that duck.  He's pretty cute, right?  That beak totally doesn’t mean business.  He looks like a lightweight for sure.  If you let him nibble at you, he wouldn’t do much damage.  Unless he kept nibbling.  Just kept nibbling and nibbling and nibbling…

Well, okay, that’s getting a little gross.  My point being, one nibble by one duck doesn’t do much damage, but with a million ducks or a million nibbles, you’re sure to skeletonize somebody eventually.

A lot of people struggle with finishing their book (or books!).  They’re full of great ideas, they start writing with enthusiasm.  But how do you get all the way to the end?

This nibbled-to-death technique is a good one for certain types of books that require a lot of energy and thought.  It’s a good one for people who are too busy to put in that kind of energy and thought every single day.  Oh, sure – I’ve heard the advice that you have to write for a certain number of minutes every day or else.

Well, here’s an alternative to that “or else.”

Write every single day… or write in little nibbles – whenever you can.

That’s what I’m doing with this book I’m working on.  It’s a series of poems for the weekly Torah portion, meaning the Bible selection we read each week.  That’s how Jews do the Bible, by the way:  we nibble it to death.  We take the entire Torah, which is the first five books, Genesis to Deuteronomy, and divide them up into 54 weekly portions.  This week, for instance, we happen to be reading Genesis 28:10 - 32:3.  It’s a long one – about 144 verses.  Some are longer (the record is 176 verses) and most are shorter (the record is 75 verses).  Remember that many of these verses are pretty short.

Whatever the length is, each week we read a little.  If you miss it, it’s not the end of the world.  We’ve been at this for thousands of years, so if you miss one, it’s sure to come around again next year.  But if you keep at it, writing one poem a week (or in this case, revising – most are written already but in a seriously imperfect form), then at the end of the year, you’ll have an entire bound volume in your hands.

imageI’ve done a book this way once before already.  That’s how I worked on my book The Family Torah – just one short portion at a time.  One or two pages a week for a year – or in that case, two years and a bit.  I had two very young kids at the time, and was still raising two older ones, so life was busy and all I had time for was a nibble here and there.

In fact, this strategy is one that works well no matter what you’re up to in your regular life.  If you want to feel like you’re still writing, like you haven’t given up on yourself, like making your own dreams come true is never going to take a backseat to anybody else’s – this may be the answer for you.

Just nibble at it.

Two of my favourite poems ever are by William Carlos Williams.  The thing about ol’ WCW is that he was a busy guy.  Super busy.  At least, that’s what I’ve heard.  I’m too busy to actually research him, but I do know he was a doctor and scribbled his poems on prescription pads, which meant they had to be small. Limited by his lack of time and his tiny prescription pad size, he created poems so perfect and lovely they’re almost like haikus.

Here are two of them:

image   and  image

Now, no-one could say that WCW wasn’t a poet, or that he didn’t write or really say anything to take away the fact that he’s one of the more famous poets of our age.

So what does that mean for us?  For me and for you and any other nibblers out there who are short on time, patience, ink, whatever it it?

It means – start nibbling, and keep nibbling.  Look at that duckie up above.  So, so cute.  Hardly even possible to take him seriously.  But once he has a published book under his belt, and then another one, well, everybody will know that he means business.

Just like me.

Just like you.

Do you have a book in you that you could “nibble to death”?  It has to be something you’ll stick with, no matter what, for however long it takes.  Maybe a poem for every week – maybe a series of stories for every birthday child in your family – maybe a holiday poem for one holiday a week, all year round.  (You can see I’m stuck on this poem idea!)

Whatever it is, I’d love to hear about your project and how you’re going to remind yourself to keep at it.  Sure, December 31st is coming up, and New Year’s, and resolutions, but why wait?  Just set yourself a goal.  Tell yourself – “By this time next year, I will have…” and then fill in the blank with whatever your dream might be.

Figure out your dream and then – start nibbling.

Here’s this week’s Torah poem, by the way – page 11, and I’m pretty proud of it.


(I realize there are words in there only Jewish people will understand – it’s mostly here just as an example…)

Tell me about your nibbled-to-death project!  And then sit down to write, just for a while.  Set it aside, and then come back.  Nibble, wait, repeat.  It may be the surest way to a finished book after all.


  1. How did you know? I have just sent off a book to a publisher that I started in 1967! Yes! FIFTY years in the making! You would think it is a massive manuscript but it is a children's picture book of 24 pages and less than 400 words! Talk about a book that I nibbled at.... The story came about during my first year as a teacher and it waited as I taught, coached, and became a principal and then it waited after I retired and became a newspaper reporter then it waited some more while other picture books went to print. Each time I nibbled at it and refined it to the point I felt it was ready to meet an audience.

    1. Tom,
      That is absolutely fantastic to hear. Good for you! Wow, 400 words in 50 years... that's like 6 words a year. :-D
      But you DID IT!
      Awesome, way to go, I hope you hear good news about your book very, very soon.
      Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod


As always, I love to hear from you.