Some experts claim that as many as 82% of adults dream of writing a book. They have a story they are burning to tell or a message they are dying to convey. The advent of self-publishing has given all these people the opportunity to fulfill this dream – but first, they have to actually write the book, and writing a book that people actually want to read turns out to be a lot harder than it first seems.
The vast number of that 82% never get past the first few chapters. They may talk about writing a book, read books about writing a book, or attend conferences and courses about writing a book, but the work of sitting down and actually writing the book never happens.
You can tell if your book is in danger of dying if any of the following is true:
- You talk about the book more than you write. You discuss craft and theory, you brainstorm about the next chapter, you compare your book to other people’s work – and you convince yourself that all that talking is somehow leading to progress.
- You dread sitting down to write. It’s not fun, it brings you no joy, it’s an energy suck. You know you’re supposed to love it – this is what writers do, after all – and you love it in an abstract way but you don’t love the day-to-day doing of it.
- The feedback you are getting whenever you dare to share your work is lukewarm at best, and so you just keep rewriting the same few pages, trying to get them “right” even though you aren’t really sure what that even means anymore.
If this describes you and your relationship to your book project, here are some steps to take to get out of the danger zone:
Step 1: Decide if you WANT to save it
- Do I care about saving this book?
- If your answer is, “Hell, yes,” then go to Step 2.
- If the answer is that it would be a relief to let it go, then let yourself let it go, and find another dream to dream.
- If the answer is neutral, consider letting the idea go for a period of time – say a month – and seeing how that feels. If you can stop writing, perhaps you should stop writing.
Step 2: Decide WHY you should save it.
- Why exactly am I doing this? What are my goals and objectives for my book? Why am I writing it? Check all that apply:
- To make money
- To make a name for myself as an expert/authority
- To influence/educate/illuminate/comfort/entertain people
- To raise my voice/speak up/claim my story
- To prove that I can do it, either to myself or others
- Because I feel called to do it/I am burning to do it/I can’t rest until I do it
- To leave a legacy for my family
- Other: __________________________________________
- Is it in my power to achieve my stated goals and objectives?
- If the answer is yes, move to Step 3.
- If the answer is no – if, for example, your goal is to make money, and money depends on a fickle public finding and liking your book—ask yourself: is it worth the risk to move forward with an uncertain outcome? Perhaps you can reframe your idea of success so that it is in your power to achieve it.
Step 3: Decide WHO you should save it for
- Who else will care about what you’re writing? Be very specific about your ideal reader. Describe him/her in two sentences. Think in terms of what keeps them up at night, what they are afraid of, what they most want in the world.
- Now write down how your book gives them what you need – is it entertainment, escape, solace, information, inspiration?
- Write these answers on a Post-It note to keep on your desktop: “I am writing this book because I believe (target readers) desperately need (deeply held value).”
- Don’t write forward until you can answer this question, because writers need readers. It’s how we close the creative loop.
Step 5: Define your POINT
- What’s my point? What am I trying to say? (And yes, fiction and memoir must make a point, too. If you are having trouble wrapping your mind around this, think of your favorite books and the points they make…)
Step 6: Make sure you’re STARTING in the right place
Print out the first chapter of your book – or if you don’t yet have a complete first chapter, print out whatever you have. Go sit somewhere comfortable like a couch or a happy reading chair. Read your pages straight through as if you have never seen them before.
For fiction, memoir and narrative non-fiction, ask yourself:
- Does the reader know EXACTLY who to root for and EXACTLY what’s at stake? Not in a vague way but in a super clear way – clear enough that if asked, they could say, “I am rooting for X person to achieve Y thing.” (In memoir, X person is you, who is both the narrator and the protagonist.)
- Does the reader know EXACTLY what would happen if this person doesn’t get what they want?
For self-help/how-to, ask yourself:
- Does the reader know EXACTLY what they are going to learn how to do and why?
- Is the path to success crystal clear?
For any genre, if the answers are no, odds are good that you are not starting in the right place. You are probably gearing up, ramping up, warming up. You want to start in the place where it’s crystal clear what’s happening (or what the problem is for self-help/ how-to) and why it matters. Rewrite your opening so that you can answer yes to these questions.
Step 7: Make sure you know where it’s all LEADING
- Where does my book end?
- Write this out in relation to the point you defined above and the place where the book begins. Think of the beginning and the end as a frame for the point you are trying to make.
- For fiction and memoir: does the character get what they want or not?
- For self-help/how-to: does the reader have what they need to achieve success?
Step 8: Lock in effective writing HABITS
- Are the people I’m sharing my work with actually supporting my forward progress and helping me become a better writer? If not, find new writing friends.
- Do I have the (physical/psychological) space I need to write well? If not, find it. Ditch the kitchen table for the library, save up for noise cancelling headphones for the coffee shop, use Internet-blocking software, start training your family to leave you alone after 9 pm three nights a week.
- What am I willing to give up to finish this book? Commitment takes sacrifice. What can you let go of in your life to make room for this project?
- How can I measure my success? Give yourself deadlines and find someone to share them with so they can hold you accountable.
Step 9: Be GENTLE with yourself
Writing is hard work – far harder than most people realize. Don’t beat yourself up if it’s not going the way you would like it to go. Keep at it – and remind yourself that if it were easy, 82% of all adults would be authors, and writing a book would not be the deeply satisfying achievement it is.
Jennie has worked in publishing for more than 30 years. She is the author of four novels, three memoirs, and The Writer’s Guide to Agony and Defeat. An instructor at the UCLA Extension Writing Program for 10 years, she is also the founder and chief creative officer of Author Accelerator, an online program that offers affordable, customized book coaching so you can write your best book. Find out more about Jennie here, visit her blog, discover the resources and coaching available at her Author Accelerator website, and connect online.