[Geek Pride welcomes guest blogger Hillary Rettig]
Anyone can start a book—and thousands of people have.
The trick is finishing the book you start.
As someone who has published hundreds of articles, I faced this reality head-on when writing my first book, The Lifelong Activist (Lantern Books, 2006). I worked on it for two years, and while the work was fun, it was also grueling.
At times, like any marathoner, it was all I could do to force myself to put one foot (or word) ahead of the other. At other times, I was sick to death of the whole endeavor and wanted to ditch it and work on something else.
But I didn’t: I stayed the course and was able to finish the book. Here are some of the techniques I used, which I hope you'll also find useful in your own writing and other projects, in 2014 and beyond:
When I said The Lifelong Activist was my first book, I lied. It was my first finished book—an important distinction. I have at least four unfinished novels and nonfiction books resting-in-pieces in various desk drawers and computer hard drives.
One reason I was able to complete The Lifelong Activist and not those other books was because The Lifelong Activist was a much simpler and less ambitious project. It was based partly on a curriculum I had developed and a topic I had been teaching for years, so I had the subject matter down cold.
Your first book should likewise be as on as simple and familiar a topic as you can come up with. It doesn’t have to be nonfiction, but if it’s fiction it should be a story that you are very familiar with—perhaps a fictionalization of a real-life incident. This eliminates one huge barrier to finishing your book: the need for extensive plotting and/or organizing of your material.
Is it a waste of time to write such a simple book? Absolutely not. Even a “simple” book is a huge project. Also, the simple book will give you experience and insights that will help you later on as you tackle more ambitious projects. But if you start with an ambitious project, you may never finish it, and thus fail to learn what you need.
2. Set the Right Goal
When I began The Lifelong Activist, I didn’t set out to write a brilliant book or a best-selling book.
I just set out to write a book.
Of course, in the back of my mind was still the notion that I wanted to write a quality book, one that would help people and that I would be proud of. But whenever I felt myself get nervous or panicky over the project, I told myself, “Relax: your only goal is to finish.”
And so finish I did.
3. Forget Your Audience
While writing your book, don’t worry at all about selling it, or who is going to read it, and what their reaction is likely to be. Those kinds of concerns will, at best, distort the artistic process, and, at worst, derail you.
That’s why Flaubert wrote: “Success is a consequence and must not be a goal.” And why Erica Jong wrote of her first novel, “I wrote…Fear of Flying…telling myself no one would ever read it.”
If you write a book that you truly love and consider important, chances are that others will love it and consider it important, too. In the unlikely event that that does not happen, you will probably have better luck with your next book. But if you don’t finish your book at all because you’re too nervous about its reception, you’ll never find out, will you?
4. Work in Community, and Find a Critique Partner
Despite the myth of the tortured “lone ranger” writer who spends years in a solitary struggle with his manuscript, most successful writing and other art occurs as part of a supportive community. Every writer must create his or her own creative community, and you can do this most easily by meeting other writers at writer’s groups or classes, as well as at readings and other events.
Also, try to find at least one “critique partner,” another writer whom you can call on for ongoing support. A partner is someone you can call whenever your writing is going well or badly, and whom you can share your experiences, hopes and fears with. She is also someone who will help you set deadlines, and who will hold you gently accountable if your work doesn’t arrive on time. (At the same time, you’re doing the same for her.)
5. Write Fast
Forget stories of Flaubert agonizing for days over his mot juste: you should strive to write quickly and easily. Just get the words down, knowing that they are bound to be highly imperfect. Then, go back and revise them (again, quickly), and keep revising, until they say what you want them to say.
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