[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:
1. Choose the Right Project
1. Choose the Right Project
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.
Contrary to all the “tortured artist” hoopla, your writing should not be a struggle. It should be a pleasant, fun and low-stress activity. If you struggle with every word, you are much less likely to make it through a long project.
6. Expect Problems
Two sailors plan to sail across the Atlantic Ocean.
One tells herself, “It’s going to be smooth sailing all the way!”
The other tells herself, “I’m likely to hit some storms and squalls.”
Which is most likely to be right? To be prepared for trouble? To finish the journey?
There are going to be times when your book will seem out of control and misconceived, and times when you question your very fitness as a writer. And there may be still other times when personal problems interfere with your ability to produce. Anticipate these kinds of problems, and when they strike don’t waste time putting yourself down. Remind tell yourself that nearly every book project hits snafus and snags: now, it’s your turn.
7. What to Do When You’re Blocked
Blocked is usually just another word for either: (a) not knowing enough about what you're trying to write, or (b) trying to force it into a direction it doesn't want to go. So instead of working on your piece, write about your piece: set the text itself aside and write about the problems you're having with it. This is usually enough to uncover the root cause of the block, which you can then correct.
Or, set the section aside and work on entirely different one for a while. Ideas often need time to percolate and ferment and gel in our minds, and setting the work asides allows this process to happen. At some point, you'll probably start writing the section “in your head,” and then you can continue working on it.
8. Avoid Personal Drama
Although there are plenty examples of dysfunctional writers out there, it’s a better idea to live a relatively stable life. As Stephen King puts it in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, “When I’m asked for ‘the secret of my success’…I sometimes say there are two: I stayed physically healthy…and I stayed married…The combination of a healthy body and a stable relationship with a self-reliant woman who takes zero shit from me or anyone else has made the continuity of my working life possible.”
Or, as our man Flaubert says, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
9. Ergonomics Absolutely Matters!
By declaring that you wish to write a book, you have declared yourself a marathoner. You need the right equipment, both for reasons of safety—you don’t want to get carpel tunnel syndrome—and productivity.
10. Track – and Reward – Your Progress
Remember how thrilling it was, when, as a little kid, you earned a gold star at school? Well, there’s a gold-star-lovin’ kid still within all of us. So break down your huge book into smaller pieces (chapters or parts of chapters), make a list of those chapters, and reward yourself for completing each one.
I used a spreadsheet, on which I tracked the number of words written per day and the number of number of chapters completed. “Words per day” was recorded both numerically and in a colorful bar graph—I enjoyed choosing a new color each day. And I LOVED putting an “X” next to the name of each chapter I completed. I especially loved watching those X’s accumulate.
Those were techniques! Now, go back and take a fresh look at your unfinished tomes, find the one that looks easiest and simplest to finish, and get started.
And watch your gold stars accumulate very fast!
Hillary Rettig's latest book is the best-selling The 7 Secrets of The Prolific. She has taught writing productivity at Grub Street Writers, The Loft, The Mark Twain House & Museum, SavvyAuthors.com, and elsewhere. Hillary was born in the Bronx, NY, lived for many years in Boston, and now resides in Kalamazoo, MI. She is a vegan, living kidney donor, and former foster mother to four Sudanese refugees ("Lost Boys"), all now adult and living independently. For more information on Hillary and her work, visit www.hillaryrettig.com