The gap between writing smaller, individual pieces of work -- short stories, poems, essays -- and writing a full book sometimes feels like an incredible chasm.
With individual pieces of work, no matter how challenging, the satisfaction of an ending comes much sooner and more frequently, generating a sense of momentum that is inspiring in and of itself.
With a book however, the ending can seem a long way off. And the distance between where we are now in the project, and a final published version of our book on the shelf can feel like a literary Ironman marathon.
If how to manage the enormity of a book-length project is keeping you up at night -- or leading to avoid your writing (uh-oh!) -- then here’s how I suggest you get yourself organized to help you manage some of the stress of a project of this size.
If you have been spending a lot of time on research, or “research” -- the latter involving some serious Internet rabbit holes -- but you don’t yet have a complete first draft, then I want you to stop right now.
I understand that you need to do research to understand the setting, or perhap character motivation, or the culture of the time in which your book is set. But the truth of it is that 80-90% of the research most writers do will not end up in their book, and I suspect the same is true for yours.
Hear me out here: until you’ve written your complete first draft, you don’t yet know what the full story or book is about. And until you know this, you don’t really know how much research you need, or what precisely is required.
I recommend releasing yourself from the tyranny of research and diving in. Do just enough research to have a taste for what’s needed and then start writing your complete first draft draft all the way through....THEN go back and identify precisely what research is required.
There’s a place in my novel where I need to know more about late 19th Century surgery instruments, for example. In my draft I use square brackets [these are square brackets] to mark the place, literally writing [insert description of late 19th C surgical instruments here] and then I keep writing.
Get just enough research done to give you a starting place, and then go back and do more research as required when you’re working to revise. If I do that, I’ll know I need just one or two surgical instruments, and not an entire history of medicine.
In this way, I can save myself loads of time and the mental anxiety of feeling like I just don’t know enough to write this book. (Because you know that thought occurs to you all the time! So skip it -- one less anxiety-provoking thought to hold you back from finishing.)
When I say “folders,” I mean both the paper and electronic kinds. If you work just in paper, or just digitally, then you might need just the one set, but if you have both computer and paper versions of your work, then set up both.
The subjects for your Four Folder system are these:
The folder in which you organize all the pieces of your current work-in-progress. You can have just one document in here that you work with, or it can be bits and pieces that you have worked on in any order and will collate later. (A short story collection, for example, would have multiple stories in this folder -- each at varying stages of writing/revising -- that are compiled into a complete full manuscript later.)
Notes and documents for research related to your current work-in-progress. As I mentioned above, you’ll want to go light on the research while drafting so that you don’t end up stuck, OR (more likely?) using “research” as an excuse to avoid diving in and just writing your draft based on what you already know. You’ll use this folder as a place to hold your research notes, and your notes on items you will need to go back and research after the first draft is written.
I recommend that you have a “project reading list” -- essentially, guided readings from a list of work you create for yourself of writing that inspires you in some way related to your book. This could be an article on how your favourite author approaches plotting, to inspirational quotes you use to motivate you, to entire books that accomplish some aspect of craft you will need to consider for your own project. (In addition to folders, you’ll also likely need some books!)
This is for all the many shiny new ideas that are going to occur to you in the process of completing your draft. This happens frequently once we’ve committed to finishing a book, as a way for our brain to protect us from our own creative anxieties and so it’s helpful to have a place to put these new random ideas to keep them safe until THIS book is completed and you can come back to consider them again.
This is the system we use inside my First Book Finish program, and my students tell me that it helps keep them focused.
Here’s the big secret about outlining vs. not outlining -- it absolutely does not matter which way you choose to go. It’s all a matter of preference: some writers like to plot out every detail (down to the beats in a scene) when they write, and others prefer to be guided by the choices their characters make from one scene to the next.
It doesn’t really matter all that much and so you can feel free to make the decision that suits you best and to stick with it all the way to the end of your completed first draft.
In the First Book Finish program, we use something I call a “Scene Inventory” as a tool to help guide the revision process. It’s not an outline, it’s more of an analysis tool used once the first draft is down on paper or pixels, but it does help give a comprehensive overview of a book’s structure -- which is exactly what you need to go from first draft to revised draft.
But my point here is that you choose what feels right to you at the start of writing your first draft and then stick with that decision all the way through to the end of your draft. You can always make a different choice once you’re on draft #2.
I spoke about this last week, as a tool to help manage your fear and anxiety. Having a Roadmap is especially important for writers who either are not outlining in advance, or only have a basic sketch outline.
We spend a lot of time on this in Module 1 of First Book Finish because it really matters that you know where you’re going, how much work you have left -- and that you are able to self-generate a sense of progress and momentum as you work through your draft.
Here again is how to develop your own Roadmap:
a) Make an estimate for your final page count. Of course, you won’t know the exact number of pages you need, but that’s why we call it an estimate. A contemporary romance novel requires so many pages, and an epic fantasy novel requires a different number altogether. If you don’t want to work in pages, you can work in parts -- number of chapters, number of scenes, number of poems, essays or stories required to get to a completed first draft of your book.
b) Once you know your final number, subtract the number of pages (or number of pieces/parts) you already have written. If you’re writing by hand, guesstimate how many pages that will be when type-written. (Google is always your friend with all of these estimates!) Once you’ve subtracted what you’ve already written you’ll know how much road still lies ahead of you as you write to complete your draft.
c) Now estimate how many words you write in a typical writing session of (say) 45 minutes to an hour (or however long your personal writing sessions are.) Divide this number into the total number still to be written…
d) And there you go: you’ll have the number of writing sessions required to finish your book. (Is it magic or is it math?) You can now look at your life circumstances and your calendar and plan out the sessions you need, and you can begin to mark off milestones as you write all the way towards finally typing “The End” on your completed first draft.
If you want to finally finish your book in 2020, the First Book Finish program will open for a new cohort of writers in early October 2023. Get on the Waiting List here to be the first to hear when the programs open, and to access exclusive early bird pricing.