You can be forgiven for thinking that writing a book is all about the craft: how to write compelling characters, or how to structure a mystery novel, what to leave out when writing your memoir, or how to handle backstory, or how to curate a collection of stories or poems so it hangs together well as a whole.
Of course, these are elements of writing a book. But truth be told, they are not what gets in the way of most writers.
For a lot of writers, the story of writing a book goes like this…
Then...start to worry.
And the really fun part is that our brains can process anxieties so fast that we might have all of those worries in a single sitting! Who can write in the face of all that?
What most writers struggle with the most when tackling a book-length project is managing their fear and anxiety so that they can maintain a calm and productive mindset over the course of the months (and months!) of consistent work required to finish a book.
This is why I spend so much time on this with my students.
In fact, in my First Book Finish program, we have an entire module -- Module 2 -- focused just on overcoming the most common mindset blocks writers face, such as perfectionism, self-doubt, and finding focus.
Of course, worry is just another word for FEAR. Garden-variety, run-of-the-mill, deadly boring and yet sometimes completely debilitating fear.
So here are four of my best tips to manage the fear inherent in tackling a book-length project.
It looks so easy in the movies, doesn’t it? You just sit down and keep typing and eventually you have a book. Then you fix the spelling mistakes and you’re all done.
Ah, NO. That is emphatically NOT how it works in the real world. What you need to do first is complete a first draft -- until you do that, nothing else can happen.
The first draft is just you telling yourself the story. -- Terry Pratchett
So the trick then is to write that first draft all the way through to the end, WITHOUT getting caught up in your natural questions about how to fix the structure or language, and without waiting to “finish” your research. (Pro tip? You don’t need anywhere near as much research as you think you do, AND you also don’t really know what research is absolutely necessary until you’ve finished telling yourself the story.)
We go much deeper into this in First Book Finish, but basically what you want to do is embrace the reality that you are engaged in a project with multiple phases and you don’t have to get it perfect in the first phase -- you just have to get the basics in place. They call it a “working draft” or “developmental draft” or “first draft” for a reason.
It’s important to know that writing a book is a project and you’ll need a project plan.
Breaking your book down into bite-sized pieces allows you to see the road ahead and measure your progress -- which is essential for helping you maintain a sense of progress and momentum.
A well-organized book project will have a road map that is specific to your life circumstances and preferences.
You can’t get to completion of your manuscript without a clear understanding of where you’re going, what to write next, how much time is required and how you’re going to fit that time into your busy life.
A ritual is a series of actions performed in a consistent manner at the same time. I believe that every writer needs their own personalized writing ritual, one that calms the part of the brain that tends to get fearful and anxious about writing, and instead draws us back to the desk time and again looking forward to a pleasurable experience. (Fire up the dopamine!)
You’ll want to design your own ritual in a way that speaks to your own life, personality and preferences. Mine involves lighting a candle, listening to Yo Yo Ma play Bach cello concertos and working in timed sessions -- among other things.
Every season, I rethink and refresh my ritual to take advantage of new circumstances. (Writing outside is possible at the moment, but in February would be a death sentence where I live!)
If you can establish a pleasurable writing ritual, your brain will come to recognize writing time as a reward and will begin to miss it when it doesn’t happen.
You’ll get to the point where sitting down to work on your book is a kind of sanctuary, a time when you reclaim your creative life back from the demands of the rest of the world, and it will be truly rewarding. The fear hasn’t disappeared completely, it’s just not as relevant for your brain.
I know it sounds a bit weird to speak of “using” community, but in my experience community is an incredible tool for a writer. It’s not just about the pleasure of having other writers to talk to about craft, and/or the pleasures and challenges of the writing life. It’s ultimately about a kind of gentle community that calls you into accountability, over and over again.
Having any kind of community -- a writing partner, mentor or online group -- can be set up to provide you with accountability so that you commit and live up to your commitments.
It’s always fascinating to me how we will commit to showing up with and for others when we’d find it so hard just to show up for and by ourselves. (I guess that’s why personal trainers have a job!)
You want to use community to check-in on a regular basis, to set goals and help you meet them, to bounce ideas off, and to help you celebrate your progress or provide some wise counsel and a shoulder to cry on from time to time, should you need it.
The stereotypical lone writer typing away in a cold attic may make for great movies, but it isn’t that helpful when it comes to actually finishing books. I don’t know any published writers who go it alone...we all have some form of community we rely on to help us get to the finish line.
These are four important ways you can manage your fear and anxiety to help you finish your book. We go deeper on these -- and a few more -- inside my First Book Finish program, which will open up again for enrolment in early October 2023. You can get on the Waiting List for the program here, which also gives you an opportunity to access early-bird pricing.