When you start writing a book, you’re excited. You want to work on it, and you’re so excited to finish it!
But then the work keeps going, and going, and going. And all of a sudden continuing the work seems impossible.
That is the lack of momentum talking. Don’t listen to it—finishing your book is within your reach just as much as finishing anything else you've done in your life.
You just need to manage the writing of your book the right way, and I’ll tell you exactly what you need to know in today’s episode.
[02:18] It gives you this sense of momentum that is inspiring in and of itself, but with a book, the ending can feel a long way off.
[03:37] If I say something to you and you're like, “no, no, no, I can't do it that way,” what do you have to lose if you haven't finished a book yet?
[06:24] You don't need to know the entire history of everything. You just need a few pieces.
[11:15] And they're like, “oh no, I was working on the draft, but I couldn't finish my draft. I had to stop and outline book three in book four of my series.” No, honey, you don't.
[12:26] Here's the big secret about outlining versus not outlining.
[16:12] Do not underestimate how important it is for you to have a sense of progress and momentum as you go to finish your book.
[16:35] You're going to be like, “I'm never going to finish this thing.” Not true. You just have to manage it.
[17:35] We're going to commit to it, and we've got a process that we can follow and it's going to get done. It's going to get done because it's a project like any other.
Well, hey there, writer. Welcome to The Resilient Writers Radio Show. I'm your host, Rhonda Douglas, and this is the podcast for writers who want to create and sustain a writing life they love.
Because—let's face it—the writing life has its ups and downs, and we wanna not just write, but also to be able to enjoy the process so that we'll spend more time with our butt-in-chair getting those words on the page.
This podcast is for writers who love books, and everything that goes into the making of them. For writers who wanna learn and grow in their craft, and improve their writing skills. Writers who want to finish their books, and get them out into the world so their ideal readers can enjoy them, writers who wanna spend more time in that flow state, writers who want to connect with other writers to celebrate and be in community in this crazy roller coaster ride we call “the writing life.”
We are resilient writers. We're writing for the rest of our lives, and we're having a good time doing it. So welcome, writer, I'm so glad you're here. Let's jump right into today's show.
Well, hey there, writer. Welcome back to another episode of The Resilient Writers Radio Show. I'm so glad you're here. This is another episode in this little miniseries that I'm doing that is all about finishing your book. Today I want to talk about how to manage a book-length project, and really what I'm talking about here is how to manage ourselves through the process of a book-length project.
Because, look, the truth of it is that there's a real gap between writing smaller pieces of work, whether you're writing short stories or essays as part of a collection, or whether you're writing scenes and chapters, and then the idea of going from the scene and the chapter to the full book sometimes feels like a chasm. Like, it is a long, long project, right? It's 300, 400 pages sometimes.
So with individual pieces of work, no matter how challenging they are, you have the satisfaction of an ending that comes much sooner and more frequently. It gives you this sense of momentum that is inspiring in and of itself, but with a book, the ending can feel a long way off. And the distance between where we are now in the project and a final published version of the book on a shelf in a bookstore can feel like the literary Ironman marathon sometimes.
If you've ever wondered about how you can manage the enormity of a book length project and it's keeping you up at night, or it's actually leading you to avoid your writing because you just can't cope with how long it's going to take, then here's how I want you to get organized to help you manage some of the stress of a project of this size.
There is something about a book length project and finishing a book that is special in the world of writing, that has its own unique impact on how we think about ourselves and our writing life that sometimes gets in the way. Hundreds of writers I've worked with, at this point, whether through my First Book Finish program or otherwise, and I am telling you, this stuff comes up all the freaking time. Like, weekly in my live coaching calls.
So, let me just walk you through some of what I think you need to do. Don't shoot the messenger here. If I say something to you and you're like, “no, no, no, I can't do it that way,” what do you have to lose if you haven't finished a book yet? What do you have to lose by trying something new and different?
The first thing I want you to do, I want you to stop doing research. And especially research, unless you are at that specific phase in the revision process, which is where it belongs. If you've been spending a lot of time on research, or, I often think of research in air quotes, “research”, where you spend a lot of time going down various very deep internet rabbit holes, but you don't yet have a completed first draft of your book, I want you to stop researching right now.
I get that you need to do research to understand the setting or character motivation or the culture of the time in which your book is set. But the truth of it is that 80% to 90% of the research most writers will do will not end up in the book, and that's going to be true for you as well.
Hear me out on this. Until you have written your complete first draft, you don't yet know what the full story or book is about. And so until you know that, you don't really know how much research you need or what precisely is required, so then, you are going to run off and do all kinds of general background research thinking that you're working on your novel, but it's not words on a page. It's not something you can work with later.
I recommend releasing yourself from the tyranny of research and just diving into finishing the draft. Do just enough to have a taste for what's needed, and then you start writing your complete first draft all the way through, and then you go back during the revision process and identify precisely what research is required.
So, there's a place in my current novel—I'm working on a historical mystery—and there's a place in the novel where I need to know more about late 19th century surgical instruments. What I do is, when I'm writing in my draft, I use square brackets. I mark the place, literally writing down square bracket, [insert description of late 19th century surgical instruments here] and square bracket, and then I keep going with the scene. You're just doing enough research to give you a starting place, and then you're going to go back and do more when you're in the revision process.
If I do that, I know I just need to know one or two surgical instruments and not the entire history of medicine from the 19th century. Do you know what I mean? I say that as someone who stayed up till 2:00 AM reading the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Medicine. I learned this the hard way. That was fascinating, by the way. That is a fascinating book. But anyway, you don't need to know the entire history of everything. You just need a few pieces.
In this way, you can save yourself loads and loads of time and the mental anxiety of feeling like you don't know enough to write the book. Because you know that happens to you all the time. So skip this, and let this be one less anxiety provoking thought that holds you back from finishing.
Alright, let's move on here. I want to suggest that you keep yourself organized by using a four folder system. This is something that I teach in my First Book Finish program, and I'm going to walk you through it now. When I say folders, I mean both the paper folder, if you work analog, but I also mean the electronic folders on your computers.
If you work just in paper or just digitally, maybe you just have the one set, but I personally use both computer and paper, so I've got both. You are going to have four folders. You're going to have one called “draft”, one called “research”, one called “reading” and one called “random”.
Okay, let's go back over these. So, your “draft” folder. 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 can be bits and pieces you've worked with in any order, and you're going to collate them and bring them together later.
For example, if you're working on a short story collection or an essay collection, you'd have multiple stories in the folder, each at varying stages of writing, drafting, revising, that later get compiled. You might break up chapters if that's how you like to write, or break up scenes, or you might just have one document in this folder and that's fine. And if it's a paper folder, it's also full of sticky notes. You're writing along in the draft and you're like, “oh, I don't like this name of this character.” Think of a better name. And you write that on a sticky note and you stick it in your draft and you write forward so that this folder, your draft folder, becomes the place where you collect ideas on the draft as well.
Okay, your second folder is “research.” Now, remember I just said we're not going to do all that research, but you will be doing some. You're going to have notes and documents for research related to the book, and you're going to want to go light on the research while you're drafting so that you don't end up stuck or, using air quotes here, “research” as an excuse to avoid diving in and writing the draft because you're afraid that you won't be able to do your draft justice. So, off you go doing research, which is so much easier. This folder is for where you hold your research notes and any notes on items you're going to need to go back and research after you have your first draft written.
Number three is a file I call “reading.” I recommend you have a project reading list. This is particularly important in the revision process. Your project reading list is basically guided readings from a list of work. You create this project reading list for yourself. These are books that inspire you in some way related to your book.
This could be everything from an article on how your favourite author approaches plotting to entire books on an aspect of craft that you need to consider for your own project, or inspirational quotes that you use to motivate you. It can be anything, really, but I definitely recommend in the revision process having a series of books where authors that you admire are doing something craft-wise that you are also doing.
Let's say you're writing a time travel novel. Maybe you have the time traveller's wife on your project list, right? And you're looking at, how is she handling shifting back and forth in time? Maybe you're writing a multi-generational epic, and you’re wondering how that gets structured. So, you might have a couple of multi-generational epics on your project reading list.
Maybe you are curious about different ways of approaching dialogue. You have either articles on dialogue or maybe from Writer's Digest or other writing magazines, or maybe you have entire books where you just love how this author does dialogue. Your project reading list, every project reading list, is different depending on the writer and depending on the book that you are writing. And it really comes into play in revision. Because you're going to be looking for answers in some of these books. Not to copy them, but to be inspired and to know what is possible. So that's the third folder in this four folder system, is your reading folder.
Then I have a “random” folder. You know how you have an idea for a book and you start working on your book, and now you're in the draft and you're writing chapter eight, and all of a sudden you have four more shiny new ideas for a book. This is usually the part where writers go, “it's a series!” and they want to write and they're like, “oh no, I was working on the draft, but I couldn't finish my draft ‘cause I had to stop and outline book three in book four of my series.” No, honey, you don't.
This is what this random folder is for. This is for all the many, many, many shiny new ideas that are going to occur to you in the process of completing your draft. It happens really frequently that once we've committed to finishing a book as a way for our brain to protect us from our own creative anxiety, it just sends up all these new ideas.
You are a creative person, you are an artist. You will always have shiny new ideas. There is no lack of shiny new ideas in your life. You're going to have them until you breathe your last breath. It's helpful to have a place to put these new random ideas to keep them safe until this book is finished and then you can come back and consider them again.
This is the four folder system that we use inside my First Book Finish program, and students tell me that it really helps keep them focused and manage their brain around research, around the draft, around reading and around the shiny new ideas. So the four folders again are: draft, research, reading, and random.
Now I want to talk about outlining. Here's the big secret about outlining versus not outlining. It absolutely does not matter which way you choose to go. It's all a matter of preference. Some writers, and I think particularly genre writers where you have a lot of the so-called obligatory scenes, they like to plot out every detail down to the beats in a scene.
Some writers write with a beat sheet where they're like, the moments broken down in every scene, others, and sometimes they call themselves pantsers, writing by the seat of their pants, prefer to be guided by the choices that their characters make from one scene to the next. So if I wrote a scene in which my character chose to leave town, then I've got to deal with the implications of them leaving town in the next scene. It just doesn't matter which you choose.
You can feel free to make the decision that suits you best. The only thing I'll say is I want you to stick with it all the way to the end of your completed first draft. Some of what we end up doing with ourselves is we get to chapter six and we're like, “oh, I got to stop everything and make a detailed outline.” No you don't. Just write forward and complete the draft.
In First Book Finish, I use something called a scene inventory, which is step two of my revision process. But it is not an outline, it's more of an analysis tool that you use once the first draft is done. But what I will say is as you're writing forward, keep a list of your scenes. Keep a list that says, “oh, in this scene, Fred and Marie are in the kitchen talking about whether they're going to send little Joey to private school.” And then you know what you've got.
My point here though, is just choose whatever feels right to you at the start of writing your first draft, and then you stick with that all the way through to the end of your draft, and you can make a different choice when you're in revision.
And part of my process in revision, I have this whole thing around a new guiding outline. You can do something with it later, but you don't need a super detailed outline to write your first draft. And sometimes it's just your brain's way of telling you or helping you to feel like you have control over the creative process.
Here's a secret, none of us have control over the creative process. That is the nature of the creative process. Alright? Give up the idea that you have control over it and just enjoy it. That's about what I wanted to say about outlining.
The other thing you're going to do is you're going to make a roadmap. I now think of this as a blueprint. If you've been doing my book Finishers Bootcamp, we do the Book Finish Blueprint where I walk you through what that looks like for you. That helps your brain understand what is required for you to finish. It helps you self-generate a sense of progress and momentum as you work through your draft.
You're working here to figure out, like, what does your final page count need to be? You're just kind of estimating based on what you know about your genre, right? Like an epic fantasy YA novel is a different page count than a contemporary romance in all likelihood. Maybe not, but in all likelihood probably, right?
So, what final page count do you need? And then you subtract what you've already got written and you've got left what you know you still need to write. And then you do a writing session of about 45 minutes to an hour or how long your personal writing sessions are, mine are 45 minutes.
And then I figure out how many words I am writing in a session, and I divide that number into the total number still to be written. And now I know the number of sessions it's going to take me to finish the book, and I can get those on my calendar.
So now I have this sense of progress and momentum because I know it's going to take me 30 more writing sessions to finish this book, and here I am at number 15, so I'm halfway through. Do not underestimate how important it is for you to have a sense of progress and momentum as you go to finish your book.
Friends, it is everything when it comes to finishing a book-length project, absolutely everything, because you are going to feel so overwhelmed and lost and like this thing is never going to end. That's something that's going to pop into your head. You're going to be like, “I'm never going to finish this thing.” Not true. You just have to manage it like you would manage any other project.
I work mostly with women, in particular I love working with creative professional women who started a book but put it aside because life kind of got in the way and they were focused on other things, and now they're pulling that out of the drawer, out of the box in the closet, and committing to finish the book. If that's you, think about all of the projects you have already completed in your life.
If you are working, you've done so many different projects at work, small projects, medium-sized projects, big projects. Caring for your kids. We just came out of the holidays, preparing for Hanukkah, preparing for Christmas, those are projects. You know how to do a project. I think the reason we need to break this down as a project and know that we can manage it as a project is we need to understand that it's a very finite period of time.
This book is not going to take forever. We're going to commit to it, and we've got a process that we can follow and it's going to get done. It's going to get done because it's a project like any other.
I think that one of the things I've discovered over the years is that it is really, really important to have all of these different processes in place to manage the huge amount of mindset issues that come up around finishing a book. Honestly, it's 80% of the game, and it's why I spend the amount of time I do on it in my First Book Finish program, because it is just that important. I'm giving you all of these little tools so that you can use them to help govern your own thoughts and your own processes as you go about finishing your book.
Okay, so I hope this has been helpful and I'm looking forward to talking to you again in another episode of The Resilient Writers Radio Show. Thanks for being with me today. Take care.
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