The hardest part of writing a book is getting started, keeping at it, and crossing the completion line. What makes those pivotal phases so difficult is the appearance, again and again, of five obstacles that seem insurmountable:
3. No Time
4. Wavering Motivation
5. Unclear Commitment
Of course, none of these are really insurmountable. Here are some simple strategies for making each one instantly irrelevant.
Obstacle One: Inertia
Inertia tends to arise in the chasm between an idea and its execution. Ideas seem to pop into awareness almost effortlessly, while finished book manuscripts do not. To cross the yawning chasm between an idea for a book and its completed exploration in words, you need what amounts to a map, or a list of simple, specific steps that will take you where you want to go. Your list might look something like this:
1. Buy bound journal for all book-related notes, first drafts, doodles
2. Make notes in new journal about the point or the message of my book
3. Write down all title ideas
4. List and elaborate on content areas
5. Note ideas for research subjects and sources
6. Write down chapter subjects, as well as title ideas
7. Arrange content within chapters
8. Research existing books in my book’s specific subject area
9. Set up a dedicated work area
10. Gather books similar to the one I’d like to write (both for inspiration and as models of organization, tone, and more)
Once the project is underway, it’s a good idea to continue listing steps, though these will be much more specific and detailed (i.e., find correct citation for quote from poet, MO; locate block of text on the ambiguities of time; find files from summer of last year).
The point is, it is absolutely impossible to “write a book.” It is only possible to take one specific step at a time toward a completed book manuscript. This may seem ridiculously obvious, but almost everyone forgets it. And then feels needlessly overwhelmed by the prospect of tackling that impossible task — “writing a book.”
Whatever phase of your project you are currently working on, there is a next step. The most effective and motivating way to proceed is to write each step down, in five- or ten-step lists. This is because you need to know, exactly and precisely, what each step is, in order to mentally gear-up for completing it. Think of your ongoing list as a kind of “anti-overwhelm” tool.
Obstacle Two: Fear
It is almost axiomatic that, if a project doesn’t cause a modicum of fear (can I really bring this off?), that it probably isn’t sufficiently challenging or interesting to sustain the level of involvement you need to feel in order to see it through to the end. But how do you deal with the urge to avoid your book project, because the mere thought of getting to work on it stimulates overwhelming feelings of fear, self-doubt, and . . . sudden exhaustion?
The answer is all too obvious, though most of us find it hard to see. Get into it. Get involved in the actual work. Fear immediately disappears when your attention is engaged by the work at hand. It is similar to what happens to a baby’s attention: there she is, wailing away full blast with her entire small being, when the neighbor’s miniature dachshund appears. The tears shut off like a faucet, because the dog captures her attention so completely that she forgets to cry.
Engage your attention in completing the next step on your list, and fear, doubt, and terminal tiredness will dissolve (at least for the short-term; when they return, simply engage your attention in the next step all over again).
As extra-added reinforcement, keep in mind your overall reason for wanting to write a book. Is it to convey a message, engage in a quest, nurture your talent, or to express the inspiration you feel when reading another author’s work? If you add inspiration (your reason for writing) to engagement, fear won’t have a chance.
Obstacle Three: No Time
Almost everyone has too much to do, and no time to do it. But that’s no reason not to write your book. It is reason, instead, to outwit your particular version of having no time. (Keep in mind, however, that we all somehow find the time to do those things we truly want to do.)
Most often, it’s not so much having no time that’s the problem. It’s the feeling that the job is much too big for the much-too-small amounts of time that are intermittently available.
Make the following strategy into a game you play on a daily basis: accumulate an hour’s worth of five- or ten-minute periods spent doing something towards your book (refer to your list of steps for small, specific tasks, and if they’re all too time-consuming, cut them in half, or even into quarters).
Spend, for instance, a free ten minutes between appointments making notes about what to include in chapter ten, instead of simply frittering that time away. (It’s a good idea to have a bound journal dedicated to your book project. Keep all your notes there for reference, and for the inspiration of seeing the material you’ve gathered accumulate and grow into something substantial. A journal is also portable in more circumstances than a computer is.)
Once you’ve completed one hour in small increments, find a small but gratifying way to reward yourself. This step is very important. You want to feel good about steadily doing small, incremental amounts of work on your book. Those increments add up, and can take you through the whole process. It’s also important to give yourself rewards because the ultimate payoff for writing a book doesn’t happen for such a long time — an unavoidable aspect of any long-term project. Small rewards are a way to circumvent that lengthy delay of gratification.
Postscript: When you are able to set aside more than brief amounts of time, be sure to create a timeframe for your work. Look at the clock and count out an hour or two, while telling yourself, “Okay, I’ll work on my book from 7:00 to 9:00.” The reason not to say, “I’ll just spend the day on my book,” is that it’s much too amorphous and overwhelming. These two conditions lead to avoidance and burnout. You need to have a set start-time, and a set finish-time.
Once you’ve done an hour — or whatever timeframe you’ve decided to use — take a break and reward yourself. Then give yourself another time-limited work period, followed by a break. Psychologically, this sets you up for work, but doesn’t overwhelm you with the thought of spending an endless, daylong amount of time doing nothing but. Most likely, you’d spend your day doing everything except work on your book (First, I’ll clean out the garage, the attic, and the basement — then I’ll get started on my book).
One last thing: Be sure to list what you intend to accomplish during that scheduled hour or two-hour period. It’s another way to prepare your mind to get your book work done. After you complete each task, check it off. This is oddly satisfying. It also produces a “snapshot” or visual record of all the things you’ve accomplished during that particular work period (a picture really is worth a thousand words).
Obstacle Four: Wavering Motivation
Sometimes you feel that working on your book is the most exciting thing you can imagine doing. And sometimes you feel that working on almost anything else would be cause for celebration. What to do?
Recognize wavering motivation for what it is: Either it’s a lesser form of fear (self-doubt), or a sneaky form of burnout (too much time spent doing the same, well-known writing tasks, with not enough variation to keep you interested).
Examine your feelings to find out which one is creating the waver. If it’s a feeling of fear, turn to engagement in the work, coupled with external inspiration, to get beyond it. If it’s a feeling of boredom, or burnout, figure out which new aspect of your book work would perk you up. What feels as if it would be fun to do?
Another technique for keeping motivation strong is to practice the tripartite work mantra: Same Time, Same Place, Every Day. In other words, schedule your days so that you can spend a half-hour or more each day (and the earlier in the day the better), working on your book in the same physical location.
There is a buildup of productive energy, not only in the place where you work, but in the habit-forming quality of work itself. If you show up every day at the same time, there is a natural tendency to move easily into work, because a memory groove already exists for it. You can use this phenomenon to keep the momentum of your project going, with much less effort.
Obstacle Five: Unclear Commitment
Your commitment to your book is what makes it “stick” for you. It is your overriding purpose, what you ultimately hope to accomplish by seeing your book through to completion.
Sometimes people start work on a book with an overly vague idea of why they are working on it. They then suffer particularly acute amnesia about those vague reasons during inevitable periods of low energy and, hence, low engagement and interest in their book work.
To protect your project and your commitment to it, create a carefully constructed statement about why you want to write this book. What points do you hope to make, and why do you want to make them? Be as specific and detailed as possible. Then place your reasons visibly in your work space, as well as in the front of your book journal.
If you eventually find that you’ve outgrown your original reasons for writing your book — because your subject has evolved as you’ve worked through the first several chapters — then rewrite your statement of purpose. But continue to maintain clarity about your reasons for writing. At its simplest, this is usually a matter of what wakens a feeling of energy and excitement in you (what it is you love), and which your book gives form to, or embodies.
Writing a book may not be “easy,” but it can prove to be rewarding in ways almost nothing else is. To be sure you get started, keep going, and cross the completion line, remember there are a few simple ways to make Inertia, Fear, Lack of Time, Wavering Motivation, and Unclear Commitment instantly irrelevant.