How to write a book: Writing (3/3).

This is the final part, of a 3-part series on how I wrote my first book and the lessons that I learned that are shaping how I write my second book. I am not an expert writing a precise how-to manual on book writing, however, I have learned lessons from my successes and failures that might help you become a more effective writer. If you missed the first and second parts of this blog, click here to start at week one. Just for fun, today I’ve added [68] numbers in brackets through out this blog entry to give you an idea of word-counts. Hopefully that won’t be too annoying.

Once we’ve outlined our book and done our research, it’s time to get to the fun part — writing! My good friend and future Overboard author, Mel Walker, told me once, “Writers, write”. In other words, what makes you a writer is not that you outline or not that you research but that you actually sit down and write. Taking time to develop a good outline and being studious in our research are necessary evils that ultimately should allow us to write more, and write more effectively — both quantity and quality. But once you’ve done the prep work, it’s time to write.

Everybody has a different idea about how to actually sit down and write a book. I’ve talked to a couple of authors who hole-up in some remote cabin in the woods and write their books in 3-4 days without distraction. I’m not one of those guys, although I did use a weekend get-a-way to get a big jump on my second book. Others I know have taken months or even a year to write a book, choosing to write a little bit each day until the project is finished. There is no formula for writing. It’s just a matter of being a writer and sitting down to write.

For Project Joseph, I stumbled around trying to find what worked for me. I tried the slow and steady approach, but got stalled mid-way through the book and ended up taking a 4 month writing hiatus. Then I tried the 3-day approach, and after 20 minutes on the first day I knew I wasn’t cut out for intensive writing. Finally, I took down my calendar, looked at a month — in this case, November — and set a 30 day writing goal to finish my book.  [397]. I had finally done my outline and research, so I was confident I could spend my days writing, not just prepping.

With the goal of finishing the book in mind, I knew I wanted my book to fall in the 45-50,000 word range, so I decided to set a word-count writing goal for each day of November. My wife and I had just recently put up a white-board in our bedroom as a place to track our goals, share dreams and visually map out the plans we believed God had for us. It’s great to start and end each day dreaming about God’s plans for our future and this became the natural place to start tracking my book progress.

Next to each day of the month, I wrote out a word count goal and then when November rolled around, I started writing. I would check off the day if I had completed my goal and soon found myself way ahead of schedule. I learned that I could hammer out 1,200 to 1,500 words in 60-90 minutes if I knew where I was going when I started. Since I had done my outline and research, the writing was more natural and came much easier. It also helped that I was writing each day so when I opened up my lap top to get started, the ideas from the day before were still fresh in my mind. In previous writing attempts, I’d come back to the text 3 weeks after I had last written and I couldn’t quite recall what I was thinking or what direction I was going. In fact, I remember coming back to my computer and finding sentences that I left off in the middle of a word! Hard to get back into the groove when you don’t even know how you were planning to end a sentence.

Here are some of the key lessons I grew from during that month of writing:

* Finish your writing session when you get to the end of a thought or idea, not when you hit your word count. There were days I only wrote 900 words [763] , but I had finished the key thought and the next one was going to take up more than my remaining 300-500 words for my goal. Likewise, there were days I wrote close to 2000 words because at 1,200 I was just hitting my stride on a particular thought or idea. The word count was a great goal for me, but it served as a guide, not a straight-jacket. The word count forced me to sit down each day and produce material for my book, but I wasn’t willing to sacrifice rhythm or flow in order to satisfy the word count goal.

* Schedule days off of writing. This was a big one for me and might be for you, too. I intentionally planned days not to write. Like most of you, writing isn’t my full-time vocation. Maybe one day that will be the case but right now, I easily work 55-60 hours a week at my regular job. Adding another 7-10 hours of writing plus the craziness of kids’ schedules, dating my wife and school activities — and suddenly each day is very full. While I wanted to finish my book, I didn’t want to make my wife or kids hate me or the project because they felt neglected. Those scheduled days off I used to intentionally focus my time on them [990].

* Create a place for “not now but still a really good idea” ideas. While writing Project Joseph, a book about dealing with your past pain, I came across some great ideas for my next book, Project Nehemiah, a book about how to lay out plans for your future while still keeping your focus on God and His plans for you. The problem was, I wasn’t writing Project Nehemiah, I was writing Project Joseph. So what do you do with those ideas? I created a file in my writing program where I stuffed that Project Nehemiah material away. Later, when I started outlining my second book, I had all that material stored and it was easy to find and incorporate into the work I was doing on that book. By doing that, I saved myself hours of wandering on rabbit trails but still kept the information I found or had written that was pertinent to my second book. (speaking of rabbit trails…if you have a mac and love to write, I highly recommend Scrivener writing software. It really is comprehensive and actually made for writers. It allows you to have incredible control over how you store and organize your material — I absolutely love it and think it’s worth every penny to purchase!)

* Edit less, write more. Some of you will not like this idea at all, but it seems that many writers I’ve spoken to have echoed this same sentiment. Write, write, write. Editing will happen later, but when the ideas are in your head, when the flow of the book is cruising along, it’s time for you to write, not to edit what you’re writing. You’ll have plenty of time to edit after you’re done, but don’t the let the process of editing hamper your writing. Get your thoughts on paper, even if it isn’t pretty or spelled correctly or full of dangling this and thats. Your book should get edited by someone who isn’t you (more on that in a moment), but your book should only be written by someone who is.

* Blow through roadblocks. When you come across a section of your book that just isn’t quite coming together, skip it and move on. You can come back to it later and will probably experience more success. I recently told [1372] a future Overboard author that she should not let troublesome chapters keep her from writing future chapters. She had an idea of what she wanted to say in chapter five — for example — but just couldn’t figure out how to say it. So I encouraged her to skip it and move on to chapter six. Don’t let a roadblock bust up your writing rhythm. If you’ve done well in your outlining and research, skipping ahead won’t be that challenging.

When your book is done, be sure to get it edited by someone else. The problem with trying to edit our own material is that we can hear our own voice; we know what we mean to say. You need someone else to look at your book because they will hear what you actually said, regardless of what you meant. I can’t tell you how many times this happened in Project Joseph where my editor would ask, “What in the name of Sam Hill are you trying to say with xxxx?” I would explain it to her and then she was able to correct the problem and help my words say what my brain wanted them to. This never would have happened had I edited the book myself. I think most of us want to believe we can write and edit our own material without problem; few (any?) of us should.

I hope these ideas encourage you to step out of the comfort of the boat and to start writing the message God has given you.

Go ahead and take the plunge — life is better on the water!

How to write a book (Part 1), How to write a book (Part 1)

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One Response to How to write a book: Writing (3/3).

  1. Joe…another great post. I appreciate the pointers. I’ve not written a book (or even tried to) but some of the thoughts were transferable even for shorter writing projects.
    (And…as a side note I love the whiteboard idea. Great visual way to organize goals and dreams rather than just letting them get discussed and not re-visited)

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