Writing a Book, One Step at a Time

Recently a few people have approached me on social media, letting me know that they want to write a novel, but the idea of writing an entire book scares them. And my first reaction is Yes, you should be a little scared! Writing a novel is a huge project. It takes a long time and a lot of work. I just sent my tenth full-length novel off to my editor and I still get overwhelmed when I think about the amount of words I’ll have to write, and the amount of work I’ll have to do, to get my next story told.

There’s only one way I know of that helps me get my head around the enormity of a book, and that’s avoidance. Seriously, I avoid thinking about the size of the project. Why? Because writing a book is hard. It will take many, many hours, it will be frustrating, it might make me cry a few times, and I will definitely have moments when I wonder why in the world I am doing this. If I think about those things, I may not write another book!

So instead I focus on what sets my creative spirit on fire. The characters, their growth, the setting, the emotional journey they’re embarking on and what they’ll learn along the way. I focus on arranging words in pretty patterns and trying to show what it is that I love about this crazy world we live in, and what I’ve learned from some of the hard stuff I’ve been through.

And when I don’t feel excited about all of that stuff? Then I focus on putting one word in front of another.

Let me tell you how I learned that skill. I was fortunate that, as I was trying to finish the very first draft of my very first book, I had also decided to run a half-marathon. I was getting close to my forty-fifth birthday at the time, and kind of freaking out about that milestone. (Though now, having said goodbye to age fifty a few months ago, that panic seems kind of quaint!) To cope with my worries, I set two goals that I would achieve during the month I turned forty-five. I’d finish the romance novel I’d been working on in tiny bits and pieces for a decade, and I would run a half marathon.

At the time, I was in decent shape, but I wasn’t running that regularly. I biked a lot, pulling my little boy behind me in a bike trailer, and I could run a couple miles without too much trouble. But the idea of running thirteen miles felt almost impossible. I just could not envision myself being able to do it. The most I’d ever run, at the very peak of my pre-baby fitness, was seven miles. And now I was post-baby, with my body feeling wide, unfamiliar, and far less comfortable than it had felt before.

I decided that the only way I was going to run thirteen miles was to not think about the number thirteen very much. Because every time I thought about it, I felt completely overwhelmed. Instead, I downloaded a training guide from the internet, and just did what it said to do, every day. I started with the two miles I knew I could do, and slowly built up from there. Three miles, four miles, six miles, eight miles. I just kept getting out there every day, and doing the task in front of me.

Don't think about all 13 miles

Until one day, weeks after I’d started, I was out on a ten-mile run. I couldn’t believe I’d reached that milestone, and I was thrilled, but I was also really, really tired. I made it home by reminding myself that all I had to do was put one foot in front of the other. That was my only task. And as long as I did that, I’d make it home eventually.

And that’s when I realized that training for a half-marathon was just like writing a book. One word in front of the other. One sentence in front of the other. A paragraph. A scene. A chapter. Then do it again. Don’t think about the end result too much. Don’t think about those thirteen miles or those eighty-thousand words. Just do what’s next, and do it diligently, and eventually you’ll get there. So I did that with my manuscript, and after ten years of trying, I finished a first draft!

If I’d let the idea of thirteen miles intimidate me, I’d never have trained, never have gotten myself in such great shape and never run my half-marathon. If I’d let the idea of an entire book loom too large in my psyche, I’d never have finished that first novel. Or the nine that followed.

And as I start on chapter two of my eleventh novel today, I still avoid thinking about the end product. It seems too far away. It seems unattainable. But I can write this next sentence. This next scene. I can finish this chapter. So that’s what I’ll do. And eventually, if I keep doing just that, if I keep putting one word in front of another, I’ll have my next book.

So if you want to write a book, but you are stuck, or scared, just start writing. Challenge yourself to write a sentence or a paragraph. Write one scene. Then do it again. Don’t think too much about the word ‘book’ or your final word count. Just keep setting aside the time, keep writing another paragraph, and I promise you that you’ll get there, one word at a time.

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