I don’t believe in writer’s block. (I can hear the gasps of disbelief already.) Listen: If you hire a plumber to come to your house and fix a problem, do you expect him to say, “Sorry, I can’t figure out what your problem is. I think I have plumber’s block”? Probably not, and if he did, you’d toss him out and call another guy faster than you can say Drano. Not that plumbing can be compared to writing, but if we follow the proper steps to get the job done, I find that writer’s block melts away, the drains are unclogged, and the words start flowing like water from a faucet. But what are these “steps”? Well, a big part of my job as a book marketing specialist is to help people create something they can actually market: a finished book. Many of us have ideas aplenty but not a clue how to get them down on paper.
Unlike other professions, authors operate under a whole different set of rules. We often can’t just sit down and pound out a story, and those who do have created their own formula for doing so. We see this huge story with all sorts of directions we want to take it, we see the cover, we see the characters, we see the market potential. Then we see Katie Couric or Oprah smiling and holding up our book for the whole world to see. Then we glance back down at our monitor and see a tormenting blinking cursor and blank screen. And we are again reminded of what a failure we are. We have all these stories and nothing on paper. We are idea generators. We have zillions of them running through our minds, but none of them on paper. Unless you make your money in a think tank, operating this way probably isn’t getting you any closer to your goals.
When a project looms before us, it’s like this big elephant — huge, overwhelming and ready to stomp us flat any minute. There’s an old saying: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” The same is true for writing. You finish a book, one step at a time. But to create these steps, you first have to break down your book into manageable, bite-size pieces. This can be accomplished by creating a TOC (table of contents) that can guide you through the book. My reasoning behind this is as follows: You’d never think of driving from California to New York without a map, right? Well, how can you expect to finish your book without one? Your TOC is your roadmap, guiding you through your book. If your chapters don’t have individual headings, then write a 2-3 sentence description of what the chapter encompasses. Don’t get too elaborate on this. Remember, it’s not going in your book; it’s just a brief descriptor. Once the TOC is outlined, you’ll have a vision of your book from start to finish.
A few things that creating this TOC will do for you: It will show you any gaps in your story that might need to be fleshed out, and it will give you a sense of completion, of seeing the book or project actually done, and this is a serious psychological turn-on for most authors, because we often live in a world of half-completed projects. Sometimes this step alone can propel an author enough to get their book done, or at the very least give it a darned good kick-start.
Once you’ve developed your TOC, you’ll want to go through it and create a “to do” list. Regardless of what genre your book is, you will always have a to-do list. Whether it’s getting endorsements, doing research, or getting approvals for quotes or excerpts for your book, this to-do list will become yet another item that will help propel your book toward completion.
Once the to-do list is done, set it aside. Now you should have your completed TOC with a vision of the entire book and a growing list of items that will need to be handled for the book to get done. Now the real fun begins.
Some books on writing will tell you to set aside a day or two a week, or an evening here and there to get your book completed. I disagree with this theory, and here’s why: You need to stay dialed into your topic. When I was working on an upcoming book, I would often put the project aside for days or weeks at a time, promising myself to schedule time “as soon as I could.” Well, that rarely happened. What I found is that if I set aside some time every day to do something on the book, I got it completed a lot quicker.
The more you keep your hands in your project, the more it will stay at the front of your mind and on your radar screen, and the more energy you will invest to finish it. I won’t tell you to set aside hours of your time each day — in fact, you don’t even have to set aside an hour. Take 15 minutes, or even five — whatever your schedule permits. If this seems like a ridiculously short amount of time, consider this: You now have your to-do list and your outlined TOC! . If you are short on time one day, pick a quickie item from your to-do list and get it done. If you have more time, then pound out a chapter or two. The idea behind creating the to-do lists and a TOC is to not only give your project a structure, but to also eliminate any and all excuses for getting it done. Don’t feel like writing today? No problem. There’s probably a mountain of research just waiting to be traversed. Get the picture?
But let’s say you can’t even get through the TOC. “My book has too many layers,” you lament. “Too many back stories, tons of stuff going on. I can’t possibly be expected to filter it down into a neat little TOC.” Yes, you can, and you must. If your book has no focus, your book will have no focus. It’s as simple as that. But it doesn’t stop there — if your book is all over the place and you do actually manage to get it done, you’ll never be able to keep a reader interested because you will be the only one who will get it, and what’s the point of that? What you’ll need to do in this case is find the “core” of your book or the focus of your story. Ask yourself this: What’s the one thing this book cannot do without? What’s the one thing this story circles around? That’s your core. If you’re still coming up with three or four things that your story circles around, you aren’t focused enough and neither is your book. Find that one thing and build your story or book around it.
If you follow these steps, your book will get finished quicker than you could have ever imagined. And the once-dreaded writer’s block will go from a stumbling block to a building block.