DID YOU EVER WONDER what happens before a writer sits down to actually write a book? I’d be glad to tell you. It’s simple. We plan. Much like with any of life’s big projects – college, weddings and feasts, for instance – there is a lot of prep that goes down before the major event actually unfolds. I think the idea of planning for a book is a shock to many. So let’s resolve to start the new year off shock-free, shall we?
Planning a book is the first step of actually writing one, and the most misunderstood in this wondrous, creative process. http://bit.ly/2hNuoeR @mroachsmith
So with that in mind, here is my 5-step system for planning to write a book.
1. Make time.
The first thing you need to do to write a book is to grid out your time. Honestly, on a grid. Make time for your work. Assign time for this book. In anyone’s life it will take a few weeks to nudge and rejigger things so that every day, at least five days per week, you can devote sufficient time to the work. So grid it out now for how you will live several weeks from now.
Writing time may be no more than 45 minutes a day for some of you. I know. I have a multitude of memoir writing students and clients who work full time and have kids, spouses, partners, homes, dogs, cats, horses, (one even has seriously old mules she tends. Not kidding), and for whom 45 minutes each day during the week is all they’ve got. So we use it. And we cherish it. And we preserve it. But first, we put it on a grid.
My grid is on an old shirt cardboard, the rectangular thing that comes back from the shirt laundry with, yup, a shirt folded around it. Real fancy, right? Works for me. And some day in the future, when I run out of the remarkable pile of hand-me-down shirt cardboards I stockpiled from a well-heeled friend, I will use whatever rectangular cardboard I can find. But I will grid out my time. Always.
This year, I also supplied myself with an old-fashioned desk blotter calendar (I use this one) so, at a glance, I can see where I need to be and when. This is particularly convenient for me when scheduling memoir coaching clients in various time zones around my existing grid.
2. Gather your wits.
In my case, this means collecting those little scraps of paper I’ve got stashed everywhere. If, like me, you are guilty of writing while driving – I keep a spiral pad tied to the gear shift of my car – you have a lot of notes. Just today, I ripped them all off that in-car pad, gathered the ones near the bed from that in-bedroom pad, the ones from the in-bathroom pad and the other ones from my pad next to my table setting (yes, my family tolerates this habit nicely. They’ve got their own eccentricities, I promise).
What to do with those notes? Get yourself a wide-mouth legal folder and shove them all in there. (We’ll address what is above that wide-mouth folder in a minute. Warning, though: It’s a book argument. Gird yourself. We’re going to talk about how to make an argument). Anyway, all those notes? In they go. Come on. Empty your pockets, clean out your purse or bag, and rip that top sheet off of every single pad you’ve got lying around.
If, instead, you take notes on any device, collect them all in one place. A file. Call it Book Notes. For you are now planning a book.
3. Ask yourself, “What is this book about?”
No, no. I see what you’re doing. You’re getting up from the chair. Suddenly you’ve got somewhere else to be. But of course. “What is it about” is the question that sends more writers to the bottle than any other single inquiry. But let’s not drink. Or leave. Let’s decide.
Your book is not about you. It’s not about your plot. It is about something universal and you are the illustration of that thing. That is if you want anyone to read it. And you do.
So right now: Decide. What is your book about? Is it about learning the value of honor? Is it about finally seeing the uselessness of shame? Is it about those onion-skin-thin slices of grief that get doled out along the way to learning to live with loss? Is about how to get some humor in your life, or how dogs do things for people that people cannot do for themselves?
What is your book about? Write it down and tack it to that wall of yours, yes, right there, behind your computer screen. The point is that every single time you look up you want to be forced to reckon with this one, single theme.
4. What is your argument?
Uh oh. There you go again, trying to slink off.
No one likes this question. Just the other night in one of my online memoir classes I told the story of someone at the famed Chautauqua Institute actually walking out of one of my classes during my opening remarks on how to write memoir. Before she left, she really let me have it, insisting that her book was about her, that her life was interesting. Yeah, It happens. And while I have no doubt that her life is indeed interesting, I also have no doubt that unless she went and got herself an argument, that book remains unwritten to this day.
And that’s sad, since when you use my 5-step plan for writing a book, you get a book, not more defensive posturing about why you do not yet have one.
So sit still and think. You will be doing a lot of that in the coming months as you write that book, so do so now.
All non-fiction is an argument. So what are you arguing? Are you arguing that those onion-skin layers of grief provide cumulative knowledge on how to move forward with loss, but that rushing things will only stop that precious process? Are you arguing that learning not to cling to joy is the only way to appreciate it? What are you arguing? Are you arguing that life is hard unless you have a good cat to love?
5. Write down your argument.
See that cat argument in the paragraph above? It’s the one I use in my little book, The Memoir Project, so maybe it’s familiar to you. Here it is mapped out in the photo to the left. See how it looks? That’s how I do it. Nothing fancy. The argument is written horizontally across the top of an old manila file folder. The vertical black lines divide that argument into three acts. The vertical red lines divide it into beats, giving each beat of that argument its own column, under which I will then list the scenes from my life that cumulatively prove that beat. (This is an example of an argument I use when teaching, and not the one I’m writing about now).
See how this works? (And, if you are really lucky, you have a friend like the great Pamela Hodges who will draw you as a cat and send you dog and cat art for your wall).
This is how it’s done: You map out your time, you collect your wits, you decide what your book is about, you write out your argument and you slap that argument to the wall.
Now you can get up.
Now you’ve got a plan.