Six impossible things

Getting the book out of the bucket

It’s a new year, and for the last week or so, people have been talking about New Year’s resolutions and bucket lists. “Write a book” seems to turn up with enormous frequency on lists like “The Top Fifty New Year’s Resolutions of 2015/16/17/18” and “100 Things You Should Have on Your Bucket List.”

I’m not really sure why this is. In some cases, there seems to be an assumption that everyone can and should write a book, because … well, just because. In other cases it seems to be more of a fantasy, like “I’d like to visit the moon some day” or “I’d like to conduct a symphony at Carnegie Hall” – something that people aren’t really committed to doing, but have a vague notion that it would be very nice if they actually happened to do it.

You can tell by the way they talk about it. “I’ve always wanted to write a book,” one lady told me last summer. “It’s on my bucket list.” She sounded as if she didn’t really care whether she wrote a book on the fine points of cement mixing or a children’s story about talking animals in space.

But cranking out enough words on a random topic to count as “a book” by most people’s standards – which is what “I want to write a book” means – is a fantasy, like “I want to play a major sport.” It leaves too much out – a team sport, or an individual one? Fiction or nonfiction?

There’s also the question of how much time playing a sport or writing a book is going to take. I think it is pretty safe to assume that nobody wants to play a sport badly, or write a terrible book, but there is a lot of territory between there and winning the PGA tour or a Pulitzer prize. And territory takes time to cover.

Most people can pick up a golf club and smack a few balls, or sit down at a keyboard and tap out a page or two of prose on their favorite subject. Getting the ball to go where you want it reliably, or getting the prose to convey what you want to someone who isn’t you…that’s another matter. There’s also the business of specific skill requirements; tennis and golf both require swinging something at a ball, but the skills involved are quite different. Similarly, writing good nonfiction is quite a bit different from writing a children’s picture book or a mystery novel.

In other words, to get “write a book” off their bucket list, the first thing a person would have to do is think about the kind of book they want to write, in gradually increasing detail. The first choice is, obviously, fiction or nonfiction? Having decided that, look at genres. Mystery or mainstream? How-to book or inspirational memoir? Nonfiction is often a better choice for people who “want to write a book” – everyone is good at something, which gives them a topic and some tips and tricks to write about. Memoir or autobiography are equally good; most folks can talk quite a lot about themselves, and preserving family stories can provide the motivation as well as the subject matter. Or one could pick a topic one finds fascinating, but doesn’t know much about, and research it until one feels competent to write about ancient Chinese boat construction or South American textiles (this may look like more work, but if one is really interested in the subject, it isn’t).

Fiction…well, most people who want to write fiction are pretty clear that they don’t just want to write a book; they want to write a particular book. Sometimes, the particulars are still a little vague, like the gentleman I met last summer who wanted to write a picture book for his grandchildren. More often, the would-be fiction writer not only has a notion of the kind of fiction they want – mystery, mainstream, science fiction, horror, Westerns – but also a general idea of what they want it to be about. For these folks, “I want to write a book” is shorthand, a way to answer the bucket list question without boring uninterested listeners with specifics like “I want to write a book about a mermaid who wants to be an astronaut.”

Once one knows what kind of book one wants to write, one gets to the next step. No, not outlining or planning – figuring out what writing process is going to work for the would-be author and for the book they want to write. Personal taste rarely enters into this equation. You may hate doing research and pre-planning, but if you want to write a decent story set in the later part of the Roman Empire, you are almost certainly going to need to do some research in advance. Similarly,  most people know that the tried-and-true daily routine of butt in chair, fingers on pen/keyboard works for the vast majority of other writers, but very few want to give it a serious try themselves, at least, not first thing.

If you have a successful process for writing other sorts of things – college papers, reports for work…anything long, really – start with that. It might not work; sometimes your fiction process is different from your nonfiction one, or your college/work-report process won’t work even though you’re trying to write nonfiction. But don’t start from the assumption that what you know works on X absolutely won’t work on Y.

In other words, test the obvious stuff first. If you have a process that works for writing other things, see if it will also work on what you want to write. If you don’t have a current process that works, start with the one that works for the most people: a daily routine of sitting down and writing.

  1. Even I, adamant devotee of an irregular schedule, have at least tried writing every day. It didn’t work for me, but it was worth the experiment. And I have learned that I can write a lot more frequently than I once thought.

  2. This reminds me of the famous anecdote about the writer Margaret Laurence. When a brain surgeon learned she was a writer he gushed that when he retired he was going to write a book. ‘What a coincidence!” said Laurence. “When I retire, I’m going to be a brain surgeon.” Recounted in the book Here Be Dragons by Peter C. Newman.

  3. My tried and true process for getting a nonfiction book finished is to assign the draft as the reading for the course I am teaching. I don’t think that will work for novels.

    The process which does seem to work is to assign myself two hours a day seven days of work on my various writing projects, fiction and non-fiction. The effect is somewhat diluted by the fact that I count reading your blog as work on my writing projects.

    Now back to work.

    • While I am flattered, I have to point out that this can be a slippery slope. As long as you are producing plenty of words, it’s probably not a problem, but I have known quite a few writers who started by counting their Internet research time as “writing time” and ended up counting everything from schmoozing with editors (and of course the travel time to get to New York to do it) to watching movies to writing a blog to attending writing programs and conventions…with the result that they went YEARS without actually writing any of the fiction they were supposedly working on.

      Writers can be VERY good at not-writing.

      • I just finished the first draft of my third novel–although I think it has problems that still need to be dealt with. I also have a nonfiction draft on legal systems very different from ours that a publisher is looking at. So not that good at not writing.

        But I concede that every man is a biased judge in his own case, and I am probably too generous in what I count as writing time.

  4. I can’t honestly count time spent reading this blog as “writing time,” no matter how much I enjoy it. Nor even time spent in therapeutic whining while writing comments here. On the other hand, there do seem to be various levels of dilution, when it comes to writing time.

    There’s writing time that advances the word-count of the first draft.

    There’s producing notes and essays of various sorts that don’t go into the actual manuscript – character notes, world-building essays, brainstorming notes, lists, and outlining of different kinds.

    There’s rewriting & revising, either after the first draft is finished, or as a rolling revision.

    There’s worrying over a plot or story problem in your mind, as you do other things (showering, mopping the kitchen floor, hanging up clothes post-laundry, vacuuming the cat…) But this needs to count as very dilute writing time (maybe 5 min writing time per hour spent) or not counted at all.

    And any of it, except (probably) the actual-advance-word-count time can be overdone and turned into a wasted-time sink.

    • But this needs to count as very dilute writing time (maybe 5 min writing time per hour spent) or not counted at all.

      Agreed. I only count new words in the manuscript.

      Research, nots on research, plot mulling, scene mulling, revising, and other such tasks are necessary, but they are not writing. IMO.

      • One of my pet peeves is when someone “agrees” with me about something that I did not say. Especially when I do not agree with what the other person “agrees” about.

        In this particular case, I did not say that all of the tasks other than adding new words should only count as very dilute or not counted at all toward writing time. I only said that “worrying over a plot or story problem in your mind, as you do other things (showering, mopping the kitchen floor, hanging up clothes post-laundry, vacuuming the cat…)” should count as very dilute or not counted at all toward writing time.

        And I do not agree with you about only new words added to the manuscript counting as writing.

Leave a Reply

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,