I know the cumbersome yet butterfly-inducing effect that choosing to write a book can have. Starting something from scratch is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult things humans can do. Especially these days, when we’re so used to convenience. We’re very good at finding the short cuts and celebrating the speediness of timelines.
But it’s also easy to see why we still feel a deep, reverent magic in our souls for things that take time, like when we hold a bottle of wine from decades ago, knowing the only way for it to get here was for it to wait. And wait. And wait!
And I know, as it is with many endeavors that ‘start from scratch,’ that your book’s starting line might look different from mine. Your journey will have its own pace. You may find smooth sailing where I found my obstacles.
Nevertheless, I want to map out my own writing journey because I know people hold their dreams hostage, waiting for one thing or another, more often than they set them free. Is a book waiting in your mind? Do you have a dream of being a writer? Do you want to tell your story? Create a world? Ask a question (like I did with mine)?
I’m going to break down my own process, because I know how helpful it is to see the full story. Zoom out and view the big picture. See the end result, and like a recipe that you feel born to make, salivate enough that you find your own Step One… and begin.
Step 1: Make the decision to write a book.
Writing a book wasn’t a part of my plan for a very long time. And I don’t mean it’s something I never thought of. I thought of it a lot. It came across my path more times than I could count. It came up in conversations with strangers and best friends alike.
I was on a sliding scale between hesitant and resistant for years, but then suddenly, I knew I was ready. The movement between “I don’t think writing a book is for me” and “I am ready to write a book” was centered around letting myself really think about it. Rather than pushing the thoughts away or deciding that I wasn’t ‘meant’ to write a book, I let the thoughts in.
I asked myself what I could possibly write about? What would it feel like? Would I be happy that I did it? What stories would I tell? Who am I writing to? Once those thoughts started rolling, I knew I was sliding way off my scale of doubt and smack dab into “Yep, I’m writing a book.” I actually share this story in more detail IN the book, so I won’t spoil it here.
But I think the advice I want to give you here is to check in with yourself on your readiness. Ask yourself honest questions, and you will be honest in your responses. Don’t force the timing or the topic into a shape that won’t be authentic to who you are and what you care about, because it’ll only be a frustrating journey. When you’re ready, you’ll be all in. And you’ll be able to face the writing challenges with energy and do that thing everyone will tell you to do: trust the process.
Step 2: Clarify your book’s focus.
Before you start writing, you need to narrow your focus. What thread will tie your story all together? What’s in it for the reader? In essence: What the heck is your book about? Start with the end result in mind and capture that feeling up front. Write down a work-in-progress purpose of the book.
This is how you begin to reverse engineer your outline, because when you know where you want your readers to end up, you can start building out 3 or 5 steps that might get them there. Then you can fill in the steps between the steps more easily. Little by little, you’re putting the bones together that will hold up the more delicate details later on. The truth is, focus is paramount, and you can only have one.
Your mission must be narrowed, narrowed, and narrowed again. And here’s the greatest spoiler of all: The book you think you’re going to write is almost never the book you write! (This is both good news and terrible news… Sometimes, the only way to narrow your focus is to write your way to it.)
The best author understands that the book isn’t about your story; it’s about everyone’s story. It is about something universal that we can all relate to, albeit within different circumstances. Trust me, this takes a TON of brainstorming time, but it’s so worth it. Most of us struggle with clarifying our book’s singular story. After all: How do we offer a theme so universal with a focus so narrow?
Step 3: Liberate yourself and just start.
This next step might feel easy and obvious, but I think if we’re honest, it falls more often into the “daunting and feeling ridiculous” category. Open a blank doc. Title it. Choose your font if you wish! Prepare the space you’re going to make something wonderful. Just like you wouldn’t feel very motivated to cook a delicious dinner in a messy or unready kitchen. It’s like flouring the surface before you knead the dough. Start the doc. And then get messy in it. Let the typos flow, my friend.
That’s what I did. I opened a doc and wrote a bunch of answers to “what is your book about?” all over the page. I wrote it like I would say it, like if Coco was asking me to explain my life’s mission over pancakes. And then I deleted everything that felt like fluff. What was left was my central thesis—what I wanted this book to say—or heck, what I wanted it to shout! Every single time I sat down to write, I tried to reckon with this one, single theme. (For me, that theme was all about pursuing wholeness.)
Can I give you a pro tip? If that blank page still feels too daunting, remember: Not all stories are written. Maybe you need to speak yours into existence first? Talking your stories out in a voice note and then transcribing works like a charm. Do whatever gets the words out of you and into the place you’re going to be able to weave them together.
Step 4: Commit to the writing process.
Commit to writing it all down, in whatever imperfect ways you can muster. Commit to carving out the emotional space to confront your story, and commit to seeing it through. And then? Commit to a deadline. Even if it feels pretty wild to think about that being when you’ll have your manuscript done, pick the date anyway.
Run wildly and imperfectly toward it. Yes, there will be a LOT of doubt and fear. Yes, that’s completely normal.
How long should you give yourself? I wish I could answer that one for you. You know how much time you have every week to write far better than I ever could; there’s no algorithm for this. But I would say pick something that scares you juuuust a little bit. Just enough to put a little fire underneath you. Just close enough to be able to imagine that day. Feel it as though it’s a little too real. That’s when you know you’ve chosen the right deadline.
Step 5: Cut what must be cut.
In other words, kill your darlings. You likely already know Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner’s famed phrase: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” It’s the crux of editing, writers ruthlessly eliminating some words that are beloved and beautiful and bold, but that don’t belong in this particular story.
The truth is, there are two “darlings” that most online writers struggle with: (1) stories that aren’t all that good, and (2) stories that are SO GOOD we’ve already told them. My advice? Kill every single story or lesson you’ve already referenced in a podcast, in email, on the blog, or on Instagram. Try to strikeout 100% of what you’ve said before. Start fresh. Start new. Give readers something to sink their teeth into, something brand new.
However, one caveat: Some stories are so paramount and central to your life that they naturally come up over and over again. Story arcs know how to circle back. Your life has themes, which means some stories pause with a comma and come back later for more. So, this isn’t to say you get one chance to speak about the story; it’s a caution to avoid redundancy. Stories stay special and valuable when we don’t overuse them.
Step 6: Finish what you started.
Now we’re headed into the “hard to wrap your head around” landscape: End draft one. Yep, slap a big ‘ole THE END on that baby—even if you’re not 100% sure it’s finished. Your book is going to go through so many changes in the editing process (and that’s an understatement). Only you can decide when you’re ready to start revising, but the truth is, you have to start somewhere, and it can be so tempting to never let yourself finish that first draft because you’re scared of what it means (or who will read it).
You’re going to realize very early on that this book is going to have your name on it. In print. Forever. That’s a bit of pressure, isn’t it? But it doesn’t have to be. After all is said and done, the best part of the entire journey isn’t publishing the book or promoting the book. It’s writing that very first draft. Yes, it was the most challenging. It asked for the most from me, from the deepest parts of me! But I wanted to pour out. I wanted to mean my words.
So, while writing was the part that scared me the most—the part I wondered if I could actually accomplish at all—it became the part that hooked me in. Line and sinker. My first book was such an important, transformative experience in my life, and I cannot imagine that it will be my last.
Step 7: Invite others in to help.
Yes, someone else is going to have to read this book before it’s out into the world. You’re going to need help as you edit, which means people are going to step in and say, “This works; this doesn’t.” You know those books you read that rocked your world? Remember that they started as messy manuscripts, too. And MANY hands and eyes beyond the author’s saw them before they became the pages you love.
Bring in friends, family, or an actual, legit editing team to help you throughout your refinement process. Accept the help, receive the guidance, and remember that no matter what feedback comes your way, you’re still in the driver’s seat! Balance trust in yourself with wisdom from the trusted people that you let in as best as you can.
But I will say, when you really, really trust them, they’re going to give you the best feedback and you’re going to want to follow it! A good team really makes a difference. So, your team will take shape depending on which publishing route you choose—I’m a big fan of both!
So, what’s your starting line going to be? Do you need to sit with your hesitancy for a moment and see what it’s made of? Or maybe you have too many ideas and aren’t sure where to start? Maybe you think you need another 10 years of living under your belt before you feel ready to put it all down on ink and paper? Either way, much like that deliciously aged wine, every bottle started with a grape.
Every book started with a word. Every answer started with an idea. A blank page, a question mark floating in someone’s mind as they wondered if they could be the one to answer it.
(Spoiler alert: You can.)