“I don’t know where to start!” she wailed. (I exaggerate for dramatic effect.) “I have so much material to work with. I could start with the scene where [dramatic thing] happens, or I could start where [agonizing thing] happens, or I could start at the end where [super-great thing] happens. I’m overwhelmed.”
“OK,” I said. “I hear how passionate you are about writing this book. And when you have so much information, it can be hard to know where to start. Here’s what I suggest: you’re writing history, which has a chronology. Start by mapping out the timeline so you understand the logical flow. Write the book in that form so you have something on the page. Then you can decide what the most powerful opening is.”
“Oh. That makes sense.”
The Problem: Too Many Options
Writing a book is a gnarly undertaking that can cause even experienced writers to flounder. There is no one right way to write a book, which means the possibilities are endless. And when the possibilities are endless, the mind gets overwhelmed. As the Newsweek article “The Science of Making Decisions” notes, “Decision science has shown that people faced with a plethora of choices are apt to make no decision at all.”
Toss in the tendency that some of us have for trying to anticipate every conceivable path forward so we don’t take a wrong step and…we freeze in our tracks. It’s like the brain gets caught in a processing loop.
The Solution: Return to the Process
To overcome this spinning, we must first remember the writing process:
- Ideate – You begin developing your intent, the thing you want to accomplish with this piece of writing.
- Draft – You get the initial words on the page in unpolished form.
- Revise – You assess your draft for how well it achieves your intent. You may need to revise for clarity or effectiveness or even make structural changes.
- Edit – When your piece is solidly on track, you edit for style and tone, linguistic flourishes and voice, and of course grammar, punctuation, and other “rules.”
- Proofread – Lastly, you clean up the small mistakes—fixing periods, semicolons, misspellings, and so on.
In essence, our history writer was trying to revise her draft (step 3) before it even existed (step 2). With the writing process in mind, let’s look at how she can get started more effectively.
Identify the natural structure
Most books have a natural default structure based on their content. Several of my clients’ books illustrate common structures:
- Chronology – As with the example above, a timeline is a natural starting place for history or memoir. Jonathan Alcott’s memoir, Wouldn’t Have Missed It for the World, is largely chronological.
- Process – A step-by-step sequence is appropriate for a how-to book where things must take place in order. The second half of Becky Sansbury’s book After the Shock is organized by process: first look at your experience, then test your assumptions, then assess your resources.
- Principles – When the ideas being presented add up to the whole but are not sequential, organizing by concept makes sense. Alan Hoffler’s Presentation Sin is organized by three core concepts—Conduit, Content, Connection—that contribute to being a better communicator.
- Argument – Many nonfiction books offer a thesis or take a position, and then offer support for that position (it could be through inductive or deductive reasoning). A. Charles’ book Owning Ourselves takes the reader through a series of propositions culminating in his recommendations for becoming more awake to the world.
While there are variations and combinations, in my experience one strong organizational framework typically supports the book.
Key point: Start with the natural logical structure; you can fancy it up later.
Start writing what’s easiest
Once you’ve got the logical structure defined and outlined to a level of detail you like, pick a nice, small, simple element and start writing. You can choose something at the beginning, middle, or end; it doesn’t matter. The goal is to get words on the page, so do yourself a favor: make it as easy as possible.
History happens through a series of events (scenes or mini-stories) that add up to a greater story arc. Our history author could start writing about any of the events in her story; they are discrete elements. She can choose what she finds most interesting, most dramatic, or most foundational—whatever feels easily doable.
Starting with the easy stuff also helps you make quick progress, so when you tackle the harder elements, they won’t feel as difficult.
Key point: Start easy to gain momentum.
Revise for impact
Once you have a draft, you can decide if your starting structure is the best approach. Remember, revision is about assessing your draft to see if it achieves your intent.
For example, our history author might write her history book in sequential order, but then find it feels too much like “this happened, then this happened, then this happened.” As a result, she might decide to present it partly in chronological order, but with flashbacks for impact. Or she might decide to “bookend” the story by starting at the climax with no resolution, then going to the beginning, and finally ending with the resolution.
But shouldn’t I be able to figure this all out up front? you may ask. Revision seems like a lot of extra work.
Well, consider: If you stay stuck with your brain in spin mode and you never get words on the page, you are spending a lot of mental energy without accomplishing anything.
On the other hand, if you start writing, even if it requires some rewriting later, you’re much further ahead.
Key point: You have to start someplace—if you eventually realize it’s not the right place, revise.
Case study: Me!
Books are not the only place this I-can’t-get-started problem crops up. I had an inchoate idea for this blog post—something about getting started when you’re stuck (it’s all very meta)—but I wasn’t really sure what I was trying to get at. I scribbled several pages with little success. Finally I mapped out a structure: problem, explanation, solution, steps.
I typed up a draft (well three actually) then looked at it and said, “Nope, need to revise.” My draft was not achieving my goal. I was including way too much information (you should see all the sources I was going to add). If my goal was to say “pick an easy way to start, get a draft, then revise later,” I was going way overboard.
Around version five, I finally felt like I was getting to the point. Sometimes you know exactly what you want to say; sometimes you don’t.
The bottom line is…
You have to start in order to finish.
If you’re stuck spinning, you may need to talk with a friend, colleague, or even a book coach to help you see your structure. (Here I am—ready to help you get unstuck.)