The Writing Process, Part V: Writing a Non-Fiction Book
This is my fifth post in a series on writing a non-fiction book. I have discussed selecting a topic, searching for a publisher, developing a book proposal, and researching a non-fiction book. In this posting, I will discuss the writing process.
When I was a young man thinking about writing a book, I assumed that writing was somehow a mystical event, a magical process when the muse would be perched on my shoulder as I zipped through pages of work in a feverish delirium. I admit that at times I have felt inspired while my fingers danced across the keyboard, bathing me in a joyous sweat as I stared at a blank computer screen and created something out of nothing. Alas, inspiration is often elusive. Long, bitter experience has taught me that the muse is not always present. In my case, she is almost never around.
I don’t mean to discount the importance of inspiration in writing. Hey, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Great for you! My experience, however, suggests that inspiration is a rarity.
This observation means that a writer must be prepared to work even when the task becomes a chore, even when thinking up words and sentences becomes a slog through endless piles of research materials and notes, the worst sort of drudgery imaginable.
I am convinced that many would-be writers don’t finish writing their books because it is exceedingly difficult to sustain their interest for months or years at a time. They don’t possess the tenacity to make it to the end.
Hey, if it were easy, everyone would do it.
I’m not talking about talent here—I will discuss talent in a future blog—but perseverance. Writing a book takes time, sometimes years. A writer is often alone with his or her books and notes, hunched over a keyboard desperately trying to create a polished narrative with little or no guidance. Maybe an editor is screaming for the pages, and maybe not.
The harsh truth is that even when they finish writing their books, most writers don’t become rich, famous, bestselling celebrities. If a person’s dream is to get rich quick, swagger around while wearing a turtleneck shirt and herringbone jacket with patches on the elbows, and pontificate on book club sales and movie rights, it is unlikely that the dream will come true. Most writers don’t quit their day jobs or buy yachts with their book royalties.
A writer faces the prospect of laboring day-in, day-out, alone, for little or no money, with no acclaim. How can anyone but the most perverted masochist of all time endure such agony?
The unlikely promise of getting rich or famous isn’t enough of a potential reward to keep a writer working. The motivation must come from an overwhelming desire to write no matter what. Almost every writer I have ever known will explain his or her motivation this way: He or she cannot imagine a life without writing. The writer writes because he or she has no choice. Writing is almost as natural as breathing. That is an exaggeration, of course, but the point is that a writer is so infused with the writing bug that quitting is not an option.
Yes, some people write for other reasons. A professor needs tenure, so he or she slaves over a “tenure book.” An entrepreneur is trying to broaden the sales platform, and a book can help do that. A person wants the attention that hawking a book can provide.
True writers, though, write because they love the process.
Let us then talk about the process.
For some writers, it is important to write every day. “I must complete 500 words before the end of the day. I have miles to go before I sleep,” is a common refrain. Some writers have a set schedule. They rise from bed and spend an hour at the computer before heading off to the day’s misadventures. Still others write in the evenings.
I have never been willing or able to carve out a writing time every day. When I was practicing law, I often had to travel, which upset a fixed schedule. Later, as I moved into a new career as a teacher, I spent evenings designing exams, grading essays, and fielding student explanations about their dog eating their homework. (As an aside, nothing kills a grandmother faster than an impending final exam.) Raising my grandchildren has meant that life often intrudes on my writing schedule—journeys to and from school, soccer games, karate lessons, dentist appointments and the like. Many times, I have finished a day utterly exhausted. The thought of sitting in front of a computer is depressing. Writing a page or two is out of the question.
My writing schedule is usually fluid. I have a workable goal: I will finish writing Chapter 4 by the end of the month. I leave it until later to figure out how I will achieve that goal. I might spend four hours on a Sunday afternoon banging out 1,500 words or I might get up an hour early three days in a row when I am not traveling or otherwise over-booked. I almost always achieve my goal, but I don’t necessarily do it by setting a rigid writing schedule.
In short, each writer must find the time to write using whatever schedule works best for him or her.
Now comes the need for tenacity. It is easy, so easy, to let things slide. Life intervenes, professional commitments and deadlines intrude, and suddenly six months have passed. Six months become a year and a year becomes two, and life goes on. That half-finished book sits in computer memory, gone but never quite forgotten. This sort of thing happens all the time.
A writer must resist the urge to let things slide indefinitely. Whatever the schedule, and however long it takes, the work must be finished. Setting realistic goals and sticking to them as much as possible are crucial factors in a writer’s life.
Some folks prefer to say, “I have written a book,” rather than confess, “I am writing a book.” The process can be seen as a means to an end. If someone feels that way, writing will be a chore. The true writer enjoys the process, albeit perhaps not every part of writing, or every day. Still, if writing isn’t at least occasionally joyous—even when inspiration is lacking, even when it can feel like drudgery, even when a person is counting the words until the day’s allotment is completed—then it will be difficult to finish even a short project.
The bottom line: Writers write. No excuses, no apologies, no broken promises. They write and persevere. No. Matter. What.