It took me 12 years to finish my first book, 3 years for the second one, 9 months for my third, 6 months for the fourth, and 3 months for the fifth. At this rate, I’ll be writing a new book every week, right. Not quite, but it does get easier and certainly more pleasurable. My first book, Threshold of the Mind (formerly In the Image of God) is my first book, even though it was published as my third. The first version was complete in about 8 years, after 3 complete rewrites. It weighed in at a whopping 200,000 words (approx. 700 paperback pages) and included every idea I had ever had about the future, politics, human relations, and yes, the kitchen sink. It was dense and rambling, not altogether bad, but not what I had hoped for.
I set the book down for about two years and beat myself up for being a hack. In the meantime I wrote newspaper and magazine articles, short stories and poetry, things I could complete in a few days. The opposite of a book.
But in the back of my mind, my book kept whispering to me, “I’m not done, rewrite me.” No way, not after close to a million words piled in a drawer, backed up on 42 floppy disks (remember those?). It seemed indulgent, the book that would never be done, just writing and writing, until one day it would be 27 volumes completed the day before my death. My children would shrug when they saw it, then stuff me and the volumes into a casket.
Finally, I woke up ready to face it. Enough time had passed. I promised to be objective and honest about it, throw it away if it was no good. I would approach it as if someone else had written it and needed my help editing it. I sat down and read it cover to cover, without a pen, thoroughly subduing the desire to cringe and make notes. I just read it like a reader would. Hey, it wasn’t so bad, really good in spots, but there were problems.
I spent the next 3 months outlining the book, one chapter at a time. Who were the characters, the scenes, the action, the place, the plot developments? I used a spreadsheet to see the book in a logical way. It was a good exercise, one I hope never to have to do again. It was pretty tedious work.
When this was complete, I realized many things about my book. It had: too many characters; things I loved, but didn’t make any sense to the reader; action that was exciting and well presented, but didn’t advance the plot; and other stuff that didn’t help the story. I kept the core and began rewriting…again. It took about nine months this time. I went through again and cleaned stuff up (another couple of months), but essentially it was done. It was half the size now, 102,000 words, (310 pages). And best of all, I loved it, not liked it, loved it. That was my first book.
When I finished this time and showed my wife, strutting and proud of myself. She said, “good for you, now go write another one.” She had just read The War of Art too.
After that it got easier, much easier. The whole idea of a book being this enormous project that could take years and millions of words was behind me. I did it, I finished the first marathon and my feet didn’t break off, I got stronger instead. One step at a time, as they say. And that’s exactly what a book is, one word at a time. Find an idea, a story that you love and start it; don’t worry about how long it will be, or how long it will take. Don’t worry about doing it the way the experts tell you to, or agonizing if you should have a detailed plot or outline before you start, or if you should know the ending before you begin. None of that matters. It only matters that you do it.
Here’s another bit of advice, don’t tell anyone anything about it until you’re done (at least the first full draft). Maybe don’t even tell them you’re writing a book. Just pull it out one day and say, “hey you want to read my book?” Enjoy the jaw-drop effect. Because if you share it too early, your friends or family, or whomever you show it to, will have all kinds of helpful advice about your plot or characters. Or they’ll tell you it sounds like someone else they read, or the lead character reminds them of their ex-wife (whom they hate) or some other idea freezing crap. They can’t help themselves, they mean well, but everyone is a critic. And you’ll stutter or stop, and your great idea won’t seem so great anymore. Undeveloped ideas are like snowflakes, very, very fragile.