What’s stopping you writing your book?


You want to write your book; you’re not writing your book; why not? Before you blame yourself, the answer is never “Because I’m crap.” Even in the very unlikely event that you are crap, you’d still need to find a way to work around your crapitude, so let’s push on through to the more interesting and useful answers. We have all sorts of false thoughts and skewed approaches that stop us writing that book – here are seven of them. What’s stopping you? Note: This is a tough-talking guide, for those who like tough talking. Some people don’t, and that is a completely legitimate position and I will defend you from anyone who says otherwise. If you don’t like tough talk, scroll down past the various pointers (you may find some of them useful, but don’t let the tone make you curl up) to the Gentler Advice.

Calendar addiction

“The year’s basically over,” said my writing student miserably, on Halloween. “Maybe I’ll do better next year.”
I gaped. “There are two months left – that’s a sixth of the year. Do you also write off January and February?” It reminds me of people who wake up on Sunday and say mournfully, “The weekend’s almost over…” when they have fully half of it left.
Yes, there’s also Christmas in December – that’s 1-2 weeks off, so you still have 7-8 weeks (a month is more than 4 weeks), about the amount you get in January and February, when you’re hyper-productive and putting in place ALL THE PLANS. Start-of-the-year time isn’t “better time”, it’s just time. The only difference is that you’re energised by thinking “fresh start” and making fresh plans. So do that now.

We’re addicted to calendars, so we chuck away swathes of time.

Yes, we like the cleanliness and order of calendars. I wanted to finish my book this year. Ill-health intervened. It’s now impossible to finish my book this year – but that doesn’t mean I down tools until 1 January.

You don’t need to wait until 1 January to make a “fresh start” – in fact, you’re better off making that fresh start now. You win back two months, for a start. One year, inspired by Marcus Brigstocke’s BBC comedy advent calendar slot, I started unspooling and using my resolutions for the next year from 8 December, and it worked a treat.

We’re addicted to calendars. We want to start ALL THE THINGS  on the Fresh Start Day, but we’re better off adding new habits and activities one at a time, and we’re better off not chucking away swathes of leftover time. (And guess what? Hundreds of thousands of people write an entire book in November.)

All – or nothing at all!

Don’t wait for enough time: there will never be enough time. Use what time you have.

I don’t have enough time to clean the house, so I won’t clean. I don’t have enough time to write a good chunk of my novel, so I won’t write anything. I don’t have time to go for a proper walk, so I won’t go walking today.

Are you singing All Or Nothing At All?  It’s easy to fall into, it seems so natural, it’s called polarized thinking and it’s a common cognitive distortion.

Finding the complete amount of time you want will always be difficult, even with the best-managed diary. Days go awry and life interferes. Finding small amounts of time is always possible. I learnt from FlyLady to clean my house in ten-minute increments (ten minutes per day!) and I’m constantly amazed at how much I can do in ten minutes. If I don’t have half an hour for my walk, I can make it to the meadow and back in ten minutes. At least I’ll still get a bit of a walk, some fresh air, see how the mist or changing leaves look. If I don’t have time to write a chunk, I can write a snippet. Snippets add up.

Don’t wait for enough time: there will never be enough time. Use what time you have.

Whenever I have time

Whenever you have time doesn’t work: set aside the time.

This is the reverse flaw of wanting great chunks of time – you plan to write whenever you have time. Really? Waiting for the bus? On the loo? In the lulls between your spouse’s conversation? Every single evening? Whenever you have time doesn’t work: you can’t possibly write whenever you have time, so you just end up feeling a constant nagging niggle that you should be writing your book, until you start resenting that constant nagging niggle. Your calendar you must book. But if you book your calendar, and the two-hour slot you set aside dwindles to a mere half hour, see above: use the half-hour. We’re all about the half-loaf.

The balloon plan

If you follow the balloon plan, you’ll end up with the best book never written.

You have an idea; it’s a great plan; it’s something you could probably start right now. You have an idea of how to make it even better, the plan grows, it’ll take a bit of work, but you could do it. But wait! What if…? Oh, man, that would be so cool! The plan grows bigger. It’ll be hard to pull it off, but wow, it’ll be amazing! Oh, wow, I’m having more ideas – add them, add them, and we do this, and we make it that, and if we could organise that, and… The plan balloons, and balloons, and balloons. And then you are left, staring at this huge, glittering, magnificent balloon of a plan, which would be amazing, except now it would need the resources / capital of a small nation, or possibly be your entire life’s work. That’s a really cool idea, you think. And add to yourself, glumly, I’m never going to do that, am I? And the balloon pops.

Grand plans are exciting and fun to come up with, but they rapidly swell and explode. It’s better to work in layers, in increments, in what Nigel Collin calls a game of inches: if it’s a good plan and you could probably start right now, start right now. Intertwine the doing of the work and the planning of the work. If the planning runs ahead, the doing dies. The thing might continue to grow and become all those other things too, but let it at least exist first. (And beware the evil secret stretch goal.) In my coaching, we start with mapping out the book’s structure, but we also start writing almost immediately – you don’t wait until you know exactly how to do it, you start. And that’s how you learn.

If you follow the balloon plan, you’ll end up with the best book never written.

Back-burner guilt

If you spend a lot of time feeling guilty about your book, you’ll start to resent your book for making you feel guilty.

Guilt is not a motivating force. Guilt is inhibiting, it’s a source of procrastination. The more guilty you feel about something, the less you want to do it. If you spend a lot of time feeling guilty about your book, you’ll start to resent your book for making you feel guilty. (Yes, human minds are weird and self-serving, and we also do the same thing in relationships, which explains a lot.) Your book is not making you feel guilty, you are. So decide. If your book is on the backburner, why is it there and when is it there till? If it’s there “until you have enough time”, see above: waiting for enough time is a fool’s game. Decide the conditions of its being on the backburner and a time to revisit it, then stop feeling guilty. If your conditions are idealistic – “enough time”, “feel like writing”, “my entire life is calm and running perfectly” – then you’d best take it off the backburner now. If the only reason is, “I’m just not into it anymore,” take it off the backburner now. This is a relationship you need to explore before you ditch it. You need to reconnect with your book.

Here are some suggestions for reconnecting with your book:

  • Collect and print out all your notes, drafts, and writing on it. Read through them with a pen in your hand, scribbling notes in the margins.
  • Make a list of everything you’d like to put in the book.
  • Write the marketing blurb for the back of the book.
  • Brainstorm the contents of the book on unlined paper, ideally using coloured pens.
  • Think about your organising principle and the overall shape of the book. You can even draw it.
  • Write any snippets of the book that come to you as you plot and plan stuff. You never have to write a book in order! And sometimes, writing a sentence or a snippet becomes writing a paragraph and then three A4 pages later, you realise you’ve got a chunk of it onto paper.
  • Write about the book on sheets of A4. Some of it might be bits of the book, some of it might be plans for the book.

If you want a more step-by-step guide to getting your book off the backburner, follow my 6-week Kickstart your book series, which will coach you gently through the steps.

“I can’t start until I’ve…”

What do you need to do before you start? Start by doing that. 

Another counsel of perfection, an elegant way to dodge the book with illustrious reasons. We all feel like this sometimes, all my clients, all my students, me included. Do you need to do more research? Reread what you have so far? Map out some plans for the next part? Clear a path to your desk with a shovel? What do you need to do before you start? Start by doing that. You have your writing time and you’re going to use it. If you literally can’t reach your desk and haven’t spent any of your other time sorting that out, fine, use your writing time and carve a pathway. It might count as WAB (writing-avoiding behaviour) but at least next time you’ll have a clean desk. If you need to do research, reread, map out plans, talk to someone about it, use your writing time for that. But if you continually delay your writing time until you’ve already done these other things, and never give the other things any time, because you think they don’t really count as writing, you will never get to the writing. If you can’t start until you’ve done x, do x.

If you have no idea where to start, here’s a five-step plan to guide you.

The Lone Warrior

Don’t be a lone warrior. Get yourself some people.

Go to your shelves, grab a handful of books, and open them all to the acknowledgements pages. Read who they’re thanking and for what. Count how many people they’re thanking. We have these glorious myths of the lone warrior bestriding the plains with his (yeah, usually his, in this myth) ancient-but-incredibly-sharp sword. We have the myth of the lone genius sitting in his (yeah, usually his, these myths are a bit rank for sexism) garret, penning his brilliance. The solitary writer in the coffee shop. The lonely, pensive genius. So we stare at our shelves wistfully, imagining our own book adorning it, and copy that lonely, solitary journey, and meanwhile, back at the ranch, everyone else is getting loads and loads of help! Seriously! Bucket loads! They’ve got people reading, they’ve got help with their research, they’ve got people cheering them on and cooking them dinner and taking over the childcare, they’ve got editors helping them sort out the structure and advising on content, they’ve got copy-editors and proofreaders bringing it into line… Don’t be a lone warrior. Get yourself some people.

The people you need for starters are…

  • a cheerleader, someone who thinks you writing this book is the best idea ever and you are brilliant – your partner or best friend is probably ideal here, especially if they’re adoring and uncritical.
  • readers – lots of them, for all different stages. People who’ll read first draft to keep you company. People who’ll read first draft and discuss the ideas and content. People who’ll read second and third draft and tell you if it’s working. These people are not a substitute for professional advice, they are the people in Team You.
  • an editor – who’ll help you with structure, give professional advice on your drafts, and help you plan the next step, to the next batch of people. As a book coach, that’s part of what I do.

The gentler advice

Note that I called this a “tough-talking guide”, not a “no-nonsense guide”. There are other things that stop people writing, which don’t respond to tough talking, and which aren’t nonsense. These include feeling insecure about putting your thoughts on paper, emotional blocks from past negative experience, thinking you can’t write if you’re dyslexic, feeling intimidated by the idea of Writing A Book compared to the writing you usually do. Also, not everyone does best with tough talking. We’re not all Type A personalities (what Lynne Schinella calls Apples).

If you have fears or insecurities which are stopping you approaching your book, here’s a useful exercise to work with those. If you want to start but don’t know how, here’s a five-step plan to guide you. If you don’t know how to get back into it, try my 6-week Kickstart your book series, to gradually build healthy, sustainable habits. You can start week one, now. And if you want help, support, advice, and encouragement throughout the process, that’s what I’m here for.

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