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Go Ahead and Write That Book, but What’s Your System?

The age-old advice of "write every day" to get your novel finished is perhaps too broad for some writers. Here, author J. Lawrence Matthews shares his system that worked for him to finish his first novel.

There’s a book inside you that’s been waiting to come out, and when New Year’s Day rolls around, you swear you’re going to bear down and finish it—this year! But another twelve months go by without a manuscript to show for it and you tell yourself, “No, really, this year….” And again and again, until so many New Years go by you lose count. Your friends stop asking about it. Your spouse no longer listens to the excuses. Your kids think you’ve gone soft. Even the cat doesn’t want to hear about it.

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And yet that book is still inside, waiting to come out.

I know all about that book—I had it in me, too. “This is the year,” I’d say, full of resolve. Then, a year later, “No, really, this is the year….”

Oh, I had a great excuse (or so I thought). Work. Finding time to write is just really hard when you’re working full-time and have a family to support. I’d write on weekends sometimes, and a bit more seriously during vacations, but the problem with writing sporadically like that is that each time I sat down at the computer, I’d have to get reacquainted with the story and the characters. And because One Must Tell the Bees involves a lot of characters, both historical (including Abraham Lincoln) and fictional (including Sherlock Holmes), I wasted way too much time trying to get back into the groove.

Worse, I avoided the hard stuff.

By “hard stuff” I mean the mechanics of moving a story from one scene to the next. It takes a special talent to tackle that kind of grunt work when you only manage to sneak an hour or two of writing each week or month.

And I don’t have that talent.

Nothing Like an Actual Novel

So, I’d just write the cool scenes bubbling in my head—young Sherlock Holmes traveling to America! Meeting Abraham Lincoln for the first time! On the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth!—and leave the hard stuff for the day I would finally sit down and start piecing all those cool scenes together from beginning to end…which I never did, of course, because I was too busy writing cool stuff. Or, more accurately, trying to write cool stuff, because the other downside to writing in bursts is that you get stuck on all the little problems you haven’t worked out before sitting down to write.

For example—and this was a very minor little problem, but it stumped me for a time—when a young chemist named Holmes arrives for work at the Éleuthèrian Mills, as the DuPont gunpowder operation in Delaware was called, I knew he would be asked to join the company band (nearly every place of business had an amateur orchestra in those days), because of course young Holmes played the violin.

But what was the orchestra called?

I stared at the computer screen trying to come up with a name until I gave up, wrote “The Éleuthèrian _____” and went back to writing something cool. And that’s one reason why, after 10 years of sporadic bursts of writing, all I had to show for it were bits and pieces of a novel scattered across various Word files and Notes folders, plus a bunch of instant messages to myself with ideas for scenes, plot, and characters.

Nothing like an actual novel.

Then I read a short, funny book that changed my life.

Goals are for Losers

It’s called How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, but don’t be alarmed—it’s not a high-concept, find-your-inner-superhero manifesto by some self-help guru who never did anything but write self-help books. It’s by Scott Adams, the Dilbert cartoonist, and it’s a very practical, straightforward and humorous description of precisely how he became a rich and famous cartoonist despite lacking great talent for drawing or comedy.

Go Ahead and Write That Book, but What’s Your System?

It turns out that Adams didn’t get there by practicing Tony Robbins-style self-empowerment, nor is he big on setting goals (“This is the year….”) to achieve fame and glory.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

“Goals are for losers,” Adams says bluntly, and for the very simple reason that if you haven’t changed your behavior to accomplish a goal, you’ll never achieve that goal.

Let’s assume you want to lose 10 pounds by Christmas, Adams says (I’m paraphrasing: I haven’t read the book in five years because I’ve been too busy writing my own, but this is the gist). You’ll never do it just by setting the goal of losing 10 pounds before Christmas. At best, you’ll go through the motions, maybe cut back eating for a few days, but in the end, you’ll fail (and you’ll hate yourself for failing, he astutely points out) because you haven’t changed your behavior.

What you need, Adams says, is a “system.”

For example, if you want to lose 10 pounds by Christmas, come up with a system you can achieve—“I’m giving up carbs and walking two miles a day,” say, and if you stick to that system the goal will take care of itself.

You’ll lose the 10 pounds.

Adams’ straightforward insight made total sense to me. I was living proof that goals alone are meaningless. (Worse than meaningless, they’re delusional: they actually hinder you from achieving what you want to achieve.)

I decided to create a system to finish my book: I would find a way to write two pages every day, no matter what.

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But then came the tricky part—how to do it?

Where to carve out the time every day?

The options narrowed very quickly. The working day was out, of course, but after dinner I tended to relax—take a walk or play the drums or watch TV or feed the cat. Everything and nothing. That was the time to write, I knew, but how to motivate myself to snap out of the end-of-the-workday mindset when I just wanted to veg a little?

Creating My System—One Word at a Time

I decided to pretend it was morning. After dinner I’d take a shower, as if the day was just starting again, then sit down to write my two pages.

That was my system.

It lasted, in all honesty, for about 10 days—until I reached the end of the original material that I’d come up with over the years. At that point, I had to begin writing material that moved the story from beginning to end (the hard stuff) and my output dropped to one page a day. Then one paragraph a day. Sometimes just one sentence a day. (Hard stuff can be really hard.) Finally, I decided I just needed one word. And while that may sound ridiculous, I’m glad to say it worked—but for two very different reasons.

First, although I promised myself no more than one word a day, I frequently wrote more. Sometimes a lot more. And the words accumulated.

Second, and far more important, because I was writing every day my mind was always working on the book, no matter what day-to-day activity I was performing. And the mind is a very powerful instrument.

You’ll recall I was trying to come up with the name for the house orchestra at the Éleuthèrian Mills? Well, one night my wife and I were talking to a friend who mentioned he had been in the local Trumbull, Connecticut high school band.

“What was it called?” I asked, my mind suddenly on alert.

“The Trumbull Players,” he said.

That’s it! I thought. I had the name of the band! So, I went home and put it in the manuscript: “The Éleuthèrian Players.”

Go Ahead and Write That Book, but What’s Your System?

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And although that was just one word out of the 179,000 that went into the story of One Must Tell the Bees, and although it has no bearing on the plot and absolutely zero importance in the grand scheme of things, it does contribute a small drop of the verbal water that immerses the reader into the world of Sherlock Holmes in the United States of America during the last year of the Civil War.

But it wasn’t only while talking with friends that my mind solved problems.

Standing in line at the grocery store or stopped at a traffic light or in the shower, my mind was always working on problems of dialogue, action or character.

Even when I was asleep.

Dreaming the End

I’m not kidding. When I found myself stuck on something for several days, my brain would often work out a phrase or an idea or a bit of dialogue in my dreams, and around 5 a.m. I’d come halfway out of sleep, grope for my phone, text the resulting words to myself and go back to sleep. Then later that day it would go straight into the manuscript.

In fact, I got the last two lines of One Must Tell the Bees that way.

Last lines, of course, are the real “hard stuff.” You need to find a way to end the story while leaving the reader satisfied, through words that somehow carry the tone of the entire book—all 179,000 words in the case of One Must Tell the Bees.

They have to be exactly right.

And one morning, after weeks of pondering last lines, I half-woke up and texted to myself the words spoken by Dr. Watson after he has enumerated for his readers the many physical reminders scattered about the room of his late friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, including Holmes’s old pipe-rack and a precious book Holmes had brought back from America:

The presence of these keepsakes gives me comfort as I think, and write.

And remember.

Those words went in the book that day and stayed there, and I’m glad they did. I couldn’t have found them any other way.

So, what’s your system?

It’ll get your own book out of you if you stick with it. Your spouse and children may not notice, but the cat will appreciate it.

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