How to Start a Book Project

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March seems like a good checkpoint for New Year’s writing goals: Two months into the New Year, you probably have a sense of whether a resolution made in January will become a reality by December.

If “start a book” was on your January to-do list, how’s it coming? If you hit the ground running and are well into your first draft, congratulations! But if you feel overwhelmed by the scope of the project, and are questioning why you thought you could write a book in the first place, consider this: The problem may be as simple as setting vague (and therefore unreachable) goals.

As with any long-term project, a book project becomes achievable when you break it into segments. These writing tips can help you start a book:

  • Think in terms of weeks and chapters, versus months and final word counts.
  • Reduce each chapter into components, and each week into days.
  • Turn these mileposts into mini-deadlines, and reward yourself every time you meet one.

Now you’re on your way to completing a first draft.

Ready to start a book? Try these writing tips from Crafting Novels & Short Stories, published by Writer’s Digest Books:

Start a Book Project in 5 Easy Steps

1. Set Reasonable, Measurable Goals. Even if you’re not writing to someone else’s external deadline, give yourself your own deadline and treat it seriously. Because you understand the power of the written word, write down a specific goal, with a due date: “Finish chapter by [whatever date].” Some people even establish a punishment and/or reward if they meet or don’t meet their self-imposed deadlines: “If I complete chapter five by Friday, I can go to see a movie; if I don’t finish on time, I will force myself to scrub toilets as penance.” Well, you don’t have to clean the toilets, but a little self-flagellation is probably good for you.

 2. Divide and Conquer. View your writing project not as an overwhelming monolith, but a compilation of many smaller items. The reason hard jobs get bypassed is that they often seem too daunting if they’re written as one entry on your list of goals. For example, “Write a book in the next year” can be overwhelming. The scope of the project is so big, and the deadline so far away, that achieving the goal seems impossible. Instead, focus on smaller tasks to do today, tomorrow, this week, and this month to help you reach that goal.

3. Create a Plan of Ordered Tasks. Writing down tasks in the order in which they should be done keeps you focused, as well as frees your mind to concentrate on the important things—rather than wasting mental energy trying to remember all the details that must be done each day. Break the task down into manageable steps.

4. Select Dates and Stick to Them. “Someday I’m going to write a book.” How many times have we all thought this? Turn your lofty dream into an actual accomplishment by adopting a workable schedule. For example, choose a date on your calendar for beginning your writing project. Make it today. You’ll be surprised by how much more quickly you’ll work with deadlines, especially if they come with positive and negative consequences. For example, if you miss your deadline at a major magazine, you may never be hired again and may in fact not see your piece in print, which are both negative consequences. But if you make your deadline, determine that you will give yourself a real day off, a massage, chocolate cake, or what have you. Enlist other people to hold you accountable.

 5. Work Backward. The most important step in planning the time for your writing project is this one: On your calendar, mark the story’s final due date. (If you don’t have a deadline from a publisher, give yourself a reasonable one.) Then figure out when each of the specific items, in reverse order, must be completed if you are to meet that deadline. Allow a little wiggle room in your calendar for the delays that inevitably happen: an interviewee gets the flu and has to postpone by a few day, the computer crashes, etc.

Next to each item on your list, write the time you think it will take to accomplish it and the deadline for completing it. People commonly put far too many items on their to-do list and, as a result, feel defeated when they have to copy uncompleted items from day to day. As William James once wrote, “Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.” So jot down what you can reasonably expect to accomplish in a day. Some people have success using online organizational websites to help them stay on track. For example, on www.Toodledo.com, users can create goals for themselves, color code them, assign themselves deadlines, prioritize the tasks in a “hotlist,” and keep track of the time spent on each project. There are other similar sites as well, including many that are compatible with PDAs and smart phones. (Of course, the old-fashioned system of a pen and sticky notes works fine, too.)

Buy Crafting Novels & Short Stories

Read an excerpt from Write-a-Thon by Rochelle Melander to avoid getting overwhelmed by your book project.

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