Instructions for writers

Instructions for writers November 28, 2012

For aspiring writers, I offer five key stages of writing a book. My plan applies best to non-fiction. Fiction, I’m sure, has its own rhythms.

Stage 1: Ambition. You want to write the definitive yet wildly popular book about everything. This stage is marked by long periods of dreamy reflection, mental composition of a Pulitzer acceptance speech, decisions about which talk shows to turn down (the key question: Colbert or Stewart?), scanning the web for first class tickets to Cancun or Prague, which you will be able to afford once the royalties start flowing in. Little actual work gets done in this stage, though a good bit of the advance (if advance there is) gets spent.

Stage 2: Contraction. You radically reduce the scope of the book. This stage occurs as soon as you begin actual work and begin to hear the clanging of time’s winged chariot hurrying near. You hear a voice in your head saying, “Just get it done, dammit.” Though it may be your wife’s voice.

Stage 3: Panic.

This stage occurs about 2 months before the deadline, as you stare at the pile of unread books and articles that remain to be worked through. This stage is marked by sleepless nights, heart palpitations, shame, fleeting thoughts of suicide. The voice begins to say, “You’ll never finish, you moronic failure.” That might be your wife too, or your kids.

Stage 4: Obsession. This stage occupies the final month of the project. It is marked by the tendency to exploit every observation, every conversation, every piece of information for the book. You hear in your aging aunt’s incoherent ramblings a brilliant insight into the topic of your book. You hear the same thing in the hoot of an owl and you see it in the pattern of cream in your coffee. You become convinced again that your book really is about everything.

Stage 5: Wonder. This begins as soon as the book is finished. As you drink your celebratory single malt and smoke a cigar that is not just a cigar because it symbolizes Personal Triumph, you wonder how that bloated file ever appeared on your hard drive. The voice says, “Who put that there?” And that’s definitely your wife.

Out of wonder arises ambition, because you’re sure you can do that again . . . .

Browse Our Archives