I finally started cranking out the rough draft of Mosaic this week. I wanted to get a sense of the data before I started writing, and I think that was a good decision, as the material has been churning around in my head quite a bit lately. Consequently, at least parts of the book are easy to write. I’d set a target to be done with 3 chapters by now, and despite starting 3 weeks late, I’m at 2.5 now, on Wednesday, and I suspect I’ll be able to get through a draft of the third chapter by end of day Friday. Making progress is motivational.
This is now my 10th book-length non-fiction manuscript. I’ve got 4 unpublished novels in my life, too. I’m not sure how much I know about writing an excellent book, but I have figured out how to get a book done. And that’s something.
A key component for me is, first, having something to say. When I haven’t done enough research, my thesis is muddled and I feel like it’s hard to write. When I’ve done a lot of research, and interviews, more ideas keep popping into my head. I know there’s enough material. While doing more research is sometimes just a method of procrastination, I find that when I can’t write something, doing more research will, in fact, be helpful.
Second, I need to produce a draft. It need not be a great draft. In fact, it won’t be. Anne Lamott has popularized the phrase “s**tty first drafts” to describe these beasts and that is precisely what they are. I have been outlining chapters of Mosaic so I know roughly the order my s**tty first draft of each chapter should take, and where various stories and stats should go. But the writing is sloppy. I use “actually” way too much. I repeat myself. I’m too wordy. I put in a lot of “TK” — a newspaper term meaning “to come.” That is, I’m not bothering to put in the real quote or stat right now. It will come later.
But this deliberate sloppiness is liberating. I can crank out a 4000 word draft of a chapter in about 3 hours. On Monday afternoon I started the intro around 1 pm and by 4 pm I had something. Yesterday, I started writing chapter 2 at 6 a.m., and despite taking a few small breaks, by around 9:30 I had another 3500 words. This morning I only put an hour into chapter 6, but I have 1800 words.
Wait, you say, why did you write the intro, chapter 2, and chapter 6 first? This comes from reading about the psychology of progress. Those 3 chapters happen to be the easiest chapters to write. They’re the topics I’ve written about most before, and that I have the most raw material to base the chapters on. If I’d written in order, I might still be stuck on chapter 1, and that would not be particularly motivational. We need small wins. Small wins propel us to take on harder work. Once I have 4 or 5 chapters written, the other 4 or 5 will seem like I’m just finishing up the manuscript, not that I’m staring at blank pages.
Of course, one doesn’t want to leave drafts in the s**tty state. I have developed some bad habits from blogging, namely the temptation after one edit to go “eh, it’s probably OK.” Not for a book. And so, one of the reasons to get the first draft done as soon as possible is so I have time to let it marinate, and to separate myself from it, and then come back and make it better, and then separate myself from it again, and come back, and then show it to my editor, who will think it is not bad for a first draft, probably because it’s already a fourth draft, but it still needs some work. After that, it may be decent.
How do you approach a big project?