Geetanjali Mukherjee

Monday, July 11, 2016

Struggling With A Book Draft

I have been stuck and going incredibly slowly with a certain project lately, and its made me frustrated and worried that I won’t ever finish. I was almost at the home stretch with this one, with two-thirds of the book done, and the remaining chapters written, only needing revising and maybe some additions. Why was I stuck then you ask?

To explain I need to back up a little bit. This book is one that I have actually published already, and am revising. I have written about this before; basically when I went back to the book, I realized that it could have been better structured and written slightly more clearly, so that it was more readable and just generally a better book. Perhaps it wasn’t in a business or commercial sense a great decision, but in terms of improving as a writer, becoming better at synthesizing ideas and research and putting it together in a way that is compelling for others, its a useful exercise.

I knew going into this project that it wouldn’t be easy, and that I would struggle with it. But somehow at that time I focused on why I wanted to do it, and it seemed worthwhile. In fact, I am reading this book by psychologist Dr. Heidi Halvorson on setting goals and achievement, and one of the things the research shows is that when we think of something in the future we focus on why we want to do it, whereas when we think of something nearer, we focus on the what. On what we are doing, the nitty gritty details. And that works in different ways, and changing how we think of something, can change how motivated we are to do it, and how effective we are at accomplishing the goals we set out to accomplish.

So when I decided that I will (in the future) revise the book, I was very optimistic and thought about why it was a good idea. But now that I am working on it, all I can think of is the what - how hard it is, how I am stuck in this specific chapter or section. And I keep asking myself why did I decide doing this was a good idea, and could I give up on it or get out of this in some way.

I did anticipate struggling with the book as I said, but a lot of that struggle was in re-structuring and making decisions about how to present the information. I had determined that the way I did it earlier hadn’t worked - some of the chapters were too short, some incredibly long, and that made the book lop-sided. Also, I realized much later that although the way I had constructed the chapters had made sense to me at the time, now I found that many topics were spread around the book, while some other chapters had topics that should be split up, not lumped together. So basically, the structure was all wrong and needed to be moved around to be more effective. In fact, I was convinced this would be the hardest part of the re-write.

The original structure and planning map

Then one day while meditating, I found the entire structure of the book just came to me, more or less. I wrote it down on a notepad, and struggled a bit with it, but basically found that the new structure made a lot more sense and seemed to cohere thematically.  At that point I felt pretty confident of my ability to re-work the book, and thought the rest would be relatively easy.

Hah! I underestimated a lot. Having the structure made things easier, and I started with the easiest chapters first. A couple of chapters in the new book were virtually identical to ones from before, and I edited those first - mainly doing line editing, making some quotes more prominent, revising the language and adding explanations so that it would be better understood. Then I moved on to slightly more difficult chapters, and here I got stuck for a long time. Life intervened, I had other priorities for a while, and the longer I stayed away, the harder it got to come back.

Eventually, I got to a point where I knew I had to work on the book and finish it otherwise it wouldn’t get done. And I wanted it done. Very badly. Just to get it out of my head as a project and move on. Not the best of motivations maybe, but that’s where I was.

So now I am back to working on the book. And I managed to make progress and get two-thirds of the chapters to a stage where its close to the finished version. But I am stuck on 3 chapters, and try as I might, I just can’t get anywhere with them. I just open them up, stare at the words, and go completely blank. I suppose I could say I have writer’s block, but it is unusual for me to have that with something I have already written, its more usual for me to have block on a first draft. Although I suppose in a way this is a first draft - of the new version of the book.

So anyway, I was stuck, feeling increasingly frustrated and desperate. I didn’t want to put it aside for a few weeks and come back to it - for all I knew that would turn it into a few months and I might never finish the book. Then as I said, I have been reading this book on goals and framing. And I realized that when I thought about my project - I thought in terms of why - why I needed to work on it. But the research shows that thinking in terms of what - what next steps do I need to complete - is more effective when you need to do something complex or difficult or when you’re procrastinating (possibly because it is complex or difficult). So I decided to think instead more concretely about the project - I need to edit chapter 5 or I need to decide the introductory story. Its still not easy to work on it, but my brain starts to think of the different aspects of the specific thing I need to do rather than the general - I need to finish this book.

My new planning table for the book

I also found that it helped me to go back to the planning stage of the book. A more detailed look into how I plan books might be the topic of another blog post. For now, I went back to looking at the different pieces of the book. I like to have a table or hand-drawn map of the chapters and sections, so I can look at how much is done at a glance. By simply updating the table and modifying it to better reflect where I was in the process, I realized that I could move on to some parts of the book that were easier - the next level of revision of the chapters that I had already worked on. I have found usually when I am stuck, that it helps to go back to an earlier stage of the process, and if nothing works, go back to planning and re-think the problem. I was reminded of this as I was flipping through Hilary Rettig’s The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, an excellent book I would recommend to anyone who wants to be a writer, or is writing and struggling with their current project, where she writes about going back to earlier stages when you are stuck, and jumping around within your project when stuck on any one section.

I am still working on the project, and hopefully it will be done and I can give an update on it. In the meantime, I am over the black phase of not knowing what to do, and I have a plan, a path to follow. That’s good enough for now.

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