Writing a book will almost kill you. By the end, you’ll be exhausted, brain dead and filled with a bubbling sense of anxiety. I recently finished up my first book, and here are a few takeaways from the ordeal that can be applied to pretty much any large-scale project.
Pick Your Tools and Organise Before You Start
Books are complicated things. It doesn’t matter if it’s a technical manual, non-fiction or fiction, keeping track of everything requires a lot of effort, which is exactly why special software exists for helping you do that.
After trying out a bunch of different software, I settled on Ulysses (although Scrivener is excellent as well, as is Evernote) to get everything organised. Ulysses has an excellent exporter system where you can define how the formatting works, so it can easily be turned into a Word document with the specific formatting options a publisher needs (and they always want a specific format, regardless of the type of book).
More importantly, Ulysses (and similar apps) has a built-in notes system, a library system to keep track of your various chapters and other notes, a fantastic focus mode that cuts the clutter, statistics for keeping track of word counts, and writing goals to make sure you’re making your word counts daily. It was those statistics that saved my arse when I realised with a month left to go that I wasn’t going to make my page count and needed to add additional chapters.
Of course, it doesn’t really matter what tool you use, but pick something before you start and stick with it. Be prepared for your notes, outlines and everything else to become a cluttered, unreadable mess if you don’t create a system for dealing with them ahead of time.
Give Yourself a Schedule and Stick to It
This is the most common advice on the planet, so I won’t dwell too much on this, but before you start writing, set up a schedule for yourself.
For me, this was pretty easy because I didn’t really have that much time to work with. I was working here at Lifehacker full time, so I knew I could only dedicate time to writing the book on nights and weekends. To avoid too much stress, I set Monday, Tuesday and Thursday after work as my writing days, alongside Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings. I gave myself chapter-specific deadline for each week. I had about three months to turn around 350 pages, so I had to strictly adhere to my schedule.
Whether you have an external deadline or not, I suggest sticking with a similar plan. Give yourself the deadline if nobody else does, and hold yourself to writing (or at least working on the book in some capacity), during the time you schedule to do so.
Expect Everything to Take Longer than You Think It Will
A schedule is great, but be prepared for everything you’re doing to take considerably longer than you think it will. This is especially the case at the beginning before you get into the flow of writing.
In my case, this was mostly about formatting. Learning what a formatting a publisher wants and digging through their style guide every other paragraph seriously slows you down. Until you get the hang of it, everything will take twice as long as it should.
Since my book’s a collection of Raspberry Pi projects, it also meant I had to actually make everything in the book, troubleshoot problems, and get projects working properly before I wrote anything. I didn’t think about this in my initial planning phase, and quickly realised that I wasn’t giving myself enough time. I had to redo my schedule completely to accommodate this.
This is a special case, but the same problem comes up with other aspects of writing. Researching always takes a little longer than you’d think, as does basic brainstorming sometimes. Give yourself the leeway to make those mistakes and give yourself plenty of buffer time for those moments.
Don’t Get Attached to Anything
There’s a common adage with fiction that you should prepare to “kill your darlings”. It’s about deleting sentences or words you love for the greater good of your work. But it’s bigger than that. In reality, be prepared to kill off full paragraphs and chapters — I cut massive parts out before sending it off for editing.
And that’s just your own editing — your editor will cut even more. As I started getting notes back from my editor, I quickly realised how I couldn’t take any of those edits personally. Obviously, a book about a Raspberry Pi is different than a work of fiction here, but the same basic premise remains: you will be ruthlessly edited. Accept it. I was so caught up in writing this book, I often wrote in a weird, privatised little language that was clearly a result of working too hard. By the end, I became the Raspberry Pi: small, low powered and a bit closed off from the rest of the world. The later chapters made no sense, and the notes sent back to me are best summed up as “what are you saying here?!”
The point is, you’ll have your head stuffed so far up the text that you won’t be able to see the world around you. Your editor will help you fix that. Take their word for it. Criticism is a beast sometimes, but when it’s from someone outside the weird little bubble you create for yourself when you’re working on a long-term projects it’s always valuable.
A Good Group of Friends Will Make Everything Easier
The Beatles said it, The Spice Girls said it and Kanye said it: Friends can help you get through anything. This is especially the case when you’re working the hours I was. I didn’t realise it at the time, but a few close friends made the whole process a lot easier by simply cooking me dinner or forcing me out of the house now and again.
You can’t exactly go out and make good friends just because you want to write a book, but it’s worth knowing just how much you’ll be leaning on them. I’m not saying you should go and ask everyone you know to make you dinner. Talk with your close friends about how you won’t be available as often, but you still want to hang out. Make plans. They will understand, and if they’re good enough friends, you’ll probably get a few meals out the deal anyway.
One thing I didn’t expect was to want to write another book immediately after I finished. Like a good roller coaster, the second you get off you want to hop back on. Once I finished everything up, got the last edits in and okayed the last proofs, I immediately started brainstorming what I wanted to do next.
You still need to take an actual break, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start laying the foundation for whatever the next project is. When I finish a big project, my brain’s usually packed with so many ideas that I can’t keep track of everything. I don’t need to execute on those ideas, but I do need to write them out so I can come back later.
When you’re riding that emotional high of patting yourself on the back for a job well done, take the time to get out all those other ideas in your head. There’s a good chance they will disappear forever if you don’t.