Sunday, December 4, 2011

Five Major Turning Points on the Road to Finishing a Book

Travelers in foreign territory often need good maps.  But book writers rarely have them.  We often don't know about the major stops--what I call "turning points"--in the book-writing journey.  It's hard to tell when we've arrived, when we're ready to move on, when the writing is finally enough.

These five turning points are often where we get stuck and frustrated.  Moving to the next level requires skills and a new approach,
and for a while we might flounder, thinking our project has gone south, when it's just a matter of re-orienting ourselves to a new task, a new stage of the journey.

So if you feel like you're stalling out, you may just be approaching the threshold of another turning point.  If you're frustrated with foggy, confused, unsettled, panicked, or bored feelings about your book, maybe knowing these five turning points will help you figure out why.

These five are "make or break" moments, in my experience.  Not knowing about them, not preparing for them, can derail your journey, and shelve your book project, faster than you can say "writer's block."

That's why I'm grateful to have completed so many books myself, and helped so many others write and finish theirs.  Because I know now about these five turning points, I can recognize the signs when I'm approaching another one.  I know it's normal to have upsets or disorientation about my book then.  I remember that I'm just being asked to re-vision it on another level, to learn new skills.

When You Reach a Turning Point
Reaching a turning point is kind of like coming of age.  It's a time to put away childish things.  This might mean letting go of what's no longer serving the project--or us as writers.  You may have heard the phrase in writing classes:  "Kill your precious darlings?"  This refers to writers reaching a turning point, where the favorite words or phrases or even chapters have to be looked at again, and possibly replaced.

Not an easy task.  Ever.  But much easier if you know where you are in the journey, if you know you're being asked to step up to a new level.

So I find it very helpful to highlight these turning points in my book-writing classes.

Do they apply to all genres?  Yes. I've seen writers of every genre pass through them.  Like universal gateways, we must pass through them to get our books published.  It doesn't matter if we're writing a novel, a children's book, a poetry collection, a memoir, or a nonfiction book. We're facing these five turning points at some time during the journey from idea to publication.

So it helps to recognize these five turning points.  Give them respect:  you've passed a big test and it's now time reassess your project and revisit why you're this book.
Not stop, though.

Even if you're tempted, all that's usually required at one of these turning points is new skills, support, and a good map for the next stage.

Five major turning points on a book journey
1.  Taking an idea into regular production of pages
2.  Structuring the flow of the book
3.  First draft completion
4.  Revision completion
5.  Final editing (often with professional feedback)

Stage One:  Ideas into Pages
The first stage is where you are full of ideas.  It's so exciting.  The book has been bubbling inside for a while and you're finally getting the ideas down on paper.  The energy of this stage makes the writing feel easy for a period of time, and sheer enthusiasm carries you forward.  You may take classes, begin a writers group, share your writing with others.  It's a joyful, and somewhat innocent, stage and very important.

What keeps you going through this first stage?

When the enthusiasm begins to wane--you maybe realize how much work a book is!  you may become terrified that your mother will read it!  you may get sick or overwhelmed or tired and bored!--your writing practice keeps you going through this stage.

Writing regularly is the key to getting enough material to begin to structure it wisely and begin a real book.  If someone writes regularly--each day, each week, each weekend for a certain number of hours--the pages will accumulate.  Writing practice is just that:  it's not writing perfect, it's writing practice.  You turn out terrible stuff, good stuff, great stuff.  Everyone does.  You just write, because that's what writers do.

These segments of writing, freewrites, or "islands" that will someday become continents (chapters), are the work of writing. The only goal now is to accumulate them.

When you've accumulated about 90,000 words, or three hundred double-spaced pages, you've reached the next turning point.

Stage Two:  Structuring the Book
The next turning point  is all about structure, so we move from the random, exploring part of ourselves to the linear, organized part. Some writers love this stage.  Some hate letting go of the free flow.  But it's an essential step in making a book.

Your goal now is to create a working structure of the book, via a  structuring tool like storyboarding.

I really dislike storyboards. They tell me what I don't want to know--where I have too much or too little, where I've written on track or on a tangent. Where my book isn't yet working well.
But I know that books love storyboards.  They allow a book to find its correct placement in time and space--where each of the "islands" will be located, where they will merge with other "islands" to become continents.  In this second stage we learn it's not just enough to flow out the words. We need to have a sequence that readers can follow. Storyboards provide this. They are used a lot in publishing and the film industry. Imagine a giant blank cartoon--a row of empty boxes lined up on a page or wall or posterboard. You insert ideas, then you move the boxes around until the sequence of ideas equals a reasonable flow for your book.

What you learn: All the things I grumbled about above. What is working, yes. Also what is not working. It's not uncommon to emerge from a storyboarding session with many blank boxes. Stuff you know you need to write, transition chapters or sections. Research still to do. It's also not uncommon to feel discouraged. All that writing done, but it's not yet a book.

Why even bother? Storyboards are the absolute best way I've found to see if I have a working book, to force myself to structure the flow of ideas, to see what's left. I usually get kind of squirrely (imagine a squirrel twitching in agitation) when I have written too much to really see my book anymore. When I get squirrely, I know it's time to storyboard.

After the storyboard is intact, we need to go back to stage one for a while, fill the holes that the storyboard has revealed.

Stage Three:  Completing Your First Draft
Once we have a good structure and plenty of workable "islands" written, we are ready to build the first draft.  If you have an electronic tool like Scrivener, it's a simple matter of clicking a few keys.  Otherwise, you cut and paste, using the map of the storyboard and the hundreds of pieces of writing you've completed.  This is rough!  Irreverent writer Anne Lamott (author of Bird by Bird) calls it "a shitty first draft"--aka SFD.  And it is that.

But it's a huge step in the writing journey, and it tells us we've passed through another turning point.  Depending on the genre, most books are about 300 double-spaced pages or more at this stage.
Stage Four:  Revising Your Manuscript
Revising the draft is next.  As a professional editor, this is my favorite time but also the hardest.  It requires staring down all my mistakes and figuring out what path my reader needs to take through my book, then weeding anything that doesn't serve the story.

Revision reveals many things, including where we've gone to sleep.

Stage Five:  Editing and Professional Feedback
At final editing, after revision, I always recommend getting feedback at a higher skill and experience level than your own.  Find a professional editor or a published writer (in your genre) to do a read-through and evaluation.  Get a sense of where you need to focus for the final edit (line editing, substantive editing if needed).

This is where you clean everything up--make it sing.

Does it help to understand these turning points, look at them one by one, and hear about the roadblocks that often come up just before a writer reaches them?  Maybe our discussion has helped you realize why you're stuck right now (often right before a turning point!) or why you're racing ahead (finally made the turn and see the open road).

Maybe this little map will help you see what is ahead on your journey.

I go into each of these stages in my book Your Book Starts Here.  You can use it as a guide for whichever stage you're traveling right now.  

To recap, here are the five turning points and what will keep you going through them:

The Idea Stage
        How to keep going?  Build a writing practice
The Structuring Stage
        How to keep going?  Work with a visual map, such as a storyboard, to keep oriented
The First Draft Stage
       How to keep going?  Focus on simply getting the manuscript completed--no editing
The Revision Stage
       How to keep going?  Let go of what's not serving the book
The Feedback/Editing Stage
       How to keep going?   Accept help and advice

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Consider your book, where you're feeling frustrated, where you're excited.  What stage does this indicate?
2.  What needs to be strengthened to help you get through this stage to the next turning point?


  1. Nice blog. Very helpful. When you used the word "gate"... it got me thinking about the recent news on the doorway experiments which showed how going through thresholds to new rooms screws up our memory (e.g. you are in the kitchen, but you recall that your glasses are in the living room; but when you get to the living room, you forgot what you came for.) The researchers call it "boundary effect"; i call it "threshold anxiety." The huge anxiety of knowing that whatever you knew in one room/stage will be instantly lost/compromised when you walk into another. Hence, the apprehension of going through a gate, any gate, be it a real or imaginary. So an alert to all the writers: take heart, the anxiety you will feel going through gate one to gate two is completely normal.

  2. Ah, this explains a lot. I suffer from the "go into another room and forget why" syndrome. Now there's a scientific reason--blessings on you for sharing this!

    It's so true that we reach a threshold and fear losing what we've learned so far. I do think the learning morphs into something else, perhaps less innocent, perhaps less tangible. But that's the growth element. Nothing stays the same. At least in the book journey.

    I've found it really helps to have support when crossing a threshold. If I don't have that, I don't usually slide easily across.

    Glad you enjoyed the blog.