The Hard Part

December 4, 2007

I’ve just spent a week, more or less, doing what is for me the hardest part of writing: starting.

I’m working on a new book for teens (will say more about what it is soon), and need to have it done in a few weeks. But that’s not the hard part. The hard part is figuring out what the book is. This is the cutting-down-the-trees part of the cabinet-making, the part in the very beginning, the part nobody ever sees. This is the part when there’s nothing to show for what you’ve been doing all day. You can easily spend the whole day sweating and laboring mightily, and end up feeling like you’ve wasted your day.

Once a project is in full swing, I might turn out one or two thousand words a day, or even more. At that point, the book sprouts like an adolescent hitting high-hormone growth spurt. At that point, the project makes a lot of noise.

Later, when the book is in completed first draft and it’s time to go through it, refining, rewriting, adjusting — that’s the easiest part. At that point, you’re dealing with a fully (or mostly) grown adult. It behaves itself. There’s plenty to show for each day’s effort, and it goes fast. I’ve gone through an entire book, doing full-on copy-edits and even major rewrites in a matter of days, dealing with tens of thousands of words per day.

But not now. At this messy stage, the project isn’t even really born yet. I can’t see it. I don’t know what it is. And so I spend the day groping, messing around with a few paragraphs of clumsy ideas, and they don’t look much different (certainly no better) at dinner than they did at breakfast.

Hours go by. I catch myself playing solitaire on my mobile phone. I’m doing email. Oops. Back to the book. I never realized ironing was this much fun. Back to the book. (“I’m hungry.” “Stop that. You just had lunch an hour ago.” “Buddaym huuunnnngreee…” “I said no.”) Back to the book.

You don’t have to be a writer to know what this is like. This is the hardest part of anything. It’s the invisible part, the part where there’s no glory, where you feel the most unsure — and it’s where the real work happens. This is the time of trusting yourself. For me, it’s where I have to trust that there is a book in there waiting to be found. That once its ideas have been excavated, I’m going to feel like I know what I’m doing, it’s going to get easier.

And it goes like this for days.

And then today, I find something. I’m doodling around, polishing an introduction that I wrote ages ago (and needs no polishing) and playing with a few other pieces of text that I might or might not use, and I realize I have just unearthed a few core ideas. I reword them, and now they seem like key principles . . . six of them. I write them down, rewrite them, sort them and shuffle. Something’s missing. Then, a seventh. Clunk.

It’s a magical moment, like a key fitting into a lock. All at once, I feel the thing turning and starting to creak open. Creeeeeak . . .

And I’m in.

Now I know what this book is about, and how it works, how its pieces fit together. All I have to do is write it. That looks like the hard part, where all the “work” happens, but it isn’t, not really. The hard part is behind me now: it was being willing to struggle with the unseen, to spend days working hard, only to end up at bedtime with no visible evidence that anything had happened …and still trust that something did.


  1. Journal of John David Mann » Blog Archive » Anatomy of a Book: Success for Teens - [...] rearranged the ideas and codified a new set of core principles (I blogged a bit about this process here)…

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