One of the best holidays I ever had was a side trip to Washington, DC, in my early 30s, while doing research for my PhD.
I spent my days at the University of Maryland in College Park, less than an hour from Washington. After hunkering down for eight hours a day in the bowels of the library perusing microfiche copies of essays and journals, poring over delicate, sepia-stained letters and papers, and examining every details of caches of old photos, I reserved the final three days of the trip to be a tourist.
I had conferred with friends and checked out a few books and websites (this was just before the days of Expedia or whatnot), and booked a room in the Marriott, in the heart of downtown.
On my list of “must see’s” were the White House, the VietNam Veterans memorial and the Museum of Natural History, but had no ideas beyond those. After a week of isolation in the university library, I was itching to get to the city. I booked myself a set on a city bus tour and then reserved a table for dinner at the hotel’s posh restaurant–by myself!
During the tour, I was taken by the hustle and bustle of Dupont Circle, the touristy buzz around 1600 Pennsyvania Avenue, and learned of several other key sites that I immediately added to the itinerary.
Visiting the Lincoln Memorial took my breath away. I caught an astonishing rush-seat performance from the Harlem Dance Theatre at The Kennedy Center. And on my final day, I was treated to a private tour of the city by the maitre d’ at my hotel, with whom I’d struck up a friendship over the previous days.
All in all, it that trip became a high point in my years of PhD studies. And part of what made it so great was my open-ended, freewheeling approach. Yes, I covered the bases before I arrived, but I also left room open for spontaneity, to discover new and unexpected adventures while there.
When clients tell me they can’t start writing their book because they “don’t know what to write,” I’m often reminded of that trip to Washington.
What rule book says you must have every detail–every chapter, even–entirely planned out before you begin? It’s perfectly fine, and perfectly acceptable, to begin writing your book with a general plan in place (just as I had my hotel and airline tickets planned in advance), without knowing the specifics within it.
As with my own pre-Washington plan, you might have certain key milestones determined before you start. You know where you’ll begin, where you’ll end up, and perhaps two or three stops in between. But it’s a good idea to leave some leeway, both physically and mentally, to welcome new or unexpected stops along the way.
Most of the time, my clients and I work to determine the big idea, then break it down into several key points. Then, they’ll likely write their first draft using all (or almost all) of those key points.
But imperative for the success of the process is that you remain open to changes that might present themselves along the way, or previously unanticipated ideas that spring up as they evolve from the material already written.
After the first draft is done, I’ll jump in as developmental editor. I’ll study the manuscript and uncover hidden patterns or omitted points that would improve the book if included.
With a clear overarching structure and detailed suggestions to fill in the gaps and smooth out the bumps along the way, the authors I work with can revise accordingly and produce a cohesive, compelling and clear book manuscript that grabs readers and keeps them enthralled to the end.
These days, I still love travel, of course, but I do miss those days when most of the trip was a wide open mystery, and I was young and flexible enough to just go with the flow. For now, I’ll have to be satisfied with letting my writing possess these qualities. In the end, I know it’s better for it.
Here’s to your book-related adventures and writing that first book!
And don’t forget: if you’d like help finding your topic and planning that book, the Book Builder session is perfect for you. We’ll spend 3 hours together one-on-one to iron out your topic and then flesh it out into a clear roadmap for your book. You’ll leave with an outline that includes your topic, specific angle, chapters (in order) and what to include in each.
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