4. Settle on your BIG idea
by Jerry Jenkins
To be book-worthy, your idea has to be killer.
You need to write something about which you’re passionate—something that gets you up in the morning, draws you to the keyboard, and keeps you there. It should excite not only you, but also anyone you tell about it.
I can’t overstate the importance of this.
If you’ve tried and failed to finish your book before—maybe more than once—it could be that the basic premise was flawed. Maybe it was worth a blog post or an article but couldn’t carry an entire book.
Think of The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, or How to Win Friends and Influence People. The market is crowded, the competition fierce. There’s no more room for run-of-the-mill ideas. Your premise alone should make readers salivate.
Go for the big-concept book.
How do you know you’ve got a winner? Does it have legs? In other words, does it stay in your mind, growing and developing every time you think of it? Run it past loved ones and others you trust.
Does it raise eyebrows? Elicit ”wows”? Or does it result in awkward silences?
The right concept simply works, and you’ll know it when you land on it. Most importantly, your idea must capture you in such a way that you’re compelled to write it. Otherwise you’ll lose interest halfway through and never finish.
5. Construct your outline
Starting your writing without a clear vision of where you’re going will usually end in disaster. Even if you’re writing fiction and consider yourself a Pantser* as opposed to an Outliner, you need at least a basic structure.
[*Those of us who write by the seat of our pants and, as Stephen King advises, put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens]
You don’t have to call it an outline if that offends your sensibilities. But fashion some sort of a directional document that provides structure and also serves as a safety net.
If you get out on that Pantser high-wire and lose your balance, you’ll thank me for advising you to have this in place.
Now if you’re writing a nonfiction book, there’s no substitute for an outline.
Potential agents or publishers require this in your proposal. They want to know where you’re going, and they want to know that you know. What do you want your reader to learn from your book and how will you ensure they learn it?
Fiction or nonfiction, if you commonly lose interest in your book somewhere in what I call the Marathon of the Middle, you likely didn’t start with enough exciting ideas.
That’s why an outline (or a basic framework) is essential. Don’t even start writing until you’re confident your structure will hold up through the end.
Do you know that an outline holds up—with only slight adaptations—for nonfiction books too? It’s self-explanatory for novelists; they list their plot twists and developments and arrange them in an order that best serves to increase tension.
What separates great nonfiction from mediocre? The same structure!
Arrange your points and evidence in the same way so you’re setting your reader up for a huge payoff, and then make sure you deliver.
If your nonfiction book is a memoir, an autobiography, or a biography, structure it like a novel and you can’t go wrong.
But even if it’s a straightforward how-to book, stay as close to this structure as possible, and you’ll see your manuscript come alive.
Make promises early, triggering your reader to anticipate fresh ideas, secrets, inside information, something major that will make him or her thrilled with the finished product.
While you may not have as much action or dialogue or character development as your novelist counterpart, your crises and tension can come from showing where people have failed before and how you’re going to ensure your reader will succeed.
You can even make the how-to project look impossible until you pay off that setup with your unique solution.
Keep your outline to a single page for now. But make sure every major point is represented, so you’ll always know where you’re going.
And don’t worry if you’ve forgotten the basics of classic outlining or have never felt comfortable with the concept.
Your outline must serve you. If that means Roman numerals and capital and lowercase letters and then Arabic numerals, you can certainly fashion it that way. But if you just want a list of sentences that synopsize your idea, that’s fine too.
Simply start with your working title, then your premise, then—for fiction—list all the major scenes that fit into the rough structure above.
For nonfiction, try to come up with chapter titles and a sentence or two of what each chapter will cover.
Once you have your one-page outline, remember that it is a fluid document meant to serve you and your book. Expand it, change it, play with it as you see fit—even during the writing process.
6. Set a firm writing schedule
Ideally, you want to schedule at least six hours per week to write.
That may consist of three sessions of two hours each, two sessions of three hours, or six one-hour sessions—whatever works for you.
I recommend a regular pattern (same times, same days) that can most easily become a habit. But if that’s impossible, just make sure you carve out at least six hours so you can see real progress.
Having trouble finding the time to write a book? News flash—you won’t find the time. You have to make it.
I used the phrase “carve out” above for a reason. That’s what it takes.
Something in your calendar will likely have to be sacrificed in the interest of writing time. Make sure it’s not your family—they should always be your top priority. Never sacrifice your family on the altar of your writing career.
But beyond that, the truth is that we all find time for what we really want to do.
Many writers insist they have no time to write, but they always seem to catch the latest Netflix original series, or go to the next big Hollywood feature. They enjoy concerts, parties, ball games, whatever.
How important is it to you to finally write your book? What will you cut from your calendar each week to ensure you give writing the time it deserves?
- A favorite TV show?
- An hour of sleep per night? (Be careful with this one; rest is crucial to a writer.)
- A movie?
- A concert?
- A party?
Successful writers make time to write.
When writing becomes a habit, you’ll be on your way.
7. Establish a sacred deadline
Without deadlines, I rarely get anything done. I need that motivation.
Admittedly, my deadlines are now established in my contracts from publishers. If you’re writing your first book, you probably don’t have a contract yet. To ensure you finish your book, set your own deadline, then consider it sacred.
Tell your spouse or loved one or trusted friend. Ask that they hold you accountable.
Now determine—and enter in your calendar—the number of pages you need to produce per writing session to meet your deadline. If it proves unrealistic, change the deadline now.
If you have no idea how many pages or words you typically produce per session, you may have to experiment before you finalize those figures.
Say you want to finish a 400-page manuscript by this time next year. Divide 400 by 50 weeks (accounting for two off-weeks) and you get eight pages per week. Divide that by your typical number of writing sessions per week and you’ll know how many pages you should finish per session.
Now is the time to adjust these numbers, while setting your deadline and determining your pages per session.
Maybe you’d rather schedule four off-weeks over the next year. Or you know your book will be unusually long.
Change the numbers to make it realistic and doable, and then lock it in. Remember, your deadline is sacred.
8. Embrace procrastination (really!)
You read that right. Don’t fight it; embrace it.
You wouldn’t guess it from my 190+ published books, but I’m the king of procrastinators.
Don’t be. So many authors are procrastinators that I’ve come to wonder if it’s a prerequisite.
The secret is to accept it and, in fact, schedule it.
I quit fretting and losing sleep over procrastinating when I realized it is inevitable and predictable, and also that it is productive.
Sound like rationalization?
Maybe it was at first. But I learned that while I’m putting off the writing, my subconscious is working on my book. It’s a part of the process. When you do start writing again, you’ll enjoy the surprises your subconscious reveals to you.
So, knowing procrastination is coming, book it on your calendar.
Take it into account when you’re determining your page quotas. If you have to go back and increase the number of pages you need to produce per session, do that (I still do it all the time).
But—and here’s the key—you must never let things get to the point that the number of pages per day exceeds your capacity.
It’s one thing to ratchet up your output from two pages per session to three. But if you let it get out of hand, you’ve violated the sacredness of your deadline.
How can I procrastinate and still meet more than 190 deadlines?
Because I keep the deadlines sacred.
Jerry Jenkins is the author of more than 186 books with sales of more than 70 million copies, including the best-selling Left Behind series.