It's a Marathon, not a Sprint
August 10, 2016 9:23 AM   Subscribe

How do I maintain energy, steam, inspiration, and enthusiasm while undertaking a LONG project-- writing a nonfiction book? I've been at it for 4 months already, and I've got at least another month of proposal writing, and then will have many months of book writing. It's a marathon, and I've never done a marathon.

To date I've worked mainly on short-term writing projects-- maybe 20,000 words max. I love learning new things-- thus the previous focus on shorter projects. This puppy is going to be long, and will take a LONG time and a lot of sustained effort. I find my topic very interesting, and had about 2 months of constant enthusiasm and inspiration but lately have found myself occasionally dragging.

FWIW, I also work from home and have been trying to get into more of a regular daily routine-- and have found it helpful to write alongside others.

Anyone who's written a book-- or taken on a LONG project-- have any suggestions about keeping up the momentum, inspiration, energy, etc., and completing the marathon with joy intact?
posted by enzymatic to Work & Money (12 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I have a simple Excel sheet with three columns: the date, my current word count, and a formula that calculates what I written for the day. Then I create a graph with the date on the x axis and word count on y axis. The graph keeps going up! The word count keeps going up! It's very motivating.

You can use pen and paper, but there is no graph!

I also paid money to rent out a co-working desk. If anything, that helps me get motivated (already paid XX money to rent the space, why am I not using it?)
posted by moiraine at 9:28 AM on August 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've never worked that long on a book, but I've been on plenty of large projects and know too well the difficulty of maintaining enthusiasm over the long haul. One trick that might work is to break the work into 'mini-projects', each with a clearly-defined end. That way you are always working towards a deadline close to you (ie, one week away? two weeks aways?), and just as frequently finishing a defined piece of work. And celebrate that successful completion, even if it's only with a beverage of your choice!
posted by Mogur at 9:48 AM on August 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

I have recently begun writing my second non-fiction book. Both are collections of literary essays coupled with knitting patterns. And some background material too. I wrote the first one in Word over 14 months and it was a horrible marathon. I had preorders, so knowing people were waiting for the book helped but it was hard.

This time I have bought Scrivener to help me out. The software breaks the book writing into small chunks and I can dip in & out instead of having to keep track of one long document. I can also check word count, add research notes, and have a style sheet integrated from start, so I don't have to go back and edit constantly.

My book is divided into three stories which each breaks into smaller chunks. It's SO much easier working like this.

Scrivener. I recommend it. It makes the marathon seem like a series of one-hour-walks.
posted by kariebookish at 10:24 AM on August 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

When I wrote my non-fiction book, I was first asked to provide an outline of its chapter titles, which gave me a handy guide for what to write and how fast I needed to get it done.

I agree with Mogur: when you reach a milestone, celebrate!
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 10:57 AM on August 10, 2016

I'm currently 3 weeks out from my final deadline on my book, so I'm gonna watch this thread. So far, I work on each chapter as a seperate document, so I can send chapters to my editor as they are done. I also have a lot of checklists, and make sure I have tasks that need little brainpower: copy editing, fixing tables, etc. It gets tough working from home, sometimes I print a chapter and go edit / add to it in pen at a coffee shop or library. I try not to move my computer. Oh! And I have a dedicated work laptop and desk, if I want to mess around I use a different device.
My biggest regret was not putting room in my schedule for problems. I had a few months of health issues, and had to work double time to meet my deadlines. Good luck!
posted by Valancy Rachel at 11:02 AM on August 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Perhaps not quite as long, but I recently had a six month playwriting project to complete in my spare time around my day job, and was given the following advice by one of the best in the business (I'd be lying if I said I stuck to it, but I think it's good advice and still aspire to it!)...

Basically, you need to project manage this as you would a work project. Pick an end date - this might be a predetermined deadline, but if you don't have one, make up your own.

Decide how many hours a week you're putting into this project, and when. Schedule every single session into your calendar.

Write a detailed list of everything you need to do to get this project to completion (this was a tricky one for me as I'd never done it before, but I asked my friendly expert, who told me what his process was, and I pinched that).

Divide the work up accordingly between the times you have allocated, in a way that will ensure you get through it all by the end of the project.

Add these details to your calendar/schedule, saying as specifically as possible what you need to do when.

If you have eg. 2 hours allocated next Tuesday evening to get to the end of chapter 2, and you complete it in 30 minutes, you stop and enjoy extra time off.

Basically, although it's a creative project and an act of love, to enjoy that and get to the end in time, without exhausting yourself, you need to acknowledge that it's also an act of work and treat it as such.

This maxim of treating it as an act of work rather than an act of love is a good one for staying sane generally, I found. You can't always create, but you can always work. If you wait to feel inspired you'll never get through it all, so just sit down and work. As a bonus, surprisingly often, creativity comes on the heels of work, rather than vice versa, but you don't sit down with that expectation - you just sit down to work.
posted by penguin pie at 11:57 AM on August 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

Also, on a related note, watch Elizabeth Gilbert's excellent Ted Talk about managing your creativity in a way that keeps you sane. Then rewatch it regularly!
posted by penguin pie at 12:03 PM on August 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Seconding Scrivener. I recently started using it to help organize several research/potential writing projects and it's made my ADD-brain go from "AUUUGGGHHH what do I do with all of this information" to "Hey look at me. Not only am I organized, I'm making progress." Part of my problem is that when I sit down in front of a project, I spend hours organizing thoughts/info from where I last left off, and that sucks up all my energy, and then I'm done for the day. Scrivener has mercifully booted me out of that cycle. (And it has a free 30-day trial.)
posted by mudpuppie at 12:29 PM on August 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Advice given to me from someone who had accomplished several marathon projects was "Do something every day. It doesn't have to be much. Even just a couple of minutes. Just do something every day and every day you'll make progress."

Everyone is different so YMMV, but it certainly worked for at least that person.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:34 PM on August 10, 2016

Hey penguin pie, I never finished my nonfiction book partly because I couldn't figure out everything I needed to do to get to completion. If the technique you borrowed would be helpful to the OP please share it (or message me) cause I could really use that knowledge.
posted by Bella Donna at 5:15 PM on August 10, 2016

Best answer: I'm now doing rewrites on my sixth book. Things that have helped me in the past:

• Concrete hourly, daily and weekly goals. If I'm in the brainstorming part of my process, I measure input (I.E., time spent working.) If I'm in the words-on-paper stage, I measure output (I.E., word count). Either way, if I don't make my goal in a given hour (or day or week), I forgive myself, and focus on making my goal in the next one.

• Ritual. I make a specific playlist for each project, full of songs that somehow relate to the book I'm working on. I choose one song in particular that is always the first song I listen to when I sit down for the day's work. After a few days, hearing it gets me in the mood immediately, and the other songs help keep me in it. (WARNING: You will never again be able to listen to that song without feeling like you should be writing your book.)

Whether or not the playlist thing works for you, I encourage you to find some cue that signals your brain that it's time for writing. Make Pavlovian conditioning work for you.

• Stay physically healthy. Through long experimentation, I've figured out the correct amount of exercise to energize me without exhausting me, and I try to stick to it. (This was easier in the days before kids, but I still make the effort.) Also I avoid foods that will cause my blood sugar to crash late in the afternoon.
posted by yankeefog at 6:50 PM on August 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

Hey, Bella Donna. No problem to share, but I think it was very specific to playwrighting so I suspect might not help you. But in case any playwrights happen this way, or in case you can adapt it, the steps were:

1. A formless hunch that something is interesting or worth writing about. If that sticks around for about 18 months without going away, start work on it.
2. A period absorbing other work on similar themes - plays, novels, non-fiction, art, meeting people with expertise, doing automatic writing to generate material.
3. During that, the characters start to crystallise. You start to do character development exercises (this advice was given in a one-to-one tutorial during a week-long writing course, so the writing exercises were things we’d been working on during the week - you can no doubt find examples yourself. Along the lines of 'write 50 facts about your character/25 things they remember' etc.). Don’t lose your nerve during this bit - trust that by the end of it you’ll know whose story it is, and what it is you want to say about the world.
4. Narrative exercises. Do you want to start at the beginning and write about every single thing that happens, in order, until you get to the end, like a nice story-teller (like Shakespeare)? Or do you want to pick certain key scenes and jump around and put the shits up your audience because they don't quite know what's going on (like Caryl Churchill)? Decide what form you want your play to take in order to exact the effect you want on the audience, and work out how you’ll apply it to your story.
5. From this, decide how many scenes your play will have, what, where, when, how many people are in each scene.
6. You now have your play planned out down to the scene. Write it.

This is obviously just one way to skin the cat, which entails planning everything in advance. I know other playwrights don’t do this at all and are adamant that you need to leave something to surprise you as you write. I started out trying this method, reached a point somewhere in the middle where I thought I couldn’t do it at all and felt completely stuck, abandoned it and started noodling about doing whatever I wanted, then one day discovered I had a scene list and was about to start writing, and had achieved it almost by accident (possibly excepting the 'being really in control of form' stuff, which is particularly tricky).
posted by penguin pie at 7:54 AM on August 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

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