26 Fruits

The long haul

kate_bush-nThis summer I have mainly been writing long, with Kate Bush as my soundtrack. I have been ghostwriting a book on leadership (being deliberately vague about the subject). Having spent May and June doing preparatory work, July and August have been about systematically pushing towards the target word count. As close as possible to 40,000 words.

Now that’s not War and Peace but it’s long enough to force me to put aside some other projects for a few months. I am in a race to complete the writing before the end of September when I head to Spain. The main problem has been pinning people down for telephone or skype interviews, because the interviews supply most of the book’s raw content. And these have been busy people in many different time zones, some of whom relish the appearance of busyness in business.

In my book Dark Angels I wrote one chapter on writing short and one on writing long. Most of us are more accustomed to the former but there is a particular satisfaction in writing a longer work. With eight books published under my own name I have worked out my own methods. Writing long really is about many pieces of short writing that you weave together.

The vital thing is structure. This really is essential to provide the shape that you follow. Once you have the structure – chapter by chapter – you can start to break the writing down into more manageable chunks. A chapter of 5000 words, say, is a hill much more easily approached than the mountain of 40,000 words. You go running up that hill.

The structure also allows you to begin making notes, collecting thoughts and ideas, jotting down quotations, that can then be assigned for later use in different parts of the book. You find yourself, at snatched moments, adding layers to those thoughts. With luck, when you come to write Chapter 6 you will have accumulated a lot of useful material in advance.

A longer piece of writing takes more organisation and also more determination. I have never yet failed to finish a book, once started. It is a bit like being able to run a marathon rather than a sprint, but I have always enjoyed the challenge of making that kind of sustained effort. I’ve been fascinated by the current TV documentary about commando training. The physical effort of yomping 30 miles across Dartmoor in full combat kit requires mental stamina to match it. Just keep going, you have to keep going. Don’t give up.

Then you see the finish line approaching. You reach a point when you know you are going to complete the task, and you get increasingly confident that it will work out well. It’s a period to relish almost as much as the final full stop. I’m at that stage now. Just a few weeks, a handful of transatlantic interviews, and some 10,000 words to go. Wow.

2 Responses

  1. Hi John,
    Timely and helpful post as always. In my own long-term writing project I keep telling myself, “It’s another writing project, you always finish your writing projects.” I have my structure in place and so I’m not trying climb the 40,000 word hill. Now it’s a matter of climbing one hill after the other.
    Signing off from gray and cool Seattle,

    PS. Curious that you are working on a book about leadership. I just made the acquaintance of Dennis Perkins, who writes books about leadership and has followed in the footsteps of Shackleton to discern whatever lessons can be found there.

    Lesson #1 from Shackleton is “Do not do this crazy thing.”

  2. It is indeed all about structure. Get that right and assuming you’ve got sufficient raw material the piece will practically write itself. It’s the old “If I had six hours to chop down a tree I’d spend four of them sharpening the axe”-type thing.

    That’s not to underestimate the role a bit of grit can play in getting difficult stuff done. Yesterday I ran 23 miles and somehow acquired some really nasty blisters almost from the word go. No idea why – same shoes, route etc etc and I’m never usually afflicted. Every effing step hurt like hell. But like the true commando warrior I am I stuck it out. The blisters will have healed in a couple of days, leaving my smugness and sense of achievement intact.

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