Background – I recently published my first book. More specifically, I returned home from a tour as a combat advisor in Afghanistan filled with anger and frustration about the situation in that country, and I turned to writing as a form of catharsis. Fast forward a few years, and I’d completed the manuscript that would ultimately become my book, The New Ministry of Truth: Combat Advisors in Afghanistan and America’s Great Betrayal.
However, this article isn’t about the content of my story. Rather, I’d like to use my experiences writing – and completing – a manuscript as an opportunity to talk about the writing process. In the few months following the release of my book, multiple people have approached me with variations on the following: I’ve always wanted to write a book, but I’ve never been able to buckle down and get it done – how’d you do it? As such, I wanted to “put pen to paper” and outline the steps I took to finish my manuscript. Yet, I need to note, this is a way to write, not the only way. Ultimately, what matters most is finishing your manuscript, however you get there.
Step 1: Initial Inspiration
This may seem patently obvious, but it’s important to emphasize nonetheless – without some form of initial inspiration, a future author lacks the foundation of a story. Call it your muse, the seed of an idea, or an “aha” moment, but without some initial sense of “wow, I really need to write about this,” a manuscript has been derailed before it’s even begun. For me, I had an overwhelming need to write to tackle some fairly dark emotions. For others, the inspiration may be an idea for an outstanding thriller or, who knows, maybe the next great American novel. Whatever your inspiration, ensure it’s clearly defined, as it’ll serve as the critical fuel to your writing fire.
Step 2: A Religiously Followed Routine
With that initial inspiration driving you forward, the next step involves defining your writing routine – and then following it religiously! Life happens. If you don’t carve a portion of every day out for working on the manuscript, the overwhelming likelihood is that you’ll never complete it. Some people like to write in the mornings, others late at night. Some people have kids, some don’t. Bottom line, your writing routine will be unique to your own situation, but you need to define a routine.
Personally, I love writing first thing in the morning. It’s quiet, the sun still hasn’t come up, and the incessant e-mail and message pings of my day job haven’t started. Embracing this window of solitude, I’d wake up early every morning, shake the sleep off as I slept-walked through the process of making a big serving of French-press coffee, then write for an hour – not a minute more or less. Sometimes I wrote a page, sometimes I wrote a paragraph, sometimes I stared blankly at a screen. What mattered most was that I was there, every Monday – Friday (I like to relax on the weekends), making incremental progress towards completion. Without this routine, it’s just too easy to find an excuse not to write for one day, which then quickly becomes one week, one month, and then, unfortunately, “oh I guess this writing thing isn’t for me.”
Step 3a: An Outline
To give credit where credit is due, I need to thank my high school English teacher (and high school English teachers everywhere) for this one. Whether you prefer to call it a storyboard, an outline, or a roadmap really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you’re not writing blind, and that’s exactly what writing without an outline is. In today’s world of smartphones as seemingly ubiquitous appendages, it’s hard to imagine driving to a new place without our preferred map app. This is the exact function that an outline serves – it structures your story, providing you a clear path from here (your initial inspiration) to there (your completed manuscript). Lacking this tool, getting to the finished product becomes exponentially harder.
For me, I spent more time outlining my story than actually writing it. As I was writing a memoir, I already had a rough idea of the broad narrative arc of my manuscript. But, dividing my experiences into chapter titles, ensuring those titles flowed logically, and then providing bulletized content as the skeletons of each chapter set me up for success. When I actually began to write, I didn’t need to think about where I was going – just the manner and style in which I’d get there.
Step 3b: Manageable Chunks
This step pulls it all together. I’ll be honest, and I think most people will agree – writing a book is a daunting task. Frankly, it can seem utterly overwhelming. Breaking the process into manageable chunks turns an impossible task into a series of attainable ones.
I like to think of projects in terms of milestones, that is, major events that, when accomplished, kick off the next phase of the project. In writing my book, I knew that writing an outline (see previous step) would be the first major milestone, but, even that seemed overwhelming. So, I broke my outline into smaller pieces. Armed with an Excel spreadsheet, I built two columns. On the left, dates, on the right, milestones. In this fashion, I structured an achievable plan – outline the training portion of our deployment by Date X, outline the Afghan portion of our deployment by Date Y, write the first five chapters by Date Z, et cetera. And, as I completed each one of these milestones, I had the satisfaction of turning the red cells on the spreadsheet to green, seeing tangible progress towards my goal.
Step 4: Write
Ironically, if you put the time, thought, and effort into completing the above steps, actually writing is the easiest part. I’m certainly no Hemingway, and not many people (or any people, for that matter) will ever accuse me of being a literary giant. Despite that, I successfully took my initial inspiration and turned it into a finished manuscript, something I could not have done without these steps.