For the last year or so, I’ve been conducting in-person intensives with clients who are seeking clarity on book projects. For anywhere from one to three days, we’ll hole up together (usually in my office in downtown Boulder) and hammer out a plan of action.
Together, we’ll uncover their reasons for writing the book, the audience they wish to reach, and what the book might look like. We’ll create workable outlines, identify necessary research, uncover important stories, and create a preliminary table of contents—all with the goal of generating a clearly marked road map.
These intensives are one of the most stimulating things I do as a coach. To see a writer move from chaotic confusion to epic clarity—often in a single day—is energizing for both of us.
But what I love most about these intensives is watching writers take their creative ideas seriously—so seriously that they are willing to push the pause button on everything else in their lives in order to focus on what their soul is urging them to write. It’s beautiful seeing people validate themselves in this way.
Which got me to thinking.
As much as I love conducting these intensives, I don’t think it’s essential for writers to hire coaches to gain this kind of clarity. All it takes is a willingness to give yourself and your book the time and attention they deserve.
With that in mind, I’ve taken what I’ve learned from conducting intensives and created this do-it-yourself checklist for people who wish to craft their own retreats:
- Schedule at least one full day for yourself. Not a morning, not two hours at lunch, a full day. Magic arises when your take your project seriously. The simple act of saying this project matters can jumpstart the writing.
- Seek out a stimulating and new environment. One of the reasons I believe clients like meeting in my office is that the space is new and unfamiliar to them and thus, they are released from habits they may have acquired in other, more familiar work places. Last week, at the end of an intensive, one of my clients exclaimed, “The muses in here are great!” Which was a nice compliment, but I think the new environment merely allowed her to see the work of her muses more clearly.
- Unplug! This should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: get off the internet, turn off your phone, and tell your loved ones you will not be available except in an emergency. Don’t let anything interrupt your creative flow.
Then, start investigating…
- Ask yourself, What is the book I think I want to write? Because you have to start somewhere, describe the book the way you now envision it.
- Ask yourself, Why am driven to write this book? Don’t stop at the first answer. Keep asking why over and over again. Why this book? Why this topic? Why this format? Why now? Keep writing until you feel the intuitive buzz that tells you you’ve hit a deep truth. (Hint: often our whys are rooted in deeply felt personal experiences.)
Why is finding the why so important? Two reasons. One, because if we have a strong enough why it’s easier to figure out the how. And two, if we care strongly about why we are doing something, it’s easier to manage the fear, doubt and frustration that can arise with any writing project. Plus, if the topic doesn’t matter to you deeply, you may not have the juice to fuel an extended writing project.
One client of mine, who writes about injustice toward women, tapped into the injustice she experienced in the workplace and uses her lingering outrage at that injustice to fuel her writing on the topic. Another client, who is writing about a debilitating illness, writes in order to help others suffering from the same illness. For her, the writing is a gift to the community that has sustained her. What soul-driven reason is propelling you forward?
- Ask yourself, What do I wish to teach readers? Why is it so important for me to teach this? Am I providing readers with insight I wish I’d gained earlier?
- Ask yourself, What am I most afraid to write about? This may seem like an odd question, but after working with thousands of writers I’ve discovered a direct link between what a writer is most afraid to write and what a writer must write. Don’t try to avoid or write around that which scares you.
- Ask yourself, Where do I want this project to take me—professionally? Personally? Do I want to speak, coach, grow a business, launch a writing career?
- Make your ideas visible. Laptops and journals are fine for freewriting and drafting, but if you want to get a sense of your project in its entirety, capture your ideas on a white board or with colorful sticky notes spread across a wall. Changing the way you see your ideas can help you gain big-picture clarity.
- Take regular breaks. You might try the Pomodoro method—set a timer for 25 minutes of concentrated work, then stand and walk around for five, then reset the timer. This can help keep your energy and focus alive.
- When you get stuck, get curious. Change the words “I don’t know…” to “What if…” Ask yourself why you might be stuck. Be curious about what you are trying to learn about your subject.
- Be open to new ideas and ways of thinking about your book. Every writer starts with a specific idea but books tend to morph and grow the more you write. Be receptive to these changes. They’re evidence your intuition is working.
- Once you’ve answered the big-picture questions, take yourself out to lunch (in other words, leave the environment you’ve been in) and give yourself time to ponder what you’ve been learning. Let the lessons settle in, and then hit it again in the afternoon with renewed zeal.
After lunch, start thinking about structure…
- List the books on your bookshelf that inspire you. What are your role models for the type of book you wish to write? (Suggestion: Bring these books with you on your retreat.) What is it about these books you wish to emulate?
- If you are telling a story, ask yourself if the story is best told:
—Chronologically? If so, with what events does the story begin and end?
—Through a series of essays? If so, how will the essays be connected? What advantages and disadvantages does the essay approach offer?
—Through chapters devoted to different themes? If so, what themes are likely to form your chapter headings?
- If you are writing prescriptive or informational nonfiction, how will you structure the content? Will you take readers through a process that involves sequential steps? Will your book be more of a philosophical discussion? Will you be informing readers about different aspects of a subject that build upon one another?
- Once you have the answers to these questions, create a preliminary outline or table of contents based on what you’ve learned. The idea is to leave your intensive with a plan for how and where to begin writing.
Now that you’ve mapped the potential structure…
- Explore where you might obtain unbiased (and experienced) feedback on your work. (I don’t recommend turning to spouses or friends for feedback—our friends will always try to be “nice” and “nice” isn’t what aspiring authors need to improve their work.)
- Consider how you plan to counter the difficult emotions that inevitably arise during a long-form project. My suggestion: don’t believe the story you tell yourself about an emotion. Frustration does not mean you don’t know what you are doing. Fear doesn’t mean you should quit. Shame doesn’t mean your story is not worthy of an audience. Simply name the emotion, thank it for being concerned about you, and then get back to work. (I know… this is much easier said than done.)
Most of all… good luck! I’d love to hear how it goes.