Restarting a stalled book project

I had a half-written book. It had languished for a while. I felt stuck. This is how I brought it back to life — without wasting all the work I’d done.

Why my book was stuck

A while back, I’d started a book titled How to Write a Business Book That Matters: A Comprehensive Guide for Authors. I was determined to put everything I’d learned in seven years of working with authors — and six books I’d written or ghost written — into a single package of useful advice. I mapped out 30 short chapters in a spreadsheet. I interviewed more than a dozen authors. I conducted a writer survey and gathered useful data. I even contracted with a hybrid publisher to get it out — which included a significant up-front payment.

But it wasn’t where it needed to be, and I was stuck.

There are a lot of books on this topic. They almost all stink. They’re short and peppy and vacuous. They tell you writing a book will be great and it will be easy and it will supercharge your business. None of that is true unless you write a book that matters, and that is not so easy. I was determined to show what writing a book like that would take. But my own book was looking more like a collection of basic advice than a book based on a powerful and unique idea. And since my thesis was that as an author, your book needed to center around a powerful and unique idea, that would make me look foolish.

So every time I came back to it, my enthusiasm waned. Even though I’d prepared nearly everything I needed to write.

How I regained my excitement

What did I know that was unique and powerful? And how could I put that into words?

Ironically, this is exactly the kind of question that I help other authors answer. I provide a combination of experience and outside perspective that enables people to refine their ideas.

But how could I provide an outside perspective on my own idea? Obviously, I couldn’t.

I signed up for one of Tamsen Webster’s Red Thread workshops. Tamsen calls herself the idea whisperer. It’s a positioning I admire and feel connected with, and I was very impressed with her book. I felt like the therapist talking to their own therapist. I had a feeling that a day and a half hammering on my idea with other people would help.

Tamsen and the other workshop participant pushed me out my “I’m an expert” comfort zone and together we shook loose a new positioning for my book — one focused on ideas that are unique to me. (Not to be coy, but I won’t go into too much detail on what that unique positioning is in this post — you’ll see soon enough when my book is ready to come out.)

Beyond writer’s block

In most cases of writer’s block, the problem is not that you can’t write, but that you don’t know what to write. Maybe it should be called “writer’s dread,” since when it happens, you dread writing, instead of enjoying it.

Now I knew what to write. The block was gone.

Crucially, the discipline of my organization for the book meant that nearly all of the work I’d already done was still useful, and I was in an excellent position to restart.

The interviews were still useful.

The survey was still relevant.

Most of the chapters I’d already written could be easily tweaked around the new idea.

And the table of contents was nearly all still useful — only the first two chapters needed reordering and revision.

So I set out to revise Chapter 1 — the crucial “scare the crap out of you” chapter.

My new concept required rewriting a case study and identifying a new one. I sourced a new case study and conducted a new interview.

Then I wrote Chapter 1. And edited and rewrote it. And rewrote it again. I polished that thing until it shone like a stone fresh from a lapidary tumbler.

Not counting Tamsen’s workshop, I spent about 8 hours on a 4,000 word chapter.

There’s no way I’ll spend that kind of time on any other chapter, but this was the foundation of my book. And now it’s solid and in place. The path forward is clear.

What I learned from the experience of restarting my book

There are a bunch of lessons here that may be useful to you if you’re stuck with a partly-written book that no longer excites you.

First, be organized as you write. File all your drafts, interviews, and data so they are neatly and easily accessible. Use a spreadsheet or similar tool to organize your planned table of contents. Those pieces are going to be valuable to you, but only if you can find what you’re looking for.

Second, see if you can determine why your enthusiasm is lagging. It’s often an idea problem, as it was for me. Realize that “I don’t want to write” often means “I don’t know what to write,” which stems from “I don’t really know what I’m writing about.”

Third, get outside help to refine your idea. I’m here for you, if you think I’m the right resource. If it’s not me, it might be Tamsen, or somebody else you trust. But you’re not going to figure out the answer sitting alone and stewing in your own juices.

Fourth, as intimidating as it seems, changing the positioning of your book doesn’t mean tossing out everything you worked on. You might have to revise or recreate Chapter 1, as I did, but I’m betting you’ll find much of what you already created to be useful.

And finally, resist the urge to equate “I’m stuck” with “I suck.” When your positioning is off and you’re frustrated, it’s tempting to want to toss out everything you wrote. You may even feel disgust for parts of it. But your mind is playing tricks on you. When you come back to that material with a new idea in mind, you’ll likely find much of it is valuable — and you may even read what you wrote a while back and say “Gee, this stuff is pretty good.”

Don’t fear the restart. Embrace it with gusto. It’s not easy to get right. But if you put the work into it, you’ll be able, not just to salvage your book project, but to make it sing.

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  1. When I see non-fiction writers press on without a solid foundation or poor writing, I shake my head. If you’re self-aware enough to admit that your idea isn’t working or working well, less experienced scribes should take note.