Break long projects into parts, long stories into chapters.
Anne Lamott's great book "Bird by Bird" gets its title from an anecdote about her brother. At the age of 10, he struggled with a school report on birds. Lamott describes him as "immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead." But then, "my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'"
We all need such coaching to remind us to break long projects into parts, long stories into chapters, long chapters into episodes. Such advice is both encouraging and practical.
Where writers gather, I often ask this question: "How many of you have ever run a marathon?" In a group of 100, maybe one or two will raise a hand. "If properly trained and motivated, how many of you think you could run 26 miles?" A half-dozen more. "What if I gave you 52 days to do it, so you only had to run a half mile a day?" Most of the hands in the room go up.
Donald Murray puts it this way: "A page a day is a book a year."
When my children were young, I volunteered to teach writing in their elementary school. After each class, I would scribble notes in a journal, never taking more than 10 minutes to complete the task. What had I learned that day? How did the children respond? Why was Bonnie not writing? After three years, I thought I might have a book in me about teaching children to write. I had never written a book before and did not know how to begin, so I transcribed my journal entries. The result was about 250 pages of typed text, not yet a book, but a sturdy foundation for what was to become "Free to Write: A Journalist Teaches Young Writers."
It never occurred to me that I could write a serial narrative for a newspaper. The reporting and writing seemed too big. But I knew I could write a newspaper column; in fact, after the research, I could produce one in 90 minutes or less. That became the psychological and architectural strategy for drafting my series "Three Little Words": Each chapter was the length of a newspaper column, about 850 words. I couldn't write a series -- so I thought -- but I could write 29 columns and make them cohere. That's how the work got written in a timely fashion.
The power of this writing habit is overwhelming, like Harry Potter being told for the first time that he is a famous wizard. You are now reading tool #37 in a year-long series, headed for 50. If I had said to my editors, "You know, I'd like to write a book of writing tools," I never would have gotten the work done. At the front end, book projects always seem impossible to get your arms around, like hugging a sumo wrestler. Instead, I pitched the writing tools project as 50 short essays, delivered at the rate of one or two per week.
The same strategy could have produced the book on my nightstand, "The Lord Is My Shepherd" by Harold Kushner, a superb writer and teacher. The foreword begins:
I have been thinking about the ideas in this book for more than 40 years, since I was first ordained as a rabbi. Every time I would read the Twenty-third Psalm at a funeral or memorial service, or at the bedside of an ailing congregant, I would be struck by its power to comfort the grieving and calm the fearful. The real impetus for this book came in the wake of the terrible events of September 11, 2001. In the days following the attacks, people on the street and television interviewers would ask me, "Where was God? How could God let this happen?" I found myself responding, "God's promise was never that life would be fair. God's promise was that, when we had to confront the unfairness of life, we would not have to do it alone for He would be with us." And I realized I had found that answer in the Twenty-third Psalm.
Writers are always looking for the focus of a story, and what a strong focusing idea to write a book about a single 14-line prayer, one that has such powerful meaning within the Judeo-Christian context.
Imagine writing a book about the Lord's Prayer, or the Ave Maria, or one of Shakespeare's sonnets. But how to organize the writing and reading of such a book? Kushner provides an elegant solution: Each chapter is devoted to one line of the Psalm. So there is a chapter called "The Lord Is My Shepherd" and another called "Though I Walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death" and another called "My Cup Runneth Over." A 175-page national bestseller is divided into 15 short chapters, handy units for the writer and the reader.
Bird by bird, tool by tool, line by line.
1. Admit it. You want to write something bigger than you've ever written before. But you can't get your arms around the project. The length or breadth of it intimidates you. Cut up the monster. In a daybook or journal break it up into its smallest parts: chapters, sections, episodes, vignettes. Without reference to any notes or research materials write one of these small units. See what happens.
2. Next time you are in the bookstore, take a peek at several big volumes: novels, memoirs, almanacs. Check out the table of contents and figure out the structural units that make up the book. Now check out individual chapters to see how they are subdivided. Begin to notice these small parts in the rest of your reading.
3. The Bible is divided, traditionally, into Books, Chapters, and Verses. Browse through the King James Version and pay special attention to how the books are divided. Notice the difference, for example, between Genesis, Psalms, and the Song of Songs.
4. Before you begin drafting your next story, scribble down on a legal pad what you conceive as the parts of the story. Don't just write down: beginning, middle, and end. Try writing down the smaller parts of those bigger parts.