“I have a book within me just waiting to be born.”
“I keep notes of these phrases that come to me.”
“I’ve tried over and over and haven’t been able to write it.”
As a book-writing coach, I hear these types of comments a lot. There are so many talented, smart individuals who have a book living inside them, but for myriad reasons — time management, writer’s block, fear of failure — they have trouble getting it onto the page.
The process of writing a book is complex, time-intensive, and filled with obstacles, some mental and some physical. Every journey starts differently, yet the path always looks and feels the same.
You begin with an idea or image — something within, like a seed germinating beneath the surface. You tinker with this seed, collecting scraps of paper and notes on your phone. You finally take the leap and jot those notes down in a document on your computer. Then, the first touch of paralysis occurs. Now what? You’ve got some disconnected thoughts and feelings written down but nothing that resembles a story. Or you know exactly what you want to write but the way it comes out feels wrong.
There’s nothing like having a book feel so alive inside your soul and then meet reality on the page: a jumbled mess that wouldn’t entice a single reader.
Obstacles in Telling Your Story
Every story is alive, its own being with its own heartbeat and shape, which is why the initial stages can seem overwhelming. You know the book is meant to be birthed, but it’s formless inside you. That lack of shape is hard to hold. Writing a book from an evocative place, one of memory and emotion, can relieve feelings of paralysis. You can shape your story around the crux of this emotion and figure out where the beginning, climax, and end are.
One of the hardest obstacles in the process of writing a book is often what to eliminate from our stories. Every part feels crucial to who we are and how we came to be. The best way to begin to organize it is to figure out what story you want to tell. Is it a love story, a story of loss, a story of hope or triumph? Then, eliminate the parts that would invite too many doors to open for the reader. Let them walk through the door that feels most heavy for you — a door that you would need readers’ help to open.
For me, that’s the door of grief. That’s the door of my childhood. Of yellow hair curlers, hymns played on the piano, buttery grits, the smell of honeysuckle, my grandmother’s loving hand as she tucked me in for a nap. The same hand I held before she passed.
There, a heartbeat. The story is alive.
Another obstacle is often the structure of the story. Sometimes our memories are malleable. We don’t know the exact dates an experience happened, or perhaps we don’t know whether it’s more important to be accurate or true. When we’re accurate, we give over to the logical part of our brains, writing down the facts. When we’re true, we lean into the emotions we feel throughout the story.
Emotions fuel our memories. It makes perfect sense to tell a story about anger and move from your parents’ anger to a moment when you expressed anger the same way they did. Twenty years could have passed between those moments, but the reader will understand why you organized it that way — you were showing them a story connected by emotion, by what feels true.
How to Begin Writing a Book
When we look back on our lives, we’re looking for patterns to connect experiences. One way to do this is by making a shape with the dots along our lifetime. Like constellations in the sky, we can make meaning out of experiences that shine brightest to us. The most common pattern of telling a story is an arc or wave. It begins as a calm surface until the tension rises and rises, escalating to form the shape of a giant wave whose energetic body has nothing to do but crash and break until equilibrium returns.
Although the wave is the most common storytelling form, your book can take on many shapes. In her book about storytelling structure, “Meander, Spiral, Explode,” Jane Alison argues that as human beings, we observe the day-to-day always “alert to patterns,” the ways in which our experiences shape themselves, the “ways we can replicate [the experience’s] shape with words.” A brilliant notion, we can shape moments in our lives to create texture, vibrancy, emotion, and meaning.
The most important thing when sitting down to write your book is to recognize the patterns throughout your life and corral them onto the page. Recognizing patterns, however, is not easy. There’s so much freedom in organizing your story, depending on how you want it shaped, which is why the act itself can be difficult. Here’s where to start writing a book:
- Find a memory that has a hold on you and build around it. Write out the sensory details: What do you see, feel, smell, touch, or taste? What textures, colors, and movements do you observe? See what dots you can connect as you explore the memory. Were you wearing a yellow shirt when you met the love of your life by the lemons in the grocery store? That pattern of yellow might repeat itself in other memories. Hold on to those patterns for the future of crafting your story.
- Settle on what the story is about — a love story, a loss story, a career story — and eliminate tangential ideas. Fall into the story completely to see what patterns show up when you surrender to a theme or frame around your life. Perhaps yellow flowers arrived at your wedding or the logo of your company matches the yellow of your parents’ childhood car. The motifs of love and courage are intertwined with a vibrant color.
- Pick a structure that supports the story. Sometimes that means leaning into a classic narrative structure, like the hero’s journey, following a chronological path of adventure. Or perhaps it means organizing by idea or theme or a colorful image, circling around a concept until you come to a conclusion that feels most true.
Writing a book is excavating meaning from the deep recesses of the mind, and the process of telling your story reshapes how you see yourself. Writing out your story is so humbling; it’s like holding up a mirror and meeting yourself for the first time. You get the opportunity to be gentler to your past and to claim victory over your present. A truly great story has the power to impact its audience in a radical way, but no one will ever be as changed as when a writer births a story that was always destined to be.
Kelsey Schurer is an executive editor at Round Table Companies, where she works on projects such as book coaching, business storytelling, and children’s illustrated books. She played an integral role in creating The Story Hero, RTC’s educational storytelling course.
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