As a service to aspiring writers, I outline the five key stages of writing a book. My plan applies best to non-fiction. Fiction, I’m sure, has its own rhythms.
Stage 1: Ambition. You start out planning to write the definitive, profound, poetic yet wildly popular book about everything. It will make readers laugh, it will make them cry. Your book will be the transformative moment in every reader’s life. In comparison with the euphoria your book induces, all other uses of this world will seem stale, flat, and unprofitable.
This stage is marked by long periods of dreamy reflection, mental notes toward a Pulitzer acceptance speech, decisions about which talk shows to turn down (the key question: Colbert or Kimmel?), and scanning the web for first-class tickets to Cancun or Prague, which you will be able to afford once the royalties start flowing in.
Little work gets done during Stage 1, though a good bit of the advance gets spent (if advance there is, which there isn’t).
Stage 2: Contraction. You radically reduce the scope of the book. You narrow the topic and perform triage on sources. This stage begins as soon as you do try to write something down, and it becomes acute as the clanging of time’s winged chariot gets louder and louder.
You hide from your editor (if editor there is), and if she breaks through your defenses, you talk about “clarification” and “focus” and “re-envisioning.” You talk down academic ambition and try to sell the idea of making a modest but interesting contribution to the field. You keep talking until she stops listening, and then you hang up before she can ask if you’ve written any words yet.
You hear a voice in your head saying, “Just get it done, dammit.” Though the voice may be your wife’s.
Stage 3: Panic. This stage occurs about two months before the deadline, as you browse the pathetic prose on your computer screen and stare paralyzed at the piles of unread books and articles that remain to be worked through. You content yourself with reading reviews and back-cover blurbs. What you can’t find time to skim, you stuff into a closet.
This stage is marked by sleepless nights, heart palpitations, shame, and fleeting thoughts of suicide or flight. The voice begins to say, “You’ll never finish, you moronic loser.” That might be your wife too, though more likely it’s your kids.
Panic is good. It’s the crest on the wave of creativity, corresponding to the “transition” stage of labor. Once you’ve had a good panic, you’re fine. Everything’s smoothly downhill from here.
Trust me. I’m a professional. I know how this works.
Stage 4: Obsession. This stage occupies the final month of the project. It’s marked by the tendency to exploit every experience, every conversation, every random shred of information. You hear in your demented aunt’s incoherent ramblings a brilliant insight into the topic of your book. You hear the same thing in the hoot of an owl, and you see it in the swirl of cream in your latte.
You become convinced again that your book really is about everything. You start calling your editor.
Stage 5: Wonder. This begins as soon as the manuscript is finished. Tears of relief well up, as you listen to sentimental oldies from your high-school years. You drink your celebratory single malt and smoke a cigar that is not just a cigar because it symbolizes Personal Triumph, and you wonder how that bloated file got on your hard drive. The voice says, “Who put that there?” And that’s definitely your wife.
Out of wonder arises ambition, because it wasn’t so hard after all, and you’re sure you can do it again…
Peter J. Leithart is president of Theopolis Institute.