How do you care about a project for months?

Books take a long time to write. It’s exciting at first, getting the initial idea, working up the proposal, and hoping you get accepted, but then … you live with the idea for months, writing and revising, and other ideas pop up and seem more interesting. How do you hang in there long enough to finish when staring at a page of the manuscript makes you want to tear your hair out?

The advice totally comes from the James and the Giant Peach movie: try looking at it another way. (Imagine a giant stop-motion earthworm saying it with an English accent. Unless that makes it more scary than helpful.)

Last week I forced myself to tackle the conclusion of the book I’m currently working on. When you start a book, you pick one way of organizing your ideas. You have to – otherwise it’s nonsense. And you pick something that you thing readers will be able to follow easily, while still getting your point. But, when you pick one organization, it means rejecting all the others.

I like to write up all my chapters and read them through before going for the conclusion. The time between reading and starting to write can vary, but it’s at least long enough for me to read what I’ve actually written (as opposed to what I thought I’d write) and highlight the main points. Then I like to type up all my notes, print them off, and cut then apart so I can rearrange them.

For me, the actual act of cutting and arranging is more useful than manipulating everything digitally. I start sorting my little strips of paper into piles based on very general section ideas. Last week I put a bunch of sticky notes on the floor with proposed categories and dealt out the strips of paper into each one. This can mean adding another sticky note if there are too many strips that don’t seem to fit, or combining a couple if their piles are smaller and the ideas too similar.

Sorting my ideas this new way made me remember why I’d liked it in the first place. I’ve been working with them in one order – the chapter order, the book proposal order – for months, but putting all the main ideas together in a single pile helps me see how the chapters are connected to each other instead of being isolated ideas.

It also helps remind me of the “so what?” that can get forgotten when focusing on each individual chapter instead of the whole book.

And I kept hearing Earthworm in my head: try looking at it another way. Taking a step back to look at the forest and organizing it in a way other than just by type of tree. Putting down the individual puzzle pieces and looking at the picture on the front of the box again.

It can be a lot harder when the deadline suddenly seems closer and you realize you have to finish something that you might not think is any good anymore. There’s the temptation to keep banging away the same way you always have, just trying to get it done, instead of taking a breath and trying something else. But keeping your nose to the grind isn’t always the best way to get things done.

Sometimes you need to let things drop, take a deep breath, and look at them a different way so you can help remind yourself about why this idea was worth all the effort in the first place.

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