Saturday, June 23, 2012

Eat the Elephant

Since I hang around writers, I regularly hear these laments:
"I still have to write my synopsis."
"I haven't been able to write chapter 3."
""My article is due, and I haven't started it yet."
This is heady, frustrating stuff. I always feel pain, the same kind of pain I feel when it is my synopsis or chapter or article.  How can anyone take on such a frightful task, composing elegant, engaging sentences suffused with meaning that magically come together in a lyrical whole that amuses people and rouses them to action? How do you get the damned thing done?
Because you read the title, you know how. Just as you can't swallow an elephant whole, some tasks can't be done in one action. You need to break them up into manageable bits. 
So a few dozen milliseconds after my stomach wrenches at the prospect of, say, writing a commencement speech in three days, I begin to think about how the task can be broken up into smaller bits. What are my key questions. Which people should I talk to? Which Web sites should I visit. How do I dig into the history? What are the possible themes?
You don't have to get the whole job done in creative sweep. You can do a little work on this, and then on this, and… then it's done.
I once got an editing assignment for a book that was half written and stalled. The deadline for a draft was six weeks out. The publication date could not be moved. I had no expertise in the subject area.  
I immediately put aside all concerns post-draft work (proofing, editing, illustrations, etc.). I'd get to those later. Focusing on the draft, the number one thing was an accessible structure. (This is true for almost all nonfiction.) My first jobs became:
  • reading through existing material
  • talking with the author about his intent
  • investigating structures that achieve the intent
Each of these jobs is specific and limited. I was lucky to get great cooperation from the author, including his agreement to my doing rewriting and adding a considerable amount of new material. Looking for smaller tasks made the assignment -- delivering the draft in six weeks -- possible, and, ultimately, the book was done on time and well-received. When you shrink the work down to size, it gets easier.
What do you do to break up the writing tasks you face?

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