Should you write a book during the viral apocalypse?

Image: Leonid Pasternak via Wikimedia Commons

You’re stuck at home. You have internet access and, maybe, a little more time to yourself. Should you write a book?

This advice is mainly for those who write business books and self-help books to gain influence — my primary audience. But I hope that all authors currently sheltering at home during the coronavirus crisis may find this useful.

Pros and cons of writing a book right now

Here’s why you may be thinking of finally getting to work on that book you were considering:

  • You’ve got time you didn’t have before — for example, time you previously spent commuting.
  • If you are a public speaker, your event and corporate appearances may have dried up, and now is the perfect time to recharge the content before (we all hope) things pick up again.
  • You may have been laid off, and your prospects for getting hired are going to be challenging for a few months.

On the other hand, here are some reasons you may find writing is harder than you think:

  • You may have your kids at home with you, and kids need attention and generate interruptions.
  • You may find taking care of your own and your family’s needs to be swallowing up all the energy you can muster.
  • You may be feeling depressed or anxious, which makes concentration difficult.

The real question here has to do with time and energy. If your personal situation makes those resources difficult to come by during this trying situation, you might find writing difficult. If you’ve now got time and energy that need channeling, on the other hand, this might be the perfect moment to work on your book.

And you might find working on a book to be therapeutic, since it doesn’t require shopping or in-person interactions with other people.

Making short-term progress on a long-term project

If you think you can churn out a quickie book in a month or so, good luck. If you’re very special — and you’ve been organizing it all in your head for years — that might work. But for most authors, that’s not what’s going on right now.

A book worth doing requires effort. That effort includes nailing down the idea, organizing the content, researching supporting material, planning chapters, writing, getting editorial feedback, lining up a publication plan, and lining up promotion. That is at least a year’s effort. So unless this coronavirus lockdown goes on for way longer than anyone imagines, you can’t write a book during this time period.

However, you can make progress on a book.

Here’s what I suggest.

Block off periods of one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours for book work, depending on your ability to concentrate and the interruptions in your day. Don’t block off six hours — amazingly, you can get more done in a 90-minute chunk than a trackless six-hour wasteland. Six hours blocked off is a prescription for writer’s block.

Set a specific goal for those time periods that can move your book forward. Here are some examples:

  • Idea and title development. Write a two-page description of the book’s topic. Write down five different titles or subtitles.
  • Table of contents development. Create a detailed table of contents with chapter titles, in order, and a description of what is in each chapter.
  • Musing. You say you want to write. Don’t set out to write a book. Write a blog post. Then write another. Write what’s on your mind. You can make those blog posts public, or keep them private, but either way, it’s easier to write 2,000 words in a blog than a 60,000-word book. Those musings will become elements of the book.
  • Investigate publishing options. Self-publishing, hybrid publishing, and traditional publishing all have advantages and disadvantages. Read about the choices and decide which is right for you.
  • Write a proposal. If you’re seeking a traditional publisher, you need a proposal. This requires you to assemble ideas, write a sample chapter, and prepare a marketing plan. That could take five or more of these concentrated sessions. Keep in mind that the book industry, like many others, is likely to suffer a recession, so it may be increasingly difficult to get a book contract right now.
  • Research. Choose a research topic (for example, consumer attitudes towards email marketing, or a comparison of two software development methodologies). Do web research on the topic. In a document, note links to what you found, and quotes or statistics from those articles, white papers, or web pages.
  • Outreach. Identify 15 people who are knowledgeable on a given topic. Using resources you have, find their contact information or secure an introduction. Then reach out and invite them to participate in an interview.
  • Case study identification. Research who is doing what you are writing about. They may be clients of yours, or you may find them through articles that quote them. Find them and offer to profile them.
  • Interviews. Interview your targets.
  • Fat outline. Assemble all the information for a chapter in a single rough document, in the right order, in a form that makes for a logical narrative. (If you can do this in an hour, that is an hour very well spent.)
  • Write a chapter. If you have already done a fat outline, you can write a chapter in a session, or two, or three, depending on length.
  • Get coaching or feedback. Line up an editor or coach — like me, for example. Delivery your work to them, then spend the session learning what you need to fix next.
  • Review a draft and rewrite it. Gather feedback, then act on it.

You may think of writing a solitary activity. But many of the tasks I’ve described here require collaborators — interview subjects, coaches, or editors, for example. Others, like a title brainstorm, are much more effective with others. Tools like Zoom can enable you to get much of this work done while you and your collaborators are sitting at your desks at home. Not only that, the other people you interview or work with are likely to be open to the idea of connecting in this difficult time, and talking about their work, or about your book. You’re much less likely to run out of steam if you connect with others this way.

What you can really do now is get unstuck

You can’t write a book during a viral apocalypse.

However, if you feel your normal work routine has been getting in the way of the book that’s bouncing around in your brain, then this is a chance to get unstuck.

You can set aside time and make progress in discrete steps. And when we can all get out and connect in person again — and when you are ready to go back to work, or get back on the road — you will have gone from stuck to moving. You will have made progress, and you will have a much better idea where you are going.

This will allow you to keep moving even as your job ramps up again. And that will pay off in a completed book six months or a year from now.

Don’t think about writing. Think about making progress.

Good luck. I want you to succeed.

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