I stared at a blank screen. Why did I ever think I could pull this off?
Until that moment, I’d only written short projects. Articles, essays, poems.
As I sat staring at the screen, questioning myself in about every way possible, I was supposed to be writing my first book—a manuscript of over 50,000 words.
Overwhelmed, I sat at the keyboard, frozen.
Sound familiar? Have you felt inspired to write a book you believe will truly help people—even transform them—but you’re not sure you have what it takes?
Well, once upon a time, this writing coach was in the exact same place.
I was staring at the screen, inspired to write a book, but doubting myself: Do I have what it takes to write a book?
Could I Write Something as Big as a Book?
How does an essayist-poet-freelancer embark on the massive task of completing a 55,000-word manuscript?
That question felt unanswerable and I felt inadequate.
This prose-freezing self-doubt was a huge problem, however, because I’d signed a contract. I was obligated to write a book I didn’t think I could write.
First, a Proposal
For a year or so my friends had been urging me to move forward with writing a book after I kept sharing concepts with them in conversations over coffee or during play dates at the park. One after another, they would say, “You should write a book about that!”
I’d laugh it off. “Me? Write a book? Ha!”
“But you’re a writer!” they’d insist.
“I’m a writer of short things. A book is too long, too huge.”
They’d shrug and we’d go back to wiping yogurt off our kids’ faces.
One day I was meeting with my mentor, a writer named Ruth (I had two writing mentors named Ruth—what are the odds!—and this was the Ruth who lived nearby). Nearby Ruth was the author of a book acquired by a publishing house based about three hours north of us.
She offered to introduce me to the editorial team, so I could pitch the idea to them over lunch. She said she’d drive me up there herself! All I had to do was hop in the car, share the project with them, and hand out copies of a book proposal.
It was all arranged.
What a great mentor, right?
I just needed to create the book proposal…which I didn’t have the faintest idea how to put together.
“You can look at mine”
“I need a book proposal? Can’t I just describe the book?”
“They need the book proposal,” Ruth said. “That’s how they do it.”
It’s the same now as it was then, by the way. For nonfiction projects, an author produces a book proposal before landing a book contract with an agent or editor. (Learn more about the process and purpose by watching this webinar.)
Back then, I had no idea what a book proposal looked like. This was pre-Internet, so there were no samples to download or coaches to hire.
“You can look at mine,” Ruth offered. “You can see how it’s laid out and how I described my book. Then you can plug in your book’s details in the same places.”
Can you believe that? My mentor offered to let me see her own book proposal like it was no big deal.
But it was pivotal. Life-changing. Career-forming.
Crafting my First Book Proposal
Hers was the first book proposal I ever saw. I pored over it, following the flow to craft my own. Her subheadings showed me the purpose of each section. Her content gave me ideas for how to phrase the business-y stuff about mine.
Weeks of work went into that document.
I wrote the overview, typed up a bio, and listed famous people I could ask for an endorsement (I didn’t personally know famous people, but at that point in my life I knew people who knew people, so I added names with an explanation of each friend-of-a-friend connection).
Then I got to the meat of the proposal:
The Table of Contents.
The chapter summaries.
This took time, because I was essentially writing the book without writing the book, and if you recall, I’d never written a book before so I had no idea what I was doing.
But I knew what I wanted to say, more or less. Like I said, for a year or so I’d been talking with friends about these ideas.
I did my best, summarizing what I thought I should include in each of those chapters, arranging the ideas in an order that made sense. I invented a marketing plan. I wrote an introduction and a sample chapter.
Then I got in Ruth’s car and rode north with her to my meeting with the editorial team.
An Offer, a Challenge
After introductions, Ruth left me at the sushi restaurant where I met with the team.
I pitched. I showed them the book proposal. I dripped soy sauce on the table and soaked it up with a napkin, laughing it off. (It was not only my first time pitching a book, it was also my first time eating sushi.)
To my surprise—despite the soy sauce spillage—they were interested. After I got home there was a lot of back-and-forth, but in time they offered me a contract to write that book.
That’s how I found myself sitting at the computer with a signed contract and a deadline…and a wave of self-doubt.
And after spiffing up the first chapter, which I’d already written for the proposal, I found myself staring at that blank screen.
Breaking It Down
“Ruth! What have I gotten myself into!” I practically cried when I updated her. “How can I write an entire book? It’s too much, it’s too long!”
Ruth calmed me down. “Hold on, Ann. Yes, you can write this book.”
“I can’t write that many words!”
“You don’t write them all at once,” she said. “You’ve got your Table of Contents, right?”
“Yes. In the book proposal.”
“You’ve summarized what you plan to put in those chapters, right?”
“Treat each of those chapters like one of your longer articles, and write them one at a time.”
How about that! I flipped through the document and realized she was right.
I’d already outlined the entire book. My ideas were right there in the book proposal I so diligently pieced together.
Ruth smiled. “You can do it. I know you can do it.”
You Already Know How to Write
I could breathe again. She demystified the whole thing and framed the writing of a book around the kind of writing I already knew I could pull off.
I followed her plan to write one chapter at a time—like a long article—and move on to the next, piecing them together to make the book.
I tend to be a little more of a “pantser” than a “plotter,” but I sat at the keyboard grateful for the book proposal because it forced me to create structure for this project before I sat down to do the work.
All I needed to do was follow the plan: the road map I’d already developed to take the reader from page one to the end.
Turns out I had everything I needed.
How Maggie Smith Plays to Her Strengths (You Can, Too)
We come to new projects with strengths from other parts of our writing lives—and from our lives as a whole.
Maggie Smith’s interview on the Write-Minded podcast emphasizes this reality: that even experienced writers approach each project as a new challenge.
Cobbling it together
She explains that her memoir, You Could Make This Place Beautiful, was “cobbled together.” She could see that having written poetry books didn’t really prepare her for writing a full-length memoir.
“How does one write 65,000 words,” she says, “because I honestly have no idea, as someone who writes poems that are typically less than 17 lines long and has never thought about word count. I had no idea how to sort of sustain.”1
Not that I’m comparing myself to Maggie Smith, but like me, she knew how to write short but had no experience with how to write long.
Distilling experiences and presenting images
And she also didn’t see herself as a storyteller. “I’m not really a storyteller primarily in my poems, or at least I don’t think of myself that way. I think of myself more as an ‘image presenter’ or an ‘experience distiller’ or ‘crystallizer’ than a storyteller, so I thought, This is going to be interesting.”2
It seems she had the same “Do I have what it takes?” concern as you and I.
But unlike me, it sounds like she didn’t freeze or panic. Instead, she drew from her strengths—her gifts and experience as a published poet—to creatively piece together one of the most unusual and popular memoirs of 2023.
Her approach? She wrote vignettes one at a time independently from each other, out of chronological order and without an outline. The book “distills” and “crystallizes” her experiences and presents images, holding our attention.
With help from an editor, she assembled the book by sorting these pieces to find themes, styles of writing, and various connections that flowed together.
Following her intuition
By color-coding them she arranged them on her living room floor until she found what seemed balanced. “It was a craft project,” she jokes, which is how she puts together her books of poetry, following her intuition, looking for “the natural progression.”3
She trusted the writer she already was and the writing she’d already done to find a way into this writing that was new.
She played to her strengths and found her structure, her voice, her stories, and every word to make her book beautiful.
Every Book Is New
David McCullough has said, “Every book is a new journey. I never felt I was an expert on a subject as I embarked on a project.”4
Novelist Cassandra Clare says it’s true in fiction, too. “No matter how many books you’ve written, whenever you sit down to write a new book you always feel the same challenge — how do you shape this story into a book that people are going to love.”5
Jennifer Dukes Lee’s Atypical Book Project
I interviewed Jennifer Dukes Lee about writing her guided journal Stuff I’d Only Tell God. She’d already written multiple trade nonfiction books, but never anything like this guided journal. It’s a book of questions, not answers.
But Jennifer leaned into who she was as a journalist, a blogger, and an author. She’s both a natural and trained question-asker. She was born curious; she was a journalist by trade. She already had what it would take to write this book that was in a totally different genre than her others.
I have been writing online in a pretty open way since 2009….and…I was a newspaper reporter. But in the same way that I was interrogating police chiefs and mayors and governors, I began to interrogate my own life in that way. So I feel like turnabout’s fair play.6
By turning her own question-asking training on herself, she developed questions she knew could work for anyone ready to pen an interesting, deep, thoughtful journal that opened them up to the things that matter most.
And she wrote a book unlike any she’d written before, because she had what it takes to pull it off, even when she wasn’t sure about that when she started the project.
Tap into Yourself to Write This Book
Every book is new, so even if we’ve authored other books, we may find ourselves wondering, as Maggie Smith and Jennifer Dukes Lee did, if we have what it takes. Like Cassandra Clare, you may know how to write a book, but you don’t know how to write this book.
Trust what you know and what you can research and learn. Draw from skills you developed the first time you wrote a book or from what you gained while writing other kinds of projects.
Tap into your personality, too, to find your way forward.
- Are you organized and methodical? Capitalize on that with orderly research, outlines, and bullet points. Then write from what you’ve included in your detailed outline.
- Are you spontaneous and playful? Drop everything to write a chapter when you sense a burst of inspiration!
- Are you pensive, reflective, contemplative? Document your insights, and weave them in to offer vulnerability and insights uniquely yours.
With experience and personality, you have what it takes to write the book that’s on your heart.
Write Your Book Your Way (You Have What It Takes)
Your book is your book, your experience is yours alone, and your personality is one-of-a-kind. Put all that together, and you have what it takes—you can get ideas by seeing how others write, but in the end, you’ll find it within.
As my deadline loomed, I no longer panicked because, with Ruth’s reassuring reminder, I saw how to write that book with the truths I’d gleaned in the voice I’d developed.
Drawing from my work writing feature stories for the local paper, I ended up weaving in the wisdom of others, too, interviewing moms to include their stories, ideas, and insights.
I figured out how to write that book—and a few weeks before it was due to the editor, I finished the draft, and enlisted beta readers to offer their input. I incorporated changes for the final draft and sent it off.
Turns out I had what it takes.
I’ll bet you have what it takes, too.
A Plan That Works for You
I’ll go out on a limb and make one suggestion that I believe will help. Regardless of your style of writing, genre, category, subject matter or experience, creating and following a plan will save time and build confidence—even if you’re a “pantser” (that is, even if you write by the seat of your pants).
If you’ve written a book proposal, you’ve got the plan.
In your proposal, you’ve developed the ideas you want in the book and organized them into a Table of Contents. This takes time—you can use different tools to unearth and organize the things you want to say and the information your reader needs. Learn more HERE.
Word by Word
Turn to the chapter summaries (sometimes called the annotated Table of Contents) and follow those to start writing the book, idea by idea, word by word.
When your ideas are in place, thoughtfully built out to support our claims, we write everything—no matter how long or involved—word by word.
Anne Lamott’s brother panicked because he needed to turn in a report on birds and hadn’t even started it. She says her brother sat at the table with books and pens unopened and untouched, because he was unable to take action.
I know how he felt, because I sat frozen at the keyboard, overwhelmed at the thought of writing an entire book. He had to write an entire report on birds in one night; he must have wondered if he had what it takes.
“Then my father sat down beside him,” Anne writes, “put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”7
If you feel like you don’t have what it takes, it’s okay. Every new project leaves a writer feeling like that, but we know what to do. We make a plan, tap into our unique strengths, and then take it word by word. Just take it word by word.
- Craft Your Best Book Proposal on-demand webinar: Learn what goes into a quality book proposal so you’re prepared for the next step in your publishing journey: CLICK TO WATCH
- Go Ahead and Play to Your Strengths (episode 57): CLICK TO READ & LISTEN
- Don’t Be Afraid to Evolve (episode 47): CLICK TO READ & LISTEN
- Want to Become a Better Writer? Journal Before You Write (interview with Jennifer Dukes Lee): CLICK TO READ, LISTEN, or WATCH
- How to Structure Your Nonfiction Book: CLICK TO READ & LISTEN
- “Playing with Narration in Memoir, with Maggie Smith.” Write-Minded Podcast, 23 Oct. 2023, podcast.shewrites.com/playing-with-narration-in-memoir/. Accessed 5 Jan. 2024.
- “David McCullough on Teaching Citizenship – Sagamore Institute.” Sagamore Institute –, 10 Aug. 2020, sagamoreinstitute.org/david-mccullough-on-teaching-citizenship/. Accessed 5 Jan. 2024.
- Cicurel, Deborah. “Cassandra Clare Books – Mortal Instruments Books – City of Heavenly Fire.” Glamour UK, Glamour UK, 28 May 2014, www.glamourmagazine.co.uk/article/cassandra-clare-talks-to-glamour-about-city-of-heavenly-fire#:~:text=At%20least%20if%20I%20felt,people%20are%20going%20to%20love. Accessed 5 Jan. 2024.
- Kroeker, Ann. “Want to Become a Better Writer? Journal before You Write – Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach.” Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach, 21 July 2023, annkroeker.com/2023/07/21/want-to-become-a-better-writer-journal-before-you-write/. Accessed 9 Jan. 2024.
- Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anchor Books, 1995. (p. 19)