November 11, 2022

Pantsing Doesn't Work. You Need a Plan.

book proposals
book planning
book maps
book mapping

I hear these words from authors all too often:

  • “I’ve got 30,000 words written already, but I still need to figure out the structure/voice/audience.”
  • “I’ve tried writing this book three times, but I need help.”
  • “I wrote this manuscript, but I know it’s a mess.”

There’s one persistent myth in the world of writing that I believe has hurt aspiring book authors more than any other, and it’s the belief that you should “just start writing” your book. It’s the impression that authors open up a blank word document, type the words “Introduction” or “Chapter 1,” and they’re off to the races.  It’s the attempt to write a book the way a printer prints a document: starting at the top and working its way down the page. 

What so many authors learn after trying it this way—often getting very frustrated as they go—is it doesn’t work. At some point, they get stuck. They might know generally where they want to end up, but they have absolutely no idea how to get there. They feel like they’re hitting a wall, and the infamous “writer’s block” rears its head. They’re not sure how to move forward. The cursor sits there, blinking…

Worse still, they’re not happy with what they’ve written! They plow forward with as much zeal and energy as they can for a while, but when they look back at the fruit of their efforts, they’re disappointed. It felt beautiful and brilliant and spontaneous while they were going, creativity pouring out of them, but when they read it again with fresh eyes, they think, “What a load of nonsense!”

Their confidence is shaken. They think:

Maybe I’m not cut out for this?

Maybe this idea is terrible?

Maybe it’s better if this book doesn’t happen.

I wonder how many of these authors give up altogether. Only the particularly brave and determined stop at that point to ask for help.

It’s normal to feel doubt when you’re writing a book. It’s normal to wonder if the work is worth it. It’s even normal to temporarily lose sight of what you’re trying to accomplish.

But it’s completely unnecessary to feel lost and stuck, not knowing where to go next. Writing a book is hard enough; we only make it harder on ourselves when we try to blaze a trail through the wilderness without a map to guide us.

You need a plan.

There are two typical ways writers approach writing a book: "pantsing" it (making it up as you go, writing by the seat of your pants, so to speak), and planning. Pantsing often feels more fun and rewarding. It sounds like what we imagine great writers must do: sit down at the typewriter and bleed, as Ernest Hemingway suggested. But I'm here to tell you it doesn't work. From over a decade of helping authors write books, I can tell you unequivocally that planning is ALWAYS better.

You might have hated outlining when you were in school. I know I did. But after too many times trying to pants my way to a finished college essay or a book manuscript, I finally realized there might be some merit to this whole outlining thing… 

The problem was I didn’t know how. I figured that I would start my way at the top—the beginning of the essay or book—and work down, but in bullet points instead of text. Right? Isn’t that what outlines look like? 

That didn’t work either, and I’m convinced now that’s why so many people hate outlining. 

Everything changed for me when I started asking the big questions about book planning (or article planning, or essay planning):

What am I trying to say?

What’s my argument?

How do I get there?

Where am I starting?

Essentially, I started reverse-engineering my outlines. Instead of starting at the beginning and working my way through, I started at the end, and asked what I needed to do to get to that end. David Perell writes that this is the pixel method of writing: creating a book more like how a computer creates an image, starting with a blurry idea and adding more pixels to refine it through several iterations.

“The best ideas are born blurry.” - David Perell

It makes sense, right? If you’re trying to get to a particular destination, you type it into Google maps, and the app creates a route for you. We need to do the same thing with our books.

The Magic of Book Mapping

Once I released the need to figure out all of the details from beginning to end, I realized I needed a bigger, more flexible way to play with ideas. Enter book maps! 

What is a book map? A book map is a visual outline of all of the parts of your book/article/essay. You can create them with sticky notes on walls or poster boards, whiteboards, a big table, a window, or digital tools—anywhere you have lots of room to throw ideas and then move them around. (I’m not going to lie, working on giant pieces of paper or whiteboards is my favorite part!)

Here are some pictures of different book maps I’ve created with clients (and for myself!) over the years:

We start with figuring out the book’s overall transformation—that is, what is going to change by the end of the book? 

Just like when getting a route from Google Maps, there are three parts to every transformation:

  • Where are we beginning? [What’s the current state?]
  • Where are we going? [What’s the desired transformation?]
  • How will we get there? [What needs to happen in between?]

Usually, I have authors brainstorm the answers to these questions and we throw EVERYTHING up on the wall. It’s fun and collaborative. I ask questions as we go, and our idea of the overall transformation becomes clearer over time. 

I like to think of this transformation tale as the fences around our yard. The transformation helps us form the boundaries of the book, so we know exactly where it should start and where it should end. 

Then it’s time to flesh out that “in between” part into a table of contents, like deciding what the landscaping of the yard will look like. This is where the real magic happens.

We start playing with and organizing all of the ideas we put in the in-between. What organization will make the most sense to our reader? Are some ideas bigger than others? What ideas can we group together? How big are these groups of ideas? What order should we put them in? Where do we need to fill in gaps? 

Pretty quickly, chapters begin to form.

It’s an iterative process. We use the Pixel Method to fill in the gaps and make our ideas more precise as we go. Once we know what chapters we need, we talk chapter by chapter to add in hooks, key ideas, and other moments of engagement for the reader throughout each chapter.

A Note About Planning

Just because you come up with a plan doesn't mean that plan can't change. If you think of your plan as the foundation for a house, you have to let it "settle" into the earth - meaning it's going to shift a bit. You're going to realize as you start writing where you need to make some smaller adjustments and level your ideas out. As I often tell my authors, your plan must always be in conversation with your book. They inform each other.

This is completely normal! Your book map is not meant to be a cage for your writing; it's meant to give you helpful boundaries and steer you in the write direction. That's the beauty of making it visual and using a flexible format like sticky notes - because once you start writing, you can easily make those small adjustments to it.

An Invitation

It’s one thing to describe the process to you… it’s quite another to see it in action! That’s what I’d love to invite you to be a part of next week. 

On Tuesday, November 15, 2022, my friend Liz Morrow and I are hosting a Book Mapping Masterclass to break down the whole process. We’ll talk about:

  • How to determine your book’s transformation
  • How to take the “in between” section and turn it into chapters
  • How to fill in your chapters with different engagement strategies, information, stories, and other features! 

This is a process that we typically charge thousands of dollars to do 1-on-1 with clients, and here we are spilling the tea for just $49! Once you take this class, you’ll have the tools you need to create your own book map.

Best of all, we want to use one of YOUR ideas as an example. After you register, you’ll get the chance to fill out a super short form with the basics of your idea. If we like it, we just might use your book to create your TOC and fill in a couple chapters for you! 

We don’t want you to get stuck in the middle of your book once you get going… We want you to have a solid plan for writing a strong book, the whole way through.

If this sounds helpful to you, we’d love to see you there!

Click to register.