A Snapshot in to How Books take Shape

I mentioned briefly the other day that I’m starting work on a book. I’ll give more details on what the book is about and so forth shortly.

I thought it might be fun not only to talk about the book itself (float ideas, post some early drafts parts of chapters, and so forth), but also talk a bit about my process as well. After all, it seems very fitting, when writing a book on productivity, to peel back the curtains a bit on the productivity process involved in creating that very book.

So, even though it is a bit out of order to talk about the process before what the book is actually a bit, here’s the first snapshot for you.

I’m working on the book at this very moment. I haven’t started the actual writing yet, but am still crafting the proposal. In fact, I’ve slotted the whole weekend to work on this (the kids are at the grandparents — which is a nice break for Heidi and I).

So, what does it look like to be productive when working on a book proposal? I don’t exactly know. But what I’m doing today is probably going to seem counterintuitive to you.

Instead of getting up at 6:00 am and plowing through things for 12 – 18 hours — which I tend to do quite often with large projects — I’m actually spending more time not working on the proposal today than actually working directly on it. One reason for this is that both Heidi and I have had so many pressures of late (for example, our third child just turned 9 months) that my brain actually felt a bit fried this week (this is rare).

So I worked on the proposal a bit this morning, and then we both worked on staining the play set in our backyard for a bit (since the kids are gone, it’s a great time to do that). Then I came back down to work more on the proposal for a bit by reviewing my notes on how to make a proposal (yes, I read a bunch of books and took notes on how to do this — maybe that’s overkill!) and how to write (I also took notes over a bunch of books on writing; I feel like I had fantastic high school English teachers, but wanted to still touch up my knowledge a bit before embarking on this project). These notes come to about 60 pages.

After reviewing those and being reminded of some really cool stuff, I went running. When I got back from running I took a shower and then wrote a blog post that came to mind while on my run. Then I went to Subway. On the way back from Subway, I had some breakthrough ideas on a key area of the book (and an upcoming message that I’m giving). When I got back, Heidi and I had lunch, and I came back down to work on the proposal. I then quickly decided to go for a walk instead. On this walk more ideas came, which I captured in Evernote on my iPhone. Then I came down to continue work.

Now I am finally drilling down and beginning work on conceiving the table of contents. The way I’m doing this is by going through and organizing all the notes and ideas for the book that I’ve been capturing over the last few years. For at least the last year, these notes have gone in to Evernote. Wherever I have been when an idea would come — driving to work, on a trip, at work, anywhere — I would put the ideas in to Evernote on my iPhone and gave them a “book” tag. Now I’m going through each one and organizing them in to groupings that seem natural.

Out of this, the table of contents and overall blueprint for the book is emerging. I have had a rough idea of the table of contents in mind for a while, but this is really refining that and fleshing it out. It has been interesting to me today to see that the table of contents wants to come about as a result of organizing my thoughts on the book, rather than by just sitting down straight to create it.

So, there’s a snapshot for today. I wrote this because I thought you might find it interesting to see that I don’t necessarily think that productive means sitting down and knocking something out in such a way as to “minimize” any gaps in production or “wasted” time. I do often sit down and knock stuff out quickly (like this post), and I think that’s a good thing. But it isn’t always the best way to do things. There is also a place for giving ourselves breathing room.

I think there are five reasons that I’ve taken this approach today. The first reason is that I’ve never created a book proposal before. So I’m not only having to create a proposal, but figure out the way I want to create the proposal and get familiar with the process. Second, as I mentioned earlier, I needed to get my brain back in to a less pressured and more ordinary mode. Third, I think that reflection and thinking are often the fruit of unpressured time. Fourth, what I’m really doing with this proposal is blueprinting the entire book (that’s why proposals are so helpful, and important). As I went running, went to Subway, went on a walk, and worked on the play set, these were just environments where my mind could work more effectively on pulling my thoughts together than if I was sitting at my desk. Fifth and perhaps most significantly, it’s because I have so many ideas about this book and there are so many new things that I haven’t read anywhere else that it’s important to take time at the beginning here to bring that all to the front of my mind so I can now, finally, do things with it and turn it in to the actual book.

One of the books I read recently makes this point well. I think it was “Your Brain at Work” or something. It likens your short-term memory (your focus) to a stage. The stage is smaller than you think, and only a certain number of characters can fit on it at once. So in order to really focus, you have to get the wrong characters off the stage and the right ones on it. Then you need to get the right people in to the audience, so you can quickly call them up on to the stage when needed. With a project the size of a book, there’s a lot to do to set the stage.

So, there’s a snapshot. I’ll do this more as it strikes me. It might be frequent, or maybe not. Probably most snapshots won’t be this long. And, once I’ve finalized the publisher and such, if they tell me to stop, then I will!

  • Pat

    Thanks for the insights, Matt. But I am wondering if “I’ve slotted the whole weekend to work on this” means you will continue to work on this on Sunday? I’m not trying to judge if that’s right or wrong, but am interested if for theological/personal/productivity reasons you take a “sabbath”.

  • http://ryanlwentzel.com/ Ryan Wentzel

    Enjoyed the glimpse into how you’re going about writing the book. I’m looking forward to hearing more.

  • Andy


    If you haven’t come across it already, I am reading Susan Rabiner’s book, “How to Think Like Your Editor.” It has been extremely helpful for how to make an effective non-fiction proposal. I look forward to enjoying the fruit of your labor.

  • Matt

    Pat: Usually I’ll do home tasks and such Saturday morning until about 11:00, and then take the rest of Saturday and Sunday off (and then do some planning Sunday night). So, usually I’m taking about a day and a half off each week.

    I do think it’s important to take a day off each week. I don’t think it’s biblically required every week–we have been given the freedom to make a judgment regarding what is best given our current context and situation. I believe the Sabbath was fulfilled in Christ (Col. 2:16 and related passages) and that the Lord’s Day is not a Sabbath. It’s OK to work on a Sunday, such as in the afternoon after church, but generally it’s better not to. (Note: I’m using the term “work” here rather broadly, to include not only your job, but personal projects you want to make progress on. This book falls in to that category, so it is still a change of pace from my job.)

  • Aaron


    As always, I benefit greatly from your posts and am very encouraged that you’re turning your thoughts towards a book. I’ll pray for you as I know the process of writing while working a full-time job and no doubt serving many hours a week at church in the midst of having a wife and three kids must be a challenge. But know that your work will certainly serve many!



  • http://www.buzzardblog.com Justin Buzzard

    Matt, thank you. This was a helpful post.