When you stuff marshmallows into your mouth, you do so one at a time. You don’t worry about which order they come in, you don’t organize them ahead of time, and you don’t pick them up, examine them, or ponder which ones are best before you stuff them in. In fact, you usually do it as quickly as possible, focusing on nothing besides getting them into your mouth!
Then, when your cheeks are bulging, that’s decision time. How are you going to chew this mass up so you can swallow it? Or is it time to spit a bunch of them out because there is too much to digest? Or are there several you really just don’t need?
To me, the only difference between that and writing a book—is when you’re writing a book, you make all of the “marshmallows” yourself.
What do I mean? Well, let me tell you a story.
The first book I collaborated on was when I was given the developmental edit for the first Jesus Freaks book. I wasn’t an official editor at the time—my primary responsibility was to coordinate the transfer of manuscripts from copy-editors to the typesetter to the proofreaders to get it ready to go to press. Anyway, everyone else in the department was busy with other things, and since they were using stories I had rewritten as samples, they decided to trust me with the responsibility of getting the book from idea to finished manuscript.
It turned out to be the perfect training ground for learning to write a book.
How a story is like a marshmallow
Jesus Freaks is really just a collection of short stories that needed to be organized into a book. So, to start, I didn’t have to figure out how to organize the whole thing ahead of time (I worked with a ghostwriter who produced most of the copy), I just had to get the stories written. Of course, we researched lots and lots of stories to determine which ones to use for the book, but other than that, writing the book wasn’t about creating 386 pages that all tied into one story. It was about producing fifty-something really good stories that we could organize later.
So, in a sense, the first thing we focused on was making marshmallows. We gave little to no thought about how we were going to put them all together later so that people could “digest” them—we just needed lots of marshmallows.
Once we had all of the stories drafted, then it was time to fit them all into my “mouth”—or really my brain—so that I could suggest to our team how they should be organized and tied together in the book. Believe it or not, our company had a good bit of discussion—friendly debate, really—about how that should be done. Many voted for them to be arranged in chronological order, but I thought they should be organized thematically. Eventually, the team wanted to know what that would look like, so I set to work to create the first draft of the entire manuscript.
Getting all of the marshmallows into your mouth
I went into our large conference room and took each story and quote page, paper clipped them together if needed, and laid them all out on the conference table one at a time. Thoughtfully and prayerfully, I began picking them up one at a time from various places on the table in an organization I thought flowed together—stories about courage, faith, tenacity, etc.; mixing locations, times, and outcomes so that you never got anything that was overtly the same on the surface, but showed how the people in the stories, despite vastly different settings, shared common values and convictions throughout the centuries. In this way, I organized and reorganized until I thought I had it just right.
When I was done, I had a fat stack of manuscript pages in my hand and a small pile of discarded stories on the table. I had gotten all of the stories into my head, organized them in the right way, discarded the chaff, and was ready to create the final manuscript of the book.
I took that pile—walking very carefully so as not to trip and scatter the stories everywhere—back to my desk and put them one by one into a Word document in the order I had created in the conference room. Once that was done, I wrote all of the “take-aways” (the short commentary sections at the end of each story that acted as the narrator throughout the book) to tie the book into one. I had turned a bunch of individual marshmallows into one lump that could be bitten into, enjoyed, and digested a mouthful at a time.
From that project, I learned to move to books that had chapters instead of stories—each chapter being an essay that contributed to the overall message of the book—and with each new book I have worked on, I’ve learned to “expand my mind” to fit more “marshmallows into my mouth” each time. Seeing the whole book at once has gotten easier over the years, but I still rarely do until I have most of the marshmallows made.
In the beginning, it happens one marshmallow at a time
This is a similar process to how I think J.K. Rawlings wrote the Harry Potter books. To me, The Sorcerer’s Stone is really just a collection of very-well-done short stories describing the characters and settings millions would come to love as the world of Hogwarts and Harry’s sad circumstances at the Dursleys’. Then she sprinkled a bit of plot here and there throughout, ending with the grand finale. If you look carefully at her first books, I think you will see each chapter can stand pretty well on its own, almost complete unto itself. By the time she got to The Half-blood Prince, or maybe even earlier, her books became more plot-driven throughout, and it got harder and harder to set them down for wanting to know what was going to happen next.
So, if you are working on your first book, don’t get overwhelmed by trying to fit the entire thing into your brain at once. Instead, focus on each marshmallow, get it right, and then set it aside to work on the next. There will be plenty enough time for stuffing your cheeks later when you can better see each piece laid out.
In other words, a book isn’t built in a day, or even a week—but you can get an individual “marshmallow” done in that time.
So, which marshmallow can you get down on paper in your next writing time, to either get the process started or to its next phase?