As many of you know, my next book is on the Revelation of John, to be written not for scholars but for a general audience. I decided I wanted to write the book maybe four years ago, and my ideas about it have changed significantly since I began to think about it. Part of that is because the book is, as Bob Dylan says, “a slow train coming.”
My original plan was to have the book finished by now. In fact, that was the publisher’s plan too. This is the first time in my mortal existence that I’ve been seriously behind on a book deadline. Usually, I finish way ahead of time. Not with this one.
There are several reasons for that and I won’t bore you with them since virtually everyone I know has had the same problems: Covid burnout, too much work, and too little time. BUT the positive side of it all is that with this book I’m allowing myself time to think and reflect without a definite plan. It’s a new experience.
Normally when I write a book for a general audience, I know well in advance exactly what I want to say and it is relatively simple to organize my preliminary thoughts about how to say it. It’s not that I ever have an exact game plan that I follow precisely throughout the entire process of conceptualizing, imagining, researching, and writing a book. It is never like that. But when I start I almost always know how I want to approach the reading and writing, mainly because I know the topic well already from having read, thought, and taught about it for so many years. Typically I pretty much know what my thesis is going to be and I know what I need to read in order to get caught up to speed, and I have a pretty good idea how the book will be structured.
In the course of doing the work, of course, my ideas change. I realize there are whole bunches of things I’ve never heard of I have to read; I read things that persuade me that I’ve long held views that just aren’t tenable or that are somewhat less tenable than alternative views; I realize I need to add an entirely new chapter that I hadn’t thought would be important; and so on. Even so, typically when I start, I have a pretty good idea of where I want to go and how I plan to get there.
And they always take about the same amount of time out of my life. My first two trade books were Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium and Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. My next one set the stage for the ones to follow, Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code. With that book I realized how to write trade books (I’m not saying I don’t like the earlier two; quite the contrary, my wife Sarah still thinks Lost Christianities is the best one I’ve done). Since Truth and Fiction nearly all the trade books have taken two years.
And the way those two years works has been almost always the same. After I come up with the idea, propose it to a publisher, and then get a contract, I map out (in a file) how I imagine it going, listing all the most important stuff I need to read, putting down my most important thoughts about it, and then launching in to the research. I read and read and read. I take notes on everything I read. That’s the most important part of what I do. It is also the part I really DON’T enjoy. It’s a real burden to notate everything. But there’s no way around it. Some books you can summarize in a few sentences, but the important ones take pages. It’s hard work. But if I didn’t do it, I’d forget most of what I read!
The more I read the more I learn of other things I need to read – both authors generally and books/articles in particular. And over time I get a clearer sense of what the really interesting and important aspects of the topic are.
Once that happens I begin to make a broad outline of what I think the main points of the book need to be. These will later become chapter topics. I read more on each topic and realize what subpoints need to be covered. These become chapter sections. And I keep going, reading and outlining.
I usually know I’m “through” the research when I realize I’m not learning much of anything new as I keep reading. At that stage I review my notes on everything I have read, and continue to fill out my outlines. Now instead of a book outline in less than a page, I have outlines many pages long for each of the chapters. Sometimes I’ll have 30 pages of outline for a chapter that is supposed to be about … 30 pages. Yikes.
BUT, the upside is that doing all that outlining that means the actual writing is very different for me than for most people.
Most authors struggle to write. They sit and stare at a blank screen trying to think of the sensible thing to say next to continue the argument; once they come up with that, then they stare at the screen trying to imagine the best way to say it. It’s a slow, painful process. Not so much for me. For me it’s a fast, painful process. Making the first draft is indeed hugely stressful and anxiety producing, by far – without a comparison – the most stressful part of the entire book.
But for that reason, I work hard to get it over with quickly. I write most of my trade books – that is, actually *write* the things – in two weeks or so. So, I spend 23 months doing the reading and outlining and less than a month doing the writing. By “writing” in this case I mean writing the draft and revising it a couple of times. Since I have a full outline, the writing comes fast. I don’t have to think hard about what to say because I’ve thought about that, step-by-step, even before I start writing. And since I can type nearly as fast as I can think, all I basically need to do is to do it intensely with real focus for 4-6 hours a day and then boom, the draft is done in a couple of weeks. I try to get my graduate students to write this way, but so far I’ve never won a convert….
So that’s how I normally do a book. And this book? I’m doing it differently. Several years after deciding to write it, I’m still considering how to approach it.
I’ll say something more about why this has happened in posts to come. For now I’ll just say that I don’t think it’s such a bad thing in this case…..