Three Steps Back

Three Steps Back

In the last month, I started working on a new book project with a therapist, Julia (not her real name), in Boulder. She has about 5 years worth of notes, presentations, and workbooks on helping people with body image and food issues, which she wants to compile into three books.

We met. We sorted through her writing. She was excited and writing. I was excited and started writing the first book, confident that I could give her books the voice and feel she wanted. We exchanged numerous e-mails, ideas, and a couple of drafts.

After one inspired night of writing, I sent a draft to Julia and couldn’t wait to hear back from her. She didn’t like it at all. It wasn’t working. She felt overwhelmed. I was sad that my “inspired writing” had really missed the mark, and my confidence was shaken. I felt like I was missing something. The noisy internal critic, who surfaces early in a project, so confident that I can’t write, surfaced again. But I still wanted so much to work on the project and help her bring the book to market!

I sat down with my husband, Michael Behmer, and author of “Chaos to Connection: 9 Essentials to Parenting Your Teen,” ( and shared the experience I had had so far with this project. I shared that part of the struggle was that Julia was still forming some of her ideas, even as I dove into pulling the book together. Michael asked, “Do you have an outline?”

Ah, ha. That most fundamental tool for a writing project. An outline. I had gotten so excited about the project and Julia’s work that I had let us dive in without starting at the beginning. I had forgotten to plan and was trying to pour tea into a teacup while riding a roller coaster. Michael shared his process for projects, based on Seth Godin’s book “Linchpin:”

  1. Establish a “ship” date, a hard date when the project is over whether finished or not.
  2. Do “thrashing,” brainstorming that includes anyone, everyone and all thoughts and opinions relevant to the project.
  3. Collate and read over “thrashing” notes, still inviting more information and ideas. Last chance to contribute from others.
  4. Create a database of everything e.g images, links, writing, words, phrases, stories, sketches, etc.
  5. Create the sum of that data and outline.
  6. Recommit to “ship” date and all parties commit to no more added information or “thrashing.” Start filling in the outline writing the introduction last.

I realized that Julia and I had skipped to the final step. No wonder we were floundering, and she was feeling overwhelmed. I spent a couple of hours going over her notes and the book she wanted to base her book on. I drafted a rough outline, and the next time we met, we flushed out more of the outline. Julia took the outline and started plugging in her writing and thoughts from her “database” of writing. We both experienced great relief and renewed (though directed) excitement.

I have read of authors who can begin a book with a small idea and write without planning, the book simply unfolding beautifully before them. I have worked on projects that needed limited outlining. But I learned again through this book the importance of planning for some projects and the humility to take three steps backward in order to take one step forward.

Alexa Van Dalsem
About Alexa Van Dalsem

Alexa Van Dalsem, a grant writer by trade, writes short stories, poetry, a personal blog and, most recently, short movie scripts. In her free time, Alexa enjoys playing with her family and spending time in the great outdoors of her home state, Colorado. Alexa's short story "Black Leather Shoes" was featured in Ruminate's Issue 01: Chewing on Life

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