Blocking a Book

This note is for my dissertators, who are in the throes of getting their own book-length projects started. I am in the midst of a deadline-induced crunch focused on transforming approximately 45,000 words into a meaningful book manuscript some time in the near future. 45,000 words will strike some as a rather small book, but my goal has always been a small book of somewhere between 55,000 and 60,000 words.

Right now, I am about to re-block the manuscript, moving it from a much more tightly-interwoven, at times novelistic, narrative to something much more straightforwardly expository. I use *blocking* in this moment somewhat more in the fashion of fiction writers who will talk about blocking out scenes or parts of novels. In this particular instance, I have a prologue and an epilogue that I think work reasonably well. The former is perhaps a bit short, and remains very novelistic, and the latter is perhaps a bit too long, and perhaps a bit too didactic, but they work well enough to be left alone.

The parts in between are something of a mess, to my mind, and sometimes when I need to take a step back and re-figure what it is I am doing, I resort to blocking. And sometimes it goes by the numbers:

* If I am looking for four chapters, and I think I am in this moment, then each chapter can be made up of four sections — this is crude and seemingly over-determined, but bear with me — for a total of 16 sections.
* If you are still with me, then you won’t mind a bit of number-gaming just for effect. With 16 sections, I can give myself a word count target that yields various length manuscripts. For example: if each section is 4000 words, then the total manuscript is 64,000 words plus prologue and epilogue. If each section is 3500 words, then the total drops to 56,000. If 3000, then 48,000. Et cetera with different chapter and section counts.

Writing to a section word count of 3000 or 3500 or 4000 words is far less awe-inspiring than writing a book, and that’s exactly the emotional-intellectual trick behind this approach. Now, this isn’t proper blocking, where one decides on the relative importance of a given topic to an overall argument (or scene to a plot) and thus adjust word count targets to reflect that. I certainly encourage that kind of thinking, but then you can think of it in terms of adding here means limiting yourself there, which can be enormously energizing.

The important thing is to write. Anything that lowers that threshold, removes the block so to speak, is worth considering, which is one reason I encourage all my students to do a bit of counting now and again, letting numbers diminish the terror of committing letters to the page.

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