7 writing lessons: What a home renovation taught me about writing a book

Writing lessons are everywhere…

Our basement was fine. When we moved in a few years ago, sure, it was a little dark and musty. We got some new, brighter light bulbs. We laid down a remnant. We bought a dehumidifier. It was fine.

I was sitting in that basement watching TV this past summer when my wife came downstairs with a suspicious smile. She was holding a coffee mug, which she carried over and handed to me. Being late afternoon, and not having asked for any coffee — a kind gesture just for kind gesture’s sake?! — I thought something odd was going on.

“Thanks,” I said, still a little skeptical.

She smiled wider but didn’t say a word. I held the mug for a moment, glancing back and forth between it and my wife. Finally I turned it slightly and noticed there was writing on the other side.

“World’s Best Dad.”

My world froze. I was going to be a dad.

Following a long celebration with my wife, I tried to calm myself and let that sink in. I was going to be a dad. I looked around the basement again.

It was not fine.

I spoke with my wife. “We need a comfortable place where we can roll around on the floor with our baby,” I told her. She agreed, offering her blessing so long as I was confident it could be done.

Over the next several weeks, I consulted with people who had taken on projects like this before. They all agreed it was doable — the only reassurance I needed.

One Saturday in mid-October, I started ripping paneling off the walls. There was no going back.

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But what does this have to do with writing lessons?

If you are anything like me, you frame most things in life around how the situation would unfold if it were a writing project. This basement renovation was no different. Along the way, I learned many lessons — most good, a few more difficult.

Here, for you, I will summarize those writing lessons.

1. Have a purpose

What’s your motivation? For my basement renovation it was simple: I did it for my daughter. Did I have plans to one day renovate the basement into an entertainment space with a bar and card table, walls littered with sports memorabilia and beer signs? Absolutely. But it turns out making a space for my daughter to crawl around and play was far more motivating.

When it comes to writing, think deeply about what is motivating you to put pen to paper (or, more accurately, begin typing). Is it enough to motivate you throughout the entire process, or just enough to get you started? I can tell you from experience that both forms of motivation have led me to complete projects that I’m proud of, though the former is a far better predictor for how successful a project will ultimately be.

Once you have discovered that motivation, it’s time to get started.

2. Craft a plan

A detailed plan before you start work goes a long way. With my basement renovation, I began by consulting people who had experience in various home contracting projects, as well as watching YouTube videos and reading articles online. Once I felt confident about the project as a whole, I began planning out all the steps of the project, how much assistance I would need for each, and how much each would cost. Then I totaled it all up to get a rough estimate of cost — both financial and time.

For a large writing project, this would be the brainstorming phase. That’s not to say you couldn’t jump right into writing — I’ve certainly done that. But the longevity of the manuscript usually depends largely on being productive, which is far easier to accomplish when you know where the story is going each day. This includes plot, subplots, character personas, settings, structure, etc.

Once you have the entire thing brainstormed, or at least enough to give you confidence to move forward, set yourself a writing schedule.

3. Set a schedule

Setting a schedule is the best way to ensure you keep your productivity high. It’s a commitment to the work that needs to be done, prioritizing it above time-wasters like social media and Netflix.

When I began working on my basement, I pledged two hours per night and at least six every weekend working. Given the nature of the work and the timeline for when I wanted it completed, I ended up working many more hours each day than originally scheduled. But if I didn’t have the discipline to start work each day, I may have procrastinated to the point that the project never got completed.

When you are motivated, it’s amazing how you can find time to get work done. Time I previously had never realized existed.

I remember thinking, as I framed walls and mudded drywall, that I hoped I could convert this productivity into my writing once the basement was finished.

Even with good time management, it’s difficult to find success without also being resourceful.

4. Be resourceful

As I have previously mentioned, both prior to beginning the project and all throughout I consulted with people who had experience in this field. It’s vital to understand what your capabilities are and when you need to seek advice from others. That usually came in the form of technique, process or even tool recommendations.

The same rings true for writing. You hear all the time that being a successful writer means reading often. If you are taking on a memoir, read other memoirs to get a feel for flow, structure, voice. If you want to write a thriller, understand how successful mystery authors have developed their plots to keep readers on the edges of their seats.

But being resourceful doesn’t have to stop at reading books. Take an online course. Read articles about the craft of writing. Network with other writers online. Attend a writing conference. Hire an editor to proofread or copyedit your work. There are numerous ways you can be resourceful to take your writing project to the next level.

Do anything and everything to support your manuscript, and then make sure you are prioritizing what is most important.

5. Prioritize what’s important

As I started this project, consulting with a friend at work, I was told “caulk and paint make you what you ain’t.” Meaning, of course, you can always fix minor details later. I needed to focus on making the walls structurally sound. The drywall needed to be hung securely. 

When mapping out your manuscript, make sure you are giving your book “good bones.” The voice of the characters. Consistency in their behavior. Understanding the overall plot and setting.

Once you have a firm grasp on all of those things, put your head down and dedicate yourself to the work. Get yourself to the finish line.

6. Don’t let setbacks derail the entire project

For any kind of significant project to go flawlessly from start to finish would be nearly impossible. So when something doesn’t go exactly to plan, it’s important to evaluate the setback and devise a plan to overcome it and continue onward.

I experienced several setbacks in the basement — from working around electrical wiring, to extended timelines and increased costs. With each, I revised my plan and time and cost estimates, and then I continued working.

The same can be applied to writing a book. Let’s say you are halfway through a historical fiction novel when you realize you have gotten some facts wrong about the time period. Those could be small facts, such as what the character is wearing. Or they could be large facts, like an event that helps shape the plot. Either way, setbacks can be corrected. 

Stop, think through them. Develop a plan to remedy the situation. And then get back to work.

7. Finish strong

When the project looks done, always take (at least) one final look back at your work. Touch up what needs to be touched up. Make sure that when you finally wash your hands and call it a day, you can be proud of the final result.

At the start of the project you had a vision. Now is the time to recognize that all the hard work was worth it.

In my basement, that meant touching up drywall mud, a little bit of sanding, some paint touchups, running a few beads of caulk, installing the new vent and outlet covers.

For your writing project, that could mean consulting with an editor. It could mean printing a copy and reading through it yourself. It could mean both. It could mean setting the work aside for a few weeks and coming back to it fresh. It could mean passing out copies to beta readers to get outside opinions.

Whatever approach you take, make sure that you are proud to sign your name on the final product.