Writing a Book and the 10-Page Lifeboat

By: Mary Anna Rodabaugh in Book Writing and Editing

We’ve all heard of writer’s block, but what about the writer’s waterfall? You know when you are writing and writing and cannot seem to stop? Next thing you know, you have dedicated approximately 25 written pages to a single anecdote that might not even move the story along in the first place. If you have an editor analyze your manuscript, he or she may suggest you delete those 25 pages to preserve the book’s integrity and flow.

William Faulkner is attributed with the writing advice “murder your darlings,” meaning scratch and cut all the fat you can when writing a book. As writers, we tend to believe every word is special and significant when fewer words can convey the same story and make a greater impact.

The 10-Page Lifeboat Editing Exercise

When writing a book, there are many ways you can cut down and “murder your darlings.” One highly effective method is to imagine a lifeboat floating in the ocean. You get to take the lifeboat to shore, but there is a catch. You can only bring along 10 pages of your book. The rest will be lost forever.

“Try not to “stuff” the boat to meet the page quota. You will end up adding mindless anecdotes instead of quality content.”

This editing exercise is meant to challenge you to determine the most essential pieces of your book. You need to figure out what stories stand alone and hold the same impact. For example, maybe all 10 of your pages come from the same chapter. If these pages were to stand alone in a mini-book, does the reader have all the information they need to be moved by your story? When writing a book, it is essential to think in these “extreme” terms. This helps you become a better writer and say much more with fewer words.

The 10-page exercise will help you define what the main theme and source of action and emotions are in your manuscript. What 10 pages will help the reader understand the action, absorb the sensory details, learn something new, and feel a certain emotion? If this sounds like a tall order for 10 pages, you are absolutely right. Thankfully, you do not really need to trim your book down to 10 pages!

Book Writing Discoveries in the Lifeboat

There is another benefit to this exercise beyond highly specific book editing and refinement. Once your book is complete, you may find opportunities to repurpose some of its content. If you were to submit a standalone story within your manuscript as a blog or excerpt, the lifeboat exercise can help you determine what that submission could be.

The lifeboat may also carry your book’s blurb, your Amazon book description, your marketing taglines, your author website copy, and more. After all, those 10 pages were carefully selected by you to encapsulate the crux of your story.

Can I Have Multiple Lifeboats?

Start with a single lifeboat and 10 pages. Remember, the pages do not have to be in order. In fact, they do not have to be 10 pages top to bottom. Your pages could be excerpts from a variety of chapters that neatly fit into 10 full pages.

Once you have filled your lifeboat, you can consider a secondary lifeboat with an additional 10 pages. Try not to “stuff” the boat to meet the page quota. You will end up adding mindless anecdotes instead of quality content.

The important thing is to practice this editing exercise as you are fine-tuning your manuscript. The book writing process is full of refinement and recalibration. That is the beauty of the process! The lifeboat exercise is just one tool you can use to guide you on your way.