My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, January 24, 2020

Ikea Furniture Assembly, Writing, and You

"I should just go become a bestselling author,
then hire someone to do this."
Image description: A guy looking confused and
holding a hammer and instructions in front of
a couple of boards. A thought bubble has
a question mark in it.
Like college kids and divorced men, I headed to Ikea after I wound up on my own after a major break up. We’d grabbed the occasional thing there when I still lived with my family, but when I suddenly needed shelves and drawers and desks and bedside tables (and could no longer stomach looking at those configurable wire-mesh-space-saver things from Costco that I’d thought were so dang nifty in my early twenties), but definitely couldn’t go buy a Baxter bedroom set or anything with hand-carved English oak, Ikea was the next step up.

And let me tell you, my experience with Ikea furniture was almost always exactly the same. I would open the box, look at the collection of a few little screws and a few long ones, some slats of wood of various sizes, and an instruction manual of some 87 steps and I would immediately become overwhelmed. How in the motherforking shirtballs was this ever going to become a bookshelf/chest of drawers.

I would sit there, completely overwhelmed, questioning my life choices. It was too much––entirely too much to try to turn these slats and this-time-I’m-sure-they-messed-up-and-didn’t-give-us-enough number of screws into a functioning piece of furniture.

And I would let myself feel that overwhelmed feeling for a minute.

But only for a minute.

Then I would stop flipping through the impossible-looking steps in the mid-seventies or low-eighties, and stop looking from the raw materials to the picture of the finished product, take a deep breath (and maybe a small leap of faith), and I would open up to the first page. Just that first piece of wood, that first screw, and a little tiny allen wrench they included. And I would tell myself I wasn’t building a desk or a set of cubby hole bookshelves. I was just doing that ONE STEP. And then the next step. And then the next one. And not only did I manage to build a functioning piece of furniture, but at some point in the process (usually well before the mid-seventies) I could SEE how it was all going to come together.

I think we tend to get Ikea-finished-product overwhelmed when we think about our writing as a finished product and look at what we’ve got to work with. How are we possibly going to take our middling ability and this half-baked idea, and turn it into something that another human being neither related to us, our good friend, nor who wants to sleep with us would take time out of their day to read (to say NOTHING of spend money on if that’s the goal). 

There’s so much to do in writing. So much writing. So much revision. So much editing. So much figuring out the middle part. So much rewriting. So much finding beta readers (who don’t suck). So many steps. So much to learn about the publishing industry. Query letters. Finding agents. Shopping publishers. OMFG it’s too much!

It can be overwhelming.

The trick is to only let it be for a minute.

Then you take a deep breath (and maybe a small leap of faith), and take the first step. Don’t worry about writing a great novel (yet). Just write one good sentence. 



Don’t even worry about THAT. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Just write one sentence (regardless of quality). Then do the next one. Then you have a paragraph. Then another. Then you have a page. Then a chapter. Eventually you’re done with your draft. Now you have something to revise and all the questions about HOW you revise become much easier to see and understand. Now go back and make those sentences GOOD. It doesn’t look don’t look quite so incomprehensible now. (“How could I possibly cut out an entire chapter” becomes “Oh…this chapter really isn’t doing much. If I moved this one part over here….”) So you revise. Now you have a good draft. Do another draft and make it even better. Now you can see exactly WHY the number of drafts you write depends on the quality of writing you’re going for, and why even though you make fewer and fewer changes, sometimes the difference in a single word choice makes a difference between “adequately conveyed the idea” and “POP!” Then you take the next step (the various steps of editing/peer review). Then you have a draft and you can craft a query letter. Then you go find which agents specialize in what you’re writing and are taking on new clients.

Not all at once. Not all tomorrow. One step at a time.

Starting with the first step: write a sentence. When you’re done with that, you can worry about the next step.

When you’re on step one, step 33 looks impossibly far. It looks unfathomably complicated. You may look at it and not have one damned clue how the fuck these six screws and five slats are supposed to turn into THAT. When you’re on step 32, step 33 probably looks a lot like step ONE did. Just one more “next step.”

And even if it doesn’t––even if you’re looking at step 33 and trying to figure out what in the name of Apollo’s right testicle part of the drawers you could possibly be building––you’re in the right place and time to have the best chance to figure it out with some time and attention. (Back at step one, you would have had almost no chance.) You now have the context you need to glance ahead a couple of steps and see what's coming. (Or if you really want to stretch this metaphor, give a call to customer assistance.) And even it feels like you’re spinning your wheels and you're confused as all fuck, no one can take the first 31 steps away from you. And you can always just go right on doing one more step until it makes more sense.

I think “Becoming A Bestselling Author” or even “Write, revise, and sell a novel” would probably feel like an overwhelming task to ANYONE sitting down to their first blank page. But writing a sentence is not that hard.

Then one more.

I think this is part of the reason working writers get asked so often how to find a publisher or an agent or how to write a query letter. It’s someone looking at a mid-seventies step and thinking, “How the fuck would this even work?” The truth is, by the time you get to that point, you’ll be mostly ready.

If you have your manuscript finished, fully revised and edited, writing a query letter (even if you skip the Writing About Writing primer and do your own research) will only take you a couple of hours to learn how to do, and maybe a day or two to write until you’re happy with it.  Once you’ve written a query letter, it’ll only take you a few hours of research to figure out how to query an agent and which ones are accepting new clients. (Even in the pre-Internet days, this only involved a trip to the bookstore to pick up a copy of The Writer’s Market. Now it’s even easier.) Folks get fixated on those later steps because it just seems unfathomable for the same reason when you’re looking at a bag of metal shafts and plastic wheels that you don’t know how you’re going to end up getting “soft-shut” drawers on the rollers. By the time you have mounted the runners and the wheels, that step will seem manageable. As will agents and query letters and all the stuff that seems overwhelming now.

There may be a few times you need to check the instruction manual to find out what the next couple of steps are going to be, but that’s okay. And just as you don’t randomly buy just ANYTHING from Ikea and start building it, it will REALLY help you to have a careful and exact sense of what you want to accomplish.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but if you decide that part of the process is unimportant, your finished product is likely to reflect that. I mean you wouldn't want drawers that aren't on runners, would you?

When it all feels overwhelming, take a deep breath. Remind yourself that last step always looks impossible and the 78th step never makes any fucking sense. For now though, you don’t have to worry about either of those. Just figure out what the ONE next step is.

It’s good advice for writing.

And life.


  1. As the saying goes: "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time."

    Although TBH, I can look at Ikea furniture and more or less make sense of it. Just like I imagine YOU can look at publishing a book and more or less make sense of it. It comes from practice. Doing it over and over and eventually maybe the big picture isn't so overwhelming.

    But all the same, even if I can handle big picture Ikea and you can handle big picture publishing, we still sit down and eat the elephant one bite at a time, trunk to tail, because there's no other way to do it.

  2. I dumped my trolley of Ikea flat pack before I got to the check-out. I decided to live without furniture and have an ice cream in the store instead. I went to the counter and blow me down but the server handed me an empty cone n pointed at the ice-cream dispenser! I even had to assemble that myself. But sure, once you've bought the stuff or committed to the book take it step by step and don't lose the plot!

  3. That's pretty much how I went from being a dropout with no college degree and a shitty GPA to a master's degree with honors. I also used a whiteboard to organize things, but it was basically the same process as writing a book. Make a basic plan, then go a little bit at a time until you get there.

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