The Apollo 13 Approach to Writing
Do you remember the scene in the movie Apollo 13 where the guys at mission control scramble to find a fix—and fast—for the astronauts caught in a crippled spacecraft about 200,000 miles from Earth? We see one of mission control’s brainiacs enter a room carrying a cardboard box, dumping the contents onto a table, and challenging his crew to come up with a solution using only those materials.
Those spare parts were everything the astronauts had available onboard Apollo 13. And the job of the geniuses in the room was to figure out how to put those pieces together to fix the crippled ship. How could they transform those random items into a solution for their desperate situation?
The second part of their challenge was the ticking clock. They had to work fast, or astronauts would die.
Desperation with a jolt of adrenaline.
That’s what I sometimes feel when I’m staring down an impossible writing deadline. I vividly remember one circumstance when I had to produce a complete book manuscript in four weeks. I was scrambling for a fix. That’s when I turned to the Apollo 13 approach to writing.
I found my cardboard box and dumped it on the table. Here’s what rattled around in front of me:
- Previously published books, articles, devotions, and news pieces
- Unpublished manuscripts, outlines, and drafts
- Social media posts and blogs
- Web content
- Letters from readers, fans, and critics
- Journal entries
- Teaching notes
- Seminar, workshop, conference, and class notes
- Power Point presentations
- Reviews and endorsements
- Experts in a variety of interesting fields, available for interviews
- Radio broadcasts
- Video clips
- Ad copy
- Marketing proposals
- Charts and diagrams
I’ve been fortunate enough to have writers, editors, designers, printers, and marketing strategists available for consultation, development, and help for many projects. But it hasn’t always been that way for me, and most likely, it isn’t that way for you.
You may only have a few items on the list above. So, with limited time and limited spare parts, how can you transform existing content into a new resource? How do you create a book in a short period of time? Here are a few things to consider:
- Assess your content. Since you will have limited time to create new content, how can you use existing content in a fresh way? How can you reorganize the info? What will be the easiest and quickest way to put the pieces together? That will determine the format of your manuscript. Maybe you’ll see that a Q & A format will be the best presentation of the content you have. Or maybe the material will come together more quickly as a list—“Top 20 Dog Training Techniques.” Perhaps you can put together the “Best of” and use excerpts from books, blogs, and articles.
- Don’t select anything that will require new research and fact-checking—you don’t have the time. New content will also require time-consuming developmental edits along with copy edits. No matter how much you like research, you don’t have the time.
- Don’t overlook the value of marketing pieces– they often contain powerful snippets of your unique message.
- Determine how you can change or update your existing information. Can you re-package some high-demand materials? Combine a dozen articles with a few book excerpts? (I’m assuming you hold the copyrights). Perhaps you can update the cover of an older but beloved book and add new illustrations and images. Or use recent anecdotes to tell the old stories. Look for creative ways to showcase your points in a more contemporary way.
- Choose evergreen materials—the resources that fans still rave over—and give them a new look and an updated presentation.
- Map out the most logical flow of the existing content. What theme stands out? Create a content skeleton with what you’ve gathered. Provide the main points from your information. Find sections of already-written and edited resources to fill in the lean areas. Hang some high fashion on your skeleton—add some new and improved, but readily available, illustrations.
- Go for an easy word count. I settle in around 50,000 words. Most people today like short reads.
- Along that same line, choose short segments and put them together in short chapters.
- Delete the dated stuff. What you cut from the information is just as important as what you include in the new manuscript.
- Don’t try to do it on your own. Assemble a team of helpers at the beginning of the project—you’ll soon want extra eyes to review the manuscript when you get the parts pieced together. You may find it more efficient to parcel out portions to different reviewers. Trust others who believe in your message and possess proven skills. Lean on their expertise, incorporate their gifts and abilities in the process, and consider the feedback they offer. Your own skills and limitations will determine your team, but you might need one or more editors, designers, proofreaders, digital formatters, printers, and/or reviewers.
Don’t forget marketing. Budget for the marketing, public relations, publicity, and advertising. If you have a limited budget, at least roll out a plan to build awareness for your book and ignite the social media buzz as soon as you get the concept in place. You’re already behind on the marketing if you start just four weeks before the book is published—what you need at this point is an Apollo 13 approach to marketing!