September 03, 2010

So you want to write a non-fiction book

That’s awesome. I spoke with two people in the past week who told me about their plans to write a non-fiction book. They have great ideas, and solid expertise and/or experience in their respective fields. If you are among them, here are a few ideas to help kick-start your book project.

You probably have already clearly defined your topic, by way of a working title.

I imagine you have decided to write that book because you believe there is nothing like it on the market. If you haven’t already done so, create a list of comparable books available and describe how yours is going to be different.

Of course it is already unique because you are writing it, and yours is an absolutely unique perspective. The information you choose to convey and how you decide to convey that is what will set your book apart from those already published, just like style, examples used, size, price, and so on.

More than likely much your book is already written, either figuratively or literally, through your experience and/or research. So it is likely a matter of organizing all the information, and expanding on it. That’s a challenge and may change as the first draft (and the following ones) progress. And that’s OK.

In terms of the working process, writing a book is very much like training for, say, a marathon. It’s about consistency, taking one step at a time and focusing on the big picture. Never forget that it is a learning process, too.

It very much helps to always have your eyes on the goal, i.e. what are you trying to say specifically to whom. Taking the time to define your book in one sentence is extremely valuable as having that definition will keep you focused throughout the writing process (advice I read in Jeff Bollow’s Writing FAST: How to Write Anything With Lightning Speed).

For example, for my first book Running Shoes Are a Girl’s Best Friend my definition was: Running is empowering physically, mentally and socially for any woman.

Next, and this was for me the single-most difficult thing for Running Shoes, is planning the (working) table of contents for the book. I had used a clustering technique, i.e. simply sit down and write down any and every word or sentence in a stream of consciousness that comes to mind about the topic, in my case women who run.

(I first began using clustering in a creative writing course I took in Sydney in 2005 and after reading the fabulous Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Rico. Clustering has helped me write most of the poems in Sunshine on a wooden floor, my collection of poems which I plan to publish later this year.)

For Running Shoes Are a Girl's Best Friend, I got so many great topics through my clustering exercise aimed at structuring that title but dividing it up along those topics proved the wrong format. I ended up making things far more complicated than they needed to be. I got stuck, with tons of superb information.

After months and months of frustration in the end the format of covering all these topics that came out in the clustering process through individual profiles, organized as separate chapters, was the answer. It seems simple in hindsight but it certainly wasn’t then, until I found the solution.

In other words, keep your book’s structure simple and straightforward. While structure is important, it doesn’t need to be rigid. One chapter could be half a page (as I saw in one of the bestselling books on writing).

The biggest secret to writing a book, and finishing it, is to set aside time for it regularly and take it word by word, sentence by sentence.

Writing/editing is my profession, and has been since 1996. I consider myself a professional author, even though my book sales aren’t near sufficient to cover all my bills, and I have other writing and editing jobs.

I work on my books every single day, whether it is writing and rewriting the new ones I am working on, or by working on spreading the word about those already published.

To write your book, find at least 30 minutes in your day, preferably every day, and sit down to write. Set manageable targets, such as 200 words or a page a day. Repeat the next time, or day. Keep writing until you have a first draft of your book.

First drafts can be shitty (coined by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird) and are there to be rewritten. Whoever said writing is rewriting was right.

My third book A Work in Progress: Exercises in Writing is very much about the process of writing with abandon and without self-critique—the latter comes later in the process after you have finished your first draft.

Before that, just write—it’s amazing how much you can get done if you simply do that. A Work in Progress is a case in point, since I wrote the lion’s share in eight consecutive days.

Of course the rewriting, revisions, proofreading and publishing, all of which I chose to do myself, with (my partner) Tim - a professional writer/editor too - proofreading at least half the chapters, took another three to four months. But by then I had a crystal-clear idea of what the end result should be. Rewriting tends to be a lot easier than staring at a blank page and expecting everything to come out perfect in one go.

Trust yourself, and write! Good luck, and I am only an email away.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I like the parallel with training for and running a marathon. I'd have time to write a book in the time I take for a marathon!

Interesting stuff, keep it going,