where to start and how to do it
The old joke about book writing features two people at a party and one says to the other, “I am writing a book,” and the other person says, “Neither am I.”
This exchange succinctly reflects the situation with more than 90% of people writing books. It is very easy to say I am writing a book and it is also easy to play around with the idea, writing snippets, trying out different formats. The really really difficult part is finishing the first draft. The main reason is totally psychological. Up to the point of finishing a first draft, it is all about anticipation. There is no need to prove yourself, and there is no fear of failure, because it is an ongoing project with no fixed deadline. But once the first draft is completed, then it raises the question of whether or not it is good enough. It raises the question of what will other people think of it? This has huge implications for one’s ego. Hence the joke.
I have written quite a few books and I have edited hundreds, and I have probably reviewed or given consideration to over 1000 manuscripts, maybe more. I nave no Idea. My thoughts on how to write a book are based on this experience. That doesn’t mean that I am right, or that these rules are absolutely essential for the writing of a book. There are no absolute rules. But there are ways of approaching the creation of a book which are more likely to be effective than others.
The first step is to decide on an idea, and then to flesh it out in an arc of let’s say 10 chapters. Of course, the idea can be divided into eight chapters or 12 chapters or more or less depending upon the topic and the materials. But let’s start with 10 as a safe number. This approach, by the way, works for both fiction and non-fiction. There are authors who claim that they start writing a book without any clear idea of where it is going or what will happen to the protagonists. I am talking here of fiction. But they are either supernatural beings or else they are not being entirely truthful. A degree of organization is required in order to produce a book. To get ideas started, it is entirely possible to just throw yourself into a section, either of a story or of a discussion for nonfiction, and then use that snippet as the basis for creating a structure. The structure can be in your head or it can be written down, but my advice would be to write it down and try to be as clear as possible in the construction of the structure.
What results is a Table Of Contents. And the first thing to consider is, does the structure work? Is it interesting? Is it likely to keep a reader’s interest alive through the whole arc, from beginning to end? Are there any parts which are likely to be boring? All the elements should be in the right order once the structure has been fixed, although of course it can be altered again at any time in the future.
The next step is to fill it out with sub points. My advice would be to aim for 10 bullet points under each of the 10 chapter headings. You then have 10×10, 100 bullet points that make up the manuscript (and again this can work for both fiction and nonfiction, although fiction may be less appropriate for this form of organization). Assume that each bullet point when actually written will be around 500 words. 500×100 = 50,000, which is about the right number of words for most books today.
The order in which these parts are written is entirely irrelevant. You can write the first section of chapter one first or you can write the eighth section of chapter 7 first, it really doesn’t matter. It also doesn’t matter how perfect the words are in any of the sections you write. One of the big errors that many writers make, in my opinion, is that they spend too much time on the self-editing in the midst of the creation flow. This becomes a barrier to the completion of the overall structure and the completed first draft. It is better to just charge on regardless and complete each of the sections and the whole first draft, in the knowledge that the writing and the content is not necessarily perfect, and that much will need to change. The reason for this is simply that until there is a first draft, there is nothing. The book does not exist. All of the work that has been put into creating something up to the completion of the first draft is wasted unless that last step is taken. It is as if nothing had ever happened. No work had ever taken place.
As soon as we have an absolutely awful first draft of a manuscript, what next? The first step is to go through the manuscript and look at it purely from a structural perspective. Are all the elements in the correct places? Is there too much or too little on any of the individual sections? Should the basic Table of Contents be changed in any way? If so, now is the time to do it. The second time you go through the manuscript is to start doing a line edit, that is a detailed review of each word and phrase and sentence, in order to improve the overall writing and to consider changes including movement of paragraphs, cutting stuff or leaving notes to yourself as to what needs to be added. Another important element to consider here is that in this phase, it is my advice that you don’t spend a lot of time on adding extra material. Simply make notes to yourself as to what needs to be added in order to take the manuscript to a more perfect second draft.
So you have now written the first draft, and you have been through the manuscript twice, and at this point you have a couple of choices. My advice would be to now pass the manuscript to somebody else for comments and review. This needs to be somebody who is a friend probably, because why would anybody put the time and effort into reading the manuscript unless they are getting money for it, unless they were your friend. But you need to choose the friend carefully. Someone who is simply going to say “it’s wonderful, it’s a great book, great piece of writing”—this is useless, it has no value to you. What you’re looking for is feedback from someone who will be honest and as detailed as possible. When you get such feedback, the important thing is to basically always surrender to it. Of course, all opinions in this area are subjective, but there are two reasons why comments from other reviewers are probably to be implemented. The first is that they have a huge advantage over the writer and that is objectivity. The lack of objectivity is the biggest drawback that the writer faces in the production of a finished manuscript, and the only way of dealing with it is to get outside advice.
The other advantage that a second reader has over the author is a fresh eye, both with regard to the structure and the specific words in sentences. Writing is an intensely individual and personal experience, and it’s so easy to get lost in the middle of the process and lose a sense of what the overall purpose is, or whether or not the overall intended effect has been achieved. So while it can be painful, in almost all circumstances it is best to accept the advice of people who provide it. Always remember that it is extremely difficult for a friend to provide negative feedback to someone they know. It is so easy to say it’s great, I loved it. But it is really difficult to say I thought this was not so good or I would suggest that you change that. That form of criticism, no matter how it is couched, however softly, is difficult and needs to be taken into account by the author. The reader has really taken a leap in terms of preserving the relationship that they have with the author and the words have a much greater value as a result of that.
So there we are. Now begin your book. Start with a blank screen and type the word ‘The.’
Got something you think might be worth submitting?