In 2013, the Huffington Post reported that more than 80% of Americans want to write a book–about 200 million people, just in the US. You can Google to find the details, but I’m intentionally not linking, because the statistic alone is discouraging enough. I could go on to list the reasons they don’t write, even though self-publishing through Amazon and other venues make it easier than ever before. You know why you don’t write, if that’s your dream.
Writing a book seems daunting. All that word-wrangling and how do you come up with a plot and do you have to be drunk and do you have to use a computer and I don’t have a pen name and-and-and-
Whew. Slow down. Take a breath. Here’s some advice on how to make that dream a reality.
What’s Your Superpower?
If you’ve never written much beyond a college paper or high school book report, don’t start out with the “great American novel.” Nonfiction is a great place to begin. It’s not necessarily easier than fiction, but it’s probably closer to what you’ve already written in the past. The first step isn’t to put words on paper, but to think about what you know. Stuck in traffic, scrubbing off in the shower, waiting in the carpool line–seize any moment you’re not actively doing something and rummage around in your head for subjects that you know lots about or in which you’re very interested. No, it doesn’t have to be as huge as “world peace” or “solving the college football playoff issue.” The topics should, however, be broad. In what areas do you give people advice? What seems easy for you that others find challenging? Cooking? Cleaning? Fixing cars? Repairing electronics? Creating web pages? At this point, don’t censor yourself (unless it’s illegal or immoral, but hey, it’s your brain). Let your imagination have free reign. If you’re not sure, ask friends or coworkers or significant others what your superpowers are.
Do not, at any point, go to Amazon and see how many books there already are on the subject. Your future book is the only one written by YOU!
Brainstorm an Outline
Once you’ve settled on a topic, start brainstorming on paper. The purpose of this step is to figure out what subtopics exist within the broader topic you chose. Grab a stack of index cards or pads of sticky notes and your favorite pen. As fast as you can, without stopping to think if it’s good or bad, jot down one idea on each card and rearrange them later. If you can’t think of subtopics, you should back up and choose a larger topic.
Take those cards or sticky notes and arrange them in the order that makes most sense to you. Think of how you would explain your chosen topic to someone new to the subject–because that’s what you’ll be doing! Add notes as you see gaps in the process you’ve outlined. Some areas might be large enough to be broken down further, and that’s okay; in fact, it’s a great thing.
Make a note of areas within that topic you think should be covered, but you don’t know a lot about. Those areas are ripe for research. But don’t get too caught up in the research process. That, too, can take much time away from actually writing. Although it’s a process I love and adore!
Transfer the notes to your favorite word processing program. Don’t worry about the perfect numbering system. A simple 1-2-3 is fine, or go with a more elaborate I-A-1, or whatever works for your brain. You may find that the process of typing the outline reminds you of steps you left out. Add them in at this stage. When you’ve completed the outline, save it as a separate document.
Here’s part of an example outline for a book on creating a webpage with WordPress:
- Obtain hosting
- Pros and cons of various hosts
- Obtain domain name
- How to do it
- How to choose a great domain name
- Install WordPress
- WordPress.com vs. self-hosted WordPress
- Edit settings
Start your writing with a copy of your outline, and you won’t have to worry about staring at a blank page. Begin with the first topic of the outline and write about it as if you’re explaining it to someone new to the subject, as I mentioned before. Spend as much or as little time as you feel necessary to cover the topic thoroughly. Don’t worry about using “writerly” prose. Write in a way that feels natural to you. An important part of writing is finding your voice–that is, writing in a way that is unique to you, that allows your personality to come through.
Although I have a hard time following this advice myself, resist the urge to edit yourself as you write this first draft. You don’t have to be perfect the first time through. Naturally you want to do your best work, but that comes through each successive draft. For now, focus on getting that knowledge out of your head and onto the pixels.
Let’s don’t gloss over that phrase “as if you’re explaining it to someone new to the subject.” When I’m writing on a technical subject, like creating a webpage, I have to remind myself over and over to explain terms that are normal to me, but may not be in everyone’s vocabulary. In the outline above, I used the words “hosts” and “hosting.” For the average person, those words means something entirely different than they do in a technical context. Explain terms in a way that makes sense to a reasonably intelligent person who may not know what a domain name is or understand the intricacies of hook size in crochet. Further along in the process you’ll have plenty of chances to fix anything that doesn’t make sense to your chosen audience.
After the First Draft
When the blessed day comes that you’ve written your way through your outline, save the document and set it aside for a day or two. Turn your focus elsewhere. The idea is to gain a bit of distance from your first draft before you start editing it. Never assume your first draft is your last. You will have made mistakes, typos, grammar problems and other issues. That’s no big deal; everyone makes mistakes. Correcting them and strengthening your work on each successive draft is the mark of a professional writer. But celebrate what you’ve done. You’re already farther than almost everyone who aspires to write a book!
That’s all for this post.