They can apply to either fiction or nonfiction books. But to focus the discussion on both in detail would make for too long a post. So, for today let’s answer them with an eye on nonfiction.
1. What Do I Know?
The old adage is true: Write what you know. When you’re really good at something it shows in your writing because it comes naturally to you. Not to say you should not learn anything in the process, but when you can do something “in your sleep” that ease of flow will be conveyed to your readers and they will trust you. So, think of what you know really well. What comes naturally to you? What do you do that keeps you from watching the clock? Jot down these things, no matter how silly they may seem and start thinking of what you can write about.
2. What Do I Love?
This seems directly related to #1 but with a slight difference, because what you’re good at is not necessarily what you love, and vice versa. “Write about what you love” is another old motto, though less repeated. I say love what you’re writing about because, depending on the length of your book, you will have to live with your manuscript for a while between rough draft, edits, and revisions; so you want to make it as pleasurable an experience as you can. When you enjoy what you’re dong, your readers will feel it in your words and enjoy it along with you.
So, go back to your list under #1 and put a checkmark next to anything on the list of things you’re good at, that you also love. Anything with a check should take priority in your decision on what to write your book about because it’ll be both your passion and your specialty.
But beware of too general a subject. You’ll want to be specific and stay specific. See #3 below, where we’ll use an example of a narrow title being gleaned down from a larger subject heading of electronics.
3. For Whom Do I Want to Write?
While planning your book, think of who it would be for. Who would you like to be reading your book when you’re done with it. Put someone in your mind. Is it your coworker looking for travel info? Your daughter who wants to learn how to sew? Your nephew who just started a new business?
Try not to think of “those people out there who would want to read this”. Make it more personal. Pick one person whom you know who either needs or would just really enjoy this book you have in mind and write it for him or her (even if, for some reason, they’ll never read it).
For example, let’s say one of the things you found on both lists was electronics. And let’s say you’ve heard your grandmother complain about being alone. You get the idea to write a book called Communications for Seniors: Staying in Touch the Easy Way, a user-friendly manual for showing the elderly the basics in keeping in touch with their grandchildren via email, text message, and Skype.
4. Do I Have to Do Research?
Well, here comes another of those old adages: Do your homework. While it’s true that it’s best to write what you know, it’s also true that it’s important in this fast-changing world to keep on top of new things you may want to cover in your book and to make sure the information you’re putting forth is up to date. You want your readers to trust that you’re giving them the latest on any topic.
5. How Can I Tame This Animal? (Followup to #4)
Be careful not to bury yourself in research. It can lead you astray. You may want to write about something you love and are good at, but which is technically complicated enough that you got just a bit carried away in your research.
Beware of getting bogged down under the mountains and hours of research in which you can find yourself immersed that will not only keep you from the writing but can overwhelm you in its volume. This can create more work than you counted on (or needed) having to sort through your results, deciding what to use and what’s not necessary.
5. Why Am I Writing This?
This question might sound philosophical or psychological, but it is much more practical than that. Your reasoning for writing on a particular topic will guide your slant on the subject.
If we can return to the example above, maybe you sincerely want to help older people take advantage of the internet, Skype, or email to not feel so lonely. Also, on the commercial side, you see a niche that will prove to be lucrative. Whatever your purpose in writing your book, as you go along, it will help to remember why you’re doing it.
6. Where Will I Find the Time?
Set aside some time to do nothing but write. If you have a passion for it, you won’t mind. Jot down or speak into your phone notes that come to you when you’re cooking or watching TV (though you would better use that TV time to write!).
Write during lunch-hour at work (but not during paid hours, the boss won’t appreciate it). Squeeze in some time before the kids get home from school, or while in a waiting room. If you answered #2 above, What do I love? And found the answer, then the passion will drive you to sneak in time here and there, and in larger chunks on weekends or other free days.
You may be surprised at how much you can accomplish in short spurts, even if it’s only to come up with an idea that will help you get unstuck, which can sometimes be a problem.
Which brings us to the next question.
7. Now What?
After answering these initial questions, when it comes to writing a book, many people begin to pick up a momentum, and even get somewhat of an idea of what the end of their book might look like.
But it can be oh so easy to get stuck in the middle (like the song).
Sometimes this (often sudden) loss of direction can stop us short, even to the point of putting the manuscript down and not picking it up again for a long time, or ever! There are lots of half-manuscripts sitting in dresser drawers and boxes for the same reason.
There are at least two ways to handle this: One is to walk away from it for a while (not too long, maybe a day or two; a week’s pushing it), then come back to it fresh.
When you return to the manuscript, go back over it from the beginning, read it through, making changes as seems right, then as you pass the last sentence, just start writing anything that comes to mind that could follow the last line you read. Even if it doesn’t seem to make sense, even if it sounds stupid, and you don’t know where you’re headed, just keep writing, and soon something will gel, and you’ll be off and running again. (I promise.)
8. Who Do I Think I Am to Write a Book, Anyway?
And after a few rounds of wrestling with your rough draft, this ghastly question will present itself. Who do I think I am? Maybe it comes into your mind while you’re in bed, just about to fall asleep. Or maybe your mother’s asked it of you. Or your so-called friends?
Well, the answer is simple. Who you think you are is who you are! And you’re the only you there is. There’s only one you. And you’re it. That’s who you are.
No one else has had your experiences, and no one else sees life exactly the way you do. Nobody else sees a situation or a sunset through the lens of your eyes and the you behind them.
And people who read want to read about the world through your eyes, to learn your point of view, and to learn from you. We all learn from each other.
Therefore you have as much right to write a book as anybody else does.
9. Should I Show My Writing to Anyone?
In a word, Nope. It’s better to keep your manuscript under wraps, especially at the beginning. As Stephen King says in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, the rough draft should be written with the door closed. In other words, nobody gets to see it except you and God, until you’re at least done with the first rough draft.
When you’re ready for editing and revision, then (as King would say) you can “open the door” and let just a select few others in, preferably those who read enough to know something about books and who can offer honest and truly helpful suggestions—which brings us to the next question.
10. Should I Hire a Professional Editor?
In a word, Yup. But don’t let the word “professional” scare you. This doesn’t have to cost a fortune. There is a very wide range of editors whose fees cover a broad spectrum from very low to very high, with everything in between.
If you can afford it, get an editor who will check for content, flow, organization, and other important issues, while they fine-tune your book for publication. Also, college students of English or writing, who have a good mastery of the English language and some sense of what makes a book work, will do it for less than the standard rates.
At the very least find a proofreader to check for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Do your best on your own before you bring it to them; the less they have to correct, the less they’ll charge you.
You don’t want your credibility marred by producing sloppy work that makes it look as if you didn’t take the time to be professional. (Also, we want to keep the standards of self-published books as high as possible to increase and maintain credibility.)
I hope I’ve helped answer some of your questions about writing a book. More will come up and then will come answers, because questions often bring their own answers if we’re patient enough to wait for them.
Just believe that you have something valuable to say that somebody out there wants, or needs, to hear and write from your heart with good intentions.
If you have ever been changed by a book you read, you know you can make a significant difference in someone’s life. Put some thought into these ideas when beginning a book, and keep your motives about more than money. Let the sales come from the sincerity of the author. And you will do well. I promise.
Valerie Serrano has a master of fine arts degree in creative writing and a bachelor of arts in psychology.
Valerie taught English and writing in New York for seven years (1996-2003), and has been teaching creative writing classes online through LetsWrite.com and in Santa Rosa, California, since 2012. She also offers editing, self-publishing help, and more (such as motivation to good but scared writers).
Val loves every minute of it, especially when students have the gumption to take their writing from first (very) rough draft to (self) published. Valerie has self-published her own novel called Two Shores, re-titled as The Archangel of Hamilton Beach and a children’s picture book, Horses Talk Funny.