We get questions…
December 1, 2006 | Written by admin
Readers have been sending in questions for me…
“Can you tell me what you do when you write a nonfiction book? What process do you suggest to your authors? I need help creating a successful system in order to help me finish my book.”
Okay. When writing something, I usually just copy interesting things out of other people’s books. Of course, if you want more detail…
Keep in mind that, when writing nonfiction, I generally have spent enough time with the topic that I pretty much know the basic direction I’m going. (Otherwise, why should I be the one writing the book?) I get all my notes and junk out, look at the pile, and get depressed because I’m almost certain I’m never going to be able to turn that heap of junk into an actual book anyone would ever buy, so why not go drink a Guinness and watch another rerun of Law & Order?
Days later, I’ll look at it again, feel guilty, and start organizing it into piles of some sort. Creative ideas. Boring idea. Insightful ideas. Ideas that are linked together. At this stage I often find myself creating new categories, collapsing categories, finding new stuff, tossing some others. Basically I’m spending time familiarizing myself with all my material.
The next step is to give it scope and sequence, so I generally rinse my mouth with Scope and wear sequins. (Ha! Is this guy a laugh riot or WHAT?) I put down on paper some sort of general outline, which gives me a framework to go by. That outline will change roughly 37 times before the book is done, but I’ve always found it’s easier to CHANGE SOMETHING ALREADY WRITTEN than it is to create something new out of the blue. It’s been shown that the Table of Contents is the single most important factor in helping a reader make a decision to buy your nonfiction book, so I make sure the TOC makes sense in terms of "what will I cover" and "what order will I present it."
Once I have the outline, I explode it — that is, I start putting notes and quotes and stories and points in each section. I move all that junk from random piles into piles that are connected to the book. This goes on and on until I don’t have anything left to say (which can sometimes take as much as 7 or 8 minutes). I try to take time with this part, adding additional notes (even more stuff than I can use) because it helps me to see where the book is strong and where it’s obviously weak. I continue exploding my outline until I realize it’s all there, in one form or another. The stack of papers and notes I’m looking at are, in essence, my book. It’s an extended outline, with all my material. Then I just have to sit down and turn the outline into a book. So I start to write, more or less.
For the record, I know several nonfiction writers who simply take their outline and TALK through it, turning the tapes over to somebody else to actually convert the words to the page. I could never do that, since I find "talking" and "writing" to be separate skills (which is why I can’t seem to use those helpful software programs that promise to save my hands from further injury). But it works for some nonfiction writers, so if the actual wordsmithing is getting in the way, you might try this approach.
(You need to know that I’m leery about this. What was the last book of speeches you bought? Chances are, it took you a long time to come up with an answer. We don’t buy speeches – we LISTEN to speeches, but we BUY books. And the two things are as different as playing golf and pretending to play golf on a video game.)
Either way, at this point you are simply working through the material you’ve already put into place. You’ll find as you go along that things shift – one point feels out of place, another feels inadequate. That’s fine – at this point you’re just trying to get everything down onto paper. Don’t think about rewriting at this stage, just get it all down.
That’s an important point: Once I start writing, I go ALL THE WAY THROUGH THE BOOK. I don’t stop to edit or revise much. The point is to get all the words down on paper, so that I’ve got a crappy draft (those familiar with Anne Lamott’s term will forgive me for cleaning up her language just a bit…I’m protecting the sensitive ears of conservative Christian writers everywhere, I suppose). My goal at this stage isn’t to produce an award-winning manuscript – it’s to GET A CRAPPY DRAFT DONE.
I can then take my crappy draft and make it better. If I stop along the way, I find I never actually get done. So a crappy draft is better than an unwritten-but-potentially-brilliant manuscript. Once I’ve worked my way through the draft, I set it aside for a few days, sober up, and let myself get a new perspective. Then I come back to it and start editing, sharpening, strengthening, and wondering why I EVER said I’d do this stupid book in the first place.
Eventually, I have a bit-better-than-crappy manuscript, which I show to a trusted friend who has promised never to make fun of me. She points out why it’s awful, and never suggests that a career in dry-cleaning might be a better choice. Then she gives it back to me with nice little notes to cheer me up ("this part doesn’t suck as bad as most of it!") and I return to my Guinness. Sooner or later I take her notes to heart, since I’ve learned that most every other writer on the planet is better than me, and can improve the lousy manuscript I banged out. And it gets better until (and God only knows why) the publisher agrees to take it.
I’m certainly not saying you should try this method. But it’s worked for me.
WARNING: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. DO NOT OPERATE HEAVY EQUIPMENT WHILE USING THIS METHOD. WEIGHT GAIN, HAIR LOSS, AND SERIOUS SEXUAL SIDE EFFECTS MAY ACCOMPANY YOUR WRITING. DO NOT BE SURPRISED IF YOUR HEAD EXPLODES. TURN BACK NOW AND TAKE SOME CUSHY JOB DOING YOUR COMMUNITY NEWSLETTER AND PRETENDING TO YOUR FRIENDS THAT YOU’RE ACTUALLY
WORKING ON YOUR BOOK.