I want to write a book! How do I make sure I write it?
October 16, 2018 5:51 PM   Subscribe

I have an idea for a non-fiction book. I think it's a good one. Tell me authors: What do I do now?

I've looked through past question on actually getting the thing published, but that's not the primary concern of this question.

I need a plan for actually producing the thing. I'm interested in people's suggestions for good habits and routines for creating and keeping momentum going. I'll need to do a good deal of research (I already have a lot, but I know I need to do more). Any tips for dividing my time between research and writing? In the past I would have felt I needed to have all the research done, but I think doing *some* sooner rather than later is important in making it feel real to me. Did you/do you have a daily word count target? A weekly one? Should I ready every last book written about my general topic? Only a few? Hardly any?

Tell me how to turn a book from idea into reality.
posted by dry white toast to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
National Novel Writing Month is next month, that's the only way I write novels. Follow that plan and you should do nicely.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:43 PM on October 16, 2018

Download Scrivener.
Write your idea as a paragraph.
Break the paragraph into an outline.
Build your outline out a little more.
Create a separate document for each heading in your outline.
Set up a writing schedule. I personally prefer time/hours to word count, but you may feel differently.
When it's time to write, sit down and get started. Lower your expectations. Put words on a page. The words can be a mess. They can be a braindump, freewriting, a list, a rambling discussion of points. Words on page.
When you have a lot of words, go back and start editing/revising.
Your editing/revising will reveal where you have the holes you will need to fill with new research.
Do the new research and write down stuff to fill the holes.
When there are no more big holes, go back and start editing/revising, section by section.
Write transitional material to go between sections.
Revise, revise.
WHen you can mostly stand it, send it to an editor.
Review the editor's advice and revise.

It is a project of increments. Start with a mess.
posted by Miko at 7:54 PM on October 16, 2018 [51 favorites]

Every day, sit down at your computer/typewriter/pad of paper and write for at least 30 minutes. Repeat.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:27 PM on October 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I like to research, take lots of notes, compile those notes into chapters. And I tend to discover new sources as I go along, read those, recalibrate and revise. I often have to rearrange chapters, add/remove a few. But an outline is critical, even if it changes. You just have to know where you're going to end up. This should be the easiest part.

The trick is to finish it before you get sick of it. You'll have to make several passes, so try to make each revision pretty good, even the initial notes. You don't want to rewrite the same thing ten times. Write out-of-order if you must. Do you have diagrams? You can always do some more diagrams. When you get sick of writing, research!

I never have set formal targets, but I try to remember that I should be writing at a certain time of day and do some writing. Because if I don't, I'll never get rid of it.

Re-read it with different audiences in mind. Get feedback from real people, as long as they're your audience. If you like it, hopefully there are others that will too.

The important thing is that you fill 200+ pages with something. That's a lot of pages.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:35 PM on October 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

The answer depends on what kind of non-fiction book it is. Will there be interviews involved? Just your own experiences? Reading? Etc.

I am an extreme research junkie. If there's one thing that's taught me, is that it will never feel like enough, and research can be a way of procrastinating. I'd say to start with the minimum you need to know and pick up the rest as you go ahead. The more you put off writing, the more anxiety-producing it will be to start.

Anne Lamott talks about the importance of shitty first drafts. Nobody wants to waste time writing something shitty, but you always get something out of it. And if in the process of your shitty draft, you realize that you need more research, you can go do that then.

As far as productivity/staying motivated, that depends how best you work. Some people do a daily word count and some people do a certain number of pages and some people do a certain amount of time. Try all of these. Try writing at different times of the day; that can be a big factor. (And you may notice other habits that help, like certain music on or drinking coffee.) I freely admit that I often use Written Kitten, which shows me a cat picture every 100 words.

Despite all this tedious advice here and the tedious advice you'll see in writing books, really try not to be too precious or fetishized about it. There's no need to have a special pen or go up to a cabin or repaint a room. And there's certainly no need for everything to be perfect right away.
posted by mermaidcafe at 10:34 PM on October 16, 2018 [9 favorites]

It's hard to say without knowing your topic and your audience. But this may help: writing some research-heavy books, there's a point where I can read one more book, and it affects maybe one paragraph, or adds a footnote. That's when the book feels like it's done.

You've probably written papers for college. Well, it's like that, only you should read a lot more, and take the time to make it as good as you can.
posted by zompist at 1:22 AM on October 17, 2018 [5 favorites]

That's when the book feels like it's done.

I second that. And another note: most people I know who have written theses, dissertations, or nonfiction acknowledge that they over-researched, especially the first time.
posted by Miko at 4:48 AM on October 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Set up two or three or four streams of activity: writing, researching, planning or sorting. Make a basic to-do list for each one with plenty of possibilities in each. Schedule a good block of time, ideally six days a week about three hours. Switch activities when one gets boring, or dry, or bogs down.

Ideally you should have a long list of research material and get to dive into it regularly to make yourself more excited about the actual writing and sorting.

It is not a bad idea to save your work every single day with the new day's date. That way you can go back to an earlier draught if you need to, such as after deciding you don't want to include all those references to something that you have sprinkled through your text.

You may wish to collect or create images for your text even if you will not be able to include them in your finished/published work as many people find that inspiring.

Some people find that playing a certain music when working - and turning it off if writer's block or anything else stops you from working - can help train you to write on cue. Other people like other triggers, such as writing in a certain location or wearing a certain bathrobe etc.

Schedule time to think about your work without actually working on it and without other interruptions or distractions. During a forty-five minutes soak in the bath once a week is a good chunk of time for this. During a walk with your phone switched off is another good time. This is when hopefully flashes of brilliance will come to you and you will get the perfect titles and structural ideas.

Record everything in your bibliography with a date and short description, or sorted by subject. If you have to go back and look at something that will help. It is hell to wander around aimlessly trying to figure out what that source was, especially if the closest you can get was 'Web page on elephants' or 'may have been a small red book at either the university library or the public library branch on Westmoreland Road'. This will save time during the polishing stage.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:22 AM on October 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

I know you didn't ask about publishing, but there's some special stuff with nonfiction that is pertinent here. When I worked for an agent specializing in narrative nonfiction, the books were mostly bought in the proposal phase. That is, an editor wanted to be involved before the whole book took shape. The proposal looked like a solid outline, some sample chapters, and then the credentials of the writer. If they already know you have some reporting chops, then they're buying your idea and voice knowing you can turn it into something great. This is not relevant if you are going to self-publish or don't care about traditional publishing paths, but if you do, it could be a misstep to spend years writing the book and then try to sell it.
posted by LKWorking at 7:32 AM on October 17, 2018 [13 favorites]

Storybundle has their annual Nano bundle of "how to write" books. (The books are different each year.)

I've read a lot of how-to-author books, and the conclusions I've come to:
1) Write. Write every day, even if it's only a little, but strive for writing a notable amount every day, until it's a habit.

2) Find your writing style and support details. Nobody can tell you if it's better to write with music or without, or do outlines and then paragraphs or just wing it, or how much research you need before you start. (Most writers agree that "stop writing to research details" is a bad idea, though.)

There are hundreds of possible routine methods; there is no "best" one. There's a lot of awesome writing software; there is no "best" set of them. (That said, I heartily endorse Scrivener, especially for nonfic. The card arrangement system is much more versatile than Word.)

3) Get an editor/beta reader who is not inclined to be nice to you. They're not supposed to shred you - their goal isn't to "find the flaws," but to help you in your writing goals - but they need to be willing to tell you when you're not meeting those goals.

4) When unsure what to do next, write more.

5) Author career blogs:
Kristine Kathryn Rusch - the business of writing
Dean Wesley Smith - her husband; debunking publishing myths
J.A. Konrath - self-publishing for fun and profit
The Book Designer - the business of publishing; includes a monthly ebook cover contest that's a terrific guide for self-publishers.

Watch out for "writing coaches" who want you to spend money to learn their how-to-write system. You need to develop your own system. (You might sign up for one of the courses anyway; if the style clicks with you, that can help. Just be wary; there are tons of them.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:27 AM on October 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

Seconding LKWorking here... a proposal and a few chapters are what’s needed to get a non-fiction contract, as the publisher is usually very interested in helping shape the book.

I’ve not written non-fiction, but I think a daily word count should be your motivator. It becomes a habit after a while, and you’ll be uncomfortable if you haven’t done some work.

I, too, would caution about over-researching. Research can become an end in itself.

Good luck!
posted by lhauser at 12:08 PM on October 20, 2018

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