You may be “up in years,” you may be ill or handicapped or you may be going through hard times. No matter: If your mind is agile and your fingers are nimble, you can write a book.
A recent survey showed that 43% of all American women have thought of writing a book. Men’s percentage might be lower, but probably not by much.
As a book editor I have gotten many calls from people wanting help with writing or publishing a book — everything from children’s stories to church histories to personal narratives to exposes to, well, you name it. Some people have a completed draft, others a chapter or two, others just an idea.
I always try to be helpful, even if the caller’s project does not fit into one of the categories I typically edit and sometimes agent.
Here are some of the tips I and my associates offer:
Research your subject thoroughly. Unless you can generate material that truly deserves to be packaged between hard or soft covers and put on a bookstore or a library shelf, your wonderful “way with words” or your stellar command of grammar and vocabulary won’t cut it.
The terrific thing about memoirs is that your life, or the lives of those you’ve known, provide the fertile fields to dig in for stories that will make your readers want to keep turning pages. And that is the main reason that the writing classes I’ve taught in central West Virginia for the past 20-plus years have been focused on “life writing.”
If the subject is outside your life experience, then you must interview, read, sift and weigh all the reliable material you can possibly get your hands on and do it better than others delving into the same subject if you hope to produce a worthwhile book.
Outline the whole book. You will proceed at your peril if you attempt to do a book without an outline. And this rule holds even for many kinds of fiction writing (though not all).
Start anywhere. Some professional writers have a rule that goes “Never start a book at the beginning.” I like that, in fact. Get a middle chapter right, maybe a high point, and it will inspire you to do the rest well. The first chapter is often best done later. This chapter is “a deal breaker.” Get it wrong, and no one will read further. So wait to do your opening until you’re inspired by other good chapters.
Realize that book writing takes time. As I tell my writing students, “Give yourself the luxury of time.” Don’t set unrealistic deadlines. Steady plodding works best. If you write 500 words a day, you can finish a draft of a small book in three to four months. Some people may do better with a weekly goal, say 5,000 words, because “things happen” and perhaps you cannot write the same word count every day.
Brace for rewriting — but don’t overdo. Rewriting is key to doing a good book. Not being willing to redraft and self-edit separates the neophyte writers from their more accomplished peers. However, if you don’t recognize great material in your first draft, you can easily revise it into oblivion. I’ve seen it happen.
Work with a reading group. If you don’t read to others as you go along, you’ll be working in a vacuum. Feedback is so important. If you’re writing about aviation, read to pilots; about country life, read to people who live it and love it; about creating a business, read to entrepreneurs.
Enjoy the journey. I’m rooting for you.