You want to write a book. How much do you need to know before you start?
A student asked me that question last week. It’s a good question, and the answer is: it depends on both you, and the book.
If you’re ghostwriting a book for someone else, they may have material for you, and their own ideas. On the other hand, if it’s your own project, you may have little beyond a basic idea before you start writing.
Too much preparation — and too little
A book is always a long project, even if you’re writing a short ebook of 10,000 words. You need to avoid over-long preparation, otherwise your book will die long before you give it shape and form. Problems (there are always problems) can seem insurmountable. You give up, when you should simply have started writing. Problems always resolve themselves while you write, because you’re discovering the book as you write.
On the other hand, with too little preparation, you may discover that you’ve wasted weeks of work, because your idea, whether fiction, or nonfiction, isn’t viable.
When I started writing books, many years ago, it was the age of typewriters and agents. You wrote book proposals, which always included a competitive analysis. That trained me to think about how my book might fit into the publishing landscape.
It’s still a good idea to investigate what’s selling before you start writing.
Basic preparation: describe your idea
I keep snippets of ideas in Evernote. Here’s one, for a novel:
“Girl who’s getting married keeps a diary, but it’s soon obvious that there’s something else going on…”
That’s a basic glimmer of an idea. The novel could go in many different directions. I’d need to ask myself some questions:
- Who’s the girl?
- Who’s her intended?
- Why marriage?
- What’s going on? Will this book be a thriller, a romance, a mystery, or science fiction?
- Where’s it happening? What time period?
- … and so on.
I’d write the answers to these questions, and I’d find a story question, or goal, for the story.
Of course, everything I’d write might change, but this would give me a basic grasp of the story, before I started thinking about scenes. I like to imagine the turning points of the story, and the major scenes, before I feel comfortable starting the book.
At this stage, I might have anywhere from 500 to 2,000 words.
Your competition: is there a market for your idea?
While describing the story, I’d get a feel for the genre. So I’d investigate what’s selling in that genre. Amazon’s reader reviews are wonderful; they give you a feel for what readers are looking for, and what they like, as well as what they don’t like.
If I were writing a nonfiction book, at this stage I’d talk to some subject matter experts, and briefly describe my book’s idea to them. I might also visit some online forums which discuss the subject matter, to see what people are talking about. And of course, I’d investigate the top sellers on Amazon, and would read the reviews.
Start writing, before your idea frightens you, or bores you
If you’ve come this far, and your book’s basic idea still intrigues you, start writing. It’s vital that you do this, because enthusiasm for your idea is ephemeral. All too quickly, it can turn into fear. This leads to procrastination, which makes you even more nervous.
Alternatively, you can become bored, which also leads to procrastination, and eventually, you won’t give up on your book, but you’ll forget about it. You’ll write it “next year.”
When in doubt, write — keep your inspiration
You’re a writer, so your default setting always needs to be writing. So if you’re wondering whether you’ve done sufficient preparation, forget that. Just start writing. You’ll do your best work while you’re inspired; write before you lose that.
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Update: March 9, 2017
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