How to start writing a book

I recently had a former student email me asking for advice on how to write a book on a personal topic.

“It just showed up in my mind,” she said. “And hasn’t gone away ever since.”

But she didn’t know what to do next.

“I have no idea where to start,” she wrote. “So I guess my real question is, what the heck do I do?”

I’m not an expert by any means. I’ve written one book and am working on a second one.

But I know what it feels like to have an idea that you want to share with the world and then… now what? We’ve all been there.

I’ve found that in the beginning, it helps to keep it extremely simple. Editing, illustration, publishing, promotion, marketing — all that can wait. It will only distract you right now.

I responded to the email with these four steps, and am sharing it here as well in case it can assist anyone else. If it’s helpful, pay it forward — today is Random Acts of Kindness Day.

List the main ideas

If you haven’t already, write down as many of your main ideas on paper as you can. List them out so you can see them and look them over. You may find when you do this that you see different themes emerge that you can categorize and clump together.

For me, whenever I have a bunch of free-floating ideas, I fall back on my journalism training and organize them into the categorizes of why, who, what, when, where and how (always starting with why). That always helps put structure to my ideas, and also helps me see if I’m skimping or missing ideas in any one area.

There are many ways to organize your ideas into categories, like Disney’s use of the hero’s journey. But if you come up with a structure it’s easier to plan out a beginning, middle and end.

Write a letter

Thinking of your ideas as a letter gets you out of the mindset of “I’m writing a book” or even “I’m writing a blog” and gets you to focus on what you actually want to say.

I once heard a talk from a Marquette University alumna who won a Pulitzer Prize for writing a series on famine in Africa. She said that after several drafts of frustration and not knowing where to start, she took a break and started writing a letter to her mom about her experiences. It was only after she was finished writing to her mom that she realized she had just written the first draft what would become her series.

Austin Kleon wrote that “Steal Like an Artist” was advice to his 19-year-old self — saying “All advice is autobiographical.”

Great authors have done this.

If you think of the Bible — the best-selling book of all time — a lot of that was written as advice to others, such as Paul’s epistles.

So who can you write this letter to? Is it your younger self? Who do you want to talk to?

Picture someone tangible in mind and write openly and honestly to that person.

Write the book you want to read

Another Kleon-ism. This was enormously helpful to me when I wrote a textbook for my social media class a few years ago. There was nothing on the market for what I needed. So I wrote my own. But I found myself getting stuck whenever I fell into the trap of what I thought a textbook should sound like.

When I caught myself doing that, I paused and asked myself what do I want to say and what do I want others to know. I’ve heard of a similar approach from successful authors. They wrote because no one had written the book in their mind that they wanted to read.

So what do you want to read? Is it a children’s book? Is it a collection of quotations? Is it a how-to type manual? What would make you stop and say, I need to read this book.

Get feedback — but sparingly

Sometimes a little feedback can go a long way in steering you in the right direction. But too much feedback can be overwhelming or even paralyze your writing. It can confuse you or get you bogged down in details.

When I have an idea to write about, I like to test the waters on Facebook or Twitter to see if my idea sparks any interest. Sometimes that produces great ideas and helps point out areas I may have overlooked. Other times, it’s too all over the place to be much help. It depends.

There’s a delicate balance between being open to new ideas and getting help from others, and then shutting out the rest of the world and giving yourself space to think and produce. It’s a messy process. But you’ll figure it out.

So on that note, I hope you embrace and enjoy the messy process! When you’re done with all that, I’d be happy to talk publishing, but don’t worry about that step right now. I’m excited for your journey and I really want to read your book. Keep me posted!

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