So, you want to write a book? Your Idea

First, let me clarify that I am talking about nonfiction books, as opposed to novels or fantasy or horror or science fiction or poetry or anything else that is a product of your imagination. William Zinsser, who wrote the definitive volume on the art of nonfiction writing, explains that “nonfiction writers are those of us who are trying to write well about the world we live in.”

The most important thing to know about nonfiction writing is that it must be based on the truth. Nonfiction is a broad category of writing about real things, people, events, and places. Nonfiction books include biographies, history, memoirs, how-to books, journals, textbooks, travel, and opinion pieces. In other words, you have a lot to work with.

Chances are that you already have an idea, or you wouldn’t have gotten this far. You think you know what you want to write about. The question is can you explain it to someone else in a way that they would understand it. Can you boil it down to a single sentence, such as My book is about ____________. Or, my book will help the reader to ___________ by doing (what?). In the first sentence you simply describe your subject matter; in the second you include a benefit—what you are promising the reader. Promises include solving a problem, meeting a need, explaining how to do something, sharing your own story as a way to inspire, presenting a point of view, teaching a technical process, and many more examples.

Your first challenge is to clarify the book’s subject matter and why someone would want to pay money to read it. Your second is to determine what to cover in the book. You can do this with a list, and outline, or a mind map. If you are not familiar with a simple mind ma, let me demonstrate one way to organize your ideas. The following is a simple mind map of the chapters in an e-book and ghostwriting:

 It is simple because it only includes the subjects of each of the eight chapters in the book. To make it a little more complicated, let’s break out the content of each chapter.


 Mind maps work well if you are a visual learner. If you are someone who does better by listening (an aural learner), you can dictate your thoughts into your phone or dictating software and then play it back. If you are a good old-fashioned purist, who prefers to outline, a mind map can easily be converted to an outline. (Though it is certainly possible to create a more detailed mind map, it will be smaller on the screen or take a larger sheet of paper to print it out.)

The Savvy Ghostwriter Outline

  1. So, you want to be a ghostwriter …
    1. What is a ghostwriter?
    2. Why would you want to be a ghostwriter?
    3. Why would you not want to be one?
  2. What does it take to be a ghostwriter?
    1. Technically and temperamentally
    2. Why would someone hire you?
    3. How do you get assignments?
  3. What kind of writing does a ghostwriter do?
    1. Business books
    2. Corporate histories
    3. Family histories
    4. Memoirs and autobiographies
    5. Proposals
  4. What do you absolutely have to know before you sign the contract?
    1. Questions to ask about the book
    2. Questions to ask about the client
    3. Questions to ask about the process
    4. Questions to ask about payment
  5. Contracts and Budgets
    1. The client’s contract vs. your contract
    2. Fees
    3. Credits & acknowledgments
  6. What’s the difference between ghostwriting and just plain writing?
    1. Ghostwriting
    2. Writing
    3. Legal matters
  7. Why ghostwriting isn’t for sissies
  8. Back to the question: So, you want to be a ghostwriter?

Why go to all this trouble? Because this is the single most important thing you can do, whether it is a mind map, outline, or recording. Once you have organized your thoughts and gotten them down in the most detailed form possible, you have done the hardest work in writing your book. The rest is just filling in what you want to say under each of the subheads.

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So, you want to write a book? But, first …

At this point, you have an idea for your book and a long list of resources to help you through the process. You are probably more than ready to begin, but wait a few moments. There are some things you should know and some important questions for you to consider:

  • What should you know?
  • Why should you write your book?
  • What’s holding you back?
  • What does it take to write a book?

What should you know?

  • Books are a labor of love. The first thing you must love is your subject. It has to be something you are compelled to write. If you are lackadaisical about it, you won’t make it to the finish line. If you think of writing an article as a sprint, writing a book is a marathon.
  • If you have never written a book, the process may seem mysteri­ous and perhaps even impossible. It is neither. It follows a logical and orderly process.
  • All along the route from start to finish, there are choices to be made. Some are small; some are complicated; all are worth taking the time to think through.
  • The best part of being an author should be the process, not the end result.
  • Writing a book is not rocket science, but it is hard work. It sounds a bit glamorous to be a published author, but behind the glamour are months and months of hard work.

Why should you write your book?

People write books for many reasons. Some love the process (I am one who does); others know the benefits and think they are well worth the effort; still others take on the challenge be­cause their audiences or constituencies expect them to. There are as many reasons to write a book as there are books. Here are just a few of the most compelling.

  • Credibility: Whether you are truly an authority on a subject or not, just put that subject be­tween book covers, and people will assume you must be. After all, only experts write books. True? Well, no, but the myth per­sists. So, you might as well ride the wave. If you are an expert, all the better.
  • Money: If you do a good job of pro­moting your book, you may actually make money on it, but writing books does not guarantee that you will get rich quick, or at all. It takes an enormous amount of time and effort to market a book successfully, most of which you will do yourself. Even if you have a publisher, don’t expect much help
  • To share knowledge: A book is one of the best ways to convey information. More and more professional speakers are finding that having a product to sell in the back of the room often commands higher speaking fees.
  • To pass along wisdom: High-profile CEOs often write books to convey their busi­ness philosophies and practices to the next generation of lead­ers in their organizations; to articulate to significant stakehold­ers their personal visions for their companies; or to apply the hard-won lessons of their lives to the broader context of busi­ness, society, academia, or government.

What’s holding you back?

There are endless reasons why you may not have begun your book. All big projects seem overwhelming before you begin. But you have to start somewhere. Athletes train, performers practice, industry leaders work their way up the ladder, writers often write many drafts before they are satisfied. They all do it one step at a time, and that is exactly how you write a book.

Finally, let me shatter the mystique associated with writing a book. Anything you do for the first time has an element of mystery, simply because you haven’t done it before, but one step inside any bookstore will clearly demonstrate how many thousands of people have solved the mystery.

What does it take to write a book?

  1. Desire
  2. A concept
  3. A plan
  4. A long attention span
  5. Self-discipline
  6. Support and guidance

Desire, of course, means that you really want to write this book. Once your idea begins to take shape, your desire should grow until you can’t think of much else. Desire leads to self-motivation, which leads to obsession, especially in the beginning. The challenge is to keep that desire alive through all the stages of your writing, even if no one else seems excited about your idea. J.K. Rowling was turned down by twelve publishers before someone said yes. Her books became the best-selling series of all time and spawned six blockbuster movies. Rowling is now a billionaire.

A concept is another word for idea. It is the message you are trying to get across, and you have to be very clear when you explain it. If you can’t do that in one sentence, you need to go back to square one and redefine your concept. In the early stages of my writing career, when I got stuck on an article, my twelve-year-old daughter would ask, “What is it about, Mom?” Keeping it short enough to hold her attention was good training.

A plan is a roadmap for your journey from idea to completed book. many first-time authors go wrong because they don’t have a plan. They have the romantic idea that one begins a book by sitting down at the computer and just “letting it flow.” If you ever hope to finish your book, it is essential to have a plan.

A long attention span means that you can focus on what you are doing for as long as it takes to do it. Writing a book may take months or even years to complete, and during that time, you need to keep your mind engaged in the process. There will be times, when you sit down to write, and nothing happens. There are two schools of thought on this: muscle your way through it, even though you are producing garbage that you will have to rewrite later, or get up and take a break. Do something else, preferably something physical. I subscribe to the latter idea. Having to rewrite something you knew was bad seems a ridiculous waste of time.

Self-discipline is doing what has to be done, sticking with it even when it’s not fun, and reasserting your commitment as often as necessary. That definition applies equally to dieting, exercising, climbing a mountain, and writing a book. Once you commit to an activity, whatever that may be, self-discipline will keep you on track.

Support and guidance are the ingredients authors rarely think about, but they are as essential as any of the above. No one goes it alone, especially when you undertake a proj­ect of this magnitude. No matter which book you’re working on—your first or twenty-first—you need to feel that others are in your corner and rooting for you. That’s support. If this is your first book, guidance from a knowledgeable source is a gift. Guidance comes in many forms and from many sources—teachers, fellow writers, writers’ groups, writing class­es, and professionals—especially book-writing coaches.

OK, now, you’re ready to start.


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So, You Want to Write a Book • Resources

Reprise from Part 1: If your family and friends are correct, and you have a book worth writing, you are out of reasons, obstacles, doubts, and excuses for not writing it. Every author once felt as you do, so you have plenty of company. So, as Nike would say, “Just do it!”

Enough procrastination. You’re ready. You are on fire, obsessed.  You are in the zone, perhaps for the first time. You can do this, you tell yourself, as words spill onto your screen. You just keep writing until the moment when you hit the proverbial wall. You have either run out of steam or words. This is the moment you realize you don’t really know how to write a book. What seemed like a great idea when you began is losing its luster.

What should you do next? One possibility is to question your sanity and delete the file from your computer.  Since you were probably off to a pretty good start, that would be a shame. At the other extreme, you could decide to continue despite having no idea what you’re doing. Being an optimist, you tell yourself this might turn out okay after all if you just keep going. Read more ›

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JK Rowling: A Twenty-first Century Cinderella

Imagine this scenario: You have wanted to be a writer since you were a child. You wrote your first book when you were six—a story about a rabbit—and at eleven, your first novel about seven cursed diamonds and the people who owned them. You left home at eighteen to attend Exeter University, spent a year in Paris, and then returned to London where you worked for Amnesty International. One day, while sitting on a train, you had an idea for a book. You scribbled notes on odd scraps of paper until you had the makings of the first three chapters. After twelve rejections from publishers, the book finally sold and was followed by six more books, which became the best-selling series of all time. The books were made into movies, and you became a billionaire.

Can’t imagine that such a thing could really happen? Neither could JK Rowling as she was mapping out the Harry Potter series in 1998. If authors have a Cinderella story, this is surely it. Rowling is one of the most widely read female authors in history. Harry Potter has gotten a generation of children excited about reading, while their parents were eating up these books at the same time. Her rags-to-riches story has taught writers around the world to believe in their dreams because sometimes they actually come true. Read more ›

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The Magic of Your Muse is a Myth

You sit down to write, but you’re not inspired. You’ve done everything you can think of to put it off as you wait for your muse to show herself, but she is not making an appearance today. Who can be creative without a little inspiration, you ask. That’s the necessary ingredient for any real writing, right? Read more ›

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