Writing a non-fiction book – Part One

13 Jul

Several of you have commented on the fact that so far, most of these columns have been about fiction books. That’s not only true, but also a fair assessment. I have done more fiction than non-fiction, so I tend to think about it more often when asked about writing a book. Some of you have asked specifically for a column (or even several) devoted to writing a non-fiction book.

Okay. I can do that. Actually, I’ve co-authored a non-fiction book that has yet to be published, for a number of reasons. The other author and I are working diligently at getting it into book form, but there are numerous hurdles to overcome in the process. Believe me, you’ll be among the very first to know when we are at last successful. And we will succeed!

I think the first thing you need to do is figure out exactly what sort of book you want to write, and why you are the best person to do it. Right away, you can see this is different from fiction, but for non-fiction, knowing your topic is even more important. You cannot make up facts to suit your audience. (Or at least, I don’t really think you should! You could all too easily find yourself in legal troubles if you did.) And, anyway, if you are an expert in your field, that alone will help you sell books – not to mention selling yourself to a prospective publisher. It’s called ‘a platform’ and is highly desired by agents and editors.

A great percentage of non-fiction books are of the self-help variety. This appears to be a general sort of topic that will never go out of style. So if you have overcome some great obstacle, and think you can help others should they encounter the same problem, then you most likely could indeed qualify as someone who could write a book about that experience.

Of course, the same advice I gave to fiction authors in the beginning of this blog pertains—even more so, perhaps—to non-fiction authors. You’ll probably not get rich at it, but you might earn a tidy little addition to your bank account, over time. You may even leverage it into speaking engagements at conferences, etc., and these will pay more, the higher up the ladder you go. Not to mention the advantage of the degree of expertise you possess and how well you are able to communicate with your audience.

Another bit of advice from the beginning here pertains as well. Get your thoughts in order. This is probably more important to non-fiction writers, as you can’t count on one of the characters coming to life and running away with your book! (Darn.) Write a sentence describing the intended content of the book. Then, expand your thoughts a bit and write a paragraph and then a page-length description. Once you have this done, you’ll have the basis for an outline.

Generally speaking, each sub-topic should have a chapter of its own. There may be anywhere from nine to twenty of these. (If less than nine, go back to the drawing board and think up a couple more of them. Nine will probably not be enough to support an entire book. Not even a skinny one!)

Make your outline, but don’t treat it as though it’s carved on stone. Feel free to move chapters around. And in fact, you may stumble over new ideas as you do this. That’s a great sign! Not to mention a great help.

Just as for fiction, you also need to read other books on the topic. Or near topic, in case there aren’t any on your particular subject. If you can’t seem to find any, visit your nearest library, and ask for help from one of the reference librarians. They love this kind of question (trust me on this) and will willingly spend hours helping you find what you need. (I’ve been fortunate enough to have them spend off-hours looking as well, simply because my topic sparked their curiosity!) (For instance: do swans really mate for life? If a partner dies, might the swan turn to another species for a mate? The answer to both is yes. I know this only because of a librarian.)

A fiction book starts at the beginning of a story, (or near there, anyway)  and continues until the end of it. Or at least to a place where the story can safely be left to the reader’s imagination. If it really grabs the reader, perhaps a sequel will be forthcoming.

Non-fiction can start anywhere – there really is no set or special beginning or ending place, but rather a set of steps to get from here to there. I hope this is of some help to those of you contemplating non-fiction of whatever kind.

Come back next week for part two on the topic of writing a non-fiction book! Comments welcome.

If you have questions, please write to me at bookmechanic@gmail.com
Please do feel free to pass this along to anyone you think would be interested in reading it!

Thank you for reading!

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