How to Write a Book And Not Die Trying (2 Part Series)
So here we are, I think this will be a long series of articles with half a serving of practicalities, tips and tricks, and another half of soul-searching, reflection and dreaming. Hopefully you'll find something useful, and who knows, perhaps feel inspired to write your own book and spread your ideas throughout mankind.
There is something magical in writing. Aside from the fact of it being a world changing invention that allowed us humans to transcend the limitations of our biological memory and communicate through the aeons.
Aside from that, writing is like having a conversation with yourself, like reflecting but out loud, something more intentional. Like if sitting alone, focused on a piece of blank paper, or dark screen, puts us directly in contact with our innermost self, where mere thinking, by its own, can't reach.
This very quality of depth also works great when communicating information to others. I don't know you but I've often had conversations where I wanted to transmit an idea to a person and, in the immediacy of the situation, I fail to say what I really mean, or miss part of the nuances. Oftentimes I reflect shortly afterwards and I think "I should have said X", "that's what I really meant", but by then it's too late. The other person is also in a better disposition to listen when reading, there's less distractions, less focus on the environment and the next retort.
So writing is an awesome medium to transmit your ideas: On one hand it gives you the perfect environment to find that truth that you want to share in its purest form, on the other it gives you the intimate and undivided attention of the reader.
Ready to start writing?
I've divided this series of articles in three different sections and an afterword to give some structure to the process of writing a book. You can follow step by step or just pick and choose the parts you're interested in:
- Book Conception
- Book Execution
- Book Publishing, Marketing, Sales and the Afterlife
- Afterword: Thoughts on Writing
Most things start with a thought, a nagging teeny tiny speck of a thought that grows into a whisper, which grows into a voice, which may die out or may grow yet more into an inner unstoppable need to write that book. Good! You are going to need all that enthusiasm and passion to write your book!
So before you write a book there's two things that you need to decide. Most of the other things you'll be able to figure out as you go, but these two are core to the success of your book: The Why and What.
The Why1 are you writing this book is essential because it's what will define your metrics for success, and what will keep you motivated throughout the long journey that is writing a book.
The specific Why is not as important as taking the time to think about it. Why write this book? What do I want to achieve? Is there a better way to achieve that?
Take your time, this will be the last checkpoint before you start investing your precious time. These are some possible Whys:
- Because I love creativity and creating stuff
- Because I want to build a masterpiece, something beautiful
- To make money and earn a living
- To make some extra money on the side
- Because I enjoy writing
- Because I want to help others
- To learn more about specific topic
- To improve my writing skills
- To become a thought leader
- To advance my career
- To be recognized as an expert in some area
- To become immortal
- To become famous
All of these are valid Whys to choose from. Just take some time to reflect and pick the ones that are important to you, your life and your career. Put some thought into it because the Why will be a guiding light throughout the whole process of writing.
In my case it was the love for creating and the hunger to create something remarkable and delightful. I've been on this earth for some time, done lots of things, worked on lots of projects, yet I've always felt that I didn't have the control, the skills or the time to produce something truly remarkable.
So, Why do you want to write a book?
Awesome! So now that you have the Why pinned down, the next step is to think about What you want to write about. I think that the most important principle to follow when selecting the What to write is this:
Write about something you care about.
Why? Because writing is a long, arduous and grilling process. Write about something you don't care about and you'll have a wicked time garnering the energy to see it to the end. You probably will have a miserable time writing and likely abandon it after a while when things get tough or when something shinier comes along the way.
The Why determines the What to a strong degree. Want to earn a living through writing? Then write about something people truly want or need. Want to achieve renown in a specific field? Then write a book about an important topic in that field. You get the gist.
In most situations, picking a topic to write about won't be an extremely calculated choice but an organic one. In the development of your career you'll work with certain technologies, become an expert and writing about them will feel like the natural choice. In that context, here are some things to consider:
- You want to write about topic X but there's a lot of books about it already. Don't feel discouraged. Competition is actually a good thing, it shows that there is an existing market for your book. You will need to expend some extra time making your book special and novel when compared to the competition.
- You want to write about a topic Y and there's no books about it. Don't feel discouraged. Niches can be very lucrative, particularly for self-published books with low overhead. It's also easier to become recognized as an expert if you're the sole person who's written a book about it.
- What makes you special? What makes the book that you are writing special? The most special thing about that book that you want to write is that it is based on your experience and that is written by you. Do you have any knowledge or experience that is not easy to have? Try to imprint your character and personality in your book, make your words be you and you'll have that extra je ne sais quoi no other books have.
- Write about frameworks? Platforms? Programming languages? Patterns? Different topics have different expiration dates. Software development is a super fast paced industry and things change fast. Some things change faster than others. For instance, frameworks are very short lived, while programming languages often have a longer lifetime. Use your why as a guiding light when choosing a topic.
So now we've got the Why and the What, we're almost ready to get started. Only one thing remains, do you self-publish or do you try to work with a publisher?
Our current day and age is awesome. The internet, the world wide web, the extreme availability and affordability of computers, and the advance of technology in general have democratized nearly everything. Making and selling music, news, producing radio or TV programs, writing and publishing books, all things which were only available to a few not long ago, are today available to all willing to put in the effort.
Before you start writing your book you'll have a choice to make. Do you go solo and traverse the lonely path of self-publishing your book? Or do you work with an established and experienced publisher?
Most of my experience is in writing self-published books and, therefore, that's what I will focus on in these articles. But for the sake of argument let's make a case for both approaches and highlight what I see being their pros and cons:
- You get a team of professionals that can help you
- Your publisher will set an schedule for you and help you follow it. Great if you are a procrastinator.
- You can more easily outsource proofing, marketing, distribution, cover design, typesetting, translation, etc. and focus on writing
- Wider distribution with resellers and brick and mortar stores right off the bat
- You can get forward payments
- Low royalties
- Less control and freedom over the schedule and over the book itself
- You need to pitch an idea to the publisher, or be contacted by a publisher which may in turn have a book proposal for you
- Higher royalties, higher margins
- Full control and full creative license
- Freedom to set your own schedule
- You're on your own (although you can build a team)
- You need to do everything (you can outsource stuff but then you'll need to act as a project manager)
- You need to setup your own distribution channels
In summary, if you go with a publisher you work as part of a team, can focus on writing and outsource other parts, earn lower royalties but potentially can reach more readers through the publisher distribution channels. If you go with self-publishing you have full control, higher margins and you need to figure out everything yourself.
Because of that, the next articles in the series will focus on all the stuff I've learned throughout the past couple of years on how to write a self-published book. Up next comes Book Execution, and all the practical details of writing a self-published book from first word to finish.
Take care and have a great day!