Did you know that writing a book features heavily on a lot of peoples' bucket-list? My book, Big Steps, Long Strides, was published in April 2016 and although I’m no expert, I certainly have some lessons worth sharing when it comes to what you need to consider before you even start writing your book.
Tip 1: Work backwards – what does your book feel like?
I wanted to write a technical manual, since this best suited my chosen topic. However, there are quite a few things to consider beyond simply deciding on a specific focus, style and genre. For example, it’s important to determine how your book should feel.
Personally, I don't like hardback books because I find them to be heavy and cumbersome. I like to be able to bend a book's spine, fold the pages, highlight bits and make my own notes in the margins. I wanted the reader of my book to be able to do the same if they chose to.
The A4 size of my book is quite unusual, however this size suited the inclusion of training plans, kit lists, photos, charts, etc., that were best displayed by using this format.
My original plan was to write a purely technical book, however once I'd completed an initial draft it turned out to be very dry. In fact, I only really picked up on this after one of the reviewers of my manuscript came back with the comment, "but who are you and what would drive you to run the Marathon des Sables? And why would you attempt it for the second time? If I were a reader, I would want to understand your psychology."
This is what led to the autobiographical aspect of my book, which was incidentally, also the hardest bit to write!
Tip 2: Structure is everything
Identifying a clear structure for your book can often feel like quite a challenge, however it is a fundamental part of how the end result will read.
To define how my book would hang together, I used a "story-boarding" technique with post-it notes and mind-maps to flesh out the key chapters. Mind mapping is an immensely powerful technique and one that I've been using for almost 15 years to structure everything from emails to reports. In case you're unfamiliar with this technique, it worth exploring the work of Tony Buzan, who invented the method.
This approach helped me determine how best to successfully combine the technical and narrative elements of my book. I wanted those readers interested in the autobiographical aspect to be able to read this upfront, while those who were runners, looking for the technical advice and guidance could dip in to relevant chapters later on in the book.
Tip 3: Think about your voice as an author
I wrote the first chapter of my book last, mostly because it wasn't planned, but also because I knew I'd find it very challenging. Your "voice" as an author is so important. For example, if you're writing a guide, what makes you a credible authority on the topic?
I wanted the reader to feel connected to me and to be able to relate to my story. The fact is that not many people can immediately associate with the extreme aspects of my autobiography, like stand-up comedy, running an ultra-marathon, etc., whereas most of us have experienced insecurity, vulnerability, failure, fear, etc. to varying degrees.
The point is to find your own natural voice - the authenticity that speaks to the reader so that they are drawn into the narrative and compelled to continue reading further because they’re on the same journey as you. From the reader's perspective, it's very hard to take on board what someone is telling you without first connecting with the author and/or story they are trying to convey.
Tip 4: Consider the best method of writing for you
For me, the idea of sitting at a laptop and writing a manuscript is depressing. I know some people enjoy the solitude this brings and the opportunity to be alone with their thoughts, however personally I don’t like being tied to a device, especially given that I spend all day in front of a screen as a part of my job.
However, what I quickly found was that I love working on my iPhone because it gives me the flexibility to write anywhere and allows me to use tiny pockets of time that really do add up. In this way, I discovered a very innovative way to write my book that worked for me.
Having created the basic structure using the story boarding technique and mind maps, I started using an app called Evernote on my iPhone. This app allowed me to organise all my notes into folders, each representing a chapter of the book. The notes within each folder synced very easily to my Mac, and vice versa, which meant that if I thought of an idea while on the tube, I could jot it down using my iPhone or, if I was on my laptop, I could make my notes from there without any concerns about version control.
Creating a manuscript in this way was very easy because the organisation of the notes functionality in the Evernote app is so intuitive; I could even insert pictures and screen shots directly from my phone. Writing in this way felt less of an effort because I could continue to fit it around my lifestyle, using small pockets of time, in and around my normal schedule. It was easy to navigate between notes because Evernote has a superb search functionality, spanning all notes, notebooks, etc.
Your writing approach should suit your natural work style and if, like me, you don’t have the time or even the inclination to sit down and write on a laptop, it shouldn’t stop you from authoring a book!
Tip 5: Connect out
Writing can feel like a solitary activity, but it really doesn’t have to be. Once you’ve decided on the focus and feel of your book, mastered your author’s voice, and found the perfect structure and best method of writing, the next thing to do is to identify those people who can help you.
Writing should be a collaborative experience, since the feedback and input of others can help shape and hone your ideas into something that appeals to a wider audience. Perhaps you know someone who has a keen eye for detail. You may also have friends and colleagues with the knowledge to inform your topic. Other people can provide excellent perspective on building a plot or characters. Don’t be scared of asking for support. In my experience, people will only ever want to help you improve, rather than criticise your work.
I found the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) to be an incredibly useful way of interacting with other writers. The danger with writing a book is that without some sort of timeline, the writing process could potentially go for years. However, in this digital age you don’t need to be desk-bound for hours at a time as I have already described. The NaNoWriMo initiative helps encourage the discipline of writing regularly by meeting other writers in coffee shops locally and writing together for set periods of time.
Writing a book is often viewed as a means of expression, however, as these tips indicate, the method you use to write can be a work of art in itself.