so you want to write a book?

Nearly every week I hear from folks who aspire to author books. My answer to most of them is, “Well, get at it!”

I say “most of them,” because a few say things like, “I just lost my job, so I am going to use my life’s savings to write a book over the next six months and become a successful author.” Well that’s just crazy, because earning a living through any sort of self-directed writing is not a predictable career.

But as long as you don’t set unrealistic monetary expectations, few activities in life are more rewarding than writing. And you might make some money at it despite yourself! That being said, here are a few tips for getting started:

1. Writing a book will consume months if not years of your life, so before starting make sure you have selected something worthy to write about. To evaluate your book ideas for market I recommend Wilson Harrell’s “I’ll Be Damned Test.” Write the back jacket copy, which is what sells your book online or in the bookstore; show it to as many people as possible who are not your close friends or relatives, and if 90% don’t say, “Well, I’ll be damned!” the idea is a dog and you should dump it. Great writing is not what initially sells books to publishers or customers – compelling topics do. Great writing, however, helps make your book a lasting success.

2. Once you have a topic, don’t wait for an epiphany to start writing. Few if any writers gush riveting prose directly onto paper. Your first goal is to record the story as thoroughly as possible without regard to style, quality, or even necessarily grammar or spelling. What’s more, don’t worry about starting at the beginning, but rather write the parts that are clearest in your mind first; then go back and write the next easiest and clearest, and so on, until you have recorded the entire story. Once your story is all on paper you can have the pleasure of going back and polishing it into a work of art. But you’ll never be more than a wannabe without first spilling your thoughts onto paper, however rough or crude they may be.

Think of your book as a jigsaw puzzle: pour the pieces on the table, associate components of similar color and texture, assemble the edges, and when the outcome becomes clear, fill in the holes.

3. There are only a few reasons to write a book:

  • you have a passion for writing;
  • you have a story to tell
  • you want to share a strongly-held position, body of knowledge, or life experience with others;
  • you have a proven market associated with an existing profession, avocation, or consulting business.

No one ever regrets writing a book, providing the objective is realistic and your expectations are not limited exclusively to making money. In fact, even if you do make money it may not be in the way you expect. In my own case, it is not my best selling book that has ultimately earned me the most money; but rather one that led to numerous speaking engagements and magazine writing assignments. And a third book has given me the most pleasure.

Perhaps the coolest author I ever met was at a self-publishing meeting. An elderly man, he’d written a several-hundred-page memoir documenting his lifelong adventures as a pleasure sailor. At the meeting he showed us one of his beautifully written and bound initial run of 20 books. After gleefully admiring it, one of our number asked, “How many will you order, now that you’ve seen them?” Without hesitation the man replied, “Oh, I won’t be ordering any more. I just wanted to set down my life’s adventures for my family and a few close friends.” Now there’s a guy writing for all the right reasons — and who among us wouldn’t like to buy a copy?!

©2013, 2021, 2023 Gregory N. Brown

One thought on “so you want to write a book?

  1. Hi Greg:
    Glad to hear that you might be interested in my story about being bitten by the shark. It was almost 20 years ago… 1991. If you send me an email message, I can send you a copy of the article in Microsoft Word (or other text) format. I don’t think it is currently published anywhere on the web. If you google “Eric Larsen shark attack” you will get a few hits but not the full text. It was exciting… 250 stitches and a ride in a Huey, my first and only rotary wing flight.

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