Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of creating a ‘how to’ book, is brought to you by guest blogger Alicia Rasley.
Crafting the Writing Craft Book
I’d like to thank Morgen for asking me to guest blog again! This time, I’d like to talk about the experience of writing “how-to” books. First, understand that the only thing I know how to do is write, so naturally my how-to books are about writing. But I think the process will be similar no matter what the subject is.
Here’s what I learned in developing my two writing books, The Story Within Plotting Guide, and The Power of Point of View, which might be useful to you if you’re considering writing a non-fiction how-to or support book.
Topic choice: It’s essential to really care about this topic, because it’ll be central for a year or so! I don’t know if I could spend this much time writing about a topic that I wasn’t obsessed with. I did write a couple corporate histories years ago, and no, I wasn’t obsessed with the story of those two companies. But truly, if I hadn’t been getting a paycheck for the work, I probably would have given it up.
So choosing two topics of interest (plotting and point of view) kept me interested. At the same time, I wouldn’t have been so eager to write if I already knew everything about the topic. For both books, the process of writing was a process of learning. I wasn’t taking dictation, but actually acquiring knowledge as I wrote. So I’ve learned, with non-fiction books, it’s good to choose a topic I want to know more about.
Finding time: I’m basically a fiction-writer, so when I came up with these non-fiction project ideas, they didn’t have priority. And the task seemed so daunting, I was actually afraid to get started because I might learn I couldn’t handle it. But then I decided I would work on it for a particular hour every month—the third Tuesday at 11 am. One hour a month. Well, of course, I kept that schedule one month, but once I got going, I couldn’t stop. I kept going back adding a paragraph here and there. In a few months, I had a complete draft.
Getting started: Fear of failure is a real problem for me, one that gets worse as I get older. I have gotten used to being pretty competent, so starting something new means I’m risking being incompetent.The moral of that story is writing a little bit leads to writing more—as long as you’re interested in the topic.
I am also someone who gets intimidated with a large project, but impatient with outlining ahead of time. I want a sense of direction without losing the excitement of writing something new. What helped me was writing articles—1000 or so words on different aspects of the subject. So, for example, when I was writing about point of view, I wrote an article about how to individuate description depending on the narrator’s viewpoint. The tight focus on one small aspect of the issue made the article easy to write, but I also found it slotted right into the book with just a bit of introduction and analysis.
Organizing: Once I get some material written, I can start organizing. My outline, when I get to it, starts with major sections. For example, in the plot book, I started with three big parts: Character, Conflict, Plot. Then I assigned each article and blog post to one of those sections, just by copying and pasting. Only then did I really start organizing, ordering what I already had and figuring out what was missing. I found it much easier to fill in the blanks when I already had part of each section drafted.Now I have a writing blog, and when I’m working on a how-to book, I try to write a few blog posts about some aspect of that topic. For example, I’m planning a book on writing emotion, so I’ve written blog posts about how to convey suppressed emotion, how to use parallel scenes to show emotional change, and how to use the opening sentence in the scene to show emotion through the setting. Not only does this allow me to effortlessly explore the topic, the blog commenters often supply me with questions and examples which I can use in my expanded analysis.
Reorganizing: While I was on my own with the plotbook, I sold the POV book to Writer’s Digest Books, where I worked with a terrific editor, Lauren Mosko. She taught me a lot about how to make non-fiction material accessible to readers. Each chapter followed a basic template, and she used sidebars to delve deeper into complicated issues and illustrate examples. This was a great lesson in how to visually and logically present the points of understanding. I’m using these techniques in the how-to books I’m writing now, imagining the chapters as units of explanation that come together to make a complete analysis.
Self-awareness: I’m pretty confident in my ability to explore a writing topic and find examples to illustrate my points. But I have a weak visual sense and no visual imagination. So I’ve learned to study how-to books that work for me to find out what they’ve done in the presentation to organize and illustrate. By identifying my major weakness, I’m halfway to overcoming it.
Confidence comes from trying and succeeding, but sometimes failing has to come in between there. Now I know the best way to get beyond that fear of failure is to plunge in and write. And I’ve found that while a non-fiction book has its own internal logic and organic shape, I can learn strategies from each that can be applied to the next.
Thank you, Alicia, that was great!
Alicia Rasley is the author of The Power of Point of View and The Story Within Plotbook. A nationally known writing teacher, she gives writing workshops around the country and online. She blogs at Edittorrent, and her writing articles can be found at her website.
If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.
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