Monday, January 6, 2014

How to Write a Book: Part 1




As a simple statement of fact and in no way a boast or brag: I am the proud author of two published books. I also intend to write at least a couple more in the foreseeable future; I've got a novel that is partially written and have also partially written another non-fiction music book, both of which I intend to finish.  Writing both of my published books took a lot of hard work, dedication, and creativity. In addition, the process was filled with mistakes and setbacks, all of which I learned from; because of this, the second book went a little smoother than the first. However, I've been asked countless times over the past several years, and several times by different people just within the past few weeks how I did it all. 

Well, dear readers, have I got something in store for you. I've decided that, instead of answering everyone one by one, scattered all over the place, I'll put everything on here so that it's collected in one place and can be referred to whenever you need.  I'm going to break it down into parts and focus on each one...some will be relatively short and easy, others will be longer and more involved. That way, if you're having problems or questions with certain aspects of the process, you can refer to those specific parts. I'm in no way trying to put myself forth as some sort of expert on writing...far from it! I know there are other people who have more experience and more success than I do when it comes to writing, but at the same time, I've also done a lot of it the hard way, did it all on my own (with help along the way from family and friends, of course), learned A LOT along the way, and I think this will end up being a valuable resource for everyone who is interested. So, without further ado, here we go...

PART 1: YOU NEED AN IDEA!

 



"What?" you're saying to yourself? "Is this guy serious? No kidding I need an idea!" 

Fair enough reaction. But hear me out...

 You may think, "well, I want to write a book about chairs, so I'm going to write a book about chairs," and WHAM! Let's get down to business and start writing! Right? Not so fast...

What I mean by "YOU NEED AN IDEA" is that you'll need a fully formed idea, or at the very least the rough outline of one. To use the (admittedly) silly example above, so you want to write a book about chairs. Well, *what* about chairs are you going to write about? How are you going to write about it? What makes your idea different or interesting enough to stand out from all of the other books about chairs that are out there? What differentiates you, both as a writer and with your topic?

Obviously, since I'm writing this from my own experience, I'll use my own books as examples, but I want to emphasize that the following insight I offer applies to you whether you're writing fiction or non-fiction. Back in 2003, the seed of my first book (Black Book: The Live History of Blur, published in 2009) was planted.  I was collecting live Blur recordings like crazy and I simply started a database on my computer to organize them all for myself. In doing this, I began to format the database in my own way, using several books I'd used for collecting tapes as inspiration (among these books were Led Zeppelin Live by Luis Rey, Beatles Not For Sale by Belmo, Black Market Beatles by Belmo and Jim Berkenstadt, The Who Concert File by Joe McMichael and Irish Jack Lyons, and The Led Zeppelin Concert File by Dave Lewis and Simon Pallett). I continued doing this over several years until, by 2008, I realized the document was quite large. Eventually, I decided to make it into some sort of book. But what kind of book?

The obvious choice was to make it a sort collector's guide, similar to the first two books I mentioned above. Since there weren't any books like that pertaining to Blur, but since I knew there was a large and passionate fanbase for the band, it seemed like an easy choice. However, I wanted to go a bit further to really make it unique. Not every rabid fan of a band necessarily collects live recordings...how would I make the subsequent book interesting to them?  Since I was going to list everything out chronologically from the beginning of Blur's career to the present, I decided to write a synopsis and analysis of each concert tape and use that as the narrative in order to track the evolution of their music and their performance over the course of their career. In essence, I'd make the book a combination of two things: a collector's guide and a live history of the band (hence the book's subtitle). That way, it could appeal to both fans who don't collect live tapes and those who do. It also allowed the book to have more use to the end reader: they could pick it up and use it as a reference book whenever they needed some info, flipping to whichever section they need information on at that moment, or they could read it from beginning to end as a complete story.

For my second Blur book in 2012, I wanted to do more than just an updated edition. The trick here was to figure out how to come up with a new and interesting idea based on an already successful one; I needed to change it enough to interest readers who already enjoyed my first book, but not too much that it would be unfamiliar to them and potentially alienate them.  My idea for this second book was to first update it with the new Blur history that had come to pass in the intervening years.  Along with this, I obviously intended to correct any mistakes from the first book, be they typos or factual errors. Beyond that, however, I did the following to make the book fresh and not merely an edited update:

- I changed the formatting of the book. The first book had the concert broken down by year, but in reality several tours and eras in the band's history spanned years and/or overlapped, so I changed it to break down by album era. This allowed the book to flow more naturally and made it easier to read.

- I created a section of ticket stubs (with generous solicited fan input) which was a fun way to visually trace the concert history of the band through the years through the stubs!

- As a large selling point, I included a scene-by-scene synopsis of the lost and unreleased 1996 Blur documentary film, B-Roads. The history behind this film is too convoluted and explosive for me to get into here...suffice it to say that every time it's discussed on the official forums, it always ends in catastrophe. But since I was fortunate enough to have a copy of the film and because I'm not able to share it with other fans (for reasons I can't and won't get into here), I figured that the next best thing would be to at least describe it in detail so that my fellow fans could finally read what it's all about.

I apologize if the above descriptions of my two book ideas was a little long-winded...my intention, however, was to simply show you that there's a LOT more that goes into the initial idea for your book beyond just having a topic. You need to have a topic, for sure, but you'll also need a focus for that topic:

- What about your topic makes it interesting?
- How will you approach writing about that topic?
- How are you going to differentiate your book on that topic from all of the other ones out there? If there aren't any out there, how will you make yours the best it can possibly be?
- In short, what's your angle with your book?

Since there wasn't a book about Blur's live concerts when I began my first book, I strove to make it the definitive book. Without tooting my own horn too much, I believe I was successful doing this; I back this up with the number of copies I've sold and the unanimous praise I've gotten for both books, both online (reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, etc for example) as well as all of the communication, both public (on my websites) and private (email) from people who have been very pleased with the books. Obviously, since I'm the only game in town, I didn't have to differentiate myself from other books on the same topic, BUT I also needed to set the bar so high that were I to attract any competition, they would be unable to better my book. This leads me to my final point for Part 1:

- If you can find a niche for your idea, or somehow create a niche within your overall idea, DO IT! A niche will make your book that much more unique and interesting to potential readers. Whether this means that you write a book about a broader subject like The Rolling Stones and focus your book on their choice of sock color in the 1970s, or that you decide to write a book about futuristic cyborgs with the twist that they're also kleptomaniacs, anything you do to make your book unique and niche is (mostly) beneficial (there are drawbacks to this, too...which I'll get into in a later part of this series).

So there you have it, Part 1: Get an idea, a good idea, and decide how you're going to approach it. Sit down, think about it, brainstorm, talk out loud, write notes, whatever works for you, but really spend some time and energy thinking about this and deciding on what you're going to write about and how you're going to write about it. Trust me, not only will it open your mind to loads of new ideas for your forthcoming masterwork, but it will save you a LOT of time and trouble further down the road on the process.

I'd like to open up the discussion in the comments section. If you've already written a book, won't you please share you ideas with us and how you approached it? And if you're just itching to write something, please share with us what you're going to tackle with this approach! And as always, any feedback you have about my posts is always welcome, so please comment away!


 

2 comments:

  1. Thanks a lot for this Drew, especially the part when you talked about collecting live recordings of Blur which (as you know) is exactly what I'm doing for another band, one I won't mention here though just in case! :P I've spent the best part of a year collecting all the live recordings of this band (those that exist anyway). As you know from discussions, there aren't as many live recordings compared to Blur who toured extensively for well over a decade -> 15 years but still a good quantity. My aim is to dig deeper though and research the other gigs in depth, hopefully finding and interviewing people who actually attended them and putting together set lists for each of them. I know for a fact this hasn't been done before with this band, in fact apart from their album, not much detail exists on their live work AT ALL apart from one live album. But even then not much is known.

    I won't be stopping there though. My aim is to completely cover this band from start to finish. They were only together for 8 months (if that) so not as long as Blur but as this was 40 years ago now it'll probably take longer to research. But I'm damn excited!

    Looking forward to part 2!

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  2. Tom, you can definitely do it! It'll take a lot of hard work but it'll be worth it. It sounds like you've got a really good angle to your initial idea which, as I said in Part 1, is really important. It completely dictates how the next steps in the process go.

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