Scott Berkun’s article on “How to Write a Book” is the the kind of straightforward approach to the subject that I enjoy. He says what I also say, Anyone can write a book and then he gives you some solid practical advice for getting on with it.
But what sort of book should you write?
Does that sound like a strange question? I suppose it does to people who haven’t tried to write a book. To those folks, writing a book must be simple enough: pen to paper, repeat as necessary. However, for the writer who is not writing, the sort of book one might write is the most painful of topics. There are so many options, each unfolding from the other like so many lotus blossoms.
When I first started writing, I began with poetry. The idea of painting with words felt so right and pure. Even today, more than twenty-five years on, I still dream about writing poetry.
As T.S. Eliot said of Lawrence Durrell, “Yes, well, it’s good of course. But the scale is rather small.” I paraphrase here, but the blow was powerful enough to send young Durrell spiraling into the form where he was finally to make his mark: the novel.
I’m about as much of a novelist as I am a poet, which is to say, spectacularly awful on both accounts. I’ve tried for years to figure out the trick, but I’m still at square one.
Frankly I am too old to be playing about with this anymore. I recently fell back into the trap of thinking of myself as a novelist. True enough, I have a mind for story, just as a painter might have an eye for color or form. However, that doesn’t make me a novelist. It just means I have a rich, satisfying interior life.
So, what to write?
What to Write: How to Discover Your Writing Medium
1. Catalog your writing strengths.
No doubt you have a notebook filled with ideas concerning your own greatness, but have you set each point down in bold type? Have you examined your praise in the cold light of reason? Begin with a simple list, no explanations either. Just write down the 5 things you are really good at and then sort them in order of priority.
2. Catalog your writing weaknesses.
If you are tempted to skip this step, take all 5 of your writing strengths and list them here. No doubt you have a self-inflated ego and you need to knock yourself down a peg. However, let’s assume you’re being honest. You should know then what you’re lame at.
3. List the last six books your read.
Fiction, non-fiction, whatever. If it has a cover, write it down.
4. Map numbers 1 and 2 to the list you made in step 3.
I have not provided explicit instructions for this step on purpose. You should decide how the mapping works. Will the map reflect the characteristics of each book? Or perhaps, the map will explain what each book lacks? It’s up to you, but in this step you should write a little commentary to explain your reasoning. I suspect that you will be able to go on at length about each point and make a good argument for your choice.
Maybe you should map the lists the other way around. Perhaps the third book is really representative of your weaknesses instead of your strengths. Perhaps there is nothing in the second book that fits either list; it’s just a book you read for work. or school. Reconsidering is an important part of writing. If you are not sure what to write, you will certainly second guess yourself once you actually begin writing, so this is good practice.
6. Start over.
This is the last step. You turn around and begin at the beginning. Again, this is what writing is all about. You finish a project and then you start the next one. You have no more idea about the next project than you did the last. You may have learned a few tricks along the way and perhaps even learned a bit about yourself, but in the end you will have to do it all one more from scratch when you start the next project.