Everyone has a book in them - or so they think. But what does it take to turn that killer idea into a publishable manuscript. Writing coach and literary agent Sarah Bullen gives us some tips on how to write a book that actually has a shot at a publishing deal.
This article was published in Fair Lady August 2019. Pic by Liza van Deventer.
(This article was published in Fair Lady August 2019. Pic by Liza van Deventer. I have included the pdf of the article below)
Do you have this deep heart desire to write, but don’t know how to act on it? It could be a steamy romance brewing, or a professional book to expand your brand and your reach. Perhaps you are not sure exactly what you want to write, but there is this quiet voice that whispers … don't rest ... you have a story to tell.
If you want to write a book the good news is that you are living in the right era. Publishing a book is accessible and a very legitimate way of getting your story out into the world. It is not as hard or as daunting as it was back when I sent off my first (regrettably very bad) novel. Back in 2002 book publishing was a totally different terrain. No publishers accepted emailed submissions. It had to be hard copy and posted with a SASE (self addressed stamped envelope). Your first three chapters had to be 1.5 spacing with a 12-point font. I headed to the Illovo Post Office with ten thick envelopes, dug deep in my student wallet and sent them off to the top UK publishers via registered post. Then I waited. I got just one (posted) reply after six months and it was not good news for me.
‘Thank you for submitting your book. We will not be accepting it on our list. Good luck with your writing.” They used my SASE to return my work.
Like so many writers, I just gave up. It was a combination of embarassment and the fact that I had actually just shelved that dream and moved onto something else during that long wait.
Fast-forward 17 years and writers are dealing with a totally different terrain. Publishers take submissions via online platforms like submittable.com or via email, they are approachable and they don’t really care what font size or spacing you use. They are just looking for some good, strong stories.
Your job as a writer is to send them your best version of your book
So how do you actually get to that point?
Most good books have a planShould I plan my book first? I am asked this question all the time. Mostly by writers who are stuck four chapters into a book and have told their entire story. The question always makes me smile (but inside I am crying).
There is only one answer to this - of course you should plan a book! In fact what often makes a book a 'good book' or a bestseller is not the brilliance of the writing at all. In novels it is the story. In non-fiction it is the clarity of the concept, the argument and or the clear way the information is presented.
Planning a book is the work of a writer. It is your job to move an idea into a solid, gripping and relatable book structure. Planning a book requires a lot of focus because a book is a long form piece of writing. It is not an essay, a speech or a presentation. You are going to be asked to write a minimum of 50,000 words to get your book to a publishable length. So that’s a whole lot of writing.
You get clear on your book genre
When I ask your genre, this doesn't mean I want a breakdown of your plot. It means I want to know what kind of book it is. Simply put I want to know on which shelf we may stock it in a bookshop, or which section we will load it on Amazon or a digital publishing platform.
Knowing what genre you are writing is the absolute first step towards clarity any writer must take before they write a single word.
Genre is a one sentence answer.
It’s a travel memoir. It’s a historical romance. It’s a New Adult dystopian novel. It's a gluten-free cookbook. It's a personal finance advice book. It's a sports memoir. It's a business advice book.
“Well, it's the story of my life, but I have fictionalised it. It is about love, and loss and family dramas.” Nope. Beep.
Genre is a label that tells the reader/audience what to expect in your book. It tells the booksellers how to sell your book. It also tells you as an author what kinds of elements need to be in your book to satisfy a reader.
If you buy a book promising you a weight loss plan and it doesn't have a same month’s diet and suggested eating lists you are going to be fuming.
Genre is a label that tells the reader what to expect and the bookseller where to stock your book. It is the label that must guide you as a writer.
You need to have a story.
Look this is a basic requirement. If it's a novel you are going to have to dream up a story and a plot that are a fit with your chosen genre. Writing a forensic crime novel? A reader expects a book filled with clever clues, red herrings, a mystery, detectives or law enforcement characters and hopefully a body.
You also need to devise a plot with a number of cleverly planned events to draw your reader through a story along with the hero (protagonist)
That’s what it takes to write over 60,000 words and keep a reader gripped.
All non-fiction books need a Big Idea
You know what you want to say and it feels logical to you, but how do you present it to the reader in a way that is clear, logical and compelling?
Enter the realm of the Big Idea. All non-fiction books need one or they run the risk of being a mish-mash of all your thoughts, ideas and lessons.
The Big Idea is a single and clear statement that answers the question ... what is your book about? You don’t want to imply this, or hint at it - you want to state it clearly, and upfront.
Most Big Ideas are stated (or contained) in the title, or at least on the cover of your book.
You can see grief as magic if you look at it differently (My Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion)
You need to change the way you think about money if you want to get rich (Rich Dad Poor Dad, Robert Kiwosaki)
Only 20? You still need to learn to manage your money if you want to succeed. (Manage your money like a fu***ng grownup, Sam Beckbessinger)
You build your book in sections
The difficult thing about planning a book is working out how to break down all this information that is in your head. Most often it feels as if there is just this great mass of data swirling around in your head. Perhaps it is your story, or your decades of work experience. Perhaps it is theory you teach or unpack.
The task now is to break all of this down into a series of chapters.
All books (yes, even novels) start with the author making a working plan how the story will unfold for your reader.
In a non-fiction you are going to group all your information into chapters, which become a good and well-organized Table of Contents (TOC). A TOC is critical to focus you as the writer, and it allows the reader to choose the chapters they want to read, and the ones they may skip.
Memoirs and biography have a totally different plotting structure to non-fiction books and it is closer to the plot structure of a novel. You need to tell a story and you will plot these books using scenes as the building blocks to story rather than chapters
You have to actually write your book
Aaaaah yes, the writing time. Writing a book is a long journey, but this is also the magic part. Once you have the right stucture over which to drape your words, they will flow. Or you will force them out. Either way you have to actually write it. My advice is always to write the first draft of a book fast. I like to push writers to write it in under four months. Writing time is an investment in your future as an author.
What to write? Three actions you can start with right now
1. Work out an outline or plot for your book before you start
2. Book lots of time in your diary to write
3. Do not stop writing until you reach at least 60,000 words (aim for 80,000)
What publishers want
I asked Melt Myburg, senior commissioning editor at Penguin Non-Fiction what books they are interested in.
“We look for prospective authors who are experts about the topic and with an easy writing style aimed at the widest possible readership.”