Lessons learnt from writing a non-fiction book

'The Chieftain' a biography of Detective Chief inspector George Clarke, published by The History Press, 2011

The Chieftain‘ a biography of Detective Chief inspector George Clarke, published by The History Press, 2011

Two years ago I finally achieved one of the main tasks on my ‘bucket list’:  to complete my research on an ancestor who had worked as a senior detective at Scotland Yard in the Victorian era;  to write a book about his experiences that a commercial publisher would be prepared to take on board, and to see that book on the shelves of  high-street bookstores. Unwrapping the box containing the first copies of the book will always remain with me as a truly memorable experience.

I learnt some lessons  along the way which I thought I would share with other budding authors of non-fiction books.

1. If you get carried away by the fun of research as much as I do, it is essential to discipline yourself.  Don’t go off in too many directions at once and make sure that you file the information you obtain in a structured fashion. For my purposes, I assemble the information that emerges from my research, into a chronological order (relevant to the main subject of the book),  and incorporate cross-references to documentary sources, including photocopies, online databases, and my hand-written or electronically-captured notes. It is extremely frustrating, while writing the book, if you are unable to quickly lay your hands on that newspaper clipping, photograph, website or research notes that you remember discovering or writing a year or so previously. There is really no excuse these days for the muttered “where the hell did I put it” comment.  There are  specific software packages and databases available to help authors organise their research, but I have found that creating a  chronological table of relevant events, cross-referenced to my information sources, is perfectly adequate.

One page in the working chronology of events in 'The Chieftain's ' life

One page in the working chronology of events in ‘The Chieftain’s ‘ life

2. Before you start writing, you need to answer a series of questions about the book, such as the 10 questions posed in Bobbie Linkemer’s blog article at http://kalmakconsultancy.com/Bookstore/how-to-write-a-nonfiction-book/ .  If you are going to approach a commercial publisher with your plans, they will expect you to have such information at your fingertips, including a draft book title and subtitle; expected word count; deadline for completion of the text; how many illustrations will be included; why your book will be original; your target market; organisations to which your book should be publicised etc. If you are planning to self-publish, this preparation is still invaluable.  Your ideas will evolve further as you get down to the writing, but I certainly felt better once I had thought about my target audience more, and had set a word limit and time deadline.

3. Writing. You don’t have to start a book at the beginning.  I knew that the subject matter in the second chapter of my last book was likely to be easier to write, and would probably provide a better indication  that the book would contain new information.  So when my potential publishers asked for evidence of my writing, I wrote that second chapter and I was fortunate that they rose to the bait and we agreed a contract.  In addition, I now had a good chapter ‘under my belt’ and felt greatly encouraged as a consequence.

4. We all have different approaches to writing. Once I start, I try to write for at least 3-4 hours a day even when the muse isn’t with me. I will then spend an hour or so ‘polishing’ the text that I’ve produced that day before metaphorically ‘sticking it in a drawer’ for  about a week before taking a fresh look at it.  This won’t work for everybody and you will need to develop your own rhythm.

5. Give yourself plenty of thinking time, both during the research and writing phases. Taking a dog for a walk in the countryside is the main way in which I create the time to mull things over.  Don’t allow yourself to forget the ‘good ideas’ that can emerge!

6. It’s also a good idea to identify at least a couple of constructive people who will be prepared to read and comment on individual chapters and/or the entire text before you submit your final draft for publication. I test out my drafts on at least two readers who have a general interest in the subject and ideally another one or two who have specific expertise on the subject matter of individual chapters.  This can provide an invaluable set of comments that help remove any substantial ‘howlers’ from the text, and give you a good guide about the likely interest of the book to general readers and specialists.  If you are like me, your first draft of the book will be longer than the word count that you set out to achieve.  Cutting the text can be painful but has to be done, not least to reduce additional page charges for hard copies of the book. However, make sure that you save any substantial deleted material as you may be able to use it on your website and blog, to help promote the book.

7. OK, so now your final text is with the publisher. Well done; but don’t waste the time between submission and publication (which can be short, particularly for self-published material). You need to be working to promote your book even if you have a commercial publisher behind you.  If you haven’t already got a website and blog, I would recommend that you do so.  I received excellent mentoring and support for that process from James Kalmakoff at Kalmak Consultancy, and continue to do so. In addition, to help build a target market and to promote my book(s), I use Facebook and LinkedIn and make myself available for talks.

None of this is rocket science, but I hope that my comments will help encourage other budding authors through the process.  I’m now writing my next book, and fitting in research for another, which has been prompted by exciting contacts that I have made via my blog. Keep writing!

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