Some thoughts for potential non-fiction authors
Over the last while I received some enquiries from people with ideas for non-fiction books. Usually these follow the same pattern: how to go about starting it, what’s involved in the writing, how to get a publisher etc. First off I always remind people that I am no expert and all I can offer are some thoughts on what worked out for me. Mind you it’s not like I am a highly successful millionaire author making a fortune out of his writings so do keep that in mind! But I do enjoy writing and am proud of my books, each one like a child in its own right, it doesn’t matter how the world sees it, you still love it. So for those of you not hoping to become very wealthy but who do fancy writing a book I decided to jot down these thoughts here in case they were beneficial to anyone.
- The Non-fiction positives and negatives
Non-fiction writing can be very different to that involved in fiction. On the plus side, you don’t need to start from a blank sheet creatively speaking; the subject, personalities and details are all formed and laid out. On the downside you are constrained, you can’t make things turn out as you might wish or invent stuff! The other thing to keep in mind is that other people are going to read this and take it apart; therefore you will need to get all facts and arguments straight.
- The idea
An idea for a non-fiction book isn’t as easy as it might sound. You need to be very aware of what other books are out there and where gaps exist. First and foremost you are going to spend a LOT of time on this research and writing so make sure that it is a subject that you really love. Writing and researching becomes a lot easier when you are genuinely fascinated by the subject yourself and it shows in the writing too. When you have a general idea you need to focus on the angle that will make your book different, how it will add to the knowledge of a subject and how the reader can benefit from it.
- Do you send ideas to a publisher?
Getting published is always the biggest problem most people face. There is a multitude of advice out there and several approaches you can take. People normally ask me when they should approach a publisher, for instance should they do it as soon as they have a solid idea? This differs depending on the writer and depending on how much time you have to spend on it. I am not sure what the best thing to do is but from my own experience, particularly on a first book I would say just go and write it and worry about publishers after. Why? Well a number of reasons. Firstly, if you like an area there is no harm studying it and expanding your knowledge of it so it is never really lost time. Secondly, you would be amazed how your opinions and thoughts can differ and turn as you research and write. Each project usually throws up new angles during the course of writing that had not occurred to you at the outset. Therefore I think that having the book written gives you a much stronger idea of what may make it unique and saleable. Sometimes it makes sense to discuss an idea with a publisher but generally you need to have a decent relationship with them to do this properly. After all they do hear from an awful lot of potential writers.
Many writers have different approaches to their research, but make no mistake this research is the bedrock of your book. It is worth putting any amount of time and effort into good research. I tend to start with broad headings and gathering all kinds of reading or data under each heading. Following this you have to go through it all and I usually sub-divide the headings and formulate questions at this point. The more extensive this is the better as I find that early theories and angles start to take shape based on this. The next stage, if possible, is to get out and talk to people; this may be for the purposes of direct interview or for your own background research. Either way don’t make the mistake of talking to just the people who might agree with your theory, actively seek out voices that might disagree with the opinion or theory you are coming around to. This can help to challenge your theory or account of events and cause you to reconsider or alternatively to allow you strengthen it and identify weakness in your thought process.
One thing is for sure, there is no set formula to writing and it is something that is incredibly individual. Never attempt to copy a style or language of someone else as it will hamper you. I was lucky in that my first book ‘Party Time’ was my own life story and therefore developed my own writing style because the story was so personal. The style remained with me though and was still evident I think in my latest book ‘Dynasties’. You need to know what you like to write, for some it needs to be heavy, academic and serious, for others light hearted but for me most of all is an attempt to keep it simple and accessible to anyone. I might love nerdy facts and figures but when I write I try to keep in mind that not everyone sees it the same way. Always keep a vision of your reader in your head. For me, my reader is eternally perusing my book in the bookshop, and when I’ve written a paragraph that I think they will yawn and put down, I immediately start re-writing. Some books don’t lend themselves to that however. ‘Brian Cowen: In his own words’ was a weighty book, based on the Dail record it was never easy to inject life or humour to its pages, but for me professionally that exercise was about a deeper study of matters and it’s still a well used and cited book for other research across a variety of areas. Mind you, good and all as that may be, it doesn’t help the sales figures, and yes you are involved in selling no matter what you say.
People ask me about discipline and time to write and all I can say is that this is highly personal. In my own experience I get bursts of writing and thought, these usually occur at night and I may stay up all night putting things together and it’s usually the best stuff I’ve done. Unfortunately I cannot rely on such bursts to meet deadlines. Therefore, I set aside times or days for writing and I stick rigidly to doing it. Even if I am not feeling very creative I force myself, because at the very least I am getting the words on the page the arguments formulated, the research knitted together. If I haven’t been in the mood I may not be happy with the writing but the advantage is that the next time I get a ‘burst’ I will take out these sections and rewrite and reorganise them to a form I’m happy with but I have saved myself a lot of work in the meantime by ensuring there is something more than a blank page to work with.
- Dealing with Publishers
I have been lucky; I have no nightmare stories to tell you about publishers. My first books were with Mercier Press and they were fair and easy to work with from the start, they got behind the project and assisted any way they could. ‘Dynasties’ was published with New Island Books and they went above and beyond the call at every chance and were incredibly patient and helpful too. All you can do is take a sample of your book and send it off to a publisher and hope they respond. Work hard at selling the angle on the book and what makes it different. Rejection is just part of the game. I have several half written tomes and ideas that still sit in a rejection pile on my PC. Such is life but if you believe in something you stick with it.
Once you finally make the breakthrough you might think its all plain sailing from there but unfortunately not. Bear in mind that you will end up re-writing large segments from editors and taking on board comments, you will proof it over and over until you could almost recite every line of the book. This is why you must really love your subject because by the time the book is ready for print you will have read it so many times you will be feeling a little bit sick of it (perish the thought!). I admit that while I love the writing, I find the endless reading of what I have written to be quite a chore but it is one that must be done and the editors can help to vastly improve your arguments and your writing.
So that’s about all the advice I can offer other than to enjoy it and make sure you have a good night at your book launch, its your moment!