Every now and then, someone asks me for tips on writing a book and getting it published. I usually start by reassuring them that they’ve come to the right person since, having done it once before, I’m clearly a qualified expert on the topic. (The sarcasm is generally more obvious in person.)
But seriously though… I’m far from an expert, but I am learning more about it the further I delve into writing book number two, which is due in a few months. I’ve also had the good fortune of talking to a number of editors over the past few months about what makes a good non-fiction book, so I thought it might be worthwhile to pass on that advice to any budding authors out there.
When it comes to non-fiction, I think I can distill that advice into two tips: have big ideas, and have a strong narrative. Or, at least those are the two must-haves that are top of mind for me as I work on Humans 3.0.
Big ideas: Let’s face it, there’s a flood of information out there on the internet, and it’s getting wider and deeper every day. There is no shortage of stuff to read, but the majority of it is pretty shallow. That has everything to do with the nature of the beast – most news sites simply have holes to feed, and they’ll fill it with just about anything they can find. The people who write the stuff, meanwhile, generally don’t have time to bring substance to their work.
Magazines have typically filled the niche above that. They provide more in-depth analysis or thoughtfulness on current events. Non-fiction books take that a step further, but they also have to suggest some new way of thinking; whereas journalism usually aims to be neutral, books tend to be rooted in a point of view. They can be journalistic, but they should argue a position or be a vehicle for the author’s ideas on a topic. How successful the book ends up being often depends on how unique or thought-provoking those ideas are.
A good magazine article can be educational, entertaining and possibly even enlightening. A good non-fiction book, I think, has to succeed primarily on that last front; if it doesn’t spark discussion, the author hasn’t done his or her job and is running the danger of feeding that shallow beast.
Narrative: We like fiction because it usually centers around a character and the changes he or she goes through as a result of the plot. Non-fiction is actually not that different – there still needs to be something to unify the book and make the reader care about it.
One editor told me that a surprising number of otherwise really good writers miss this – they write a group of chapters on a subject, but they forget that unifying narrative. Without the narrative, the chapters might as well be magazine articles.
A narrative can take many forms and it’s probably impossible to list them all. In Humans 3.0, the narrative I’ve struck on is a time-honored one – the story is a journey of self-discovery. With the book’s idea starting out as a question – are people changing as fast as their technology? – it seemed natural the story from a first-person point of view. I’m writing it in a way so that I’m discovering answers just as much as the reader. Will this work as a narrative? I hope so.
That is, of course, just one way to do it. And the end of the day (or manuscript), the question any writer must ask themselves is: is this a unified story, or could this really do as a series of magazine articles? If the answer to the first question isn’t yes, the narrative probably isn’t there.