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How to Write a Book

Hello.

Do you find yourself explaining the same thing over and over to various friends and colleagues? Wouldn’t it be easier to just explain it once, and then send the explanation to anyone who needs it?

In my case, I tend to explain all sorts of things regarding swords, as teaching swordsmanship has been my job for the last 15 years. But lately, more and more people have wanted to talk to me about writing books. This makes sense, given that I have written half a dozen of them, plus hundreds of articles and blog posts, and these days about half my income comes from the books I’ve had published in the traditional way, or published myself. When I found myself explaining the process I use to write and publish books for the hundredth time, I thought that perhaps it was time to follow my own advice and write the process down so anyone who wants to can use it.

A History Lesson

Back in 1999 a friend of mine suggested I should write a book about how to fight with swords. I had been teaching swordsmanship for about five years by that point, in a club I helped to found in Edinburgh in 1994. This friend was quite persuasive, so I set to, in my spare time from my cabinet-making job. A year later I had left woodwork to start The School of European Swordsmanship, (in Helsinki, Finland), which kept me busy in the evenings and weekends, but left much of every day free to write. It took me another two years to get the first draft ready. What with publisher’s delays and endless edits, the book, The Swordsman’s Companion, did not see the light of day until June 2004.

The day I sent off the final final draft I sat down to write the next book, which became The Duellist’s Companion. That only took two years, including the madly slow publishing process; so about 18 months of writing time.

My last book, every bit as difficult, and much more advanced than either of these two, was written in under three months of actual writing time, spread over the course of a year.

What changed?

I learned how to do it.

The process

Never, ever, try to write a book. It’s too big. Write a word, or a line, or a paragraph, or maybe even a chapter. You can start with a question, the more specific the better. “How do you use a sword” is too general. “How do you hold a medieval longsword” is much better. So, break up the topic into lots of very specific questions. “How do you defend yourself from a thrust to the belly from a low guard on the right?” is good. “How do you defend against thrusts” is less good, unless you already have three or four related and very specific questions answered, and you can summarise them.

One question = one episode/article/paragraph/chapter.

A little question can be answered in 200-3000 words. Just about right for a blog post, or a facebook update, something like that. A big question can be answered in 3-10 thousand words. Perfect for a short ebook.

5-10 big questions on the same topic can be edited together into a book.

Now what about fiction?

Well, I’ve never published a novel, so I’m no expert on this, but I have several friends who have. And some of them have written books about it. Storyteller Tools by M. Harold Page is a very useful book, and so is Jump Start Your Novel, by Mark Teppo. I recommend them both highly. There is no reason why this process would not work for fiction too, though it doesn’t solve the issues of creating engaging characters or thrilling plot. The thing you sit down to write is a scene; many scenes, properly ordered, make a novel. For fiction writers reading this, I’m sure you can draw the necessary parallels.

Step 1: to plan, or not to plan, that is the question!

This is very much down to your personality and experience. If you have an enormous question that can be broken down into 6-12 big questions, then right now you could get a piece of paper and a pen, and organise the questions into your table of contents. The trick to ordering them is to keep in mind the prerequisite knowledge for each answer. I can’t explain to you how to hold a sword if you don’t know what a sword is. For every question, it is usually best to assume that your reader knows absolutely nothing. It’s been my experience that most students coming to me can’t even stand or walk properly. (Really. Most people have problems with their gait.) So I start with how to stand. It’s never wrong to go too basic; it is much better that readers skip over stuff they know (or think they know) to get to the “good stuff”, than it is for readers to be baffled or frustrated because they don’t have the background you imagined, and so can’t follow your thread.

Let’s take my book The Medieval Longsword as an example. The enormous question I’m trying to answer is: “how do you fight with a medieval longsword?”

The table of contents doesn’t look like a list of questions, but here it is, with the questions added.

Introduction to the Mastering the Art of Arms Collection: “how does this book fit into the other books in the series?”

Foreword by Christian Cameron: “does anybody famous and cool who knows about swords think this book is good?”

Introduction: “how does Guy know what he’s talking about?”

Chapter One: Tools of the Trade: “what equipment do I need?”

Chapter Two: General Principles: “what are the fundamental ideas behind how swordfights actually work?”

Chapter  Three: Footwork: Stepping and Turning: “how do I move?”

Chapter Four: One Strike, One Defence: “what is the basic attack, and the basic defence against it?”

Chapter Five: More Strikes, More Defences “what other attacks and defences should I know to start with?”

Chapter Six: More Strikes, and More Guards “what are the less common attacks, and the other guard positions?”

Chapter Seven: Counter Remedies,  Their Counters, and Improving

the Guards: “how do the fighters continue after the first attack and defence?”

Chapter Eight: Counters to the Break,  The Sword in One Hand

and Exploiting Mistakes: “what other cool techniques are there?”

Chapter Nine: Binds, Malice and Deceit: “what tactics are best?”

Chapter Ten: Preparing for Freeplay: “I want to fight my friends without killing them. How do I prepare for that?”

Chapter Eleven: Freeplay! “and how do I actually do it?”

Chapter Twelve: A Final Summary:  The System by Numbers: “how do I remember all this stuff?”

Appendix A – Warming: Up “how do I warm up?”

Appendix B – Glossary: “what do all those funny Italian words mean?”

Acknowledgements: “who helped in the writing of the book?”

Indiegogo Campaign Contributors: “who bought the book before it was even published (bless them)?”

Bibliography: “what other books were needed to write this one?”

Knowing all those questions in advance, it was quite easy for me to plan the book out, and then just write each chapter as it came. I didn’t write them in order though, I answered the question I wanted to answer each day.

Writing a series is a bit different. In The Swordsman’s Quick Guide for example, the questions are far less naturally connected: “what are the fundamental aspects to mastering any skill?” (The Seven Principles of Mastery); “how do I choose a sword?” (Choosing a Sword); “how do I train myself up to freeplay standard?” (Preparing for Freeplay); “what is the ethical dimension of swordsmanship?” (Ethics); “how should I teach a basic class?” (How to Teach a Basic Class (forthcoming)). As I add to the list, I may end up with a coherent book, or I may not. It doesn’t actually matter. But at this stage there is no point in sitting down to plan the whole series, because I don’t have one enormous question I’m trying to answer, just a series of smaller ones.

Step 2: define the questions as closely as possible, and answer them

This is what you will write today. “How do you set up a table-top role-playing game for 3-8 players?” is a good question. “How do I cut lap dovetails for a drawer front?” is a good question. You can write your answer straight out, if that’s natural. Or talk into your phone, and type up the answer, if that’s easier. Or call a student or friend, somebody who has asked the question, and explain it over skype, recording the call. Then type that up.

Step 3: send your answer out to test readers

Only the people who do not already know the answer, the people who would actually need your book, can tell you whether it solves their problem. So you need to find these people (I’m assuming you have some kind of social network, or at least one actual person has asked you this question), and ask them to read it for you, and let you know honestly what they think.

I’ve been writing for a long, long time, and still I get all sorts of negative feedback from my test readers. Positive comments are nice, but negative comments have a much greater capacity to improve the work, so that’s what you need from your readers. Beg them to be merciless.

Apply as much or as little of the feedback to your draft as you like, then sit on it while you go to step four:

Step 4: rinse and repeat

Find and answer at least two more really specific questions, following steps one and two. You now have three or more short pieces, of about 3-10 thousand words each. Go back and re-read the first one, in the light of the other two; you’ll probably find a few more corrections or additions to make.

Step 5: give readers a way to contact you

This is absolutely critical. Your readers must have a way to get in touch, because you absolutely depend on them for critical feedback. You exist to solve their problems; you have to know whether you are doing that well or not. Give them as many ways as possible; email, website, facebook, twitter, phone, snail mail address; every medium that you are willing to be contacted on. Then let them contact you in the way that suits them best. Put this information at the beginning and end of each article.

On the advice of a friend, I got myself a Facebook account in 2010. Within three weeks, somebody in America had got in touch to ask me whether it would be ok to use The Duellist’s Companion as the curriculum for his rapier school; of course he’d insist every student bought a copy. Would that be ok?

Hell yes! By offering a low-barrier-to-entry, unintimidating means of getting in touch, I made it easy for this chap to ask the question. I would have been perfectly happy with email. I prefer it. But it’s not about what I prefer, now is it?

Step 6: cover design

If you have the budget for it, by all means get somebody with artistic flair to make you a cover for each of your pieces. If the questions are closely related, you can go with a series cover, like my The Swordsman’s Quick Guide, but if they are not, use separate covers. You can pay anything from about 30 euros up to over a thousand per cover. At this stage though it’s perfectly ok to just do it yourself. It doesn’t have to be great. Because we are not nearly done. When your complete book is ready, then I would highly recommend hiring a professional cover designer if you can possibly afford it. But for now, it’s not such a big deal.

Step 7: (optional) publish the articles

At this stage you have a few articles, which will either be stand-alone parts of a series, or chapters of the book. You can greatly expand your circle of test-readers by publishing them. It’s probably best to publish them in two-week cycles, rather than all at once. Because while you’re beavering away writing articles 4-6, you can be publishing 1-3 one at a time, and giving the impression of massive productivity. Go you!

Beg for feedback, reviews, any kind of reader response. To get this, make sure your readers have a means to get in touch.

Your sales at this stage are not the point. It’s ok if they are tiny. You sold five booklets at 99 cents each to people you didn’t know this month? Excellent!

You know that an article is ready to publish if you can honestly say to yourself that you are doing the readers a favour by publishing it. That’s the barrier. Will reading this improve their lives at a level commensurate with the price I’m charging?

Before you publish, make certain that at least one test reader is a competent copy-editor. The sort of person who notices  the double space I just put in between “notices” and “the” in this sentence. If you have no friends with this very specific skill, then hire somebody. I recommend Becca Judd, who edited Swordfighting for me, and Advanced Longsword.

Step 8: compile and edit the book

The book of your dreams does not exist. I sat down to write THE BOOK in 1999, and I failed miserably. There are a million other books, all at least as much worth reading. But I did manage to write A GOOD BOOK. And that’s plenty good enough.

You can produce a simple compilation volume (which you should probably do anyway), or you can edit the articles together into a complete new book (with a bunch of extra material, I would suggest; perhaps no more than 60% previously published stuff). There is nothing stopping you from writing extra material for your completed book as you go along, choosing for early publication only the parts that lend themselves easily to being answered as a separate article. Let’s say you have 6-10 articles that together make most of a book. By putting them in order, you can see what’s missing; an introduction to the book as a whole, sure, and usually some kind of conclusion section, but you may also realise that there are logical gaps in your narrative. So fill them.

This process is much easier if you are using a decent word processing program, like Scrivener, which allows to re-order your individual chunks (scenes, questions etc.), and to visualise really clearly how everything fits together.

Further questions:

1. How long should my book be? There is no rule about how long a book must be. I have paid good money for short books and not regretted it. The Dip, by Seth Godin, is a good example. And I’ve failed to finish many thicker books because I got bored half way through. So length is a poor guide to quality. As a basic rule, anything under about 3000 words is probably too short to charge for. Anything over about 40,000 words is definitely a proper book. Swordfighting is about 95,000 words; Advanced Longsword is only about 40,000, but has a lot of photos.

2. When should I produce a compilation volume? How many articles do I need first?

You should produce a compilation volume when the maths tells you to. When you can offer a 30% or better discount on the compilation over buying the parts separately, go.

For example, episodes of The Swordsman’s Quick Guide are 3.99 sold separately. 4×3.99= 15.96. I sell episodes 1-4 together for 9.99; a saving of over 35%. And it does sell. If you’re selling them at 99cents and the compilation for 4.99, then you’d want at least 7 articles: 7x.99= 6.93 6.93/4.99= 1.39

Only six articles would give you a discount of 19%:  5.94/4.99= 1.19.

3. How do I price my work? Regarding pricing, the best approach is to aim for the top price bracket common in your field. Very short romance? .99 cents is probably as much as you can charge; how to write a book? 4.99 seems reasonable 🙂 You need to ask yourself the question “why the hell would anyone want to read this book?” and answer that in your marketing material (for advice on marketing your book, Joanna Penn’s How to Market a Book is superb); then ask “what is this book worth to the reader?” Nobody cares how much you sweated and bled over it in the long dark watches of the night. They only care about what it’s worth to them. And if they don’t know you, then it’s probably not much. Examine your own browsing and buying behaviour; it’s amazing how many books you’re interested in that you don’t buy!

And Finally

Lots of people seem to want to be writers. Damned if I understand why. Far fewer seem to actually want to write, which makes more sense. Writing is hard work, bad for your health (especially if you sit down to do it), and exhausting. To be a writer, just write stuff. To write a book, write lots of stuff on the same theme and edit it together. It is actually pretty simple. But simple and easy are not the same thing, so here are a couple of further thoughts to lower the barriers a bit.

Discipline is Freedom. This is key. The ability to push past discomfort in pursuit of a long-term goal is the fundamental skill that underpins all success.

Constraints Liberate. This is a catchphrase of the Dark Angels (the organisers of the writing course I went on in September). It is very hard to “just write a book on any topic, long as you like”. It is much easier to write a book of between 40,000 and 50,000 words on how best to create a card game based on swordsmanship (for example). The more specific the task, the easier it is to accomplish. So impose some specific constraints on yourself. 2000 words on how to tie a cravat, by 5pm Friday. No problem. When I was at school we had a discussion in class about this. My English teacher Mr. Thornberry, set us a challenge. On the first week, we could write anything we liked. On the second, he set us a specific task. We then read the essays out loud, and it was obvious that the second set were much better than the first.

Break it up even smaller. A book is too big to hold in your head at once. A chapter might be too big too. So write smaller. A paragraph describing the problem in clearer terms might naturally grow into the chapter you were thinking of.

Make it personal. If you try to write to the world, guaranteed not everyone will like it, want it or even understand it. Instead, try writing an email. We can all do that.

“Dear Jeremy,

Ok, if I understand your question correctly, you want to know which end of the sword to hold. While opinion may differ somewhat among my colleagues, those of them that actually win fights all agree that you should hold the blunt end; we call it the “handle”. (continue for another few paragraphs)

yours,

Guy

Then strip off the “Dear Jeremy” and “yours, Guy”, edit it a bit, and you have a chapter.

It can liberate your creative juices to simply have a specific person in mind for your work.

If I’d known how much work the first book would be before I wrote it, it would probably have never been written. If I’d known how it would change my life, I’d have written it even if it was ten times as hard to do.

And if I’d had this method? I’d have written it in a quarter of the time.

I have created a pdf of this article, which you can download free. This is an experiment with the “pay what you want” model; I'll be very interested to see how many people download it, and how many choose to pay for it. I have been thinking about moving all my ebooks to “pay what you want”, but I have to be sure I won't starve doing it!

 

 

 

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