Saturday, March 25, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: C is for CHAPTERS . . .

Infographic for Weekly Blog Series on Book Writing and Publishing: C is for CHAPTERS
View larger image: Right click;
then left click "Open link in new
window." Zoom to 200% or
preferred size.

. . . and CREATING a book structure.

The most common and important unit of division in most kinds of books is the chapter. Books may be divided solely by chapters; or they may be divided by chapters that are further divided into sections or scenes. In many books, chapters are also grouped in parts or even in books within the main book. For artistic or informational reasons, a few books consist only of sections or parts or some other divisions that may or may not function as, or resemble, chapters. I will refer mainly to chapters in this discussion, but what is said will in most cases apply equally to books structured by other kinds of divisions.

Designating chapters 

Nonfiction works typically use numbers and titles to designate chapters. Novelists these days usually opt for numbers without titles or numbers each prefaced by the word chapter. Some authors of fiction have reinstated an earlier practice of both numbering and naming chapters. Some works of fiction and nonfiction may have chapter titles without numbers. Before writing, you may wish to come up with working titles (which can be changed as needed in the course of writing) or simply think of your chapters as numbered units.

Creating a working book structure 

Start with a basic concept of the ordering of your book's chapters (or groups of chapters or episodes within chapters). Then you sort your notes and thoughts accordingly. You may accumulate and conceive these in any order, which tends to be how the creative process works. But then you organize them according to your planned book structure.

I use a combination of physical file folders and computer folders to put my ideas in, with each folder labelled by chapter number and working title. Very short chapters may be grouped into parts, similarly labelled by number and/or by working title or main theme. For note taking and idea jotting, small-sized notepaper, recipe-type cards, and short computer documents/texts are the best choices for easy sorting and reference. Give each note or related group of notes a title or label so you know at a glance what it is about. If you go in for too-lengthy notes without clear labels, you will find yourself in the predicament that I described in "B is for BLOCK"—overwhelmed and blocked by too much text as you struggle to find the idea or information that you need in order to keep writing. Your chapter file folders, each containing individual notes and ideas, constitute your book's working structure. When I come to write a specific chapter, I pull the file with my labelled notes and ideas, sort them into what seems to be a sensible order—by theme, chronology or plot—and write away.

Your chapter files and working book structure keep you oriented as you write and defend against writer's block. Your organizational system allows you to add thoughts quickly, file them without getting confused, bogged down, and then blocked. You can even write out of numerical chapter order to stay fresh and productive when you perhaps are struggling or bored with one chapter. Leave it for a while and start another, and then go back and forth, if you wish. Write the whole book out of order if that pleases you. You are free to do so because, with the aid of your organizational system, you carry the whole book structure in your head, with each chapter's specific notes, ideas, plot twists, episodes, character sketches, research, sources, and quotes organized for reference whenever you need them.

To outline, or not . . .

Book structure need not be carved in stone
Your ideas may be monumental,
but they are not cast in metal or
carved in stone. The same should 
be true of your organizational
system and book structure.
You might think of your organizational system as a kind of outline. There remains the question of a more formalized outline—that is: Do you need a written-out, detailed book outline in addition to your organizational system? Seasoned writers are divided on the value of such an outline.

I personally work from my sense of the overall structure in conjunction with my files and have not found a need to spend creative energy devising an additional outline. If you, however, feel that you need a detailed outline for writing confidence or memory jogging, then so be it. But don't allow the outline to constrain you and limit the introduction of spur-of-the-moment ideas that could make a crucial difference to your book and its success. Think of your outline not as cast in bronze or chiseled in granite. Think of it instead as something changeable and fluid—like the weather, or a river with many streams that might bear exploring.

Flexible book structure and chapter organization

It is also advisable to remember that your working book structure is just that—a work in progress, and subject to rethinking and reordering. You can have a reasonable working structure from the outset, but be prepared for some surprises as the writing progresses. For instance, you might discover that what you thought would be a great chapter 4 is too short to stand alone and should in fact be a section of chapter 3. On the other hand, your imagined, perfect chapter 10 is now going on and on, and really needs to be divided into two, or even three, chapters. It all becomes clear as you write, create, and re-create.

The point to remember is that planning and organizing to write, and actually writing, are related but different activities. A good working structure will ease your writing and go a long way toward eliminating block. But this structure must be flexible enough to shift as your ideas shift. Like creativity and writing, planning and organizing should be dynamic processes that have constant potential for change and improvement. Otherwise, your organizational system is not worth the price of file folders.

Organization creates structure, enhances clarity, and sustains focus. A flexible structure promotes ongoing inspiration.

Coming next week . . . "D is for DISCIPLINE"

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: B is for BLOCK, writer's . . .

View larger image: Right click;
then left click "Open link in new
window." Zoom to 200% or
preferred size.
 . . . and BEATING it.

Writer's block is the fear of almost every writer and, from time to time, the all-too-real predicament of many. When you find yourself paralyzed by a block, it is arguably one of the most miserable of psychological states that any creative person can encounter. It might be some consolation to hear that such prolific writers as Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, and Virginia Woolf also, on occasion, suffered from writer's block (though they might not have used those exact words to describe the affliction). But knowing that your pain is hardly unique does nothing to relieve your immediate discomfort.

Writing is in many ways a highly individualized act of creativity. At the same time, there can be commonalities that we all share. Here, then, is what I know, and have experienced firsthand, when it comes to writer's block and how to beat it. My solutions may not be the complete or ultimate ones for you, but I promise that they will help and give you enough relief that the block won't beat you and pummel your writing career into the ground.

I have found that there are two main kinds of writer's block:

1. Basic writer's block

This kind of block has two variations. The first is a scenario something like this: You have been writing, it has been going well, and with some number of words or scenes or even chapters now written, you feel pretty good and decide to take a break. But not just any break—your plan is to reread all or some of what you have written, in order to pat yourself on the back for a job well done and fuel your fire to keep on writing. That's when the unforeseen happens: You hate what you've written. The thoughts might be fine but the wording is terrible. This isn't your annoying inner critic speaking but your actual professional instincts signalling the truth. This writing will not play in Peoria, let alone engage readers or publishers.

So you dig in and start some revision work, but this does not produce the desired result—the words are flopping like dying fish on the page or screen. So you try again . . . and again . . . until you are blocked.

There are three typical ways to resolve this unhappy situation:

  • Walk away for a while; have lunch; vacuum something; go outside and rake leaves; or, if it's getting late at night, go to bed. As the biographer Elizabeth Longford observed in her memoir, The Pebbled Shore, "Writing . . . problems that have appeared insoluble at midnight have a way of smoothly solving themselves at midday."

  • Leave the problem passage as is, carry on with the book, and fix the trouble spots during later revisions. When you have a first draft completed, you will benefit from a broader perspective on the whole book than what you had earlier. Now that it is time for revisions, you will usually find that fixing once-recalcitrant writing is straightforward. What was all the fuss about? you now wonder.

  • Hire an editor. A good editor can work wonders of clarity and rewording. But consider this a last resort—you will be a better writer if you master self-editing.

For some other ideas on addressing the basic block, see

A variation on this sort of block is one that I have often experienced, and it typically involves short passages, such as a sentence or two, or at most an entire paragraph. It happens like this: You're writing; it's going well; and now you have reached a point where you know exactly what sentence or paragraph you need to write next. You write it and it either seems not to make sense or just sounds bad. So you tinker a bit and it's still not working. Following Einstein's theory of insanity, you keep fiddling—for hours, maybe the rest of the day and on into the next . . .

Occasionally, after much obsessive rewriting, I have gotten such a passage right, but here's what I have found to be true nine times out of ten: If it's that hard to write, it doesn't need to be there. Throw it out! You'll find yourself able to carry on without headaches or harm to your overall story or argument. If you can't bear to delete such misfit passages, then save them in a separate computer file, just in case you find a place for them later. You probably won't, but whatever makes you feel better . . .

2. Big, bad writer's block

This truly worst kind of block typically happens when you start writing your book or when you are not far into it. Occasionally, it might also occur after you have written a significant amount but have, for some reason, been away from the project for a lengthy period of time.

You are at your desk or whatever is your preferred writing space. You have made time to write. The world is quiet around you. Your pen is poised over paper, or your fingers over keyboard. And then you can't write—you simply don't know what to write. You thought you did but now, at the moment of truth, words fail. You get up and pace, get a glass of water, and sit back down to try again. Same result. Z is for ZERO.

If you are writing nonfiction, this kind of block is sometimes due to a lack of information about some part of your subject. The usual solution is to do a little more research, or even merely to look something up in a reference book or online source, and with the gap in your knowledge filled, you are now able to write. In fiction writing, the comparable problem can be the result of a previously unrecognized missing piece, or wrong turn, in your plot. The best solution is to stop and think it through, discover the missing piece, or find a new turn in this part of your story line.

Writer's block is often the result of too much, rather than
too little—so many notes and ideas that when it's
time to write, you're overwhelmed and get blocked.
In my experience working with new authors, the more common cause of the big, bad block is not a shortage of ideas, but too many of them. In fact, your head is spinning with ideas but not a one wants to spin into anything resembling a coherent sentence. Fortunately, this kind of block only happened once to me, and I learned a lot from it.

I was about to start writing my master's thesis. I had already published shorter pieces, such as journal and magazine articles. But this had to be longer—at least fifty pages divided into five or six chapters, and it had to coherently present a lot of complex research. I kept trying to write and, except for a few words and sentence fragments, was getting nowhere. After some painful hours, I had one epiphany. A vague idea formed and I realized that if I started in one particular way, this might lead on to writing more. With that, I wrote some semblance of an opening sentence. And I now knew generally what I had to say next, but I just needed to consult some of my research notes in order to be accurate. I pulled out my three notebooks, where I had recorded research, sources, and ideas.

My three fat, full notebooks. With notes, sources, and ideas following the chronology of my research—a chronology that had nothing to do with the ordering of the thesis.

Hours later, I found what I needed in order to write the first page or two. Exhausted, I finally knew what I had to do. I cut the notebooks into scraps, one or two points per scrap, and sorted these by main themes and related topics. The result was several piles of ragged scraps. When I rearranged these piles into a logical order of presentation and argument, there it was: the structure of my thesis. I wrote it in a couple of weeks.

From this I learned two big lessons:

  • Know where to start.

  • Be aware that ideas do not necessarily come in the order in which they must be written.

The upshot of these lessons was the rather pedestrian, but crucial, realization that writing a thesis, book, or other lengthy project depends as much on a filing system as it does on creative thinking. I never had writer's block again. For every subsequent project of any length—major essays, PhD dissertation, and books—I avoided notebooks and used something physically or digitally movable and sortable: small-sized notepaper, index cards, file folders, and/or computer files so that I could always organize—and, as needed, reorganize—my information and ideas according to the ordering of the book rather than to my personal history of getting bright ideas.

Don't confuse chaos with creativity

There are a few strategies that will let your creative ideas flow freely while, at the same time, preserving, or creating, your book's structure. These will help you beat the big, bad block if you find yourself facing it. To maximize your chances of avoiding it altogether, follow these tips before you start writing:

  • Define your scope and purpose.

  • Develop a clear working idea about where to start: an opening hook, quote, question, anecdote, example, character problem, or seemingly unsolvable conflict.

  • Narrow your nonfiction topic.

  • Know where your novel is going; figure out the ending (or possible endings) before you begin; if you have already begun, stop now and figure out where and how to end.

  • Concentrate on main themes and events; don't bog down in trivial detail.

  • Devise a filing system in order to sort notes, ideas, etc., by any or all of book chronology, theme, event, section/scene, or chapter. I favor organizing and filing by chapters and will be saying more about this in my next blog.

For now, suffice it to say that focus and filing beat block.

Coming next week . . . "C is for CHAPTERS"

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: A is for ASPIRATION . . .

Infographic for Weekly Blog Series on Book Writing and Publishing
View larger image: Right click;
then left click "Open link in new
window." Zoom to 200% or
preferred size.
 . . . and ALL that goes with it!

No book truly begins with page one or even with the first word you write down or type into a computer. Many authors, long before they actually became authors, began their careers with aspiration, an unrelenting desire to live and breathe the literary life. Such aspiration can emerge at any age, from childhood to the golden years. It can be a heady personal experience, as it is often accompanied by grand dreams of fame and fortune, seemingly boundless creative energy, enough ideas to make your head spin, and a vision of authorship—your own—that could change your life and even the world.

The writer Jacques Barzun (On Writing, Editing, and Publishing) well understood the psychology of the aspiring writer. The dream of authorship is a worthy one, he had no doubt, but he also posed the cautionary question that new writers must ask themselves: "Do I want to write—or to have written?" He concluded that "practicing to write well and finally writing well will repay." In other words, aspiring to authorship must in reality be aspiring to write. It is fine, probably essential, that your vision of authorship includes grand dreams, but your sights must also be trained on the more earthbound task of developing your craft as a writer.

Nurture your dreams, cultivate your creativity, plant your ideas, and grow your vision of what being a book author means to you. At the same time, prepare to write well:

  • Read some good books. Choose your favorites from the present day, but also dip into works of the past to expand your knowledge of all the many possibilities of book writing.

  • Take a writing course or attend a workshop. Writing courses and workshops are a mixed bag, but even the least of them will get you writing and thinking about the many facets of the act and profession of writing.

  • Above all, learn about writing and how the pros do it. There are many excellent books on the craft of writing. Among my favorites are William Zinsser's classic guide to writing nonfiction, On Writing Well; for aspiring fiction authors, I recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King.

Nurture your dreams and learn to write wellYou owe it to yourself and your aspiration to read, to study, and to learn. Strive to write and to write well—or at least as best you can. Keep at it and, as Barzun put it, "Editors and publishers will seek you out, the public will be carried away with love and gratitude."

Hmm . . . these days, maybe not. On the other hand, someone who counts might like your query letter and eventually someone else might write a nice review on Amazon. Either way, you'll be realizing your passion.

Coming next week . . . "B is for BLOCK, writer's"

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: Series introduction

Infographic for Weekly Blog Series on Book Writing and Publishing
View larger image: Right click;
then left click "Open link in new
window." Zoom to 200% or
preferred size.

Most things, including book writing, begin with the basics.

This blog series is about those basics that apply specifically to creating a book. It is about how—at the most fundamental level, from A to Z—effective books are started, get written, and develop a better than-average-chance of successful publication.

In this series, I am not offering a comprehensive guide to discovering your voice or polishing your style or plotting a novel or composing your memoirs or writing commercial nonfiction or getting published. Rather, this series will be a mix of insights, reflections, a few personal anecdotes, and some practical advice about creating a functional, commercially viable book—pretty much any sort of book. Throughout this series, I will be trying to shed light on both the pleasures and pitfalls, the successes and shortcomings, that typically go with writing a book. While there are all kinds of books (and diverse authors producing them), my aim is to focus on what is most likely to be the common experiences and demands that many authors face, regardless of their genres or intended readers. My wish is to smooth your progress along what I have observed to be the bumpiest stretches of road on the way to successful book writing and publishing.

Starting next week, articles will appear weekly here, in the Helping You Get Published blog,  and I will share them via links on my main Helping You Get Published website and in the following social media:


As much as the content allows, articles will include supporting infographics and/or other visuals.

Books on Writing & Publishing by Patricia Anderson, PhD
The first ebook—title secret
until release—will be FREE,
with or without purchasing
any other book in the series.
In writing this series, I am thinking mainly of the first-time book authors who may be approaching the start, and each subsequent stage, of the book writing journey with an uneasy mix of hopefulness and uncertainty. I also suspect that many authors who are not beginners, but who have gone a long while between books, and/or may be changing genre, might find these ABCs to be a useful refresher course. In fact, I am, myself, at work on a series of ebooks on writing and publishing—which will elaborate on what I do not cover in this blog series. I hope to release at least the first three of these ebooks by the end of 2017 or early in 2018. Not only is this my first attempt at writing several books at once, but I am doing so after a hiatus from book writing and while I continue to do my long-standing day job of manuscript assessing, book editing, and literary consulting.

From this point onward, we'll navigate the writing process and the book trade together. From A to Z—from the awareness of wanting to write a book, to zeroing in on publication opportunities—this blog series is for you. And no less for me.

Coming next week . . . "A is for ASPIRATION"