The trick with book writing, fiction or otherwise, is structure. Even with the best fiction, the most flowy-seeming fiction, there’s a structure. With nonfiction, there’s always a structure. The best book I ever read about this was Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting (amazon affiliate link). Don’t worry about whether you’re going to write a movie. You’re probably not (unless you are). Instead, buy this and read it. Get the hardcover, unless you are a good note taker on a Kindle. Because the notes will help more than anything else.
But, pretending that you didn’t heed my advice and didn’t buy “Story,” here’s some thoughts on structure.
Structure Defines Itself
When I write an article for Entrepreneur magazine, it’s around 500 words. That’s what they’ve given me. When I write books, I shoot for around 200-250 pages, because that’s a decent enough size to get the story told. With nonfiction, often times, the subject matter helps you define how much you need. So, if I’m writing about how a company will use human business to build their future wealth, I have to define what I mean by “human business.” I have to give “recipes” for what I mean. I have to provide case studies. I have all kinds of stuff that defines what I need to include in the story. See?
If I were writing fiction, I’d start with the frame of the story I want to tell. For instance, most fiction stories have three main acts. So maybe Act 1, the shortest act, would be defining the way the world is, and then ending it with what drastic change sets the story on its major course. Act 2 is the meat of the story and what happens to change the characters along the way. Act 3 is the resolution and the sense of what might come next. Within those three acts, I might define a series of actions or experiences that move my characters from the beginning of Act 1′s normalcy to the end of Act 1′s craziness.
Authors tend to think that structure is something that just happens, but it’s not. Julien and I wrote trust agents with the perspective that we’d write six main chapters with one point in each chapter, and that we’d bookend that all with an intro chapter and a wrapup chapter. That didn’t “just happen.” It took months to decide on that structure, but once we had it, we couldn’t undo it. Once you have a structure, own it. Work within it. Make it yours. If you’ve decided to make the “odd” chapters in prose and the “even” chapters in verse, then do it. But stick with it.
No matter what, your first chapter has to be delicious. Your first page or two have to be delicious. Remember, when people pick your book up in a bookstore (those things that used to exist), they look at the cover, they look at the quotes (sometimes), and then they check out the first page or two. If you haven’t hooked them in the first few pages, they’re not bringing that baby home.
In Trust Agents, we started out with a gangster story. That was Julien’s idea. But it worked. More people mention that story than any other part of the book. You’ve got to wow people with chapter one, not warm them up. Even if you’re writing a mystery, that first chapter had better get me thinking about how I’m going to solve the mystery, or the book is going down.
Too many aspiring (and that’s why they still “aspire”) authors use the first chapter for throat clearing. It can’t work that way. Chapter one has to be the big open.
Oh, and there’s this old rule with nonfiction: tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them that, then tell them what you just told them. God I hate that rule. To me, the idea is that you’ll explain the promise of where you’re going, but don’t get all mechanical. No one wants to read a book, nonfiction or otherwise, where there are no surprises.
It’s Okay to Revise
You can revise a structure if you realize that it’s not going to work for you, but be very very clear that that’s why you’re going to do it. If you say you want to build a boat, then don’t put wings on it. Make sense? But, if you start by saying you’re going to build a boat, and you go from building a fiberglass boat to a traditional wooden boat, then you’re still within the parameters of structure.
Structure is Oddly Freeing
When writing, once you have a structure in mind, it’s so very freeing. In the current book I’m writing, I know that a chapter will be around 10 written pages. Thus, as I’m writing along, I can glance at the page count, and know how far into the story I should be at any given time. If I’m near the end, but haven’t made my points, then I have to go back and edit. If I’m near the beginning and I’ve said all I have to say, I then must determine if I’m doing the story justice, or whether maybe I defined my chapter too narrowly, and thus, have written myself into a corner.
But that structure keeps me strong. The Entrepreneur magazine articles having to be around 500 words keeps me true to telling the story in the tightest way possible. Even a tweet helps you learn this kind of thing.
Make Structure Your Friend
One last point: without structure, we throw the kitchen sink into our writing. I was once writing a science fiction story that mixed angels, demons, sci fi elements, and all kinds of other ideas in a blender. It wasn’t half bad, but it wasn’t half good, either. The problem, from MY side of the writing, was that I was just throwing everything into it and making “sausage” out of the ideas. Make structure your friend, and keep “simplicity” right close by, too.
Hopefully, you’ll find that this helps your writing immensely.