March 30

When you’re not sure what to write about

    You might feel a strong desire to write. You might have a story, some wisdom learned the hard way, or a practical message for people. You want to write a book, but when you sit down to actually string words together, you don’t know what to write about. Let me walk you through a tried-and-true process that I use with clients, all the time.

    Look at typical structures.

    Honestly, there are a few basic structures of nonfiction books. Once you know what they look like, it’s not too hard to imagine what your book could look like and to figure out the first steps in writing your first draft.

    This is a classic nonfiction book structure. The overall book walks you through a process to achieve an outcome—an organized to-do list, paid off debt, a healthy body, a peaceful mind, a finished book. A book like this will walk the reader from where they are now to the desired outcome, and there’s usually a step-by-step process.

    The intro and first chapter are about where the reader is now and what it’ll look like when the reader has achieved this desired outcome. Life will be better! Each chapter afterward is one step in the process. One step, one chapter. Then, the ending chapter and conclusion are all about what the outcome looks like and why it’s so exciting.

    Story + Lessons Learned
    This book structure is becoming much more popular and for good reason, people love stories. At a basic human level, we connect with stories, we remember stories, and we are emotionally transformed by powerful stories. But this style of book is not just stories. It’s stories with a purpose, passing on lessons learned the hard way.

    The intro and first chapter introduce the author’s story and foreshadow what the reader will get out of the book, how the author’s life has changed and how the reader’s life will change in the process of reading this book. Each chapter afterward is a blending of story and lessons. A good way to conceptualize this is to list out one to three stories and the lesson you learned from those experiences. The ending chapter and conclusion will bring the reader up to where the author is now and reflect back on the most powerful lessons learned.

    In this structure, the stories do not need to be in chronological order. It’s more important that the stories are relevant to the lessons learned.

    Straight-up Story
    When you think of memoir, this is likely a straight-up story. In this type of book, the author’s life story or a particular experience is so unusual, so jarring, so captivating that readers simply want to hear what happened. It’s not necessary that the author’s story appeal to everyone in the world. The author’s story might be particularly interesting to a small group of readers, and that’s completely okay. But the author’s story needs to be extremely unusual in order to pull off being successful.

    If you ask most literary agents, they’ll say that selling a straight-up story book is difficult. Here’s the problem: everyone thinks their life has been difficult/challenging/miraculous in some way. And, as a woman of faith, I do believe that everyone’s life is a showcase of divine miracles.

    But not everyone’s story sells. If you can identify your niche, a group of people who will be captivated by your story, then you can sell it to them. Just a warning, though, you’ll likely have to self-publish because traditional publishers are hesitant to publish straight-up story, unless the story is highly unusual or resonates with a broad social issue (like transgender rights or extreme religion or changing family dynamics, something with a buzz word).

    Luckily, if you can find the audience to sell to, writing this book is pretty easy. Just write out your story in chronological order, and find an editor who will help you chop out the irrelevant parts. Done. :)

    So, what to write about?

    Brainstorm all the steps you would walk someone through to achieve the desired outcome. Order them, and divide them up into chapters. Write the chapters in order, to make sure you’re not missing part of the process.

    Story + Lessons Learned
    Brainstorm all the stories you want to tell. Looking at each story, think about the lessons you’d like to impart to the reader. Then, group stories with lessons, and write through them, one-by-one.

    Straight-Up Story
    Brainstorm the most important events of your life that have led you to where you are now, and write them out in chronological order.

    See? Not so hard!

    How about you? What kind of book do you think you might be writing about?


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