Structure in Non-Fiction Writing: How do I build it?

Don’t worry. This is not one of those posts where I get all technical and break down rules of paragraph structure and other yawn-inducing tedium. Rather, this post will (I hope) get you thinking in a “structural” way about how to write and organize your book.

In my last post: Structure in Non-Fiction Writing: Why is it Important? I talked about how necessary an overt structure is to the non-fiction (specifically non-story-driven) reader. We kept it simple, bringing things back to the basic rules of writing an essay:

1. Tell the reader what you’re going to talk about

2. Talk about it

3. Tell them what you’ve just been talking about

But it’s important to realize WHY these rules exist, and what function they serve in the scope of a larger written work. Because if you’re writing 75,000 words on a topic, you’re going to need more than an introduction and a conclusion to tie the whole thing together. But these rules work for the same reason that your book structure is going to work – because the repetition creates a familiarity for the reader that makes their reading experience easier and more enjoyable.

Think of your book as a song that your readers are listening to for the first time. You don’t expect them to know the words. You want them to like the song, to settle into listening to it without having their concentration broken or jarred by something unexpected or unpleasant. By the time they get half way through they should know (more or less) what the chorus sounds like, and should be able to recognize it when it’s played again. It’s the melody (the structure) that creates the repetition and familiarity. The melody is what makes a good song easy to listen to, even if you’ve never heard it before. Yes the lyrics have to be amazing (you have to write well) and you want the message to be something that stirs people (you should be writing about a topic that you’re passionate about). But if the melody isn’t there (if you don’t create a strong structure within your book) nobody’s going to care to listen to it for very long.

Ok, so we know that structure is going to be important. But how do we actually build it into our books? Well there are two different steps that you can take.

First, (and yes, this is the part that you’ve already thought of) you need to organize your topic into a logical and easy-to-follow format. Create an outline for the material you want to cover, but make sure that you’re organizing the data in a way that’s going to make sense to your reader. Keep in mind that there’s normally more than one way to do this. If you’re writing a how-to book (how to build a computer from scratch, how to self-publish your book) you could organize it chronologically (do this than that) or by sub-category (a section on writing, one on editing, etc.). Similarly, if you’re writing a book on the practical application of a theory (building a godly marriage, let’s say, or raising healthy kids), you will have to decide how to balance the theory and the practical advice. Do you explain the theory first and then break down the practical application in a separate section of the book? Or do you try to create subcategories and address theory and application for each category at the same time?

The point is that you have a lot of decisions to make, probably more than you realize, about how to organize your data. But the important thing is to make a decision. Pick a structure and then stick to it. This is also the point in  your structure-building that you’ll have to deal with the outliers – the points or issues that don’t fit nicely into the flow of an outline. Figure out how to handle them now. Find a place to fit them. It will save you headaches down the road.

Second, after you’ve thought about how you want to organize your data, it is time for you to consider how you can build familiarity and patterns into the format of your individual sections or chapters of your book. In other word, what can you do to make one chapter feel and sound and flow like another? How can you tie these thousands of words together so that they function as a cohesive unit rather than a simple stream of thoughts and ideas? This is where you can let yourself get creative and allow your personality to shine through.

Do you want to include an analogy in each chapter? What about an anecdote? If you are writing a how to, are you making reference to the big picture in each section of your book? Are there larger themes running through each chapter? How can you make them stronger without belaboring the point? Are all of your chapters structured in the same way? Do they follow repeating and recognizable patterns?

This was my biggest failing when I first sat down to write my book. My subject matter (it fits best into the theory-into-practice category) was a tricky one. So before I started the book I tackled the fundamentals of the data outline. My material flowed in a “logical” pattern. And each of my individual chapters covered a subject that clearly related back to the main point of the book. But as it turned out, that wasn’t enough to take my discussion of the subject and turn it into a book. No matter how many times I re-wrote, or how strongly I tied each chapter back to the opening section on “theory”, the individual chapters themselves were not cohesive. There was no flow, no built-in anticipation that fed readers from one chapter to the next.

Finding a solution to this problem proved tricky. I ended up having to create what I called a “chapter checklist”, which basically functioned as a very rigid outline that every chapter had to follow. It had to start with a reference to A, continue on with an anecdotal story, move into a reference to B, and then get into practical points 1, 2, and 3, etc. etc. etc. The process of taking my pre-written material and fitting it into a structure after the fact was brutal. It took a lot of time. It also meant that I had to re-write entire chapters, completely remove others, and add a significant amount of material to almost all of them. It was painful and difficult, but it made all the difference in the world. It transformed my book from rambling to readable, all because I gave the readers a recognizable pattern to follow.

So if you get anything out of this post please let it be this – don’t make the same mistakes I did. Don’t create an outline and think you’re done building the structure of your book. If you’re writing non-fiction, especially something that isn’t story driven, you will save yourself a lot of sweat and suffering if you will just take the time to address the issues of structure BEFORE you begin to write.

And for those of you who think that I’m crazy, who are convinced that you can write an amazing book without planning the structure ahead of time … well, maybe you’re right. Maybe my severely logical brain just failed me on this occasion. But remember this: it is entirely possible for you to take your free-flowing poetry and set it to music if you want to. But it will be a lot easier and sound a lot better if you start with the music and write the words to fit into the structure you’ve already created.

Structure in Non-Fiction Writing: Why is it important?

This is one of those areas where I consider myself an expert of the “What NOT to Do” variety. I made the mistake of writing the first draft of my non-fiction book before I’d mapped out it’s structure, and the result was a convoluted mess that took me nearly a year (and several re-writes) to fix. So, having been through the ringer and come out the other side, I have developed a sincere appreciation for the importance of building a definable and recognizable structure into a nonfiction book before starting to write it.

I am a firm believer that structure is a necessary component of any well-written book. The analogy that works for me is that if the book is a body, the structural elements are the “bones” upon which everything else hangs. Without those bones, there’s no leverage, no strength, nothing solid. Without structure, you end up with little more than a pile of meat.

This is easy enough to understand in fiction writing (and even story-driven nonfiction such as memoirs or biographies). Good story-telling is always structured around a plot, the chronological progression from one event to the next. Without a solid plot you really don’t have a story at all. No matter how compelling the characters may be or how unique or interesting the world they inhabit, without a plot, there’s nothing solid to anchor them onto. There isn’t any way for readers to engage. In story-driven writing, the plot serves as the structure, the bones around which everything else is built and (forgive the pun) fleshed out.

But what do you do when the book you want to write isn’t a story? What if you’re writing a self-help book, a how-to, or a persuasive argument? What if you can’t rely on chronology or the progression of events to create those bones upon which to hang your book? Is there a way to create a structure within books that don’t tell a story? Does structure really matter then?

Yes there is. And yes it does.

In fact, I would argue that creating a solid structure for your non-fiction writing may be the most important factor you can consider before you begin your first draft. A well-structured book will not only engage the reader, but it will also draw them in. It will help them to recognize, follow, and retain your argument. It will make your book infinitely more readable, more persuasive, and more memorable.

Why? Because readers expect to follow where an author leads them, but they don’t like to follow blindly. Readers of non-fiction expect the author to explain beforehand where it is that they are being led. They want and frankly demand that you as an author give them a hint as to where they are going before they will agree to take the journey with you.

Think back to Jr. High English class, and the rules you learned about how to write an essay. For many of us this was probably our first introduction into non-story-driven writing. If your English teacher was half as awesome as mine was (shout out to Mrs. Bresmer!) then you will probably turn 112 long before you forget the three rules of essay writing:

1. Tell your reader what you’re going to talk about

2. Talk about it

3. Tell them what you’ve just been talking about

It’s all about building familiarity, trust, and comfort for the reader. A strong non-fiction structure builds anticipation. It creates expectation. And it gives the readers the tools that they need to engage with the material that you present to them in each section of your book as a part of a greater whole.

Just like a plot serves to create and fulfill expectations in a story, a well structured non-fiction book will give the reader an expectation of what they will be reading. It does this by building anticipation, creating questions that need answers, and offering a large-scale overview of the subject matter long before it delves into the details.

From there a well-structured book will begin to fulfill those expectations in a familiar and comfortable way. It will begin to answer the questions, to address the issues, to solve the problems. But it will always do it in a way that feels like a logical progression of the same argument or discussion.

That’s not always easily done, especially without the convenience of chronology to lean on. That is why it is so important to consider your book’s structure BEFORE you being to write.

Proof Copies: Do I REALLY need them?

Yes.

We could end it there and call this the shortest blog entry I’ll ever write. But that wouldn’t be much fun, would it?

So let’s talk for a while about WHY you need proof copies of your book.

We’ll start with a few basic presumptions. We’ll presume that you’ve written your manuscript, that you’ve re-written it several times, that you’ve had it edited (hopefully professionally!) and made the necessary changes. We’ll presume that you’re releasing a paperback and that you’re industrious and decided to do the page layout and formatting yourself.

Are we all on the same page? Good.

Given these presumptions, how long would you guess you’ve spent staring at these words on your computer screen, even after you’ve finished writing them? Over the course of your many drafts and edits, how many times have you read over the same words? The answer is many – you have spent many many hours reading the same 70,000 words many times over.

And that, my friend, is the main reason why you need physical proof copies of your book. The problem isn’t that you’re lazy or stupid or sloppy.  You’ve read through every word of your book over and over again to catch even the smallest mistake, but that creates a whole different problem.

You see, the human brain has an incredible capacity to translate actual information to meet its own expectations. Have you ever read that email that gets forwarded around every few years where the letters in the words are all jumbled up, but you can still read it because the first and last letters are in the right place? Or have you ever glanced at a sign quickly and done a double-take because you think it says something wildly inappropriate? On closer examination you will probably discover that the actual words on that sign aren’t what you thought you saw. This happens because our minds work as our own visual Universal Translators (no Trekkies here? Would a Tardis reference be better? … No? oh never mind!) The point is that the brain is very good at taking the mixed up visual data that our eyes capture and fitting it into the empty slots of what we EXPECT to see. It’s a kind of mental shorthand that enables us to understand what is being presented to us even when it is visually incomplete or incorrect.  The more familiar we are with a visual cue (sign, symbol, word, sentence, etc.) the more easily we recognize it, and the less work our brain has to do to translate.

That’s a very handy trait under certain circumstances, like when reading signs on the side of the highway or skimming through your facebook feed.  It’s a lot LESS handy when you’re attempting to do something like proofing your own writing.  The more time you’ve spent on a text, the more familiar you become with it. The more familiar you become with it, the more likely your brain is to implement its handy-dandy visual translation trick when information is incomplete or incorrect.  That’s why you can read a sentence very carefully on more than one occasion and never realize that there’s a word missing.  This is doubly true if you are constantly looking at the information in the same format (in a Word document on your computer screen, for instance).

So how do you trick your brain into turning off this less-than-helpful superpower? The key is to find a way to make the words less familiar. Take them out of the setting that you’re used to seeing them in. Force your mind to actually engage with the text, rather than allowing it to see what it always sees. There are ways to do this before you get to the “proof copy” stage of the book-making game. Printing out your manuscript is one way of doing it.  Putting it in a drawer for a month is another. Both of these ideas work because they take away the familiarity factor. Words on a page read differently than words on a screen. Words that you haven’t seen in a month read differently than words you worked on yesterday.

But let’s say you’ve done that a half-dozen times or so. Do you still need to order a proof copy of your book?

YES

Because this is the only way that you will see exactly what your consumer will see.  And for whatever reason, things that didn’t stand out to you while you were formatting your text or editing your manuscript will become glaringly obvious when you see it in on that magical 6×9 page, held in your hand, and flipped through for the first time.

Let me tell you – I am a meticulous person, and if you’d asked me at the time of submitting my book for printing if I’d needed a proof copy I probably would have laughed. But I ordered a proof copy anyway. And a week or so later, when I received it and read through it, I was SHOCKED at the errors that I found. It wasn’t that there were so many – but they were so blatant, so obvious, that I couldn’t fathom how I’d missed them! There was even one on the first page. How mortifying is that?!?

So if you’re planning on self-publishing your book take my advice – order a physical proof copy before you hit that “publish” button. Believe me, it’s better to wait the extra week or two and find the typos yourself than it is to skip that step and have those typos found by readers. Remember, it only takes one or two glaring errors to convince a reader that they are dealing with an inferior product. And that’s not the impression you’re looking to leave, is it?

Createspace Customer Service: A Horror Story

Here’s the thing, I love Createspace. I love their website. I love how easy it is to get the books printed there onto Amazon. I love their pricing – I mean seriously, you CAN’T beat their pricing. I love their proofing options. I like pretty much everything about Createspace, except for one thing …

Their customer service stinks.

Now I don’t want to scare anyone off of their service, so please read the following story with an understanding that I’m still using Createspace to this day. I’ll probably keep using them for a very long time, even with their crappy customer service. After all, Createspace is an entirely automated system, and 99.9% of the time you don’t need any customer service. But for that 0.1% when you DO need to deal with someone, let this be fair warning:

A few months ago I helped a pastor at my church publish a book. I used Createspace for her project because (as I’d mentioned before) I like them a lot. Originally I ordered her one copy of the book so that she could see the finished product. It turned out beautifully. Then we ordered a batch of 50 so that she could give them to some of the people in the church. Again – we had no difficulty. The books were beautiful. Everything was awesome.

But then demand started to grow – people who weren’t computer savvy wanted to be able to buy copies of the book in the church bookstore. So we ordered another batch of 50. And this time when we got the books the covers were dark, oversaturated, and … well just ugly.

So I went online and found the Createspace customer service page. There was no phone number, but there was a fill-in-the-form-to-send-an-email complaint section. So I used it to send them a message, explaining the problem (including pictures of the original printing of the cover together with the latest batch, so that they could see the difference) and asking why it happened and what could be done about it.

In response I received a generic form email saying that they were sorry to hear about my problem and could I provide them with additional information. I clicked on the link that they included only to discover that it sent me to the exact same fill-in-the-form page that I’d originally used.

I thought it might be a mistake, so I filled in the form again, and explained in my message that this was the second time I was sending it.

The response? The same generic email saying the same thing and sending me to the same page to fill in the same form!

By this time a few days had passed and I was starting to fume. So I filled in the form a third time, and this time I expressed how much this was “NOT OK!” (my exact words). And when (before I received a reply email) I was prompted to complete a survey about my customer service experience, I took advantage of the opportunity to let them know how frustrated I was.

This time my response was from a real human being – a customer support “specialist” who wrote to me in real-human-English as opposed to computer-generated-boilerplate-lingo, and had a name and everything! She apologized for the inconvenience, acknowledged that from the picture I’d sent, it seemed that there was a severe variation in the covers, and then asked me to send her the book id #s from a few of the books in the latest batch so that technical support could look into the problem (“You’ll find it right under the bar code on the very last page of the book” she said).

Now, at this point the books were at the church, and so I had to wait a few days until I could get back there to look.  But that didn’t really bother me, since I finally felt like progress was being made. However, when I finally got one of the books in my hand I was confused to discover that there was no book id, no bar code, nothing at all on the last page.

So the next morning I emailed my customer service representative to explain the problem that I was having and to ask, basically, “what now?” and “am I an idiot or something?” And a few hours later I opened a freshly-received response from Createspace only to find ANOTHER BOILERPLATE EMAIL asking me to fill out that SAME STUPID WEB FORM and requesting PICTURES (remember I sent them with my very first request) and THE BOOK ID#s (which I had just informed them I couldn’t find!).

That’s when I lost it.

And by “it” I mean my patience. And with it my cool, and my ability to remain anything close to calm. I’m pretty sure my response was typed in all caps. I know for a fact that it was scathingly indignant, and generally enraged. It was virtually dripping with distain and general contempt at their utter lack of competence. It wasn’t nice …

So I guess I wasn’t that surprised when I went yet a few more days passed without hearing anything back from them. But this time, when I did there was another (different) actual human person on the other end of the email. This one had apparently done her homework. She actually:

  1. Apologized (again) for the problems
  2. Explained why I didn’t find book IDs (these books were outsourced to a different printer)
  3. Explained that they couldn’t do their normal quality checks because of #2
  4. Offered to ship me 50 new books to replace the dark/ugly ones
  5. Promised that they would do everything possible not to outsource any work from our account again (and therefore hopefully avoid repeating the problem again)

As promised, the new batch of books was shipped – and it was beautiful. So it ended up being a completely acceptable resolution to the problem, but frankly it shouldn’t have taken that much time, frustration, aggravation, or screaming on my end to get there. Because in all honesty, if I have to yell at you to get you to do your job, then really … you’re not doing your job.

Has anyone ever had a similar experience? Have your customer service experiences with Createspace been better? Leave a comment and let me know

Designing Your Book’s Interior: Dos and Donts

OK, this is one of those topics that gets my inner uber-dork all happy and restless and eager to show off its arcane and useless knowledge. Normally she (I’m talking about my inner uber-dork here) is content to sit quietly and let me pretend that I’m a normal person with normal levels of interest in normal things. But then there are days like today, when a topic starts rolling around in my head, one that’s of specific interest to her … and then she quickly gets a little hard to contain 🙂

First let me say, if you’re serious about designing your own book layout you must MUST go and read everything you can from Joel at the Book Designer blog (thebookdesigner.com). Everything I learned, all of those arcane rules that I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I learned from him. If you have specific questions on things like copyright, front-matter, back matter, or really ANYTHING regarding the design process, you can probably find the answer in one of his many articles on the topic.

That being said, here are my favorite DOs and DON’Ts of designing your book’s interior:

DO include the appropriate front matter. What is the appropriate front matter? Well, you’ll want a title page (on the right-hand side) and a copyright page (this can be on the left, on the back of the title page) at minimum. Many books will also have a table of contents, an acknowledgements page, a dedication, a foreword, a preface, or something else in that vein before we see chapter one. You can decide for yourself what you need. But the important thing is that you need something.

DO make sure you credit everyone on your copyright page (better safe than sorry – especially when you’re using someone else’s art work on your cover, or quotes from the Bible in your text, for instance)

DON’T mis-number your pages. Page #1 is on your right hand side … always … no matter what.  Open a book right now – where is the first page? It’s on the right. It’s always on the right. If your right-hand pages are evenly numbered, it’s a sure sign that someone didn’t know what they were doing.  It’s ok to be a rookie, but that’s no reason to make rookie mistakes, right?

DO pick a readable font for your text. This is about more than being legible (although that’s important too). What you’re looking for here is a font that encourages the reader’s eyes to keep moving. It should be simple and “ordinary” enough that that you don’t notice it. It should be spaced nicely – you don’t want your book feeling cramped or stretched out because of a poor font choice. Many experts in the field suggest using a serif font like Garamond (as opposed to a san serif font like Ariel) because it draws the eyes ever forward. Many people who know a lot more about this than I do agree that Garamond is a decent starting point. But personally, I find it incredibly difficult to read when italicized, so if you’re like me, and likely to use serious volumes of italics in your text, that’s something you might want to take into consideration.

DON’T format your book like you would format your blog. Words read differently on the printed page than they do on your computer screen. When we write for blogs we are assuming that people are reading on their computers – where discreet chunks of text make scrolling and reading easier, and so we use block styling for our paragraphs (that’s a paragraph that has no indentation at the beginning of the first line, but has spacing between it and the paragraphs before and after it). Books don’t work this way though. People are used to reading books as one continuous piece of text. We’re used to seeing no spacing between paragraphs, and a simple indentation on the first line to indicate a new paragraph has begun. So unless you have a good reason (and I mean a GOOD reason) for using additional spacing between paragraphs, you’re better off sticking to simple indentation and leaving it at that.

**Regardless of whether you choose to use spacing or indentation, under absolutely NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you be using BOTH!

DO give your text room to breathe. This is not a contest to see how many words you can fit on a page. That doesn’t mean you should use 14 point font (normally 10 or 11 is fine). But it does mean that you should consider things like the sizes of your margins, and even your line spacing, when designing your layout. It’s amazing how much more “open” a page can feel when you give yourself a little extra spacing between lines. Remember, reading is supposed to be an enjoyable experience, and if your words are so crammed together that your reader can’t keep his or her place, or if your margins are so small that there’s no room for a reader to actually hold the book … well that gets really un-enjoyable really quickly.

DON’T forget to make this look like a book. You will need to design things like your running headers (that’s the info on the top of your page that tell the reader something useful – like the name of the book or the chapter that they’re in), page numbers, and chapter titles. Remember that they don’t have to be the same font, let alone the same size as the text in the book. This is where you can get creative and give your pages some character. Just make sure that whatever you do is legible, attractive, and fitting for your genre. And if you aren’t sure what’s fitting for your genre, go to the library or your local bookstore and head straight for the shelves you hope to see your book occupying. Open 10 or 20 books and flip through the pages. Look at the design elements used. It won’t be long before you can see patterns emerging.

DO pick a style and stick with it. There are rules you need to follow, but you are creating your own work of art here, so there are also stylistic choices that you will need to make along the way. Just make sure that you’re consistent in those choices throughout the book. Don’t switch fonts for your chapter titles half way through the book. Don’t change how you handle quotes or footnotes or whatever. It can be hard to keep track of these things when you’re formatting hundreds of pages of text, so take notes as you go. Create a cheat sheet, and update it whenever you make a change. It will keep you from making this mistake.

DON’T put anything on your blank pages (no running headers, no page numbers, and certainly no “this page is intentionally left blank” … have you ever seen that in a “real” book?  I don’t think so!) They’re blank for a reason. Leave them that way.

DO remember to make it look pretty. You’re designing this interior. It should look designed. Not overworked, not fussy, but intentional and beautiful.

Was this helpful? Do you have any dos or don’ts of your own that you’d like to share? Leave a comment! I’d love to hear from you.

6 Things I Wish I’d Known About Writing Before I Started

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the writing process, and what I know now that I wish I’d known back in 2010 when I first began to write my book.  There were things that I knew to expect, to be sure. But there were also areas where I was blithely ignorant.

And so, in the interest of sharing, here is a short list of things that I would tell my 3-year-younger-self to expect from the writing process:

1. It will not be quick.  Forget about all the things you’ve read about writing books in a matter of months. Don’t even dream that you can bang something out in a matter of weeks.  You will spend eight frantic weeks just putting words on paper. And when you are done writing the first draft and you are tempted to think “the worst is behind me,” don’t even bother. You’d just be deluding yourself. The truth is that once the first draft is done, you’ve really only just begun.  Now comes the actual hard part –the cutting, the writing, the re-structuring, the changes that you weren’t expecting, and the struggle to make 50,000 words on paper into a BOOK. It will take forever. Buckle in – you’re in this for the long haul.

2. It will not be easy. Yes I know … you already know what you want to say, and so you think that saying it should be pretty simple. But the truth is, knowing what to say  – that’s the easy part. Pretty much everyone who writes a book starts off with at least a general idea of what they want to say. The hard part will be taking that message and breaking it down into pieces that are small, digestible, clear, and concise – while still fitting into a larger cohesive structure.  Writing a book is vastly different than any other writing you’ve ever done (yes, even that 150 page thesis you wrote in grad school) – not because you can’t do it, not because your style or your choice will change, but because in order for it to flow you will need it to conform to a specific structure. So you will have to build that structure first and then fit the writing into it.  Otherwise, you’ll spend months of your life tearing your hair out and wondering why nothing seems to fit together the way you want.

3. You will start and stop … over and over again. And that’s ok. People talk about book writing as a marathon. But in my experience it’s not a marathon at all. It’s the tour de France (and for the record, I’m pretty sure I spelled that wrong).  It is a series of discreet stages.  Those stages are long and grueling, to be sure. But in between them you will need to stop. You will need rest. You will set the book aside and think about other things. Don’t feel guilty about that. It’s an important part of your process. It will give you a fresh perspective. It will rejuvenate you. That way you will be able to return with a clear head when it’s time to start the next round.

4. You will learn a lot. A L-O-T. In the process of writing you will learn about yourself, your voice, your topic, editing, proofreading, structure, format, and flow.  These are things you thought you already knew. You were wrong. And so you will learn. You will also discover and revel in the joy of the bright and shiny new world of publishing. You will learn about page layouts, cover design, typography, front-matter, ISBNs, book structure and physical construction, editing, ebooks, POD printing, Offset printing, copyrights, marketing, and distribution.  You will learn more than you imagined there was to know on what (besides the content) actually makes a book good, pleasant, easy to read, and professional.  You will soak it all up like a sponge – and you will love every second of it.

5. It will be lonely. Other people will be excited when they first hear that you’re writing. They will want to talk to you about it. They will even ask to read a draft. But their interest will not last forever. After a while they will have a hard time understanding why you aren’t finished.  They will not be able to comprehend what you are doing, at least – not enough to offer you anything more than marginal help. Yes, there will be people who will offer their insight. There will be dear and wonderful friends who will encourage you and help you in every way possible. But they can’t write the book for you. They can’t tell you how to say what you want to say. So at the end of the day you will discover that you really are on this journey by yourself.  It is a solitary experience. So get ready to walk the majority of this path alone.

6. You will love it. You will also hate it.  All of that is normal too. There will be times when the words on the page positively sing to you. You will have moments sitting on your couch mouthing the words as they seem to flow right off of your laptop’s screen and into your heart. I hate to tell you this about yourself – but when that happens you just might throw both fists up into the air in a silent celebration of triumph (you are a dork, don’t forget).  But you will also have days (many many days) when you want to throw that same laptop across the room for storing such a stupid and lackluster collection of words. Let those days happen. Let them pass.  Every edit, every read-through, every draft makes things a little bit better. Every time you revisit the material you will see something different.  That is how books are made. It’s an ugly process that produces beautiful results. So revel in the joy of the days that you love, and leave the days you hate behind. Because you know that if you were given the choice you’d do the whole thing over again.

Self-Publishing: A 6 Step Overview

It’s amazing to me to think how many people have asked me in recent months to tell them what I know about the self-publishing process. It’s just as amazing for me to realize that just a few years ago I was blissfully ignorant of all of this myself

I remember when I first started looking into the world of self-publishing. The sheer volume of information out there was overwhelming. So, in the hopes of sparing you a little of the tedium and confusion that I went through at the beginning, I’ll be using the next few posts to present a very basic overview of what self-publishing actually entails. Nothing I’m going to say here is new. You can find it a million times over on a thousand different blogs all over the web. But at least here you have a simple, real-world list of what you will need to do …

And just as a word of warning – this one is going to be long. I can’t help it – I’ve always been long winded, and there’s no getting around the sheer volume of information that you need to know, even in a simple overview.

So grab your coffee (or tea, or whatever you’re drinking to stay awake on this lovely Monday morning), and get comfy as I present The Six Steps To Self-Publishing (or whatever).

Step 1: You will need to write a manuscript

I assume that you know what that means. You may not, however, understand what it entails. To write a professional-level manuscript, one that will be taken seriously in a competitive market, you will probably need help. This means finding yourself an editor, or at the very least a proofreader (and no, your genius-mom or bookworm-friend won’t cut it, not unless that’s what they do for a living).

This is the “writing” part of the writing process, and it will take months of your life to see it through. The best advice I can give here is don’t rush it.  Work on it, and keep on working on it until it feels ready. Then let it stew for a few weeks and pull it out and work on it again.

Step 2: You will need to create a book interior

This is not the same thing as writing the book itself. It’s a whole different step. This is about turning the words in your word processor into something that looks like the finished product that you see on the shelves of your local bookstore. In other words, this is the step where you design the interior of your book.

This is when you will need to do things like create a copyright page and a table of contents. You will need to design the layout of the text within the pages, create running headers with page numbers, etc. This kind of design is an art form unto itself, and there are very specific standard practices that you will want to follow in order to make it look “right.” We’ll get into more of that in a later post, but if it’s the type of thing that sets the hair on the back of your neck prickling, this is another one of those steps where you might want to hire professional help (yes, there are professional-grade, freelance book designers out there who do nothing but make the pages in your book look pretty!)

Creating the interior of an e-book, on the other hand, is often a much simpler thing. E-books aren’t static products. The look of a page depends on what kind of file you’re reading and what you’re reading it from. Even things like font sizes aren’t etched in stone, so much of the “prettifying” that’s necessary in a paper book becomes moot when you create an ebook.

You won’t be creating headers or worrying about text layout. You will, however, need to make sure the correct front-matter (copyright info, etc.) is there, but then it’s just about formatting the file in a way that will work well with whatever e-book converter you are going to use.  Again, we’ll get into more of that some other day.

Step 3: you will need to create a cover.

A book cover needs to contain some basic information (the title author’s name, etc.). It needs to be attractive and compelling – which means it needs to follow some basic rules of graphic design. It should be easy to read (it is especially important that it remains readable at thumbnail size, since that’s how most people will be viewing it if they’re buying the book on line). It also needs to be simple and uncluttered. And finally, it should conform to the expectations of your readers.

What does that mean? That means that they should be able to tell, by looking at your cover, what kind of genre the book fits into. In other words, you shouldn’t put a cartoon unicorn on your memoir or a creepy photo of a swamp on your collection of humorous essays. You want your book to find the right readers, and your cover should confirm to them that this is the book they want to read. It shouldn’t confused or annoy them.

*** Cover design is another complex area where you might want to find a professional to hire. Keep in mind that book cover design is a specialty of its own within the larger “design” world, so you would benefit from hiring someone who’s familiar with the field.

Step 4: You will need to pick a printer

For self-publishers this normally means using a Print on Demand (POD) printing service. To use a POD service, you create a PDF of your book file, and then upload it into their system. Then, any time someone orders a copy of your book, they print a single copy. There are several services out there that are widely used, reliable, and relatively easy to navigate. I use createspace.com because they’re cheap and because they make it super-easy to get your books onto Amazon. Other good POD options include lightningsource.com and lulu.com

The other printing option available to you is called “Offset Printing.” This is the printing process that big publishers use. It’s high quality, and in large print runs it’s significantly cheaper than POD as well. The problem with Offset Printing (for the self-published author) is that you need to print many (think at least 1,000) books in one shot. Most of us can’t afford that, and unless you’re a public speaker, pastor of a large church, magazine editor, or someone else with a large sphere of influence and the expectation that you will definitely SELL all 1,000 of your books, it’s normally not worth the hassle.

Step 5: You will need to publish.

This is the point in the process where all the bits and pieces come together to make a book that people can find and read. If you are using a POD distributor, this is the easy step. Createspace (the POD printer I use) is so user-friendly that it’s almost impossible to screw up the process.

In order to publish you will need an ISBN. If you are using Createspace (or many other POD publishers) you can get a free ISBN from them. This means that Createspace (or whomever) will be listed as the publisher of record. That doesn’t hurt you in any way or take any of your rights away as the author and owner of the work.  So if you are planning on selling primarily on line or in person (aka – not through book stores) feel free to take advantage of the freebee.

In order to publish you will also need to pick the size and type of book you want to create. Of course, you have already figured this out during the design process (because otherwise how would you know what size the cover and the interior pages needed to be, right?) so it’s just a matter of selecting the appropriate option.

This is also the point where you will set your price, pick your genre, enter a description, etc.  But once you’ve walked your way through these steps (there are more, I’m just skipping over the less pertinent, mostly because they’re self -explanatory and somewhat idiot-proof) and uploaded your interior and cover files to the publisher, you can hit the pretty little “publish” button, and off your book goes to be made available for purchase! If you use Createspace, your book will automatically show up on Amazon in a few hours or days.

Step 6: You will need to market your book

I should probably have put this first, because marketing is one of those things that should be started months before your book goes live. You will need to know who your target readers are and develop a strategy on how to read them.

How do you reach them? It’s impossible for me to say, because so much depends on who they are. But it’s very important that you do reach them, because as good as your book may be, it’s never going to sell itself. It’s only going to find its audience if you get involved in the introduction process.