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Book Building | 5 steps for novelists and nonfictionists — Beer vs. Bread

Book Building: Architecture Techniques for Writers

blueprint for a book

by Greg I. Hamilton on November 17, 2010

There are many ways to make a skyscraper, but plenty more ways not to make one. If your building is actually going to stay standing, admit guests, meet their needs, and let them back out again, then there are certain architectural rules that apply to every project. A loading dock, for instance, should not be seven floors above street level. The private conference room should probably not be a corridor leading to the receptionist’s desk. And no matter what business you’re in, the lawyers should never occupy more than one floor of your high-rise.

Books have architecture, too. If your book is more humble than this concept of a glass-and-steel monolith that pierces the clouds and makes them cry, then there are still engineering and feng shui principles that should inform your work. I don’t believe a home is a valid analogy. You will not live in your book. And you do not expect your guests to put up with inconveniences and your idiosyncrasies, like storing the pots and pans as far from the stove as they could possibly be. Let’s build, instead, a rental cottage.

If your book is like a rental cottage, there are some proven principles you should consider. These apply, even if you plan to be much smarter and do it your own damn way. Unless you consider the accepted way to do it, how do you know your way isn’t the accepted way? And then what kind of rebel would you be?

On building a rental cottage [we are talking about writing books, right?], you’ll need:

  • A door to get in (and, generally, out again).
  • A roof and walls to protect guests from the outside world.
  • Windows to let in light (or creepy candelabras if your book is about vampires).
  • Enough space for your guests to move around and get comfortable.
  • Rooms enough for the privacy of the various personalities who will visit.
  • The amenities your guests will appreciate— ones that will encourage them to seek out your other rental cottages across the countryside.
  • One outstanding, memorable feature that will stick in guests’ minds and get them to plan their family reunions (or annual boys’ hunting trips, or quilting Chautauquas, or whatever) here year after year.

That last feature is key. What makes your project special might be your gourmet kitchen, the stack of board games you provide, that comfy couch with the bear-skin rug, the sensible layout and decor, the X-box, the views, the sound of the rain on the tin roofs when the power goes out, or some cohesive sense that the whole thing just works. Cottage or skyscraper, what you’re building better have an overarching vision and takeaway for anyone who visits it.

So in architecting your book, my recommended steps are:

  1. Just dive in and start writing something.
    “It was a dark and stormy night and I was quoting exquisite qualitative inquisitions when—”
  2. Stop, go back to #1, and stay there a while— at least until you’re excited about this thing you’ve started creating. Creating in your mind is not creating, it’s navel-gazing. Analysis and scrutiny are the death of good first-draft writing. Just ask a friendly writing coach like Natalie Goldberg who will sagely analyze and scrutinize thusly: “The aim is to burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel.” First get it out of you and onto the page, into the keyboard, or inside of that newfangled tablet-thingee of yours that you call a computer. Don’t go to #3 until you’ve got something whole (even if quite flawed) or at least substantial— and then only when you’re completely stuck and losing your enthusiasm.
    “—when my quantitative queries quieted the quality of my … [ugh, I’m running out of Q-words! Is it too many? Too few? I just don’t quite know when to quit …]”
  3. Next, figure out why you want to write this thing. Your answer need not be practical, saleable, or even comprehensible to anyone but you.
    “I want to write this book because I think the world is short on the letter Q.”
  4. Now figure out why you want to share this thing of yours. That is likely different than #3, which was all about you. If you want to publish (including self publishing), then you are seeking an audience for your work. Who would you like to reach with your ideas? And “everyone” is not acceptable. Have you ever seen a work of art that pleased everyone? If so, it was definitely not art.
    “I want my book to reach people who are stuck in a rut of not using Q words.”
  5. Building on your answer to #4, and shifting your perspective away from your selfish desires of #3, consider what your ideal reader needs from this book. If they’re swamped in their lives, they won’t have much time to weed through irrelevant details: you’ll need to keep it punchy, concise, and on-topic. If they’re jonezing for an escape, then you can probably meander through some delightful diversions with them and titillate them with your loquacious creativity (and your grandiloquent vocabulary). If they’re facing a specific problem that’s begging resolution, you’ll want to be clear, supportive, and helpful.
    “My readers don’t even know they need more Q. So I will gently lead them into the realm, and then keep them there with fascinating tales of the potential of Q-words. In the end, they will feel refreshed and excited to share with others their newfound love of Q.”

By the way, we’re talking here about nearly any kind of book: novel, self-help, biography, robot erotica— whatever your kink might be. This list of five principles of book-architecture could go onto hundreds more: things like “don’t place the toilet where it blocks the bathroom door” (yes, I do believe you should install a metaphorical water closet for your readers somewhere in every book you write). But for now, I think the general vagaries of these questions, if you can pin the answers down in a way that feels right to you, is the first stage of deciding whether you really want to go through the protracted agony of actually finishing, polishing, trashing and rewriting, and then eventually publishing your masterpiece.

Thanks for reading— and writing.



Photo by Will Scullin

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