How To Write Books

According to the New York Times, 81% of Americans feel they have a book in them.

I know a lot of Americans, but I’ve only met three who have actually made that dream a reality (they have written or are currently writing their book).

What really HELPS people write books is to have a clear image of how authors actually do it. Not only should we see how it’s done, but we should believe that the techniques we’re learning are repeatable (we can use the techniques ourselves!).

So, this journal entry is dedicated to describing how to write a book. More specifically, the mechanics of how books actually get written, using techniques that published authors use, and only the ones that the average person can easily repeat. I will use examples from both fiction and nonfiction authors.

Tip #1: The Notecard System

Robert Greene, the author of The 48 Laws of Power (amongst other things), our modern day Machiavelli or Sun Tzu, uses the Notecard System.

In fact, many professional writers, including speechwriters such as the late Ronald Reagan, use this system.

The System: Any time you come up with an idea yourself, or come across something outside of yourself (such as a quote, fact, statistic, etc.)…ANYTHING you find interesting or think you might use later…write it down on a notecard (index card). See below:

Notecard3

In the upper righthand corner of the card, write the “theme” of the quote.

That’s it, really. You should collect these cards randomly; don’t just collect notecards about “internet marketing” or whatever your book topic is. Collect randomly and you’ll start noticing the same themes (in the upper right corner) popping up again and again.

These cards can be used to provide content for your book. More importantly, they provide ideal book TOPICS. A theme (or collection of similar themes) that repeats itself over and over makes for a great book topic.

Studies show that it takes ~730 hours to write the average nonfiction book and ~480 hours for fiction. That’s at least 8 months to a year of your life (if you write for 2 hours a day) JUST WRITING THE BOOK (not planning or editing or anything else)!

Thus, you need a good way to pick a book topic you’re not going to get sick of and that you have A LOT to say about. I know of no better way than the Notecard System.

Robert Greene says you need 300 notecards (under one theme) to make a book.

Further Reading on the Notecard System: Ryan Holiday’s summary (he’s a former research assistant for Robert Greene, and now an author himself)

Add Color Coding To Your Notecard System: Robert Greene further organizes his notecards using color coding. He buys colorful index cards and each color stands for different categories.

Example:

  • red = war
  • green = nature
  • purple = society
  • blue = science
  • orange = me (personal stuff)

Then, he makes sure that every chapter of his book contains a variety of different colors (so, for example, he does not use too many war anecdotes). See below:

Too many blue cards in the second example (on the right)

Too many blue cards in the second example (on the right)

Other uses of the Notecard System: Even if you have no ambitions to be Robert Greene or Ronald Reagan, it seems this system would still be useful. It’s much easier to argue something you believe in (at work or in your personal life) if you can pepper the conversation with supporting anecdotes or metaphors (using these notecards). Even if you’re not interested in arguing with others or attempting to persuade others, these notecards could be used as evidence to persuade yourself if you are internally debating anything.

The Notecard System too old school? I use Evernote (a free software program) to store my notes instead of using old fashioned, physical notecards. This was born out of two insecurities: (1) What if there is a fire?! I will lose my index cards! (2) I am new to this, so I don’t know if my themes or color coding will be right. If I generate these notecards on the computer, they can be easily edited/fixed at a later date.

Instructions on how to develop a Notecard System on Evernote:

  1. Create a stack titled “Notecard System”
  2. Inside, stack the following notebooks: New Notecards, Permanent Notecards, Trash, Not Sure Notecards, Articles/Web Clippings, Book Summaries, TOC (Table of Contents) for Notecard System
  3. Any time you have a new index card you want to create, enter a note into the “New Notecards” notebook.
  4. Every week or every three weeks, go through all your new notecards and separate them into trash, not sure, or permanent.
  5. If a notecard stands the test of time and you want it to be permanent, give it a theme (or multiple themes) in the upper right corner and give it one or more categories (if you’re color coding). You can “tag” these notecards with all the themes and categories you’ve chosen. If you visually want to see color coding, add an image like the one below to the note: green natureFinish up any extra details, and then move the note from “New Notecards” to “Permanent Notecards.”
  6. Record all your themes and categories on a note under “TOC for Notecard System” – add any new ones you have. This is just a personal reference for yourself.
  7. If you want to save an entire article or want to summarize a book you’ve read, you can store those in the notebooks titled “Articles/Web Clippings” or “Book Summaries”

Are There Other Ways To Pick A Book Topic? Traditional book publishers look to see what people want to read before publishing a book. If people aren’t reading vampire fiction, and you send them a vampire fiction book, they will reject you. If you write a proposal for a nonfiction book on the history of vampires, they will ask you to revise your proposal to be about werewolves, a much more popular topic.

It’s not a bad idea–write only what people will buy. You are more likely to make money that way. However, you don’t want to fool yourself into writing something that you’re not really interested in for the sake of the money. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to stick to that topic for a year or more without getting burnt out. That’s why I prefer the Notecard System. It’s more important that you focus on what YOU’RE interested in, than what the vague READERSHIP is interested in, because it’s more important you finish the book than the book be well received. It won’t be well received if you never finish it!

Alas, if you insist you must KNOW the book will be a monetary success BEFORE you start writing: This is part 1 of a Youtube series that teaches you how to use Amazon’s website to determine what book topics are selling the most right now.

Tip #2: Outline Everything!!!!

Outlining your writing ahead of time is boring. But it is necessary. And it needs to be done ALL. THE. TIME.

You need to be outlining everything on the macro level and micro level.

Macro Level Outlining (Big Picture): Outline your entire book before you start writing. Know ahead of time what is going into each chapter.

How to do this for nonfiction books is pretty self-explanatory: Figure out what your chapters and subchapters are going to be. Then, simply organize the 300 notecards you created using Tip #1 above.

However, this rule also applies to fiction books. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, used notes like the following to organize one of her Harry Potter books. The columns are the various plot lines going on in the book and the rows are the months in Harry Potter’s life:

This is a re-creation of J.K. Rowling's actual notes. The real notes can be found through a Google image search.

This is a re-creation of J.K. Rowling’s actual notes. The real notes can be found through a Google image search.

The image above is how a fiction author would outline different storylines and plan to make them weave in and out of the main character’s life.

(As a side note, some authors do not agree with planning out a full fiction story ahead of time. Stephen King argues that this is like dressing up characters as paper dolls and forcing them to do your bidding. He argues that a good fiction author instead creates characters, bumps the characters into each other, and then sees what plays out, seeing what the characters would do naturally. I have never written fiction, so I don’t know. But, I would argue that most writers can use J.K. Rowling’s method, while most writers don’t know how to use Stephen King’s method.)

In summary, on the macro level, you should organize your entire book before you even start writing.

Micro Level Outlining (Daily Organizing):  On the micro level, you should sketch out exactly what you’re going to write immediately before you actually sit down to write on a daily basis. Rachel Aaron, an ebook author, says that she simply sketches out a scene (how the dialogue is going to work, the order of events, etc.) in 5 minutes before she actually writes it. This way, she is much less likely to have to write and rewrite (and rewrite AGAIN!) problem chapters or scenes that she just can’t seem to “get right.”

For nonfiction books, this means sketching out the flow of an argument that you’re going to be making.

Again, it should only take 5 minutes and you can do it on a scratch piece of paper…all of this BEFORE you sit down for your daily writing.

Rachel Aaron says she started doing this because she noticed that as a professional fiction writer, she often thought she could “wing it” and not organize things ahead of time. But, often she’d have to rewrite the same chapter over and over again because she couldn’t get it right, stalling her progress. It wasn’t until she started paying a babysitter to watch her kids that she realized time is money and it didn’t make sense to “wing it” anymore. She found sketching out scenes ahead of time fixed the problem.

You may think this takes the fun out of writing, but, really, it takes the angst out of writing. This makes writing much much much much easier.

If you’re worried about not enjoying yourself while writing, Rachel Aaron argues that after you sketch the scene out, take a second and try to get excited about what you’re going to write. If, after much effort, you can’t seem to get excited (even days later), maybe you shouldn’t write it in the first place. If it’s boring for you to write, it will be boring for your readers to read.

Read her absolutely excellent article here.

I remember ignoring the advice to outline my essays in high school. Like most decisions I made in high school, I was utterly wrong. Even though outlining SEEMS extremely boring (and it can be boring…), you’d be absolutely ignorant to not do it. Don’t be lazy!

Remember, it takes the average person a year to write a book if they write for two hours a day. Don’t turn a year into two years by “winging it.”

Tip #3: Write The First Draft With Your Heart

A quote from the movie and novel Finding Forrester:

You write your first draft with your heart, and you rewrite with your head.

Write the first draft of your book with your heart, and the second draft with your head.

It’s my understanding that this is a common piece of writing advice.

Most of us know how to write with our heads. But how does someone write with their hearts? Doesn’t their head have to be involved?

I’ve found that the advice of writing coach Tom Bird applicable: Use stream of consciousness (SOC) writing.

Stream of consciousness writing is basically frantic trance writing:

  • write as fast as your fingers can type
  • don’t stop or take a break
  • write the first thing that pops into your head, even if it’s nonsense and has nothing to do with anything
  • NO pressing backspace – this is not the time to edit your work
  • leave all the misspellings and rambling – you’re just writing whatever pops out, not worrying about the content

This is writing with your heart, because you’re not giving your brain enough time to doubt or criticize what you’re writing. You just start writing and don’t stop. You don’t worry one bit about what actually comes out.

The second draft is the time to go back and edit the SOC writing.

Some people use music to get themselves in the flow state. Tom Bird recommends non-rhythmic music such as ambient music. Ryan Holiday listens to the same 1-3 terrible pop songs over and over again on loop to create the ‘flow’ state (he says no listening to the radio or Pandora – repetition of the same songs is key!). I’m sure classical music or low volume jibberjabber would work too.

So, that is how to write with your heart.

As you might guess, SOC writing requires A LOT of editing in the second draft, so why bother with this kind of writing?

Why write with your heart: You don’t want all that time you spend preparing notecards and outlining everything and all the other planning you’ve done to be in vain!

Books take a lot of work. The last thing you want is to put all that time in only to find out that your book doesn’t connect emotionally with your readers. In order to have a good book, even if you’re writing a straightforward how-to manual, you must make the readers feel something. You cannot make them feel something unless you feel something while you’re writing. And you can’t feel something while you’re writing unless you turn your critical brain off and you leave yourself completely wide open.

SOC writing is a brilliant way to do this because it paints your critical brain into a corner – you have no option but be “open” because your critical brain has no time to interject.

If you don’t believe your readers are looking to “feel something,” Tom Bird uses the example of sports broadcaster Howard Cosell who people HATED, but still tuned in to every week. He made people feel anger, but people would tune in just to feel something.

Similarly, our most famous reality TV stars are almost always villains.

I think if you look into your past behaviors, you’ll notice you occasionally get hooked into watching a TV show or reading a book that you technically don’t like, but it connects with you in a strange way, so you keep watching/reading.

Again, this highlights WHY you’ll want to write from the heart and develop a connection with your readers. People are attracted to things that make them feel.

What happens when you try SOC writing? I’ve tried stream of consciousness writing a few times. A couple times it was completely undirected, diary-style writing, a couple times it was directed, and I was using SOC writing for the first draft.

I can definitively say that nothing I ever wrote in the traditionally “slow” writing method compares emotionally to what came out when using the SOC style. SOC writing reveals surprising, deep thoughts. It is a much more honest kind of writing.

I, also, can definitively say that the amount of crap that comes out of your head at high speeds is astounding. SOC writing needs to be edited A LOT during your second draft. There are entire sentences and paragraphs full of nonsense. But, ultimately, it’s worth it to get the golden nuggets that SOC writing produces.

SOC writing is so fast you can write a new book every month: One of the other benefits of SOC writing is how fast it is. You’ll have your first draft done in no time. I suspect that the Kindle (serialized) fiction authors who publish a new ebook every month use SOC writing for at least the first draft, if not the second.

How To Write Mindlessly AND Still Outline Everything: Tip #2 (outline everything ahead of time) contradicts a bit with Tip #3 (write mindlessly). I try to combine the two.

In my opinion, the structure of a book should be left up to your logical, critical mind, so it doesn’t make sense to let your heart have a say in the overall outlining. So, before I write, I do micro-level outlining of the structure of what I’m going to write (sketch out the argument I’m going to be making, or the order of events that will take place).

When I actually go to write, I look at the first item on my “sketch” and write about it mindlessly until I feel I have nothing more to say. Then, I look at the second item on my “sketch” and start writing mindlessly about that.

The only rule is you can’t delete anything you’ve written SOC style, even if you notice that you did things in the wrong order or seemed to have written the same paragraph twice in two different ways. SOC writing rules still apply. Even though you’re trying to impose a structure into the SOC writing, and you’re probably pausing to re-orient yourself more than you should, you still want to maintain the “heart” of your work as much as possible.

Conclusion

If you’re part of the 81% of Americans (or other nationalities!) that feel you have a book inside you, you just learned how to:

  1. Choose a topic for your book (Tip #1: The Notecard System)
  2. Organize your entire book, so you don’t waste time fumbling (Tip #2: Outline Everything On Macro and Micro Level)
  3. Write really really fast and in a way that endears you to readers (Tip #3: SOC writing)

Of course, these tips are not JUST about writing books. They can be used and re-adapted into other situations…

But I’ll leave that to your imagination.

Why You Should Read Ancient Classics Like Homer and Plato

In Henry David Thoreau’s most famous book Walden, he dedicated a whole chapter to making fun of fools who read ‘Easy Reading’ books:

A man, any man, will go considerably out of his way to pick up a silver dollar; but here are golden words, which the wisest men of antiquity have uttered, and whose worth the wise of every succeeding age have assured us of;–and yet we learn to read only as far as Easy Reading, the primers and class-books, and when we leave school, the “Little Reading,” and story books, which are for boys and beginners; and our reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikans.

-Henry David Thoreau, Walden

He says that we, basically, never go beyond reading at the level of children.

We can recognize the value of a silver dollar on the ground, but we can’t be bothered to pick up a book with “golden words,” of even MORE value than a silver dollar, the words of which have proven themselves to be worthy through the test of time. We just read the easy stuff that our contemporaries dumb down for mass consumption…worth mere pennies.

Thoreau believes that you should read Homer and Plato, which are the oldest of the old. And he further argues that you should read them in their original languages, not translations. He confesses, though, that you will be lonely and have no one to discuss your joy of the classics with — it is not polite (or normal) conversation.

I disagree with Thoreau on one point: Reading ancient texts in their original language might be a bit much nowadays; how am I going to read The Art of War by Sun Tzu in Chinese one day and then The Iliad in Greek the next?

But, Thoreau is right about the quality of the books I read. Every time I go to the library, I whistle on by the books written 2500 years ago and instead pick up the simple travel stories or elementary psychology texts!

One Other Bad Reading Habit EVERYONE Has

Another bad reading habit of mine: NONE of my reading choices are based on what will do me the most good or what is most valuable to me. In fact, most of what I read online or in books are about things I already agree with that prove I’m “right” in some way.

For example, if I feel that minimalism is a smart way to live life, I will read a book on minimalism. Or, if I am a feminist, I avoid reading books that I deem anti-woman.

…humans will seek out people who agree with them and read articles that confirm their beliefs or their biases, rather than articles that challenge them.

-Jacob Lund Fisker, Early Retirement Extreme

It is wise to seek arguments/books/articles that make you question your foundational beliefs. Read only things that challenge you to think more deeply, like a true teacher would encourage you to do.

You Have Three Possible Directions in Life: Backwards, Sideways, or Forwards

picture of your 3 paths

The wise man chooses to walk forward, but to most people there’s something more appealing about going sideways or even backwards.

Reading texts that challenge you or have proven value to you (such as ancient classics) is the equivalent of walking forward. You’re always facing forward, so why not walk forward, right?

But, most people, when they look at the path forward, they see the steep incline ahead. “Reading Homer is hard,” they whine. To them, it’s much easier to click on a link that promises to show them a picture of Rihanna without makeup than it is to pick up a book that requires them to spend an hour reading 10 pages.

Thus, they decide to walk backwards or sideways instead of forward:

(1) Walking backwards -“The Great Employee”

Someone who walks backwards is someone who is even worse than the ‘easy reading’ person;  at least easy reading will keep your mind as active as it was when you were a schoolboy. People who walk backwards actually read things or have habits that degrade their minds–reading only idle gossip, watching television, or mindlessly consuming drugs or alcohol.

I call this type “great employees” because they are usually the type that dedicate all their energy into doing a good job at work, getting accolades from their boss, and then crash on the couch when they get home; they have nothing left to give, not even to their children. Eventually, over time, this person degrades his senses so much that he finds it hard to take pride in anything but work.

He no longer notices that he has sacrificed his life to a corporation he has no real stake in. If he walks too far backwards, he drowns and never actually lives his full life.

A quote from the author of Top Five Regrets of the Dying:

“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. … All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.

The great employee (the man who walks backwards) is always well liked by his bosses and coworkers. That is what keeps him walking backwards, even if it’s awkward at times.

(2) Walking sideways – “The Successful Man”

If you walk sideways, you will find grand success in this world, with no risk of drowning like the backwards man. In fact, if you are a good side-stepper, there’s a village full of people waiting to celebrate you!

The sideways stepper avoids things that degrade his mind, but also never upgrades his mind. By society’s standards, it looks like he feeds his mind with intelligent reading and the avoidance of TV, but society is mistaken.

What’s really happening is that he’s just successful COMPARED to the backwards man. Since he has cut out mind numbing things like TV, he has time to produce simple ideas, which he then reads about over and over again. He reads a hundred books on index fund investing that confirm his perspective is right. And when he reads an article on why index fund investing is wrong, he laughs at it and uses it for fodder. He is knee deep in confirmation bias.

Of course, deep down, he never truly challenges his own thinking. That’s not to say that his opinion NEVER changes, but it only changes when forced. He does not seek out the truth or to prove himself wrong the way that a forward walker does.

His fans at the village treat him as a modern day king because they believe the same things he believes. The sideways stepper is never lonely, and is always impressive in the eyes of others.

Not a bad deal, right? He might own a business of his own or be independent minded within the company he works for. He looks more free than the average person.

Too bad he does not take the time to read Seneca The Younger, an ancient philosopher who argues that successful men are as ignorant of the shortness of life as any other man. They are all wasting time.

(3) Walking forward – “The Accurate Mapmaker”

Little is known of people who choose to walk forward. I’m not sure if I have met one. Thoreau thinks that if you ever met such a man, it would be impossible to look him in the eye.

Perhaps the best illustration of a man who walked forward is the story of Buddha:

When Buddha was born, a seer told his father that he was destined to be either a great king or a great spiritual leader, but not both. His father, being a normal human being with stupid ideas about what is glorious, wanted him to be a king (a sideways walker) and so tried to shield young Buddha from anything that might convince him to take a spiritual path–pain and aging. But, when young Buddha finally saw pain and aging firsthand, he immediately shed everything his father taught him and dedicated his life to what made more sense: spiritual enlightenment.

Buddha took many false paths on his journey to enlightenment, and almost died because of it. He experienced starvation and other painful experiences, but through perseverance was able to reach the enlightened state.

Buddha walked forward. It was challenging and painful in ways that most people aren’t willing to go through, but he kept at it.

Reading what is difficult to decipher (poetry, anyone?) and that which challenges your preciously held beliefs (and being open to those challenges!) is VERY hard, and VERY painful. It is not comparable to the supposed challenges that the sideways walkers go through in order to reach success — it is much much much much much much HARDER.

The person who walks forward will be alone. That’s not to say that Buddha was alone when he reached enlightenment; he actually taught many people his findings. But the distinction lies here:

I make a distinction between aloneness and loneliness. Loneliness is the unavailability of people to communicate with on any level. Powerful people are surrounded by others only too eager to communicate with them; hence they are seldom lonely and may even yearn for loneliness. Aloneness, however, is the unavailability of someone to communicate with at your level of awareness.

-M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled

A man who walks forward will be alone, both through the process of walking forward and also after reaching the peak of the mountain. Even Thoreau confessed that if you take the time to read Homer, you will have no luck finding someone to discuss it with.

People who walk sideways or backwards, on the other hand, are never alone. The sideways walkers always have people to rejoice in their success and the backwards walker will be comfortably surrounded by the water that drowns them.

The value of being a forwards walker is that the sooner you start traversing those peaks, the better a view of the world you will have. M. Scott Peck in The Road Less Traveled talks about how we are all mapmakers. And any good mapmaker must be willing to erase and re-draw areas he has accidently mapped out wrong, no matter how much time went into the first draft.

The higher up you are on the peaks, the better your view of the landscape, and the more accurate your map. If you are a forward walker, you will be constantly re-drawing your map the higher you get, which is exhausting, but in the end more truthful, accurate, and honest.

What Does Your Path Look Like?

individual footprint path

Most people’s paths involve a combination of forwards, sideways, and backwards stepping

Life is complicated. It’s not like there are only three types of people: backwards, sideways, and forwards. Likely, each individual’s direction will change throughout life, hopefully for the better.

Perhaps you’re still hung up on this idea that you can’t read ancient texts. Perhaps you say, “I’ve never been able to read Shakespeare! It just doesn’t make sense to me!”

I thought that way until I read Ryan Holiday’s article: How to Digest Books Above Your “Level”

It turns out, walking forward is just as easy as it’s always been…