By Elena Petricone
You’ve been toying with the idea for a while, and now you’re resolved to write a business book.
So where do you start? Should you set up a Facebook page? Should you self-publish or seek a traditional publisher? Should you purchase dictation software? Should you clear your schedule for the inevitable international five star hotel book tour? Should you hire an editor? A ghostwriter? Should you hire a random Millennial to keep you hip? What about the font?
There’s so much to consider, so much noise! It’s no wonder that many would-be business book authors sputter out in the early stages from decision-exhaustion.
The good news is that the very first step to writing a business book is straightforward, accessible, and will cost you no money. The bad news is that the very first step is potentially the most difficult, will demand the most amount of time, and will pay you no money.
The first step in writing a book is to write.
I know, I know.Anything but that!
But there is no alternative. There is no loophole. You cannot social media your way out of this one. If you want to be an author, you have to write.
As long as your book idea stays in your head it’s perfect and shiny and unimpeachable in the way that all unrealized dreams are. It also stays unwritten, and therefore, unreadable.
But! More good news: I did not say you have to start by writing the entire book.
Whether you’re leaning toward self-publishing or seeking a traditional publisher, you do not have to complete an entire manuscript at the outset. In fact, my boss Ken Lizotte and I advise our clients not to attempt to write the entire book from the get-go. (Keep in mind that we’re talking about non-fiction/business books here. Other genres, such as fiction, children’s, etc., demand other protocols.)
Instead, for the very first step we give our clients the following exercise: write a synopsis. In other words, write an overview, or summary of what your book is about and the topics, questions, or trends it covers. Who would benefit from reading your book (be more specific than “everyone!”). Why is your book relevant now, at this moment? A synopsis doesn’t need to be, nor should it be long. Shoot for a couple of pages, three at the absolute max.
Alongside your synopsis, write a draft table of contents. Write a paragraph summarizing each chapter with a few specific bullet points. Be as specific as you can. Experiment with different outlines and methods of organization. Maybe your book is a straight 12 chapters. Maybe your book demands “parts” or sections to further group chapters under idea or concept umbrellas. Your content will shape the outline.
As you write through this exercise, you will probably find yourself thinking, “this is harder than I thought it would be.” It will probably take longer than you expected. Even if you are writing about problems you solve every day or a topic that you know like the back of your hand, transposing your expertise onto the page isn’t easy. That’s all part of the exercise. Writing forces you to really flesh out and express your ideas in clear sentences.
Are there any prescriptive guidelines you should follow at this stage? Not really. As Ken Lizotte, our chief imaginative officer and fearless leader points out in his book The Expert’s Edge: Become the Go-To Authority People Turn to Every Time (McGraw-Hill), “Given that a book is a lengthy project, your writing is bound to head off in a few unexpected directions, some of which could result in an even better book than the one you had initially conceived. Allow such mysterious literary meanderings to take place.”
So don’t censor yourself—go where the writing takes you. When we task our clients with these exercises, many come back and say, “I started out thinking my book would be about X topic, but while wrestling with the synopsis and table of contents (TOC) I realized that my book is actually about Y topic.” Or maybe they realized that while the idea they started with wasn’t enough to sustain an entire book, they were able to dig deep and expand the content for the better. Or maybe they realized that they had too much content, and had to scale down. It’s all good. It’s all normal. Anything could happen, and everything will benefit you in the long run.
What is non-negotiable in the synopsis/TOC exercise? Getting to the end. Even if it’s not perfect. Even if you know you have a lot of revising ahead of you. The synopsis and TOC aren’t intended to be set in stone—as Ken says above, you should expect them to change and evolve as you continue the writing process.
Writing your book synopsis and TOC serves as a critical (but contained) first test of persistence and perseverance. During this exercise you will inevitably face moments of frustration where you just can’t seem to articulate your thoughts. This will not be unique to the synopsis and TOC. You will face such frustrating moments throughout the writing process. The important thing is that you train yourself to keep your butt in the seat and keep writing.
Furthermore, a synopsis and TOC helps you start to really see your project end-to-end. It’s the first step to turning your book idea into something concrete that you can work with. It’s the first step in making your book a reality.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Ron Carlson, from Ron Carlson Writes a Story (Graywolf Press):
“The most important thing a writer can do after completing a sentence is to stay in the room. The great temptation is to leave the room to celebrate the completion of the sentence or to go out in the den where the television lies like a dormant monster and rest up for a few days for the next sentence or to go wander the seductive possibilities of the kitchen. But. It’s simple. The writer is the person who stays in the room. The writer wants to read what she is in the process of creating with such passion and devotion that she will not leave the room. The writer understands that to stand up from the desk is to fail, and to leave the room is so radical and thorough a failure as to not be reversible. Who is not in the room writing? Everybody. Is it difficult to stay in the room, especially when you are not sure of what you’re doing, where you’re going? Yes. It’s impossible. Who can do it? The writer.”
So sit down and write, write, write. Right? Write.
Elena Petricone is the deputy imaginative officer at emerson consulting group, inc. and passionate about helping her clients publish their ideas. Elena’s work has been published in The Writer’s Chronicle and The Concord Journal, among other outlets. Visit www.thoughtleading.com.