By BRUCE DENNILL
Robert Prior is the author of The Power Of Comparison: A Manual For Better Living, promoted by Authoramp.
How do you know when an idea is worthy of developing into a book? With songs or other shorter formats, you can get to a point of knowing if something will work relatively soon, but getting several thousand words into a manuscript and then deciding it’s a waste of time is far more frustrating.
In my experience it happens when an idea really excites you, consuming your thoughts. The more you think about it, the more intriguing it becomes and you may wonder why it never occurred to you before. It seems so obvious now! Your actual or metaphorical notebook becomes filled with an assortment of often vaguely connected notions that you can’t wait to start developing into something more coherent.
Sadly, however, this doesn’t guarantee ‘success’ and it’s not until you’ve finished scribbling and readers are enjoying the fruits of your labour that you’ll really know if the original concept was truly worthy. While a fresh, interesting idea or angle is obviously crucial, timing, good fortune and first-rate marketing play significant roles as well. Only a very few can guarantee success from the outset.
With this in mind, writing a book shouldn’t just be about potential royalties or possible benefits to readers, but the pleasure and knowledge you will derive from the process. It’s essential that you’re hugely curious about the idea that you’ve hit upon, enjoy the challenge of putting a book together and, of course, love writing. If one or more of these don’t apply then the chances are that you’ll run out of steam at some point. Disc drives across the world are no doubt littered with partially completed books (as well as songs) that seemed like a good idea to write when the idea first struck.
When you decide that a theme or story is worth exploring, how do you go about unpacking that? How much research and planning do you do, and how detailed is it?
I would like to say that I always plan extremely diligently and undertake masses of research before setting pen to paper but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Rather, for my self-help book, The Power of Comparison: A Manual For Better Living, I began with the aspect that I felt most confident about and took it from there.
In many ways my process was a bit like exploring a maze. With a rough strategy in mind, I would head down various paths, hoping they would take me closer to the centre. While sometimes they did, leading me to explore fruitful new avenues, at others I was forced to retrace my steps and search different routes. In truth, it was very much an iterative process.
Much of my research involved reading dense, academic studies to report, in more straight forward terms, their results. Among other things, I wanted to demonstrate that the comparisons we make with other people, through face-to-face and social media interactions, can have profound effects on the way we feel about ourselves. Other books obviously require different forms of research and planning, but I think that whatever the genre there should be a degree of flexibility regarding how the story develops. As you write a book and talk to people about it, new ideas are bound to crop up. It would be remiss to dismiss them simply because they don’t fit into an initial, rigid plan.
If the hundreds of memes about writing are to be believed, sitting down and actually putting words on a page is perhaps the toughest part of the job. What are the distractions you battle with the most when trying to work?
Having a great idea is one thing but, as the question indicates, putting it down on ‘paper’ is often quite another. This is why I think your starting point should be the area where your thoughts are best-defined, not necessarily at the beginning of Chapter One.
Whenever you’re stuck, I suggest writing something, virtually anything, just to get going. The fact that you’ve made a start often instills confidence and gets the writing juices flowing. Don’t worry if it’s poor. You can always tidy it up at a later stage.
Distractions are indeed common. In a desperate attempt to find tranquility and concentration some authors will stick large “keep out” notices on their study doors, while others go as far as renting cottages in the middle of nowhere. But, no matter what methods you’ve adopted, interruptions of one sort or another are unavoidable. The secret is to see them as potentially advantageous. I often found that when I wasn’t thinking about what to write, something of relevance to the book would suddenly pop into my head: helpfully, the subconscious keeps working away when the conscious mind is distracted or asleep.
It’s also essential not to become obsessed with the project. We require a change of mental scenery every now and again to retain a sense of perspective and humour. Clearly, however, there is a limit to the usefulness of distractions. I write this having been disturbed by one of our two cats mewing for food, somebody delivering a parcel for my elder son and two phone calls from my younger son demanding his lunch, all in the last 30 minutes!
Daily goals: what, for you, is an acceptable daily target, in terms of word count or the quality of what you complete, be it a sentence, a paragraph or a chapter? What have you found are the best ways to get this done?
Again, flexibility is key in my opinion. Just like everybody else, authors have good days and bad. Sometimes words will flow and sometimes they won’t, often for no apparent reason. I found that the key was to be disciplined enough to exploit the good days, squeezing out as many words as possible on such occasions, and be kind to myself when it wasn’t going so well. While having an explicit daily goal sounds like a good idea, it can easily prove counterproductive.
Having retired or, more accurately, given up proper work, I was lucky enough not to have to combine full-time employment with writing my book. Nevertheless, there were still plenty of other things demanding my attention. As such, I tried to write when I felt productive (and there was no decent sport on TV) and complete other tasks when I didn’t (and there wasn’t). Needless to say, it didn’t always work out quite as neatly as this.
Marketing new books – print or digital: what fresh ideas do you think could be introduced to the process to make new work more accessible and appealing to both new and established readers?
The most difficult question last! I wish I knew. What I do know is that great marketing is fundamental to the success of any book, however fantastic it is. There’s just a couple of unoriginal points I would emphasise here.
First, bearing in mind the incredibly short attention span of most readers and the fact that images are more likely to be remembered than words, it’s hard to overestimate the importance of the cover. Hours and hours should be spent perfecting it. Second, creating a ‘buzz’ on social media will probably be the most important objective of any marketing campaign these days. This is most likely to be achieved by getting your book in front of relevant, influential bloggers and reviewers, some of which you may know and others you’ll need to research. By spreading the word as far and wide as you can, you just never know.