The Secrets to Writing a Great Book
By Katrin Schumann
People tend to think writing is romantic, and they’re not entirely wrong. It’s romantic in the way that being obsessed with someone who kind of, basically, mostly loves you back can be romantic—it’s a compelling, desperate, all-encompassing, occasionally fabulous experience. It’s romantic like starving in a garret is romantic: you’re hungry (which sucks), but at least you’re doing something that feels meaningful.
What most people, including beginning writers, don’t always realize is that writing is methodical, strategic, and workaday. It’s most definitely about getting your “butt in the chair” (as Ron Carlson said at The Muse in 2011), but it's also about vision and execution, and how you combine the two.
With nonfiction, it rarely works to have an idea and then build on it haphazardly. With fiction that approach can work as long as you’re a great editor or are willing to work with a great editor. So for this post, let’s focus on nonfiction.
To be successful (which for me means completing a book others will want to read) your vision for the book must be powerful and clear. The core idea is absolutely key—it must have zing. It must be relevant, intriguing, and sustainable. And you must be able to communicate the core idea in a way that pulls people in.
Often you’ll need help finding your core idea. Then you’ll need help refining it, and finding the right words to convey it. Getting help is not only okay, but a smart move.
Many writers don’t even begin thinking about this in a targeted manner until the very end of the writing process. When I teach, this is actually where I start. I find that if you can articulate your core idea in a powerful and concise way, it helps you define your mission. This in turn guides you throughout the writing process, the way the headlights on your car help you drive in the dark.
For readers to get into a book, to understand and benefit from it, they need a sense of direction, destination and resolution. All this begins with your core idea; one way to start this whole process is by finding your “one sentence.” Here, your vision is refined with the reader in mind. It’s not enough that you find it compelling; ideally you’ll find a way to let reader in on the secret too. The vision informs your entire book as well as determining its execution.
Execution is often where people get stuck because, frankly, books are long. Can you write 50,000 words about your core idea? How do you string it all together? How do you make it come alive? How do you provide a satisfying rhythm and framework for readers, so you don’t lose them along the way to Angry Birds or Game of Thrones?
This part of the writing process is about so much more than “butt in chair”: It is about developing the arc of your entire book and then finding a way to make that arc come alive on the page, in a consistently engaging and relevant way. Your execution is the key to actually getting it done (=> realizing your vision), and getting it done right (=> producing a book people want to read).
It sounds daunting, and it is. But it’s also really, really fun.
If you can think these things through carefully as you start developing your book, the process of writing it becomes much less terrifying. You switch on your car headlights at the beginning of a new journey and, sure, you still have to keep your eyes peeled to avoid an accident, but at least you know you’re driving toward something exciting, and that you'll arrive safe and sound.
If you’re writing a nonfiction book and want guidance in an invigorating workshop environment, check out my class which starts 1/14 and runs on Saturdays from 10:30am – 1:30pm.
Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.See other articles by Katrin Schumann