Finding your inspiration: what to write about?

As I sat on a train winding its way through the flat fields of East Anglia on my way to the British Library for a research trip I began thinking about what I write about and why.light-bulbx600

I realised that ever since I was young I had an inner monologue rumbling on, collating words and creating sentences to describe the world around me. Yet I rarely use this type of descriptive writing in my work, instead filing it away for some theoretical future project.

It made me consider how many writers get stuck in the creativity void. As writers what we want to write is beautiful soaring prose, but what pays the bills or gets the publishing deal is frequently not those flowery sentences but a truly great concept.

So although it is useful to flex your writing muscles, it is also good discipline to focus that creativity on finding a really great idea first.

The idea:

The advice that is most frequently given out to writers seeking inspiration is to write about what you know. That is because it is great advice – ignore this at your peril.

When selling a book idea the key questions to ask yourself are: who cares? So what? And why are you the best person to write this book? This approach can help you to find an idea.

Think carefully about the stories you have to tell, the knowledge you could pass on, or the quirky angle with which to tackle a hackneyed subject. By looking at ideas or starting points through this prism it will help you to find your own voice or a fresh approach.

That said I think this can be qualified. Much of my writing career has been based on writing about something I previously had no knowledge of. Sometimes having too much knowledge of a subject can make it hard to communicate with a beginner. But by coming at a subject from the position of a learner thorough research can help you to communicate its essence to the reader.

For example, Stef Penney set her wonderful novel The Tenderness of Wolves in Canada in 1860. At the time of her writing she was suffering from agoraphobia so never visited Canada herself, but created a great sense of time and place through extensive library research.

When searching for your inspiration think about not only what you know about but also what you are interested in, this may help you to find that elusive niche.

Say for example you are writing a novel but finding it hard to get it published perhaps think about other areas you know about. Perhaps your day job is in digital marketing and you have a lot of useful specialist knowledge that could make a valuable non-fiction book.

Perhaps you have an interest in local history, have travelled extensively or play an unusual musical instrument to a high standard? These passions could all be avenues to explore in the search for inspiration.

Reading widely is also a great way to find an idea. Whether reading through newspapers, blogs, Twitter, leaflets I always keep my eye out for an interesting fact or story that could grow into an idea.

My friend and former colleague Bess Lovejoy came up with a great book idea after finding a small news item in the Guardian about the artist Francis Bacon’s strange request to friends in the event of his death: ‘When I’m dead, put me in a plastic bag and throw me in the gutter.’

From there she researched and wrote a short item on the subject for Schott’s Almanac and realised there was a lot of scope to tell some great stories on the fate of famous bodies. The resulting book Rest in Pieces was published by Simon & Schuster in 2013.

Likewise I am constantly clipping out interesting articles or collecting nuggets of information that I think are worth exploring. When researching The Georgian Art of Gambling I began to think about how different life was in the Georgian era.

That led me to think about the skills that many people once knew (such as riding side saddle) that have now been lost, and it was this small idea that grew into my book How to Skin a Lion.

Be curious. Be interested. Listen, read, consume. Find your quirk, your niche, your expertise and you will find your idea.

My top seven tips for writing a basic index

Authors are occasionally asked to compile their own index and it can seem like a very daunting task but by following this advice you will be able to create your own basic index. A word of caution: creating an index for a complex book with numerous themes needs the attention of a professional indexer.The index of a book

The most important thing to keep in mind when writing an index is: would this term be looked up in an index? Think about how you personally use indexes as a reader and then bear that in mind as you go through compiling the index. It is very easy to get carried away with concepts and cross references and lose sight of the usefulness of the entry.

For a basic index the best method is to print out the full typeset manuscript (it must be typeset as the page numbers need to have been set). Then read through the manuscript and use a highlighter pen to pick out key words and concepts.

At this stage err on the side of ‘the more the merrier’ as it is easier to cut down an overly long index than to have to go back through the whole manuscript again.

People and places are an obvious place to start as these are key words that are frequently looked up in an index. Ignore passing references, only include entries that add to our knowledge about that person or place. So for example if the text read ‘I went to interview David Beckham about his long playing career, he was wearing a Harry Potter T-shirt’ you would index David Beckham but not Harry Potter.

By steadily reading the book and highlighting key words the main concepts should start to leap out at you, but sometimes you will need to figure out the best way to express the concept as it may not always be described in the same terms. For example if it was a fitness book there might be references to getting ready to exercise, including stretching or preparing your body for exercise and these should all be indexed under the concept of a ‘warm-up’, which is the most useful term to index them by as it encompasses all of these aspects.

As I go through highlighting words I also use another pen to note down ‘concept’ words on the relevant pages so I can make sure I tie all of the key words together.

Sub-headings can also be recorded as you go along. For example if the book is about Cambridge University then that word is probably mentioned on every page so indexing it is pointless, instead you need to think about what sub-headings can be used to make the book more navigable. So you might highlight words such as ‘founded in’, ‘admissions policy’ or ‘architecture’ and then list them as sub-headings in the index – so:

Cambridge University

– founded in

– admissions policy

– architecture

Once you have read through the entire manuscript, highlighting the key words it is time to compile the index. I generally use Excel as it has useful sorting tools. I set up the worksheet with two large columns – one for the index terms the other for the page references.

As you go through adding new terms always keep in mind the usefulness of that term and discard any that you think no one would actually look up. If an entry has many page references make sure you elide the numbers where you can as having a long list of numbers is unhelpful.

Always consult the style guide of your publisher but in general names and places should be capitalised, concepts should not.

Once you have compiled the index go through and delete any entries that seem superfluous.

If you have space it is a good idea to group connecting entries. For example you may separately index the British Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the V & A but it is also helpful to index them together under museums, thus:

museums

– British

– of Modern Art

– V & A

Another consideration if you have the space is to think about which search terms might need to be reversed. For example Moroccan tiles and tiles, Moroccan.

Once you have streamlined the index you can select both columns and sort the entries using the A–Z sort tool so that the index comes out alphabetically. Once this is done I usually cut and paste the index and put it into a Word file. You can then go through and tidy up the index making sure there is a line space between each letter of the alphabet as this makes the index easier to read.

If you think it is necessary you can then check your index by searching in the manuscript for the terms in the index and making sure they correspond to your index. However make sure you don’t then add a ton of unnecessary entries where the word is referred to but only in passing as this over-complicates the index.

My top seven tips for writing a basic index:

  1. Print out the typeset manuscript and read through it highlighting key words and themes with a highlighter pen.
  2. Write any concepts/themes/notes in the margin to help focus your index.
  3. Only index page references where the information contained furthers the reader’s knowledge of the subject; do not index passing references.
  4. Try to think about how you might sub-divide large index categories.
  5. Remember to consider if you need to reverse some entries e.g. Moroccan tiles and tiles, Moroccan.
  6. Group some entries together under themes e.g. all the museums mentioned should be indexed under their own names but also under ‘museums’.
  7. The key thing to remember is to constantly be thinking how a reader would use an index and thus if the key words you have chosen are relevant.

Fact-checking your work

Accuracy is very important, especially in non-fiction writing, so making sure your facts and figures are correct is vital.

Fact-checking is best approached once the book has been through the editing process to ensure you are not wasting time checking facts you are not going to include.reference-books-x600

Fact-checking does not just mean making sure every statistic or nugget of information in your book is correct, it is also about checking the spelling of names, places and titles.

You would be surprised how many times you think you know how something is spelt and then you check it and find you were wrong. Spiderman once tripped me up, I was sure it was spelt as one word but when I checked with Marvel I saw it is actually Spider-Man – and this reminds me to check EVERYTHING even if I think I know how to spell it!

To check spellings the best way is to copy the word from your manuscript and paste it into Google (that way you can ensure you are not entering a different spelling from the one in your text). Generally there will be a consensus on a spelling but some names, especially those translated from a different script can have a number of spellings and the best bet is to go with the spelling used by an august institution or trusted source such as the BBC.

For facts, such as statistics, the best way to confirm them is to go right back to the source of the data. Ignore articles that are regurgitating the information and find the actual press release or dataset from the source of the information to confirm you have the correct numbers.

If you are publishing any tables or graphs I find it helps to print out my version and the source and then tick each correct figure against the source  – sometimes looking at these things on paper is easier than on screen and by keeping the print-outs you can easily go back and reassure yourself you have accurate data.

If you are checking dates, such as birth and death dates, again the Internet is the quickest method. Put the dates and name into Google and then make sure what you have is agreed by at least three reliable sources (Wikipedia does not count I’m afraid). Reliable sources mean organisations and institutions, scholarly articles, reliable encyclopedias such as Britannica and quality newspapers.

If you come across a lovely fact you are desperate to use but cannot find a second source you can still use the fact as long as you qualify it by noting in your work where you found it and that it is unverified.

The problem with fact-checking is that sometimes you just have to take a position because there can be debate over the exact spelling of a name or the location of somebody’s birth. In this case it is worth noting in your introduction that you have gone to every effort to ensure accuracy but that some facts included therein may be open to dispute.

Errors can creep in but to feel confident you are producing the most accurate work you can the best advice I can give is to check everything, even things you think you know, because you would be surprised how often this sieves out errors.

Editing your own work – Non-fiction

Personally I love editing – which is good because aside from being a writer I am also a freelance copy-editor – but it took me a while to be able to edit my own work with the same confidence I have editing other people’s.scissors-lots-x600

You spend hours researching your subject, crafting every sentence and agonising over every word, so to then have to go back through and refine and finesse can seem impossibly daunting. But one thing I soon realised is that I rarely regret cutting sections out.

There are two aspects of editing – the first is to polish your work, the second is to ensure consistency of style. The first requires a creative approach, the second a methodical approach. I would not recommend trying to do both at once because they involve completely different ways of thinking.

Polishing your work

I suggest tackling the polish edit first, as there is no point editing text for consistency when that text is going to change.

Editing can be done at any time, some find it easiest to write a couple of paragraphs then straight away go back through tidying them up. Others prefer to write a whole chapter or book before beginning the editing process.

The problem with editing can be knowing when to stop, because when it comes to your own work it always feels like there is another tweak to make.

The temptation when editing is to add more words when actually taking them away is often a lot more effective. An idea can be lost in a forest of text, but by pruning the superfluous the light can get in.

I am quite a cavalier editor of my own work and so I generally just wade in and starting cutting and substituting words. But for some this is too final and it may be better to create a new version of your document to edit as this can give you the safety net to be bold in your edit, because you know you will not lose anything as you still have the original version.

Another approach is to use Track Changes so that you can, at a later date, come back and review your edits and decide whether to accept or reject them.

When I am editing my own work I try and make sure I am streamlining my work and not crowding it with yet another sentence saying the same thing as the one before but in a slightly different fashion.

The thesaurus is your friend. When writing on a specific subject (especially in non-fiction) it can be hard to avoid using certain keywords repeatedly. For example, if you are writing a book about horses you are inevitably going to use ‘horse’ a lot, but you could throw in a few mounts, steeds, fillys and equines to avoid becoming overly repetitive.

Copy-editing your work

Once you have been through your work a number of times and feel like you have now crafted something which flows beautifully and imparts exactly your meaning then it is time to move onto the copy-edit.

The key to copy-editing is to be a pedant. Spellings, capitalisations, use of italics and grammar must all be consistent so before you begin you might want to think about a style guide.

If you have a publisher already ask them for a copy of their style guide then you can ensure you stick to it. If you have yet to find a publisher choose one of the standard style guides such as the Oxford Style Manual or, if you are in the US, the Chicago Manual of Style.

Once you have read and absorbed the style guide, read through your work and make the appropriate edits, such as changing all –ize spellings to –ise, or italicising every book title mentioned. By sticking to a consistent style your work will become more coherent and your manuscript more polished.

With any edit half the skill is knowing when to stop. I find the best way is to pass through the book a number of times editing and then have a break of a few days before going back and reading it again. If niggles and errors are still cropping up you haven’t finished. But if when you come back and read your manuscript again you are pleasantly surprised at how well it reads, then you are done!

Research skills for nonfiction books: My top six tips for library research

Libraries are still the best place for quality research. Nothing beats sitting in a nice quiet reading room with a pile of"British library london" by Jack1956 - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:British_library_london.jpg#mediaviewer/File:British_library_london.jpg useful books for getting your teeth into a subject. But sometimes it can be hard to know how to find the right books and how to use libraries to your best advantage. The following tips should help you to make the most of libraries.

I would recommend completing some basic online research on your chosen subject first as this will help you to find key texts, identify experts in the field and provides a host of useful starting points.

Once you have a list of books and authors to explore the first stop should be identifying which library to attend. Your first stop should always be your local central library. Search their catalogue online and if they have the books you require then this is the most sensible option to use as you can borrow the books to use at home.

If your needs are not met by your local library then you may want to try one of the legal deposit libraries such as Cambridge University Library, the Bodleian in Oxford or the British Library in London. These are huge libraries with an astounding range of books and articles and are the best places to do some serious research, however they are not obliged to let you use their services so you usually need to speak to reader services to see if you can obtain a reader pass.

I am lucky enough to have a reader pass for the British Library (obtained in my case by having a letter from my publisher confirming I was researching a book) therefore the advice here relates to my experience at the British Library but hopefully it can be applied to other institutions.

It is always best to pre-order books before your visit so as to maximise the amount of reading time when you arrive. At the British Library books cannot be taken out but must be read in one of their many reading rooms.

If you already have a list of books and authors then it should be fairly straightforward to look them up in the online catalogue and reserve them. The complication arises when you are looking up specific information but have no idea which books to use.

As an example for my latest book How to Skin a Lion I wanted to look up… how to skin a lion. In order to find accounts of this skill I needed to find books on the wider subject of big game hunting. So I searched for books on this subject and then refined my search to titles about countries in Africa (where lions would have been hunted). I was ideally looking for colonial era books so I further refined my search by date.

This brought up a modest number of books in the catalogue which I then discounted or ordered depending on the title. It is always somewhat of a gamble ordering books this way but I find that by ordering the maximum ten books every visit I end up with enough gems to have made my visit fruitful.

When I get my pile of ten books I generally have a quick look at them and you can usually see quite quickly which will be most useful. I then work through the books in order using the contents page and index to find relevant passages and if a book is especially interesting I will see if it contains a bibliography so that I can find more books to consult.

Good researchers are like detectives, noticing references to other authors and following one lead to another. Researching is like picking up scattered jigsaw pieces and fitting them together until you have fashioned a whole picture.

It is very important that information taken from books but re-written in your own words are referenced in the bibliography, whereas quotations must include a page number so that readers can refer to the source themselves if interested. Collecting references for your bibliography is best done as you go along as there is nothing worse than realising you have forgotten to properly note down page numbers and having to go back to try and find them retrospectively.

My top six tips for library research:

  1. Do an online search of your subject first to give you background information and note down references to books, authors or experts.
  2. Look up these books, authors and experts on your local library’s catalogue. Reserve any with potential.
  3. If your local library draws a blank, investigate if you can get a reader pass at a legal deposit library.
  4. Use the online catalogues to identify books you want to consult – it always helps to demonstrate to reader services that you have specific books in their collection that you wish to peruse.
  5. If you are looking for specific information but do not know of any books that cover that area then try searching for wider search terms e.g. if you are looking for information on the origin of Baa Baa Black Sheep try widening the search term to nursery rhymes or folk tales.
  6. Always collect full references for your bibliography as you go along.

List of UK legal deposit libraries:

Bodleian Library, Oxford

Cambridge University Library

The British Library

National Library of Scotland

Library of Trinity College, Dublin

National Library of Wales

Research skills for non-fiction books: My top seven tips for Internet research

Internet research brainstormingResearch is an essential element to any quality non-fiction book but sometimes it can be hard to know where to start, and indeed, when to stop.

The first thing you need to do is tackle the structure of your book and break it down into a list of contents. For each chapter you should write a short outline so you know what the aim of the chapter is and what it is adding to the book as a whole. This will give your research focus.

Before starting any in-depth research I sit down and do some concerted brainstorming, writing down ideas and avenues I want to explore. This allows me to think creatively and freely, unhampered by other books or articles written on the subject. Once I have a good list of starting points my research can begin.

Wikipedia

The most obvious starting point for any research is the Internet. With any search Wikipedia tends to come up first and it is a good idea to read through what they have as it often encapsulates a subject fairly concisely, allowing you to identify key themes to explore.

Reading the Wikipedia entry will also allow you to recognise the text so you can see in your further searches where the same information is just regurgitated from Wikipedia and where it is actual new, useful information. This can help you to ascertain if the website is a good independent source or if it just reproduces information from other sites.

The best Wikipedia pages will include useful references that will allow you to go direct to the source and read in more detail.

It is key to remember that anyone can write a Wikipedia page so it should not ever be used as a sole source of information. I would recommend finding at least two further sources to back up any information found on Wikipedia, especially as Wikipedia pages are often copied across the Internet, sometimes perpetuating wrong information.

As you go through Wikipedia and follow the linked sources take note of any books or articles mentioned that you can later look up in the library.

Once you have covered Wikipedia and followed the sources cited it is time to go back to Google to try and find further online resources.

Search terms

With any subject researched on the Internet I would generally recommend starting the search with the widest parameter of search terms and then slowly sieving the information by re-searching with filter terms such as ‘history’, ‘about’ or ‘information’ or keywords or key people from your subject. This should start to uncover a wide range of online articles to further your knowledge and direct your research.

As you read through results it is worth assessing the reliability of the website as you go along. Scholarly journals and articles can be very useful and reliable but remember any information from a source such as this must be cited. Articles from newspapers and magazines can also be enlightening and can draw your attention to authors and experts who could be of use.

Keep a list of books or articles referenced within the pages of your online research so that you can go on to look up the original sources yourself in the library.

Statistics and sources

As well as background information the Internet can also provide some excellent sources for facts and figures. For example, the Office for National Statistics, has a whole host of fascinating statistics that can be used to add colour and weight to your writing. A fact is often a great way to reel an audience in. Did you know that in 2013, 710 people in the UK were estimated to be aged over 105 years old?  Or that the most popular baby names in the UK in 2013 were Oliver and Amelia?

Other great sources for facts and figures include: OECD, WHO, United Nations Statistics, Pew Research Center, CIA World Factbook and the World Bank.

The Internet is a mine of useful information and can be a wonderful resource for researching a subject but I would recommend using the Internet as a starting point only, a library should be the place for more thorough research. See my blog post on ‘Library research’ to get the most out of a library visit.

My top seven tips for Internet research:

  1. Brainstorm your idea, writing down keywords and themes you want to explore.
  2. Read Wikipedia entries first as they often provide a good summary but should not be used as the sole source as they can be unreliable.
  3. Bear in mind that articles can often be regurgitated across the Internet so wrong information can be perpetuated. Only use information that can be backed up by at least two reliable sources.
  4. Reliable sources include websites from an official body or government source, quality newspapers, scholarly journals or well-known encyclopedias such as Britannica.
  5. Start your internet search with the widest parameter search terms and then refine and sift by adding keywords.
  6. Keep note of any good sources and write down authors or books that have been referenced so you can look up the original text in a library later.
  7. Keep a list of useful websites for your bibliography.

How to find an agent or publisher for your book

Now you have written your proposal it is time to think about whether you want to approach an agent or publisher direct. If you haven’t written your proposal see my blog post on How to write a non-fiction book proposal.magnifyx600

If you are in the UK the Writers and Artist’s Yearbook contains lists of agents and which areas they are interested in. Initially think about finding just a handful of agents who you think have similar subjects or authors on their books, you can usually find a list of clients on their website. Then look at their website, study their submission guidelines and adapt your proposal accordingly.

It is vitally important to tailor your proposal individually to each agent you approach as they will not read a proposal that does not meet the requirements set out on their website. When writing to agents they often like to know who else you have approached so that is why it is important to be selective and carefully target agents you think might have an interest in your book.

An agent is great if you have a very commercial book as they can contact the largest publishers on your behalf and ensure you get a great deal (although remember they will be taking a cut!). But do bear in mind that agents may not be interested in a more niche title and therefore you might be better served to approach a suitable publisher directly.

If approaching publishers directly, again find out which publisher handles books similar to yours. There is no point approaching a publisher if they clearly state on their website that they do not accept submissions – some publishers will only deal with agents. However if they are currently accepting proposals find their submission guidelines online and adapt your proposal to fit. Try and find the name of a relevant editor so that you are addressing your letter to an actual person.

Some publishers prefer you to send a query letter first, which is a short letter outlining your book idea and your credentials with an offer to send the full proposal if they are interested. If you have any existing contacts in the publishing world it might be worth sending them a query letter first as they may be able to pass you onto a suitable editor.

Don’t be discouraged by rejections, everyone gets knocked back at some point. If there is constructive criticism, take it on board and try again. However if every reply is a firm no, perhaps it is time to reconsider your idea or come up with a new one.

I had three ideas rejected by a number of agents and publishers before I finally found the right book for the right publisher. Rejection is tough but I learnt so much just from writing my proposals and going through the process.

Being a writer requires you to grow a tough skin as by its very nature you are offering your ideas up for judgement, the skill is to learn something from every rejection and use it to get better. Good luck!

How to write a non-fiction book proposal

Notebook and pencilA great starting point when writing a non-fiction book proposal is to create a one sentence description of your book. This will help you to crystallise your idea and focus on the essence of your book.

Think carefully about what your book is going to do and who you are trying to reach. Condense your thoughts into a well-crafted, one sentence blurb that encapsulates your work and it will help you to grab a publisher or a reader’s attention.

There are times when I have had what I thought was a good idea but as I tried to formulate my thoughts into a pitch it became clear that my idea was muddled and unclear. There was no single sentence to sum it up, it turned into a sentence with a couple of sub-clauses because my idea was just too complicated. By stripping back my thoughts to the very nub of the idea I was able to get a much clearer vision of my book.

In general non-fiction books are pitched to a publisher via a proposal which should include one or two sample chapters. Because the book is not completed before it is commissioned it means that a lot of the thinking and planning is done as the proposal is created.

Remember that at its heart a book proposal is selling your book idea.

Key elements of a non-fiction book proposal

The elements of a non-fiction book proposal are as follows:

  1. The hook: This is where the one sentence blurb comes in. A simple description of the book and its title. Use this to grab attention.
  2. Outline of your book: Include a short description of each chapter with what each chapter brings to the book as a whole. Estimate the final word count.
  3. Market overview: Answer the questions: who cares? And, so what? Identify a specific target audience and demonstrate why this audience would buy your book.
  4. Author biography: Who are you? What is your background? And why are you the best person to write this book?
  5. Competitive analysis: Identify the rivals to your book. Which titles are similar and have done well. Demonstrate knowledge of your sector and where your book would fit into it. You need to prove there is a market for a book like yours.
  6. Marketing plan: How will you help sell your book? Do you have useful contacts that could be used? A good news hook? Do you have a website, blog, Facebook page, Twitter feed? Could you do a talk at a local library, bookshop or book group?
  7. Sample chapter: Provide a sample chapter of your book. Try and choose a chapter that will show off what is special about your book. Avoid sending the introduction.

Proposals should generally be written in Times New Roman, 12 point and double spaced so they are easy to read. Make sure you edit the proposal with a fine-toothed comb, you want to come across as someone who chooses their words carefully and can write an engaging and interesting book.

Once you have created your proposal you will have done a great deal of research (which will come in handy later) and got your book fully planned out. Then you can think about whether you want to approach an agent or a publisher directly. This calls for yet more research because you are going to need to tailor the proposal to each agent or publisher you approach but by creating the proposal in the standard form first you’ll have a clear idea to sell.

Writing a book proposal takes a lot of work and research, but it is a great way to focus your thoughts and begin to think like an author who needs to sell their work.

Read my blog post ‘How to find an agent or publisher for your book’ to find out what to do with your proposal next.