A few friends of mine are interested in writing non-fiction books. I myself am also an aspiring author and would love to pen something when I retire, though I haven’t decided if I want to do fiction, non-fiction, or both.
In the meantime, to help all of us along, I threw together this guide for aspiring non-fiction writers.
Write one chapter
Start out by writing one chapter. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the first chapter—any chapter will do. This will be a representation of what your book could be. It doesn’t even have to be perfect—editors will help you polish your book later. Doing this will also jump start you into action.
If it helps, write an outline for your entire book too. For non-fiction books especially, this tends to help. Your outline can lay out all the chapters, sections, sub-sections, whatever. It can also help you structure your research and any interviewing you may want to do.
One formula I’ve seen work in contemporary books like Tipping Point, Blink, Freakonomics, Emotional Intelligence, Social Intelligence, Wisdom of Crowds, Fooled By Randomness, The World Is Flat, etc, is:
- Start the chapter with an anecdote. The personal, “human” angle draws people in.
- Go into the guts of the theory, the whats, hows, whys, etc.
- Back up the guts with any data & research studies/reports you’ve found.
You can pick up a book like Blink and read the first chapter to get a feel for how it’s structured. That will give you a good idea of how to organize a chapter. It’s a contemporary formula that seems to work for the mainstream audience right now.
If you find yourself in a flow and want to write more than one chapter, go for it.
Find an agent
This part is kind of tedious. You’ll need to look through a combination of books & websites. On the web, there is WritersNet.
Bookwise, there is Writer’s Market and Literary Marketplace, both of which you can flip through in a bookstore. The Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents is also a good guide on selecting the right agent.
Basically, you want an agent who does books similar to yours. Try to avoid agents that charge you a fee if possible, unless that agent seems to really kick ass. Make a list of 15-20 agents.
Write a query letter
Next, you’ll need to write a short letter to each agent. This letter serves as a hook to catch them and reel them in. Just make sure you avoid cliches and ending your sentences with prepositions. You can find some good outlines for query letters online.
Send out query letters
Send out your query letters to all 15-20 agents you’ve found. Some agents will request specific items, like sample chapters or a synopsis/outline/proposal/etc. Tailor your submission to each agent with the items requested.
If one asks for a sample chapter, just send him/her one, even if you’ve written more. What you want to do is to give the agent a representation of what your book could be. Agents don’t care to read your entire manuscript right now. They’ll have editors to do that later.
Wait then follow-up
Remember, you only need 1 agent to say Yes to you. Expect many rejections. That’s just part of the biz. As you wait, go forward and write more chapters.
Give yourself a month, then follow up with each agent politely. If they still don’t respond, then assume they’ve passed on your book. After two months, if you’ve still gotten no acceptances, start at step #2 again and find another 20 agents.
I’ve read stories about how some writers plaster their walls with rejection letters. Even popular authors could warm themselves all winter with a fireplace and these letters. So don’t lose heart. The name of the game here is tenacity and perseverance. You’ve come too far to quit now!
There are lots of good online guides that describe the proces of finding an agent. About.com has a good one—just ignore the part where this guide says you need a finished manuscript; that’s not true anymore.
Work with your literary agent
Once you’ve secured an agent, he/she will walk you through the rest of the book publication process, like finding a publisher, getting an advance, and getting editors to help with your writing. Be respectful of your agent, but remember that they’re working for you, not the other way around. They make money if you make money; you’re their boss.
If it sounds daunting, it is and it isn’t. I have a few friends who are published. They described the hardest part as doing all the writing and research. And it’ll be worth it once you’re on Oprah! (Make sure you jump onto her couch too.)
Good luck! Don’t forget to thank me in your credits!