How to Write a Book
Bill Long 7/19/08
When I run across lists posted here and there about the "50 things you should do before you die" or things like that, I usually get depressed because I haven't done so many of the things that other people think I should do. Though I pride myself on independence of thought, I am often influenced by what others think. Hence, the (slight) depression.
Yet, there is one thing on these lists I not only have done but have done very frequently and even effortlessly, and that is writing books. To date, if you include all these online essays as contributing to books (i.e., about 66 essays makes one "book" of 200-230 pages), I have written about 65 books in my life (I have also written/edited 10 or 11 "real" books along the way). So, in this essay I would like to give some advice to those of you who would like to write a book. I have time for three points here.
I. One Thing Above All
People who have never written a book wonder how they can possibly say enough to fill 200 or so pages. Indeed, after reading many books, I say to myself, "This author has so few thoughts--how did s/he fill this book?" But, in fact, you need only one lead idea to generate a book. I need to be more precise on this. You need either one basic thing to say; one problem to explore or solve; one book to exposit or explain; one misunderstanding to correct or one person to describe. You may not be able to put your thesis or "one thing to say" easily in one sentence at first, but you have to be able to explain, fairly readily when asked, what you are trying to "get at" in your thoughts. Let me illustrate how I developed ideas in two of my books so that you can see what I mean.
My first book was on the biblical Book of Psalms. I wanted to write some kind of guide to the book so that people who read the Psalms for spiritual guidance or insight might be challenged. But how do you present the Book of Psalms? I knew I needed a way to link various sections of the Psalms with each other, and I decided that the basic theme would be how the Psalms help us restore and maintain good rhythms in life. We become arrhythmic in so many ways; the Psalms can help bring us back to mental/spiritual health. Very simple idea, but it generated a book. The next question was how the Psalms did this. Here is where I imagined a sort of "flow" to life that is part of our psychological or lived reality. We yearn for things; we become distressed in the yearning; the distress can keep us from trusting life again; but if we learn to trust again, we can affirm life it its fulness. We lose our rhythms, but we also can restore these rhythms.
With these basic ideas roughed out, I began to flesh out my approach. I would write a guide to thirty Psalms in a thirty-day period, so that a person could work through the book in a month, and I would have four "sections" of the book: Psalms of longing; Psalms of distress; Psalms of trust; Psalms of praise.
I would explain, in an early chapter, the flow that I was assuming in my work. We face life with longing. Distress comes in to take the wind out of us. We face difficulties with trusting life again, but when we do so, we can emerge living a life of praise, of optimistic service and commitment to the world. I had my four themes: Longing, Distress, Trust and Praise; all I then had to do was to find Psalms that "fit" my framework, exposit each Psalm with two or three good points, and then I had a book. Of course, the book never really "writes itself;" I had to do the work, but the basic idea gave me strength, calmness and an eagerness to get to the work of writing each day. So helpful for me is this framework that I have explanded it over the years, and now have my "fivefold" approach to the Psalms-with alliteration: Longing, Losing, Listening, Loving, Laughing.
How A Second Book Relates to a First
This framework for the study of the Psalms (1993) actually generated my second book (in 1995). Why? Because I felt I ran into a problem I hadn't anticipated when I was putting together the first book. I needed a book to deal with it. In short, it was this. If life has its rhythms, from longing to distress to trust to praise, what is the mechanism that gets you from step two to three--probably the most difficult step to take? How do you get from distress to trust? What enables you to learn to embrace life again after you have been devastated by life? This problem of restoring trust, I saw, was an immense one--one that needed careful exploration. So, I went to the Book of Job, a book where Job loses everything (distress) and learns, by the end of the book, to trust God again ("Now my eye sees you..."). My question now became crystal clear: what are the elements of distress, the way that distress works itself out in life and the specific things that helped Job reach a new understanding or trust in life? When I began to frame the question this way, all of a sudden the Book of Job opened to me as never before. I began to see the key to trusting again in an ability to listen to someone else's construal or interpretation of our distress. Much more can be said, but this is how a second book "grew" out of the first.
I have illustrated how one idea or text suffices for a book. My latest (small) book tries to remove a misconception. Once I realized the scope of the misconception, I simply developed a good argument and had a book. But in most instances, when you have developed your one idea, you have to do some "backfilling." What I mean by that is you may have to describe what is wrong with some other idea, system of thought or approach to a problem. If you want to argue, for example, that there are lessons from family business that will benefit American business in general, you have to "backfill" by pointing out how people who use other models for business growth today either don't take important things into consideration or misunderstand something crucial about human life.
When I wrote my book on the history of capital punishment in Oregon, I only had one point to make--that the current system is broken. But in order to show this in a convincing manner, I needed to give a history of the death penalty in Oregon and, in recent days, in the entire US. That is, I had to put things in "context" in order for my point about the system's being broken to make sense. Think, then, what you need to "backfill" in order for your major point to stand in bold and clear relief.
Organize in Three or (At Most) Four Sections
Once you have your simple message/point, and have realized how you must "backfill" to give some context to the subject, you need to decide on the major parts or sub-problems you need to address. For example, if you want to change the discussion on how American business does its work, you might first have to explore the "language" of business; then you might examine the "process" of business--being aware of its shortcomings along the way. Finally, you can then move to the promise of your new model.
Writing a book is like having a baby; you conceive it, nurture it, sleep with it, bring it to fruition but, before it comes to birth you have to face a lot of pain in the last few weeks (with editing). It is an exhilarating experience and, I hope, not as far from many of you as you might imagine.