Books make a statement. They have to say something. Within the pages, a book must take readers on a journey from point A to point B. And if you want to write a book, it helps to know what you want to say before you set out to do so.
Think about it from a reader’s perspective. (And you should, because as a writer, the most important person in your work life is your reader—the person who picks up your book, buys it, and takes the time to read it.) One of my writing teachers explained writing a book as asking the reader to get in the car with you and go for a ride. The writer promises, from sentence one, that the ride will be interesting, entertaining, or informative, and if the reader is interested enough, they agree to get in and go.
But if the writer takes a wrong turn, or heads in a direction that breaks the promise, the reader might decide to get out of the car. That’s not good. It’s like the hitchhike gone bad. Therefore, always keep your readers in mind as you write, and your book idea shouldn’t veer off course unexpectedly.
When you don’t focus your book idea into something your reader can immediately understand before you start to write, then veering off course is almost unavoidable. And some will argue that—especially with creative works like memoir or a novel—that you can’t plan everything out. You have to write and discover the story as you go. And that’s kind of true, I think.
But I would also say that the earlier in the writing process that you can focus your idea, the better. Then you can focus on telling that story as best you can. Another benefit is efficiency. When you know what you want to say, it’s easier to say it. You can write it faster and your manuscript may even require fewer rewrites.
What Is a Focused Book Idea?
Like I said before, a book takes the reader from point A to point B. For creative nonfiction, this is mostly about satisfying the readers’ expectations for a good story—showing a compelling character transformation. And for instructional or self-help books, satisfying your reader is about promising a solution and then delivering it.
A focused book idea can be summarized in one, mere sentence that answers the question: What is your book about?
This can be a difficult question to answer because, well, a book is a lengthy written document. Books are about big ideas. So sometimes it’s hard to summarize 80,000 words in one sentence. And I think people resist it because they want to put everything in the book.
When you’re just getting started, you may not be able to get your book idea down to one sentence. But that’s the goal, and it helps to accomplish it as soon as possible in the book-writing process. Because then you can start outlining and planning the structure for the book.
How to Focus Your Book Idea
When I work with someone as a developmental editor or ghostwriter, the project often starts with focusing the book idea. I ask them a series of big-picture decisions about the book they want to write. The process is a little different for memoir or narrative nonfiction than it is for how-to or instructional nonfiction. And I’ll explain them separately in just a second.
First, let’s talk about what makes a book successful.
For instructional nonfiction, where you’re teaching something, the book is a combination of the material you teach; the audience you help; and the results you promise those readers. These three things make up the foundation or core of your book, and once you figure these pieces out, you can structure all your material around them.
Now, for a memoir or other narrative work, the book has to show a person with a problem—the main character—transform in some way as a result of obstacles they face. So the foundation of a memoir is the character transformation.
With that in mind, I always tell people the best place to start writing a book is to make a list of everything you want to include in your book–and I mean everything. What experiences do you want to write about? What stories are you going to tell? What lessons did you learn? What scenes do you remember? If you’re writing a how-to book, then make a list of topics, examples, anecdotes, and strategies you plan to include.
Let your mind go on this, and brainstorm as many ideas as you can. You aren’t making any final decisions. You just want all your ideas in one place.
Memoir: How to Focus Your Book Idea
For memoir or narrative, think about the experiences on your list as parts of the story. And stories are about change.
If you consider movies, short stories, and novels, you will notice some similarities in the way the story is constructed. Every successful story includes some basic elements, including a character/hero, a goal or journey, obstacles, a solution, and a resolution.
Start with the character or hero—in memoir, this is you the author. So when you look at your list of ideas, consider how the events from your life changed you. So what big lesson have you learned? How were you different then than you are now? What lie did you believe? Sometimes I think it helps to think about it in terms of before and after. The person you were before, and the person you are now.
Also consider what you wanted, what motivated you. How did you make your decisions? What did you base them on? What were you hoping to achieve? This involves not only looking at the events of your life—the external actions you took—but also the internal. The thoughts that steered you through the events.
So for example, I had a client who was a type-A person, very focused on making her plans, working toward them, and being in control. And her goal was adopting a child. She aligned her life and her job and her thinking with planning and doing everything right to accomplish that goal. She worked hard and saved her money and had it all planned out. Then she became very sick with debilitating pain and cause went undiagnosed for a long time. The doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her and this illness basically took over her life. So she faced obstacles that not only challenged her health, but also challenged her idea that she was in control.
The journey or search—an action of some kind—is the next element of story. When you were faced with that problem or that goal, what action did you take? What did you do to resolve the problem? Did you experience a defining moment that inspired you to take action? Or a series of defining moments?
Finally, the resolution. This is where your transformation is complete. So ask yourself questions like: How is your life better now that you’ve been through this journey and learned what you learned? Are you happier? Are you smarter? How is your situation different?
Remember, for memoir, you’re focusing on the character transformation. How did the events and experiences change your life internally and externally?
All these elements of story contribute to your focused book idea. Once your idea is focused, you can start thinking about the turning points or plot points in your story and structuring your material around that transformation. And when you know the structure—how the story needs to unfold—writing your memoir is easier.
Instructional Nonfiction: How to Focus Your Book Idea
All self-help and business books inevitably include useable strategies that the reader should use to change their behaviors. This is all the information you teach your readers, the how-to element, and it’s a big part of why a person chooses to read your book. They’re looking for answers.
For instructional nonfiction, you’re not looking for a story—within your list of ideas, you’re looking for a process that will solve a problem for your ideal reader. So when you look at your material, consider: Who needs this information the most? Who exactly is your audience? Step into their shoes and look at the information you present in your book from their perspective.
One of the biggest mistakes I see authors make is thinking their book is for “anyone.” No book is for anyone. And trying to write a book for everyone is not only difficult, but it usually ends in the book being for no one. Everything, from the title to the content to the back cover copy, should speak to your ideal reader. So, your book is not for anyone—it’s for a specific person dealing with a specific issue.
Once you have a clear picture of who your ideal readers are, think about what they’re struggling with. What are their needs? What do they want? What’s important to them? And what problem is your book going to solve for them?
For several months I worked with a nutritionist on a book about how the food we eat affects our health. The promise she made to her readers was that she’d help them achieve better health. So when someone bought her book and read it, that’s the result they were riding along to achieve.
However, as a person with an in-depth understanding about how food affects the body on a chemical level, the author tended to be more interested in writing about what happens to unhealthy food when it enters our bodies. She was fascinated by the scientific processes and wanted to explain them in detail so her readers understood how the body works. And while this was interesting, her readers weren’t reading the book to find out about chemical processes in the body. They were reading to get healthier.
Therefore we had to figure out how to take the scientific information a step further and actually explain to her readers how to apply the information. This subtle shift in presentation made a huge difference.
When you have your audience and you know the problem you can solve for them, the last piece of your focused book idea is determining the highest-level benefit the solution in your book provides. What’s in it for the reader? Whenever you’re teaching your readers something, always give your readers an incentive by reminding them of the benefits your strategies offer.
For example, lets say you’re writing a book about communication for married couples. What’s the benefit of improving communication? Why would an unhappy married couple want to communicate better? Well, maybe it helps them understand each other’s points of view. That’s a benefit, but you can go even further by asking yourself, “So what?” What’s the benefit of better understanding each other? What’s the highest level of benefit your readers will gain? That might be fewer misunderstandings and fewer arguments and a more peaceful home. These benefits resonate on an emotional level, and give readers an incentive for following your advice.
Your Successful and Focused Book Idea
Focusing your book idea requires considering the big picture. Knowing the journey you want to write is much easier than jumping in and figuring it out later, because at any point in the writing process, you’ll know exactly what you need to put on the page to accomplish your goal.
For more tips on turning your book idea into a completed manuscript, check out my free ebook, Three Reasons You’re Still Struggling to Write Your Book. Focusing your idea is one of the three largest obstacles I see people face when writing a book, the ebook covers the other two. And I’m sure you’re dying to know what they are, right?