Best Defense

Tom’s take on how to write a damn book

Tom’s take on how to write a damn book

This is a slightly modified version of an article that ran the other day on New America’s digital magazine, the Weekly Wonk.

The Tip: Writing a book is more like carpentry than poetry.

First, two bits of carpenter’s wisdom:

  • Only write a book because you have to. Otherwise it is too hard. All good books have passion in them. (Unfortunately, so do a lot of bad books.)
  • The second main ingredient is time. If you don’t enjoy spending time alone, you won’t enjoy writing a book.

Okay, let’s write the damn book:

1. Figure out what your big idea is. Then find an agent. Best way to do this is look in acknowledgements of books similar to what you have in mind. Set up meetings with three or four in New York.

2. Having picked an agent, write a proposal. You probably have no idea what a good book proposal looks like, so ask your new agent for copies of one or two good proposals for books similar to what you have in mind.

3. Write a proposal. I find this a very hard step. Give yourself several weeks for this. This is the point at which you are starting with nothing and trying to do everything, from figuring out your ideas to how to structure the book and even how to title it.

4. After your agent polishes the proposal, he or she will solicit offers from publishers. This leads to an advance. Remember that advances usually come in quarters. No, not rolls of quarters, but at four increments — on contract signing, on delivery of publishable manuscript, on hardcover publication, and paperback publications). Plus you have the agent’s fee and taxes. So a $100,000 advance (big these days for a first book) will net you maybe $18,000 on which to actually write the book. Best to figure out your other financial resources: Think tank? Bank account? Parents?

5. Write the book. No, don’t say you’re writing the book. Actually write. Every day. Learn to be selfish about your time. If it is not your top priority, it won’t get done.

6. Have "critical readers" take a look at the manuscript before delivery.

7. Reserve a lot of energy for publicizing the book. The window for your book having an impact is about 5 weeks — longer than milk, shorter than yogurt. The only reviews that matter are the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal (the latter because its readers buy hardcover books). NPR shows, both local and national, are hugely helpful, especially Terry Gross, the best interviewer out there. The only TV shows that sell books are Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s. At the opposite end are local morning shows like "Howdy Do, Dallas" and "Wake Up, Wasilla," which I think are just a waste of time. Tell your publicist you are gonna sleep in.

8. After my most recent book, I complained to my editor about a rough period I had with it. He shrugged and said, with some empathy, "Every good book has at least one nervous breakdown in it."