When it comes to drawing readers into your world, one of the most important elements of your book is its structure. Few first-time authors realize how creative a device this can be.
Whether you’re writing an article or a full length book, the structure of your material determines its final shape – and how compelling it is. The structure of your writing is like the blueprint of your dream cabin upon which it is built. Structure has a big influence on whether people want to buy what you’ve written and engage with your ideas.
In both fiction and non-fiction, your message can be likened to a tale – a linear narrative that you tell from beginning to end. But you don’t have to tell your story in linear fashion. Think about it.
In movies, the plot is often quite different from the linear tale it contains. The tale is 2D, a line that connects two points, beginning and end. But the plot is 3D and can be sculpted from a variety of angles, casting fresh light on even the most familiar topics.
So it is with your own content. You can break it up, rearrange certain pieces, and play with time through flashbacks and futurescapes. You can mold your story into something compelling, adding mystery and mystique to what is otherwise humdrum.
Many authors may not realize their story can be told in a non-linear fashion. The tale can be wrapped around a series of points, time can fold or jump, and the events in the tale can be highlighted to make a point. All of this is crafted through the structure of the book.
Crafting Your Book’s Basic Brilliance
If you’re just getting started with your manuscript, it can be tough to decide how much material to include and where it should go. This is where brainstorming comes into play. Brainstorming a simple idea and easy to do – so simple that a lot of the authors I work with forget to use it.
Set aside a limited amount of time, such as one hour, and do a brain dump of ideas surrounding your topic, no matter how trivial they may seem. More is good here. In fact, being critical of your ideas before you write them down can stem the flow. Once you’re done, organize the material into groups of ideas. These groups will become your chapters.
Recently a former MLB pitcher of some notoriety visited “The Ranch” where I work with authors on their books. During this two-day process, we brainstorm ideas and then map their book visually in what I call the “War Room,” taking over my conference room for the duration of their session. We shared some laughs, told stories and even shed a few tears as we talked through pivotal events in the author’s life which shaped the arc of his story.
We used to use flip charts positioned around the room to display the book’s concepts, one chart for each chapter. After sifting through the content we came up with in the brainstorm, we write down each idea on a PostIt note to add to the flip charts.
Today we use electronic systems to mimic this process, with a giant screen to visualize the components of the story. We even conduct real-time polls in social media accounts to hone-in on the perfect Title for the book. During this 2-day session at the Ranch our goal is to rapidly organize a writing plan, with the goal of writing a book in 3-months.
There’s always one chapter that seems to be problematic. Bringing the book into the real world, making it larger than life, helps us get over the hump and work through the rough patches.
Authors consistently tell me that using this method – having someone to hash out their book’s structure with – is the highlight of the session (my apologies to the cook). While many authors give up when they hit a block, the War Room tactic helps my clients overcome their biggest structural obstacles.
This method works because it allows us to see the entire book at a glance. It gives the author the ability to visualize the big picture in living color.
Once we have settled on the book’s structure and content, we divide the entire project into sections. This lets us determine how much to write on each topic and chapter. Once you break-down a writing project into sections, the writing gets quite easy.
Working this way is a lot like the storyboarding that Creative Directors in ad agencies use to create television commercials, so they can visualize each shot of a commercial before they hire a crew and go on-location. Storyboarding allows the author to play with changes in the storyline to heighten tension and peak interest.
How Do I List Thee? Let Me Count the Words
Once you have decided on your book structure, it’s time to decide the length. This has a lot to do with the format of the book you’re planning to publish.
If you want your book to be printed on paper and listed in bookstores and catalogs, your word count has everything to do with it being accepted by book buyers. A book with a narrow spine just won’t leap off the shelf into readers’ hands. Sometimes all they can see of your book is the spine, so it has to make an impact.
In the print world, the length of the book determines marketability. The first thing book buyers look at is the page count, which determines the spine width. The spine needs to be wide enough to be able to print your name and book title effectively. The page count also helps determine the pricing of the book.
A typical printed book in the non-fiction or business genre comes in at 35,000 to 80,000 words. The standard for novels ranges from 80,000 to 120,000. It depends on the style. Romance novels have different word count than Westerns, and even the sub-genres within these markets can vary in length. Books in a series also have word count standards.
Amazon has become the gorilla in the room when it comes to publishing, and they have influenced the way books are marketed. Their massive amount of sales data has shown us the sweet spot for book and ebook length, and their catalog has responded to it with agility.
However you choose to structure your book, the key is to keep writing. When you have an abundance of good ideas, your ideas will invariably take shape. This lets you storyboard your way to success!
Bryan Heathman is the President of Made for Success Publishing. Bryan works with best-selling authors in the role of publisher and marketer, including the late Zig Ziglar, Chris Widener and John C. Maxwell. Bryan is the author of Conversion Marketing, a marketing book that condenses knowledge on website conversion from 7-years running an online ad agency. Bryan’s Fortune 500 experience includes running high impact marketing campaigns for Microsoft, Eastman Kodak and Xerox.