How to write a book: Part two

The idea for my first book, The Moneyspinners, came from Peter C. Newman when he was editor and I was business editor of Maclean’s. Peter took me aside one day and suggested I write about the CEOs who run the Big Five Banks. I not only embraced the idea, I also followed his manic method of getting up at 4 a.m. to do so. After all, we both had day jobs.

After a few months I spoke to my mentor and said, “I’ve got sixty pages of the first chapter written and I can’t get it stopped.”

“Oh no,” Peter said, “you write the first chapter last. It’s the epilogue.”

The scales dropped from my eyes and I have followed his dictum ever since – with adaptations. Often what I’ll do is write the Introduction last. That’s because by then I can write 4,000 words in one fell swoop that sets out the themes and gets the characters out on stage just as if your book is a three-act play, which it is.

The other difficult early-stage decision is structure. How many chapters, how many words in each? Chronological or not? My non-fiction books run about 80,000 words or 270 double-spaced manuscript pages. Fiction can be shorter, say 60,000 words.
In the case of Fantasy in Florence, the form of the 70,000-word book – a personal journal – set the structure. I did a chapter for each month we were there. In this case, I wrote the Introduction first because I knew a major theme would be self-discovery and I wanted readers to plunge right in with us and feel the learning curve as we went along.

As a result, the book opens with us standing on the sidewalk outside our building and meeting our landlord for the first time. There’s a bit of backstory about renting the apartment on the Internet but the most important event in the Introduction was our participation in the parade celebrating Rificolona, the Festival of the Lanterns, on our second evening there.

We saw the group gathering from our window. Sandy suggested we go down to find out what was happening. Next thing we knew we were in the parade. That changed us. We did not immediately become local residents but we were no longer tourists, either. Ever after, we had no fear about plunging into any situation.

Lesson learned. As a writer you have to be an observer, but that doesn’t always mean hanging back. Sometimes the best way to see is to participate.

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