How to write a book: part six

The first commandment about writing a book is to care passionately about your topic. For each of my dozen books, I have spent two years researching and writing the work, so you have to care deeply about what you are doing. If there’s any chance you’ll get bored along the way, don’t take on the project. If you lose interest, imagine how readers will feel.

OK, how do you recognize the right topic? You can’t simply say, “I’ve always wanted to write a book,” you have to say, “I want to write a book about [fill in the blank].”

The best ideas can strike like a bolt of lightning. For example, Sandy and I were holidaying in France in August 1994. One day, when we visited the hilltop town of Cordes, I stopped at a newsstand where a page one headline in the Financial Times leapt out: the Canadian government had seized Confederation Life. Without reading further, I knew immediately that was my next book. The result won the National Business Book Award.

A simple question can also launch a probe. In February 1997, George Eaton told a news conference that T. Eaton Co. Ltd. was bankrupt. He blamed recent economic events. I was at the news conference and remember asking myself, “How could a Canadian icon, founded in 1869, fall so far, so fast?” My search for an answer won the Canadian Authors Association prize for history.

When Tina Brown, former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, was asked how she chose one idea over dozens of possibilities presented at a story meeting, she replied, “My nipples get hard.” My physical reaction is a little lower down; a good idea literally hits me in the solar plexus.

Of course, all of this applies only to non-fiction. Fiction is far more mystical. I’ve had a novel on the go for longer than I care to say that may never see the light of day. “There are three rules to writing a novel,” said Somerset Maugham. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *