Shaping A Writing Project As You Go Along / 3

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Mapping the content

Books are dynamic, and a reader’s experience changes over the time spent reading. But they’re also physical objects and curating that dynamic experience can be done by creating a map of what goes where.

Once again, I use index cards.

Some of the index cards I used for my book The Family Project.

I start by writing on each card – just a few words, in large letters – then lay them out all over the floor in a large room. Sometimes I use different coloured pens for (say) individuals, places, technologies, mysteries etc.

I stand back and look at it all, to take in the rhythm of the book. This tells me what needs to appear sooner, what should be delayed.

Typically, at this point, I find myself grouping the index cards into “sections” of the book as a whole, or even into specific chapters. Each section and chapter has its own internal rhythm, so I reshuffle the cards within each one until I’m more or less satisfied.


Planting seeds, weaving threads

If you’ve planned something remarkable for the end of the book – how can you lead up to it, rather than just plonking it there, out of the blue? It needs to earn its place. What seeds do you need to sow, earlier in the book, to make readers care about it?

To put that another way: at the end of a movie, if a character reaches into a desk drawer to pull out a gun we’d feel annoyed – as if the director had “cheated” – unless we know in advance that the gun is there. Which means that at some point earlier in the film we need to glimpse the gun.

And what that means is that movie-goers who glimpse guns in drawers, even if they don’t think about it consciously, know the gun is going to be important later. As an element in the film, it’s unresolved, and that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats.

Believe it or not, the same applies to relatively dry non-fiction books. Instead of waving guns around, you mention something and leave it unresolved to create curiosity. Simple as that. This keeps readers turning the pages to find resolution.

(I’m assuming they are interested in the subject in the first place.)

Topics and Mysteries as dots and hooks.jpg
Topics and mysteries as hooks and dots.

Even the most technical ideas can be turned into a “cliffhanger” – of the kind soap-operas build around, say, marital infidelities.

The difference is that where TV dramas get viewers excited about whether an adulterer will be discovered in bed by his / her spouse, technical writers might build up suspense about whether – and how – a certain engineering challenge can be accomplished.

In storytelling terms, the process is identical. The main difference is tone: technical writers usually avoid writing cliffhangers that are too desperately breathless. You could be as low-key as this:

“The cantilever problem will be addressed in a later chapter…”

Slightly more thrilling:

“Later in the book, you’ll see how Professor X was finally able to resolve the question…”

More thrilling still:

“The bridge seemed certain to collapse – until Professor X, driving home one evening that winter, came up with a remarkable plan…”

These kinds of sentences, which I described above as “seeds” to be sown, can also be regarded as threads in the overall fabric of the book. They show up when you refer to something that’s coming later, and they reappear when you refer back.

By slipping them in here, and pulling them out again there, you weave fabric that is sturdy and beautifully patterned.

Mind you, these threads can’t be planned entirely in advance. You’ll see opportunities to weave them in as you write. And as you do, you may like to revisit your cover design, adjusting the teasers you put there.



Ceiling behind my computer, showing thumbnails of my own next book.


Get Your Book Done – Fast

If you’ve stumbled on this page and read all the way down here, you may have dreamed for a long time about writing a book – but never done it, precisely because it is a … keep reading