There are two basic techniques for how to write a book — or for that matter, any piece. They just become more defined in a book because of the length.
The first is: begin at the top left hand corner of page one and finish at the bottom right hand corner of the last page, and in between follow your nose. We’ll call this the ‘free-form’ method.
The second is: plan everything out. Design the structure of the book with chapter and sub-chapter headings, right to the lowest level. Then fill it up. This one we’ll call the ‘structured’ method.
Most writers to some extent use a combination of both approaches; and they are in any case suited to different types of writing. For example a psychological drama that explores characters’ reaction to their environment, really has to be free-form, to allow the characters to live and to actually respond in a convincing manner. I used this technique in The Warm Pink Jelly Express Train, a novel in which a straight man meets a transsexual and falls in love with her.
Writers like James Joyce, Virginia Wolf, Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell were all extremely talented in their use of the ‘free-form’ style. Within the Bloomsbury Group, of which Wolf was a part, this became a formal style called ‘stream of consciousness’ writing.
In To the Lighthouse, Wolf explores her characters’ feelings, in highly free-form prose, as part of a sailing trip. In Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, a masterful example of the genre, he views the same series of events, a love affair, through the eyes of four different people, each contributing a book to the quartet. It is a remarkable tour de force.
Be warned however, that this technique can very quickly, at the keyboard of unwary authors, become a self-indulgent, undisciplined mess. The best examples use a strong narrative device to hold everything together. Such devices include the journey, which Kerouac exploited, or the chronology of a series of events. The structure in such works comes not from a predetermined spine of chapters, heading and subheadings, but from a physical journey which is used to crystallise the journey of the mind.
Perhaps the most extreme exponent of this type of writing was James Joyce, whose Finnegan’s Wake actually dispenses with meaningful language in large parts yet somehow manages to retain a structure!
The structured method is far better suited to academic and more technical writing. When I wrote Why Men Made God it was done in this way. Each section was pre-planned in detail before writing and, while the overall structure of the book was constantly being revised, it was still there.
If you are writing a method book, say a gardening or cookery book, a tutorial of other sorts, a history or a travel guide, then it is far better and much quicker to set out the skeleton of the book first. Apart from anything else this will help avoid block, because you can always work on another section. Try, however, not to get lost in a plethora of headings and subheadings.
Here, just using the Headings function in your word processor will be a huge help. I am always surprised by how many MSS I see where the author has not done this. It’s as simple as falling off a log and it immediately provides a visual ‘map’ of the book, with links to the parts.
Many books require a combination. For example, memoirs are often partly structured but within that framework may be very free form. My book French Onion Soup! and its sequels fall into this category. This is very common for memoirs. It can allow the book to be divided up into sections by chronology, subject and so on. Within each chapter, however, the writing is free and engaging.
Spontaneity in book writing
The essential for any writing that intends to be read is spontaneity; the essential for any writing that is to be technically accurate is structure. So while free-form lends itself to fiction and journalism, structured is often more useful for technical academic or scientific writing.
At the same time, a writer has a duty to the readers. If your writing is so pedantic as to be unreadable, then the information you’re trying to get across will be lost; and at the same time, if your structure is so haphazard that nobody could possibly follow it, then the same problem arises.
In designing the structure of a book, all the usual principles of design must be followed. The skeleton must be easy to follow and intuitive. Granted, in more advanced works, a high degree of prior knowledge might have to be presumed on the part of the reader, but still the structure should be comprehensible and easy to follow. Books like this are frequently not read through in their entirety but dipped into for particular information and, if the reader can’t easily find it, then the writer (and his editor) has failed.
Writing is storytelling, plain and simple. From short story to space-station operating manual, you need to get the information across in a way that is readable. It must be something that other people can understand.
The best way to achieve this is to work with an editor who knows the subject are well. This is why the editors appointed by publishing houses are so useful and important. Editors are not there to be obstructive or pedantic, but to help your book to become better and ultimately more successful.