Categories
Agile

The Rules of Your Book


This is an excerpt from Writing Better Books the Agile Way, you can get a copy here.


In non-fiction works, the rules of your book are simply the rules of reality. In order to have a consistent quality throughout your book, I recommend deciding early on how deeply you will be researching specific topics. For the reader, it might be odd to have one chapter full of references, while the others only scratch the surface. If you indeed need different rules for different chapters, make it clear. Ideally, write down these rules in a separate document and have your editor check whether you are following them. In Agile terms, this is called Definition of Done—conditions that have to be met in order for your editor to accept your work. This document could also include things like grammar rules, spelling, rules about usage (e.g., capital letters, lower case, contractions), formatting, citation styles, image resolutions (what prints well?), caption style, tone (formal, informal), or perspective (first person, third person, etc.). This document is typically referred to as a style guide.

In fiction works, after creating your world and characters, it is time to put them into a specific situation and think about how they would act. This ensures that they will come to life and that they really are the actors of your story—and do not feel like they were hanging from the strings of a puppeteer.

If your book follows the (fictional) world’s rules throughout (with very few exceptions), you keep your readers on edge, not knowing how the characters will come out on top. Breaking those rules is possible, but should be done only sparingly to put more emphasis on a scene, for example, “Sometimes, Superman can overcome even kryptonite.”

If you do not provide limitations for your fictional characters, a common mistake is to create “Mary Sue” characters who always do the right thing. This approach means that your character(s) are driven by the plot, rather than driving the plot. It leaves out internal development. You should handle (adult) characters as people who have gone through a series of defining experiences. In order for them to be believable, they had to discover their own strengths and limitations. Even if you want to portray an ideal, you need to explain how they became who they are—this is true even for superheroes. You cannot simply wish yourself to be a hero. Someone who thinks that he or she can do anything without effort is not a superhero but a Mary Sue.

Mary Sue ⋅  Mary Sue is the term for a seemingly perfect fictional character. It originated from a parody of Star Trek fan fiction stories where writers included new characters with a major role in the story, but without making an effort to describe how they reached their position.

Likewise, if you allow your characters to have superpowers when it is convenient, it reduces the relevance of the actual climax of the story. The reader would assume that your characters are unlimited and could overcome any challenge by breaking the rules.

This also applies to non-fiction works if you are discussing people and their achievements: do not forget to include their failures, and how they dealt with challenges privately, in order to paint a complete picture of internal and external development.

Your readers will notice when you are trying to play God within the book’s world. It will break the “fourth wall,” destroying the illusion that these are real characters acting, and not a writer making them act. If you want your characters to reach a certain place or situation, you can create events that shake things up, but those events have to be believable based on the rules you have set up for your world. If you want the reader to think that the person he or she is reading about is a conscious being reflecting on his or her actions, you must create and follow your world’s rules.

The Fourth Wall ⋅  The theater stage is usually surrounded by three walls, with the fourth wall facing the audience. In this context, breaking the Fourth Wall is a reference to the characters becoming aware that they are being watched and directly addressing the audience.

Before you define the rules of your book, though, you should have a clear picture of whom you are writing the book for. Some writers advise using 8th-grade level language, especially when it comes to complex topics. This is the same level that, for example, Harry Potter was written in, and which around 80% of Americans can read. With tools like https://readable.io, you can get an idea of the quality of each chapter. With such a feedback tool, you can also train yourself to write at a lower language level than you naturally do. For example, I write (English) at an 11th-grade level, and my books are aimed at adults and professionals, but I am thinking about writing special editions for children.

Likewise, reading is a linear activity, and you do not want the reader to put away the book because he or she stumbled over a weak part of the story. A true page-turner requires the same quality throughout the book. One of the big advantages of using the Agile approach to writing is that (at least to a certain degree) you spend roughly the same amount of time on each part of the book. This maintains a certain level of quality throughout your book. If you catch yourself getting lost in details, it is often better to just finalize open ends (and remove half-finished texts) and prepare your book for a first print. After a break, do a complete read-through. This method helps you more than spending too much time on any one part of the book.

Categories
Agile

How to Organize Your Ideas (Fiction Books)


This is an excerpt from Writing Better Books the Agile Way, you can get a copy here.


Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.

—Mark Twain

For fiction books, you cannot simply map your user stories directly into individual chapters of your book. Instead, you have to approach the project in several phases:

First, you have to describe the world in which your novel will take place. For writing fiction, you have a simple tool available to you: genres. Genres are basically story and character templates that have proven to be interesting for a particular group of readers. Most novels fit into a single genre, meaning you have basically only a single audience persona (and user story), but some are a mix of genres which can (if done properly) help the book appeal to broader audiences. For example, some people like Westerns, and some people like science fiction. A Western-type scenario in space might appeal to both. With combining two genres, you can create a market niche with a very broad appeal, where writing for different personas improves rather than lowers the quality of the book. In terms of user stories, you can organize your ideas by taking the view of the reader. For example, “As a reader, I want to know how this futuristic dystopian society came to be and works now, in order to get a point of reference for the character’s upbringing and actions.” This back-story of your characters and world will not appear 1:1 in your book. But it can help you to figure out how they will behave, and you can reuse snippets of it as part of their dialogue. Alternatively, you can present parts of their back story from the perspective of a narrator, to refine the reader’s idea of the world more and more as the novel progresses.

Second, you will be creating the characters of your world. Some characters you can immediately draw from your choice of genre. For example, in the “noir” genre, you often have a “femme fatale,” a woman protagonist who is rejecting societal expectations like marriage or motherhood. Another example is (a very early part of) the “Western” genre, often with a protagonist who fought on the Confederate side of the American Civil War and is basically portrayed as a “dead man walking.”

Using the template provided by a genre instead of coming up with your own can help you to get started. While it is true that choosing a genre will mean more competition for you, the only alternative would be to do a lot of market research and create and market your own genre. While there are authors who have defined a new genre, these instances are rare—think of William Shakespeare (drama), Homer (poetry), or J. R. R. Tolkien (fantasy).

In contrast to the previously discussed non-fiction books, in fiction books, you are not necessarily describing parts of this world, you are instead building a new world and fresh characters. Here, your readers cannot tell you what they want to read about, except in a general way. They might want a “Western in space,” but it is up to you to decide and describe how that world acts and reacts.

As a writer, you set up the fictional world and its rules. If you have done a thorough job, at this point, you can let it play out and unfold on its own, with you just continuing from where you have started setting everything up. Your characterization of the individuals and the world they are living in become the main drivers of the story.

Please note that the general artistic argument is to not listen to what the market “wants” but to write what comes to your mind. I think this is a valid point, given that your mind, your experiences, and your ideas are by default unique on the market. So, whatever you write will automatically fill a niche. Even with this approach, selecting a fitting genre might be useful. You can put your story into a fantasy or science fiction setting without losing its core. If you know that, currently, science fiction stories are most sought after, you might want to give it a shot. The fundamental decision you have to make, though, is whether you are writing as an art form, with the goal of expressing and exploring your emotions and ideas, and learning the trade itself, or if you look at writing as a business, where you have to attract “likes” and “subscribes” to build external validation.

To summarize the difference between how to organize your writing for fiction and non-fiction books:

  • Non-fiction: User stories are things your readers (personas) want to know. Group them into topics, then order them in a way so that they build upon the previous stories.
  • Fiction: Create separate user stories for the elements of the world that you selected or created, and defined by the genre (selected based on the personas), for each character (also defined by the genre), and finally for each scene or event developing from the world.

Finally, your book needs an overarching theme, moral, or philosophic view. Please note that even if you do not start out by defining it explicitly, you will still have one. We are all driven by a philosophy, consciously or unconsciously. So, whether you intend it or not, your book will have a viewpoint. It could be a whole system of philosophy, or it could be simplistic as in “crime is bad.” We always have some viewpoint. Either we follow the predominant views of the society we live in, or we consciously decide upon a specific theme, morality, or philosophy.

Similar to (physical) rules of your world, you also need ethical rules of your world. If those rules are contradictory or inconsistent, this can lessen the tension in your story and your world will be somewhat chaotic. If the reader can expect anything to happen, then nothing is at stake. An alternative is to maintain contradictory philosophies, but with characters representing them.

The issues are similar to those with non-fiction books: if you decide upfront on a theme or moral, you run into the danger of moralizing and breaking the rules of your “world” (the world within your book) just to prove your point. If you develop the moral while writing the story, you give up control over your world, and you have to adjust the world in a clever way to ultimately demonstrate the point you want to make.

My advice is to start with your views, but the tool to express those views should be the world you have created in your book (or the real world). If you cannot create a world where the scenes or events you have thought about can happen, it might be time to reconsider your ideas.

My advice is to start with your views, but the tool to express those views should be the world you have created in your book (or the real world). If you cannot create a world where the scenes or events you have thought about can happen, it might be time to reconsider those ideas.

Categories
Agile

How to Organize Your Ideas


This is an excerpt from Writing Better Books the Agile Way, you can get a copy here.


What the reader wants to read and what you will provide with user stories is very much aligned. A reader has a specific problem, need, or interest, and you are trying to solve it by providing instructions or information.

For example, the topics discussed both in  Better Books with LaTeX and here in Writing Better Books the Agile Way are in that regard very simple. The former because it describes a technology and its application, the latter because it describes a project management method. In addition, both books deal with topics relatively limited in scope.

For simple non-fiction books, I recommend following these steps:

1. Create personas representing your readers.
2. Write the user stories—things your readers want to know.
3. Group your user stories by topic.
4. Write the book based on the user stories.

But following this step-by-step approach, you get something like a how-to description, dictionary, or encyclopedia. By contrast, in my Philosophy for Heroes series, my goal was to provide a comprehensive discussion of philosophical and scientific concepts for the reader to figure out for himself or herself how to be a (better) hero in real life. As I used the series also as a way to form my own opinion of the topic while continuing to study it, my original approach to plan everything from the start failed.

If you are not already an expert on a topic, if it is not a simple how-to description of a proven method, you will have to go back to the start of your writing again and again to fix something you learn later. Split your project into a series; be open to telling the reader that you have changed your opinion on something discussed in an earlier part of the series to demonstrate that it is also a learning experience for you, the author.

If you want to write a book that takes the reader by the hand and guides him or her through the topic you are discussing, you need something more. You need a big picture, theme, vision, or overarching story you want to tell with your book.

For this, you have two options:

1. Arrange and re-arrange the user stories and tell a story explaining why they are in this sequence.
I recommend writing the user stories on stickers and put them on a wall, making the whole scope of your book easily visible and easily changeable.
2. Start with an overarching vision and then go back to arranging (and possibly modifying) the user stories in a way that supports that vision.

The challenge with the second approach is that you might curtail your creativity. If you start out with the conclusion, all your efforts are focused on proving it, instead of also looking left and right and investigating alternative views on the topic. So, when choosing the second approach, you should be careful to set only a general direction, not a fixed result.

For example, instead of writing a book about how “Word is the best software to write books,” set a more general theme of your book, such as “The advantages of using Word as an author.” This leaves the outcome of your research open but keeps you on track. You could gather a number of arguments, examine alternatives, and end up with clear advice for whom and what kind of book projects Word is the best software. This is also the more scientific approach, helping to prevent falling into the trap of confirmation bias.

Whichever option you choose, you will end up creating some kind of outline of your book, either as a starting point for your user stories or as a tool to connect them together into a consistent theme. This outline will be like a streamlined version of your book. Practice describing your book to other people in an “elevator pitch” of 30 seconds. If you cannot deliver the message of your book in that time, you could consider either splitting your book into two or more books or rewriting the outline. You could even use the outline as an article you release online (we will discuss in Chapter 10 more about releasing parts of your book early).

An additional or alternative approach is to start your book with the front cover. Having to limit the way you describe your book by a title, an image, and a short subtitle automatically helps you to focus on a single idea. It is also the cover, not your outline, that will ultimately sell your book. You can reuse your outline on the back cover or in an online description of your book, but the first contact point with your readers is the cover.

In summary, we have the following two approaches to start writing your book:

Option 1:

1. Create personas representing your readers.
“Peter is a paleontology student.”
2. Write the user stories—things your readers want to know.
“Peter wants to know about dinosaurs in the Jurassic Age to study for an upcoming exam.”
3. Group your user stories by topic.
“Dinosaurs in the Jurassic Age.” “Dinosaurs in the Cretaceous Age.”
4. Arrange your groups of user stories into a sequence that fits into the narration of your book. One story or group of stories should build upon the previous one. When in doubt, put more important user stories before less important user stories.
“First Jurassic Age, then Cretaceous Age…”
5. Write a basic outline or come up with a theme or vision of the book that fits the written user stories.
‘In this book, we will discuss the different Ages of life on Earth in chronological order.”
6. Write the book based on the user stories.
“Dinosaurs first appeared during the Triassic period, between 243 and 233.23 million years ago…”

Option 2:

1. Write a basic outline, come up with a theme or vision of the book, or create a book cover.
‘In this book, we will discuss the different Ages of life on Earth in chronological order.”
2. Create personas representing your readers.
“Peter is a paleontology student.”
3. Write the user stories—things your readers want to know.
“Peter wants to know about dinosaurs in the Jurassic Age to study for an upcoming exam.”
4. Group your user stories by topic.
“Dinosaurs in the Jurassic Age.” “Dinosaurs in the Cretaceous Age.”
5. Arrange your groups of user stories into a sequence that fits the outline, theme, or book cover. When in doubt, put more important user stories before less important user stories.
“First Jurassic Age, then Cretaceous Age…”
6. Write the book based on the user stories.
“Dinosaurs first appeared during the Triassic period, between 243 and 233.23 million years ago…”

For the companion book Better Books with LaTeX , I decided on the second option. Market research has shown me that there is a demand for books about writing, but only a limited supply in terms of books discussing how to write books in LaTeX. While there are many introductory books about LaTeX, there are only few that focus on helping book authors. I want only what gets someone from A to B (in this case, writing a book) and nothing else.

But instead of asking people if LaTeX is what they actually want, I went for the niche simply because my objective of the book was to reflect upon and document my own writing process. The advantage of this approach was that I was able to write a well-rounded and focused book; the disadvantage of this approach was that I might not have taken the actual needs of readers into account. I simply present the proven solution I have found. Maybe the bigger market would have been the people writing books in Word?

For the elevator pitch for  Better Books with LaTeX, I used the following form:

  • For: First-time authors, novel writers who want to write a first non-fiction book, writers who are looking for better tools, LaTeX experts, editors who want to expand their services, LaTeX beginners who are looking for an introductory book, self-publishers who are seeking insights, and professionals who want to add a book to their portfolio,
  • The: “Better Books with LaTeX” book
  • Is an: introduction to building books with LaTeX
  • That: takes readers through a variety of topics on publishing, from A to Z with the focus of using LaTeX as the central word processor.
  • Unlike: pure LaTeX books that focus on the technology or pure publishing books that ignore the difficulties of managing more complex books with Word,
  • We: provide a template and a tutorial that even beginners can use and professionals can refine for their purposes and embed this technical knowledge into a discussion of publishing, polishing, and editing.

For the user stories for  Better Books with LaTeX, I developed the following list (the “what” part is in bold for each user story):

1. Mary wants to know about the possible advantages of using LaTeX instead of Word to make an informed decision on whether to use LaTeX for her future books.
2. Mary wants to know how and where (foreword, preface, publisher information, TOC, glossary, etc.) to insert the texts into the template for an e-book / printable PDF.
3. John wants to learn the basics of LaTeX so that he can make small adjustments to the template and enjoy a head start when learning more complex commands.
4. John wants to know how to better manage bibliographical references to save time and reduce mistakes.
5. John wants to know how to better manage indexes to save time during index creation and after page changes.
6. John wants to know the reasoning behind the organization of the template in order to make informed adaptions.
7. George wants to know how to convert his LaTeX document into an HTML file to publish it as a website article.
8. George wants to know the special requirements of final polishing (which image quality to choose, what to do about blank spaces and page breaks, etc.) of the PDF to make a professional-looking printed book.
9. George wants to know how to tweak the HTML output (page breaks, table of contents, etc.) to improve conversion quality for mobi (KDP) in order to have an e-book of high quality.
10. Clara wants to know how to publish her books and e-books on Amazon KDP, so that she will have a central place to manage and sell them.
11. Peter wants to know about how to create a book cover, LaTeX graphics, etc. and how Lode Publishing can help to create an appealing book.
12. George wants to know how to reuse glossary items and other text blocks to save time when writing a series.

For the user stories of this book, I developed the following list:

1. Peter needs a pep talk to prepare him for possible disappointments when starting a book project.
2. Peter wants to know about the potential sales of his book in order to better plan his expenses (and manage his own expectations).
3. Clara wants to know the general approach to investing money so that she doesn’t waste any.
4. Clara wants to know how she can incorporate her book into her professional career and benefit from it more than just through book sales.
5. Peter wants to know where to start with a fresh book project so that he will not get lost in endless edits that prevent him from completing and releasing the book.
6. Peter wants to know how to better decide what to include in the book and what to leave out to create a better book more efficiently.
7. Tina wants to know how to use personas so that she can write for her target audience.
8. Mary wants to know how to have the same quality of language and content throughout the book to keep the reader engaged.
9. Clara wants to learn a method for organizing her ideas and how not to get lost in details so that she can write a comprehensive but to-the-point book.
10. Tina wants to know and stay in contact with her audience as a means of increasing future sales.
11. Mary wants to know how to conduct market research for books and how to include that into the writing process so that she can sell more books.
12. Peter wants to understand what working with a professional editor or coach looks like and how it could help him in order to make an informed decision about whether to hire someone and whom to hire.
13. Mary wants to know how to work more efficiently with her editor to speed up the writing and editing processes.
14. John wants to know how to better organize his communication with an author in order to reduce overhead and better deliver what the author expects.
15. Mary wants to know how to create better ads on Amazon to increase sales.
16. Peter wants to know how to properly cite so that he will respect the work of others.
17. Mary wants to get earlier feedback for her book so that she can incorporate market demand and readers’ wishes.
Categories
Agile

Selecting Personas


This is an excerpt from Writing Better Books the Agile Way, you can get a copy here.


When deciding for whom you are writing, come up with representative examples of people who will read your book. Apply names to make it more personal (and easier to remember): Peter, Bob, Mary, etc. and write a short biography and a list of interests each of those personas have that relate to your book.

While this stereotyping is not necessarily politically correct, remember that you are not really using those names or personalities anywhere in your book. Instead, this process is meant to help you focus and improve communication with your editor or other people working on the book. If you and your team keep those stereotypical representations of your readers in mind, brief statements like “Mary will not understand this paragraph,” “Peter would like to know more about the protagonist’s background,” or “Bob wants more detailed information and references about the topic” will speed up the discussion.

During your writing career, you should refine your audience personas. Find out more about who is reading your books, learn more about your readers’ interests, and compare what you have drawn up as possible personas with the people actually reading your book. Ultimately, your personas should become as diverse as the characters or topics about which you write.

The more you know about your audience, the better you can (a) remove parts of your book that will make people stop reading, and (b) expand on points that interest people. You might even end up knowing your audience so well that you find a comfortable niche and you have but a single persona for whom to write.

Likewise, if you end up with two or more groups of personas that do not overlap, you should think about creating two different books. Focus each on a single persona rather than trying to capture a larger audience and ending up with various groups disliking parts of the book.

You might find people interested in history, and people interested in vampire stories. But putting them together might not work. Let’s take an example from the movie world. On Rotten Tomatoes, the critics’ consensus on “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” was: “[It] has visual style to spare, but its overly serious tone doesn’t jibe with its decidedly silly central premise, leaving filmgoers with an unfulfilling blend of clashing ingredients.”

Most (good) books are simple tools, not Swiss Army knives. They deal with a single issue. People have specific needs and look for specific solutions. If you are muddying the water with several topics, you end up with a smaller audience. And if you cannot explain what your book is about in a short paragraph, your readers certainly will not figure it out for themselves.

Of course, some books are Swiss Army knives. They deliver a range of ideas, especially in the field of education. But those books are sold as part of an existing course or training and are seldom standalone works. Their “story” is how to pass a certain level of education or exam. Other books of this type include reference books for languages, history, natural sciences, and so on. The selling point of those books is—as the name implies—that they act as a reference for study.

For this book series, Better Books with LaTeX and Writing Better Books the Agile Way, I came up with the following general roles of people who are probably interested in the books:

  • Marketer (searching for a niche, preparing the launch)
  • Author (how to work with an editor, etc.)
  • The Undecided
  • Editor (with text notes, or a full manuscript)
  • Publisher (with a fully edited manuscript—physically getting the product to the customer)
  • Project Manager (with an author, editor, and publisher)

Then I elaborated on those roles, creating primary personas:

1. Peter
  • First-time author.
  • Has a “complete” script, “had a friend look at it,” and now wants to publish it.
  • Might need (unsolicited) advice to properly edit it instead of just going through a “self-edit.”
  • Needs to be reminded about the difficulties of selling a book. Has no idea about marketing.
  • Has not worked with an editor.
  • Creates his own book covers.
  • Would benefit from a “pep talk.”
2. Mary
  • Writes novels in Word but now wants to write a non-fiction book.
  • Undecided about what tools to use.
  • Works with an editor, but they have no real work structure.
  • Does not know how to market, find market niches, etc. Her past successes were random, and she never knew if her latest novel would sell or not.
3. John
  • Professional editor seeking to expand his services from merely editing Word files to helping release books online.
  • Also is looking for project management techniques to better guide an author along the way.
  • Often works in the scientific field and thus has to manage a lot of bibliographical references.
  • Spends lots of time indexing books.
4. George
  • Needs basic direction and then figures out the rest on his own.
  • Plans to publish a series with a glossary and often needs to reuse text blocks.
  • Needs some help in terms of book design, polishing, and graphics.
  • Loves to share work and collaborate with others, does not care about parts of the book being “stolen.”
5. Tina
  • Professional writer and self-publisher who is looking for additional ideas to improve her existing publishing process.
  • Looks for ways to establish herself as a brand and create a network of readers.
6. Clara
  • Wants to write a book about her profession to demonstrate her expertise but has no idea where to start.
Categories
Agile

What to Keep and What to Remove


This is an excerpt from Writing Better Books the Agile Way, you can get a copy here.


A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.

—Mark Twain

If I ask you to go to Starbucks to bring me a coffee, you might end up buying me the wrong drink. But when I later tell you that I will not need a coffee after all, you can no longer make the mistake of choosing the wrong thing between, say, a soy latte and an iced coffee. Similarly, in software programming, there is a saying that the best piece of computer code is the one that is not necessary: you can simply remove it and the program will still run perfectly and flawlessly. While your readers are not machines, and while it is OK to repeat yourself to make a certain point, this saying also applies to your book. If you do not write it or remove a certain passage before editing, it needs no editing, and it makes your book shorter and more to the point.

Another way of looking at it is to ask yourself what the specific goal of a certain chapter, section, or even paragraph is. What specifically are you accomplishing with this passage? If you cannot answer that question, your readers will not be able to answer it either, and no matter how well researched and written that part of your book is, it is superfluous and should be removed. Shorter is always better: it saves you, your editor, and your reader time and elevates the other parts of your book that have a reason to be there. This applies both to fiction and non-fiction books. Introducing random characters you will never use again is just as problematic as explaining something that does not serve the point you want to make.

Now, what is a method you could integrate in your writing process to ensure that you are not writing more than needed?

To come up with a method, let us first examine the reason it is easy to fall victim to writing superfluous text as an author. The problem you are facing is that you are not only the person coming up with ideas for what to write about, you are also the person “implementing” those ideas by doing research and writing them down. In addition, you are looking at a computer screen or piece of paper; you are not speaking directly to another person. Both issues can lead to you just writing to yourself and going off on a tangent.

So, before writing a passage, we first have to address these questions:

  • To whom are you writing?
  • What does that person want to know?
  • Why does that person want to know it?

Once you have written down your answers to these questions, you can then switch your “hat” from idea person to writer. You will no longer go off on a tangent, as you are now tasked with implementing the answers to those questions in a paragraph or section.

And the one trait of a good writer in this context is that he or she is following the instruction to the letter and will only write as much to implement those answers but no more. Once you are done with writing, you can put on your “idea hat” again and think about what your reader needs you to address next.

This split between the idea-person and writer can also take place on a larger scale. You can prepare a whole series of points you want to make in your text, noting down whom you are talking to, what the person wants to know, and why he or she wants to know it, and then switch roles and do nothing but implement those answers for a while.

This focused approach will not only help you to write only as much as is needed (and not talk down to the reader by explaining obvious ideas), but it will also speed up your writing process as you no longer have to constantly switch back and forth between writer and idea person.

  • “Idea hat.” When brainstorming about your chapters, or researching topics, you are wearing the “idea hat.” Take only minimal notes and focus on elaborating the idea later.
  • “Writer’s hat.” After having completed your research, you put on your “writer’s hat” and implement the ideas you have found, ideally without interruption.

In project management, this approach is also called a “user story.” You start out by defining your audience (“personas”), brainstorm what your audience wants to read about and why, and list all those “user stories” in a ToDo list. Next, you rearrange those user stories so that their sequence makes sense. Once that is finalized, you can start writing without interruption.

While working on a story, you might come up with new ideas. It is best to double check if writing a new story is better. For example, in this book, I discuss fiction and non-fiction books sometimes side by side, sometimes in separate chapters. When I do the latter, I have usually started with the former, and then divided the chapter into two. A better approach is to split chapters as soon as you see that what you are writing might address two different personas (or deal with two distinct user stories). If you see this pattern repeating with other user stories, too, you might want to move the new user stories into your next book.

Likewise, if you notice that individual user stories become too large, it might be useful to split them. Splitting can be done in various ways. For example, if your user story is “Clara wants to know how to publish her e-books online, so that she can manage the sales from her computer,” it could be split into several user stories dealing different platforms (Amazon KDP, Google, leanpub, etc.).

Categories
Agile

Starting a New Book


This is an excerpt from Writing Better Books the Agile Way, you can get a copy here.


There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

—Maya Angelou

When deciding to start a book project, you have two options. You write a book that you want to hold in your hands or you write a book that you want to see others holding in their hands.

3.1  Writing for Yourself

Writing for yourself usually means that you come to the project full of ideas. Maybe you have had those ideas over the years and want to see them finally in print. My own first book was such a work of passion. Over the years, I wrote down ideas on little note cards. After I moved to Düsseldorf, my journey of minimizing my household started. I began by scanning and digitizing all those cards. Together with articles and forum entries I wrote, the resulting file was a 1000-page “book” of unconnected thoughts. This was followed by years of editing.

In the end, I divided my book project into eight parts and then approached them one by one. It still took me many months to finish the first part. In the end, this approach was extremely inefficient as I had so much text and only a fraction of it published.

The lesson of this story is: Do not wait until the end of the book to look at the big picture. Writing books is not like producing a movie, where you first try to get as much footage as possible and then focus on editing at the end of the process.

In a way, it is the curse of the first book you will write. You have not been writing books for long, so all your ideas have piled up in your mind or in notebooks or on your computer. But the higher your ambitions, the lower the chance that the book ever sees the light of day. The saying “Aim for the stars to reach the moon” holds true, but it is not done in a single step! A general rule of thumb is to change only one element with each new book. If you have written novels about Scandinavia in the past and now want to write a non-fiction book, write about Scandinavia. If it is your first book, the easiest way to start is taking an existing book as a blueprint and focusing on learning the tools that allow you to write and publish your unique book.

Ultimately, in this case, my advice is to write your first book based on your notes. By converting your ideas into a book, you are organizing them in a coherent way. And no matter how your book does in the marketplace, it is the foundation of your future publications. You can always come back to it and reuse elements directly or indirectly, based on the things you have learned while writing it.

3.2  Writing for Others

If you are writing for others, you are starting with a blank page. Sure, you have the background knowledge in your field (and books you have written in the past, see above), but because you are writing for others, the first step is to start asking people what they want to read.

How do you acquire the information necessary to decide what to write about? Here, you have several options:

  • You are running an active blog where you post articles (maybe parts or whole chapters of your previously written books). Analyzing the amount of feedback, comments, and even click rates, you can guess what topic most interests your visitors.
  • You are using online advertising based on keywords (like Amazon Marketing Services or Google Adwords—paid services for your book to show up when people are searching for specific topics). Depending on how you have set up your keywords, they can act as a net and give you valuable information about what people are searching for.
  • You can research in the existing market of ideas to identify niches—genres and topics few other authors have written about but which have an above-average number of sales. You can do this by looking at the sales rankings on Amazon.
  • If your goal for the book is to supplement your career, you are technically still writing for others, but the content of your book is clear from the start: you want to use your book as an alternative medium to promote the unique selling point of your career. What makes your approach special in your field?

If you are unsure about which option to use, I recommend starting a blog and writing articles. If you cannot attract an audience by posting small articles or stories, you will not be able to do it with a book. Alternatively, write your first book as a way of learning how to market and sell, and use the passages from the book for articles and further market research.

Once this general research is done and a decision has been made, you now have to focus on the core of the book and organize your ideas around it.

Categories
Agile

Incorporate Books into Your Professional Career


This is an excerpt from Writing Better Books the Agile Way, you can get a copy here.


Let us look at another approach to publishing books: in this case, it is not the book, but a service you provide, that is the actual product. You can make the book itself a marketing tool. You will then have the following options:

  • Referencing your book. Having written a book about a subject means you have spent a significant amount of time studying the matter. So, be it in your CV or résumé, having one or several books can help you to get the edge over your competitor. I recommend taking a copy to your next job interview. A printed book offers your interviewer physical proof of your abilities. Another place to “namedrop” your book is in speeches at conferences. A published book establishes you as an authority on a subject.
  • Recommending your book. When you are dealing with many customers, you can simply recommend that they read your book. Depending on the nature of your work, the topic of your book could revolve around extending your teaching (if you are, for example, a professor), or around explaining your unique approach. Some people are more receptive to the written word than to other forms of learning, so this can help them to better learn from you. Others might want to add your book to their collection to share it with friends or as a way of personally connecting with you.
  • Using your book as a resource. Even if only a few people buy and read your book, you can still reuse all the notes and the edited content for speeches at conferences, and (properly cited) in future books. This way, you can see any book you release as a stepping stone to you becoming a master in the topic about which you are writing. Even if it is a work of fiction, the research you have invested in the book is valuable. Another option is to expand your audience by moving your content to a different medium and creating, for example, YouTube clips based on it.
  • Making the book part of your offer. This can be done as a free bonus on top of your services, as part of a premium offer, or as an incentive to subscribe to your newsletter. If your services are more physical with direct customer contact, you might think about giving away printed copies. If your services are primarily on the Internet, you can simply give your book out as a PDF e-book.
  • Releasing your book for free. If the goal of your book is to serve as a marketing tool, ignore any income you are possibly making by selling the book and focus only on having it read by as many people as possible. Set the price on Amazon and Google to a minimum, and either use free book promotion services (KDP select) or split your book into individual WordPress articles to attract people to your website. In this case, you do not need to be afraid of the possibility that your book gets “stolen.” Because you are already giving articles away for free, nobody wants to make the effort to assemble the WordPress articles into a book and release it themselves. Still, if you are worried about people pirating (copying) your work, please check out Chapter 10 where I discuss strategies for how to protect your work or make the person copying it work for you.

If you want to use books to not only help you with your career but also provide additional income, you need to focus a significant portion of your time on marketing. With that goal in mind, your book itself becomes the product and you have to invest (indirectly with advertisement or directly with valuable content) in engaging potential customers for them to spend time learning about it.

Categories
Agile

Great Expectations

This is an excerpt from Writing Better Books the Agile Way. You can get a copy here.

The best advice I ever got was, “Nobody is coming.” Well, at least without a reason they will not.

Your inner voice may argue that if only every 1,000th person in the country bought your book, you would be a millionaire, then it is time to challenge your inner statistician. Imagine you spent the day in New York City. If only every 1,000th person you met on the street stopped you for a quick chat, your whole day would be busy. But that clearly does not happen. We spend more time on people with whom we have an emotional connection than with those whom we do not. The same applies to books.

As harsh as it sounds, nobody will take an interest in your book just because it exists. If you do nothing but write and then release your book, expect exactly zero sales.

Even if you look up your favorite books, you will discover that they might rank only around #100,000—on Amazon, this translates into roughly one copy sold per day. Even at the #10,000 rank, only around 10 books per day are sold. How can your book compete with these numbers if even your favorite book sells only a few books per day?

First, in fact, 10 books per day is a very respectable achievement. Over a year, that might add up to $20,000 depending on your book price. While you might have heard of book authors making millions, those are the exception. In addition, many book authors are also more focused on using their books as a device for marketing their professional services (see Chapter 2) than on earning money with book sales.

But you might ask, “What about all those services promising to boost your sales or even making your book the next bestseller?”

In that regard, it is best to think and act on evidence: spend only when you know it will reduce your costs or increase your sales—not because you think you might need it later or because an offer sounds attractive.

Instead of trying to invest in things that make you look like a successful author, try to find your own niche with your own audience. In the end, you will enjoy your work a lot more, as you can work creatively in your own style instead of creating second-rate copies of existing work. Ask yourself: what is the unique selling point of your books? Ask yourself how you select the books you are reading. A recommendation from a friend? A positive review on your favorite blog? A random Facebook ad with a questionable cover and unclear title? What emotional reaction will your readers have when seeing or reading your book?

The success of your book depends on finding that niche of readers who want to read exactly what you are writing. You need to be able to explain in detail how and why a reader would take an interest in your book. If not even you know exactly how an ad will engage your readers in reading about or buying your book, your audience certainly will not.

With that in mind, first focus on everything you can do that is free and spend money only when you see a clear need for something. And seeing a clear need for something implies that you have empirical evidence. To get empirical evidence, you first have to have an initial product you can show others and gather their feedback. Start with your own network, give out free copies of your book, and hope your friends and associates will find the time to review your work within a few months. For creating and advertising your book, rely on freely available resources. For example, instead of setting up an author website (because it appears that every successful author has a website), focus on free alternatives like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Google Business, YouTube, or simply your Amazon Author page. Once you get sufficient traffic on those sites, you can proceed with planning the next step based on that data, and so on.

It is also important to note that simply asking is sometimes the best course of action. For example, the designer of an infographic might be willing to share his or her work with you. Sometimes a creator simply wants to know how you want to use his or her work before agreeing that you can use it. As the saying goes, the best things in life are free; if you find a way where you both profit from the exchange, all the better. The mention of the creator and a link to his or her website or published work might be worth more than he or she could get by selling the material.

Writing Better Books the Agile Way means choosing as your next step whatever comes most quickly and with the least expense. Getting better at your work in small increments is the secret and Agile project management techniques can help you to establish a process of continuous improvement.

This is an excerpt from Writing Better Books the Agile Way. You can get a copy here.

Categories
Agile

Your (First) Book Will Not Sell and Why That Is OK


This is an excerpt from Writing Better Books the Agile Way. You can get a copy here.


Write without pay until someone offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this as a sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.

—Mark Twain

Writing books is hard. The deceptive thing about books is that they are easy to read. There is no hidden mechanism in the book; the book is exactly what you see: a series of letters. It is easy to think that if you just put the right combination of letters on a piece of paper, you end up with a bestseller. But that is like saying you could throw stones on a pile and end up with a house. Though Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it,” I would apply this more to editing than to writing something new. As a writer, you do not start with a block of stone; you first have to get that block of stone (mostly consisting of the results of your research).

Writing is a profession that takes many years to learn. If you want to earn money by writing, you have to learn not only writing but also marketing. Most people, on their first job, did not run the entire company on their own. While learning the ins and outs of their profession, their early jobs revolved around a single activity, like sales, construction, programming, etc. But as a writer (especially a self-publishing one), you have to wear many “hats” at the same time.

For myself, the best learning experience was looking at the sales number of my first book. “0.” It showed me that, not just in theory but also in practice, people will not come to you simply because you have a product. You have to help them understand the value of the product, study what they want, and find your niche accordingly.

For your first book, aim for a learning experience. This will keep you on track, even if you have not figured out the goal of your book. It will also help you to actually finish it. And the more books you write from start to finish, the faster you learn. Trying to write a perfect book on your first attempt will only open the door for procrastination.

In Writing Better Books the Agile Way, you will learn that writing requires organization of your ideas, identification of your target audience and their needs and wants, a strategy to create a page-turner, a process of editing, a “definition of done,” a plan for how to advertise your book, and a means of interacting with your audience before you actually release the book. All these points are interwoven and should not be seen as “phases” of a book. The best approach is to think of marketing your book from the moment you start writing it. This way, you can streamline your writing process and connect with your readers from day one. And even if you have already written your book, you can still apply the marketing techniques discussed here. The companion book, Better Books with LaTeX, deals with the technical challenges of publishing the book itself. Together, these two books will enable you to produce, publish, and market high-quality books in a short period of time.

I wish you every success in your venture. If you need me, I am here to help! You can do the thing.

Categories
Agile Editing News Philosophy

Did Bilbo Sail to the West?

How to improve the overall quality of a book


Was it
Bilbo who sailed to the West? Reading Philosophy for Heroes: Knowledge, the first in a four-part series on what it means to be a hero, this seems to be the case. On page 5:

Now, while the case could be made that Bilbo underwent a heroic transformation, that he fought evil, that he traveled to the West and might have used a boat at some point, the story sounds much more like Frodo’s story in Lord of the Rings. The author himself is well versed in fantasy literature, and the amount of media related to the subject is anything but sparse. How could such an error happen?

 

Well, first, let me admit that I am that author. I am not sure if this is the right or smart way to discuss my own book, but some self-reflection is a great way to grow. So, let us analyze where I, the author, went astray.

 

My usual judgement on products (in this case, a book) is that they are a mirror of the company behind them. If you have a little bit of background information, reviewing a product can be like an archaeological dig. Philosophy for Heroes: Knowledge is a multi-layered book. First, it is part of a series. When writing the first book, the other three books had to be kept in mind. In addition, especially being the first book, it had to stand on its own despite its dealing with the basics (philosophy and language). You cannot sell a book called “Philosophy for Heroes” and then tell the reader to wait for part 4 to finally read about what heroism means. Second, it contains a variety of components: study questions, ideas summarizing a section, biographies adding a human element to sometimes abstract explanations, and real life examples. Skimming through the book, especially those components seem to be “added features” that—while adding value to the book—could just as well be removed. This points to an evolution of the book. Looking back, this is actually true, it underwent a number of transformations:

 

  1. A single, very large book
  2. A five-part series
  3. Then, a four-part series
  4. Then, a four-part series with the first book required to stand on its own
  5. Finally, a four-part series, the first book standing on its own, and additional components (study questions, ideas, biographies, examples, etc.)


As this evolution played out, the later changes underwent the least amount of review, while certain parts, that were already finished when devising the initial large book, had so many reviews, the time spent on dragging them along was a waste of time. How does one write a book without having such a large variance of quality between its parts?

 

For this, we look at software development. A piece of software faces the same problem, it evolves, some parts are “fresh,” others have been looked at and tested for years. The solution people came up with is called “Agile” (with one variant being “Scrum”). My current project deals with this subject, feel free to check it out here.

 

The best approach to write something—anything—is to make sure that its pieces stand for themselves. The advantage of this approach is to have those pieces complete and ready, and you can publish each to get feedback and build an audience. Looking back, I should have published each section separately. Sure, someone could piece all the sections together and then have a copy of the book for free. But that takes a lot of effort. Even if it is just half an hour of work, you could have easily bought the book for yourself. Also, the final edit of a book surely connects the independent parts to a greater whole.

 

In any case, if I did follow that “Agile” approach, it would have been Frodo, not Bilbo, throwing the ring into the fire and traveling to the West.

 

Lesson learned.