What’s the secret to writing a great book? Is it having a great book marketing plan? Hiring a PR agency? Studying grammar for years so you can craft the perfect sentence? Nope. The secret to writing a great book is coming up with a great idea.
It all hinges on the idea.
Note: In this article, we’ll be talking about both nonfiction and fiction, but understand I am primarily a nonfiction writer. If you’re looking for tips on how to craft a great story, you won’t find them here. I’ll leave that to those much more equipped to handle such issues. However, as an avid reader of fiction and creative nonfiction, I’m a big fan and appreciator of story, and I’d like to think I’ve learned a bit about what makes for a good story. So I’ll be focusing on the ideas behind the stories. That’s my caveat. Read on.
The process of coming up with a great book idea is comprised of three parts:
- Capturing the idea
- Articulating the idea
- Validating the idea
Let’s explore each of them in that order.
You can listen to the audio version of this article here:
Capturing the idea: Where good ideas come from
A good book begins with a good idea. And a great book begins with a great idea. A bad book is usually bad because the idea behind it wasn’t very good or the idea wasn’t executed well enough. I’ve written about this before, but I wanted to dig in more here.
A good book begins with a good idea. And a great book begins with a great idea.
A good idea begins as a very bad idea. That’s how all ideas start. Every serious and successful author I know began with what they thought was a good idea only to realize it wasn’t as great as it could be.
Often in creative work, we experience ideas as potentialities, not as the thing itself. What I mean by this is we see it for what it could be, not what it currently is. It’s sort of like parenting in the sense that we see our child not as what she does in the moment (like smacking her brother in the face, for instance, as my two-year-old recently did) but as something more.
That’s often how it is with writers and their ideas. We get a sudden rush of insight—for me, it’s often a word or phrase—and the energy and emotion comes. We feel that we have to rush back home or hop out of the shower and jot it down or it will leave us forever.
Another thing I’ve observed is how many great writers do not believe that they create the ideas, and therefore they do not own them.
Ruth Stone said that her poems used to fly at her across the prairie, and she would have to race to catch them before they passed her by. Frank Baum believed that he had discovered the magical land of Oz, not merely created it.
Elizabeth Gilbert writes about this in her book Big Magic, sharing stories of authors who did not write down an idea that came to them only to see someone else write about it without any knowledge that the idea had first come to someone else (or maybe, in fact, it had to pass through many writers before it came to be).
The point is, whether you believe ideation is a mystical experience or not, there is this sense in all creative work that our job when we get a great idea (wherever it comes from) is to first capture it, then care for it, to nurture it into becoming what it ought to be.
If I were to write this out in a process, I’d say that first, the idea comes to you. Your job isn’t to create the idea or manufacture it into being. It’s to simply make yourself available to all ideas. There are a few practices I recommend for doing this:
- Develop a regular writing routine. I share more about that here, but in essence, a routine is simply a practice of writing in the same place at the same time for the same amount roughly every day.
- Have a system for capturing ideas. I have often talked about my “3-bucket system” which is a simple method for capturing ideas, writing about them, and editing them on a daily basis so that I don’t miss any big ones.
- Create a rhythm of stillness and reflection. Admittedly, this is hard to do in our uber-connected world, and even more challenging if you are a parent. Yet, every time I go out in nature, sit quietly with a cup of coffee in the morning, or simply slow down to notice everything around me, I realize how much I need the stillness. I am always afraid of it, always fixated on doing something that to just “be” feels kind of pointless. But I am never bored in those times of quiet and they always lead to a surge of energy and creativity. Creation always comes from nothing. That’s how it works. Even the great religions tend to teach that. We have to go into the void to find the substance of all things.
Creation always comes from nothing.
So you capture the idea. You capture lots of ideas. And once you’ve done that, you move on to the next stage.
Articulating the idea: How to say it
It’s not enough to have an idea or even to capture it. You have to know how to talk about it, too. This is marketing. Before you ever create your book you need to know how to sell it. And in order to know how to sell it, you have to know how to talk about it.
A common tactic in marketing is to write a sales letter for a product before you create it. The idea here is to see if you can sell it before you make it. This is also known as pre-selling or product validation.
Tim Ferriss famously did this by buying Google ads for his new book and testing different titles to see which one would work. He basically marketed a fake product to see who would click on what title. What he was left with was the title: The 4-Hour Work Week. Millions of copies sold later, that was a good decision.
Before you ever create your book you need to know how to sell it.
Before you sell the book, you have to know how to talk about it. So write a sales letter. How does that work?
- Start with the promise. What problem is this book going to solve? How’s it going to help the reader?
- Move into empathy. What pain is this book going to relieve? You start with the solution, and move into the emotional language of whatever people are struggling with. At this point, don’t be afraid to talk to random people about their struggles with whatever you’re writing about.
- Describe what the book actually does. How long is it? What’s the plot or structure? Is there an argument? Tell us about this thing.
- Tell us why it’s for us specifically. Who is this for? Why me? Why now? Why are you the one to tell us this?
- Lastly, sell. Give us a compelling reason to buy now. A great way to think about this is how one author described it to me: “Imagine your reader waking up the next day after reading your book—what is different for her?” My friend, Hal Elrod, who has sold a million copies of a self-published book says this is the secret: write a book that gives the reader an opportunity to change their lives overnight. In the case of his reader, she started waking up early. That’s a noticeable change that other people can immediately notice. Write that out in this section.
Write a book that gives the reader an opportunity to change their lives overnight.
That’s how you sell something. And that’s how you pre-sell something. You just go ahead and sell it. And if you get people to buy, you know it’s something worth moving forward.
The goal of this whole process is learning how to take an idea and validate it.
Validating the idea: How do you know it’s good?
How do you know you have a great idea?
Simple. You test it. That’s how you can tell if an idea is good or not. With lots of people. Over time. You have to be both patient with a new idea and also relentless. It can’t simply rest on emotion. You have to more than believe this is worth people’s time. You have to know. And the only way to truly know is to get a reaction.
You’ve got to share this thing with other people and see what they say. Are the moved? If so, how? The worst thing for a reader to do is nothing. To say nothing other than “Mm, that was nice.” You want a visceral reaction. If they love it, great. If they hate, also fine. You want something so powerful that it moves people.
It really is true that there’s no such thing as bad PR. The worst thing to happen is for people to dismiss your idea, to passively agree with it and immediately forget it.
What we’re going for here is emotion. That’s how you change people’s lives—you tap into the executive center from which they make almost all their decisions. Not the mind, but the heart.
Once you’re done articulating the idea—once you’ve figured out how to talk about it—now you have to validate it. You have to test it. Here’s what I recommend: go talk to 10 people via email, over the phone, or even better in person. Share your idea with them and see how they respond. You might say something like, “Here’s something I’ve been working on. Can you tell me what you think?”
Don’t ask them “yes or no” questions. You want them to just start talking, sharing whatever reaction they had. If they love you, they’ll probably say nice things to you. That’s all well and good, but you want their help in discerning if this is a great idea or just an okay idea.
You know you have an okay idea…
- When people ask vague questions that don’t help them better understand what you do
- When people say “okay…”
- When people don’t say anything
- When people ask you to keep explaining it and it’s still not making dense
You know you have a great idea…
- When people immediately say “that’s awesome!”
- When they ask more questions to learn about it
- When it’s all you want to talk about
- You can’t not write it
The difference between good ideas and bad ideas is this: Good ideas endure. Bad ideas don’t.
Good ideas endure. Bad ideas don’t.
A truly great idea can stand the test of time and sit through the scrutiny and shame of disapproval until eventually, people accept it.
It doesn’t mean that some people don’t like it, nor does it mean it’s immediately successful. It just means it can hold up to the criticism and confusion. It can stick around long enough to make a difference.
The copycat strategy
A final challenge here is to give you something practical to apply this. This is perhaps the most practical thing an author can do. When you’re setting out to come up with a great idea, just steal someone else’s.
I call this the Copycat Strategy. Everyone does it, nobody admits to it.
Here’s how it works:
- Pick an idea or theme that someone has already used in a bestselling book. This can be fiction, nonfiction, memoir, etc.
- Change something about the idea. Tweak the plot, change the gender of the protagonist, change the setting. Do something new and unique to grab the reader’s attention.
- Combine the original theme with the new twist and share it in this phrase: “It’s like X, but…” and then fill in the but. Like “It’s like Gladiator but with teenagers set in the future” which is another way of describing the Hunger Games.
This week, I’m sharing a series of live workshops where I cover the most important writing lessons I’ve learned. Click here to join me.