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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

When Your Nonfiction Book Idea is Stuck in the Mud

When Your Nonfiction Book Idea is Stuck in the Mud

by Andrea Campbell

I’ve been teaching online for over twelve years now and there is one problem that people who want to write a book all commit—at least in the beginning. They get what they think is a great idea for a book and then get stuck. For some reason, they can’t get going. The title won’t come. They can’t find a way to start the Overview or Introduction, and they get frustrated thinking they’ve got writer’s block or maybe they figure they haven’t spent enough time staring at a blank piece of paper. This is usually the state at which they come to me. I hear, “I’ve got a great idea but can’t seem to pull it together.” Or, “I started this book proposal six months ago and just seem to keep procrastinating. What am I doing wrong?”

What’s It About?

I’ll ask them what their book is about and listen as they try to explain their book to me. Most can’t seem to articulate what the book topic is in one sentence, often they can’t even do it in one paragraph. Typically, it turns out, they can’t even explain it with a full page of writing!

First Level Thinking

Nine times out a ten it’s what I call first-level thinking. This is a term I use to explain when someone has an idea that is usually very generic. It could be a common idea or something that has come to the attention of people-consciousness with a “groundswell” of information, (meaning, it’s been in the universe so long that many people have picked up on it). Since thinking and true brainstorming are so difficult (we get tired after five concentrated minutes of it), these writers can’t get past the initial idea. They get stalled thinking that their first idea is their best idea. Now, in reality, in order for their idea to be even mildly successful, they need an idea so strong that it provides true visceral feelings or emotions. This idea then has to provide the structure for every important element in the book proposal—from title to chapter sample. Their idea must do some heavy-lifting. And it must Wow! us at the same time.

Parse the Book

So after the basic market research and several library-type exercises I require, I suggest to students that they parse their book. Now parsing was originally what you did in high school English when you broke apart a sentence into its basic parts: noun, verb, adjective and so forth. “Parsing a book” is a twist on the original concept and my own invention, because I use it to express the need to do it for book ideas. The best way to explain how to do it is by using an example to demonstrate how, through parsing, it can help you to recognize the most perfect direction and focus for the book.

Take Your Idea

Let’s use “walking” as an example. Perhaps you just discovered walking for fitness and are really jazzed about how you feel. Unfortunately, no matter how enthused you are about walking it is a dull subject. There are walking magazines and the public has known about the virtues of walking for fitness for a very long time. But, you still don’t want to leave walking, what can you do? Well, let’s look at walking in different ways. Do you have other experiences with walking?

How about: a method? Sprint walking, Full body walking. Walking backwards.

How about: a group? Marathon walkers, charity walkers, dog walkers.

How about: history? Famous walkers. Walking records.

How about: location? Walking botanical gardens. Walking Iraq.

Now we’re getting somewhere. With “walking botanical gardens” you can provide a guide to the best, most inspirational gardens in the United States, complete with maps, and some tips on how to prepare. (And the gardens themselves usually have gift stores, so you’ve also identified a market for sales!)

And walking Iraq. That’s interesting too. If you’ve done a tour there you can talk about the citizens you’ve met, the dangers you’ve encountered, and the changes your walking there has made in you. And you can format your stories with interviews and maps. (Plus, the military who have been there too, would most likely help make up a readership.)

So, we’ve taken an unlikely, unpublishable topic, walking, and found out through book parsing, two possible ways in which to focus our topic and get a book proposal subject that just may work. Truth is, if you believe in your subject, you need to develop ways to work with it, but at least you have a start: a viable idea.


Andrea Campbell is the author of twelve traditionally published nonfiction books on a variety of topics including forensic science, criminal law, primatology and entertaining using interactive games, among others. Andrea is currently working on the 3rd edition of Legal Ease: A Guide to Criminal Law, Evidence and Procedure, which has been fashioned into a college law textbook, and she will featured in an upcoming anthology, Now Write! Mystery, Thrillers and Crime, the next in the writing series published by Penguin/Tarcher.

Andrea is a member of several professional organizations and stays current with book business. Her classes always offer students much more than they thought they’d get. One of her students recently got a “very good deal,” and, according to Publisher’s Lunch, a $100,000-plus book contract.

Andrea is also a WOW! Women on Writing Classroom instructor. Her interactive workshop THE GATEKEEPERS: ALL ABOUT AGENTS AND EDITORS—Getting them, Working with them, and Growing as a Career Author starts Monday, April 25th. This class is limited to 10 students, so make sure you reserve your spot today. Click here to sign up now!


  1. I'll be posting a link to this article on my blog for authors, "Hey, kids! Become an author at home in your spare time and earn big bucks!" I just posted an article recently about "Do you need to know your topic when you start writing a book?" that this dovetails very neatly with.

    I'll also be recommending people look at this blog. Thanks very much!

  2. Thank you, John. We will visit your link. It is always amazing to me that one, people think that all authors are rich, and two, they think that their book idea will be the next bestseller—without doing any research.


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