Words, Not Ideas: How to Write a Book | Mattie Bamman | TEDxSpokane

Words, Not Ideas: How to Write a Book | Mattie Bamman | TEDxSpokane

December 27, 2019 100 By Kailee Schamberger


Translator: Linndy V
Reviewer: Denise RQ I grew up in an isolated fishing village
on the coast of Maine. And as a kid, I used to help
my neighbor with yard work. My neighbor was Theodore Enslin, a poet. One day, I was stacking some firewood
and Ted said, “Judging by the way you stack firewood, you’d make a good poet.” (Laughter) Ted didn’t know it,
but I had written a few poems at the time, I was around 11 or 12, and so I took his words straight to heart,
they were very encouraging. There was just one problem, I had no idea what he was talking about. Theodore Enslin was a prolific poet. Poetry Foundation estimates
that he wrote around 60 books of poems, but I’m pretty sure it was closer to 100. He knew people that I consider legends: Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams,
Martin Luther King Jr. Importantly, he also studied beneath
the French composer and teacher, Nadia Boulanger. She taught the likes
of Philip Glass and Aaron Copland. “Judging by the way you stack firewood, you’d make a good poet.” Sounds like a Buddhist koan, doesn’t it? (Laughter) And to some extent,
that’s what has become for me. I did pursue a career in writing; I write poetry,
I’m the Editor of Eater Portland, I write culinary travel articles
for Northwest Travel Magazine, I’ve contributed to 11 books
on culinary travel, and I’m a developmental editor,
which is a fancy way of saying, “I help people write books.” This one thing I’ve learned is that writing is harder
than I ever thought. I’m not alone. Anyone who’s tried to write a book
has experienced the same thing. That includes great authors who we love. George Orwell, for instance, once said that, “Writing a book is
a horrible, exhausting struggle.” He says some other stuff. (Laughter) More to the point, Philip Roth said, “The road to hell is paved
with works-in-progress.” (Laughter) So what makes some people
write great books, and other people fail
to finish a book at all? As a developmental editor, I get to work with
a lot of inspiring people. I work most with psychologists, people have brilliant ideas. Unfortunately, a brilliant idea
does not equate to a brilliant book. In fact, ideas get in the way of writing. This is one of the hardest things to learn
when you’re starting out as a writer, because we all start out as readers. And we don’t pick up a book
to look at a bunch of words, we pick up a book to be inspired by that beautiful stories inside of it
and the enlightening ideas. But this isn’t how you need to think
about writing, as a writer; it’s not the full story. Words and writing are their own animals, and they operate by their own rules. Fortunately, these rules
are shared by other trades; like stacking firewood, log by log. But before I offer a few examples
of how to piratically write a book, I want to offer one more example to show
why books are made of words not ideas. It should show how words are objects,
and you can see them that way. It’s also just really cool. So we’re not exactly sure
when humans started writing, but our earliest evidence
comes from around 3,000 B.C with the Ancient Sumerians
and Ancient Egyptians. These are serious words
that were carved into stone. Examples are the Rosetta Stone; another example is Egyptian tombs. These are words
from when Kings and Pharaohs thought words were magic. They thought
words can bring things to life. You write down the word ‘bird, ‘
someone comes along and reads it, and it comes to life inside of their mind. Suddenly,
they’re thinking of a bird flying, or roasted for Thanksgiving, whatever. So Kings and Pharaohs knew
that writing was so powerful that they couldn’t
just let everybody do it, so they only allowed scribes to do this. That meant everybody else
in society was illiterate. However, archeologists have found proof
that they still loved words. So they found these vases that have
nonsense words written across them. These are nonsense words
owned by people who were illiterate, and they were worth more
than regular vases. If you think about it,
not much has changed. A lot of us continue to get tattoos
of words in foreign languages that we can’t read. (Laughter) Whether a Chinese character or Sanskrit, people love words for words. So, let’s build a book
using words not ideas. Let’s treat writing
like the physical process it is. A great way to start writing a book is to envision it
already written in a bookstore. That means
you’ve already finished writing it, you’ve sold it to the publisher, they’ve printed it,
and it’s out there for sale, just imagine. So, what section
in the bookstore is the book in? What other books are located
next to it on the bookshelf? See? By envisioning your book
already completed, you’ve pinpointed the genre
and your competition. Since we’re talking about making a book,
we should look at what it’s made of. The average of non-fiction books
is around 70,000 to 90,000 words. It has an introduction,
a conclusion, and a middle. These are the fundamental building blocks
for writing a book. The next step is to see
how long your book is going to be. And you can actually use
the firewood metaphor for this. In Maine, a lot of people
actually heat their homes exclusively using firewood. That means that you need to judge
at the beginning of the winter how much wood you’re going
to need to last you. If you picked poorly,
you risk freezing to death. The same can be said about books,
although not quite as dire, assuming you’re not George Orwell. So, as though you’re preparing
for a Maine winter, try to estimate how large your idea is. If it’s a really big idea,
maybe it needs 100,000 words. To give you a real-life example, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild
clocks in at around 129,000 words. If it’s a smaller idea,
maybe 60,000 words, maybe you have a time constraint, maybe you can only write
for 10 hours a week, and you want to publish
a book in the next year. Maybe your book
should be closer to 30,000 words. The self-help book, The Four Agreements,
clocks in at around that. So finding an exact word count isn’t
as important as just finding an estimate, because it proves something. It proves that your book isn’t infinite. It proves that there’s a limit
to how long it can go. Most importantly, it proves
that you can finish it. Don’t underestimate
the importance of this. So once you get a word count estimate,
you can start structuring your book. I like to think of the word count as a specific room
with a specific amount of dimensions. That means you need to fit
all of your ideas inside of it. Let’s use an example, let’s say you want to write a book
that is about 70,000 words. You’re going to focus on three main ideas, as we’ve already said, it’s going to have
an introduction and a conclusion. So let’s say the introduction
and the conclusion reach 5,000 words. That leaves you with 60,000 words
to explain your idea. You’ve begun to create an outline —
structure is building itself. One of the things Ted loved
about how I stacked firewood was the fact I took into account
the different sizes of the different logs. Some of them were as big as trees,
others were branches, and he needed to make sure
that all fit inside of his shed, or else, he runs out of firewood. So I would always position
the largest logs, and then fill them in
with smaller logs around them. That’s exact same idea
for writing a book: you want to find your main ideas,
the biggest most important ideas, and then fill in the spaces around them. So, again, thinking spatially, is this one idea
larger than the other ideas? Does this idea come first?
Is that at the end of the book? Should it be in the middle? Again, more structure. You can use the same theory
of working from larger to smaller to further expand
the outline of your book. I’ll use a real-life example. I was recently working
with a psychologist, and he was writing a psychology trade book that was offering an approach
to treating trauma. His approach focused on five principles, and smartly, he wanted
to give his book structure so he said, “I’m going to dedicate
one chapter to each principle.” The only problem was
once he started writing, he started getting stuck, and he just couldn’t fit his ideas
into the space that he created for them. So he called me, and I said,
“Why don’t we simplify this? Why don’t we make it easier? I’m going to create one structure
that you can use for all five chapters.” It seemed too simple,
it felt like cheating. I said, “Let’s start …” This is the structure I offered: begin the chapter
by introducing the topic, show the current
understanding of that topic, show why that current understanding
is limited, and then offer a solution; in this case, offer
the principle that he devised. It seemed ridiculously stupid, but we so often take
the hard path to writing a book instead of taking the easy path. The secret is writing is hard enough,
don’t make it harder. if you see an easy option, take it. I mean, at the center
of every book is this formula: ask a question, go on
an exploration to find an answer, find an answer, and from that answer,
ask a new question, thus move to the next chapter. At the heart of almost every books,
this formula works: question, answer, new question; problem, solution, new problem; struggle, relief, new struggle; curiosity, satiation, curiosity. To include, I just want to emphasize the importance of giving
your book structure at the very beginning. Don’t wait. Structure comes before voice and style, because unless you’re trying
to imitate somebody else, you’re going to sound like yourself. Don’t worry about it. Ted once told me
he didn’t think about voice until about halfway through his career when someone told him that he had one. He’d focused on the matter
at hand — of writing books, something he did incredibly well. I also find that if I try to be clever
or think too hard, I’ll trip myself up. I already have a voice, so do you. You just have to give it a structure
and write your book; word by word, log by log. Thank you guys. (Applause)