Writing a book? Dig deeper for a better story

I've just finished watching the excellent television drama House of Cards – the US version starring Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood. If you're into politics, it's a must see.

During the third and final season, one of the subplots involves a writer, Thomas Yates, who is commissioned by Underwood to write a biography of him. In many ways it's a poisoned chalice for Yates. The book is always intended as a puff piece.

Nevertheless, there are some interesting interactions between subject and writer across a number of episodes – interactions I think many ghostwriters and biographers could relate to.

A theme that ran particularly true for me was Yates's challenge in getting any level of detail out of Underwood. They would meet in an office, or out on the road, and Underwood would give Yates the bones of a story but rarely flesh it out. At times Underwood would wander down an interesting road of conversation ... then tell Yates that what he had just said 'isn't for the book'.

I shared Yate's frustration a number of times as he was left with little more than an outline to work with while his client was clearly of the impression that he had shared everything there was to share.

In my experience this is a common shortcoming in the understanding of those looking to write their first book. The challenge is that, for most people, a book is a big step up from what they have written before: there's a big difference between a 1500 word article and a 30,000 word book.

The difference, usually, is 'depth'.

Writing a book means really digging into the detail. If you're writing a biography or memoir, your stories need to be fully rounded. The readers need to be transported to a location and to really relive the action with you. If you're sharing your expertise in your book, you need to get into the nitty gritty. You need to go back to the source. To explain what went before, how knowledge on the subject has developed over time. You need to build your argument brick by brick.

It's this depth that gives a book (and its author) credibility – that makes it stand out as a substantial piece of work.

Does this mean that everything needs to go into the book? No. Not at all. But it does mean that a lot needs to go into the book. I reckon the best books start with around twice as much information as will end up in the final version. The refining process then leads to a really rich final piece of work.

It's like making a really good sauce: you can't get all that flavour in if you don't start with all the right ingredients.

Yates was a serious writer, which is why he kept digging. In the end he was probably the wrong person for the job. Underwood would have been better off with a writer happy to generate verbal fluff. Your book, of course, will be one that Yates would have enjoyed working on ... so don't skimp on the details.

As usual, if you have any questions or comments, please add a comment below or contact me.

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