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Finding Ideas for Your Writing

So you know you want to write a book — you just don't know what you want to write about. For many people, it's not uncommon to think that you need to write about something exotic or different or strange — that the familiar just could not be appealing to readers. But the opposite is often true. Writing, after all, is a form of understanding; you write best about things you know best. What seems familiar to you might seem very exotic to your reader. Your perception of a familiar truth might trigger insight and pleasure in your readers. And countless books — not to mention countless bestsellers — have been written about the most ordinary details of the most ordinary lives.

Start with what you know

What you know, before you do a minute's research, is the best place to start your idea search. Pay close attention to common, everyday experiences, whether at home or at work. What may seem drab or ordinary on the surface might actually be a book in disguise.

Job experience

Scott Adams, a middle manager for a large phone company in California, discovered that the drab and ordinary wasn't so dull after all. As an aspiring cartoonist, he jotted down notes on the interactions he saw at work during the day and turned them into cartoons at night. Today, Scott's cartoon strip, Dilbert, appears in over 2,000 newspapers worldwide and his books, The Dilbert Principle (HarperBusiness, 1996), Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook (HarperBusiness, 1996), and The Dilbert Future (HarperBusiness, 1997), which depict the reality of life in the office, have sold millions of copies.

Likewise, Michael Lewis kept his eyes and ears open while working at Solomon Brothers, an investment bank in New York City. While thousands of others enjoyed the same access to the trading floor that Lewis did, it was Lewis who had the vision to see a story in the life of a New York City trader. While the tale played itself out right before his eyes, Lewis wrote it all down in Liar's Poker (W. W. Norton, 1989), which became an immediate runaway bestseller. Writing what he saw on the job launched Lewis into a whole new career. He hasn't set foot on the trading floor since.

Hobbies

If it fascinates you, no doubt it interests others, too. So when you're looking for book ideas, think long and hard about your hobby. Whether it's helicopter skiing or collecting first edition books, your prospects are better if you know and care deeply about what you write. Your passion may prove inspirational to readers.

And whatever aspect of a hobby you find most interesting is the way to slant your book idea. Say, for example, that baseball is your passion. You could write a reference guide (Baseball by the Rules, by Glenn Waggoner, Taylor, 1987), a how-to (The Art of Hitting, by Tony Gwynn, Good Times Publishing, 1988), a specialized guide (The Sports Fans Guide to America, by Mike Tulumello, Longstreet Press, 1999), general information (Total Baseball, by John Thorn, et al., Total Sports, 1999), or moneymaking ideas for how to bet on your local team's games (Baseball Insight Annual, by Phil Erwin, Parrish Publications, 1999). Just make sure that the topic works for you.

Advertising executive Ed Levine toiled with clients by day and shopped for food and drink by night. Among his friends, Ed was the man in the know if you wanted an exotic ingredient or were in search of the best barbecue or croissant or egg cream. Food may not have been Ed's job, but it was his life! Friends repeatedly told Ed that he could write the book on New York food. In 1992, he did just that. New York Eats published by St. Martin's Press is the bible of food in New York. Totally updated with 200 new entries in 1997, New York Eats (More) was runner-up for the prestigious Julia Child Reference Book Award, further establishing Ed as a fixture in the New York food world. And today, advertising is a distant memory.

Personal experience

Your own personal experience can be a great place to start your search for a book idea. After all, you're the only expert on this topic. Your life experience is unique to you; no one else has encountered exactly what you have. Your style, thoughts, opinions, attitudes, and desires are also unique.

Many successful first-time book authors have gone this route. Take Frances Mayes, for example, a professor at San Francisco State University, who along with her husband fell in love with an abandoned old villa in Tuscany. Together, they purchased the place, completely renovated it, and discovered the joys of another culture. All the while, Mayes kept a personal record of the experience. This memoir, titled Under The Tuscan Sun, was published in 1996 by Chronicle Books. And even though many other books have been published about buying and remodeling run-down houses in sunny foreign countries, Under the Tuscan Sun became a bestseller. The book was very well timed, as it was published shortly after A Year in Provence (Knopf, 1990) by Peter Mayle had rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists. Like Mayle's book, Under the Tuscan Sun was a voluptuous and witty celebration of food, people, and glorious places — Mayes keen, compelling observations brought Tuscany vividly alive for millions.

Indulge a passion

What you care most about, whether it's belly dancing or growing your own herbs, is likely to lead you to a publishable book idea. And what's better than getting paid to revel in the pastime you love?

Andres Martinez, a young journalist, turned his passion for gambling into a book. On the strength of a brilliant proposal, he persuaded Villard Books to advance him $50,000 with the understanding that he would wager all of it in Las Vegas and then write about the experience. The result, after wagering every penny and walking away with only $5,000 in winnings, is a book titled 24/7, published in November 1999.

Take classes

Taking classes of any kind is always a good idea — it can expose you to new influences, a new outlook, and also potential book ideas. David Denby, a movie critic for The New Yorker magazine, was inspired at the age of 48 to re-enroll at his alma mater, Columbia University, and repeat two core curriculum classes: Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization. He read what the students read and kept careful notes of his reactions — not only to the classics (he loved them all over again) but to the teachers, the students, the process of education, even the events in his own life while attending school. The result was Great Books (Simon & Schuster, 1996) — by no means Denby's first published work, but definitely his first New York Times bestseller.

Identify a need

The old business axiom, "find a need and fill it," is alive and well in the world of book publishing. Look around and see what need you can fill. Diet books like The Carbohydrate Addict's Diet (Rachel and Richard Heller, NAL, 1993) or exercise books like Body for Life (Bill Philips, HarperCollins, 1999) or lifestyle books like The Art of Happiness (The Dalai Lama, Riverhead, 1999) are filling a big need as you can tell by their extended stay on the New York Times Bestseller List.

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