Turning Your Idea into a Book...or Something Else


This past week, the Society for Women and the Civil War asked me to co-lead a workshop on publishing a book. The participants do living history, write articles, have ideas tucked away, and/or simply are curious about the process as readers, although several had published their own books and could chime in.


I was supposed to be teamed with a historical fiction author, but she could not attend. Although I don't have fiction experience, I do think narrative nonfiction and fiction have enough in common that the novelists in the crowd gained some from the session.

When I talk to fellow writers, whether in a workshop (such as a panel in May at the Washington Writers Conference) or informally, I first ask how important it is to her or him to pursue the traditional publishing route, rather than self-publishing for friends/family or other narrow audience. In many cases, because of the topic or approach, it is unrealistic to aim for a publisher. The writer can still create a valuable work, cross off an item on the bucket list, and educate or inspire--without the glory and heartache of seeking an agent and/or publisher. 

Four Critical Questions

However, if the writer does want to go the traditional publishing route, she or he must master their rules--and develop an idea that will sell books. I always recommend the book Thinking Like Your Editor by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunate to these people. The authors pose a series of hard, but useful questions, which I posed to the group (with credit to the authors):

  • What is your book about?
  • What is the book's thesis/argument and what is new about it?
  • Why are you the person to write this book?
  • Why is now the time to publish the book?


I prepared a handout--here is a copy for your use.

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