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Year of the book


When thinking about a structure to a book or even planning a series of blog posts, my view is that 12 is a sweet-spot number to aim at. 12 chapters to your book. You may end up with more, or possibly less, but if you plan and develop a mind map built around that number you won’t go far wrong.

Why 12? To me there is something satisfying and symmetrical about that quantity, the principle reason for that being that there are 12 months in a year. A year is a narrative which takes place across our lives, with of course, as we get older, each one seeming to pass quicker than the last. That familiarity we all have with a year makes it an easy reference point to work out a structure to a book. Whatever specific events are taking place in a particular year, they sit within a rhythm and a pace that gives them context.

Work through each month of the year in order, although not necessarily starting in January and finishing in December, as the rhythm of the seasons crosses calendar years. More on this below. However, whenever you start, each month has an instantly identifiable character to it, depending on which part of the world you live. I’m basing my views on a typical UK year, as that is where I have lived all my life. For each month, we can all summon a broad description of what it usually means to us in our lives. For example, for me, April is not, as TS Eliot had it, the cruellest month, but one that signifies hope, longer days, Spring, rebirth and Easter. September has a tinge of melancholy about it, being the beginning of autumn but also has some of the finest views, with long shadows and continuing warmth. I love September.

Each of the 12 chapters of the year has a clearly identifiable character, influenced heavily by the chapter before it and the chapter which is to come. So should your book’s chapters. Each one should have a title and a theme that makes it obvious why its contents are bracketed within that particular chapter and not somewhere else. If the contents of your chapter 5, May, flanked by chapters April and June, could equally sit in chapter 9, September, then its identity and subject matter needs to be made more distinctive, more focused.

In turn, the 12 chapters divide up into the 4 seasons. Let’s start with four seasons as our suggested structure. There is a difference between the dates of the astronomical seasons and those labelled by meteorology. The latter is easier to work with for the purposes of this example: Spring March-May; Summer June-August; Autumn September-November and Winter December-February. Each season, like each month, has a character and a feel to it, some of which is personal to each of us, and some that are more general.

These comments are aimed at non-fiction writing, and more specifically at what could broadly be referred to as a business book, a book used to inform some aspect of one’s career or working life. For this type of book I would approach the structure as Winter > Spring > Summer > Autumn.

  • Winter is all about identifying problems thrown up by harsh conditions. This is your set-up, the premise of your book, the challenge/syndrome you are planning to set out how to fix.
  • Spring is the time to try new ideas, experiment and face challenges with enthusiasm, even if it’s not the time when issues are fully resolved.
  • Summer is a time of consolidation, of relaxation even, of finding time to ponder and consider.
  • Autumn is the time for new impetus, the height of determination and implementation and resolution.

And so, this is the way your book’s ideas are worked through, tested, promoted and championed. If in each ‘season’ you find there are five great ideas and phases instead of just three, pushing your chapter total to 20, then you have too many ideas and concepts for one book. Prospective readers will be daunted by the scale and complexity of your book and put it back on the shelf. Look at all 20 ideas/chapter outlines and work out which eight could now form two-thirds of your second book. Hold this back from the world and hit it instead with your 12 ideas that each has a month-style definable character to it and a clear seasonal position.

Then start planning and writing your book. That project may well take you a year to complete, but that would be kind of appropriate.