Writing teachers talk to their students a good deal (sometimes too much) about "pre-writing." That is, thinking through a topic, finding a rhetorical approach (compare/contrast, analogy, etc.), and only then beginning the rough draft of the essay or research paper. Well, the same holds true in approaching a book-length project: strategizing, puzzling over, thinking through one's approach before putting a single word to paper can be key to the success of the project.
When writing a novel, one of the first decisions I make is about time: how much "real time" am I to cover? A year, a summer, a Saturday night? That relatively simple decision provides much comfort because, of course, writing is more about what you leave out that what you put in. A decision on your narrative time-span creates automatic boundaries; it narrows your field--allows you to write more about less, which is also nearly always a good thing.
Point of view is another decision: omniscient? Limited? First person? Third person? These are basic literary issues that must be clear in your head before beginning. However, every book (every writing project!) has its own, unique, often subtle and sometimes elusive questions to be answered. For example, an editor approached me to write text for a photo-essay book called Barns of Minnesota. A historical society press wanted to highlight the tall old Midwestern barns "before they all fell down."
Good project, I replied, but how would I fit? I'm a fiction writer; I deal in lies. But my answer was glib, and I was drawn in by the photos and the editorial vision of the book. I signed on. The editor and I strategized about approaches. I wanted to write more than just photo captions, of course, and gradually negotiated my way into my strong suit: a narrative approach (it's the fashion equivalent to when-in-doubt-wear-black). In the end, I wrote an imagined life of one barn: from its raising, to its middle age full of life and cows and barn cats, to its sway-backed, missing-shingled decline and fall. Real, literal fall. The book has a been a big success for its small publisher, selling close to 20,000 copies and still going strong.
Now the same editor wants me to do a book on hunting.
See what I mean? How to approach THAT topic?. I have the cred, the background (and the taxidermy on the wall) to write this book. I grew up in a hunting tradition, and still hunt some, but more thoughtfully than when I was a boy. I have mixed feelings about hunting; there's a place for it, but only with some serious thought and ethics brought to bear. All of which complicate this book: there are no end to the approaches. For example, I could make an argument for hunting, with an assumed audience of non-hunters--which would be a stupid approach because no non-hunter is going to read the book. I could do the "I-hunt-to-join-and-understand-nature" approach–which is an overdone cliche'. Or, how about a more scholarly approach? I could look at what other famous writers/outdoorsy people have said about hunting; Thoreau in particular has some provocative thoughts about the "evolution" of the hunter (he finally laid down his guns).
The great irony of this book-to-be is that I go to the woods with my gun not to kill things but to clear my head and not think at all. If I shoot a deer, good. Or a couple of pheasants, even better. For me, hunting is about the unsaid, the unthought, the unwritten. Bred-in-the-bone instincts without analysis. Experience unrecorded.
My pre-writing so far has been to gather up some books and essays on blood sports (I hate that phrase), and read them with one eye closed. I don't want to be colored by anyone's vision. I don't want any one quotation or image or rhetoric to get stuck inside my head.
The one decision I have made is that hunting–real hunting, not the "horn porn" animal assassination shows on the Outdoor Channel–is beyond any single person's ken. Beyond any single point of view. There is no "I" consciousness in the world who can adequately explain the nature of hunting. But I love a literary challenge, and this one is going to be one for sure.
[addendum: the book, The Last Hunter: An American Family Album is now out]