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If you want to write a book, stop before you start

The calls start innocently enough.

“I found you online while searching for an editor. I want to write a book.”

Then I’m regaled for a couple of minutes—sometimes much longer than that—about the content of this ethereal, would-be, much-desired future book.

But I don’t need to know all that much about the content of your book. Not at the beginning.

What I need to know is why you think you’re ready to write your book.*

***

The bane of modern publishing may also be its savior.

Digital self-publishing opened the floodgates and drowned the gatekeepers. With Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, anyone can publish their book in a minute.

In fact, when a friend of mine read an article about how easy self-publishing to Amazon was, he wrote and published a one-line book, placing it on sale for 99 cents.

It has two one-star reviews, one of which is a verified purchase.

Any cursory glance through Amazon’s search results shows that self-publishing is full of drivel. But it’s also replete with success stories: Andy Weir, Rupi Kaur, Mark Dawson, Joanna Penn—the list is long. These authors have earned wild success on their terms because those floodgates flew open.

That’s one reason why the authors who speak to me want to write a book.

It’s easy, right?

***

I tend to cut new client calls short these days, especially when the question of a book comes up. If their summary lasts much longer than two minutes, I break in with one of three questions:

  • “So, who’s this book for?”
  • “What’s your platform like?”
  • “What’s been your writing experience up to this point?”

If you don’t have ready answers to any of those questions, you’re not ready to write your book.

In fact, I could argue that, even if you do have those answers, you may still not be ready.

The would-be client hems and haws.

“I know, I know. I should be working on my email list. Or blogging. Or finishing writing the thing before thinking about publishing. But I just know I want to write this book now.”

About the only time I’ll give into that is if you’re a previously published author.

However, if it’s going to be your first book, I’ll recommend what Seth Godin wrote in This Is Marketing:

“Begin with a hurdle you can leap.”

***

Writing a book is hard work.

Writing a good book is harder work.

Writing a great book is devastatingly hard work.

Writing a perennial classic is devastatingly hard work plus luck.

Saying “I want to write a book” will not ensure your book is good or that it will sell once you’ve written it. Wanting to launch your brand or business on the curtails of your first book isn’t prime motivation either. If people don’t know you or know what to associate with you, they won’t care about your book. (I know this from experience.)

So, stop setting your sights on the marathon’s finish line.

Focus on the next hundred yards. 

***

A few suggestions:

Define your audience. (You may need to define yourself first. What do you want to be known for?)

Find your audience. Where do they live online? Offline? What are their other tastes? If you had to guess the kinds of media they consume, what would you write? The kinds of groups they join? What products they buy?

Start your blog. Better, especially for authors, start your email newsletter.

Pitch articles. Become a subject matter expert for what you want to be known for. Just imagine what you could do if people searched for your area of expertise and they couldn’t escape your name because it appears on so many different, well-known sites?

Don’t overthink what you do, and don’t do all of those tasks. Pick the one you know you need to work on.

Then just do it, and commit to doing it at a set schedule, whether that’s daily, weekly, or monthly.

And always keep writing. Never let writing become a second-tier priority. Always have a project in the works. As soon as you let the business of writing kill your passion for writing, you’ll become paralyzed.

Yes, it’s unfortunate that we have to write more words to market our “real” words, but that’s our world. (Arguably, that’s always been the writer’s world.)

But no one said the writing life was easy.

Now, do you want to write a book?

Photo by Plush Design Studio from Pexels

*This is mainly geared toward nonfiction writers, who comprise the majority of authors with whom I work.

What Happens When an Editor Writes Her First Novel? An Interview with Shayla Raquel on the Launch of “The Suicide Tree”

I believe I “met” Shayla Raquel after being invited to an editors-only Facebook group that she and a co-conspirator launched a few years ago. Since I was just beginning my career as a freelance editor, I relished that group’s insight, camaraderie, and helpfulness. Whenever I felt stuck, I asked that group. The fact that I continue to have clients is a testament to that group.

In time, I had the opportunity to meet Shayla in person, and she was exactly as her Facebook posts advertised: ebullient, knowledgeable, and over-the-moon about books and writing.

So, on the day that her first novel, The Suicide Tree, launches, I had to interview her.

Where did you find the seedling for The Suicide Tree? In other words, what moment sparked the first idea for your story?

Originally, from a dream whose plot I can’t even recall.

For one of my college classes (age 19), we had to write a character sketch so I used the plot from my dream and wrote a sketch on a man named Arlo, who had schizophrenia. Of course, in The Suicide Tree, he suffers from a personality disorder (by all accounts, dissociative identity disorder, although I never call it that in the book).

As the years progressed, I had forgotten about Arlo and my research on the disorder but came back to it when I bought The Book of Poisons and discovered a plant called the suicide tree. And what do you know?

It made for a great hacker name.

You quit writing this book for a time. Why? When and how did you find the courage to complete it?

Plot holes, my friend.

First, I didn’t start with an outline, which was the dumbest thing I could’ve done—er, not done.

Second, the poor story changed more times than the lead in a Broadway play. I couldn’t even keep up with what I had done to the plot.

Third, I felt like I was a crappy writer because of the plot holes. Why couldn’t I just write something amazing? Why did I have to keep messing up the story?

All of that changed, however, when I took over as organizer for the Yukon Writers’ Society (which you recently presented at). The accountability, encouragement, and knowledge I received from that group gave me the kick in the pants I needed.

Six months after joining, I sent off my novel to beta readers. Six months after that, it was with a content editor.

Writing teachers often advise turning off your inner editor as you write. Since you’re a full-time professional editor, was that a struggle for you? How did you overcome it? How would you advise other writers to silence their inner editor while writing?

I could strangle my inner editor. She ruined everything!

I would get going and things would be great—and boom! It’s time to go back and edit and tweak and revise and pull out your hair.

All that led to was a medieval muddle, as Merlin would say.

I overcame it by determining in my heart that if I didn’t finish the dang book by December 2017, I would be disappointing so many people who had been rooting for me all year long. That’s why accountability is so important. You can’t do this alone.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing your first novel?

This notion that I wasn’t good enough.

Now think about that. I have been working in the publishing industry since 2010. I’ve edited 300+ novels, launched bestsellers, and even published a couple of nonfiction e-books.

But I didn’t think I was good enough to write a full-length novel.

What if people hated it so much they wouldn’t hire me as their editor? What if my debut novel didn’t live up to my expectations?

Looking back, I realize that was just pure insanity. I had to overcome my fears and accomplish the one thing I had wanted to do since I was 16. I decided that nothing would get in my way of making that dream a reality.

What’s been the best part of writing your first novel?

Falling in love with the characters.

Knox Kevel, the protagonist, is my favorite character. He’s witty, sarcastic, and intelligent. He grows throughout the novel, which I believe is so important.

Writing him and the other characters was easy. I felt like I knew them.

Another thing I loved was revisiting Italy. The characters go all over Italy, as I had in 2011, and it was a blast going back to those places in my mind.

What future books can we look forward to from Shayla Raquel?

For NaNoWriMo, I’ll be writing a book of creative nonfiction short stories. I have always, always wanted to publish a book of humorous short stories. Then, I will be crafting my next novel, which I hope will be a sci-fi thriller involving blood—but no gore. Hmmmm . . .

Why Stephanie Chandler wrote The Nonfiction Book Publishing Plan

I first became aware of the impressive depth and breadth of work that Stephanie Chandler was doing when she was a fellow speaker for a major online event aimed at self-publishers.

Interested by her talk, I visited her website and learned of an organization she’d founded: the Nonfiction Authors Association. I’d never heard of it before but was thrilled that it existed.

I saw a menu link for local chapters, then scanned down to see that Dallas had a chapter, but it was looking for a leader.

A few months prior to that moment, I’d made a New Year’s resolution to be less introverted. As a work-from-home editor and writer, it’s far too easy for me to remain in front of my screen. Plus, I wanted to meet more local writers and become a better public speaker.

I applied to lead the group, I was accepted, and then I tapped Clay Morgan to help me out. He would be the extroverted yin to my introverted yang. Together, we’ve hosted almost two years of meetings.

During that time, I learned much more about the hundreds of benefits of joining the NFAA. And, as a leader, I was glad to have access to Stephanie.

When she recently released her latest book, I had to interview her about.

It’s one of those books that I wish I would have had years ago when I’d first started self-publishing my books. But, whenever my next book comes out, the Nonfiction Book Publishing Plan is definitely going to be open on my desk.

Why did you and Karl feel the need to write The Nonfiction Book Publishing Plan?

Stephanie Chandler

Several years back, Karl wrote a book on self-publishing. He did it because friends kept asking how to do it, but he’s not really submerged in the publishing industry so the book was never a key focus for him. I’ve been answering publishing questions for years, and it occurred to me that I have a lot to say about how to produce a high-quality book. And considering I lead the Nonfiction Authors Association, it’s a book I probably should have authored years ago.

Karl and I have been in a business mastermind group together for at least a decade, so he’s a dear friend who I greatly admire. One day I reached out and asked if he’d like to collaborate on the book, and he didn’t hesitate to agree. We’ve always wanted to find a way to work together.

The truth is that Karl emailed over his years-old manuscript, and I reworked it–a lot. I had a long list of topics I wanted to cover, so I reorganized the content and wrote all new content–for probably 75% of the book. Karl covers technical topics really well, so you’ll notice his voice in the chapters about things like copyright protection and ISBN registration. In the end, I think we complemented each other well with this project.

Why did you self-publish?

Well, the book is about self-publishing, so I never even considered another option. But, I also left traditional publishing behind many years ago. I grew frustrated with the lack of control over my work, not to mention the lack of support from the various publishers I worked with. I was doing all the work, while they reaped most of the rewards, and that didn’t feel right to me.

I started my own publishing company back in 2008–Authority Publishing. We’ve offered hybrid publishing services exclusively for nonfiction books ever since, and I don’t plan to change my own publishing course anytime soon. It’s just too empowering to do it all on my own.

Why did you intersperse interviews with nonfiction authors throughout the book?

All of my books have included real-world interviews because I think they add so much value to the content. Readers can learn about concepts, like publishing niche books or getting booked as a speaker, and then they can hear from real people who’ve turned those ideas into successes. I consistently get great feedback on the interviews included in all of my books, so that will always be one of my top priorities for the books I write.

[Disclaimer from Blake: This was not a wholly selfless question. I’m one of those interviews.]

What do you hope a reader will take away from The Nonfiction Book Publishing Plan?

I love this question. I hope that readers feel empowered to go out and make the publishing decisions that work best for them, and that they also finish the book feeling like they have a solid plan for moving forward. The publishing industry can be incredibly overwhelming. My goal is to break it down into steps so that it’s much easier to make solid decisions and produce high-quality books.

I want authors to know that they can create their own success!

To Be Read: One Writer’s Fight Against His Ridiculous Reading Ambitions (August 2018)

Rather appropriately, Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree bookended my time at the God’s Whisper Farm Writers’ Retreat in Radiant, Virginia, in late June of this year. I read his slim volume on both my departing and return flights.

The book’s subtitle—which has to be a tagline rather than a subtitle because of its ridiculous yet awesome length—tells you what you need to know about the book: “A hilarious and true account of one man’s struggle with the monthly tide of the books he’s bought and the books he’s been meaning to read.”

Now, I’m no Nick Hornby.

Although we share the same follicular challenge, he’s a celebrated author with dozens of excellent books to his name and more than a few film adaptions of those works.

However, I am a writer, and I’d guess we shared something in common long before either of us chose to begin writing.

We love reading.

In September 2003, Hornby began writing a monthly column where he captured what books he’d bought that month and what books he’d read.

Even though I was familiar with maybe 50 percent of his monthly lists, I was still compelled to read every chapter, inhaling his book about books like a bloodhound attracted to the unmistakable scent within a used bookstore.

Of course, it helps that Hornby knows how to write.

But what truly fascinated me were the coincidental connections he haphazardly stumbled upon. Like many literature lovers, he had little rhyme or reason for choosing what he wanted to read next (unless an author friend or a publishing professional asked him to read their book or their client’s book).

In other words, he wasn’t trying to make the connections happen. They just did.

Inspired by his book and wanting to be a better literary citizen myself, here’s my first installment of “To Be Read: One Writer’s Fight Against His Ridiculous Reading Ambitions.”

Books Bought and Books Read in August 2018

Books Bought

The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, Phillip Lopate

Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, Patricia T. O’Conner

The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions, Arthur Bennett

The Little Black Book: Books – Over a Century of the Greatest Books, Writers, Characters, Passages and Events That Rocked the Literary World, Lucy Daniel

The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov

The Literary Legacy of C. S. Lewis, Chad Walsh

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Mary Norris

Tell It Slant, Brenda Miller

Writer’s Handbook: Explorations in Writing and Publishing, James A. Michener

Books Read

Creative Quest (Audiobook), Questlove

Moonglow, Michael Chabon

Robin (Audiobook), Dave Itzkoff

***

In “Other People’s Bookshelves,” literary cartoonist Grant Snider boldly proclaims, “I will judge you by your bookshelf.” In the last three frames, the story takes an inevitable turn: “But if I ever invite you over . . . I ask only one thing: Don’t judge me.”

I don’t think I fear your judgment of my reading choices. Rather, I fear your judgment of my problem.

Then again, maybe you suffer from the same disease. Book-buying as pastime. Used bookstore browsing as weekly—daily—ritual. Rare bookstore shopping as a vacation destination.

I bought nine books last month. I read three. Even then, I’m not quite telling the truth. I didn’t finish one of them.

***

In “7 Ways to Retain more of Every Book You Read” by James Clear, his first suggestion is to “Quit More Books.”

I have such a hard time with this.

I feel that I owe it to the author to finish what they’ve spent untold hours creating. (I’d want the same from my readers, after all.) I seldom skim. Even if I’m bored to tears, I will plow my way through. For reasons unknown, I have always been this way.

But I hope to change that. I want to read more, and I want to read more of what truly engages my mind and my heart. Which means a sacrifice is necessary.

Sorry, Questlove. You were that first sacrifice.

I went into the book thinking I could glean suggestions for creativity when it comes to writing, even though Quest’s life is filled with music. As a fellow drummer (of much less talent than Quest, of course), I enjoyed some of the anecdotes and lessons. But, aside from one exception, not much stood out to me as revelatory.

The exception was Quest talking about his quest to be the perfect imitation drummer. He could emulate nearly any drummer. He worked on his timing such that it’d be so impeccable, listeners might think he was a drum machine. He wanted to be seen as talented and legit, so he copied those whom he saw as talented and legit.

But then he asked himself, “Who is Questlove as a drummer?”

In other words, he was searching for his voice.

And that’s something I understand in this season of my professional life.

Maybe that’s all I needed to hear from that book.

***

I briefly met Michael Chabon in college when he conducted a reading of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and he signed a copy of that book for me. Since reading Kavalier, I’ve been a fan, though I haven’t always read his books as they’ve been released.

For instance, Moonglow came out in 2016 and was on my radar since its release. But Chabon’s works require investment. You often want to sit within a sentence just to enjoy the way he weaves words together.

And with Moonglow, a story that takes place along multiple timelines, you have to allow yourself time to understand how these timelines ultimately tie together. 

Maybe what’s most fascinating about this book is that it’s a memoir, but it’s not. As the opening Author’s Note says, “In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.”

Ostensibly, it’s about Michael’s grandfather, on his deathbed, recounting his experiences during World War II to Michael. But, if you read the author interview in the paperback version I read, (“Michael Chabon Is An Underdog On Top Of The World”), Michael’s grandfather was subconsciously modeled more after Michael himself.

It takes an impressive talent to speak meaningfully about love, mental illness, fathers and their children, the Holocaust, and rocketry. But Michael Chabon makes it work because he’s Michael Chabon.

***

Finally, a surprising pick: Robin, by Dave Itzkoff, a recently released biography of Robin Williams.

Like so many others, I assume, I didn’t realize how much I appreciated Robin as a comedian and actor until his time on earth was cut short due to the suicidal ramifications caused by his diffuse Lewy body demetia—a diagnosis that wasn’t made until after his passing.

I was surprised to find myself purchasing and soon listening to this book because thinking about Robin’s death made me sad. For many months following his death, I couldn’t watch his movies or shows, and I’d change the channel whenever a news report about him came on. I realize now that was all denial of a truth I didn’t want to accept.

So, to choose this audiobook, where I’d spend sixteen hours listening to an account of Robin’s life, surprised me.

But I’m so glad I did.

Audiobook narrator Fred Berman did an impressive job of conveying Robin’s hyperkinetic vocal patterns and various voices. His reading made the book thoroughly enjoyable, even above the anecdotes and memories shared throughout the book.

I never knew how quickly Robin ascended from being an unknown comic to instant fame due to Mork & Mindy. Nor did I know that Robin had attended Juilliard. Or that he fought drug addiction. Or that he was at John Belushi’s place the night before he died of an overdose. Or that his career, through his eyes, was so up-and-down. Or that his acting and comedy seemed to be the real highs he constantly chased.

For an actor who was so quick on his feet—mentally and physically—the tragedy of Robin’s life was the way his disease ultimately robbed him of his ability to think clearly and even control his body. While many still mourn his loss, we should be grateful for the body of work he left behind.

I think I’ll go watch Hook now, which isn’t considered one of his more successful films but remains one of my favorites for more reasons than I have room to go into here.

***

What books have you been buying? What books have you been reading? If you’ve read or purchased any of the books listed in this roundup, what did you think about them?

If we all have the same problem, let’s commiserate.

Should I Self-Publish or Get an Agent?

Should I Self-Publish?

In 2013, I self-published The Gospel According to Breaking Bad. At the time, I was thoroughly onboard with self-publishing as the only “smart” way to publish. The inevitable publishing path of the future seemed the wisest choice. Why would I want to give away so much control of my final product, along with such a great percentage of sales?

Plus, because I’d waited so long to begin that book and because I wanted to capitalize on the show’s success during its last season, I couldn’t have played the waiting game that traditional publishing requires. I needed to publish almost as soon as the editing was complete.

From writing the book’s first words in January of 2013 to releasing it on Amazon in August of that same year, I only needed eight months to complete the self-publishing process. And that included teaching myself everything I could about self-publishing and two months of serious self-doubt about the project when I didn’t write a word (fodder for a future post).

In hindsight, I realize I was also a self-publishing sycophant because I was afraid of the rejection that necessarily stems from the traditional publishing process. (The irony is that rejection is part of any publishing process!)

I didn’t know enough about the traditional publishing path back then to think it worth my time. And I had nothing remotely close to a platform to reach my target audience.

Should I Pursue Traditional Publishing?

Fast-forward to 2015. I met John Finch through a mutual friend. Though not a documentarian by trade, he’d produced an excellent documentary called The Father Effect. He wanted to write a book based on the documentary, which itself was based on his troubling, fascinating, yet ultimately redeemed life story.

Since I’d begun freelancing as an editor, author, and ghostwriter the year before, I’d learned much more about the process of traditional publishing. I’d made more contacts in the industry. I knew more working writers. I’d even begun to meet agents. I apprenticed myself to learning how to craft proposals and pitch agents.

And when John told me his story (and shared his platform numbers, which were and remain impressive), I knew he was a great candidate to prod toward traditional publishing.

Although we didn’t see The Father Effect: Hope and Healing from a Dad’s Absence on bookstore shelves until two years after we’d written its proposal, we were both satisfied at having successfully navigated the traditional publishing path. And I thoroughly believe pursuing an agent and seeking traditional publishing was the smart move for John—and for me.

Should I Self-Publish or Get an Agent?

Now I have experience on both sides of the publishing fence. I’ve come to understand that neither side is “smarter.” Each publishing pathway has its benefits—and its drawbacks. And it’s hard for today’s writers, especially those new to the game, to grasp what they’re receiving or giving up by choosing either path.

That’s why I wrote “Should You Self-Publish Your Book? 5 Essential Questions to Help You Decide” for The Write Life.

This long article is based on my self-publishing vs. traditional publishing seminar that I sometimes deliver for Writing Workshops Dallas. Using these five essential questions, I believe you can discover which publishing path may be your best option. At the very least, the questions will make you pause and truly consider why you’re writing your book.

Since comments have been disabled at The Write Life, feel free to comment here. If you have a question specific to your writing project, contact me.

We are living in a golden age of publishing, but when so many opportunities abound, it can be difficult to know what’s best for you. I hope this article helps guide your way.

 

“Audio is a popular shelf.” — Jim Seybert, nonfiction audiobook narrator

Jim Seybert, nonfiction audiobook narrator
Jim Seybert, nonfiction audiobook narrator

Jim Seybert is a nonfiction audiobook narrator.

We were recently connected through a mutual friend in the publishing profession.

After reviewing his site, I realized I’d seen his hilarious narration-blunder video before, which is embedded toward the end of this post.

I reached out to Jim for this quick interview and was rewarded with more than a few great takeaways for authors looking to publish an audiobook.

Why should an author consider having their book published as an audiobook?

Audiobooks are the fastest growing segment of the publishing industry.

They have made authored content available to a vast number of people who like to read but don’t have the time.

There’s also a growing number of people who, as they age, find it harder to focus on printed pages.

Research done by the Audio Publishers Association (APA) indicates that every demographic is attracted to audiobooks. Both ends of the age spectrum are attracted to audiobooks—younger consumers like the portability and digital availability, while older folks appreciate the benefits of being read to.

When you’re marketing a product, you want to be on as many “shelves” as possible. Audio is a popular shelf.

When you’re marketing a product, you want to be on as many 'shelves' as possible. Audio is a popular shelf.— @jimseybert Click To Tweet

How can an author best prepare their work for audiobook production?

WRITE GREAT CONTENT.

That said, keep in mind that audiobook listeners do not have the luxury of seeing the page. Font changes, sidebars, bullets—all these things that look great on the printed page—create challenges for the narrator.

Good narrators will work with their authors to develop alternatives, such as a book I did recently where I wrote copy describing a couple of simple drawings. Many times, the chart or image is merely a repetition of what the author has already written, so it’s simply left out.

Also, and this is especially true for nonfiction books, narrators very rarely include footnotes. There are exceptions, but it is something to keep in mind.

Going back to my initial comment — write great content. Don’t worry about how your book will “sound.” There’s no need to “write FOR audio.” A good narrator will make minor adjustments to shape your work into an engaging and entertaining audiobook.

How can an author best prepare their work for audiobook production? WRITE GREAT CONTENT.— @jimseybert Click To Tweet

How did you get into audiobook narration?

Narration is a combination of experiences and skills I’ve gathered over forty-plus years of work around the marketing, entertainment, and publishing industry.

Four years ago, I had a job that required me to drive three to four hours every night from one city to the next. I started listening to audiobooks while I drove and, one evening, while listening to R.C. Bray’s performance of The Martian, the thought hit me that I might like to try doing what he did.

In the late-1990s I’d worked as a marketing exec for a group of retail bookstores and knew quite a few folks in the publishing industry, so I fired off a bunch of “what-should-I-do-to-get-into-audiobooks” emails. Of the thirty or so that went out, one guy responded with an introduction to a friend of his who was the president of an audiobook publishing and distribution company. After a couple of phone calls and a demo tape, he hired me to record five “b-level” titles.

That was the summer of 2016. By the end of 2018, I will have finished thirty books. One of my coaches will finish his 1,000th book by the end of the year. I have a long way to go.

Why do you mainly record nonfiction audiobooks?

Three reasons:

First, my voice is a classic baritone and, although there are some great fiction narrators with voices similar to mine, I find it difficult to do the various characters that fiction listeners often expect.

Also, it’s a branding thing. I would rather be known as an excellent nonfiction narrator than as a pretty good narrator in many genres.

Finally, and this is only partly a joke—I like being the smartest guy in the room. When I narrate nonfiction, for the length of the book, I am teaching the listener something they didn’t know. I like that feeling.

Aside from epistemological, what other words are your least favorite to pronounce?

Hah. That book actually had 187 “big words.” I hired an assistant to research all of them and provide me with a digital library of pronunciations. The cool thing is that Audiofile Magazine reviewed the book (Atheism on Trial) and called my work “a sparkling diamond.”

I struggle with the word asked. If I don’t pay attention, it comes out in the present tense without the hard T at the end. On any given day, my tongue can lift a picket sign and decide to not cooperate on even the simplest words. An experienced narrator can record one hour of “finished audio” in about two hours.

Audible honored a group of narrators this year with entry into the first-ever Audiobook Narrators Hall of Fame. At the ceremony, one of the inductees said, “We revere the spoken word.” I really liked that. I like being part of a small group of professional people who are dedicated to taking authored content and meticulously performing it for a new audience.

If you’re interested in discussing how to turn your nonfiction book into an accessible and compelling audiobook, contact nonfiction audiobook narrator Jim Seybert.

The Problem with Memoir

In “Why Your Memoir Won’t Sell,” Jane Friedman offers seven reasons why a memoir won’t move copies. To paraphrase:

  • It’s the first “legit” writing you’ve ever attempted.
  • It’s an act of catharsis (a. k. a. emotional vomit).
  • It’s a glorified diary.
  • It’s a chronological autobiography.
  • It’s a series of unrelated anecdotes from your life.
  • It’s someone else’s memoir.
  • It’s been done.
  • I’ve come close to making almost every one of those mistakes.

After a significantly distressing period of my life, I considered writing a memoir about that time. Had I followed through, I would have committed sins #1, 2, 3, and 7 from that list.

Egregious memoir error #7 deserves more explanation. Jane writes, “This is the hardest thing to tell a writer: ‘Sorry, but your story of addiction or cancer survival or loss of a child just doesn’t seem that special.’” That’s a brutal publishing truth, but the reason it’s true is not that the story isn’t meaningful in itself; it’s that hundreds if not thousands of those kinds of stories are submitted to publishers every year.

However, I would still argue that it can be good to write those stories and self-publish for family, friends, and posterity, but don’t pin your bestselling hopes on such a memoir (unless you’re famous or an extremely talented writer who knows how to craft a compelling memoir).

Jane states the problem with memoir so well: “People have a hard time achieving any distance between the meaning and importance of their life’s events and the commercial market that might exist for it.”

So, write your memoir. Let your writing be cathartic. Record your life story. Commit every sin on this list. Just don’t expect more than what’s realistic if you choose to seek an agent or self-publish. (And if you’re serious about writing a memoir, definitely read Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir.)

Have you committed any of this memoir mistakes?
Or, what’s the best memoir you’ve ever read?

How Long Should My Book Be?

“My memoir is 270,000 words long.”

I heard these words during a breakout session I led at a local writers conference.

An editor friend of mine, Shayla Eaton with Curiouser Editing, was sitting in on the breakout. We gave each other knowing glances, and because I didn’t want to break this poor memoirist’s literary heart, I nodded at Shayla to take the lead.

As nicely but as directly as she could, she explained to the memoirist that a 270,000-word memoir was excessive. Even if she self-publishes, the cost per copy would be high, and few readers would slog through such a tome — particularly for someone who’s not famous.

And no agents or publishers would even look past that number.

The prose could be as fleet-footed as Fitzgerald’s. The life story could be as compelling as Lincoln’s. The platform could be as broad as Oprah’s. But no agent would get to know that because they’d see “Memoir: 270,000 words” and hit delete before reading any further.

So, how long should a memoir be?

For that matter, how long should any book be?

The short answer, and the long answer, are found in “A Word Count Guide for 18 Different Book Genres,” my recent column for TheWriteLife.com.

Is Backstory Necessary?

“So when my students ask me how much backstory they’re permitted to include in a story, I say, ‘How about none?'”

That’s Benjamin Percy in Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, an excellent book on writing fiction.

He expands on his backstory bashing: “None is a good start. Because it’s so often unnecessary. A reader intuits the history of a character by observing them acting in the present.”

It’s as if I were to tell you that I’m writing this post because I made a promise to myself a few weeks ago to blog more often, to have fun with it, and to use what I’m reading and listening to as launchpads for creating content.

Does that make you care any more about this post’s actual topic?

While I’m not a developmental editor for fiction (yet), I have read enough nonfiction works-in-progress (including my own) where the first 10 to 20 percent needed to be cut. It was the author warming up to what they really wanted to write about.
Backstory is like that. You may need to write it so you know what your story is about and why your characters do what they do, but you don’t need to publish it.

As Percy writes, “The impulse to explain will insult the reader. That’s their job—part of the pleasure of reading a story is inference, filling in the blanks and becoming a participant in the narrative, a coauthor.”

So let your coauthor do the work they may not even know they want to do.

Kill your little darling of a backstory.