The Blog

All Posts in Category: Craft

Creating a Nonfiction Voice

Unless you’re writing a textbook that you’re assiging to your students, no one has to read your book. So if reading your book is a difficult and frustrating task, no one (except those students) will do it.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? Book editors know this, which is why they prize writers who can communicate ideas clearly and in a friendly, accessible way.

That doesn’t mean you have to use only one-syllable words. It does mean that you need to present your ideas in a logical and approachable format. Readers expect you to anticipate questions and concerns they will have, and to use straightforward, active language and concrete suggestions.

For nonfiction writers, using case studies and anecdotes can be crucial to making material meaningful to readers. Apply your ideas to real world situations so readers can visualize them.

Most important, have beta readers review your work and let you know where they’re getting hung up.

5 Steps for Finding Your Audience

To be a successful book author, you have to think about your audience from the very beginning. And by that I mean the very beginning–at the inception of your idea, you should be asking yourself questions about who will want to read what you’ve written.

Here are some steps to make the process of finding your audience less daunting:

1. Think of your work in big terms. You’re leaving a legacy–something you want to be proud of. What is that legacy going to be?

2. Ask yourself what your message is. Do you believe wholeheartedly in your message? People can spot insincerity.

3. Find out what makes your audience tick. What moves them and motivates them? You have to care about your audience to succeed.

4. Consider where you’ll reach them. Where are they? How can you connect with them?

5. Commit to your message and your project. It takes significant dedication and perseverance to succeed in the book business. But you really can do it!

When to Listen to Your Inner Critic

I was thinking about my inner critic in light of the fact that I am nearly finished with a novel I have been in process with for about a year. So you know what that means: rejections up ahead! Of course, it is entirely possible for me to avoid the rejections by continuing to work on the novel. A person can work on a novel indefinitely and feel like she is making progress when really she is just stalling.

So. Over the weekend, I made what I thought would be the final pass on the novel. I knew I needed a more satisfying ending, and I worked one out, and I knew I needed to fix the first chapter, and I fixed it, and then I printed the complete manuscript (I like to get the feel for a novel on the page, not just the computer screen) and when I re-read it, I discovered that the whole thing sucked from beginning to end.

Now, you may wonder why I hadn’t noticed this before. After all, I have been working on the novel for a year and I’ve been publishing for more than fifteen years, and you’d think a professional would notice a thing like that. You may also wonder if I was deeply alarmed by this diagnosis. I can assure you I was not. That is because I Have Been Here Before. And in fact, “OMG! This novel SUCKS EGGS!” seems to be an inevitable part of the process for me.

I hope it is not for you, but from my admittedly nonscientific survey of writer friends, it is likely that, if you are a writer, you suffer from this malady yourself, at least now and again.

Here is what I do. I read the novel with pen in hand, taking copious notes. This is a discouraging process, because my inner critic cannot help jeering at me (“You mean you did not NOTICE that you used the SAME ridiculous plot contrivance TWICE in one novel when ONCE would have been too much?”) but I let my inner critic have her say. I don’t care how savage she gets. I note it all down, and then I cry quietly into my pillow for a while.

After that, I put my notes away and I don’t look at the novel for at least two weeks. I don’t try to fix anything that’s wrong with it. Then, when I am feeling more sane, I get out the novel and the notes, and I make the revisions the book really needs. Then I’m done. I mean really done, with just one more read-through for typos before I lay in chocolate and wine to get through the rejection process.

How do I know that? How do I know that *this* round of revisions is the last? I know because of the viciousness of my inner critic, and the hopelessness with which I view the manuscript. Earlier in the process, when I am not nearly done, I feel a lot more optimistic. (“Oh, there’s a plot hole! I can fix that in a jiffy! Who gives a rat’s ass about this character? Well, I’ll just add a few charming foibles and we’ll be all set.”)

I know this about myself and the process because I have been through the process before and sometimes I have come up short—I stopped too soon. Other times I did not, and someone sent me a contract and a check. But if I don’t eventually stop, I can’t get that contract and that check. So the key is to reach the point of existential despair, and then I know I’m set.

Your process may vary.

When Shortcuts Are Short Circuits

In my many years as a book author and freelancer, I have met hundreds of writers, professionals and wannabes, and it has struck me that we tend to do one of these two things, neither of which is in our best interest:

  1. We don’t put our work out into the world. We are waiting for some future moment when all will be perfect with the work and ourselves. That time will never come, but knowing that doesn’t stop us from waiting.
  2. We put our work out into the world before it’s ready. By this I mean taking shortcuts to get our work out into the world. Thinking, “This is wonderful and ready!” and hitting send and then finding out that no one agrees with you is one thing. Thinking, “Eh, close enough” and hitting send is another.

I see this type of thing happening a lot when people decide to self-publish. It’s not that I don’t completely understand the whole “I can avoid rejection this way” mindset, or that I don’t understand that it may be the only way a good book will actually see the light of day, or any of a
hundred reasons why people make this choice. I don’t quibble with those reasons.

My argument is that taking a shortcut because otherwise you will have to spend time getting better at the work does you no good in the long run.  If your goal is to just have 70,000 words with your name out there in the world, then by all means, shortcuts are a fine way to get there. If you are trying to be a good writer, or a good anything, then you need to be aware of the trap of the shortcut.

It isn’t only in self-publishing versus traditional publishing where I see this mistake. I cannot count the number of people who are dissatisfied with their current agents (and for very good
reasons, not just the usual angst over the advance should have been huger) but who don’t do anything about it because then they would have to find another agent. And not only would that mean time spend trying to find one, but maybe they would have to step up their work a notch to catch someone’s eye. It’s easier to stick with the status quo.

Or nonfiction writers who think hiring a publicist will get them out of the work of building a platform and doing publicity (I think publicists are great, but hiring one doesn’t mean your work
as an author is done).

I struggle with this myself, a lot more than I would like to admit. In the end, I have learned to ask myself the key question: “Am I considering this because it’s easy or because it’s the right thing for my work?”

Growing Your Writing Career

I’m often asked about how to continue a writing career that has gotten off to a promising start. You can’t throw a rock without hitting someone who has written a book on how to break into publishing, but maintaining a writing career? Being a mid-career writer? Being a midlist writer? Those concerns are skated over.

Why? Because there are a lot fewer people in this group, and the information is less standard.  If you want to get your first novel published, then you have to write the novel, polish the novel, find some agents to query, write a query letter, and see what happens.  That’s pretty much it.

There are other things you can do, but if you don’t do those things, in approximately that order, you’re not going to get anywhere.

But when someone says, “I’ve written some books, and I want to take my career to the next level,” there’s no obvious procedure you can point out. It’s a lot easier to talk about query letters.

Even so, here are, forthwith, my thoughts on taking an already established writing career to the next level. This is for nonfiction, since these are the writers I work with most often, but much of the information is also applicable to novelists.

  1. Figure out what you want. Do you want to make a living as a writer? Do you want your books to bolster your main career and showcase your expertise? Do you have ideas you want to share with people, period?  Your answers will guide your decision-making. If you just have ideas you want to share, there’s nothing wrong with starting a blog and putting together some e-books and seeing where that goes. If you want to make a living, you have to be more strategic: who buys writing, what kind of writing do they buy, how will you find these people? If you want to be the go-to expert, then writing books is just one part of the platform-building that you need to be involved in. Speaking at conferences, doing radio interviews, and otherwise spreading the word about your brilliance should all be part of your strategy.
  2. Join more advanced writers’ organizations. It’s one thing to go to the local writers’ group when you’re just starting out, but if you hope to get to the next level, it helps to have mentors who are already there—people already doing what you want to be doing. After I’d published a couple of books, I joined ASJA (the American Society of Journalists and Authors), the National Writers Union, the Authors Guild, and several others. I don’t belong to any of them now, but I’m glad I did when I did. (Now I focus more on genre organizations, like the RWA.)
  3. If you don’t have an agent, get one. But make sure it’s a good one (check out my blog posts on agents for more information on this).
  4. Network with other writers and editors. Online, there are many opportunities for this: LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and more. Probably 99 percent of my business comes from referrals these days. Sometimes it’s a direct referral: a writer has a client with a project said writer can’t do and so recommends me. Sometimes it’s more along the lines of, “Did you see this ad?” Networking is a two-way street: you have to give to get. It isn’t a scored game (you give me one and I’ll give you one) but it is a numbers games: the more you’re out there, the more you’re likely to be remembered. People who ask me for help, then piss all over my help, don’t get more help. You wouldn’t believe how often this happens.
  5. Specialize. I’ve been in the position where I need to hire writers on any number of occasions. I almost never need to hire a writer who can write about anything. I almost always have to have a writer who can write (and has written ) about a specific niche or area of expertise. That is true of most editors in the world. You can certainly have more than one niche, but it makes life much easier to be able to say, “I write about x.” That’s not just for editors, by the way, that’s also for you. “I can write about anything for anyone” doesn’t give you any idea of what your next step should be. “I write about tech issues businesses face” gives you a lot more information about what you should be doing right about now.
  6. But diversify. The “diversify” part of the plan means that you should look for more than one kind of outlet for your writing. For example, I found early on if I wanted to keep writing books, I had to promote them, and one way I could promote them was to write articles based on the material, for which I got paid. It’s a nice little racket once you figure it out.  Now more than ever writers have plenty of outlets: blogs (your own and others), podcasts, traditional book publishing, traditional magazine publishing, trade publishing, online magazines, etc. That’s just the surface. If you’re working in a couple different areas, if one disappears tomorrow, you are not dead in the water.

Avoiding Creative Burnout

I recently got a note from a writer saying she felt creatively drained.  She said, “My book is good.  How can I convince others?”

Reading between the lines, I figured she’d written a book she felt was excellent but agents/editors were rejecting it, and that was making her feel a lot like not writing any more books, and also that she wished she could figure out how to get an agent’s (or publisher’s) attention.

I will be the first to admit that beating your head against a wall is way more fun than querying agents and editors, and that the more rejections you get, the harder it can be to feel like doing it all over again.  I also know that making creativity your work — the thing that pays the bills — is a
good way to want to shovel ditches for a living.

Basically, we have two connected questions: “How can I succeed in the commercial arena of publishing?” and “How can I, at the same time, renew and feed my creative energies?”

You really do have to separate the act of creation from the act of publishing.  The act of creation is something to be nurtured and protected, even on the days when you don’t feel like it.  The act of publishing is a business transaction, period.  They are two very different creatures, although of course we’re bound to conflate them, being human and wanting to see our hard work rewarded.

Protecting your creativity — renewing it, feeding it, keeping it from shutting down when you get five more rejection letters this week — requires a couple of important habits:

  1. Protect the time.  Even if you’re just drawing doodles on a sketchpad, keep your creative time free from other encumbrances.  My first two hours of every day are for The Work, even though sometimes they actually consist of talking to friends at the coffee shop.
  2. Remember that sheer financial terror impedes creativity.  Putting the entire burden of your financial health on the capricious whims of the publishing industry requires nerves of steel. Have different work to serve different purposes.  It’s not selling out: you’re buying the time to do The Work.
  3. The Work is sufficient in and of itself.  Yes, it’s nice to be recognized for your talent, but it’s not required.  There are ways to share your work beyond traditional publishing, if it comes to that.
  4. Keep more than one project going.  Have new work you’re conceptualizing while you edit the old work and send out the older.  Keep your focus on your work and not on the publishing business.

To the in some ways more difficult question of succeeding in commercial publishing:

  1. Create a network.  The hardest thing in writing is feeling like you’re talking to yourself.  Have other writers, readers, colleagues, who can give feedback and offer resources.
  2. Learn to sell your book.  It’s easier to write a blurb about someone else’s book.  So either pretend you’re writing your query about someone else’s book or trade with a friend: write a query for someone else’s book and have them write one for yours.  See if that helps you nail your query.
  3. Don’t invest everything in one project.  Especially these days.  Times are tough in publishing. You can love your book but you also need to Let. It. Go.  Maybe it will be published, maybe it won’t.  Like a child, you do your best by it but beyond that, you don’t have a lot of say in how it turns out. Get to work on the next book.
  4. Invest in getting better.  Yes, this book is good.  Focus on how the next one is going to be better.  Read, attend conferences, join writers’ groups. Immerse yourself in understanding the craft and the publishing process.  Experiment.  Fail.  Fail a lot.  Learn something. Fail some more.  Write the book no one can turn down (then sell the secret for one million dollars).  That’ll keep you too busy to focus on the inadequacies of the agents and editors who are rejecting your book.
  5. Recognize what you can control and what you can’t.  Writing the best book you can?  Completely under your control.  Convincing other people it’s the cat’s meow?  Not so

Moving On to Your Next Book

A long time ago I wrote a novel I loved. Loved. It was a flawed novel, as many beginning efforts are, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t love it. I still love that novel, even though I’m perfectly well aware of its imperfections. I may in fact love it because of its imperfections. It is at the same time the worst book I’ve ever written and also the best, and if you are a writer you know exactly what I mean.

I spent countless hours on that manuscript, trying to get it perfect even though no amount of effort could save it from being the work of a beginner. More hours than I have ever spent on anything else in the universe, with the possible exception of my daughter. That book meant everything in the world to me, and the smartest thing I have ever done is shove it in a trunk and lock the trunk.

Wait! you say (I can hear the dismay in your voice). Don’t you talk all the time about never giving up?

Why, yes. Yes, I do. But I mean that in terms of your ultimate goal, which I’m assuming is to be a happily published writer (though we could debate all day about what that means). Lesser goals work in the service of larger goals. Writing a book is a lesser goal to being a happily published writer, although obviously you need the one to get the other. But you can be a happily published writer even if you set aside a particular book to work on one that will be better. In fact, I can almost guarantee that you will have to.

Here’s a thing I’ve noticed among all the writers I’ve dealt with over the years. The professional ones – multipublished, making a living at it – always understand that you have to keep moving or you drown. You finish one project and start another. You realize that your first novel is never going to be published so you start your second.

The unpublished writers are the ones who keep clinging to that first project, never quite willing to leave go of it to move on to the better one. Almost no one has ever listened to me when I said they need to write their next book. But please, I’m begging you. That book you’ve been working on for ten years? Find a trunk for it. Start your next book. You’ll thank me later.


"Inspiration is for amateurs"

Or so says the artist Chuck Close.  And even though I spent half the morning staring out the coffee shop window, hoping the divine spark would fall out of the sky and land on my head so that I could figure out how to write the scene I’m working on in my newest novel, I absolutely agree with him.

I have had entire books that seemed to spill out of my pen, inspired by whatever muse is in charge of such things, and I have had entire books that were pulled one drop of blood after another from my flesh after another, and while I like the “spill out of my pen” process better than “pull one drop of blood after another from my flesh,” on reading the works in question, you would have no idea which is which.

It’s not as if one process yields a better result than the other. And you learn a great deal about the craft of writing from the tough slog of writing even when you don’t feel particularly inspired.  That’s why I have always believed it’s a mistake to think that you should wait for inspiration to strike before writing.

Does that mean you should force ideas before they’re ready? No. It just means that you should sit down every day and write — and not just write, but write with the purpose of making progress toward a goal: to finish a  chapter, to polish a proposal, to respond to a writing prompt, to draft a scene in your novel.

Why You Need to Develop Mastery

Time and again, I’ve tried to help writers understand that they have to offer something not everyone else can offer in order to succeed.  Anyone can write “Ten Ways to Organize Your Garage,” but not everyone can tell us about the costs of complying with Sarbanes-Oxley for small businesses.

On a writer’s forum, a writer recently posted about how an editor expressed concern that she wouldn’t be able to ghostwrite a book she wanted to ghostwrite because she’d never written a book before, and writing a book is a very different endeavor from other kinds of writing.  The poster was discouraged and wanted to know how she could overcome this objection.

I understand that this is frustrating: how can you get published if being published is a requirement for getting published?  But the fact of the matter is, there are ten gazillion writers who have written books, any of whom would be a better bet for this editor.  There’s nothing you can say that will change that.  But there are things you can do. You can develop a proposal based on a book that only you can write, because you have expertise in x, fluency in y, or access to z.

Beyond that, as a writer, you need to recognize that “I can write about anything” isn’t the kind of calling card that gets you anywhere.