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Many people have enjoyed reading self-help books but when it comes to writing one, they don’t know where to begin. How do you organize the material?

A great self-help book takes the reader on a journey from problem to solution. Watch this new video I made about how to structure a self-help book into six key sections, then take out your favorite self-help book and look at the contents page. Does it have the structure I’ve outlined here? Does it have a variation it? It never ceases to amaze me how often this structure is used and yet no one talks about it!

 

 

 

 

 

One of the main reasons people resist hiring a ghostwriter for their book is the fear that the ghostwriter will not capture their voice, and the book will sound as if it’s been written by someone else.

 

To capture your voice, the ghostwriter needs to understand two important rules about writing your book for you:

 

Rule #1: A voice on the page is not the same as a person’s spoken voice. Back when I was studying English linguistics in college, I had to do a paper analyzing an actual conversation that I’d tape recorded and explain why the speakers were able to drop certain words or make certain grammatical errors without confusing the listener. When I transcribed the conversation word for word, “um” for “um,” with all the half-expressed thoughts in place, the result was a document few people could make sense of, and yet the actual conversation had proceeded smoothly. If you’ve ever had your speaking transcribed word for word, you may have been horrifed by how often you interrupted yourself, changed directions, or spoke ungrammatically. A ghostwriter will create a voice on the page that captures the essence of your personality and how you express yourself, but this will be the voice you would write with if you were your English teacher’s dream student and you and plenty of time to craft your sentences and paragraphs.

 

Rule #2: Your voice on the page should not sound uptight and stiff. An excellent ghostwriter will stick to the rules of grammar without making you sound tightly wound. Read a few pages of a biography of a favorite celebrity or two. Does it sound as if the celebrity wrote those words? Or has this rock star written about an “ameliorating effect” or a “problem with which I wrestled”? The ghostwriter and, later, the copyeditor are responsible for retaining the voice of the expert or celebrity whose name is on the book.

 

A ghostwriter will look at any material you’ve written in the past and talk to you about the voice. It may be that you basically like how you sound in your blogpieces but want to be sure your voice sounds energetic and commercial throughout your book. In that case, the ghostwriter can look carefully at the elements of your voice in those blogpieces and make sure to retain your catchphrases and rhythms.

 

If you’re ever unhappy with what a ghostwriter has written for you, even if it’s just a simple word choice, speak up! It’s important that you feel comfortable with the voice your ghostwriter creates for you.

One of the main reasons people resist hiring a ghostwriter for their book is the fear that the ghostwriter will not capture their voice, and the book will sound as if it’s been written by someone else.

 

To capture your voice, the ghostwriter needs to understand two important rules about writing your book for you:

 

Rule #1: A voice on the page is not the same as a person’s spoken voice. Back when I was studying English linguistics in college, I had to do a paper analyzing an actual conversation that I’d tape recorded and explain why the speakers were able to drop certain words or make certain grammatical errors without confusing the listener. When I transcribed the conversation word for word, “um” for “um,” with all the half-expressed thoughts in place, the result was a document few people could make sense of, and yet the actual conversation had proceeded smoothly. If you’ve ever had your speaking transcribed word for word, you may have been horrifed by how often you interrupted yourself, changed directions, or spoke ungrammatically. A ghostwriter will create a voice on the page that captures the essence of your personality and how you express yourself, but this will be the voice you would write with if you were your English teacher’s dream student and you and plenty of time to craft your sentences and paragraphs.

 

Rule #2: Your voice on the page should not sound uptight and stiff. An excellent ghostwriter will stick to the rules of grammar without making you sound tightly wound. Read a few pages of a biography of a favorite celebrity or two. Does it sound as if the celebrity wrote those words? Or has this rock star written about an “ameliorating effect” or a “problem with which I wrestled”? The ghostwriter and, later, the copyeditor are responsible for retaining the voice of the expert or celebrity whose name is on the book.

 

A ghostwriter will look at any material you’ve written in the past and talk to you about the voice. It may be that you basically like how you sound in your blogpieces but want to be sure your voice sounds energetic and commercial throughout your book. In that case, the ghostwriter can look carefully at the elements of your voice in those blogpieces and make sure to retain your catchphrases and rhythms.

 

If you’re ever unhappy with what a ghostwriter has written for you, even if it’s just a simple word choice, speak up! It’s important that you feel comfortable with the voice your ghostwriter creates for you.

A client reported to me that a professional in the industry had made this observation after reading the book proposal for this client’s memoir: “You can’t edit your life.” I told her, “I disagree. Don’t we all do this every day?” Did you tell your spouse about that parking ticket you received, or did you just pay it? Did you reveal to your child that you, too, hated practicing the violin, or did you “edit out” that bit of information?

Reality TV shows are popular because they don’t depict reality in its raw, unedited form. That would be boring. Instead, they depict a very carefully directed and edited reality. The template for their narrative is very predictable. A memoir, too, has a carefully constructed narrative. It takes the reader on a journey through a story about the writer’s life. There are many ways to tell any story, and many stories you can tell. At your next family gathering, bring up an incident from twenty or thirty years ago and watch how everyone argues about the storytelling!

We unconsciously edit our lives, too. Our memory plastic and selective because our brains are wired that way. We recall the stories and details that support the narrative we’ve unconsciously chosen for ourselves. Think back to your earliest childhood memory. What is the theme of this snippet of your life? Now ask yourself, does that theme play out in my life? My first recollection is of being a toddler, watching my older brother take pots and pans out of a kitchen cupboard and bang them together, then seeing my mother rush in to quiet him. In my professional life, I loved to be a ghostwriter and developmental editor, which requires stepping back to make keen observations about others. Is it any wonder that I recall this particular moment of being the observer?

A memoirist faces the challenge of finding and weaving together stories that form a cohesive narrative with one key theme and several sub-themes. If she adds in every incident that she recalls, she’ll end up with an autobiography with an exhaustive amount of detail that may fascinate her offspring or her best friend, but which has limited appeal to anyone who doesn’t know her. Her challenge is to know what story she wants to tell and consciously select the memories that support it. Then, her challenge is to write about these incidents in such a way that they resonate for the reader. An ordinary story about the first day at kindergarten, or the first time she ate an oyster, can have tremendous depth and emotional charge, even if on the surface such incidents seem mundane.

So yes, you can edit your life. You can edit the stories of family members, ex-lovers, and friends, and even leave them out of your tale if you like. No, you can’t make up details, and you absolutely should question your motives in writing about other people in your life; are you getting back at someone, or writing about this person in order to make sense of it all? It’s okay if you’re writing a memoir to work through your feelings. Just be sure that when you get to the step of seeking publication, you reflect on whether this is the story you want to tell others—and why you wish to do so.

Making decisions about what to reveal can be very difficult, but the process of making these choices can be extremely empowering. To tell your story your way, and yet find the universal elements that will cause a complete stranger to find your memoir compelling, takes courage, craft, and commitment. It also takes editing your life

 

The New York Times reports that Google is now selling and offering free eBooks through their site, readable on smart phones and eReaders (although for now, only the free books can be read on Kindle–boy, that Amazon is determined to keep its grip on the market). They can team up with bookstores so that you can buy Google books through an actual brick-and-mortar store. So, if you’re loyal to the corner bookstore, you no longer have to “betray” them by buying eBooks through the online retailers.

To me, this signals a move toward a greater emphasis on guiding readers to the books they might like in order to distinguish yourself as a retailer. If I go into bookstore A and they carry a paltry number of books in my favorite genre, I’m unlikely to feel the desire to patronize them over any other bookstore or online retailer (especially if they don’t carry books I’ve written!). However, if I go into bookstore B and they carry a good selection of books in my favorite genre, host author appearances and discussion groups that appeal to me, and offer great recommendations that go beyond simple software generation of related titles (“If you bought Diary of a Wimpy Kid, you will love Diary of a Wimpy Kid II and the Diary of a Wimpy Kid trivia book”–gee, I coulda figured that out by myself!)–that’s where I’ll be buying my books. For now, Amazon.com and BN.com have the software that many readers rely on for recommendations, as well as helpful reviews from actual readers, while independent bookstores have the advantage of creating a sense of community, with handwritten “shelf talkers” that provide recommendations by employees (helpful if you happen to have similar tastes, not helpful if you don’t.

Of course, many of the books we buy are gifts for others. Now we have some choices. If I want to buy, say, the new Mark Twain autobiography and wrap it up to place under the Christmas tree for someone I love, I purchase it in a brick-and-mortar bookstore or order it to be shipped to me, or to my loved one (in wrapping paper if I pay extra). Or, I can “gift” it to them using their email address attached to their eReader device (a new service from Amazon.com for Kindle)–not nearly as much fun to receive but still, an option. What if I could wrap up a “look in your Kindle” or “look in your Nook!” card in a box and send the book to the person’s device? Again, all are options–but where do I buy the book if there’s no big price difference? (There probably wouldn’t be a price difference on eBooks). Where do my loyalties lie?

In the future, I think we’ll see improved recommendation software combined with personal recommendations offered through online or brick-and-mortar stores that create a sense of community for the people who love a certain type of book (Christian books, mystery novels, children’s books, New Age books, etc.). We love to support our community, however we define that community, and retailers can capitalize on this. If I can buy my favorite New Age/Spirituality books from one main retailer yet still use that retailer to access helpful guidance on buying y.a. and children’s books for the kids in my life, that would be my ideal.

It’ll be interesting to see how general bookstores, chain or independent, will find a better way to reach out to niche customers. “It’s politically correct to support us” just isn’t enough when it’s clear they won’t help you find books you’re likely to love–or make up for it by offering cheaper prices and better service than Amazon.com or BN.com.

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