writing your story


 

“What’s in it for me?” That’s a key question on the mind of a potential follower/book buyer who is interested in mind/body/spirit nonfiction, the type of book I work on. (Editors, like ghostwriters, specialize in certain genres.) Whatever you are writing, it should sit firmly in that sweet spot where you and your work meet up with someone else’s need or desire to become informed, amused,  inspired  invigorated, etc. When you conceptualize a memoir or self-help book based on your story of overcoming challenges, you need to remember the needs of your potential reader. She wants to learn how she, too, could be like you, and do what you have done. She wants to feel a bond with you. If you want to write a story about a series of terrible situations you survived, do that because it has meaning for you and because it can be a valuable step in your healing process. But don’t assume people want to share in your trauma. They have their own traumas to process. If you want to write mind/body/spirit nonfiction that inspires and educates others, you have to step back from your story and imagine what your reader wants to read. She wants to share in your recovery from abuse, low self-esteem, addiction, and so on. The story of your trauma should be just a small piece of the book you are writing for her.

 

self-help book or memoir

The story of your trauma should be just a small piece of the book you are writing for a reader of mind/body/spirit nonfiction.

 

I hear daily from would-be authors who want to write their story of trauma, and I tell them that if they want to write and inspire others, they need to focus on how they overcame the trauma. As a reader, I always want to know the answer to “What’s in it for me?” I hope the answer is, “An engrossing story that educates me on how I can overcome trauma in my own life.”

 

Karin Volo’s memoir, 1,352 Days, tells an absolutely harrowing tale of how she survived nearly four years of being locked up in a county jail fighting extradition to a foreign country where you’re presumed guilty, not innocent. When I worked with her as a developmental editor to tell the story in an inspiring way, I encouraged her to maintain riveting details about her painful experiences, including the shock and fear she felt when hauled away from an airport gate in handcuffs or locked into a cell with strangers who could have committed a horrific crime for all she knew. However, the story that resonated for me, and that I knew would resonate for readers, was the story of how she got through those years in which she was separated from her young daughters and family, how she kept sane and optimistic, and how she came to forgive herself and her ex-husband for their roles in bringing about this frightening series of events. The book is a memoir, but as a reader, you  will feel it’s about you and what you can do to own your role in bringing about difficulties in your life, and what you can do to change your habits of mind and behavior and let go of anger, resentment, and shame. It’s her memoir, but in essence, it’s about… YOU.

 

Other nonfiction books I’ve worked on are in the self-help vein, and have practical strategies, tips, exercises, and action plans for transforming your life. They incorporate stories and anecdotes, but those stories don’t go on page after page in exhaustive detail. I took my own story about discovering my son had sensory processing disorder, and learning how to help him, and wove it in my book Raising a Sensory Smart Child, but I kept the stories short. I deliberately tried to paint the scenes emotionally so other parents could relate to my experience. I made myself vulnerable on the page, because it’s always easier to take advice from an author who admits to her own failings. In short, in telling those stories, I was always aware of how my reader would feel reading them.
Here’s a trick for making sure your stories are as much about your reader as they are about you. Watch how often you write “I” compared to how often you write “you” or “we.” My general rules are as follows:

 

Consider using “we” to create a bond with your audience: “We parents know what it’s like…” “We all try and fail at times…” Consider using “you” to give advice or create an intimate conversation with the reader. “You can consult with an occupational therapist…” “You might want to look at how you approach your child when he’s totally absorbed in what he’s doing…” “You, too, might be feeling overwhelmed by all the choices…” If you use too much “we” language, it can start to sound as if you’re pontificating, so be cautious. In self-help, I favor “you” but will often switch from “you” to “we” when I’m concerned that the author might take offense at the assumptions I’m making about her.  Rather than write, “You play a role in your child’s inability to control his temper”–ouch!–I would write, “If our children are unable to control their tempers, we parents need to know that we play a role in that” or “We might hate to admit it, but we parents always play at least some role in our children’s inability…” I might stick with “you” language and write something like, “You may not realize it, but you could be playing a role in your child’s inability to control his temper.” People don’t like to read about their failings, and they don’t want you to be the expert on high telling them what they are doing wrong and never admitting you screw up, too, so make sure that your language reflects their need to feel connected to you instead of judged by you.

 

Never forget that you are writing for a reader, not just for yourself, and your writing will be much more engaging, and much more likely to attract followers to your work.

(P.S. Want more helpful advice on getting started writing and publishing your book? Sign up for my email newsletter!)

Is your resolution to write a book this year?

 

Good for you! I believe that the act of writing a book is in itself an important expression of creativity. You will learn more about yourself and your life by choosing to write a book. It’s a big undertaking but when you break the process down into pieces, it’s less daunting.

 

How to get started writing your book:

 

  1. Conceptualize what you want to write a book about about. If you haven’t already done this, think about what YOU have to say that no one else can say. Have you had an incredible experience, or series of experiences, from which you gained insights that would benefit others? Are you an expert on something? Do you have a different way of approaching a topic or task that you would like to share with others? Do you have a novel in mind? Have you worked out the themes, character, and plot to the point where you’re ready to explore what unfolds as you begin to tell the story?
  2. Conceptualize your hook or title. Imagine your elevator speech—you meet an old friend in an elevator and he or she asks what you’re up to. “Writing a book,” you say proudly. “Really? What’s it about?” is the reply. And you say… (Remember, the elevator doors will open in a matter of seconds. Announce your killer title, title/subtitle combination, or throw out a descriptive sentence that summarizes what your book is).
  3. Imagine who your reader is. Is this person completely unfamiliar with you and your topic, or somewhat familiar? Where is this person in his or her life that your book looks like a must-read? What is this person expecting to get out of your book? It’s really important not to skip this step if you want your book read by more than just your closest friends and family members.
  4. Analyze where your book fits in the market. Tens of thousands of books are published each year. Where does YOUR book fit in? Why would the reader want to buy your book and not another similar book? Do your research and look at what other books are already out there and similar to yours. In fact, search for your title (if you’ve thought of one) on the Internet and in online bookstores. Has someone been using that title or combination words already for a website or a book? Read my article on Comparative Books Lists. Even if you’re self-publishing and not writing a book proposal to get a book deal from a publisher, don’t skip this step of analyzing the comparable books. It will help you become clear on how to make your book stand out from all the others. It’s possible someone has written a similar book but even so, if you have a new spin or a unique voice, your book may be different enough that readers of the other book will want yours, too!
  5. Start writing. Don’t judge yourself as you begin the process. Feel free to try out different voices and approaches. Play around with how you start the book—what would be an engaging way to draw the reader in? Let your creativity flow and silence your inner critic when you’re just beginning.

 

Happy writing!

 

Thinking of self-publishing? Should you choose the editing or editorial evaluation package from the self-publishing arm of a publisher, or from self-publishing houses?

As a former in-house acquisitions editor at HarperCollins, a current ghostwriter and developmental editor, and the coauthor of several successful books, I can help you make the right choice for yourself and your book based on your goals (and your budget). You need to know whom you are hiring (and yes, you want to hire someone who knows why I used “whom” right there!). You also want to get the most bang for your buck, and that means making sure your book’s structure, approach, voice, and concept are solid before you start line editing it. You don’t paint the walls of a house before you’ve installed the plumbing and wiring correctly!

Many editors don’t know anything about structuring and editing books, which is a skill of its own. Also, those of us who are developmental editors do not work on every type of book there is. I am well read in many areas, but in some, I admit, I know next-to-nothing! I do turn down and pass along projects I know for certain I’m not the right editor for because I don’t have enough background in working on that type of book. My clients benefit from being able to work with someone who keeps up on what’s going on in the publishing world, the book marketing world, and the worlds of wellness, motivational speaking and writing, business, health, and more.

Peggy McColl

Some of the books I’ve worked on include business books, self-help, inspiration, life lessons books, and memoirs.

 

ADVICE FOR NONFICTION AUTHORS

Here’s what I recommend for authors who want to self-publish nonfiction: Work out your outline and the beginning of the book, looking to other successful books as your guide, and then call in a developmental editor who can evaluate the material and advise you BEFORE you get off track. Write a clear description of each chapter whether or not you do a whole book proposal before contacting an editor. Don’t make the editor guess at what’s in each chapter based on the chapter titles. If you’re looking to sell the book to a publisher and need a book proposal, follow the standard instructions for creating one (you can use the guidance on my website, and please pay close attention to the all-important comparative books list). Then, ask a developmental editor with an acquisitions background or success in shaping proposals that sold to evaluate it. A developmental editor will alert you to writing issues you need to be aware of, and will guide you on structural changes you need to make. If you’re writing a memoir, you will want to be sure you know what the purpose of the memoir is. Memoirs by non-famous people have to have strong themes and titles to capture the attention of readers who aren’t friends and family members.

When you’ve gotten the manuscript into the best possible shape, hire a copyeditor/light line editor to clean it up. He or she should simultaneously create a style sheet for a proofreader to work from (a style sheet lists all the proper nouns and the grammar and punctuation rules you decided upon, such as whether or not to capitalize the first word in a full sentence that follows a colon). Hire a proofreader and ask a friend or fellow author to be another set of eyes.

ADVICE FOR FICTION WRITERS

If you want someone to evaluate your novel (or your completed memoir or other nonfiction manuscript), recognize that it will take hours just to read it, much less to read it, make notes, and correct those notes afterward. How often have I thought, “Oh, I see—now I understand what she was talking about back in chapter 2. Let me go back and change that note.”! If you want to get an evaluation and save money, create an expanded chapter outline and a plot description. Otherwise, the editor has to skim and skim to get the big picture. I was trained to do this as an in-house editor and had lots of practice reading for literary agents, book clubs, and publishers, and I regularly met with other editors doing the same sort of work to compare notes. We became masters of skimming and evaluating. But even masters need time to go through a manuscript whose entire cover letter with plot description is three sentences long! Make it easier for an editor to evaluate your book by creating the one-page synopsis at the very least. And if you can also write up a list of chapters with short descriptions, that’s even better. It will help the editor and it will give you a big picture view of your book in the process. Maybe in preparing the chapter outline, you’ll spot sections that need to be edited down, for instance.

If you decide that you really must write the whole book and “get it on paper,” so to speak, before getting direction from a developmental editor, don’t let me stop you. Just know that if you go that route, you are likely to have to do a lot of cutting and restructuring, and you may end up spending a lot more money paying an editor because you’re presenting that person with a manuscript and no “cheat sheet” with plot description or chapter summaries. Don’t be married to what you wrote.

I hope this helps! I really don’t want any of you feeling you must approach the book writing process a certain way, but I also don’t want you shocked by how much money and time it takes to shape your very raw manuscript.

Good luck on your writing and editing!

Many aspiring authors contact me about help with writing a book based on what they’ve learned as a result of their experiences. They want to help others by sharing their story, wisdom, and advice in a book but don’t know how to start to write a memoir, novelization, or self-help book based on their experiences. I help them by consulting and coaching them (learn more HERE), ghostwriting their book (learn more HERE), or doing developmental editing on their manuscript (details HERE). The work often starts with a one-hour consultation call.

Now, I am all for writing your book solely for the sake of catharsis and self-expression. I think more people who are in a healing process should write about their experiences, as an act of self-empowerment. That said, writing for an audience that has its own needs is different from writing for yourself. Don’t confuse the two. Your needs and desires have value, but they are not always the same as a reader’s needs and desires.

Maybe you already are certain that you want to write a self-help book and weave your story, and other stories, into the book and use it as a sort of credibility card for your work but also as a key tool for your clients and followers. Maybe you feel strongly that a memoir is the best way to get your story out there and inspire and educate others.  If you’d rather not use real names, or you would like to explore what might have happened instead of just what did happen, you can think about turning your story into a novel. You can also consider writing a book of life lessons, with advice based on your story, and don’t offer any specific advice to readers.

If you’re struggling to conceptualize your book, here is how to get started.

* Write. Notice I didn’t say “write your book.” Some people free write until they reach hundreds of pages of material and there’s nothing wrong with doing that, but it’s easy to get attached to what you’ve written, and what’s on the page may not work as the basis of your book. Start small. Write a blog piece, a scene, or a chapter. Play around with it: Write it in first person, then second, then third. Write it as fiction or as a memoir, or as an anecdote illustrating a point, like you would find in a self-help book. Explore your story and your message from various angles to get a feel for how you want to tell it.

* Look at your goals. What audience would you like to reach, and why? What other types of books are they reading? Where do they hear about those books? Do they buy books based on advertisements, word-of-mouth recommendations, Facebook posts, bookstore displays–what is the main way of reaching them? Why do they trust the authors of those books? Are they drawn in by the power of the author’s personal story? Are they impressed by the author’s work as a therapist or coach? These are the kinds of questions that will help you to put yourself in the shoes of your potential reader and know how to write for that individual and how to get him or her to know about your book. You’ve thought about what you want to write. Now think about who wants to read it.

* Look at comparative books. Know what other books and information are out there. What is your fresh idea, take, or spin? If you know you want to write a self-help book on a particular topic, be aware that your idea probably isn’t completely unique but that’s okay. Give it your own take.

* Check in with your gut. Does it feel right to do a memoir, or even a novelization, of your story? Do you want to share life lessons, or give advice? Do you want to create exercises that will help the reader to learn what you learned, only in a more pleasant way? Get in touch with your instincts about the book you are meant to write–and think about whether you might be meant to write more than one book!

How do you get started writing your story?

* Consider collaborating or procuring a foreword. I knew I wanted to write a practical guide for parents whose children had sensory processing disorder because it was incredibly difficult to access that information back when my son who has SPD was two years old and newly diagnosed. There were NO practical books that could help me figure out how to brush his teeth or calm him when he was having a sudden tantrum. I teamed up with my son’s occupational therapist, who was not only treating him for SPD but who had also done some writing herself, to create Raising a Sensory Smart Child, a book that offered two valuable perspectives and appealed to parents and professionals. If you’re thinking you don’t have the right credentials to write your self-help book, find someone to team up with as a collaborator, or ask this person to write a valuable foreword for your book. I ended up with both a collaborator and a foreword writer with an important name in the special needs community (Temple Grandin).

* Start your outreach now. Begin building your author platform. Get a Facebook page and a blog if you’re going to create a memoir or a nonfiction book. If you want to write a novel, start writing regularly and working with a writer’s group to receive and give feedback and support (your fellow writers may well become your loyal readers!). If you’re blogging or on Facebook, ask your followers for feedback. Ask them questions to get them involved in a conversation, and respond to their answers. Encourage them to subscribe to your blog, like your page, and give you their email addresses so you can contact them in the future (you should offer a free gift, or a just a promise to send them information but never to sell their email address to anyone). Think about building a community of followers who talk among themselves and to you about your topic. These followers will not only buy your book when it’s ready, but they will also spread the word about the book or any other products or services you want to promote–not because you pay them but because they believe in you and your work and message. You can learn more details about starting to build your author platform on Facebook in my new eBook 25 Powerful Ways to Get Engagement on Facebook.

* Make a habit of learning a little more every week. Notice I didn’t say make this a goal: I said make this a habit! Every week, schedule time to learn more about your topic and your audience and more about using social media, creating webinars and teleseminars, marketing, doing workshops and lectures, and getting the word out about your work and your message. If you don’t make time to do it, you will become overwhelmed by all there is to learn once your book is actually written. Set some boundaries so you don’t get sucked in to using social media so often that you don’t get any writing done–it can be addictive!

* Talk to a book publishing consultant or developmental editor early on in the process. It can be invaluable to toss ideas around with a knowledgeable publishing insider. It’s energizing to have a clear picture of your overall strategy and clarity about what you can do write now to get started creating your book. If you are going to contact me, do give me some details about your book project and whether you’re leaning toward self-publishing or building your platform then aiming to get a book deal. We can schedule a brainstorming session and focus in on your brand, your plan, and your action steps for getting closer to your goal right now. Email me at Nancy at nancypeske dot com and check out the services page on my website, www.nancypeske.com.

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