Performance anxiety in writing is a universal theme, as it is experienced by writers at every level of mastery and in every genre. While the expressions may vary from the "deer in the headlights" freeze, to avoidance, to cynicism and resignation, it all comes down to the same fundamental concerns–will the work will be “good enough?” and does writing make a difference?
To write a book that stands up to time, you'll want to take a little more time to write it.
By Robin Colucci
I’ve learned that to author a book is a whole lot more than spewing out ideas on to a page and slapping a cover on it. The path to authorship is a transformational one. You cannot author a salable book and be the same person when it’s published that you were when you started writing. The very act of writing it changes you.
Most people aren’t aware of this, so they feel blind-sided when their natural resistance to the change appears. Many panic and stop. Others settle for the ‘spew and slap’ model of writing and put out a book that makes them sound like everyone else. But if you go into it knowing that the process of authoring your book will alter who you are for good, you could see it as an exciting proposition.
It’s no accident that the title ‘author’ generates a sense of authority. Authors who make more money, have more clients, and get attention and accolades do not have those results just because they compiled a stack of papers with a bunch of words and their name on it, but because of the shift that occurred inside as they wrote it. To author a book that sells, you must own and accept that you are an authority. Bring forth your insight. Take your seat at the table. Stand in your power.
I know all of these ideas sound great, but probably feel about as comfortable as sliding into a wet wool suit—at first. But once you surrender to the idea that you are stepping up, you are willing to accept your mission, you are here to serve, and you are going to become an author no matter what, you can begin to feel at home inside of the discomfort and embrace it.
As a book development and writing coach, I’ve helped hundreds of people make that transformation, and I'm about to make it myself. I just sent the last revision of the final proofs for my book, How to Write a Book that Sells You, to my publisher today.
I didn't write it in a weekend. I didn't even write it in 90 days. But it has substance, and I'm proud of it.
This blog entry is an excerpt from a chapter in my book, How to Write a Book That Sells YOU, coming out Fall 2013.
In writing, every rule has been broken by an author who did it so well you may wonder if it should be a rule. Unfortunately, most writers fall into these holes unconsciously, and the work suffers. Overall, if you can avoid these pitfalls, or at least have the savvy to spot and correct most of them, you will enjoy quick and painless edits. One caveat: please note that none of these rules apply to dialog. Perfectly polished dialog sounds phony and stilted.
- Weak beginnings and endings: Don’t wait to build up to a sentence that will grab the reader’s attention. Come out with it upfront and early. Give your reader a reason to keep reading. Use a compelling opening statement to hook them in and keep them hanging on. Good techniques include: start with a personal story (or a client’s story), a bold statement, or a dangerous or odd situation. Novelists often use cliffhangers at the end of each chapter. You can apply this effectively to non-fiction as well as fiction. Provide an enticing thought that makes the reader want to go to the next one. Make the reader hate to put your book down.
- Verb-tense hopping and other inconsistencies: Writing affords many options. Present tense, past tense, first person narration, omniscient narrator, you can write OK or okay to mean “it’s cool,” and abbreviate United States with U.S. or US and be correct both ways. Just be consistent! Before the book goes to the editor, decide how you want to treat these style items and make sure you do it the same way each time.
- Clichés: Let’s throw caution to the wind, summon every ounce of courage we can muster, to look a gift horse in the mouth, and discover the light at the end of the tunnel as we brainstorm clichés. Good. Now go to your manuscript and take them out. Clichés indicate lazy writing. Come up with your own way to say it. If you must, you may include one or two clichés in your entire book―but it’s better you didn’t. However, I encourage you to sprinkle in a clever twist on a cliché where appropriate. For example: “Arriving late to meditation class, I went tip toeing through the devotees to claim the only remaining space at the front of the room.”
- Passive verbs: To be, or not to be. That is the question. Okay, so the greatest writer in history’s most famous line is made up entirely of passive verbs. Call it the exception that proves the rule. “To be” verbs, and any conjunction of “to be” (is, was, were, been, being, etc.) should be used with discretion. Why? Two reasons: passive and vague. For example: It is often the case that writers who use a lot of ‘to be’ verbs are coming across as remote and superior, and the reader is left confused and sleepy. See how the ‘to be’ verb distances both writer and reader from the sentence and makes reading hard work? Here’s the same information in a sentence without any conjunctions of the “to be” verb. Writers who use a lot of ‘to be’ verbs make it hard for the reader to stay awake or find the point.
- Pesky prepositions: Prepositional phrases can provide detail, clarity, and add color to your work. Unfortunately, including too many prepositional phrases can bog down your writing faster than parking a Porsche on quicksand will end a Sunday drive. To keep it moving, avoid the irrelevant and the redundant. Extraneous prepositional phrases slow the flow of ideas and wear out your reader while redundancy insults your reader’s intelligence. Examples:
- I like that one in particular. Do we need to say “in particular”? Try I like that one.
- In a manner of saying, yes. Try Yes.
- In the event of… Try If…
- I need for you to…Try I need you to…
- In other words…Try saying it clearly the first time.
- The CEO of the company. Trust that your reader can figure out the title CEO is intrinsic to having an affiliation with a company.
- Let’s try to do it differently in the future…when else would we do it differently? In the past? Try Let’s do it differently next time.
- General nouns: General nouns, such as there, that, and it, remind me of the blank tile in a Scrabble game. They fit with everything, but you don’t gain any points for using them. They do the job, sort of, but when you use them you are missing opportunities to engage your reader’s imagination and senses.
- It lasted an hour leaves the reader blank with no imagery.
- The rain lasted an hour is better, at least we know what “it” is. Two points for that one.
- The downpour lasted an hour. With this, we finally see something specific and clear. Give yourself ten points.
- Really, more, very: In speaking, we often use non-specific adjectives and adverbs such as really, more, and very for emphasis. In writing, these words can convey a wishy-washy vagueness that weakens the work. Why would you say “it’s really hot”? It’s either hot, or it’s not. If you feel tempted to add a qualifier, trust there’s a better verb or adjective you could find that would eliminate the need to say very, or any of its lame counterparts. For example: It’s very hot in here. Could be stated as, It’s sweltering or I’m burning up in here. Other similar words to hunt down and remove from your manuscript include: quite, actually, somewhat, usually, fairly, particularly, and a bit. Can you leave a few here and there? Sure. But most people exhibit extreme overuse of these words, so be ruthless. Cut them. Really.
- Verbal tics: Every writer has a tic. If you haven’t noticed it in others’ works, it’s because they have a good editor or some writing instructor has already beaten it out of them. By tic, I mean a word or phrase that you repeat over and over because your mind finds it pleasing. Examples of common tics, in addition to every one of the words listed in pitfall #7, are: awesome, suddenly, surprisingly, overwhelmed, keep in mind, in other words, in reality, and in fact. I tend to overuse certain words, and before I turn in my work for editing, I go on a hunt and destroy mission and take out most of them. You can do the same. Figure out your ‘tic’ and go through and delete most uses.
- Adverb Abuse: Adverb abuse is a terrible addiction that has ruined many a promising writing career. “Adverbs are a part of speech that changes the meaning or modifies any part of speech other than nouns.” (Wikipedia) While they have a use, adverbs too often become a crutch for writers who haven’t yet figured out the value of a Thesaurus. Think about it. If adverbs change the meaning of verbs and such, why not just pick a word that already has the meaning you want? For example: The directors were extremely happy! Try: The directors were ecstatic! That’s an easy one, because we can tell what the writer means by ‘extremely happy,’ but what if the adverb is so incredibly vague, we can’t tell? In those instances, look at the context of the rest of the sentence or paragraph to discern the essence of the meaning intended.
- Wordiness: Be concise. If the extra words add to the reader’s experience, leave them in. If not, they’ve got to go. Example: Keep in mind that if you initiated the call, it is proper etiquette for you to end the call. Be sure not to do it in an abrupt manner, as it may disappoint or annoy the caller, can be simplified down to: If you initiated the call, etiquette dictates that you end it―gracefully.
When writing non-fiction, don't skip or delay these 4 important steps to help you position your book for greater success. Do these before you write, or at least early in the process.
- Share the content—The notion that withholding information until the ‘big day’ when you publish will help make a bigger splash is dead wrong. Look at New York Times bestsellers Julie & Julia, The Four Hour Workweek, and Sh*t My Dad Says, the ideas in these books were blogged or tweeted well before they were bound and published. Sharing your content helps. Don’t hold back. You have nothing to gain by being the world’s best-kept secret. When people ask me, “When should I start promoting my book?” I always answer, “As soon as you commit to the idea.” Promote immediately.
- Develop the Book Idea into a Book Concept—an idea is a spark--a moment of inspiration and excitement. To develop an idea into a concept means you've got clarity about why you are writing the book, who it's for, and what makes it special. If you know these things going in, you will end up with a stronger, more relevant book.
- Choose a Sound Structure that Suits Your Style and Material— Pick one genre and rock it. Books that blend structures and styles are painful to read and hard to distinguish, thus impossible for buyers to find and enjoy. For example, if you write a memoir/how-to, people who enjoy reading memoir will be turned off by the "how-to" interruptions in the narrative, and people who want a "how-to" will be frustrated by all the backstory and wish you would get to the point. While a 'how-to' author should include some brief examples of their own personal experiences to back up their steps, this is not the same as writing an entire memoir as a chosen genre and then inserting little "how-to" steps throughout.
- Create an Outline—Winging it is no way to write a book. In my experience as an editor, I've seen that authors who write without an outline leave out crucial information, yet repeat other tidbits ad nauseam. Especially for experts writing non-fiction, do an outline to plot the flow of information. It’s impossible to teach effectively or make a point when then material is disorganized.
I hope this helps you kick off the new year's writing efforts with ease.
When people come to me frustrated and confused, it's often because in their quest to write a book, they did things out of order. Put the ol' chariot before the dragon as we say in Fairyland. Here are 3 common errors of order for you to consider. If you are fretting over any of these and your book isn't yet written, stop it. Leave them alone and write the dang book.
- Write the Introduction—Maybe because it’s the first thing to read when you open a book, I don’t know, but for some reason, novices tend to want to go straight to writing the book's introduction. In the order of writing content, this step should be dead last. You cannot properly introduce a book until you know it, and you cannot know it until it’s written. Ever try to describe today someone you won't meet until tomorrow? That's a head scratcher.
- Choose a book title and sub-title—similar to the introduction, a book’s title is likely to need adjusting once the book is done. Don't expect to finalize a title until you can see the book for what it is. This is why the publishing industry uses the term “working title.” You choose a temporary title for the book while you are working on it, but don’t settle on one until it’s finished. And never, ever let it distract you from writing. If the book never gets written, you'll never need the title, even if it's a clever one.
- Decide on a publishing route—With so many publishing options these days, all you need to know now is that you will complete the project and publish. As you develop the book, you also will be growing your career, and your desires and needs may change between now and when the book is ready to publish. It’s fine to have an inkling of which direction you want to go, but you don’t need to make a final decision until the manuscript is done.
Next post..3 Write a Book Steps Most put off that Should Be First
People who want to write a book often ask me about book length. How long, or how short should it be? The current trend is toward shorter books to match the shrinking attention span of an audience overwhelmed by information. A publisher is not inclined to publish a 600 page “how-to” opus from a first-time, unknown author. A good length for a non-fiction “how to” book is 45,000 to 65,000 words, or 180 to 280 pages in print. For a memoir or novel, 50,000 to 90,000 words is the sweet spot.
If you find yourself feeling limited by these ranges, here are some ideas to help you keep it brief without compromising on content.
Build a career: You can (and should) write more than one book in your lifetime. Think of your authoring aims long-term. Agents and editors hope for an on-going relationship with an author, not a one night stand. You are more attractive when you have a list of three to five follow up books you could write to go with the one you are writing.
Don’t try to say it all in one book: One of the most common mistakes I see first-time authors make is trying to share everything they know in one book. Not only does this confuse the reader, a book chock-full of general information is harder to market than a clear, simple book written to a well-targeted niche.
Look for opportunities to beak up the information: If you find yourself throwing in new tidbits every time you open the manuscript, take a step back and see what your book actually covers. Are there multiple themes that could be broken down and explored in more depth in future books? Usually, the answer is “yes.”
Make every word count: Unfortunately, most writers say in 100 words what could be said in 20, thus books are often heavy on fluff and light on content. Have your manuscript edited by a wordsmith who has mastered brevity.
I get asked all the time, "How do I sell more books?" when the real question ought to be, "How do I write a book that sells?" Authors are frustrated, of course. With over four million new titles published in 2010 alone, competition for readers is beyond staggering, it's epic. Many authors complain that despite their promotion efforts and expenses, book sales remain anemic. Unfortunately, in most cases they come to me after the fact, after the book is published. When it's too late. I can see quickly what went wrong.
To write a book that sells, you must sell the book in the writing. What I mean by that is your book must stand out. It must communicate a clear, tangible benefit to a specific audience. You cannot write a book with some vague, willy-nilly benefit to "everyone" and expect to become a bestseller.
Your book needs a bestseller title, a vital component in getting people's interest and helping them understand what's in the book that they want. Example, a made-up title: Divine Awakening toward Enlightenment and an Empowered Life is loaded with sweeping terms that most of us don't fully understand and points to the vague benefit of an "empowered life," whatever the heck that means. A book like this, I predict, would be chock full of platitudes and meditations with no particular reader in mind and no concrete solutions.
These days, you cannot overestimate how busy people's lives are, nor can you begin to imagine the amount of information they are asked to consume every day. No one has time to read a book unless they know upfront what they are going to get out of it.
So, if you want to write a book that sells, to start know 1) who your audience is and why they would read your book. 2) what you promise to deliver 3) go about delivering it as clearly as you can.
Last week, I did my first stand up comedy performance at the D-Note in Arvada, CO. Both nervous and excited, I stepped up to the mic and entered a world previously unknown where I got to be exposed, vulnerable, confident, uncertain, and most of all, present. What I love about comedy is its healing aspect. The way comedians help us see disowned parts of ourselves and, through laughter, come to own and accept who we are and how we feel.
Great comedians each have their own unique style, yet they all have one thing in common―they never fear their own shadow. In fact, the best comedians put their shadow side into the spotlight, holding it out for all to see.
"You know the hardest thing about having cerebral palsy and being a woman― it's plucking your eyebrows. That's how I originally got pierced ears."
~ Short and funny quote by Geri Jewell.
We all have aspects of ourselves that we feel the need to hide, things that have us feel ashamed, embarrassed, victimized, “less than”: a failed relationship, a physical handicap, an addiction, or a host of “mean” thoughts that, if known, would make us a “bad” person.
When we reject these aspects, we feel more safe but less alive. With parts of ourselves relegated to the shadow realm, we feel like imposters in our own life―half our true selves cast aside, unexpressed, and numb.
Comedians have made friends with their shadow, and the best comedians are in a full-blown love affair with the devil on their shoulder. They see their “dark side” and lovingly show it to us, laughing all the while, and then we see our own shadow and laugh too.
"Never play peekaboo with a child on a long plane trip. There's no end to the game. Finally I grabbed him by the bib and said, "Look, it's always gonna be me!" ~ Short Funny Quote by Rita Rudner.
This is the gift of humor. Laughter is a release, and not just a physical one. It is a release for the psyche. We are, at least temporarily, “off the hook.”
The comedian invites us to join him in a level of vulnerability and acceptance we rarely afford ourselves. Inside the vulnerability of showing off her “ugly” side, the comedian reminds us that we are not alone. And the saying, “one day, you’ll laugh at this” reminds us that nothing is funny without acceptance.
When we are caught up in the drama, the tragedy, the “wrongness” of the world, we take everything seriously. Sometimes, humor actually moves us into acceptance.
Humor allows us to let go of all our “shoulds” about the way the world should be, the way WE should be, and for that moment, we get to just BE. We can be in our messiness, our imperfection, our humanness, and not only enjoy it― we get to revel in it!
Exposing the shadow requires courage, exposing it with humor requires courage and love, which, perhaps, is why it is so healing and so valuable.
For a book to help your career, and be bestseller-worthy, it needs to solve a problem, answer a need, or provide a clear and present benefit to your target audience. Where your Book Concept meets the Market
These five questions look at where your book fits in the market, how other books compare to yours, and your unique position. When you answer these five questions thoroughly, it will do more than any other step to boost your confidence in your book and your material.
They are the same questions that a literary agent or a publisher would ask, so if you intend to be published by someone else, you will need to prepare compelling answers to get a book deal. Do this even if you plan to self-publish. Since the publisher is YOU, you probably want to make sure the publisher gets a good result for spending the publisher’s money.
Question 1: What’s the genre? What category is your book in? At the highest level, most books fall into one of three macro-genres: fiction (novels), mass market non-fiction (self-help, pop-culture, how to, and memoir) or reference (almanacs, cookbooks, travel guides, and textbooks). Most of the bestselling books written by experts are in one of these four sub-genres. How-to—teach the reader how to do something. Self-help—inspire, motivate, and aim to increase the reader's awareness. Pop culture—books that contain investigative, observational, and interpretive information about our culture, behavior, and our world. Narrative—i.e. storytelling. When written by experts, these books appear as fable, memoir, or an investigative piece or expose.
A book’s category describes the topic area that the book covers. Several genres can exist within a category. For example, in the Business category, you can find a self-help book like Steven Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a how-to book like Eric Reis’s The Lean Startup, and an investigative narrative like Michael Lewis’s, The Big Short.
Question 2: How does your book compare to other similar books in the market? Every time I introduce this question, someone becomes concerned that looking at this will deflate their confidence. Not so. In fact, it’s just the opposite. When you take a close look at the other books in your category, you can see clearly what makes yours unique, and thus why it’s so important that you write it. If you do not find that your book concept is unique, it’s a BIG hint to go back to the first five questions and create one that is. Go to Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com and your local bookstores to look and see what else is out there and how your book compares.
Question 3: What makes yours unique? Before you commit fully to your book concept, run one last test. This test is a “make or break” kind of marker, for if you have any ambitions of writing a bestseller, your concept must pass. If you want your book to enhance your image and raise your status to THE expert on your subject, you must be able to complete the following sentence, “This is the first book ever to…” and make sure it's a topic people find interesting. I borrowed this idea from Michael Larsen author of How to Write a Book Proposal. If you can’t fill in that blank, if it’s not the first book ever, why write it? As Larsen so deftly pointed out, who in the world wants to read the second book ever? No one, that’s who!
Question 4: Why are you the best/only person to write it? Your voice is essential, and there can be no substitute. If you believe that anyone else could author your book and do even half the job, it’s time to go back to the beginning and revisit the whole concept. Your unique signature book that the world wants and needs is inside of you. Don’t stop looking until you find it.
Question 5: What is missing that the market wants and your book brings? You now see your unique book concept that only you can write. Go a step further and discover what in your message brings the most value to your audience. What does your target market need, want, desire most that all the other books fail to address? What did they all miss? What did they all leave out that you plan to (or could decide to) include?
You’ll know you are ready for the next step when your book idea has grown into a concept that brings value to your audience, communicates a clear benefit, shares something new and unique that only you can deliver. Congratulations! You’re the #1 Expert!
Most first-time authors make the mistake of leaping from book idea to writing and self-publishing it without even considering the concept until after the fact―when book sales are lousy and they can’t even get their mother to read it. In my opinion, this is the number one reason why 80% of all books published sell fewer than 100 copies a year (Nielsen, 2004). The best way to ensure that this does not happen to you is to figure out your book’s concept first―before you get to writing it. Your first question in all this might be “What’s the big deal? Isn’t a book concept the same as a book idea?” I can see how you might think that, but the answer is an unequivocal no.
A book idea comes in a bright and shiny flash of “Oooh! This would make a great book!” It’s exciting, and it’s also untested, so without further development, it is likely to lead to a dead end.
A book concept emerges out of a structured inquiry where you ask and answer ten specific questions about yourself, your book idea, your business, the market, and the results you want.
The first five questions
The first five questions focus on the internal relationship between you and your book. The last five focus on the external relationship between your book and the market. In this post, we will focus on the first five, and I will introduce the last five in another post on a later date.
These five questions will help you develop the book concept that feels authentic to you, supports your aims, connects to your audience and will make a difference in the world. They are:
- Why you are writing this book?—this question covers what I call Your Personal Why, what do you want your book to do for your career? It may seem obvious, but in my experience, most first-time authors don’t think this one through. They know what they want the book to do for others, but haven’t considered what it can do to help them achieve their own goals. Your goals for your book and the role it will play in your business and your life will determine the best focus for the book and the best course of action from the get-go, so it’s important that you consider this and get clear NOW, before you write it.
- What is the book about? What is the central idea? The main take-away? A viable book concept is focused. Rather than make the mistake of trying to cover too much in one book, answering this question will help you zero in on a clear, marketable concept that connects to a specific audience.
- Who will read it?—here you will dissect the psychological traits of your audience, identify their demographics, and calculate how many potential readers there are for your work.
- Why they will read it? Today, everyone is busy, so a book concept that will sell has clearly defined the benefits for those who read it.
- What difference do you want it to make in the world? I call this Your Big Why—the reason that’s bigger than you and your needs and wants. When you answer this, you will find out where writing your book becomes an act of service and a source of personal fulfillment.
I like things spicy--spicy foods, spicy people, and especially spicy writing! Bland is boring.
Novelists, limited only by their imaginations, can add as much spice and color as they like, but what about the non-fiction writer? Can you tell a story with some kick to it, even though you're bound by the facts?
I say, yes! And here are some pointers to help you.
Just because it’s true doesn't mean it has to be boring. If you intend to write non-fiction narrative, be sure you are telling a story, not just reporting events. Don’t make the mistake of believing just because your story is true that it has to start at the beginning or follow chronology. Non-fiction that reads like fiction is fun and engaging. When you tell your story, make it a romp, not just reporting.
When I was a newspaper reporter, I always looked for the most compelling, engaging fact of the story and opened with that. I never began a story based on what happened first, but on what was most significant. Significance can mean a lot of things: importance, emotion, impact, anything that is likely to engage the reader and make them want to read more.
Open with a bang: Some writers grab us by opening at a compelling point in the middle and then flip all the way back to where the story begins. Maybe instead of beginning your narrative at the beginning, you open with a dramatic event, an intense moment, something that lets the reader know this story is going to be interesting.
Surprise: What information can you hold back and introduce at a strategic moment? How can you create “ah-ha!” moments? What information might you have known all along in the “real life” version, but you can withhold and reveal to the reader later to surprise or shock?
Significance: As I said before, write about the key elements, don’t feel like you have to share all the events just because they happened. Include only events and details that are essential to the readers’ understanding and moving the story to its conclusion. Think in terms of "plot points" or events in the story where change occurs, either in character or direction.
Create suspense: Are there events in the story that could have gone either way? Can you make readers wait, compel them to read further to see what actually happened? While a great strategy, it only works if you can make them care. Which brings me to my final tip for today.
Reveal character: More than events, it’s the characters that make stories interesting. Lucky for you, in non-fiction narrative, the characters are real people, so you don’t have to make them up. On the other hand, you do have to be observant and, most important, notice things about them that are interesting–quirky, external behaviors and features that reveal the person within as well as their deeper motivations.
Make it exciting, engaging, devastating, fun, heart-warming, heart-wrenching, whatever it needs to be, but never be boring.