Sadly I have seen smart and dedicated professionals spend months on a self-help book that fails to make a ripple. Usually, the culprit is one or more of the three following pitfalls. I don't want that to happen to you. So p-l-e-a-s- e don't fall down the same black hole.
(Things writers tell me.)
“I know I have a great idea but I’m afraid to get started. What if I won’t be able to actually capture it on paper?”
“I wrote 50 pages last week but I don’t know how to put it all together.”
“My manuscript is in a coma.”
Here’s the truth about most authors. They hate self promotion. It feels wrong. Most authors just want to tell their story, fiction or nonfiction. You start with an idea, an outline, or chapter.
Then you’re likely to have what seems like a reasonable thought: I’ll write my book and if it’s good, it will find an audience out there. You think this thought (just like I did) with surprising persistence even though at some point it occurs to you that no one can read or buy anybook unless they first know it exists.
“Pantser” or “Planner”?
Pantsers pile up the pages without rhyme or reason (yes, from the seat of their pants) then get overwhelmed when they try to organize them later.
Planners tend create an outline or eke out a chapter then get paralyzed because they’re afraid of trusting themselves to just get into the flow.
As an editor for Narrative Magazine and a book coach, Sally Wolfe has spent the last 9 years evaluating hundreds of manuscripts at every stage of development. This series of articles addresses the problems that plague story openings.
Of all the books you start to read, how many do you finish?
The overwhelming answer from literary agents and acquisition editors is: “None, in fact I don’t usually get past the first two pages before I toss the file.”
Why? The most common answer? I don’t care enough about what happens to the characters.
You’re already in love with your story but the reader isn’t.
You need to help your reader love your story from Word One.
Let’s take a look at the Big Three Author Blindspots guaranteed to kill your opening.
AUTHOR BLINDSPOT NO. 1
You as the author are steeped in your story.
Readers have a bigger job to do than you may realize. A reader starts out at zero, knowing nothing about your story. Since your reader has no information, they will have to acquire and hold all the information you give them just to follow the storyline. Names, places, dates, multiple characters and situations. Are you going to make it easy for them or hard?
If your reader can’t follow what’s happening,
they will lose interest and stop reading.
It’s as simple as that and GOLD for you to understand as a storyteller. It may change how you approach your story entirely.
AUTHOR BLINDSPOT NO. 2
Description does not a story make.
Of course there’s more to engaging your reader than just an easy-to-follow storyline. The second key factor is offering an intriguing dramatic situation. Here’s the opening of Girl in Between by Laekan Zea Kemp, currently a free
Kindle download on Amazon.
The tide surged, carving a crescent in the sand. Water collapsed against my knees, tearing the beach out from under my legs. But when the wave receded, the foam clung to something dark. Something long and still. I saw his face, lashes tangled over blue lids, his lips parted against the sand. The breeze rippled off his clothes, ocean peeling from his face and dripping onto my hands. I was steeled there, not sure if he was real, until I saw his eyes, a flash of his dark pupils. My hands trembled, afraid to move him, to wake him. I reached for a shoulder, pushing until he was on his back. He was the color a hydrangea before it blooms, wilting like one too, every inch of him sunken and bruised.
The description goes on like this for several more paragraphs. Why doesn’t this work? It’s well-written, poetic even. The author took obvious pains to craft a vivid, detailed description. But the description is NOT a story. It describes her bizarre encounter with a dead body, but there’s no story premise, no perspective about the impact this is having upon her protagonist.
What’s her situation? Is she a bride on her honeymoon who has fled to the beach after her first serious argument with her husband? Is she a detective on vacation, finally able to get away after she was exonerated for a “bad shoot”?
AUTHOR BLINDSPOT NO. 3
The reader will eventually figure out what the stakes
are for the characters.
What is your story about, actually? You have to clue in your reader Immediately. Pull them in with a strong premise that makes them want to know what is going to happen next. Action or description alone will not accomplish that.
Here’s the opening of the short story, Divorce.
The divorce was something she had wanted—and he had finally agreed to. He would sign whatever papers she gave him, he said off-handedly one night. He had to stop having the same maddening discussion. And yet, he couldn’t stop having it with himself: How was it that they could hold together during the surprise of the twins, the trying years of his residency—and only now—with the boys in school, Madeline back at the hospital, and a promotion with real money on the horizon, had everything fallen apart?
In this opening sentence and paragraph, the reader is presented with a strong impending dramatic situation. The problem and the story premise are clear. Curiosity and the beginning of empathy are established in the opening paragraph. Why is she divorcing him? What doesn’t he know and will he find out? Will it surprise him?
Do make your storyline clear.
Don’t over complicate by adding too many names, places, and events the reader will struggle to keep track of.
Don’t open your story with only description of the action.
Do tell us the story premise right away (why the reader should care).
This article identifies the catastrophe that befalls most stories and what to do about it.
Let’s start with the basics: Why are you writing your book?
You have a story to tell and it won’t go away. You have to tell it. Maybe you’re just getting started. Or you’re stuck in the middle somewhere. Maybe it’s your first draft, maybe it’s your tenth.
Whatever you struggle with, whatever you love or hate about writing, your biggest challenge is engaging your reader.
Ok, this is hard to admit but I think it’s important to acknowledge the ongoing pitfall of being a writer: We get knocked down and it's really hard to stand up again.
In fact, it’s hard to admit that we’ve fallen at all.
Self-help books continue to be a favorite of readers everywhere. People it seems never tire of asking for advice. To maximize your success, you might want to follow the conventions and expectations of publishers like Hay House and Workman, who have pretty much set the high bar. Accordingly, your successful self-help book must have the following seven elements well-developed:
We are all liars because we are afraid the truth isn’t good enough to stand on its own. And in a way, that’s true. Truth needs to be stripped to its essentials, to its naked power in order to touch us and alter us.
I believe that’s the real work of a writer. We do it for ourselves and those we have a message for.
How do we access the truth to tell our story (fiction or nonfiction)?
Intention works but rigidity does not; command does not. Sometimes we need to scream, sometimes to remain silent and feel the pressure of birth.
What does it mean to write from your core? What’s in it for you, as an author?
The short answer? It will help you write an inspired book and write it faster.
I was talking to a room of writers last week about the difference between the “everyday” mind and the “core” mind.
The everyday mind quickly scans the surface of reality—the way you’re probably scanning this article right now.
What does your TO DO list look like? Here's mine. Just kidding. But I related (and laughed) so hard at the cat's unchecked box I had to include it.
December inevitably adds activities and obligations (some fun, some not so fun) to our daily To Do list and we writers tend to get downright out of sorts. It’s already challenging enough to find time to write, but now chances are that work on your book will be pushed to a time period called the “New Year” where you will again renew your resolve.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Sometimes the most productive thing you can do for your book is to stop writing it.
Here are three common symptoms that signal it may be time to take a break and get a new perspective.
1) You have no energy or excitement anymore when you think about your book.
2) You’re not writing anything new. You keep revising the same section or chapter over and over.
3) You start to question the value of your idea or story.
"Most people…involve themselves with things and issues far from where their life actually blooms."
─Danin Katagiri, You Have to Say Something
If you are called to write a book, your life blooms in your writing. It’s the place where you bring everything: your dreams, your fears, your rage and your truth.
A recent survey of writers claimed overwhelmingly that lack of time was the biggest obstacle to writing their book.
My writing mentor told me once in the beginning of our relationship that the problem of not enough time—my complaint—was a problem of commitment. I sensed she was right but I resisted her reply. I wasn’t ready to face the fact that I might have a commitment problem.
So if you are feeling challenged to find time to write, that may be the place to look first.
A book that gets noticed, read, written about. A book that doesn’t get lost among the thousands of books that get published every year? A book that merits attention and gets it.
What’s the hardest question for an author to answer? “What is special and unique about my book?” It’s not because you don’t know. It’s because you aren’t connected deeply enough to your vision and purpose. Or maybe you lost touch with the flash of inspiration that was once so clear you thought you’d never lose it!
You know the feeling. The words come tumbling out, fast and sure, faster than you can write or type. You feel the passion and power of your voice. The rock-bottom certainty of your insights. The current is strong and it’s all making sense at last! However, there was something you didn't count on.
Writing the book you are destined to write and completing it is one of the most fulfilling adventures in life. Tap into your vision! This is a BIG BOOK. IT’S BIGGER THAN YOU. It holds the power to change lives.
Last year I made a resolution that I hoped would change my writing life. I decided to meet each moment with peace. Everywhere I turned-- blogs, books, Ted Talks--I was bombarded with the same message: Inner Harmony was a natural and effortless state out of which your work will flow with soul-satisfying ease. Did I want to join the club? Hell yeah.
Writing Your First Book is hell, as any author will tell you. It is also the most deeply satisfying Creative Act of a lifetime, making the hell (in my opinion) totally worth it. There are pitfalls you can avoid that will greatly lessen the intensity of the pain—starting with the demon of Compromise. Like most demons, the voice of compromise is seductive and smart, appearing as a friendly and beneficent being.