Category Archives: writing advice

Young Woman Writes To Black Diary

The Four Questions to Ask Your Nonfiction Book (They’re Good For Fiction, Too)

The Four Questions to Ask Your Nonfiction Book
(They’re Good For Fiction, Too)

Many first-time authors come to me with a book idea or a book started, and they’re not sure how to proceed. The question they often ask first is, “How should I tell this story? What’s the best way to tell this story?”

Young Woman Writes To Black Diary

Consider these four questions as your write your next book. Image courtesy of Big Stock. Some rights reserved.

Writers of fiction can often get away with starting a story they don’t know well, or where they plan to go with it. Indeed, it’s a hallmark of fiction writers that they are captivated by a character or scene, or perhaps even line of dialogue—and then they write. Dear nonfiction authors, this modus operandi is dangerous for you.

The fact is, there are many ways to tell a story, even factual ones, where you think all you’re doing is sharing information. How you tell that story depends on many details. I could give you a laundry list of questions, but the most useful place to start is with four key big-picture questions that no author should avoid.

Ask yourself these questions as you get ready to write. Continue asking yourself these questions throughout the writing process. As I’ve mentioned before, book concepts change and evolve, and you need to stay on top of these changes.

The 4 Big Structure Questions:

  • What is my book about?
  • Who am I talking to?
  • Why do they want to read this book?
  • Why am I writing this book?

Oh, and fiction writers: these questions are for you, too.

What is my book about?

The Captain Obvious question. What is your topic?

Get as specific as you possibly can. Are you writing a book about dogs? As you know, there are a lot of books about dogs. Drill down further—perhaps you’re writing about a specific breed, or about canine health, or about end-of-life choices, and so on. What might help is to think: if we were going to make a radio spot for your book topic, how would you talk about it?

Who am I talking to?

Ah yes, the audience. We should never forget that you have readers.

A dog book for children will be different than one for adults—or for veterinarians or animal trainers. As with your topic, be specific. If you’re talking to veterinarians, do they face a particular set of issues from dogs (or this breed of dogs)? If you’re talking to kids, how old are they? Are they afraid of dogs or do they love them?

Why do they want to read this book?

This question is SUPER important. Why your readers want to read this book might be very different from why YOU think they want to read this book…or why you think they should.

Turn your topic around and look at it from a reader perspective. Why are you interested in reading about this topic? What information or what perspective are you looking for? You can also do market research. What are readers of your genre and topic interested in? What questions they are asking?

Beyond topic, your audience may want to read your book because of your particular style or voice. If you’re witty and funny, or you write well about deep and difficult emotions, that’s another reason they may choose to pick up your book. Think about your book’s voice and style.

Why am I writing this book?

Let’s never forget there is a reason (or many) you are writing this book. What do you want out of it? What does success look like for you? Indie authors as well as traditionally published authors need to think about this. Is your goal to build your business? Develop a speaking career? Reach out to a specific audience? Are you driven to make this book a bestseller? Do you want to be invited to a TEDx event?

In order for your book to work, you need to marry your why as an author, with your audience’s why as readers.

Questions for fiction writers

Fiction writers should not skip this exercise. Although you have more leeway on when you need the answers, these four questions are critical for you also. If you don’t know who you’re talking to, why they would want to read your book or why you’re writing in the first place, your manuscript runs the risk of languishing in a desk drawer or its digital equivalent for a very long time.

The bottom line

Ask these questions more than once. If you find your answers change, use this information. Play detective. Ask yourself whether you like the new direction or you are going off course. Use these four questions and you’ll finish your book on message and on target—and you’ll feel less frazzled and more in control while you write.

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Have Fun While Writing Your Book—You’ll Be More Successful

Have Fun While Writing Your Book–You’ll Be More Successful

colorful picture of boardwalk storefronts with sign saying fun zone

Not what everyone thinks about while writing their book. CC image “fun zone” courtesy of Sandy Schultz on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Some folks consider writing a book a chore. After working on the manuscript for several months (or years), unfortunately, it can start to feel this way, including for those of us who begin with enthusiasm. You may wonder if all you’ve got is one long, dreary task list to plow through.

Finishing a book definitely takes work, no doubt about it. But if we’re going to spend so much time on this project, I want to make sure the process isn’t unrelieved misery. Let’s explore a few ways we can keep the fun in our writing process.

Find reasons to celebrate

Sounds obvious, right? How often do you do that, though? My bet: you’re waiting to celebrate until you’re “finished.”

Wrong idea.

What does “finished” mean? When you finish writing the first draft? When you finish revising? Going through the book with your editor? When the book is published?

Pick smaller milestones. Much smaller. Smaller still.

Celebrate when you complete your daily writing goal. Celebrate when you nailed that character description. Celebrate when you develop your outline. Celebrate choosing a title (even a working title). Celebrate when you wrote something—anything—no matter how awful, on a day when you wanted to write nothing at all.

Your celebrations can take many forms. A happy dance around your house. Dinner with friends. A Netflix mini-binge. A coloring book (children not required).

You spend a lot of time acting as your own worst critic. Time to be your number one fan, as well.

Treat writing as playtime

If you’ve seen my other posts, some of these suggestions should ring familiar. Some people write best when they sit down at a clean desk with their laptop in front of them—all business. After a few months/years, though…

Even if this comfortable writer is you, I encourage you to experiment.

  1. Write by hand.
  2. Use a “nonstandard” writing tool: pencil (graphite or colored), crayon, marker, fancy ink, the list goes on.
  3. Buy a roll of butcher paper, spread it out and tape it down to a surface, and write all over this, in the tool of your choosing. You can tape it to a wall, wrap your kitchen table with it, or if you have a hardwood floor, tape it on the floor so you can walk all over it. If you’re going to use a marker or pen that may saturate through, tape down several layers. Butcher paper is super affordable (your gorgeous floor or table, perhaps not so much).
  4. Every so often, write in a different location. I know I encourage you to make daily writing a habit as much as possible, and a predictable routine is part of that. Sometimes, though, you need to change it up. Even if the change is as small as another room in your house.
  5. Like hats? Get a couple of fun ones: your writing hat, your thinking cap, your editorial hat. Switch it up while you work.

Schedule writing “vacations”

All of us need a break from work now and then. That’s why there are weekends, and vacations (I personally know quite a few people who bring their work with them into these timeframes, which defeats the purpose, by the way). Set up writing holidays the same way (and treat them better than my workaholic friends).

Are you great at writing in sprints? Stretches of time where you do nothing else? Schedule a sprint, followed by some time off where you are not allowed to write.

Do you excel at the slow and steady? A little bit of the book at a time, all routine? Pick a predictable interval to schedule a non-writing interlude. Is it once a month? Every other month? Maybe you only need a few days to recharge, or a whole week or two sounds good.

Whatever method you choose, schedule the time off—and the time back on. That way, you can holiday guilt-free, because you know you are doing the work. And you can work knowing that your next break is just around the corner.

The bottom line

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Find ways to insert fun into the writing process, take breaks, and above all, celebrate every step you take. The road can be long. Let’s enjoy the trip.

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Subscribe to the monthly newsletter and get all future blog posts delivered to your inbox. You’ll also receive instant access to the Checklist for Self-Publishing Writers:

  • Learn how different kinds of editing can improve your book
  • See what your manuscript needs to get to the next level
  • Get tips on how to find the editor that’s right for you

Sign up today!

Why Word Count is One of the Best Tools in Your Writing Toolbox

Why Word Count is One of the Best Tools in Your Writing Toolbox

woman in exercise clothing doing a pushup

Word count–the workout your book needs. CC image “62” courtesy of Fit Approach on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Writing is a lot like exercise. Most of us like the end result more than the process of getting there.

We like being strong, healthy, feeling good about our weight. We don’t like going for a run, or taking the time to go to the gym, or changing how we eat.

Likewise, we like holding the book we wrote in our hands, the feeling of accomplishment, the glow of success and recognition. We dislike editing, revision, and sitting down to write when we absolutely, 100%, do not feel inspired to do so. In fact, more writers clean their bathrooms as a way to avoid writing than you could ever imagine.

The fact is, though, that we need to write, in order to have written. The best way to do this is through regular writing practice, and one of the best ways to adopt a regular writing practice is to set word count goals. Continue reading

The End Makes the Best Beginning

The End Makes the Best Beginning

boy crossing race finish line with his arms in the air to celebrate

The End! CC image “Mike to Mike Half Marathon” courtesy of Fort Bragg on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Most of your readers will start reading your book at the beginning. That doesn’t mean you should start writing there.

The beginnings of books are notoriously tough to pin down. So much rides on those first pages, even the first sentences. Continue reading

Creating a Book Outline—a Flexible Structure that Works for You

Creating a Book Outline—a Flexible Structure that Works for You

closeup of outline or mind map diagram

CC image “mind map” courtesy of madstreetz on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Little divides writers as much as whether they should write a book outline or not. These two big categories are the pantsers, and the planners.

The planners, as you might expect, begin with a plan. They decide what they are going to write about, in what order the story should unfold, the main points they want to hit, and they typically create a detailed outline. Then, they write according to this plan.

Pantsers discover the story and the book as they go. Though they typically start out with an idea of what they want—the beginning and ending are common anchors—they don’t know, as they begin, how they’re going to get to the end. They “fly by the seat of their pants.”

Planners think of pantsers as disorganized and chaotic, and pantsers think of planners as rigid and unimaginative. Both these assessments are true and false in equal measure. Continue reading

Writing About Real People: Making sure they don’t hate you or sue you after you publish

Writing About Real People: Making sure they don’t hate you or sue you after you publish

old word processing keyboard with Ooops button. writing mistakes

You don’t want to feel this way about your story. CC image “Oops.” courtesy of Marcin Wichary on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Writers of all stripes constantly draw from real life. Nonfiction and memoir material obviously depend on real people, and even fictional characters are drawn from what we know and have experienced. The question is: How much “real” information can we include in our work? Is there a limit, and if so, where is it? Can we use real names? What is OK to say, and how can we be both respectful and legally safe while maintaining truth and honesty in our work?

Not everyone is happy to find themselves portrayed in a book. Our writing has real-world consequences, some of them less pleasant than an uncomfortable holiday meal after we’ve aired our family’s dirty laundry to the world. There may be legal ramifications. Below I discuss best practices for writing about real people and factual events.

Note, this post is meant as a guideline ONLY. I am not a legal professional and in no way does the following constitute legal advice. Also, this article is not about journalism or journalistic ethics and obligations. If you have a question, please consult a legal professional.

Real-world effects of writing about real people

Negative fallout from telling real stories falls into one of two categories: people who never speak to us again, and people who sue us. Both of these are frightening for different reasons, although people who sue us can have a vastly broader impact on our lives.

And negative fallout typically comes because we share less-than-flattering stories. Let’s face it: if we’re being outrageously complimentary, who’s going to object to that? Legally speaking, compliments are a non-issue, while real or perceived insults need our more careful attention.

If you’re wondering whether you might face difficulties when you talk about real people, ask yourself these questions:

  • Can your portrayal be seen as unfavorable or slanderous?
  • Are you lying or being “malicious”?
  • Can the characters be readily identified by name or other characteristics?

Writing that is respectful and legally safe

Sometimes unhappy stories are the reason for your work in the first place. If you’re writing a memoir about overcoming a tough chapter from your life, that tough story is probably necessary. In nonfiction, real-life examples are important. If you’re writing fiction, your characters need to grow, change, and face obstacles, otherwise there is no book—and real experiences are great sources of fictional narrative.

In all cases, you need to maintain truth and honesty. However, this doesn’t mean you need to drag a specific person through the mud. Be respectful—even if you feel certain people don’t deserve it.

Think about the larger ramifications of what you’re sharing: what serves the story you want to tell? Do you need to identify your boss Jim by name, description, and personal habits? Or do you need to convey how his behavior affected you personally?

Strategies for how to write about real people in your book

Some writers are so concerned about reactions to their book that they wait until the affected people die before publishing. This is one way to avoid offending anyone and having them sue you, but it doesn’t suit everyone and I encourage you to explore other options.

Get permission.

This is the simplest way to include real information about real people. Get written permission from them to use it. Now, you may argue that this isn’t necessarily easy, but easy and simple are two different things.

Change the character name and other identifying characteristics.

You probably don’t want to name your awful character after your boss Jim. Re-naming your characters (whether real or fictional) is an obvious first step. Since we can identify people by more than names, make sure you also change other details, such as physical characteristics, habits, personal interests and hobbies, and so on.

Here’s where being honest to the story comes in. Fiction writers may have an easier time with this concept than nonfiction writers. Say Jim is obsessive: great, do we need him to obsess about baseball scores, the way live Jim does? How about making him a fiend for a perfectly mowed lawn?

Create composite characters.

Use professional back story from one person, the obsessive personality traits from another, a love of gardenias from a third, and so on. Jim could be a lawn-mowing-obsessed female mathematician. You get the idea. Use multiple real-life figures so that the new composite doesn’t match any one person. You can be faithful to the character’s agency in the story without insulting someone you hope to have Thanksgiving dinner with, or inspiring an erstwhile colleague to drag you to court.

The bottom line

Best practices to keep yourself safe and respectful, while staying true to the story that you need to tell, include asking yourself how unflattering your portraits are, how recognizable your characters are (or need to be), and whether you are making your characters ugly and stupid out of spite. Ask yourself: what serves the story? Get permission to speak about people if you can, and respect their privacy by changing identifying details that are not relevant to the lesson or insight that you want to share.

The legal ramifications of talking about real people in your book can be more complicated than you think. When in doubt, please do seek professional advice.

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What are some of your concerns when you write about real people?

Books to Inspire Writers

Books to Inspire Writers

word map using inspiration and related terms

CC image “Inspiration” courtesy of photosteve101 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

During this week when the word “love” is in the air—for all kinds of reasons, some of them commerce, I mean, Hallmark—I played on social media with the theme “book love.” I even used that hashtag (#booklove) on Twitter.

Now, Seth Godin I am not, though the idea got me thinking. None of us works in a void. As writers, we are inspired and guided by what we read. Writing well means reading. Some of what we read may be didactic—The Elements of Style, for example, or, in my case, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss. Most of what inspires us does so because of what it is: good writing, a good story, characters we can’t let go of, the voice of an author that we recognize and admire.

In keeping with the spirit of #booklove, below are starting points for writing reference and inspiration. Honestly, this list is individual to me, and could go on forever. My hope is you’ll see a little of what you are looking for, when you write. Continue reading

statue of a woman holding her head

Why the Developmental Edit is One of the Hardest Things You’ll Ever Do

Why the Developmental Edit is One of the Hardest Things You’ll Ever Do

statue of a woman holding her head

All this editing makes my head hurt. CC image “headache” courtesy of threephin on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Friends, I’d like to address a difficult and emotional topic: the developmental edit.

You’ve sent your manuscript off to your editor for developmental work. You’ve completed a draft! The world is a beautiful place, filled with hope. Rainbows, puppies, and kittens are everywhere. You buy everyone dinner.

Then:

Your editor returns your draft manuscript filled with comments, cross-outs, lines pointing everywhere; or they’ve rearranged the content for you, and nothing looks like it did. There are questions, so many questions! You think about the pristine draft you sent out and realize now that it’s obviously defective and awful. You spend a week hiding in a dark room, blinds drawn, listening to sad music or watching Dead Poets Society on repeat.

A developmental edit is as necessary as it is painful

The best and worst part of a developmental edit is how radically it can change your book. Continue reading

closeup of typwriter writing word Feedback

Your book’s fresh start: How to ask for great feedback

Your book’s fresh start: How to ask for great feedback

The difference between dud and dazzle

closeup of typwriter writing word Feedback

CC image “Feedback” courtesy of Dennis Skley on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

New beginnings! Why is it we only think of them when we have spare time?

Truly. Ask anyone who has had to work over the end-of-year holidays: have they sat down to have a luxurious talk with themselves about the year past and the year to come? Probably not. What about that problem you’ve been trying to solve for months: how often did you solve it in the shower—when you weren’t thinking about anything else? My bet is: often.

When we’re in the middle of a situation, we often don’t see it for what it is. The same goes for that book we’re writing.

As you write your book, eventually you give in to the temptation to go back to the beginning, and “fix” it. Unfortunately, after you tweak one paragraph, you need to fix the next one, and the next… By the time you get to where you need to add new material, a lot of time has gone by, you’re tired, and you don’t produce much.

The more you play this game, the more likely you are to question any writing choices you make. Maybe the first way you said it was better? You can’t stop second-guessing yourself. Continue reading