Category Archives: writing

graffiti-style picture of Wile E. Coyote holding a question mark sign

How Long Should My Book Be?

How Long Should My Book Be?

graffiti-style picture of Wile E. Coyote holding a question mark sign

Can you help me with my book? CC image “questions” courtesy of Daniel Novta on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ah, the twenty million dollar question. Everyone has an opinion. Perhaps you’ve seen what someone else called a “book” that you thought fell short of that title—so short, in fact, “pamphlet” might have been a better term. I’ve had clients roll their eyes at such publications (and in all fairness, I sometimes have, as well). Perhaps you are a goal-oriented writer, and a firm target tickles your fancy. And perhaps you’re a reader who is simply curious. How long should books be?

Write what needs to be written

The true answer, and the annoying one, is that books should be as long as they need to be. Sorry, objective rule-based folks.

With certain exceptions, figuring out how many words you want to write before you write them puts the cart before the horse. A more constructive approach is to ask yourself what the story needs. Continue reading

Move Beyond “Potential”: Make Your Indie Book Shine

Move Beyond “Potential”: Make Your Indie Book Shine

yellow background with a line drawing of a person inside a huge T shirt that reads "potential"

Does your book have a shape or only potential? CC image “potential” courtesy of yukky.u on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I wince a little inside when I hear someone describe a self-published book as having “potential.” At the same time, I feel a small piece of acknowledgment—because not every author sticks with the project through the final, frustrating revisions that would make the book truly excellent.

In my work, I’m privileged to read a lot of books. Design elements aside, the one element that bugs me about many indie books is the short shrift given to the editorial process. If you’re a reader of this blog, you’ll have heard me say this before: EVERY good author works with an editor; no one comes out of the gate with a first draft that is as beautiful as what you see in the finished work. If [insert name of your favorite author] needs to go through revisions and editing, don’t you think you should give it a try?

When you self-publish, you get to call the shots. That’s both the blessing and the curse of the model. I love that authors get creative control with independent publishing. Unfortunately, some authors use this control to veto work that would be good for their book. So, how do you know when your book might need more work? Below are a few clues.

Clues your book needs more editorial work

1. Have you finished writing your manuscript, and then gone back and re-read the whole thing, from beginning to end?

You haven’t? What are you waiting for?

I promise you, your story has logical gaps, discontinuities, and/or repetitions. If you haven’t re-read your entire manuscript, you are making a huge mistake, period.

2. Do you have title/subtitle ideas?

While you’re working on a first draft, it’s perfectly natural to have only a working title for your book—you might call it “My book.” You’re figuring things out. However, beyond the first draft, you should be getting other ideas. If you don’t, this is a sign you probably need to work more on your manuscript. Writing and revising will provide ideas.

3. Have you read your last chapter as often as your first?

Writers have a tendency to spend a lot of time with Chapter One. And the beginning of your book is important. But, newsflash: so is the end of your book. The end is what your readers will remember—assuming they read all the way through. If you haven’t paid attention to the end of your book, you’re not ready to publish.

4. Have you read your “middle” more than once?

Some of you are now thinking, “OK, this now makes EVERY part of the book an ‘important part.’” Yes, yes it does. Did you see #1 above?

Those readers who get to the end? They have to make it through the middle of the book. The reason I call out the middle by name is that writers give it even less attention than book endings, and by far less than beginnings. For this reason, it’s earned the name “muddy middle” in the writing world. Your book can get flabby around the middle—just like we can. Have you spent time working it out?

5. Did you make any big changes in your story/topic while writing was in progress?

I guarantee you will want a complete re-read of your manuscript, if you have. Skip this step, and you’ll hand your editor—or, so help us, your designer—a hot mess.

6. Are you clear on your audience?

If you can’t picture one specific person (not your mother) reading your book, stop and take a minute. You should not—I repeat should NOT—publish without this knowledge.

7. Are you sick of reading your manuscript, or only sick of writing it?

I get it. First drafts are hard. Most of us don’t want to look at the darn thing anymore, after we finish what we think is “The End.” That’s not the same as reading your manuscript a lot. By this I mean, you’ve taken a break after you reached The End; you’ve read either a hard copy or you’ve refrained from beginning to edit as you read; and you’ve done #1 more than once.

Being done writing is not the same as being done revising. You better be sick of revising before you publish.

8. Your editor hesitates AT ALL when you ask whether your book is ready for the next phase.

MAJOR red flag.

9. Your designer asks you, “Has this been edited?”

See number 8.

10. The people who read your manuscript say, “It’s promising.”

Ugh! This is like saying something is “interesting.” It means it’s not finished and they don’t know how to tell you.

The bottom line

If you at all wonder whether your book needs additional work, chances are yes, it does. Even after many revisions. This is your opportunity to ask an expert for their assessment.

Be careful to not let your enthusiasm and impatience for getting the wretched project out of your hair lead you to pull the plug too early on writing and editing. I love seeing manuscripts with potential. But published books should achieve that potential. Get out of the B leagues—do the work.

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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

Be True to Your Book All the Way Through

Be True to Your Book All the Way Through

boy wearing goggles and cape like a superhero costume

Great things can happen when you own your narrative voice. CC image “consumer confidence!” courtesy of Chris & Karen Highland on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

“One day you’ll see,” he said with a wink. “And remember. Always have everything you say exquisitely annotated, and, where possible, provide staggering Visual Aids, because, trust me, there will always be some clown sitting in the back—somewhere by the radiator—who will raise his fat, flipperlike hand and complain, ‘No, no, you’ve got it all wrong.’”

This is how we meet Marisha Pessl’s unusual and wonderful narrator, Blue van Meer, and Blue’s father, in Special Topics in Calamity Physics. The instant we begin, we are caught up in her voice, her way of thinking, and the rhythm of her story. Whether she appeals to you immediately, the way she did me, or not, you can’t mistake her for anyone else.

Blue is different from the stereotypical teenage girl in so many ways that the only way to tell her story is to absolutely, 100 percent own her way of seeing. This is also what you must do for any book that you write, whatever the genre and whatever the perspective.

You need to own the voice, the tone, and 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

The Money Issue: Creating a Book Budget

The Money Issue: Creating a Book Budget

Scrabble word BUDGET is a key for indie book publishing

Key to any book publishing, indie or otherwise. CC image “Budget” courtesy of airpix on Flickr and stubblepatrol.com. Some rights reserved.

Books don’t come free. In addition to your blood, sweat, and tears (am I being melodramatic?), you need to have a plan in place to conquer the hard financial costs that are part and parcel of publishing. Like any other business, your book has operating expenses, and it deserves a budget. Continue reading

black and white shot of audience from stage

Why does anyone care what you write?

Why does anyone care what you write?

How to not lose an audience

black and white shot of audience from stage

CC image “Audience @ LeWeb 11 Les Docks-9308” courtesy of OFFICIAL LEWEB PHOTOS on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The single most heinous crime you can commit as an author—and the one most likely to lose you readership—is to make the whole story about you, and you alone, and to forget your readers.

But wait, you say. What if I’m writing a memoir, or a book that builds on my own personal experience? Surely that’s about me!

Not so. Your memoir or the details of your experience are interesting to your readers because of how it relates to their lives and experiences. Your readers care about what your book offers to them. You are purely incidental. Unless you are Michelle Obama, no one cares.

Be the reader

Think about yourself. What’s the first question you ask yourself when you think about whether you want to read a book?

Is this interesting?

When you read a book, you answer the question in the affirmative. If you skip it, the answer is no. Now ask yourself:

Why is it interesting?
What makes this book interesting?

This is the key to your audience.

Write down the titles of the last three books you read. Below the title, write what made that book interesting to you. Maybe you love books that make the technical accessible; you love books that inspire; you love books with actionable information; you love books with great characters; you love books that create alternate worlds you can lose yourself in.

Books are about the reader first. This is usually obvious to all of us whenever we’re reading a book…and we often forget it when we write one.

Don’t forget your audience

You the writer love what you are writing about. Whether your book is about sea urchins or is a fantasy novel, you’re mostly thinking about yourself. It’s easy, while you are writing, to get caught up in the story and forget those other people, your readers.

I see this happen a lot in early in early drafts. This is normal and perfectly fine—as long as we fix it before going to press. The most common ways writers forget their audiences are:

Nonfiction: while telling an anecdote or giving an example to illustrate a point, the writer keeps adding awesome details, and five or maybe ten pages later finally runs out of ways to express how cool s/he found all of this information.

Fiction: in writing a scene, the writer discovers that a secondary character’s backstory needs fifteen pages of manuscript space, or gets lost in a love poem describing the setting, where we have no paragraph breaks for several pages.

This is where the editor comes in and asks you why it’s all there. This is code for, “Why would the reader find this interesting/need to know this information, at this particular point in time, or in this way?”

After you finish an early draft, turn around to look at your audience. Bring the focus back to the reader. What are they going to do with this information? How would they relate to it? What questions would they have?

In nonfiction, you can directly ask your audience questions. That’s one way of turning to look at them. In fiction, generally we need to be more subtle. Does what we wrote make sense only in our heads? We may need beta readers to give us feedback.

The good news is, you can use your “whys” as a reader to help you build a wonderful book as a writer. Go back to the lists I had you make on the last three books you read. If you were to put together a list of whys for the readers of your book, what would that look like? What do you want your readers to say?

The bottom line

No matter how autobiographical your story is, your book is never about you in the way you think. If it was, you could keep a diary and be done with it. Why are you publishing?

This is a very, very important point from an editorial perspective. Readers, like all other humans, appreciate when we pay attention to them. If the story was clearly written for you the author and it’s an accident that other readers stumble into your monologue, how long do you think they’ll stick around? Treat them with respect. Build your book for them, as well as for yourself.

You may need to stop writing to finish your book

You may need to stop writing to finish your book

(or: a counterintuitive way to succeed)

road work ahead sign plus relax people, I think we'll be OK

A good motto. CC image “Relax” courtesy of Martha Soukup on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Introspection is frowned upon by our goal-oriented, fast-paced, and productivity-minded culture.

We all want to know how to get things done. We want to know how to get them done better, in less time, and with a bigger impact. Doing doing doing.

This is especially true during the end-of-year holidays. Wouldn’t a few worker elves be great?

Unfortunately, completing a book doesn’t always work this way. Sometimes, we need to stop writing and literally spend time staring into space, or playing. What better time to remember how to stop and take a breath than during what is meant to be a restful and celebratory time of year?

The writing habit

If you’ve been on my blog before, you’ve read about the single best way to write your book, which is to write (see: “pretending you don’t need to work on your book every day”).

Write every day. Make writing a habit.

You’ve read this before and now you’re wondering why I’m telling you to stop.

Writing sometimes means doing things that don’t look exactly like the activity we all know as writing, and it sometimes means letting go of being “productive.”

Writing is a creative act

Writing may feel like a business item or a job to you, but a part of it is always a creative exercise. Because of this, truths about creativity apply, even when you write a book about dog-training or how to grow a business.

One of these truths is: sometimes you have to do nothing for a while, to get something done.

Tell me whether you’ve had the following experience: you have a looming deadline. For days, you struggle with the final tasks and doubt you’ll ever meet the deadline. There’s one especially thorny issue you can’t figure out. After putting in a fourteen-hour day (or what feels like it), you give up in disgust and leave. You go home and vent to one of your friends or your significant other. A few more days go by while you play ostrich with your deadline. Instead of working on it, you clean the house, organize your desk, and buy greeting cards for your second cousins once removed in Singapore whom you haven’t seen since you were eight years old.

The next day, you realize you know the answer to the problem, and nothing has ever been so easy.

This is how writing often works.

The secret is that when you stop focusing on being productive, and let your mind wander, you’re more receptive to solutions that sit outside your current line of thinking.

Stop being productive

You might find yourself in front of the computer, producing nothing, and growling under your breath from frustration. If this happens while are you trying to get into a writing habit (see link above), I recommend you power through. Your best plan of action is to sit there for the appointed time, and suffer. Eventually, you’ll be writing.

If this happens in the middle of a productive stretch and after you’ve made writing a habit, I recommend that you take a break.

Step away from the computer, and do something else—preferably an activity that lets part of your brain roam free. Good activities include going for a walk, doing the laundry, sweeping, mowing the lawn, playing with the pet or the grandkids…you get the idea. Bad activities include complicated work of any kind, or watching TV/Netflix.

Do not try to be “productive” during this time. You’ve already thought a lot about your writing. Now let your subconscious have room to breathe. You could be surprised with the results.

The bottom line

There’s something about endings that makes us a little crazy. The end of the year, end of the quarter, end of the month… At this time of year, when it seems like all our schedules are blowing up and absolutely every known errand in the universe needs to be done before December 25th or 31st, STOP.

If you haven’t started your writing habit yet, this time of year is a tough place to start.

If you’ve got a good writing habit going, it will survive the next few weeks.

The more you force the issue, the less joy you’ll have in the process of writing, in the idea of your book—and more importantly, in your life and in whatever holidays you celebrate. It may be you need to stop writing now, in order to finish your book later.

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I’d love to hear how you might cultivate your writing habit with a spirit of rest, this season. Leave me a comment below, or drop me a line. Then enjoy the break!

12 Things Every Self-Publisher Should Know

12 Things Every Self-Publisher Should Know
(before publishing)

christmas tree made of books with ornaments

CC image “Boekenkerstboom” courtesy of Bibliotheek Kortrijk on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

In this day and age, where it seems like everyone is publishing a book and a lot of them are touting how easy that is (ha!), it’s important to remember that none of those books was published by magic. In tribute to the “12 Days of Christmas,” below is a list of 12 things every self-publisher and independent author should know.

Traditionally, the holiday season means a barrage of tips on how to market-slash-use-the-holiday-to-promote-your-book. While tying your marketing to the season is a great idea, your publishing plans should not begin and end with this fixation. Continue reading

Top 3 Ways You Sabotage Your Book

The Top 3 Ways You Sabotage Your Book

pencil broken in the middle

CC image frustration courtesy of Eric on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

How many of you get up in the morning thinking of new ways you can sabotage your book?

What about when you meet your friends for a cup of coffee or a drink—do you discuss how you can make sure your book will never see the light of day?

Or, no. I bet it’s more like this: you revel in how easy the writing life is and how much you enjoy sitting in front of a blank page on a regular basis with the task of creating something interesting, entertaining, informative, inspiring, or just plain coherent. Yes, that’s it.

What’s that, you say? That’s not you at all? Then how can you explain the following bad habits you get into? Yes, I’m looking at you, kid. If you’ve ever thought about writing a book, this is you.

You may not realize how you are sabotaging your book

After all, you have great intentions. You want to write the best, most interesting, highest-grossing, greatest business-building, fanbase-to-rival-J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter kind of book. And yet, and yet…

Some acts of sabotage are blatant (hours spent on Facebook or cleaning your toilet—every day). Some are more subtle. The top three ways that you sabotage your book are:

  1. Expecting perfection.
  2. Talking too much about your book.
  3. Pretending you don’t need to work on it every day.

Expecting perfection for every word you write

First drafts suck. There’s no way around it. Sure, you may have a great paragraph here and there, maybe even a stretch of three or four. But the draft itself has glaring flaws. Flaws so neon-bright that you need sunglasses for the simple act of looking at your manuscript. You stare at those flaws the way kids look at Christmas toy displays in shop windows: endless, motionless fascination, alternating with tantrums.

This is the best way to never finish your book.

A first draft is a FIRST DRAFT. When you compare your first draft to the published works of [insert your favorite bestseller/author millionaire here], you are comparing fig leaves to the Empire State Building. Stop. The Empire State Building looked like a hot mess when they first started building it—a hole in the ground, for goodness’ sake.

Accept the process and realize that you are starting with a hole in the ground, but that every day, as you build it, it’ll get better. Accept your book for what it is—a work in progress.

Talking too much about your book (and not writing it)

I can already hear the protests. “But we were told we should start marketing it before we finish writing!” “But I want to get my friends’ advice/support!” “But I’m so excited about it and want to share!”

Yes, I understand you. And yes, you should be talking about your book—in the right way.

Fiction writers may be more familiar with this warning than nonfiction writers. After all, craft books galore warn about this, including On Writing (yes, I’m talking about Stephen King again; there’s a reason). The more often you talk about your book, and the more specific detail you cover, with more people, repeatedly, the more you dissipate your creative energy and drain out the inherent drive you have to write that book. The more you talk about it, the less need you will feel to put it down on paper. You’ve already done part of what a book does: share your information and your passion with others. Stop this madness.

Nonfiction writers can also fall into this trap. You talk about your book and all your useful information diverts into informational one-on-ones, speech prep, and asides. Where, in fact, is your book?

You don’t need to be sworn to secrecy about your book. Let your colleagues know you’re writing it, and ask for advice. But keep it short—make it a teaser trailer. Don’t spill the beans on the complete plot. Those great ideas you keep having—write them down. Save them for the manuscript.

Pretending you don’t need to work on your book every day*

Trust me, the more breaks you take while writing, the harder it will be for you to write. That lost time is more than just the week you decided to binge-watch full seasons of The Walking Dead or livestream the heavyweight bout (and all the undercards). You lose more time than what you see on your calendar when you take breaks from your book. Each break means that much more time getting back up to speed on what in the heck you were doing before you stopped writing.

In some way, you need to work on your book every day. Keep it top of mind. Put together an outline. Brainstorm examples or case studies or character back story. Spend a day recording your thoughts verbally instead of writing them down, or record yourself reading parts of an earlier chapter, and listen to how it sounds. Make notes.

You want your readers to pay careful attention, don’t you? Well, so should you.

*It is good and healthy to take one day off every week. I even accept “every day” as Monday-Friday. But don’t skip more than a weekend’s worth of time with your book.

The bottom line

Are you guilty of any of these sabotaging traps? My bet is you are. If you need to, write them on a sticky note and paste wherever you work on your book. Yes, you can do multiple stickies. Stop the sabotage, and write that book.