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…and 18 Other Lessons Learned in Writing a Book

I am a reporter by trade, a writer in the short form. I can churn out 1,000 words in my sleep. How naïve I was when I decided to write a book. I had never written in the long form. I did almost everything wrong, and those 60,000 words took three years to produce. In fact, I first wrote here about my experience one year into the process, when I thought I was almost to the end. Meanwhile, in the last two years I have—without much thought—produced more words for my blogs than for my book.

Last week I wrote here about the 28 lessons I learned about widowhood through writing about my journey from grief to joy. None of what I write below is critical, simply factual. Here is what I have learned about writing:

  1. God is a no-no…unless you’re a famous person or an established, best-selling author. Most agents won’t touch “Christian” or “spiritual” books. I asked one young, upcoming agent about it. Mention God once and it’s “Christian”; they aren’t interested. Yet one’s belief system impacts how one feels about death. You can’t write honestly and fully about death without talking about whether you believe in resurrection and eternal life. Famous people, however, can say whatever they want. (This is obviously not applicable to authors who are aiming for the Christian publisher/Christian bookstore market.)
  2. So is memoir. Virtually all memoirs published by the big trade publishers are by famous people. Almost all other memoirs are self-published.
  3. 75 is too old. Nobody—not the author, agent or publisher—makes money off the first book. Agents and publishers want writers with a career—a book a year for 10 years—in front of them.
  4. Publishers hate semi-colons. I blogged about this here. I heard a writer of detective novels says that his publisher doesn’t allow a single semi-colon. But I write in complex and compound sentences, and I can’t make myself (a) break punctuation rules or (b) write only in simple sentences. I am not literary, but I am literate.
  5. They also hate adjectives and adverbs. Show; don’t tell. This one is hard for a former newspaper reporter who is used to summarizing. Describe the events. Don’t summarize them.
  6. The idea that they want something new and different is a myth. They say they do, but the minute your book doesn’t fit established genre and publishing standards, you have to explain it. And anything that has to be explained is a strike against you. Again, if you’re famous or an established writer, the rules don’t apply.
  7. There is a difference between having a publishable book and a marketable one. This one is fairly new to me, and it makes sense. Because my book is literate, because I am a trained writer, my book is publishable. Whether it can be sold in large enough numbers to make a profit is a different question.
  8. A news story and a book are two different things. I am used to writing a who, what, when, where, why or how lead paragraph—get all the important stuff out there in the beginning. How to leave readers dangling at the end of a chapter so they will keep turning pages is hard.
  9. You don’t have to be a writer to write a book. That was a shock. I have to convince would-be agents and publishers that I know how to write. It seems that everyone wants to write a book these days, whether they know how to write or not. See #14.
  10. Twitter is invaluable. This is where you find your audience and establish your brand. My common hashtags are #grief and #widow. There are whole communities out there I can connect with. They post their blogs and links to other items on the subject. I learn a lot. They share what I post. There’s also a publishing community—agents and publishers, writers conferences and book festivals—disseminating helpful information.
  11. You can’t write a prescriptive, self-help book unless you have a string of letters after your name. Not that I want to write in second-person, telling other widows what to do, but this huge genre requires authors who are “experts.”
  12. You need to know your genre, audience and story arc from the beginning. Where will your book fit best at the local Barnes & Noble? See #6. This is paragraph 1 in your query letter and book proposal, what agents will ask you when you have an opportunity to talk with them at a writers conference.
  13. Social media are both a problem and an opportunity. Since book selling is more about marketing than about literary quality, you need to establish a brand. Ideally, you have 1000s of people who follow you on Twitter and Facebook and subscribe to your blog. I don’t. But you can spend so much time on social media, you don’t have time to do your serious writing. I did.
  14. So are computers and the internet. See #9. With a computer and internet, everyone thinks (s)he’s a writer. (Another of my weaknesses—I cannot write “everyone…their.”) No more painstaking drafts on typewriters, where corrections are laborious. No more hours in the reference section of a library; research is a snap. More manuscripts are being submitted than ever. Agents and publishers are flooded.
  15. Having a dedicated writing desk makes a huge difference in productivity. Out of sight is out of mind. When I finally cleared a space, ignored the mess and left my work out there, I got more done in four months than I had in the previous year.
  16. You have to be more honest than you ever dreamed. No one wants to read about perfect people, and you can’t get by with short, simple references to difficulties. Show; don’t tell. See #5.
  17. Read a lot. I avoided reading the literature of grief until about my third draft, because I feared copying someone else’s voice, accidentally plagiarizing another’s work. But you need to know what is being written in your genre. An agent will ask what you’re reading, who your favorite authors are. You have to write about the competition in your book proposal.
  18. You have to sell yourself. Your publisher won’t. Whether you are lucky enough to land a trade publisher, or you go with a small regional press or self-publish, you have to invest time and money in marketing yourself and selling your books.
  19. You know when you are finished. Having never written in the long form before, I often wondered how I would know when I was finished. Would I just decide to stop one day? On my last draft (technically my fifth, though some chapters were revised and rewritten dozens of times in the process), I decided I would not move to the next chapter until I had tied every loose end…no more notes in the margin about checking this fact or getting that interview or adding the other detail. I would be completely satisfied with what I had written. And when I got to the end (in fact, a couple of days beforehand), I knew this was the final draft—that I had said all I had to say, as well as I knew how to say it. That is not to say that it’s truly finished. I know the value of editors, and if an agent or editor should say to me, “You need to explain this better…add another expert opinion here…the story of another widow there…delete this maudlin detail here…” I can do that. But on my own, I’m done!
I’d love to continue the conversation:
  • If you are an author, what do you think of my list? What would you add?
  • If you are, like me, a wannabe, what would you like to discuss further?
  • Are there any of these 19 lessons that you would like me to blog about?