Three Mistakes New Authors Make When Writing a Nonfiction Book

Three Mistakes New Authors Make When Writing a Nonfiction Book

This week I’ve been putting the finishing touches on my slides for a presentation that I’m very excited about. It’s an information-packed 90-minute interactive session that aims to help nonfiction authors write and publish the best book possible. I’ll be delivering this seminar on March 6 in Vancouver, at the Book Publishing Boot Camp: An All-Day Workshop for Women Entrepreneurs and Professionals.

You can get all the details (and early bird pricing!) here.

Here’s a little taste of my presentation.

Every author starts out with great intentions and ambitious goals, but they don’t necessarily have good publishing instincts. In countless meetings and consultation sessions with aspiring authors of nonfiction books, I’ve found that there are three key mistakes that most new authors make.

  1. They write about what interests them, rather than what interests their audience. Over the course of your career, you’ve acquired a wealth of information, not all of which is useful to your target reader. Your book is not the right forum in which to explore the arcane aspects of your work that fascinate you most. Instead, ask yourself what need your reader is trying to meet by reading your book. Shape the content of your book to meet that need, giving them exactly what they will find most useful and relevant, and nothing more.
  2. They aim to reach as many people as possible. Many authors assume that writing a book with “mainstream appeal” is the best way to sell a lot of copies. A broad market has more people in it, therefore more potential buyers, right? Unfortunately, that’s not how it works, unless your book is the undisputed bible on its subject. The counter-intuitive truth is that the more specific you are about who your audience is, the more likely those readers are to have a strong positive response to your book when they see it on the shelf. Narrowing in on a theme, a reader demographic or a topic focus will give your book a unique personality and purpose. It’s much better to be a big hit among a smaller crowd than to be overlooked by the masses.
  3. They don’t understand the “rules” that apply to their chosen genre. How-to books, memoirs, “big idea” books and narrative non-fiction books all follow particular conventions, and must have certain qualities in order to be successful. Failure to understand or observe these norms is almost certain to lead to an unsatisfying book that feels “off” to readers, even if they can’t pinpoint why. The most common way this error tends to show up is in books that are neither fish nor fowl, for example part memoir, part how-to. You may have a burning desire to tell your personal story as well as dispensing advice, but the truth is that readers don’t care. They’re just trying to get their own needs met. Understanding and fulfilling your readers’ expectations will help you craft a winning book that stands out in its field.

Behind every successful book is a well thought-out plan that takes these three things into consideration, and that’s just a starting point. It’s also critically important to think strategically about how your book will help you reach your personal and professional goals. Maybe you’re trying to attract more or higher-quality clients to your business. Perhaps you want to raise your expert profile and do more public speaking. Or you’re planning to step away from your practice and establish a serious writing career as an author with a series of books. Whatever your objectives, they must guide your writing decisions at the conceptual level.

There is no shortcut around this groundwork, and it must be done early on. Before you approach publishers and agents, long before you’re ready to work with an editor, and even before you write your book proposal, you’ve got to decide what your book will be about, who it’s for, and what will and won’t go into it.

Concept development is the most important yet arguably most overlooked part of the author’s writing process. That’s why I’ll be covering concept development and book planning in depth in my seminar on March 6. By the end of the day, attendees will have all the information they need to get crystal clear about:

  • What kind of book they should write
  • Who their target market is, or ought to be
  • What it will take to make their book a success
  • How to maximize their strengths
  • How to work around their weaknesses

It’s going to be a life-changing session for any subject matter expert who wants to write a nonfiction book to boost her brand or business.

And that’s just one component of an information-rich day. I’ll be joined on stage with the local publishing industry’s smartest and most experienced publishing professionals, from editors and literary agents to marketers and publicists, all ready to share their very best advice for first time authors. Successful authors will also share their inspiring and hard-earned experiences in publishing their books.

Check out the full program here.

If you are a smart, ambitious woman who wants to write a book to expand her brand and build her business – and who wants to write the BEST BOOK possible for her unique circumstances and goals – then this conference is the place to be.

Register now for the Book Publishing Boot Camp and set yourself on the path to making your publishing goals a reality!

The Book Publishing Boot Camp: An All-Day Workshop for Women Entrepreneurs and Professionals is co-presented by LifeTree Media and Pink Velvet Couch, in partnership with Raise A Dream.

maggie langrick
Founder and Publisher, LifeTree Media
 
Maggie Langrick is the President and Publisher at LifeTree Media, a publishing company specializing in nonfiction books and ebooks that help, heal and inspire. Before founding LifeTree in 2013, Maggie was Arts and Life editor for the Vancouver Sun newspaper. In June 2016 she was shortlisted for the Tom Fairley Award for Editorial Excellence, Canada's only national peer-reviewed editing prize, for her work on Shell, by Michelle Stewart. She is the author of the forthcoming book Bold, Deep and High: How to Write Your Best Book. Maggie calls herself "an optimistic cheerleader for the human race", and thrives on a balanced diet of yoga and ribald humour.
       

New Guidelines in the Chicago Manual of Style are an Enlightened Step Forward

New Guidelines in the Chicago Manual of Style are an Enlightened Step Forward

This week the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) announced the changes that will be made to its upcoming new edition, which comes out in September. As an editor, a publisher, and a progressive idealist, I am applauding one of those changes in particular: approval of the use of the singular pronoun they.

The English language is one of the most shape-shifting languages in the world. Every year, English speakers add new words to the lexicon and repurpose old ones. Some of these innovations are widely adopted and become part of the language; others fall by the wayside. There are lots of grey areas along the way, between variant spellings, optional punctuation conventions, and good old slang.

This makes life tough for editors, guardians of language whose job is to make sure that writers follow the rules. But what happens when the rules are incomplete, contradictory or agnostic, as is so often the case in our rapidly evolving tongue? That’s where style guides like CMOS come in to provide consistent guidelines on word use, grammar and punctuation that almost every book editor follows, whether or not they agree with all of its points.

See what I did there? Until this week, the CMOS and most English teachers would insist the sentence I just wrote is wrong, and more properly should be: “…to provide consistent guidelines on word use, grammar and punctuation that almost every book editor follows, whether or not he agrees with all of its points.”

Remember when the world was male by default? The human race was known as man, married women called themselves Mrs. Joe Blow, and any person not specifically identified as female was always referred to as he, even if his gender was not known. Doesn’t that sound archaic now? Humankind has evolved since then. Most editors and writers now opt to use the cumbersome phrase he or she when referring to an unknown or hypothetical person, but the “generic he” is still a thing, at least in formal writing.

Speech is different. In conversation, people often use they or their as a generic pronoun. Think of the sentence: “Every attendee must have their own ticket,” or “If a stranger comes to the door, don’t let them in.” The practice is so common, some editors and language experts have argued for years that the singular they should be officially embraced in written English too. The debate has gained more energy and urgency with the rising numbers of individuals who are transgender or non-binary, many of whom prefer they as their personal pronoun of choice (a usage the new edition of the CMOS fully accepts).

I’m as much of a stickler for linguistic correctness as the next editor, but on this issue, I am firmly in the pro-they camp. I believe that one of the greatest strengths and delights of the English language is that it is constantly evolving to better reflect the lives and times of its speakers. Like gender, it is fluid.

Having said that, we have avoided using the singular they in most of the books we’ve published at LifeTree. Aside from breaking with CMOS convention, it can have an odd ring to it, so some readers would likely be put off or confused. But in our newest title, The Sacred Path of the Soulmate by Gerald Sze, we enthusiastically employed theythem and their throughout the book, and included an editors’ note explaining our decision.

“When your lover shows you unconditional kindness, they empower you to love and respect yourself.”

A treatise on the spiritual purpose of true romantic love, the book is filled with candid stories of the intimate side of life, as well as relationship advice for lovers of every stripe. The editorial team and the author agreed that using “he or she” every time we mentioned “your partner” would be intolerably unwieldy. We could have chosen to alternate between he and she from one anecdote to the next, a very common way to make a text more inclusive, but we felt strongly that this could introduce gender-bias into the subtext of the situational examples given, especially those to do with childrearing, money, sexual attraction, and housework. In other words, almost every aspect of romantic relationships!

In the end, the thing that pushed us to take the linguistically controversial plunge was a desire to be inclusive to all people, in all sorts of partnerships. Consider this passage from the book.

Love is when you lose your breast to cancer and your partner kisses the surgical scar and says you will always be the most beautiful person in the world to them.

Love is when the family is getting bigger and your partner suddenly loses their appetite for pricey Starbucks coffee and takes on a second, part-time job because they have too much free time.

Love is when your partner cuts your hair for you for 40 years because you’ve never found anyone who cuts it as well as they do.

This language might sound a little clunky to some people, but you can see how using he or she anywhere in the above examples would risk reinforcing gender stereotypes that don’t reflect the breadth of human diversity.

By contrast, the pronoun they makes no assumptions about who the reader is, who they love, or how either person in the relationship is expected to behave. We feel that this is an enlightened ideal worth pushing the boundaries of the English language for. This week, the editors of the Chicago Manual of Style agreed, and brought us one step closer to that ideal.

Announcing my forthcoming book

Announcing my forthcoming book

I have an announcement to make.

I am writing a book. I’m writing a book about writing a book. (To which Paris, our marketing and communications coordinator, said: “That’s so meta…”)

This should be a cinch for me. I have been an editor for nearly twenty years, over which time I have worked with hundreds of writers. Most of them were professional journalists or feature writers, but in recent years in my role as publisher at LifeTree Media, I have worked almost exclusively with first-time authors.

Every day I support people in writing their very first nonfiction book. I give them a framework to follow, help them choose a focus for their book, and supply them with tools to organize their thoughts, overcome self-doubt, and follow through to completion.

Over time, I’ve developed quite a colourful bag of tricks to help even nervous, inexperienced authors to get the words out. We now have a neat and effective system for turning a glimmer of an idea into an outline, and then a manuscript, and finally a finished book on store shelves. It works.

So you could say I know a thing or two about the process. Documenting our system in a book of my own should be a walk in the park, right?

Wrong. The truth is, I am totally intimidated by the size of the task before me. (Just like the authors I work with.) You see, although I have worked on many books, I have never written one myself. (Just like the authors I work with.) I find myself fretting: What if nobody likes it – or, worse, if nobody reads it? What if I never even get it finished? I am a busy person, you know! Hm. This is sounding all too familiar.

Clearly, it is time for me to practice what I preach.

Luckily, I have a program to follow. I’ve seen it work for others; now it’s time to put it to the test on myself.

As I write, I’ll be sharing my experience and excerpts from the manuscript on this blog and in our newsletter. (Pro tip: accountability boosts productivity!) It’s bound to be an exhilarating, exhausting, sometimes nerve-wracking ride, so send me your own tips, suggestions and words of encouragement. Every new author needs a coach, and I am no exception.

PS: to all those brave and brilliant authors I work with… I get it now.

maggie langrick
Founder and Publisher, LifeTree Media
 
Maggie Langrick is the President and Publisher at LifeTree Media, a publishing company specializing in nonfiction books and ebooks that help, heal and inspire. Before founding LifeTree in 2013, Maggie was Arts and Life editor for the Vancouver Sun newspaper. In June 2016 she was shortlisted for the Tom Fairley Award for Editorial Excellence, Canada's only national peer-reviewed editing prize, for her work on Shell, by Michelle Stewart. She is the author of the forthcoming book Bold, Deep and High: How to Write Your Best Book. Maggie calls herself "an optimistic cheerleader for the human race", and thrives on a balanced diet of yoga and ribald humour.
       

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