I was talking to a client yesterday who is struggling to define the spine of her book. She is working on a memoir and it was cracking under the weight of too many ideas. She had Big Topic 1 and Big Topic 2 and Big Topic 3 and they were all good ideas, each of them worthy of a book, but jammed together they felt as jumbled and chaotic as real life. Readers don’t want to read a book that feels like real life. They’re swimmingin real life. They want something better — something that focuses real life, makes order out of it, makes meaning out of it, makes them think about it in a new way. They want a story that has been curated and crafted. This writer wasn’t doing that. She was, in fact, doing the opposite, and upon hearing this news, she was understandably upset. (Okay, she was pretty much beside herself.) “What if I just write short pieces like David Sedaris?” she proposed.
Now I love this client. (You know who you are and you know it’s true!) But I wanted to scream, “No, no, no, no, no!” Because the thing is that I have heard this comment from approximately 347 writers in the last year alone. I’m not kidding. I think David Sedaris must be the god of writers who haven’t figured out exactly what they want to say. Because we all know whatDavid Sedaris does, right? He writes collections of short pieces that are each pithy and poignant and hilarious and full of humanity and heart — and that have nothing to do with each other. He does not have to choose between writing about that time he was a Macy’s Christmas elf and writing about his thoughts on the eating habits of the Australian kookaburra, because he’s David Sedaris. He can write about whatever he wants! In little 6 or 8 or 10 page bursts! And people L-O-V-E him! I mean, they line up to hear him read! They line up to have him sign their books! Did you know that he gives a little prize to everyone who waits to have a book signed? It’s true. You can read about it in theBook Passage newsletter (on page 12) or in this interview from January Magazine.
So anyway, writers who haven’t figured out exactly what they are writing about naturally think, “I’ll just do what David Sedaris does! I’ll just write a bunch of short little pieces about all the thoughts in my head and all these pesky problems related to figuring out what I want to say in a book-length narrative will be solved!
Except that it doesn’t work like that.
What they fail to understand is that David Sedaris is a genius. He is a freak of nature. He is the .001% He can write a collection of random short pieces about random topics and they will sell like the latest iphone. The same is not true for almost anyone else on the planet.
Some of you might be thinking quietly to yourself,“Maybe I’m a genius, too!” I know. I have had that thought myself more times than I’d like to admit. (I actually thought that every single book I wrote was going to be a runaway bestseller. Seven times I thought this. There was never any evidence that this was going to come to pass, but I believed it all the same. What can I say? Maybe it’s a trick we have to play on ourselves sometimes to get through the night…) My point is that I think we can all safely operate on the assumption that even if we do have some level of genius within us, we are not David Sedaris level genius.
Below the David Sedaris level of genius, the following truths hold:
- Collections of essays written by one author are really, really hard to sell. Outside of poetry, they are the hardest things to sell. Think about it: when was the last time you ran out to buy a collection of essays that wasn’t written by David Sedaris?
- If people DO sell collections of essays, it’s usually because they have some sort of theme or thread or purpose that holds them together. I wrote such a book. It was called The Victoria’s Secret Catalog Never Stops Coming and Other Lessons I Learned From Breast Cancer. It was a collection of essays about my experience with breast cancer, and the essays had an arc, a chronology, and built on each other, and made an overall point. It also had specific target audience and a wide potential readership. In other words, I had to approach the work with the same kind of intention, and with the same level of discernment, and with the same degree of planning and as I would have had to do if I had written a full-length narrative. The essay structure was a decision I made on purpose, not a fallback plan because a full-length narrative got messy.
- Writing well requires a certain measure of ruthlessness, which doesn’t just refer to WORDS on the page. It refers to IDEAS and CONCEPTS as well. Here’s a great piece from Writer’s Digeston what this means in practice.
- If you feel yourself being seduced by The David Sedaris Solution, ask a friend to tie you to the mast so you don’t steer the ship into the rocks. And while you are tied there, figure out what your book is about.
Introducing No Blank Pages and a Special Offer for my Friends and Followers
I’m so excited to announce the soft launch of No Blank Pages, my new venture to bring a series of “How to Write a Book” classes to the Internet. THANK YOU to those of you who helped by taking beta classes in 2013. I used your experience to refine the classes and make them more awesome. Three classes are live today and through Tuesday at midnight at a special discount for you (and any of your friends.) Click here for the discount page. To just check out No Blank Pages, go here.
- Navigating the Path to Publishing: How to Decide Between Traditional and Self-Publishing. This is one of the most-requested topics, so we completed it first. I designed a ranking system where you rate yourself on a variety of factors (goals, budget, your desire for creative control, etc.) and end up with a number that should help you make a clear-headed decision on which way to go. This is an on-demand class for fiction and non-fiction writers alike. The regular price is $49; until Tuesday the 25th at midnight, it’s $24.
- 8 Steps to a Great Title. This is Step #1 in the “How to Write a Book” series. This is an on-demand class for fiction and non-fiction writers alike. The regular price is $29 ; until Tuesday the 25th at midnight, it’s $14. Note that those of you who have been following my blog for awhile have probably gotten most of this information along the way, so it may not be high value-added for you.
- Is My Book Good Enough? A Cold-Blooded Self Assessment? I love this class! It walks you through a series of steps that help you answer this question, which often beats at the heart of every writer’s dreams and nightmares. This is an on-demand class for fiction and non-fiction writers alike. The regular price is $49; until Tuesday the 25th at midnight, it’s $24. Note that some of the material in this class was part of a post I recently wrote at Writer Unboxed, so it may not be high value-added for WU readers (but it DOES walk you through the process step by step, has downloadable worksheets, and a bunch of awesome videos.)
CLASSES COMING SOON:
- The famous (well, in my own mind!) 21-Day Book Startup, in both on-demand and workshop formats, for both fiction and non-fiction. (Workshop formats mean I’ll be in present during the class for live webinars and feedback.) This is the premium start-from-scratch-and-make-it-work class for writers with new book ideas, or ideas that have fallen apart and need shoring up.
- 12 Totally Do-Able Steps to Finding an Agent.
- Pitch Perfect : How to Wow Agents and Editors at Writers’ Conferences
TELL ME WHAT YOU MOST NEED!
- I can design the classes you most need! Use my“No Excises Book Map: From Inspiration to Publication” to see the whole sweep of the book-writing process, and let me know which numbers are giving you the biggest headaches. I can either direct you to the right class to help solve it, or I can make a new class to meet your need.
- Feel free to email me with any questions about which classes might be right for you. Jennie.firstname.lastname@example.org