Last week I went through the most common objections I hear to working with a book coach. This week, to expand on those concepts, I wanted to outline the dangers of trying to DIY your own book.
Before we get into it, I realize that this is an extreme stance – to say that writing a book on your own is dangerous. I want to acknowledge that it’s clearly NOT actually dangerous. No one’s going to hurt themselves, or anyone else, trying to DIY a book. And of course many writers find book writing to be an enriching, enjoyable, productive, lucrative, and satisfying process. They don’t need any help finding their way. And as I said in last week’s post, if you are finding the joy and the success without sustained professional guidance, then don’t question what you are doing. Keep it up, and enjoy the ride! Ignore me and carry on!
But in my position as a book coach, and as the leader of a team of book coaches, I see a lot of pages from a lot of writers who are hoping to be published. I also see a lot of rejection letters from a lot of agents and a lot of rejections from a lot of publishers – I would guess I have evaluated more than 150 rejection letters this year so far – and there are clear patterns to what writers are doing wrong.
Agents will tell you that they can discern incredibly quickly whether a writer is worthy of a second look -- often within just one page, maybe two. The reason they can make this determination so fast is because, again, there are clear patterns to what writers are doing wrong. Luck and timing absolutely play a role as to why some writers get picked for publication and others don’t, but usually the reasons for rejection are glaringly obvious to a professional. (And these same problems, just to be clear, are the exact same problems that prevent an indie author from attracting readers.)
So the danger that I am talking about is the danger of putting a ton of time and energy and money into a manuscript that falls into one of these clear “fatal” patterns. The danger, in other words, is heartbreak – and that is definitely a danger worth avoiding.
My DIY Failure
I know because I have been there. One of the reasons I became a book coach, in fact, was because I suffered my own DIY failure. I had a fantastic agent who believed in me and an insightful editor at a major publishing house whom I loved working with. I’d written three novels with this supportive team, and the house offered me a three-book deal – but it wasn’t a very good deal. It was kind of a sad deal. My agent and I agreed that we would leave that house and go out to find one who wanted take my career to the next level.
I wrote a book I loved and my agent got people pumped – really pumped. We had a preemptive offer for Italian rights before we even had a US deal. I spoke to a few of the interested editors and they were super enthusiastic. They all had ideas for how the novel might be tweaked to become stronger because that’s what editors do, but they loved the book. There was so much love. My agent set an auction date and expected six houses to bid. I was on the edge of glory!
And then on auction day, no one bid. Not one house. No one could get the support – in other words, the big bucks – that we were asking for. So then I had nothing – not the original okay offer from my wonderful editor and not a shiny new offer.
It was heartbreaking, and I felt like an idiot for walking away from the original offer. Think of your worst soul-crushing day. That was this day.
So I said to myself, “Screw them! I’ll do it myself! I’ll show them! I’ll self-publish this sucker and sell so many copies they’ll all be sorry.”
I slammed some beta readers through it and changed a few things. I slapped together a cover – myself. I did a quick proofread – myself. I laid the book out – myself. I dreamed up a launch strategy that relied mostly on my friends and family because I had done nothing in my previous incarnation as a writer to build up a following or connect with readers who had enjoyed my other six books, and didn’t know that I should. Those were the old days, the almost-pre-Internet days, the days when publishers “did it all” (except that they didn’t, really, but that’s a story for another day), and I didn’t understand the way readers find books now, the way writers have to be advocates for their creation.
I published the book about 5 years ago and have sold to date somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 copies – which is higher than the average the vast majority of self-published books sell. The book is the novel Perfect Red and I’m not even going to link to it because I’m embarrassed that it’s even up on Amazon – too embarrassed to even do what I have to do to take it down. I just want to pretend like it never happened.
Some kind readers have read it and told me that it’s pretty good. And I know there are things about it that are good and even great. But I also know that it has some glaring errors. That’s what I get for trying to DIY.
And that’s why I am such a fierce advocate for professional help. I was a professional – a writer who had sold six books, and done countless signings, and readings, and events. I went on tour for three years with a corporate sponsor for my breast cancer memoir, and did television, radio, live events. I went on the Rosie O’Donnell show. I was a pro. But even a pro can’t always clearly see her own work for what it is. That's why publishing houses employ editors.
Did I have bad luck? Perhaps. Bad timing? Maybe. But the real reason for the failure and the heartbreak was clearly my own hubris. It’s almost impossible to be totally discerning about your own writing.
This failure is one of the reasons I am a good book coach and one of the reasons I believe in it so completely. It's my mission to save writers from the heartbreak of believing that you can do it all yourself.
I recently started work with two writers whose stories I want to share because they show how working with a coach can prevent this pain. These are not stories meant to show how smart I am: they are stories about how just a little professional guidance at the right time can mean the difference between success and failure. I wish I had sought it out before I published Perfect Red.
Writer A came to me with a finished novel – sci fi YA – which she hoped to polish up before submission. She had been working on it for a long time and felt relatively confident in her effort – among other reasons because she is a creative writing teacher at a high school and knows her stuff. But I asked her a few basic questions about the point of the book, the desire of the characters – and she couldn’t answer. She had a super cool scenario, but had not done any of the deep work that would make the narrative hold together over the course of a whole book. I also looked at her first chapter and there were glaring errors in the first pages that would make any agent say no and any reader pick up another book. Those errors were info dumps and head-hopping (moving from one character’s head to another within the same paragraph or scene.) These are extremely common problems.
The amazing thing was that this writer was really talented in all other writerly ways. She just hadn’t done the deep story work she needed to do, and she had few bad habits she simply could not see. “I would have sworn on a stack of Bibles,I wasn’t writing info dumps,” she later said to me. And yet she was…
We worked together for four weeks to nail down the internal logic of her story, and then she re-wrote those opening pages four times. I made her go back four times to the same five pages. I kept marking the info dumps and the head-hopping until she could see them herself, and avoid them. Then we followed the logic we had hammered out, and she wrote forward from there, revising her story as we went.
She is almost finished with a revised draft of her novel. There are no info dumps anywhere in sight and the POV problems are completely gone. The narrative is seamless and riveting. I am not exaggerating when I say that her work has brought tears to my eyes. It’s SO good. It’s a thousand times better than it was before. It has a thousand times better chance of finding an audience.
Writer B is a New York Times bestselling writer, a person who has an option to sell her next book at a big imprint of a Big 5 publishing house. She came to me to get some polish edits on a proposal for that next book – actually it was for a pair of nonfiction books -- and I took one look at her proposal and said, “You can’t send this in.” I was 100% certain that she wasn’t going to get the reception she wanted at the publishing house because her proposal was a wreck.
The error she was making is also very common: spending WAY too long ramping up to the point before she landed on the actual point. There was backstory, explanation, a whole defensive tone. There was also the problem of a fuzzy concept – another very common error especially with nonfiction writers who know their topics so well they can’t see the forest for the trees. The two book design was a clunky solution to the fact that she wasn’t sure of her point or her purpose.
We did the same thing I did with Writer A -- the genre never matters because the process of strategic thinking is the same. We spent about three weeks going back to basics, digging into the deep logic of the point she wanted to make and the readers she wanted to serve and how to move from her past success to her next success. The work had very little to do with writing, to be honest, and everything to do with just being intentional.
Writer B tore her work down to the studs and built it back up – and just a month later, she has the bones of a really fantastic proposal. We are working to flesh it out now, but it just HUMS with purpose – and I hardly have to touch a word she writes because it has so much authority and so much style. Odds are very high that she is going to pull in a juicy deal.
These are not isolated cases. At Author Accelerator, I have 23 book coaches on our team, and each of them guides writers through this transformation all the time.
Are we promising the moon? A 6-house auction with a million-dollar advance? No we are not. But we are promising that we will see your work for what it really is, and help you to make it the best it can be.
The Dangers of DIY
So here are the dangers of DIY as I see them.
Danger #1: Perpetuating the narrative that you are a genius who shouldn’t have to work hard, invest in developing your skills, or take too much time to develop a book. There are many versions of this narrative out there, including the one that says your brilliance will be proven when your book gets scooped up in an agent auction, bought for millions, and sold to the movies. The danger here is that you are tying your worthiness as a writer to an outcome you can’t control. You want to be elevated, lifted up, made to seem as if you didn’t even have to try. In this scenario, trying almost becomes a dirty word. Seeking help? Even dirtier. In thinking this way, you are focusing on product, not process; setting yourself up for failure; and limiting your chances of real, attainable success.
Danger #2: Holding on too tightly to your idea – which shuts out the world, which shuts out the reader, and which limits your ability to delight the reader, which is all any writer really wants.
Danger #3: Writing from a place of fear and doubt – which isolates you, stunts your creativity, and tends to lead to projects that never get finished, manuscripts that never see the light of day, and misplaced notions about making your book “perfect” before you show it to anyone -- which is often too late.
Danger #4: Wasted time. You work and work and work as you DIY your book, and you try and try and try, maybe joining a writing group, maybe signing up from time to time for online video classes, in-person day-long workshops, or writing retreats but only getting a quick shot of inspiration and support, or only learning about isolated skills like how to write a scene or how to craft dialogue or how to pitch an agent. These are good things to be sure – really good things -- but they are not actually teaching you how to write a book, or how to write this book. And after years (and sometimes years and years), you step out in to the world with it -- and it doesn’t go how you wanted. You realize you have to throw out a ton of pages, or worse, consider giving up.
There is a time and place for writing groups and courses and conferences and retreats (I’m at a conference even as we speak!) but it doesn’t replace the power of sustained, professional attention on your book.
You don't have to work with a coach or editor forever to get the benefit. For most people, you can make transformative progress in six months -- which is the timeframe I recommend, and on which the Author Accelerator programs are based.
Danger #5: Self-loathing. If you’ve wasted years on a book that falls flat, now on top of fear and doubt, you have self-loathing thrown into the mix. What did I do wrong? How could I have been so mistaken? Maybe I actually suck! Odds are really good that you don’t suck – you probably just need to shore up your skills, fix some habits, and keep working.
Will working with a pro cost money? Yes, the same way that belonging to a gym costs money, or going on guided tour of the beaches of Normandy costs money, or taking a course on how to code a computer costs money.
But listen: If you are called to write a book – if you can’t walk away – and the DIY approach has not been going well, perhaps it’s time to own up to that reality. Declare that it matters to you – a lot – to raise your voice and tell your story in the best way you can. Embrace that it is a complex, many-layered, multi-faceted undertaking that takes time to master. And let yourself believe that you are worthy of giving it your best shot, which means investing in your skills and your growth, which may well mean working with a pro.
Next week I’ll look at the “So how do you know which book coach or editor to trust?” part of the question. Also, “What is the difference between a coach and all the different kinds of editors anyway?”
Read part five here.