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Write the Right Book

24 August 2012

From Lisa Tener, Book-Writing Coach, on The Huffington Post:

As a book-writing coach I see one “issue” more than any other: authors and would-be authors who don’t know what book to write. Either they write the wrong book (often) and have to start again — often years later — or they have so many ideas that five years after starting they still haven’t decided on a topic. Truth be told, both behaviors are forms of writer’s block.

So how do you know what book to write? I tell my authors to do a pre-book audit — and it always works:

. . . .

2. Identify Your Core Readers. Many authors are confused about their audience. One day you’re writing for people suffering from heart attacks; the next day your audience is lovesick singles. Once you’ve completed 1 above, picture a dartboard. The bull’s eye is your core reader. That’s the person you imagine when you’re writing your title, your outline, your bio and every word in-between. Write with this core audience in mind and your book will be conversational (versus self-conscious), compelling (versus boring), and accessible (versus scattered) — and it will have a lot more impact.

. . . .

6. Structure Your Book. Starting to write before you have a structure is the number-one book-writing mistake. One-hundred percent of the time, the result is too much material and then, having to start over again, sometimes after years of work. So what is structure? For some, it’s an outline; for others, it’s a box of color-coded index cards in book-order with content, features/ideas on each one. Some authors I work with swear by mind-maps (diagrams representing ideas, tasks, words, etc. arranged around a central theme) to organize their books. Whatever you do, do it before you start to write. Yes, it will change as you go along but without a foundation there is nothing to evolve from.

Link to the rest at The Huffington Post and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

Meryl asked, “What the heck is a book-writing coach?”

PG thinks it’s someone in a baggy sweatshirt with a whistle who yells at you to work faster, tells you to drop to the floor and do 30 push-ups when you don’t and slaps you on the butt after you finish a chapter.

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26 Comments to “Write the Right Book”

  1. I *love* advice like this (sarcasm intended). The very first agent (at the time he was actually an assistant for a very *big* agent) who looked at my very first book told me I wrote the wrong book. That book was later published by Penguin/NAL as “Romantically Challenged.” After it went out of print and the rights reverted to me I republished it myself as an ebook. That book ended up hitting bestsellers lists at both Amazon and B&N and to date it is still my most successful title. Yeah, I wrote the wrong book.

  2. I need a writing coach.

    Seriously, for point number 2, the best guide I’ve read is “The Writer’s Journey”. The author claims it is the basis for every story (Star Wars, Hunger Games, and Wizard of Oz fit the mold), but many do not. Nonetheless, it shows a writer what a structure can provide and makes outlining an easier task.

    Peace, Seeley

    • Well yes. ‘The Writer’s Journey’ can claim to be the basis for every story because it’s pretty generic formula.

      It’s really just a bunch of archetypes that can match any character you want in any way you want. Is Gandalf a ‘Trickster’ a ‘Mentor’, or a ‘Shapeshifter’, for instance.

      And a bunch of plot points that again can be applied to any story.

      It took me years to get all that sort of stuff out of my head so that I could simply ‘write the story’ and I’ve no doubt that the formula could be retroactively applied to my stuff, because it can be retroactively applied to any story.

      The important word in all that is ‘retroactively’ 🙂

      It’s an interesting thing to read, because you can catch a glimpse of the depths of cultural resonance beneath any story. But it really is not something one should be using to help one write a story.

      Read, absorb, forget.

      • True. They give you a general outline, but they skip over the meat, the middle of the story. the advice is there are a bunch of trials in the the middle. That’s always bugged me.

        All stories are a journey of change. Otherwise, it’s just a boring day in the life of … if nothing changes there is nothing to tell.

  3. Well, I’d have to disagree with this for a couple of reasons. Even these two writing tips don’t work for absolutely everyone. I’ll admit I have a severe prejudice against any advice that comes off as “do this” and you’ll have success or things will work better for you as an author. Any advice I give to new writers always comes with “it may or may not work for you.” Despite what so many people say, there is no such thing as a cookie cutter that works in the writing world.

    This article above assumes that every writer writes to please an audience. Some of us don’t do that any more. I used to and it wasn’t a good fit for me. Also, I don’t structure my book because I’m a pantser. Structuring a lot kills everything I have for creativity and gives me writer’s block…not the other way around. Do I write down ideas? Sure. But the closer I get to outlining or or any other book-order situation, the less likely that book will ever get written. In this case the shoe definitely does not fit.

    • Well, even a pantser knows his or her audience, in the most basic sense. In my pantsing case, the audience is… Me. It expands somewhat to Me And My Beta-Readers, but mostly because I enjoy ending chapters in such a way as to make them screech and flail and whine that I haven’t written the next chapter.

      I have also GMed tabletop RPGs. I have been called an evil GM. It’s very similar. *evil grin*

    • I wrote the books I did because they were what I wanted to read. I still don’t know who exactly my audience is and if I had to guess, I’d say I’d find them more through fansites of certain genre tv shows or movies rather than books. I’m almost thinking Iron Man might also fit. I only read the book and haven’t seen the movies though.

      I don’t know how I’d target fans of tv shows and get the to read a book that is similar. I guess I need to either find out how or write a different kind of book.

      • Would it work to go to the fanfiction sites for the appropriate shows and become a participant?

        Then you could become known – and put a link to your books in your signature. Those people would already like what you are writing about, and you could also contribute to the site.

        Pretty much everything has a Wikipedia page and fanfiction somewhere.

  4. I’ve got to agree with Denise on the whole “writing for an audience” thing. I started writing because of the cookie-cutter mentality. I got tired of the ‘tormented vampire falling for an ordinary woman who can save his soul’ trope.

  5. “PG thinks it’s someone in a baggy sweatshirt with a whistle who yells at you to work faster, tells you to drop to the floor and do 30 push-ups when you don’t and slaps you on the butt after you finish a chapter.”

    Oh my God, my wife is secretly a book-writing coach!

    • Better that than a zombie, Dan.

    • Since it refers to writers, remember to translate the torso push-ups to finger stretches and tippy-taps. Need to keep those digits limber, doncha know, so they will be flexible for all those hours on keyboards (or shifting from ink well to parchment for those who still use quills). Have to keep the fingers and wrists deft enough to lift those mugs/glasses/goblets of favorite beverage of choice, too.

  6. I always thought of a writing coach as an editor that doesn’t edit.

  7. The advice in the full Huff. post article seems more geared for non-fiction.

    However, in the interests of making all things serve MY purpose, I went through the exercise of typing the six headings, and filling in how it applied to the WIP. Anything to get writing started for the day!

    All of this advice has appeared at one time or another in one of my writing coaches (the bunch of books on writing lining my office); there wasn’t anything original, but it did lead me to writing a single paragraph about my target audience. Here is part: “My core readers are people who for any reason don’t feel they are free to aspire to anything they want, because, frankly, they don’t deserve and won’t ever get it. Older people. Divorced people. Disabled people. Women. Their loved ones. People society thinks should just go away and not embarrass themselves.”

    I hope that turns out to be a lot of people who read, and are underserved. Now if I could just finish the thing.

  8. “PG thinks it’s someone in a baggy sweatshirt with a whistle who yells at you to work faster, tells you to drop to the floor and do 30 push-ups when you don’t and slaps you on the butt after you finish a chapter.”

    Replace the baggy sweatshirt with tight latex and leather mask and a whip for the whistle and you’re onto some top-selling fiction… 🙂

  9. “…and slaps you on the butt after you finish a chapter”.

    I just want to mention, in case anyone wants to motivate me, that a slap on the butt for each chapter wouldn’t do it. Not even if you were wearing spandex.

    Cookies. Give me a cookie for every chapter and I’ll write War and Peace. Well, something as long as War and Peace, anyway.

    Longer, if they’re chocolate chip cookies.

  10. From #6: “Starting to write before you have a structure is the number-one book-writing mistake.”

    In real life I would slap the desk with my open palm and shout “I call bullsh*t!” (I used to terrify subordinates with this move on a regular basis).

    The thing is, she’s talking about non-fiction. And in non-fiction, it does help to have an outline, or at least a list of topics to be covered) and some sort of plan of order. I used to write software manuals, and you don’t want to leave out the step about entering your password and how to find it if you forget it.

    But in my fiction writing life, I’m an utter pantser. I just finished up a whole page of writing that comes at the end of book three and book one hasn’t been completed and book two not even started. But that’s what wanted to be written today.

    I actually have a friend who makes a living as a writing coach. Her specialty is helping academics who want to switch to writing fiction or commercial non-fiction, both of which are very different skill sets and thought processes than writing for academia. For a fee, she contacts you on a regular basis (often via Skype), helps you set next steps and goals, makes sure you’re meeting goals, reads your work to make sure you’re not falling into old academic habits, helps teach you the differences between academic and commercial writing, helps you understand the larger business concepts in commercial writing, etc.

    For writers experiencing writer’s block or who are just stuck, she offers a similar service for goal setting and checking in, and holding you accountable (yes, there really ARE folks who have a deep need to be accountable to someone else in order to get anything done). She recently offered a course on this through an RWA chapter, and I attended to be her “cheerleader”, in case no one talked. Not to my surprise, in a class of almost 20 “stuck” writers, I was the only one who tried to initiate conversation, ask questions, and post my “homework”. You can lead a horse to water…

    • *nod* Yeah; writing RPG books is a lot like writing non-fiction technical manuals at times, as it happens. Those need outlines. (And said outlines don’t stifle my writing; I can go and fill them in quite happily!)

    • Same – total pantser here. I’ve learned to trust my back brain, and just write. 🙂

  11. Interesting, perceptive article. There’s some good advice in there for sure. Now, if I could only find the keys to the lock box that has my instructions for writing marketable fiction, I’d be good to go. Maybe Coach Lisa knows?

    Congrats to those that wrote books that worked regardless of the above.

    • After taking Holly Lisle’s course on writing, which did have some nuggets of wisdom, I learned the best way to write marketable fiction is your way.

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