“You Oughta Write a Book!”

Many of the query letters I receive have this exclamation in it – meaning that friends and family who’ve heard the author’s personal journey punctuate their excitement and support by prodding the author to write about their experiences. On the surface it seems a great idea.

However.

And yes, there’s always a “however.” It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill of having people around you insist that your story is amazing enough take up residence on store shelves. But it may not be the reality, and it’s important that you know the difference.

The Friends and Family Bias

Your friends and family will love you even if you have spinach stuck in your front teeth, so they’re far from being unbiased. And that’s a good thing. You want to have good people surrounding you. However…agh, there’s that dreaded word again…they’re too close to you and not educated in the ways of all things publishy.

This is precisely why I receive an overabundance of addiction/cancer/midlife crisis/I-was-a-child-of-war queries. The author is pumped by their friends and family and they dig right in without realizing there is A LOT of ground to cover from, “Hey, you oughta write a book!” to actually being convinced you have a marketable story…and thy name is Research.

Research

Competition: How many stories like yours are already on store shelves? If there are a gajillion cancer stories out there (and there are), then you need to know that. You need to be prepared if you’re writing in a crowded category, such as cancer, divorce, grieving, etc.

Why do you need to know? ‘Cos I’m gonna ask, for one. I want to know the three titles that compare most closely to your book – how they compare and contrast. Why? ‘Cos my sales and marketing teams are going to ask. Why? ‘Cos the genre buyers are going to ask. Whee! Dominoes.

READ: It’s not enough to look at store shelves to see how many other books like yours are in the marketplace; you gotta READ them. Why? ‘Cos you need to be able to speak to the unique elements of YOUR book. And this is where many queries/submissions fall down. I can tell whether an author has read her competition or not in the way she writes her query letter. She may use short examples to offer a frame of reference:

My Inverted Belly Button is reminiscent of the popular 2014 adventure Inverted Belly Button Blues, however my story is specifically geared to college students, who are much more sensitive to having an inverted belly button than the general public.”

This is helpful to me because I can quickly recognize an expansive and identifiable readership. This is a savvy author who understands the unique elements of their story compared to a popular book in the same category. This helps our sales and marketing teams a great deal.

Platform: Memoir/nonfiction is a tough nut, and authors need to have a platform in which to swim to the top. Ask yourself not how many people you know…but how many people know you? Are you the airline pilot who wrote about her cockpit experiences? Are you the mother of a desperately sick child who has done countless talks and seminars about this subject matter? Are you an expert in the topic you’ve written about to the point where media would call you for your input?

Platform wears many different faces, but I can tell you that authors who have a large footprint sell a lot of books. Those who sit on their hands either don’t get a good publishing contract, or they make their publishers very grouchy.

Writing Quality/Beta Readers: It sounds elementary, but it’s so often overlooked that it bears discussing. Your writing has to be solid, meaning an excellent command of the English language, artfully constructed, and engaging. Of course, writing style is subjective, so it’s tough to gauge. But this is where beta readers come in handy. These aren’t your friends and family (because they’ll never be honest), but instead, your writing group, or writing class. People who will be able to honestly tell you what did and didn’t work for them, and why.

Ask Yourself These Questions

  1. What is the message/what am I trying to say/impart? There are plenty memoirs that are simply a “I did this, then I did that,” and they sell very well. However, they’re usually written by famous people, and readers may not give a rat’s patootie whether there’s a message in there or not. I look for stories that not only have an amazing journey, but that the author comes through that journey transformed in some way. That creates depth.
  2. What are the unique elements of my story as compared to what’s already out there? If you can’t name them, then it’s possible you’re not saying anything new. If you’re not saying anything new, then it’s going to be difficult to market and promote the book.
  3. Who cares? We already know your friends and family care, but what about the reading public? They don’t know you, so what is it about your story that instantly makes readers care about it enough to plunk down their hard-earned cash? What are the Who Cares? factors of your story? Are you an airline pilot whose life became so immersed with being in the cockpit that your life hit the ground at 600 miles an hour? Are you a desperate mother looking for answers to her dying son, whose only comfort is in his unusual chicken? These are things that make me sit up and say, “Tell me more!”
  4. Is there enough red meat? I’ve run across many queries that would have made excellent magazine articles, but didn’t have enough gas to sustain a book. These might be stories of bizarre diseases or experiences – like rescuing a dog in the desert or being hit by a car, and there wasn’t enough going on in the author’s life to create a compelling book-length story. A story with red meat has many layers where the author is appreciably transformed. Is your story one-dimensional, or is there a lot of food for thought?
  5. Do I have a solid platform? This isn’t a case of “I’ll work on establishing my platform once I get a contract.” By that time, it’s too late. Establishing a platform takes oodles of time. Same for establishing yourself on social media.

As you can see, thar be lots to consider after some darling relative or friends yelps, “You oughta write a book!” The idea is to set yourself up for success, and that means having the ability to determine whether you really have a great story in your heart, or that your friends and family need to be committed.

One Response to “You Oughta Write a Book!”

  1. Barbarann says:

    I really think you are dead on. Friends are legitimately fascinated by, say, a Mama who made ordnance for WW2, think somehow that’s glamorous, never mind she lost all her teeth and good liver function from powder poisoning. Most are far removed from that American era. They do want to know. And they can be fickle. A young relative, on learning I included her mother as a whole chapter, asked for it and five days later, to “well, whatcha think?” has not yet read it. Mostly she enjoys thinking her cousin is writerly. What I really think, is, beyond a good story well told lies vast fields of opinion about what will sell on any given day, what a reader wants between those covers, and, owning at least fifty memoirs, many self published, I confess to losing interest halfway through at least half of them. I want to know, not just the story, but how the writer survived the story. Any tools in there? Aha moments for me? writing my mother gave me a whole different perspective about who and what she was. She was a survivor. And there you have it: so am I.

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