Everything I Learned About Writing a Book… The Hard Way

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writing-a-book

I get more questions on the book writing process than anything else these days, so it seemed to make sense to put everything I’ve learned out there for anyone who’s interested. I would never claim to know everything about the publishing process and there are a lot of things that I can’t teach you. Finding an agent, for example. I was lucky enough that my agent sought me out, so I don’t have agent-hunting tips to offer you. (Sorry!) But, I do know a hell of a lot more about the whole book process than I did a few years ago.

The whole experience of coming out with a book is eerily like having a child. It’s painful, exhausting, thrilling and a big, gigantic blur once it’s over. Like delivering a baby, the moment you first hold your brand new book, the hard work is all worth it. But, the road there is not an easy one, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.

Here’s what I wish I’d known…

The Book Proposal
If you’re writing a piece of fiction, you pretty much need to have a completed manuscript to secure an agent or a book deal. That means you have an entire book to write before being able to sell it. That sucks. Get writing. If you’re writing a piece of non-fiction, you can usually get away with a proposal, especially if you have a blog to back up your writing style.

If you’re anything like me, and haven’t written an outline since high school, writing a proposal can be daunting, but it’s really pretty simple.  Here are some tips and the must-includes:

1. What is the book? And, why are you writing it?

2. Who are you? This is basically your resume.

3. Who is your audience? Take a look at Google and Facebook Analytics: Where are most of your readers? How old are they? Are they men? Women?

4. Your social presence: List your blog, Facebook page, Twitter account and any other virtual way you have to connect with people.

5. Press/Publications. Has your writing appeared in publications? Won awards? List everything.

6. Chapter Outline. Include as thorough an outline as possible. The more you do now, the less you’ll have to do later.

7. Sample Content. Have at least 4-5 chapters fully written. This doesn’t mean you can’t alter them later, but they should be what you consider final.

8. Visuals. I’m a graphic designer, so it was easy for me to add some fun graphic elements to my proposal, but it’s not hard to do. Add a picture of yourself, a screenshot of your blog and anything else to jazz it up. You want it to stand out from the crowd.

9. Hyperlinks. The easier it is for people to click around to visit your blog and other sites, the better.

10. Finally, have a few people take a look at it. It’s amazing the number of typos you (well, I) can miss yourself. A pair or two of fresh eyes is always a good idea.

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The Publishing World
Confessions of a Scary Mommy and Motherhood Comes Naturally (and other vicious lies) were both published through Simon and Schuster’s Gallery imprint. Once I had the proposal for Confessions written, my agent approached several houses and S&S were the ones who made an offer. A bidding war would have been nice, (and more lucrative), but one offer is all you really need.

People ask me if it’s necessary to have an agent at all, and the answer is a resounding yes. Unless you are self-publishing, you will absolutely want somebody on your side who knows what the hell they are doing. The 15% you pay them is more than worth it.

The self-publishing world is one with which I am not familiar but is becoming more and more popular, especially with bloggers who have a built-in audience. You don’t have the benefit of a publishing house backing you and you don’t get an advance, but you do keep all of the book profits to yourself. It’s become clear that books can thrive or fail with both traditional publishing houses and self-publishing. Here are a few things I learned about publishing with a major publisher:

1.  It’s important to click with your editor. Your editor not only edits your manuscript but also basically becomes your account manager once the book is in production. He or she is in it for the long haul, so it’s best to be able to stand them.

2. Your publisher is counting on YOU to sell your book. Sure, they’ll help, but they are assuming your audience will be the ones to buy your book. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. When my first book came out, I had over 240,000 followers on Twitter. If even half of those people bought the book, it would have been a number one bestseller. Somehow, though, numbers don’t always translate to sales, a fact which will frustrate the hell out of you.

3. Stay true to yourself. Your publisher’s job is to sell books, period. Mine came up with a book trailer that I felt misrepresented me and the book, so I nixed it and came up with my own. In retrospect, theirs may have inspired more sales than mine, but at least I felt comfortable with the one I made. That was worth some book sales to me.

4. Nobody – NOBODY cares as much about your book as you do. Not your editor, not your publisher, not your friends, not your mother and not your spouse. It’s just the way it is. Be your biggest advocate and make things happen yourself. They are doing a job, but it’s your baby.

Writing the Book
Writing a book and writing a blog are two entirely different experiences. Many of the things I love about blogging — the comments, the instant gratification and the freedom to post what I want, whenever I want — don’t exist in book writing. To say writing a book was a challenge would be putting it hugely mildly. Some tips:

1. When inspiration strikes, grab it. I would go days without having a single thing to say, and then I would write four chapters at once. When those rare times come, jump on them, because they won’t last. Stay up all night writing if you have to, and then nap the next day. It’s worth it.

2. If inspiration doesn’t strike, find it. I got great ideas thumbing through other parenting books – what did they leave out that I could include? What about the format did I like and dislike? What could I do better? Magazines helped, too. Barnes and Noble became my best friend for beating writer’s block.

3. Look at your blog. Nobody is going to pay for a book when they can get the blog for free, but you can see what worked on your site and what didn’t. Expand upon a little story you told, or continue where you left off.

4.  Back-up your work. I’ve learned this lesson a hundred times, and it still hasn’t stuck. I lost three fully written chapters that I don’t think ever ended up being re-written nearly as well as they were initially.

Motherhood Comes Naturally

Marketing and Promoting Your Book
If you publish through a traditional publisher, you will most likely be working with their marketing and publicity departments. If you self-publish, though, this will all fall on your shoulders. Even if you do have a marketing and publishing department working with you, you won’t be their only client and will most likely want to supplement with your own marketing. Of course, you could hire a private publicity firm to do it for you, if you have an extra $20,000 hanging around. Assuming you don’t, here are some ideas…

1. Come up with pre-order incentives. For a single pre-order, I offered buyers a hand-signed bookplate. They were easy and cheap to both manufacture and send. I’d do this one again. What wouldn’t I do again? The larger order incentives. For orders of 10 or more, I made book club and party packs filled with a Confessions game I came up with, cupcake toppers, onsies, recipe cards and more. The cost and effort to make them was huge, and I think the people who bulk ordered probably would have done so anyway. So not worth it.

2.  Offer a free sample. The first two chapters of mine are available for free and I notice a spike in sales whenever I share the link to them. If you can hook people on something free, they’ll hopefully pay for the rest.

3. Give away your book. I gave away my book to 50 of my blogging friends, with no strings attached. I think the trick with reviews is not to put too much pressure on people. If they want to write about it, fantastic. Even if they don’t, hopefully they’ll end up telling a friend or letting their sister borrow it. Almost all of my friends reviewed the book, and those who wanted to offered giveaways on their sites. Every little bit of word-spreading helps.

4. Do radio interviews. I love radio interviews. I could do them in my pajamas, in the carpool pick-up line or sitting in the parking lot at Target. They were the easiest, highest-return promoting I did.

5. Use your community. Don’t underestimate the people you already have on your side. Your blog readers, your neighbors, your girlfriends, your co-workers… Involve them in the excitement and they will want to help spread the word.

6. Have a party! Whether it’s a small dinner for your close friends or a big sponsored celebration, a party is a fun way to create buzz and celebrate your achievement.

7. Don’t drive people crazy. It’s a really thin line between promoting and annoying. Be aware of how often you ask people to share, support and buy, or you run the risk of alienating them completely.

TV Appearances

Scary Mommy on Today

I was fortunate enough to do some local TV before I appeared on national TV during the book tour, and thank God I did, because the thought of a national audience watching a poorly-dressed and over-made up me blabber my way through a painful interview is horrifying. My first few interviews are horrible and I feel like I get more comfortable with each one. Here are some things I’ve picked up…

1. Dress smart. This is not your average trip to the grocery store. The video clip will be seen by countless people and should live forever on your press page. Wear something flattering, but not distracting. Bold colors are good, busy patterns are not. Bulky jackets are bad, slimming dresses are good. I speak from experience.

2. Be comfortable. Now, I’m not talking about being all comfortable in your own skin because then your true beauty will come out. Snort. I mean, literally: Be comfortable. Don’t wear something that is so tight that all you are concentrating on is sucking in your gut instead of answering the questions. Trust me.

3. Practice sitting. Just because something looks great standing in a three-way dressing room mirror, doesn’t mean it will look great sitting for an interview. Assume you’ll be sitting for your interview and see how your outfit looks like that. Practice the best way to cross your legs and how to best cover your muffin top.

4. Wear heels. You’ll be sitting, anyway. There’s no excuse not to.

5. Ask the professionals to do their job. If you are offered hair and makeup, take it; it’s always better than the job you do yourself. If you do the job yourself, don’t overdo it. Better to look under made-up than like a clown.

6. Look at the interviewer, not the camera. They don’t tell you this, but you’ll look like an idiot if you don’t know it.

7. Don’t fidget. I spent a whole interview shaking my leg under the table, only to see after the fact that it was visible (and distracting) the whole time.

8. Stick to your message. Well media-trained people know how to skew an interview to get across whatever they want and you can do it, too. Get comfortable with the message you want to send before your interview and say the name of your book and blog as much as possible. Practice makes perfect. Or, at least better.

9. Sit up straight. Television is not the time to slouch.

10. Smile. It feels ridiculous to sit there grinning like an idiot, but it’s better than scowling or looking bored. And, it doesn’t look nearly as lame as you think it does.

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Personal Appearances
Unless you’re a celebrity, book tours are becoming an antiquated way of selling books.  My publisher told me this, but I didn’t believe them. I love connecting with people and was convinced that it was the secret to selling my book. And, it was… kind of. Readings can be hugely successful if people actually come to them. Sadly, getting them to come is the hard part. Some tips:

1. Choose your stops wisely. I said yes to every opportunity that was presented to me. I drove three hours to a town in Connecticut because the bookstore offered to host me. I didn’t know a single soul in Connecticut, but why not? I’ll tell you why: ONE person showed up. I pulled up a chair for her and read her a chapter of the book. I spent the rest of the evening accosting innocent strangers as they walked in the door. I sold a total of three books that night: One to the single reader of mine who came, one to the manager of the store because she felt sorry for me and one to myself, because I forgot to bring my own book to read. The lesson of the evening: If the place is a pain to get to, you don’t know anyone in the area and just don’t have a good feeling about it? Just say no.

2. Promote. My other flop of a reading took place in NYC, a city where I happen to know boatloads of people. So, why did only a handful show up to my very first reading? Because I completely forgot to tell anyone I was there. I didn’t e-mail any friends, post on Facebook or my blog or even tweet about it. Big whoops on my part. People can’t come to support you if they don’t know where you are.

3. Plan Ahead. My best stops were the ones where I had plans to meet up with people before the reading, after the reading, or both. Use your stops as an excuse to reconnect with old friends. Meet bloggers who you only know from the on-line world in person. Have dinner before and drinks after. It can be so much fun if you put some effort in beforehand.

4. Document them. I didn’t realize how much people would enjoy following along on the tour. I was afraid to annoy them, so I didn’t talk much about my stops. I wish I’d taken more pictures of the cities, shared the hotels and involved people more.

5. Enjoy it. I was traveling intensely for two months. Much of my time was spent missing the kids and feeling completely guilt ridden. Now that I’m home, I realize how ridiculous that was. I’d kill now for a private bathroom and clean king-sized bed.

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Staying Sane
If I had one thing to do over about the whole book process, it would be to savor it more. I got so caught up in sales and numbers that I rarely sat back and appreciated what I had accomplished. My final tips for you:

1. Don’t stalk your Amazon/Good Reads/B&N rankings. I became obsessed with checking in and seeing where my books stood, and once you become obsessed, it’s impossible to stop. Easy solution: Don’t allow yourself to get sucked in.

2. Don’t compare yourself. Both of my books came out the same week as other parenting/humor books written by popular bloggers, which brought out a terribly competitive side of me. The less you compare yourself to anyone else, the better.

3. Take a break. After I came home from the tour, I ignored my blog for a few weeks and gave myself the chance to miss it.

4. Be proud of what you have achieved. The reason I started my blog to begin with was to have a baby book of sorts for my kids; everything after that is gravy. Whatever your ultimate goal, appreciate what you have been able to accomplish. Again, much easier said than done, I know.

5. Keep it in perspective. This is something I have to constantly remind myself of. OK, I mean other people have to constantly remind me of, but, it’s true. Writing and publishing a book can take over your life if you let it. Chances are, your book won’t be curing cancer or helping achieve world peace. It’s just a book, something to keep in mind when you are going crazy over it.

So, in a nutshell, this book thing isn’t easy or effortless or painless, but what good things in life are? Even with all of the mistakes I made, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I have a book with my name on it, and that’s pretty damn cool. And, if I can do it? So can you. Really.

Good luck!

This should probably be dealt with in therapy, but I don’t have a therapist, so here goes

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I’ve had a shitty last six months.

I mean, it’s not normal to want to burst into tears (and occasionally do so) whenever someone asks a simple “how are you,” right?

Well, that’s been my normal for quite some time…

I discovered after the first book release how very much I loved the highs that came along with publishing a book. Sure, there were lows last year – that time a single person came to a reading comes to mind – but there were enough highs to balance them out. Hitting the New York Times list! Going on a book tour! Earning out my advance! Selling the foreign rights! The highs were so, so high. And I became completely addicted to them.

They ended abruptly, however, and over the summer I called my agent and told her I was bored. Nobody wanted to interview me or have me speak at events or do readings anywhere, I whined. I missed the excitement; the roller coaster ride I’d been spoiled by. Write another book, she responded simply. So I did.

After the hard part – the writing- was over, I excitedly prepared for the release. No longer a first time author, I knew exactly what to expect this time. It would be bigger and better than the last one. Bring on the highs, universe! I was ready with a capital R.

Unfortunately, those highs I’d been craving never came. That second book? It turned out to be nothing but lows. Low after low after low that kicked my sorry ass.

It began immediately before the release date when I was informed that because of a dispute with my publisher, Simon and Schuster, Barnes and Noble would be pulling all of my books – along with those from many other of their authors – from store shelves. Like, every store shelf. No in-store promotion, no on-line promotion, no Barnes and Noble book tour. Just like that. I was asked not to talk about the whole mess, so I didn’t. Focus on Amazon sales, put on a happy face and move forward, I was advised. So that’s what I tried to do.

The first week’s performance was dismal. And it only got worse.

It could have been the Barnes and Noble thing. Or the bombings at the Boston Marathon that happened shortly after. Or the abundance of similar themed books to come out at the same exact time. Perhaps it was just too soon for another book or maybe I was just meant to be a one hit book wonder.

Whatever it was, while the first book’s sales were strong enough to safely assume there’d be a follow up, the second one was making it pretty clear there wouldn’t be a third. I felt rather like I’d been hit by a train. How’d that happen when I signed up for a fucking roller coaster?

And the lows just kept on coming. The amazing 20/20 segment my community members and I filmed was killed because it was simply too… positive. It wasn’t juicy enough; not salacious enough to make good TV. The press coverage I was promised never came through. Books never arrived to several events I appeared at, so even though I had a captive audience, I was unable to actually sell them books. I tried to maintain a sense of humor and perspective over it all, but without the highs to balance out the lows, book number two became nothing but a failure to me.

Time after time, I was advised not to talk about the negative stuff on the site. Nobody likes a loser; if you appear successful, you’ll be successful, I was told. So, I stayed mum and hoped the book would somehow turn itself around, and every week it didn’t, another little piece of my self-worth would chip away.

This blog — the one place I’ve always been honest and nothing but — became somewhere I suddenly had to fake it. I built a whole community based on telling the truth, and here I was unable to address any of the feelings and disappointments I was dealing with. I’d write stupid fluffy pieces, unable to go any deeper because deeper was the bad stuff I wasn’t supposed to talk about. It felt dishonest to write anything substantial without really delving into what I was dealing with. So I slowly disappeared, adding more and more contributors to the roster to write words that I could not.

I am proud that this site has become so community driven. There are countless things I can’t write about anymore – pregnancy seems like a lifetime ago, and my kids are at an age where I’m not willing to share each and every little thing that they go through. I love having other women fill that void and add perspectives that I am unable to. But, at the same time, I missed having a voice here, too, and I started to resent the site because of it. The site I built; the site I love.

This probably sounds utterly shallow and ridiculous. Maybe you’re rolling your eyes and filing this under “Problems Entitled Bitches Have.” I’ve been so lucky to even publish two books and things certainly could be a hell of a lot worse. But, right or wrong, the last six months have beaten me down. It’s been six months of putting on a happy face and not burning bridges and doing what I was told.

It’s been six months too long. And I’m done.

I’m finally ready to crawl out of the hole I’ve put myself in. I want to feel the pride I once felt here instead of drowning under the weight of disappointment. I want to write again, instead of feeling nothing but insecurity and deleting posts before publishing them, hiding behind the role of editor. I want to be inspired and excited and positive, and I don’t think I can do that unless I come clean with you all about how it’s been.

So, there you have it; the honest to goodness truth from me, for a change. Halle-fucking-lujah.

Onward and upward, my friends. It’s time.

Oops… I Did It Again

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Remember how I said that writing a book was just like having a baby? It really, really was. From the sleepless nights to the obsessing over every little thing to life never being the same since.

Well, I have a new point to add to that list: Amnesia.

You know how you block out exactly how miserable the aches and pains of pregnancy were? How you immediately forget the disgustingness that is childbirth? How those miserable nights with a newborn don’t really stick in your brain and just the sweet breathing and precious little bodies do?

I’ve similarly forgotten just how crazy the book writing process made me and have found myself aching for a new bundle of joy. The new release table gives me baby fever and I caress the cover of my book the way I used to old onsies and baby booties.

Somehow, I became addicted to the insanity that is book publishing and am excited to announce that I am book-knocked up all over again! My amazing agent and wonderful team at Simon and Schuster are along for the ride and we expect our little delivery, Motherhood Comes Naturally (And Other Vicious Lies), in the spring/summer of 2013…

big-sister-508x525The roller coaster begins again.

(Anyone have a barf bag?)

Shameless

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I’ve long acknowledged that having children was the end of any sense of modesty for me. Shitting on the delivery table? Yup, that put the kabbash on that.

Writing a book, however, brought me to a whole new level.

I am now completely and utterly shameless. This, my friends, is how I now spend my days…

How I wish I were kidding.

In the last couple weeks, I’ve begun accosting innocent strangers who shall now associate Barnes and Noble with crazy ladies. I’ve made it a habit to visit at least one bookstore a day, so I can rearrange the store displays. I sneak in Sharpies to sign copies which I haven’t been asked to sign. I shove the book in people’s faces so they have no choice but to see it.

I’ve officially gone crazy.

So, please… just buy the book.

Don’t make me come and find you.