Everything I Learned About Writing a Book... The Hard Way

by Scary Mommy
Originally Published: 

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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!

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