Pretty regularly, people ask me for writing advice. Many folks have an idea or a story they want to turn into a book. Yet, since I’m an athlete who’s an author, rather than an expert in the publishing business, I don’t always know exactly what to say.
I can tell you what worked for me, though, and I can point you in the right direction to get all the answers you need.
For anyone who wants to publish nonfiction, here’s my first recommendation: 30 Days to a Successful Book ($14.95) by Karen Risch and Victoria St. George. For organizing your thoughts, expressing yourself, understanding your audience, learning how publishing works–really, everything to do with the discipline, artistry, and the practical aspects of making a book–this one nails it.
You’ll follow the exact same process I did when I put together the proposal for Running on Empty, which you can use whether you’re planning to find an agent or to self-publish. Get it before you write your first chapter! It’s a guidebook: something you don’t just read, but instead a series of questions you answer to create a business plan for a book, to fully conceptualize it so you can both write it well and sell it. Not for nothing, it also includes advice from my stellar literary agent, Stephen Hanselman, with a self-assessment that helps you tell if what you’ve created is any good.
True, there are a lot of other resources on the book world. What’s different about this one is that it is so direct. No fluff! Just specific, actionable advice that will put you on the right track for creating a book that you can be proud of and that people will want to buy and read.
Get 30 Days to a Successful Book for the specifics, and in the meanwhile, here’s some general advice based on what I have learned so far:
- Write the proposal first. It was a surprise to me to find out that the first step isn’t the manuscript. It’s the proposal, which includes your marketing and promotion plan, a review of comparable books, an overview of your book, your bio, a sample chapter, and an outline of your chapters. This is the document that 30 Days to a Successful Book guides you to create. And the same document your agent will use to pitch your book to publishers, or the same document you will use to guide your self-publishing efforts. If you work with an agent and publisher, they may “tweak” some of your ideas to help you write something even better than you originally conceived.
- Work with people you trust. Every book that gets published is a team effort. From the author (you) to your agent, your editor(s), and your publicist, you want to form a team of people who not only know their jobs but also who have each others’ backs. As a first-timer, I was incredibly fortunate to fall in with a top-notch crowd. Bart Yasso introduced me to my agent, Steve, who negotiated a great deal for me with a long-time colleague of his at Penguin. She was an advocate for the book and a sounding board in ensuring its excellence inside and out. I also worked with an independent editor–Karen, one of the authors of 30 Days to a Successful Book–who helped shape the manuscript, guide me through the publishing process, and design our launch campaign. And Heather, of course, was central. My wife read and fact-checked, kept her bullshit meter on, and helped make this book as close a reflection of the “real me” as it could be.
- Present what’s actually interesting. It’s easy to get caught up in the details of something, to overexplain, to think something’s crucial to your book because it’s important to you. But sometimes, no one else really cares about the very thing that fascinates you. This is where good editors shine. They have a knack for carving out the extraneous and keeping you focused. I can’t tell you (because I can’t even guess) how many pages I churned out that never made it into my book.
- Be honest. Everyone talks about the value of authenticity these days, and for good reason: people respond to the truth and to writers who are willing to reveal their weaknesses along with their strengths. This can be tough to do. It’s hard not to succumb to the temptation to always “look good,” but it’s worth resisting! Tell your story. Your version, of course, but with as much self-awareness as you can muster.
Do you have a book idea in the works? What have you done to put your dream into action?