By Jennie Nash
In publishing, everything starts with the quality of the book. Today you’ll hear from editor and book coach Jennie Nash. In the course of her work, Jennie sees firsthand what authors tend to get wrong as they write their books–the rookie mistakes, the glaring errors, the fatal flaws. Her post today digs into three of the most common mistakes, and offers solutions for how to fix them. Enjoy.
I’m a book coach, which means that I am in the business of helping writers:
- envision their books,
- structure them,
- execute them,
- and get them into the hands of readers.
In a perfect world, writers would always come to me at the very start of a project – when their idea is just a glimmer in their eye. I could help them:
- consider what their ideal reader wants,
- figure out the best shape for the material,
- determine how to engage that reader on every page,
- ensure that there is narrative drive from sentence one to “the end”,
- and write with the authority and confidence they need to succeed.
It is not, alas, a perfect world, and a great many writers come to me after they have suffered the heartbreak of a book that has fallen flat.
What does that reality look like?
- The book was finished and polished, but it failed to catch the eye of an agent or traditional publishing house. Most agents turn down somewhere in the neighborhood of 98% of the books that are pitched to them.
- The book was self-published but it failed to capture the hearts of very many readers. The vast majority of self-published books only sell a couple hundred copies to the writer’s friends and family.
- The writer built a platform, orchestrated some innovative marketing plans, and invested some dollars in publicity, but the book failed to have the impact the writer dreamed of having. It didn’t start a conversation, didn’t catch fire.
The writers want to know what’s wrong with their books and the truth is that it’s usually not that big a mystery. To someone with a trained eye, the problems are glaringly obvious.
Agents confirm this truth when they say that that they can decide on a book’s worth in less than 5 pages. Writers are naturally horrified at this statement because they wrote 173 pages or 312 or 786 – and they know that some of the best pages are midway through the book or in Chapter 23 or at the end when everything comes together in glorious triumph. How can someone make a judgment in just 5 pages?
Consider for a moment how you choose the books you read, because odds are good that you make these kinds of snap judgments all the time. If you are flipping through books at a bookstore, or on your Kindle, you probably take less than 3 minutes to decide if you are going to buy the book or not. You scan the book summary, you turn to page 1 and read a little, and you instantly make your decision.
Readers are very savvy consumers. They are highly attuned to what works and what doesn’t. They can hone in on flaws like a heat-seeking missile – except when it comes to their own work. In this, we all tend to be blind as a bat.
That’s because writing uses very different muscles than reading. Reading is a linear, chronological experience. We start on page 1 and read through to “the end.” The narrative we are following – whether it is a tale from King Arthur’s roundtable, a biography of Abraham Lincoln, or a chronicle of the building of the Mars rover – proceeds with a comforting logic.
Writing, on the other hand, is a complex, creative process that is often the exact opposite of linear. It twists forward and back on itself like an Escher drawing as the writer builds the logic the reader demands. A small percentage of writers – the lucky 1% — are native geniuses who can start on page 1 and successfully write forward, straight through the chaos. If the rest of us try this approach, however, the result is often a mess. It’s clear in the first 5 pages that underneath the pretty prose, we are winging it.
What mistakes are the most common?
There is no clearly defined target audience.
Every book, including every novel, needs to be written to a clearly defined target audience. Beginning writers tend to say their ideal readers are “book club members,” or “businessmen,” or the dreaded “everyone.” Suffice it to say that if you think your book will appeal to everyone, it’s going to end up appealing to no one. I see a great many books where the writer has been sloppy in identifying their ideal reader and misguided in speaking to them. They write a middle grade novel with young adult themes. Or they write a novel meant to take book club members inside Washington politics but it reads so much like a position paper that the only people who would care are hard-core policy wonks. Or they write a book for mothers of advanced maternal age — and half the time they are addressing moms who are already pregnant and half the time they are addressing moms who are trying to get pregnant. The book ends up speaking to neither group.
The Fix: Study your genre and identify your ideal reader in excruciating detail before you begin to write. If you are in the middle of writing now, stop and do this work before writing forward. Keep your ideal reader in mind every time you sit down to write. Imagine her asking, “And so?” or “Why should I care?” Because when she picks up your book one day that is exactly what she will be asking.
There is no point.
Every good book – from a wordless picture book to a thousand-page epic to a complex treatise from our greatest thinkers – can be boiled down to one overarching, powerful point about human nature or the world. Writers who know how to capture reader’s attention keep this point at the forefront of their minds every single second they are working on the book – and that includes axing anything that doesn’t serve it. Pick up a book you have loved, a book that has moved you. Read the opening five pages and odds are excellent that the point is stated right there in black and white – perhaps in a subtle and artful way, perhaps with great nuance, but it is there.
Writers who have no single overarching point tend to wander aimlessly. They throw in everything and the kitchen sink, and leave their writers frustrated and confused.
The Fix: Write down your point and keep it near the place where you work so it can be your North Star as you write forward. How do you identify your point? Imagine that you are on Oprah’s couch (or The Today Show or The Tonight Show or whatever your dream venue for reaching readers) and Oprah says, “Can you tell our audiences what your book’s about?” You are probably not going to waste your precious airtime talking about the plot or the what of your book. You are going to talk about the point – why it matters, what it does for readers, why it resonates with them. Don’t worry if your point sounds like a cliché. That probably means you’re on the right track.
There is no room for the reader.
This problem is rampant, and fatal. Memoir writers write as if they are writing in a journal – and the resulting books are sadly self-indulgent. Writers of self-help, how-to, and nonfiction narrative forget their own “burden of knowledge” – the fact that they know vastly more about the topic than the reader. They fail to take our hand and walk us through the material in a way that makes sense for us, and so they leave us guessing and confused. Fiction writers write as if they are a camera recording the physical events of the story – “She sighed,” “He smiled,” “He took her hand.” These writers forget that the reader has absolutely no idea what the sigh, smile or hand holding means and they refuse to tell us because they are convinced this would violate the rule “show don’t tell.”
The Fix: Study how emotion is conveyed in the kind of work you want to produce. What “show don’t tell” means – and it applies to all the genres – is show us the why, the emotional truth to what you are saying, the underlying meaning. It means, “let the reader inside the story.” There are actual technical skills for how it is done – and it is not using overblown language or a preponderance of adverbs (she said, sternly.) Go back to the books you studied for finding out the point and read the pages in the book that you consider the emotional highpoint. Put a little pencil checkmark where you feel something and name that feeling – curiosity, concern, interest, surprise, foreboding. Now look at how the writer did it. They’re playing a cat and mouse game, engaging with you across space and time, opening the work up to make room for your involvement – which is precisely why we fall in love with books. They invite us in.
On Thursday, February 18th, I will be holding a free hour-long webinar to dig deeper into these 3 mistakes, and will expand on them to talk about 6 other mistakes specific to fiction, memoir and how-to/self help. In all cases, I will give the fix, and offer resources for how to learn more about avoiding common mistakes. I’d love for you to join me. (Register Here.)
The goal is for your next book to be your best book.
Jennie Nash is an author of several books including novels The Threadbare Heart, and The Last Beach Bungalow, and the memoir The Victoria’s Secret Catalog Never Stops Coming and Other Lessons I Learned From Breast Cancer. She is a book coach, an instructor at the UCLA Extension Writing Program, and the founder and Chief Creative Office of The Author Accelerator, an online affordable book coaching program to help writers get from inspiration to publication. Her self-published clients have earned national awards for their work. Learn more about Jennie at her website JennieNash.com.