If I Write a Book: Your Feedback

About five years ago, I revised a new edition of the Beginning Writer’s Answer Book for Writer’s Digest, which is in Q&A format.

A lot has changed since then.

Obviously the industry is transforming, but also my beliefs about writers and writing have changed. (See here for my post about the dirty secret about writing advice.)

Many writers have asked me to do another book, on about every topic imaginable. Every time I consider it, I keep coming back to the same belief.

Most advice books—the types I think could be successful in the marketplace—ultimately must push aside complexity and dilemma.

I don’t mean to say that writers can’t improve or be instructed by advice books. Or that a writing life is something terrible and difficult.

But more and more writing advice can confuse or block people, rather than help them. There’s always conflicting advice to be found! Some writers have to (or SHOULD) ignore advice, and do their own thing.

More writers need to learn how to think for themselves about these issues, to see the nuance, to recognize the paradoxes they will inevitably encounter, and to filter through what advice exists to find what is personally useful—as well as realize when or how the information can be useful or applied, because timing can be everything.

Prescriptive methods and/or encouragements work only some of the time, for some writers—they never work for all. The writing itself never gets any easier, no matter how much you know or publish. The dilemmas never go away.

But the kind of book I would like to write—or that I think writers need—doesn’t offer foolproof methods, or surefire plans. And, as such, it’s probably not so marketable.
 
So what do you think? What kind of book would you like to see?

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30 thoughts on “If I Write a Book: Your Feedback

  1. Ruben

    Brilliant post! I also read your previous post on the unsaleable book idea.

    I agree when you say publishers may not understand, so it will be hard to sell, but I might have found a way:

    I would call the book something along the lines of "Conquering every writer’s dilemmas". Then don’t write the whole book, just one chapter. Spread it to your readers. Get feedback. If there’s chemistry, write another chapter. Maybe ask a buck for it. Then another until you have the book.

    Also, I think you have reached a point of saturation/professionalism in which you are past most writing advice, but many are not. It could help you if you identified maybe 3 levels writers could be in. You are in the furtest level and looking back at writing advice it looks trite. But maybe you could never have reached that level without that writing advice in the first place.

    Lastly, you help more people you know. Those who REALLY implement your ideas, well, you don’t hear from them much (how many of the writing-advice-writers you read did you contact? Probably few, because you are competent enough to apply their teachings on your own). The ones – especially those in your immediate surroundings – you do see, often are the ones who constantly want to talk but not implement what you say. (I teach people to make and market story-based videogames and see the same thing).

    I hope this encourages you. I know I go through the same things when serving others in honing their craft. It really is an advanced-teacher’s dilemma! ;)

    Ruben

  2. David mark brown

    I have benefitted greatly from your blog, and you are right that the best craft books are much different in style than online writing. I feel that the best ones take one aspect of craft and dive deeply into it. But there are many out there already.
    My two cents: target a specific set of skills or knowledge set that you have found yourself blogging about or asking about frequently and produce an ebook by essentially compiling your blog. I realize this wouldn’t really be a writing/craft book but it would be a very digestible way to share your wisdom and experience. Rarely do I make the effort to acquire and read a craft book, but I read blogs on craft almost every day.
    Whether someone was finding your blog for the first time or a regular, a sampler ebook could be a great way to shove quick bits of wisdom into the schedule. And it would be worth paying for. And it would be a lower hurdle for you as well.
    At the very least I think any book should use the goods of which you speak in it’s production and publication.

  3. Marleen Gagnon

    I think you’re right. There are so many self help books out for writers that I can get caught up in "everything is wrong with my writing and here is how to fix it". While I try to fix everything, I don’t move forward. As I pick up the pages of my manuscript (that I’ve thrown across the room because another book is telling me I’m doing it wrong) I’m at least grateful I’ve numbered the pages.
    But one of the changes in publishing is e-books. While I keep up with your posts every day and glean information I wonder about e-book publishing. Perhaps a book about this, what it entails and how it’s different from conventional books in the new publishing world.

  4. Linn B Halton

    I think you are in an excellent position to have your finger on the pulse of what troubles today’s up and coming writers. Your blog is a good example as you instinctively pick up on the topics that are currently ‘hot’ and how often is there one right answer to any question? Usually it’s an ongoing discussion that develops with time, which is why I doubt anything you penned would be ‘out of date’ before it was completed. I also favour the ‘memoirs’ style as it helps to learn about other people’s experiences, especially if it includes the things they did that didn’t turn out as well as they had hoped. How about something for the very new and very naive? People who write and then worry about all the other stuff afterwards? People who don’t understand the jargon and are bewildered when, having found a publisher who likes their book, are shocked to find they have to start marketing themselves in tandem? Something to grab onto when the rose-tinted spectacles start to slip! I’d certainly buy it.

  5. Erika Robuck

    I think a memoir/meditation in the style of ON WRITING or BIRD BY BIRD would be best. I like advice books with a personal component–that are FIRST personal, THEN tackle advice. If it’s framed as a memoir of sorts, it won’t become dated. It will outline what you know/your journey so far.

    Also, please make sure to include a chapter on good bourbon. :)

  6. Porter Anderson

    Jane, this really is a terrific video, thanks for the link to it. I’ve scanned it and will sit down and see the whole thing (maybe commit it to memory and chant it hourly) later this evening after Actually Doing Some Writing. :-) Really nice of you. And UPS just dropped off my copy of Christina’s GET KNOWN BEFORE THE BOOK DEAL, too, which I found — as I did Steve Pressfield’s Semper-Fi-kick-ass-superb THE WAR OF ART — thanks to you. Nice job as editor and "publishing wise-woman" on Christina’s book, btw!

    OK, now turning my RescueTime.com Focus Mode back on. Dive, dive, dive …

  7. Penny Ray

    Jane, I think you’re correct when you say that most writers need to stop focusing on all the advice they are receiving and instead just do their own thing. I worked in broadcasting for almost 10 years and occasionally wrote ad copy and news shorts. Years later when I wanted to write full time, I read everything I could on how to start freelancing. Then I decided that I should get a job as a writer to build my portfolio and everyone I talked to said I should finish my degree in communications first, because the good job listings required it. I never finished my degree even though I intend to and I didn’t choose a different career field. I now write freelance on a regular basis covering personal finance and sports in Northern Virginia. The one piece of advice that I took completely to heart was to persist and write without fail. If I had listened to everyone else I’d be working retail right now and not nearly as happy.

    I don’t know what you should write a book about, but whatever it is someone WILL read it!

  8. Jane Friedman

    Thanks to everyone so far who has offered up thoughts and advice. All extremely valuable!

    As someone who so often counsels writers, "Does it really need to be a BOOK?" I am skeptical that I ought to embark on a formal book project.

    That said, if I do, it would bear little resemblance to what I post on this blog. Online writing needs to be specific, brief, and consumed quickly. It needs to attract attention to itself with catchy headlines, lists, and numbers—or it doesn’t get read.

    These days, I see the book format as a place where I can focus, concentrate, and develop some deeper ideas that aren’t appropriate for the blogging medium.

    That said, there are some online-based works I’m considering — that I would do on my own — but the question is one of time and energy. I can only produce them when I’m not teaching/working full-time, and to produce the very richest content (e.g., action-oriented workbook on platform), I’ll have to charge. The best stuff ain’t free.

  9. Porter Anderson

    Jane,

    I know exactly what our good friend Dave Malone is saying in his responses here. I also like some of your "vs." topics in your "Secrets" post, especially Confidence vs. Ego (who, me?) and Professionalism vs. Eccentricity (who, me?). Those are dilemmas that we’re not always eager to discuss. Which means I’d love to discuss them.

    I’d like to propose, however — while agreeing with Dave that you’re doing such a nicely positioned job with your blog — that if you must sally forth with another book, you might consider this "vs." topic:

    THE INDUSTRY! THE INDUSTRY! vs. Actually Doing Some Writing.

    I might e-mail you more about it, rather than crashing your Comments here with "Porter’s Complaint" in its entirety. (It got too long, and I need to Actually Do Some Writing.) But the short squib is that the writing community seems determined to have us all hold hands and obsess like a laser (did I write that?) on the business aspects of things to such a degree that Actually Doing Some Writing is getting harder and harder.

    Am I alone? This wouldn’t be unusual. But I mean really. I’ve got those query-guide, transmedia, e-books are swell, publishers are dying (again), blog-‘em-to-death, tweet-‘em-down, Face(your)Book, self-publish vs. the other thing, crit-groupies and my kingdom for an agent blues.

    Thank God Death kindly stopped for Emily Dickenson before she had to build a platform.
    -p.

  10. Shannon Evans

    I do know that writing advice books are successful if they contain real strategies and real techniques applicable to the average writing life. My problem with 90% of the writing advice books is that they contain much of the theoretical and little of the practical applications that the intermediate writer who is working to pay the bills as well as create a platform and garner the attention of a publisher or agent. There is much written on the topic of ‘build a writing platform and build a writing resume ‘ but little to nothing on the actual ways to design a plan and execute it so that a writing life is actually attainable and sustainable. I look forward to reading more of your practical strategies for writers!

  11. Dave Malone

    I’ve been thinking about the line you wrote about "the book you’d like to write"–(I’m going to sound like you here?). Your blog seems like a perfect place where you can offer surefire strategies in context (as you have done for me and so many others). So why do you envision a book (or ebook?)? Is it to reach more writers who don’t follow your blog?

  12. Dave Malone

    Jane,

    I’m going to disagree with most here. :(

    And I’d be tempted to agree with you, Jane, that writing an advice book is not necessary.

    You have given me 3 chunks of advice that are simple (and reflexive).
    1) Find your voice.
    2) Grab your niche audience.
    3) Work that platform.

    Repeat refrain.

    Sure that can be developed into a book (because each of those 3 areas are very rich).

    Going back home to the Ozarks, I have found my voice and my people. I am building a niche audience, which is a helluva lot of fun at the pub. And the platform is stable and will grow with more publications, a new book (which is imminent).

    As you intimated, you never arrive. That’s a fuckin myth. As Raymond Carver said, you just go on writing.

    It’s in the blood.

    So sure, a book can be helpful. But like a person who’s found enlightenment, reading books on spirituality are like gentle loving pats on the back, and you can say, "ah, yes, that’s nice."

    :-)

  13. Mayowa

    Jane,

    I applaud you for asking this question. You are doing something fewer and fewer writers do before embarking on new projects. You are asking if this story needs to be told and if can be told in the right way given the realities of the business.

    Well done.

    I’ve come to believe that 80% of writing books cover the same topics with variations in voice, format etc. It’s an exercise in diminishing returns after reading the third or fourth one. I don’t think anything helps a writer get better like reading great books.

    I’d love to read a book about the publishing industry from you. You’re one of the few folks providing thought leadership for writers on these matters and I think many people would benefit from it.

  14. Lynne M Spreen

    As Bob Mayer said, you might go with epublishing, because whatever you say will be outdated quickly, and things are so dynamic right now your book would have to come out fast and be changeable.

    And then I realized, I’m describing a blog!

  15. Steven M Moore

    I gave up on self-help books for writers about five years ago, even before I took early retirement and embarked on my third career as an author. About that time I also gave up on the idea of yet another degree, an MFA, because I decided I have what most recent MFA graduates don’t: a lifetime of experiences that will define my fiction. While I occasionally send out a post about writing in my blog, I think the best prep for an author is to read, read, read, in the genre he has chosen. The idea is not to copy but learn the tricks of the trade by example. For the same reason, a Harvard MBA is based on case studies. To broaden my reading horizons, I also became a reviewer, a choice which has, in general, brought delight, bringing within my compass new authors in my genre who have fresh ideas. This is what is working for me. I do enjoy your blog, though, so keep on writing!

  16. Sally Pasley Vargas

    Jane, I would buy whatever book you wanted to write! I love hearing what you have to say and enjoy your intelligent yet practical approach to things.

    I wish publishers would think beyond "surefire" and "foolproof." That’s like expecting a one-cure-fits-all cure for cancer. Yeah, that would be a guaranteed best-seller. Like the other readers above, I think anecdotes, breaking the rules, platform building, overcoming psychological hurtles are all very relevant and non-prescriptive topics. I am a non-fiction writer, so of course, I would want a bit about that, too.

    I once tried to write a book proposal according to a formula in a well-regarded book. It was as flat as a pancake, so I really had to tear it up and start over with a completely different approach. Trusting ourselves is something more writers need to do, but we need to reflect on some sensible guidelines while doing it, too.

  17. Susan Cushman

    I’m reading Betsy Lerner’s "The Forest for the Trees" right now, and I think it’s her voice that I love as much as the information she delivers. I feel like I’m sitting in a room chatting with her. And yes, what she shares is valuable, but like you said, there are lots of "how-to write" books out there. Your blog is like this, and you will bring your voice and experience to whatever book you write, and we will all profit greatly by what you share with us. Happy New Year, Jane!

  18. Jenn Crowell

    Let me just say, first off, that I would read any craft book you might put out. You’re such a straightforward and sensible presence in publishing, and that’s vital in a market in which there’s so much hype (craft books being no exception).

    As for my own personal craft book wish list (and I will admit to being a bit of a junkie in that department), I would absolutely love to see a solid book for those of us writing literary/mainstream fiction that bridges the gap between more academic texts (Burroway et al.) and genre-oriented ones. So many people (wrongly) assume that "literary" equals "no attention paid to plot and structure," but as a literary novelist who actively struggles with the balance between attention paid to narrative arc and language, I really crave a resource like that.

    Also, a book on marketing/platform development/social media geared specifically toward fiction writers would be fabulous.

  19. Laura Campbell

    Hmmm…what kind of book what I like to see written. Encouraging words. I completely agree that a writer just needs to get out there and write. Reading advice sometimes causes my creative and motivation flow to stop. Complete understanding of my inferiority plants sneaky seeds of doubt. I would love to read passages, sentences or even stories of other writers pushing through their anxiety. Laura Campbell

  20. Theresa Munroe

    I own a bunch of books about writing and have read more. From each one I get a little bit of new insight although the general information is pretty standard. I’m ready to read about writers’ personal experiences. Like when someone decided to not follow advice or the rules and why and what happened. There are plenty of decent to good ‘how to’s.’ Maybe we need some ‘what if’s." I’m having a dilemma right now on my work in progress I would like to find an agent for soon and even though I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who can answer it, some advice based on the experience of other writers would be welcome.

  21. Erin Monahan

    I have many books about writing and I reference them often. But I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with the craft. It can be agonizing, but I feel so accomplished when I complete a project.

    I agree with your take on writers needing to think for themselves. At least this applies to me. I sometimes get stuck emulating other writers and lose confidence when I can’t seem to get into the flow as quickly as they do. Still, it helps when I remember that all writers, even the big shots, face common dilemmas.

    Please write this book!

  22. Bob Mayer

    One good thing is that with eBooks and POD you can update books relatively easily. I’m in the process of updating The Novel Writers Toolkit which F&W published back in 2001. The thing that impressed me so much about F&W back then was that it was the first (and still only) publisher I worked with that used Track Changes for the editorial process. Pretty scary that the Big 6 still rely on the paper manuscript, pencil marks and post it notes. Does not bode well for their future.
    I think a key to these types of books is that the readers understand where the author is coming from.
    Also, if they read enough of these books and listen to enough authors speak, they will see common threads that should resonate.
    One thing I always say as part of Warrior Writer is if I hear something or read something that pisses me off, I’d better pay damn close attention because I’ve just heard a truth.

  23. Leah

    Jane, I would buy that book you talk about in the "dirty little secrets" post, too. I’d love more "real talk."

    Even advice that’s wrong for us can be useful, as you said. But it requires a critical, comparative mindset to pick and choose your own truths, not a passive and absorbent one.

    I think teaching writers to be more critical about their own work and about the process, more discerning, more self-reliant instead of rule-reliant, is where writing guidance needs to go.

    And I’m especially interested in advice that doesn’t present itself as advice per se, but more like a case study. The excellent blog edittorrent does this (http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/): the editors approach the problem instead of the rule, so it feels less like they’re looking for weak areas to apply rules to, and more like they’re assessing the work in a wholistic, organic way–figuring out what’s best for the story instead of ticking off rules 2, 5, and 8. Sometimes this leads to breaking the rules in a creative, surprisingly pleasant way.

    I think a key part of teaching writers how to transcend the rules (after internalizing them) is showing the problem-solving process, showing how the creative mind approaches a problem and where it decides to break from convention. The case study may be too specific for us to replicate, but it can teach us how to recognize opportunities, how to be prepared for them.

    Jane, I’m thrilled that you’re thinking outside the box like this, and I’m excited to see what comes of it. Thanks for all you do. Happy holidays!

  24. Robin Mizell

    As you say, scope creep is the problem with the proposed topic. Maybe the book’s format will make all the difference. Have you heard of Quora? It’s supposedly designed to present advice offered by expert sources and to allow frequent updates. I haven’t registered in order to explore the site, so I’m not sure it will float. Another possibility is to write standalone chapters, which book buyers can then compile as they see fit. I’ve seen custom compilations published in print and ebook formats. Textbook and travel book publishers have been offering customization for quite a while. AnthologyBuilder does it for fiction, and there must be others.

    Sorry. :) I know this isn’t what you meant when you asked "what kind of book."

  25. Christy

    I for one would love to read the kind of book that you wanted to write in your previous post "the dirty secret behind writing advice." I am especially interested in your take on those who have inate talent v. those who practice. I am someone who, of course, believes I have talent and yet I so far lack the perserverence needed to finish anything. I always tell my friends who encourage me to write that talent is about 10% of what it takes to be successful and 90% is perserverence. I have read the work of many people who are prolific yet dreadful writers. So, it obviously takes a combination of both which I am still trying to achieve.

    I also agree with you wholeheartedly that, ultimately, a writer must pick and choose the advice that works for him or her. I once read that an author I admire always listens to music when she writes. She uses it as inspiration and even has playlists for each book. So I decided I needed to listen to music in order to write. It was an utter disaster. I was and am so distracted by the lyrics of the songs that I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. So, feeling like I was doomed to failure as a writer because I couldn’t do it the same way she did, I made a desperate attempt to find more advice that might save me. Finally, I was blissfully relieved when I found another author I admire saying that she absolutely could not write while listening to music. In fact, she had to have complete silence. I felt so free! I learned that I don’t have to listen to music when I write and there are as many ways to write as there are stories and you have to do what works for you.

  26. YKG

    When it comes to advice on writing I find it’s the little insights that are truly the most helpful. For example, hearing someone else talk about the overcoming the little voice in your head that always tells you everything you do is wrong, or what it felt like when you started writing full time after working in a more traditional environment – is all really helpful.

  27. Michele

    I think you should write from your experience and share what you know. I would like to see a book expanding from this article in which you write of the raw and real facts in addition to the obstacles writers face. Encouraging writers to be their own unique selves and to recognize that everything you write while it may not be what’s considered "marketable" or amass a million dollars it could be of help to some in immeasurable ways. Just my two cents!

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