Everything I Know About Book Writin’
The American dramatist Gene Fowler once said, “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” There’s some encouragement for you.
I wrote and published my first book a while back, and I learned a great deal from the experience. I feel obliged to share what I learned with aspiring writers. The word ‘aspiring,’ of course, is derived from the Latin aspirare, to breathe, which implies that aspiring to write is as easy as breathing. In my experience, writing is more difficult than that, although both involve an element of wheezing.
Let me summarize what I learned about writing:
- I should never jot down notes in longhand, with pen and paper unless I intend to immediately transfer them to my computer, because I will be unable to decipher them after even a few hour.
- It’s important to write about what you know, so that you are perceived as an ‘expert.’ Since I only started cooking a couple of years ago, choosing to write 267 pages about food may have not been the best call, marketing-wise.
- If you want to write two hundred and some-odd pages about something, it’s good to have an outline, so that you don’t tell all of your friends that the book they’ve been hearing about for the last year is almost finished, only to realize that when it’s put together in book format, it’s only about a hundred and twenty pages long.
- The half-assed, pot-and-booze fueled ramblings that you posted at 3 a.m. on your blog because you “just wanted to get them out there” do, in fact, need to be edited and proofread before they can be part of an actual book.
- As it turns out, backing up your manuscript is a good idea. About forty-thousand words into my manuscript, my computer had a meltdown due to a virus, or a worm, or a Trojan horse or whatever creature feeds on a computer’s innards. Until I recovered my backup file, I was looking at reconstructing forty chapters from memory.
It was several days after finishing my manuscript before I tackled the editing and proofreading part of the process. At a certain point I realized that a freelance editor was unlikely to wander into my apartment, strike up a conversation, and offer to edit the book for me.
The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. ~ Mark Twain
The first draft of anything is shit. ~ Ernest Hemingway
In its final form, my book comprises 44,608 words. Most of those words were just fine as I wrote them. In days of yore, I would have simply ‘photocopied’ them at the library, stapled them together, and distributed them by hand, not caring about the angst and confusion that can be caused by sloppy punctuation and improper margins.
One would think that, since I have more than a little touch of OCD, I would be a natural at something as nitpicky and tedious as proofreading. Unfortunately, I also have ADD, so I don’t really have the patience or concentration to let the OCD take charge.
But I pressed on, and I found some mistakes. Most of my errors were caused by the fact that I was essentially ‘cobbling together’ pieces that weren’t originally meant to be connected. If you do enough cutting, copying, pasting, dragging, and dropping, you’re gonna lose a few things along the way. Or repeat a few things. Or repeat a few things.
I reread my manuscript dozens of times, and at a certain point, became convinced that nothing in it was funny. This was troubling, as I was intending to publish a humorous book. Distracting thoughts started popping into my head, like,
“I used to be funny. Why is this not funny? Maybe I can’t be funny anymore, and soon I’ll just turn into this sad, frowning guy who used to be funny and tried to write a book once.”
“Maybe it would be better if I took all the pictures out . . . or I could take all the words out and make the book NOTHING but pictures . . .”
“I should just write about something else. No, that wouldn ‘t be funny either.”
“You know there are no original ideas, right? Someone’s probably already published a book of wacky food stories, and they probably had an editor so that their readers wouldn’t have to wander through a minefield of typos just to get to a few jokes about meatloaf.”
I pushed through the distractions and occasional self-loathing, and after a few weeks, I had made all my corrections. I also learned some fascinating tidbits about punctuation. Did you know:
- The extra-long dash you see here—is called an ‘em dash,’ because in the days of typesetting by hand, it was the width of a capital ‘M.’ An ‘en dash’ is slightly shorter and is used to separate a range of numbers.
- If you use a set of ellipses, you need a space between each of the dots . . .
- The semicolon was first used in 1494, but wasn’t used regularly until the 1600s (I told you this was fascinating, right?)
I don’t know if I’ll need any of the typographical trivia I picked up, but the next time I’m at a cocktail party with a bunch of proofreaders, I’m set for conversation. Put us in a room with a bunch of copy editors, and it could get crazy!
I also learned that sometimes, what you might believe is a ‘stylistic choice’ is really just a poorly written sentence that will only confuse actual readers. For example, for years I had stubbornly insisted that I wouldn’t capitalize ‘I’ in my blog writing, because I wanted the focus to be on my content, not myself. Pretentious, sure, but a stylistic choice nonetheless.
I’ve also made it a habit to not capitalize ‘tv,’ until finally, a friend proofread my book and pointed out that it just looked like I made the same careless mistake dozens of times.
(note: If twenty friends offer to take a look at your book to help you edit it, only one or two of them are probably serious. Listen to their input, even if you have to lose some ‘stylistic choices.’)
The advent of self-publishing has fundamentally changed the writing game. Used to be, if you had an idea for a book, you had to convince a literary agent that it was marketable; then your agent would try to convince publishers that they could make money from your idea. Writing involved a lot of convincing.
Now, anyone with (or without) an idea can call themselves an author. There are two approaches. First, for ‘print-on-demand,’ you format your manuscript according to their guidelines, design a cover, and upload your masterpiece. Then, if there are no formatting problems (like not following their guidelines), your book magically appears online, available for sale, right alongside Fifty Shades of Grey.
An interesting part of the publishing process involves pictures. If you’ve written a novel, you probably won’t need pictures, because you probably believe that your words will paint the pictures. Me, I write little comedy essays, and if a few well-placed images will help sell the joke, then I’m all about searching for the perfect public domain picture of somebody’s meatloaf .
Unfortunately, after finding just the right place for almost a hundred pictures, I found out that with Amazon’s print service, they tell you the minimum you can charge based on the printing cost. Printing color pictures must require thousands of hours of labor and enormously complex machines, because they told me I would have had to charge at least $31.06 for my clever little comedy book. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a good book, but it’s not a thirty-dollar book. I opted for black and white.
After publishing the paper version of my work (thereby satisfying my Amish friends), I ventured into the realm of electronic books. Your Nooks, your Kindles. The world of e-books is where you really see the DIY/frontier edge of publishing. It’s an open playing field. In fact, studies predict that by 2047, everyone in the industrialized world will have published an e-book.
One of the most popular Kindle books right now is 1001 Best Slow-Cooker Recipes: The Only Slow-Cooker Cookbook You’ll Ever Need. I’m sure part of its popularity is the catchy title. Although, truth be told, nobody needs a slow-cooker cookbook. And more than a thousand recipes seems like overkill to me.
But hordes of people have plunked down three bucks just so they will never, for the rest of their lives, have to worry about what to put in their Crock Pots (while I was correcting the book, I learned that ‘Crock Pot’ should always be capitalized, because it’s a brand name for a specific slow-cooker).
Another Top 100 Kindle book is called Ten Interesting Things About Human Behavior. That’s how easy it is to write a Kindle book—just spend a couple hours at your local coffee shop watching people:
“Hmmm. That’s interesting. If I can string together a few more things that are interesting I can publish a book! Then I’ll be an author!”
One of the great things about Kindle is that you don’t have to write a single word. Some of the best-selling Kindle books are public domain. That means, if something was written before copyrights, or if the copyright has expired, you can just ‘publish’ your own copy of Jane Eyre, or Hamlet, or the Bible. Slap your own Photoshopped cover on, and you are in the marketplace of ideas, baby!
Kindle has an option for authors which, initially, I thought was a bad idea, but which I’ve come to embrace. Like pineapple on pizza, or living in Minnesota. The deal is, if you agree to only distribute the digital version of your book through Amazon’s Kindle store, you are given five days out of every ninety during which you can make your book free.
The exclusivity part wasn’t a problem, because at the time I agreed to it, my Nook sales totaled nearly one. Despite being in Barnes & Noble’s catalog, I sold zero Nook versions. The economics are complicated, but I think it had something to do with the fact that NOBODY OWNS A NOOK! Seriously, how many people do you know who have one? That’s my point.
“But I don’t want to just give away what I worked so hard to create,” I can imagine you saying. Think of it this way—it’s like how a drug dealer operates when he wants to move into a new area. He’ll give you a taste for free, and when you’re hooked, you’ll gladly pay for more.
The business jargon is ‘building your brand,’ and the premise is this: Let’s say that, hypothetically, you’re me. Very few people have heard of you (me), and you want people to buy your (my) book. In an ocean of hundreds of thousands of books, you (I) need people to find yours (mine).
Now, if you have a handful of good reviews, and an intriguing title and cover, your book will show up as a ‘new release’ in the Kindle store, and if it’s free, more people will download a copy than if it’s, for example, not free. You get more eyeballs on your product, if that’s actually a saying.
So, a couple weeks back, for one day, the only book I’ve ever written, a project that consumed all of my mental energy for months, was available for free. All you had to do was click. And it just so happened that 1,096 people took advantage of my generous offer—assuming two eyeballs per person, that’s over two thousand eyeballs!
Over a thousand people felt that, based on a one-inch thumbnail of my cover and a hundred word description, my book was worth zero dollars. But if only half of those people read it, and half of those people like it, and half of those people tell someone, and half of those people buy their own copy, I’ll sell upwards of THIRTY books! Get ready for me , One Percenters, I’m about to join you!
I’ll probably do the free thing again. I have seen an uptick in sales, and since it’s a scalable commodity I should get good ROI. I just have to get on board with the paradigm shift. I’ll stop there. Any more business jargon and I would have had to put on some wingtips and scheduled a meeting.
Amazon lists the Top 100 free Kindle books next to the Top 100 paid Kindle books, and it was pretty cool to watch my book go ‘up the charts.’ At one point, I was 25th in free Kindle humor books, and I made it to number 9 among free books in the category of Cooking, Food and Wine/Gastronomy/Essays. Admittedly, it’s a small category, but—number 9, bitches!
When my book isn’t free, it’s five bucks. Not $4.99. I am subverting the conventional wisdom, dammit! I don’t want to insult my readers by implying that they would be more inclined to buy my book for $4.99 because it sounds so much cheaper than five dollars; trust me, the book’s worth the extra penny.
The old-fashioned paper version sells for ten bucks, and as I’m writing this, I rank 1,196,689th in books at Amazon. Nobody believed me—they called me crazy—but I always knew I could write something that would land me in the top 1,200,000. And that darned Kindle version? Number 285,535. Yeah, I’ll need to do a book tour.
Ultimately, I don’t have any advice (sorry it took me two thousand words to get there). Think of something that hasn’t been written about, write about it, proofread it, proofread it again, proofread it again, and click ‘publish.’ Nobody knows what’s gonna sell. I don’t think a lot of people would have predicted that an adequately written trilogy of books about sadomasochism would sell forty million copies worldwide, either.
Just decide who you’re writing for. Sure, it was cool to sell books to a bunch of my friends, and I’m enormously grateful for their support. But I don’t want to be the literary equivalent of an underground college band; I want to be freakin’ U2, at least in the category of Cooking, Food and Wine/Gastronomy/Essays/Humor.
To sum up, as happy as I am that friends have bought the book, it’s time for you folks who don’t know me to step up. I need a few strangers to buy into this thing. It would mean a lot if someone bought the book who isn’t in my cellphone. You, know, so I can crack the top quarter-million.