Not being able to say what it's about IN ONE SNAPPY “AH HA!” SENTENCE.
In other words, the pitch. Oh, the pitch! I know, I know, you're groaning already. But here's the deal: you need to frame your work around a tight, contained hook that instantly makes sense to other people—and you have to do it in just a few words. None of this rambly, full-on paragraph shite. (Trust me, I've been there.) If you can't say it in one sentence, you don't have a hook: you have a description. I KNOW: THIS IS REALLY, REALLY HARD! But an editor looks for a clear, succinct vision on how to make this a major book. They need an edge, an angle, and a focus. They need to be 100% sure *why* they're reading your book. What's your big argument? Having a great story is not the same as having a great message. And what you need to sell a book is a message. (#PROTIP: Sign up for Publisher's Marketplace and you'll get every single new book deal that's reported straight into your inbox every morning. And guess what? Every single one contains the hook that was used to sell the book.)
Not being willing to make 50% of the population hate you.
If a book requires an argument, then it also requires an opposition. Books are not in the business of placating the entire population: books are in the business of expressing a unique perspective. You need to pick a side. You need to draw a line in the sand. And that also means you need to be willing to be hated by the other half. GOOD! Let them hate you. You're the one with the book deal, sis.
Not being able to explain it to a nine year old.
Not for the sake of pitching, but for the sake of understanding your own theme. If a little kid asked you what your book was about, you aren't going to say that you're writing a coming-of-age memoir that explores the relationship between parentified children and emotional resilience later in life. You'd say: I'm writing a book about being brave even when you are tired. That might not be how you actually describe it in practice, but a really good exercise for when even YOU aren't sure what your book is really about, and you need to simplify things to get to the heart of what you're writing really means.
Not hitting anyone in the face with a crowbar.
Your work needs to feel fresh, interesting and original. That means that your word choice needs to be fresh, interesting and original. This is less about the idea itself and more about the way you talk about the idea. For example, when my editor and I were bouncing ideas back and forth regarding my own book, we talked a lot about the theme of trusting yourself. But, that phrase in and of itself is hackneyed now. It's been overdone, so it lacks POW. So instead, we went with something else. (Oooohhh, cliffhanger!) Consider your word choice very, very carefully.
Not considering structure—and potentially using it to your advantage.
One way to give shape to your book and help your message stand out is by using a unique structure or container to tell your story. Think: Girl, Wash Your Face was structured into twenty-two lies we all tell ourselves. The book, A History of the World in Six Glasses, shows how human history has been shaped through the lens of alcohol. Gabrielle Bernstein's first book, Add More ING to Your Life, structured its chapters around doing: feeling, forgiving, balancing, mirroring, releasing, climbing, stretching, etc. Eat, Pray, Love is first organized into those three sections, and further organized into 108 tales, each representing another bead on the japa mala. By choosing a unique structure, your book concept automatically becomes more sticky—and much more catchy.
Not knowing exactly where you're going and what the point is.
Something I struggled with in the early days was wanting! to put! everything! inside! one! book! because! I had! so much! to say! But that's the fastest way to thematic discord—and a jumbly book that's trying to do too many things at once. In other words, it's BAGGY. And who wants a baggy book? I'll tell you who: NOBODY. Nobody wants a baggy book. They want a skinny, narrowly focused book that has one big idea, and one big point.
Not having conflict.
All books are centered around a problem—and that includes non-fiction books. You know what every single book on the planet is about? The way you changed and responded to conflict. NOTHING ELSE. No conflict, no story. No conflict, no book worth reading. It's easy to envision this with fiction, and even memoir. But with non-fiction, you're still solving a problem: and every chapter should be about how you hacked away at that problem, piece by piece.
Not being brave enough to admit your own fuckupery.
You ever meet those people who are the victims in everything they do? Like, nothing is their fault, everything is something that happened to them, and wah, wah, woe is me. (I hate those people.) Well, sometimes that accidentally happens when you're writing a book, too, because you've got all this pressure to be an authority and be someone that is qualified to be giving good advice! So you sugarcoat your own experiences and don't really tell it like it is, minimizing just how dumb you really were, back then. You might think you're saving face, but what you're really doing is writing something very surface level that lacks emotional resonance. We need you to give yourself agency. We need you to take yourself off the pedestal and be real with us. Sometimes, the situations you're describing happened because of your choices, not just your circumstances. And it's important for you to tell us who you are and what happened because of the decisions YOU made.
Not saying anything that makes a reader think, “OMG, THAT'S SO TRUE.”
I'm pretty sure this is the #1 hidden secret of ALL the writers who have written ALL the things. We want to feel like someone out there FINALLY GETS US. Or even just gets a tiny little fraction of who we are at any given moment in time. This is the job of the writer: to put into words the things that others feel, but have not been able to express—or in some cases, hadn't haven't realized they even felt, until now. Of course, this is no easy task. It requires the writer to not only write, but to think. That is really your job: to do the thinking. And to make observations about the shared human experience—as profound or bite-sized as they may be. My favorite author—THE ONLY PERSON I SEEM TO QUOTE, EVER—Caitlin Moran once wrote, “When a woman says, ‘I have nothing to wear!’, what she really means is, ‘There’s nothing here for who I’m supposed to be today.” And when you read a line like that, you think to yourself, “Holy fuck, that's so true.” The more holy fucks you can give someone, the better your book will be.
And finally: not having the courage to own your opinion.
This book is not about “the right answer.” This book is about your answer. We don't want a summary of what other people think: we want to know what you think. And here's the good news about that: you can relax and stop worrying that your work doesn't matter and that nobody will care. You don't have to be a big shot in order to have a big idea, but you do have to be willing to step up to the plate and tell us about your idea. Every book is a fresh voice contributing to a greater conversation. It doesn't matter if other people have already written about the topic. This is a common misunderstanding about publishing, that your book has to be some groundbreaking and new tome of revelational genius. That's not true. But you do need to help us see an old topic in a new way. Can you re-frame something for us? Help us see something in a new light? Help us look at the world slightly differently—more gutsily, more fearlessly, more open-mindedly? Can you change us, and shift us, and throttle us alive? Can you lead us out of a burning building? And can you help us understand ourselves, and our role in the world, in a way we've never understood before? What we want from you is not your writing, but your mind. This, after all, is the cornerstone of every good book: the audacity to have a mind of your own in the first place.
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