“You Can’t Edit Your Life”–or can you? Thoughts on Memoir Writing

A client reported to me that a professional in the industry had made this observation after reading the book proposal for this client’s memoir: “You can’t edit your life.” I told her, “I disagree. Don’t we all do this every day?” Did you tell your spouse about that parking ticket you received, or did you just pay it? Did you reveal to your child that you, too, hated practicing the violin, or did you “edit out” that bit of information?

Reality TV shows are popular because they don’t depict reality in its raw, unedited form. That would be boring. Instead, they depict a very carefully directed and edited reality. The template for their narrative is very predictable. A memoir, too, has a carefully constructed narrative. It takes the reader on a journey through a story about the writer’s life. There are many ways to tell any story, and many stories you can tell. At your next family gathering, bring up an incident from twenty or thirty years ago and watch how everyone argues about the storytelling!

We unconsciously edit our lives, too. Our memory plastic and selective because our brains are wired that way. We recall the stories and details that support the narrative we’ve unconsciously chosen for ourselves. Think back to your earliest childhood memory. What is the theme of this snippet of your life? Now ask yourself, does that theme play out in my life? My first recollection is of being a toddler, watching my older brother take pots and pans out of a kitchen cupboard and bang them together, then seeing my mother rush in to quiet him. In my professional life, I loved to be a ghostwriter and developmental editor, which requires stepping back to make keen observations about others. Is it any wonder that I recall this particular moment of being the observer?

A memoirist faces the challenge of finding and weaving together stories that form a cohesive narrative with one key theme and several sub-themes. If she adds in every incident that she recalls, she’ll end up with an autobiography with an exhaustive amount of detail that may fascinate her offspring or her best friend, but which has limited appeal to anyone who doesn’t know her. Her challenge is to know what story she wants to tell and consciously select the memories that support it. Then, her challenge is to write about these incidents in such a way that they resonate for the reader. An ordinary story about the first day at kindergarten, or the first time she ate an oyster, can have tremendous depth and emotional charge, even if on the surface such incidents seem mundane.

So yes, you can edit your life. You can edit the stories of family members, ex-lovers, and friends, and even leave them out of your tale if you like. No, you can’t make up details, and you absolutely should question your motives in writing about other people in your life; are you getting back at someone, or writing about this person in order to make sense of it all? It’s okay if you’re writing a memoir to work through your feelings. Just be sure that when you get to the step of seeking publication, you reflect on whether this is the story you want to tell others—and why you wish to do so.

Making decisions about what to reveal can be very difficult, but the process of making these choices can be extremely empowering. To tell your story your way, and yet find the universal elements that will cause a complete stranger to find your memoir compelling, takes courage, craft, and commitment. It also takes editing your life



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Platform Building and Community Building to Sell Your Book (And Build Your Brand)

Whether you self-publish, work with a small publisher, or get a book deal with a major publisher, you’re going to need a platform to get the message out about your book and your work. When it comes to how to build a platform, you’ve got more choices and opportunities than ever before. Don’t become overwhelmed! I can help you start strategizing how to build your platform and do community building. I’ll be talking about this topic on Let’s Talk About Books tomorrow, Thursday, July 7, at 11:00 a.m. EST with Stephanie Gunning (who knows a lot about platform herself!).  Listen in at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/letstalkaboutbooks and please feel free to call in with questions and ideas. The call-in number is:  760-683-2643

No one loves exchanging strategies and tips on platform building than I do! Here’s one I love to share:

Embed into your email signature links to your website, blog, and social media pages. 

You never know who might want to check out what you do and take a look at your books, products, and services!

Have any good ones to share?

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Filed under author platform, Blogtalkradio Show, book marketing, branding, how to sell my book, independent publishing, platform, sales book, sales of books, self-publishing, where to buy books

Let’s Talk About Books (and eReaders and marketing) Radio Show 06/23/2011 with Lynn Serafinn

Tomorrow’s guest on Let’s Talk About Books is author and transformation coach Lynn Serafinn who will give us insights into her book’s success. My cohost Stephanie Gunning and I will also be talking about eReaders and book marketing, and we hope you find our insights and tips helpful. Feel free to call in as you’re listening at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/letstalkaboutbooks The show is from 11:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time.

Also, I wanted to add something to what I was saying last week about book endorsements. Don’t forget that you can also ask a potential endorser to write a foreword for your book! The coauthor of my book Raising a Sensory Smart Child had admired Temple Grandin, the famous cattle-handling-facility designer and author of books on autism, for years, and wrote to her, cold, asking if she would consider giving us a foreword. She did and that’s been incredibly invaluable for us. Don’t be afraid to ask, even if you don’t know someone. If you’ve written a marvelous book that offers great value to people, people may very well be willing to lend their name and write a foreword or endorsement.

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BlogTalk Radio Show: Let’s Talk About Books with Nancy Peske and Stephanie Gunning

My dear friend and long-time colleague, Stephanie Gunning, had a great idea the other day: The two of us should do an online radio show in which we could share our insights about the book industry, writing books, marketing them, and building platforms. Stephanie and I always have lively conversations and I always come away from them with fresh insights. The two of us have known each other since the early 90s when we were both in-house acquisitions editors at HarperCollins Publishers, back in the days before email and laptops. And now we’ve got so many ways to reach out and help authors learn from our insights I can hardly keep track of them all!

The half-hour show will be broadcast every Thursday morning from 11:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time and you can listen online at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/letstalkaboutbooks  This morning’s show went great considering an unexpected technical glitch and me being a newbie to broadcasting online (I did a lot of radio in my Cinematherapy publicity days, though, so that helped). This week’s newsy topic was the closing of Borders’ bookstores and the future of brick-and-mortar stores (Is there one? Stephanie and I think so!). We also talked about garnering endorsements for your book at the early stages–even before it’s written, and before you have an agent! Next week, we’ll be talking about the eReader Revolution and will be interviewing Allison Maslan, a life, career, and business coach who will talk about her bestselling book Blast Off! (Learn more about Allison HERE).

Feel free to call in with questions and give us feedback on our Facebook page for the show: Let’s Talk About Books. You can also follow the show on Twitter: We’re “4BookWriters” and the hashtag is #BookBiz

Developmental Editor and Ghostwriter Stephanie Gunning joins Nancy Peske for Let's Talk About Books, a new weekly radio show on BlogTalkRadio.com every Thursday

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Freaking out about the uncertainty of life? Check out WHOLELINESS by Dr. Carmen Harra

I’m so excited for my client, Carmen Harra, Ph.D., who is launching her book WHOLELINESS: Embracing the Sacred Unity that Heals Our World. It’s an incredibly rich and reassuring guide to using the sacred bonds we have with each other, Spirit, nature, time, and within ourselves (mind-body-soul) to give ourselves strength and courage so that we can make it through this time of turbulence and heal ourselves and perhaps, too, our small corner of the fabric of reality. Dr. Harra is a licensed clinical psychologist in NY who also has a Ph.D. in hypnosis and is a metaphysical intuitive, and in addition, is an immigrant from a totalitarian regime in Eastern Europe, which gives her an unusual perspective on what we’re going through here in the West as we face the turning point of 2012 (don’t worry, it’s not doomsday–she explains in the book why we have a propensity for projecting negativity on turning points and inventing concepts like doomsday!).

2012 doomsday fears and uncertainty in these turbulent times plaguing you? WHOLELINESS offers an antidote and a tonic!

Working with Dr. Harra really opened me to the sources of strength all around me that I tend to overlook when I start to get anxious and fearful about the present and future. I love her practical ideas (especially the ones for conversing with angry people–don’t we all need some help with that these days?) and for adopting a three-step healing practice of Observe, Pray, Act. It was truly extraordinary to be in on her writing process and be the first to hear these incredible ideas that are rooted in her studies of Kabbalah, cognitive therapy, numerology, hypnosis, 19th century Spiritism, etc., as well as her extraordinary life experiences. Having done some sessions with her, I can tell you her intuitive talents are shockingly well honed. What she has to say about where all of us are headed, and how to hold on to our center while we’re getting there, are SO helpful.


Help Carmen get a bestseller this week!

And hey, if you buy the book this week, you get tons of bonus gifts and will be entered to win a digital camera, a flatscreen TV and tickets to a Hay House I Can Do It! event.

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Know Thyself: Be True to Your Vision as a Writer

Last night’s American Idol was a wonderful example of what happens when an aspiring artist looking to achieve success takes the risk of saying “no” to the so-called experts and trusting in his inner vision.  Both Casey Adams and James Durbin rejected the well-meaning, “play it safe” advice of musical consultant Will I. Am and music producer Jimmy Iovine and performed songs they felt were right for them regardless of how big of a risk they were taking in the competition. The results? Check out the reactions of the audience and the judges (click on their names above to reach their April 13, 2011 performances of Nature Boy and Heavy Metal respectively).

As a writer, you have to accept that staying true to your vision may mean saying no to a potential book publishing deal. It may mean that a literary agent will drop you from her roster.

Let me tell you just one more encouraging story. On request from an in-house editor who knew our work, my coauthor and I wrote a proposal for a book called Mood Movies, which was a guide to something called “cinema therapy.” The editor loved it but later informed us that his in-house colleagues discovered that “cinematherapy” is a genuine form of therapy so therefore, in their opinion, they couldn’t possibly publish a humorous book about cinematherapy by two women who were not clinical psychologists. Our literary agent at the time felt the proposal was unsalable too, although he did say that as a favor to us, he’d send it to a few houses just in case he was wrong. We stuck with our proposal, found a new agent, found an in-house editor whose book publishing house loved it, and the rest is history. Cinematherapy has sold over 340,000 copies in all editions through out the world and we sold TV rights to Women’s Entertainment (formerly Romance Classics) which turned it into a prime time television show.

We could have been wrong. It’s possible that no agent would have agreed to represent the book project. And it’s possible that no publishing house would have bought it—in fact, we were turned down by every house but one. My coauthor and I could have avoided the terrific term “cinema therapy” (or “cinematherapy”), which we’d mistakenly believed was something we coined, in order to avoid confusion with actual cinematherapy—but we didn’t. We stuck with our vision, to great success. And wouldn’t you know that actual therapists ended up using and recommending our book to their patients?

So if you have a strong vision and your gut instincts tell you to stick with it despite the very well-meaning advice or feedback from professionals who supposedly know better than you do—go with your gut.

Cinematherapy, movie therapy for women: a vision turned into a successful book series and television show

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Lessons for Aspiring Self-Help Book Authors: What NOT to Do to Your Brand!

As part of my research for a book proposal I’m working on, I’ve been looking at a bestselling self-help book. I see from the acknowledgements that I know the acquiring editor well; she is a talented structural and line editor and has a good eye for commercial material, strong hooks, and great platforms. The book has hit the bestseller lists and has a high number of stars (average ratings from reviewers) on Amazon.com/ Yet the number of one- and two-star reviews is very high as well—and to me, the book is unreadable and a waste of $15 in paperback, much less $25 in hardcover. I can’t even recommend it as a $10 eBook. So what are the lessons here?

  1. A book does NOT have to be good or even readable to be highly successful IF it’s from an established author. Platform is king these days. But, the big question is, has this author tarnished her brand by going out in a big way with a book that’s mediocre at best? The bad reviews are mostly focused on how little information is contained in these pages, the book’s repetitiveness, the book’s lack of originality, and the lack of value. There is no way an author with a modest platform could have sold this book to a publisher, in my professional opinion.
  2. Publishers are stuck in the old business model. The book began as a hardcover selling for nearly $25. It is 224 pages and by my count, about 50,000 words. When I began in book publishing in the late 1980s, a standard self-help book was 10,000 words. Now, they usually run 60-80,000 words. Why charge $25 for 50,000 words? The publisher needs to justify a big advance to the name-brand author and money spent on advertising (they advertise only the handful of books they think have a chance at bestsellerdom), paying bookstores to display the book, and paying the publicist. For publishers, an overpriced hardcover is crucial to make the numbers work. Now that eBooks are outselling hardcovers, and eBook prices are being jacked up to make up for the lost revenue, the $25/hardcover-first model is in serious danger. Depending on the timing of the hardcover and the eBook releases, the eBook revolution may have erased this book’s profit margin for the publisher. So while it may be a bestseller, it’s possible it lost money for the publisher. Selling her next book may be VERY difficult for this author regardless of how low an advance she is willing to take.
  3. Grammar, mechanics, and structure matter. Although the book has a standard self-help book structure, the chapters meander and have no headers, just design elements to break up text here and there. On the surface, this disguises the meandering, unstructured text. In reality, the reader notices that we’re flitting from this thought to the next in a disorienting path that circles back in on itself. What’s more, there are several sentence fragments on each page. Knowing that the editor is perfectly well aware that a sentence must contain a subject and verb, and with some verbs, a direct object as well, I have to assume this was a stylistic choice. It was a poor one. The text is disjointed and tiresome to read. You see, discussion of all those commas and semicolons, parallelism in clauses, and careful choices regarding sentence length and placement of subordinate clauses may bore anyone but a Latin or English Grammar major, but when they’re missing, the casual reader recognizes that something is “off.” It takes work to slow down and put the thoughts together in your mind to understand the ideas. When the reader discovers the ideas are overly familiar, she loses interest (many reviewers reported not finishing the book).
  4. Define your audience. The title was designed to play off another bestselling book’s title that appeals to the same demographic—a wise editorial choice. The problem is that the book doesn’t deliver on the title. This frustrated readers. Remember, you have a title AND a subtitle with which to summarize the book. People buy books on titles and short descriptions. If yours is misleading, your readers will be very unhappy and post negative reviews.
  5. Define your audience’s problem. One aspect of defining your audience is clearly defining their problem that your book promises to solve. If they buy your book to solve a different problem, thinking you’ll address it, they’ll be disappointed. Is yours a book of parenting advice for all parents, parents of children with special needs, or both? A book can straddle both audiences, but don’t mislead people by implying that it’s for the wider audience when it’s not. (In fact, I had this problem with another book I bought this week—at some point, I may blog in more detail about this particular problem!)
  6. Know your audience’s sensitivities. Is your audience women from 18 to 80, women who attend Bible classes and go to church every Sunday as well as women who are atheists, women who find Sarah Silverman offensive and women who find her hilarious? If you want to cast that wide a net, you will have to pay close attention to tone and voice. The bestselling book I’m describing in this blog uses the word “God” to describe a New Age/New Thought concept of divinity, ignoring the fact that many women have a very different idea about “God.” It also uses the F word liberally, including in a chapter title. That may fly with a certain generation; to another it is considered offensive and a sign of lazy writing. When I work with clients or cowrite books of my own, I may not agree 100 percent with the final choices the team of authors, editor, agent, and publisher’s sales force representatives makes, but I know how important these decisions are. I have seen books shut out of bookstores due to poor decisions about title, tone, and voice that caused the bookstore buyers to be unclear about the intended audience.
  7. Deliver what you promise your readers. A self-help book is supposed to do more than just define the reader’s problem and give insight into its origin. It must have takeaway: an action plan for solving the problem. This may include exercises, a recipe for activities to be carried out over a specific period of time (such as a 21-day diet plan), tips, resources that will help the reader further tailor the takeaway material to her specific needs, and so on. Reviewers complained that the entire book is summarized in the few pages and that the suggestions for how to solve the problem were stale, the sort of ideas we’ve all heard a million times. Today, authors are competing with free information on the Internet available in seconds to anyone using a search engine. If there’s nothing special or fresh about your information, and your advice can be summed up in a page of bulletpoint tips, you aren’t ready to write a self-help book.

By now, I’m sure you’re thinking, “Yeah, but the author got a big advance, a bestseller, and attention from Oprah!” Yes….but only because the author had built up credibility with previous books over the years and a solid brand she’d worked hard to build. Will her next book see success? Will it yield a hefty advance? I doubt it. Over the years, I’ve seen many authors destroy their brands by making bad choices in conjunction with their advisors who are too often contemptuous of book buyers. I will never forget the day one of the bigwigs in the editorial department of a publishing house told me, “We don’t have to spend the time and money cutting out those two hundred pages in the middle of the book that weigh it down. People won’t realize it sags in the middle until after they’ve bought it!” She chuckled; I made a mental note that I did NOT belong in a company that held contempt for their customers. To me, the story I’m telling here is a cautionary tale for publishers, editors, and authors. You can only fool people so long before they catch on to the fact that you don’t provide quality products and don’t respect and value them.

If you as an author or aspiring author aren’t comfortable with a suggestion your social media expert makes regarding how to build your brand, if you don’t feel ready to write your book just yet because your platform’s solid but you’re still unsure if your ideas are well-formed enough to work into a book, listen to your instincts. Maybe you need to try out your ideas in workshops and with real-life clients. That’s easier than ever to do thanks to webinar and teleseminar software. Maybe you need to mull over your brand and your hook a little more because something’s not right about it. These investments of time and creative energy will pay off in a book that you can be proud of for years to come, and they give you greater potential for establishing your career and a loyal audience.

Have you ever felt torn between rushing forward with writing a book and slowing down to get it right? What pressures did you feel, and why? Would you have benefitted from spending time with book publishing consultant to talk through your concerns and strategies? Please share your stories with me! And if you would like help conceptualizing and writing your self-help book (or other mind-body-spirit nonfiction book), contact me at info@nancypeske.com

Does your self-help book deliver on its title and promise? Does it solve a problem? Does it offer “takeaway” for readers that they can apply to their own lives?


Filed under bestseller, bestselling author, book length, book publishing, book publishing economics, book publishing revenue models, chapters, eReader, frontlist books, grammar, headers, listen to the customer, Oprah, pricing your book, sales book, sales of books, self-help books, structuring nonfiction, write a bestseller