My First Book Was a Writing Disaster
It took two grueling years of my life, writing five pages a day, to create a lousy first book, but a year later it was finally published
Two years of sunrise mornings pounding on a keyboard, hoping the coffee would finally get my mind to work as fast as my fingers.
Two years of squeezing in my five pages a day until I felt like sitting under the desk, drinking heavily, counting on a big glass of wine to erase too much of too much writing.
Two years, and a few days, and my first 400-page, nonfiction future masterpiece, first draft, was done. I printed it out and put it into a binder to get the feel of what it would be like printed. I even created a fake cover just for a touch of reality.
Then I sent it to my editor. He called and said there were a few issues.
We spent a couple of hours on the phone and when I clicked off, I sat and stared at the binder on the desk, and I knew — this book was a terrible attempt at a first book — but at least I learned how to type well I mumbled to myself as I poured the wine.
My book was everything I knew about the business side of the fitness industry. I had been lecturing round the world for years, written hundreds of articles, and had the credentials to do the book, but when finished, it was a mashup of too much information slapped in the face of the reader.
Writing first books are much like enemas for the mind. You spend years slowly filling your mind, then you wait for the inevitable explosion.
It took me a decade be able to write this book, and no power on earth was going to stop me from writing down every detail of the business I had ever learned now, in this book, no matter how many pages it would turn out, or what a giant pile of too much information this would be for the reader.
I was lucky enough to work with a solid editor who sat patiently, and I believe suffered terribly, from my 400 pages of wandering insanity. It took months or painful rewriting, but he helped me eliminate the nonsense I wanted so badly to include, and now looking back, much bad writing that would have ruined my dream of publishing my first big project.
The first attempt, after editing and rewrites, took three years to go from my head to first box of books sitting on my desk. Yes, I cried when I held the first one, and you will too. Yes, my mother got the first copy too.
The first book led to nine more with me working toward one new book every two years or so after mastering the pain, and first book writing humiliation.
But most first attempts are flawed
Your first effort will need to be rethought as to what the book is, who will read it, and more importantly, is this book part of your personal brand as a writer leading to more projects, and eventually a career writing full time?
We dream of making the leap from writer who writes, but is not published, to writer who writes, and now makes a decent living from this writing.
Your first book, if conceptualized correctly, can open this door, and many more, you haven’t yet imagined.
The best advice no one has probably given you yet may be the best place to start:
“Learn more about one thing important to you than anyone else, and you will always make money, always have something to write about, and own a skill no one can take away from you”
This quote came from a high school writing teacher, and is the best single piece of advice I ever received when it came to creating a career that has allowed me to write, speak, and live life on my own terms as a full time writer. The books I have written through the years, and the ones you will write, give the credibility needed to make a living doing what you love.
If you are chasing your first nonfiction book, sometimes the best advice you can get is not what to do, but what not to do. There are five big mistakes that will cover your first book, although if you are creative, you might just be the person who invents a few more not on this list.
The best advice needed before you explore this list is to understand any book written can be extensively rewritten, and should be 99 percent of the time.
We tend to fall in love with our first project, become emotionally attached to that completed manuscript, and then become reluctant to make the changes needed to turn a work of love into a commercially successful writing project
Keep in mind all I am suggesting here is that your book might need work, not that your first-born child is ugly and should be kept at home and out of the public eye. You wrote this book the first time, and you can rewrite it until polished, and ready for your public to rave about you.
You stuff way too much in this first attempt
“I have something to say and I am going to say it, and everything I ever knew about this subject is going into this book,” we scream.
The majority of first books are too broad and almost always reflect a subject too vast. For example, if you were writing about the evolution of computers, most author’s first book would be something like, The History of Computers rather than stepping back and maybe tackling a subject within a subject, such as Apple Computers, the First-Year Launch that Changed the World.
You especially see too much, and too broad, in someone sharing their philosophy in their first book. For example, if you are a professional fitness coach, your first book is usually an attempt to cram everything you believe to be true about fitness, and your personal approach to coaching, into one overstuffed book.
This ends up with too much, explained poorly. This fitness coach might be better served, and his audience definitely would learn more, by writing about his philosophy of coaching as maybe applied to women and fitness after 40, or any narrower segment allowing detail and strategy to unfold.
The take away here is you often put so much into the book nothing is ever explained or detailed. You are always better to offer less, but explain more, when you create that first attempt.
Ideally, your first nonfiction book should be about 125–225 pages. There are few first books that should ever pass this page number. You do not have to get everything you ever learned into your first book, and remember your first book is the start of your career, not the defining moment of that career.
Let’s say you are a lifestyle person writing about life lessons you want to share with people in their 20s. If you are wrestling with format, start with this simple guide:
· The Introduction of 3–5 pages
· Ten lessons of between 8–15 pages each (80–150 pages).
· Summary of 5–10 pages
· Maybe a pertinent quote you feel is powerful between each chapter
Yes, you have permission to turn out a book that might only be 125 pages to start, but a tight book well written is much more valuable than a longer book that never ends, and is never read.
If you are working with a publisher, your editor will tell you if it is too little, or too much. Most of you, however, will self-publish your first book, and less is always more.
There is a bigger picture in play here. The advice is to find a whole and then write about the parts.
Most of my writing through the years has been in the fitness industry worldwide. My first book was about the business platform needed at the time to create a financially successful fitness business (the business philosophy was the whole, or big picture).
This first book was then followed by a series of books reflecting the parts of the whole:
· One book on customer service
· One on sales
· Starting a successful business from nothing (business startup guide)
· Business lessons every owner needs to learn (lessons learned approach)
· Life lessons I wanted to share with those in the industry after years of experience (lessons of life learned through decades of coaching)
The concept is you should write your first book with a longer view of it being a part of an overall writing plan that takes you into the future.
Too much about you
Nothing wears out a reader faster than the word “I.”
Many of the books first timers attempt are stories about their own life, and what you as reader can learn from their journey. The writer assumes their life, their misfortune, trauma as a child, or their personal failures, all make for interesting reading, but any of this seldom makes for a good first book.
The writer is of course going for the inspiration angle. I had a bad childhood, then had some success, and I now exist to inspire others. The difference between using your story successfully, or ruining the book, is a subtle one.
At some point is has to stop being about you, and the fatal “I” word, and your work then has to be about the reader and what he or she can take away from your experiences. “Here I am as a child, struggling alone surrounded by dysfunction,” has to be replaced with “Here I was, and these are the five lessons of life you can learn from my experience.”
Of the 80 first attempt books or more I see a year, at least 90% are all about the author writing about himself to the level you don’t get any other information until deep into the read.
Even if you are that interesting, you just aren’t that interesting. It isn’t about you, it is what you can teach us about being us that you learned from being you.
You don’t know your audience
“Who is this book for?” I ask.
“Everyone,” is the answer I hear often.
There is no book for everyone, although we can make a case that the Bible was written for the world, but if you aren’t writing a bible, then maybe you need to get a little more target specific.
· Who will read this book?
· What will that reader get out of this book?
· What’s in it for me the reader asks?
Go online and find a picture of the person you think is your reader.
Print out a picture of him or her and hang it on the wall by your desk.
Write your book as a life changing love letter to that person.
Niching, or specialization of market, means we write to a particular segment we want to own through our writing. We don’t write for everybody, we write for that guy right over there at the table in the corner at the coffee shop on Saturday morning.
If you want to own a niche, know more about that reader than anyone else ever, and write specifically to that person
For example, you want to be the world’s expert, which you should strive to be when you write any target specific book, in fitness for women over 40.
What do these women, your target market, think about fitness? Where do they do fitness now? How has their fitness changed over the last 50 years? What myths about fitness do they believe? How do they feel about food and diets?
And a dozen other questions once asked, researched and understood, allows you to write a book that makes that 40 something female mumble as she reads your work, “It as if she was in my head.”
Most first books are written because we think we have something to say to a market we really don’t understand. If you want to write the great book, then you need to know your target specific market better than anyone else.
Those are your people, the ones who will buy your book, but only if you prove you know them and can speak to their heart.
Spend the damn money and get an editor that can edit, a designer that makes it beautiful, and a writing coach if needed to make it literate.
First impressions are everything. Culture today shouts that first impressions are unfair, and we can’t judge on looks alone, but your grandmother’s old saying that we can’t judge a book by its cover is wrong.
We do judge by first impressions, and the look and feel of your book gets it picked up, or ordered online, and you should spend the time and money needed using a real artist to make it presentable.
Too much has been written on editing, and you would have to live under the proverbial rock to not at least master the basics of grammar and usage if you want to write, but it is still shocking people spend a year writing a book, but won’t spend a few dollars to hire a professional editor that polishes your work.
Good books lead to long careers. Write your first book with a bigger picture in mind. Will this lead to consulting, to public speaking, or to becoming an expert on this subject that has people chasing you for years?
Good books leave the rest of us wanting more from you. There is no perfect book, but there is you writing a book that makes a difference to the reader, and that is the place to start for your first masterpiece.