3 Ps of How Not to Write a Book

Julie Campbell and bookOne of the best talks I have heard about writing a book is actually about what not to do.

My friend Julie Campbell, who wrote, “The Horse in Virginia: An Illustrated History,” has given the talk several times and noted, “It’s a bit of a confessional self-help talk.”

Campbell, who was honored with the Library of Virginia People’s Choice Award for nonfiction, highlights three areas that she did wrong when writing her book. Those areas include: payment, procrastination and publicity.

Payment

“You’re not going to get rich writing books,” Campbell notes. She was prepared for that. What she wasn’t prepared for was making negative dollars. Once she factored in her time and expenses, she says, she made no money.

Her first lesson she shared is to negotiate to have expenses covered. Her contract did not include expenses, so Campbell paid for gas, hotels, meals and photocopies incurred as she researched the book and later when she went to book signings.

She encourages other writers to get an agent, even if the book is being published by a university press. “You want to have someone looking out for you.”

Procrastination

Procrastination is always a challenge. One way Campbell avoided working on her book was raking all the leaves in her “very large yard.” She also confessed to arranging her work space several times.

She finally developed some rituals to place her in the writing groove. She learned to break her work into small chunks and focus on one chunk at a time.

Publicity

Campbell says it’s also important to ask how much publicity the publisher will do and how much you as the author will have to do. She had to do most of her own, although she did suggest to her publisher where to send review copies of the book. She scheduled speaking engagements and created her own press kits by taking pocket folders and inserting her business card and several pages from the book to send to bookstores to make them aware of her book.

One area where she succeeded was with people. “I had the support of so many people to help me along the way.”

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5 Tips I Picked up at the JRW Conference

My dear, late friend Emyl Jenkins was known for sprinkling her fairy dust over many writers.

Once again, she did it when I attended the James River Writers Conference. Her delightful husband Bob attended to award the Emyl Jenkins Sexton award, which recognizes individuals who continue her legacy of inspiring a love of writing and writing education in Virginia. He talked about how she spent so much time helping other writers, she sometimes needed to be reminded to follow her own advice: “Put the seat of your pants on the seat of the chair and write.”

That’s what I’ve done for the past two years, and have a first draft of a manuscript of travel essays. I decided to attend the JRW conference to learn more about fine-tuning the book, the publishing process and finding an agent.

I learned how much more I need to do, and what I was doing right. Here are some of the tips:

Attend a conference. This is the obvious one, but I found myself hesitating to register for the JRW conference. It was worth every penny and giving up a weekend of writing.

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Great advice on a tote bag. (Photo by Cynthia Price)

I worried. Do I belong here? Is my writing good enough? Turns out almost every writer has those thoughts. Mystery writer Maggie King shared a great tip, “At a conference, I pick one person and I talk with them.” She says she usually makes a new friend or discovers a fan. Either way, she said, “You’ve done your good deed for the day.”

Identify beta readers. These are individuals who, early on, read your manuscript and point out plot holes, poor dialogue and inconsistencies among other things. I did that with the travel essays, and I’m now reworking the material.

Write a strong query letter. This is your chance to sell an agent on you and your manuscript. You want the letter to be authentic and polished.

Most writers aren’t going to have the success that David Baldacci did with his first query letter. He shared the story during a luncheon Q&A.

He said he wrote in his letter, “I guarantee if you read the first page, you will read through until the last page.” He figured they’d read the manuscript just to prove him wrong. Fortunately, he was spot on, and he now has 34 novels to his credit.

Agent Cherise Fisher said a query letter reveals the author’s knowledge of herself and that’s important to her. “I am looking for a partner in bringing this book into the world.”

Power of Cmty

Maggie King, Joanna S. Lee, Maya Smart and Angele McQuade talked about the power of community during the James River Writers 2017 conference. Shawna Christos moderated.  (Photo by Cynthia Price)

Join a community of writers. These can be face-to-face or online. Maya Payne Smart says she gets more out of in-person writing communities. “You see (the writers) are real people. There is something to putting a face to the stories you hear,” she said. “It’s important to have people cheering for you.”

Joanna S. Lee said it’s okay to join online and then simply “lurk” until you are ready to contribute.

One benefit of an online community is the flexibility. “Not all of us can be in person within the community whether because of work or obligations,” said Angele McQuade.

Just write. The one piece of advice I heard repeatedly is what Emyl always told me — you need to write. McQuade said, “You need to recognize when you are having too much fun within the writing community and aren’t writing.”