Monday, February 17, 2014

The secret to getting published: study the genre

A couple of years ago I installed a new bookshelf along the wall of our family room - a beautiful, glass-enclosed space that overlooks the hills of upstate New York - and for the first time ever, devoted an entire shelf to copies of each book I've ever written, ghostwritten, or contributed to. And it is quite a big shelf! Including things like foreign editions, second printings, and the like, there are over 40 books there. (The blanked-out ones are ghostwriting projects I cannot disclose under pain of death.) On average, I have cranked out one nationally published book every year or so since the mid-1990s.

So how do you get to be a "repeat offender" like me? Hard work? I wouldn't call it that - I really enjoy writing and it has never felt like work. Born with a silver-tounged pen? Nope, I was a C student in writing at Cornell decades ago. The right connections? Sorry, I live in the middle of nowhere, and was a humble lay middle manager with no agent when I first hit the bookshelves.

But there is one thing I do differently than almost any wannabe writer I know, and it is the single biggest reason I am successful: I study the genre I am writing in.

Go to a bookstore sometime, and you will see most people browsing through books. Watch me and you'll see me pulling one book after another off the shelf, running my finger along the pages, muttering to myself, and occasionally even pulling out a calculator. (Did I tell you I have an engineering degree?) While others read books, I deconstruct them. And when I finally sit down to write, it is a thoughtfully composed performance informed by the style of what sells.

Studying the genre is NOT the same as copying another person's style. I have my own style, thank you. In fact, I have lots of them, having published in genres that include popular business books, social science, and even fictional stories. Rather, I have a good, general sense of the audience I am writing for. Here are some examples of what I look for:

Titles: Your title is at least twice as important as your content. Really. Think about it - what made you pull a book off the shelf or on Amazon? More important, if you had a choice between titling the same book Finding Good Business Partners and Suppliers or The Four-Hour Work Week, which one would sell better? Tim Ferriss certainly figured that one out! Sweat the title first, and make it "smell" like other successful books in your genre.

Opening hook: Open any unsuccessful self-published book at random, and I'll bet it just starts right in talking about the topic of the book. By comparison, the book Just Listen by psychiatrist and hostage negotiation trainer Mark Goulston starts off walking you step-by-step through what he says to the suicidal guy with the gun at his head in the parking lot. Pow! No wonder his book is a bestseller.

There are a small number of very specific types of opening hooks for popular non-fiction business books, for example. There are personal narratives, credentialing examples, and emotional connections. Study them all and then think of them as clubs in your golf bag, ready to thoughtfully choose to fit your project.

Word count: Take business fables, one of my most successful genres. These projects never top 25,000 words, use short paragraphs, and are built around simple ideas. If I write a thick book with lots of jargon, no matter how funny or well-written I make it, I can't play in this market. Similarly, my business self-help books generally tip the scales at 60-70,000 words, have clear reader benefits in each chapter, are written in third person, and use lots of "eye candy" such as sidebars and examples to break up a wall of prose.

Paragraph length and style: Lots of choices here. Do you want to write a weighty tome like James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds, a thought leadership book like Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, or a quick read like Seth Godin's Tribes? Surowiecki runs out his anecdotes over several pages, Gladwell hooks your attention with "aha" moments at the beginning of each chapter, and Godin uses tons of micro-examples written in second person ("You need to be using Twitter. Now."). Each of them "smell" the way they do because of reproducible points of style.

So go out there and break down your favorite books. Study their opening hooks, their paragraph lengths, their chapter structures, and the way they keep your interest flowing. Think of how these things might affect your own unique writing voice, and how you want your own books to be seen. Then get writing. Have fun!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Success, Failure, Society ... and Moose

This is a challenging subject to write about, and one that can stir up a lot of emotion in people. But it is important enough in my view that I'm going to plow ahead anyway - here goes.

I just read another of many articles whose narrative goes something like this: "I used to do pretty well. I had an education and a career. But because of the 2008 crash/these evil, greedy corporations/age discrimination/etcetera, I am now poor and stuck. And it's all society's fault."

First of all, I empathize. I've been there. I would agree that Corporate America is not a kind place to be as we age - perhaps as much because of globalization and competition as greed or evil. And bad things certainly do happen to good people. Add to this the emotional devastation of losing a career, struggling financially, and getting older, and I totally understand the worldview of these articles.

So now I would like you to hold that viewpoint out in one hand, while I gently place another view in your other hand.

There is a dynamic that I have consistently seen over and over, for many years, in any community of people who are trying to change their lives - job seekers, entrepreneurs, freelancers, small businesses, or whatever. Let's say, to use an analogy from 80s televangelist Robert Schuller, that they are all hunting a moose.

Some people will learn from other successful moose hunters. With practice, they will eventually go where moose go, show up when moose tend to show up, and learn to sound like a moose. Others will say - correctly - that moose hunting is really hard, that lots of people fail at it, and that it is unfair that society has reduced them to needing to hunt moose in the first place. They are both right.

In my own experience, the first group generally succeeds. Whatever they do. Because of who they fundamentally are, not just circumstances. With a consistency over the years that has come to amaze me. And the second group never succeeds.

I have always chosen to be in the first group. Which means that people from the second group often ask me for advice, which I gladly give. It is rarely acted upon. And if I were to be totally honest with them, their anger, bitterness, and self-imposed constraints often set up a framework where they are probably doomed to setting their sights too low and continuing to fail.

Of course, they don't see it that way. "But I've sent out hundreds of resumes, and no one gets back to me!" "There is too much competition!" "No one pays good rates anymore!" And listen carefully - they are absolutely right. I would also fail if I had their worldview and limited my options to theirs. But understand that in the same moment, the things that do work for me - like exploring nontraditional high-value markets for my skills, having successful people as models, doing lots of homework, networking, and above all blowing people away with great service - often get dismissed as lame or unrealistic in the actual one-on-one conversations I have with people who feel stuck. So we are both right, but I would much rather be me than them.

So in closing, I respect the people who write these articles. There but for the grace of God, I could be one health crisis or economic collapse away from joining them. But once bad things happen, I have learned that people always, always, always divide themselves neatly into one of two groups. I always want you to choose the first group. I want you to succeed.