Most people who want to write a memoir or family history aren’t professional writers. For them the process of writing a book is a trip through uncharted territory. They are full of questions about how to go about the process. It’s been a while since I read William Zinsser’s, essay How to Write a Memoir written for The American Scholar in 2006. But when I reread it this afternoon I couldn’t help but believe that Zinsser packed more insight about what it means to write a memoir or family history into fewer words that anybody else has been able to do.
Anyone offering making suggestions to authors about how to sell their books includes the advice to exhibit at trade shows and book festivals. That can be a great idea. Or not. Nancy and I have attended two this year, the Tucson Book Festival and the L.A. Times Book Festival, and we’re gearing up for the Sonoma County Book Festival , Wordstock in Portland, Oregon this weekend and the Miami Book Fair International in November. We really enjoy the events and meet a lot of wonderful people, many of whom eventually become Stories To Tell clients. At the same time we have the opportunity to observe a wide variety of authors who are on hand to sell their books. The results appear to be all across the spectrum. Our advice to authors is simple: If you are going to market your book at events, do it right. Here’s how.
New York Times columnist Bruce Feiler asked himself, “What is the secret sauce that holds a family together? What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?” The answers he discovered appeared in a piece in the Sunday Times titled The Stories That Bind Us. It should be required reading for genealogists and family historians. Feiler consulted Emory University psychologist Marshall Duke who had explored myth and ritual in American families. What he learned was that, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” Family historians and genealogists must be onto something. The large majority of people I talk to about writing their family history say that their goal is to create something to pass on to the grandchildren. Writing a family history will, they hope, help those grandchildren have a greater sense of identity.
How much research is enough? When we speak at family history conferences we talk to many people who say they would like to write a family book. But not right now. They need to do a little more research before they weill be ready. I thought about those dedicated researchers recently as I was rereading Practicing History, a collection of essays by historian Barbara Tuchman, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, one for The Guns of August, an account of the first month of World War I, and the second for Stillwell and the American Experience in China. Tuchman offered a great piece of advice on when to quit researching and begin writing. She said: “The most important thing about research is to know when to stop. How does one recognize the moment? …One must stop before one is finished; otherwise, one will never stop and never finish."
You’ve traced your lineage back ten generations. You know who came over on the Mayflower, or crossed the Middle Passage on a slaver, or came steerage to Ellis Island. You have all the details documented to the highest possible level of proof. How do you pass the product of your years of diligent research on to the next generation? Put it in a book!
For self-publishing authors word of mouth is the most powerful tool in building an audience. That’s no news to anyone. Nor is it any surprise that positive reviews online are the key to triggering that positive buzz. What authors are looking for is a way to make sure that they have those positive reviewers to get the ball rolling. Many are shy about asking people to review their books in the wake of the pay for positive reviews controversy exposed in the articles like the N.Y Times piece The Best Reviews Money Can Buy. But the mistrust created by the exposure of this practice didn’t make positive reviews any less important to an author’s sales. So let’s look at some ethical ways to obtain positive reviews:
Family historians are always looking for stories about ancestors. They want to embellish the facts – names, birth, death, dates, marriage, children, and location with tales that bring their progenitors to life. Many rush to interview aging relatives to capture those stories before they are lost. Others bemoan the fact that they didn’t ask about their ancestors before members of the previous generation passed. Some are able to congratulate themselves on having collected the family stories in audio or video recordings. That successful few are confident that they have the benefit of primary sources – accounts by people with direct knowledge of the stories they have told. Primary sources are wonderful, but they come with a caveat. As Ronald Reagan once advised, “Trust, but verify.” The stories passed down by aging family members while interesting and colorful sometimes are less than wholly accurate from a factual standpoint.
Planning a family history book is all about making choices. Having done many years of research and accumulated mountains of information, you may feel a bit overwhelmed when you begin to think about turning it into a book. One of the first realizations most of us have is that research is nearly infinite (You’ll probably continue to research for the rest of your life.) A book, however, is finite, subject to limitations of both physical size and reader interest. You realize that not everything you have learned about your ancestors will fit in a single volume. The question is, “What gets into the book?”
You sit down to plan how you will market your book. (Last week’s post 7 Things You’ll Need For Your Marketing Plan discussed some things you’ll want to have ready when you do.) It’s likely that one of your first thoughts is that this is a big job, maybe too big for one person. A lot of authors who have never marketed a book think about hiring a publicist or a book marketer to do it for them. That can be expensive. Let’s look instead at how you can tap your personal network to help you create a buzz about your book.
One of the great things the digital age has done for book publishing is make it easy than ever before to create an illustrated book. One of the keys to producing a beautiful illustrated book is having high quality images to work with. That means good scanning is essential. Here are five tips to help you make sure you have well scanned images to illustrate your book:
When you are writing nonfiction, particularly about people who are still living, it’s worth giving some thought to some of the legal issues which might arise. Most questions which arise about the portrayal of a person in nonfiction are based on one of two legal questions: Defamation: A person may claim that the book contains falsehoods that hold the subject up to scorn. Invasion of privacy: Legal expert Howard G. Zaharoff told Writers Digest that a person mentioned in a book has “The right to avoid disclosure of truthful but embarrassing private facts…” The issue here is not the truth of what is reported, but whether it is “not related to public concern.” Both are potential issues. Even when a person portrayed in the book is dead, his family members might claim either defamation or invasion of privacy.
“All writers think of what they do as an art,” said novelist Barry Eisler. “Smart writers understand that writing is also a business. Really smart writers see themselves also as entrepreneurs.” That means you need to approach your book as a business person would. You have a product to sell – your book. How will you get the maximum number of potential readers to buy it? That will take some thoughtful planning. You’ll need a good marketing plan for your book. Today we’ll focus on seven things you should think about before you formulate your plan. (Creating the plan itself will be next Monday’s post.) Several of the things we’ll cover today are resources you’ll need to create and use as you put your plan into action.
Working on a nonfiction book? How will storytelling help you make it one people will want to read? The fact is that most nonfiction writers don’t think of themselves as storytellers. They’re reporters putting together factual commentary on information or events, or maybe analysts investigating problems, ideas, or policies. But storytellers, not no so much. That’s too bad because a writer, whether producing a novel or a work of nonfiction faces the same challenge of grabbing a reader’s attention and keeping him engaged. Plunging the reader into a story works well for a novelist, but it may work equally well for a nonfiction writer. Let’s take a look at how two gifted nonfiction writers use a narrative open to hook their readers attention and draw them into the topic they will then explore.
We just discovered another reason to love reading and writing. The American Academy of Neurology just released a statement which says, “New research suggests that reading books, writing and participating in brain-stimulating activities at any age may preserve memory.” Wow! That’s big, especially when you realize that the National Council on Aging reports that 42% of older Americans are very or somewhat worried about memory loss.
You have finished the first draft of your book. Congratulations! Celebrate your accomplishment, but realize that you are at a critical crossroads in your book’s development. Experienced writers realize that their manuscript has a long way to go before it's ready for print. Inexperienced writers often don’t. They are “finished” writing and believe their book needs only a quick copy edit to get the commas in the right place before it will be headed top spot on Amazon. That’s too bad because their book will probably fall far short of what it could have been. Inexperienced writers haven’t yet learned the iterative nature of their craft. A good finished product requires iterations of writing and revision. Revising well is an essential step in producing a quality book. Let's look at how to do it well.