I Want To Know How to Write a Self Help Book!

So, you want to know how to write a self help book? You may be in the field of self improvement as a life coach, speaker, or expert. Whatever you do in your day job, you intuitively feel it’s time to start writing a book to reach a wider audience—that’s why you’re reading this blog post. That “feeling” should be addressed, because it means you’re ready to explore the writer part of yourself. One thing you should know is: writing can be fun. It doesn’t have to be scary or frustrating. If you discover the best writing process for you, it can lead to a liberating and exhilarating experience where you have the best book possible by the time you’re done writing. Is it really that simple? Well, it takes some work, but if you have the right editor who can mentor, guide, and lead you on this exciting journey, you’ve done half the work. As an editor of personal development books, I love working with coaches, speakers, and experts and melding their materials, including social media posts, into a life-changing, powerful, and cohesive book. If you’d like to read about my approach in working with self help authors and my editing services, please continue on to: “How Do I Write a Self Help Book?

~ Jennifer

Do I Have to Work with a New York Book Editor?

Aspiring authors often want to know if it’s crucial for their books to hire a New York book editor. They think that to get the best editorial services, they have to hire from the publishing houses and especially the ones in New York. But that’s actually turning more and more into a myth. In fact, two publishing house editors, Renni Browne and Dave King, famously admitted that “publishing house editors don’t edit anymore.” This practice is becoming commonplace in the big five publishing houses (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster). Last year, I did a speaking engagement with a New York Times best-selling author of many novels, and she said that the reason she has kept with her editor is because she still edits her books. I’ve also seen the product of what happens when a book isn’t edited, and it’s a scary thing.

The truth of the matter is this: everything is done online or virtually today. So where your editor lives shouldn’t come into play in your decision. What should be major factors in your decision to hire a professional book editor is to first and foremost make sure s/he is legit. Does s/he have a website with clear information that speaks to you as an author or aspiring author? Does s/he provide contact information and client testimonials? Do these client testimonials lead to real authors with real books, and can you get in contact with them easily to find out their experiences with the editor? Have you skimmed or read some of the books the editor has edited? These are the questions you should be asking yourself. Geographic location is irrelevant. You can find a great editor anywhere.

If you’re in Boston, Los Angeles, the Midwest, or live outside the United States, start with an online search for book editors. Be very careful if choosing an editing service that pumps out hundreds of jobs. Your manuscript may not get the attention it deserves, since editors for these services are working as fast as possible to get the job done and their hourly rate up. Oftentimes, these big companies don’t pay their editors well, and that’s why they want to edit your manuscript as fast as humanly possible. Also, beware of outsourced companies where English isn’t the first language. These companies tend to be on the cheaper side, and that’s a red flag. You definitely get what you pay for in editing, i.e., you don’t pay much, you won’t get much.

For my company, it’s a one-on-one experience, where I focus on each job separately. I take manuscripts and authors that I feel will be a great fit for me and them. I don’t “overload” on manuscripts, in order to give each manuscript the attention it deserves. Since I’m an author as well, I want to ensure that my clients are treated the way I’d like to be treated.

If you have any more questions on hiring, please feel free to contact me via email and I’ll be happy to answer them.

~ Jennifer

Can Great Writing Only Come From a Place of Suffering?

As a book editor, I’ve read through hundreds of manuscripts, and the ones that stand out are rife with conflict. Keep in mind, as a fiction editor, only a handful of unpublished manuscripts have ever stood out to me, which means there are many that never make the grade. Why not? Oftentimes the craft of fiction needs to be worked on coupled with the book doesn’t have conflict. In order to publish a book, or I should say a great book, a writer may have to suffer for his/her art in order to add conflict, and there’s no way around it.

Hear me out. I recently watched the Salinger documentary; it delves into the life of The Catcher in the Rye author JD Salinger. Let me tell you: he suffered for his art. As a young man who came from a family of means, he kept enlisting in the military until he was accepted. This wasn’t in a time of peace, but in World War II. He fought against the Nazis in Europe, enduring over 200 straight days of combat. After he returned home, it is widely believed that his long and frequent days holed up in his writing bunker were due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or perhaps suffering through flashbacks of war. In other words, Salinger was working through his trauma through his writing. Writing could have been a form of therapy. This rings true with many writers, who often start putting pen to paper in times of grief. If you notice a theme of suffering in a novel and get a sense the author is working through a major internal conflict, chances are s/he probably is.

In an episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, Bourdain asks a well-known Spanish singer, “Do you have to suffer for great art?” To which the singer, without hesitation, replies, “Yes.” This got me thinking about my own experiences in writing my first novel, I, Putin.

In order to write a first-person Vladimir Putin, I had to write from a dark place. Putin is one of the darkest figures in the world today. As I was sitting in my masters program at NYU, the Russian studies professor said to us, “To understand the Russian mentality, you have to understand their mindset, which is: We all suffer together.” When you think of Russian history, both past and recent, it makes perfect sense. But what happens when you come from an American mindset, which I believe is positive. We Americans have an underlying mindset of never give up, we can do it, keep going. How did I switch my positive, American mindset to one of “we all suffer together”? As fortune or misfortune would have it, I was laid off from my publishing job around 2008-2009. I had another part-time job, which dried up as well. I was bringing in practically no income. These circumstances spiraled me into a deep depression for two years, and enabled me to write I, Putin from a dark place. Looking back, I understand I was writing my novel from a dark hole, working out my problems and depression. Though it was difficult at the time, I now feel appreciative for that bleak period in my life—otherwise, I could’ve never written my novel.

The answer is: yes. I suffered for my art. Unintentionally but I did. I think about my second novel. I just finished the first draft, and again it’s pretty dark. I had to access my feelings, old childhood wounds that have resurfaced due to recent events. I’m working through them in my current novel. Some days when writing, especially one character in particular, I become emotional, even near tears. I realized when I was in the thick of writing it, I became depressed again. Couple that with I’ve been professionally diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and have been struggling with both since I was young. Therefore, I have the ability to write from the darkest of dark places. Then I think about Salinger who was fighting in one of the most famous wars of all time, witnessed a sub-camp of Dachau, and was immersed in atrocities and horrors of war that civilians like me couldn’t possibly understand. He was writing Catcher from the darkest of dark places, the blackest hole you can enter with your mind. And that’s one of the main reasons Catcher, arguably, is the great American novel.

Should you, as a writer, suffer for your art? That’s for you to decide. I would say yes, especially if you’re a fiction writer. Even if you’re a life coach, expert, or speaker, the most powerful books written by these authors come from a place of suffering and then lead to a place of empowerment and learning. We all suffer, just like the Russians. We all need conflict in our fiction or nonfiction books. In my opinion, there’s no shortcut.

Kim Kardashian Not Allowed in Books?

Photo by David Shankbone, 2009, Public domain usage

Photo by David Shankbone, 2009, Public domain usage

What’s the deal with female protagonists being white and beautiful in fiction? We’re in 2014 and I have to say, after reading hundreds of manuscripts for my day job as a book manuscript editor, I’m shocked that the trend is still white and beautiful, especially in our ever-increasing ethnic society of the United States. I just finished reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, which I liked very much. I completely understand the book’s appeal; however, she chose a white and beautiful female protagonist. Same with her male protagonist.

To expound my theory, I realized that in almost all the manuscripts I’ve read through, it’s the same thing. The female protagonist is gorgeous; many times she has blonde hair and blue eyes. As an editor, I drive my author clients to make logical choices in regard to characterization, which includes physical description of the characters. For example, if an author client was writing a novel where the female protagonist is a private investigator who catches Wall Street men having affairs, then to gain access to the men, she should be white and beautiful. If she lives in Minnesota and originates from a Scandinavian background and decides to enter a beauty pageant, then I would say go white and beautiful. However, many times I’ve found that the protagonist doesn’t need these qualities. Look at She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. The female protagonist is obese, unattractive, and white…but the way Lamb evokes her is so damn compelling. If she were gorgeous, it certainly would have ruined the book.

How does Kim Kardashian enter into this literary discussion? She is seen as the epitome of beauty…on TV that is. She is exotic, dark, small, and curvy. On her father’s side, she hails from Armenian ancestry and flaunts this fact in the show. Young girls and women worship her for her beauty. She’s on the cover of magazines, including the almighty Vogue. Though she is gorgeous, she’s not fully white; she represents the exotic ladies. And certain members of the American public are compelled to follow her every move. Thus, she is absolutely accepted and embraced in American TV culture.

So why is it that most authors write a white female protagonist? You may be saying, “hey, that’s what they know or have grown up with or what appeals to them.” I agree. Maybe they can relate to this type of female protagonist or they dream of being or being with this kind of female protagonist.

As an exotic-looking woman myself, I would love a novel to become a household name that has the Kim Kardashian factor or the modest-looking ethnic woman factor. I have to give props to James Patterson for his Alex Cross series, where the male protagonist is black and normal looking. But what about female protagonists? Are we afraid of the shift from white to ethnic…Is it out of our comfort zone?

For me, I must pause before writing my next novel. If I have a female protagonist, what should she look like? Should she look like me? Am I the new “girl next door” or the modern “American woman”?

I wonder.

Jennifer Ciotta, featured in Poets&Writers magazine

Photo by Christy Whitney for Poets&Writers magazine

Photo by Christy Whitney for Poets&Writers magazine

I’m happy to announce that I was co-interviewed along with self-publishing icon Richard Nash and agent Kristin Nelson for a five-page article entitled: “Self-Publishing Perspectives: A Successful Author, Agent, and Publisher Discuss the Revolution in Progress” in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of Poets&Writers magazine. Enjoy! Jennifer

Putin & Self-Publishing, Jennifer Ciotta Talks in Boston!

In April 2013 I had the wonderful opportunity to speak at a Literary Traveler magazine sponsored event at The Arts Armory in Somerville, MA, a super artsy part of Boston. I was excited to speak in front of authors and inspiring authors who wanted to know the business inside and out. It’s funny, but every time I do one of these talks, I think to myself, wow, these writers are dedicated to the craft and the business, the latter being so important. Bravo to them!

Amanda Festa, editor at Literary Traveler, attended and wrote a smashing article about the highlights of my talk. I can tell she was listening intently, because everything she said in the article below is exactly what I wanted audience members to remember.

And I pass her article onto you, entitled “Author and Editor Jennifer Ciotta Talks Publishing and Putin.

Happy self-publishing!

~Jennifer

 

 

How Watching Friends Will Help You Become a Great Novelist

Strangely enough, I didn’t watch the NBC television series “Friends” until recently. When the “Friends” craze was going on, I was in college, where we didn’t have television reception in the dorms, and then I moved to Eastern Europe for two years.

I have a good friend who loves the show and encouraged me to start watching it.

When I moved to the country this year, I realized there’s really nothing to do past nine o’clock at night; therefore, I began watching reruns of “Friends” later at night, at eleven o’clock. Of course, going on this new venture, I was like “whatever, ho-hum, another sitcom,” but I quickly realized how good the writing is and why the show was so popular in its heyday and why it continues to be popular. It all comes down to…

The writing.

Yes, the actors are seasoned and play their characters well. Jennifer Aniston’s comedic timing is brilliant and Lisa Kudrow is uber-talented. But the real pull of “Friends” is all on the page, in the writing.

Let’s take a normal sitcom. Usually, there’s predictable dialogue, predictable situations and characters and a very predictable ending that wraps up everything in a neat bow.

Now let’s examine “Friends.” From the reasons listed below, you can learn the crucial basics of how to write a page-turning, compelling novel.

1) You never know what’s going to come out of each character’s mouth. For instance, when Rachel says to Joey that she thinks her boss is trying to buy her baby. That was a surprise. She could’ve easily said something much less funny and strange, hence it would’ve been a predictable storyline. Instead the writers of “Friends” chose to have Rachel say something bizarre that will drive an equally bizarre storyline, since Joey visits her boss and threatens him, and in turn, the boss sits Rachel down with human resources to make sure she understands he is not trying to buy her baby. Also, keep in mind, Rachel saying this odd thing is totally within her character, because she’s not good at lying and she’s flighty at times. Lesson learned for all of us writers: Have our characters say unpredictable and surprising things, but stay within character.

2) You never know what situation will occur. The writers of “Friends” did something absolutely crucial to their success–they weren’t afraid of change. And more importantly, they weren’t afraid to change the dynamic of the relationships of the characters. Ross and Rachel dated and broke up and dated again. They even had a baby. While on vacation in London, in a shocking twist, Monica and Chandler sleep together…and eventually end up getting married. As I watch the show, I know that I can’t predict what will happen and what situations the writers will put the characters in. That is a major pull of each episode, the what-will-happen-next factor. Lesson learned for all of us writers: Write unpredictable and surprising story lines, while embracing change.

3) Each character has a want. In novel writing, it’s imperative that the protagonist has a want, or the story falls flat. Your protagonist must want something to have that pull to keep the reader reading. S/he may want love, power, money. The point is s/he must have a clearly defined, easily recognizable and simply put want. In “Friends,” every character has a want, and the tricky thing is the writers have six protagonists, thus each friend must have a want. That’s complicated, but the writers handled it brilliantly. Ross wants Rachel. Rachel wants a career. Monica wants love. Chandler wants normality. Joey wants to be a successful actor. Phoebe wants to have a family. These wants drive the dialogue and story lines and they kept viewers tuning in week after week. A good example is Monica. She finds love with Chandler, but her dream is to have a baby. When she learns they can’t conceive, she and Chandler set out on a path to have a child. When they finally have twin babies via adoption, that doesn’t occur until one of the final episodes. As the series ends, Monica receives her want, the ultimate love of being a wife and mother. Meanwhile, Chandler receives his want of normality by being a husband and father. In regard to novel writing, that’s how a great book plays out as well. The protagonist may receive her or his want earlier on, but s/he must go through conflict to achieve the final, ultimate want. Lesson learned for all of us writers: The protagonist must have a want and s/he must go after that want the entire story.

I recommend watching “Friends” and seeing what you can discover. Dissect the dialogue, story lines and overall writing and evaluate why viewers still love this sitcom, even years after it has been off the air. See what you can learn from an episode of “Friends.”

10 Things I’ve Learned in My First 6 Months of Being a Self-Published Author

1) It takes time to build an audience. If you want people to read your book, you need to build a loyal audience. I’m not talking about mom and grandpa and your BFF Lindsey, I’m talking hardcore, real fans who will read anything you publish. It takes time to find a fan base, and I’m not talking months, I’m talking years. For John Locke, the first self-published author in the Kindle Million Sales Club, it took him a couple years to get there, and seven books. That’s reality. You will find people who love your book. I have, and they’re already asking me for the sequel.

2) Shortcuts don’t work. I’ve tried every shortcut, and they simply don’t work. What does work is putting in your dues. Every single day I do something toward my book, whether it’s friending readers on Goodreads or pitching for a speaking engagement or radio show. Every single day.

3) You will spend a lot of money. I’ve spent $5000 so far just on I, Putin. Between the process of self-publishing, buying ISBNs, maintaining websites, etc., it adds up over time. Some authors I know have money, and they’re spending $10,000 or up on publicity campaigns. Good for them! As for myself, in my next life, I plan to marry rich at 19, dump the old geezer by 29, receive a ton of alimony and put all that money toward my publicity campaign. Oh, and I also plan on being a supermodel.

4) Be skeptic of where you spend your money. After my first experience with a publicist, who didn’t charge me because the job was inadequate, I’m wary of where to spend money. There’s a lot of “I can make you a bestseller” or “I can make you a bestseller in 30 days!” If I want to spend money, I do my research and then decide if it’s a good fit for my book. I’m now trying to go after a cult following, and if this strategy works, I may spend $650 on a publicity opportunity I’ve been eyeing. But before I do, I’m going to ask for other authors I can contact, who have worked with this company. I’m going to ask a ton of questions. I’m going to make an informed decision.

5) Pricing is key. If you price your book wrong, it’s dead in the water. If James Patterson and Jack Canfield are pricing their new ebooks from $3.99 to $9.99 each, you better be around there or under it. Before I priced my book, I looked around on Amazon and asked publishing professionals. That’s why I, Putin is a mere $2.99.

6) You will receive bad reviews. I have. I have one bad review so far and one average review. Cool. I respect everyone’s opinion, and that’s life. Art is subjective. No, your book is probably not the next great American novel…unless you’ve been reincarnated as J.D. Salinger. To prove my point, take a look at reviews of The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby on Goodreads. They’re not even near five stars. To me, from an editor’s standpoint, Catcher is an absolute perfect novel, but that’s my opinion. Also, when I’m on Amazon and I see a book with let’s say 20 reviews and all five stars, that screams “My friends and family wrote all my reviews.”

7) Etiquette. Have you ever seen people drive in a parking lot? They suddenly lose all their manners. The same thing happens with certain people when they read your book. I would say 95% have been cool. Feedback is fine. But it depends on the intent. I’ve had a few people deliberately try to knock me down or hurt me. One person I do not speak to anymore. With another person the situation went like so: I won a second award and told certain people. Everyone did the right thing and congratulated me, except one person who had to put me down. That day, instead of celebrating and embracing my friends’ support, what stuck with me and ruined my day was the horribly rude comment my friend said to me. A week later, I told him how he made me feel and how hurt and disappointed I was in his lack of support. He apologized profusely and everything is fine now. But, in the end, I gave that person permission to upset me. I should’ve brushed it off my shoulders and basked in the support of all my other friends. Lesson learned. Here’s my take on it, when I read a friend’s book, I concentrate on the good things i.e. the unique voice, great writing, cool metaphors. I focus my energy on supporting my friend. Listen, I’ve read a lot of my friends’ books that are not in my genre and not my thing, but I always find the good and many times the great. Being an editor, I can nitpick a book to death, even my own. Remember, no book is perfect. YOUR book nor MY book is perfect. Unless, my friend specifically asks for criticism, I tell her/him what I loved about the book.

8) Sometimes you have to be tough. I wrote to my alma mater, trying to get publicity for my book. I wanted it to be included in their alumni magazine, because the people who read it are my target audience. I wrote three times and received lackluster responses. Then I wrote a polite but firm letter to the president of the university, explaining my disappointment in the school’s support and listed the book’s accomplishments. Within 24 hours, I received an apologetic note from the magazine’s editor. My book will be featured in the fall edition. I wrote the editor a very nice and enthusiastic response. The point is: Nobody puts Baby in the corner.

9) Go after the big guns…but know this…Your book may be *perfect* for that cooking segment on The Today Show, but let me tell you, it often takes more than that. I have a friend who is an expert in his field. He’s been on television all over the world. He’s handsome, brilliant, funny and great on camera. But, so far, he can’t land the big guns i.e. CNN, MSNBC, Fox, etc. He and I met with a very well-known book publicist, and the publicist said you have to find the right person to break into the “inner circle.” For me, in early September, I’ll be on a political radio show. I’ll be speaking about Putin and Syria for an hour. Sounds tough, right? It is. But I have to step up my game and get these sound bites in order to pitch the big guns. Also, I’ve noticed every publicity opportunity begets an even bigger publicity opportunity. Once you get the ball rolling, keep it rolling. The publicity train should never stop.

10) If you don’t know much about self-publishing, you should…

*Read my new book!*
Available: Early September 2012

- Super Honest Advice based on my experiences self-publishing my debut novel. I tell you where to spend your money, what services to avoid & much more!

- Super Quick Read. Under an hour, tops.

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For more advice, please sign up for my monthly newsletter and teleseminar series.

Legitimate Book Awards for Self-Published Authors

I entered my first book award competition, and I’m thrilled to report that I had major success. After submitting my novel I, PUTIN to the New York Book Festival, I found out I’d won an Honorable Mention.

This accomplishment was a welcome surprise for me in the several months my book has been on sale. I’ve learned what an author goes through, and that is that selling books is a tough business. The key word being “business.” I love that my author friend refers to it as “his expensive hobby,” which I totally feel like some days. So, as you can imagine, winning the honorable mention was a huge deal to me.

It also inspired me to enter more book award contests, thus I entered another one yesterday. When doing so, I always make sure I read through all the fine print carefully, including the top award. Yes, of course, I probably won’t win the top award, but if I do, would I want it? Some awards I’ve read about have stopped me from entering the contest because I don’t like the award at all, especially when the powers that be want exclusive rights and to use excerpts of my book for free.

I also plan to enter another awards contest in September, so that’s three contests I’ll be putting money toward. Remember, the entry fees are not cheap; usually $50 to $200 a pop. I stick with the lesser amounts, so I can enter more. Personally, the most I’ll probably pay is $75, unless it’s an amazing opportunity my book is absolutely perfect for, then I’ll pay up to $100. In the end, these competitions are a business, but it’s nice to get acknowledged and in a sense, endorsed. I can now add my honorable mention to my paperback and ebook covers, to all my websites, literature, press information, bookmarks and promotional flyers.

In order to find out the legitimate award competitions, in an effort to avoid scams and not waste my money, I researched and found a list of all the legit award competitions. Here is the link:

Book Awards for Self-Published Authors

And best wishes for many award wins for your book!

Amazon Tools for Authors, Useful or Useless?

As stated in my Book Publicity Newsletter, I explored the Amazon tools this week, which I found to be everything I’d always known. I’d heard about the elusive tools, which are supposed to drastically increase sales. Personally, I’m not buying it. I have no idea how an author bibliography will cause a spike in sales.

However, I have used Kindle Direct, and you can read about my experience using Kindle Direct (KD), which I found somewhat successful. The real test with KD will be this upcoming Memorial Day weekend when I run my final two-day free promo of my novel to get the word out. And, by the way, I looked on GoodReads and I’ve received two great reviews from non-friends and several readers have my book in their queue, which I credit to KD.

Now, for the big unveiling. Here are the Amazon tools:

1. Kindle Direct

2. Adding a book cover

3. Book description

4. Customer reviews

5. Editorial reviews

6. Author bibliography

7. Achieving an Amazon bestseller ranking

8. Creating Listmania Lists

9. Creating Guides

10. Participating in customer discussions

11. Search Inside This Book program (automatic w/ CreateSpace)

12. Browse paths

13. Browse categories (Look for similar items by this category)

14. Subject categories (Look for similar subjects by this category)

15. Adding a video interview

16. Adding a book trailer

17. Adding any other type of video (i.e. book signing)

18. Adding an Author Central profile

19. Adding blog feeds to your Author Central profile

20. Adding Twitter feed to your Author Central profile

I invite anyone to write to me who has had success with the Amazon tools in 2012. Since many of the tools are unavailable to authors now, but a year or two ago were available, the success story should be very recent. Thank you!

 

A Personal Approach to Editing & Author Success