I am asked a LOT about how I wrote, got a contract, and published my first book. I’m certainly not an expert. I’ve only done it once. But my hope is that some of the lessons and tools I learned along the way might be of help to you as well. Here are 10 tips to start you on that path!
Just Write. If there is one strategy that reigns above every other, it is this. Just write. I remember after I first decided I was going to write a book that I was hesitant to share anything online. After all, what if I decided to use that in my book and I had already shared it? I found immense freedom when my publisher, Dave Burgess, told me not to worry, that your book may very well include pieces of things you’ve already published online. The important thing, he shared, is just to write. Writing helps you find your voice. Everyone has a different style in how they express their thoughts. And everyone has areas where they are deeply passionate. When you begin to put your thoughts on paper, you begin to develop your voice and find out where your passions lie.
WRITING TIP: One tool that was a tremendous help in the writing process was Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. My favorite chapter was titled Shitty First Drafts. As you can imagine, her point was that nothing is fantastic from the get-go. So, get over trying to perfect every single sentence as you go and instead – just write.
Hit Publish. In the beginning I harbored this dream that I would secretly write and just unveil this incredible manuscript that people would just want to purchase and read. Not only is that a terrible strategy, but you also miss so much beauty along the way. One benefit of sharing your writing is that you begin to find your audience (the group of people who support you + the group of people who like your voice and connect with your passions). You also begin to find what resonates with others. It’s not that our goal is to write what other people want to hear; it is so we discover what really connects with others so that we can dig deeper into those areas and uncover new learning.
PUBLISHING TIP: A great way to start sharing your work is with a blog. There are a lot of platforms out there so do your research on the best platform for you. I checked out my favorite blogs online and scrolled to the bottom to see what platform they used. I was looking for a site that could serve as my website and host my blog. I also wanted it to be as low maintenance as possible (so for instance, I paid a little more to do wordpress.com that had a lot of pre-made options vs. the free, open-sourced wordpress.org where the learning curve would be steeper). At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you blog, publish an article in a magazine or online, share a short story on Facebook or start an email newsletter. The point is that you begin to share your voice with others.
Find Your Flow. How and when people write looks different for everyone, but it largely falls into two camps – those who say you should write a little every day and those who say you should find large blocks of time to invest in your writing. I remember when I was looking at doctoral programs, I found one program that marketed itself as “complete this at your own pace – just take a course a semester” and another that marketed itself as “an accelerated program where you take 15 hours a semester and knock out your coursework in one year.” I chose option B. I can do anything for a short period of time. But please don’t make me do a little for a LONG period of time.My writing philosophy is similar. I’m worthless if you only give me 45 minutes or an hour a day. But let me wake up at 5am on a Saturday and find a quiet spot to write until 1pm – that’s golden for me. The point… you do you.
FLOW TIPS: Find a system that works for you and commit to it. Mine was Monday nights from 6-10pm while my kids were in choir rehearsals and Saturday mornings til 1pm. I also did personal writing retreats. You can do super cool ones that other people run (check out this writer’s workshop with Bob Goff), but I really just locked myself in my office or at a local library for 2-3 days every so often throughout the process. But whether it is 45 minutes a day or a block of time each week, commit to the process and let the results come.
Find Your Focus. I’ll never forget when I started writing my first book, I had lots of things to say but I couldn’t find the umbrella; I couldn’t find the frame. My thoughts were good but there wasn’t the magnetic focus that all these ideas were circling around. I made my first pitch to a publisher, but I knew that it was nebulous; good ideas but not compelling. At the end of one of my author calls where I shared my nebulous idea, I followed up with a thank you email and included the latest piece I had written. She picked up the phone and called me and said – “Jill, I know you said you wanted to write about ‘X,’ but this is your book.” And she was right. The blog was called “How to Thrive through the Challenging 5%.” Once I found that compelling focus, all my other ideas circled and fell into place.
FOCUS TIPS: Listen to your readers. Look at what hits home, what they share, what they want to dive into more. Think about what is relevant now but also a topic that will last forever. My publisher calls it evergreen. Find the frame where all your pieces can fit, that’s concise enough to have focus but has enough connectors for others to easily access.
Learn From the Experts. One of the first things I did when I decided to write a book was to reach out to people who had already done it. I made a goal to cold-call 10 authors and ask for a 20-minute conversation. I was blown away at how gracious people were in sharing their advice with me. In some conversations we stuck to their writing process or how they connected with publishers. With others, we went as far as talking about what their contracts looked like. The goal is to learn as much about the process as you can AND make connections that you’ll want and need later in the journey.
NETWORKING TIPS: 1) Choose people who are accessible to you. My first call was not to a New York Times Bestselling Author, it was to a well-respected writer in my field of educational leadership. 2) Make it personal. Know who you’re connecting with. Find a good email for them. Start by sharing what you loved about what they wrote. 3) Be prepared. Have a list of questions ready. Make all the meeting arrangements yourself (if it’s in person, meet them where they are at). Make it as easy as possible. And don’t forget to say thanks – often. 4) Follow other writers. I love following Jon Acuff – he often shares tips on his writing process. And I love following HopeWriters.
Collect Your Thoughts. Have you ever seen the t-shirt that says, “be careful what you say or do in front of me… it may end up in one of my books?” The truth is powerful stories are ALL around us. And if you’re like me and your memory is not amazing, you need a system to collect your thoughts. I LOVE journals. I love them. I have all of them. If you have recommended one to me, I have probably bought it. BUT… my reality is that I’m always on the go. And I don’t always have my pretty journals with me. So, find a system that works for you. My greatest tool has been the Notes app on my iPhone. I had a Note called Book 1 (and secretly, not so secretly now, I have a note for Book 2 – it’s a LONG way off). I use it as my collection point – because I always have it with me. I also use the Notes app to dictate. Sometimes a thought will hit me in a place where I can’t type (curling my hair or driving) and I will hit my microphone and dictate paragraphs. I email myself the text and edit it into a clean version and it is a HUGE time saver.
COLLECTION TIPS: When I first started, I created a list of all the things I would want to write a blog about – growing through failure, acting in the midst of fear, striving for self-care, etc. I would also create a list of stories to tell – some would be related to specific topics; some I had no idea how they would relate. I don’t tell the story; I just list it so that I won’t forget. These are a couple of entries of stories for book 2:
- How Mary Kay shaped me as a leader
- The purple and white school color story + “blue, black and white; tigers win tonight” cheer and how I was wrong
- Hot chocolate at the car line
- The keychain from Shelby
You get the picture. They make sense to no one. Except to me. But as I recollect a story, or see something unfolding before me, I note it. And then consider how it might connect to one of the thoughts I’m trying to share in the book.
Organize Your Thoughts. This was one that caught me by surprise. I’m an organized person by nature; that’s just how my brain thinks. So doing an outline or thinking about chapter structure is easy. The challenge came when I hit the 30,000-word mark and I couldn’t even remember if I had told the story, let alone what chapter I had placed it in. So, develop a system on how to organize your ideas – what personal stories you want to share, what research or quotes you want to use and how you’ll know where you placed everything.
ORGANIZATION TIPS: I was watching one of Jon Acuff’s Instagram videos (see this one on his book writing process) and he was talking about his writing process and he pulled out this huge board where he had mapped his upcoming book: content ideas, chapter names, stories, quotes, etc. That night I ran to the Dollar General and made my own, using post it notes so I could move things around as I went. This pic below is an early pic of my storyboard along with the pile of books I used to pull quotes from for my book.
Structure Matters. One of the things that was important to me was to reach all readers. Some readers love the research; others love tangible tips; others love illustrations; others love discussion questions. I also wanted my book to have substance. My chapter structure ended up including: chapter title, theme-related quote, personal story of trial and triumph (or just sometimes trial) and some general thoughts about the theme, practical truths to powerfully lead, conclusion, 5 tips to thrive, a reflection framework, and a sketchnote of the big ideas of the chapter. Every chapter also had 3-5 pull-out quotes of things I said that I felt were important.
STRUCTURE TIPS: I bought and read a TON of books while I was writing mine. And every part of the book that I was working on (chapter structure, table of contents, discussion questions, illustrations, etc.), I would look at that particular section in all the other books to see what I liked and then incorporated those pieces into mine.
Build Your Platform. This one isn’t about the actual writing process, but keep in mind that publishers are much more apt to work with someone who already has a following, so building an audience on multiple social media platforms is key. Recognize that different platforms house different groups of people. My twitter followers are different than my facebook followers who are different than my linkedin or instagram followers. Try to connect with people across multiple platforms.
PLATFORM TIPS: Keys to building your platform include: 1) Share original content (whether it is a 280-character tweet or a graphic of something you said). 2) Share other people’s good content. Some of my favorite people online are STELLAR when it comes to amplifying other voices (George Couros is one of those). Curate good content and share it when you see it. 3) Build up others. It matters how you treat people so celebrate others when they they’re doing great work. Two other quick tips – create the same handle on all platforms and consider using a tool that will post to all of them at once. By having a tool (I use OneUp), I can spend two days creating and scheduling content for 6 months and not have to worry about it again.
Pitch to Publishers. I wanted to work with a publishing group and so I didn’t research independent publishing in my process. But there are some things to know about working with publishers. Consider looking at publishing groups who have published other authors who are similar to you – in content and in stature. I did not to pitch to Simon Sinek’s publisher, but I did make a pitch to the publishers of Joe Sanfelippo and George Couros.
PUBLISHING TIPS: Research the publishing groups you think would be most likely to publish your work. Find out what is required for their review process. Most common is an executive summary, a fully fleshed out table of contents and a few chapters. They’ll also ask questions about your audience – and the broader the audience the better. You also want to research the publisher to feel comfortable with the work they are doing. You are, in essence, marrying this group. Their reputation and the reputation of the authors they represent will be forever co-mingled with you. ASK important questions – like, what is your editing process like (I cannot tell you how important this piece is), how much support will you have in marketing, what is the profit breakdown and what is an estimated timeline.
Here is a list to some of the common educational publishing groups with links on how to submit book proposals:
*Am I missing a great education publisher from this list? Drop a note to Jill and I’ll update this blog
Publishing Contracts. Just a bonus thought – and this may not be a popular statement, but unless you’re Brene Brown or Simon Sinek or John Maxwell, your first book will probably not be a “quit your job moneymaker.” In fact, some things that come from writing can be much more lucrative (like speaking at events). But still the contract is critically important. Profit sharing ranges greatly between publishers so be sure you truly understand what the net profit will look like for you and when you will start receiving profit (some publishing groups do not pay until the book production costs are covered). Also be careful about paying to publish. That’s not to say that you should never pay but seek lots of counsel if you’re asked to pay to publish or are asked to pay to contribute to a book.
There is SO much more that I could say… But I hope these thoughts will plant a seed and these tips will move you forward to share your own thoughts with the world. So many books have touched my heart and have changed me as a leader and as a human being. I hope that this will inspire someone to share your words too. I can’t tell you how thankful I am to have walked through this process. And a shout-out to my incredible publish, Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc – I had no idea how lucky I was to land with you them. Dave and Shelley Burgess are the very best in the business!
Here are some other helpful articles that you might also find helpful!
- How to Write a Book: The Ultimate Guide (Grammarly)
- How to Write a Book: Complete Step-by-Step Guide (MasterClass)
- How to Write a Nonfiction Book in 8 Steps (MasterClass)
- How to Write a Book [Step-By-Step Guide] by a 4X New York Times Bestselling Author (Tucker Max)
- Corwin’s Author Guide (Preparing and Submitting Your Manuscript)