In this 5 On interview, book-writing coach Lisa Tener (@LisaTener) shares important lessons learned during the writing and publishing of her first book, the ups and downs of co-writing, the most important platform every writer should have, and more.
A book-writing and publishing coach, author, and speaker, Lisa Tener’s clients have signed 5- and 6-figure book deals with HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, Random House, Scribner’s, HCI, Beyond Words, New World Library, Hay House, New Harbinger, Yale University Press, Johns Hopkins University Press, ABC-CLIO, and other major publishers, as well as self-published.
Tener serves on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School continuing education course on writing and publishing books. She teaches 8-week classes on book writing and workshops and is a contributor to the Huffington Post and Aspire Magazine.
5 On Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: It took you seven years, you’ve said, to get from having the concept for your first book, The Ultimate Guide to Transforming Anger, to holding the finished product in your hands. One of the lessons you said you learned in those seven years was persistence. What was another unforgettable (whether painful or epiphanic) lesson you learned in that time?
LISA TENER: Listen!
No matter how painful the message—listen!
I started out with a really bad book but an interesting idea—a book to help people gain a new perspective on anger. I had this idea of offering exercises that help readers tap into their creativity, intuition and sense of humor to transform anger. Those exercises became “Anger-obics” – a way to heal, fuel personal growth, and improve communication, relationships, and mood.
The exercises were pretty cool from the beginning, but the rest of the book—let’s just say my friends who read my first drafts tried to let me down as easily as they could.
I really loved my original title—Engage Your Rage. When my friend, Lindsa, pointed out that no one wanted to engage their rage—rage is too scary—I listened again, even though I really loved that title. I knew she was right.
My friend, Peaco Todd, an author and cartoonist, saw the potential in the exercises and suggested that rather than write about my own experiences with anger, the book would be more powerful as a self-help book with well-researched information and a variety of anecdotes and vignettes.
Lucky for me, I listened and ended up collaborating with Peaco. I listened to Peaco a lot. We found a therapist with a PhD to vet anything we wrote and to contribute a page of writing to each chapter. We refined the idea, came up with a structure and sample chapters, and met with a handful of rejection letters over the course of several years. Those were the days when agents did not accept simultaneous submissions and we’d send one proposal out and wait for weeks—and up to six months—only to hear one agent wasn’t interested. Time to move on to the next.
My next opportunity to listen came at my first International Women’s Writing Guild Conference at Skidmore College. After an inspiring welcome by Hannelore Hahn the first night, I walked out to the cafeteria with a group of ten or so women. Within five minutes, everyone at our table left to go to bed. I was left with Rita Rosenkranz, the only literary agent attending the conference.
Rita was so generous with her time. She recommended I read Michael Larsen’s How to Write a Book Proposal, which I think was only in its second edition at the time (the 5th edition just came out this fall). She wasn’t interested in representing an anger book, but she spent at least half an hour advising me on how to make the proposal compelling.
In addition to listening to Rita’s suggestions, we asked for feedback from the agents who rejected the book. Our therapist contributor was not as committed to the book project as we were and we realized that we’d have the best chance of being published if we worked with an expert who wanted to be an equal partner in the project.
We researched and came up with our first choice—Jane Middelton-Moz. Oddly, our letter never made it to Jane due to a move and misspelling her name when we tried to correct for the “middle” part, but our second choice collaborator told us, “You should ask my colleague, Jane Middelton-Moz.” We did, and Jane brought her expertise to the project. Again, we listened, and it became a much better book—and a marketable one.
Throughout the project we got feedback, especially about the exercises. Which ones were clear? Which were confusing? We listened again and kept improving.
Listen to mentors, listen to experts in the field, listen to colleagues and, above all, listen to your beta readers! Of course one needs to sort out what’s useful—especially if some feedback conflicts with other feedback. First listen, then sort out, using your intuition.
Nowadays, a self-help book is unlikely to take seven years. Not only can you submit to more than one agent simultaneously but there are so many professionals available to help with every aspect of the process.
In terms of the original inspiration, short answer: I couldn’t sleep so I started writing a book.
The longer answer is that while lying in bed, I felt uncomfortable in my body and had no idea why. It felt like anger. I decided to imagine the feeling as this powerful energy coursing through my body. It felt great and I no longer felt that weird discomfort that kept me from sleeping. But I still couldn’t sleep with this powerful energy streaming through me.
So I got up and started writing and realized it would be very cool to come up with a whole bunch of exercises like that—exercises to engage with uncomfortable, angry feelings in playful ways to get at the message behind the anger and explore how to resolve or address it.
The collaboration part came when I realized my limitations both in ability and expertise but didn’t want to abandon the project. Peaco Todd suggested collaborating and adding cartoons. The cartoons added so much to the book. In fact, when we approached our third co-author, Jane seemed even more attracted to the idea of cartoons and adding humor than she was to the anger-obics exercises.
How did you and co-authors Jane Middelton-Moz and Peaco Todd, respectively, divide tasks, and what are the best and worst aspects of co-writing a book?
- It’s a great way to get started on your first book. You can learn so much from colleagues and they can make up for your deficiencies—and mine were many!
- When it comes to marketing the book it’s especially efficient. You have two—or in our case, three—people to spread the word, rather than one. We all had our specialties. Jane was the anger expert—she’s a therapist. Peaco addressed subjects that she had special expertise in. For instance, she appeared on ESPN to discuss anger in relation to sports and she was our go-to for humor. I did a lot of the interviews about anger-obics, since I came up with that idea and most of the exercises. Of course, it was also fun when we got to join each other for interviews, particularly on TV.
- It’s inevitable that there will be differences of opinion. One thing we did was to try to anticipate problems that might come up and put together an agreement about how we’d resolve any differences.
- It wasn’t always easy. One time, Peaco and I realized we had completely different perspectives coming into a planned co-writing retreat. Communication was key to resolving the issue. We definitely had to take our own advice—from the book—several times and be creative about how we dealt with anger and misunderstandings! As a side note, I find this often with self-help authors. If you are writing about a particular subject, one or more challenges will come up relative to that issue while writing the book. It helps you remember exactly where your reader is—in the muck and mire of the challenge. And it keeps you honest.
- Another challenge when co-writing is how to find a consistent voice. Our solution was to divide up chapters and each write a first draft of three to four chapters. Then the chapter got passed around to the next person until all three of us had edited it. At the very end, we got together at Jane’s house in Vermont for three days and finalized all the chapters so that we could hammer out any creative differences in person. Jane had some great anecdotes from her work, so she added quite a few examples at the end—some of them very funny! Did we achieve a completely consistent voice? Maybe close. Not entirely.
To answer the first part of your question, Peaco and I first worked together brainstorming the book concept and structure. We had lots of fun naming chapters after popular songs—from Cry Me a River to Burning Down the House!
We also worked together at her computer on the book proposal. I think we may have even written the sample chapter together sitting at her computer. And then Peaco did these wonderful cartoons about a set of 20-something friends, some couples, some not, to bring the concepts to life and entertain readers.
A cartoon can communicate almost a chapter’s worth of information in so few words, and nails the message. Laughter is a powerful release, too—a perfect tool for working with anger! When Jane joined the project, she weighed in as a professional and expert. She offered excellent changes.
As I mentioned, once we were working on the book, we divided up the writing by chapters. Each person got a chance to edit, and then we hashed it all out in person. Peaco developed all the cartoons. And I created the majority of anger-obics exercises but Jane and Peaco contributed a few as well.
What do you tell a client who wants to write a how-to but can’t figure out how to turn their experience or advice into a book-length manuscript? That is, what they have to say can easily fill one chapter, but they have no idea how to stretch it into ten chapters.
Some ideas make a better article than book. I wouldn’t advise trying to stretch something just to make it a book if it can be communicated as effectively and completely in an article or short ebook.
If a client comes to me with a chapter’s worth of material and they want to expand it, I might offer suggestions about features that help readers engage with the material—adding stories that bring the material to life, adding exercises or journal prompts, adding tip lists. There are ways to make the experience richer and expand it authentically.
Developing a list of steps can be natural way to develop a structure and then organically expand. Yet, it’s also important not to be too formulaic or it may not feel very fresh to readers.
Interestingly, maybe because my clients tend to be experts in health, personal growth and business, they usually have a lot to say. The more common challenge is narrowing the book down to one subject rather than three or four. Whittling down rather than trying to stretch it out.
When you want to read recreationally, what genre do you gravitate to? What are some of your most recent recreational reading book purchases?
Oh, fiction, definitely. I love chick lit. Give me a book with well-drawn characters that makes me both laugh and cry and I can stay up half the night three or four nights in a row (I’m a slow reader). And if there’s a bookstore in the story—bonus!
Right now, though, I am on the sixth book of the Circle of Ceridwen series by Octavia Porter Randolph. The historical detail is so well researched and recreated, I feel like I’m half living in the ninth century right now. As if I really get what it’s like to fight Danes onboard a merchant ship, play dice games behind a tent at a ninth century trading post, cook a tasty browis or make offerings to Freyja.
I like reading about nature and picked up A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson at the library for my son. He didn’t read it, but I did. I enjoyed the vicarious thrill of the journey and Bryson’s honesty. It’s not a book about perfection! His sense of humor, though, was a little too snarky and cynical for me. I preferred Wild by Cheryl Strayed.
I also enjoy a good travel memoir. Karin Esterhammer’s So Happiness to Meet You: Foolishly, Blissfully Stranded in Vietnam came out in July. Full disclosure: I worked with Karin on her book proposal, but I had only seen the sample chapter. So it was quite a treat to be transported to a destitute neighborhood in Vietnam and experience the country through the eyes of Karin and her family, who had no idea what they were getting themselves into when they sold their house and possessions and moved across the globe for a job that didn’t pan out.
I do enjoy self-help and how to, but because I edit those genres, they rarely offer the guilty pleasure of fiction.
5 on Publishing
Is there a subject or perspective self-help writers tend to think will be more attractive to publishers and readers than it actually is, something that simply doesn’t sell as well as they believe it will?
Because I’m on the faculty of Harvard Medical School’s CME publishing course, I hear a lot of pitches about books to change the healthcare system. Healthcare is a huge problem, but it’s not that easy to sell a book about fixing the broken system. There are books that break through, like Elisabeth Rosenthal’s An American Sickness. But the majority of books on the subject are not going to garner many readers, and are not as likely to interest publishers. Having said that, I am working with an author now whose book is fresh enough that I think it has that breakthrough potential.
In terms of self-help, I hear from a handful of people every month who are writing general books on how to be happy. Now, everyone wants to be happy and live a joyful life, but how is your book going to stand out on a crowded bookshelf? You either have to find an interesting niche audience for that book, an unusual way of looking at the issue, or a very fresh way to express yourself. Mark Manson did that with The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life.
If someone who has a sound idea isn’t a very good writer, doesn’t have a writer network, and can’t afford professional editing—but really wants their idea, a good one, to be a book—how much does that matter when it comes to helping them place their manuscript with a publisher once they’ve finished their best draft?
There are certainly many excellent books on writing, so if someone can’t afford an editor, I would recommend reading good books on writing and also reading great books in their genre. However, if a writer has a budget for quality editing, I strongly recommend it.
There are also some writer tools, I think of autocrit, that are cheaper than an editor and could certainly improve the writing and teach the writer a few things. Can that replace an editor completely? I don’t believe so. How can you replace the intuition and creativity a human brings to the job? Still, if there’s no budget for an editor, this would be second best. Or it could help save some money in cutting down the number of revisions needed to be seen by an editor.
It’s going to be near impossible to place a poorly written book with a traditional publishing house. The best thing that person can do is maybe find a talented co-writer who’s willing to write on spec. Even a skilled and experienced writer usually needs an editor. Maybe beg the ex-stepson of your second cousin-once-removed who happens to work in publishing to give you feedback in exchange for a month’s work of home-cooked organic dinners, or whatever special skills you can barter for their expertise. Get creative!
One of your services is to help a writer complete a how-to manuscript in 8 to 12 weeks. How long will that manuscript typically be, and is a shorter or longer self-help book more appealing to publishers?
Yes, the idea is to complete a first draft or a first draft with holes. My program is designed for a book that doesn’t require much research or interviewing, or where the author has already done all the research and knows her stuff. I’d say the majority of those books are somewhere around 150-200 pages. But Vicky Dunckley wrote the first draft of Reset Your Child’s Brain in that class and her book is over 300 pages. So it varies.
Self-help books are getting shorter, in general. I tend to recommend writers think about what length works for their audience—working moms with young kids may need a shorter book than retired boomers. Also look to your material and what feels organic to you. Don’t try to pad a book just to make it longer.
If a writer comes to you with a book idea but no existing platform, what is the first thing you advise they do?
It depends on their particular audience (where do those readers hang out online and offline?), their skills and interests (what will the author enjoy doing—and keep doing over time—and still have fun with it?)—and the subject (what platforms are most appropriate?).
One thing every author needs is a website. So if they don’t have a website, that’s where we start. And that site should have a very visible call to action that gets visitors to share their email address and first name—an enticing free gift such as an ebook, tip list, audio or how-to video.
I also usually recommend blogging because it’s so effective in a variety of ways. They can start with a personal blog on their website and then pitch a column to Psychology Today, the Huffington Post or Entrepreneur, for example. However, blogging is not for everyone and I hesitate to offer a cookie cutter approach.
Sometimes we focus more on building on a foundation they already have, like public speaking, training or a particular social media platform.
How important is timing when writing self-help or how-to books? They say not to follow trends in fiction, but is it different for the self-help genre?
Timing is everything. I had an author with a great dating/relationship book. It was a really special book—applying cutting edge research from a different field to relationships. He had inspiring case studies from his clients, with dramatic results. I especially loved his voice—nurturing and witty and kind and generous—and the quirkiest of his true life stories.
He worked hard on developing a platform, pretty much from scratch. He wrote a compelling book proposal and got a top agent. But it was bad timing for a book like that. Several publishers liked his writing but either had recently bought a dating book or just didn’t want a dating book at all.
Fortunately, despite his disappointment, he kept blogging. A publisher who’d seen the earlier proposal liked a blog post of his that went viral and thought it could be a hot book subject. The publisher asked him to write a proposal and he got a six-figure deal. So it worked out for him but not with the dating book.
Parenting books can be a hard sell, too. Sometimes it makes sense to get creative about how you pitch a book. Maybe find a different audience or angle. On the other hand, if you know you’re here to serve parents, don’t try to write for a different audience just because you heard parenting books are hard to sell. Follow your bliss.
Thank you, Lisa.