At least half of my ghostwriting and book development business centers around self-help books.
A self-help book is defined as one that instructs or inspires its reader to solve a particular personal problem and make their life better. The genre takes its name from “Self-Help,” an 1859 best-seller by Samuel Smiles that advanced the allied virtues of hard work, thrift, and perseverance. Self-help books are also known and classified under “self-improvement,” a term that is a modernized version of “self-help.”
From the perspective of the aspiring author, the key to a successful self-help book is simple: Keep your focus on delivering useful, actionable information to the reader. The reader has paid good money–$10 or $`15–for your book, and he or she wants answers and results.
The problem the reader faces could be anything:
How do I become healthier and feel better?
How do I get a better job?
How do I become a more effective leader at work? (A very common theme!)
How do I dress for success?
A concept that many new authors find difficult to accept is this: The reader is totally self-centered. He or she does not care about your life or your amazing experiences. The reader cares only about one thing: “What’s in it for me”? This is also known by its acronym, WIIFM.
Your life story may be of anecdotal interest, and it may be used to validate the advice you provide to your reader. But you must very quickly pivot and provide to your reader the actionable solution that will help them change their life.
Here’s a simple litmus test for your self-help book. If the personal pronouns “I” or “my” or “me” appear in your book more than once every few pages after the preface, then you have a problem. You’re talking about yourself too much. Cut it down. Put the focus on what your reader can do to make their life better. Your reader will thank you, and you’ll sell more books.
Thomas Hauck is a professional book developer and ghostwriter serving both emerging and veteran authors of self-help books.
Written works of fiction come in all lengths as measured by the word count. This is simply the number of words in the document or book. When you’re writing on your computer, word processing applications such as Microsoft Word will give you a word count, either showing just the words alone or all the characters, including individual letters, spaces, and punctuation marks.
In the typical text, the ratio of words to all characters is roughly 1:6. That is, if the word count is 100, the number of all characters is likely to be 600. This is of great interest to proofreaders, who must seek perfection in every character.
Haiku and Limericks
The shortest complete written works are haiku poems. This ancient Japanese poetic form consists of three lines, with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third. One of the best-known Japanese haiku poems is “Old Pond” by Basho (17th century):
old pond frog leaps in water’s sound
A limerick is a a five-line poem consisting of a single stanza with an AABBA rhyme scheme. It has roughly 30 words. Edward Lear popularized limericks; here’s one:
There was a Young Person of Smyrna Whose grandmother threatened to burn her. But she seized on the cat, and said ‘Granny, burn that! You incongruous old woman of Smyrna!’
A piece of flash fiction is a short story of 500 words or less. (Bear in mind these word counts are fairly arbitrary.) Subcategories include the six-word story; the 280-character story (also known as “twitterature,” after Twitter); the “dribble” (also known as the “minisaga,” 50 words); the “drabble” (also known as “microfiction,” 100 words); “sudden fiction” (750 words). Some commentators say that flash fiction is 1,000 words.
Aesop’s Fables are flash fiction. One of the most well known, “The Hare & the Tortoise,” is 188 words:
The Hare & the Tortoise
A Hare was making fun of the Tortoise one day for being so slow.
“Do you ever get anywhere?” he asked with a mocking laugh.
“Yes,” replied the Tortoise, “and I get there sooner than you think. I’ll run you a race and prove it.”
The Hare was much amused at the idea of running a race with the Tortoise, but for the fun of the thing he agreed. So the Fox, who had consented to act as judge, marked the distance and started the runners off.
The Hare was soon far out of sight, and to make the Tortoise feel very deeply how ridiculous it was for him to try a race with a Hare, he lay down beside the course to take a nap until the Tortoise should catch up.
The Tortoise meanwhile kept going slowly but steadily, and, after a time, passed the place where the Hare was sleeping. But the Hare slept on very peacefully; and when at last he did wake up, the Tortoise was near the goal. The Hare now ran his swiftest, but he could not overtake the Tortoise in time.
The average short story is anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 words. (But rules are made to be broken; some works have 15,000 words and are still classed as short stories.) A short story typically can be read in one sitting and focuses on a self-contained incident or series of linked incidents, with the intent of evoking a single effect or mood.
H.G. Wells described the short story thusly: “The jolly art, of making something very bright and moving; it may be horrible or pathetic or funny or profoundly illuminating, having only this essential, that it should take from fifteen to fifty minutes to read aloud.”
While many authors believe a short story should have a beginning, a middle, and end, others disagree. Anton Chekov thought that a story should have neither a beginning nor an end. It should just be a “slice of life,” with the emphasis not on plot but on character or situation.
The novelette has a word count between 7,500 and 17,000 or 20,000 words, depending on whom you ask. Call it a long short story, if you will.
A few classic novelettes or long short stories include:
The Most Dangerous Game, by Richard Connell – 8,426 words
Leiningen versus the Ants, by Carl Stephenson – 8,881 words
Paul’s Case, by Willa Cather – 8,970 words
The Burial of the Guns, by Thomas Nelson Page – 9,601 words
Children of the Corn, by Stephen King – 10,964 words
Souls Belated, by Edith Wharton – 10,669 words
Rappaccini’s Daughter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne – 12,261 words
Everything’s Eventual, by Stephen King – 19,552 words
A novella is a fictional piece between a short story and a novel with anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 words. The longest of the short fiction forms, the novella grants the author the freedom for an expanded story, descriptions, and cast of characters, while retaining the condensed intensity of a short story.
Some classic novellas include:
The Stranger, by Albert Camus — 36,000 words
The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells — 32,000 words
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl — 31,000 words
Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck — 29,000 words
The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway — 27,000 words
Big Driver, by Stephen King — 40,150 words
A novel is any work of fiction over 40,000 words. There are many genres and subcategories.
Young adult (YA) novels range from 40,000 to 80,000 words. For children eight to 12 years old, middle grade books or novels have between 20,000 and 50,000 words.
Thrillers range between 70,000 and 90,000 words. Science fiction and fantasy novels tend to be longer, with 90,000 to 120,000 words and up.
Romance novels have a wide range, from 50,000 words to 100,000 words and up.
Historical fiction tends to require more time to establish an authentic setting, and these novels often reach 100,000 words.
An epic novel is anything over 110,000 words. Just a few epic novels include:
Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo – 530,982 words
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy – 561,304 words
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke – 308,931 words
A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin – 298,000 words
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling – 198,227 words
If you’re writing your first novel, unless you plan on self-publishing, then you should keep it under 100,000 words. Publishers aren’t keen on giving deals to debut authors with epic novels!
Thomas Hauck is a professional ghostwriter, editor, and book developer serving global clients.
I published my first novel, “Pistonhead,” in February 2009. It sold well and garnered rave reviews from both music publications (we still had such things back then) and book bloggers.
Heading into its 13th year, it’s still going strong–and the story is as relevant as ever! The book unfolds over a few weeks in the life of a young man named Charlie Sinclair. He plays guitar in Pistonhead, a Boston-based rock band. He’s not a rock star. The band is not well known and Charlie still has a day job at Evergreen Software, where–despite being a low-wage temp–he supervises an assembly line of developmentally challenged workers.
Charlie faces many personal obstacles. The lead singer of the band has a drug problem. Evergreen Software may close its factory and move overseas. The girl Charlie likes–a fellow employee, Lisa–seems to have a steady boyfriend. Charlie’s family, living up the coast in Beverly, ridicules him. But most of all, Charlie is deeply restless and unsatisfied.
When tragedy strikes, Charlie must re-assess his life–and he gets help from an unexpected source.
“As a novel, Pistonhead is an odd duck,” wrote Francis DiMenno in THE NOISE: ROCK AROUND BOSTON. “It’s not a strictly literary work (but who would want that, anyway?). It’s not an exploitative genre exercise (which would be of no lasting, or of barely even more than ephemeral, value). Rather, it’s cross between a journalistic expose of Entertainment Babylon and a quasi-documentary account of a rock ‘n’ roll musician–one with a great many very thinly disguised music business and local color flourishes. I read it in one sitting. It was that kind of book.”
Congratulations to my valued client Chip Munn on his groundbreaking book, “The Retirement Remix: A Modern Solution to an Old School Problem.” With so many Baby Boomers heading towards the biggest wave of retirements in American history, there’s greater urgency to not only plan for retirement in the traditional sense (that is, save for it), but to re-imagine it.
With nearly two decades in the finance business, Chip Munn proposes that the dividing line between working and retirement must be blurred. No longer should we toil like beasts of burden for 40 years and then suddenly be put out to pasture to do nothing.
Work, Retire, Work Some More, Retire, and Repeat….
He found that in the happiest and healthiest countries in the world, workers work less. Compared to the average worker in the United States, they take off an extra 220 hours a year. They focus on having strong social connections and take care of themselves. But the flip side is that they’re willing to work to an older age. They actually work two-and-a-half years longer compared to the American worker, with many taking “mini-retirements” with their time off each year.
Chip Munn proposes that the idea of Old School Retirement is broken and has developed a method to apply these innovative, common-senses practices to help you, the reader, live a happier, healthier life.
It’s all about how your body metabolizes, stores, and burns energy. It reveals that the fat stored by your body is a potent source of energy, and it doesn’t have to just sit there, building up around your waist, year after year. You can unlock that energy and burn it, just like your body burns glucose. How do you do it? By controlled intermittent fasting. It’s not such a big deal; most people go on a mini-fast every night while they sleep. All you have to do is make it a little bit longer on a regular basis, and your body, deprived of glucose, will temporarily switch to burning fat.
The “flex” part is important too. This is not a strict, one-size-fits all solution. You can go as deep as you want to get the results you want.
And do you know what else? This self-published book is every bit as good as any paperback self-help book from a major publisher. Unless you check the front matter, you would never know it’s not from an established imprint. That’s pretty amazing – and it makes you wonder about the state of the publishing industry.
Among grammarians and writers, the so-called Oxford comma has long been the subject of much debate. Some see it as superfluous, while others say it’s indispensable.
The comma – Oxford or otherwise – and other punctuation marks have their genesis in the 3rd century BCE, in the Hellenic Egyptian city of Alexandria, where a librarian named Aristophanes became fed up with the Greek practice of writing withnospacesorpunctuationmarks. In those days, the written word was the record of something said out loud, and the text only “came to life” when it was again read out loud. Without punctuation, you had to read a passage several times to figure out its meaning. To make the process easier and less prone to misinterpretation, Aristophanes devised a system of simple dots inserted between phrases to indicate pauses.
The dots were aligned with the middle (·), bottom (.) or top (·) of each line. These “subordinate,” “intermediate,” and “full” points indicated pauses of increasing length that someone reading out loud would insert between formal units of speech called the comma, colon, and periodos.
The points were not added according to any rules of grammar. Their purpose was to indicate to the reader/speaker when to take a pause between thoughts. This was the beginning of today’s system of punctuation. Here’s an example of how useful punctuation can be.
The Soldier Sets Fires and Runs
The above sentence is a simple example of the value of the humble comma. Here the meaning is clear. A soldier sets fires (that is, ignites blazes) and then makes a quick exit. There is nothing wrong with this sentence. It’s grammatically acceptable. Now take a look at the same six words, with commas:
The Soldier Sets, Fires, and Runs
Here, the meaning is equally clear: The soldier positions himself, discharges his weapon, and then runs.
The confusion can arise because in this case, the word “fire” can be either a verb or a noun. It’s the same four letters but with two very different meanings.
Another example is “Eats shoots & leaves,” coined by author Lynne Truss in her book of the same name. Here, a panda does one of two things: “The panda eats shoots & leaves,” referring to its vegetarian diet, or “The panda eats, shoots, & leaves,” which means he’s a Wild West gunslinger.
I tell my valued clients that in every book of 50,000 words there are roughly 250,000 individual characters and spaces. Each one is important – and they all need to be perfect!
I recently took a call from a potential client who inquired about my services. He wanted to write a book of non-sectarian daily affirmations for children. It was a good idea, because these days, kids need all the self-confidence and reassurance they can get.
I’m a ghostwriter, and my job is to write books for my clients. Specifically, I deliver a Word document that contains the text of the book. It might be 20,000 words or 80,000 words, but the idea is that the text is something original and presents a new solution to the reader’s problem. This means that the primary value of the book is in its text. The package–the cover and interior designer–is just that, the package. It’s a nice vehicle to deliver the text.
In this case, I told my friend that unless the book of daily affirmations was something amazingly original, the text itself would be fairly generic. The market is saturated with hundreds of books of daily affirmations, and they’re all pretty much the same. Be happy, be grateful, love thy neighbor, enjoy the sunshine, and so on. Therefore the value of the book must lie not in its text but in the package–the cover and the interior design. That’s what will differentiate the book from the hundreds of others on the market. People will buy it and cherish it because of the artwork and design.
So I told my prospective client that while I was happy to help him, his focus–and his budget–needed to be on the book design. The text was the easy part. The book needed a concept, something that would make it stand out from the crowd. Into this concept you’d then plug in the text.
I recently reviewed a manuscript for a wonderful doctor who had written a book about getting better sleep. While praising him for his work, I had to point out that readers generally don’t care about the author’s personal experiences. Unless the author’s story is inseparable from the advice he or she dispenses, a self-help book is not a memoir.
My doctor friend made a very common mistake: He believed the reader was interested in him and his personal experiences with poor sleep. In reality, the reader has zero interest in the good doctor’s medical history. The reader is totally self-centered. The reader wants a solution for his or her particular problem, and they want it now.
I asked my doctor friend, “When you attend to a patient, do you tell them your personal experience with the same disease? Of course not! You say, ‘This is what’s wrong with you, and this is how we’re going to fix it.'” Period.
His personal story would make an appropriate preface, in which the author explains why he wrote his book. Perfectly fine in the preface! But in the book itself, he’s got to serve his reader. As an exercise, I told my doctor friend that in the main text of his book, he was allowed to use the word “I” exactly ten times. I didn’t care how he used it, but he could only use it ten times. No more. 🙂
As a strategy, I would encourage any self-help author to approach the task as if he or she were revealing amazing secrets to the reader. These are secrets that will help the reader change his or her life. I would say to the doctor, “Please list the ten secrets of good sleep.These ten amazing secrets, conveyed by you to your breathless reader, are why the reader will pay $15 or more for your book.”
When deciding how to distribute their book, every author has three choices: 1. Self-publish, 2. Use a subsidy publisher, or 3. Try to get a traditional publishing deal.
There is an entire industry devoted to “subsidy publishing.” These companies act as project managers. You pay them, and they do the various tasks required.
You simply have to relentlessly research them, just like you would research a contractor you’re hiring to build your house. At every step, remember:
1. They will try to upsell you. They will try to sell you “packages” of services, and once they have your money, it can be difficult to monitor the actual work they do.
2. They will try to gain ownership of your book. They may offer a “contract,” which is problematic because they aren’t investing a nickel. They are providing a fee-for-service deal, just like I do.
3. Take baby steps! If you like a company, then hire them for a small, defined service, such as the cover design. If you’re happy with their performance, then move ahead. It may cost more because “packages” are bundled with a discount, but you must make them prove they are acting in good faith.
On Upwork the other day I saw a job posting entitled “Book Edit/Rewrite.” Part of the job description read, “I’m looking to hire a ghostwriter/editor to rewrite my completed manuscript. Rewrite would include add, delete, and recreate scenes. I worked with an amazing ghost writer and now I’m looking to hire someone who will take my manuscript to an even higher level. I believe in this book as I have created the characters from scratch and invested a lot of time and money….”
Call me crazy, but I’m always bewildered when a potential client either states in a job post or tells me directly that they worked with a talented ghostwriter and now they need their book to be edited or re-written!
I don’t know about how other ghostwriters and editors work, but when I take a job for a valued client, my goal is to produce a manuscript that is 100% ready to publish. No excuses, no conditions, no qualifications.
How can you ghostwrite a book for a client, and then say to that client, “Of course, after you pay for the gibberish I’ve written, you’ll need to hire another ghostwriter and then an editor to bring your book up to an acceptable level”?
Imagine, for example, you hire a construction company to build your house. At the end of the job, after you’ve paid them, they say, “Oh, you actually want to LIVE in this house? Well then, you need to hire a plumber and electrician and roofer. That’s the way the business works.”
No, it’s not how the business works. A ghostwriter should write your book to be the best it can. Aside from routine proofreading–always necessary!–the manuscript should be ready to publish. No ifs, ands, or buts about it!