The best advice for getting a book contract for your memoir is this: Write an Op-ed. Why? Because every piece of non-fiction is an argument and nothing hones your argument like writing a short opinion piece. Do so, build a book from there and see the results.
Let me tell you a story. It begins with these words:
“Why don’t you write it?”
As those words were spoken to me, I began to back out of the editor’s office at the world-famous New York Times Sunday Magazine. What he said to me that day would change my life, though not immediately.
The editor surely was not used to having 26-year-old writers try to talk him out of writing a piece while simultaneously backing out of his office, but that was the scene. I told him every reason I couldn’t possibly write the piece he was suggesting I write.
And then he said it more forcefully:
“I think you should write it.”
At the time, my 51-year-old mother’s mind had gone to battle with something, and lost. She had Alzheimer’s disease, and nowhere in the New York City phone book was there a listing for help. There were no research dollars in the federal budget then. There was no cure, no help, no treatment, and my mother, who had just been diagnosed, was the only person I knew who had it (although the doctor who diagnosed her said 4.5 million Americans were Alzheimer’s patients).
It seems impossible to imagine, I know, since we all now know someone who has the illness, or someone who is caring for an Alzheimer’s patient. Back then, nobody had written a first-person account of the illness in a mass-circulation publication.
At the time, I was a few years into a job at The New York Times, and I did what any good young employee might do: I went to the magazine editor and told him someone ought to write the story, to make The New York Times the newspaper to introduce the world to this dreadful illness. I never expected him to suggest I write it myself.
And so I tried to back out of the office.
Have you ever done this? Have you ever gotten close enough to something you wanted to write and tried to back away? Have you backed away? Most of us have, telling ourselves we can’t do it, or won’t do it, or that the family will disapprove, that the story is not ours to tell or, worst of all, that you do not know how to do it.
That was my issue. At 25-years-old, working at my first job in journalism, I had no idea how to write a magazine article, no idea how to even begin to do so, let alone to write an article for the most powerful magazine in the world.
How did that change? Someone taught me to do so.
I had a lot to overcome in that moment of hesitation in the editor’s office. I mean, how was a recent college graduate, who had never written a magazine piece on anything – and who did not know anything beyond her high school biology class about brain science – going to write the first piece ever in the popular press about Alzheimer’s disease for the most powerful magazine in the world?
I was assigned a young editor and several nights a week for months, after we had both finished our regular jobs, we would talk. He taught me what to do as I wrote draft after draft and brought them to him. He quelled my fears, explaining that it was my story that would illuminate the difficult science, and not the other way around: that my story was the illustration of the problem, and that my family’s tale would break the hearts of the readers and get them to want to know more; that understanding the science was as simple as doing basic research. He explained the story was not about me or my mother. The story was about the problem, and we were the illustrations of that problem. And suddenly everything changed.
It was sitting with that editor that unlocked my potential. It was the help and guidance of another skilled individual that set me on my path. And if I had to pinpoint the single biggest issue writers have it’s this – getting the precise help they need. Too much time is wasted on pointless writing exercises and prompts and too little is spent mastering the craft.
If you know me at all – if you have read my book, studied with me, read my stuff online – you know that my signature phrase is “write with intent.” What do I mean by that? You study the form. You master the form. You publish the form. I learned that in my first magazine piece. I learned that nothing – no single piece of writing of any form – is impossible to master.
So I sat and I failed for a while, then I got a little better, and better still and then, on a Sunday in January of 1983, that piece was published.
Getting on The Today Show
The next morning I was on the Today Show, after NBC received an advance copy of the piece and called and asked me to come on live television and talk about Alzheimer’s disease. And then pretty much every other talk show followed. Immediately, the offers poured in: Sports Illustrated called, as did Esquire and Redbook. What did I want to write? How soon could I write it? And by the end of the month I had a literary agent and five book offers from major New York publishers. I went on to write a book-length memoir and publish it with Houghton-Mifflin, all before I was 30.
And when that book was published? I was sent out on nationwide book tour, read my work aloud on National Public Radio, and did another round of all the talk shows from Los Angeles to Chicago, Philadelphia, Louisville, Miami and New York. I arrived home from that tour ready and eager to write more and I did, co-writing several other books, writing introductions for books by others, taking on magazine pieces, a screenplay and pretty much all the work I had always wanted to do.
What had changed since the day I tried to back out of the editor’s office only a few years before? Knowing how to write a magazine piece, I could go anywhere, do anything and have the writing life I had dreamed of. And if I was that editor sitting with you right now like that editor sat with me? What would I tell you first?
Getting To Your Argument
What single thing could I say to you that would get you on your way to a writing career?
It’s that every piece of non-fiction is an argument, and that the single best training in the world for launching a serious and successful writing career is to learn how to express what it is you have to say.
What was the argument of the New York Times Sunday Magazine piece? It was that one of the largest healthcare crises in the history of the world was looming and that the world was utterly unready for it. Simple and complicated as that.
That several-thousand-word piece and the book that followed landed me on the Today Show not once, not twice, but four times over the years. It brought me an invitation to testify before Congress, drew me into work with the Mayor of New York to set up the first information and referral office in America – and gave me my career.
To date, I have published pieces in The New York Times, The New York Times Sunday Magazine and Science Times, The Los Angeles Times, Vogue, Prevention, The New York Daily News (where I was a parenting columnist), Martha Stewart Living, among others, as well as aired my radio essays on National public Radio’s All Things Considered, published four mass-market books, and spent six happy years as a talk show host on Sirius Satellite Radio. But it all started with having a strong, defendable opinion that I could put in print.
That’s right: It started with that argument. Which is where I want you to start: Not with a long-form piece of complicated journalism, but with a solid piece of short-form non-fiction writing that argues something. These are called Op-eds, or commentary, and can be published in newspapers, heard on the radio or read on big online sites as commentary.
For a good definition of an op-ed see last week’s post. For what to do next, read on.
What To Do Next
Want to have your writing life take off? Of course you do. Let me help. Last year, while attending The Tribe Conference in Franklin, Tennessee, as a speaker, I picked up a t-shirt from one of the vendors on which was printed, “Teach Everything You Know,” and as I was handed one, I laughed out loud, and said, “this is my new motto.” Because it is.
Later this month, I’ll be offering a new class on how to write powerful op-ed pieces that get published through popular media outlets. This will be a live class with a few different time slots, but in order to offer an in-depth Q&A, I’m only taking 75 students.