Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

Top 10 Things I Learned from Writing Two Books

A lighthearted look at what I’ve learned as a published author.

To my great surprise, I’m now officially the author of two books. If you’d asked me a few years ago if I’d ever be a published author, I’d have said, “You’re kidding, right?” But here I am, two books older and two books wiser. Here are the top 10 things I learned from writing two books:

Number 10. Deciding on a book title can take five seconds or five months.

How I came up with the title for How to Be Sick: I opened a Word Document and typed “How to Be Sick.” Elapsed time: five seconds.

How I came up with the title for How to Wake Up: My publisher wanted me to stick with “How to” at the beginning. I spent months trying every conceivable phrase that could come after those two words. All day long, my poor husband had to listen to “How to X,” “How to Y,” “How to Z.” I could hear “How to” in my sleep! Then one day, it dawned on me what the book was about. And that was that. Elapsed time: five months.

Number 9. Authors obsess over how many books they’ve sold (as I’m about to do now).

I’ve had authors tell me that their publishers must be cheating them out of royalties because they’re positive their books have sold more than is being reported to them. Even though I’m 100% sure my publisher isn’t cheating me, I understand an author’s frustration. It feels to me as if How to Be Sick has sold at least 100,000 copies: I get thank you notes from all over the world; people tell me they’ve bought a dozen copies for family and friends; the Amazon ranking stays high. Sure sounds like 100,000 in sales! But the real number is less than half of that.

Recently, I decided it’s all about how one looks at it. If I divide the number of months that How to Be Sick has been out into the total sold, it comes to about 850 a month. This means that, every month, 850 people are buying a book I wrote. That’s a lot of people! And, if I calculate sales per day, it comes to about 30 books every day. Imagine writing a book that 30 people are buying every single day. There’s only one word to describe that: awesome!

Number 8. The Buddha was right when he said, “There will always be praise and criticism in the world.”

Having two books published has driven home to me the truth of this statement. The Buddha said we’d be wise to learn to rest as a giant tree the midst of both praise and criticism. This suggestion has been tremendously helpful to me. I’ve learned that if I get all puffed up over praise for my writing, it’s a hard fall when someone criticizes it. And if I get down in the dumps over criticism, I’m wasting what precious little energy I have.

Of course, I welcome and truly love the praise but, thanks to the Buddha, I’m working on not clinging to either praise or criticism. (By the way, he also said there will always be “recognition” and “disregard” in the world—another lesson I’ve learned from writing two books.)

Number 7. It’s okay to [freely] split infinitives.

When my editor for How to Be Sick returned the manuscript to me and I noticed that he’d inserted a split infinitive, I thought I’d caught him in an error. But he had evidence to back up his claim that it’s an antiquated rule. The rule against splitting infinitives took hold because of our reverence for Latin, a language in which infinitives are unsplittable. But we can split them in English, and it often makes a sentence more effective when we do. So now I feel free “to boldly go where no [person] has gone before.”

Number 6. The comma is a pesky critter.

I was taught to use a comma when a reader would naturally pause in a sentence. I like this rule, and I followed it for years. But from writing two books, I’ve learned that there are at least a dozen technical rules about when to use or not use a comma, and none of them refer to whether the reader pauses or not.

For example, try this rule on for size: a quotation that is part of the logical flow of a sentence is not set off by commas unless the quotation is introduced by the words "said" or "thought." When I was diplomatically told this by my publisher’s production editor, I spent an hour searching in the manuscript for every “said” and “thought” that introduced a quotation to be sure they were followed by a comma. Then I searched for the phrase “such as” wherever I’d used it to introduce a quotation so that I could take out the comma I’d put in. Why had I originally inserted a comma after “such as”? Because when I encounter “such as” before a quotation, I pause before proceeding. Tough luck. No comma.

Number 5. If you’re looking for fake quotes from real people, the internet is your place.

I thought that if I found a quotation on multiple sites that are specifically devoted to gathering quotations, I could rely on its accuracy. Wrong. After my editor diplomatically noted on the manuscript, “I don’t think the Dalai Lama said that,” I began to “fact check” all of my quotations. I learned not to attribute a quotation to someone unless I could find it in the very piece of writing where that person had said it. A book in one’s hands is the obvious choice as a source, although a search in Google Books will do.

Number 4. Most writers are never done editing.

The well-known author William F. Buckley, Jr. once admitted that, as he’d be sitting in the back of a cab on the way to his publisher’s office to turn in a final manuscript, he’d still be editing. He said he only stopped when his editor yanked the manuscript out of his hands. Like Buckley, I edit until the last minute. With How to Wake Up, I even succeeded in getting my ever-patient production editor to call the printer with one last edit in case the presses hadn’t started rolling yet (they hadn’t!).

Number 3. When in doubt, quote Pema Chödrön.

Here are a couple that I never managed to use:

“If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teachers.”

“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.”

Number 2. When you run out of Pema Chödrön quotes, move to Thich Nhat Hanh. (Feel free to reverse numbers 2 and 3, depending on your preference.)

You could try this one:

“Breathing in, I calm my body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is the only moment.”

I add here a lesser known quotation from Thich Nhat Hanh that so perfectly captures the theme of How to Wake Up, that it sits at the beginning of the Introduction: “It is exactly because the Buddha was a human being that countless buddhas are possible."

And the Number 1 thing I learned from writing two books...

 

How to Be Sick + How to Wake Up = How to Get Old!

 

 

© 2014 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. You can also subscribe to my blog (see the choices below my picture). I’m active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

All good wishes to aspiring authors everywhere. Keep at it!

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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