Writing a book: Make your book distinctive

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Joan Didion’s husband died suddenly. So did Sheryl Sandberg’s. Didion wrote the book The Year of Magical Thinking as a way to deal with her grief. Sandberg has announced that she will be writing a book inspired by her experience.

There’s certainly a market. About 800,000 women become widows in the US every year.

Even though the topic, grief, and the precipitating incident, the sudden death of a spouse, are the same, the books are likely to be very different. That’s the way it should be.

Joan Didion’s Book

Joan Didion decided to write about the experience of grief, and she structured the book to replicate that experience. She said the book was fairly easy to write. “It was like sitting down and crying.” If you want to know what grief feels like, The Year of Magical Thinking is the perfect book to read.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Book

Sheryl Sandberg will work with Adam Grant as co-author. He has said that the book will be titled Option B and it will be about resilience. “It will focus on how we can face adversity in our lives, find meaning and bounce back stronger.”

Sheryl Sandberg’s husband, Dave Goldberg, died in May 2015. In June, Ms Sandberg wrote a powerful Facebook post about what she was experiencing. In that post she said, “I have learned that resilience can be learned.”

Great books are unique

There are a couple of gazillion books published every year. The Amazon category “Grief and Bereavement” has more than 9000 titles. Most of them seem like clones of the same generic book on the topic. Great books are different and distinctive. Here are some things that you need for a great book.

Have a clear message

If you can sum up your message in a sentence you can use that sentence to test every aspect of the book you write. Joan Didion’s purpose might have been “to help people understand what grief is like.” Sheryl Sandberg’s book will be about resilience.

Marshall your resources to support your message

Ms Didion’s primary resources were her own experience and emotions. That’s what her writing zeroed in on. I read the book several years ago and I still remember how she described being unable to give away her husband’s shoes because he would need them when he came back.

Ms Sandberg’s resources include those of her co-author, Adam Grant. That probably means more references to research. Very likely the personal stories will be more descriptive than evocative. But that’s a guess. What I’m sure of after reading Sandberg and Grant’s writing, separately and together, is that the writing and resources will support the message.

Each of the two books will be unique. They will convey the author’s message in a unique way and from a unique viewpoint. No two great books are the same. Each one is unique.

Bottom Line

No matter what you want to write a book about, there will already be thousands of books on the topic. To make your book great you need to be clear about your core message. Then you need to work hard to convey that message in your unique way and from your unique point of view.

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