Elizabeth Lyons, WRITE THE DAMN BOOK ALREADY: Tell Your Story. Share Your Message. Make Your Impact.

Elizabeth Lyons, WRITE THE DAMN BOOK ALREADY: Tell Your Story. Share Your Message. Make Your Impact.

Zibby speaks to author, writing coach, and publishing industry veteran Elizabeth Lyons about Write the Damn Book Already: Tell Your Story. Share Your Message. Make Your Impact., a lighthearted and encouraging roadmap for anxious would-be authors. Elizabeth discusses the most common anxieties for writers (aspiring and bestselling alike) and shares her best tips for book proposals, outlining, identifying your why, and managing sales expectations. She also talks about her own experiences writing books (like when she finished her first book with three kids under three!).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Elizabeth. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Write the Damn Book Already: Tell Your Story. Share Your Message. Make Your Impact.

Elizabeth Lyons: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Thanks for coming on.

Elizabeth: And for blurbing it.

Zibby: Who is this amazing front-cover blurb person?

Elizabeth: I know. There was this really cute and just so kind person that I somehow managed to wrangle into blurbing this.

Zibby: This person, otherwise known as me, said, “Elizabeth’s approachable, engaging, and encouraging voice is exactly what aspiring authors need. I’ll be recommending this book everywhere.” Look, here I am recommending this book everywhere.

Elizabeth: Here we are. You’re so sweet. Thank you.

Zibby: I wonder where our voices are today, which car stereos, ear pods, whose walk, whose kitchen. Here we are. Write the Damn Book Already.

Elizabeth: The laundry room, whatever.

Zibby: Why did you write this book? Tell us, why should we write the damn book when there are so many books out there?

Elizabeth: Great question. Three years ago, maybe four, I don’t know, it was suggested that I write this book. I was like, I would rather die. No, I am not going to write a book on how to write a book. First of all, there are so many books out there on how to write books. There are a lot of really, really good ones. I just didn’t feel like I had anything really unique to say when it came to the process. Then fast-forward. Probably while I was coaching one day, I recognized what I absolutely love the most about writing books. That is the, for lack of a better explanation, the growth that happens within people while they’re writing books. The thing that stops people from writing books are just all those objections, all those, but what if this? What if that? What if someone gets mad at me? I’m not a writer. I’m not an expert. I don’t have a huge platform. This, that, or the other thing. They’re all the same. I hear them. I heard them over and over again. Not only that, but I’ve said them. I say them every time. I’ve written six books now. People say it must get easier. For me anyway, no. With every new book, it’s like, oh, god, here we go again. Those are the conversations I love the most.

Zibby: What is it for you that keeps drawing you back even if it’s hard, despite every obstacle? Why? Why a seventh? Why an eighth? Why a nineth?

Elizabeth: Even though after the fifth, I said never again. For me, this is my chosen form of expression. I think everybody has one. Not everyone considers themselves a creative, but we all have thoughts and experiences and opinions. I think it’s part of the human condition that we want to be seen. We want to feel like what we experience matters and that we’re adding value to other people’s lives. Right now, I’m working on fiction, which I’ve not yet done. That’s a completely different thing. Why do I want to write that? Because I’m writing the stories that I feel like aren’t playing out in my actual life. They’re going to play out somewhere.

Zibby: Wait, give us a little more. Are we talking love stories, relationship, career? What are the buckets?

Elizabeth: You know what? All of it. I’m kind of in a weird position right now where I’m trying to merge a couple of different stories together or decide if they’re all one story. I just turned fifty.

Zibby: Happy birthday.

Elizabeth: Woo, here we are. I started a book called The Fifty-First Year. I feel like it’s this interesting shift. It’s this space between that many women experience where — fifty, for me, this is not what I thought it would look like, which is not good or bad. It’s just that when I was twenty or thirty and I imagined fifty — I don’t have a partner. I have five kids. They’re all off doing their thing. The youngest is almost fifteen. I’m not lamenting being a mom. Sometimes I just sit on the couch like, what are we doing here? Where is this all going? I think about My What If Year, which I cannot wait to get my hands on. Alisha, right? I identified with that so much because how many of us think, what if I had pursued this relationship, this career? What if I had stuck with this entrepreneurial venture that I started however many years ago and gave up after 2.7 weeks because I didn’t yet have a customer? That’s me speaking. The number of things I’ve given up on because they didn’t work in seven minutes, the list is long. To think about that but then let it actually play out by writing the story is interesting for me. It makes me feel a little bit like I didn’t miss it. I believe that whatever’s meant for you will never miss you. It just might show up in a different way than you expect.

Zibby: And not necessarily on the timeline that you picked.

Elizabeth: Oh, god, almost never.

Zibby: Almost never, particularly when it comes to writing and publishing books. The gods are involved. I don’t mean religiously, but you know what I mean.

Elizabeth: Well, maybe sometimes. I don’t know.

Zibby: First, you start off talking about the process. You counter so many objections. “But so many people have already covered this topic. But now just isn’t the best time.” You take us through all of the negative self-talk and give us alternative narratives so that we don’t talk ourselves out of doing this project to begin with. What’s the most common one? What’s your response? Take “But what if it’s not good?” or something like that.

Elizabeth: “What if it’s not good?” is always everyone. There are many things I don’t think people realize. One of them is that every single author, even The New York Times number-one best-selling ones, over and over again have many of these same thoughts. Even if they’ve written a best-seller, even if they’ve sold a million books, they start the next one and go, what if this isn’t good? None of us knows how well something is going to be received until it is or isn’t. We can sit here all day and pump ourselves up and say, this is going to be the next My What If Year. This is going to be the next Bookends. This is going to be the next, fill in the blank. It either will or it won’t. It actually never will because there can only be one of each. You’re not looking to replicate anything. More often than not, I don’t hear people say, oh, my gosh, this is going to be the next Harry Potter. It’s like, I’m going to shrink into this because what if nobody likes it? What if I make somebody mad? Another one I hear all the time, of course — it’s true with books. It’s true with businesses. This is just not the right time. It’s true with having children. It’s everything. This is just not the right time. I think that what’s interesting for people is to be able to see that they’re having those thoughts and how absurd they are because we all know that they’re absurd. If I spent an hour last night watching Real Housewives, and I may or may not have done that, then I can spend twenty minutes working on a book, which is another objection.

Zibby: It’s very different. Those are very different. It’s not about the time. One is completely passive. One is completely immersive and active. One takes, literally, your entire body and mind and soul. The other takes, maybe, a sliver of your mind, maybe.

Elizabeth: You’re absolutely correct.

Zibby: Not to knock entertainment. We need that. We need that relaxation. I feel like that is in the relaxation bucket, the recharge, relax, watch TV where you don’t have to think too hard. You can just enjoy yourself. That, you can go back and conjure up scenes and then transcribe them and make people up in your brain and somehow recreate them on paper to end up in somebody else’s brain.

Elizabeth: A hundred percent. I think that that’s the thing that we resist. Another thing I hear a lot is, but what if I put my whole mind, body, and soul into it and then it’s a waste of time because it doesn’t go anywhere or no one reads it or no one likes it? It can be easy to talk yourself into, well, if I’m going to waste my time, I’d rather waste it sitting in front of Netflix. That’s some people’s. Not everyone. That’s some of what I hear.

Zibby: I understand that. I remember having my first manuscript totally get rejected. I remember thinking, oh, my gosh, I wasted a year of my life, full time, wasted. Now twenty years later, I see it was not at all wasted. It was a step on the process to getting there. You have to go through it. Maybe there has to be some sort of joke. Your first novel, the biggest time-waste there is. Market it differently. Your first novel will probably not sell, and yet you’ll have to dedicate your whole life to it.

Elizabeth: Your whole life. Right, exactly. Are you willing to do that?

Zibby: Clarify your why. Let’s talk about that. Why?

Elizabeth: There are two things I talk about in the book that are related but slightly different, your why and your intention. We hear this all the time. What is your why? What is your why? We hear about it so much that I think that a lot of people, myself included at one point — it was esoteric. It was like, what do you mean? It’s very helpful. I believe it’s also very important to get clear about why you want to write this book now. Why me? Why this topic?

Zibby: Especially because people like me will come around and ask those exact questions.

Elizabeth: Yes. There’s something to be said for writing a book proposal even if you’re not going to pitch it to an agent or query an agent because it forces you to get clear about, why are you the person to write this book? What’s my unique angle? What am I going to say differently? How is the book going to stand out from the thousands of others that are already written about the exact same topic? I know that the word in the industry is competition, but I almost think of it more like, why would someone buy my book and that other book? Not my book or that other book, but why would they buy them both? How does my book complement what’s already there but also add something in to where the reader says, “Gosh, I think I need both of these things”? It’s a lot of pressure for one person, especially when you’re writing nonfiction, to put on yourself to be the standout. Meaning, the only resource a reader will ever need. I feel like that’s a lot of pressure, so figuring out why we get that spark within us that says, I think this would be fun. I want to write this. Coming back to that and going, what sparked that? Why did we think that would be fun? That question will come back many times. Why did I think this was a good idea? Something sparked it. It’s usually because you — not to be whack-a-do or woo-woo, but your soul, your spirit has something unique to say about that experience. We’re speaking in the memoir/nonfiction realm now. Fiction is a little bit different.

Zibby: One of your tips is to create an epic timeline, which is controversial. A lot of people don’t want to have an outline, all the pantsers. You say here, “If you’re more creative and go with the flow, you certainly can write without outlining if you choose and fill in the gaps later on, but for most people, having a basic understanding of what each chapter’s main point is and what stories best support the main point helps the writing flow with far greater ease. Having an outline allows your writing sessions to be focused and intentional.”

Elizabeth: I love this topic because I’ve had so many people say, I’m not doing an outline. They’re typically people who don’t like structure. They don’t like feeling boxed in. They’ll say, Liz, I’m not doing that. I go, okay, fine. If you’re not going to do it and you can sit down and the words just flow, more power to you. I would sit down, and I would turn on Netflix. Reverse outlining can be equally beneficial. If you’re someone who wants to just sit down and let it all come out of you, at some point, I recommend that people go back and outline what they’ve already written so that they can see if there is some semblance of a coherent flow. The thing with outlining that I’ve found is that it’s a fluid document. You don’t have to keep it in stone. For most people, the outline they start with only vaguely resembles the final product because you kind of write your way through your thoughts. You start to excavate more and more thoughts and explore more things and go deeper into the cave and be like, oh, my gosh, I didn’t know this was here. Ooh, I didn’t know I wanted to talk about that. You’re adding to and removing and moving things around. It’s not like eighth grade when you had to write roman numeral I and capital A and all that and all the way down.

Zibby: You’re giving me negative —

Elizabeth: — I know, sorry. It’s a little bit of PTSD.

Zibby: I see what my kids do now. It’s not exactly the same. They have a new take. It’s a little bit more interesting than at least how we were taught. Speaking of kids, five kids, how have you written all these books?

Elizabeth: You have four. What are you talking about?

Zibby: I know, but it’s different. It’s also a whole extra kid. You have a whole extra kid in there.

Elizabeth: are twins. I feel like, do they meld together?

Zibby: I have twins, though, and you still have the extra kid.

Elizabeth: That’s true. Okay, all right. It’s my therapy. I love words. I love story. I love talking. I love all of it. When I started, when I wrote my first book, I think I had three kids under three. I don’t know. It wasn’t the most coherent thing I’ve ever done. It was probably a gift because I didn’t look at it like, oh, this is a career. It was a creative outlet. It was something different from diapers and bottles and screaming for incoherent reasons. It’s just my thing that I do. People say, do you sit down and write every day? No, I don’t. If I’m working on a book and I have a deadline, then I have a process. I force it some days. I hate that word. The kids are all in my books, with permission. They love to go back to the early days and go, “You made this –” My oldest daughter loves to say that my third book is the book of lies. That’s what she calls it.

Zibby: Why?

Elizabeth: It’s You Cannot Be Serious. That’s the title of it. It’s how I balanced being a mom of five with other things I wanted to do. She’s like, “This is the book of lies. None of these things happened.” I’m like, “There’s pictorial proof. I promise you they did.”

Zibby: Back to some of the basics here, another chapter, but what if I don’t sell as many books as so-and-so did? This is a big one for published authors. Talk about this one. How do you get over this?

Elizabeth: I don’t know that you get over it as much as you figure out what’s really underneath it. First of all, I’ve never heard of someone who’s, yet, on the best-seller list saying, oh, my gosh, I sold 7,924 copies. We don’t always really know how many. We’re making assumptions. Obviously, if you’ve hit a major best-seller list, we know you’ve sold a sizeable number of books. Still, we’re making assumptions. What I like to talk to people about is, so what? To put the question back on them in a compassionate way, so what if you don’t sell as many books as so-and-so? What are you making that mean? That’s where people start to go, oh, okay. They start to realize how much of their ego might be involved or whether or not they’re thinking about it in the “right” way. Is it about selling more books than so-and-so? Again, coming back to the why, is the whole reason you want to do this because you just want to entertain or impact or help change the perspective or whatever of one person? One question I ask people oftentimes before I work with them is, if you knew that your book was only going to sell one copy to one person but it would radically change their life or their thought process or whatever, would you still do it? If the answer’s no, sometimes that gives me a little bit of pause. There are variables in there. It helps me assess and I think it helps them assess what their intention is, which is different from the why. There’s no wrong answer there. I have people say, is it wrong for me to want to make money off of a book? If I’m trying to help people, is it wrong that I also want to make money? There are all these different things that start to crop up.

Zibby: It’s interesting.

Elizabeth: It’s just interesting to talk about.

Zibby: When I was still in the thick of it with my twins, one of my best, best, oldest friends became pregnant with twins. I wrote a book just for her called Little Morsels: Everything I Wish I’d Known About Having Twins. I had no intention of publishing it. I didn’t. I self-published it. I only made ten copies. I gave them all to her. I think I might have one, but I don’t even know where it is. That’s literally what you’re saying. I wrote that for one person to change her life.

Elizabeth: Look at my face!

Zibby: That’s not the same, at least for me, as trying to write another book that I’m trying to sell to a publisher and get it out in the world and make a big effort and then have the numbers, perhaps, not live up to the effort put forth to market the book and all the things you have to do as an author.

Elizabeth: I couldn’t agree with you more. There’s a difference between disappointment and just feeling like, oh, shoot, what could I have done differently? Was Mercury in that retrograde? What happened here? Disappointment is a completely fair feeling. They are very different. If you know, I’m writing this because I just want to give it to my best friend and help her out, then you don’t have an expectation. When you have an expectation because you’re putting so much of yourself into it and you can’t control the outcome, it’s challenging.

Zibby: There’s not really an answer.

Elizabeth: There’s not. There’s definitely no right answer.

Zibby: Your point, too, is Mercury in retrograde? — not that exact point, but did the culture shift? Did another big event obscure books in general? Is it the middle of an election? There are all these big things, big sweeping things. Did something terrible happen? No one’s even thinking about books, certainly not your book.

Elizabeth: Remember when My What If Year was getting ready to launch? I remember when you posted, “We’re going on Good Morning America.” You said, “I’ve been so hesitant to even announce this because I didn’t know if it would get bumped.” You just don’t ever know. I can’t even imagine that week before. Both of you, I’m imagining, were pretty excited about that. It’s like, please. Thankfully, it didn’t.

Zibby: I remember in business school — I was in business school on 9/11. I’ve written a lot about this. What I haven’t said as much is I remember sitting in class because someone talked about a friend of theirs who had a book that just came out that day or that week or something. They had spent all this time on the book. I always wanted to be a writer and an author. I remember in that moment thinking, oh, my gosh, all that time. I know this is not even close to the biggest loss of 9/11. I had lost someone too. I was still thinking about all the authors then and what that does when you’ve worked for years and years and finally have your moment, and then it’s gone. You can’t have it back. You just never know.

Elizabeth: You just never know.

Zibby: You talk about the editing process. Then you say, “But how do I get Reese Witherspoon or Chris Pratt to endorse it?” That’s so easy.

Elizabeth: Some people would probably say it is. It’s the dream.

Zibby: You say, “What about bookstores?” I do think this is really interesting because bookstores have so much power, really, collectively in making or breaking a book just by where they put it, whether it’s a big chain or the indies collectively or all of that. What are your thoughts on that?

Elizabeth: I love this discussion because everyone has a different experience and perspective on it. I can only speak from my experience and perspective. Back in the day when Borders was a thing, my book was carried by Borders. It was carried by Barnes & Noble. I had this thought that, oh, my gosh, this means every bookstore is going to carry it. Of course, I had the dream that it was going to be on the front table, not realizing that at that time, the front tables were purchased by the houses. A lot of people think that having their book in the bookstore is the mark of a good book. At least, a lot of people have communicated to me — it’s one of the first questions people ask. How do I get the book in the bookstores? Once people start to understand the process of how bookstores actually work with returns and delayed royalty payments and things like that, it doesn’t necessarily change their mind about want their book in a bookstore, but it does oftentimes make them feel a little bit more strategic about which bookstores they want to have them in. What I hear more often than not is people who want them carried by their favorite indie. I just couldn’t love indie bookstores any more than I do, everything about them, from the passion of their owners to their connection to the community.

When you go into an indie bookstore, typically, almost every event they have, there are loyalists who are there. It doesn’t matter who the author is. They show up because they know they’re going to love something. I fully support working with — especially independent authors, we’re talking about here — working with independent bookstores to get your book in there. It’s just a function of having your expectations properly set and realizing that — this may be slightly controversial. If you’re independently publishing and you upload your book through IngramSpark and it says on there, “We’re going to distribute to 45,000-plus,” people assume that means, oh, my gosh, my book is going to be in every bookstore from here to kingdom come. That’s not what’s going to happen. It’s the expectation piece. It’s not that I’m trying to be Debbie Downer on it at all. I feel like when people have their expectations properly set, they’re less likely to be disappointed in an outcome that was going to happen all along.

Zibby: It’s true. I think that’s really the overarching theme to most of what you write in the book, is about expectations, the expectation of it being easy to write a book and the reality of it being hard, the expectation that it will sell like hotcakes and the reality that that’s very rare, just all of it. I think that’s the number-one thing, is getting it in the proper buckets before you even begin.

Elizabeth: I think that when people watch other authors and they think — for example, they see an author do really well. They assume that they just woke up in the morning and wrote a beautiful book. That’s another one that I hear. People don’t realize that the first draft of everything is awful. It’s just awful. When you get a book in your hands that you can’t put down, it has been combed through over and over. The sweat and the tears, literally, that have come out of both the author and, in many cases, the editor to get that thing polished and to “good enough” is significant. It’s just thinking that an author sits down at their desk, writes an incredible book. It comes out beautifully the first time. They launch it. On day one, it goes to New York Times number one. They’re gazillionaires. Reese Witherspoon wants to have dinner. These are the thoughts that people, unfortunately, have. Then when it doesn’t happen to them — they don’t know the reality that that was that author’s nineth book, that they have been writing in their van for ten years, that they’ve had five jobs cobbled together on the side to pay the bills while they were sweating over this manuscript, those sorts of things.

Zibby: I think if authors think of it more visually — Madison Square Garden is full of people writing books all in the same year. In Madison Square Garden, maybe twenty people are going to hit the best-seller list. Twelve will be picked by Reese or whoever. Twelve. I don’t even expect to win one of those T-shirts thrown at me in Madison Square Garden.

Elizabeth: I’d love to ask you, when people hear that, do you feel like that just deflates them?

Zibby: No, I don’t mean for that to be deflating. I mean that to be validating. There can be fabulous books. There will be fabulous books that touch people’s lives, sell nicely, that aren’t going to be on the best-seller list. They won’t have an accolade next to their name. They won’t win a prize, but they have a nice, strong success, or not or whatever. It’s a success for them. Even BookScan, which is what people in the publishing industry use to find out the numbers of other people’s books and publishers can use and whatever, that’s not even representative of all the sales anyway. Then you have the e-book, audiobook, special sales. It’s really impossible.

Elizabeth: It is. I love the way you said that, that it’s not meant to be deflating. It’s actually meant to be encouraging. I think people want to realize that there’s nothing wrong with them because it’s not going to the moon in five seconds.

Zibby: It’s like you’re already enjoy the hockey game or whatever at Madison Square Garden, or the concert. You’re at Taylor Swift. You already are having a great time at the concert. The T-shirt would just be one more great thing.

Elizabeth: Icing on the cake.

Zibby: Okay, enough with the analogy. Elizabeth, this is so awesome. I need to go back and read your book of lies now because that’s the one I’m most intrigued about.

Elizabeth: Some of that stuff, I couldn’t have made up. As creative as I may be on some days, I could not have made it up.

Zibby: That’s so funny. I’m wishing you luck on your novel. I can’t wait to read that.

Elizabeth: Thank you so much. I’m wishing me luck too.

Zibby: Thank you. I know a lot of people need this. It’s just really exciting to think about the fact of what books might come out into the world and help other people as a result of authors picking up your book that you decided to read. It’s one of those huge — what’s the word? Not network effects, but you know what I mean.

Elizabeth: Full circle.

Zibby: Full circle. Thank you. I can’t find words today. It’s really awesome. Good karma putting it out.

Elizabeth: Thank you so much for your support and, honestly, for everything you’re doing. I just think you’re magnificent. Everything you’re doing for authors, it’s so refreshing and inspiring. I just appreciate you so much.

Zibby: Thank you. I appreciate you too. Thank you so much. Have a great day.

Elizabeth: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Elizabeth Lyons, WRITE THE DAMN BOOK ALREADY: Tell Your Story. Share Your Message. Make Your Impact.

WRITE THE DAMN BOOK ALREADY: Tell Your Story. Share Your Message. Make Your Impact by Elizabeth Lyons

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