If you’ve ever thought about writing a book, the very first thing anyone will tell you is to figure out which “shelf” it will sit on in a bookstore. It’s not enough to simply have a topic, or even an angle into a topic. You need to know who’s going to buy this book. Because book publishing, like anything else, is a business and the key to a successful business is knowing your market.
I knew all of this, of course. Over the years, I’ve been in enough writing groups and consumed enough resources devoted to the art and science of getting published that I knew that were I someday to approach an agent with an idea for a book, I’d need to be able to provide a cogent answer to this question.
And then someday arrived and I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to answer it.
Let me back up. I’ve been working for several months on a book about…drumroll please…swimming and adulthood. After more than 25 years as a “casual runner” – someone who ran three times a week to stay fit – my body was telling me that that I could no longer run. The reasons why I needed to stop running aren’t all that interesting. (Well, OK, something called Piriformis Syndrome, if you must know…) But the upshot was that, on the advice of my doctor, I began – somewhat reluctantly – to swim.
This obviously not an entirely new topic for me. This blog’s strapline – “Finding Yourself In Adulthood” – is all about conceptualizing adulthood as a journey, not a destination. But whereas the blog tackles topics ranging from work and parenting to therapy and the arts in a much more general way, the daily act of swimming enabled me to analyse these subjects through a single prism. In essence, swimming serves as a metaphor through which to explore what it means to be a grown up in the contemporary age.
But even after I started writing this book, I still struggled with where it fit on the proverbial bookshelf. Was it an extended meditation on swimming itself, Like Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies? Was it a sports memoir a la Gerald Marzaroti’s Late to the Ball about picking up a new skill (tennis) in midlife? Was it a humorous, loosely themed take on daily life, modelled on David Sedaris or Sandra Tsing Loh? Or a was it a collection of more serious essays like Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable?
On alternate days it felt a bit like all of these.
It didn’t help that when I showed my précis (2 page overview) of the book to a few friends I got very different advice. One friend thought that it needed to be funnier, more like my daily status updates which I post on Facebook recounting the cast of characters I run into at my local swimming pool. Another friend thought that it should be a novel. Someone else advised me to convert it into an inspirational journey, the sort of Eat, Pray, Love of swimming.
Instead of writing the book, I began to obsess about genre.
And then, one day, at the tail end of a dinner party while chatting about this problem with a friend, I had my Eureka moment. My friend is a novelist who has written several novels in the Lad Lit genre and is on the cusp of becoming a sensation with his latest work-in-progress, which has already been snatched up by a major New York imprint. (He’s also sold the film rights. As he put it so beautifully, “Who knew that becoming an overnight success took so long?”)
After I regaled him with all of my anxieties about what the book could and should be, he looked at me and simply said: “Write the book that only you could write.”
It wasn’t rocket science. Nor was some dark, heretofore unknown secret of the publishing world. But for me, it was sort of like that age-old adage: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” And just like that, I immediately felt better.
Because I realised in that moment that I actually *had* been writing the book that only I could write all along. While it had elements of several different styles, at the end of the day the book I was writing was essentially a self-help book, albeit one very much rooted in my own experience. (I’ve since learned that there is a name for this sub-genre – self-help memoir or prescriptive memoir. Thank you, Jane Friedman.)
For me, my friend’s throwaway line (heartfelt, to be sure, even if infused with a few glasses of red wine), was clarifying: I need to stop obsessing over what other people think my book is meant to be. That comes later. For now, the book is already what I need it to be: a place to bring my voice and my insights to a topic I’ve long been passionate about with a fresh angle.
In a year where my new year’s resolution was to embrace authenticity, that feels pretty good.