In my YouTube video on structuring a self-help book, I described the six parts of a self-help book. When you divide those parts into chapters, you may have one or more chapters per part. However, you might find that one of those parts, such as the action plan, just needs to be a section of a chapter. (When that’s the case, you probably have exercises scattered throughout the book.)

Here’s a handy guide to remembering the way these six parts are commonly broken into chapters in a self-help book:

Self-Help Book Contents

 

Introduction: How I Came to Write This Book and Do the Research, And How It’s Organized

 

Chapter 1: The Urgent Problem (Don’t Worry—You’ll Solve It!)

 

Chapter 2: How You Came to Have This Problem (The History of Your Woes)

 

Chapter 3: What You Need to Know Before Tackling Your Urgent Problem (Trust Me, It’s Important!)

 

Chapter 4: More Stuff You Have to Know Before Taking Action to Solve the Problem (No, You’re Not Done Yet)

 

Chapter 5: Even More Stuff You Have to Know Before Taking Action (Be Patient—Each of These Chapters IS Necessary!)

 

Chapter 6: The Action Plan (What You’re Going to Have to Do)

 

Chapter 7: The Action Plan, More Details (It’s More Complicated Than You Thought, So We Need Another Chapter)

 

Chapter 8: The Action Plan in Action (What It Looks Like, With Lots of Anecdotes So I’m Sure You TRULY Get These Ideas)

 

Chapter 9: Troubleshooting When Problems Arise (Those Special Times When You’re Stressed Out or Things Get Complicated)

 

Chapter 10: Expanding Outward (Maintaining Your New Habits, A Pep Talk to Keep You Going, And How to Connect with Others Who Support Your New Habits and Deal With People Who Don’t)

 

Resources, Acknowledgements, Appendix, And All That

 

Of course, you don’t have to have ten chapters. You might have six, or twelve, or twenty-three. What’s most important is that the overall structure supports the reader’s journey from identifying the problem (and being emotionally engaged by your book!) to feeling empowered to create new habits, sustain them, and affect the world in a positive way. Now, that last piece may sound lofty, but don’t all of us want to improve some aspect of our lives, not just to alleviate discomfort or embarrassment, or make more money or have better relationships, but to expand on our greater joy and confidence by inspiring people around us, attracting new clients and friends and partners, and improving how things work in our families, workplaces, and communities? Increasingly, I’m finding my clients are putting more consideration into what goes into this last part. We’re all exquisitely aware of how much the world is changing, and how strongly we want to affect it positively. I encourage those of you who are writing self-help to put some thought to what would be in that fifth part of your self-help book.

 

"Oh no! I have an URGENT PROBLEM I need to solve! Where is the perfect self-help book for me?"

“Oh no! I have an URGENT PROBLEM I need to solve! Where is the perfect self-help book for me?”

The sixth part, “the future,” is your opportunity to help the reader connect with your work, your future advice, and other resources. It can include the author biography page with your contact information and resources. This is also the place where appendices (typically, charts and lists) go, and where acknowledgments typically go. (Sometimes, they’re in the front, but do you really want to hear all the “thanks to so-and-so”s before YOU read a book? Probably not. Stick it in the back of the book if you can.) You’d also add an index here if your book needs an index. But for pitching a book, you just need to list what’s in the sixth part; you don’t have to include it. I definitely urge you NOT to include acknowledgments in a book proposal–and don’t put in a dedication, either. Those are final touches for when the book has been written and edited.

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Self-help book structure by chapter

An example of  chapters that fit into the typical six-part structure for a self-help book

An example of chapters that fit into the typical six-part structure for a self-help book

How can life go from perfect to insane in a matter of seconds? We all know how the loss of a loved one can turn your life around, but what happens when it’s YOU who gets turned around and you find yourself living a nightmare? That’s exactly what happened to Karin Volo, who she shares her horrific tale in her new inspirational memoir 1,352 Days: A Journey from Jail to Joy. I had the pleasure of working with Karin on turning her harrowing story into a memoir that will inspire, educate, and uplift readers–a goal I know many of you have. I hope you will read her book: You can access the first chapter of Karin’s journey for free here:  volo.ontraport.net/t?orid=11608&opid=4

When I first heard Karin Volo’s story, I was shocked—unjustly incarcerated for almost four years while her young daughters were growing up without her, raised by her boyfriend and family thousands of miles away, overseas?! It all began with signing some papers for her husband when she was nine months pregnant–just a formality, she thought–and then, years later, a tap on her shoulders as she was about to fly home from a John Assaraf workshop she’d just attended in California. What followed was incarceration for what would be 1352 days as she fought for her freedom.

I knew Karin had an amazing hook when she first talked to me. She explained that rather than despair during this time of uncertainty, she treated the experience as a spiritual bootcamp and did all those self-help exercises we mean to do when we read the book–exercises designed to help us let go of our anger, own our choices, and co-create with Spirit a new reality. I was mesmerized as she told me about working A Course in Miracles, using the edge of a piece of silverware as her mirror to recite her affirmations! And when I heard she held on to no anger or regrets after being incarcerated for nearly four years, I knew I wanted to help her get her story on the page. 1,352 Days truly is Orange Is the New Black with a spiritual, inspirational twist! I’m not surprised she has collected endorsements from inspirational authors Colette Baron-Reid, Carmen Harra, Jacquelyn Aldana, Marcy Shimoff, and Peggy McColl! And here’s the most inspiring part of Karin’s story: Karin is donating her profits from the book to Not for Sale, a not-for-profit organization for helping people escape the slavery of human trafficking. 

There are many lessons you can draw from Karin’s story of jail to joy, told in her page-turning memoir 1,352 Days. One of those lessons is to take control of the power of your mind to envision something better for yourself starting in this very moment. Karin used visualizations, affirmations, and taking care of her body’s needs to keep her spirits up. (If you think you have a hard time getting exercise, sunshine, quality food, and opportunities for self-care, imagine trying to do it when in a county jail with rule after rule designed to take away your freedoms).

Honestly, Karin’s story is so compelling that I must urge any of you who are looking to write an inspirational memoir, or to write a self-help book and create an author platform around your story of survival and triumph over hardship, to read her book. Do something good for yourself and help a great cause. Enjoy a free sample of 1,352 Days NOW! volo.ontraport.net/t?orid=11608&opid=4

 

Inspirational memoir 1,352 Days is like Orange Is the New Black with a spiritual, inspirational twist.

Inspirational memoir 1,352 Days is like Orange Is the New Black with a spiritual, inspirational twist.

Writing a self-help book? Start with this structure:

Define the problem

Give the history of the problem

Explain what the reader needs to know before tackling the problem

Offer an action plan

Expand outward with advice on how to apply the new knowledge and skills in the future, during especially challenging times, and when dealing with others (family, coworkers, community members) who are stuck in old patterns

(more details are available in my video on structuring self-help)

Then look at your outline. Sometimes, you’ll have topics that don’t have to be addressed in a specific order to make sense. Start with the ones that your reader will most want to read about and then delve into trickier topics that require the reader to self-reflect, admit to flaws, do extra work, or face challenging emotions.

Make sure your chapter titles have energy and give a sense of what is in the chapter. In her new book Goddesses Never Age (just released!), Dr. Christiane Northrup used the hook “Goddesses” from the title to create titles such as “Goddesses Know the Power of Pleasure” and “Goddesses Grieve, Rage, and Move On.”

 

Now, if your titles are particularly clever, someone reading the list of contents won’t know what the chapters are about. In that case, you can write subtitles for chapters to help readers better understand what they will find in each chapter. Julia Ross did this in her book The Diet Cure with chapter titles such as “Chapter 1: Depleted Brain Chemistry–The Real Story Behind ‘Emotional Eating'” and “Chapter 21: Essential Support–Exercise, Relaxation, Counseling, Testing, and Health Care Resources.”

How many chapters do you need? A typical number is 12 to 18 but you might have 8 or even 25. It really depends on the topics of your chapters and how much your text is broken up. If you do not use a lot of sidebars, bulleted and numbered lists, and boxed texts, your reader may be daunted by how long a chapter is–even if you have headers every few pages. Too many headers and other design elements can be distracting, but if you’ve got some breaking up the text, chapters won’t feel quite as long as they actually are.

Do your chapters have to be the same length? No. If you end up with a 7-page chapter and a 30-page one, you should consider whether you don’t want a little more consistency in length, but what matters more is whether the concept holds together for the whole chapter. You never want your reader to suddenly think, “Wait, what am I reading about? What chapter am I in?” Your subtopics have to fit under the umbrella of the chapter.

You might want to help your readers better understand the structure of your book by adding part titles. In my book Raising a Sensory Smart Child, coauthored with Lindsey Biel, OTR/L, Part One is “Recognizing and Understanding Your Child’s Sensory Issues.” The chapters in part 1 define the problem, its history, and what you need to know: Why Is My Child So…Unusual? The Seven Senses, Tuning In to Your Child, and Where Did the Wires Cross? By the time you get to part 2, Addressing Your Child’s Sensory Needs, you already understand sensory issues, how your child came to have them, what sensory processing disorder is all about, and how to better understand your child’s unique sensory issues. You are ready to take action–and most of the book’s chapters are about practical actions to take. Within those chapters in the “take action” section that makes up the bulk of the book, there are plenty of explanations of issues related to sensory processing, from learning disabilities to why children with sensory issues have trouble with transitions and grooming. But the main idea of starting to help your child with sensory issues by understanding what you’re dealing with is set up right away with details to follow in the practical, action plan section.

So while this self-help structure may seem formulaic, you actually have a lot of creativity within it. Sketch out your outline, make sure your structure works, and then start coming up with more clever titles for the chapters (and parts, if you use those). And don’t forget to calculate what your word count will be. You want 50,000 to 85,000 words for a full-length self-help book, half that for a self-published eBook. Divide it up by chapters so you remain aware of how long each should be.

Most larger book publishers insist that you submit your book through a literary agent, although many smaller publishers do not. Agents are gatekeepers: They choose to represent only those books they feel have a decent chance of getting a book deal and an advance. When an in-house acquisitions editor receives a pitch from a literary agent well known to that editor, it’s as if the bouncer at a club just let you through the red velvet ropes. That’s because many agents have personal relationships with the editors in your genre who want to hear about the projects she is selling. If they don’t have relationships with the editors, but have a solid track record of selling books that have done well in the marketplace, an editor will want to get to know that agent and find out what projects she is pitching. Agents and editors cultivate relationships with each other when they realize they share similar tastes. Specializing in certain genres of books is efficient for everyone, so when it comes to finding an agent, you want one who has experience working with books like yours.

Where do you find literary agents that might be right for your book project? You can meet them at writers’ conferences (and learn a lot about book publishing and writing at the same time). You can research agents online or in books such as The Literary Marketplace (a huge tome available in most public libraries and updated annually), Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents, or The Writer’s Market. However, my favorite two places to find the names of potential literary agents are www.publishersmarketplace.com and the acknowledgements section of books similar to the one you’re writing. (If you can’t think of any books similar to yours, check out my article on the comparative books list.) Publishers Marketplace will allow you to search a multitude of recent book deals (as well as other publishing information) for the low cost of $20 a month (and you can cancel your subscription at any time). You can research agents and editors in your genre, find out which agents and editors connected on specific books, and even, sometimes, figure out approximately how much of an advance the author received. Then too, the acknowledgements section of books will often list the names of literary agents because happy authors often like to publicly thank their agents. Don’t forget you can also search acknowledgments pages on Amazon.com and through Google Books. Type into the search bar “acknowledgements,” “thanks” and “thank you,” or even “agent” to find the names you’re seeking.

And how do you know a particular agent is right for you?

Tip 1: Look at the agent’s listAsk to see a list of books she’s sold to publishers if that list isn’t available on her website. An in-house editor is no more impressed by an unsolicited submission from a self-appointed literary agent she doesn’t know and who hasn’t sold strong book projects than she is by an unsolicited submission from an author she doesn’t know and who hasn’t sold any books.

Tip 2: Listen to your gut. You have to feel confident that the agent understands your book and books similar to it. If she doesn’t, how will she sell it? If her editorial suggestions on your manuscript or book proposal don’t sit right with you, you don’t have to take them. You can try to find another agent. That said, don’t let your ego get in the way! Agents use book proposals as selling tools, and they keep up on what acquisitions editors are looking for, so don’t be too quick to dismiss an agent’s advice.  A successful agent’s opinions about your book are shaped by her experiences, and if she’s sold books like yours to publishers, her professional advice may turn out to be absolutely invaluable.

You have to feel comfortable with the agent’s style of working with clients. You’re not looking for a friend who will reassure you that you’re a terrific writer; you’re looking for a busy, successful professional who will naturally limit her socializing with clients so that she can do what she was hired to do—sell!

Tip 3: Query more than one agent. It is acceptable to pitch to more than one agent at once. Why shouldn’t you give yourself some options? Send your book proposal to the first agent who responds to your query letter. If another agent responds, send the proposal to her, too, and let her know that another agent is interested and has requested the proposal. Yes, if you write a terrific query letter, you are likely to get more than one “nibble” from an agent! It’s a very common scenario.

Then too, if you’d like to ask me to help you strategize about what agents to approach and how long to wait for replies, you can always feel free to hire me as a book publishing consultant. Learn more on my services page.

Not sure you’re ready to send your book proposal to an agent? Have you begun the writing and conceptualizing of your book, and started to talk about it and write about it in person or online? You might be ready for a vision plan call with me to strategize your book writing and publishing plan. Check out the description and contact me through the contact form on my website (and yes, the details on that form help me to help you).

Want to know more about the books I’ve worked on? See my testimonials on my website.

Get more free advice from me! Follow me on Facebook.

 

Developmental editor, ghostwriter, and book publishing consultant Nancy Peske at work!

Developmental editor, ghostwriter, and book publishing consultant Nancy Peske at work!

Wrapping up a book project is always bittersweet for me. As a developmental editor, I’m like a book’s “midwife”: I’m happy to see the baby born into the world, but sad that my role in helping the author go from a book idea to a book is over. After a book is completed, I try to take some time to revel in the pleasure of having helped yet another author get that book written and ready for publication. Then, I take some time to ponder what I learned from the experience. One of my most recent projects yielded the following testimonial, which hints at five keys to making your self-help book a huge success:

 

“I have longed dreamed of the day when writing a book wouldn’t be so difficult. When I discovered Nancy, that dream became a reality. She is a treasure whose organizational, research, and editorial skills are unmatched. Plus she’s fun!!” Christiane Northrup, MD, author of Goddesses Never Age: The Secret Prescription for Radiance, Vitality, and Well-Being 

 

What a marvelous endorsement! I’m deeply grateful to Dr. Christiane Northrup for her enthusiastic words. She’s always been a cultural innovator and knows how to connect her message with a book-buying audience.

 

So what are the five keys to making YOUR self-help book a huge success?

 

1. Have fun. Seriously, have fun. Don’t believe all those quotations by writers who talk about the agony of writing. If writing is agony for you, you need to look at why you’re doing it and what you need to heal in yourself to make the process a joy. Does your inner critic need to pipe down? Maybe you need to say, “Thank you for your concern, but I’m an excellent writer, and I need you to go away right now.” (Do a little “goblin work,” as Colette Baron-Reid describes in her book The Map, and see if that inner critic that intimidates you can be tamed!)

2. Don’t be afraid to break with your brand if your followers have given you clear signals they’re with you. Dr. Northrup was willing to take the risk of making her latest book incorporate more spirituality and metaphysics. She is in touch with her loyal followers on a daily basis through social media (she’s very active on Facebook) and tries out ideas to see how her followers react. She notices what resonates for them. That’s what gave her the courage to shift her brand in a new direction. Yes, it’s a risk, but it’s a risk based on her knowing her “peeps”!

 

Writing a self-help book? Don't skip the research and outlining! Hire a developmental editor & make the process pleasant and FUN!

Writing a self-help book? Don’t skip the research and outlining! Hire a developmental editor & make the process pleasant and FUN!

3. Be in touch with your followers and treat them like treasured friends. Yes, it’s time consuming to post on social media and interact with those who contact you, and heaven knows Facebook can be a time suck! But if your followers are willing to spread the word about your work, share announcements, and enthusiastically endorse you, take the time to acknowledge them when they contact you. You don’t have to respond to every single comment, but you do have to INTERACT with your fans. On Facebook, even big bestselling authors like Dr. Northrup and Marianne Williamson will reply to their followers. Do the same and when your book comes out, your fans will be eager to spread the word.

4. Do your research. It’s easier than ever to do research thanks to the internet. Check the original source of any quote by using Google Books and Amazon’s “search inside this book” feature. Use Google Scholar to locate original studies (and use ScienceDaily.com to get a sense of what’s out there and read a layman’s version of the research findings). If you want to check a fact or quote and find that the excerpts online are too short to allow you to see the context, order the book from your library using their website. Don’t just rely on your memory about something you “read somewhere.” Check your facts and see if there’s new research, too.

5. Organize and structure your book before you get too far into writing it. I can’t emphasize this enough: Don’t just write and write and then try to figure out how to structure what you’ve written. Get clear on your chapter outline first. Know what goes within each chapter. Work off outlines for each chapter. Writing an expanded chapter outline for a book proposal, even if you end up self-publishing the book, is a great way to start organizing and structuring your material.

 

Are you inspired to get help with structuring and conceptualizing your book? Are you ready for a vision plan call with me?

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