The Art(?) of Writing(?)
Emily Dalton, MD, discusses writing in “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” in the May issue of the Bulletin of the Humboldt-Del Norte County Medical Society.
Last month I attended a conference entitled: Books, Memoirs and Other Creative Nonfiction at Harvard.
It’s a great course, and I highly recommend this method of getting CME credit for writing, having fun, and networking with people in the publishing business.
Self-help books, medical texts, and memoirs comprise the 3 main categories of medical nonfiction. The publishing world is very interested in books that will sell lots of copies and make money. I don’t know why I was surprised by this. (We all need to get paid for our work.) Maybe it is because I live in a remote rural area, or that I have my head in the clouds. Naively, I figured the compensation for one’s writing would be roughly commensurate with the quality. I expected the publicists, agents, and editors to be interested in one’s prose, one’s command of the English language, and one’s writing style — but instead I found myself being asked about my TV appearances. Why would a writer want to appear on TV? If I wanted to be on TV, I would be at a conference for actors. I checked my syllabus — I was in the correct place.
Of the three main entry points into the world of publishing, the most popular for physicians is the self-help genre. The pathway goes like this: start with a “hot” topic bound to generate immediate interest from a target market. Ideally this would be a topic so engrossing that your intended buyers will be compelled to open their wallets and purchase your book right away, instead of going home and seeing if they can download something similar for free. Typical book ideas include using cutting edge knowledge of neurobiology to improve one’s functioning, a new spin on how to lose weight, or how to deal with some common but specific physical/mental disorder.* In order to be legitimate, the physician backing the book must be an “expert” on the topic, but in addition, he/she must be somewhat of a celebrity (hence the TV appearances). It really doesn’t matter if the doctor-author can write or not, because there are many excellent underemployed writers who will write the book for you. Nevertheless, the best books in this genre are written out of altruistic passion by physicians who have a unique sort of help to offer and see an unfulfilled need for their expertise. They certainly don’t do it for the money. Most of us could make more in a month doing our day jobs than we would earn for a year’s work on a full-length book.
Success in publishing is all about having a “platform,” which contrary to common understanding is not a sturdy, flat, wooden structure. A platform is a publishing term for your public persona and your professional reputation and accomplishments.
In order to build that platform, you have to do things that most of the rural physicians I know abhor: Give speeches, get on television and radio, and talk to reporters and the press. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I have learned that the press is not usually our friend. They misquote the things we say and get us into trouble with people we did not mean to offend. Besides, most of us in rural areas are so inundated with demands from large numbers of patients, the obligations of running a business, hospital duties, committee responsibilities, and being on-call that inviting additional (unpaid) professional social contact into our lives is completely unappealing…
*During the week of March 28, number three on the New York Times nonfiction list combines all three of those concepts: Change Your Brain, Change Your Body, by Daniel G. Amen is about using the brain-body connection to lose weight and avoid depression.
Read Dr. Dalton’s entire “In My Opinion” atwww.sonic.net/~medsoc/images/bulletins/MAY%202010%20BULLETIN%20EXCERPTS.pdf.