How to Write a Help Guide
You’ve been there & you’ve done that. Now you want to help others too.
There are unique challenges in writing a guide to help others deal with trauma. The story has shades of memoir, while the guide needs to be supportive and didactic to your readers. How do you balance between the emotions and the lessons? How do you stay honest, but give hope? How do you get your book to those who need it?
Nancy Stordahl knows about breast cancer first hand. It’s in her family, and she has had to weather the terrifying process of chemotherapy treatment. Her book Getting Past the Fear: A Guide to Help You Mentally Prepare for Chemotherapy has touched many lives of those preparing for the treatment that will inevitably change one’s life. In this interview, we learn how she was able to write this memoir, tips for writing a self-help guide, and getting your book into the hands of those who need it most.
Have questions? We can chat in the comments. Leave your reflections, stories & questions below.
Write Along Radio: Nancy, Getting Past the Fear is a guide you published for those about to tackle chemotherapy. And of course, you’ve been there firsthand. In writing a guide for others, how did you (do you) deal with the emotions this topic must trigger while writing? (I’m also curious how this extends to Nancy’s Point)
Nancy Stordahl: The reason I wrote Getting Past the Fear was because I was so darn emotional when I realized chemotherapy was in my future. I completely lost it the day my oncologist recommended chemo. That day was definitely one of my low points. I sure as heck was not brave, strong or courageous. Maybe this is one reason some of those adjectives so loosely tossed around and slapped onto cancer patients irritate me so much. I’ve always known I’m not brave…
Since I was scared to death, I searched high and low for a book which would address this mental anguish side of things, but couldn’t find one. Voila, the idea for my little guide was born. So yes, writing my book brought many emotions to the surface again, but writing always helps me process. It’s the same whenever I write about personal topics on my blog. Sometimes deep emotions are brought back to the surface; but for me, writing about these things is like therapy. Remembering, processing, writing, sharing with readers – it’s all beneficial for me and hopefully for my readers as well.
Write Along Radio: Some folks struggle to identify as writers. Did you have that struggle? In any case, at what point in your career did you come to consider yourself a writer?
Nancy Stordahl: As an educator, I always encouraged my students to think of themselves as writers when introducing and encouraging any writing assignment. And guess what? They did. Anyone who writes is a writer. I believe that. So I guess I haven’t really struggled too much with this. But when I had my first article published in Grief Digest, I definitely felt more confident in calling myself a writer around other people. And come to think of it, I only recently added “writer” on my Nancy’s Point Facebook page where you’re supposed to put in your job title. So yes, it’s interesting how we perceive ourselves. Great question.
Write Along Radio: How much is your book memoir, and how much guide? Can there be a clear divide when pulling from your personal experience to give advice?
Nancy Stordahl: This is something that’s very important to me. I don’t consider this book to be a memoir. I did share about some of my personal chemo experiences, but I wanted the information about chemo itself to be accurate. I think a guide needs solid information as a backbone. I strive for the same on my blog whenever I write an informational post. I try to balance accurate information with a personal angle. Sharing the personal angle makes the cancer experience and/or information more relatable, slightly less frightening and hopefully more interesting to read about too. It’s a balance I always try to keep in mind. I am working on another book which will be memoir all the way.
What tips can you share for writers who want to create guides from their personal experiences? Where do they start? What does it involve?
Nancy Stordahl: My best tip is to keep a journal. Memories quickly fail us and it’s crucial to share accurately when writing a guide which includes your own experiences. Write down anything and everything. Write down what was hard for you, what worked for you, what didn’t, what questions you had that others probably have or might have as well… that kind of thing. Look at other guides that are out there about whatever yours will be about. If you can’t find one you like, or can’t find one at all, that’s a good indicator yours is needed.
Write Along Radio: Distribution for self-published authors can be so challenging. But it seems to me, you’ve built an incredible community through your blog Nancy’s Point, as well as aligning with Cure Diva. Can you give some insight into that – was it strategy, did you fall into it? What can a writer take away from your journey in terms of getting their book seen?
Nancy Stordahl: This is the most challenging part for me and I think it is for many self-published authors. We want to write, not self-promote, not do the marketing and so on. In all honesty, I have not done a good job of this. I am lucky to be part of a wonderful online community and my blog certainly helps, but it’s still a struggle to get my book into the hands of those who will benefit from reading it. It’s all still a work in progress that’s for sure. You just have to keep an open mind and learn as you go. I did sort of fall into Cure Diva. They contacted me about blogging for them and in turn, I asked to have my book featured on their site and they said yes. So my suggestion here is, if you want someone or some venue to feature your work, ask. They might say yes. We self-published authors need to get over our hesitancy to self-promote. No one else is there to do it, or is as invested as we are, so we have to do it. And sometimes you have to ask people to do things like write a review, share about your book or whatever else you can think of to ask. It’s hard though; self-promotion is definitely something that is much easier to talk about than do.
If you have a book or other writing project you’re passionate about, don’t give up. Keep plugging along. The good news is that now days there is so much freedom and self-publishing is no longer looked down upon. When I first started thinking about a book and trying to land an agent, my husband once asked me, “Why do you need someone else’s permission to get your book out there?”
That was one of those “light bulb” moments for me and I ditched the looking for an agent thing. It was in my hands. It always had been. Ultimately, it’s in your hands too. Pretty challenging, but pretty darn liberating as well, don’t you think? And as I always like to say, everyone’s story matters, including yours.
So go ahead and tell it.
Nancy’s online community can be found at Nancy’s Point where she advocates for patient empowerment and stage four awareness (and cure). Her work has been published in Animal Wellness, Grief Digest, and Coping with Cancer, as well as through Cure Diva and as an ongoing contributor to Huffington Post.
Nancy’s book Getting Past the Fear: A Guide to Help You Mentally Prepare for Chemotherapy can be found on her own website (PDF), as well as through Amazon. The print version is available for sale via Someone With, Amazon and Barnes and Nobel.
Thanks so much to Nancy for sharing your experience in writing self-help! We appreciate your insights and story.
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