In this author interview, Micaela Karlsen shares about her book writing process, how A Plant-Based Life stands out from other books in its genre (plant-based diet books), how she applied the scientific information on sustaining habits that she shares in her book towards writing it, how she landed a top agent and publisher in her field, why she made the structural and artistic choices she did and more.
Of note: How-to-Write-a-Book founder, Lisa Tener notes that working with Micaela on A Plant-Based Life was so motivating that Lisa switched to a mostly whole foods plant-based diet, as described in Micaela’s book—and the health benefits have been profound.
The Inspiration for Book Writing
Charlotte: What inspired you to write A Plant-Based Life? Had you been planning to write the book for a while or did it come in a moment of inspiration?
Micaela: Ideas for the book had been marinating in my head for several years before I began actively writing it.
I had the privilege of working for a nutritional biochemist from Cornell University, Dr. T. Colin Campbell, and many of the students I met through his educational nonprofit were deeply moved to switch to a plant-based diet after reading his book, The China Study, but they were unsure about where to begin.
I remember one woman who called the office from Nebraska and said “Honey, I have a freezer full of frozen meat … what do I with it?!”
These people were initially my inspiration, but there is another large segment of people – and I can personally identify with them – who know something about nutrition, are motivated to eat healthy food, but have struggled in sticking with their intentions because of convenience, the food environment, and social dynamics.
Basically, it’s hard to eat well in the modern world because of how often we are faced with food decisions! Eventually it gets easier and you get into a rhythm, but a lot of people can really use some guidance and strategy to make plant-based eating a sustainable lifestyle in the long-term.
My hope for this book is that it can not only introduce people to the incredible health benefits of plant-based eating, but even more it can show them the path to make it easy to continue – without using willpower, which never works in the long run.
First Steps in the Book Writing Process
Charlotte: What were some of the first steps you took to get started writing A Plant-Based Life? What did your process of writing this book look like?
Micaela: I had been writing different pieces for many years that I eventually added to the final manuscript, but my first active steps were actually to investigate book coaches! I found Lisa Tener’s book coach website through some Google searches and decided to work with her after speaking and emailing with several different coaches.
When I first started an active writing process, I focused on writing the proposal and I scheduled myself for 2-hour blocks several times a week. I tried to take Lisa’s advice to think of my writing appointments as “a hot date.”
Later, after I had the publishing contract and I was finishing the actual manuscript, my editor set intermediate deadlines for each chapter. My life was a lot busier at that point, so I think he was wise to work that way. I often had only an hour at a time.
The instances when I did write for more than an hour at once, I ended up working late at night. That wasn’t an ideal schedule for me (I like to go to bed early – in fact, I don’t really like to do anything after 8pm!), but I felt like writing a book was definitely one of the projects that asks for “whatever it takes” and I was willing to do “whatever it takes.”
Charlotte: Can you tell us about the support and structure that helped you get the book written?
Micaela: Before I had any deadlines or contracts, the process was freeform. But after I made the decision to actively write, working with Lisa was essential. I joined her Bring Your Book to Life® program: The weekly phone meetings, suggested schedule, feedback from her, and connection with my support buddy whom I met through Lisa’s class absolutely made the process faster and more effective.
I feel like there are a lot of parallels between eating a plant-based diet and writing a book – the more social support you have for what you’re doing, the more integrated the process becomes with the rest of your life and the more progress you make.
I wasn’t sure what outcome to expect from joining the program, I just knew that I needed some coaching and guidance from an expert. I was really gratified to see what a difference it made in how much I was able to write and how well I stuck with my plan.
Charlotte: I’m curious about the audience. Did you want to engage people already involved in a plant-based diet or did you want to target people who had no experience with it?Did you write the book with that audience in mind? If so, what are some of the things you did in your writing to target and engage that audience, such as use a particular voice, vocabulary, structure, etc.?
Micaela: There are a number of great books geared towards people starting a plant-based diet for the first time. I wanted my book to be useful to those people, but my real focus was people (both newbies and old-timers) who felt they were struggling in some way with their dietary intentions.
This could be true both for people who want to switch for the first time, as well as people who’ve already been eating some type of whole food-ish or vegetarian-leaning diet and need support cutting out more animal food, or letting go of processed food when they’re faced with it in everyday life.
I tried to make the tone and language very welcoming and accepting of wherever people were at in their journey, and supportive of them setting their own goals.
Charlotte: Did you have to do any research before writing A Plant-Based Life or was it based mainly off of your personal experiences?
Micaela: I did a lot of research both before and during writing the book – I’m a scientist after all! It was very important to me that this book be evidence-based and all the nutrition and behavior-changed statements be well-referenced.
Research and Recipes as Part of the Book Writing Process
Charlotte: What did your research process look like?
Micaela: Fortunately I have access to lots of resources and some help for finding good research – part of my process was to review the scientific evidence I was aware of already, but I also did a lot of reading and asked for recommendations from a few other people who are involved in weight loss and behavior change research.
Charlotte: You also include lots of recipes in A Plant-Based Life. Did you have to test out these recipes before including them in the book – almost like recipe research?
Micaela: I did do recipe research as you describe! For the most part, I simply asked or invited people to share recipes and let them choose – many of them have a few specific recipes that are published in other books or elsewhere online that they share, so it made more sense for them to pick.
For others, I combed through their inventory and asked for a couple specific ones to round out the offering. And then I tested other people’s recipes at least once – for mine, it was multiple times before I was satisfied.
Charlotte: How did your own personal experiences with plant-based living inform the writing process?
Micaela: The whole time I was working on the book it felt like I was writing the book I needed to read. I relate to other people’s struggles with the food environment and sticking with your healthy intentions because I’ve had those challenges myself.
For busy people with jobs, commutes, and other responsibilities, you need more concrete strategies to navigate the world and be successful with eating. So while I took an approach that was evidence-based, I did try to keep the tone warm and personal.
Charlotte: Throughout A Plant-Based Life there are several specific aspects such as figures and tables related to nutrition, self-assessments, charts for transitioning into a plant-based diet, etc. How did you decide to include these aspects? What effect do you think they have on the reader?
Micaela: Reading books with only text can get boring! Also some information just lends itself well to tables or figures. Some people respond well to visual depictions of a process or components that fit together, and often numbers and lists look better in tables.
I have a couple tables on what to eat or what to reduce or avoid – to me it’s just easier to process that kind of information in a table format. I also have a couple tables on calorie density and the amount of time you’d need to exercise to burn off different foods.
All those numbers are much easier to digest in a table format, so I hope they have the effect of making the information more understandable for the reader.
Charlotte: A Plant-Based Life includes tons of great recipes! How did you decide the balance in the book between the amount of informative text and recipes?
Micaela: There are tons of fantastic recipe books out there – many of which were written by some of my recipe contributors! I feel like the new information that I was able to add lies in the first half – the strategies for making the lifestyle work – but at the same time, any guide to nutrition and eating needs to have recipes or it’s not stand-alone.
In addition, I felt excited about the idea of showcasing so many different kinds of people and recipes – there is a ton of variety and I think it shows how varied and individual a plant-based lifestyle can be.
Charlotte: What are some of the steps you took to get A Plant-Based Life published? How did you choose traditional publishing over self publishing?
Micaela: I knew I didn’t want to self-publish. There are so many steps involved in self-publishing that I didn’t think I was equipped to execute at this very busy stage of my life. I know you can make a bigger profit per book, but I was more interested in getting my book out to as many people as possible, and working with a publisher was always my goal.
There were a lot of steps anyway involved in being “publisher-ready” – having an established platform, having a really strong book proposal, and working with an agent.
Working with Lisa was really my first and most important step in launching myself on this path. I’ve always been a fan of finding the experts, listening to what they say, and then following the instructions!
Charlotte: Lisa tells me that you signed on with a top NY agent in the diet field, Linda Konner. How did that connection happen and what did it take to land such a top tier literary agent?
Micaela: Working with Linda Konner has been wonderful, and I definitely have Lisa to thank for the connection. Lisa worked with me for a couple years, providing support and feedback on the proposal, giving me advice about building my platform and email list, and then eventually (once she felt confident the book proposal was ready), by introducing me to Linda.
I worked hard on all the other components besides the manuscript (platform, mailing list, providing good content for free, public speaking) until Lisa felt I was ready to approach agents. So again – I tried to listen to the expert advice Lisa offered and just do it!
Charlotte: Did she have any concerns regarding your book and book proposal? If so, what were they and how did you address them?
Micaela: Linda was interested initially, but of course she had a lot of feedback on how to make the proposal even stronger – she’s a top diet book agent, and I think initially some of her concerns were that my proposal was too long. I do struggle with being long-winded! It was after incorporating several rounds of her feedback that she finally felt ready to share it with publishers.
She also insisted I get a commitment from the foreword writer before sending out the proposal—actually even before I signed with her!
Charlotte: Plant-based living has become a popular topic recently and interest in the subject has heated up, leading to lots of books being published on the subject. How did you convey to publishers that your book was different and necessary for readers? What sets A Plant-Based Life apart from similar books?
Micaela: Many of the fantastic books on the market today focus on the why. I really wanted my book to focus on the how of plant-based eating, and I wanted to make it useful for people who’ve already been doing some kind of heathy eating for a while but need help getting to the next stage, as well as the people getting started.
Also, most of the how-to plant-based books focus on people starting for the first time.
There is a ton of interesting research on behavior change, weight loss, dietary adherence, and very little of this trickles through to the plant-based nutrition community as of yet, although it’s starting to more and more.
A lot of research results jive with common sense – you need social support, it has to be convenient, and you can’t live a life of feeling deprived by food to be successful. But it’s powerful to see how it all fits together in a comprehensive way.
In addition, studying habits is a sort of new and emerging area of interest to behavior change researchers, and I’m getting pretty interested in this myself. It offers a lot of relevant suggestions for a plant-based lifestyle. I wanted to bring that information out into circulation more.
Charlotte: Did you encounter any roadblocks during the writing and publishing processes? How did you overcome these? What advice do you have for our readers encountering similar roadblocks?
Micaela: I think most roadblocks were self-created! I have a very busy schedule – I’m a full-time PhD student, while also maintaining my websites and speaking regularly. I don’t do well late at night, but writing a book was a completely extra activity I worked into my life when I got the publishing contract.
So there were definitely some late nights and I made the best of it. Because my editor at AMACOM set intermediate deadlines, that definitely helped, but finishing the manuscript was a pretty over-full and kind of stressful experience.
In the end, I didn’t care – I wanted to do whatever it took because I felt like I could really add something to the literature on plant-based eating that is out there.
I think John Robbin’s advice I once heard third-hand is pretty good – writing happens with “BIC” – butt in chair. You just have to make yourself sit down and do it.
There’s no shortcut, although a few times I did get started by dictating my thoughts and getting them transcribed – and that was nice. But I still needed to rewrite all of it!
Charlotte: Has writing A Plant-Based Life given you a particular insight into your own practice of plant-based living that you didn’t have before writing it?
Micaela: Well, now that I’m marginally less busy writing the book about how to eat plant-based, I have more time to actually cook and enjoy myself! I think that is one of the keys to successful living of any kind – but definitely successful plant-based living that requires a bit more food prep time: you can’t make your life too busy. The more I practice being less busy, the happier I am and the better everything turns out.
I also prioritize food even more than I used to in the past – I just know what it takes to eat well and eat the way I want to.
Charlotte: What are some of the responses you have received since writing and publishing A Plant-Based Life?
Micaela: People have noted the warm/nonjudgmental tone. That has been great to hear, because I was aiming for that kind of approach.
Micaela: I’m happy to respond to email! I have a contact page on my website.
Micaela Karlsen is a recognized expert and respected speaker at some of the premier conferences on plant-based nutrition. She is the author of the A Plant-Based Life, a strategic how-to guide for successful plant-based eating. Micaela currently serves on the Expert & Medical Advisory Board for the International Plant-Based Nutrition Healthcare Conference and the Board of Directors for PPOD. Under the supervision of T. Colin Campbell, she co-launched the T. Colin Campbell Foundation, now named the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, the world’s premier educational organization promoting plant-based nutrition. Micaela served as Executive Director through December 2012 and during her time in the position assisted in building and launching the TCC Certificate Program in Plant-Based Nutrition through eCornell Inc. She is a contributor to the New York Times bestselling book Forks Over Knives: The Plant-Based Way to Health, the companion book to the movie of the same name.
Micaela is currently a doctoral fellow in Nutritional Epidemiology at Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She holds a Master of Science and Public Health (MSPH) from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and a BA in Psychology from Cornell University.
Feel free to ask your questions of Micaela as a comment below.