I recently asked Dr. Julie Silver, Director of Harvard Medical School’s CME publishing course and Editor of Harvard Health Publications, “Who would be an interesting author to interview on writing a self-help book?” Without hesitation she told me, “Dr. Joseph Shrand.” One look at his bio and I had more questions than we could cover in a single interview! Here’s what Joe has to say about writing a self-help book, publishing, collaborating and Zoom.
Lisa: You studied writing in college and then later you became a doctor. Did you always have both of these interests?
Dr. Joe Shrand: I did. I loved writing since high school. I wrote my first really bad play in seventh grade where the whole play revolved around Sherlock Holmes saying, “Please don’t call me Shirley.”
I wrote two musicals, some short stories, articles during my residency about what it was like to be a resident. I never intended to write books though. That desire started 5-10 years into my psychiatric career
Lisa: Did it feel like writing and psychiatry competed with each other or did you know all along that they would actually support each other?
Joe: They very much complemented each other. I don’t think I had as much to say when I was younger. As a psychiatrist, my patients have taught me so much about life the complexity, nuance, tragedy, joy. It has been a gift to be able to write in a way that communicates to a readership what these experiences are like—some heart wrenching, some hilarious—about people’s lives. I was able to distill hardcore science and translate it so everyone can read it and understand what’s going on in our brains. In terms of competing for time, if you love something, it doesn’t take any time.
Lisa: Having studied writing in college, was it easy to write your first book, or did you feel you needed specific guidance on how to write a self-help book (vs. other types of writing)?
Joe: I had written this book on my approach that looks at people as doing the best they can. The book was about respect. I had a first draft. I sent it to a couple of acquisitions editors at publishing houses and they did not acquire it. I realized I had no idea what I was doing.
When I saw the invitation from Dr. Julie Silver [for Harvard Medical School’s CME publishing course], I decided, “I’m going to go to that.” I met Julie, gave her copy of my manuscript which she skimmed. She said, “This is a great idea but it’s not sexy. The course ended Saturday and on Sunday I got e-mail from Julie offering me a contract to write two books. Not about respect, but anger. She told me, “You can say all you want about respect through the lens of anger.” The book became Outsmarting Anger: 7 Strategies for Defusing Our Most Dangerous Emotion.
The Harvard writing and publishing course is so great for people interested in getting their ideas out there. It gives you an education and the foundation you need to understand not just about the creative process of writing but also the business of writing—being able to get your message across and network with the people you will need to do that. I was very fortunate at the course to meet Julie and other writers, authors, publishers, agents and learn about the whole process—writing self-help books in my case.
Lisa: You’ll be speaking this year at the course: Achieving Healthcare Leadership and Outcomes through Writing and Publishing. What will you discuss?
Joe: I’ll be talking about how to write self-help psychology books—books based on science, giving people different ways of applying it. My spin on self help books is the best way to help yourself is to help someone else. That increases your value and makes you a benefactor and benefactors are prized in our society.
Lisa: How did attending the Harvard Medical School publishing course affect your process of writing a self-help book?
Joe: At Julie Silver’s suggestion, I started with a collaborator, and then worked with [my current collaborator] Leigh Devine, MS. In the middle, Julie asked me to write the stress book first. So we put Outsmarting Anger on hold, wrote Manage Your Stress, then finished Outsmarting Anger—two books in two years.
Lisa: What are the biggest takeaways you got from the Harvard course?
Joe: 1. Writing is just the beginning- coming up with ideas, working with a writer, crafting it so people can understand it is great. If no one knows about it, no one will read it. [Your] next big step is marketing it so people will read your great idea. I had an amazing publicist in Janet Appel who was tenacious. I know this because when I did my first TV spot on NECN their producer said that Janet kept calling and would not let them forget about me. From that first spot I have become the go-to-psychiatrist for the station, and have done about twenty appearances commenting on things from the Marathon Bombing to the tribal intensity of watching a Bruins game, to Justin Bieber and his adolescent brain!
2. I learned how to write a book proposal that will wow publishers. It has to be concise, pithy, an exciting piece of reading that is not just science but has compelling stories. Start with a compelling story that gets into the science behind that story and then [introduce] the self help component that applies the science to changing that compelling story. Even though I had a contract with Harvard Health Publications, we still needed a book proposal for the actual publisher.
Lisa: A polished and compelling book proposals is critical. Since you mentioned, it, my colleague Martha Murphy and I will be teaching the advanced workshop on How to Write a Book Proposal on the final day of the Harvard course (April 2, 2014)–so readers are welcome to sign up for that. I hope that’s not too much of a commercial! Are there lessons you learned in writing Mange Your Stress that made it easier to write the second book? Anything you did differently the second time around?
Joe: For me, there is a theme that carries through from book to book [that makes it easy to write about the previous theme]. In the upcoming book The Fear Reflex, I can quickly write a couple paragraphs about the stress response. I can write about theory of mind and mirror neurons which I wrote about in Outsmarting Anger.
I also find I’ve developed a certain way of doing this. My approach is I go to PubMed (a free database of scientific articles). I put in a search: let’s say anger. It comes up with thousands of titles. I can organize by date. I go through those and pick titles that I think I want to know more about that can help with the message to give scientific foundations for why I am saying what I am saying. I download those with title and abstract into a word file. In word, in review, I write a comment on each abstract I want to use in my book, summarizing the research and research findings and comment about what that means. Then I go back and take each study and make it into a compelling story. I can take those and weave them together and you’ve got a chapter.
Lisa: You mentioned The Fear Reflex. Can you tell us about this new book you’re working on?
Joe: My agent, Linda Konner, called me. She said, “I’ve just spoken with Sid Farrar at Hazelden. He has an idea for a book on fear and is looking for an author who might be right for this.” I wrote a proposal based on his ideas that also introduces my ideas. I wrote most on my own and then some with Leigh. They bought The Fear Reflex and have invited me to write more proposals.
The Fear Reflex will break the mold and question the idea of the self-help book. “Help” implies you are broken. My approach is: forget all that. Look at this differently. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Relax. There is a lot of brain science to back that up. It’s difficult to be successful under that much stress.
Lisa: I have to ask about ZOOM. I was a big ZOOM fan as a kid. How has that experience affected your creative life and even your writing, if it has?
Joe: It’s been wonderful. Zoom was an incredible experience. We had our 40th Zoom meeting at my house in 2012. It was wonderful to see my old friends. For me, Zoom came at a very important time in my life—turmoil in my family. Zoom provided a place I could feel respected, valued, safe, fed—it was a foundation for everything I write about now. I also enjoy the performance side of giving lectures. I have no real interest in going back on stage and memorizing a script but I bring all my theater experience to giving a talk—funny, entertaining—it makes the learning experience easier to absorb the information.
With Zoom, none of us were stars, just kids off the street who were playing. I’m not a star; I just really enjoy what I am doing and try to get my message across. Kids have a lot to say. Zoom influenced my going into child psychiatry.
Lisa: Any parting advice you have for aspiring authors, particularly those seeking advice on how to write a self-help book?
Joe: Be honest. People are interested in self improvement. One has to balance it without making them feel demoralized. In terms of what you have to say: Enjoy saying it. Write it. Never edit anything at first. Sit down and write everything that comes into your head. You can edit later.
Don’t give up. Find yourself a team of people you like working with and believe in each other and you’ll get it done.
In addition to being an author, Dr. Joseph Shrand is an Instructor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, an Assistant Child Psychiatrist on the medical staff of Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Medical Director of CASTLE (Clean and Sober Teens Living Empowered), a brand new intervention unit for at-risk teens which is part of the highly respected High Point Treatment Center in Brockton, MA. And, yes, he was an original cast member of the 1970’s children’s television show, ZOOM on PBS.
Feel free to ask your questions for Dr. Shrand or me below. And we welcome your comments as well.