Can Death Cleaning Spark Joy?

One of the most challenging aspects of being successful in nonfiction is choosing a topic general enough to interest a broad swath of readers, but unique enough to make them think of the question in a new way so they’ll want to buy your book.

Take decluttering. I follow at least three decluttering blogs. My daughter says, “How about just cleaning instead of reading about it? Then you’d get it done.”

Yeah, but reading is more fun than cleaning!

Anyhoo, since there is SO much useful information out there in both blog and book form on decluttering, how does an author clean up?

Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing is so popular that Kondo’s name has become a verb for decluttering. (I kondoed my house.)

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter by Margareta Magnusson is a recent release that’s caused some buzz.

While both books are about decluttering, they take different approaches to the problem of owning too much stuff. The main difference in the books, as I see it, is:

Kondo’s book says to eliminate possessions based mainly on whether or not they spark joy in your life.

Magnusson’s book encourages people to take a measured approach to eliminating clutter so descendants don’t have to.

Elements the books have in common:

  • Sharing ideas on how to deal with a widespread issue.
  • Labeling methods as originating in exotic countries.
  • Offering approaches that will seem new and different to most readers.
  • Reaching people where they live, both practically and literally.

When an author writes a nonfiction book, he must consider:

  • The number of recent books on the topic.
  • How the text approaches the subject.
  • Intended audience.
  • Which books on the topic are bestsellers, and why.

The author then needs to consider how his approach is fresh and new and if he has enough platform to reach a sizeable audience. Sometimes an outrageously great idea will supersede a weak platform, but ideally, the author will possess both a fabulous platform and a winning proposal.

So you’ve seen success with decluttering. What about your topic? How will you distinguish yourself and your book?

22 Responses to Can Death Cleaning Spark Joy?

  1. Avatar
    Rebekah Love Dorris February 8, 2018 at 5:17 am #

    Great post, and scary too. So if your platform is shaky, is it better to use your book idea as a platform builder, as in just break it up and use it to grow an audience via blog posts, Youtube, podcasts, etc?

    If the whole point of publication is to magnify your reach, how does one expand her side of the bridge so the publisher can afford to fund the completion of that bridge? Should a first non-fiction book be sacrificed to build a foundation?

    Thanks, as usual, for a great post! God bless 🙂

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 8, 2018 at 8:34 am #

      In my view, the best approach is to have SUCH an AMAZING idea and great title that they all work together. Many books are impulse buys, so a “gotta have it” title can go a long way. Once you get the reader captivated at that level, then seeing author credentials will cement the sale. However, an astounding idea can help overcome a shaky platform, because the mere fact of being published well lends credibility.

  2. Avatar
    Judith Robl February 8, 2018 at 5:26 am #

    Thank you, Tamela, for this informative post. Great perspective and a real down-to-earth examination of how to make a non-fiction book successful on the market. Or at least give it a good chance.

  3. Avatar
    Loretta Eidson February 8, 2018 at 6:08 am #

    Although I don’t have a non-fiction book, your post sparks my platforming thoughts and my decluttering mood. It amazes me how cluttered and disorganized my house can get in a one year period, not to mention how cluttered my computer files get. It’s time to do both Spring cleaning and electronic file cleaning. Every time I edit a blog post I’ve written or make changes to one of my manuscripts I tend to save a new copy. Too many copies can cause confusion when it’s time to submit. Oh, the horror of sending the wrong one! Next, a reevaluation of my platform is in order. Let’s see what I can do better. Thank you, Tamela.

    • Avatar
      Carol Ashby February 8, 2018 at 7:48 am #

      Loretta, you’ll never get confused about which is most recent if you include the date at the end of the file name. Add letters or time after the date if more than one that day. It’s very simple insurance against sending someone the wrong version.

  4. Avatar
    Vanessa Burton February 8, 2018 at 6:17 am #

    You should look up decluttering vlogs, too! I watch them all the time! 😂😂😂 Great reminder on looking at different perspectives on the topic you’re writing. I don’t write nonfiction, but the concept helps all the same!

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 8, 2018 at 8:35 am #

      I’m scared to venture into vlogs since I need that time to send out manuscripts! LOL

    • Avatar
      Linda Riggs Mayfield February 8, 2018 at 7:40 pm #

      We continue to think alike. I’ve used that strategy for years. Not only does dating or even timing a file in a series guarantee you can always find the most recent iteration, if you need to go back and find something you took out, it’s usually quite easy to find. Since my dissertation clients and I send their chapter files back and forth dozens of times, and sometimes several times on the same day if we are working on editing collaboratively, this strategy is of immeasurable value to us. Mine look like this, using military time: Smith, J. Diss Ch 1. 1230 HRS 2-3-18. Smith, J. Diss Ch. 1. 2020 HRS 2-3-18. Smith, J. Defense PPT 2-8-18.

  5. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser February 8, 2018 at 7:26 am #

    Interesting post, Tamela. Got me thinking. Not something I often do.

    The non-fiction book I will not likely write would have been something of a counterpoint to Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture”. He wrote about achieving one’s childhood dreams, from a perspective, at the end, of having done just that.

    I’d write about finding meaning, joy, and hope at the end of a life that was largely a failure, at least by most standards. It can be a ‘woe is me, I didn’t get to play!’ tale if I choose that, but even in the dusty remains of unfulfilled dreams and the stunted trees of hope so lovingly planted but for some reasons unwatered, there is value. Not just as a cautionary tale, though there is that; there is a value in learning to love the smallest green grass-blades of beauty that pushed up from the cracked concrete of a disused car park, and waited patiently for my notice, as they cycled through dew-bejeweled dawns unseen…until the day I opend my eyes.

    I’d write about my life only being ‘mine’ when I learned to give it away in increments small and sometimes large, and lettin’ go of da quid pro quo.

    Elegant rhyming turn-of-phrase there, eh?

    It’s not a ‘glass half full’ exercise; it’s that I was lucky and blessed to have had a glass at all, because it enabled me to share what water I had with others.

    On decluttering, while I’m still up to thinking, two thoughts:

    1) Life isn’t about joy. It’s about, well…life. Getting rid of that which does not spark joy is easy to want to do, but it’s like removing shadows. The only way you really see things is by the chiaroscuro of the shade.

    2) I’d be in the midst of death cleaning if I weren’t so busy living. Aside from that, it takes away a certain serendipity only to be found in the duty of going through someone’s effects. And it IS a duty, a kind of ceremony of remembrance. You don’t want to sacrifice your own days in denying that to those who come after.

    Besides, one of them will surely find that bottle of Glenlivet that I hid, and what a day that will be!

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 8, 2018 at 8:47 am #

      Great thoughts, Andrew!

      My mother-in-law is going through a process of shredding my father-in-law’s many, many piles of papers he left because he didn’t have the emotional will to declutter. For example, he left her with the task of sending meeting notes from the 1950s and 1960s to an organization where he served as president. This was his task to do, not hers. This has shown me that I need to do my best to perform tasks that are meaningful to me now and try not to leave that work to others.

      I’ve also seen many grown children have to deal with too much junk when parents move or die.

      I agree that ceremony is important. But even the most minimalistic life will provide the ceremony you describe after death. For instance, one blogger I follow recommends limiting your wardrobe to 33 pieces. If you do this, your heirs will still have to go through the 33-piece wardrobe upon your death. While I’ll never get my wardrobe down that far, I want my heirs to tackle maybe 100 pieces upon my death, rather than 10,000 pieces.

      I think scaling down to a manageable level for all is doable while living your life — which is also great advice, Andrew. Live rather than be too obsessive.

      As always, I appreciate your thoughts.

  6. Avatar
    Jay Payleitner February 8, 2018 at 7:44 am #

    Yeah, except most publishers only want to do what’s already been done.

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser February 8, 2018 at 8:04 am #

      Jay, I figure that’s true.

      Besides, not many people want to look into that particular mirror, to realize that instead of their elegant imaginary shades dining at the Waldorf-Astoria, their real and skinny (or not) selves have been chowing down at Bubba’s Burger Barn.

      We all want the life we never had, and so often bet it all on that last turn of the merry-go-round to lunge for the glittering brass ring, and in the schemes to extend our reach we miss out on the beauty of the uniquely carved and coloured and battered and chipped carousel horse we were divinely privileged ride.

      So, yeah, it’s not a book to write.

  7. Avatar
    Kayleen February 8, 2018 at 10:41 am #

    My idea for a non-fic book came after my newspaper column of interviews with WWII vets generated much interest. So I put together collections of stories into 2 books. My non-fic book topic might not be completely original as I’ve seen a few others like it, but the topic is of great interest to Baby Boomers and even younger people as history from a personal point of view. I’ve interviewed 200 WWII vets and each story is a joy and adventure. My kids will have to go through my files of their stories, but my kids seem enthralled as well. My books: WWII Legacies: Stories of Northeast Indiana Veterans and They Did It for Honor: Stories of American WWII Veterans.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 8, 2018 at 12:58 pm #

      Your book is still unique because only those particular people could share those particular stories. Congratulations!

  8. Avatar
    Joey Rudder February 8, 2018 at 10:49 am #

    Hmmm. You’ve got me thinking. Is it possible for a writer to take a blog similar to a devotional and use that to jumpstart an actual devotional in book form? If so, would publishers only consider taking on the project if the blog were unique/fresh and had a really high number of followers? Or would they be against it all together since the work has already been seen online? (Sorry to ask so many questions!)

    Thank you again for a great, informative post, Tamela. I’ve got so much to learn, and I appreciate all of your help. God bless you.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 8, 2018 at 12:58 pm #

      Joey, you wouldn’t want to publish any book without fresh material. You’d want the blog and book to compliment each other. 🙂

  9. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D February 8, 2018 at 2:50 pm #

    HI Tamela:
    How to distinguish oneself…..humm…..I am still working on that!

  10. Avatar
    Linda Riggs Mayfield February 8, 2018 at 7:53 pm #

    We always had quite a difference of opinion about death cleaning in my extended family. Some constantly remonstrated against my dear mother-in-law’s large “collection” of men’s women’s and children’s clothes in her attic. She washed and put them away again on hangers or in boxes every few years, as her own personal preparation against someone possibly needing them someday. (She lived through the Great Depression). My take was, “Leave her alone–having that stash makes her feel secure that no matter how difficult times get, she will be prepared to help others. When she’s gone, give them away or throw them away or burn them. They won’t have to be sorted or evaluated, and it will only take an hour or two of time.” And that’s exactly what my husband did. He actually took out a window and emptied everything out into a truck below. I’m trying to get rid of some things that have no value to anyone but me; but as long as the books and notebooks of writings bring me joy or the hope of bringing joy to others, I don’t push myself too hard. When I’m gone, it can all be gone in an afternoon.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray February 9, 2018 at 5:52 am #

      Nice idea from your mother-in-law! Difference is, her family understood her purposes and she was organized. It sounds like there was more of a disagreement over the fact that she had the clothes in storage than their dread of countless hours of sorting and discarding.

      No one can complain about taking an afternoon to clean. Nice work!

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