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A Game-Changing Revision Tactic : The Golden Thread


Anyone who reads this newsletter knows what an evangelist I am for thinking before you write. This is not to say that I am a fan of detailed, complex, rigid outlines that lull you into thinking you can know every nuance of a massive complex creation before you create it – I am not. But I am a huge fan of intentionality and knowing your characters and knowing your point and being aware of your audience, and I am constantly pushing writers – including myself – to bring more of all of this kind of thinking into the writing process as early as humanly possible. It makes an enormous difference to have a target at which you are aiming, even if you end up somewhere slightly to the right or left, or above or below, the bullseye.

That being said, the truth is that you can’t know everything before you write. You can know some things, and critically important things, but the heart and soul of the book? I believe that the only way to get there is by writing.

I have experience this reality myself multiple times. When I was writing my novel, The Only True Genius in the Family, I knew what it was about in a ballpark sort of way, and that was enough to guide me towards the end. But it wasn’t until I literally wrote the last scene that I really got it in my bones. (Well, actually, I didn’t get it all. I had a brilliant editor who had to hit me over the head with a 2x4 in order for me to see it.  I had planted the seeds of the story and watered them and made sure they got sun and made sure there were no snails or deer to eat them, but they didn’t really bloom until she said, “LOOK WHAT YOU WROTE, JENNIE.” I remember I laughed out loud. It was so obvious. It was right there….)

I have coached writers through this dawning of awareness dozens and dozens of times. Most recently, it happened with a writer who after a year of working on a novel with me finally realized what it was really about. We had been talking about the point and the topic and the deep story and the theme all that time but she just hadn’t FELT it.  She didn’t OWN it.

Not long before that, it happened with a writer who finished her manuscript and suddenly couldn’t wait to go back to Page 1 to strengthen her point, because she finally really GOT it.  

It’s truly like a lightbulb going off, like a lightning strike. It feels like an electric jolt. Like a deep, soul-level recognition of what was there in your head all along – and it is both a thrill and a relief.

The question then becomes – what do you DO with that knowledge about what your story is really about? Odds are good that point that you have a complete or nearly complete manuscript. So what do you physically DO?

The answer that I use in my own work and in my coaching is something I call The Golden Thread.

Imagine that your manuscript is a tapestry. It has a pattern carefully woven into place. The golden thread is your newfound awareness of what your story is really about.

If you weave the golden thread throughout your tapestry, it’s going to sparkle and shine. It’s going to be the thing that draw’s the viewer’s eye, and takes your tapestry from good to great, or from great to extraordinary. It’s the thing thing that gives it meaning.

Here’s how it works:

1.)  You have to anchor the golden thread to the very start of your book – often in the very first sentence, or paragraph, or page. It needs to be there, shining and bright, so that the reader can track it as they go. If this means re-writing your opening paragraph, or page, or even the entire chapter – fine. Do it. That kind of edit is what we call serving the story (instead of your ego) and it’s what all good writers eventually learn how to do. When people talk about “killing your darlings,” that’s what they mean: let go of what isn’t working even if you love how it looks or sounds.

2.)  Imagine now taking that golden thread and making stitches across the work. There will be moments when the reader will see a flash of it, and moments when it is not visible at all, but it always there, vibrating in its golden thread way. You will do this all the way through the entire work, sometimes letting the thread shine through several times on a page, other times not for entire chapters.

3.)  How do you know when to show the thread and when to send it beneath the surface of the story? Do a revision where the only thing you do is look for places to show The Golden Thread. Imagine that you are the reader. Really put yourself in the shoes of someone who is not you (check out my How to Edit document to see how this is done) and look for places where they might feel cheated. Look for places where you were stingy, where you were holding back (information, emotion, the truth, yourself) and then don’t be stingy: let the gold shine through. You might only be adding a word here and there, a phrase or a sentence or a whole paragraph, but if put in the right places, it will be more than enough.

4.)  If you can’t find enough places for the thread to shine through, add them. Add scenes, arguments, chapters – anything you need to make room for The Golden Thread to shine. Think of the whole book as a frame or a showcase for The Golden Thread. You want to set it off in the best light. Change whatever you need to change to make sure you are doing that.

5.)  When you get to the end, of the book imagine that you are pulling the thread tight and anchoring it down again. This is your resolution – the point at which the reader really feels deep down the thing you want them to feel. This is when they can tell you what the book was about with as much assuredness as you yourself can.            



How to Write a Sentence



I am such an evangelist for thinking BIG about books – for knowing your audience, for knowing the marketplace, for understanding how your structure serves your story-- and as a result, I spend a lot of time in this newsletter talking about these big picture ideas.

I also spend a lot of time on the realities of the writing life – the habits you need to do good work, the kind of support that helps and hurts, the ways you can shake off doubt and despair so you can get the words out of your head and onto the page.

And then, of course, there is the selling – how to connect with readers, how to hook agents, and all the rest of the noisy work of publishing.

What often gets overlooked is the power and beauty of a well-crafted sentence. It’s often the very last thing we care about – because if you don’t know your point, and you haven’t chosen an effective structure, and you don’t have the habits to sustain the writing of a book, what difference does it make how your sentences sound? Crafting a sentence is often the very last thing a writer – or a book coach -- pays attention to.

And yet when we read a book, when we fall under its spell, oftentimes, the thing that most stands out are the sentences.

I am in the midst of reading H is for Hawk, the award-winning memoir by Helen Macdonald, and I am completely dazzled – by the story, by the structure, by the content (so many new things to learn about training falcons and the British aristocracy and grief!) It is taking me forever to read because I can only manage a few pages at a time. There is just so much happening, so much depth and nuance, and I want to enjoy it and also figure out how Macdonald has done it, and in addition to all that, there are her sentences.

They are breathtaking. They startle and delight and prod. They have wit and wisdom and rhythm. These sentences are so good it seems as though you could eat them.

I want to show you just one. It comes on page 16. This is a story about a woman who has been unhinged by grief – her father has died – and she is going to deal with her grief by training a new hawk. But on page 16, the grief is brand new, and this is how she describes it:


Sometimes, a few times, I felt my father must be sitting near me as I sat on a train or in a café. This was comforting. It all was. Because these were the normal madnesses of grief. I learned this from books. I bought books on grieving, on loss and bereavement. They spilled over my desk in tottering piles. Like a good academic, I thought books were for answers. Was it reassuring to be told that everyone sees ghosts? That everyone stops eating? Or can’t stop eating? Or that grief comes in stages that can be numbered and pinned like beetles in boxes?


The sentence I want to talk about is the last one.


Or that grief comes in stages that can be numbered and pinned like beetles in boxes?


What’s fascinating is that it’s the fourth sentence in a series. So often, we stop at three. Our ear is trained for three. But Macdonald drives on here with a fourth sentence, and it really feels like it’s driving through – like a freight train or a semi truck. It hits the reader in the gut.

What makes this sentence so powerful?

First, there’s the internal alliteration (comes/can) and rhythm of the opening phrase. “Grief comes in stages that can be numbered and pinned.” Just say that out loud and HEAR how it rolls off the tongue.  Emphasize comes/stages/numbered/pinned and you get it even more.

Then there are those two incredibly specific terms – numbered and pinned.  Not simply counted and named, but bound to a number, pinned to a particular spot. The second we read those words, our mind’s race ahead to think of things that get numbered and pinned and without the author’s help, we can’t quite get there, we can’t quite figure out what she means, and then she gives it to us – “like beetles in boxes.”

Readers are constantly trying to stay a step ahead of the author in this way – on the level of a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, a chapter and a story. We’re in a dialogue with the author, in a relationship with them, interacting with them at every moment, and this is a perfect example of how it works. We’re stretching, yearning to solve this little puzzle of how grief gets numbered and pinned, or what else gets numbered and pinned.

When she gives us the “beetles in boxes” image it’s so satisfying. It sounds great, for one thing because of the alliteration. Beetles in boxes! She didn’t just stop at the thing that is numbered and pinned – beetles – but she gave them a context, a grim reality: boxes. This evokes something very specific and macabre – dead bugs, displayed bugs, bugs kept under glass for human pleasure. You can’t help but see it – I pictured intense jewel tones, creepy bent legs, shellacked backed bugs, and those terrifying pins -- and you can’t help but feel it, the finality of what has happened to those beetles and to the author’s dad.

The author has been talking about ghosts and the wrecked relationship with food – things that are far from benign – but with that final image of beetles in boxes, she slams us with an image that we can’t shake. It echoes. I read the passage two, three, four times, just to experience the satisfaction of that sentence and the pleasure of that image – gruesome and beautiful.

We all want to engage our reader, to speak to them, to connect with them, to hook them, to move them, and although emotions and expectation and curiosity and desire are underneath everything, making it all work, the tool used to deliver all that is just a few words woven into a simple sentence.

When you think about it, it’s some kind of serious magic.



What We Can Learn About Reader Engagement From Elizabeth Gilbert

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I had the privilege of hearing Elizabeth Gilbert speak in Pasadena last week at an event sponsored by Vroman’s bookstore. The talk was in celebration of the publication of Gilbert’s new book, Big Magic, which discusses the “attitudes, approaches, and habits we need in order to live our most creative lives.” I’m halfway through the book and will be talking about its contents next week. This week, however, I want to talk about Liz Gilbert, the author who has figured out how to engage her readers.  It is not very likely that any of us are going to sell 10 million copies of our books, or to gleefully proclaim on Twitter that our book hit the New York Times bestseller list, but we can learn so much from watching someone at the top of their game.

So what is Liz Gilbert doing so well?  

1. She knows who her audience is

There were approximately 1,000 women at the event I attended, and perhaps two dozen men. By my estimation, there was no one in the room under the age of 25. When Gilbert gave a shout out to Vroman’s and mentioned how lucky Pasadena was to still have a fantastic independent bookstore, the crowd went wild. These are women who love their bookstore and love their community.

A 40-something woman seated in front of me was typical of the crowd: she clutched a well-worn and much-flagged copy of Eat, Pray, Love. I asked if I could take a picture of it, and she beamed.  I asked her how many times she’d read it. “Probably three times straight through,” she said, “But I constantly go back to refer to my favorite passages. It’s so inspiring.”


From the moment Gilbert began to speak, it was clear she knew exactly to whom she was speaking. It was, in a nutshell, this woman.

Gilbert would be the first to say that she didn’t set out to speak to this audience. Eat, Pray, Love was a book she says she had to write for herself in order to simply survive. She also says something similar about Big Magic. We all have reasons we are called to write the books we want to write – private, powerful reasons – and that is as it should be. That is the only reason to even consider doing this work.

But the minute you begin to imagine that you might want to share your book with readers, it pays to take even a few moments to consider who your audience might be. If the answer is vague and broad -- “everyone” or “women” or “moms” or “fantasy fiction fans,” picture a thousand people showing up to hear you speak. Who are they, really?

2. She has been engaging with these women in an intimate way for a long time.

One of the very first things Gilbert said in her talk was that she wanted to go on the road with Big Magic in order to meet all the women she had been talking to on Facebook. She has 1,367,505 people who follow her on Facebook.

In this little chat with Oprah, Gilbert confesses that the first thing she does each morning is go onto Twitter and Facebook and Instagram to interact with her followers.

Can we just think about that for a moment?

This is a woman who has something like 147 appearances planned all over the world in the next three months alone. This is a woman who recently sat for a photo shoot and an interview with People magazine, who spent two days signing 20,000 books in a warehouse in New Jersey. She could easily kick back and just watch the books fly off the shelf, but she doesn’t do that. She wants to interact with her readers, one on one, and she has found that social media is a fantastic way to do it. (See that Oprah clip again to hear her describe this.)

In a big lead up to the launch of Big Magic, Gilbert went one step further. She invited her followers to raise their hand if they wanted a little one-on-one creativity coaching from Liz herself. She selected a handful of these women and for six months, coached them through their paralysis and their doubt and their self loathing and they busy days so that they could experience creative breakthroughs. She called these women on the phone to coach them. She recorded the key calls in a podcast. Each episodes attracts in somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 or 80,000 fans.

Gilbert has, in other words, worked really hard to engage with her audience in meaningful ways. She understands that reading a book involves far more than just the moments you spend turning the pages. People take your ideas and bring them to life in their own heads. That’s the true magic of reading, after all.

What can you do to being to engage with your future readers in a meaningful way?

3. As a result of all that knowledge and interaction we were just talking about, she knows exactly what these women need.

It's not enough just to know who your audience is. Middle-aged, book-loving women from an affluent American town – that’s a good start but it’s still pretty vague. What Elizabeth Gilbert knows is how, exactly, these women are in pain.

They are in pain from things that didn’t go well in their life. They are in pain from marriages that didn’t work out, from dreams that died, from the dark nights of the soul they have suffered in terms of who they are and why they are here. Many of them have suffered from depression, which Gilbert writes about in Eat, Pray, Love.

How do I know she knows this? The Gilbert event was billed as a reading followed by a Q&A. Gilbert gave a little chatty introduction of perhaps 7 minutes. Then she read a lovely passage from her book – a chunk of perhaps 12 pages that took perhaps 20 minutes. It was a fantastic reading but I was sitting there thinking – Seriously, Elizabeth Gilbert is going to talk for 7 minutes, read for 20, take a few Q&AS (“Where do you get your ideas?” “How is Philipe?” ) and go home? We drove an hour and paid $30 for this?  I was thinking it was a little stingy, to be honest.

But man was I wrong. The Q&A was unlike anything I have ever seen. People scrambled to line up at the two microphones to ask their questions. They trembled when they spoke, they cried, they sniffled, they confessed, they asked for Gilbert’s help and her blessing. They went so deep so fast, and Gilbert stood there and lifted them up, and got right down into their pain, and healed them.

It was, in one sense, kind of strange. This was no author we had come to see. This was a guru – and it’s just strange how our culture elevates some people into this realm.

That being said, it was a dazzling performance – one obviously honed over many, many appearances. One given by someone who knows precisely what really matters to these women.

On the interview Gilbert gave with Marie Forleo a few weeks ago, she spoke about being horribly nervous before her talk to 20,000 Oprah fans, and how she yanked herself out of her nervous state. She told herself something about the people who had come to hear her:

“They don’t need your fear, because they have their own…They don’t need your insecurity. They have it covered. They don’t need your sense of low self worth. They don’t need your insecurity…. [They need] dignity and composure and grace and female autonomy.”

Ha! That is about as not-vague as one could get. That is a person who understands her audience’s pain.

As luck would have it, the woman sitting in front of me with the dog-earred book was one of about a dozen audience members who had an opportunity to ask her question. She trembled when she spoke. She was so nervous she could barely get her words out. When she was finished with her exchange with Gilbert, she sat back down in her chair awash in awe and gratitude and what I imagine she might have described as the magic of the universe.

I am no longer a church-goer, but I grew up going to church and singing in the choir. I know many of the stories – and the story that came crashing into my mind was the one about the woman who felt she only had to touch the hem of Jesus’ garments in order to be healed.

My guess is that Gilbert knows this how she makes women feel. It would be pretty hard to miss it.

What do your readers need? Where is their pain? What is your book doing to give it to them? Again, this is not the place to start a creative project, but it’s a potent question to ask so that you can be sure you are, in the end, giving them something.

4. She is generous with her time and her wisdom

Gilbert was incredibly generous with everyone who stood in line to ask their deeply personal questions. She had enormous empathy for them. One woman told a story about an ex-husband who tore up her passport to prevent her from going to hear Gilbert speak, and Gilbert patiently listened and then boomed into the microphone, “MOTHERFUCKER!” It was as if she wanted to go after this loser personally.

Another woman cried and cried about her battle with depression and Gilbert spoke to her about what to do as if there was no one else in the room.

Another woman wept as she confessed her inability to write the book she was burning to write. Gilbert gave her a homework assignment – to work through The Artists’ Way – as if this woman was going to actually turn it in for a grade.

Gilbert gave these women her time, her heart, her spirit.  She absolutely was not dialing it in. When she couldn’t answer a question, she humbly said, “I don’t know. I simply just don’t know the answer to what you should do about that.”

In other words, she deeply cares about these people. She actually cares about them. You could feel it. It’s the kind of thing you can’t fake.

It can be powerful to think about how you can be generous, too. What can you give your readers to help them where they hurt?

5. She understands her limits

One of the most moving parts of the evening, for me, was at the end when Gilbert explained that she wasn’t going to be signing individual books (they were pre-signed in that warehouse in New Jersey) and she wasn’t going to sit for photos with everyone after the talk. She had come to realize that if she was going to go on the road to engage with her audience, she had to preserve her energy, her health and her sanity. She had to draw a line somewhere, and that was where she decided to draw the line.

I loved this, because we all have to know our limits. If you can’t stand Facebook, don’t use Facebook as a way to engage your readers. If you are terrified of public speaking, don’t have speaking be a cornerstone of your marketing plan. Find a way to engage your readers in a way that works for you.

Of all the extraordinary things that Elizabeth Gilbert does, that, to me, is the most powerful. She knows her strengths as a writer and as a public figure. She also knows her weaknesses. She can give, but only so much.

What about you?  What strengths do you have that you can leverage? What weaknesses would it be wise to admit?