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What Would You Tell Oprah?

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On Saturday, I attended Oprah’s SuperSoul Sessions at Royce Hall at UCLA.  (That's Oprah ^ as she looked from my high-on-the-balcony seat.) I jumped at the chance to hear Cheryl Strayed, a writer who has a lot to teach us all about how to connect with readers, and Marie Forleo, an entrepreneur who inspires me to run a great business. There were many other speakers, as well, and a thousand lessons packed into a very full day.

It was, to be honest, a little overwhelming. How can you take in so much inspiration in one sitting??

I took copious notes on Marie and Cheryl and the first few speakers.

Here’s a gem from Cheryl Strayed:

“Writers come to me with a stack of pages, surprised to hear that a stack of pages doesn’t make a book. A book takes a greater sense of concentration.”

AAHHH -- I just love that! It’s so simple and so true, and I also love that makes it seem so do-able -- Concentration! Okay! I can concentrate!

And here’s a gem from Carol Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit, among many other books. 

“The instrument to heal is the soul, not the mind.”

I love that, too – it’s a comforting thought for a woman who tried to “think” her way out of chronic migraines. (Hint: it didn’t work…)

As the day went on, however, and the inspiration kept coming, it got harder for the speakers to make an impact. I realized that I was tuning out the ones who didn’t know how to connect well with the audience; instead of paying attention to their message, I paid attention to the flaws in their performance. I began simply analyzing what worked and what didn’t.

You may not be surprised to hear that the exact same thing that works for speaking to a live audience of 2000 also works for writing a book. It comes down to two simple things:

  •  Tell a story
  • Make a point

I’m not here to throw anyone under the bus, and I won’t name names, but if Oprah invites you to give a SuperSoul Session, you better have a good story to tell. Rambling all over the place without a cohesive narrative is a recipe for boring your audience. Hooking them with one narrative problem, making them curious about how it turns out, letting them inside your head where they can feel what you feel, on the other hand, will allow you to have them eating out of the palm of your hand.

A good story is very often not dramatic.  Marie Forleo KILLED her presentation, and the story she told was a mix of two extremely basic narratives:

  • A tale about how she and Josh, her beloved, almost missed an airplane flight on a trip to Barcelona. (Call that Story Present.)
  •  A tale about a plastic orange-shaped orange transistor radio her mom used to listen to as the mom went about fixing things around their house when she was a child. (Call that the Flashback Story.)

Neither of these two stories seems that riveting on the surface, but Marie wove them together masterfully – the Marie in Story Present learning a lesson from the Marie in the Flashback Story about how everything is “figure-out-able.”

A good story always operates on two levels -- the surface level and on the deep level, and Marie’s story did both. Ostensibly, it was about making this airplane flight, but really it was about learning how to value her beloved and learning the importance of balancing work and life.  When she told us how she broke down in tears, fearing that they wouldn’t make the flight, she is talking about the trip to Barcelona to be sure, but she is really talking about her sense of self – and we, the audience, felt it, on both levels. We got it, on both levels.

The two stories were chosen on purpose to make the Big Point that Marie came to Oprah’s stage make – that everything is figure-out-able. That there is no roadblock you can’t get past, no problem you can’t solve, nothing in life that should stop you from going after what you want.

Marie, in other words, had something to say.

One thing. One point. One Big Idea. She left all the other thousands of other points she could have made at home.

I came away from the day with a renewed sense that this is what each of us – the book writers of the world -- needs to do, as well:

  1. Concentrate – because a stack of pages doesn’t make a book.
  2.  Know your point. If Oprah invites you to speak to her people, and sits in the fourth row staring up at you as you do it, what are you going to talk about? What’s your one big thing? Your one point? You don’t get to make 12 points – just one. What is it? That’s the idea that should drive your book, as well.
  3.  Tell a story with a deep-level purpose – one that gives the reader what they come for: the chance to feel something they need to feel.

I also came away knowing that what you wear on stage matters -- a lot.  It’s not a frivolous thing; your clothes say so much about who you are. So as long as we’re imagining being on Oprah, imagine that you have now won an award for your book. You get to go to the ceremony, and if your book wins, you get to go on stage to accept it. What are you going to wear?? What do you want it to say about yourself as a writer?

This is a real question for my client, Tracey Cleantis, author of The Next Happy and the forthcoming Self Care is Not a Stupid Candle. The Next Happy has been nominated for a Books for a Better Life Award. These are some of the books that were nominated in the past; Barnes and Noble features them on their website:

The award ceremony is this coming Monday, and Tracey graciously invited me to be in New York with her in the ballroom when they announce the winners, along with her agent and editor and some of her pals. I’m flying out this weekend to toast her great success. I'm so excited to join her for her big day!

What is she going to wear?

Here’s the picture she posted on Facebook:


I'll let you know the outcome, as well as the outfit, next Tuesday.



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.