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Writing by Committee

I worked with a client recently whom I shall call Phil. He had a complete manuscript of a memoir and had been sending out pitches to agents for several months to no avail. He has some bites off his query, but each time he sent requested chapters, he received a rejection. He came to me to learn why.

I reviewed the query, the rejections, and the table of contents for the book, as well as the samples chapters, and the problem was glaringly obvious: the book was very well nicely in the query, beautifully presented in the TOC, and yet the sample chapters were a wreck – disjoined, uneven, with no narrative drive.

I reported my findings to Phil and said that it was rare to see such a disconnect in a proposal. I wondered what had happened that his sample chapters were so weak compared to the description of the book.

“They were written by a committee,” he said, and then proceeded to describe all the people who had weighed in on the manuscript, including professional editors, workshop leaders, fellow writing students, writing group friends, family members, and even a neighbor or two. He had taken advice from so many people at so many different times that he had completely lost sight of his story.

I had to laugh, because last week, I posted a blog that included some lines from my own work in progress. I received emails from some readers who loved what I did, and emails from others who suggested I had, in fact, made the passage worse. If I tried to please both camps, I would probably end up with something that pleased no one – least of all me.

Many of us are so desperate for validation (Is my idea any good? Do you get it? Do you like it? Should I keep doing this? Am I crazy?) that we tend to lose our heads a bit when it comes to asking people to read our work.  We’re grateful when anyone shows interest or is willing to read pages, and so we spread it around to whoever agrees to pay attention. The knee-jerk reaction is to believe whatever it is they say, to automatically incorporate their ideas into your work, and to give up your power to the committee.

I thought I’d take a moment to say, “Don’t.”

Don’t pass your work around without intention.

Don’t take any advice that comes your way.

Good advice is not about what someone likes or doesn’t like, or what they think you should do or not do to improve the work. Ed Catmull explains good advice in his book Creativity Inc.:

 

Truly candid feedback is the only way to ensure excellence. When giving notes, be sure to include:

What is Wrong

What is Missing

What Isn’t Clear

What Doesn’t Make Sense

A good note is specific. A good note does not make demands. Most of all, a good note inspires.

 

Most important of all, don’t lose sight of your own heart. When you get advice, weigh it against what you think. Does it ring true to you? Does it strike a nerve? Can you see how incorporating it will make your work more clear, more logical, and more whole? If yes, then by all means, take the advice.

But if the answer is no, ignore it. You have no obligation to change your work according to the whims of your readers.

Your obligation should always be first and foremost to the book you are writing. Do what’s right for the work.

One of the reasons I am proud of my Author Accelerator program is that it gives writers what is so often lacking in their arsenal of tools: a trained editor who is paying attention to their work on a regular basis. I think this is one of the best ways not only to improve your work, but to strengthen your editorial muscle, which is to say your understanding of how narrative works, and WHY.

Someone who has built up that kind of muscle is going to know that writing by committee never produced excellent work.

 

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What Harrison Ford and Stand Up Comedians Can Teach Us About Flashbacks

At the start of a new year, we look back in order to look forwards, and I think it’s worth noting that this is also one of the main actions of writing. I thought I would take some time today to talk about writing flashbacks – why we do it, when to do it, and how to do it.
 
Before we get there, a quick definition: by flashback, I mean any time in a fictional narrative or a non-fiction explanation when you stop the main story or flow in order to look back at something that happened in the past, in order to make sense of what is happening in the present. There is no form of writing that doesn’t employ this technique in some way, shape, or form.
 
Why Even Write a Flashback?
 
Readers turn to books to help us make sense of a world that often doesn’t make very much sense. Our lives don’t always have clear arcs or neat resolutions, and they certainly don’t have the clarity that comes from following a step-by-step how-to guide laid out by an expert. Whether we are reading a memoir, a novel, or a non-fiction book, we are seeking a deeper understanding of the world, of the other people in it, and of ourselves.
 
Each of us goes through the world with our own belief system, our own way of thinking and knowing. We can’t actually walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, but we do have the ability to imagine what that would be like, and it is that imagining that expands our understanding.
 
That imagining is also extremely individual. If I say to you, “Picture a castle on a hill,” you will see something very different than I do, based on where you live, where you have travelled, what you have read, and how many Disney movies you have watched.
 
We write flashbacks in order to let our readers into those specific, highly personal thoughts, in order to invite them into our minds and our way of seeing, because that is the closest anyone will ever come to getting inside someone else’s head.
 
So we write flashbacks to give our readers insight and understanding. It’s as simple and as profound as that.
 
 
When Should You Write a Flashback?
 
In my definition, above, I explained that a flashback lets us look in the past in order to make sense of the present. The past can be yesterday, an hour ago, five, fourteen, or thirty seven years ago, but they key to when to take us there lies in that definition: in order to make sense of the present.
 
You should only use flashbacks when the present demands that we know something from the past. You should not use flashback because you the writer decided that the reader needs to know this thing and you picked an arbitrary place to dump it on us. We hate that. That feels like a lecture. What we want is an invitation.
 
The best way to learn how this process works in writing is to watch it at work in your own life. Pay attention to what causes memories to come into your mind, to what brings you in and out of the recollection, to how long they last and how detailed they are.
Let me give you an example of how this recently worked for me.
 
Like millions of my fellow humans, I was recently in a theater watching the new Star Wars movie. When Harrison Ford showed up on screen as Han Solo, tears instantly came to my eyes. I imagine that tears instantly came to a lot of people’s eyes (I mean, he’s with Chewie, on his battered and beloved and dependable old ship, and he says, “We’re home,” and it’s a lovely moment.) The question is, though, why did tears come to MY eyes? What specific understanding was I bringing from that past into that moment that was different from any one of the millions of other teary-eyed movie-goers?
 
If I were writing about that moment (in a memoir, or transposed in some way to a novel, or in a non-fiction book about, say, the power of a shared cultural moment), I would be leaving the reader completely out if I didn’t answer the question. I would be letting the reader flap in the wind by bringing up my teary eyes without also explaining what it meant to me – an omission which would confuse and frustrate them. Or I would be leaving them to interpret for themselves why I was crying – which would mean I gave up my authority.
 
I owe it to the reader to explain my tears so that they can understand what I am feeling, and whatever larger point I am making in even choosing to talk about Star Wars in the first place.
 
The past that brought tears to my eyes in that one silver screen second has many layers, but the two most prominent layers for me were:
 

  • The fact that grey-haired Harrison Ford looks alarmingly like my dad (who is on the right, below); and that my dad has always been quite like a superhero/action figure to me, with all the power and all the limitations of that job; and that because of the same devil-may-care attitude he and Han both have, I have never been completely sure that my dad would survive any of his many adventures; and the fact that, unlike my dad, Han can always be counted on to swoop in to save the day. The split-second appearance of Harrison Ford’s face yanked all of these thoughts up to the surface in a sudden bittersweet wave of affection and regret. That alone would have given the moment meaning, but there was more:
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  • The fact that I was 13 years old when the first Star Wars movie came out, and this time I was sitting in the theater with my husband and our grown children, and all this time has passed and Harrison Ford has grown older and I have grown older, too, and on top of all that there was a time that is now receding into the past when (because of a cancer diagnosis) none of us were sure that I would have the chance to grow older. And yet there we were – my husband and my children and I -- having made it to that moment, which brought up a whole different sent of intense emotions about mortality and chance and love and loss, just as complex and nuanced as the other wave.

 
Do you see how, if you knew none of those things, my teary eyes at Harrison Ford could be mistaken for straight up movie nostalgia, or for something else entirely?
 
You need the intel from the past in order to understand my tears. If I were writing about those tears, it would be my job to give you that intel and to give it to you the moment I told you about those tears. If I waited, I would lose the opportunity, I would lose momentum, and odds are good that I would lose you – because SO WHAT that I got teary in Star Wars? Everyone got teary at Star Wars.
 
Flashback allows you to answer that so what at the moment the question is raised, which deepens the hold you have on your reader because it deepens the meaning of what you are trying to convey.
 
How to Write a Flashback
 
The key to making flashbacks work is to enter and exit them in a seamless way. They are part of the story you are telling or the point you are making – not a separate thing. But you need to give the reader distinct cues and clues as to what you are doing.
 
Those cues almost always have to do with the passage of time – days and dates. It often feels heavy handed to write these kinds of sentences – Three years before… or The last time I was in a movie theater… or I suddenly remembered my tenth birthday party… but those straightforward cues are necessary.
 
In the Star Wars example, I might write this:
 
Tears instantly began to burn my eyes and I felt my throat close up. I felt silly – why was I crying at Harrison Ford’s sudden appearance? – and I looked at Emily to see if she had been impacted by the moment in the same way. She hadn’t been. She sat watching the movie unfold as if nothing momentous had occurred. [This is “story present.”]
 
It was then that I realized that my 20-year-old child simply didn’t have the same deep history with mortality that I had.  [This is a statement of my point in telling this story…]
 
She had only been three when I was diagnosed with cancer. [Note the use of ages to bring the reader back in time… we are now entering the flashback.] I remember that once we decided to tell the girls, we gathered them in the living room to try to explain what was happening. We told them we had something important to say, and while her older sister was antsy about the gravity of the moment, wanting to escape it, Emily seemed to sink into it. She sat there with her little forehead wrinkled in concern, her green eyes drinking everything in.
 
“Your mom has a sickness called cancer,” Rob said.
 
“That’s what Grandma died from," Carlyn said.
 
“Yes,” I said, “But the kind I have is different. We don’t think it’s as bad.”
 
“Are you going to die?” Carlyn asked.
 
Rob took my hand. “We don’t think so,” he said, “We’re going to work with the doctors to do everything we can to make sure she doesn’t.”
 
“Okay,” Carlyn said, convinced, and got up and left the room. 
 
Emily stayed. “What’s cancer?” she asked.
 
Rob took a pencil and drew some shapes on a yellow lined piece of paper. He then explained how cells divide, and he turned some of the shapes into larger shapes.
 
“How will the doctors make it go away?” she asked.
 
Rob explained how doctors had tools to remove the cells that divided the wrong way, and he erased the dots. This seemed to satisfy Emily – but she never asked what death was. She never asked what it meant to die. Perhaps, at age 3, that simply wasn’t part of her worldview. Perhaps, like any child, she simply couldn't imagine her mother not being there.
 
Sitting in the darkened theater next to her 17 years later [Note the use of time to bring the reader forward in time and back to story present] – having lived all those years, having survived – I felt immense gratitude for the opportunity I had to raise my children to adulthood. I felt immense gratitude to be alive.
 
Suddenly it didn’t seem silly at all to be so moved to see Hans Solo return against all odds, yet again.
 
 
Here’s another good way to learn how to go in and out of flashbacks: watch sketch comedy. The best comedians often fold stories within stories and you can HEAR how it works.
 
With my kids home for the holidays, I was invited to watch all kinds of great videos, clips and sketch comedy routines that I might not otherwise ever know about, and among them were some comedy routines by John Mulaney. I found him quite hilarious, but he does use strong language and scenarios that might offend some people, so I tried to find a clip that showed what I wanted to show without going too far.
 
In this clip, Mulaney is telling a story about how great it is to have a girlfriend going through life by his side and in the middle of that story, he breaks to tell a story about what life was like before his girlfriend. It’s a flashback. It happens to be told in an over-the-top extreme way, for the biggest laughs, but it’s flashback nonetheless. 
 
20:35 -- The start of the girlfriend story.
21:19 -- The restatement of his theme (“Before I had a girlfriend, I had no standard for how I should be treated as a human being”) and the segue to the flashback – a story about how life was without the girlfriend.
21:49 – Repetition of the theme and the flashback story -- the story about Delta airlines (so funny, I crack up every time!)
23:28 -- End of flashback, back to girlfriend story, where she calmly and logically recommends Southwest, thereby proving the theme of the whole routine: life is better with the girlfriend.
 
 
Here’s to telling great stories and writing great books in 2016!

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What We Can Learn From Jennifer Lawrence About Connecting With Our Reader

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Hiring a private book coach is expensive, and is most decidedly an activity reserved for people who have their basic needs covered. Usually people come to me when they are burning to write a book but don’t know how to proceed; when they have tried but failed to get a book into reader’s hand and have decided that there is nothing more important than making that happen; or when they are at a place in their career where they understand the value -- and can afford – professional help. Because of these realities, I work with a disproportionate number of privileged people – and often, learning how to deal with that reality ends up being part of the work we do.
 
Why? At its most fundamental level, a writer’s goal is to connect with readers. You can’t connect with readers if you don’t know who you are, who they are, and where your points of connection – or disconnection -- might be.
 
This is an extreme example, but I once worked with a woman who had immigrated to this country because her husband was tapped to be a top executive of a massively well-known and profitable US company. She wanted to write a memoir about the difficulty of navigating the US culture – finding a nanny, getting your kids into a top school, choosing which neighborhood to live in.
 
It was a very interesting premise, in many ways – a wealthy immigrant turning the lens on life in the Unites States – and she was a very good writer. She had difficulty, however, understanding that the vast majority of her readers wouldn’t share her point of view. She refused to acknowledge the deep truth of her situation – that most people simply don’t have the resources she had -- and as a result, her work never got off the ground, at least not under my watch. (I hope it has since then!)
 
I often see this issue come up, not just in memoir, but in fiction, and narrative non-fiction too. It comes up in everything. When I point out that not every reader might relate, or that there is a lack of self-awareness about the author coming from a place of privilege, the writers ask how to deal with that reality – how do you let the reader into your reality and your point of view. How do you connect with people who aren’t necessarily like you?
 

I hope you see that this question is one that every writer ultimately has to ask every single day, about every single line they write, because none of us comes from the same place as anyone else.

 
We each go through the world in our skin with our own experiences with our own point of view. Trying to get other people see our point of view is pretty much the primary task of all human beings and certainly a primary task of the writer.
 
This struck me yesterday when I was at the gym. A few days before, a guy had come bursting into the gym during class – shoeless, soaking wet, yelling in a very heavy accent, frantic, and gesturing wildly to our instructor. We all freaked out until we understood that he was a plumber working on a flood in a nearby business and he was asking for a long metal rod to turn off the water main. Our instructor lent him the rod, and when he left, we all speculated on the whole strange scenario – imagining all kinds of spy and thriller plots that involved the guy using the rod for everything but turning off water.
 
The following day, in the midst of doing a long set of torturous squats, I said, “So did that guy bring back the water iron?”
 
In my mind, my question was 100% clear. The rod had looked kind of like a tire iron to me. The guy had wanted it to turn off the water. The question that had all been in our minds was whether he would steal it. Three facts, one clear question – “So did that guy bring back the water iron?”
 
The person on my left (the instructor) had absolutely no idea what I was talking about – zip, zero, ziltch. I could have been speaking Greek as far as she was concerned. The person on my right knew precisely what I was talking about – but that was dumb luck.
 
The words I chose were decidedly bizarre. They did not take into consideration the fact that other people don’t live in my head, where a long metal rod used to turn off the water is naturally a water iron, where “the guy” is clearly the guy from the other day who ran in barefoot and wet.
 
So back to the question at hand – how does a writer prevent this kind of disconnect? How does a writer connect with people who aren’t like them, which is to say everyone?
 
Last week, there was a perfect example – the letter that Jennifer Lawrence wrote for Lena Dunham’s new Lenny Letter, about the pay gap in Hollywood between men and women. No matter your politics, read this piece to see how Lawrence deftly navigates the minefield of being one of the wealthiest women in Hollywood and trying to talk to us about not getting paid enough money.
 
She KNOWS that we are all going to say, “Oh wah wah wah poor Jennifer Lawrence didn’t get an extra couple million dollars on top of the many million dollar paycheck she made for The Hunger Games.”
 
She KNOWS our kneejerk reaction is going to be that we think she’s a spoiled brat who doesn’t feel our pain.
 
She KNOWS she has to say something authentic to connect with us.
 
What she does is disarm us at every turn by being straightforward, honest, self aware, a tiny bit self deprecating, but also confident and strong. She is writing with enormous authority – which comes from knowing your point and your purpose (is there any single double about hers?); knowing your audience; and being generous with your emotions and your experiences.
 
In this link to a Word doc (where you can see my editorial comments), I break it down.
 

SEE JENNIE BREAK IT DOWN

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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?

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What's the story Behind Your Story?

Every story has a story behind it – the reason that you even bothered with it in the first place. It’s the spark that comes into your mind, the image that flickers across your brain, the idea that wakes you up in the middle of the night and whispers, “Write me.”
 
When it comes time to connect with readers, this moment of genesis can be enormously powerful. It’s often the reason that the media wants to talk with you, or that your book captures the public imagination, or that someone invites you to speak – and this is as true for fiction as it is for non-fiction. I’m going to use two recent examples to show you what I mean.

 

When it comes time to connect with readers, the moment of story genesis can be enormously powerful. 


 
Sometimes that genesis story is very clearly connected to the book you eventually write. This is true of Lauri Taylor’s book, The Accidental Truth, which comes out on Mother’s Day. It’s a memoir -- the harrowing story of the four years she spent investigating her mother’s murder.
 
Here is the description of her book:
 
When Lauri Taylor’s mother went missing one day in 2005, no one expected her body to turn up ten days later in a remote Mexican desert—and no one could solve the crime.  Motivated by a nagging feeling that this was her last chance to make her mom proud, the Orange County housewife set out to investigate the murder. In the process, she was forced to investigate her mother’s life and her own childhood, which was filled with uncertainty and pain. Four years later, with the help of famed FBI profiler, Candice Delong, Lauri unravelled the mystery of  her mother’s murder and uncovered the shocking truth about her life. The Accidental Truth combines the suspense of a true crime page-turner with the poignant emotion of a mother-daughter saga.
 
 
When it came time to connect with readers, Lauri brainstormed all the reasons readers, and by extension the media, might be interested in her tale. This list was not about her story – the words on the page -- but about the ideas that her story circles around, the ideas that were present at the genesis of her even writing the book. One of those topics on that list had to do with the loss of her mother, an obviously emotional topic.
 
Lauri came up with a pitch about the first mother’s day she spent without her mother. She crafted a short piece that references the woman who founded mother’s day and how Lauri’s journey took her on a similar path. It was a great story idea. The result of that effort is that Lauri landed a plum Op-Ed page piece in USA Today, which came out today.  It’s a beautiful piece, and perfectly illustrates the story behind the story. The loss of her mother is what propelled her to write her book. It’s not what her book is about, but it’s what the newspaper piece is about -- and the piece will surely drive people to her book.
 
What About Fiction?
 
I have another client, Amy, who is just about to write the final chapter of a novel. It’s the story of one holiday weekend in the life of a group of friends who were thrown together in high school when one of them became gravely ill. The book is about the enduring power of friendship, and the ways that old friends are sometimes better equipped to deal with the things that go wrong in our lives than newer “adult” friends or even our husbands and partners.  It’s poignant, hilarious, authentic, and very compelling – exactly the kind of story book clubs are going to love.
 
The novel was based on a medical situation that Amy herself endured, and that had re-emerged in her life as an adult. At first, Amy was drawn to write a memoir about her experiences, but she soon realized that she didn’t want to write a story about illness.  She didn’t want to be all about her illness – she had been there, done that. She thought it would be much more interesting and fun to write about the antics, shenanigans and poignant moments of this fictional group of friends coming together around this fictional woman who had an illness. The illness, in other words, became just a plot point and not the whole story.
 
So she shifted, veered off, did something entirely new. She took off from her genesis moment in a whole new direction. But the point I am trying to make is that you never entirely leave that original spark behind.
 
Amy recently ran into an old acquaintance from her medical days.  The woman asked what she was up to and Amy mentioned the novel-in-progress. “We’d love to have you come back to speak at [Big Medical Institution],” the woman said, “The patients and their families would get a kick of out it.”
 
So the topic Amy intentionally veered away from has come back like a boomerang.
Amy and I were brainstorming this morning about all the things she could do outside of the novel to serve that medical population for whom she has a great affinity – ways she could connect with people who were going through what she had gone through, but without writing a memoir. She thought about writing a Q&A about surviving, making a little guide, or doing a video, which she could present to the patients when she goes back one day to read from her novel.  When viewed straight on these topics felt confining and uninspiring to her, but viewed through the lens of the novel, they now seemed rich and resonant.
 
No matter where you are in your writing process, take a moment to think about the story behind YOUR story, and how you might use it to bring you closer to your potential readers.

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