You may never have considered how curiosity makes your writing memorable. If you haven't, are you curious to know how?
Recently, Dave and I chatted about curiosity. We both self-identify as curious people. And we both have thoughts about how we developed the ability to ask meaningful questions.
One reason goes back to our years when we worked in the magazine world. Articles often start with good interviews. Good interviews start with good questions. Good questions are fueled by curiosity.
There are bound to be times when you are stuck in book writing, whether at the idea formation stage or as you flesh out a chapter. At those moments, you may need to do more research. Or interview someone. That's when it’s time to plug into your curiosity.
Here are five insights about how curiosity makes your writing memorable, and tips to help you develop curiosity.
1. Ask "good" questions.
Yes, when you're gathering information to support your idea, thicken prose, or nuance a story, there is such a thing as a bad question. "Bad" questions are closed questions that simply demand a "yes" or "no." "Good" questions are open-ended.
Anything that starts with “Tell me about…” is a great way to get people telling stories. "How do you interpret..." and "What are your thoughts on..." questions also get people to expand upon an idea that you are trying to understand more deeply.
2. Read the person and ask good follow-up questions.
This is how you go deep in an interview.
Often when Dave and I are interviewing someone, we look for the raised eyebrow. We listen for the tone in a person's response. We pay attention to the prolonged pause.
All these non-verbal cues can indicate that someone has something more to say on the topic and need a bit of encouragement to keep talking.
If a person seems animated in their response, you might say, "You seem to be passionate about this topic. Where does this passion come from?" Or, if a person is about to say something, but then pulls back, you might ask, "It seems like you were going to say something. Can you share what you were going to say?"
Often the interviewee just needs a nudge to keep talking. And as they continue to talk, you find the gold.
3. Empathize when appropriate.
When someone shares something personal, you can express empathy. This can contribute to creating a safe environment for people to share more candidly. A simple, "That must have been difficult," can keep the interviewee sharing.
Be cautious, however, in empathizing too much. The temptation is to tell a story that is about you, rather than keeping the focus on the interviewee. Don't hijack the interviewee's story.
When you interview someone for a writing project, be sure to do your homework and prepare some rudimentary questions. The best questions are those that get you beneath the hood early on. If you can understand a person's basic thinking on...
Mornings and I mix as well as homework and the weekend. The two are simply incompatible.
That's why I rarely write in the morning (though, ironically, it's morning, and I'm writing this before the hustle of the day distracts me!). Thankfully, there's no one perfect time to write. There are many writing discipline models that work for writers.
Writers often try out a variety of writing discipline models as they write their book, depending on their phase of life (working full time with kids rushing around in the background means getting creative with your time!). Dave and I recently chatted about the six writing discipline models for writers.
Which one works best for you?
1. The Early Riser/Late Night Model. The Early Riser model is the paragon for writers: set the alarm for 5 AM, brew your coffee, settle into a comfortable location and start writing for three to four hours.
If you like morning rituals and are juiced up in the mornings, this might be the model for you. Often professional writers will get up early, write until mid morning, and then be off the rest of the day.
Or you might write late at night, once the chaos of the day has receded. Dave wrote much of Death by Suburb from 9 PM to midnight at his dining room table. He had three kids at the time. Life was crazy.
The principle is, you write when the dailyness of your life isn’t interrupting you or nagging at you. No laundry. No emails. No phone calls. No children needing something from you.
2. The Toilet Seat Model. Imagine cranking out words your book on the edge of the toilet seat while your children bathed. That's what author Caryn Rivadeneira did when she had two small children underfoot and a book deal.
The "toilet seat" is a metaphor for fitting in writing time whenever and wherever you can. Dave and I love this model because it is where many of us live. We have a life. We’re not professional writers, whose sole job is to write. Nor are we professors at universities who teach only two classes a semester and have sabbaticals and summers off to write.
This model is for ordinary people who are doing an extraordinary thing – writing in the white spaces of their lives.
3. The Chunker Model. This comes from one of our Roadtrippers, George, who writes on Fridays from 8 to noon. This isn’t an everyday discipline; it’s a weekly discipline. Some may be able to do this on Saturday or Sunday--or any other day when the demands of the week quiet down.
Sometimes you might write a couple thousand words. Other days you may eke out only a few hundred. But if you honor the time, you'll make progress. As with the Early Riser/Late Night model, this model takes discipline. And the more routine it becomes, the more likely you'll stick with it.
4. The Retreat Model. Sometimes you have to break up the routine of your life and get away to jumpstart your writing or to create...
In this edition of Tipster, our focus is on expanding your idea.
A Tweet. A Facebook post. A blog post. A TikTok video. News articles.
These are all types of short-form content.
Our culture dishes and gobbles up short-form content. It's easy to spit out 750 or less words or produce a 30-second video.
You just need one idea, and maybe one or two supporting ideas. Or one grabby story.
Discomfort of Longer Writing
Writing longform (1,000-plus words), however, demands more from a writer. More words. More idea development.
This can be agonizing if you're comfy with short-form writing.
When you write a book - or if you want to write a book someday - you'll need to get comfortable with the discomfort of expanding ideas.
This is one of the main jobs of an author of a book: to help readers understand an idea in multiple ways.
5 Tips to Expand an Idea
Here are just a few ways to expand your idea ... without doing what we all did in high school (adding fluff to an already weak idea!):
1. State and deny the contrarian view to your idea.
As you state the opposition, and argue against it, you solidify your position.
In short, spend a couple sentences discussing the alternative and why it falls short.
2. Provide examples that illustrate your idea.
A story, for instance. Or a hypothetical situation. Or evidence from a study.
3. Quote someone else.
Stitch in a quote from someone who has stated something related to your idea - and explore his or her interpretation. And how it specifically supports your idea.
4. Use metaphor, imagery, or other literary devices.
This helps readers visualize the idea, or feel the idea in a fresh way.
5. Apply the idea.
Readers need to be able to see your idea's relevance and veracity.
One way to do this is to start with: "For example, ..."
There's so much more on this topic, but for now that's it. I'll address this topic again soon, since book writers need to be able to expand ideas if they want to write longform.
In this edition of Tipster, our focus is on the narrative arc.
Some of you want to write fiction, others are writing memoirs. Still others are writing business books or other kinds of nonfiction books.
And others simply want to learn how to write better.
The importance of the narrative arc applies to all writing, even traditionally boring consulting books.
What Is It?
The best description of a "narrative arc" is that it is the path that a story takes.
Pretty simple, right?
The narrative (or story) arc is, essentially, the events of the story.
An arc is mission critical if you want to keep your readers reading from the first sentence to the last.
In Roadtrippers, our weekly Q&A, we often talk about creating and maintaining tension.
The issue is this: Once you release the tension in your storytelling, your story is over ... whether you're done telling it or not.
The reader will bail. There is no reason to continue to read.
Getting crystal clear on your narrative arc will help you maintain tension throughout the book. And keep the reader reading.
Life Is a Journey, So Is Reading
So, as a writer, I need to be clear on the journey that I am taking my reader on.
Where does the journey begin in my article or book?
Where does it end? Where does the reader end up at the end of 2,500 words or 250 pages?
Here's another way to think about it:
What is the emotion that I want to start the article or book with?
What is the emotion that I want the reader to feel at the end?
Do you want the reader to feel hopeful? Energized to make a change? Depressed?
Well, probably not depressed.
That's it on the narrative arc for now. Google it for more information.
And if you're writing nonfiction, don't let yourself off the hook. All nonfiction books take readers on a journey.
Except maybe a textbook. Hah!
In this edition of Tipster, our focus is on structuring a memoir.
I (Dave) am re-reading one of the classics on how to think about structure in writing called "Draft No.4" by John McPhee.
McPhee is a long-time writer for the New Yorker and author of more than 30 books.
"Developing a structure is seldom ... simple. Almost always there is considerable tension between chronology and theme, and chronology traditionally wins."
In short, when writing a longer story or a memoir, we default to telling the story from the beginning. We assemble a list of stories - and start from the start.
But you don't have to start from the beginning. In fact, your story may be more interesting if you don't.
A Different Structure
If you want to write an extended story or write a memoir, a better approach may be to structure the stories around a central theme or themes.
McPhee writes for those writing nonfiction:
"As a nonfiction writer, you could not change the facts of the chronology, but with verb tenses and other forms of clear guidance to the reader you [are] free to do a flashback if you thought one made sense in presenting the story."
One application would be to identify one of your themes in your stories.
I'll use a silly example. Let's say you want to write a memoir about how you always lose weight - and then gain it back in six months. You've done it your entire life.
It would be tempting to start the story the first time you lost weight in your twenties - and then gained it all back.
But what if you started the story with the most recent time that you fell prey to the cycle?
Maybe that was the time when you finally said, "I'm never doing this again," and you decided to make changes.
That may be a great place to start the story - at your most frustrated, self-loathing moment.
I'm not sure "weight loss and gain" is a good example, but it illustrates the point.
Start the story from an arresting part of the story, not from the beginning of the story.
In this edition of Tipster, our focus is on flashbacks.
Writing well is the ultimate life marathon.
As you work on your book project, you want to be growing in how you use language and how you use techniques to delight your readers.
One such technique is what is called the "flashback."
This is a technique that is widely used in memoirs and fiction. But it can also be used in other forms of nonfiction writing, including coaching and consulting books.
What Is a Flashback?
Here is a working definition of a flashback
"When writing a work of fiction, an author can take the reader out of the present story and jump into an earlier time period in a character’s life.
This narrative tool is called a flashback. Also used in films and television shows, flashbacks give a story more depth by revealing details that help readers understand character motives. Flashbacks also add tension and help advance the plot."
Love the idea that a flashback can add tension to your writing. Tension is what keeps your readers reading.
Greatest Example Ever of a Flashback
This comes from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's awesome novel, "100 Years of Solitude."
In fact, this first sentence of the novel is considered to be one of the best opening lines of all time:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
See the flashback?
He starts as he is facing the firing squad, but immediately recalls a distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice - and starts to write from there. He writes about an an earlier time.
Many of you are writing nonfiction.
But the flashback is a great technique when writing extended stories in nonfiction writing as well.
Just be conscious of what you are doing. You can write a story as if it is happening in the present - but then use a flashback to add some new detail to the current story.
Keep the flashback in your hip pocket!
In this edition of Tipster, our focus is on starting to write a book and specifying your big idea.
If you've never written before, starting a book is crazy hard. Or at least crazy confusing.
Where do you begin?
You can just start writing. That works. In fact, that is a good thing. At least you're putting words to paper (er, screen).
But in addition to the act of writing, here is one activity that can help you get off on the right foot.
Grapple with Your Big Idea
Every book is fundamentally about an idea, even fiction.
So are a memoirs. Or a business book. Or a spirituality book. Or a cook book.
So what is your book about? What is your big idea?
An Idea Has Two Parts
We always like to say that an idea has two parts. And it's helpful to break down your idea this way:
The Subject of your idea can be identified by asking the question, "What is the topic that I am writing about?"
So, for example, the topic of Dave's book on the suburbs was "how to live a deeper spiritual life in the suburbs."
But that's not enough. That's only half of an idea.
The Complement of your idea can be identified by asking the question, "What am I saying about my topic?"
So, for example, in Dave's instance, his Complement was "there are invisible, environmental toxins in the suburbs that pollute one's soul."
Thus, the thesis for Death by Suburb was born: "To live the thicker, more awakened life in the suburbs requires understanding the toxins that pollute one's soul."
A Book Idea Must Be Specific
The point of the activity is to help you be more specific with your idea.
A general idea will not work as a book idea. The idea has to be narrow, focused on a specific angle.
So, this week, spend an hour writing out 10 Subject/Complements for your book idea.
You'll come away much more clear about what your book is actually about.
In this edition of Tipster, our focus is on narrowing the idea for your book.
It's one thing to write a 600-word blog.
Another thing to write a long-form article of 3,500 words or more.
And a 50,000-word book is, well, a completely different species altogether.
For starters, you need an idea that is big enough for 50,000 words.
Big and Narrow
Yes, the idea needs to be big enough that you can wax eloquently (and compellingly) for chapters on end.
But the more specific the idea, the better.
Isn't it absolutely nuts that a book is about a singular idea?
And yet the book is filled with thousands of sentences and tens of thousands of words that support that one idea?
Simple Hack to Winnow Your Idea
I (Dave) am working on a new book idea. I have been for years. I've made some progress. Started a chapter. Thought about the book outline.
But as I started to write my first chapter, I realized my idea is too soft. Too undefined. Too amorphous. Too squishy.
So, I asked Melissa to interview me for 30 minutes.
The results were amazing. Her relentless questions and her asking me to illustrate my idea forced me to say things I had not said before.
I became more clear on exactly what my book is about.
Even if you are halfway through your book, you may want to ask someone to interview you about your idea. It shouldn't be your mom. Or your girlfriend. Can't be a fanboy or fangirl.
This person must be someone who can ask good questions - and expect you to clarity your idea.
This is really a miraculous little hack. Do it. And you'll find yourself making faster progress in your writing.
In this edition of Tipster, our focus is on short sentences.
This is a short sentence.
This, too, is short. Only four words.
Can you write short sentences?
Several years ago, I read, "Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg."
Hah! Gotta love the name of that book! And author!
It is an entire book of short sentences. About writing short sentences.
The main idea is this: If you want to learn how to write, start by shortening your sentences.
The intent is to get us to write more crisply. And intentionally.
Here is a quote from the book:
It's easier to tell what you're saying in a short sentence.
You've been taught to believe that short sentences are childish.
You'd like to think that your education has carried you well past short sentences.
But you've been delivered into a wilderness of false assumptions and bad habits,
A desert of jargon and weak constructions, a land of linguistic barbarism.
A place where it is nearly impossible to write with clarity or directness.
Try It. You'll Like It.
If you learn to write a short sentence, you'll learn to write, period. You'll develop your unique writing voice.
You'll learn how to write with cadence.
Yes, you can write a long sentence some day again. But only when it is needed.
In this edition of Tipster, our focus is on cadence, one of the great elements of voice.
We all want to write with a unique voice, a style that is our signature.
One way to do that is through cadence. The word cadence means "modulation or inflection of voice."
One basic way to create cadence is to mix up your sentence length. To use phrases that don't have both a subject and a verb (like this one).
This tip is actually an exercise:
1. Identify one of your longer paragraphs, in which you have a least five sentences.
2. Count the number of sentences.
3. Count the total number of words in the paragraph.
4. Then, divide the total number of words by the total number of sentences.
Here is an example of Dave's writing about a time when he almost drowned fly fishing in Yellowstone National Park.
He had five sentences, 57 total words, and an average of 11 words per sentence.
Dave's voice is that he likes to write shorter sentences in general. That means fewer compound sentences with dependent clauses. It's part of his "voice."
Yours will be uniquely you.
We have no business wading the deceptive, roiling currents of the Yellowstone, even if it is only a side channel. No matter how low the river seems this time of year. Up ahead is a stretch we’ve never fished before. We’re almost there. We make it to the best run ever and start to cast.
So, assess the word count of several paragraphs, and see if you can begin to create a different cadence with a better combination of short sentences and long sentences - and even simple phrases as "sentences."
Your high school English teacher would be mortified!