We all want to write so people love to read us: "I picked up her book, and I couldn't put it down."
That is a high compliment.
Here's another: "I asked our book club to read it!"
Whoa! Now that may be the best compliment of all.
Or, "I referred the book to all of my friends."
None of us (except maybe the Unabomber) aspires to write a manifesto that only a few people read.
This is true whether you are writing an inspirational book.
Whether you're writing a memoir. Or a novel.
Or even a nonfiction book in which you tell stories.
Drama Creates Tension
I've mentioned in a previous Tipster that I'm reading "Catherine the Great" by Robert Massey.
This is a historical account of the life and times of Catherine the Great, the Russian Empress from 1762 to 1796.
She was Russia's last empress and longest-ruling female leader.
I expected the book to be dry. You know, like history books normally are.
Perhaps that's why Massey, the author, won the Nobel Prize for his book, "Peter the Great."
Two Keys to a Book that I Must Refer
And I definitely would refer "Catherine the Great" to you.
There are probably a hundred key things that make a book "refer-worthy."
But here are two:
1. Believable (and Maybe Even Crazy) Characters.
If you're writing a memoir, I need to care about you, the main character.
And I need to care about the other characters in your story. And your unique relationship with each.
I'm only at the beginning of "Catherine the Great," but here are some of the characters that are believable - and crazy.
* Catherine as a teenager and engaged to Peter, another teenager;
* Peter, the one Catherine is betrothed to. He may be gay. I'm not far enough along in the book to know for sure;
* Catherine's mother, Joanna, who is a crazy, glory-seeking "b____"; and
* Empress Elizabeth, who is mercurial, strangely religious at times, and, well, hateful and jealous.
Elizabeth is generous towards young Catherine and then spiteful towards her.
2. Lots of drama among the characters.
This means there are sparks, conflict, jealousy, devotion, hatred, loyalty - among the characters.
Let's just take the relationship between young Catherine (who winds up as Empress of Russia later) and her husband, Peter.
I think they are about 16 years old when they marry.
Peter takes no sexual interest in Catherine.
They don't consummate their marriage, and Peter likes to play "make-believe" war with the other servants in the quarters. He is a man-child.
He is petulant. And petty. He is crafty. And often he throws tantrums like a four year old.
He is small and frail.
And we learn later that Catherine overthrows her own husband and takes over the leadership of Russia. You go, girl!
Now that is drama!
Does Your Writing Reveal Real Human Relationships
My point is simply this: Slow down your writing to think through the type of relationship each major character has with each of the other characters.
If you're writing a memoir, you, as the author and narrator, don't have the same relationship with...
Don’t tell my son (who thinks he has superior taste in movies), but one of my favorite horror films is The Blair Witch Project.
The film is about three aspiring filmmakers who set out to produce a documentary about the fabled Blair Witch, once blamed for the disappearance of children throughout the 18th and 19th century.
The witch is believed to haunt the forests of the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland.
It’s not a typical horror film. No chainsaw massacres.
No torture rooms. No diabolical clowns.
The terror is psychological. The filmmakers hear children laughing and twigs snapping as they sleep. Belongings go missing.
Cairns are mysteriously built around their tent in the night. Twig stick figures hang from trees.
But worst of all, when they decide to abandon filming, the trio can’t find their way back to the car.
They wander in circles for days.
At one point, they return to the same river crossing from the previous day. That’s when despair sets in.
There’s no way out.
When You Think There’s No Way Out
A few years ago, when I was ghostwriting a book, I had what I like to call a “Blair Witch Project Writing Moment.”
I had an idea for the chapter—a clear thesis, a destination—but 4000 words in, I was wandering.
I wrote in circles, not making much of any point. I couldn’t wrap up the chapter, because I couldn’t figure out how to make it back to my big idea, the thesis.
So, I kept writing. And writing.
And then I started crying, because despite all my writing, I realized there was no way out.
I had lost my way. I despaired.
Strip It Back
If you’re like me, in those moments, a good cry can help relieve the agony.
But tears don’t move your writing forward.
You need a strategy.
The best strategy for dead-end writing is to scrap what you wrote.
Dump it into a different document. And forget about it for now. Maybe all that writing and thinking will work in another chapter.
Strip your writing back to the thesis.
Remind yourself what the chapter is about, and the journey you want to take the reader on.
At least three times in three different ways, state: “This chapter is about…” Or “By the end of the chapter I want my readers to understand or feel…”
Or “In this chapter I must communicate…”
It seems so simple it’s stupid.
But forcing yourself to focus on the essence of what you want to achieve in the chapter is clarifying.
It reminds you what you need to say. It helps you see what doesn’t belong.
Once you’ve clarified your governing idea, then rebuild the structure.
Most aimless, frustrated writing is a...
I’ve never met a person who loves how they look or sound on video. I know I don’t.
Is my voice that nasally?
Is my hair that thin?
Do I look that old?
Videos eek out every one of our nits and picks.
We scrutinize ourselves as we think others might scrutinize us.
Why Care about Video?
You might wonder, “Why should I care about video? I’m a writer. Writers write. They don’t produce videos.”
Ten years ago—maybe even three years ago—I would have conceded to that argument.
But if you’re a writer who wants to publish a book, and actually have people read it, you’ll need to sell your book.
Whether you traditionally publish or self-publish, marketing your book is up to you.
No one is coming to save you. To write is to promote.
That means you must grow an audience.
Actually, you must captivate an audience. Pull them into your world so that they want to hear from you. It’s called “building your platform.”
And video, (I hear you groaning) is one of the leading ways (if not the best way) to quickly connect with people and extend your reach.
Video on the Rise
First it was YouTube. Then Snapchat. Overtaken by TikTok. And Instagram has been trying to catch up with Reels.
Video is ubiquitous. We live in an era where we video chat instead of talking by phone.
Video makes us feel like we are connecting with someone, even if separated by physical distance.
Studies have shown that video on social media platforms and websites creates trust and an emotional connection with viewers that writing doesn’t. That’s because humans connect with humans.
Studies also show that when you add video to your communications (whether via a blog, a social media platform or a newsletter), viewers stick around longer. Ten times longer.
And when people stick around longer, engagement increases.
Humans are curious.
If you’re an author, people want to know who you are. What you look like. What you sound like. What makes you tick. What ideas excite you. What direction you’re headed with your writing.
Video Platform Building in Action
Recently, one of the members of our monthly membership called “Roadtrippers,” shared that as she completes the revisions to her book manuscript she is also concentrating on building her platform.
For her that means sending out a weekly newsletter.
One component is a link to a YouTube video, where she shares a bit about life.
Sometimes it’s related to her book idea.
Sometimes it’s about something personal.
Sometimes it’s a funny story.
It’s always her in front of the camera—connecting with her followers.
Does she enjoy it? Not really. She says she feels...
I feel sleazy admitting it, but the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard defamation trial has been on in the background at our house for the past few weeks.
I’ll blame it on my husband. He sets up his remote-work station at the dining table.
When I slide out of my office into my husband’s space, I get to dip into the trial.
Yesterday, Heard’s attorney asked Johnny about questionable behavior towards his then-wife Amber.
He responded with something like this, “In situations like that, people tend to get really, really, really, really irate.”
He used “really” four times. And I’m really not kidding.
I realize speaking is not writing, but I immediately said to my husband, “If you’re irate, you are really angry. About as angry as you can get. You don’t need to modify ‘irate’ with ‘really’—certainly not four times!”
“Really” is like “very.”
It is one of those junk adverbs that indicates you haven’t found the strongest adjective.
In Johnny’s case, he found the strongest adjective. He used “irate.”
He didn’t need the “really” to begin with.
It’s Called a Thesaurus
In writing, though, a newbie might write, “She was really angry.”
“Really angry,” of course, could collapse into any number of adjectives.
Open a thesaurus:
“Outraged,” to name a few.
When you choose a stronger adjective, and collapse two words into one, you tighten your writing.
And you convey to your reader it’s not “spilled-milk” anger but “my best-friend-betrayed-me” anger.
If you want to push for a more literary approach, try a metaphor or simile: She was Vesuvius, her words spitting hot lava.
The metaphor helps the reader feel and understand the anger without saying, “She was really angry.”
Mark Twain Wisdom
Mark Twain famously wrote, “Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
It’s a quick editing technique to apply to your writing today.
Check for all instances of “very” and “really.” Then search for a stronger adjective.
Better yet, every time you’re tempted to use the words “very” or “really,” pause and search for a better word.
“She slowly walked” could be she “ambled” or she “strolled.”
“Her socks were really smelly” could be “Her socks reeked.”
Even better “Her socks...
Every spring my mom crosses her fingers and prays a thousand little prayers that the poppies will bloom at the base of the Organ Mountains, in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
It’s the desert.
Most years the soil cracks like concrete. Too much sun. Too little water.
An ironic setting for fragile blooms.
But if there’s enough water throughout the winter and early spring, my mom gets to experience the miracle of the mid-March poppy bloom—a wild, flaming garden.
I’ve been thinking a lot about poppies this week.
Strange, because they aren’t even my favorite flower. I’ve never had luck growing them in my mostly too-shady Zone 5 garden.
But a lesson I was developing on diction brought me to “the poppy.”
What Are Your Lazy Words?
When we write, there are words that we love, and because we love them, we overuse them.
One word I frequently use is “whimsical”: playfully quaint or fanciful, especially in an appealing and amusing way.
I use it to describe just about anything.
A whimsical story. A whimsical object. A whimsical outfit. A whimsical flower (that, of course, being the poppy!).
Describing the poppy “as a whimsical flower” isn’t a terrible writing effort.
You get the sense that the flower is more playful than a Hosta.
But it isn’t the best description, either. As a reader, you don’t know what in particular I think makes it whimsical.
As an exercise, I pushed myself to describe the poppy in a variety of ways:
The petals were the color of overripe cantaloupe.
The stem was both stringy and prickly, bendy but at attention to the sun.
Its petals were crinkly like grandma’s hand.
Caged by boxwoods, the flower resisted being tamed. It rioted. It danced, bending and swaying.
Not great. But better.
Poetry Is a Gift
While doing this exercise, I Googled “poppies.”
A poem by English poet Ted Hughes, “Big Poppy,” caught my attention.
He describes the poppy as having a “flame fringe,” as a “drunken, fractured goblet” and even as having an “athletic leg, hairy.”
Hughes personifies the poppy as a female who at the end of summer will “fling off her skirt.”
Hughes’ choice of words, or diction, helps us envision a poppy in a new way: sensual, strong, and verging on dangerous. Imagine if Ted Hughes simply wrote, "the poppy was sensual." That description is flat.
Word choice matters. A poppy can be whimsical.
A poppy can be sensual.
Or a poppy can bloom in unlikely places.
As you write, what words are you prone to overuse?
One exercise is to slow down and ask yourself, “What does this word really mean to me, and how can I use diction to convey what’s in my...
Flashbacks are essential in memoirs and fiction.
They are also indispensible in writing narrative nonfiction.
Here's a basic definition of a flashback:
"A flashback interrupts the chronological order of the main narrative to take a reader back in time to the past events in a character's life."
Here's my biggest struggle when using a flashback:
Nothing happens in my flashbacks.
The interruption in the narrative is, basically, a recollection of an event or experience.
It's a memory. So my description is mostly about my thinking.
No. No. No.
Writing a flashback as a general memory will put your reader to sleep.
A flashback needs the energy of movement. Something needs to happen in the flashback.
The Vivid Scene
For most you, this is not new.
Just a reminder.
Conceive of your flashbacks as a series of complete scenes with dialogue, setting, character development, and tension.
Don't just "recall something" - make it a vivid scene.
Flashbacks for Context
I'm currently reading a Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie, who won the Putlizer Prize for his book Peter the Great.
Catherine the Great is a 600 hundred page monstrosity of this impressive Russian leader.
Early in the book, after introducing the main character, Catherine the Great, as a child, he interrupts the narrative to give some context to the story.
That's a great use of the flashback - to give some historical context.
The book is a historical biography, after all.
He uses a flashback to explain how Peter the Great died at 52 and the bizzare set of succession circumstances (mostly untimely deaths) that led to his daughter Elizabeth finally initiating a coup against her sister and taking over the throne.
As a reader, I needed to know how Empress Elizabeth came to the Russian throne, if I am to understand the ascent of Catherine the Great, who rises to power later.
The flashback is essential to understanding the fuller story.
Create Movement in Your Flashback Scenes
The historical biographer Robert Massie doesn't just give general information (like my lame, third-rate approach to flashbacks), he creates a series of scenes.
The scenes have a setting rich in detail.
The scenes have colorful characters - and character development.
Most of all, the scenes have ACTION. And MOVEMENT.
For example ...
In one scene, in the dead of night, Elizabeth wakes up her sister (who is the Empress of Russia at the time) and takes over the throne with few hundred soldiers.
Now that's movement. The scene of how the coup happened moves the story along.
Now I can't put the book down!
Review all of the flashbacks in your writing project.
* Do your flashbacks move the story along? Is there action?
* Does something happen in your flashbacks other than just recollection and memory?
Now, buckle up and write.
And create flashbacks with action!
Word choice matters.
Mark Twain allegedly said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.
I often struggle to lay down a clear sentence.
So thinking about selecting the precise word that conveys exactly what I mean can feel onerous.
But the persistence is critical.
It's one way you establish your voice as a writer.
Your word choice is part of your writing voice.
1. Yes, it is a fight.
Writing well is always a grind.
The creative work is to say something in a fresh way. And in a precise way.
To write what you mean.
It's easy to default to clichés and common words.
2. I almost always never get the right word in the first draft.
Most of us know this, but just for the record:
Don't expend much energy "crafting your sentences" in the first draft.
That's too overwhelming.
Just get the first draft onto the screen or in your journal.
Just burp it out.
The first draft is just that: a first draft. One of many. Maybe one of a hundred drafts.
3. The right word may not simply be a synonym.
I look up synonyms online all the time.
I lay down my first draft. I see a word that needs improvement, and then I jump online for a synonym.
That's a good start.
But it may not be enough.
In his book, The Elements of Story, Francis Flaherty references Roget, the 19th Century British physician who published "Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases."
Roget said something to the effect that in reality, synonyms do not really exist because every word has a unique meaning.
My point is simply to say: Start with a synonym.
You may find the perfect word. You may not.
Be persistent if you don't feel satisfied.
4. Fight for the right word up until the bloody end.
I make changes to words up until the moment I push "publish" on a blog. (And sometimes after I publish the blog, I make even more!)
I've even made word changes on the final proofs before my books were published.
That's the last seconds of the last minute.
This is normal.
5. Don't make your search for the perfect word an excuse not to publish.
Yes, stay in the fight to write fresh words using vivid and precise language.
But you still need to ship your work.
Go ahead and publish that blog.
But don't delay sending your article to the magazine for publishing.
And certainly don't postpone sending off that book manuscript.
Now, buckle up and write. And then ship.
Have you ever read a story in which the writer slows you down with two many details?
This is easy to do when we write stories.
One of the most elemental pieces of writing advice is this: Be specific.
This is one of the first and early lessons that we learn when we begin to write.
The problem, however, is when we think that "being specific" means adding in lots of detail.
In his book "The Elements of Story," Francis Flaherty writes:
"A writer must be a sensitive gatekeeper, for every tidbit that she puts into the story is a burden on the reader."
Details can be a burden to the reader?
I thought I was supposed to be more specific in my writing!
Instead of "red pick up truck," I thought I should write, "It was a cherry red four-door 2017 Ford F150 with oversized black walled tires and tinted windows."
"Red pick up truck" might be sufficient. It just depends on what the reader needs to know.
Skinny Librarians and Oversized Books
Flaherty gives us a fresh analogy when making his point about too many details.
He says that "every name, fact, detail, title, date, and source" that you insert into your story is "another item plopped into the reader's arms."
And this is the great line:
"And if there are too many, the reader will be staggering about, like a skinny librarian with a stack of oversized books."
Bury Your Sources or at Least Trim Them
One "too many details" mistake is to put all your research sources on the surface of your writing.
Flaherty uses this example: "the Tuscaloosa office of the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel" gives too many details.
You could write it as "Alabama tourism officials."
Three words vs. eleven words.
Three words is better.
Or you could use a footnote or end note, if you are writing a book chapter.
Simply bury the details altogether.
In short, omit needless details whenever you can.
Two Ways to Shorten
Flaherty also says that there are two ways to shorten your sentences. And thus free your reader from the burden of too many details:
1. Leave stuff out; and
2. Leave something in, but in a simplified, reduced form.
Here are two final questions:
* What does your reader really need to know?
* How can you paint a vivid scene without slowing down your reader?
“Do I need a platform to publish?”
That question is vague enough to be answered in two ways.
To make your writing public (our definition of publishing), you need some sort of platform.
It can be one you own (like a blog or a social media platform). Or one to which you contribute, like an industry digital publication or newsletter.
But when most people ask this question, what they’re really asking is, “If I want a publisher to publish my book, do they care if I have a platform?”
And the answer is yes.
5 Star Following, So-So Writing
Your platform accounts for at least 33% of your book pitch.
In fact, publishers care about your platform as much as your idea and your ability to write.
Some publishers will sign on a so-so writer with a 5-star following.
Dave and I have said it before: publishers are bankers.
They want a return on their investment.
The “return” always has to do with how little they have to invest, and how much the writer can do for them to sell books.
They’re banking on your influence.
In fact, we’ve worked with multiple authors recently who have proven that publishers’ efforts to market and sell books are declining.
So, yes, you need a platform, a place where your ideal readers can discover your writing.
Real Writing vs Slimy Writing
Building a platform isn’t always fun. It can take gobs of time.
And, honestly, it’s difficult to not view it as a slimy substitute for “real” writing.
Social media click bait can feel like a prom queen who gets all the attention but lacks real beauty.
But maybe you should reframe the work of building your writing platform?
I like to think of social media (or blogs, or podcasts, or newsletters) as a gym for your ideas.
It’s where you work them out, stretch them, see if they have legs for the long run.
You can test your more provocative ideas.
Provocative ideas provoke responses.
The responses or comments by your ideal readers may even revector your thinking.
Other responses will renew your energy for your writing project and confirm the direction you are already headed with your ideas.
Sometimes someone will share a story that will help you articulate an idea you couldn’t quite shape with words.
That’s golden for idea development.
Sharing regularly on a platform is also a way to find your tribe: the people who need your words.
Ultimately, the people who will buy your book.
No matter the mode—blogging, social media posting, podcasting—great ideas move people.
Moved people share great ideas.
Commit to regularity. Commit to quality. And your platform will grow.
No. You don't.
Many discussions regarding productive writing center around carving out large blocks of time:
* 90-minute blocks (I've espoused this!);
* Half-day writing chunks;
* Writing days; and
* Writing weekends/retreats.
However, most of us have day jobs. We're not Ernest Hemingway, who could drink all day and then write when he awoke.
We have kids underfoot. We have yards to mow. And dogs to walk.
Blocks of time are a nicety, but you can make progress without them.
By now, you know that there is no secret to making progress in your writing.
It's not one thing.
It's a lot of small things. Yes, you need the occasional block of time.
But impulsive moments of writing can be just as productive.
Impulsive means, "I have 15 minutes before I have to leave to pick up the kids."
Or, "I've got a 20 minute train ride home."
One Large Can of Foster's Lager
I run a small strategic marketing consultancy, and I often (pre-Covid) would ride the Metra (commuter train) into the city of Chicago for client meetings.
I live in the western 'burbs, and I enjoy not having to fight traffic on the Eisenhower, especially on a Friday afternoon. Train time is time to go brain dead.
Several times on the commute home, I saw the same guy open his blue backpack. And pull out a 24 oz can of Foster's Lager, the Australian beer (which is made in Britain).
He boarded the train. Opened his backpack. And drank his way back to the 'burbs.
I could see the deep lines in his face relax after the first sip. He must have been a trader on the Chicago Board of Trade.
I imagine his train commute was around 35 minutes.
By the time he stepped off the train platform, he had made significant progress on that Foster's.
Progress in a Few Minutes
I'm not judging the man. Nor am I advocating for a Foster's Lager commute.
My point is: you can make progress with small impulsive writing chunks.
On my train commute home, I occasionally (not always) pulled out my laptop, exhausted as I was, and wrote a couple paragraphs.
It didn't feel like much.
I was always surprised, though, how often a short writing stint helped me break through a mental block or triggered a new story.
In one of our podcasts, we interviewed a writer who recalled sitting on the toilet, laptop on her knees, monitoring her four-year-old in the bathtub.
My guess is that she had less than thirty, very chaotic minutes to write.
It wasn't her only writing discipline, of course, but she found a way to write in the crevices of her life.
That's how most of us will complete our writing projects.