Posts Tagged ‘non fiction writing’

A while back I was playing “dueling authors” with a guy who claimed to have written 16 books (meaning he won the game!) and said he had two that he wanted to give me as gifts. Initially embarrassed that I couldn’t return the favor, I was stunned to receive a couple of – well, let’s be kind and call them “pamphlets.” This is the same term The New Republic used recently to describe the TED Book Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization, which at least has 77 pages. The ones I was given were closer to 30!

It’s hard to know what constitutes a “book” these days, given that folks like my friend believe anything over a couple of dozen pages fits the description. And I guess it’s wise not to be too snobbish about this issue, since many famous works of fiction have been short and sweet, such as Samuel Johnson’s Rasselus, Prince of Abyssinia (97 pages) or Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (96 pages). In the realm of nonfiction, Deepak Chopra captured The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success in a mere 117 pages. And one of my favorite nonfiction books, Patricia Ryan Madson’s Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up, runs to just 159.

I had cause to think about quantity, not just quality, after completing my latest book #THOUGHT LEADERSHIP tweet: 140 Prompts For Designing and Executing an Effective Thought Leadership Campaign with co-author Craig Badings. We ended up with the same page count at Madson’s book (159 pages) for a word count of approximately 7,500 words. Which would take the average person, what – less than an hour to read?

Except that this isn’t a book that’s meant to be read cover to cover in a single sitting. And here’s where the issue of how long a book needs to be needs to take into account how the book is to be used, as well as what content it contains.

What we did with this book was to compile all the questions that aspiring thought leaders should ask themselves before embarking on a thought leadership campaign. Within the seven sections (each containing a short introduction followed by a series of relevant tweet-sized prompts then a couple of pages of examples under the heading ‘Putting Into Practice’), we provoke readers to consider: What it means to be a “thought leader”; What impact they want their campaign to achieve; How to measure its effectiveness; How best to discover their thought leadership point of view…and much more. We then close the book with a short Blueprint to guide readers’ actions and provide additional case studies and examples.

Would this have been a better book if we’d rambled on for page after page giving extensive details about each of these issues? We didn’t think so. In fact, to come up with the right questions to ask in 140 characters or less takes a lot of thought and relentless editing. In this case, less is definitely more – but it’s not necessarily easier!

As former President Woodrow Wilson is reputed to have told a cabinet member who asked him how long he took to prepare a speech: “It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

When new writers ask me how long their books should be, my answer is always: As long as it needs to be and no more, which I accept isn’t all that helpful until you actually knuckle down and start to write. (Yet it’s amazing to me how many aspiring authors want to know exactly how many words they’ve got to write, as if this were the sole measure of a good book.)

Having experienced writing #THOUGHT LEADERSHIP tweet, I would add a further caveat: Think about how you want the reader to use your book. Is it to be read by a single individual, cover to cover? Will it be of most value if they dip in and out as the need requires? Or, as in the case of our book, is it meant to provoke conversations among a team of people tasked with implementing a specific initiative? In our case, Craig and I considered the comprehensive yet concise nature of our material – not least the highly focused questions – to be what offers the greatest value for readers, not all the fluff we could have wrapped around them.

What are your thoughts about shorter books? Do you think books are often longer than they need to be? To what extent might this be due to the pressure authors and publishers feel to create books that appear (at least in terms of the quantity of paper they use up) worth their cover price? Please contribute your comments below.

In the days before the Internet and photo-sharing sites like Flickr, Photobucket, and SlickPic, you could rarely escape the post-holiday season without someone inviting you to look at their vacation pictures. If you’re anything like me, I’d rather have root canal work than sit through another presentation documenting the minutiae of a friend’s or family’s fortnight in Venice, or wherever. Call me anti-social, but seeing endless pics of said vacationers with “that great couple we met up with from South Africa” would invariably leave me cold — and wondering why it is that human beings believe that others are as interested in their lives as they are.

That thought occurred to me as I read Gary Wimmer’s A Second in Eternity: The true story about a voyage beyond time and space and into the Infinite (The Lithomancy Institute, 2011), a book I would not normally review here but which highlights an issue of relevance to many aspiring authors – including those planning to write business books.

This memoir relates experiences the author had in 1977 that involved some profound psychic realizations. Not that I have an issue with that, given a spiritual encounter of my own (Sevenoaks, Kent, England; 1999; in the bath. Enough said!). But in reading Gary’s book I reflected back on what Trevor Blake  (whose memoir-type book I reviewed for Thought Readership #12) had written in Three Simple Steps (BenBella Books, 2012): that he had focused on the process, not the person. Hence that author used personal stories to provide a narrative framework for the “three simple steps” he has used to achieve monumental business success. In Gary Wimmer’s case the only take-away was a recounting of his spiritual experience, and I couldn’t help but think that you would have to know and like him to be that interested.

As a rule of thumb, when it comes to your book it’s always about the reader. For novelists the challenge is to “entertain me.” For non-fiction authors, it’s typically to “inform or enlighten me.” Which means that even if your book relies heavily on your life story to “show” rather than “tell,” the needs and interest of your desired reader must remain foremost in your mind.

Why do you think Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love was such a huge commercial success if not for the fact that zillions of women could relate to her relationship issues at the beginning of the book and desired, vicariously at least, to journey to contentment as she did? Similarly, people are more likely to read Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety if either they’ve experienced anxiety themselves or know someone they care about who does, and are looking to better understand and share insights about this condition.

Regardless of the genre or scope of your book, ask yourself why you are writing it, from the reader’s perspective not your own, and specifically what’s in it for them — before you begin.

It’s a fact — even in this so-called age of community, crowdsourcing and the like — that most people care less about you than they do about themselves. Which makes marketing and successfully selling copies of your memoir as a relatively unknown person a mighty challenge. And in Gary Wimmer’s case, writing a well-received spiritual memoir is, as this Daily Beast post points out, extra difficult.

I suggested to Gary that instead of simply writing a chronological account he might have highlighted the link between psychic abilities and mental illness so that readers who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as he had, might regard their situation differently. Or he could have illuminated us on the difference between these spiritual experiences and his former drug use, injecting plenty of humor into the telling.

Many people believe that there’s a book within each one of us. I don’t dispute that. What I do question, however, is whether there is a sizeable market for most of them. If you start out by thinking more deeply about whom you want to read your book and why they would do so, you’re part way to achieving the commercial success most of us are seeking when we write.

Otherwise your book is likely to be as welcome as forcing a complete stranger to review your holiday albums!

WIIFM: What’s in it for Me!

Avoiding The Teenager’s Folly

Back in the days when I was young and foolish I’d be arguing (as I frequently did) with my mother about some relationship or other. Mum was pretty open-minded, but it always seemed to me as if she didn’t really understand what I was going through.

I remember her looking at me on one occasion with an arched eyebrow and saying, “You know, Elizabeth, you’re not the only person in the world who has had this experience. We were all young once!”

I was reminded of that conversation as I read Phil Simon’s Kickstarter-funded book The Age of the Platform: How Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google Have Redefined Business. 

Simon’s thesis is this. We live in The Age of the Platform, a time requiring “a completely different mindset.” One in which companies “must not only exist but they must thrive in a state of constant motion.”

Okay – nothing new there. What else?

Well, Simon says, the “Gang of Four” (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google), “are following an entirely new blueprint and business model.” Basically, I gather, by fostering “symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationships with users, customers, partners, vendors, developers, and the community at large.”

But wasn’t that what chocolate manufacturer, Cadbury, did back in the 19th century? And the Ford Motor Company in the early part of the 20th century?

Cadbury founded a model village for its employees, so were both business and community oriented. Its collaborative efforts were particularly appreciated during both World Wars when the company not only paternalistically looked after the male employees who fought on the front during WWI but converted part of the Bourneville factory to produce parts for fighter planes during WWII.

And while Simon credits today’s supposed “Platform Age” with engendering a business and consumer focus, I couldn’t help remembering that Henry Ford paid his employees enough money so they could become consumers, not just producers of his motorcars.

In their day, the assembly line and mass production were groundbreaking technologies. Between 1911 and 1920 the number of cars coming out of the Ford plant increased 1,433 per cent. And the “ecosystem” that Simon attributes to today’s Platform Age was surely evident in one particular Ford innovation: establishing brand-loyal, franchised dealers!

As my mother used to point out, just because “oldies” have lost their edge, doesn’t mean that they weren’t like today’s “youngsters” once.

If the platform is indeed a new business model and not simply another empty buzzword, one could argue it was also around in the days of the Medicis — the 14th century banking dynasty.

Through a series of clever strategic activities, including marriages of convenience, the family significantly increased their social network in a way we now describe as “stickiness.” And innovation? The reason why Frans Johansson named his book on creative breakthroughs The Medici Effect was in honor of the way the family sponsored an ecosystem of scientists, philosophers, and artists, breaking down long-established barriers in order to herald one of the biggest explosions of innovation in history.

Did the Medicis, Cadbury, and Ford do extremely interesting and innovative things in their day, “especially with respect to emerging technologies?” Check!

Did they (once) adapt extremely well and quickly to change? Check!

Did they (once) routinely introduce compelling new offerings? Check!

Did they (once) work with partners in very exciting ways? Check!

Every era has its own form of what Simon calls a platform; this is not a new concept. Which begs the question: is the way that Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google do business so very different from yesteryear? Or are some so bedazzled by technology that it blinds them to historical truths?

This is where the “ecosystem” vital to crafting superior books comes in. The problem with self-published books like this one is that the author no longer has to go through the rigorous vetting process required by commercial publishers. One in which an acquisitions editor will query (and probably reject) spurious arguments and superficial thinking.

As an author, being provoked to think deeper and harder about your material either produces a superior product or reveals the unsettling fact that you don’t have much to say that’s new, so would be better off not publishing a book at all.

The best time to do this kind of thinking is early on in the project. Otherwise send your manuscript to honest, discerning readers (not your mother!) for their feedback before you go into print.

Here’s the issue with many of the books that are written in the space of a few months. If it’s that quick and easy, you’re not really thinking! Take a look at what Daniel Kahneman writes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow about the two kinds of thinking: System 1 is effortless, automatic, intuitive – and error-prone. It’s what most people do most of the time.

Which is why authors who wish to be taken seriously need to establish a habit of System 2 thinking, which is reasoned, slow, and takes so much more effort.

A clue to how to develop that can be found in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s wonderful book The Black Swan. In the Acknowledgments section he points out the value of finding detractors to your argument. “One learns most from people one disagrees with,” Taleb says.

An important piece of advice for any author not wanting to appear like a teenager who thinks they’ve discovered something new when they haven’t.