About a year ago I bought a book called Critical Choices that Change Lives: How Heroes Turn Tragedy into Triumph. The author, Daniel R. Castro, is a motivational speaker, and a very good one. He’s got dozens—maybe even hundreds—of stories about people who did amazing things. The front cover of Critical Choices has 30 or 40 names of people whose stories made it into the book: Lance Armstrong, Beethoven, Einstein, Edison, Walt Disney, Jerry Seinfeld, and the list goes on. It’s got an amazing tale of a woman in San Antonio who, desperate for money, offered to take her neighbor’s trash to the dump; and when that neighbor told his friends, within a few months she had to buy a truck to start hauling all the trash; and then a few years after that, her bid won the city’s new waste management contract.
The stories are incredibly inspirational. And they’re organized around principles for success: “It’s How You See, not What You See” and “Heroes Do More than Just Face their Fears.” These principles are very perceptive, and the anecdotes that illustrate them are marvelous.
Why, then, is my bookmark still stuck, a year after I bought the book, on page 61 (of 205)?
Because for all the things the book has going for it, what it doesn’t have is any practical value whatsoever.
The critical flaw of Critical Choices that Change Lives is the fact that it doesn’t tell you how to do anything. Okay, great, heroes can see the right path. So what? How do I see the right path? How do I face my fears? What are some things I can actually do to impact my life for the better.
The great nonfiction classics, for the most part, are chock full of doings. Swim with the Sharks Without Getting Eaten Alive by Harvey Mackay is a great example. One of the best books ever written on business growth and success, every single one of the hundred or so chapters describes a specific action the reader can take in order to improve their sales or management skills. You could spend years implementing everything he discusses in that book, and then your entire lifetime mastering it.
In Kick-Starting Your Nonfiction Book, we call this “How to Do Something.” And in business books, it’s generally pretty well understood that this is an important component. The thing is, this is also one of the best things a memoir author can do for his book: create a way for readers to learn from the author’s mistakes. After all, a good story is just a good story, but if you learn something for yourself, it becomes that much more valuable.
How to Build a How-To
- Know What You Want People to Get from Reading Your Book, and then Ask Yourself if the Reader Is Getting it. If you don’t know what you want people to come away with, you’ve shot yourself in the foot before you’ve even come out of the gate. If you do know, ask yourself constantly if you’re producing that result. If you’re not producing that result, why not? What’s missing, that if there, would make a differencee?
- Check for Ws, Hs, and the Being/Doing/Having. Most memoir writers want their life experiences to inform other people. They want people to know how to get through this circumstance that they, themselves, had to deal with. Sometimes, just knowing there’s someone else out there who’s been through the same thing is enough, but as the author you can always do more to help them along. The trick here is to include every piece of the puzzle – the who, what, when, where, why, and how, making sure you also include how you were being (before, during and after), what you did, and the result it produced. Then people can follow your lead and reasonably expect similar results.
- Look at as Many Examples As Possible. Good to Great by Jim Collins is successful because of the level of research Collins and his fellow researchers did. They picked the people they would interview, and they asked the same questions of all of them. If you look at 10 people who, for example, had an idea hit them seemingly out of nowhere, ask them what they were doing right before the idea hit them. Ask them what they did immediately after. Do ideas often hit them? What do they usually do? If you ask these same questions of enough people, sooner or later you’ll start to see the same things showing up, and “implementation techniques” will start coming to you.
- Keep Asking “How Did/Do You Do This?” What Dan Castro might have done is include fewer stories and instead just look deeper into each one. The person who looked out her window and saw the person’s trash—how do we turn that into a “doing” that can help other people? Maybe you should get in the practice of asking yourself 5 times a day what opportunities you see in front of you; maybe when you notice you just had an idea, write it down. But for each example of success, look deeper into the source of that person’s success and ask “How” that person got there, and it’ll jog ideas.
- Start A List. When I started this list, I had one item to put on it. But the act of creating the list gave me more ideas for things to put on it.
These are just a few ideas to get you going. What’s important is that you include some kind of action for people to take to produce the result you’re looking for.
This and other strategies for nonfiction book writing success in Kick-Starting Your Nonfiction Book on Tuesday, October 26th from 1:00-5:00 PM. Register today for $20 off (use coupon code “special” at checkout).