Inspiration & Memoirs: It’s More than Just a Good Story

October 10, 2010

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

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).

What’s the Big Idea? The Key to Originality

June 10, 2010

Your writing style can be brilliant; your structure superb; your arguments effective; and your stories emotional. But if your premise isn’t original, no one will care.

We’re always seeking that brilliant concept. We know that an original idea is the key to the kingdom.  But for many, finding that idea is a whole lot easier said than done.

There are actually a lot of ways to generate an original idea, but most of them are less techniques than they are tactics. But common to all of them are one of these two core strategies:


What’s the single most influential nonfiction book in history? Although there’s no correct answer for that, toward the top of the list would be The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. An original book? Certainly. It completely altered the course of mankind in countless ways. So how much research do you suppose went into it?

Well, Darwin joined the Beagle expedition in 1831 and returned to England in 1836. It was only at the end of that trip that he started considering the idea that “species might not be fixed” and that “one species does change into another.” In 1838, he put the idea away to work on other projects and started again in 1842, finishing by 1844 a rough draft of a 230-page “essay,” which he wanted to expand with further research. He continued reading and commenting on the subject, finishing his Beagle-related writing in 1854 and beginning to work full time on the theory of evolution. He started studying differentiations in breeds of domestic animals, experimented on plant reproduction, and then, finally, in 1856, decided it was time to actually finish and publish the book. From there it took another three years. In sum, Darwin studied this topic for a total 27 years, off and on, before this landmark work was finally published in 1859.

Here’s another one: Swim with the Sharks—usually considered to be one of the best books ever written on sales, negotiation, and management—was first published in 1988. Mackay, at the time, was 56 years old, drawing on his experience of building a business he purchased when he was 26. That’s 30 years he had been studying what it takes to be successful in business. His knowledge was so vast that he had 98 individual strategies for success, and no doubt one of the biggest reasons for the book’s success is that he put them all into 260 pages; dedicating less than 3 pages per idea. No fluff, no fat, just a book that’s jam-packed with information.

One last one: Good to Great, by Jim Collins. In 1996, the author received the criticism, “You know, Jim, we love Built to Last around here. . . . Unfortunately, it’s useless.” The reason the critic gave: the companies written about in Built to Last were always great. “But what about the vast majority of companies that wake up partway through life and realize that they’re good, but not great?” So Collins assembled a team of 21 researchers, who got together and examined what made a good-to-great company. They started by creating a detailed algorithm for determining what qualified as good-to-great, and after six months came away with a list of eleven companies they would study. The 21 researchers then spent the next four years interviewing the chief executives of these companies and discussed and argued what should make it into the book. After five years, they had the principles that made this classic.

It makes perfect sense: If you spend more time studying a subject than anyone else, eventually you’re going to notice some things other people miss. That’s just physics. And when you notice those things, you become the genius; credited for the huge insight that altered the way people think. In reality, you didn’t invent anything new, you just wrote down what other people we’re already doing. But that’s where the originality comes in: in being the first to say it.

Bucking the System

If lesson one is to noticing what other people are doing and then doing it, lesson two is noticing what other people are doing and then doing the opposite.

Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week, has made a living at this. He recognized that one of the standards of society is: The harder you work, the more money you make. Well, he didn’t want to work hard, so he figured out how to stop working, get paid, and spend his entire life on vacation. He stopped working for his own company, and profits went up 40%. He won a gold medal in the Chinese National Kickboxing Championships by exploiting loopholes in the rules. He’s a bit of a hustler and a con man, and he’s pissed a lot of people off, but he’s darn original and his book is a #1 bestseller as a result.

Robert T. Kiyosaki, of Rich Dad, Poor Dad fame, has operated not too differently. His father worked hard, studied, got a Ph.D., and saved, but was never able to gather any wealth. Kiyosaki, by contrast, almost didn’t go to college because he wasn’t sure it would be worth the time or the money; many of the wealthiest people in the world dropped out or didn’t go at all, and his first book was called If You Want to Be Rich & Happy Don’t Go to School?. Kiyosaki has argued that a house is not necessarily an asset; that 401Ks and mutual funds are the worst places you can put your money; and that you should invest before you pay your bills, not after. In short, he does the opposite of what most say to do, and that’s what’s made him famous.

Of course, these folks also did their research. And I don’t think either of them started with the idea of writing a book, or with the idea of breaking the rules; they just knew what they wanted, figured out what it would take to get it, and broke the rules along the way because that’s what was necessary. They happened to have personalities and/or mentors that were conducive to that method of attack, and that was a key factor in their success.

Consider the countless people who have become famous by swimming against the current: Howard Stern, Orson Welles, Samuel Beckett, Socrates, Jesus, Christopher Columbus, Benjamin Franklin, Ron Paul, Mahatma Gandhi, . . . these people, in their own ways, have done the opposite of what society has told them to do, and in the process altered the world.

What Does This Mean for You?

The list of models I’ve used may be a bit intimidating. I used these because they make good examples. Although I do believe that the more research you conduct, and the more you’re willing to swing out, the more likely your success, I don’t know that it’s absolutely necessary to spend decades studying a topic or risking life and limb before you write your nonfiction book. After all, Darwin, Collins, and Kiyosaki had all published other books before the ones that made them famous.

But these principles can provide a foundation from which to start: study your topic, and go deeper than others have, and you’ll find some gold among the muck. Play the “what if” game with your area of expertise, and see if you can find evidence to support a hypothesis that’s diametrically opposed to most. In taking these actions, you’re sure to find new sources of ideas, and generate the original premise you’re looking for.


This and other strategies for success in Kick-Starting Your Nonfiction Book on Monday, June 14th from 1:00-5:00 PM. Register today for $10 off (use coupon code June10 at checkout).

4 Essential Components of a Nonfiction Masterpiece

May 11, 2010

I was a couple years out of college when I first read The Tipping Point. I was working as a “Research Specialist” (read: Administrative Assistant) at a healthcare consulting company, and we had a library of business books that the owner referred to on a regular basis. Among them was Gladwell’s classic about the little things that make a big difference, and as someone who was struggling with my own inner demons, trying to tackle leadership, popularity, and how to change the world, it altered my life.

Over the years, a handful of works have had similar impact on me. Most of them you’ve heard of, but all of them spoke to concerns I was dealing with at the time. And most importantly, they each had the four essential components of a nonfiction masterpiece:

A Desperate Topic

Give Me Desperate Buyers Only (DBO), an (expensive) e-book by Alexis Dawes, contains a detailed explanation of the “desperate topic” criteria. Basically, a topic is desperate if it solves the problem stated by: “I want (more) x,” with x being one of three things: money (often in the form of sales, productivity, etc.), happiness (time, satisfaction, relationship, etc.), and changing the world. The specifics will vary tremendously, and that’s why there are a thousand books on how to succeed, make money, lose weight, get a job, have sex, raise your kids, fix your marriage . . . and the list goes on.

The bottom line: You have to address a concern that people care about.

It should be noted that this comes naturally for most nonfiction authors (excluding memoir, which is a different beast altogether). There are ways to increase marketability by honing in on a more desperate topic (this is what DBO goes into detail about), but if you’re interested in writing a nonfiction book, you’ve probably already got this handled on some level.

An Original Premise

This is much harder than it sounds, but ultimately it’s what makes the difference between Built to Last and Built to Be Mediocre. Most people think they’ve got an original premise, but really what they’ve got is an original way of looking at the same premise. While you can certainly make money selling sausage on a stick, at the end of the day it’s just a sausage, and it’s not going to change the world.

What sets the books like The Tipping Point or Good to Great or Caro’s Book of Poker Tells apart from the sausages-on-sticks of the literary world is that the ideas came seemingly out of left field. It was like saying the earth goes around the sun – for most of human history the idea never even occurred to anyone, and then once it did, people’s view of life altered.

The good news is you don’t have to be Copernicus in order to come up with an original premise. The bad news is it will probably take a lot of work. The reason Good to Great is such a monumentally important work is the amount of research Jim Collins and his team put into developing it. They created a detailed methodology (not original in itself) for identifying the companies they’d interview, and then spent thousands of man-hours conducting those interviews and then arguing with each other over the principles to include in the book. Had they not conducted all that research, they never would have discovered the “Level 5 Leader,” or the “Hedgehog Concept” or any of the other principles of the Good to Great company.

How to Do Something

If you’ve ever read a book that spews a bunch of stuff at you without telling you how to do something, you know how unsatisfying it is. It’s like eating an ice cream cone without the solid chunk of chocolate at the bottom. It just isn’t the same.

Good to Great might have ended up as only a very good book, instead of a classic, if not for one critical choice Collins made in writing it: he doesn’t stop at describing the Level 5 Leader, he addresses the immortal concern: “How do I become one?” This is especially critical because the qualities of a Level 5 Leader are mostly inherent; by the time a 30-year-old reads this book, it’s too late to become the quiet, unassuming person characterized by Level 5 Leadership. However, Collins knew that in reading Good to Great, people would be driven to alter their leadership style, so he described not just the what, but the how, as he’d been doing in a much more subtle way through the rest of the book.

Part of why The Tipping Point is so much more revered than Gladwell’s follow-up books is not that the premise is any more original, but that there’s an inherent “how to” built into the pages. You want to alter the world? Here’s how to do it. Find these kinds of people.

Great Stories

The person-to-person connection is fundamental, and a book that has only facts and no human element is one that lacks a soul. In all the books I’ve talked about, the stories actually comprise maybe half the text. This is no accident. I challenge you to find a revered nonfiction book that doesn’t include stories that speak to you emotionally.

Even for more technical “how-to” books, the best ones are the ones that offer the best examples. I’ve got dozens of writing books, but my favorite by far is Robert McKee’s Story, and it’s because of two examples he uses to illustrate the principle of the “gap.” I’ll cite one of them:

As Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker fight to the death with light sabers, Vader steps back and says: ‘You can’t kill me, Luke, I’m your father.’ The word ‘father’ explodes one of the most famous gaps in film history and hurls the audience back through two whole films separated by three years. . . . Two films that made perfect sense to this moment now have a new, deeper layer of meaning. . . .

George Lucas could have exposed Luke’s paternity by having C3PO warn R2D2, ‘Don’t tell Luke, he’d really be upset to hear this, but Darth’s his dad.’ Rather they used Backstory exposition to create explosive Turning Points that open the gap between expectation and result, and deliver a rush of insight.

That second paragraph completely altered how I view exposition, back story, and act structure. I’m in the middle of On Writing by Stephen King, with similar experiences, even as he identifies principles I already know – like cutting out adverbs – in a whole new way.

When you start to pay attention, you’ll notice that these same rules show up everywhere. This article, for example, was not written in a vacuum devoid of the four points above. Neither were the world’s most memorable speeches. (Look closely at the Gettysburg Address or the “I Have a Dream” speech and you’ll see all four elements.)

So . . . Take a look at your book. Does it have the essential elements of a nonfiction masterpiece?


David Kassin Fried is a professional ghost writer and book editor specializing in nonfiction. His business, DKF Writing Services, has been providing freelance writing, editing, and proofreading services since 2006.

Writing the Hedgehog and Riding the Accelerator

July 29, 2009

Why the hell are we listening to famous screenwriters when they tell us how to break into screenwriting?

Lemme ‘splain my complaint:

During my long hiatus from social media (isn’t it funny how three months is a long time in this world …), one thing I did manage to accomplish was reading Good to Great by Jim Collins.

For those of you not familiar with the author or the book, Jim Collins looks at Fortune 500 companies that were poor or average performers for 15 years, who then turned themselves around to be extraordinary, by having 15 years of significantly-above-market performance.

Naturally, as one reads a book like this, one thinks of himself and how this will impact his life and his career and his business.

The Hedgehog Concept

The Hedgehog Concept is one of the main principles of the book.  Though the analogy is kind of dumb, the concept is simple and important:

  1. What are you deeply passionate about?
  2. What can you be the best in the world at?
  3. What drives your economic engine?

These three things comprise your company’s Hedgehog Concept, the idea being that everything you do should fit into this concept.

Phillip Morris is a great example.   Tobacco companies are not highly regarded in this country, so they’ve had a lot to deal with, and yet, they’ve managed to outperform the general stock market in spades.  The reason:

  1. The people who work for the company are deeply passionate about the product – cigarettes.
  2. That’s where they started, that’s where they made their money, and that’s what they could be best in the world at.
  3. Even through all of the “progress” that’s been made against tobacco, when Phillip Morris looked to diversify as a defensive measure, instead of just taking on any and every random opportunity that came their way, they defined their niche very clearly: “sinful” products like beer and junk food.  Because that’s what fit into their economic engine.

Writing the Hedgehog Concept

So now here I am, a lowly self-employed contract freelance writer.  Certainly, it’s what I’m passionate about, it’s what drives my economic engine, and it’s something that I could, at least theoretically, be the best in the world at.

The Technology Accelerator

Here’s where it gets interesting.  Later in the book, Collins talks about technology as an accelerator rather than a business model in and of itself.  During the Internet bubble, any company with “dot-com” in the name was instantly worth millions of dollars, even if they didn’t actually sell anything or have any plan for making money.  Those same companies disappeared the second that bubble burst, whereas the companies that used technology as an accelerator and applied it to their hedgehog concept endured.  The prime example here was Walgreens, which, for example, started filling prescriptions online, thereby advancing their already-well-defined hedgehog concept of hyper-convenient drug stores.

Riding the Accelerator

So now here I am, a lowly self-employed contract freelance writer.  Trying to figure out how the hell to use technology to accelerate my hedgehog concept when, quite frankly, I haven’t yet mastered some of the other practices (e.g., culture of discipline) required to make my hedgehog stand up, so to speak.

And yet, as I was reading the book, it became painfully clear to me.

Every industry is full of dinosaurs that fight the wave of change that is inevitable with the growth of new technology.  The entertainment industry is no exception.  Whether it was “talking pictures,” VCRs, TiVo, or the Internet, at each step there was a new opportunity for growth as distribution mechanisms became more cost-effective and widespread.  And yet at each step the networks and the studios have fought it like crazy, for the sole reason that they can’t imagine changing their business model to include these new technologies. (And these are the people we’re trusting with developing our creative content?)  The classic example was the Betamax case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court to determine whether VCRs, which allowed for recording of copyrighted material, should be outlawed.  The Supreme Court ruled for the defendants, and boy are the plaintiffs glad they lost – since video purchases and rentals quickly became a key component of their business model and they made more money than they ever had before.

With the rapid growth of technology, it’s becoming more and more obvious that another sea change is under way, and the current model for film/video content release will not remain the same for much longer.

In the last year we’ve seen an explosion in certain experiential technologies for movie blockbusters.  Whether it’s The Dark Knight on IMAX or Up! in 3D or Harry Potter with vibrating seats, people are willing to pay $13-$20 for an experience they can’t get at home.

However, I get the sense that people are losing interest in paying $10 apiece to go see a romantic comedy, when they can wait 3 months and watch it on DVD for a buck.  And although I have no evidence to support it, I suspect that people are starting to lose interest in paying $50/month for cable, when most of the shows they want are available 12-16 hours later on Hulu or on the station’s individual website.  Shows like Homestar Runner are offering you all their programming completely free of charge, and then make millions off merchandising revenues.

Add to this Moore’s Law, which says that data storage capacities double every 18 months, it’s only a matter of time before we could fit every movie and TV show ever made into a box that sits under our televisions or next to our computers.  What then?  How will we get our content?  Will television, complete with reruns and commercials still exist?

I don’t know.  John August freaked out about this back in January, and received 65 comments in response, and you can read the conclusion to this heated debate here. But this all brings me back to the complaint I started with: Why the hell are we listening to famous screenwriters when they tell us how to break into screenwriting?

For example: I’ve heard at least a hundred times that if you want to work in the film industry, you have to move to L.A., at least for some period of time.  And I’m finding that statement harder and harder to believe.  The world is so much smaller a place than it was even last year, before the Twitter explosion, and that was long after Diablo Cody won her Oscar from Minneapolis.

Technology is changing the world so completely, if we start to apply it to our hedgehog concept, I think we have to learn to take with a grain of salt everything we’re told by an earlier generation of artists, who were dealing with a completely different world than we are now.

That’s not to say that they’re wrong, mind you, or that we should all start writing webisodes instead of screenplays.  Remember, Phillip Morris still sells cigarettes (albeit under a new name, Altria) and Walgreens still has brick and mortar drug stores.  But I think we have an extra opportunity to exploit the things we’re passionate about, before blindly jumping into a game for which the rules have definitely changed.

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