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).

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