One of the reasons I love to read, and widely, is because you never know where your next good idea will come from.
In the past I’ve taken clients through a number of different exercises to help them complete the following sentence (essential to any aspiring non-fiction author, wouldn’t you agree?): “The question that lies at the heart of this book is…..*
(* taken from agent Susan Rabiner’s wonderful book, Thinking Like Your Editor.)
Here’s a new idea I’m employing myself and highly recommend if you’re having trouble either discovering the nonfiction book idea you’re going to feel motivated about to write for months, even years. Or you want to avoid having your business book—especially if self-published—lying unsold and unread, because its neither interesting nor relevant.
Hopefully, you’ll want to address both of these issues before you begin.
This is an idea developed by one of my favorite thriller writers, David Morrell, the author of 30 novels and the man who first introduced the world to Rambo in his debut work First Blood. As Morrell explains in the chapter entitled ‘Getting Focused’ in his book The Successful Novelist (which I discovered after reading David’s fabulous novels Murder as a Fine Art and his latest, Inspector of the Dead), he’d heard Harold Robbins (The Carpetbaggers; The Adventurers) talk about the ritual he used before starting to write a book. As I’m writing my first novel, I thought there might be valuable insights I could draw from.
Little did I know that I’d have something fresh to share with you!
The “How To…”
I’ve taken the liberty of tweaking David’s exercise to better fit the needs of nonfiction writers.
You can either write everything by hand (which I prefer), on a computer, or (for those who still use them) a typewriter. The exercise takes the form of a conversation between you (the author) and your target audience. If there’s one thing I must emphasize before you start—that’s different for nonfiction writers than for novelists—you REALLY NEED TO KNOW WHO YOU ARE WRITING FOR, before you begin. Think of an existing client or conjure up a composite persona, based on what you already know about your target market. Er–you do know enough about them to have a clear picture of who they are and what they care about—what their business pain points are, don’t you?
There are three advantages to actually doing this exercise (as opposed to simply reading about it):
Advantage #1: Personal motivation – As Morrell points out in The Successful Novelist, if you find that over time, and because you’re so close to the material, you begin to lose enthusiasm for the project, all you need to do is re-read your document “and reacquaint yourself with the chain of thought that made you excited in the first place.”
Advantage #2: Relevance to the reader – By answering two simple questions posed hypothetically, you’ll avoid one of the biggest mistakes that the vast majority of content creators make, whether they’re writing books or articles or blog posts: Creating something that no one else cares about. (If you think everyone is dying to interact with content just because it’s “out there,” take a look at these findings by TrackMaven, and think again):Advantage #3: Book proposal document – By writing as you think, you’re not only uncovering insights that might otherwise not come to you, but you’ll produce a much deeper, richer explication of your book than is found in conventional outlines. If you’re looking to be mainstream published (as opposed to self-published) you’ll likely need to provide your publisher with a book proposal, including a clear overview of the who, why, what, when, where, and how of your topic. By the time you’ve finished this exercise, you’ll be most—if not all—of the way there. Bingo!
Here’s the exercise:
- Imagine you’re having a conversation with your prospective reader, who wants to know what question (of theirs) that you’ll be answering in your book. In order words, why should they bother reading it and what are they likely to gain? Write or type your response…just whatever comes to mind, even if you’re uncertain of the answer at this point.
- Once you’ve exhausted all you want to say, your imaginary reader then asks you: “So what?” Meaning, they want you to clarify how what you’ve just said impacts them. It’s time to offer your justification.
- Finished with that, you’re next asked: “Why is this of interest to me?” To which you respond: Because…..
- Keep asking and answering So What? and Why? over and over, without censoring yourself. Don’t worry if your ideas seem all over the place at this point. Think of it as the “all ideas are valuable” part of any creativity exercise. If you run out of answers simply ask yourself So What? or Why? and continue.
- When you feel distracted or uninspired, stop writing, go off and do something different. Come back to your document the next day (or sooner, if you have an “aha” moment). Re-read what you’ve written and pick up from there.
- Keep prompting yourself with the key questions that journalists ask: Who, What, When, Where and How, but most of all So What? and Why, why, why…. Remember, any time you answer “I don’t know,” you’ll need to either go away and find out….or imagine you do know and carry the conversation from there.
A brief example I’ve just made up:
- The question at the heart of my book is: Why ‘relevance’ is the most important (& frequently overlooked) word for successful businesses today.
Relevance? So what?
- Because if you’re not contributing something to the conversations that your clients and prospects are already having, on and offline, you’re going to be ignored.
- Think about it: every day on the Internet alone there’s enough information to fill 168 million DVDs. No one has the bandwidth these days to look at, let alone read, stuff that’s not directly impacting their ability to achieve whatever goals or desires they might have.
So what’s going to make what I do any different?
- Well, that’s where relevance comes in. You need to truly understand the pain points of your target audience and link that to whatever products or services you have to offer. But you must communicate with clients and prospects in a way that doesn’t involve pushing them to spend money with you.
- Because people are sick to death of having brands shoved down their throats. Did you know, for example, that in the last two years, while the output of branded content has increased by 78%, the level of engagement by consumers with that content has decreased by 60%. That’s according to TrackMaven’s report The Content Marketing Paradox: Is More Content Really Better?
- Really? As a start, let’s consider the argument for quality over quantity, just as one example…..
And so on and so forth….I hope that gives you a sense of what such an imaginary conversation might look like between you (your book idea) and the readers who hopefully will eagerly buy that book, read and review it, as well as apply its wisdom.
By working your way through a succession of answers and insights, and following them up with “So what?” and “Why?” you should eventually get to one of two places:
- Either you’ll realize you don’t have a book in you at all…maybe an article at best, but you’ve still got to figure out why anyone would bother reading it. Heck, that saves you a lot of time and trouble, right?
- You discover the “aha” angle that will ensure your book is unique and fresh and impactful, because this exercise has led you to think differently, taking those thoughts in a direction you would likely not have reached had you simply started writing about what you know.
Does that make sense?
I’d love to hear about your experience with this exercise. But, first, of course – you have to try it for yourself. Please contribute your comments and ideas below!