A book-writing tip from Clippy

Well, it’s not really from Clippy, the hated Microsoft “helper” that came with Office and was finally buried in 2007. Clippy is mentioned in this fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal by Stanford professor Clifford Nass:

[W3 illo]Alex Nabaum


When BMW introduced one of the most sophisticated navigation and telematics systems into its 5 Series car in Germany a decade ago, it represented the pinnacle of German engineering excellence, with great advances in accuracy and functionality. Yet BMW was forced to recall the product—because the system had a female voice. The service desk had received numerous calls from agitated German men who had the same basic complaint. They couldn’t trust a woman to give them directions. More

Go ahead, read the article. Then come back here.

What speaks to me in this piece is the significance of rapport, and the ease with which it can be created and broken–even with semi-animate objects. It makes me think: What about my book is generating rapport with my reader? What’s breaking rapport?

I’m using “rapport” in the sense that it is used in NLP–neurolingistic programming. Here’s one definition:

Rapport is the quality of harmony, recognition and mutual acceptance that exists between people when they are at ease with one another and where communication is occurring easily.

Why use this?

In general, we gravitate towards people that we consider similar to us, because people like people who are like themselves – like likes like. In rapport the common ground or similarities are emphasised and the differences are minimised.

Rapport is an essential basis for successful communication – if there is no rapport there is no (real) communication!

I’ve not seen writing teachers address rapport categorically. Maybe it’s time we do. What do you think?

If this is what happens to your brain when you think about a book, get a coach


Big writing using GPS logger

This is not my message, although I found a lot to love about Ayn Rand. It’s the message of Nick Newcomen, who believes we’d all be better off if we adopted Rand’s philosophy. (Read about how he did this here.)

I was trying out Google Reader’s new “Play” facility, which seems to pick a bunch of random stuff that may be of interest to you–and I have no idea by what criteria–and show it to you in a really friendly interface that lets you “star” things you like to look at later, or put a smiley face on some things to share with friends. This page showed up.

It made me think of the phrase, “writ large,” which, according to idioms.thefreedictionary.com, is slightly formal, and means “expressed in a bigger or more obvious way. She believed that cultures are just personalities writ largeThe genius of the story is that it’s about ordinary life writ large.

Mr. Newcomen went a long way, literally, to send this suggestion to the world. I’m not sure how much of an effect it’s having, but there are several aspects of it that should give other message-bearers, such as aspiring authors, something to think about:

  • The message is brief and unambiguous. It wouldn’t have worked as well for “Fyodor Dostoyevsky.”
  • It’s an unambiguous command; there is no mistaking its meaning.
  • It is dramatic, without damaging the environment.
  • Whatever you may think of Ayn Rand, there is no doubt that Mr. Newcomen is well-intentioned.

Now, Mr. Newcomen may make a few bucks if people buy Ayn Rand books through the links on the page. I hope he does. It will take lots of book sales at Amzon’s commission rates to cover the expenses of his trip. But it’s a safe bet that this was not planned as a commercial venture.

I am left impressed with the man’s earnestness, gentleness, and intelligence. If he also offered me a newsletter or other way to stay in touch with him, and sign up for it.

These are good outcomes to which a non-fiction book writer, wanting to promote her or his services, might aspire as well.

Are you clustering?

I keep coming back to the power of clustering in this blog because I keep meeting people who once learned how to cluster and then never used it.

Part of an H0 scale model railroad layout
Image via Wikipedia

Our Creator did not provide our brain with an index. As a result, we usually don’t know what we know on any particular topic. “Do you know anything about electric trains?” “No. Well, wait–I had a Lionel set when I was 10. It had three tracks. I remember seeing some other kinds in my neighborhood hobby store–I think they were HO scale and NN scale. Oh, yeah, and…” 20 minutes later, you realize you do know something about electric trains. And given more time, you’d discover more.

Neuroscientists are making great strides in understanding how we remember stuff, but it is still mysterious in many ways. Without understanding how it all works, clustering gives us access to our knowledge so that we can make a list of what we know and don’t know about any topic.

This is useful at many phases of the book-writing process. You can cluster a title for your book; a subtitle; chapters; subchapters; and more. And before you talk to your book coach, you can cluster the topics you want to be sure to cover.

Cluster what to say in your presentation. What to tell people about on your web page. What you should pick up at the supermarket.

Clustering is a mining tool, to let you get at the riches you have stored in your mind. Gabriele Rico devotes an entire book to it:Writing the Natural Way. Highly recommended.

How do you cluster? Here’s a description from the blog of writer Dustin Wax.

Here’s the basic idea:
1.    Write a word in the middle of a sheet of paper.
2.    Circle it.
3.    Write down the first word or phrase that comes to mind and circle it.
4.    Draw a line connecting the second circle to the first.
5.    Repeat. As you write and circle new words and phrases, draw lines back to the last word, the central word, or other words that seem connected. Don’t worry about how they’re connected — the goal is to let your right-brain do its thing, which is to see patterns; later, the left-brain will take over and put the nature of those relationships into words.
6.    When you’ve filled the page, or just feel like you’ve done enough (a sign of what Rico calls a “felt-shift”), go back through what you’ve written down. Cross out words and phrases that seem irrelevant, and begin to impose some order by numbering individual bubbles or clusters. Here is where your right-brain is working in tandem with your left-brain, producing what is essentially an outline. At this point, you can either transfer your numbered clusters to a proper outline or simply begin writing in the order you’ve numbered the clusters.

Try it!


Not in the printing; in the writing.

Colorless writing is boring. In his blog, journalist (The Economist) and teacher Andreas Kluth writes:

Color has to be in support of something. And that something has to be an idea, a thought, a story. The mistake many writers make is to list details. Lists are boring; we use them to go shopping. Details are boring, unless they illuminate some meaning. It does not have to be epic. It can be quirky, amusing, moving, insightful, whatever. But there has to be a there there.

So the trick is to find substance, and then to take away details so that only a few splashes of light and color remain, which then filter out the entire sensual world around the reader and deliver him to that one place that you, the writer, have in mind for him. In terms of thought process, it may be the opposite of what my students were doing, and what I used to do.

I can find no better illustration than Rembrandt. You are drawn deep into this man. If I asked you, you would say that there is so much color in this painting, so much light. Only then would you notice that most of the canvas is dark, that very little of it is … in color. (Click here to see what he’s talking about.)

Thanks, Andreas. That works for non-fiction books, as well as for journalism. You want to take your reader on a journey, but it must be purposeful. I was once on a flight from the east coast to California, and the pilot took us down for a view of the Grand Canyon, because the day was beautiful. The view was fantastic, but I learned later that the pilot was severely reprimanded for departing from the flight plan. Several passengers, it seems, felt they had been taken for a ride they did not ask or pay for. Your readers deserve to get where you promised to take them, too.

Improv and book writing

Dalia’s daughter Tamar bought Dalia and me an introductory Improv class for our birthdays (10 days apart in June). We went a couple of nights ago. It was wonderful!

Improvisational theater, now known as “improv,” is a Zen-like practice of being in the moment and interacting with others in games. In our class, and in improv in general, there is a general atmosphere of positivity. A “safe place” is established by the teacher and the students, where no-one need fear criticism or ridicule, and the goal is to have fun.

Some simple rules make possible a wonderful and warm intimacy among strangers:

  • “Yes, and….” Whatever frame, story line, or assumption is put forth by the person from whom you “receive the action,” honor it. If she says, “And then a duck flew into the room,” and looks at you, you must accept the duck and move the action forward from there.
  • Make others look good. If another actor seems to have departed from the harmony of a scene, do your best to expand the situation so that the possibly awkward move somehow fits harmoniously.
  • Feel free to make mistakes, because none of us cares.

As I sit by my computer, working on my book, I am now benefiting from these rules. Whatever weird idea is presented to me by my muse, my research, or my editor, I explore it from a “yes, and…” point of view. Where might it lead? I can do this freely, with abandon, because right here and now, it’s ok to be wrong, it’s ok to step out of harmony.

And I am determined to make others look good. Whatever I’m writing about, whoever was involved, whatever strange things they may have done, I choose compassion as my guiding emotion when commenting on them and their actions.

All of this gives my writing an uplifting spirit, an exuberance it had been missing for a while.

Try it!

Learning about writing from matchbooks

I’m afraid of fiction writing. I’m afraid if I started, I would lose myself in it and forget to come out, forget to pay the bills. I’d just refine and refine and read more good writing and go back and write some more.

So I push it away. I stick to the purposeful prose of non-fiction, and teach others to do the same.

But still. I love the beauty of the writing craft, the endless possibilities. And while you are writing your book that tells your story, in a way premeditated to communicate your uniqueness to prospects and clients, you have the passion that can move, even dazzle–that can fuel a small fire in the reader, or even fireworks.

Go read about matchbook literature, and enjoy the stimulation.

Learning about writing from musicians

A friend sent me a video of an unusual performance of Pachelbel’s Canon in D, which you probably know and enjoy. It led me to think: How can I mirror this kind of innovation in my book writing? First watch the video; then we’ll talk.


OK, now that you’ve seen it, how does it speak to you? What can we model, as book writers, that can make our books more engaging? Comments are open.

Impressionism and the book writer

As the final installment in my birthday festivities, my wife took me to the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, in San Francisco, to see The Birth of Impressionism. The unusual number of well-known masterpieces by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pisarro, Cezanne, Gauguin, and others is here thanks to the Musee D’Orsay, their usual home, undergoing extensive remodeling.

Portrait of Claude Monet, 1875, Musée d'Orsay,...
Image via Wikipedia

I have a deep love of Impressionist art, dating to a Paris visit in the eighties. It was before the conversion of the old train station into the Musee D’Orsay, and the Impressionist art was cheek-by-jowl on the walls of the Jeu de Paume building in the Tuilleries garden. (Don’t all these place names make you want to go to Paris?)

I was wandering around, wondering what all the fuss was about. I had never looked closely at Impressionist art before; it just seemed messy and blotchy. Suddenly I came upon this painting of Monet by Renoir. Reading the sparse legend, I realized that these two friends were in their early thirties when this portrait was done.

I was in my late thirties at the time. Something struck me, and suddenly it was as if Monet was a real person. Everything in the painting became real to me. And I was moved to tears.

As I moved along to other paintings, the experience continued. All the Monets and Renoirs affected me this way; also Mary Cassat’s work. Sisley’s later paintings, and some of Pisarro’s, opened that channel of light to me, too.

And it never left me. Even a small, low-resolution reproduction of a Renoir or a Monet still evokes the feelings in me, as if I were looking into another world. The art changed me, and opened new worlds for me.

That is what I aspire to in my writing: To have an impact on my reader that transcends the moment.

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How to structure your book?

My book-writing process is the simplest one that I know of, and I’ve examined all the ones I have found. Nevertheless, one part of it remains challenging: Creating your structure.

COLMA, CA - AUGUST 18:  Home Depot workers mov...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

If you’ve read my book, or picked up pieces on my blog, you know that the basis of the Joel’s BookProgram method is one simple rule: Structure first, then content. In case this is the first you’ve heard of it, here’s my favorite metaphor: If you want to build a house, you do not begin with a trip to Home Depot. For what will you buy? How many 2×4’s? How many pounds of nails? Feet of Romex cable? And so on.

To build a house–assuming you’ve got a place to put it–you need a plan. So your first stop is the office of an architect.

After extensive discussions to establish just what you are seeking in a house–talking about everything from type of construction, number of floors, bathrooms, how long before the kids move out, room for the electric trains, to the swimming pool, and much more–the architect will draw up plans. Only after they have been gone over, revised, and re-revised, can they be turned over to a builder for estimates–and ultimately, for the creation of shopping lists.

The book equivalent of a house plan is your structure. Any writing you do without having a complete structure in place–a detailed outline down to the sub-chapter level–is likely to be a waste of time.

Your book is really its structure. The structure determines the order of what will be said, in order to get your message across. So how do you create it?

Before you even start, recognize that this is the creative, artistic part of book-writing. And for many of us, that puts us in a place of emotional intensity. We may experience exhilaration, anxiety, frustration, progress, disappointment, and fulfillment–in rapid succession, and repeatedly. Recognize that this is the nature of the process, and if you are having these feelings, you are on the right track.

The two tools that I show you for use in this phase of your book-writing journey are clustering and “the diamond.” They are all I’ve found so far, and they are powerful. But there is one other form of help you can use: Feedback. Talk through your thoughts with a coach or trusted friend.

And if you come up with any other ways to make structuring easier, please share them with me!

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