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.

Promotion: It’s up to you

If you want people to buy your book, you have to let them know of its existence, and where to order it. To do this, you need to know who they are, and where to reach them. And much to the surprise of many new authors, this is not only the case for self-publishers; it’s true for authors whose works are published by major publishers, too.

Most major publishers put promotion dollars behind winners, not newbies. So if promotion was a reason for you to seek a publisher rather than publishing yourself, strike it off the list.

For most non-fiction authors, the very best way to sell your books is through speaking engagements. For corporate gigs, you can often offer your book at a discounted price to the client, so that they can buy a copy for each attendee. I’ve sold thousands of books this way, and so have many other speakers.

In other speaking environments, you can sell them in the back of the room after your talk, if the venue allows it. (Although I would suggest having a higher-priced product at the back of the room, such as a CD series, a DVD series, or a course, and throw in the book as a free bonus. But if you do this, do not offer the book for sale as well; most people will just buy the book.)

One of the best investments an author can make is to buy “1001 Ways to Market Your Books,” by John Kremer. Then read it, and start implementing just a few of the hundreds of excellent ideas in its 700+ pages.

Here are a few starting places:
  • Find out what your most important keywords are. Search on “keyword research” to learn this important skill. Then begin to identify your book’s audience with precision, and the words that they would enter into search engines that ought to lead them to your book.
  • Find blogs read by your reading audience, and find a way to participate in them. Offer to write guest articles. Comment on the entries. Include your book’s website (you have one, right?) in your signature.
  • Create a Facebook page around your book and its topic.
  • Blog about your topic and your book on your own blog, at least 3 times a week.
  • Find out how to get on radio talk shows. They need people to interview, and will allow you to promote your book. Make a special offer–a low price or bonus if they mention the radio show. (Search for Alex Carroll; he offers help along this line.)

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.

Where to find ideas for your book?

Aspiring authors have been asking me this question for years. Today, through a chance encounter with Dave Grossman’s website, I finally got the answer. See this simple but elegant explanation. After reading it, you will know what to do.

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,...
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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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The story of your life is a professional asset

Joel at 17

My daughter sent me some old pictures for Father’s Day. This one is of me when I entered the Israeli army, at 17.

If the main purpose of your book is to play a part in marketing your professional services, one of the most powerful stories you can include is yours. People feel like they know you if they know something about you, and the more they know, the closer they feel to you.

You don’t need to include a complete autobiography, or the details of who came to each of your birthday parties from age 1 onward. Tell the parts that brought you to where you are today, practicing what you do.

Perhaps you had an experience that led to a turning point, a major shift of some sort. Such accounts are exciting! Everyone longs for tales of hope, because if you were able to overcome your challenges, perhaps they can overcome theirs.

Start by clustering your story, thinking in terms of its role in your book. (If you’re not sure what clustering is, search for “clustering” in this blog, using the search box at the top right.) Edit and prune unemotionally; readers will appreciate it. “Awww!” is not the reaction you want, so avoid sappy sentimentality and self-indulgence. But don’t be afraid of telling about emotions.

Some pictures of you in your youth can be helpful, but are not essential.

Don’t go overboard. Remember the purpose of the story. You are saying, “These are some of the circumstances and experiences that brought me to where I am today. This may help you understand why I am passionate about what I do, and why I feel strongly that I can help others move ahead.”

Run it by a clear-headed friend or associate, even before the book is edited. Writing about yourself is hard for everyone.

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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Your book is you

I just got the latest issue of Writer’s Digest; it’s one of the few magazines I still receive in the mail, and only because it was a package deal with their websites. And I must admit that the kinesthetics of a physical magazine still offer me something pleasant, despite the inconvenience of not having it electronically.

A hot issue: Truth in memoirs. After several scandals (look up authors James Frey and Frank McCourt and throw in “Oprah,” and you’ll get the gist), the subject of “embellishment” of stories that are ostensibly true has gotten a lot of attention.

But let’s cut to the chase: ALL writing is false, in some sense, no matter how journalistic or scientific. It is false in that it perforce tells only part of the story. There’s going to be a range of “truthfulness”; if you invent people or events claim truthfulness, don’t be surprised if you get called on it.

Yet whose memory is perfect? Even with notes or recordings? And what “facts” are significant? Is it better to write, “The color of our family car was blue, or maybe grey; actually, it may have been dark green. I’m not sure…” or “Dad pulled the blue Buick into the driveway, and threw his suitcase into the back seat”? Well, what do you mean by, “better”? The latter moves the action along; the former may be more truthful; but what are you trying to accomplish?

Most of my clients are writing books to establish their professional credibility. I encourage them to include some autobiography, so that readers can get to know them–and perhaps like and trust them. To that end, I suggest judicious storytelling–not to mislead, but not to draw attention to imperfections.

Ultimately, your book represents you. Your integrity, or lack thereof, will be examined, largely by the evidence you provide–and how well it matches what people may find on the Internet. Think about that when you plan what to write.

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