Friday, August 10, 2012

What's the Mission of Your Book? Getting to the Core of Your Story--through Your Own Uniqueness as a Creative Person

Marcia Ballinger, new author of a nonfiction book called The 20-Minute Networking Meeting, had the goal to assist executives who were in job transition.  Marcia worked with me on her manuscript and told me she'd been in the recruiting industry for many years.

Marcia's reason to write this book?  She said, "I felt that I had something new and helpful to offer this audience.  I wanted to get my message out on a larger scale than I could on a person-by-person basis.  Also, it was a personal ambition to write a book."

Strong reasons--similar to how most of us begin the book journey.   
And it's good practice to think about these reasons in the early stages of book writing, because we will need them later, when the going gets a bit tougher and we try to remember why we're writing in the first place!

So what's your purpose for writing?  Do you have a longing to share a story, to make the voices in your head go away (fiction writers!), to help others smooth out their lives or manifest their dreams?  What's the passion behind your efforts?

In my classes, and in my book, I ask these questions early on.  I encourage writers to spend time with them to gather fuel now, while there's plenty of it.  Find that feeling that can't be ignored:  the one that tells you that you have to write this story.  

Then the book takes over--and all bets are off!

When the Book Takes Over . . . 
You start a book with certain knowledge:  a topic you know and love, a method you practice and really want to share, a question or image you want to write toward, characters who are following you around, a traumatic or life-changing event that happened to you.   You may begin writing to tell yourself this story, at first.  To get clear on what happened, what the landscape might look like. 

But there's a moment in the process of writing, when the book takes on its own mission--sometimes a bigger one than you ever imagined.   

This creates the magic.  What you don't know, what you're going to be surprised about learning.  I love this part of book writing--and it scares me because I am so not in control of the process.   

My best books--and my best sections in books--come from this experience of the book taking control.  I am no longer flying the plane.  I get a little spacey, a little dreamy, because I begin listening now.  I'm no longer doing all the talking.   

Does this sound familiar?  Does it scare you as much as it does me?

It's happened to me enough times (I'm working on my fourteenth book now) that I recognize it.  Usually, the first sign is that I begin questioning my purpose.  In fact, sometimes I get downright irritated at the book, and I look for reasons to stop writing.  If someone happens to give me some straight-on critique during this transition phase, when the book begins really talking, I might grab it as a reason to stop.   

But, as I said, I've been doing this a long time.  I may sulk for a few days but I usually pull myself back into the desk chair and begin the conversation again.

Only this time, the conversation sounds like this:

"What's next?  What are you really about?"

Your Uniqueness Manifested 
The book's mission may be larger than yours--can you imagine that?  It may be stronger or more dramatic or more healing than you could dream.

The way to harmonize your purpose with the book's mission, to have a really good conversation and collaboration, is to find your uniqueness and let it manifest on the page.  This idea works for all genres--fiction, nonfiction, and memoir.  Here's how it goes:

In my workshop retreat on Madeline Island, I offer a simple-sounding exercise on the first and last days.  We introduce ourselves by sharing something unique about our lives--something we've done, something we believe, something about ourselves that's a bit different.  Responses over the years have been fascinating:  being a heliocopter pilot, homebirth, really exotic travel, surviving fears and traumas, making a living as an organic farmer.  The group usually enjoys hearing these unique aspects of their fellow writers, and we move on to the writing itself.

On the last day, we come back to this uniqueness.   

I asked the writers to recall how they introduced themselves--via this unique aspect of their lives--and think about a personality trait that allowed them to become that person, to do or survive that unique experience.   

These answers are fascinating too, especially since now we've gotten to know each other a bit better.

"I'm bullheaded, I don't give up," said one writer who'd persevered through serious trauma.   

"I'm able to change my mind," said another.   

The next question is usually the big ah-ha moment, but . . . you really have to be there.  It's hard to explain from a distance how magical this process can be. The question sounds simple but it's not:   

1.  What aspect of your book reflects this trait and this uniqueness within you and your life?

Our Books Are All about Us
Books always (always!) reflect us.  Not in an autobiographical way, necessarily, but in an "inner story" way.   They speak our truths.  Their mission is to expand and discover more of this truth.

So, as the class thinks about this, I can actually see light bulbs going off in the room, over different writers' heads!  Sometimes it's a no-brainer--their character's growth arc is very much what they chose as a uniqueness.  But they've been stalled on writing the character's next stage because they haven't seen this connection.     

Most people don't realize that their books, no matter the genre or topic, will contain this particular quality.  If they don't realize it, it becomes a conundrum to solve.   And it will often cause the book to stall out until the writer figures out the connection.

Why?  Because everything in our creative lives connects, echoes, and resounds with us--in our deepest places.  Not our surface interests, but the values and beliefs we really travel with.  Secret beliefs we may tell no one.  They do appear in our books.  Despite ourselves, they are there.   

This is why writing a book is not for sissies.  But it is the most wonderful way to get closer to truth.    

Stanley Kunitz, an amazing poet, talked about the "constellation of images" that each writer carries within herself or himself.  These are the unique echoes of your life that appear in your creative work.

And this is where the book's mission emerges.  So get that conversation going!

When You Realize You're Going in the Wrong Direction--Back to Marcia's Story
Marcia told me about the biggest turning point in her writing process, when she was working on The 20-Minute Networking Meeting.  "I took a wrong turn when I first began the book," she said.  Early on, she'd envisioned sharing her how-to messages in the form of a business "story."    

"In my plan, the characters in the story would face a job transition and learn to network with others.  My idea didn't work.  I'm not really a writer of stories, certainly not a book-length story, and I couldn't pull off that style.  In the end, a straightforward, no-nonsense approach, peppered with short, real-life examples, was the format that worked."

Her idea when she started sounded good.  But she realized the book had another idea altogether--and she listened.  Which is why her book is one I'd recommend you check out.  See it here. 

I also asked Marcia what she might have done differently, if she had known.  Any advice to first-time book writers, based on what she learned while writing The 20-Minute Networking Meeting?   
"In retrospect," she told me, "I was too reticent about sharing my manuscript with others.  Friends and colleagues could probably have given me valuable advice earlier in the process, but I felt shy.  I didn't take nearly enough advantage of the talent available in my network to get early feedback on the book.

"Writing a book is a noble endeavor," she added.  "There is risk and vulnerability involved.  It is difficult, but worth the effort!"  

This passage of knowing your book's mission--and how it connects with your life and "constellation of images"--is indeed worth the effort.

If you'd like to try the exercise we use at the Madeline Island retreat . . .   

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Spend 10 minutes freewriting about something that's unique about you--an aspect of your life, a choice you made, some skill or talent you have, an unusual experience.

2.  Then, on paper, brainstorm what quality or personality trait comes from this uniqueness.  What have you learned, gained, accomplished--and what quality did it bring to you, as a person?

3.  Finally, ask yourself (or dialogue with your book on paper, if you prefer) how this particular quality is currently showing up in your book?  If it's not yet, how could it?  Could a character manifest it?   What effect has it had on your story--if it's still missing?


  1. Hi from Tom Combs in Mpls-

    Just read the last two posts - excellent!
    Gave me a some very useful thoughts as I work on final edits, query and "pitch" elements for my WIP.

  2. Thanks, Tom! Look forward to reading your book when it's out.