From Jennie Nash's newsletter:
A WRITER'S GUIDE TO SERENDIPITY - PART 1
I am a big proponent of bringing strategic thinking into the creative process, because I have found that many writers simply aren’t inclined to think strategically and more and more, this is a skill that we need to survive in the publishing marketplace. It’s all about being an author entrepreneur – someone who not only knows the craft of writing, but knows the business, as well.
As a result of this belief, I bring strategic thinking into many aspects of the book writing process, from the moment of conception, to the structuring of a book, to the pitch process, to how you design and execute a marketing plan.
It may surprise some readers to know that I am an equal proponent of serendipity, which might be defined as the opposite of strategic thinking. I absolutely think we need to make room in the creative process for happy accidents, and, in fact, I think we need to cultivate the skill. Without serendipity, writing becomes the kind of thing that might be done by a robot or a committee, and no one wants to read something written in such a mechanical or compromised way.
So first, I am going to talk about serendipity at the very beginning moments of a fiction project. Next week, I am going to talk about serendipity in the middle of a nonfiction project. That part of the conversation includes a lesson on book categories and market research and it gets pretty nitty-gritty. With both posts, my goal is to show you how opening yourself up to your story in a particular way can deepen it at every stage of the process, no matter what the genre.
Serendipity and Fiction
One of the biggest questions many writers ask at the very start of a project is this:
Is my idea any good?
They want to know if their idea has merit, if it sounds like it is worthy of an entire book, if anyone will care, if it’s even worth their time. There is no way to answer any of these questions, because most ideas mean nothing on their own. They’re just air, wind, sky. I have a quote on my desk by the cartoonist Scott Dilbert that speaks to this reality. It says: “ The market rewards execution, not ideas.”
But how can you proceed to write 300 pages without some sense that you are on the right path?
The answer is that confirmation about your idea can come from YOU – from your own brain as it interacts with the world. That’s where the idea sprang from in the first place, right? Something struck you. Something stuck in your head. It is ALIVE there in a way that other ideas just aren’t. You may have thought about starting an organic vegetable farm, or a line of sustainable outdoor clothing, or a gluten free bakery, but those thoughts were fleeting. The book idea, on the other hand, won’t let you go. It has you by the throat, and I have news for you:
When a book idea has you by the throat,
it’s not going to let you go.
What I have found is that if you make room for the idea in your mind – if you stake out a little territory there among the to-do lists – you can test out the efficacy of the idea before you invest too much in the process.
Does it have weight and heat and importance to you? Does it hold up against self scrutiny – not the “does this suck?” kind of self scrutiny, but the kind of self scrutiny where you actually give the idea respect and give it a chance so you can see if it makes sense to bring the idea to life?
Once you allow yourself to take the idea seriously, and to let these questions bubble up in your mind, answers will emerge. It has happened to me many times, and it has happened to people I coach many times and I hear other writers talk about this all the time, too. It’s just not something that gets talked about much. Maybe because it makes writers sound just as voodoo as we sometimes fear we are.
Here’s how the most recent experience of this looked for me:
I have begun a new novel about a woman who steals a dog. Okay, that’s not what it’s really about – it’s much deeper than that – but that’s the external reality. (The working title in my head is Dog Thief. Although sometimes I also call it The Dog Story.) Attempting to write a new novel is a big step for me because I took a fallow period in my fiction writing after my seventh book fell flat. (Long story short: An auction was set; no one bid. I mistakenly rushed to self-publish. It didn’t go well. You can read a bit about it HERE.)
I was drawn out of the fallow period by something new and unusual and kind of insane and wonderful, which is that I am submitting myself to my friend/client/colleague Lisa Cron’s novel development system while she is writing about this system for her next book. She asked me to take an idea all the way through, step by step (which I also coach her through the writing of her book. Which is where the insane part comes in.) I tell you this only because this is the epitome of strategic thinking: I have to do what Lisa tells me, when she tells me, and even WHY she tells me. And it’s hard. (I can just hear my current clients feeling a certain schadenfreude just about now – pleasure in someone else’s pain. Because I know that it’s not always easy to be coached by me, or anyone. I’m here to say I get it. I mean I’ve always gotten it. I’m just experiencing it myself for the first time in years.)
A few weeks ago, I was working on a scene that was the very first thing Lisa had me actually write. There were a whole lot of exercises prior to writing and she finally set me loose to write, so I was excited. It is a scene that may or may not even appear in the novel. I’d tried about four versions and they were all falling flat. I needed some image, some moment, some center for this scene and this character at a really critical time in her life (when someone she was very connected to had just died) and I just couldn’t get it. It made me doubt my whole idea, doubt my whole story, doubt my ability to get back on this particular horse.
And it’s worth noting that no amount of cheerleading on Lisa’s part was going to help me. I need to believe in my idea, and for awhile there at the crucial beginning moments, I didn’t.
But then I happened to read the Sheryl Sandberg post on Facebook about her husband’s death, and it was so beautiful and moving and gut wrenching. And there was a little moment in Sandberg’s piece that just made me think, “That’s IT!” It had to do with a soccer chair at a soccer game. It was nothing anyone else would have paid any attention to in the same way that I did. But for me, it was everything.
It was my answer to the scene, it was the image I needed to be able to proceed, and it was also proof from the universe that I was on the right track with my story. It was like a gift. Why had I thought to read the Sheryl Sandberg piece that day? Or at all? Why had I even gone on Facebook? I’m hardly a power user; it’s a random thing for me. But I used that little moment from her piece to spur me on. I wrote my scene, and it worked beautifully, which then set me up for a whole series of other little successes as I worked to lay the foundation of my story.
The same thing happened again a few weeks later. I had envisioned a famous dog owner for my book. A young actor. The whole book had come into my head with that reality – my protagonist steals a famous person’s dog. But the whole famous person dog thing wasn’t holding up to Lisa’s incessant questioning (which I LOVE Lisa, really I do, I swear!) and so again, I began to doubt I could even make the story work.
I needed a solution out of the corner I had painted myself into – and again, it came to me through the most serendipitous way. I was on a plane to a wedding in Dallas. I was flipping through the in-flight magazine – and there was a feature story on a dog who had become Internet famous, and the trials and tribulations of his owner. Suddenly, everything clicked. If the DOG was famous instead of the owner, everything in my story would work. Problem miraculously solved.
And how did I get that answer? Because I sat at my desk longer? Hammered away at the keyboard more? Listened to another webinar? No – it was because I let that problem take some space in my head and I believed that the answer would come to me, and the answer came.
Not a week later the same thing happened again when I was trying to solve another problem in the story, and an article with the answer was on the front of the Calendar section in the L.A. Times. Why would that article be on the page I happened to read on that day? I don’t know, but it happens enough that I know now to trust it. That’s my point.
If this happens enough times that’s all the proof you need that your story has the heart and the soul and the depth to become something resonant. My little dog story was just a wisp of an idea a few weeks ago – a What if? A twinkle in my eye. And now it’s something that has shape and meaning, and it’s beginning to gather steam under Lisa’s eagle eye, and I like it. Which means that I have no reason to doubt it. Which means that the fallow season is officially over.
Many writers miss these moments of serendipity because they are looking too much outside themselves for validation. Other people can help us refine our ideas, stay on track, go deeper, and a million other good things. But only we can give ourselves permission to tell the story we want to tell.
A WRITER'S GUIDE TO SERENDIPITY - PART 2
Last week I spoke about the surprising power of serendipity at the start of a fiction project. This week, I’d like to share with you how serendipity can work in the middle of a nonfiction project. I can’t say anything very specific about the project just now, but you don’t need details (and you don’t need to be writing nonfiction) to get the benefits of this particular lesson.
I have client whom I shall call Cassidy. A week or so ago, she was working on her audience analysis and competitive title section. These are two key steps from my Blueprint for a Book program and two key parts of a book proposal – which is the document we use to pitch a book to an agent. (Fiction writers are well served by developing a book proposal, and including these two sections, although their audience analysis section will be much shorter than for a nonfiction proposal.) Cassidy is on a very fast pace to finish her memoir, and she has made the decision to start taking some of the early work we did on audience and competition and refine it for the proposal even before she finishes writing.
The audience for your book is the universe of ideal readers.
The competitive titles are the ones that your ideal readers already love, that are stacked on her bedside table, that she is likely to consider buying when she considers buying yours. It’s the world your book will be born into.
Because of my piece on bookstores, Cassidy was inspired to go to her local Barnes and Noble to see what she could learn. “I spent two hours on a sunny afternoon sitting in the aisles,” she said, “reading the back covers of memoirs, the book jackets and writing down authors' names, [knowing she'd look later to see who their agents were].” That experience transformed the work of doing a competitive analysis and audience analysis “from something vague and scary to something fascinating. It was very inspiring!”
After her outing, Cassidy emailed me with a question: If she is writing memoir, can she include other genres in her competitive titles?
I emailed her back to say that YES, it can sometimes be really smart to include a mix of genres in your competitive titles. After all, you can only name about six books in this section. And the whole point is to frame your book so that agents and editors can really picture it in the world. If a novel or a how-to or self-help book helps you frame a memoir, then those are the books you want to reference. (This works the other way, too. I recently worked with a writer, for example, who is writing a novel about a world where it’s illegal to be fat. Her competitive titles include novels about other worlds gone askew, but also a memoir and even a nonfiction book about women and food.)
All of this framing work is an effort to locate your book’s BIG IDEA. Every book has one, and you need to know what it is because your book can really only sit on ONE SHELF. In a bookstore or a library, it’s going to be in ONE SPOT. Yes, Amazon may slot your book into six different subcategories but there will be one main category you occupy. You need to know what that category is going to be, and a key way to figure it out is to do the kind of research she was doing.
Cassidy and I talked about the book H is for Hawk, which I wrote about in that bookstore piece I mentioned earlier. This is a memoir about grief and also about birds of prey. It could easily be shelved in the grief section (because it also has an audience in people looking to understand the loss of a beloved parent), but it is shelved at Vroman’s in the Nature Essays section. And if you look at the back of the book, by the ISBN number, the category the publisher selected for it is “Nature.” On amazon, you can see that the book currently occupies #447 in all books, but it is #1 in Nature Writing and Essays. It is owning its category, which is a dream, because once you are at the top of one list, the algorithms kick in and it becomes easier to move to the top of other lists. Look at ultra hot title The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up for proof. It's #5 overall – the book that is selling fifth best in all of Amazon – and it's #1 in every other category where it appears.
Bar code for H is for Hawk:
Amazon ranking and category breakdown for H is for Hawk:
Amazon ranking and category breakdown for The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up:
The Nature Essays category was a deliberate choice in how to position H is for Hawk. If you sell your book to a publisher, they will be making those kinds of choices about your book. If you self-publish, you will be making these choices. You select the categories where you would like your book to appear. The more you can understand about your audience and the competition before you have to choose, the better. Studying the categories where your competitive titles appear are a great start.
Cassidy realized that she did NOT want her memoir to be shelved in the memoir section, which is one natural category where it could fit. She wanted it to be shelved based on her Big Idea – what her story is really about – and not the surface events of it. (Kind of like how I said in the first part of this post that my dog story is not really about dogs….)
So Cassidy and I got on the phone and on the computer to do a little side-by-side sleuthing. And here’s where the serendipity kicks in, because we started with three words I had heard on an NPR radio show a few days before while I was stuck in traffic. Three words that comprised the title of one of NPR’s “desks,” or areas of special reporting, that I only heard because the ridiculous nature of Los Angeles traffic put me on the road at the moment that particular story came on the radio. These three words described the theme of Cassidy’s books exactly – and it was something of a revelation that there was an NPR desk with that name.
So we went to the NPR website and checked out the desk. We noticed that this particular desk was sponsored by a major philanthropic organization, which was interesting. So we clicked over to that organization and were amazed at the richness of resources there and the depth of information. We poked around for a while and began to brainstorm authors and books that covered some of the same ground. With the inspiration of the organization, we had a lot of ideas.
We jumped over to Amazon, and worked the whole “if you like this book, you’ll like this one” angle, going down, down, down the rabbit hole – all the while paying attention to the ways that Amazon was slicing and dicing the book categories occupied by the books we were studying.
Our click fest eventually landed us on a specific author’s book that was right in the wheelhouse of what Cassidy is writing – and neither of us had considered this somewhat famous author’s somewhat famous book, although we were both well aware of it. Each of this author’s books were right in the wheelhouse of what Cassidy is writing – and here is the part where it gets really good. We clicked out of Amazon to this author’s website, and it was as if a party were being thrown for Cassidy’s book. It was as if all the books and all the articles and all the events and all the initiatives were just waiting for her book to arrive and be part of the conversation.
Plus, the author had a place on her website inviting conversation on the topics at hand.
There was a link to an organization the author had founded that has a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a whole staff of eager people, and initiatives and events that Cassidy could potentially be part of once her book comes out.
In one hour, by accident, by following the thin air around three simple words, we hit pay dirt. We found:
- A killer competitive title and several other fantastic candidates.
- A wish list for a dream blurb-er for Cassidy’s books. Famous authors DO sometimes give blurbs – the little testimonial quotes on book covers – even for unknown writers. Being asked goes with the territory of being famous, and it’s good karma to do it. So you can’t lose by asking.
- An influencer she can follow, and try to build a bridge to through blog comments, letters, tweets, and more. Knowing who the big players are in your topic or genre means you know where your audience is already hanging out – on their site and at their events. You don’t want to become a creeper/stalker fan, but you can certainly pay attention to the conversation and see if there is a way to become part of it.
- A foundation she can explore to see what opportunities might exist for cross-promotion and a wealth of ideas to propose in the marketing section of her book proposal.
- A list of reporters working on the topic she is interested in. She can begin to follow these reporters’ efforts – and, again, try to become part of the conversation.
- A clear indication that there is an audience and a market for her book, and where that audience can be found.
This one hour turned out to be a major turning point for Cassidy. She understood something about positioning her book that she just didn't get before, and that understanding helped her see her book as more of a reality than she had seen it before, and that led to a boost in confidence and joy in the process.
This is exactly the same sort of shot in the arm I got from the universe for my dog story – and it was an “accident” that happened because Cassidy took the time to explore, to do an activity that was not immediately “productive,” to just see what there was to find.
I am a firm believer that allowing the time for this kind of “wandering” makes you a better writer and a better author entrepreneur. I think it’s one of the best-kept secrets, in fact – a kind of life hack for being a better writer.
How can you welcome serendipity into your creative process? What can you do to welcome in these kinds of happy accidents?