Many of us have the passion for writing – or at least the passion for our story. But how do we write a story that’s as compelling as we lived it? Or how do we write a “how-to” book that’s not going to put someone to sleep after the first sentence? We asked this same question – How do you write a great first book? – of award-winning ghostwriter Dennis Ross. Is it even possible? We’d like to argue that it is. True enough, we readily admit that writing your first work may not be the best as it relates to editing, structure or sequence. But often, that’s when writing is the most passionate. So your first book can have the bones of a great book if you can only channel that passion appropriately. As Dennis says, “You can edit a great book down to being a good book. You can edit a good book into a great book.” Editing alone can make or break a book, among other things. We had fun exploring this topic both with Dennis as well as with several authors on Quora – which we highly recommend you check out as well. You can watch ADS Chat 007 with Dennis, or you can also check out the highlights below. Additionally, if you’re very serious about writing your first book, you may consider attending Dennis’ live seminar here in Atlanta on Feb. 24. What are your tips for writing a great first book? Let us know!
[ 1 ] THE ECONOMY OF EXPRESSION: Everyone has a book – or at least everyone is told they should write a book when they tell their stories to others. However, in order to reach the masses with a story that happened to you personally, you have to learn the art of The Economy of Expression. That means you’re able to say more in less time. When you do that, your reader will give you more time to say more. Everyone comes to a book with an agnostic standpoint. If you write a book, remember, your readers have just read Malcolm Gladwell. They’ve just read Jim Collins. Adam Gottlieb. Hillinger or whomever. You as a first time writer who has no name recognition as a writer will face a lot of doubtful thoughts towards you as people crack open your book. You defeat that immediately by using the Economy of Expression – which is: saying what matters most right from the outset. Direct TV for example uses this: they give you a two-sentence description of a two-hour movie so you’ll stop on that station and not go somewhere else. The Economy of Expression is just the art of being able to dither down everything that you want to say in a succinct form so your reader gets it and gets it now. Therefore, they can relax and say “hey – this guy has something to say.” And they give you more time to say it as a result.
[ 2 ] LEARN THE CRAFT OF WRITING: When you’re trying to write a story on paper as compelling as you lived it, you have to learn to move away from it and learn the craft of only dealing with that which is going to be most attractive to someone who doesn’t know you. They don’t want to know you. They definitely don’t love you. Your friends and family are automatically going to buy your book out of obligation – no matter how bad or good it is. We’re not writing for them! We’re writing for the person who really has no relationship to us and we’re saying our story is so good – and we’re able to do that by using craft. We use certain tactics to pull you in so you can give us time to go ahead and lay out the entire story in page 20, 30, 40 and 50. As you continue to write and write consistently, your writing becomes better and you’ll understand the craft better.
But remember, practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect. Practice makes permanent. You can practice a long time and just make permanent your mistakes!
[ 3 ] INFUSE PASSION IN YOUR WRITING [ i.e. USE YOUR PILOT LIGHT ]: Many times you’re dealing with having to make your writing be “proper” or “effective.” And ad lot of times, when you know the least about writing, you can write “the best” – but it’s not necessarily the most “correct” form of writing per se. You have to be very careful with understanding what happens when you make the “proper moves,” use proper grammar, infuse proper English throughout a book. You can sterilize a book so much that what was going to be felt by the heart now is only felt by the mind. You never want someone to look at your book and say “Wow – this is correct. These sentences are correct. The English is correct. But I feel nothing!” So you always have to strike a balance between the two. This emotional angle is quite important to get right.
Your pilot light is that dysfunction, that abuse, that disappointment. That failure. That thing that has stayed with you your entire life that you can’t get rid of. Your pilot light may be the thing you told yourself you will never tell another human being for as long as you live. It is the thing that will never leave you no matter how successful or how much of a failure you may be now or in the future. When you find your pilot light, you find the angle of your expression. It is so important because this is the thing that allows you to hit your target – your emotional target – with your reader. When you find your pilot light, you find the unique position of your sharing – the unique angle – the future through which your story is told. Interestingly enough, your pilot light may never be told itself. It is the lens through which you see the world. When you find your pilot light and you write through that angle, then your craft has the right positioning – giving words to wordless places.
Your job as a writer is to give words to wordless places.
[ 4 ] READ THESE BOOKS. Dennis’ favorite books for writers are “Stein on Writing,” “Show Don’t Tell,” “Made to Stick” by Dan Heath and “True Believer: The Nature of Mass Movements” by Eric Hoffer. The last one in particular he feels you should read to not only be able to observe succinct idea writing but “the forward provocative nature of Eric’s writing alone will make you a better writer just from reading that one book,” Dennis says. Andrea recommends “Tell to Win” by Peter Guber, which walks you through how to craft a highly passionate story to compel people to action.
[ 5 ] UNDERSTAND STORY ENGINEERING. When a building is being built, it if it is not built properly, the building cannot stand. It cannot stand the weight being imposed upon it – by people, cars, whatever’s driving nearby, whatever. So it has to be weight-bearing. Your story is no different. You have to understand how to construct a story such that it can withstand the weight of critique, the weight of the antagonist who’s reading it, the weight of attention spans today (they’re about 7 seconds long). You have to move away from your passion and start to understand story engineering. Just like an architect engineers a building to stand, how are you designing your story so it can stand the test of time? Your book is going to be here a lot longer than you will.
Your book is going to outlive you.
You must understand the facets – the mechanisms – that allow a story to stand the test of time which gets into craft.
[ 6 ] PUBLISHING HOUSES NEED YOU MORE THAN YOU NEED THEM. Publishing houses need great stories that are written just as greatly as they were experienced – more than you need a deal! If you get a great story – whether that’s fiction or non-fiction – to a publishing house and it is just undoubtedly phenomenal, you will have choices: whether to go commercially or do it yourself online (which is a whole different thing). If you go with a commercial publisher, they’re either going to give you fame or fortune but you won’t get both. So they’ll say, “sign with this commercial house and you’ll be in Barnes & Nobles and Hudson News – your face will be everywhere, people will know you’re an author…..(but we’ll keep all the money).” So you may pull 8-12% of a sale, but that’s $0.08-$0.12 per dollar if you’re with a commercial house.
Conversely, if you have a great book and you sell that book online and end up selling 5,000 copies, you’ll make more than selling 100,00 copies for the publisher. So you may not be “famous” with these 5,000 copies because you’re not in all the bookstores, but your financial reward will be greater. The point is: concentrate on writing a great book!
If you get a great book, you don’t have to worry about any of the other stuff.
Andrea notes that one thing you can and should do right now is work on your audience building: build up your audiences on social media, build up an email list right now, because you’re going to need those audiences by the time your book is ready to pre-sell and sell online.
[ 7 ] THINK ABOUT THE ART OF SUSPENSE WITH TITLES. Your title needs to pop. It needs to be something that is inquisitive, something that is circled around suspense. What is the art of suspense? It’s the art of asking a question and then taking as long as possible to answer it. You have to take that approach as it relates to your titling.
When you’re an unknown author, you need a title that’ts jarring.
It has to get you to open that first page and then we will use the Economy of Expression to sequence our paragraphs to make sure you are on page 10, 12 and 50 and then you skip a bathroom break because you think the words will change if you close the book. Use titles that are going to pull a person with intrigue and suspense.
[ 8 ] YOU ARE A FARMER. Writing is farming. There is an agricultural facet to great writing. Great writing is based on planting seeds that you water along the way that finally come to harvest once you have made your inspirational point – your conclusion of your book. If you look at your page as being the ground – the land, the acreage – you’re planting seeds of your story, you will write differently. You’ll touch here, you’ll touch there. You’ll say something they don’t really understand and you’ll water it a little bit in page 3. You’ll water the seed again in page 7 because you know in page 20 that seed is going to become a bush. Or a tree. As a farmer, plant seeds of your story such that your reader will have an inclination of what you’re talking about but don’t fully feed it to them until much later in the book. If you literally just change and nudge your thinking towards farming, you’ll see things differently. Your story will come into place. The narrative construction. The architecture of your story will be looked at differently.
You will do a lot better to study farming than you would writing sometimes – if you want to learn how to become a great writer.
[ 9 ] CONSIDER THE ATHLETICS OF WRITING. Let your writing be muscular. In order for your writing to jump off the page, train your writing mind as an athlete would train his body. Cut the fat! Be lean! Be pliable, malleable. Cut the fat out of sentences. Dennis says that the “fattiest word” in writing is that. Why? Because it weighs your writing down, preventing it from running the race called “attention.” For example, rather than saying “Susan said that I should eat” say “Susan said I should eat.” Taking out that one word – T-H-A-T – throughout your book actually frees it. It cuts weight and frees your writing to run faster! You’ll be amazed how much doing things like that will make your writing read so much better.
[ 10 ] THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS WRITER’S BLOCK. There is no writer’s block. “We dont’ do that,” Dennis says. “Do you have eater’s block? So we don’t do writer’s block. We are writers! We eat everyday. We write everyday. We think everyday. We don’t submit ourselves to negative thinking and bad thoughts. People say they have writer’s block when they don’t want to do the work to learn the craft so they can push through. Well yes, some days you eat more than others, some days you have issues and you don’t want to eat much. But we write everyday so the instances of our great writing become more frequent because its’ something we do all the time.”
There is no writer’s block.
What tips do you have to share about writing? Also, if you’re in the Atlanta area, Dennis will be holding a special live seminar, in-person, all about writing a great first book. You can check out the details here.