Welcome to NF Part 2. Yes, you are a special unique snowflake. There, I said it. You do have a unique background and perception that is unlike any other human on the planet. Today we will talk about how to use that to your advantage.
One of the largest stumbling blocks I see for all writers—NF and fiction alike—is that we all fear being a fraud. Fearing that we really have nothing special to offer the world, we try and reinvent the wheel. We try to write the story that has never been told, failing to appreciate that plot, in and of itself, is not unique. The “telling” is where stories become unique. The Hero’s Journey is just as popular today as it was back in ancient Greece. The difference is in the details.
NF writers often suffer from the same malaise. We feel we have to become experts like none other on subjects no one has heard about. Yeah…um, no.
If you think about it, it is extremely rare (if not impossible) to come up with a totally unique idea. Inventors, engineers, scientists and even writers all must stand on the shoulders of others and use them as the source code for innovation. In fiction, we do not need to reinvent plot as humans understand it to tell a great story. In fact, that would likely be counterproductive. People need grounding in what they know. To prove my point, go flip through a sci-fi or fantasy novel. If the writer was being truly “authentic” the book wouldn’t be in English, but in some alien tongue. Of course, then no one would buy it because we aren’t aliens… well, most of us anyway. In fantasy novels, they drink from cups and fight with weapons that at least resemble some object we can mentally tether to our world/experience. Light saber.
Thus, if you really want to write non-fiction, you do not have to look for a subject that has never been discussed. Even as an armchair “expert” you have a unique perception that might have the potential to resonate with a large audience…so don’t sell yourself short. Your voice might be just what others will finally understand.
For instance, I failed Chemistry FOUR times. The teachers I had just confused me and didn’t speak “my language.” I finally got a teacher who taught Chemistry using a lot of analogies and suddenly it was like tumblers in a lock. Oh! I exclaimed. I’ve been making this too hard! I suddenly went from failing student to the top of the class. I ended up tutoring Chemistry to TCU football players in danger of failing. Not only did I tutor them, but I turned most of them into A and B students. Can you imagine how wonderful I felt being able to pass on that gift that had been given to me?
Did I have a degree in Chemistry? Not even close. I was a political science student. Did I have a unique perspective? Yes. I knew what it was like to feel like an idiot and like I was sitting in a room where everyone knew what was going on but me. I offered these athletes empathy, which was important. I also was more aware of areas that were likely giving them trouble, because I had been there. So I was more efficient at teaching because I knew what areas were going to be the largest obstacles.
My role as “social media expert” has been a similar experience.
Sometimes, what we will offer others has less to do with a degree or a certification, and more to do with what we uniquely bring to the table. You can become an expert on almost anything you set your mind to. Maybe you never finished college or even high school. Nothing can stop you but you.
If you want to become an expert, here are some good ways.
Make sure the subject you choose is one you are truly passionate about. Don’t just pick something because you want to make money. That never works. But, if you are truly passionate about something, that will shine through. For example, if you love Civil War History, likely you will read books, watch movies, and surround yourself with all things Civil War. My father eeked through two years of junior college before dropping out, but he knew more about history than anyone I have ever met. How? He read all the time. Hundreds and hundreds of books.
So you think you have passion? Well, passion alone is not enough. Time to put that passion to work.
Start a blog. Blog weekly about your topic (Robert E. Lee, the Civil War, the Confederacy, etc.). A blog can help you grow a following of people who look to you to instruct them about your topic in a way that is interesting, informative and entertaining. Over time, you will eventually grow to being an expert. How? You can tangibly demonstrate that people want to read what you have to say.
3. Join Organizations
Are there organizations you could join to help support your resume? If you want to write about General Lee, then are there any historical societies, book clubs, reenactment organizations that you could participate in?
Joining organizations and even networking with people who love the same subject you do can open up a lot of doors to help you on your way to becoming an expert. I have been a Rotarian for almost 7 years. When I was in the early stages of becoming a social media expert, I gave talks to Rotary clubs to demystify social media. I gave presentations showing them how FB could help non-profit clubs communicate, recruit new members, etc. I joined all kinds of writing groups and did the same.
4. Do A Lot of Stuff for Free
Yeah, this one can sting, but it is an excellent way to build a reputation when you are starting with nothing. Write, speak, do anything you can to add to your c.v.
Going with the Civil War example. Contribute articles, web content, or even help the historical organizations put together a newsletter. Be their “go to” guy or gal.
In the beginning of my career, I offered to build MySpace pages for people, build blogs, write articles, teach classes, build platforms…all so I could have a list of success stories that established me as a person worth listening to.
And I did it all for free. I had to, at least in the beginning. How could I possibly charge? I didn’t have a degree or certification in technology. Heck, I didn’t have proof I knew what I was doing. Many times I didn’t know what I was doing, because I was LEARNING. But, the cool part was that I always offered to refund double what they were paying me :D.
FREE X 2=um, FREE
I say we can look at this one of two ways. One way is that we are giving stuff away for free. I, personally, like to look at it as an investment. I am investing my time and talents with the faith that it will pay off in the end. For me, it has. I paid my dues and now others are paying my fees.
Be grateful for all the grunt work you can get.
Eventually, your resume with have enough “stuff” that you will be able to charge money. When you think you’ve crossed that threshold, you can command a fee for your services/time. I recommend that you look at current Writer’s Market to see a list of standard rates.
Non-fiction can be a great source of income while you are working on that novel. You also never know how the experience might pay off down the road. I paid my way for years as a technical writer. I wrote instructions in software. Ack! At the time, I was so bummed that the paid writing was so far off what I longed to do. For those who don’t know, writing software instructions is akin to getting dental work while doing your taxes…every day. But, I grunted it through with a grateful heart, asking for all the work they were willing to send my way…even though every bit of work made my head hurt.
Yet, years later I would write a social media book so simple even my mother (who was afraid of the Internet) could build a platform. She now rules Facebook. Befriend her at your peril. But would I have written as good of a book had I not had all that experience breaking down highly technical concepts for the average Joe?
When I wrote, We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media, did I understand every technical aspect of social media? No. Did I know every detail about Squidoo, You Tube, LinkdIn, Tumblr and Facebook? No (I still don’t). But I could take my unique experience of 1) being a technical writer and 2) failing…a lot and help a lot of people understand a very overwhelming subject. I could help them understand that one didn’t need to be on 40 platforms with pod-casts and vid-casts to build a worldwide platform. I have built a fan following that touches every continent using FB, Twitter and a blog.
Additionally, my background allowed me to peel away the fear factor to technology, just as I did years ago with football players failing Chemistry. I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. I just had to apply my unique perspective and voice.
Use your uniqueness to your advantage. No one is just like you!
Get excited! There are plenty of topics out there just waiting for your singularly unique perspective. You might just be the one voice that helps others understand. I think I read ten books on novel structure and was still lost. Then I picked up James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure and it was a huge Ah ha! This book is not the ONLY book to ever talk about this subject, but it has helped a lot of people like me who were struggling.
Our culture is addicted to information and entertainment. This is the Age of the Writer. Embrace opportunities. You never know where they might lead.
What do you guys think? What are your opinions? Can you guys think of additional ways to reach that “expert” status? Something I missed?
Until next time…..
Give yourself the gift of success so you can ROCK 2011. My best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.
Also, I highly recommend the Write It Forward Workshops. Learn all about plotting, how to write great characters, and even how to self-publish successfully…all from the best in the industry. I will be teaching on social media and building a brand in March. For $20 a workshop, you can change your destiny….all from the comfort of home.
I use a film clip to start my Warrior Writer workshop from the movie Walk The Line. It’s early in the movie where Johnny Cash is auditioning and gets rejected. He’s singing a cover of a gospel song and within 15 seconds the producer stops him. Brutally– when Johnny asks if it were the music or the singing, the producer says both. But Johnny hangs in there, asks questions and then finally ends up singing something he wrote that he never shared with anyone. And immediately, the producer knows he has a star.
What changed? The second song, because he wrote it, used Cash’s platform: anger. He was an angry man. His brother had died, his father accused him of causing it, his girlfriend had dumped while he was in the Air Force in Germany, which he hated, etc. Often people think they don’t have platform, when, if they look deep inside, they have one.
Great ideas here. As an “expert” in bellydancing, which every real bellydancer will tell you she is, I would say teach a class through a lifelong learning or continuing education program. Great way to build a local following, and people who know you will likely participate more extensively on your social media pages. Thank for this series, Kristen.
Great blog. This is confirmation on some things my mother was talking to me last night about.
You nailed it. Even fiction writers like myself feel like “a fraud” at times. It’s scary building a blog, joining facebook and twitter, and posting to anonymous people. But your take–that we have something unique to offer on a well-worn subject–is exactly why we need to do these things. In fact, we should remind ourselves of this on those I’m-the-worst-writer-ever-and-should-do-the-world-a-favor-and-burn-everything-with-my-name-on-it days.
P.S. The majority of my classes in college were science and math related. Chemistry was my nemesis!
I’m loving this Non-fiction advice. Thanks Kristen.
Great points…especially the “have passion” part. Whether it is nonfiction or fiction, if we aren’t passionate about the subject there is no way our readers can become passionate about it.
It’s coincidental that this comes on the heels of a conversation I had with a friend, who suggested I write a book based on my e-mail advocacy of my kids’ needs at school. I’d probably have to wait until the youngest is out of school, though, so I don’t piss off any teachers! 😉
You’ve got me thinking, Kristen (as always). Thanks!
I never took Chemistry…I’m a Gemini and my background proves it. By day I worked at various Marketing and Sales Training positions in the world of Hardware and Software where I also worked as a tech writer. By night I was a dance teacher. Really, just a confused child. Becoming a writer and publisher just makes perfect sense when you sit down and think about it.
Great topic and another great post. Thanks for reminding me not to take myself so damn seriously, and get over thinking I have to be an expert to have an opinion and be able to express it.
And now I’m wondering how I can repurpose this info for my use. Man, why do you have to make me think?
As always, super post Kristen! I love that you mirror what I’ve said often in my blog–that writing nonfiction is just as exciting as fiction writing. Given the right topic and knowledge of something you truly love with passion, writing comes so much easier than most folks think.
Keep up the good work. Tweet ya soon, I’m sure 🙂
I agree, but some audiences are tougher than others. BTW “alien tongue” cracks me up.
Great advice and very encouraging too. Your transparency is a key part of your ability to communicate so clearly. I love that style. Also, I’m excited to hear you were a political science major. Sure, that statement increases my already healthy dork factor, but that’s what I teach for a living so…
Of all your points, perhaps doing stuff for free is the most important. I always told clients that when I used to write resumes. Get experience anyway you have to in the field you want. I never realized how much that applies to NF as well. Sweet!
Good idea. I love reading inspirational stuff but at times I get lost in them (I listen to audio most of the time, but I still read a lot of them). One time, I was listening to this guy who just kept telling things about how we could be virtuous and all I thought was, that the person was too technical about the subject but he can’t relate to me.
My friend told me to write something inspirational since I always urge her to not give up. I was like, okay. I think I’ll like that. Right now, I’m experimenting with my choir and with my brother. My choir director gave it her stamp of approval so we’ll see how we’ll improve.
Kristen.. I am so glad I subscribe to your blog. I am really learning so much about what it takes to be a successful writer. As I read I find myself nodding in the parts I already am familiar with and having a ha! moments when you have made simplistically clear where I have been lacking.
Thanks so much.
Kristen, I learn something new every time I read your blog! Thank you for sharing. 😉
Yes, I just recently discovered my “expert” status when I was asked to guest blog on someone’s site about my situation. Due to that discovery, a realm of possibility has opened itself – scary as it may be! 🙂
My latest post: http://wp.me/p1gAw0-1v
After reading this I put together a quick resume of my unique qualifications and was really surprised by what I found. Thanks for inspiring me to look at those parts of my life I sometimes would rather forget. Those are some of my best qualifications for what I write.
Thank you so much for these non-fiction articles! I found your other articles very useful, but I am primarily a non-fiction writer. 🙂
I bought your book for Kindle about a week ago, and just received my Kindle in the mail today. I’m very excited to read it!
I’m back 🙂 Just to let you know I’ll be sharing a link to this post with my blog readers this week (www.writer-in-progress.com) in my Twitter Tuesday post. Good stuff I don’t want them to miss!