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.