Run It By Your Peers

Neither test audiences nor managers are ideal judges of creative ideas. They’re too prone to false negatives; they focus too much on reasons to reject an idea and stick too closely to existing prototypes. And we’ve seen that creators struggle as well, because they’re too positive about their own ideas. But there is one group of forecasters that does come close to attaining mastery: fellow creators evaluating one another’s ideas. In Berg’s study of circus acts, the most accurate predictors of whether a video would get liked, shared, and funded were peers evaluating one another.

When artists assessed one another’s performances, they were about twice as accurate as managers and test audiences in predicting how often the videos would be shared. Compared to creators, managers and test audiences were 56% and 55% more prone to major false negatives, undervaluing a strong, novel performance by five ranks or more in the set of ten they viewed.

– from “Originals” by Adam Grant

Finding Your “Strategic Space” in the Market

An important part of building a following for your writing is your ability to get noticed online – to rise above “the noise”. From a strategic perspective, you would ideally like to find an area of focus for your writing that is not already saturated with writers.  Marketing guru Mark Schaefer, in his book “Known: The Handbook for Building and Unleashing Your Personal Brand in the Digital Age”, describes this as “an uncontested or under-occupied niche with enough people to matter”. His experience has shown that this is the area where most people fail.

Here are some methods for you to consider that might allow you to narrow your focus and find your “under-occupied niche with enough people to matter”.

  1. Choose the intersection of Area A and Area B
  2. Focus on a specific demographic
    • Example: Rachel Held Evans’ primary audience has been post-evangelical women in their 20’s and 30’s
  3. Geographical focus
  4. Interest focus
    • Example: Holy Spokes by Rev. Laura Everett – “…tells the story of Everett’s unlikely conversion to urban cycling. As she pedaled her way into a new way of life, Everett discovered that her year-round bicycle commuting wasn’t just benefiting her body, her wallet, and her environment. It was enriching her soul.”
  5. Leverage a platform in addition to writing
  6. Partnership and curation
    • Example: Writing for Your Life – A fundamental strategy of Writing for Your Life is to partner with leading experts
      • Online and in-person conferences featuring talented authors and industry experts
      • Blog articles from numerous guests
      • Reselling writing support services

Where is your “Strategic Space”? Feel free to contact us if you would like to work on this further.

The Power of Stories – by Frederick Buechner

Stories have enormous power for us, and I think that it is worth speculating why they have such power. Let me suggest two reasons. 
One is that they make us want to know what is coming next, and not just out of idle curiosity either because if it is a good story, we really want to know, almost fiercely so, and we will wade through a lot of pages or sit through a lot of endless commercials to find out. There was a young woman named Mary, and an angel came to her from God, and what did he say? And what did she say? And then how did it all turn out in the end? But the curious thing is that if it is a good story, we want to know how it all turns out in the end even if we have heard it many times before and know the outcome perfectly well already. Yet why? What is there to find out if we already know? 
And that brings me to the second reason why I think stories have such power for us. They force us to consider the question, “Are stories true?” Not just, “Is this story true?” was there really an angel? Did he really say, “Do not be afraid”?—but are any stories true? Is the claim that all stories make a true claim? Every storyteller, whether he is Shakespeare telling about Hamlet or Luke telling about Mary, looks out at the world much as you and I look out at it and sees things happening—people being born, growing up, working, loving, getting old, and finally dying—only then, by the very process of taking certain of these events and turning them into a story, giving them form and direction, does he make a sort of claim about events in general, about the nature of life itself. And the storyteller’s claim, I believe, is that life has meaning—that the things that happen to people happen not just by accident like leaves being blown off a tree by the wind but that there is order and purpose deep down behind them or inside them and that they are leading us not just anywhere but somewhere. The power of stories is that they are telling us that life adds up somehow, that life itself is like a story. And this grips us and fascinates us because of the feeling it gives us that if there is meaning in any life—in Hamlet’s, in Mary’s, in Christ’s—then there is meaning also in our lives. And if this is true, it is of enormous significance in itself, and it makes us listen to the storyteller with great intensity because in this way all his stories are about us and because it is always possible that he may give us some clue as to what the meaning of our lives is. 

– Originally published in “The Magnificent Defeat”

Can I Make a Living as a Writer?

– by Christopher Ferebee

This question is a common one. Especially for people new to writing and wondering if there’s any real money in it. Unfortunately, to truly answer this question, there are all kinds of other issues that come into play that agents can’t speak to, such as, what is your standard of living? How much do you really need to earn to support yourself or your family?

But there is some basic information we can provide to help people understand how money works in the industry. First, publishers do typically pay authors an advance in exchange for the publishing rights to their book. This amount can vary widely, but is typically based on the publisher’s estimate of how many copies they could sell of your book in the first 9-12 months of publication. Obviously, the more reason they have to believe they will sell a lot of copies, the higher this number will be.

This advance amount is typically broken up into two, and sometimes as many as four, payments. You get a percentage on signing the agreement, and then a percentage on the publisher’s acceptance of the manuscript for your book. If the advance is broken up into additional payments, typically at higher dollar levels, then a third payment would be made on the publication of your book, and a fourth anywhere between 6-12 months following the publication of your book. So even if you were to be offered a significant amount of money for your book, it’s likely you would be paid that money over the course of 1-3 years. After that and assuming your book sells really well, any additional royalty amounts are paid by the publishers on a quarterly or semi-annual basis.

In short, even if you’re a successful author, you need to have good cash flow and money management skills.

But there are other ways to supplement income besides authoring your own books. Many of our clients also speak, write for other people, provide proposal coaching, write for news outlets, offer workshops and consulting services, or have developed a significant enough blog following to earn income from advertising and the sale of resources off their website.

In short, there is a small percentage of people who are successful enough to truly earn a living simply by authoring their own books. But there are ample opportunities to make a living as a writer if you’re willing to look for those opportunities, practice your craft in multiple ways and work hard.

The New Rules of Brand Awareness

Many prospective clients come to me asking for help to tell their story so that they can attract customers and create brand experience.

For decades, businesses have created brand awareness by following four rules – which no longer work:

1. Make something for everyone.
2. Tell our story.
3. Attract customers.
4. Build brand awareness.

The brands that succeed today have flipped things around:

New rules of brand awareness:

1. Understand the customers’ story.
2. Make something they want.
3. Give them a story to tell.
4. Create brand affinity.

While we are scurrying around employing this tactic and that one in order to get more people to notice us, we are overlooking the greatest opportunity we have to drive the growth and success of our businesses.

Awareness of our products and services is not what spreads our stories.

Our stories spread when we are aware of our customers.

– from “Meaningful” by Bernadette Jiwa

Looking Back

Though The Liars’ Club rang true to me when I wrote it, from this juncture it seems to have sprung from a state of loving delusion about my family. In those days, I still enjoyed a child’s desperate tendency to put sparkles on my whole tribe. Were I writing that story today, I’d be less generous to them while perhaps shining more empathy on my younger self. Whether age has granted me more wholesome care for the girl I was, or whether life’s ravages have ground down my heart so I’m more self-centered, I can’t say. Am I healthily less codependent or a bigger bitch? You could argue either way. Although I’d fix a wrong date or point of fact for the book to correct it as written record, I couldn’t alter any major take on the past without redoing the whole tome. The self who penned that book formed the filter for those events, I didn’t fabricate stuff, but today, other scenes I’d add might tell a less forgiving story.

– from “The Art of Memoir” by Mary Karr

The More Experiments You Run

Good things come to those who wait, and for experimentalists, it’s never too late to become original. After Frank Lloyd Wright received the contract for Fallingwater, his most celebrated architectural work, he procrastinated for nearly a year while making sporadic drawings before finally completing the design at age sixty-eight. Raymond Davis shared the Nobel Prize in physics for research that he started at fifty-one and finished at the tender age of eighty. The more experiments you run, the less constrained you become by your ideas from the past. You learn from what you discover in your audience, on the canvas, or in the data. Instead of getting mired in the tunnel vision of your imagination, by looking out into the world you improve the acuity of your peripheral vision.

– from “Originals” by Adam Grant

On baseball, elections, & why fiction – Part One

Originally posted on November 3, 2016 by Sarah Arthur

The day after one of the biggest wins in sports history, with less than a week to go before a contentious presidential election (no hyperlink needed), seems an odd time to be writing fiction. I’m sleep-deprived, for one. And I have a lot of things to say besides inventing dialogue between pretend characters.

I believe this election matters. I have my own considered reasons why and what it could mean for my sons as they grow up. I have written roughly a dozen articles in my head on everything from–nope, I won’t go there (if you know me, even a little bit, you can probably guess). But despite the fact I’m getting ready to launch what could be perceived as my first-ever “political” book in January, I’m not weighing in on whatever happens next Tuesday. I’m writing fiction.

Copping out? Maybe. Maybe I’m just an ostrich shoving my head in the sand, as if inventing worlds can help me escape this one. Maybe I’m just exercising a particular brand of elitist privilege that allows me to blithely pursue a superfluous “hobby” while people out there are dying. Guilt, guilt, guilt.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way. During the three years that my husband and I lived with the homeless in the inner city, I often felt like my job of writing about literature was basically the least helpful thing I could offer anyone. Can a hungry kid eat a book? Is this vocation putting a roof over anyone’s head? (I earn too little for that.) Should I be protesting something? Writing letters to Congress? I gave serious thought to abandoning the writing life altogether.

Yet I would return, again and again, to stories. Books by people like Dorothy Sayers and C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Jane Austen. Authors who wrote during wartime–even some, like Tolkien, from the front lines. Many of them had plenty of things to say about current events, as evidenced by their collections of letters. The poet T. S. Eliot, for instance, was an outspoken conservative who published political essays in the literary journal he founded, while Dorothy Sayers went to bat for women on issues of gender equality. I, for one, love her treatise Are Women Human? but rarely run into anyone else who’s heard of it. And I had no idea Eliot wrote political essays till a lecturer at a conference mentioned it–which perhaps betrays my limited knowledge of Eliot, or perhaps betrays something deeper, something about the nature of his real legacy.

My point? These authors gave the world something. But it wasn’t their opinions on the critical political decisions of their time. It wasn’t their pithy 140-character soundbites that shamed their enemies and changed no one’s minds. Their generation, too, had journalists and politicians and activists who triumphed and failed, some of whom we remember, many of whom we don’t. But what lasted were these authors’ stories.


Back to those three years with the homeless. Toward the middle of our stay, before my husband’s job took us to the suburbs of Lansing, MI, one of our guests had to have leg surgery. She was a recovering narcotics abuser from the streets, as different from me in race and class and life experiences as any friendship I could imagine; and her long recovery stretched the limits of our household’s energy and compassion. She, a bored and demanding sufferer; the rest of us running at top speed just to make sure everyone got fed and deadlines were met and paychecks deposited…God help us.

At one point she had run out of movies to watch, so I brought her my limited collection: the boxed trilogy of The Lord of the Rings, extended editions. My caveats were plentiful: “It’s fantasy by a dead white guy. Lots of white guys running around. Almost no females, and they’re all white except the giant spider. I’m not offended if you hate it.” But she said, “Sure,” so I loaded movie number one into the DVD player and left.

Hours–maybe even days–later, as I stepped away from my laptop to grab some snacks from the kitchen, wafting down the hall came the soundtrack of The Return of the King. It swelled recognizably to the last, most certainly doomed battle before the gates of Mordor; I could practically taste my own remembered tears running down my cheeks. “For Frodo,” came the voice of Viggo Mortensen–then mayhem, Howard Shore’s unforgettable strings, the apparent triumph of evil at the end of all things. But somewhere in the midst of it rose that lone soprano–you know the one I mean–and all of sudden I heard my housemate yelling.

“The eagles!” she whooped, “the eagles are comin’!”

The house rocked with her roars of jubilation. “Thank you, Jesus, the eagles are comin’!”


I once heard Newbery winner Katherine Paterson say to a packed auditorium at the Festival of Faith & Writing, “I want to be a spy for hope.” And now I get it. After that moment in the hallway, my housemate’s joy ringing down the walls, I get it. This week, while following all the manic online activity and joyous enthusiasm around the kickoff to National Novel Writing Month, I get it. After turning to my Facebook community for encouragement–and receiving a flood of moving, hopeful responses–I get it.

Right now, what the world needs is for me to be writing fiction. What my sons need is for me to write stories they will read for themselves someday, long after the next president is gone. Stories for my homeless friends, stories that outlast today’s headlines, stories for my great-grandchildren or whenever the Cubs next win the World Series.

This is why fiction.

This is what I have to say.

Religious Books

– by Frederick Buechner

There are poetry books and poetic books—the first a book with poems in it, the second a book that may or may not have poems in it, but that is in some sense a poem itself.

In much the same way there are religion books and religious books. A religion book is a book with religion in it in the everyday sense of religious ideas, symbols, attitudes, and—if it takes the form of fiction—with characters and settings that have overfly religious associations and implications. There are good religion books like The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne or Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, and there are miserable ones like most of what is called “Christian” fiction.

A religious book may not have any religion as such in it at all, but to read it is in some measure to experience firsthand what a religion book can only tell about. A religion book is a canvas. A religious book is a transparency. With a religious book it is less what we see in it than what we see through it that matters. John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany would be an example. Huckleberry Finn would be another.

Writers of religious books tend to achieve most when they are least conscious of doing so. The attempt to be religious is as doomed as the attempt to be poetic. Thus in the writing, as in the reading, a religious book is an act of grace—no less rare, no less precious, no less improbable.


A Contribution to the Literary World – by Robert Benson

At the beginning of a new book, I find it easier to write if I do not think about the fact that I am attempting to write a book.

Who in the world needs another book anyway? There are thousands of good ones already, and some of the best ones have not been read by very many people at all.

A day spent reading Annie Dillard or Graham Greene or John LeCarre or Thomas Merton of Doris Grumbach or Frederick Buechner can convince anyone who wants to write that the good stuff has already been written and, in fact, so marvelously written that anything else by anyone else, including me, borders on being audacious at best and pretentious the rest of the time. Last week while reading Buechner, I realized that if I wanted to make a contribution to the literary world, I should do his laundry and mow his grass so that he would have more time to write.

– from “Dancing on the Head of a Pen”

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