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Q&A: The writing process

The third book, as our series continues, is: Survival is Not Enough.

Andy Levitt and others wrote in to ask about my writing process. Many authors have one. Erle Stanley Gardner, one of the most successful authors of all time, dictacted each Perry Mason book to his secretary, who wrote them out. It took 21 days for each book, and he didn't even need to edit them.

I confess to not having a process. Some books, like The Dip, were created Gardner-style (without the secretary part). I wrote Ideavirus in less than ten days. I might think about a topic for months or years, but then, whoosh, there's a book.

That's not what happened with this book. I grew up with science fiction, and one of the elements I like about the best novels is the way the author establishes a few assumptions about the way of the world and then explores the implications of those assumptions. Dune is a fine example of this, as are Asimov's Robot novels.

After writing Unleashing the Ideavirus, I was reading a lot of books about memetics, evolution and evolutionary biology. A few (like The Red Queen and Darwin's Dangerous Idea) were profound in their eloquence and implications. It seemed to me that combining memetics (the analysis of the evolution and spread of ideas) with modern thinking about evolution could give us new insight into how organizations work.

And so I headed down the rabbit hole. Eight hours a day for a year. I read hundreds of books, filled notebooks with ideas and wrote more than 600 pages, less than half of which I ended up using. The result is certainly the book I've worked hardest on, and perhaps not coincidentally, the book that sold the fewest copies. So few that my publisher took the unusual step of firing me, showing no interest whatever in my next book, Purple Cow.

There were probably two reasons that Survival didn't do very well. The first is that it came out right after 9/11, when much of the nation was grieving. The second: science fiction novels lend themselves to complexity, new vocabulary and flights of theory. Popular business books, not so much.

At one level, every author writes for himself. I'm proud of my process here, of how hard I was able to push on this book and how much I learned doing it. On the other hand, we write for our readers, and my readers told me that more concrete examples and fewer footnotes were the way to go if I was intent on starting conversations and fostering positive change.

The goal in blogging/business/inspiring non-fiction is to share a truth, or at least a truth as the writer sees it. To not just share it, but to spread it and to cause change to happen. You can do that in at least three ways: with research (your own or reporting on others), by building and describing conceptual structures, or with stories that resonate.

Both Linchpin and Icarus found me returning to a more heavily-researched approach to writing. It's exhausting, but the work is its own reward. The process is a choice, though. You can write without becoming a monk, by bringing your voice to those that want to hear it.

The biggest takeaway for anyone seeking to write is this: don't go looking for the way other authors do their work. You won't find many who are consistent enough to copy, and there are enough variations in approach that it's obvious that it's not like hitting home runs or swinging a golf club. There isn't a standard approach, there's only what works for you (and what doesn't).

In the words my late friend Isaac Asimov shared with Carl Sagan, "You are my idea of a good writer because you have an unmannered style, and when I read what you write, I hear you talking."

The process advice that makes sense to me is to write. Constantly. At length. Often. Don't publish everything you write, but the more you write, the more you have to choose from.

Fake is a fairly new idea (and a not very good one)

When you look people in the eye, you own the results. You're not wearing a mask, you can't easily leave town, this is your store, your house, your car, your place at the front of the classroom. When you can look people in the eye, you're doing something a million years old.

When our ancestors moved around exclusively on foot, it was unlikely that they ever traveled more than a few dozen miles from home. People were wary of strangers, and that was okay, because there weren't many. Reputation was truly a matter of life and death.

On the shiny, perfect, digital landscape of CGI movies and the internet, it's different. No one really died in the Matrix movies. The comics came to life (for a while, anyway). We don't mourn for the make-believe actors demolished by make-believe machines. Because it's not real. And on the internet, it's so easy to perceive that customer or that partner or that icon as the 'other', certainly not someone we need to look in the eye. We can leave a trail of wreckage without much thought, especially if we're anonymous.

So, when the conversation gets tough, we stop checking back on it. When we want to hide behind an alias or the asynchronous nature of email, we do. We check out.

Worse, when we want to deceive or lash out, it's easy to do. Hey, there's always someone else we can start over with, relationships and even reputations are disposable. We don't have to look you in the eye, it's dark in here, and we're wearing a mask.

Our experiment in fake has some really significant consequences. It turns strangers into actors on a screen, and sometimes we help them, but often, we become inured to their reality, and treat them with a callousness and indifference we'd never use in our village.

One philosophy is caveat emptor. Assume the worst. Assume you will be ignored or ripped off or disappointed. Your mileage may vary.

Another is carpe diem. Seize the moment to connect, to keep promises and most of all, to figure out how to look people in the eye or not promise you will.

Do we really need to add another layer of fake?

Principles for responsible media moguls

If you run a media company (and you do–you publish regularly on all sorts of social media, don't you?) then it's worth two minutes to consider some basic groundrules, listed here for you to embrace or reject:

  1. Establish your standard for truth, and don't vary it. Are you okay reporting rumor or innuendo in order to get attention? How about rushing to judgment so you can beat everyone else to the punch? People will put up with a lot as long as you don't become inconsistent.
  2. What's your content to noise ratio? Will you choose to fill 'air time' by vamping, interviewing irrelevant passers by and generally wasting minutes merely because you have minutes or paper or bits to spare? (I heard a podcast last week that took 14 minutes to get a fifteen-second point across).
  3. How will you honor, protect or expose those that give you money? Do your bosses, advertisers and customers benefit or suffer because of their relationship with you?
  4. Will you amplify fear? If your readers eat it up, will you make more of it?
  5. How often are you comfortable saying, "ditto"?
  6. Will you raise the bar or lower it? If a crank yells "fire" in the crowded moviehouse, will you loudly report that there might just be a fire, will you ignore the troll or will you call him out and push us back to some standard of normalcy?
  7. Is it more important to you to have ever more readers/watchers, or would you prefer to have a deeper interaction with those you've already got? Hard to do both at the same time.
  8. Is your work designed to stand the test of time, or is it only for right here and right now?
  9. Who, precisely, are you trying to please? They don't offer a Pulitzer for most of what we do, so if not the judges, then who?
  10. When you get to the point where you're merely saying it because it's your job or because it's expected, will you stop?

Sort & search

Search is powerful, essential and lucrative. Google demonstrated just how much value can be created when you let people easily find what they want.

Sort, on the other hand, is easily overlooked and something that most of us can work with.

For example, the way a restaurant sorts the wines on the wine list at will have a dramatic impact on what people order. If you list the cheap wines first, people will probably end up spending less. And when your wine list migrates to an iPad and you let the diner sort by price, popularity and other indicators, consumption patterns will instantly change.

Hotels.com, Zagats, Kayak and hundreds of other sites let you sort by quality, ranking and price. Not only does this change the way we choose, it also changes the behavior of the those being ranked! Once a metric for ranking becomes popular (or the default) then those being ranked will work to make their ranking go up. No surprise. Then how come Airbnb.com doesn't let users rank places by the quality of their reviews? It would cost them close to nothing, but it would dramatically change how hard a location works to earn good ratings.

When someone encounters what you make, you must make a choice about the order of what's on offer, and you also make the choice as to whether or not you'll let the user sort by other attributes. Typepad doesn't provide me with a way to let you sort the posts on this blog by popularity, but it would certainly change how you consumed it if they did.

Alphabetical, numerical and first-come sorts by default are primarily a copout. They imply that a simple search is what the user is after, but that's almost never the case. Users want you to build information into the order of things. When we have the guts (and tech) to provide relevant sorting, we present a point of view and train our users as well as our providers.

When we rank people, or the products we create, we have the opportunity to not only change the way people select, we can also change what we make.

The sweet smell of success

No one talks about what color the success is, just how it smells.

When Amanda Palmer was busking on the streets of Harvard Square, she made enough to pay her rent. She supported herself, she made it work. She didn't plan on busking, think about busking or get ready to busk. She did it and she succeeded. One person, ten people in the crowd… Didn't matter, she was working, she was a pro.

I sold my first book project (I owned half of it) for $5,000. I didn't worry about how big the advance was, I celebrated that I had a publisher. I followed that up a (very long) year later with another book (I owned half of that one, too) which I sold for even less. But now I had TWO publishers, and stories to go with each.

You will be labeled, like it or not. If you earn the label of, "person who builds things, ships them and sells them to someone who values them…" you're way ahead of the pack. You're going to be doing this for a long time. When you have the chance, engage with the market, declare victory, make the sale.

More chocolate chip cookies don't smell that much better than just a few.

More people are doing marketing badly…

than any other profession I can imagine. What an opportunity…

If we were building bridges this badly, the safety of our nation would be in doubt.

The local sub shop makes a fine sub, but has a dumb name, a typo in its sign, no attention paid to customer service and on and on. Same for the big hospital down the street and the politician you wish would get a clue.

There are three reasons for this:

1. Everyone is a marketer, so there's a lot more of it being done.

2. Most people who do marketing are actually good at doing something else (like making subs) and they're merely making this up as they go along.

3. There's no standards manual, no easy way to check your work. Without a rule book, it's hard to follow the rules. (For the innovators and creators out there, this is great news, of course.)

The cure? Noticing. Notice what is working in the real world and try to figure out why. Apply it to your work. Repeat.

Learn to see, to discern the difference between good and bad, between useful and merely comfortable.

And after you learn, speak up. Noticing doesn't work if you don't care and if you don't take action.

Summer novels

I've posted five that will make you think and get you all the way to September.

If you want to understand how the NSA thinks, be sure to dig out a copy of Dunn's Conundrum. Funny and probably true.

PS today only, Derek's classic bestseller is on a huge Kindle daily sale.

Not even once?

It's so easy to have a black and white list of the things you're not capable of doing. A hard limit, a boundary that says you just don't have the genes to make art, speak up, write, give a speech, be funny, be charming, be memorable, come through in the clutch, survive an ordeal like this one… it's easy to give up.

In response, we ask, "not even once?" Never once have you been funny or inspired or connected? Not even once have you been trusted, eager or original? Not even once have you written a sentence that someone else was happy to read, or asked a question that needed to be asked?

Now that we know it's possible, the real question is, "how often can you do it again?"

Simple steps for successful partnerships

The connection economy is built on ecosystems, and they depend on partnerships.

  1. Don't change the rules.
  2. If you have to change the rules, tell your partners in advance.
  3. And even if you can't do #2, at least tell them the new rules.

Trust is precious and easily wasted, and guessing is a lousy foundation for future progress.

Q&A: Controlling the Ideavirus

Our series continues…

Dennis O. Smith wrote in with this question about Unleashing the Ideavirus: "I understand the concept of spreading the idea, but how can you control or direct that growth? 'Going viral' is great for fast growth and sharing of your idea, but are there mechanisms to steer it, trim it, shape it, etc."

The reason that so many people catch a cold every year is that no one is trying to control where it goes. The reason that Wikipedia is so robust is that control is decentralized. The reason that there's a huge disconnect between corporate marketing and ideas that spread is that the culture of contagious ideas is anethema to the command, control and responsibility mindset of the industrial marketer.

There's a huge difference between, "I want people to talk about this," and "I want to control what people say."

But, and it's a huge but, the marketer decides where the virus starts. She decides who the first sneezers will be. She decides on what easy-to-use tools may be made available to the group that she's identified. These decisions go a very long way to determining what happens next.

Napster and Facebook were both optimized for college students and were intentionally seeded there. Sure, the founders could have picked nursing homes or military academies, but the character and culture of the college campus ensured that not only would these ideas  spread, but that they would spread in the desired direction.

If you want to spread an idea among policy wonks, don't involve People-magazine style celebrities, or aim for big numbers. Instead, find the hive that matches the group you'd like to be discussing your idea, and (this is the big and) create an idea that not only interests this group, but is easy and fun to spread precisely among this group.

[When I launched this book, I knew which group I wanted to read it. So I wrote in a tone that appealed to this group, placed a long excerpt in Fast Company, which was sort of patient zero for this group, and then gave the book away for free (it's still free online) with explicit instructions to share and email it to people who might become engaged with it.

No, I couldn't control what would happen, or where it would go, or what the impact might be, but by picking the 3,000 people who got it first, and then making it easy for this group to share it, it quickly got to over a million readers. This wasn't the fastest way to get to a big number, but it was the best way to get to the right number and kind of people.

The temptation is to be big, when the real goal ought to be effective.]

PS last time I checked, you can get a used copy of the 13-year old edition of the book for a penny. You may notice that I've chosen not to update past blog posts, past books or past websites. That's because each is a testament to when it was written, as opposed to being a constantly updating resource. Even so, I hope these older books can add value and give you perspective.

PPS Fritz Lieber wrote about the out of control ideavirus in his short story "Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-TAH-Tee" published more than fifty years ago.

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