Friday Flick: Advice from a Master Storyteller

Forget your opposable thumbs. What makes you distinctively human is your storytelling. Even if you couldn’t entertain your own family around the dinner table, you tell stories in every moment. You remember stories you call memories. You interpret others’ words and actions, making up stories and believing them. And you invent stories about how you hope or fear everything will all turn out. Maybe you grew up hearing, “Stop that daydreaming!” If you were lucky, you managed to keep creating interior cinema. You are human–a born storyteller.

No matter what you write about, there are stories to tell. Even in nonfiction, there is the backstory of what sparked your passion, or who mentored you, or how you developed your expertise. Or there are stories to illustrate principles you have learned. And for many books, story is everything. That can feel intimidating–to realize that every book requires storytelling skills.

Scott Simon of NPR makes it simple. Here he shares a few trade secrets that make his own reporting so interesting and memorable. Enjoy!


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2013. All rights reserved.

Screenshot from YouTube

Scott Simon NPR How to tell a Story
“How to Tell a Story”

Write Your Book This Year: Detective Assignment

© John Kounadeas, iStockPhoto #4374786
i found you!                              © John Kounadeas

Consider that your book has been secretly growing in the silence. Your subconscious is all over it, and you might have more of it on paper than you realize. Check for evidence of your story or your area of expertise in various corners of your life. Have you. . . .

  • Blogged about it?
  • E-mailed anyone?
  • Taught a class?
  • Discussed it with someone?
  • Gotten on a soapbox about it?
  • Been told you should write a book about it?
  • Started a draft?
  • Made notes on scraps of paper?
  • Dreamed about it?
  • Daydreamed about it?
  • Read other books like it?
  • Wished for a book that doesn’t exist yet?

If you want, you can start hunting and gathering. Or you can simply open your awareness to the clues. Observe that you are already writing a book. Is this book your usual suspect? Or has another book emerged to surprise you?


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2013. All rights reserved.

Image: i found you! © John Kounadeas, iStockPhoto #4374786

Write Your Book This Year: Start Very Small

Writer silhouette, copyright Chris LeCraw #000000818351
© Chris LeCraw

Yes, this is the year you’re going to write that book—your first book, or your next book. That’s why you’re here.

However, this is not the usual resolution, or exactly a goal. I love the way Leo Babauta of Zen Habits suggests that we can change our lives in four lines:

1. Start very small.
2. Do only one change at a time.
3. Be present and enjoy the activity (don’t focus on results).
4. Be grateful for every step you take.

In case you believe you must work harder than that, Leo offers examples of dramatic changes he made by beginning so simply.  You can find that here. And more about Leo here.

So this week, you’re going to breathe, and smile, and be grateful for the enjoyment you will feel this year, because you will enjoy the process. You may think about writing if you like. You can start writing, if you promise to keep it small and enjoy it. Be grateful that you’re even thinking about writing, that you are capable of writing.


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2013. All rights reserved.

Photo © Chris LeCraw #818351

Related Article

(If you must have a goal, Susan J. Morris has wonderful ideas in this article. Remember–one small change at a time. Not all 10.)

Waiting for January Won’t Make Starting Any Easier

Congratulations to you who finished writing a book this year! And congratulations to you who started a book. (If that was your intention, there’s still time!) They say, “Well begun is half done,” and that has been proven to me. By the time a new client arrives for help getting started, the book is usually half written, though unrecognizable. It’s challenging to get started—even to know that you have already started. It’s hard to know where to begin, and it usually feels like a big mess. And then it’s common to get stuck partway through, usually right before the end, because there’s a chance you’ll be judged and you’re afraid to let go. (That would be me. I have no qualms about finishing your book!)

Would it comfort you to know we’re not so unique? It’s part of our human process and it doesn’t have to be final. In a Harvard Business Review article Reclaim Your Creative Confidence, Tom and David Kelly of IDEO focus on four fears that block creativity:

  • Fear of the Messy Unknown
  • Fear of Being Judged
  • Fear of the First Step
  • Fear of Letting Go

Here’s part of the summary: “The authors use an approach based on the work of psychologist Albert Bandura in helping patients get over their snake phobias: You break challenges down into small steps and then build confidence by succeeding on one after another. Creativity is something you practice, say the authors, not just a talent you are born with.” Amen! Catch Alison Beard’s interview with the Kelly brothers for the Harvard Business Review Ideacast.

Spiral staircase copyright_TobiasHelbig_iStock_000007040319

Personally, I enjoy that first step and that messy unknown—when it’s YOUR book we’re working on. Other people’s books ring clear for me. But I need others’ encouragement for my own work as well. It keeps me humble, and expands my tool kit for helping others.

So if you’re preparing for a start, or a re-start, check out the Kelly brothers’ article and interview. And remember what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2012. All rights reserved.

Photo of Spiral Staircase © Tobias Helbig, iStockPhoto 7040319.

Want to Adopt Someone Else’s Life Story?

It’s National Adoption Month. It’s also Thanksgiving. It was planned that way. If your heart hasn’t been touched lately, consider visiting a court for the finalization of an adoption. Imagine hearing a commissioner say, “I now pronounce you parents and child.” I’ve had that experience; just telling you that much about it, I have to cry again. I remember the way my older son insisted on carrying my younger one to the car, saying, “Now you’re my REAL little brother! REAL little brother! You’re my REAL, REAL, REAL little brother!” They still feel that way about each other.

You can’t convince me that there is any such thing as an unwanted child—only children who need help finding their families. If you have room for one more, or a sibling group, you might consider that. If you are expecting a baby before you planned to parent one, you might consider that as well. At our house, every day is Birth Mother Appreciation Day.

And naturally, because you read my blog for writing connections, you can’t think I’ve wandered away from my focus here. You know I’m on a mission to inspire you to write the story of your life, at least for your own perspective and your family’s heritage. Well, imagineLife Book program Arizonans for Children being a child who doesn’t know the whole story of your life. Imagine you have been in foster care, and you never knew all the details, and you have few or no photos or childhood art projects or school work. What then?

Volunteers are researching and creating Life Books for these children. For an agency in my area (Arizonans for Children), it requires a couple of hours a week for about six months. You need to pass a background check because you will be entrusted with case details. You will have templates to mail, requesting more details from people who have known the child, and you’ll usually have a partner on the project. It’s a healthy outlet for a scrapbooking fiend, but you don’t need those talents to begin. You only need to be willing to research, write, and care.

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2012. All rights reserved.

Image: screenshot from Arizonans for Children’s Life Book Program page

Book Design Part II: Interior Layout

Everyone knows a graphic designer. “My daughter just graduated–the top of her class!” “My cousin does CD covers in LA!” “My neighbor is such a good artist!” But book design requires complex training. Many self-publishing authors and new designers attempt it themselves without even studying the samples on their own bookcases, let alone hiring the pros. Examine any well-designed book from a major publisher and count the publishing traditions represented there.

Typesetting was part of my training at an academic journal. Even through the font, font size, leading, and footnote formatting were predetermined, even through it was usually one dense, unillustrated page of text after another, there were still dozens of details to finesse. The pesky footnote challenges from those early Compugraphic days are behind us, but most of the same details still apply in creating that beautifully designed book you will be proud to sign.

To give you some idea of the complexity, here are a few interior details your readers subconsciously expect, any one of which, if ignored, will scream “self-published!” You won’t even appear to be an avid reader

  • Pagination places odd numbers on the right, evens on the left. (If a designer reverses this, run!)
  • Chapters begin on odd pages.
  • Any chapter ending on an even page is followed by a blank page before the next chapter begins on the following odd.
  • Front matter pagination is usually done in roman numbers, with the text in Arabic. With text, the numbers restart.
  • It’s possible to number all pages continuously, all in Arabic.
  • Paragraphs are indented–block paragraphs are used for e-mail and online articles–and there’s no extra spacing between paragraphs.
  • Choose a classic serif font for the text. (Some you would recognize include Georgia, Palatino, Garamond, Bookman Old Style, Book Antiqua.) This is no place to be creative; we should notice your words, not your font.
  • Headings can be either serif or san serif.
  • Font size is usually 12 point, give or take a point, though it depends on the font. (There are 72 points to an inch.)
  • Leading, the vertical space allowed for each line, should be sufficient for comfortable reading without appearing to be double-spaced.
  • Hyphenate sparingly. If full justification is desired, lines that appear too crowded or two spacey need a word divided at the line break. If hyphenation is needed often, then the combined choices of font size and line length are probably not appropriate; adjusting one or both will be more effective.
  • Full justification was once required. Now left justification with a ragged right margin is common in magazines and for narrow columns.
  • Leave no gaps between words. The whole book should carry the illusion that every letter is identically spaced, even though all lines magically end at the same place.
  • If you squint and look at the text without reading it, you should never see a river of space running down the page.
  • Pull quotes, sidebars, and other features are well integrated.
  • Photos and other graphics are placed effectively and attractively near the text they are illustrating.
  • Chapter and author headings are consistent.
  • Kerning adjusts spacing between letters, especially in titles and headings. Consider combinations such as TODAY, where the first three letters each form equal boxes of space, but the AY must overlap to give the illusion of equal spacing.

Here’s an overview of interior design from some book pros at Design Corps who are a joy to work with:

Design Corps on Designing Book Interiors


And here’s more I’ve said about book design:

Book Design Part I: Judging Your Book by Its Cover

Is Self-Publishing Self Punishment?

The Finishing Details, or How to Look Like a Publishing Pro


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2012. All rights reserved.

Book Design Part I: Judging Your Book by Its Cover

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” It means don’t assume your first impression of a person is accurate, but that doesn’t apply to books! Potential buyers won’t give your book a second glance. Your cover matters, and the inside matters, too. If you’ve decided that self-publishing is the best option for your career, then there’s no shame in it, but it is a shame to scrimp on the design process, and end up with something you can’t be proud of and can’t sell.

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about book design, so today I’ll send you to some advice about covers, and next week, we’ll turn the page.

Wiley sponsored a design contest for the cover of its Photoshop for Right Brainers: The Art of Photo Manipulation. While not all book cover designers would agree with every point, understanding which designs were ruled out and why is a great starting point. Here, Fred Showker, one of the eight judges, explains some of the considerations. Some things are obvious: Does it at least appear that the designer read the book? Does it fit the target audience? Does the design flow well? Are the headings organized in order of importance? Can the typography be read at a distance?

Wiley Book Cover Contest Finalists for Photoshop
Wiley book cover contest finalists Photoshop

I found it interesting that the contest concluded with “a compromise.” The judges didn’t tweak the winner’s design to overcome its named weaknesses, nor did they give another favorite a chance: “This one was our favorite in terms of illustration. It was very disappointing that the designer blew it with the type at the bottom — dropping it out of the running. Why the USP typography was broken into three sets of type faces we cannot imagine. Had it been pulled to the top, above Photoshop, home-run, out of the park!” So, why run a contest that’s all or nothing, when you can take that favorite piece, ask for the revisions, and deliver your home run? It’s always an option.

Next week: interiors.


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2012. All rights reserved.

Image from linked article.