Charlie Gilkey is the author of The Small Business Lifecycle, a business book that helps creative people focus on the actions that will significantly grow their businesses. He’s also the founder of Productive Flourishing, a website that helps change makers finish the projects that really matter.
In this great interview, we talk about how to build a platform organically as a nonfiction author. We also discuss how to finish the projects that matter, how to be successful as an author whether you write fiction or nonfiction, and what makes certain nonfiction book stand out.
Charlie Gilkey got started as an author and ended up in the business world. He was pursuing a career as an Army Joint Forces military logistics coordinator while at the same time pursuing a PhD in philosophy. On top of that, he had just bought a house.
He was spinning a lot of plates and he had to develop systems to be successful because no one had taught him those systems
Charlie is a teacher at heart, so when he began learning about project management systems, he began writing and teaching about the subject as well. That writing turned into a business when people came to him asking for help with their specific situations. They asked for coaching, consulting, and training that you can only provide in a one-on-one environment.
Charlie still considers himself a writer, but he’s a writer who loves teaching.
How Charlie Gilkey Built His Platform
Charlie began blogging in an effort to solve the problems of his students and junior sergeants. All of his early blog posts started as a result of conversations about somebody he knew having a problem.
“Never solve a public problem in private.”
Charlie built a fan base by writing about the problems of people he knew. His fans shared those problems and found a path forward in the solutions he suggested.
If you can take real problems of real people and solve them in public, you can build a genuine platform and help people at the same time.
“Whatever got the ‘aha’ yesterday will get the ‘aha’ today.”
– Charlie Gilkey
Using Emotion to Create Content for Your Nonfiction Audience
Creating content for your nonfiction audience is not difficult at all. If you have clients or friends who have problems, and you help them solve their problem, that solution can be content for your brand.
Granted, you may have to massage the content a little bit so that you anonymize the event, and turn it into “book style” written English rather than a conversation. But it’s not as hard as people like to believe. You don’t have to put on a “writer hat.” Just be yourself.
Find something that frustrates you. Maybe look online and find a person who posts something that makes you angry. Look for your reasoned response to what upset you. That will get you far more traction than stewing on Facebook or just staying angry.
When we think about writing as writers, we go into our knowledge base and we worry about the things that we’re told to worry about:
- I have to write a great headline.
- I have to be grammatically correct.
- My ideas have to have a logical flow.
All these things are true. But those are concerns for the editing phase of the writing process.
Another truth about writing is that it’s more art than science. The main purpose of writing is to move or affect your audience. The only way you can do that is if you’re writing about subjects that you have an emotional investment in.
If you’re not writing with emotion, emotion won’t appear on the page and you won’t be able to reach your readers. They won’t pick up any spark from you. You’ll just be like every other writer on the topic, and easy to put down.
Writing about the problems and situations that affect you emotionally can lead to transformational moments for people in your audience.
The most successful people on the internet with the largest audiences are the people you can connect with emotionally. They don’t necessarily have the best information on the topic—they’re just the most relatable.
In order to finish a project, you have to write something that moves you emotionally. That’s the only way you will get over the inevitable obstacles that will appear when you’re trying to finish your book.
“It takes discipline and grit to finish a book. But if that’s all you have, it’s going to be a very tough slog.”
– Charlie Gilkey
“When you’re in the right space, there is a sense of creative pregnancy.”
– Charlie Gilkey
Write what you’re passionate about.
Write what won’t let you sleep at night.
How to Finish Writing that Article, Blog Post, or Book
When it comes to a writing project, whether it’s a blog post, article, or book, there are certain principles you can follow that will make it easier for you to finish that project.
1. Start with the end in mind.
In the brainstorming outline/phase, start with the end in mind. What change do you want to see take place for the reader of your content?
2. Think about value and purpose.
How would you like your book to be used? Charlie specifically designed his book The Small Business Lifecycle to be the kind of book that people refer to over and over.
3. Think about your competition.
If you were walking through a bookstore, what three or four books would your book sit next to?
Thinking about this question allows you to think about what’s already out there in terms of knowledge for the public. It gets you thinking about what’s known and what’s not known in your subject area. It also gets you thinking about the gaps that you can fill in for people.
This question also gives the author constraints. Constraints are actually a good thing because they allow you to limit the scope of your project so that you know when it’s complete.
4. Think about your audience.
Have a clear idea of who you’re writing the book for. Who is going to benefit from your knowledge? Choose an avatar—a specific person you actually know to write the book for. This will make writing the book easier, because it will help narrow down what you have to put into the book.
5. Be realistic.
Get real about how much time it’s going to take you to write the book. Writing a book is not simply like writing 10 blog posts. You have to take the reader on a journey that ties those 10 things together (assuming there are 10 chapters in your book).
Charlie thinks people underestimate the amount of time and mental bandwidth they need to finish a book.
6. Get focused.
If you want to finish a project, you have to fuel it with focus. If you don’t schedule focused blocks of time to work on your project, it will never get done.
To be successful, there has to be a balance between the analytical side of your brain that executes tasks and the creative side of your brain that enjoys having fun.
In Charlie’s experience, the stories of people having an idea on Friday and having a finished book on Monday are outliers. Generally, when you look at the backstories of those people, they have been incubating projects for several years.
If you write consistently every day, you are much more likely to be prolific and write for extended times in a flow state.
Charlie believes that most of the stories of people who just sit down and write a story miss the part of the equation where the writer is doing a lot of ideation and thought work on the story before they begin writing.
Writing is a skill. Any human skill can be learned. To learn writing takes repeated deliberate practice.
That isn’t as exciting as the romantic notion of having a book idea on Friday and ending up with a finished book on Monday. But consistent, deliberate practice is a more stable predictor of success when it comes to your writing career.
Fiction writers are capable of writing a book over a weekend, especially if you are a pantser, because the story evolves as you write it. But in Charlie’s experience, it’s almost impossible to replicate that kind of production for a nonfiction writer.
To write a good book worth reading as a nonfiction writer, you have to put in the time it takes to think of, research, and organize a book worth reading.
Writing Nonfiction Books Beyond the Self-Help Category
Burning curiosity can be a problem. Maintaining a certain level of professional competency in a field can be a problem that you as an author solve. History books are often written to solve that kind of problem.
You always want to approach the writing of a nonfiction book with the question: “What problem is this book solving for my reader?”
In the case of a history book, you might be satisfying your readers’ curiosity, or preparing them to take a test on the subject, or helping them learn about history so they can connect to the events of today.
Lack of delight can also be a problem. There are several categories where there are a lack of delightful reads—just boring slogs. If you write a delightful book about a subject where there aren’t many delightful books, you’ve filled a need.
Another approach to developing an idea for a successful nonfiction book is to look at something that people have always seen one way, then come at it from a different perspective. Sapiens, Guns Germs and Steel, and The Animal Connection are all examples of books that ask unique questions about our world and present their answers from an unexplored perspective.
The Mental Work of Writing
“If I can’t think of an analogy, metaphor or visual to explain an idea, I don’t know it well enough.”
– Charlie Gilkey
The mental work of writing is often done away from your keyboard. Your brain cycles through the ideas you want to write about, connecting them and organizing them into a consistent whole.
Scheduling time to do the mental work of writing is as important as scheduling the writing time itself.
A Simple Approach to Producing Your First Draft
Do some math:
- Figure out the average number of words you can produce an hour.
- Figure out how long you want the book to be.
- Divide the length of your book by your average words per hour,
That will give you a rough estimate of how long it will take to write your book.
Then schedule your writing time given your normal daily schedule. Be sure to schedule in some padding for unforeseen life events to occur.
Links and Resources Mentioned in the Interview
http://www.productiveflourishing.com/ – Charlie Gilkey’s website designed to help creative entrepreneurs finish the projects they start.
http://www.productiveflourishing.com/free-planners/ — Get all of Charlie’s free resources on this page.
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
“10 Ridiculously Simple Steps for Writing a Book” — an article by Jeff Goins that talks about John Grisham.
Turning Pro by Stephen Pressfield
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – an example of a book that solves the problem of curiosity for its readers.
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies – a book by Jared Diamond that asks the interesting question, “why isn’t China dominant in the world today?”
The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human – a book by Pat Shipman that asks the question, “why did we domesticate cats and dogs when they are our biggest competitors for the limited food source of protein?”
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