How can you write creative non-fiction? And what makes it stand out?
I am fascinated by creative non-fiction. It is a type of writing where the writer or author injects something of themself from their personal life or a little bit of creativity into the work.
In other words, it's not simply researching a topic and turning it into another dry business book.
Writing creative non-fiction can be a challenge. In addition to selecting an intriguing idea, you need to find the best way to express that idea and tell compelling stories that will captivate the reader's attention.
This week's guest is a specialist in writing creative non-fiction. Her name is Susan Scott.
Susan has written three books over her career and is a New York Times best-selling author.
In this episode, we discuss:
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Susan: So you have to think about, okay, who is my reader? I need to write for that person. And you could even pick your one individual, your ideal reader, and write for that person as if you were talking to that person.
Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: How can you write creative nonfiction? And what separates good creative nonfiction from regular ol’ nonfiction? Hi, there. My name is Bryan Collins. Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast. I am fascinated by creative nonfiction. It’s a type of writing where the writer or author injects something of themselves, something of their personal life, or a little bit of creativity into the work. In other words, it’s not simply taking the information that’s already published online, taking research and turning it into another dry, drab business book. Unfortunately, writing creative nonfiction isn’t always easy because it involves looking for good ideas, figuring out if these are the right ideas for your book, and also, much like the struggles that fiction authors go through, finding the best ways to express your ideas and tell compelling stories on the page in such a way that it captivates the attention of readers.
One of my favorite nonfiction or creative nonfiction authors of all time is the American humorist David Sedaris, I’d recommend you check out his work, and he has an excellent masterclass where you can learn all about his approach to creative nonfiction. If you’re also interested in learning more about writing creative nonfiction, there’s an excellent book called The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lopate. It’s actually an anthology of personal essays that you can find on Amazon. I recommend checking that out because you can dive into creative nonfiction from today, from the mid-20th century, and from hundreds of years ago, and what better way to learn about creative nonfiction than reading some of it?
This week’s guest is a specialist in writing creative nonfiction. Her name is Susan Scott. She has written three books over the course of 22 years and she’s a New York Times bestselling author. She’s written Fierce Conversations, Fierce Leadership, and now her new book, Fierce Love. I was lucky enough to catch up with Susan recently. In the interview, she talks about her 22-plus-year writing journey and how she approaches creative nonfiction. I also asked her to elaborate on what she sees creative nonfiction as and how it differs from nonfiction and her answer differs a little bit to the one that I’ve just offered. But that’s the thing about creative nonfiction, it’s open to interpretation. Susan also talks about her research and writing process and she has some fantastic tips for anybody who wants to write creative nonfiction. She also gets into some of her influences and I was delighted when she mentioned the poet David Whyte. I actually came across David Whyte when I started taking meditation lessons on the app Waking Up by Sam Harris, and the poet David Whyte gives some guided meditations in the Waking Up app. You can actually hear him recite his poetry. To be honest, I wasn’t familiar with David Whyte until I took this particular course and then I went out and bought a book of his poetry. Now I’ve never met him in person or heard him recite his poetry but Susan has, and, in fact, it had a profound influence on her book, which she talks about in the interview.
Now, I hope you enjoy this interview with Susan Scott. If you do, please consider leaving a short review on iTunes or sharing the show with another writer on Overcast, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening, because when you leave a review, it helps more writers find the show, and when you share the show, it obviously increases listenership. And, of course, if you have any questions or feedback, please reach out to me because I’m on Twitter, @bryanjcollins. Now let’s go over to this week’s interview with Susan Scott.
Bryan: Welcome to the show, Susan.
Susan: Thank you, Bryan. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Bryan: When we were chatting before I started recording the interview, you were saying you spent some time in Ireland, in Dingle, which is actually about two, maybe three hours from where I live so I’m glad you made it over this side of the water.
Susan: Oh, I get over there as often as I can. I have quite a few friends in the UK and one of them decided to go with me to Dingle and we just had the time of our lives. We even when — we went falconing, which was fabulous. I had always wanted to do that.
Bryan: Wow. I haven’t done that. The reason why I bring it up is, a few years ago, I was at the Irish Writers Festival in a town called Listowel, which is near Dingle but it’s quite popular and lots of people travel from around the world to it, so it’s always nice to meet somebody who’s interested in the craft. Could you tell listeners a little bit more about who you are and your writing journey?
Susan: Sure. So, years and years ago, I was chairing two groups of CEOs in Seattle, Washington, where I live and I had some insights along the way that prompted me to write Fierce Conversations and that book is still selling very, very strongly 22 years later. And then I wrote a second book, Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today, and I’ve just published in January my third and final book in the Fierce trilogy which is Fierce Love: Creating a Love that Lasts — One Conversation at a Time.
Bryan: It’s fair to say that these are nonfiction books, which perhaps offer some self-help advice for different types of audiences. Was that the type of genre that’s always interested you, Susan?
Susan: No, it isn’t. I mean, I don’t read nonfiction. I read fiction. I read great literature. In fact, my books are full of quotes and passages from great literature because there are people who have said things far better than I could ever say them. So, you know, people think I must have read this, I must have read that, all this nonfiction. I haven’t read any of it because it just — I’m always drawn to fiction. But my comments today will be about writing nonfiction because that is what I have been doing for the last 22 years. And, of course, now I’m ready to finally write a novel.
Bryan: It’s great to hear that you’re about to write a novel, considering fiction is your passion. So what made you or what convinced you to spend so much time writing nonfiction over the course of a 22-year period?
Susan: The response, Bryan, the response to Fierce Conversations was so universal and wholehearted. There was a bidding war in New York amongst the publishers. I was paid seven figures, which is just ridiculous, and that gave me the financial runway to decide, well, what do I want to do? And I knew that I wanted to spread everything that I was writing about out to people all over the world and it couldn’t be just me. I mean, I was traveling, traveling, traveling. I was in Sydney, Australia, I sat down in the Opera House and reached for my seat belt and that’s when I realized I really need to get off the road. I need to stop traveling so much. So I wrote because I feel so passionately about the topic, which is that our careers and our relationships and our lives succeed or fail gradually then suddenly one conversation at a time. And what gets talked about, whether it’s in a business or in a family, what gets talked about and how it gets talked about determines what’s going to happen. So, conversations are what is driving everyone’s results. And most people aren’t really aware of that. They can think of a gazillion things that are super important for them to get good at and they don’t learn how to have amazing conversations that connect them at a deep level with the people who are important to them, whether it’s in their careers or in their families. And so I’m all about giving people the skill, the tools to have these great conversations, and a fierce conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real, and there’s just not enough real going around.
Bryan: True, true. So, one topic I’m always interested in is how authors earn a living from their books. You know, it could be quite difficult to stand out and sustain a writing career over 22 years. So, I get how you could turn a book like Fierce Conversations, I suppose, into a type of business. And it sounds like you did that. You were working with or coaching with CEOs over the course of a few years. Is that right?
Susan: Yeah. I started a business and the business is thriving. We have done so much work. We are training people in every kind of company you can imagine, from startups to some of the largest companies, global companies that exist, and we are — and so, obviously, it’s not me doing it all. We’ve trained other people to take this into companies and so there is a thriving business and it’s been — it’s just been growing and growing and growing over 22 years. And that is how I have made a living because I did not expect to get the same advance for any other book that I might write. And I didn’t, but at least I had enough the first time around to start a business.
Bryan: If I was in a — I used to work in a corporate company for about eight or nine years and I read a lot of business books, I suppose to help me in corporate company, and then I decided I didn’t want to work for a corporate company anymore so I quit. So, I get why it would be great to work with a coach who could help somebody in a job like that, you know, get a promotion or lead their business. Why write a book about personal relationships? Because I would imagine people are more reticent to get coaching and get help with personal relationships.
Susan: Well, I wrote that because I have gotten so many emails over the years from people saying, “Oh my gosh, Fierce Conversations has helped me so much in my career and it has really helped me at home. I just had the best conversation with my wife or my husband ever. And I wish you would write a book just focused entirely on that,” and so finally I did. And, luckily, I have a marvelous CEO of our company so that freed me up to write Fierce Love. And I can’t wait for people to have it in their hands because it doesn’t matter whether your relationship is going great and you just wanna keep it great or whether you’re struggling or whether your relationships keep ending and you don’t know why so this answers those questions and gives you the very simple conversations, eight conversations to have with anyone who’s important in your personal life. So it’s about two people up close and personal on the ground where everything is happening. It’s not about love of country, love of dogs, even love of children. It’s a romantic relationship.
Bryan: I’ve been married about nine years. Could you give me an example of one of the conversations I should be having?
Susan: Well, sure, one of them would be how do you get past, “Honey, I’m home”? It’s really easy for us to fall into a pattern of we think we’ve learned everything that there is to learn about our partner, we slip into a routine, and we kind of get in a rut and so you know, “Hi, I’m home, love you, love you too,” and there’s nothing much more and the relationship sort of flat lines. And so how do we wake up a relationship, even a great relationship? And there’s a conversation about that, and it would take me a little bit too long to share the how-tos with you here, Bryan. Mostly, I think I wanna share some suggestions for anyone out there who wants to write nonfiction because I’ve helped a lot of people do that. I get calls all the time from people saying, “I love your book. I love your book. I’m writing one too. Do you have any advice for me?” and I do.
Bryan: What advice do you have for aspiring nonfiction authors?
Susan: Well, (a), read good fiction. So, even if you’re writing nonfiction, I don’t necessarily suggest that you read lots and lots of that. I suggest that you read really good fiction and lots of it, because that is the language, that is the vocabulary, that is the storytelling that will appeal to your readers. And I always write as if I am actually sitting down, maybe have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine with somebody and we’re talking. And that’s how I write. So I think, for me, having read fiction for my entire life has really helped me. It’s equipped me. I understand what reads well and what doesn’t read well. So that’s one piece — read good literature. Second —
Bryan: Any examples — just to stop you on the literature point, I’m not gonna let you off the hook that easily. What books do you recommend or what pieces of literature have made an impact on your craft?
Susan: Bryan, the list would be way too long, way, way, way too long. I mean, any good literary fiction, you can look it up online. Go ask for the best literary fiction and you’ll get a whole list of things. And so I’m not gonna say read this or that because I’ve read thousands and thousands of books. Many of them have been helpful to me.
Bryan: Do you mind if I ask how many books you read in a month or what your reading routine is? Because I hear a lot from people today that, “Oh, I don’t have time to read a book and there’s so many distractions and I can’t fit it in and I’d love to read this, that, and the other but it’s too long.”
Susan: Well, if you wanna write, if your goal is to be a writer, then stop giving yourself excuses about why you don’t have time to read. That’s just ridiculous. You know, I mean, if you want to write, then you need to write and in order to write well, you need to read good literature. And so the excuses just don’t — they wouldn’t fly with me. So, yeah.
Bryan: Sounds like it.
Susan: If you don’t wanna write, if that’s not your goal, then don’t read. I don’t — doesn’t matter to me. But if you want to write, then you need to read. So, a couple of other points, if I can —
Bryan: Please do. Yeah, you’re about to give the second piece of advice, go ahead.
Susan: And a third and possibly a fourth. So, you know, one of the things that people call me or email me or text me and say, “I’ve got this idea, I’m writing this book,” and then they give me the title or the topic and it is just boring beyond belief. It’s been done a gazillion times. There is nothing about the title or the topic that I haven’t seen and that everybody hasn’t seen. So you’ve got to come up with your big idea. What is your big idea? And one way for you to force yourself to clarify your big idea is to imagine that your ideal readers, thousands and thousands of them are sitting at your feet and they’re listening to you with every subatomic particle of their bodies, they are listening, and you have 20 seconds to say what you want to say. That is your message. And you need to be really clear about that. And it needs to feel fresh. It needs to feel, “Wow, I haven’t seen that before.” Otherwise, just don’t bother. Because in a book proposal, one of the things that you have to cover is what is your book’s competition and why would people buy your book versus all the other books on the topic that you’re writing, and so you better have a really good answer to that question.
Bryan: I’m glad you brought that up, Susan, because a lot of book ideas have already been tackled by authors. It can be hard for new authors to figure out an angle or a big idea. Would you have any kind of specific ways that you could help an author do that or anything that you’ve used in the past?
Susan: Well —
Bryan: Because like — when I think of your book about Fierce Love, for example, it’s offering relationship advice for couples and there are a lot of books that do that but this is doing it in a specific way.
Susan: This is doing it in one conversation at a time, the conversations that are so important for couples to have. I think, you know, you may stumble upon your big idea. I remember years ago a poet from Yorkshire, England, David Whyte, was speaking at a conference I attended and he said, you know, the young man who’s newly married is often frustrated, perplexed, even a little irritated that this lovely person with whom he hopes to spend the rest of his life insists on appearing before his face on a regular basis wanting to talk yet again about the thing they just talked about. And it so often has something to do with the quality of their relationship. And David said, “Along about age 42,” and he smiled because he was 42. “Along about age 42, if he’s been paying attention, it dawns on him, this robust ongoing conversation that I have been having with my wife is not about the relationship. The conversation is the relationship.” That hit me like a ton of bricks. That was the idea for Fierce Love. And if you — anybody listening to this, if that idea sort of resonates with you, if you recognize there may be something to this notion that the conversation is the relationship, then if the conversation stops, well, you can do the math, or if the conversation just becomes, “What do you want for dinner tonight? Who’s gonna walk the dog?” it just sort of flat lines then so will the relationship. So, the conversations that you’re having in a relationship are absolutely driving the degree of happiness and fulfillment that you will have. And most people just don’t understand that. So that was the big idea. So it came to me, it was a gift from David Whyte. And I asked him, I said, “May I use this because I’m in love with this idea,” and he didn’t mind so I went with it.
Bryan: Were you thinking of writing a book about relationships before that talk with David Whyte?
Susan: Yes, I was. In fact, this book had been circling me for about 10 years. But I was running the company, the company’s growing, lots of employees here and there around the world, lots of clients all over the world, there was absolutely no white space for me to think about writing Fierce Love until our CEO came on board. And he is doing such a spectacular job. I don’t even have to think about the company. And that freed me up to write Fierce Love, but I’d wanted to write it for a long time and so I was constantly making notes, whenever I would have a thought about, “Oh, this is something that I would want to talk about in the book,” I would make a note of it so that it didn’t escape me because I have found that if I don’t write something down, even if I think, “Oh, I love this, I’ll remember this,” I won’t remember this so I have to write it down. And I do. I’m constantly making notes on my iPhone.
Bryan: On the Notes app.
Bryan: It sounds like you were — you hear a lot about writers waiting for a moment of inspiration, but the bit that they leave out is you have to actually do the preparation and do the work beforehand so you can actually recognize that when it happens.
Susan: Well, I would think if you just show up, if you’re just available for the idea to come to you, it will come to you. But I think we work too hard at it. We’re trying to be clever, we’re trying to figure out, “Okay, what’s a different way to say this about leadership or that about leadership?” and we just block out all of the possibilities for something greater, something larger, something that will speak to people’s heads and hearts. And just make yourself available. Don’t go looking for it. It’s probably already there, you just haven’t noticed it. And the other thing is title. So I titled the first book Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time, so publisher who paid me a million dollars for it wanted me to change the title. They were concerned the word “fierce” was gonna put people off, “Nobody’s gonna wanna buy a book titled Fierce Conversations, we suggest that you title it Powerful Conversations,” and, honestly, Bryan, that would have guaranteed that nobody would have picked up the book. Nobody would have looked at it. You have to really fight for your title. It needs to be a title that people would notice.
Bryan: Is that because you feel the word “powerful” as a cliché or for some other reason?
Susan: It’s a boring word, “powerful.” Boring. What does that mean, powerful? I mean, really? So, if you see the title Fierce Conversations, you’re gonna be curious. What the heck is a fierce conversation? Is that the one where you tell me what you think of me and the horse I rode in on? I mean, what is that? So people at least would pick up the book, turn it over, look at the back. “Oh, this looks interesting.” Or read about it on Amazon or wherever they buy their books, read about it and think, “Oh, this sounds really good and it’s gotten great reviews and it was a New York Times bestseller and a Wall Street Journal bestseller. This must be a really good book.” And so — but the title catches people’s attention. And, actually, I remember, I was speaking to some audience somewhere, I remember, and I said, you know, they wanted me to call it powerful conversations and what a boring title and I found out later there was a man in the audience who had written a book titled Powerful Conversations and he came up to me afterwards, and he said, “You’re absolutely right. My title did not capture the kind of attention that I wanted.” And I said, “I am really sorry about what I said but you get the point,” and he said, “Yep, I do. I totally get it.”
Bryan: Yeah. Coming up with book titles is hard. Quite frustrating and it can take a lot of perspiration and a little bit of creativity.
Susan: A lot of creativity and a lot of perspiration and a lot of thought. I mean, if you’re gonna be a writer, you’ve gotta be willing to sweat some blood and possibly some tears along the way. This is not an easy thing to do. So, the big idea and the title, that’s really important. And then who are your ideal readers? Write to them. My ideal readers are somewhat sophisticated. They’re not foolish people. They’re smart. They want to be challenged. They want some good input. They want some ideas where they can say, “Holy smokes, I get that. I totally get that. I never thought of it that way before.” And so write to them. I write as if I am talking with my readers. And I think I know that that is one of the reasons why my books have been so successful, because people have told me they love the way I write. And so it’s a style called, I’m sure you’ve heard of it, creative nonfiction. And so that’s my approach.
Bryan: For your new book, how did you come up with your ideal reader? Were these people or clients that you’ve worked with through your business or people in your personal life?
Susan: Well, it was clients that were saying, “We love Fierce Conversations, please write about relationships,” but my ideal reader for Fierce Love is you and your wife and your friends and my friends, and everybody on this planet who is in or wants to be in a wonderfully loving and lasting relationship. This is for the world. This is not business focused at all. So this is for all of us. I mean, I can’t think of anybody who this would not be for.
Bryan: The other key part of a book is the cover. Do you have any insights on covers for bestsellers?
Susan: Oh, boy, yeah. Really. I mean, I battled and battled and battled with my publisher of the first book. I just — I kind of despaired because the cover was just not good that they submitted and finally we designed it ourselves and did that for Fierce Leadership as well and then — but I was really lucky for my publisher for Fierce Love had some amazing talent. It’s Harper Collins. They have amazing talent. And they sent me a bunch of choices and I fell in love with many of the choices they sent me and chose the one that I liked the best and it looks nothing like a business book because it’s not. It’s personal. It’s for you and me trying to love the person that we love well and be loved in return. So that was a very different look and feel and the cover is important.
Bryan: So we’ve talked about looking for inspiration, we’ve talked about the title, and the cover but we’ve kind of left out a little bit, which can be very frustrating for new authors, which is the actual editing process, because what I find is a lot of people can write a first draft and then when they get a feedback from an editor, they don’t know what to do next. So, how do you approach editing?
Susan: Yeah, I’m really glad you asked that. So when I was gonna sit down to write Fierce Conversations, never having written any book before, I just was — I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t know how to even — do I outline it? Do I do this? Do I do that? What do I do? And I called a friend of mine who was published and asked him what, tell me how I need to go about this, and he said, “Suze, it’s really simple. Write a shitty first draft.” I laughed, “That I can do. I absolutely can do that.”
Bryan: Classic Ernest Hemingway advice, I think.
Susan: Yeah, maybe. So I did and when the publisher bought the book and paid so much for it, I figured, gosh, they must just love the way I write so I think I’m good now, sent it off to their editor —
Bryan: Especially if you’ve signed a seven-figure book deal.
Susan: Yeah. But when it came back to me, I almost had a heart attack, because the editor, who is brilliant, she had marked it up, marked it up, marked it up, marked it up. It was very humbling. Very humbling. And she was smart, she was right on. And so I had to sit down with the book and make the changes that she had suggested and that took a while. And it was hard, because I had thought I was all done writing the book, “Here you go, publisher, have at it,” and then I was traveling for business and I had to take this huge manuscript, this was back in the days where they actually — we printed it out on paper. This was a big, thick, I don’t know, it was like three inches thick manuscript that was all redlined and notes in the, you know, margins, and work on it to make it better. So, you know, they’re all the ideas that we’ve all heard, you know, kill your darlings, that’s one of them. Some of your favorite stuff doesn’t work. And if it doesn’t work or doesn’t belong in this book, you have to say goodbye to it.
Bryan: That’s hard.
Susan: Also, just — I have this tendency, this is something I really had to struggle with. I tended to say the same thing over again in different ways because I would think, well, you know, maybe there’s a better way for me to say it so I’m gonna say this and I’m gonna say this. And, eventually, I had to realize, just figure out how to say it once and say it and get it done and move on. Don’t repeat yourself. Don’t have all these unnecessary words and sentences in there. If they don’t further the book, if they don’t make the reader and you as the writer want to keep going and feel like, wow, this is working, then toss it out.
Bryan: What you’ve described is what separates creative nonfiction from regular nonfiction. So, if you read any old nonfiction business book, sometimes it can feel like a blog post that’s been expanded to fill a book and there’s a lot of repeated ideas and repeated sentences.
Susan: And I can tell you one other thing, Bryan, is I personally, you know, a friend of mine called me a couple of years ago and he said, “I have the goal of writing a book, one book a year and I’m gonna write fables,” and I said, “Oh, my God, don’t do that. Don’t do that.” (A), I personally don’t like fables because they’re written for the lowest common denominator of a reader. They assume the reader is not very bright and then everything has to be spelled out in a fable. And if you’re gonna write a book once a year, how are you gonna come up with that many brilliant epiphanies? How are you gonna do that? I mean, if you don’t have something extraordinary to say, then don’t bother. So you have to think about, okay, who’s my reader? I need to write for that person. And you could even picture one individual, your ideal reader, and write for that person as if you were talking to that person.
Bryan: Good advice. I guess the authors who publish lots of books within a year, what they’re doing is writing a series but not like your series, you know, it tends to be a fiction series where they’re just continuing the story, much like Game of Thrones or Harry Potter. It’s harder to do that with nonfiction, at least that’s what I found.
Susan: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So I wish I had advice for fiction writers. I’m just starting on that journey myself and I’ve got lots and lots of books on my shelf about how to do that and I’m working through some of them and taking notes and I have my idea, and it doesn’t hurt that I have been reading good fiction for my entire life.
Bryan: There’s some good courses on masterclass from the likes of Neil Gaiman.
Bryan: He describes his fiction writing process. I found that really insightful.
Susan: He is such a good writer. I’m a big fan of his.
Bryan: So, Susan, where can people find Fierce Love or your other books?
Susan: Well, you can find any of my books on any bookseller like Amazon, for example. Susan Scott, look up Fierce Conversations or look up Fierce Love: Creating a Love that Lasts — One Conversation at a Time by Susan Scott. There’s another book titled Fierce Love that’s not by me and it’s not about the same topic. But you can, you know, go online and you can find it or you can go to susanscott.io and you’ll see a website that is focused mostly on Fierce Love.
Bryan: Thank you for your time, Susan. It was great to talk about your books.
Susan: Thank you, Bryan. Thank you for having me.
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