You Can’t Succeed as a Writer Until You Take the First Step

Episode 09 with Chad Allen

Chad R. Allen (@chadrallen) blogs about writing, publishing, life, and creativity at www.chadrallen.com. He is an editorial director for Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, and works with such authors as Mark Batterson, Larry Crabb, Kyle Idleman, Chip Ingram, Kyle Idleman, and N. T. Wright. Allen was featured in Christian Retailing’s “Forty under 40” report and has written articles for Conversations, Radix, Relevant, and PRISM. He holds a B.A. in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and has an M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame. He and his wife, Alyssa, live with their two children in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Chad R. Allen’s website

Book Proposal Acadamy

Brendon Burchard’s book, The Millionaire Messenger

Listen here, on iTunes or Stitcher

Transcript

Andrea: Chad it’s great to have you on the Voice of Influence Podcast.

Chad: Ah I love this! Thanks so much, Andrea, for having me. I appreciate it!

Andrea: Okay, so I can’t go any further without asking you about Nebraska. Did you grow up in Nebraska or did you just go to school here?

Chad: Well, I was an Air Force brat, so I move around quite a bit in my childhood. But I did both high school and undergrad college in Nebraska.

Andrea: Aha, and so I’m from Nebraska so that was definitely something that I wanted to ask you about. So how did you get from Nebraska? You’ve been all over and now you’re doing so many amazing things with Baker Books but then also on your own. So did you get from there to here?

Chad: Well, so I graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Cornhuskers in the spring of ’96, and from there, I wandered around a little bit trying to find my way. I ended up volunteering for Douglas Gresham in Ireland of all places. Doug is the general consultant for the C.S. Lewis Foundation, C.S. Lewis PTE Limited. He’s also the stepson of the late C.S. Lewis. And so some of your listeners might know C.S. Lewis, he wrote The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe and the whole Narnia chronicle series as well as many other books.

So I flew out there in ’97, and I volunteered at his ministry there in Ireland. But part of that was just assisting him with his C.S. Lewis work. With that ministry, I got to see anything related to C.S. Lewis. New books would come across his desk for review and approval. And so I was exposed to the world of publishing through that volunteer opportunity and was just blown away. Because what I saw was that there was this whole back end to publishing and that people had actually an influence on the final product, and I was really captivated with that.

So that led to an interesting publishing and eventually working at Baker in Grand Rapids. I started out as a copy editor or project editor and then eventually made my way to acquisitions and now have been editorial director for six years.

Andrea: I know that you write as well, but not just write your own books but have an influence on other people that are writing books. You and I share very similar interests in that. That’s really interesting. So how did you decide that that was something that you wanted to pursue instead of going right after writing or something else like that right away?

Chad: Yeah, so you know, I was immediately intrigued with the ability to make a book better than when I received it and to really help an author craft their manuscript in a way that would make it as compelling as possible. So that was what initially brought me into publishing and I continue to do that work today.

About six years ago, I did start to feel this kind of pull toward doing my own writing, and so I started my blog to write about writing and publishing and creativity. So I do both now. I write my own stuff. And by the way, my wife is a great editor who helps me refine my own content and then I also continue to do the editorial work.

For me, it’s all about bringing what’s inside out. It’s about helping people do their art and get their content into the world. There’s just nothing that brings me more joy than that work.

Andrea: Why do you feel like it’s that important that people are able to bring that inside out?

Chad: Well, I think that we each have a unique voice. I was just talking to a coaching client earlier this morning and she was really struggling with…I think a lot of people struggle with this. You know, what I have to offer unique and to other people who talk about these things.

And I said, there’s nobody who’s going to do it the way that you do it. What you have to offer is unique. What comes easy to you does not come easy to others. The expertise you have in your particular area, you know, other people don’t have that and they need you to the extent you’d feel called to offer it. They need you to do that.

So, so much of work, Andrea, and probably this is why you have your podcast is to encourage people that their voice is valuable and it’s not going to happen unless they take the risk of getting it out there.

Andrea: With me, when it comes to this podcast and the passion that sort of drives it, it does have a lot to do with my own struggle in that area and then finding my voice and overcoming and that sort of thing. I’m curious if that is a similar thing that you found for yourself. Do you think that’s part of the reason why you’re so interested in helping other people find their voice in writing and creativity and drawing that inside out? Is that something that you struggle with personally?

Chad: Absolutely. I remember reading Brendon Burchard’s book, The Millionaire Messenger, not because I wanted to become a millionaire but because my friend, Andy Traub recommended it to me. He was the first person I heard say, “People really want what you have to offer if you just have the guts to offer it.” You know, there’s something here about trust and taking a risk and maybe a little bit of faith. And I just sort of trusted him and I went for it and that was six years ago when I launched the blog and I’ve been pleased to help a lot of people.

So I think that’s the other thing about this Andrea, as you do it, you know, we’ll make the road by walking it, right? As you do it, you get more and more confidence because you do see people reading your stuff and interacting with it. Yeah, sometimes I’ve seen a blog post in the world that doesn’t get much activity. That happens but then the next one I write does get some activity.

And so a little bit of success can be a big encouragement. You don’t have the opportunity for that success if you don’t get the first blog post out there, you know what I mean? Or the first article or the first podcast or whatever it is.

Andrea: Or the first 10 to see that all of them sort of matter and not everyone of them like you said will end up being that important or that popular. Yeah, I’ve certainly struggled with that in trying to figure out with what is the thing that resonates with the audience, who is the audience and that sort of thing. Is this something that you help people figure out?

Chad: Yeah. So I created this course called Book Proposal Academy. And again, this comes out of just putting myself out there and seeing what might happened. I was in a little Mastermind group when we’re talking about whatever we’re up to. And one of the people in the group said “You know, Chad, if you could show me how to write a book proposal that would be awesome.” I was like “Well, I’ve reviewed a few thousands in my career. I think I could help with that.”

So I created this course called, Book Proposal Academy. And what it’s specifically helps non-fiction writers do is write their book proposals and book proposals are how you eventually get published in the traditional publishing world. But what I found is that book proposals are also just a great way to develop your concept, to build out the structure of your book, to learn how to talk about your book, to make your concepts stronger, to think about the marketing of your book, and to begin actually writing your book because any book proposal that’s worth it. So includes a writing sample of the actual book.

So it’s been this great sort of tool for helping writers break through the barrier of getting started on their book projects. So that’s one way that I’ve helped people do that. The course is called Book Proposal Academy. Your listeners can find it at bookproposalacademy.com and that’s been a wonderful tool to help people. A lot of people have these scattered thoughts about a book they want to write. They struggle with getting started and I found that writing a book proposal is great way to break through that barrier and actually get your book into the world.

Andrea: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense and I can only imagine how valuable that is to people who are longing to write a book but they’re not sure where to begin and to develop their concepts. This idea of developing a concept I think is really interesting. What kind of things do you suggest when people are thinking about that maybe they have a book in their mind that they’d like to write? How do they turn that idea into a concept that’s really, really powerful and could get the attention of an editor or publisher but also would actually sell?

Chad: Yeah that’s such a great question. So the first thing to know is that the formula for publishing success is platform, big platform, plus great concepts, plus great writing equals publishing success. So you wouldn’t want to leverage a platform and service to a concept that’s weak because it’s just a waste of influence. You don’t have to spend all the time and energy into writing a great book if it’s not in service to a great concept because then you just invested a lot of time and energy that’s not going to go anywhere and that sort of wasteful.

So a great concept is really important. What I encourage writers to do is to first think about the need that their book is addressing, the itch that their book is scratching, and to really brainstorm what that is. What is the need that your book is responding to? And then even talk to people, would you buy a book that helps you do so and so, and even go to your Facebook tribe or just friends and family and ask that questions to get really clear your mind what’s the pinpoint that my book is going to relieve.

Once you have that firmly in place then I encouraged writers to brainstorm possible book titles and subtitles. When we talk about concept that can sound really amorphous and hard to get your mind around but titles are concept labels, they make concepts concrete. So as you play with different titles, you’re playing with different concepts. So with the need that your book is addressing in mind, you brainstorm working titles and subtitles for your book.

What I encourage people do, and I have folks who have actually done this through a pizza party, they’ll invite over all their most creative friends. You describe the need that your book is addressing and then you get them brainstorming titles and subtitles.

Andrea: What a great idea!

Chad: Yeah, so you just keep doing that until you have three or four strong titles, subtitles combinations and then you go to your Facebook tribe wherever you go for feedback and you say “Here are my top three or four titles, subtitle ideas, which of these would you been most likely to purchase?” And that’s the process that I encourage writers to use to develop a great concept.

Andrea: Yeah, those are great tips and great suggestions so one thing that you mentioned that you start with the need. And I think that a lot of times as somebody who really cares about making a difference and wants to get a message out into the world, sometimes we start with our own desire to share something instead of starting where other people are at, which sounds like you’re suggesting. Start where people actually feel the need.

So yeah, I just find that really interesting. How do you bridge that gap? How do you go from having an idea that’s inside of you and a passion that’s inside of you and turning it into something that’s actually going to meet a need?

Chad: Yeah, that’s the kind of million dollar question because we have these passions. We have these desires, this internal pull to write about something or to get some sort of message into the world and that’s really, really important. It’s important to know what that passion is to have a sense of that, but the real magic is when you can find the intersection between your passion and the world’s need.

You know, Buechner has this great quote about the place you’re called to is the place where your deep gladness meets the world deep need. And so I think both are really important, but definitely making a priority of determining what the need is and using your passion to meet that specific need. That’s the place where you are going to find the hearing and you’re going to be able to have increasingly more influence.

Andrea: There are a lot of people I think who might say “Well, I don’t need other people to read what I write.” I hear this a lot. “I’m just doing it even if it’s just for one person,” and that sort of thing. I can see why they would say that and I can say why I may have said that in the past at the same time I think that’s almost like cut out to finding this intersection that you’re talking about and it’s really hard work to find that.

Chad: Yeah. I mean, I do write just for myself sometimes. That’s called my journal.

Andrea: Right.

Chad: That’s really valuable, you know, there’s definitely a place for that. And there are things that I share my journal. I certainly wouldn’t share with the world. But I’m doing my blog, I want to serve people and yes that’s good for me. It helps me kind of untangle my thoughts and help me figure out what I wanted to say.

There’s a great quote about “How do I know what I think until I see what I say.” So am I getting something out of it? Absolutely, I’m getting something out of it, but I also want to help people and I just find that I get more readers when I’m speaking to issues that they’re really facing, that they’re really struggling with. And so I get a much better response when I’m zeroed in on serving people that I do when I’m focused on, you know, what do I have to say?

So it’s finding the intersection. And it’s a dance and it is difficult work. It’s also really energizing work when things go well. And like you said, sometimes you got to do this for 10 posts. Sometimes you got to do this for five years before you really see the results of your efforts, but the journey is worthwhile. So I hope that’s helpful.

Andrea: Yeah. Well, what’s the journey been like for you? So you already have a job, a really good job and doing something that’s really important and that’s your calling then you started to blog and what not. Did you immediately find a readership or has it taken a while to kind of get going?

Chad: It has taken a while for sure. Yeah, I mean what I did and what I encourage beginning bloggers to do is to get your first 10 articles written, and you know save on your hard drive before you even publish the first one, just so that you start getting into the rhythm of writing and sending your work into the world. So that you have 10 posts in the queue and then you can tweak them before you actually hit publish. That was how I started.

And you know, Andrea, those are some very fun memories for me of waking up early in the morning. Like you said, I have a fulltime job, but I would wake up and still wake up early in the morning most days of the week, and I often go to a coffee shop. And those are some of my best moments, right? Just me and my keyboard making something happen. I still love it. I get goose bumps even thinking about it now.

But yeah, it does take a while and it takes savvy you know. You learn ways of getting more and more eyeballs on your contents. I think a lot of it begins with learning that it’s really okay for you to ask people to read your stuff. You know, “Hey, I just wrote this. You might find it interesting, check it out.” You know, getting past the initial hurdle of asking people to check out what you’ve done is an important stuff to take. So it does take time.

And definitely if you’re going to do this, it’s important to have the long view in mind. I mean, there are stories that people who have sort of overnight success, but they’re the exceptions that make the rule. So definitely, you have to be content with the journey and the satisfaction of just giving your stuff into the world. But recognize that as you do it overtime and as you learn more and more techniques for attracting readers to what you’re doing or listeners to the podcast that you’re broadcasting. The longer you’re out it, the more people will learn about you that’s been my experience.

Andrea: Hmm, so when people are going through this process of trying to find that voice in writing, whether it’d be through using a book proposal or blogging, do you have anything in particular that you suggest people do in terms of taking care of themselves or how that relates to finding their voice?

Chad: Ah, I think that is so important. I’ve always been fascinated with the interplay between sort of caring for ourselves and serving others. I travelled quite a bit for work and we’ve all heard…anybody has been in an airplane has heard the flight attendant talked about, you know, if the pressure in the cabin goes down and the oxygen masks fall off and you have a small child with you, please place the oxygen mask of yourself before helping others. And I think that’s a metaphor for how we should approach creative work. We have to be taking care of ourselves if we’re going to help people to the best extent possible.

So when I talk about self care, I think about things like getting enough sleep. I think about eating well. I think about being connected relationally with people who are supporting me. You know, who’s your team? Who’s helping you do your creative work and how are you interacting with them on a regular basis? I think about the stimuli that I put in front of my cerebral cortex. What books am I reading? What shows am I watching? What podcast am I listening to that are going to help me do my most creative work? What’s my calendar like?

What kind of time am I committing to my art and how do I do that in a way that honors the work that I’m doing but also the person I am and my need for sleep and taking care of myself. So I encourage people to think about, how are you going to take care of you as you do this creative work? Because it’s when you’re living a full healthy life that you’re going to be able to produce the best content and help the most people possible.

Andrea: That’s some great advice. I self published a book recently and in that time of me writing, everything was so focused on getting this message out of my body and my head. Like I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. I didn’t even attempt to be published because I didn’t have that platform yet, and I just have this message inside of me that I had to get out somehow.

So I think I got so focused on just getting it out that it was easy to let other things slide, and yet I think if I were to look back and talk to myself back then, I would say something along the lines of “You have time. Take a breath. Make sure that you are doing these self-care things that you just suggested.”

One thing that really stood out to me was this idea of having a team around you that you connect with relationally and talk about. Is it easy to find that or how do you develop? How do you know who belongs in that position in your life when you’re trying to develop a message?

Chad: Yeah, I think there are at least three ways you can go about that. One is to enlist a mentor, and just think about somebody who’s farther along than you in the journey that you want to be mentored in and whether it’s creativity, health, blogging, or podcasting. Think of somebody in your current circles who may have more experience than you do and it could be somebody who lives near you, or it could be somebody that you’re just connected to via the internet and ask them.

You know, “Could we get together once a quarter?” Say, once a month or once a quarter, whatever works. “And you don’t have to do anything but show up and I’m going to ask you questions. I would just like to spend that time with you.” If you’re going out to lunch, make sure that you pick up a tab for lunch. I’ve done that to really great effects.

Another way is just a 1 on 1 meeting, so maybe somebody who is a peer of yours. It may not make sense for them to be your mentor but they’re somebody who’s also on the journey. So you have a rhythm of going out with them for coffee or lunch once a month again, once a quarter, or once a week whatever makes sense and you commit showing up with say 15 minutes of content that you’ve picked and they commit to the same thing. And you take notes when they’re talking or at least mental notes so that you are learning from them and they’re learning from you and you’re on the journey together.

And the third way would be developing what Todd Henry calls a ‘creativity circle’ where a group of people get together and they talk about, you know, “What are we working on right now?” Why do we need some accountability? What do we want to have accomplished by the next time we get together? And I’ve done those once a month, and again, they’ve been extremely helpful to me and supportive to me as I move forward. There are of course paid opportunities out there; coach, different mastermind, coaching groups that you can pay to enter and those are also worth checking out.

Andrea: What do you think is the value difference or why would somebody choose to seek out somebody like you to be their coach, their writing coach instead of finding a friend to talk to? What’s the difference there do you think?

Chad: Well, I think it’s just a different kind of help and somebody maybe the help they need is the help that only a friend can offer. I think the value of a coach is that a coach has walked this path before and they’re going to help you save time and energy so that you can just be more efficient and see progress more quickly. A coach can also help you with the accountability piece.

A friend maybe able to help you with that but if you’re paying a coach to keep you accountable then it tends to… You know, what I’ve noticed, Andrea, I guess when I pay for something, I’m much more likely to be invested in it with my own time and energy than if I’m getting a service for free. So that’s just the reality of human nature but I think both are important. I would hate to pick one against the other, but coaching does offer some things that other relationships don’t tend to offer.

Andrea: Yeah, that’s a good point. What else do you think you would like to cover, anything else that we haven’t really talked about?

Chad: I think this had been a really good dialogue. Sometimes an interviewer will ask me, you know, they’ll think about the audience they have in mind and they’ll say the people who are listening this podcast are tat tada tada tada. If you could only offer one piece of advice, what would it be? Maybe, we could end like that if you wanted to.

Andrea: Yes, absolutely! And also I’ll ask you where to find you, where people can find you and that sort of thing too. But I want to make sure that we didn’t have anything else that we need to cover. So Chad for the Influencers that’s out there listening, thinking that maybe they have a book inside of them that they’re not really sure where to begin. We know that they can come to your Book Proposal Academy and potentially take that course from you, but what was be the first step that you would suggest that they do in order to get that book out there to explore that idea?

Chad: That’s so great and it brings to mind a story, Andrea, if’ you’ll indulge me.

Andrea: Of course!

Chad: I remember when my son was about 4 years old; we went to Chuck E. Cheese. And this is not something I recommend usually to anybody because it just a lot of noise and a bunch of consumerism. But one thing that he came away with from the trip was slinky. And I think slinkies are pretty awesome toys. And it wasn’t long before we got home and he was trying to do what they do in the commercials.

He was trying to get the slinky to walk down our stairs. He just kept trying and took the top front of the slinky and slams it down to the next step, and to be honest, it was not just going off. And I thought “Oh boy!” You know, I’m going to have to break it for him. He was 4 years old and I’m going to break it to him that what they’re doing in the commercials isn’t possible in real life.

But little Lucas, he just kept trying. He kept trying to put that top of the slinky on the next step. And all of a sudden, I don’t know what he did, but he did something just right because he did the same thing again. He put it down on the next step and off it went 17 steps all by itself and it was like an incredible moment.

I remember, he was at the top of the stairs and I was at the bottom of the stairs and we both looked at each “Well, it’s happening.” And I looked at his mouth, it was wide open and it jumps up in the air and his hair was all over the place.

Now, what I want your listeners to do is post that image in their minds that image of a little boy jumping into the air with his eyes wide open with his hair flying everywhere because that’s what is possible for them if they keep trying the first step. So the first step could be writing a blog post once a week. It could be writing 250 words every week. It could be writing that chapter every month. It could be posting their podcast once a week or once a day or whatever it is.

Whatever it is to take the first step and the key to taking it over and over again until something hits, until something happens that goes just right, that’s what they need to do. Focus in on that that first step. They need to take over and over again, and if they do that and they do it faithfully, they can’t go wrong.

Andrea: Wow that’s a great advice. Thank you so much for all of this advice about writing and publishing. So Chad, where can people find you if they’re wanting to learn more about you?

Chad: Yeah, I’m at chadrallen.com and the same both on Facebook and Twitter, chadrallen, and you can find me on those various places.

Andrea: I’ll be sure to link to your website and that show notes. And I would also mention to the Influencers listening that there are a lot of great resources there. So please go ahead and check them out and the things that are free. I love some of the things that I’ve seen on your website. So thank you for all of the things that you’re doing to help us, to help people like me and the Influencers out there to be able to develop their own Voice of Influence as you’re using yours.

Chad: Thanks, Andrea. It has been a lot of fun!

 

 

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