My Talk on Research and Planning in Storytelling (Transcript)

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My talk at Nantwich Library in Nantwich, Cheshire

Hi guys! This post is from a past email from my storytelling newsletter. If you'd like to receive these as soon as they're written, sign up to my email list here.

Yesterday I gave a talk to an audience of local writers in Nantwich, Cheshire, with the topic “Research and Planning in Storytelling”. With it being my first public event about my book, I was nervous but also excited. Liam and the organising team were most helpful and the local writers were warm and welcoming, asking lots of great questions.

The most common questions asked in my talk were about book publishing itself. This surprised me, but it’s also logical. I spend so much time going over the structure of good stories and the human psychology that makes them resonate so strongly, that I forget that for a lot of writers, their confusion lies mostly in the actual nuts and bolts of actually getting the book out there.

So for this week’s edition of the newsletter, I thought I’d write down a kind of transcript of my answers to the broad topics most asked at my talk, so that all of my newsletter subscribers gain the benefit from the advice. This advice will give you a clearer picture of how you can get your story idea into people’s hands, and show you that it’s less confusing and murky than it might seem from the outside.


Jonathan Baldie’s talk on “Research and Planning in Storytelling” at Nantwich Library in Nantwich, Cheshire

Audience: Why did you write this book?

Me: Believe it or not, my initial goal was actually to write a novel at the start of 2018, being a huge fan of great story franchises like Marvel, Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings. I wanted to throw my hat into the ring and write my own great stories. But all the storytelling books I read were either too linear or too woolly and unfocused. With the former, I hated that each chapter was prefaced with a dozen definitions. You should never need to do that, tell a story that conveys the lessons instead. With the latter, I felt like I’d read 200 pages of the author stroking their own ego without gaining any practical advice.

So with 24 Laws I set out to write the kind of practical handbook I wish I’d been able to learn from when starting out. One that eschews definitions and preaching, and instead actually embraces the very medium we’re trying to study: stories. Every chapter is self-contained, can be picked up and enjoyed by anyone, and includes at least one story or historical example. My goal was to make it both practical and entertaining, something I always have in my sights when writing anything: you’re writing for someone else to gain, not for yourself to stroke your own ego. That’s a very important part of my writing process.

Audience: Can you tell us more about your experience in the publishing world?

Me: So as I said at that the start of the talk, I self-published The 24 Laws of Storytelling. I used the Kindle Direct Publishing platform to publish both the Kindle ebook and paperback edition. I will be using a separate publishing company for the hardcover, and the audiobook will be published on Audible. For the latter, I’ll either be recording the audio myself or hiring a producer—I have mild Tourette’s and a stutter so one of those might seem a safer bet! In either case, I will be using

Whether to self-publish or traditionally publish, it’s a personal decision and each path has its own pros and cons. With self-publishing, you have complete control over everything, and if you’re fortunate enough like me to have a good 9-5 job and the resources to pay editors and cover designers, it can be wonderful to have that control. But you’re on your own, and you take on 100% of the risk. Now for me, that’s perfect, because I love taking responsibility, and I’m just kind of a lone wolf character.

Traditional publishing offers you the potential for a stable income, and the backing of a company that has your book’s best interests at heart. They have the resources, editorial, publicity-wise, and legal, to give your book a good chance of success. However, you must accept that in this scenario, the publishers may make decisions that you don’t agree with, and they may hold rights over your books in the future too. You can also easily add at least a year to your publication date.

I totally understand the decision to go for traditional publishing, and it’s not as mystical a process as it might seem. If you’re active on social media—particularly Twitter—you can interact with hundreds of agents who are looking for your kind of writing. Present yourself well, don’t badger them, or they’ll avoid you and put up their defenses. Just be a genuine person, and you’ll attract the right kind of attention from these people.

Audience: I’m struggling to decide between self- and traditional publishing. Can you offer some thoughts to help us one way or the other?

Me: Like I said, it’s a personal decision that only you as writers can make. I think there’s a stigma against self-publishing that isn’t entirely unjustified. I’ve picked up self-published books that had crappy covers and were full of typos and wandering prose. On the other hand, I’ve also found traditional publishers passing on fantastic manuscripts due to time and people constraints, with famous authors being given lenient editorial standards out of a fear of losing their valuable contracts.

The battle shouldn’t be between self-publishing and traditional publishing, but between professional and unprofessional publishing. I could have allowed my book to be as crappy as I pleased, but I didn’t want that—I wanted to publish a book that’d still be here in 50 years, that would genuinely help storytellers and writers, and provide a timelessly entertaining experience to readers, even if they’re in farthest East Russia a hundred years from now. To do that, I spent money on editors and a fantastic cover design, submitting my books to edits and going hard on the research and planning.

Audience: What is your writing process like?

Me: When I get an idea for a book, I don’t immediately make a start on it. Instead, I let it mull in my mind for a couple of weeks, maybe even a couple of months. I’m always reading or researching for some project, so I try to notice moments where I find material that can support it. If I’m finding that over the course of a few weeks the idea has burrowed further into my mind, and I find it fascinating enough, I know it’s worth pursuing.

Then when I am ready to start, I begin researching and producing notes. As I build up a body of notes, I can see a loose structure forming, and I gradually mould this into a book outline. The outline gets clearer and firmer over the weeks and months of researching and planning. For my second non-fiction book, I’m doing this to even more detail than with 24 Laws: that might seem a tad hypocritical, but I’m really following my own advice.

Now, a thorough outline makes the drafting process so much easier, because instead of having to spend every day languishing in writer’s block, I know exactly what I need to write. I have a clear structure to write towards. I’m also clearer on a lot of the ideas because I’ve spent months researching them. Also, I don’t have to spend every day summoning immense creative energies–I can direct that expensive mental energy into an interesting writing style. This in turn saves so much time in the editing phase.

With 24 Laws, I finished the first draft after about four months, and then a further two months editing that into three successive drafts. Each draft was tighter than its predecessor, my focus being on removing unnecessary clutter. This meant that when I passed it to my brilliant copy-editor Rebecca Allen, she was able to finish a week ahead of schedule. You can’t just rely on your own self-editing, because you’ll inevitably miss your own mistakes. A strong copy-editor will find errors, inconsistencies, and typos you’d never find in a million years of proofreading.

I’m happy to adapt or change any part of the writing process. When building strategies for long-term creative projects, you have to be like water, changing and finding the processes that best work for you. I’m a natural strategist and always afraid of stagnating by over-relying on some tool or technique. Be open to changes and never feel afraid to lose by branching out. The phrase in ancient Chinese strategy—which incidentally is one part of my next book—is to “be like water.”

[I then offered the audience seven of my top tips on research and planning in writing:]

Tip number 1: Plan, research, and outline. This will make it so much easier on yourself down the line. Writing becomes less about summoning immense creative energies every day, and more about producing actual work.

People’s most frequent objection to the kind of research and planning I preach about in my book is that it takes up so much time. This is false. It saves far more time from wasted days of rewriting, fretting and doubting yourself. Better still, it doesn’t have to be rigid—as Stephen King says, you should “play” with your characters. Write short stories, get to know them better. This will give you valuable insight into their personalities when you come to write your full novel.

Tip number 2: Make your book (or other work) either extremely entertaining or extremely practical.

This may not be as useful to fiction writers, but it’s 100% true for non-fiction writers. The real essence of this tip is to put yourself in your reader’s shoes. What are they getting out of this? Are you just stroking your own ego, or are you offering them something that’s real and actionable? So many authors neglect this and waste their readers’ time—you’re all better than that.

Actually, this advice does apply to fiction writers too. I’ve always said that a story’s primary goal is to achieve peak emotional resonance. There is more to storytelling than that, but I don’t think any other goal stands higher. The best way to achieve that, by the way, is to build characters who the audience loves, and then torture them. People really like that analogy, and it’s so true.

Tip number 3: Yes, people do judge books by their covers, as much as we hate to admit it. I invested a lot into my book’s cover, and it’s no doubt contributed to its sales.

Your book is going to compete with millions of others on Amazon and in book shops. Don’t be afraid to stand out. Be loud. Yes, your work should speak for itself, but how much better it is to have a great book with a fantastic, eye-catching cover?

Tip number 4: As Anne Lamott puts it in her classic book on writing, great creative works we can be proud of aren’t produced in an immense burst of great genius, but Bird by Bird. Piece by piece. Day by day. Word by word.

This is not only good advice for writing, it’s also great advice for life in general. One of the most time-tested and reliable ways to succeed in your goals is to break them down into small-manageable chunks.

[We actually didn’t get time to cover these last few, but I made notes for them so here they are:]

Tip number 5: Find a great, independent copy-editor and listen to her advice. Don’t take any of it personally, her job is to make your work great, so let her do just that.

Mine spotted glaring errors in spelling, grammar, facts about the stories I was covering, all of it. Rebecca was simply awesome. With her help, I felt a lot more confident about publishing my book out to the wide world.

Tip number 6: If you have an idea that you love, don’t ever think “Oh, someone’s covered this before.” No one can write in your unique style, or approach it with your perspective. Just write to your heart’s content and let your own style flourish.

This ties back to our earlier point on self-publishing. If traditional publishers are consistently turning your story idea down, but you know deep down in your core that it’s good, then you HAVE TO write it. You must write it. Let that fire out. You’ll regret it to your dying days if you don’t.

Tip number 7: Finish projects. Don’t let things stew in unfinished Word documents or Evernote folders. Writers write, so do that.

During the talk I also noticed that the audience were particularly keen to hear about resources and books on writing and storytelling. So I’ll share some of my favourites while I’m here:

As for writing resources, here are some of the best ones you can check out:

  • The Canadian writer Shaelin Bishop’s YouTube channel—her earlier videos on writing myths, tight prose, etc. are useful and well-delivered

  • Film critic Chris Stuckmann’s YouTube channel—this might seem an odd choice, but Chris explains why some movies are so good and others bad in a really clear and down-to-earth way, and provided a lot of the inspiration for my book

  • K. M. Weiland’s writing blog, Helping Writers Become Authors—Katie has been a significant influence on my writing, and her early foray into self-publishing at a time when the stigma was greater than it is today provides me with great inspiration

  • Kristen Kieffer’s writing blog, Well Storied and Facebook group, Your Write Dream

  • I’d be excessively humble not to mention my own book, The 24 Laws of Storytelling! Please check it out and leave a review if you enjoy it

Hi guys! This post is from a past email from my storytelling newsletter. If you'd like to receive these as soon as they're written, sign up to my email list here.

Posted on: 11th January, 2019

Please check out The 24 Laws of Storytelling, my book that explores the principles that makes some books and movies great and explains why others fail. By reading my book, you’ll gain the same strategies used by master storytellers such as Stephen King, Christopher Nolan, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and many more. Pick up your copy today.