How can you use elements of mystery to hook your readers, regardless of the genre you write? How can you make sure your writing process prevents errors or plagiarism? Jonah Lehrer covers these aspects and more.
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Jonah Lehrer is a New York Times bestselling author of non-fiction and a journalist. His latest book is Mystery: A Seduction, A Strategy, A Solution.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- How children’s Surprise Egg YouTube videos inspired the book
- How do we know when an idea is big enough for a book?
- Practical ways of bringing mystery into any story
- How spoilers aren’t always bad
- Using the rules of mystery in non-fiction
- Recovering from a career-changing writing mistake, and how it has changed Jonah’s writing process
You can find Jonah Lehrer at JonahLehrer.com.
Transcript of Interview with Jonah Lehrer
Joanna: Jonah Lehrer is a New York Times bestselling author of non-fiction and a journalist. His latest book is Mystery: A Seduction, A Strategy, A Solution. Welcome, Jonah.
Jonah: Thank you so much for having me.
Joanna: Oh, I’m excited to talk to you. So, let’s get right into it.
Why a book about mystery? What was it that drew you to write about this topic?
Jonah: The book is full of examples drawn from the canon, from great works of literature, from ‘Hamlet’ to Emily Dickinson, but what actually inspired me to write this book was watching my son watch YouTube videos.
He fell down the rabbit hole, this specific genre of kids YouTube video called ‘Surprise Eggs,’ which, to make a long story short, if you haven’t had the pleasure of watching these inane videos, it’s essentially parents make these giant paper mache eggs and stuff them full of toys. And what a child does is he punches a hole in the paper mache egg, and then pulls out the toys one by one.
It’s like a slot machine for toddlers, they never know what toy is going to come next. So it’s incredibly exciting.
I watched him watch these videos and just become enthralled by them. And then I quickly realized he wasn’t the only one that a lot of these ‘Surprise Egg’ videos on YouTube.
The ‘Surprise Egg’ genre is now one of the most popular genres in the YouTube Kids world, that he was just enthralled by this narrative trick of not knowing what toy was going to come next. And you can look at these videos and their stats on YouTube, and they have billion plus views.
Ryan’s Toy Review in particular, he’s one of the most subscribed YouTubers in the world. He’s credited with pioneering the ‘Surprise Egg’ and it’s the 33rd YouTube video of all time.
I became fascinated by this idea of why kids were so entranced by mystery, by these mystery boxes. And that is really what led me down this long, winding path, this investigation into mystery, not just on YouTube Kids, but in Shakespeare, but in poetry, in advertising, in magic tricks, and so forth.
Joanna: For all the people who want to write non-fiction who are listening, or do write non-fiction, I’m one of them, how do we know when an idea is big enough for a book? Because you’re pretty academic, from what I read, and you go deep into it. Mystery, in one way, it’s really massive, and in another way, it’s really small.
How did you know that this idea was big enough for a book?
Jonah: It’s such a good question, and I wish I had a better answer. But for me, I don’t know. I just kind of follow the thread.
It began with me thinking about why my child was so entranced by the YouTube videos that I found so inane, and consumerism at its most banal, just like a kid tearing up in toys, and not even playing with them. So, that’s where it began.
Then I start to see connections everywhere, and I just start putting them together, I create these massive Word files. Then give it some time to breathe. And I see what hangs together.
Slowly, over the course of, I think for this book, probably two years, a structure gradually emerged. But at the beginning, what I’m really looking for is a subject that’s capacious enough, that’s wide-ranging enough that I guess is vague enough, where I can just start to collect stories that fit. And then I fall in love with the stories.
Joanna: So, diving down a publishing rabbit hole already, we’ll get back to the book in a minute. When do you pitch the book to your publisher? I know you’re traditionally published. Is that something that you do once you’ve got that structure? Because, again, just the word mystery, to me, I think fiction, but you’ve turned it into this non-fiction book.
When did you pitch that to a publisher? When did you know it was right?
Jonah: I’m fortunate enough to have a really wonderful relationship with my editor at Simon & Schuster, Ben Loehnen, who’s just one of the best. We have a casual relationship where I was able to go to him fairly early in the ideation process, and just say, ‘I’m really interested in these kids YouTube videos, and I think they’ve got something to do with characters in ‘Hamlet.’
I think he probably gave me a pretty funny look. But he was encouraging and said, ‘Keep pulling up the thread, see what happens.’ And then, I’d say, six months later, I sent him a messy proposal.
It was sprawling, and I think what I wanted to do with that proposal was to give him a sense of the breadth of the idea, that this wasn’t just a book about detective stories. I certainly talk about Agatha Christie and Edgar Allan Poe and ‘Law and Order’ and all the rest. But it was a book about mystery broadly defined, about why we’re drawn to the unknown across all these different domains.
Really, I wanted it to be an investigation of this fundamental hook of culture, how great artists throughout history have always used the unknown to intrigue and seduce the audience.
He had some truly wonderful thoughts. I think a great editor, they bring that outside perspective, they read it as the reader and not as the writer. And they see all your flaws, they see all the structural issues.
Throughout the process, I think what he really helped me with this book in particular on was the structure, was trying to take this very amorphous topic and try to give it an arc. So it would build to something. And that advice was there, thinking back on, it was there from the start.
Joanna: The subtitle is, A Seduction, A Strategy, A Solution. I was thinking about it from the point of view of the people listening and writers in general, to me, it’s a strategy, really, for our books.
How can we bring elements of mystery into our books, regardless of genre?
Jonah: I think there’s something to be learned from looking at how the great ones have done it. One can deconstruct an Agatha Christie story, or an Edgar Allan Poe story, and try to figure out what is it about this detective genre that I think Poe largely invented, that makes it so predictable, that makes it last?
It’s not just a popular genre of literature, but it’s also one of most popular genres of television, the procedural. And it’s the same basic idea. It’s this omniscient detective, this deductive cop who can solve the impossible crime, they connect the dots that no one else can connect. What is it that’s so appealing about that?
The basic assumption of this book is that we can learn from successful art. That the art that works and the art that lasts can teach us something, not just about the art, but also how the mind works, and what the audience wants, and how we can create art that really fits those strange grooves of the human mind.
So, as a strategy more generally, I think it’s important to remember that what the audience is most intrigued by is the unknown. When we say something is suspenseful, that the pace is quickening, what we’re really saying is that we don’t know what’s going to happen next.
I think too often we put too much information in, we’re too concerned about people getting lost, people being a little confused, people being surprised by twists that come out of nowhere, when the reality is, that’s the fun part. That’s the part that we love the most.
At a high level, I think the strategy is to remember that people are really fascinated by the unknown, whether it’s toys in a paper mache egg, or not knowing who committed the crime.
Joanna: I’m looking for some more practical ideas for how people can do that. For example, Lee Child, obviously great thriller writer, talks about open questions. I like to use cliffhangers at the end of a chapter, an open the door, but we don’t know what’s behind the door.
What you said there about not giving too much information upfront is really important and is one of the main things.
What are some other practical ways we can bring mystery into our books?
Jonah: There are a couple discreet ways. One is the mystery box.
The mystery box is a specific technique where you create, I talk about in the book in terms of George Lucas in ‘Star Wars.’ The idea that when you watch the first ‘Star Wars,’ the movie really does lurch from one mystery box to the next.
You don’t know who the Jedi are, you don’t know what the Force is, you don’t know who Obi-Wan Kenobi is. And I think if you’re reading that from an editor’s perspective, you might say, ‘George, this is just too confusing. You need to give us more background here.’ We’re completely lost for the first hour of the movie.
Yet I think what Lucas realizes is, that’s what keeps us engaged, we’re in this immersive world, we have no idea what’s going on, and that’s why we pay attention.
It’s the same with the first chapter of Harry Potter, which I dissect in the book, which all these strange things are happening. Talking cats on this very ordinary street, this bizarre world is unfolding, and we don’t understand any of it. And we kind of see the world through the eyes of Harry Potter. And that’s what’s so interesting, the fact that we don’t understand it.
I think especially when you’re introducing a new world, I think it’s important to let the reader be confused, to let the reader not know what’s going to happen next. I think, at the level of plot, it’s important to not give too much away, as Agatha Christie put it, it’s the chase that people want. The who done it is most interesting before we know who did it.
But also at the level of character. I think this is the more neglected virtue of mystery, which is that sometimes we want to ensure our characters have clear motivations, our characters are transparent and easy to understand, that they make sense in some larger sense. I think when you look at literature and the best characters, the characters are most interesting, they’re the ones that befuddle us.
They’re the Hamlet’s of the world, the Tony Soprano’s of the world, the characters who we don’t know what they’re going to do. And that’s why we really have to engage with them and simulate their minds, and really try to figure them out. And that’s what’s most interesting to us. So I’d say it’s also not just plot but also character.
Joanna: You’re right, when a character is in the ‘Star Wars’ example, they know what the Force is, so they don’t need to explain it to each other. The worst extra dialogue is, ‘You remember, Jonah, when we went to that thing last week?’ Backstory thrown in dialogue because we don’t know how else to do it.
Jonah: That can be so tempting because you feel like you’re giving the reader a hand, you’re doing those data dumps. That doesn’t just slow down the pace of the story, it actually detracts from what we find most interesting, that at some deep level, we don’t want to understand.
I was lucky enough to spend time with the writing staff of ‘Law and Order.’ They really see their job as confusing and surprising the audience for 41 minutes. It’s the 42nd minute where you give away the answer and the crime has to be satisfying, and the gears have to click into place.
But they really see their job as, for most of the show, for the first 41 minutes of the show, you don’t want to know who did it. You don’t want to solve the crime, because then it’s not interesting.
Joanna: I feel like mystery readers, crime readers and watchers, obviously now TV and film are some of the most intelligent readers and it takes a lot to actually hide things from these readers. It’s annoying to many of us who read the genre, publishers now put in a fiction subtitle, “The most explosive twist you will never expect.”
And of course, we all go, ‘Well, of course we’re going to figure it out.’
Where’s the line between making it so difficult to figure out that we surprise people but also avoiding that deus ex machina, ‘oh, suddenly it was this person who we’d never seen before,’ which betrays the rules of story?
Jonah: I think that’s where the art comes in. There’s no simple formula that can tell you exactly how to calibrate it.
On the one hand, of course, you don’t want to completely befuddle parts of the ‘Star Wars,’ to return to the ‘Star Wars’ analogy. Parts of that world have to make sense, we can’t be completely lost. We need a guide, we need a character who can lead us through, whether it’s Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker.
We need to feel like there’s someone there we can trust. And I think that’s part of the virtue of the detective formula, is we feel better, even though we ourselves are confused. We’re there to be confused. We’re there to not know the answer.
I think what mitigates that confusion, that sense of anxiety is this detective, is the Sherlock Holmes who’s going to lead us through and we’re confident, in the end, he will figure it out and show us how it worked.
There are also the principles, and this is something Poe and Conan Doyle really perfected, this notion that the crime should be deducted in some way, that at the end, we should be able to look back and understand how it happened. So it shouldn’t feel random.
That’s an important principle of the genre that is often violated. I find personally when I read a detective story, and there is that deus ex machina coming in, swooping in at the end. You just get so angry. It’s, ‘Oh my gosh, I just wasted a lot of time here.’
There are those basic principles of the genre that I think the best ones do obey. And yet at the end of the day, it’s a formula that shouldn’t feel formulaic. When you look at my favorite detective story writers, my favorite crime writers, they often use other aspects of the genre, other aspects of the novel, to bring in layers of richness, whether it’s deep, complicated characters, who aren’t just xeroxes of Sherlock, or really interesting crimes, or introduce you to an entire underworld that you never thought about before. So, it’s not just the same old crime story, they find other elements to also make it richer.
Joanna: I think this is really interesting too, between discovery writers, I’m a discovery writer, and plotters and planners. Obviously with non-fiction you’re a plotter and a planner structure.
Those of us who are discovery writers, I find, I only really know the ending once I get to the ending, and then it’s a case of actually going back and adding in a few lines, not to make it obvious, but to foreshadow the inevitable, and that is the trick, isn’t it? Making it seem like an inevitable who did it or ending, but you can put in that later.
I feel like many people who are just starting out writing don’t realize that you don’t have to write in order. You can go in and add things in. You can add in a red herring later.
You can add in some foreshadowing later, in order to make it not too obvious, but also inevitable in some way.
Jonah: Absolutely. One of my favorite stories in the book was told to me by Otto Penzler, who runs The Mystery Bookshop in New York City, and Elmore Leonard was one of his dear friends.
He tells a story about Elmore Leonard coming to him in the middle of the night and saying, ‘Otto, Otto, I got this terrible problem.’ And I’m paraphrasing here. ‘So my main character died on page 122.’ And Otto says, ‘Well, just unkill him, just like change it.’ He says, ‘I can’t.’
In a sense, he was the quintessential discovery writer, that here he had this character he loved, but he was writing this bar scene, and his main character got shot and died. And he couldn’t undo it. The twist felt right to him. So then he had to solve the rest of the book with a dead main character.
To me, that was such a great example of why Leonard’s work rises above the genre, in part because he’s constantly violating the rules of the genre. He’s following these characters, who are these rich, complicated human beings on the page. And if they die on page 122, they die on page 122.
Then he’s got to discover the rest of the book. But to me, it was like, this great example of why it doesn’t have to be this meticulously plotted and outlined work. You can also trust these characters, that they’re interesting and they’ll tell an interesting story too.
Joanna: J. K. Rowling obviously has the famous spreadsheet that you can find online, if you Google, J. K. Rowling’s spreadsheet. And clear plot lines and all of this, it can definitely work both ways.
You have this really good section around reviews that reveal plot twists, and many authors get very upset about this. But we all know, engaging with reviewers on Amazon over reviews is often not a good idea.
Why is the ‘spoiler’ not such a big deal after all?
Jonah: To be honest, this is one of the social science findings I found most surprising in the books. This was a real plot twist for me.
We live in this age full of spoiler anxiety, spoiler alerts are everywhere. And yet when you look at the scientific literature, and this is mostly the work of Nicholas Christenfeld at UCSD, he’ll give people a variety of works of literature from different genres. Detective stories, literary short stories, and so forth. Everyone from ‘Sherlock Holmes’ to James Joyce, and then he’ll give them different kinds of spoilers.
Some, he’ll just include a sentence at the front saying how it’s going to end, some he’ll write the story, so at the beginning of the story, he’ll rewrite it, the beginning the story actually gives away the end, and so forth.
What he finds is that for good works of literature, for good stories, stories that people like to begin with, spoilers actually make them more enjoyable, that we actually enjoy the story even more, we give it higher ratings when it’s spoiled at the start.
Now, there’s no easy explanation for this finding. I think there are a couple of different things going on. The one I find most persuasive is that when a book is good, there are many layers to it. There are many mysteries built in.
The mystery of ‘Harry Potter’ isn’t just who’s going to win, Harry or Voldemort? In many respects, we kind of know Harry’s going to win. Most genre fiction, it’s got a predictable ending, the good guys are going to triumph, there’ll be a wedding at the end and so forth.
So, the big part of what we enjoy in the book is everything else, the building of the characters, the writing itself, the layers to the world, the way the story unfolds. And it turns out, when you give away the ending, when you know how it’s going to end, that frees up more mental bandwidth. It gives you the space and the ability to really enjoy all those other layers.
That’s one of Christenfeld’s leading explanations is that it gives you more space to enjoy our favorite parts of the book, which it turns out is not just the mystery box at the end.
So I think we should be less anxious about spoilers. I also see spoilers as a really good test of a story’s worth. No one complains that ‘Hamlet’ is ruined when you know Hamlet dies. No one complains that if you know Harry Potter wins at the end, you’re not going to want to read ‘Harry Potter.’
These are works that endure, even when you know the end.
And that’s why we keep rereading them. That’s why we keep watching Hamlet over and over again, it’s why my 10-year-old daughter has read through ‘Harry Potter.’ I think she’s on trip number five. Because these books are unspoilable.
It becomes this really interesting test of the worth of a story is if you spoil it, do you still want to read it? In many cases, the answer is yes. We’ll enjoy it even more.
Joanna: I think that’s so useful. I’ve read the book, obviously, I think this is one of the most useful insights for my audience, because I feel like everyone, especially in the mystery genre, the crime genre, this obsession with the twist, the surprise, the ending, who murdered is who, but you’re exactly right.
I want to enjoy my whole experience of the book. And in fact, if you over-hype that bit of it, then the rest of it might fall short. So, I love this. I think it’s so important. I wanted to emphasize it to everyone listening.
Obviously, we still want to have good endings and good twists and good stories. But the whole thing, as you mentioned, your daughter, my husband, he’s in his late 40s, but he’s watched ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ I don’t even know how many times. He reads it and listens to it in every single format, hundreds of times over his life. That story never stops being so brilliant to him.
Jonah: You keep discovering new things. The greatest mysteries are really infant games, they’re stories you can go back to again and again and again. And they keep giving you new questions. Not the same answers, but new questions. I think that’s the real test. And that’s what makes them so unspoilable.
Now, that said, I don’t want to diminish the fun that can be had in puzzle fiction, in detective stories that maybe I don’t want to read again. But, man, they were fun on the airplane that first time, or they were fun on the beach, or they were fun, just they kept me awake till 2 a.m. because I needed to know how it ended.
There’s tremendous joy to be had in those works, too. And I think those can be spoiled. So I don’t think it’s true if all fiction that it’s unspoilable. But it’s true of a particular kind of fiction, which is the fiction we want to go back to again and again, and I think that’s what most writers aspire to. So, not a book that shouldn’t be spoiled, a book that can’t be spoiled.
Joanna: If perhaps you all aspire to write that. But for those of us who earn a living with writing books, sometimes the rules of genre and story are important. And we write a book that people race through. As James Patterson, obviously, the highest earning author in the world, it’s all about page turners. There’s a room for both.
Just one question also, on non-fiction, obviously, you’re a non-fiction writer primarily.
Can the rules of mystery be used in non-fiction to get people to keep reading?
Jonah: Absolutely, I think it’s the same basic principle, which is, you don’t want to give away the answer at the beginning. You want people to feel like you’re still unfolding new information, that there are new twists in a sense.
In this book, I structured the book loosely from the simplest way to create mystery, which is with mystery boxes, to talk about the magic trick approach, which is art that essentially hides the mechanics of its making. So you see a magician perform a trick, and it’s not who did it, but how did he do it?
That’s a trick of creativity that’s been used by magicians, of course, but also painters throughout history, how did they paint that that way? And they hide their tricks, so, that becomes the mystery.
There’s the mystery of disfluency, making the work a little bit more difficult so it forces the audience to engage. And that brings us in deeper into the world and wakes us up. It makes the art more fulfilling to solve.
There’s the mystery of character we talked about. And I think there are all these different strategies one can use to create mystery.
My goal with the structure of the book was to keep introducing these new facets, these new twists, so to speak, and at the end to put them all together. It’s certainly not plotted tightly like a great James Patterson book, or an Agatha Christie book.
Even in non-fiction, you want to keep asking yourself, why would a reader read this chapter? What is new here?
What am I teaching myself? What do I expect to learn from this? And that’s why for me as a writer of this genre book, I think it’s really helpful to see the book as an investigation.
You asked me in the beginning how I choose a subject, and I think, for me, it has to be a subject I really feel like I don’t understand. In the hope that part of the joy of that investigation will rub off in the writing and you’ll feel my curiosity as I explored the subject, the fact that I’m writing this to discover myself, I’m writing this because I don’t know and I want to figure this out.
Joanna: Absolutely. That’s why I write non-fiction as well is generally, I don’t really know what I think about this, or I need to learn about this. So, I might as well write a book about it.
Jonah: You hope the fun of that discovery, that childish joy of not knowing, you hope that rubs off, you hope that’s somehow maintained in the writing, I think, especially as we go back and work on version 112. It’s easy to scrub that out. It’s easy to kind of feign omniscience at the start.
I’m very conscious as a writer, as I go back and edit and edit and edit, to not lose it all, to maintain some of the joy that was there as I made these connections in the moment.
Joanna: Now, I wanted to tend to your career as an author, and you actually just said the phrase, losing it all. In your pitch email, you mentioned this very public failure nearly a decade ago now.
What happened, and how did you come back? How did writing help you recover?
Jonah: It was a devastating failure. I made some really terrible mistakes in a book proposal I was writing on creativity, I was rushing to finish, I was taking on way too many projects. I included some fabricated Bob Dylan quotes, some Bob Dylan quotes that captured the gist of what he was trying to say about the creative process, but were not his quotes, were completely mangled.
In essence, I broke the most basic rule of my profession, which is to quote accurately.
Those mistakes were discovered, the book was pulled from the shelves, and I lost my job as a staff writer at a magazine and all the rest. It was very public, it was very humiliating.
For a long time, I really didn’t think I’d ever write again. I didn’t think I should, I thought I’d failed too badly.
I didn’t trust myself. And then as the years went by, I realized how much I missed writing, that, for me, writing was really a way of making sense of the world, as we’ve discussed. It wasn’t just a job, it was a way I walk through life and ask questions about it. And when I lost that ability, I just missed it terribly.
So I started writing for myself. Slowly those drafts, and this was a book that came out five years ago, about love and attachment theory, that book really became an investigation into, I lost my job, I lost everything I thought I wanted in life, professionally, and yet I was still standing, something was holding me together. And it was my family. It was these loving relationships.
That became an investigation of attachment theory, and the science of how these relationships give us support, and get us through the toughest times. So, that was that investigation.
But that book really began as 2 a.m. journal entries, these late-night musings when I couldn’t sleep. And to be honest, I’ve never enjoyed writing more. I’ve never had more fun on a book than I did on this book.
So I think there’s something clarifying, looking back on it, about my professional failure. It, I think, definitely made me a better writer. Definitely helped me figure out why I wanted to write, it wasn’t just for the praise, or the sales figures, or whatever. It was because I need to, because this is part of who I am.
I think in the fall, that was a very, very clarifying revelation that I write because I need to. And so, that is really why I write today.
Joanna: I’m really glad you’ve come back to it. I do remember, when you emailed me, I was like, ‘Oh, I remember that name.’ And I sort of remembered that happening.
I’m so glad you’ve been able to forgive yourself and get over it. Because what’s so crazy now is we’re in this even more difficult time, I think, with a cancel culture and social media and things that make it difficult for writers.
In the grand scheme of things, what happened, what you did was not exactly a matter of life and death, you said it was the most important thing in your job was quite accurately. But there are so many important things more important in life, right?
Jonah: I see it from the perspective of journalism and non-fiction writing, there are rules, there are sacred rules, and it’s a self-enforcing profession. And that’s why I think they come down very hard on people like me who broke the most basic rules.
In terms of the cancel culture aspect and the public shame aspect. I do get asked about that a fair bit. I never quite know how to respond, because looking back on it now, the most painful parts are all private. It’s not what Twitter said about me. And this is just, I should be very clear, this is just my experience, other people are going to have very different experiences.
But for me, looking back on it, it was my own private shame of, ‘I made these mistakes. How could I let this happen? How could I do this?’ It wasn’t the noise happening on social media.
For me, before I trusted myself to write again, it was really, how can I ensure this will never happen again? How can I construct the process as a discovery writer, someone who writes to figure out what they want to say, which is very inefficient and comes with its own downside. But how can I, knowing that’s my process, how can I construct a method that ensures I will never fail again? Because I couldn’t go through that again.
Joanna: Oh, absolutely. I think that’s inadvertent plagiarism. Even if people don’t intend to use someone else’s quote, or make up a quote, or something, sometimes these things happen, as you say, if you don’t have a process.
If people want to stop anything like that happening, what are the rules and practices that you have that others might be able to adopt?
Jonah: This is just my process, I want to be very clear about that, I should be the last person giving out advice on writing methods.
But my own process now is I, of course, tape-record every interview, I have the interviews independently transcribed, and then when I’m done writing about the subject, I don’t just send them the interview, I send them the entire section of the book.
This is very unconventional, and I totally appreciate that it wouldn’t work for, say, a Bob Woodward or investigative reporter. But when I cover a scientist say, or when I cover an artist, when I write about Nicholas Christenfeld’s work on spoilers, or his work on what makes sports interesting, or if I spend time with the writers of ‘Law and Order,’ I want them to feel like the book accurately reflects their experience as well.
I send them the actual material that covers them in the book. And if they want a larger context, I’ll send them a large context.
I’d say 95% of the time, it comes back with no notes or very minimal notes, small requested changes. Occasionally, people will say, ‘I know I said the quote this way, but here’s what I actually meant.’ And, with very few exceptions, I see to their changes.
Again, I realize this is completely unconventional, but this is my method now. And then, at the end of that process, after I go through and send the book out to everyone in the book, or everyone whose research I write about in the book, I then hire an independent fact-checker to go through it again.
That’s my process, it is time-consuming. To be honest, I couldn’t imagine writing without it.
Looking back on myself 10 years ago, I am frankly astonished at how careless I was in terms of not hiring a fact-checker, not sending out the material to my subjects in any way, shape, or form. So, this is just my, again, to repeat, and I’m starting to sound like a broken record here, this is just my method. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone else.
But this is the method that has evolved over time so I feel comfortable, at the end of the day, putting a book out there, ensuring that I’ve done everything possible to make sure it’s as accurate as possible, and reflects the views, ideas, and experiences of those in the book.
Joanna: Well, of course, this is a podcast that is about your opinion and your experience. But I would add, I do a lot of non-fiction but I don’t generally do interviews, but with books, when I write notes, I will always put quote marks around things that someone else said.
Anything that is not my words has quotes around it, so that I always attribute. And for people listening, you can also use plagiarism checkers online and things like that. I worry about accidentally using a quote as my own words, that’s what I worry about.
Because sometimes you’re using things and for some reason they came in somehow. So I worry about inadvertently doing it. But there are, as you say, there are practices that we can all put in place, we’re careful. And then we check things.
I think all of this is good practice whatever genre you write.
Jonah: The brain is a connection machine, and it often loses track of where its ideas come from. And it remembers in fragments and snippets. So, in many respects, plagiarism is an understandable sin. But it happens and it’s still a sin.
And that’s why I run my own plagiarism check and the fact-checker runs their plagiarism check, just it’s like a double safe process. And it’s just one more step. But, again, it’s to help me feel okay putting a book back out into the world, dealing with my own anxieties about it. It is time-consuming, it is expensive, but I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way at this point.
Joanna: I think that’s great. You’ve obviously matured as a writer and as a professional. So, that’s fantastic.
Your first book in traditional publishing was 2006. And of course, we’re now living in quite a different time. You had the love book, but this is probably your biggest book for a while.
How has publishing changed since you started? And what are you doing differently in terms of book marketing, which everyone listening always wants to know about?
Jonah: Oh, that’s a great question. 2006 feels like a lifetime ago, just in terms of the available channels. Podcasts didn’t exist. The world has only gotten, I think, harder for books to compete in.
At a high-level, what struck me in 2021 publishing a book in the hopefully, knock on wood, the waning days of a pandemic, is just how many alternatives people have. I would look at the price of my book, it’s $20 on Amazon, or whatever, and think, ‘Oh, my goodness, that’s two months of Netflix, or that’s an infinite months of Instagram.’
I would do the accounting in my head. I think books are a hard ask, especially of a younger audience.
Books require engagement and work, there aren’t flickering screens that have been optimized through A/B testing to grab your attention and keep you engaged. And I think that was part of the background for why I wanted to write a book about mystery for artists and writers, was just because I think we’ve never needed to work harder to engage the audience, we’ve never needed to be more aware of the tricks that work and the strategies that seduce.
Our audience has so many options, so many other devices and screens and platforms competing for their attention. As a writer, you can’t run those A/B tests, you’re just writing what you can, you’re just writing what makes sense to you. Sorry, that was a long winding digression.
I think it’s never been harder to market a book, I think is my general impression of 2021. It’s never been more difficult to grab the attention, the various scarce attention of an audience.
In 2006, we did a lot of drive-time radio, and the big aspiration was, in the states, national public radio talk shows, so a lot of local NPR shows. And what’s made this book so fun has been being able to do all these podcasts. So, podcasts I’ve loved, being able to be a guest on them.
Being a longtime fan, and then being on the show is super fun. But it also gives you a diversity of questions that I’ve never had before with the book. People will read it and approach it from so many different directions and find different parts of the book or different parts of my story interesting. And that keeps it fresh.
My memories of publishing books in 2006 and 2010 were everyone would ask the same questions based on reading the book jacket. And so you do drivetime radio, and it’d be six hours of saying the same thing over and over again.
Obviously, it’s a privilege to be able to talk about your book, but there was something mechanical about it. I really love the informality and differentiation and uniqueness that comes with being on a podcast.
That’s the big change for me is thinking at a higher level about it. Kind of at a more practical level, I’m not sure I got very good advice. To be honest, I don’t think I’m particularly good at marketing my books.
I just try to write a book that I think other people hopefully find interesting. And then just try to be honest about the way I came to the book and what I find meaningful about it and why I wrote it, and hopefully, people respond to it.
Joanna: I totally agree with you on podcasting, obviously. But it’s interesting to me that you pitched me, personally, unless it was someone…
Jonah: No, no, no.
Joanna: It was you personally, and I get so many pitches every day from PR people. Obviously I’d heard your name before, so, that helped. But equally, I think the author pitching directly, and you obviously included some things that I would find interesting, that to me is the secret of a successful pitch.
I would much rather hear from the author with something that I might be interested in than a PR person with just the general, here’s the top point. So, in that way, you are doing good marketing, because you’re pitching personally. Obviously, traditional publishers often will give you a PR person to do that for you. Was that a deliberate choice?
Jonah: I had a great PR person who pitched the national media. And we’ve done some national media, but the parts I enjoy, as I said, being on podcasts I enjoy. So, being a longtime listener, and then you get to have a conversation too, the little boy in me just finds that thrilling.
So I personally pitched a shortlist of my favorite podcasts in different genres.
I pitched my favorite sports podcast, my favorite writing podcast, my favorite literature podcast. And it’s a very short list.
But for me, also, given my story, my personal story, I wanted to make sure people understood that I wanted to talk about everything, that the conversation didn’t need to be limited in any way, shape, or form.
Joanna: And I think, again, that’s a really good marketing hook. Because people want to know the author behind the book, don’t they? It’s not just, ‘Here’s what’s in my book.’ It’s also the deeper stuff about you and you as a creative. I actually think you’ve got quite a few marketing tips there.
Jonah: Well, I think that’s part of the pleasure of podcasts for me too, is that they can be more expansive, they can meander, they’re less formal, they have more time. And so you want to make sure you can tell the story as fully as possible.
Where can people find you and your books and everything you do online?
Jonah: The book Mystery is in bookstores everywhere. It’s on all the online sellers. And I have a blog I should update on jonahlehrer.com. Maybe if I send people there, I will be guilted into writing a new blog post.
Joanna: Thanks so much for your time, Jonah. That was great.
Jonah: Thank you so much for having me. It was so much fun.
The post How To Use Mystery To Hook Your Readers With Jonah Lehrer first appeared on The Creative Penn.
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Author: Joanna Penn