Sometimes You Have to Get Lucky

I’m again searching for another book idea but, who knows, it may, once again, come to me when I’m not looking.

Never been to Berlin. Did not speak more than a few words of German beyond the phrase made famous by John F. Kennedy: Ich bin ein Berliner. Didn’t know much, really, about escapes at the Berlin Wall in the 1960s, or the chain of events that led to its fall in 1988. So how did I end up spending more than two years digging under the Wall — that is, researching a book titled The Tunnels?

Since the early 1980s, I had written many books whose subjects were clearly chosen by design, sometimes years in the making or at least months marinating. But this one was different. I don’t know whether to be proud or embarrassed that it came about by pure chance, thanks to my daughter, and a sunny day.

Although I am, sadly, old enough to recall growing up in the 1950s and 1960s with Berlin as an almost daily hot topic in the news, I was never obsessed with the Wall. My generation, after all, had racial segregation, nuclear war, Vietnam, and Nixon to contend with here at home. This began to change for me just in the past decade. The German film, an Oscar winner, The Lives of Others, explored the horrors of living in East Berlin behind the Wall, focusing on the Stasi-enabled police state. It became one of my favorite movies of recent years. Then I co-produced an acclaimed film documentary, Following the Ninth, exploring the political and cultural impact of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. One of its five segments featured an appealing young woman who grew up in the shadow of the Wall.

So I might have been slightly primed, but while looking for a new book idea this never crossed my mind. What I needed was an intimate encounter. That came after my daughter, who had just gotten her Ph.D. in London, unexpectedly moved to Berlin with her husband and their three-year-old son. They happened to take a flat in the old East Berlin, near Alexanderplatz, about a mile from one of the most famous Wall neighborhoods along Bernauer Strasse. On our first ever visit to Berlin, however, my wife and I had trouble encountering any remnants or legacy of the Wall — the barrier was torn down so quickly and completely, and there is no major museum to visit.

On our final day, however, we decided to stroll to the most extensive Wall memorial site which runs for several blocks along Bernauer, even though it was barely mentioned in our guide book and very poorly described. Fortunately it was a bright, sunny, day in May and it did not rain — or my life might be quite different today.

Exploring that site, which includes patches of the Wall and the “death strip” that discouraged escapes, we agreed it was one of the most moving, tasteful, and overwhelming historical sites we had ever experienced. And I was most struck by the stories of attempted escapes by East Germans under the Wall, some successful, others ending in tragedy. What was most incredible about the tunnels was that, almost unique in history, they were dug not from imprisonment to freedom but in the opposite direction. — from west to east. Students in West Berlin excavated the caverns to spring friends, lovers, and family members, even strangers, from the East. Almost on the spot I decided to explore all types escapes, over a wider period, for a possible book, when I returned to New York.

When I did that, however, I found that chronicling the many attempted flights from the East would be daunting, especially from 4000 miles away, and with no German language skills to conduct interviews or read a single document. But I discovered something else: there was an amazing, long forgotten American media angle to this subject. And I had been a media writer for many years, along with serving as editor of Editor & Publisher for many years not long ago.

It seems that NBC had aired a film covering the digging of one particular tunnel in 1962 which sparked controversy but ended up winning three Emmys and now considered a landmark in television history. (I may have even watched it when I was in my early teens.) What few know today is that the Kennedy White House and State Department tried to bully NBC into canceling the show, for reasons still murky. They did succeed in causing a postponement. That got my attention, as well as offering an exciting American focus for my narrative.

Researching further, I found that NBC wasn’t alone in funding and attempting to film a dig under the Wall. CBS tried to do it a few weeks earlier, and the correspondent was none other than the legendary Daniel Schorr. His program never did make it on the air, killed by his boss under pressure from the Kennedy team. But why? State Department and CIA documents and cables had just been declassified — another lucky break for me — and they were riveting.

Suddenly my amorphous “Berlin Wall Escape” book had come into clear focus. I might be able to explore this deeply — with a sharp American angle — by organizing it around those two tunnels and those two controversial network projects. But how could I accomplish that from so far away, and as a non-German speaker? Would I be able to make substantial use of the Stasi archives and other sources in that country? Were any of the key tunnelers and escapees still alive and willing to talk?

Another lucky break: My daughter, like her dad, does not speak any Deutsch — but her husband, Stephane Henaut, is half-German and, of course, fluent. So over many months he was able to help set up meetings with the key tunnelers and escapees (another bit of luck: most were still alive and living in or near Berlin), accompany me on interviews to serve as interpreter, then translate the tapes at home. Just as important: he was able to provide translations of hundreds of pages of Stasi documents and chapters from German language books.

And that former East Berlin woman featured in my Beethoven documentary? Turns out she’s now living in Los Angeles — and she translated hundreds of other pages of Stasi docs and pages from books, conducted a couple of key interviews with Germans from afar, and provided almost daily fact-checking.

There’s the expression, it’s better to be lucky than good. I hope both may apply to The Tunnels. Now I’m again searching for another book idea but, who knows, it may, once again, come to me when I’m not looking.

Greg Mitchell’s THE TUNNELS: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill will be published by Crown on October 18.

This post is contributed as Guest post by Greg Mitchell

The Surprising Success Secret to Making it Big as a Writer

15 percent of your success comes from your technical skill. The other 85% comes from how well you deal with people.

Do you know the most powerful success secret to making it big as a writer?

Is it:

  • Natural talent?
  • An English degree?
  • How many awards you’ve won?

Dale Carnegie said this back in 1937:

15 percent of your success comes from your technical skill. The other 85% comes from how well you deal with people.

If you think

that’s outdated, check this out.

Google did a survey of managers in 2009 called Project Oxygen. The researchers wanted to know:

  • if managers matter
  • if so, then why do they matter
  • what skills are responsible for their success

Here are so

me of those skills:

  1. Be a good coach.
  2. Empower; don’t micromanage.
  3. Be interested in direct reports, success and well-being.
  4. Don’t be a sissy: Be productive and results-oriented.
  5. Be a good communicator and listen to your team.
  6. Help your employees with career development.
  7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team.
  8. Have key technical skills so you can advise the team.

Do you see a theme running through these?

Every one of these skills involves dealing with people.

“Your success as a writer depends more on your people skills than your talent.”  Frank McKinley

Success Secret #1 – You need other people.

Success doesn’t depend much on genius. It does depend heavily on how well you know and relate to other people.

Here are some quick and easy ways to supercharge your human relations IQ.

  • Be courteous. Say thank you when others do you a favor.
  • Do favors for other people. Don’t come asking first. Give if you want to receive.
  • Ask for what you want – and frame it so the other person comes out a winner.

The bottom line is this: treat people as well or better than you want them to treat you. When you do this, you’ll set the standard for how you’re treated.

Success Secret #2 – Don’t wait for people to come to you.

Four years ago, my son and I visited a new church.

Here’s how I got him ready.

“Drew, there are probably a lot of nice people in there. Some of them may come up to you and introduce themselves. But there’s no guarantee of that. Don’t wait around. You introduce yourself to people first and good things will happen.”

I thought he’d just nod his head and do nothing.

Before I even got a seat, Drew introduced me to 4 or 5 people he’d already met!

After church, the same thing happened.

If you want friends, be one. Make the first move. Invite people to chat, spend time with you, and work together. You’ll be amazed at what might happen!

Here’s what happened when I made the first move this year:

  • I’ve done 5 expert interviews
  • I’ve been invited to speak on a webinar and a podcast
  • I have written for two other blogs
  • I’ll be doing a Q&A this fall at the popular Tribe Conference

If you want things to happen, do what my friend Anne Peterson told me:

Always be networking.

Success Secret #3 – Always give people a reason to continue with you.

If you struggle with making people connections, let me recommend a book I’m reading called the Improv Manifesto.

If you’ve ever seen the show Whose Line is it Anyway, you’ve seen improv at its best. I’m not asking you to become a standup comedian. Neither am I asking you to become an actor. The point is there is a lot you can learn from this acting if you want to succeed as a writer.

Here are a few takeaways:

  • Make offers. In other words, give them a reason to say or do something. Think in terms of what they want, not what you want.
  • Start off strong. The first impression you make will last, so make it count.
  • Go for it. Reach out and make that connection now. Do the best you can and remember you’ve got nothing to lose.

“You’ll get what you want when you ask for it.”

Frank McKinley

Now Do This

This week set a networking goal.

Here are some suggestions.

  • Contact an expert and ask for an interview.
  • Do a book review and send a Tweet to the author.
  • Offer to write about something your favorite Blogger’s audience needs but hasn’t gotten yet.

“You can get everything in life you want when you help enough other people get what they want.” – Zig Ziglar

Have a fantastic week! I can’t wait to hear how this works for you.

  • Share your story in the comments.
  • Feel free to ask me for help if you’re getting stuck.
  • Want more tips? Subscribe for a new one every week!
Frank McKinley
I help writers engage readers, sell their ideas, and build their tribes.

Why Do Writers Write?

One famous writer, whose name I no longer remember, once asked to have written on his tombstone, the simple legend, “He wrote only to be read.”

After a recent talk I gave on writing, some people waited behind to speak with me. One of them jokingly remarked, “What do you do with all the money you’re earning?” That is a question I have been asked more than once. There are some writers, I know, who write with the hope of making money — a vain enterprise — but the great majority of writers are concerned more about finding readers. One famous writer, whose name I no longer remember, once asked to have written on his tombstone, the simple legend, “He wrote only to be read.” Money was for him neither an issue nor an objective.

Reflecting further on this, I have come to the realisation that recognition, or fame perhaps, is little more a motivating factor to the truly committed writer than is money. So what drives the urge? I believe that the answer is twofold. There is simply the creative spirit that desires to bring into being something original, and there is the creative ego that yearns to share that creation. Most writers would confess, if they’re honest, to a secret wish to stand at the shoulders of everyone reading their work, to watch their every facial expression, to decipher their every reaction, and hopefully, to win appreciation, even praise, for their brainchild. So, while writing may appear initially to be a fire in the belly that must need find expression, ultimately it cannot be an end in itself. The creative ego is a hungry beast.

Guest post by Author Brian O’Hare

Being An Author; Building A Story

Some gauge their day based on a word count. Others outline their story, chapter by chapter before they begin the process of writing.

Almost every time I close my eyes, a story starts building in my mind. My husband says I have a vivid imagination, and he is right. I can make a mountain out of a molehill, or imagine a solution to a crazy situation. Imagination…you bet, and I love it because that is what gives me the ability to create. Last night I woke up at about eleven, after a couple of hours of peaceful snoozing, and a scene began unfolding in my mind. Unfortunately, I don’t have a video recorder, or even a word processor in my brain, because it was a great short story. I couldn’t write it down as fast as my mind was describing it, and now that I’ve slept longer the images are only a faded memory. That, my friends, is what it’s like to be a writer. One can only hope they are prepared to see it…build it…record it…then write it. If I wake in the night, I try to think about the project I have going on instead of letting new ones take over, that way I can jot down the few thoughts and not lose an entire idea because I fell back to sleep.

There are different styles used to build a story. I’m active on social media and what I hear other authors say about their process. Some gauge their day based on a word count. Others outline their story, chapter by chapter before they begin the process of writing. I’ve used both of these processes. Though I wouldn’t put my process of outlining a story in the category of “outline” — it was, to its right, a layout of the story I intended to create. As for word count, the only time I worried about it was when I was writing a 50,000-word novel in a month for a contest of sorts.

My natural process is to see the beginning and start writing. As the story continues, I watch the characters within each scene and move through it as they do. Usually, this goes on for about ten chapters. Then I stop because I need to watch the end happen…yes, the end of the story. Once that is written, I can start filling in the middle. For me, because I can see the end, watching it play out is so much more fun.

There is the occasional “writer’s block”…not fun one bit. The characters wait patiently for me to pick up where I left off…not willing to move on without me. They already know how the next scene will play out, but want me to drive. So, after whatever is holding me up disappears, my fingers begin to fly over the keyboard at lightning speed again…whew.

Now that you have an overview of my style, I hope you will look deep inside yourself and let possibilities or ideas you have surface.

Guest post By Author CJ Vermote

Why You Need a Marketing Plan Even With Traditional Publishing

Ultimately, you are the best person to get out and market your book. And who could be better to promote a book than the author?

Whether you are self-publishing or signing with a traditional publisher, having a marketing plan is vital for your book’s success. While the importance of an author-driven marketing plan seems obvious if you are self-publishing, it will also have a huge impact on sales if your book is traditionally published. Most traditional publishers will help you with marketing, but, unfortunately, this probably won’t be enough for you to just sit back, relax, and watch your book climb to the bestseller list.

Building an online platform, actively seeking out book signings, promoting your book on social media, and using your own connections to spread the word about your book can make the difference between a success and a flop. These are things that you, and only you, can do. If you have the budget, you might consider hiring a publicist to help you with this.

Ultimately, you are the best person to get out and market your book. And who could be better to promote a book than the author?

Here are 3 links about how to develop a marketing plan and why you should have one:

The Write Life: What’s Your Book Marketing Plan? 6 Crucial Steps to Include

The Creative Penn: Marketing Your Book

Jane Friedman: 3 Things Your Traditional Publisher Is Unlikely to Do

You can also find this post on my blog, Aspire: Begin Your Writing Journey, along with more blog posts and resources to help you on your writing journey.