I’ve known Eliot Peper for just over a year and Mara Winkel for almost as long. Eliot and I met at a talk I gave about Storytelling for Startups, and we completely hit it off. Mara and I met when I read her story on a flight to New York, and it kept me so engaged, I barely noticed the crying baby next to me.
Somehow I convinced Eliot that I knew a thing or two about storytelling, and he sent me a draft of the sequel, Power Play, to read. Fortunately this time there were no crying babies involved, but when I finished, I had to send Eliot a really difficult email. He was very close to releasing the book, and I think he was just expecting some good subtitle ideas from me. I tried to start positive, with some ideas plus a big complement: he’d figured out what happened next and made it interesting. But I continued on with, “My biggest note is that I think you should hold off releasing it when planned and spend a bit more time working on some parts.” The email was all downhill from there. And long. I was quite nervous that this new friend I’d made was going to tell me to bugger off.
Fortunately, Eliot’s reaction was to tell me to put my money where my mouth was and for us to sit down and brainstorm (he offered to bribe me with good deli sandwiches). The main challenges I saw were that the pacing was off, Mara felt flat (she didn’t change), and all of the characters were very inconsistent behaviorally and lacking motivation. I was also really confused about what was going on because it felt like we dove right into action for the first half of the book and then Eliot re-introduced us to the characters in the world. But I’d already used context clues to re-introduce myself, and I didn’t get why characters were stating the obvious.
We decided to identify Eliot’s goal and to prioritize (can you see my background as a product manager shining through?). He knew book two wasn’t going to be the Great American Novel, but he wanted it to be a worthy sequel to the first book and to help him grow as a writer. More importantly, he knew he was going to write a third, and he wanted it to be setup for a great story with book two. He didn’t think it was worth it to significantly delay the release of two or rewrite large sections to try and make it perfect: we wanted to make it as good as possible strategically. That’s a totally legit goal!
So we took a walk. The first question I asked Eliot is what’s the theme of book two. Why’s he telling this story? What is it he wanted to say about the fundamental human condition? My friend Barri Evins, who’s a fantastic screenwriting coach with awesome workshops, has completely convinced me of the value of theme and how character and plot stem from there. (If you’re from the tech world, check out Simon Sinek’s talk about “Start With Why” — it’s analogous.) Second, I asked Eliot how Mara should change over the course of the book, especially as she addresses that theme. Then, we grabbed some paper and worked out what the book would be like if he could start from scratch. We came up with a great story that you’ll never read! But, we stepped back and went chapter by chapter and figured out how to tactically merge the ideas into the existing material so that Eliot could address his character and structural issues with the fewest changes possible.
He did a great job, I think book 2 really improved, and fortunately he ignored some of my suggestions…um, yeah, I’ll just leave that there. (Hey, I don’t claim to have all the answers or even great ones!) But then Eliot offered more sandwich bribery and wanted to talk about book 3 before he started writing, so apparently we did something right together.
What did that process look like? First, I picked the bread…kidding. We started with a mix of two things: what did Eliot want to see in book 3, and what’s the theme for book 3? We also realized some themes were emerging for the entire series. With those themes in mind, we sat down and wrote out where each character was at the start of the book and where we wanted them to end up, mentally. Last, we started to focus on “what happens.”
Eliot had some great ideas from his research, and we were coming up with some really cool ideas (Mara and Bill Gates have a lot in common). But it all felt a little predictable; a little too scientific. So I paused for a second and thought of the craziest thing I could: what if we killed a main character. I suggested Eliot kill James and provided reason/motivation for it along with what happened next. I knew I hit on something crazy and unpredictable when I saw Eliot’s eyes. And saw him reach for a knife.
In the end, we generated a lot of ideas. Some of them made it into book 3, and some of them ended up not fitting (James doesn’t die…or does he?). When Eliot shared the draft with me, I was really excited to see how he’d taken what we talked about and ran. Any idiot can come up with ideas, but it takes some really talented to execute them well. Book 3, Uncommon Stock: Exit Strategy, delivers, and I think you’ll agree.
For you as a reader, you’re getting a great trilogy out of all of this work. It delivers on the thrills and provides insight into the startup experience. Personally I think I got something even more valuable: I’ve gotten to watch Eliot develop as a storyteller. He deserves 99% of the credit for his growth, but I’ll lay claim to 1% and feel rewarded. And just wait until you see what he’s working on next!