Rick Killian is an editor, ghostwriter, and writing and publishing coach. He recently finished two books with clients: Finding Your Nxt by Cindy Carillo (coaching) released on August 29th, and The Faith Code by Terry Brisbane and Rusty Rueff (a ghostwriting
collaboration) released on September 12th. The Faith Code was the eightieth project he helped bring to completion, and books he has helped with have sold more than 5.4 million copies. Two debuted as New York Times best sellers. (That’s been a while, though.)
When did you first decide writing would be your career or hobby—did you find writing, or did writing find you?
When I was in high school, I had a teacher who used to read personal essays he liked to his classes. There was a guy in the grade ahead of me who was very clever and wrote essays that had everyone in stitches. I tried to match that, and there was a bit of back and forth trying to write the cleverest, funniest stuff. (At least, I was competing with him, I don’t know how he felt
about it.) I think the first time I had a classmate laugh at something I wrote was the day I wanted to become a writer, even though I probably should have done something more math related, since that is where my strengths were.
Do you like the editing process, or would you rather leave that to others?
I enjoy the editing process as much as the first draft process, because editing is where the insights actually come in. When you’re “chopping into new territory” on a first draft, most of the time you don’t know how you are going to get from where you are to where you hope to end up. You just do the best you can, and enjoy the journey.
When you go back to edit subsequent drafts, you’re now retracing your steps and not just looking to get from point A to point B, but for the best way to get from one to the other. That best way is what makes the best book.
After that, you’re so familiar with the subject that you are impervious to what is actually on the page. You’ve spelled incite “i-n-s-i-g-h-t” but you know what you meant so well that you always read it as if it’s spelled correctly. That’s when it’s time to find an outside editor, and we all need them, no matter how much we’ve written. A new set of eyes is always so valuable.
Do you prefer to write off the cuff, or do you take a more methodical approach, such as using an outline?
Writing books requires both, I believe. I bounce between various tools when drafting a book: Scrivener (for first drafts), Mural.co’s whiteboards, OneNote to catch ideas of the fly, then create the final drafts in MS Word. I like to call it deep and wide thinking. For me, the first two steps in the writing process are what I call 1) Ideation and 2) Essaying. Ideation is getting all your ideas down on a white board as Sticky Notes, or some similar device (I don’t like standard outlines, I find them too linear, so I use grids instead). Essaying is drilling down into each topic as if writing an essay on each. In French, essayer means “to try,” so I think of essaying as first attempts, and getting to the big ideas of what you want to say. Scrivener is great because it lets you see your ideas as index cards and then create essays in each one that you can move around and reorganize until you’re ready to create a first draft. So I bounce freely between seat-of-your-pants writing and planning. The bigger the idea you are after, the more you need both, and the more each feeds the other.
What is more challenging to write: an assigned piece, or a creation of your own?
Unfortunately, assigned pieces. First, there’s a paycheck attached, so I can forecast short-term cash flow, and second, for some reason I can help others organize their writing more easily than I can my own. It’s like I can just see how their work should be laid out to be the most marketable, while my own work tends to get lost in the weeds of big ideas.
I’m taking more time now to force myself to work on my own stuff, though. Wish me luck!
Is there such a thing as writer’s block?
Yes and no. At least, I don’t think it is what people think it is. I feel like most writers think of writer’s block like the gate of a dam that is shut, and if they can just get it open, the water will flow. I think of it like that too, only the gate is open and there’s just no water behin the dam. Because of that, breaking through the block isn’t what is needed, but getting water built
up on the other side to the point it will finally flow. This might mean doing some free writin until you stumble upon something interesting enough to try (think essay) to explain, doing more research, reading similar works, going and speaking on what you want to write about and recording it to be transcribed, talking to a coach, or even going for a walk. Opening the gate is all about tweaking your curiosity enough to overcome the bad writing that is typically a first draft. You have to think of it like exploring. The surrounds need to be interesting enough to pull you forward, even if, at the moment, you feel stuck in the mud.
Do you have any words of advice for aspiring writers?
A few. First, “think bigger.” Second, “Writing is a journey, not a destination.”
“Think bigger” because most first-time authors want to write their book in seclusion, be discovered, and then enjoy the benefits of being an author. I call it the “Field of Dreams” effect—“Build it, and they will come.” Sure, it happened to Harper Lee, but she’s one in a million and lived in an age where publishing was completely different. Today, authors are entrepreneurs who need to be able to write, market, and publish as three strands of what they do every week, hopefully with each feeding on the other. It’s not about you, it’s about the ideas you are putting into the world. If you are passionate about a purpose, being an author is a tool to get where you want to go, not an end in itself.
That, of course, feeds into “Writing is a journey, not a destination.” People want to identify as an author because being an author is noteworthy. It’s equivalent to getting a Ph.D. It’s a big accomplishment to write a book. But the books we write aren’t for us, or to make us significant. It’s about the ideas we are putting into the world, and the life quest we are on to make the world a better place. Books are like children in some ways—we have to help them grow up to stand on their own so we can send them out into the world. It’s not about “being interesting,” but “being interested.” You need to find something worthy of pulling you through the tough writing spots to come out on the other side, and then do it all over again in another book. It needs to be valuable enough to others that marketing it to them is about them, not about you. It’s a tough formula to crack, but oh-so-worth-it when you do.