I write a lot about the what, the how, and the why of writing high-quality books. Sometimes I even write about the when and the where.
But aside from talking about you as the potential author, it’s a bit rarer that I write about the who of writing high-quality books. (Not to be confused with The Hu, the epic Mongolian rock band you should totally check out right now. Go ahead, I’ll wait.)
So who is the who of high-quality books?
Well, there are certainly plenty of iconic business authors these days…Ryan Holiday, Tim Ferriss, Brene Brown, Chris Guillebeau, Gretchen Rubin, Robert Green, Sheryl Sandberg, Gary Vee, Marie Forleo, etc. These authors have used well-written (and well-researched!) books to build and grow global brands, become household names, and change the lives of millions of people.
I’d also think of some of the business authors who are active in my industry — authors who have parlayed writing quality books themselves into teaching others how to do it. People like Julie Broad, Morgan Gist MacDonald, Honoree Corder, Rob Cuesta, Angela Lauria, and Dale L. Roberts. I don’t always agree with everything these people teach, but I respect their dedication to doing it, and recognize the immense value they bring to the world by helping more business owners become business authors.
But there’s a third group that comes to mind when I think about great books, and that’s the group of heroes.
People who know me know that I love to read fantasy, sci-fi and adventure books, and that I have for over three decades. If you’re following me here, I’m guessing you love these kinds of books (and/or movies, shows, games, comics) as well! And you’ve probably guessed that the inspiration to call my business Heroic Business Authors came from that love (well, that and a bit of Donald Miller’s story brand philosophy).
The biggest part of that inspiration is the idea that you, the author, are the hero, and that I am your mentor on the heroic journey to write and publish a high-quality book.
But another part, smaller but no less significant, is the idea that we as authors can learn a lot from the heroes in the stories we love. Yes, you read that right. We can learn helpful lessons about how to write great books by looking at the stories of our heroes — even if those heroes weren’t actually writers.
To illustrate this, every now and then I’m going to write a post like this one, talking about some of the book-writing lessons we can learn from a hero or a story in a book, movie, TV show, etc. These posts will likely be somewhat longer than my usual articles, so grab your beverage of choice and settle in. 🙂
In this first post, I’ll be talking about one of my all-time favorite heroes: Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride.
Okay, okay…I know Inigo isn’t the main hero in The Princess Bride. Westley and Buttercup get that nod as the story’s protagonists, and Inigo is more of a strong supporting character. But I’m counting him as a hero here for three reasons.
First, his journey is arguably as integral the plot as Westley’s and Buttercup’s, as both of their journeys end up depending on the progress and conclusion of his.
Second, he’s a much more real character than they are, with a deeper backstory, clearer personality, and more realistic balance of strengths and weaknesses than theirs.
Finally, as you’ll see in a moment, the lessons he learns apply particularly well to lessons that many business authors can also benefit from learning.
(Plus he’s my favorite character and this is my blog. So there. 😛 )
Two quick notes before we get started: one, this article will talk about both the movie of The Princess Bride and the book it’s based on (since the book has a lot more of Inigo’s backstory than makes it into the film); and two, it will contain spoilers for both. (Though really, if you haven’t seen The Princess Bride by now, all I can say is that you had a terribly deprived childhood.)
Ready? Let’s do this.
Lesson #1: Even the noblest goals derail without a strategy
Inigo’s life was defined by his quest to avenge his father. He was eleven years old when the six-fingered Count Rugen killed the swordsmith Domingo Montoya and gave the boy Inigo his two facial scars. In the interim years before the events of The Princess Bride, Inigo devoted his life to becoming the greatest swordsman the world had ever seen.
The book describes the training he put himself through, including learning to live on four hours of sleep a night, spending four hours running, four more hours leaping and jumping, and four more hours lifting and squeezing rocks to strengthen his hands every day (before even picking up a practice sword!), and studying under the best fencing masters of the day.
Clearly the flame of Inigo’s desire for vengeance was burning hot and clear, driving him to work harder and get better than any other fencer of his generation. And after ten years of this grueling regimen, he was named the only living fencing “wizard” (a fictional rank above that of “master”) and began his quest to find and kill the six-fingered man.
There was just one problem.
He had no idea where to look.
He didn’t even know who Count Rugen was. He’d never learned the count’s name or nationality, and had little clear memory of his appearance. He only knew that his father’s killer had six fingers on his right hand.
So Inigo spent years searching the world at large for a six-fingered man. And as each year turned into the next, with no six-fingered man appearing, Inigo’s fire burned lower and lower.
Before he knew it, Inigo was a depressed alcoholic, nominally keeping up his search for the six-fingered man but really living for his next bottle. That’s why he fell in with the criminal Vizzini — not because the Sicilian could help him find Rugen, but because he promised money that Inigo could spend on more booze.
What does this depressing point have to do with writing a great book?
Simply this: a goal without a strategy will almost always fail — and its failure can be dangerously disappointing.
One of the biggest differences between successful and unsuccessful authors is that the authors who finish their books and make money with them have a clear strategy for doing it. And not just for getting the writing done, but also for using the book to grow their business after it’s published.
Inigo’s problem wasn’t that he had a bad motive or an insufficient skill set. His problem was that he had no strategy other than asking everyone he met if they either had six fingers or had met someone who did.
In authorship, this is the equivalent of doing one (or both) of two things: just starting to write with no plan or outline for your content, and/or just publishing the book and hoping it will take off. The first will leave you with a bunch of work put in but no finished book; the second will leave you with a bunch more work put in but no ROI.
Both scenarios can be depressing. I’ve spoken to more than one author who lamented a book they published that didn’t get them the results they wanted, and I’ve worked with several who tried to write by just sitting down and writing but couldn’t get past the first few pages. Both groups of authors had one thing in common: they were frustrated and sad that they couldn’t do what they so strongly wanted to do — write a great book.
Steven R. Covey wrote that efficiency is doing things right, while effectiveness is doing the right things. Both Inigo and the struggling authors I just mentioned were very efficient. But because they didn’t have strategies that focused them on doing the right things, they missed out on being effective — and suffered disappointment as a result.
Lesson #2: Working with the wrong guide gets you nowhere, but working with the right one gets you where you want to go
For the first half of The Princess Bride, the reader/viewer sees Inigo as part of the crew of kidnappers led by the Sicilian criminal Vizzini. And while Inigo isn’t stupid, it’s clear that Vizzini is the mastermind and leader of the group. He got the job to kidnap Buttercup in the first place, he hired Inigo and the giant Fezzik to help him carry it out, he knows where they’re going and why, and he understands things like geography, politics, and what a Shrieking Eel is.
So for much of this story, Vizzini clearly serves as the mentor on Inigo’s journey. The Sicilian gives Inigo a purpose, a paying job, and (at least potentially) a chance to broaden his search for the six-fingered man — and Inigo seems to follow him willingly enough at first.
Problem is, Vizzini doesn’t actually care about Inigo or what he stands for. All he cares about is using Inigo’s skill set to get protection for himself.
When the Spaniard questions the morality of what they’re doing, Vizzini threatens to return him to the drunken poverty he found Inigo in. When the man in black catches up to the crew on the Cliffs of Insanity, Vizzini instructs Inigo to stay behind and kill the man in cold blood (or, presumably, die trying). And when Inigo protests the lack of honor in that move and says he’ll fight the man left-handed instead to make it fair, Vizzini throws up his hands as though the swordsman is a stubborn child.
Most importantly, Vizzini doesn’t leave Inigo any better than he found him. After Vizzini’s death, Inigo falls back into a bottle again, wishing to “go back to the beginning” when Vizzini first hired him. If Fezzik hadn’t found him again, Inigo would likely have drunk himself to death rather than saving the whole storyline.
Contrast that with Inigo’s second mentor: the man in black himself, who we by now have learned is actually Westley in disguise. (I told you there would be spoilers, remember?)
While Westley does have his own agenda, he clearly respects Inigo far more than Vizzini ever did — starting from their very first meeting and duel.
When the two meet up again later, Westley appreciates that Inigo has saved his life, remembers his skills, and immediately treats him as an equal. When he learns that their quests overlap, he doesn’t hesitate to make sure Inigo’s chance for revenge is included in the plan to rescue Buttercup. And when the rescue is complete and Inigo must contemplate his future, Westley offers him a job perfectly suited to his skill set — the new Dread Pirate Roberts.
This is the difference between the right guide and the wrong one. Vizzini treated Inigo like a means to an end, sacrificed him to get away, and left him no better than he found him. Westley treated Inigo like a comrade in arms, helped him fulfill his life’s quest, and gave him a future he could look forward to.
This is also what happens with business authors who choose to work with a guide or mentor — usually in the form of a book coach, consultant, or self-publishing company figurehead. Like in The Princess Bride, the best and worst mentors are easy to identify by how they treat their authors.
- Bad mentors focus on how many authors they’ve worked with. Good mentors focus on how they’ll work with you.
- Bad mentors press you to work as fast as possible. Good mentors encourage you to work at a pace and schedule that feels good.
- Bad mentors talk about how much money their company makes. Good mentors talk about how much money their authors make.
- Bad mentors plug you into their system. Good mentors let their system adapt to fit you.
- Bad mentors make you do everything yourself, then blame you if you can’t. Good mentors help you do everything, then support you if you struggle.
- Bad mentors care about getting the book done. Good mentors care about getting the book done right.
You get the idea. Who do you want to work with on your book — Vizzini or Westley?
Which brings me to…
Lesson #3: Combining skill sets leads to victory
Before the climactic scenes of the story begin, Inigo finds himself on the walls of Florin Castle with Fezzik and the newly-revived Westley, looking down at a gate guarded by sixty men — the only way in.
For only the second time in over ten years, Inigo knows he is overmatched. (The first time, of course, being his fight with the man in black.) Even the greatest swordsman in the world couldn’t take on sixty men on open ground and live. Inigo thinks he could take out ten at most. Fezzik hesitantly suggests he’d be good for twenty. And Westley is still largely paralyzed, so he can’t fight any of them.
Clearly, fighting — Inigo’s main skill (not to mention Fezzik’s) — wasn’t enough to get him to victory here.
Which is why Inigo saved the man in black to begin with: he knew the man could think and strategize better than Inigo himself could. As supremely skilled as he was, Inigo was ready to step completely aside and follow the man in black’s advice to the letter if it meant they could get inside the castle and fulfill his quest.
And that’s exactly what happened: Westley’s brains came up with the scheme to frighten the guards; Fezzik’s brawn let him play the part of the fiery Dread Pirate Roberts and block the falling gate; and Inigo’s blade was ready to take out Count Rugen’s patrol in the castle corridor.
Without any one of those components, the plan would have fallen apart. With all three of them, it worked perfectly.
This lesson is an easy one for would-be authorpreneurs to overlook. As a business owner, you have a skill set and an area of expertise. You’ve probably spent years studying, practicing, refining, and building it up, to the point where you’re one of the best at what you do.
But when you’re ready to write a book, one of the first things you realize is having a great business isn’t the same as writing a great book about that business. In order to write a book about your expertise, you have to stop being the expert for a while.
And whoo boy, let me tell you…that’s hard. I don’t blame a single one of you if you read that last sentence and went “no way!” As owners, managers, experts, authorities, we’re proud of what we can do. We love being the go-to, the genius, the person who gets it. Being the mentor on our customers and clients’ journeys is what we live for. Knowing everything and being right all the time puts cash in our bank accounts and glowing testimonials on our websites. So the hardest thing in the world for us is to say “I don’t know how to do that. Help me.”
But as Ryan Holiday famously wrote about, the obstacle is the way. And as many hero’s journeys across both truth and fiction have shown, it’s not only possible but powerful for an expert in one area to learn from an expert in another.
The point here is that when you (an authority in your business) work with a master wordsmith (an authority in writing great books), the result is a book about your business that’s way, way, way better than it would have been if either side had acted alone. A little humility and coachability up front will create a 1+1=3 situation for the book you want to write. Like Inigo did, accepting that someone else knows more than you about the area you want to master is the first step to actually mastering it.
Lesson #4: Passion and persistence make magic happen
One of my favorite scenes in The Princess Bride is a somewhat unlikely choice. It’s not any of the sword fights or chase scenes (though I do love those), or even any of the highly quotable moments (of which there are literally dozens).
It’s the scene where Inigo and Fezzik are looking for the entrance to the Pit of Despair. Inigo draws his blade, kneels, closes his eyes, and begs the spirit of his father to guide his sword. Then with absolute faith, he rises and walks forward, eyes still closed, until the point of his rapier strikes a tree — the very tree that hides the secret doorway to the Pit.
I love two things about this scene. First, the father-son connection. Like both Inigo and Mandy Patinkin, the actor who played him, I lost my father well before his time and miss him terribly. So this moment of communion between Inigo and the spirit of his father always touches me deeply.
But more importantly, I love how this scene illustrates Inigo’s passion and persistence for his quest. At this moment, he’s literally done all he can do himself. He’s spent years searching, sacrificed anything resembling a normal life, not seen a single scrap of success in finding the six-fingered man, and nearly drunk himself to death in despair two different times. He has no chance of finding this secret door on his own. But now, when he finally feels he has a chance of succeeding, he will not give up.
It’s easy to point to the Miracle Max scenes or the Fire Swamp scenes as the instances of magic in The Princess Bride, but for me, the real magic in the story comes in this moment — where Inigo’s refusal to give up on his quest allows him to do something impossible.
In the process of writing a book, you will face moments like this. You will feel like you’ve done everything you can, like you’ve done your best but fallen short of the goal.
Usually I see this happen at one of two moments: when you’ve written part or all of your first draft but don’t feel like it’s any good, and/or when you’re in the middle of the editing process and wonder if the book will ever be right.
In both of those moments, it would be easy to give up. It might even feel logical — you’ve given it your best shot and it didn’t work out, so it’s better to cut your losses and move on. And I’ve known more than a few authors who have made that choice.
But I’ve also known many who didn’t. Who refused to give up on their quest, even in the darkest and most frustrating moments. Who would not accept that their heroic journey to authorship had to end because their best efforts seemed to fall short. In particular, I think of one of my very first clients, a brilliant coach who was so disappointed in her first draft that she questioned whether the book was worth writing at all.
But in the moment when this author could have given up, she chose instead to reach out to me — even though we didn’t know each other well at the time. I wasn’t the ghost of her father or anything, but I was someone who had a higher perspective on her book than she did. As a book coach and editor, I could see things she couldn’t see. By connecting with me, she was able to bridge the moment of doubt and find the hope she needed to keep going. (And her book was not only worth writing, but became the foundation of a multiple-six-figure business for her!)
This is what successful authors do when they want to give up. They let their passion and persistence face down their doubt and fear. They proactively trust that there is still a way to complete their quest, even if they don’t know what that way is or how to do it themselves. And they ask for guidance from someone with a higher-level perspective than their own.
Invariably, this leads to one and only one result: holding a finished, published book in their hands that’s better than they imagined it could be.
Lesson #5: Success is only the beginning
In the final moments of The Princess Bride, Inigo stands with Westley at Prince Humperdinck’s window and muses on one of life’s most challenging questions: “now what?”
He’s killed Count Rugen. He’s completed his life’s goal. He can finally let his father’s spirit rest.
And now he doesn’t know what to do with himself. Revenge has been his life, and without it that life has no direction.
Fortunately, Westley offers him a logical option — the greatest swordsman in the world would likely make a fantastic pirate. Assuming Inigo survives his wounds (the book calls this into question, though the movie doesn’t), he may well have two or three decades of raiding on the high seas ahead of him, especially with Fezzik to watch his back.
But if Westley hadn’t suggested that option, what would have happened to Inigo?
He might have taken a job as a fencing master somewhere, or traveled the world with Fezzik, or returned home to Spain and become a swordsmith like his father. All of those might have been good options for him. Unfortunately, he might also have fallen back into depression, with nothing more to live for now that he got what he most wanted — a much worse option, but sadly a fairly likely one based on his past track record.
The point of this speculation is that succeeding in your goal isn’t just the end of your quest. It’s the beginning of what comes after. And if you don’t have a plan for what that will be, the success will most likely turn hollow and become the peak after which everything goes downhill.
For many business authors, this peak comes when they publish their book.
The day of publication is a huge triumph! All your hard work has led you to this moment. You’re finally a published author. You celebrate with your friends and family, you tell all of your business contacts, and you settle in to reap the rewards of your work.
But as the weeks and months pass after the book comes out, what happens? Do you book more sales calls with prospective clients, schedule more speaking gigs, grow your visibility with podcast interviews, increase sales of your online course, and/or add thousands of people to your email list? Or do you watch the book slowly fade into obscurity as your business struggles to keep afloat?
The difference between those two fates is simple: the first one involves having a plan for what happens after the book comes out, while the second one doesn’t.
It’s not enough to write and publish the book. You’ve got to know how you’ll use the book in your business. If you don’t figure that out, you might as well not write the book in the first place. That’s why my book consulting packages both start and end with strategy — so you’ll know not only what you want the book to do for your business, but what you need to do to make that happen.
Lesson #6: The right words matter
You knew this one was coming. Even a Spanish swordsman knows the importance of using the right words.
And he’s not alone. Mark Twain once wrote “the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Many other authors and biz owners have written or spoken about the importance of using the right words to get important messages across.
So when business authors think about the words they use, they make sure the words meet all of the following conditions:
- Are they clear? Can the reader follow them without a dictionary?
- Are they correct? Do they say exactly what the author wants to say?
- Are they credible? Do they present arguments logically and back them up with evidence?
- Are they consistent? Do they sound the same on page 180 as they do on page 18?
- Are they connected? Will the book’s audience relate to them?
- Are they compelling? Will they make readers feel the emotions the author wants to inspire?
- Are they commanding? Do they position the author as the authority they are?
- Are they conversion-oriented? Are they designed to call the readers to action?
All of these points matter because making sure all of them happen is the key to writing a book that makes money. If you miss any of the first four, your book will be confusing and hard to follow. If you miss any of the last four, your book won’t be impactful or inspiring. Neither situation will be effective for growing your business.
In other words, writing a successful book without taking great care around the words you use to make up that book would be, well…inconceivable.
Thanks for reading my first hero post! I hope you enjoyed it. And if you’d like to chat about applying any of these lessons to your book, or working with a book mentor as nerdy as you are, click this link right here to book a free consult with me. I can’t wait to nerd out together…AND to help you write an awesome book.