Dr. Marisa G. Franco on using passion to stay motivated

As part of our #WTDSpeakerStories, we spoke with Dr. Marisa G. Franco about her experience publishing her first book, Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make-and Keep-Friends. She share with us how she found an agent, the conversations they had in drafting her book proposal, and the process of both writing and marketing the book.

In our Women Talk Design Speaker Stories series, we’re interviewing Women Talk Design speakers about their journeys and experiences. We talk to speakers who are just getting started, speakers who have had their fair share of speaking mishaps, speakers writing books, and speakers curating events. At the end, we offer an opportunity for folks from the WTD community to ask their own questions and connect with each other. Visit our events page for more information about the series and RSVP for our next event.

Dr. Marisa G. Franco (she/her) is a professor, psychologist, and speaker. She writes for Psychology Today and has been a featured expert in major outlets like The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Guardian, and Scientific American. She wrote Platonic: How to Make and Keep Friends as an Adult.

Dr. Franco speaks about connection, belonging, community, and mental health. She has a monthly newsletter on making friends as an adult.

Women Talk Design: I believe this is the first book that you’ve written, even though you’ve contributed to different publications, and I believe that you’ve done some speaking that I’m sure you’re continuing. I want to start by hearing from you why it’s important for you to share your ideas?

Dr. Marisa G. Franco: I answer this question, as someone who comes from a research background and has a unique niche–and I think all of us have a unique niche, whether that is our lived experiences as they relate to our speaking topic, or the fact that we can turn information into something very tangible or experiential.

Coming from my niche of sharing information that’s based in research, there are certain gaps in thinking that research tells us that we have. For example, I talk about in my book that when strangers interact and predict how liked they are by each other, they tend to underestimate how liked they are. That’s a phenomenon called “the liking gap” and because research gives us this bird’s eye view, we can see that some of the things that we tend to think, or the ways that we tend to see the world, aren’t actually true when we align them with how other people actually see things.

I think that’s really valuable. I think it’s a way for us to check our biases and understand a little bit more of what the reality is. When it comes to connection, there’s so many ways that our brains twist what reality actually is in terms of how we’re connecting with each other. That’s why it’s really important for me to get this message out. 

We would never know all of these biases we have that form great barriers to our ability to connect with others–that we are all so scared and nervous and think we’re going to be rejected–when the research finds that we’re just way less likely to be rejected than we think. If we know that information, we can be a power to act differently and connect.

WTD: I love that–making that research more accessible to folks–because it can really change their lives.

MGF: Yeah, it’s changed mine. And I hope it changes other people’s too.

WTD: I’d love to hear more about your journey into sharing your ideas. I know that you’re a professor, and I’m sure you’ve had to do a lot of writing through your studies and teaching, so I would love to just hear: how did all that start and when did you start thinking about a book?

MGF: I became super passionate about friendship in my personal life because 10 years ago I was going through a breakup and I felt really bad. So, I started this wellness group with my friends. We met up, we had dinner, we cooked, we did yoga, we did a dessert tour of DC. It was anything that was related to wellness and it was so life-changing.

And it wasn’t the wellness in particular that was life-changing. It was just being around people I love who loved me regularly–it felt so good and it led me to question some beliefs I had which were, “Oh, I’m only lovable if I have romantic love.” Or, “Romantic love is the only love that counts and if I don’t have that in my life, I have no form of love.” 

Audrey Lord says, “the personal is political” and I think the ways that I was interpreting my life that actively harmed me and made me devalue all the love I had are reflective of a larger cultural issue–a problem with how we trivialize platonic love.

Something that’s important to mention is it was about 6 years between that moment and when I actually wrote the book. What happened was I had to give myself permission. I had to be able to tell myself, “Oh, I could actually do this.” I read all the books on friendship and found that the research-backed book that I wanted to write was not out there. So, I knew that I had something unique to say that could be really valuable to people.

The other thing was I met with my mentor. She wrote the book Why Are All of the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and her book is a New York Times bestseller and it’s such a success. She told me, “Marisa, you need to write this book. You have to write it, go for it. People are going to read it.” She made it sound as if I could just do it. In my head there were all these reasons why I didn’t have the ability to do it so it took someone giving me permission. That was the final trigger.

If you never believe that you can actually do it, that’s going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy because you’re never actually going to try. So I hope that you can give yourself permission and acknowledge the unique offerings that your voice has and turn that into something.

I say that while also acknowledging that it takes a lot of work. It’s not just, “I think I can do it so now I can do it.” It’s turning that permission into work that’s really important. We need to turn it into something tangible. Turning your passion into motivation is really important.

For me, I struggled. I got an agent fairly quickly but for a year, we went back and forth on my book proposal. That agent will sell it to the publishers–like the Penguin, Random Houses and the Harbor Collins. You can’t go to those publishers directly–the agent is the gatekeeper. And my agent didn’t approve my proposal for a whole year. 

I had to work on my skill set for a long time. I started to read very successful books, like Quiet, and I broke down the techniques that the author was using to make the book successful. For example, I saw in every chapter, [the author of Quiet] didn’t just describe a problem. She made the problem into a dilemma–should this person do this or do that? She was answering a question throughout the chapter. When I was able to analyze that, it made me such a better writer.

That’s the thing about writing a book–you’re not just learning a subject area very deeply, you also have to learn how to write. You have to put in time to understand what makes writing good. I would read these popular books on writing and I analyzed successful books and I wrote down the strategies that they were using and I went through my chapters and I tried to identify where I could incorporate those strategies.

It’s a lot of work. It takes two things: It takes believing in yourself and giving yourself permission as the first thing, but the second thing is turning that permission into something practical and tangible.

WTD: That’s such a great point. 

I’m curious how you kept yourself going all of those years as you were developing the book. You mentioned it was a full year just to get your proposal through. And, you had the idea 6 years before you were actually able to publish the book.

How did you keep yourself motivated through all those ups and downs?

MGF: I had to say to myself, “No matter what happens with this book, I will have appreciated writing it because the journey is so satisfying to me.”

There’s no guarantee that people are going to read your book, or that it’s going to be successful. The more that you can recognize all the ways that you’re benefiting from the journey, the less likely you are to burn out.

If you just think the reward is going to come in 3 years (which is how long it takes on the short end), it’s going to be hard for you to finish the book. You have to think about what it looks like to be rewarded along the way and what part of the process you find inherently gratifying no matter where it goes.

For me, I’m writing a book on connection. Obviously, it really helps my own life to learn about these concepts. But, I also picked a topic that I was very passionate about. I think passion is important because passion is motivation. Honestly, we’re so unmotivated to do things if we don’t care about them. Every day, we’re forcing ourselves. But it wasn’t me forcing myself–it was something I get to do because I’m really interested in this topic.

I know I’m passionate about something when I get into a state of flow–what my ex would call my “mad scientist phase”–where it seems like I haven’t brushed my hair, I haven’t showered, I’m wearing the same thing, because all I am doing is researching this topic so intensively. It completely absorbs me and it’s like time stops. If you find something that makes you feel that way, that’s a sign that this is something that you could write a whole book on.

WTD: So it’s like, finding that moment of, “Okay, I can’t stop thinking about this.” Finding the thing that you just can’t put down.

MGF: The other thing is what’s the problem that you’ve noticed and you’re like, “Why are more people talking about this?”

I remember right before the Me Too movement, my brother would say to me, “Wow, rates of sexual assault for women are so high–why aren’t we doing more about this?” There are  just so many things where there’s a problem and it’s ridiculous. Now, I see the college mental health crisis: 60% of my [college students] have a mental health diagnosis.

There’s always something that is a really big social problem but nobody is talking about it. And so, if you can write the book on that thing nobody’s talking about, then you’re going to be the reason that people start talking about it and you’re going to carve out an important niche for yourself.

It takes a reflective life. It takes, as you’re going through your life, staying conscious of and reflecting on what’s important to you and makes you feel passion and the things that seem like a crisis or really important but there’s not many people doing anything about it

WTD: Were you an expert on friendship before you started this process? Or did you find that you became one through the process?

MGF: I became one through the process. I was in a privileged place because I was a professor. I got a grant to study social support in China and Vietnam and that gave me some time and some money to fully immerse myself in the research on social connection for the purposes of that grant, and the double purpose was for my book.

When you’re writing a book, can you write the book while killing two birds with one stone? Is there a new speaking topic that you want to develop expertise on? Can you think about it as learning all this information for the speaking topic but also the book? People write news articles on certain topics and then compose that into a book to bring everything together. If you’re adjuncting certain places, or you’re coaching on a certain topic, and you want to spend some time deepening your area of expertise. 

There are ways to make it a bit more practical because writing books is pretty impractical. You have a full time job and somehow you’re supposed to do the second full time job of writing a book. You have to be really creative about your time in order to be able to do it

WTD: For you, how did speaking and doing other writing fit in? I know that you’ve contributed to different publications and that you’ve been speaking. Is that something that you were doing in the process as you were developing the book or is it something that came afterwards?

MGF: I wrote a nonfiction book. When I was starting to research how the heck I do this, I would hear, “Platform, platform, platform.” Basically, if you want to write a nonfiction book, you already have to have a following. And I was like, “I just wanted to write a book, why do I have to become an influencer?” But, that is the truth–to write a nonfiction book you have to have some degree of influence.

For me, it was going to take me years to build up my instagram following, nor am I particularly passionate about becoming an instagram influencer. What I realized I could do is something I call “piggyback platform” which means you become a part of another platform that does have credibility and does have a large audience.

I started pitching different outlets to write articles for them. I pitched Psychology Today–I’m a psychologist–and they told me that they would like to work on my article, but they take on bloggers who publish articles regularly, they don’t just take on writers of one article.

I was able to say, “Look, I have this platform, Psychology Today. I wrote this article and 50,000 people viewed it.” I could use it as a marketing opportunity.

To get an agent is really hard. I learned that you have a .001% chance of getting a response from an agent. Then, I remember reading this book and it said you have a better chance if you get someone to refer you to an agent, someone who already has a book. I worked smarter and not harder by writing a Psychology Today article about this other woman’s work and I tweeted at her. She DMed me to say “Let me know if there’s ever any way I could be helpful.” And I said, “Absolutely, do you think you could refer me to your agent? And she said yes.

WTD: That is really good advice. I think a lot of people think about publishing and they don’t even understand how to get a foot in the door. It’s about who you know and investing in building those relationships rather than just sending cold emails is going to be worth your time.

You talked a little bit about the process leading up to getting a publisher. What was the writing process like once your book was accepted?

MGF: Before the book was accepted, I didn’t know that I already was a writer.

I thought I had to have some sassy personality or something that really sets me apart and makes me into a character to be a good writer. I didn’t realize that just by being a good thinker, I was a good writer. I didn’t have to try to be anyone else.

I could just put my thoughts on the page. I’m analytical and I can think through ideas in cogent ways and that’s what makes for a good writer. I don’t have to add pizzazz or create corny jokes, which is what I thought I needed to do. 

At the beginning, it was like unlearning the idea that I had to change myself and discovering instead that I could just be myself on the page. That took a while. Throughout the process, it was more like finding my own voice, which to me always felt like such a frustrating concept because what does it mean to find your voice?

I did go back and forth with my agent. My agent demanded a lot of me to flesh out the book proposal. That took a year–which is a long amount of time–because it took me a long time to figure out what his expectations were and what he wanted out of me.

I say that so I can normalize bumps in the road. There were times when I was completely demoralized. There was a point where I thought, “We’re about to sell it to publishers”, and my agent was like, “No, you have to start over.” There’s going to be lows if you write a book. There’s going to be times when you question yourself, there’s going to be times when you wonder if you could actually do it.

I say that to inoculate you because having those thoughts and having those lows doesn’t mean that you can’t do it. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t continue. If you’re really struggling, figure out why and the path forward. What would be helpful? 

For me, improving was reading good stuff and analyzing what makes it good, what structure they use, what techniques they use. That’s what I think a lot of people miss. They’re just thinking, “I’m going to turn my speaking into writing.” But writing is also an art form. You have to learn how to write, which I know sounds overwhelming.

It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I wrote a dissertation. Each chapter was a dissertation. I read hundreds and hundreds of articles. 

It’s like you’re being introduced to a table full of clay and you have to pick all the right pieces to mold it into something beautiful. There’s so much time you’re going to spend sifting through information that you’re not actually going to use and that’s not a waste of time. That’s just part of the process.

I had my knee deep in so much research, and I think that’s really what makes for an exceptional nonfiction book. Not everything is your opinion. I’m one person–how many brilliant ideas can I have? The fact that I was able to read the brilliant ideas of so many different researchers, so many different intellectuals, even the brilliant ideas of historians, and look back at our history of this concept and what we did differently historically–I was able to curate. A good author is a curator. I can curate the best of all of those things and include those into my book. So I include this finding from this study, this study, and this study, and that’s so much more meaningful than what I, Marisa, humbly could come up with on my own. I’m a curator more than I’m an idea generator because in the process of curating you generate something larger like how all these curated ideas fit together.

It’s very collaborative in that way. You’re writing this book on this topic so you should be reading about everyone else who’s written books on this topic. You should be reading what this topic looks like throughout time. Historically, how did we come to this place?

There’s always a moment of fear for me when I’m writing when I’ve amassed so much information and I’m just like, “What the heck am I going to do with this?” It’s like I bought this big block of ice and I’m looking at a 3 ton block of ice and there’s a way I have to carve it into something beautiful but right now I feel bogged down by the ice in front of me. I would just have to start writing a little bit, read it all over, read all my notes over, and start writing to start making it make sense. But there’s always that moment of fear and overwhelm right before I start carving.

WTD: And how did you take that first step, going from that fear to just writing something down?

MGF: You write shitty. That’s it. Write something shitty.

Now I do voice notes. I start talking about a concept and thinking through it while I’m talking. You could also talk to a friend–bounce ideas off of a friend and see where their eyes light up, see where people are surprised. That means you’re not saying the same thing everybody else has said.

That’s some of my processes of starting the carving–doing something shitty, talking to people about it, writing, voice notes. I’m not putting pressure on myself for my first carve to be something beautiful but understanding that my first carve is necessary to get to the beautiful carve.

WTD: Yeah, such a great analogy of thinking about it as this process. You’re not going to create a masterpiece in just one go.

You talk a lot about the writing process. Can you share any insight into the editing process, and what that looks like

MGF: One thing that I did for myself was create a community of authors.

I took this class–it was an author support group–and I met another woman writing a book on friendship. I said, “What do you think about creating a writing critique group? Each of us can bring in one other person.” That’s what we did and we had a group of 4 brilliant people and we read drafts of each other’s work. 

For me, it was as helpful to receive critiques of my work as it was to critique other people’s work because I could say, “This doesn’t work, this does work”, and then I could apply that same thinking to my writing. It gives you that bird’s eye view. When you’re so close to things, you don’t notice what doesn’t quite fit but when you see it in other people’s work, it helps you understand yourself.

From an editing perspective, for all my chapters, I got feedback from people on them before moving forward. I would read it a bunch of times. Cutting out any extra words was a big part of my process. Simplifying the way I’m saying things. I like to say, “Can an eighth grader understand it?” If an eighth grader can’t understand it, let me revise it to make sure things are super accessible.

I would revise my chapter and then, at the end, I went back one more time when I had written all the chapters and revised them all at once.

Originally, when I wrote my book on how to make friends, I was thinking a part of it would be on how to navigate the early stages of friendship, then how to navigate the middle of friendship, and how to navigate the end of friendships. It was more of a description of 3 different things. My agent said, “Marisa, you have to have a thesis. What the heck is the thesis?” 

A thesis is an answer to the question that I’m trying to address. The question is “How do you make friends as an adult?” My thesis is my theory on how to answer that and that theory should be present throughout my entire book. Each chapter is unfurling that theory in some ways. My theory was  that how we’ve connected affects who we are, who we are affects how we connect. People that have had healthy relationships in the past develop a set of practices and assumptions that allow them to continue to make healthy relationships in the future. People that have unhealthy relationships in the past develop a set of assumptions and practices that continue the cycle of unhealthy relationships. The second part of the book was all the practices of these really healthy people and how we can learn from them. Each chapter was like, “What does it mean for these secure people? What are they doing in friendship? What are the insecure people doing?” 

It became a lot more interesting when I had this thesis. I wasn’t just describing friendship. It was how we make friends and seeing every step of the way and seeing the same idea come up in a different outfit.

That’s another piece of advice for a good book–it’s not just descriptive. If it has a thesis, what’s the question that you’re answering, what’s your answer to that, and how does that play out and evolve throughout your book?

WTD: That’s really interesting to hear how your idea evolved–this is what initially I set out to do but ultimately, this is what I need to do.

My next question is about what happens after you’re done writing and editing. Once it was edited and it was all done, what happened next? Do you stop and celebrate or does the work keep going?

MGF: It’s a year between when you submit your book and when it actually comes out. In that time, they’re proofreading it, your editor gives you some edits, you have to make those edits, you have to choose a book cover. you go back and forth on the title–there are all of these little things. Then, 6 months before release, you start thinking about marketing. You develop a whole list of the places you’re going to market to you then start pitching those places to see if they’ll have you on their podcast or if journalists want a copy of your book to read. My book became a New York Times bestseller not just because it was a cool idea, which I think it’s a great book, but because I spent my whole summer marketing full time. It’s intense.

To be an author means to be so many things. It means to be an influencer, it means to be a student of writing, it means to be a marketer, it means to be a speaker. 

My book has increased my number of speaking engagements. A lot of writers get requests for speaking engagements, particularly those writing nonfiction books that are related to the workplace. So if you choose to write a book, you’re not choosing one job, you’re choosing 5 jobs.

WTD: Was the writing part your favorite? So the marketing wasn’t but what about speaking or some of the other elements of it?

MGF: I would say in my hierarchy of all the tasks I had to do, it’s writing a book, speaking, then Instagram influencing, then marketing is last.

WTD: That’s helpful for folks to think about all of these things. It’s not just writing a book, like you said, it’s all of these other elements so you have to be prepared for that going into it. 

Have you learned anything now, after the fact, that either you would have done differently or maybe would have made your life easier or just would be some advice that you’d give that you didn’t know at the time?

MGF: I have learned to be strategic. When it comes to marketing a book, you could do 80 podcasts with 10 reviews or one podcast with 1,000 reviews. One is going to take 80 hours of your time and another is going to take 1 hour of your time and you’re going to reach more people. 

Marketing successfully is not about saying yes to everything. You’re going to burn yourself out. It’s about saying yes, strategically, to the places that are going to get you what you want.

For me, that’s NPR. People that listen to NPR buy books. I’ll say yes. It’s a community that I’ve been invested in already. Specific groups for black people. Places that are specific to psychology, places that have niche audiences that relate to my area of interest, places that are specifically focused on friendship. But I have to say no to the other things.

Sometimes people are mad at me for saying no or I hurt their feelings or they say, “I’m going to reach out again.” And I’m just like, if you understood that I have a full time job, and I have 3 or 4 places reaching out to me a day trying to speak on something and I’m doing 10 interviews a week for months. I hope that you would understand that it’s not personal but at some point, I am not going to feel good and not going to feel healthy. You have to figure out what is being strategic. What are your priorities that you want to focus on?

For everything Marisa shared on her process, advice on how to say no, focussing on the process over the outcome, and trying to “walk gently beside” her creativity, check out the full video below.

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