Saturday, August 17, 2013

Writers on writing - Mooney, Thompson, & Gangrey contributors

There's been a few excellent cases I've seen lately of writers on the subject of writing, with specific topics covered including multiple steps of writing great non-fiction.

The most recent piece was "A Q&A with Michael Mooney on elaborate outlining, 'The Legend of Chris Kyle,' and the importance of access" for Beyond the New Yorker, a blog from Meagan Flynn, an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and managing editor at Drake Magazine. It was an in-depth interview with an excellent writer and the part the struck me the most from Mooney was the following... "I try and outline everything pretty thoroughly, like in a notebook first, before I even type up a first draft. So my first draft is kind of like my second draft. I write up an outline by hand, and then I type it up. It’s really, really thorough. So I think of it as kind of like a skeleton, and then I just put in muscle around that."

Another example of a writer making available insight from another writer was from from the blog of Brandon Sneed with "This is how Wright Thompson got that Johnny Football story for ESPN The Magazine". Sneed notes that he wrote out highlights from a podcast Thompson did and there's some great material in the blog post. Particularly interesting to me were two different sections of Thompson's feedback, with one on reporting and one the physical process that occurs after the reporting done...

"You try not to think a ton. I always have a list of things I want to ask people. Not questions, just talking points. But mostly, you just want to not get lazy, because the next scene could be the one you build your whole story around. You never know what's going to be the thing. So you just want to be fully engaged. I got an email five or six years ago before I went to go do a story, from Eric Neal. He was an E-Ticket writer, now he's the editor at ESPNLA. And he basically, I was on the way, I was on some reporting trip, and he was just like, stay with the scenes and the people and don't try to imbue it all with meaning. And I have that email in my wallet still. I carry it with me everywhere. That's the thing. Don't try to figure out what the metaphor for whatever—just get it. Write everything down. I was doing a Jack Nicklaus profile one time and after a day or two he just stopped and said, what are you writing down? And I said, everything. I'll figure out what it means when I get home, but you just want to stay. You can get sort of lazy. Because 10 hours, 12 hours, four hours, is a long time with people. And the newness and excitement of a scene can wear off and you miss it, because you almost get put to sleep. So you want to stay focused."

"I get home and I type out all the notebooks and then I transcribe all the tape, then I print it out, I send it to Susan at UPS Oxford, she prints it out and three-hole punches it and I put it in a binder, then I take a pen and start reading through it. So I'll read through it and make notes, and the arc starts to occur to me then and a lot of times I'll just riff and write long paragraphs on the back of pages about thoughts that occur, then I'll go back through it and make a notecard for every scene or quote or thing I want to use, then I'll lay them all out and order them, and usually I'm writing outlines as I read through these things, so by the time I've read through the binders a couple of times, somewhere on the back of a page will be the outline."

What struck me from the first two links were thoughts from writers on how they go about the process of writing and reporting and the third piece to note here was about the very beginning step in non-fiction writing.

The site Gangrey had the fascinating thread "Ideas" on where story ideas come from and there's a lot of great insight from excellent professional writers. The post isn't terribly long and one of the common refrains from various comments was how great stories not necessarily about things that have never been written on before, especially if someone wants to write longform about something previously covered briefly. As noted in a short comment by Glenn Stout... "You seek out the new in the old, the untold from the told."