Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Writing wisdom & resources from Nieman Reports, Fischer, Fagone & Nadler

As it's been a month since I last wrote about and linked to writing wisdom, a whole entire month (!), there's a few interesting pieces about writing and the writing process to note here.

The first two things to link to were a Nieman Reports free e-book download Writing the Book: How to Craft Narratives, from Concept to Content and the piece "Breathing New Life into Old Stories" for the American Journalism Review. Written by Mary Clare Fischer, it's an interesting look at the number of great sites that link to (and in some cases, make available on the web) both current and past pieces of exceptional longform journalism.

Also Nieman-related was "Writing the book: Jason Fagone and Ingenious" for Nieman Storyboard by the author of a recently published book I enjoyed quite a bit. This Storyboard piece has fascinating commentary from Fagone on book writing and below is the stuff that struck me the most...

About the writing of a full-length book (his first, prior to Ingenious) manageable:

"I imagined splitting the book into three 25,000-word sections. Maybe I couldn’t write a book, but I could write a third of a book. Twenty-five thousand words: That was equal to four long magazine articles. It didn’t seem so daunting. I think it took me four months to grope my way to 25,000 words. When I hit the 25,000 mark, I felt this rush of relief. Then I started to write faster. I came across a David Mamet quote: 'It doesn’t have to be calm and clear-eyed. You just have to not give up.' I printed it out and taped it to the wall next to my workspace."

About coming up with a book topic:

"In 2008, I called a friend, a magazine writer and bestselling author in New York, and asked him how I should proceed. 'I think it’s simple,' he said. 'It’s about the topic. Pick a topic that people already like.' In other words: Don’t waste time trying to make people care about something they don’t already care about." 

About starting to write (after at least some research and reporting done):

"In retrospect, I should have just written a shitty draft earlier. That’s what I try to do these days. I follow the advice of Pixar Director Andrew Stanton and write bad drafts faster. The first draft is going to suck anyway, so you may as well do it fast. I believe Vonnegut once said that he enjoyed writing as opposed to speaking because he could edit himself into coherence. This will sound banal, but I think most truths about writing are banal: Book writing is mostly about giving yourself as much time as possible to rescue and absolve the stumbling you that wrote the first draft, and the second draft, and the third, and the fourth. 

A couple of things jolted me out of my troubles on Ingenious. One was a wise piece of advice from a journalist friend, Chris McDougall, who had written a book so successful, so enduringly popular — Born to Run — that it basically created a religion. It transformed the footwear industry, convincing tens of thousands of runners that they should ditch their bulky Nikes for shoes that looked like gloves. I drove out to see him one weekend — he lives in Amish country, surrounded by chickens and goats — and told him about my woes. He suggested I divide my chapters into small chunks. Two thousand words each. Make it easy on yourself, he said. That’s what he’d done for Born to Run. Two thousand words is just enough to paint a little picture and convey one small idea. The word limit prevents you from droning on and on. Later, you can flesh out a few chapters, as needed — 4,000 words, 6,000 words. And then you’ve got your 70,000 words. 

The first thing I did when I got back home from McDougall’s was go to Staples. I bought some index cards and a corkboard and put the board on the wall of my office. I wrote the numbers 1 to 25 on a bunch of cards, tacked them to the board, started writing chapter titles on other cards, and placed them beneath the numbers." 

About editing the manuscript (a process to me as fascinating as the writing itself):

"I added a historical tangent in Chapter 3, and shifted Chapter 9 into the slot where Chapter 4 used to be. It all felt sort of precarious. A book is a puzzle; any change to a piece affects the whole in unpredictable ways. I’m not a big outliner, so I tried to do the puzzle in my head. I realize this sounds insane. I really did try to hold the entire book in my brain, shifting pieces around mentally, trying to hear the click as they snapped into place."

"My editor told me she felt like a mechanic, making sure all the joints were tight, all the parts correctly fitted."

It was really great stuff from Fagone and the final piece to note here was a very short missive on writing from author Stuart Nadler posted here (but with his name misspelled) and reprinted below...

"You will always feel like your work isn’t good enough. As a salve, or simply as a way to stay sane, be in the world. Ride the train. Listen to strangers. Occasionally, if you’re brave, speak to them. Walk in the city you live. Pay attention. Don’t bother with taking notes, or buying fancy notepads. Try to remember as much as you can. Have just enough confidence in yourself to not be an asshole. Then, get up and go to work and try again."