Bestselling Non-Fiction Author Daniel James Brown Has Done It All Without Rushing

Boys in the Boat writer Daniel James Brown at his Washington Home.
Bestselling non-fiction author Daniel James Brown.

Daniel James Brown is the award winning author of three books of non-fiction including, most recently, The Boys in the Boat, which tells the underdog story of the 1936 American Olympic gold medal rowing crew that claimed victory over a rising Facist party in Berlin. Brown came to my hometown of Tucson for an event a couple of months ago and I was fortunate enough to get to interview him for a short local newspaper article. He talked to me about his path to becoming a full-time writer, his process, and some behind-the-scenes bits about putting The Boys in the Boat together. Here is the transcript of that exchange:

How did you come to be a professional tech writer and then author? What is your educational and professional background before you were writing professionally?

After I earned my master’s degree I taught college English for a number of years in California, as did my wife.  When she and I decided we wanted to buy a house and start a family we realized that we really wouldn’t be able to do that on teachers’ salaries. I noticed a help wanted ad for a technical editor at some little company up in Seattle called Microsoft. I didn’t know what Microsoft was, and hardly knew what a computer was but I applied for the job. They flew me up to Seattle, had a realtor show me and my wife some houses, and signed me up. I worked there for the next twelve years, doing technical editing, technical writing, and managing small groups of writers and editors. This was during a period when the company was growing explosively and by the end of those twelve years I realized that I had enough financial padding that I could take some time to try my hand at doing what I’d really always wanted to do—write books. So I left the company and spent the next couple of years writing my first book—Under a Flaming Sky. That eventually led to a second book and then six years ago to The Boys in the Boat.

How did you come to meet your primary source for The Boys in the Boat, Joe Rantz?

Actually, my neighbor is Judy Willman, Joe Rantz’s daughter, and Joe was living under hospice care at Judy’s house for the last couple of months of his life. She had been looking for someone to write about her dad and the 1936 gold medal crew

Author Daniel James Brown's book, The Boys in the Boat
A Bestseller on both coasts.

for some time, so she asked me to come down to her house to meet him. I didn’t know that she was looking for a writer and I didn’t go to visit Joe with that in mind, but once I sat down with Joe and he began to talk about his experiences I was just mesmerized immediately. I mean, it has all the technical elements of a great story, but as Joe was telling me the story I could also see from his emotions that there was a huge amount of heart in it.

Why was it important to you to tell the story of “the boat”?

That same day that I met Joe, at the end of the conversation, I found myself asking Joe, “Can I write a book about your life.”  And I remember that he immediately shook his head, “No,” he said, “I don’t want you to write a book about me.”  But then he looked up—and I’ll never forget this because he had tears in his eyes—and said, “But you could write a book about “the boat.”  At first I didn’t know what he meant—I thought he meant the Husky Clipper, the beautiful cedar shell that he and his crew mates had rowed in the Olympics in Berlin. But then I came to understand that of course by “the boat” he meant all of the boys together, what they had done together. And something even more than that—what they had all become together that summer in Berlin 75 years before, the almost perfect thing that a crew becomes when it finds its swing. So I set out the next day on what turned out to be a four year odyssey of researching and writing the story.

How had the world expected the American’s to perform at Berlin?

I think the American boat was always seen as a contender. But the boat to beat was really the British boat, full of boys from the prestigious Leander Club in England. And in fact, the Americans had to set a world and Olympic record to beat them in a preliminary race. That forced the Brits to have to row another race to qualify for the medal round and it left them too burned out to really be a factor in the final race. The other boats that were seen as major threats were the German and Italian boats, representing the Fascist powers just before the war. And in fact, Germany wound up winning gold medals in the first five rowing events the day of the finals. By the time the Americans in the eight-oared boat got ready to row their race, against the Germans and Italians, the crowd was whipped into a frenzy. With Hitler looking on they were chanting “Deutschland! Deutschland! Deutschland!” as the boats lined up for the start. And…halfway through the race the Germans and Italians were far out in front, with the Brits and the Americans tied for dead last.

What was/were the most poignant lesson(s) to you personally from writing this book?

You know, the big lesson I take away from this story is that each of these guys had a measure of humility to him. They were all genuinely nice guys, and over the three years they came together as a crew they learned to trust one another and believe in one another on a level that’s almost impossible to convey in words. I think they were able to build that trust because each of them was able to suppress his own ego a bit and open his heart to the others and learn from them and value them and, ultimately row the race not just for themselves but for each of the other guys in the boat. That has a lot of resonance for me. I think this story of these nine young men who climbed in a boat and learned to pull together so beautifully and so powerfully is an almost perfect metaphor for what that whole generation of Americans did. They were the generation that was humbled by the Great Depression and they learned to pull together and build great teams and get great things done. They built great public monuments like the Grand Coulee Dam, they won World War II on, not one, but two fronts, they built the greatest era of prosperity we have ever known after the war. For me this story is really about all of them.

How long does it take you to write and research each book? What about with The Boys in the Boat in particular? What is that process like for you?

This book took about four years of research and writing. The first two took perhaps two or three years each. My books are very research intensive so it is always a big commitment do dive into one. In the case of The Boys in the Boat I needed to understand the lives of all nine young men in the boat, so it took a lot of time and work to track down their families and interview them. I was fortunate in that each of the families was very willing to help and gave me access to boxes of letters and diaries and photographs and so forth. At the same time that I was talking to all of them I was reading widely about Germany in the 1930s, about the Great Depression, about the Dust Bowl, and so on. I also spent countless hours in the library hunched over microfiche machines reading newspapers from the 1930s, looking for news about the crew but also just absorbing as much as I could about life in Seattle in 1933-36. As I researched each phase of the story I also began to write chunks of the manuscript. I write in units that I think of as “scenes” rather than in chapters. A scene might be as short as three paragraphs or as long as ten pages or so, but it’s always one coherent unit.  So I proceed in that way, stringing out one scene after another until I finally wind up at the last one. Then, of course, there is a long process of editing and revising and polishing before it’s ready to go to the publisher.
Subscribe now to catch my next interview post with Ken Weaver, editor of All About Beer Magazine.

Award-Winning Writer and American Introspectionist Taffy Brodesser-Akner Is Always Keeping It Real. Really Real.

Indeed, haters are gonna hate.The phrase has admittedly been tossed around by more than one super-huge pop star as sort of a catchall for any and all criticism, regardless of its legitimacy. But still, the simple truth is that no matter how hard you work, no matter how successful you might become, there will always be someone lurking—in the PTA, on the internet, in your office, on the internet—doing their best to sprinkle a little bit of metaphorical fecal matter onto your optimism salad on the off chance that it might sour your spirit to a level they deem appropriate. And even though she recently signed contributing writer contracts with two of the biggest names in long-form reporting on the planet (GQ and The New York Times Magazine), and though she is now writing cultural biopics (like her recent feature on Nicki Minaj for GQ, or her feature on the female fighters of the UFC for Matter) that will likely be read by university students, journos, and news junkies for many years to come, not even Taffy Brodesser-Akner is immune to the effects of naysayers.

Brodesser-Akner was still in high school when she started ghost writing professionally. Well, she was writing college entrance exam essays for her peers and, somehow, her eleventh-grade English teacher caught wind of the operation. She told a young Taffy Akner to shut the side business down “Principally,” the teacher told the future New York Press Club Award winner, “because you’re not that good of a writer.” Brodesser-Akner told me over the phone that she remembers the whole ordeal vividly, and that, even years later, she couldn’t help but wonder if there was some truth in her teacher’s words. “I kept thinking, what if she’s right?” she says. Still, Brodesser-Akner insists that self-doubt plagues many of the writers she knows and, no, I didn’t press her to name names, but she did tell me (half-) jokingly that she doesn’t “know very many writers who don’t believe in their hearts that they are just hacks and that eventually they will be found out.” I was just glad to hear that it wasn’t just me.

But it did make me wonder. Did that mean that the feeling of dread that comes while waiting for a piece to be accepted, followed by that surge of anxiety preempting the public response never completely goes away? Brodesser-Akner says that landing a decent contract (or two) helps confirm that your efforts as a writer are paying off; she also said that, to this day, she hopes just a little bit that her eleventh grade English teacher sees everything published under her byline. Made sense enough to me. Let ’em hate.

And though she’s now working much more closely with at least two major magazines than ever before, Brodesser-Akner says that her working life hasn’t changed all that much from when she was strictly a freelance writer. She says that about eighty-percent of her stories still come from pitches, and that her contracts do not necessarily mean that she can’t write for other markets. “Whereas, when you are completely freelance you are kind of dating a lot of different people, I now have two husbands and all of my stories have to go through them first.”

But, she adds, working with such talented editors is her “favorite part” of her job. Basically, to this guy, it kind of sounds like a non-fiction writer’s dream; the type of dream I might believe is real right up until the phone rings or the dog starts barking. At any rate, needless to say that when Mrs. Brodesser-Akner said she was willing to chat with me about how to get from ‘Point A’ (naysayers) to ‘Point Z’ (what I’ll refer to as the ‘haha-told-you-so’ phase), I was eager to give a listen.

Here’s what she had to say about…

…the most important aspect of her pre-interview research:

“When you look at someone’s art, when you are looking at the thing they are lauded for, you can see who they are trying to be.”

…how to know when an article is ready:

“You have to cultivate the confidence to wonder, ‘Am I still curious about this subject?’ That way all of the questions I ask myself on behalf of the reader are not false questions. ‘Is my curiosity satisfied about all of this?’ You have to remember that you are acting like an ambassador (on your subject) to the reader.”

…specializing:

“I always resisted a beat and, therefore, I don’t know if anyone actually thinks of me for any one type of story.”

…working from home as a parent:

“My kids can’t tell the difference between when I’m using my computer for work or when I’m just using it to check Facebook. Your children don’t just sit in the corner quietly while you write—they want you to actually be in there watching the movie or doing whatever else with them. They want the shared experience.”

…long-form non-fiction v. other forms:

“I actually went to school for screenwriting but I think I lack the sort of imagination required to make things up. What I’ve found that I am pretty good at, though, is seeing something and finding some sort of art in what I’ve seen—in the true story.”

…her dream interview:

“I’ve always thought that I could retire a very happy person if I could get any kind of quality time with Bruce Springsteen.

Saturday Evening Post Editor Steve Slon Tells You How to Get Published

STS_portrait

Ever wonder what kind of person has the audacity to take a well-known publication and completely flip the script on it in order to roll out something brand-spanking new to their national reader base? Steven Slon is just such a guy. He has a less pallid, Anderson-Cooper-thing about him, though he wears rectangular glasses and occasionally curses in casual conversation. He seems to ponder everything said to him as if there could be hidden importance behind each word and he always thinks very carefully, sometimes at length, before speaking—a quality that often takes a back seat nowadays to any potential for a teensy bit of micro-celebrity. And if you had told Steven Slon while he was a film student at NYU that he would one day be the Editorial Director and Associate Publisher of the longest-running magazine in the United States, he probably would have laughed in your face.

Slon was not only responsible for the 2013 redesign of the Saturday Evening Post; he also brought the magazine into the digital age with its first mobile app, helped launch Men’s Health Magazine, served as Editor-in-Chief under banners like AARP The Magazine and Success, and he won Media Industry News‘ Editor of the Year Award in 2010. At first, Slon says, he wanted to be a filmmaker—a director. But after serving on what he called “the lowest rung” of the movie business as a production assistant, he was  told that writing might be a way to break into the creative side of things. He started scribing for his local “Penny Saver”, making about ten bucks an article, and quickly placed stories with publications like his current employer, the Post, and TV Guide, which was still relevant at the time. From there, having learned how to tell a story literally by cutting and stitching reels of film for most of his young adult life, Slon carried those skills with him into his career as an editor. And yes, he actually used to cut and tape articles just like he did film to determine the shape of his stories.

Mr. Slon was kind enough to let me pick his brain earlier this week via phone about things like what makes an ideal article pitch, his editing pet peeves, and the future of journalism. Here are some highlights:

 

CB: As an editor, what does your dream query letter look like?

SS: That’s tough—it’s funny, because I’ve been on a number of panels for various editing and writers’ organizations on this very subject—everyone wants to know… It’s not a simple answer—I’m looking for really good writing… For a writer that doesn’t have very much experience, I’m more interested in the writing than just the ability to do journalism. It’s a dangerous approach, because some writers that are very fluent with language can’t do reporting for shit, but I’m looking for a flair because I like the publications I work on to be engaging. If you just want reporting you’ve got daily newspapers… I actually used to avoid J-school types in hiring for editorial jobs… Somebody who’s a real long-time daily newspaper reporter is not generally good at magazine-type pieces because a feature is not just a re-telling of something; it’s not just descriptive… It has to bring something to the table—some thinking—and not just be reporting on what’s going on. And I do feel that journalism school can breed that out of people.

 

CB: So, what should that letter look like?

SS: I’d like to see a clip—first of all, I want to be intrigued by the idea, then see what kind of writing you’ve done, but even that can be misleading. I mean, I’ve known writers who have a couple of great clips that have been completely re-written—and they don’t need to tell you that because it’s got their byline on it—and then you realize they can’t actually deliver that kind of quality. But it’s evident pretty quickly what a person can do.

 

CB: What are your editorial pet peeves—the things that will get a query letter sent straight to the trash possibly before you even finish reading it?

SS: Writing that reads like a press release, that’s overly flowery, you know—trying too hard. I mean, that’s the other thing—I want engaging writing but… you know. Let’s say it’s a story about a beach; we don’t need to hear about the ‘luxurious, verdant waves that lapped at your toes,’ you know what I mean? Overdone, purple prose.

Also, I can’t really describe it exactly, but there is some bad phrasing, poor syntax in writing that makes me feel that this person doesn’t have control of the language. Like if somebody says ‘I should’ve went’ or ‘I lay down on the bed’—it’s those kind of common language mistakes that people make all the time in conversation, but if you do it in writing it sort of says to me that you don’t know what you’re doing… If someone is awesome in other ways, I might let it slide, but it depends. But you should know the basic kind of Strunk & White stuff.

 

CB: What can you say about the future of journalism and publishing?

SS: I think the democratization of writing is good for the exchange of ideas, but it’s bad for being a professional. And what I mean by democratization is, anyone can publish a book on Kindle just by pushing a button; anyone can publish a blog—and everyone does—so everyone is writing madly just because they love to for an audience of usually their best friends… Then there’s one in a thousand—or fewer—that picks up a substantial following and maybe gets some advertising support, and so on. But I would tell young people in J-school to find someplace to make a living—I wouldn’t even say to go. It’s good to study it, but where are you gonna go?

Newspapers are dying and that was the biggest employer of journalists and magazines are thinning down. And I think for many years there will still be print magazines. I’m not sure about forever, but I think they’ll be here to stay for a long time, but there will be a very small, select group that enjoys the fruits of that… And I think there will be increased specialization. You know, people don’t just want a magazine about skiing, for example, but if you’re into powder skiing you want a magazine about powder skiing. And it used to be very general… But I think that where magazines are more successful, mainly for ad reasons, is where advertisers know they’re buying ad space for people who by skis to ski on powdered snow and not just skis in general, so they know their money is being well spent and they’re willing to pay for that.

 

CB: Is it important for a writer to specialize?

SS: I think you need a little bit of specialization… To be very specific, if you’re a women’s magazine and you have a hair column, you’re not going to just hire anyone to write that hair column. You’re going to hire someone who’s been working in beauty and hair and knows the subject. Otherwise, the mistakes people make when they just plunge into a new field are that they tackle the subject that all their readers know has been discussed ad nauseam and that really don’t need to have covered again. They need to be able to zero-in on a new twist on that subject and you can’t do that unless you’ve been following it for months or years. If you’re at Cosmo and you’re going to write a sex story, you better know what they’ve already written about for the last five to ten years… you’ve got to know how far they’ve dialed it in.

 

CB: How important do you think it is for writers to maintain a social media presence today?

SS: Well, I think it’s very important… you have to be up on it. A lot of people get their news from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, etcetera. That’s, in effect, framing the world for them. Even John Green, who wrote The Fault in Our Stars, he and his brother are YouTube stars and he’s all tapped-in to youth culture… He’s got this huge audience so, when he wrote a book, he suddenly had millions of people to whom he could market… It’s hard for a generalist… but I think the people who succeed at it are a little bit eccentric and wacky, and really narrow focused—you know every week or every day what they’re going to put out there and they’re just building a following as they go. But truly, for every one that succeeds there are probably a hundred that get no following. But if there is something you are passionate about and you are willing to post about it over and over, one day you just might get enough followers to where suddenly you can make a living.

 

Steve Slon recommended reading: “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese. Esquire, April 1966.

Suggested follow: Humans of New York

 

Everything I Should Have Learned in College About Professional Writing

A writer's work is never done.I was going to cite a whole bunch of employment statistics—ones that show how having the right college degree helps you get a job—but instead, I am going to lay the truth down as per my personal experience: in terms of finding full-time, gainful employment, having a humanities degree today is roughly akin to having no degree at all.

Since graduating in 2007 with my Bachelor’s in Creative Writing I have spent the majority of my working life in customer service, save the last few years in which I’ve been fortunate enough to get paid to write things. I worked as the marketing guy for a local club for a while, but even that averaged out to around $9 per hour when all was said and done—a little less than I would later make at a jewelry repair store in the mall. I was overqualified (I was told) for most office jobs and underqualified (I was usually ignored) for anything entry-level. Go figure.

On top of that—though I have to admit that my tenure in a top writing program most certainly made me a better writer—once I left school for the rat race, diploma in-hand, I was no more prepared to become a professional writer than I had been after graduating high school. I had a degree in the subject, sure, but I still I had no idea what a query letter was, let alone how to write one, and that, it turned out, was Pro-Writing 101. I didn’t hear anything about agents, or publishing books, or writing magazine articles, or how to talk to editors or submit to journals until after I graduated, and most of this I did online with the help of blogs like this one. But I did read a lot in school. And I wrote a lot. And I learned how to take criticism. Most of that stuff you can do in any ol’ workshop for much less than the cost of college tuition, and any one of those workshops is sure to tear your work apart all the same. Yes, having award-winning writers as your discussion leaders does have its perks, but for the vast majority of us humanities grads (myself included) it never translated to a single byline.

What nobody likes to talk about when they are trying to sell you a site membership, a book, or enrollment in a class promising instant six-figure success in your freelance writing career is how much work it’s going to take you to get there. They’ll tell you over and over how few of your classmates will become actual professional writers as well as how difficult it is to break into the industry and how the odds are stacked so very high against you, but none of my professors ever told me anything about how much labor was involved in writing professionally. We’re talking nerve-frying, eye-drying, staring-at-a-screen-so-long-you-want-to-puke work. You’ll send in more queries than you thought you could ever write only to have 99 percent of them rejected at first. Then what do you do? You come up with more ideas, send in more queries, reach out to more publications, and keep on slinging it ‘til it sticks. Eventually the rejections are fewer, the work is more, and maybe—if you’re lucky—clients will even start seeking you out for projects. Finish a book-length manuscript or a piece of short fiction in your “spare” time and it’s back to the world’s slowest races with the world’s most obtuse learning curve (Still working on breaking into that side of publishing myself).

Everyone’s backup dream plan seems to be to write something—someday, down the road, once life settles down a bit. But the ones that actually sit down and do it—and then do it again, and again, and again—are the ones collecting the paychecks. And some, as you know, are pretty well-paid.

There is no easy path to writing success that I have found. The road to regular publication—and therefore, regular paychecks—is a strenuous one, though it is littered with intangible treasures if you know where to look. How else are you going to find an excuse to talk one-on-one with your childhood heroes? or that politician for whom you actually had a few questions? or the rockstar who wrote that song you love—the one with the lyrics you never could quite understand. You know the one. How else are you ever going to make a living doing what you love except by throwing yourself headlong into doing it?

I pulled this from a list of Joss Whedon quotes compiled by my editor at MentalFloss.com. She apparently got it from a Hulu Q&A. Don’t worry—you don’t have to be a Buffy fan to get the meaning behind it, and whether you like it or not, Whedon is one of those guys collecting the checks:

“If you have a good idea, get it out there. For every idea I’ve realized, I have ten I sat on for a decade till someone else did it first. Write it. Shoot it. Publish it. Crochet it, sauté it, whatever. MAKE.”

Summation: give your passion whatever you’ve got, then give it a little bit more. Make it a point to surprise yourself and inevitably you will. If I owe nothing else to my college education, it’s the fact that during those four years of workshops I was forced to “MAKE” over and over again, often reluctantly (some things never change). Everything after that was details, each one meticulously honed through a seemingly endless phase of trials-and-errors. I’m still erring from time to time, yeah, but now I’m publishing, too.

If I had to do it over, I would study journalism or marketing or engineering—one of those subjects that actually prepares you for a real-life job. The writing—the “MAKING”— would have come all the same; it was, after all, something I considered a pleasurable hobby long before it paid any of my bills.

Though it may sound like commonsense, all of this took me seven years on top of college to figure out. You just got it tuition-free in about five minutes.

Happy making.

How did you break into the world of professional writing? Do you have a story about something you tried that DIDN’T work for you the first time? I’d love to hear about it—comment below or email me at info@craigsbaker.com.

How to Land Superstar Sources for Your Writing Projects

Writer Monster Conducts an InterviewOften the hardest part about writing an article is just finding a decent source willing to sit with you for an interview. Even on the local level, business owners, public officials, and media personalities are usually too busy to just jump in and offer a great quote for you on a cold call. And if you’ve ever reached out to an A-lister of any ilk than you know that correspondence sent to in-demand individuals will more-often-than-not find its way to the garbage without the courtesy of a response. Though no method is fool proof in this arena, it’s good to stack the odds in your favor when writing an interview request. Many of these tricks I learned the hard way—by doing things wrong on the first go round—and all of them have helped me to land some big interviews even when writing for small publications.

1)      Over-Canvas and Overshoot

It is not possible to have too many sources, nor is it possible to reach too high when it comes to the quality of those sources. Treat every local newspaper piece like a dollar-a-word assignment and reach out to the very best source you can find for your topic. Worst case scenario: they don’t have time to talk or don’t respond—no harm done. You can stifle your fear of rejection by blasting out correspondence to multiple sources at once—get five requests out each afternoon and that 20 percent success rate will start to feel pretty good.

2)      Be Likeable

In everything I write—from emails to articles—I read out-loud or at least in a whisper to check for flow and tone. The tone you are shooting for in your interview request is business casual, like the language you would use while out on a lunch with a co-worker. Be respectful and appreciative for the time you are requesting from your potential source—that means say thank you—and if you can get in an appropriate joke, I say go for it (depending, of course, on the publication): making someone laugh or smile ups the chance that they will want to sit and talk with you for any extended length of time.

3)      Don’t Ask for Too Much

Get in touch with your chosen subject as early as possible—your deadlines are not their deadlines and the best sources are also the busiest people on the planet. Let them know you will not need much of their time: 15 minutes is probably good for about every 800-1000 words of print, especially if you are using multiple sources in the same piece like a good little journalist. Not every article requires multiple sources, though, and for those you may want to try and get a little bit more time. This goes back to that being likeable thing—if a source is enjoying your conversation you might even get some bonus time out of your call or meeting without asking for it.

4)      Do Your Homework

If you know what your source is doing professionally or personally you are going to be much more able to empathize with them (again, see #2). Don’t take this to the point of creepy (e.g. “I saw you walking your dog near your house in Malibu and…”), but if the subject is involved with a promotion of any kind (say, for a new book, research paper, concert, film, class, television show, business, or anything else) feel free to mention that your piece could be a great opportunity to spread the word. This also shows that you value their time and will minimize the amount of BS they will have to deal with when they do agree to talk to you. Doing a little research is also going to be the only way to find contact information for big-name sources, so take the extra time to read the content on their sites and get a feel for the language they use in their tweets or status updates. If they swear a lot, feel free to loosen your language a bit; if they don’t, act like you’re writing a boss you’ve never met as you draft your interview request. Oh, and a casual compliment usually won’t hurt your case, either way.

5)      Let Them Know What You’re Looking For

Even if you are without assignment when you make first contact, mention publications you intend to pitch and the angle you intend to take for your article in your request. This shows professionalism and minimizes the amount of back-and-forth necessary before your source can make a decision on whether or not to talk with you. And don’t take it personal if you don’t hear back—as we all know, time is everyone’s most valuable asset.

6)      Provide a Link to Clips, if Possible

Having a website helps. Short of that, sending a link to your blog or attaching a few writing samples to your request for your source to consider will usually be to your advantage—again, it cuts one more inevitable email out the exchange and, yeah, it looks pretty good for your credibility, too. No matter how you want to take it, efficiency is always your friend in these efforts, second in importance only to humility.

7)      Keep It Short and Sweet

Your request to interview should look something like this:

Hello [Mr./Ms./Mrs. Famous Last Name],

I was just looking over your [book/website/film/skin cream label] and was really intrigued by your point about [homelessness/happiness/hairlessness/halitosis]. I am actually a freelance writer working on an [article/blog post/possible novel or biography] for [intended medium] and I was wondering if you might have some time in the next [intended time frame adjusted for impossibility of scheduling] to chat with me on the subject?

I know you must be incredibly busy with [optional current project] and so I promise not to take up too much of your time. I am available on [list availability and be as flexible as possible] by [phone/Skype/to meet/tin cans connected by string] but am more than willing to work with your schedule should you be able to find a bit of time for me. You can find samples of my work [at the link below/attached to this message]. Thanks for your time to this point. I will look forward to hearing from you.

 

[Salutation]

Writer Name

www.WriterName.com

800.555.3645

 

Do your best not to overdo it and be considerate—that is the type of journalist a superstar source wants to talk to. Now that you’re feeling confident, get out there and start contacting some sources. It’s never to soon to get started on your next piece.

Were these tips helpful for you? Do you have any tips of your own for landing big interviews? What was the best interview you’ve ever landed and how did you get it? I’d love to hear from you.

Two Legendary Authors Reveal Humble Beginnings and Professional Insights at the Tucson Festival of Books

“It’s been a long time, shouldn’ta left you (left you) without a dope beat to step to…”               

-Timbaland

Humility—aside from the obvious items in your writing tool kit (a knowledge of language, a pen and paper or a word processor, the blinding drive to produce come-what-may) humility is perhaps the one thing that will take you the furthest in your freelance/writing career, and maybe any other career you pursue, for that matter.  And when I say “humility” I’m not talking about the fake smile and flattery you put on to get through a dinner party—no, no, no. I mean the real stuff—genuine interest; gratitude without pretext. You know—actually treating people the way you want to be treated; honestly, and with dignity. Like you were important; like your thoughts and opinions had value.

Nothing will put you in your proper place quite like spending a weekend surrounded by people that are smarter and more successful than yourself. Last Saturday and Sunday, hundreds of authors and writers—legitimate ones—descended on my hometown for the sixth annual Tucson Festival of Books—the fourth-largest event in the nation of its kind. And for the bulk of this shindig, your narrator played the part of fly on the literary wall.

Authors and writers flock to Tucson Festival of Books
Thousands attend the annual Tucson Festival of Books. Photo by James S. Wood (jswoodphoto.com).

The more I talk to (and listen to) published writers, musicians, and other artists of varying levels of fame, dedication, and talent, the more I learn (and have to [reluctantly] accept) that there is no one path to success—no one magic secret to launching myself into those dollar-a-word assignments, fiction contest victories, or whatever else the other freelance “gurus” happen to be hawking at the moment.

Every single professional I have ever spoken with has their own success story, that is to say, their own very unique path by which they were able to make writing their living, and some 95 percent of them (if not more) had to struggle like hell to get there. Aside from that, the only common threads between these stories, at least from what I can see thus far, are 1) persistence; nobody ever got a job they weren’t looking for (except Luis Alberto Urrea, which I will cover in a minute), and 2) likeability; nobody ever got a job from somebody that didn’t like them.

Take these stories of humble beginnings gathered from talks given at the Tucson Festival by two award-winning, best-selling American authors: renowned children’s author Lois Lowry and Latino Literature Hall-of-Famer, Luis Alberto Urrea.

Author and writer gives great advice.
Two-time Newberry Award-winning Author Lois Lowry never set out to write children’s books.

Lois Lowry has written a number of children’s novels that deal with some very adult subject matter, including two Newberry Award winners in The Giver and Number the Stars, though she never set out to be a children’s author. In fact, Lois’ journey toward her status as a legend of young adult literature began with an essay she had written for an adult audience titled “Crow Call”, which had been published in a magazine somewhere in the 70s, the name of which I forgot to write down. At any rate, the Lois Lowry that I grew up reading and revering came into existence when an editor at Scholastic Press read “Crow Call”, called up Lowry personally, and asked her if she might ever be interested in writing a children’s book. You can fill the rest in yourself with a quick Google search.

One specific writing tip worth mentioning from Lois’ talk: she read all of the opening lines from her Giver  quadrilogy—all of which were mesmerizing, not to mention similar in many respects—and said this, “That’s what makes a reader turn the pages; an introduction to a character (age, gender, name, etc.) and an introduction to a part of a problem—something you need to worry about.”  That about summed it up, I thought; made my skin tingle a bit just to hear it spoken so succinctly. Oh, and watch for “The Giver” the movie starring Jeff Bridges this August—it’s been 18 years in the making, said Lowry, and promises a few surprises to fans of the book.

Luis Alberto Urrea’s path to literary greatness is equally unlikely and, in my opinion, even more exciting than Lowry’s. Urrea was actually “working the graveyard shift scrubbing public toilets” after finishing graduate school at the University of Colorado at Boulder. When he one day had the realization that scrubbing toilets at a

University might get him a step closer to becoming a famous writer than scrubbing toilets in public parks, Luis sent a letter to an acquaintance of his that taught writing at Harvard in hopes of getting a good recommendation for a janitor position. Sure, said the friend, he could have his recommendation, so long as he sent three pieces of published writing along with his application. “Harvard is so elite,” Luis had told some of his musician buddies that night, “even the janitors are published poets.”

Though he didn’t know it at the time, Urrea’s connection at Harvard was actually the second in command of the school’s writing program, and so instead of a job as a janitor, Luis was hired to fill an open position teaching expository writing at the most elite University in the nation soon thereafter. When he got to Boston, he was in a completely different world than his native Tijuana—it was his mother’s world, an America he had never known existed, but one that nonetheless belonged to him in some way. “It was a revelation,” said Luis, “that I was not a border rat—I was an American.” Again, I will leave it to you to fill in the rest of Luis’ story on your own (watch for his 10-year-anniversary rerelease of  t

Great writers, humble beginnings.
Best-selling author Luis Alberto Urrea came from very humble beginnings.

he non-fiction classic Devil’s Highway later this year from Little/Brown).

If you are just starting out as a writer—or even if you’ve been at it for a while and have found yourself in one of those inevitable slumps—remember that there is value in what you do that can never be measured in dollars and cents. You write because you love it; because there is nothing else that you would rather be doing, and because, even if there was something you’d rather be doing, you’d only be doing it so that you could write about it later. A writer is one that writes because they have to; not just because they want to. Because those story ideas pile up on themselves and eventually disappear. Because they can cause headaches when neglected. Because you started carrying a pen and paper everywhere you go “just in case”.

Money, success, any notion of book sales or fame—all of these things can come of being a writer, sure, but they must be entertained as afterthought, if at all. The fact of the matter is that the guy (or gal) that is writing from the heart (that is to say, doing it solely for the love of the art form) quite honestly is going to produce better, more honest—and certainly more heartfelt—work than someone rushing toward their next paycheck. And any editor you query is going knows this all-to-well.

So, make sure and remind yourself from time to time that nearly every writer in history has been there—stuck in a rut, no money, no pending assignments, no support or opportunity to speak of, with nothing but their own words to sooth their aching spirit. But, to paraphrase something Urrea was told by a Native American medicine man when he was at perhaps his lowest point:

When you ask the world to free you of your obligations so that you can focus your energy on your craft, make sure you mean it. If you are sincere in your request, then when the angels come to rid you of your burdens, you will be grateful. If you are insincere, however, the angels that take your possessions, break the bonds of your relationships, cull your distractions even at your request, you will be tempted to call devils.   

No matter what you may find yourself doing, do it because you love it. And if you can’t do what you love for a living, do it anyway, whenever and wherever you can. When you stop loving it, stop doing it—regardless, you will one day learn (either the hard way or otherwise) that passion and hard work are the only prerequisites to success. Just make sure and count your blessings along the way. In truth, there is plenty of advice out there to help get you from introduction to conclusion time and time again, but nobody is going to hold your chin up for you.

Living to Write/Writing to Live: How One Author Cracked the Code to Success.

            AndrewBlackman-300x233 A-Virtual-Love-Cover-195x300

Andrew Blackman is living “a writer’s life”, and you can learn all about it on his blog of the same title. The long and short of it is this: he was a Wall Street Journal staff writer for a while, then participated in NaNoWriMo in 2007. During that month of intensive wordsmithing he finished a draft for his first novel, The Holloway Road, which went on to win the first ever Luke Bitmead Bursary for New Writers in 2008. It was then published by Legend Press the following year to some acclaim, even earning a spot on the short list for the Dundee International Book Prize. He published his second novel, A Virtual Love, earlier this year and moved to the island of Crete soon thereafter for cheap rent and a view of the Mediterranean Sea, where he can “live simply and concentrate on writing,” according to his website. Jealous yet? Well, you’re not alone.

Blackman’s blog includes occasional insights to his life and career as a professional writer, as well as tips and tricks for up-and-comers in the industry. Subscribers get a free copy of the eBook “$250,000 Writing Contests”, which could potentially save any writer of short fiction many countless hours of outlet-searching for their polished-yet-unpublished pieces. On a personal note, I can tell you that his guest post for the popular blog, The Renegade Writer, on using the “TK” method while drafting has saved me tons of time writing magazine articles and anything else in which a tedious research effort had the potential to morph into an all-consuming waste of time.

Fresh from a meditation retreat somewhere even quieter than his rural home site, Blackman was kind enough to speak with me via email about the writing process for both of his books and—spoiler alert—even clues me in about his progress on novel number three. It seems that a good relationship with a publisher—even a relatively small one—really can affect a writer’s approach. And even the pros are constantly learning, incorporating new information and experiences, and evolving with regard to their perspective and their process.

Here’s the unedited text of my questions to him and his email response, also unedited:

CB:  Maybe you can start by telling me a little about that first novel- how long did your first draft ultimately take? And what about the revision process? How many read-throughs were there before you set it free? Finally, did you find the process of writing your second novel to be similar to the first, or was it perhaps an altogether different experience?

AB:  Good questions. The process was completely different for each novel.

I wrote the complete first draft of my first novel On the Holloway Road in a month, and that first draft was remarkably close to what eventually got published. I went over it, added a few scenes, straightened out a few logical inconsistencies, fixed a few ugly sentences, and then let it go.

Shortly after finishing, I found out about a newly-established prize for unpublished writers, the Luke Bitmead Bursary. I sent off my manuscript, not expecting much, and was amazed when a few months later I was invited to an award ceremony in London and announced as the winner. The prize was £2,500 and a publishing contract with Legend Press, a fairly small independent publisher in the UK.

After revelling in the win for a while, I panicked. They’d only judged the prize based on the first three chapters. What if they hated the rest? I spent a few frantic days making last-minute revisions, but I don’t think I changed anything much – it was more just agonising over words here and there.

To my surprise, my editor at Legend Press didn’t make or recommend any major changes either. It was more line-editing stuff, like breaking down some of my long and winding sentences into smaller pieces. So the process from start to finish was very easy, and the published novel was mostly completed in that one-month manic writing binge.

For my second novel, it was totally different. I wrote much more slowly, and edited much more thoroughly. With the first novel, I’d had the freedom of not expecting it to be published. Second time around, I had an agent and a wiling publisher, and knew the chances of publication were high. The second novel was also more complicated in theme and structure, so there was more work to do.

So I spent about a year and a half writing the first draft, and then wrote a second draft with major changes – whole chapters deleted, characters dropped and introduced, personalities and plot radically reshaped. And then a third draft, and I showed that to my agent, and he recommended some pretty major changes. For example, the novel is narrated by different characters in different chapters, and he felt the voices were not distinct enough. Going back through the whole novel and changing the voices took months by itself, and then there were elements of the plot that had to be rethought, characters who had to be made more believable or sympathetic. I think this stage took another year. I showed it to him again, and he was happier, but recommended another draft.

Finally it was done, and it was just the publisher’s edit, which was pretty light again. All in all it was about four years from start to finish.

I’m now pretty close to the end of my third novel, and it’s a similar process to the second. I think that’s my way of working in general – slower and more considered. On the Holloway Road was more of a one-off. I’d been working on a novel before that for years (a novel which remains, and will always remain, unpublished!), and had got so sick of it that it felt incredibly liberating to free-write for a month without the burden of expectation. I was viewing it as an exercise, to rediscover the joy of writing, and never dreamed that I’d end up with anything publishable. Maybe I’ll try some speed-writing again one day if I get stuck, but for now the slower pace is working well for me, so I’ll stick with that.

All the best

Andrew

Do you have any experience with novel writing, NaNoWriMo, or a publishing success story you’d like to share? Leave a comment below or email me—I’d love to hear your take on things!