By NYWW Faculty Member Doug Garr
November 1, 2014
When I was a senior in college, I got an assignment from a national magazine to write my first piece. I had a great journalism professor in Advanced Magazine Article Writing who offered a lot of guidance and encouragement. But he could not help me answer one question: How would I know when I finished the research? It’s one that every accomplished writer I know tussles with from time to time, and other than the problems of uncooperative subjects or sources, nothing makes me nuttier as a deadline looms. The short answer–and it’s certainly inadequate–is usually attached to the deadline. When you’re up against the wall and you simply have to write, you stop making calls and fill in any blanks after your editor gets to see it.
Four-plus decades after my first anxiety attack I still find myself getting weird over this. It’s not quite as daunting as facing a blank computer screen, but it’s close. The second, related question is, how much time must you invest to research a given article?
I did more research on that first article than any professional would have done, but it taught me a valuable lesson. Better too much than too little.
Tom Wolfe has argued that the best-written magazine pieces tend to flow from the writers who are foremost thorough reporters. Once you have a solid theme and the thread of a good story, what makes a piece of writing soar is the author’s ear for a great quote and an eye for detail. The only way to get that is through worn-out shoe leather or hanging around waiting for something terrific to happen.
One tenet of which I’m absolutely certain: a well-researched piece can overcome mediocre writing. The corollary to this theory is that it is a tougher task masking inadequate reporting with great writing. It is hard to self-dissect a failed article and decide what went wrong. But more often than not, when I revisit an unsuccessful piece after many months, or even years, lack of research oozes between the sentences. Articles don’t usually fail simply because they’re badly written.
Obviously, if you’re doing the fifth or sixth article on a subject you’re already familiar with, the research is easier and goes much faster. Your learning curve has flattened considerably; you have multiple sources you’re already acquainted with; you already know what mines are rich in ore. You can call someone you know and do a good phoner, rather than a face-to-face interview. But it’s considerably more challenging when you’re tackling a story that you begin with scant knowledge.
When I began my career, the first place to start an article was the library. That, of course, has changed. The web is now the starting point. Nobody leaves home without Googling first. On one hand, there is usually a wealth of information on your subject; speeches, statistics, anecdotes, phone numbers, and so on. And most of it is free. The downside is that the Web is also a Wild West show. Data ages quickly, and the stuff inside those ubiquitous servers can be grossly unreliable. Go deep into the footnotes on Wikipedia and you’ll find pages that have long since disappeared. As the old newspaper saw goes, if you read on a site that your mother loves you, you’d better call her to check it out. The library is still a pretty good place to do historical research. The better ones have librarians who are flattered when writers ask for help. Also, the library tends to allow for more serendipity than the web. Sometimes I find some fact or piece of minutiae–scrolling newspapers on microfilm, for instance–that fits into what I’m working on, or even better, leads to another idea for a piece.
When I’m about to hit the road, I try to prepare for every interview with a list of queries, ranging from “softball questions” to get the conversation going, to the provocative, possibly confrontational questions that come toward the end. The reason for this is simple: if your subject gets pissed off at your line of questioning, you want him or her to walk out at the end of the interview, not at the beginning.
Mostly, this isn’t the case. My closing question often goes like this: “If you were me, who else would you call?” Or, if it’s a difficult story, one that entails investigative zeal, I’ll ask, “Where else would you go? Do you have any ideas where I should look?” Soon, somebody will suggest that you have to talk to so-and-so, and you already have. That’s a signal that you actually know what you’re doing. When the answers to my questions become redundant, I know I’m getting near the end of the digging cycle.
Occasionally, I’ll discover that sources are asking me questions about what I’ve been discovering. This is another sign that I’ve become somewhat fluent with the material. It means I’m getting enough grist to get started on the writing.
The act of trying to begin writing tells you a lot about whether you’ve done enough research. On any substantial piece, I begin with an outline. I’ll just randomly list the elements of the piece, hoping to shuffle them later into some kind of narrative order. If I’m having trouble with this, there’s a possibility I haven’t done enough spadework. If the lead and theme (what conventional editors like to call the “nut graf,”) are a struggle, I go back to my notes and my source file and try to find out what’s missing.
Naturally, “when you’re finished” is instinctive. But your instincts become sharper when you try to quantify how much information you actually need. And you’re not afraid to overdo it a little.
When the Real Work Begins: Selling Your Book Before It’s Published
by NYWW faculty/founding member Charles Salzberg
October 1, 2014
In early October we had our twice-yearly pitch conference, where writers get a chance to pitch their non-fiction book ideas to three editors (we also have a fiction pitch conference twice a year.) It was a particularly good group, not a clinker among them, with what I thought were very strong, marketable ideas. But evidently in today’s market that’s not nearly enough.
One editor listened carefully to all the pitches but her answer was pretty much the same to everyone: it wasn’t the idea that counted it was that dreaded word “platform,” which essentially means, “what are you going to do to help us sell your book?”
Over and over I heard, “Do you have a blog?” “Do you have Twitter followers?” “Have you published articles on your subject?” “Have you done any speaking engagements on your subject?” “How are you with social media?”
I don’t know about the participants, but after listening to this for an hour and a half I was so depressed I needed a drink—and I don’t drink.
Unfortunately, in today’s publishing world, this is the way it is—not for every editor, of course. Some listened carefully to the idea and evaluated whether or not they wanted to see the project on its merits. But that’s rare. Most are much more interested in what you bring to the table.
Thirty years or so ago you would never hear anything like that. Back then, it was the writer’s job to write the book and the publisher’s job to go out and sell it to the public. Not today. Today, not only does the writer have to write the book, he or she has to sell it before it’s even published!
I’ve written, co-written or ghostwritten over twenty-five non-fiction books and I can assure you this is not the way it’s always been, but it is now—and you either have to play the game or sit on the sidelines. I trace it back to when big conglomerates began swallowing up publishing houses. The first was Gulf-Western, which bought Simon and Schuster. Suddenly, the “blockbuster” mentality was brought to the book business. Gulf-Western was in the movie business and that mentality, I think, seeped down to the publishing business. It became all about the “big book”: the book that was going to make the New York Times bestseller list and stay there for multiple weeks. Not long ago, a friend, who happens to be an agent, told me that she had recently had lunch with the head of a major publishing house and asked him what he was looking for in terms of books. His answer, “bestsellers.” How ridiculous is that? Who knows what’s going to be a bestseller? Certainly not publishers.
Five years ago I gave up writing non-fiction to concentrate on writing novels. I was lucky. No one asked me about my “platform” when Swann’s Last Song was bought by a publisher, but maybe that’s because they thought I already had one, having published so many books and magazine articles. And I was even luckier when it was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel. I’ve written and published three other novels since then (one just out: Swann’s Lake of Despair), but like every other author, I’m under the pressure to sell books. If I don’t, if each book doesn’t do a little better than the last, I’m going to have a tough time selling the next one.
And so, I’ve become part writer and part marketer. For the last novel, I hired a wonderful social media expert, who taught me how to use Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin successfully. Whether I want to or not, I have to spend an inordinate amount of time on Facebook, Tweeting, and posting news, not so much about my book, but about things that might interest others and give me name recognition. As my social media expert, Catherine Ventura, explained, “think of yourself as a magazine. You post interesting articles and observations and people get to like you, and then, when your book comes out, you can announce it and people are more likely to buy it.” In the end, I joked, it was one more woman in my life telling me what to do, or what I was doing wrong—the only difference was, I was paying her to do it!
This time around, I hired a wonderful publicist, Julie Schoerke, (JKS Communications) as well as Partners in Crime, a company that handles blog tours for crime authors. What it’s meant is that I’ve had to do more writing for free than I’ve ever done before. I’ve written at least half a dozen blog essays, done at least a half dozen written interviews, as well as some radio and newspaper interviews.
All this takes time away from “real” writing, but in today this is absolutely necessary.
And so, as much as I hate saying this, if you’re a first-time author, start building your platform even before you start to look for an agent or a publisher. It’s a dirty job, but if you don’t do it no one else will.
Charles Salzberg is one of the Founding Members of New York Writers Workshop. His novel, Devil in the Hole, was named one of the best crime novels of 2013 by Suspense magazine his latest novel, Swann’s Lake of Despair, is now available.
Why Go Indie: The Advantages of Working With a Small Press
By NYWW Faculty Member Ross Klavan
September , 2014
I’d finished work on the book—I’d suffered, wept, bruised my fingers against the keyboard–and now I was sitting there with one main, terrifying question: Who in his right mind is going to publish a novel called Schmuck?
This dark comedy (wait! a quick plug!) entitled Schmuck is a weirdly energetic (and not always comic) ride through 1960s radio, World War II, Jewish gangsters, show business and beautiful babes with nods along the way to father-son theatrics, the Vietnam War, Bob Dylan, Jean Shepherd and Soupy Sales.
OK. So. You know the answer. I’m with Greenpoint Press.
There are great things about an indie publisher and you should know what they are. Unlike the sterile glass-and-steel, sunshine-blocking, overly air-conditioned corporate book companies in their big-deal high-rise offices (many of whom still sneak out for a cigarette instead of talking to you), the Indie Publisher actually loves books. Not only that, many indie companies are run by people who are also acclaimed writers—like Greenpoint, run by the award-winning Charles Salzberg. I’ll tell you what’s good about that—when you haven’t written a word and you’re a month over deadline and Charles calls you (personally) to say, “Hey, how’s it going?” and you answer, “Oh, hey, hi! Great!” Charles knows you’re sitting in your underwear watching reruns of “Route 66” and haven’t done a damn thing. He doesn’t have to yell or browbeat or insult you or take up a lot of your time. He just knows exactly where you’re at and what you’re up to and that’s incredibly comforting.
Likewise, notice he personally called. Even better, he’ll take your calls. He might even take you to lunch (although not, like a Corporate Publisher, to a place with banquettes). But, unlike the Corporate Publisher who says he’ll quit smoking but would rather light up than talk to you, at Greenpoint, the writer is brought in on so many decisions about his own book—print style, cover art, ads, those little designs on the pages—that you soon realize you know nothing at all about publishing and you start making up lies which is a good warm-up for the next novel. You don’t get that kind of help from Corporate.
Listen, if you’re a good writer then you’re probably a good reader and I’ll bet a lot of your favorite books, especially those from your misspent youth, came out from indie publishers. So, you’re already halfway there.
I’ll tell you something else. You want to go Corporate? There’d be one reason to do it: If Maxwell Perkins was going to edit your book. But that’s not gonna happen because 1) he’s dead and 2) he got beaten up by Ernest Hemingway which definitely did not happen to Charles Salzberg.
Indie’s the way to go. Face it: Indie is the future. Indie will be out there dancing in the fields wearing beads and flowers while Corporate is out there on the pavement worrying through his fourth unsuccessful Smokers Anonymous. The world is changing and in a very few cases, it’s changing for the better. So, fear not. And send in your book…
Welcome to Our New Website!
August 4, 2014 What We Did on Our Summer Vacation…
Remember when you were a kid, when summers really were a vacation? As soon as school was out, your agenda was pretty much to play outside a lot, catch lightning bugs, eat plenty of popsicles and watermelon and go swimming as much as possible–with maybe a family trip or some summer camp, and several good books thrown into the mix? Ah, all that sweet, sweaty, meandering downtime…Where did it go?
We hope you at least got in a little beach trip, enjoyed some ice-cream, or oohed and aahed at the fireworks on the 4th (some things, at least, stay the same when you’re a grown-up!) While we tried to squeeze in some fun here and there, we at New York Writers Workshop have been busy doing our homework this summer. Between running writing workshops and seminars everywhere from Alabama to Singapore, and working on our own writing and editing projects, we’ve also spent the summer planning our next round of fall and winter classes, workshops and conferences, and loading up and launching our brand new website. [Special thanks to Matthew Kressel of Sunray Computer for his gifted design skills, Sharon Gurwitz for her consulting wizardry, and Allison Estes, who had no idea what she was getting into when she came to us and said, “We really need a better website—you want me to see about getting that done?”]
Welcome to our brand new site! We hope you find something you’re looking for here, and that we’ll see you at a class, a weekend workshop, a pitch conference, a New York Public Library or Brooklyn Central Library workshop, a Trumpet Fiction reading, or another New York Writers Workshop event soon! Please visit often—we have new happenings all the time, many of which are free.
Also, be sure to check this section for our monthly newsletter offering insight, advice and stories for those who share our love of literature and the craft of writing.
–New York Writers Workshop
This month, New York Writers Workshop asks our members, “What did you do on your summer vacation?”
“When I was a kid I won first place in the science fair, and the prize included a tour of NASA, but my parents wouldn’t take me. This summer, I actually got to go–it was the best vacation ever! I also worked on the final version of my next book, which is also my first picture book, Izzy & Oscar. It was so much fun to tackle a new genre, and I’m really excited to see it in stores next April! And finally, I learned more about websites than I ever thought I would need to know…Can I go back to NASA now?”
“It took me thirteen long, arduous, hope- and despair-filled years to get published, so this summer I went on the world’s longest book tour: 4 months, 20,000 miles on the road, kids in the back seat, husband working from the front. We saw 45 states and about 450 bookstores. And what did I learn out there? That America is still filling its bookstores. We’re not as device-plugged as a trip on the subway might lead us to believe. And–that being an author is the best job in the world.”
“Spent big part of summer waiting by phone to hear if there’s interest in the mystery my agent’s shopping. (Yes. Some.) Spent the rest of the summer finishing off a novel I’ve been working on for 4 years. In August going on a trip to California with my husband, daughter, her boyfriend, my son, his girlfriend, and my other son. Whether that turns into a murder mystery or novel remains to be seen.”
“I spent my summer vacation holding ‘it’ in.”
[Summer 1970] “One July day when I was 16, I went to a pow-wow in Oklahoma for a boy going to Vietnam. He was dark and thin and held a crumpled bag. As people danced around a fire, he told me he was 18 and his name was Jesse, and he had dropped out of high school. Jesse bent down and took an orange out of his bag and held it out. ‘No thank you. I’m not hungry,’ I said. That fall, I heard that Jesse had been killed in action. I will always wish I had taken that orange.”
“Well, I finished going through the edits on my middle-grade novel, Finding the Worm, due out from Random House next February. (It’s the sequel to my 2013 novel, Twerp.) I was relegated to benchwarmer on both of my softball teams, so that’s a flicker of mortality right there. Oh, and I shot a man in Reno…just to watch him pose.”
“I made God laugh. Or at least that’s what the proverb about making plans in life says I did. Three weeks before our first baby was due, my wife and I mapped out when we would get all the must-haves in preparation for the big day. It was a great looking chart we put together–colors, timelines, arrows pointing from one thing to the next. That was around the time God burst out in laughter…in the form of my wife’s water breaking. Three weeks early. Three hours from the city. Three hundred years before I was going to be mentally ready for all this. Just over 54 hours later, Levi JJ Stern made his debut amidst that laughter that was now shared by two very happy parents who had to scramble to buy a whole bunch of junk online.”
“My college roommate, now a famous poet, Jan Heller Levi, once told me, “You will write your major work, your first novel, when you turn 70,and there is nothing left in the world to distract you.” Close enough. I started Gilson’s Piece on July 8, 2014. Soon thereafter, I was distracted by needing to move my horse to another stable. She is plumping up on her new grass pasture, and I am recovering from worrying about her over another dirty martini.”
“My life is pretty much a summer vacation…which means that I’m doing pretty much what I do all year–except this year I took the summer off from teaching to finish the fourth novel in the Henry Swann series, and I’m making a big move from the east side of Manhattan, where I’ve lived my entire life, to the wild, wild west side. Also, my birthday is in the middle of summer and since I was sent to sleep-away camp from the time I was four years old and as a result missed that celebration, I like to think of the entire summer as my own personal birthday party.”
“I have a love of poetry on the page, but this summer I discovered how much I love performing my work–through a reading series called The Inspired Word, which has outposts all over the city. My favorite is a downstairs bar on the lower east side with a corner stage, stars that flash on and off, and terrific, funny emcees. What’s best though is the love this singularly diverse community has, not only for language and writing but for each other, and how welcoming and generous their spirit is…a lesson for the heart and for me of what is possible.”
“I spent a full week with my nine-year-old niece who flew alone from Indiana to stay with me in New York. Even though I’m her aunt, there were times I felt like I was playing with the little sister I never had. Aside from the touristy adventures, my favorite moment was when we played dress up in pink and blue boas, hats and my dresses. It was an unforgettable week and I hope to make it an annual get together with her in the city.
–Monique Antonette Lewis”
“After teaching a week-long intensive writing workshop in an ancient villa near Verona, (one highlight, the thrill of seeing Aida at the Roman arena with 14,000 people, despite a late start because of rain, which soaked us), I enjoyed a week of studying Italian at a small scuola d’Italiano on the Adriatic Coast in Le Marche, where the beaches are backed by dramatic cliffs and the water holds you up in an effortless float even if you are a sinker like me. Now, if I could just have my memory buoyed up like that, so I retain all that good Italian I learned.”
“My summer began in May, with writing conferences in the Philippines: Silliman University’s National Writers Workshop, and Mindanao State University’s Illigan National Writers Workshop. In June, I traveled to Leyte and Samar where I gathered oral histories from residents who’d survived Super-Typhoon Yolanda. In July, I participated in the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators “Bridging Cultures” conference in Singapore. In between, I wrote, read, napped, went scuba diving, ate mangoes, practiced yoga. I’ll close out summer work with a two-day workshop in Baguio, Philippines.”