Sunday, January 27, 2008

Book 27 of 52: Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction by James B. Stewart

"By all rights, completing a manuscript should be a joyous moment in any writer's career. Yet most writers I know suffer to varying extents from some form of postpartum depression. They may be suddenly racked by doubts that the story is any good. They worry about whether their editor will like it...Writers worry about where their next story or book will come from."

I highlighted a lot of passages in James B. Stewart's Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction, but this one stuck out the most, not only because it's toward the end of the book, but also because I know what he's talking about. I lived it for the last four months. And let me tell you, it ain't pretty.

I turned in the manuscript for my book on September 4, 2007. Late that afternoon, I e-mailed the files of the manuscript to my editor and dropped a hard copy in the mail. Then I went for a run, ordered some horribly unhealthy take out, had a beer, and went to bed. I planned on waking up the next morning, walking the dog, eating a bowl of Cheerios with bananas, and start freelancing full time once again.

This didn't happen -- not just the next day, but not for next weeks that turned into months. I stared at my computer and, when nothing came, alternated between hitting 'refresh' on my email and reading gossip sites. I didn't write queries. I didn't follow up with editors I assured I would contact after the book was done. I withdrew from my friends, my family, and slid into what can only be described as depression. I finally admitted I had a problem in the middle of October when I laid on the floor of the extra bedroom at my grandparents house and sobbed in front of my mother, who had no idea what was going on, or why I was so upset.

Eric Nuzum warned me this might happen. I interviewed him about The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Choculafor an article in Washingtonian magazine -- one of the two freelance articles I squeezed out in the last month before my book deadline. He pressed me to find a post-book project, and I tried. But when your income relies on work output and you're not outputting, the stress snowballs until you have one very depressed writer unable to write anything than blog posts.

This lasted about five months. Even when I finally contacted those editors and stopped being a hermit, my work was still slow going, and I knew I was turning in articles that weren't up to what I could do. I re-read essays I'd written years ago, and it didn't spur me on but only deepened my depression because I didn't write like that anymore. Sure, I could bang out a story on how to motivate yourself to get to the gym, but write something that would illuminate anything other than tips on personal fitness? I just couldn't do it.

Jack Wright, editor and publisher of Exit Zero and Cool Cape May (who also put in time as Executive Editor of Gear, US Weekly and Men's Journal before moving to Cape May for his own little slice of publishing heaven) saw this, and gave me a professional beating. When I saw the comments he leveled on the essay in question, I cried. I knew I had a writing problem, but whereas other people said that my writing was fine and would work itself out (a hope I clung to), Jack put my problems in front of me in very specific terms.

Now, he wasn't cruel, and Jack told me he thought it was a good start (even though I'd already gone through five drafts before turning in the essay). As we worked through the revisions, he suggested -- ordered, even -- that I read Follow the Story, and I'm glad he did.

Aside from Stewart's work as editor of The Wall Street Journal, he also wrote BLOOD SPORT: The President and His Adversaries (about the Clinton Watergate scandal) and Den of Thieves (about the insider trading culture and downfall of the 1980s).

In Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction, Stewart explains the mechanisms of how those kinds of books (and articles from The New Yorker) are researched, written, built and edited.

Even though the book could double as a journalism textbook (and I'm sure it does), I was hooked like I would be with any good piece of narrative non-fiction. I usually use scrap paper as bookmarks, but I used a highlighter this time because I marked so many passages that seemed like they were written for me:

"The key to a successful lead is quite simple: it must attract and hold readers by re-creating in their minds the same curiosity that drove you to undertake the story in the first place."

"Don't waste your time working on stories in which you aren't really interested. Life is too short; there are too many good stories to be written; and your lack of enthusiasm, I can almost guarantee, will be painfully apparent in your finished work. Writing is never entirely painless, but satisfying one's own curiosity should certainly be one of its greatest pleasures."

"Find good editors. And when you do, stay with them, treasure them, and thank them."

I applied Stewart's advice to articles I worked on while I read the book, and I know it's going to change how I approach the profile I'm writing about a cable news anchor. His advice has also reinforced that I need to try writing my other book, one I started writing in 2002. I didn't have the reporting skills then to write the book I envisioned, but I think that I've gained enough professional skills in the last six years go do the book right.

I never went to journalism school -- I'm a firm believer in learning by doing and self-education, and Stewart's book plays right into those believes. It, and the dressing down by that editor, have given me the confidence and drive to go out and get that agent and get that deal that will lead to my second book.

I'm also glad Stewart concluding the book by writing about why he left law to go into writing, and how, even though the financial gains weren't immediate, he stuck with it. Since college, I've been told to go into law because I'd be good at it. That might be true, but I wouldn't have the drive for law that I do for writing, post-book depression or not. I like what I do, and hopefully with the new zip in my step (and in my typing), I'll continue to be able to do it.

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3 comments:

Trish said...

Oh wow. Thank you for this post. This describes my life since last April, when I turned in the final revision of my book. I'm finally back in the saddle now, but it's so nice to know that this is normal, and that I'm not the only one!

I'm heading out to get this book :)

Caroline said...

I LOVE LOVE LOVE this book. I've been rereading it ever since I bought it four (maybe five?) years ago. Another great one I keep going back to is "Writing the Story" by Jon Franklin. It's a bit more about mechanics and structure.

Caroline

Susan Johnston said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Jen. I haven't had the experience of writing a full book manuscript so I don't know what that's like, but I do know that freelancing has major ups and downs. This sounds like the kind of book to read when you need a kick in the butt (which we all need sometimes).