Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Three Rs of Narrative Non-Fiction

Three R’s of Narrative Nonfiction

Draft is a series about the art and craft of writing.
Late on a Friday in Montreal, 1974, Art Williams, a National League umpire, is pacing the floor of his hotel room, sleepless and worried. During a game that evening, a player had pushed him, and Mr. Williams had pushed back — inappropriate behavior for those charged with enforcing the rules. It was personally troublesome for Mr. Williams, who, as the first black umpire in the National League, felt extra pressure to perform.
Mr. Williams worries through the night, repeatedly trying to compose the right words to explain the incident to the National League president, Chub Feeney, to whom he is obliged to report. After an early breakfast, Mr. Williams dials Mr. Feeney’s number. When the umpire identifies himself, the president does not sound happy.
“Well, what do you want?”
“I wanted to explain to you, I mean, I wanted to tell you about what happened in last night’s game.”
“Do you know what time it is?” Feeney demanded.
Williams glanced at his watch and, at the same time, felt a sinking, queasy, bottomless feeling in his stomach. “Why, it is nine o’clock, Chub.”
“It may be 9:00 in Montreal, young man,” said Feeney loudly, “but in California it is still the middle of the night!”
This scene is recounted in one of my first books, “The Best Seat in Baseball, But You Have to Stand: The Game as Umpires See It.” This is a nonfiction book, but obviously, I wasn’t pacing behind the umpire on that anxiety-filled evening. So how could I describe the phone call or, for that matter, detail what Mr. Williams was thinking with any kind of authority? This is a legitimate question, one narrative or creative nonfiction writers must be prepared to answer when readers and editors want reassurance about scenes we’ve reconstructed. In our fervor to be cinematic and provide readers with compelling characters, how do we avoid crossing the murky line between fact and fiction?
Nonfiction means that our stories are as true and accurate as possible. Readers expect — demand — diligence. I won’t say that nonfiction writers don’t on occasion make mistakes or even knowingly make stuff up, as for example Jonah Lehrer did in his recent book, “Imagine,” or James Frey did in his memoir, “A Million Little Pieces.” (Yes, truth in memoir is often a matter of memory and perception, but that doesn’t mean that the writer shouldn’t strive for accuracy at every opportunity, even when ideas and information are presented in scenes, as in the Williams-Feeney encounter.) As I explained in my previous article for Draft, all creative or narrative nonfiction books or articles are fundamentally collections of scenes that together make one big story.
But to reconstruct stories and scenes, nonfiction writers must conduct vigorous and responsible research. In fact, narrative requires more research than traditional reportage, for writers cannot simply tell what they learn and know; rather, they must show it. When I talk with my students, I introduce a process of work I call the three R’s: First comes research, then real world exploration and finally and perhaps most important, a fact-checking review of all that has been written.
Sabine Dowek
In a recent interview in Creative Nonfiction, the magazine I edit, the writer Erik Larson explained his approach to portraying characters’ inner states of mind. “I will only propose what somebody is thinking or not thinking if I have something concrete in hand that makes that clear,” he says in the interview. “But you absolutely cannot make that stuff up out of whole cloth because then you pass into another realm entirely.” That realm is fiction.
Most writers separate research into two interwoven phases. They begin with archival information, meaning what’s already been written or collected. The Internet may be a starting point, but it’s important to then go to direct sources. Letters, diaries, papers, interview transcripts will often reveal defining and intimate details of your subject. Story lines you had never imagined may also present themselves. In researching “In the Garden of Beasts,” Mr. Larson searched documents, letters and writings related to his primary character, Martha Dodd, the daughter of the American ambassador to Hitler’s Germany. Among the files were two locks of hair from the poet Carl Sandburg, with whom Martha had had an affair.
After the archives comes real-world research. Interview the people involved in the scenes — not just the primary characters, but the bystanders, as well, who may provide different perspectives. Visit the places where the action occurred and seek telling details, like the locks of Sandburg’s hair, that will surprise readers. This is the stuff that stands out and makes your work unique, memorable and three-dimensional.
More often than not, the responsible writer combines both methods of research not just to make scenes enticing, but also to assure accuracy. Nailing down the facts and maintaining dramatic impact is a process that requires patience, persistence and a commitment to not cut corners. Examples of how to do it right can be found in Rebecca Skloot’s excellent book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” In one scene, Stanley Gartler, a relatively unknown geneticist, speaks at a conference of more than 700 academics and industry leaders in Bedford, Penn., in 1966. He steps up to the podium, leans into the microphone and begins a talk that disrupts the entire field of study related to the culturing of cells. When Gartler finished, “the room sat silent, dumbfounded,” Ms. Skloot writes, until T.C. Hsu, the chairman of the conference session, spoke: “So I am happy about the paper by Dr. Gartler and am also sure he has made many people unhappy.”
Ms. Skloot then recounts the ensuing dialogue in the meeting, as well as the heated debate that flows into other sessions and continues through informal lunches — and six pages of the book.
Ms. Skloot was able to describe and document the debate so thoroughly because she unearthed a detailed transcript of the proceedings, which included the discussions that followed presentations. But what about the narrative details: how Dr. Gartler stood at the podium and leaned into the microphone — and then the deafening silence following his talk? Ms. Skloot tracked down and interviewed people who were there, she explained in an e-mail to me. She located letters about the conference written by participants who’d since died. She also examined photographs from the sessions.
As a final step, a writer must conduct a fact-checking review, the final ‘R’ in this equation. This is important, even when the story is based on archival material and reinforced through personal conversations.
In an ideal situation, research, real world and review all come together perfectly. But of course, this isn’t always the case. When I was reconstructing Mr. Williams’s nervous night and his embarrassing phone call to Mr. Feeney, no written documentation existed. In piecing together the story, I interviewed both Mr. Williams and Mr. Feeney, as well as two of the umpires that Mr. Williams had been working with who had heard the story from both men. I confirmed it all with Mr. Williams before the book went to press.
In the end, thorough research and real world exploration followed by fact-checking review shapes and sharpens the story, ensures writer credibility and allows for fair and equitable treatment of the characters involved. And by carefully following the three R process, writers of nonfiction will be prepared to answer the inevitable question: “How do you know?”

Lee Gutkind
Lee Gutkind is founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction Magazine. He is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence in the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University and a professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication. His new book is “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism to Everything in Between.”

(from: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/17/three-rs-of-narrative-nonfiction/?hp)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Self-Publishers Need to Be Self-Marketers

The Three “Audiences” Crucial to Your Exponential Business Success

How do you turn your customers – whether they are patrons, employees, managers, partners, media, investors or any other stakeholders - into raving fans evangelizing your product, service or even yourself to others?
Having engaged listeners in diverse businesses spanning entertainment, new media, sports, publishing and education, and energized them into passionate advocates of my very different offerings, I have identified the three “audiences” crucial to creating my exponential business success which I want to share with you.
The first “audience” is you to you.
You are your first litmus test. Are you genuinely and authentically “sold” on your offering? Are you demonstrating your congruence – that your heart, tongue, feet and wallet all going in the same direction? If that does not shine through from the outset, it will be a tough slog trying to move anyone else to action. Be warned – you can’t fake it to make it.
A childhood friend of mine, George E. Marcus, who is now Professor of Political Science at Williams College and has extensively studied and written about the latest research in neuroscience, shared with me that the initial communication between a teller and their “audience” begins before the first word is spoken, and individuals who ignore this basic truth tend to fail. That’s because the brain functions as a constant surveillance system telling us as soon as we set eyes on another person, whether that individual is friend or foe, authentic or fake, trustworthy or dangerous. If we sense the other person is not authentic or distracted, we’ll automatically put up our defenses, either by tuning out entirely or listening with suspicion. You must establish and bring this authenticity into the room with you. Don’t leave your authenticity at the door! Whether you’re a CEO, sales person, volunteer organizer or small business owner, your listeners will never fully connect to you, buy into your proposition, or join your parade unless they feel your belief in the offering.
With your authenticity in place, you’re ready to convince your second “audience.”
The second “audience” is you to them
How do you get and hold your customers’ attention, whether one or many, in a noisy world? You will never succeed in moving “audiences” without first capturing their attention. You must disrupt the cacophony of noise running rampant in everyone’s heads and redirect theirattention before you ignite their intention to buy your product, give you a raise, join your company or invest in your proposition.
After 533 interviews and six years on television I finally learned that the key to successfully capture attention is by first focusing on the “what’s in it for them?” Don’t focus just on features, but the benefits to your customers/audiences and the emotional reward that it offers. The key is that this engagement must be an experience where your customer not just listens, but participates in the process. You must make it a dialog, not a monolog.
The third “audience” is them to them
With the third and final customers, you must surrender control, giving your viral advocates the tools they need to share their experiences you created for them with others exponentially creating more and more raving fans. It is essential that you surrender control over your offering or the way it’s told. It’s their voice and their authenticity that must pay their experience with you and your product forward. This powerful “word of mouth” is what ignites audiences into evangelizing products and services in the most elegant, economic and effective fashion.
Why? Because the product or service then owns the audiences’ hearts, not just their wallets. This explains the phenomena that leaves many business folks scratching their heads– which is that the products with the best physical attributes doesn’t always win. The product or service that owns their “audiences” emotions usually triumphs.

(From http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20121213190652-101213441-the-three-audiences-crucial-to-your-exponential-business-success?ref=email)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Why Book Publishers Hate Authors

by Michael Levin
New York Times best-selling author Michael Levin runs BusinessGhost.com and blogsHERE. He has written with Baseball Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, football broadcasting legend Pat Summerall, FBI undercover agent Joaquin Garcia, and E-Myth creator Michael Gerber. In addition, he has contributed articles the New York Times,The Wall Street Journal, CBS News, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and many other top outlets.You can ‘like’ him on Facebook HERE.

It seems so…unliterary.  But publishing houses despise authors and are doing everything they can to make their lives miserable.  Here’s why.

Authors are admittedly a strange lot.  There’s something antisocial about retreating from life for months or years at a time, to perform the solitary act of writing a book.  

On top of that, authors are flaky.  They promise to deliver a manuscript in April and it doesn’t come in until October.  Or the following April.Or the April after that.  This leaves publishers with several options, all of them bad:  revise publishing schedules at the last minute; demand that authors turn in projects on time, regardless of quality; cancel books altogether; or sue the authors (as Penguin has begun to do) for undelivered or poor quality work.

Authors are also prickly about their work.  There are few jobs on the planet in which people are utterly free to ignore the guidance, or even mandates, from their bosses.  Yet book authors are notoriously dismissive of their editors’ advice.  When I was writing novels for Simon & Schuster back in the late 1980s, my editor, Bob Asahina, used to tell me, “You’re the only writer who ever lets me do my job.”

Also, annoyingly, writers expect to be paid.  Maybe not much, but something.  The Authors Guild produced a survey in the 1970s indicating that writers earned only slightly more, on an hourly basis, than did the fry cooks at McDonald’s.  Publishers were still responsible for paying advances to authors, hoping that the authors would turn in a publishable manuscript – which doesn’t happen all of the time.

So it’s understandable that publishers might feel churlish and uncharitable toward authors, on whom their entire publishing model depends.  But since the 2008 economic meltdown hit Publishers’ Row, the enmity has turned into outright warfare.

The three R’s of the publishing industry, the strategy for survival, quickly became, “Reduce royalties and returns.”  Returns are books that come back unsold from bookstores.  Printing fewer copies typically ensures fewer returns.  Reducing advances and royalties—money publishers pay writers—was the other main cost that publishers sought to slash.

And slash they did.  More and more publishers moved to a minimal or even zero advance business model.  They said to authors, “We’ll give you more of a back end on the book, and we’ll promote the heck out of your book.  We’ll be partners.”

Some partners.  Zero advance combined with zero marketing to produce…that’s right.  Zero sales.

Today, any time an agent or acquisitions editor considers a manuscript or book proposal from an author, the first place they go is BookScan.com to get sales figures.  These numbers used to be proprietary to the house that had published the book; now they’re out in the open for all to see.  And if an author’s sales numbers are poor, no one thinks to blame the house for failing to market the book.  The author’s career is essentially over.  One and done.  Next contestant, please.And then who caught the blame for the book’s failure?  Not the publisher.  The author.  

It’s completely unfair, but destroying the options of a writer actually has some benefits for publishers.  Which leads me to think that maybe publishers are actually happy when authors fail.
As authors gains traction in the marketplace, their fees go up.  They can charge a publisher more money for their next book.  The problem is that there’s no guarantee that the next book will sell well enough to justify the higher advance the publisher had to pay the author.  So if publishers can turn writing into a fungible commodity, they no longer have to worry about paying more, or potentially over-paying for a book.

If publishers can commoditize writing, they’re no longer at the mercy of unruly, unmanageable, and unpredictable writers.  They can lower their costs, they can guarantee that their schedules will be adhered to, and they can keep the trains running on time.

The problem is that they destroy the uniqueness and creativity that readers expect when they buy a book.  As the quality of books diminishes, book buyers are less likely to turn to books the next time they need to get information about a given topic.  They’ll go to Wikipedia, they’ll do a Google search, they’ll phone a friend.  But they won’t buy another book.

Publishers have begun to hate authors.  But seeking to squeeze out the individuality and admittedly the eccentricity of authors is just one more reason why book publishing as we know it is going over the cliff.

Reprinted from: Bookpleasures (http://www.bookpleasures.com/websitepublisher/articles/5673/1/--Why-Book-Publishers-Hate-Authors-Contributed-To-Bookpleasurescom-By-Michael-Levin/Page1.html#.UMqZ5m-ckkQ)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

New Interview with the author of The Accidental Anarchist