By the time you read this column, my latest book, “A Stranger’s Gift,” will have been published. The book grew out of what I thought was going to be a routine Sunday-morning assignment, a daily story that I would report and write in a couple of hours, and then be done with it.
Aside from using this space for a bit of self-promotion, I came away from this project with some lessons that I want to pass on to all journalists who dream of one day writing a nonfiction book.
My first book, “Sam: The Boy Behind the Mask,” was built on the foundation of a four-part series that won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. That meant that I knew the book’s structure from the outset. Expanding a 16,000-word series to a 65,000-word book involved doing more reporting, filling in the gaps and bringing readers up to date on what had happened after the series was published.
This latest book was different. It grew from an idea, a feeling really, and I had to struggle to determine if there was a book there. And if there was, how should I approach and structure the project? What did I want readers to learn?
By the time I finished with the thinking, reporting and writing, I was reminded of what a great training ground journalism is. How we approach our jobs can either help or hurt us when it comes to writing a book.
Here’s my list, starting with the good:
Deadlines force us to think and write quickly. Being told to have something in by the end of the day doesn’t throw us. Years ago, when I wrote articles for a national magazine, the editor praised me because I’d get an assignment and have it back to him in a couple of weeks. He told me some writers took far too long and never understood the meaning of a deadline.
We know how to interview. Every story, no matter how routine, gives you a chance to step into another world. And every person you meet, every world you venture into — the homicide unit, the hospital emergency room, the courthouse — gives you a chance to soak up the language and setting, both of which are necessary for a book.
We are used to being edited. Every day our work is judged. We’re told that the opening is confusing, or the middle slows down. We’re used to criticism. Yes, some reporters do battle over subtle word changes in a story. But for the most part, reporters realize that editing is part of the process.
We are used to juggling. A typical week in journalism may involve small posts for the Web, daily stories of the news, a mid-length feature or profile and thinking about that long-term project.
Few people have the luxury of spending weeks or months on one story. We learn how to toss off the crime brief and then turn our attention back to the feature. That’s a great skill when it comes time to write a book. I wrote mine at the dining room table, starting after dinner and working late into the night. I couldn’t “ponder.” I had to get to work, just like in my day job.
Now for the bad:
Quick writing can be like junk food. Stories become templates — that’s the way we tell “that” kind of story. The daily churn reminds me of someone who goes to the gym and works only the biceps. They look great, but what happens when that same person is asked to run up seven flights of stairs?
The way to work your storytelling muscles is to get in the habit of using every story as a way to sharpen your skills. A book can’t survive on simply “the news” in a way that a 15-inch story can. Each story you write can be a writing class if you approach it in the right way.
We too often interview the same sources, often over the phone. In our haste to get the story, we forget the rhythm of an interview or conversation that allows the storyteller to explore below the surface.
In “A Stranger’s Gift,” I re-visited the mother from one of my earlier stories. The last time I’d seen her was in the neo-natal unit where I watched her baby die. This time we sat at her dining room table and talked.
It was a very different kind of interview. At times she questioned me about why I was there and what I was looking for. Her questions guided me in the early stages of my book, forcing me to ask those questions of myself.
Book editors — and this is critical — expect we know what makes a story. An “idea” or “incident” or something “interesting” does not make a book. Editors want you to be able to explain the narrative arc, the characters, the meaning and the book’s theme.
When it comes time to edit, you have to understand key storytelling techniques: foreshadowing, transitions, dialogue, backstory. No editor is going to hold your hand. Use your daily journalism — each story — as a chance to practice and understand these techniques and how they apply to story.
Finally, I have a new website, tomhallman.com, and I want to use it as a forum to help young journalists by creating a supportive community. You can leave a question or comment. In the next month I will have something planned there specifically for young journalists.
Tom Hallman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Oregonian. On Twitter: @thallmanjr