Professor Sam Freedman begins his course on narrative nonfiction with a warning to students: "If you're not ready to do this work, then please, please the door is still open," he says. "And I'll be happy to hold it gracefully on your way out."
As 2002 alumnus Liel Leibovitz notes, Freedman's seminar at Columbia University's graduate journalism school is "not an exercise." Modeled on great conservatories such as the Juilliard School, it teaches students how to report and write, then guides them to write a book proposal.
Freedman, who first came to Columbia about 15 years ago after working on his own first book, says he tries to "both inspire and scare" his students.
"When I have a great editor, there is a part of me that fears failing them, [and] in a perpetually childlike way, yearns to please them," he says. "I think that's a good thing."
Mixed metaphors, overwriting, and cliches are beaten out of every student. At the end of each critique, Freedman tallies everyone's cliches. That effort goes into creating the CPP: Cliche-per-Person index.
So far, more than 40 book deals have come out of the seminar. It is not unheard of for five students in a class of 15 to get a contract.
Lindsay Pollock, who just published The Girl with the Gallery, says the effect of Freedman's enthusiasm is akin to a Hollywood storyline set in an inner-city school with the star teacher.
"You really felt that passion coming across," Pollock says. "He wants you to succeed."
Ten Thoughts for Writing Narrative Nonfiction
Read avidly and analytically. Don't just read the currently popular narrative writers such as Erik Larson or Susan Orlean; read the authors who created the tradition: Stephen Crane, John Hersey, Gay Talese, J. Anthony Lukas. Read plenty of fiction along with nonfiction. And whatever you read, as you read, consider the book a text in how to research and write book. What worked? What didn't? How was this organism assembled? How does it function?
Understand that reporting enables writing. Even the most stylish prose, absent research of the first order, is ultimately an empty vessel. The writer who has done the indefatigable and intellectually curious reporting can write an accomplished book without being a lyric poet, because he or she has a powerful, important story to tell.
Pay attention not only to the external dramas of your characters but the internal ones — the drama that takes place between the ears, the drama of motivation. There is not richer, more compelling material.
Never be afraid to sound ignorant or foolish. The only stupid question is the one you don't ask.
Take the time to outline before you write, whether you're writing a short feature story or a full-length book. For fiction, an advance plan is a death knell, a curb on the imagination. For nonfiction, it is a blueprint, a musical score, the structure that liberates you to enjoy the writing process because you are always aware of the overarching structure.
Forget about the market. Write only the book you burn to write. Choose a topic you love, because you'll be married to it for years. If you can develop a gripping enough proposal about a vital enough topic, if you can paint memorable characters, then you can get an agent and editor to put aside the conventional commercial wisdom.
Every work of narrative needs to have these elements: character, event, place, and theme.
A book needs to operate on both a temporal and an eternal axis. The temporal axis is what makes your subject newsworthy, for lack of a more artful term, right now. The eternal axis is what will make it enduringly relevant.
Think back to high school chemistry class and the chart of the Periodic Table of the Elements. That chart told you that every thing in the material world can ultimately be reduced to only those elements. As an author, your territory is the Periodic Table of Human Nature. It's all the basic elements of human experience: love, hate, yearning, ambition, disappointment, ecstasy, etc.