Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Book and the Plow

When do you know it is time to write a book?

For any non-fiction writer, that question actually represents two questions. For the writer who has not written a book, the question concerns ambition. For the writer who already has, it is a question of craft. In this case, I’m considering ambition.

Whether he or she will admit it or not, most writers, in any genre, and at every level, from the writer who toils on in secret to the newspaper columnist or the magazine feature writer, wants to write a book. Having people read your work is like giving a performance, but having your work appear in book form is like making a recording. Even the best deadline based journalism can be swallowed up in the undergrowth, but books are trees.

Apart from the obvious – you write a book when you have something to say – and the practical – you write a book when you have a contract to do so - the best reason to write that first book is that it will help you grow as a writer. I believe writing a book is about the best lesson in writing any working writer can have. Writing is, in itself, essentially an act of learning and writing a book takes that to a completely new level, both in terms of what can be learned about a subject and what you learn about writing itself.

The transition for any short-form writer – by “short-form” I mean anyone who generally writes pieces under ten thousand words – into writing book length is dramatic, like going from prose to poetry. The tricks and patterns of writing you can get away with while writing in short-form can trip you up in a book.

I might be more sensitive to this than most people. As series editor of The Best American Sports Writing, I read a great deal of longer feature writing both about sports and about anything else that catches my eye. After doing this for twenty years there are many writers now whose work and style I can recognize within just a few sentences and who have produced significant and lasting work. Yet many of these writers have either not written books or done so with only tepid success. What makes their work so affecting when read in six or eight thousand word bursts four or five times a year often doesn’t work in a book. The style that captivates for eight or ten pages can become redundant and tired when spread across 200 pages, the method of transmission formulaic, and the level of observation predictable. There is a reason so few character actors successfully transition to leading roles – the shtick becomes wearisome – and why leading men and women often seem awkward in small parts. Accustomed to playing a large room, when confined they seem to shrink out of proportion.

This is what can happen to writers who suddenly go from writing eight thousand words to eighty thousand, or to one hundred and eighty thousand. When the writer has to inhabit the consciousness of a reader for days and not just a few minutes or perhaps an hour, that relationship changes. Another metaphor – it’s the difference between a one night stand and a relationship, a date and a life.

Not all writers can make that transition. I had an agent tell me once that he rarely accepted journalists as clients for just this reason.

Writing a book changes the process in ways you cannot foresee. Here’s one example: When writing in shorter forms interview with subjects are common, but an interview of more than several hours are rare. But in a book, given the demands of those many thousands of extra words, you sometime share the opportunity – and the responsibility - to go much farther. On at least three occasions while working on book projects I have ended up interviewing someone for upwards of twenty-five hours over a period of months. In each case I got their basic “story” early on in the process, in the first six or eight hours. But what I found remarkable (and surprising) was that each time, as the interviews continued far beyond the point at which a writer would normally interview a subject for a magazine story, right at the point that I felt there was nothing left to learn, each subject dropped down a line of defense that I hadn’t even known was there and gave me something absolutely essential. I’ve had the same experience while doing research. After spending a year or more accumulating material at a level far beyond what I would do for an article, the transformative information that I really needed finally begins to coalesce

So when do you decide to write the book? Most writers know long before their readers when they’ve stopped growing and are writing the same way over and over. When you begin to be bored with only going so far into a subject and feel you are only driving past it - staying a couple of nights there in a motel, as opposed to actually living there - that’s the time to challenge yourself, before the self-loathing kicks in, before you are sitting there thinking “I really should write a book someday.”


  1. I know how big a pain in the ass blogs are to keep up (mine was last updated in May, of last year) but please offer your wisdom more often. I found you through Chris Jones' blog, and your insights are invaluable.

  2. Was trying to find an email where I could recommend an engaging article on boxing for you to read, and instead ended up spending at least an hour reading your blog, and Chris Jones's, and others you each had linked to!

    Verb Plow is terrific in general, but as I'm now in my mid-forties and have often been asked when I'm going to write "that book," this post in particular resonated quite strongly with me.

    Thanks for writing this blog, and please keep doing it!

    Steve Russillo
    High Point, NC