National Book Award-winner and Pulitzer Prize-finalist Nathaniel Philbrick details to The Paris Review his writing process. Philbrick writes historical non-fiction, so he often has to dive head first into topics and develop a mastery while maintaining a sense of wonder. As a result he has a pretty regimented process to assure things come out right. Some choice gems:
On taking notes:
Moleskine. It’s almost a reading journal. Day by day. Early on I’m getting a sense of the book. I find that when I’m new to a topic, that’s when I’m catching the best details. It’s all new to me; it’s what the reader will respond to. Because, you can so easily over-know a topic, and you lose the magic. It becomes interesting to you, but you’ve lost the connection to the reader. You’re too far down the rabbit hole. So for me, it’s having a record of those initial reactions to the material is really important. It’s the roadmap I go back to. You forgot how interesting the material was when you first learned it, after you’ve learned a lot about a topic.
On getting feedback:
So, after I finish a draft, I hit print. I used to do a lot more revising on the page. I used to print at the end of every day, and then the next morning revise. I’ve since gotten to the point where I just do the revising on the screen. I print out the whole chapter, edit it, spend a day looking it over, then reprint it, and take upstairs and read it aloud to my wife after dinner.
[Paris Review:] Out loud?
That is the most critical point. She has a notepad where she’s writing comments. It’s so funny—you can look at things on the screen, and it looks great. Then you read it, and you go, oh my God. The rhythm of the prose is something I’m really trying to work on. So when I’m reading it aloud, I’ll hear the prose and go, that sucks. Like for all of us, I’m always searching for a word. It’s a lot of the sounds I’m going for—not that I’m creating anything anyone notices.
On the importance of the preface:
What I should mention is that, what applied to Away Off Shore and all my books since, is that, for me, it’s the preface that matters. That’s where I develop the voice; that’s where figure out what I’m going to say. Well into the Moleskine approach, I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to begin with. What scene will introduce what I’m trying to do. That’s really hard for me. I’ll have forty drafts of how I’m going to start the book. Forty different ways in. How about trying this way, how about that? And that’s really the hard part. I’m deconstructing myself, second guessing myself. Where am I coming from? What is this about? What’s the voice? The tone? My manila folder for the preface is always really fat.
Read the entire interview (a must for any writer) here.
Approaching any big project can be a daunting and complex experience. Over on her blog, author Elizabeth Spann Craig gives us nine quick tips for tackling big projects, ensuring that we finish what we set out to do.
Show up. Religiously. It’s the only way to get through a project.
Avoid perfectionism….First drafts aren’t perfect either. But aren’t they better than the blank page?
Craig highlights the importance of finishing what you set-out to do before looking for ways to improve or change the concept. She calls this avoiding tangents:
Avoid going off on tangents….Wait until the project itself is done. For me, it works best for writing, too–I don’t edit/fix stuff until the first draft is completely done.
In her list, Craig also mentions the value of remembering the small victories as you go, emphasizing how motivating it can be to reflect on even the smallest of steps. She writes:
Fight the overwhelm….Remember how far we’ve come since the start of our project. If this is a home improvement or organizing project, it helps to take a picture of the “before,” just to remind us. If its writing–remember that blank page the first words we once wrote down.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with big projects, no matter what type they are. To cope, consider reading Craig’s brief advice and remember to set goals, work with a timer, avoid perfectionism, skip tangents (for now), and more.
Read all of the advice right here.
The first day back from vacation is the hardest: switching from beaches and cocktail umbrellas to an office chair and emails can be a jarring experience, especially if one of your first priorities is to get the inbox from 600 to 0.
Fortunately, Levo League offers a better way to deal with emails post-vacation: read them backwards.
Start from the most recent to the oldest so that you don’t waste your time (and annoy the people who took your load while you were out) by answering old emails that were already addressed and completed. The last thing you want is to spend time spinning your wheels only to realize that the question/issue you were working on solving for an hour and a half was already handled by the time you get to email 1,000.
Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Powers of Two, speaks about the advantages of competitive collaboration in an article for The Atlantic. His famous example is that of The Beatles’ Paul McCartney and John Lennon who would regularly “answer” each others’ songs in friendly competition. When John wrote “Strawberry Fields,” Paul came back with “Penny Lane.” Paul notes that the competition made them “better and better all the time,” and created a creative tension.
Despite the tension—because of the tension—the work was magnificent. Though the White Album recording sessions were often tense and unpleasant (Emerick disliked them so much that he flat-out quit), they yielded an album that is among the best in music history.
The Beatles’ producer George Martin described the relationship as “two people pulling on a rope, smiling at each other and pulling all the time with all their might.” Not only did their competition create tension, but their contrasting personalities added to it as well. Paul was meticulous, diplomatic, and polite, while John could be chaotic, impatient, and rebellious. Although completely different, they complemented each other perfectly. As John’s first wife Cynthia Lennon observed:
John needed Paul’s attention to detail and persistence. Paul needed John’s anarchic, lateral thinking.
Although tension can foster creative productivity, remember to surround it with sufficient support and shared passions.
Creatives are subject to high levels of rejection. Even though companies seek out innovative individuals, they seldom listen to their new ideas due to the risk involved. Fortunately, research suggests that rejection may actually help – not hinder – the creative process. Rejection hurts, but if there is no pain, then there is no gain. In an article for Slate, illustrator Jessica Olien explains:
Perhaps for some people, the pain of rejection is like the pain of training for a marathon – training the mind for endurance. Research shows you’ll need it. Truly creative ideas take a very long time to be accepted. The better the idea, the longer it might take. Even the work of Nobel Prize winners was commonly rejected by their peers for an extended period of time.
Social rejection can be liberating. Once you know you don’t fit in, you can concentrate your energy on your creative projects as oppose to stressing about what others think. Barry Staw, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, says a successful creative person is someone “who can survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure.” Just be sure you know when to push through and when you should call it quits.
Now in its 40th anniversary, the roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons has emerged as an initial force behind many creatives’ success. As a piece in the New York Times explains:
Though Mr. Díaz never became a fantasy writer, he attributes his literary success, in part, to his “early years profoundly embedded and invested in fantastic narratives.” From D&D, he said, he “learned a lot of important essentials about storytelling, about giving the reader enough room to play. . .
“For nerds like us, D&D hit like an extra horizon,” he added. The game functioned as “a sort of storytelling apprenticeship.”
But the skills learned through play go deeper than narrative writing:
What makes a D&D story different from novels and other narratives is its improvisational and responsive nature. Plotlines are decided as a group. As a D&D player, “you have to convince other players that your version of the story is interesting and valid,” said Jennifer Grouling, an assistant professor of English at Ball State University who studied D&D players for her book, “The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games.”
If a Dungeon Master creates “a boring world with an uninteresting plot,” she said, players can go in a completely different direction; likewise, the referee can veto the action of player. “I think D&D can help build the skills to work collaboratively and to write collaboratively,” she added. (Mr. Díaz called this the “social collaborative component” of D&D.)
If an acquaintance, or someone you’re just not that close enough to, asks for a job recommendation that you feel uncomfortable giving, New York Magazine suggests you try one of the following “humanely disingenuous” approaches:
1. Respond enthusiastically with information of limited value: “Would it help if I gave you the name of the human-resources person? I think I might even have his e-mail!”
2. Issue a self-deprecating disclaimer of helplessness: “I don’t know how much my word counts on this one . . . ”
3. Technically do the favor, but warn off the prospective employer either explicitly or between the lines: “An acquaintance of mine is looking for something. I’ve known him ever since we went to Bennington! He dropped out though.”
If they take the next step in asking you why they didn’t get picked or why you won’t personally recommend them, remember that no one can get better without feedback — just make sure you give them criticism without being critical.