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.

  • Christina Garner

    “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.”

    Those are some very wise words, and something I’ve never thought of. I also realize I need to get back to reading my work aloud. I do that when writing a script, but often don’t when writing novels.

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