Book-writing boot camp gets authors in shape
NEW YORK — Like many people, Leah Hager Cohen dreamed of being a writer but didn't think it was a realistic career.
Then in 1991, she took a class taught by author Samuel Freedman at Columbia University's graduate journalism school. During the course, "Reading, Writing and Thinking," she wrote about her experiences as a hearing person in a deaf community. Mr. Freedman encouraged her to write a book and helped her develop a proposal. She got an agent and within six months had a contract.
Her book, "Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World," was featured on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, and Ms. Cohen is now a full-time author. She has published two additional books, and is under contract for another two.
"People ask me how you get started, how you get an agent, and I say I don't really know, because I had this guardian angel come up and set up the opportunity," Cohen says of Freedman. "Otherwise, I'd have kept on sign-language interpreting and waitressing and dreaming about the day I could really write."
Encouraged by his success with Cohen, Freedman developed a book-writing course that is successfully molding unpublished graduate students into acclaimed authors.
Over the past eight years, the course has generated 11 book contracts for proposals developed in class, and momentum is building. Four students from last year's class of 16 have book contracts. Half of this year's students, who finished the course in May, had agents by the summer.
The first contract of the group just came through for "The Secret Epidemic," about AIDS in the black community.
Freedman was inspired by the Iowa Writers Workshop, a two-year program that has launched the careers of many successful fiction writers, and by the National Playwrights' Conference, a month-long intensive workshop for undiscovered playwrights.
He accepts 16 students per year through a competitive application process. They must have a commercially viable topic on which they can do enough reporting during five months in New York for a proposal.
"Some students have pure writing talent or are incredible storytellers, but all of these books ultimately rise or fall on the reporting and the overall ability to conceive of a book as a book," Freedman says.
No guarantees for grads
Completing the course carries no guarantees. Freedman tells his students up front that it will be difficult. Even getting admitted to his course is a challenge, and the work load is prodigious.
Still, the class has caught the attention of agents and editors.
"Agents know to sniff this course out every year because it's been a source of saleable products," says Scott Moyers, senior editor at Random House.
Freedman is a former New York Times reporter and the author of three books. His latest, "The Inheritance," was a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize.
"For a long time, I thought book writers were some sort of higher order of being," he says. "I'd gone the slow, gradual route: 10 years of daily newspaper work, freelancing longer pieces, and a couple of failed attempts at getting books going."
What he has engineered is a short-cut for his students, a book-writing boot camp that teaches students how to write books, how to sell them, and what happens next.
Among the titles published this year are "To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America," by Tara Bahrampour; "My Father's Gun: One Family, Three Badges, One Hundred Years in the NYPD," by Brian McDonald, and "Beyond the Narrow Gate: The Journey of Four Chinese Women from the Middle Kingdom to Middle America," by Leslie Chang.
"These are narrative nonfiction and social history, not movie star bios, pure memoir or self-help books," Freedman says.
He tells students that if they want to use writing to express themselves, they should move across the street to the master of fine arts program. "I always say that creative nonfiction should be taught by the student health service as therapy," he says.
The grueling five-month seminar revolves around weekly eight-hour classes with only one break: "I'll give you 10 minutes to stuff some food down your gullets."
During the first half of the semester, students read one literary nonfiction book per week, then discuss it during a Q&A session with the author. Pulitzer Prize winners are usually part of the lineup.
"It's really fun to talk about the craft - how you do it, how to go about your research, how to organize it - and you don't usually get the chance to do that," says guest Nicholas Lemann, author of "The Promised Land."
Students are briefed on the publishing industry from agents, editors, publicists, reviewers, and bookstore owners. Guests represent some of the most influential people in the industry: the agent for Walter Mosley and Cornel West; the editor of Tom Wolfe and John McPhee at Farrar, Straus & Giroux; the head of Random House; an editor at the New York Times Book Review; and buyers for Barnes & Noble.
Lest students get starry-eyed, each week Freedman returns their assignments - at first reported essays, then book chapters - splashed with red-ink edits. He combs through 30,000 words a week, and instructs not only on narrative style but on word usage and grammar.
"If you screw up, he surely catches it, right down to the punctuation," says Patrick Jameson, a student who later sold "The Street Stops Here: How an Inner-City Catholic School Succeeds," to Random House.
Proof is in the proposal
At the core of the course are the proposals - an overview essay and a sample chapter. The material must be densely reported, then woven into a compelling narrative.
"They go from learning to write a one- to two-paragraph anecdotal lead in the first semester of journalism school, to writing 10,000-word proposals that grab the reader by the throat and never let up," Freedman says.
After reading each draft, Freedman presses for more details, smoother prose, and clearer structure - attention that budding authors rarely receive.
"First-time authors struggle to get any editorial attention at all, but Sam's commitment to his students goes beyond anything I've ever seen," says literary agent Tina Bennett. "I've known him - without compensation - to edit manuscripts that have already been sold, just to make sure a book is as good as it can be."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society