Book-writing boot camp gets authors in shape
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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