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How Non-Fiction Isn't All That Different from Fiction
An interview with Neal Bascomb
Today we have a very interesting interview with Neal Bascomb, author of many books of non-fiction on topics as diverse as sub-four-minute-mile runners, Nazi hunters, and daredevil pilots, several of them New York Times bestsellers. I worked for Neal’s former agent early in my career and I remember his books as the ones everyone wanted to read, regardless of the subject matter. Like, you didn’t have to care about running to read THE PERFECT MILE because he made it come to life. Neal also writes the newsletter Work/Craft/Life, which features profiles of people and the work that shapes their lives. You should check it you—you might see a familiar face there soon.
I asked Neal about his process and relationship to his non-fiction work, how he gets his ideas, and secret to his success. (Spoiler: it’s hard work.)
Kate: Where do you get your ideas? If you were starting the process to find your next book idea today, how would you start?
Neal: Many narrative non-fiction writers focus on a single topic. Say WWII or science or business. I’ve been much more all over the place, everything from skyscraper wars in New York (HIGHER, my agent gave me that idea) to the special operation to stop the Nazi atomic bomb (WINTER FORTRESS, which I found as a side story in a big tome on atomic physics) to the breaking of the 4-minute mile (PERFECT MILE, idea came from my high school cross-country coach). This diversity is an advantage and disadvantage. The advantage is I’m free to pursue whatever subject category I want. The disadvantage is I’m not an expert in a particular subject category where I’d be constantly aswirl with stories that I might want to do. Plus, too much choice is often a curse.
There’s no foolproof way to find an idea. I have methods, sure, and they’re not that much different from my brief days as a literary agent. I head over to Barnes & Noble, collect a huge stack of magazines, and page through them. Sometimes I’ll find a specific story that interests, other times a subject to explore. On the former, 99 times out of 100, someone has already done a book, but occasionally, I’ll find a winner. On the latter, let’s say I read about free diving and think that’s an intriguing world. Then I’ll go home and start surfing around for particular stories, people, books on the subject. It might be a future area I intend to cover.
It’s important to just be open. Serendipity does strike. A few years ago, I was visiting a friend in New York, who knew I was looking for my next book idea. Over drinks, she brought up this press release about a classic car that was pitched to her husband, who worked as a newspaper editor. The car had this amazing backstory. Essentially, it was about a Jewish driver who partnered with an American heiress to take on the Nazis in motor racing. It was just the perfect kind of story for me to write. That became FASTER.
One additional piece of advice related to above: consume content incessantly (books, magazines, newsletters, podcasts, Reddit threads, Medium, etc.)—and ideas will come at you, whether for non-fiction or fiction.
K: When do you know whether your idea is a whole book or better suited to something shorter like a magazine article?
N: That’s a super interesting question—and an important one. To be frank, I launched my newsletter Work/Craft/Life for exactly the reason that there were lots of stories of individuals that I wanted to write about, but knew a book wasn’t the outlet. Plus, I’m super interested in how work shapes our lives. Which is the focus. For interest, I knew about this WSJ reporter, Brett Forrest, who was sent to Ukraine to cover his first war. What’s his story, how did that experience affect him, how will it color/direct his work going forward. That’s perfect for a newsletter piece, which at 5,000 words, is the same as a magazine article, but not a whole book—or at least not one that I wanted to write. That’s why I think it’s important for a writer to have different outlets for different kinds of stories they’re interested in. Honestly, I wish I had started the newsletter earlier! It’s so fun.
Okay, back to the how do you know the difference. Recently I came across this spy story from the 1950s. There was an individual claiming to be an heir of Nicholas II, Tsar of Russia, who also happened to be a double agent. I thought, wow, that’s incredible. I must know more. The deeper I dug, however, I discovered that he didn’t do too much in terms of intelligence work, and he really came to notoriety for his claim to be a Romanov. In sum, it was a one-note story. A short magazine article.
To write 80-100K words, which is the typical length of my books, you need a narrative with multiple layers (characters, interesting history, evocative worlds) and then the plot needs to be rich. There must be ups and downs, struggles and triumphs, near misses, and character development. Non-fiction is no different from fiction in that way. Sometimes I’ve found stories that would be perfect for 30K words, but anything past that I’d feel like I’d be just adding extraneous material. Doing that is a mistake. Only write the length that a story deserves, or your readers will know. Every time. And how do you know what a story deserves? That’s instinct. Does a particular story draw you down different avenues, are you eager to explore them, does one lead to the next? Do you feel like you could write 1,000,000 words on a subject? If that’s the case, do a book. Just trim it by 900K.
The other issue in narrative non-fiction is access to enough material. I’ve had tons of “great” ideas over the years that I start to research and just run into roadblocks. Either everybody is dead, or they didn’t leave any primary source material, or its embargoed, or the subject or his/her family won’t talk to you. It’s important to push through those barriers, but sometimes you simply can’t. These are the real heartbreakers that you must put on the shelf. Otherwise, you’ll try to write something without enough sources that ends up flat. My best books have been the ones where I had the most access, particularly when I can interview my subjects at length. Being able to tell what a person was seeing, thinking, feeling, believing makes the story come alive.
Finally, I love magazine length writing. Give me a 3,000 words, well-written profile any day of the week.
K: Do you worry about whether a potential idea is too niche or not?
N: I feel two ways about niche.
One, it’s good. If a story you love has a niche market, then you have an obvious target for your marketing. I’m reminded of THE BOYS IN THE BOAT. Daniel James Brown was writing about a very niche sport: rowing. His publisher focused on that audience to seed excitement. They were ready-made to hear it. From there, word-of-mouth spread beyond this community, and the rest his non-fiction narrative history (I say jealously!). [Ed.: I can verify this! As a former collegiate rower, every one of my rowing friends talked about this book.]
Two, good storytelling transcends niche. My book on Roger Bannister and the four-minute mile is a good example. Ostensibly THE PERFECT MILE is a book about track-and-field, specifically the mile race. Wow, exciting, you may not think! But, at its heart, it’s a story about breaking barriers, of doing the impossible, of what blend of heart/will/intelligence it takes to achieve something remarkable. That’s a universal story, and to be frank, it was so obviously so that even I couldn’t mess it up!
In sum, go niche, but always be conscious of why those outside it would be interested in reading the story. Typically, that’s thematic, occasionally its character driven.
K: What's the best piece of writing advice you've ever received?
N: Advice is great. It’s not going to make you a great writer. There’s no magic bullet—do this one thing—and you’ll be Margaret Atwood or Jennifer Egan or Ken Kalfus (some personal favorites). You must put in the time and the effort; you must read incessantly, and read with a critical writer’s eye and be asking the questions: What is this author trying to do here? How did they create that scene so effectively? Why are they crafting their sentences with such a choppy cadence? At what point did I fall in love with their character? Why does this structure work? In a way, it sucks to read that way because the enjoyment of simply losing yourself in a story goes away, but if you read critically, you’ll become a better writer.
Also, this deserves to stand alone: The more you write, the better you’ll understand your voice, the more at ease you’ll be to follow it. Write every day.
That all said, if there was not one piece of advice that made me a better writer, I remember vividly the moment I set on the path of becoming one. I was 22 years old, living in London, and a cub reporter at a magazine. Mostly, I was doing research and making phone calls for other journalists. Then an editor finally gave me a piece to write. It was short, maybe 1,000 words. Two weeks later, after researching my story to death and crafting this masterpiece of an article, I gave it to my editor to read. Not a half hour later, it’s back on my desk, colored with so many lines of red that my original typed words were all but illegible. “Do it over,” he said. He left in a trail of cigarette smoke. And I did it over. And received fewer red lines. And over again. And even fewer. And over. Finally, it was published. Good writing is work, hard work. That’s what I learned. At least for most of us, there will be no “West Wind” that will makes you a great writer. If you work at it though, you will become one.
K: What's the best piece of publishing advice you've ever received?
N: I’ll start with the bad advice that I once thought was good advice. “Don’t be precious. It’s only a book. You’re not saving lives.” This gem was given to me with good intentions. I was stuck on a chapter, and a publishing friend was trying to help me get through the roadblock by telling me not to take myself—or my book—so seriously. And it’s true, a book probably won’t save anyone’s lives. And it did temporarily help with the chapter as I just forged ahead. But I was wrong to take away from this advice that my book, my work, is less important than someone else’s pursuit. For years, it colored my view. I don’t mean to get heavy or high-handed here, but the truth is that most things of value in this world aren’t practical.
Okay, back to publishing advice, and it’s one I’ll offer you after two decades as an author (and years of not following it myself to my detriment):
BE YOUR OWN CHAMPION
There are those very rare birds, who will write a book, send to their publisher, get a huge advance, and then go on to become massive bestsellers. Again, this is a rare bird. I’d also say endangered. And they typically don’t last past a single book or two. Bluntly, it will very, very, very unlikely be you.
For the rest of us, don’t depend on your publisher to sell your book. Consider what efforts they put in as gravy. If you want an audience, find it, cultivate it. Best case, you do this long before you publish your book. Play the long game.
Do this through social media, a newsletter, a YouTube channel, an email list, but the more access you have to your audience, the better. It’s not simply about numbers, it’s about engagement. Develop your super fans. It will not only help sell your book, but it’ll develop a sense a community too. (Writing can be a very lonely business. Readers will sustain you.)
As you prepare for publication, again, champion your own work. You can be a publicity and marketing machine all by yourself. Put together your own online book trailer. Create your own bookmarks to give away. Introduce yourself to local booksellers. Write your local newspaper editor. Pitch other writers and podcasters (hopefully ones you’ve cultivated a relationship with ahead of time) to feature your book or have you on as a guest. I always use some of my advance to hire freelance publicists and run my own ads on Amazon/social media channels.
I’ll close with advice about talking up your work that Emilio Perez, a successful painter I profiled in my newsletter, said. It’s as true for artists and is it for writers. “I got nothing to lose, and everything to gain. So why would I be embarrassed or scared to speak about what it is that I do? If this is really my path, what I’m supposed to do, how can I be shy? A lot of good things have always happened from being open. Nothing good has ever happened from being closed off.”
And there you have it, friends. I hope you go out and read all of Neal’s books and his newsletter, too.