Writing with the Master – The Magic of John McPhee

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mcphee

If I could study non-fiction writing with anyone, it would be John McPhee.

He is a staff writer at The New Yorker, a four-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and he won that award in 1999 for Annals of the Former World.  Even more impressive to me, he can turn any subject — truly, any subject — into a page turner.

An entire book about oranges? Check. Bark canoes? Done.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve raved about his books like a sweaty-palmed fan boy.  Personal favorites include the bite-sized Levels of the Game (about one epic tennis match), Coming into the Country (about the Alaskan wilderness), and his amazing collections of short stories (don’t miss Brigade de Cuisine in this one).

Now, a confession.  I did have the chance to study with McPhee as an undergrad at Princeton.  I still have all of the class notes.  I consider it one of the biggest strokes of luck in my life.  And… simply mentioning it makes me nervous as hell that I’m going to leave a typo in this post.  Besmirching the fine legacy of Professor McPhee!

Translated into my native Long Island-ese: If I fuck up anything in this post, it’s all my fault, and I didn’t listen to Professor McPhee well enough. He tried his best.

Now, moving on…

The below piece on McPhee is written by Joel Achenbach, a fellow graduate of McPhee’s class. Joel is now a staff writer for The Washington Post and the author of six books.

The profile recently appeared in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and I absolutely had to share it with you. It’s the incredible story of a master writer, master teacher, and fascinating human being I aspire to emulate.  There’s so much to learn from McPhee, and the below is a laugh-out-loud sampling.

I’ve left in the graduation years to preserve the context.

Enjoy!

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John McPhee ’53 has many moves as a writer, one of which he calls a “gossip ladder” — nothing more than a stack of quotations, each its own paragraph, unencumbered by attribution or context. You are eavesdropping in a crowd. You take these scraps of conversation and put them in a pile. Like this:

“A piece of writing needs to start somewhere, go somewhere, and sit down when it gets there.”

“Taking things from one source is plagiarism; taking things from several sources is research.”

“A thousand details add up to one impression.”

“You cannot interview the dead.” 

“Readers are not supposed to see structure. It should be as invisible as living bones. It shouldn’t be imposed; structure arises within the story.”

“Don’t start off with the most intense, scary part, or it will all be anticlimactic from there.”

“You can get away with things in fact that would be tacky in fiction — and stuck on TV at 3 o’clock in the morning. Sometimes the scene is carried by the binding force of fact.”

The speaker in every instance is John McPhee. I assembled this particular ladder from the class notes of Amanda Wood Kingsley ’84, an illustrator and writer who, like me, took McPhee’s nonfiction writing class, “The Literature of Fact,” in the spring of 1982. In February, McPhee will mark 40 years as a Princeton professor, which he has pulled off in the midst of an extraordinarily productive career as a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of more than two dozen books.

When the editor of this magazine asked me to write something about McPhee’s class, I knew it would be the easiest assignment ever, though a little nerve-wracking. It was, because most of McPhee’s former students have saved their class notes and marked-up papers (Marc Fisher ’80: “I’ve never lived anywhere without knowing where my notes from his class are”).

When I meet Rick Klein ’98 at a coffee shop down the block, we examine forensically Rick’s class papers and the McPhee marginalia, the admonitions and praise from a teacher who keeps his pencils sharp. McPhee never overlooked a typo, and when Rick (now the hotshot political director at ABC News) wrote “fowl” instead of “foul,” the professor’s pencil produced a devastating noose.

McPhee’s greatest passion was for structure, and he required that students explain, in a few sentences at the end of every assignment, how they structured the piece. (McPhee noted on a piece Rick wrote about his father: “This is a perfect structure — simple, like a small office building, as you suggest. The relationship of time to paragraphing is an example of what building a piece of writing is all about.”)

Rick reminds me that the class was pass/fail.

“You were competing not for a grade, but for his approval. You were so scared to turn in a piece of writing that John McPhee would realize was dirt. We were just trying to impress a legend,” he says.

Which is the nerve-wracking part, still. He is likely to read this article and will notice the infelicities, the stray words, the unnecessary punctuation, the galumphing syntax, the desperate metaphors, and the sentences that wander into the woods. “They’re paying you by the comma?” McPhee might write in the margin after reading the foregoing sentence. My own student work tended toward the self-conscious, the cute, and the undisciplined, and McPhee sometimes would simply write: “Sober up.”

He favors simplicity in general, and believes a metaphor needs room to breathe. “Don’t slather one verbal flourish on top of another lest you smother them all,” he’d tell his students. On one of Amanda’s papers, he numbered the images, metaphors, and similes from 1 to 11, and then declared, “They all work well, to a greater or lesser degree. In 1,300 words, however, there may be too many of them — as in a fruitcake that is mostly fruit.”

When Amanda produced a verbose, mushy description of the “Oval with Points” sculpture on campus, McPhee drew brackets around one passage and wrote, “Pea soup.”

That one was a famously difficult assignment: You had to describe a piece of abstract art on campus. It was an invitation to overwriting. As McPhee put it, “Most writers do a wild skid, leave the road, and plunge into the dirty river.” Novice writers believe they will improve a piece of writing by adding things to it; mature writers know they will improve it by taking things out. Read More

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How to Write a Bestselling Book This Year — The Definitive Resource List and How-To Guide

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If you want to write a bestselling book, don’t reinvent the wheel.

I get at least a dozen email a week from friends who want to write books.

After three #1 bestsellers from 2007 to 2012, and publishing in 35+ countries, I’ve tried a lot. Having experimented with everything from “traditional” (Random House) to Amazon Publishing, from BitTorrent Bundles to self-publishing audiobooks, I’ve developed strong opinions about…

- What works and what doesn’t.
– What sucks and what doesn’t.
– What makes the most money and what doesn’t.

This post is intended to answer all of the most common questions I get, including:
– “Should I publish traditionally or self-publish?”
– “How does a first-time author get a 7-figure book advance?”
– “How do I get a good agent or publisher? Do I even need an agent?”
– “What does the ‘bestseller list’ really mean? How do you get on one?”
– “What are your top marketing tips if I have little or no budget?”
– “What are the biggest wastes of time? The things to avoid?”
– And so on… Read More

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The Odd (And Effective) Routines of Famous Minds like Beethoven, Maya Angelou, and Francis Bacon

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Wine is part of my creative process. How I use it has been influenced by other writers. Why reinvent the wheel?

Sometimes, peculiar routines are the key to sanity… and productivity.

For years, I wrote from 11pm-4am or so, fueled by carefully timed yerba mate tea, Malbec, and Casino Royale left on repeat in my peripheral vision.

But who am I? Let’s explore the odd and effective routines of several creative icons: Maya Angelou (author), Francis Bacon (painter), W.H. Auden (poet), and Ludwig van Beethoven (composer).

Here’s an appetizer, before we get to the full routines:

Maya Angelou rented a “tiny, mean” hotel or motel room to do her writing;
Francis Bacon preferred to work with a hangover;
W.H. Auden took Benzedrine the way many people take a multivitamin; and
Beethoven counted out 60 coffee beans (exactly!) each morning, and developed his compositions through walking and obsessive bathing.

Enjoy the detailed profiles below.

All were excerpted from one of my favorite books–Daily Rituals: How Artists Work–which contains nearly 200 routines of some of the greatest minds of the last four hundred years: famous novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians… Read More

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The Ugly New York Times Bestseller — The Creative Process in Action

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(Photo: photosteve101)

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”
– Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
– Mark Twain

Writing isn’t a clean process.

In general, attempting to be creative isn’t a clean process. It’s filthy. I wish I could poo diamonds, but — alas — I am not built for such miracles. Instead, I plod and stumble my way through revisions, hacking at mental cobwebs and killing inner demons. Eventually, enough caffeine and wine permitting, I might look down and see something that doesn’t make me gag.

To give you an idea, below are some hand edits of the Introduction to The 4-Hour Chef, which–much improvement later–hit the NYT and WSJ bestseller lists in November of 2012. As I write this, it’s hovering around #180 on Amazon. Keep in mind that the below is after 5-10 drafts:

Download a full-size PDF of my edits here

Even this simple blog post, as one example, was revised and rewritten 14 times. The iteration pays off — it ended up getting 700+ comments. Conversely, one-take wonders usually get burned at the stake, and rightly so.

“Revising,” “iterating” (in start-up speak), “editing”…no matter what you call it, it’s tweaking something bad or mediocre until it finally works. As Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

This applies to much more than writing. Ernest would no doubt agree that my first attempt at a blog was shittier than shitty. Here are the “before” pics from 2007. Note that my friend Ramit Sethi and others had equally hideous “rough drafts” of their sites. It’s par for the course… Read More

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Tim Ferriss Interviews Neil Strauss, 7x New York Times Bestselling Author, on the Creative Process

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Did you enjoy this sample of creativeLIVE content?

If so, you’ll love my extended interview of author Neil Strauss on The Tim Ferriss Show podcast. Click below to stream or you can find it on iTunes (see #15):

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A Few Thoughts on Content Creation, Monetization, and Strategy

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(Photo credit: Shewatchedthesky)

This is short post on content creation and monetization.

Below is an e-mail I received from a friend of a friend. My answers to him are inline after “TIM”, and I’ve elaborated on a few.

The e-mail itself is also a great example of a thoughtful approach to a busy person (me). I bolded one key phrase.

For those who want to explore further, here are two related posts:

How to Build a High-Traffic Blog Without Killing Yourself
Tim Ferriss Scam! Practical Tactics for Dealing with Haters

Now, let’s read that e-mail… Read More

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How a First-Time Author Got a 7-Figure Book Deal

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John Roman Romaniello
This man was paid $1,000,000+ for a book…and he’s dressed like a cow. Pic from a 4-Hour Chef sidebar that sadly had to be cut due to space constraints.

[This is a companion post to “How to (Really) Make $1,000,000 Selling E-Books – Real-World Case Studies“]

This guest post by John Romaniello will explain exactly how a first-time author can get a 7-figure book advance, as he did. He’ll also explain how he got Arnold Schwarzenegger to write the foreword to his book (!!!), which you can read here.

This post demonstrates how to sell yourself effectively and–more importantly–how to be yourself effectively.  I’ve added my own recommendations in brackets after “TIM”.  In a few instances, I’ve also corroborated specifics (e.g. dollar amounts mid-negotiation) from sources other than John, as he rightly didn’t want to earn bad blood.

Before we get started, a few statistics:

  • Less than 6% of all reported deals get an advance of more than $100k (as of 2011, and it’s gone down since)
  • On average, fewer than 100 Hardcover Nonfiction Bestsellers in any year sell more than 100,000 copies, and usually only one or two top 1 million sold.

In 2009, John “Roman” Romaniello might have been another casualty of these sobering stats. He launched his blog in 2009 with 0 readers.  Roman had effectively no Internet presence. By 2011, he was ranked as one of the top 100 most influential people in health & fitness, sharing space with Jillian Michaels and Dr. Oz.  He used that platform to help him build a company that has grossed as much as $240,000+ per month, with a six-figure net.  We’ll cover a lot of how he did all this and more.

But here’s the punchline: Roman’s first book deal for Man 2.0: Engineering the Alpha (with a co-author, much more on this later) fetched more than $1,000,000 in advance.  

This is practically unheard of, unless you’re a president. So, how did he do it? This post explores the answers and tactics… Read More

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