On Thursday evening I will be a panelist at a Hamilton College alumni event at the Random House Book Club. The official name of the event is "Book Publishing: Insiders Look at a Rapidly Changing Industry." Here are my speaking notes. The rest will be off the cuff.
I write non-fiction books. Business books, specifically. I’ve written books on topics such as
· marketing technology
· information technology
· information technology management
· information technology management strategy
· software development strategy
· and I just finished a book about corporate social media strategy …
I also wrote a book about the history of the city of Stamford, Connecticut.
Because I was a newspaper reporter for many years, all of my books tend to read like 220-page newspaper articles. I write in a form called narrative non-fiction … which means that I try to use the same story-telling techniques you would find in any decent work of literature to convey the messages that I’m trying to get across in whatever business book that I’m writing.
I graduated from Hamilton in 1975. I was an English major. I use pretty much the exact same set of skills sets to write business books that I learned at Hamilton when I was writing papers for my English professors.
If you can write papers about Shakespeare and Elizabethan poetry, if you can stay up until 3 a.m. writing essays about Dryden, Milton, Melville, Hardy …Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg or Gary Snyder … then you can write about pretty much anything.
The basic skills are the same. You’re assigned a topic that you know nothing about, you worry and fret about it for quite a while, then you do some research, you interview some experts, you take notes, you write it all up – and suddenly you’re done and you’re ready for the next job!
That being said, I couldn’t do the kind of work I do today without having worked for 18 years in daily newspaper journalism. That’s where I learned the discipline of writing and the basic skills of tracking down sources and interviewing them.
You need those basic journalism skills – finding sources, contacting them, convincing them to meet with you … and then actually interviewing them, taking notes, writing up your notes and turning them into readable prose … … you need those journalism skills to survive as a non-fiction writer, at any level in the publishing business.
But for me, I can honestly say that my ability to write about complex difficult subjects that I know very little about – that ability, which I now count upon to put food on the table and to pay the mortgage – my ability – and my interest in doing that for a living – was first developed at Hamilton, during those long cold winter nights when I was staying up until 3 o’clock in the morning writing essays for English professors like Ivan Marki, Dwight Lindley and Austin Briggs.
So even when I’m working in my home office in Fairfield, Connecticut, part of me is still up there in Dunham or Bundy, trying to write something clever about Beowolf or The Faerie Queene.
Take pride in your work, but park your ego at the curb. You have to let go of your ego to do this kind of work … that’s the real challenge of being a ghostwriter … or any kind of professional writer … you can take pride in your abilities, but you have to let your ego vanish …
Anything I say beyond that will be in response to specific questions. It will be interesting to see what kind of questions people ask ...