On the Road to Writing Books: Blazing New Trails

By Wheeler, William | Nieman Reports, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

On the Road to Writing Books: Blazing New Trails


Wheeler, William, Nieman Reports


I begin writing this essay in my room in a nearly empty hotel in Tripoli, Libya where I sit trying to ignore the incessant gunfire rattling from every corner of the city. Rebels are shooting anti-aircraft guns into the sky to celebrate the reported capture of one of Muammar el-Qaddafi's sons. The skyline looks like London in World War II as bright arcs of tracer fire cut across the dark. Occasionally I hear the weirdly silent flutter of bullets falling from the sky, striking glass or brick, even clanging into the spiral staircase of the fire escape outside my window.

I work for low pay, without assurance my work will ever see the light of day, and zero gratitude. I am a freelancer--by choice. When I started in journalism seven years ago I knew I wanted to write nonfiction books, serious and gripping ones about what is happening in the world. My metabolism never felt quite right for the daily news grind. But then a mentor reminded me that journalist/authors like Jon Lee Anderson climbed their way through the ranks of newspapers and magazines, learning the painstaking craft of reporting before they embarked on book-length projects.

So I put in my time at a weekly newspaper in California. In decades past I might have hopped from paper to paper, paper to wire service, befriending the foreign editor and waiting until I could get a position as a foreign correspondent. But this was not then, and with the implosion of the industry's business model nothing like a career ladder existed any longer. So I went to Columbia University to study journalism and international affairs, and after graduation I set out on the road and started pitching magazine pieces.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

A friend who is a staff writer at a major national magazine soon recommended that I read a story in the New York Observer about how the well-worn path to writing books is no longer a reliable one to follow. David Hirshey, executive editor of HarperCollins and a former deputy editor of Esquire magazine, was quoted at the beginning of the piece: "Thirty years ago, you worked at a newspaper, you moved to a magazine, and then you wrote books or screenplays," Hirshey said. "Today you can be a blogger who writes books or you can be a stripper who wins an Academy Award for Best Screenplay."

I soon learned how hard it was to break into writing for magazines, especially when the global recession hit. Magazines were either dying or paring down their in-house staff to prevent that fate. This meant former employees were scrambling to find writing work and calling in old favors from friends and colleagues. For a newcomer, it was hard to break in. But with will and desperation, I persevered as I branched out into multimedia, newspapers and finally found a foothold in the magazine world.

Through the years, as a freelancer, I have filed reports from Lebanon, Thailand, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Denmark and Haiti, often with funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. I signed on with a book agent with the idea of writing a book about political crises with roots in environmental problems. This concept was not unlike Jared Diamond's "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," but mine would be told in real time. For months I worked on writing a book proposal, focusing chapters on topics such as:

* How the loss of wetlands along the Louisiana coast was making New Orleans more vulnerable to hurricanes

* How a century of greedy irrigation practices in Australia paved the way to more drought-induced firestorms and flash floods

* How a booming population in Egypt had gobbled up all the arable land and the next spike in global grain prices was likely to ignite unrest

* How deforestation in Haiti had exacerbated floods, driving peasant farmers into the shantytowns of slum-infested Port-au-Prince.

Haiti had been plagued in recent years by coups and riots related to the deforestation and flooding. …

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