From beat reporter to book author 500 words at a time

Rod McQueen

Rod McQueenPeople used to tug on my drinking arm at receptions and say, “I’ve always wanted to be an author. How do you write a book?”

I had a long-winded answer but eyes glazed over, so I found a shorter response.

“Write 500 words a day and by the end of a year you’ll have enough for a book.”

It’s that simple. And that difficult.

When I started my first book I was business editor at Maclean’s. Editor Peter C. Newman told me he had his next few book topics lined up and Canada’s banks were not among them. Why didn’t I write a book about the Big Five chief executive officers?

Not only did I embrace his idea, I mimicked his methodology. I got up at 4 a.m., wrote until breakfast, and then went into the office, my daily quota of 500 words fulfilled. Novelist Graham Greene aimed for 350 words daily but he was a better writer. I had to throw out some of my stuff.

After several months I said to Newman, “I can’t get the first chapter stopped. I’ve written 30,000 words.”

“You write the first chapter last,” he said. “It’s an epilogue.”

On such insights, a career as an author can be cobbled together.

For most of the time since that first book, I had a day job, but since 2001, when I was fired along with one-third of the editorial staff at the National Post, I’ve focused on my books, so my advice can apply to any working journalist who is looking for a long-term project or a former journalist looking to parlay her knowledge into an 80,000-word book.

Choose The Idea carefully. You’re going to be living with this book daily for up to two years so you need to care deeply about the topic. If you get bored, readers will, too.

I’ve written 12 non-fiction books in the last 25 years. Most were inspired by events. For example, I attended the news conference in February 1997, when George Eaton announced that the family firm had sought court protection under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangements Act. He claimed that the department stores had gotten into trouble only recently. I asked myself: How could Eaton’s, founded in 1869, slide toward bankruptcy so quickly? That question led to 200 interviews and an award-winning book 18 months later.

My latest book, published this spring, Manulife: How Dominic D’Alessandro Built a Global Giant and Fought to Save It, began with a similar curiosity. What made D’Alessandro so driven and so different from other more milquetoast Canadian business leaders? How did he take a relatively small company and create the largest insurance firm in North America?

My timing was fortuitous. A month into my research, D’Alessandro announced he was stepping down as CEO a year later, in May 2009. I not only had my publication news peg, I had a succession story. Another surprise chapter combusted last fall: the global meltdown in financial services.

Whatever your topic, start writing immediately. It helps focus your themes and identifies the holes in your research. The 500-word daily discipline is all-important. To cite Graham Greene again: “I have no talent. It’s just a question of working, being willing to put in the time.”

Check out all secondary sources, do database searches and prowl libraries, but use such material sparingly. A book is no different than a news story; information from knowledgeable people is the best and most reliable source.

Make a list of everyone you can think of who might know something about your topic. Make contact with at least one person every day who can help. At the end of each interview, always ask: “Who else should I speak to?” Start at the outer edge of the information circle and work your way in. By the time you get to the principals, they’ll have heard about you and be eager to talk.

Once you know themes and timing, produce a three-page outline and a sample chapter, then seek an interested publisher. A literary agent can be helpful but they take a 15 per cent commission. And write those 500 words. I’ll be tugging on your arm to hear how you’re doing.

Rod McQueen’s latest book, Manulife: How Dominic D’Alessandro Built a Global Giant and Fought to Save It, was published in May by Penguin.