By Matthew Schulz
In 20 years with The Associated Press, Jaime Aron has covered the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, Stanley Cup finals, Summer Olympics and Winter Olympics, and the World Cup.
He’s also a prolific author of non-fiction books, all of which focused on Dallas-area sports teams. His fifth and latest, called “Breakthrough Boys”, is the tale of the tumultuous season of the 1971 Dallas Cowboys — the first Cowboys team to with the Super Bowl.
I asked Jaime — who I’ve known for more than two decades, dating back to college at the University of Texas — for his insights on what it takes to be a successful non-fiction author. Here’s what he had to say:
Once you decide on a book topic, what happens next? Do you outline first, or do the interviews come first?
This was my first “real” book, meaning one big story about one subject. I didn’t really know what to do, so I studied other books I admired. I came up with the game plan of, essentially, “research, interview, write.” Then, I emailed [a friend who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author] for his thoughts. His response was so great that I printed it up and taped it to my computer monitor:
“… The more you know, the better your interviews with the key characters will go. The more detail you get, with a purpose in mind, the more you will be able to bring the events alive to your readers. The more you bring it alive to your readers, the more you can teach them something at the same time, subtly and easily. There’s a point, which is hard to define, when you know you know enough to start writing. But even as you start to write, keep reporting until the day you are done with the project.”
The reality is that I could’ve spent three years researching everything and interviewing everyone about everything. At a certain point, I realized I was getting bogged down, so I put together an outline of the overall arc of the story and a detailed outline of each chapter. I needed this to narrow my focus. The 1971 football season gave me a natural timeline, which helped, but then I needed to pick my main
How many people do you speak with for a typical book?
There’s no one-size-fits all answer. But this much is always true: conduct as many interviews as possible. The subject and – especially – the deadline will determine how many are needed, and how many are realistic.
As for how many interviews make it into the book, that depends on what they say, who they are, how much insight they offer. Ultimately, something everyone says will wind up in the book one way or another – not necessarily as a quote, but something that steered your thinking, or even a phrase you borrow, consciously or not.
What’s an example of a mistake you made or a trap you fell into when writing the earlier books that you’ve been sure to avoid when writing later ones?
Hours and hours of wasted interviews. There were guys who were captivating speakers or fun to talk to, but who didn’t enhance the narrative, either because they veered too far off the subject or their ‘facts’ were so far off.
What’s the key to writing great, compelling non-fiction?
Readers will know what happened (won the Super Bowl, became President, ruined Enron) from reading the dust jacket. You want to explain why, how and – most of all – who were the people behind these events. You start by selling the reader on the people through details and anecdotes. Then, you have to find the most germane ones and string them together.
A writing coach once described this as collecting gold coins in the research/interview phase, then tossing them out during the writing phase – not too many all at once, just a steady stream that keeps the reader hunting for more.
Matthew Schulz is writing his second novel, working toward fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a published author of fiction. He has written for the Houston Chronicle, Associated Press and other major publications, but his current day job has him working as a Managing Editor at Bankrate, Inc., where he helps lead an award-winning news team. He has even helped coordinate a video town hall with the White House. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewschulz and learn more about him at MattSchulz.com.