Ask the Scribe

Q: When writing a three book series, are the first two books supposed to have endings that allow each of them to stand alone, independent of the next one? Or, should it bring the book to a conclusion that leaves the reader knowing that there is more to come, and they need to read on to know what happens? — Sam


Cynthia Leitich Smith, the author of the bestselling Tantalize series, gives us her response:

Great question! First, quickly, we typically think of three linked books as a trilogy and four or more as a series. Beyond that, there’s no one right answer for every writer when it comes to career strategy and questions of craft.

That said, I have enjoyed reading successful trilogies that were essentially one long story split into three parts. And I have authored the Tantalize series, a sextet of books, including two graphic novels, in which each book could stand alone, however, an overriding super arc united them all and offered added layers and resonance to those readers who committed to the experience in the whole.

 I personally prefer the latter approach because I’m honoring every reader’s expectation of a satisfying story, no matter which book they pick up first. They’re not lost at the beginning, and they’re given some measure of closure at the end. For each title, whatever the central question may be, it’s answered.

 With that in mind, don’t start with a clean slate at the beginning of each new manuscript. Honor your characters’ prior internal growth and history. Consider their earned perspective as they move forward. Furthermore, not every loose end must be neatly tied. You shouldn’t feel obligated to do that in any book. Life is a bit messy, and art should, to some measure, reflect that messiness. You can pick up one or more of those threads as you move forward, again, so long as there’s some resolution to the key question at hand.

For example, in the Tantalize series, the character Quincie P. Morris faces off against a charming villain who goes by the name Bradley Sanguini. Though she ultimately triumphs against him in book 3 (Blessed), her losses along the way are significant and heart-wrenching. In book 4 (Diabolical), she would have learned from those experiences. There was no way I could have her fall for any of his tricks again without compromising the integrity of the character and losing readers’ trust.


Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestselling author of the Tantalize series and other acclaimed books and short stories for young readers. She hosts a children’s-YA literature resource site at, the most well-read blog in her age/format market at and looks forward to the release of Feral Nights (Book One in the Feral series) in January 2013.


Welcome to our new advice column for writers.  “Ask the Scribe” will come out every other Tuesday beginning September 4, 2012.  If you are a current Writers’ League of Texas member and have a burning question about craft or the business of writing, please submit it to  Note: Your submission cannot be anonymous, however we can keep your identity anonymous when it is posted on the blog.

Wednesday Writing Prompt

Music as Muse


I am honored to be teaching a class with Austin Bat Cave this weekend, on songwriting featuring the very talented, singer/songwriter/musician, Bill Callahan.  So this week, music is my poetic muse.  A perfect fit, right?  Poetry and music have long been hand in hand, inspiring and collaborating.  Think on the poem ‘Strange Fruit’ by Abel Meeropol:


Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.


This protest poem was then famously recorded by Billie Holiday.  Poem inspired song.  For this weeks exercise, switch the idea around to let song inspire poem.  Take any song, and turn it into three four line stanzas.  Use Meeropol as inspiration.  Happy listening and writing!

– Amanda

Friday Filler

The Literary Social Calendar


Jump Start Your Novel with Sara Kocek

$49 members / $109 nonmembers

5/26/2012 From 1 PM to 4 PM


June 22 – 24, 2012

Hyatt Regency Austin

2012 Summer Writing Retreat

The 2012 WLT Summer Writing Retreat will be held July 22-27 at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, the perfect summer escape.


Texas State’s Wittliff Collections present New York Times #1 best-selling author RICK RIORDAN



Upcoming Events at Barnes & Noble Arboretum

Saturday, May 5, 11:00 a.m. – Join us as we read ‘I Believe in You’ for Storytime!

Saturday, May 12, 11:00 a.m. – Join us for a Mother’s Day Storytime as we read ‘Me and My Mom.’

Saturday, May 12, 2:00 p.m. – Join Imran Ahmad as he signs copies his new memoir, ‘The Perfect Gentleman: A Muslim Boy Meets the West.’

Tuesday, May 15, 7:00 p.m. – Join Marcus Luttrell as he signs copies of his new book ‘SERVICE: A Navy Seal at War.’

Saturday, May 19, 11:00 a.m. – Join us for ‘SPOT Goes to the Beach’ Storytime with special guest…SPOT!!

Saturday, May 19, 11:00 a.m. – Join us as we celebrate the Austin Council of the Blind with events to teach you about Braille awareness. Come have your name and a special message ‘typed’ in Braille; then use a “key” to read the message. A portion of all sales associated with the Bookfair will benefit the Austin Council of the Blind.


Harry Ransom Center Exhibit

‘The Kind James Bible; Its History and Influence’

Admission is free, exhibit running now until July 29.

HRC calendar

Poetry at Round Top Festival

May 4-6



Check out the calendar for Houston Arts Community, Fresh Arts Coalition and Spacetaker, calendar for all things Houston ART!



The Art of the Sentence with WBN instructor Joel Weinbrot

Tuesdays, May 8, 15 and 22, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at WriteByNight Headquarters $65 per session or $180 for all 3 (Note: Session 1 on May 8 is mandatory for all attendees)


Fiction 500 Contest

* Submit an original work of fiction no longer than 500 words, based on a prompt.

* Entry Dates are May 1-14, 2012.

* We accept only the first 500 entries.

* Faculty from the country’s top MFA Creative Writing Programs judge the contest

* Prizes are $500, $200, and $100.

* We publish winning stories (and honorable mentions) on our website.


The Round Rock New Neighbors Book Discussion Group

Round Rock- The Round Rock New Neighbors Book Discussion Group will discuss Welcome to Utopia: Notes from a Small Town by Karen Valby at their next meeting at the Round Rock Barnes & Noble store on Monday, June 18th at 1:00 p.m. Plus, author Karen Valby will be in attendance to discuss her book and answer questions. The store is located in the La Frontera Village at the intersection of IH-35 and SH-45.


Austin Poetry Society

Today, on international workers’ day, we finished work on our grant request to the Cultural Arts Division of the City of Austin to support the posting of poetry on the buses for the 2012-2013 year. We submitted a 42 page proposal supported by even more documentation. We are already receiving poem submissions to go on the buses beginning October 1st, and we hope you will enter as well. Read (and follow scrupulously) the guidelines on our webpage, You don’t have to be a member of APS.

Now we can relax and look forward to the Annual Awards Ceremony on May 19th, when Mary Ellen Branan will present some $2200 in prizes for the winning poems in our annual contests. It’s our biggest event of the year. Last year you roundly applauded the location of the ceremony at ND, 501 North I-35, where we were able to project the winning poems on a full-size movie screen, and that’s where we’ll be this year as well. And thanks to Mike Henry and Laura Kooris for helping us secure this location. See the meeting description below under May 19th. Note especially the White Elephant Sale, by which we hope to raise some of our matching funds for the Poetry With Wheels bus project.


Badgerdog Austin

Extreme Makeover: Fairy Tale Edition

Saturday, May 12, 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.

@WriteByNight, 1305 E. 6th Street, Suite 4

In this workshop, we’ll give fairy tales a long-overdue makeover. Lead by children’s book author Debbie Gonzales, writers in this workshop will fracture well-known fairy tales with a twenty-first-century twist. Whether the three bears become a boy band of Justin Biebers or Little Red Riding Hoodie gets retold from the south side of Austin, we’ll re-make the tales we love into stories for the modern age. For 6th, 7th, and 8th grade writers. Register now!

Unleash your creativity and delve into great writing this June. American Short Fiction presents three different classes for adults: our online Short Story Essentials (take it from anywhere!), our eight-week Austin-based fiction workshop, and our brand-new short course, Writing and Improv. From now until May 31, we’re offering 10 percent off registration on these classes—for newsletter subscribers only. Enter the coupon code newsletter10 to get the discount.

2012 Texas Mystery Month events currently scheduled include:

February 15-May 15 – Barbara Burnett Smith Aspiring Writers Project, Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter and the Barbara Burnett Smith Mentoring Authors Foundation – Contact Sarah Ann Robertson <>




What did we miss?  Let us know how the events turn out, take photos and maybe it will turn into a guest blog for Scribe!  Follow WLT on FACEBOOK.  MEMBER NOTICE:  If you think your annual membership may be up for renewal, log into the WLT website to check!  Log in with the user-name and password you set up when you joined, to make sure you are still eligible for all the benefits of being a WLT member!

World Book Night 2012

At the Writers’ League, we love hearing about new readers. Books change lives, and nothing is more exciting than hearing about some of our favorite books getting passed along to someone for the first time! That is why we love the idea behind World Book Night. WBN is a non-profit that began in the UK in 2011 to promote adult reading among “light” or “non-readers,” as well as young adult readers. Givers of books picked up a box of twenty free copies of a book, which they selected from a list of thirty titles, to distribute. Givers had the freedom to pass along these books to anyone they wished.

Yesterday, on April 23, World Book Night took place in the US as well as the UK and Ireland in over 6,000 cities. The special World Book Night editions of these books were printed for free, and the authors waived royalties on the books to help the event take place. A full list of titles can be found here, as well as other information about the World Book Night. Austin’s own independent book store, BookPeople, participated in the event, distributing copies of the bestselling YA novel, The Huger Games to students at Martin Middle School. Look how thrilled they are, posing with their new books! We are thrilled as well– and hope that everyone is enjoying their new books, no matter what title they received. Remember, sharing books you love with those you love is an invaluable gift!

Happy reading, and our deepest admiration to BookPeople and the folks at World Book Night!
Katherine, for the Writers’ League

Friday Filler

Texas Literary Events


Upcoming Writers League of Texas Classes

Understanding the Publishing Process with Stephanie Barko, Saturday, March 31, 2012

Developing Your Book Platform with Stephanie Barko, Saturday, April 7, 2012

Genre Workshop: Sci-Fi vs. Fantasy with Roger Boylan, Saturday, April 7, 2012

Writing Deep, Writing True: A Day of Writing & Meditation with Saundra Goldman, Saturday, May 12, 2012

Jump Start Your Novel with Sara Kocek, May 26, 2012


Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter Fourteenth Annual 2012 Texas Mystery Month in May

Texas Mystery Month events include panel discussions, book signings, author presentations and more. In preceding years, Austin, College Station, Dallas, Fort Worth, Georgetown, Houston, San Antonio Seguin and Waco all celebratedTexas Mystery Authors with activities in May, Texas Mystery Month.

February 15-May 15 – Barbara Burnett Smith Aspiring Writers Project, Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter and the Barbara Burnett Smith Mentoring Authors Foundation – Contact Sarah Ann Robertson <>

May 5 – 1:00-4:00 pm – Texas Mystery Author Ben Rehder signing “The Chicken Hanger” –

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center 5801 La Crosse Avenue Austin, Texas 512-232-0100

May 10 – 1:30 p.m. – Texas Mystery Author Ben Rehder – coffee, talk & signing of “The Chicken Hanger” –

Book sales and autographs after the program. Herman Brown Free Library, 100 East Washington Street,

Burnet, Texas 78611. Contact: Library – 512-715-5228 or .

May 14 – 6:30 p.m. “The Influence of Sherlock Holmes on Mystery Writing” George Arnold and Ken Squier;

The Sherlock Holmes Society of Austin aka Waterloo Station

Contact: Sarah Ann Robertson

La Madeleine-Arboretum 9828 Great Hills Trail Austin, TX 78759 1-512-502-2474 Manager: Neil Coleman


Badgerdog’s Fourth Annual Gala

Join us Thursday, May 3, 2012, from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Kodosky Donor Lounge in the Long Center.

When you arrive, enjoy talented singer Liz Morphis and let Badgerdog instructor and poet Jena Kirkpatrick create an original poem for you on her vintage typewriter. Browse a unique silent auction with personalized items donated by well-known authors and local celebrities, exclusive local packages, and a few creative surprises!


WLT Member Sue Donahoe’s book, NEVER HEARD OF ‘EM: Austin’s Music Explosion, 1994 – 2000, is on the shelves of the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum.

The museum is hosting an exciting exhibit from now – October 14th, and my book has a strong relationship to this exhibit.

TEXAS MUSIC ROAD TRIP features regional music history from the 1930’s to the present, including early Jazz beginnings in North Texas, the Buddy Holly and the rockers of the Lubbock area, the South Texas legends – many of whom are in the South Texas Music Walk of Fame of which I’m co-founder and so much more. I strongly suggest all who can attend this lovely museum take advantage of this exciting new exhibit.

The Museum is open daily and located at 18th and Congress.


Children’s Author/Illustrator Mark Mitchell

Will leadchildren’s writing workshop and signing at Blue Awning Books Sat April 7th from 3 to 5 pm. Mark also teaches at Laguna Gloria. This class is for adults and children interested in writing kid’s books . Please bring paper and markers to the class. A reception will follow. Blue Awning is located at 6009 Burnet Road. For info call 512-275-6430.


Michener Center Readings

Next Thursday, April 12th, visiting poets at the Michener Center will be giving a reading at the Lady Bird Johnson Wild Flower Center at 7:30pm. Don’t miss out– these poets are phenomenal.

Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s books are To the Place of Trumpets, 1987 Yale Series of Younger Poets; Song, winner of the 1994 Lamont Poetry Prize; and The Orchard, a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer.

Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s collections are The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart and Apocalyptic Swing. She has received a Stegner fellowship, a Jones Lectureship at Stanford and a Rona Jaffe Woman Writers’ Award, among other honors.



COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS, April 5, 2012—BRAZOS WRITERS, a local writing organization serving writers of all genres, is pleased to present Law & Disorder – Tales From the Street, Body Farm & Criminal Mind, plus a Mini Book Fair with Local authors, 12:30 to 1:15 p.m. This event is part of the 14th Annual Texas Mystery Month.


Austin Poetry Society Events

On April 21, Garrison Mart and the Past Poetry Project bring us a presentation on “Connections” featuring honored guests William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Rainer Maria Rilke, Vachel Lindsay,Langston Hughes, Amy Lowell, Exra Pound, Marianne Moore, Archibald

Macleish, William Carlos Williams and allen Ginbsberg. All our meetings are free and open to the public. We will be in the Twin Oaks Branch Public Library, 1800 S. 5th Street at West Mary.

Also, this Saturday, April 14, come and talk with friendly poets about one of your poems in progress. Bring a dozen copies of a poem to the APS 2nd Saturday Poetry Critique Group, 11:30-1:00 p.m. Host: Elizabeth Kropf. Meeting Room, Yarborough Branch Public Library, 2200 Hancock Drive. For more details, see the description under April 14 in the calendar below. Membership is not required for any of our meetings.

While at the calendar, look at April 26, for details about the APS Fourth Thursday Open Microphone. This month Cindy Huyser and Debra Weingarten will be featured. See more about them below. Our open mic

follows the features so bring your poetry to share. We want to hear it. The session runs from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. Host: Ralph Hausser.

NeWorlDeli, 4101 Guadalupe.



March’s Third Thursday Wrap-Up

Southern tent revivals, the civil rights movement, female murderers, and — kolaches were all part of the conversation for March’s Third Thursday program “Get Real: The Art of Researching and Writing Nonfiction.”

The SXSW traffic didn’t deter the WLT writing community from meeting at BookPeople to hear panelists Donna Johnson, Cynthia Levinson, M. William Phelps, and Stephen Harrigan discuss what they’ve learned about researching and writing while moving a nonfiction project from idea to publication.

Here’s a quick recap of a few thoughts from the night.

Ideas: What to Write

The good news is that ideas can come from anywhere. The other news is you have to decide what to do with them. Reading how our panelists get topics may help you find a few of your own.

Returning home for a family funeral, after much time and distance apart, Donna revisited what she thought she knew about where she came from. This led to her memoir, Holy Ghost Girl.

As a children’s writer, Cynthia’s ideas often come from weirdness (kids like reading about strange things) and “mortification at [her] own ignorance.” She wrote We’ve Got a Job after discovering her obliviousness to the facts about the Birmingham civil rights march, despite her education and profession.

Matthew (M. William Phelps) saw a 20/20 segment about a murder and became interested in the father’s story. As he learned more, it drew him in. This led him to write several true-crime books and create a TV show in the genre. He keeps the stories, including his most recent, Never See Them Again, in nonfiction form because he wants to tell the victims’ stories and because there’s a better market for nonfiction versus fiction.

Two competing kolache shops on Highway 71 inspired Stephen’s “Where Is My Home?” in the May 2012 Texas Monthly. Seeing kolaches as a possible link to his identity and ethnicity, the idea for a kolache article passed his litmus test of “How can the article be about more than itself?” (It also led him to Europe.) His novels often evolve from his articles.

Research: More to Write (includes talking — gasp!)

Researching your nonfiction project means holing up in a library for weeks, fishing through film, wading through books, and surfing the net, right? That may be part of it, but you’ll also have to talk to people.

Quality research is a combination of reading and talking, even for Donna, who wrote a memoir of her life.

Donna started her research by doing what, as she said, she does beshe bought some books. She also talked to family members and others, including university scholars, in order to get a fuller picture and context of what she experienced.

Cynthia also started her research with lots of reading; one of her goals was to develop empathy and knowledge about the subjects of her book — black civil rights activists, who were children when they marched.

Due to the nature of his work, Mathew starts with phone calls to see who is willing and able to talk about the case. He also relies on police reports and other research. During interviews, he designs questions based on how he’s writing his book.

Stephen learned that quiet academic research is not too helpful on its own. What is helpful is talking to people who know about your topic and can discuss it in an understandable way. Getting a few colorful quotes from them is a bonus. But, that requires being fearless about calling strangers, introducing yourself and your idea and being able to get information out of them. Stephen listens with an ear towards finding something for a great kinetic start or a punchy ending.

Writing: What Not to Write

After doing research on what you want to write, you have to figure out what not to write.

Which ideas are worth keeping? How can you narrow your topic? What should you leave out?

“Take out the stuff people don’t want to read.” – Elmore Leonard, quoted by Matthew as a quick response to the what-to-keep issue. If it were only that easy.

All of the panelists mentioned maintaining the narrative of a piece. Certain events serve the story, moving it along, others are unnecessary detours. In Matthew’s books this means omitting details that that are sensational, but don’t matter to the story. (Though he values marketability and reader interest, he puts a higher value on the integrity of the story.)

You should also consider the tone of your piece. Donna left out some incidents because she didn’t want the book to become too tragic. Other things were simply too personal.

The genre of your work will also help you select content. Since Cynthia’s book is for children, some things — like adult language and “scary things” — were not included because they weren’t age-appropriate.

Stephen asks, “What is this about? Why am I interested in this?” Then he looks to the plot, to move the piece along.

A Final Word

Cold-calling people as possible sources. Considering literary elements in shaping nonfiction. To novel or not to novel? Not the first things I think of when writing nonfiction, but tonight’s panelists my expanded my understanding of nonfiction and what it takes to create it. They also validated my hunch that ideas lurk everywhere; it’s just a matter of choosing which ones to grow. Do you have some project seedlings germinating? Think of tonight’s conversation as a soil enhancer, used as needed, to bring your piece of work to fruition.

Don’t forget to join us for April’s Third Thursday, “Writing in the Digital Age: Blogging as a Creative Outlet.” I’ll be on the panel along with Carla Birnberg, Matthew Schutz, and Ruth Pennebaker.

Resources Mentioned

Google Books – search, read, print and download books (depending on copyright status,etc.)

News Library – credible database of newspaper articles

One Note – content organizing software by Microsoft

Scrivener – content organizing software designed for writers

Writers And Editors – many resources, including links for narrative nonfiction

Lexie Smith
is a WLT member who enjoys connecting people with information through, and A University of Texas graduate, she taught middle school English and, until recently, homeschooled her children. She lives in Round Rock with her husband, five kids and two rescued Boxers.

Need a different writing career to pay the rent?

By Mary Forlenza

You’re a writer in a low-paying job. You enjoy the work and the people, but not the dilemma of coming up with the rent each month. You wish you had more job options – perhaps even technical or scientific writing, which would be more lucrative. How do you know whether you’d even like it?

Writing is a logical endeavor, and being a logical thinker is essential for technical or scientific writing. You might be required to write a scientific report, product overview information, or instructions that require stepping through a process and including all the necessary details. Think about products you’ve bought and the instructions that come with them – to a customer, the product information can lead to satisfaction with a purchase, or dissatisfaction and a return. It really is that important. While engineers often think of writing departments as support groups for their highly innovative work, we know better.

You might be called upon to write a variety of deliverables from fully developed papers to online information. Before making a leap toward a technical or scientific writing career, consider how you’d answer these basic questions:

Do you like technology?

I’ve known very good writers who can cope well with technical writing, but really hate technology topics. As you would expect, this leads to rampant job dissatisfaction. The tools that technical writers must use to “code” their documents are becoming more technical all the time. You should enjoy learning about technology, learning to use sophisticated documentation and graphics tools, and being surrounded by scientists or technologists, which leads to the next question.

Can you communicate with techies?

Scientists and technologists are busy and, like all people, possess varying levels of social skills, communication skills and willingness to help others. You must work with them constantly to get the information for your writing. It takes a strong constitution and great persistence to ensure they spend the time you need to explain their area of expertise. They may try to avoid you, claim to be too busy, or even chase you away by making you feel inferior. This can sometimes be motivated by the fact they don’t know the answers to your questions. If they don’t, they will need to find out and get back to you. If they do know the answers, they must take the time to explain them to you. You can’t let them cause you any fear or doubt about your work. If they don’t help you, the product or project can’t be completed on deadline and they will be to blame, a concept that may, however, elude them and their management. My father-in-law has a saying that applies to a lot of life situations, “You have to use psychology and diplomacy.” You may even have to get mean.

Would your ego survive the dreaded review cycles?

After spending weeks or even months perfecting a draft paper or book, you will go through a review process. This can be painful when reviewers want to change your priceless prose into something that may seem awkward or erroneous to you. It’s important to see beyond a text alteration to determine what problem the reviewer is trying to fix. Once you understand the problem, you can apply a fix with wording that you choose. You will not win every battle in the process of getting your work approved. Expect to emerge from a review process with some painful scars to your ego. If you can separate your ego from the work, you will be able to cope well with the changes mandated by reviewers and approvers.

Last, but not least, can you meet deadlines?

Technology changes rapidly and technical teams must work quickly to produce new products to beat the competition or complete scientific reports. At the same time, organizations may not have the money to hire the number of people needed for their projects. This may require you to work long hours to meet deadlines. Being very organized may not be a writer’s forte, but you must find a way to plan your work so that you can achieve tight deadlines. Writer’s block isn’t a recognized excuse for missing project dates; you need to be highly productive to be successful. Determine what is reasonable for you to achieve, and let your team know early in the project or product cycle when adjustments can still be made to the plan.

When considering a career change, go into it with open eyes, understanding the pros and cons of the job. Good luck and remember – it’s always comforting to have that rent money.

Mary Forlenza is a senior communications writer and editor who also enjoys helping technical professionals publish articles and books. Her past jobs include ghostwriting executive communications, technical writing, reporting for the Fort Lauderdale News, writing PR for Florida International U., and editing papers for marine researchers. She has won professional society awards for creating a style manual, brochures and newsletters. Mary has an M.A. in Communications and lives in Austin with her husband.

Poets & Writers Writing Prompts

Poets & Writers provides a wonderful online archive of writing prompts called “The Time Is Now.” They post a poetry prompt on Tuesdays, a fiction prompt on Wednesdays, and a creative nonfiction prompt on Thursdays to help writers stay committed to their writing practice throughout the year. Also, you can have the prompts sent directly to your email every week!

We highly recommend you check out this wonderful resource, here, and commit yourself to writing or editing pieces of your work everyday!

An excerpt from William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech

Hope you are all having a great week. We think this quote is an encouraging message for anyone who sits down to write something important and new. Enjoy!

‎(A writer) must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
— from William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, December 10, 1950

Q&A with “Breakthrough Boys” author Jaime Aron

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