In 2014, I was invited give a TED talk—at TEDxMonterey to a room full of folks eager to hear about the latest insights, eye-opening innovations, impressive pursuits. I was joined on the list of presenters by a NASA space scientist who has discovered hundreds of distant planets, a charismatic marine biologist from Sri Lanka who studies humpback whales, a Naval captain who focuses on systemic strategy and complexity, a developmental psychologist, a tech innovator… All I do is tell stories. What the hell was I supposed to talk about?
So I told stories. More accurately, I told them how I FIND stories.
For me, the idea is always paramount. I’m often asked about the writing process, but that ignores the first step: What are you going to write about? Good writing begins before the first line is ever written. It all starts with subject matter that captures readers' attention, a story or angle that is simply too clever for an editor or publisher to pass up, something that just might make a student actually enthusiastic about writing.
I’m a bit of a literary jack of all trades, mostly because I enjoy experimenting, challenging myself. I’ve written more than 30 books for kids and adults, newspaper articles, magazine features, poems, movie screenplays, blogs, you name it. It keeps me fresh as a writer, if rather exhausted and often humbled. I tend to pursue whatever piques my interest—a broad range of subjects that includes just about anything (from sports car racing to civil rights) and anyone (from Dr. Seuss to Dr. Joyce Brothers). But each started as merely the germ of a notion.
My hope is that by learning about how these stories came to me over the years, it might offer some insight into the spectrum of creative possibilities. So here I offer 10 paths to a good idea:
1. WONDER OUT LOUD
The most overused phrase in describing the literary process is “Write what you know.” Sure, knowledge about a particular subject breeds confidence, and confidence is absolutely the most important attribute that a writer can possess. A writer who has confidence in his or her skills and subject matter uses a stronger voice, takes more chances, crafts a more compelling story, simply writes better.
However, I enjoy writing what I DON’T know—that is, writing about what I would LIKE to know. As an author and freelance writer, every project that I pursue, every assignment that I tackle is like a mini-education, an opportunity to learn about a subject that I deemed fascinating enough to spend some time pursuing.
So often this consists of wondering out loud. For instance, I’ve written magazine articles revolving around questions like these: Who designed the Nike swoosh? What is it like to live along a time zone boundary? What was the worst team in major league baseball history? (Answer: the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. Their worst hitter was named Michael Jordan.) What is it like to drive the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile?
Curiosity is like that mechanical rabbit that greyhounds chase around a racetrack. It motivates. It spurs you forward.
2. EMBRACE WHIMSY
Whimsy has been my friend for many years, even when writing for adults. Although I occasionally write very serious, profound stories, I’ve also written articles about everything from the World Shovel Racing Championships to the Pez Memorabilia Museum. But when I write for kids, whimsy is vital. So I often try to view the world through the eyes of a child. It helps that I have two sons. It also helps that I have a juvenile side to me. I have a pretty immature sense of humor. But it’s useful.
So for instance, earlier in my career, I was asked by an educational publisher to write a novel specifically for 5th grader. The only instructions: Make it 120 pages long, and make it funny.
That’s not so easy—twenty-four-thousand words of funny. And I had trouble coming up with an idea. I roamed my house… What’s funny? What’s funny? Nothing seems all that hilarious when you’re trying so hard. But then I arrived in my kitchen. I was hungry. I opened the refrigerator… and a light bulb came on. Literally. The fridge light turned on when I opened it.
Aha! So I wrote a book called Freddy in the Fridge—about an eight-inch-tall fellow named Freddy who lives in the refrigerator, sleeps on the cottage cheese, and relishes his role of being the person solely responsible for turning on and off that light. Of course, Freddy escapes the fridge, follows a kid to school, and the mayhem ensues. It’s a pretty funny book.
But it was a taste of whimsy that led to it. Childishness isn’t always a negative thing.
3. COUNTER CONVENTIONAL WISDOM
I used to write quite a bit for various in-flight magazines, which was great for two reasons: First, it’s a captive audience. They’re not going anywhere. Second, the subject matter was almost unlimited. All I needed was a good idea, and the editors were thrilled to let me run with it.
One of my recurring tricks was to debunk accepted notions. For instance, I once wrote about the most famous misquotes in history. Captain Kirk never actually said “Beam me up, Scotty.” Not once in any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories did Sherlock Holmes ever say, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” And in none of his films did James Cagney ever say “You dirty rat!” You get the idea—and it’s a compelling notion.
I also once wrote an article about a study undertaken by my old Cornell University psychology professor, Tom Gilovich. His study was an objective analysis of reactions by Olympic medalists. He compared immediate reactions and medal-stand stand reactions of silver medalists vs. bronze medalists. And he found that bronze medalists actually seemed happier.
This notion stems from one of my favorite Jerry Seinfeld bits (and you have to picture it being said in Seinfeld’s voice and cadence): “When you think about it, if you win the gold, you feel good. If you win the bronze, you think, "Well, at least I got something". But when you win that silver, it's like, ‘Congratulations, you almost won. Of all the losers, you're the number one loser.’”
So I examined that counterintuitive theory , the kind of thinking that makes readers sit up and take notice.
4. CELEBRATE THE UNCELEBRATED
I wrote about a dozen Sports Illustrated articles over the years. They weren’t going to let a freelancer like me write about the Super Bowl. And I didn’t want to. Instead, I wrote about people and feats that had been overlooked.
For example: You’ve probably heard of Roger Bannister, but how about Don Bowden? He was the first American to run a four-minute mile. Or Ray Ewry? Before Michael Phelps, he had won more gold medals (10, at the beginning of the 20th century) than any other American. Or Tom Cheney? When I found him, he was driving a propane truck in Georgia. But Cheney’s 21 strikeouts as a Washington Senators pitcher in 1962 remains the major league record. Or how about the sport of sprint football? Seven colleges in the country play it—it’s football for little guys. There’s even a weight limit.
So I’d always rather write about overlooked people than overrated people. In fact, I began to discover people whose names have largely been lost to history, but these people had enormous impacts on American sports. So armed with that information, I decided to write a book called The Sports 100. Published by Macmillan in 1995, it was a ranking of the 100 most important people in American sports history. Not the best athletes or coaches, but the most influential figures.
The first three are Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Babe Ruth. But the list also includes people you don’t know, people who fall under the category of celebrating the uncelebrated—like Danny Biasone (inventor of the 24-second shot clock for basketball) and Charles McNeil (a bookie who invented the point spread for gambling). They’re largely unknown, but by no means unimportant.
5. MAKE LISTS
As if this comprehensive blog all about lists isn’t evidence enough, I’ll just come out and say it: I absolutely love lists. To-do lists. “Best of” lists. Any list. If someone produced a television show about the 25 most misunderstood salad dressings, I would probably DVR it.
So I’ve turned that love of lists into a number of stories. For a travel magazine, I wrote about the 8 most iconic trees in the western U.S. (i.e. the General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park and the Lone Cypress in Pebble Beach). For a short-lived magazine all about lists, I wrote about the 20 most powerful family dynasties in America. For Basketball Digest, editor Alex Gordon and I chose the 100 greatest basketball players in NBA history. And for an airline magazine, I celebrated the eleven wackiest plays in football—from “The Play” (Cal-Stanford and the band on the field) to an early 20th century trick in which Pop Warner had his players crowd around a kickoff returner. One of them stuffed the football down the back of his shirt and ran untouched into the end zone.
The Why Not 100 is simply an extension of this passion—or maybe it’s an obsession…
6. REMEMBER ANNIVERSARIES
In general, as a husband, that’s a rather important tip. But as a writer, it has been a great tool when trying to find a hook for stories ideas. For instance, for Cornell Alumni Magazine, my alma mater’s publication, I wrote a feature in 2012, which was the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the HMS Titanic. I discovered that there were four Cornell grads on the ship—two survived, two didn’t.
So anniversaries are a great hook, but only if it’s a compelling story, too. It’s one reason we at Why Not Books are so delighted with our picture book FRANCIS AND EDDIE (published on the 100th anniversary of the 1913 U.S. Open, which I believe is the greatest championship story in sports history). And it’s why we are so proud of MY MANTELPIECE, the memoirs of Carolyn Goodman, mother of slain civil rights worker Andrew Goodman. The book is being published 50 years after the “Mississippi Burning” murders that were a movement-changing event for many and a life-changing event for her.
I’m a big fan of first-person stories because it allows me to put some humor into my writing, often in a self-deprecating way. One of my favorite examples of this is the magazine article that I wrote about the Masters of Miniature Golf. Yup, really.
When I found out that there were actually professional miniature golfers—folks who traveled from tournament to tournament, not as full-time professionals, but with enough prize money here and there to make their travels worthwhile—I knew it would make a pretty good story. But I didn’t think it was enough. Then I heard about the Masters of Mini Golf—the national championship played annually in South Carolina—and I knew that would be a better angle. But still, I wanted more.
So I figured, why not compete myself? I convinced a magazine to send me to Myrtle Beach. I convinced the tournament organizers to let me play. And I competed against some of the world’s best miniature golfers.
I wrote it up as my Walter MItty-esque version of competing in the Masters—the azeleas being replaced by, oh, a mid-course faux volcano. As it turns out there were 31 participants—28 miniature golfers, two grandparents who came across the tournament while on vacation… and me.
I scored a hole-in-one on my first two holes. And then I promptly tanked. Out of the 31 competitors, I finished… 31st. Even the grandparents beat me. But it still ranks as one of my favorite stories. Rather than telling readers how good these pro mini golfers were, I showed how much better they were than I. Participating, however disappointingly, made all the difference.
8. PURSUE A SEARCH
We all know that the best adventure stories are a quest of some sort, going all the way back to the story of The Odyssey 3,000 years ago. But you don’t need Cyclops and Sirens and gods and goddesses to embark on a quest. The search for something—anything—can be a great way to tell a tale.
For Cornell Alumni Magazine, I once wrote a story called “The Quest for the 4.3.” It was an attempt to find a student with a perfect A-plus grade point average. Thank goodness (for my own self-esteem) I didn’t find one. But in the process, that search allowed me to explore my own psyche, my own biases, which added a great deal of depth and humor and profundity to the story. It actually won something called a Grand Gold Medal for best article of the year… although it turns out I received neither a grand, nor a gold medal.
Pablo Picasso once said, “I do not seek. I find.” Well, he obviously wasn’t a writer. It’s often the search—the quest—that makes the story.
9. FIND THE REAL STORY
Research is obviously a huge aspect of the writing life. Usually, the concept precedes the research. But there are times when you don’t know exactly what your idea is until you start exploring it further. My favorite example of that is Bill Larned.
I would bet my house that you’ve never heard of Bill Larned. I certainly hadn’t until one day when I was leafing through a sports encyclopedia, and I came across a list of intercollegiate tennis champions over the years. I may be the only person who ever actually read through that list, but in doing so I discovered that a fellow named Bill Larned was the college champ in 1892. He was a Cornell student at the time, and Cornell students don’t win many national championships, so I figured it was probably worth a little story in the alumni magazine.
But then I discovered that Bill Larned went on to an illustrious post-collegiate career. He won seven national titles, still a record. And over the course of 20 years, he was ranked among the top 10 players in 19 of them, a remarkable combination of peak performance and longevity. Okay, I thought, it’s a better story now. But then I noticed that the one year in which he was NOT ranked among the top players was 1898, right in the middle of his career.
So I wondered: What happened to him in 1898? And that’s when I found the real story. In 1898, Larned was one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.
Suddenly it wasn’t a story about a tennis player. It was the tale of a man who decided to volunteer for hazardous duty at the peak of an athletic career, becoming part of a motley crew of Ivy League athletes and outlaws who rushed San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War. I soon discovered that there was much more even than that. Larned may have been gay. The record is suggestive but unclear. Certainly, he was severely depressed. At the age of 53, he killed himself with a pistol.
Really, someone should make a movie about Bill Larned. Me? I just wrote a magazine article that was published in 1998, the 100th anniversary of the Rough Riders. So sometimes an idea is just a seed of an idea, not yet fully bloomed until you shine a light on it.
10. SET THE TONE
There are times when you know exactly what you want to write about, but that idea is only fully realized once the writing begins. In other words, sometimes the writing style is almost inseparable from the subject matter. Those are the times when half of the idea is conveyed by the tone of the story.
My first ever published story was an account of my one-game stint as a bat boy for the Chicago White Sox. It was May 26, 1983. The White Sox were the worst team in baseball at the time, having won only 16 of 40 games. But after May 26, they won 83 of their next 122 games. They won their division easily. They almost made it the World Series. In Chicago, that’s a very big deal.
So I wrote about my bat boy experience for my high school newspaper, but as I went along I realized that a tongue-in-cheek tone seemed to be most appropriate. So the headline became THE REAL REASON BEHIND THE SOX. And I declared that I was the real MVP of the team.
In writing that story as a teenager, I discovered the notion of the writer’s voice and the understanding that sometimes an idea can stand on its own, but sometimes it needs a point of view to be fully fleshed out. I also discovered that I LOVED seeing my byline.
So writing started as a bit of a narcissistic enterprise for me, and really, it hasn’t changed. If you love and idea, and you must share it with the world, then writing is inevitably both a selfless act and a selfish one.