Starting a big project

Okay; you have an idea for a story you want to pitch to a national magazine. You even know to which magazine you want to pitch it, following the iron rule I lay out in the essay at the top of this page. Now it’s time to get to the hardest work there is in this career you’ve chosen: turning an idea for a story into crackerjack proposal. As I told you here and here, most of the work that you’ll do to put a 3,500-word piece in a magazine you’ll do in the proposal stage that you are starting now. This is where you’re laying out the worm-turning moments of the narrative, describing the structure, walking all the characters on stage, and synthesizing the meaning of it all. Once you have the assignment, you’ve done all the hard stuff. So this is moment zero — when you grasp ahold of that unformed idea you have and begin turning it into something real. This is where you need all your smarts, talent, confidence, education, ambition, and energy, so do what you need to summon them. A brisk walk around the block thinking about what life would be like in the wake of failure, followed by cup or two of Margaret’s weapons-grade coffee, usually does it for me.

Thus begins what I call a “Red-Dog Day,” because I imagine myself as a big, loose-jointed red dog with snout on the ground, tail in the air, snuffling feverishly as I criss-cross the blank terrain ahead, desperate to find the story’s scent trail

Do this along with me on your computer so you can see it and so it really sinks in: I will use an example from 2009, when I wanted to sell to Harper’s magazine a story about the rapid growth of the concealed-carry movement as a way to launch the book I wanted to write about gun owners. First thing I did was make a folder called “Guns” in the main folder in which I keep all my documents. “Guns” was a top-level folder, equal in stature to any in my Documents folder, right up there with “Friends’ Writing,” “Journalism,” “Journalism Archive,” “Recipes,” “Toyota,” (about our car), Lombardy (about our house, on Lombardy Drive), “Brain,” (about my tumor,) and so on. You may be wondering why I didn’t put “Guns” in “Journalism.” We’ll get there.

Then I created in the “Guns” folder the following folders: “Guns interviews,” “Guns documents,” “Guns interview requests,” and “Guns Proposal Drafts.”

I also created in that top “Guns” folder two crucial documents:* “Guns people to find” and “Guns things to get.”

Then I turned to the stack of newspapers and magazines that had discussed the increase in the number of people carrying guns (the articles that had convinced me that I could do a good piece about this) and started reading those articles carefully. This is the easy part; published journalism on your topic is laid out like a cruise-ship buffet, chockablock with names of people you’ll need to interview and documents you’ll need to acquire, who and which will lead you to more. Every time I hit a new name, I put it in the “Guns people to find ” file with a little information, like this: “Jack Barklow, Florida CCW” or “Sheila Graham, Brady Center.” or “Drew Cunningham, Johns Hopkins;” “Marc Rachlin,” Detroit PD, pro.” Like that. Every time I hit a potential document, I put that in the file “Guns things to get.” (“Hopkins study CCW & Crime,” “Joyce Foundation white paper on the castle doctrine,” “FL lege debate on CCW,”) and so on You with me? By the end of the morning, the “Guns People to Find” and “Guns Things to Get” were each a full page of densely packed single-space gleanings of either people or documents I was going to need.  The real work was about to begin. We’ll continue tomorrow.


*Lately I’ve been using Microsoft Word because that’s what we use at work, but I don’t much like it and prefer Apple’s Word processor, Pages. You’ll find online a vigorous discussion of the pros and cons of many word processors for either Mac or Windows.

5 thoughts on “Starting a big project

  1. Good stuff! How much of this technique is relevant to memoir as opposed to a piece of journalistic nonfiction? There are certainly people I want to interview, and a few things I want to get (like some scholarly works on the grain trade in the 19th Century). But most of my bits and pieces so far are just my own scribbles and anecdotes that might be scribble-worthy. Haifa has been gray and rainy since we arrived, but the food is terrific and the weather gods promise clear skies from tomorrow. Have you decided where to spend your enforced vacation? Love. J

    Sent from my iPhone



    1. Let’s talk by Skype some time. I think the process would be the same for memoir, a) gathering up a list of people you want to interview, b) gathering up the list of documents you need to get (which may be press reports about the Woodchuck), c) your list of decision points and maybe a list of scenes. I would sure love to visit you in Haifa,but alas…

      You’re well? You find everybody there well? I hope so. All’s well here.

      I’m learning “Az Der Rebbe Elimelekh” on the accordion and am going to sing to it in yiddish.

      love you much,


      Dan Baum 303-917-5024




  2. Dear Dan,
    Inspiring new writers is your calling!
    Great use of these times.

    I may take that spur and that lesson, and delve into this puzzle we have discussed, of exploring (with my sister) how and why psychopaths bother to get out of bed in the morning. But I won’t drag you into the details after all, unless maybe if I get as far as writer-stuck.

    So, no meetup in Boulder today, as I had once suggested.

    Keep well and enjoy the day and thanks for sharing your journey(s) in words!


    Sent from my iPad


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