Last fall I attended a non-fiction workshop put on by the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick. It was a talk by Jacques Poitras, CBC journalist and the author of Beaverbrook: A Shattered Legacy and The Right Fight: Bernard Lord and the Conservative Dilemma.
Poitras said he’s used to talking to audiences about the content of his books, so he was excited to be able to talk to us about his process, his method for putting a non-fiction work together. He said that the Beaverbrook book was a very specific non-fiction book, since it was a journalistic work and done under a tight deadline. Due to his role at the CBC, he needed to be balanced and not take a side strongly in the controversy he was covering. He writes 2,000 – 5,000 words a day for his job, so he was used to the pace of writing a lot very quickly. To write the book, Poitras took 3 months off of work without pay. Teaching a course at St. Thomas University that semester (which took one day a week) helped, but his savings still took a big hit. He joked that having a wife who works full time helps.
He had a lot more time to write his first book, The Right Fight, and was able to prepare maps and outlines in the planning stages. For non-fiction you really need a plan or formula in order to get the story out – then you can add layers (beauty, meaning, lessons) as you edit it later. Poitras said his books have been relatively straight-forward to research and organize. With the Beaverbrook book, there was so much material so far away (in Britain!), he was thinking at first of writing it in the first person, like his own journey to find the truth. But, due to lack of time, it became easier to tell the story as it was.
He was really helped out in the research stage since both sides of the legal team agreed to share their research with him. So he received CDs of digitized research that he could go through at his leisure – hundreds of hours of research for free and at his fingertips! This made his job a lot easier.
To organize his research in preparation for writing, Poitras used colour highlighters since all his notes were in notebooks. He used a different colour for each chapter – say, green for chapter 7, pink for chapter 8, blue for chapter 9. Then he went through his notebooks and colour highlighted everything relevant to each chapter. When he sat down to write, he would go through the notebooks again looking for the correct colour in order to put together an outline for that chapter.
Poitras also had a secret blog, which he shared with a few friends for feedback. Here he would write rough notes about what he found. He used references in the blog posts so he knew where to find the originals in his notes.
As he wrote his books, he would make notes about facts he didn’t have (so, research he needed to do). Once he got those facts or did that research, he would plop them into the appropriate place in the narrative outline. When he started writing the Beaverbrook book, he did NOT have the second half of the book outlined but started writing about Beaverbrook’s life since it was fresh in his mind. When he hit a spot where he didn’t know something, he put that on his to-do list.
He treated each chapter as a separate story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Generally, this was linear, with some time overlap which was dealt with in the text. For his book excerpt for the Telegraph-Journal, he chose the chapter on Lady Beaverbrook – it stood on its own since it was a coherent story on her life.
When talking about an event, Poitras says you must tell the story through the individual story of a person. People move the story. You’re adapting the storytelling mode of fiction: keep the story focused and the action moving. If information that can’t be told through a personal story doesn’t fit, skip it; if it’s important, deal with it briefly.
Tone is important. If an event is thrilling but your account of it isn’t, then your account is false. To show the desperation and frenzy of an event, you must show this desperation and frenzy in the writing – in the sentences and flow.
Once you’re finished writing your book, Poitras recommends that you go back to the earlier parts and throw in hints of foreshadowing. These are bits of payoff for the reader.
On the search for the proper protagonist: In The Right Fight, the protagonist was a concept, not a person. (The book wasn’t really about former New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord, as the title claims; it was about the right-wing movement in New Brunswick generally.) In the Beaverbrook book, Lord Beaverbrook was the protagonist for most of the book until his death. It was difficult to decide on a protagonist for the last part, the part about the fighting over the art collection at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, NB. The two Beaverbrook sons both had compelling stories. Poitras initially thought he’d focus on the son who had more of a, shall we say, dramatic persona in the media. But he ended up focusing on the other brother after interviewing him in Britain; this brother was a compelling character and had many insightful things to say.
After Poitras’ talk, one audience member asked about whether he used written permission forms for his interviews. Poitras responded that, per journalistic convention, if the person agrees to an interview, it is presumed that you will be using the material. Consent is implied and no written record is needed.
Another person asked about the length of his books if he was clear how long they would be beforehand. Poitras said that his publisher asked for 80,000 words for his first book; he had 90,000 words in his first draft and ended up with 120,000 words, and the publisher didn’t cut it. For the Beaverbrook book, at first, Poitras didn’t think he had enough material for a whole book. But after he wrote a chapter or two (and multiplied that by the number of chapters he thought he would have), he knew he would have enough. His final count for that book was 88,000 words.
He pitched his first book, and his publisher pitched the second. After his first book he wasn’t burning to do another; but now, after the second, he is burning. Beaverbrook: A Shattered Legacy did so well that he’s thinking he should strike while the iron’s hot – take advantage of the attention he’s gotten for the book.
Someone else asked if he ever had bad writing days while writing his books. He said that, since he had an outline, if he was having trouble writing, he would at least spit something out on the page; when he got his groove back, he could then shape what he’d written.
Originally published on WordPress on Sept. 28, 2009