Really what can you say about Stephen Fried? A two-time National Magazine Award winner, Stephen burst onto the scene by exposing the darker side of the modeling world in Thing of Beauty. Since then he’s covered everything from the sins of the Big Pharma to the genius of restaurant pioneer Fred Harvey, and along the way has become a statesman and a guiding force for journalists everywhere. Stephen will be delivering our keynote address at the Saturday Awards Banquet.
PWC Board member Greg Frost interviewed Stephen and their chat provided enough information and advice to two posts. See what they talked about after the break!
You went from being an award-winning journalist to editor-in-chief at Philadelphia Magazine for two years. Do you feel that your time as editor at PM helped hone your skills even further as a writer?
Being an editor-in-chief for two years—and then teaching magazine writing at Columbia J-School for the past 13 years—has changed the way I view the whole process of story-idea generation, research and writing. When you’re a staff writer or a decently-paid freelancer, you tend to value freedom above everything else—and it’s easy to forget how getting free license to explore stories also gives you the freedom to waste a lot of your own time and learn things while researching a story that you probably should have learned before pitching it. So I think being an editor, first, made me much more deliberate about what research and writing should be done before pitching a story at all—because writers over-promise and editors over-hope but the key to a great story idea is that you already know it is do-able the way you have presented it.
As for writing itself, I think I finally took the advice of my wife—fiction writer Diane Ayres, who is my primary editor—that if you’re really stuck on the beginning of a piece you should skip it and write the rest, something I never believed in doing before, always wanting the perfect lede, even the perfect headline, before continuing.
Being an editor also made me realize that a lot of the decisions editors make that drive us insane are not made for reasons as personal—or even about how well we did the story—as we want to think. That was kind of freeing.
As far as writing itself, I think being an editor finally pushed me all the way in the direction I already felt I and the industry were going—which is that stories can’t start slowly, no matter how well written they are. They have to start fast and strongly, and you need to earn the right with a strong lede and nut to then tell a story more slowly over time.
As an editor, what did you look for in a good story?
Mostly that it was a full-baked story idea and not just a really smart subject or a smart time to cover, or go back to the subject. That whole “just trust me I’ll knock it out of the park” thing that I had been using on editors for years I never accepted when I became an editor. And there’s a difference between a good story for a staff writer and a freelancer, because of your investment in them and what else you expect them to write during the year. But, mostly, I wanted the writers to be able to see the whole story—or at least a version of the whole story—already in their minds before pitching it.
Also, from a writer, I’m looking for more than one good story. The nature of pitching is that you can’t ultimately know if a story you have been preparing to pitch for a long time is already being done by someone else. So, having multiple baked story ideas is a key. When I was first asked to try out at Phillymag in 1982, Ron Javers asked me for five real, do-able story ideas. And since I went to Penn, I always saw those lists as “Big Fives.” So my students at Columbia are now also forced to create “Big Five” lists of five completely different story ideas, that you are always exploring and thinking about how the subject would work for different places.
So, ultimately, what I look for in a good story is a writer who is developing an idea of how to make almost anything he or she finds of interest into a good, modern, publishable story.
Subsequent to your time there, your books have covered a broad range of topics—I would be willing to say that you don’t do the same thing twice. How do you prepare for writing a book? Or is each project unique?
I wish I knew how to prepare for writing a book, beyond the basic process of writing a book proposal and arguing endlessly first with your wife/editor and then with your agent about it. And I will note that while I am about to publish my sixth book, and am under contract to Crown for my seventh, I had one book that was under contract very early in my career that crashed and burned (my “first” first book) and have taken at least three other books to full proposal—which means I wrote 50 to 100 pages of them—and was unable to sell them. So, it’s a process that you never exactly ever get quite right, but one that I ultimately enjoy because I like writing books and it’s the only way to sell them.
I’ve had some books grow out of successful magazine stories and others I’ve started from scratch. For me, every book should be different. Unless you are churning out genre books that are supposed to be similar, they are supposed to be their own project. I always admired the writers, like Gay Talese, who you expected to write about something different every time. It may not be the most commercial way to live as an author but it’s the only way I know, so far.
Given the shift in the publishing world since you edited PM, what advice would you give aspiring journalists? (This may fold into the last question)
If you want to write longer, narrative stories, the advice you give to people has always been the same as the advice I got coming up in the 1980s. This kind of nonfiction writing—whether it’s in magazines or books—is relatively specialized and it isn’t for everyone. A lot of people who want to do it won’t actually figure out how to do it, or won’t be able to put themselves in a situation to keep doing it or, once they are in that position, won’t like it as much as they thought. And most of us who do it also do shorter writing, teaching, editing, consulting to balance our lives and our checkbooks. And most of us who have that balance will, at a certain point, be lured to be editors and teachers full-time rather than writers.
I guess what I’m saying is that it’s always been a gig that the people who don’t have it imagine is different than it actually is. But, in terms of how you succeed, it’s still the same. You have to get someone, anyone, to let you write something that really stands out, and then you have to let everyone it could matter to read it (which is much easier with the internet than it was sending physical clips around.) Each successful longer piece you publish can lead to other work, but you have to plan your life as if it won’t—because you can’t predict the reaction to anything you write–so you concentrate on doing the next thing, and be pleasantly surprised if the last thing turns into anything more than a positive publishing experience.
So be knowledgeable and realistic about what entry level gigs can lead to next-level gigs that lead to the next—and always try to put yourself in situations where someone expects you to write. Also, don’t spend a minute bemoaning the good old days and golden years when it was easier: it wasn’t and when I came up, people were already bemoaning the previous golden days. (Mid-career people bemoan the loss of golden days—because they are mid-career.) People who write long nonfiction for a living tend to be very realistic about the market for it, who is looking for new writers, who isn’t, and we don’t spend a lot of time being shocked at what sucks about the business. We work at riding waves rather than swimming against them. The job always has been and always will be this: you pitch a lot of different story ideas until someone says yes, and when you finish one you start another. Every great assignment you get will end—well or badly—and you’ll have to get another. Every editor who loves you will eventually either get fired or be encouraged to fall in love with the next you. Every ambitious publication will become less ambitious. But, if you believe in the process—and I do—you know that the editorial food chain means that someone or some publication will take its place. You’re always looking for who that is.
The first time I blew a book contract, I thought it was the end of the world. The first time I lost a lucrative contract from a national magazine, I thought it was the end of the world. The reason I’m still here is that I got over my feeling that that was the end of the world, not that the world changed or I got any better. Also, I’m married to the greatest editor I know, who is also great at reminding me how many times I said I couldn’t recover from certain setbacks and then did.
Part II of this interview will be released tomorrow.
In the meantime, are your ready to hear what Stephen has to say during his keynote address? Register for the conference here!