There is a book that was recommended to me by Elyse Cheney, the founder of my literary agency, that I’ve now found myself frequently recommending to both writers and younger colleagues alike—Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction (Simon & Schuster, 1998) by James B. Stewart. Stewart’s reputation as a writer and journalist precedes him, but there is a very basic and core insight from the book that I return to again and again when I’m discussing prospective project ideas with writers. I’m loosely paraphrasing here, but the idea is that there is a key difference between what is a good subject and what is a good story/narrative. So often I am pitched projects where I think, “That is such a great subject,” and then the subject is not explored in a way that feels fresh, interesting, new, or narratively interesting. The very best magazine feature writers and book authors find a way to provide a perspective, angle, frame, or narrative that takes us into an interesting subject in a manner that keeps us engaged and constantly surprises us as we turn the pages. A big part of that is character, scene, and story: Are you, as the writer, providing us insight into interesting characters, are you bringing us into scenes in all their sensory detail, are you unfolding a narrative that feels propulsive and where each plot point builds on what comes before it? Or are you simply telling us about a subject that may be interesting, but not providing us the narrative vehicle to help animate that interesting subject? One of the things I love about Stewart’s advice is that it applies to so many different contexts—to magazine features and books, fiction and narrative nonfiction. For a prospective writer wondering, “Is this a book?” I find Stewart’s insights very useful.
—Adam Eaglin of the Cheney Agency