I recently caught up with award winning journalist William Dietrich [See Bio ] who is now a successful novelist, non-fiction writer and college professor.
During his well traveled journalism career, Dietrich, a Tacoma, Washington native, covered Congress for Gannett News Service in Washington, D.C., he later arrived at the Vancouver Columbian just in time to cover the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens; and beginning in 1982, reported on the condition of the world’s forests for the Seattle Times as its chief science correspondent, where he worked on and off until 2008, getting as far as the Artic and the South Pole.
In 1990, while at the Times, Dietrich shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for its coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and its aftermath.
In 1987-88, Dietrich was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and later won reporting and study fellowships from the National Science Foundation, Woods Hole Microbiological Institute, and Scripps.
From 2006-2011, he took a half-time position as an assistant professor teaching environmental journalism and writing at Western Washington University, his alma mater, advising a student magazine called Planet, a publication Dietrich is extremely proud of.
Though this veteran journalist loved the ``golden age’’ of newspapering reporting when the sky was the limit as far as newsroom budgets go, when an opportunity presented itself, Dietrich jumped at the chance to write his first book, the ``The Final Forest: The Battle for the Last Great Trees of the Pacific Northwest’’ because as he tells me, ``I wanted to grow as a writer, to have a chance at more than wage-slave pay, and to gain freedom away from the news cycle.’’
Soon after it was published, ``The Final Forest’’ won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award and Washington Governor Writer’s Award.
Since his first book, Dietrich has published 10 works of fiction , mostly historical novels and thrillers, including ``Blood of the Reich’’, ``The Emerald Storm’’, the ``Rosetta Key’’, ``Napoleon’s Pyramids’’ and ``Hadrian’s Wall.’’ Other works of non-fiction by Dietrich, include: ``Natural Grace’’, ``Northwest Passage’’ and ``On Puget Sound''
And for journalists looking to branch out into the book publishing, Dietrich has good news for you: the market is perfectly tailored to your strengths. ``Book publishers’’ Dietrich says, `` recognize that journalists have advantages.’’ `` We understand deadlines, are accustomed to being edited, know how to research, can work in a collaborative setting with a publishing house, and can tell a story. We have discipline; we know there is no such thing as writer's block. We understand that writing for pay is a merger of art and commerce. We're more realistic than many new authors’’
But as in any competitive publishing market, there are some built-in disadvantages for print journalists trying their hand at book publishing. For one, the objectivity and brevity of newspaper style reporting doesn’t make for a compelling book. Preachy editorials, Dietrich cautions, is yet another style to avoid when writing books. ``We have to learn to reveal ourselves and reach for broader truths. As a regional reporter I was relentless in localizing any story; but the big book publishers want a story to have a national or global audience’’ Dietrich advises.
Based on Dietrich’s publishing experience, other critical fundamentals to keep in mind when writing a book:
- As an author you need to develop a distinctive voice readers want to come back to.
- Most book careers take time, and several books, before they begin to take off. Instant fame and fortune is as unlikely as winning the lottery.
- There are more non-fiction books published than fiction, and they are easier to publicize because they have a specific topic and audience. Getting attention to fiction is difficult. Keep in mind there are more female book buyers than male, especially for fiction.
- Bestselling thriller writer Lee Child said the ONLY way to sell books in the millions is to write at a level for people who usually don't buy books, or buy two or three a year.
- Take what you know, or enjoy learning. (I like history and science). Now, what can you write something on that can appeal to a broad audience?
- I strongly recommend, picking up a copy of ``Thinking Like Your Editor" by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato. They stress audience, market, and the distinctions between an article and a book.
- Don't be arrogant. Sure, you were a newsroom hotshot. But book writing is a whole new game, and you learn it not just by doing it but by reading books on writing, attending writing conferences, featuring authors and agents, and reading author biographies. Books that have helped make sense of that strange world, include: "The Writer's Journey" by Christopher Vogler, ``Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting'' By Robert McKee " ``The Successful Novelist’’ by David Morrell, ``The Career Novelist: A Literary Agent Offers Strategies for Success'' By Donald Maass "On Writing" by Stephen King, and ``The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises'' By James Scott Bell.
Not only is it possible for journalists to successfully segue their writing skills to book form, but thousands have already made the transition with rousing success, dating back to Daniel Defoe, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway, Dietrich reminds me.
Would it make more practical sense for a journalist looking to reinvent themselves in a competitive job market to venture off into more marketable fields, such as nursing, acquiring an MBA or developing a degree of specialization in a high tech occupation? Of course, except that Dietrich is quick to point out, aren’t we missing the whole point of life? `` Taking risks, realizing dreams, seeking independence. Be brave, be ambitious, be a little crazy. Just be prepared to work your butt off in ANY alternate career. It's a jungle out there’’ Dietrich cautions.
Dietrich attended Fairhaven College at Western Washington University, graduating with a degree in journalism. He and his wife, Holly, proud parents of two grown daughters, currently live on the edge of Washington's San Juan Islands with a birds-eye view of the three national parks, while being able to see bald eagles, herons, and raccoons from the comforts of their office window.
July 16, 2012