A WRITER’S START, PART 2: YOUNG ADULT NON-FICTION

I learned the key to writing young adult non-fiction was in finding an overall theme to the story, as well as in each and every chapter, all of which I put to good use in writing Lee Marvin: Point Blank. This was a concept radically different from my previous writing and editing of fiction, where the emphasis was on content and comprehension for a much lower reading level. Writing young adult non-fiction biographies for Lucent Books (which also went by Gale, Thomson, Cengage Learning, Greenhaven Press…Whew!) had wholly other challenges. For example, my first young adult non-fiction assignment was Adam Sandler.

ADAM SANDLER, published in 2004 by Lucent Books for their People in the News Series (PITN).

Not a favorite subject, that’s for sure, but in doing the research the themes began to come together. This taught me something else: ALWAYS write the introduction last, even though it’s the first thing to be read. One never knows what the overall theme is until the project is completed. For Sandler, as I wrote in the company’s catalog, the theme proved to be as follows:  “Adam Sandler has become a superstar doing what he thinks is funny, first as a class clown and nightclub comedian, and then on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ hit films and best selling albums. Playing a goofy but lovable loser, Sandler is actually a writer, actor, producer, and musician who’s loyalty to his close-knit group of coworkers has taken him to the highest lever of success.”

The Sandler bio proved successful enough to garner more assignments. Next up was a subject I was was much more enthusiastic about. In fact, I even pitched this one instead of being assigned to it and the editor agreed!  Will Ferrell was a much more fun subject, as I also described in the catalog:

My bio on Will Ferrell published by Lucent in 2005 for PITN.

“Where most comedians have overcome a tragic upbringing, Will Ferrell has gone from a relatively happy childhood to become one of America’s most popular funny people. In this first ever biography of the sought after film and TV star, discover how Ferrell has parlayed his ability to turn outrageousness and hubris into one of the most successful comedy careers in contemporary show business.”

I actually pitched several ideas to the editor on a regular basis. Some were accepted, some not, but in the mean time I asked about another series by Lucent called History Makers. They had several titles available and so, being the movie fan that I’ve always been, I agreed to write about Lawmen of the Old West which was released the same year as the Will Ferrell bio. Six real life individuals of my choosing (‘Hanging’ Judge Isaac Parker, Wyatt Earp, Frank Canton, Pat Garrett, Bat Masterson, and Bill Tilghman) were written about by yours truly within the following theme:

Lawmen of The Old West published by Lucent in 2005 for the History Makers Series.

“The western frontier was a time of immense change and extreme behavior, requiring men like Wyatt Earp, Pat Garrett, Bat Masterson and Bill Tilghman to enforce the law. They were not the icons of virtue legend has painted them, nor were they the extreme opposite as portrayed by revisionists.”

From that assignment, I was able to pitch my next project and it was accepted. In the midst of writing it, however, I was informed that the word count had been radically changed as the publisher decided to make the book’s entire design different from their previous titles. Bigger fonts and color photos meant I had to redo all that I had already written to fit this new format. I was informed that other authors had bailed on their projects and I was offered the same option. Undaunted, I redid the work, and created the following theme for the book:

Hillary Swank, in living color, for Lucent’s PITN release in 2006.

“As a lonely child growing up in a trailer park, Hilary Swank dreamed of becoming a successful actress. Her determination and talent took her from living in a car to eventually earning two Academy Awards by the time she was thirty. The amazing momentum of her career continues for the woman now considered one of the greatest actresses of her generation.”

Granted, the subject’s staying power as a movie industry force may not have lasted, but it was a great challenge to redo the work for the new design and delve into such themes as transgender issues, voting rights, and more, all based on Swank’s career choices.
I was next assigned to write about Joe McCarthy for the company’s seres called Heroes & Villains but in the midst of my research, they cancelled the series. Undaunted, and still in a political vein, I took on the challenge of writing about Congress’s first female Speaker of the House.

Nancy Pelosi, published by Lucent in 2008 for PITN.

The challenge here was deceptive in that her life was pretty straightforward but detailing the complex inner workings of Congress — with it’s rules and hierarchy — for young adults in a simplified manner, now THAT was a challenge! The result was described this way…
” Describes the life and career of Nancy Pelosi, from her childhood in Baltimore and early political career to her rise as the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives.” Talk about deceptively simple!
Anyway, I got the Pelosi assignment because of a previous project that I had done in 2007 on another nationally known female political figure. On rare occasion, a subject is updated, which is what I was asked to do for a previous book I had done…..

Both Hillary Clinton titles I did for Lucent’s PITN series, first in 2007 and then again in 2009.

Although I still had to deal with such events in Hillary Clinton’s life as the White Water scandal and Monica Lewinsky, the timing was such that I was able to avoid having to write about Benghazi, her e-mail server, and the painful presidential bid against Trump last year. In other words, it’s still a worthy read.
Practically at the same time as the Hillary Clinton revision I also wrote this…

2010’s PITN offering on Denzel Washington by Lucent Publishing.

Few things are more enjoyable to me than being able to research and write about a talented film personality, and Denzel Washington certainly filled that bill!

I would very much love to do more such work as the lives and impact of certain individuals are fascinating to me.
As you can see, my fascination casts a pretty wide net, from comedy to film to politics and more, so…..
Anybody need a freelance young adult non-fiction writer who also happens to be an award-winning (see number 33), NY Times bestselling author?
-Dwayne Epstein

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FROM ADAM SANDLER TO LEE MARVIN IN LESS THAN 10 YEARS

People In The News: Adam Sandler (2004) published by Lucent Books, and then Lee Marvin Point Blank in paperback format as published by Schaffner Press in 2014.

Adam Sandler’s impressive comeback via his Netflix projects proves that talent will win out, especially following his recent disastrous, high-profile and expensive flops. Although not a huge fan of his output, I could have predicted his comeback, even though his core audience has grown up. How do I know? Bear with me…
A possible connection between Sandler and Lee Marvin is of course anything but obvious. However, with yours truly at the helm of this blog, there becomes one. To put it another way, there would never have been 2013’s Lee Marvin Point Blank had there not been 2004’s People in the News: Adam Sandler. Hardly clarifies, now does it? Heh, heh. I shall elaborate.
I came in contact with the good folks at Lucent (alternately known as Gale, Greenhaven and god knows what all) by good fortune and discovered their People in the News series. They promptly offered me either George Bush Jr, Eminem or Adam Sandler. The choice became obvious. Thank god Sandler made Punch-Drunk Love or I never would have survived!
They also informed me of certain writing requirements for each title in the series. Chief among them was to not only write each chapter chronologically (duh!), but more importantly, emphasize an important theme within each chapter. THAT dear reader proved to be the best lesson and ongoing exercise I ever got in biographical research and writing. Readers of Lee Marvin Point Blank may hopefully see the chapter themes as well as the overall theme of Marvin’s life and work. It was a direct result of my writing about Sandler and later other prominent contemporary figures. I actually wish those books were still being published but alas, the likes of Wikipedia’s popularity put an end to the series. Ahh, well. Such is life.
I came up with the chapter titles based on those themes I came up with in researching Sandler’s life and work, as shown below….

Copyright page and table of contents for Adam Sandler People in the News.

I also discovered no matter how easy you might think writing the introduction might be, ALWAYS write it last. It may seem obvious but it took me some frustrating rewrites to discover that the intro is the end game, since you never know what the main theme is until the project is written. Good lesson. It also created a new respect for Sandler’s output and his resiliency. I did the same with Lee Marvin Point Blank which proved to be the theme AND title of the book. My Sandler intro below, bears this out…

Introduction to Adam Sandler People in the News and the theme therein.

It must have worked since the the editors liked it and I did write several more as a hired gun. I never received royalties so I never knew if it was selling well or was well-received. Imagine my surprise when I saw this review on Amazon on April 29, 2015: “Delivered promptly and in excellent condition. My 11-year old son wants to be a comedian, and this was the perfect book for him and he even received school credit for reading it.”
Cool, huh? I guess discovering the theme of Sandler’s work, no matter how corny or distasteful it may be to some, proved successful, after all. Yeah, Sandler’s going to be around for a while, Hopefully, I will, too.

Here’s proof that I had nothing to do with the choice of photos used or the captions that were written. I would not have chosen this photo and if I did, I surely would have mentioned that looks on Dana Carvey and especially Phil Hartman’s faces.

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HILLARY CLINTON GOT LEE MARVIN TO SEE THE LIGHT…OF DAY

On the face of it, there may not seem to be any connection at all between Hillary Clinton and Lee Marvin, but for me there certainly is. Although the seemingly endless wait to get a publisher interested in Lee Marvin Point Blank had me close to abandoning it several times, the ultimate timing of it could not have been better. Why is that? Because in the interim, I vastly improved my writing skills via the the occasional young adult biography I wrote for a company called Lucent Books. Without the constant flexing of those writing muscles, and the valuable lessons learned in the process, I would never have been up to the heavy lifting that got Lee Marvin Point Blank to see the light of day.
I came in contact with Lucent initially via a friend who wrote for them. Several series appealed to me but the one that caught my eye the most was People in the News. At the time, I was offered several possible titles and the first one I took was Adam Sandler. Why Sandler? Because the other choices was George W. Bush or Eminem. I was extremely reticent at first as other than SNL, there was nothing about Sandler I cared to write about. Luckily, I watched Punch Drunk Love and my admiration for that film and his performance got me through the project. It also taught me how to find an angle on a subject I may not entirely enthusiastic about.
Other titles followed in quick succession that I found much more palatable: Will Ferrell, Hilary Swank, Denzel Washington, Lawmen of the West for the History Makers series (Hey, I was branching out!) and also the first and second installments on Hillary Clinton. It was these two titles that drove the lessons home and ultimately made Lee Marvin Point Blank a better book. How, you may ask? Well, to start with, the publisher’s requirements for all the titles included a specific theme for each chapter in the subject’s life.

The covers of my Hillary Clinton young adult biographies, the 1st in 2008 (left) and the revised version in 2010.

The covers of my Hillary Clinton young adult biographies, the 1st in 2008 (left) and the revised version in 2010.

Some were easier to discover than others, although an additional title on first female Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, proved especially daunting in trying to break down the complex rules and inner workings of Congress. That aside, the private life and public career of Hillary Clinton was equally daunting, yet, also useful to Lee Marvin….

The table of contents for the original and later revised version of Hillary Clinton.

The table of contents for the original and later revised version of Hillary Clinton.

Readers of Lee Marvin Point Blank might notice the use of both familiar quotes as well as timely phrases in the chapter titles. Not that I didn’t already know how to do that but my ability for searching out and finding the RIGHT phrase had certainly improved. Then there was the introduction. By the time I got to Hillary, I discovered that instead of writing the intro first, and then having to go back and constantly redraft it based on the book’s content, I made the rule to myself to ALWAYS write the intro last.

Introduction to People in the News: Hillary Clinton.

Introduction to People in the News: Hillary Clinton.

End of intro and first page of first chapter.

End of intro and first page of first chapter.

It may also be obvious that in writing about a subject’s early life, the influence of one’s parents is almost impossible to overemphasize. However, keeping in mind the reader’s interest level should never be lost or wander to far afield from the subject itself, creating a tapestry that interweaves both the parents legacy and the subject’s thoughts and lessons from the parents, was something I found works best…..

Text and photos illustrating the impact Hillary Clinton's parents had on their daughter's life.

Text and photos illustrating the impact Hillary Clinton’s parents had on their daughter’s life.

By the way, I had no control over the pictures that were used but for the most part, I was very pleased with what was utilized. Oh, and another requirement was to include 2 sidebars for each chapter. Often it was simply a glossary of terms used in the text but for Hillary, I was able to branch and include specific anecdotes that didn’t fit the text but were too good not to include….

Two sidebars were required for each chapter and above is one of my personal favorites.

Two sidebars were required for each chapter and above is one of my personal favorites.

I should also note that in researching the life of Hillary Clinton, there was an awful lot of useless and baseless rumors passed off as fact that got to be very frustrating. The advent of social media has made it worse but when I was writing the book, I had to constantly come up against obvious conjecture passed on as fact. I drew the line when I read one author’s bio of Hillary who claimed you could see the devil himself when you look into Hillary’s eyes (!). Yet another permanent lesson was used in conjunction with Lee Marvin. Never even mention a rumor, even if it’s an attempt to debunk it. Gives it unnecessary creedence. Anybody read About Captain Kangaroo in my book?  I didn’t think so.
Anyway, I must have done something right because two years after the first bio came out, Lucent asked me to revise it with two new chapters and the chance to add to the original text of the first. Who could say no to that? The first addition was the presidential race of 2008…

Covering the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primaries in the revised Hillary biography.

Covering the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primaries in the revised Hillary biography.

Because Hillary Clinton was in the beginning of her tenure as Secretary of State at the time the book came out, it became the concluding chapter of the book. Luckily, I did not have to deal with Benghazi, private e-mail servers, Wikileaks, and an entire host of other frustrating subjects…..

Covering the period of Hillary Clinton's life at the time of the book's release.

Covering the period of Hillary Clinton’s life at the time of the book’s release.

That’s not to infer that unpleasant subjects were not dealt with. There was still the financial records of the Rose Law Firm, the Whitewater scandal, Vince Foster’s suicide, Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton’s impeachment, you name it! and I dealt with it. It’s just that what took place since the book came out was far too ridiculous, in my opinion, to have to contemplate.
If you’ve gotten the impression that researching Hillary Clinton has made me a fan, you would be right. For me, I personally have to make some sort of connection with who I’m writing about, even if aspects of the subject is unpleasant. I did with Hillary and came out the other end of that project a better writer and renewed respect for the subject. Sadly, things like Brietbart, the Drudge Report and other ultra-right wing websites and/or blogs have blurred the lines between fact and fiction. Luckily for me, another requirement of the publisher’s was to only use existing information that could be noted extensively in the book’s several bibliographies. No interviews were allowed. It ultimately allowed me to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were, and make for a stronger story all the way around.
The end result was that by the time my agent, the late, great Mike Hamilburg had interested publisher Tim Schaffner in my Lee Marvin bio, I was able to provide the goods he asked for with renewed confidence. Not only did I have almost 20 years of exclusive research and interviews under my belt, when he asked me if I was familiar with the requirements and skill to write a biography, I was able to provide evidence of my work in the field. Granted, it was in the genre of young adult, but when he read the samples I submitted, he sent me a contract to sign.
Basic research, theme development, enlightening anecdotes, and more, all in the service of two Hillary Clinton biographies helped Lee Marvin Point Blank to see the light of day….. and make the NY Times Best Seller list! Best of all worlds? With a little luck, she’ll be the next President of the United States and some folks might rediscover Lee Marvin ALL over again.

 

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