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Apr 20, 2015

How Award-Winning Journalist Adam Skolnick Writes

Sometimes word nerds just need a place to talk shop, and that s what we intend to do here. In this episode of the The Writer Files I ve asked award-winning journalist Adam Skolnick to join me on a guest segment we’re calling Writer Porn.

Adam is an award-winning, globetrotting travel journalist, which is kind of a rare thing these days. He is the author and co author of 25 Lonely Planet guidebooks, and has written for publications as varied as the New York Times (for whom he won a big award from the Associated Press Sports Editors last year), ESPN.com, Wired, Men’s Health, Outside, BBC, and Playboy Magazine.

He recently finished his first narrative non-fiction book based on his award-winning NY Times coverage of the death of the greatest American free diver of all time, titled One Breath (slated for publication in January).

Adam and I talk about how a page one New York Times story became a book, the secret literary legacy of Playboy Magazine, debunking Jack Kerouac’s prolificness, and tips and tricks to staying focused when you re working on multiple projects across multiple timezones.

In this 29-minute file Adam Skolnick and I discuss:

  • How a Tragic New York Times Story Became a Book
  • What a Globetrotting Journalist Does to Get a Story
  • The Secret Literary Legacy of Playboy Magazine
  • What Mr. Skolnick Has in Common with Hunter S. Thompson
  • One Great Trick to Stay Focused on Multiple Deadlines
  • Busting The Urban Legend of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”
  • Why You Shouldn’t Compare Yourself to Other Writers
  • How to Stay Organized When You Have a Ton of Research

Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...

The Show Notes

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The Transcript

How Award-Winning Journalist Adam Skolnick Writes

Voiceover: This is Rainmaker.FM, the digital marketing podcast network. It’s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform. Start your free 14-day trial at RainmakerPlatform.com.

Kelton Reid: These are The Writer Files, a tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of working writers, from online content creators to fictionists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and beyond. I’m your host, Kelton Reid: writer, podcaster, and mediaphile. Each week, we’ll find out how great writers keep the ink flowing, the cursor moving, and avoid writer s block.

In this episode of The Writer Files, I’ve asked award-winning journalist Adam Skolnick to join me on a guest segment we call Writer Porn. Sometimes, word nerds just need a place to talk shop, and that’s what we intend to do here. We’ll talk about how a page-one New York Times story became a book, the secret literary legacy of Playboy magazine, debunking the urban legend of Jack Kerouac’s creative Mount Everest, and tips and tricks to staying focused when you’re working on multiple projects across multiple time zones.

Just a quick introduction of Adam: he is an award-winning, globetrotting travel journalist, and obviously, that’s a rare thing these days. He is the author and co-author of 25 Lonely Planet guidebooks, and he’s also written for publications as varied as ESPN.com, Men’s Health, Outside, BBC, and Playboy. He’s just now finishing up his first narrative non-fiction book based on his award-winning New York Times coverage of the death of the greatest American free diver of all time. The title of that book is One Breath, and it is slated for publication in January.

Congratulations on that accomplishment. That must feel pretty good.

Adam Skolnick: Yeah, it feels great. It was a big, big weight off my shoulders.

Kelton Reid: To say the least, I’m sure.

Adam Skolnick: Yeah. You have this goal in mind, and it’s driving you. It was well over a year from the time when he died to the point of getting the book deal and researching the book and tagging along with the free divers and embedding myself with his friends and family, then writing it. You re so singly focused for all that time. Then when it’s done, you do relax deeply.

Kelton Reid: You actually won a pretty big award from the AP last year, didn’t you?

How a Tragic New York Times Story Became a Book

Adam Skolnick: I don’t know how big it is, but in sports writing, it s fairly large. I was there to do more of a general feature on free diving for the New York Times — this was an event in November 2013 called Vertical Blue. Vertical Blue is the Wimbledon of free diving. It’s competitive free diving, so the divers compete in three different disciplines. They hold their breath, and they go as deep as possible on that one breath, either with fins or without fins, or by pulling a line down and back. That’s the event, and that’s the sport. Because it’s a growing sport, more and more people are getting into it either casually or seriously, and there are schools opening all over the world. It’s an international sport, and I was just there to do a general feature.

When he died, tragically, I just happened to be there 10 feet away, so it became a different story right off the bat. That story, I wrote it that evening — the first one, the day-one story — and it went viral. I think it was the New York Times number-one story that day. Then the next day, we did a follow-up piece with a group of writers, myself and three others, and both those stories were widely disseminated.

I think people were enamored with the sport, enamored with the this diver, Nicholas Mevoli. The Times submitted it. I had no idea they were submitting it until they were. All the major papers submit to the APSE Awards. It’s a newspaper award, and it’s an organization, and they honor the best newspaper sports writing each year. I was lucky enough to win.

Kelton Reid: It is an amazingly tragic story. I know that you spent a lot of time on the road, because I was getting rogue transmissions from you. Were you in Russia?

What a Globetrotting Journalist Does to Get a Story

Adam Skolnick: Yeah. The book starts with Nick s death, and then it goes back through his life. It’s Into the Wild meets Shadow Divers. Shadow Divers was a bestseller about some wreck divers and their quest to discover this new wreck they found, what it was and to name it. There was a lot of death and destruction involved in that, and it was a really compelling book. Into The Wild, we all know, is an iconic book and Krakauer’s first book. It’s a great book. Just like Chris McCandless in Into The Wild, Nick had a story where he had an even more troubled upbringing than McCandless, and he was searching for something, and he found it free diving after many, many forays into acting, into protest.

The water was his refuge. The water was where he was free. He ended up finding this sport later in terms of athletics. He found it when he was 30. His first competition, he broke the American record. He was this gifted athlete, a tremendous athlete, not just as a swimmer. He was also a tremendous athlete on the bike. He was a near-X-Games-quality BMXer and just an incredible soul. Following him is a no-brainer. You want to tell that story. It s an inspiring story.

I start with his story, and I go back and forth between him and the 2014 free diving seasons. For that, I went to Roatán for the Caribbean Cup, which is — if you use a tennis metaphor — one of the Grand Slam events, then the World Championships, which is obviously the World Championships, and that was in Sardinia, Italy, and then also back to Vertical Blue a year later. In the meantime, I spent time with two of the great Russian free divers. Natalia Molchanova and her son, Alexey Molchanov, are two of the very best free divers in the world. Natalia is the very best female free diver of all time, and Alexey is the deepest diver with fins, so he’s one of the two best free divers currently in the world. I spent time with them in Russia.

Kelton Reid: You’ve been a little busy.

Adam Skolnick: Yeah, I’ve been busy. What bridges those two stories in the book — Nick s story and his rise from the time he’s a child to getting into the sport, and then the 2014 season — is the work of some doctors who are trying to figure out what exactly happened to Nick, because his death is something the sport of free diving the sport had never seen before. It wasn’t the type of accident that you would have normally seen in free diving, it was very unique.

Kelton Reid: It sounds like a really captivating story, and I actually can’t wait to read it.

Adam Skolnick: Thanks, man.

Kelton Reid: I just find it fascinating, the fact that you are a guy who is always on the road. You travel many, many months out of the year. You don’t have a permanent home. And then you’re constantly working on a handful of different deadlines simultaneously. One of those has been doing some writing for Playboy. I guess my first question is, how do average citizens react when you mention that you have published with them or are working for them?

Adam Skolnick: Average citizens?

Kelton Reid: I don’t know. How does your mom react?

Adam Skolnick: I don’t know any average citizens, Kelton.

Kelton Reid: I m sorry.

The Secret Literary Legacy of Playboy Magazine

Adam Skolnick: No, I think it’s funny. It depends on who it is. Some people react knowing that Playboy has this rich literary history, but more often, the younger folks I talk to laugh, and they have no idea of this rich history that Playboy has. I have to explain to them that there’s articles. Of course, I just finished up a story about free diving for Playboy that’ll be out in May. Going into the free diving community and explaining to them that I’m going to write a story for Playboy about the sport, some were just mystified that that’s a thing.

I don’t know why. My theory is that people go elsewhere for their naked pictures, and that has somehow dimmed Playboy’s history in people s minds, when in reality, it’s still here. It s still kicking. It s still publishing good writers.

Kelton Reid: So it s a generational thing, maybe. It s not that generation who’s saying, “I only read it for the articles,” any longer. They don’t even know that it has or had articles to begin with, or that some of the most famous authors of the 20th century published there, including Arthur C. Clarke, Ian Fleming, Nabokov, Chuck Palahniuk, Murakami, Margaret Atwood. The list goes on, and on, and on. You recognize some of those names.

Adam Skolnick: Yeah, Gabriel García Márquez.

Kelton Reid: Joseph Heller.

Adam Skolnick: It’s an honor for me. I think Playboy’s upheld an ideal, and it was always a progressive ideal. It was a pushing-America-forward ideal. That’s how it was founded. Part of that is this great literary tradition. My favorite article probably of all time out of Playboy is the interview that Alex Haley did with Malcolm X, which subsequently led to the autobiography of Malcolm X, which was one of the great works of non-fiction in American history. Playboy has this incredibly rich tradition. It’s an honor to be associated with them. They have a full bar in their lobby. I love it.

What Mr. Skolnick Has in Common with Hunter S. Thompson

Kelton Reid: Another one of those great interviews, I think, was with Hunter S. Thompson, who, oddly enough, also wrote for the New York Times and was a pretty accomplished journalist himself. Another strange factoid — he relocated to Hawaii to work on a book. It sounds like a familiar theme. Did you write your book in Hawaii?

Adam Skolnick: No, but I had relocated to Hawaii to do a story on the GMO corn seed farms that have cropped up where the old sugar cane plantations once were. There is one community that is being heavily impacted by tainted dust that’s blown into their community and damaged property and impacted public health. I moved out there to cover that story.

In Hawaii, it’s very hard to parachute in and tell a story well. There’s trust issues with outsiders, and from the surf culture on, it s a very locals-only type spot. It was helpful for me to rent a house there and live there while I burrowed into this story. The person who came and shot that story, a photographer named Lia Barrett, had just come from the Caribbean Cup in 2013 where Nick had hit his 100-meter dive, and she was pitching, “Hey, we should be covering free diving together.”

That was the whole genesis of me going to Vertical Blue in the first place, and that story also led me to connect with the New York Times in the first place. That story came out in Salon, but it connected me up with the New York Times science reporter there. It was just an odd turn of events that led me to be in the Bahamas that day, and Hawaii was definitely part of it.

As far as me living overseas and working on stuff, that’s something I’ve done frequently. A couple of the places I’ve covered for Lonely Planet include Indonesia and Thailand, which I’ve covered each several times. Whenever I’m there and do those jobs, I tend to stay in the country to write my manuscript. I’ve done that several times. I’ve done the same thing.

When I was working on stories, reporting about Myanmar and East Burma and the humanitarian crisis there, I’ve embedded in the community for some time to tell those stories. It’s something I’ve done and something I’ll continue to do. I enjoy doing that part of it and staying longer than most reporters would.

Kelton Reid: Let me turn the conversation briefly to productivity. As you’re working on different long-form and short-form pieces, especially when you’re working on a hard deadline but you’re in a beautiful place like Bali or Hawaii, how do you stay focused, first of all?

Adam Skolnick: The main thing for me is that I give myself a words-per-day quota. If you’re talking about a longer piece, or even with shorter pieces I do that now, you’re talking about a manuscript that’s upwards of 50,000, 100,000 words. Most books are over 100,000 words or around 100,000 words. The Lonely Planet manuscripts can vary anywhere from 30,000 to 80,000 — I ve had 90,000 words. It’s basically the same amount of material, but it’s just a different type of material. In order to hack through material, you have to give yourself a words-per-day quota, and once you do that, you find that you can meet it.

That’s, I think, the hardest thing for newer writers, or younger writers, or any writer really — the focus, the expansion of that focus. Everyone could sit down when they’re inspired and pound out something, could make it sound good. What if they’re tired or dragging or not feeling it? How do they then push on? You have to. In order to put together any big piece of work, you have to be able to push through good days and bad days. Frankly, even the bad days could turn out better work than the good days sometimes. It’s just a matter of being there, showing up, doing it.

I give myself a 3,000-word-a-day quota that I try to meet, whether I’m doing a Lonely Planet guide book or I’m doing my book. If I’m doing a magazine story — a feature story where I’ll still try to turn out a lot of words — I might do 2,000 words day then, because I’m going over the words a bit more carefully at first. Whereas with books, you can put out this massive amount of work and then go back through and edit and cut afterwards. With a magazine article, maybe you do a little bit less of that. Maybe you don’t let yourself ramble for 10,000 words because that’ll make it hard to cut.

Kelton Reid: On that note, I know a lot of online content creators and novelists in general are working on multiple projects simultaneously. When you say you have your 3,000-word-a-day quota, when you have a manuscript-length project, like a 100,000-word project, but then you also have smaller projects that you’re working on the side, how do you balance the two?

One Great Trick to Stay Focused on Multiple Deadlines

Adam Skolnick: I think there’s two things. First of all, before you’re going to sit down and write a big piece of work, unless it’s fiction, and even if it is fiction, there’s the research element. For me, I end up in a rhythm where I’m researching and then I’m writing, and then I’m researching and then I’m writing. Then, if I have overlapping deadlines, which does happen, usually it’s when I’m researching something bigger. Then I might take on write-ups or something smaller, or I might have to research for two different things at the same time.

I’ve also done things where I’ve researched all day and then at night I’ve written on a different project. That’s happened. Recently, when I had to do a draft of the Playboy story and turn that in prior to the submission date of my book, I did take a few days out of that work on One Breath to dedicate to the magazine article.

I’m a one-trick pony. I have a hard time multitasking, to be honest with you. I tend to give everything to what I’m doing at that moment. That’s what I do. For me, multitasking is, “Okay, tomorrow I’m going to do this in the day, and in the night I’m going to do 1,500 words because I can’t do 3,000 because I’m only going to do a night session,” or something like that. I’ll just have that marked in my head. That’s the best multitasking I can probably do.

You can’t help it if you’re doing a project that’s three months long. Something else might come up in between that you have to connect to. Usually, what I’ll do is I’ll disconnect from the longer project for a period of time, a couple of days, and do the smaller one. That’s usually what I do because it’s just easier for me to do that then try to do them all at once.

Kelton Reid: That single-minded focus is good. I definitely ascribe to that. Subscribe to that? Do I aspire to that?

Adam Skolnick: Yes, I don’t know. You could ascribe, aspire, and subscribe to it.

Kelton Reid: Just a quick pause to mention that The Writer Files is brought to you by the Rainmaker Platform, the complete website solution for content marketers and online entrepreneurs. Find out more and take a free 14-day test drive at Rainmaker.FM/Platform.

Busting the Urban Legend of Jack Kerouac s On the Road

Kelton Reid: Speaking of another famous author who published in Playboy: Jack Kerouac actually published in Playboy. He started his journalistic career, and I didn’t know this, as a sports reporter for the New York World Telegram — I’m sure that exists still.

Adam Skolnick: Yeah, right.

Kelton Reid: He s most well known for writing the 120,000-word novel On The Road in three weeks — I put three weeks in quotes — on this 120-foot long scroll of paper that he famously taped together or whatever.

Adam Skolnick: Right. Didn’t Jim Irsay buy the scroll recently?

Kelton Reid: I don’t know, the original or what?

Adam Skolnick: The owner of the Colts — I think he bought the original scroll.

Kelton Reid: That’s wild. I did get a chance to see that scroll actually here in Denver.

Adam Skolnick: I bought that hardcover they released.

Kelton Reid: Is that right?

Adam Skolnick: Yeah, right around the auction time, they finally released it in hardcover. All the real names are in there that he doesn’t use. He uses his own name. He uses William Burroughs’ name. He uses Allen Ginsberg s name, and of course Neal Cassady s name.

Kelton Reid: What I found most interesting about the fact that it’s this urban legend, or this creative Mount Everest, that he sat there for three weeks with this single-pointed attention and supposedly wrote this 120,000 word novel in those 20, 21 days on speed. It’s an urban legend that writers hold dear to their hearts. I read recently that that might not be as accurate as we thought it was, because according to Sarah Stodola s book Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors –which I highly recommend, I love it, it’s pure writer porn in my opinion — Kerouac wrote six drafts of On the Road in the three years leading up to those three weeks where he finally nailed it.

When he wasn’t sitting at that typewriter, he was taking notes prolifically, much like you do, journalists do. When he was criss-crossing the country, and meeting all these crazy people, and collecting all these stories, that was part of his process. Really, he wrote that novel over three years time.

Adam Skolnick: Yeah, the first draft, you mean.

Kelton Reid: The first draft. It wasn’t published for another 6 years.

Adam Skolnick: Yeah, I think that everyone loves the wunderkind, genius story, so that’s probably where that came from. Plus, he did sit down there for three weeks and do the scroll and do his 120,000 words. If you read the published version of that, you’ll see there’s no indentations or anything like that, so you can see his manic mind moving and working in a way that you can’t when you read the polished work. There’s something raw there. Of course the polished version is a classic. It s probably one of my favorite books of all time.

Why You Shouldn t Compare Yourself to Other Writers

Adam Skolnick: Yeah, it can be daunting when you start to compare yourself to other writers. I think that’s what that does. When you hear about that, you’re like, “God, I’m not capable of that. Does that mean I’m not capable of writing a book as good as On the Road. Does that mean I’m not capable of making a living as a writer?” I think those are the kinds of neurotic mind loops that we tend to go into, especially writers who are internal and in their head a lot anyway. At least I am.

I think that debunking that myth is really good, because obviously you don’t get to be where he got to at such a young age without incredible work ethic. It’s not about doing speed and sitting down for three weeks, but it’s about doing it all the time. I think that’s what he did, and that’s why he was so great.

Kelton Reid: Flexing that muscle — because he had really been writing from an early age. His father introduced him to writing. He had his own printing press. He started early. I think by the time he was 22, his writings amounted to something like 600,000 words. I think even William Burroughs said that when he met Jack Kerouac close to that, he probably had written closer to a million words. He was flexing that muscle, so to speak. That’s a monumental feat, but he was clearly a professional athlete in the sport.

Adam Skolnick: Yeah, it’s the classic Gladwell thing now, the 10,000 hours. He had that real young. That’s what did it. Again, it’s no mystery why he was so great. He found his voice young because he was writing so much, and it became so natural for him. Yeah, there probably was something happening creatively by him doing this: “I’m going to sit down for three weeks and do it until it’s done, do it right this one last time.”

We can’t completely let go of that myth because there had to be some sort of chemical reaction with the muse that made it so great that time he sat there. Otherwise he wouldn’t have continued to sit there. There’s something to that last gasp, three-week marathon that he pulled off that I think matters. Yeah, I think that’s not what makes him great. What makes him great is the work before and after.

Kelton Reid: He was meticulously organized, this guy. He had files and notebooks and kept everything pretty neatly organized. I think a lot of his Beat friends who would visit his apartment would always marvel at the fact that he was just very regimented guy. I think he was also a merchant marine, if I’m not mistaken.

Adam Skolnick: Yeah.

Kelton Reid: When you’re travelling the world, Adam Skolnick, and you’re working on all these different mediums, you’re probably using not only notebooks, photographs, audio interviews.

How to Stay Organized When You Have a Ton of Research

Adam Skolnick: I’m not the most organized guy in the world. You are very organized, Kelton Reid. I’m not the most organized. When I first started, because I was a travel writer before I was doing harder core stories — and I still do a lot of travel stories, and obviously the Lonely Planet stuff is all travel-related — I would just use Moleskine notebooks or whatever notebooks I could find on the road if I ran out of notebooks. I kept it all in notebooks, kept all those notebooks on me, and when it came time to do the write-up, I would just go through the notebooks at the time.

Then when Lonely Planet started to go to a shared publishing platform, I was part of the experimental phase. One of the higher-ups that came on the road with us — and we did this in Colorado, as a matter of fact — asked me to start taking notes on my phone just to see if I liked it.

At first I didn’t like it at all, and I felt like I was losing something in terms of creativity with the mind and the whole idea of the hands and a brain. They’re connected, and if I’m writing something analog then my brain s working differently and somehow opening more organically, which was really probably just my own laziness, not wanting to have to adapt to using this app and using my thumbs. He said, “Just try it for a week, and then you can go back to the notebooks if you want.”

Pretty soon after, I found that putting it into a phone right away, uploading it right away, actually made it easier and makes me, a less organized person, more organized. I started to use the phone, and I now use all sorts. I use the phone when I’m interviewing subjects. I’ll use the phone for notes sometimes. I’ll use my notebooks sometimes, depending on the situation, and then I’ll also use the audio recorder. Voice Recorder HD is the app I use, because you can back it up to Dropbox. I do that for some interviews.

I’ll use any number of those three things. Then afterward, I’ll have to transcribe the voice interviews. I’ve done most of that myself, although I do farm it out sometimes to transcription services if I’m under the gun, and that’s just something I’ve started to experiment with lately. Then, in terms of the book, which I don’t have call to do this for anything else because if I’m doing a Lonely Planet guide book or a magazine story I could keep everything in one Notes file. I don’t need more than one Notes file, and then I can email that to myself and put it into a Word document. Now all my notes are already transcribed from the notebook, which is my phone, and it’s all right there.

Then I can go through it and highlight what I need and look through it. I don’t have to do much. Although, when I’m writing a magazine story, what I’ll do is I’ll outline the story, and then I’ll go through those notes and take the chunks that I think relate to the subject or the turn in the story that I’m working. I’ll slot that into that piece in the outline so I have it all there for me. That’s how I’ll organize it right before I do the work. In terms of this book, there were literally hundreds of interviews. I couldn’t tell you right now because I haven’t counted them all out, but it’s over 100 interviews. I’m interviewing different people about different things and different places.

Then I started to slot them into their own separate document. I’m just using Word documents, and I’ll just slot in those notes or that transcribed interview into the North Carolina pile, or the New York City pile, or the Russia pile, or the Sardinia pile, that kind of stuff. That’s how I did that. Then when it came down to the outline, again with the book, I did more detailed outline, and I started slotting in those big slabs of notes into those sections. So when I started working on it, it was all there for me. That’s how it worked. I probably have 1,000 Word pages of notes to work on.

Kelton Reid: You’ve just got this huge raw block of clay, so to speak, that you start molding from there. You’ve got to start with something, and that’s pretty amazing. Last quick question for Adam Skolnick: can you give us a couple recommendations for favorite non-fiction reads you read recently?

Adam Skolnick: I read Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which is beautiful. Katherine Boo, I believe, is the author. It s a beautiful book about the Mumbai slums. Zeitoun — a few years ago I read that. it’s one of my favorite nonfiction books of all time. That’s about a handyman who was caught in the floods in New Orleans after Katrina. It s a beautiful book by Dave Eggers, and I highly recommend that.

Kelton Reid: Great one.

Adam Skolnick: Then Harry Potter is my favorite non-fiction book I’ve ever read — J.K Rowling. Amazing how she embedded herself into that world. I found it magical … oh wait.

Kelton Reid: I’m not familiar.

Adam Skolnick: Are you not familiar with that work?

Kelton Reid:Adam Skolnick: Thanks for having me.

Kelton Reid: We will speak with you in another episode very soon. I appreciate your time.

Remember, every great sculpture starts with a raw block of clay. Keep working, and eventually it will start to look like something. Thanks for flipping through Adam’s file with me.

If you enjoyed this episode of The Writer Files, feel free to leave a comment or a question on the website at Writerfiles.FM. You can also easily subscribe to the show on iTunes and get updates on new episodes. Please leave a rating or a review on iTunes to help other writers find us. You can find me on Twitter @KeltonReid. You can find Adam @adamskolnick. You can find more Writer Porn @writerporn. Cheers. Talk to you next week.