Frequently asked questions about Samuel G. Freedman's Book Seminar
Last updated: Oct 22, 2003
Q: Can non-Columbia Journalism students take the seminar?
A: No. Only those enrolled in the full- and part-time Master's programs of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism are eligible. No exceptions. Don't even ask.
Q: What are the requirements for acceptance into the course?
A: I operate on a first-come, first-served basis. I do not screen applicants on the basis of their first-semester performance or faculty recommendations. What I do require is that you have a topic that is viable, in my subjective opinion, and for which you'll be able to report and write a book proposal during the second semester.
Q: What's a book proposal?
A: It consists of two parts. One is an overview essay that provides the scheme and scope of your book -- its plot, theme, and characters, as well as the reasons the public should be interested in it and you're qualified to write it. The other is a sample chapter, which can be from any part of the book. Each part of the proposal will run from 3,000 to 6,000 words. It is with a finished book proposal that a prospective author approaches an agent, and an agent, in turn, approaches a publisher. So writing a proposal is an essential element in becoming an author. The proposal also serves as a kind of blueprint for the book as you write it.
Q: What determines whether a proposal can be done in the second semester?
A: There are several possibilities. One is that you have a book that is based in New York. Another is that you have a book that can partly be researched through secondary sources or by the phone but also has at least a portion of its material available in or around New York. A third is that you have already done reporting for a book elsewhere, and can augment that by devoting your winter and/or spring vacations to doing more research. In past years, I have had students develop proposals for books set in Texas, Los Angeles, and even Germany and South Africa, because they did what I just described.
Q: What other restrictions, if any, apply?
A: The book must be non-fiction. And I will not accept a pure memoir.
Q: So I can't write in the first person, or write about myself?
A: You certainly may do either or both of those things. But there must be an integral reason for including yourself as a character, something more than the convenience being able to use the first-person voice. And if you do include yourself, or your family, then it must be in some way that illuminates a larger subject. I am not interested in the "my dysfunctional family" type of book.
Q: What's an example of something acceptable?
A: I had a student in 1996 named Brian McDonald who proposed writing about the domestic lives of police officers and their families. His initial instinct was not to base it on his own family, even though there were three generations of cops in it. I advised Brian to use his own family, because it was apparent that in going back to his grandfather's time as a cop in the early 1900s and even to his father's career in the '40s, '50s, and '60s that he would have to do extensive reporting and historical research. So it was not going to be an exercise in navel-gazing or of recounting favorite family yarns. And I can provide more examples if you wish.
Q: How do I get your approval for my book idea?
A: You email me a brief memo about it-- anywhere from 100 to 300 words. Do not ask for a conference; it is your job to frame the idea. Send me the email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if I respond by asking for changes or clarifications -- and the odds are that I will -- make sure that you send your reply to me promptly. Remember, you cannot be admitted into the course without my permission. Just signing up does not guarantee you a spot.
Q: Do you promise I'll get a book contract?
A: No one could possibly promise that. No one can predict what the publishing marketplace will bear. To date, though, six books have been published, eight more are under contract, and adaptations of five former students' book proposals have been included in anthologies -- all as a direct outgrowth of the class. In addition, three of my former students have gone on to become book editors and four former students have written or are writing books that were indirect results of their work in the seminar. And assignments done for the class have appeared as articles in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, LA Weekly, the New York Jewish Week, Commonweal, and the Bergen Record. But most of all I promise that if you give yourself over wholly to the class you will become a better reporter and better writer than you were upon entering it. My alumni work on daily newspapers, magazines, and in radio and television. Ask them if the seminar helped.
Q: What's the work load in addition to developing the book proposal?
A: For the first six weeks of the term, we will read a book each week and write a non-fiction article of about 1,500 words each week. We will learn about the publishing industry, too, hearing from agents, editors, publicists, and book-store managers, among others. The class will meet every Monday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Q: Sounds like a lot of work.
A: It is. It is too much work. So only enroll if you are burning with ambition and energy.
Q: When will the pace let up?
A: To paraphrase Warren Zevon, you'll sleep when you're dead.
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