This is part two of the five-part Sonia Nazario Series for Writers. Read the rest of the series for writing insights from this Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist and author.
Writing does not come easily to me. I like having written. – Sonia Nazario
Mandy: Many writers struggle to find a writing process that works for them. Sometimes it helps to know how successful writers write. Can you share a behind-the-scenes look at your writing process? What are things you struggle with? And how do you overcome them?
Sonia: Writing is a painful process. I am a natural reporter. Writing does not come easily to me. I like having written.
For me, the best part of writing is when you are tightening, polishing, when you see something coming together, and it moves you. You know you have something good. Up until that point, I often have massive doubts. But when I read something and it moves me, I feel enormous relief.
#1 Organize Your Narrative into Chronological Chunks
With Enrique’s Journey, I had hundreds of interviews on my computer, dozens of notebooks. I started by transcribing everything. I organized my notes using a word processor where you can organize chunks of notes by type.
For example, all of my notes about being robbed on trains were together. All notes about people being raped on the journey were together. I had dozens of sub-categories. Then, I started writing.
Often with a big project I’m overwhelmed at the beginning. I procrastinate. The task seems too big. I’m afraid of failure on some level. So I break it down into chunks. With Enrique’s Journey, I put a sign on my computer. “It’s the Chronology, Stupid!”
Whenever I got lost, I remembered that adage.
#2 “Garbage Down” The First Draft
During the first draft it’s important not to engage the creative side of your brain too much. As my editor used to say: “Garbage it down!’ Get past the fear, just get it on paper, into captivity. Then I try to shape the story.
#3 Identify and Enhance The Key Emotion in Each Chapter
I want each chapter to have an emotional bent—either up or down. I emphasize or de-emphasize elements that help me stress the emotional bent that’s inherently in that part of the story.
#4 Employ a Few Literary Tricks
Break The Narrative Up with Cliffhangers
I make sure each chapter ends with a cliff-hanger that helps the reader go on.
Include a Circular Element
I use echoes. One is that Enrique receives gifts, a saying that is repeated throughout one chapter to give a part of the story lacking unity a central purpose.
And I use foreshadowing. You learn Enrique has perfect teeth; when they are later shattered the moment is more meaningful. You learn Enrique’s girlfriend may be pregnant when he leaves Honduras, which becomes important when Enrique urges his girlfriend years later to leave Honduras and leave their daughter behind.
Maintain Strict POV
I am always trying to write the story as if I have a camera on my subject’s shoulder. So I cut or de-emphasize characters or events that may be important to the story but not to his story.
I must be brutal about this; I need readers to empathize with my main character, to go on a ride with him. I make sure each word, each sentence adds to the story. If it doesn’t, I cut it.
Writing is re-writing. I re-wrote parts of Enrique’s Journey twelve times. When you can’t stare at it anymore, you give it to someone you respect to read, so they can tear it apart and give you ideas on how to make it better.