Monday, May 07, 2012

Do NOT miss this if you're in NYC

Robert Caro is my hero.  He's a masterful biographer, skilled storyteller, and while he's earned and won every prize under the sun, some of them twice, you never get the sense he's all that full of himself.

I had the great pleasure of hearing him give the keynote address at the Biographers Int'l Organization conference in 2011. On May 2, 2012 I shelled out actual cash money to hear him at the 92YTribeca. Tonight you can hear him at Barnes and Noble Union Square at 7pm, for free.

When he spoke last week he said a couple things that I didn't even have to write down to remember.

He said the Lord Acton quote we all learned in college ("Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely") wasn't right.  He thinks power reveals character.  You see what a man (or woman, I presume, although both Mr. Caro's great subjects were men) is all about when he has power.  When LBJ became President, Mr Caro pointed out, his goal was to eradicate poverty.  That's the thing we all forget now, was that LBJ wanted to use the power of the presidency to end poverty.

And when asked about his writing habits, Mr. Caro said he outlined everything at the start of the actual writing.  He'd also get "what this book is about" down to about two paragraphs.  Those two paragraphs helped him focus; helped him remember what to put in, leave out, and what to make a footnote.  (There was an odd watery sound as the QueryShark literally leaped for joy hearing THAT let me tell you.)  Then he told us how long it took him to get the book down to those two paragraphs. Would you like to guess what he said?

Here are the choices:

1. Two hours
2. Two days
3. Two weeks
4. Two months
5. Two years

Let me know in the comments column what you think the correct answer is. No fair if you attended the event and heard the answer, ok?

I think Robert Caro is one of those writers you should hear and read no matter what you read or write.  He's very simply a master of the craft and there just aren't that many of them.


Ann Landsberger said...

Two years.

Anonymous said...

Two years is my guess, as well.

Colin Smith said...

I'm going with two months. I'm hoping it's two months, because I think I'd want to punch him if he said two hours. :D

Patrick DiOrio said...

Either two hours or two years. He does extensive research, a detailed outline before he writes. These are indicative of a man very thorough, very deliberate, very precise before he puts pen to paper. So he either gets this down immediately in two hours in order to provide the focus he needs for all the rest to follow or he takes two years to get there. Somehow I'm thinking it's the two hours.

Rob Brunet said...

I'd have to guess two days.

One day before you start writing.

The second day after your first draft, taking into account what the novel became "about" as the characters emerged on paper and showed you their story.

Rewrites will take care of the rest.

Doug said...

Definitely 2 years.


The Writer Librarian said...

I'd say two months, depending on what sort of feedback he received on his drafts.

Terri Coop said...

Now, I am interpreting this as the time between the outline and the two paragraph distillation.

I'm going to say two days, one day to draft it and a second day to refine the draft.


Chro said...

Agreed on it either being two hours or two years.

On a side note, I actually read something similar to that theory of 'power shows character' in one of Kim Harrison's novels yesterday. Followed by the person saying it claiming they weren't worried about the main character gaining power because, "I know you're a good person." It was touching.

Charley said...

Actually, I'd say 2 weeks. I have a precise, technical, guaranteed valid reason for this. No one else has guessed it so far. Besides, wasn't "choice C" always the default guess on multiple choice tests when we were kids?

OK, there's just a slight chance I'm wrong. I've been wrong before. I recall once in 1983....


Judith Gonda said...

I'd say two hours because he's using it for himself as a tool to keep on target.

Janet Reid said...

Answer: two months. I was startled by that fact but given how meticulous Robert Caro is, it makes sense.

The takeaway on this is even the best and the brightest writers don't dash off the answer to "what's this book about."

The new benchmark for how long it takes to write a query: two months.

Joan Kane Nichols said...

I'm also an admirer of Robert Caro and had the pleasure of hearing him give the keynote address at last year's BIO conference. He has no side to him, as the British say. And I loved his New York accent--took me back to my Brooklyn childhood.

As to the query-writing problem. I've been working on one for my novel for year. I finally came up with one that seemed okay. I entered the novel in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest this year. The reviewer from Publishers Weekly who reported on it gave it a great review. This person liked my novel better than I did! (I'm still revising it.)

But what really intrigued me was his/her synopsis of my work. It said exactly what I'd been trying to say but somehow couldn't. Lack of distance is the problem, I think. It's just so hard to step back from one's own work and see it whole.

Judith Gonda said...

Agree with Joan Kane Nichols regarding summarizing your own work. It's knowing too many details, a little like the "can't see the forest for the trees." One instructor in a class I took made us write a book cover blurb as the first assignment which forced us to think out the story. Very helpful.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to guess two hours -- after he has spent two months to two years thinking about it.