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The dictator as an editor

Gabriel García Márquez

Who's qualified to edit a Nobel literature laureate? If you're Gabriel García Márquez, you might send your work to Fidel Castro for review, Danuta Kean writes. Quoting from Stéphanie Panichelli-Batalla, co-author of a book about the unusual relationship between the two men: "After reading his book The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, Fidel had told Gabo there was a mistake in the calculation of the speed of the boat. This led Gabo to ask him to read his manuscripts."

A dozen top non-fiction books for 2016

Display of books for sale

Annalee Newitz lists 12 worthy books on "technology, science, history, and geek culture." They include Ed Yong's I Contain Multitudes ("Come for the poop transplant jokes and stay to have your view of nature turned upside down"), Christie Wilcox's Venomous ("Of course you want to learn more about the deadliest animals on Earth") and Welcome to the Universe, ("An astrophysics class with space science superstar Neil deGrasse Tyson and two of his smartest friends").

The importance of just hanging around

Teddy bear on clothesline

Francisco Vara-Orta interviews Eli Saslow of the Washington Post about his Pulitzer-finalist reporting on gun violence, including a profile of a 16-year-old victim of a mass shooting: "A huge job for a narrative reporter is finding ways to get people to be comfortable being themselves around you, because then you get to see what their lives are really like instead of people telling you what it is like or presenting one side of what they think their lives are like."

Hemingway, Plimpton and Cuba

Cuban revolution museum poster

Among the many stories from Fidel Castro's death is one from James Scott Linville about the time he tried to get George Plimpton to publish excerpts from Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries. Plimpton tried to brush him off. When Linville persisted, Plimpton told a story about his visit to Ernest Hemingway right after the Cuban revolution, and what he saw there: "In the twenty years I knew him, this remained the only time George refused to look at a piece of writing."

On reporting about youth suicides

Face in shadows

Katie Johns interviews Hanna Rosin about her Atlantic story on suicides at a Palo Alto, Calif., high school, how she struggled to find the right balance in her reporting, and the reactions she got: "A sister of one of the guys that killed himself said, 'Thank you, this is finally a discussion we needed to have.' Other people were like, 'How dare you come in and blame school pressure for this? Suicide is very complicated. You can’t blame it on school pressure.'"

Leonard Cohen and his writing process

Leonard Cohen

Maria Popova marks the songwriter's death with thoughts from Leonard Cohen on melding darkness and light in songs like "Anthem," and the mystery of good writing: "It’s just as hard to write a bad verse as a good verse. I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines."

Writing about cancer from the numbers

Pair of dice

Joanne Silberner annotates a George Johnson story and interviews the author about science and statistics in the "War on Cancer." Silberner writes: "I was taught early on that people can’t hold more than a couple of numbers in their heads, and I agree. Johnson’s story uses numbers to illustrate the idea that the reason people think there’s a cancer epidemic is in large part that more folks are living longer lives, and thus to the age when cancer incidence is higher."

One newsroom tries to shorten stories

Printer's type

Washington Post editors are trying to stop story bloat via rewards, Benjamin Mullin writes: "Editor-reporter duos who turn in a front-page enterprise story under 1,000 words are awarded the 'Brevity Cup,' a distinction that comes with drinks out with a managing editor. The first winners, reporter Ann Marimow and editor Mary Pat Flaherty, won for a front-page story about a court battle over a D.C. gun ban." Also, Roy Peter Clark on writing short.

Famous writers confront the blank page

Blank laptop screen

Maria Popova collects writers' quotes on the difficulty of getting down to work, including this from Philipp Meyer: "I don’t think 'writer’s block' actually exists. It’s basically insecurity — it’s your own internal critic turned up to a higher level than it’s supposed to be at that moment, because when you’re starting a work — when the page is blank, when the canvas is open — your critic has to be turned down to zero … The point is actually to get stuff on paper."

What dialogue does in a narrative

Roosevelt and Churchill in conversation

Book coach Jennie Nash breaks down a passage from Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl to show how dialogue "slows things down in a narrative. The author is not making broad generalizations, or sweeping past hours, days, or years the way they do when they write, 'the next day' or 'three years later … ' They are sharing specific information about a specific moment that is playing out in real time. As readers, we lean in and listen, and that naturally makes the reading slow down."