NAME: Nils Parker
CLAIM TO FAME: Nils is an editor, ghostwriter and story consultant for creatives of all stripes. As an editor, Nils has been behind multiple New York Times & Wall Street Journal bestsellers. As a ghostwriter, Nils has conceptualized, written or punched-up books in the humor, self-help, advice/how-to, business, and memoir categories for prominent business figures, famous actors, touring comedians, and internet celebrities. As a story consultant, Nils works closely with Hollywood producers, New York publishing companies and multinationals in the energy, travel, technology and healthcare sectors.
WHERE TO FIND HIM: On Twitter and at Brass Check.
I regularly wear two hats in my work: writer and editor. I have found that I edit best in the morning and write best in the afternoon, beginning right around 2pm after I’ve taken my dogs for their afternoon walks. I can write, with breaks for food and stretching my legs, until about 10:30pm before I really start to see diminishing returns on my writing. I tend to get verbose and slip into passive voice as my brain slows down.
I only listen to music if I’m working with people around. I typically work out of my home office, and I’m alone for most of the day since my wife has a real job, so I enjoy the pure silence. I think the main reason for that is that I write mostly in my head at first. I perform the prose as if they’re being read aloud to a group, and in order to get the rhythms and the meter down the way I like, I need silence. If my wife is working from home, however, or I am in an airport, I will listen to music. A lot of people talk about putting on a single track and playing it over and over again. That doesn’t work for me. What I have that works is playing an entire album on a loop. Since I write with rhythm and meter, there’s something about the progression of certain albums that match what I’m trying to do. These the albums I lean on most often:
From a Room, Vol 1.—Chris Stapleton
Too Hard to Swallow—UGK
Young & Sick—Young & Sick
Number 1s—Stevie Wonder
Panic Switch—Silversun Pickups
I haven’t developed any of those. The closest I’ve come is taking the dogs out at 1:30pm and then setting down to write in earnest after that.
What has proven most successful for me thus far is, before anything else, sitting down with the client some place comfortable, with no recording devices present, and having a long conversation where we just talk. The reason for this is that most famous or noteworthy people who find themselves in a position to be writing a book don’t actually know why they should write a book or what they want to say. Maybe they love books, maybe they’ve always admired people who can write, or maybe their representation has told them that now is the time to strike while the iron is hot and grab themselves a big money book deal (this happens a lot). By talking with them for awhile about life and work and letting the conversation meander a little, you start to get a sense for the ideas a client comes back to over and over again. The stuff that gnaws at them, that they want to get off their chest. Or a way of looking at the world that they believe is responsible for their success or could be valuable to others who are struggling. Once those threads start to reveal themselves, that’s when I start pulling.
By the end of our first meeting I’ll usually have enough to put together a pretty solid outline—whether this is just the proposal phase or the actual writing phase. From this point it’s usually emails and phone calls, followed by some material for them to review and another face-to-face meeting to go over tone, style, some basic fact-checking and to mine more material with more pointed interview question—all to make sure I’m representing their life and their voice sufficiently, and that we’re both rowing in the same direction for this book. It’s kind of rinse-and-repeat from there until we’ve got a full draft.
Because my normal writing style is to write first in my head like I’m reading the words to an audience, I’ve found that I naturally hear the subject’s voice in my head as I go along. Having sat with them for awhile, having watched and listened to anything they may have produced for public consumption (stand-up, movies, TED talks, keynotes, etc), I’ve already developed a sense for their rhythms, verbal ticks, and specific word choice. Funnily enough, in my experience, if you can replicate those small idiosyncrasies in the prose that is like 90% of capturing someone’s voice.
Just as a very basic example, there are three camps: guys who say ‘man’, guys who say ‘dude’, guys who say ‘bro’. Personally, I’m a ‘dude’ guy. I’ve had a couple of clients who were card-carrying members of team ‘bro’. By making sure that I capture those ‘bros’ in the dialogue of their stories, and that I don’t let my own ‘dudes’ slip in, I’ve taken a big step toward sounding like the client.
Screenwriting is very much puzzle solving. Your characters have some sort of problem that presents itself by the end of Act 1, Act 2 is the journey of figuring out the problem, and Act 3 is the resolution of that problem, usually in the face of long odds and one last major impediment (often an internal one). It’s highly structured in this regard, and predictable, to a degree. So if you like puzzles, or like being creative within a someone rigid and unforgiving set of parameters, screenwriting can be a lot of fun.
For me, screenwriting requires that I wear both my editing hat and my ghostwriting hat simultaneously. You have 110-120 pages typically to tell a full story. This means that every word and every choice counts, so you have to be ruthless when it comes to editing. Stephen King once said “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” That is never more true than in the screenwriting process. Some joke, some scene, some dialogue exchange you absolutely love is going to gum up the works and you’ll need to be ruthless enough as an editor to cut it and forget about it.
At the same time, you need to be able to let your characters breathe and be themselves within the pages of your script. For writers who work primarily in fiction this is more or less second nature. I work primarily in non-fiction, so for me this skill requires fastening on my ghostwriting hat to make sure that my characters don’t bleed into one another. I’ve read hundreds upon hundreds of scripts in my life. All the best scripts never make this mistake, and all the worst scripts make it over and over from beginning to end. It sounds like it shouldn’t be that difficult, but character construction is hard and when the problem-solving, editor side of you takes over in an attempt to just get this scene finished, just get to the end, it’s very easy to make the easy choice with character and dialogue, which is almost always the wrong choice.
My writing partner is Sean McKittrick. He runs QC Entertainment and is an absolutely phenomenal producer. He bought the pitch, developed and produced GET OUT, which just got nominated for Best Picture at the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. What Sean is really good at, which I am not, is breaking story and writing action for screen. What I’m really good at is dialogue, themes and symbolism. We’re both good at jokes—best joke wins.
So it usually works that he has an idea, we’ll kick it around over drinks, then he’ll go sit with it, break it down and get a loose draft together. Sean is incredibly busy and he’s got two young kids—so he carves out time around his normal producing schedule and just puts his head down and crushes. For him the story and the action come really fast in his writing once he’s figured it out. He doesn’t worry about dialogue, so he roughs in lines that give me a sense for what the exchange should accomplish. Once he has that all down, then I’ll take it, start moving pieces around, expand and refine his placeholder dialogue, start planting themes in the first act and thread them through the rest of the script, and add in jokes—visual gags, straight laugh lines, banter, etc. I edit as I write, so I take a little bit longer than Sean to get my part done, but once it’s done we have a fairly polished first draft.
Then we give it to a small group of people to read for initial thoughts and notes. We’ll get together and go over it in a room together, divide and conquer along similar lines based on our skill sets with regards to changes, then we repeat this process as many times as we get notes from people whose opinion we want, need or can’t avoid.
This is a hard question, one I haven’t actually thought much about. I guess I measure success as a ghostwriter and editor by how happy my clients are. If the people paying me are happy with what they’ve received and proud to stand behind the work that has their name on it, then I did my job and that’s good enough for me. I’ve been in this game long enough to know that I can’t measure my success in those areas based on sales and dollar amounts, because there is so much that goes into a successful book that sits outside the pages of the book itself, that I have no control over. It’s somewhat similar as an author, or a writer with your name on the title page in the case of screenwriting, except you have to use commercial success in your calculus to some extent. While no one can really say they KNOW when a book is going to blow up, they can predict whether something will resonate with its core audience. My goal as a writer when it comes to literary success is to make sure that whatever I’m doing resonates deeply with that subject’s core audience. If I can do that, I feel like I’ve succeeded. Everything else is kind of gravy.
I’m not a great editor of my own work in the traditional sense because I edit as I write. When you look at my first drafts, they have the polish of something much further down the line in the writing process. Because of that, I am not the best at identifying if something is slowing the narrative down, or if I’m off topic, or anything that I would normally identify immediately in someone else’s writing. So I have to rely on other people’s notes and trust that they know what the hell they are talking about.
The biggest mistake I see aspiring authors make is trying to sound like authors, instead of trying to sound like themselves. There are a lot of reasons this happens: inexperience, insecurity, but the main reason I’ve seen is that these aspiring authors don’t yet know what it is they have to say to the world because they don’t yet know what they think about any of it. That isn’t to say they haven’t lived life, but they certainly haven’t sit with their experiences long enough to know what they meant. Authors who have done that don’t sound like anyone other than themselves. That is the goal. Everything else—structure, grammar, character construction—you can learn.
Sadly, I don’t read as much as I should, because I am busy writing for other people. That said, I read a lot of long-form reporting (Michael Lewis, William Langewiesche, etc.), I read about one novel a month, and I usually have three or four non-fiction books going at once (half of those as audiobooks). I don’t have a favorite author, per se, though if there is any one person I try to emulate it is Michael Lewis in his ability to dive into and explain big ideas through the construction of narrative with fully-fleshed out characters—many of them normal-ish people—at its core. What Lewis does is the bullseye of what I always want to accomplish with narrative. In terms of authors I’ve read a lot of recently that I know have had an impact on me, I would say Jennifer Egan, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Jon Krakauer, Drew Magary, and old school Mary Renault.
Yes and yes. I’m not sure why that is, though I suspect it has something to do with my ability to recognize patterns out there in the world and my desire to define and reconcile those patterns with my understanding of the world around me. I have never once stared at a blank screen or a blank page and felt panic. Even in those moments where I wasn’t sure what to do next on a particular subject, there’s always something to talk about, so I just start there and inevitably I get back in the vicinity of where I needed to be going.
This is probably sacrilege, but I have never read a book on writing. The closest I came was reading the first and last paragraph of every chapter in Robert McKee’s book, STORY, when I taught myself the rules of screenwriting.