Joe Tone: How I Write

“What I am at my core is a journalist and a reporter, and I’ve always been drawn to stories that require a lot of reporting and research."
By Allison Futterman | Published: June 8, 2018


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Joe Tone

Joe Tone. Photo by Catherine Downes

For more than 10 years, Joe Tone worked as a journalist and newspaper editor, most recently as the editor of the Dallas Observer. After writing “The Rookie and the Zetas: How the Feds Took Down a Drug Cartel’s Horse-Racing Empire” for the Observer, he found himself so captivated by the subject material that he decided to leave the paper to write a book about it. The result, Bones: Brothers, Horses, Cartels, and the Borderland Dream, is the recipient of glowing reviews from numerous publications. In one fascinating book, Tone skillfully weaves together a true story about family, loyalty, American quarter-horse racing, and the Mexican drug war. Bones was named a finalist for the 2017 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing and the production company Anonymous Content (Mr. Robot, True Detective) has already purchased the book’s film rights.

Expanding an article into a book

The article felt like it barely skimmed the surface – more like an outline or a treatment. I knew from my reporting that there was a ton more reporting to do. There were dozens of people to talk to and themes left unexplored in the article. My own desire was indicative that there was more. I ask myself if I’m still hungry for this topic or “am I done with this?” As a writer, do I want to pursue it, or have I squeezed everything I can out of it?

Structuring multiple intersecting themes

I knew there was a lot of history and background that I wanted to weave into small narratives, but it was a little difficult during the writing. Especially with parts about the history and explanations. My editor suggested we pull a handful of things out and make them into separate chapters. Once we did that, we felt good about how the narrative flowed, while still sliding into backstory and history.

Journalism and storytelling

What I am at my core is a journalist and a reporter, and I’ve always been drawn to stories that require a lot of reporting and research. Tools of investigation, public records, source development, digging through court records – I love stories that require all that. I use those to shape dramatic, personal, and emotional narratives.

Readers want to know where you got your information, and I’m always trying to figure out a way to use less attributions. The great thing about a book is that you can move a lot to the sources section without cluttering the narrative.

The transition to book author

The hardest transition was going from being in a newsroom to being at home and being lonely, frankly. I used to feel responsible for up to 20 or 30 things a day working at the paper. You feel useful. I was responsible for the career of staff and freelancers. Now I’m in a room, writing for months, for a book that would come out years later – and writing something you don’t know how many people are going to read. It took me a while to adjust, and I still struggle with it. But I found that I really enjoy the work and enjoy the process of writing.

Self-editing

I was able to put my trust in my editor. But even with a good book editor, and mine is one of the best, you have to be a good self-editor. This book was the biggest editing challenge I’ve ever faced. Story selection, planning, organization, and motivation all go into a book. But my editing experience was critical to my ability to pull it off.

 

Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.