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Book-writing boot camp gets authors in shape

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Like many people, Leah Hager Cohen dreamed of being a writer but didn't think it was a realistic career.

Then in 1991, she took a class taught by author Samuel Freedman at Columbia University's graduate journalism school. During the course, "Reading, Writing and Thinking," she wrote about her experiences as a hearing person in a deaf community. Mr. Freedman encouraged her to write a book and helped her develop a proposal. She got an agent and within six months had a contract.

Her book, "Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World," was featured on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, and Ms. Cohen is now a full-time author. She has published two additional books, and is under contract for another two.

"People ask me how you get started, how you get an agent, and I say I don't really know, because I had this guardian angel come up and set up the opportunity," Cohen says of Freedman. "Otherwise, I'd have kept on sign-language interpreting and waitressing and dreaming about the day I could really write."

Encouraged by his success with Cohen, Freedman developed a book-writing course that is successfully molding unpublished graduate students into acclaimed authors.

Over the past eight years, the course has generated 11 book contracts for proposals developed in class, and momentum is building. Four students from last year's class of 16 have book contracts. Half of this year's students, who finished the course in May, had agents by the summer.

The first contract of the group just came through for "The Secret Epidemic," about AIDS in the black community.

Freedman was inspired by the Iowa Writers Workshop, a two-year program that has launched the careers of many successful fiction writers, and by the National Playwrights' Conference, a month-long intensive workshop for undiscovered playwrights.

He accepts 16 students per year through a competitive application process. They must have a commercially viable topic on which they can do enough reporting during five months in New York for a proposal.

"Some students have pure writing talent or are incredible storytellers, but all of these books ultimately rise or fall on the reporting and the overall ability to conceive of a book as a book," Freedman says.

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