I’ve been having lunch with a good friend every week as she recently lost her job of five years. She’s worked in and around journalists and authors her whole career, but, like some people, still finds the actual process of getting from an idea to a finished book — where do you find all those words, she asks? — mysterious and hard to imagine.
I’m in awe of writers who create fiction. I think that a non-fiction book, once you have a clear idea what you want to say and who your readers might be, is not as overwhelming.
You need a clear understanding what the scope of your inquiry should be, how you’ll access the material you need — archives, letters, libraries, interviews, firsthand reporting — and how much time, money and travel this will require.
What I love about writing books is the time to deeply and carefully explore a subject. This is so rare! Unless you are in academia or policy work, no one is going to pay you to learn, synthesize and analyze an issue you find utterly compelling. Nor will you have the time to write, revise, think and repeat as necessary, for many months.
I love having the time to start to see patterns and relationships between the data I find, feeling my understanding start to develop.
Oh, and, yes, to write at length, not hemmed in by standard newspaper story lengths of 700 to 1,200 words or a magazine’s maximum of perhaps 3,000 words.
For this one, I hired two researchers, neither of whom I ever met, one in New Jersey and one in San Diego (both came highly recommended by colleagues) who helped me by finding data, setting up interviews, conducting some interviews and sending me the raw audio.
Here’s how my new book took shape:
September 2007. I take a part-time retail job selling clothes in a suburban mall. I need steady cash, something manageable, and hope this is the right choice. I’ve never worked retail, and know it will be hard work. My writer friends all think this could make a great book, partly because I’ll be able to describe that world firsthand. I’m dubious, but listen to them nonetheless.
I’m too busy training to think about it much — but on the strength of their advice I do keep detailed notes of those first weeks.
March 2009. I speak on a panel in Manhattan about writing. A lively young woman in the audience turns out to be the assistant to an agent and suggests I write a memoir. She asks me to contact her boss.
June 2009. I sit down with the agent, a woman my age, who — unusual in my experience — takes more than an hour to explore this idea. She sees much more depth in this job and its narrative potential than I had previously considered.
Listening to her flesh it out as we talk it is like watching Batman’s car doubling in size and power. Wow, maybe there is a book in all this.
July 2009. I start writing a three chapter proposal which bounces back and forth with my agent several times to edit and polish it. It’s hard to do so much hard work without any income or even a guarantee this book will sell. That’s the price of a book proposal!
She’s a veteran and I doubt would waste her time, or mine, on something with few prospects. It takes a lot of trust on both our parts.
September 2009. The proposal is making the rounds. The rejections are pouring in — 25 of them. Ouch! She sends them along for me to read until I cry uncle and ask her not to. “Are they bothering you?” Yes. “Someone is going to buy this book. We just haven’t found them yet,” she says.
And someone does! We go into Portfolio/Penguin’s offices to meet the publisher, editor and publicist. It’s all pretty terrifying knowing I can blow the deal by saying the wrong thing (which is…?)
We have a deal. Cool!
December 2009. I quit the retail job now that I have my first payment on the advance. I start writing.
February 2010. I turn in 47,000 words. My editor finds them “whiny and negative” but knows this is “an early first draft.” Actually, it wasn’t. But I started too soon. I haven’t waited long enough to start trying to process this material from the events I’m describing, and it shows. I need more distance to be able to decribe it much more thoughtfully, not simply emotionally.
I can’t rush this.
January-May 2010. My arthritic left hip goes crazy. I can barely walk across the room and see five specialists, none of whom can explain why. I take powerful painkillers — managing to transpose the street address of a crucial interview subject (oops!) — then oral steroids. Life becomes a distracting blur of X-rays, MRIs and medical opinions. Writing a book is a lot tougher when coping with pain 24/7 , veering between painkillers (foggy brain) and exhausted lucidity.
Not what I need right now!
March-May 2010. Too intimidated to come back to this material right now, I read ten books on low-wage work and retail, and interview others about their retail experiences. I’m still making good progress while gaining a deeper, wider understanding of the industry. But I still have to produce a total of 75,000 words by September 1. I will have to get back to it soon.
I can focus entirely on reading and thinking because my researchers, two young journalists, are keeping the material coming into my email inbox. It’s a huge relief to be able to delegate and to find terrific help even at $15/hour. The several hundred dollars I spend for their time is worth every penny for my peace of mind and ability to focus on other things.
My partner is trying not freak out. He knows I can write quickly and that I write best with a deadline staring me in the face.
May-June 2010. Writewritewritewritewrite. Forget social life and housework. I turn in the book at the end of June and take a two-week vacation.
July 2010. My editor has given me six pages of revisions to make. Can I do it? Do I have the skill? I talk to friends and my agent who all offer tough love and encouragement. The editor loves the last two chapters and suggests I use them as models for the rest. Luckily, her suggestions are all clear and helpful, about 80 percent of which I follow.
August 2010. Revisewriterevisewriterevisewrite. Cut the boring bits.
September 2010. Done, in, accepted. Whew!
(Start planning marketing, events and speaking engagements.)
- How To Get Published, Part 11: What Comes Next (blogher.com)