On March 28, Okla Elliott asked me if I’d consider writing a short book on Hillary Rodham Clinton for Squint Books, an imprint of Eyewear Publishing in London. I said no, because I had no idea what my angle would be for this project; I hadn’t had any burning desire to tackle the topic, and it was the end of a crazy semester and the project required a very fast turn-around. Then I slept on it, mulled it over, and decided (with the spirit that will end up destroying me eventually) that I liked a challenge. Plus, as I describe in the book, I got interested in what I didn’t know. So on March 30 the project was on, and–this part is horrifying–I sent editor extraordinaire Kelly Davio the first draft of the book on April 14.
I kept telling myself I’d written the book in 4 or 5 weeks. But the truth is, it was two weeks for the first draft of The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Eyewear is amazingly fast, and I think we had the final copyedits and layout done by end of April. I can’t really understand how this happened, but I can tell you that I was avoiding a horrifying committee assignment at work, and I threw myself into Hillary Clinton partially as a means of masochistic escapism.
I feel like I must be missing something. Is my math wrong? No, these are the right time-stamps on the emails. The actual drafting of the 108-page thing took two weeks. I wanted to share a bit of my organizational and process in case that is helpful for other writers.
First, a few essential how-to’s:
- Never do this. But doing big unfamiliar projects on short time-frames is possible.
- Time this amazing opportunity to coincide with your child’s spring-break visit to his father out of state.
- Have an obsessive streak.
Now I want to talk about the multiple programs I used to make this happen. Doing this just in Microsoft Word would have been impossible.
In addition to Word, I use
- Evernote (free, synchs across devices, also web-based, although they are cutting and cutting the free version, which makes me sad. Download at evernote.com): Evernote allows you to make “notebooks” and then write in them, tag them, reorganizing them, and search them. It is my “idea” bucket because it’s so much easier to see everything all at once rather than as separate Word files. Evernote is my major “Idea Bucket.”
This is the “notebook” view:
And this is the “page” view within a notebook. You can also nest notebooks inside notebooks; it’s a dream.
- Dropbox (free, synchs across devices, also web-based): download at dropbox.com. This is a screenshot; Dropbox is a bucket you can put any file in and then get access to on any computer. It is also a great system for backing up your files. This is my Master file bucket, my complete everything. Dropbox is also great because you can share folders with other people who have Dropbox accounts. This is what the section of my Dropbox for the Hillary project looked like:
I have articles, and as you can see I also take screenshots if I’m reading something on my phone or want to make a quick note to go back to something later. Other files include a rough Table of Contents for the book, and another important file, “Hillary questions,” which I’ll talk about below.
- Scrivener ($45 with a free trial, needs to be manually synched using Dropbox): download at literatureandlatte.com; this program makes complex files and exports to Word and imports from Word.
This is the “project view” of Scrivener:
Again, like Dropbox, it’s so helpful because you can drag chunks around and see the big picture without having to close and open separate documents; Scrivener is very powerful and has a learning curve. What’s amazing about it is that it is PERFECT for organizing a huge document in progress. You can see on the left-hand side that I created little documents for every possible point or idea I might want to include. I am an associative think, very “linear-challenged,” so I cannot think of an outline first. My outline has to emerge from questions and associations and bits of information as they accrue together. Scrivener is how I think; it’s my bucket for individual projects in progress.
My Writing Process
- Totally random. In panic mode I started out googling “Hillary Clinton.” I also worked as an essayist, paying attention to my own “sticking points,” questions, and weird associations and feelings. What did I not get about Hillary? What annoyed me? What was annoying me about her campaign? What did I hate about the attacks on her? How did I feel about all the coverage of her, and what tone or feeling did it give off? Journaling and journaling, bits and pieces accruing.
- From journaling and googling, I began to outline a few key inflammatory questions and my own blind-spots. I began to get in order the big questions I didn’t understand. I polled friends on Facebook, taking screen shots of articles I wanted to come back to and Google. For example, people felt very strongly about her time as Secretary of State, and to be honest the only thing I knew about that period was the picture of her wearing sunglasses and texting. So I had a lot to learn. I broke it up by the major international hot-spots people seemed to be talking about, and then Googled and used print sources to accumulate facts and questions on each of those sub-topics.
- I read memoirs and biographies (I read 3: 2 written by her and 1 written about her; thankfully I read fast)
- I always take notes as I read: Each source has a separate open file with page numbers next to information and/or quotes. (Word, Evernote, or Scrivener). Sometimes I’ll put post-its on pages and then go back through a book and compile the quotes. This way I never have to go back to a book; the quotes I want to use are already listed with page numbers.
- I returned again and again to my “question” document.
My Clinton questions:
- Is she being judged unfairly based on her husband’s record?
- Would she be even considered for office if not for her husband? No.
- Do I like her because she’s a woman?
- Will she do different politics because she’s a woman?
- Was she the reason that healthcare got on the agenda?
- Do we have to defend her as a woman because she is facing sexism or because she is supposed to be likable?
- With Hillary Clinton, the awful thing was COMPLETE INFORMATION OVERLOAD. I quickly had to decide what was most interesting to me and what seems important to summarize. I didn’t want to repeat what had been covered over and over, but some major stuff I had to mention in summary form. I also had to quickly find out which sources gave me actual information and which were hate-y, think piece-y pieces of crap. Those ended up being useful in the “what does Hillary mean” section; I saw quickly that people had very strong reactions to her, and I more and more saw–because of my research process–that I had to tackle the hate first, because I couldn’t find information without delving through this layer of inflammatory commentary myself.
- This led to the question of voice: I had to decide, pushing against other projects about her, what voice I didn’t want and why. I am sick of snark and strong opinions in this election cycle; I wanted funny if possible, approachable, non-inflammatory; I wanted to speak to undecided voters and focus on breaking down complex information simply. The essay form influenced this; I wanted to be upfront about where I started and be transparent about my questions and my process.
- I began to be very compelled by the “why don’t we like her” question, which I wanted to approach not as feminist manifesto but as Bill or Ted in the cinematic masterpiece “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” aiming for approachability and the “simple” big un-ask-able questions.
- I started blank documents in Scrivener that aligned to topic areas and then moved them around to see what organizational structures might make sense. As a reader, what would I want first and why? One of my jobs was to introduce Hillary to readers in the UK who might not know the first thing about Hillary, and I liked this framework, because I really didn’t know much on a factual level myself–so much of what I realized I’d been “soaking” in was conservative hatred of her. And THAT was interesting to me because that period covered my entire adult life.
- Then I had to start writing. I did this based on bribery and fatigue. In general I jump around when I write based on my energy level and random interest at the time; I find the job of coalescing multiple sources into clear text to be very taxing, so I would go in for a burst of 20 minutes followed by five minutes on Facebook or eating candy or reading stuff on Jezebel.
- I looked at my LONG list of topic files in Scrivener and would sometimes randomly choose a section that’s troubling me, maybe a topic area that sources are very divided on. As I’m struggling to write this, using my source notes, I’m also googling other topic areas and continuing to research, using my writing to hone in on key questions I need to do more research about.
- I cut and paste key quotes from sources in Word quote lists into topic areas in Scrivener and notes of random thoughts I’d stored in my Evernote file; I began to write and integrate. I worked from top to bottom in Scrivener, down my list of files, moving sub-topics around as I went.
- My first draft was huge and very source heavy; that’s ok, they can always be taken out later.
- The draft, still in Scrivener, wasn’t completely organized. I began to commit to an organizational structure based on chronology interspersed with cultural context, start writing those pieces from the beginning while continuing to add research throughout.
- I don’t polish the writing until I have a structure in place; I don’t want to commit to transitions that won’t end up being useful if the structure changes.
- As I write, I generally asked myself questions; rewrote very complicated language as more simple and more direct. I had to often translate political jargon but still had to have the text be accurate and complex where it needed to be.
- I finished a very rough draft of book, which was basically text in complete sentences about every area I wanted to hit. I then let it sit for a day and went back from the beginning to read through; I had to fix 1000 problems, then do more research as needed. I began trimming stuff that seemed clearly extraneous, but I saved “cut stuff” in a separate Scrivener file.
- I then sent the draft file it to my fantastic editor Kelly; within a very short time, she sent me feedback about all the problems.
- I always get overwhelmed at this stage, because there’s simply no way to escape: these are all the hardest things in a project that must be fixed for the project to work. At this stage, I translate problems into a to-do list to make it seem more doable; tackle them not sequentially but randomly and by my energy level.
I have to say that I’m most proud of this to-do list, and it feels to me like the heart of a book. These are the huge problems I couldn’t figure out how to address, and I knew that if I could break them down into tasks, I could tackle a few at a time. Putting my weird double-hash check-mark next to each item is a tiny victory. You can see that there’s a mess in the middle where arrows connect a few of the to-do’s; even at this stage I am unsnarling connections between the various items and re-shuffling. Transitions are always a problem for me, and items on this list required more research to clarify points, to add information, and to continue to turn long chunks into accessible language. This focused part felt really hard; I was tired from the burn of the project, and I had to get it done while also finishing the semester, but I was motivated because we were so close.
Then, about 4 weeks later, after lots of discussions about promotion and everything else, the books actually arrived. And I slept a LOT.
And there it is! Would I do it again? OMG don’t challenge me! I think I also damaged some nerves in my neck, so if I do it again I’m going to need a physical therapy and massage team on hand. 🙂 But it’s cool to know it’s possible!