How to Write a Book in Two Weeks

 

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:

  1. Never do this. But doing big unfamiliar projects on short time-frames is possible.
  2. Time this amazing opportunity to coincide with your child’s spring-break visit to his father out of state.
  3. 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:

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Screen shot of notebook view in Evernote with pictures of topics on various notebooks

And this is the “page” view within a notebook. You can also nest notebooks inside notebooks; it’s a dream.

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Screen shot of page view in Evernote
  • 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:

 

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Screen shot of list of Word files stored in DropBox

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:

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Screen shot of Scrivener with long list of topic sub documents down left hand side

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. I read memoirs and biographies (I read 3: 2 written by her and 1 written about her; thankfully I read fast)
  4. 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.
  5. 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?
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

    Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 11.02.51 AM
    Keanu Reeves is my research spirit animal. (pic of wide-eyed Keanu Reeves as Ted in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”)
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. My first draft was huge and very source heavy; that’s ok, they can always be taken out later.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.

    Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 11.15.01 AM
    Picture of a handwritten to-do list with hash marks along the left-hand margin and arrows connecting items.

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.

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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!

Two Eyes Are Never Enough

TwoEyesNeverEnoughMy ebook on direct care workers is now available from SheBooks!

Two Eyes are Never Enough: A minimum-wage memoir
is an ebook that was just released, one in a new series of short ebooks by women, including some writers whose work I follow and love, including Hope Edelman, Susan Ito, Faith Adiele, Marion Winik, and many more forthcoming. Each mini-book is made for any e-reader and at a great price: $2.99.

This piece is the length of a long magazine article, and it explores the world of direct care workers, those who work in nursing homes, residential care centers, and mental health facilities. They are often immigrants, often women of color, usually working for very low pay. I once did that work, which got me interested in the first place. That’s why the piece is called a memoir, though there’s a good chunk of reporting in there too.

How to Support Direct Care Workers

Much of this little e-book is about the physical and emotional labor of caring for others, particularly those in crisis. It’s hard work, sometimes physically dangerous, yet often very low-paying; in fact, home health care workers–one category of direct care workers–are not even covered by minimum wage legislation, which is outrageous. Yet there are many organizations advocating to change this. One huge victory came about late last year, when legislation was passed to cover these workers, which have been left out of wage protection since 1974. This ruling is scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2015, but there are twists and turns ahead: it was just reported last Saturday in the New York Times editorial page (“No Reason to Delay Fair Wages,” 5/17/14) that a group representing state Medicaid officials is asking for a delay in implementation.

As the editorial states:

“Sixteen states already require that home care workers be covered under state wage and hour laws, so there is a template for how to apply the federal rule. The rule change was researched and analyzed for almost two years before being finalized last September… Any delay would further the exploitation of home care workers–mostly women, minorities and immigrants–who bathe, dress, and feed elderly and disabled clients and assist them with other daily activities. For-profit home care agencies that pay subminimum wages or deny overtime and state Medicaid officers accustomed to balancing their budgets on the backs of underpaid labor will have to get used to paying more.”

If you’re interested in getting active on these issues and adding your voice, consider supporting one of these organizations:

Caring Across Generations: A coalition of nonprofits and unions working for legislation and public attention.

Direct Care Alliance: An advocacy group for direct care workers.

National Domestic Workers Alliance

Thoughts on the Writing Process

This piece of writing has been a labor of love, and a tough nut to crack: I started writing this piece about twenty years ago as I worked in direct care, writing journal entries to help me process my experiences. I published a few articles in small magazines that explicitly called for change in the way that mental health was staffed in these centers. Then, I put it aside.

Thirteen years ago, I tried to approach it from a journalistic perspective and delved into this problem for my major project for a master’s thesis in journalism on this topic at Ohio State University as part of the Kiplinger Fellowship Program. I queried many magazines but couldn’t get interest because the topic seemed depressing and completely “unsexy.” This fundamental unsexiness of women and low-wage work was so hard to write into, because it’s a bedrock blind spot in our society. We take the presence of these workers for granted, so much so that this is the fabric of our society, the one we don’t even comment on. We expect low-wage female workers to care for our bodies and our spirits when we falter and when we die.

Then, during my MFA program, I wrote the story again, from the memoir side, which resulted in an essay that was a finalist for an AWP “Intro” award and was later published in Kaleidoscope: A Journal of Disability Studies.

I pretty much gave up on it until last year, at which time I tipped the balance back and forth between memoir and journalism. The challenge was that I couldn’t find a way to make it “light.” Being less ranty is my cross to bear as a writer, and sometimes I apologize too much for ranting when I should just let it rip with a good old-fashioned harangue. Having done the work and having been a labor activist for a long time, I had lots of commitment to this issue. I wasn’t a journalist who had gone into this as an investigation. I was first a patient, then a worker, then an activist, then a writer. Writing on subjects I care the most about–especially political subjects–has been a challenge when it comes to voice and tone.

The essay is a flexible form, and I believe the essay can contain not only dispassionate observation but also engagement and multiple emotions including anger. But “the essay” is often thought of as a bit distanced, maybe a bit removed, maybe even a bit arty. I love much of that stuff. I write some of it. However, I read many examples of the form that don’t look like the essays I want to write, which is fine. For balance, and for encouragement, I have found it important to read and re-read to examples of engaged essayists like James Baldwin, Jamaica Kincaid, Joy Williams, Rebecca Solnit, George Orwell, and Cherrie Moraga, as well as my recent favorite Kiese Laymon. I like my essays troubled and even sometimes downright mad.

What is an essay? Can it include hot-button, yell-out, pissed-off? Can it have an agenda? Is it marked only by formal experimentation or reflection on a subject whose sting has faded with the passage of time? We shouldn’t confuse the full breadth of possibilities in an essay with a narrowed sense of the role or voice of the average essay. While distance and perspective are important, it is sometimes impossible in a practical sense to step away from one’s vivid emotions. If your topic itself is a large social problem, that topic and its resultant pain will persist over time. Does this mean you should not be an essayist? No–on the contrary, I think. I believe the world needs more essayists and essays that trouble their subjects–not at the surface level of form or fragmentation (though that is fine too, and all respect to those who do that work), but at the deep level of wrestling with a topic, coming away from that topic changed, acknowledging that the topic itself is bigger than the author.

Update: Here’s a blog post I wrote over at the Direct Care Alliance on this book!

Thanks for reading. And check out all the great titles at

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Opa Nobody

Opa Nobody, University of Nebraska Press, American Lives Series, 2008

Huber final coverISBN: 0803243626

Hardcover: $24.95; Paperback: $18.95

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“[S]harp human insights on the omnipresent moral complications of living in Nazi Germany make this a worthwhile read. . . . [A] unique, imaginative take on the family memoir.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Grounded in extensive research and enriched by family anecdotes. . . . The result is thoughtful discourse on political activism and the toll exacted from those dedicated to unpopular causes.”—Deborah Donovan, Booklist

“In her first book, teacher and activist Huber reaches across time and space to find guidance and camaraderie in the reconstructed life of Heina Buschmann, the German grandfather she never met. . . . Family relationships and political situations are wrought finely enough to illustrate what’s at stake for Heina.”—Publishers Weekly

“In every chapter, [Huber] weaves stories of her activist life with richly imagined scenes of her grandfather, reconstructing his life from anecdotes and documentary evidence. . . . By connecting with history on such a personal level, she reveals how ordinary citizens can get swept up into movements of all kinds; allegiance is never as simple as a membership card. Most radically of all for a progressive activist, Huber embraces the past. Instead of tossing it all out in search of something new, she ties a firm knot between then and now.”—Karrie Higgins, Los Angeles Times

“Writing family history is a notoriously fraught enterprise. . . . Sonya Huber’s book of creative nonfiction, Opa Nobody, tracks an innovative course through this thorny landscape. . . . [I]t is precisely Huber’s play with the imaginative possibilities in the gaps between historical fact and family memory that makes her project so poetic and moving. . . . Through her admirably candid writing, Huber makes visible the inability of political activism to manage failure and despair.”—Valerie Weaver-Zercher, The Christian Century

Opa Nobody is good, folks. . . . Fiction and nonfiction flow together so easily under Huber’s control that it looks easy to accomplish. . . . Opa Nobody is a masterful book and a testament to the talent of its author. After reading this, there will be many people impatient for Sonya Huber’s next work. I am.”—Connect Statesboro

“There’s plenty to learn from [Opa Nobody’s] accessible and accurate portrayal of a leftist German family before and during World War II. Its evocation of the sense of revolutionary possibility and political tumult is especially effective. . . . It reminds us that now more than ever, we need political histories that feed both our politics and our hearts.”—Chloe Tribich, Against the Current (Detroit)

“Opa Nobody wasn’t really sad after all, not entirely. True, as I sat on the couch waiting for the clamor of the Buschman Family to melt from my mind, I felt a bizarre cocktail of emotions: regret for that family torn by poverty, politics, and fascist war; horror at the Holocaust and the way evil governments can turn people into animals; and fear for my future as a father in a country wrought with its own sense of superiority. But under all that, there was hope.”— Joey Franklin, Brevity

Opa Nobody is a masterful layering of lives, a beautifully readable and often poetic tracing of the heart lines between grandfather and granddaughter, old leftie and new, Nazi-era German rabble-rouser and present-day American activist. Sonya Huber imagines her way into her hero’s childhood, his neighborhoods, his friendships, and finally into his passions—both political and romantic—which in the end are her own. The research in Opa Nobody is prodigious, the history fascinating, the quest for justice inspiring, but the lives here are what will keep you reading, page after page, long into the clamorous night.”—Bill Roorbach, author of Temple Stream and Big Bend

“Sonya Huber is a writer of remarkable talent and courage. With great passion and skill, she resurrects her grandfather in this story of a family in the years leading up to and away from Hitler’s Third Reich. Painstakingly researched and richly imagined, Opa Nobody is a brave book of politics, history, and love—a book filled with an irrepressible embrace of humanity.”—Lee Martin, author of The Bright Forever and From Our House

“Sonya Huber begins her innovative memoir with a question: ‘Why try to change the world?’ Thus begins an intimate dialogue with her long-dead, activist grandfather—part fact, part imagination—that delves into the nature of political resistance and the toll this stance takes on those intrepid souls who dare to live on the edge of change.”—Brenda Miller, author of Season of the Body and coauthor of Tell It Slant

Backwards Research Guide for Writers

BackwardsEquinox Publishing, Writing & Pedagogy Series, ed. Dr. Martha Pennington, 2011. ISBN: 1845534425

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The Backwards Research Guide for Writers: Using your Life for Reflection, Connection and Inspiration (FRAMEWORKS FOR WRITING)

The Backwards Research Guide for Writers: Using Your Life for Reflection, Connection and Inspiration demystifies the writing process by inviting writers of all levels to focus on their passions, questions, and obsessions as the key to generating seeds for further exploration of the world around them. Writers then develop these questions into focused projects that explore the teller’s central role in the open-ended quest of unfolding a research topic. The boom in narrative journalism, memoir, and creative nonfiction has generated wonderful writing, but no resource for writers exists to bridge the gap between passionate research and the page. This book addresses that gap by turning the task of “research” on its head and by speaking to students who resist the idea of research as an objective and dry assignment. Students are invited to experiment creatively with collecting observations and information and then to step beyond their subjective realities to interact with the world around them and ultimately become vulnerable authors willing to change their perspectives as they research and write.

The book has been used successfully in English Composition classes and in Qualitative Research Methods courses in Political Science.

Developed with input from college student writers, The “Backwards” Research Guide for Writers is relevant as a text for undergraduate and postgraduate courses in composition, creative nonfiction, literary journalism, and feature writing as well as for working journalists and other writers seeking a new way of approaching a writing project. It includes interviews with notable authors that focus not on the completed and intimidating project of a successful author, but on the project as it took shape and mystified a researcher. Another unique feature is a section in every chapter on ethics, as ethical questions are central to the writing process as well as a method for sparking interest in writing and learning. The guide includes extensive examples of research challenges and dilemmas, strategies for planning a research project, exercises for generating ideas, a guide for writing the research-based work, an appendix of on-line databases, a section in each chapter focused on ethics in research and writing called “gray matter,” a selection of recommended readings, and a bibliography of conventional research guides.

More on content, themes, and interviews with authors