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:

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 10.38.42 AM
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.

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 10.38.54 AM
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:

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 10.39.06 AM
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:

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 10.39.18 AM
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.

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 6.04.13 PM

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!

Should You Share It With the World?

IMG_5432A friend asked me a great question recently: how do you know when to put a difficult life event out there in the world, either on a blog or as a submission to a publication? She asked wonderful questions about motives: what are we doing when we share the hard stuff?

My first motive in writing is sometimes exploratory and sometimes to vent. When I’m upset about something, I mull in a journal. But I also take notes as a writer. I notice the details that accompany the cataclysms because I know I’ll need those details later for essays. I also record the details because they anchor me to life when my feelings get huge and threaten to blot out the texture and complexity of a day.

I write first drafts from anger, or confusion, or lost-ness, or a desire to make a feeling go away. I think I keep coming back to writing because it does change things emotionally. It undoes new and older knots in my heart through the discipline of reflection. Some people shake their heads at “writing as therapy” as if therapy is a bad thing. I love therapy! Thank you, my legion of therapists! What people mean when they shake their heads at “writing as therapy” is only that they don’t want to read someone’s first or even fifth draft. They want art. You have to keep writing to get to what you can share.

The real emotional benefit of writing doesn’t even come with the first draft. When I am forced to make something art-ish out of this raw material, I have to fit it into a structure that takes a reader into account. I have to create scenes, think about implications, ask myself the hard questions. Trying to make art gives the benefit of perspective—not necessarily a distanced or calm view, because I’m not always calm, nor should that be our ideal, because it’s such a thin slice of the human experience, and sometimes we write with righteous clarity. Writing and drafting provides three or four different perspectives, usually including one where I ask myself what is really really at the heart of the hard question my essay has found itself asking. And that’s the surprise that only an essay delivers, because only the challenge of a decent essay demands that surprise. So it’s not therapy because your therapist (thankfully) doesn’t sit down and say, Make something beautiful.

So my motive in writing something is to explore, to get to a new perspective. My motive in publishing, however, is more complicated. Sometimes I want words on a subject out in the world because I hope they will help someone else. Sometimes I am feeling isolated in my struggle with something and I want to have that sense of connection for myself. Sometimes I know something is “done” or at least as done as it’s going to get. Sometimes I am feeling that a wrong needs to be righted, and that if I put my perspectives out there, those words will do something: expose, heal, reveal.

I have had that experience with publishing my most personal essays. People respond and say thank you, and that feels good—but it always feels strangely removed. I learn that affirmation from strangers is good—it’s amazing. But it’s also raw and makes me feel shaky and exposed.

I’ve shared important chunks of my life in my writing, and I will continue to do so. Some people say this is exhibitionism, and that memoir along with Facebook are somehow responsible for the oversharing nature of our culture. I don’t believe this. I think this shaming about oversharing is an attempt to get people to be quiet about their real messy lives, because honesty about our messiness leads to people getting together around that messiness and leads to social change. Instead, we live in an exhibitionist culture because conspicuous consumption is so, well, conspicuous. This was something that the sociologist Thorsten Veblen was fascinated by. Bragging about your fancy vacations is exhibitionist. Driving an extremely fancy car and making reality shows about your over-the-top lifestyle is exhibitionism. Rush Limbaugh is incredibly over-the-top exhibitionist with his rage. Compared to that, pushing “publish” on your blog to share a hard and honest truth about your life is not a big deal unless your motive is to get attention in order to heal a wound. Attention itself doesn’t heal wounds, and in some cases it creates them.

So I want to turn the conversation about publishing to one of self-care. When you’re deciding whether or not to publish something, ask yourself how the characters involved would react if they read it—not because an AWP panel is going to judge you if you don’t, but because it will hurt you if your relationships suffer. And you’ve probably already suffered enough if you’re contemplating revealing something hard. The conversation about publishing should be also about whether you yourself are safe enough, supported enough, and strong enough to take and process whatever might come at you as the result of sharing something hard. Do you have a good shrink (if you go for that sort of thing)? Have you showed this piece of writing to a few good friends? Are they solidly in your corner?

Let’s get down to the nitty gritty: Have you been sleeping well lately? How have you been eating? I’ve been crappy about both of those things in the last few weeks, personally, so I know I’m under stress. When I’m stressed is not the time to publish something really hard, because putting something personal out there is going to add an additional layer of stress. But maybe—and this is often the case—I’m partially stressed partially because I’m mulling over something that needs to go in a hard essay—so back to the writing, and I know I can publish later.

The question of whether to publish is a gut question. Try to write directly about your motives in the essay: what do I want the reader to get from this? Do I want someone to say that what I went through is shitty? I have found that when I want readers to affirm something I went through, the writing is not ready yet. That’s when I show it to friends, and they tell me that what I went through is shitty. They pound on the table in the coffee shop. Then they tell me that paragraph two is filled with abstractions and bad analogies. They get me to the point where I’m trying to make art—and that is the payoff in and of itself.

Somehow, when my writing buddies push me toward art, I let go for a second of my rage or my sadness. And oh my god, that there is the most delightful feeling in the world. That is half the joy of art, I think—an absorbing task about something awful that ends up with twinges of beauty. This is also why people ride motorcycles: they are dangerous and they demand your complete attention to operate, and it is that undivided dangerous attention that provides a release from your habitual thoughts. So yay for us: a laptop is much cheaper and doesn’t need a parking space.

Part of the beauty in an essay is you: Are you giving yourself enough credit in this piece of writing? Are you at a place where you can see you did the best you could? Being harsh on myself in an essay is a sign that I haven’t mulled the material over enough. Another hard question: Have you found something raw and surprising in the experience, and have you put it in a bubble of perfect language so that the horrible memories themselves are transformed like Christmas ornaments into paragraphs that hang together somewhat at a distance, where maybe they won’t hurt as much anymore?

If that’s the case, press “publish” or “submit.”

Writing Process

I’ve been tagged by the fantastic Dinty W. Moore to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour, in which writers talk briefly about their writing process and then pass the project on to three more writers like a chain letter. Dinty is editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Nonfiction, which you have to read. Have to. It’s the best brief nonfiction around. He’s the author of several excellent books, including Between Panic and Desire, a collection that I love and regularly teach from, as well as a forthcoming (yay!) collection that  includes cocktail napkins. He’s a photographer, an artist, a former dancer, and also a very excellent human being. And funny. Did I mention that?

from left to right: Pineapple, me, kielbasa, my husband Cliff. Photo by Bryan Crandall, and this will make sense by the end of the post.
from left to right: Pineapple, me, kielbasa, my husband Cliff. Photo by Bryan Crandall, and this will make sense by the end of the post.

I’ve done this once before, but it’s come around again, and I can’t say no to ANYTHING (not true, but working on it…but obviously…) so I thought I’d give it another shot to see if my answers had changed.

1) What are you working on?

Since April 2014, when I last participated in the blog tour, my answer has changed. I’m working on a bunch of things at the same time: a book on chronic pain, a project about boundaries and borders and income inequality, and a collection of stuff about teaching the literary essay. I also have “finished” a memoir about living in the presence of substance abuse. I put the word “finished” in quotes because the book has not found a home, has not really started even looking for a home, so a thousand things could happen before it sees the light of day. But I need a break from it, so I took a few weeks off and then started dabbling in all the other things I want to do.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I’m not sure. More swearing, maybe. If the genre is “memoir,” then I sometimes include have more research. If the genre is “essays,” then I am more memoirish. Between two playgrounds. I think I wrote that last time. But my genre–I guess that would be literary nonfiction–is very wide and broad, so there’ s lot of room to play.

3) Why do you write what you do?

I need containers for my questions, and each project ends up organizing itself around a central set of those questions–though the books and projects rarely answer them. They just provide targets for me to throw things at for a while and then I exhaust myself long enough to move on to other questions.

4) How does your writing process work?

In the previous writing process post, I wrote  about my need to protect at least an hour a day to write, and how much can sometimes happen in that hour. In the last month, I’ve experienced a little of the flipside: sometimes I go to my desk and I honestly don’t know what I’ll be working on.  I’m between big projects and coming off a period of intense work. I’ve had to relearn how to noodle in various different projects at once and to be comfortable with that. I still put in my hour, but sometimes I’m staring at multiple documents wondering what to work on and feeling a little lost.

That’s okay. It still counts as writing. It’s deep thinking about where to go next. Indecision is a close-up view of one point in the decision-making process.

I love the feeling of being deeply in love and obsessed with one book, but that inevitably turns to being sick of the project as it gets close to being done. And then I panic: was that it? Was that my last big obsession and my last hopefully-a-book? I always forget that I have several open folders in my Dropbox, each of which has been gathering links and thoughts for years. I go back and forth between questions. When I’m tired of working on my “big thing” at the time, I collect thoughts for the “next thing.” And then when a “big thing” is done, I see what I’ve collected in the “next things” folder.

Now, I’m passing the torch to three writers I admire, and one of them took the kielbasa and pineapple photo and gave us these things as gifts:

Robert Greene II, a former student of mine at Georgia Southern University who is currently a Ph.D. candidate in American History at the University of South Carolina. He is going places. We will all know his name one day. He blogs at the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (I know, right?) and you can also find him on Twitter.

Bryan Ripley Crandall is a great friend I met when I started at Fairfield University. Literally on the first day of school, at new faculty orientation, we sat next to each other and couldn’t shut up. He is one of those people that makes magic happen, that connects people, that allows other people to shine. He does incredible work with the Connecticut Writing Project and makes community happen. He really inspires me and has helped me connect with service projects in the Bridgeport Public School system. And as SOON as I told him about this, he went home and wrote a wacky yet thoughtful post about writing, the writing process, kielbasa, pineapple, and so on. He published his BEFORE I published this, so I think that means the blog tour has defied the space-time continuum. Or something.

(Tangent: where my husband is from, a small town in west-central PA, EVERYONE gets a nickname. Many of these are ridiculous. I can’t even begin to describe it. I am waiting for him to write a huge essay about it. But they have even nicknamed kielbasa. They call it “kobo.” You needed to know that.)

And the third person is a three-headed fantastic hydra, the collective writing blog It’s Just Brunch, made up of Colin Hosten, Zac Zander, and Kate Gorton.These three have and will continue to make us proud!They are Fairfield MFA alums; you can learn more about the Fairfield low-res program here if you like.