Hillary Rettig is a teacher, an activist, and a writer. Her most recent book, The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, is a guide to understanding and overcoming procrastination. Here are her answers to five questions (plus one bonus question) about her writing process:
HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for your current project?
Hillary: My current project is a weight loss guide, How to Get Willpower for Weight Loss and Other Important Goals. It’s a topic that’s hugely important to me, since I and many members of my family have struggled with weight loss. And there are obviously a zillion other books on the same topic out there. I wouldn’t be writing it if I didn’t feel I could bring a fresh and useful perspective to the problem, and that perspective is that overweight and obesity are fundamentally procrastination, perfectionism, and time management problems. I think it’s going to be a great book, and help a lot of people, and sell well.
HDYWT: How did you get started on this project?
Hillary: While I was writing my prior book, The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, it was very clear that everything I was writing on procrastination, perfectionism, and time management also pertained to weight loss and other important goals. My initial idea was that I could basically “repurpose” 7 Secrets for this new topic by replacing all the nouns and verbs. As usual, however, it turned out to be a much bigger project than anticipated. At least 50% of the book is brand new, including sections on topics such as “societal causes of overweight,” “body ambivalence and body alienation,” and the “asymmetry” of weight loss — why it’s so much easier to gain weight than to lose it.
HDYWT: How do you organize your research?
Hillary: I’ve read around fifty books on weight loss, motivation, addiction, and related fields, and about the same number of scholarly and lay articles. By now, a year into the book, I’ve reread each of these several times, and highlighted and annotated them all thoroughly. This means I can hold their general ideas and viewpoints in my head while writing.
The above process may sound inefficient compared with, say, copying some juicy quotes and then tossing the source away forever, but I think it gives me a much deeper understanding of the topic, and also helps me to make connections among my sources. It also allows me, while writing, to pretty quickly locate information relevant to the section I’m working on. And while I’m reading, I often make notes right into the relevant chapter file of my manuscript. So my drafts are pastiches of polished prose, unpolished prose, and quotes and excerpts from my source materials. (The more I revise, the higher the ratio of polished prose to the rest.)
When the manuscript is finalized, I will reread all of these resources again to make sure I didn’t leave out or misrepresent something.
I’ve also got about a dozen diverse “alpha readers” who are interested in the topic, and whom I send chunks of the manuscript to as it’s written. They’re pretty good at sussing out passages that are under-researched or that don’t make sense, along with other problems. And I will probably also gather together all the scientific elements of the book — those pertaining to the medicine, nutrition, and psychology — and run those past experts. My book is mainly about motivation, though, and that’s my expertise, so I will be confident of its main points.
HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?
Hillary: I generally get up at 7 — earlier than I would like because of the dogs, who are implacable alarm clocks. I’m at my desk by 8, read some blogs and do some client and other “essential” emails for an hour, and then starting at 9 write for around four hours, including breaks, either on my books or a blog post or other topic. Sometimes I’ll do some telephone coaching during that period, although I never schedule anything except writing and coaching for the mornings, if I can help it.
I stop at around 1 or 2 p.m., then spend a couple of hours eating lunch and napping. Maybe there’s an alternate universe where I don’t get tired after lunch, but in this one I do, and since one of the perks of the writing life is that you set your own schedule, I indulge myself that way. I’m back up around 3; then do marketing and promotion for another 2-3 hours. By now it’s around 6 p.m. and I eat a light dinner, and then most nights either go for a long walk with my partner, or go to the gym. I get back no later than 8 p.m., and then do another hour or two of work.
At around 9 p.m., my partner and I might decide to watch some television — we try not to watch it any earlier, although I might watch a half-hour while eating lunch. But just as often we’ll sit together and do our work. I get a lot of my reading done in the evenings.
I’m usually in bed between 11 and 12, after having walked the dogs.
HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your toolbox?
Hillary: My tools are very basic, but they meet my needs, probably because a lot of my source material is in paper form. So: highlighters, web bookmarks, a timer to track my time use, and spreadsheets to track word counts, chapter counts, and other progress. I also constantly use Wikipedia (and donate to it monthly). It wasn’t long ago that one had to make a phone call or visit a library to confirm every.single.piece.of.information, so I don’t take Wikipedia for granted!
I work in OpenOffice on a GNU/Linux system because I despise Microsoft and Apple’s pro-DRM, anti-privacy, and other politics. [http://www.fsf.org/] If Scrivener is ever released for GNU/Linux, I would jump on that.
Bonus question: What do you wish someone could have told you before you started this project?
Hillary: Nothing, really. I knew what I was getting into!