You may have heard that publishers want nonfiction authors to have a platform. What is a platform? Well, it’s a confusing concept. (Jane Friedman has one of the best explanations I’ve seen here.) In a nutshell, your platform is your means of reaching readers. Publishers like to know there’s an audience of readers out there who are predisposed to buy what you’ve written.
One proven author platform is professional expertise. If you are a recognized expert in your field, you have the influence and authority publishers — and readers — want to see in an author.
Of course, that means you have to find to time to build up professional experience and write books. Dr. Laurence Steinberg — a Temple University professor of psychology, member of numerous professional organizations, and the author of hundreds of studies and articles for professionals, parents, and the general public — has made the combination work. His latest book, Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, draws on and extends his extensive study of teens and young adults.
In this interview you’ll learn:
- The power of sharing ideas with your network
- Why you don’t have to know everything about your subject before you start
- Ways to schedule your time for maximum productivity
HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Age of Opportunity?
Laurence: The idea evolved over time. Originally, I planned on writing a book about the elongation of adolescence as a stage of life – in fact, the working title of the book was The Longest Decade. But as I wrote, and through conversations with my agent, Jim Levine, and my editor, Eamon Dolan, I came to see that this was probably not the main point I wanted to build the book around. The fact that adolescence is longer than ever is interesting, but the fact that it is a time of incredible brain “plasticity,” or malleability, is much more exciting, and has many more implications for parents, schools, and society. Unlike the previous books I had written, the narrative of Age of Opportunity changed a lot as I wrote it.
HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?
Laurence: I think my work on the project really began when I started searching for a new literary agent. I was emailing with the terrific journalist and author, Jennifer Senior (All Joy and No Fun), who had interviewed me for a piece she was writing about adolescence. I told her what I was thinking about and she encouraged me to develop it into a book proposal. I began emailing agents I was interested in working with, which forced me to put into words the ideas that were just only beginning to gel. I’m sure that if I were to go back to those initial emails, I’d see a very different idea for a book than what I ultimately wrote. Once I decided to sign with Jim (Levine) and started writing a proposal to take to different publishers, he and I began talking and emailing about the book and, as we did, it became clear that the focus of the book should be the fact that adolescence is the new “zero-to-three.” I give Jim credit for that. The next step was developing a final proposal, which is when the outline of the book really took form, although even that changed as I began working with Eamon (Dolan).
HDYWT: How do you organize your research?
I’m pretty obsessive in this regard. I write detailed outlines for each chapter and then create folders on my computer that correspond to different sections. Because the book covers a lot of topics I’ve been studying for some time, I knew where to go for the latest research findings. As a professor at a major research university, I automatically have online access to virtually every academic journal that is published. So it was fairly easy for me to find the most important articles published on each topic, download them, and file them on my computer. As I read, I’d discover new leads and follow them up by tracking down articles that had been referenced. Because I’m trained as a scientist, I know how to go through a scientific publication fairly quickly and find the information I need. If I didn’t understand something (some of the brain science was very technical, and I’m not a neuroscientist by training), I’d email the author with questions or ask one of my colleagues. People were amazingly generous with their time. I suppose it helps to be a member of the same “club.”
HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?
Laurence: A typical day of research in connection with writing Age of Opportunity involved a lot of internet “foraging.” I’d come across an interesting paper that raised a point I hadn’t considered, then I’d start searching for more information on the topic. I’d keep at it until I felt that I had gotten a handle on it. I learned so much while working on this book. For example, in one part of the book I needed to explain why the age of puberty had continued to drop, so I started poking around the endocrinology literature. Then I serendipitously discovered a couple of papers from a group of scientists in France showing that kids who live near the equator go through puberty earlier than those who live closer to the poles, and that this had something to do with exposure to light. This then led me into the literature on brain chemistry and how exposure to light affects melatonin production, which in turn affects the production of a substance called “kisspeptin,” which triggers the onset of puberty. One of the factoids I discovered is that kisspeptin got its name because it was discovered in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where chocolate “kisses” are manufactured. So those research days were a lot of fun, and I never knew where the foraging would take me.
I keep a very disciplined schedule when I am actually writing. I tend to do my best work in the morning, so I’m usually at my desk by 7. I always begin by rereading and editing the chapter I’m working on at the time. I start at the beginning of the chapter, no matter how far along I had gotten the previous day, and edit the material again. Then I start writing new material where the old stuff left off. I force myself to write at least 1,000 words of new material a day. Writers have different styles – some are slow and methodical, and their first drafts are very similar to their final drafts. That’s not me. I write very quickly and then do a lot of rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting. I also try to get up and walk around my study a bit every hour or so. When I’ve hit the wall (as long as I have 1,000 new words), I stop and head to the gym. When I get back, it’s usually cocktail hour.
Days when I’m promoting the book vary a lot, so it is hard to generalize. Usually I’ll have a series of phone interviews for live or taped radio, or for podcasts, which have been arranged by my publisher. During the intense period following the book’s launch, I travelled around the country doing a combination of media interviews (some in person, others by phone from my hotel room) and evening lectures.
What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?
Laurence: As I mentioned earlier, the most important tool for me is unlimited online access to scientific journals through my university’s library. My favorite writing tool is actually The New Yorker. I love the rhythm of their good nonfiction pieces, and I try to get that rhythm into my head, almost like a piece of music. It actually doesn’t matter what the topic is — in fact, I try not to read things on topics that are very close to what I’m working on. But during times when I’m writing, I read a lot of nonfiction from that magazine. I also like to read and reread Phillip Lopate’s great essay, “Waiting for the Book to Come Out” during the time between submitting the manuscript and publication. It helps keep expectations realistic.
Bonus question: You have studied and written extensively about adolescence for forty years. What keeps this subject fresh for you?
Laurence: I find it endlessly fascinating, and there is always new research being published, so there are always new things to think about. Because I still am actively teaching and doing research — and have a textbook that I have to revise and update every three years — I need to stay on top of things. My problem is never a shortage of things that are interesting. It’s that there is always too much to read, and too little time.