How did you write that, Katrin Schumann?

katrinKatrin Schumann is a busy book doctor, editor, writer, and teacher. Her most recent book is The Secret Power of Middle Children, co-authored with Dr. Catherine Salmon.

For the expert, co-authorship is a powerful way to get one’s ideas heard. But what’s it like from the other side? How does the expert find a co-author, and what is the co-author expected to bring to the collaboration?

In this interview, you’ll learn

  • Katrin’s tips for staying organized and on-time
  • what you need to bring to a book partnership
  • the necessary requirement for succeeding in traditional publishing

secretHDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for The Secret Power of Middle Children?

Katrin: My agent approached me with the idea. She was working with a birth order expert on putting together a proposal and they were having trouble finding the right voice and organizing the manuscript. I was immediately interested because I have three children and was intrigued by the notion that the middle is overlooked and underestimated.

Also, I felt I could bring something valuable to the table as I had done a lot of parenting research and surveys for my first book. My co-author was an academic expert with no experience in the field, so to speak (she is not a parent). I far prefer collaborations in which I can explore my own ideas and insights. When I am committed to the core idea of the book, the process of planning, researching and writing is exciting for me. Finally, I loved the idea that this book is the first of its kind.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Katrin: I started by writing a proposal, which was harder than I expected. We knew what the book was going to be about, but we hadn’t quite figured out the angle or the hook. It took a few iterations and some major rewrites of the first chapter to figure out both the hook and the overall structure.

This is where the agent and I really worked well together, and where you must be willing to shift and refine your ideas if you want to succeed with traditional publishing. I believe in hammering out a succinct and solid proposal—it will impress editors (we went to auction on the basis of the proposal) and it later provides a well-thought out plan for writing the book.

It was only after writing and selling the proposal that I flew out to L.A. to meet my co-author, go through all her research, and discuss the finer details of each chapter. I didn’t necessarily have to do this, but I figured if we’d be working together for a year and eventually doing publicity together, knowing her personally would be helpful.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Katrin: I am a big fan of visual aids, which means I tend not to rely much on technology. I take notes on college-lined spiral bound notebooks (of which I now have dozens). I write on only one side of the paper so that I can scribble additional information (quotes, anecdotes, research, questions) on the facing page later as I begin the process of writing the book.

I use Dropbox for sharing material and I create bookmark folders for each chapter. I have a whiteboard, which I use to write down my to-do’s and map out each day. I also use a corkboard to tack up chapter titles, images, reminders etc.

An important thing I do immediately is work out my deadlines: when is the book due and how much do I need to write per week? As I’m usually working on more than one project at a time and often collaborating with other people, this is critical. I am meticulous about staying on schedule as it keeps stress levels in check for all concerned.

One aspect of this work that I have improved over the years is gathering references together for all the research in the book. I used to be sloppy about this and have learned the hard way that it pays to be more organized.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Katrin: My schedule has varied a lot over the years because of my responsibilities running a household and taking care of my children. I used to hire babysitters and work about six hours a day—but those hours were sporadic. Now that my children are older and drive themselves or take a bus to school, I have a lot more freedom.

Typically, I am at my desk at 7:30am. I have a small office outside the home now as my husband began working from home and having him interrupt me was making writing tortuous. I like to work in an attractive environment (i.e., I like to be surrounded by beautiful colors and plants and artwork). This might be because I work with intense focus and rarely get up to eat or walk around. I average about ten hours a day when I’m in the office, and I love it. I’m trying to be better about taking breaks and doing things like exercising. Whenever I teach in Boston or am doing interviews or traveling, my days are much shorter.

Promotion is quite different. I try to clear my schedule for a few months so I can engage in promotion without going crazy. I have to be ready at the drop of a hat. I make sure I have appropriate clothing at hand, and notes in various formats so I’m ready for TV and radio, as well as print and online media. This part of my work is incredibly time consuming but also quite a thrill.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox? 

Katrin: I actually think my favorite tool is the one I use the least, which is indulging in something that is pure fun. Invariably, when I go to a museum and see a gorgeous painting, make time to go to another writer’s reading, hang out with my kids, watch a great show on TV or lounge around reading the New Yorker or People magazine, an idea pops into my head that later helps me with my work. It seems I am always thinking about writing in one way or another, even when I’m not aware of it.

Bonus question: What’s your advice to someone who is thinking of co-writing a book with a subject matter expert?

Katrin: Leave your ego at the door. Always be professional and timely, not obsequious, authoritative but not bossy. Hammer out timing details early on and make sure each person knows exactly what he or she is responsible for. Never send an e-mail when you are frustrated; wait a few hours. Be upfront about everything, including your limitations, interests, talents, ideas and concerns. Don’t be afraid to admit you’re wrong and don’t insist on recognition if you’re right.

Stay focused on your goals. Ideally, bring energy and insight to the project rather than relying solely on the expert. Before you launch into the publicity phase, recognize that the expert may have different goals than you do. This will help avoid disappointment and allow you to enjoy the experience more.


How did you write that, Sarah Park Rankin?

sp-e1428056938680Sarah Park Rankin is a writer and book designer living in Mount Holly, North Carolina. She recently published Common Threads: Gastonia and Gaston County Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, and has worked as a designer, production artist, and photo editor for a number of other books and publications. If you’re interested in writing about local history, you can learn from Sarah’s experience.

  • How to shape your book within a given framework
  • Ways to work with images
  • Which tools can make your project more manageable

threads-e1428056974999HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Common Threads?

Sarah Park: I used to work for the Gaston County chamber of commerce, and when they were approached by the publisher to sponsor a book commemorating their centennial anniversary, they hired me for the project. The publisher works with organizations like chambers of commerce and historical associations across the country to produce books with a “then and now” focus, which generally feature a lot of photography comparing historical buildings and landmarks and their current status.

My book fits that basic framework, however I wanted to do something a little different. Since the sponsoring organization was a hundred years old, I wanted to narrow the focus of the book to the first quarter of the twentieth century. Gastonia was the epitome of a New South town, for good and ill, and those few decades were literally explosive. I could write about it forever. And because the chamber of commerce is primarily concerned with the civic, business, and commercial life of the community, I wanted to focus on that as well.

Luckily for me, the publisher was willing to stray a bit from their standard format. The book is still mainly focused on images, but they underpin the narrative I wanted to present: a portrait of a specific place at a specific time.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Sarah Park: Project is a good word for this. I was as much project manager as writer. This book is actually made up of production calendars and spreadsheets, databases, Dropbox folders, and metadata. So much metadata. One of the things that most excited (and later terrified) me was that every aspect of the book was mine. I did all the research, writing, photo sourcing, as well as the design and production work. Because of the publisher’s business model, I also had to produce about 40 local business profiles for the book, which were enormously complicated to schedule and organize. I spent a lot of time and took much geeky delight in setting up a flexible, powerful system to keep track of everything.

I started with photographs and I started with maps. The first call I made when I got the project was to a friend whose passion and personal mission is to archive, digitize, and restore images of Gaston County. He’s very generous but also very protective of his collection—as I said, he has a very strong sense of mission. I’d worked with him on a few other projects, and he knew my heart was pure, so to speak. I wanted active, visually compelling images with a strong sense of place. From many thousands of images, I built a database of a thousand or so, which ultimately were winnowed to the approximately 150 that made it into the book. I spent about a year researching, organizing, and really, just staring at them.

I also spent a lot of time with maps. Since I had restricted the scope of the book to the early twentieth century (though there is a bit of leeway on either side), I was obsessed with knowing what was where, and how it had changed over time. I wanted to know as precisely as possible where every image was taken, and I wanted to be able to stand in the same spot today.

As is the case in many towns, the mid-twentieth century brought a lot of changes to Gastonia’s downtown that most people regret today. In particular, a significant portion of downtown was demolished to sink train tracks below street level. Today it exists only in maps, photographs, and memory. Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, which exist for most communities in the country, were my main resource. Their level of detail is astonishing, and luckily for me several sets of Gaston County maps have been digitized at high resolution and made available online by the University of North Carolina. I overlaid them on the present day map in Google Earth, and spent a great deal of time moving back and forth in time. I also spent a lot of time driving and walking around, usually with a camera.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Sarah Park: This book really established how I will organize research for future projects in which text and images are completely integrated. A primary goal is to make sure my notes and work stay attached to the images, and that I can call up what I need without a lot of trouble. Again with the metadata.

I relied on a few reference works, but tried to use as many primary sources as possible—mainly maps, photographs, and city directories. When I wasn’t online, I was in the local history room of the public library.

I am always on the lookout for the PERFECT system, which is a highly efficient way to prevent myself from actually getting any work done.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Sarah Park: I like to write and think in the morning, and research in the afternoon. Writing is hard. I’m always fighting the urge to jump up and do something else, especially, for some reason, when it’s going well. When I’m researching, I need to have very specific goals or I’ll look up and realize I missed Christmas or something. I think I lost a presidential election and maybe a moon landing to Google Earth. I am terrible at promotion, and mainly work at not feeling too embarrassed to even talk about my book.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox? 

Sarah Park: My public library has a wonderful local history room. I am usually the only person in there, and through some combination of friendly spirits, light, and dust I’ve never found a better place to work. As a University of North Carolina alumnus, I am proud to say that their online library resources are incredible. So much great stuff has been put online, including all the Sanborn maps and decades worth of city directories. I can’t even say how much I love city directories. They are unbelievably rich and endlessly fascinating sources of information.

I am a big Dropbox user. My publisher was in Alabama and I’m in North Carolina, and everything we did was via shared Dropbox folders. I used Apple’s Aperture to organize and manage my whole collection of images, and Adobe Creative Suite for everything else. I like Scrivener, but more as a management/organization tool than as a writing tool.

Bonus question: What are the special challenges of writing about local history? What’s your best advice for someone who’d like to tackle a similar project about their hometown?

Sarah Park: I believe understanding the “where” of a place will lead you to the “who” and even the “why.”

I believe the biggest requirement in writing local history is to doubt everything you think you already know. Act as though you’re newly arrived and you know nothing about where you’ve just landed. Challenge the mythology. Never assume. Be respectful, but don’t worry so much about upsetting people. Local history can be very personal, which complicates and enriches the story in equal measure.

The most important question I ask as I research and write and even produce a book is, whose voice is not being heard in this story? Whose face is not being seen? In Common Threads, I thought it was crucial to keep everyone in the same story. I was writing about a small Southern town in the early twentieth century, and there were a lot of people whose experiences, whose work, whose presence simply wasn’t included as part of the story. At best it was a side note or an afterthought, at worst it just wasn’t there. The story of a place or a time is the story of the people who were there.

Don’t leave anyone out.


How did you write that, Kevin Birmingham?

birmingham-e1426597952473What better subject for St. Patrick’s Day than that glorious work of Irish literature, Ulysses? Kevin Birmingham‘s new book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for Jame Joyce’s Ulysses, tells the fascinating story of the censorship battles that raged on both sides of the Atlantic over Joyce’s masterwork. Along the way, he fills the reader in on the origins of modernism, the women’s movement, Joyce’s passion and profligacy, and the cultural fallout from World War I.

Kevin agreed to answer a few questions about his writing process for How Did You Write That

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for The Most Dangerous Book?

battleKevin: When I was in grad school, my first dissertation idea (there were many) involved the history of literary obscenity and censorship in the United States. I stepped aside from that project and, years later (while in the final throes of my actual dissertation) I returned to the topic and realized that no one had written the full story surrounding Ulysses, and it was so fascinating. There’s quite a lot of archival material about the case itself and the people surrounding it, so I knew it could be a book. It may have taken that years-long break for me to see the subject in a new light.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Kevin: I sifted through the published material, put together a basic outline of events and started writing them out as vignettes. It got more complicated as time went on, but I wanted to start telling the story to help get the feel of it.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Kevin: I organized it mostly around people. I had big folders for “Sylvia Beach” and “John Quinn,” and I eventually turned them into notes compiled in various Word documents. I had well over a thousand single-spaced pages of condensed notes, and that was the raw material for the book.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Kevin: I’m best with a routine and no internet access. So I head to a cafe where I’d have to pay an absurd amount to get online. I sit in the same seat, order the same breakfast and start revising the last few paragraphs I wrote before plunging ahead. I listen to music without lyrics or in a language I don’t understand. After three or four hours, I have lunch. Then I press ahead for another couple of hours. If it’s a busy day I’ll put in three more hours at another cafe. It sounds tedious even to write about the routine, but it works for me.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Kevin: I’ve recently started using OCR software called Abbyy Finereader Pro. I scan books, and the software will turn it into a searchable pdf or a Word document far more accurately than other programs I’ve seen. So I now have a fully searchable copy of, say, the complete letters of a certain author, and instead of transcribing them into a Word document, I can simply cut and paste the information I need.

Bonus question: The voice of The Most Dangerous Book is lively and literary. What is your advice for avoiding a dry, academic voice when writing scholarly nonfiction?

Kevin: Imagine your audience—and not in some vague, idealized way. Imagine particular people, people who are intelligent and curious but who don’t know much about your subject. Then imagine that you’re telling them everything you’re writing. Do you have their interest or not? Are they bored or confused or anxious? Are they inspired? Do they want to hear more? The paradox of writing is that it’s a solitary task with a deeply communal purpose. You’re by yourself when you’re writing, but you should never feel alone.


How did you write that, Ethan Gilsdorf?

EthanGilsdorf_DD_stufff_Mags_LR-e1422901846523Looking over Ethan Gilsdorf‘s list of credits, it’s clear the man has never met a genre of nonfiction he could not master. He’s a frequent instructor at Boston’s GrubStreet and has published hundreds of articles, but today he’ll be answering a few questions about his book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.

In this interview, you’ll learn:

  • How newspaper and magazine articles can launch a book.
  • The value of first-hand reporting.
  • Tips for promoting your work.

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks?

fantasy-199x300Ethan: My original idea was to write a memoir about my relationship with my mother, and her life. She had succumbed to a debilitating brain injury when I was 12 and she was 38—the same year I began to play Dungeons & Dragons and get sucked into fantasy worlds. That book never happened, but I began to see way I could explore my fascination with fantasy and gaming through the lens of my own life, as well as the cultural changes that had occurred since I was a nerd back in the 1970s and 1980s. My agent helped me shape the idea as a hybrid memoir, stunt journalism narrative, and pop cultural investigation into various subcultures, such as D&D players, Larpers and video gamers, to Harry Potter, cosplay and Lord of the Rings fan communities. How and why had fantasy and gaming gone so mainstream? What did it all mean? Those were my guiding ideas as I delved into researching and writing Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks. In the end, I was able to save one of the chapters from my “mom memoir” project which, seriously revised, became the prologue to FF&GG.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Ethan: In a panic. Seriously, I wish I’d had more of a method to my madness. But here is what happened. To write FF&GGI first began getting assignments from magazines and newspapers for stand-alone articles; a few of these later became chapters in the book. Once I had a book contract in hand and a small advance, I spent a year doing (simultaneously!) book/internet research, field work/interviews, and immersion journalism projects, as well as investigating my own past, which involved talking to family/old friends and analyzing my own personal archives of high school papers, photos, and old D&D paraphernalia.

I wanted each chapter to focus on a different subculture, so I picked a couple dozen ideas: exemplary events to attend, people to shadow and interview, and activities I could participate in — like dressing up in costume and camping with 12,000 medieval reenactors, for example; or spending a few weeks playing the video game World of Warcraft; or hanging out with Tolkien nerds at a convention in the UK for a weekend.

That said, I tried to — and for space reasons, had to — narrow the focus of my investigation to fantasy and gaming only. That meant skipping things like science fiction (my beloved Star Wars!), or superhero comics, and other nerd cultures. I was also limited by budget, which impacted where I could travel. I went on several trips across the nation, one to the UK and to France. I also decide to splurge on a trip to New Zealand to make a pilgrimage to the Lord of the Rings filming locations and Peter Jackson’s movie production facilities. Sadly, I had to ignore a LOT of ideas and leads, and even after my trips and experiences, and hundreds of pages of notes, much great material ended up on cutting room floor.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Ethan: Badly! I am terribly disorganized. I make lists, and jot down notes, and keep many Word docs laden with ideas, links, other stories. I buy books, I go to the library, and I look on Google a lot. I have lots of things scribbled on post-it notes. At times, it can all feel pretty overwhelming. And I definitely think you can research too much. It can get in the way of your own thinking and your own ideas.

I think I do my best research first-hand, with notebook in hand, and camera around my neck (or in my pocket), in the field, taking notes as I’m talking to people, and recording my observation and ideas. I do this while I’m engaged in some experience, such as mountain biking, or trying to sword fight, or wandering around talking to people at a convention. I learned this skill as a travel writer based in Paris for five years. There is no substitute for first-hand reportage.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Ethan: A research day is different from a writing day is different from book promotion day.

A research day usually has me out in the field somewhere, interviewing someone in person (where possible) or talking to them on the phone, or doing some archival work or Googling around the internet. This is a fun process as I get sucked down multiple rabbit holes.

A writing day, especially when I’m on deadline, is more fraught with stress. As a freelance journalist, usually I am trying to knock out some story or column (or at least the first draft of it) in a good solid 4 to 6 hour stretch (in between being seduced by social media). When I wrote Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, I was able to scale back my freelance work and focus more on my book writing. But I had less than a year from signing the contract to my deadline to do all my research and writing, so I had to become more disciplined than I’d ever been as a writer. I thumb-tacked a calendar to the wall in my office, made firm dates for the trips and travel that was needed for about 9 months of researching. I had to crank out 1 to 2 chapter a month, in and around all the travel. I gave myself deadlines, and tried to stick with my plan. And I did, more or less.

Book promotion is a different muscle. I slip into self-promotion mode. Back when Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks was a new book, a book promotion day might have involved contacting organizers of reading series, college professors, bookstores, potential reviewers, groups that might co-sponsor some promotion or event, or trying to write an op-ed and place it with a media outlet. Or I might have been giving a talk at a college or book fair, doing a radio show, or attending a convention and handing out postcards. I tried all kinds of things. I was a tireless self-promoter! Some of my tips can be found in a chapter I contributed to Chuck Sambuchino’s excellent book Create Your Writer Platform: The Key to Building an Audience, Selling More Books, and Finding Success as an Author.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox? 

Ethan: I’m a fan of several books, including Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark, a terrific book for those looking for big-picture and micro-level writing issues, and for memoir writers, Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss by Jessica Handler, and The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts which are both great help for those thinking about writing short or long-length memoir.

On a more practical level, if you’re easily distracted by the internet, I recommend installing these apps on your computer: Freedom and Antisocial are software to block access to the internet or social media only for discreet periods time, so you can increase your own productivity.

Bonus question: Dungeons & Dragons recently turned 40 (How is that possible?). Were you able to use that occasion to generate new publicity for your book?

Ethan: Short answer: yes! Anniversaries are great ways to make your expertise or niche area instantly timely and newsworthy. I wrote probably 10 different stories, op-eds, commentaries, posts and personal essays in 2014 that tied into the 40th anniversary of D&D. Each of these ended with my bio: “Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms and a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Boston GlobeBoston Globe MagazineBoston Magazine, Salon, BoingBoing, … etc. You can read more about Ethan at or Twitter @ethanfreak.Contact him at or follow him on Twitter @ethanfreak.” Get your book title and your website and Twitter handle into your boilerplate bio. Which is  what I am doing here. Mwwhahahha!


How did you write that, Mark Morrow?

mark-morrowGhostwriting and book development are profitable areas for nonfiction writers to consider. Mark Morrow recently guided CEO Roy Williams’ Only Retire Once: How to Avoid the 9 Deadly Mistakes of Retirement into publication. He took time out from a busy schedule to talk with HDYWT about his work as an editor, writer, and book development specialist.

In this interview, Mark shares

  • The value of a book proposal—even if you plan to self-publish.
  • His favorite online tools.
  • How he keeps a project on track.

Only Retire OnceHDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for your most recent project?

Mark: I got a call from a New Jersey public relations firm in the Spring of 2013 about a ghostwriting project with a “tight deadline.” Not a good sign and a situation my experience has taught me to avoid due to its train wreck potential. Still, I was willing to listen since my friend at McGraw-Hill had recommended me for the job.

The project I’d be working on, according to the PR firm, involved the CEO of a large financial planning firm. The CEO wanted to write a book, but unfortunately he was too busy to do the writing, a very a typical scenario for busy, successful people.

I was told that the raw content would be delivered in the form of a transcribed interview based on a detailed outline of the book. That also sounded like something I could handle. As a veteran developmental editor and journalist, I’ve transformed and in many cases completely rewritten dozens of books (some with even less solid content than what the CEO was offering) on a range of business topics. In fact, being handed a “train wreck” of a manuscript with the instruction to “fix it” has always been a challenge I relished.

Then I asked about the deadline—six weeks I was told. After taking a moment to squelch a less dignified and professional response, I simply replied, “That’s not possible.” I went through a laundry list of reasons why the deadline wasn’t reasonable and why attempting it would be a “train wreck” (I did use that phrase). In the end, I just said “No thanks.” But PR folks are persistent and so I agreed to participate in a Skype interview with the client and his team just to hear them out.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll provide Cliff notes version of the rest of the story.

I did the interview and I really liked the CEO, and it turns out he felt the same at least to some degree, I guess, because we both had Southern roots, or maybe because I was honest and said right up front that his project couldn’t be done with a six-week deadline—at least done in any form that we’d want to call our best work. We signed off from the call and a few weeks later I was working on the project. The resulting book, Only Retire Once: How to Avoid the 9 Deadly Mistakes of Retirement, was published in May 2014 as a self-published book.

This narrative, of course, does leave out a few project plan changes that I’ll mention here as flavoring for my main point. I never got the recordings since the CEO was too busy, so I ending up traveling to the client site and doing two days of interviews as content background. And, since a substantial part of the book involving tax, estate and Social Security law needed interpretation and explanation for the “every person” audience, a considerable amount of research was required. Along the way, I offered the book to several major publishers who took a pass despite the CEO’s marketing platform and investment in the project, so the client self-published.

We’re working on some follow-on books now and perhaps will have better luck with traditional publishing next time—although it’s not essential to the client’s business strategy.

And your point, you ask? I guess my point is that it’s important to be flexible and approach each project with a learning attitude. Had I walked away from this project, not only would I have lost an excellent client I really like, but I would have missed the opportunity to do something we all need to do in a serious and methodical way—plan for retirement. If fact, I learned so much doing this book that when we met with our own financial advisor recently, both he and my wife were impressed with my knowledge and understanding of the financial details. That’s some benefit for an aging writer and journalist.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Mark: One advantage of preparing a formal book proposal for a publisher is the requirement to distill the book’s raison d’etre down to just a few sentences—a pitch, really—and I’ve found the process helps keep me moving in the right direction throughout the book writing process. If I have a question about including content or digressing in a certain way, I just have to go back to my road map, and if the content doesn’t fit, then that’s a data point to not go there. I often tell my clients to prepare a proposal as if they are preparing to submit to a publisher even when they plan on self-publishing. In most cases, these proposals are an essential business plan for the project since one of the requirements is to spell out specifically a marketing plan and to project how many copies of the book you might sell through various channels.

For the Only Retire Once project we had gone through an extensive content and proposal crafting process so I knew exactly where I was going and what should be included in the final book. In addition, part of the proposal process is to write a first chapter so I had established the tone, voice, pacing and approach to the material (client approved) so I had what you might call a “running start” to finish the book.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Mark: For this project, I did all my research on the internet using trustworthy sources such as federally sponsored data (Social Security, census and actuarial data) or brand name research entities such as Pew Research and/or well-regarded financial data sites.

One of the difficulties with the project was that I had to fill in various gaps in the narrative that occur when the content source isn’t sure about the statistical accuracy of the data they cite to back up their points or corroborating data is missing for a general conversational statement, i.e. a statement such as “The 2008 financial crisis impacted the retirement plans of millions of Americans.” I used internet resource organizing tools such as as my research folders, and detailed bookmark folders organized by subject areas so that I could go back and check data and sources.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Mark: I typically work—if nothing intrudes into my day—5 to 8 hours a day with lots of short breaks as a reward for finishing a section, a chapter or definable amount of work. It’s easy to burn up 4 hours at one sitting if I don’t pay attention, but I find it’s good to go out and stand in the sun for a few minutes or take a walk through the garden or just see what my dog is up to—no surprise, sleeping usually. These minibreaks help me refocus and work more efficiently.

If I have more than one project due within the same time period, I organize my time to write in the morning on one and the afternoon on the other. My journalistic ADD training allows me to easily switch between projects and focus.

Finally, after a long time of intending to do it, I spend exactly one hour a day working on my fiction projects, i.e. the ones that will never pay. I belong to a local fiction writing group and they’ve been encouraging me to “finish something” for two years now, so that’s what I’m trying to do. The main problem with fiction is that I get so involved I often blow past the 1 hour alarm and continue working, sometimes for 3 to 4 hours. Not recommended for making a go as a writer for hire.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Mark: I don’t have any particular writer’s tool I use other than the amazing world of Google and Chrome browser. Having every account on a single sign-in—email, bookmarks, extensions, Google+—is a comfortable and efficient platform for me.

One tool I have been using successfully is a Google extension called For me it’s an amazing organizing tool that follows you everywhere on all devices and is seamlessly integrated with gmail and a related app for smartphone devices. I highly recommend it.

Bonus question: What advice do you have for a someone who would like to get into business or technical writing?

Mark: First, I don’t have to say that it’s a difficult business to be in these days for so many reasons beyond the fact that there’s not a lot of financial respect for what a good editor or write can do except at the top of the scale, i.e. Vanity Fair, Esquire, Rolling Stone. Writing has become pretty much a winner-take-all business due to the collapse of the middle tier of writing, editing and journalism—the thousands of jobs lost writing for good or even excellent newspapers, magazines and other print media. Digital media is the way forward, and I adore the technology that has undermined the middle—I absolutely never buy a print book. I love my Kindle.

Eventually, we’ll sort it out and it will be great, maybe better. But for now, it’s tough to make a go of it at 5 cents a word or $1500 for an 8,000 word piece that takes 40 hours of research to produce. Just not enough money, but someone’s got to be in the club of extraordinary writers that Vanity Fair, Esquire, Rolling Stone and the New York Times (the holy grail) hires, so if you think you can, go for it.


Friday Nonfiction Five

special fiveFive quick links of inspiration, how-to, opportunity, or just plain fun.  Got a link you’d like to share? Send a tweet to @emccullough or contact me here

Last week I mentioned one of my favorite tools, Evernote. Nina Amir has the scoop on my other favorite tool, Scrivener.

When I’m not writing, I love to read about writing. Here’s a list of books on writing mechanics from Elizabeth Covart.

Carl Rollyson reviews The Long Voyage: Selected Letters of Malcolm Cowley.

Jane Friedman’s Electric Speed newsletter focuses on tools for writers.

The Clovers Project seeks to match up student, emerging, and established writers for mutual support. They are currently taking applications through August 15. (HT: Monique Brouillette)

Friday Nonfiction Five

Five quick links of inspiration, how-to, opportunity, or just plain fun.  Got a link you’d like to share? Send a tweet to @emccullough or contact me here

heartfiveTim Parks ponders the archive he will leave behind. Or not.

A plea for peace from the coffee shop writer.

What if I told you you could only write for five minutes? It might make you more productive.

Evernote is one of my top ten favorite tools. Can Brett Kelly make it one of yours?

Greg McKeown on 12 myths that keep people busy — but not satisfied.

How did you write that, Carl Rollyson?

Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the ActressCarl Rollyson is an impressively prolific writer. How does he do it? To find out, I asked him five questions (plus one bonus question) about Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, which comes out this June in an updated edition with a smashing new cover. Here are his answers.

HDYWT:  How did you come up with the idea for Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress?

Carl: After completing my doctoral dissertation on William Faulkner in 1975, I wanted to begin work on  the next generation of American writers. My dissertation had to do with Faulkner’s understanding of history, and I decided to deal with a writer who had similar concerns. Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night intrigued me because of its two sections: The Novel as History, History as a Novel. So I began to read Mailer and discovered biography when I read his book about Marilyn Monroe.  I say “discovered” because biography was never a subject of study in any of the schools I attended, and that remains the case today.  Biography is not a permanent part of any curriculum I know of.

While Mailer’s biography of Monroe has been much maligned, it is, in fact, an important work not only about Monroe but about the genre of biography.  I suddenly realized that I was not merely interested in history but in biography, in the way individual lives are interpreted.  Mailer used one word to describe Monroe that no other biographer had used. He called her ambition “Napoleonic.”  That was very astute.  The more I read about her, the more I could see his point.  She really did want to conquer the world and, in many ways, she has succeeded.

I put my argument for Mailer’s Marilyn in a new journal, Biography, which was just getting started in 1978.  Then a former professor of mine, M. Thomas Inge, asked me to write a biobibliography for Greenwood Press.  This was essentially a biographical essay with various commentaries on books about Monroe and how she has been presented in different media. So I spent the summer of 1980 reading the literature about Monroe. I realized that even the most important books about her, including Mailer’s, missed the most important part of her biography. She had this terrific desire to be an actress.  Did she, in fact, become an actress, or just a star?  I began as an actor, doing high school plays, community theater, and summer stock, and I felt I knew a great deal about acting.  So I believed I was bringing something new to Monroe biography — and I still believe that.

No book that has been published since mine shows, as I believe I do, how she did become an actress and how that got translated onto the movie screen. To write the kind of book I wanted to do, though, I had to give up the Greenwood Press contract.  My work no longer fit their format. And so began quite a long search (six years) to write the book and find a publisher.

HDYWT:  How did you get started on the project?

Carl: The real start of the project occurred when I realized I was not content with summarizing and then commenting on what others had said about Monroe. I wanted to meet people who knew her. I was fortunate that I knew Bruce Minnix, director of the soap opera Search for Tomorrow. Bruce had told me long before I ever dreamed of writing about Monroe that he knew two of her friends. So I called on Bruce, who put me in touch with Ralph Roberts, Marilyn’s masseur and confidant, and Steffi Sidney, the daughter of Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky, who helped Monroe invent some of the more dramatic stories about her life. They, in turned, connected me with others, like Rupert Allan, Marilyn’s most important publicist. Just as important were my contacts with Maurice Zolotow and Fred Lawrence Guiles, two of Marilyn’s early and most important biographers. They were wonderful to me, sharing their insights, and providing me with still others to interview. Guiles let me visit him in the hospital while he was recovering from a heart attack, and later he sent me a recording of his interview with Lee Strasberg, Marilyn’s most important acting teacher. Zolotow became a friend, helping me on other projects, especially my biography of Lillian Hellman. And so I began my networking as a biographer.

HDYWT:  How do you organize your research?

Carl: I had no idea how to organize my research, let alone write a biography. Graduate school had been no help in that regard. As a literary scholar, I just studied and wrote about books. I had no experience interviewing people. I just did it as on the job training. I had to learn how to write narrative. The breakthrough moment came when Susan Strasberg read part of an early draft. I had interviewed her about her memories of Monroe and Actors Studio, and we got along very well — in part, I think, because she could see I was going to write about Marilyn as an actress in a way no one else had done before. I sent her an early draft of the book, and she said: “When you tell the story of her life and her acting you establish your voice. But then there is also this other stuff that sounds like a treatise. Who are you trying to impress — your colleagues?” That’s when I threw out about two thirds of the book and rewrote it as a narrative. As soon as I had my story, the organization of research fell into place. I had files, of course, that were chronological and thematic. But, in truth, I never worry much about organizing research. I determine what story I want to tell and then look for the details and dates that sustain the narrative. Now when someone asks me how I organize my research, my short answer is “I’m too busy to organize.”

HDYWT:  What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Carl: I used to write in the morning first thing — 500 to 1000 words a day, without fail.  That would take about two or three hours of actual writing.  Now in the social media age, I look at and post on Facebook, Twitter, and sometimes a few other sites.  The afternoon is devoted to reading, which often ends up in a nap too.  I never work at night.  Night is for watching television.

HDYWT:  What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Carl: Right now I’m finishing a biography of Walter Brennan. IMDb is invaluable for reviews, synopses, and other data about movies. I especially like to check the user reviews and sometimes even quote and refer to them because I have found visceral responses that don’t always get into the professional critics’ reviews. I do my work on an iPad, so I’m especially pleased when I can get ebook editions so that I can quickly go back and forth between books without having to pile up lots of stuff in my workspace. Wikipedia is very helpful. I realize that sometimes it is unreliable, but I don’t use it as a single source. I always check it against other sources. But Wikipedia is so readily available and convenient, I go to it all the time.

IMDb, by the way, is not always reliable either. The IMDb entry on Walter Brennan reports that when Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, Brennan cackled and did a jig on the set of his television series, The Guns of Will Sonnett. He did this according to crew members on the series. It is a shocking story and not like anything else I ever read about Brennan. He was a reactionary, but he was also a devout Roman Catholic and was born in Massachusetts to an Irish American family. Now that in itself does not mean, of course, that Walter Brennan did not do that cackle and jig. But he often spoke well of people he didn’t like after they died, so I was skeptical. Also, King was assassinated in April 1968 and Kennedy in June of that year. Did Brennan cackle and jig twice? The story seemed too pat. Well, with the help of the redoubtable Ned Comstock, an archivist at University of Southern California, I determined that The Guns of Will Sonnett was not in production in April 1968, and it did not resume production until the last week in June. I very much doubt Brennan did as IMDb reported, since the story is supposedly a report of his spontaneous reaction to the news of two assassinations.

Also on my iPad is an app for ZITE, a news aggregator. It breaks down the news into several categories, including books and biography. I get lots of leads checking ZITE every morning, and I sometimes post articles from ZITE on Facebook and Twitter, and I sometimes get valuable responses that lead me to do more research.

Bonus question: Why biography?

Carl: I would love to write a novel, but my talent does not seem to work that way. And I’m also on a mission not only to write biographies but to write about the history of the genre. I think Samuel Johnson is right about the importance of biography. It is at least as important as the novel, although very few critics seem to realize it. Biography, in my view, brings together everything: people, events, story-telling, criticism, and the actor’s joy in entering a role. To me, biography is a form of knowledge that is irreplaceable. That biography has virtually no place in academic life is a scandal as far as I’m concerned.

I review biographies because I also think the reviewing of biographies is appalling. Most of what you get are book reports just summarizing what the biographer discovered and those reviews are done in a tone that makes you think the reviewer is the authority. In most cases, the reviewer has no idea how to read, let alone write, a biography. And most reviewers don’t have the time or space to check the biographer’s sources, or measure one biography against another on the same subject. I’ve been fortunate to find publications that allow me to use my resources as a biographer. This was especially true at The New York Sun (which, alas, is no more) and at The Wall Street Journal, which, by the way, has a book review weekend section that is better than what you will find in The New York Times. Reading and writing biography requires a kind of energy and labor most critics are not equipped to exercise, and monetary compensation for such work is minimal. I try to provide an alternative way of reviewing biography in my collection of New York Sun reviews, entitled Reading Biography.