How did you write that, Dr. Laurence Steinberg?

laurence-steinberg-249x300You 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.
age.of_.opp_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.



5 Links for Nonfiction Authors – August 6, 2014

35thEditionCover-227x300It’s been a slow month for interviews, I know. But in the meantime, here are five more links of inspiration, how-to, opportunity, or just plain fun.

Got a link you’d like to share? Send a tweet to @emcculloughjoin my Diigo group, or contact me here


5 Links for Nonfiction Authors

creativesHere are five quick links of inspiration, how-to, opportunity, or just plain fun.

Got a link you’d like to share? Send a tweet to @emcculloughjoin my Diigo group, or contact me here

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

How did you write that, Peter Cashwell?

2013.12.17.pete_.cashwell.headshot.lh-362-e1403717777346Birder, sports fan, teacher — Peter Cashwell deals in boundaries all day long: the characteristics that distinguish a Carolina wren from a Bewick’s wren; the line that divides a basketball that’s out from one that’s in; the fine line between vernacular and Standard English usage. So it was natural that his second book project would tackle boundaries and their meanings.

I asked Peter to answer our standard five questions (plus bonus) about his latest book, Along Those Lines, but he cautioned me that he had swapped questions one and two — “For a reason. I started work on this book before I had the idea for it.”

In this interview you’ll learn:

  • The value of a skill you might (or might not) have learned in high school
  • How a long writing project is like building with LEGOs
  • The ways in which experts, colleagues, and friends can enrich your writing

alongthoselinesHDYWT: How did you begin work on Along Those Lines?

Peter: Along Those Lines had its genesis in my first book, The Verb ‘To Bird’. As I described some of my birding experiences in various states—Delaware, Iowa, South Carolina, etc.—I decided to make it a personal quest to see a life bird (a bird I’d never seen before in my life) in each of the 50 states. Not only would I have a lot of fun traveling and birding, I could write about the experience, and bam, a second book. I could call it “Fifty-Fifty” or something.

I thus started writing about the places I was going, as well as the birds I was seeing, and because I’m a geography geek as well as a birder, I sometimes found myself discussing the geography of my target states—the weird layout of Maryland’s borders, or the insane time-zone-hopping I had to do in the Four Corners area—as well as the birding issues that sometimes arose because scientists had changed their minds about which birds belonged to which species.

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for this project?

Peter: By the time I got near the halfway point of “Fifty-Fifty,” I showed the manuscript to an agent, and he offered a rather cold, but very useful, observation. The birding parts, he said, were mostly boring, simply recounting the birds that could be seen by anyone who went to those places. The interesting parts were the ones where I addressed the issue of the borderlines between states and time zones; that was a topic that nobody else was writing about.

I thought about his comments, and I realized he was right; after all, I’d had a lot more fun writing about the boundary issues than just recounting my sightings in California and West Virginia, so why wouldn’t that be true for the reader as well?

At that point, I shifted my focus; instead of a personal narrative about birding, a topic I knew well, I was now writing an examination of boundaries, and that meant I’d have to educate myself. Luckily, I know some very smart people who educate others professionally.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Peter: I started by asking myself which aspects of human life were divided by lines, and I very quickly realized there were too many to use in a single book. That suggested a different question: who did I know who could talk about these aspects in an interesting way? Some of my colleagues at Woodberry Forest School immediately leaped to mind, not only because of their expertise in their subject areas, but also because of their extracurricular knowledge. I also had other experts farther afield, some of whom I’d known for years, and thanks to a sabbatical working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology back in 2011, I knew a few big names there.

My art experts, though, were more serendipitous finds. I had followed Ursula Vernon‘s work on the web, and I knew she was a birder, so I emailed her out of the blue in hopes that our mutual interest might incline her to sit for an interview. To my surprise, she was a fan of The Verb ‘To Bird’, and she could not have been more enthusiastic or more knowledgeable about the use of lines in art. My discovery of Shawn Smith‘s sculptures, as I mention in the book, was a complete fluke, and I feel very lucky to have seen his work in D.C. and to have gotten him on the phone for an interview.

Once I had the names of my interviewees, I had to assemble questions for each one, and that was challenging; I was trained in English and creative writing, not journalism, so I struggled a bit with the interview process. I would usually have a little bit written about the subject area before I interviewed my expert, but I was definitely improvising a lot in order to get follow-up questions written.

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

Peter: I wish I knew. I don’t think I have a typical day. I write when I can make time for it, and since I teach, that often means I’m writing at odd hours, or grinding out long stretches of text in unusual places. A lot of this book was written in the Sapsucker Lounge at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, with me perched on a table near the window looking out over a pond full of waterfowl, and if I had my druthers, I’d write like that all the time.

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

Peter: One thing I learned from the interview process: knowing how to touch-type is a HUGE advantage when you’re taking notes. Keeping up with an Abigail James or a Matt Boesen would be damn near impossible if you had to use a hunt-and-peck approach. If you haven’t taken that typing class, give it some real thought, folks.

For this book, I also found myself using two online tools that most writers use, but perhaps not the way I did. First, I was Googling like a madman on a wide variety of topics. Sometimes in my reading, whether in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology library or my own, I’d come across a reference to a study or an incident that looked useful, and then I’d have to track it down on the web. That occasionally required creative application of search terms; if you don’t think ahead about the terms you’re using, you’ll often get 150,000 haystacks containing 150 needles among them. If you take a more active, more precise approach to setting up your terms, you can get ten or twelve needles in a single bunch of hay.

The other tool, one which is hideously easy to misuse, is Wikipedia. As I tell my students, it is not a reliable source for a research paper! It is, however, a terrific place to get both an overview of a topic and a bunch of links to sources that do offer information that a researcher can rely on.

Finally, to keep making progress and maintain my sanity, I would often need to ask questions of other writers, or sometimes just vent about the frustrations I was going through. That’s where the forum at became extraordinarily important to me.

Bonus question: As a full-time teacher, avid birder, and writer, how do you maintain momentum on a long-term project like a book?

Peter: LEGOs are a topic that came up in the book several times, and in some ways they’re a great metaphor for my writing: you have to work one brick at a time. Eventually you’ll have enough bricks to make the thing look like a house, or a castle, or the Alamo, but you have to put them together one at a time. And every day, that pile of bricks will look slightly more like the Alamo than it did before… or at least not any less like the Alamo.


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)