time management

How did you write that, Audrey Levatino?

Audrey Levatino knows what she’s talking about when it comes to farming and writing. She owns a 23-acre farm in Virginia, and with her husband, Michael, is the author of The Joy of Hobby FarmingHer new book, Woman-Powered Farm: Manual for a Self-Sufficient Lifestyle from Homestead to Field, is a practical and detailed look at exactly what it takes to run a profitable homestead. Recently I asked her about her writing process; here are her answers.

Audrey-LevatinoHDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Woman-Powered Farm?

Audrey: A couple of things got me thinking about writing a resource specifically about and for women who want to farm. I got such a positive response to The Joy of Hobby Farming, a book my husband and I wrote, published in 2011, and much of the time it was women coming up to me at the farmer’s market or at events and saying how much they would like to do what I am doing. Also, as I grew more involved with other farmers in my community, I naturally formed relationships with the women, and was so impressed with all they were doing, and so interested in their stories and how they managed their farms. It seemed like the universe was having the same thoughts because around this same time I saw and read many articles about women being involved in farming and I realized that this is an important and relevant topic that could use more exploration. As I began to explore the idea, I realized that there wasn’t a book out there that addressed the unique concerns, approaches, and stories of women involved in farming.

Woman-Powered-FarmHDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Audrey: I wanted to include as much information as I could from women who are currently farming, so I sent questions out to women farmers around the country to collect their stories and information about themselves and their farms. As well as including current trends in women farmers and farming, I wanted to include information on the history of women and farming so I did a lot of reading on these topics. I felt it was important to recognize that, as women farmers, we owe much to the hard work and experience of those who carved out the path of farming, providing us with a viable and interesting career option today.

I also thought back to when I first began to farm and what information I would have liked to have that I wasn’t able to find at the time, which is why I included the step-by-step how-to sections with pictures of tasks which can be intimidating simply because you’ve never learned how to do them before (i.e., using a chain saw).

Because there are so many different ways to farm, and different things to farm, I visited the farms of local women farmers and interviewed them for profiles in the book.

In order to provide the step-by-step instructions, I persuaded my husband to take pictures of me doing my chores around the farm.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Audrey: Writing up the proposal for the book really helped me to organize my thoughts and ideas into a coherent form. I drafted the table of contents using the proposal as a guide. I always work from an outline, so I grouped the information I wanted to cover into topics for each chapter and tried to find the most logical progression of ideas.

I use bookmark folders to keep track of my internet resources. My book and print resources can get rather chaotic—lots of piles with sticky notes flagging specific pages.

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

Audrey: Once the book was accepted for publication, I had to get serious about organizing my time. I think most clearly in the morning, so it is the best time for me to research and write, but the morning is also when I need to be outside working on my own farm. Most of the work on a cut flower farm has to take place during the coolest time of the day. So throughout the whole process I always felt that I was not giving enough to time to either the book or my farm. I just couldn’t sit down and focus on the writing while knowing there was all that work to be done outside. It was pretty stressful. So, most of the actual writing took place after my growing season ended in October.

I really enjoy researching and can lose myself in reading and searching for things online. To write I have to designate a time and make myself sit down and do it. Sometimes it goes well and other times it is simply painful. As for promotion, I know I have to do it, so I pretty much just do what my publicist asks me to do. I can get very excited talking about my book in a casual way to people who are already interested.

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

Audrey: I tend to write in a stream of consciousness manner, so I love the cut and paste functions of word processing. I revise sentences and paragraphs many times. Cutting and pasting allows me to retain the ideas and thoughts that come out in scraps so that I can develop them further when I need them.

Bonus question: Could you walk us through the process of deciding to direct this book to a female audience?

Audrey: Mostly I decided to direct the book to women because it was a need that had not yet been met. That’s an important guide to choosing a topic. There may be many books on farming, but there are still subjects and points of view that have not been addressed.

When I first started out, I read all the books on farming and gardening. There are many wonderful books out there that I still reference today. But once I got into doing the farmer’s market and getting to know other farmers, I realized that most of the small farmers I know are women. And all the farmers I know that use interns or part-time help on their farms were telling me that 80-90% of their workers were women.

At the same time, farming has traditionally been a bit of a good-ol-boy club and I heard stories about challenges other women had in breaking into this club. I realized that none of the books I had read or used over the years addressed farming from a woman’s perspective. Our bodies are built differently, so the physical challenges are unique. Also, without stereotyping too much, women are generally more nurturing and care for their animals as if they were their own children. And I realized that women have always been the growers and the caretakers. It’s only in recent history with the invention of mechanized farming that women fled (or were pushed out of) farming for other pursuits. So I wanted to give women a book with a familiar voice and information that spoke directly to them in order to provide them with some confidence to get back into farming. It’s easier to imagine yourself operating a chainsaw if the instructions and the step-by-step photos are of women just like yourself.


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, Daniel Pink?

tsihDaniel H. Pink has written five best-selling books and is highly in demand as a speaker on motivation, sales, and other workplace issues. He gave one of the most-viewed TED talks of all time, and last year was the host of a National Geographic television show, Crowd Control. His latest book is To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, which uses social science and fascinating stories to offer a fresh look at the art and science of sales.

I helped Dan with some of the background research for To Sell Is Human, and in the process got a close-up look at the writing habits that have made him so successful. In this interview, you will learn:

  • How to choose the right topic for your book
  • The importance of a book proposal
  • A simple way to organize research and see the big picture

dhpink1-230x300HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for To Sell Is Human?

Dan: It was a mix of self-recognition and frustration. The self-recognition came when I looked at what I’d done during a two-week stretch and realized that much of what I was doing was selling. I wasn’t always selling in the traditional sense (trying to get people to buy my previous books) but in the much broader sense of persuading, influencing, convincing other people — from editors to airline gate agents to business partners to my own family.

The frustration came when I looked at books on selling and persuasion. With the exception of Robert Cialdini’s classic, Influence, most of the books were pretty bad. They were either devoid of serious content or, worse, were largely about how to hoodwink people. So I decided to write a book about sales that I’d want to read myself — indeed, a book about sales for people who might never read a book about sales.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Dan: I began as I always begin — with a book proposal. I wrote a proposal, about 45 pages long, that described what the book was, who it was for, and why it was different than anything else on the market. For me, writing a proposal is always essential. It forces me to think about an idea deeply, to wrestle some of the concepts to the ground, and to assess whether what I’m noodling is really a book — rather than just an article or a vaguely interesting, vaporous idea. That’s hugely important.

A few years ago, I sent my wife and kids to my in-laws for two weeks so I could write a book proposal. Ten days later, I called my wife and said that I had both good news and bad news. The good news was that everybody could come home now. The bad news was that I realized in trying to write a proposal that what I was envisioning wasn’t a viable book. Painful as that was, it’s much better knowing it before committing to write a book than after.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Dan: Think of a tortoise, not a hare. And think of a pretty analogue tortoise at that.

For this last book, there were two main sources of material. One was the interviews and reporting I’d done. The other was a giant collection of academic research. For the interviews, I recorded them digitally, but read through and highlighted each transcript on paper. For the studies, I read nearly all of them on paper, marking them up with a pen. Then I took this massive collection of dead trees and sorted it into old-fashioned file folders, on which I affixed an old-fashioned label made with my trusty labeler. After that, I methodically went through each folder, page by page, harvesting the best material.

To keep an eye on the big picture, I use giant post-it notes on which I scribble key concepts and begin trying out skeletal outlines of the entire book and of individual chapters. It’s a bit laborious, but it’s a way to “see” what I’m thinking.

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

Dan: It really depends. When I’m working on a book or a long article, I take a pretty workmanlike approach. I get to my office, which is the garage behind my house, by about 9am. And I give myself a word count to hit — say, 500 or 750 words (which doesn’t sound like a lot, but for me is always difficult). Then I stay in my office, with occasional breaks, until I reach my word count. Sometimes that happens quickly. Many times it takes a long while. But I don’t check email or answer the phone or do anything else until I hit my number. Do that over and over and over again for many months and you can actually produce a first draft of a book.

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

Dan: I’m a pretty simple guy. I cover about 90 percent of what I do using Word, Dropbox, and some manila file folders.

Bonus question: How do you decide what to write about next? 

Dan: The most important question is: Is this topic interesting enough to me to live with for many years and perhaps for the rest of my life? That’s a pretty high bar. And it has disqualified many topics.


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, Andrew Kaufman?

Kaufman-Author-Photo-2-199x300Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Modern Times begins with An Invitation to the Reader in which author Andrew Kaufman admits, “We’ve had our ups and downs, Tolstoy and I, our disagreements, even a couple of separations.” Sounds like a normal relationship…with an author who’s been dead for over 100 years?

Andrew’s love affair with War and Peace began when he was an undergraduate at Amherst College. In it he found “a strange, hopeful vision of the world as a place that does, in the end, make a kind of sense.” Twenty-five years later, he’s written a book that he hopes will prompt new readers to take up the quest.

Reading about Andrew’s long-term relationship with War and Peace, I was reminded of something John McPhee said about his own writing: “I once made a list of all the pieces I had written in maybe twenty or thirty years, and then put a check mark beside each one whose subject related to things I had been interested in before I went to college. I checked off more than ninety per cent.” I bet a lot of nonfiction writers could say the same. Make your own list — the topic for your next book might be on it.

Before we hear from Andrew about his writing process, a note: If you’re in the Charlottesville, Virginia area this winter, check out Andrew’s presentation at WriterHouse on December 7: “Descending from the Tower: From Academic to Popular Writing.”

In this interview you will learn:

  • How to find freedom in structure
  • About thematic organization
  • How incorporate a daily journal into your writing process

GWAPAC-Book-Cover-Final-e1413413853893HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Give War and Peace a Chance?

Andrew: War and Peace had been roaming in and out of my life for about twenty-five years—in almost a “When Harry Met Sally” kind of way. Each time I encountered the novel, it was a different book, evoking whatever was most alive inside me at that point. I happened to be rereading the novel in 2008, around the time of the financial crisis that was turning many peoples’ lives upside down—mine included. War and Peace became a new book yet again. I was able to clearly glimpse something I’d only vaguely understood in my previous readings: that whatever else this novel is, it’s a book about people trying to find their footing in an unstable, ever-changing world. How do you live in such times? Where do you find meaning and even joy in a troubled world? In 2008 these became deeply personal questions to me, and I sensed that many other people were—and are—struggling with them as well. I came to recognize War and Peace as the book for our times.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Andrew: Fortunately, much of the research had already been accomplished, since I’d spent many years thinking and writing about Tolstoy. My main tasks were to decide how to structure the book, and what not to include. After a lot of sifting, trial and error, I concluded that, since my focus was to be on Tolstoy’s wisdom, I would organize the book thematically, with each of the twelve chapters focusing on a single theme: love, happiness, family, death, perseverance, etc. There are twelve themes in all.

From that point on the thematic focus was primary, but then, after several months into the writing, I realized that I also wanted my book to roughly follow the plot of War and Peace itself. So I did a lot of rejiggering, changed the chapter order and some of the examples used in each chapter. That was quite a complicated process. Finally, it was important to me to interweave stories from the novel with stories from Tolstoy’s life and my own twenty-five year journey with Tolstoy. I had to decide which stories would be most appropriate in which chapters.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Andrew: This happens organically as I become clearer and clearer about what I’m trying to say in the book, and what I want the reader experience to be like. For example, once I settled on the thematic focus of Give War and Peace a Chance, I then went through War and Peace for about the fifteenth time and selected the passages that I thought would best illustrate Tolstoy’s wisdom on each of the twelve themes I discuss in my book. Perhaps the biggest organizational challenge was that there were four things happening simultaneously in my book: the thematic discussion, a digest of the plot of War and Peace, stories from Tolstoy’s life, and stories from my life. I first had to get clear on how I was going to prioritize each of these different layers–I prioritized them in the order listed here—and then I fit the examples and the stories into their appropriate place in the scaffolding.

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

Andrew: I try to carve out my mornings for writing, and my afternoons for business. I drop my son off at school, head over the Whole Foods, where I buy my iced tea and my oatmeal drenched in nuts and berries, and sit at my favorite table in the restaurant. I spend twenty minutes warming up by writing in my journal, and then I open my laptop and type away. I try to turn off my phone and ignore any incoming email notices. At about noon I head back to my other office and make calls, send emails, etc. During the research phase of writing, I’ll spend a few hours in the afternoon reading, but I always try to write something every day. When I teach, this schedule gets much messier, which is why I try to keep my teaching all on the same day. Structure and routine is critical for me as a writer. When I have that structure, I can then play and experiment creatively. A lack of disciplined routine actually inhibits rather than enhances my creative freedom.

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

Andrew: My daily journal has been a staple of my writing life. I got the idea from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and have religiously kept a journal for the past six years. I have almost two full shelves in my office filled with these journals. I find it is a wonderful way to get me warmed up, to tune into to what I’m feeling, and to write through those critical voices chattering away in my head. Also, whenever I read an article or a book and am not sure about the meaning of a word, I love looking it up in the dictionary. I make sure to keep up on contemporary events through daily news articles so I know what people are thinking and talking about. I always keep a good book at my bedside for late evening reading. Rarely will that book have anything directly to do with my current writing project. It’s just a way to stimulate my thinking in new directions and invite my subconscious to go to work while I sleep.

Bonus question: Did you incorporate any of Tolstoy’s writing habits into your own process?

Andrew: Yes. I married a good woman who loves me, supports me in my often tortuous writing process, and puts up with my eccentricities. When somebody gives me my own thousand-acre estate with 300 serfs and I no longer have to work for a living, then I’ll probably incorporate a few more of Tolstoy’s habits.


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.


How did you write that, Kathryn Joyce?

Kathryn-Joyce-250x300Kathryn Joyce’s writing and reporting bring light to issues that might at first glance seem highly personal — religion, adoption, abortion, gender roles — but upon examination turn out to have important implications for national policy. Her latest book, The Child Catchers, is a clear-eyed, highly informative, and compassionate investigation of adoption in the US and abroad.

Kathryn took time out from pressing deadlines to answer our five questions (plus bonus). In this interview, you’ll learn:

  • How a magazine article can generate a book project.
  • How to recognize themes in your research.
  • How online communities can enrich your reporting.

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for The Child Catchers?

child.catchersKathryn: I came to this book in two ways. In part, The Child Catchers evolved out of work on my first book, Quiverfull, which was about a conservative Christian movement that advocates forgoing contraception to have as many children as God gives a family. While I was reporting that book, I started noticing that these already-large families were beginning to adopt as well, for reasons related to their faith. That gave me a first glimpse into one tiny corner of the Christian adoption movement, which I would come to realize was much larger and far more mainstream than just this relatively small subculture.

quiverfullBut I think my emotional investment into this subject came more from the first interviews I conducted with first/natural/birthmothers—parents who felt they’d been coerced into relinquishing their babies for adoption. I started speaking with a few such mothers in 2008 while reporting an article for The Nation on how crisis pregnancy centers were involved in adoption, but soon found that more women were getting in touch with me, hoping to share their stories, than I had time to interview, and their stories were among the most painful and upsetting I’d ever heard. I began to read the work of other writers who’d covered past abuses in adoption, and started realizing this was a huge area of concern for anyone who cares about reproductive justice and women’s and children’s rights. I think those stories are what gave me lasting motivation to keep working on the project for four years.

HDYWT:  How did you begin work on this project?

Kathryn: In the way that one story often leads to another, after I’d begun looking at domestic adoption, I began to hear back from more and more people, suggesting I look into other issues within adoption. I started to think this project might be more than an article, but a book.

I started to broaden my focus to look at international adoption, and was reading some of the great work done by other journalists, writers and academics, many of them adoptees, biological or adoptive parents. I initially thought that I would only look at a couple of stories of international adoption, but then in early 2010, as I was pitching the book to publishers, the devastating earthquake happened in Haiti, and I felt that I was watching the dynamics I’d been reading about unfold before my eyes. There was an overwhelming humanitarian tragedy that affected nearly everyone in that country, but in much of the media coverage, it was being turned into an adoption narrative centered around the hopes and fears of U.S. parents. I knew then that this was a much larger story than I’d originally had in mind, and while I couldn’t undertake a definitive history of adoption, I had to find a way to report stories that illustrated the issues I was seeing.

HDYWT:  How do you organize your research?

Kathryn: I think when working on a big, long project like a book, I’ve had the luxury of letting research sort itself, in a way, into its natural themes. I tend to cast a wide net when I start reporting, reading widely and doing as many interviews as I can. When I hear the same stories repeated numerous times from different sources, they tend to emerge as general themes I want to focus on. Often those turned into chapters — about defrauded birthparents in Ethiopia, and U.S. adoptive parents told lies about the children they spent years trying to adopt; about Liberian children who were bounced from one family to another, and sometimes out of the country; or about South Korean adoptees growing up into adults who challenged the ethics of the system through which they were adopted — though not always. With this book I took a lot of time playing with the structure, and moving things around. My original plans looked a lot different from the final result.

On a practical level, the notes and interviews I ended up having filled nearly four file drawers, and that’s a lot of material to organize. I still rely a lot on having my interviews and research in hard copy form. It’s impractical in some ways, but it allowed me to physically mark research up, shuffle it around as I thought about structure, and set things to the side as I was working through my first draft. I know there are good software programs that other writers swear by, and I may try one for on my next big project. But I imagine I’ll also have a file cabinet full of paper notes as a backup.

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

Kathryn: Honestly, for the first three-and-a-half years I was working on the book, most days started with getting ready for my day job. But on nights and weekends, I was often applying for grants and pitching articles that would give me an opportunity to report out parts of the book I wouldn’t have been able to afford to cover on my own. I ultimately left my full-time job in order to give as much attention to writing the book as I had in reporting it.

Now that I’m just freelancing, a typical day often consists of a mix of research, reading, tracking down sources, conducting interviews, writing, editing, pitching and communicating with editors, and sometimes talking with other journalists with questions I or they have about a subject. I often have a few stories in different stages at once, so I may be writing for part of the day, and doing interviews and pitching editors later on. For me, early mornings, before emails start to arrive, tend to be best for writing, but I’m not always as good as I should be at keeping myself offline.

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

Kathryn: Though my father is appalled by the thought that people need this sort of deterrent, I found the internet-blocking program “Freedom” to be a big help in forcing me to start writing every day. Even a short period of enforced offline time — as little as 30 or 60 minutes — can be enough to help me switch modes from multi-tasking emails and social media, etc., to being focused on the work in front of me.

Lastly, this isn’t quite a tool, but in terms of reporting, I find one thing that isn’t often well-utilized is simply finding out where online people are talking about your subject, and following those conversations. The internet is such an incredibly vast place that there is almost always a community that revolves around the issue you’re reporting on, and often one that’s being overlooked next to other, larger outlets. Read the blogs that the group you’re reporting on read, and follow their discussions. I think the reason so much reporting can come across as out-of-touch is because reporters often aren’t availing themselves of the complex discussions and debates being hashed out in public by the affected communities. It’s indispensable not only for getting a lay of the land, but also for understanding the subtle differences in opinion that are usually part of any community or movement people report on. Understanding that complexity can make for a fuller and truer story.

HDYWT: Your work explores emotionally fraught territory: adoption, abortion, domestic violence. What are the rewards of writing about difficult or painful subjects?

Kathryn: I think the reward is in being able to do work you care about. It’s a difficult time, in a lot of practical ways, to work as a freelance journalist. The money is lousy and there’s no job security. But almost everyone I know who does this sort of work does it because they feel deeply and passionately about the issues they cover, and usually see them as part of larger questions of social justice. I think every journalist I know and admire is driven by the idea that they might be able to make a difference, even if it’s just in getting people to understand more about a subject or a group of people than they did before. That’s certainly what drove me on this book.


Friday Nonfiction Five

fire crackersFive on the Fourth: 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

Science writers share their tips for getting sources to open up.

Book revenues are up — and ebooks are responsible.

The rise of ebooks could mean the fall of dedicated ebook devices, though.

If you’re struggling to get started on your project, here are some kickstarting tips from Nina Amir.

The title says it all: How I Wrote 400K Words in a Year.

How did you write that, Marc Leepson?

leepson-173x300Like many children, I learned the story of Francis Scott Key and “The Star-Spangled Banner” in school, so I was surprised to learn from author Marc Leepson that there had not been a new biography of Key since the 1930s. But this week the Key situation has has been remedied with the publication of Marc’s newest book, What So Proudly We Hailed, on June 24.

In this interview, Marc reveals

  • How he maps out a research plan
  • Where he found free, keyword-searchable books for his research
  • A surprising source for old newspaper articles

whatsoproudlywehailedHDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for 
What So Proudly We Hailed?

Marc: It was in 2011 after I’d finished my previous book, Lafayette: Idealist General, a concise biography of the Marquis de Lafayette. My agent and I were going over ideas for my next book. I was thinking about 2014 and 1914, that portentous year when World War I started. I did a lot of searching around, but couldn’t come up with anything suitable.

Then I thought about 1814. “The Star-Spangled Banner” immediately came to mind. And I remembered that when I was doing the research for my book Flag: An American Biography in 2003 and 2004 I couldn’t find a current biography of Francis Scott Key. The most recent one had been published in 1937.

So I checked and, sure enough, that was still the case. I thought it was time for a new one, convinced my agent, and wrote a proposal. An editor at Palgrave (which had published my Lafayette bio) liked it and offered me a contract.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Marc: The way I always do. I read the best secondary sources, including the two bios of Key published in the 1930s. Among other things, that provides a road map to the primary sources, which is what I concentrate on after that: letters, journal entries, diaries, newspaper articles of the time, memoirs, official documents.

I also contacted historians I know who are more familiar with the time period—the Early Republic—than I was and asked their advice.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Marc: I find that in general one thing leads to another. You read and read and you see references to more materials that you need to find and read. I try also to go to the libraries and archives early on and gather as much material as I can and then go over that later back in my office. That also often leads to more sources to find.

In addition to Word files, I usually print out most of the material and organize that in physical file folders which I keep on my desk.

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

Marc: I am an early riser. First thing, I write in my journal and then exercise, have breakfast and get to my desk at around 9:00 or 9:30, somewhere in there. I work on whatever tasks I need to do.

I typically start the day with a handful of things to do. As soon as I hit my desk, the list begins to grow. I break for lunch at around 1:00 or 1:30. I used to eat at my desk. No more. I need to get out of the office—if only into the kitchen—to give my brain a rest.

I usually work till around 6:00-6:30. I have an early dinner most nights. And I often go back to work for an hour or two after dinner. I work seven days a week, but usually only for a few hours on Saturdays and Sundays. However, when I’m in full-time writing mode, I have been know to work nearly all day on the weekends—and some nights, too.

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

Marc: Google Books has been amazingly helpful to me for my last three books. I have found more than a few memoirs that I hadn’t even known existed on Google Books. And there they were, right on my desk top, searchable and printable. The same is true with books containing official records—as well as good secondary sources. I can’t even begin to calculate how much time that has saved.

I made great use of ancestry.com and genealogybank.com for the Francis Scott Key bio. I used them mainly for the wide number of newspapers they have going back to the 18th century. They are searchable by word, and you can narrow your searches to states, cities, and individual newspapers—along with date ranges. I found many, many contemporary newspaper accounts of Key’s activities I hadn’t run into in any secondary source. Invaluable stuff. Plus, they also have birth and death certificates, as well as Census materials.



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 getpocket.com 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 todoist.com. 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.