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How did you write that, Dale Russakoff?


DaleRussakoff_007-300x293-300x293Dale Russakoff gained access to some major players — including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — while researching and writing The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools?, her new book about the recent attempt at radical education reform in Newark, New Jersey. But it may be her empathetic approach to the stories of those affected by reform — the students, teachers, administrators, and families — that makes the book a potential classic of its genre.

Dale brought decades of solid reporting experience to The Prize. I think you’ll find this interview both inspiring and full of practical tips for your own writing.

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


the.prize_Dale:
I recently had taken a buyout from The Washington Post after 28 years as a staff writer and was making my way (shakily) as a freelance writer. I had been interested for several years in the rise of what has become known as the education reform movement — that potent combination of billionaire philanthropists, charter school leaders, social entrepreneurs and politicians in both parties who wanted to upend the status quo of traditional public schools governed by large, usually unionized bureaucracies. I also had a lifelong interest in issues of race and inequality from having grown up in Birmingham, Alabama during the final years of legal segregation and the civil rights movement.

When Mark Zuckerberg, at age 26, announced his $100 million gift to the Newark schools, I was electrified to see this very young billionaire sitting beside a Democratic mayor and a Republican governor on the Oprah show, all of them pledging to transform education for some of the nation’s poorest children. I had spent more than a decade in the New York bureau of the Washington Post and I had written frequently about Newark. The city was compelling to me from the beginning. In many ways, it’s a metaphor for what has happened to cities across America as a result of the collapse of manufacturing, white and middle-class flight to the suburbs, disinvestment. I saw this as an opportunity to learn, in detail, at the ground level, what the education reform movement really meant for schooling in cities like this. I wanted to get as close to the process as I possibly could because this is what had fascinated me in my almost 30 years as a reporter for The Washington Post — tracing the process by which big public policy ideas do or don’t translate into actual changes in people’s lives, and understanding why or why not.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Dale: I began by going to Newark a lot, meeting people who for years had been active in education on various fronts — all stripes of community activists, current and former school board members, clergy, principals, teachers, charter school leaders, the staffs of nonprofits involved in education. But I also sought and ultimately gained access to the people at the very top of the effort — Zuckerberg himself, then-Mayor (of Newark) Cory Booker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his state education commissioner, Chris Cerf, and Newark superintendent Cami Anderson. My goal was to see the effort through the eyes of those crafting and leading it as well as those at the ground level, in the schools and the community, who would experience the changes.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Dale: Initially I created categories as they emerged and filed research related to them in online folders: Education Philanthropy; History of Corruption in the Newark district; Unions; Social Conditions in Newark; History of the Education Reform Movement; Reformers; Anti-Reformers; Common Core.

It soon got wildly out of control, and I sought advice from a good friend from my years at The Post named Rick Atkinson, a prolific and prizewinning book author who is also brilliant at organization. He said his technique was to create separate Word files for each month, and within those, a file for each interview, for notes from that day’s reporting or for any research conducted, with the date in the subject line. So I literally ended up with Word folders for 54 months, and within those, all of the interviews I conducted in those months, all of the notes I took, etc. As I collected documents or reports or made copies of microfiche records from the Newark archives in the public library, I filed them under the day I obtained them. I found that my mind began to remember interviews by the month in which I conducted them. Or I remembered the months of particular events. If I needed a document at the writing stage and I couldn’t remember the month in which I had filed it, I could use the search function and enter a phrase or a key word, which would ultimately lead me to the file I needed.

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

Dale: Fortunately or unfortunately, I never had a typical day. I spent many, many days in district and charter schools, observing teachers and principals, getting to know students and staff members. I also was allowed to attend many sessions that Cami Anderson, the superintendent, held with her leadership team, and to follow her around at times as she visited schools or met with charter leaders or held training sessions with principals. I often arranged interviews in the afternoon and evenings with parents, teachers, principals, kids. I interviewed executives of the various philanthropies involved in the reform effort — from Mark Zuckerberg’s to those of local Newark philanthropies that contributed some of the matching funds.

And I attended scores of community meetings, rallies, school board meetings, campaign organizing efforts (the reform effort became a huge political issue as time went on). I also attended a lot of events that were not directly related to education but had a bearing on it — such as those in response to the high level of violence in the city. For example, anti-violence rallies were held weekly at the intersection nearest the latest murder, and I went to a number of those and just listened to people talk about how violence was affecting their families and their children.

Once I began writing, I tended to write all day, from morning to night. But I began to feel very isolated from Newark and from the schools. I live only 20 minutes from Newark, so at times I broke away for a visit to a school or an interview in the city, or a school basketball game (see below), just to feel that I remained in touch with the story as it was developing.

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

Dale: My favorite “tool” is one that I learned at age 25 from my city editor, Bob Johnson, at The Atlanta Journal, the second newspaper I worked for. I was one of a number of young reporters covering the counties that surrounded Atlanta. This was the late 1970s, and these were mostly semi-rural areas that were going suburban very fast. We were filing multiple stories a day from the city halls, the police departments, the zoning boards, all the official places. But Bob told us that we should take at least one afternoon a week to do what he called “missionary work.”

What he meant by this was that we were to put away our notebooks, stop looking for stories for a couple of hours, and go talk to people someplace in our counties that we hadn’t explored, or just check out something that had caught our fancy but that didn’t qualify as “news.” The idea was to experience the county as people who lived there experienced it. This sounded really intriguing to me, and I started doing it, and I immediately began finding some of my best stories this way — when I wasn’t really looking for news, when I had simply followed my instinct to someplace or someone interesting.

I do this now as a matter of course whenever I’m reporting a story, and I did it often over the 4-1/2 years I was researching my book. And again, I found some of the most eye-opening stories in my book this way. I wrote an entire chapter on one kid whose story I learned just by attending the middle school basketball tournament in Newark. I love youth sports — my now-grown sons were both baseball and soccer players and I always was amazed to see what kids do together on teams — so it caught my attention when the basketball team at a K-8 school I was following made it into the city-wide tournament. Everyone at the school, it seemed, caught the excitement, and so I started going to all the games, cheering alongside all the kids, teachers and parents, as I always did at my sons’ games. And this one player was so outstanding that I decided to learn more about him — purely out of curiosity. And his story grew into what may be my favorite chapter in the entire book.

Bonus question: Who do you envision as the perfect audience for The Prize? How did you decide on that audience?

Dale: Teachers — dedicated, committed teachers — were my target audience. Of course I hope that everyone interested in education will read the book and learn from it. But as I reported and wrote The Prize, I was moved most of all by the teachers who give so much of themselves every day to reach students in the face of extraordinary obstacles. I saw so many men and women — some of whom had been teaching for decades — who seemed to have bottomless capacity to teach, inspire, improvise, buck up, whatever it took for that particular child on that particular day. I saw this happening in so-called “failing schools” as well as excellent schools, in both district schools and charter schools. These teachers have the most intimate awareness of the challenges inherent in trying to transform education for America’s poorest children. They know how much is being left out of the very polarized national debate between the reform movement on one side and unions on the other. Every day, they and their students go up against all the forces that brought down Newark and so many of our cities — extreme poverty, violence, family strife. I wanted to write a book that would make them feel that they had been heard.

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How did you write that, Jonathan Eig?

Jon-Eig-196x300-150x150One of the greatest inventions of the twentieth century, the birth control pill (so famous we usually just call it “The Pill”) transformed the lives of countless women around the world and changed sexual mores and gender roles forever. Jonathan Eig tackles this monumental story in The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. How did he do it?

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for The Birth of the Pill?

Jonathan: I finished my book about Al Capone and wandered a long time in no-man’s land, searching for the next idea. At one point I was making lists, just to get my brain working; lists of great inventors, important Supreme Court cases, important inventions, famous women, famous Jews…. And the birth-control pill appeared on a list of inventions. I remembered hearing a rabbi say once that he thought the birth-control pill might have been the most important invention of the 20th century. I also remembered that my wife had encouraged me to try writing a book aimed toward women readers. So I began digging into the story of the invention of the pill and I was astonished by what I found. It was such a thrilling story, with a great cast of unlikely heroes setting out to accomplish something that should have been impossible, and something that they knew would radically transform the world if they could pull it off. As soon as I read about Gregory Pincus, Margaret Sanger, John Rock, and Katharine McCormick, I was hooked.


41ONyoC-XaL._SL250_-150x150HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Jonathan: I began by spending time with the daughter of Gregory Pincus, who had worked with her father and had known all of my story’s protagonists. From there I dug into the archives. They were all great letter writers and left a detailed paper trail. Scientists are much better subjects that gangster and ballplayers in that way.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Jonathan: I’m not the most organized person. When I used to write newspaper and magazine stories I would let the research pile up on my desk and then dig through it when it was time to write. That doesn’t work for books, though. Books are too big. So I create file folders—some electronic, some paper—and I sort my research material according to names, subjects, and dates, and I try to keep the files organized chronologically as much as possible. It’s still a mess, but it’s manageable mess. With this book, for the first time, I cut down on my paper files dramatically and converted thousands of files to Google Docs. That made searching through them a lot easier.

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

Jonathan: No such thing as a typical day. I usually get the kids out of the house around 8 in the morning, and that’s when my work day begins. I’d like to start earlier but it’s not going to happen until they’re a little older and more self-sufficient. Once the house clears, I might spend the day doing interviews, I might spend the day in a library, I might spend the day writing, or I might do a combination of writing and research. The promotional work is cyclical. When a new book is published, I’ll spend a lot of time promoting it. I enjoy that part of the work, but I’d rather spend my time on research and writing.

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

Jonathan: I’m not sure it’s my favorite but one of the most powerful tools for me is anxiety—or the fear of failure, the worry that I won’t do justice to the story that I’m telling, won’t bring the characters to life in the full dimension they deserve, won’t do enough to keep the reader turning the page, that I’ll never come up with a book idea as exciting as the last one. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m a worry-wort. I’m not. But when I think about why I work so hard on research and why I re-write so often and so compulsively, I think it’s most because I’m anxious that I might leave some scrap of information undiscovered or leave some sentence short of elegance. So there you have it, anxiety is my tool. Also I like Proquest, NewspaperArchive.com, Lexis/Nexis, and my MacBook Air.

Bonus question: What challenges did you face in weaving together the stories of the four crusaders: Margaret Sanger, Gregory Pincus, John Rock, and Katharine McCormick?

Jonathan: I’m glad you asked. The weaving was critical in this book, and it was not easy. I’d never written a book with four equally strong characters, and it took me a lot of wrestling before I could figure out how to tell all their stories, and all their back stories, without hopelessly gumming up the narrative. I reminded myself to think of this as a TV series or a movie with four actors, each of them trying to steal every scene, each of them flirting with the writer to get more good lines written into the script. When you think of it that way, it’s not such a bad problem to have. The trick was making sure no one got slighted. I’ll confess that Pincus was my favorite. If this were a movie, I’d want George Clooney to play his part. But Sanger’s the biggest hero of the story. Rock, in many ways, is the most interesting. And McCormick is the one I’d most want to spend time with. So I enjoyed my time with all of them and felt fortunate to be directing their drama.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak.Contact him at www.ethangilsdorf.com 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!

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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

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5 Links for Nonfiction Writers – July 24, 2014

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