I’m sure I’ve written 90,000 words before in my career, but never all in one contiguous line. I’ve just signed my name to a legal contract with Little, Brown & Co. swearing to deliver nine-ty freak-in’ THOU-sand words by June 3, 2013. Lord help me.
I feel like I did when I returned from cholera riots in Haiti in November 2010 and could not stop obsessing over my three notebooks full of interviews. If I didn’t type them up immediately in my sleep-deprived state, the house might burn down and I would lose them. (As if I wouldn’t then have a slightly bigger problem at hand.)
All my life I’ve wanted to write a book. It took me two decades to find the right big subject — globalization of the furniture industry — and the right main character, John Bassett III, the man from the storied furniture-making family who fought to keep his Galax workers employed.
If all goes well, “Factory Man” will have historical heft and contemporary relevance. Heroes will appear, and villains, too, along with my usual cast of underdogs — barbers, librarians and filling-station attendants; men and women who toiled in finishing rooms, glue stations and a place furniture folk call the “rough end.”
My book will come to a rough end if I don’t figure out how to manage the growing stacks of archival pictures and interviews and clippings I’m amassing by the day. Before I wrote my first word, I felt exactly like I did post-Haiti: freaked out about my material — how to keep it safe and manageable, how to remember what it is I already know.
Like most anxiety episodes, this one made little sense but did serve a purpose. Fretting over how to organize my stuff gave me pre-writing focus, something beyond, holy crap Batman, how am I going to write 90,000 words?
Luckily, my editor, John Parsley, suggested I call another of his journalist/authors, Annie Jacobsen, for tactical advice. Annie’s writing her second book, on the heels of her bestselling “Area 51,” and she didn’t answer my strategy questions so much as she intuited exactly what I needed to hear, beginning with: “You’ve got tons of time!” and “Take a deep breath!” and “Trust me, you’ve got the absolute best editor in the world.”
Organizing the material would come to me organically, she promised, and it was OK if I didn’t take the time to transcribe every word of every interview I recorded (but it’s good to notate my handwritten notes with recording time stamps for fact-checking later ).
Those books I’m reading and Post-It noting to death? It’s OK if I don’t type up every underlined word. Annie spends 12 hours a day in a room with Nazis — the subject of her current book — who appear to her in marked-up books, inside file folders of declassified military documents and on a screen full of digital rectangles. As with my project, some of her material is in computer files (she raves about Lion, the new Imac search engine), and some of it’s in the swarm of papers surrounding her desk. Among her tips:
• Footnote the hell out of your material as you write — whether you plan on keeping them in the final product or not — so you remember from whence every fact came.
• Break down the number of words you need to write weekly and assign yourself mini-deadlines, leaving a full month pre-deadline to edit and rewrite.
• By the time you get to chapter 18, you’ve been writing for so long that “all that typing pays off and you’re writing really well, and all your experience catches up with you, and it’s a gift from the heavens,” she told me. “In that regard, the rewriting and editing becomes actually really joyful.” Oh, how I hope.
Most importantly, she said: The more you write, the more you know where you’re going. The more irresistibly original facts you uncover, the better the bones of the book. “I’m constantly charging through my material looking for the single detail that’s going to make my chapter. Then I reverse-engineer from that.”
Upon Annie’s advice, I stopped reporting and started writing, after spending a fruitful couple of weeks in Bassett, mostly at the fabulous Bassett Historical Center, where librarian Pat Ross is my new best friend. (Who else would know that the large building on the right of this picture is the old Riverside Hotel, and that innkeeper Miss Mattie Smith used to sell bag lunches for the train passengers when they stopped at the Bassett station?)
I also took time to set up a chapter-by-chapter filing system for notes, sources and text, suggested by my Nieman Fellow pal Shankar Vedantam, who wrote “The Hidden Brain.” I owe Shankar a huge debt for suggesting a work strategy I have come to think of as “Shankar Five Years From Now” during one of our Nieman seminars in 2010. It involves waking up at 5 every morning to work on personal projects before you go to your day job — the idea being that, if you work very hard, the personal projects will become your day job. That method echoed loudly last fall when my Roanoke Times colleague Ralph Berrier (“If Trouble Don’t Kill Me”) baited me into writing the proposal for this book, explaining that he’d written his while working full-time and with a newborn baby in the house. “Write the damn thing, Macy. Just do it!” (We Midwesterners are mightily swayed by guilt.)
I’m only halfway through my second chapter. Not that I’m counting or anything, but I’ve written and rewritten 4,000 words. Many of them will get deleted and reworked, I know, and there’s a good chance I’ll get to the end before I realize that the beginning is glaringly wrong. E.L. Doctorow once said that book-writing is “like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
In other words, focus only on what’s in front of you, do that, then do the next little bit.
My groovy financial planner Tom Nasta e-mailed a version of the same advice last week. When we bought our first-ever new car last year, Quaker Tom reassured me the money was well-spent: “It’s OK. Jesus would have driven a Subaru!” Tom’s latest nugget is a quote from the writer R.H. Blyth: “Think of Zen, of the Void, of Good and Evil, and you are bound hand and foot. Think only and entirely and completely of what you are doing in the moment and you are free as a bird.”
Now that I’ve stopped fretting over where to put stuff, I’m actually writing my book. The recipe is sure to change, but for now it’s deep breath followed by juicy detail followed by deep breath. Repeat 90,000 times.