Earlier this year, Julia and I reached out to members of our online writing community and asked if they’d be willing to share with us their experience of writing books. While not everyone writes a book in their lifetime, most of us do tackle some sort of momentous project, or find ourselves on a long-term journey that can wear us down. Thankfully, these women were willing to tell us how they handled it.
Joining us today are three Seattle-based woman writers: Anca L. Szilágyi, writer and author of the forthcoming novel Daughters of The Air (Lanternfish Press), Bonnie Rochman, journalist and author of The Gene Machine (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and Candace Dempsey, whose Murder in Italy (Penguin) has been revised 3 times since 2010. Each had a unique experience, which they told us about:
What was it like to embark on such a significant project?
Anca L. Szilágyi: “No one ever said writing a novel is easy. You have to really, really want to tell the story you’re telling…and then follow through, even when it’s really hard. Tenacity is key. I might not have persisted without drips of encouragement at crucial junctures. So I think it’s important to encourage people when you see potential. You never know who feels about ready to give up.”
Bonnie Rochman: “It took me close to a year to get up the nerve to take a deep breath and start working on my book proposal. Once I jumped in, I spent about three or four months writing and revising it in conjunction with feedback from my agent. My book, The Gene Machine: How Genetic Technologies Are Changing the Way We Have Kids — And the Kids We Have, was an outgrowth of a cover story I wrote for Time about sequencing children’s genomes. And that cover story was an outgrowth of a week-long online series I did for Time.com on the same topic. All that added up to a pretty significant amount of research and reporting under my belt by the time I launched my book project, so it wasn’t like I was starting from scratch.”
Candace Dempsey: “Murder In Italy was a daunting enterprise, but rooted in obsession, like all good book ideas. In 2007, I read in my local paper that Italian cops had arrested a University of Washington student named Amanda Knox for the murder of her British roommate, Meredith Kercher, in Perugia, Italy. A real-life murder mystery, irresistible to me. I’m an Italian-American journalist and live in Seattle, Amanda’s hometown. I know the UW and Italy well. I’d been to Perugia when it was a quaint little place, ‘the city of chocolates and jazz.’ I’d lost a sister and was very moved when I saw Meredith’s beautiful sister on British TV, talking about the family’s terrible pain.
Right away I started blogging about the Knox case on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer site. Amanda had been in jail less than a week, yet the media, worldwide, took her guilt for granted. When I applied Journalism 101 techniques to the evidence, it fell apart. I marveled at the fantastical crime theory—a ‘drug-fueled’ orgy that ended in a knife fight. I mean, who dreamed that up? No woman, surely. Here was the fascination: Could Amanda possibly be innocent? Could the whole world be wrong? Who did kill Meredith? About three months in, I started looking for an New York agent and a publisher. Penguin said yes. That gave me credibility when I was in the Italian courtroom, an intimidating medieval place, crowded with big names from every U.S. network, Italian media, British tabloids and The New York Times. All I had was my notebook and little camera.”
Did you ever find yourself struggling with motivation? If so, how did you work through it?
Anca: “To combat writer’s block, I try to recharge. Gawking at flowers and birds on a long walk is a pleasant method, which I would ideally do every morning. Wandering an art gallery soaking up shapes and colors and new ways of looking at the world opens up ideas. Reading what I want to read and not what I think I ‘should’ read can do wonders. These are intuitive decisions, an attempt to stay tuned in to the needs of my imagination. Also, very little motivates me without coffee.”
Bonnie: “All the time! I ate too much chocolate (still do, as a matter of fact), organized my desk, folded lots of laundry, called my mom…But at some point, you’re no longer hungry, your desk is neat, there’s no more laundry and your mom starts to drive you a bit crazy. And that’s when the work begins. For me, my best work often unfolds in the wee hours of the night, when there are no emails pinging in my inbox and my family is asleep.”
Candace: “You can’t write about the Amanda Knox case without dark nights of the soul. What if there’s a smoking gun out there? A nasty piece of evidence you don’t know about? I learned to put that uneasiness into the writing. Leave room for doubt. Let the reader decide who’s guilty. I also became the target of a massive troll attack that went on for seven years. I lost my privacy, got death threats, had to correct endless lies about my career. The sexism was incredible. They posted hideous photos of me, complete with ugly comments. I was thoroughly doxxed. They attacked Murder In Italy’s Amazon page, harassed me on Twitter and got my Wikipedia page pulled (A female Wikipedia editor rescued it). What kept me going was the clear vision I had of my book. I could literally ‘see’ it. I knew how to shut out the noise and get back to the writing. It comforted me.”
Did you learn (or were you already practicing) any tips/tricks for managing your workload and/or staying motivated on a long-term basis?
Anca: “I like checking off lists. I love little check marks. Long-term to-do lists, short-term to-do lists. Reading lists—though I’m good at stressing myself out with those. I squirrel away notes for novels I haven’t started writing yet and titles I like that I could write toward. Priscilla Long in The Writer’s Portable Mentor also suggests keeping a list of each piece you’ve written and whether it is published, as an inventory of what you’ve already begun that you could be working on. Specific goals are great too: writing 1000 words a day or editing 3 hours a day or striving to get 100 rejections a year are achievable goals, within my control. I’m in fiction writing for the long-term because I really don’t see myself doing anything but that (and whatever will support that, which tends to be teaching).”
Bonnie: “I read a Q&A with Susan Orlean around the time I started writing my book. In the Q&A, she detailed a very disciplined approach to her writing in which she set a daily word count. I modeled my approach after hers and tried to write 500 words a day. If you think about it, 500 words a day is not a lot. It’s akin to a short article. It felt very manageable. My chapters are about 8,000 words long, so that meant I could write a chapter in about three weeks, weekends not included. Of course, I didn’t always meet my goal, but it helped keep me focused. ”
Candace: I got great advice from the fabulous writer Erik Larson (Devil in the White City) early on. I met him at a writer’s conference when all I had was a book idea. He was thoughtful and kind. He advised me to concentrate on two characters (Amanda and Meredith) and to write in chronological order with few flashbacks. My Penguin editor kept me on track. ‘Just ask yourself, ‘What happened? What happened next’?’ My bible was Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction, by James E. Stewart. I learned how to nail the story and not go off into tangents.”
At what point did you feel like the project was “done”? Did the sense of completion feel like you thought it would, or did it surprise you in some ways?
Anca: “Some writers never think a piece is done; they just give up on it. Some people miss their characters when a project ends. Maybe that’s another reason why revision can go on and on. If I revise a draft a zillion times, then take a month away from it, and look at it again, then take another month off and look again and can’t find ways to make it better, it might be done. But it’s always good to show it to one or two or five honest friends—people who see potential in my work but aren’t afraid to point out what isn’t up to snuff. Occasionally, I will write an entire first draft of a short story in one sitting and the feeling of a beginning, middle, and end is marvelous. But, I know it’s not done yet.”
Bonnie: “It never felt done! I submitted the manuscript to my editor on New Year’s Eve 2015. By the time we worked through all the edits, it was June 2016. And then the real fun began. Multiple ‘passes,’ or versions, were subsequently read by numerous fact-checkers and copy editors. I’d have to respond to their queries, which would sometimes prompt additional queries. And then there was a ‘legal read,’ in which the manuscript was reviewed by an attorney for potential libel or other issues. I was dumbfounded by the rigor that the house (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux) applied to my manuscript. I had no idea that books go through so many rounds of eyeballs before they hit the shelves. I never actually felt a huge sense of relief because once all the pages had been shipped to the printer, I then had to turn my attention to promotion and publicity, which is its own beast. I have two gift cards for celebratory massages that I have been waiting to use. The book has been out in the world for nearly two months and things are just now quieting down. I finally am getting ready to book one of those massages!”
Candace: “That is the funny part. A book is never done. You always want to tinker. Murder In Italy has been reprinted three times, so I did get to fix little things. I’ve since learned that many of my idols would like to ‘fix’ their books. Louise Erdrich recently revised Love Medicine, published in 1984. That was already a perfect novel.”