As promised in my last post, I’ve pulled together some of the “lessons” I learned about the process of writing a non-fiction book while writing my first one, The Secret World of Red Wolves: A true story of North America’s other wolf. The process of writing a book is surely as different for every writer as the fingerprints inscribed on our digits. What follows below is a list of things I learned along the way, over the two year process it took to bring my project from an idea to a finished manuscript. (The focus of this post is on the actual writing, structure, and organization issues I encountered—not how to write or sell a book proposal.) I don’t expect that what I’ve shared here will make sense to everyone, but if you’re a writer who is struggling to tackle a big project then perhaps some granule of this discussion will help you to tackle your own project in a new, productive way.
Approaching the writing: Knowing enough to know where and how to start
I planned for my book to be somehwere around 87,000 words (it topped out at 95,000), but before embarking on this project I’d never written anything longer than 4,000 words. Which might explain why I started out with lots of questions about how to organize and approach a writing project more than twenty-one times larger than anything I’d ever done. Seeking guidance, I asked two non-fiction authors I know (who had published multiple books each) how they had managed to break down the massive amount of work involved in writing multiple chapters. They are both journalists, and each told me that they simply treated each chapter like an in-depth article, and then stitched all the “articles” together. That sounded like a manageable way to tame what seemed like an unruly mess of ideas in my head, so that’s how I tried to conceive of my chapters. I stared at my draft table of contents and thought, This will be easy! I’ll just write seven or eight “articles” about these ideas.
After bungling around for a few months and feeling stuck each time I tried to write the first “article,” I realized that their method didn’t work for me. I couldn’t conceive of the chapters as isolated articles linked by the theme of the book. I could only see the continuity between the chapters I’d outlined, although I couldn’t yet clearly envision the narrative path I wanted a reader to take through the story. I knew I wanted to plant seeds in the first chapter that would be cultivated and tended to in later chapters, but this was hard to do in the sense of writing an article. I realized with a sinking feeling that in biting off writing the first chapter, I first had to have a much firmer understanding of the whole book — the whole story — before I could understand where it began.
What followed was three or four months of intensive research and interviewing, more notes than I knew how to handle, a mind jammed full of red wolf facts, and a dozen or more stacks of research papers and documents carefully grouped by topic on my desk. I felt adrift and anchorless in those months. I often awoke at 3 a.m. with a hard, cold fear in my belly from knowing that after four months of “working on the book” I still had yet to finish a single chapter. Failure seemed imminent. I felt small and unproductive, but feeling small also drove me to batten down the hatches, focus and work hard. I assuaged the fear by diving further in to the research. Having recently completed my master’s thesis only the year before, the process of researching was familiar and comforting, so I swaddled myself in it.
But there was also something else driving me during those research days, I just didn’t recognize the impulse yet: I wanted to know every detail of the topic so I could know what to include, and what to leave out. I wanted to know what had already been reported upon in the popular press, what was under-reported upon, and how that differed from what was recorded in the scientific literature. Before I knew it, in “researching the first chapter” I was actually pulling research for the middle and end of the book. It seemed like I was working beyond the scope of the task at hand. Frankly, I was working blindly. But I kept following this wild impulse that I felt sure was going to bring me somewhere productive.
And it did. It worked better than I could have foreseen. You see, I’d made the mistake of trying to begin writing before I actually knew the path and scope of the story I wanted to tell. Let me correct that: I thought I knew the path and scope… but when I had initially tried to write that first chapter, everything I thought I knew vaporized. So after four months of blindly following my research impulse, when I at last sat down to attempt to write chapter one again, I had a much better idea formed in my mind for what the shape and depth of the book would be. I knew the contours and the boundaries of the story I wanted to tell. I could see the path I wanted to carve for readers. And I could finally see its beginning.
Two months later, I finally finished chapter one. Except it actually turned into both chapter one and chapter two… and chapter three. I’d gotten so deep into the research, and so deep into understanding the path I wanted to take, that I hadn’t yet thought clearly about the scale of the ideas within the story I wanted to tell. Or the structure of how to tell them. Or how to break that structure into chunks, and keep each chapter trimmed to one specific idea or theme along the path of the overall story arc.
Crafting the right voice, and writing for my audience
At the same time that I was struggling with where to start writing, I was also struggling with how to write for who I wanted to read the book. Parts of the red wolf’s story get very complex very fast, so complex that many writers simply abandon addressing certain aspects of its history and our scientific understanding of this animal. I knew I wanted to cover these aspects, but I also wanted to write the book for a very general audience — one with a predisposition for natural history, nature, and wildlife science, but perhaps they’d not pursued a master’s or a PhD in these subjects. On the one hand, I didn’t want to scare off more general readers because the writing was too complex. On the other hand, I had to cover the results of some genetics and morphometrics research in an evolutionary context. I wanted anyone from a high schooler to a senior citizen to pick the book up and be able to comprehend it without being driven to a dictionary or a genetics textbook. In short, I didn’t want to take a certain level of learning for granted in the audience I thought the book would appeal to.
I decided perhaps the best way to deal with what I perceived as getting the audience invested in the story was to let them learn with me in the first few chapters. Despite having researched the heck out of the subject, I present my own character as somewhat naive in the beginning. I wanted to be the vehicle through which the reader gained both the interest and the confidence to learn more about red wolves. Using this approach, I built the complexity slowly throughout the text. More learned readers may find it to be a slow start, but in writing for what I percieved as a very broad audience, I figured I’d have to ask for forgiveness from both sides of the spectrum. Similarly, readers less familiar with genetics and taxonomic studies may find the middle chapters on competing theories of red wolf origins too taxing. But I hope this approach engages a wider set of nature and wildlife lovers than a strict sciencey approach that assumed a certain level of learning would have.
The golden key was decoding the structure
For me, the golden key to this whole endeavor was re-jiggering the structure. I knew the focus of the story I wanted to tell, and I eventually found its boundaries. But in the beginning, what I struggled with endlessly when trying to start writing chapter one, was the structure of the whole book. I’d originally proposed writing the book in a strict chronology of three Parts: Past, Present, Future. This meant I would loosely go from the red wolf’s evolutionary origins to its decline upon European contact, to its demise in the East, to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s efforts to define the animal taxonomically and captive breed it, to reintroduction and modern management.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the treatment I envisioned for the modern management was the most interesting aspect of the book. I planned to shadow red wolf biologists in the field over the course of a full year in order to show readers what a seasonal cycle of management looks like, and field work inevitably produces engaging scenes. Shoving this to near the end just wouldn’t do. Likewise, placing the discussion of evolutionary origins at the beginning meant I was asking a general reader to dive into the most complex, most sciencey part of the whole book straight out of the starting blocks. That too simply wouldn’t do.
Then one day I realized it was completely within my power to pull the chronology apart and tell the story in whatever order I wanted. And what I wanted was to start in the present, then dive into the past, and then circle back to the future at the end. Once I re-jiggered the table of contents into three parts of Present, Past, Future everything else snapped into place. I could put the exciting field biology scenes up front, the complex taxonomy and origin story in the middle, and thought-provoking discussions of how climate change will effect the red wolf’s future could be delivered at the book’s end. With the structure decoded, I sat down and wrote chapter one. Which, as I already told you, really became chapters one through three.
Splitting chapters was organic, and essential
Sometimes a chapter I’d conceived of in the draft table of contents grew arms and legs of its own and walked into other parts of the book. Or it grew too large and seemed out of place. I originally wanted to keep the chapters all the same approximate length. But I soon realized that I couldn’t dictate their final form based upon a desired symmetry of pages. Rather, I had to let them each grow into their own and take whatever form they needed. Still, I drew the line at around 35 pages because I figured that beyond that would simply test a reader’s patience. We all know we do this when reading a book. You hit a certain page number and think, “Sheesh, am I ever going to get to the end of this chapter?” A friend recently hit page the sixty-fifth page of a chapter and placed the book back on the shelf in frustration. I didn’t want that to happen to mine. I figured if I couldn’t complete my thought within 35 or so pages, then I needed to take another look at the original thought the chapter was supposed to address, and break it up into separate thoughts—just like a writer must break up run-on sentences into shorter, complete ones.
In Part One, I had conceived of a single chapter that would address the modern management of red wolves. Oh, how naive! One chapter is laughable! After visiting the field team twice, I realized that the best way to cover their work was to break it up into seasons. At first, I still thought I could do this in one long chapter; I’d just break it up into sections. But after following the biologists around for four days during their spring field season when they find all the wild dens and take blood samples from all the wild pups, and then trying to write a mere quarter of a chapter about this work, I realized what a joke of an endeavor it was. My “quarter of a chapter” was a full chapter. The same thing happened when I returned for their fall trapping season, when they target animals whose radio collars are failing, to replace the batteries (among other things). The organic nature of the field research and writing showed me that, clearly, each season needed its own chapter.
Of course, stubborn as I am, I’d written three of these chapters as a single chapter before I finally split them up and wrote the the fourth chapter separately. For the umpteenth time, I renumbered the table of contents… the four chapters I’d envisioned for Part One, which includes more than just the seasonal field work, had multiplied like Star Trek tribbles into seven.
Riding the writing rhythm equalled unparalleled productivity
Once I finished Part One, I was actually half-way done with the book’s first draft in terms of the word count, but a third of the way through it according to the major divisions of the content. Somewhere around chapter four I developed a rhythm to the writing and the work. I’d already compiled 80 percent of the research I needed for the whole book, thanks to my anchorless and rudderless attempt at starting chapter one with no clue what I was doing. And I’d developed a system of indexing my research notes so that I could quickly and easily find what I needed according to whichever chapter I was working on. But hitting a stride with the writing style–and sticking to a schedule—made it all gel.
I struggled with the writing style at first because this was my first book, and let’s just say that writing a newspaper story for the Observer, or a wildlife story for a magazine, takes a very different flavor. Especially when it comes to dialogue and quotes. When writing about the field work I observed, I attempted to make certain scenes have a cinematic quality. I wanted readers to feel like they were there with me and the biologists when we found a wolf injured in a trap in the woods, or when we found a pile of puppies in a den after searching for it in bramble and briers for three days straight. This meant learning to craft dialogue.
When writing in a newsy style, all you need to do is set up a quote with context and then slide it in. But with dialogue, it’s completely different. Some of the dialogue simply consists of me asking questions of the biologists in the field (which I did to let readers learn along with me, I didn’t want my role in the book to be that of an encyclopedic narrator that knows everything), but my favorite parts capture vital scenes that show how the biologists manage the wolves on a daily basis and how they make decisions amongst themselves. In addition to playing with the dialogue, I also played with sentence length and learned to drop interesting little hooks and complications throughout each chapter to keep the reader reading.
I learned that once I was in this rhythm, it was best to just hang on and ride it. I set hours on my daily calendar when I planned to write (usually about six hours per day, with two hours of research, reading, note curation, or editing), and I stuck to them. If I was uninspired to write in the mornings, I’d read what I’d crafted the day before and then pick up wherever I’d left off. This also helped me with revising, as I often began my writing hours by revising the previous day’s work. This helped me stay grounded in the style and rhythm I’d developed. I also found it helpful to break the chapters up into component sections which I kept numbered. If you’ve ever read David Quammen, he often publishes his work this way. While I had no intention of keeping the numbers delineating sections in the final text, I wrote this way so as to outline visually for myself where the contours of major sections lay within each chapter. This meant I had to pay attention to making clean transitions between the sections, but it often was not a problem.
Keeping scale in mind was important to the overall cohesiveness
It’s easy to get lost in the details and lose sight of the overall arc of the story. Many times in my early attempts to write the first few chapters, I ended up wandering off the narrative path and found myself somewhere outside the boundaries I’d envisioned for the story. Or arriving to parts too early that I’d thought would come later. But once I figured out the structure, and after I had all the chapters of Part One completed, I began to re-read, revise, and edit the Part iteratively, working and re-working it like a baker kneading dough.
This constant contact with the material kept me grounded in the story at different scales. What I mean is, in reviewing one third of the book (Part One) so intensely before moving on to Part Two, I was able to keep the intimate details of that Part in my mind before moving forward. I feel this did two things: it helped me to stay firmly on the narrative path I’d envisioned for the whole story, and it helped me to know in detail each section of that path. That might sound silly in that you may suppose every writer knows every part of a book they’ve written. But it’s a lot easier than you might think to write something in chapter two and then completely forget about it by chapter ten. At least, that’s how my mind works. So this process of reviewing major Parts of the book iteratively before moving on to the next section allowed me to work and think at different scales in the story: at the sentence and paragraph level while editing a specific chapter, and at the chapter level while reviewing an entire Part for cohesiveness, all while keeping in context where that Part fit in the overall structure and narrative path. This became especially important when I switched from using the present tense in Part One, to the past tense in Part Two, and then back to the present and even the future tense in Part Three.
(Oh, and those seven or eight articles I started out trying to write? They morphed into fifteen chapters. It helps to be flexible…)
If you’re a writer who has developed your own methods for undertaking a book or large writing project, I’d love to hear about your own “lessons learned” in the comments.