A Book’s Timeline: How My Nonfiction Project Came to Life

A good friendone who has worked around journalists and authors her whole careerstill finds daunting and mysterious how an author moves from initial idea to finished book. Where do you find all those words, she asks?

You need a clear understanding of the scope of your inquiry, how you’ll access the material you needarchives, letters, libraries, interviews, firsthand reportingand how much time, money and travel this will require. Once you’ve defined your trajectory, and can describe your book in a sentence, all you have to do is write it! Here’s how my second nonfiction book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail, took shape:

 

     


Caitlin Kelly is the author of Malled: My Unintentional
Career in Retail (April 2011, Portfolio), a book Publishers
Weekly called “an intriguing look into the retail business.”
The book is a memoir of her two years working for The
North Face as a sales associate. Caitlin also wrote Blown
Away: American Women and Guns (Pocket Books).
See her website here.

 


September 2007. My freelance writing income is suffering as the recession begins, so I take a part-time retail job selling clothes in a suburban mall for some steady cash. I’ve never worked retail, and know it will be hard work. My writer friends all think this could make a great book. I’m dubious, but on the strength of their advice I keep detailed notes of those first weeks.

March 2009. I speak on a panel in Manhattan about writing. A young woman in the audience is the assistant to a well-established agent and suggests I write a memoir. She asks me to contact her boss.

June 2009. I sit down with Kathleen Anderson, a Manhattan agent, who spends than an hour exploring this idea. She sees much more in the material than I had previously considered. Listening to her flesh it out as we talk it is like watching Batman’s car doubling in size and power into the ferocious Batmobile. Maybe there is a book in all this.

July 2009. I start writing a three-chapter proposal, which Kathleen and I polish through several drafts. It’s a lot of hard work without any income or even a guarantee this book will sell. But she’s a hard-nosed veteran and won’t waste her energy, or mine, on something she doesn’t firmly believe in. Time to trust one another.

September 2009. The proposal is making the rounds. The rejections are pouring in. Ouch! Kathleen sends them along until I cry uncle and ask her not to. “Someone is going to buy this book. We just haven’t found them yet,” she says.
We’re invited to Portfolio/Penguin’s offices to meet the publisher, editor and publicist. It’s a hot afternoon and I’m wearing all black, the New York City uniform, to help me feel calm and confident. We have a deal. Cool!

December 2009. I quit the retail job, now that I have enough material. With the first payment on the advance I can also afford to focus on writing.
February 2010. I turn in 47,000 words. My editor finds calls it “an early first draft.” Actually, it wasn’t. But I started too soon. I haven’t waited long enough and it shows. I need more distance from this material to describe it artfully, not just emotionally. I can’t rush this.

January-May 2010. My arthritic left hip is so bad I can barely walk across the room. I see five specialists, none of whom can explain it. I take powerful painkillers. Writing a book is a lot tougher when coping with pain 24/7, veering between painkillers’ foggy brain and exhausted lucidity.
Not what I need right now!

March-May 2010. Too intimidated to write, I read 10 books on low-wage work and retail, and interview others nationwide about retail work.  I’m still making good progress while gaining a deeper, wider understanding of this huge industry, one with 15 million employees. My 75,000 words are due September 1, so I have to get back to writing soon.
I’m able to focus entirely on reading and thinking because my researchers, two young journalists, keep filling my e-mail inbox with interviews and other background information I need. It’s a huge relief to be able to delegate to terrific people, even at $15/hour. The several hundred dollars I spend for their time and skill is worth it for my peace of mind and ability to stay focused.
My partner is trying not to freak out. He knows I write very quickly and that a looming deadline motivates me best.

May-June 2010. Writewritewritewritewrite. Forget social life and housework. I turn in the book at the end of June and take a two-week vacation in Canada.

July 2010. My editor sends me six pages’ worth of revisions. Gulp. Can I do what she needs? Do I have the skill?  Writer friends and my agent offer tough love and encouragement. The editor loves the last two chapters and suggests I use them as models for the rest. Her directions are all clear and helpful, about 80 percent of which I follow.

August 2010. Revisewriterevisewriterevisewrite. Cut the boring bits.
September 2010. Done, in, accepted. Whew!

Writing a memoir or life story? A great
resource is Writing Life Stories.


 

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