Thursday, October 30, 2008

HOW I TACKLE A NONFICTION BOOK

BEACON FLASH #31 - October 2008

Since I received confirmation from my publisher for the YA biography, Sir James Douglas: the Father of British Columbia, I have been busy. Busy clearing other projects out of the way, busy getting books from the library, and busy doing some research on the Internet. As of September 30th, I have four months to research, write, and revise a book of 50,000 words.

I grown better at the process of researching and writing nonfiction. What I really mean here is that I am more efficient than I once was. Nowadays, I rarely read any book or article more than once; I don't forget to make note of sources; and I don't try to write a perfect manuscript at the get-go.

I start two binders. One is for data that I know I must have for reference: webpages that I have printed out, photocopied book pages, images and their locations, etc. The second binder is for the manuscript.

Then I begin reading--no, not exactly reading, but scanning. That provides me with the sources of data that go in binder number one. I sort most of the material in chronological order, which usually gives me an idea of the chapters I will need, but I always have a section about the character of the subject. When I stop finding new material, I know I have probably finished the research, at least at the beginning.

Then I dissect what I need for the first chapter. I start writing that section without the material. Why? Because if I have it in front of me, I write in its style. Often I need long pauses to think about what I have learned and to sort out what needs to be included and what can be left out. Getting into the head of the subject of a biography means I go for solitary walks frequently.

I print out each rough chapter as it is finished and put it in binder 2. I will probably look it over in the evening or the next day. I highlight facts I am unsure of in yellow for future follow-up. I put red plus signs where the story needs fleshing out. And, I make obvious corrections in pencil. Then I put the chapter aside until the whole ms is finished.

Only then does the heavy-duty revision start. I do that one step at a time, starting with the fact checking, moving next to the development of characters and place, and then tackle the organization and flow, a time when I rewrite chunks and ditch others. I don't touch the copy editing until everything else is done. After that, I send the ms out to experts for comment.


The challenge is timing. Publishers expect you to meet the deadlines in your contract and, when these are short, authors can get bogged down in the research phase and miss their print slot. I try to give myself six weeks for the revision phase and work back from there. That way, for example, I might need a writing speed of 15,000 words/month to hit the mark. Sometimes it's more, sometimes less. I always feel rushed, whatever the timeline, and I am never satisfied!

How do you tackle a project as big as a book if you have a deadline? I'll post your responses on this blog.

PS: It is now October 31st and I have only 5000 words to go, then a huge chunk of revision. I know I will make the deadline for my publisher, Dundurn. It's a good feeling and I am going on my annual vacation next week -- without my laptop!!