Happy New Year, folks!
It will not surprise you to read that I’ve been struggling a bit with how to approach this blog over the past year or so. I love writing about empathy, but while writing a whole 60,000-word book on the subject the thought of also writing blog posts on the topic was exhausting. I also felt like I didn’t have much new to say here that I wasn’t saving for my book. I love summarizing research that I come across, but a) I don’t often have the time to do the proper reporting and make sure my analysis is accurate and b) that’s frankly kind of boring to a lot of people!
I think I felt like because I was writing a book about empathy I needed to specifically brand my blog that way, but it ended up just constraining me. There are so many things I want to write about in more than a few tweets, but that probably won’t get picked up as freelance articles. That middle ground is what blogging is best at, and I think as I continue to grow as a writer it makes sense to flex that muscle here more often.
I’m not going back to long descriptions of my weekend activities (lol, 2012 me…) and I’ll continue to avoid long political rants, but I need to do more here than just post links to empathy-related science articles every once in a while. I’ve been thinking a lot about transparency – as it relates to tech, but also as it relates to journalism – so in that vein, why don’t I tell y’all a bit about what this book writing process has been like?
It has been long. That’s something a lot of people told me to prepare for at the beginning but I still don’t think I was ready. I am an impatient person. It’s something I’ve kind of embraced about my personality but it doesn’t always serve me. It can be great for project management and even for reporting; it’s not so great for long projects whose steps I can’t always control. I started working on the book that became THE FUTURE OF FEELING in 2016. I think it was summer, and I was at a bar in Brooklyn with my husband talking about the next thing. That year’s thing for us had been getting married. I always seem to have a thing, and my brain was itching for the next one. I had always known I wanted to write a book, but I assumed I’d have to work diligently as a reporter at a newspaper or magazine for at least 10 years before I would know enough about anything to write a whole book on it.
I don’t know if it was the atmosphere or the beer or my obsessive need to start on something new, but that day I just decided – I’m gonna do it. I’m just gonna start. I’d been thinking a lot about how natural empathy can seem but how hard it can actually be to practice, and how the extremely online life I’d led since age 14 or so had seriously complicated how I related to and understood other humans. This idea itself wasn’t new and had been written about a ton already. But what about what was coming next? I’m always thinking (read: worrying) about the future, and looking back at how quickly tech – social media, especially – had taken over my own life and those of my peers, I wondered what was in store for us next. I’d tried to find books about this, but mostly came up empty. So, that day at the bar – Abilene, in Carroll Gardens – I just decided I would write one.
I did not suddenly feel qualified, or smart enough, or talented enough to write a book. But I had decided to go to grad school and made it, decided to move to New York and survived…maybe I could do this the same way. Make the decision first, figure out the details later. And that’s what I did. Frankly I’m still figuring out the details, but I started by googling “how to write a nonfiction book.” I also asked for help from a huge Facebook network of writers I was part of at the time. I ended up finding several websites that helped me figure out the basic process – initial reporting, proposal, find an agent, revise proposal, go out on submission, (hopefully) secure a publisher, write book, make a few bucks if you’re lucky, start again.
The first part – initial reporting and writing the proposal – took the longest. I’d say I started seriously reporting in mid-2016, and then I started the proposal on December 29, 2016. I remember because I took a photo of my laptop and coffee at the coffee shop I was at and posted it on Instagram, of course. (Funnily enough, that coffee shop was in North Carolina not too far from where I now live.) I followed a couple of guides that I found online to create a format for the proposal (overview, chapter outlines, competing titles, sample chapters, author bio, etc.) but I was kind of lost as to how to really fill it in. I was lucky to have an amazing writing group in New York that met every week – unheard of, really. Without their encouragement, accountability and criticism I might still be working on the damn thing. Thankfully they helped me get it into shape throughout 2017 and by the end of the year I was ready to send it to agents.
2018 was the year of the book. It all happened. I queried 12 agents during the first and second week of January. I got a couple of very encouraging rejections, a bunch of no-replies, and two requests for the proposal. Of those, one agent never responded again, and one said yes. I could have kept going, but I really liked the one who said yes (she had experience with books like mine, understood what I was trying to accomplish with this project, and we got along on a personal level), so by the end of January I was agented. My understanding is that this was relatively quick, but not out of the ordinary for a nonfiction book. (Fiction is a whole other story.) I remember I got the call from my agent – Jill Marsal – at work in Brooklyn while I was waiting for another call, from my now-boss in North Carolina. When my phone rang I didn’t really look at the number and just picked up, expecting an answer about the job in NC. When I heard Jill’s voice I was so surprised that I didn’t know how to respond to her telling me that yes, she wanted to represent me. (Later I got the other call, and in a couple of weeks I was down here in NC – 2018 really started off wild.)
Jill and I worked for a few weeks on my proposal, and when it was ready to go on submission she kept me updated with the responses – lots and lots of rejections! But one thing I’ve learned is that if people are rejecting you it means they’re reading your work and considering it. They know your name, they know your work exists, they read and thought about it – in the creative world, that’s no small thing. But eventually someone said yes – Little A, an imprint of Amazon Publishing. It was early May when I signed the contract to officially write THE FUTURE OF FEELING.
Then…I had to finish it. I had written a couple of sample chapters and done some research, but I hadn’t wanted to pour too much time into reporting a book that may or may not be published. Now that I knew it was real, I had to get serious. I created a more detailed outline that changed approximately 7,239 times throughout the process only to end up basically the way it was at the beginning. I set deadlines for myself for each chapter and section. I read other books, gobbled up google alerts for “empathy + tech” and “empathy + study” and reached out to dozens of people for interviews. I was happy to find that most of the experts and practitioners I emailed were happy to get on the phone or Skype and talk to me about empathy – or the lack of it – in tech, and about what they were doing to try to fix this. I interviewed people in the US, Canada and Ireland. I went to a VR conference in New York and tested some of the tech I was writing about. I had piles and piles of printed out articles and notes and thousands and thousands of words of transcribed interviews. It was a lot, but honestly, it was not as hard as writing the initial proposal. I had the foundation, I just had to build the house. Sometimes I felt like I was following very well-designed blueprints; sometimes I felt like I was throwing sticks at concrete and hoping they’d somehow form walls. Toward the end, I started just throwing my notes to the side and vomit-writing, just getting ideas out in a stream of consciousness so they’d at least be on the page. If I’m honest, that’s how I wrote most of the first draft. I just threw it into Word, questions to myself and musings about my interview subjects and all-caps reminders included.
Then I did the unthinkable – I let people read it like that. With the caveat that it clearly wasn’t done (and the persistent thought that I really didn’t know what else to do and it might actually just stay in this state forever) I emailed chapters to friends and fellow writers and asked them what they thought. I got some niceties and a lot of “oops I forgot to read it!” messages, but I also got some really helpful feedback. I started revising, using a red pen to make structural changes and tiny line edits. Then, about halfway through, I put it aside and ignored it for a month.
I felt kind of paralyzed. I was working full time throughout this whole thing, plus reading the news every day (which is exhausting in itself these days) and by November I was burnt out. I asked myself nearly every day for a couple of weeks whether I had made anything remotely readable and if I should just give back the advance and pretend this never happened. This is a very common – and some would argue necessary – part of book-writing, I’m told! And I did snap out of it. At the beginning of December I took a solo trip up north. I made the rookie mistake of telling my editor I’d be in town. She wasn’t, but suggested I send her what I had anyway. I was so close to the end…I decided I would send her the whole thing, even though it technically wasn’t due until January 4.
I went to New York for one night and one day to see a concert and connect with a couple of writer friends. We commiserated and confessed our insecurities to one another. It was exactly what I needed. I headed to my grandmother’s house in Connecticut and on the train ride there and over two days in her sun room I finished revising, reorganizing and rewriting the whole damn thing. I subsisted on Christmas candy, bagels, and ginger ale. I barely moved from the wooden table except to watch a movie with her one evening in the living room. My trip was cut short by an impending snowstorm and just as I was freaking out about this my editor emailed to say she wouldn’t have time to read anything for a few more days. With a huge sigh of relief, I booked it back to North Carolina and just as the storm descended, I finished. And I sent it. And I breathed.
It wasn’t perfect, but it was done. (That should probably be on my tombstone.) Then all I had to do was wait for my editor’s verdict. Would she see huge problems and ask me to make major revisions in the few weeks before my official delivery date? Would she love it and tell me I didn’t need to make any edits at all? (Ha! Obviously I spent significantly more time on the first what-if.) I had a lot of work to do at my day job in the meantime, and Christmas festivities were beginning, so I was blissfully distracted a lot of the time. Then on the 21st, the day before my long holiday break from work, my editor emailed to say she wasn’t done, but she liked what she saw so far, and I could consider myself submitted. I cried a little, I’m not gonna lie. And then I went to a Christmas party and got very drunk with some of my best friends.
There is still a lot of work ahead. Revisions start next week and will take a couple of months. Then there are all the parts I know have to be there but I don’t know how they work – the cover, marketing, actually getting the book in stores, etc. The pub date is still a year away. (I told you – it’s a long process!) I’m already thinking about my next book (or 2…) and a podcast project I want to do this year. And my husband and I are house hunting. And yet I still feel like I don’t have “enough” going on for 2019…!
I hope this was interesting for some of you. Maybe you’re thinking of writing a nonfiction book and you didn’t know where to start. Or maybe you just enjoy reading about my meltdowns throughout the process. I still feel new at this, but if you have any questions I’d be happy to try to help. And look out for more in this space in 2019!