This time of year I am on the road a lot. I speak at conferences and visit libraries and schools. (Check here for a awesome nationwide environmental project/art contest for classrooms K-3 to celebrate my new book TROUT ARE MADE OF TREES. The prize is I come to your school for free.)
About four-fifiths of the way through writing long nonfiction books, I have a crisis. I agonize. It's ugly and uncomfortable. Living with me in this state is probably like having a cholla cactus for a wife.
This is the time when I have delved so deeply into the subject that my outline for the book no longer serves. When I begin a project, I organize chapters in a fairly typical fashion. For example. If I were writing a book about seals, the chapters might look like this:
- Introduction to Seals
- Biology of seals
- Seal type A
- Seal type B
- Seal type C
- Conservation issues facing seals
- Hope for the future
From the first chapter to the last, the book needs a pathway. That pathway is dictated by the subject itself. Unfortunately, a writer rarely know this pathway ahead of time. (Unless he or she is an expert on the subject from the beginning.)
- Seeing through a seal's eyes
- The seal scientist
- Why flippers make sense
- Seals that dive
- Seals that skim
- Seals that do it all
- New technologies thanks to seals
During the crisis, I wrestle. I experiment. I rearrange the text, making huge structural changes. (Hallelujah for word processors.) I may try five or more major ways to organize the book. An awful uncertainly looms.
This is where I am today. An hour ago, I lay down for a nap but as usual did not nap at all. My book was swimming in my mind. Now here I am at the computer. I had to get up. A new possibility for organizing the book came to mind. Maybe it will work. Maybe it won't. But it holds the possibility of solving my prickly crisis. I have to find that flow, the best possible pathway for my book. Or else, it will never feel complete—even if I turn it in.
One of the things students need to know, and teachers need to remember, is that the writing process can be messy. And that is okay. As author Lola Schaefer says, the writing process is recursive. It loops back. You sometimes have to return to the beginning and go through steps again. It is in doing that work that you reach the highest quality in nonfiction writing.