I got the deal to write my first book, Horsemen of the Esophagus, in the spring of 2005. I’d been out of college for four years at that point, writing for two different magazines, in Cincinnati and Philadelphia. I’d never written anything longer than 7,000 words, but writing a book had always been a dream of mine. The book contract was for 70,000 words. The topic was competitive eating; I’d been working on a Philadelphia magazine story about a guy in New Jersey, a wing specialist named Bill “El Wingador” Simmons, and wanted to explore the eating world beyond Wingador. I was concerned that people would think the topic was stupid, and me stupid for pursuing it, so I called my old boss in Cincinnati, Kitty Morgan, an incredible editor who had taught me a lot, and asked her if I was crazy. “No,” she said. “Look: You hack out a piece of the culture.”
Just a piece! I could do that.
I spent the next couple of weeks reporting: going to contests, traveling with eaters, digging through old newspaper clips. I could tell that the reporting was going to be the fun part. I’ve always tended to overreport, to generate a lot of extra material that never gets used in magazine stories. I figured I could treat the reporting aspect of the book as if it were one really long magazine story.
At some point, though, additional reporting becomes an opiate that eases the suffering of not writing. Two or three months into the Horsemen project, I knew I had to start writing. I was living in a small apartment in Center City with my girlfriend, now my wife. I set up my laptop on the kitchen table and hacked away for about a month without much to show for it except some disconnected pieces of scenes. I kept waiting for someone to tell me how to write the book, to give me some kind of template, but that never happened. My editor at the time basically trusted me to figure it out for myself. (He was a brilliant guy, and although he did make line edits, his most useful editing advice tended toward the big picture; later, after I sent him a few chunks of the book, he called me and said he’d been riding his bicycle around New York, thinking about the material, and he wanted to offer some comments. I spent the next half hour typing every genius thing he said.) He hadn’t even told me how long a chapter was supposed to be! Chapter length was up to me. I couldn’t believe it.
I also had to make hard, huge decisions about the voice of the book (straightforward or comical?) and the narrative point of view (first person or third person?) that weren’t fully worked out in the proposal.
I started to get scared. I tried to think of something that would be fun and easy to write. I remembered a grilled-cheese eating contest I had seen in Venice Beach, Calif. The guy who’d organized it, an advertising visionary and carnival barker named George Shea, had brought a famous sandwich to the contest, a sandwich said to be imprinted with the image of the Virgin Mary. I began typing a scene of Shea as contest emcee:
The music shifts to a gentle adult contemporary track. George Shea bleeds all aggression from his voice.
“Ladies and gentlemen. It is said that pearls are the precipitate of sunlight, slowed and bent by the ocean until it forms a nugget of beauty inside the lowly mollusk. And likewise, this grilled cheese sandwich is the precipitate of the divine spirit”—and here the music shifts again, to a dark minor-key vamp, and Shea’s voice skews evil—“captured here on Earth in the most unlikely of places, delivered to us in the image of the Virgin Mary!”
Shea has sensitive features, an aristocratic nose, and neat black hair. Good-looking, compact. Perfect posture. His voice is melodious but powerful — precise, all syllables enunciated, with the pitch control of a cabaret singer and the gestural excess of a dinner-theater Hamlet.
That became part of the book’s introduction. It was the first thing that felt like it worked.
I built on that, completing the introduction and then moving on to the material I knew best, the Philly/New Jersey material. I imagined splitting the book into three 25,000-word sections: one about Philly, one about the Coney Island hot dog contest, and one about a trip to Japan that I had taken with a an eater from Akron, Ohio, named David “Coondog” O’Karma. Maybe I couldn’t write a book, but I could write a third of a book. Twenty-five thousand words: That was equal to four long magazine articles. It didn’t seem so daunting.
I think it took me four months to grope my way to 25,000 words. When I hit the 25,000 mark, I felt this rush of relief. Then I started to write faster. I came across a David Mamet quote:
“It doesn’t have to be calm and clear-eyed. You just have to not give up.”
I printed it out and taped it to the wall next to my workspace.
I was supposed to finish all the reporting and writing in a year. It took me 14 months. I handed in the manuscript at 100,000 words, then cut it to 90,000. Then it was fed into the part of the publishing house that runs like a machine, with tight, orderly deadlines. One day, a stack of laid-out pages arrived at my door: “first-pass” pages. I made edits and returned them. A little later, a box of galleys came. Horsemen looked like a book now. This was really happening.
* * *
When you write for magazines, you’re insulated from the sale and marketing of the product. You don’t have to be the face of it. But with a book, you’re suddenly the face, the vessel. You’re out there in the market, naked. This was a weird feeling for me. I’m good at sitting alone in an office for a long time and writing a long manuscript. I’m not a natural at performing for an audience, which is what book promotion is.
My publisher, realizing this, sent me to media training right before my book was released. They gave me an address in an office park in Maryland. I drove down and opened the door and a raven-haired Australian woman met me and said she was here to help. She was a trained actress, she said, and she specialized in helping introverted writers get out of their own heads. We spent the rest of the day doing what felt like acting exercises. She showed me how to “own a chair.” She talked about auras. She was energetic and kind and encouraging. She had me ball up a piece of paper and throw it to her while saying “GREAT TO BE HERE, THANKS FOR HAVING ME,” and if the paper landed near her shoulders, I was projecting my voice in the proper plane, and if it landed lower, I wasn’t. Incredibly, in a wax-on, wax-off kind of way, all of this stuff actually worked: Before I left, she filmed a mock interview with me, and when we watched it, I looked like a suitable facsimile of a comfortable, natural guest.
My book ended up receiving a fair amount of attention: an excerpt in The Atlantic, kind reviews in Entertainment Weekly and British GQ and Newsday. I filmed a few TV segments — “GREAT TO BE HERE, THANKS FOR HAVING ME!” — and due to my media training, I got through it okay.
But sales were poor. I think many readers were disgusted by the subject matter: It took a leap of faith to imagine that you could enjoy a book about professional overeaters. I remember driving seven hours to Akron, Ohio, to give a reading at a library along with Coondog O’Karma. One guy showed up — and it wasn’t even Coondog, who bailed on me.
I told myself my second book would be different. I didn’t have an idea yet, but I wanted to try again. In 2008, I called a friend, a magazine writer and bestselling author in New York, and asked him how I should proceed. “I think it’s simple,” he said. “It’s about the topic. Pick a topic that people already like.” In other words: Don’t waste time trying to make people care about something they don’t already care about.
It took a while to find a promising idea. I bounced a bunch of things off my literary agent, who’s an important part of my process. I realize I risk sounding pompous by talking about my agent but the truth is that he is just this smart and decent dude named Larry who lives in Brooklyn with his smart and decent partner, Sascha, and I’m fond of them. They’re running a boutique business, not some huge corporation, and they like to be involved with manuscripts on the story side, which I gather is unusual; on Horsemen, aside from helping me develop the proposal, they read all of my drafts and gave useful feedback on character and structure.
Together, Larry and Sascha and I eventually hashed out a proposal about a team of scientists working on a malaria vaccine to save the lives of a million people every year. The proposal sold, and I spent almost a year reporting the book — then access broke down and I had to walk away. My publisher gave me a generous period of time to find another idea instead of asking me to return the advance.
How do you find a book idea? This is the part of the process no one talks about, because no writer wants to give up his secrets. I remember sending Larry a manic email that I was going to write the next book about an obscure pre-Darwin naturalist and explorer. I remember being baffled that he didn’t immediately say this idea was brilliant. I probably forgot about the explorer the very next day. I spent a couple of futile nights on Google, typing random phrases into Google News. Breakthrough. Eccentric. Investigator. I was about to give up. No one needs to write a book, right?
But then I discovered the West Philadelphia Hybrid X Team — high school kids and teachers who build original hybrid cars in a rough neighborhood in Philly. I read about them in a local newspaper. I visited their garage, and that’s how I found out about the contest they were trying to win: the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize. Ten million dollars to create the super-efficient car of the future. The Philly kids were up against more than 100 teams from all over the world, each with its own idea about how to shape the automotive future. The more I learned about the prize, the bigger the story seemed. It was about inventors and cars and brave visions of the future. Like the malaria idea, it was about little guys on a quest to get rich and save the world. And because the X Prize was a contest, the book would have a natural beginning, middle, and end. I wouldn’t have to jam the book into some arbitrary frame. My publisher signed on. I was off on the second book: Ingenious.
This time, though, I couldn’t do it in a one-year sprint, like I had with the first book. There wasn’t enough money to let me quit all other magazine work and focus exclusively on the book. I had to write magazine stories to make a living. So I planned to spread the book work out over two years instead of one.
All through 2010, I exhausted myself reporting on every phase of the prize. I picked four teams to follow — the West Philly kids, a startup in California, a team of garage hackers in Central Illinois, and a team of racers in Lynchburg, Va. — and visited each team multiple times. I also drove out to Michigan for the multiple competition stages, held at a NASCAR track in a small town. I put crazy miles on my 2002 Honda Accord. I recorded a lot of tape and figured I could go back later and try to understand the technical aspects of the cars that I initially found bewildering. I’m not a car guy, but I hoped that would be a strength; I wanted to write the book from the point of view of a curious layperson. I didn’t want readers to have to know anything about cars to enjoy the story.
I arranged all my reporting in a program called Scrivener, which includes a slick searchable database for notes and interviews. Scrivener proved to be a great and useful tool, but also kind of stifling, because damn, it gave you such ready access to your stuff. It was all right there, a supermarket splay of endless quotes and anecdotes and technical descriptions. Whenever I sat down to write, I felt overwhelmed by all this material. It didn’t seem to matter that I had already written a book; I felt like a newbie. Every book is different. The challenges of this book seemed so different from the challenges of Horsemen. It was bigger, more ambitious, with more characters, their arcs more tightly interwoven.
And I couldn’t find my way into the story. I was circling and circling. I was changing the font a lot, from Chapparal to Caslon to Times Roman and back again, to help me see the words differently. I couldn’t really ask my editor for help. She’s brilliant and helpful and kind, an amazing woman, but it wasn’t her job to help me get the draft done; it was her job to advise me once I finished it.
In retrospect, I should have just written a shitty draft earlier. That’s what I try to do these days. I follow the advice of Pixar Director Andrew Stanton and write bad drafts faster. The first draft is going to suck anyway, so you may as well do it fast. I believe Vonnegut once said that he enjoyed writing as opposed to speaking because he could edit himself into coherence. This will sound banal, but I think most truths about writing are banal: Book writing is mostly about giving yourself as much time as possible to rescue and absolve the stumbling you that wrote the first draft, and the second draft, and the third, and the fourth.
A couple of things jolted me out of my troubles on Ingenious. One was a wise piece of advice from a journalist friend, Chris McDougall, who had written a book so successful, so enduringly popular — Born to Run — that it basically created a religion. It transformed the footwear industry, convincing tens of thousands of runners that they should ditch their bulky Nikes for shoes that looked like gloves. I drove out to see him one weekend — he lives in Amish country, surrounded by chickens and goats — and told him about my woes. He suggested I divide my chapters into small chunks. Two thousand words each. Make it easy on yourself, he said. That’s what he’d done for Born to Run. Two thousand words is just enough to paint a little picture and convey one small idea. The word limit prevents you from droning on and on. Later, you can flesh out a few chapters, as needed — 4,000 words, 6,000 words. And then you’ve got your 70,000 words.
The first thing I did when I got back home from McDougall’s was go to Staples. I bought some index cards and a corkboard and put the board on the wall of my office. I wrote the numbers 1 to 25 on a bunch of cards, tacked them to the board, started writing chapter titles on other cards, and placed them beneath the numbers.
The small-chapter strategy helped me get the first draft done. I sent it to my editor, and she sent back a round of sharp, funny line edits (one of my favorites related to a character who was eating trail mix: “Not sure we need a play by play of him eating trail mix”; I thought, you know, she’s right), along with broader feedback on structure, on character, on storytelling strategy, on passages that felt extraneous and absences that bothered her — all of it smart, all of it ringing true. I realized I still had a ways to go. I dove back into the manuscript, deleting whole chapters that didn’t work, adding new ones that might.
Because I wanted to make sure the book was significantly better before I gave it back to her, I asked a couple of friends to read the revisions in progress. One was a talented fiction writer. I started sending her stuff over email, and it would come back to me with these amazing comments in the margins: thoughtful analyses of what wasn’t working, praise for well-turned phrases, great vicious jokes. I loved her because she instinctively hated one of my main characters, and her hatred helped me soften him. I had another important reader, a magazine editor who teams with his wife to edit books on the side. He sent me questions and concerns and stacks of meticulously marked-up pages as he and his wife made his way through the manuscript. After reading a full draft of the revised manuscript, he called me and said, “Yeah, it’s not there yet, but it’s still better than most things I’ve read at this stage.” I remember being pissed off: What do you mean it’s not there yet? But he was right. I confirmed this by sending the book’s introduction and the first three chapters to a couple of friends. Instead of raving about the material, they pointed out small but significant gaps in the narrative, kinks in the perspective and voice.
At this point, in the spring of 2013, more than three years into the project, I ripped up a good chunk of the book—maybe 15 or 20 percent. I rewrote the introduction, almost from scratch, adding a few short biographical paragraphs that explained and justified the “I” that would be necessary later in the book for a couple of important first-person scenes. I rewrote the first chapter, inserting a new biographical scene near the front, to help readers connect with two of the main characters, a husband and wife. I added a historical tangent in Chapter 3, and shifted Chapter 9 into the slot where Chapter 4 used to be. It all felt sort of precarious. A book is a puzzle; any change to a piece affects the whole in unpredictable ways. I’m not a big outliner, so I tried to do the puzzle in my head. I realize this sounds insane. I really did try to hold the entire book in my brain, shifting pieces around mentally, trying to hear the click as they snapped into place. My wife remembers me zoning out a lot during this period.
Around this time, I also sent portions of the manuscript to a few of the people I’d written about, for fact checking. I wouldn’t ever do this for a magazine article, but I think a book is different — more intimate, permanent. I remembered an interview I’d read with Richard Ben Cramer where he talked about how he’d given big pieces of his 1993 masterpiece What It Takes to his sources before publication and how it had made the book better. What It Takes is pretty much my favorite nonfiction book; I figured if Ben Cramer could do it, so could I. And it turned out to be a good decision: My sources helped me add important nuances to a number of scenes, and they didn’t badger me to make them look better.
In late June, the revised manuscript was done. I emailed it to my readers. The difference in feedback this time was enormous. Now I was getting emails full of capital letters and exclamation points. The readers seemed genuinely enthusiastic, excited. The book flowed now, worked now, in a way it hadn’t before. The magazine guy wrote, “You really brought it a long way in the last few months. Not everybody can step back and do that. It’s hard.” My editor said she couldn’t believe how much progress I had made. She said she’d cried when she read the new ending.
After that, she and I worked late into the night for several weeks, trading drafts over email, making a final round of edits. One of my characters, Barnaby Wainfan, an aerodynamics expert, had once explained to me that making an aerodynamic car was like “shaving barnacles off the boat” — if you shave off a few barnacles, nothing happens, but shave off several dozen, and the boat gets noticeably quicker. This is how I thought of our work on the manuscript at this stage: We were shaving barnacles. My editor told me she felt like a mechanic, making sure all the joints were tight, all the parts correctly fitted. This made me happy.
The book was published on Nov. 5. A lot of good things have happened since then: excerpts, Q-and-A’s, podcasts, a couple of nice reviews. I’m grateful for all of it. I realize I’ve been luckier than most. Friends and even strangers have come through for me in the biggest way. Although my publisher has been extremely cool and supportive, a book tour wasn’t in the cards — my sense is that publishers don’t believe in book tours for non-marquee authors, and they have the data to back up that lack of belief — so I organized a small book tour on my own, using Twitter and Facebook to ask for advice on where I should speak. I’m on the tour as I write this, traveling up and down the East Coast and battling the snow with one of my book subjects, Kevin Smith, a manic engineer, and his weird, beautiful car.
To do book promotion well, you need to summon crazy amounts of irrational optimism. I admit that there are days when I find this difficult. I check my Amazon ranking sometimes and feel the urge to take a nap. But usually I wake up feeling better, convinced I can still find creative ways for me to get the word out. When you’re not a cast member of Duck Dynasty, and you’re not Doris Kearns Goodwin or Malcolm Gladwell, one thing you have to offer the world is a tale of what it’s like to do the work: to pour your heart into a book for years and years, to struggle and doubt and overcome, and then to turn around and hawk your shy product in the marketplace of ideas.
It’s been hard, but I hope to write a book again. I’m not even sure why.
@jfagone is the author of Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring and the Race to Revive America. He writes about science, sports and culture for Wired and for Philadelphia magazine. His last Storyboard piece was a “Why’s this so good?” on Ian Parker and Alec Baldwin.
Editor’s note: Pair this essay with the new Nieman Reports ebook, Writing the Book: How to Craft Narratives from Concept to Content. Download it for free, here.