I love inspirational quotes from august authors as much as the next writer. But the quote I thought about the most during the long years when I was writing my new book, Trapped Under the Sea, didn’t come from an author. I stumbled across it in a New Yorker profile of the writer George R.R. Martin, which detailed the intense impatience of fans furious with his slow pace in producing the next installment in his Game of Thrones series. On science fiction and fantasy discussion boards, these fans had begun going public with their frustration. The post that refused to leave my head was this message to Martin from one of his longtime admirers:
“Pull your fucking typewriter out of your ass and start fucking typing.”
I didn’t hang it over my desk, since I didn’t want to have to field the hard questions from my young daughters who regularly traipse in and out of my home office. (“Um, Dad, what exactly is a typewriter?”) Still, I kept the quote accessible on the hard drive of my laptop, retrieving it whenever I hit a bout of writer’s block and needed a clarifying splash of cold water.
Trapped Under the Sea took me five years from start to finish. One of its real-life characters, a commercial diver who always keeps a wad of chew bulging under his bottom lip, summed it up best with the crack he made to me at the recent book launch party. “You sure don’t write real fast, do you?”
I began working on this story in early 2009. I’m a staff writer for the Boston Globe magazine, and the people running the New York Times Co., our mother ship at the time, had just coldly and rather clumsily threatened to shutter the paper. I decided to lose myself in a consuming project that would keep me away from the funereal newsroom.
Magazine writing fits the way my mind works. I like to sink down deep into a story. I often come to the subject cold, and use curiosity as my fuel to learn as much as I can through the people who know it best. But once I’ve figured out the terrain and have wrestled with how to tell the story, I’m almost always eager to move on. It may not be the most efficient use of labor, but it keeps things fresh for me and, I hope, for the readers. Sometimes, sources who witnessed the maturation of my questions, from clueless at the start of my reporting to informed at the end, ask if I plan to stay on that beat. Like the David Banner character in The Incredible Hulk when townspeople would ask at the end of an episode if he’d be sticking around, I usually apologize and say, “I’ve got to move on.”
But here’s what happened after I finished my magazine work on the story at the center of Trapped Under the Sea. I couldn’t stop thinking about the people involved in it. Five divers had been sent to the end of a pitch-black, oxygen-starved, nearly 10-mile-long tunnel — the longest of its kind in the world — built hundreds of feet below the ocean floor, and they were asked to do the impossible. Even after I’d spent months getting to know the divers who had survived the ordeal, and the families of those who had been killed, I found myself wanting to know more about them and their heroic instincts. And I was equally motivated to understand the thinking of the best and the brightest minds, representing some of the country’s top engineering and construction firms, who had made so many good decisions for so many years on a stunning megaproject but who somehow made awful and incredibly costly ones just as it was nearing completion.
That megaproject had done something few would have dreamed a generation ago, transforming America’s filthiest urban harbor into its cleanest. Despite the depth of my magazine work on this story, I realized I had only scratched the surface.
The questions I get about the book from fellow writers are, probably not surprisingly, different from the ones regular readers tend to have. Writers most want to know how I knew there was a book in this story. This is the best answer I can come up with: When you can’t stop thinking about a powerful story, and caring about the real-life characters at its center, there’s probably a book there.
The same thing happened to me with my first book, The Assist. Before I decided to write it, an author friend gave me this piece of advice: You don’t have to love the characters you’re writing about, but you have to care intensely about what happens to them. At some point in a book project, you’re going to find yourself struggling to string words together and ready to toss the half-finished manuscript in the trash. But if you are invested in the characters and what happens to them, that should be enough to see you through.
With The Assist, which followed a small group of urban kids from high school into college, the action continued to unfold as I worked on the book. I wrote mostly on stolen time, on nights and weekends. At the time I embarked on that project, my wife had just given birth to our third daughter. I don’t fall back asleep easily, so when the baby woke us up at 2 in the morning, I would grab the laptop after she got settled and take advantage of the stillness to power-write. That was a lot less frustrating than tossing and turning for hours until the next feeding.
But doing Trapped Under the Sea on stolen time wasn’t feasible. The research and writing demands were too involved. And my body was that much older and therefore that much less equipped to bounce back from sleep deprivation. Fortunately, I could afford to take a leave from my day job for the most intense writing period. But with that flexibility came risk.
To guard against wasting time, I became extra disciplined. I left the house every morning in search of remote, technologically deprived locations that didn’t offer Wi-Fi. My search was particularly problematic on the day after Christmas, when all of my usual haunts were closed. In desperation, as I walked through the business district of my town, I checked the door of a professional building with offices sitting above a stretch of retail stores. To my surprise, it was open, so I climbed the stairs and camped out with my laptop on a bench outside the restrooms. I thought I was the only one in the building, but after about an hour, the door to a therapist’s office suddenly swung open, and a teenage boy came bolting toward me and then down the stairs, chased by his pony-tailed mother yelling for him to come back and a man in a New England Patriots sweatshirt (the boy’s father?) slowly, silently trailing them both. I went right back to writing. I had hit a groove and was just hoping no one would kick me out.
To guard against getting fat, I walked, rather than drove, whenever possible, knowing how sedentary my day would otherwise be, sitting and staring at a computer screen. And I got serious about biking again. In addition to ensuring exercise, these long bike rides offered me the opportunity to clear my head and continually massage my outline for the book. Looking back, though, I can’t say my re-outlining sessions on the bike were that beneficial. Out in the open air, the re-engineering I was doing in my mind always seemed more brilliant than how it looked when I finally sat down at the computer. I found the re-outlining I did in the shower to be more useful. I used my finger to transcribe the new order of things in the steam of the shower door. There was something about the limitations imposed by disappearing steam that forced me to restrict my changes to only those that were essential.
Although my practice is always to over-report, which tends to delay the actual writing, the limited span of my unpaid leave and the monastic lifestyle of writing I had employed to make the most of it combined to make me a very productive writer. Too productive, in fact. My original manuscript was a bloated 173,000 words.
With indispensable advice from my editor, Amanda Cook, I was eventually able to get it down to a far leaner yet richer manuscript of 124,000. But before I could do that, I had to embrace a modified version of that quote from the angry Game of Thrones super-fan: Pull your fucking hacksaw out of your ass and start fucking cutting.
Neil Swidey is a staff writer for the Boston Globe magazine and author of, most recently, Trapped Under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles Into the Darkness. This is the third installment of Writing the Book, Storyboard’s series on narrative journalists turned authors. For the archive, go here.