Nuts and Bolts: First steps on a new book project

This last year, a lot got turned upside down–we all know this. For me, my “slow and steady” approach to research and teaching had to give way to twists and turns that majorly frustrated me and my need for control over my work flow. But those twists and turns were also incredibly serendipitous: pretty much everything I have to show for this year is a result of riding out whatever 2020 had on offer rather than attempting to bend it to my will.

One of the biggest never-saw-this-coming development was a book project. The Friday before higher education put the breaks on in-person teaching, I wrapped up my teaching for the semester (I teach my Guns in American class on a 7.5 week, accelerated semester, which means I do twice as much teaching in half the time). As a result, I not only avoided the hell of adapting to online teaching on a dime but also found myself with precious time. And with that time, I was able to do something about as time-sensitive as you can imagine: interview gun sellers on the unprecedented surge in gun purchasing in the midst of a pandemic as uncertainty unfolded around us all.

Fifty-three interviews later, I had a book project and, with it, an opportunity to share my process for writing a book. So much of book-writing is shrouded in mystery–data go in, analytical narrative comes out. I can’t promise any “secret sauce,” but I hope by sharing my own process I can do two things: show you one method for going about writing a book, and give myself a little space for reflection and accountability in this weird pandemic space.

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It’s never quite clear when you’ve started writing a book. Is it when you start memo-ing your data analysis? When you write the prospectus to shop to publishers? When you start thinking in the terms that you will write the book? One of my favorite books from graduate school, Everything was Forever Until it Was No More, chronicles the political, social, and cultural consciousness of people in the Soviet Union on the eve of its fall; it has turned out to be one of the key orienting texts I’ve turned to as I’ve tried to unpack the US’s chaos over the past year. Have I been writing this book this whole time? Perhaps.

While there is something charming about believing that we all carry within us books that are waiting to be written, the process of writing a book really starts–for me–when I deliberately make writing, or diligently preparing to write, part of my daily work routine.

Important caveat: Although I love the advice that one should write every day, the truth is that I do not write everyday, every week, every month. I do write everyday when I have a project–an article, an op-ed, a book–on deck. But I also have fallow times where I do not write, and during these, I simply don’t force myself to write. I envy those who can productively do so, but I cannot.

Part of the reason I do not write everyday is that I need to do a lot to prepare to write. In addition to keeping my mind alive with reading, I need to journal, story board, outline, draw in order to orient myself to how I’m going to craft a book. Writing for writing’s sake often means me just spinning my wheels.

For whatever reason, I find that the winter break gives me the kind of space I need to prepare to write. This was the case for Policing the Second Amendment, and it’s proving to be the case for the book I’m writing now (which, by the way, is called Not a Bang but a Whimper: Guns, Crisis and the Edge of Democracy). Because I was fielding major family health challenges when I started writing Policing the Second Amendment, I decided to go easy on myself and spend at least the first few weeks on the book deliberately thinking: planning, brainstorming, playing with the book and its structure. It worked so well–not just in terms of getting the writing but also in terms of creating an enjoyable writing ritual–that I’m using the same tactics this round.

Story-boarding with a feline buddy!

So, nuts-and-bolts: for this week and next my goal is to start chiseling to basic bones of the book, focusing on the introduction, as that should encapsulate the stakes of the book as well as provide a mini-overview (in the form of chapter descriptions) of the book’s logic. I did a two-step activity today: first, I brain-dumped the major terms, concepts, and ideas that have been swimming around my head as I’ve read everything from The Plague to Divided We Fall in order to get a grasp on–to put it bluntly–the mess that is 2020 and how my research provides a window into it. It was a relief to get a lot out of my head and onto paper–for me, I can’t get analytical traction until I start visually organizing competing and/or complementary ideas and concepts and separating the wheat from the chaff. The brain dump is the first step in doing so!

Brain Dump!

Next, I started one of my favorite activities of book writing: story boarding. I pulled out the poster boards and post-it notes from three years ago, when I wrote Policing the Second Amendment, and started playing around with the organizing concepts/ideas/questions of Not a Bang but a Whimper. I know, for example, that I’ll be writing about issues like polarization, conspiracism, securitization, and democracy as well as sociological concepts like identity, culture and power, but that’s not enough to start writing. I need to field how they will hang together: what am I explaining? What are the tools I am using to explain whatever that is? For example, if gender matters to my analysis, is gender the explanandum or explanans–or neither? What do I hope people who read the book will get from it? Fundamentally, what is this book about? Without having some sense of my answers to these questions, I can’t develop an argument–I can only, at best, summarize.

After playing around with different ways of orienting the book (and writing, tearing up, and re-writing post-it notes), I started to settle on a story boarded version of the introduction. I used my brain-dump as a way to remind myself of key ideas or insights that should make it into the introduction, chiseling away until I got a structure that could reasonably accommodate, in a form sensible not only to me but also to my reader, the breadth of ideas I wanted to stitch together.

The first steps are always the hardest! But story-boarding makes this process more fun. It also helps if you have a kitty to assist in editorial duties.

3 thoughts on “Nuts and Bolts: First steps on a new book project

  1. Thanks for this post! I’m working on a new book myself. Like you, I completed the intro chapter first. I didn’t do that with my previous books. It has always been last in the past, but it was helpful to start there this time and became crucial for getting a contract. I haven’t tried storyboarding the book yet. I’m doing that now for my spring classes but haven’t used it as a writing method. Great idea! I’ll keep checking back for motivation!

  2. Yup!! This is good to hear. I know the standard practice is to finish the introduction last, but I think there should be an emphasis on FINISH…perhaps it should be, start first, finish last? I write everything, but especially a book introduction, with the idea that it will be revised many times before its finished, but at least by starting with the introduction it means I’m thinking at the higher level necessary to craft a coherent book rather than merely pull together a collection of essays…

    Congrats on the new book & the contract!

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