How I Wrote a Book in 92 Days

After She’s on First was published in 1987, I spent more than a year avoiding writing a nonfiction book on women who played baseball. Finally, toward the end of 1988, I decided I would write such a book. It would, I figured, take me a year to do all the research.

Ha!

It took four years of daily research, travel, and interviews before I felt I had enough material to tell the story of 100 years of women playing baseball. In 1992 my agent sold my book proposal to Harcourt — and Harcourt gave me 92 days in which to write the manuscript.

After I wrote the manuscript, I wrote an article about the 92-day experience. “How I Wrote a Book in 92 Days” was published in the 1994 Writer’s Yearbook. I’m reprinting the article below.

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Truth may not be stranger than fiction, but it certainly is faster. I needed two full years to write my first book, a novel about a female baseball player. Writing the novel led to what eventually became my fourth book, the real story of women who played baseball. After I developed a proposal for Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, my agent submitted it.

On Sunday, July 12, 1992, my agent, Jane Jordan Browne, called from her office to say that a 19-page sample contract had arrived from Harcourt Brace Company via fax, and that while she was negotiating and modifying the contract, I should know that I had only until October 15, 1992, to write the manuscript. According to editor John Radziewicz, this was a “drop-dead” deadline.

Elated at the contract, but stunned by the deadline, I counted the squares on my wall calendar. Exactly ninety-five of them from Monday, July 13 through Thursday, October 15. But three of them were filled with day-long events, leaving me ninety-two days to write a 50,000-word book and collect at least fifty photographs of female baseball players.

No time to panic or complain. That very Sunday I sat down and figured it out, day by day. The 27 chapters listed in my proposal (each chapter containing two, three, or four sidebars) were organized into four sections, each with an introduction. Counting each introduction as a chapter, I had 31 chapters. This gave me a smidgen less than three days to write each chapter and its accompanying sidebars. That night I went to sleep knowing the next morning was critical: I would start off right and keep on schedule.



Monday, July 13 , Day 1 — My schedule calls for me to write from 7:30 A.M. until 2:00 P.M., exercise from 2:00 until 3:30, answer correspondence, return phone calls, and run errands from 3:30 until 6:00, and then write again from 6:00 until … whenever.

At 7:42 A.M. I face the computer and begin Chapter 2. (Chapter 1, the sample chapter of my book proposal, is written, so I’m three days ahead of schedule already!) Chapter 2 is the shortest in the book and I finish it by 7:30 P.M. of Day 1. Hot damn!

Later, I type a long list of possible photos and their probable sources for Sharon Johnson, a friend who works as my research assistant five hours a week.

Monday, July 20 , Day 7— Chapter 4 completed, I place it in a green file folder that I nestle into a bright yellow pocket folder. Four of the yellow pockets sit on a shelf, each representing one section of Women at Play. On the two shelves above the yellow pockets sit eight linear feet of folders stuffed with photocopies of old newspaper articles, letters, diaries, and notes from baseball books — the history of women in baseball, 1872 to the present, and the product of my research so far.

Tuesday, July 28 , Day 15 — After reading comments on Section One from Jane and from my husband, Phil Passen, I rewrite the six chapters and introduction. By 9:15 P.M., I’m printing out the last of the rewritten chapters and am an amazing six days ahead of schedule.

Wednesday, August 12 , Day 30— Late in the evening I finish Chapter 10. The sidebars are fun: I write them first because they serve as a warmup to the chapter.

But Section Two is turning out longer than I thought. Worried about keeping the manuscript to a reasonable size, I consider deleting a chapter from Section Three and another from Section Four. I make no decision.

imagesTuesday, August 18 , Day 36 — At 7:00 A.M. I launch into the introduction for Section Two. Around 11:30, I break for lunch. As I’m eating a slice of pizza, I hear a loud Crack and feel something dreadfully wrong in my mouth.

I have broken my upper left bicuspid (tooth number twelve, I later learn). Some pain, but not much. Returning to the computer, I finish writing the introduction. I work until 2:00, as scheduled. At 2:01 I call the dentist, who tells me to come in at 4:30.

Thursday, August 20 , Day 38 — By the time I rewrite chapters 7-12, write the cover letter, make copies, and mail Section Two, I’m three days ahead of schedule.

Saturday, August 22 — Today doesn’t count: it’s the third of the Chicago White Sox 1992 seminars on women in baseball and I’m one of the speakers. Phil’s birthday is August 24, but we go out to celebrate tonight. It feels wonderful to have a whole day off.

Monday, August 24 , Day 41 — At approximately 9:30 P.M., as we’re lying in bed, we hear a strange sound — thousands of gallons of water rushing down the heating-cooling duct that runs behind my desk and in front of my fax machine.

Water flows down the walls: in the office, the bedroom, the baths, and the foyer. Working frantically, we move machines and boxes off the floor and out of my office. We sling old towels on the sodden carpeting and stomp on them: they turn yellowish-green from the coolant-filled water. A condo maintenance person with a wet vac arrives around 11:30 and begins extracting water. He informs us that a coupling in the air conditioning pipes broke in the unit above us.

At 12:15 we fall into bed, utterly exhausted. Phil moans, “Why did this have to happen on my birthday?” I moan, “Why did this have to happen during my book?”

large-paper-stack1Wednesday, August 26 — This is not a writing day. Sharon and I meet for breakfast and she shows me photos of female ballplayers. We then drive to Rockford, Illinois, where we read 1943-54 microfilmed newspaper articles on the Rockford Peaches of the All-American Girls Baseball League. Exhausted, we drive home.

The carpet cleaners have come and gone, leaving disinfected carpet and three huge blower fans in their wake. Unfortunately, they have also stacked bookcases, chairs, and boxes of computer paper in the kitchen. Phil is out of town. I spend 45 minutes hauling boxes and bookcases out of the kitchen.

It will be a miracle if I finish writing Section Three on time.

Monday, August 31, Day 47 — I now see that two of the final six chapters won’t work. Rewriting my outline, I end up with 25 chapters instead of 27, the two former chapters becoming sidebars. I feel confident that the final outline works. In addition, it makes up for some of my lost time. In the evening I begin to write Chapter 13.

Tuesday, September 8, Day 55— Tackling Chapter 16, I recognize that in order to finish the manuscript on time, I must spend more hours of the day writing. Reluctantly I jettison exercising and cooking dinner.

Civility is the next to go. When telephone solicitors call and ask how I am, I growl, “Call me after October 15” into the phone and hang up.

Wednesday, September 16, Day 63— Chapter 18 is looking good, but lack of exercise is making me tired. I’m sick of home-delivery food. Sharon started medical-technician school full-time yesterday and tells me that she can’t even make phone calls while at school. It appears that I’ll have to finish the remaining photo research by myself.

Despite everything, I wake up eager to write. The good feeling usually vanishes by 4:30 P.M. — then resolve alone keeps me going.

Tuesday, September 29, Day 76— Another long, late day. I begin at 7:45 A.M. and finish at 9:15 P.M. But I complete the rewrite of the third and longest section. I’m now two days behind schedule.

Wednesday, September 30, Day 77— The home stretch. I confront Chapter 22. Every day I spend two hours making calls to procure photos. Instead of filing each piece of paper as it crosses my desk, I toss everything into a huge cardboard box. Come October 16, I’ll regret the mess I’ve created, but right now I’m probably gaining 20 or 30 minutes of writing time a day.

Sunday, October 11, Day 88— The knowledge that this is the last weekend of my ordeal enables me to start writing at 9:00 A.M. and continue all day until 10:30 P.M., wrapping up Chapter 24. Victory is in sight.

Wednesday, October 14, Day 91— Adrenalin kicks in. I write the introduction to Section Four and then rewrite it. In the evening I curl up on the couch with Chapters 22-25 and go through them with a red pen, making changes.

Thursday, October 15, Day 92— I start work at 6:30 A.M. Five hours later, the last rewritten chapter curls out from the printer. I’m euphoric. I call Jane to tell her I finished. I’m on a roll. I call John to tell him I finished and the final section is on its way via Federal Express.

It would be comforting to think that my 92-day writing marathon, replete with minor and major catastrophes, is an abnormality, something that won’t happen again. And frankly, if I stick to writing fiction, it may not. The truth is, however, that the writing of truth is changing.

Thanks to new computer technology allowing for use of the author’s “captured keystrokes” and for design of the book and production of page proofs in a matter of days, and thanks to the competitiveness of the market place on hot topics, more and more nonfiction books will be produced in a shorter time. Under such circumstances, publishers want the author to write the book in less than a year — in three months, even.

I was able to meet my “drop-dead” deadline and live to tell about it, but only because I developed a schedule that put me on track to complete specific chapters by specific dates. Writing to schedule made me write faster and produce more. When really pressed, I was able to write a chapter in two days and, on two occasions, one day. As a result, I was able to complete a book I had spent years researching. Sort of like a utility player who, when called in to play shortstop during a crucial game, comes through because she knows the fundamentals — and applies them.

__________________

In August 2016 Barbara Gregorich donated her thousands of pages of research materials to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. But many of the notes are available in book form, in Research Notes for Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball — Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3.

Writing My First Novel: Part 1

KindleCover-SOFBefore I wrote She’s on First, I had only two college courses on writing: nothing like the richness of fiction writing courses offered today. I had no fiction-writing workshops, either. As I tell students when I teach novel-writing workshops, it’s possible to write a novel without having taken courses in novel-writing.

But I was guided by two factors, the first of which is that by the time I was in my early 30s I had read approximately 3,000 novels of all kinds, from the greatest literature (Virgil, Dickens, Austen, Twain, Faulkner, etc.) to the lowliest pulp (mystery and adventure novels that are better left unnamed). For at least two decades I usually read three novels a week.

If you want to write fiction, then reading fiction is paramount to your training. By the time you’ve read 500 or more novels, you will have absorbed patterns, even though you may not be able to name these patterns. This knowledge will help guide you through the construction of your own novel.

The other factor that guided me through the writing of my first novel was that after I knew I was ready to write a novel, but before I actually started to write it, I walked to the local library and began taking out books on how to write the novel. This was in the early 1980s, and even back then the library had close to 40 books on the single topic of writing a novel. I spent days in the stacks, taking notes. I probably spent three or four months reading and studying the how-to-write-a-novel books.

calendar 2013One of the how-to books I read back then explained how to write a book in 365 days, so that became my goal (though I didn’t make it — more about that later). Today I’m amused at how much “more” is expected of beginning writers: several recent how-to books promise to show you how to write a novel in 30 days!

In addition to reading 40 or so books on how to write a novel, I also read at least that number of baseball books and baseball instruction manuals (how to play each position, where the cutoff man goes on a particular play, and so on). I paid particular attention to how baseball players think and talk: the way they see the world, as evidenced by what they say when they (or ghostwriters) write a book.

Another thing I did was research women in sports. I was interested in a woman playing on what is perceived of as a “men’s team,” but there was no literature relating to this situation. I do remember reading everything I could about Billie Jean King and her match with Bobby Riggs, even though tennis is not a team sport like baseball is. And I also read whatever I could about female sports reporters: what situations they faced in simply trying to do their jobs. What these reporters faced seemed most like what Linda Sunshine (my story’s hero) would face, and I got many of my ideas from reading about the reporters.

One of the pieces of advice many how-to-write-a-novel books give is that you should have both the beginning and the ending firmly in mind before you begin writing. The “middle” (usually 80-90% of the book) is something you can outline before you begin to write, or something you can invent as you go along.

In grade school I learned how to outline using Roman numerals as well as capital- and lower-case letters. But I was not thrilled with the idea of outlining my novel in this manner. This process seemed so t-e-d-i-o-u-s. But I did understand the need for “an outline,” as opposed to “outlining,” and so I created a quick, scrawled outline for She’s on First. Taking three sheets of blank paper, I divided each into thirds horizontally. This gave me nine horizontal sections, and I numbered them 1-9, for the nine chapters.

Then, in the horizontal spaces, I jotted thoughts for each chapter. Basically, these scrawled notes were about the events and conflicts in each chapter, the POV character in each chapter, and the forward movement of the baseball season. I felt comfortable with this non-outline and referred to it often while writing the book.

Because I was working a full-time job while attempting to write my first novel, I had to really discipline myself to work on the manuscript every single day. I hoped that if I could write a page a day, I would have a 365-page book within the space of a year.

On most work days I managed to write half a page to a full page after dinner each night. Then, while driving to work the next morning, I would think about what came next — either a continuation of the scene or summary I had been working on, or something new.

Unfortunately, when I reached the middle of She’s on First I encountered a major block: my plot required one of the characters to die. This upset me so much that I didn’t write anything for five full months — which meant that I did not finish my first novel within a year, as I had planned.

Dead Body

Illustration by Robin Koontz

You may be relieved (or perhaps frightened) to know that since that first experience I’ve become more callous, killing off characters left and right without regret.

During those five months when I was avoiding working on She’s on First, I attended novel-writing workshops. What stands out most vividly for me is that in every workshop I took, there were dozens of writers who had one, two, or three unfinished novels in their files.

I most decidedly did not want to be a writer who had an unfinished novel in her files — I wanted to be a writer who accomplished what she set out to do. And so, after three or four such workshops, I went back to work, armed less with knowledge of how to write a novel than with a burning desire to finish the novel I had started to write.

This experience, coupled with my love of baseball, is probably one of the reasons I autograph so many books with the phrase, “Bring the runner home.”

 

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You can read the first chapter of She’s on First here.

 

 

How Many Unpublished Works?

Recently I was a guest lecturer at a college class in writing fiction. Toward the end of the class, after all the students had asked questions, the instructor who invited me (she’s a writer as well as a teacher) asked a question nobody had ever asked me before. Yet it’s one I think about several times a year. The question was: You have published approximately 200 books. How many unpublished books do you have in your files?

Published and unpublished manuscripts

Published and unpublished manuscripts

To answer the question, I had to think quickly and calculate just as quickly. I write adult fiction and nonfiction, middle grades fiction and nonfiction, picture books, beginning readers, early readers. And poetry. How many of these various manuscripts are in my files, still unpublished? I answered that there may be as many as 25. And then I took the question a step further by saying that of the 25, I hope and expect that 7 or 8 will be published.

Now that I’m home in my office, let me walk to my file cabinet and examine my unpublished manuscripts, just to see how accurate my reply was. Here’s what I have:

        2 adult novels — one mystery, one thriller
        1 adult nonfiction — anthology
        1 YA novel — it’s a work in progress
        2 Middle Grades nonfiction
        3 Middle Grades fiction
        7 Early Readers
        2 Picture Books, poetry
        6 Picture Books, prose

That’s a total of 24 unpublished manuscripts: very, very close to my estimate of 25.

When I look at them now and evaluate them, and know which ones I can and will rewrite, my guess is that 7 of these can and will be published. Sooner or later. That, too, is close to my original guess.

This doesn’t mean that I rule out the possibility of publication for the other manuscripts. The manuscripts I no longer think worthy of continued rewriting are long gone from my files.

The ones I keep around still speak to me in one way or another — it’s up to me to find the heart of the story in each of them and, with luck, publish them for the world to read.

Desk Impressions and the Writing Life

 

Although I’ve never participated in NaNoMa (National Novel Writing Month, held, of course, in November), I received an interview request from Webucator Training Services, who do participate, and I agreed to answer the interview questions. The Q & A are below.

Photo by Southwest Spirit Antiques

Photo by Southwest Spirit Antiques

What were your goals when you started writing? I think my first goal in writing must have been to make an impression. Not necessarily on people, but on something. I say that because when I was seven years old my mother bought me my own desk, a kid-sized maple roll-top one. My very first day at the desk, I wrote the word hill so hard that my pencil pressed through the paper and into the desk surface. Forever after, the word hill stared at me from the desktop.

It was, I now realize, a sign that the road to publication would not be easy. For that — publication — was my goal when I started my first novel. This was in the late 1970s, and the novel was about a female major leaguer. I titled the story Bases Loaded, but when the book was published in 1987, the publisher titled it She’s on First.

Contemplating goals, 1986

Contemplating goals, 1986

What are your goals now? My goals now are the same as they’ve been since I first started writing books: to write the kind of stories that speak to me, and to have them published so that others can read these stories.

However, today writers have publishing opportunities that didn’t exist in the previous century. We have the opportunity to self-publish beautiful-looking books and market them to interested readers. So my goal of getting published now takes two different paths. I submit books to traditional publishers, and I also self-publish.

What pays the bills now? Savings from past work-for-hire jobs help pay the bills, as do teaching gigs and public speaking. Although I taught English at a junior college years ago, I now teach only on a freelance basis: various classes on subjects such as “How to Write a Novel” or “How to Self-Publish through CreateSpace.” In addition, I turn many of my book topics into presentations for the public. Two examples. My best-known book is Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball (Harcourt, 1993), which happens to be nonfiction. Twenty-one years after its publication, I’m still giving talks on various stories from the book. One of these talks, “When Women Played Baseball: The Story of Margaret, Nellie, and Rose” was chosen by the Illinois Humanities Council as a Road Scholar topic in 2014.

My most recent book, Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies (CreateSpace, 2014) also affords me many opportunities for giving classes on the mystery novel itself as well as on writing the mystery novel. Both of my examples of income-producing work come from nonfiction books, but each of these nonfiction books actually stems from the novel that preceded it —  Women at Play came after I wrote the novel She’s on First, and Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel came after I wrote the mysteries Dirty Proof and Sound Proof. Even if you think you’ll never write anything but fiction, you may find that looking at the nonfiction angle of your novels helps produce steady income.

Assuming writing doesn’t pay the bills, what motivates you to keep writing? The answer to this question is very short: I could not “not write.” The world offers limitless topics and possibilities. I am a writer, and writers write.

What advice would you give young authors hoping to make a career out of writing? Read books, particularly the kind you want to write. Never stop reading books! Take classes in writing, go to writers conferences, meet editors, and at the same time explore self-publishing — having more than one iron in the fire is good business sense. Join a critique group of trustworthy writers who will help you say what it is you’re trying to say.

 

If by chance you want to write mysteries, check out Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. Wishing you a smooth and steady path to your writing goals.