Behind the Scenes

Dispatches From Book Leave, Part 2

Dry-heaving out the first draft of my book about Aaron Swartz.

Aaron Swartz.

Aaron Swartz in San Francisco in 2008.

Photo by Noah Berger/Reuters

Slate correspondent Justin Peters is on leave this year while he writes a book based on his February 2013 Slate profile of the Internet activist Aaron Swartz. He has been sending regular progress reports to friends, family, readers, and others interested in getting an inside look at the book-writing process. Here’s the second installment, sent in March. Read the first installment here

Justin Peters here with another update on The Idealists, the book I’m writing on Aaron Swartz, copyright, digital activism, and the rise of free culture. As a great man once said, I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya. But I’ve got a good excuse! (Well, an excuse.) I took a break from book-writing in February to cover the Winter Olympics for Slate. While helming the “Five-Ring Circus” blog over there (get it?), I asked the tough questions, like “Who is America’s saddest Olympian?” and “How can we make every Winter Olympic sport look more like the biathlon?” and “Why do cross-country skiers always fall down after crossing the finish line?” Since the Olympics ended, I’ve been busy actually writing this book. Or trying to, at least.

As it turns out, writing a book is very difficult, especially if, like me, you are a highly distractable person who, after 15 years worth of obsessive Internet usage, cannot stay focused on any one thing for more than 10 minutes at a time. So I’ve come up with several strategies to minimize distractions, some of which have been more effective than others, including but not limited to the following:

— Waking up very early and going to the corner coffee shop for a couple of hours each morning, to write and revise in longhand, free from digital distractions. The downside of this is that it requires me to wake up very early, which is something I am bad at.

— Having my roommate bring our Ethernet cable with him to work every day, thus cutting me off from the Internet and forcing me to focus on writing. This is very effective! But sometimes I need to send an email in the middle of the day, and if I don’t have Internet at home, I have to go out to an Internet café and pay three bucks for the dubious privilege. I love saving money almost as much as I love writing this book. We’ll call this strategy a draw.

— Setting definite production goals. For example, Easter is April 20, and I have set an informal goal of having 50,000 words on paper by that date—not necessarily good words, mind you, just C-grade stuff that I can work with and refine during the revision process. Setting goals is a good idea, but, two weeks into this cycle, it’s clear that this goal is way too ambitious. I’ll be happy if I have 35,000 words by Easter.

— Thinking of myself as “Wartime Justin.” You know, like in The Godfather, when they were discussing the difference between peacetime consiglieri and wartime consiglieri? Does this make sense? I don’t know. You know what, just forget it.

— Writing “Computer-Free from 10 to 3” on one of the whiteboards in my bedroom, as a motivational slogan of sorts. I originally wanted to get one of those inspirational cat posters that say “Hang in there, brother!,” but I don’t think they sell those any more. If you see one of those posters, let me know!

— Showing a little self-discipline for once in my weak, indulgent life.

I’m trying to average about 1,600 words a day, which breaks down to about 320 words an hour for five straight hours. I rarely get there, though. More often, I’ll end up with between 700 and 1,200 words, about half of which are inevitably discarded the next morning when I sit down to revise and realize that I’ve been going about everything all wrong. (There is a lot of self-loathing involved in book writing, I’ve found. Also in life more generally.)

For example: My initial plan was to start the book off with a long section on the history of copyright in America, in order to ground the reader in some necessary context. But I scrapped this plan once I realized that a) most of the casual readers out there will be buying this book because they want to read about Aaron Swartz, and b) front-loading all this copyright history stuff without clearly explaining its relevance to Swartz’s story will inevitably confuse/frustrate many of these casual readers, thus causing them to discard the book in a huff, run to their computers, and register their discontent on the Internet for all the world to see. And we can’t have that!

I’m still going to include all of the history stuff, just not at the very front of the book. Instead, I’m going to start the book with what I’m thinking of as a prologue, a 4,000- to 6,000-word section establishing Aaron Swartz as a character, and his relation to all the other themes and characters the reader will encounter later on. As it stands right now, the prologue focuses on the “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto,” a polemic that Swartz wrote in 2008. I like beginning here because the manifesto is thematically relevant to the rest of the book, and because it helps establish Swartz as the sort of radical idealist who, in the words of his friend Seth Schoen, believed that you could “fix the world mainly by carefully explaining it to people.”

I think this is a good idea, and it’s a much better plan than my original one. But it’s been very difficult getting to this point. These past several weeks, I’ve often been reminded of T.S. Eliot, and his line: “In a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” (Also because I am secretly a pretentious high school junior who is just now discovering literary modernism.) I’ll come up with something I think is really good, and then change my mind and scrap it the next day. I’ve outlined and re-outlined, structured and restructured, to the point of exhaustion. Calvin Trillin calls this stage of the writing process his “vomit-out draft.” In my case, it’s been more like a series of dry heaves.

This isn’t atypical, I don’t think. This is just what writing is: gathering your lumpish thoughts, putting them in the proper order, and honing them until they take definite shape. You can’t write something good without first writing and discarding a dozen things that are bad—or, at least, I can’t. I wish the process was quicker—and I think it will get quicker as I go deeper into the book—but I know it’s useless to try and force it. The good stuff will come, eventually. It’s just a matter of putting in the time.

And I’m putting in the time, full-time. I’ve completely cleared my schedule from other obligations, which means that from now until Sept. 1—my deadline—I’ve got absolutely nothing to do except write this book. And, of course, watch the NCAA tournament. And I’ve been meaning to pitch some more stories to Travel + Leisure. And, you know, I’ve always wanted to learn how to play the pedal steel guitar. No. Focus. Eye of the tiger. Wartime Justin. Wartime Justin!

Thanks for reading, and for your continued interest in this project. Talk to you soon.



Click here to read Dispatches From Book Leave, Part 3.