How Many Times Can You Draft a Book?

A little more than two weeks ago, a book manuscript was sent to my editor for her first round of edits. The passivity feels appropriate. That email was preceded by a few months of revisions with some new drafting here and there for subjects I had not fully fleshed out and which hinged upon other subjects I needed to get right before I could adequately take them on. A few friends read the manuscript and offered up their comments. I printed out the roughly 300 pages a few times, marking them up with a sharpie pen and neon sticky notes and a few different highlighters, only to change course when I opened the word processor window and typed the revised paragraphs into the new draft.

I determined the date, leaving a month before the manuscript’s deadline hit. If the deadline wasn’t for another year, and I had started writing at the same time, I could and would have revised it another nine or ten times; I don’t doubt I would have used the extra weeks. There were particular sentences, a few historical descriptions I knew I didn’t get right, but whose solution I didn’t yet see. After turning in the manuscript, I’ve found some of their proper forms while others have remained hidden.

Students have asked me when I know revisions are done. It’s an impossible question to answer. Never, if you view the book as a changeable object, one that shifts as the creator does according to new research and ideas and an environment beyond that creator’s control. Of course that doesn’t mean the object will get better for anyone. If it does, the improvement might only be temporary. Even the writer will eventually look back and wish they had stopped at one earlier point or another.

The revisions get smaller, at least, for most people. Chapters turn to sections turn to paragraphs turn to sentences. A few times spinning around the last will generally put you in a good place to give it to others, not considering any deadlines. A more holistic measurement considers the aims of the project at its outset, but I know plenty of writers who don’t think in those terms.

On the bright side, in the weeks before getting back edits, I’ve found time—the first stretch in years—to develop a few feature pitches and to begin thinking about book number two.

A Bonus:

A Friend, Nikon F2AS, Ilford HP5 (+3)

When One Battle Ends, Another Begins


I’m writing this after pulling my head out of writing for the day. Last Friday, I got back to the U.S. from a research trip to France. I wound up almost circumnavigating the country by the tail-end of it, though I did miss the border with Spain. In sum, it was 3,200 miles of driving, plus a train ride between Paris and Marseille and countless (okay, thanks to the iPhone, maybe not countless) footsteps in each of the towns.

I’m no expert on trips of these sorts. This last one was the first of its kind, and likely the last, until there’s a new (or rather, even newer) book in the works. It was an exhausting experience, even with the energy given off by traversing a country in the space of a month, visiting locations that aren’t entirely off the beaten path, but are at least not close to the top of most people’s wish lists. It was solitary and there were few days of rest, but experiencing the country like that will hopefully translate to the writing in the book, particularly the parts that have the riders following these lands which are incredible, but slightly outside the focus of most World War I, France, or history watchers (for example, the Vosges Front: more on that below).

Now the writing begins. Or continues. I’ll be sitting here at my desk from seven or eight in the morning until the afternoon, sometimes night, hopefully spitting out a thousands words a day. That’ll allow me to get a draft together by the end of summer. Then, I’ll revise it a handful of times before giving it to a few select readers. Back to revisions. Then, it’ll go to my editor (writing a book takes a lot of hands).

However, as promised, I did get to see some things that won’t make their way into the book. I thought, however, that you all might like to see some of them. The Canon AE-1 took a beating on this trip, so there were fewer clean shots than I would’ve liked, but a few still came out okay.

A “Bornes du Front” at Hartmannswillerkopf. A sculptor named Paul Moreau-Vauthier came up with the idea for these markers following WWI’s end in 1920. They would be placed at locations where the Allies launched their offensive against the Germans in 1918. 118 stones were placed from 1921 to 1927 along the front. This one was the final stone placed during Moreau-Vauthier’s initial effort. Unfortunately, a number of the stones were damaged in the WWII.

A dugout at Hartmannswillerkopf. The large battles along the Western Front between France, Belgium, and Germany to the north are the ones we talk about most in popular history. If you dig a little further, you can hear about the Eastern Front. The Vosges Front we miss out on. It’s the southern area of the Western Front, near the Alsace-Lorraine. There are some incredible sights here, both in terms of history and general scenery. Trenches at sixteen to twenty degrees of gradation, that encountered freezing winter temperatures, in close proximity to the enemy. I wound up walking all around this area and while some of the conditions in World War I are difficult to imagine, the difficulty of this terrain is next to impossible to consider.

The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme (Commonwealth Forces). Somehow, though there was plenty of rain on this trip, perfect clouds came out for each of the memorial visits. Thiepval itself is staggering in size and looks out over the flat land that was once the site of the Somme battlefield. Now, it’s mostly farmland. Unlike some other stretches of the Front, the war’s effect on the landscape is not immediately apparent. But in the occasional forest in the middle of a wheat field, you see the miniature berms and slopes of craters.

Okay, so technically the structure off to the left is from the wrong war, but I liked the grass, okay?

Until next time,


Dad, Where Do Books Come From?

And other thoughts on how I get (some) of my ideas


Happy Monday and Happy Memorial Day! I’m writing to you from JFK International, on the way to France for a month after a quick stopover in London. I’ll do my best to write some quick essays on here about what it is I’m finding. If you have any suggestions on the frequency, length, etc., feel free to get in touch.

The Source of All This

The accretion of ideas—for stories, essays, reporting, books, etc.—has always been difficult for me. I spend months building up connections between gestures my mind makes and small bits of outside research, not having enough to pitch a story or begin writing an essay, not sure whether the next day will be the one when I give up on the half-formed thing, before eventually finding myself with three or four timely items that need to be fleshed out and sent along to editors while still malleable.

The specific points when these story hints make themselves known is easy enough to mark. They’re the moments that cause me to stop for an extra second or two, curious. Sometimes I’ve created the conditions for them to arise, oftentimes with the help of Wikipedia. Other times it’s a happy coincidence; my mind finding the proper physical outlet for something that has been tugging at it or the world bringing something new into focus. The average person goes along with their day; the writer jots them down. That’s the only difference. Of course curiosity runs deeper: there’s a reason you stopped in that moment to look at the thing while perhaps dozens of others didn’t, but the source of that is far more difficult to trace.

As I mentioned in the last edition of this newsletter, I’m heading off to France for a month to conduct research for a narrative nonfiction book I’m in the process of writing about the 1919 Tour de France. As I sit here in the airport, I thought this first little essay, before I have had the chance to include pictures or stories from the trip, should be how this whole thing came into being.

It won’t be much of a surprise to many that the idea for this book came through an exploration of World War I, not through a newfound cycling fascination. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the kernel of this book came from a work of fiction I was writing. I won’t go too far into details, as it’s still likely to be written some day, but a town was the thing that this all into motion: a small Provencal town I’ve loved since the moment I saw it: L’Isle sur la Sorgue.

While researching the setting of the novel, I looked into which events might’ve occurred throughout the year that would’ve taken the characters out of the town and into the surrounding countryside in southern France. I mostly found festivals with long roots tied to religious events. Eventually, however, I stumbled upon the passing of the Tour de France to the south of L’Isle sur la Sorgue in July, starting with the first edition of the Tour in 1903. I looked at the basic data about the 1919 Tour, the year the book was set: its winner, the legs and their lengths, and other basic statistics about how the race progressed. The first thing I noticed was how quickly the race started after the end of World War I, just seven months after Armistice had been declared. Then I noticed how few of the racers who started the race finished. I saw the route and how it passed through what had just been the Western Front. Finally, and probably most importantly, I noticed how no one had written about it at any great length before (at least in English). Within the day I put the novel down and picked up something new: a book proposal, my main task last summer, which resulted in selling the book a few months later, that fall.

It’s too much to expect that future books will have such a happy course of events. They’ll likely require months of research, thinking about what’s the right next story that deserves a book-length treatment. But, on occasion, those nice coincidences do exist, like

What I’ve Been Reading

As part of some unrelated-to-the-book story research, I dug into one of the few James Salter books I hadn’t yet read, his memoir, Burning the Days. I’m not sure whether I’m surprised or not that I enjoyed it as much as I did. Salter is one of the writers I find myself turning to more than almost anyone else, on account of his sentences, if not his stories. As someone who came to writing through my work with national security and military folks, I’ve always been interested in Salter’s story which began as a pilot in the Korean War. He seems to occupy the bridge between two generations of military writers, one of whom has been utterly defined by that part of their lives, and those for whom military service was common enough that they’re not considered military writers at all. I have a lot more to say on him, too much for this format.

Cloudbursts, Thomas McGuane’s collected stories, share some similarities to Salter as far as the cut glass writing. The places McGuane chooses to write about, however, instead often take place on the outer edges of society, both in terms of the location and the subjects. It gives them a diversity and reach that Salter’s stories lack. It’s a meaty collection that you can turn to over the course of months or a year, depending on how compelled you feel to breeze through them.

Almost annually, I re-read Chris Jones’s “The Things That Carried Him”. If you haven’t read it, you probably should.

Until next time,


For whom left is this newsletter first?

Coming to terms with building an authorial brand


I began this newsletter as a practical measure. One of the things you’re supposed to do when at work on a book (I’ve been told) is to continue building your platform. The idea goes that when the book is finally published and on shelves, all those addresses on a email spreadsheet you’ve never personally spoken to will be clamoring for 89,000 more words from you than usual. I have my doubts.

Still, here we are. Me typing this; you looking at the headline, not remembering when you signed up, deleting its contents before reading this line. However, if you’ve gotten this far, here’s my quick pitch: I do quite a bit of reading and writing—in various normal and not-so-normal forms—and like talking about them. I like sharing them with people, too. That’ll be the backbone of this newsletter. As per the previous paragraph, I’m also at work on a book. Research for that book is taking me to Europe this summer to look at various tiny archives and towns and whatnot. If you stay here, I’ll share some of that.


I’m not sure whether you’ve made it this far because you like my writing thoughts or my reading thoughts, so bear with me on the self-indulgence if you’ve come for the latter.

This past week, I had a new essay come out at Catapult, a lovely online literary magazine, publisher, writing class facilitator, etc. “How My Parents, Who Loved Grapes, Lost Their Love for Winemaking” started when I went back to school last fall. I’ve long held a reluctance about sharing personal narratives. Part of this hesitance is simple: I prefer telling other peoples’ stories. Part of it is more complex: I think you should hold those personal stories close, guard them with your life, and wait to tell them until you’re absolutely confident in your ability to do so damn well. However, in graduate school one isn’t given leeway for stories necessitating more ambitious research or writing. Deadlines every three weeks are un-shifting. As a result, those personal narratives become—what with memory’s ease of access, lowered standards for truth, etc.—mighty appealing. Another matter of practicality, I suppose. I still think this one came out well, and it was one I had been waiting to write for some time.

That’s the only public writing recently, though a few other essays that rose from the same churn are either off to publishers or will be next week. Part of the reason for the dearth is ongoing work related to Sprinting Through No Man’s Land (title to be argued over between everyone with a hand in the project). The book will be taking me to France this summer, in an effort to better set some of the scenes, particularly those closest to the war, as well as to get my hands on as many un-digitized papers in wayward local archives and with the descendants of the racers.

My Rough Itinerary: London → Paris → Marseille → Provençe → Grenoble → Strasbourg → Dunkirk → Vannes → Cherbourg → London

Where there’s good material, I’ll share it with you here. Otherwise, look for some insufferable travel musings: the reason I’m sure you came here in the first place.


I’ve been mostly inundated with books I’m required to read (or using as research texts), instead of ones I’ve chosen to pick up over the past six months or so. But I can still make some recommendations from the ones I’ve managed to slip in the cracks. You’ll find there’s a certain bent to them. Namely length.

First, Lucie Brock-Broido’s canon. Start with The Master Letters, which is more or less perfect. Move onto Stay, Illusion if you enjoyed that. I think the peaks in Stay, Illusion are higher, but the overall object in The Master Letters is pristine. Her poetry isn’t the most immediately graspable if you’re not already regularly reading the form, but there are few who match her reverence for language and esoteric but perfectly encapsulatory images. I don’t think it’s a spoiler or anything to say—though I reserve the right to change my mind—there’s an epigraph somewhere in there for a narrative nonfiction book about the 1919 Tour de France.

I have perhaps found the guiding principle for nearly all my favorite books: ones with small aims, that can be accomplished in not-so-many pages, executed without error. Skylark by Dezso Kosztolányi neatly fits into that construct. I don’t think there’s too much else to say about it, except that it has a wonderful narrative conceit. For a book with little in the way of plot, it still manages to explore a relationship that’s outside the usual ones of literary fiction (at least among contemporary writers).

In the month-long France trip, I don’t plan to work much on the writing of the book itself. I hope to instead focus on developing settings and the sense of a place, as well as a few freelance stories, but the chapters will come following the trip, once I’m back. I do plan to do some reading while I’m there, though. Books I haven’t dared open in the course of the semester, when I’m bound to lose the thread by the time I finish. Namely, I plan to at least read the first volume of A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. No guarantees on making it through the end of Volume Four. William Gass’s The Tunnel is also staring at me from my bedside stand while I write this email to you. There might even be a Don Quixote in there somewhere, if another project in the works advances far enough.

Okay, that’s it for now.


Some Things I've Read This Year

A thank you to writers

People pick up a pen for a number of reasons. Some do it professionally; others do it for a sense of accomplishment or to work through their own thoughts. One constant is the nagging sense that the story you just sent off is trash (if you don’t have an editor, right after you’ve clicked WordPress’s ‘publish’ button). I couldn’t tell you the psychology behind this phenomenon: it’s likely some combination of how writers’ brains work alongside the loss of total control over a story.

For that reason, I always try to mention it to someone when I’ve enjoyed their work. Considering few writers make enough to survive just on the pages they’ve written, those thoughts can make the difference between someone continuing their brilliant work and setting it down. There are likely others I’ll add to this list via social media, but here are a few of the stories and books I’ve enjoyed over the course of the year. Thank you all.


Stories and Essays

“How Extreme Weather Is Shrinking the Planet,” Bill McKibben, The New Yorker

For the past few years, a tide of optimistic thinking has held that conditions for human beings around the globe have been improving. Wars are scarcer, poverty and hunger are less severe, and there are better prospects for wide-scale literacy and education. But there are newer signs that human progress has begun to flag. In the face of our environmental deterioration, it’s now reasonable to ask whether the human game has begun to falter—perhaps even to play itself out. 

“The Future of Aging Just Might Be in Margaritaville,” Kim Tingley, New York Times Magazine

Outside, under an endless blue sky, a parade of trucks bore the trappings of former homes from as far away as Hawaii, Canada and El Salvador to sorbet-colored dwellings with emerald green lawns. At the entrance to the gated enclave, past a “Barkaritaville” dog park, beeping excavators moved dirt around what would soon be a town-square for concerts and dancing, surrounded by a state-of-the-art workout center, a restaurant and a walk-in pool with cabanas and a bar. It was impossible to stand on their cement foundations — which I had, in fact, done that morning — and not see a frontier settlement being carved into an expanse of subtropical wetland. The real frontier here, though, was not the surrounding wilderness but a hitherto uncolonized stretch of time: the multiple decades that more and more Americans can expect to live in better and better health after they retire.

“The Biggest Secret,” James Risen, The Intercept

Once it became known that you were covering this shadowy world, sources would sometimes appear in mysterious ways. In one case, I received an anonymous phone call from someone with highly sensitive information who had read other stories I had written. The information from this new source was very detailed and valuable, but the person refused to reveal her identity and simply said she would call back. The source called back several days later with even more information, and after several calls, I was able to convince her to call at a regular time so I would be prepared to talk.

“How I Accidentally Wound Up Running an Outlaw Biker Gang in Ohio,” Mike Kessler, Medium

When the doors were closed, Beard reached into his coat pocket. I thought to myself, Is this guy about to off me in a Mickey D’s parking lot? My pistol was tucked into the right-side waistband of my jeans and covered by my old Carhartt work coat. I watched Beard’s hands and leaned toward him a bit in case I needed to draw my gun.

But I didn’t. Beard pulled out a small envelope that I noticed was addressed to the Lake East chapter of the Hells Angels — Beard’s chapter. He handed it to me and said, “Take a look.”

“Barbearians at the Gate,” Mathew Hongoltz-Hetling, The Atavist

Franz’s anti-bear arsenal included firecrackers. “I also think we should get bottle rockets,” he said one day, talking loudly to be heard over the constant buzz of a generator. Guns were a given; they were as much a staple in Grafton as picket fences are in the suburbs. Franz had recently traded his .357 Magnum for a Taurus Judge .410. The Magnum was more accurate, the owner of his favorite gun store had told him, but if a bear got too close for comfort, the Judge would do more damage. Though it looked like a six-shooter, its bullets were so big that it held only five.


My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard

The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst

The Summer Book, Tove Jansson

The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson

Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith

Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy, Cixin Liu

That Thing I Hinted at Earlier

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