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Birthing a Book

Published on August 8, 2012, by in Commentary.

On May 28 I got an email from my old friend Seth Kahan. He was in trouble.

His manuscript for his second book had been rejected by his publisher. There was a considerable advance at stake if he couldn’t produce a better book. The publisher gave him until July 31.

His first book had been a bestseller. He wasn’t sure why he was struggling so much to get his second book out of his mind and onto pages, but he knew it was bad. Could I help?

I thought so. I’ve helped others write books. I helped Seth find an agent and his first publisher. I was happy to give my input on a few chapters, see if I could identify where the problem lay.

I saw it quickly enough.

Seth’s book contained great insights, but lacked structure. It needed that subtle S-curve through telling and showing that makes readers feel like they are riding shotgun with a confident driver. It had little of the connective tissue we’ve come to expect from books that teach—the “now let us consider” and “as should now be clear” phrases that signal the transition from one key learning to the next.

I got to work on Seth’s chapters—not re-writing, but simply commenting, reporting my reactions as a reader—“I find this confusing”—“what’s your point”—and indicating where a key learning was not supported with an example, or an example was not explicit about its point.

We worked fast, with a fine sense of flow. But the deadline approached even faster. “I need to come out and work with you,” Seth said. “I can’t get the concentration I need to finish this.” I suggested Holy Wisdom Monastery. He booked a hermitage.

I picked him up at the airport on a Saturday. The book was due Tuesday night.

Holy Wisdom offers a serene, inspiring setting for retreats of all kinds. We quickly found our rhythm. Each day, Seth worked solo in the morning after a run through the monastery’s prairies. I came out late in the morning. Over a simple lunch we’d hold a “production meeting,” assessing what needed doing next.

Side by side, we’d work—one writing, one reviewing, stopping to talk when we hit a sticky point. Chapter order got switched around. Confusing passages got laid out on the table for examination, torn apart and reassembled in working form. Cherries were in season and we popped them like pep pills all afternoon. As suppertime neared, we’d hold another production meeting, then drive into Madison for a meal and a little sight-seeing. Afterward, back to the hermitage for Seth, writing late into the evening. The next day we’d do it all again, shifting from the hermitage to an office in the guest house when we needed WiFi or a change of scene.

It worked. When I put Seth back on the plane Tuesday afternoon, he had a 60,000-word manuscript on his laptop, complete except for a little formatting.  At 9:07 Tuesday evening he emailed his revised book to his publisher.

The author, delivered of his brainchild, is now resting comfortably. Both the author and the midwife are waiting to hear what the publisher thinks*. We’re confident that it is worthy.

When you want to do your best work, two things are required: a leaving-behind and a coming-to. Seth and I achieved that. Thank you, Holy Wisdom.



* This is what we heard:

“It was in very good shape and the author’s voice amazingly clear, consistent, and compelling.” – Editor, Jossey Bass

One Response

  1. […] I posted today on my First Person blog about my recent writing retreat at Holy Wisdom Monastery with my old friend Seth Kahan. Want to read how a book gets birthed? Go here… […]

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