How to write a book: The timeline

Thanks to David Menconi for allowing us to reblog the following post outlining the timeline for writing his forthcoming book Oh, Didn’t They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music. This post originally appeared on his blog, Losering Books.

David is the 2019 North Carolina Piedmont Laureate and was a staff writer at the Raleigh News & Observer for 28 years. He has also written for Rolling Stone, Billboard, Spin and New York Times. He is also the author of Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk.

Oh, Didn’t they Ramble will be on-sale in October but is available for pre-order now.

A question I get asked at just about every book event I’ve ever done is this: How long does it take to write one? I usually answer with some variation of, As long as it takes. But it’s different for everyone. While I know novelists who can regularly pop out several books a year, for me it’s a pretty torturous process.

The one novel I wrote involved an agonizing six-year grind of sleepless nights; and you could say that my North Carolina music book Step It Up & Go took a quarter-century, given how much of it grew out of work done during my newspaper days. But my next book, Oh, Didn’t They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music (coming out in October 2023), was more modest than that. 

The short answer is that this one took three years, more or less. For anyone interested in a longer answer…here is a rather granular timeline of how a book goes from initial conversations to an item on a bookshelf, constructed from email archives and social-media postings. It should give you an idea of both how long the process can take, and how many other people beyond just the author are involved.

Summer 2020 — In the run up to Step It Up & Go’s October 2020 publication, my editor at University of North Carolina Press Mark Simpson-Vos asked if I’d be interested in tackling a book about Rounder Records. The legendary folk label’s founders had donated their archive to UNC’s Southern Folklife Collection, which was how UNC Press came to be involved in a book about Rounder’s history. Conversations ensued and I had my introductory telephone chat with Rounder co-founders Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton Levy and Bill Nowlin on June 12. Things went well, and we informally agreed by the end of the month that I’d take it on.

Fall 2020 — I signed the contract on Oct. 6, less than two weeks before Step It Up & Go’s publication date. And so I began Step One: reading everything about Rounder that I could find, scouring the Southern Folklife Collection’s Rounder archive and conducting the first of an extensive series of interviews with the three Rounders. A delay came at the end of 2020, when Covid took me out of commission for a bit.

Spring 2021 — In the new year, I began interviewing every Rounder employee, artist and observer I could find, doing one or two interviews per day for several months. I was working on other stories and projects at the same time, and so I also took to asking everyone else I encountered if they had any Rounder recollections. One story I heard was Americana icon Jim Lauderdale’s memory of buying records from Ken and Marian at the Union Grove Fiddlers’ Convention in 1972, when he was 14 years old. That anecdote made the perfect introduction of the Rounder story in the book’s Preface.

Summer 2021 — Covid was raging during my research phrase, limiting me to phone interviews. But once vaccines came out, the pandemic seemed to abate enough for me to risk a little travel. So I took a quick trip up to Massachusetts in mid-July 2021, for the Rounders to show me around some of the landmarks. I also rattled around the informal Rounder archive Bill kept in the basement of his house in Cambridge, including his battered rolodex — which had cards for Alison KraussJonathan RichmanTony RiceSolomon BurkeJoan Baez, her late sister Mimi Farina and many more notables including one of my all-time favorite bands (who released an album on Rounder way back in 1986). It was like a capsule history of American music going back to the ’50s folk revival.

Late summer-fall 2021 — After conducting scores of interviews and reading thousands of pages of books, articles and documents, I constructed a rough outline. Then I sat down at the computer and wrote the first sentence of The Obligatory Shitty First Draft (TOSFD) ™ on Aug. 5. But first, I had to fix the shower. And reorganize my bookshelf. And rearrange the silverware drawer. No, I wasn’t procrastinatingyou’re procrastinating. So let’s say writing that sentence was neither the first nor best thing I did that day. It never feels like I actually finish a first draft so much as just stop. That happened around the end of 2021.

Winter-spring 2022 — I took several weeks off during the holidays and then got into the first rewrite as 2022 began, completing a followup draft that had what felt like an actual endpoint in early February. After another week or so of obsessive tinkering and polishing, I hit “Send” and submitted it to UNC Press on Valentine’s Day — which is always a great feeling, to make a project like this someone else’s problem for a while. I also sent this draft to key early readers and friends for feedback, fact-checking and encouragement. You can find some of their names on page 180, in the final paragraph of my book’s Acknowledgements.

Spring-summer 2022 — Even after the UNC Press board voted to approve publication of my book on April 17, we were still nowhere near done. Feedback, suggestions and corrections came from Mark as well as two outside readers for the “peer review” part of the program. While nobody asked for anything too arduous in terms of revisions (and I agreed that most of their suggestions were well-chosen, and necessary), I was nevertheless very grumpy about wading in to rewrite the darned thing yet again. This is the stage where I actively despise every book I’ve ever written, including this one. But I’ve learned that such feelings pass, eventually. Once again, I got over it.

Fall 2022 — The great photographer Bill Reaves took my author photo for the dust jacket on Sept. 14 at Players Retreat in Raleigh. And yes, lunch was on me. I filled out the publisher’s “Author Questionnaire” three days later, thus beginning promotion plans — even as I was still working on revisions based on feedback and corrections from various individuals, including the Rounders themselves. The word-herding was mostly done by mid-October, at which point we started brainstorming titles. The Rounder founders suggested Oh, Didn’t They Ramble, a riff on an old Charlie Poole folksong classic, and it got the nod in late October. By then, we were also sending the manuscript to famous people to solicit jacket blurbs. Most didn’t come through, but a few big ones eventually did, including Rounder hitmakers George Thorogood and Alison Krauss. There was also talk of a foreword, and the name “Robert Plant” came up. As I’ve been buying Led Zeppelin records since I was a teenager, I was simultaneously thrilled and skeptical. No way…

November 2022 — I turned in and proofread the “Front of Book” material (title page, chapter-title index, an “Also By” list of other books I’ve written) and also filled out another questionnaire, to give designer Lindsay Starr some ideas to pursue for the cover. Lindsay used to be at University of Texas Press, where she designed both books I published there, so I trust her implicitly. And darned if she didn’t hit it out of the park again with this one, too. I instantly loved the cover she came up with. Still do.

January-February 2023 — Second only to the first-draft slog, the biggest pain of this entire process was rounding up the book’s 47 photos. That began in early 2023, and each one required high-resolution scans, permission forms and usually payment. There were a few I had my heart set on using but couldn’t pull off — most notably an amazing photo of Alison Krauss at age 11, in the chorus of “Annie.” But there were also a couple of pictures that felt like gifts from the gods, including an incredible and perfect 1969 photo of the three Rounders in a crowd at a concert; that one came in at the last possible moment, and it’s on page 11. I submitted pictures and cutlines in mid-February, but the process of tracking down sufficiently high-res scans would continue for months. The very last one didn’t arrive until the middle of May. Lots of folks were involved in this part of the process; see the penultimate paragraph of the Acknowledgements on page 180, where some of them are thanked.

March-April 2023 — The manuscript came back to me for pre-layout copy-editing on March 8, and I sent it back on March 14 (six days ahead of deadline). Corrections were still trickling in, too, sometimes driven by events — like news about modern-day Rounder franchise act Billy Strings leaving for the major label Reprise Records. But the most significant development came on April 6, when Marian forwarded me an encouraging email exchange she’d had with Robert Plant’s representatives. She asked if there was still time for him to write something and I gave the only answer I could: “If he can do it, we’ll make it work.” But I still didn’t believe it would happen.

May 2023 — Typeset page proofs of the book’s layout hit my inbox for yet another “final” check on May 19. I had just gotten over another bout of Covid (picked up in Alaska, on what was otherwise the trip of a lifetime) and was in no mood to linger over anything; so I sent back my corrections four days later, well ahead of the June 8 deadline. And right around that same time, the impossible happened: Robert Plant sent a wonderful little tone-poem of a foreword, and agreed to let us use his name on the cover. Oh, Didn’t They Ramble went live on the UNC Press website on May 22, with the magic-words notation “Foreword by Robert Plant,” and I began fervently praying that nothing would upset this apple cart.

June 2023 — The U.S. mail brought me a couple of ARCs (soft-cover Advance Reader Copies) on June 14, and it’s always fun to see one’s book between covers even if it’s not yet the “real” version. And then came one last final FINAL FINAL FINAL FINAL task, and a tedious one at that: fact-checking and copy-editing the index. UNC Press had hired someone else to compile an index, but I still had to check the page proofs. They showed up on June 22, and I sent them back before the end of the month.

July 2023 — The marketing folks at UNC Press were hard at work sending out these ARCs of my book to critics, reviewers and publications all over, many of which I had suggested. That led to the very first review of Oh, Didn’t They Ramble, which appeared on July 19 in the trade publication Kirkus Reviews, and they did not hate it (whew). But what truly made my month was final green-light approval from Robert Plant on July 28: It was official that his name would be added to the cover, which was news I shouted from the rooftops. As it was well past the 11th hour of the publication process, there was some scrambling to insert that into the book quickly enough to avoid delays. But that also allowed me to get in a few final last-minute error corrections on July 31. 

And that, I believe, is that. For better or worse, it’s locked down. All 66,000 words of it.

Fall 2023 — Even though the “official” publication date won’t be until mid-October, hard-cover books are scheduled to be printed and shipped to the warehouse by Sept. 7. So we’re planning to launch Oh, Didn’t They Ramble at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass convention in Raleigh the final week of September (fingers crossed that the schedule holds). Then our first local bookstore reading will be on Oct. 17, publication day, at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. More will follow after that, I believe. I hope. We’ll see!

TL/DR — Trust me, you really don’t want to see the Even Longer Answer to this.