Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My Bicycle Summer

This summer has been all about the bicycle. When it started I was steeped in the 1890s, putting the finishing touches on my upcoming book, Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way), due out in January. As the heat finally began to fade and the first cool breezes of approaching autumn arrived, I was speeding down the hilly roadways of rural Maine on a 50-mile weekend cycling trip. The feelings elicited while riding were not unlike those I encountered while writing: a single-minded concentration, mixed with terror, exhilaration, and faith that everything would turn out all right.

It’s not too hard to explain those emotions as they relate to the cycling trip. At times I felt I was out of my league, especially when the family of tourists from Sweden who were part of our group of 16 sprinted past me up a particularly challenging hill, not to be seen again until we reached the campsite for our evening meal. Add that to the surprising number of cars I heard zooming toward me from behind and the fact that the gears on the bicycle that was supplied to me kept slipping and you can understand that I soldiered on with a certain amount of unease. But that was the first day. On Sunday our route took us over softly rolling hills, past farms and out-of-the-way homes that were more consistent with the picture of this adventure weekend that I’d painted in my mind. With my gears fixed and my confidence restored, I even passed some of the Swedes, earning a “good job” from one of the twenty-something young women. Though she passed me about a mile down the road, I kept her in my sights for the rest of the trip.

As for the book, the first acknowledgment of terror came in late January, as I sat in a conference room at my publisher’s office and said yes, I would have the manuscript by April 15. It was an impossible deadline. I hadn’t written a word yet, although I had done a great deal of research. My last book, Bylines: A Photobiography of Nellie Bly, had been written over a seven-year span, interrupted twice so I could write books on the Summer and Winter Olympics. I was determined to work on Wheels of Change without interruption, giving it all of my attention for the duration.

And I did. I tried my best to map out a 10-week period devoid of distractions, postponing dentist appointments, social engagements, and a car tune-up so I could concentrate on the task at hand. I was thrown for a loop in mid-March, when a violent Nor'easter left my neighborhood without power for three and a half days. I lost all the food in my refrigerator, but I hardly lost a minute of work time thanks to my laptop and borrowed Internet access at my parents’ home and my public library. I actually think the chapter I composed as a vagabond writer was one of my best.

While I never really believed I could finish a 96-page research-based nonfiction book in 10 weeks—and I didn’t—I became increasingly excited with each page I wrote, and my editor was encouraged enough with my progress to allow me to push the deadline to the limit. I submitted the manuscript chapter by chapter, along with the visuals I collected as I simultaneously did photo research. (More on that in a future post.) As I finished the main text, the design team developed the perfect visual format for the book. I brought my laptop with me on a working vacation in late June to finish up the captions and back matter and make a few cuts to chapters that had run long. Finally, after fact checking, copyediting, proofreading, and design adjustments, the book went to the printer on August 9.

Writing Wheels of Change was a whirlwind experience, complete with uphill climbs, intense but steady forward progress, and a few breezy coasts downhill when I got the thrill of seeing everything come together in the layout. It was a heck of a ride.


Gretchen Woelfle said...

Way to go, Sue! Both your adventures sound exhilarating! I spent the summer cycling round London - on frantic streets and scary roundabouts, and along bucolic river and canal paths. It's the most exciting (and sometimes the quickest) way to travel in the city! Can't wait to read your book.

Kim Oldenburgh said...

Hey, Sue. I may have passed you on the Maine roads this summer! I live in Maine and have put on 1,536 miles on my bike so far. I'm not hanging it up yet!
I am on an Orbis Pictus Discussion group and was hoping to see this book in the pile of contenders this week, but see it won't be out until January. Maybe next year!