The next surprise, about three weeks into this process, was coming to realize, over the days of thinking about it, that Scott’s criticisms were spot-on. I saw that if I followed his suggestions and revamped the book, with a new structure that emphasized biography and told the stories of the two men chronologically, the book would be much better. I emailed a note to Scott. “You are right,” it said. This wasn’t so much an apology as the beginning of the next phase of work.
“Only a good writer would be able to say that,” he graciously responded.
Next, I disassembled the manuscript. Writing is a lot like carpentry, hammering and sawing and sanding. In this case, I was like a builder taking down a house I had just finished constructing. Scott had persuaded me that my blueprint was off, so I disassembled the whole thing. I stacked my lumber, bricks, window frames, glass, and cement. And then, after a couple more weeks of taking notes on how to do it differently, writing signposts on my new blueprint, I set to reconstruction.
I dug a new foundation, lining it with solid chronology. I wrote a second note to myself at the top of the manuscript: “If it is not chronological, why not?” That is, I would permit myself on occasion to deviate from the march of time, but I needed to articulate a pretty strong reason before doing so.
That brought the third surprise. Making the text follow the order of events was easier than I had expected—and it made more sense. Anecdotes that I had thought could only go in one place, in a discussion of a theme, actually would fit easily into other places, where they fit in time. In fact, they tended to work better when they appeared in the order in which they had occurred in reality. They often slipped in seamlessly, not needing to be hammered in with an introduction or explanation. Like a board prepared for a well-constructed floor, they just slid into place.
The fourth surprise was how much I came to enjoy the rewrite job. In fact, during that time of redrafting, from winter through spring and into summer in 2016, my wife often remarked on how happy I was. When it was time for me to make lunch—usually I’d defrost a homemade soup—I’d come down from my attic office with a smile on my face.
Over the following months the new version of the book fell into place. I still needed help from my “critical readers”—trusted friends with writing skills and different perspectives who also read the manuscript at about this time.
One old friend, a seasoned magazine editor, basically told me that Scott was entirely right: Get out of the way and let the stories tell themselves. Another reader, a San Francisco lawyer specializing in software and communications law, pushed me to patch the holes in the logic of some of my arguments. Two journalist friends, one a writer on secondary education, the other an editor at Politico, helped me think my way through to a new conclusion that wove together the strands of the book—and, oddly enough, took me to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham City Jail,” an essay solidly in the tradition of Orwell’s best commentary. All of them made me think through again what I was trying to say, and why I thought that was important.