One author’s secrets to success

Jim round­ing Cape Froward, the south­ern­most tip of con­tin­ent­al South America, in the ves­sel Chonos, January 2005. Photo by John Rosborough.

Jim Delgado’s af­fable, dy­nam­ic and al­ways do­ing some­thing cool.

As a mari­time ar­chae­olo­gist, he ex­plores old wrecks world-wide and was among the first to dive the Titanic. He was ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Vancouver Maritime Museum for 15 years and hos­ted the pop­u­lar TV show, The Sea Hunters, for five.

He’s cur­rently dir­ect­or of the Maritime Heritage Program for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as be­ing pres­id­ent of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology. He teaches at uni­ver­sit­ies, con­trib­utes to schol­arly and aca­dem­ic journ­als and pro­motes mari­time preservation.

Oh yeah, he also writes books. More than 33 of them at last count. Khubilai  Khan’s Lost Fleet: In Search of a Legendary Armada won the James Deetz Award in  January. The same month Nuclear Dawn: The Atomic Bomb from the Manhattan Project to the Cold War won the Choice Award for Outstanding Academic Title.

Delgado’s new­est book, Silent Killers: Submarines and  Underwater Warfare was re­leased in June. And the next one, Iron, Pearls and  Gunpowder: The Incredible Saga of a Lost American Civil War Submarine, is already underway.

So how does he man­age to do all this and have a life? I asked Jim and this is what he said:

1. I don’t need much sleep.

2. I have a quiet, private of­fice and my wife screens all my calls.

3. I use all my travel time, in air­ports and on the plane, to work.

There’s not much any­one can do about the amount of sleep they  need. But most people can ar­range their work space so dis­trac­tions and  in­ter­rup­tions are kept to a minimum.

And when trav­el­ling, what bet­ter way to si­lence the overly chatty per­son sit­ting next to you, than flip­ping open your laptop or note book and an­noun­cing, ‘I have to work now.’

If you’re really ser­i­ous about writ­ing, you won’t wait for time to write. You’ll make time.


The worst part of writing a book

I really like writ­ing books but there’s one part I hate. And it sneaks up on me every time.

After hav­ing sev­er­al books pub­lished, you’d think I’d learn. But nope, there seems to be a big blank spot in my memory about writ­ing a non­fic­tion book.

It’s an ugly, nasty, teeth-gnash­ing phase so no won­der I for­get it. In fact, the only time I think about it, is when I’m right in the middle of it. Which is where I am right now.

I refer to it as the @#$*! stage of writ­ing a book. Some folks call it the first draft.

No, this is­n’t me. But this is how I of­ten feel when I’m in the @#&%! stage of writ­ing a book.

This is where I have to take all my re­search and put it into some sort of co­hes­ive or­der. That means de­cid­ing what goes in what chapter – and worst of all – de­cid­ing what’s in­cluded and what gets left out.

I know from past ex­per­i­ence that in­triguing facts and fas­cin­at­ing an­ec­dotes will be cut due to the con­straints of space and in the in­terests of flow. I can deal with that. It’s just all the de­cisions I need to make right now. Hours are spent star­ing at the com­puter screen, shift­ing text here and there and mut­ter­ing away. By the end of the day I swear my brain is sweating.

Sometimes I think of this stage of a book like go­ing for a long walk in a forest. There are many trails to take, each of­fer­ing dif­fer­ent ex­per­i­ences, some more ex­cit­ing or chal­len­ging than others.

On rough days I liken it to climb­ing a rock face. Concentrating and know­ing where to put my feet and hands (or facts and an­ec­dotes) is crit­ic­al. At times the top of the moun­tain seems im­possibly far away.

Once in a while I won­der why the heck I’m do­ing this. But a glance down tells me I’m closer to the top than the bot­tom. And I know when I reach the sum­mit, I’ll for­get all about the @#$*! stage of writ­ing a book again.

So I keep climb­ing. Writing my book one chapter, one para­graph, one word at a time.