Tommy Tomlinson: How I Write

"It was almost 30 years of being a journalist until I felt comfortable pitching books."

Tommy Tomlinson
Tommy Tomlinson. Photo by Jeff Cravotta

Acclaimed writer Tommy Tomlinson has an impressive array of credentials: a columnist for the Charlotte Observer for more than 20 years, a Pulitzer Prize finalist (in commentary), a sportswriter, magazine contributor, and a Harvard Nieman Fellow. Tomlinson has a gifted sense of storytelling. Across a wide range of subject matter, his work grabs you – better still, it connects with you.

Now Tomlinson is using his skills to tell own story. In his new memoir, The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America, Tomlinson explores his longtime struggle with weight in the context of modern American culture, in a work that best-selling author Curtis Sittenfeld called “genuinely unputdownable.”

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Transitioning into writing a book

Over the years I’ve written longer magazine pieces that were 6,000-7,000 words. But the book is about 70,000 words. That’s still fairly short for a book but was equal to 10 of the longest things I’ve ever done. It was a little daunting. If I sat down every morning and thought, “I have to write a book,” I’d never get anywhere. So I thought of it in smaller sections. Thinking about as smaller, manageable chunks was the only way to get my arms around it.

Structure

I knew I was going to try to lose weight over a year, so that was an obvious structure. Twelve months and 12 chapters, with mini-chapters about what it was like for me each month. As I worked on it, I thought of topical things that I could split into their own sections, and those sections became their own chapters. I had a whiteboard and would look at it every so often and then rearrange things. I knew the mini-chapters had to be each month, but the other chapters could be changed to fit the narrative in the best way.

“It was almost 30 years of being a journalist until I felt comfortable pitching books.”

Memory and/or notes

For the last 10 years, I’ve carried around a small notebook. Each one has a month or two worth of notes. Having 60-70 of these was hugely helpful for the recent past, for seeing how I felt at the moment when things happened. I also did some interviewing of my friends and family members, by sending them some questions. Things like, “Do you guys talk about my weight?” I did sit-down interviews with my mom and my wife. I had a lot of vivid memories, but whenever possible, I’d check it out further.

Getting very personal

This was by the far the most personal thing I’ve written. When I first turned the book in, the feedback from my editor and agent was good, but they both said to dig a little deeper. I took a deep breath and dove deeper. I used the same standard I use with anything I write – what details help tell the story and what doesn’t. One thing that worried me was my family’s reaction and my wife’s reaction. So I showed her and my family ahead of time, first for accuracy and second for anything in tone or detail that they felt shouldn’t be there.

From idea to published book

The first email with my agent was in 2006. I sent him a bunch of book ideas that were terrible. Then I sent him some ideas that he liked. From those, I did four book proposals that didn’t make it to a book. He would say, “This is a good idea, but I can’t sell it.” Publishers have to feel strongly that a book will sell before committing to it. It was almost 30 years of being a journalist until I felt comfortable pitching books. Then it was eight years to get a contract and four years to get the book. It took a long time to get here.

 

Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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