I’ve set myself a task of writing and self-publishing a new book in 13 weeks. I’m sharing the process in case it helps anyone else who is thinking of spending lockdown starting a book they’ve been wanting to write. Here’s how I plan the structure of my first draft.
I posted some slightly psychedelic images on Insta a couple of weeks ago. From 13th March I was in quarantine in my study and our spare room, and you could have been forgiven for thinking it was sending me mad. But this is how I’ve started every book since Shakespeare’s Local.
As readers of my narrative books will know, my style tends to be rambling and discursive. But it does have a method. When I write about beer, I want to link it to the wider world and place it on context. For me, a good book (of mine) should contain some history, some storytelling, some personal experience and insight, and various other elements running through the book like threads. I think this multi-faceted approach raises the chances of it being more relevant to a wider group of people. You probably wouldn’t want every beer book written in my style, but it works for me.
When I did Shakespeare’s Local – the story of one London pub over 600 years – I realised pretty quickly that the history of the building itself – which the books was supposedly about – was not book-length and was only really of interest to students of architecture. The book couldn’t just be about the building – it had to be about the area and why the pub was there, and why it was so important. It had to be about the people who drank in it – but just listing the famous people who may or may not have drunk there wasn’t enough. To tell the full story I had to talk about commerce, theatre, the River Thames, the Guilds of the City of London, the evolution of pubs more generally, and much more that helps contextualise the pub and explain why its existence is significant and interesting to read about.
One option could have been to have a chapter on each aspect. But I wanted to tell a chronological story where each chapter had all these different themes running through it. This was a complex undertaking, and trying to plot and plan how to do it would bring me out in a cold sweat. So I adapted a method I started using when writing Dungeons & Dragons scenarios as a teenager and mixed in some techniques from strategy workshops in my advertising days – I’m not sure which of those two admissions I should be most ashamed of – and came up with this.
As I’m reviewing and finalising my notes, I put each key point I want to make on a post-it. I use different colours for different themes. For Shakespeare’s Local it might have been green for the local history of Southwark, pink for the history of pubs generally, yellow for my lame jokes and so on. For The Meanings of Craft Beer, pink is how the craft beer industry works, orange is the history of craft in a broader sense, green is an insight or idea I might have had myself while reading, pale yellow is stuff on the nature of work, blue is about the definitional problems of ‘craft beer’, and on it goes. Over a period of weeks, as I’m working, the post-its gradually populate the wall. The image above was taken when I’d almost finished, when I was nearing the cut-off of what I was going to read and explore before I stopped putting off writing the thing.
The next step is to look at all the post-its and start to group the ones that seem like they belong together in a narrative sense. That takes a couple of days, and this time it ended up looking like this:
Most of these post-its moved many times over the couple of days I was doing this – connections can be made in different places. This is the bit where I stare at the wall and pretend to be a DCI in a crime show. Often I just stare for hours. Sometimes it’s a struggle to get things to connect. Other times your brain does a lot of sub-processing and eventually sees the pattern. If you’re old enough to remember the brief, strange craze for ‘Magic Eye’ pictures in the early 1990s, and you were one of the people for whom it worked, it can be a bit like that.
While I was sorting and grouping, I had a breakthrough which you can see from the three big post-its, which I added afterwards – the book naturally fell into three parts, as I outlined in my previous blog. That hasn’t happened before – usually I get six, or seven, or eight or ten clouds of post-its and have to work out what order they go in. This time, as I was shifting things around, the structure emerged and I realised it was a linear argument: break something down, learn a lot of new stuff from different sources, use the new material to build it back up again.
That’s when I knew I had the overall book here. Then it was a question of refining. A day later, it looked like this:
I’ve now got each point in order. I can see just from looking at it that the first part, the left-hand column, is mainly about definitional semantics. I can see the middle column is the main part of the book, which starts by explaining broader themes of craft and then brings in more beer stuff, and I can see that, rather pleasingly, part three is a mix of all areas.
When I’m happy that everything is in the right order (with a few points that don’t belong anywhere on the far right, probably to be dropped from the book) I take them down carefully in order to my desk, and then write up an outline of the book in note form. When I finished this, I had the first 3000 words of the book down. One of the hardest parts in writing any book is looking at the blank page and summoning up the courage to start. Sneaking around that is just one advantage of this method.
That was two weeks ago. I’m now up to 13,000 worlds as I start to flesh out the structure out and do the actual writing. The quality of the writing is not yet good enough. But I now know what I want to say and where I want to say it, so I can now concentrate on rhythm and tone, and focus on finding the right words.
I’ll post again with how that’s going, and more thoughts on what might be helpful if you haven’t done this before. I’m also planning a live webinar to chat through the book-writing process if enough people are interested. But now, the word count is calling…