I’m writing and self-publishing a book during lockdown, and sharing my experience with anyone else thinking of doing the same, especially if it’s the first time you’ve tried. This week: getting closer to the real words.
Word-count at the start of week 3: 21581
I started this series of blog posts by showing how I plan a book on my wall using post-its. To show what happens next, I need to jump back a bit.
This book was inspired by my having read one book in the stack above: Cræft, by Alexander Langlands. As the idea took shape, and grew from a rough talk to a scripted slideshow presentation, and then to a long essay and finally into a book-length treatment, so my reading expanded. I think this is only the second time I’ve had a book idea directly as a result of reading someone else’s, but even if a book I telling the story of me taking a physical journey, I always do a lot of desk research before I set off. My reading for this project has been going on for about a year now.
The first few weeks of the process are great fun. I usually start off with one book, or maybe a Wikipedia entry, and check the sources and bibliography for other titles. Certain books are mentioned again and again, and you soon realise these are the pre-eminent books in their field. I tend to be a bit of a generalist with my own books, covering a broad area, so I’m never that worried about finding someone else who has done exactly what I’m aiming to do.
Once I have a list of every book I need, I can pick them up pretty cheaply. If you haven’t come across it, AbeBooks is an aggregator of thousands of bookshops around the world. Unless one of the titles you’re looking for is particularly rare, you can usually pick up any book for less than a fiver, including postage. If you’re looking for something old and out of copyright, there’s a good chance you can download a PDF or kindle of it for free from sites such as the Gutenberg Project.
The above photo shows the main pile of books I’ve used on this project.
Once I have my books, I have a fairly laborious research process that I would love to improve upon, but haven’t been able to. I read each book with a pencil in my hand, marking the passages I think I might want to directly refer to, and writing any thoughts that occur to me while reading in the margin. After I’ve finished each one, I sit with the book at my desk, and write up a set of notes, each book in a separate word document, copying out the marked passages and either paraphrasing them or typing them as direct quotes. I write up my marginalia in italics so I can see what were my own thoughts and insights and what I’m taking from the text itself. At a certain point, when I think I have enough research (and it’s never easy to drag yourself from the research to the writing phase) that’s when I go through all my notes and generate the famous wall of post-its, to which I add much more of my own material, notes from travel if I’ve done any for the book, and so on.
I detailed last week how I get from a wall of random post-its to an outline of the book in a word document. At this stage, I would love it if I could just start writing, referring back to my notes as and when I need to. On an article, that would be easy. But for a 50,000- to 100,000-word book, the scope of it, the expanse of it, is simply too much for me to keep in my head at this stage. I think this is why so many people who would love to write a book are daunted by the prospect: how do you keep any kind of coherence over such a long slog?
By the time I’m close to finishing writing a book, the whole thing is alive inside my brain. I know where every key point is, almost down to the page number. I can almost see the shape and structure of the book in my head, and turn it in virtual space to look at it from all angles, checking the joins and the flow. But when I’m in that state, there’s no room for anything else in my brain. If my wife pops her head round the door and asks if I’d like a cup of tea, I forget my name and what day it is, and find myself completely unable to answer. This is not a good place to be for any longer than a week or two. So to get to that state at the right time, I have to use more tricks.
(By the way – if you’re writing a book that’s more of a reference or guide, you don’t need to worry about any of this. If you know you’re writing a guide to, say, the best 300 beers from Belgium, you know how long each entry has to be and what information has to be in it. It’s no less of a slog, and the monotony of it brings its own special endurance challenges, but at least the route is clearly marked out for you. With a long-form narrative – fiction or non-fiction – you have to lay down the road before you can travel upon it.)
So here’s what I’ve been doing over the last week.
My notes from books gave me my post-its, and the post-its gave me my outline. But by the time I’ve written the outline down, I can’t remember who said what or where most things come from. At this stage, I have no option but to go back to my notes and go through them in detail to start fleshing out the outline.
I’m learning a lot of new stuff here, in a subject area I haven’t explored before. I’m not yet quite confident enough with the fine detail. The structure is different from anything else I’ve written in that it’s not a story – chronological or based on a journey or whatever – it’s an argument. So I know the book falls into parts 1, 2 and 3, and that part 2 itself splits into an intro and three main sub-parts: (o), (i), (ii), and (iii). So I go through every page of my notes, and mark up which part of the book each point belongs in.
As I write or cut and paste each point across, I put a line through it.
Often, as I’m copying a point across, or I put two previously separate bits together, it will spark a thought and I’ll write a sentence, a paragraph, or even a page or two. Every single rush or spark of inspiration is precious, so I let it run its course before going back to transcribing the notes. Anything that’s cut and pasted joins the italicised outline, to distinguish it now from my own text in the main font.
I’ll be honest: this bit doesn’t feel like proper writing. But by the end, I know that, say, part 2(i) is all about the nineteenth century Arts & Crafts movement and that every point I have about Arts & Crafts is in part 2(i) of the document, in approximately the right order. I now have a 20,000-word manuscript, some of which has random outbursts of writing which hopes to make it to the finished text, the rest of which still needs to be rewritten and joined up into a proper narrative.
So that’s the boring bit out of the way. I have nearly everything I need in the document that will eventually become the book. Next task: actually write the bastard, in my own words.
The Meanings of
Craft Beer: Why the term ‘craft beer’ is completely undefinable, hopelessly misunderstood and absolutely essential, which be published in e-book, audiobook and print-on-demand formats globally on 25th June.