Category: Beer Writing

| Beer Books, Beer Writing, Craft - An Argument

Lockdown Book Project Week 10: The book’s written – but still so much to do

I’m writing and self-publishing a book in 13 weeks and sharing the experience for anyone doing or thinking of doing the same. This week: on the mad dash between manuscript and publication.

‘Authentic Artisanal Beer’ – craft beer buzzword bingo in this free-to-use stock photo from pexels.com

Days till publication: 21

I now know my book almost by heart.

A week after finishing it, I went over it and did a detailed edit before giving it to Liz for its ‘proper’ edit. The book is in three parts. She loved part two, hated part one, and was confused by part three. Luckily, part two is by far the longest part.

So I rewrote part one and gave it back to her. Since then I’ve read through and re-edited the book twice more. It’s now just starting to show the kind of polished sheen it needs before it’s good enough to publish.

It’s at a stage where I now feel happy sending it out to a few primary readers to get their thoughts. While I await their response, there’s time to briefly forget about the text itself and start focusing on all the other aspects of self-publishing – much of which is new to me.

Firstly, there are the practical aspects of routes to market. We now have the book listed as an e-book on all amazon territories, and I can see that people are pre-ordering it. Liz is spending most of her time trying to work out how to sort print-on-demand copies, which looks easy but turns out to be needlessly labyrinthine. Next week, we record the audiobook, and then we can work out how to get that listed too.

But it’s also time to crank up pre-release marketing. Liz used to write press releases for a living, so she’s doing one as I speak, and I’m pulling together a list of places for it to go out to. We’ve come to the conclusion that it’s definitely a book more for those close to the brewing industry and craft beer movement than it is for a more general leadership. That may be niche, but in global terms it’s a pretty big niche, so we’re trying to make sure we cover all key territories.

All of this is a steep learning curve, but it’s also a springboard for creative thinking. While I was writing the book, Liz was researching Patreon, the platform that allows creatives in any discipline to charge a subscription to access their work. I launched mine yesterday.

Patreon will go on to become a workflow and revenue stream in its own right, but it inspired me to come up with what I hope will turn out to be some successful promotional ideas. I created a pledge tier at £10 which gets people a copy of the book, and also their name in the back. At the £6 tier, I’m distributing a sample chapter in advance so people can get a sneak preview and give their feedback. I’m also trying to work out details of an online launch party, where Patrons get advance notice to sign up.

This is all changing the way I approach work and, if successful, is a model I’ll build on after lockdown ends.

If you’re doing a similar project, do remember to spend as much time as you can on marketing and trying to build a buzz. It takes repetition will probably push you out of your comfort zone in terms of how you feel about promoting yourself, but it’s what any business and any publisher would do. Or any good one, at least.

My new book Craft – An Argument: Why The Term ‘Craft Beer’ is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood and Absolutely Essential, will be published in e-book, audiobook and print-on-demand formats globally on 25th June. The ebook is available for pre-order now. (Links in this post are to amazon.co.uk but the book is also available on your local Amazon site.)

| Beer Writing, Patreon, Writing

More new writing from me for the price of a pint: Why I’m launching a Patreon

Become a Patron!

When I started writing about beer, I never thought I would make a lot of money from it, and it certainly hasn’t let me down on that score… 

Giving up a lucrative career in advertising was one of the best decisions I made, and I’m delighted that my work writing and commenting on the beer scene has – allegedly – helped influence the industry and broadly supported brewers, pubs and people who drink beer. 

However, did you know:

  • – The National Union of Journalists recommends remuneration of 25p per word for articles. It’s rare as a freelancer to be paid this much, especially in trade press titles. 18-22p a word is more common, with most columns typically paying between £150 and £180 a time.
  • – The standard remuneration for authors of books is 8-10% of net receipts to the publisher. If a book is heavily discounted, that means an author can make as little as a few pence per copy sold. The average income of an author in the UK is just £12,500 – around half the overall UK average income and well below the minimum wage – and it’s falling.
  • – As people increasingly expect “content” for free, we have to create free content to maintain our standing and profile. Between blog posts, podcasts, social media commentary, industry events, running magazines such as Original Gravity and Full Juice, and launching schemes such as the Beer and Cider Marketing Awards, I spend 40-50% of my time creating content and events for which I receive no payment at all.   

I’m no different from my colleagues who do similar jobs to me, in that we do it because we’re passionate about it, and because money is not the most important thing in life. 

Inspired by fellow beer communicators such as Boak & Bailey, Lily Waite and Pellicle magazine, I realised that even a modest monthly income allows me a greater degree of financial stability and the ability to spend more time creating exclusive content focusing on issues that you might find interesting, as well as writing blog posts that are free to access, which I currently cannot justify doing. 

I will still be posting free content on this blog – in fact if anything, I’ll probably be able to post more often. But when I’m doing a long, in-depth analysis piece, I’ll post a short summary here with a link to longer read available on the Patreon.

I’ve been blogging since 2006. In that time, I have never accepted advertising or sponsorship on my blog. In the age of the “influencer”, where people are paid vast sums of money to pretend to like products they’ve been sent for free, I intend to remain an independent voice. No one likes everything I say. But whether it makes you angry, confused or happy, I aim to guarantee that what you are getting is my own, personal point of view. 

Putting together my Patreon launch – at a time when we are experiencing lockdown – has provided an explosion of creative inspiration. I’ve been thinking about new ideas such as podcasts, webinars, events in the real and virtual world, and “deep dive” explorations of important subjects and topics that can’t be covered in a short press article, but don’t quite justify a full-length book. If Patreon works, all this will be cropping up here sooner or later.  

At my top subscription level, I’ll also be offering advice and content specifically for professionals in the business of making and selling beer and cider, drawing on my 30 years marketing experience, 20 of those as a close observer of the drinks and hospitality industries.

During this launch period, there are also special offers relating to my new book, Craft: An Argument, which is published on 25th June.

So follow the link below. Take a look around. Make yourself feel at home. And imagine you’re buying me a pint. 

Become a Patron!

| Beer Books, Beer Writing, Books, Craft - An Argument, Writing

Lockdown Book Project Week 8: Why EVERYONE needs an editor.

I’m writing and self-publishing a book in 13 weeks and sharing the experience for anyone doing or thinking of doing the same. This week: the edit. Or rather, the first of the edits.

Image sourced from pxhere.com and marked free for personal and commercial use.

Publication date: five weeks from today.

Before I was a published writer, but when I knew I wanted to be one more than anything else, I would pore over the acknowledgements page in every book I read, searching for clues. Did these writers have people, or types of people, in common, who made the difference between them and me?

Apart from thanking long-suffering partners and family members, the most effusive thanks were always saved for the editor. I simply couldn’t understand why. OK, so they cut a few words out, checked your spelling and took you out for lunch to celebrate the launch. I’m not saying that’s not important (especially the lunch, now I earn what most writers earn) but it hardly came top of any list I would think of compiling.

And then, an editor at Pan Macmillan called Jason Cooper commissioned my first book.

Okay, that was definitely worth one of the biggest thank yous. But I soon learned that an editor did so much more.

I don’t want to talk too much about professional publishing because this series of blog posts is aimed at people thinking of self-publishing, but you do want to try and get as close to a professional standard as you can, and I’m lucky enough to know now what that looks like.

Once an editor is convinced of the worth of your book, they become your voice, your ally, your champion inside the publishing house, fighting your corner against sales, marketing, publicity, design and everyone else to get them on board with your vision.

They become invested in the book, because this is now their reputation riding on it too. They only bought it because they love it just like you do. At worst, they’re a valuable sounding board. At best, they are co-creators with you.

I over-wrote my first three books to an outrageous extent. Knowing I was brilliant, I couldn’t see where any of my excellent words could be cut. On the first two, Jason showed me. I always remember one page with a very long paragraph on it that I said could not be shortened. Jason eventually took his red pen and crossed out about half the words, and after he’d finished, the paragraph somehow said more than it had before.

Of course, any good writer should be able to do a good chunk of this themselves. But you get too close to the subject when you’ve been working on it for two years or more. You forget where the base level of knowledge of your target reader is. Your forget how much you knew yourself about your subject before you started. So you can lose sight of what detail is important to exclude, and to include. After Jason left Pan Mac, Jon Butler edited Hops & Glory. Editors also need to be able to handle the fragile ego of the author, and my favourite note from Jon on the first draft of Hops & Glory read, “Pete, I’m absolutely loving this. So interesting. My only comment so far is that I’ve picked up a book about a sea voyage to India, and I’m on page 156 and I’m still stuck on a canal boat just outside Burton on Trent…”

The last editor I worked with on a narrative book was Cecilia Stein, who has just moved on from Penguin. Cecilia reminds me of the quote attributed to Michaelangelo, who, when asked how he sculpted so well, replied that he simply cut away all the bits that didn’t look like the object or person he was carving. On The Apple Orchard and Pie Fidelity, Cecilia could see the book inside my first draft that was very similar to the book I thought I was writing, but better, and she helped bring that book out of me instead, cutting away all the bits that were not part of it.

Our confusion around editing is that with a book-length project, there are actually two edits, which in my experience are done by two different people. What Jason, Jon and Cecilia did is known as the structural edit. When we think of the red pen, the punctuation and grammar corrections, we’re talking about the copy edit.

I’m grateful to have worked with such brilliant editors in large publishing houses. Because it’s taught me that, even on a self-published project, I need both edits. I know why I need them, and I firmly believe that any writer of any level of experience or ability needs them too.

So how can you get this level of edit if you’re self-publishing?

There are various options. I’m very lucky in that I’m married to someone who has never worked as a literary editor but is so good at it she’s thinking of it as a next career. Liz is what Stephen King refers to as my “primary reader.” She is my biggest fan and greatest critic. She is the person I want to get engaged in the subject, the person I want to make laugh and, occasionally, cry. She’s perfect for my subject area in that she loves drinking craft beer but shuts off from any geeky discussion about it. When I was working with Cecilia, it turned out that Liz’s instincts were exactly the same as hers. Liz would make suggestions that I would disagree with or be sceptical about, and then Cecilia would make exactly the same points.

A book is like having a baby. You have to completely trust whomever you hand it over to to look after. That bond of trust is a special thing, and when you find it, you have to trust what that person says. They’re nearly always right.

On Craft: An Argument, Liz gets the dubious honour of being thanked as both long-suffering partner and editor. She even came up with the revised title, which editors usually do for me – I’m rubbish with titles. She’s spent most of this week reading a paper copy of the first draft, scribbling notes furiously on a pad beside her, making noises of surprise, confusion, and occasionally, satisfaction. If you’re looking for objective support from your biggest fan and greatest critic, then, “This is brilliant, I really enjoyed reading it, especially part two, and except for part one, which is all over the place and I have absolutely no idea what’s going on, why we’re here or why you’re talking about any of this,” is just what you need to hear.

If you’re not lucky enough to have such a partner, at least try giving it to two or three friends who you know are going to be straight with you – people who are close enough to you to know that they’e not going to hurt your feelings or jeopardise the friendship, but are on your side and aren’t going to take the piss or be cruel just because they’re jealous of your ambition. Even Stephen King does this. If you are part of a community of writers, you could even do a contra deal with another writer to do a through and honest structural edit of your work and return the favour for their future project. I believe a writer can learn to do a structural edit pretty easily. I just don’t think a writer is capable of doing it on their own work.

If you have a bit of budget to spend, websites such as peopleperhour.com are full of freelancers who would be happy to do an edit for you for a modest hourly rate.

Whatever you do, don’t assume you can get by without this fundamental step. Sadly, a solid structural edit seems to be going out of fashion thanks to big name authors being too important to disagree with or push back against, and topical books being rushed to market to capitalise on news or current affairs or the notoriety of the author.

I promise you this, as someone who has now been through the process ten times: however good you think your first draft is, and however confident you are in your abilities to write brilliantly and then be an objective judge of your own work, a firm structural edit WILL improve the quality of your book.

I won’t talk too much about the copy edit, which we’re hoping to get to early next week, because I think it speaks for itself: I mean, have you ever read my tweets?

My new book Craft – An Argument: Why The Term ‘Craft Beer’ is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood and Absolutely Essential, will be published in e-book, audiobook and print-on-demand formats globally on 25th June. The ebook is available for pre-order now. (Links in this post are to amazon.co.uk but the book is also available on your local Amazon site.)

| Art of Beer, Beer, Beer Books, Beer Marketing, Beer Writing, Books, Writing

Brewers! Design agencies! I want YOU for my next book project.

You wait ages for a book and then two come along at once. Here’s a new project I’m delighted to be working on with CAMRA Books: “The Art of Beer”.

In a perfect world, as a full-time writer of books you should be promoting the book that just came out, finishing off the next one, and planning the one after that, all at the same time. Lead-times are long in publishing, and a years gap between finishing one project and starting the next can easily turn into a three-year gap between the publication of one book and the next.

It never works out like that in reality. Timelines get stretched in some places and compressed in others. Coronavirus has really exacerbated this.

So: the paperback of my last book, Pie Fidelity, was published on 23rd April but thanks to warehousing and distribution issues related to lockdown it is only available this week. I’ll come back to that later in the week.

My self-published book, Craft: An Argument, is almost finished and will be published on 25th June.

And now I’m starting work on my next one. The Art of Beer will be a lavishly illustrated book about beer design and packaging, published by CAMRA Books in October 2020.

I came into beer from marketing and still occasionally get involved in consultancy on packaging design. As Chair of the Beer and Cider Marketing Awards, I’ve had the job of overseeing the judging of best beer packaging design sat a time when designers have thrown the rulebook out of the window. Now I get to celebrate all of this in book form.

It would be very, very easy to gather together images of the coolest craft beer labels and cans around at the moment, and fill a book with wonderful designs like these:

Magic Rock, by Richard Norgate

Black Iris, by Kev Grey

 

Siren, by voyagebrand.co.uk

 

And we will certainly be doing a lot of that. This is book to be gazed at with longing.

But I wouldn’t be able to think of myself a a writer if that was all it did.

So while the book will major on beautify craft beer designs, it will also tell the story of beer design, labelling and packaging from when it really took off as a discipline in the late nineteenth century until the present day.

We’ll start with why brands became so important, looking in particular at why the UK’s first ever registered trade mark was for Bass Pale Ale:

The first UK trade mark

We’ll look at the theory of how branding is supposed to work, and the tricks designers use to make a product stand out from the competition, and make you desire it.

We’ll explore the how and why of beer logos:

Since 1964, the ‘e’ n Heineken has been tilted so it ‘smiles’.

Milton Glaser’s original sketches for the Brooklyn logo

We’ll talk about why some brewers prefer typographical designs, and how that works:

Devastatingly simple, universally admired, and much copied: The Kernel

And we’ll look at why certain picture-led routes are enduringly popular:

Local history is enduringly popular for cask ale

We’ll also  be looking at the history of bottles and cans, the clever use of different bottle shapes, crown cap designs, and secondary packaging such as gift boxes, six-pack holders and so on. 

If you are a brewer or design agency that is really proud of your design work, and you’d like it to feature in the book, please drop us a line on petebrownsemail@gmail.com. We have only two rules:

  1. 1. While we’re not limiting this to British beers only, any beer featured must be readily available on sale in the UK.

2. Whole there’s a lot to be written about poor or questionable design, this book will only feature designs that the team think are beautiful or are otherwise important in the history and evolution of beer design. 

So please – sen us your beers! And if you’re a beer fan rather than a brewer and you think there’s a beer we should definitely feature, let me know. (And thanks to everyone who did so when I asked this question on Twitter and Facebook last week.)

  •  

 

| Beer, Beer Writing, Books, Craft - An Argument, Craft Beer

Lockdown Book Project Week 7: “Write Drunk, Edit Sober”?

I’m writing and self-publishing a book in 13 weeks and sharing the experience for anyone doing or thinking of doing the same. This week: a major milestone, and my experience of combining drinking and writing.

If it looks a little thin, that’s because (a) it’s printed double-sided, and (b) it’s a bit thin – compared to my previous books.

Final word count, Tuesday night: 53,572

I FINISHED THE FIRST DRAFT!

Ten days later than scheduled when I started, I reached the delicious moment of printing out the first iteration of the book. There’s still a long way to go: I reckon 8,000 to 10,000 of those words need to come out. There’s a lot of repetition, and a lot of digressions, some of which help, and some that don’t.

Even though most editors I work with now work online using Microsoft Word’s ‘Track changes’ tools, I like to start with a physical copy. A few weeks ago I talked about Stephen King’s book, On Writing. One of my favourite bits is his advice on what to do when you finally reach this point. He suggests a total change of pace – “Go fishing, go kayaking, do a jigsaw puzzle.”

Jigsaw puzzle it is then. I spent most of yesterday putting together a painting of Padstow Harbour.

But here’s the best part:

“How long you let your book rest – sort of like bread dough between kneadings – is entirely up to you, but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks. During this time your manuscript will be safely shut away in a desk drawer, ageing and (one hopes) mellowing.”

I don’t have six weeks. I’ll be leaving it for about four days. But it’s a lovely image, with wonderful results:

“If you’ve never done it before, you’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange and often exhilarating experience. It’s yours, you’ll recognise it as yours, even be able to remember what tune was on the stereo when you wrote certain lines, and yet it will also be like reading the work of someone else, a soul-twin perhaps. This is the way it should be, the reason you waited. It’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings than it is to kill your own.”

That phrase is King’s analogy for the hardest bit you will face if you write something book length: there will be a sentence or paragraph that you love, the best thing you’ve written. And it won’t belong in this book and you must cut it out. But that’s still to come…

To get to this point, I had to play with the famous quote in the title above. Like most great snappy quotes, it was never said by the person to whom it is commonly attributed. Ernest Hemingway was, if anything, a vocal opponent of trying to do good work while drunk.

But Hemingway wasn’t a drinks writer.

I’m not necessarily recommending writing drunk, but I thought it might be worth sharing my experiments and experience with it.

I normally write completely sober, in the mornings. But when I’m travelling, or covering beer events, my note-taking usually happens when I’m not. I wrote many of the notes for Three Sheets to the Wind while living up to the book’s title. It’s hilarious to go back through those old notebooks and see how my handwriting deteriorates as the day wears on:

Notes written in Dublin, around opening time.

Notes in the same notebook from Madrid, written around 2am.

The thing is, if you can decipher the writing, there’s some good stuff there. This went on to become one of my favourite passages in the book, because I managed to capture the giddy joy of closing down a bar in a strange city at 3am. Often, when we wake the next morning after a boozy night and can vaguely remember laughing till we were fit to burst, we know we had a good time but we assume whatever we are laughing at can’t really have been that funny – it was just because we were drunk. My experience of trying to record drunken nights revealed to me that when we are drunk, often we really are funnier – a lot of these notes made it into the final book, and it is without doubt the funniest of all my books.

That’s writing while drunk, as in, capturing the experience of drinking. But what about writing up your final draft? What about drinking as an accompaniment to writing, rather than the notes above, which are writing as an accompaniment to drinking?

The first thing to note is that the quote in the title falls into the common trap of treating drunk/sober as binary, when they are in fact two points tethering either end of a scale.

Think of inebriation as a graph, with the x axis as time and the y axis as some measure of how drunk you are. The path of inebriation follows a curve. One reason I’ve always loved beer is that it provides a gentler, more manageable curve than wine or spirits. I find that between one and three pints in, there’s a buzz of inebriation that seems to make the blood flow quicker and opens the synapses. Ideas flow more quickly, inspiration comes more easily. But I’m not drunk. Any more than three pints, and my typing becomes clumsy and my flow starts to become disjointed. It’s harder to focus. I rarely go beyond this point.

On Monday night, I did.

I hadn’t been happy with that day’s work. I was in bed with my eyes wide open, and I decided to get back up and do an experiment. I drank spirits and took the time to write very carefully and slowly, allowing the ideas to come but spending longer clearing up my typing than getting it down in the first place. I wrote till 4.30am.

The next morning, the few paragraphs I had were not nearly as good as I thought they had been when I wrote them. The flash of inspiration I thought I’d had was not nearly as bright as I’d believed. But there was something there, something that I hadn’t been able to reach while sober. More than that, I was in a different place in relation to the book than I had been the day before. Something from the night before had stayed with me. I wrote for the next ten hours straight, finished the first draft, and the last paragraphs I wrote are better than anything else in the book at the moment. Just as I had found my voice, I’d finished. But we still have the edit to go.

Apart from unlocking the inspiration I needed to finish, sometime around 4am I also had the idea to write this blog post. I’ll finish by transcribing the notes I left for myself, written in wonky capitals to ensure they would still be legible:

WRITE SOBER – IS THIS WORD WORKING HARD ENOUGH? IS THERE A BETTER WORD?

EDIT DRUNK – THERE IS NO EDIT DRUNK.

WRITE DRUNK – IS THIS WORD PLAYFUL ENOUGH? MIGHT THIS OTHER WORD TAKE ME SOMEWHERE I DIDN’T EXPECT?

EDIT SOBER – (I think I’m referring to the output of writing drunk here) RESULTS MIGHT BE BETTER THAN YOU THINK.

My new book Craft – An Argument: Why The Term ‘Craft Beer’ is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood and Absolutely Essential, will be published in e-book, audiobook and print-on-demand formats globally on 25th June. The ebook is available for pre-order now. (Links in this post are to amazon.co.uk but the book is also available on your local Amazon site.)

| Beer, Beer Writing, Books, Craft - An Argument, The Meanings of Craft Beer, Writing

Lockdown Book Project Week 6: Available for Pre-Order!

I’m writing and self-publishing a book in 13 weeks and sharing the experience for anyone doing or thinking of doing the same. This week: shit just got real.

Word count at the start of this week: 43,530

Week six: the end of this week will be the halfway point in this project. And after the terrible doubt I wrote about last week, I believe I’m going to hit my completely arbitrary and self-imposed deadline.

There have been many important developments over the past week. The first is that Evan Rail, one of my favourite fellow beer writers, gently reminded me that in 2016 he self-published a short e-book called The Meanings of Craft Beer. I thought I had come up with this title, but clearly I was subconsciously remembering Evan’s. So my book is now called Craft – An Argument. If you are working on a writing project of you own, I strongly suggest doing an Amazon search of your proposed title before settling upon it.

Evan’s book starts off in a similar place to mine but then goes on a quite different journey around the topic – which is a huge relief. If you can’t wait until 25th June to read a thoughtful exploration of craft beer, please buy Evan’s book first.

Up to now, this series of blog posts has covered the process of writing. But alongside that, there’s a whole other work stream going on. My wife Liz normally runs the Stoke Newington Literary Festival. That isn’t happening this year, for obvious reasons, so this project is about giving her some structure as much as me.

She’s been busy.

Liz designed a range of possible book covers using Canva, and we settled on the brilliant design above. It’s free and easy to use, and even has some rights-cleared photography that you can use publicly if you pay a whopping 99p. You can of course use your own photos if you took some good enough ones pre-lockdown, but we didn’t.

This week we also bought ISBNs for each edition of the book: ebook, audiobook, and print-on-demand. You can publish a book without an ISBN, but if you buy one it allows the book to be tracked accurately and greatly increases you chance of third-party sales. In the UK, ISBNs are £89 for one or £164 for a pack of ten.

Having done that, we were able to upload the details of the ebook to Amazon and make it available for pre-order! This was a hugely exciting moment. It always is. It’s the first real manifestation of something that begins life as a thought in your head having a separate, tangible presence of its own in the world. It can now start doing things without you being there, interacting with other people without your knowing. Coming at this stage, just when the writing got so difficult, it’s a massive boost. The writing this week is fast, passionate and joyous. This is why I do it.

People often ask me how I feel about people buying my books through Amazon. We will be exploring other platforms and I’ll share details of these when we sort them. But for all the issues surrounding it, I wouldn’t have a career as a writer without Amazon. We uploaded the book to Amazon.com, and with a few clicks, it’s available anywhere in the world, through every manifestation of the site.

I’m hoping to finish the first draft this week. I’m about a week behind where I wanted to be, which is not too bad. Reading through the parts I’ve completed, they need so much more work on them. Bits I agonised over for days are flabby and confused on a first read. But it’s important to ignore that for now and just press on. Once the first draft is complete, I can relax, have a breather, then start again. This time next week, I hope to be able to share the joys of the editing process.

My new book Craft – An Argument: Why The Term ‘Craft Beer’ is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood and Absolutely Essential, will be published in e-book, audiobook and print-on-demand formats globally on 25th June. The ebook is available for pre-order now. (Links in this post are to amazon.co.uk but the book is also available on your local Amazon site.)

| Beer, Beer Books, Beer Writing, Books, Craft Beer, The Meanings of Craft Beer, Writing

Lockdown Book Project Week 5: Hitting The Wall

I’m writing and self-publishing a book in 13 weeks and sharing the experience for anyone doing or thinking of doing the same. This week: what happens when you lose your way.

Word count at the start of this week: 40381

Word count this morning: 38345

There’s a point when you’re running a marathon where you hit a wall – or so I’ve been told. And if writing a feature or blog post is a sprint, writing a book is a marathon. The wall is waiting here too, halfway through. Everything stops. Your confidence runs like piss down your legs. You’re a fucking idiot for even trying this. What were you thinking, you deluded twat. Go home. Get under the covers. Never show your face again.

I try to achieve something different, something more, as a writer with each book I write. I go to different places. I wrestle with how much of myself to put into the text. It’s always difficult – I make sure of that. My last book was my most personal yet, in a subject area I hadn’t really written about before. It got really tough in the middle. At one point I turned to Liz and said, “I don’t think I can do this. I’ve taken too much on. I can’t deliver the book I promised to the publisher. I think I’m going to have to pay back the advance. I’ve reached the limit of what I can do. I’ve never felt like this before.”

She looked at me steadily and said, “Lovely, you’ve said that in the middle of every single book you’ve written.”

This time is different, but of course it always is. This time there’s no advance, and Liz is the publisher. The motivation to keep going has to come entirely from within.

This project was designed to provide structure and purpose to our lives during an indefinite period of lockdown, and also to provide a source of income at some point in the near future. It’s a buttress against the stress we all feel around Covid-19, but yesterday the fear and anxiety got through.

I had a bad day.

I bet every single one of us is having bad days and good days. Yesterday I heard some grim projections about the future for pubs – even grimmer I should say – and became very pessimistic. I compartmentalise as a way of dealing with negative thoughts, and yesterday the bulkheads went and they flooded in.

This happened when I was already struggling with the book itself. Last week I talked about thickets. I’ve been in a really big one. People often say to me, “Ooh, you write just how you talk!” It’s the biggest compliment anyone can give me, because it shows I’ve succeeded in hammering the subject into my style. But because my style is easy and open and readable, people sometimes think it must therefore be easy to write like that. It really isn’t. Especially when you’re dealing with complicated topics that are new to you, and you’re trying to understand academic writing, retain it in your head, put your perspective on it, and then get the whole thing down in your own tone of voice and make it look simple and conversational.

I’m currently writing about the history of work, division of labour, and scientific management. I’m lightening this with reminiscences of going through the round window on Play School, and the enduring popularity of The Good Life, then trying to round it off with the story of a car advert from 1979. At the end of this bit in my notes, there’s 2500 words on tools and machines and their relationship to craft and craftspeople. It doesn’t belong here. It doesn’t belong anywhere. But it’s really important that it goes in somewhere. I can’t find where it fits, but it has to. Whether it goes here or not, I need to link either it or the car ad directly to the meditation on nostalgia that follows, which then jumps to a bit about Colin Wilson’s book The Outsider, before coming back to nostalgia again in a craft beer-specific context via a discussion of pricing. In other words, despite all my careful planning, it’s a fucking mess.

I don’t think I can do this. I’ve taken too much on. I can’t deliver the book I promised. I’ve reached the limit of what I can do. I’ve never felt like this before.

I can of course, because I have nine times before. As a source of – not comfort exactly – but bitter, empty strength, I remember my favourite line from Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” I pissed away yesterday afternoon playing Warhammer Total War, drank too much, slept through my alarm this morning, got to my desk two hours late.

And then I sat down, said goodbye to the 2500 words that had been blocking me, and started writing again. It’s going quite well. I wouldn’t have had the energy to stop and procrastinate and write this instead if it wasn’t.

It happens to all of us. The difference between people who want to write a book and the people who have written books is the stamina to get through this wall.

When I was writing Man Walks into a Pub, one Saturday morning I heard the thwack of something heavy hitting the doormat. It was an A4 brown envelope which contained – I think – the fifth round of changes requested by my editor. “I can’t do this,” I said to Liz. I threw the envelope and its contents in the bin. I said “Fuck it. For the first time in six months, I’m going to read something that isn’t about beer. Maybe I’ll try again to be a novelist instead!”

I went to the book shelf and picked up a novel by Chuck Palahniuk. I got as far as the dedication, which said something along the lines of “To my editor, for saying this is not good enough. Again, and again, and again.” I went to the bin, too out the envelope, and got to work.

That stage is still to come – Liz has promised me she will be as tough as she needs to be when she assumes the role of editor. So this is not the last wall. But it is the first. I think I’ve got over it. Or through it. Now I just need to go on.

My new book The Meanings of Craft Beer: Why The Term ‘Craft Beer’ is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood and Absolutely Essential, will be published in e-book, audiobook and print-on-demand formats globally on 25th June. It really bloody well will.

| Beer Books, Beer Writing, Books, The Meanings of Craft Beer, Writing

Lockdown Book Week 4: Open Road, Thickets and Rabbit Holes

I’ve set myself the task of writing and 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, we’re finally deep into the main part: getting the words down.

Word count at the start of this week: 31832

Before I had my own first book published, I used to have a whole shelf of books with titles like ‘How to become a published author.’ I’d read the blurbs on the back cover and they’d invariably say something like “xxxxx is a global bestselling author who has written 18 books, and now they share their secrets!” And I’d think “Well how come I’ve never heard of you then?”

Then, one day, I spotted Stephen King’s On Writing. I’d never read any of King’s books at that point, but I thought, “He’s one of the best-selling writers in the world. I bet he knows what he’s talking about.”

He does. I reread King every time before I start a book. Full or practical advice, it’s also inspiring and makes you want to write.

Wanting to write is the most useful bit.

Actually sitting down and getting the words out is the hardest part of being a writer. There are bits where it feels like your brain is trying to climb out of your ear and make a run for it. Times when you look at the page and you just know that completing a sentence is beyond your powers. Yesterday I wrote 280 words in a day, and they are shit words that will need to be rewritten at some point. Today so far I’ve written 1800, and I feel like I have more to come if I can get other chores finished and still have some energy left.

Most writers I know have a specific time of day when it works best. Only you know when your time is. Bruce Robinson, writer of Withnail and I, wrote in the small hours of the morning, drinking red wine as he did so, until he was wankered by the time his family get up for breakfast. I used to enjoy my attempts at writing fiction in the evenings. But doing what I do now, the hours between 7am and 11am are precious. If I try to write all day, by the end, 80% of what I’ve done happens in that time slot.

For some writers it’s about a word count rather than a time slot. I don’t fetishise my wordcount as much as I used to, but it’s still the measure of success I use in a first draft. Once the words are down you can move them, cut them, change them, polish them. I massively overwrite, and then rely first on my wife, and then my editor, to help me rein it back in. (On this book, that’s the same person.)

Some novelists start writing not knowing how the story is going to turn out. For a heavily researched non-fiction book, you can’t do that. That’s why I spend so much time doing the planning I’ve spoken about in previous posts. I see the research and planning as laying road, and once the road is down, I can run along it. There are various adventures along the way.

I wrote the last thousand words I did today in less than an hour. There was a bunch of italicised notes sitting between chunks of finished text I wrote last week, and whenever I wrote those, for some reason this but wasn’t happening, so I left it to come back to later. I refer to these bits as ‘thickets’. They’re usually caused by me having to synthesise several different lines of research, or link one big point to the next in a smooth way. They can hold me up for hours.

One useful way of getting through them is to switch from typing to trying to write out what I want to say longhand. It seems to call on a different part of the brain that looks at the writing in a different way.

If this doesn’t work, the trick is to leave it and move on to something else, which is what I did last time I got stuck on this part. The brain continues to process its way through the thicket at some deep level, or maybe you were just so close to it you couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Coming back to it today, it was suddenly clear again, a stretch of open road that I galloped down for about a thousand words before I needed a breather.

My other main hazard on the open road is the rabbit hole. This is when I’m running along and get tripped up by something seemingly small and innocuous. Last week, I wanted to write two sentences which showed that, craft beer notwithstanding, there was a general preference among a large number of people to buy from small, independent businesses rather than large corporations. So I googled these words and immediately got a hit on an American study that showed trust in both big and small companies was high, but trust in smaller companies was higher. Then the hit below that was from another study that showed only 30% of people trusted large corporations. Both studies were by reputable organisations with large sample sizes. The discrepancy might have had something to do with how the question as asked – it often does – but apart from that I wanted to find some UK stats for comparison, and soon I’d spent an hour getting increasingly frustrated researching something that will be a maximum of two sentences tossed off in passing, and may even end up being edited from the final manuscript.

So the next couple of weeks are about hitting the open road, getting the words down, and remembering to leave thickets and rabbit holes and come back to them later, as part of what builders refer to as ‘snagging’ at the end of a job.

To paraphrase Eric Morecambe, it’s about getting the right words down – just not necessarily in the right order yet.

My new book The Meanings of Craft Beer: Why The Term ‘Craft Beer’ is Completely Undefinable, Hopelessly Misunderstood and Absolutely Essential, will be published in e-book, audiobook and print-on-demand formats globally on 25th June.

| Beer Books, Beer Writing, Books, Craft Beer, The Meanings of Craft Beer, Writing

Writing a Book in Lockdown, Week 3: Here Come the Hard Yards

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.

Every book has its own reading list

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.