diamond geezer

 Wednesday, April 20, 2011

If anyone ever tells you that writing a book is easy, they're either lying or their book is rubbish.

I found writing a book unexpectedly difficult. I didn't think it would be, because I write for my blog pretty much every day. I write to a series of regular self-imposed deadlines, which is an essential book-writing skill. I write mostly factual stuff, so I'm used to researching things. I write for a potentially critical audience, so I know it's important to get facts right. And the total amount of words they wanted for the complete book was less than I normally knock out in a month. So it really shouldn't have been difficult., shouldn't have been difficult at all. But that's how it turned out.

I was asked to include as many facts as possible. That's fair enough for non-fiction, and not something I'm unused to. Except there were a lot of facts to find out, some highly obscure, and I had to find them out properly. That meant lots of research out in the field, and digging for information at more than one library, and not believing something was true just because one page on the internet said it was. I was also asked to cut out the flippant, the observational and the personal, which often make up a large proportion of what I write. Objective yet rich, that's what the text had to be.

I was asked to write in 150-word chunks. I don't normally, but that's the length things had to be to fit the required look and feel of the book. Whereas I might sometimes write 15 words about something, or 1500, instead it had to be approximately 150 every time. This meant padding things out when there was nothing to say, and cutting things out when there was tons. Trimming was tough, but padding proved tougher because the extra words had to be relevant rather than filler... or maybe that was a rule I invented solely to make my life harder.

I was asked to rewrite several of my paragraphs after I'd submitted them. I know that's absolutely par for the course when writing a book, and every editorial suggestion I received was spot on, but I'm so not used to being proofed. Normally I sit here and churn out words for the blog completely independently, so the text's all my fault when the time comes to hit publish. For the book I had to get used to critical feedback, but even so spent far too long trying to polish every individual sentence as if I was still writing independently.

I was asked to include a full-page photograph to match each chunk of text I'd written. This meant lots of trips out, sometimes more than once to the same location if the weather was poor or someone had parked a car in the wrong place. I was also asked that every photograph be portrait, whereas I'd much rather have shot landscape because this suited my subject matter better. In the end the photography took almost as long as the writing, because I was being a perfectionist and wanted precisely the right shot for the right information.

I was asked, as I mentioned yesterday, not to blog anything. And one of the biggest problems this created was that I couldn't involve you. Normally when I write something and it's factually incorrect, one of you chips in and puts me right in the comments box. I can nip back in and edit the offending passage, then republish, and all's well. This doesn't work in print. Every unspotted error submitted I'm stuck with, in perpetuity, no going back. And without your input, I made several.

I was asked to write the book in a dozen or so chapters, and to submit each chunk separately. Normally I write to daily deadlines, which enables me to build up quite lengthy series in manageable doses. Here I had three or four weeks to get each section sorted, which was much harder to stick to. I was determined to keep up my usual level of blogging (you never noticed, did you?), and of course I had a job to go to, so much of my remaining spare time was suddenly occupied trying to assemble each complete package for submission. This was no fun, no fun at all.

I was asked to write the book by September 1st. That sounded wonderfully distant at first, then grew menacingly nearer. The first submissions (and reviews) took longer than they should, leaving less and less time for the remainder. My editor had to introduce individual deadlines for each chapter to try to keep me on track, sending me polite but firm reminders as every date approached. And then I missed a deadline, because I was having a life, and discovered that there were no immediate consequences. I was simply urged to please complete the submission soon, asap, maybe next week... which I didn't manage either. Sure, I realised that workflow was going to get nightmarish as September 1st approached, but that could be a problem for later.

I'd been asked to do a lot of things, and thereby hung the problem. The idea for the book was excellent, but it wasn't my idea. What I'd been asked to write was perfect, but how I'd been asked to write it wasn't me. I'd have written different sized chunks, in a less atomised way. I'd have included a bit more subjective content, with differently-orientated photographs. And I'd have shoved all the subject material up on the blog first, bit by bit, more sustainably, and allowed you lot to fact-check it for me. The end result wouldn't have been half as good as the stuff my editor had coerced me to write, but it would have been hugely easier.

So when chapter 4 failed to materialise by the requisite date, I realised what I had to do. I wimped out. I fired off a plaintive email saying there was no way I could continue to this schedule, and that the September 1st deadline was frankly untenable. With publication needing to take place in April, I knew that no further slippage would be possible and therefore the entire project was doomed. Well that's what I thought. Instead, by return email, I received a message of deep disappointment but proposing a whole extra year to write the damned thing. Deadline autumn 2010, publication spring 2011. And that was still absolutely ages away. How time flies.

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