Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 6.0: Some Notes on Writing the Damn Thing…
I’m struggling amidst a press of family events this weekend (happy ones — one nephew getting Bar Mitzvah-ed in Berkeley CA on the same day that one niece gets married in the Boston area; my wife and I divide and conquer). But for all that intrusion of real life, I still have to get my head around a piece I’m trying to write for John Scalzi’s enormously valuable “Big Idea” series over at Whatever.
The Big Idea idea — in Scalzi’s own description — asks authors of new books to open up the hood on how their books came to be. He writes, ” “It’s authors discussing what makes their books tick — and what that meant for the writing process.” The essays that result are fascinating. They are often by authors of fiction, with a reasonably pronounced genre tilt, but they are all about the way different writers working in any narrative form approach the creative and production sides of the job of writing books. I recommend them to anyone trying to think like a writer; the series is written by writers thinking.*
The focus in such pieces, and certainly in the one that I’m working to put together, is on the evolution of content and ideas within one’s work, with, in some cases, a strong eye on what the demands of the particular form or genre expectation to shape an idea from conception to finished book. In my case I’ll be talking about the way a small thing, a tiny incident in Isaac Newton’s life I tripped over while pursuing an entirely different project, stuck with me for years until I found a way to match my curiousity about that moment with a much wider historical concern.
That is: Scalzi’s growing collection of essays is a resource for thinking about one’s material, and how to turn ideas into books. This series is about what happens once you have an book project. It’s more of a mechanical or production approach to the same experience. Not how to write a book, but what you need to do to survive the publishing process with your book in the best position it can be to reach its audience.
(I hope I don’t need to say that I’m not suggesting that this is any kind of comprehensive guide. It’s called a diary for a reason. This is my experience, presented in a form that may or may not be of value to anyone else. Like life, YMMV.)
All this by way of a long winded apology for the one post about writing as opposed to publishing process in this series.
I don’t want to say too much here, in part because every writer has his/her own paths in and through the daily routine of writing. That word, “routine,” I use deliberately. Writing on any sustained basis for audiences other than oneself is a job. It can be many other things as well, but whatever other aspects slip in — craft, gift (in Lewis Hyde’s sense), diversion, torture — it is a job, work, something you get paid for (or try to) and it has the routines of work as well as all its pleasures.
I can/could talk about my routines, my tricks, in fact, for getting down to and sticking with the work every day…talking about outlining, about the uses of reading to act as the primer for writing, how I pick music to shape my writing day…but that’s not my point here; anyway there is lots of good stuff out there by great writers that range from manuals to meditations on life through pondering writing already; I’m not sure anyone needs more from me.**/***
The one bit of history specific to the Newton and the Counterfeiter project came when I hit a wall. I had written about a quarter of the manuscript by the autumn of 2006 – I’d even submitted a chunk of it to the departmental committee pondering my tenure case, which is as those of you in the academy will know, something of a fraught moment.
But as I tried to make the turn out of what was in essence back-story, my account of Newton’s life up to the point of his arrival at the Mint and the start of his confrontation with the counterfeiter of my title, William Chaloner, I found that I could not make any progress.
Each different path into the next chapter petered out. I tried leading Newton up the road to London, complete with a speculative scene imagining him walking up Trinity Street and King’s Parade (the same road) to Thomas Hobson’s stable, there to make his own Hobson’s choice for a mount to carry him to his new life.
I tried jumping right into what I could find out about Chaloner’s early life; I tried leaping ahead into the hugely challenging topic of Newton’s alchemical research and its connections — both to his religious faith, and to what a committed servant of God would think of a counterfeiter whose every act parodied the alchemist’s esoteric search for the divine principle of change in nature. I tried diving into the roots of the financial crisis that was killing England’s economy; I looked at the consequences of the war England was fighting with France that it couldn’t pay for (sound familiar)….and you get the idea.
Pour much bourbon. (Baker’s being my preference. Again, YMMV.)
What happened here is not in fact unusual. This was a little more emphatic than similar moments in other projects for me, but the basic problem is the one that defines the difference between a book and a book-length collection of articles. It’s not the content, not the amount or even the excellence of plot or pure facts. Rather, what makes this particular form a bear is structure.
Put this another way: proposals are supposed to be persuasive documents, and all parties to the project know this. But it is important to remember that a few pages of compressed description of the book does not necessarily draw a map that adequately describes the work-as-it-will/must-be. I had followed the outline I had proposed until it didn’t work, and the job I then had to do – and it took me about a month – was to rework what I now knew about my idea into a story that I could tell.
That is, of course, the nub of the writer’s job. Again, just getting material together is easy, relatively speaking. There is a cool stuff out there everywhere, on every topic. The trick is giving your reader a reason to keep reading from one sentence to the next, from paragraph to paragraph; past the chapter break and on to the end. I had found the point at which the necessity of reading further failed, and that meant I had no choice but to cease writing until I had re-ordered my thoughts and whatever I had on paper until that sense of inevitability in the writing returned.
It’s never perfect – at least I’m never able to satisfy myself that I have constructed a piece that propels itself forward with such irresistible force that it compels attention. But that’s the goal.
In all, it took me about four months to reshape what I had already done and to write the new material required to integrate into those previously written passages. From there (by then, about one third or maybe a little more of the total mss.) it took me about seven months to finish a draft that I felt I could submit to my editors. That was a while – but all that time I was working down a furrow that I had already laid down.
(And, fwiw – the solution involved coming up with a structure that permitted shorter chapters and section breaks that clearly divided the Newton material from the Chaloner material until the first moment the two men came into direct contact. My earlier intention to interweave the two stories is what had got me into trouble.)
That’s enough for now. Next post: starting to sell the book to its first customers – my own publishing house.
*If you are a writer and want to know what Scalzi expects for such pieces, his how-to can be found here.
**There are lots of usual suspects out there – but here I’ll just mention one that most people don’t seem to know about. It is only most indirectly about writing at the day-by-day at the typewriter/computer level, but within her memoir One Writer’s Beginnings Eudora Welty trails an intricate thread through the labyrinth of making meaning out of experience in the resistant medium of words.
***Oh hell — if you care: my template for a good writing day goes like this: coffee till 9:30 or so, then, with mug, to my desk. There I start the music, usually baroque — often the Ameling et al./St. Martin’s in the Field recording of Handel’s Messiah for writing, really good guitar stuff for editing and blogging — old Dire Straits as I write this. I then read something really well-written that is not concerned with what I’m working on, often for as little as ten minutes or so, sometimes as much as half an hour. Then, energized by really good sentences and more, I turn to my own work. I write for about 4-6 hours, pretty much straight. I snack and titrate caffeine, but I don’t break for a real lunch until two or three in the afternoon, maybe later. After that slightly larger break, I edit what I’ve done, and write through the transition into the next day’s work. I outline what I expect to take up next, just one-liners usually, enough to give me a map of the next block of work to ignore, then I pack it in. If I have enough time before picking up my son, I’ll hit the gym or the pool. Please note: that’s the ideal. It happens. But all kinds of life intervene, and this kind of sustained attention to the day’s work does not take place during most of term time. Ah well. But this basic routine, repeated for months, did make my first three books happen, and resurfaced during summers and my one term leave on Newton and the Counterfeiter.
Images: Albrecht Dürer, “Illustration of Perspective Drawing,” Sixteenth century,
Franz Adam,”The Stable Lad,” Nineteenth century.