Writing a Book: Part 3, Answering some Questions

I wanted to address some of the points raised in the comments section on Brian’s blog. Stan raises several interesting questions.

How did you solve the balance between themes that you personally found interesting, versus themes that would appeal to a wider audience?

This gets to the heart of writing. I once saw Tony Hillerman give a talk in which he said “Don’t write what the readers won’t read.” Good advice, particularly if you spent hours or days tracking down some random bit of information or some side story; it is very hard to not put that fact or story in the book. One way around this is to use endnotes, which is a sly way of slipping in your research without having it break up the story line. (This change often didn’t come until much later, after I had the time to better consider my cool fact and to realize it probably didn’t need to be in the main body of the book.) I have found that if I have to struggle to put something in that interests me, then it probably shouldn’t go in the story. Another way around this is when you do feel a theme is necessary but perhaps is less interesting to you, then couch it through something that interests you.

How much and how often did you involve friends and family in the process, especially before getting an agent and editor?

I do get friends involved. As I wrote earlier, I often bounce ideas off them to get their reactions. I did have friends read various chapters, not for editing purposes, but to see if they thought the chapter flowed and if they thought it was interesting. I did get good advice from friends but also recognized that they would not be completely honest if they didn’t like it.

How did you balance time between research and writing? I find there is *always* one more book or article to read, and have to force myself to sit down and just write.

Yes, there is always more research to do, particularly if you are looking to procrastinate on the writing process. One way to stop researching is to have a deadline. I gave myself two months to research and write my chapters, which definitely forced me to close the books and start writing. And, ultimately, I figured there was no way I could get every fact and figure in so I might as well move on.

Some people have suggested going with a NaNoWriMo-style approach of “write first, edit later.” How carefully did you proceed when first writing, and how much editing did you do afterwards?

I write. I edit. I write. I edit. I edit a lot when I write and am not very good at letting go and simply putting stuff on the page. I do, however, write lots of material that never goes forward. I have found that doing so does allow me to get things out of my brain and allows me to move the process along.

In regard to editing, I have a couple of things I like to do. I do edit on the computer as I go but for more serious editing I print out the document. I also will read it aloud, which helps with structure and flow. And, finally, I let the material sit overnight or even longer. I want to get the writing out of my system and try to approach it with fresh eyes.

Practical tips: What software did you use along the way? (I’m trying DevonThink and Scivener. Bookmarks in Delicious.)

And what was your daily writing practice? (Always at certain time of day? Always in certain cafe? Warm up exercises? Write on paper, then transcribe into computer? Did you print out drafts along the way for editing?)

I am not sure exactly what you mean by this. I write on an iMac and use MSWord.

I don’t really have a daily writing practice except to consider it a job. I am usually on the computer by 7am and off it by 5-6pm. I don’t work well at night. I usually take a nap in the afternoon. Some days I write. Some days I do research. Most days it was a combo. I write on the computer though when I am really bogged down I will write on paper. And, yes, I killed trees on a regular basis printing out drafts for editing.

Thanks for all of the questions.

Writing a Book: Part 2, the Writing

Earlier this week, I wrote a bit about the early process of writing a science book, focusing on converting an idea into a proposal. Michael and Brian did the same and then addressed the writing itself. As Michael observed, each writer takes a different approach, and mine was unlike his or Brian’s.

Building stone was a subject that had long interested me. I wrote my first article on it for Harvard’s alumni magazine in 1997. Over the next half dozen years I wrote another 8 or 9 stories so when I began to think about my book, I had a lot of good background material. Still, I needed more stories and more stone to focus on. I knew that I wanted each chapter to focus on a different type of stone, which led me to the GeoRef database. If you’re not familiar with GeoRef, it’s THE database of geology with over 3 million references stretching back to the 1600s.

Through this research, plus some searching of the web, I ended up with 10 chapter ideas. Several principles guided my choice of stones. I knew I wanted the book to reintroduce general readers to the three types of rock—igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary—as well as to fundamental geological concepts, such as plate tectonics, geologic time, and fossil formation, that most people probably haven’t thought much about since their high school science class. Furthermore, in discussing the geological phenomena and how the earth’s changes affect the look, feel, strength, and distribution of particular rocks, I wanted to provide the background necessary for understanding the long relationship between people and stone, on levels emotional, philosophical, and prosaic.

And finally, from a practical standpoint, I chose building stones that are widely and commonly used, so that a reader who is interested in looking at a particular rock firsthand can probably find it on his or her next visit to a major city. Some were rocks I knew well, such as brownstone, Quincy granite, Salem Limestone, east coast slate, and Italian travertine. Others were new to me (or at least the specific rock units were new), including petrified wood from Colorado, coquina from Florida, and marble from Italy. And one, the granite in Robinson Jeffers’ house, I chose simply because I loved the house and wanted to learn more about it and Jeffers.

Now that I had the subjects, I dove into the research. I wrote people who studied the rocks. I tracked down obscure documents. I looked for history accounts. I tried to figure out how the different rocks connected to each other and how to order them in the book. Should they be geologically chronological, chronologically based on when the buildings were built, or geographically organized.

As I noted in my previous posting, my agent wanted me to provide a reason for the reader to continue reading, in essence a beginning, middle, and end to the book. Despite my efforts, often pained, I couldn’t really figure out a logical way to progress the book. What I ended up with was a somewhat subtle way of connecting the chapters. The first chapter, on brownstone, introduces me and the subject and why I am passionate about stone. I ended the book with travertine because it sums up and exemplifies many of the subjects I covered.

In between these book ends (ha-ha), the chapters are paired. My second chapter focuses on a granite that transformed architecture, transportation, and business across the entire eastern seaboard. In contrast, my second granite chapter illustrates how stone can transform a single man, poet Robinson Jeffers. Set two pairs the most commonly used building stone in the country with a stone used in only one structure. My third set of chapters contrasts the oldest commonly used building stone in the world and one of the youngest building stones. The next pair of stones contrasts practicality with grandiosity.

The first chapter I wrote was about Quincy granite, mostly because I knew it well from my time living in Boston. It has a compelling mix of history and geology. I wrote the remaining chapters in no particular order. For each, I gave myself two months to write, do additional research, interview experts, and visit the quarry and/or building.

None of the chapters came easily. A few had somewhat natural story lines to follow, particularly those concerning a specific building with a long history but for most I simply started to write about what I had learned, not always going in any direction. I found that as I did this the chapter would start to develop a natural rhythm, though this required writing, rewriting, and rewriting again.

I did have a goal of making each chapter have a different structure. In addition, I didn’t want to have a section on geology then one on history; I wanted a balanced approach where the topics intercalated. I don’t know or really want to know how many times I wrote each chapter.

When each chapter was finished I would pass it on to my wife for a first round of edits. Fortunately for her, she is neither a geogeek nor was her head filled with all of the chapter-related trivia I had, so she was ideal to comment on whether the chapter was too technical or if I wrote something and left out key details, which were in my head. After her edits, I worked on the chapter again and when I was finished with it, I would go through and footnote it to make sure I knew where every reference came from. I would then set it aside and start the next chapter.

The manuscript that I turned in was basically the one I proposed. Like Brian, I wondered what my editor would do. After reading the first chapter she had one major observation. There was too much of me personally in the book. As she put it “The reader wants to see what you are seeing, he/she doesn’t want to see you seeing it.” Taking this to heart, which was hard because I thought that the use of I gave my writing a strong voice, I did what she said. And, of course, I now think that she is right.

Similar to what Michael wrote yesterday about humor (or humour), a little bit of me can help the narrative but too much slows the flow and takes away from the story telling. I agree with this. I also removed many of my attempts at humor in the book.

Finally, I turned in round two of my complete manuscript and again had the pleasure of waiting for my editor’s comments. They were smart and helpful and I disagreed with very few of them. And in the one case where she suggested a big change, she was absolutely correct. The entire process from writing the first chapter to final edits of the manuscript was about three years.

Following Michael’s sage lead again, enough for now. Any thoughts would be wonderful.