Learning From My Second Book Project


Wednesday, 6.36am

Sheffield, U.K.

The first draft is just you telling yourself the story. – Terry Pratchett

Let me tell you a little bit about myself and what I am doing with this blog.

I have always wanted to write and I think if I were given the choice again I would choose to do something that involved writing and history and drawing as early as possible.

As it turned out I studied engineering instead and, while I learned little to nothing in school, I suppose I learned enough about computers to be useful and entered the world of work and made a living and learned about business and picked up some useful skills.

But there’s always been this hole, this thing nagging at me saying that I’m not really doing something that I want to do.

My first response to that was to go back to school to study business – and what I ended up being really interested in was how the theory I was learning in class could be used to explain the experiences I had during my first decade of working.

You see, most of the time we think that what we learn at university is going to help us do something in the future.

But there are two kinds of learning at least.

The first is learning how to do something – change a tap washer, use an application, make the bed.

The second type of learning is why we do something – why washers exist, who needs the application, what’s the difference between a blanket and a duvet.

In a sense, you can only do the second type of learning after you have spent some time doing the first.

It’s like going across a land with a guide or a group.

Initially, you look at what’s around you and start to pick up knowledge about the terrain and what look like easier ways to go.

Eventually, once you’ve done the entire route and then perhaps done a few other routes you come across a map of the land or perhaps draw your own.

That’s what going back to school did for me – the theory I learned was like a map that helped explain the experiences I had – the “aha” moments where I realized that a situation panned out the way it did because of these factors.

All this can be summed up in Kierkegaard’s pithy line “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

20 years after I left school, more or less, I decided that I wanted to write again.

But I also knew I wasn’t ready, I hadn’t done the apprenticeship necessary and really was starting from the beginning, going back a score of years.

I figured it would take ten years and I would need to write a million words before I started to do anything that was any good.

So I started.

After all, the best time to start is ten years ago.

The second best time is now.

And you know, time does go by and things happen if you do them one day at a time.

Let’s look at the statistics.

The first post on this blog was on 26 December 2016 and I thought I would write about my professional work.

From December 2016 to June 2017 I wrote sporadically, a few posts a month.

Then, in June 2017 I thought about setting the 10 year, 1 million word targets and decided to try and write every day.

Now, what counts as a million words?

I write in a two stage process.

First, I do a little freewriting, a few paragraphs of warming up just to get my fingers moving and the initial crud out of my brain.

And then I write about the topic – with a vague idea in mind and then starting at the first sentence and seeing where things go.

Let’s say that the words that count are the ones that are published, the ones that make their way onto the blog.

That total stands at 909 posts and 642,554 words.

So, three and a half years later I’m nearly two-thirds of the way there.

A point I think I’d make from this is that there are no shortcuts to skill, you have to take the time to do the work.

When I first started writing I was stiff, pedantic, trying to lecture and appear knowledgeable.

It took time just writing to relax and start to find a voice, get to a point where I could speak without feeling that I was trying to prove something or had to meet certain standards.

And that took years, not days, not months.

You can’t go to a course and learn how to do this, you have to do the work and then the work will change who you are.

After several hundred posts on individual topics I finally started, earlier this year, to try and focus on a subject at a time and try to build up content that might work as a book.

You find me now in the middle of that experiment – just finishing off the second book draft.

In 49 posts I have written just under 60,000 words.

My writing rate has crept up from under 500 words a post in 2017 to nearly 1,000 words a post now – which is a lot to read and I apologize to anyone who would like to read this stuff and finds it too long.

A friend once suggested that I should keep things short and another friend’s eyes just bounced off this wall of text and the look of polite boredom he gave me was interesting.

But here’s the thing – I’m not writing for anyone else.

I’m writing because I want to write, I need to write, and if what I write is useful to you then that’s a huge bonus but it doesn’t really matter whether anyone reads any of this or not – because it’s about the practice, about the work, about the experience of doing something that is, for me, worth doing.

So, about this book then.

Here’s how I write. I’m going to go over this briefly just to work through the process myself and perhaps I’ll be able to explain it better later if anyone wants more detail.

I spent some time cutting up used A4 sheets into A6, creating a pile of slips of paper with a blank side – a little like index cards.

When I start a book project, I begin with a title idea and start scribbling down questions and content ideas, one to a slip.

In an hour or so I can come up with 20-40 slips.

Then I take a break.

Then, I take the slips and sort them into three piles, ones that look like they should be in the beginning, the middle and the end.

A three part model – I’m going to try a five part with the next project actually.

Then I take the smaller stack in each pile and go through the slips, comparing each one with the others and putting them in an order that seems to flow.

When I’m finished I have an outline, something that can guide the next 40-60 days of posts – and I know now from the first two projects that I will end up with 45,000 to 70,000 words, ideally closer to 70,000 which I can then cut back to a book length.

Each evening I look at a slip and think about the kind of image that will capture the essence of what I’m trying to say and draw that.

In the morning I aim to get up at 5am and write until 6.30, doing any research that’s necessary to write the post.

Because I’ve now done this eight hundred and eighty two times so far I know that I can do it again today and tomorrow and the day after.

As an aside, I do all my writing in a text editor, ed for normal writing, emacs for the blog post because it has org2blog and that makes it much easier to send stuff to WordPress.

Write. Publish. Done.

Except I’m not.

I have to edit the stuff, the tens of thousands of words that I’ve created the first time around.

And that’s hard, very hard.

And I don’t like hard, I like to make things easy for myself – and so I have been trying to work through how to do that.

One thing is to write some small programs that help me reduce the complexity – if there is any interest in this I’ll write about it in more detail another day.

But it effectively lets me do the kinds of things I suppose you would use apps like Scrivener to do but in a console using an approach that was cutting edge forty years ago.

But it’s fast and works for me and will work for the next forty years without needing a subscription or upgrade, so that’s that.

Editing is @!%&$ hard and it’s because you need to think about the big picture and the detailed words as you go along, see if the bits fit together and if they work.

I haven’t solved this problem yet but I have a few ideas that come from my programming experience.

The first issue is that when you write a blog post, you tend to write in sentences, in bursts of words.

But you have to join these together in a book in paragraphs or it doesn’t look right – what works in a web browser looks rubbish in a book.

So I have to glue the sentences together and make them work in that larger chunk.

Then I have to glue the paragraphs together so they make sense in sections and chapters and so on.

And around each chunk is the meta-stuff – why is something here and why isn’t it there.

Now, one way around that is to use a literate programming approach where you weave comments and code into the same file.

In the case of a book you’d weave the editing comments and the book content together, something like this.

Write about a bear in this section.

A bear is different from a fish
in more ways than I can explain.

And then I’d extract just the book part for the publication – which is pretty trivial to do if you know your way around a terminal and some basic scripting.

Not that easy if you use Microsoft or an app or anything like that though, so it’s not for everyone.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself now, going past where I am with the writing to what happens next – which is fine and something I can do but let’s talk about that when I’ve done it.

Coming back to now.

The thing with doing anything is that you have to do it first before you can do it better.

A little more planning does help – my slips and piles of paper have helped me go from thinking about a post on a day to day basis to thinking of a collection of posts that could go into a book.

It makes the writing harder because you are constantly referring to the previous and next one and it probably makes reading it more confusing as well on the blog, which is not a good thing.

So, perhaps one improvement is to try and still write in self-contained post packets but keep in mind that you have to glue them together later.

Inside a post, however, rather than writing a sentence at a time it’s worth thinking about how each sentence relates to the one before and after – planning for the paragraphing that’s going to happen later.

If you’ve made it this far then here are some suggestions – as much for me as for you.

The planning at the beginning helps.

Keep it loose, the nice thing about slips of paper is that you can add new bits and rearrange as you go along if you need to.

Think in terms of structure and break up your piles of slips – it’s much easier to compare 10 slips that all look like they’re in the beginning than 30 slips that make up the whole book.

Now… I could talk about research and how I’m doing that but I won’t because this is long enough and I should start on my next project – the next book, which I’ll talk about tomorrow and get myself motivated to edit the first two before they overwhelm me.

But here’s the thing.

I’m still learning and practicing – working towards the million and all this is just what needs to be done on the way to keep moving forward.


Karthik Suresh

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