If you grow up in a house with a pretty decent library, it’s almost a given that you’re going to end up as a reader. My parents are readers, and as they get older, we end up having pretty good discussions about books. Their tastes have diverged wildly over the last twenty years or so. Mom now reads and enjoys Neal Stephenson and Jasper Fforde. If we’re wondering whether she’s gotten to a book yet, we just ask “how’s the stack going” since she has about twenty books on her bedside table at any one time. It’s like literary Jenga.
Dad and I have pretty good conversations about historical books. He’s usually in the middle of some kind of biography. I think the most recent one was Teddy Roosevelt. We’ll talk about C.S. Forester and Bernard Cornwell and George MacDonald Fraser and Charles Portis, and how the fictional chronologies for these characters work. How can Flashman possibly be in Strackenz at that point in history and how come no one notices his duelling scars when he returns?
I think that it’s probably because of this familial sense of literacy that when I was asked whether I wanted to write a book, I jumped at the opportunity. It’s a book about beer! “How hard could that possibly be?” I thought. I write about beer. Surely, this is going to be a piece of cake. Easy money. Candy from a baby.
Writing about beer in a short format is something I tend to do extemporaneously. I’m not planning this sentence, for instance. Sure, there are long term strategies involved if you want to have any kind of impact or readership, but by and large it’s a bit of a dawdle. Go to a place, do a thing, drink a beer, write about it. Even if you’re writing for a newspaper column, there are only so many things you can write about if you want to be relevant. What’s happening this week? Is there a new thing? Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, people will send you beer to review. If you need to fill space, you can always rant about the beer store.
That’s almost entirely unlike a book.
What I’ve learned is that if I’m writing for the blog, I can contradict myself. Like Whitman says in his sampler: “I am vast; I contain multitudes.” If I don’t like something, I can say so. If I change my mind later, I can say that I changed my mind.
You can’t do that in a book. A book has to be internally consistent. It requires a certain amount of coherence in order to be understood. You can get away with plot holes big enough to drive a truck through if you’re writing fiction. All that matters is that the mood of the piece is encompassing. I’ll give you an example.
Q: Who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler?
A: It never gets resolved and has bothered people for decades. It doesn’t matter because there are about six truly wonderful sentences in the book and he has a gift for simile and you can feel Cahuenga boulevard under your feet.
If you’re writing non-fiction, a primer on all grain home brewing, for instance, you can’t do that. You can attempt to be mildly whimsical and you can work jokes in when possible, but by and large, you’ve got to get as much useful information across as possible in the shortest amount of language possible. Especially because there’s technical jargon and you don’t want people who paid 15 bucks to sit there scratching their heads about exactly what the hell you mean when you say “lauter” or “refractometer with ATC” or “oh for the love of god, don’t open the fermenter, ‘just to have a peek,’ you idiot.”
If you have no idea what the hell you’re doing, you’re in trouble. You can’t google “how do I write a book” without getting the websites of deluded self-obsessed whackadoos who think that they’re going to self publish the next great American novel during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, which one assumes was started by very bored people, possibly in Portland). I imagine you could probably buy several books on writing non-fiction, read them over the course of a lengthy period, amalgamate the salient points into a strategy that you think will work for you, research your topic and begin to write.
My co-author, Mark Murphy, and I didn’t really have time for that. Try writing a book in 37 days some time. It’s an experience.
I more or less used the P.G. Wodehouse method, which is where you write the elements that need to be included on index cards and then arrange the index cards in an order that makes everything work. P.G. Wodehouse did this on a pool table. I used blu-tack and a picture window, so that I could draw on the window with dry erase markers.
When you’re writing, and I think this is probably true of any kind of writing, it’s a superb feeling when you’re powering through and everything is going to plan. You’re getting a lot accomplished. You’ve had maybe a pot of coffee and the neurons are firing and the fingers are flying at 70 words a minute and you are a rock star. You’re just crushing it.
When you’re writing, and I’m sure this is true of any kind of writing, it’s a special kind of hell when nothing is working. You’re staring at a blank word processor and your eyes hurt and you’ve reworked the same paragraph nine times and the chapter is the wrong shape and nothing makes sense and you are an insignificant speck on the belly of the universe. You’re just miserable.
You get to the point, eventually, when you’re more or less done with research and writing and because you’ve got a flatplan that dictates the number of pages and the length of those pages, you have to edit the work of both authors so that there’s a cohesive style. That’s been the last six days and nights. It has been educational. I am out of coffee and I haven’t shaved in a week.
I wanted to do a good enough job that it will require a minimum amount of effort on the part of the publisher. I don’t know if they talk to each other, but it can’t hurt to have a reputation for being easy to work with.
The good news is that it’s finally more or less done. We have submitted a manuscript, and we’ve got a publisher lined up. The book will be out next autumn. It’s apparently called “How to Make Your Own Brewskis: The Go-to Guide for Craft Brew Enthusiasts.”
Less than two years to go from first blog post to national beer columnist to brewing student to published author. Great Googily Moogily.
After my mid terms are over, I’m going to sleep for a week.