By BRUCE DENNILL
How do you know when an idea is worthy of developing into a book? With songs or other shorter formats, you can get to a point of knowing if something will work relatively soon, but getting several thousand words into a manuscript and then deciding it’s a waste of time is far more frustrating.
I have toyed with a couple of book ideas over the years, with this being the first one that I’ve actually followed through on. I think the idea needs to be big enough to weather those moments of doubt. Songs, articles and shorter formats tend to be focused on a singular thought or idea whereas the album, or magazine, for example, has an more overarching idea that the singular feeds into. I don’t think anything really is a waste of time because, at worst, you have a sense of what doesn’t work. I have 13,000 words of the start of a manuscript that I wrote in 2012. About 1,000 of those words made it into this book and, when I was writing this one, especially around my fatherhood experiences in the early days, I was able to read that earlier material and remember.
When you do decide that a theme or story is worth exploring, how do you go about unpacking that?
In this particular instance, I explored every story, theme or idea that popped into my head, sometimes making notes on my phone if I didn’t have pen and paper readily available. When sitting down to write, I simply wrote until I had nothing more. Deciding whether it would remain in the book was decided upon after first draft in rewriting and editing.
Research: how much do you do, and how detailed is it?
I admit I took a shortcut. By making Listen To Your Footsteps about my experiences, my thoughts, and so on, I didn’t have to do much research. I did have to check in with family regarding some dates and look at when songs came out, but I didn’t have to do much in terms of research. However, I did a lot of reading about writing – Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing and Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir. And I read essay collections – from Bassey Ikpi, Hanif Abdurraqib, Teju Cole, Mark Grief, Neil Gaiman, Zadie Smith, and others – to get a sense of the form. This did give me a sense of how I wanted the book to feel, which was like, among other example, Muhammad Ali’s The Soul Of A Butterfly, Common’s Let Love Have The Last Word and even Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things. I find that, when I am writing in a particular form, it helps to read the work of others, although it also makes for difficult internal conversations, because I never feel that my writing is of a similar calibre.
How much planning do you do before beginning in earnest? Do you have to know where you’re going to end up before you start?
Very little. I used the essay and column style to ensure that I didn’t have to worry about a coherent thread in my writing. I was able to, with the editor, do this after everything had been written. If I had tried to plan, I would probably still be writing. My ability to procrastinate because ‘the stars aren’t aligned’ is immense. I know my excuses. I tried to set things up so that I could fall back on them. For other forms of writing, I simply get whatever information I need and start writing. It is putting a puzzle together but what tends to take me longest is how to start. Once I have the first line or couple of lines in my head, everything else tends to flow – especially when writing profiles.
If the hundreds of memes about writing are to be believed, sitting down and actually putting words on a page is perhaps the toughest part of the job. What are the distractions you battle with the most when trying to work?
The usual. Social media. Technology. Books. The internet rabbit hole. I love a good meander starting off with trying to figure out what year a song came out, wandering through Japanese archery, responding to random tweets, ending up on videos of John Oliver and clips from Wild & Out, UFC’s craziest knockouts and the like. I can go from the important to the absurd and back again. While writing this, a quick check of Twitter had me watching a video with a woman with seven husbands. Fortunately, I was able to pull myself back after five minutes.
Daily goals: what, for you, is an acceptable daily target, in terms of wordcount or the quality of what you complete, be it a sentence, a paragraph or a chapter? What have you found are the best ways to get this done? And if writing books is not your full-time job, how does completing a project fit in with your other duties?
I am a believer in routine and scheduling, even though I don’t always get it right. For Listen To Your Footsteps, I tried to write for at least an hour every day, in the mornings. Some days it would be two hours and then I would fiddle with it again in the evenings. My morning routine is generally the same, pre-, during and post lockdown. Wake up. Get my kids to school. Make a cup of coffee. Do my morning pages (journaling) for about 25 minutes before getting into my day. When working on Listen, after journaling, I would spend the next hour, at least, writing towards the book. I will probably use a version of this approach for future books, if I get there, while allowing for modification. Blocking time for a book as a specific writing project with deadlines. It helped that I had deadlines from the publisher for first draft, second draft, and so on. While writing books is not my full-time job, writing is, which is why I try to compartmentalise my writing projects and allocate time for each during the course of the day. And, usually, a few hours before deadline, I drop everything else and focus on the priority. I also create content for my own platforms – blog, email newsletter, social media, etc – which is where I probably need to get better at scheduling time for. My overall plan is to get to the point where I am writing books regularly
Marketing new books – print or digital: what fresh ideas do you think could be introduced to the process to make new work more accessible and appealing to both new and established readers?
I am a big believer in creating an ecosystem and I have been a lot more deliberate about the one I am creating around myself, while I advise and consult for brands and companies to create theirs. We are in the business of marketing stories. The book – print or digital – is one form of delivery of the stories. Audio is another. And video. We use all the tools available to share enough of the story for potential readers to find their ‘context’. And then we make it easy and convenient to go from interest to consuming. To get an ebook or audio book, it is the click of a button. By reducing the resistance the process, we increase the appetite to try out new work. There is a place for all mediums. There was a stage when I had shifted from digital back to buying physical books, before I ended up getting online because I couldn’t always find a copy in the specific bookshop I was in.