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 started and never finished other books, and I don’t consider this wasted time in any way. Though I might have had ambitions of completing a manuscript, I realised during the process that I either wasn’t as interested in the topic as I thought, or that perhaps there wasn’t much I had to say or write on the topic. With We Need More Tables, I had the idea for a few weeks prior to actually sitting down to write. I played around with it in my head for a while and knew there was more than enough potential material to cover. I started writing and then just kept at it for around six months.
Research: how much do you do, and how detailed is it?
For at least the last decade, I have been mulling over many of the themes in the book. So in a sense I did some of the research long before I even had the idea for the book. I wanted to know what it would take to alleviate poverty in South Africa and read extensively and spoke to loads of people in the course of my everyday life. That was invaluable because by the time I sat down to write, I had some ideas already of what I wanted to say. The research I conducted during the process of putting the book together was to help interrogate and widen my positions. I looked for experts and what their focus studies had revealed; cognisant of my layman status in all the fields relating to privilege and poverty. Another really important aspect of my research was to amplify and elevate black scholarship. I sought the input of as many African academics as possible. For example, when I was mapping out one of the chapters, the first reference that came to my mind was Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I decided to see if there were any black academics with a similar model, and discovered the Kenyan philosopher Odera Oruka, who taught me about The Human Minimum, which I ended up referencing in the book. I also spent many, many hours looking for fables and proverbs and songs and idioms and poems from the continent. It was important to me to make sure that African voices come out predominately in the book.
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?
I did a fair bit of planning. I’m quite structured and linear by nature, so once I had the idea, one of the first steps was mapping out what I wanted to say. I started with a list of all the possible themes to cover. Many of them were a composite of my learnings over the years, but I also did do focused researched for contemporary insight. Every time I read about a interesting and possibly relevant study, book, article, concept or model, I jotted it down. Aware that I stood the risk of spending the next few years reading, I decided to pause research so I could collate all the material. In this process, the outline for the book started to slowly emerge. I wrote chapters one to three and then stopped to return to the outline because the road had suddenly emerged clearly. I mapped out the three section headers of Thinking Justly, Living Simply, and Giving Generously. With this roadmap in hand, I was able to write with a lot more ease and confidence. I also developed a habit of walking in the early morning and found that the days which started in this manner had a really good flow to them. I would solve problems while walking such, as what type of intro style to use, or would remember quotes from research and figure out a way to include them in the book. Often, by the time I sat down to write, I would be excited to action these thoughts and ideas. This was an immensely helpful discipline, and one I have continued even after finishing the book.
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?
Research! I often found myself enthralled by what I was reading. Because I am interested in the idea of poverty alleviation, I would often get drawn in by a single article and then just continue reading more. It got to a point where I banned myself from the internet and the library. I also struggled with the usual distractions of hunger, thirst, fatigue from sitting long hours, and even tired fingers and wrists. I’d set myself a deadline of six months to write and one day actually googled how long it takes to develop carpel tunnel syndrome because I was worried I might get it before finishing the book! Work was another distraction I battled with. I still had to continue working as a freelance writer and editor, and there were days where I had to put the book on pause in order to focus on billable work. It made it hard at times to switch focus between a diversity of themes and topics, so I developed the habit of allocating different sections of my notebook to different projects.
What’s the weirdest or craziest way you’ve found to avoid meeting a deadline?
I really enjoy writing and have Type A tendencies so I generally do meet deadlines. There was, however, one calamitous year where I got a concussion in June and had to be booked off work for a few days and consequently missed some important deadlines. That September, I was in quite a serious car accident and was booked off work for months! I was mortified to be off work again and for such an extended period of time. And then when someone made a joke that I must really hate deadlines to have found another way to skip work, that joke put me in a panic! I ended up heading back to work before the doctor’s approved date.
Daily goals: what, for you, is an acceptable daily target, in terms of word count or the quality of what you complete, be it a sentence, a paragraph or a chapter?
I never really set myself a strict daily goal – particularly at the beginning, when I was switching between research and mapping out and writing. I had an internet-sourced reference that 1000 words was an acceptable daily average, so I would be thrilled on days I exceeded this, but I was not too perturbed on those I didn’t. Towards the end, I had to be a little stricter with myself while also recognising that some chapters will be faster or easier to write than others.
What have you found are the best ways to get this done?
I find a to-do list helpful, so that I have an idea of everything that needs to get done in a day and can figure out a strategy to get it done. I’d rather push hard in the morning and cruise in the afternoon than have a leisurely start and then feel mounting pressure as evening approaches. I also like to reward myself. I might decide to only have lunch once I’ve completed a certain task or determine a treat such as leisure reading time or an episode of TV series if I finish work ahead of time.
If writing books is not your full-time job, how does completing a project fit in with your other duties?
I always prioritise billable and client-facing work. I was aware from Day One that I couldn’t sacrifice being able to pay the bills in order to pursue the dream of writing this book. It meant I had to work extremely hard to balance everything but I always knew that I could extend my personal six-month writing deadline if I needed to.
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’m in the process of trying to figure this out myself! Reading is competing with so many other leisure time activities that publishers and authors need to find ways to be where consumers are.