When I gave a talk about Antarctica to my granddaughter’s class (I survived Class 5) I was asked about how I had written “Furthest South“. I briefly (it was getting near lunchtime) explained the process of writing, revising, improving and proof reading. I could have said more had I had the time, and the time to think about it. So with a bit of thought I have managed to turn a two sentence reply into this 2,500 word essay. Now my blogs are usually closer to 700 words so this is going to be rather longer than normal!
In his “Just so stories“, Rudyard Kipling wrote:
“I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.”
This gives us six key questions for any new endeavour. Do I need to answer all these before I start? Not necessarily – some will become clearer during the writing and others will change. But it is good to have them at the back of your mind throughout the process:
Who am I writing for?
Sometimes I have written for a specific audience or to get a particular message across – usually no more than a few paragraphs. Putting together something that will run to 100 pages or more is rather different. In Furthest South I anticipated that my readers would be people like me who wanted to know more about Antarctica and its exploration. In I wonder if you could help with a swan stuck in ice I wanted to share the knowledge I had gained rescuing injured wildlife. I didn’t refine the potential audience more than that for either book, since I wasn’t aiming for a best seller. Had that been the case I probably would have researched my potential readership and thought about what else they might be reading. For example the famous Class 5 were reading Ice Trap!: Shackleton’s Incredible Expedition by Meredith Hooper and having looked at it I could see that a different approach would be needed for them to that needed for teenagers or adults.
What am I writing about?
What to write about is the simplest of the questions to answer in the case of Furthest South – I effectively had a skeleton of the book in the notes for my talk. For other books the inspiration may come from a different direction: it may be that you have a selection of photographs that you want to put into context; or you may have been asked to write an article for a magazine or other publication which is followed by another and another and you have the basis for a book; or you may have written a blog and have decided it would make a good book. As I mentioned in Blog to book or not to book?, a book is a different reading experience to a blog (or a talk or a series of articles). As you may have spotted my blog dips in and out of different topics – if it was a book should I consolidate everything about, say, ITP into one chapter or should I dip in and out throughout the book? More importantly blog posts are rather staccato and don’t link together whereas book chapters do need to flow from one into the next.
Other inspirations for a book may be a series of letters; or some particular life event (anything from a walk in the woods to a family crisis); or the inspiration may come from something else such as the desire to share knowledge built up doing a particular task or job. There may be a more complex chain of events – for example a ‘life event’ may have led to a group of photographs which then formed the basis of a talk, but once this was started it became clear that further photographs were needed so that the talk flowed well and was supported by images rather than boring bullet point slides. In due course the talk might lead to a book.
If the book is fiction then while at least some of the inspiration may be one of the points mentioned here it will rely heavily on your imagination – but build on what you know. For non-fiction you will use your imagination in working out how to present the subject.
Why am I writing?
Was I writing for myself or was I writing for others? With the talks I had to be aware of my audience (and in the case of Class 5 my granddaughter suggested that I needed to make it an interactive experience). With a book it was more a case that I had something I wanted to say and share but the potential readers were more remote than the audience at my feet.
Writing a book seemed a natural progression from the talks I had given. Having enjoyed reading throughout my life, to put words and photographs together in something I could hold in my hand and sit and leaf through was a welcome challenge. To have a book that I could share with others would be good and if I sold any that would be a bonus. Perhaps more importantly if I was able to get people to appreciate the history of Antarctica and its significance to the rest of the world then I would feel I had achieved something worthwhile.
When do I need to finish it?
This could be a “How long is a piece of string?” question unless you have externally imposed deadlines (someone’s birthday, an anniversary of a historic event or whatever). The risk without a deadline is that you will continue revising and amending, refocusing or changing in other ways ad nauseam. If it is the process that interests you rather than the end product then that is fine. Otherwise there comes a time when you have to take stock, stop tinkering and say that for better or worse this is it. Move on to the next phases – printing, publishing, promoting.
How am I going to write, print or publish it?
Do you write in isolation (perhaps even in the shed at the bottom of your garden, as Roald Dahl did) or do you let others read it as it develops? A second opinion can help you focus but you may feel you want to keep it to yourself until you are reasonably happy with what you have written. I was pleased when my granddaughter read through this blog before I published it. A second set of eyes can be invaluable towards the end of the process for picking up spelling mistakes and other “typos” – there is always the risk when you are reading your own work that you will see what you intended to write rather than what you actually wrote – and for spotting where you haven’t been as clear as you thought you were (I understand what I meant so why don’t you?)!
How I publish it depends on why I am writing it and who it is for. If for example it is the results of family history research the audience will be your immediate family and so it may be printed out on your own printer or on one of the many photobook websites. At the other end of the scale you will try to persuade one of the publishing houses to take an interest. That of course could lead to reams of rejection letters, but if you are fortunate enough to get accepted then you may find that your carefully crafted text is put in the hands of an editor who should have a much better idea than you of what will appeal to your audience. The middle way is self publishing . . . . (more about that later).
The other ‘How?’ question is do you print a hard copy or do you create an e-book (where the production cost is pence rather than pounds)? For personal satisfaction it has to be a hard copy, for ease of sharing perhaps it should be soft copy.
Where will I promote or sell it?
If it’s the family genealogy tome then you know all the family and you can e-mail or talk to them about it. The other extreme of successfully persuading a publishing house to take you on means that they will take care of marketing for you (with your support at book signings and publicity tours etc.). In the middle way of self publishing creating a webpage, mailing lists, giving talks, getting it listed on Amazon are all options. Do you rely on print-on-demand or do you fill your garage with stock that you then have to sell?
Having talked in general about writing a book – the who’s, what’s, why’s, when’s, how’s and where’s. I am now going to talk about how Furthest South came to life (the question asked in Class 5).
In February 2006 we visited the Antarctic Peninsula. I kept a diary and when we got back I wrote this up as well as getting the best of my photos printed in an album. Two years later I gave a talk about this trip to Princes Risborough U3A. I then gave a variant of this talk to other groups. Our trip had re-awoken my interest in how and when Antarctica was explored so, having been asked to put together a new talk for one of the groups I had spoken at, I was able to put together a talk about Antarctic exploration which I first gave in 2012.
From talk to book
After I had given these talks a half a dozen times to various audiences I started to think about turning them into a book. When I give a talk I like to write out a script to go with the slides, even though I never read it out, rather using each slide as a visual prompt for what I want to say. I modified the script, picked bits out of my diary, chose appropriate photographs and created a number of maps.
How was I going to print it? I had first come across printed photobooks as an alternative to photo albums about a dozen years ago. They allowed much greater flexibility in layout, would allow you to have multiple copies and could include text although initially they were very limited at this.
As time went on the options increased with different software giving more control over layouts and text. Producing a text based book became a real option. In some cases you worked online uploading each photo or piece of text as you went along, while in other cases you completed the book on your computer and then uploaded it in one go. This had the advantage that you could print it out before you uploaded it and do a final proof read (on paper rather than on the screen, which allows you to make use of your red pen) before it was cast in stone. The platform I decided to use was Blurb (others are available).
In March 2016 I created a book using Booksmart software from Blurb. First I typed the text as a Word document which allowed me to use its spell checking and grammar checking capabilities (not that I necessarily agreed with them and of course I still had to look out for correctly spelled but incorrect words). I did all the page layouts in Booksmart on my computer and then uploaded them to Blurb and had one copy printed. I didn’t make it public – I was the only person who could see it.
When I got it back I was reasonably pleased with it but had quite a few ideas on how it could be improved. The cover was a bit bland, some parts didn’t flow as well as I would have liked and it wasn’t as well balanced as it should have been. Effectively it was the final copy of the first draft. It was 74 pages long while the published version runs to 128 pages.
Revisions and improvements
So I revised my text, which was in a Word document, improved the maps and printed it all out on my printer. I put it into a ring binder and read through it looking for places where it could be worded better or where the text didn’t flow as well as it should. I wrote on the pages, often continuing on a separate sheet.
While I was doing this, we had gone up to Glen Prosen in Scotland and had been able to visit Scott’s ship RRS Discovery in Dundee. This gave me more material to add to the book. I considered whether or not I might include some of the photographs of Scott’s and other expeditions but decided against doing so – instead I would point readers to the Scott Polar Research Institute website and their “Freeze Frame” library. At the same time I had got hold of Sir Vivian Fuchs’ account of the first land crossing of Antarctica and so was able to add a few pages about this.
Once back home I amended the text with the various changes I had made. The next step was to create the book using the Blurb software copying the text from Word and inserting photographs and drawings. The number of words on each page was rather different to the number of words on an A4 sheet so there were times when I had to move things around a bit so as to make sure they fitted the page properly.
When I had created the complete book and added page numbers to the table of contents I printed out a proof copy of the whole thing. Now for the final read through paying very close attention to spelling (even though the Word document had been spellchecked it was necessary to look for errors such as ‘form’ instead of ‘from’) and punctuation as well as whether it said what I wanted to say. At this stage it is the fine detail that matters not the overall feel or flow – that should have been sorted out with the earlier drafts. Here a second view is really helpful – as I said earlier a fresh pair of eyes will spot things that you might not since you can often read what you expect it to say rather than what it actually says. I remember an occasion when the notes of a meeting stated that “It was agreed that the Managing Director should concentrate on ruining the company” rather than “. . . concentrate on running the company.” Spelled correctly, made perfect sense but definitely not what was intended.
I carefully read it from cover to cover marking any changes that needed to be made. Reading it through in one go also meant that I was able to spot where I had repeated the same information or been inconsistent (for example putting measurements in metres in one place and feet in another rather than in feet with the equivalent metres in brackets afterwards).
Eventually I was satisfied with what I had written, uploaded the book to the Blurb website and ordered half a dozen copies. Blurb allows me to get copies printed on demand as well as making the book public for anyone else to get copies printed if I want to. Once I had my copies I also created an e-book version for people to download if they preferred that to having a hard copy. Now it was time to tell people about the book.