Fools and dilettantes

I first noticed underlying themes emerging in my Darwin book 10 months ago. I saw this as a positive sign: there are supposed to be recurring themes in books like this. My plan, as with my previous book, On the Moor, was not to worry yet about how the individual chapters fitted together; I would simply write lots of chapters about relevant topics, then worry about putting them in a sensible order when I got to the second draft.

But lately I’ve been struggling. The last chapter I wrote took far longer than expected. In fairness to myself, it was a complex chapter, but it shouldn’t have taken as long as it did. A large part of the problem was I’d reached the stage where I could no longer remember which topics I’d already adequately covered in previous chapters, and which ones still needed fleshing out. I could no longer see the wood for the trees.

So, I broke my golden rule, and went back to re-read my earlier chapters before continuing with the rest of my first draft. Then, having re-familiarised myself with my own work, I decided I really needed to re-arrange the existing chapters right away before proceeding with my next chapter. I needed to get a better feel for the ‘shape’ of the book. This exercise also took far longer than expected, but I finally got there at the end of last week.

Notebook entry 15.4.22
One of several unsuccessful attempts at trying to put my book into some sort of order.

I’m taking all the problems I’ve been encountering lately as a very good sign. Exactly the same thing happened at around this stage when I was writing On the Moor. It means my book is starting to come together, and I’m finally entering the endgame—of the first draft, at least.

And the other good news: on re-reading my earlier chapters, I found they were far better than I’d feared—one or two cringeworthy passages notwithstanding. According to most writing guides, the whole point of first drafts is to get any old crap down on paper as quickly as possible. Their sole purpose is to give you something to pull to bits and transform into something half decent in the second draft. But I can’t bring myself to write that way: my first drafts are more like second drafts—which no doubt is one of the reasons they seem to take so long to produce.

On the subject of writing guides, last week I was amused to read the following in How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silvia:

It’s impossible to write a book without a plan. Books are too big. The first step in writing a book—a step that could take months—is developing a strong table of contents. […] only fools and dilettantes try to write a book when ignorant of what will go into each chapter.

I guess that puts me in my place. What can I say? Lesson well and truly learnt (the hard way); I’ll definitely produce a full outline for my next book before committing a single word to paper, mark my words!

(Mind you, I swore pretty much the same thing last time.)

Richard Carter

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Website · Facebook · Twitter · Newsletter · Book

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