Writing a book

I’m considering writing a book. I’ve got a method in mind for writing it that I think will be effective. Especially since I’m not an expert on the subject. Yet.


So the method is this. Pick a vague subject and begin writing on it. It doesn’t have to be good writing, but it is important that you’re putting ideas down. It’s also important not to edit, not to stop yourself from writing anything, even if you think it’s going nowhere or sounds terrible. Because this isn’t going to be what you publish. So you get down a few hundred pages of ideas, with no order and no editing. A rambling mess.

After a while of writing, you get a foundation of ideas that you can use to write your book. You sort through this amorphous blob of information and find similarities which can come together to form sections in the book. So this first stage of editing involves drawing together subjects into, maybe, chapter ideas.

Again, you develop further, improving text and writing new pieces. And you keep going, organising and improving and re-writing. You’ll always have a book ready, but the quality of that book keeps improving. While this is going on, you’ll also be learning about the subject, so you get a book that increases in sophistication as you do.

It’s gonna be a book of techniques and ideas for role-players. There’s a guy called Keith Johnstone who writes books for improvisational theatre actors, and it’s probably going to take a similar form.

So, it’s going to include ideas and games and suchlike to help someone become a better role-player. We get a lot of stick at times, and mainly because we deserve it. This is an attempt to treat the subject with a bit of rigor, hopefully help people raise their standards, and bring the activity a bit more respect. It’ll probably have things in common with books on acting, storytelling, fiction writing, stagecraft, psychology, and lots of other things. It’ll probably be the first full synthesis of the ideas, though.

I have a feeling I’m going to have to self-publish if I want anything to happen, but places like Travelling Man in york, and other comic/role-playing/SF&F shops around the country would probably stock it, too.

It’s a largely personal effort, really, though. If it comes to it, I’ll print and bind two copies and send one to the british library. At least that’s my first book in print.

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18 thoughts on “Writing a book

  1. Ooooh… writing a book… excellent.
    I’ve no suggestions, I’ve never written a book. I’d like to but I’m too disorganised. The task of ordering 100 pages of word sludge sounds worse than actually writing a book to me.

    • y’see, I’ve been inspired by ‘s thesis, which is a whopping 153 pages long, and each page is really hard. So I figure it can’t be too hard to write 150 pages of normal prose, right?
      The reason to dump everything first is that I can actually decide on the specifics – the subject, for example – well after starting writing. And It’s too hard to decide what the book is going to be about, in detail, before I begin. May as well write until my fingers bleed and then edit.
      S.

      • From what I’ve heard from Lucy (a soon to be published author, yay!) it does help both to have lots of ideas and to have A Plan in advance as well. She has an outline plot and summary character descriptions. Otherwise you might get caught up in lots of different directions which should really be entirely different books in their own right.
        You’ll probably come up with enough ideas for several books, but that’s OK. You might not be publishable until the 4th or 5th go, from what I hear, so even if the first try isn’t up to par, you’ll have all that great experience to use with a new topic. Lucy has an English degree and has been writing since she was a child. I’m sure other people don’t have to do that, but it’s a craft like anything else which takes time and effort. (As you know from all that chainmail 😉
        Also, nearer the time, try and find an agent rather than going through publishers. The Writers and Artists Yearbook has some really useful leads.
        So what’s the subject? SF and F by any chance?? 🙂
        Sounds like you have A Plan. Good luck!!

      • … Lucy (a soon to be published author, yay!) …
        I think I remember her, actually. Blonde, ran her own company doing interesting-sounding event stuff, yes? Jolly well done to her for getting published. What’s she written?
        You might not be publishable until the 4th or 5th go …
        And you’d be in good company, too. Iain (M.) Banks wrote a whole stack of novels before hitting the best-seller charts with `The Wasp Factory’. Several of these (including a couple of Culture novels) got published later in revised form – after the success of TWF, his publishers were suddenly very interested in anything else he might have written.
        nicholas

      • Sounds like you have the right person. She’s written a novel for teenagers – one of a number she’s written over the years but the first thing she tried to get published. This is her most recent. She got an agent who did the tedious hawking it round to publishers thing. It will appear in about 18 months.

  2. I’ll print and bind two copies and send one to the british library.
    I believe that’s a legal requirement, in fact – the BL is one of a handful of `copyright’ libraries in the UK. The others are the university libraries of Oxford (`The Bodleian’) and Cambridge, and the national libraries of Wales and Scotland.
    Best of luck with writing the book, anyway. I’d like to write too, but I’ve been kind of putting it all off until the PhD (which has been my main project for the last five or six years) is finished.
    I’d like to write some form of interesting SF or fantasy novel – something that’s a cut above the usual nonsense. The general public seems to regard Star Trek as the be-all and end-all of SF, but there’re people like Jon Courtenay-Grimwood, Greg Egan, and Alastair Reynolds out there who are writing really good, really interesting books full of fascinating new ideas and well-plotted stories. I’d like to do something like that.
    Also, I find pure mathematics fascinating (indeed, I’ve spent thousands of pounds of my own money studying it over the past several years). There’re plenty of good popular-science books out there (a lot of which are written by Ian Stewart, a professor in my department) which explain the more applied stuff (especially chaos theory and theoretical physics) but apart from Simon Singh’s book about Fermat’s Last Theorem (and Andrew Wiles’ proof thereof) there aren’t really any which focus on the more abstract stuff.
    I want there to be a book which says “Yes, you can use mathematics for variously useful stuff, but it’s worth studying purely for its own sake”, one which systematically explains things like group theory, algebraic topology, and so forth, in terms that are understandable by people who haven’t spent several years studying it. I think I might have a go at writing one at some point.
    nicholas

    • After a hellish time doing exams at university*, I crystallised an opinion about science writers that, I think, holds in almost all cases. That is, scientists write atrocious shite. As a student, I’d have loved to settle down to a popular science book that gave me the background, concepts, and metaphors I’d have needed to learn the harder stuff. Just a few good ideas and explanations are really all a learner like me needs to start making headway into the technicalities.
      Easiest example I can think of is mechanics. The maths of mechanics is alien to me in situations I don’t have a good mental model of. When the my mental model’s good, the maths is much easier, since I can examine the maths and see if it reflects the model.
      Number one on my list would be group theory, simply because no-one ever told me what the bloody subject was for, in terms that weren’t just “Group theory helps you calculate the irreducible representations of space groups.”
      Number two would probably be Quantum Mech, since that’s so uninstinctive that a bit of background would be really helpful. Special relativity, too.
      Then some of the more practical uses of calculus. I think I’d known differentiation and integration for about two years before it finally became able to suggest uses of it, rather than answer worksheet problems.
      Alternatively, how about ‘Flatland two; Mr Kline has a beer”?
      *why don’t they cut exams out? It’d make the process so much better…

      • That is, scientists write atrocious shite.
        Bah – the writings of Galileo and Darwin are beautiful to read in and of themselves. Stephen Jay Gould is a brilliant essayist. E.O. Wilson has an amazing and beautiful turn of phrase. Oliver Sacks writes the truth as if it were a strange and beautiful story. Rudy Rucker writes about mathematics in a playful way as if he has a secret to tell and it has cost him to learn. Marvin Gardner can make you convinced that Mathematicals itself a higher magic. Douglas Hofstadter writes of the simple and of the profound and shows you the wonder in each. George Gamov writes of cosmology and makes it a comedy. There are a number of writers of pop science books (and science related books) who I find good as writers and would read even if I weren’t learning from them.
        For a book on calculus “The Story of Calculus” is rather entertaining and well written, if too overblown for some. (I like overdone writing styles).
        Flatland two was written by Rudy Rucker – “The Fourth Dimension and how to get there” – it’s extremely good.
        I don’t know of a good book on mechanics I’m afraid… I was one of those perverts who simply found the subject intuitive.
        There aren’t too many people who write pop science books on maths – I haven’t yet read “Fermat’s Last Theorem” (though the code book was good).

      • They weren’t my bloody textbooks, is what I’m really saying. And they should have been.
        What good is technical mastery of a subject if you hated learning it? Forever after, that subject is going to be something you want to avoid.
        The way I learned physics was sporadically and under duress. But it could have been different. I love reading, and clearly I had an interest in the subject, so why not prep me by making me read well-written stuff that gives me the core ideas? Let that stuff fester for a while in the minds of the student body, and hopefully they’ll chat about it in snack bars. Then drill the maths in later, when they’ve get their heads round the concepts. No, what actually happened was I had to learn from Tomes of Pure Evil called things like ‘Fluid Dynamics’ by two crazy russian bastards who had clearly overloaded themselves on a LaTeX manual and didn’t care to explain anything.
        Landau and Lifshitz, you will paaaaaaay!!!!

      • (laugh) The problem you have here is actually that what you’re trying to learn is HARD therefore no matter how damn good the text book it’s going to be brain strain. The pop science books, on the other hand, provide a much lighter glossing of the subject which doesn’t teach you that much but entertains as it does it.
        For my money, Hardy and Wright’s “The Theory of Number” is a damn near perfect text book – but it most of its several hundred pages take a half hour or more to thoroughly understand. It’s not generally given as a text book to undergrads these days because it’s considered too difficult because of the lack of explanations between the pages.
        To really learn a maths based subject you need the damn equations and you need to work with them until you are familiar with them. You need to go through the exercises and practice until the feel of the thing becomes familiar. That’s always a painful experience. As an undergraduate I always lamented that there were no books I could just READ and understand the subject like you can just READ the pop science… but it doesn’t give you the depth of understanding. It gives you enough to form an opinion and to talk about the subject but not enough to have truly understood.
        I’d never recommend a pop science book on a subject because the students could read it cover to cover and still not attain a level of understanding sufficient to answer a single question on it.

      • Feh! I disagree most heartily, Mr Steerpike!
        A cold readthrough of a textbook never really gives me too much unless I know the ‘shape’ of the things I have to learn. It’s like this… You have the choice of two learning methods;
        1. Watch a two-hour documentary on Ancient Rome, then read a textbook.
        2. Read the textbook.
        To my mind, Option number 1 turns out to be much less effort, even though it takes slightly longer.
        Maybe you’ve had the same effect watching a movie and then reading the book of same?

      • But it doesn’t work for maths and physics. I’ve read and enjoyed an almighty number of text books on Quantum mechanics – I feel I have a good intuitive grasp of the subject gleaned from pop science books. I can’t be fagged with the equations. They don’t interest me in the slightest. As a result I don’t really know the subject – I know the pop science gloss of the subject but I’m not interested enough to really know it because that would take work and it doesn’t interest me enough to learn it to that level.
        Sure, it works nicely for othet things… but then, I’m not sure what it really means to know deeper historical ideas (I’m sure that historians will tell us there are some – I’m equally sure I don’t know any).

      • Damn you, Academicman! you are my nemesis in this!!!
        Learning is a complex mush of work, memorisation, and enthusiasm. An unenthused student isn’t going to put the effort in, and I would lack enthusiasm for anthing that felt both hard and unfamiliar.*
        If a pop science books gave your students the enthusiasm to turn up to your lectures, wouldn’t you want them to? If you had a tape of ‘group theory made easy, with Johnny Ball’ – wouldn’t you show it to your students in lecture number one? I would. Because every time you say ‘centro-symmetric space group’, they’d remember Johnny Ball spining round in a cheap TV studio screaming ‘centroooooooooo….’ Or something. And they’d have associated something fun or unique to the learning experience.
        I cannot imagine just how much shite I copied from boards in my life at university. Page after page of stuff that I never sat down to read. Stuff that I eventually put a match to. By the fourth year, I had just accepted that it was better for me to stay in bed than turn up for certain lecture courses, since I was learning so little.
        The thing about pop science is they can often tie the world of numbers into the real world. That makes them more memorable. They tend to cover the basics in more interesting ways. That builds a foundation. They don’t go as far, but it makes reading the next book that much easier.
        Could be that abstract maths is a different beast from physics, but an equation I can’t use is worthless to me. An equation I can use – will use – has to have some kind of significance. And pop science shows significance.
        S.
        *You have a filthy mind. Stop it.

      • Laugh – well you are right to some extent. I guess it depends what the aim is that you see. To me the aim of an academic discipline is to teach it to the standard where the student could understand research in the topic. This is not going to happen from pop science books, it is going to happen from long hard hours at the blackboard. I read pop science books on the subjects I study anyway… though I know of none for network studies… perhaps I should write one.
        But you can’t make a student enthused. A student who will read the pop science is already an enthused student to some extent. So sure, if there were a 1 hour intro to my subject on video then I would let them watch it… but I wouldn’t consider it very important because most people watch these things in an unthinking mode. Think about the last pop science book you read. Can you recall even 10 solid facts from it? If so you engage more than I do when reading.
        Sure, an enthused lecturer helps students remember things – I try to be but it’s hard to be “up” all the time.

      • Peter Main is always searching for cool “real-life” applications for his lectures, and the students find him one of the best lecturers. Although he teaches some fairly hard maths, pretty much all the students understand it, because they like his style of teaching. For example, he gets them to work out what colour the sky is on Mars and stuff.
        Similarly, I found the solar system plasmas course pretty cool because it explained the aurora and power stations going into melt-down.

    • If it comes to it, I’ll print and bind two copies and send one to the british library.
      And don’t forget the isbn! (There is a story in there as you can probably tell.)
      If you need any help with the practicalities of typesetting or printing/binding I’d be happy to pitch in. Have a publishing degree plus Experience. Also I can recommend a book I bought for a friend called The self-publishing manual which covers everything you need to know and costs about 12 quid.

  3. Hmmm. I’m with Cooper-san on this one. I did Genetics, and a fascinating idea it was too. Sadly, the subject itself was interminably dull. I launched onto the Genetics course as a result (sad though it might be) of books like Jurassic Park (not the film), but when I got to University, it was all about poxy wheat…
    The only lecture from three years that stuck in my head was the one where the (guest) professor started the lecture by telling us it was about vampires and werewolves and proceeded to go into Porphyria. Which was cool. Blue wee and insanity is alway good for a chuckle…
    I’ve learnt more since leaving Uni than I did while I was there, hence starting a new degree through OU. Ah me, the irony…

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