Every individual, thank heavens, is different, with different habits, behaviours, and ways of thinking - that's what makes the human world such an interesting place. This is as true of writers as anyone else, and so what works for one writer is useless for another. So if I set out some thoughts on how I figured out my book and set about writing it, they are, of course, personal and idiosyncratic - but bits and pieces might be of interest to someone.
The basic principle of story telling and narrative has been mentioned several times during this discussion, and is critical whether writing fiction or non-fiction - the reader must be lured in and carried along. But it's not easy, particularly perhaps for science writing. That said, however, a writer must have a high level of enthusiasm and passion for the subject, and so sees the drama in it, the surprises, the revelations, the mysteries, and all these components make for a good story. Or series of good stories within an overall narrative. And that's the challenge - or at least it was for me. I had put together a diversity of topics that ended up astonishing even me - but how to structure them into a book that captured the reader's attention and kept it going? I had long discussions with my agent, and, ultimately, my editor (who, as I have said, was wonderful). To cut a long story short, I eventually caught a glimpse of my topic as being about scale and realised that that approach allowed a natural momentum for the structure of the book, from individual grains to landscapes, returning to the human scale and then accelerating off into the future and the universe as the finale. And once I had this view, then the "anthropological" approach was obvious - look at individuals, then families, tribes, and societies. I was very wary of overdoing the anthropomorphic element, but a little of that resonates and provides a narrative - together with some of that vital story telling ingredient, tension. This whole structure was something I could visualise, and so, being a graphically-oriented person, I drafted up an image that I eventually translated into Microsoft graphics and provided to my editor:
There were still some problems, however. Chapters on sand and our imaginations - very small things and very large numbers, art, writing and so on - had to be included in the momentum of the material on the natural world. I had come across, reading various sources on writing, that the idea of a narrative break is not only acceptable, but often useful, and so I decided that these two sections would make good narrative breaks, letting the reader digest what had come before, but at the same time continuing the all-important element of surprise. And then, within this whole structure, was the controversial Chapter 9 - sand in our daily lives. The amazing diversity of examples was such that I struggled heroically to construct a single narrative out of all these different topics - and gave up. I resorted to the "A to Z" structure - still, I hope, entertainingly. There was a viewpoint that suggested that this should go in as an appendix, but I resisted it - it is, after all, one of the key and provocative ideas of the book, that, if the wicked fairy waved her magic wand and removed from our lives everything that was derived from sand, then we'd be in a very bad way. So there it is, the infamous Chapter 9 - reactions have been completely polarised, some people love it, others hate it .....
One aside - about text boxes. In early drafts of a couple of chapters, I had included what I thought was "supplementary material" in the classic boxes - something that I thought gave the reader the option of pursuing or not (for example, specifics on how radiometric dating works). But my agent disliked this, and she was right. First of all, it makes the book look like a textbook, and secondly, I realised that either the boxed material was important - in which case, find a way of including it in the narrative - or it wasn't, in which case, leave it out.
The whole challenge of structure in writing a book is fractal, scale-free. From the form of the whole thing, down to the flow of an individual sentence and the choice of words, it's always there (with respect to word choice, keep a thesaurus handy - it can be not only useful but stimulating). Even having settled on the structure of the book, the way in which all the material for a given chapter could best be put together requires work and imagination. My own approach, personal and idiosyncratic, was to use the biggest piece of paper to hand (generally an A1 size) and put together a mind map. I've been using this "technique" for years, and find it very effective in either taking notes or planning a talk or an article - or, in this case, planning a chapter. The value lies in being able to jot down different topics, quotes, reminders, numbers, and so on in a way that allows me to look for connections and thus flow and, eventually, narrative. A mind map is the opposite of a list, and far more graphic and flexible. But the way of using the mind mapping approach is entirely up to the individual - there are all kinds of software and instructions out there - have a look, if you're not familiar with it, but then ignore all of it and find out what works best for you. Here's what I did in the process of thinking about the first chapter (together with some material that I came to appreciate worked better in the second) - it looks like a mess (and for anyone other than me certainly is), but there's a huge amount of not only information there, but the connections - and all on one sheet of paper (no flipping back and forth between sheets of lists, and no overlooking anything):
So there I would sit, at my laptop, for hour after hour, day after day, with my huge mind map and surrounded by piles of papers and articles (be prepared for the printer ink budget), dozens of tabs open on Firefox, and put one word after another. Everyone has different ways of writing, and so details of my own habits are largely irrelevant - but I did set myself a daily target of 2000 words. A couple of general observations:
- "darlings." Any writer will have ideas and passages of word-smithing of which they are particularly fond - these are your "darlings." They are often obvious to a reader, and some of them work, many of them don't. Be prepared to defend your darlings, but accept that, if your partner or editor says no, they're probably right.
- humour (or humor). This is a tricky thing - a little of it can help the narrative along, but just a little more can be far too much. Take a long hard (and cold) look at it - and employ the default position of cutting it. What was the point of my writing "humour (or humor)"? To demonstrate my trans-Atlantic awareness? To suggest to my American friends that they can't spell? Cut it out.