Part 1 – Learnings about writing and publishing a book Series – Planning
Planning seems a right logical place to start when talking about the learning and ideas relating to writing a book. In this entry, I’ll discuss planning and inspiration. This entry will likely be more personal and less transferable, but I’m sure there will be some useful gems in each entry.
This is meant to be thorough, but hopefully it will give some insight into my thoughts and maybe increase your enjoyment of the book knowing the work put in behind the scenes.
I always felt like I wanted to write a book, it has always been on my to-do list. The idea of sharing my thoughts with the world, and even more, to discuss them, is very appealing to me. I wasn’t sure that I ever would but it was always on my mind. I wrote my entire master’s thesis in a month, start to finish, 180 pages, so I knew I could write something of length but I was never a top performer in language arts, I performed best in social studies and math, and I think that gets reflected in my work. Any reader will undoubtedly notice the political and economic themes apparent throughout. A source of inspiration is the real world and some of the challenges that are apparent in today’s society. Writing on social media hardly seems valuable, as that forum has long ago become a shouting match within similarly interested echo chambers. A book, I feel, has more potential to cross political boundaries.
The second source of inspiration was my children. When I read Gulliver’s Travels to my son as a baby, I saw a style that was similar to my own, and subject matter that could be used as a platform to share my thoughts and initiate conversations. My children are inspiring because I want them to know me and who I am, regardless of what happens to me. If I can make the world a better place for them through my thoughts, that is my highest objective.
Pre-planning the foreword
When I started writing On Swift Wings, it was originally just meant as a way for me to vent my own thoughts into something permanent. Writing is my way of interpreting and handling all the myriad news and information that is perpetually bombarding me daily.
I actually wrote the first draft of the foreword before anything else. It reads more difficult than the rest of the book because it was really the foundation upon which the rest of the book was written. I considered it the bare bones, and many of the themes and macro-scale ideas are introduced there. I wrote and rewrote, edited and restructured the foreword a dozen times before I even started writing anything else. The foreword was in some ways the mission statement for the book, a bit like a personal reminder of why I was writing it, and a talisman reminding me which way to go as I waded through the actual process of writing.
The foreword may be wickedly over-written, but it is something of which I’m very proud. It is the highest hurdle in the entire book and it comes right at the front. I’ve been criticized for including it in the book, but without it I feel that the rest of it is greatly diminished.
Don’t feel bad if it is tough, it is meant to be a challenge, and it is based on an important element of verisimilitude from the original.
Respecting the original (But not too much)
It was originally just meant for myself and those I love but as it got clearer I felt compelled to make something bigger of it as I mentioned in my inspiration. Once I decided that I wanted to write a book based on the world of Gulliver’s Travels, I knew I had to show respect for the original work. The first rule I created was that I had to respect the original immutable facts of the book, regardless of how uncomfortable they were. I could bend and shift things, but some things don’t and can’t change. The best example of this is on the island of the yahoos and Huhuneem. The feral yahoos are black and Gulliver spends quite a lot of time trying to figure out if they are human or not. It would hardly make any sense that magically they would have changed colour and were now Caucasian, Asian, or any other. That led to an uncomfortable bit where I had to figure out how to handle that without making it seem that black people are somehow inferior to others. The original book has some pretty crazy racist overtones that I wanted to avoid duplicating if possible:
These differences are common to all savage nations, where the lineaments of the countenance are distorted, by the natives suffering their infants to lie grovelling on the earth…Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift (1726)
Recognizing the need to respect the original, but certainly not willing to repeat 18th century attitudes was a challenge, and I needed to study the book and what people thought of it. I read several reviews and commentaries about the book and wrote pages of notes. I wrote about the meaning of various metaphors from the book and made sure I fully understood the contents therein. I compiled a comprehensive stack of notes about each chapter, location, the geography, politics, characters, themes… everything that I could gather to make sure I respected the immutable boundaries. I still wouldn’t claim to be an expert on Gulliver’s Travels, reading a few websites doesn’t really make anybody a qualified expert, but I feel that I was at least a competent reader.
Once I had the research completed and the compass provided by the foreword, I started to plan out the rest of the contents of the book.
I had a small black notebook from SAIT, a local college, and I just started writing out ideas. I carried the notebook with me everywhere. I’d jot down ideas while on the train, when waiting for something, at work when I had down-time while a model or program was processing or code compiling. I read a number of comedians’ books who say they just note any funny thought when it came to them, even in the middle of the night. I considered that, but if I let myself dwell on current events and politics too much in bed, I don’t sleep. If I couldn’t carry the notebook around, I used a website called dynalist.io to keep track of ideas.
First I wrote out each of the islands that would be visited. In 1726, Japan was an exotic place, barely more real than the fictional islands of Gulliver’s Travels to the majority of the potential readers. Most of them would never have an opportunity to visit Japan and it was included in the book, I believe, to lend some realism to the story. In today’s world, Japan ought not be treated with the same sort of fictional brush that was presented in Gulliver’s Travels, so I included it only as a passing mention. In fact, there are few places of the earth, accessible today be a plethora of modes, that one might consider to be so exotic as the fictional lands of Gulliver’s Travels. I chose to focus all but the intermediate steps on the islands of the original. As one of many twists, I decided to have my character visit them in reverse order. Another twist that I added was to recognize that a 18th century ship’s surgeon from England would like pronounce and spell words differently, so names like Luggnagg, Houynhhnms, and Blefuscu would necessarily be spelled differently by my main character.
The first notes about each island are humourously short. Two or three sentences that only describe the most significant thoughts, themes, and changes from the original.
Next I constructed the main character. I prepared a backstory, gave him some depth, education, family, etc. I made a special note to myself that he has not read Gulliver’s Travels. I treated this as flexible, but a guideline I would use while writing, and updated as something in this character guide needed adjusting to fit the narrative. It was important that when writing I didn’t accidentally describe the main character as uneducated in one chapter and later a scholar, for example.
You’ll note that I never wrote the main character’s name in the planning. I didn’t have a plan for that. I didn’t like anything I came up with, so I just kept referring to him as “C” in my notes for main “C”haracter. Ultimately, this played an important part when I eventually had to name in while writing.
Causes of Stranding
The next part of the plan involved figuring out ways that the main character would get stranded upon these islands. In the original, it was pretty much shipwrecks and sea-related maroonings. In today’s world, this doesn’t seem a very reasonable expectation of an average guy. Unless I made him a sailor, which would have put me in a difficult position, as I’m not a sailor and have little experience in that area. Most international travel is by plane, so I needed to study aircraft, crashes, and reasons why a plane might go down (without immediately and necessarily killing everybody on board.)
Next, I wrote the end of the story. I follow the mantra, “Start with the end in mind.” I think this comes from Covey. Anyway, if I don’t have a target, my writing meanders without meaning and goes nowhere. I won’t write about the details, but I was very specific about what I wanted to happen with the main character, what he would have learned, and how he grew. A little laugh though, after writing the book, I didn’t feel the ending reflected the tone and I completely changed it.
Next, I basically wrote the framing for the story. I planned out each act and chapter, I wrote what effectively became the subtitling for each chapter. “The author brings together artists and creative minds…” Then I started adding details about each chapter. I would write key ideas and points to highlight, satirical elements, and deeper considerations. The layout became my step-by-step guide for the actual writing. The layout consists of thirty pages of notes and reminders so that I didn’t accidentally paint myself into a corner, or contradict myself. When it comes to writing, this layout made it far simpler to maintain the storyline and just focus on using literary devices, language and quality.
All together, I filled up an entire notebook before I wrote anything other than the foreword of the book. Thorough planning was crucial to keeping me on task.
Next Post: Writing
I hope that this section on planning is of some value to you. If it is, comment here or get a hold of me through my Facebook page. I’d love to hear from you!