Funny story. When I got this contract to write a book about North Carolina Beer and Breweries I foolishly thought that it would be a relatively easy assignment. I mean, you're talking a couple of 6x9 pages per brewery, including photos and a profile. What's that, like... 1,000 words per brewery? 1,500? How hard could that be? I can probably bang through that in a weekend.
I mean, how hard can it be to gather a little bit of fact about each place and summarize it?
It turns out this is hard work. Most of the writing that I do, other than the book, is either opinion pieces (aka blogging) or short fiction, and this is neither of those. This feels much closer to writing a newspaper article, except there isn't always news there to make things flow for you - and you DO have to tell a story. They're non-fiction vignettes, meant to quickly draw a reader into the place that you're writing about and in a way that makes them want to visit said place.
It also turns out that collecting information is even more work than summarizing it and while I correctly guessed that the collection would be the hard part, I didn't realize exactly what it would entail, or what writing it would be like.
On the off chance that you should ever decide (or be chosen) to write a guide book, I offer you these handy tips that I've learned through doing:
Plan your schedule way ahead of time.
If you're like me, you don't want to write about a place that you haven't visited. The upside to this is that you get to do a lot of cool (tax deductible) travel to places that you are probably happy to go, anyway. The downside to this is that if you happen to do anything else in your life (like work), it's going to cut into your time.
I had over 50 locations to visit, and 4 months to do it in. You will correctly divine that that's a little over 10 visits per month, or roughly 3.5 per week. It hasn't really worked out like that for me because I started by not scheduling my time correctly. Now, I'll be doing my last 10 visits within a few weeks of my manuscript deadline and writing in every piece of my waking time that I'm not in the car. Plan ahead!
This might seem really obvious, but it can't be said enough: Spend the money on a way to make audio recordings of interviews that you do, because chances are there are pieces that you won't revisit for a long time. Life keeps happening while you're writing a book, no matter what you want.
I have a great memory, and I can keep a lot of things in mind while I'm writing, even months after a visit, but if you want to use quotes, or even anecdotes, that stuff won't last in your head 'til the end of a long car drive.
Deal with the fact that you won't be able to talk to everybody
I've run into two problems with breweries:
1. They're a small brewery and the person that I want to talk to also does 9,000 other things in the brewery. Getting them to sit down to spend even a half hour with me is pulling them away from other important tasks in their day.
2. They're a big brewery and the person that I want to talk to is now a fancy-pants executive type. Getting them to sit down to spend even a half hour with me is pulling them away from other important tasks in their day.
You see a theme? You, as an interviewer and visitor, are kind of a pain in the ass for someone who is trying to run their business, regardless of the fact that you will be creating something that is ultimately good for them in the end. No matter what, sometimes you just have to visit, do a little research about the background of the place you're writing about and do your best. The moral of this bit is: learn how to settle for less. Sometimes you just can't do as good a job as you want to do, and you have to live with it because somebody can't (or won't) make time for you.
Come up with a plan of attack for writing
This sounds weird, but as I'm working from recorded interviews, I've found that the way I approach it is different from every other piece of writing I do. I normally write in a very linear fashion - I start at the beginning and write to the end. I follow a narrative in the way things flow, because that's what makes sense in my head.
For the book, I've found that I can't do that. Instead, I'm listening to interviews and making notes about what they're saying, jotting down quotes that I think will play well, or details that I need to work into the piece somewhere. Then, once that is all written down, I'm going back through and writing a story using those notes and quotes.
In a lot of ways, it's like writing with a prompt: "Write a story about this real place, using these pieces of information." In that way, I've found it feels a lot more like writing a short fiction piece - which I enjoy more - and it's much easier and faster to write. Your mileage may vary.
Change your style
I've been working very hard to make sure that I change the way I approach each of my sections to make sure that they are different. In a lot of ways, writing about breweries are a saving grace for this because business models between one brewery and another can change so drastically. Brewpub A is incredibly different than Packaging Brewery B. Fact of life, good for writing.
It's easy to fall into a trap of structuring everything the same way, but remember that not only is each section of the book a small narrative, the entire book is, as well. If you do your job correctly, the individual pieces will flow into one another and create an overall narrative for the industry or geographical area (or both) that you're writing about. If there's similarity in style between each of the vignettes, then the reader has no incentive to read the entire book, they'll just look up the one piece they're interested in and move on.
Is that stupid? It's easy to get lost in the work and lose sight of the fact that you probably think that writing is fun. At least I assume so, or you wouldn't be reading an article about writing a book, right? Have fun and make it something that you want to write, but also that you want to read.
Treat it like fiction, but write report the facts. Even though at the end of the day it's just an elaborate list, you can put a lot more in there to make it fun for you and fun for the reader, if only you take the time to do so.
Have fun. Fun is really important in life.
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
9.22.11 @ 8:16p
This is awesome. And that small brewer vs. large brewer contact thing? Applies to just about everyone you want to interview in any industry. Persistence!