“I have an idea for a book, but I don’t know where to start.”
People ask writers for advice on starting a book all the time. I’m sure a lot of writers get tired of trying to answer that question. There you are, behind a table at a booksigning, at the end of a long evening, trying to summarize the incredibly messy and frustrating process of making 300 pages come together as a coherent whole while a dozen other people wait in line to get their book signed. Where to begin?
But I have an answer to this question! Last week, when a woman at my event in Wisconsin told me that she wanted to write a memoir but didn’t know where to start, I told her exactly where to start.
With a box of index cards.
Pick a month in which you don’t have tremendous demands on your time and attention. Every day during that month, write down any idea you have about this book you’d like to write and toss it in a box. These can be grand ideas (“The story of my grandparents’ immigration from Poland”) or small ideas (“That time I put salt in the cake batter instead of sugar.”) Some of them might not be suitable for the book you’re going to write. Some of them might be too big, too broad, overly vague. Some might be too small and specific and uninteresting.
Doesn’t matter! They’re only index cards. Write them down anyway, and toss them in the box.
If you have a very busy day in which you have no time to write anything down on an index card, force yourself to take one minute and write one thing down on one index card. C’mon, you had time to brush your teeth, right? You have time for this.
If you hit a mother lode and come up with 40 ideas all at once, great! Write them down on 40 index cards and put them in the box.
If an idea hits you and you don’t have an index card handy, write it down on any scrap of paper. Type it into the notes app on your phone. Email it to yourself. Leave yourself a voice mail. And at the end of the day, transfer those ideas to index cards. There is something powerful and cumulative about writing your ideas down, in the same format, every day.
At the end of the month, I hope you have HUNDREDS of cards. You should keep adding cards all the time. Don’t stop just because the month is over.
Now what? Well, remember, this is the short version, the standing-in-line-at-the-booksigning version. But the next thing you should do is to pull out an index card and write ONE PAGE about what’s on that card. Tell the story, whatever it is, no matter how big or small it is.
Just one page. A double-spaced page, at that! We’re talking 300 words. Anybody can get 300 words down on paper.
Writing this page might give you more ideas for more index cards. Good.
You might not get the whole story written in one page. Fine. Write two pages. Or (even better) leave yourself a few notes and come back tomorrow to write another page.
Don’t worry about where that page falls in the chronological timeline of your story. In fact, I hope you write everything out of order. It’ll be fresh and interesting that way.
If you can write one page a day–a double-spaced page!–then at the end of the year, you’ll have a book. That even allows for some days off for holidays, illness, whatever.
Now, I promise you that it’ll be a terrible book, a real mess, and it’ll be completely out of order, and there will be a million things about it that are wrong and out of whack and in need of some serious fixing–but now you have some pages to work with.
I’m an urban sketcher and I love to travel with a lightweight and highly portable sketching kit. This video shows all the art supplies I take with me for travel sketching. Below are a lot of reviews and links for everything in this kit and much more.
Here’s a video of me showing how I juggle these art supplies when I’m out and about in the world.
I also have a Platinum Carbon desk pen, which I love for its ultra fine line. The cartridge that comes with this is weirdly not waterproof, so get some extra Platinum Carbon cartridges. These are great because it’s easy to travel with extra cartridges, but I would not travel with a bottle of ink.
I used to be worried about real ink pens leaking on airplanes. It’s never happened to me, but if you’re worried about that, seal them in a ziplock bag during the flight.
For practicing, a small (8 x 5 or so) spiral-bound watercolor sketchbook. I love this Canson sketchbook with high-quality paper at an affordable price. Here’s another line of Canson Watercolor Sketchbooks that also offer a lot of high-quality watercolor paper at a good price.
ThisEtchr sketchbookis made with extremely high-quality hot press paper, which is a smooth-textured paper that I prefer because ink flows so well over it. There’s a cold press version as well. These have the added advantage that you can paint on the canvas covers!
Or the square Handbook sketchbook(and of course you can do bigger horizontal or vertical layouts with a square notebook, too) This one comes in many other sizes, too.
Another favorite among urban sketchers is the Stillman & Birn collection, which includes both softcover and hardcover options, with many sizes and choices of papers.
Field Artist Pro kit
Advantages: super portable, ring underneath you can stick your finger through, easy to refill pans with solid half-pan or tube watercolors. It comes with a starter set of colors that would be OK for a beginner. Here’s an empty one if you want to fill it with your own colors. Notice you can order extra empty pans, which I recommend. That way, when you travel, you can have extra pans that are already filled and ready to go.
Disadvantage: Plastic pans tend to slide around just a bit. I use a little blue earthquake putty to hold them in place, and I’ve replaced the pan colors with my own tube colors.
The Pocket Palette / Artist ToolKit
Made by an artist. Very well thought-out. Designed for tube colors (which you would buy separately and squeeze into the pans, and then let them dry–so you don’t have to travel with the tubes). Good if you want an extremely lightweight kit, which I do! This is the one I’m using and I love it.
• Cobalt blue
• Ultramarine blue
• Prussian blue
• New Gamboge
• Hansa Yellow Medium
• Yellow Ochre
• Pyrrol Orange
• Quinacridone Rose
• Alizarin Crimson
• Sap Green
• Phthalo Turquoise
• Shadow Violet
• Transparent Red Oxide
• Neutral Tint
Any round watercolor brush, size 6, 8, or 10. Synthetic is fine. Don’t get fancy. Here’s one example. Short-handled is better because it fits in your bag. You can also cut off a longer handle.
If you want to get fancy, get yourself the very nice Escoda travel brush (with cap! So useful!)
ODDS & ENDS
PAPER TOWELS or if you tend to forget to pick up paper towels like I do, one of those cheap microfiber cleaning cloths (sold next to kitchen sponges in any kind of store). I cut mine into fourths so I can carry less. Some sketchers cut the toes out of an old athletic sock and slip it over their wrist. BINDER CLIP To hold the pages of your notebook flat in the wind.
SMALL WATERTIGHT BOTTLE for brush cleaning. I use an empty travel-sized shampoo bottle like this one.
A BAG TO HOLD IT ALL!
Make sure your bag can also hold your phone, wallet, whatever else, and is light enough that you will actually take the whole kit with you when you go places! If it’s too much trouble, you’ll leave it at home. These kits from Art ToolKit are pretty cool.
Anyone who uses technical terms, scientific terms, foreign words, proper nouns, or brand names in their writing knows the limitations of the spell-checker built into a word processing program. After all, it’s just a static list of words that got loaded onto your computer and never gets updated or expanded unless you do it yourself. (And if you’ve ever tried one of the professional spell check add-ons, like Spellex, you may have noticed that they don’t always include every possible term in your field–I found the botanical checker particularly lacking–in which case, you still can’t be confident that you’ve caught everything.)
My latest book, The Drunken Botanist, is packed with weird, tricky words. On a single page, I might mention the name of a flavor molecule, the Latin name of a plant, the surname of the French botanist who discovered it, and the brand name of a liqueur that is flavored by that plant.
That goes on for 400 pages. You cannot imagine what a chore it was to proofread this book, and the level of sobriety required for the task.
After the completed, polished, edited, spell-checked manuscript had been proofread at least three times by me, my editor, a professional copy editor, a professional proofreader, a few other people I probably don’t even know about, and been read closely by a few smart friends and relatives, I got the pages back one last time for a final check. It had already been typeset by then, so I got it as one long PDF.
Every time I saw a tricky term that didn’t look right, I double-clicked the word, copied it, and pasted it into Google to check. Google, as you may know, is a surprisingly useful spell-checker: if you get a word wrong, you’ll probably get “Did you mean…” right under the search term. Even if that doesn’t happen, Google will generally take you to a variety of well-respected sources (or, in the case of a brand name, the company’s website) to help you check the spelling. It even catches pop culture terms, and it snags some context-specific stuff (for instance, if you wrote “hear” instead of “here”) And–bonus– Google is poly-lingual.
So as I was doing that, I was thinking, “I wish I could just Google the whole book. Why can’t I do that?”
Why had I never thought of this before? Here’s how I did it:
First, since I was working with a PDF, I copied the text and pasted it into a plain-text editor.
Once I had the whole document in Notepad, I copied chunks of it into a blank Google Docs document. I found that there was an upper limit to how much text Google Docs could handle at once. What worked for me was to put my cursor at a starting point in the Notepad text, then hit Page Down about 15 -20 times, and copy that much text at a time. In my case, that worked out to about 35,000 words at a time.
Once you paste it into Google Docs, it takes a little while to process and save it–roughly 20 seconds. At some point beyond that 20-second mark, with a larger chunk of text, it just gives up and won’t process it at all–at least, that was my experience. So the sweet spot seems to be right about 35,000 words. (update: in 2020, you can pretty much always just paste the entire text in at once. But try breaking it into chunks if you find it’s too slow.)
Then all you have to do is go through and right-click on any word underlined in red. It’ll give you a “Did you mean…” suggestion for anything that looks weird to Google–including people’s names, names of foreign cities, obscure scientific terms, all of it.
And guess what? I found an astonishing thirty-eight errors with this method.
This is after it had been through a very rigorous and professional editing process that took months and passed through many very competent hands. A process in which we’d all discussed how important it would be to check and double-check those tricky, difficult-to-check words. We weren’t even really proofreading anymore–this was just a final, quick look-see before it went to the printer.
And yet the silliest mistakes had escaped the notice of all of us. Most of the mistakes I found had been in the original manuscript all along. We’d all missed them.
I can tell you that I will never again publish a book without running it through Google. (and I am fighting the temptation to Google my previous books–it is only the fact that I don’t have a PDF of the final version of each previous book that is holding me back.)
It’s time-consuming — the whole process took me 12-14 hours, in part because Google flagged a lot of words that were actually correct, but I still had to slow down and double-check them– but entirely worthwhile. I think that if I had it to do over again, I’d run the Google check twice during the editing process.
The first time would be right before I transmit the final version of the manuscript. This is the version that my editor and I have already been over at least three times and that I have spell-checked (both with the computer and with my eyeballs) many times. Once we transmit it, I never get it back as a Word document again. From that point on, someone else inputs the changes. And new errors can get introduced as those changes are made.
So I’d Google-check it once right before transmittal just to eliminate obvious errors and make the professional copy editor and proofreader’s jobs easier. The fewer mistakes they have to contend with, the more likely they will be to catch all the stuff that computers don’t catch.
Then, when I got final, typeset pages, maybe at the second pass stage, I’d take the PDF and copy/paste it and do the Google check one more time. It probably wouldn’t turn up much, but then again, I wasn’t expecting to find 38 errors this time.
The genius behind this technology appears to be a guy named Yew Jin Lim. Dude, you are invited to Thanksgiving at my house every year, from now on. Do not be surprised if I dedicate my next book to you. Srsly. (Google got that word right, btw. And that one.)