How to get the rhythm of a book right? The pace? The sense of progress? The sequence of colour, if it’s illustrated? The content, whether pictured or verbal?
One way: mock it up as a PDF, with one page following the other and read it in a long scroll to the end.
I’ve been doing a lot of that recently, with a book of my own and a book by somebody else who I'm working with.
With the other person’s (non-fiction) book, I wanted to make myself useful by getting as close as possible to the experience of writing it. Naturally, I read the book first. Then again – most of it twice more.
I still didn’t feel that my mind “contained” the book. Following some kind of instinct, I came up with tech-related ideas I’ve not used before.
First, I copied the entire text of the book into one of the many free word-cloud generators available online. These generators exclude non-specific words like “the” or “and”, and prettily display words that appear most frequently. The more common the word, the larger it appears. I did it once to find the 30 most popular words in the entire manuscript, then the top 90.
To show you what I mean, here’s a word cloud of this email you are reading right now:
The most common words here are books, word, page, image, PDF and index card.
Then I made a list of key words, relating to the book’s topic, that I now knew for certain could be found inside it.
(If the book was about soccer, which it isn’t, such words might have included “match”, “ball”, “fans”, “referee”, “Chelsea”, and so on.)
Then I listed words that might be in it and certainly ought to be in it.
With those lists nearby, I opened a PDF of the book and searched for each word, writing down how many times they appeared, and on what pages. Like this (to continue with the soccer idea):
Manchester United (12 references):
15, 17, 19, 20, 48, 49, 50, 199, 206, 266, 268, 345
This data turned out to be remarkably useful. It allowed me to “see” that some topics and insights appeared regularly. Some popped up only once. Others were sporadic. Some came in too late, and needed to be “seeded” into the book sooner.
I started writing even more lists, and put them on separate index cards. Again, I feel the need to remind you that the book in question is not really about soccer. But let’s pretend.
One index card contained a list of words relating to “the everyday experiences of footballers”: scoring, tackling, exhilaration, dismay (and so on). I was surprised that many of these experiential words didn’t appear at all, and I felt sure that would-be readers might like to encounter them occasionally.
Other index cards listed (as it were) soccer clubs around the country, styles of play, tournaments, teams, individual players by name, periods of time in football history.
It was a remarkably useful experiment. I hope I remember to do the same data mining when the book is ready for the publisher, and compare the results.
Meanwhile, my own (illustrated, poetry) book…
Another way to grasp the rhythm is with a series of thumbnails (pictured here on the sloped ceiling behind my computer).
This way, you can see the pages alongside each other, rather than consecutively.
For me, a third way is just as important: make an actual book, and turn the pages.
This week, I received the first proof of my book in a large PDF file, sent by WeTransfer. After downloading it, I saw at once things I would like to change about the images.
Many in landscape format looked too small on a single page. I had hoped they might run across the gutter.
So, I set about reshaping some of them: squeezing and cropping to make them squarer, so that if they had to be restricted to a single page they would look bigger there.
Then I heard from my publisher that I’m welcome to run images across the gutter but that, if I do, parts of the image might be lost, particularly towards the middle of the book (because of the way the pages are folded).
Thinking about this, I realised that I would need to reassign some images to other pages. That made my brain ache, because there’s a sequence to the poems that I’ve already thought hard about, and the effect of each one will be increased or diminished by the image beside it.
I spent most of the afternoon staring at the thumbnails behind my computer, printing the entire text, and all the images, and sticking them into folded sheets of A4 till I had assembled, with Pritt-Stick a hand-made version of the book I want.
I flicked through it, to assess the impact of my changes on each page, and the flow from one double-page spread to the next.
I tore a few images out and reassigned them elsewhere.
Not all the torn-out thumbnails got reused.
Then I wrote down all the details on a very complicated document and emailed the publisher, requesting that they duplicate the changes I’d made on their master document.
Battles For Status: On BBC Question Time
Recently, I posted something about the atavistic status displays on the BBC's current affairs discussion programme, Question Time.
I’ve been meaning to post something about this for about a million years.
I just never get around to doing it.
I was invited to do a Q&A with Revue, the newsletter owned by Twitter. This covered, among other things, PG Wodehouse, poetry, Feedly, a gripping story about poker, Soviet samizdat, Krapp's Last Tape, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, King Arthur and my own (second) recent bout of Covid.
It's here: https://flintoff.org/an-interview-on-twitter
Alt Text Challenge
Also in that Twitter interview I mentioned the Alt Text Challenge pop-up email series I ran last year.
I'm doing Series 2 soon: 14 days of a picture a day, by email.
You can take part in the challenge by supplying me with "Alt Text" (as pictured), or just receive the emails and get on with your day. Your choice.
But please let me know - I will only send the pics to people who opt in.