It’s good to be back after a two week break, although ‘break’ is probably the wrong word – most of that time having been spent frantically finishing off Britannia’s Dragon, which has now gone off to the publisher! This is my fourth non-fiction historical book, so I think I’m now probably qualified to pass on some of my experiences of and reflections about the genre. Having said that, I’ve got a long way to go to catch up with the very many more prolific authors out there, notably the astonishing Jeremy Black, Professor of History at Exeter University, who’s published more than one hundred full-length books to date (not to mention countless articles). But for what they’re worth, and with apologies to Lawrence of Arabia, here are seven pillars of wisdom that I’ve garnered over the years.
1/ It’s never complete – So you’ve read all the sources, been to all the relevant archives, and covered everything? Oh no you haven’t. Sorry to sound like a panto script, but you really, really haven’t. Sod’s law will dictate that some time after the book goes to press and before it ends up in the obscurity of the ‘remaindered’ list, you’ll come across some gold-plated piece of evidence, or an entire previously unknown archive in an obscure library, that should have gone into your book. So does the inevitability of this happening mean that you should delay finishing it? No, for that way madness lies – or at least, the closest thing to madness for an author of non-fiction, namely not actually finishing the book (or even not writing it in the first place). I know several very distinguished historians who have either been working on their magnum opus for twenty or thirty years, or who never got round to writing it at all. There are considerably more than fifty shades of grey between this extreme and the other one (which is, fortuitously, Black): above all, set a reasonable timescale, cover as much as you can in that time, but then, one day, say ‘that’s it’ and declare the book finished. In reality, no book is ever truly ‘finished’ – it could be expanded, improved, have that annoying new evidence which turned up the day after publication incorporated into it, and so forth. But unless you’re lucky and get the chance of a revised second edition, the author’s equivalent of the director’s cut in film-making, your tome will be your final word on the subject, and the important thing is to get it out there, not worry about what other evidence might be lurking in the dark recesses of some archive or other. To coin a paraphrase, the cemeteries are full of the authors of unwritten books; make sure you’re not one of them.
2/ Be ruthless – Every word you’ve written is precious, every example you’ve cited is essential, every sub-theme you’ve developed is absolutely vital to the book. No, they’re not. Much of the angst that develops between authors of historical non-fiction and their publishers is due to the former’s belief that the publisher should be grateful for every single one of their 500,000 words on peasant life in Upper Silesia from 1848 to 1850 and should thus publish the whole thing with no cuts whatsoever. Remember that this is something you want people to read without losing the will to live, so after you finish the first draft, be brutal with yourself (or do what I did and move in with a veteran Fleet Street journalist and editor to whom the ruthless pruning of purple prose is as natural as breathing). Blood of Kings started out at nearly 180,000 words, but was closer to 110,000 by the time it went to the publisher. It was difficult to lose many of the 70,000 words that got culled, but it ended up as a better book; and taking the metaphorical chainsaw to your own text is much better than having a publisher’s editor do it for you.
3/ Prepare to be criticised – You’ve written the book, it’s been published, you’ve had some nice reviews on Amazon and perhaps, if you’re lucky, in one or two of the historical journals. But then you start getting the letters and emails, or the other kinds of reviews… These come on two levels, the micro and the macro. The micro criticisms tend to come from those who know a huge amount about a very tiny aspect of your subject, and who obtain a sense of delighted fulfilment from pointing out that you’ve left out fact X, or clearly didn’t know about obscure letter Y in archive Z. The macro criticisms will come from more august members of the profession, who will ‘take issue with your methodology’ (the historian’s polite euphemism for ‘you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about’) or will shoehorn you into a philosophical straitjacket that you never knew fitted you; one of the more surreal of the (fortunately very few) criticisms of Gentlemen and Tarpaulins came from an exceptionally eminent left-wing maritime historian who accused me explicitly of being a Thatcherite, which was news to me and to every ballot box I’d voted in since 1979. But all of this comes with the territory. Once you publish, you’ve put yourself out there, and simple human nature dictates that not everyone will agree with what you say. Above all, remember that no matter how much criticism you get, yours isn’t the worst book that’s ever been written. It doesn’t even come close to being the worst. As for which is the worst book ever written…now that sounds like a topic for a Twitter thread or a series of blogs.
4/ Prepare to be ripped off – Ah, you want illustrations in your book? You particularly like that picture at, say, the Imperial National Naval Maritime Warfare Archives Museum? (Names have been changed to protect the guilty.) Then you need to licence the reprographic rights. Be prepared to part with a limb or two, because the fees charged by such institutions make Mafia protection rackets or pay-offs to BBC executives look like a bunch of elderly grannies having a little flutter at their local whist drive. Moreover, the entire basis for charging such fees is morally and (probably) legally dubious – after all, in many cases the institutions concerned don’t actually hold the copyright to this material at all. So three cheers for the British Museum, which licences the items in its wonderful collection for free. Let me repeat that: free. So, for example, you could spend between £50 and £100, perhaps even more, licensing an image of a painting of Nelson from the INNMWAM, or you could get the engraving taken from the same painting from the BM website for nothing. Will your readers damn you for this? Don’t be silly, they just want to see what Nelson looks like, they won’t think any more highly of you if they knew you’d spent a lot of money to show them the original instead of a copy.
5/ Write right – History is the most wonderful, lively and exciting of all subjects, but few things depress me more than the sorts of history books which try their hardest to conceal all of that beneath layers of treacle-like prose and deliberately obscure, quasi-scientific jargon. We historians aren’t scientists, economists or sociologists, for heaven’s sake; even if you really are writing about the peasants of Upper Silesia between 1848 and 1850, don’t you owe it to them to write about their lives in the most interesting and lively way you possibly can? All of this applies even if your book is being published by some ‘distinguished’ academic publisher or other, who will pay you no advance, produce no more than three or four hundred copies of your book, and charge anyone tempted to buy it £50 or £60 for the privilege. But that, as they say, is another story…
6/ Be prepared for an emotional rollercoaster – Many writers have described in detail the emotions that surge like the tides during the actual writing process: the flashes of inspiration, the long hours of writer’s block, the sense that it’s no good, the sense that it’s the greatest book since the Bible, the endless coffee (or Scotch, depending on one’s preference), and so forth. But having just finished Britannia’s Dragon, I’d like to focus on one specific moment in the process: the one I’m at now, namely the end. The completion of a book is always a very strange time, simultaneously a cause for celebration and also somehow slightly depressing. After all, this thing that’s had such a powerful hold over your life for so long suddenly isn’t there any more. In one sense, it feels a bit like a death in the family; on the other hand, one would hope that not too many deaths in anybody’s family would be accompanied by the overwhelming sense of relief that also accompanies the completion of a book. Which leads me on to the most important piece of advice of all to anyone who’s made it all the way through and finally typed ‘the end’ on the last page…
7/ So finally – Celebrate! You’ve just written a book, for heaven’s sake. Do you know how few people ever get to do that? At the very least, your mum will be proud of you. Plus think about just how many hours, days, months, even years, you’ve devoted to this. Doesn’t that effort deserve to have a glass or two raised in its honour? Then take a week off – longer, if you can manage it. Recharge your batteries. Reflect. Watch absolutely mindless dross on TV. Concentrate on the other things that have been pushed onto the back burner for the duration of writing the book: real life, for example. Because soon enough, something – at first no more than a germ of a glimmer of a half-formed thought – will start to grow somewhere inside your brain. This will gradually work its way to the front of your consciousness, by which time it will have a name. It will be called ‘the next book’. And so it all begins again…
17th Century Lady (@AndreaZuvich) says
I really enjoyed this article! You’ve listed some very good points which are very helpful. I particularly appreciate the tip about images.
Congratulations! And thanks for a geat (and funny) post. I certainly know about pillar 1. A big fact came up afterwards and all I could do was wince, blog about it and apologise. At least it’s out there now for anyone who’s interested…
Thanks, glad you liked it!