Process Part 1: A Year in a Shed


I began writing the book on 8 June 2007.  It was published on 11 July 2011.  This was the process:

When I returned to the UK in June 2007, I went back to my family home in the East Anglian countryside. It has a long thin apple orchard squeezed between two cow fields. Halfway down that orchard is a one-room wooden shed containing a desk and a bed. I moved in my computer and got down to work.

Between then and the end of September 2007 (when I produced the first draft) I visited my sister and her new daughter in Yorkshire, paid my respects to several important people and attended the Glastonbury music festival. Added up, all that took six weeks, which left two and a half months for writing.

During those two and a half months I spent a week typing up my notes, produced a 25-page book plan and wrote 70,000 words of material (130 sides of A4). I then added those to the 80,000 words I returned with and complied the whole lot into a 150,000-word (350-page) document. Voila: a first draft.

That was the easy bit.

From 1 October 2007 I began attacking the final flagship subchapters and supporting build-up material, subject by subject. The key subchapters which form the finale are between 1,200 and 4,600 words long, with an average of 1,500 words of build-up material each. There are 14. Obviously, they all needed to be very good.

Each of those subchapters required three drafts to be good enough. Getting the first one I tackled (which is about the ecosphere) from first to second draft took two weeks. The next (which is about religion) took three weeks and the one after that (about cultural anthropology) 18 days.

I’d got pretty adept at 500-word emails, but I’d never written a book before and doing so required painstakingly teaching myself an entirely new skill set. I was setting out complicated and abstract ideas, and each element had to be accessible, fun and really well-written. All the different bits then needed to fit elegantly into a tapestry of mutually-supporting ideas and no idea could be half-formed, half-arsed or in the least bit fluffy.

Getting it right took time.

The context of my personal life during that year involved a number of distressing and deeply distracting problems within my extended family. I was physically isolated, with no social life, no money and no girlfriend. In addition, lots of people made clear their deep exception to what I was doing, which surprised me given that, if I wanted to spend a year in a shed writing a book, it wasn’t anyone else’s problem.

It wasn’t until December 2007 that I was producing text good enough for the final product, January 2008 when I knew for sure I could do it. Following a book conference at the end of that month with my chief thesis adviser, the volume of work I was turning over accelerated continuously. It was April 2008 when I reached the top of the mountain and began rolling down the other side. By then I was so in the zone I was finding it difficult to communicate with the outside world. However, it was an exceptionally productive period.

That period came to an end on 3 June 2008. At that point I had two written narratives: one mainly about travelling and one mainly about reinterpreting human civilisation.

The next task was to arrange them.

Next: Process Part 2: 19 Months in the City >

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