“A book can be inspired by nearly anything,” writes Naomi Huffman in How To Make A Book, “...a seemingly stray thought you can’t shake, a lyric, an overheard conversation, another book. Whatever it is, turn it over again and again and again in your mind. Watch it. Listen to it. Be skeptical of it. Let it bother you. Most importantly, take notes.”
In that post, Naomi gathers a few prolific writers to ask them what the secret is to writing a book—and a lot of the advice is great! But one thing I’ve always felt that’s missing in all this advice about books and publishing is what not to do: where are the fuck ups along the way? What chapters did they cut out altogether? Where are the arguments with the book designer, the anxiety around release dates and online marketing and the book tour?
In short: where’s the drama?
That’s what this newsletter is for. I’m going to write a book and along the way you’ll see everything: the first draft, the sketches and diagrams, the bad prototypes. And because I’m not a book designer by trade then this newsletter is where I’ll learn an awful lot about books and make an awful lot of mistakes. At any time you can hit reply and give me feedback, advice, thoughts, kind words of encouragement, or a brutal, devastating critique if I so happen to choose the wrong paper stock. But please be kind.
Welcome to the inaugural edition of How Not To Make a Book. I’m your host, Robin Rendle.
For 5-ish years I’ve been writing a newsletter called Adventures in Typography and in that time I’ve written about all sorts of topics, from the typefaces I adore to short little stories about graphic design. But I’ve often wondered what a book of all these stories bound together would look like. Could I make a physical book about typography that’s short and sweet, or light-hearted and fun? Could I make a book that documents type design today and remixes all this beautiful work into something altogether new and exciting?
I’ve thought about all this for years now but it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago when it became serious: for five days straight I locked myself away and looked back at everything I’ve ever written—tabs upon tabs upon tabs of links. I gathered everything I had written in Adventures and threw the best of them into a Word doc.
And yes, a lot of these old newsletters made me want to hide under my desk and sign a public decree that I would never type another sentence as long as I lived but other pieces had...hope. There was a book in here, somewhere, buried deep in amongst all this “heck-by-golly-oh-jove!” kind of writing that I often slip into. But it was down here. Potential.
I just had to dig it out.
The best pieces were thrown into a Word doc but, as I painfully learned over that week, you can’t just throw a bunch of emails together into the shape of a book and be done with it. There’s an awful lot of editing, rewriting, and what-not to do because what works in an email might not work in a book and so I found whole chunks had to be cut out entirely; reshaped, reformed.
So where is the book today? It’s made up of two things. First, I have a Word doc with 19,748 words that desperately needs to be edited within an inch of their life:
Then the second half is saved within a Figma doc and that has some placeholder diagrams and type specimens and extremely early ideas for covers that are very disorganized (but go take a look! This Figma doc will always be public so that you can see my progress as I go).
I think I have only four stories left to add to this Word doc before I stop writing. Like I said, I want this book to be jumping and joyous and, for now, short short short. Perhaps that might change in the future and I might elaborate more, or write a few more things just for this book.
Why four more stories though? Well, I want the book to have 26 stories in all—one for each of the 26 letters of the alphabet—and before a story I want a large capital letter to precede it.
I think this ought to break up the pace of the book but until I get a copy of this in my hands I have no idea if it’ll work. Maybe that’s an awful idea! Maybe that’ll be confusing! But I know that somehow someway I want this book to be half type specimen and half excited writing about letters. (For now).
But this week it was time for a good, long copy edit.
So yesterday I booted up my trusty ol’ black and white printer to clone a copy of the book (and no matter how many TikTok teens make fun of me for my printer, I will never be convinced that they’re anything other than magic). Just seeing the book in my hands was revelatory though and I could see so many errors and problems that I hadn’t thought of on the screen. I can’t remember if I said this or stole this from someone but when I was in college I kept saying “the screen is a lie” and “do not trust the screen” when I was working on printed objects and this was certainly true here.
With everything printed out, I took a red pen to this first draft...
...and I realized that the order of these stories was just as important as the stories themselves. I want the book to have a certain kind of music to it that I’m still trying to figure out. It can’t be: short story, short story, short story or even just type review, type review, type review. I need to space things out correctly and make sure that when you turn that page you don’t quite know what to expect. That’s jazz, baby!
Back to the writing though: there’s this trick that I stole from someone a decade ago which has been very handy over the last couple of writing-focused weeks. Instead of doing actual research, use the abbreviation "TK" when you don’t know something. After a bit of hunting around, I think I read this old blog post by Cory Doctorow back in 2009 and have followed that advice ever since. He writes:
Researching isn't writing and vice-versa. When you come to a factual matter that you could google in a matter of seconds, don't. Don't give in and look up the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, the population of Rhode Island, or the distance to the Sun. That way lies distraction — an endless click-trance that will turn your 20 minutes of composing into a half-day's idyll through the web. Instead, do what journalists do: type "TK" where your fact should go, as in "The Brooklyn bridge, all TK feet of it, sailed into the air like a kite." "TK" appears in very few English words (the one I get tripped up on is "Atkins") so a quick search through your document for "TK" will tell you whether you have any fact-checking to do afterwards. And your editor and copyeditor will recognize it if you miss it and bring it to your attention.
Adding a quick "TK I have no idea about this part" is momentum-building which is vital for a project of this size. TK is short for "to come" and it helps you keep the gas on so you don’t have to slow down over a speed bump. But if I was to be honest with myself then I’d admit that everything about this book is TK right now. The cover? Eh, here’s some ideas TKTK. The format? The design? The order of chapters and the spelling? TKTKTKTKTK.
But that’s okay! That’s precisely what this whole newsletter is for. Each week we’re gonna draw a very rough outline and then, with each new edition, we’ll zoom in and poke and prod these 19,748 words until there’s something dazzling by the end.
And I hope you stick around because this is going to be a lot of fun.