I was doing a little “spring” cleaning the other day and came across a relic from my past and thought I would share it with you guys. When I was in college, one of the classes I took that had the most profound impact on my trajectory as a writer and later, as an author, was a class on book design that was titled rather appropriately Book Building. The approach of the class was to examine all of the elements that go into creating the book once the writing is done. Content wasn’t exactly ignored in this class, but we focused on it rather as an aspect of the design. For instance, you’d design the layout of a collection of poetry differently than a plot driven narrative fiction or an objective non-fiction analysis of finance. The content shapes the book from the beginning, but the opposite is true as well. Once the content was established, though, we dug deeply into aspects of the writing craft that I’d never considered before. Typeset, Font, white space, cover design, layout, data pages, imprints… the list of building blocks for an average book was impressive, and completely new to me.
This was one of my favorite classes, but it was also one of my more difficult ones. Up until that point, I did not consider myself to have any kind of graphic eye at all. I worked with words, not pictures and I couldn’t draw to save my life. A guided step by step book on how to draw animals had briefly convinced me differently in grade school, but as soon as I tried to draw an animal that wasn’t conveniently traced out in step by step detail in the book, my true lack of skill was exposed. Following instructions and having a real talent and eye for art are, after all, very different things. And this class required at least a basic understanding of design principles, layout, flow, etc. I was nervous, and I found out early on that I had a lot to learn.
I think that’s part of what really drew me to that class, though. It was something completely new that I had never even considered before. All I was focused on was being a writer, but I wanted to be an author. And part of being an author meant understanding the craft from every aspect. Apparently I’d been completely neglecting that side of things. This class taught me a whole new way to look at books that had never even occurred to me. It reminded me of the experience my mother would often relate of the first day she put on a pair of prescription glasses. She would say she went from seeing trees to seeing leaves, and that was the feeling I had too. I went back through old books that I hadn’t read in years and read them again. I got multiple copies of some of my favorite titles and looked at how different editions had subtle changes that either worked, or didn’t.
As an aside, somewhere I still have a 1st edition Game of Thrones by the undeniable master of the craft GRR Martin, complete with silver dust jacket and original art. One of these days I’ll put my hands on it again….
The final project for the book building class was to actually build a book of our own. We could choose any format we wanted, and we had complete control over the design, typeset, layout and everything else. And, since it was being printed as part of our curriculum, we got to put the university press imprint on the back, which was really cool. Most of the class chose to do an anthology of poetry, prose, or both. I chose to write a short fiction novella for my project. I enjoy poetry, and have a few collections I’ve worked on, but my heart is really set on fiction. That’s what I love to read, and that’s what I’d always seen myself writing, so it just made the most sense. I found out very quickly that it’s easy to say you want to write a novella, but it’s a very different thing to actually do it.
After many late night and a few all night sessions, a lot of coffee and cigarettes, and 2a.m. burrito runs, I finished the content and had the teacher approve it. There was no editing, very little proofreading, but it was done and I had the right word count. This was the first time I’d judged a work by the words, but it soon became almost a subconscious habit. The late Robert Jordan, another of my favorite authors, averages just over three hundred thousand words per volume in the Wheel of Time series, for instance. With the content completed finally, I could move on to the real meat of the project; the design and book construction.
Choosing a typeset and font size was relatively straightforward for me once I got a firm grasp on the terminology. The layout wasn’t too tricky either since I was writing a chapter book. The basic format for a narrative fiction is difficult to get creative with, unlike a collection. I’m glad the interior of the book went so smoothly for me because the exterior design was an arduous process. I agonized over color, images, layout, borders, shading, and a dozen other minutia that made me want to pull my hair out. It was like a visit to the optometrist for an eye exam where they flip the lenses to see which is better or worse, blurrier or clearer, etc. Except this lasted for days, and then weeks as I switched from this typeset to that one, black and white graphics, to color, black font to white, and so on.
The end result was a book that I am still somewhat proud of as far as visual appeal. There are some things I’d tweak, and maybe put a different graphic in that has less detail and more clarity. But for a first shot at a full design from the ground up, it ain’t half bad in my admittedly biased eyes. The best part of it, though, was that I got to print multiple copies and hand a few out to family and friends. I’m not sure how many ever read it, and I’m considerably less proud of the content than I am the design, if I’m being completely honest. But it was a special feeling to see someone holding a book with my name down the spine.
I think that’s what got me the most, to be honest. I liked the cover, and the fact that my words were in print, finally. But I think the thing that really reached out and grabbed me was when I turned the book on its side and saw my name down the spine. That sent shivers up and down my ….well…. spine, and gave me goosebumps. It still does. Names appear all over books in various places for various reasons; they’re on the covers, on the backs, on the inside pages, on the back cover. But, for a
novel, the only name that is written on the spine is the author’s name(s). Seeing my name down the spine of that finished book gave me a feeling of proud satisfaction and accomplishment like I had never experienced before. Granted, it wasn’t for sale, it wasn’t edited, it wasn’t even really that good, but I had written a book.
That moment was a validation. It was a moment of clarity where I knew that I had made the right choice in deciding to pursue becoming an author. I didn’t know how long it would take (about 10 years, incidentally) but I knew in that moment that no matter what I was going to move heaven and Earth to see my name on the spine of a book again. A lot of classes taught me a lot of things, but I think that book building class taught me the most about actually being an author, and I’ll never forget it.
PS… I am making progress on Storm Tide Rising (Blackout Vol.2). I’ve got 30,000+ words written so far, which puts me about 25-30% complete. As part of a new commitment to reduce the time my feet spend in my mouth, I’m not going to be predicting publication dates this early. I’m trying to get it out there ASAP, though, rest assured. Thanks for reading!