Features, perry
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The book of perry part two: not a sprint

I don’t know whether you’ve ever run a marathon, but somewhat surprisingly I have run two. One through the crowd-lined, carnival streets of Paris in 2015, the other, hellishly, over the hills and dales between Matlock and Nottingham all the way back in 2010. That latter one wasn’t an official course — some friends and I were raising money for a charity and thought a marathon might bring in some sponsorship. One friend, who insisted himself a map reader, set a route which he assured us would be mostly downhill. Turned out he hadn’t learned gradients as thoroughly as we’d have preferred. 

You’ll surmise from this that it’s not an experience I’d wholly endorse. After each one I have promised myself ‘never again’, and so far, this time, I have kept my word. If anyone ever asked my advice on the subject I’d have half a mind to recommend simply locating a hammer, giving their legs a good going over and saving themselves the bother of worrying about nonsense like PBs, splits, energy supplements and viable opportunities to dodge off to the side for a quick wee. (That last one is much easier in rural Derbyshire than in Paris, incidentally).

What I would say, on a more serious note, is that there were three key elements to running a marathon that I found made the experience, if not ‘pleasant’, at least achievable and easier than it would otherwise have been. The first was support; whilst no one can run your marathon for you, the difference in motivation that the collective outpoured goodwill of thousands of spectators makes to keeping your legs going is difficult both to explain or understate. Whilst I didn’t have that in Derbyshire — a few interested sheep perhaps — I did have two of my best friends running along with me, which achieved a degree of the same effect.

The second thing I found helpful was taking the 26.2 miles a mile at a time. This was even easier in Paris, since they measure in kilometres there, with big arches to mark each one, and you’d be surprised how quickly those kilometres come up. There may be 42 of them, which sounds like rather a lot, but when you’re ticking off another one every handful of minutes there is a both meaningful sense of progress and a sort of handy delusion that you are running a series of very short and manageable distances, rather than one ungraspable one. (Again, Matlock to Nottingham was low on such assistance).

My final tip for aspiring leg masochists is to keep in their heads a sort of ‘this too shall pass’ stoicism as regards the experience. It’s not necessarily so much a visualisation of the finish line — as I’ve said, to my mind it’s much better to focus on the next kilometre — as an understanding that eventually the race will be completed, you’ll be given the medal and the fluorescent finisher’s shirt and there will be a generally accepted sense of closure and understanding of completion. You’ll pass under the last arch and in the absolute worst case scenario, you’ll know that you’re finished and a friendly race marshal will probably say ‘well done’. As it happens, we finished the 2010 run at a pub, which has a great deal to commend it.

Attempting to write a book — you’ve probably seen where this analogy was going from about midway through the first sentence — is a lot like running a marathon. Albeit without the joint pain the day afterwards. 

In the first instance, they require an awful lot more planning than an article does. With perhaps a handful of exceptions — and I dare say it shows — my methodology for what’s written on Cider Review runs: ‘angle pops into head, a few quick source checks where relevant, tasting notes scribbled in the evening if needed, 2,000 words rattled out next morning before work’. Stick it online, share it on twitter, bish bash bosh and on to the next one. A blogger’s life’s for me.

Obviously that isn’t really possible with a book. There has to be a plan, a structure, a coherent line that runs and, crucially, holds together through 40-50,000 words or more. To achieve this you have to be able to visualise the whole thing as well as all of the smaller pieces that comprise it, and you can’t, unless you are supremely gifted, just do that in your head. I have found Pete Brown’s series of blog posts on writing a book to be immensely helpful, and was particularly struck by this one, in which he talks through his method for plotting a course through the narrative. That particular approach doesn’t work for me, partially because I have a cat who would have those post-it notes off the wall and chewed to mulch in about two seconds flat, and secondly because rather than being someone who works best visually, I’m too painfully analogue for the colours to make much mental difference. Instead I have three notebooks ram-packed with scribbles and inanity and big bulky blobs of stream-of-perry-consciousness that would be indecipherable to anyone else. But they’ve chiselled my lump of vague notions into a roughly coherent blueprint, and it sort of seems to work for me so far.

Returning to my marathon analogy, key to helping me stay the course is dividing the book up into kilometres. 50,000 words just seems too massive to look at as a whole, even if I can rationalise it as about four months’ worth of Cider Review content at least in purely numerical word count terms. Fortunately, the nature of the book I’m working on lends itself to division. As a drinker’s guide to the whole world of perry, it is inherently ‘sectionable’ — history, growing, making, varieties, styles, regions, makers etc etc etc. And of course each of those sections divides further into yet-more-specific chunks and suddenly the kilometre arches come into some sort of sharp relief.

Something I am slightly struggling to adapt to is the change of pace. Stretching my analogy to breaking point, in my more athletic years at school, my favourite distance was 400 metres. Unless you’re in the really top tier, 400 metres is more or less the longest distance you can run at absolutely full tilt. You bust your lungs and pump your legs as hard as they can go for a little under a minute and, at our secondary school level, the race tends to be won or lost in the last 100 metres when it becomes mainly a mental contest of ‘who can force their legs to keep up the pace for the final stretch’. It’s a long sprint, but it’s a sprint nonetheless — you go as fast as you can, with a mini element of endurance to make things interesting, but it’s still over before you know it. Very much the essayist’s (blogger’s) school of running.

Marathons and books are not like that. Famously you cannot sprint a marathon, or the ubiquitous saying would be far less overused. Similarly, you cannot write a book in the same breathless style with which you might compose an article. There has to be more measurement to the tone of voice. At the same time it still needs to be recognisably you, and it shouldn’t seem laboured or ponderous.

Now I’m well aware (my editors, when I write an article elsewhere, are kind but clear on this point) that, left unchecked, my prose has a tendency to err on the purple/flashy/self-indulgent/meandering side. When Caroline first read one of my articles she thought for a few moments and then said ‘it’s lots of having fun with words, isn’t it?’ Which is about as ‘seen’ as I can ever remember being.

I can’t really get away with that over the course of a book. Especially a book that is intended to unpack potentially a whole new world for a reader who may not have encountered perry before. There has to be some concision and restraint. Those 50,000 words, ironically, need to be tighter and more constructed than the 2,000 I get away with twice-weekly or so in this space. Clarity and precision are the names of the game, but that requires an extra degree of meticulousness, control and thought when I am writing. 2,000 words of book, I have found, are far more mentally draining than a 2,000 word article. And, at the same time, are harder to retain my own clear tone of voice throughout. Probably because I am accustomed to writing articles, but have never written a non-fiction manuscript before.

But the most challenging and frustrating aspect (so far) of this attempt at a book is the wall.

‘The wall’ is perhaps the most famous of all marathon phenomena, and again Pete Brown writes tremendously on its manifestation in the context of attempting a manuscript. Traditionally this is thought of as around 18 miles or 30 kilometres into a run. I can’t tell you what that equates to in terms of a book, but perhaps appropriately, the 30,000-ish word mark is where I hit mine.

I know what I have left to write. It should be straightforward. The bulk of words — so far as the first draft is concerned, is probably behind me, though I reckon there will probably be 50,000 or thereabouts if I ever finish it. The tricky content should be in the rear-view too: most of the research, the history, the facty, sciencey, has-to-be-totally-spot on stuff around growing and making and faults and so on is done. What’s left is mainly producers, a little bit of regional stuff and a handful of peripheral ‘a word on such and such’ pages which should all spring mostly out of my head and, in honesty, isn’t far removed from things I have already written on Cider Review anyway.

What I have been struggling with is that idea of understanding and believing implicitly that the finish line will eventually come. Of knowing that the race will be run; that this too shall pass. Because the marathon of the book doesn’t end when I’ve finished a draft. Really, those are the easy miles — churning out words; the stuff I know how to do. The part that I don’t have a vision of, that I can’t stoically understand to be something which will simply fall into place is everything that comes afterwards. The editing. The formatting. The additional editing. The images. The actual turning of a document on the laptop into a bricks-and-mortar book.

If I was working with a publisher — if this was a commissioned work — that finishing line would be easier to accept as something that is inevitably coming, and work towards. The stress might not be lightened; there’d be deadlines and all the associated difficulties with creating a satisfactory piece of work; going through a possibly painful editing process and physically putting the thing together, but the pieces would be there. The process and the team would be there. The finishing line might be 26 miles off, but I would know that it was in place.

A line that sticks with me from Pete Brown’s piece reads ‘the motivation to keep going has to come entirely from within’. Unlike his previous books, the work Pete was blogging about was to be self-published. The editors, the publishers, the cheering crowds weren’t there. Completion of the project required more work. More admin. More will.

I find myself in the same place, but without the accumulated self-belief of having published nine books previously. I don’t have a clue what happens when the text itself is hammered out, I don’t know anyone personally who has gone through the steps and my inherent fear of admin is gradually raising a crippling lump of dread and fatalism. 

I know there is interest in a standalone book about perry. Whilst it may seem niche besides beer and possibly even cider, the support I received when I announced the project and the upwards of 10,000 visitors we saw for our Perry Month in September has strengthened my conviction that there is an audience and, more importantly, a market for such a book. I know the places and ways in which it could be effectively promoted and most importantly I genuinely believe myself to be best placed to write it. 

And yet the whispering doubt is still there behind my ear. The concern that giving this a go without the support of a real commission is futile, is Matlock to Nottingham, is, worst of all, possibly just a vanity project and a waste of time at that. It’s not so much the miles I have already done that I can feel in my legs as the idea of the miles still left to run and the unknown distance it may still be to the finish line, if a finish line even exists. I wrote a good bit over 20,000 words in my first month of working on this draft. So far in December I’m a chunk under 10,000, and slowing. My target of a finished first draft by Christmas has made a mockery of me.

There are mitigating factors to that pace. 20,000 words was probably good going given I have to work them around my actual job, my Cider Review commitments, the play I’m acting in and the general backs-and-forths of normal life plus Christmas. I don’t have the imposition of a deadline, and I don’t imagine there’s a rival book on perry being scribbled anywhere else. But I’m someone who thrives on momentum, and for a couple of weeks that momentum stalled.

The other line that stood out in Pete’s article reads ‘the difference between people who want to write a book and the people who have written books is the stamina to get through this wall.’ I’ve gone back to his articles a couple of times since I started the perry book project, and the other day I read that line and it felt like a challenge. I want to write a book. I haven’t written a book. The wall is in the way. But it is not insurmountable. It has to not be.

It occurred to me that looking ahead for an unseeable finish line had drawn focus from the next mile. I don’t know how to go about self-publishing a book, and the idea of doing it on my own, of jumping through all the unknown hoops involved, scares me. But I don’t need to know how to jump through those hoops right now. What I do know is how to write about the culture, landscape and perries of Mostviertel, and at this moment in time, that’s all that matters.

So yesterday evening I copied all of my section and subsection titles for the rest of the book into the word document I’m writing in. My milestones for the rest of the draft. And I’ve started filling them in. I’m going well so far — I did 2,500 words yesterday and even found time to rattle this article off too. 

The idea of self-publishing on a subject not covered on its own before for the first book I’ll ever write is daunting. It is more Derbyshire dales than Parisian festival. But I’m still going; still plodding steadily through it. The end may not yet be in sight, perhaps, but the next milestone will be coming up soon.

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In addition to my writing and editing with Cider Review I lead frequent talks and tastings and contribute to other drinks sites and magazines including jancisrobinson.com, Pellicle, Full Juice, Distilled and Burum Collective. @adamhwells on Instagram, @Adam_HWells on twitter.

6 Comments

  1. I think my response to your Twitter announcement was exactly “it’s a marathon, etc…”, but I have to admit, I was amazed (and slightly worried) at the pace you seemed to have set for yourself! 😀
    I, like many others, am absolutely confident in your abilities here. You are probably the only person I would choose to write a book on perry, and do it justice. I’ve been involved in contributing to and helping prepare several books for publication (a past life), and know just how much time the final preparations can take. But I also know you have a lot of support and people willing to help, so you’ll make it.
    I also think that if a publisher (CAMRA books for example) doesn’t take it up, they’re missing an opportunity. You might think it niche, but that’s exaactly why it is so special a topic. But then I would say that…

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  2. Mike Shorland says

    What an incredible piece. You should write a book on running marathons too!! Just kidding. I think you should just write it like you write your CR pieces. Analogies and all. Cos they are all so good!

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    • Cheers Mike.

      Hopefully it’ll be clear enough that it’s me! Even if it’s a bit neater and tidier than my average blog post.

      All the best

      Adam

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  3. chrisjohnroberts says

    Hi Adam. This reminds me of my own situation when trying to complete a doctoral thesis on a part-time basis. The fact I’ve also run two marathons is a coincidence! I can’t claim huge expertise other than thoroughly enjoying good cider and perry and have enjoyed the Cider Review content, learning much from it. I look forward to the book being published. All the best. Chris

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    • Hi Chris. That sounds far harder than a book about perry! And congratulations on the marathons — what a coincidence.
      Really glad you’re enjoying the CR content and cider and perry generally.
      All the best
      Adam

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