Happy New Year!
Many people asked me after last week's post on the trouble with writer's groups to write about what DOES work. I am going to get to that soon -- I promise. But today, I am writing about the structure of a great idea.
My eldest daughter just landed an awesome new job at Book Bub, an ebook retailer that is one of publishing’s hot new startups. (I hadn’t heard of it before she interviewed; I guess I’m not quite as ‘in the know’ about publishing as I might have believed – yikes!) Book Bub brings the concept of bookstore browsing to the world of ebooks. They have designed an interface that makes it pleasant and easy to discover new books, which is a development that should be cheered by readers everywhere. Before her interview, my daughter spent a lot of time browsing, which meant that she ended up discovering a lot of books – and some of those books ended up on both electronic reading devises (what Book Bub sells) and under our Christmas tree. One such book is called The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart.
This book is one of the most beautifully structured books I have ever seen, and that part of the creative process -- the transformation of an idea into a particular shape -- is not something we usually talk about when we talk about writing. For my first post of 2015, I want to talk about it, so that we can see precisely how critical structure can be in the development of a book that catches fire. And yes, this book is on fire. In the days since Christmas, I have heard my daughter and husband rave about it more than twenty people – most of whom went right out and bought it for themselves.
That’s what all of us want for our books, too. So how did Stewart do it? What about her structure is so strong, and so resonant?
1. The title is killer good. We know immediately that this book lives at the intersection of science and pleasure. We know that the writer has a sense of humor. By the time we get to the end of the subtitle – just 11 words in – we know exactly what it is about – and it is about something surprising, something we hadn’t really thought about before. But the title is not just clever. It is also a sure sign of a great structure. There is no doubt that this writer has made something on purpose, with great intention, and with great care. It is an idea that has been designed and shaped and crafted. And make no mistake: this is the reason we love books (fiction, as well as non fiction): because someone has taken the care to look at something in this crazy world in a new way, and to present it to us like a gift. It allows us to see anew. No wonder we adore writers who can pull it off.
2. The original idea is still present in the final product. The opening pages of The Drunken Botanist replay the moment when the idea for the book came into the author’s head. These pages are my new favorite description of the moment of literary inspiration. The author was out in the world living her life – at a book signing, actually, where she was hobnobbing with another garden writer. (Stewart is the author of 5 other books – about earthworms, and poisonous plants, among other things.) She got caught up in a moment of passion – for food, for drink, for teaching. She embraced that moment. And here’s the thrilling part: in a liquor store, while on a wild goose chase for ingredients to make a particular drink, she recognized the possibility of what was happening. “We weren’t in a liquor store anymore. We were in a fantastical greenhouse, the world’s most exotic botanical garden, the sort of strange and overgrown conservatory we only encounter in our dreams.” She recognized, in other words, the Big Idea.
Stewart later explained to NPR's Renee Montagne how the book came into being. "I was talking about [how] we, as gardeners, should be more interested in this stuff. I mean, look at a bottle of gin. There's nothing in that bottle that isn't a plant. And the evening wears on, and I finally said, 'Somebody ought to write a book about this!' And all my friends said, 'Yeah, why don't you do it? You're the one who can't shut up about it!' "
And, to her great credit, she DID. She didn’t just talk, she acted to make a good idea great, all the while holding onto the initial spark of the idea.
3. The Table of Contents (see below) is a work of art. It is one page long, and in that one page, it tells the entire story. We can see the whole book here. We know what we are going to get, why we are going to get it, and why it might matter to us. We also know that the creator of this TOC is (again) funny, but now we also know that she is witty and smart, that she has done a ton of research, that she knows her stuff, and – this is the critical thing – that she has pared things down. There is no fat in this TOC. It is sleek and lean. It reminds me in many ways of the structure of Elizabeth Gilbert’s mega seller, Eat, Pray Love. The structure is elegant, and elegance rarely happens by accident. I often push and push my writers to be able to write a TOC before they begin – and for fiction, too, although it would take a different form. I do this not so that the writer masters the content and plot, although that obviously helps them write a better book; I do this so that the writer masters her intention. What, exactly, are you doing? Do you know your intention well enough to describe it in one page? Yes, your structure may morph and change as you write, but if you start by trying to be this clear, this cohesive, and this awesome, very good things are bound to happen as you work:
4. There is no doubt who this book is for – and that, too, is structure. The author could have made a how-to book just for bartenders or for gardeners, or a jokey book for college kids, or a cookbook for chefs. She chose, instead, to make a book that would appeal to a 22-year old young woman who just got a new job at a book retailer and a 50-year old man craft beer aficionado – and that is just in my house alone. She clearly wanted the appeal of her book to be broad – more NPR, as it turns out, than Urban Outfitters or Williams Sonoma -- which is one of the reasons I bet that powerhouse independent publisher Algonquin decided to publish it. Stewart wanted her book to be savored and cherished, and not just a quirky one-off gift book. At the end of her preface, she states her intention:
“Every great drink starts with a plant. If you’re a gardener, I hope this book inspired a cocktail party. If you’re a bartender, I hope you’re persuaded to put up a greenhouse or a least plant a window box. I want everyone who wants through a botanical garden or hikes a mountain ridge to see now just greenery but the very elixir of life – the aqua vitae – that the plant world has given us. I’ve always found horticulture to be an agreeably intoxicating subject; I hope you will, too. Cheers!”
The structure of the book – which is open and welcoming, and which promises knowledge and delight as well as straightforward how-to – is designed for a certain reader, who will use it in a certain way. The form of it, in other words, follows the function. You have to start by knowing your function, which in the case of a book, is knowing how your reader will approach it, how they will use it, and why they will cherish it.
5. The book is part of a bigger picture strategy -- which is structure, too. On her website and the flyleafs of her book, Amy Stewart is described like this: “the award-winning author of six books on the perils and pleasures of the natural world.” I love that description, and you can easily see why Stewart is a popular speaker at garden clubs and morning talk shows and radio talk shows and places like Google, who pride themselves on brining in inspiring speakers. Her books fit together in a cohesive whole. She has carved out some territory that is all hers. She has made her work be about something much larger than her own passions and ideas, and she has, therefore, built a solid career from her work.
It just so happens that I own the first book Stewart wrote, From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden, published in 2000, six of her books ago. I am not a gardener; I remember buying that book because of its elegant structure. Here was a young writer and gardener, writing a story that could easily have been self indulgent and pedestrian, but her approach elevated the material. She took the stuff of life and made a story out of it. I remember being impressed. I still have the book on my shelf, but had lost track of Stewart. What a great pleasure it was to re-discover her through my daughter’s new book – and to see that ever since that first book, Stewart has just been getting better and better at what she began in From The Ground Up. Take a look at all her books. You can see in just their titles and book jacket copy her instinct for putting material into powerful shapes.
6. The hardback book is gorgeous. The physical thing itself is a handsome object filled with interesting fonts, unusual page design, color and illustrations. It has heft and weight. The hardback copy that was under our Christmas tree already has dog-earred pages and underlines – the kind of book people intend to read again and again, the kind of book you want on your shelf. Many writers dream of having a book like this – a book a publisher has poured a lot of money into. But be sure you don't put the dream before the idea. Publishers don’t make books like this for just any vague idea. They reserve this treatment for ideas that hit all the high points we had discussed here.
What can you do in 2015 to move your ideas from good to great? What can you do to be worthy of that kind of treatment? How can you use structure to support and enhance and trumpet your ideas?