I'm told that everybody has past behavior that arouses astonished head shaking, and in my case the very top of that list dates to college: I did not "trust" the concept of outlining in preparation for writing. I maintained that by outlining an essay, I would rob it of spontaneity--at least that's the line I'd spout when the topic came up. (Although I just referred to "an essay," outlining can be just as important when writing fiction, but this post only deals with nonfiction book writing.)
The truth, I expect, had more to do with my refusal to reliquish control. If I didn't formally set out the bones of the piece beforehand, I could always fall back on that as my excuse when it emerged half-baked. On the (rare) occasions when the composed result managed to be creditable, I could honestly claim not to have worked from an outline.
These days, my head shaking over this is more amused than judgmental mainly because it is something far behind me. The luxury of retrospection has revealed what must have been my real reason for balking at outlining, however—performing the process effectively is hard!
It is also crucial, for three particular reasons:
- Outlining jolts the brain into gear by insisting that it focus on the subject at hand in a disciplined way that, at least initially, accommodates only broad strokes, not fine details. It imposes structure.
- It then encourages free-form "pencil gabbing" to bring to the fore all those micro-ideas you notice floating in and out behind your eyes for split seconds, always at inconvenient moments.
- A workable outline finally demands that the results of numbers 1 + 2 take shape in order to = a clear, cogent, and sequential guide the writer/compiler actually can use.
I always find it instructive to discuss these three components with a new client for whom we develop content. More times than not, they are as reticent about outline construction as I used to be, although maybe for different reasons. For one thing, some people seem to construe the outline phase to be a method for ratcheting up the cost of making a book. When I single out those VAI projects that didn't begin with a competent outline, however, chances are pretty good that I'm pointing to those that suffered from the highest budget gaffes.
If you don't begin with a strong, carefully composed spine for the book, all its limbs tremble and waver, and throughout the entire production process it never quite gets its feet under it. The outline offers a metric against which to measure all sorts of things: How is writing progress measuring up next to the schedule? Does that charming picture really advance the book's purpose, or is it just enticement to a tangent? Will devoting 20 pages to a discussion of an obscure event or idea help readers comprehend the book's message? Or is it more likely to encourage them to shut the book, never to resume reading? A good outline even can help manage budgetary issues.
All this said, it's crucial to understand that an outline must never be permitted to be seen as more than a tool. Just like the book it underpins, it must function as a "living" organism that can zig here or zag there as new ideas and facts come into play. A historian once told me about writing his Ph.D. dissertation by hewing unfailingly to what he termed his "wrought-iron chastity belt." During his research, he came across evidence showing his theory to be misdirected, but the outline permitted no deviation, so his first-draft dissertation was rejected for being "unconvincing."
"How could it have been convincing?" he mused. "I no longer believed what I was writing!"
Bookshelves are littered with remarkable displays of authorial erudition that clearly sprang full-blown from the heads of their authors who wrote without the focusing, refining process of outline compilation. If they had, their books could have stood alongside other important publications often dubbed "classics." Instead, a lack of organization consigns many to second- (or third-) rate status. No matter how beautifully wrought the prose, if the content doesn't deliver on its promise, can the remainder bin be far behind?
For each of the books we package, it continues to be my goal that the text communicate what needs to be told by being both engaging and well expressed. That tangential material be included only in the service of the argument, and that holes in the thesis never be left gaping to confuse readers. A well-made outline puts us several steps closer to those goals from the outset.
Looking back at the first half of 2012, it's a little surprising I remember much of anything. Those six months were more frantic and fraught than any other half-year period in our 18-year history, and at times each day seemed like a blur. Now that the books are out in the world, however, we have three reasons for pride--even a little boasting--that represent very different aspects of the publishing category "museum books" and demonstrate once again how we are always learning new things in this work.
As always, each book had its own unusual requirements and challenges, but each truly has its own story. One was a major collection catalogue, while the others were exhibition publications. One had been in the making for many years, while another was put together with what all referred to as a "fast-track" schedule that seemed absolutely luxurious when the third one ended up being produced in a little more than three months. Every one was instructive, and today, looking through any of them provides frissons of pleasure too seldom enjoyed after the fact.
Our frequent client, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, asked VAI to edit, design, and produce the catalogue for Ansel Adams: At the Water's Edge, its major summer exhibition. Anyone who has seen an original print of an Adams photograph has marveled at its technical virtuosity. Trouble is, people have become accustomed to the flat, lifeless images so often reproduced in books, so they forget what a master Adams was. It was our goal to produce a book that would bring this visual quality back to the fore. Teaming up with Capital Offset in Concord, New Hampshire, proved just the ticket, and the stunning book they delivered conveys so much of the magic of Adams' prints.
The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, a new client, brought us in to edit, design, and produce the catalogue for their lead summer exhibition on archaeology in northern China. The museum's founder led a groundbreaking expedition through these lands in 1908, and this show celebrates the 100th anniversary of the publication of Clark's book about the experience.
We were commissioned to produce the catalogue for Unearthed: Recent Archaeological Discoveries in Northern China late last summer, but fast-developing diplomatic circumstances beyond the museum's control resulted in a sea change in both exhibition and book. Even though our work could not begin until this spring, thanks to the talent and dedication of all concerned, everybody rose to the occasion, especially Annette Juliano, the show's curator and book's author, and the Clark's outstanding curatorial and publications staff.
The piece around which this show revolves—a fifth-century stone sarcophagus built in the form of a Chinese house—presented enormous engineering challenges to transport it from China and reassemble it at the Clark. It also required our design department to find a way to exemplify its mass and presence without shortchanging the exquisite beauty of its overall design and the carvings on its exterior walls.
People who toil in the art book field for a living often tell about attending an exhibition after having edited or produced its catalogue and being amazed by the difference in this or that object. This time, however, I was completely unprepared for the actual pieces when I saw them in person. The exhibition experience had the quality of revisiting my hometown, where even though everything looks familiar, I can feel like a first-time visitor. This brought me to break with tradition, and immediately I re-read the book. Suddenly, so much made sense in ways it hadn't before.
Finally, the pièce de résistance: Treasures of Chinese Export Porcelain from the Peabody Essex Museum, by William R. Sargent. It may seem odd to describe a book dealing with exquisite, delicate, often tiny porcelain objectsas mammoth, but that describes this collection catalogue in so many ways. It was a multiyear labor of love for the author, the retired curator of the museum's astounding collection of Asian export art, and then took VAI almost three years to edit, check and cross-check, design, and lay out. The end result is a large-trim, 460-page, eight-pound tome that features some 278 objects from this world-class collection.
It represented another first for me. The author brought an advance copy to our office and, when I began to leaf through it, I occasionally found myself gasping in surprise. You might assume I'd know the book inside and out, but—again, thanks to Capital Offset—it truly is one of the most beautiful books I have ever laid eyes on—the kind I would have to own, even if I didn't know Chinese export ceramics from Fiestaware knockoffs.
Presently, Vern Associates is working with the University of Massachusetts Amherst to produce a book marking its sesquicentennial in 2013. A scholarly history of the school's first century, published in 1962, delves thoroughly into times and events from the founding in 1863 as a land grant agricultural college.
But UMass Amherst has always approached its mission in unexpected, innovative, and multifaceted ways, and our client wants this new book to follow a nonscholarly trajectory in order to entice and engage readers of all stripes. So this anniversary publication focuses more on the last 50 years and uses many illustrations to show its story rather than just tell it.
Similar to any anniversary-based organizational history, the UMass book must offer a coherent picture over time of the place, its people, and its ethos. We need to determine what will matter most both to posterity and present-day readers who are closest to the subject—alumni, faculty, and staff—but as outsiders, how do we determine what that is?
We suggested convening a "brainstorming" session to help lay the foundation for the book. UMass differs from most other anniversary-book clients in several ways, the most relevant to this post being the remarkable investment made by students, faculty, and administration in the university's present and future. This came through time and again in the process. What we envisioned as an hour of discussion with roughly a dozen participants morphed into two one-and-a-half-hour sessions, each with about 20 people.
The participants represented a wide array of faculty and staff. Not only were all major academic disciplines represented, so were people working with horticultural research, the library and archives, performing and visual arts programs, athletics, food services, the campus-planning office, and maintenance. Many were alumnae from earlier periods as well, while others had begun their work at UMass relatively recently.
We structured what the participants referred to as "focus groups" to progress from the general to the specific, expecting the five discussion areas to require increasing allotments of time as their specificity increased. Past experience has shown that the more conceptual questions—What should this book accomplish? Who is its primary audience?—can leave respondents uneasy or at loose ends, so we had allotted just 10 minutes to each discussion.
We were wrong. In both groups, every person had clear ideas about what the book needs to do and how it should do it. Predictably, as we went around the room, individuals frequently elaborated on ideas raised by someone ahead of them. Unpredictably, just about every person also offered new concepts as well. After roughly 20 minutes, we had to move on. (Frankly, I was concerned we would run out of time.)
But here I was wrong again. The three sections to which my plan originally allotted more time—What specific events/people/ideas must be included? What should not be included? Are there any particular pictures to consider or to stay away from?—flew by. The participants had ideas ready to go, and the difficulty was in writing on the flip pads quickly enough to capture everything offered.
At the end of the first session, everyone in the room was jazzed. Even though somewhat drained from all that fancy finger work with the Sharpie, the energy and excitement was so palpable it was impossible not to be caught up in it. Perhaps most extraordinary was the absence of "agendas" and "power plays" that can occur in such group exercises.
The second session was similar in many ways—participants' interest and engagement; timing of each area of discussion; positivity of the people in the room—but it was altogether a calmer, more considered process. Perhaps this had to do with its beginning at 3:30 on a September Friday. Nevertheless, we came away with just as many terrific ideas, comprehensive approaches, and unexpected nuggets of experience, many of which now stud the narrative in sidebars.
I've participated in too many brainstorming sessions or focus groups to be fooled into seeing those at UMass as representative. I am grateful for the cordial bonhomie, but I know better than to assume that might become the rule rather than the exception. Even so, the practice and process serve well regardless of the specific tenor of and personalities at any given meeting. The trick is to comprehend right out of the gate where the group wants to take you, then determine just how much of that to allow and how much to rein it in.