How I Write Books

  1. I want to read a book.
  2. That particular book doesn’t exist.
  3. I write it.

Thankfully, most of the time I want to read a book, it already exists, so I read it.

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Complement with A Recipe for Adventure, the story behind Borderless, and Five Lessons I Learned Writing Veil.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers.

Scholars of Causation

I interviewed Stewart Brand about writing The Maintenance Race.

The Maintenance Race tells the thrilling story of a 1968 solo sailing race around the world, a feat that had never before been attempted. It follows three competitors—the man who won, the man who chose not to win, and the man who cheated—illuminating what their respective journeys reveal about the art of maintenance.

Yes, that’s right, maintenance: the critical but rarely celebrated work of keeping systems running smoothly. We all know we should maintain what we care about: our possessions, our relationships, ourselves—but it’s always tempting to skip to the hot new thing that captures our attention, letting our lives fall into disrepair in the process. The Maintenance Race will show you why maintenance matters and how bringing the full scope of your care and attention to bear on it can be transformative—the story sucked me in from the first sentence and inspired me to apply its ideas to my own projects.

Stewart has led a long and fascinating life that I can’t even begin to summarize here, but that I highly recommend you investigate further—this film and this podcast interview are great places to start. He is the president of the Long Now Foundation (I’m a proud member), the founder of Whole Earth Catalog and the WELL, and the author of many books, including How Buildings Learn.

In the following conversation, we discuss why maintenance matters and the creative process behind The Maintenance Race, which is the standalone opening chapter of Stewart's forthcoming book.

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What is the origin story of The Maintenance Race and the book it may ultimately grow to become? What made you realize this is a story you need to tell? How has the project evolved since you first conceived it?

A friend named Garrett Gruener said “Why don’t you do a book about maintenance?” I replied politely “Yeah, I wish someone would do that, but it’s not me.  I have a book I’m working on.” By next morning the book I wanted to write had a title, Maintenance. That was two and a half years ago. The research keeps surprising me. I have to continue it until it doesn’t—until it begins to close on itself, and I know what my news can be.

My discovery of the Golden Globe race came from briefly knowing one the legendary competitors, Bernard Moitessier. Years ago I read his book The Long Way, so I knew about his exemplary maintenance stye. Hugh Howey suggested I compare him to Donald Crowhurst. I had read the book about him too. Rereading them I discovered Robin Knox-Johnston. I had characters. I had saga. The rest was just research and writing.

You released the first chapter, The Maintenance Race, as a standalone Audible Original and asked listeners to share feedback to help inform whether and how you write subsequent chapters. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned from listeners so far?

I used to buy Buckminster Fuller’s admonition, “NEVER show half-finished work.” For some writers that means: "Don’t even tell anyone what you’re working on.” I’m now persuaded that the opposite works best, at least for me.

I think it’s worth knowing as soon as possible if the thing you want to build is going to take on a life of its own—if it’s going to “make circuit” with the world (in Gregory Bateson’s terminology). Software developers hasten to build an MVP—Minimum Viable Product—to connect with early users and get a sense of how to shape the product around real use. (Amazon developers prefer test launching of a “Minimum Loveable Product”—a more demanding exercise.)

I saw that the first chapter for my barely-started book Maintenance: Of Everything was working out surprisingly well and looked like it could stand alone. So I polished it up enough to send to some magazines; they weren’t interested. For fact checking I had sent an early draft to a friend, writer Hugh Howey, who was long a professional sailboat skipper. He loved it, critiqued it (overnight!), and sent it to his friend Don Katz, founder and executive chairman of Audible Inc.

Don liked it and sent it to David Blum, editor-in-chief of Audible Originals, who liked it and assigned it to pruducer Rachel Hamburg, who deftly guided me through the process of improving the story’s listenability. When I asked my friend Peter Coyote if he would consider narrating the story, he recommended his beloved acting teacher Richard Seyd (who was born with a British accent appropriate to a mostly-British story).

I specify all this to honor the extensive handing-around by supportive people that is involved in getting any piece of writing into the world. 

The most surprising feedback? Many wondered how I could possibly make the rest of the book as gripping as the first chapter. Now I wonder too.

The Maintenance Race is a thriller: it makes you want to find out what happens next even as it makes you think. How do you think about the relationship between stories and ideas? How are you going about weaving them together to create this book?

The start is where you lose or win the reader. My title might as well have been Maintenance: The World’s Most Boring Subject. For most of us, maintenance is only interesting when it is life-critical, like with airplanes. Sailing alone for half a year in the murderous Southern Ocean qualifies. Add competition. Add true-life legends at their mythic best. With luck you might boil the reader’s blood a bit.

My medium is journalistic essays—lots of news, with enough argument to hold it together and maybe give it direction. I try to give the reader sufficient information—all of it hopefully “new, true, important, and well written”—for them to find their own argument in it and disagree with mine if they choose.

Narrative is what our mind craves, but there is a problem. David Krakauer voiced it this month in Parallax—the newsletter of Santa Fe Institute, which studies complexity. He wrote that narrative is "a sequence of limited and dominant cause/effect relations required to explain the present in terms of a contingent past."

To make a story work, the past is adjusted to explain the present in a satisfying way. The punchline shapes how the joke develops. The moral determines the fable. Narrative is always a simplistic lie, compared with the boundlessly multi-causal-at-multiple-scales real world.

My Chapter 1 is a morality tale where the several outcomes in the infamous 1968 Golden Globe Sailboat Race are explained in terms of differing modes of boat maintenance. Dramatic! Persuasive!  True too!—to the facts that are reported. The moral determined the fable. I can’t do that with the rest of the book.

In his Parallax essay, Krakauer goes on to write, "One way to apprehend this complexity is through methods or frameworks that can deal with irreducible complexity, either with coarse-graining observations and understanding how much information is being lost, or by working within methods that eschew easy explanations in terms of patterns and schemes that provide a means of classifying varieties of historical sequence.”

But don't we ultimately need to derive explanations that are sufficiently straightforward to inform action, and wouldn't any such explanation fall right back into the clockwork trap (and make for a great story)? If complexity is indeed irreducible, then what we can we learn from it beyond humility?

It’s good to regard narratives with suspicion always. Each is just one path through reality, not reality itself. For those interested in becoming liberated from the narrow-mindedness of stories, explorers of non-narrative understanding include Krakauer's Santa Fe Institute (where I was a board member for 14 years), Philip Tetlock (trainer of “superforecasters”), and Judea Pearl (author of The Book of Why).

Maintainers are massive scholars of causation. They routinely have to figure out why something stopped working, and it can be maddening. Each success is a compelling detective story. Once they understand the problem (or have a guess they’re willing to work with), they have to figure out what to do about it. Each of those successes is a caper story. In The Maintenance Race an example is Bernard Moitessier figuring out how to fix his disastrously bent bowsprit, at sea, by himself.

Why is it so easy to underinvest in maintenance, whether it’s of physical infrastructure, personal relationships, software, public institutions, or anything else? What can we learn about ourselves and our blindspots from observing maintenance failures?

The short answer is mismanaged priority lists. We tend to let our lists be dominated by things that are urgent, that require immediate action. Things that are profoundly important but don’t require immediate action—like maintenance—go so far down the list they seldom get dealt with, or they get only half-hearted, feeble attention.

What differentiates masters of maintenance?  How do maintenance and long-term thinking relate to each other? How is your work at the Long Now Foundation influencing the book, and vice versa?

Maintainers are habitual long-term thinkers. At The Long Now Foundation we’re treating my research on maintenance as an informal Long Now project. A related formal project, led by our executive director Alexander Rose, is the Organizational Continuity Project examining how really long-lived and long-valuable institutions manage to keep themselves useful for centuries. Institutional maintenance.

What’s the most unexpected thing you’ve discovered researching the book? What’s taken you by surprise, and how has it changed what maintenance means to you?

The most news for me keeps coming from software engineers. Yeah, software eats the world, and maintenance eats software developers. The fixing and adjusting never stops. It is so complex and tedious the developers are always trying out better designs to minimize it. When stuck with it they try to automate around it. And still it eats them. The clever results of their inventiveness can help any other maintenance domain that chooses to pay attention.

How are you planning to maintain a book about maintenance? What strategies are you employing in researching, writing, and publishing this book to help it survive and thrive for the long run?

The book will be similar to my How Buildings Learn in some ways. I expect it to be richly illustrated throughout. I was once a photojournalist and still prefer to communicate that way. But a major difference is that this book can’t attemp to be comprehensive the way my buildings book was. (A measure of success with that is that How Buildings Learn continues to sell well 18 years later without revisions, and no other book has tried to replace it. Of course that success may also be a measure of how static the building trades are. Nobody is growing bio-buildings yet.)

Like my buildings-in-time book, this one is introducing a broad topic—maintenance-in-general. But it can only be introductory. Each of its chapter (on vehicles, aerospace, cities, Japan, civilization, planet, etc.) could be, with vast research, an entire book. And to stay relevant each such “book” would have to live online and be updated continuously by a large team. So, forget that. All I can do is introduce. That will make it a short-lived book.

What might last, if I’m successful, is interest in the subject as a general one. I’ve scanned and read hundreds of books so far in my research. In very few of them is “maintenance” even an item in the index. An indication of success for my book would be if “maintenance” starts showing up as an index item in a wide variety of books, the way “infrastructure” now does, for example.

So. The range of my chapters is so wide, I need all the help I can find to fact-check, correct, improve, and comment on what I write. I plan to pre-publish chapter drafts online and sometimes elsewhere—as I did with The Maintenance Race—and invite assistance. Will that help or hurt eventual book sales?  Who cares? I just want text and imagery that has been de-bugged by a lot of eyeballs.

What should fans of The Maintenance Race read while they wait for the next chapter? What books have shaped your thinking on this subject in unexpected ways?

The four wonderful Golden Globe books are: 

Some books that have surprised me and shaped where I might go with the book are: 

Can you share anything about the next chapter?

My second chapter is titled “Vehicle,” starting of course with motorcycles. And of course I draw on Robert Persig’s celebrated Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Since my book will be illustrated in color, I looked for imagery.

Most people know that Persig's brilliant philosophy book is based on a real motorcycle road trip that he and his son took, across the American west. What most don’t know is that their trip companions took a few photos. This is one:


In the summer of 1968 Robert Persig was photographed at a roadside stop (I think in South Dakota) by Sylvia Sutherland. His troubled 11-year-old son Chris is on the back with the camp gear and motorcycle tools. Maintenance of the motorcycle was described in detail throughout the book, but its make and model were never mentioned. It was a 1966 Honda CB77F “Super Hawk”—Honda’s first sport bike. Persig kept it the rest of his life. It is now in the Smithsonian.

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Complement with Kevin Kelly on the Technology Trends that Will Shape the Next 30 Years, How Richard Feynman Made Sense of Complex Ideas, and Kim Stanley Robinson on Inventing Plausible Utopias.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers.

A Recipe for Adventure

  1. Welcome to my life/world which is stable until…
  2. …something disrupts it, launching me on…
  3. …a journey into the unknown where I’m beset by…
  4. …progressive complications that ultimately threaten what I care about most until…
  5. …all is lost and I must…
  6. …transform my life/world…
  7. …welcome to my new life/world.
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Complement with A Brief Anatomy of StoryThe Path, and Advice for Authors.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers.

Heroes Are Whoever's Left When Everyone Else Runs Away

I interviewed Andy Weir about writing Project Hail Mary.

Project Hail Mary follows an unlikely astronaut on a desperate mission to save the solar system from a spacefaring bacteria that eats sunlight. It’s an immensely entertaining adventure that will teach you more real science than you learned in high school. Never has a novel so deserved the moniker science fiction.

A software engineer turned novelist who's been obsessed with space since childhood, Andy is the author of Artemis, Chesire Crossing, and The Martian, which Ridley Scott adapted into a blockbuster film starring Matt Damon.

In the following conversation, we discuss Andy’s creative process and the story behind Project Hail Mary.

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What is Project Hail Mary’s origin story? How did it grow from the first glimmer of an idea into the book I’m holding in my hands right now?

It was actually a collection of unrelated story ideas I had been brewing. I was working on an idea where a guy wakes up aboard a spaceship with amnesia, another idea about a maximum efficiency rocket fuel, an idea where a single person has more authority than any human being has ever had in history, and a few other concepts I don't want to say because it would spoil the book. But basically, I was working each one as a potential book and none of them were enough meat to be a story. But when I put them all together, it worked out great!

What does it mean to become a hero? What did you discover about living your own life by inventing the journey at the heart of this novel?

I think the best quote about heroism is, "Heroes are whoever's left when everyone else runs away." Sometimes it's just what you have to do because the alternative is unthinkable.

So much of Project Hail Mary is about solving problems, many of which appear intractable. How do you approach solving problems, and what did you learn from the protagonists about problem-solving?

I like to break them up into small, bite-sized pieces. Fix all these little problems and you'll be able to fix the big problem.

In researching Project Hail Mary, what surprised you most about advances in space technologies? What do the headlines miss? What key implications are under-appreciated?

There's been a lot of advances in zero-g 3D printing. They haven't been talked about much in the news, but it's an exciting field of study. Imagine putting all the mass for a space station up as a liquid slurry—taking the minimum possible volume, then having a 3D printer in space slowly make your station out of it. No more having to fit chunks into a rocket. Just send more 3D juice.

What are the most interesting aspects of the relationship between science and engineering? Why are they—and the feedback loop between them—so important?

Well, science is speculative and engineering is hands-on. You need both to accomplish anything.

What did choosing to make the protagonist a science teacher teach you about science education? How can science education and communication be improved?

Well I didn't go at it with the idea of focusing on teachers. I just wanted some explanation for his personality and that seemed to suit well.

What does science fiction mean to you? What role does it play in the culture?

To me, sci-fi is a setting, not a genre. It's more like saying "Chicago" than saying "Comedy.” Because you can have a sci-fi comedy. Or a sci-fi drama. Or sci-fi action. Romance. You name it. It's a background for your story.

As for culture—I don't think much along those lines. I just write to entertain. I don't delude myself into thinking I'm doing any great service for culture.

What did writing Project Hail Mary teach you about craft? What creative challenges did you grapple with that were different than your previous books?

My biggest challenge was figuring out how to exposition all the stuff that lead to the ship being built and launched. The flashback approach worked well.

How has your relationship with your readers evolved since The Martian?

I don't think it's changed much. I still answer all fan mail and reply to all Facebook DMs.

What books have changed your life? What should fans of Project Hail Mary read next?

I don't know if a book has ever changed my life. Though if you like hard science fiction, I recommend The Expanse series. Book one is Leviathan Wakes.

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Complement with Cory Doctorow on writing Attack Surface, Daniel Suarez on writing Change Agent, and five lessons I learned writing Veil.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers.

A Swing, a Miss, and a Burrito

To whomever needs to hear this: I just took a big swing, gave it my all, and missed.

I'm not gonna lie, it sucks.

The details don’t matter, but this does: If I had known it would work at the outset, it wouldn't have been worth doing. Making art requires taking real risks. Courage isn’t the absence of fear, but its answer. You can’t get somewhere new without venturing into the unknown.

Now, please excuse me while I go eat a burrito... and get back to work.

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Complement with Creativity is a Choice, Lasting Value, and Reassurance.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers.

Rugby

I played rugby in high school. I was never particularly good, or even particularly passionate about it, but playing rugby taught me an important lesson that has stuck with me ever since.

Growing up, I wasn’t a traditional geek or a traditional jock or really a traditional anything. I was curious, bookish, a little aloof, and abhorred conflict. I was on the math team and the basketball team. Because I was tall and athletic, I was lucky to never be a victim of bullying. To this day, I’ve only been in a single physical fight in my entire life: an awkward grappling match with another third grader on the front steps of my elementary school. I can’t remember what it was about, or who won.

Needless to say, the physicality of rugby came as a shock to me. We ran endless drills where you either tackled or were tackled. Imagine someone bigger, stronger, and faster than you running straight at you and your entire job is to throw your body at theirs at full speed and bring them to the ground where other players will pile on top, rucking for the ball. Now imagine that it’s not a drill, but a tournament, and that the guy sprinting toward you is an opponent, not a teammate, and that victory depends on you taking him down.

Frankly, it was harrowing.

No, I do not play rugby anymore.

But rugby taught me that if you really care about something, you have to be willing to take hits for it. In fact, really caring about something means being willing to take hits for it. Courage is a skill. You can practice it. You can develop it. Every time you feel afraid is an opportunity to summon it, whether in business, activism, art, marriage, sport, or any other arena. If you seek out your fears and face them, new worlds will open to you, worlds full of new fears for you to overcome. And then one day you’ll realize that wisdom is just what courage looks like in the rearview mirror.

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Complement with Be Bold, The Path, and How to Kill a Dragon.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers.

Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone on writing This Is How You Lose the Time War

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is a mind-expanding, heart-wrenching tale of dastardly intrigue and burgeoning romance that follows two supremely competent secret agents traveling through time to bend the arc of history toward their respective masters' incompatible political ends. The story is a shining example of the authors' lovely definition of literature in the acknowledgements: "Books are letters in bottles, cast into the waves of time, from one person trying to save the world to another."

Among other wonderful things, Max is the bestselling author of the Craft Sequence, and Amal is the New York Times Book Review's science fiction and fantasy columnist. Both are Hugo and Nebula Award-winners and are as generous as they are brilliant. In the following conversation, we explore their creative process, the power of speculative fiction, and how letters warp time and kindle intimacy.

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What is This Is How You Lose the Time War's origin story? How did you decide to write this particular book together?

Max: We knew we wanted to write a book together long before we knew we wanted to write this book. I came off a book tour one summer feeling a powerful need for solitude, and at the same time for deep connection, as one does after a week or two of the constant light chat that characterizes that sort of thing. I was feeling the miles. I found myself at an Italian restaurant near the Flatiron with a glass of wine and a folder of short stories Amal had sent me. We’d been corresponding—writing each other letters—for about a year by this point, but I hadn’t been able to receive any letters on the road, of course. The stories stood in for letters. Reading them I thought: these are great, they’re really really great, and there’s so much here that I’d love to learn from, and to work with, to work against. I started texting her as I left the restaurant. We need to write a book! It’ll bring the universe into harmony! And let dolphins sing!

How did writing the book change your understanding of time, love, and war? How do you read history differently having written about secret agents dueling to shape it?

Amal: I think we were both coming to the book with a sense of wonder around the expression of time in hand-written letters—that sense of folding up a singular moment of yourself and sending it into the future to be read by a person who doesn’t yet exist, and who’ll be reading a letter from a person who no longer exists, but was preserved in the amber of ink on paper. Wonder, too, around time’s stoppages: that a letter can include someone having stopped, perhaps even mid-sentence, walked away, and returned to the letter three days later, while the person receiving the letter reads it smoothly in a sitting. Or vice versa! These all seemed to touch on conceptions of time travel and intimacy—the vulnerability of committing a truth of yourself to your invention of a person—that we were already talking about, already developing, but getting to explore and articulate and develop them in the book, together, was just tremendous.

If This Is How You Lose the Time War is a conversation between the two of you, how does Red and Blue's correspondence reflect your joint creative process? What do you hope readers glean from your message in a bottle?

Amal: That sense of striving together, “against and for,” as we say in the book—of wanting to impress each other while pushing against our limits, our comfort zones, our areas of familiarity—was very much part of our writing process! You might find, too, as you read the book, that their insights and styles are blending a little—purpling, you might say—as they share themselves with each other, and this was very much our experience in crafting it. At the beginning of the process, Max wrote about four times as quickly as me, and had to wait for me to finish my sections; by Act Two, he slowed down and I sped up to the point where we were finishing at exactly the same time. There was definitely a feeling of… Synchronizing with each other, reaching towards each other, admiring and encouraging each other.

What did you learn about craft from cowriting the book? What did you learn about each other? What did the experience teach you? What advice can you offer other writers looking to develop and grow?

Max: It was so great to have someone specific in mind—as a reader, as audience, but also as a sort of good-natured competitor. Amal would write a line that totally slayed me, just laid me out on the mat, and I’d think, shit, I have to give her something back that’s at least that good. You get that sense of two rabbits racing one another. And then there’s the joy of swapping laptops, each seeing what the other one has written—cackling, because it’s better than you ever could have guessed. I think it’s important to write for an audience that impresses you.

What role does science fiction play in our culture? What does literature mean to you?

Max: Right now we’re in a culture of science fiction. Marketers spin science fictions to sell apps and technologies and political philosophies. I think science fiction, correctly practiced, can help see the water we’re swimming in, understand its weaknesses and failure modes. The rhetorical tools of science fiction (and fantasy) can tease out the implicit metaphors in our lives. If you’ve never had a headache before, you might need one described to you before you realize that’s why you’re miserable this afternoon, and take corrective action.

What books have changed each of your lives, influenced who you are becoming? What other books would fans of This Is How You Lose the Time War enjoy?

Amal: One of mine is in This Is How You Lose the Time War—I have Blue mention Naomi Mitchison’s Travel Light, about which I’ve written elsewhere (in fact, the first thing of mine that Max read, if I’m not mistaken—before we’d met or exchanged words!). A more recent one is Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, which feels like the kind of book that arrives once a generation to just illuminate all the neglected corners of your soul and befriend the spiders making homes there. In terms of things fans of our book might enjoy—Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan books (A Memory Called Empire and A Desolation Called Peace), Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga (Jade City, Jade War, Jade Legacy), Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower, and Sofia Samatar’s Olondria books (A Stranger in Olondria, The Winged Histories) are the tip of the iceberg of things I’d like to recommend.

Max: In case anyone who’s read This Is How You Lose the Time War hasn’t read Madeline Miller’s books, I think Song of Achilles and Circe are brilliant, must-reads. Beyond that—these aren’t necessarily anything like Time War but they are books that found me like a rope finds someone at the bottom of a deep dark pit: Kay Ryan’s poetry collection The Best of It, Sarah Caudwell’s brilliant, witty, sly Hillary Tamar mysteries beginning with Thus Was Adonis Murdered, and Karin Tidbeck’s short story collection Jagganath.

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Complement with Alix E. Harrow on writing The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Meg Howrey on writing The Wanderers, and my recent TechCrunch interview about how speculative fiction empowers readers to challenge the status quo.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers.