Thoughts on book drafting: episode 3

In the introduction to his translation of Virgil’s Eclogues, Guy Lee writes, “Of his writing [Virgil] used to say that he composed ‘like a bear’, referring to a popular belief that a bear’s cubs were shapeless and sprawling at birth and had to be licked into shape and proportion by their mother…” (19)

I seem to have a similar approach to book drafting.

Drafts six, seven, eight, and nine (which is where I am now) have come in quick succession within this calendar year.  In fact, with draft eight, all the basic structural elements and the sequencing and flow of the photographs were finally complete.  The changes that are now occurring are refinements in the typography and text page design.  I anticipate making about two more drafts as I fiddle with these elements before the final PDF is sent to the printer… In Sha’Allah.

But, let’s step back to draft six and the story about looking at photographs in Japanese – which is where we ended episode 2.

Before my walking pilgrimage in Japan in 2010, I stayed at a friendly youth hostel in Tokyo.  While there, I made friends with the manager, and one day we looked through a few of my online portfolios together. I speak Japanese well enough to hold a normal conversation, but not well enough to explain, in detail, about the Islamic scholarship of Timbuktu.  So, as we looked through the portfolio, her understanding of the story had to come primarily from the photographs themselves.  She loved my portfolio on the Camino de Santiago, and she understood the trials of the journey right away.  However, although no criticisms were voiced, I realized that while she appreciated each individual photographs’ beauty, she did not come away from the Timbuktu work with any new knowledge or understanding.  By themselves, the photographs were not yet telling their story…

After draft five, I knew that I had a very solid core edit of photographs.  However, the sequence needed work.  It needed revision until the photographs could line up, and even without captions, create a clear impact, and voice a clear story.  To make this happen, I dissolved all bindings and created a new set of small mini-prints that could be shuffled and laid out like tarot cards on the dinner table….except, I always played with them at breakfast.

scan of the sixth draft

scan of the sixth draft

scan of the sixth draft

scan of the sixth draft

Every morning (this took about a month), I would stare at my lines of cards, reading the story visually anew each day and reconsidering what was redundant, what was necessary, and how each image flowed into the next.  In the process, the edit became very, very tight and the story became much more clear.  Some very favorite photographs were left out of the book, but in exchange, a beautiful story is told clearly, effectively, and simply.

The next step (which was the seventh draft) was to re-bind this new sequence into the form and size of a book.  This was done with the help of a wonderful substance called Japanese masking tape – which is almost a completely different species from its rough American cousin – and a store-bought French notebook.  The seventh draft worked, and it worked as a book.  As I re-wrote the text elements and pasted them into this draft over the course of another month, it still worked.

scan of the seventh draft, interior

scan of the seventh draft, interior

scan of the seventh draft, cover

scan of the seventh draft, cover

It was thus time to move back to the computer, create a new PDF in In-design, and thus create draft eight (which is quite simply another letter paper and scotch-tape test of the design) and draft nine: the second print on demand trial…  But, this time, when draft nine arrived in the mail, it worked.  Finally, finally, finally, it’s working.

There is plenty left to do in the coming months: copy editing, reviewing the translations, refining the typography, perfecting each chosen photograph…but the foundation and the structure is sound.

Now that this part of the journey is coming to an end, I suspect that a new series is developing…all about the pre-press and the printing process…


Citation:  Virgil, and Guy Lee. The Eclogues. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1984. Print.

And remember to support my book “333 Saints: a Life of Scholarship in Timbuktu”

 partial scan of the eighth draft, interior

partial scan of the eighth draft, interior

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