How I start writing a book
Plus, how the fossil fuel overlords are now duping us with plastic
It’s hit that time again for me. Time to write another book. I thought I’d share how I start the process, because I am often asked. All writers are, I think.
I’m curious first, then messy.
I should say, I don’t set out to write a book as such. I never have. I sense an ache in humanity and start asking questions, reading and seeking feedback from people around me as well as strangers in my e-community.
My bipolar mind picks up on an unresolved issue, or a collective pain, and then follows it down rabbit holes. This is one of the “superpowers” of being a neurotically sensitive and obsessed person. I’m grateful for it about 40% of the time.
I then circle like a dog trying to find the perfect spot to land in the ache, in all the information. I’m smelling the vibe of humans, I’m sifting, I’m doubting.
For a very long time in this process, there is no book on the horizon.
In fact, it very literally doesn’t occur to me to monetise or materialise my curious deep-dive until someone says to me, “Could you please write a book on it, you know put all your research and the stuff you’re keep sharing on the socials and at dinner parties in the one spot for the rest of us?”.
The book then becomes a journal of sorts of the later part of my investigation, often chronicled in real time.
I think this approach is not a bad one (if you’re looking for a “good approach”). You see, my aim is primarily to satisfy my curiosity. It’s a double whammy if a book eventuates, a triple whammy when the writing of the book cures my own ache (which it always does). The whole thing is a rather self-serving triple boon when does this way (from curiosity outwards).
I take a long time.
With I Quit Sugar I’d been researching and then tweeting my discoveries, including recipe experiments, for about 18 months before the whole darn lot became a book (I got onto Twitter before it arrived in Australia; I was sent to New York to do a story on it in 2009). I taught myself to make an ebook (I did a $100 online course ) and my ambition was to just get the information to everyone telling me they wanted it all in one spot (and to make back my hundred bucks). But it became an Amazon bestseller in 24 hours and a few months later it became a print book, which itself become a New York Times bestseller. Go figure.
With First we Make the Beautiful I took six years researching anxious theories before I felt I had a chunk of responsible, helpful information for readers. The final two years were chronicled as a journey that became the throughline of the book.
This One Wild and Precious Life was much the same. I set off hiking around the world to find a hopeful path through the complexity of the climate crisis because my initial rabbit-hold dive didn’t surface one. I wrote on the road for three years living out of a backpack.
My point here is this: Don’t fret if it takes a long time. As This American Life host Ira Glass once said,
“Anything any good takes a long time”.
I experiment and get feedback.
I’m awkwardly nervous about whether I’m on the right track when I write (with everything I do). Every sentence, every idea is fretted over. Thusly, all my books incorporate feedback from my social community (you guys!) as I go. This is the stage I’m currently at. And it’s why I launched this Substack newsletter – as a forum to flesh out big issues with you to see, once again, exactly where the ache resides.
All this said, I do eventually work from a marketing plan backwards.
Once I determine that my curious investigations might help others and could, indeed, become a book, I am all business.
I do this:
I write out one paragraph that outlines what I want the book to do and how I want it to reach people. Will it need to be presented as a book that resembles a journal? Will it need a national bookclub tour so that the complex, hard issues can be fleshed out in an IRL human way? What’s the USP that will grab TV producers? I jot down intersecting PR/social/above-and-below-the-line techniques that will need to weave together to get the book beneath eyeballs. Why? Because if it doesn’t “sell” as a marketable concept and product, it won’t sell into a reader’s heart and mind. It has to sing from the outset.
If you’re wondering how exactly I go about this, here you go:
I imagine myself discussing the book on a morning TV program, having to explain its worth in a bunch of soundbites. With Beast, I imagined NBC’s Today program in the US. As it turns out, two weeks before the book came out in the US I got a request to appear on the show with Carson Daly. Freaky!
As I say, I’m at the stage where I’m wrestling with this gnarly, awkward start process.
Everyone subscribed here, I’d love you to be part of the journey with me.
To topline where I’m heading: I’m trying to find a way to adapt to the new normal as the climate crisis rips through our existence.
I’m swirling around in ideas of: metamodernism, post-doom theory, stages theory.
I’ll be doing things differently: I’m one of a gazillion artists who has been done over by their publisher recently. The industry is gripping viciously as it fails to adjust to the new ways of content creation. The gripping sees some horrible gaslighting and abusive treatment of their assets (the artists). Needless to say, I’m going to be stepping out on my own, finding a model that can pay fairly, and ensure that my ethics - and mental health - are not compromised.
As part of all of this: I’ll be doing some fun interactive stuff with subscribers. If you’re keen to join the process of rabbit-hold diving with me, do feel free to chip in if you can spare the coin. (We’re talking $5 a month.) Paid subscribers you might have noticed I’ve started the process already with some QnA threads.
Plastic is the new coal. That’s the plan anyway.
a quick cheat sheet on the new plastic conspiracy, ‘cos you need to be armed for it
We get bamboozled, right? Climate change, plastics in oceans, fast fashion, takeaway coffee cups, biodiversity, burning koalas…where to start? What to prioritise?
The thing to know here: Focus on climate change. It’s by the far the most pressing concern. That is, the warming of the atmosphere as a result of gases that are released from the burning of fossil fuels, primarily carbon dioxide. There will be no coffee, let alone takeaway cups, if the planet gets too hot. There will be no humans to drink said coffee, if the planet gets too hot.
That said: the Fossil Fuel Industry (FFI) plans to burn more emissions making more plastic, which makes plastic a double disaster.
I’m going to do this rundown as quick water-cooler-ready points. We don’t have to wax any lycricals here. I know you want “just the facts, ma’am”. I want to get you armed, ready to deflect the assault:
So, to start, plastics are a molotov cocktail of fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels are used to make plastic - to maintain the high temperatures for refining and manufacturing (cracking). Plus, methane (80 times more potent than CO2)) is released during drilling, transport, and refining of the stuff.
When plastic starts to break down it releases greenhouse gases
When it winds up in oceans, it then interferes with the tiny algae plants that play an essential role in helping the oceans absorb excess carbon.
Less than 7% of plastic is recycled. The rest is often burned at an incinerator. And so more CO2.
But the Fossil Fuel Industry is working to increase plastic production.
In the US (alone) plastic will produce more greenhouse gas emissions than coal power by 2030.
The big petrochemical companies like ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, and Shell have put more than $200 billion into several hundred natural gas plastic and chemical facilities since 2010, according to the American Chemistry Council.
The World Economic Forum is projecting global plastics production to quadruple by 2050.
They falsified research during Covid (claiming plastic was the most pandemic-safe surface, when the reverse is true) to get US municipalities to reverse plastic bag bans. Serious!
And more recently they are flooding Africa with plastic, targeting countries like Kenya that worked hard to bring in single-use plastic bans.
Now why would they do that, specifically?
The FFI is dying. You and I are all swapping to renewable energy and electric cars at an exponential and exciting rate. Banks aren’t funding their projects. The FFI is freaking out and fighting back by flooding us with plastic as a new revenue model for their wares.
So here’s what to expect from the Fossil Fuel Overlords going forward (be warned):
They will dump campaigns around the place claiming that plastic waste is fine because it gets recycled. It’s already happening and it’s false news. Don’t buy it.
When plastic takes over our lives, they will put all the onus on us, the consumers. As per the usuals. I’m holding my breath for community billboards and TV ads cheerily telling us we can save the planet if we consume plastic and recycle it…just as BP was behind the “count your carbon footprint” concept and CocaCola was behind the “calories in, calories out” (ie sugar is fine, if you run it off) lie.
How does this fit in with these companies carbon neutral promises?
Well, funny that. The FFI has - FFS - conveniently carved out plastics from their ridiculous “quasi” commitments.
And by ridiculous, let’s use an example. Shell has spruiked they’re going carbon-neutral by 2050, not be reducing emissions, but by planting trees Um, but, wait…they’ll need 40% of all arable land on the planet to do this…hmmm…guess we’ll have to go without food.
For extra measure some extra plastic factlets:
By 2050 the ocean is expected to contain, by weight, more plastic than fish.
We already ingest a credit-card size amount of plastic each week.
Which is shrinking penises and reducing sperm. Research shows sperm counts could reach zero by 2045.
Less than 2 per cent of plastic is actually produced from recycled plastic waste.
Australia is one of the biggest generators of single-use plastic waste at nearly 60kg per person a year – ahead of the United States.
Which invites sharing this George Carlin skit…
one of my favourite moments in comedy. Please enjoy.
A stonking quote from Mary Hegler
justify that climate rage!
You might love following Hegler’s work. She’s a climate justice writer who speaks brutally compassionate truth (from time to time I’ll introduce y’ll to Great Voices to Know About). I gel with her take on climate rage which picks up on the five stages of grief theory that says we must pass through a bunch of emotions (denial, pain, depression etc) until we can reach acceptance:
“The thing about climate grief is that you can never get to the final stage of acceptance, because that’s the kiss of death. So you cycle in and out of all the other phases. Me? I like to stay in anger.”
And some little sign-off notes…
My Wild podcast chat this week is with the irrepressible Fearne Cotton. You can click here to be taken straight to your favourite platform (Apple, Spotify etc).
Can’t wait to see you at my Live Nation show. Tickets are selling fast, as they say. And if you’re in Sydney…I just confirmed you can use your NSW Dine and Discover voucher to buy your ticket! At the time of payment, open the Service NSW app on your phone and present your voucher QR Code.
Maintain Your Beautiful Rage,
I loved hearing about your creative process, thank you for sharing. I just signed up for a writing course next year called “Writing with your World”
This part of the course description really spoke to me “In these days of flatlined apocalypse, of unfeeling consumption, of enforced complicity with an unchosen culture, what words want to rise from the molten depths? What truths have you waited too long already to voice? What outrages, passions, and loves for this tender wild planet and your own particular bioregion are aching for your written fidelity? “
I wondered if you would ever consider running a workshop or course on writing and activism? Or your own version of David Whyte’s hiking and poetry retreats? I know that’s a huge undertaking, but just curious to know.
Thanks for all you do and all you share
When I'm feeling distressed about things, I like to make a little joke to lighten the mood. This one came to mind reading this week's newsletter. Humour - I suppose if the sperm count goes down, that will help the overpopulation problem, which will help reduce demand on the earth's scarce resources. Will it happen in time?
This is terrible and tragic and makes me feel like things are even more out of control than I first thought. However, it is good news about the rate of change in some parts of the world.
Does anyone know if it's true that rubbish is still intentionally dumped into the ocean by waste disposal companies? Even with all the efforts of some to clean it up, and with all the awareness there is around how damaging this practice is for ocean health and our survival?
When traveling in Nepal about 15 years ago, I was pretty stunned to see the Bagmati River that runs through the capital meters deep in rubbish, mostly plastic. Our local guide said they can't afford waste disposal, so everyone throws their garbage in the river and "wait for the wet season."
I understand this practice is still occurring today and that most of the plastic in the ocean comes from five big rivers. I’m not sure what they are or where?
Presumably, developed nations will need to support developing countries with waste management if we're to get this situation sorted out. I haven't heard anyone talking about how we can help. Does anyone know if anything is being done or if the conversation is occurring anywhere?