Bookproject update 004: Ordnung

Project background
– Updates 001, 002 and 003.

Now that I’m something like sixty-five thousand words in, I don’t mind telling you that the last few weeks have been profoundly difficult for me writing-wise. Outright painful, in fact.

The underlying problem is one of structure, or lack of one, which in turn has to do with the heterogeneity of scale and texture of the material I want to somehow incorporate into the book. I haven’t yet found the framework that will allow me to discuss the entire spectrum of issues and topics that want to be in the book, from abstract (e.g., spatial and temporal effects of networked informatics; the use of same to afford interdiction and differential permissioning) to highly concrete (specific interactive façades, visualizations, or municipal policies).

Of course, writing Everyware was also much like pulling teeth, up until the moment I hit on the device of structuring the book as a series of theses, after which the actual writing came relatively easily. While I’m hoping something similar will turn out to be true in this case, there will be no little art in finding a form capable of containing (or at least addressing) everything a city is or does.

The minimalist in me is partial to one-word section titles – “Crowd,” “Street,” “Playground,” “Market,” and so on – the obvious trap being that a noun-centric construction like that tends to emphasize static descriptions of a city of bricks over stories about the things people choose to do there. I’m not sure verbs are any better, though: “Working,” “Shopping,” and “Getting Around” sound like sections in a Lonely Planet guide.

At the same time, though, I also like the way the Headmap Manifesto ordered things: its sections were introduced with brief topic lines that occasionally even amounted to natural-language sentences (“Landscapes have a biography and are authored”). I might even take that a step further and try writing an essay-length introduction, decomposable into sentences each of which becomes the topic of a section – blame my inner Oulipo fan, but I’m kind of into the idea of a table of contents that functions almost as an acrostic, or at any rate something to be unpacked.

Well, anyway, that’s where we are. I know basically what I want the book to say and to be about, I’m just having significant trouble devising a compelling narrative frame for everything to live in – especially because I want it all to be accessible to a nonspecialist audience. (Ironically, things would be (much) easier if I thought of the content as a series of blog posts instead of a proper book.)

Do me a favor and share your thoughts in comments? I recognize from experience that I’m at the point in the writing where the right idea will help everything fall into place properly, and not so stupid that I’m not acutely aware that the necessary spark might well come from the book’s prospective readership itself. : . )

12 responses to “Bookproject update 004: Ordnung”

  1. Peter Cooper says :

    What about a grid of nouns and verbs? You mention Oulipo, and Georges Perec’s own Life A User’s Manual deals with the apartment block and jumps between apartments in a similar way to a knight on a chessboard (as I recall).

    Even using a grid as a planning / ideas device than as a structural one might yield some ideas. Taking your example nouns and verbs, you can get some weird combinations on a grid that might be worth covering. Crowds and shopping, street shopping, playground shopping (influence of commerce on non-commercial areas), crowds and work, and so on.

    Really looking forward to the book!

  2. Kazys Varnelis says :

    Sadly no ideas here, Adam, but I was wondering if you might reflect further on your process, in particular whether the tools that your were employing (as I recall you were using Scrivener) are still serving you well.

  3. John the Statistic says :

    Suppose you did write the book out as a series of blog posts, and you wrote the titles of the posts on sticky notes. Where would you stick each of them? And what path would you take from one note to the next?

  4. AG says :

    Heh, that’s called a “content affinity analysis,” and that’s what I’m about to do, with actual 3×5 cards.

    Which should answer Kazys’s question. : . )

  5. Greg Borenstein says :

    One device that often helps structure large sweeping projects like yours is to structure them as a mystery.

    In any good mystery there’s an instigating event, vividly portrayed, that reveals a puzzle that needs solving. Then, as the hero pursues the puzzle, s/he’s drawn out into a larger and more confusing web of connections, characters, and places before finally returning to the ‘scene of the crime’ at the end where s/he, armed with the new knowledge gained from the story’s adventures, solves the puzzle.

    A lot of my favorite theoretically-inclined works of sociology/history are built on this pattern: an attempt to answer a concrete question (usually arising from an real object, process, or story that can be vividly described to a reader without any background) drives them into a larger exploration of the surrounding theoretical space. The original question both proposed their direction and keeps them focused. Some examples I’m think of are: Latour’s Aramis (why was Aramis never built?), Barthes’s Camera Lucida (why does this picture of my mother make me cry?), and Geoffrey Batchen’s Burning with Desire (who invented photography?).

    I guess another way of putting this is: why did you choose this project? What question were you trying to answer when you took it on? If you know and can compelling convey that answer in a way that lights a fire in the reader to know it as well, then we’ll stay along for the rest of the ride (even through any drier more theoretical material).

  6. Andrew says :

    I liked that Everyware’s theses could stand alone as a summary of the overall argument, so the TOC-as summary idea seems nice to me.

    Some other structural ideas: topics & ideas as neighborhoods? As infrastructure layers?

  7. nicolas says :

    The self-explanatory TOC is often great IMO (unless you don’t want to unveil the whole mystery of the book).

    That said, there should be something around your topic and the list of name/verbs. Perhaps a bit like verbs+places (Socializing+sidewalk)… but in this case you should state upfront that you don’t wanna be exhaustive.

  8. vt says :

    what’s the problem with the lonely planet guide -like style? ;) the book’s name The City is Here for You to Use, isn’t it? try replacing City with Barcelona, London, New York or Helsinki. suits ok, doesn’t it?

    personally i might try to push that idea deeper into the ridiculous and see if something golden, seriousness can be found there. but maybe that’s just me. :)

  9. AG says :

    LOL, great suggestions, all – and Greg, Aramis was the very first thing I thought of when you said “mystery.”

  10. Jamie says :

    Then there’s the whole “book in a box” idea: Maciunas’ Fluxus boxes; Phyllis Johnson’s Aspen (multimedia boxes that included phonograph records and reels of Super-8 film — see; McSweeney’s issue # 17 (in a bag, looked like a pile of mail), etc. Adam, you probably received mail art letters from me 20 years ago, in which individual paragraphs, sentences or even words were chopped onto separate bits of paper, so that the shuffling of the contents by the post office would in part determine the precedence in which the statements would be read. Re: Oulipo, you’ve probably seen Gordon Dow’s wonderful pages devoted to Queneau’s Sonnets and Exercises in Style. Though is all this even in “book” territory anymore? Not sure.

  11. igj says :

    A choose your own (urban) adventure book?

    OK, more seriously: the urban landscape in many people’s minds will break down into neighborhoods and the movement between those neighborhoods. That seems an obvious jumping off point. Maybe too obvious. But this spatial model also works for books that investigate the built infrastructure of the city (the steam pipe layer, the sewer layer, etc.), so it seems like the concept is elastic enough to encompass more layers of abstraction.

  12. Erin says :

    Got your note while lagged and swamped, but have been considering the root questions.

    As an editor, I’m wary of recommending specific structural choices without seeing content. As a writer and reader, though, I say grab those constraints and lean on them. The Headmap Manifesto style would spin beautifully into an essay, and whether you used that structure or not, the process of writing the essay might prove useful.

    I hope that helps. I hate that trough before everything opens out and you can see how the parts of the landscape relate to each other. I love it when it ends.

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