Finishing a book
On big projects.
Welcome to my personal newsletter. I’m publishing weekly essays on digital technology and culture, in the run-up to my January 2024 book FILTERWORLD: How Algorithms Flattened Culture. Subscribe or read the archive here.
A Filterworld update: I am in the final stages of editing the book, which is clocking in at over 100,000 words, with six chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion. It’s the biggest singular project, or thing, I’ve ever made in my life. Lately it has been reminding me of a mural that I painted in high school. A few students were given six-by-six foot square canvases to paint on. I spent a chunk of the summer before senior year on a semi-abstract composition of industrial vents and pipes, like what might be inside the ceiling the painting would eventually be mounted on. I remember listening to pirated Sufjan Stevens albums on burned CDs (a passerby heard “Seven Swans” and just laughed out loud at it) and thinking about the colors and textures of the weirdo 20th-century painter Wols. It was great.
When you work on something that’s so big, bigger than yourself both in literal and metaphorical ways, you feel like a Murakami protagonist stuck at the bottom of a well, contemplating the minutiae of the cinderblocks inches from your face. You are the only person who knows it so intimately. It’s hard to have a sense of the whole thing when you’re within it, with it surrounding you, coloring every aspect of your life. You are in the hole until you are done. And yet, at the same time, the actual process of making the thing eventually passes from your mind completely, so that you can somehow contemplate what it means as an entirety. It’s an amazing human trick, managing both creativity and criticality, acting as a creator and a viewer from within the same brain. (There are helpful strategies; sometimes editing hungover is a nice way to displace the feeling of authorship: Who wrote this??)
That’s the stage I’m at right now. My messy piles of digital documents, a separate Scrivener file for each chapter, have been condensed into eight edited draft files, which I just collated into a single edit document with all 100,000-some words. It seems both huge and small. I have short summaries of further edits to do for each chapter, but they’re less overwhelming than the act of making the draft exist in the first place. There’s a cover that will be unveiled soon. At some point the Word documents and track changes and jotted notes coalesce into an actual book that other people will consume, a book that is ideally much more than the sum of its word count.
In the middle of the process, I often had no idea if that transformation would happen, or how it would happen. As with any huge project, the best approach is usually just stacking up whatever small amount of effort you can make on a daily basis. The writer’s equivalent of the artist going to her studio every day is putting a handful of words down, piling the grains of sand. For me, in a book-writing phase, 1,000 words a day is a perfect amount, a full day’s work. That’s the metric my friend Jami Attenberg’s writing-craft newsletter uses, too. (Definitely subscribe if you’re looking for inspiration.) Of course, many days that doesn’t quite happen, but the persistence is the point. Eventually, you can stand back and see progress, like stepping back from a canvas painting to see if a particular hue works in the composition overall.
I also find that within every Big Thing, there’s a hidden (to greater or lesser degrees) record of the process of its making, like thumbprints on a handmade clay vase. With so much time sitting and working, your subconscious can’t help but make itself felt, in tics of grammar or vocabulary or pet themes that return again and again. One aspect of Filterworld that has emerged more over time is a personal story: my experience as an Internet user over the past two decades, the formation of my sense of taste and self-awareness as someone participating in contemporary culture. I have to break down the ways I’ve been influenced by algorithmic feeds in order to describe how anyone else has. That theme — the soft presence of the narrator — might be what ties it all together, what guides the reader into this pile of words that aspires to a sense of wholeness.