I have just completed the first chapter of my book Political Animal, which will chart the joint fortunes of pandas and China over the last 140 years. I am supposed to have a further 11 with my editor at Profile Books by the end of January. Am I on target?
I can’t say. This is not because my editor will be reading this and I’m having to be all secretive, but because none of my chapters is a straight narrative that I can simply knock-off in a day or two. Each involves at least a dozen different asides that I will weave around the central panda-related story. A chapter then becomes like a jigsaw. I start with the outline of a chapter, which is like having the picture on the jigsaw box. But as I set out I have at most three of the actual pieces and must locate the rest (some of which I don’t even know I need until I get writing) before I can even begin to think about jiggling them into place.
So, for example, the chapter I’ve just written mainly tells the post-mortem story of Chi Chi, the famous panda bear that lived at London Zoo between 1958 and 1972 and was the inspiration for the World Wildlife Fund’s logo. In addition to reconstructing this museum-based story, I have embellished it with several asides. And finding out about the history of London Zoo, the stories of famous zoo animals, reading up on methods of taxidermy, looking at dioramas, tracking down a retired mammalologist, sourcing material from the Foreign Office archives and dipping into a biography of Conservative politician Ted Heath all take time.
I am pleased with what I’ve produced, though it was not without a stab of anxiety that I emailed the chapter off to my editor last week. However many intriguing layers I have moulded onto Chi Chi’s carcass, there’s no getting away from it: this is a chapter about a dead animal and some people might find that odd. I am hoping my editor is not one of them.
So back to the original question. Am I on target for submitting the complete 80,000-word manuscript by the end of January? Doing the math, I have four months to produce another 10 chapters. Or to put it another way, I must write a chapter every 12 days. The problem with such calculations is that it’s going to take a long a lot longer to assemble all the pieces I need for each jigsaw-like one of them.
Charting my progress with this book then is a frustratingly imprecise exercise. Like I think I’ll have to have another couple of chapters in the bag by the end of October and I’m guessing I should have made a start on a further three. There, at least, is something I can work towards, but what will it mean if I miss it? Will I be behind or was it just a target that was poorly conceived?