(Note: This piece is more about writing than it is about woodworking. So if you’re in a “chisel and mallet” mood, I’d move along. — CS)
When I come up with an idea for a book, it is so fragile that I’m afraid to speak it out loud.
Several years ago I decided to explain one of the core ideas behind “The Stick Chair Book” to friends to see if they could help me flesh out a couple things.
I explained my idea in five minutes. Then, for the next 45 minutes, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise as my idea was mutilated, and my reasoning behind it was slashed to pieces.
I walked away from the conversation a bit shaken – ashamed I had even brought up the idea. I put the book’s outline away for almost two years before I could bear to examine it again.
This is why I’m leery to talk about future book ideas. I have dozens. And whenever I’m interviewed for a podcast or have woodworking visitors, I get asked – with genuine curiosity – about the unwritten books ahead.
My answers are terrible, and so I usually pull a Bob Dylan. “I don’t know.” “A book about a snail who finds love in unlikely places.” “Another workbench book.”
The truth is, the only good answer to that question seems to be a completed manuscript. “Here, this is what I’m working on – fully fleshed out. Read it, then you can tell me if it’s a good idea or not.”
Book ideas are funny things. When they are just ideas, they can seem profoundly stupid or awesome. If I expose an idea to others too soon, it will almost certainly die, whither or change entirely. And that’s not a good thing. Diluting a crazy idea with someone else’s sanity might sound like a positive step. For me, it’s not. I’d rather a crazy idea remain purely bonkers, untouched, so that it can either take root or self-immolate.
Sometimes that means that I have to create a “urinal pitch” for my books as I write them. The urinal pitch is a couple of harmless sentences about the project that I can tell to friends and neighbors until the book comes out. The real idea remains subtext. How does that work? Here are some examples:
Urinal pitch: Two workbenches you can build with construction lumber – plus a way to choose the right vises and workholding for your work.
Subtext: Modern benches are too complex and don’t offer many advantages. Simpler benches do everything you need.
Urinal pitch: How to pick the hand tools you need and build a tool chest to store them.
Subtext: Stop buying tools. We all have too many, and that sabotages furniture making. Here’s a tool chest that can help thwart your consumerism.
Urinal pitch: Here’s a furniture style that hasn’t been explored much. There are lots of interesting forms to build.
Subtext: Here’s the missing link between the 18th and 20th century furniture styles. Campaign furniture set the stage for Danish Modern, Mid-Century Modern and even Bauhaus. It’s a crime that this style is unacknowledged.
Urinal pitch: You can build a house full of furniture with two sometimes-maligned techniques.
Subtext: You can make money making furniture if you focus on underserved populations and make forms that can be built quickly.
Urinal pitch: Roman workbenches are easy to build and surprisingly effective.
Subtext: There is an entire world of workholding out there if you are willing to sit down and use your body instead of vise screws. Speed comes from less workholding.
Urinal pitch: The culmination of 20 years of writing, building and using all manner of workbenches. Plus plans for my favorite bench.
Subtext: Sometimes the only way to lay claim to your work is to crap in your nest.
Urinal pitch: How to build chairs with a simple set of tools and easy-to-find lumber.
Subtext: I’ll let y’all chime in here in the comments.
— Christopher Schwarz