Are there enough words?

This was the question I asked a friend recently about my draft text for the book I’m writing.

He has published himself, though not in my genre of historical non-fiction/biography/architecture. Nonetheless I was still interested in his answer.

He told me that for his first book he had written as much as he could and this had ended up at 70,000 words. However in retrospect for his next book he would be happy with just 30,000 words. What matters is quality and whether you have got your main messages across in the text you have written.

This all makes sense to me and I have reached a point where I kind of know how much more I’m going to write. The final amount will depend on a number of factors in my case:

– whether I fill in gaps in content or simply remove a topic

– how many images I include

– how many words I think my editor should be allowed to play with

– what feels just right to me

The last criterion is important as I’m writing the book for myself ultimately. I do want others to enjoy it, but ultimately I am the one who has to be happy with the end product. If I write another book then perhaps my motives will change and my approach will be different. But that’s a whole different story.

Self-publishing: your help needed!

I decided a while back that I would self-publish my forthcoming book on the Brunel and Barry families.

This has meant foregoing current earnings to spend time writing and there is no guarantee how I will do with my first (and possibly only!) book.

I have also spent money on an editorial assessment and buying image rights, plus I am committed to further payments for editing, proofreading and design and marketing costs. Since I don’t know what sales will be like, it’s difficult to estimate future income from publication. This also depends on the cover price and whether I market it only as an e-print or also as a hard- or softback.

That being said, the people I am writing about were very familiar with the concept of risk. Isambard K Brunel’s father Marc was thrown into debtors’ prison as poor cashflow held up his ground-breaking projects. It was only the threat of him returning to the old enemy France that precipitated action at the highest levels to release Government funds. Sir Charles Barry and his son Edward Middleton Barry were consistently at loggerheads with Parliament over delayed payments for building the New Palace of Westminster.

So, it would help me greatly to know what interest there might be out there for this book. The current favoured title is “Barry, Brunel and sons:
Builders to the British Empire”. My only concern is there is too much alliteration going on in it. What do you think? Tell me in a comment below.

To get a flavour of the book please look at the content of this website – it develops from the main focus here on John Wolfe Barry, to a wider scope looking at his father, brothers and close relationship with Henry Brunel, hence brings in the latter’s famous father IK and grandfather Marc. It also makes connections between Victorian architecture and engineering and modern day structures such as the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa in the UAE.

P.S. The illustration of Big Ben is made from a photo I took of it at night time before the current renovation works. Another Barry structure!

Half way there

I’ve written half my target number of words for my book on the 19th Century Barrys. The rest needs to be completed by mid-June latest.

One thing that changes as I add words to the draft is the title and structure of the book. It has now moved on from a central focus on Sir Charles Barry and his three architect/civil engineer sons, to a wider scope including the great Isambard K Brunel and his son Henry Brunel.

This makes for a better connection with the themes of family, recognition and building that run through the book, as well as allowing me to look even more closely at the relationship between architecture and civil engineering.

What, you might ask, is the connection between the Barrys and the Brunels?

John Wolfe Barry and Henry Brunel were close friends and business partners who lived and worked in the Brunel family home and offices in London for the first years of their civil engineering collaboration. Once John was married and children started arriving, Henry had to leave his parents’ house as a lifelong bachelor and hand it over completely to his friend. This can’t have been easy for him!

The fathers of each son knew each other and were both Fellows of the Royal Society. They had also worked together on designing a venue for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London which became known as the famous Crystal Palace. There is no evidence of any close personal or business relationship between them and this could be said to typify the traditional space between British architects and civil engineers.

The book will expand on the above and is currently due for publication by end September 2019. Fingers crossed!

On solving difficult structural problems

I’ve had the privilege of working with leading civil and structural engineers over the period since early 2016.

I am not one of them, in the sense that I don’t have their knowledge, understanding and skills in the technical requirements of civil and structural engineering. However, I do understand much better some of their key attributes and motivations.

One that stands out is their approach to solving problems. If a building or a bridge falls down killing and injuring people then the first question asked is: who built it? There may be some context for this, in the sense that if the structural failure was due to an ‘Act of God’ such as an earthquake or tidal wave, then some leeway is given to the identified responsible person. However, if as in the Grenfell Tower inferno, or the collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, there is some sense that the blame was entirely linked to human neglect, then the repercussions can be very severe for those found wanting.

On the other hand, progress through technical advances is only really made as a response to a crisis of some kind. If we had no crises then life might appear easier for all of us, but there would be costly consequences. Society would become stale and complacent, more susceptible to potential threats that could have much bigger impacts for larger numbers of victims. There are difficult choices to be made with pros and cons each way.

Civil and structural engineers therefore solve problems as ‘scientifically’ as they can, based on hard evidence of past failures and successes, but also with due acknowledgement to present circumstances and future possibilities. The professional standards they set for themselves assure that this is the case, and if the public is not sufficiently convinced then Government legislates as a further safeguard.

The 19th Century Barrys, about whom I am currently writing, faced these same issues as builders of structures. They also tried to guide the conversation through their involvement with developing professional bodies in architecture and civil engineering. Charles Barry junior and John Wolfe Barry were both Presidents of their Institutions (RIBA and ICE) and Sir Charles Barry won a preeminent Royal Gold Medal from Queen Victoria for his professional services to architecture.

The value of Parliament

The British Houses of Parliament have been in the news lately because of the laborious process for leaving the EU.

This process was clearly set up to discourage any state from doing a Brexit, Grexit or Frexit. Perhaps call it Nexit to be clear? The British people just want a clear decision to avoid current uncertainty.

As I watched the debates in the House of Commons last week I couldn’t help but admire the chamber in which the Members of Parliament sit, assuming they can find a spare place. It was deliberately designed by Charles Barry senior to be cosy, at the express wishes of the 19th Century incumbents who feared it would look vast and empty during an average poorly attended session!

Once completed by Edward Middleton Barry, the New Palace of Westminster would see numerous debates and committee sessions, including an inquiry into building a bridge across the adjacent Thames further downriver next to the Tower of London. One of the expert witnesses was Sir Charles’ other son John Wolfe Barry by then a respected civil engineer, who reassured MPs that despite vociferous opposition from some local commercial interests, the proposed bascule bridge would be a huge benefit to road traffic and a minor hindrance to river traffic. Tower Bridge still operates on this premise over a century later.

The benefit of hindsight ….

Becoming an expert

One thing I’ve realised since first starting to work for and with professional and learned bodies in 1998: experts are not always what they are made out to be.

I had high regard for academic experts when I started my undergraduate degree, influenced by my grandfather who had taught engineering at university and then become a UN advisor on industrial development in the less advanced parts of the world.

This was slightly dented by some of my senior lecturers who you couldn’t even understand because of their research jargon or lack of training in how to teach. But occasionally I would meet remarkable professors or other less elite staff and understand that experts came in different shades.

This was reinforced by a Masters course and as I have said, daily work with leading scientists and engineers who were trying to reinforce the credibility of their professions. I may now have become an expert myself as I probably know more about Sir John Wolfe Barry than any living person.

This has its pros and cons. It helps me have conversations with people who are also very knowledgeable about other famous engineers. We can share our reflections. On the reverse side of the coin, it can cause friction with experts who actually come from those and allied professions. My stance is that as a trained historian who has specialised in economic and technical history but not completed a PhD, I may not be as good as others, but my arguments are valid and can always be critiqued, preferably in public.

So I hope the forthcoming book on the 19th Century Barrys will be well received and not simply shot down by those better equipped to fire arrows. Not that it matters to me personally I should add.

Structuring a book on structures

I never realised it would be so hard to write a book!

In my case not only have I started to write my first one, but I’ve added to the challenge by deciding to self-publish it.

But it seems that there has been a break through after a period of editor’s block. In the post I described one or two issues going on which were holding me up – now I feel that progress has been made and I wanted to share this with you.

After a number of conversations with different prospective editors I chose one of them to do an editorial assessment for me. This was relatively simple and inexpensive and helped me focus my writing on key tasks. Then I asked for offers to undertake bigger editorial tasks. The problem was I didn’t really know how big these tasks were going to be. So this time round my conversations with prospects were more about eliciting advice on the editorial process for self-publishers. I am much clearer now.

Finally, I selected one candidate to take me on. This wasn’t easy as there were good offers coming in including from one individual who probably knew more about architectural history than me. However, I decided to go with a different choice because I liked the way they presented themselves and we spoke on the phone at their suggestion.

The other thing that helped me was finally getting in touch with the acknowledged expert on Sir Charles Barry. I had put this off for many years, partly through not being easily able to contact him electronically, my favoured medium. In the end I simply tracked down a phone number and called, not being sure of what reaction I might get. To my surprise we had a great conversation and informally agreed not to get in each others’ way. My focus will be on the Barry dynasty, his on the great architect. I have to admit some relief about this!

I now have a clear goal of writing a specific number of words on a contents list of headings for the book. Should be plain sailing then …