Writing “I Found My Friends: the Oral History of Nirvana” – Tips for Writers (From a Complete Amateur)




When I started the Nirvana-Legacy blog what really thrilled me was translating Nirvana’s career into statistics, pie charts, lo-fi PowerPoint maps, whatever I felt provided a contrast to the usual impressionistic flood of hyperbole and personal impressions. So, to start with the numbers, what was writing “I Found My Friends” like? Well, may I show you in a few ways? I would wake for work at 6.30am, get home at 6.30pm, take a few hours to eat, wash, do chores, exercise…Then from 8 or 9 I’d sit and commence writing. I’d finish between 1-2am, wake up at 6.30am, go again. Each week I’d spend between 20-30 hours working on Nirvana. Life looked like this:


In those 5+ hours (on weekdays, often more at the weekend), I’d also maintain the Nirvana-Legacy blog – you may have noticed (I have) that the blog isn’t as deep and rich as I feel it once was…Hard to focus totally in too many spaces I guess.

What would I do in those hours? Well, the book emerged from a blog post in spring of 2013 about bands Nirvana supported/who supported Nirvana – I was so curious about all the band names listed on the Nirvana Live Guide (www.nirvanaguide.com)…I wondered, initially just as material for the blog, whether I could find any of them. The first individual I contact was Troy von Balthazar of Chokebore, next Ben Munat of Thrillhammer/Grind, then Leighton Beezer of the Thrown-Ups…It began building. So I sketched out a book concept – things I wanted to answer or examine about Nirvana as a live experience or moments I wondered if I could find a witness to… I ended up writing a 30-40,000 word document which across the next year and a half was erased, deleted, replaced with the words of people who were there. Ultimately I don’t think my words are important or interesting – I wanted this whole work to be about other people’s experiences.

How did I get hold of people? Well, I would sit for hours using Google to tap in band names, trying to hunt down the names of people in bands. Most of these bands halted pre-Internet boom era, sometimes I’d be reading scanned newspaper pages from the mid-Eighties. Hour after hour on Google after that with an individual’s name trying to see if I could find a source connecting the name and the band and then providing a contact email, a Facebook page, anything. Conservatively I estimate I sent around 10,000 emails. Add in the replies and responses to people who came back to me and its anyone’s guess where the total reached. 10,000 emails, lets say 2 minutes an email? That’s 20,000 minutes – 333 hours email…

Next, I wrote out the questions for each individual so they could see them in advance – I wanted to reassure people I wasn’t some muckraking pain, I wanted them to see what I wished to ask. In total I wrote 120,000 words of questions – that’s a long novel just of questions. I have a document here called ‘Nirvana_Questions’ recording all of them. In total I now have over a million words of notes. A desire of mine being to add a new section to the blog in which I write about each of the bands I spoke to – so there’s a permanent record of all of them (at least until I drop dead and no one pays for the blog.)

Next I had to write a proposal for my agent. This is quite a long document – a fresh revision was prepared based on the feedback from my agent (Isabel Atherton of Creative Authors – http://www.creativeauthors.co.uk/instrumental-architects-music-recommendations-by-cas-clients/). There’s a standard requirement, deviation not really welcomed. Firstly, a half page summary of the book – like the text on the back. Next, a deeper description of two pages. The following section would describe the ‘market’ – who would want to read this? Why? What events made it a good moment to do this? Who would be interested in providing press coverage so people knew it existed? An addition to that would be a full two page description of other books comparable to this one – ways for a publisher to understand whether the book was worth taking a risk on, did it fill a gap? Had something similar succeeded? Was it a trustworthy approach? Then a bio – why trust me with this? Could I deliver…? After which a proper summary of the projected chapter structure over a few pages and, finally, a draft chapter.

That was provided to an independent reader to consider. Being an agent is NOT an easy life. Publishers will not consider manuscripts from authors. Why? Because it costs time and money to read. Instead they’ve outsourced that entire component. The agent only gets paid a percentage of the advance – not much money. They need to find reliable authors with good work which might find a home. Agents reject nine of ten manuscripts. I was lucky and blessed by Isabel.

Isabel then delivered the revised proposal to her contacts at publishers. I’d been very lucky with Isabel having moved to the U.S. which is a far larger opportunity for books of this sort. You’ve heard the publishing industry is having trouble? Well, music book publishing has had even more. It’s ever easier to be forgotten or ignored. In the U.K. each year 100,000 books are published – in the U.S. its over 1 million. Yet publishers refuse 9 of 10 manuscripts. And the majority of authors will never make a penny in royalties on their work – its all about the book advance…But book advances are shrinking given the market pressure. It’s even lower if you’re a first timer. But what the hey, if you’re putting in 20-30 hours a week it’s unlikely you’re in it for the money. You’d be better off getting a part-time job in that case – more reliable income. Writing is sub-minimum wage unless you fire out 3-4 books a year and/or happen to write 50 Shades or Harry Potter.

The publisher made specific demands about what needed to happen, when and how. Simple choice; obey or not? Ultimately you have no power. Amazon has used its media connections to constantly project the idea that self-publishing leads to miraculous success – no. Sorry, it’s a lie. A handful have succeeded out of the hundreds of thousands, the millions who have put an ebook online. The reasons are that an individual cannot match the ‘broadcast’ capabilities of a traditional publisher; it’s harder to get anyone to know you’re there. Amazon takes a delivery fee on each book, plus a royalty on each sale – it isn’t all yours. Remember also the need for artworking, for editing, proof-reading, fact-checking. In the final chapter of “I Found My Friends” I unfortunately approved an addition confusing Calvin Johnson and Daniel Johnson – if these errors creep in on a mass market paperback imagine what happens on a self-published effort. Everyone needs a second eye. A traditional publisher also offers the reassurance of quality; two separate layers of people (agent, editor, plus internal approvals within the publisher) have said the book is worthwhile. That mark does make a difference.

As I said, if you’re focused on getting your work out, and you want to do it the traditional way, then you have to bow to the editor at the publisher. That’s fair enough too. The publisher needs to pay for production, to cover failures, to pay for all the support services from which a book and an author benefit (legal, proof-reading, publicity, marketing, artwork, photography, royalties…) Imagine if your job was dependent on some egotistical bloke in another country, who you’ve never met, would you put your money, your safety, your family’s security on the line just to obey some person who’ll probably underappreciate what you’re giving to them? A publisher needs to sell product, that’s a simple fact. They also need to put enough product in the market to cover all the marginal successes and the outright failures. That means constantly seeing new proposals, negotiating with new agents, managing authors, reviewing and then all the internal work of a publisher. They don’t have much time for kid-gloves or for being ‘nice’ to you. Just deal with it. They’ll TELL not ask a lot of the time. I was told to change the title or they wouldn’t take the book. I was told I had to source photos for the book. I had to sign a contract promising completion and delivery of the book inside ten weeks or the contract would be annulled.

Part of that means that your personal ‘stuff’ isn’t relevant. It’s business. My grandfather died in August 2013, my father died in April 2014, my godfather died in January 2015 – three of the eight people I love most in the world all gone inside 16 months… My publishers were sweet and kind…And still needed to see results. That’s the way it is. If you can’t stomach it then go self-publish. If you can’t deliver a book-length volume (100,000 words) on schedule then go self-publish. If you can’t obey the extensive formatting requirements of the publisher then go self-publish. Your flakiness costs them time and energy…And even better it’ll cost you because it’ll come back to you to fix it. Best to get it right first time.

You’ll be surprised how little you hear from the editor – they’ll write when they need you to do something. That’s it. Read your contract fully. In the case of non-fiction works remember that they will insert an index and you will pay for it – it’s in your contract. Remember you only get 20 or so free copies – after that you pay half the marked cover price for each copy you want – oh, and each photographer who contributes gets one of YOUR free copies. The book advance covers all licensing fees for photographs, for quotations (check the rules around quoting other works), any travel, any purchases made to support the book…The advance comes in two halves too – one half when you sign the contract, one half when the publisher actually accepts the manuscript. They will review your work, you’ll have to make changes, then the other half is released. If you refuse and it becomes irreconcilable then you’ll have to give back the rest of the advance. So, throughout the writing process you’re potentially staring a debt in the face. Remember that and don’t go crazy. I received $7,500 dollars. I gave 15% to my agent, I pay 40% in tax, I spent several thousand dollars preparing the book. My profit? I can no longer tell but I think it’s about $1,000 for a year and a half of work.

On the other hand, however, writing an oral history of this sort meant I got to meet some wonderful people, spend time with people I admire for their musical efforts – for having a get up and go I didn’t have at age 15-20 – listen to stories I enjoyed, to enjoy the process of creating something…That was the point, always was. Before you begin you have to decide your motivation. I’ve never had any illusions about my personal shtick being interesting to anyone – but creating a work about a band that I do find interesting? Great! I’ve simply tried to stay true to writing books that I would want to read. Without wishing to insult anyone, there are 40-50 books on Nirvana out there, I think only about 10 of them are essential. I at least wanted to aim to hit that top ten of books on Nirvana – to do something worthwhile, fresh, different even this far away from ground zero. Similarly, I’ve tried to keep my ‘fan radar’ – I look at Nirvana books skeptically, i’d see a new Nirvana book and nudge it around thinking “mmm…Another one? Do I bother?” When I started thinking of this volume it was evolving, growing, becoming something organically without any pressure at all – it just happened…I was lucky someone else agreed. Again, I’d like it to be the kinda book that I – or the fanatics at LiveNirvana (all respect and a low bow) – might say was something new, something different…

To finish with motivation might seem silly…But it’s crucial to the whole enterprise. You need to endure commercial negotiations, you need to deliver a full manuscript that’s near perfect, you need to lay down 100,000 words at least, you need to pay for so much stuff, you need to do it all for far less than you’d receive for simply keeping your head down and doing a job, you need to endure some flak from online critics and people trolling, you’ve got to sacrifice parts of your life too. I’ve neglected exercise because there’s no time – i’m in the worst shape of my life. I’ve neglected social ties – there are people I’ve barely seen these past years. Other interests fall away – it’s three years since I last picked up a guitar, I can’t watch a film to conclusion because I feel I’m wasting time, I turn up late for everything to squeeze in more words or thoughts…

Is this enough detail? I just wanted to lay out in full what is involved. Your turn! Rock it!


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