The Limits of Cheese

John Barlow
John Barlow
Author John Barlow

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks up to my eyeballs in cheese and honey. Not quite literally, but there was a point when I had to requisition a shelf in my neighbour’s fridge to accommodate all the samples I had acquired.

I recently got two commissions at the same time, both with the same tightish deadline: an article on cheese and another on honey. The publication I write for has recently succumbed to the effects of the global downturn, and freelancers like me are feeling the pinch. Eighteen months ago it was 4000 words and take your time, John, we reserved the flight and hotel. This time it was 1500 words and buy your own sandwiches.

Despite the new financial strictures, it’s still great to be paid to travel around the country talking to food producers and writing about their products. The problem is, what can you say about cheese in 1500 words? Or honey for that matter. What can you meaningfully say about your back yard or your big toe in 1500 words?

Not much, I thought. Then I had a grand idea: I would go about my business as normal, making visits to producers, taking endless notes, and then assembling an article from whatever transpired. I had the additional grand idea of writing both articles full-length, then editing them down to 1500 words each.

Not a very efficient way to work, perhaps, but the magazine was happy with the results. So was I. Having such severe restrictions on space forces you to look for the essence of a piece more closely than you otherwise would. It’s not just a matter of killing your darlings, you’ve got to kill everyone in sight.

Looking more broadly at the way in which writers are subjected to restrictions, it occurred to me–as I spooned gourmet honey into my mouth–that the book business has typically restricted the writing process in a number of ways. Your books need to be of a certain length, not too short and not too long, and even the most successful writers are discouraged from producing more than one book per year. None of this is the same as condensing an article down to 1500 words, but the general principle holds: publishing books has traditionally been about how the flow of words is restricted.

Ebooks render this obsolete. Texts of any length are acceptable, and if you want visibility, then please knock out six titles per year. Six? There are people on Kindleboards who proudly claim that they try to have something new out every month. The new publishing model is the opposite of restrictive, and in the indie world at least, there is a perception that the ebook market actually favours those who produce the most.

Of course, no one’s forcing you to publish six titles per year or to write a million words. Then again, no one’s stopping you. No one, in fact, is forcing you to do anything. There are simply no restrictions. You can pretend that you are disciplined and level-headed enough to evolve your own. But it’s the imposition of limitations or guidelines by someone else that forces you to look at your work from a perspective that isn’t natural or immediately comfortable to you.

That’s my feeling, at least. It works for cheese. Perhaps it works for novels, too.


Author: John Barlow

John Barlow writes both fiction and non-fiction, publishes occasional food journalism and also works as a ghost-writer. In addition, he is a translator, and has a side-line in eBooks for language learning. His John Ray / LS9 crime thriller series is currently exclusive to Amazon. If you'd like a review copy of The Communion of Saints, please contact John through his website.

10 thoughts on “The Limits of Cheese”

  1. John: thanks for an exceptional article. What you say here is that e-publishing has brought writing back to what it was at the beginning, an individual getting his work to an audience with a minimum number of ‘suits’ filtering the process. Enjoy the cheese and honey. Been there, done that, and it was fun, but whew!

    1. I’ve been there, done that, too. Writing to a word count is something I would recommend to any writer. At least as an exercise. I worked for a client who gave me 500 words even for complex topics. It made me conscious of expressing myself concisely.

  2. Aside from these limitations in the traditional publishing world, there is that of being pigeonholed for expediency’s sake (or depending on what’s “hot”) into a specific genre. This is something I struggle with all the time, as my books encompass and blend many genres and are, in fact, not accurately labelled. I find this frustrating and annoying, as I believe I may be losing more readers than gaining them, not to mention attracting readers with certain expectations (often conditioned by reading other books in the same genre) who then discover that what they thought they were going to get was NOT what they got.

    Indie publishing can help free writers such as myself from this (providing I can find more writing time to do more Indie projects!), but I cannot help but wonder if the damage is already done.

  3. Good post, John. Writing for radio will make you concise, too. 😉

    Mitzi, I feel your pain. Sometimes I feel like I’m writing for a very small niche market. I know it exists, but I’m not sure how to get to it. 😀

  4. Interesting that people get different messages from this brie essay.

    I read a lament that with the automation of publishing, as with cheese, the result is not more morsels of great gouda, but word warehouses of Velveeta.

  5. And with it, I hear an encouragement to take advantage of the increased call for decreased word counts to craft something to sell in the cheese boutique rather than mass manufacturing for Costco’s crates ‘o cheese.

  6. Mmmmmmmmmm cheese…..
    Definitely agree on getting work out there. I have done 3 novels this year, and have my next three planned out for next year. Along the way I publish a few short stories either on my own, or submit to anthologies. I’m busting butt to get noticed. And in this sea of authors, maybe I will, maybe I won’t, but I’ll keep on writing and publishing.
    I envy you- cheese!!!!!

  7. Excellent post. There is no way I could get six novels out a year. I am too slow a typist. This comment has taken me so long to type that will no doubt get the “timed out” message when I finally post it.
    I am also one of the generation who had to learn the skill of précis at school, not just in English, but also in French and German classes. It never seems to get easier.
    If you need anyone to help you out eating the left over cheese, I know someone who is addicted to it (and jelly sweets).

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