Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Writing a book

For the past couple of summers I’ve been working on a book project. It’s on a subject I started thinking about as I was finishing my dissertation, and I even had a paragraph about it as my next-book-after-the-diss.-book in my job application letters. Of course, I then got a job that didn’t require a book for tenure, and I happily chucked my dissertation aside (having taken a few articles out of it, the last of which is now forthcoming). The dissertation had some really good cultural and literary analysis of individual texts but never hung together as a book, and it was a relief to let those individual analyses stand on their own without being cobbled together into a lame whole; we’ve all read enough of those books that should have been articles, and I didn’t want to contribute to that particular publishing phenomenon. So now I’m at work on this new book project and am trying to figure out what my own book-writing process, as opposed to the dissertation-writing process, looks like.

For the dissertation, my grad program and my director had standardized hoops for me to jump through in the form of the prospectus defense and individual chapters due to my committee at certain times. And of course my final diss. ended up looking quite different from my prospectus, which is what everyone had told me would happen and which was fine with my committee. The two hardest parts of the diss.-writing for me were (1) deciding what it all added up to, what my overall thesis was and what the big import of all my textual and cultural analysis was; and (2) how to organize my material into chapters; I ripped my chapters apart and put them back together in myriad ways for the entire process of the dissertation, and I could never tell that one way or the other made much difference, which I think is a pretty good indication that this wasn’t good book material (at least in my hands).

So now I’m on my own with this new book, no advisor or committee telling me what to do and no deadlines other than self-imposed. As I did with my diss., I’m working on a particular cultural phenomenon as depicted in literature in a certain time period. (Is that vague enough?) Because this phenomenon has had little critical attention, I’m always on the lookout for additional primary sources that deal with this phenomenon, which means that my source list is always in a state of flux. (So I’m a little jealous of books that deal with, say, the novels of an individual author, since such a project has clearer boundaries. Those are still difficult books to write, obviously, but at least the primary source list is more defined.) And I’m finding this project a fairly complicated one to imagine as a whole book, mostly because I’m dealing with so very many primary texts, some of which are big novels entirely devoted to the cultural phenomenon, some of which are short texts, some of which are nontraditional texts, some of which mention this cultural phenomenon only briefly. How do I fit all of this together into neat and seemly chapters? The way I handled it in my diss. was to discuss two texts per chapter and ruthlessly force them into some conformity, but it always felt fake, that I was placing the demands of writing a dissertation and pleasing my committee over the demands of my primary sources. And I think that was a fine decision to make in grad school, but I want to make a different decision now.

So here’s what I’m doing: I’m not planning the book. Nothing like a prospectus at all, even in my head. Oh sure, every once in a while I muse about how chapters might be arranged and what it all might add up to, but for the most part I’m not worrying about the whole. What I’ve done for the last couple of summers is to write about my individual texts, sometimes briefly and sometimes extensively, depending on what seems appropriate. I’m building a collection of short scraps of writing, two pages here, ten pages there. I don’t know yet how they’re all going to fit together, and I’m fine with that. Last summer I broke this rule a little bit because I wanted to have an in-process piece as a scholarship sample for my pre-tenure review; so I put together some scraps of writing that I thought might go together eventually, created some transitions between those scraps, and eventually wound up with a fifty-page draft chapter, but I’m deliberately not doing this yet for my other writing scraps. It’s been incredibly freeing and has helped me write very productively; I think that in the past I’ve sometimes been so worried about the whole project that I can’t work very effectively on the parts of the project, if that makes sense.

My inspiration for this approach is Anne Lamott, whose Bird by Bird was an incredibly important book for me to read when I was writing my diss. The two most important things I got from her were (a) write "shitty first drafts," and (b) on any given day, tackle only a little piece of the big picture. (She keeps a 1” x 1” picture frame on her desk as a reminder that, at any given moment, she just needs to fill in that much of the overall picture that she’s working toward.) Even my language of “scraps” for what I’ve been writing is a way for me to relax and let my anxieties about the final product go; I essentially say to myself, “I can write really badly today, because I’m not working on a chapter; I’m just writing scraps to go into the computerized version of a shoe box.” This might sound like I’m devaluing the work I’m doing, but actually I’m lowering the bar so that I can actually do work, thus circumventing the paralysis problem I dealt with when working on my diss.

I’m also taking a lesson from my own composition classes and am realizing that I learn what I think by seeing what I write, so I’m putting aside the “big thesis” question for now and am waiting to see what burbles up when I start looking at all of these scraps together. I’ve got some ideas about what all of this might add up to in the argument department, but I’m spending very little time thinking about the question.

So then here’s the plan of action: I do this scrap-writing about primary sources for a couple of more summers. This summer I also seem to be scrap-writing for an introductory historical chapter. During the 2006-07 school year, I apply for a sabbatical the following year, which I think I will very likely get. We have the option of one semester at full-pay or one year at half-pay; given that financial picture, and knowing my own preference for working with some external structures in place (in grad school I turned down a second year of a dissertation scholarship to TA one course a term instead, and I got so much more done and was so much happier), I think I’ll choose the one semester option. During that semester, I’ll spread out all of my writing scraps and start putting the puzzle together, scrap by scrap. My goal for the end of my sabbatical term is to have an outline for the book and rough drafts for the chapters (my former isolated scraps, now happily residing with other scraps). I then start the revising project the next summer and in a couple of months have work that is polished enough to start sending out inquiry letters to publishers. So that’s the plan.

Potential problems with this plan:
  • People seem to think it’s weird, and maybe they know what they’re talking about. In my pre-tenure review “interview” with my department, I explained this process to my senior colleagues, all of whom found it very strange. They are very supportive of the book itself and think it’s going to be very publishable and a real contribution to scholarship, but they think I’m going about writing it in a very odd way. And they are senior to me, and most of them have written a book, so they probably know more than I do about how to write a book, so maybe they’re right and I’m wrong about this. On the other hand, I know my own writing process; in school, when we had to turn in outlines with our papers, I always wrote the paper, revised it, and then fulfilled the assignment by writing an outline based on my already-written paper. Writing an outline beforehand has just never worked for me for shorter assignments, so it’s not strange that it doesn’t seem to work very well for me with larger projects either.

  • It makes it difficult to “pitch” the book until it’s completely written. This means that it will be pretty hard for me to apply for grants that could extend my one-semester sabbatical to a full year, since I won’t really know what the book is going to look like until I’ve actually done the work of the sabbatical.

  • I won’t be producing articles from the book until the book is mostly done. In my field, it’s standard to publish one or two articles from the book before the book publication, and in fact successful publication of those articles is one way to pitch the book to publishers by proving that there’s real interest in the material. This is the one concrete suggestion that my senior colleagues made to me about my process, and I think that they’re right that I need to think about how to pursue article publication as I continue with my scrap-writing. This is an area of my overall plan that needs more thinking.

  • Finally, I do think it’s worth my bearing in mind that this approach toward writing the book may really be an elaborate mental disguise for a lack of confidence and/or an unwillingness to buckle down and do the hard work of planning chapters and developing a thesis. My current approach is to be aware of this potential but to continue with my scrap-writing as long as it seems productive, but I’ll need to reexamine the process at least annually to make sure that I’m still working effectively toward the larger goal of the book.
Whew! Sorry for such a long post. I thought that this blog entry could be the place for this year’s examination of the process that I mentioned in that last bullet point. And I’m also really curious to hear about other people’s writing processes, so please feel free to comment and share.


Blogger Nels said...

I think this process sounds great, and potentially really productive. I, too, am working on my book project and I also checked the dissertation aside. Mine didn't hang together well, either. This book emerges from that project, but it's also ver, very, very different. So, you're not alone and you're on the right track!

6/15/2005 1:24 PM  
Blogger jo(e) said...

I have lots of friends who have published books ... and your process sounds perfectly legitimate to me. I know people who have done it that way -- and ended up with a great book.

I also know people who map the whole thing out, write an outline, etc. That way works too.

I think for most people, it is just a matter of choosing which process is going to work well for you. Sounds like you've hit upon your particular style.

(I myself write in little bits and pieces because my life is so crazy busy that I only have little bits of time for writing. I wonder what my process would be like if I had a different lifestyle.)

6/15/2005 3:04 PM  
Blogger Tiruncula said...

It's really interesting for me to read about other people's processes for starting into a new book project. Like you, I've set aside the diss (have published some of it and am going to spin off one or two more chapters/articles) and am gearing up to launch the new book project in earnest.

My inclination has been, in general, to eschew detailed outlines and proceed from questions I have to texts I think might answer them, to readings of those texts, and then to let the through-narrative emerge as I write those readings. That's how I did the diss. It produced excellent results in terms of answering questions I was asking (and many I wasn't asking, as Bynum would remind us). The problem was that having questions and texts but no outline meant that I had no way of pacing myself and finishing in any reasonable span of time. Since I had fairly unstructured supervision and was stubbornly independent about my process, it took me forever - although I sure learned a lot and don't regret any of it.

Your method sounds wonderful and so liberating that I'd be tempted to adopt it, except that, having sold my soul to the Ivies, I now do have to produce a book in a limited time. I'm thinking at this point that I have to define clearly what I want to accomplish in each chapter before I get too much further into the project, so that a) the whole thing falls into manageable-sized (semester-sized) chunks; b) I can tell when I've accomplished what I set out to accomplish; and c) I have something to look at that reminds me that I am not to get side-tracked by other interesting questions and so lose the narrative. I think I have a theoretical angle – not a Theory with a big name attached, but a model of reading that I want to advance, so my book will be a case study in how to read Tiruncula's Way. For that theoretical model not to get lost, the readings have to follow one another in both logical and chronological order. I have a mental outline about how this is going to work, and I have about 60pp. of writing that will be distributed in the early chapters of the book. The project for the second half of summer is to polish up part of that material for a shortish essay in an edited (by me) collection. I think if I have a broad outline of the book pinned to the wall before I do those revisions, I should be able to organize work on that short extract so that it supports the larger book project rather than running off on goose-chases. Then my modest goal for the fall semester (my last on a 3-course load) will be to do enough reading around in the texts I plan to focus on to be sure that they'll sustain what I'm going to try to do with them theoretically. Then I can go off on my west-coast sojourn next spring with outline in hand and work on writing the book's middle section, and hopefully arrive at VCI the following fall with a pretty good sense of what a proposal for this book would look like.

Thanks for letting me use your comments to plan my life :) I'd love to hear continuing updates about how your process is going, and will try to blog mine pretty regularly chez moi. Btw, last night I did a one-sitting read of Germano's From Dissertation to Book and found it encouraging, charming (unlike Hall) and useful, even for someone not planning on revising the diss.

6/15/2005 3:39 PM  
Blogger PPB said...

Heck, I read a book once....does that qualify me to comment? I got nothing. I say anything inspired by Ann Lamotte is good.

6/15/2005 10:51 PM  
Blogger timna said...

Your process sounds thoughtful and anything with Anne Lamott in the background seems reasonable (I use both of those ideas of hers in my comp and even send around a 1" picture frame during that particular class day!). I would find it hard to sustain the project over so many months of brainstorming. I'd just lose details of immediacy. Perhaps the thoughts that arise are being captured in these smaller pieces.
As you mentioned, it would be hard to get grants or push the book without a clearer idea of the finished outcome. Would you be able to present chapters at conferences to get some input and/or some deadlines?

6/15/2005 11:53 PM  
Anonymous New Kid on the Hallway said...

This was a fascinating post - thanks for sharing it. I'm in a similar boat - I'm working on a book project that does come out of the dissertation, or at least draws heavily on it, but is something pretty new and different (in my case, the diss was a study of one particular cultural phenomenon - to speak vaguely, as you do! - with reference to a broader cultural development as a sort of explanation for what was going on in the narrower topic; after a very fruitful conversation with a valued mentor, I realized what I really have something to say about is the broader cultural development, so now that's the topic of my book, and the narrower topic that was the focus of the dissertation is, instead, one piece of evidence for the broader development. If that makes any sense. In any case, my diss totally didn't hang together as a book, either, so even if I'm using more of the diss stuff than it sounds like you are, I am also really writing something completely different). I sometimes wonder how much this is the case? Germano's book on revising the diss was actually really heartening b/c it seemed to suggest that this is far more common than I'd realized.

But this is all about me! About your writing method - it makes a lot of sense to me. I've never been any good at writing outlines until after I've written the paper either; I write to figure out what I think. Now, I have started to make more use of outlines, but only after I have a whole mass of stuff on the page(s); only then can I think more concretely about where it should all go. I can't think about that until I generate it. Hmmm - more about me! :-} What I mean is, your method sounds very reasonable to me.

As for your colleagues finding it weird: you may just have a bunch of colleagues for whom the structured, outline method works and can't quite figure out any other method (especially since the structure/outline way is what seems to get taught as "real" writing). I know that people who work all their writing out in their head and then write it down and they're done, with almost no revising (yeah, I'm talking about you, P/H!), baffle me (I keep saying, "But don't you think you should revise more?" :-D).

I do think the one danger of the method you describe is what you suggest about not developing a thesis and supporting it as you go along - just that from my own experience, sometimes it ends up that I have to go back and change a lot more than I would have, had I figured out what I wanted to say overall, earlier. But then, we all have to figure out what we want to say through whatever means work best, and scrap writing sounds as good a method as any. In my view, all words on a page are good words (even if you chuck them out later in the process).

Blah, blah, blah - sorry to ramble so long today!

6/16/2005 12:17 PM  
Blogger profsynecdoche said...

What a fascinating post. I have two reassuring things to say. First, you are right that it is going to be hard to pitch the book to presses until the end, but I think that is actually a very good thing. Your book and its arguments will be MUCH clearer then, and you'll have a better chance with better presses. Some people try to get a press to sign their book early, but in my experience most people are better off waiting until it's really ready. (And besides, you can talk about your topic to editors before then, maybe a year before you think you'd want to send them a proposal.)

Second, there will be time for an article, maybe two. If you submit an article to a journal when you are done with the ms., it can work its way through the review process while you are working your way through the ms. revision and review process. My guess is that the article will come out first, maybe only 6 mos. earlier, but that's actually great publicity for the book.

The one tricky thing is applying for fellowships. In that case, you might just be better off lying and telling them you have a plan for a book. (In fact, everyone concocts these fantastic projections of a book's plan when they apply for fellowships; fellowship proposals are much like diss prospectuses that way.)

6/17/2005 8:57 AM  
Blogger La Lecturess said...

I write in almost exactly the same way, and although I haven't exactly produced a book yet (I hope to have the diss done by fall!), it's worked well for articles and conference papers. I'm such an obsessive that if I let myself fret over each sentence and paragraph in that first draft, I'll never write anything. So my actual first drafts are really and truly unreadable (what I publicly CALL a first draft is in reality usually a fourth or fifth draft--but my advisor has never really been interested in the process so much as in the product).

And as a P.S.--as a liberal Catholic (albeit one who has not yet discussed the subject on my site) I'm pleased to have found your blog!

6/17/2005 11:01 AM  
Blogger whiteshark0121 said...

I love writing and reading books. I love the notion that people can make things up in their mind and then make them real on a page, for the pleasure or utility of someone else. One of my favorite mentor on learning how to write a book is Mark Victor Hansen, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul.

3/15/2010 2:21 AM  

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