Three things

I am on sabbatical again. That means, for the third time in my career I have an extended period of time in which I am in completely in charge of my own time, which also means that for the third time in my career a vast abyss in space and time has open up in front of me, completely terrifying me.  (The first two times being my dissertation fellowship period and the first time I was on sabbatical). But that’s not the three things of my title. I will get to that. (Side note: The Third Abyss would make a great band title. Punk? Metal? Norwegian Death Metal? Anywho…)

Everyone keeps asking me how sabbatical is going (after less than a month!) and I’m all like: (Darn, that gif showed up itself in the editor. Oh well. Click on the URL — it’s worth it, I swear!)

Last time I was on sabbatical, I had a kind of concrete list of stuff to do, because I spent it tracking down every instance I could of a particular variety of Middle English verse that I was interested in. Originally I had wanted that research to tell me what exactly it was going to turn into during that first sabbatical, but mostly all of my time was taken up with the “data gathering.” And since gathering that “data” meant going to manuscript libraries all over the place, that’s mostly what my sabbatical consisted of: making lists of possible “verses of interest” (groan…I read too much detective fiction and like puns too much), making plans to go see them, traveling to see them,  then transcribing a ton of manuscript pages, and then organizing what I found.

It took a long time for that bunch of information to start to turn into something interesting, so here I am seven years later looking at forming that raw material into my second book. Eek! Do I even remember how to write a book? My last one came out ten years ago! And its genesis was *twenty* years ago — gulp! (Duuude, I am old.) A book that’s just an idea is such an amorphous thing, a big, gaping hole that I need to fill. *Shudder*

I’ve got another project I have to finish this summer, too, and it’s a little more concrete — the edition of the York Corpus Christi Play that I’ve contracted to do and really should have finished last year, but got an extension on because it’s taking me much longer than anticipated. As concrete as it is, it’s somewhat tedious work, and thus causes me to procrastinate and get distracted. So while I should be able to edit a page in an hour, sometimes all I accomplish in a day is editing two pages and ordering shit on Zappos and SocksAddict (because the perfect shoes and socks *will* make your life better, right?).

Clearly, I need some kind of system to a) give a graspable shape to the abyss and b) to focus the work of the edition to get through it more quickly and efficiently. Those are two different problems to solve, so it wasn’t clear that one system was going to solve it, but I finally chanced upon one that I think will help. At least it helped me make a plan.

The system is the “three things” system — Notorious Ph.D. actually talked about it awhile back — hence my post title. I’ve also seen it called “The Rule of 3,” which I like because of its nod to all sorts of aesthetic and mnemonic and cultural rules of threes and thirds. And hey, 3 is a Magic Number, right? Anyway, according to the productivity gurus who invented or use this system, you’re supposed to start with the day and make a to-do list of three things to accomplish that day, and *then* move to bigger units of weeks and months and years. While I understand the concept of “one day at a time” for some things, that ain’t gonna work for a book project and a sabbatical. So, instead, like Notorious, I started with the time left on my sabbatical (which technically started in mid-May, but I took some time to ease into things), which is from now until mid-August, 2018.

So here are my “three things” for sabbatical:

  1. Finish the edition of the York Corpus Christi Play.
  2. Revise a big 45-minute presentation that I gave — and also workshopped elsewhere — into an article and the first chapter of my new book project.
  3. Do further research for and draft Chapters 2-5 of the new book project. (OK, I suppose that’s 4 things, but collectively it’s “research and draft the rest of the book project.”)

Then, with that list in mind, I got out academic calendars for the rest of this year (this summer) and next year (fall, spring, and summer), and apportioned weeks to the bigger specific tasks that needed to be done for each of these things. So for Thing 1, I’ve got weeks for editing the remaining play texts themselves, writing introductions, editing contextual material, and so on. I also counted how many pages of editing I have left, and figured out how many pages a day I need to finish to reach these goals. For Thing 2, I still have some details to work out, but there’s a much-neglected action list from earlier this year that I can turn to for that. The work on it is going to be simultaneous with finishing the York edition. For Thing 3, I had 45 weeks of my calendar left, so I gave each of the chapters 9 weeks and saved the final 9 weeks for further research, revising, and writing.

And then I opened up my planner — yes, I use a paper one, in a lovely red leather zippered case, because handwriting helps me remember — and wrote down my daily “three things” for tomorrow, Thursday, and Friday on their respective days in the planner. Tomorrow’s three things are 1) Edit three pages of “The First Trial Before Pilate,” 2) Revisit “action plan” for article project and update it, and 3) Begin reading the secondary material listed on that action plan. And I will continue to make a “three things” daily list from now on, at the beginning of each week (or maybe each Sunday night — a friend and I were at one point using the “Sunday Meeting” method, which I might still use here), and update/revise it as needed as the week progresses.

And yes, there are more than three things I usually have to or want to do in a day — but the “Rule of 3” method is about prioritizing those three things. Everything else goes on the regular “to do” list and gets done after that.

OK, that was all a bit boring, but really, this is just an accountability post. It will be interesting to me to go back to it later at various points in the sabbatical.

How do you manage your time when you have vast, unstructured amounts of it (and I count summer as vast)?

>Where does my research go from here?

>As many of you know (because I’ve been cooing about it on Facebook), my book, published two years ago, now has been reviewed three times and the reviews are all positive. The most recent one, even though it was at times the most critical, was also simultaneously the most enthusiastic. It even made me blush a little bit. It also made me feel pressure to make good on the promise the reviewer seems to think it shows for additional scholarship. As I’ve been joking, I’m now resting on my laurels, but they’re feeling a little prickly.

Like Dr. Crazy, I’m feeling a little like I’m done jumping through hoops, that I don’t have to write a second book. Like her, I didn’t actually have to write a first book for tenure at my institution, but I did feel I needed to write one to be someone in the field, to feel like I was on par with my peers at fancier universities. But now, also like Dr. Crazy, I’m a little more relaxed about my status and professional identity. (Tenure, promotion, a juicy raise, and good reviews will do that for you.) And unlike what seems to be the case at Dr. Crazy’s somewhat similar university, I don’t absolutely have to write another book to make full professor; although most of the literature people in the department have done so, a woman in linguistics went up last year with a series of substantial articles (more the norm in her subfield), which helpfully sets a precedent for the department in general. And at our university, the process for full talks about your contribution to and status in your field, and so I’d use reviews and citations of my older work, as well as new work to help establish that (although my previously achieved laurels alone wouldn’t do it, of course). That said, our administration seems to want to ramp up research expectations (at the same time that they want to increase teaching load, either by classes or enrollment, of course!), so I need to keep an eye on that and not simply assume that all will continue as it has done. Not to mention the fact that the discipline in general keeps expecting more from each generation. (Why do we do that??)

But the thing is, I’m not sure I have it in me. I have ideas, but I’m just not sure they’re book-length ideas. There are two things that I’m spinning my wheels on now. One is on the same genre (in the broadest sense) as the subject of my book, but a different sub-genre from a different part of late medieval/early modern England. That project is definitely only article-length. The other project is related to my previous work only in so far as the socio-economic strata that produced and consumed the texts in question is related to the topic of my first book. It’s in a completely different genre, however, and requires of me new skills and knowledge, so it’s both daunting and exciting, because it will keep me from getting bored and my work from seeming stale, I hope. It also, at first, seemed like a complex and wide-ranging topic and I thought it would become my next book, but now I’m not so sure. It involves a long list of texts, but the texts themselves are not all that complicated, and I’m starting to think that while it will take a lot of time, effort, and research to show their textual and cultural interrelations and significance, it won’t take a lot of pages of writing to do so. I could be wrong — in the process I might find I have a book after all — but it looks now like I have another substantial article, perhaps a Speculum-length article, but not a book.

And after that I got nothing. Or at best, I have some very sketchy little obsessions about things I’ve taught. But see, none of the projects above or the sketchy ideas are really closely related to each other, and so I couldn’t put them together to make a book. So what if the second project above really isn’t a book-length one? It’s possible that I could produce what’s ‘in the queue’ now as articles and maybe a book might germinate out of that. That is, one of those projects might lead to something else that really is a book-length project. Right now, I think that’s my plan: keep working on the ideas I’ve got, following leads and pursuing questions, and keep my eyes open for the bigger picture, if there is one. How I ended up with project number two in the last paragraph, after all, was pretty serendipitous. If not, a series of 4-6 really substantial, well-placed articles would probably get me to full professor, and I’ve had one come out and one submitted since tenure, so I’m already 1/2 or 1/3 of the way there. I think for my sabbatical application I might still pitch that second project as a potential book, especially since I’ll be applying for a whole year, but certainly the manuscript research I need to do will take a year of planning and travelling, anyway, so that will help. But if in the long run it’s better as a longish article, that’s fine with me.

Of course, if my projects don’t turn into books, that means that I take myself out of the running for any moves to more prestigious jobs, but I’m OK with that. First of all, I can’t work at the faster or more demanding pace that such a job would require. Take this morning as an example: all I’ve done is read a chapter of a scholarly work and write this blog post. I’m a slow reader, thinker, and writer. And that’s all I manage when I’m not teaching; I manage less when I am. I already have a 2/2 load here (normally 2/3, but I’m grad director, remember) and so a more prestiguous job wouldn’t mean any teaching reduction. And these days the grass is no longer looking especially greener at either the public or private R1s or SLACs. Add the greater expecations and pressure to that, and they’re really not. And then there’s the two-body problem, which Bullock and I conveniently avoided having by meeting here at Rust Belt — why mess with a good thing?

But staying here at Rust Belt and continuing to publish substantial articles, and doing so in visible places, I think I’d still be contributing to the field, and I’d certainly be contributing to the education of students. I’d still have expertise in the field to share with my students, undergraduate and MA level, and enough visibility and standing that my letters of recommendation for students applying to graduate programs would have substance and weight. And so this is my plan now: keep following the leads and see where they take me, whether that’s to articles or a book or a combination of both.



On both the Amazon page for my book and on the publisher’s page, a new entry has been added under the “praise for this book” section. It’s the blurb from my college’s alumni magazine, which the bookshelf editor merely took from the jacket copy. While that’s bad enough — since it clearly repeats information that’s available in the copy on both of these web pages — what’s really embarrassing are the following two details: 1) Medieval is misspelled. Badly. 2) The “review” is credited to me! (And in a sense, that’s true, since I wrote the jacket copy, but I certainly didn’t “review” my own book and misspell medieval!!)


I wrote to Amazon when I first noticed it, but it hasn’t been removed. And only now did I realize it may originate with my own publisher. D’oh. Should I bother tracking down all manifestations of this and getting them removed? Or is life too short? Will my scholarly reputation survive?

>The one in which Virago grumbles about being misunderstood

>So yesterday I got the “Literature” catalog from the press that published my book six months ago. I immediately flipped to my series to see my work in all its advertised glory.

It wasn’t there.

I read through the titles again, more carefully, just to be sure. It still wasn’t there.

And yet there was the book by an acquaintance of mine, published in the same month as mine. And there was the book by another acquaintance, published two years ago. And there was the forthcoming book by yet another friend of mine. (Yeah, it seems all my friends publish with the same publisher, but really, it’s just that I’ve got a lot of friends and acquaintances.)

So, darnit, where was mine???

I’ve been kind of half-convinced that the series editor and the acquisitions editor stopped believing in my book somewhere in the process, even though they were very enthusiastic at the proposal stage. Did they get bored? Did the finished product and the somewhat critical reader’s report (which thought the book, while accomplished and scholarly, wasn’t quite sexy enough for my press) diminish their enthusiasm (even though my counter-argument to the series editor seemed to convince the press to go ahead)? This seeming failure to promote my book seemed to solidify my somewhat paranoid impression.

I was heartbroken. My book was doomed for obscurity, to be purchased only by family members. (Oh, and also by Bullock’s family friend who’s never even met me — I find this utterly charming and a testament to the halo of genuine midwestern niceness that surrounds Bullock and his whole family. But I digress.)

And then I realized something….

This was the *literature* catalog. And my book has a bleepin’ HQ number (cultural and social history) even though it’s a literature book. *That’s* why it’s not in there.

This is still a problem, but one that has nothing to do with my press not believing in me, but rather with the Library of Congress catalogers misunderstanding my work or else not bothering to read the introduction and thinking that the first noun in the title was a metaphor rather than the literal subject of the book. See, my book is called something like The Romance of Happiness and Early Modern Scottish Shepherd Society (heh — that’s a funny title), and in the word “Romance” I’m playing with the genre term — the subject of the book is that genre — and also its multiple metaphorical meanings. But clearly the cataloger thought the main subject was “Early Modern Scottish Shepherd Society” and the rest of the title was expressive but not substantive. Or rather, that the rest of the title was secondary (despite coming first), since they did manage to put Romance – History and Criticism as the *second* category in the list of standard LOC categories assigned to it. Sigh.

Of course, if I’d published with a smaller press, maybe the editorial side would have communicated to the marketing side that my book belonged in the literature catalog, despite its HQ number.

So, question to the wise and experienced ones out there: should I contact the marketing department at my press to see that my book gets in the Literature catalog next time? Or should I just go on making sure they send it out to the right journals for review and sending it out myself to various book competitions, just to make sure it’s getting read by lit people, and hope that word of mouth and citation and review and so forth get it noticed? I also, btw, sent the necessary info and material to the MLA bibliography to make sure it got indexed, which it hadn’t so far — I’m sure, again, because of the HQ number.

Oh, I also have to make sure that our flagship campus buys it, which they haven’t done so far, because the Med-Ren center there has a “new acquisitions” section of their newsletter, which I know I always read.

Anything else I could do to get the word out?

>Endurance editing

>It’s a good thing I’m marathoner, used to pushing through exhaustion to get through that last stretch of miles, because that’s how I feel about correcting my book proofs and writing my index. It’s like I’ve got 3 miles left to go and it’s all I can do to keep one foot moving in front of the other, or in this case, not to get all glassy-eyed.

  • Miles 1-23 = Correcting the proofs and drafting the index — DONE!
  • Miles 24-26.2 = Editing, polishing, and formatting the index — still chugging along.

Of course, a marathon only takes me 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours (depending on how well I’ve trained). I’ve been working on the damn book stuff for about a total of 50 hours now over the course of the last 7 days. And my back and legs are just about as sore as after a marathon as a result. (Or maybe that’s the result of my 20-mile training run yesterday. Who can tell at this point?)

I’ve got until Friday to finish up, but I’ve also got teaching — oh yeah, that! — grading (sigh), and grad director stuff galore this week. So send me some virtual “You can do it!” and “Almost there!” and “Looking great!”* cheers this week. And be patient with me if blogging is light for about the next week.

*Yes, people really call this last one out to marathoners in the last few miles and it never sounds sincere. In a good race it makes me laugh [ETA: because I wouldn’t call dried sweat-salt on my face, visible chafing, and a plodding run “looking great”]. If I’m having a bad race, it makes me want to punch whoever is saying it. [ETA: But I wouldn’t do that, of course. I know they mean well, even if I look like crap and feel miserable. Though it would be funny if someone shouted, “You look like hell but hey, you’ve just run 23 miles!” Te-hee.]

>Man, even the Library of Congress thinks I’m a historian

>I’m back from my conference trip and hard at work on correcting my book’s page proofs and writing my index. It’s a good thing they left me 24 pages for it, because it’s going to be close to that when it’s done. I’ts ridiculously long because I went and wrote a book with overlapping categories of concepts that need separate lists as well as cross-listing. Damn me for being complicated. And can I just say that for some of the index entries I really, really want to say, “see the entire frakkin’ book.” Te-hee!

Anywho, now that I have the proofs, I can see the Library of Congress number I’ve been assigned. And it’s an HQ number, putting me in the cultural history category that is indeed, a major subject of the book. But I think of it as first and foremost about a particular genre of medieval literature. That designation, according to the Library of Congress, however, comes second among all the categories listed. (Well, at least someone doing a search by LC subjects in literature will still be able to find it by the appropriate category.) Maybe being in the HQs will bring me readers I wouldn’t already have — people browsing the shelves in that subject of cultural history — but I’m kind of bummed I’m not with my literature peeps in the PRs.

And I’m having an identity crises. Blog categorizing sites think this blog is a history blog, and now the Library of Congress thinks my book is primarily a work of cultural history. And meanwhile, I’m finding that a lot of what’s been written relevant to my newest project on a certain manuscript and its owners is done by historians. (Hello, Dr. V., there’s a reason why it’s called the history of the book! Duh!) And at this weekend’s conference, the two keynote speakers were both historians, but their work seems awfully close to the kind of stuff I do and think about. Hm. Sure, I do have a new historicist approach to literature, but I thought I was a literature person first.

Maybe I’m the academic equivalent of an adopted kid, and I’m now just realizing that my “parents” aren’t really my parents! This is all rather shocking. I mean, I’m sure my “real” parents, historians, are great people and all — heck, maybe they’re cooler than the literary people I thought were my parents — but who am I?

You know, next time our admins give lipservice to how it’s the age of interdisciplinary work and we need to be doing it (without, of course, any institutional structures to support it), I’m going to pipe up and say, “Well, I’m in an English department, but everyone thinks I’m a historian, so there you go.”

And PS — Just out of curiosity, where do you fall in terms of the “a historian” vs. “an historian” usage?

PPS – This is my 300th post, just so you know.

>Miscellaneous mentionables

>I’ll be away for the weekend at a conference and visiting with some friends, and I won’t be back until Tuesday, so don’t be alarmed by my silence here. Posting may be sketchy for the next few weeks after that, as well, since I’m getting the book proofs this weekend and have two weeks to write the index (and yes, I’m writing it myself — there are good reasons why). The good news is that we’re on break next week, so the index can be my full time job for the moment.

In the meantime, if you haven’t already seen this announcement on other blogs, go check out News for Medievalists, a great compendium of recent news articles of interest to medievalists both academic and independent. The host of the site, Peter Konieczny, also edits the site for De Re Militari: The Society for Medieval Military History.

And now you have the time to read my monstrous post on the process from dissertation to book!

Have a good weekend everyone.

>On keeping a research journal

>In response to my rambling post below on how my dissertation became a book, What Now? brought up something worth responding to on the front page. She wrote in the comments:

I was particularly interested to read that you do your research upfront and then turn to the writing, since I just made the decision this weekend that I’ve been trying to write too soon and need to step back and immerse myself in research for awhile. And this is counter to some writing gurus who say “Write before you’re ready.”

It’s true that I tend to frontload the research and do the “real” writing closer to the end of the process, and I’m one of those people who likes to get the whole argument in her head before she writes, at least in outline form. I find that then I write pretty quickly. However, I do a lot of other kinds of writing throughout the process. First of all, when I’m taking notes, I write questions and responses to the scholars I’m reading. Things like “This is compelling, but what about…?” That way my process really does take the form of a conversation with the scholars. That sometimes happens with the primary texts, too. There’s a name in the attestation of ownership of the manuscript I’m currently working on, which I have circled in my printout of the microfilm. Next to it I’ve written, “Who are you?”

So there’s that kind of short-form writing. And I also keep a “work-in-progress” or research journal, and in that I write longer-form but informal essays on ideas I have during the research. Sometimes they start with questions such as “Could I say…?” or “What if I argued…?” Sometimes they’re about texts I’m teaching or reading in other contexts which might have something to say about the current project, and so I do a kind of reading response to save for future reference. I don’t always turn back to what I’ve written, but the process of writing, I think, helps me test ideas and keeps them more actively in my thought than just thinking about them would. It’s because of such a journal that my dissertation project changed from issue X in texts A & B to issue Y in them. And I did go back to that journal for my reading of one particular segment of those texts. So it has real, concrete value, as well as process and practice value.

I realize as I write this that these kinds of writing — marginal notations, notes, journals, reading response — are exactly the kind of things that Writing Across the Curriculum experts urge us to put into practice in our WAC (and non-WAC) courses. I never had WAC courses as an undergrad nor taught them as a graduate student, but somehow I’ve been using WAC methods in my own writing all along. Huh. Who knew? I must remember to bring this up in my WAC courses, to show students that this isn’t just cant, that regular writing practice of all forms does actually help you think through writing.

So, yes, I save the “formal” writing for later in the process, but really, I’m writing all along.

>From dissertation to book: a saga (but not in the medieval sense)

>Last week, Dr. Crazy wrote a narrative of the process that got her from her dissertation to her new book deal (congratulations, Dr. C!) and asked others to chime in with their narratives and advice. (She’s been answered as well by jbj at The Salt-Box.) There are elements of my story that are similar to Crazy’s, but with enough difference that I’ll give you my narrative. Much of the advice that Crazy and jbj both give is advice I would repeat (and some I wish I’d had).

Like Dr. C, I think I should start back with the dissertation process because that’s where the book started, and also like Dr. C., I always thought of it as a book (though I did cull parts for a couple of articles first). This is not the case with everyone. Bullock has a friend in rhet/comp who wrote a pretty quick, get-it-done style dissertation and then wrote something completely different for her first book. And maybe there are literature folks like that, too, but both Bullock and I turned our dissertations into our first books (he’s in a humanities-like part of the social sciences). In fact, we both had dissertation directors who referred to our dissertations as “the book.” If Bullock had a blog, he could tell you his story; I’ll stick to mine. My director, who is a generous and kind man, but also very private, non-confrontational, and a little shy, was a very hands-off kind of director. I think he really, sincerely believed in letting his students “find their bliss” so that they wouldn’t become reproductions of him. In the long run that seems to have worked for him and his students because his former students are an astonishingly accomplished, impressive, academically famous lot, but also very different from each other in their approaches to literature and scholarship. A little more direction – deadlines, for example – might have gotten me out a year earlier, but otherwise I respond pretty well to that sort of freedom. When it came time to submit things to him, that’s when he gave his full and careful attention to everything I wrote. Everything. In that way, he was an exacting task-master, but like Crazy’s director, he hit that sweet spot between fully-fledged “real” book and dissertation on its way to the book. He often wrote comments in the margins that asked questions or suggested I consider such-and-such, but then added, “You don’t need to do this now, but you’ll need to take it into consideration for the book.”

But that’s all after I started writing chapters. Let me go back a bit to the process that got me there, because I think that’s worth considering in this narrative, too. I’m kind of weirdly practical when it comes to deciding on things like areas of specialization and dissertation topics. I became a medievalist because I thought I’d have more to contribute to the scholarly conversation than in my other areas of interest where I loved the literature but didn’t have much new to say about it. When I love something too much, I have a hard time writing about it. For instance, I may never write anything about either Gawain and the Green Knight or Chaucer. So when I was fishing for texts and topics for the diss, I went to the texts that puzzled and interested me, that I had questions about rather than emotional attachments to. I think Bardiac has mentioned somewhere on her blog that when she teaches first year undergraduates how to do research, she emphasizes that the best research starts with a good question, one you don’t know the answer to. That’s something I’m going to emphasize with my juniors and seniors when we discuss how to do research, and it’s definitely something I somehow kind of knew when I started into my own research, although I didn’t express it to myself so directly. Instead, I started with the texts I was curious about, that I had questions about, and did MLA Bibliography searches on them to see what other scholars were talking about and if they’d answered these questions. In doing that, I realized one of the texts – or rather, set of texts — had had much less written on it than the others, despite being pretty canonical, and no one seemed to be writing on the questions I had about it. So that’s how I figured out a plan of action for beginning my research. I had texts I was interested in and had questions about, and I found that no one was really talking about the topic my questions addressed, even though I thought it was pretty obvious and important.

So now you’re probably thinking, “Really? That’s all you did to come up with your dissertation/book topic and argument?” No, of course not. See, originally, my questions were about issue X in texts A & B, but as I started doing my research I realized that issue X was not really what these texts were all about. Plus, the way I was thinking about issue X, I soon realized, was really ahistorical. But luckily, the research I was doing gave me new inspiration and I realized that the questions that I really should be asking were about issue Y – although X still had something to do with Y, so all that research on X wasn’t useless.

That whole process – of researching and refining my topic and the argument that eventually would come out of it – took about a year, at the end of which I produced a 40-page prospectus of the dissertation/book it would become, complete with chapter breakdowns and sample readings of selected parts of texts A & B for each of those mini-chapters. At my graduate institution, we defend the prospectus rather than the finished dissertation, which seems like a totally humane thing to do, since there’s a lot more room to change things at the prospectus stage. But I suppose that if I’d had a dissertation defense, I might have had a better sense of what needed to be done to make it into a book. Still, the ways in which even the dissertation changed from prospectus to finished dissertation at least prepared me for being able to chuck out whole ideas and segments when I revised the dissertation into the book. Because, see, that prospectus originally outlined 5 chapters, but in the end I wrote only 4, folding the idea of the fifth chapter into the work as a whole. Call the subject of that proposed chapter issue Z, because I realized, during the research and writing process, that it really was a separate issue, with separate theories and history, although I think it played a part in shaping issue Y. So, from an original idea about issue X on texts A & B, then a proposal about issue Y and Z in texts A & B, the dissertation became a work on issue Y on texts A & B, with some intertwined forays into the cultural matrix that is X, Y, and Z. Oh, and at one point there was going to be some discussion of text-group C – a different genre that I thought was perhaps shaping issue Y in texts A & B – but it became pretty obvious that that had the same problems as issue Z: different theories and histories plus a separate genre of texts. I had to focus.

Ultimately, after that prospectus defense, it took me another two years to research and write the dissertation. Most of the first year was about research, the next year about writing, both of them on dissertations fellowships. Yeah, it really shouldn’t have taken me so long. Actually, the first chapter was the longest to write. When I went on the market the first time, in the fall of my last year of graduate school (the second time I was finished and had a lectureship), I had two chapters written by MLA. And then from January to filing in August, I wrote the final two chapters and revised and polished the whole thing. So basically, it took me about 12+ months to get the first two chapters done and half the time to get the next two written and the whole thing revised. Again, it was that first chapter that was the real bitch, and I want to tell you about that, because it’s also key to how I turned the diss into the book.

As I started writing the first chapter, I encountered the problem that many a first time scholar encounters: I wanted to include everything I knew. And after all that research on issue X, I didn’t want to let it go, even though I was now doing issue Y. Anyway, as I was writing that first chapter – which was the new historicist, cultural contexts, reading-the-documents kind of chapter – it kept growing and growing and growing into the Chapter That Would Not End. When it reached 120 pages (!!) I told my director about its length and he suggested that I turn parts of it into an appendix if I couldn’t bear to let it go. He added that someday that would be a good repository of knowledge if I needed to turn to it in revising the book. So that’s what I did.

Some of the following chapters were pretty long, too, but not nearly as gargantuan as that first beast was. But also, they came much, much, faster in the writing, especially by chapters 3 and 4. Although I’m not nearly as speedy a writer as Crazy is, my writing process is similar. I spend a lot of time doing the research and conceptualizing the thing as a whole before writing, so that when it comes down to the writing, I know where I’m going. Also, I don’t angst over individual turns of phrase or sentences in the initial writing – I save that for later, for revisions. So my screenwriting neighbor and I would have these daily writing contests in which we announced our page tallies at the end of the day. We decided that a page of my text was worth ten of his, given the margins and the spacing and imaginative process of a screenplay versus the density of argument of a dissertation. One day I came out at 5pm (our deadline) and announced that I had written ten pages. “Damn!” he said, “That’s worth a whole screenplay!”

Anyway, in the end, I had a ridiculously long dissertation with an appendix of “stuff I just couldn’t cut” that came to nearly 500 pages. Clearly it was not ready to be published as is! I let it sit for my first year on the TT job and turned to it the next summer. I got a research award from my university to revise it into a book, and I took the six-week salary award seriously, making editing and revising my full-time job for those weeks. Here’s what I did with that appendix: anytime a footnote in a chapter said “See Appendix,” I decided if my close reading of the historical documents was necessary for the argument I was making and, if it was, I folded that bit into the main text. If the stuff in the Appendix was just a paraphrase or quotation of someone else’s work, all I kept was the footnote to them. The rest I chucked. And I set aside that first chapter and re-read the following chapters, trying to decide how much of that first chapter was needed to make sense of the following one. And I tried to pair down chapters 2 and 3, which were also pretty overwhelmingly large. And through all of this, I tried to use other recent books on texts A & B to guide me from dissertation to book. I didn’t know about Germano’s From Dissertation to Book, unfortunately, but I’ve always done a pretty good job using others’ work as models to imitate. I think imitation is a powerful tool for learning, in fact; it’s certainly how many a writer honed his or her craft. Sure, it can veer into the repetitious and the parodic and the tiresome. But the conventions of any genre, including the academic book, come from the texts themselves in conversation with and reflection of others like them, not from some set of “rules” out “there” in the sphere of the Forms of Genre.

I should say that throughout this, I had no explicit advice from my former director or committee member, other than those mightily helpful notes my director left me about what needed to be considered when it became a book. I’m not upset about this in the least. Like I said, he lets his students follow their bliss, and he also seems to believe that when they leave the nest they need to find their own way. He’s a bit like my own mother that way, and so it’s a style I respond to and understand. I think it’s part of the reason why I can throw myself into some project and just decide I have to do something, as in “OK, now I have to turn this into a book,” etc. I’m surprised I didn’t look for a book like Germano’s, though, since whenever my mom wanted to know how to do something she went to the library and found a book about it. Heck, when I decided to start running and training for marathons, I got a book, too! (Seriously: The Runner’s Handbook. Love it.)

After that initial process of revising, that’s when I said, “OK, now to get this thing published.” I knew it wasn’t totally finished, but I’d done as much as I could, and now I needed an editor or a reader to tell me what else it might require. So I started talking to the book editors at conference book exhibits. I brought along a newly-written one-page abstract of the book and an offprint of an article that came from material in one of the chapters, as well as a copy of my CV. Some of them took that material; some of them gave me their proposal forms; some of them asked me to send a formal query letter; none of the editors gave me all that much concrete advice. But one of them really interviewed me – as if for a TT job – which I totally wasn’t prepared for. He asked and said things such as “How is your book different from So-and-So’s book?” (which, btw, is a cultural history book on issue Y – why does everyone think I’m a historian???) and “Why do you think the field needs your book?” and “Convince me it’s not just a slightly more polished version of your dissertation.” He scared me. But he also taught me a little of what to expect when publishers looked at my proposals. In the end, I got two rejections from the presses who’d taken my materials at the conference as informal proposals/queries, and they were nice rejections, but they didn’t give much feedback. So other than Scary Editor’s interview, I was back at square one, still hoping at least to get the book to the reader stage and not knowing exactly why I was getting rejected and if it had to do with my topic and ideas or just with economics, luck, and timing.

And then a friend told me about the presses that give “advance contracts,” where the press gives you a contract based on a very detailed proposal, and then sends your completed manuscript to a reader. There’s a clause in the contract that gives them the right to reject the book based on the reader’s report, so it’s still a peer-reviewed book. And one of my friends pointed me to one press in particular with the reputation for working quickly. At the time I was in my second year on the tenure track, so I thought that sounded like a great idea. If worse comes to worst, I thought, and I get rejected after all that, I’ll have a reader report showing me how to improve the book and I’ll also know how to ‘sell’ it through the proposal process.

Y’all know this story ends happily, so I’ll just hit the highlights here. The acquisitions editor and the series editor (the academic with her name on the series in which my book appears) both gave me tons of feedback on the initial proposal I sent them, the form for which I got from their website. (The web is an excellent source of information in this process as most presses have a page all about their submissions process.) They were clearly interested and wanted the proposal to be the best it could be for the pitch to the board. Writing and revising that proposal also helped me further shape the final book, since there would be more editing down the road. I got the contract ultimately, which included a due date six or nine months away (I forget which) at which point I was supposed to provide them with the final manuscript, post peer-review. So that meant I had to get the manuscript ready for peer review pronto. This made me glad I’d already done some revision prior to submitting proposals, but there was still more to be done, since the press had a strict 90,000 word limit (including notes) and my book was currently about 110,000 words, I think. So more text came out, in addition to the stuff I’d taken out earlier. (When I started getting down to those final 1000 words or so, I started changing phrases like “the R of Q” to “Q’s R,” I was that desperate.) And then I shipped it off to the press to send it to the reader.

And then the reader’s report came back, with only about a month and half before the deadline. And it was mixed. And there was much gnashing of teeth and rending of clothing. But I defended the book to the series editor where I thought the reader was actually mistaken, and I promised the changes that s/he was probably right about. And the series editor was convinced. And I was on leave from teaching and I write quickly, so it was do-able. And all was good.

And so I sent off the final manuscript. And I waited. A year later I got the copy-edited version. Now, there was correspondence in between, so it’s not like my publisher disappeared on me. For whatever reason, my book was pushed back a year – probably for budgetary reasons, I imagine. Well, so much for the fast-moving press, but still, had they rejected me after the reader’s report, that was only my third year on the tenure track and I would’ve had time to find another publisher, since I’d only exhausted three possibilities. And if the press had stayed on the original plan, I would’ve been trying to see my way through the production process while my mom was in and out of the hospital, slowly dying, and that would’ve been disastrous. So the delay ended up a good thing, too.

And now I’ve got an Amazon page of my own. And two scholars I admire – one a rising star, another an established figure of renown – have blurbed the book, and soon I’ll have the proofs to review. And in June there will be a real book to hold in my hands, not quite 5 years after I filed the dissertation.

And that’s how my dissertation became a book.

>*This* close to outing myself…

>…so I can show off my book cover to y’all. For those of you who know my real name, it’s on Amazon so you can see it there. (It’s the third hit down if you search my first name and last name and narrow to “books” category. Apparently I also wrote a novel in the 1950s, I think, and I don’t know what that second hit is there for.)

So the cover illustration isn’t *exactly* what I write on — it’s of something later and, I think, continental, but it’s pretty close. It hits a lot of the right marks. And I dig the way the title and my name look. Plus, as a bonus, the color pretty closely matches my office walls at school! How did they know?! 🙂

And can I just say — woo hoo! I’m on Amazon!

But, um, dear Amazon folks, my book is not a history book. It’s histori*cal* (or rather, historicist — of the newish variety) but not history. And it’s certainly not sociology! Wtf?