Monday, February 26, 2007

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.

3 comments:

What Now? said...

SUCH an interesting post! Thanks for sharing your narrative with us, especially with those of us who haven't gone through this process. 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." So I'm finding my way on this one.

Congrats again on the forthcoming book!

undine said...

Very useful and interesting; I'd like my grad students to read it, too.

Dr. Mon said...

Wow thanks so much for this wonderful post!!