Friday, March 25, 2011

Writing that Book After Work Hours: Why and How

Philip White

In a perfect world, each historian with a worthy book proposal would earn an advance large enough to enable him or her to focus solely on crafting a top notch manuscript. In reality, for those of us who write history in addition to working outside the academy, we work to convince university presses that our ideas are “academic” enough and trade presses that our book will be “marketable.” Once we get a deal it barely allows us to get enough Starbucks coffee to fuel late-night writing sessions after our “real” jobs are done for the day. After the tax collector has taken a cut and we’ve plumped down the cash for research trips, bought enough books to buckle already-burdened shelves, and purchased enough aspirin to kill a small horse, we’re typically left with a pittance. So why do we put ourselves through this?

It can’t just be because we’re suckers, or so I keep telling myself as my bloodshot eyes struggle to comprehend the horror of reading “2:00” again—and I’m not talking p.m.—on my bedside clock as I stumble into my bed, fearing the alarm that will blare in not even five hours.

Well, one reason is a cliché, but true nonetheless—love. Love of the subject matter, the new angle we’ve come up with, the historical characters we’re impatient for our potential readers to meet on the page. For me, it is all of these, plus the thrill of finding a detail that I’ve never seen before, something I’ve just discovered in a dusty archive file after a day of previously fruitless searching.

Another bonus is mastery, relative though that is, of our subject matter. Often, this involves the painful recognition that presuppositions we formed years ago are wildly inaccurate—a revelation that only comes from digesting a broad range of scholarly works to get as close to the “truth” as we can. We then do our own primary and secondary source work, which takes apart yet more generic or personal misconceptions, while supplying new facts to take their place. Supplement that with oral history, archival work and such and you can get dangerously close to (gulp!) writing a book with something new and important to say.

So now I’ve covered the “why,” at least in part, onto the “how.” Yes, the aforementioned caffeine, applied in careful doses that don’t cumulatively turn you into a jabbering, twitchy wreck that can’t sleep, is certainly needed. Beyond that there are the principles of organization and prioritization. The fact that you have might have a main job in which you must give your best effort, maybe a family and possibly, you slacker, some other, non-work interests, means you are dealing with very limited time. The first step in getting organized is working with your family to set up a realistic schedule that won’t push you over the edge or deny them the time they need. Then, you must find a suitable workspace in which distractions are minimal, a desk uncluttered and all the resources you need at your disposal. If this sounds elementary, forgive me, but it’s amazing how many wasted hours result from trying to eke out a first draft in a noisy, crowded, disorganized workspace. Next, you need to set yourself some deadlines, even if they’re “soft,” with your manuscript submission date in mind.

Once you’ve got these basics down, got all your research materials together and are ready to jump in, you need to prioritize. What are you going to tackle first, and why? List making may seem like a chore, but well ordered to-dos for each aspect of your project are useful: “Things to Ask My Advisor,” “Interviews to Conduct,” “Archives to Visit,” and so on. Then you must decide how much time to give to each list, and then each item on your list, in order to meet those established deadlines. It’s satisfying to get out the red pen and cross off items, one by one.

The third stage of getting a well-written book completed on time is execution. All the organization and prioritization in the world is useless if you’re not going to actually hunker down and get the thing written. This is tied to the umbrella over the three components—discipline. It takes discipline to clear your workspace, organize your folders so they’re easy to navigate, apportion your time adequately, and then to execute. Discipline is needed to say “no” when your buddies invite you out for a few cold ones or when you want to watch your favorite team lose again. It also takes discipline to listen to your body’s warning signals and take a night off when you need it.

If you can combine organization, prioritization, discipline, and execution you will be able to have fun with your research and writing processes, to eliminate wasted time and to create a finished product you can be proud of. And that, ultimately, makes the creeping carpal tunnel syndrome, the sleep deprivation, and the raging caffeine addiction more than worth it!


Anonymous said...

Great post! How did you get into my life like that?

Seriously, it is passion that keeps us going. As a writer of historical fiction I want to take people to a time and place and make them feel what those involved felt to make it mean something. It's worth the missed sleep and caffeine induced twitchiness.

Unknown said...

As far as validation goes, though, the advance itself has got to be a big one. Someone out there, who is responsible for making sure books that won't sell don't get bought by her company, has gone into a meeting and convinced the guys who hold the pursestrings that YOUR book is going to interest enough people that the publisher won't lose their shirt on it. That's got to feel good.

Thought-provoking post. I've been thinking a lot about story vs. argument this weekend, and how venue (the academy or the public) influences how we do our writing (more on that, later, maybe).

PW said...

Erica - lovely to hear from you. I enjoyed reading your blog yesterday - keep up the fine work!

I completely agree with you about time and place. It's a lot easier to write dry history (or, indeed, fiction) that fails to put the reader at the scene, tells them nothing about the personalities involved and doesn't feel authentic. Also, everyone has a story to tell, and connect "everyday" folks to great historical events is fascinating, at least to me. Erik Larson and Jennet Conant are masters of their craft, achieving all of this and more on each page. If you haven't read their work, I highly recommend getting thyself to Amazon/your library!

Dan, I am perfectly content with the advance I received. I was lucky enough to be selected by a wonderful house, and the advance is very fair. Forgive me if my post indicated a lack of thankfulness. However, I hope to see the day when said advance is enough to enable me to focus exclusively on my second true love (after my good lady wife!). I'd welcome the chance to read your thoughts on story vs. argument.