Diary of writing a book to manuscript completion

Today I have submitted my monograph (solo-authored book) manuscript to my publisher. No this is not an April fool’s joke!

Book writing is quite a drawn out process. I’m sure it looks different for each author, but I thought it might be useful for other authors and aspiring book writers to see a timeline to manuscript completion and submission. Below I outline the dates and steps that have gotten me to this moment.

January 2018: My husband and I are chatting on the long drive home from a family holiday, talking about our goals for the year ahead. I say that writing a monograph is something I would love to have a go at in 2018. As we talk I start to formulate the book’s purpose and structure.

When we get home, I paste up a little piece of cardboard on the bathroom mirror. It says: ‘don’t wait until you’re ready; start now’. I start.

I write a book proposal and send it to the publisher (with whom I have a previous relationship as co-editor of Flip the System Australia). The book proposal is sent out to reviewers.

February-May 2018: My book proposal floats in the review-stage ether. I wait for all of the reviews to come in. Luckily I am readying Flip the System Australia for publication as editor, so my spare time is put to good use.

June 2018: I (finally!) receive the reviews to my book proposal. I amend the proposal in response to reviews and resubmit it to the publisher.

July 2018: Negotiation of and signing of book contract happens. Wahoo! I have a date, a word limit and a mandate.

Let the writing begin.

I stick a word count timeline to my fridge. My kids begin to keep me accountable to it. “Mum, how many words have you written?” “You know you’re meant to have written X thousand by now?” “Can I cross this one off?”

August-December 2018: I write (in between working, parenting, living). I send a few chapters to peers around the world to get some early feedback.

In October I invite someone to write the foreword. They accept.

January 2019: The first draft of the book is complete. Little do I know how much work is still required in order to revise it properly.

I tweet a poll asking how an author knows their book is done.

Tweet Jan 2019

A number of people tell me I need to get some other people to read the whole thing. The whole thing? How can I ask anyone to read the whole thing?

I suck up the courage and ask some experts in the field for feedback and also for endorsements. I am delighted and surprised by people’s generosity.

I also send it out to my editor. I show my husband the introduction and he tells me it needs to be punchier and more interesting.

February 2019: Revising, revising, editing, editing. Repeat. Responding to feedback as it comes in.

March 2019: Proofing, proofing, proofing. Responding to any more feedback.

I take references out of the text to allow more space for my own words, voice and ideas. (I am a chronic over-referencer and need to remind myself: more me, less others! This is my book after all.)

I move the text from one big Word document into separate chapter documents. I finalise reference lists. I finalise the acknowledgements. I write chapter abstracts and complete the art log.

April 2019: On April Fool’s Day I wake up to the foreword in my email inbox. Hoorah! The final piece of the puzzle is here. And it is wonderful. I am super pleased.

I electronically submit my manuscript and ancillary documents to the publisher. This is not a drill.

I feel that weird feeling of wanting to keep tinkering, tinkering, tinkering. But I know that the book is as good as I can make it, in this instant. I wonder: Is done better than perfect? I assure myself that this process (unlike the PhD thesis) involves a copy editor. And that I will stand by my words in the future, even if they only capture my thinking at this moment in time.

While I know it will be exciting to hold the real book when it is eventually printed and released, the publishing reality is that by the time an actual work comes out, the author has often moved on in their thinking. My book is not yet finished, but this is a milestone worth celebrating.

I buy the same special champagne I bought in October 2015 when I submitted my PhD thesis: Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé. I haven’t opened it yet, but I will find a time to enjoy it, and a few people with whom to share it.

From here there will continue to be about 6 months of checks and communication as the book moves through the publisher’s copy editing and production process. This includes proofing by an independent copy editor, cover design, index writing and printing.

Some time this year I’ll get the actual book in my hands!

Advertisements

The neverending story of the PhD

Rhymes that keep their secrets / Will unfold behind the clouds / And there upon the rainbow / Is the answer to a neverending story ~ Lyrics to ‘Neverending Story’ by Limahl. Watch the song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Vf2sDgeu7k

Bastian atop Falkor; just like PhD-finishing triumph Source: http://thephobia.com/post/58187104333/the-neverending-story

Bastian atop Falkor the luckdragon in the film; just like PhD-finishing triumph
Source: http://thephobia.com/post/58187104333/the-neverending-story

Children of the 80s like myself will remember The Neverending Story, a quest narrative in which the protagonist escapes into a fantastical world through the pages of a magical book. What started as a 1979 German fantasy novel by Michael Ende became a 1984 film directed by Wolfgang Peterson with a deliciously-80s theme song by Limahl. When I’ve been asked what the song of my PhD would be, I often answer ‘The Neverending Story’ as it just goes on and on!

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the seeming neverendingness of the PhD. I’ve had people in life and on Twitter congratulating me on the completion of my PhD … despite the fact I have not submitted! I think it is because I announced with glee that I had finished my full thesis draft in July. People seem to think that I surely MUST be done by now.

But no.

While the first full draft means that all the chapters are written, it does not mean that the document is (anywhere near) finished. There are some great online resources to help doctoral students with long and laborious revision and editing. Pat Thomson talks about the process of revision, as opposed to editing. Rachel Cayley’s great piece outlines the stages and layers of editing. Katherine Firth’s post on editing gives thorough and accessible strategies. And Tara Brabazon penned this Times Higher Education article which includes ten editing cycles, including ‘read every sentence underlined with a ruler’ (I have tried this). A finished first draft is 3-6 months from a finished final draft.

I kicked off my full-draft revision with a writing retreat, in which I spent about two full days and nights on the first 40 pages. This wasn’t editing. It was Frankensteinesque dismemberment and radical textual surgery, as Pat Thomson puts it. After making it through my first lot of revisions, I talked about my willingness to chop chop chop, to improve the text’s argument by streamlining it closer to its essence. I have now managed to cut what was a 110,000 word draft to 95,000 words. And the text is stronger for it, reflecting Katherine Firth’s comments on the pruning required of verbose texts:

Like a haircut when your tresses are damaged, or like a diseased rose bush, cutting a lot of stuff off can give the rest of your work a space to breathe, and promote healthy growth for that last little bit.

But still, I didn’t think that I’d be making such big changes this close to the end of the game. Just when I think I’m an Oxford comma away from being done, a new ‘a-ha’ moment or a feedback curveball comes my way.

Last week I met with my secondary supervisor who posed a question about a ten-page section of my literature review: How did it fit with the threads of argument in my thesis? On reflection, I realised that this ten pages was relevant but not central. It was something I had been strongly driven by at the beginning of my PhD, but which had become a distraction from my main argument. I was so close to the document that I hadn’t been able to question it in this way. I was attached to something that had been in my thesis from the beginning, but which no longer fit. Luckily, I was attached but not precious about this section, so when its inclusion was interrogated, I was able to say, “Ok, maybe this doesn’t fit. I’ll try lifting it out and see how it works.” I’ve cut the offending section and pasted it into another document, with the intention of reworking the material into a paper. A little of the material I’ve added into my rationale and context sections, in very small bits. The literature review now feels stronger, punchier, less bogged down, leaving the main threads of my argument to breathe.

With less than a month to go, on and on I go. Read, revise, edit, proof, receive feedback, add literature (I can’t stop myself from reading!), apply feedback, read again.

Yet despite what can feel like the dizzying highs, terrifying lows, almost-finisheds and never-finisheds of the PhD, the doctoral experience is a great example of what good learning can look like. The candidate gets to work on a project of personal passion and importance. They are invested in the work and own its purpose. They work over a long period of time, getting (hopefully) regular feedback from their Falkor-luckdragonesque supervisors which (hopefully) helps them to develop their research and writing into the best it can be within PhD parameters.

Even at submission my PhD story won’t end. Then it will be waiting for three examiners’ reports, making corrections, resubmitting. It’s a long road to ‘Dr Deb’. It’s “the neverending storrrrr-yyyyyyy! Ahh-aa-ahh! Ahh-aa-ahh! Ahh-aa-ahhhhhh!” It’s not over yet!