Sunday, July 19, 2020

How I went from dissertation to book: escaping blank pages, part 2

I talked in my last post about how I went over my dissertation and pulled bits out that I identified as containing the seeds of the book I wanted to write, and how I catalogued those bits. In what follows I’m going to talk about how I went from having basically an organized collection of remnants from my dissertation to really beginning my book.

Once I had gone through all of the raw material the way I described last time, I called the result a skeleton file. It was basically a heavily annotated outline including large amounts of notes and fragments of text. The next step I took was to print the skeleton file and read over it to see if I put everything in the right place - some of the notes under section 2 of the chapter plan might really be better under section 4, say. Those discoveries also sometimes helped me see that I needed to restructure the plan of the chapter a little. In reviewing the skeleton I also sometimes realized there were sections for which I needed to do further reading and research, and that I might need a new section sometimes. All of this gave me more tasks for my to-do list, but fairly well-defined and finite ones. I set about filling in those sections with notes on primary and secondary sources.

Working from my skeleton file in that way bounded the further research I did, making sure it served the book, keeping me from falling down rabbit holes of interesting but book-irrelevant material. Once I had all the parts of the skeleton fleshed out, I then printed the skeleton and started a new file that I called a zero draft. I made myself err on the side of retyping. If I found myself typing long sentences word for word I would let myself cut them out of a copy of the skeleton file but I resisted the temptation to start with copying and pasting. This led to me saying things better a lot of the time. Even when I did copy prose, I tried not do so during a writing session. I would try instead to put in a note in brackets saying “copy here the paragraph beginning… and ending…” and then after the closed bracket I would write the prose that I planned would come after that material I planned to copy. This allowed my writing time to be dedicated entirely to writing.

I didn’t always know what to write in a given section. When that happened, I would put in a bracket describing to the best of my abilities what the writing task was, such as “[I want there to be some connection here made explicitly between law and capitalism in this section, but I also want this to tell the stories of these individual lives, free write on this later]” - you know, easy stuff - and again after the closed bracket I would type the stuff I planned to come afterward. This way of working meant that when I got to the end of the zero draft I had a lot of prose that mattered a great deal structurally - introduction to the chapter, introductions to sections, topic sentences - and I had a lot of instructions to myself embedded in brackets in the text, about things to copy, things to look up or research further, and free writes to do. Again, this served to reduce the blankness of the pages I faced as a writer and to make the blanks smaller as well. After I went through all those tasks, I called the document a first draft but it was really the result of more than one pass. I would then reread that first draft and take notes on ideas I had (often for other chapters) and edits for the chapter.

I did all of the above for chapter one, then did all of the above for chapter two, chapter three, etc. This worked well for me. The early parts felt interminable and a little boring but that was far better than the anxiety I’d had while dissertating, and I always had a plan and tasks I could execute. (I found over time that my ability to plan well wears out quickly when I’m tired, but my ability to execute already planned tasks lasts longer, so if I plan well, I get more hours of work in each day.) One really nice part was that late in the process I describe I would find that the late stage drafts were coming together fast and I actually liked parts of them, which was really enjoyable and I relished that writing was fun for those moments. (Writing is only sometimes - infrequently - fun for me. I find writing hard, and as a writer I am driven more by the sense of accomplishing something challenging than I am by having fun.)

I realize this all may sound pretty involved, but I think it helped me go faster. I wrote a full draft of the manuscript in around eighteen or twenty four months. In that time I had one semester where I taught only one class; the rest of the time I taught 3/3 and I taught a couple summer classes. We also had our third child in that time period. I don’t mean to brag, I just want to say that for people with jobs and lives similar to mine I think this is a good way to try working. (I also don’t want to treat writing in a cookie-cutter way; as writers we can steer by general best practices but ultimately we need to find specific ways that work for us as individuals. What worked for me might not for someone else.)

The process I described also served me well when I ran into trouble in the fourth and fifth chapters of my book. When I started chapter five I realized that it really needed to be chapter four, and vice versa. I also realize that the draft I had intended to be a draft of chapter four was in fact a draft of chapter five plus ten pages of chapter four. That was a painful discovery. I dealt with it by returning to my chapter outlines, and treating the draft I had in the same I way I treated my dissertation prose. I went through that chapter draft, identifying what parts of served which chapter, then sifted those pieces into my outlines along with new free writes. Then I sifted my remaining raw material from the dissertation into the new outlines for those chapters. This process kept my frustration to a minimum and gave me concrete tasks to work on, instead of dwelling on being annoyed at having to redo the plan for these two chapters. In the end, and without taking a lot of time, I had good skeletons for both chapters, which meant that actually writing prose went well, and went quickly.

Having said all of this, I do wish I had worked slightly differently. After I finished a good draft of one chapter, I had to start the process over for the next chapter, which was unpleasant. I complained about this at one point to my wife, when I was about to start chapter four. She said “just start all the chapters. If you hate starting get all the starting over with at once.” I thought that was impossible but she was right. I did the process I described above for two of my book’s later chapters at once and it went much better. If I had it to do over again I would write chapter 1 the same way I describe here, to prove to myself I could write a chapter, and then I would do all the prewriting for all the remaining parts of the book and then go back through all of the prewriting and write prose for the whole book.

Well, there you have it. That’s how I’ve done a lot of my work as a writer so far. As I’ve tried to say, I don’t know if how I work will work for you. I think writing is less a matter of finding perfect recipes offered by other people and more a matter of improvising to find something that works for one’s self. In any case, this concludes my posts on how I did the writing. In these posts I tried to lay out concretely what I did while also giving a sense of how the work felt to do, to show what it was like to be me while doing the work of writing. In my remaining posts I’m going to continue in the vein of talking about what it was like to do the work, but with a focus on the intellectual and emotional content rather the logistics of the writing process. My next post talks about a bout of depression post-dissertation. Again, thanks for reading.

- Nate Holdren