Thursday, December 31, 2015

Writing without a net

As I mentioned yesterday, my Milton chapter is getting out of control:

Based on what I have left to cover, I'd estimate this chapter will ultimately hit 30,000 words. For comparison, my entire first book was 92,000 words.

This is, frankly, never a problem I've had before. Though I know people who can sit down and produce 70 pages practically at a sitting, I usually have the opposite problem: I run short. When I'm writing to deadline, my first fear is always that I won't make length, that I won't have enough to say--and though that's never a problem in the end, I accrete text only slowly, cutting as I expand. (And I can cut like nobody's business, transforming a 50-page chapter into a 10-page conference paper in a matter of hours.)

So I'm not really sure what this means: that I'm traveling down too many scenic by-roads (which I'll eventually cut or spin off as separate articles)? That I'm going to have two really meaty and awesome chapters? Or that the project is becoming something other than what I thought it was--which is to say, an entire book on Milton?

Any of these things seems possible, but I really don't want to be writing a book on Milton right now. I've always assumed that I might write a Milton book someday, but this book's organizing principle collapses if I'm only looking at one writer. It's supposed to be Larger Historical Phenomenon, Broken Down into Some Subphenomena, in a Bunch of Writers. If it's a Milton-only book, it becomes, basically, One Subphenomenon in One Writer.

Sure, the topic could be reoriented to fit a Milton-only approach. . . but right now I think the only way to do that would involve abandoning the bigger questions that most animate me, the ones that made me want to write this book in the first place.

So I'm not sure what's happening here, or what I'm doing, or whether it won't all collapse into flames in the end.

This is the "fun" part, yes?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Writing by appointment

It's surprising how much I'm still learning about my writing process, ten years past degree and sixteen years into my regular production of academic prose.

Through all those years, I've been a dedicated writer-at-home. I go through periods where I enjoy revising in coffee shops, and I can read and take notes almost anywhere, but I've never composed anything of any length outside of my own home (or a proxy for my own home, such as a boyfriend's apartment or my parents' house). Half my dissertation was written on the bed that amounted to the primary piece of furniture in my studio apartment.

So over the summer, when a friend mentioned that she'd found tandem-writing dates really helpful--afternoons where she met a colleague at a coffee shop to write together for a few hours--and asked whether I'd ever done that, I said no. It had never occurred to me that this was a thing that people did, and I couldn't see what it might add to my writing life.

Unlike my friend, I don't have small children, and I've never experienced the downsides of working at home that some people do. Sure, I can fall prey to procrastination and avoidance, but that doesn't seem affected by location; in fact, for me, getting out the door to a library or coffee shop is often a bigger hurdle than sitting down to write at home, and more subject to deferral (because I haven't yet eaten, or the place is closing soon, or it gets too crowded around this time, or hosts an open-mic night, or whatever).

And as the semester started, I was indeed writing very well at home--carving out a few afternoons a week and making steady progress. But it turned out that two of my local friends were doing the tandem-writing thing; both on leave and both trying to finish up their first books, they'd gotten into the habit of meeting once a week for five or six hours.

They invited me to join them, and I did, mostly to be sociable. We'd meet in the airy, calm library at the art museum, write for an hour or two, have lunch in the museum cafe, and then write for another two or three hours. It was a nice routine, and I was getting good work done--not always the solid five hours I'd intended, but usually at least three. I didn't consider the work I did there superior to the work I was doing at home, but I enjoyed both the location and the company.

But as the semester wore on, that thing happened that always happens, where suddenly I was no longer able to find time to write at home. Around the middle of October the grading started to pile up, as did the letters of recommendation--and then I had a conference or two to attend, not to mention committee work and life outside of work.

Still, most Wednesdays I managed to meet my friends to write at the museum. Sometimes it felt frivolous or irresponsible to block out a whole day for writing smack in the middle of a week of student conferences and essays and books I'd never taught before--but it was an appointment, so I kept it, and I kept writing.

Three to five hours of writing per week isn't an impressive amount, but I have to admit it's probably more than I've ever managed in the second half of a teaching semester. And doing any writing meant my head remained in the project. So when the fog of the semester finally lifted last week--grades submitted, Christmas cards out, house cleaned--it was easy to jump right back into the chapter. I hope to use winter break to get it in good enough shape that I can start drafting a new chapter in January.

Which I'll do, of course, with the aid of a weekly writing date.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Book reviews: what I know now

I just submitted the first book review I've written in years, and certainly the first since my own book and those of my friends started accumulating reviews.

It's a different experience. First, I'm more aware that writing reviews both is and is not something I have to do. On the one hand, it adds nothing of value to my C.V., and time spent reviewing is time I could spend elsewhere. On the other hand, it's an important service, and if I accept a review it's an obligation like writing a recommendation letter or reviewing a manuscript: something I just have to hunker down and do--as much for myself as for the sake of the author and journal.

(The reason it had been so long is that one of my last reviews was a terrible experience, and entirely through my own fault: I shouldn't have accepted the assignment or agreed to the deadline I did, and it became a months-long saga of guilt and resentment. I hated every minute I spent both writing and not writing that review, and probably burned a professional bridge in the process. Part of the reason I accepted this review was to reset my attitude.)

Here's what I've learned:

1. As a reviewer, your name will be attached to this book for as long as the Internet lasts

When I reviewed books in the past, I figured the author would probably come across it, but I never thought of myself as writing for her--I was writing for new readers! But authors get copies of their reviews from their publishers, and some even (ahem) Google their books periodically to see what kind of notices they're getting. I can assure you that I know the name of every person who has reviewed my book.

That doesn't mean you can't give an honest review--if you can't do that, you should decline the assignment--but I think a lot harder now about a) what truly counts as constructive criticism for the author, and b) what a casual reader might need or want.

2. Most people don't read a standard 750-word review very carefully

This is a corollary to the above. Unless I'm the author or she's a friend of mine, I just want to know the basics of what the book is about and whether it might be worth picking up a copy.

3. Most reviews aren't things of great beauty, and that's fine

A book review in a scholarly journal is meant to be a functional thing. It summarizes, it contextualizes, it offers an opinion about what's worthwhile or original.

For me, the task of writing a review used to feel paralyzing: it seemed impossible to write interesting prose while also conveying the author's argument accurately. I was terrified that I wasn't qualified enough to write the review, or that I'd misrepresent it or get some major details wrong. Now I know that lots of reviews do get things wrong, or at least askew, while some of the most useful ones read like an awkward pastiche of the author's own words.

4. Most books don't get a lot of reviews

Scholarly books aren't like trade books. There aren't a lot of venues that review them, and many publishers send out only a handful of review copies. So if you're an expert, and you're solicited to review a book and decline, it's possible no one else will review it for that journal. That's not necessarily a reason to accept--your time is valuable--but being a member of the scholarly community does come with obligations.

5. A review is a service

You do the best job you can. You bring to bear your expertise, and you try to be fair, but the review isn't about you. If you're using a 750-word review to show off your superior knowledge, or your prose style, or your witty put-downs, you're doing it wrong.


The review I just completed was for a book on the fringes of my area of expertise, but its subject is something I'm genuinely interested in (and that turned out to be more immediately relevant to my second book than I expected). It also felt like it was time for me to get back into the reviewing game. So I approached this assignment the way I'd approach a recommendation letter: I blocked out time to read the book, well before the deadline, and then I blocked out about 48 hours to write the review. I didn't dilly-dally, I just wrote it.

I could have done some things differently, and I likely could have done some things better--but it's not worth overthinking. More importantly, the process was enjoyable enough that I'll probably do it again the next time I'm asked.