Book writing: Timelines, best-laid plans, and expecting the unexpected

Those who have been following this blog for a while will know that I have been working on my first sole-authored book for some time now. I am completing the final edits and corrections this week and then it will be off to the publisher for the next stage of the process. And what a process it has been. I had NO idea, in spite of reading other people’s blogs about book writing, exactly how long this process takes and how many different steps and stages there are along the way. This posts tracks my book-writing process, and I hope it may be helpful to those of you working on a large project of your own.

Photo by Bich Tran from Pexels

2015: While working on my postdoctoral research and writing papers for journals, I start thinking that my argument is much bigger than a journal article, or even a few journal articles; that I actually need a PhD-thesis/book-length project to say what I think I need to say about knowledge-building and teaching in higher education. One of my two advisors is putting together a larger proposal for a series, so I run my early ideas past him. He’s interested and thinks it could work, so he says ‘draft a proposal and let’s see’.

2016-2017: I start working on early versions of the book proposal in 2015 and by mid-2016 it’s in a pretty decent state. I even have a basic draft chapter to go with the proposal and a few other pieces of two other chapters. But, I work on contract and I have kids and bills and a life to help pay for, so teaching and consulting work takes up most of my headspace and emotional and mental energy. The proposal writing process slows way down. Then my mum gets really ill mid-2017 and no writing or research of any kind happens for a while. My advisor—now the series editor —emails periodically, encouraging me to keep thinking about the book and working on it when I can.

2018: Buoyed by the encouragement from the series editor and from peers who keep telling me how useful the book could be, I start working on the proposal again in earnest. The series editor gives me really helpful, sharp feedback, and slowly we beat the proposal and a draft chapter into a shape and form that can go out for external peer review. This happens late 2018. The wait for feedback is extended by staff changes at the publisher. I get on with other bits and pieces in the meantime, including holding texts and bits and pieces of writing and thinking on most of the seven chapters.

2019: Feedback arrives finally in February and it’s a green light. Yay! And, OMG, now I have to write the book! I work out, perhaps somewhat optimistically, that with the bits I have already done, I can write the full draft by the end of October. I do not properly factor in how much work I actually do every year between my contract teaching, supervision, consulting, parenting and administrative tasks (life and work). I also do not properly factor in how much procrastinating I do around my writing and research. On top of this, I get pretty ill in July and August and am finally diagnosed with asthma, which is a pretty tiring condition when it is not being managed. I fall way, way behind.

I have written a couple of the chapters in full, sent them to critical friends, and have some useful feedback to work with in revising these one and writing the missing ones. But there is no way I am making that deadline. I have to send the email I don’t want to send and ask the editor for more time. He says: ‘Ok, how much? Be realistic’. Friends who have written books, including Lovely Husband, tell me this is normal: nobody makes their first book deadline. I am encouraged by all of this and set a new deadline: 15 January 2020. This feels mad, but I am also really keen to not drag this project on way into 2020.

Image from Pexels.com

I spend most of November doing everything other than my book, even writing a full journal article on an unrelated topic. I am hugely frustrated with myself but can’t quite seem to make myself do more than a few floppy hours on the book each week. This does not bode well. December and school holidays arrive. I cannot possibly go on holiday: I have a freaking book to write, and I have maybe got about 40% of what I need. So, I write and I write and I write. The combination of shame (I do not want to ask for more time again) and motivation (I really need and want to move on from this now) spurs me on. Having my whole family ask me about my daily word targets also helps. Christmas and New Year pass and the thing is turning into an actual book.

2020: I make my deadline and off the book goes to the series editor. We decide that asking two colleagues for feedback would be a really useful thing to do, so the book goes off to them too. While I am waiting for peer feedback, I get my year going. The coronavirus reaches us in March and everything goes off-plan. My kids are no longer in school; my colleagues’ teaching and home plans change. Feedback finally reaches me in May and it’s all positive and encouraging. But detailed: there are now revisions to really sit with and take time over. I tell myself these will be done in two weeks. Two weeks later I have not even opened the files. It takes about four weeks, but I finally push myself into my chair, open and merge the files they sent, and get started. It is hard. These are not just corrections; they are revisions. New writing, re-thinking, careful responses. I’m exhausted.

July 2020: It goes, fully revised, to the series editor and now it is his turn to read it. He reads the first two chapters and sends detailed feedback. There are a few holes that need filling and lots of small corrections and edits (commas, referencing style changes, etc.) The usual sorts of things you have to pay attention to when you are preparing a manuscript for actual readers out there in the world who will pay for your work. This is fine. But, I am tired, emotionally and mentally. This year has kicked my butt. My asthma is up and down, so some days are full of energy and others are empty of it. I pick away, working backwards from the end of the book (my favourite chapter) towards the ones he has read, making all the small corrections to psyche myself up for the big ones. After completely freaking out about a couple of more critical comments which prompt new writing and actual revisions (not edits), Lovely Husband and a good friend talk me out of the spiral and I manage to get it all done.

Late August 2020: I get an email from the editor saying there’s not much more to do now, and I’m almost there. The relief is huge. The book will be finished (for now) before my birthday, which was my goal. The first major finish line is in sight at last: a finalised manuscript ready for the publisher.

I imagine, if I had to keep going with this timelines, that September and October will be spent waiting for proofs, which may arrive before the end of the year, depending on the publisher’s timelines and their own planning. I will then have to read the whole book again, dealing with all of their edits and corrections. This is a potentially tiring thought. One of the things I did not expect was how many times I would have to actually read my own writing. Of course, every time I do, I make corrections and improve it (especially my long sentences). But, these improvements are made only after telling the mean voice that says my writing is trash to please shut up. She can be pretty loud, especially when I am already tired and over it all. So, the work now is not just mental; it is also emotional and psychological: I have to use all my resources to get me across this finish line.

This is not unlike the end of a PhD-writing and research process. Doing any kind of significant project, even with the best-laid plans, means coming to terms with unexpected delays (e.g. waits for feedback, for examiner’s reports, and even dealing with yourself and various acts of procrastination and self-sabotage that you need to overcome). It also means being kind to yourself when things go awry or just take longer than you thought they would. This book project has taken, all told, 4-and-a-bit years so far. That is a lot longer than I—perhaps naively—thought it would. There have been many unexpected delays and parts of the process I wasn’t planning on or didn’t know to plan for. But, surrounding myself with people who believe in me and in this project has helped me to stay the course. Imagining that book in my hands with my name on the cover has inspired me to keep going. You can’t do any kind of significant project alone: you need your people and your sources of inspiration and motivation to keep you going.

If this process so far has taught me anything about myself, it is that I am more capable than I give myself credit for. I can do more than I think I can if I just get out of my own way and let myself believe what my friends and colleagues tell me. I can do this, and more. I think those things are probably true for all of us if we let ourselves believe them.

PhD workout: warming up your writing muscles

So, I am writing a book. I have been sort-of-kind-of writing a book for a long time now. We have an on and off relationship, my book and I. But, a proposal is being reviewed, and the hope is that the feedback will be a green light, so I have to get writing. And soon. But, I am a bit out of practice. I wrote a fair bit last year – 3 book chapters (a few drafts each) as well as part of a paper with colleagues. But this is a different beast altogether – as long and as complex as a PhD thesis. I am finding I am out of shape here.

This is not an unfamiliar feeling. I wrote here and here about moving from one year of PhD or post-doc into the next, after having a break and getting a bit flabby around the writing middle, so to speak. I know, therefore, that I have felt unfit before, and have made myself fitter and gotten the writing work done. But, this is – like actual fitness – hard work and requires a level of emotional and psychic energy that can be hard to find sometimes. I have decided, therefore, that I am going to start with gentle warm-ups, rather than jumping straight into the whole thing (Thank you, Roger Federer :-)).

rfed warm up

The first thing I am doing is starting with something manageable, that I could want to do every day – or at least 4-5 times a week. If I want to do it, and it feels manageable, it is very likely I will actually do it (and enjoy the experience). Instead of doing what I too often do, and writing ‘Chapter 1 draft’ on one day of my calendar, I am writing ‘one pomodoro’ every other day. I can do this. It’s 30 minutes of writing. I can then tick this off, and actually add days as a I go, or keep it every other day and work up to 2 pomodoros at least. If I can do it, I won’t fail, and if I don’t fail, I can keep enjoying this writing time and make it productive. Too often I set myself overly lofty goals, in life and writing, and set myself up to fail rather than succeed. Last week I wrote my first blog post in over 4 months, scheduled this post, and also managed about 1000 words on my book. HUGE success I say. All in these little manageable chunks.

The second thing I am going to do is keep it steady. Rather than having a good week, and thinking I can now escalate to high levels of writing productivity, I am going to keep going at this pace for now. Probably, realistically, this will be the pace for the year, with bursts of higher productivity around deadlines and when I have excess time and energy. As one of my writing students said to me last year: ‘Eat the elephant one bite at a time’. Apologies to elephant lovers – I am one too – but this is a good metaphor for taking it steady with life and writing. One task, one pomodoro, one idea at a time. This way, things actually do get done as opposed to being menacing, un-ticked-off tasks on your to-do list.

Finally, for now anyway, I am going to get me some writing buddies. Face-to-face if I can, but virtually if not. I am always thinking I should join a Twitter shut-up-and-write group, or create my own writing group. And then work, and kids, and life, and my writing gets pushed down (with me attached) to the bottom of my list. My writing time is also time for me – it’s personal as well as professional. So, I have to actually value it, and myself. As a working mother I am too often too far down my list. And so is my writing. I am hopeful, that with positive peer encouragement, we can collectively make our writing more present each week in the to-do lists, and make appreciable progress on our projects.

group yoga

Warming up these tired writing muscles to fuller strength will take some time – what do people say?If it’s too easy you’re not doing it right? Maybe so. I don’t think writing should always be hard, but good writing should take effort and time. Maybe you are in this spot too, coming back to work and PhD and research writing, and working out how to begin your “elephant meal”. Hopefully some of these steps to warming up your writing muscles will help you, too.

If you have other ideas, please share in the comments. All the best for 2019!

Making the most of an hour a day

I have realised, looking through recent posts, that there is a bit of a theme emerging: that of a slightly aimless and depressed writer trying to get off the couch. I feel I should break this theme with a different kind of post, a more optimistic one. Although I have no regrets sharing this low patch of feeling aimless and stuck and unable to get off the  couch – the downs are as much a part of working on a PhD or research project as any other part of it, and an important part to talk about – I do need to get going again. And the only person who can really get me going again is me. So, this post is really about how to make the most of the time you have, and be as productive as you can be.

Many of my readers, and colleagues, are part-time writers and students. Writing and reading and thinking about research is squeezed into the odd hour here or there, or if you are lucky, a research day a week, a weekend, or even a sabbatical from work. But, for the most part (and this was the case for me during my PhD), research has to be fitted into everything else, and not the other way around. For much of my own PhD I had, at most, about an hour a day, most days. Then I had to put the PhD down and do my real job, and be focused on other things. After work, there were extra-murals to fetch and carry from, kids to spend time with, suppers to cook, pets to feed and so on. So, these brief hours here and there were precious and I needed to learn to make the most of them.

From commons.wikimedia.org

From commons.wikimedia.org

This is  not easy. I have written here about finding time to write, and about what that means: less physical hours in the day, and more space in your head to actually think and write productively when the physical time is created. It’s no use making time to write and then having to spend that time just getting back to where you were the previous time you set aside an hour or two to work on your research or writing. You’d just be treading water, becoming increasingly frustrated, and struggling to move forward. Each hour, ideally, needs to move you one step further to a finished thesis, or paper. Thus, you need to make the most of these hours that you can create AND, very key, create as many of them as possible in a consistent manner. Think of these hours as stepping stones: too far apart and you’re stuck in the middle of the river, looking for a place to put your feet and finding the leap a bit scary. Ideally, they need to be fairly evenly spaced, so that you find each step in front of you manageable.

I have also written here and here and here about things you can do to manage your research time effectively, and work on creating a balance between time for your PhD/MA and the rest of your professional and personal life. What I am working on now is creating links between the hours and minutes I set aside to work on specific projects. I read recently that when you are working on a piece of writing you should end off such that your thought is not quite finished, so that you can pick it up again and keep going. The problem with this, for me, is that I might not come back to that piece of writing for a few days, or even a week, and then that thought may have left me. This writing time then becomes about trying to get back to where I was before I left off, rather than picking up the thought and carrying on with it usefully. My trick now is to end off a block of writing time with some brief notes to myself in the form of a holding text, pointing ahead to what I want or need to think, read or write about next time. Thus, when I do pick it up, whether the next day or the next week, my time will be used moving my writing forward. This is one way I create a link.

Another way I am creating links is by getting better at managing my physical time week in and week out. I am learning to keep much more detailed writing TO DO lists, breaking projects into more realistic pieces (such as ‘Read three papers and make notes’ set aside for three or four pomodoros in a morning; ‘draft introduction’ set aside for an hour or two one morning, and so on), and then working out, along with the kids’ stuff, and my other work and home stuff, exactly how much time I can set aside for these pieces and when. Then (mostly), I stick to this, and find that (when I can get it to work) the stepping stones connect together quite well, and I move my writing forward quite productively. A bonus is that I enjoy writing like this more, because I am moving forward with each step, and not going sideways or backwards.

Finally, a common theme in many of my posts about writing: I practice self-kindness. I do not beat myself up (too much) when I can’t quite make it all work out. But, without structure, some organisational skills and planning, and a way of holding myself accountable, I would do very little. Thus, in order to make the most of each hour you can set aside, you do need clear goals, consistency – whether you can make this an hour a day or a few hours over a week or so – and good planning. The more you can get to your writing and research, the more the writing comes and the research plods on, and the more productive and enjoyable that time will become.