This week’s blog was supposed to be about mid-semester productivity. But I had the chance to share some exciting news via Twitter recently:
The “Feminist City: A Field Guide” full manuscript has been submitted! I daydreamed the idea on a drive home from Halifax in December 2017. I didn’t necessarily plan for it to go anywhere beyond my hard drive but here we are!— Leslie Kern PhD (@LellyK) March 1, 2019
First, thanks for all the supportive favs and comments! Like many other authors and academics, especially those of us who are women and/or belong to other marginalized groups, I struggle to publicly celebrate my successes. However, I’m working on changing this so that slowly we can all create more space for amazing, under-appreciated folks to share their work.
Second, a couple of replies to my tweet mentioned the relatively short timeline from conception to final submitted manuscript (15 months). So even though it makes me a little uncomfortable to say, “hey, this is how to write a book just like me!” I’m going to use this post to reflect on what I did (the practical side of things) and how I made it work (the psychological side of things).
I really don’t want this to sound prescriptive. It’s not a “how to” meant to be duplicated step-by-step. But I hope that in reading about my experiences writing this book, you might find some helpful tips or just-in-time inspiration for your own writing process.
As I say in my tweet, the idea for the “Feminist City” book came to me while I was staring out the passenger window during a drive home. It’s hard to say exactly why this idea, unlike so many others, stuck around and transformed into a real thing. Looking back, here’s what I think helped.
The practical side:
- I created a document for the idea. I gave it a wishy washy name – “Notes towards a book on…” – or something like that. But now there was a place where I could start typing out my thoughts and plans. It became a little more tangible.
- I had a model. My friend Erin Wunker had recently published a smart, insightful, accessible general audience book about feminism: Notes from a Feminist Killjoy. I was so impressed by Erin’s work. But maybe because I know her (she’s amazing but also, just a human being!) So I thought, “why not me?” I regularly looked to Notes for inspiration and as a model for my book. I reached out to Erin for publishing advice and she set me on a productive path.
The psychological side:
- I didn’t take it too seriously. While I was excited about my idea, I held on to the thought that if I ever decided I didn’t want to continue with it, I would just stop. For me, this idea wasn’t going to replace the journal articles I was already working on. I have tenure so I had some freedom to “play around.” It helped take some of the pressure off.
- I started writing long before I submitted anything to a publisher. As long as I wasn’t writing for anyone else, the project was purely mine and I had total control. It gave me a sense of freedom, and again, the knowledge that I could let it go at anytime.
The writing process
With no one else to keep me accountable, how did I make steady progress on the book?
The practical side:
- I had a very specific plan with daily word counts. I found an online tool called Pacemaker (you can read more about how I use it here). Pacemaker let me visualize exactly how many words I needed to write and when to write them in order to meet my goal of 55,000 words by July 15. Then, I chose a model where I would start slow (lower word counts, i.e. 50 or 80 a day) and finish strong, with the word counts rising slowly but steadily (up to about 500 a day). I figured this would help me build up my writing habit. What can I say? It worked.
- I put the book and my expected word count into my schedule every day. Unless the day was absolutely bananas busy, the book was in there. Even when things were busy, I could manage to get some words in.
- I just wrote. The “just write a shitty first draft” advice is solid and I took it seriously. I did very little editing as I went. I made myself put words on the page, and told myself I would worry about making sense later. With this strategy, you can bash out 200 hundred words pretty quickly.
The psychological side:
- Positive feedback loops work. The daily satisfaction of entering my word count into Pacemaker, seeing my progress, and ticking off the box in my planner reinforced the writing habit I was building. Even if I didn’t meet my exact goal, whatever words I wrote counted towards the total. Every word was progress.
- I told myself it didn’t matter if no one else ever read it. Writing a general audience book, one that mixed personal stories with academic insights, was totally new to me. If I let myself think too much about what it would be like for other people to read these stories, I would have stopped dead in my tracks. I had to let go of any imagined audience and their reactions.
Finding a publisher
Telling myself that writing the book was just a personal side project was an important psychological trick to keep me focused. Simultaneously, another, more practical, part of my brain was looking for publishers.
The practical side:
- Find the right fit. I knew I wouldn’t be sending this book to a traditional university-based scholarly press. The world of small, social-justice oriented and/or feminist presses in Canada isn’t that big and chances are their catalogues were already on my office desk. But I still read their websites and submission guidelines carefully, looked at their recent titles, read samples, and talked to folks who had published with them. While it’s ok to send proposals to multiple publishers at the same time, I didn’t want to spam every press around.
- Writing a pitch = clarifying your whole project. Having to condense the entire point of a book into a few catchy, intriguing paragraphs is a great exercise. It reminded me of the big picture, even while I was busy slogging through my daily word goals. I actually wrote out a sample “jacket blurb” to help me think through my pitch and ended up liking it so much I included it with my proposal submissions to publishers. I don’t know if it helped, but I had interest and follow up from all four presses that I contacted.
The psychological side:
- I didn’t let fear of rejection interfere with my enjoyment of the writing. Mostly. I had the same voice in the back of my head as anyone else. “No one’s going to want to read this!” Etc. But whenever she piped up, especially if I was just getting ready to write, I reminded myself that I’d started the project for myself, and as long I enjoyed writing it, nothing else mattered.
- I got over myself a bit. The competition for prestige and accolades in academia is real and infectious. I critique it, but I’m not immune. Stepping out of my comfort zone of peer-reviewed articles and book chapters and into a more personal, public-facing style of writing meant I would have to be open to different publishing options. This included the often-scoffed at option of self-publishing. Although I did have success finding a publisher, I was ready to explore non-traditional ways of sharing my work, even if they were likely to be looked down upon by others.
Does any of this translate?
I recognize that my somewhat cavalier attitude to whether or not I published this book is made possible by my privilege as a tenured academic in an institutional context where different kinds of scholarly activity are reasonably well-valued. As I said at the beginning, this isn’t a “how to” post. But I do think other aspects of my process can be replicated:
- If you have a good idea, don’t mull it over in your head until you eventually come up with reasons not to do it. Make a document, tell someone about it, and make it real.
- Find someone who’s done something similar and figure out how they did it. You’re not copying someone else’s work, but you can walk a similar path to get to your end point.
- Make a plan. Make it specific. I know “write every day” doesn’t work for everyone, but I do believe that everyone needs a plan.
- Build your writing habit and stamina through regularity and positive feedback. Count every word as a success. Celebrate your milestones. It works: it’s brain science for goodness sake!
- Fit is everything (or almost everything). Do your research on publishing options and be targeted, thoughtful, and patient. The right option will come along, if the work is fundamentally solid.
Interested in learning how coaching can help you complete your book or article manuscript? Check out my services, contact me for more info, or reach out instantly on Facebook Messenger. You can also sign up for my newsletter to get instant access to my free workbook, FINDING YOUR MOTIVATION IN 5 STEPS, which will help you kick-start any project all on your own.