The Monograph: Thoughts and Reflections

MUP catalogue book

[This is a long post! Scroll to the bottom for the highlights!]

A confession: there was a time when I thought I would never, ever, in a million years, see my book in print. Let alone with a snazzy cover in a catalogue for Autumn/Winter 2017/18 by Manchester University Press! I say this because there may be some readers out there who feel the same. Who feel the pressing weight of The Monograph. Whose emotional response to thinking about The Monograph is complex, deeply felt, and full of conflict. I hear you, I empathise, and I want to say that you will get there. You can do it and you will!

Thanks to the lovely comments and likes on twitter, I’ve decided to write this post to reflect on my experience of writing my monograph and to offer some thoughts, reflections, and advice. I hope that it will be of some use. But I should say from the outset that my monograph has been a long time in the making (I finished my DPhil in 2007 and my monograph will be out in 2018) so I fully appreciate that my experience is unique in many respects, especially in the current climate of precarity for ECRs, graduate students, and many other researchers and teachers. I am enormously grateful to my college- University College, Oxford- and in particular to my colleagues in ‘Team English’ (Tiffany Stern, Nicholas Halmi, Ollie Clarkson, Ashley Maher) for sticking with me and supporting me during this process. And also to my twitter friends and medievalist colleagues, but more on that later.

Rejection and Starting Again

So let’s start at the beginning. Before my book was accepted by Manchester University Press in 2016, an earlier version was rejected by Oxford University Press. This was probably around 2009/10 and I am now extremely grateful to the OUP monographs committee that they did reject it! It was not that great! Obviously rejection hurts and at the time I thought it was the end of the world, but I had two readers’ reports that actually gave me lots to think about. In reality, the ‘book’ that I was proposing was really just ‘the thesis’. At that stage I couldn’t think much beyond what I had written for my DPhil (a study of sacred space in Middle English religious literature) and the proposed book was unbalanced. For one thing- dare I say it!- there was far too much Margery Kempe! Two of the proposed five chapters were on Margery Kempe, as they were in the DPhil, and both readers agreed that that didn’t work. One of the readers also felt that the really interesting part of the book was the final chapter- on sacred space and material culture (devotional objects in the church, the church itself as material building)- and they said that the theoretical engagement in that chapter was worth pursuing much more rigorously and throughout the book as a whole.

So my book had been rejected and I was at something of a crossroads. So I made a bold decision and decided to completely reinvent the book. Starting with taking Margery Kempe out altogether! Shocking, I know! Now Margery takes up around five pages in the monograph, and this decision had two consequences. One: it made room for completely new material. Two: it liberated Margery! And enabled me to work on her for articles. I think that this really helped. It meant that I was able to publish individual pieces on Margery alongside working on the longer-term project on the monograph and it also meant that I had another string to my bow. I am now organising a multi-disciplinary conference on Kempe in April 2018 and my next medieval book (yes, there is a point at which you can think about the ‘next’ book!) will be purely on Kempe. So one piece of advice I would give for reworking thesis material into a book is to make the big decisions and cut what doesn’t work. It doesn’t mean you lose it for good and you could even turn it into an article!

Cutting to make room for new ideas

So having cut Margery from the monograph, this left me with the following from the thesis: one key text as the focus of one chapter; something worth reworking from the final chapter; two texts that I’d used in the thesis introduction that hadn’t really done as much work as I thought they could; and lots and lots of room left for new things! So my first step was to decide on the ‘new’ material that I wanted to work on. Now that I was rethinking the entire project, what did I wish I had done in the thesis originally? Well for a start, I knew I needed to think about the liturgical ritual for church consecration- there’s where ideas of medieval sacred space start- and I knew that I wanted to do some in-depth research on the Lollards and their attitude to church decorations and to church buildings. Why was the church and its sanctity such a focus for debate at the end of the fourteenth and into the fifteenth centuries? I also knew if that I used the texts from my thesis introduction elsewhere in the book, I would need a new text to focus my new book introduction around. This was when I found The Canterbury Interlude, an anonymous fifteenth century continuation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in which the pilgrims finally arrive at Canterbury, enter the cathedral, and engage with the space around them. This was the perfect testing ground for my ideas about the church, sacred space, community, and material culture.

Fast forward a few years and I had the following under my belt: new introduction (which went through at least three different drafts, gradually integrating my ideas with my close reading of the Canterbury Interlude); new first chapter on church consecration (which I had sent to an architecture/liturgy scholar for feedback); and a map of what the rest of the book looked like. But at this stage, for various reasons, I had completely lost confidence in the project. I think this is very common for academics working on their first book. It felt like a mammoth task. The OUP rejection was still hanging over me (along with various article rejections on top of that!) and I didn’t really have a lot of time to devote to the book, because I have had a full time teaching post since I finished the thesis (side note: a teaching job which I absolutely love and which, in many different but indefinable ways, has helped me enormously- weekly tutorial debates with my students has sharpened my critical thinking, teaching a wide range of texts has given me a confidence in dealing with my period, I could go on!).

The Proposal

At this stage, I couldn’t even think about submitting a book proposal. Who would want to publish a book that I didn’t think existed properly?! Enter my brilliant friend, the historian Jan Machielsen. He asked me how the book was going (at the time, a dreaded question!) and after describing all of the work I had done, and following it up with some kind of self-defeating comment like ‘but it’s not really a book yet’, he asked me why I hadn’t submitted a book proposal because it definitely sounded like a book to him! I had a mere ten days to go before the start of term and I protested that there wouldn’t be time to write a proposal, that would be ridiculous, completely out of the question… But my friend challenged me to just sit down and write one. And do you know what? I did! In the back of my mind, I was thinking about submitting the book to Manchester University Press so I sought advice on their website for book proposals (here) and then I just sat down and wrote it. I have never been more surprised in my life- the book was actually there, it had a form, it even seemed to have an argument!

My advice on book proposals then is: just do it! Even if you think you’re not ready, you don’t know precisely what you want to say etc, etc, etc, just write it! I had been procrastinating, talking myself out of it, minimising the thinking I had done over quite a long period of time. So just have a go, you might surprise yourself! And it’s always better to have a terrible draft that you can edit, than a blank page!

If anyone would like to see my proposal, please do give me a shout. I am very happy to send it over. It includes a summary of the overall argument, a chapter breakdown (indicating chapter length, and any elements that had been published elsewhere), a description of the intended audience, the relationship of my work to the field (including any published books that might represent ‘competition’ to my book), and recommendations for potential readers. (Some publishers ask you to do that). (I am very grateful to my friend Jan and to a number of colleagues for sharing their proposals with me. And to my former supervisor who gave me feedback on the proposal- and much of this project throughout!)

In terms of the choice of publisher, I chose Manchester because of the series that they publish in my field (Medieval Literature and Culture) and because I had read recent books in that series that really spoke to my own work (Helen Barr’s Transporting Chaucer and Johanna Kramer’s Between Heaven and Earth: Liminality and the Ascension of Christ in Anglo-Saxon Literature). I was attracted by the topics of both books and the authors’ use of theory. I had a second publisher in mind in case MUP rejected my proposal but my understanding is that it is ‘good form’ to only send out a proposal to one at a time, so I sent my materials to Manchester.

I emailed one of the editors and they said that they would like to see the proposal plus an introduction and a chapter. So I sent my newly revised intro and the chapter based on the new material on church consecration. Manchester have been exemplary throughout the process I must say, especially in communicating with me exactly where we were in the process. So I knew when the materials were out with readers, I knew roughly when to expect feedback, and so on. I cannot recommend them highly enough! (And I am definitely not on commission to say that!)

The Readers’ Reports

So I received two readers’ reports on my proposal and chapters- both of which were thankfully favourable!- and I had to write a response to each report and send it back to the publisher. Both reports raised important points about the way in which I was going to make a case for my use of a range of different theorists in the book and one had important reflections on my claims to interdisciplinarity. There were also some individual comments on particular passages in the chapters. I wrote about a side of A4 in response to each report- fundamentally agreeing with the issues raised and suggesting ways in which I would address them. There were one or two points that I didn’t entirely agree with so I registered my thoughts on those too. I would say that it was important to be honest about how you deal with the comments and don’t necessarily just agree because that’s what you think the publisher wants to hear! Think carefully about the impact of the comments on what you want to do and reply in a careful, rigorous manner. The material then went to the editorial board and I received an acceptance decision shortly afterwards. From sending in the proposal to the acceptance, it was probably around seven months, which seemed very quick to me! And in the meantime, while I was waiting to hear, I worked on an article on Margery Kempe.

Contract Stage

At the contract stage, one thing that you have to do is to agree the date upon which you will deliver the manuscript. When I originally sent in the proposal, I thought that April 2017 would be realistic but when it got to contract stage, I knew that that would be impossible because of other commitments. So I emailed my editor and asked if we could put the submission date back to September 2017. And the editor was fine with that! Naturally I was nervous about asking but actually, again I think it’s better to be honest. I’m sure publishers don’t like it when manuscripts are late, and sometimes that’s inevitable, but being realistic about the deadline in the first place will make you feel happier. Don’t underestimate how long it will take for you to finish the book! And indeed to do all the really important things like checking the footnotes, formatting it properly, etc etc. It really does take a long time!

This is also the point at which things like copyright and images might come up. I was allowed 10 images in my book and for nine of them, I used photographs that I had taken myself. I did need to get permissions to publish those images though, so make sure you think about this early as it can take a while for these things to be sorted out. One image I had hoped to take, I didn’t have time for in the end so I used a free image from Wikimedia Commons. My editors were able to advise on this too. Copyright is probably more complex for people working in later periods, so do make sure you check this with your editor as soon as you can.

Finishing the Manuscript

So I had about 16 months from contract to submission, which including two summer ‘vacations’ (by which I mean breaks from teaching). I had one chapter that wasn’t really researched and had quite a sketchy argument, so I planned to do that in the first summer. Then I planned to redraft it over the Christmas vac; redraft the penultimate chapter in the following Easter vac; and then work on everything in the summer before the September submission. This basically worked out as planned but in the summer before submission, I did a lot of rewriting. I can’t emphasise enough just how much rewriting I did! I thought chapter 1 was ready- I rewrote the entire thing. I thought the introduction only needed a few tweaks- I rewrote the entire thing. I had a colleague read the final chapter and she gave me a lightbulb moment: the material I started with, I should have ended with. So I rewrote that as well!

That isn’t meant to scare you, readers! But to say, don’t worry- you can keep rewriting, and you will keep rewriting as everything comes together. The intro I sent with my book proposal did have some problems but I couldn’t have addressed them without having written the rest of the book. Ideas that ended up in the final chapter turned out to be more important than I anticipated, so some of them backtracked into the rest of the manuscript. Connections across the book started to emerge (it’s a thematic book, so I should have expected that!), so again, I reshaped and smoothed things out.

Time Management: Hold Your Nerve!

At this stage, my best advice is to hold your nerve! And to divide everything up into small tasks. You cannot work on the entire book at once, it’s impossible and it feels overwhelming. So I organised my time by dividing up the weeks and working on chapters alternately. I switched back and forth weekly so that I could keep on top on most of the chapters at a similar rate but I also made sure to start with the chapter that I thought needed the most work. (On time management, I didn’t know about Raul Pacheco-Vega’s brilliant blog back then but I recommend it to everyone now!)

On a daily basis, I made lots of lists of jobs that needed doing- divided by things that could be done at home and things that needed the library, and by difficulty (hard, medium, easy). I tried to have a range of tasks per day- hard things in the morning (when I work best, and so that I felt like I had ‘achieved something’), easy tasks in the after-lunch slump etc. I would lump together lots of footnotes that needed checking so that I could maximise library time. I tended to do rewriting at home because I felt comfortable that way and also felt less distracted.

I also spent a significant amount of time proof-reading the final document, checking references, and formatting. Once your book is accepted, I would recommend that you start to learn the formatting style for the publisher as soon as you can so that you get used to it and it becomes second nature. Having to re-format is very time consuming, but it might make a difference to the word count and you don’t want to suddenly find your document is bumped up by 5,000 words at the end!

I also made lots of use of twitter for support and accountability! A big thank you to everyone who supported me, it meant a lot! I would tend to tweet in the morning about precisely what I wanted to achieve that day and then tweet my progress in the afternoon. It gave me accountability to myself, and I did have some feedback from some grad students and ECRs that it was helpful to actually ‘see’ the process that I was going through. It can be difficult to imagine what writing a monograph is like, so I wanted to be transparent about the process.

This was definitely the stage of the project where I needed strong emotional resilience and self-belief. And my friends, family, and tweeps really helped here (from my monograph-finishing buddy Alicia Spencer-Hall to my former student who left me flowers outside my office door!) So do try to have a support network in place if you can. And make sure that you take care of yourself and take time off. For me, this involved getting enough sleep, exercising (I run), having something fun to watch (Netflix) or read (thrillers!) in the evenings. You cannot work all the time!

Final Report

Once I handed in the finished manuscript- on the day of the deadline!- I then had to wait for a further reader’s report. Given that I handed in just before the autumn term started, I received the final report on the manuscript in January- which was extraordinarily quick I thought! The report was very positive, which was wonderful, but there were some corrections to do. Some involved slightly rethinking small parts of individual arguments. Some involved topping up a little bit of critical reading. They were all very do-able but I had a very busy Hilary Term, so I wasn’t able to finish them until March. I appreciate that with the pressures of deadlines and the REF etc it is tempting to do things as quickly as possible, but I would say that it is important to think carefully about the corrections and give them the time they need.

I think this is also the stage at which I completed some forms for the publisher about marketing the book. I had to provide ten keywords about the book; provide three key questions that the book answers; and I had to write three different versions of the ‘blurb’ or summary of the book (a 250 word version, a 140 word version, and a 350 character version!). I also had to provide key marketing points which included bullet points highlighting the books strengths and contributions to the field, and the intended audience. I also had to choose the front cover image (another photo that I took myself).

Again, all of this took quite a lot of time to think through and I did ask for feedback from my former supervisor to see if I was pitching it all effectively. One thing I would recommend when doing this, is to start by answering the questions very quickly off the top of your head. The temptation is to reread the entire manuscript but that can mean you get bogged down in the details. This is the stage when you want to get across the big ideas in an interesting and eye-catching way, so just go for it! You’ve written the book, you know what it’s about it, so tell people!

What do you mean there’s more to do?!

Similarly, all the bits and bobs that take time once it’s actually finished! I corrected the proofs this summer and it took me about a fortnight (not continuously, but as my main focus of work). I did the old fashioned method of reading a hard copy of the proofs and comparing line by line to my submitted copy, with a ruler. I would try to read aloud in my head, as sometimes you see what you think is there, rather than what is actually there. I marked up the proofs in red pen and then noted the corrections by hand on a separate sheet of paper. I had hoped to mark up the pdf of the proofs but technologically, this was beyond me, so in the end I typed up the corrections onto a word doc (once the publishers agreed that I could do that). This also meant that I could double-check all of my corrections as I went. It took probably a full day of typing them up. (There really weren’t that many, overall, which was excellent! And they were mostly minor and/or errors that were mine in the first place! Goodness knows why I had written ‘the priest’s arms’ at one point when I meant the ‘priest’s sermon’?!)

Indexing

So the next stage was the index! Which many of my tweeps will have heard about because I asked for lots of advice. Overall, it took me about ten days to compile the index. It’s a time consuming and detailed job, so do leave time for it! It’s important that the index does reflect the key themes and ideas of the book, and I’ll never use an index again without appreciating the work that goes into it! I had some great advice on twitter, including from Fiona Whelan who said keep it short, keep it relevant, keep it simple, and keep the reader in mind! The reader is, after all, the primary user of the index. What do you think they will want to look up? But I also had some other good advice- don’t over index! You do want people to read the whole book, and not just cherry pick things from it! My editor sent me some useful advice too, which included not indexing the broad topic of the book- ie sacred space!- because that wouldn’t be helpful! Be specific and thematic where it’s important and relevant. So I have indexed texts, places, people, things (like stained glass windows- by location and by subject). I have indexed important theoretical concepts (‘place’, ‘sacred centre’) and theorists (Foucault, Lefebvre, Douglas). I have also indexed key themes (‘competition’, ‘mapping’, ‘animating the church’). My editor sent me a useful index template so I was able to start typing items in straightaway in the right format.

Indexing definitely feels overwhelming at first, but my advice would be to start with the easy things– places, texts, people, things- and then index the concepts at the end. As you reread/search for the easy things, the themes/concepts should start to become apparent. I typed up categories alphabetically as I went and then used the search function to locate things in the PDF but I also highlighted on the hard copy too and double-checked. One thing I realised was that the PDF would say I was on page ’67’ but actually, that was page 67 of the entire document and the proper page numbering of the book itself didn’t start until eight or nine pages in! So make sure you have the actual page number of the proofs written down! Luckily I’d only done a handful of entries before I spotted this error!

I would also say that you should do it yourself. No one else knows the book as well as you do! (And sadly it isn’t practical or affordable for most of us to pay someone else to index for you).

And now?

So I think the next stage of the process for me will be checking the index once it’s been typeset and then hopefully, my book will be out in the wild in January 2018!

I hope this long post has been useful and if you have any questions or would like to share your own experiences or tips, please leave a comment here, tweet me (@lauravarnam), or send me an email laura.varnamATuniv.ox.ac.uk.

Happy writing everyone! And a huge thank you to everyone who has supported me throughout this process, and especially to the fantastic editors, series editors, and anonymous readers at Manchester University Press!

SUMMARY OF MY TOP TIPS

A monograph is time consuming and that’s okay! It’s also hard work- academically and emotionally. Make sure you take care of yourself!

If you get rejected, re-group, re-think, and re-submit!

Be bold and fearless when it comes to cutting and reshaping the thesis, the book will be so much better for it!

Read other people’s book proposals (email or tweet me for mine) and ask for feedback.

When it comes to writing a proposal or marketing info, just sit down and write! You can edit later.

Once you have a publisher, start using their formatting/style guide asap!

Be honest and realistic about the time you will need to complete the project.

Keep rewriting!

Ask for feedback from friends and colleagues.

Organise your time effectively (hard/medium/easy jobs, checking footnotes in bulk etc).

Use twitter for accountability and motivation!

Do the index yourself and leave time for it.

Spend time proof reading carefully.

Start thinking about permissions/copyright asap- these things take time!

Believe in yourself and hold your nerve!

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