Saturday, September 19, 2009

60 Days of Journal Article Writing -- Day 1

For more information on the 60 Days of Journal Article Writing, please click here.

Day 1's assignment is so easy -- all I have to do is read pages 1-10 that precede it. I'll go read now (some of this is re-reading for me, but that never hurts when one is a Bear of Very Little Brain), and then report back.


Wow. No wonder Wendy Belcher made reading pages 1-10 the only assignment for day one. They're great pages! I learned so much about scholarly writing, and I do this for a living (note to self: never stop learning). She asks readers to do all of the written exercises, including signing a contract to commit to the work for 12 weeks (corny but effective -- I've used these before), listing common elements in my negative feelings about writing, and also listing common elements of the positive.

Negative elements for me included thinking about my dissertation committee who had expected me to publish this particular book a while ago (these memories are surprisingly visual/auditory); worries that anything I'm writing has all been done better by others; and regret for not having done more faster . . . a variation on the old refrain "What's the use? This should have been done years ago."

Positive elements included the euphoria I feel whenever I bring a chapter in for a landing; the pleasure I take in final revisions (polishing is fun!); the sheer joy of library research; and the fact that I like this job, my life, and my chosen area of research, and that when I'm writing and publishing I experience a general sense of well-being.

I also asterisked sections that will form the basis of future posts. Some are original to Belcher and I will credit her at those times, others come from Boice (about whom I've blogged before). So far my three favorite authors about academic writing are Boice, Silvia, and Belcher, although I'm sure there will continue to be more. If you don't know who I mean by these authors, please click the book list at the upper right of this blog page for details.

Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks

60 days of journal article writing

One of the characteristics of Booklab faculty author writing groups is that I'm writing along with the team. After all, what good is a publishing guidance office unless the Director publishes too? And although I have published in the past, once this job got underway in 2006 my output went from "okay but probably not enough" to "hmmm, needs more." Meh. Time to get back to it. In other posts I've blogged about the book I'm writing on an 18th-century woman author, but now I'm ready to stare down the Scariest Thing Since Grad School: the scholarly article.

The role of articles in academic life varies depending on the department and the field. I can't speak for the world, but based on faculty anecdotes I have learned quite a bit about some campuses similar to Georgetown. Fields like psychology, philosophy and business are articles-only disciplines. You can publish a book if you want to, but articles are the lingua franca, and for tenure or promotion they have to be in certain scholarly journals. Who ranks what journal how high is a fraught process that I won't detail here (I actually can't -- it's subjective), but each department comes up with its own way of communicating what it values for tenure, various pay grades, and promotion to full professor. Other departments such as Spanish & Portuguese, English, and History, consider books more of the cornerstone, with articles like satellites circling the planets -- important and necessary, but not the key documents in promotion decisions. Scholars should still have articles, and some departments communicate a sense of how many and where they should appear, but books must happen as well, and the emphasis remains there.

Since I came from the English Department and that was my core background training (although truth be told, if I had my education to do over again I would have figured out a way to be a psychologist as well as a literary historian, and that day may yet come), I will focus my publishing efforts on the field that I studied and still love: the English Stuart era from 1660 until about 1714. My dissertation was broader, but the early part is most interesting. In the future after this next book I will begin learning more about early American/colonial literature as well.

So here we go. 12 five-day weeks of working through the book Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks , and working on a scholarly article for submission to the journal Eighteenth-Century Studies. I will blog about the daily exercises in the book, and how it feels to work with my authors on a project that feels, well, unfamiliar and scary. I'm excited about doing it, but also filled with the good kind of trepidation (humbled by my predecessors, cognizant of my strengths and weaknesses, hoping I can measure up).

Friday, September 18, 2009

Do you know the publishing prizes in your field?

Although I am currently writing on an 18th-century subject, and although I'm a life member of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (when my new copy of the journal Eighteenth-Century Studies arrives, I usually jump around the house with glee), I didn't know so much about possible publishing prizes in my field. This week when I asked scholars from anthropology, history, English, Spanish & Portuguese, and more if they knew about prizes in their fields, most said no. But guess what? Knowing about prizes is crucial. Often you can even self-nominate.

Here is just one of the prizes listed on the website for ASECS. I became so interested in James L. Clifford (a scholar whose name I recognized from Johnson studies) that I looked up his New York Times obituary. He died at age 77 in 1978 after a remarkable career. He had an engineering degree from MIT, and he might have stayed in that field had he not read Boswell's Life of Johnson in 1929 during a course at Columbia. He joined Columbia's faculty in 1946 after the second World War, and he stayed there until his retirement. What a guy. And what an honor it would be to win the prize named for him.

Clifford Prize
The James L. Clifford Prize goes to the author of an article on an outstanding study of some aspect of eighteenth-century culture, interesting to any eighteenth-century specialist, regardless of discipline. It carries an award of $500.
· The article should be no longer than 15,000 words.
· The article must have appeared in print in a journal, festschrift, or other serial publication between July 2008 and June 2009.
· The article may be nominated by a member of the society, by its author, or by an editor of the publishing journal. Self-nominations are limited to one article per year.
· Nominations must be accompanied by nine (9) copies of the article and must be received in the ASECS office no later than 1 January 2010.
· The author must be a member of the ASECS at the time of submission.

On-target observations about grad school

Anne Sigismund Huff is the author of an interesting book, Designing Research for Publication, that was recommended through another title we use in Booklab, Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks by Wendy Laura Belcher. Check out this paragraph on page four of Chapter 1, "Finding the Right Conversation," and see if it doesn't remind you of grad school:

The powerful idea that scholarship is an interactive and collective activity was not salient in my doctoral education. I was certainly trying to make sense of my new profession as I listened to lectures, read, and interacted with others. The expectation of giving something back might have (or should have) influenced designing and writing my dissertation, but instead I began and ended with an individual agenda. In frustration, I thought that more successful people were part of a conversation that excluded me.

Reading this paragraph makes me ask why the roles for which we were preparing were not clearer in grad school. I was fortunate to have a wonderful director and dissertation committee all of whom aided in my professional development, but there was no institutional discussion of what the profession is and how we learn to contribute to it as scholars. At that level it was catch-as-catch-can. If you are a faculty member who wonders how everyone else got the clues and you missed out, books like this can be such a sane relief.

Khayaal: The South Asia Book Club

This notice comes from Dr. Aparna Vaidik, who is the faculty mentor for this group:

Georgetown University’s Mortara Center for International Studies
in association with the South Asia Forum, International Certificate for Development,
Asian Studies Certificate Program, and South Asian Society
invite you to a book discussion organized by

An informal book club for Georgetown book lovers with a focus on
South Asian writers and literature on

Khaled Hosseini

Wednesday, September 23, 2009
6:00 pm
Mortara Center
(corner of 36th and N Streets)
*Refreshments will be served

The discussion will be led by Aparna Ramesh, (SFS ’11)

Devonthink vs. Evernote vs. ??

Some of our scholars use data management software. I've never tried one of these programs, but yesterday as an author waxed romantical about her committed relationship to Devonthink, I got to thinking about whether this would help with The Morgue of Scraps and other data problems such as so much on the hard drive that you forget what you have. The classic is going to a lot of time and trouble to find an article, only to realize while reading it that you read it two years ago, took notes on it, and saved it on your hard drive where it is now a needle in an overstuffed haystack.

Here's a link to a website that compares Devonthink to Evernote. Any thoughts on all of this?

The morgue of scraps

One frustrated scholarly author detailed how she edits and excises material. She doesn't want to discard it entirely, but she also doesn't want to use it in the present work, so she saves it in what she drily referred to as "the morgue of scraps." We all laughed. I have one of those -- bits of articles, stories, and ideas from heaven-knows-where, collected over the years on computer files and too good to toss. When computers changed from floppy discs to CD-rom to flash drives, over time some of these scraps became inaccessible (or not easily retrieved), so I resolved to let them go, like throwing out memories from a bygone relationship.

Do you have a morgue of scraps? Or is there a gentler name for it? Are all writers like packrats with yarn and fabric stuffed away in closets, attics and drawers, ready to be used "someday?"

Image from Little White Paw.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Our 12-week adventure into scholarly articles

The articles-only group has taken the plunge, working together on the introduction and Chapter 1 of Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks. Interestingly, though, authors in the book groups are considering it, too, as a way to think about book chapters. 12 weeks seems a bit long to work on just one chapter (that's almost a whole semester!), so some of the book people are experimenting with doing two units a day from the articles book. Two chapters a semester sounds great for someone who is really focused and writing daily. That would provide the December break for revisions, and the following summer to go over all four chapters and complete the prospectus. Some books are longer than others, but this schedule would produce a well-considered eight-chapter scholarly book in two years.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Petrified Squid at Booklab

One of my favorite blogs is The Daily Coyote, where photographer Shreve Stockton documents her life in Wyoming raising a coyote her friend rescued and gave to her when it was a puppy. My preferred way to read The Daily Coyote was from the beginning, clicking back to the early days and working my way forward a few pages at a time. Gradually what began as a photographic journal became a story, and sure enough, Ms. Stockton got a great book deal.

What I love about this is a validation of the process of blogging as a way to work through ideas with an audience, and of letting them take natural shape. Your blog need not have millions of readers. My Booklab blog has only seven, but they are all dedicated. Instead, the blog is a way to socialize ideas (thanks to Gary in one of my scholarly groups for that term), and to get comfortable with them in an environment that's a near-perfect combination of scratch pad and microphone on stage. I believe that she did end up with zillions of readers, but her audience grew naturally as the blog matured.

Shreve Stockton sells petrified squid that she finds on her property in Wyoming (she says this is legal). I bought some and it will sit in a bowl on the mantel above the fireplace at Booklab as a reminder to anyone who asks that blogging is actually real writing, and it can lead to very real books.

The so-called tyranny of the blank page

The faculty fiction writers' group just left, and one of the last things some stragglers and I discussed was the ridiculous notion that writers are supposed to sit in front of blank pages or blinking computer cursors and suffer. What kind of self-flagellator does that? We're big fans of getting out into life, notebook in hand, and doing or discovering something worth writing about. Stumped for something to write? Then grab a notebook or a digital audio recorder and go to the farmer's market, the waiting room at the county jail, a rodeo, or the local rowers' boathouse.

It baffles us that how-to-write books often discuss the writer's office as a necessary dungeon, and the ritual before blank paper with attendant suffering as some inherent part of the creative process. As if! All of those horrid lines about gluing oneself to the chair or chaining oneself to the desk. Twaddle! Guilt-producing gahr-bage.

This fiction group is amazing and I love it. Booklab has ten groups for scholarly writers, and one for fiction as a fun middle-of-the-week respite. Everyone is focusing on different kinds of things. We dove into literary magazines today, with actual copies on hand. I did a short presentation on The Missouri Review, to set up a model, and then Chris took a copy of Ploughshares to discuss next week. Matt walked out with a copy of VQR, which he'll study and dissect for us two weeks from now.

We do not believe in butts in chairs until we know why we're there and what we have to say. We believe in butts out in nature, in the big, bad city, or on the ranch, cowboy. We believe in writers as actors, participants, observers, creators, anything but inmates in office-prisons.

Weird chairs above from

Monday, September 14, 2009

Another question from the web page -- proposals!

A blog reader writes in with this timely question: "I've just written a nonfiction book. What do I do next?"

First order of business is congratulating yourself on having completed something so challenging. Second is stepping back from your masterpiece and thinking about a professional nonfiction book proposal. Usually I recommend these before you write your book, since most nonfiction trade books are sold on the basis of a proposal and a couple of sample chapters rather than a whole manuscript. Why? Because nonfiction editors often like to think with the author on the crafting of the book -- it has to work on their particular list. But there is certainly no rule one way or the other. You can create a proposal now based on the book you have already written.

Think of a proposal as a business plan for your book. It demonstrates to a publisher who you are, how your qualifications make you the perfect author for this book, who will read it and why, and how you plan to promote your work. There are other aspects as well. Your future editor will likely take copies of your proposal to an acquisitions meeting where it will be discussed in business terms. Different houses have different ways of deciding what books to acquire, but a great proposal is the basis of just about everyone's system. If you click the link at the upper right of this page you'll see a list of books I recommend, and there are two proposal titles.

If you're a tenure-line faculty member at Georgetown this is free. If you are not on Georgetown's faculty, you can hire Booklab to work with you on a professional nonfiction book proposal. Please send e-mail for a sheet that details just some of the ways we work with authors on this all-important aspect of nonfiction book publishing.

The image above shows a different kind of proposal.

The Booklab Workout

Authors sit a lot, and therefore need to think a bit more about fitness than perhaps people who have on-your-feet kinds of jobs. So voila the Booklab Workout. All that butt-in-the-seat is especially destructive when it comes to muscle tone in the lower abs!

We're thinking of installing treadmills at workstations (ones that move v-e-r-y slowly, apparently all the rage among lawyers). Oh, and I'm wondering if it makes sense to buy a Pilates machine. Ideas? Anyone?

Image from engadget.

Speaking of feeling a little crazy somtimes

I rarely comment on pop culture, because I don't really get it. That's not a snob attitude, it's a clueless one... and I've been that way since childhood. But the video that's all over the news about the Kanye West/Taylor Swift moment at the VMA awards last night brought up something different for me... the sense that they enacted right there on the stage most authors' secret fears -- that someone will come rushing up and shout "Imposter!" right when you're ready to celebrate an achievement.

One of my friends is a judge, and even after almost two decades on the bench, he said he still sometimes thinks someone will burst into the courtroom and shout "You're not a judge, take off that robe and leave the bench this minute." Another friend reported that the night she received a major international book award, she wasn't happy, she was terrified and a bit blue for all those who hadn't won (she told me she wanted to be first runner-up). When she did get to the stage, she kept waiting for someone to say "We're sorry, there has been some mistake, that's supposed to go to a real writer."

I've felt like a fraud in public many times. Others with far more achievements than mine say the same thing. Without judging the parties involved (it doesn't feel appropriate given that I can't name a song by either artist), I will say this much: wow... watching that video was like living out my worst nightmare.

Now on to another day at Booklab where we all reassure each other that we're whatever it is we need to be (not perfect, not the living end, but good enough on most days and committed to professionalism and perspective).

Illustration by Sir John Tenniel for Alice in Wonderland.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Is your book making you crazy?

Quick question -- has anyone ever thought you were going crazy because of a book that wasn't going well? An author this week told me that he felt that way, and it reminded me of my own state of mind in 1999. Nuts! (Things are much better now, thank you -- Booklab= happiness.)

Any and all "crazy author" stories are welcome.

Are Writers Conferences Helpful or Necessary?

I'm going to admit -- publicly! -- that I am somewhat edgy about the subject of writer's conferences. Even though every year that they'll have me I'm a fiction judge for the Maryland Writers Association (love them), and even though I've spoken at three writers' conferences, I still have nagging concerns about the format, based on admittedly small-sample experiences. They just felt all kinds of awkward, and I was unconvinced that writers got what they hungered for at most of them.

Instead of opining, however, I'll open the question up to all five of my readers, some of whom send me personal mail even when they don't comment here. What's your opinion of writer's conferences? Have you been to, say, Bread Loaf? Was it a good experience? You may be (as always) anonymous, or else first-name only.

The hilarious illustration is from palblog, the blog of comics artist Peter Laird.

Authors and editors sometimes want different things

Sometimes there is an inherent conflict between a typical author's goals (publish me, publish me, publish ME!), and an editor's goals (I want to enhance my list... when you see my list you see what I value and why... to get published, fit on my list). Average authors are all about individual recognition, whereas typical editors focus on the content and message of their lists as intellectual and artistic collections.

Authors frequently ask "Why didn't the publisher advertise ME more," whereas editors more typically ask "What's the best use of promotional resources for the group, for the imprint, for the house?" It's not that authors are all ego-maniacal while editors are altruistic. That simple split can't work, since so many editors are also authors. But their goals are sometimes at variance when they inhabit their respective roles. It's also no wonder that some editors become successful authors, because they learn to think like editors and so they often make more successful publishing bids. The more that authors focus on editors' complete lists, the more likely the two camps are to gradually share goals, or at least come at divergent goals from more harmonious bases.

How do you find editors? Follow the trail of books you admire. Sites like Amazon have advanced search features that let you see all the offerings from a particular publishing house. Choose an appropriate house, select a range of books in your field, and find out who edited them. This can be more accurate than simply looking on the website and finding the editor who handles "all" of a particular type of book, since there is often a bit of overlap, and editors can wander onto one another's turf.

By the way, getting to know editors and their lists is not the only way to go about getting published. I know some authors who don't give a hoot and who are extraordinarily well- published. The only rule is that there are no rules, but knowing editors and their works is one of my personal preferences.

Journal Experiments: Starting Again, and Again

I'm still energized by the Journal Experiments, and every time I return it is with wonder and amazement at just how useful/fruitful they are. For those of you unfamiliar with them, the original post is here, from a year ago. We examined some cool journals between then and now, but with the new faculty fiction-writing group starting last week, it's time to get into them again even more seriously.

This week's journal is The Missouri Review, a 30-year-old literary magazine based at the University of Missouri. It is extremely high on my list of must-subscribes, and I encourage anyone who is thinking about submitting to it to read back issues from the library to get a feel for it, and then subscribe as a way of supporting this amazing world.

The editor, Speer Morgan, is also a literary practitioner, with several novels, plus award-winning fiction in The Atlantic Monthly. I was struck by the fact that although -- as is customary -- his essay about this edition precedes the entries, he chose to list that essay at the end of the Contents. Hard to say if that was a deliberate nod to his authors to put them first, but it sure seemed that way and I liked it. Poetry editor for the summer '09 issue Katy Didden has a number of publication credits as well, and she is a doctoral student. The poetry editor listed on the website, Marc McKee, has a similar background.

Why do I pay attention to editors? Because I have a personal bias toward knowing who editors are and thinking about them as people with tastes and preferences before submitting to a journal. Usually the individual editors do not make all decisions (it tends to be more collaborative), but they are often the first readers of submissions. I admire editors, and I consider myself as an author an applicant for a position on their lists, not just someone saying "Hey you! Publish me!"

Journals are such little worlds. The Missouri Review is a spectacular one. I will soon add it and other much-loved literary magazines to the recommended list at the upper right of this blog. As I read this issue, I'll post more about contents.