Thursday, June 01, 2017

Bogged down in writing

I have been bogged down on my major historical writing projects.

Back in November 2015 when Clare B and I reviewed my writing targets, we agreed that one simple way of getting a book ready quickly would be to consolidate and then edit the collected Belshaw's World columns written for the Armidale Express over the period 2009-2012. On 22 December 2015 I reported on Facebook:
I completed the consolidation process in the early hours of this morning, giving me a first draft of 120,000 words. A fair bit of editing is required to consolidate, improve English, add explanatory material etc. Writing a weekly column under deadlines does not always make for good English, while some columns would be far too obscure for general reading.. Still, this type of editing is a process I quite enjoy.
 So far so good, but I then became dissatisfied. I didn't think that the draft was of the right standard and required far more editing than I had expected. I still hadn't given up on the project, but ended putting it aside for the moment, returning to my two main writing projects.

The first is the history of Northern New South Wales, the broader New England, over the last 50,000 years. This is broken into four parts: an introduction to set the scene and to help integrate the entire book; Aboriginal New England up to 1788; Colonial New England; and then New England in the Twentieth Century.

Those who have followed my blogs will know from the occasional references to this project that it seems to have stretched on and on. I accept that I lack discipline, but I keep finding new topics, new themes, that demand to be included. I also keep finding gaps in my knowledge that I wasn't aware of and which now need to be filled.

The final book will, I hope, be all the better for all this. Certainly it will be very different from the original work as envisaged. The first outline had a strong political focus with the 150+ year fight for self-government as the unifying theme in the last two sections of the book. That's still there, but the book has become much more a social and cultural history.

One particular difficulty is the way the present keeps intruding on the past, forcing me to ask new questions, to decide on new questions of balance. One example here is the concern with child sexual abuse, for many of the issues raised at the Royal Commission relate to the Hunter and Northern Rivers, but came to light after my cut-off date.  A second example is the stolen generation. This had become a major issue by 2000 following the 1997 Bringing Them Home Report, but has continued to run since.

I need to reference both and especially the second, but how much to say, how much extra work to do? I could just reference the later work, but I have a particular problem with the stolen generation that makes me reluctant to do so because it is part of and indeed conflicts to a degree with a theme I already have in draft. I need to understand what has happened and I can't just rely on the report for that. The photo is of the Kinchela Boys' Home outide kempsey. .  

The second major project is New England Travels: journeys through space and time. I announced this project at the end of May 2014 -  New England Travels – journeys through space and time. I described the project in this way:
The working title is New England Travels – journeys through space and time. Part autobiographical memoir, part travel story, part history, my story meanders wherever it will take me. New England provides the unifying element, the frame if you like, but I am not restricted to that; the sands of Arabia, Lugard’s Nigeria, spying in Japan, boxing and boxing tents, life and death on the frontier, the rise and fall of dynasties and the strange by-ways of family life are already there, sketched on the canvas I have created; my choice now is to select. 
I am not being too ambitious. For the moment, I have an income to earn, other things to write. My writing target is 300 words per day. So far I am sticking to it, although it’s very early days. For the present at least, I am finding the process liberating, an anodyne to other frustrations that bedevil me. I know that the draft will change greatly as I write. Even now it has changed several times as I strive to capture the right words, to achieve the balance I want.
Mmmm. What I hadn't properly realised was the extent of new research required to deliver the project as defined. I was, in fact, trying to research two major if somewhat overlapping book projects at the same time. I simply couldn't achieve 300 original words a day.

It was this realisation that finally led to the decision to go for Belshaw's World as a way of  getting something out the door. Then after I put that project on hold at the first draft stage, an intense work period intervened, so I just jogged along trying to do some blogging while also pushing forward with some research on the history. As part of this, I actually developed a somewhat better research approach, if still a tad inefficient.

My weekly history column provided the next building block. A number of people suggested to me that I should publish the columns. Even though I already had the words for a book, I didn't think that was sensible because the columns were only 500 words. I thought that the result would be too bitsy. I was truly a puzzled panda.

In writing the columns, I had begun to experiment with series, groups of up to eight or nine columns grouped around a theme or story. Initially I just fell into the approach, but when I started to get good reader feedback I adopted it as a practice. There were some good stories too such as Camp Victory and the Casino Boys.

At this point things began to gell a little. I was doing research that could be used for both projects so long as I recorded the sources for the main history project. New England Travels emerged from the mists as a book of 90 to 100,000 words made up of a mix of short and longer pieces roughly grouped around themes combining existing and new material. Once I had a basic draft in place, then I could edit and rewrite to make it interesting to a general audience, not just those with an interest in New England history. Which brings me back to my opening graphic!

Its taken quite a while to get to this point and I am hesitant about attaching firm public deadlines to the project.

I am fortunate at this point that I have been given a window to write full time. Mind you, I am finding this quite challenging. Sitting there for extended periods with no direct human contact tends to send me quite stir crazy.

Still, I mustn't complain. I am making progress even if my regular blogging is down as a consequence.




Noric Dilanchian said...

Wishing you progress.

Anonymous said...

Im having major problems hitting a 5000 word draft was supposed to be handed in before today ; have to have it complete and polished , with references and a bibliography by next Thursday. So far there's about 2000 words in draft. 300 words a day isn't even in the ballparkc (that was Mr Tolley adding his 5 cents worth). I think my life for the next week is pretty circumspect, and I'm sure as hell too old and tired to be pulling allnighters. I'm pretty stuffed doing all dayers! 3 hours at the books and writing pad (yes, I draft in pencil on paper first; I cannot write to the screen) and then an hour or so on the computer, and I'm all in. I should have done this years ago.
Any advice, JDB?

Jim Belshaw said...

Morning,both and thank you both!

Interesting challenge, JCW! I'm not sure that I'm in a good position to advise given that you have been getting HDs! Like you, I find some problem editing on screen because its slow in terms of back and forwards. So I tend to burn trees in running of copies. Sadly my printer has just died! But, for what it's worth a few things I have found useful when working under tight deadlines.

Step one. Set you macro and style guide up first. This saves time later on in editing, especially if you are scissors and pasting.

Step two. Start creating the bibliography from the beginning. Fixing those fiddly references at the end can be a time consuming pain!

I generally start by crash reading the main sources I intend to use, not taking detailed notes although I do jot down page numbers and ideas and add to the bibliography. My aim is just to understand, to generate ideas, to begin to create an initial structure.

I use a lot of on-line material. To order material, I have found it helpful to create a a file structure on the computer that consists of the story (the main piece) and a reference or notes section. I often copy material into a single reference document with the linkages that I can then find easily. For bigger tasks, I have a master doc and then a separate file called working drafts. That way I can work on bits of the document and then copy back into the master.

Having done my initial crash read, I generally sit down and just think, trying to sketch out a rough structure, main lines of argument, questions to be answered. Sometimes I sketch out an opening and closing para. Sometimes I do a power point - I rarely key this, just use sheets of paper - since this forces me to identify key points and supporting sub points. It also gives me an illusion of progress since I can enter them into the master as headings and sub-headings. So I have a base structure plus emerging bibliography!

With deadline stuff, I do a rough time plan. Mind you, I rarely did this with uni essays since I wrote so many the night before! I find that I have to allow time for proper final editing. Take that of the top and you have at least first draft deadline. While I lot of what I do is effectively first draft, I really need several drafts for really good stuff.

Depending on the task, I generally write in chunks that I can then post into the evolving master. I can't afford two computer screens at home - that would be a wonderful luxury - but often use split screens. So I might have the working draft up plus the working reference stuff. I usually have the reference material printed off as well because its so much easier to work from I can check from that, find the bit I need and then transfer across.

As you know, while I am reasonably focused I am not a specially disciplined person. She laughs! By far the biggest mistake I made with my current projects (but not the PhD)lay in my failure to record material and document properly at first blow for later use. With three million or so words in multiple forms, content management has become a very real problem!

Anonymous said...

Got it in; 2 minutes before the computer completely collapsed, but not able to do it thru the ANU turnitin website. I have your first drafts logo now up on the wall.
Computer now fixed, but if you have been watching my posts, now in the middle of a major CATastrophe. When I did my MA(Hons), I commented how Tolley, then a rambunctious kitten, had hindered and amused. 16 years later, as an old diabetic cat, I think we are looking at the end days, and I am really not coping. He has done so much stuffing up the keyboard, and helping with 'printing'. Like many things in my life, dear Jim, I don't know how I'll cope without him. I suspect we are looking at days, rather than weeks. We are certainly not looking at months or years. Please send good vibes for my little man. xxxx