It's been a couple of months since I've mentioned much the FGS history book that I'm co-writing, so I thought this might be the time for an update, especially since just today I got a compliment based on it. :-) And since I'm currently engaged in looking on the bright side of life (cue Monty Python here), let me record the nice compliment for posterity and as a reminder that this book project is something that was pretty good about the last year (which was still overwhelmingly sucky, but it had its moments).
When we were starting this project, we decided the book would be seven chapters long, and guess-timated that each chapter would be about 8000 words long (plus lots of photos, sidebars, etc.). In divvying up those chapters, I claimed the chapter on the founding, and my co-author claimed chapters 2 and 3 (which for reasons of school history really do go together closely). Because of another obligation she'd already committed to, she wasn't going to be able to start work until January, but I wanted to seize the moment, so I boldly said that I would have the draft of the first chapter done before winter break. Brave words which I more than once regretted this fall!
But I am the kind of person who really needs a deadline, so I'm just as glad that I committed to giving the chapter draft to the others (my co-author, the head librarian who's functioning as the project manager, and the archivist) in mid-December. It's the only way that I could have maintained my habit of writing every morning before school -- and I am NOT naturally a morning person, witness my sleep habits this winter break -- but it was the quietest time of the day when my brain wasn't busy with a million other things or (as happens in early evening) wasn't shutting down. Dame Eleanor's writing group was also a life-saver, and I credit those weekly check-ins with keeping me mostly on track.
So the good news is that I made the deadline! The less good news is that I over-shot the target word count by, um, more than half. (See the word count markers at the left.) But it became apparent early on that this was going to happen, and I decided I wasn't going to worry about it. After all, this was just a first draft, and besides, there's so much fabulous material to write about!
The other good news, and the thing that I most loved in the writing, is that we decided early on that we wanted the book to have the feel of a memoir rather than a school history. The latter tends to be pretty dry and focused almost exclusively on the heads of school and the teachers, and we really wanted to focus on the student experience of the school and to capture as many student voices as we could. And thanks to our archive, I really was able to do that for this first chapter -- student letters home, diaries, a short-lived student newspaper, and then after the first twenty years the beginning of an alumnae association that recorded additional memories from former students. It really was so fun to do the research, and by the end I was feeling pretty good about how I was capturing those voices and creating a narrative of the school's first decades.
The bizarre thing is that I was working so hard right up until the deadline -- adding a brand-new section less than 48 hours before it was due -- that I never sat down and read the whole thing from beginning to end until AFTER I made copies and gave them to the other folks. I don't recommend this approach; generally it's a good idea to have read the thing before one distributes it! But fortunately, it all came together pretty well; I read it two days after I gave it to everyone, and I was actually pretty pleased with it. Sure, I came up with a list of changes/revisions, but they were all fairly minor. Now, there will be major changes to make down the line, because for one thing I didn't pull out any material for sidebars or lengthy picture captions and instead just wrote it straight through as a long chapter, and that will need to change. But I just couldn't worry about that at the time; I mean, I've never written anything that had descriptive picture captions and sidebars, and I don't really know how to go about dividing the chapter with that structure in mind. So I just put the whole thing out of my head and wrote the way I know how.
And this is where my co-author and I differ in our experiences. She's done a lot of professional writing, and so she's all about "writing to spec," whereas I've got far more of an academic writing background. So this could make us perfect complements, but it could also mean -- as indeed it has thus far -- that we sometimes talk past each other and have very different priorities and methods in how we work. She hasn't started writing her first chapters yet, so it remains to be seen how we will work together, and I'm actually fairly worried about how we'll manage to create a coherent voice throughout ... but that's a problem for another day. But I was kind of a basketcase at giving her the chapter; I was pretty sure that the other members of the committee would like it well enough, but I was worried at her response.
So, on to the compliments: The archivist actually read the whole thing quickly the very day that she got it -- how's that for enthusiasm! -- and the next day at the faculty/staff holiday party told me that she loved it, that it was exactly what she'd been hoping for and she was so, so happy. Very nice! Then this morning my co-author wrote to say that "I read your first chapter with pure delight." Of course, she then suggested a meeting time a couple of weeks from now to start figuring out what revisions need to happen, etc., but still, she seemed pretty pleased with it. And then the librarian/project manager chimed in later this morning to say that she "couldn't put it down .... The thing I am most excited about is how you really did write history as memoir -- I could hear the student voices and visualize life at FGS in a very personal way. I'm so excited to be off to such a great start."
So yay! And (pace my co-author) I'm happy to have gotten my chapter in to everyone before she starts writing, because I think it means that my vision for the book and my voice and my mode of writing have a better chance of holding their own if there's eventually competition over what tone, genre, etc. we want to be going for. And it's a very nice thing to have gotten a writing compliment on the second day of the year; I'm storing up omens that augur a good year in 2013, and this definitely goes at the top of the list!