So. I think it's becoming safe to name the Task That Must Not Be Named, although I'm not sure how or where to begin talking about it. A friend at knitting group this evening suggested that I start like this:
Required reading for anyone who is considering writing a book
Therefore I will begin by saying that the publishing business is crazy by definition, and one of the things I've learned through years of engagement with all phases of it is not to take anything that happens in the process personally. Another thing I have found out is that every time you think you're done, you aren't. Yet another thing I have unfortunately, or fortunately, discovered is that the really big projects tend to be the most satisfying in the long run—as my daughter would say, "for certain values of satisfying."
The Project involves the production of a book on . . . well, fibers, but the exact scope has changed at least twice in dramatic ways during meetings at which I wasn't present and which I didn't find out about until the changes were faits accomplis. In each case, I was given the option of saying "no," but each time there were compelling reasons (all conceptual and none practical) to say "okay" instead. Note that the alternative to "no" was not a resounding "yes," because while each suggested shift would result in a better and more useful book . . . one that I was even more interested in writing, and I was already seriously hooked or I'd never have started . . . the change would also involve massive amounts of additional work. Note also that hardly any writers developing a book are on salary or have access to benefits like health insurance, paid holidays, or sick leave. Advances are more like honoraria, and are not sufficient for covering living expenses. If you sign on to write a book, you've got to figure out how to do the work in addition to whatever normally brings in an income.
In late summer and early fall of 2007, co-author Carol Ekarius and I began talking about The Project between ourselves and with the publisher, and we wrote and presented the proposal. In late fall, we received approval to proceed. The contract, as signed in early 2008, calls for a small book on fiber breeds that knitters* or spinners might encounter, in fleece or yarn form, at fiber festivals.
- Estimated number of animals: 120.
- Manuscript length: 45,000 to 50,000 words.
* For "knitters," also read "crocheters, weavers, or other people who use yarn."
Within weeks, The Project expanded rather quickly, in discussions that happened among other people, to a much larger book on all natural fibers. The sample chapters we submitted in March 2008 reflected that intention.
Later, for some reason which I don't remember but for which I was grateful, possibly because it was seeming that the book would be too large to produce in a reasonable amount of time, The Project was redefined again, but still with a larger-than-original scope: sheep breeds that an English-speaking knitter or spinner might reasonably obtain from a wider variety of sources, including at festivals, in shops, at local farms, or online. (The "English-speaking" was a limitation I added in order to keep completion within the realm of possibility. Because fiber folk are who they are, the materials within the English-speaking part of the world frequently cross borders.) What was supposed to be a nine-month project (completed by August 2008) became a two-year one. The new deadline was set for February 1, 2010.
During 2008 and most of 2009, I worked steadily on The Project, devoting between 20 and 60 hours a week to it and balancing the effort with paying-in-real-time freelance work and developmental work for Nomad Press. I was making good progress (hampered by the computer problems that are a whole other story, already told here), but by early August 2009 it became clear that in order to meet the February deadline I would have to dedicate all my time and energy to it. With the blessing of authors waiting for Nomad to publish their books (for which I am eternally grateful), I set aside everything else and began working on The Project during as many hours as I could muster.
No matter what mix of projects I'm involved with, my average work week consists of 72.5 hours. About 8 hours are spent on general maintenance: finances, essential e-mails, and other things that can't be delayed or shifted to accommodate various deadlines. Under normal circumstances, between 5 and 15 of my weekly hours normally include jobs for which I'm paid reasonably soon; the other hours are invested in something I expect will pay off in the long run—mostly working on publishing projects for Nomad Press or on writing projects of my own.
From the beginning of August 2009 on, with the exceptions of Sock Summit, a weekend at the Colorado Art Ranch, Cat Bordhi's retreat, and a couple of trips to visit relatives, I dedicated about 64 hours a week to The Project. (I worked on The Project during all of those trips, but at a significantly reduced rate.)
In mid-January 2010, twenty-one days before the deadline, which I'd mentally redefined as the "text deadline" because I knew that I'd have some additional time before photography during which I could finish preparing the samples, the scope changed again. It grew to include "all the fiber animals" ( . . . that an English-speaking fiberist could reasonably be expected to encounter . . . ), with the sheep material still to be due on February 1 and the "additional material" to be turned in by the end of February.
News of the meeting and the change in topic(s) reached me two days later, nineteen days before the original and still active deadline, when I was at a cabin in the mountains working as fast and intensively as possible to complete the information on sheep breeds.
After I learned of the shift via e-mail, I took a long, high-altitude walk to regain a modicum of constructive calm. When I got in touch by phone with one of the other folks involved (there are always lots of folks involved in a publishing process, which is probably why I hadn't been notified earlier about the meeting . . . everyone thought someone else had told me . . . ), the person said that since I'd already done so many sheep breeds, the additional "twenty-five or so" animals would be no big deal, right? I mentioned that it had taken two years to do what we'd done so far, and we were being given less than three weeks to produce the add-on. Also that most of the additional animals produce luxury fibers and the samples for them would need to be spun much more finely than most of the wools.
Have I mentioned that throughout The Project I've been obtaining raw fibers, washing them, preparing them (combing or carding), and spinning samples to be photographed?
- A rough count of breeds I'd already researched and written up: 125.
- A rough count of samples I'd already processed and spun: 300.
Some breeds got one sample; others, with more qualities to hint at in the demos, required five or more.
While taking another cool-down walk in the mountains, I came up with a metaphor for what the shift in scope felt like: as if I had been at mile 97 of a 100-mile endurance run and received a message that as soon as I crossed the finish line I would run a quick marathon as well, since, after all, I was all warmed up and it wasn't that far compared to what I'd already done.
Some difficult situations can be handled better if they're named. With others, the trick is to avoid acknowledging the whole and just focus on one piece at a time: what is the single next thing I need to do? The Project was already in the latter realm. The "expansion pack," as I began to think of the additional material, shoved the whole effort into a surreal realm. Before long I gave the extra work the code name Voldemort, borrowing the identity of Harry Potter's nemesis, the one who gained power when his name was uttered. In order to accomplish this task, I could not talk about it. I just had to do it.
I also had to revamp my working process. I'd been spinning samples while I was writing up the fibers: the integration of tasks works best for me that way.
However, what was needed by the end of February was just the text. The samples wouldn't be required until it was time to do photography. If I had a prayer of reaching the new finish line, I needed to research and write the new material in the first pass, to hope I was getting things "right enough" without handling the fibers as I went, and then to do some adjusting and filling-in when we got the copyedited manuscript, by which time I envisioned that I would have most of the samples done. Fortunately, friends offered me another week at the cabin in the mountains. I hauled my wheel and fibers up there, but only used them the final day, because I refused to have packed them for nothing. The rest of the time was devoted to research and writing (I had also packed a good-sized library of resources).
(but the question is, what has nearly vanquished whom?)
We turned in the sheep portions of the manuscript on February 1, with one gap that was filled two days later.
We turned in the "other critters" portion of the manuscript on March 11, which is pretty darn good considering what it consisted of, with three gaps that we filled not long after.
I finished spinning the "extra" samples about two weeks ago, although I have roughly thirty more samples to complete before photography (all wools that arrived after the last fibers deadline back in January but that we decided to include anyway, because they're too cool not to, and because we and the providers had worked too hard to get them).
- A rough count of additional animals (sometimes breeds of a type of animal): 30.
- A rough count of additional samples processed and spun (includes variants within a type of animal): 125.
An average text-only nonfiction book manuscript runs between 65,000 and 75,000 words; a long text-only nonfiction book runs 90,000 to 100,000 words. Because of the significant contribution of the images, the initial manuscript associated with The Project was envisioned in the contract as 45,000 to 50,000 words. As completed by co-author Carol Ekarius and me, the manuscript weighs in at about 118,000 words, not including the bibliography. Plus, of course, photos, illustrations, and captions.
The manuscript has been copyedited, and we have reviewed the editing (and prepared extensive additional reference materials for all sorts of illustrations).
Are we there yet?
Tasks still to be done on the author side of the publishing equation:
- Spin remaining samples (approximately 30).
- Provide materials and guidance for photography (not scheduled yet; approximately five to seven days).
- Write a few hundred captions, after the photography has been completed.
- Finish acquiring photos of the animals, but that's not on my personal list of tasks (whew).
- At some point, proof pages.
Other than that, it's done.
Nonetheless, I have been able to shift my energies slightly, still needing to be ready to drop everything when it's time for photography and still needing to remember that I have those additional samples to prepare. As of two weeks ago I have begun to work again on some of the other projects that have been awaiting my attention, and I was able to say "yes" to a small freelance job that ends today. I have indulged in a small amount of spring cleaning and I look forward to the opportunity to do some more. Here's a miracle: I read a book last week just for the heck of it! (I could only read in small scraps of time just before sleep, but Dana Stabenow's mysteries hold together fine with that sort of intermittent attention.)
Last I heard, the book will be out in time for the start of the fiber festival season in 2011.
I think (I sincerely hope, of course) that other people will think The Project has been worth doing. I am truly fascinated by and passionate about the subject(s), in all their incarnations, although I have favorite aspects of the work and would also have been content with a smaller, but still substantial, project.
Yet I'm glad we've hung in here. Carol's great to work with, as is the publisher we are involved with. We've just had to roll with the changes and occasionally accomplish a ridiculously impossible set of tasks, all intended to make the finished work even better.
At this point, I can name what we're up to, including the final Voldemort aspect of the work, because we have achieved even the expanded goals, despite the arguments of sense and the constraints of space and time. I could certainly use a few weeks off just to sleep and read silly stuff and clean up around here, but will do my best to grab a few hours or a day here and there, while relocating all the parts of my life that I stuffed into the backs of the cupboards, under the bed, and on the top shelves of the closets while I was obsessing with The Project.
I learned a whole lot. I got a bunch of what I learned written into the text, and I anticipate being able to convey even more through the photos and captions.
Satisfying: for many values of the word, yes.
* Merino, being washed in the bathtub
* Fiber drying, although I didn't label the photo—it's wool, washed in January 2010 (sometimes I wish I'd kept records of when I received, washed, and prepared specific fibers, but that's not essential record-keeping, and there was more than enough of the essential type to keep track of)
* Suri alpaca, on Louet 2-row mini-combs
* German angora rabbit spun sample