13 Things I Learned From Turning My Thesis Into A Book

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Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle is out in UK hardback from OUP on 1st December! I thought I’d share what I’ve learned from the process of revising your thesis into a book. If the title seems like clickbait, it’s certainly v. niche.

Some of what follows is general, some deliriously specific. But here’s What I Have Learned…

  1. In the beginning, you feel embarrassed

Returning to your thesis after a pause will reunite you with a species of embarrassment you haven’t known since reviewing your UCAS statement. Dear lord, weren’t you lofty in your disagreements with critics? Why have you never learned to spell ‘negotiate’? And, as your supervisor so frequently asked you, did you think you were being paid by the semicolon? Also, ctrl+find on the phrase ‘this thesis’. Rinse and repeat.

  1. Bad proposals sink good books

I’m lucky: OUP read your thesis alongside your proposal for the Oxford English Monographs list. My readers liked the thesis and hated what I’d said about it. Despite good advice and money spent on A Well-Known Book On The Subject, I’d made a mess of the proposal. Unsure what needed changing, and teaching full-time, I offered to butcher my dissertation, double-quick. I could as usefully have written “please publish me?” on a post-it. On my forehead. My editor and supervisors helped me parse the reports, which became my most-studied documents through the rewriting process. I wrote in response to their reports, they replied, and it became clear that they were very enthusiastic about the material and had offered me a far clearer path to revisions than I’d expected. I can’t believe how much trouble everyone took.

I’ve since gone through the proposal process far more successfully, and would advise:

  • Don’t claim you can rewrite the book too quickly. Ask your proposed editor/whoever is working with you at this stage (if there isn’t someone, ask for them – if you’re still in a university faculty, is there a Research or Publishing Facilitator who would help?) for a sensible timeline. Ask your supervisors too.
  • Tailor your proposal exactly to your publisher’s requirements. If your publisher gives minimal guidelines, look at other publishers’ websites to see what tips they give.
  • Write the proposal engagingly. If your 2,000 words are boring, your 80,000 words are likely to be more so.
  • ASK TO READ OTHER PEOPLE’S PROPOSALS. I have no idea why I didn’t do this. Pride? Fear? Stupidity. I have a bad proposal (Book 1) and a good proposal (Book 2) on my hard drive & they’ve circulated more times than a Mudie’s mystery novel (it’s that kind of 1895 wit that’s got me where I am today. As Ed Balls would say, BOOM).
  1. You don’t have to negotiate like a first-time author

Possibly you’re a lofty, confident, professionalised young ECR with a hard head, a ten-year plan and convictions about this monograph’s worth. Or possibly you are deeply relieved and grateful that your Publisher Of Dreams wants your book in the first place. I was the latter. On two separate occasions, there was something about the contract/process which I wanted to alter. I felt that raising the matter would make me seem uppity/entitled/would jeopardise the publishing process. I nervously constructed an email, then ripped out all the feminine apologetics (like any good Springboard graduate).

It was totally fine. Unwanted contractual detail expunged by return of post. Just do it: a) even if the answer’s no, nobody will mind you starting the debate, and b) for all you know, 9 out of 10 (straight white male) first-time authors historically make – and are granted – the same request.

  1. Thrills abound.

You know the contract will be exciting (FYI, so will saying ‘I’m under contract’ as if it’s with Warner Bros but you’re breezily calm). You’ve been planning your acknowledgments (monograph answer to an Oscar speech) and you’ve probably had some thoughts about the cover art. But there’s more. Your Amazon page! Your publisher page! The first time your book appears in a catalogue, convincing you – with a touching, residual faith in print – that your book will soon be real. All these are marvellous. Treasure them.

  1. You can get a contract for your second book before the first is published.

Again, this might have been obvious to lofty, hard-headed ECRs with a ten-year p. and a conviction about their scholarship’s w. (see above) but it was not obvious to self. Nevertheless, several things fell into place: having always been crap at condensing my doctorate into two sentences, I was determined to be able to pitch my second book. I honestly went along to the Routledge editorial speed-dating event to practice pitching. I’d assumed that nobody would take my second book seriously until the first one was a physical object. Stupidity, again. You know what’s great? Signing your first book contract (I instagrammed mine). You know what’s amazing? Signing your second. You feel like JK Rowling. And, yet:

  1. It might be bittersweet.

I have always dreamed of writing a novel. In my head, my first book was going to involve literary prizes and film rights, and although I suppose there is a chance that Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle MIGHT turn into a six-part BBC series starring Hattie Morahan as Ellen Terry, Keeley Hawes as Madge Kendal, and Michelle Dockery as Mrs Patrick Campbell (PLEASE NOTE: this would be the greatest BBC series of all time, I’ve done the work for you, we just need to find a Lillie Langtry as beautiful as Francesca Annis was in 1978), I have resigned myself to the truth. For the moment, I am very much of those academics with 1,000 novel ideas in their (twenty-first-century-Cloud-equivalent-of-) bottom drawer. I hope to one day graduate to being one of those academics with one novel idea realised on a Waterstones shelf.

  1. You will become obsessed with your readers’ identity.

The slightest expression of interest from a fellow conference-goer will seem like a veiled confession. I know one of my readers, because they introduced themselves to me. I was so delighted that I hugged them rapturously, and now beam like a fool whenever they’re mentioned in conversation. Rightly, much light is now being shone on the unpaid murkiness that dominates work for many ECRs – in the name of experience, our industry is building up an ‘internship culture’ to match any other sector, even if the reality is ‘can’t pay’ rather than ‘won’t’. But academic service makes heavy demands of scholars further along the line. I think anyone who reviews a book/thesis MS lucidly and generously (like my readers) is brilliant. Everything I’ve written in the book (and everything I’m writing in the next one) is better because of them.

  1. You will be obsessed with the last people to publish on your list.

How did they do the index? What’s the font like? Why is their name italicised on the cover? Which colour did they choose? Their index sub-headings don’t seem to be indented, why are their acknowledgments so well-written, gosh they’ve got an actual Amazon! Look Inside link, ugh their 3 to 5 marketing bulletpoints don’t sound like they were written in terror —

  1. You never really finish proofreading.

The only good things about reading your own proofs are 1) the talented patience of your professional proofreader, and 2) when you open the PDF and see your manuscript laid out like a proper book. Otherwise, the defining feature of Looking For Errors is that of stargazing or finding ants on the kitchen floor: every time you find one, you see six in its immediate vicinity. I am just about convinced, now, that there won’t be ten blank pages, five historical howlers, and three instances of ‘[EXPLAIN MORE HERE]’ in the published version. This will be entirely due to the professionals and not to my own checking. If you do find a blank page or historical howler etc., feel free not to tell me.

  1. Indexing is like having your brain removed by tweezers.

I had always vaguely planned to pay someone to do my indexing, but then two world-rocking things happened. 1) My colleague described to me, over lunch, how rigorously she’d compiled her own index, explaining eloquently how authorial knowledge of the manuscript was essential for an index that reflected and enhanced the text. I listened, reflected on all the crap indexes I’d encountered during my own DPhil, and light-up hipster letters flashed in my brain: SHE DID HER OWN INDEX. And, a nanosecond later, SHE IS A PROPER ACADEMIC. God damn those colleagues, modelling excellent scholarship at every turn. And then, 2) I found out how much paying an indexer would actually cost. I did my own bloody index. It was like proofreading my own psyche, one hideous preoccupation at a time. A mini-tip: index everything from page 1 onwards, because something you think wasn’t important at all will turn out to have occurred 50 times between pages 150-200 and you’ll be thinking nauseously of all those earlier references you overlooked. That sentence might not mean anything now, but it will. In the process, you’ll come to wonder why other people’s indexes have entries like ‘Regatta, Henley’ and yours has ‘rape, marital’. You’ll go from resenting how much professional indexers are paid to thinking it’s not enough. Also, you probably don’t have long to index, so don’t waste time on learning indexing software. You can’t afford it.

  1. You’ll remember how much you loved your doctorate.

And you can even sneak in some more research. I wallowed in ‘necessary’ extra visits to my favourite archives and read every scrap of writing from Henry Irving to Ellen Terry. This is my idea of a very good time. I revised my thesis into a book alongside the start of my postdoctoral project, and alongside the challenge of a new and less familiar subfield, returning to actresses, suffragettes, and Shakespeare was bliss.

  1. Supportive friends and family will plan to buy the book.

Then you’ll have to tell them how much it’ll cost.

  1. It takes a village.

Not a village. An extremely conscientious publishing company and its team across three continents. I am still floored by this. My editor is based in Oxford; my marketing contact is in New York; my production coordinator is in India, and my copyeditor lives in Lancaster! My proofreader is the only enigma. From her name, I imagine her as a 1950s bluestocking with a recent history in espionage.

I could link you to a million articles bemoaning the downturn, high cost, and jeopardised future of academic publishing. I’d rather tell you how great my team has been. I feel lucky to have had amazing women all around the world work on my book; appropriate for a book that’s about cooperation and mentoring between creative women (it’s also about Jack the Ripper, but that’s a less seamless segue).

What did you learn, or what are you learning, through writing your first book?

 

Pride & Prejudice & Elderly Fin-de-Siècle Actresses

Currently finishing the book – Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle. Yes, that is exciting. Except when it looks an awful lot like a person with a laptop and 9,000 printouts, who has inexplicably taken to writing her most important notes-to-self on small white squares of paper. Which blow everywhere. Given that I really need to finish the book, I am of course LITERALLY BURSTING with ideas for other creative and academic things.

this picture epitomises elizabeth bennet’s family / drink whenever mrs bennet

Sometimes these are useful. Sometimes they are the outline for a BBC Pride and Prejudice drinking game (drink when anybody says “Make haste!” drink when Mr Darcy looks like he’s swallowed an ostrich!), because 1) it is the single perfect piece of television in our time and 2) although popularly remembered as a witty comedy of manners about two witty and intelligent people who wittily and sexily find each other, it is actually about a witty, intelligent woman who is continually embarrassed by her family, and a young man wearing forty-nine layers of clothing who behaves like her embarrassing stalker and is continually dismayed like unto man who has sat down on a weasel.

The drinking game would also include “drink whenever a woman of mature years sports headgear like unto large burgundy shower-cap” and “drink whenever people discuss how Jane Bennet needs to Do More to entice Charles Bingley into matrimony, conveniently overlooking that thanks to Regency necklines she is practically topless“. There would be special shot forfeits whenever Mr Collins is sweaty and whenever you need strong liquors to sustain you in the face of imdb’s depressing responses to the perennial “Where are they now?” (this outstanding piece of television was apparently career Kryptonite for most of the supporting cast).

#marybennet2k15

Special mentions on rewatching also go to the fact that a) Lucy Briers, as Mary, does truly outstanding background acting every time David Bamber’s Mr Collins approaches the frame, and b) by today’s repulsive and totalitarian body standards, literally every young woman in the Bennett household would be considered a heifer and not allowed on TV. Do buy the DVD. Everything’s been especially remastered and the Making-Of Feature includes Colin Firth going flump onto a crash-mat.

imagine these 5 women with these 5 bodies being allowed to be the sexy leads on 2015 television

Anyway, so that this post may run the gamut of my current niche interests, back to the book. One of the late-stage/late-onset tasks in monograph completion is thinking about the images you’d like. This involves much foraging into online image archives, a job that I last did professionally, as a freelance rights assistant, and which I greatly preferred when I was being paid for it.

But never fear. This is not a post about anything as useful as “the process by which I decided certain images would best support and illuminate my text”. This is “Sophie Duncan’s personal guide to what the actresses in her monograph looked like when they were really, really old”.

‘Dame Madge Kendal’ (1928), by Sir William Orpen. Kendal was then aged 80.

Luckily for theatre and for me, my women tended to live long past their long careers. Madge Kendal was churning out her particular blend of vicious Victoriana as late as the 1930s in autobiographies, while Mrs Patrick Campbell saw the start of the Second World War.

Ellen Terry died somewhat earlier in 1928 (Kendal was palpably delighted to have outlived her), but – like Campbell – made a handful of films. Lillie Langtry died in 1929, as the if anything more languorously named Lillie, Lady de Bathe.

Ellen Terry (1847–1928), pictured in 1925.

There is something pathetic and unnerving in these images, of course – Ellen Terry’s eyes, made bleak by macular degeneration, in this film from 1925, and the frankly spooky sight of the most famous Victorian beauty dolled up by Cecil Beaton. Stella Campbell swelled up.

But they’re still there: more there, somehow, in the new and steadily more unflinching technologies of twentieth-century photography. They are a little ghostly, long past the century in which they made their fortunes and enjoyed so much professional and social freedom, but still marvellous.

Lillie Langtry (1853–1929), pictured by Cecil Beaton in 1928, aged 75..

I could also have included Sybil Thorndike (1882–1974), not because she’s the group’s sole successor, but because I think she was one of the most beautiful old women I’ve ever seen. It’s a frequent boast today that Britain’s older actresses do better across the Atlantic than their American sisters, because our women have had less recourse to surgery and retain more expression, character and emotional articulation. I like this idea a lot, of course, but I’m suspicious of the idea that Western culture has a special cache of appreciation for women’s character at any age. I think it’s perhaps just that some women get more beautiful as they get older (Judi Dench and Harriet Walter are two obvious examples).

Mrs Patrick Campbell (1865–1940), pictured by Cecil Beaton in 1938, aged 73.

In any case, it’s lovely for me, at the end of long, long familiarity with a handful of key images (Ellen Terry by Sargent; Madge as Galatea; anorexic Stella Campbell and Lillie Langtry’s bare legs as Cleopatra) to discover these women anew, once old. I hope you enjoy them too. Or, at least, that you enjoy this latest manifestation of a phenomenon wearily familiar to everyone who knows me in real life: my endless Weird Victorian Facts!

The dreaded rewrite

I have just finished rewriting the third chapter of my thesis. There are no appropriate metaphors for how I really feel about this chapter. I’ll stick to claiming that I feel like a successful fisherman waving aloft a shiny prize carp. This is, of course, a lie. I feel more like I’ve been locked in a cellar with something saber-toothed and nasty, until we eventually emerged, dragging each other by the teeth and splattered with most of each other’s brains. On this occasion, the chapter lost, but not by much.

This is, of course, an entirely irrational and overblown reaction to the end of a process that occurs while sitting down, in a centrally-heated flat, with ample access to tea (but not biscuits. I hate Lent. I would sell my face for a Jaffa Cake) and Twitter. I like my thesis. I love my research. I don’t like footnotes, except when I can knock the “pp.” off forty or so notes at a time, and thus pretend I’m saving words. But, my god, I have hated the last bit of rewriting this.

Even deleting items from my three-column, word-documented, cloud-computering to do list (truly, I am the Hunter S. Thompson of doctoral research) hasn’t mitigated the pain. “Don’t get it right, get it written” is the golden rule of DPhil-writing, but in third year, you also have to get the damned thing formatted and polished and devoid of square-bracketed injunctions to [MORE] (also [QUOTE] and [EVIDENCE] and the stomach-churning [PUT CONCLUSION HERE]).

Perhaps the subject matter made this so tough. This chapter contains most of the really depressing stuff in my thesis; the sexualisation of children, child suicide, the anorexic aesthetic, and the fetishising of celebrity illness (especially female mental health). This has, in turn, led to much re-reading of Sarah Kane and looking at the growing cultural obsession with underweight female bodies in the late nineteenth century. It didn’t help that I’d written the first draft in an immensely slappable style, although lord knows I’d rather rewrite for style than because of terrible holes in the research.

Here’s a fun fact, though: rewriting makes me wish I were a man, because if I were, I would grow a big Periclean, Roger-Allam-as-Falstaff-style beard every time I had a major piece of work to complete. I would rejoice in it. It would be a totem of chapter-writing and people would bow before its length and unrepentance. Everyone, knowing I was writing, would close their eyes in silent respect. As totems of chapter-writing go, a majestic beard would be much better than the library mumble (when you go straight from studying to coffee with a friend, and can’t form coherent sentences until the caffeine kicks in), or just looking slightly rough after days at a laptop.

NB: I don’t think this is a case of misdirected penis envy, or even a desire to have Roger Allam as my spirit animal. ‘Spirit animal’ is my new phrase. In the last week, two people of whom I am fond have informed me that Enjolras from Les Mis is their spirit animal. One is a socialist writer on the working class, feminism and politics, and the other is my Christian, drama kid visiting student from California.

Anyway, the last few footnotes are underway, and although it’s a sunny day, I don’t want to go out in case the phone rings. #freelanceproblems.

Chapter-wise, next up is Ellen Terry in Cymbeline, or the chapter which is meant to be about a pretty Briton princess, but ended up involving vampires, somnophilia, and pseudo-medical fanfic…

Mrs Patrick Campbell and George Cornwallis-West

Mrs Pat as Paula Tanqueray.

At the moment, I’m researching Mrs. Patrick Campbell (born Beatrice Tanner; familiarly called Stella). Mrs. Campbell is most famous for her “Pinerotic” roles in the 1890s, such as The Second Mrs Tanqueray and The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith; for her Hedda Gabler; and as the original Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.

I, however, am interested in her Shakespearean roles. In the late 1880s and until about 1893, she had several successes in roles like Rosalind; then, at the other end of the decade, she played the trio of tragic roles that most interest me. These were, in order, Juliet (1895), Ophelia (1897) and Lady Macbeth (1898).

With the Bodleian Library doing various interminable and obscure things in the way of moving book depositories, I wasn’t able to get my hands on Mrs. Pat’s autobiography for weeks, and ended up reading everything but; finally, I caved, and bought it myself, on Ebay.
I originally conceived my doctoral project as a study of Shakespearean actresses’ autobiographies (and later, as a study of writings by actresses on the women of the Late Plays), and even though my textual focus has shifted (both in and out), I feel as if, until now, my research has been hobbled by not having My Life and Some Letters in front of me.

I may say that Mrs Pat’s name-dropping makes Madge Kendal and Constance Benson look positively restrained. I enjoy old theatrical memoirs very much for their own sake (and am looking forward to reading Irene Vanbrugh’s, on Simon’s recommendation), but this one balances incredibly useful, challenging/problematic insights (v. wholesome and good for thesis) with delicious and irresistible snobbery. Bless her, it seems she had no friends without titles. She makes me want to be called Frances something, COUNTESS of MADEUPPLACE. And then write gushy, borderline-homoerotic letters to actresses. An impulse which society cruelly demands I subdue.

Campbell is much more open about her life than Langtry (although omitting the affair with Johnston Forbes-Robertson) and – unlike Ellen Terry – absolutely fascinating in her detailed discussion of her children. I’ve just got to the bit where her son, Beo, dies in the First World War. For the first time reading one of these memoirs, I found myself welling up.

I’m also interested in Campbell’s apparently disastrous second marriage, which goes from huge affection (her son, particularly, seems to have held him in high esteem) to breakdown in a very few pages. Reading about the suicide of Elizabeth Robins’s first husband, who put on a suit of armour, then jumped into the Charles River; and about the complicated life of William Hunter Kendal has interested me in theatrical husbands.

George Cornwallis-West.

Mrs Patrick Campbell’s second husband was George Cornwallis-West. Major Cornwallis-West (who had been rumoured to be Edward VII’s lovechild) first married the stunning Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Winston and twenty years his senior; he remarried to Stella Campbell just five days after their divorce. The marriage broke down in 1921; Cornwallis-West also seems to have been plagued by financial troubles for most of his life. In 1940, the year of Stella’s death, he remarried for a third time, to a Mrs. Georgette Hirsch. In 1951, while suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, he took his own life.

Never a dull moment, with this lot, but what sad & eventful stories.