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Reflections on negotiating a contract 2: Myriad details

This is reposted from the TAAOnline Blog

In this, the second of my posts on the contract and negotiation process, I consider the wide variety of issues that came up as I read my contract. Not being a lawyer, contracts always seem long and intimidating to me.

As I said in my previous post, my contract was some 13 pages long, and like most legal documents, very detailed. It was not something I would like to handle from a place of ignorance, but it was also not something that I thought required hiring a lawyer to help me. Some research was needed. Because I can get overwhelmed with too much information, I didn’t scour the Internet for all possible information about the variety of industry-standard book contracts for a textbook. I did watch one TAA on demand presentation about contracts: “Anatomy of a Textbook Contract,”which was very helpful in covering many of the general issues that my contract covered.  I also had my previous contract with Routledge from 2009 as a point of comparison, which was quite similar to my new contract in most of the details.

In this post, I’m going to touch on a sort of grab-bag of different clauses to give a sense of the detail involved in a contract. Perhaps all of us should have seen enough contracts, generally speaking—terms of service on websites, for example—to know that contracts are never simple. Logically, speaking, I was aware that contracts are detailed, and that Routledge’s contracts were surely overseen by lawyers, and therefore, complicated, like all contracts—for that matter, I had already signed a contract with Routledge. But still, the detail was a bit overwhelming.

Many clauses state basic details that obviously need to be stated, but such obvious things can get taken for granted. The contract naturally states who is going to sign it, along with relevant addresses for communication. The contract also includes information about the book that is under consideration—its title, content, length, scope and such. There is a clause that states when I have to deliver the book to them, and the format in which I must deliver it. There are clauses stating Routledge’s responsibilities in the process, too. The list of my responsibilities was long.

Some of the basic clauses were the outdated remnants of the era of print manuscripts that were hard to duplicate and easy to lose or damage. For example, the clause concerning my submitting the manuscript stated “the author shall retain a duplicate of the work,” and a later clause about publisher’s responsibility stated, “the Publisher is not responsible for loss or damage to the work while it is in their possession.” These are certainly wise contractual precautions in an era of typescripts—physical copies that can be destroyed—but it’s not significant in an era where the submission is in electronic form and duplication is easy. I commented on these to the editor, but neither she nor I were significantly motivated to change the boilerplate language—they certainly don’t seem to be likely to be at issue.

The clause concerning the copyright had six subsections. The first stated that I retain the copyright, then some stated Routledge’s rights and responsibilities with respect to use of the work. A couple were regarding a point of UK/EU law—about the “moral right” to assert ownership of the work, which I don’t really understand, beyond recognizing that such clauses are negotiating the difficult logical/legal terrain of intellectual property. One final copyright clause limited my ability to re-use the work.

After the copyright, there were clauses that stated my claim to be author of the work, and indemnified Routledge from damages due to problems in the text. For example, the contract assigns me responsibility that the book is not libelous or obscene or unlawful, and that it does not negligently suggest actions that will lead to harm.

There were several clauses related to royalty accounting, and to my rights to inspect their accounts. I didn’t investigate these closely—I read them, but realistically, I can’t imagine using those clauses. I’m just going to take it for granted that Routledge is going to be honest until I’m faced with strong evidence suggesting otherwise. And, in that unpleasant eventuality, I will hope that the contract will provide sufficient protection for my interests.

One interesting clause was written in strikethrough text, so that it was a part of the contract text that I could read, but would not have been an active part of the contract. That clause gave Routledge right of first refusal on my next book, obligating me to offer it to Routledge before any other publisher. The right of first refusal clause was one I specifically remembered from my previous Routledge contract. In that contract, it had been included and I had specifically asked for it to be removed because it seemed like a big restriction with respect to the book I was writing at the time (my self-published book). This time, as I said, it was written in strikethrough text, and when I asked about it, my editor told me that most authors wanted that clause removed. This time around, I’m perfectly happy to give Routledge my next proposal first. I’m not enthusiastically looking forward to a new round of book proposals for my next book, and unless problems crop up in the process of publishing this book, I would just as soon continue to work with Routledge and the editor who took a chance on me. Indeed, as a result of this line of thinking, I offered to have this contract included as an incentive for Routledge to improve other clauses in my favor—which I will discuss in later posts.

This post is already about as long as I will go, and I’ve not even talked through all the variety of clauses. The many considerations of the contract were a bit overwhelming, especially trying to figure out the ones that weren’t clear. In this post, I’ve talked about some of the easier clauses to deal with. The next two posts consider issues that were more difficult because of the emotional reaction to the stakes—these include the royalty clauses (the subject of my final post) as well as a number of other clauses dealing with uncertain possibilities, such as, for example, future editions of my book, which I discuss in the next post,  “Reflections on Negotiating a Contract 3: Emotionally Loaded Details”.


Being a Beginner

It’s difficult being a beginner and trying to identify and negotiate the unfamiliar issues of unfamiliar work. It’s frustrating being unable to act effectively. Especially if there are other areas where you are used to acting effectively. As a result of years of practice as writer and editor, I have developed some facility with words and with writing. Although writing is often difficult in the sense that it demands effort and concentration, I can generally work quickly and effectively.  And that efficacy makes writing feel extremely easy compared to unfamiliar tasks, even though writing is still difficult.

When I write, because of my experience, I can sense the potential of a plan to create a coherent piece of work. I can make decisions about scope and focus, and I am not troubled about the possibility of making those decisions wrong.  I am confident that I can always write another draft (indeed, I will probably write another draft of something tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, and so on…), and this confidence in the process is a powerful emotional shield against the frustrations of the process. If I decide to throw a draft away, it’s not a problem, it’s just part of the process.

Recently, I have been working on making videos (and diagrams/images to supplement visual presentation of ideas) to expand the range of media in which I work.  I have experimented with basic videos in the past, posting several quickly made dissertation-related videos during the early months of 2018. The quality was unsatisfactory and I dropped the project to focus on finding a publisher for my book. Having found a publisher, I see my publisher suggesting I make some videos to help promote my book.  “Make a simple video,” the material suggests, “It doesn’t have to be fancy.” That framing of it—a simple video, doesn’t have to be fancy—is kind of inspiring or at least reassuring. But then I start work.

This is a field in which I am mostly a beginner.  My experience as a writer helps me with writing a script. Beyond that, I’m largely lost and kind of overwhelmed. The tools of the process are unfamiliar to me. Visual imagery? Soundtracks? I’m a rank amateur. But here I am, making a stab at it because it sounds like a good idea.  And because I’m a rank amateur, every step is frustrating. Mistakes abound. Doubts multiply. Every step is uncertain, uncomfortable.  Even trying to write scripts/outlines/storyboards…I mean I don’t even know how to apply words here. My instincts about how much to say in written form fail me when I contemplate the temporal structure of video presentation: I know how word counts relate to desired reading time, but I don’t know how word counts relate to speaking/listening time.  I’ll learn this, and other things with practice, as long as I practice. 

And images. I don’t work in visual media; I don’t really rely on images or diagrams when I think about the processes of writing and research. So I’m trying to imagine images that might help me convey ideas, which is hard, and then, when I get an idea, I’m trying to use unfamiliar tools to capture what I imagined (I’m mostly working on the computer, which is difficult, but produces better results than I do drawing by hand). And what I do create doesn’t look all that good to me.

Being a novice is difficult emotionally. Doubts about how to precede receive no emotional support from past successes in the same area of experience. Because of the doubt, the work is more tiring and more frustrating. I procrastinate—indeed, I’m writing a blog post instead of working on a video right now, even though my video still needs to be made. I try to focus on making a video, and my attention goes to other projects that are related. In response, I try to keep refocusing on the practice—the repeated attempt to make something connected with a video. Not on the weaknesses of the specific piece that I’m working on, but just on the process. On taking one step after another. On exploring. On making mistakes so that I can learn from them. On making drafts that I throw away, so that I can experiment with things to see what seems to work (very little, so far!) and what doesn’t.

Being a beginner is frustrating. But when the goal seems worthy, if you can step into a practice where you experiment, make mistakes and keep practicing, you will improve your ability and then, whatever abilities you have will be amplified by your practice-based skills.

Work on one thing at a time until finished

As number one on his list of 1932-1933 “Commandments”, Henry Miller wrote “Work on one thing at a time until finished.”

It’s an extremely valuable dictum, despite the difficulties I have putting it into practice.  There are two elements to it that I really, really like, and one element that is really hard or imprctical.

The first element that I like is the idea of working on one thing at a time.  At a very immediate, moment-to-moment scale, working on one thing at a time is the only way to go.  Over very short time frames—a few minutes, perhaps—the only real options for working are: 1. to work on/write about one thing with focus, or 2. try to decide what to work on/write about.  There is good value in spending time trying to decide what to do, but at some point it’s necessary to stop thinking about what to write, and to start writing.  When you do start writing, you want to focus on writing one sentence at a time—there is a larger goal, but it’s built up of the small steps.

The second element that I like is the “until finished” part, which is also the part I don’t like.  What I like about the “until finished” idea is the focus on finishing.  There is a place in this world for journal writers and free writers to write for the sake of writing or for the self-discovery involved, but if you want to get a degree or get published, you have to finish things in a timely fashion. When your focus is on the question of finishing a project, you’re less likely to get stuck with a project that is too large to complete, and less likely get stuck endlessly revising. Focusing on completion doesn’t guarantee finishing, but it does shift the approach somewhat from “what is the best work possible?” to “what is the best work I can accomplish in a reasonable time?”  Perfectionism is less likely to lead to paralysis if one of the criteria for perfection is “completed !” or even “completed on schedule!”  

The “until finished” aspect, however, has two problems: 1. it can be hard to know what “finished” is, and 2. it’s often impractical to focus exclusively on one project over longer periods of time. The first of these points is related to the question of not knowing enough. People looking for answers may feel that a work is unfinished if it leaves a lot of questions unanswered or raises more questions than it did answer, but answers always lead to new questions, so it’s possible to think a work is unfinished, even if outside reviewers might judge it as an interesting and valuable project. Secondly, the idea of working on one thing at a time is perhaps impossible (or impossible to define) in the context of a research career. What counts as “one thing” in a research career? Is a research career just a series of independent projects, each “one thing” taken one at a time, or is it a larger program that leads to a series of specific projects?  I think the second is more realistic for most scholars and grad students: They are driven by a larger question, but one specific research project only speaks to some of their questions of interest. (Whether seeking a professional or academic career, the researcher needs to consider the specific research project in the larger context of the career.) Miller, whose “commandment” inspired this post, wrote fiction, and perhaps it is easier to segment a career in fiction.

The “until finished” idea can be impractical, too, because finishing a work often includes delays when you can’t work on the project. For someone seeking an academic career, it’s valuable to be able to start working on a new project before an old one is complete because of the many delays that go into executing many projects. Publication, for example, is loaded with delays during which a work is not necessarily “finished” but you can’t work on it. During those times, it’s good to have some different project to work on, but then what do you do when it’s time to go back to the work in publication? Having multiple projects at different stages of development can help a scholar use time more efficiently.

But when you have multiple projects and demands on your time, it’s much easier to get overwhelmed. It’s much easier to spend time wondering what to work on next, instead of just working on one thing. And it’s easy to lose time switching between projects instead of focusing.  That’s why, in terms of developing a regular practice, it’s good to work on one thing at a time until finished. Miller called that a commandment. For me, it’s more a goal or a principle for which I strive, but with deference to practical concerns. For me, it’s a particularly useful goal that helps me focus on my writing when it is time to write, and helps me prioritize and act, rather than get stuck debating what to work on and overwhelmed by the many things that I could or should do.

Reflections on negotiating a contract 1: Leverage and the power to negotiate

Reposted from the TAAOnline Blog

When I wrote my last series of posts, I was waiting to hear whether a publisher would offer me a contract for my book for graduate students. The publisher—Routledge—did make an offer, marking the pleasant culmination of the 10+ month proposal process, and I could begin to look forward to publication, most likely in 2020 of my book titled Literature Review and Research Design: A Guide to Effective Research Practice. Getting the offer was a great milestone, but it didn’t put an end to the larger process of getting published. The next phase began with the question of whether to accept the offered contract and whether and how to negotiate for changes. As with my previous series of posts, I offer the reflections of a relative novice, not the advice of an expert.

With the offer came the question of contractual terms and negotiating a contract. The initial offer came with basic terms—royalty rates and some other points. A few days later, it was followed by the formal contract which brought a large number of additional issues into play. The excitement of getting the contract offer was significant, but not so exciting that I would just accept any contract, either. Getting an offer increases my confidence in my book. Although I don’t want to look for a new publisher to make an offer, nor do I want to self-publish again, they’re real options rather than taking what I perceive to be a bad contract. Unfortunately, I’m not entirely sure what makes a good or bad contract.

Once before, I was involved in negotiating a publication contract, also with Routledge, when they published the scholarly book of which I was second author. With one contract already under my belt, I had  slightly more experience than none at all. I knew what a Routledge contract looked like ten years ago, and not much more. For that previous contract, I had simply followed the lead of my first author, and he wasn’t particularly concerned with details, so we basically accepted the contract they offered. But this time, I had no first author to follow; this time, I was in charge, with the corresponding privileges and responsibilities, and the anxieties, too. Being a careful and cautious person, dealing with the myriad specific issues covered in a contract was/is quite intimidating.

The contract I received was about 13 pages long, with about 25 main clauses, many of which had several subclauses. I read through it all carefully. Some of it was obvious, some less so. Some of it seemed totally reasonable, some less so. Not surprisingly, I suppose, it was not all exactly as I would have best liked it. But to what extent could I negotiate changes? Did I have any power to negotiate, or was I simply at the mercy of the publisher’s offer? I decided I had enough power to at least negotiate a little but not very aggressively.

Although I was not desperate to sign, I really didn’t want to get back into the process of sending out proposals. This was a strong incentive to accept their terms. The fact that I would prefer to work with Routledge (a preference that might be naive) was also incentive. Furthermore, I did not perceive myself has having a great deal of leverage: I am not already famous; I do not have any prestige stemming from institutional affiliation. These considerations weighed in favor of just accepting their terms without negotiation for fear of losing the contract.

Balanced against that was my confidence in the quality of my work, and in my ability to either find another publisher or self-publish. Essentially, as I saw it, I had only the leverage of the book itself, plus, perhaps, a little added because the editor had invested her effort in it. It is a strong book, I believe, and good enough that the editor had invested her time and budget to look at it, get reviews, and promote it for a contract—for that matter, she used the time of the publishers, too, when she presented it as a possible project. So, whatever general weakness in position I suffered as an unknown, I did have the book going for me. I focused on this bit of negotiating leverage for emotional support because it was better than having nothing.

For a large number of clauses, I had questions or concerns, including those that covered royalties, copyright infringement, right to future editions, permissions, and the book title. Many of these seemed to me like they favored the publisher more than I felt appropriate, but it seems to me that most contracts I sign or agree to are filled with unavoidable unpleasantness, and can’t be changed. (For example, the Terms of Service contracts that I accept on myriad websites don’t leave any room for negotiation, must be accepted to use the service, and contain all sorts of unpleasant clauses). For this contract, I felt like I did have the opportunity to negotiate because it was a contract written specifically for me. And so, I asked my editor lots of questions as a way of approaching possible negotiation.

If there is an overall theme to this series of posts, it would be that it doesn’t hurt to ask. I asked a lot of questions and in response, Routledge made a few changes in my favor.

Because of my appreciation of the value of the contract and the desire to avoid alienating Routledge, I asked with courtesy and without contention. Realistically, I was mostly ready to accept what they had offered, and didn’t expect that they would make changes in my favor. But, to protect my own interests, I asked. And it was a contract that I could actually negotiate. In this case, I did have the chance to negotiate; I decided I ought to use it.

On the general point of having negotiating leverage, it is worth keeping in mind that even if you have no leverage beyond that of your book, you do have that. You didn’t get a contract offer unless the publisher had some hopes it could sell; they may be willing to make some concessions to keep the rights.

In my second post in this series, “Reflections on Negotiating a Contract 2: Myriad Details”, I will consider the wide variety of issues that came up as I read my contract.

American Sutra

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which gave the military legal authority to designate areas, “from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.” It’s a sweeping power—“any or all persons…in his discretion”—allowing the military to select who was free and who was not, with none of the due process guaranteed by the US Constitution.

The power was used to target Japanese Americans, to force them from their homes and into concentration camps—camps surrounded by barbed wire, guarded by the military, in desolate locations, where they were forced into hastily built barracks. Most of the 110,000 thus incarcerated were American citizens. Many of those who were not, were long-time US residents who had been legally denied the right to apply for citizenship due to their race/national heritage. It is a great stain on the American promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

For the Japanese American community, today, February 19, is the Day of Remembrance, the annual recognition of the anniversary of Executive Order 9066.

For the rest of the American community, it is a bit of history that would be well to learn, lest we repeat it, or perhaps because we are currently repeating it.  In 1942, the Axis military forces presented a real emergency, but targeting innocent people was no worthy use of resources in that war.  Today, the president has declared that there is a national emergency (when there is none), and is using that emergency to put people in concentration camps (the recent spending deal, to which Democrats agreed, included money for 50,000+ ICE detention beds), as well as to build a wall whose only real use is symbolic.

Over the last several years, the history of the Japanese American community has been brought to life for me by the work of Duncan Ryūken Williams, whose book American Sutra, is officially released today.  The book is based on historical research started almost 20 years ago, when Professor Williams, a student of Buddhism and Buddhist history, and a Buddhist priest, discovered an original manuscript journal written by a Buddhist priest during his incarceration at Manzanar, including extensive notes for sermons.  Those notes led to his hearing the oral history of a girl, then age 10, who returned to her home from school one afternoon in December, 1941, to find her father being beaten by the FBI, while her mother sat watching with a gun held to her head by another FBI agent. And these stories led to others. Professor Williams interviewed those who had lived through the camps; he gathered journals written by camp residents; he examined the extensive literature already published on the Japanese American incarceration; and he studied governmental and military records. Professor Williams, given his background, was naturally concerned with the religious aspect, and it happens that in all the extensive literature on the Japanese American incarceration, little was interested in Buddhism and the role Buddhism played in this history.  Williams’s history tells the story of how the US government and US public  discriminated against Buddhists on the basis of religion, the story of how Buddhist organizations and traditions were shaped in these events, and the story of the many who found strength in their Buddhist faith.  The book gives a sense of the broad scope of events, and, through the many first-hand accounts that it includes, a feel for the experiences of those who were there.

In 2011, I began working as an editor for Professor Williams, starting with reviewing a chapter on the experiences of early Japanese immigrants to the Americas, then intended as a short preliminary chapter to the book on Buddhism in the Japanese incarceration.  That chapter has since been entirely eliminated, with its material now planned for a separate book.  Over the years, I have seen all sorts of excellent material that made up Williams’s research but that had to be excluded simply because there was too much good material if the book was going to get published. The book that Harvard published is an excellent book—the best work I’ve ever helped create—but I’m not sure that it couldn’t have been better to have been about 50% longer. As an editor and writer, my general tendency is to think that the best way to improve writing is to make it shorter.  American Sutra is a happy exception to that rule; the material on which it was built was so strong that it could have been better for being longer.

Multiple Drafts and Writer’s Block

Writer’s block typically arises from a complex of issues. In this post, I discuss one factor that can contribute to writer’s block and how writing multiple drafts and thinking about the different roles of those drafts can help deal with that one difficulty. The idea of writing multiple drafts of a single work is hardly a novel one, but I have not seen this particular take on multiple drafts in relations to writer’s block (and now that I typed that, I’m definitely not going to go look to see if any one else written something similar! I wouldn’t actually be surprised).

One problem that can contribute to writer’s block is the conflict between writing to learn and writing to communicate/writing for presentation.  When writing early drafts of a work, writers are often seeking their argument and their focus, and in such cases, the concern for learning about the work can conflict with concerns for presentation. This can occur in a number of different ways: concern for grammar, spelling and punctuation distract attention from finding an argument. Worries about how readers will respond the work—fear of rejection or memories of previous difficult feedback—can create emotional stress that distracts attention.  One such conflict that can cause problems, which I’ve seen several times with academic writers, is the conflict created using a theorist that you don’t want to cite.  In one case in my experience, a writer who was interested in some ideas from Freud had a professor who hated Freud. Because his professor would respond poorly to works citing Freud, he quite reasonably wanted to avoid citing Freud. At the same time, however, he relied on Freud as an intellectual landmark.  He associated many of the ideas he used with Freud, and so when seeking to understand his own arguments, he turned to Freud. And this created a block: in trying to work through ideas, he would think of Freud, but then he would get stuck because he didn’t want to write about Freud, so his process of intellectual exploration was interrupted by his concern about how his work would be received.

Thinking about the different (and potentially competing) roles of drafts, can, perhaps, help reduce this specific conflict of interests.  If the specific role of your present draft is to learn and explore (and will be mostly private), then maybe you can set aside concerns for presentation and just explore.  Ask yourself: do you have a good sense of your argument—do you need to write to learn?—or do you already have a good focus and now need to think about communicating with your audience—do you need to write for presentation?  

Generally, in early drafts, the purpose is to learn—to learn what you really care about and what is most important for the project. Later, once you’ve committed to a sufficiently tight focus, then you start thinking about how to present ideas and communicate with your audience.  This is something of a simplification: you may never stop learning and changing what you think most important (thus stories of people frantically rewriting at the last minute), even as you try to complete a mature project; and you can gain some benefit from thinking about how to communicate (or at least with whom to communicate) even early in the process of research design.  

As a matter of process, this scenario with the writer trying to write around Freud displays how the two concerns—of learning and of presentation—are in conflict for a writer who is not certain of the precise content, focus and argument of the work.  By specifying the role of a draft as exploratory (and private), then he can go ahead and write about Freud as a point of reference that helps him learn about the shape and scope of his own argument.  Because that first draft is only for learning, there is no need to avoid Freud, who can thus play an important role as an intellectual landmark in the exploration of ideas that is occurring during the writing of the early draft. Putting aside the concern for presentation allows greater freedom in the exploration of ideas, which is crucial in the process of finding one’s own voice and in developing original research.

Once the argument comes into better focus, the writer can switch her/his efforts from learning and intellectual exploration to the question of presentation.  If a draft has already been completed, and the scope of the argument has already been set while using Freud as a point of reference, then the writer then has a much better position from which to work on the question of how best to present his/her own argument.

Basically, if you are not yet sure what you want to say, you benefit from exploring that first.  If you are not sure of what you want to say, it is crucial to explore those ideas with freedom before getting bogged down in presentational details.  If you think of some scholar—Dr.X—when trying to explain your work, explore that connection, explore that relationship. Why is Dr.X important to you? What aspects of Dr.X’s theory are like or unlike yours? What is it about Dr.X’s work that makes it a useful point of reference?  Write these things out to learn about the intellectual terrain on which your work is situated.  Use the landmark of Dr.X help you see the whole landscape of ideas, and thus help you understand your own position better, and also identify other scholars whose work provides useful intellectual landmarks for use in later drafts that get written once your argument has clarified. [This post is about writer’s block and using separate drafts with distinct roles, so I’m not going to get into the question of whether a scholar who “hides” a source by using alternative sources for citations is committing some ethical breach.]

The process of writing about a Dr.X in an early draft can help clarify a sense of purpose and a sense of argument.  Once you have a better sense of direction and focus, then you can turn your attention to crafting an effective presentation that doesn’t rely on Dr.X, ideally by citing alternative scholars who have expressed similar ideas with less problematic context, for example, as might be done by replacing Freud citations with citations from more modern psychodynamic theorists.

I recently wrote about trusting the process in writing. This is, I think, one issue where it’s necessary (1) to recognize that there is an ongoing process, and (2) to give that process space and time to work.  If you don’t see your process as including both drafts for learning and drafts to refine presentation, then you’re forcing yourself into a situation in which your concerns for presentation will work against the necessary process of exploration, and that can contribute to a larger writing block.

If you’re stuck and having trouble finding your voice, put aside your concerns for presentation. First, write to learn, then, later, write for presentation.

Listening to Yourself

Recently, I saw a motivational quotation on the order of “Do what you love and it isn’t work.” It struck me as unrealistic and unhelpful. It fails to capture the difficult and intimate interplay between love and work—whatever kind of love we may be talking about.  Love calls on us to do things that are difficult, even unpleasant or painful. Often we surmount difficulties and minor discomforts for our proudest achievements and best experiences. But it’s possible to face too much difficulty, and too much pain, and then love can be destructive.  To have a healthy relationship with the things we love—whether people or activities or otherwise—it helps to be able to listen to ourselves and make good judgements about how much difficulty is the right amount of difficulty.

Passion often lies where there is great difficulty. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that the best moments in people’s lives occur in activities that present significant challenges—the “Flow” state that Csikszentmihalyi has researched occurs in difficult activities, not easy ones. The activities that he describes as flow activities are ones where there is a danger of failure and a possibility for growth.

Shortly after seeing that motivational quotation, I was out for a run. (I’m not sure I go fast enough to call what I do “running” anymore, but I’ll call it running.) While running, I was thinking about the practice of listening to myself and the value of self-knowledge, and thinking about that in the context of writing and developing a writing practice, as well as the context of going running.

Going running is difficult and it is also something that I love.  When running well, I feel better than I do at any other time.  But I’m liable to aches and pains.  Tendonitis is a frequent issue, as is tightness or cramping.  Understanding these pains and being able to self-diagnose—listening to myself—helps me decide when to run harder and when to stop and engage in some treatment (like stretching).  You don’t want to keep running if running is going to cause more damage or prevent damage from healing; you do want to keep running if the exercise will help resolve the problem. Being able to listen to yourself helps you make a good judgement.

This ability to listen to oneself is valuable in all cases where love leads us to a difficulty: do we continue to follow our passion, or do we pull back because our passion is causing damage? 

To develop a successful writing practice, it’s important to listen to oneself, and to understand which difficulties are a sign to stop and tend to yourself, and which are just difficulty and discomfort to work through.  

This is true at both the physical and emotional levels. Physically, to write, and to work on writing has real dangers—I have known more than one researcher whose work was brought to a near standstill by repetitive stress injuries.  RSIs are better understood now than when I was in graduate school, so fewer people are crippled by them—partly because we better understand the danger and the danger signs (as well as appropriate responses).

Danger of overwork also exists on the emotional level, I believe. It is possible to turn a work practice into something so unpleasant that it becomes hard to work.  The idea that obstacles to writing stem from psychological issues is hardly a new or inventive one. Two sources where I have seen this idea are Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit and Keith Hjortshoj’s book on writing blocks, both of which discuss different psychological issues that inhibit writing.

Whether the pain is physical or emotional, being able to listen to yourself and correctly diagnose the severity of various discomforts can help you develop a more effective writing practice.  And that understanding can help your realize a project that is important to you and also difficult—a project of the sort that is often called a “labor of love.”

A labor of love requires a positive and beneficial practice that provides sufficient rewards to justify the difficulties involved, and part of that requires the ability to listen to yourself in order to understand what the costs are relative to the benefits.

The “do what you love and it isn’t work” trope fails to explain or understand the idea of a labor of love, and so cannot support such a work. If you think that doing what you love means that you don’t have to work, then you will almost certainly interpret all difficulties as a sign of something wrong—perhaps, even that you don’t love what you’re dong enough.  A more realistic view of what constitutes a good relationship recognizes that significant difficulties are part of the best things in life.

For me, the difficulty and frustration of not knowing what to write, of feeling that my ideas are weak or of limited interest, of not knowing how to make a coherent argument, of feeling that my hoped-for and intended argument has totally fallen apart, all of these are real pains. There is real difficulty and distress related to these things.  But is it suffering that will cause long-term damage? Knowing yourself and listening to yourself helps prevent engagement from becoming unhealthy.  

Doing what you love takes work. It involves real frustrations and difficulties. That work and those frustrations and difficulties are not necessarily signs that you’re doing something wrong or that you don’t love enough.  That’s where listening to yourself is about: by listening to yourself, you get information about your processes and you can use that information to develop better, healthier practices.

In this post, I have focused on listening to yourself with respect to managing a writing practice, but as a final note, I want to point out that for a writer being able to listen to yourself—hearing your own voice, and trusting your own judgments—is crucial not only in managing the practice of writing, but in finding material to write.  To write original work, there is no other source than your own voice—but that’s a subject for a different post.

Trusting the Process in Writing

For some writers, there comes a point where it can seem like there’s nothing to write about, or at least nothing worth writing about.  At that point, one option is to simply stop writing.  But, of course, that might not be a good option.  Another option is to skip the big picture and reduce the process to a matter of small steps and to trust that a process of engagement will help you open some paths of development.

Trusting a process is difficult, especially when a deadline looms.  It can be hard to accept that you might benefit from engaging in some apparently trivial task, especially if you feel a lack of basic ideas worth writing about.  But again, if the issue is a choice between being blocked—stuck feeling that there is nothing that you can write or that you want to write about—and trusting the process, then trust the process!

You won’t find something worth writing about by avoiding your project.  And you won’t find much satisfaction in just stopping.  Just stopping leads to the certainty that your project will not be accepted.  Trying to get published? You need a manuscript. Trying to get a degree? You need a manuscript.

Trusting a process can be annoying.  You might ask, “If I can’t find a big issue to write about, what’s the point in engaging with some small tangential task?”  Or you might say “that suggestion is so trivial, it won’t help.”  Such complaints have some validity. There is no question that there is better efficiency found in working on something when you have a clear vision of what you’re going to do.  But, again, the context needs emphasis: saying that it would be better to have a clear vision of your goal doesn’t help if you have no obvious route to gain such a vision. If you are feeling stuck, and feeling lost, trusting the process may be the only alternative that leads to productive activity.

There are usually a large number of minor tasks that a writer can pick up to start engaging with the process.  There is always value in trying to make a one-sentence statement of purpose for a project.  A writer who has lost a sense of direction can particularly benefit from taking the step of writing a one-sentence statement of purpose, and even better if that task is engaged repeatedly: write that one-sentence statement. And then write another one-sentence statement. And another.

A similar task is to write an outline for the work you want to write—this is, in a way, an inversion of the previous task: writing a one-sentence statement of purpose focuses on the over-arching structure.  Writing an outline focuses on the pieces that make up the structure.  It’s certainly possible to write an outline without having a clear sense of what your final argument will be—perhaps you have a few examples that you want to discuss, or a few issues—even if you don’t know exactly how they are related, you can put them into some outline.

If tasks like doing a statement of purpose or an outline seem intimidating, there are also tasks that are more granular.  Pick one sentence from an old draft and focus on that one sentence. What is good about it? What is bad about it? What could you do differently? Pick one idea from an old draft and write about what you hoped for with that idea and what problems you have faced. 

Or pick some publication in your field to which you can contrast your own work. Why is it like yours? To what extent are you interested in the same issues? And where do your interests differ? If you don’t know what you want to write about, you might find some subject of interest by looking at what others have written and thinking about how you want your work to compare.

Or, if you have empirical data that you have gathered, go back to that data and ask yourself again what the data shows. If you have empirical data, you should be focused on writing what is there in the data.

I’m a big fan of having a clear vision of where you want to go—an overarching sense of purpose and sense of direction are powerful guides for a writer.  But it’s possible to lose sight of those goals in the midst of a project. If you are wandering around the conceptual landscape wondering where to situate your writing, don’t scorn taking small steps. Small steps may seem meaningless or worthless—there’s little clear direction in writing about an idea you’ve rejected, or about an author whose work you don’t think you can use—but the process of engaging them earnestly can at least give you more information to figure out where you stand in the conceptual landscape, and where you might want to go.

Taking small steps that seem pointless may involve taking steps that are almost no help whatsoever. Maybe some of the small steps you take lead directly to dead-ends.  Those steps don’t directly contribute to the draft you’re trying to create.  But such steps do contribute to the process—they may not help a draft directly, but a series of such small steps helps delineate the project: every step you take that leads to a dead-end also helps set limits of the project, and seeing limits on the project can be useful in understanding what is and is not part of the project.  And the more such small steps you take, the more likely it is that you will hit upon some idea that is valuable and interesting.

Engaging in a process of taking small steps can be frustrating, but if you’re paralyzed or confused, it’s a very useful process for getting out of paralysis and at least limiting confusion.  Stuff is complex, so I’m not going to claim that you will ever be able to eliminate confusion. But the more that you engage, the greater the chance that you will find something that you do feel confident about.

Of course, you need to engage with some energy. It’s not enough to look at an article or passage from an old draft and just say to yourself that you don’t want to use it—you won’t learn much that way. You have to try to explicate in writing why you don’t want to use it.

If you’re feeling lost or paralyzed and you have stopped working, don’t put pressure on yourself to find the big answer. Big answers are really, really hard to find.  Instead, try to take tiny steps: work over old material and ask whether you like it and how to adapt it. Pick something to read and to write about. Make a quick, simple outline. Write one sentence about something.  Trust the process of working on your project because a process can help guide your actions in moments when you are having trouble seeing a larger sense of purpose.

Use what you have, even if you have doubts

The process of writing often raises doubts. For example, I often write a sentence and then ask myself “how do I explain/support/defend this statement?” or, more negatively, “isn’t that obvious or unimportant or both?”  Such questions are often coupled with the disconcerting sense that what I have written is not good enough, and can’t possibly be good enough without adding material.

The sense that what I have written isn’t good enough—perhaps that I can’t defend it or that no one will care about my bland blather—can bring the writing process to a halt.  If my critical view of my own work leads me to think that that what I have is uninteresting, it slows or stops my writing, because, after all, who wants to write something that will be dull?

Sometimes it’s no problem to write something boring: I write as a practice and don’t expect things to always come out well.  Part of the practice is to keep writing when material isn’t working so that the material can be improved. Writing a draft that gets deleted isn’t a big deal. But sometimes, it’s not enough to just practice. Sometimes it’s important to have something to share with others. Today, for example, I want to produce a blog post, and there’s no blog post without something written.  I could blow off posting—it’s not as if I’ve never missed posting before.  In other situations, it’s not useful to simply blow off creating a work.  In some cases, there are serious repercussions from a failure to submit work. Currently, for example, I am contractually obligated to submit a full manuscript to my publisher by July 15; failure to submit violates the contract and would, at the very least, damage my chances of getting my book published. Or, for example, a student seeking a degree might have a deadline to submit a thesis, with, at least, the danger of having to enroll for an additional term, if not the greater danger of losing a place in the program.

In such cases, letting a project fall by the wayside, isn’t really an effective solution. Sometimes, it’s necessary to produce something, even if the something seems weak.

It is very frustrating to work on a piece of writing that seems like it will be uninteresting and unimportant. The attempt to produce good work from an idea that currently seems uninteresting and unimportant is one of the most difficult tasks a writer can face, because working on a project that you don’t believe is important is a good way to feel bad about yourself.

But if a significant deadline looms, it’s valuable to keep writing through the frustration and fears.  For myself, and most other writers, I think, the thought of getting a bad response is at the forefront of their attention. Certainly a writer worrying that work isn’t interesting enough or important enough is focused on how people will respond, because ideas like “interesting” and “important” are only really meaningful with respect to people (or other thinking creatures): for something to be interesting, there must be someone interested.  I don’t want to discount the danger of writing something that your readers deem uninteresting or unimportant, because that’s a difficult outcome to work past.  But that focus actually obscures a potentially greater danger: that of not submitting anything at all.

I have seen this dynamic and lived it myself: being self-critical, I see weaknesses in my work, and fearing the response of others, I then put that work away, letting it die, rather than taking a chance with it.  Many students I’ve worked with worry so much about the negative feedback they have received from their professors that they stop writing at all, fearing more negative feedback.  But holding back work may allow you to avoid negative critiques of your work, it also guarantees that you will not receive any positive credit.  For me, with my contractual obligation, and for students with their academic requirements, the failure to produce any work at all is far the worse outcome. Getting your work roundly criticized is difficult. Failing to meet a deadline, however, can lead to even more difficulty, including dismissal from a graduate program.

This is, I think, a variety of the well-known trope that bad publicity is better than no publicity at all. There may be times when it’s better to avoid notice entirely, but if you want to meet your obligations as a student or writer, it’s better to risk the negative feedback from a weak work than face the certain consequences of submitting nothing.

The greater the significance of the deadline, the greater the value in focusing on what you do have and on working to improve that. It may not be the most interesting thing ever (in the eyes of your viewer), but using what you do have to meet a deadline is a valuable practice.

Beyond the simple benefit of fulfilling an obligation, working through that frustration can be very valuable, because if you can get through the emotional difficulty related to fearing feedback and thinking your work is weak, you can often come out the other side with a greater conviction in the value of your work.  One thing about ideas that seem uninteresting as you write about them is that they weren’t always uninteresting to you.  I never arrive at a point where I’m writing something I think uninteresting without there having been some earlier moment when I thought it would be interesting.  There was something that I thought interesting that got me started, even if I have lost sight of that original interest.  Recovering that interest is often possible, and can help me get back on track. Of course, sometimes, I can’t recover that original interest, but I still need to produce something. In such cases, it is important to do the best I can with what I do have on the basic principle that writing something is better than writing nothing.

Reflections on seeking a publisher 5: On giving sole consideration

Here’s the final post from my series on seeking a publisher, reposted from the TAAOnline Blog.

Some publishers ask for sole consideration of your proposal. In my process, I have mostly given sole consideration to the publishers to whom I have been proposing. This has been largely a product of my approach: as discussed in previous posts, I feel that it’s best to write a distinct proposal for each publisher, to better match their list. Because that’s a pretty big effort, I don’t send out a lot of proposals at once. In August, I sent out one proposal that never earned any response, so I suppose that I wasn’t quite offering sole consideration on the two proposals I sent after that. Because it takes time to move from one proposal version to the next, and because the responses I did receive were generally quick (on 3 out of 5, I received a response within a day or two), I was basically offering sole consideration: as soon as I got a positive response, I focused my energies on responding to that one publisher, and not one making a proposal for another.

But I do feel like giving sole consideration puts me in a much weaker position with respect to any future negotiations. This spring, an author I’ve worked with was negotiating his book with his publisher, and he had proposed to several publishers, and had offers from (at least) two. Thus, when his chosen publisher tried to get him to change his title and other aspects of the book, he had some firm ground from which to push back. There were plenty of changes that he was obliged to make that he didn’t love making (and that, in my opinion, did not improve the book—but, of course, having worked on it, I am biased), but he had some position of strength with respect to negotiations. If I were to be offered a contract, I would have little strength from which to negotiate: basically, the publisher could tell me to take it or leave it, and my options would be to either do what they wanted or to go back to the proposal stage. Now, I could go back to the proposal stage, and getting offered a contract would certainly strengthen my confidence that my book is good enough to get a contract, but that would certainly add even more delay to this process that has already gone on for a long time.

Abstractly, I would recommend proposing to several publishers at once. But I’m not sure that I would follow that recommendation myself, just based on my own personal energy available to manage the anxiety of the proposal process. Your mileage will vary, of course: If you find self-promotion easy, then multiple submissions is definitely the way to go because you can have the added benefit of better leverage in negotiations.

Pragmatically, however, when I next need to propose a book, I think I will return to the tactic of sending brief query letters, as I did with some success—in this process, both of my query letters received a rapid response, while only one of three full proposals received a response. The query letter skirts the issue of sole consideration by being less than a full proposal—if a full proposal is requested, then I can address the issue of sole consideration. Such a letter might put you in the position of needing to write a full proposal quickly to keep up the interest of the editor who sent you a response, but if you’re under pressure because someone showed interest in your query, that’s a pretty good problem to have.