Promised Words

Promised Words

By Ingrid Gnerlich

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In the early morning, before my 2-year-old and 7-year-old wake up, I sneak down the creaky stairs, swinging slightly on the bannisters to keep my weight from announcing my descent. My younger child seems to have impossibly sensitive hearing, and so I crunch my granola on the couch as quietly as possible, while I begin work-related email and reading. When the kids wake, it will be my “shift” with them until about 1pm, after which it will be my husband’s (who is also working full time from home during our household lockdown). Breakfast preparations, vacuuming up crumbs, dishes, laundry, simultaneous home schooling activities and toddler-sitting, lunch preparations, and more dishes all await. Then, it will be my time for work until 6pm. Then kids’ dinner, children to bed, adults’ dinner, dishes galore (again), and then sleep.

In these dark and quiet morning moments, I think of my partners in making new books: authors. In a time of lockdown, there is something deeply hopeful and reassuring about the practice of making plans to publish new books in the months and years to come. But, at this particular point in time, I have the impression that I am seeing quite a lot of book-writing activity amongst a certain demographic of authors—those who I imagine naturally have more time now, during the lockdown, than before. (This impression echoes those of other publishing editors, described in articles such as this one.) I am very glad to receive the proposals I am being sent (thank you and keep them coming!). But, I do worry about the proposals that I am not seeing, from authors who are struggling—who may also be up early in the morning to get some work done, or who stayed up very late the night before, or who didn’t succeed at doing either because they were just too worn out. If you see yourself in some ways reflected in the scenario above, if you’re frustrated by the conflicting demands on your time and energy and your ability to focus on creative, intellectual work, I just want to say: I’m thinking of you, and I understand.

Of course, we are in many ways very, very lucky. To continue to have work during the pandemic, to have flexibility as we juggle family commitments, to have more time with family in a time of such great uncertainty… These are just a few things that fill me with gratitude, and I imagine the same is true for you. In light of the bigger picture—the suffering, injustice, fear and anger convulsing our communities all over the world—it may seem petty, even downright wrong, to focus on the above frustrations. But, when ideas are at the heart of one’s livelihood, it is difficult to be prevented from exploring and articulating them—especially when your career depends on it, when you see your contemporaries rush ahead, when others are enabled, while you are hobbled, for reasons beyond your control.

One particular difficulty is the increasingly sharp feeling of unfulfilled promise. The feeling of having an idea, but no time to explore it. Of needing more knowledge to advance one’s thinking and work, but being compelled to choose rest over reading deeper into the night. Of wanting to take a step forward in a new direction, but feeling locked into a stationary cycle. Of having words, but no energy to conjure meaning, no voice to express them. Simultaneously, the ever-evolving newsreel heightens one’s sense of existential risk and urgency. Now is the time to do the things one envisioned one would do with one’s life, say what one needs to say. The feeling of unfulfilled promise expands again. Others who are not in the same situation, who are able to work from home without as many obstacles and distractions, move ahead, write, and speak out. In the harsh light of comparison and perhaps even harsher self-judgment, one’s sense of uneasiness increases even further.

Yet another insidious feeling that follows in the wake of the above is that, in spite of the difficulties inherent to finding time for extended focus while in lockdown with another working parent and 2 young children, one should not let others know. I suspect that this is a feeling that is quite prevalent among women. The narrative runs deep that a professional woman should never give the impression that her family will interfere with her attention to her work and her ability to advance in her career. And so, in spite of a toddler’s insatiable desire to put his scooter on the coffee table or climb the bookshelf, I (and perhaps you) still often assume (and also believe others should go on assuming) that you can do all that you otherwise “normally” would (that is to say, without said toddler in enthusiastic attendance). There is a sense of needing to keep the situation under wraps—almost as if confessing to the reality will make it even more real, more overwhelming. That saying too much will chase away the promise of the future… That the promised words, the ideas that you want and need to express, will recede farther from the tips of your fingers until, eventually, you will be incapable of ever capturing them. And so, another layer of silence is spread overtop of the first.

It seems strange that such a sensibility—the mute restlessness of unarticulated words, words from one’s mind that don’t yet exist in black and white on a page—can weigh on one so. There are far greater, pressing concerns. Yet, as I imagine that I’m not alone in experiencing variations on this difficult state of mind, I felt compelled to break the silence, to call out to those of you who are feeling tired, conflicted, mute—to those who feel the promise of words, but have not yet been able to make good on that promise. I’m with you.

There are many kinds of promises. One kind of promise is simply that of an idea. Others are made by just one person, while others are mutual promises. And though many promises can be fulfilled quickly, others can take a long time. In the business of publishing (a business built on promises), a fundamental one is the relationship between an author and a publisher—the pact to work together, sometimes over many years, to make an idea into a book and to bring that book to the attention of readers. Put simply, books happen when one develops and successfully articulates an original, promising idea; but, considering how easy that is to say and how much harder it is to do, especially for some authors out there right now, I thought it might be helpful to extend some words of encouragement and lend a few practical tips besides. Thinking of it another way, I suppose I wanted to get a head start on fulfilling my side of the editor-author pact.

First, in hopes of encouraging you… As I type these words (it’s a Saturday afternoon, I can’t help but guiltily add!), my toddler is trying to close my laptop with a pair of tongs stolen from one of the kitchen drawers, while my other son draws my attention to every plot development and picture of the book he is reading while I repeatedly say, “Wow!” and “Mmmhmm.” I expect this situation will last for approximately 5 more minutes before I will need to accept defeat and continue writing later. The thwarted desire to finish something—a train of thought, a sentence, a paragraph, a page—is increasingly needling. However, it’s worth remembering that this frustrating feeling is the feeling of energy and of life. It will propel you to fulfill the promise you feel—eventually.

Next, the practical tips. If you have a nascent idea for a book, here is a 6-step plan for using your stolen moments to get started:

  1. Aims and scope: Write a paragraph (aim for 300 words max) that describes the book and what you want it to accomplish.
  2. Outline: Sketch out a 1-page outline of chapters, and write a sentence or two about each chapter, or a list of bullet points (whichever is easier for you), describing what that chapter will be about. Do you have an Introduction and Conclusion? If not, you should probably add them.
  3. Readership and Market: Write a sentence to describe (realistically) the readership to which your book will naturally appeal. List a few other books on the market that are comparable in terms of subject matter and intended readership. Describe how your book is distinctive in comparison to each.
  4. Revise: Ask yourself if your chapters and the ideas within each of them are organized in such a way that they accomplish what your aims-and-scope paragraph states. Is there anything that would make your book even more distinctive in light of other books on the market? Be honest with yourself. Revise.
  5. Revise again: Now ask yourself, how long do you think your book will be, approximately? Can you pare it down and still accomplish what your aims-and-scope paragraph describes? If so, do that. Long books are wonderful, but good things can also come in little packages.
  6. Timeline: At last, you’ll come to the million-dollar question: how long do you think would it take to write the book you’ve outlined?  

Here is where you might get stuck. If you don’t know how to answer this question and you need someone to talk to—to figure out a way forward and make short-, medium-, or long-term plan for writing your book—let us know. If you feel worried about promising to deliver words that may never come to be, that’s okay, too; let us know. If you think you need to write some of the manuscript first to see if you can make some progress first, that’s not necessarily so… Early feedback can make it easier to get started. And, having someone in the business to talk to, who can weigh in from a different perspective, can help things move in the right direction. Also, books don’t always have to be written in one uninterrupted block of time or in a linear way. We have seen a lot of authors write a lot of books, and we might be able to lend some thoughts on some different strategies that might make it possible for you. (Incidentally, if you are already under contract as a PUP author, you may want to check out whether you are eligible to apply for our Global Equity Grant.) I have to add the obvious caveat that we can’t guarantee that we are the right fit for your book (taking a look at the range of books we publish in your discipline is a great place to start, if you are unsure of whether or not we are suitable). But that said, it’s worth remembering that we are part of a rich publishing ecosystem—and, if we’re not quite the right match, we might be able to suggest another publisher who would make a better fit.

It might seem like it would take a miracle to find the time to plan out and write a book, especially right now. But, keep in mind that books start small—with a niggling sense of promise, with ideas that become words, then sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters. Books take time, but time is measured in increments. One hour here and there, one thought, one paragraph at a time. Little by little, your idea can and will transform into something real and tangible. Your perspective, your vision, your voice can and will be seen and heard.

By writing these words, I suppose I wanted to put an imaginary candle in our virtual window. To authors who are struggling to see the light right now, we are here. We see and believe in your promised words, even in the dark and the silence. It’s Sunday afternoon now, and I have to go stop my 2-year-old from jumping off the tower of pillows he has piled up on the couch. But, I promise I will be waiting for you, laptop screen glowing, some quiet early morning on that same couch, when you’re ready.

Ingrid Gnerlich is Publisher for the Sciences at Princeton University Press.