Three years in the making, as they used to say in movie advertising—and still counting. At one point this summer, I passed unofficially from the first draft to the second draft stage of the book I’ve been working on. In fact, the first draft is not 100% done, call it 98%. There’s at least one more chapter to write and an introduction.
Now I’m dealing with several issues. One of them is no doubt similar to that of a novel writer, whose project has evolved since the initial conception. A few parts were written simply as blog posts, before there was even the idea of a book. Quite a few more date from when that idea was only coming into focus.
So revision has been producing its surprises. For one thing, I now see how I kept raising my own standards as I took what I was doing more seriously. Write-ups of research I did at the start are sometimes awkwardly organized, with off-topic digressions. Sometimes there’s a breeziness that is OK for blog writing but sounds amateurish now. For at least one chapter I’ve had to go back and redo all the research from scratch. There will no doubt be more.
Audience. I remember taking a while to figure out the readers I’m writing for. Early on, I knew that I wasn’t writing for academics or scholars. They’re welcome to read the book and may get something from it. But academic writing means that you are taking part in a discourse among experts in a particular field of research.
The discourse on my book’s subject—early frontier fiction—has been going on for a while, and to join that conversation, I’d have to find and read what scholars have already said about it. Fine for a graduate student working on a master’s thesis and with easy access to a university research library. But that made the project too much like work, and a whole lot less fun.
Since I’m an old-school literary historian by training, the current practice of theory-driven cultural studies isn’t so interesting to me either. I’ve heard papers read at conferences so dryly analytical and full of jargon an ordinary person walking in off the street would think they were hearing a foreign language. I’d be obliged to learn that language if I were to write to that audience.
So I decided instead to write for what I think are readers of this blog. That is, book readers and writers who enjoy westerns and frontier fiction and who share my curiosity about the origins of the genre. That audience may include academic folks, but I wanted what I wrote to be clear and interesting for the person who was simply a fan of the genre.
That meant writing plain English, informally, with some humor if I could manage it. The idea was to both illuminate and entertain—not an easy task, and one that I’ve only been able to approximate at times. But clarifying that target audience was an essential part of the book’s evolution—and now the revision process.
Whether that audience is actually out there is a question that enters my mind as I do this. But as long as I’m clear that I’m not doing it for fame or fortune, the number of readers the book finds isn't my main concern right now.
To be continued. . .
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Guy Vanderhaeghe, The Last Crossing