On writing a first, second and third book

DSC_0458I have written two books and am in the process of preparing the manuscript for what I hope will become a third. Although the three books all concern some aspect of opera, the practical business of writing each of them has felt quite different. I thought therefore that it might be interesting to reflect upon the ‘mechanics’ of writing a first book and the books that follow.

My first monograph (The Puccini Problem: Opera, Nationalism, and Modernity, Cambridge), on the reception of Puccini’s operas in Italy during his own lifetime, developed out of my PhD dissertation. It was therefore, in essence, an adaptation. That is not to say, however, that it was particularly quick or easy to write, even if a lot of the primary research had already been done. I submitted my PhD in 2002 and the book was not published until 2007. The intervening years were spent extending and adapting the PhD material, waiting for a contract to be confirmed (a process that took about two years from first approaching the publisher), and going through the production process (which took, as I recall, about a year).

When I was doing my PhD, I consciously made a point of writing it in an accessible style, with a mind to turning it into a book later. Even so, when it came to adapting it, a lot of changes still had to be made. Every PhD has to include a rather ‘mechanical’ introduction, which explains the candidate’s methodology, reviews the existing literature and situates the thesis within it. Most of this has to be removed for the book, because it’s just too dry for the somewhat wider readership you’d be hoping to reach. (Even though my book was published by a university press I was always very keen that it should also be read by a general readership of opera enthusiasts and people interested in the cultural politics of late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Italy.)

There were other things to be done as well as recasting the introduction, of course. My PhD focused on the period between 1896 (the première of La bohème) and 1912, when a critic called Fausto Torrefranca published a book about Puccini that must qualify as the most concerted character assassination in the history of music literature. For the book, however, I needed to tell the whole story, looking back before Bohème and adding chapters on the reception of the operas of the 1910s and on Turandot. In order to research these final chapters another trip to Milan was required, to look at sources in the Biblioteca Braidense and the archive of the Conservatorio, libraries I already knew well from my PhD research. Even the intervening chapters didn’t stay the same as in the PhD though: everything had to be somewhat recast in terms of tone and brought together as a homogeneous whole, and I added a new epilogue.

My second book (Opera: A Beginner’s Guide, Oneworld) was a completely different beast. This time I’d had a commission: a colleague had written another book in the same series and given the publisher my name. This book was shorter, far less specialised and aimed at a broader readership. This time it was more a case of drawing upon my broader knowledge of opera, its histories and its literature, rather than undertaking original research (although I did incorporate my own findings for the Puccini sections). Something I was very keen to do with this book, however, was to avoid writing a straightforward opera history and to differentiate it from other similar books on the market by taking a more thematic approach, focusing upon debates about opera. I therefore based it upon the sorts of topics I’d discussed with undergraduate students in a module I teach entitled ‘Opera and Politics’: issues to do with the staging of opera, how operas tackle questions of race and gender, and so on. I wrote the book by and large sequentially although my memories of the final stages of the process are, I admit, now somewhat hazy (coinciding, as they did, with having a baby).

The book I am currently writing, on debates about opera in 1920s Britain, is ostensibly similar to the first, in that it will be another research-based monograph with (I hope) a broad appeal. The process of writing this one, however, feels very different. I undertook some research on this topic about six years ago but it felt like a large project and I never had time to do it justice (partly because of the maternity leave hiatus and partly because there are no sabbaticals at my university). My BA Fellowship has finally given me the opportunity to turn it into a book. This means that I basically have a year to research and write a book, which is a tall order, but it feels invigorating to have to work in a very focused way at speed.

This isn’t an adaptation and its chapters are not chronological but thematic. My Puccini book dealt, for the most part, with individual operas: thus it was possible to research and write one discrete chapter at a time. This time I am investigating broader debates about opera and any given source may throw up material that is useful for a range of chapters. Thus, my current approach is to plough through a particular periodical for the years 1920-30 and then to spend a few days writing the material up, adding small sections into the relevant chapter files. It feels a bit ‘scatter-gun’ at the moment, and I will certainly have to come back and do a lot of tidying up later, but on the other hand it is satisfying to see the various chapters steadily ‘growing’ at roughly the same pace. The quantity of relevant material I am finding is so vast that I certainly couldn’t contemplate doing all the research and then writing each chapter in turn at the end.

The fact that this process is quite different from the one I used for my first book has made me realise that there isn’t one ‘set’ way in which to write an academic book and that the material in question will itself guide the process. I’d be interested to hear from readers who have themselves written books about their approach to writing.