Code Name: Voldemort

posted in: Creativity, Knitting, Sheep, Spinning, Writing | 19

So. I think it's becoming safe to name the Task That Must Not Be Named, although I'm not sure how or where to begin talking about it. A friend at knitting group this evening suggested that I start like this:

Required reading for anyone who is considering writing a book

Therefore I will begin by saying that the publishing business is crazy by definition, and one of the things I've learned through years of engagement with all phases of it is not to take anything that happens in the process personally. Another thing I have found out is that every time you think you're done, you aren't. Yet another thing I have unfortunately, or fortunately, discovered is that the really big projects tend to be the most satisfying in the long run—as my daughter would say, "for certain values of satisfying."

The Project

The Project involves the production of a book on . . . well, fibers, but the exact scope has changed at least twice in dramatic ways during meetings at which I wasn't present and which I didn't find out about until the changes were faits accomplis. In each case, I was given the option of saying "no," but each time there were compelling reasons (all conceptual and none practical) to say "okay" instead. Note that the alternative to "no" was not a resounding "yes," because while each suggested shift would result in a better and more useful book . . . one that I was even more interested in writing, and I was already seriously hooked or I'd never have started . . . the change would also involve massive amounts of additional work. Note also that hardly any writers developing a book are on salary or have access to benefits like health insurance, paid holidays, or sick leave. Advances are more like honoraria, and are not sufficient for covering living expenses. If you sign on to write a book, you've got to figure out how to do the work in addition to whatever normally brings in an income.

Anyway.

Wash_3588

In late summer and early fall of 2007, co-author Carol Ekarius and I began talking about The Project between ourselves and with the publisher, and we wrote and presented the proposal. In late fall, we received approval to proceed. The contract, as signed in early 2008, calls for a small book on fiber breeds that knitters* or spinners might encounter, in fleece or yarn form, at fiber festivals.

  • Estimated number of animals: 120.
  • Manuscript length: 45,000 to 50,000 words.

* For "knitters," also read "crocheters, weavers, or other people who use yarn."

Within weeks, The Project expanded rather quickly, in discussions that happened among other people, to a much larger book on all natural fibers. The sample chapters we submitted in March 2008 reflected that intention.

Later, for some reason which I don't remember but for which I was grateful, possibly because it was seeming that the book would be too large to produce in a reasonable amount of time, The Project was redefined again, but still with a larger-than-original scope: sheep breeds that an English-speaking knitter or spinner might reasonably obtain from a wider variety of sources, including at festivals, in shops, at local farms, or online. (The "English-speaking" was a limitation I added in order to keep
completion within the realm of possibility. Because fiber folk are who they are, the materials within the English-speaking part of the world frequently cross borders.) What was supposed to be a nine-month project (completed by August 2008) became a two-year one. The new deadline was set for February 1, 2010.

During 2008 and most of 2009, I worked steadily on The Project, devoting between 20 and 60 hours a week to it and balancing the effort with paying-in-real-time freelance work and developmental work for Nomad Press. I was making good progress (hampered by the computer problems that are a whole other story, already told here), but by early August 2009 it became clear that in order to meet the February deadline I would have to dedicate all my time and energy to it. With the blessing of authors waiting for Nomad to publish their books (for which I am eternally grateful), I set aside everything else and began working on The Project during as many hours as I could muster.

Fluff_3567

No matter what mix of projects I'm involved with, my average work week consists of 72.5 hours. About 8 hours are spent on general maintenance: finances, essential e-mails, and other things that can't be delayed or shifted to accommodate various deadlines. Under normal circumstances, between 5 and 15 of my weekly hours normally include jobs for which I'm paid reasonably soon; the other hours are invested in something I expect will pay off in the long run—mostly working on publishing projects for Nomad Press or on writing projects of my own.

From the beginning of August 2009 on, with the exceptions of Sock Summit, a weekend at the Colorado Art Ranch, Cat Bordhi's retreat, and a couple of trips to visit relatives, I dedicated about 64 hours a week to The Project. (I worked on The Project during all of those trips, but at a significantly reduced rate.)

Voldemort appears

In mid-January 2010, twenty-one days before the deadline, which I'd mentally redefined as the "text deadline" because I knew that I'd have some additional time before photography during which I could finish preparing the samples, the scope changed again. It grew to include "all the fiber animals" ( . . . that an English-speaking fiberist could reasonably be expected to encounter . . . ), with the sheep material still to be due on February 1 and the "additional material" to be turned in by the end of February.

News of the meeting and the change in topic(s) reached me two days later, nineteen days before the original and still active deadline, when I was at a cabin in the mountains working as fast and intensively as possible to complete the information on sheep breeds.

After I learned of the shift via e-mail, I took a long, high-altitude walk to regain a modicum of constructive calm. When I got in touch by phone with one of the other folks involved (there are always lots of folks involved in a publishing process, which is probably why I hadn't been notified earlier about the meeting . . . everyone thought someone else had told me . . . ), the person said that since I'd already done so many sheep breeds, the additional "twenty-five or so" animals would be no big deal, right? I mentioned that it had taken two years to do what we'd done so far, and we were being given less than three weeks to produce the add-on. Also that most of the additional animals produce luxury fibers and the samples for them would need to be spun much more finely than most of the wools.

Have I mentioned that throughout The Project I've been obtaining raw fibers, washing them, preparing them (combing or carding), and spinning samples to be photographed?

  • A rough count of breeds I'd already researched and written up: 125.
  • A rough count of samples I'd already processed and spun: 300.

Some breeds got one sample; others, with more qualities to hint at in the demos, required five or more.

__

While taking another cool-down walk in the mountains, I came up with a metaphor for what the shift in scope felt like: as if I had been at mile 97 of a 100-mile endurance run and received a message that as soon as I crossed the finish line I would run a quick marathon as well, since, after all, I was all warmed up and it wasn't that far compared to what I'd already done.

Surialpaca_3868

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Some difficult situations can be handled better if they're named. With others, the trick is to avoid acknowledging the whole and just focus on one piece at a time: what is the single next thing I need to do? The Project was already in the latter realm. The "expansion pack," as I began to think of the additional material, shoved the whole effort into a surreal realm. Before long I gave the extra work the code name Voldemort, borrowing the identity of Harry Potter's nemesis, the one who gained power when his name was uttered. In order to accomplish this task, I could not talk about it. I just had to do it.

I also had to revamp my working process. I'd been spinning samples while I was writing up the fibers: the integration of tasks works best for me that way.

However, what was needed by the end of February was just the text. The samples wouldn't be required until it was time to do photography. If I had a prayer of reaching the new finish line, I needed to research and write the new material in the first pass, to hope I was getting things "right enough" without handling the fibers as I went, and then to do some adjusting and filling-in when we got the copyedited manuscript, by which time I envisioned that I would have most of the samples done. Fortunately, friends offered me another week at the cabin in the mountains. I hauled my wheel and fibers up there, but only used them the final day, because I refused to have packed them for nothing. The rest of the time was devoted to research and writing (I had also packed a good-sized library of resources).

Nearly vanquished

(but the question is, what has nearly vanquished whom?)

We turned in the sheep portions of the manuscript on February 1, with one gap that was filled two days later.

We turned in the "other critters" portion of the manuscript on March 11, which is pretty darn good considering what it consisted of, with three gaps that we filled not long after.

I finished spinning the "extra" samples about two weeks ago, although I have roughly thirty more samples to complete before photography (all wools that arrived after the last fibers deadline back in January but that we decided to include anyway, because they're too cool not to, and because we and the providers had worked too hard to get them).

__

Expansion pack:

  • A rough count of additional animals (sometimes breeds of a type of animal): 30.
  • A
    rough count of additional samples processed and spun (includes variants within a type of animal): 125.

Again, some fibers warranted a single sample while others needed eight or perhaps more. I'm not really counting. I just do some hash marks from my notes now and then to make sure that I'm not deluding myself when I think that The Project is really big.

Germanangora_3953

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An average text-only nonfiction book manuscript runs between 65,000 and
75,000 words; a long text-only nonfiction book runs 90,000 to 100,000
words. Because of the significant contribution of the images, the initial manuscript associated with The Project was envisioned in the contract as 45,000 to 50,000 words. As completed by co-author Carol Ekarius and me, the manuscript weighs in at about 118,000 words, not including the bibliography. Plus, of course, photos, illustrations, and captions.

The manuscript has been copyedited, and we have reviewed the editing (and prepared extensive additional reference materials for all sorts of illustrations).

Are we there yet?

Tasks still to be done on the author side of the publishing equation:

  • Spin remaining samples (approximately 30).
  • Provide materials and guidance for photography (not scheduled yet; approximately five to seven days).
  • Write a few hundred captions, after the photography has been completed.
  • Finish acquiring photos of the animals, but that's not on my personal list of tasks (whew).
  • At some point, proof pages.

Other than that, it's done.

Right.

__

Nonetheless, I have been able to shift my energies slightly, still needing to be ready to drop everything when it's time for photography and still needing to remember that I have those additional samples to prepare. As of two weeks ago I have begun to work again on some of the other projects that have been awaiting my attention, and I was able to say "yes" to a small freelance job that ends today. I have indulged in a small amount of spring cleaning and I look forward to the opportunity to do some more. Here's a miracle: I read a book last week just for the heck of it! (I could only read in small scraps of time just before sleep, but Dana Stabenow's mysteries hold together fine with that sort of intermittent attention.)

Last I heard, the book will be out in time for the start of the fiber festival season in 2011.

I think (I sincerely hope, of course) that other people will think The Project has been worth doing. I am truly fascinated by and passionate about the subject(s), in all their incarnations, although I have favorite aspects of the work and would also have been content with a smaller, but still substantial, project.

Yet I'm glad we've hung in here. Carol's great to work with, as is the publisher we are involved with. We've just had to roll with the changes and occasionally accomplish a
ridiculously impossible set of tasks, all intended to make the finished work even better.

At this point, I can name what we're up to, including the final Voldemort aspect of the work, because we have achieved even the expanded goals, despite the arguments of sense and the constraints of space and time. I could certainly use a few weeks off just to sleep and read silly stuff and clean up around here, but will do my best to grab a few hours or a day here and there, while relocating all the parts of my life that I stuffed into the backs of the cupboards, under the bed, and on the top shelves of the closets while I was obsessing with The Project.

I learned a whole lot. I got a bunch of what I learned written into the text, and I anticipate being able to convey even more through the photos and captions.

Satisfying: for many values of the word, yes.

But wow.

Venn-trouble

Photos:

* Merino, being washed in the bathtub
* Fiber drying, although I didn't label the photo—it's wool, washed in January 2010 (sometimes I wish I'd kept records of when I received, washed, and prepared specific fibers, but that's not essential record-keeping, and there was more than enough of the essential type to keep track of)

* Suri alpaca, on Louet 2-row mini-combs
* German angora rabbit spun sample

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19 Responses

  1. Valerie

    Does it help to know that I am intrigued and really looking forward to owning and using such a resource?
    (don’t feel like you have to reply to that…you have enough to do!)
    Kudos to you!

  2. Meg Caulmare

    Good afternoon, Deborah,

    I’m grateful you took on this task because only you and Rita Buchanan could’ve done it justice. I’ve been anxiously waiting for this volume since Clara Parkes mentioned it in her recent Book of Wool. Think of us as the people with water cups along the marathon route. We REALLY want you to finish.

    Best wishes,

    Meg

  3. marcia

    Is it too late to request a bit of flipbook-animation in the margins? I suggest front-to-back could be long draw drafting and back-to-front carding and shaping a rolag. The photography hasn’t been done yet, right? There’s still time.

  4. Meg

    Congratulations on having come so far! Blessings on your recovery! OX

  5. Deb Robson

    Thanks, Meg M!

    You're right, Marcia. I'll see if we can get those flipbook ideas incorporated into the margins. However, I'm not entirely sure there will *be* any margins: too many words! They may have to run the ends of the lines right into the gutters and off the outside edges as well. I know the designer finished sample pages last week, but I have no idea when (or if) I'll get to see them.

    And Meg C, thanks for your faith in the thought that I could do this job justice. Rita is a much better spinner and significantly more methodical and probably would have been too smart to have gotten roped into the job, so, well, we'll have to put up with me. And I *really* appreciate the water cups along the marathon route!

    Yes, Valerie, it helps a lot to know you are intrigued and looking forward to the book. It won't be perfect, but it will be as darn good as this amount of intensive and passionate work can make it.

    Caroline, I think it probably is like software development, from what I've heard of that world. I think there might be better money in computers, though. . . .

    Time to go move some Dorset Down and Cotswold from the 3rd to the 4th rinse bath (it's been through 1st and 2nd rinses, 1st and 2nd washes; this is quite clean and almost ready for the centrifuge, also known as spin-only cycle of the washing machine, and the drying rack).

  6. Diana Troldahl

    Amazing! I can foresee this book being a definitive source for decades to come.
    I also love your daughter’s statement “for certain values of satisfying”
    :-}

  7. Joanne

    I am cheering you along as you race the endurance route along miles 97-100 and on to the marathon. Good luck! You are doing something which will be a valuable resource!

  8. Lynne S of Oz

    You said: Time to go move some Dorset Down and Cotswold from the 3rd to the 4th rinse bath

    *blush* blame me for the DD! It just sounded like you reallllly wanted to get your hands on some, so I found you a supplier, even though it has made more work for you. *blush* Voldemort sounds like one helluva big project, and I hope to get my cotton pickin’ hands on a copy of the book come this time next year.

  9. Deb Robson

    Thanks, Joanne . . . including for your help at previous times.

    And Lynne, YES, I really, really, really wanted to include Dorset Down: for many reasons, among them that very early in my spinning career I bought two Dorset Down fleeces from a couple of young girls who kept sheep as pets (and lawn mowers) because they were allergic to dogs and cats. And Dorset Down is a classic. To put this book into print without the breed would have felt like a small failure. From which you have (thank you) saved me. 

    Polled Dorset and Horned Dorset, two other breeds, were easier to come by . . . and most people, when I went hunting Dorset Down fleece, didn't know there was a difference. The easiest way to tell them apart is that Polled and Horned Dorsets are white-faced sheep, and Dorset Downs have brown faces . . . not the same at all, in the world of sheep.

  10. Freyalyn

    I’m so looking forward to this fabulous resource, and I really, really appreciate the work, effort, and just life that you’ve put into it. Imagine me holding out cups of water and chocolate/stimulant of choice as you charge past me at speed, trailing skeins, rolags and tops behind you…..

  11. Aramati

    I am currently re-reading Harry Potter as my relief from thesis book…

    *hugs*!

  12. gayle

    Sounds less like a footrace and more like climbing Everest with a backpack full of rocks – while someone behind you kept slipping in more rocks…
    I’ve been watching what you’ve shown us of the process with fascination. Can’t wait to see the product.

  13. Diane in Oregon

    Wow – an incredible journey! And now I’m very much looking forward to your book :-). How many patterns will it have?

  14. Deb Robson

    Thanks, Diane! Actually, *no* patterns (I would run screaming right now at the prospect of doing, or even just editing, patterns as well {grin}). We're PACKING it with fiber information. There are 97 gazillion patterns in the world, and not enough about the fibers themselves.

    I've just seen preliminary page designs (I think I've mentioned that the manuscript has been written and edited). It's going to be *beautiful*.

  15. Rose White

    Dear Deborah — is there any chance that there will be a website devoted to the book? I have access to equipment that would let me take high-resolution microscopic photographs of wool fibers, but they really need to be seen on a website, not printed in a book. I’d been meaning to approach Clara Parkes to let her know that I was thinking of taking something like this on, perhaps to supplement her Book of Wool. But this project is in progress, and you have *way* more breeds — I think it would be utterly fascinating to get to show the differences between the breeds’ wool at a microscopic level somewhere.

    My sweetie works on the NASA/CMU/Google project gigapan.org; this year they have started working hard on microscopic photography. I showed him a non-felting wool and then a bit of merino, and he said, “Would knitters (etc.) be interested in these pictures if you took them? You can borrow my rig.”

    I don’t mean to bother you, or give *you* another marathon, or sound like a nut — but I have just this month been thinking about how I could assemble a zillion or so breeds of wool to photograph, and how I could connect that with a better known project so that mine wouldn’t just get lost in the ether. If you think this would be any fun at all, and that your publisher might let it go up on a related website, please let me know what you think.

    Or tell me to go yell at marathoners to run faster…. :/

  16. Deb Robson

    Rose, if you can get us micrographs we would LOVE them and that's reason enough for a website devoted to the book. We had, of course, been kicking around ideas about a website–but that was way back before the book project grew and took over our brains completely.

    I have old microscopic photographs; I have found a few scattered microphotographs that are more recent; and I have yearned to figure out how (difficult) to put a camera on my microscope (picked up on Craig's List and I'm just learning how to use it). So I am THRILLED at this idea!

    Clara's delightful book has a different focus. We're going far more technical, and yes, many more breeds, so I think this is a super fit for us. 

    Example: I am completely swamped with additional tasks for the book, and I don't think I sound in the least bothered by your offer {grin}.

  17. Deborah Robson

    By the way, I really appreciate the encouragement (and virtual dark chocolate!). I’ve been off at my college reunion, and talking knitting and rare breeds of wools while there. Lots of interest. Lots of ideas for blog posts. Lots of e-mails from the publisher as we move toward design-and-photography phase on the book.

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