My first book, Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture comes out next week from the University of North Carolina Press, which is really exciting. (The pre-order promotion is still on, if you’re interested!) The book’s publication is also causing me to reflect on how I got here. We don’t often tell the stories of how books come to be. The nuts and bolts of how we actually wrote the thing. The lucky breaks that helped. The challenges that seemed insurmountable until we finally found a way through.
But let me be clear, this is NOT an advice post. For that, William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book is the book you need. I read it twice and referenced it multiple times as I wrote and revised.
So, here’s the story of how my book came to be.
The research in Diners, Dudes & Diets started in my MLA thesis in Gastronomy at Boston University, “The Dudification of Dieting: Marketing Weight Loss Programs to Men in the Twenty-First Century”—though that project’s roots lie in my undergrad honors thesis, parts of which I eventually published in Fat Studies as “Guilt-Free and Sinfully Delicious: A Contemporary Theology of Weight Loss Dieting.” When I applied to PhD programs, I proposed expanding the thesis into a dissertation. I could have done that, but as I completed my field reading, I realized there was more I wanted to do. I kept my focus on masculinities but expanded beyond just dieting to food, cooking, and the broader food mediascape.
In grad school, I was told don’t write a dissertation, write a book. I tried, hard, to do that, but the thing is, when you’re a grad student, you have no idea how to write a dissertation or a book, so you’re just doing your best to write something that you can one day revise into a book. At least that’s how it was for me.
I finished a good draft of my dissertation in a frenzied rush during the fourth year of my PhD in 2017 because I was a finalist for a job. (I didn’t get it.) But the silver lining was I had a year of funding left and a relatively complete project, so I could start talking seriously to editors.
Given my very interdisciplinary training and research output, I had some concerns about which presses, series, and/or lists to shoot for so that the eventual book would be legible in field-specific ways, ultimately, for tenure and promotion purposes. This was difficult because I didn’t know what field I’d be working in. Would it be American studies? Food studies? Gender and sexuality studies? Media or communication studies? Something else? And that was if I could even get a job, since the vast majority of even immensely talented PhDs never find a permanent faculty position.
I still can’t believe my luck (and privilege) that Matt Guterl, chair of American Studies at Brown and a wonderful mentor to me, sent an email to officially introduce me and my project to Mark Simpson-Vos, Editorial Director at the University of North Carolina Press. Matt made it clear from his own experience (which is vast) that Mark was one of the greatest editors around and UNC Press one of the best in the business, especially for books aspiring for crossover potential beyond academia. Mark assured me that if the book ended up at UNC, it would be part of whichever series or list fit the book.
Over the summer of 2017, Mark reviewed my precis, chapter outline, and my proposed revision plans (which were way off from what I actually did.) He sent me feedback on how to revise it all into a good book proposal. (Not all editors can, or do, offer this much feedback at such an early stage, but I am very grateful that Mark did.)
At this point in the process, what I struggled with most was the book’s throughline. I knew I had a story to tell, but I couldn’t yet see how the pieces fit together or what order they should go in. And for whatever reason, the contents of the Intro and Chapter One changed a ton throughout the revision process. (I can definitely see the value of good developmental editors and wonder if I should have invested in one to get over this hurdle sooner.)
I took the advice to let the project “rest” for as long as I could, so that I could have fresher eyes to see it anew and hopefully facilitate the dissertation-to-book revision process. Beyond the revisions I discussed with my dissertation committee (chaired by Susan Smulyan, who was wonderful in every way), I didn’t work on it that much during the final year of my PhD. But it was percolating in the back of my mind, waiting for things to click into place.
Ultimately, this is how my table of contents changed from the dissertation to the book:
But I’m skipping ahead. I still had to actually revise the dang thing into a book.
Fall 2017 was filled with job applications (and all that entails.) I applied to 31 positions in a range of fields, so customizing my documents was an ordeal. By some miracle, the universe delivered the right mix of luck and timing that I had a position finalized by the end of the year in the Department of Media Studies at The University of Tulsa. I graduated in May 2018. We moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma a few days later.
The transition was difficult, for all the typical reasons and due to some specific challenges at my new institution, which escalated further during my second semester there. Needless to say, during my first three months on the tenure track, I wrote some short pieces (including interviews with Alex Ketchum and Rachel Louise Moran on their fab books), but I didn’t work on my book proposal. At. All.
I finally returned to my project later that fall. At the time, my university still had a faculty writing program (it doesn’t anymore, due to the aforementioned challenges, which is bad), and I met twice with Joli Jensen, the program’s director and author of Write No Matter What, which is a super useful book. Meeting with her gave me the structure of deadlines and expectations I needed to work on my proposal that November. Throughout December, my calendar was full of “work on proposal” to do items. Mark and I met a couple of times that month by phone to review drafts.
He and I also discussed whether I should revise the entire dissertation manuscript and then send it through review or to submit just the body chapters, which I could get into decent shape pretty quickly. I went with the second option: sending my proposal letter (with a detailed revision plan) along with the dissertation’s moderately revised body chapters in early January 2019, so that I could get reviewer feedback to guide the next stages of my revision process.
I submitted everything right before I started teaching my first semester with a three course-load. Luckily only one was a new prep, but it was the most content and students (86) that I’d ever taught. (Those of you who teach 3-3, 4-4, and more are the real heroes, truly.) Luckily, the press assigned my project to *dream* anonymous peer review readers who returned really useful and generous feedback by early May.
I knew that I needed to write an introduction, but my readers advised me not to add new chapters (which I had proposed), but to make the ones I had tight, clear, and snappy. I also needed to drastically reorganize the first chapter. Readers found “the dude” novel, but I needed to define him better, especially with regard to race. I needed to make the argument regarding the dude flow through every chapter in strong and compelling ways. I needed to more clearly articulate the “so what” of my book, including the importance of historical context, which for this book is the Great Recession Era and then the post-2016 moment. I had analyzed well representations of the dude and stories about his producers, but I needed to do more to consider consumers and reception too. I needed to add more digital content, especially from social media. I needed to write a satisfying concluding chapter.
Fortunately, my readers’ feedback all supported the book I was aiming to write. Honestly, I think one of the few suggestions I pushed back on was the idea of organizing the book 100% chronologically because I felt a thematic orientation served the argument better. Every comment helped me to write a better book, which is one of the most ideal outcomes of peer review, especially for a dissertation-to-book project. From my readers’ and Mark’s comments, I drafted my response revision letter, which I submitted in mid-May 2019.
From my reader reports and revision letter, I then wrote out my long list of to do items, large and small, everything left to mold what I had into a book.
Then I entered manuscript revision boot camp.
Again, I benefited greatly from my university still having a faculty writing program. From my readers and Mark, I had a list of what I needed to write and revise. Joli hosted a day-long summer writing plan retreat in late April, which helped me to figure out how I was going to actually do the work of revising the book.
I write best in the morning, but 6 am was (and is) the only feasible time to walk my pup Raven in the Oklahoma summer heat, so for three weeks in June—to jumpstart my revisions and gain the momentum I needed to feel like I could do this darn thing—I woke up at 4:30 am and wrote from 5:00-6:00 am in our living room. Then I’d walk Raven to and around campus (we live nearby), and then write in my office for two more hours.
In mid-June, I got an email from Mark with the much-welcome subject line, “Good news!” It was a huge relief and a nice confidence boost to learn that I’d been offered an advance contract for the book from UNC Press, which helped to settle at least some of my imposter syndrome and general anxieties about writing my first book.
After that intense kickstart, I enjoyed a break. I went to the Association for the Study of Food and Society meeting in Anchorage, Alaska and then went on a cruise. (Yes, I too have very ambivalent feelings about cruises and the folks who go on them, but it was exactly what I needed at that point in time. I mean, look how beautiful it was.)
In July and August, I dropped the 5 am writing sessions most days. Sometimes writing haunted my dreams so much that I woke up early anyway. Usually though I’d write for 2 to 3 hours each day, typically in one session, working on revisions.
By late July, I had a pretty complete version of the full manuscript done, so I sent the entire thing to two of my mentors who very graciously agreed to read it: Melissa Hackman (from whom I took Anthropology of Gender and Sexuality while I was at Brown and who’s been a good friend ever since) and Julia Ehrhardt, with whom I studied as an undergraduate and who has helped me with every step of my academic journey since. I also shared the Introduction, Chapter 1, and Conclusion with my friend Diana Garvin and the sections addressing social media with my friend KC Hysmith. All offered me affirming comments (which I pretty desperately needed at that point) and more very useful feedback.
Throughout August, I worked on revisions in two-hour sessions, day after day after day. Sometimes I took weekends off, but a lot of times I didn’t. (That’s probably not a good thing.) Near the end of the month, I updated and formatted the bibliography and notes, which was about a week’s worth of work on its own. I also selected the images I wanted to include in the book (taking the time to figure out high resolution versions, which was sometimes the hardest part) and wrote their captions. Given the ways that I analyze all of the images in the text, I claimed fair use for their inclusion.
Beyond my readers’ feedback for revisions, I wanted to write this book as both the key piece of scholarship for my tenure case and a book for everyday readers, a book that might play at least some small role in helping us to understand our culture more critically and to make our media lives more just and inclusive. Hoping for that audience meant I had to write the book differently and to cut out any and all jargon I didn’t need. Since I had written a fair amount for public audiences, I thought I was close, but I wasn’t. I had more to learn and grow in my writing. I reworked almost every sentence.
I submitted the manuscript in late August 2019, two days before the start of the fall semester. I was exhausted, but I’d finally completed what was the hardest part of the book revision process, for me: I’d finally turned my dissertation into a book manuscript.
While the manuscript was back with my readers (one original and a new third reader), I threw myself into teaching “Food Media” and “Advertising History, Culture & Critique.” I also worked with my friend and colleague, Zenia Kish, as we reviewed our sixteen contributors’ chapter drafts for our edited collection on food Instagram.
In late October, I received final reader reports, which were positive, but required some more edits, all of which I appreciated and made the book better. I had to write my final revision letter really quickly (at the same time as all our editor letters for the Instagram book!) so my book could make it into the press’s November board meeting. If I could rush this final revision letter, the book could come out in fall 2020 instead of spring 2021, so I made the push.
I then made revisions throughout November and December, working on them every morning before teaching, grading, and everything else. I shared the near-final manuscript with one more mentor and friend, Warren Belasco, who had advised my master’s thesis at BU and had read my dissertation. He sent me the words of affirmation I really, really needed as I neared the end of many months of hard work.
I was really ill for a week in December, basically on bedrest, but I still submitted the final manuscript in early January 2020, along with my author marketing questionnaire, which was a few days’ work too. (Thanks to Andrew Ruis for sharing his with me for inspiration!)
I received files for copy editing in early April 2020, which I somehow completed during the stressful early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, returning the files at the end of the month.
I am very grateful my university covered the cost of professional proofreading and indexing, so I had help for those last reviews, which I turned in at the end of June. I highly recommend Jessica Ryan for proofreading and Michelle Martinez for indexing!
I spent July and August writing some short essays and planning for how I’d work to promote the book (and prepping to teach three courses in the fall during a pandemic), but the heavy lifting (er, writing) for the book itself was done.
As I said at the start, this is not an advice post. It’s just my story, shared in the hope it might be useful for other writers in its transparency. But as I reflect, these are the things that helped as I wrote and revised my first book, some of which I had no control over, but from which I benefited greatly:
- I had a fantastic editor who helped me every step of the way, starting from before I had officially submitted my dissertation.
- I had access to a faculty writing program that gave me the structure I needed to get started planning and writing, especially as I began my career on the tenure track, balancing research, teaching, and service.
- I had a permanent position and received two summer fellowships from my institution, which helped me to write full time for two summers without needing to teach summer term. (That said, I still had to do other paid work to supplement my salary.) Overall, stable employment made writing this book possible, and I recognize many first book writers lack that, given the abysmal academic job market.
- I was gifted truly amazing anonymous readers, who provided the constructive feedback I needed to write a (hopefully) good book. They also returned their reports in a very timely fashion so my book moved forward on a quick timeline. They also wrote their feedback in a generous and collegial tone (no reviewer #2 snark), so the review process was as emotionally painless as can be. While I didn’t know who my readers were during the process, I’m very happy that two of them—Kathleen LeBesco and Peter Naccarato—agreed to have their identities revealed to me afterward. I’m thankful for the role all three reviewers played in my book.
- I figured out how I write well. I found the golden time (mornings) and session length (1-3 hours) that worked for me to write well, and I vigorously protected it.
- I was consistent. I scheduled my writing sessions into my calendar and committed to sitting down, day after day, and doing the work, even when the revisions were going really badly or when I didn’t want to. I did the time, no matter what.
- I used social media for help and support. Visually capturing the process of writing this book (on good days and bad) and posting on Instagram, helped me make the labor visible. Celebrating every little milestone across social media platforms with different groups of friends and colleagues also helped me to find support and stay motivated.
- I had a dog who provided emotional support in the way only cute animals can and who made me keep walking and moving while I was writing, a sedentary activity that is really hard on our bodies.
- I was physically and mentally well. At least most of the time, I felt well enough, in every sense of the word, to be able to write this book. During the time when I was incapacitated, I could newly empathize with others who write under painful and uncomfortable circumstances, which makes completing a book so much harder.
- I had few other life responsibilities and/or distractions. I do not have any children nor family members who needed care, so I was able to focus my most productive energies almost solely on this project. Writing a book is hard. I fully recognize how writing a book with such responsibilities is SO MUCH harder.
- I had a supportive partner. Even though my husband was annoyed with me on the many mornings I woke up stupid early and disturbed his sleep, he recognized that this was my process. Sometimes (maybe a lot of times) I had to write instead of doing fun things together, which was hard on both of us. There’s a million reasons the book is dedicated to him.
So, that’s the story of how Diners, Dudes & Diets came to be.
Other academic writers, how did you write your first book? What else about the process would be helpful to know? Please feel free to share in the comments or on social media!