Blog #6 Turning my thesis into a book, Part 1

 

After the thesis was finished I was reasonably optimistic about the transition to the book. The thesis was a simple structure; an Introduction about biography, a Body of 10 chapters about Namarari’s life and art career, and a brief Conclusion, followed by appendices. I initially thought a simpler and more engaging Introduction, together with more art images, would just about do the trick. So I did some re-drafting and asked a couple of colleagues to have a look and give me some critical feedback. All of that took about six months. During that time, I also continued my search for images of Namarari’s paintings, and on occasion I thought ‘oh, I’ll have to include this one’. But each time I found such an image or picked up another interesting snippet of information about Namarari’s life I needed to rewrite that part of the relevant chapter. It seemed as though I was producing a modified version of the manuscript every few months throughout 2014.

 Marks in sand, words on paper

 

Playing with structure

There were several issues with structure. One was relatively simple. I had written an obituary about Namarari, which I originally included at the end of the life story chapters. It was a detailed summary of his life, character and art career. One of my manuscript readers suggested ‘this should be placed at the front of the book’, where it has remained as Obituary: in praise of Namarari (The master from Marnpi, pp. 18-19).

Another issue impacting on structure was the topic of ‘Pintupi culture’. I was tossing up whether to have a summary about Pintupi culture upfront or break it down into chunks to insert into the life story along the way. My concern with the second option was it could interrupt the narrative flow. While references to Pintupi culture appear throughout the book, I decided to include a sizeable chunk in Chapter 1: A Pintupi man ((The master from Marnpi, pp. 21-27).

Rewriting and reviewing

 

A third problem about structure was the topic of Namarari’s art practice. It supports the narrative to include paintings within the life story chronology and discuss them at that point. However, one form of analysis I had undertaken in my thesis was to take a group of Namarari’s paintings (including those produced years apart) and discuss them together. After experimentation I decided on the following approach. First, I included some paintings in the chronology at the time of their production to illustrate a particular aspect of Namarari’s life. For example, an award-winning painting (The master from Marnpi, p. 131) or a gift to a friend (The master from Marnpi, p. 114). Second, I assembled a new chapter where I could talk about groups of paintings without being restricted by the timeline of their production. I called this chapter Painting Stories (The master from Marnpi, pp. 161-203). It is a first-person account of Namarari’s art practice, in contrast to my third-person account of his life.

Another issue, based on feedback I’d received on my early drafts, was ‘how did I get involved in Aboriginal art, and, why did I choose Namarari as a subject?’ A revised Introduction gradually formed in my mind. It served to introduce the subject and the author, my relationship with Namarari and why the book was written (The master from Marnpi, pp. 15-17).

Eventually I decided a separate chapter was needed to talk about Namarari’s culture and character (The master from Marnpi, Chapter 1), prior to the commencement of the life story narrative. Additionally, the book didn’t need a formal Conclusion in the manner of a thesis, so material from the Conclusion was either redistributed or deleted.

 

‘From manuscript to publication’ and ‘Art curating’ programs

After more than two years of redrafting, refining and ongoing research (2014-15) I realised I was getting a bit stuck. So the timing of a program in mid 2016, ‘From manuscript to publication’, at the NSW Writer’s Centre (now Writing NSW, where I was a member) was perfect. The program’s presenter, Linda Nix, knew her stuff. With her range of expert information, classroom exercises and homework assignments, Linda led our enthusiastic group through the process of taking a ‘nearly good enough’ manuscript and improving it to pitch to a prospective publisher. One exercise was to identify which publishers might be interested in the book. I drew up a list of those who focused on art, history and biography and cold-called each of them. One particular memory is they all emphasised the same factor about my proposed book: it looked to be a high-cost production with a low-volume sales outlook. In a word: expensive.

Linda also provided me with precise feedback on exercises I did in relation to my manuscript. She emphasised the absolute necessity of figuring the true costs – money and time - of publishing a book. This opened my eyes. I came away from Linda’s course with a renewed commitment to finish my manuscript, consider more closely the issue of money, and a realisation that my approvals and images data base was not quite up to scratch. It was time to go hunting particular resources.

Speaking at the Art Gallery of NSW

I had become concerned that my art writing skills were still not good enough to complete the book. I looked around for short courses and decided to enrol in the ‘Graduate Certificate in Art Curating’ at Sydney University, which I completed in semester 1, 2016. It proved to be a good choice. The mix of enthusiastic staff, supportive fellow students, classroom exercises and a library pushed me to extend my knowledge and skills. Additionally, it got me out of the house and away from my desk to attend exhibitions and talk about art. And I was selected to speak at the Art Gallery of NSW as part of a ‘Students Speak’ program, where I introduced a PTA painting by Martin Tjangala.

 

Developing a database

One of the things that surprised me during the thesis was the amount of data that biographical research generated. A key form of data for an artist is a catalogue raisonné – a systematic record of all their artworks. I had been assembling Namarari’s catalogue raisonné for several years, primarily through my access to PTA’s archive.

The format was a basic spreadsheet with subheadings: original PTA catalogue number, story, site, image, collection and comments. The image column was simply a reference to places where an image of that particular painting appeared (e.g. in an auction catalogue). The comments column was for my own notes (e.g. ‘worth including in the book’). The spreadsheet itself did not include any images. I kept images either in digital format in computer files, or as hard copies in binders, gathered together by year. Linked to that rather cumbersome management of images were files of approvals and permissions paperwork from sources (institutions and individuals).

I decided to centralise the information for each item (artwork, photograph, document, etc.) that I wanted to include in the book. I searched the Internet, spoke with curators of various art institutions and quizzed colleagues with a question: ‘what is the best database software for my purpose?’ I found a variety of programs, ranging from $50 to over $2000 that art collectors and public institutions used to manage their collections. None of these really suited and so I devised my own system. I purchased a program, Filemaker Pro, for about $250 and devised numerous fields to capture essential data, alongside an image of the artwork. Over many months I laboriously filled all those fields with the pertinent information. With my new system I could easily track essential provenance information, approvals documentation and the payment of fees. I could view one record in full or a tabulated summary of hundreds of images. The database became an essential tool that saved me a lot of time and angst.

 

Applying for awards and money

After Linda’s program I figured my book would possibly be self-published because I had so many demands in my mind that I presumed a publisher would have trouble agreeing to. So I looked for sources of funds to go towards publication costs. This is where being a member of a writers’ organisation is so handy, because that is where authors find out about grants and awards. I temporarily stopped being a researcher and a writer; I became a project manager. Over a period of three months in mid to late 2016 I applied for the Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship, the Varuna Publisher Introduction Program and an Australia Council Grant. All the applications took an enormous amount of time (all that paperwork!). The Fellowship on offer was a $10,000 grant to support an author working on an Australian biography. The Varuna program offered a subsidised residential stint at the Writer’s House in the Blue Mountains, critically with the support of an experienced mentor. And the Australia Council Grant was a financial contribution towards preparing a book for publication.

 Writing at Varuna


The results were wonderful. In the early months of 2017 I found out I was one of nine authors shortlisted for the Literary Fellowship, which was an absolute thrill. I did not win but I felt so invigorated by getting that far. I then found out I was one of 192 authors considered for the Varuna program, reduced to a short list of 32. I was honoured to be selected as one of the 12 finalists to be awarded a residency. My mentor was Dr Craig Munro, who I had never met. He read my manuscript and gave me incisive directions, which I took to the week’s residency to guide my redrafting. We met again after the residency and after reviewing my rewrite Craig gave me helpful feedback to finalise the manuscript. At that point it was forwarded to UWA Publishing for consideration, this being one of the conditions and benefits of the Publisher Introduction Program. Some months down the track I got very helpful feedback from UWA Publishing though I eventually decided that it would be best for me to self-publish rather than entering into a contract with a publisher.

The next piece of positive news I received in 2017 concerned the Australia Council Grant. I was successful in being awarded $18,000 to direct towards publication expenses at my discretion.

It’s highly unlikely I would have won that grant without the assistance of Jo Simpson, the project officer at the Council who had advised me along the way with my grant application. The grant would be supplemented with our (Helen and myself) funds… the pointy end of self-publishing was approaching.

I have invariably found the staff of grants organisations, publishing houses, art institutions and private collections to be incredibly helpful. By about mid 2017 I was just about ready to publish, which meant three things – I needed to get a final edit and proof read completed, I needed a book designer and then a printer. And, believe it or not, I was still chasing up images and archives and approvals paperwork. I couldn’t believe the number of loose ends I had to deal with.

By late 2017 I knew one thing for sure: The master from Marnpi would be published in 2018. In fact, I set an ambitious target for myself: the national book launch would take place at the annual Desert Mob Symposium in Alice Springs in early September 2018.

I had set a challenging deadline.

 

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