Drafting the minibook: thoughts on beginning to write an intro text to the Yugoslav wars

The Easter break from teaching gives me an opportunity to take stock of how I’m doing with my next book project – a very brief introductory text to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, which all being well should be available from one of the UK academic publishers in 2015 or 2016.

It’s aimed at students in history and social sciences who need an introductory survey of ways in which scholars have interpreted the wars, in order to prepare them for the further reading that they’re going to do (whether the course is about the wars/Yugoslavia/south/east Europe specifically, or whether the Yugoslav wars are one case study within a broader module); it’s also targeting researchers in fields such as peacebuilding and transitional justice who might be moving into a post-Yugoslav case study for the first time; and, hopefully, some of the general public. (I’m glad to say that books in this series go straight into paperback.)

There are one or two books with this kind of scope already, but nothing published in the last ten years, and I’ve always struggled to find one intro text for students that does everything I’d like it to (Laura Silber and Allan Little’s The Death of Yugoslavia, for instance, is a classic, if longer than a purpose-written intro text would be, but it appeared in 1996 and obviously doesn’t integrate the Kosovo War). Events from the past 10-15 years need integrating into the narrative, and so many new directions have emerged in the research that a good new intro text needs to be able to point readers to what’s been going on.

This is a very different kind of undertaking from the detailed research monographs I’ve written and co-written before. For one thing, books in the series are only 50,000 words (a figure that will no doubt be appearing in my dreams by midsummer), whereas my book on popular music and nationalism in Croatia was 100,000 and the book on languages and peace operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina that I co-wrote was 80,000 or so. (I’ve started thinking of this text as ‘the minibook’, in order to soften the blow when I need to take oh god I don’t even want to think about how many bits out…)

On the other hand, the teaching trajectory that I’ve had means that I’ve been planning this book for years without knowing it. Almost every year I’ve had to work out how to present the Yugoslav wars to different sets of learners, at various levels, within different kinds of module structures. What have first-year historians who are exploring the Yugoslav wars as a case study of a historical controversy struggled with? What would help social sciences postgraduates specialising in nationalism in eastern Europe? When I’ve had one or two weeks on the Yugoslav wars as part of a second- or third-year undergraduate comparative thematic module, what are the essentials I’ve needed to get across in order for them to be able to engage with the theme and appreciate what this one case adds to their broader understanding? And what kinds of readings have colleagues in anthropology, sociology, or languages and literatures asked me about? I need to draw on all these experiences in order to work out what to include, and that involves thinking about how learners are likely to build up the ‘scaffolding’ of their knowledge about the Yugoslav wars.

I’ve hesitated to talk about the book on public social media (blogging and Twitter) until I was happy with the progress of the first draft, though I did post about it on Facebook after it was under contract. I’ve now been able to write very preliminary first drafts of the first four chapters – on the long-term history of the region and Yugoslav unification; on the Yugoslav crisis in the 1980s; the war in Croatia; and the Bosnian conflict – which in many ways are also the most difficult, since these topics are precisely where the most extensive debates have been. All of them still need some tightening of phrasing, expansion of some references to the literature, and (the frightening part) some shortening of the word count, but I need to get the remaining chapters drafted before I can do that. The question I’m still asking when I go over some of these sections is: what do I still need to put in to make this an account that only I could have written, at only this time? It’ll all get there in the end – it has before – but this early in the process, not everything is jumping off the page the way I’d like it to.

(Also, people just keep writing things. One of the books I’m most looking forward to being able to discuss, Florian Bieber/Armina Galijaš/Rory Archer’s edited volume Debating the End of Yugoslavia, isn’t out until October, and that’s not the only case like that…)

Starting to draft this book has thrown up some interesting theoretical questions about how we narrate and arrange history, which I’d quite like to explore further after the book itself is done.One thing the reader needs to be able to understand is anti-essentialist approaches to nationalism and ethnicity, which in many ways inform a lot (though clearly not all) of the more recent research. It makes a difference to say that ‘the Croats’, as opposed to let’s say ‘the Croatian Democratic Union’ or ‘the President of Croatia’ or ‘the inhabitants of Dubrovnik’ or ‘the 1st Guards Brigade of the Croatian Army’, did something, perhaps especially when talking about war. I want to avoid my own writing reinforcing collectivist assumptions, but I also want the reader to be able to see why it makes a difference and what some of the implications of those different kinds of description might be. All of this takes words, and I don’t have many. It’s simply easier to say that ‘the Croats’ or ‘Croatia’ did this or that; expressing something more complex in the same level of brevity is much more difficult.

Another problem is that while I want the reader to be aware of critical and deconstructive approaches to the topic, I still need to equip a reader to be able to tell facts from fabrications – a particular issue with some aspects of the history of the Yugoslav wars, where deliberate misrepresentation has abounded. If I problematise interpretations of X, but state that Y unequivocally cannot be denied, where does my truth claim come from?

I want to try to make some of these difficulties transparent in the writing, so that I can be accountable for my own narrative choices: although it’s my responsibility to give the fairest overview of the material as well as to present an interpretation that will be innovative for this sector of the market, I am still making choices about how I organise, illustrate and retell the material. I face the same issues of narrativisation and periodisation whenever I design or redesign a module – something I discussed here last year when I blogged about two versions of my Yugoslavia module that I’ve offered final-year history undergraduates at Hull – but with a larger and more diverse readership and with the permanence of a printed book. Where, for instance, is the best place to cover the Slovenian war of independence in June-July 1991 – together with the 1980s crisis? Together with the Homeland War in Croatia, which began at the same time yet lasted until 1995? In a lecture or a chapter of its own?

If I’ve got early first drafts of these four chapters (and I do say early: one of their conclusions still has a note on which reads ‘FINISH AND LINK INTO BEGINNING OF NEXT CHAPTER’), it puts me over the halfway point for a draft of the whole volume, just. (Kristen Ghodsee, the author of several books on the anthropology of postsocialism, recently blogged about her own ten-step process for writing a book; my workflow isn’t identical, but the ‘crappy first drafts’ stage is definitely something it shares.) The plan is to finish drafting by July, use July and August for getting it ready enough to show to some colleagues, and redraft in the autumn, interweaved with editing the first draft of the edited volume on gender that I’m also working on. The manuscript needs delivering by December.

And then in about a year’s time after that, if all goes well, I’ll be able to start using it in class, and if you’re an instructor or student then so might you…


One thought on “Drafting the minibook: thoughts on beginning to write an intro text to the Yugoslav wars

Comments are closed.