Monthly Archives: April 2012

The end is nigh

I’m at what is simultaneously my most and least favorite part of my writing process: the end. I like this stage because, well, it’s the end. I can see the finished draft approaching, and I can be reasonably-enough sure of a timeline that I can tell my adviser I’ll have the draft done by a specific date. And then I’ll get it done by then, because the work left is discrete enough that I can schedule it in the remaining time.

I hate this stage because of the way I get to this point: I defer all the hard stuff, bit by bit, until that’s all that’s left. Half a dozen paragraphs end with “[Final sentence or two of analysis]”. Two different places in the chapter say, “Thesis-ish,” followed by some general notes about what I think that thesis ought to be. The conclusion is little more than a glorified outline. Another half-dozen paragraphs are comprised of informal notes and tentative claims, accompanied by the marginal comment, “Expand and polish.” And I have footnote after footnote that reads only, “Citation.”

Each of these places is highlighted so that I won’t forget about it, and accompanied by a comment reminding me what it is I need to do before I can un-highlight the relevant section. My job now is to go through the draft step by step, fixing one section after the next until no more highlighted sections remain. This is not fun. Sometimes it’s just tedious, like with the citations that need to be added, but other times it’s agony. That “Final sentence or two of analysis” is often the most important part of the paragraph, but it can often take a lot of time and energy to figure out what it is I need to say about the stuff I’ve quoted.

Though it’s unpleasant, this stage is an important part of my overall process. Those deferrals were all necessary to maintain momentum back when the imperative was to write a lot in each sitting, to get the whole of the draft out on the page. Agonizing over the last sentence of analysis, or the wording of a thesis I wasn’t even sure about would only slow things down. Getting the citations perfect is an insidious procrastination technique, not something that needs to happen the minute I add a quotation.

So here I am, with a mostly-finished but still very highlighted draft. When I get to this stage, even the scale of the timing changes. I work for twenty-five or fifty minutes (one or two repetitions of this technique) and then I take a fairly lengthy break, much longer than I would take if I were in the middle of the draft. Each time, I have to force myself to tackle just one more sentence. The best part, the part that keeps me going, is that each time I finish a difficult section, I get to unhighlight it, and the more quickly I work, the sooner I get to see my draft turn from yellow to a nice, finished white.

Sometimes I find that what I thought in the moment were unpolished notes are actually just a step away from finalized prose. All I have to do then is clean up the contractions, vary the vocabulary, and remove the  m-dashes that I’m so fond of when I’m making notes. Other times, and there’s one section of this chapter that’s particularly bad, I find that there’s still reading and thinking left to do. Those paragraphs I tackle slowly, half a sentence at a time.

When I’m at this stage, I find it difficult to turn my brain off, ever. I’ll be scattered all week, and I’ll have trouble getting to sleep each night as I run through the list of things still to finish. My usual work schedule doesn’t apply. Instead, I sit down to work on a section whenever I can push myself to, or whenever a moment of insight strikes, showing me how to handle a tricky sentence. I’ll be on all week, but it will only take a week.  On Monday, when I realized I had only the sticky bits left, I told my adviser I’d have a draft to him by Friday. Doing that provides the urgency I need to keep coming back to that “Final sentence or two of analysis” again and again and again until they’ve all been added.

Once I get everything done and sent off I will clean the house from top to bottom with a manic energy that will alarm the cats. First, though, I have some more citations to add.

A few thoughts on Amazon reviews

My work on turn-0f-the-century novels and their reviews stems from an interest in how novels got talked about in public, at a time when public discussion of novels was much more frequent and took place in a much wider range of periodicals than today. These days, book reviews have considerably less influence on the discourse surrounding a given novel, making them not all that interesting to me personally.

Amazon reviews, on the other hand, are absolutely fascinating. Not just the book reviews, although that’s primarily what I want to talk about. I bought a set of espresso cups from Amazon a couple of years ago and came across the following review: “Maybe it’s just me but I think the cups are just too small. It’s hard to judge how much they will hold by the pictures and description but after receiving them, they seem more appropriate for a child’s tea set. They are a good quality, but I don’t think that many ‘men’ will drink out of these…..they are very tiny. Only hold about 1.5 ounces. ”

For the record, the cups hold 3 ounces, and none of the ‘men’ who’ve used them have had any complaints (at least to my knowledge).

But what does one do with the vast potential of Amazon reviews? Paul Gutjahr’s work on reviewers of the Left Behind books, which I’ve talked a bit about here, provides one example. Gutjahr’s study, though, was conducted in 1999 and published in 2002, and Amazon, as well as the web in general, has changed a lot since then.

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Reading race in The Hunger Games and The Help

This is old news, but I’m perennially behind and just getting around to talking about it: The internet got all astir a couple of weeks ago when the tumblr Hunger Games Tweets started collecting tweets from Hunger Games fans who were surprised and often angry to learn that two of the book and movie’s most sympathetic characters were black. Buzzfeed has screenshots of ten of the most offensively racist tweets here. The discussion of the tweets has had some pretty remarkable staying power–HuffPo published a response less than a week ago, and Slate published both an interview with two of the teens whose tweets were published on Hunger Games Tweets and a response from the tumblr’s creator.

There are a lot of reasons both the tweets and the online reaction are interesting. As people commenting on the tweets are quick to point out, the novel is very explicit about Rue’s and Thresh’s race—they are described as having dark hair, dark brown skin and dark eyes. They also come from the district responsible for agricultural production that, based on the second book, seems to correspond roughly to the American southeast. They’re fairly explicitly marked as black in the novel. Beyond that, the issue of race and casting for the Hunger Games has been a hot-button issue in certain parts of the internet for quite some time.

So a big part of this discussion has been about reading comprehension, misreading, and even authorial intent. The teens who tweeted their surprise at Rue’s race are poor readers, and they’re often called out as such. But while some tweets just reveal those poor reading skills—generally expressed at surprise that Rue and Thresh didn’t look the way the teens expected them to—others reveal a deeply troubling racism—admissions, for instance, that the tweeters didn’t care about the characters once they found out they were black.

That second aspect of the tweets gives way to some interesting discussions of race and racism, as well as a nice breakdown on the New Yorker‘s “Book Bench” of the history of the blonde, innocent, angelic, and dead little white girl (from Little Eva to Jon-Benet Ramsey). Notably, even if Rue doesn’t fit the type, Katniss’s little sister Prim certainly does.

In the post on Slate, the tumblr creator separates the misreaders from the racists, implying, as I think many of the discussions about the tweets do, that the misreading is understandable, while the racism is deplorable. That may be true, but I think it’s worth attending to the way the two are deeply intertwined.

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Adding an iPad to the workflow: some results

I got a lot of great suggestions for solutions to my Scrivener to iPad dilemma. Ultimately, I ended up breaking down and buying Pages. I’m a sucker for design, particularly when I’m writing, and Pages is pretty, functional, and easy to use.

I realized that there were only a few documents I was actively working on that needed the formatting preserved—my conference paper, a couple sections of my dissertation chapter, some miscellaneous notes. Those I converted to word and opened in Pages before I left for the conference. Everything else—most importantly, most of the notes and evidence for the current chapter—I exported from Scrivener to a Dropbox folder so that I could access it with Simplenote if I needed it.

As systems go, it worked pretty well. I got some writing done in the airport and some more done the day before the conference. The Bluetooth keyboard from my iMac worked seamlessly. As is always the case, once the conference started all my plans to work on my chapter went right out the window, but given what I managed to accomplish before and after the conference, I wouldn’t call it a complete wash.

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