The curse of “perfection”

The other day I read a comment (about a knitting pattern, but it still applies) where someone said “If I’m paying $X, I expect it to be perfect.”

It wasn’t even an exorbitant amount of money. Just a very normal price for a knitting pattern. Probably too low, even, but we don’t need to get sidetracked into discussions of fair pay for designers. The part that’s stuck with me is this idea of “If I’m paying for it, then it should be perfect.”

Putting your writing (of any kind) out there for other people to read is a scary thing, because it means random strangers can pick it apart. Insult it. Post that they can’t believe they paid $X for this. Sharing your writing means opening yourself up to critique, criticism, and insults of something you’ve worked hard on, and done all you could to “fix,” but …

Errors happen.

Especially when your document goes from person to person and each is focused on perfecting one aspect of it. Your editor fixes your commas, maybe, but then once it goes into layout, you end up with a weird line division of a multi-syllable word. It’s not because layout wanted to introduce an error. Layout did exactly what layout is supposed to do. And hopefully you catch it in the proofs stage, but in the proofs stage you’re looking for errors and trying to build your index, working under a hard deadline.

I think it’s time for Gaiman’s First Law again:

“Picking up your first copy of a book you wrote, if there’s one typo, it will be on the page that your new book falls open to the first time you pick it up.”

Neil Gaiman

We’re human. All of us, no matter what our title or CV or reputation. We’re all trying our best to contribute what the process – and it’s a long, long process – needs from us so we can end up putting something in your hands. We read our own words so many times, trying to approach them from so many mindsets, that a mistake isn’t a sign of neglect. Everyone involved is doing their best and laboring over the document and reading so closely that yes, sometimes we miss something that a casual reader will think is glaringly obvious.

There will always be errors, and there will always be people pointing out errors. I guess my fear is that someone will read “If I’m paying $X, I expect it to be perfect” and then … never try. Never write something in the first place. If a complete stranger has such high expectations, never having met you, imagine how high your own must be since you’re fully aware of your own capabilities.

Have you ever heard this one?

A good dissertation is a done dissertation. A great dissertation is a published dissertation. A perfect dissertation is neither.

old academic adage now apparently posted everywhere without an accompanying citation

Stop expecting perfection. Of other people. Of yourself. If perfection were a requirement, nothing would ever be published. We’d all be stuck in the pit of despair and red ink. Forever.

If your idea is going to get out there, you need to make peace with the fact that it won’t be perfect. (Whether you really want to make peace with the fact that strangers will communicate with you solely to point out errors is your own decision.)

There are some things you have no control over. There are some things you just have to let go. One of the first is others’ idea of perfection. And one of the second is your own.

What do you think? Can writing ever actually be “perfect”? (And do people send the same number of comments about something if it is?)

Interview with Grab the Lapels

Melanie over at GTL has interviewed me for her Meet the Writer Series. Go on over and check it out! If GTL is new for you, Melanie explains:

Meet the Writer is a feature for which I interview authors who identify as women. We talk less about a single book or work and more about where they’ve been and how their lives affect their writing. Today, please welcome Rebecca Frost. 

She starts off by explaining a bit how we met. She tracked me down through this website and we emailed back and forth for quite a while about true crime, books, reading … the good stuff. And then we realized we actually have a friend in common.

Melanie asked if I’d like to be featured in her Meet the Writer series, and I jumped at the chance. Head on over to her blog to see what I have to say.

About handling multiple projects again …

I had a virtual conference this past weekend and I was talking to some friends I haven’t seen in over a year. This is usually how it goes for me: someone asks what I’ve been up, to, and … I realize I need to start counting things off on my fingers. Which inevitably leads to another question of “How in the world do you do it?”

Right now, in this very moment, I’ve got three book projects going. They’re all in different stages, but they’re all currently in progress. Some of the progress of getting a book published is actually “waiting,” which is helpful, because I can fill the “waiting” time with other work.

It’s also something I rather seriously compartmentalize. Two of the projects are currently in the “waiting” stage. I’m waiting for one of them to get me proofs, and for feedback on the other, so currently I don’t really consider either of those as “active.” I don’t know exactly when they will be “active” again, but, until they hit my mailbox with the next step and a new deadline, they’re basically snoozed.

A downside to the “waiting on other people” can be that multiple things hit your inbox at once. There was that one memorable year when I wrote three chapters for different collections, plus a book, and things just kept hitting my inbox with tight deadlines and a lot of tasks. That’s when I had to step my compartmentalization up to the next level, assigning each project a block of time per day instead of a block of days.

This is also the time when anxiety can kick into higher gear and imposter syndrome can rear its head, because people are actually reading what I wrote, or they’ll soon be able to. They can pick it apart and tear my argument down piece by piece. (For some reason anxiety never worries that the publisher won’t be able to keep up with demand and people will complain about that.)

And usually when you get feedback, there are at least some positive comments in the mix … but you’re not concentrating on those. You’re looking at what you have to change, and how you’re going to do it, and whether you’re going to be able to keep to your main goals and ideas secure while responding to outside influences. (This is why it’s nice to only have one project in the feedback part of the process at a time, if possible, so at least you can retreat to something else for a break.)

And honestly, it’s only when I have to catch someone else at my life that I step back and see the forest for the trees. I know that’s usually meant as something people should do, because otherwise they miss things, but … for me, at least, focusing on one project at a time (and strictly outlining what those times should be) helps me block out the wider anxieties and put as much of my energy as possible into the project at hand.

How do you deal with working on multiple projects at once?

Jack the Ripper and hypnotism

At the beginning of the year, I was contacted and asked if I’d be interested in writing the foreword to a book involving hypnotism (the author’s area of study) and Jack the Ripper (mine). I’ll admit that I was a little dubious even after I agreed, since I tend to avoid fiction about the Ripper but, once I had the proofs in hand, I was fascinated.

Donald K. Hartman collected two Ripper narratives from 1888 and 1889, both of which use hypnotism in their explanation of why the Ripper killed. Hartman also makes a case for both stories as having the same author, with one written under a pseudonym, and goes on to detail the life of Edward Oliver Tilburn. That’s an adventure in and of itself, but I’m going to stick to the Ripper here.

As I mention in my foreword, the obsession with the Ripper story isn’t just about discovering who the Ripper actually was, but also explaining why someone would kill like this. It’s a question of motive, and we ask it of every serial killer. It’s comforting to have an answer – for example, to say “Ted Bundy killed women who looked like the one who dumped him in college,” since that makes his choice of victims somehow explicable and also means that women could do something as simple as changing their hairstyle to keep themselves from becoming his next victim. (It is, of course, always up to women to keep themselves safe.)

The question was especially prevalent in the 1880s because the existence of someone who killed strangers for his (or her) own devices just seemed so foreign. This wasn’t the era of serial killers and CSI – there was no handy term to use for such a person. The backstory that seems done to death in 2021 didn’t exist in the late 19th century. There wasn’t the Crime Classification Manual or interviews with violent offenders to form a framework. The question of “What sort of person would do this?” didn’t have even a vague, profile-heavy answer.

Hartman provides us with reprints of two stories that respond to the question with “Well, hypnotism’s involved, so that explains a lot.”

Twenty-first century readers might have to force their eyebrows down over the hypnotism specifically, but the two stories here have much in common with contemporary narratives. One of them has so many similarities to NBC’s Hannibal that it’s almost a Ripper AU fanfic. There’s no cannibalism, but an innocent younger man crosses paths with an older man whose obsession is dangerous and immoral, and the two of them begin an intense, destructive relationship.

Once the author (or authors) establishes that at least part of the Ripper was due to hypnotism, it clarifies a lot for the Victorian audience. Already the Ripper is involved in something dark and mysterious, on the edges of society, that really shouldn’t be touched. Once a hypnotist is involved, there’s really not much of a stretch to include murder. One outsider easily becomes another, and the danger of the hypnotist is that of Charles Manson: he doesn’t have to be present at the murder to have caused it, and his powers are so great that he can influence someone who’s otherwise innocent to transgress enough and commit murder simply because he wanted them to.

Neither of these stories intends to actually explain who the Ripper was – that is, to honestly name a suspect or explain the crimes. They’re entertainment, and Ripper scholars can pick out all the details the author(s) gets wrong in the telling. But the really fascinating thing to me is how they’re so similar to serial killer fiction we see produced today, and how many themes and tropes we still share with the late 1800s.

What do you think – does a Hannibal-esque retelling of Jack the Ripper pique your interest? Is there value in reading these old attempts to explain the Ripper through outdated fears of hypnotism and control?

Is it worth it for humanities scholars to have a website?

This question’s been going around Twitter lately, so here are my thoughts:

  • Yes, because if you have a blog, you have more space to answer questions like this and can link people back to it instead of trying to type out the same answer, but shorter. (I’ve been doing this lately when people ask about academic book proposals: two blog links in one tweet. I’m not crowding your feed, but bam, these are my thoughts.)
  • Yes, because it’s a way for people to reach out and contact you. If you’ve ever tried to track down a scholar based on a thesis or dissertation, you might know: .edu emails disappear. They aren’t always checked. Even though my website hasn’t even been around a year yet, I’ve had multiple people contact me through it, either because they’d already read something about me or they googled something about my research and came across it that way.
  • Yes, because if you don’t have a website, you’re never going to randomly wake up one morning to a notification that Smithsonian Magazine has linked to it. Okay, that’s very specific, but: if you don’t put things out there for people to find (for free), then these things won’t happen. It’s also a place where you can share your research on a more accessible level, both as in “not behind a paywall” and “I don’t have to put on my ‘scholar voice’ when I write this stuff.”

People who are curious about the work I do are more likely to click on a link than they are to buy a book. Especially a book from an academic press – we all know the price tag on those can be higher than average. But, if you read what I post and like what I do, the chances of a purchase go up.

On the other hand, the possible drawbacks:

  • Starting a blog means having to continually produce content. I draw either from research I’ve already done and published or my interactions with other writers, but it still takes time to write up these posts so that there’s continually something new. Having a static website is still totally recommended because of my second point – giving people a current means to contact you – but, if you’re thinking of going the blog route, it’s another to-do in your list.
  • Costs. Depending on the kind of website you want, you might have to budget for it. There are plenty of opportunities for people who don’t know either coding or design (hello!) to set up their own websites, but taking the time to look around and decide which one seems best for you is a cost of its own.
  • Overnight success takes a decade. Well, maybe not quite that long, but I looked at this website and blog as a long-term investment. Sure, the views and comments would be low at first, but … maybe … some day … even more things will happen that I never dreamed of. Through all of the “shouting into the void” weeks, though, you still need to be producing content. That’s just something to be prepared for.

What do you think? Do you have your own website? What’s your experience been like?

You’re not a train

Say you’re sitting down to write a new project and it’s just … not working. You’ve got a deadline coming up, but that doesn’t seem to be helping. You’re going through all of your usual tricks to get words on the page, and the blinking cursor still taunts you.

The thing is, you’re not a train. You’re not stuck to a single track. There’s more than one way to get from point A to point B.

Trains can only go where the tracks have been laid, and the tracks themselves have to follow a bunch of rules: no turns tighter than such-and-such. No inclines steeper than so-and-so. They need this much track to get up to speed, and this much to stop, and if they come off the tracks, they’re in big trouble. Anything from a cow to an avalanche can ruin everything, up to and including your perfect murder plot on the Orient Express.

But you’re not a train.

That’s one of the reasons there are so many “how to write” books out there. Maybe a bunch of writers agree on certain sets of train tracks, and there’s a lot of traffic there, and maybe they even usually work for you, but the world is so much more than train tracks. There are paved roads, and dirt roads, and trails through the woods, and not only are you capable of off-roading when necessary, you can even fly. You’re a drone with controls in the hands of a master.

Not a train.

I fall into this, too: thinking that, since x, y, and z have worked well for me in the past, they’re the only paths I have. The only ones I know. The only way to get from point A (the blank screen) to point B (the completed manuscript.)

As though I haven’t read (and rejected) other ways of writing, and I haven’t heard about other apps and technology, and there’s no pen or paper in the house.

When you get stuck with writing, the best thing is to stop trying to force it and take some time away. Deadlines don’t always allow for that, so the second best thing is to stop trying to force it this way and try another approach. Instead of cutting straight on through, the way you always have, look for a different path to see if it’ll skirt the issue and get you where you need to be.

It’s like the old rhyme about going on a bear hunt, except you can go under it. Or around it. Or over it. You’re not forced to always stay on the same tracks and always go through it.

You’re not a train.

The tracks are there, and well-known, and comfortable, but if they’re not meeting your needs right now … leave them. Seek out the path that’ll get you where you need to be, because sometimes plowing through the trees gets you there faster than continuing to inch painfully along the tracks.

(With apologies to my brother, who might actually be a train. He works at the Strasburg Railroad, and that’s him in the front. He’s even written a book about trains and how to make your own.)

Blinders on

There are a lot of times I point out how useful it is to put on your metaphorical blinders when you’re working on a project – or especially when you’re working on multiple projects. Having a clear focus helps keep you from getting sidetracked, especially if today you’re supposed to be working on Manuscript 2, so stop thinking about 1. But, sometimes … the blinders work against you.

Lately I’ve been working toward the tail end of a couple projects. Proofreading, final manuscript preparations, that kind of thing. Generally surface-level stuff and final checks before sending something off. I’ve just finished the current step on a couple of these, and I was telling a friend that I don’t know what I’m going to do with the rest of my week, since I know I’m getting comments back from someone next week.

He told me he’s spending his week reading.

… oh. Right.

I’ve been so focused on these particular steps for these particular projects that I’ve been ignoring the stack of books to the left of my desk in my “read these next” pile. Not to mention a whole bunch of other books lined up behind them.

I have to admit, though, that this isn’t new. Once I get to the end of my to-do list, even two items at a time, there’s generally a moment of stunned silence and a feeling of “Uh … so what now?” I’ve been so focused on getting this one thing done – thank you, blinders – that, once I’ve checked it all off, I have to blink a few times before I can back up and take a look at the forest again.

So: this week, I’ll be reading. Also known as “putting words back in my brain.” Making notes in the margins and highlighting all sorts of things and writing down any new ideas and connections that occur. (But not messing with anything I’ve already handed off – nope: once you put something out there for someone else to look over, don’t even look at it again. Because you can’t go changing it now, anyway.)

Writing blinders, off. Reading blinders, on.

Tools of the trade – digital

It’s the third point of the triangle: my favorite purely-digital writing tools. Once again there’s a selection, depending on what part of the process I’m in. I don’t use all of these every single day – except maybe Microsoft Word – but they all tend to play a role in every writing project.

Microsoft Word – Yeah, I know, but first, most places want you to submit as a Word document, and second, I’m not going to talk about the typing aspect. While it’s useful, and my comfort my word processor, lately I’ve been utilizing the “Read Aloud” feature.

You can adjust the reading speed, but I keep it a little slow and jerky because I’m not really listening to get the meaning of what I’m writing. I use it to proofread, because Read Aloud won’t add extra words in if I’ve missed them, won’t skip over the extra words I’ve put there, and will pronounce whatever word I’ve written instead of the one I think I’ve written. Proofreading your own work is hard, but listening to a semi-robotic voice cover exactly what’s on the page helps.

Scrivener – I’m not as die-hard a Scrivener fan as some of my friends, but I’ve been playing around with it more since the update earlier this year. Scrivener lets you view things as notecards (a plus for me, considering my analog tool preference), move them around, and get an overview more easily than Word. You can choose how closely to zoom in on your work and when to pull back to see how it all fits together.

If you just jump in without watching the tutorial, you’ll probably be lost and think it’s pointless. It might not work for your writing style anyway even after you do watch the tutorial, but there are a lot of steps and processes built in to Scrivener that make it … Scrivener. Going through the tutorial means knowing all of the possibilities, and you might stumble across a different way of thinking about your writing.

Pro Writing Aid – A self-publishing friend of mine recommended Pro Writing Aid because it, like Scrivener, gives you a different way of looking at your work. You can try it out for free on the website with a small sample and play around with the various reports it offers. For me, Pro Writing Aid works best when I’ve got the writing as strong as I can, so it comes near the end of the process – I haven’t tried composing in the program, but just importing once it’s fairly polished.

All the reports and suggestions can be overwhelming, so it’s recommended to work on small sections at a time, anyway. It helps give an overview of your writing weaknesses and crutches, beyond “just” grammar and usage.

Dragon (formerly Dragon Naturally Speaking) – Whenever I mention this one, I get hit with “Oh, I could never dictate my writing!” I mean, not with that attitude …

There’s a learning curve. Any new process or technology has a learning curve. I first downloaded Dragon in December 2020 to give my hands a break because, for some reason, I decided to completely NaNoWriMo (50,000 words) in two days. Ow. So I looked into various dictation tools I already owned, and then went with Dragon because it’s not an add-on – it’s all they do.

And yes, you start off slow and feeling kind of silly. Yes, you have to train yourself to add in punctuation. But again, Dragon offers something that typing doesn’t, the way different programs have their own affordances and limitations. I like being able to dictate when my hands feel like they need a break, and I’ve put enough time into it that I can switch back and forth, depending on how I want to write that way. You absolutely can dictate your writing, if you decide it’s worth the time and effort.

What other digital writing tools do you use? Is there anything else I should try?

Tools of the trade: analog

There are a lot of steps to the writing process, and I’ve used a lot of tools over the years. (Fun fact: I wrote my first “novel” when I was 15. It ended up being about 25,000 words, all written by hand, using a mechanical pencil and college-ruled notebook paper.) Some tools come, and some go, but I’ve found that a number of hands-on pieces still work really well for me, especially in the planning stage.

Pens and markers and highlighters, oh my: I like thick, bold lines, so I’m apt to reach for Sharpies or markers. My husband writes with the finest pens he can find. On the plus side, we’re not going to steal each other’s writing utensils.

It’s kind of like what they say about kitchen knives: the best one is the one you’re going to use. The one that feels good in your hand. And, in the case of writing, the one that leaves the sort of mark you want it to leave. (Leaving marks with kitchen knives is a different story.)

I’m also all about colors. When I’m reading or taking notes, I’ll have at least two on hand: one for the important things, and one for the stuff I want to stand out as even more important. I know this about myself, so in the Before Times when writing in coffee shops was common, I always made sure I had multiple pens in my bag before going out to one.

I mentioned the Frixion brand in my other post, and they’re not just for Rocketbook – they work on normal paper, too, and erase with the heat from the friction of rubbing at the page with the rubberized “eraser.” I use their pens, markers, and highlighters for basically everything, because then I get my nice bold lines but also the ease of being able to fix any mistakes. (Note that disappearing in heat means don’t leave any important documents in your hot car, and that you shouldn’t sign important documents with them. Every tool has its intended purpose.)

Index cards and sticky notes: I like being able to capture ideas or due dates in bite-sized, discrete chunks. I’ve got a number of reminders posted around my desk on bulletin boards or just stuck there to keep me on top of the various projects I’m working on (because there are always overlapping timelines). These are, of course, color-coded, because I’m me.

It feels easier for me to have not only the condensed space of this smaller sheet, but also the ability to be able to move them around or toss them out if necessary. There’s something about typing an outline or initial ideas on a computer that feels too polished and final. In the initial brainstorming stages, I want to be able to write things down, cross things out, and shift them into new groups to discover better connections. Being able to physically move sticky notes around helps me do that.

I will frequently do sort of a quick study on plain white index cards or just one color of sticky notes and then, once I’m starting to see the shape of the project, group them and write them out again on different colors to trace the themes and ideas. I like the visual aspects of being able to pull back and see an entire project laid out like that, and then being able to focus today’s writing on just one of the points.

The Mover Family: the idea here combines sticky notes and magnets. I backed their first kickstarter campaign to get a number of sticky notes in two different colors and a couple of the magnet boards to place around my workspace. It’s like having eternally restickable sticky notes (and the new version turns each magnet from a finite amount of sticky notes that need to be replaced into mini whiteboards).

I like these because they’re meant to be moved and displayed, and the new whiteboards will cut down on the number of sticky notes I use. (Yeah, I know, there are apps and things that will look like sticky notes and index cards, but sometimes I want the feel of a pen in my hand and something in my own handwriting.)

What analog writing tools do you like to use?

Tools of the trade: hybrids

I think it’s a fairly common lament these days: I like writing by hand, but. But then I have to type it up. But then I forget it or lose it. But it’s just not feasible to share.

Personally I like writing by hand. I know it makes me think differently, and using different pens and colors helps me sort through my thoughts and get organizes. I also use two different tools that merge the handwritten and the digital. (I’m not sponsored by either of them. Yet. I just like good tools that make the writing process easier.)

First, there’s Livescribe. It’s a pen-and-paper system that pairs with an app via Bluetooth to digitize your handwritten notes and also to transcribe them. Let’s break it down a little.

  • The pen: the one I have is older, so it’s got a thicker barrel than most pens. You replace the ink cartridge when it runs out – I’ve used both black and blue. This is what syncs with your phone, so you don’t want to misplace it. It feels like writing with a normal pen because it basically is a normal pen, at least where the ink meets the paper.
  • The paper: you need to use Livescribe dot paper with the pen, or else it doesn’t work. There are all kinds of notebooks and sticky notes, so you can find the style that works best for you. The paper isn’t blinding white – it can take a little bit to get used to the gray – but it feels like normal paper. You have to activate each notebook before you use it, and archive the old ones, so the pen doesn’t get confused and try to put your writing from page 1 in the new notebook on top of page 1 from the old one.
  • Pros and cons: Livescribe will transcribe your handwriting into text at the flick of a finger, and it’s fairly accurate. It’s at least faster for me to transcribe, copy into a document, and fix a few things than to have to type up my entire pages of notes. The ink only comes through as black, though, no matter which cartridge you use. This isn’t for you if you want your notes in color or if you need to routinely sketch or doodle for your notes. You will also fill up the notebooks and need to get more, but it took me over a year to complete my big spiral-bound one – and, for once, I did actually use every page.

My other go-to is Rocketbook. There’s a wider selection of pens (markers, and highlighters), but the “paper” doesn’t actually feel like paper. It uses your phone’s camera to digitize what you put on the page.

  • The pens: Rocketbook needs to be used with any Frixion-brand products. There’s a wide variety writing implements in this case, and colors? Use all the colors. As long as it’s Frixion, you can use it, from extra fine line pens to nice thick markers.
  • The paper: Rocketbook notebooks are reusable, so they don’t have nearly as many pages as Livescribe notebooks. My current favorite – the flip, with the binding at the top – has 16 sheets. Each sheet is lined on one side and has a dot grid on the other. The paper is thicker, and shinier, which is why you can erase what you’ve written after you’ve scanned it in. The newer versions erase with water. Some older notebooks, with more paper-like paper, erased using heat (you’d stick it in the microwave) so double-check which kind you have and don’t microwave other notebooks.
  • Pros and cons: Rocketbook turns your page into an image or a PDF. There’s no transcription, but it shows you exactly what you wrote or drew, in the proper colors. You can also set up the symbols at the bottom of the page to automatically upload your files into specific places – I’ve got mine going to different files on my Google drive, depending on what project it’s for. You can scan multiple pages into a single document, or jump around from page to page, depending on inspiration.

Both of these systems mean I can pull up digitized versions of notes in my phone in case I’m out somewhere and need to look something up. Livescribe means I have the paper cop on hand in case I ever need it, but Rocketbook means being able to erase and reuse without having to buy more notebooks. Livescribe means just buying ink refills, but Rocketbook can mean either buying pen refills or another set of pens. Livescribe transcribes, but Rocketbook saves your ideas in full color. I use each of them for different purposes, depending on what part of the process I’m in.

Have you used either Livescribe or Rocketbook? Which one’s your favorite? Is there another brand you think I should try?