Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A break from the interwebs

For Memorial Day, I went on a road trip to Phoenix for a hockey tournament. Our hotel didn’t have free wi-fi, and I thought maybe I needed a moment to clear my head of all the internet bologna that goes along with research. It was awesome. 

I read a book in a day (I haven’t done that in a long time). 

I played way too much hockey. 

I did nothing productive towards my revisions, my WIP, my dissertation, or anything. It was great. I’ve needed a break, and it’s always good to get out of the home town and see other places (saguaro cacti are really ridiculous; they look like someone took a bunch of fuzzy toothpicks and played a prank on the mountains, pure awesome).

Great fun, good break. I'm completely exhausted, but I'm excited to get back to work on everything.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Draft in Book's Clothing

Someone handed me a book today. It actually looked pretty promising, actually. It's a collection of anecdotes and stories, nothing so concise as a memoir, but none the less, slice of life. It looked, interesting, so I grabbed it off the Free to Good Home Bookcase (yeah, my department has a free to good home book case), and I started reading it.
Now, the cover looked good. It looked professional, even. But then I started reading it. In the three pages that I read, I could tell beyond a doubt that it was a vanity press. I couldn't tell what the author was trying to say, there were terrible typos, factual data missing, and I even came across a place where the author was going to fix something and never got back to it (it was a string of letters in alphabetical order, I use DEAD BEEF myself).
Suspicious that this book, recommended as a good book, was actually a vanity press, i looked up the publisher. I am a research scientist by trade, and yeah: Vanity press.
I recognized so quickly it was a self published book, that I didn't even go through the whiny "How did this get published moment." You know the moment, where you read a terrible book--or more accurately, a book that you think is terrible--and think to yourself "Well, this got published," then you whinge on about 'if this got published, then why can't my book get published?'
I know we should all avoid these moments in our lives, and I have to admit that plenty of people say exactly these sorts of things to me all the time. But I'm ruined. I can't even rise to the bait anymore.
I think someone wore out the part of me that thinks that way. I have a friend. We'll call her Jen* for the time being. Jen doesn't like Twilight (Disclaimer: I'm not Jen, and I read the whole book. I know for a fact that Jen did not even read a chapter. While I'm not head over heels in love with Twilight, I can see why some people really enjoyed the book, and that's great for them). In fact, Jen takes every moment of her life to bash Twilight, specifically saying that "If that can get published, then I'm a shoe in." I've heard it so often that I now do the dreaded smile-and-nod. It's not that I don't agree (although, actually I don't agree with the "If x is crap and it got published, then my sort-of-almost-okay novel should also be published" idea), it's that I no longer care.
I've been working so hard at getting my own stuff into good shape that I just don't have the time to waste being annoyed at other peoples good fortune. Because that's what it comes down to when we think things like "If that got published, and my stuff is way better, it should be published to." What we're really saying is, "Damn they got lucky to get their piece of crap published, and I'm very unlucky for not getting my stellar piece of divinity on toast published." And that's not the case.
The more I work on this process, the more I see that my crazy dream about carving offers out of stone wasn't that far fetched. It is hard work to put together something that anyone will consider, let alone offer to represent, and that's not even getting into the whole actually selling and publishing the book thing. It is Hard Work. Yes, there is some luck, but my friend really fails to see that even the worst book she's ever read was edited by the author, probably more than once, edited by an agent, edited by the editors at the publisher, and probably edited once more before actually passing the gate to being published. In short, lots and lots of work went into that book. Mountains more work goes into a book than goes into a first draft, and that's why first drafts are so obvious. So obvious that I can spot one, even when it's dressed up in book clothing.
It really did look professional, until I read any of it.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A James Bond Villain

Let’s not mince words. Anyone who has a cat knows what I mean: I am owned by cats. 


There might as well be a little speech bubble that says “mine.”

I’ve been owned by many cats over the years, but I’ve only ever had one James Bond Villain cat. She’s a lovely Russian Blue, but the word that describes her: feline. She is the epitome of all things cat. Tigers, lions cheetahs, they have nothing on my cat Puck. 

This is probably the best picture of her:

Pathetic, I know. See, she’s careful of cameras lest they give away her true identity, but I’ve grown cunning, and managed to snap a few good pictures of her (even one of her letting my 2-year old ride her, but don’t let the Evil League of Evil know that, I’m sure they’re processing her application as I type).

Whenever Puck sits next to me on the couch I’m one monocle away from being a James Bond Villain—well, minus the money and the great evil plot to destroy the world—and somehow, Puck knows when I’m working on the bad guys in my stories. I’ve been plotting away all afternoon thinking about my villain, and who came to sit next to me: Villain Cat. 
And now I'm feeling properly evil...

Thursday, May 19, 2011


I don’t think it’s any big secret, but many of us suffer from low self esteem. It’s pretty much the one topic that’s been constantly brought up since I was in grade school: the importance of self confidence and self esteem. I suck at both of those. 

All my friends are shocked to learn that I suffer from pathetically low self confidence. You see I have this one quality, this one great and terrible ability. 

I lie. 

I’m not talking about telling falsehoods. I’m morally bound from perpetrating things that aren’t fact, but I am talking about knowing I’m a coward and stepping up to bat like I don’t have a care in the world. I have presented the world with a falsely confident person. My colleagues ask me how I give talks so well. I tell them the hardest part is keeping my knees from shaking too hard to climb up to the podium. 

Do I have confidence? No. Do I think I’m doing a good job? No. I live in mortal fear that someone is going to knock on my office door and say “Ms. Ford, you’re a fraud, and we’re here to make sure you leave the department quietly.” 

I got my degrees like everyone else. I got into the program like all the others (although I happen to know I was the bottom of the barrel, but that’s a whole other issue entirely). Still, I feel like I don’t belong. I don’t feel smart enough. I don’t feel talented enough. I don’t feel good enough. 

When I took my comprehensive examination, I brought boxes. I was so certain I wouldn’t pass that I wanted to be able to pack up and leave as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to embarrass anyone by staying a minute longer than I needed to after I’d failed. 

And then, I didn’t fail. I had all these extra boxes in my office and I had to do something with them. I was in shock. Now everyone says it’s completely ridiculous that I felt that way. What they see in me isn’t what I see in me. 

I blame all those years of riding horses on this false confidence I show to the world. 

With horses, they react the way you do. There’s a reason cowboys are stoic, and it isn’t that they know life’s mysteries. You just can’t let the horses see how scared you are. It’s just the way it goes. Imagine, for instance, riding along a winding road on a cliff side and a snake slithers out onto the track. Panicked horses don’t do rational things. They fall down, roll over people, jump off cliffs, and otherwise endanger lives. Horses will follow anyone who seems to be in control of the situation. A snake on the path is only scary to the horse if it’s scary to the rider. 

And so I spent my time building up this fa├žade to show my horse (he wasn’t that bright either, so I got to be pretty clumsy at first). Now, everyone buys it. My colleagues, my friends, my peers, my students, even my mom. 

The stupid thing is that even though I am wracked with doubt and fear, I actually have done great things. I do have those degrees like all the others. I did get into the program. I have written novels. Sure, I wasn’t the top of the class, and my writing style needs help, but I have still done these things. 

I’ve been faking it, I guess it’s time to start making it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How Lord of the Rings is like getting a PhD

Okay, this post counts as utter procrastination. You see I’m working on my dissertation, and I’ve been working on my dissertation for way too long. People tell me that asking a grad student how long they have left is a lot like asking a woman how old she is: the answers are generally awkward and incorrect. So here it is, a slice of being a grad student, a la Tolkien. (and for the record, someone else told me this joke, but I've made it long and boring, as I'm wont to do).

So, Frodo is there in the Shire, getting his bachelor’s degree. His uncle, who has already studied abroad, introduces Frodo to his old advisor: Gandalf. Bilbo wisely leaves the party at this point, and Gandalf wrangles Frodo into a measly master’s program. “You can just tack it onto the end of your bachelor’s degree, it’ll be painless,” Gandalf says. Well, Frodo, not knowing any better, decides he might as well, so he starts off on his master’s thesis. 

Well, it’s harder than he thought it would be, going from the Shire to Rivendell, but he makes it through his thesis and the defense (the crossing of the ford), but it was much harder than advertised. He thinks it’s the hardest thing he’s ever done, I mean, shoot, it almost killed him. But he’s done. He’s finished. He got his Master’s degree. 

But then his committee start talking after his defense, and they come to the conclusion that really, what Frodo needs is a PhD. And, of course, there’s only one place to get that: Mount Doom (really? He named it Mt. Doom? Why not just call it Plot Mountain, or GM Caveat? Mt. Doom…).  Frodo doesn’t really want a PhD, it’s hard enough to get a job without being way overqualified, not to mention the sheer amount of work. But Elrond offers to be his co-advisor, and between Gandalf and Elrond, what could really go wrong, right?

So, like a fool, Frodo sets off to write his PhD. Along the way he does some research with some rather unsavory co-authors (smeagal, and that disastrous abstract with Boromir), and eventually he has to leave behind his whole committee and take a leap, writing his dissertation on his own (well, he has a beta reader, Sam, but Sam really doesn’t study the same subject, so it’s not as helpful as Gandalf’s feedback would be, but there you have it). Eventually he gets to the point where he’s certain he’ll never make it, but somehow, he manages. They schedule a defense, and his shady co-author tests him mercilessly in the defense, nearly destroying his whole dissertation, but he pulls through that too. In fact, his committee just hangs him out to dry right up until revisions. They heap the revisions on like lava flowing down a mountain, but just when it seems completely impossible, a lab tech (the great eagle) shows him a new technique to wrap up revisions in a flash.

Frodo finishes, but he’s not the same anymore. He’s a different person. But he got his PhD.

And if we followed this analogy, I’m throwing rocks at Mt. Doom, wondering how long it will take me to reach the top.

Monday, May 16, 2011

On Eccentricity

… and I’m not talking about funny orbits, though I could discourse there for a while if people are really interested (thought it’s not as much fun as actual rocket science, my favorite subject in physics).
See, the other day I was talking to a friend-colleague of mine, and he was describing his father. His father has no cell phone. He has no television. He has no computer. He has no answering machine for the-I-$h!7-you-not, rotary telephone. He is, in a word, eccentric. This man is a product of his choices, many of them not to join the rest of the world.
And I got to thinking about all the times I almost bowed out of all pop culture.
As a grad student, well, there isn’t a whole lot of extra time in the world for anything (Yeah, I know, when do I write? Well, the university only owns my thoughts for so many hours out of the day—that’s not actually a joke, the university does actually own my thoughts while I’m on the clock). Every now and then I decide that I’ll never do ______ again. I’ll declare that wasting my time on Pandora only increased my desire to listen to even stranger than normal music. I swore I would never watch TV again. All for the sake of saving time to spend doing something “useful” with my life.
Thankfully, I got over myself, but there are plenty of academic types who never do, my friend’s father among them. Yeah, he’s a little extreme, but I’ve met enough of these people, I can now honestly say, the strange ones stay in school… forever.
Next up, how the Lord of the Rings is just like Grad school.