Friday, February 22, 2008

Writing "The End"

Writing "The End" at the end of a novel is a pretty good feeling but it can also feel overwhelming. The thing is that the real work begins now. Taking everything you've written and trying to edit it so it can go out in the world. This is especially true of A Few Kinds of Wrong (AFKOW) for me. I've never had so many starts and stops with any piece of writing, never gone down so many paths only to completely go back and cut them out. It is mostly because it is a very different book for me, more character driven than plot driven and more melancholy than light-hearted. I kept falling back into using plot devices to move things along. Even the one that I did use (because, no matter what, things must move along with something), I had to have a talk and encouragement from my friend Trudy and my husband (always my first reader) to know it was okay to do it.

And, as anyone who has ever written "The End" knows, by the time you get there, you have spent so much time inside these people's heads and inside their lives, that you lose all sense of perspective. By the time you reach the last part of the book, you feel like this is the worst thing ever written and that you've just wasted all this time and energy on it. All the words seem stale and it feels like you've said them a hundred times already and you wonder who in the world will care about these dreadfully boring people and what is happening to them. Thankfully, I have a group of writers around me who I can say that to and they'll remind me that it's normal. And thankfully, I have a dog-eared copy of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird I can turn to as well because no one can remind you of the insecurities and fears that live inside a writer's head like Anne Lamott.

For those of you who haven't read it (and you really should, whether you're a writer or not I think there are lots of life lessons in there), the title comes from a time when Lamott's ten-year-old brother had a school assignment about birds due the next day. Overwhelmed, with books about birds all around him, the boy was close to tears. His father sat down, put his arm around the boy's shoulder and said "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird." And as I look at my notebooks full of all those stops and starts, the completed sections of AFKOW with "[insert such and such a section here]", the unnamed text files on my computer typed on the Neo that I am not sure belong in the book or not, the whole vast, overpowering lot of it, I have to tell myself to "take it bird by bird, Tina. Bird by bird" and then it feels okay (well, kind of--the whole having a baby in less than three weeks makes it feel a lot more overwhelming too, but Lamott has a great book for that too).

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Online product reviews

I've come to understand that one must take any online product reviews with a grain of salt. Most people are reasonable but some people have very high expectations going in. Like the speakers I recently bought for my MP3 player. They are small, portable, can use AC power but can also be powered by 4 AA batteries. This must tell you not to expect any mind blowing sound, the kind that can be heard in the midst of a great party. But I didn't want that. I wanted some subtle background noise while I write, I wanted to be able to carry them to different rooms and I wanted to be able to take them outside on the patio or to the beach, in the summer. I could also pop them in a suitcase for when I'm in the hospital after having baby next month. And these fit the bill perfectly. So perfectly that when my sister-in-law saw and heard them she immediately got the same ones. They were on sale at Princess Auto of all places and very reasonably priced for what I got. But I've been looking for the right MP3 speakers for a while now and have been researching them a lot. Mostly I check out Amazon for such reviews. I'm doing the same now for booster seats, travel stroller systems, and baby slings. But, like I said, I take them with a grain of salt.

These are supposed to be reviews about the product. They get a rating out of five stars and a written review. Some are quite comprehensive, some are short and sweet, and some are inane. The inane ones tend to give a one star rating and say things like "this is the best [insert product category here] I have ever used and I think everyone should buy it but I bought it from Online Selling Company and they just put it in an envelope. I'm amazed it arrived in one piece. Their shipping sucks". Well, go rate the company somewhere and give the product you love the five stars it deserves, please. Other inane reviewers just expect too much. Like with the various minispeakers I've been researching. Someone might review a small set of speakers, running on four AA batteries like this: "I wish I could give negative stars because these are the worst speakers ever. I had a party of 350 people the other night in a rented nightclub and no one could hear the music. I paid $29.99 for these and all they did was ruin my party. Stay away!"

While booking a cruise for our honeymoon, hubby and I checked out reviews of cruises and found the same thing. People would give awful ratings and warn you to not travel certain cruise lines and when you read the details it was because "my whole vacation was ruined because of the food. Not one morning did I get crispy bacon. Never travel with these people" or other minuscule things like that. You also have to remember that people don't go out of their way to praise things as often as they'll go the extra mile to criticize and complain.

If you take the time to read the reviews you will be able to exclude the reviews which don't add much to the debate. You will also be able to quickly identify patterns in reviews. Like if a lot of people seem to have the same problem with a product while others don't. Sometimes those who don't have the problem might suggest why other people are having this recurring problem. Mostly this involves not reading the instructions. Like some silicone baby bottle nipples I bought a few years ago. I checked them out online and it was pretty split between the people who thought they were fantastic and the the people who said they were complete garbage and didn't work. But if you read carefully, you could see that the people who liked it kept reminding people that they had to boil the nipples for a certain period of time in order for them to open up or they wouldn't work, as explained on the package contents. So I bought them, boiled them and they worked great, And that's the point. Online reviews can be great but you have to be careful and thorough when reading or you might miss out on a great product.

And as incredibly funny examples of all of the above, see the reviews on Amazon for the Bic Crystal Ballpoint Pen and Milk. With review titles like "not a crystal ball", "Not as flavorful as a good ham" and "doesn't teach alphabet" for the pen, and "Doesn't Work with Macs" and "WARNING: Causes Mustache!" for the milk, these people really get the truth about online product reviews.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Facebook status updates

I was chatting with my friend the other day about a particularly incredible facebook status update. Status updates are places on facebook where people can update you, in a sentence or two, about what's going on with them. It's very like Twitter which I ranted about before. I think such updates can be put into several categories. Feel free to add some categories if you think I've forgotten any. And for you people who refuse to get on facebook--yes, I am talking to you, dear sister-in-law--well, this is just one more thing to prove you right. Here are the categories and some (purely made up) examples:

  • The really what I am doing category. This is the most boring but yet the most reasonable of them all. Examples are:
    • Tina is frying some eggs and then will be doing the dishes.
    • Tina just talked on the phone and is now watching TV.
    • Tina is typing in facebook (which is what all these should be).
  • The vague feeling category. Almost as boring. Examples are:
    • Tina is tired.
    • Tina is happy.
    • Tina is having a great day.
  • The mysterious category. These tell you nothing but drive you nuts with curiosity. Examples are:
    • Tina is thinking about it.
    • Tina is making the big move.
    • Tina cannot believe it.
  • The even more mysterious category. These don't tell you much more but make you even more curious or, more likely, worried. Examples are:
    • Tina is debating making the single biggest move in her life.
    • Tina is waiting for the tests to come back and praying that they're negative.
    • Tina is just back from the lawyer's office.
  • The mysterious mourning/illness category. This is the worst mystery one and usually sends me off on a mad hunt to track down who is sick/dead and more info on the circumstances. Examples are:
    • Tina hopes that Pedro recovers soon and that any brain damage is not permanent.
    • Tina is hoping that Dora rests in peace.
    • Tina is saddened by the loss of her best friend. Rest in peace, dear friend.
    • Tina is sending her love to the Smith family on their loss.
  • The complaining category. I think everyone does this one from time to time but it is a slippery slope and can be done too much. Examples are:
    • Tina has not slept in 47 nights. Please someone kill me now.
    • Tina is tired of throwing up.
    • Tina has a painful boil on her leg. Going to get it lanced this afternoon.
  • The passive-aggressive category. Getting it off your chest can be helpful, I guess. Examples are:
    • Tina wishes her husband was not such an asshole (just to emphasize, totally fictional, hubby is great).
    • Tina wonders why people say hurtful things then expect you to be their friend. (Cross-referenced with the mysterious category)
    • Tina wishes people would mind their own bloody business. (Cross-referenced with the mysterious category)
  • The airing your dirty laundry category. Really, people, we can know too much. Examples are:
    • Tina wants everyone to know that she was right. Carl is the father, just like I said!
    • Tina knew that sleeping with that guy last night was a bad idea (but call me, I can't remember your name).
    • Tina hates you Erica because you are a whore and I know what you did with my boyfriend last night, you slut!
Some people manage to make their updates funny too but I don't have any examples I can use without stealing so I won't. Ideally, one should mix it up a bit, changing categories from time to time and not sticking too much with one or the other. I would advise staying away from the airing your dirty laundry altogether, but that's just me.

Tina is finishing this blog post.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Voice recognition software (or The old do to move the man's)

The problem with writing longhand is that eventually you have to type all the stuff you've written. This is where I am now. Since I find this typing such a waste of time and since I don't like it much, and since no other human being could ever read my scrawl (I spend long minutes staring at paper trying to figure out what in the world a certain squiggly line I made means), I decided to try out some voice recognition software. I've never believed in it very much, having tried it years ago but I read some online reviews and it seemed that it had come a long way. Some people said it actually worked quite well. These people must be trained, professional actors with years of training in voice and enunciation. I, quite simply, am not. I've been known to mumble when I talk and I have a pretty thick bay accent. But when I concentrate, I can speak more clearly and slow down my normal rate of speaking. Plus, the software allows you to train it to your own voice so one would expect it could figure it out. Problem solved. No more typing for Tina.

Here are the first few lines of my test as the computer recognized it when I transcribed it (after I thoroughly trained the software to recognize my voice):

"'s absence has order for a couple of weeks my life changed. I came home from work with day before five every day and we are sad at the table together to eat. They had picked up his dishes from the table and insisted I do the same. There didn't see it in his recliner chair in the corner and read the paper. He set next ma'am the coach watch TV with her calmer his looking strange around her shoulders as he fidgeted.
When I went to bed on him typing, listening to them as they both went to bed at the same time calmer mount hacking caring for their bedroom and sales I didn't understand then came from them."

So, now you think that English is not my first language or that I am writing a sordid novel about a new fetish where people mount and type on top of each other in bed, but I'm not. The word 'calmer' that keeps coming up is actually the word 'comma' as in I am asking the software to put punctuation in the paragraph for me. Later I tried using the actual word 'calmer' and it typed it as 'karma'. It quickly became apparent that it would take more time correcting the mistakes in my work transcribed by the voice-rec software than it would to type the stuff on my lovely Alphasmart Neo, or, as the voice-rec software calls it "my Neill".

And now, as another test, the beginning of the Ode to Newfoundland:

"The old do to move the man's

when Sunday is crowned iced pine clad hills"

Makes you teary-eyed and patriotic, doesn't it? And it leaves me wondering just what the old do to move the man's. And the man's what? The possibilities are endless.

Sigh. Ah well, it's back to pounding on the keyboard for me. Just me and my good friend, Neill.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Warning, warning

It seems that every day there's a new warning out. Whether it's baby bottles leeching BPA into little systems; or the phthalates we are told are contained in baby lotions, shampoos, and baby powders (but we're not told which ones exactly so I guess when my baby comes next month, it will have to remain dirty and stinky or full of phthalates); or lead-tainted paint in toys from China, the list keeps getting longer and it makes me wonder do we know too much? I mean I'm sure that keeping these things from babies is a good thing and now that we know, let's fix it, but have they been there all along and we've been okay with it or are we (and by "we" I mean the scientists looking for research dollars which certainly does not actually include "me") just stretching around trying to find something to look for and scare us? If they continue to study every possible problem with this kind of intensity and keep finding stuff to scare the beejeezus out of me, I'm going to have to hide out somewhere safe like....hmmm, are there phthalates on the moon?

When I did a parenting class before my son was born, the nurse teaching it said something like everything I am going to tell you means that my children should be dead. Meaning that all the stuff she told us we should not do, were the very things she did with her children. Babies slept happily on their bellies, drank Carnation milk, ate solid food earlier, and had decorative bumper pads around their cribs. Yet, we didn't seem to have the all the allergies and asthma that are around now. In the six years between the birth of my nephew and the birth of my son, the authorities changed things like the way the baby should sleep. My nephew was supposed to sleep on his side to prevent SIDS. My son had to sleep on his back. In the four years between babies even, I am now told to forgo using alcohol to clean the remnants of the umbilical cord on the newborn and that I should only use water. I forget the reasoning behind that but I have heard word of mouth reports of increased infections in said umbilical cords since this new policy came into being. Stay tuned. Any of these things may change before baby comes.

And if those warnings are not enough, there's the ones that people want in place because other people can't be trusted to use things safely. Like the latest push to have special warnings on cotton swabs. A man recently died after perforating his eardrum with a cotton swab then an infection he already had in his ear spread and caused meningitis. Suggestions for warnings include a small ear with a red x over it on cotton swab packaging. I thought everyone knew that you're not supposed to put anything smaller than your elbow inside your ear. Admittedly, I didn't know that you could die from such a thing but I did know it could pierce your eardrum and I figure I'd go see the doctor if I did such a thing. Then there's the even more infuriating situation where cough and cold medicines for very young children were completely pulled from the shelves because people had been making mistakes and doing things like giving too much to their children or mixing more than one dose of differing cold medications together. Do we have to pull things away from people who are quite capable of reading instructions and administering medicine to their children safely because other people cannot? Where do we draw the line? No more toasters because people may stick forks in them to remove their toast, no more sharp knives for fear parents will give them to children as playthings? Warnings have to be uber-stupid sometimes because companies can and will be sued if something happens and they did not warn you (like that if you eat too much junk food, you could get fat or if you go to a haunted house you'll be scared). But when they take things away from people who use these things responsibly, what is next?

Anyone know where I can buy a phthalate-free, BPA-free gigantic protective plastic bubble my family and I can live in?