Literary Miscellanea, Mystery

The Screenwriter of ‘Knives Out’ Reveals the Secret of Mystery-Writing

I recently watched a video of Rian Johnson explaining how he wrote the screenplay for the film Knives Out. His advice finally put to rest my concerns about the mystery genre – concerns that I have written about here and here.

Amazon.com: Knives Out [DVD] [2019]: Movies & TV

Johnson explained that a mystery is not exactly a puzzle to unravel. Instead, the reader is given clues that may not mean very much at the time but make sense at the very end. Although the reader may not be given all of the information she needs to identify the killer or the killer’s motives, she should have have an “aha” moment at the end, when she learns from the detective what all the clues meant. In other words, a mystery is successful when the big reveal corresponds with the clues that have been dropped along the way.

Having discovered the “secret” of mystery-writing, I feel more comfortable with the genre. I have always enjoyed the puzzle of reading mysteries, but I will no longer be frustrated that the novel did not mention everything before the big reveal. Thank you Rian Johnson!

Literary Miscellanea, Mystery

What Constitutes “Fairness” in the Mystery Genre?

One of my favorite genres is mystery – in particular, historical mystery. I enjoy a good mind game set in a small community. Bonus points if the mystery examines social norms or political events. In fact, I would love to write a historical mystery set in 16th century France.

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Yet, despite having read countless mysteries, it seems that I don’t really understand the genre expectations. I have been assuming all along that the reader should be given enough information to identify the killer, but so many mysteries that I have been reading recently withhold key information until the final chapters of the novel. After some research, I’ve learned that this is typical of the genre. I should not expect to be given all of the necessary clues by the 50% mark so that I might figure out the mystery myself.

I just finished a Brother Cadfael mystery (Monk’s Hood) by Ellis Peters and The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne, a recent release by Elsa Hart. Peters’ Cadfael novels take place in a 12th century English monastery, while Hart’s book explores the eccentricities of 18th century collectors in London. Both are relatively quiet despite being murder mysteries. I didn’t mind the characters or the setting, especially since I love history. However, I wish that I had been given all of the clues early on. I was frustrated by the big reveals because I could never have guessed the motivations of the murders since the authors deliberately withheld key information.

I always thought that a mystery was a puzzle that the reader had to unravel. However, that doesn’t seem to be the norm. Have I been missing something? I have read a few articles about the Fair Play Whodunnit subgenre that gives the reader all the clues that she needs to solve the mystery, however most mysteries seem not to qualify. I’ve had the same experience watching the “Father Brown” television series ; the viewer cannot possibly unravel the mysteries with the clues that are given. Father Brown always knows something that we are not privy to. If I rightly identify the killer, I’m just lucky.

If the reader is kept in the dark for so long, what constitutes “fairness” in the mystery genre?

Have you read any mysteries recently that you would consider “fair”? Do you expect to be given all the clues well before the final three chapters of a mystery? Perhaps, I need to shift my expectations.

Miscellaneous

Writing a Thesis Proposal is Hard

In the United States, PhD students take 2-3 years of course work before starting on their theses. Despite being in the program since Fall 2017, I only completed my coursework last semester. I was required to take 3 years of coursework. The American PhD is a very lengthy process. Thankfully, I now only have my thesis to worry about.

writing a thesis proposal is hard

Nevertheless, writing my prospectus has not been a walk in the park. I agonized over it for weeks on end.

The hardest part of doing research in the humanities is finding something new to say. It can often feel like everything has already been done. In popular culture, research is synonymous with looking things up on Google. But that’s not true research. Academic scholarship makes an original contribution to existing knowledge. To obtain a PhD, I must demonstrate that I am asking new questions or taking a new angle on a topic.

I must admit that I contemplated quitting my PhD dozens of times in the past month. This is actually a first for me. Up until now, I’ve always felt that I am meant to do a PhD in French literature. It has always felt like a calling. Nevertheless, the challenge of writing a proposal made me doubt my abilities. No one prepares you for how different research is from writing term papers. I had to overcome many limiting beliefs to push through this proposal, during a pandemic, with the most minimal social contact.

2020 has been a trying year for everyone, but I have come to recognize what a privilege it is to have a job during a pandemic. I’ve also realized that I want to continue in this program. Producing original research will be the hardest thing that I’ve ever done, but I am excited to see where this project will take me.

Despite what the Wall Street Journal might tell you about doing a PhD, it’s really hard. Completing a PhD in the humanities, in education, or in the social sciences is not a straightforward process. It can be just as unpredictable as in the hard or natural sciences. That’s research.

After over a month of self-doubt, I am happy to say that I submitted my proposal to my committee today.

Miscellaneous

How Do Academic Writers Engage With Existing Scholarship? | Rewriting by Joseph Harris

I have been taking language classes all of my life, but for some reason, I was never really taught how I should cite existing scholarship. I knew that I was supposed to say something new and also acknowledge the contribution of other scholars in the field, but I didn’t know how to do that.

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Enter Rewriting by Joseph Harris. Rewriting is all about how scholars and essayists position their arguments in relation to those of other thinkers. If there is one book that I would put into the hands of every incoming graduate student in the humanities, Rewriting would be it.

Harris focuses on three ways that academic writers engage with existing scholarship: forwarding, countering, and taking an approach. Forwarding is when a writer “takes terms and concepts from one text and applies them to a reading of other texts and situations” (6). The goal of forwarding is to show in what way an argument, term, or concept has been helpful in thinking about a new text. Countering is more intuitive. It involves disagreeing with a reading or a concept. The final way – taking an approach – involves applying a theory to a new set of texts or adopting the style of a certain author.

However, before an academic writer can forward, counter, or take an approach, she must come to terms with the scholarship. she must first be able to summarize in her own words the major arguments of the article, book chapter, or monograph in question. In order to find the gap in the scholarship, she must understand the scholarship.

I found the first chapter on coming to terms to be the most useful because it sets the groundwork for the later chapters on forwarding, countering, taking an approach, and rewriting. Here is how Joseph Harris explains coming to terms:

[T]he phrase suggests, a settling of accounts, a negotiation between reader and writer. In coming to terms, you need both to give a text its due and to show what uses you want to make of it. You are not simply re-presenting a text but incorporating it into your own project as a writer. You thus need not only to explain what you think it means but to say something about the perspective from which you are reading it (emphasis, my own) (15).

Harris recommends three practices to come to terms with a text:

  1. summarizing the writer’s project
  2. highlighting key passages and words
  3. considering possibilities and limitations of the approach

Only after an academic writer has come to terms with the text, can she begin to consider how an idea might be forwarded or countered. I often lose sight of the general approach that a scholar is taking, focusing instead on the facts. On the contrary, Harris views all writing – but specifically, academic writing – as a kind of negotiation. Forwarding, countering, and taking an approach involve negotiating terms, approaches, and truth claims. Even when a scholars counters, Harris believes that she should acknowledge her indebtedness (however little) to the formulations being countered. But before she can acknowledge her indebtedness to scholarship she must first come to terms with the scholarship.

Note that all strategies of engaging with existing scholarship are ways of saying something new. The goal of academic writing should never be the regurgitation of past scholarship. When quoting from a work, the writer must demonstrate how the quoted passage contributes to the development of her own argument. This is why your high school teacher taught you to never end a paragraph with a quote.

As I’m writing this post, I am deeply aware of how hard it can be to come to terms with a text. Even Rewriting, despite giving clear and practical advice, can be challenging. I find it hard to summarize in writing the major moves that academic writers make. Thankfully, Harris illustrates what he is teaching. He situates his own craft book in relation to other books on academic writing. Furthermore, he never asks the secondary sources he cites to do the work for him. Instead, he explains how a quoted passage from a novel or essay illustrates the various moves of academic writing.

My only criticism is that Rewriting is riddled with typos. The proofreader must have been on leave because there were typos or every few pages. Nevertheless, I don’t think there is a better book out there about how academics engage and cite the work of others.

Miscellaneous

New Academic Year, New Mindset |PhD Journey

white and browm notebookNew (academic) year, new me. Right? Well, only if I take control of my career.

There are two major areas that need improvement in 2020-2021:

1) Latin. I need to have Latin proficiency by the time I defend my dissertation two years from now, otherwise I will never be an adequate Renaissance scholar. I’ve taken four semesters and one summer of Latin, so I technically should have an intermediate level of proficiency. Unfortunately, I never practice. How ironic that the one Western language that the general public dismisses as “dead” and “irrelevant” is the same language that I DESPERATELY need to know!

2) Writing. I feel like I have the same writing weaknesses that I had when I started the PhD program three years ago. I know that a regular writing practice would help, but I haven’t established one yet.

So what am I going to differently this year?

I’ve realized in the past week that I’m still in “student mode”. I haven’t yet acted on what I know will advance my career.

For starters, I will stop thinking of myself as a student and start thinking of myself as a scholar, even an entrepreneur. The academic job market may be a garbage fire, but the skills that universities look for in job candidates differ little from the skills that other businesses look for in their employees. Writing and project management are just as important in the corporate world as they are in Academia. If I focus on being a scholar who’s reasonably competitive on the job market, I will inevitably develop the skills I need to be marketable in other industries. No one, not even professors, care how many years someone has been a student.

This year, I will think of myself as and perform the tasks of an educator and a scholar. I will reflect on my teaching, develop new lessons, learn Latin, and implement a regular writing practice. I will do all of these things because they are the activities that matter the most to my current PhD and my future career (whether inside or outside Academia).

Reflections

Write the Synopsis First | Academic Writing

academic writingIn the past few months, I’ve been obsessed with AuthortTube (the writing community on YouTube). Although I do not write fiction, so much of what authortubers talk about applies as well to academic writing. Most recently, I came across a series of videos about the process of writing a synopsis. The synopsis is a 1-2 page summary of your book’s plot.

Most writers only prepare a synopsis when they are ready to query agents. Academic writers may even skip this step entirely. But what if we wrote our synopses first? What if, instead of figuring out our arguments while we write, we were to write a 1-2 page summary of our articles or book chapters?

If I cannot summarize my argument in 1-2 pages, I will not be able to do it in 20. For the past few years, I have found organizing my papers particularly challenging. I worry that I have strayed from my original argument. I don’t always know why my argument is important or how it fits in the existing scholarship.

Therefore, I will begin my next academic writing project with a 1-2 page synopsis. I hope that this exercise will make writing the article that much easier.

Mystery, Reflections

I’m Terrible at Guessing Mysteries

Gray Magnifying Glass and Eyeglasses on Top of Open BookAm I the only one who can never decode a mystery? I’ve been reading mysteries off and on for years, and I am still terrible at connecting the dots. At times, I manage to guess the identity of the perpetrator, but I never know why they stood out to me as guilty.

In the past, I have rarely been concerned about my inability to figure out mysteries. Good mysteries keep the reader guessing, anyway. That’s the fun. But my goals for reading crime novels have changed in the last few weeks. I now want to try my hand at writing a murder mystery.

The difference between reading a mystery and writing one is the difference between enjoying magic shows and performing magic yourself. As a spectator, you are expected to buy into the illusion. But a magician has to know how to create the illusion. I have always been impressed by the intricate plot structures of whodunit mysteries, but I am ignorant of the narrative tricks that mystery writers employ. I don’t know what is considered “fair” in the genre.

I recently finished my first Inspector Maigret mystery: Les vacances de Maigret (Maigret on Vacation). Like most readers, I found it a very fun read. I stayed up until 2 am, finishing the last 100 pages of the novel (basically the second half of the book). That is pretty typical for me. Once I get to the interviews, I don’t put the book down until I’ve reached the big reveal. But unlike many readers, I could not piece together the mystery. I asked myself several questions throughout: Which details are important and which details are not? What are the different characters’ intentions? Why do the characters behave this way? I was totally off.

Perhaps, I should reread the story with a pencil. I’ve enjoyed rereading Agatha Christie mysteries in the past. If I reread Maigret on Vacation, would I be able to piece together the plot like so many readers claim to have done?

Writing a mystery sounds fun. I love the detective-work of research. That is what I love about doing a PhD. But can a terrible detective write a good detective novel?

What are your suggestions? Am I alone? Have you ever tried writing a mystery yourself?

Reflections

There’s No Perfect Writing Process | Academic Writing

Image result for the secret miracleMy local library carries a copy of The Secret Miracle, an edited collection of author interviews about the writing craft. I have no intention of reading the book from cover to cover, but I spent an hour late last week exploring the writing routines of a diverse array of successful authors.

And what I learned, surprised me.

I have written before about the dangers of romanticizing writing. The process is messy and hard. Yet, I often assume that all successful authors have type A personalities with strict writing routines. The Secret Miracle pokes holes in the common writing advice that I’ve encountered on AuthorTube or in the writing blogosphere.

True, most of the authors interviewed treat writing as a job with fixed hours, but they don’t all write everyday. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that few authors follow their outlines to a T or rush first drafts. Ultimately, the only “secret miracle” to writing is perseverance.

How long does it take you to finish a draft?

Rodrigo Fresán: I don’t write thinking about a first draft. I edit all the time while writing. Because the first finished version is the only one (and maybe it is the tenth or twentieth draft).

Like Fresán, I edit as I write. I used to be ashamed of my slow writing speed, but many authors, it seems, take ages to produce a polished “first” draft.

How polished do you try to make the prose in a first draft?

Susan Minot: Pretty well polished. Though I do line edit afterward. But the polish is the difference between good writing and average writing.

Claire Messud: Doesn’t everyone always try to write as well as they can, at any given moment? I can’t imagine not caring, whatever draft I’m dealing with. It’s a matter of aesthetics, as much as anything – infelicities, it seems to me, should be deliberate, not a matter of inattention; because they mean something too.

Do you outline? If so, how closely do you follow it?

Andrew Sean Greer: I write a very careful outline and then abandon it halfway through. It is always a difficult moment for me, but of course I know that it is crucial to follow the way the story has grown, even if it means leaving the road and bushwacking my way to the end.

I always have a detailed outline before I start writing an academic paper, but I realize soon enough that my outline contains massive holes. I often produce three or four different outlines while writing my so-called first draft.

If, like me, you spend ages writing a first draft because you don’t always know what you want to say or you are not satisfied with sloppy writing, take heart! You’re not alone. There is no one ideal writing process. Don’t be discouraged by the writing advice you find in self-help books; they work for some people but not for everyone. Find what works for you, and go with that. As long as you reach the finish line, it doesn’t matter that you write slower than your colleagues.

Reflections

Not Dead, Just AWOL (PhD and This Blog)

I am currently beginning the dissertation phase of my PhD. That is my excuse for neglecting to blog for the past few months, despite having read some great works. For most of the summer, I have read books related to my research interests (15th and 16th-century life writing). I have also begun turning a term paper into a journal article. “Begun” is the key word because I’ve only worked for two hours on the paper the entire summer. I tell myself that I’m early in my doctorate program, so it doesn’t matter that I haven’t worked seriously on the article all summer. Nevertheless, I need to adopt some kind of writing routine to reach all of the deadlines that I have set for myself.

But none of this explains why I have not written reviews for the books that I’ve read. The real reason is lack of interest. For some reason, I have not wanted to write reviews for by Luther Blissett or Orlando Furioso by Ariosto. I don’t think that I have grown tired of this blog. On the contrary, I have a list of posts about reading and writing that I’ve wanted to publish for the past six months. It is true, however, that I am less interested in promoting well-known classics than I used to be.

My blog has evolved over the years. I started in 2014, when I was 21 years old. At the time, the blog was called Exploring Classics. I even created a Classics Club list, with the intention of reading those 50 classics in 5 years. I’ve abandoned that project for the past three years. I am now 27, having completed a 2-year master’s program and 2 years into a PhD program. My intellectual and research interests have changed over the years. And of course, I have grown in maturity. Each time, I have adjusted the layout of the blog. Two years ago, I finally gave in and bought a domain name. So Exploring Classics is now Exploring Literature.

Perhaps, I am concerned about what people might think if I were to write about my academic writing struggles. Vulnerability is not my strong suit. But at this point in my academic career, I have experienced some challenges that I want to write about. Other academics may find them relatable. I will continue to post reviews of some of the books I’ve read, but I want to explore literature from a different angle than I have in the past. Rather than focusing predominantly on reviews, I will write more writing and research-related reflections.

I hope that making this post will encourage me to finally make the many posts that I’ve wanted to make for the past few months. Let me know if there are academia-related topics that you would like me to cover on this blog. Thanks for sticking around.

Reflections

Stop Saying That Good Writers Are Born

Image result for self-defeatismI strongly dislike the debate over whether a good writer is born or made. It fosters a defeatist mentality. Why do we feel the need to ask this question in the first place?

I particularly dislike this debate because it’s so hard to evaluate. Who do we consider a “good” writer? Because this debate often comes up in writing circles, my assumption is that a good writer has been published and has won a few literary awards. But are all successful writers good writers on an aesthetic level? Are all unpublished writers bad writers? Do all good writers get published?

I can name many authors who have written New York Times bestsellers but who would probably not get As from their English teachers. But their books are published and have been optioned for movies. Isn’t that the dream for many writers? There are equally as many writers with MFA degrees that have never published a single book. Are they bad writers?

To statistically determine whether good authors (however defined) are born or made, we could conduct a large-scale study on the childhood interests of such authors. Maybe all of them were prodigious writers at a very young age. But I doubt it. Time and time again, we hear stories about critically acclaimed authors who took up writing late in life. My favorite children’s author Roald Dahl was ridiculed by his teachers and told that he would never amount to anything.

And yet, so many people feel the need to say that writers either “have it” or they don’t. What’s the point? If success is defined by publication or prize, then an unpublished writer always has the potential to be published. An unpublished writer could become a published writer whose story sets the tone for how other unpublished writers see their own work.

There’s no point in asking yourself whether a good writer is born or made. No matter who the writer, writing requires discipline and practice. Unless you are on your deathbed, you – the unpublished, unrecognized writer – could become a published, recognized author. But only if you write and finish a project.

Let’s stop promoting the defeatist belief that artists are born, not made. In Academia, we use the term “impostor syndrome” to refer to that false belief that you do not belong in a graduate program or the professoriate. Impostor syndrome is particularly sinister when it is cultivated in us by our friends and mentors. Stop allowing other people to define success for you or to limit your potential. Stop self-sabotaging your own career or hobby. Work on improving your craft.