April 4, 2010 at 9:42 pm (Working Life, Writing/Language) (authoring a book, book publicity, co-authoring a book, co-writing a book, David Silverman, Facebook, KAOR, Karma Waltonen, Kids in the Hall, Milwaukee School of Engineering, MSOE, publishing, social networking, The Simpsons, The Simpsons in the Classroom, Twitter, University of South Dakota, USD, Vermillion Literary Project, writing, writing a book)
Several years ago, Karma (my BFF) and I were at a conference and presented papers on a panel about using humor/pop culture in the classroom to reach various pedagogical goals. Karma and I are big proponents of using entertainment to reach our students (hey, if infotainment is good enough for Jon Stewart, it’s good enough for me). We especially like using familiar media to teach our students, because through that method, they are tricked into learning. Students get comfortable with new topics before they even realize it. After our panel, a rep from an academic publisher asked if we were interested in writing a book. We were, but time passed and we didn’t hear from them for a couple years. In mid 2008, we began serious talks with the publisher and started work on the book for real. Our publisher wanted us to focus on using The Simpsons in the classroom– we were open to discussing several types of pop culture. For example, we both use The Kids in the Hall and Eddie Izzard, and Karma uses Monty Python quite a bit in class. We wrote proposals and preliminary chapters, and they liked what they saw, so it was a go! This not one of the KITH sketches I used in class, but it’s probably my favorite, so enjoy:
At the end of December, while I just happened to be visiting Karma, the contract arrived. We celebrated (manuscript due date: Oct 2009).
It seemed like a long time and generous enough, but we had a lot to write. We spent most of 2009 writing like madwomen. One of us would start drafting a chapter, then we’d email these drafts back and forth to each other, adding material, making edits, and attempting to equalize the writing style so that the book would sound like one speaker instead of having two distinctive voices (I hope we succeeded). In addition to writing chapters on teaching composition, literature, cultural studies, and postmodernism, we also wrote an annotated bibliography of Simpsons resources, plus, we created an episode guide with teaching points for each episode that had aired up to the point the manuscript was sent it. That was 442 episodes, friends. That was a lot of Simpsons viewing, but it was a lot of work! I will always remember the summer of 2009 as the summer of watching and writing about The Simpsons (It was also the summer I got laid off from my position as a full-time technical writer, but I suspect that memory will take a backseat to the writing of the book).
I set up a fanpage on Facebook and invited all of my friends, some of them multiple times. (I still don’t know why a person who will become a fan of ”sleeping in on Saturdays,” White Castle, and “I love it when someone you miss randomly texts you” but won’t be a fan of my book! I mean, all of my FB friends theoretically know who I am– wouldn’t a friend want to support me?) I also set up a Twitter account, and built on the companion website that one of Karma’s interns started for us. The way I figure, the book is so cool that the only thing that would get in the way of like-minded folk from buying our book is not knowing about our book. So I wanted to get it on the internets. I was so happy to have these distractions when I needed a break from writing– I am very easily annoyed (children screaming, dogs barking, etc.) but since so much work relied upon DVDs, I couldn’t go to quiet places every day.
Interestingly, our publisher decided to title our book Teaching with The Simpsons: Embiggening the Learning Experience with the Wisdom of Springfield. (I had suggested “Schooled by The Simpsons,” but they didn’t nibble). The art department starting work on our book cover before we had actually finished the book. The first version was good, but there was something that bugged me. It was this human-looking hand, but yellow like a Springfielder:
I sent an email telling them that I liked the cover, but that the human-looking hand was problematic and that I really wished it would be cartoonized.
In the meantime, Karma and I were still writing and editing like crazy. I had an easier time of it as I wasn’t working so I treated the book writing as my full time job. I would sleep in, get some caffeine and something to eat and stay in my bedroom for many hours, with The Simpsons in the DVD player, the books I was using as reference surrounding me, frequent visits from my feline pals, and breaks for Wordscraper and Lexulous on Facebook (and of course, lots and lots of tweeting as myself as “duve” and in promotion of the book as “Simpsonology.”) One day, I tweeted something about the linguistics chapter really kicking my ass, and I got an @reply from “Tubatron” that read “I would so fail your class.” After the hyperventilating and incoherent squeaks subsided, I called Karma and told her to get on Twitter stat. The reason we were stoked is that “Tubatron” is David Silverman, the director of The Simpsons Movie and longtime illustrator, producer, and director of the television show. In fact, he is often credited as the first to suggest The Simpsons could be its own show.
The art department at the publisher got back to us with a revised cover, and we were much happier– they did what we suggested, and changed the hand writing on the board to one that looked considerably less human:
This updated cover, and the fact that the editors sent us a list of questions about changes they wanted to make, gave us a very positive feeling about McFarland Publishers. I have heard horror stories of editors editing in errors, and I experienced that when I wrote for my college newspaper as an undergrad at the University of South Dakota. (I was not sad when the school year ended because I got so angry at what they had done to my pieces. I didn’t go back the next year– instead I stuck to the English department where I worked for the literary magazine and got to host a radio show on KAOR. Much cooler than writing movie reviews and weird cultural pieces for the Volante).
Eventually, Oct. 1 came around. Since I had more time, I volunteered to be the one to send in the manuscript. They required a paper copy and a matching disk. I fried a brand-new printer cartridge on the 318-page manuscript. (I was being an ethical person and didn’t do it at work. Yes, I know I said I wasn’t working, but I’m an adjunct at Milwaukee School of Engineering. I don’t always have classes assigned to me, but I’m always an employee, and my I.D. gets me into the office where the magic copier lives. But alas, I didn’t do it there.)
Thus begins the waiting game. And, Homer so eloquently told us in “Mr. Plow,” the waiting game sucks.
Sometime in February (or was it early March?), the proofs arrived. My job was to proofread the drafts and create the index. McFarland gave Karma access to a PDF online, and they gave me the user name and password, but for some reason, I couldn’t get in. So for a whole weekend, I created an index the old-fashioned way, by reading the paper draft and typing the index items. Okay, not so old-fashioned, as I used Word and not a typewriter. But my point is that I didn’t have the luxury of Ctrl + F until I was able to access the PDF on Tuesday, when I was pretty much done with the index.
Creating an index is actually kind of fun in technical documents– when I created a huge users’ guide when I was a tech writer, I didn’t mind updating the index. For one thing, in FrameMaker, it’s very easy and automatic (I didn’t have to rely on my own ability to alphabetize!), but for this book, it was a huge, difficult task. I did put a couple easter eggs in the index (little inside jokes as treats for big Simpsons fans like Karma and me. I won’t tell you what they are or else they won’t be treats anymore, but here’s a hint: one has to do with Lenny).
So where we stand now:
It’s like this. McFarland is in the process of printing our book. They haven’t given us a firm date yet, but Amazon says May 4. I’d like a date because I’ve got some penciled-in events to schedule in ink, and I’d really like to do that! I’ll be speaking at the Brown Deer library and Lost World of Wonders (both in Milwaukee) and hopefully more places and events. Karma and I will keep our website (www.simpsonology.com) and Facebook fanpage updated with news.
I put all this down because several people have asked me the story of how this book came about. People (including me!) are often astonished that we got to write a book about something that has brought us such joy for so many years. But trust me– we’ve paid our dues. You don’t know how much writing we did in graduate school. I remember a particularly painful religious historiography paper I wrote for a medieval lit class, not to mention the torture that is a master’s thesis!
Our situation isn’t typical, of course. While we did write a formal proposal for McFarland, we never had to shop around a proposal like so many writers do. We’ve never even talked to any other publishers about this idea.
I am working on a novel now. And this experience with book writing will be considerably different, I am sure. For one, I’ll have to find an agent, and from what I’ve heard, I’ll have to have the book done before I even start bugging potential agents.