Tuesday, December 21, 2010

December Distractions

It's hard to get any work done this close to Christmas. Last Friday I had lunch with some editor-friends. On Saturday, I attended the Xmas party of my local SCBWI chapter. Sunday I spent addressing Christmas cards. Yesterday I received cards from people I hadn't thought to send one to, so I had those last-minute cards to address.

Here in North Texas it was 75 degrees and beautiful yesterday, so I ended up gardening instead of writing. I demulched a tree, having seen on This Old House that too much mulch can be harmful. I raked some off the Chinese pistachio and put it on the abelias instead.

I also cut about eight limbs off an aging fruitless mulberry. Most of them were dead, but I sawed through three perfectly good, living limbs that unbalanced the tree -- unbalanced it to the point that I feared the whole thing might crash to the ground in a big windstorm. I thought the sap would be down and the poor tree wouldn't feel a thing. But today I see sap oozing from the cuts, so I guess the tree wasn't as dormant as I had hoped.

Last night, I joined 1.3 billion others in watching the winter solstice lunar eclipse, at 2 a.m. local time. Which meant I overslept this morning.

Today it's 82 degrees and sunny, and I've been outside refilling the birdbath and making some Vitamin D. But I'm less tempted to do yard-work this afternoon. It's smoky outside -- a grassfire, I think, burning to the south of us. We need rain! California, send us some?

I have managed a few hours of useful work today, in spite of myself. I've reformatted Book 2 of WATERSPELL to look like unbound galley proofs, the way I did with Book 1. I'm only on page 60 (of about 425) but I can see already that the reformatting will give me a fresh look at a manuscript that's become too familiar in its standard Times Roman style.

At the SCBWI party last Saturday, I made a deal with a fellow writer of fantasy to trade manuscripts. We're both long writers, and both hesitant to ask people to read our 100,000-word epics. But it's not an imposition to critique each other's work, at length. I'm excited at the prospect of having Karen read my whole Book 1 instead of just sharing it piecemeal with my regular critique group. The intensive critique of a few pages at a time is absolutely invaluable. But at this stage of development, I really need a knowledgeable, skillful professional to consider the work as a whole.

My goals for the next few weeks, therefore, are to:
  1. Get Book 1 to Karen for her critique of the whole ball of wax.
  2. Finish my reformat and reread of Book 2.
  3. Return to work on Book 3. It's written; I just have to polish it until it squeaks.
And then I think I'll be ready to finally begin a serious search for an agent. Or perhaps for a small publisher. I'm still considering the options that the new e-publishing technologies have opened up.

But right now it's time to finish my final cup of coffee for the day. Then I need to put aside the distractions (like a warm and sunny Texas winter-solstice afternoon -- and this blog!) and get back to work.

So many distractions, so many pages, so little time -- especially on this, the shortest day of the year. Happy Winter Solstice!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Inspiration Follows Change

In finishing the first draft of The Wisewoman, the final book in my Waterspell trilogy, I learned things that I hadn’t fully understood before, about the world where my fantasy is set. To ensure consistency across the three books, I’ve had to go back and reread books one and two, The Warlock and The Wizard.

Both of those manuscripts have been in existence awhile now. (I’m a slow writer and a painstaking reviser, and I care too much about this story to rush it.) My challenge, as I curled up with Book One again, was to see it with fresh eyes.

The solution I hit upon is working out remarkably well: I reformatted the manuscript with 1.7-inch margins, which creates a line length of about 5 inches. I changed the line spacing from 2 to 1.5. And perhaps most importantly, I changed the font from Times New Roman to Book Antiqua 12-point.

The result, when printed out (on buff paper to simulate the yellowed pages of an old book), looks a whole lot like unbound galley proofs. I’m not reading a manuscript anymore. I’m now reading a typeset book.

Psychologically, this is having a profound influence on my manner of reading. I’m not looking at the work as an editor who’s line-editing a manuscript. I’m viewing it as a reader would see it.

And surprisingly enough (given how many times I’ve been through the manuscript already), my new perspective as a reader is showing me some unnecessary prepositional phrases and even the odd adjective or adverb that can still stand to come out. I’m reading quickly, the way a reader charges ahead when devouring a fast-paced action story. The quick pace of my reading throws a spotlight on any word or phrase that doesn’t need to be there.

This experience is underscoring, for me, the wisdom of Elmore Leonard’s 10th Rule for Writing Fiction: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” When I approached my book as a reader instead of a writer or an editor, it became easier for me to see exactly which parts a typical reader might really tend to skip over.

The fresh perspective I’ve gained from changing my manuscript to look like an actual typeset book also proved the value of this advice from hypnotherapist Milton Erickson (quoted in the London Times):
“Change will lead to insight far more often than insight will lead to change.”

Sunday, October 31, 2010

I Have a Wi-Fi Hotspot

Unless you like travelogues (or enjoy snickering at the clueless), you technically advanced readers may skip the following blog entry: You probably already know that a Linksys router turns a home into a Wi-Fi hotspot. I (being somewhat technically slow-witted) just figured that out this morning.

I got a Linksys router more than a year ago so that my husband could use the laptop computer downstairs while I'm on the aging desktop up here under the eaves. Our first stab at the problem of connecting both computers at once was a 100-foot Ethernet cable to connect his laptop to the wireless Internet antenna that's just outside my office window. That, of course, didn't work so well. Lots of plugging and unplugging, not to mention the unsightliness of stringing a long black Ethernet cable along the upstairs hall, over the balcony, and down to the kitchen desk. After seeing the wireless router a friend had installed in her house, I realized that was the solution to our situation.

We quite easily linked the laptop to our new, at-home wireless connection. And when we traveled with the laptop, I had no trouble connecting to hotels' Wi-Fi services. But even with a year's experience with wireless routers, I still didn't grasp that our home router created a Wi-Fi hotspot.

It was only this month, during a week of vacation, that I began, dimly, to see the truth. We went to Palo Duro Canyon and the Alibates Flint Quarries in the Texas Panhandle, then across to Red Rock Canyon and Turner Falls (pictured above) in Oklahoma. While staying in Amarillo, we drove past the Barnes & Noble bookstore repeatedly. Each time, I thought about taking my Nook e-reader into the store so I could download an e-book that kept insisting it required a Wi-Fi connection to download. I don't know why that should be the case -- I've successfully downloaded other books with the Nook's built-in 3G wireless connection.

But we never made it into the Amarillo B&N, and it was only after we got home that I began to wonder whether I could have connected my Nook to our hotel's Wi-Fi hotspot instead. And eventually, that train of thought led me to try out my own Wi-Fi hotspot this morning.

It connected, of course. I downloaded the book that had to have a Wi-Fi connection. And I became just a little less ignorant about Wi-Fi and routers and wireless communications in general.

Honestly, why don't the makers of these gizmos take into consideration the limited technical know-how of a big chunk of their potential audience? I'm a writer, reader, and editor, not a tech guru. I do all right with the technology, most of the time. At least, I figure out what I need to know about it. But experiences like this make me realize just how much is taken for granted by the people who build the hardware and write the software.

Don't just tell us that a Nook 3G + Wi-Fi exists. Tell us that it will download books out of the air the same way a cell phone receives a text message. (That's 3G, right?) AND that it will recognize and use the same wireless router that connects my husband's laptop to the Internet at home, in the same way that the laptop recognizes and uses a hotel's Wi-Fi hotspot.

Well, live and learn. Now I'm going hunting on the 'Net for Alibates flint jewelry. The rock is so beautiful.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

My Favorite Quotes: 4

On Writing:

“The beginning is the most important part of the work.” —Plato

“Inspiration is the act of drawing the chair up to the writing table.” —Orhan Pamuk

“Every production of genius must be the production of enthusiasm.” —Benjamin Disraeli

“No good story is quite true.” —Leslie Stephen

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” —Albert Einstein

“Diligence is the mother of good fortune.” —Miguel de Cervantes

“I have a hunch we all get told that we’re a loser, and how healthy you are as an adult depends on how much you believed it when you were growing up.” —Aaron Sorkin

“’Tis of no importance what bats and oxen think.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

“You’ve got to go out on a limb sometimes because that’s where the fruit is.” —Will Rogers

“Always acknowledge a fault. This will throw those in authority off their guard and give you an opportunity to commit more.” —Mark Twain

“A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.” —James Joyce

“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” —George Bernard Shaw

“Sometimes we stare so long at a door that is closing that we see too late the one that is open.” —Alexander Graham Bell

On Living Simply:

“Thrift is more about knowing what you cherish, then skipping the rest ... spending less money creates more time.” —Jeff Yeager

“A true sign of wealth is free time—freedom from drudgery and unwanted commitments.” —Daniel Newman

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” —Leonardo da Vinci

“For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

“In the absence of clearly defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily trivia until ultimately we become enslaved by it.” —Robert Heinlein

(For more like these: My Favorite Quotes: 3)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Jury Duty

I’ve had an interesting week. On Monday I answered a jury duty summons that took me to the county seat to sit with about 120 of my fellow citizens. The judge laid out the unusual circumstances (unusual for a smallish, rural county like ours): they were needing to fill three juries at once. One was for a civil case that was predicted to last a week; one was for another civil lawsuit that might go as long as two weeks; and the third was for a criminal trial that should be over in three days, tops.

By the luck of the draw, I was assigned to the pool for the criminal case. We 35 were sent home posthaste on Monday, with instructions to return at 8:30 this morning (Wednesday).

Upon re-reporting for duty today, the potential jurors were told that the case involved a theft, under $1,500. So why wasn’t it being handled as a misdemeanor? The defendant had been convicted of theft twice before. Those prior convictions raised the stakes.

What I found fascinating about the experience was the cross section of small-town Texas represented by the members of the jury pool. We had welders, machinists, nurses, accountants, ranchers, shipping managers, truck drivers, office workers, retired military ... a candle-maker too, as I recall. I was the only writer. Or at least, the only person present who would admit to being a writer.

Sitting next to me was a retired elementary school teacher who’s now a high school reading teacher. A reading teacher! I slipped Kay my card—naturally. And I’ll be mailing her two copies of my chapter book Trail Fever. It’s been used in adult literacy classes in Arkansas (they sent me a nice note saying how well it fit the needs and interests of their adult learners). So I feel sure it’ll be of some use to Kay in her efforts to help high-schoolers improve their reading skills. Though written for the fourth-grade history curriculum, it’s got enough action and drama to appeal to teenagers and adults, too.

Coincidentally (or perhaps it’s all part of some plan?), a very good friend of mine recently shared with me some advice from Rebecca Webber—“Make Your Own Luck,” about the value of seeing possibilities in every experience. Rebecca cites research by psychologist Richard Wiseman:
“He found that those who call themselves lucky score higher on the personality factor of extraversion. That means that they are more likely to have a fortuitous encounter because they meet lots of new people ...”
I consider myself an introvert (aren't most writers?) but I also believe I’m pretty lucky. Certainly I’m flexible and open to new experiences—open “to life’s surprising twists and turns.”

I enjoyed making a lucky new acquaintance this morning. Of all the people I might have sat next to, I ended up elbow to elbow with Kay: a reading teacher! Fabulous fortune.

My only disappointment was that I didn’t get picked to serve on the jury. The chosen 12 came from the first three rows, and Kay and I were sitting in the fourth row. Well, maybe next time. Jury duty is one of life’s experiences that I’ll be glad to have, if and when I get that postcard in the mail again.

(Hmm. I wonder if I should have told the defense attorney, or the prosecutor, that the protagonist of my fantasy trilogy is a thief? Possibly that would have changed my luck ...)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

North Texas Art Director-Editor Day

Some thoughts this morning about the Art Director-Editor Day, presented last Saturday (September 25, 2010) by the North Central/Northeast Texas Chapter of SCBWI:

Elizabeth Parisi, executive art director at Scholastic, gave us an inside view of what goes into designing a book’s cover art and overall look. I was encouraged to learn that the design process is just as fraught with peril as the writing and editing can be. Many, many design ideas will be tried and discarded on the way to finding the right one. The designer’s scrapheap, I decided, is analogous to my writer’s bonepile.

Dan Yaccarino, author/illustrator, offered a fascinating look at his creative processes — processes plural, the man does so many different things. He works in lots of different media, including animation. Though his talk was aimed mostly at illustrators, his advice is applicable to writers, too: “Be self-motivated. Set your own deadlines. Channel your energies. Experiment; make mistakes. Do books about what you really like! Stick to your vision and have an opinion.”

Mallory Kass, assistant editor at Scholastic, gave a wonderfully detailed and helpful talk on “First Impressions: The Art of a Captivating Opening Page.” Mallory gave us lots of useful advice on using that first page to set the tone, create atmosphere, bring the reader into the world where the story takes place ... set up the reader’s expectations, build anticipation, offer glimpses of the qualities that make the work special. The first page is a microcosm of the book. Mallory cited The Golden Compass for its strong opening that gives such a wonderfully rich sense of the setting. That’s one of my favorite books, too.

Priscilla Burris, author/illustrator, gave a mini-workshop to round out the day. Since I can barely draw stick figures, I used the time to wind down after a long and busy day. After the artists among the attendees had finished their sketches, Priscilla offered some advice that resonated with all of the creative types in the audience: We do what we do because we can’t do anything else. We all have our strengths, and we all have the areas we need to grow in. Be teachable; be open to learning. We’re in competition only with ourselves.

And on that note, I need to end this blogging stuff and get back to work. Only yesterday, meeting with my critique group, I was reminded again of my strengths and, alas, of my weaknesses. It’s time to settle back down with Book 1 of Waterspell and try to improve those areas that remain in need of improvement. (Will I EVER succeed in “Omitting Needless Words”? Not unless I find a way to recognize which words actually are needless.)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Awakening Your Stylistic Instinct

From my friend Ruth Cauble, I inherited a book called COMMON SENSE ABOUT WRITING, by Thomas H. Cain. Its copyright date is 1967, making it a brand-new book when Ruth won it as a prize in a writing competition. She inscribed the flyleaf: "Rec'd for first place award in the Grace Gaylord Creative Writing Contest  — June 9, 1967 — R. Sammons Cauble."

I'm endlessly interested in matters of style, so I turned first to chapter 7, titled "Expression: Style and Sentences." Dr. Cain, who wrote the book when he was an associate professor of English at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, defined style as "the total effect of writing."

"It is the effect achieved," he wrote, "by the ideas, the order, the paragraphs, the sentences, and the words all working together harmoniously."

Cain recognized that a writer's style is a very personal thing. No two people will write exactly alike, or even agree completely on what constitutes good style:
"The reason may be that when you try to express your ideas in the best words, sentences, and sequences of sentences, a whole army of subjective human variables comes into action: personal factors, individual gifts, range of experience, reading background, discretion, sense of decorum, feeling for rhythm, and plain taste … style springs from just such individual sources."
Style, then, is partly subconscious: it arises from a writer's way of thinking. But by reading widely and intensively, we can sharpen our stylistic instincts.

We've all heard the advice to read widely in the genre in which we wish to write: picture books, chapter books, memoir, novels, etc. According to Alan Cheuse, author of novels, short fiction, and memoir:
"You can't write seriously without reading the greats in that peculiar way that writers read, attentive to the particularities of the language, to the technical turns and twists of scene-making and plot, soaking up numerous narrative strategies and studying various approaches to that cave in the deep woods where the human heart hibernates."
To help you read in the writer's "peculiar" focused way, Dr. Cain suggested this exercise:
  1. From a book you especially admire, choose a passage of about 12 or 15 sentences. Read the passage silently.
  2. Note the structure of each paragraph.
  3. Read the passage aloud, listening to the stages in the paragraph structure and especially to the rhythm of the sentences and how they vary in length and emphasis.
  4. Now copy the passage slowly by hand (don't type), sentence by sentence, first reading each sentence aloud and noting its pattern of emphasis and rhythm.
  5. Copy the entire passage again (typing it if you wish), listening for the way the sentences work together in groups of two or three.
"By the time you reach Step 5," Cain predicted, "you will find that you have almost memorized the rhythm and scheme of emphasis in some sentences, even though you can't quite repeat the words. This is enough. The whole point of the exercise lies in sensing when sentences sound right. It marks the awakening of the stylistic instinct that guides most professional writers as they write."

I did this exercise with one of my favorite books, THE GOLDEN COMPASS by Philip Pullman. In analyzing a page chosen at random from near the middle of the story, I noted unusual similes, questions presented in groups of three (employing "the power of three"), specific and colorful word choices, strongly rhythmic phrasing, and the use of the conjunction "and" to create both a driving rhythm and a smooth flow. On just that one page, I identified and studied a wide range of the techniques that contribute to Pullman's powerful and pleasing style.

Dr. Cain suggested doing the exercise one hour a day for a week or two. This kind of intensive reading isn't a replacement for an extensive reading background, but it can be a useful crash course in developing your stylistic instinct. (Thank you, Ruth Ann. I love the book.)

Reprinted from the May/June 2010 issue of The SCBWIs of Texas, the newsletter of the North Central/Northeast Texas Chapter of SCBWI.

Deborah J. Lightfoot has written three books of nonfiction (published) and three novels (not yet published) and earns her living as an editor. At her blog, she's posted the transcript of "Self-Editing: Two Half Brains Make a Whole Writer," a program she gave at a Tarrant County College writers' workshop: djlightfoot.blogspot.com.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Comma-Happy Writer

My post today is in response to a question I received about the proper use of commas:
I am "comma-happy." I love commas. I use them everywhere, as often as I can! I've been reading a lot, lately ... and often I see commas not being used in places where I would normally put them.

For instance, I thought I was supposed to put a comma before the word "too," or the word "also," at the end of a sentence. (e.g., You write, too?)

I also use commas to separate complete thoughts that are found in one sentence. (I could talk about commas all day, but I have to go to bed.) Or, I use one after a transitional word (or phrase) following a semicolon; but, it must precede the next complete thought. (sigh ...)

Overusing commas is, ahem, common among writers. As I noted in Self-Editing: Part 5, contemporary writing tends toward a more open style, with commas omitted that might be expected in a formal or literary style.

From The Chicago Manual of Style, here’s an example of close punctuation:

Babs had gone to Naples with Guido, and, when Baxter found out about it, he flew into a rage.

Open punctuation (modern style) calls for fewer commas:

Babs had gone to Naples with Guido, and when Baxter found out about it he flew into a rage.

The open, modern style just looks and reads better to most of us these days. A comma introduces a slight pause … and when you’re tearing along in a fast-paced action story, pausing is the last thing you want to do.

One cure for the comma-happy writer may be to write the first draft with almost no commas in it. Use the ones you must, such as the commas that separate dialogue from the dialogue tags:

It was Thoreau who wrote, “One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.”

“I hope you are not referring to me,” Garrett replied.

(In the example above, note that the comma goes inside the closing quotation mark. Periods and commas always precede closing quotation marks.)

Writers, while writing, often pause to think. It’s easy to type a comma each time you pause. It may even feel correct to do so.

Begin breaking the habit by forcing yourself to write without inserting commas even when you strongly feel the urge to do so. Then during the revision process, when you go back through and read what you wrote, you can plug in commas as required to avoid misreading.

For a good review of when and where to use commas, try "seven easy steps to becoming a comma superhero" from The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

For a thorough discussion of when to use a comma with “too,” see Grammar Girl, Episode 157.

For a discussion of eliminating every comma that isn’t absolutely necessary for clarity or grammatical correctness, there’s my Self-Editing post from March.

I hope this helps you tame your comma-mania! :-)

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Mutating Mars Hoax

Normally on this blog, I share my writing-related thoughts and experiences. But this being August 27 -- anniversary of a persistent astronomical "misunderstanding" -- I'm passing along some information from NASA that, I hope, will be circulated widely. Every year I get the same dumb e-mails about "Mars Will Look as Big as the Full Moon!"

Come now, my friends! Have you ever gone outside after sunset and actually tried to find Mars in the night sky? The Red Planet is, at best, a dot. Even at its closest to Earth, it remains a dot. (The photo above is faked.) Read on:


August 25, 2010:  It spreads, it mutates, it refuses to die.

For the seventh year in a row, the Mars Hoax is infecting email boxes around the world. Passed from one reader to another, the message states that on August 27th Mars will approach Earth and swell to the size of a full Moon. "NO ONE ALIVE TODAY WILL EVER SEE THIS AGAIN," the email declares--always in caps.

News flash: It's not true.

Here are the facts. On August 27, 2010, Mars will be 314 million km from Earth, about as far away as it can get. Mars will shine in the western sky after sunset like a tiny red star of ordinary brightness. If you didn't know it was there, you probably wouldn't notice.

The origins of the Hoax can be traced back to 2003 when Mars really did swell to unusual proportions. On August 27th of that year, Mars came within 56 million km of Earth—the nearest it has been in 60,000 years. People marveled at the orange brilliance of Mars in the night sky and crowded around telescopes for clear views of the planet's towering volcanoes, ruddy plains, and glistening polar ice caps. At the height of the display, Mars was about 75 times smaller than the full Moon.

That's when "the virus" was born.

Someone, somewhere, reasoned as follows: If Mars is 75 times smaller than the Moon, then magnifying it 75 times should make it equal to the Moon. Early versions of the Hoax encouraged readers to get out their telescopes and insert a 75x eyepiece: "At a modest 75 times magnification," the message stated, "Mars will look as big as the full Moon to the naked eye."

Soon, the Hoax was vectoring around the internet, making copies of itself and mutating. Advanced versions of the virus, sleeker and less wordy than its ancestors, omitted the magnification and simply stated, "Mars will look as big as the full Moon to the naked eye!" Before long, the year was omitted, too. August 27, 2003, became August 27, and the Hoax became immortal. Indeed, years of stories contradicting the Hoax have failed to stamp it out. This is the fourth vaccination by Science@NASA alone.

Tolerant readers point out that the Mars Hoax is not really a hoax, because it is not an intentional trick. The original composer probably believed everything he or she wrote in the message. If so, even the name of the Mars Hoax is wrong!

Here's what you should do on August 27th. Go outside at sunset and face west. The bright light you see shining through the twilight is lovely Venus. Grab a pair of binoculars and scan the sky around Venus. A few degrees to the right, you'll come across a little orange star-like object. That is Mars.

Now go back inside and delete that email.

Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Just Write It!

Here’s an item I clipped and saved from the Spring 2000 Authors Guild Bulletin:
“I don’t like gorgeous writing,” novelist Kent Haruf told Dinitia Smith of The New York Times. Haruf, who lives in Murphysboro, Ill., is the author of Plainsong, winner of the National Book Award for fiction.

Haruf said he wrote the first draft of the novel with a wool stocking cap pulled down over his eyes. According to Smith, “He would sit typing blindly in the unheated basement of his unpretentious white frame house in this sleepy town trying to visualize the high, dry Colorado plains of his childhood.”

Haruf said he pulled the cap over his eyes because “I was trying not to be analytical, to get in touch with the intuitive, the visual, the spontaneous, without any attention to detail and syntax.

“It takes away the terror when you’re blind and you can’t go back and rewrite a sentence,” he said. “It calls for storytelling, not polishing.”
I wouldn’t be able to write with a cap pulled down over my eyes. More than likely, my fingers would get off of home-row and I’d end up with Mpe od yjr yo,r gpt s;; hppf ,rm yp …

Experience has taught me, however, that Haruf’s approach -- just write it; save the rewriting and polishing for later -- is the only way to write a novel. As I made the transition from writing nonfiction to trying my hand at a novel, I wasted beaucoup time agonizing over my first chapter. I can’t tell you how many rewrites I did of that one chapter. And none of them, of course, was satisfactory.

Finally I threw up my hands, figuratively speaking, and just went on writing the rest of the book. And by the time I reached the end of Book 1 of my WATERSPELL trilogy, I was a different writer. The process of writing fiction had changed me in countless ways. I was far more in touch with “the intuitive, the visual, the spontaneous” than I had been as a working journalist and a writer of nonfiction.

Book 2 came a little easier as I applied the lessons I had learned. I still tended to overwrite, but my style in Book 2 is looser, freer, more confident -- more spontaneous.

But it’s in Book 3 that I seem to have hit my stride. From late 2009 into early 2010, my fingers just flew over the keyboard as I wrote the first draft of that final installment of my epic. I remember waking up one Sunday morning with the whole story clear in my mind, sitting down at the keyboard, and tapping away at a blistering pace for day after day, then week after week, barely pausing until I had transferred the story from my head to the computer.

Write It, Then Let It Sit

The draft had to sit for months while I made a living -- such a pesky necessity it is, having to make a living. But this month I have finally been able to get back to it, and reading what I wrote all those months ago is like reading someone else’s writing.

I do not remember writing the scenes I am now reading. Cross my heart and hope to die, it’s the truth.

As I read what I wrote, I have no idea what’s going to happen next -- I’m surprised by each twist and turn. The whole story seems to have flowed out my mind, through my fingertips, onto the page, and left hardly a trace of itself in my memory. I remember the long, intense hours I spent bringing the draft into being. But the contents of the draft, I had forgotten.

Happily, I am not displeased with what I’m reading now. My mind must have been hitting on all cylinders during that two- or three-month period of feverish writing. I rather neatly tied up loose ends from Books 1 and 2, I crafted satisfactory explanations, I untangled the knots that remained after the first two installments.

What a relief to pick up the draft of Book 3 and realize I have nearly pulled it off! This trilogy is almost finished.

Oh, I still have many pages to write, including a third narrative lay (poem) that will be a sort of prequel to the poems in Books 1 and 2 that contain hidden clues. Those two poems came to me quite easily and naturally (I wrote about the experience here).

So far, the third poem hasn’t presented itself to my conscious mind. But I trust that my subconscious will spit it out at some point. I just have to be ready to write it down when it comes (hence all the notepads everywhere).

What I have learned from the years-long task of writing my trilogy is that the writing must come first. Rewriting and polishing have no place in the early creative stages of telling a story. Just write it!

Then, later, when you can look at the draft objectively, when you can see it as though somebody else wrote it -- that’s the time for analyzing, rewriting, and refining.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Writer's Bonepile

I keep a bonepile (and I'm not talking about skeletons in the closet). On my computer, I have these files:
Book 1 bonepile.doc
Book 2 bonepile.doc
Book 3 bonepile.doc
In them, I keep the major passages that I have cut from the books of my WATERSPELL fantasy trilogy. Not every superfluous adjective or adverb, of course, not every unnecessary prepositional phrase, but the meaty bits that, for one reason or another, I've edited out.

It's handy to be able to dip back into those bonepiles when I discover that I've cut something I shouldn't have. Recently, a critique partner told me my main character's motives during one important scene were murky. I was "being subtle," I replied. I was following this advice from Noah Lukeman's book, The First Five Pages:
"Picture the reader as brilliant, perceptive, having a photographic memory, taking everything in the first time he reads it, able to grasp ideas before you even begin to say them, able to see where things are leading before you begin to lay them out."
Well, as it turns out, I was demanding too much of the reader, expecting them to see where that particular section was leading without me laying it out. I needed to provide more information so the reader would fully understand why Carin had made her decision in the way that she had, when other factors seemed to strongly tempt her to choose differently.

Seeking something half remembered, I scanned my Book 1 bonepile, and sure enough I found that in an early draft I had revealed her thinking, I had shown the considerations that made Carin's ultimate decision seem inevitable. But, following Lukeman's advice about "how to be subtle," I'd taken it out.

The passage in the bonepile wasn't something I could just copy and paste into my working draft, but it provided a skeleton upon which I could build. The passage I ended up with is better than the original bits that landed in the bonepile, and I believe it solves the problem that my critique partner identified. (I'll find out, anyway, next time we meet.)

Bonepiles as Organization Aids

Kathryn Lay (the award-winning author of Crown Me! and other books and nearly 2,000 articles, essays, and short stories) has an excellent article in a recent issue of The Writer magazine, "Plot vs. character." In it, Kathy quotes A.M. Jenkins, the award-winning author of Damage, Beating Heart, and the Printz Honor Book Repossessed:
"I'm a very disorganized writer who gets through a manuscript mostly on feel. This means a ton of rewriting, moving things, gutting scenes, cannibalizing them if needed."
That makes me feel much better about my own slow progress through my WATERSPELL trilogy, as I grope my way to the final pages of all three books.

It also underscores the value of keeping a bonepile. Things that get moved (moved out), scenes that are gutted, can go into the bonepile, where they'll be available later for cannibalizing.

I know some writers keep every draft of a novel, just renaming them Draft 1, Draft 2, etc., as they revise their work. I don't do that. I don't care to be reminded of just how many drafts I've been through. I make my latest round of edits in the master file, and if I cut something substantial, I paste it into my bonepile file.

That way, I have only the "good bits" to sort through, the material that might actually prove useful, whether I eventually restore it intact to its original location, or I use it as a skeleton to hang better words on, or I cannibalize it and incorporate the meat of it into the story somewhere else.

Bonepiles give me the confidence to cut some "good bits" that might not be working as well as they should where they are. I can remove them, but toss them clattering into the pile with all the other potentially workable bits, and that way I haven't lost them permanently. My bonepiles can bleach in the sun for however long it takes until I'm sure I don't need them anymore.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Join the Fight for Net Neutrality

The clearest explanation of Net Neutrality -- what it is, and why we cannot afford to lose it -- that I've seen anywhere is in the July 2010 issue of The Hightower Lowdown, a newsletter edited by my fellow Texan, Jim Hightower, and native Australian Phillip Frazer. I quote from the preview that is available at their website:

"Unbeknownst to most people, the [telecom] conglomerates are making an outrageous power play in Washington to make themselves the arbiters of internet content. Using their role as 'service' connectors, they are effectively trying to squeeze non-corporate, non-wealthy voices off of the worldwide web.
"The whole idea of the internet is that it's a wide-open, wildly-democratic place where anyone and everyone can 'meet' to exchange viewpoints, ideas, facts, ideologies, theories, videos, opinions, stories, visions--and, yes, propaganda, nonsense, ugliness, and outright lies. The internet's beauty is in its free-flowing, uncensored, uncontrolled nature. No one should be allowed to control the flow of legal content that makes up this rich public discourse--not governments, not media barons, not special interests, nor any other intermediary. Instead, ordinary people get a full range of information from the internet and decide for themselves what is 'true' and valuable. That's democracy in action.
"However, to participate, you must first plug into this worldwide digital network. Hooking us up is a rather mundane mechanical task--but it has become the point at which the spark of internet democracy is confronting the stifling power of corporate autocracy. In the US, the plugging-in process has been entrusted to private, for-profit 'internet service providers' (ISP's), an industry now in the firm grasp of just four telephone and cable giants: AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon. This cabal of special interests controls 94 percent of the national ISP market, and the monopolistic group is now asserting its market dominance and political muscle in an autocratic effort to impose corporate censorship over what information the public will be allowed to get via the internet."

The rest of that article can be read online only by paid Hightower Lowdown subscribers (like me). But I don't think Jim and Phillip will mind if I quote a few more points that I found to be particularly enlightening:
"On the net, you get access to any and every website on an equal basis. A behemoth like Time Warner puts its content there for you to view, but so does a myriad of voices with names like Tiny Warbler. At present, anyone who puts up a web page (including us here at the Lowdown, www.hightowerlowdown.org) is treated equally in the system, allowing millions of people around the globe to have their say. This freedom exists because the internet is a neutral mechanism, making no judgment about whose content is superior or deserving of special treatment."
If the big telecom companies have their way, however, they will destroy the neutrality of the Internet. They want to establish themselves as gatekeepers who will give privileged treatment to users who will pay a premium to have their content go out on the net.

What does this mean for those of us who don't have money? 
"The smaller, poorer, non-establishment communities on the web are to be shunted off to the slow lane, or not even allowed on the system at all."
Folks, this is serious. If we want to protect the Internet, if we want it to remain available to everyone on an equal footing, we must join the fight to protect Net Neutrality.

Here are some ways you can get involved:

Sign the Emergency Petition to Google: Don't be evil -- stand up for the free and open Internet. The New York Times has reported that Google is days away from announcing a deal with Verizon that would end Net Neutrality (and the free and open Internet) as we know it. We can't let big corporations take control of the Internet -- sign the letter to Google pressuring them to back out of this deal.

Join "Save the Internet" (www.savetheinternet.com)

Join Freepress.net (www.freepress.net)

These sites will give you more information and show you how to take action on this issue. This is a vital matter to everyone who has a blog or a web page and doesn't want a phone or cable company deciding whether other people get to access it.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why I Don't Deal With Amazon

Ah, just when I was thinking I ought to post something new, along came this e-mail from The Authors Guild. It addresses several issues that I'm following: developments in e-publishing, the unwillingness or inability of traditional publishers to change with changing times, and the stranglehold that Amazon has on the book business (see item 3, below). As I often tell people, I don't do business with Amazon. I don't shop with them, and I prefer that people buy my books from BN.com. Barnes & Noble is a legitimate part of the book business, whereas Amazon, in my opinion, is parasitical.

Anyway, here is the e-mail from The Authors Guild, dated 7/26/2010:

Wylie-Amazon:  Publishers Have Largely Brought This on Themselves.

Thursday's announcement that the Wylie Agency, through its new publishing arm, Odyssey Editions, has a deal with Amazon to exclusively distribute at least 20 books in electronic form has shaken the industry. The 20 books include many important 20th century American works, including Invisible Man, Lolita, Portnoy's Complaint, Updike's Rabbit novels, The Adventures of Augie March, The Stories of John Cheever, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. These works are all in print and all, apparently, governed by old publishing contracts in which the authors didn't expressly grant electronic rights to the print publishers.

Random House, which holds the print rights to many of these titles, reacted Thursday afternoon by disputing that authors retained electronic rights to these books and saying that it would not do business with Wylie for English-language works "until this situation is resolved."

This is the most important development in electronic publishing since Apple entered the market offering publishers an "agency model" for selling e-books. Several aspects of the Wylie/Amazon/Random House entanglement merit comment:

1. Authors retain e-rights in standard publishing contracts unless they expressly grant those rights to the publisher, as we've consistently said and as a federal court held in Random House v. Rosetta Books. It's fine and proper for these authors and their heirs to exercise those rights, and we applaud the Wylie Agency for finding a way to make it happen.

2. That said, when an agency acts as publisher, serious potential conflicts of interest immediately come to mind. The most obvious of these is the possibility of self-dealing to the detriment of the agency's client, the author. If, by acting as publisher, the agency receives a higher percentage of the author's income than it would normally be entitled to, or if it receives other benefits that the author doesn't share in appropriately, then a conflict seems unavoidable.

Our understanding is that Wylie, as agent and publisher, is taking no more than it would as an agent. That is, Wylie/Odyssey is limiting its total compensation to its rate for commissions. If our understanding is correct, then our concerns about conflicts of interest are considerably eased. Other literary agencies contemplating similar deals should be aware that even non-monetary provisions in e-book distribution contracts could create conflicts of interest. A clause binding the agency to not sign exclusive deals for any of the books the agency represents with other e-book distributors, for example, would present a clear conflict of interest. (We have no reason to think Odyssey's contract with Amazon contains such a clause. From what we know, it appears that Wylie has avoided any conflict of interest.)

3. That the Wylie/Odyssey agreement is reportedly exclusive raises many questions and concerns. Authors should have access to all responsible vendors of e-books. Moreover, Amazon's power in the book publishing industry grows daily. Few publishers have the clout to stand up to the online giant, which dominates every significant growth sector of the book industry: e-books, online new books, online used books, downloadable audio, and on-demand books. (That Random House, by far the largest trade book publisher, has retaliated against the powerful Wylie Agency but not against Amazon, which must be equally culpable in Random House's view, tells you all you need to know about where power truly lies in today's publishing industry.) Adding to Amazon's strength may yield short-run benefits, but it's not in the interests of a healthy, competitive book publishing market.

There must be consideration for this exclusivity, of course, and we can only speculate as to what it is. Though we'll keep our guess to ourselves, we think the consideration wasn't monetary: we doubt that there was an advance paid for the rights or that Amazon has agreed to pay Odyssey more than 70% of the retail price of the e-books, since that might trigger most favored nation provisions in Amazon's contracts with other publishers.

Regardless of the exclusivity issues, any direct agreement between a literary agency and Amazon is troubling. Amazon has, time and again, wielded its clout in the industry ruthlessly, with little apparent regard for its relationships with authors or publishers or, for that matter, antitrust rules. Any agency working directly with Amazon may find its behavior constrained in unpleasant and unpredictable ways. Agencies should proceed with extreme care.

4. To a large extent, publishers have brought this on themselves. This storm has long been gathering. Literary agencies have refused to sign e-rights deals for countless backlist books with traditional publishers, even though they and their clients, no doubt, see real benefits in having a single publisher handle the print and electronic rights to a book. Knowledgeable authors and agents, however, are well aware that e-book royalty rates of 25% of net proceeds are exceedingly low and contrary to the long-standing practice of authors and publishers to, effectively, split evenly the net proceeds of book sales.

Bargain-basement e-book royalty rates will not last. Low e-book royalty rates will, as e-book sales become increasingly important, emerge as a dealbreaker for authors with negotiating leverage. Publishers will, inevitably, agree to reasonable royalties rather than lose their bestselling authors to more generous rivals and startups. We suspect publishers are well aware of this and are postponing the unavoidable because it seems to make sense in the short run. We believe this is short-sighted.

A major agency starting a publishing company is weird, no matter how you look at it. This sort of weirdness will only multiply, however, as long as authors don't share fairly in the rewards of electronic publishing. Publishers seeking to manage this transition well should cut authors in appropriately. The sooner they do so, the better. For everyone.


Feel free to forward, post, or tweet. Here is a short URL for linking: http://tiny.cc/f9et5

The Authors Guild | 31 E 32nd St | Fl 7 | New York, NY 10016 | US

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Grammar, Naturally

This being summertime, with all its distractions, and me being tied up with my freelance editing and personal writing projects, I'm dipping into my files for something to post on my blog. Here's an article that appeared in 2003 in the Bulletin of SCBWI.

Grammar, Naturally


Deborah Lightfoot Sizemore

"The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions." --Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
The television sportscaster was speaking of ski jumpers at the Winter Olympics when he quoted the elder Holmes (the physician, not the Supreme Court justice). I was glued to the TV, rooting for the teenaged Harry Potter look-alike from Switzerland to win his second gold medal. But the Holmes quote sent my thoughts skidding off the slopes and slamming up against the imaginary stone wall of the "rules" of grammar.

Awaiting me at the wall were those writers who feel so tyrannized by the rules that they are scarcely able to press ahead with a sentence or a paragraph for fear of making a mistake. The stern voice of their eighth-grade English teacher rings forever in their ears: "That's a preposition! You may NOT end a sentence with a preposition!"

Begging your pardon, Mrs. G (my eighth-grade English tyrant was Aunt Bea without the dimples): When I write dialogue, I may and MUST often end with a preposition. "What did you do that for?" "Who are you going to the game with?" That last question, if recast to please the grammarian--"With whom are you going to the game?"--could only be spoken by a Chauncey Uppercrust kind of character. His formality would distance him from his peers. Most people don't talk that way.

To write dialogue that sounds natural, to narrate in a natural voice, to tell a story ringing with authenticity: these are the writer's concerns. Whenever "good grammar" gets in the way, the grammar must yield.

Creative writing admits the exceptions and recognizes that there are no real rules governing the English language. There are only guidelines, and the aim of the guidelines is communication: clear, evocative, successful. Janet Aiken, in Commonsense Grammar, makes the case beautifully: "Good grammar is not merely grammar which is free from unconventionalities, or even from the immoralities. It is the triumph of the communication process, the use of words which create in the reader's mind the thing as the writer conceived it ..."

While we're debunking grammar myths, here's another old favorite from a standard English education: the prohibition against splitting an infinitive. Some Mrs. Grundys do not dine with people who split infinitives, but I hold with George Bernard Shaw. He once complained to The Times of London about a tin-eared editor:

"There is a pedant on your staff who spends far too much of his time searching for split infinitives. Every good literary craftsman uses a split infinitive if he thinks the sense demands it. I call for this man's instant dismissal; it matters not whether he decides to quickly go or to go quickly or quickly to go. Go he must, and at once."

Some years ago, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary sent the old "rule" packing, too. If a split infinitive sounds right and reads right, then it is right. (This may explain Gene Roddenberry's refusal "to go boldly ... ")

And what about the ban on starting a sentence with and or but? An unforced, natural style may put those two words to good use as transitions. In Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea (winner of the Horn Book Award) is a prime example: "But all this is hearsay; wizards will not speak of it." Le Guin started not only the sentence but also the paragraph with but, and it's a one-sentence paragraph. (Remember what you were told about one-sentence paragraphs being "wrong"? You don't still believe it, do you?)

Where, oh where, does the comma go? A grammar book's section on comma usage can run to 15 pages. Space does not permit such treatment here. But the "serial comma" deserves a mention, if only to help ease tensions between the journalism camp and the larger world of publishing. Newspaper style omits the final comma in a series: "red, white and blue." The Chicago Manual of Style favors use of the serial comma: "red, white, and blue." Neither is more correct than the other, but many book publishers follow Chicago style. Though I'm a journalist by training, I prefer the serial comma because it gives equal weight to each member of the series and avoids lumping the final two items in together.

The key to sensible comma usage generally is to know why you are using the punctuation. Be able to account for each comma you use. A comma makes your reader pause, if only briefly. Do you want that pause? "She looked up, and there he was." That comma adds an element of suspense. "She looked up and there he was" is more a statement of fact. If a comma has ever stopped you cold, you'll find it worthwhile to check a grammar guide. But know that comma usage varies with different writers. Some use them heavily; others use them hardly at all. "The use of the comma," says The Chicago Manual, "is mainly a matter of good judgment, with ease of reading the end in view."

I hope this brief look at grammar mythology will help convince the paralyzed writer that the conventions of English usage are merely that: conventions, customs--habits. Grammar is a tool, not a tyrant. Learn it. Use it. Make it serve you. Never fear it.

And listen to Robert Burton (The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621), who told us: "No rule is so general, which admits not some exception."

A journalist turned historian and fantasist, Deborah Lightfoot Sizemore is the author of three books of Western history and biography, including the middle-grade biography Trail Fever: The Life of a Texas Cowboy, published under the byline D.J. Lightfoot. Her books-in-progress are fantasy novels.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Update: My "Nook" e-Reader (and My Geocaching Adventure)

Back in February, I blogged about my new Barnes & Noble "Nook" e-reader and how I loved everything about it except its balky touchscreen.

Time for an update: the touchscreen is balky no more. Either my screen-tapping technique has improved, or the recent software updates have solved the problem. We're up to Version 1.4.0. This version has some new features (games, for instance) that I don't use, but with the updates my Nook works faster and seems more responsive. I now have no trouble tapping the screen to bookmark a page or search for a term. It's silky smooth.

This beautiful July afternoon, I took the Nook outdoors and sat under a shade tree in the yard as I read Mark Twain's Roughing It, an e-book I got for $1. For reading outside in a breeze, an e-reader is far superior to a traditional paper book -- no pages for the wind to riffle. The e-ink screen was exactly right for reading in the dappled shade under the tree. When bright rays of sun shot through the leaves, the screen stayed comfortably readable instead of brightening to a blinding whiteness the way a paper page will do.

My next-door neighbor came over to sit in the shade with me, and of course I had to show her my Nook. We live out in the countryside a good long way from the nearest bookstore, so the part I bragged about the most was the ability to shop for and download new books from the comfort of one's lawn chair. My neighbor seemed surprised that the 3G connection was free.

Another friend had the same reaction. She questioned me closely to be sure she understood: A free cell-phone-like connection to the B&N bookstore comes with a Nook? You don't have to pay an extra fee to shop from home? Really?

Really. Anytime I want a new book, I just tap the Shop icon, pick something, download it right then, and the book arrives instantly in my e-library. For a country girl, that is just the best part!

I Don't Merely Read and Write, I Also Geocache

What a lovely holiday I've had. My husband and I went geocaching this morning for the first time. It was research. I'm editing a manuscript about the sport of geocaching for the national youth organization I freelance for. We used our brand-new Garmin Nuvi 1300 GPS receiver to drive to the spot, then our brand-new Garmin eTrex handheld GPS receiver to walk out until we located the actual cache.

I'm so new at geocaching, I forgot to bring any little trinkets to trade. But that's OK, since there wasn't anything in the cache I wanted anyway! The fun part was finding the cleverly camouflaged little box in its clever, green hiding spot.

The search took us along a country lane barely two miles from our home, a lane I'd never been down before. It's a cul-de-sac, and I'd never had a reason to drive down it before this morning. We found an old house-place at the end of the lane, with two stately trees that had obviously flanked an entryway once upon a time. There were no foundations apparent, nothing to indicate that a house had ever stood there. But those trees -- obviously planted with care, to mark the front entrance of some long-gone house.

When the need to make a living draws me away from my novel-writing, I chafe sometimes. But not today. Today, I am acutely aware of how lucky I am. I get fun and interesting freelance assignments by which I can earn enough to fund my labor-of-love writing. And some of those assignments introduce me to new interests. I aim to go on geocaching, long after this current freelance job is over. It's a great way to explore the world, or at least the neighborhood.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Function of an Editor

"The function of an editor is to prevent a writer from making a fool of himself." --Kathryn Harrison, quoting Bob Shacochis
That's my all-time favorite description of the job. It gets the point across when I'm trying to explain to the uninitiated just what it is that I'm doing when I'm gripping my editor's red pencil. Defining the job of "editor" can be difficult, since editors do so many different things.

There's the managing editor -- the boss, oftentimes. There's the acquisitions editor, who is principally concerned with finding and signing up authors. There's the production editor, who traffics materials between the editorial office and the production department.

But, said Adolph Ochs of the New York Times: "The most useful man on the newspaper is one who can edit."

He said that in 1925. To paraphrase him these days, I would say that the most useful person in any publishing venture is the one who can edit -- who can recognize and correct errors of all sorts, from mechanical and grammatical to factual and logical.

From The Art of Editing, by Baskette and Sissors, comes this passage that I've long admired:
One may describe the duties of the editor, but no one can analyze how an editor works, anymore than one can describe how a poet composes a poem. Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine, came close to defining one obligation of the editor -- "to improve an essentially well-written piece or to turn a clumsily written one into, at the very least, a readable and literate article, and, at the very most, a beautifully shaped and effective essay which remains true to the author's intention, which realizes that intention more fully than he himself was able to do. He cares about the English language; he cares about clarity of thought and grace of expression; he cares about the traditions of discourse and of argument."
That quote touches on so many aspects of the editor's job:
  • The work is creative.
  • The work is individual. Each editor's approach to the task is different.
  • Editors have obligations to both the writer and the reader.
  • An editor must respect the author's intention.
  • An editor's job is to help the author.
  • Editors sweat the details.
On those days when I make the mental switchover and I'm writing instead of editing, I'm comforted by this observation from L. R. Blanchard, an old newspaper exec:
"No man is qualified to be his own editor. No matter what his reputation, his writing will benefit from another's look."
And that's why I've become such a regular participant in my critique group. I've come to realize that I don't have to write it right the first time. I get it as close as I can on my own, and then I take it to critique for another look. My critique partners are my editors who are helping me to improve and shape my writing.

Here are a couple of other quotes that reflect my personal editorial philosophy, whether I'm editing another writer's work or getting editorial advice about my own stuff:
"The essence of editing lies in helping the author say what he wants to say in the way he wants to say it." --Betty Ballantine
"The editor must not in any way at any time attempt to edit the book so that it will be written the way the editor would write it if the editor wanted to, or could, write. The editor must learn to edit in the writer's voice, think the writer's thoughts, achieve the writer's perspective." --Gerald Gross

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A World Without Editors?

The Spring 2010 Authors Guild Bulletin quotes Thomas Mallon:

"The idea of e-books as the most popular format bothers me less than the possibility of a publishing world in which the editorial apparatus has collapsed. As the world of self-publishing proliferates, I just worry about so much stuff being out there that people don't know how to find what's good. That, I think, is the big challenge, more than the shifting technology itself. I suppose that immediately provokes charges of elitism from people. Well, so be it. I don't want to live in a world where everything receives the same imprimatur as everything else. I don't want to live in a world without editors."

What would life be without editors? In such a world, I would have to find a new line of work, since I earn far more of my living as an editor than as a writer.

The Function of an Editor

I'm not too worried about losing my editing job, however. The national nonprofit organization that keeps me busy editing bunches of its publications is unlikely to do away with its editors altogether. As somebody once said: "The function of an editor is to prevent a writer from making a fool of himself." (My Favorite Quotes: 2)  Editors protect not only writers, but also the organizations that publish what the writers write.

No organization wants to look foolish in print. A good editor, for instance, would have caught the blunder about "walruses" in Big Oil's emergency preparedness plans. If the oil companies had bothered to run their plans past an editor, any editor worthy of the title would also have alerted them to the fact that their go-to expert had been dead for the past several years.

No organization, be it for-profit or nonprofit, can afford to be without qualified, conscientious editors examining and correcting the organization's publications before they go public. I can't imagine that world being devoid of editors.

Freelance Editors for Self-Publishing Authors

But what about the world of book publishing? IS the editorial apparatus of the traditional "legacy" publishers on the verge of collapsing?

If it is, then all those book editors will be out searching for work or carving new careers for themselves, just as the newspaper and magazine editors have been doing for years. Many book editors will find work editing online publications. Others will set up shop as freelance editors, the way I did long ago.

Which will leave authors with a decision to make:
  • Do I, Annie Author, self-publish my work without first running it by a good editor?
  • Or do I pay a professional to edit my work before I self-publish it?
Some writers will choose to put their raw copy out there for the world to see -- or, more likely, for the world to ignore.

Serious writers, however, will get it edited before they release it as an e-book or a POD (print-on-demand) book. Writers who care about quality, and who care about their reputations, will not risk making fools of themselves by offering their unedited work to the reading public.

Reader Ratings

Which brings me to the mechanism that may supplant a publisher's mark of approval. When a publisher buys a manuscript, the publisher spends money to get that book edited, designed, printed, and distributed. The publisher's willingness to spend money on the book gives the work a certain validity or legitimacy.

That's the standard view, anyhow. Just because a publisher agrees to publish a manuscript is no guarantee that the manuscript will get good editing.

In a brown-paper sack, I carry around a mass-market paperback that I use as a horrible example of what can happen when neither the writer nor his publisher cares enough about the book to edit it. The unreadable thing came out from a major mass-market imprint of a major New York publisher, and it's just riddled with errors. (For details, see Self-Editing: Part 1.)

But I digress. My point is this: If the traditional publishers go out of business and all authors are self-publishing, then we will need a new way of separating the wheat from the chaff. Ratings by readers may provide that mechanism.

Right now at BarnesandNoble.com, readers are rating books for all sorts of qualities: writing, characters, story, cover art and illustrations; whether it's absorbing, funny, challenging, or thrilling; whether it's a book just for fun or it's good for classrooms or improving one's reading skills, etc.

Why not simply add a rating for the quality of the editing? Is the book (check one): Well edited? Minimally edited? Unedited? Unreadable?

An "Angie's List" for Books

I recently joined Angie's List, a site where people grade the businesses and service providers they use. When shopping for a dentist or an auto mechanic, it's reassuring to read about the experiences other people have had with those professionals or businesses.

Why not an "Angie's List"-style review site for books? Readers who review books could be encouraged to comment on the quality of the editing.

Good editing, of course, is invisible. But an absence of editing is obvious to even the most uncritical reader. Volunteer or amateur book reviewers who say the writing is rough or choppy or awkward or hard to follow, or the logic of the story breaks down, or the spelling is atrocious, or the lack of punctuation makes the whole thing unreadable, or the story sags, or it's wordy, or it jumps all over the place, or the quality of the writing is inconsistent -- criticisms such as these indicate that the book didn't get careful editing.

Editors or Gatekeepers?

Even if the editorial apparatus of the traditional publishing industry does collapse and all books become essentially self-published, the world of books, writers, and readers will still require editors. An editor who works for a self-publishing author may, however, fulfill a more basic editorial function:

The editor will be the keeper or caretaker of a book's style, content, and logic, lavishing care and attention upon the work to make it the best it can be. To quote Betty Ballantine, a legendary editor known by everyone who ever wrote or read in the science fiction field:
"To me, the essence of editing lies in helping the author say what he wants to say in the way he wants to say it."
That is the proper role of an editor. I don't believe it is an editor's job to be a gatekeeper who prevents books (even bad books) from reaching the reading public.

Like Thomas Mallon, I'm not much bothered by the idea of e-books becoming the most popular format. (I love reading e-books on my Barnes & Noble "Nook.")

But unlike Mr. Mallon, I'm not too worried about the world losing all of its editors. Nor am I fearful that readers, in a world of self-publishing authors, will be unable to find the good books amongst all the garbage.

I believe in the power of word-of-mouth wisdom. The good books -- those that are well-written and well-edited -- will get noticed.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

My Favorite Quotes: 3

"We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done." --Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

"To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly." --Philosopher Henri Bergson

"What isn't yet can still become." --German proverb

"I couldn't get anyone to even read it to reject it. ...You've got to stay at the table. If you walk away, nothing will ever happen." --Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn

"Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after another." --Walter Elliott

"The most important quality of a writer is not talent but persistence." --Philip Freund

"Easy reading is damn hard writing." --Nathaniel Hawthorne

Why write? "... the afterglow can last for years if the work is published and other people profit from it. The lasting pleasure is not in their praise but in your knowledge that you have contributed something of value to the culture from which you derive your being."
--Ellen Gilchrist, The Writing Life

"The greatest thing I ever learned to do was read." --Michael Caine

"What to do with too much information is the great riddle of our time." --Theodore Zeldin

(For more like these: My Favorite Quotes 1 and Quotes 2)

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Heralds in Fantasy Literature

Heralds, in their original and simplest form, were messengers. In fantasy literature, a herald often brings the message or in some other way triggers the events, sets the events in motion.

In The Hobbit, for example, Gandalf is the herald, or the trigger, that sends Bilbo Baggins off on his grand adventure.

In my WATERSPELL trilogy, Carin is the herald. Her showing up on the property of the wizard named Verek sets the story action into motion. In effect, she will send Verek off on a quest—and she will participate fully with him on the quest, similar to how Gandalf sets Bilbo into motion and also plays his great role in the events of that story.

But behind Carin, there’s yet another herald—another character who is the one that set Carin into motion. So the events actually begin with the original herald, who is described in my Books One and Two as “the wisewoman.” We won’t know the wisewoman’s whole story until Book Three, which I'm about two-thirds of the way through writing.

But back to the beginning. When we first meet Carin in Book One Chapter 1, she’s not acting entirely of her own free will. The wisewoman has sent her to the wizard Verek.

One thing that has made Chapter 1 a bit hard for me to get right is that I need to at least hint that Carin isn’t really sure what her goal is, why she’s come north, or what she’s supposed to do when gets there. She only knows—or she feels, deep in her gut—that she has to be there.

In effect, she’s under a spell—a spell of compulsion. She thinks she’s acting of her own free will, but if she were pressed to explain her motives, she would be hard put to do it. This becomes clearer in Chapter 3, when Verek presses her about her reasons for trespassing on his property. Her explanations don’t satisfy him, and they will—I hope—deepen the sense of mystery that surrounds Carin.

But my problem with Chapter 1, as I’m discovering, is that many “mainstream” readers will expect the main character’s goals and motivations to be clearly laid out right at the start. That’s what they’ve been taught to expect.

Experienced readers of fantasy will understand that motives and circumstances are often quite murky as the story opens. In Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, for instance, the main character, Lyra, has no problem whatsoever as the story opens. She’s having fun. She’s exploring a forbidden part of the college where she lives, and she’s enjoying herself. The big problem that she will face does not become clear for a very long time, as the trilogy unfolds.

So what I’m trying to accomplish with Chapter 1 of my fantasy is to present Carin as a strong, active, decisive character, but I also have to hint that she’s been set on this course, this particular path, by forces beyond her control, by circumstances that she didn’t create. She’s being used, quite frankly, but she’s not a pawn.

In a sense, she’s like King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur. He used the sword—only Arthur as the rightful king could wield it—but Excalibur had magical powers of its own. It allowed itself to be used only by the rightful king.

My girl, Carin, very definitely has a say in how she’s being used by the original herald, the wisewoman in the south, and by the wizard Verek once she follows the wisewoman’s instructions and finds him, up in the north.

I've been working on a Prologue to Book One that may help to clarify what's driving Carin, what her goal is, what problem she must overcome. I'm hoping that the agent I met in April will give me some feedback on it. In the meantime, I'm studying successful prologues, such as the lovely one that opens Ursula K. Le Guin's novel, The Tombs of Atuan.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Memoir or Novel?

Over lunch on Memorial Day, my friends and I got to talking about the memoir genre and how much poetic license a memoirist has. After the flap over two notoriously fraudulent memoirs that came out in 2006, writers of memoir continue to have questions about how factually accurate a personal narrative must be before it ceases to be a memoir and turns into a novel.

The best discussion of this subject that I've read was in the Spring 2006 Authors Guild Bulletin. Guild president Nick Taylor talked with William Zinsser, editor of Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir and author of Writing About Your Life. Here are excerpts from that conversation and the Q&A that followed:

ZINSSER: You have to invent a narrative trajectory that makes sense, that draws people along. Which can mean compressing, collapsing or collating events. But underneath all the "inventing" -- you may be altering the chronological order, or the place where certain things took place -- you are not tampering with the essential truth of the story. ... I think the truth is sacred and you have to stick to the facts.

TAYLOR: ... obviously you don't remember every scrap of conversation you ever had, but if you're conveying the essence and the truth of what a particular conversation was about, then I think that's perfectly acceptable. Your own ears hear things and your own eyes see things, and your memory retains how you process those things. You're not straying from the truth if you're paraphrasing dialogue, for example.

ZINSSER: For many years I've been teaching adult courses in memoir writing and family history ... The reason people take courses like mine is that they want to know how to think about using writing to come to some understanding of who they are, and who they once were, and what heritage they were born into ... my students are trying with courage and grace to clarify the past. They may not finally do it, but that is the intention. [M]ost writers of memoir ... are desperately trying to use writing to find the truth about their lives.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Don't Omit Essential Words!

Inevitably, in my quest to make my writing as taut as possible, I ended up cutting some essential words. My critique partners got lost in the geography of a chase scene. I hadn't given them enough information to picture the characters in the correct relative positions. Though the action was crystal clear in my mind, my readers/listeners weren't following the sequence of events as character B (the deuteragonist) chased character A (the protagonist).

The feedback from my critique partners reminds me again of how absolutely essential it is to read your fiction aloud to a listener. Or at the very least, hand your manuscript over to somebody to read and critique, if you can't participate regularly in a critique group.

A critical reader will identify problems that are quite invisible to the writer's eyes. I saw the action of the chase scene. But my critique partners made it clear, through their questions, that they were picturing a very different geography (the "where-ares" within the scene).

What Makes Critique "Valid"?

Recently I posted "The Guidelines for Critique" (an unsigned handout that I received at a writers' conference long ago). A couple of points in that handout merit further discussion.
"All critique, if valid and dispensed with good intentions, is positive."
"It's up to the [writer] to make the decision as to what he keeps and does not keep."
These statements lead logically to the conclusion that some critique is not valid. Writers may need to reject (not keep) some of the advice they get from their critique partners.

How do you tell the difference between valid and nonvalid critique?

I once heard a writer put it this way:

"If a suggestion just makes me shrug, if I have no reaction beyond a feeling of puzzlement, if I'm just going 'Huh?' -- then I know I can safely disregard that suggestion.

"But if I'm pounding the steering wheel on the way home from the critique meeting, if I'm alone in my car and yelling at the critic (swearing at them, possibly) -- that's when I know I've got to take their criticism seriously. I wouldn't be reacting so strongly to their comments if I didn't know, deep down, that they were right. If they've made me angry, it's because I know they've caught me in something. They've tapped into some problem that I knew was there. But I'd been ignoring it, hoping no one else would notice it."

That may be a bit extreme. My critique partners never make me that angry. But I can tell -- I can feel it -- when they've hit on something that I really must attend to.

I'm fortunate to participate in a critique group of highly accomplished, highly professional, wonderfully talented writers. They are published widely and well. I listen closely to every scrap of advice they offer me. Even if I don't take their advice verbatim in a particular instance, I generally find that it will apply beautifully someplace else, either later in that manuscript or in another context. They know what they're talking about, and I trust them completely.

If you're in a group of less experienced writers, however, you may find you get a fair amount of critique that you're tempted to regard as invalid. Take care. Even the suggestions that have you scratching your head and going "Huh?" may hold nuggets of validity within them.

Try to understand what prompted the critic to offer the suggestion in the first place. Even if you can't accept the advice offered, understanding why the critic identified something as a problem may lead you to craft another solution -- a solution that is uniquely yours, that will yield a stronger piece of writing.

When you're striving to "Omit Needless Words" (while retaining the essential ones), your critique partners can be invaluable in helping you figure out which is which.