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:

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! :-)