Saturday, December 13, 2008

On Powell's, and holiday gifts

A little bird tells me that Powell's City of Books is among the many booksellers who have suffered from the 20 percent drop in book sales this autumn. While the big-box booksellers like B&N and Borders may have gotten what's coming to them for their meat-market business practices, the independents like Powell's serve their communities by keeping the profits local.

When you're buying holiday gifts this year, think of supporting your local bookseller--in fact, Portlanders, go to Powell's TODAY--and buy some books. Aunt Frieda got a lame tin of popcorn from you last year, and your expensive friend Michael can pick out his own tea towels. And you can tell your sweetie that books are better than sex, anyway.

Not sure what to buy? Look no further than Editorial Ass's recommendations.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Words matter.

Here's an example of what I sometimes call "familiar text" or "received text" my editing.

I often hear "compassionate detachment." I wouldn't say it's a cliche. Yet drop "compassionate detachment" into a conversation and you're more than likely to get a sage nod from your listener. It's often said as though it's a directive, or a goal. It got me thinking. What does it mean, really? Is the inverse true, i.e., can you feel chilly attachment? Is "friendly distance" a synonym? Either one is a bit absurd, so outside of a Buddhist koan, the original phrase is suspect.

Compassion is an emotion you feel toward the suffering and helplessness of another person. Feelings are spontaneous. You have to actually feel compassion first, and then show it if you can. To say compassion is a directive or a goal is emotionally dishonest--the word to use is mercy, or piety. You don't have to feel anything to do a merciful act, nor to behave dutifully.

And there is the danger. To be merciful or pious is to set yourself above the person who is suffering, and claim certain powers--to grant the mercy, to perform righteously (or self-righteously). The phrase cloaks and condones a sense of superiority, or egotism at the very least, in a situation where egotism can do harm.

Words matter. Looking for the right one matters. So does being suspicious of the pieces of language that come prepackaged.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

When editors work too hard...

...this becomes funny.
Pardon the long silence on this blog. I've been up to my eyes in work, and will get back to the blog in the next few weeks. In the meantime, read good books, and write often.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Virginia Woolf's wild, roving words

In the only surviving recording of her voice, Virginia Woolf talks about the wild nature of the English language.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A reminder to...

In Oregon, we mail in our ballots. Having just completed the only task expected of female US citizens, I marked the act by re-reading George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language."
If one gets rid of these habits [of slovenly writing] one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter

A question!
There is a story I would like to tell but I am missing an important name. The name in itself has become somewhat of a block to me. I have researched names, I have tried to think of my own, but nothing fits!
Names are important, but don't let them keep you from writing. To be honest, I start stories and change names halfway through. And the most important name of all--the title of the book--is almost always unknown to me until the end. If you feel so strongly about your story, just get your hands dirty and see what you dig up. I solve as many "story problems" while writing as I do in the initial outline. Keep your eye on the goal of making progress.

That said, to search for your name, feel it out. Look at the keys of your keyboard. What letters "feel like" they belong in the name, and which ones don't? Make a list of all the words that "feel like" your character (no matter how out-there), such as, say, ocean, grass, echo, nutmeg, jazz (whatever), and then brainstorm outward from there, listing other words by free association. The goal is to keep your hand moving and loosen up your mind, and give your creative brain room to make both good and bad suggestions.

Looking for your character's name is a useful writing exercise, and not something to fear. It gives you practice in listening to the quiet voice whose suggestions differentiate good writing from great writing.

(Post title: credit is due to Tom Stoppard's wit, not mine. Alas.)

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Rhetorical stance in narrative

I have the brilliant members of my critique group to thank for a helpful new way of thinking about narrators. Rhetorical stance, or simply stance, refers to where your narrator stands in relation to its audience, its own authority, and what it is saying. Reading your draft with an eye to stance can help you diagnose and fix a range of problems. For example:
  • Your narrator speaks over your audience's heads. That indicates a problem with stance in relation to audience. To fix it, you would seek to tone down the bluster or jargon, and build a better rapport with your readers. What do they know? What are they not expected to know? Where might they get lost?
  • Sentimentality. A sentimental narrator is working too hard to appeal to the audience. As a result, readers feel manipulated and the writing sounds forced. To fix it, give your audience some breathing room, and see if you can engage our minds instead by focusing on detail and action (i.e., simple information), and using plainer language.
  • Inconsistent narrator. If your readers begin to lose their suspension of disbelief--or if for some subtle reason they just aren't buying your story anymore--then you may need to get a clearer grasp of your narrator. I'm not sure how to best describe the problem other than that things start getting muddy. I see it in a lot of drafts. A supposedly ingenious character's point of view reads as though a fifteen-year-old wrote it. A historical novel is told in the easygoing language of a Christmas letter. The tone of one section is solemn and the next is breezy, for no apparent reason.
Remember that your storyteller is a character, too. It's worth your while to develop a consistent voice appropriate to the subject matter, and make sure that any deviation from it happens for a good reason. When you reach a well-balanced rhetorical stance, your narrator is believable, inviting, and has a thorough knowledge of the story--even the parts that don't make it on the page.

Wayne C. Booth wrote about the subject fifty years ago. Read more examples in his seven-page essay here:

Monday, August 25, 2008

The tonic chord

In music theory, songs start with a "tonic" chord and venture far away from it, and then in later returning, give the listener pleasure and satisfaction. Ursula K. LeGuin is my tonic chord. From a list of inspirational quotes about writing:
“Writers have to get used to launching something beautiful and watching it crash and burn. They also have to learn when to let go control, when the work takes off on its own and flies, farther than they ever planned or imagined, to places they didn’t know they knew. All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit. But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.”
Enjoy others quotes by Hemingway, Whitman, White--and in the same breath, Atwood, Lamott, and Goldman--here.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Essential research

Orthodox advice to writers is to query only agents who represent your genre. The best way to do this is to read Publishers Weekly for six months in advance of querying and note who reps what you write.

The magazine is online, and recent deals are posted every Monday. Use the search function if you want to find any article or review in your subject area. For example, if I search for "magical realism," "Palestine," and "folklore," I will come up with dozens of options. Then I'd go to or to follow up on the information--and finally to the library to make sure that my book really is similar to the ones I've found.

Good hunting.

On the other side of the Internet curtain

When a writer sends me an e-mail for the first time, asking for a free sample edit, I am delighted. One of the things I love about my job is the unpredictability. Writers find me from the other side of the Internet curtain, and one day, while I'm hip-deep in a novel about Amsterdam, a memoir about modeling shows up in my inbox.

That's to say, the Internet curtain unveils many good surprises. But like many editors who offer sample edits, I have a pet peeve: writers who disappear behind the curtain with their sample edit never to be heard from again. Part of my job is the hour-plus time investment of a sample edit--getting into a new voice, thinking about a writer's strengths and weaknesses, line-editing the sample, and making predictions about a 300+ page draft I haven't yet seen. In return, I don't expect that every writer will hire me, but I do expect the courtesy of a thank-you. Hey, it's an hour that I give to you whenever you ask, no matter what day of the week, no matter how many projects are due in three days. I am a professional, and like most book professionals, I can take the bad news in stride and wish you luck with another editor. Easy.

I will edge farther out on this limb for a moment, and say that most of the editing, publishing (traditional or POD), and publicity work for a book happens online. Developing better habits of online communication can't be a bad thing for a writer. Even though e-mail is in many ways an anonymous medium, certain absences do speak louder than words.

Sunday, June 22, 2008's Kindle e-Book Reader

Never mind that its name brings a flaming pile of books to mind. Amazon's $400 e-book reader might not replace the real thing any time soon.

Among my bibliophile friends, however, my first argument against it is not the durable pleasure of opening a paper book and turning its pages. Nor are my reservations my final word: I think e-books could be the best thing to happen to the book industry since the mass market paperback.

But first, a word on the Kindle. You can read its screen in sunlight, and it is easy on the eyes. It has a tiny QWERTY keyboard that allows you to annotate as you read. It stores about two hundred books. Its battery lasts several days. It has a built-in wireless connection that works like a cell phone, allowing you to buy and download Kindle files from, read blogs, and receive the daily newspaper. You can upload Word files. Kindle books are sold in Amazon's proprietary file format and cost $3-$10.

It's a start. As someone who reads a lot for her job, I find it convenient to do my work on a computer screen. My barrier to change is low. In fact, I really like the idea of having an electronic library of my lesser-read volumes, because they weigh a lot less in a cardboard box. But here's my chief beef: I don't like to spend money on books. I borrow them from the library first, and if I think I have learned something worth remembering, I will find a cheap used version in the range of $4-$12. I can't borrow electronic books from the Multnomah County Library, comprehensive though it is.

Amazon's pricing isn't an issue, but the proprietary file format is. I can only acquire books that Amazon has decided are popular enough to convert to a .azw file, or which already exist in a .txt or .pdf file. That rules out a lot of the obscure, hard-to-remember academic texts like Mikail Bakhtin's Dialogic Imagination, which I rarely need to reference but are helpful and venerable titles on my shelf. Finally, Amazon allows you to preview the first chapter of books, but for patient readers like me, I need one or two hundred pages to know if I care about a book or not.

Absent these issues I would love to introduce an e-reader into my reading habits. I would love to download e-books from the library for free, and buy the e-book only if I like it, or buy the hard copy book only if I REALLY like it. In short, to consign all my less-important reading to a paperless existence.

Besides being a boon to the environment, it would be a boon to publishers and authors, too. The cost of producing and distributing an e-book is much lower, theoretically allowing publishers to take more chances on new and experimental novelists, and niche nonfiction authors. Publishers must realize the benefit to their profits, because despite e-books accounting for an abysmally tiny portion of their book catalogs, they are pushing e-books hard. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, was the keynote speaker at this summer's Book Expo conference in LA.

Kindle, however, in its current incarnation, is reminiscent of the Palm Pilot. I bought one in college, and diligently created to-do lists and a monumental address book. My weekly schedule had nary a chink. Last week I was doing some spring cleaning, and in the bottom of a shoebox, next to a half-used bottle of perfume, a hair clip, and some creased photographs, was my Palm Pilot. I'd forgotten I'd ever owned one.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A Copyeditor's Worst Nightmare

Forgive the gossip. But the Princeton University Press last week recalled a book because an "inexperienced copyeditor" allowed it to reach the shelves with over ninety errors in its first few chapters.

I'm not sure if Princeton UP meant that their "inexperienced" editor would have done better work if he or she had five more years on the job, or if "inexperienced" is just a nice way of saying "inept." But besides being an embarrassment to the press and the author, the story illustrates what is often overlooked. Editing is both a skilled trade and an aptitude.

The author, Peter Moskos, had an interesting response to the story. "Certainly I tried to find errors… and failed (and my spelling does suck—embarrassingly so). And while I do think I’m pretty good at proofing other people’s writing, it’s nearly impossible to proof any writing if you already know what it is supposed to say. Even after some errors were pointed out to me with the specific line in the text marked, I still could not find about a quarter of the errors. The mind sees what it wants to see."

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Editor's Recommendation

You don't know what you don't know. It's that premise that drives what may become the new gold standard for books about writing: Elizabeth Lyon's Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore.

As a freelance editor, I hope every one of my clients reads this book before hiring me. I see writers trip over the same hurdles time and again--stylistic tics, POV writing that is too stiff to carry the characters' emotional development, and plots that unfold chunkily, if they unfold at all. Editors do their best work when presented with a close-to-publishable draft. Those dozens of hours of work are never wasted, but they are far better spent teasing out a novel's themes and bringing out the full strength of a writer's voice. Grammatical mistakes and common writing challenges are comparatively easy to address on one's own.

I have surveyed many books about the craft, and find that they fall into one of two categories: (1) They condescend to the writer, and are therefore not worth reading; or (2) they address the writer as a legitimate student and creator. Of these latter books, what distinguishes Manuscript Makeover is its thoroughness and its intuitive organization. It contains many checklists, but it's more than a mechanical how-to manual on self-editing. It covers literally every problem I've ever encountered in a client's manuscript, from style to story structure, and gives the writer ways to fix them. It also contains a helpful redux on query letters and marketing, condensed from Lyon's more comprehensive books about manuscript submission.

From now on, it sits on my shelf next to William Zinsser's On Writing Well and Strunk & White's Elements of Style. Whether you are just beginning to fill your shelves or already have filled them with some published titles of your own, Manuscript Makeover should be an essential book in your collection.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Heavy Novel

As I pack my suitcase and write the final e-mails before taking off for Rockaway Beach, I can hardly get my car loaded fast enough. Five days away from e-mail. Five days with no phone, no chance of dashing off for a few extra groceries, no responsibilities but writing. On these retreats, I get so much writing done. I have been writing a novel for five years and am producing what will likely be the final draft, thanks to a burst of clarity in February. I never thought the pieces would come together so well, and to finish it, finally finish it, all I need is the time to write.

A long time ago I read in Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way that the subconscious already knows the story. All the writer needs is to get free of the blocks, and write. The idea didn't inspire me at the time, but it lodged in my head somewhere. I carried it with me all these years, through high school, college, moving, the years in Portland -- kind of like that funny-looking tool that somebody gives you for Christmas. You never think you need it, but it looks potentially useful, and it travels from junk closet to junk closet. Something like that. Anyway, the idea returned to me in February, when I realized I knew my novel's story all along.

I told a good friend this morning, our novels are already complete. They are in our subconscious, and they are very, very heavy. Our responsibility is to get enough sleep, make time to write, and allow our minds to play. Our work is to be energetic enough to haul up our novel, bucketful by bucketful.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Better late than never.

Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for The Denial of Death... in 1974. I'm reading it for the first time, partly to research some ideas about death, partly because I am always looking for a perfectly reasoned argument for why the humanities should be funded, why reading fiction isn't a frivolous waste of time, why we don't all get degrees in chemistry or computer science and work for Intel.

Anyway, back to Becker. He argues that "hero stories" are intrinsic to human culture. They're intrinsic to the individual--that I want to be a "hero" because a "hero" is assured the best of the gene pool, the biggest piece of meat, the safest shelter. (I'm simplifying here, but...) The more willing we are to admit to and accept our inbuilt quest for heroism as a matter of dignity, the less likely we are to shuffle along, heads down, toward a flawed or ignoble heroism: such as "the viciously destructive heroics of Hitler's Germany or the plain debasing and silly heroics of the acquisition and display of consumer goods, the piling up of money and privileges."

It seems to me that writing is an act of dignified self-interest. In creating a story or poem, the author is at the top--the author is the organizing principle in a system of meaning, and accepts that role joyfully and voluntarily. And in being aware of this power, as creator, as hero, the author may become even more powerful yet:

If everyone honestly admitted his urge to be a hero it would be a devastating release of truth. It would make men demand that culture give them their due--a primary sense of human value as unique contributors to cosmic life. How would our modern societies contrive to satisfy such an honest demand, without being shaken to their foundations?

So, keep writing, save the world.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Writers reading, writing, and thinking

We live in a country where less than half the educated population has read a novel or poetry chapbook since leaving college. Yet I'm surprised when a writer tells me he doesn't read. "I have my own style. I don't want to be influenced by anyone." Or: "I know what gets published. I can write better than that."

I read two books a week outside of work, sometimes more if I am doing research, and still I feel I don't read enough. But I will give up reading forever if one of these aliterate writers produces a manuscript that isn't unintentionally unoriginal.

There is a symbiotic relationship between language and thought. We limit or broaden our thinking by exposure to language that is either dull or crisp, cliche or fresh. If a writer engages with ideas only through conversations, news reports, ad copy, and campaign speeches, her or her source of thought is a small, muddy one indeed (no matter the quality of the mind absorbing it). And it will show up in the writing.

Over sixty years ago, George Orwell described two writing problems that evolved from this small source. "The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not."

An editor is only helpful when the writer's ideas are already sound. I can tune a piano that already exists, but I can't build one out of spaghetti. Reading is a writer's responsibility--and a pleasure, muse, friend, and teacher.

The ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive. --Malcom X