Monday, April 14, 2014
(NOTE: You picked me out, brushed me off/Crushed me while I was burnin’ out/Then you picked me out/Like an ashtray heart/Hid behind the curtain/Waited for me to go out/A man on a porcupine fence/Used me for an ashtray heart)
April is National Poetry Month (to find out more log on to www.poets.org), when those who haunt bookstores are confronted with posters, bookmarks, and big displays of poetry books. This is cool. Poetry is where the language dances, is the news that stays news, and brings images of the past to the present. An honest poem gives us more than we can carry in one lifetime, a surfeit of humanity at its most pure. The reader enters the lines like a new land no matter how many times they are read. Poetry is the beating heart of literature and any prose writer who ignores the poem is a jerk.
We need poetry to make sense of our lives. They are songs celebrating the human experience. Poet Richard Hugo said, “Writing is a way of saying you and the world have chance.” This cheers on the poets stuck in garrets, under bridges, driving taxicabs, or sorting the mail. Sure, teaching provides a living for poets, but the fire of poetry burns brightest for those on the outside, where most of us live. Do more than read a little Wordsworth this month and support today’s poets by buying their books, lots of them, then read aloud to your friends and family until they get the message: Poetry is for everyone.
Poet Charles Olson once quoted poet Robert Creeley as saying, “Form is never more than an extension of content.” This is true for everything from cell phones to wind-up ducks, and works of prose. In fiction, the form is the paragraph followed by the chapter. Look carefully at Iris Murdoch’s The Good Apprentice (Chatto & Windus, 1985). Her paragraphs are long, convoluted affairs that illustrate the inner states of mind among characters too financially secure. When a husband and wife must confront the wife’s ongoing affair with another man, the paragraphs go out for a cup of coffee and dialogue takes over, saying much more than what was inside their heads. The result of this dramatic change is exciting reading.
HOW LONG THIS CAN GO ON
A frequent question asked by new writers is about the length of a chapter. Snotty editors will answer, how long is a piece of string? Chapters are the rhythm of the story, established by the story. The importance here is listening to what the story needs and following its advice. For the reader, keeping the chapters of equal size invites them to hear the music of the story and follow its rhythm from front cover to back. Some stories are served better by short, ten-page chapters. Others like The Good Apprentice need breathing room. Murdoch divides the book into three parts, with each containing several unnumbered chapters. She wrote in the service of the story, and brought the reader into its form defined by the content. The form is invisible as the story unfolds.
FLASHY DRESSERS RARELY GO OUT
Attention to form over content wears on the reader. Every bit of pyrotechnics in prose writing takes the content along with it. Fireworks never stay in the sky. With a solid foundation in form dictated by content, the reader can return to the story and find new things not seen on his or her first reading. A story can be told in any form when the content says so. Forcing content into a form is to invite disaster.
GET ON UP
First-time and experienced writers must read The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish (Cypress House, $13.95), if for no other reason than to learn the ins and outs of good writing and the perils of publishing. The book also has a swell cover that matches most of the spring colors. Buy several to go along with your Easter frocks and suits. Instead of making haberdashers nervous with unreasonable demands, log on to www.indiebound.com for your friendly neighborhood independent bookstore. Make reasonable demands of the clerks and you are guaranteed to walk out with an armful of treasures as long as your credit is good. Speak like you said.
NEXT: Ban the Pomeranian
Thursday, March 27, 2014
FOR REVIEW PURPOSES ONLY: Tangled in a Leash
(NOTE: Well if I feel tomorrow, like I feel today/I’m gonna pack my suitcase, and make my getaway/Lord I’m troubled, I’m all worried in mind/And I’m never vein’ satisfied, and I just can’t keep from cryin’)
Book publishing has a private vocabulary ready to confuse the neophyte and reprehensible non-reader. Typeface, gutter margin, price point, leading, co-op advertising, remainders, spine width, deckle-edged, laid finish, perfect binding, case bound, signature, and blad are tossed around editorial offices like so many Nerf footballs during Super Bowl season. One term welcomed by bookseller and book reviewer alike is “arc,” or advance review copy, also known as bound galleys or prepublication copy. Receiving an arc means you can effectively shill for the forthcoming book without demanding payment.
Before a book is printed, the manuscript goes through developmental editing (not a lot of fun), copyediting (writer embarrassment over simple grammatical and spelling errors makes this less than fun), and proofreading (what is fun?). This is given to the designer for his or her expertise in using the right typeface and page layout. An arc is made of the book just before the last, final, all-right-I’ve-had-it pass at proofreading.
Arcs usually appear within three months of the book’s planned release so booksellers have time to decide how many copies to order and the many kinds of media can reserve space for reviews. They arrive from the publisher’s marketing and publicity department or the tender, caring hands of the local sales representative, and are stacked tall at trade shows like Book Expo America. Ads on book-centered web sites also offer arcs to regular readers through contests. The index might be missing, the table of contents scattered with double zeros instead of appropriate page numbers, and anything else sure to be in the finished book but not quite ready is marked with “TK,” meaning “to come,” or, in the case of photographs and other graphics, marked “FPO,” or “for position only.” Even with the TK and FPO, the arc is very close to what a generous, kind, and altruistic book buyer can expect.
Early quotes from writers possessing high name recognition shout about the book’s virtues on the front and back cover, and the opening pages. These are by friends of the writer or editor, and based on an earlier version of the manuscript before becoming the bound pages ready to read. Some are sincere, others not so, much like the information about marketing and publicity. Yeah, right, a first-time writer on an eighteen-city tour? Tell me another bedtime story.
Arcs are never for sale. They are free as nature intended, following the example of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s dictum, “Property is theft.” Arcs are traded and argued over like regular books without having to bother with the original purchaser. The only arcs with value in the antiquarian trade are those graced with the writer’s signature. A bookstore selling unsigned arcs will soon go out of business, as it should.
Posting a review of an arc for any online site is a favor to the writer and publisher. Reviews are the reader taking dictation as the book speaks to him or her. Unless a book is wildly inaccurate and you have a professional’s knowledge of the subject, writing a review to tear down a book is the dumbest expenditure of time outside of alphabetizing your DVD collection by the key grip’s name.
Reviews may try to be objective, but all reviews, especially book reviews, are subjective. What other readers want to know is how the book affected you so they can make an informed decision before buying. Read critically, praise where praise is due, and let the potential reader know of any problems you encountered with the book. Honesty and passion, including an articulate argument in favor or against, make for the best reviews. The finished review should be devoid of rancor and full of the joy coming from encountering a new book.
LOOK OVER HERE
Hershel Budwort, 65, was arrested early Tuesday morning for soliciting first-time writers to sit on their haunches and read The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish (Cypress House, $13.95). Charged with operating a retail outlet without a license, bad skin, and failure to remit, Budwort claimed that he had collected state and city tax and was “keeping the money until the government came and got me.” Two city police officers brought Budwort into custody without the use of handcuffs or truncheons. “Heck,” said Officer Tentrick, “This is the best book for new writers to learn the dark secrets of writing and publishing. I mean, really, no one should break the law and buy a copy from a sleazy street dealer. Registered dispensaries known as independent bookstores are in every state of the union. I logged on to www.indiebound.com for my nearest store and met a good-looking clerk who is also a fan of the book. We have a coffee date next Thursday.” This could be you. A cheer makes a loud noise.
NEXT: Ear Cropping for Smaller Breeds
Wednesday, March 12, 2014
POINTING AT VIEWS: Another Flea Means More Ointment
(NOTE: Drill your holes and stand in line/‘till the shift boss comes to tell you/You must drill her out on top/Can’t you feel the rock dust in your lungs?/It’ll cut down a miner when he is still young/Two years and the silicosis takes hold/And I feel like I’m dying from mining for gold)
Any perspective besides your own is suspect. What seems rational to one person can infuriate or confuse another, like when the Nobel Peace Prize committee sticks a bare-chested, former KGB agent on its short list of contenders just days before he decides to pull a Czechoslovakia on the Ukraine. From the perspective of those above the age of three with a vague knowledge of international politics, their choice is stupid. From the committee’s perspective, he appears to be a likely candidate. Who is right depends on whether invasion is seen as a hindrance or a sparkling addition to the resume.
Call it what you will—point of view, perspective, voice—every story is told by a central narrator, identified by how he or she sees the characters move through events and conflicts. The narrator is there to help the reader navigate the rocks and rills of a story to its end. Without the narrator, the story blunders lost through the fog to the cliff’s edge and jumps.
FIRST IN LINE
First person tells a story through the use of the personal pronoun, “I.” The reader assumes the role of the narrator, taking possession of the story. They are invited to feel and react as the storyteller. Though nothing beats the immediacy of the first person, it also has drawbacks. The narrator only knows what is in front of him or her, and nothing about the underlying motivations of the other characters. “I” can also be annoying when overused. Too many personal pronouns come off as self-conscious when confidence is necessary to move the story along. Writing in first person is harder than it appears, but this point of view is used in genre fiction (especially detective and thrillers) and some of the best in literary fiction, like Oracle Night by Paul Auster (Henry Holt, 2003).
SECOND FOR A MOMENT
Second person only works in short doses, and if you think the novel you are working on should be in the second person, best of luck. The second person knows nothing except action and reaction. Readers are left out. You sit in a chair and open a book. In the first paragraph on the first page, the reader is addressed as “you,” like you are expected to mimic the actions to come. You really don’t want to on account of the main character being nothing like you and you are not responsible for his or her problems. You see where this is going? Jay McInerney used the second person in his Bright Lights, Big City (Random House, 1984), and you know how well his career has gone since then, Bolivian Marching Powder or not. You have reached the end of this paragraph with the hope the next one will be better.
The third-person omniscient narrator knows all, sees all, has access to the hidden parts of a character, and can flip between characters without confusion or apology. This narrator knows everything in the context of the story, and the reader is free to pick the character they most identify with. Still, the third person keeps a distance from the reader, never taking a stand on the ensuing conflicts. This is where “free indirect discourse,” also known as style indirect libre, comes into play. The narrator is allowed the occasional entrance to the story in a synthesis of first and third person. One of the best examples of free indirect discourse is Stendahl’s The Red and the Black. Yes, it’s an old nineteenth century novel and he used discourse to get out of a couple of censorship problems, but there are many lessons to be learned in its pages about how to break down the division between reader and story.
Whatever point of view a writer decides to use, make sure it is appropriate to the story. John Irving was ready to hand in his manuscript for Until I Find You (Random House, 2005) to his publisher when one last reading showed the first-person voice as wrong, and he had only weeks to rewrite the novel in the third person. Be warned.
TRUCKLOADS OF FUN
Big eighteen-wheelers are double-parked on your favorite streets and thoroughfares, packed to the ceiling with The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish (Cypress House, $13.95). The only book you will ever need about writing and publishing is such a resounding success that only heavy freight can keep up with the demand. Meet famous tri-state truckers outside your local independent bookstore by logging on www.indiebound.com for the nearest one. Clerks wearing back support belts in spring colors will sell you a copy fresh out of the box. Weary travelers nap separately.
NEXT: Tangled in a Leash
Monday, February 24, 2014
FOR THE CLEAN MANUSCRIPT: Weaning the Whiner
(NOTE: I can still hear what you said to me:/You had some kind of job on the railway/And had nothing to do with the sea./You said a lot, Johnny,/All one big lie, Johnny./You cheated me blind, Johnny,/From the minute we met./I hate you so, Johnny,/When you stand there grinning, Johnny./Take that damn pipe out of your mouth, you rat.)
Nostalgia wrecks history with an accumulative force equal to a constant diet of grilled lard and white sugar sandwiches. History is a record of the past, while nostalgia looks backward through a film of fairy dust. A lava lamp on display in an apartment is a sure sign whoever lives inside believes the sixties were the best time, I mean, man, the music, clothes (bring back the paisley print!), recreational drugs, and the movies. A historian’s view is different: Vietnam, CIA-sponsored assassinations, USSR invasion of Czechoslovakia, riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and Richard Milhous Nixon.
History and nostalgia rarely reach an accord, one cursing the other as depressing or shallow. Neither should be left alone in the same room for any amount of time, yet both can be put to work and take us back to the halcyon days before the personal computer and word processing programs. Writers had only a single point size and typeface for their manuscripts. For designers and editors, life was much easier back then and many want to return, even those not born yet.
Fiction writers have few options since readers want the story told straightforward, no messing around. Still, lusty abuse of punctuation marks appears in manuscripts. When a line of dialogue ends in multiple exclamation marks or question marks between exclamation marks, the problem is with the words not having enough weight. What is being said needs attention and the addition of multiple screamers (!) in combination with queries (?) only shows the weaknesses of the text. Read any contemporary novelist with a highlighter in hand, mark any appearances of the screamer, and count them up. Not often, right? Follow their lead.
HEADING INTO THE BOX
Nonfiction writers as a rule throw any pack of legibility rules out the window as they craft a manuscript. For reasons known only to them, the MicroSoft Word ruler of Document Elements and SmartArt must be used in order to get their ideas across. Throw in italic and bold in an assortment of typefaces and sizes, and what comes out is the digital equivalent of a ransom note. Making everything important makes nothing important. The reader will be immediately lost on account of so much crying out for attention.
Say an agent or editor decides to pick up the manuscript, regardless of its condition. Most of the word processing gewgaws refuse to translate into design programs and someone, likely low-paid, will have to strip out the formatting nonsense. They will not like you or the book, and will tell their friends and colleagues about the mangled condition of the manuscript. Since books are sold primarily by word of mouth, you want to avoid hearing these words. Headings can be marked (1 Heading) and down the line, and boxes marked >box< at the start and
at the end. Keeping it simple
gives the reader room to enter.
RESPECT, CLARIFY, WASH, AND RINSE
In John Ryder’s The Case for Legibility (NY: Moretus Press, 1979), he says, “The prognosis is not good. Discipline is needed to save the eyesight of the human race.” Think about this the next time the temptation arises to clutter a page with every doodad available. A writer’s job is to communicate ideas directly to the reader, not confuse and lose them to styles, shadings, drop caps, and eccentric typefaces. Looking at a page of text set in one typeface and size may seem boring at first, but their job is to give voice to the story, not to be the story. The best typography is always invisible, so get over your problems about their not being enough variety on the page. The life and energy of a book is always in the text.
EITHER THIS OR THAT
Warm-blooded creatures that we are, the winter months drive us inside to huddle by the steam radiator the landlord refuses to fix. Finally getting down to hands and knees to scrub the grout growing between the octagonal tiles in the bathroom can only generate so much body heat. What you should be doing after shopping for supplies to last until the sun shines again is cracking the covers of The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish (Cypress House, $13.95), the well-known and much praised book about writing and publishing and the neat stuff in between. Boot up your computer and zip to www.indiebound.com for the address of your nearest independent bookstore. The umbrella stand is waiting for you, along with helpful clerks to cheer your selection. Right about now is time.
NEXT: Another Flea Means More Ointment
Thursday, February 20, 2014
WORD ABUSE: Paper Training the Wolfhound
(NOTE Are you poor, forlorn and hungry?/Are there lots of things you lack?/Is your life made up of misery?/Then dump the bosses off your back./Are your clothes all patched and tattered?/Are you living in a shack?/Would you have your troubles scattered?/Then dump the bosses off your back.)
Millions of words in thousands of languages float from ear to page to eye. The choices available to the modern writer are enough that repetition should rarely occur, but it does, and too often. This frustrates the modern reader in search of good writing. Instead of clarity, the reader has to wade through the mush of generalizations caused by words so over- and misused they have lost their original sparkle and intent.
Finding the right word for the right place is never easy. This makes an etymological dictionary the writer’s best friend, right next to welcoming librarians, kindly bartenders, prompt mail carriers, and compassionate computer technicians. Know your word before you use it. When you are absolutely, positively, hands-down, thumbs-up sure of the meaning and usage of a word, check it again before whacking at the keyboard.
GET RID OF THE WAY
No one knows the way, but nonfiction especially is full of ways to find the way: A Long Way Gone, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, Ways of Reading (an abominable title for a swell book), The Way I See It, The Way I Am, The Way to Cook (shame on you, Julia Child), The Way We Work, and too many more to follow. “Way” as a general term for method or direction has become meaningless from overuse. Before your fingers start to type out this word, stop and think about specifics. You could mean highways, byways, streets, and roads, or strategy, practice, and order. The more concise the writing, the bigger thrill for the reader.
A STEP IN THE WRONG DIRECTION
“Step” is almost as bad as “way.” Twelve-step groups, step by step guides, steps for success and the Epiphany, steps to awakening and self-esteem, and steps to quit smoking. With all these steps, it sounds like every reader is expected to climb a staircase that keeps reaching further from the stated goal. Nonfiction writers take note: Readers are fed up with steps. Give them more than this dull, hackneyed word. Instead of “take steps,” use “take action,” or better still, say the action. Laziness always shows itself, and yours should be kept hidden from the reader. Sleep late instead.
Conspiracies are in government and against the present government, between friends, and wherever money can be found, like banking and big business (also known as collusion when it comes to trial). The word is straightforward until someone does something dumb like sticking on the prefix “co-.” A co-conspirator is a conspirator that is conspiring with another conspirator in a conspiracy, most likely something nasty. “Conspiracy” is for two or more people to plot. Involvement in a conspiracy makes you a conspirator and adding the “co-” prefix trips the root word over its shoelaces. No matter if you have seen the word appear in journalism or high-priced hardcovers, it is wrong.
Knowledge of the tools of writing, the words, helps fiction and nonfiction writers say what he or she wants with precision. Think of words as a treasured resource to be celebrated in every sentence. Create your own standards of what constitutes clear and accurate writing, and follow them. Be ready to change these at any time; usage is affected by time and genre. Never settle for less than your best.
READY, STEADY, FLOW
A holiday that involves naked cherubs is bound to be disappointing. Men and women will receive cards and gifts from men and women they don’t like, and nothing from the men and women they do like. Break the wretched cycle by giving the best guide to writing and book publishing, The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish (Cypress House, $13.95), to everyone you know, regardless of gender. Eventually you will hit the right combination. Push your cursor over to www.indiebound.com and the address for an independent bookstore near you will appear. By the bag or by the box, this is the best investment for your romantic future. Too many cooks crowd the kitchen.
NEXT: Weaning the Whiner
Monday, February 10, 2014
FIRST TIME OUT: Running After the Sparrows
(NOTE: If anybody steals a horse,/Blame it on the Kellys!/Anybody breaks the law,/Blame it on the Kellys!/If anyone does something new,/Or does what you would like to do,/And if the troopers don’t know who/They’ll blame it on the Kellys.)
A constant, or at least regular, reader writes in: Can you point me in the right direction? I just finished my first novel, had a friend do an edit, and gone over it again myself. What is my next step?
The greatest pleasure in the making of books is writing, and even greater is the completion of your very first novel. You may have gone through the agony of quitting halfway through others, but this manuscript is finished and able to stand on its own wobbly legs. What comes next will decide its future. Be prepared for lots of work.
DEFINE YOUR TERMS
For those writing genre fiction, know your genre. Submitting a manuscript as a hard-boiled dystopian fantasy thriller causes confusion for everyone involved. The Book Industry Study Group site at www.bisg.org shows the BISAC subject codes. Books are classified according to subject, and the list for fiction is long. Pick yours and stick with it. Having the right genre also narrows down the number of agents to contact, specialization being very important. You may be asked for marketing materials specific to your chosen genre and it’s best to know the audience and where they can be found.
GET THEE TO AN EDITOR
Unless your friend is an experienced editor, you have to find one. Agents and editors at publishing houses want a manuscript that is clean, direct, and ready for the marketplace. Anything else from a first-time writer, especially a writer without name recognition, will be ignored. A freelance editor will find any plot holes, problems with character development, and shine your prose, as well as help with adjunct materials like the synopsis and query letter if you ask nice. The manuscript needs to be edited before contacting an agent. When they show interest, you have to be ready with a manuscript that will cause them to miss their subway stop or stay up all night turning pages. This is your only chance to make a good impression and has to count.
The writer may dress well, but it is the editor’s duty to tell him or her to tuck in their shirt. Spend the money on an editor with experience inside publishing. The cheapest is rarely worth the cost, and without the background can only guess at what agents and editors want. Find an editor you want to work with, have them read through the manuscript to do an estimate, and ask for a sample edit of the opening five pages. Good editors are often thanked in the acknowledgments of the books they worked on; great editors are usually writing books about being an editor.
ALWAYS WITH THE HAND OUT
Pay your editor on time. Even though they enjoy their profession, never expect an editor to work without reasonable compensation. They have rent and telephone and sometimes food bills like everyone else. A good editor reads the new books in their field as they come out, spends precious shower time worrying over chapter breaks, and ignores friends and partners to keep to your schedule. Return the favor with a check, and drop them the occasional email to let them know of your progress.
TENDER HELP IN ROUGH TIMES
Ah, the cocktail circuit with its elegant participants, frothy drinks poured from gleaming chrome shakers, trays of canapés, and dancing into the early morning hours. None of this has anything to do with writing or publishing books. Sorry. For the real, absolute, no lies, honest, and one-hundred-percent truth about writing and publishing, you have to sit alone in a darkened room with a copy of The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish (Cypress House, $13.95). Before pulling the shades, keystroke on over to www.indiebound.com for the independent bookstore near you. The man or woman behind the register understands your plight, and can recommend several other, more helpful, delusions than the one above. A closer call would be missed.
NEXT: Paper Training the Wolfhound