Monday, February 24, 2014
(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
Tuesday, February 04, 2014
CALLING ON THE MUSES: When Snow Gets in Your Fur
(NOTE: And they all play on the golf course/And drink their martinis dry/And they all have pretty children/And the children go to school,/And the children go to summer camp/And then to the university/Where they are put in boxes/And they come out all the same.)
Writers can be stuck on the first line, how to invent an opening sentence with enough sparkle and promise to pull the reader inside. Looking at the classics gives little relief: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead…” and “A screaming comes across the sky” and “Call me Ishmael.” Is your first line better than any of these? Poets & Writers magazine carries a regular feature of opening sentences from recently released books called, “Page One: Where New and Noteworthy Books Begin,” adding to the problem. Everyone can write a good opening sentence except you.
Rewrites and edits shaped your manuscript until the focus is on the elegance of the writing, the rhythms established by paragraph and chapter length. Writers can stumble at the opening sentence by letting worries of agents and editors intrude on the needs and integrity of the story. No amount of caffeinated beverages can help but the Muses wait for the right entreaty to give their aid.
In Greek myth, Zeus, the big boss of everything, and Mnemosyne, goddess of memory who remembered everything except basic human biology, had nine daughters known as the Muses. Writers and artists of several disciplines began by calling on the women to guide them, like Homer at the beginning of The Odyssey asking, “tell me of the man of many wiles/the man who wandered many paths of exile…” The Muses did the telling while Homer inked the words on papyrus.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT ONE
Specialization is the rule when calling down the Muses. Clio is best for history and historical fiction, Urania is for stargazers and not much help unless used for a plot device, and Melpomene lets the tears flow in tragedy. Thalia is the goofy daughter who keeps the comedy laughing, Terpsichore dances for the balletomanes, Calliope answered Homer’s plea for an epic and useful for multi-generational sagas, and Erato is fifty shades of useful when contemplating a love poem, or erotic novel. Polyhymnia is the religious one and ready to assist with any paean to her parents, while Euterpe is eager to whisper in the shell-like ear of the lyric poet huddled against the cold in his or her garret.
Contacting the Muses is done without the usual animal sacrifice, or even burning pine boughs laden with incense. Simple, heart-felt, sub-vocal begging will do. The days on Mount Olympus are very long and dull without broadband access, and any distraction is much appreciated by these women.
BACK TO THE ORIGINAL PROBLEM
A writer unhappy with his or her opening sentence makes for miserable company and has a tendency to profound sulks. Never let problems stop you. Tingle your fingertips on the keys or keyboard and write a paragraph that you promise to drop later; this is why the “Delete” key and erasers were invented. Many times a solution will present itself as the writing progresses. Tap out several approaches and let them sit while you attend to the characters, setting, and plot. The opening sentence is simpler than you think, also more complicated and exhausting. Every writer goes through a similar process as they search for a solution. Whether it has the greatness of a classic is subjective. Only through writing will the appropriate opening sentence appear. Worry instead of action rarely produces anything worth reading.
READY TO WEAR
Making books is tough, and only the tough keep going. The toughest book on writing and the workings of the ever-changing, occasionally crushing world of publishing is The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish (Cypress House, $13.95). Already a bargain with its wealth of information and advice, the cover also matches the color of any spring outfit you may be contemplating. Buy several copies for yourself and fashion-conscious friends by logging on to www.indiebound.com for the independent bookstore near you, where friendly staff can also assist in the choice between taffeta and tulle. The hidden better stay there.
NEXT: Running After the Sparrows
Friday, January 24, 2014
READING ANOTHER COUNTRY: Doggie Bags from the Deli
(NOTE: All around the world everywhere I go/No one understands me no one knows/What I’m trying to say/Even in my hometown/My friends make me write it down/They look at me when I talk to them/And they shrug their shoulders/They go what’s he talking about/But you, you speak my language)
American school kids sputter in panic when first confronted with geography: the world is more than one city in one state and one country. Across the waters dominating most of the Earth’s surface are other lands and people different from them. Palm trees wave, mountains tower into the upper atmosphere, flying fish and dolphins flip and splash in the sea, and music is played on unfamiliar instruments. Panic sufferers are doused with Ritalin and Adderall until they hit their teens, and accept that America is the only country on Earth worth considering when paging through an atlas.
Even after such an education, we have malcontents who insist on understanding other cultures and people beyond our little lump of dry soil. These are the translators, editors, and publishers of books in translation.
PIECE OF THE ACTION
We revel in dour percentages. One percent of the population holds almost all the money, said the Occupy Movement. Seventy percent of Americans swallow prescription drugs, said the Mayo Clinic. Forty-five percent of Americans make New Years resolutions, said the University of Scranton’s Journal of Clinical Psychology. Forty-seven percent of Americans want the government to take care of them, said Mitt Romney, proven wrong by fifty-one percent of the electorate. Twenty-three percent of Americans decline opening any book in any form, said the Pew Research Center. Among the numbers is the embarrassingly low three percent comprising the number of books in translation, said the University of Rochester (www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/).
Being a reader means looking outside your birth and work place. When market-driven novels become a tedious bore, there are riches from other languages waiting to be stuffed into your empty pockets. In a September 27, 2013 article in Publishers Weekly, Chad Post listed twenty of the best books in translation, from Japanese, Hebrew, Arabic, Croatian, Norwegian, Persian, Greek, and Portuguese among others. He left out one ignored for too long, and that language is Indonesian.
MORE THAN BALI
Indonesia is made of over 17,500 islands and 258 million people, the fourth most populous country. They read and they write lots of books for publishers from the Lontar Foundation to Gramedia. The influence of an oral tradition going back centuries makes their stories character-driven. For the reader, the differences in culture become similarities. Bad and good people share the same qualities no matter the country.
START RIGHT HERE
Lan Fang (1970–2011) started out as a graduate from the Surabaya University Law Faculty, and made the right choice in switching careers to writing. She had written nine novels and many more short stories before her death in 2011. Until now, her works have only been available in her native language. The independent upstart Dalang Publishing (www.dalangpublishing.com) has recently released Potions and Paper Cranes (original title: Perempuan Kembang Jepun) and the novel is a stunner. Lan Fang uses the first person narrative to tell the stories of Sulis, a young woman selling jamu, or potions, in Surabaya’s harbor district, Sujono, a laborer with dreams of becoming a freedom fighter, and Matsumi, a geisha who danced, sang, recited poetry, played the shamisen, poured tea, and satisfied men. The three battle among each other as the Japanese occupation of World War II roars beyond their windows, followed by the war for independence.
Elisabet Titik Murtisari’s translation does what every good translation does in echoing the rhythm of the original language. Potions and Paper Cranes is a book worth reading and recommending. As a young publishing company, Dalang needs your word of mouth to promote this book. Start talking to other readers and booksellers.
THE SELFISH PLUG
After saying nice things about Potions and Paper Cranes, it’s time to get down to the business of The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish (Cypress House, $13.95). This handy, easy-to-use, plucky, downright affordable, three-cheers-for-the-written-word, comes packed with stuff about writing and the rutted road to publishing. Click over to www.indiebound.com for the independent bookstore nearest your current location according to the GPS app that never works properly. Happy help will take cash or credit card, and hold your umbrella while you look for just one more teeny smidge of an item. Forearms come in twos.
NEXT: When Snow Gets in Your Fur
Monday, January 13, 2014
FOR AN AUDIENCE: A Sleeping Cat is an Easy Target
(NOTE: Measles make you bumpy/And mumps will make you lumpy/And chicken pox will make you jump and twitch/A common cold will cool you /And whooping cough will fool you/But poison ivy’s gonna make you itch/You’re gonna need an ocean of Calamine lotion/And you’ll be scratching like a hound/ The minute you start to mess around)
Writing gets harder the longer you are committed to the craft. Critical analysis of other writers deepens and sets a greater standard for your work. Only the clueless who depend on formulas can write easier and faster as the years pile up in an auto-da-fé. Leaping out of bed in the morning with enthusiasm for another day at the desk is dampened when confronted with the blank page or screen. Hot coffee grows cold as you question whether you have anything meaningful to say. The pursuit of a ringing story by hours of writing and rewriting and rewriting does not have its own reward. Who do you write for
A conversation depends on both participants speaking and listening with the same language. When a native English-speaker is confronted with High German, their brain seizes short of an aneurism and no amount of Rosetta Stone software can unravel that tangle. Writing on business calls for the language of business, just as writing on science calls for the language of science. The writer’s talent lies in talking with the reader instead of at or to them.
Any writer goes after an audience, the people who buy the books. The audience is any part of the population invested in the same subject. They may not know your work yet, but it speaks directly to their hopes, ambitions, interests, and dreams. An audience is not easy to find; sometimes the search takes dedicated effort without guarantee of success. Even after the audience is found, they may be busy with another book. The writer grows discouraged as he or she seeks any sign of acceptance for the care and attention and sacrifice in their work. They look for the one reader to get them through the days of doubt.
The editor can be the one reader, but once the manuscript is accepted someone in the publishing company knows how to attract the needed audience. Writers need the audience of one before handing in a manuscript, the reader that cares about them as a human being and is willing to say, “You could do better.” Many times the writer’s partner assumes this role, from William Blake and Catherine to Gore Vidal and Howard Austen. Brilliance is only claimed when it appears, and absolute errors in judgment are pointed out with the greatest finesse, especially when they live together. Cold-hearted Vidal stated many times in interviews that he wrote for Austen, and when Austen passed away, the passion for writing left him.
SORTING THROUGH THE MESS
Be prepared to stumble while looking for the one reader. According to the Book Industry Study Group, readers are female, mid-thirties, college-educated, and live on the east or west coast. Writing to this narrowly defined group is dumb on account of their interests are much wider than their demographic. The one reader is able to journey outside their political, social, and economic boundaries, and enjoy the trip. They read what is put in front of them without remarks about punctuation, instead judging for honesty and clarity. A partner can be the one reader, so can a friend, mentor, family member, teacher, bookstore clerk, therapist, astrologer, or tailor, as long as they know the rules: Be supportive. Be honest. Be non-judgmental. Be ready to explain your criticisms. Be supportive one more time.
JOY COMES TO THOSE WHO WAIT
By gosh and golly, two weeks have passed since the beginning of the New Year. Instead of asking where the time goes, or what it has been doing in front of decent people, pull down your well-worn copy of The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish (Cypress House, $13.95). Thrill to the wisdom contained therein, such as not using antiquated words like “therein” and other writing tips, and how publishing companies work to make the book like the one in your hand. Wait a minute. Such a discerning reader as you deserves a brand new copy to read by the fire. Log on to the overrated internet and click over to www.indiebound.com for the nearest independent bookstore. Clerks in sweater vests want to serve you and will offer free gift-wrapping even though the season is finished, dead, over. How much wax would wax paper have if wax paper could have wax?
NEXT: Doggie Bags from the Deli