Reading Farther Afield

Writers should read. We should read a lot. It’s true, and we all know it — even once we figure out that reading is a great way to avoid writing.

I don’t read nearly as much as I did in earlier decades. I do, however, read, usually two or three or four books at once, and that doesn’t include the manuscript or two that I’m editing.

Recently I took on a book that was way off my beaten track: Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World, by British historian Noel Malcolm. I was turned on to it by a copyediting job, a journalist’s ms. that combined history and memoir about the Adriatic. Almost everything about it was new to me. I had to look a lot up. Agents of Empire and its author were mentioned more than once. I requested the book from the regional library system.

It’s well researched, well written, and altogether riveting, but I have to admit: It was also challenging, because I had so little background in either the Mediterranean world or the 16th century.

That turned out to be a plus. Agents of Empire shed a lot of light on areas I was somewhat familiar with, as well as introducing me to perspectives I hadn’t considered. I’ve never really understood what happened in the Balkans after the former Yugoslavia broke up. This book about the 16th century gave me some clues.

As a result, I’ve resolved to take more deep dives into areas about which I know next to nothing.

For those interested, here’s my review of Agents of Empire on GoodReads:

Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World by Noel Malcolm

I was drawn to Agents of Empire because it’s about a part of the world and a period about which I know next to nothing, and it came well recommended. Wow. Professor Malcolm was already adept in the Balkan region and the early modern period when he came across a chance reference to a 16th century manuscript that seemed to have been written by an Albanian native — the earliest extant evidence of such a thing. It took him years to track it down, but after he did (IIRC it was lying unremarked in the vast libraries of the Vatican) it proved to be a sort of Rosetta stone, leading to the interlocked Bruni and Bruti families.

The Brunis and Brutis were indeed rooted in Albania, but to say they got around is an understatement. The book’s subtitle gives you an idea: in two or three generations, they produced a Knight of Malta, a Jesuit, a ship’s commander at the Battle of Lepanto (1571), a few spies, a translator at the Ottoman court, a powerbroker in Moldavia, and several merchants. Using their stories as threads, Malcolm creates a rich tapestry of place and period primarily from the perspective not of kings and emperors, popes and sultans (though they do appear in the story), but of those a couple of levels down in the socioeconomic hierarchy.

Readers who come to this book with more knowledge of the period will undoubtedly retain more of the details, but for me its great gift is its challenge to my notions of geography. Even though I know better, I fall into the habit of seeing Europe, Asia, and Africa as distinct entities. Focusing on the Mediterranean in a period when most long-distance travel was by sea undermines that habit in a big way. Commerce binds the coastal areas together; the never-ending need for raw materials, foodstuffs, and livestock binds the coasts to their inland regions. The players in Agents of Empire range as far as Spain, and a whole sequence takes place in the South of France.

Much warfare takes place on the water as well, less in pitched battles than in raids on shipping. The sea lanes were lifelines, and ships at sea were popular targets for corsairs and pirates. (Corsairs, I learn, professed some loyalty to a particular state. Pirates were entirely self-employed.) This spawned continual negotiations between municipalities for the ransoming of captives and the return of or compensation for cargo. Enslavement was a booming business. The relatively affluent and/or well connected had a good chance of being ransomed. The others were likely to wind up on the galley benches — those ships did not depend entirely on sails to get around.

Finally — I wish this book had been around when I was trying to make sense of the bloody war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The shifting border between the Ottoman Empire and the various jurisdictions east of the Adriatic explains a lot. Warfare was frequent here too: several members of the Bruni-Bruti clan died in battle or when cities fell, and others lost their livelihoods and had to relocate. The region was multiethnic, multilingual, and multi-religious (Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim); while the Ottoman Empire was strong enough to hold it together, it was reasonably cohesive at least on the surface, but the potential fault lines were there.

So I recommend Agents of Empire to anyone interested in either the place or the period, even if you’re starting out with little background. Prepare to feel a little overwhelmed, but trust me, it’s worth it. I recommend it to those already familiar with Mediterranean history, too, though it’s probably been on your shelves for several years now.


View all my reviews

Why Are We So Horrible to Each Other Online?

This historian Heather Cox Richardson posted this question as a hypothetical and invited responses. As often happens, I realized that my response was the rough draft of a blog post, and because it’s about written communication, this is the blog it belongs in. I have, of course, messed with it a bit. 😉

Aside: If you have any interest in U.S. history and/or the current U.S. political situation and you aren’t already following HCR’s Letters from an American, you should. As a subscriber, I can blather in the comments, but you can read it for free. You can find it in your inbox almost every morning. Also for free, you can listen to the podcast Now and Then, which she recently started with sister historian Joanne Freeman on the Vox/Cafe network.

Well, in my experience plenty of people aren’t horrible to each other online, and “online” isn’t monolithic. Some online situations facilitate horrible behavior and others don’t. My hunch is that a big factor is that online we can’t see the reaction our words are having. In face-to-face (F2F) encounters we can. (Need I say that some people are capable of being horrible F2F and never regretting it.) Humans are sensitive to the physical presence of others — this is even true for those who perform before large audiences. Online we don’t have those cues. We’re posting in isolation.

I suspect that my mostly positive experience over the years on Facebook is partly due to the fact that a significant percentage of my FB friends are, like me, editors and/or writers, or they work in fields where communication is front and center, like education or health care. We pay close attention to the intended audience for what we’re writing or saying. This shapes how we say it, both the words and the tone. Most of us most of the time probably do this without thinking too much about it.

Those of us who move through different circles in the course of a day or write/edit for different audiences become adept at code-switching. I’m currently editing a book-length manuscript about the oil industry. The intended audience includes readers who know a lot about the oil industry and/or a fair amount about economics, but it also includes readers who are interested in energy politics but know little about economics or the oil company at the center of this book. Earlier this year I edited (1) a travel memoir focused on the Adriatic, and (2) a memoir that combines personal history with African-American history and women’s experience into a hard-to-describe whole. I’m here to tell you that no style guide recommendation I know of could apply to all three jobs. Too much depends on the subject at hand and the intended audience.

Consider, too, that plenty of people active online have less-than-stellar skills in written communication, period. They aren’t accustomed to speaking with people outside of their own circle either. In other words, I’m not surprised that many people are horrible to each other online. This makes me value all the more the skills I’ve developed as an editor.

Over the decades I’ve learned to pay close attention not just to individual behavior but to the underlying systems that shape it. Since I joined Facebook 10 years ago and Twitter last year (I held out for a long time, and on the whole I don’t think I’ve missed much), I’ve noticed a big difference between them and the e-groups I’ve been part of since the late 1990s. Part of it has to do with effective moderation (on Facebook and Twitter there effectively isn’t any), but even more it has to do with structure. The structure of social media makes it hard to have anything close to a conversation or discussion. The comment threads move in one direction only. Subthreads surface here and there, but they’re mostly ephemeral.

If you take umbrage at what someone else has posted, it is very hard to ask that person what s/he meant. Since we generally know very little about the person whose post we’re pissed off at, misunderstandings are inevitable, and it’s much easier to fire back a rejoinder than to ask for clarification.

And we’ve learned that Facebook et al. ❤ this. Their algorithms privilege posts that inspire immediate reactions — emojis and sharing — not those that encourage temperate speech and clarification. As writers and editors we know how much communication benefits from the ability to step back for a few minutes (or hours, or days). Social media do not encourage this.

The short version? As writers, editors, and other word people we know that communication is possible across political, regional, ethnic, and all sorts of differences. We know that we have the skills to help it happen. But social media does not make it easy. I hope it doesn’t make it impossible.

Sturgis’s Law #11

A very long while back, like in May 2015, I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing, but I can’t help noticing that some of them apply to other aspects of life as well. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time.

It’s been more than three and a half years since I blogged about Sturgis’s Law #10, and I’m only halfway through the list. Time to get cracking! As I blog about them, I add the link to Sturgis’s Laws on the drop-down from the menu bar. Here at long last is Sturgis’s Law #11:

The burden of proof is on the editor.

We editors live to make good prose better and awkward prose readable. We mean well and most of us are at least pretty good at what we do, but this has its downside: the writers we deal with are usually pretty good at what they do, and even when they’re not, they generally have a better idea of what they’re trying to get across than we do.

Newly fledged editors can be a bit, well, full of ourselves. I sure as hell was. I got hired for my first professional (i.e., paid) editor job on the basis of my knowledge of English grammar, usage, spelling — the basics, in other words. I was quickly introduced to “Chicago style,” which then in its 12th edition was still called A Manual of Style. (It became the Chicago Manual of Style with the 13th edition and so it’s continued through the 17th and current one.)

Oh dear! So many recommendations to remember and apply! I learned, I applied — and I got pretty obnoxious about some of it, notably the which/that distinction: That is used for restrictive clauses, which for non-restrictive, and which is invariably preceded by a comma. Thus —

The house that I grew up in had green shutters.

That house, which was built in 1956, is the one I grew up in.

In the first example, “that I grew up in” provides information essential to identifying the house. In the second, “which was built in 1956” is almost an aside: you could put it in parentheses or drop it completely. (For what it’s worth, the house I grew up in was built in 1956, but it had no shutters at all.)

Never mind that I’d lived almost three decades and learned to write pretty well knowing zip about the which/that distinction — now it became my litmus test for sorting writers into categories: those who “got it” and those who didn’t. This stood me in good stead when, almost two decades later, I started freelancing for U.S. publishers, because many of them include the which/that distinction in their house style, plus it’s in Chicago, which most of them use as a style guide.

Long before that, however, I’d learned that in British English “which” is often used for restrictive clauses and little if any confusion results; it also dawned on me that the distinction between restrictive/essential and non-restrictive/non-essential often isn’t all that important to the sentence at hand. Consider, for instance, the convention for setting off non-essential words with commas. I’m supposed to write “My dog, Tam, likes to ride in the car” because (1) I’ve only got one dog, and (2) it’s important that the reader know that. True, I’ve only got one dog, but if it’s important that the reader know this I’m not going to rely on commas to get the idea across. Besides, that’s an awful lot of commas for a short sentence.

I also learned that in turning which/that into a litmus test, I was acting perilously like the English-language grammarians and educators in the mid to late 19th century. Concerned by increasing literacy among the working classes, they came up with a bunch of rules to distinguish the properly educated from the riffraff. Most of those “rules,” like the injunction against splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition, have been properly consigned to the dungheap by good writers and editors. Nevertheless, they’re tenacious enough to have been dubbed “zombie rules” because they don’t stay dead.

Me at work in my EDITOR shirt

While that first editorial job introduced me to the potential for editorial arrogance, it also presented a couple of antidotes. One was Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. My paperback copy is in two pieces from years of frequent consultation. Since it was first published in the mid-1960s, it’s no longer quite as “modern,” but it’s still a good antidote for editors, educators, and other word people who are sometimes tempted to take ourselves and our esoteric knowledge a little too seriously. Bernstein is also the author of Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears, and Outmoded Rules of English Usage, which I think is still in print.

Most important, that job required that each manuscript be “cleared”: you sat down side by side with the writer and went through the whole ms. line by line, answering the writer’s questions and explaining why you’d made this or that change. (These were pamphlets, brochures, training manuals, and such, ranging up to perhaps 40 pages in length, not full-length books.) These writers weren’t pros. Some were definitely more capable than others, and it wasn’t uncommon for the less capable to be the most defensive about edits. I learned to justify every change I made to myself so that I could explain it clearly to the writer.

When freelancing for trade publishers these days, I have zero direct contact with the authors of the book-length mss. I work on, but I know they’re going to see the edits I make and the queries I write. On most other jobs, I do deal directly with the author, but almost exclusively by email. That early experience has stood me in very good stead over the decades: I never forget that there’s a real human being on the other side of the manuscript.

For more about that first staff editor job, including how I got that T-shirt, see “1979: I Become an Editor” in my new blog, The T-Shirt Chronicles.

Z Is for Zoom

The Greek alphabet goes from alpha to omega. My 2021 A to Z Challenge alphabet goes from Audience to Zoom, and yes, I can see some connections between the two. Thanks to Zoom, I’ve been in the audience for webinars and panel discussions that pre-pandemic would have been held in New York, Washington, or some other place I can’t get to.

Zoom sing with Susan Robbins (2nd row center) of Libana, November 2020. I’m top row, 2nd from left.

I’ve participated in Zoom sings (Zings?) whose leaders were in California, the Boston area, or right here on Martha’s Vineyard. Zoom sings are a little weird because you can only hear the leader — it would be total cacophony if everyone unmuted — but they’re also cool because I try out harmonies and variations that I wouldn’t dare if everyone else could hear me.

Last fall I took a six-week online seminar on the novels of Toni Morrison. I’d been hankering to read or reread all her novels in order, and this got me started with Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved. I’m currently doing a nine-week seminar on three William Faulkner novels: The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom! The Morrison seminar was run through a local library, the Faulkner through the professor’s home base at Swarthmore College.

When 2020 began, I’d never heard of Zoom. Who had? Now a hot topic in my circles is what we think of Zoom meetings, whether our face-to-face communication skills have atrophied, and how much some of us hate looking at ourselves onscreen.

In yet another case of old dog learning new tricks, I got a Zoom Pro account early on and have become reasonably adept at scheduling and hosting meetings and at explaining Zoom features to less-experienced users.

Writing-wise I’ve got two Zoom stories. One is about my writers’ group. In ordinary times it meets every Sunday night in the cozy parlor of one member. She provides wine, juice, water, and popcorn; the rest of us contribute baked goodies and other treats from time to time. In season there’s a fire crackling in the fireplace. When shelter-in-place orders hit in mid-March we stopped meeting. I suggested Zoom, but the other members are less tech-savvy than I am, and at 69 I’m one of the group’s younger members. It didn’t happen. Without the weekly deadline, I stopped working on my novel-then-in-progress. This may turn out to be a blessing in disguise because the current structure wasn’t working and the weekly deadline, though helpful in some ways, was making it hard to stand back and consider the thing as a whole.

Not to mention — Morrison and Faulkner have shaken up my assumptions about structure and given me some ideas, and meanwhile I’ve launched a project I’d been talking about for years: a blog/memoir based on my T-shirt collection. I’ve got at least two hundred T-shirts, and they come from all the phases of my life back to 1976. It’s now a thing, so if you’re interested, check out The T-Shirt Chronicles.

Once fall arrived in earnest and meeting outside became less pleasant, the group decided to give Zoom a try. Thanks to tech support by friends and relatives, it’s worked out fine. We’re eager to get back to wine, popcorn, and a fire in the fireplace but for now Zoom works pretty well.

My other Zoom story is short. Last May in one of my other blogs, I started a post called “Living in Zoomsville,” about the abrupt shift from in-person meetings to Zoom. I never finished it and probably never will because by midsummer living in Zoomsville had become so, well, normal that I no longer felt the urge to write about it. The moral of that story is Write it while it’s hot. Don’t put it off till you have more time. Just do it. Start now.

Y Is for You

You! The low-maintenance second-person pronoun: same form in singular and plural, nothing gendered about it, and no worries about whether you’re being too familiar or too formal. It’s so self-effacing that in imperatives it’s not mentioned at all: “Get this done today, all right?”

In fiction, point-of-view discussions usually focus on first person vs. third, but the second-person POV is common in other contexts. How-tos are usually written in second person, often with an emphasis on imperatives: “Open the box and make sure all the pieces are in there.”

Plenty of songs are in second person, addressed either to an unspecified but probably large number of people — Joni Mitchell: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” — or to a particular, often unnamed, but intensely speculated-about individual: Carly Simon: “You’re So Vain” and Betty Everett via Linda Ronstadt: “You’re No Good.”

Speeches formal and informal are usually addressed, at least in part, to the audience. Imperatives are not uncommon, as in JFK: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

It’s much less common in fiction, especially novels, because it’s bloody hard to do, especially at length. But it’s most definitely possible. No, I’ve never read Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1989), which those who opine on second-person fiction like to cite.

Rarely cited (at least in my non-exhaustive online survey) is Zoran Drvenkar, author of Sorry and You, both of which I copyedited the English-language translations of. I’m here to tell you that both novels, Sorry in particular, are brilliant and both of them gave me the creeps. In the hands of a master novelist, the second-person narrative can have almost unbearable power. Commentators say that the second person can make the action more immediate, to which I say “Yes it can, and be careful what you wish for.”

Hey, give second person a try! There are lots of discussions out there of what it is, who’s done it, and how to do it. Here’s one that’s pretty good.


But you is more than the second-person POV. You is you. See how I scrambled subject-verb agreement there? You are you, of course, but in context that italicized you means not you the person but you the concept. The two indeed overlap, however. We’re getting to the very end of the alphabet, and at the end of the alphabet it’s up to YOU to keep going. And you will.

This blog and I plan to continue, so if you’ve got questions about writing or editing or ideas for future blog posts, send them along. There’s a contact tab on the menu bar (“Got a Question?”), or you can use this one:

X Is for Xanadu

The options for words beginning with X are so limited — even though X can stand for anything — that it’s tempting to go for a word that sounds like it begins with X: eXperience, eXpertise, eXpression, eXpurgate, eXcuses, and so on and on and on. Readers, I considered it.

On the brink of April, with the Blogging A to Z Challenge in mind, I had started an A-to-Z list in Onelook. At first there were several blank lines, but they filled in pretty quickly so by mid-month it looked like the screenshot at left. The options I actually decided to blog about are in bold.

With the end of the month, and the end of the alphabet, drawing relentlessly closer, eXperience and eXpertise were the best I could come up with.

Then, while I was out walking the other day, what should come to mind but Xanadu. (I’m not kidding about the power of walking, people — and when it’s eXacerbated by the power of deadlines you’re talking about potentially major magic.)

Once upon a time I knew most of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” by heart. The first five lines are as clear in my memory as ever, and the rest of it is so familiar as I reread it.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
    Down to a sunless sea. 

I also remember how fascinated I was by the imagery when I read it for the first time, in English class my senior year of high school. A history buff with a more than passing acquaintance with the Middle East, I knew that Kubla Khan was Genghis Khan’s grandson but that was about it. I went looking for more about the River Alph (which doesn’t exist in our world) and demon-lovers (which may or may not exist) and Mount Abora (which doesn’t exist, but Coleridge may have meant Mount Amara, which does) and, of course, Xanadu itself (Kubla Khan’s summer palace). And that got me to marveling at how the poet had created such a vivid picture of the forest, the chasm, the “mighty fountain,” while making it clear that this “sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice” was a more than physical place.

The vision, I learned, had come to Coleridge in a dream — some commentators thought he might have been under the influence of opium — so of course I also learned about the “person on business from Porlock” who famously interrupted the poet while he was transcribing his dream onto paper.

Was this person from Porlock real, or had Coleridge hit an internal wall, a failure of nerve or of imagination? We’ll never know, and in any case this Porlockian intruder has taken on a life of his own. We’ve all been interrupted at our creative labors by an infinite variety of Porlocks. Porlock may come in person, or by phone, or text, or email, or private message. We’ve all probably gone to the door or phone or computer when no one was there, maybe hoping that someone was?

For me “Kubla Khan” is complete as is. It may not represent Coleridge’s whole dream, just as he couldn’t “revive within” himself the “symphony and song” of that Abyssian maid and her dulcimer, but it doesn’t have to. How often does a poem, a story, an essay, a novel, do everything we hoped and imagined it would when we started? Rarely, at least in my experience. But we wrap it up, send it out — and go on to the next.

W Is for Walking

So I sit down to write about how walking is the best way I know to break up my writerly logjams and what should pop up on my Firefox homepage but “On the Link Between Great Thinking and Obsessive Walking,” an excerpt from a new book by Jeremy DeSilva, First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human (HarperCollins, 1921). After reading about Charles Darwin’s walking routine, I came to this:

You are undoubtedly familiar with this situation: You’re struggling with a problem—a tough work or school assignment, a complicated relationship, the prospects of a career change—and you cannot figure out what to do. So you decide to take a walk, and somewhere along that trek, the answer comes to you.

I am undoubtedly familiar with this situation. It’s pretty much why I wanted to write about how walking is the best way to break up my writerly logjams.

Now I learn that not only does walking seem to lead to “significantly improved connectivity in regions of the brain understood to play an important role in our ability to think creatively,” but it may also fend off the cognitive decline that may lead to dementia.

Some people walk because they have a dog. I have a dog — I’ve had three dogs — because I walk. People knew I walked so they’d encourage me to take their dogs along while they were at work. A couple of those dogs occasionally stayed overnight. One thing led to another and before long I had a dog of my own: the late Rhodry Malamutt (1994–2008). Travvy (2008–2019) was born the day after Rhodry died, though I didn’t know that till a couple of months later. Tam’s litter was due the day after Travvy died but was four days late.

Tam and I walk around four miles every day, a little over half in the morning and the rest in late afternoon or evening. Problems unsnarl themselves, ideas slip in without warning. Maybe one of these days I’ll run into Charles Darwin.

Me and two-month-old Tam, out for a walk, May 26, 2019. Photo by Albert O. Fischer.
Tam and me almost two years later, April 19, 2021, near the same place, caught by the same photographer

V Is for Voice

There’s a lot of gobbledygook out there about “voice.” Novice writers in particular worry about finding their voice, and about not finding it, and about not knowing whether they’ve found it or not.

Some copyeditors worry about interfering with the author’s voice, often without being too clear on what an author’s voice is, what a particular author’s voice sounds like, and when it’s OK to mess with it.

I get nervous when editors talk about “preserving the author’s voice.” There’s often a condescending tinge to it, as if “preserving the author’s voice” means putting up with sloppy writing. It doesn’t. It does, however, require a certain flexibility on the editor’s part. It may mean bending “rules” that aren’t rules at all, like “never split an infinitive” or putting a comma where the Chicago Manual of Style says you don’t need one.

Is there a voice in there?

Time to cut through the obfuscation and mystification. Your writer’s voice isn’t something you find, like the prize at the end of a treasure hunt or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s something you develop on the journey.

If you’re writing in English, you start with pretty much the same rules and conventions as everybody else. The way you use, abuse, ignore, and stretch those rules and conventions will be influenced by the things you choose to write about, the audience(s) you’re writing for, your traveling companions, the places you pass through and sojourn in, and so on and on.

Think about it: Our speaking voices are flexible. We can whisper or we can shout. The foul-mouthed among us can clean up our language when we’re in polite company or interviewing for a job. Our writing voices can be likewise.

In some kinds of writing, the writer’s individual voice takes a back seat. News reporting, technical writing, scientific writing, the writing in textbooks and legal documents: these don’t generally show much personality. They’re not supposed to. They’re supposed to communicate clearly and, often, concisely. The writers write and the editors edit with this in mind. It takes tremendous skill to do this well.

The late Travvy had no trouble finding his voice. Here he’s talking to a tractor.

Note, however, that some lawyers and academics write novels, journalists write memoirs, business people write poetry, and scientists write essays for the popular press. The novels don’t sound like legal briefs, the memoirs don’t sound like front-page news stories, the poems don’t sound like annual reports, and the newspaper op-eds don’t sound like scientific papers, even though they’re written by the same person.

Even though the writers are almost certainly applying the skills they’ve developed in one milieu to the writing they’re doing in another.

These writers have flexible voices that can be adapted to different kinds of writing. Flexibility is especially important for fiction writers and writers of “creative nonfiction” — which seems to mean by definition nonfiction that encourages a distinctive authorial voice. Characters speak in different voices, and all those voices come out of the writer’s head.

If you write a lot, you will develop your own style. All the choices you make — about words, sentence structure, punctuation, and paragraphs, and especially about how to put them together — become your style, your voice. If you keep writing — and reading! don’t forget reading! — it’ll evolve, depending on what you’re writing about. Trust me on this. It will happen.

U Is for Undo

My possibilities for U didn’t inspire me at all — usage? uniformity? — then this morning while Tam Lin and I were out walking, “undo” popped into my head. (This is why W is going to be for Walking. Coming up soon! Watch this space.)

My next thought was “Doesn’t undo begin with Z?”

Muwahahaha. If you’re a Windows user who writes and/or edits for a living, you are almost certainly on a first-name basis with CTRL+Z, the keyboard command that will undo most of the awful things you just did. No, it will not bring back the document you accidentally trashed before you’d saved it, but after you’ve done that once, you’ll probably remember to name and save new files as soon as you create them, and tell your PC to automatically back up your work at regular intervals.

If you decide that the awful thing you just undid isn’t so awful after all, CTRL+Y will bring it back. I don’t use CTRL+Y nearly as often as I use CTRL+Z. That probably says more about me than I want generally known, but there it is.

Aside for Mac users: The Mac equivalent is COMMAND+Z. To undo your undo, it’s COMMAND+SHIFT+Z. I can’t verify this at home, but you can if you’ve got a Mac.

CTRL+Z is so much easier than its analog predecessors: erasers, Wite-Out, correction tape, etc. With those methods, undoing your undo was pretty much out of the question. And don’t get me started on correcting a master stencil in the heyday of mimeograph. In case you’re wondering why I wax rhapsodic about CTRL+Z.

If you use Track Changes — as I do when I’m editing, all the time, but not so often when I’m writing — it’s easy to flip back and forth between the original version and whatever you did to it. Even so, CTRL+Z saves my butt on a regular basis.

But really, people, this isn’t just about a handy keyboard shortcut. It’s a reminder that — at least until something’s published, and maybe even then — you can change it, rethink it, revise it.

CTRL+Z is a reminder that you’ve always got an escape hatch, a safety net. Feel free to take risks. Don’t worry about looking stupid to yourself 10 minutes later. You can always undo it.

And if you decide you had it right the first time, you can undo your undo.

Tam waits for me to get done with whatever I’m doing.

T Is for Theater

From the mid-1980s to the end of the ’90s I was variously involved in local theater, as stage manager, actor, and lead theater reviewer for one of the two local weeklies. (No, I never reviewed a show I was involved in.) What I learned during those years continues to affect my writing to this day. Here are some of the ways.

Of all the things I’ve ever written, one of my most favorites is a monologue: “The Assistant Stage Manager Addresses Her Broom After a Performance of Macbeth.” Guess where that came from? It’s all in iambic pentameter, which isn’t all that hard to write when you’re living with Shakespeare day in, day out. I loved performing it and did so “off book,” meaning from memory, without a script. (See “R Is for Readings” for more about giving readings.)

During that period I also wrote three one-act plays, all of which were produced at least once. Spend enough time around theater and it may become one of the languages you speak. I haven’t attempted any plays since, in part because the once-vital local theater scene dwindled and in part because I went on to other things. But my theater experience continues to affect how I write.

Me (right) in rehearsal, spring 1994, Vineyard Playhouse

When writing fiction, I often feel as though I’m watching the scene play out onstage. Early in a play’s rehearsal period, one of the stage manager’s most important jobs is to record the director’s instructions to the actors in what becomes the prompt script. This includes not only the entire text of dialogue and stage directions but how the actors move on the stage and all the light, sound, and music cues. For the rest of the rehearsal period it’s the ultimate arbiter of what cast and crew are supposed to be doing — until the director makes changes, of course.

How the actors move onstage is called blocking — and that’s exactly what I often do when writing a scene. I’m both the director giving directions and the stage manager writing it all down. My characters are my actors. I watch them, prompt them, and sometimes even become them. I also listen to them, because often they tell me what I need to know.

One benefit of this is that it keeps my attention on what my characters are doing, and how they look doing it, as well as what they are saying. In my writers’ group, a common comment when dialogue goes on too long uninterrupted is “More body language!” Characters reveal themselves in what they do and how they move as well as what they say.

What they say (or don’t say) is crucial too, of course, and theater is an ongoing master class in dialogue. Sometimes a reader will complain that a stretch of dialogue goes on too long. To this I respond that full-length plays are virtually all dialogue. We can be riveted for two hours by people talking. As I wrote some years ago in a blog post “Monologue About Dialogue,” the challenge is to create dialogue that’s not only realistic but riveting — “dialogue that develops characters, moves the plot along, and gives the reader a break from one narrative paragraph after another.” You can learn plenty about this from both reading plays and watching them performed.

Sometimes dialogue does go on too long. Theater experience comes in handy here too. Imagine the dialogue being played out onstage. Would you be riveted, or would you start fidgeting, flip through your program, or even think of walking out? Novelist-screenwriter Thomas McGuane called the lengthy, un-riveting sort of writing “dead air,” and he drew on theater and his screenwriting experience to get the point across: “After you’ve written screenplays for a while, you’re not as willing to leave these warm-ups in there, those pencil sharpenings and refillings of the whiskey glasses and those sorts of trivialities. You’re more conscious of dead time. Playwrights are even tougher on themselves in this regard. Twenty mediocre pages hardly hurt even a short novel but ten dead minutes will insure that a play won’t get out of New Haven.”

A poet I once workshopped with called this dead time “soft ice”: it doesn’t bear weight. You’ll probably have plenty of dead air and soft ice in your early drafts. In revising, you recognize it and either punch it up or throw it out.

Finally, one more lesson from my involvement in community theater: Less is (often) more. Local actors in the late 20th century were lucky to have as a dialect and accents coach the late Dr. Louise Gurren, a retired professor of linguistics who’d been an avid theater buff all her life. When we actors were cast as a character who was southern or English or Russian or Australian, we went to her to learn how to sound the part. Her method went like this: First she’d teach the accent as authentically as possible. Once we had that down, she’d point out that if we spoke that way, the audience would have a hard time understanding what we were saying. So she’d then teach us to “back off” enough so that we sounded authentic but were still comprehensible to a general audience.

Excruciating accuracy is a must if you’re conducting an experiment or reporting a news story, but on the stage and in fiction it can get in the way. Conveying a character’s accent, dialect, or use of slang can become parody if overdone, and parody can come across as insulting. So try taking Dr. Gurren’s advice: write as authentically as possible the first time around, then back off enough that the accent, dialect, or slang doesn’t call attention to itself.