Where to Start

One of my visits to the Charles W. Morgan was at night.

One of my visits to the Charles W. Morgan was at night.

For two days I’ve trying to start a blog post for From the Seasonally Occupied Territories about the visit of the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan to Vineyard Haven. The possibilities were infinite. I couldn’t pick one.

The 38th voyage of the Morgan, which was built in 1841, is big news in southern New England right now. I visited her several times and was among the hundreds who saw her off last Wednesday morning.

This morning I sat down and Just Did It. The first line of the draft in progress is “Where to start, where to start?” My blog post is now under way.

This trick always works. Why do I keep forgetting it?


Update, 24 hours later: The blog post referred to above, “The Morgan Comes to Call,” is now live. “Where to start, where to start?” remained at the top till my last pass through the text. It’s served its purpose, I thought. Out it came.

Shibboleths and Other Pitfalls

For all too many people, the English language is a minefield. They’re afraid that if they take one wrong step, something will blow up in their face.

hidden cove NTIt gets worse when they learn you’re a writer, a teacher, or (gods forbid) an editor. Some people laugh nervously. Others clam up.

Many of those explosive devices we’re so afraid of are shibboleths. Like “Never end a sentence with a preposition” and “Don’t split infinitives.”

What’s a shibboleth? Here’s what the American Heritage Dictionary had to say:

  1. A word or pronunciation that distinguishes people of one group or class from those of another.
  2. a. A word or phrase identified with a particular group or cause; a catchword.
    b. A commonplace saying or idea.
  3. A custom or practice that betrays one as an outsider.

old courthouse rd 2Readers and writers, teachers and editors, are forever getting them mixed up with rules. How to tell a rule from a shibboleth? Rules usually further the cause of clarity: verbs should agree with their subjects in number; pronouns should agree with the nouns they refer to. Shibboleths often don’t. No surprise there: their main purpose isn’t to facilitate communication; it’s to separate those who know them from those who don’t.

To complicate matters even further, the language is continually evolving. New words are born. Meanings morph. Nouns get verbed and verbs get nouned. If you’re too far ahead of the pack in adopting a new usage, someone‘s not going to be happy about it.

If that’s not enough, we’ve also got such everyday confusables like ensure/insure/assure, affect/effect — and is it irrespective that’s OK and irregardless that’s verboten, or is it the other way round?

No wonder English starts to look like a minefield, even to native speakers who use it all the time.

Editors have been known to make it worse. Been there, done that. It’s an occupational hazard. An example:

As an apprentice editor, I was initiated into the mysteries of the which/that distinction. “That” was for restrictive (essential) clauses: “The sweater that I’m wearing was made by my mother.” (This implies that I have other sweaters and my mother probably didn’t make all of them.) “Which” was for non-restrictive clauses: “The house, which was built in 1850, has been in his family for decades.” (The building date is extra information. It doesn’t specify which house has been in his family for decades.)

security signHoo boy, did I go wild or what. Anyone who hadn’t mastered the which/that distinction was an ignoramus. I got to look down my snoot at them. I got to educate them.

Then I learned that British English (BrE) was managing to get along quite nicely without the which/that distinction. BrE writers liberally used which” for restrictive clauses.  Their editors weren’t changing every “which” to “that.”

Wonder of wonders, I had no trouble understanding which clauses were restrictive and which weren’t.

By that time I’d so internalized the which/that distinction that it came naturally to me. This was an asset when I started copyediting for U.S. publishers, many of whom require copyeditors to change every restrictive “which” to “that.” Fortunately most writers won’t fight about this. Many have internalized the which/that distinction just the way I did. When editing the work of a BrE writer, I’ll generally stet the restrictive “which” and note it in my style sheet so the proofreader will realize that this was a conscious decision on my part, not a (gods forbid) mistake.

Another shibboleth is the widespread notion among U.S. copyeditors that “toward” is American English and “towards” is British English. They mechanically knock the “s” off every “towards” they come to. A few years back, Jonathon Owen, linguist, writer, and editor, did his master’s thesis on this very subject. As reported in his excellent blog, Arrant Pedantry, his research suggested that U.S. editors are creating the perception that “toward” is AmE and “towards” is BrE. For writers, it’s six of one, half dozen of the other. In edited manuscripts, however, “toward” overwhelmed “towards,” 90% to 10%.

In a recent online discussion, an assortment of editors took on the difference between “such as” and “like.” (If you haven’t heard of it, worry not: I’d been editing for 10 years before I was initiated into this particular mystery. Till then I thought “such as” was simply a more formal synonym for “like.”) According to those who observe the distinction, if I refer to “movies such as Lawrence of Arabia,” I am including Lawrence in the group. If I write “movies like Lawrence of Arabia,” I’m not.

Most of the editors participating in the discussion thought the such as/like distinction was a made-up “rule” — a shibboleth. I rarely use “such as”; when I use “like,” I’m not excluding the item(s) that follow from the group. I’ll wager that most writers do likewise, and — even more important — so do most readers. What this means is that if it’s important to know whether the item(s) are included or not, you better not rely on the such as/like distinction alone to get the message across. (The discussion suggested that readers of scientific literature were alert to the distinction, so if that’s your audience you’d best observe it.)

A caveat: English is riddled with sound-alike and look-alike words that don’t mean the same thing. These aren’t shibboleths. They facilitate communication. If you write or read, they’re worth learning. As an editor, I’m always on the lookout for them. The very capable author of a recent editing job consistently confused “imply” and “infer.” (A speaker implies that something is true. Her listeners may infer the truth from what she said.) I made the necessary changes and explained the difference to the author. He said he had a hard time keeping those two words straight.

Why does any of this matter? Here I turn to “Rules That Eat Your Brain,” by Geoffrey Pullum, linguist and frequent writer on English grammar and usage. “Zombie rules” are shibboleths by another name.

Though dead, they shamble mindlessly on. The worst thing about zombie rules, I believe, is not the pomposity of those advocating them, or the time-wasting character of the associated gotcha games, but the way they actually make people’s writing worse. They promote insecurity, and nervous people worrying about their language write worse than relaxed people enjoying their language.

If the language really were a minefield, what fool would venture out into it? Be brave. Write on.


A Surfeit of Subplots

While procrastinating thinking about doing research on plot the other day, I came upon the Writers’ Workshop website. They’re in Oxford, England. They offer a variety of editorial services for pay. There’s also a lot of great free stuff on their website. I landed on this particular page.

Under the heading “What Does a Perfect Plot Look Like?” it outlines the plot and subplots of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. (They spelled Lizzie Bennet’s surname with two t‘s — Jane Austen didn’t — but let this be a lesson to you: solid work can survive one copyeditorial goof, or even two or three.)

Squatters’ Speakeasy, the novel I set aside, is all sprawl and no momentum. It’s the ocean with no trace of a Gulf Stream. I took out my Squatters notebook, grabbed a pen, and tried to outline its plot.



What I discovered was that Squatters’ Speakeasy has no fewer than seven subplots but no sign of a main plot anywhere. It’s drowning in subplots. Maybe one of the subplots is really the main plot, but at the moment none of them is jumping up and down and yelling “Me, me, me!”

Wolfie, in marked contrast, has three plot threads going, and I’m engrossed in all of them:

  • Shannon tries to find a new home for a dog in trouble, assisted by Glory, an 11-year-old neighbor.
  • Glory is being sexually abused by her stepfather.
  • Glory’s biological father is using social media to make contact with her.

If you ask me what this book is about, I’ll rattle off something like “Shannon gets pulled into rescuing first a dog and then a girl, and the dog and the girl help rescue each other.” Ask me what Squatters’ Speakeasy is about and I’ll grab hold of one subplot and mumble for 10 minutes. What Squatters does have is plenty of raw material. It’s waiting for me to plot it into some kind of coherent structure.

Travvy looks for a plot

Travvy looks for a plot

Heroes & Villains

I can’t plot my way out of a paper bag.

plot book

By the late Ansen Dibell (aka Nancy Ann Dibble)

Actually this may not be true, since I managed to write a novel that more than one reviewer called “tightly plotted.” Let’s just say that plotting doesn’t come easy. One of the few how-to books I consult from time to time is called, simply, Plot.

My internal editor is forever nixing the kind of scene that makes for an exciting plot. She thinks they’re melodramatic or unbelievable. This is probably because my life has a meandering plot that would be deadly dull in fiction, though it leads through some interesting scenes and encounters some very interesting characters.

Evidently other writers are plot-challenged too. There are at least a gazillion websites out there to teach us how to plot.

Many of them start with protagonist(s) and antagonist(s). The main characters (i.e., the ones you like and want your readers to identify with and care about) want to get somewhere. The antagonist(s) get in their way and have to be overcome or neutralized somehow.

Call them heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys.

I get it, but there’s nothing that turns me off faster than a character whose sole purpose is to mess with the hero’s head and/or life. Why are these characters messing with the hero’s life? Because they’re villains, that’s why. Because they’re evil. Because the author needs a bad guy or two to give the good guys a hard time because otherwise there would be no plot.

Um, no.

“Everyone’s the hero of their own story.” I can’t remember where I picked up this brilliant insight, but it applies both to real life and to writing. It’s especially important when you’re creating (or giving birth to) characters you don’t like who are going to mess with the characters you do like. Nearly all of them have their own stories. Some of their stories are muddled or inchoate or otherwise incomprehensible to a rational person. Some are crystal clear: If you interrupt them in mid-stride, they can tell you exactly where they’re going and what they plan to do when they get there. Sometimes the story is driving the bus and the character is along for the ride, maybe willingly, maybe not.

devil“We are each other’s angels” goes the song. My teeth start itching at any reference to angels. There’s something about the concept that makes smart people start babbling in clichés. But OK, point taken: we are each other’s guides, teachers, helpers, and so on. But if we’re each other’s angels, we’re also each other’s devils, roadblocks, obstacles. When a character is the hero of her own story but the villain in someone else’s — that’s where things get interesting.

And more than a little scary.

When we call someone “evil,” it’s often because we can’t imagine what story they’re the hero of. We don’t want to. The story is probably icky. Maybe we’re so sure we’re on the side of the angels (oops) that we just don’t care why the other guy does what he does.

Writing well means grappling with the icky, in other people and in ourselves. So far all my less-than-heroic or downright nasty characters have been facets of my own self: I understand their impulses, I’ve often thought their thoughts; I just haven’t acted on them either because I haven’t had the opportunity or I didn’t have the nerve. There but for fortune . . .

In Wolfie, my novel in progress, I seem to be walking toward my first real villain, a man I’m sorely tempted to call evil. He’s a successful lawyer, and he sexually abused his stepdaughter over a period of time when she was seven years old. She’s now eleven, and it looks to me as if he’s going to try it again.

At the moment I can’t imagine what story he’s the hero of. Well, no: I know a good chunk of the story. What I don’t know is how sexually molesting a seven-year-old fits into it. What does he see when he looks in the mirror? When he looks at his wife, who is the girl’s biological mother? When he looks at the girl herself? Statistics suggest that he may have been abused himself growing up. Was he? By whom? A family member, a neighbor, a teacher, a priest?

So far I can’t see out of this man’s eyes, but when I’m doing dishes or walking in the woods glimpses of him appear in my peripheral vision. He’s taking shape.

Part of me wants to stuff him back into my imagination, turn the lock, and pile heavy stones on the lid.

In her essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” (1973; reprinted in The Language of the Night) Ursula K. Le Guin was writing about fantasy, but much of what she says applies to other writing as well, both fiction and nonfiction. This is how the essay ends:

“A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you.

What she said.


Who’s Driving This Bus?

I’ve been thinking a lot about characters lately. Fictional characters, particularly the fictional characters that show up on the paper in front of me. They rise in the compost that is my mind, slide down my arm and into my pen, and manifest in colored ink on a lined white page.

No doubt about it: writing is weird.

Essential tools for character development

Essential tools for character development

“Write what you know,” say the sages. Characters are forever showing me how much I don’t know. No sooner does my protagonist set off down a footpath than I’m scrambling for the name of the pretty blue flower she sees over there. She’s an artist and a website designer. I know more about pigment and graphics than I did when she first showed up, but I still couldn’t play a painter on TV.

Necessity is the mother of invention — and research.

The other day, another character’s almost-five-year-old brother was watching a movie on his family’s big-screen TV. What was he watching? No clue. I don’t know any five-year-olds. It’s been a long time since I was five. I do hear car sounds from the hallway, and I know that when he’s not watching TV the kid likes pedaling his racing car around the driveway. I could leave it at “a movie” and come back to it later, after consulting parent and grandparent friends, but I want to know now, goddammit.

Google can be the world’s worst procrastination tool, but right now it’s my friend. I start typing: Popular movies for k . . . Google fills in kindergarteners. Sounds good: this kid will be in kindergarten next year. After consulting a couple of “top ten” lists, I slip Chitty Chitty Bang Bang into the DVD player. Or maybe it’s a Blu-ray player? I’m a total idiot about all things cinematic, unless they were made before 1980. DVD vs. Blu-ray can wait. Maybe the movie won’t turn out to be Chitty Chitty Bang Bang after all, but for now it is and that’s good enough.

My first novel, The Mud of the Place, took an unexpected turn when a minor character told my protagonist something she didn’t know. I hadn’t known it either. It changed everything.

First-drafting is like watching actors on a stage. I’m the stage manager: I write down what they’re doing and saying. If someone’s standing around looking lost, I send someone else in her direction. That usually stirs things up. Sometimes a ker-thunk offstage signals that interesting stuff is happening just out of sight. I pull back the curtain: “Gotcha!”

All these years I’ve been saying confidently that my fiction is “character-driven.” But of course! I watch my characters move around. I shamelessly eavesdrop on their conversations. If my characters aren’t driving my fiction, who is? The opposite of “character-driven” is “plot-driven.” “Plot-driven” means that the characters serve the plot; “character-driven” means that they create it. Right?

While I was procrastinating the other day, a website informed me that I had it wrong: “A plot-driven novel,” it said, “has a recallable plot and not-so-recallable characters; a character-driven novel has recallable characters, and a not-so-recallable plot.”

Other writers and editors have different ideas, I discovered. I also discovered that there’s no shortage of advice out there about how to create memorable characters and memorable plots.

Sometimes Google is my friend. Sometimes Google is a trickster. Sometimes I need to stop Googling and get back to work.

Back in March I blogged that editing is like driving. So’s writing. The author’s driving the bus — she’s the only one with a valid license — but there’s all sorts of acting and interacting going on behind her. Sometimes she stops to pick up a hitchhiker. She thinks she knows where she’s going, but she’s open to other ideas.

And in case you wondered where this bus image came from, I walk past the West Tisbury School parking lot at least once every day. This is what I see. The dog is my Travvy. He’s a character too.

The backside of the buses, seen from our usual route. In early May, a brushfire scorched the woods hereabouts.

The backside of the buses, seen from our usual route. In early May, a brushfire scorched the woods hereabouts.

Travvy talks to the school buses.

Travvy talks to the school buses.

Do You NEED an Editor?

So there’s this meme circulating among some editors I know. The gist is that all writers need an editor.

Sure, every writer, and every piece of writing that aspires to be read, could use or would benefit from an editor — from a good editor, or from good editing — but need?

A brochure I created many years ago, before I realized that in my area it was one thing to need editing and quite another to be willing to pay for it.

A brochure I created many years ago, before I realized that in my area it was one thing to need editing and quite another to be willing to pay for it.

That depends. Those who insist that every writer needs an editor are mostly editors. They get paid for editing. They need paying customers at least as much as writers need editors.

All needs are not created equal.

When a water pipe breaks and water starts spraying all over the basement, you need a plumber. If the toilet bowl overflows and a plunger doesn’t fix it, you need a plumber. When a faucet starts leaking into the sink and your do-it-yourself tricks haven’t worked, you need a plumber, especially if you pay for your water. The need isn’t as pressing as when the water in your basement is two inches deep and rising, but it’s there.

You will pay the plumber to come fix your plumbing. You will probably pay extra to have him/her come ASAP, especially if it’s a weekend or a holiday (as it always seems to be when pipes break and toilets overflow). Unless money is flowing into your bank account like the water flowing into your basement, you will probably put off other, less pressing expenses in order to pay the plumber.

Last fall my dentist told me that I needed a tooth crowned. Crowns are expensive — $1,500 was the estimate. Dentistry isn’t covered by my insurance. (Don’t get me started.) It didn’t need to be done tomorrow, said my dentist, but it should be done soon. Then my car needed new rear shocks, to the tune of almost $700. The car got repaired; the dentistry got put off.

My teeth were working fine; my car wasn’t. “Soon” was not “right now.” I ranked my needs, budgeted accordingly, and carried on.

So we come round to editing. Editors are not plumbers, or car mechanics, or dentists. Your basement won’t flood, your car won’t break down, and your teeth won’t fall out if you don’t hire an editor, or if the one you do hire turns out to be inadequate.

Good editing does pay for itself, but rarely in hard currency. Nevertheless, it has to be paid for in real money. Even if you get your book, essay, or story published, the financial returns probably won’t cover what you shelled out.

But that goes double for what you put into your writing, right? More than double: we’re talking exponential here. Add up what you’ve spent on classes, workshops, and how-to books. Don’t forget the time you’ve spent writing your “million words” — the ones conventional wisdom says you have to write to develop your craft. If you were looking primarily for a tangible return on your investment, you probably would have gone into plumbing, or dentistry, or car mechanics, right?

However, if you’re a relative novice whose overriding goal is to get into print as soon as possible, you do need an editor, an excellent editor who can do all the things that good writers learn to do for ourselves. (See “Editing? What’s Editing?” for a brief breakdown of what’s involved in “editing.”) One-on-one editing is time-intensive, so expect to pay well for it.

My strong hunch is that if you’re following this blog, you’re more the do-it-yourself sort. Like me.

My two drums

My two drums

My other strong hunch is that, like me, you sometimes pay for things you don’t need. I’ve spent plenty of money competing with my dog in Rally Obedience — nothing necessary about it, but it was challenging and fun and worth the expense (until I needed a new work chair and my car needed new tires).

I joined a drumming class, loved it, and, after borrowing a drum for several months, have managed to acquire not one but two congas. These things don’t pay me back in money, but they do pay me back.

If you’re serious about your writing, and especially if you self-publish, the time will probably come when the value of good editing will be worth the money you spend on it. Worth it to you.

Meanwhile, there’s plenty you can do to develop your skill as a writer and improve whatever you’re currently working on. Some of these things don’t cost at all, and they all cost a lot less than editing. Join a writers’ group or workshop. Attend a writers’ conference. Find a couple of fellow writers to share work with. Read critically; pay close attention to how the writers you respect do what they do. (Keep in mind that they’ve probably had editorial assistance along the way.) And by all means keep writing.