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UKL’s Challenge

We interrupt this blog to bring you an important message. Ursula K. Le Guin has been high in my literary pantheon for a very long time. The other night at the 65th National Book Awards, Le Guin was honored for her distinguished contribution to American letters. In barely five minutes she proved that her distinguished contribution continues. Her speech seems to be going viral. Good. It’s a challenge to writers, publishers, and readers. Let’s live up to it.

And here is The Speech, as transcribed by Parker Higgins and posted on his blog. He notes that the bits in parentheses were ad-libbed to the audience. Thanks!

Thank you, Neil, and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. (Well, I love you too, darling.)

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

Thank you.

 

Word Count: Zero

If you’re currently in the throes of NaNoWriMo, you might want to put off reading this post till the middle of next month. If you aren’t, or if you don’t know what NaNoWriMo is, read on.

OTOH, if you are in the throes of NaNoWriMo, what are you doing here in the first place? Maybe you should stick around.

Here’s the shocking truth: I didn’t write any words this morning. Well, OK, I scribbled some words on pages of notes that had already been scribbled on, but really — I didn’t write any words this morning.

My chair

I’ve blogged about how I don’t measure my progress or a day’s success by the number of words I’ve written. This is true. All the same, writing no words is a little scary, especially when I want to have a few pages to take to my writers’ group meeting on Sunday night. Right now I’ve got nothing.

What I did this morning was sit in my writing chair for an hour and a quarter. To my right, three candles were burning. (Usually it’s just two. This morning I needed all three.) To my left, eight pens were at the ready. My laptop was on the floor, still asleep.

A few days ago, Wolfie, my novel in progress, came to a crossroad. Shannon, my protagonist, had just made a big decision — the one it took lots of red ink to get to. She had no idea what happened next.

Neither did I. This was a problem.

Since I’ve got some experience in community theater, when writing fiction I tend to see myself as the stage manager. My characters move around on the stage. I write down what they do and say. Once in a while, I need to prompt one actor, or summon another who’s lollygagging backstage. Then they take over and I go back to transcribing.

Not this time. This time they were standing around waiting for me to tell them what to do.

I have a pretty good idea what’s going to happen. What I didn’t know was how to get my cast of characters moving in a direction that would bring it — or something like it — to pass. I was staring at a big logjam on the river. Nothing was moving.

Little heap of wood

Little heap of wood

I sat in my chair, reread my notes, scribbled some words here and there.

The logjam in my head morphed into a big pile of cut and split logs, like the ones the wood guy would dump in my yard during the years I was heating with a wood stove.

Being a writer and thus wise in the ways of procrastination, I got it. Anne Lamott nailed it in her classic Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. How do you accomplish a huge project whose boundaries you can’t see, whose completion you can’t imagine? Bird by bird. Word by word. Or, in my case, log by log.

Once I realized that I had to start somewhere, it didn’t really matter where I started. Pick a log, any log.

Turned out I’d known all along what log to start with. After the events that had transpired in the previous twenty-four hours (novel time), the next move was clearly Shannon’s. Well, now it was clearly Shannon’s move. I’d known all along that Shannon had to make a couple of phone calls, but the Internal Editor assured me that this wasn’t enough. How could a couple of phone calls break up that humongous logjam?

Travvy on a mission

Travvy on a mission

By this time it was 8:30 a.m. Time to get out of the chair and go walking with Travvy, my canine companion, on whom Wolfie is based. As I pulled on my socks and hiking shoes, donned vest and cap, and put Travvy’s walking harness on, Shannon was making her phone calls — and lo, the rest of her day lay like a path in front of me, leading toward the plotwise thicket that I knew was up ahead.

Word count: zero, but a breakthrough day nonetheless.

Counting words obviously works for some writers, at least some of the time. For me, the secret is usually to sit down for at least an hour and don’t fidget. I’m writing even if I’m not writing, as long as I’m not balancing my checkbook, answering email, playing on Facebook, or brushing the dog.

Go to the chair. Sit. Rustle papers, scribble words, focus on the work. If the path doesn’t open up today, do the same thing tomorrow.

 

20141121 woodpile 1

 

Some Blogs I Like

My m/other blog, my first blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, is read mostly by non-bloggers. Soon after I launched this blog last winter, it started attracting followers who had blogs of their own. Before the end of its second month, Write Through It was Freshly Pressed — featured in WordPress’s ongoing “best of WordPress” feature.

Wow.

I tried to check out the blogs of every blogger who followed Write Through It and every blog that was Freshly Pressed. I was quickly overwhelmed. I cut back and cut back and cut back some more. I still subscribe to more blogs than I can keep up with. All I can say is — there’s an awful lot of good stuff out there.

Several bloggers have nominated Write Through It for various blogging awards or otherwise let me know that they like this blog. Thanks especially to creativewriter, Tempest Rose of Nonsense & Shenanigans, and Susan J. Kroupa.

Rather than nominate other bloggers for awards, I’m listing here a few blogs that I like, along with a few words about why I like them. Not only do I read them regularly, they help keep me going — which is one of the things Write Through It is about. This is nowhere close to an exhaustive list, and it won’t be my last list either. Be warned.

In no particular order:

Off the Beaten Path: Hikes, Backpacks, and Travels: Westerner54, aka Cindy, shares her hikes and travels in glorious photographs and commentary. She’s based in Montana and roams through areas where I’ve never been and probably never will go. (Maybe it’s because I live on Martha’s Vineyard, maximum elevation about 350 feet, but I’m awestruck by mountains.) She shares her knowledge of the places, the flora, and fauna, and her love of the places she visits is contagious.

Speaking of place, the blogger behind Cochin Blogger lives in Kerala, India. His photos, vignettes, and occasional book reviews offer an ongoing introduction to another place I’ll probably never get to.

In Across the Great Dividejournalist Charlie Quimby blogs (all too infrequently these days) about volunteering in a homeless shelter’s preschool. His wonderful first novel, Monument Road, was published late last year. Its vividly evoked characters shape and (more often) are shaped by the less-than-hospitable place they live in — western Colorado.

You may notice a theme emerging here. I’m drawn to blogs that pull me into places and lives I don’t live. This is also true of Charlotte Hoather’s blog. Charlotte is a young woman training to be a classical singer at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and aspiring to go on to opera school. She’s got a glorious voice, writes wonderfully, and takes great photos of the places she visits and performers. She recently released a recording of some favorite songs. Of course I bought and downloaded it. It’s excellent.

How to describe Nonsense & Shenanigans? Let’s see: Tempest Rose blogs about daily life, the universe, and being the bipolar (maybe) mother of a young son whose father is in prison. She’s observant, honest, witty, snarky, provocative, and fun. She’s also incredibly prolific. No way I can keep up with her, but I jump into her swift-flowing stream pretty often and always come out refreshed and inspired.

Evelyne Holingue is a French-American writer who blogs about writing, publishing, and traveling, among other things. She’s particularly attentive to the ways cultures and mores combine and collide, a topic that fascinates me too. This is a main theme of her brand-new YA novel, Chronicles from Château Moines, which I’ve just downloaded and started to read. It’s about a California middle-school student who moves to Normandy and has to make a life for himself in a new country and a language he isn’t quite fluent in. Evelyne blogs in both English and French. The French I read slowly and with dictionary at the ready, but it’s one of the attractions of this lively and wonderfully written blog.

And, finally, the Writer Site blog also focuses — surprise, surprise! — on writing, particularly memoir. Blogger Luanne reviews memoirs and is working on one of her own. She blogs about writing, publishing, and other aspects of a writer’s life — and very well too.

 

The Writing Life: Advice from a Counterculture Icon

I haven’t read Vonnegut since college, and his “rule” about semicolons is crap, but his comments about writing and art making in this blog post are just wonderful.

The Daily Post

Everyone should read at least one Kurt Vonnegut book — Welcome to the Monkey House and Mother Night are my favorites. They’re blunt. Dark. Demanding. And they make you think, and laugh, and want to be a better person. What more can we ask of literature, and what better person to turn to for tough love on writing?

It’s not surprising that his thoughts on art, writing, and the writing life are just as thought-provoking, funny, and inspiring…

If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the…

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Editing Workshop, 1

bedbugged coverAuthor Susan Kroupa has several good questions about her almost-done novel in progress. All of them are about punctuating dialogue, which presents some challenges not generally encountered in straight narrative. (The novel is the fourth in Susan’s Doodlebugged mystery series, about the adventures of Doodle, a bedbug-hunting Labradoodle; Molly, his 10-year-old human cohort; and Josh Hunter, Molly’s father, who needs all the patience he can get. A must for dog-loving mystery readers and mystery-loving dog people!)

Where to put the period?

She’s the type of person Miguel, my old trainer, calls a “charmer”. Or a “charmer.”

My dad likes to say that the certification means he’s not ‘just some guy with a business license and a dog’.”
Or “. . . and a dog.'”

This is a point where American English (AmE) differs from British English (BrE). In AmE, periods and commas nearly always go inside the close quotation marks, both single and double. Even when the element enclosed in quotes is something less than a complete sentence. So:

She’s the type of person Miguel, my old trainer, calls a “charmer.”

Same deal with the “My dad” sentence. Notice, however, that this sentence is missing something. See it?

My dad likes to say that the certification means he’s not ‘just some guy with a business license and a dog.'”

Single quote marks are used for quotations within quotations. (BrE does the opposite: the primary quotation is set off with single quote marks, the quotation within with doubles.) The period is followed by both a close single quote and a close double quote. This means that somewhere in the preceding copy there should be both an open double quote and an open single quote. This sentence has an open single quote mark — but no open double. This sentence has been lifted from its context, so the missing open double quote mark is probably in an earlier sentence, but I’m going to ask Susan to check to make sure.

By the way — if I were copyediting, I’d suggest losing the quote marks around “charmer.” They aren’t wrong, but they aren’t necessary either. They do come in handy with distinctive phrases. If Miguel habitually called this type of person a “two-faced charmer,” I’d keep the quotes.

With the stronger terminal punctuation marks, question marks and exclamation points, placement is a little more complicated. Does the question mark or exclamation point go with the quoted bit? If so, it goes inside the close quote. If not, it goes outside. Here’s a variation on Susan’s first sentence:

Would Miguel call her a “charmer”?

The question mark applies to the whole sentence, not just “charmer,” so it goes outside the quote marks. Here’s an example of the opposite:

As a child she was taught to greet grownups with “How do you do?”

The whole sentence isn’t a question, but the quoted bit — “How do you do?” — is. So here the question mark goes inside the close quote.

Exclamation points work the same way. Imagine that the dad in Susan’s second sentence has been accused of being “just some guy with a business license and a dog.” He might reply, “I am not ‘just some guy with a business license and a dog’!” The exclamation point goes inside the double close quotes because the whole reply is an exclamation. (He’s a little miffed at the suggestion.) But it goes outside the single close quote because that quoted bit isn’t an exclamation.

How to write stuff the way people say it

“Find it on our website, states of affairs slash low down news dot com.”
Or add dashes between the words? This is being heard over the radio.

In writing it’s a no-brainer: the URL is statesofaffairs/lowdownnews.com. Actually that doesn’t look quite right to me — did I say I’ve been learning Dreamweaver in my spare time? lowdownnews.statesofaffairs.com would be more like it, or lowdownnews.com/statesofaffairs, or statesofaffairs.com/lowdownnews. The domain name comes first, and the folders follow the slash.

But I digress. The challenge is to translate something written into something oral, using the written word to do it. Writers and editors have various opinions on this. Some think that numbers should always be spelled out in dialogue because we can’t pronounce numbers. And some numbers, notably those dealing with money and time, can be pronounced in different ways. How does a character pronounce “10:45”? “Ten forty-five” or “quarter to eleven” or “a quarter of eleven”? How does he say he’s got $6.35 in his pocket? “Six thirty-five” or “six dollars thirty-five” or “six bucks and thirty-five cents”? If you hear a character saying it a certain way, by all means spell it out. That way your readers will be more likely to hear it the same way.

But suppose my character says, “My dog was born in twenty-oh-eight.” I don’t know about you, but I have to look twice at that to realize it’s a year. I had the same problem with “states of affairs slash low down news dot com”: It didn’t say “URL” to me till I’d screeched to a halt and gone “Huh?” Verisimilitude is nice, but not if it makes things unnecessarily hard for the reader. So my character would say “My dog was born in 2008” and Susan’s newscaster would say “Find it on our website, statesofaffairs/lowdownnews.com” — after checking to make sure that the bogus URL has the syntax of a real one.

Dashing dialogue

I use dashes a lot and am uncertain whether this structure for quotes and dashes is correct:
“Absolutely. I have my reputation to think about. With the public—” she meets her son’s eye—“and with you.”

Dashes are a handy way to work body language, intonation, or thoughts into dialogue. Both dashes can go inside the quotation marks or both dashes can go outside. This sample has one inside and one outside. One of them needs to be moved — but which one? Depends on how Susan hears the dialogue, and how she wants her readers to hear it.

#1: “Absolutely. I have my reputation to think about. With the public—” she meets her son’s eye “—and with you.”

#2: “Absolutely. I have my reputation to think about. With the public”—she meets her son’s eye—“and with you.”

What’s the difference? In #1, the dash inside the quotation marks suggests that there’s a pause in the speaking. In #2, the speech itself isn’t interrupted, so she’s meeting her son’s eye (or “eyes”?) while she’s speaking.

Note that in conventional AmE typography the em dash is usually set solid (i.e., without extra space) to whatever precedes and follows it. Hence there’s no space around “she meets her son’s eye” in #2 but there is in #1.

Also note that if you’re using “smart” or curly quotes, dashes often fool automated typesetting systems into making the quote marks go in the wrong direction: the system thinks that a quote mark following a dash has to be a close quote, but as you can see in #2, this often isn’t true.

Got a question about editing, writing, or how to keep going? Ask away! There’s a contact form on the You! page. See the menu bar at the top of this page.

 

Whatever Works

Are you a “plotter” or a “pantser”? For many writers this is a far hotter topic than liberals versus conservatives, dogs versus cats, or Macs versus PCs. Plotters work it all out in advance. Pantsers — you’re way ahead of me here — fly by the seat of their pants.

The other day I learned about “swoopers” and “bashers.” Swoopers dive in and write write write till they run out of steam. Bashers knock each sentence into shape before they move on to the next. Their first drafts are polished and almost ready to go.

Some how-to guides emphasize planning. If you fly by the seat of your pants, they warn, it’ll take a lot longer. You may never finish at all.

If you’re writing to a deadline, whether imposed from without — say there’s a contract involved — or within — say you’re participating in NaNoWriMo and trying to write a novel this month, time is of the essence and “longer” is a liability.

I’m not writing to a deadline, beyond producing a few new pages for each week’s meeting of my writers’ group, but there’s no question in my mind: planning has its uses. Last spring my novel-in-progress (working title: The Squatters’ Speakeasy) ran out of steam. It was all sprawl and no trail. I pushed it to one side and went to work on Wolfie, the current project. Eventually I diagnosed the Squatters problem as a “surfeit of subplots.” There wasn’t a main plot in sight.

Some planning is clearly called for.

At the same time — Wolfie started as one of those multitudinous subplots. It appeared when I was flying by the seat of my pants. It’s taken on a life of its own.

Planning has its uses. So does flying by the seat of your pants. So do swooping and bashing. Whatever works — and when it stops working, try something else.

steering coverAs usual, Ursula K. Le Guin got there long before me. Her Steering the Craft (Portland, OR: Eighth Mountain Press, 1998) is my favorite how-to book. Sometimes I open to a page at random, as if I were casting the I Ching or laying out tarot cards. The other day I was flipping through looking for advice on plot. This is what I found:

“Somebody asked Willie Nelson where he got his songs, and he said, ‘The air’s full of melodies, you just reach
out. . . .’ The world’s full of stories, you just reach out.

“I say this in an attempt to unhook people from the idea that they have to make an elaborate plan of a tight plot before they’re allowed to write a story. If that’s the way you like to write, write that way, of course. But if it isn’t, if you aren’t a planner or a plotter, don’t worry. The world’s full of stories. . . . All you need may be a character or two, or a conversation, or a situation, or a place, and you’ll find the story there. You think about it, you work it out at least partly before you start writing, so that you know in a general way where you’re going, but the rest works itself out in the telling.”

About her “steering the craft” image, which organizes the book (and which I love), she adds: “The story boat is a magic one. It knows its course. The job of the person at the helm is to help it find its own way to wherever it’s going.”

In Wolfie the other day, my main character, Shannon, was sailing along on course. She knew where she was heading. Then two things happen, boom, boom, one right after the other. The first shakes her certainty; the second tells her she’s heading in the wrong direction. She’s got to do something, but she doesn’t know what.

I generally depend on my characters to tell me what’s what. I was no help — but I’m at the helm and lingering in irons in the middle of the bay is not an option.

So I picked out a pen that hadn’t seen much use lately and filled it with red ink. (For days I’d been cruising in more somber colors — gray, brown, black cherry. Red woke me up.) With a sheaf of my new blank paper in my lap, I slipped into Shannon’s head and we wrote, and wrote, and wrote. Now she knows what she’s going to do, and I’ve got a pretty good idea. We’re back on course.

Red ink collage

Red ink collage