Why I Always Read the Acknowledgments

As an editor, I work mostly on completed or nearly completed manuscripts. I straighten out the punctuation here, insert a paragraph break there, invert a couple of sentences here, point out an inconsistency there . . . It’s all in a day’s work.

What I seldom think about is what an astonishing feat it is to complete a 300- or 400- or 600-page manuscript of any kind, to get it to the point where pretty much all it needs is fine-tuning.

As a writer, however, I think about this all the time. It’s the reason the subtitle of Write Through It includes “how to keep going.”

If you don’t manage to keep going, you’ll never have a completed manuscript. It’s hard to keep going. It’s so easy to stop — or to not start at all.

And the authors of all those completed or nearly completed manuscripts managed to do it. Hats off to all of them — all of us. How the hell do we do it?

This is why I eventually turn to the acknowledgments section of every book I work on and every book I read. It’s not so I can find out if my name is there, although sometimes it is. What I want to know is how the author managed to accomplish this amazing thing: completing a manuscript and getting it into print.

Lesson #1: No writer who gets anywhere gets there alone.

Most authors thank their editor(s), agent (if any), and, often, the designer, proofreader, and others involved on the production end. They may thank the parents and teachers who inspired them, and the partners and children who put up with them while they worked on the book. Both fiction and nonfiction writers often acknowledge those who read, commented on, or critiqued various drafts of the manuscript. With academic authors, the list of names can be quite long — and readers familiar with the field will often skim that list in an attempt to ascertain whether the author has done her homework.

Fiction writers often include the friends and acquaintances who gave them crash courses on police procedures, quantum theory, dog training, life in an urban hospital’s ER . . . Writing what we know usually leads us into stuff we don’t know, and there we need some help.

I recently edited a university-press book whose author had done extensive research in several languages and far-flung places. Her acknowledgments section included the people who’d opened their homes to her while she was on the road. I loved it.

Moral of story: Don’t get too caught up in this writing-is-a-solitary-endeavor thing. You may be alone when you write, but you’re not writing in isolation.

 

Wrung Out

The end of draft #1 of novel #2 is in sight. Not close exactly, but I can see it on the horizon. Plot lines are converging. Things are getting, shall we say, tense.

For instance — two main characters meet by chance in a hardware store. They’re kibitzing about the complexities of modern lightbulbs, though neither one is all that fascinated by lightbulbs. Amira notices that Shannon looks preoccupied. A few moments later Shannon blurts out that she’s just had bad news.

The hardware store aisle isn’t a good place to have this conversation, so they adjourn to a nearby café for coffee (Shannon) and lunch (Amira).

This is the scene I wrote this morning.

Shannon has just learned that her dog has inoperable cancer. She is starting to beat herself up about her failure to (a) notice this earlier, and (b) prevent it.

Amira doesn’t want Shannon to go there. She recounts the story of how her father, visiting his other daughter and her family in Florida, went to the neighborhood convenience store with his four-year-old niece riding on his shoulders. A robbery was in progress. The robbers run out shooting; the niece is hit and dies two days later. Amira’s father never stopped beating himself up with what ifs and if onlys. He has since died.

Amira started down the what if / if only road herself but friends helped pull her back to the land of the living.

I knew this scene was coming but I didn’t know how or where it was going to happen.

I was totally wrung out when I laid my pen down this morning. Could not write another word. So Travvy and I went for our morning walk. With sunshine, brisk air, and steady steps my energy returned. It always does.

It can be scary to look down the road and see that the writing is leading you toward a scene that’s going to wring you out. I’ve been known to do other things — aka “procrastinate” — until I feel ready, even though I never feel entirely ready. Just ready enough.

But those wrung-out moments tell me that I’ve been writing well, and true, and deep. My pen has tapped into something I can’t reach any other way.

People Talking

People talking. Dialogue. Here’s what the American Heritage Dictionary (online) has to say about it:

1. a. A conversation between two or more people. b. A discussion of positions or beliefs, especially between groups to resolve a disagreement.
2. a. Conversation between characters in a drama or narrative. b. The lines or passages in a script that are intended to be spoken.

Here we’re mainly concerned with #2, but as you’ll see, #1 is also important, especially #1a.

Writers of technical and scholarly material may not have to bother with dialogue. They can write papers and whole books in which people don’t talk to each other. For fiction writers, memoirists, and writers of nonfiction of a more personal kind, dialogue is almost indispensable. It also comes in handy for journalists and academics who incorporate interviews with real people into their work. They don’t make the dialogue up, but it takes skill and sensitivity to make effective use of it.

I say “almost indispensable” because it’s definitely possible to write a story, a personal essay, or even a novel or book-length memoir with no dialogue in it. But think of all the wonderful things that good dialogue can do:

  • It moves the story forward.
  • It reveals character, and the relationships between characters.
  • It breaks up the text so the reader isn’t confronted by a wall of print on every page.

Don’t discount this last one. Page after page of solid, often lengthy paragraphs can make a book look pretty forbidding. That’s one reason good writers, editors, and designers of technical manuals and academic books use paragraph breaks, headings, illustrations, and other graphic devices to break up their pages.

Listen to people talk. Eavesdrop shamelessly but be discreet. Think twice about writing things down. (Recording people without their consent is definitely unethical and possibly illegal. Don’t do it.) You don’t need the exact words. Pay attention to tone, facial expression, body language.

Listen to the voices talking in your head.

Pay particular attention to conversations where one person is trying to persuade another of something, or trying to get that person to do something.

If you have an opportunity to watch an improv troupe at work, in person or online, use it.

Read everything you write out loud. Especially dialogue. Try it this way and that way till the reader is likely to hear it the way you do.

Lesson #1: The dialogue in novels, memoirs, and even plays sounds real, but it doesn’t sound the way real people talk. Real conversations meander all over the place. Often they never get to the point — or they do, but it’s not obvious what the point is. Sometimes the point is just to keep silence at bay. Sometimes it’s to keep another person from talking.

Lesson #2: Wonderful, vivid dialogue can be crafted from this raw material. Some writers take to it naturally, others have to work harder at it — but it’s like most things to do with writing: the more you practice, and the more observant you are, the better you’ll get at it.

A couple of my previous blog posts deal with dialogue. See “Of Dots and Dashes” and “Editing Workshop, 1.” Both focus on punctuation, which is an essential tool in shaping dialogue.

So — have you got any bits of dialogue that are giving you trouble? Other Write Through It readers can learn from your questions — and from the bits that work especially well too. Send them along using the contact form below.

Author Etiquette for Contacting Book Bloggers

Having been at various times a reviewer, an anthology editor, a newspaper features editor, and a few other things, I think this is excellent advice for any writer who is trying to get another writer to do something for free. Online, offline, anywhere!

Creative State of Mind

Hello, everyone! It’s me again with another author advice post. Warning: This post isn’t for everyone. If you’re an author who finds etiquette posts tiresome, this post isn’t for you. If you’re already an expert on book marketing, this post will probably seem pretty basic, but I hope you’ll read on and add your advice in the comment section. This post is for people like me – people who came into the writing world with limited social media knowledge. It’s for people who didn’t realize book bloggers existed until they were told to go out and promote their book. If you’re intimidated or overwhelmed by the idea of contacting reviewers and bloggers, or if you’ve sent requests to bloggers and only received a lukewarm response, this post is for you.

  1. DO read the blogger’s FAQs, Policies, or Submission Guidelines. Each blogger is different. Some bloggers want you to contact them by email. Others have…

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Je ne suis pas Charlie

This is from my other blog, but it’s about writing. Oh yeah, it’s definitely about writing.

From the Seasonally Occupied Territories . . .

Three gunmen attacked the editorial offices of the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday. When they left, 12 were dead and 11 injured. In the days since, at least five more have died: four hostages and a police officer. Two of the Charlie Hebdo suspects — two brothers with links to jihadist groups — and a third jihadist have been killed in shoot-outs with police.

I deplore the act and grieve for the victims, but I am not Charlie.

It’s not because I can’t imagine being targeted because of what I do or where I work. When I worked for the Martha’s Vineyard Times, we gathered like clockwork every Thursday morning to critique the issue just published and start planning for next week’s edition. Any passerby could see us through the office’s big front window. If someone had chosen to take violent exception to one of us, to something…

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Got Dialogue?

I use a lot of dialogue in my fiction. I’m pretty good at it. (My writers’ group says so. <g>) I’m planning to blog about it in the not-too-distant future, and probably more than once, so here’s a request:

If you’ve got a short (say 50–75 words) snippet of dialogue that you’d like feedback on, send it along. Use the comment form in this post or the one in Got a Question? above. They both go to the same place. If you like, I’ll include a link to your blog or website along with your question, but if you prefer to remain anonymous, that’s fine too.

Write On, and On, and On

Happy New Year to all, and may your writing flourish and lead you along interesting paths.

If you look up at the menu bar, you’ll see it’s been streamlined. The five Ws — Who, What, When, Where, and Why — and their first cousin How are now all on the same page.

The “You!” page is now “Got a Question?” It includes a comment form to make it easy for you to ask questions, share your experience, offer suggestions, whatever.

If you’re on Facebook, Write Through It has its own page. If you “like” it (and maybe even if you don’t), you can make comments and ask questions there too.

Write Through It now has 1,060 followers, and it’s not even a year old yet. I’m amazed. Welcome aboard, and special thanks to all who’ve commented, liked various posts, and otherwise supported this blog. You’re keeping it, and me, going.

P.S. I just added four new ink colors to my collection: sepia brown, suede blue, copper burst, and velvet black. No, I didn’t need any more ink, but ink, like pens and blank paper, is faith in the future. It’s going to be a good writing year. Here’s the current collection.

The four new bottles are on the left. You can tell they're new because they're so clean. I don't know why I up-ended Travvy's bone behind the tableau, but I like it.

The four new bottles are on the left. You can tell they’re new because they’re so clean. I don’t know why I up-ended Travvy’s bone behind the tableau, but I like it.