Sturgis’s Law #3

Early last month 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. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #3:

A good sentence is more than the sum of its parts.

We talk about “constructing” sentences as if sentences can be built block by block like houses and bridges, and in a way they can.

We learn the building blocks early on. A sentence must have a subject and a verb. It can then be dressed up with direct objects, indirect objects, prepositional phrases, and clauses of various kinds. The component parts can be dressed up with adjectives and adverbs. Two complete sentences can be linked with a conjunction — the most common ones are and, but, and or — a semicolon, or a colon.

To make matters more complicated, or more fun, depending on how you think of it, sentences are rarely entire of themselves. They exist in relation to other sentences. They can be joined into paragraphs. Even when a sentence stands alone on a line, a paragraph unto itself, the reader connects them as she moves from one to another.

Sentences can be grammatical and unclear at the same time. Here’s a snippet I quoted in “Editing Workshop, 3,” which focused on sentences:

Smith requested and received permission to publish the translation from Jones in 2005. . . . Smith, in an interview, described the text as boring.

This comes from a long nonfiction manuscript I edited earlier this year. I skidded to a halt at the end of that first sentence. It wasn’t the translation that came from Jones but the permission, and the work wasn’t published till 2008. In the second sentence, “in an interview” weakens the connection between subject and verb by coming between them. Here’s my edit:

In 2005, Smith requested and received permission from Jones to publish the translation. . . . In an interview, Smith described the text as boring.

None of the words have been changed. They’ve just been rearranged.

We can critique sentences in isolation, but often we can’t tell what’s unclear or clear enough, what’s more effective and what’s less so, unless we see it in context. Here’s an example from my novel in progress. “She” is a sixth-grader swinging on the school playground. “It” is a dog trotting down the path behind the school. She’s never seen it before.

She watched it as the swing descended and then rose again. Its head snapped to the left, then it took off up the path at a flat-out run.

Nothing wrong with that, although an overly meticulous copyeditor might argue that the “its” at the beginning of the second sentence could be taken to refer to the swing. Most readers know that swings rarely have heads, so this “it” must be the same as the one in the first sentence. But I turned the first sentence around:

As the swing descended and then rose again, she watched it. Its head snapped to the left, then it took off up the path at a flat-out run.

Moving the dependent clause to the beginning emphasizes the motion of the girl on the swing. Then the movement stops for a moment before starting up again, this time following the dog. I also liked the way the revision brought “it” and “its” together.

Play with your sentences. Rearrange them. Read them out loud, in isolation and with the sentences that precede and follow them.

Once in a while I’ll screech to a halt and gawk at a beautifully constructed sentence. Casual readers don’t generally do this, but writers and editors can be forgiven for taking a second look at an admirable sentence.

Or a not-so-admirable one. I don’t know about you, but I probably learn more from the sentences that don’t work than from the sentences that do. Identifying what doesn’t work is easy. Understanding what makes a sentence clear, effective, eloquent, whatever — this is hard. Awkward and unclear sentences clamor for attention. Good sentences just flow on by. This may be one reason editors and teachers get a reputation for being negative and critical: we naturally focus on the sentences that don’t work so well.

Remind me to flag a couple of really, really good sentences in the next manuscript I edit!

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Readers’ Challenge

Charles French nominated me for a “readers’ challenge” award. The whole award thing in the blogosphere is a little weird. As far as I can tell, it’s circle-jerkery, with people nominating each other for awards and some people crowing about every award they get nominated for. I am intimidated by how many blogs some of these people follow. Don’t they have lives? Don’t they have jobs? When do the writers among them do their writing?

To hell with that. I like Charles French’s blog on reading, writing, and teaching, and just as important, the questions in this challenge/survey interest me, mainly because I don’t think they were directed at people like me who are in the word trades and don’t read all that much on the side. So here goes.

One of my two big bookshelves, freshly culled, dusted, and reorganized, and garnished with a few of my dog's Rally Obedience title ribbons.

One of my two big bookshelves, freshly culled, dusted, and reorganized, and garnished with a few of my dog’s Rally Obedience title ribbons.

You have 20,000 books on your TBR. How in the world do you decide what to read next?

No way in a million years I would ever have 20,000 books on my to-be-read list. I do have a dozen or so hardcopy books on the shelves at the head of my bed and several more on my Nook. How do I decide? Partly it’s what grabs my attention at the moment. If someone I respect recommends a book, it goes to the top of the list. I’m usually reading two or three books at once, but since I do most of my reading in the 20 or so minutes before I fall asleep, I don’t get through them very fast.

 

You’re halfway through a book and you’re just not loving it. Do you quit or commit?

Quit. Life is too short to waste one’s time reading crappy books. At the moment I’m about halfway through a nonfiction book that I expected great things of. I semi-promised to review it in my Martha’s Vineyard blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories. I’m probably going to skim through the rest and bail. No idea how I’m going to review it, because it’s very relevant to that particular blog and because the whys and wherefores of its failures are worth discussing.

I’m an editor by trade. When I start editing while I’m reading, it usually means that something has gone off the rails. This is the case with the nonfiction book I’m reading now. Where was the editor? I wonder. There probably wasn’t one, even though the publisher is legit and shows up fairly often in the bibliographies of books I copyedit. It’s two or three drafts short of done, and the factual errors are glaring and could have been prevented.

The end of the year is coming and you’re so close yet so far away on your GoodReads challenge. Do you quit or commit?

I dabble on GoodReads, but I don’t commit to anything.

The covers of a series you love DO. NOT. MATCH. How do you cope?

Well, I rarely read more than one book in a series, so I doubt I’d notice. If the series is good enough that I read more than one, I probably would have forgotten the cover of the first by the time I started the second. Here’s an interesting question: If books in a series were routinely marketed with non-matching covers and nothing to indicate that they’re part of a series, would anyone pick them up and read them?

Everyone and their mother loves a book you really don’t like. Who do you bond with over shared feelings?

I’m rarely reading what everyone else is reading at the same time they’re reading it. If I read it, it’s five years after they’ve forgotten it. So this doesn’t come up often. Sometimes, though, I’ll hear someone say that a book I didn’t like was overrated. I’ll jump in with a “Same here!” and if it leads to further discussion, so much the better. Ditto when someone says she loved a book that I think was widely overlooked. Bonding is good.

You’re reading a book and you’re about to start crying in public. How do you deal?

Doesn’t bother me at all. The big problem is that I rarely have a hanky handy, so I have to use my sleeve.

A sequel of a book you loved just came out, but you’ve forgotten a lot from the prior novel. Will you re-read the book? Skip the sequel? Try to find a summary on GoodReads? Cry in frustration?

If I really like a book, I’ll probably avoid any sequels unless I’m assured through the grapevine that the sequel is worthy of the original. If I’ve already forgotten a lot from the original, it probably wasn’t all that great. A good book stands on its own even if it’s a sequel or part of a series. In other words, I won’t worry about it.

You don’t want ANYONE borrowing your books. How do you politely tell people “nope” when they ask?

I no longer lend out books that have particular meaning to me, especially when they’ve been inscribed by the author, but I’m more than willing to lend anything else to anyone who asks. I live in a studio apartment. I frequently cull my shelves and donate the good stuff to my town library’s annual book sale. Good books are happier circulating than gathering dust on a bookshelf. All right, so the books aren’t happier — am. Good books have their work to do in the world, and they aren’t doing it cooped up in my apartment.

You’ve picked up and put down five different books in the past month. How do you get over the reading slump?

How is that a “slump”? When the right book comes along, I’ll stick with it. Till then I’ll find other things to do with my time.

There are so many new books coming out that you are dying to read! How many do you actually buy?

There are wonderful new books coming out all the time. I don’t know about most of them. This is a good thing. If the subject is of interest, if I’ve admired the author’s previous work, or if someone I respect recommends it, it’ll go on my mental “to-read” shelf. Maybe I’ll even put it on my GoodReads “to be read” shelf. I rarely buy a book until/unless I know I’m going to (a) read it, and (b) want to keep it around. Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia was one such. I’m also more likely to buy books from independent presses that I want to support. I bought Shade Mountain Press‘s first two books, Lynn Kanter’s novel Her Own Vietnam and Robin Parks’s story collection Egg Heaven. They’re both wonderful. (I reviewed them both on GoodReads.) I’m looking forward to their fall 2015 titles.

After you’ve bought a new book you want to get to, how long do they sit on your shelf until you actually read them?

I rarely buy new books, and when I do (see above) it’s because I want to read them now. And I do, though it usually takes me a few weeks to finish them. A couple of years ago I bought Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, which was first published in 1988. For years I was more than a little afraid of that book, partly because Atwood is a demanding writer and partly because the subject, so I’d heard, was girls’ nastiness to other girls. Then in late 2012 I copyedited an academic essay about the book that revived my interest in Cat’s Eye and assured me that it wasn’t just about girls’ nastiness to other girls. I bought and downloaded it right then. It was more than two years before I got around to reading it, but I’m very glad I did. It is demanding, but in all the best ways.

After you’ve bought a new book you want to get to, how long do they sit on your shelf until you actually read them?

See above: I rarely buy new books, period. When I got my Nook, my first e-reader, I did buy a novel on a friend’s recommendation, mainly so I’d have something to read on the road. That was three and a half years ago and I still haven’t read it — but I will, I will! I buy more books electronically than I do in print, mainly because the two bookstores within driving distance rarely have what I’m looking for. The downside is that my ebooks tend to sit around longer because I can’t see them, take them down off the shelf, flip through the pages, and decide “Yeah, it’s time to read this one.”

Nomination time

If you blog and these questions intrigue you, please adopt them and take them home with you.

Why Editing Matters

The Case of the Disappearing Editor,” which appears in the new issue of the online journal Talking Writing, was sparked by a recent flap over literary journals that require submission fees. (Such journals are primarily staffed by volunteers, and whatever staffers do get paid don’t get paid much.) Author Martha Nichols, Talking Writing‘s editor in chief, identifies a crucial issue that’s being overlooked in the flap:

I’m tired of how much the work of editors is ignored or has become invisible. It’s just as bad as devaluing writers. Actually, it’s worse, because a narrow focus on the payoff for writers ducks the question of how we maintain literary quality in the new media world.

In the battle over submission fees, what troubles me most is the idea that it’s unethical for other writers to subsidize those who do get their work published or the editors who help develop and promote that work. This viewpoint assumes that writers do everything and editors do nothing—or that editors and other publishing professionals shouldn’t care about working for free.

What follows is a thoughtful discussion of what editors and others in the word trades do and why it’s important in the evolving world of publishing and self-publishing.

I especially like this bit:

. . . editing has value to writers and to everybody who cares about quality and a wider audience for literature. I’m talking about literature in the broadest sense of that term: writing that moves people, that makes them think, that informs and illuminates. In a world where anyone can publish unfiltered text online, editing is a bulwark against opacity, fakery, apathy, and socially acceptable stupidity.

The whole thing is well worth reading and pondering.

While you’re there, check out Talking Writing‘s other offerings: essays, first-person journalism, stories, and poetry.

The Name Game

Editing nonfiction, I’m always astonished and delighted by the sheer variety of people’s names. Some are common, others unusual. Many hint at where the individual or his/her forebears might have come from — at least the forebears in the paternal line. The names of women are usually plowed under by marriage, though they may resurface in a child or grandchild’s middle name.

Other names are more generic — which in English-speaking countries means “more Anglo-Saxon” — than the people who bear them. Immigrant names were often changed at the border by immigration officials who found the original unpronounceable or unspellable. Individuals change their own names for an array of reasons. Sometimes the grandchildren of immigrants reclaim the ancestral name, though it means they’ll be continually asked how to spell or pronounce it.

One of the first things a small-town newspaper copyeditor learns is that most readers will forgive the occasional error of fact and rarely notice the grammatical gaffe, but if you misspell their names or, worse, the name of one of their kids, they will remember it forever. The first name of one fellow who appeared occasionally in news stories was Kieth. Yep: i before e. As with Triple Crown champ American Pharoah, the impulse to “correct” it was strong, but once I ascertained that “Kieth” was correct, I didn’t give in to it.

I’m jealous of nonfiction writers. They do have to get the names right, but at least they don’t have to make them up.

Fiction writers do.

Naming characters is like titling the work. Some names come easy. Others come hard.

A character in Wolfie, my novel in progress, appeared as Bruce McManus. “Bruce” has stuck, but “McManus” was a placeholder. His real name didn’t show up on its own. I had to poke around my brain looking for it.

What made this difficult is that Bruce is not a nice man. He’s not-nice in a particularly loathsome way, but his particular kind of loathsomeness is not all that rare.

What was wrong with McManus? Well, I wanted a generic name that would not be associated with a specific ethnic or national group. “Mc-” suggests Irish or maybe Scottish. Bruce comes across as WASP and probably is. When it comes to names, I have a couple of ruts that I regularly fall into, and one of them is names beginning with M. A main character in this novel is Shannon Merrick. Up the road from her is a couple named Morris.

Another of my ruts is trochees — names of two syllables with the accent on the first: Shannon, Merrick, Morris . . . I’ve also got a few three-syllable names going — Segredo, Kelleher, Correia, McDermott — but not many with only one syllable. So I started brainstorming single-syllable, generic names.

Trouble was, nearly all those single-syllable names were good English words: Black, Brown(e), White, Green(e), Stone, Hunt, Young, Pierce . . . Their meanings and connotations were likely to color (sometimes literally) readers’ perceptions of the character, and raise the possibility that this was intentional on my part. Nothing wrong with that: I’ve done it myself. In my first novel, The Mud of the Place, Jay Segredo got his surname for a reason. “Segredo” in Portuguese means “secret.” But with this Bruce character? No.

So while I was out walking one morning and thinking about something entirely different, “Smith” slipped into my conscious mind. Bruce Smith. Bruce Endicott Smith. I had it: a one-syllable surname that was about as generic as you can get in English and that didn’t begin with M. 

Some characters show up with names firmly attached. How to name the ones that don’t? There are plenty of options. Some writers open the phone book at random then let their forefinger do the picking, once for the first name, once for the last. I often discover names by listening to the characters talk, either to themselves or to each other. My novel is set in a particular place — Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, New England, USA — which limits my options somewhat. If your story is set in Croatia, Armenia, Brazil, or Japan, or if one of your characters comes from somewhere else, there are names lists galore on the Web for different places and different languages. If you don’t know the place or language, though, take care: the name you choose may have associations you don’t know about. (“Bush” was not one of the monosyllabic names I considered for Bruce.)

For fantasy and science fiction writers the possibilities might seem endless, but not really: readers have a harder time with names they can’t pronounce or remember easily.

Do names really matter all that much? “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” true, but if roses were called rhododendrons, they probably wouldn’t show up in so many poems. The busybody who appeared in the excerpt I quoted in “Free the Scene” didn’t give her name, but it turned out to be Juliet Cavendish Cooper. If that suggests someone who’s imperious and proud of her genealogy, fine with me.

For the important players, though, the name can provide a way into the character’s head and history. How did the person come by that name? Does s/he like it or hate it? Growing up a Susanna, I wanted a name like everybody else’s so I went by Sue or Susan (occasionally spelled Suzan). After high school I decided that Susanna really was much better, even if I often have to spell it out. One of my main characters, given name James, as a kid was widely known as Jimmy. After he left home, he started calling himself Jay. Now only his mother calls him Jimmy.

My friend the prolific mystery writer Cynthia Riggs sometimes donates naming rights to good causes. If you’re the high bidder at a benefit auction, you or your designee gets a namesake in Cynthia’s next novel. This is how Bruce Steinbicker, in Cynthia’s recently released Poison Ivy (St. Martin’s, 2015), got his name. But in the writing Bruce the character took on a personality of his own, as characters are wont to do. This prompted Cynthia to write to Bruce the real guy:

In the Martha’s Vineyard Mystery Series book I’m writing now, Poison Ivy, I intended the character named after you, the TV star Bruce Steinbicker, to make a simple cameo appearance on the porch of Alley’s Store. However, the character insisted that he play a larger role . This is a problem writers often face. A character takes over and there’s not much we can do about it. But since our character, Bruce Steinbicker, decides to have a dalliance with a woman other than his wife, I thought I should let you know in case this might cause problems for you in your personal life. If so, I can give our Bruce S. character an alias.

Please let me know whether or not you’re comfortable with being loosely identified with our naughty Bruce Steinbicker, as I’m in the home stretch.

To which Bruce the real guy replied: “I’m fine with this and when I showed your message to my wife of 49 years, she just laughed.”

Since Cynthia and I are in the same writers’ group and I heard most of Poison Ivy in manuscript, I’m now wondering if that’s where my Bruce’s name came from. Maybe yes, maybe no, maybe yes and no. The writer’s mind steals from here, there, and everywhere, then forgets where the shiny baubles came from.

 

 

Letting Go, Take 2

 

An editor colleague just asked what to do about a client who’s written a very good novel but wants to keep revising and revising and won’t start querying agents or publishers.

There’s not much you can do, I said.

Aside: “Letting Go,” take 1, was prompted by a similar query. It took off in a somewhat different direction. I suspect that writers and editors never stop dealing with this stuff.

The word “perfectionism” came up.

As a recovering perfectionist — often a recovering-by-the-skin-of-my-teeth perfectionist who wonders if she’s recovering at all — I know a few things about this. Perfectionism can mean that everything you do has to be perfect before you’ll let it out of your sight, but it can and often does mean more than that. Perfectionism is a way of maintaining control. If I do everything right, I won’t get fired, my lover won’t leave, my kids will turn out perfect, and my novel will get made into a top-grossing movie and the world will swoon at my feet.

It often doesn’t work out that way. Deep down we perfectionists suspect this. Deep down we know that once something leaves our hands, the outcome is out of our control. So we don’t let it go.

Which is what I suspect is going on with the novelist who can’t stop revising, mainly because I’ve known many writers over the years who can’t let go of their work. They tell themselves the work isn’t done — they need to do more research, or do one more draft — and nothing anyone tells them can persuade them otherwise. The problem isn’t that the work isn’t done, it’s that the word “done” isn’t in the writer’s vocabulary because “done” means s/he has to let go.

For writers, here is where it gets tricky. Letting go means you’re putting the outcome in the hands of person(s) unknown. Persons who don’t know you and don’t have any particular reason to wish you well — unless, of course, you’ve produced the sort of work that might make lots of money. The overwhelming majority of us have not done this. Competent agents agree to represent only a small fraction of the manuscripts they see. Many of the ones they reject are very good or better.

In other words, if “failure” to you means rejection by an agent, or by a dozen or a hundred agents, your fear of failure is completely justified.

So is your fear of success. Fear of success is the flip side of fear of failure. They both have deep roots in the fear of letting go. Say you do get an agent, the agent sells your book, and there’s actually a book on the market that has your name on the cover. To you it’s a huge deal, as it should be, but most of the world — including your friends, relatives, and casual acquaintances — is going to say, at best, “That’s nice,” and move on.

Am I telling you to give up? Of course not. Read on.

Here’s a little parable: A kid finds a new butterfly struggling to get out of its chrysalis. The kid pulls the chrysalis apart and helps the butterfly get out. But the butterfly’s wings aren’t fully developed. It cannot fly. Moral of story: It’s the struggle to get out of the chrysalis that strengthens the butterfly’s wings so it can fly.

I like this little parable even though some people turn it into a rationale for never helping anybody out. I like it because it applies so well to writing and other creative endeavors. In the struggle to create, we not only become good writers, we also figure out what we want to do with our writing. We create a path forward for ourselves and develop the courage to follow it.

For many of us, this involves seeking out and sharing experiences with other writers. We become better writers, yes, but we also develop two crucial skills: the ability to dissociate ourselves from our creations, and the ability to sort through other people’s comments, edits, and critiques and decide what works for us. In the process, we learn about the many options for getting our work out into the world.

To complete a book-length work without doing this — well, it’s like finding that the road you’ve been on for years ends in a precipitous drop. Or maybe like opening the door from your dark room and being blinded by the light outside.

The very first line of this blog, back in “The Basics,” was “Your writing will teach you what you need to know.”

I believe it.

In that same post, I quoted two of the truest things I’ve ever heard about writing. I believe them too. Here they are again.

”I think writing really helps you heal yourself. I think if you write long enough, you will be a healthy person. That is, if you write what you need to write, as opposed to what will make money, or what will make fame.”
Alice Walker

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Marge Piercy