Do the Doing: An Actor Writes

This seems related to my recent post about details. Using her experience as an actress, the author writes: “Actors spend years honing their craft; good actors know this includes getting out of the way in a performance so people can become immersed in the story on stage, not the actor’s impressive craft on display.” I think something similar is true for writers.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

A guest post from Cecile Callan:

“I’m noticing a pattern in your work, and it’s a problem,” my mentor said.

I was near the end of my third term of my fiction MFA when she put her finger on something happening in my writing whenever emotions grew strong. To show an intense scene’s rage, anger, or grief, I’d throw in more adjectives and adverbs, believing more description would create more emotion and show I really meant it. Only it had the opposite effect. Instead of getting across intensity, my frantic, overly dramatic writing pushed readers away by taking them out of the scene.

“But it feels that intense,” I argued.

“It’s not your job to feel it, it’s your job to make your readers feel it,” she replied.

I remembered, then, something I’d learned decades before, working as an actress. In rehearsal for The Cherry Orchard, the director had…

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Bogged Down in Detail

Almost three years ago, in “Details, Details,” I noted, “Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, poetry or plays, details help bring your stories to life. (They can also weigh your story down. We can talk about that some other time.)”

“Some other time” has finally arrived, and strange but true, this is a book I’m reading for pleasure, not a manuscript I’m critiquing or editing. After its publication in 2008, it become a New York Times best-seller and an Oprah Book Club selection. All of which suggests that it was pretty well edited and very well liked, or at least that a lot of people bought it.

I’m actually liking it myself: I’m about two-thirds of the way through and I plan to keep going. But still — the details!

At first I was impressed. Truth to tell, I still am. A rain-washed street, the noises each stair in an old farmhouse makes as a boy walks down them, an old tractor engine rumbling to life — all these and many more sights and sounds are exquisitely observed and vividly described.

Especially impressive to me is the detail devoted to the raising and training of dogs. I know enough about dogs and dog training to recognize the author’s expertise. The title character is my novel in progress is a dog; his behavior and training play a significant role in the story. My own treatment of the subject suddenly seemed pale and rushed by comparison. Maybe I should put in more details?

At some point, though, the exquisitely observed and vividly described objects and interactions began to slow me down. Even the parts about dogs. Get on with it, I’d think. I can visualize in detail the peeling paint and the rusty latch — what’s happening on the other side of the door?

With an ebook or an old-fashioned print book, I could have skimmed past the in-depth descriptions and gotten on with the story, but I’m listening to this novel on CDs as I run errands in my car. With an audiobook you can’t skip ahead with any precision. So I listen even when I’m itching to fast-forward.

I wondered if the author was also a poet. In poetry image and detail are in the foreground. They’re meant to be savored. They’re important in fiction and memoir too, but if you spend too much time savoring the imagery and detail in a 580-page (or 18-CD) novel, you’ll never get through it. As far as I can tell, this author isn’t also a poet.

Interestingly enough, despite his minute attention to small details, the author skates right over some of the big ones, like how does a 14-year-old who’s never been away from home manage to survive for weeks in the very deep forest?

Naturally, being an editor by trade, I wonder what I would have said if this book had come to me as an unpublished manuscript for critiquing. I would have been impressed as hell by the writing, but I’m pretty sure I would have flagged numerous places where the narrative bogged down or where stitches got dropped and weren’t picked up again. Obviously the book did spectacularly well in its current form — and, as usual, I don’t know what it looked like, or how long it was, when it was first submitted to agent or publisher.

I intend to keep reading, or listening, to the end, so neither the wealth of detail nor the dropped stitches nor the long meandering detour away from (what I think is) the main narrative has stopped me. The importance of dogs to the story is a big motivator for me, and I’m intrigued by the brief glimpses of magical-realist techniques in the author’s style. When I finish, I’ll read some reviews and comments to see what other readers had to say.

The book, by the way, is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski.

Anxiety and Public Reading

An insightful piece about giving a reading and (of course) other things. I recognize what Lupita Nyong’o calls “the seduction of inadequacy” — boy, do I ever. There’s a big payoff for feeling unworthy: you don’t have to try, don’t have to risk, don’t have to make mistakes. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only writer who sometimes falls for the seduction!

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Profile_KOBy Katrina Otuonye

I took part in a reading with The Porch Writers’ Collective in Nashville last week, and I read for about 10 minutes from a collection of nonfiction I’m working on. I think it went well, even though I was a little nervous, though a bit less than usual. Practice does actually make perfect. But the first couple paragraphs, getting over the dry mouth, mentally smoothing over the shakiness in my voice, my little animal brain kicked in, the one that always says, “What are you doing?”

The voice comes from a little preppy version of me, in a pleated skirt and my hair up, in a bow. She sits cross-legged on my shoulder, filing her nails. I’ve been meditating and going to therapy to help with my anxiety and latent feelings of not-good-enough-ness that have followed me around for nearly 20 years now (thanks, middle school). Before…

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Notes, Endless Notes

Beyond (possibly) acknowledgments and an author’s bio, fiction writers and editors generally don’t have to think much about backmatter. That’s a publishing term for the part of a book that comes after the main text ends.

Writers and editors of some kinds of nonfiction don’t have to think much about backmatter either. Memoirs and how-to books, for instance, may include a few endnotes and a “for further reading” list, but that’s usually it.

I edit a lot of the other kind of nonfiction. University press books, academic papers and dissertations, trade books about history or current events, that sort of thing. (Note:  “Trade” in this sense means more or less anything that isn’t academic.) These works are based on research, so documentation is crucial to their credibility.

If you’re somewhat familiar with a work’s subject matter, a skim through its bibliography can give you an idea of well the author has done his or her homework.

All sources are not created equal. Multitudinous notes and a long bibliography alone do not necessarily translate into a reliable book. Maybe 20 years ago I copyedited a mass-market book about UFOs. It cited plenty of sources, many of them on the World Wide Web (which was pretty new at the time). Fact-checking was part of my job, so I checked all the URLs. Woo-whee! This was my introduction to conspiracy theories about UFOs, alien abductions, chemtrails, and what has come to be known as the alt-right. The “evidence” for UFOs was internally consistent; it just wasn’t linked to the world of verifiable facts.

The job I just finished was thoroughly, even exhaustively, sourced. I was warned before I took it that the (electronic) manuscript was about 750 pages long and about a third of those pages were backmatter — endnotes and bibliography. Fine with me: I actually like copyediting this stuff. My detail-oriented brain kicks in, recognizes missing info and info out of place, clarifies inconsistencies, and knocks everything into shape.

Different fields and disciplines have different citation styles. Most of the books I work on follow one of two systems laid out in the Chicago Manual of Style,  often with some adaptations. I expected this one to do likewise.

Well, it did and it didn’t. In Chicago style, the titles of books and comparable works (such as films, TV shows, albums, full-length musical works, and the names of journals and newspapers) are generally italicized. Shorter works, like short stories, poems, songs, journal articles, and book chapters, are set in roman and with quotation marks. In the Works Cited section of this job, there were no italics and no quotation marks anywhere. My Chicago-trained eye had to look hard to tell the books from the articles. I had to figure out which was which and apply the appropriate style. I was warned about this too. “Billable hours,” said my production editor.

While editing the text (which presented few problems and was very interesting), I flipped back and forth between it and Works Cited, doing maybe 10 pages of entries at a time. I was cruising. It was a big job but for sure, I thought, I was going to make the July 5 deadline.

Then, around July 1, I took my first hard look at the endnotes. OMG. Most of the notes contained three to five citations in author-date style, often along with some text and a full citation or two. It was a hybrid of Chicago‘s two styles: notes and bibliography, and author-date. I’d never seen such a thing.

Author-date style is common in academic writing. You’re reading along and you come to a sentence like this:

The aardvark population of West Tisbury has been stable since 1998 (Sturgis 2016).

For the full citation, you flip to the Works Cited section, where you should find something like this:

Sturgis, S. J. 2016. “Do Aardvarks Help Curb Tick-Borne Diseases?” Journal of Creative Solutions 14(2): 37–42.

You should be able to find the source article, “Do Aardvarks Help Curb Tick-Borne Diseases?,”  on pages 37–42 of volume 14, issue 2, of the Journal of Creative Solutions.

In a work that uses the notes and bibliography style, instead of “(Sturgis 2016)” you’ll probably find something like this:

The aardvark population of West Tisbury has been stable since 1998.3

The superscript “3” tells you to go to note 3 for the current chapter, where you should find this:

Susanna J. Sturgis,  “Do Aardvarks Help Curb Tick-Borne Diseases?,” Journal of Creative Solutions 14, no. 2 (February 2016): 37–42.

In most cases (newspaper articles are a frequent exception), the work will also be listed in the bibliography:

Sturgis,  Susanna J.  “Do Aardvarks Help Curb Tick-Borne Diseases?” Journal of Creative Solutions 14, no. 2 (Spring 2016): 37–42.

In my author’s hybrid style, most endnotes included multiple author-date citations, each one of which had to be cross-checked on first appearance with the Works Cited list. I split my Word screen so I could flip back and forth easily between Notes and Works Cited . . . and realized PDQ that many — perhaps as many as 20 percent — of the works short-cited in the notes were not in Works Cited at all. And that some of those that were had discrepancies in the year of publication or the spelling of the author’s name.

Where discrepancies could be quickly resolved with an online search, I Googled. For each missing citation I typed a query in the notes: “Work not in Works Cited. Please add.” This quickly dwindled to the shorthand “Not in WC.” At first I typed a placeholder in the Works Cited list for the missing citation, but after chapter 4 I realized this was taking much too much time so I stopped.

Still, the billable hours were hefty, and I expect to pay off my credit card (dental bills!) and catch up with my quarterly tax payments when that invoice gets paid.

The moral of the story for writers: If you’re citing any sources in your work, get all the details and get them right. Familiarize yourself with the citation style(s) commonly used in your field. If you’re writing for a general audience in the U.S., Chicago will usually do. Your copyeditor will thank you, and if you’re paying the freight yourself, you’ll save a bunch of money.

Editing Workshop, 6: Parallelism

Chances are you’ve been told at least once by an editor, a teacher, or another writer that “this construction isn’t parallel.” Or someone has scrawled “faulty parallelism” in the margin of your manuscript or in a comment on your Word file.

This is shorthand for straying from, as Words Into Type puts it, “the principle that parts of a sentence that are parallel in meaning should be parallel in structure.”

Faulty parallelism comes in an daunting array of varieties. It can involve nouns, verbs, phrases, clauses, and whole sentences. It’s easiest to spot in a list, like this one:

These tips might help you complete a long writing project:

  • Schedule a specific time for writing.
  • Write even when you don’t feel inspired.
  • No distractions.

The first two elements are imperative verbs. The third has no verb at all. This is an easy fix: make the third element parallel to the first two by adding a verb. “Avoid distractions”? “Ignore distractions”? “Resist distractions”? It’s your call.

Faulty parallelism can be harder to spot in a sentence, especially a long, complex sentence — which is exactly where parallelism tends to go off the rails, so to speak. The list above can be turned into a sentence: “To complete a long writing project, schedule a specific time for writing, write even if you don’t feel inspired, and no distractions.” The sentence is short enough to make it pretty clear that something’s wrong.

The longer the sentence, the harder it can be to keep track of its parts. Here’s where the ability to diagram sentences can be very helpful. If you didn’t learn it in school or have forgotten how, plenty of websites out there can give you the basics, including “How to Diagram Sentences” on WikiHow.

It happens often enough that the parallelism is faulty but the meaning is still clear. I encounter many sentences like this one: “She let the dog in, gave him his supper, and then they went for a walk.” It sets off to be a series of three verbs with the subject “she,” but then the subject changes. What we’ve actually got here is two independent clauses, the first of which has two verbs, the second of which has one: “She let the dog in and gave him his supper, and then they went for a walk.”

I sometimes feel a little pedantic inserting the conjunction, because the meaning is clear, but often enough the meaning isn’t clear, or the sentence can be interpreted in more than one way. The other day I came across a doozy in a nonfiction book I’m copyediting. In this example, I’ve changed the details but retained the structure of the original. The original subject was a man who never wrote a best-selling novel and didn’t go to Spain either.

Mindy Moore had not begun to think about traveling to Spain, still less write her best-selling novel.

See the problem? There are three verbs in the first part of the sentence — “begun,” “think,” and “traveling” — and it’s not obvious which one “write” is meant to be parallel with. Keeping in mind that even very good writers occasionally mess up our verb tenses, you could read this in (at least) three ways, some of which might not be accurate.

  • Mindy Moore had not begun to think about traveling to Spain, still less written her best-selling novel. (“Written” is parallel with “begun”: “Mindy had not begun . . . and had not written . . .” If this were the intended meaning, I would probably insert “yet” before “begun” to make it even clearer.)
  • Mindy Moore had not begun to think about traveling to Spain, still less to write her best-selling novel. (“To write” is parallel with “to think,” meaning that Mindy hadn’t begun either to write her best-selling novel or to think about traveling to Spain.)
  • Mindy Moore had not begun to think about traveling to Spain, still less about writing her best-selling novel. (“Writing” is parallel to “traveling,” meaning that Mindy hadn’t even begun to think about writing her best-selling novel.)

Context gave me no clue about which of the three options was intended, but my gut said it was probably #2 because it was the easiest to clarify: add the “to” to show that “to write” was an infinitive and therefore parallel with “to think.” So I added the “to,” but I also queried the author and explained the other options. He’s the only one who knows for sure what he intended and what was in the subject’s head.

* * * * *

Got an editorial question or comment? Send it in on this form, or use the one in the “Got a Question?” tab at the top of this page.

Shortening

The word count on draft #3 of Wolfie just slipped below 100000, from six digits to five, from this:

Word count for draft #2

to this:

Word count for draft #3 (in progress)

I cheered out loud, though (or maybe because) no one but the dog could hear me. Once he realized that no outing and no treats were coming his way, he went back to sleep.

I’ve blogged before about how I don’t count words when I’m writing. It’s true: I don’t — but I sure notice the word count when I’m revising.

I expect my early drafts to sprawl. Early drafts are my discovery phase. With nonfiction, I’m discovering what I know and think about a subject. With fiction, it’s discovering what my characters are up to. In Wolfie I’ve given them a puzzle to solve — several puzzles, in fact.

Some of the puzzles weren’t there at the beginning. They’ve appeared in the writing, and they’re turning out to be interrelated in interesting ways. This is also true of some characters. Shannon thought she’d left her alcoholic family far behind. I was as surprised as she was when her younger sister, Jackie, left a message on her answering machine.

I’m not much of a gardener, but I steal imagery from gardens all the time. Significant revelations sprouted in the second half of draft #2. In draft #3 I’ve worked their roots in earlier and let them grow in fresh soil. Those early clues have served their purpose, but now they’re superfluous. Zap zap zap.

Basil sproutlings

This is more like pruning, or pulling excess seedlings. I’ve been doing this on and off all month to my basil plants. I wish I had enough containers and a big enough garden to give all the little seedlings a good home, but I don’t, and if I don’t give a few of them room to grow there’ll be no pesto for me in September.

“Kill your darlings” is a writerly cliché — I think it means don’t get too attached to your lovely phrases, sentences, and paragraphs — but at this point I’m not having much trouble deciding what to keep and what to delete. This is a good sign. It means I’m focused more on the story and not so much on my precious prose. Sure, some of the phrases, sentences, and paragraphs are lovely, elegant, clever, whatever, but they’ve served their purpose. They’re history.

Sometimes, though, I hesitate: Is this sentence or paragraph or scene superfluous, or does it add something important to the story? Is this word really a better choice than that one? I take my hesitations seriously. In these cases, I track my changes in Word so I can reconsider them later. I flip back and forth between the revised version and its predecessor. I don’t have to decide — yet.

When I come back a few days later, the issue has usually resolved itself without my worrying about it. Time may be the self-editor’s most important ally.

I don’t have a target length limit in mind for this book. I want it to find its own best length, but I don’t want it to wind up as a doorstop either. So how do I know what’s essential and what’s peripheral? Wolfie is the story of a woman, a girl, and a dog. Each one of them has a backstory that could probably be a novel, or at least a novella, in itself. I need to know a lot of that backstory, but not all of it belongs in Wolfie. 

When Shannon’s sister Jackie showed up, though, I saw immediately that her story cast both light and shadows on Glory’s, and it helped show Shannon the way forward. At first the extended sequence where Shannon shows Jackie around Martha’s Vineyard (where Shannon and I both live, albeit on different planes) seemed like an extended detour from the real story, but as it took root and grew, I realized it wasn’t. In draft #3 I’ve been integrating it with the other main threads and watching it deepen and grow.

When I’m revising, my rational mind is wide awake and overseeing the process, but so much of revision is done by feel: I have a hunch, or I just know. Which makes it hard for the rational mind to explain, but I keep trying.

Say It Loud

“Synechdoche”?

My eye skidded to a halt. I knew it was wrong, I was 99% sure the correct spelling was “synecdoche,” but I looked it up anyway in Merriam-Webster’s Online. I was right: “synecdoche” it is.

Aside: Back in my newspaper days, I was frequently asked why I usually worked with a dictionary on my lap. “You spell better than any of us!” my colleagues would say. And I’d smile sagely or smugly depending on my mood and say, “This is why I spell better than any of you.” This was before and then in the earliest years of the World Wide Web: online dictionaries were not yet A Thing. Now I generally work with two or three dictionaries open in my browser at all times.

Then I clicked the little speaker symbol. I was stunned. Good thing I’ve rarely if ever had occasion to say “synecdoche” out loud, because I would have screwed it up. As a friend later pointed out, it’s like “Schenectady”: the stress falls on the second syllable. In my mind’s ear I’d been thinking something like “syn-ek-DOE-key.”

To this day I remember the moment when my first college roommate realized that the word she pronounced “epiTOME” and the word she spelled “epitome” were one and the same. It was the very epitome of an epiphany. I was grateful to be having my synecdoche epiphany in the privacy of my apartment.

However, once I was secure in my new knowledge, I immediately blurted it out on Facebook: “Lucky me, I was never called upon to pronounce ‘synecdoche.'”

I’m pretty shaky on my figures of speech, but I did remember that during April’s A to Z Challenge, blogger Eva Blasovic’s S had stood for “synecdoche,” so I hastened to her Beyond the Precipice blog to read up on it: “A figure of speech in which the part is made to represent the whole, or vice-versa.” Eva provides several good examples and also compares it to “metonymy” — which you’ll have no trouble pronouncing once you get the hang of “synecdoche” and “Schenectady.”

Applying my new knowledge, I immediately recognized my author’s use of “white-coats” as an example of synecdoche: he uses it to refer to research scientists who spend a lot of time in laboratories.

Moral of story: Look things up, even when you know the answer. Check the pronunciation as well as the spelling. It may save you from making a fool of yourself in public.

 

Keep Yourself Accountable – Find a Writing Buddy

Here’s an idea if you’re not in a writers’ group, or even if you are.

Business in Rhyme

writing-buddy

Solace. I always emphasize how solitude is your great companion in writing. Stillness of environment allows the quietness of mind to take place and gives you opportunity to clear your thinking. You can easily access the deepest corners of your being and reconnect with your inner-self. Many writers take advantage and even pick remote and distant places when they are writing their books. I also believe it has to do with fact that in that kind of idle conditions we are able to tune in that inner conversation and it becomes clearer what is it that we want to convey.

For me, early morning hours are crucial for focused and productive writing. When mind is still in dream mode, silence and serenity that surrounds my home form almost ideal condition for writing. So, I always encourage writers to find those special moments during the day when their energy and creativity…

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A Writers’ Group Is Born

Last fall, in “Going Public,” I blogged about Writers Read, a writers’ group hosted by the library in my town of West Tisbury, Massachusetts. At each meeting, six or seven writers read short works or excerpts from long ones — the length limit of 9 minutes is strictly enforced by the moderator. All are invited to comment on each reading, with a focus on personal response to the work. This is not a critique group. Writers Read has developed a core of regulars, with other writers dropping in from time to time.

Marjorie Turner Hollman, writer and blogger, was taken with the idea and contacted me for details on how this group worked. Her local library, in Bellingham, Massachusetts, was interested in starting a local writers’ group. One thing led to another, and this spring the group was launched, with Marjorie and another writer as co-leaders. Starting from the Writers Read idea, they’re adapting it to the needs and desires of the participants. Here’s her account of how it’s working so far.

By Marjorie Turner Hollman

Our first night was a “get acquainted” sort of gathering, checking in to see what writing interests each person had, and what they might be looking for from the group. It turned out we had attracted several poets, some who write in free verse, others who adhere strictly to rhyming schemes. Several participants write science fiction, or a combination science fiction/dystopia, and some write strictly personal stories — memoir.

A few people didn’t bring anything to read, so we suggested taking ten minutes at the beginning of the meeting to write. My co-leader suggested as a topic, “First day of class.” Those who were a little nervous about the group laughed, appreciating the acknowledgment of first-day jitters.

And then we shared. Some read their responses to the writing prompt, others brought in pieces that felt raw with emotion, and while others offered their most highly polished piece for display. Regardless, we listened, and provided positive feedback only. We agreed that we were not looking for a group that offered destructive observations — most of us are already hard enough on ourselves. Our basic ground rules were: no politics, no religion, and leave the erotica at home where it belongs.

A month later, our second gathering resumed with much the same structure, except that this time we came ready with a writing prompt. In fact, we offered two: “What are your writing goals?” or “Tell a story about one experience with the library and how it has changed your life.”

As we worked our way around the table during this second meeting, my co-leader Amy suggested that since we are meeting only once a month, perhaps our group could create a private Facebook page as a place to share resources and blogs that we write. Having made the suggestion, Amy was quickly nominated to put the Facebook group together. Entry to the group is limited to those who have physically come to at least one of our meetings at the library. We are seeking to set healthy limits on discussion, and foster an environment that can encourage tender creative efforts to blossom, rather than be squashed by overzealous, well-meaning folks who offer observations or criticisms that are, intentionally or not, destructive.

And so we continue, grateful for the seed that was planted when Susanna wrote about the impact her writing group has had on her as a writer. I feel sure that we have veered away from the format developed on Martha’s Vineyard. We are finding our own way, and our group is already taking on a character of its own. Regardless of how different our group becomes, I feel grateful for the encouragement we received, Susanna’s patience in explaining their process, and interest in hearing about how our group is doing. So here’s to you on Martha’s Vineyard — Happy Writing!

* * * * * * *

Marjorie Turner Hollman

Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, and More Easy Walks in Massachusetts. She has been a freelance writer for numerous local, regional, and national publications for the past 20 years, and has recorded 14 veteran’s oral histories, now housed at the Library of Congress.

Her website includes more information about her and her work, and a blog about her walking adventures. Her account of the first meeting of the Bellingham library writer’s group can be found in the Bellingham Bulletin for May 31, 2017.

The Value of Getting Sh*t Done

One reason I’m not blogging much here is that I’m getting (other) sh*t done. Also blog posts like this say it better than I can. Meanwhile, if you’ve got any editorial or writerly questions or comments, please use the Got a Question? tab above to send ’em in.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Gosh, is this race even worth finishing? thought no sprinter ever.

First, dedication to writing is not an amount. It’s not an amount of words. It’s not a number of days. Dedication is not measured by output.

You get to call yourself a ‘real writer’ even on the days no words appear on the page. Even on the days full of rejections, the days you think no-one will ever care. Even on the days you feel like an outsider.

Thinking time counts.

Reading counts.

Supportively going to someone else’s reading counts, even if it’s someone whose work you don’t really like but you’re trying to rack up karma points for your own hoped-for readings later and you spend the whole time imagining your own book deal while noting one point on which to ask a relevant question.

But there’s still value in completion.

Process is great. We all need process…

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