Sturgis’s Law #2

Earlier this 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 #2:

Given enough time to fill, even the most intelligent commentator will wind up making stupid statements.

When I was growing up, we had the news at 6 and the news at 10 (or 11), and it didn’t last more than an hour. On Sunday we had talking-head shows like Meet the Press. They didn’t last more than an hour either.

With the advent of cable TV came channels that delivered news and commentary 24/7. The quantity increased, but not the quality. Blather is cheap. Investigation and analysis are hard. There’s good stuff out there for sure, but you have to wade through a flood of drivel to find it.

Print journalism, like print in general, imposes limits. The space available is finite and the words have to fit into it. In my newspaper days, ads would often come in or be cancelled at the last minute. I’d have to cut a story on the fly to make room or figure out how to fill the hole. I learned, among other things, that no matter how well-written and well-edited a story was, I could nearly always cut two or three or four column inches out of it without doing serious harm.

sufferedThe web doesn’t impose space limits. Bloggers and others writing for the web could theoretically go on forever — but we don’t. Paradoxically perhaps, when it comes to the web the standard advice is “keep it short.” We could go on forever, but most readers won’t stick with us that long. There are limits, but they aren’t spatial.

We writers like to kick against the restrictions imposed on us by circumstance and by (you’re way ahead of me) editors, but restrictions are often a good thing. Think about it.

Tasks with deadlines usually get done before tasks without.

Cutting a 3,000-word draft to fit a 1,000-word limit often sharpens the focus and tightens the prose.

Poets make every word count because they have to. Not only do poems usually have fewer words than stories and essays (even flash fiction and nonfiction), they’re also shaped by the limitations of rhyme, rhythm, and/or meter.

Early drafts can sprawl. Sprawling is good — it sure beats being blocked. But it’s revising and editing that make the piece, whether poetry or prose, by shaping and focusing — by imposing limits.

deadline miracle

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Reviewing Isn’t Easy

Most of my writing time over last weekend went into an 1,800-word review of a nonfiction book. Monday was the deadline, and Monday I emailed it in to my editor. Editors love it when writers deliver their stuff on time. Trust me on this. They also love it when writers turn in copy that’s well organized and properly punctuated. Trust me on that too.

I’ve done plenty of reviewing over the years, mostly of books but also of local theater performances and the occasional concert or album. Reviewing is hands-down the hardest writing I ever do, which is why I don’t do much of it these days. My other writing has pushed it to the side. I regret this because I think reviewing is important and because I’m pretty good at it.

Reviewing is important. An author or performer puts the work out there, and the reviewer enters into conversation with it — a conversation that includes not only the work and its creator(s) but also the potential audience for that work.

Perhaps most important, reviews let prospective readers know that a book is out there and whether they might be interested in it.

So a review is like PR — free publicity for the book?

In some ways yes, but in other ways very much no. What reviewers write can persuade people to buy the book, but we aren’t part of the production team. Our job is not to persuade people to buy the book or put it on their to-read lists. Our job is to help them make up their minds.

What distinguishes reviews from back-cover blurbs and other promotional copy is that reviewers come to the work from outside. We haven’t been involved in the writing, editing, publishing, or promoting of the book we’re reviewing.

So what’s a review anyway?

Good question! “Review” covers the vast territory between a blurb and the kind of literary criticism that appears in academic journals. A review can be short, long, or somewhere in-between. It can be written down or delivered orally. Usually it describes what the book is about, provides some context — for instance, mentioning the author’s previous works, if any, or recent publications in the same field — and offers some clues as to whether the book is worth your while or not.

Beyond that, it depends — on the reviewer, the review medium (radio, blog, webzine, newspaper, Goodreads, Amazon, etc.), and the intended audience.

My writer friend wants me to review her book. Should I do it?

No. A thousand times no.

Personally I think your writer friend shouldn’t even have asked you. She’s putting you in a terrible position.

Since you’re in that terrible position, ask yourself these questions:

  • Can I tell prospective readers what they deserve to know about this book before they buy it?
  • If I give my honest opinion about my writer friend’s book, will we still be friends?

Of course, if you decline to review the book, the friendship may hit the skids anyway — see what I mean about terrible positions?

If you’re the writer with a forthcoming book, don’t do this to your friends. If your friends write well and want to help out, enlist them to write jacket copy, press releases, and brief synopses for your website. If they’re published authors themselves or have other useful credentials, they can write one of those signed blurbs that appear on the back cover of a print book or in the opening pages of an ebook. No one expects these things to be written by an impartial reviewer.

So what’s “impartial”? When is it OK to review someone’s book?

Good reviewers think about this a lot. We discuss it with other reviewers. In many fields and genres, authors, editors, publishers, and reviewers mingle on a regular basis, in person and/or online. Many of us wear more than one hat. We know each other by reputation even if we haven’t actually met.

Smart authors and publishers, including self-publishers, keep an eye out for reviewers who would be a good match for their books. Authors, especially self-publishing authors, may contact prospective reviewers directly. It’s up to the reviewer to say yes or no, and saying no to someone you know is not always easy, especially when they press you to come up with a reason. (Note to writers: Please don’t do this. It’s OK to take no for an answer. Last month I reblogged this excellent post: “Author Etiquette for Contacting Book Bloggers.” Read it and pass it on.)

How close is too close to write an impartial review? Here are some recommendations. You’re too close —

  • If you’ve seen any draft of the manuscript before it was published. If the author is in your writers’ group or workshop or writing class, you’re too close. If you were a second or third reader, you’re too close. If you critiqued or edited the ms., you’re too close. Possible exception: If you heard the author read from the novel in progress and had no prior relationship with the author, you might not be too close.
  • If you have any professional connection with the publisher, paid or unpaid, staff or freelance. This goes mainly for small presses, independents, and self-publishers. With huge trade-publishing conglomerates and even mid-sized university presses, it’s easy to be several arm’s-lengths away from any particular book.
  • If you’re more concerned with the author’s feelings than with telling prospective readers what they deserve to know.

What about when a book you’re asked to review really sucks?

Forgive my bluntness here, but this is the elephant in the booksellers’ marketplace so let’s not pretend it isn’t there. Some books really do suck, and some of those sucky books are written by people we know and like. You shouldn’t be reviewing books by your friends even if those books are stupendously good and in the running for major awards, but what if you get roped in to reviewing a book that’s really bad — as in, you really don’t think anyone should be wasting their time and money on it?

If you’re working on assignment from a book blog or other review medium, and whoever made the assignment has no personal connection to the author, this usually isn’t too hard. Explain that you don’t think the book is worth reviewing. Ask for another assignment.

If you do know the author, it’s a lot more difficult. You can try procrastinating. Some authors will catch on: Endless procrastination translates into “I really don’t want to do this.” Others won’t. In such cases, if you don’t say something, one of those elephants is going to take up residence in your relationship with the author. Saying something is hard. This is why those elephants aren’t on the endangered species list.

There is almost no good reason to review a really, really bad book, especially when that book is a first novel or a self-published book. If it doesn’t get reviewed, the book will probably sink with nary a trace. This is the best scenario for all concerned, though they probably won’t see it that way. The big exception is when the bad book is written and/or published by someone from whom we’ve got good reason to expect better things. In these cases, readers deserve to be warned off.

Slashing a bad book to ribbons can be fun, but it can — and should — leave a very unpleasant aftertaste. Don’t do it.

 

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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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.

What Makes a Real Writer?

Stacey, who follows Write Through It and blogs at Diary of a Ragamuffin, posed this question: “What makes one a real ‘writer’?”

She added:

My reason for asking:  After 15 years of teaching, I decided to change careers and have begun a job as a reporter for my small-town newspaper (that is owned by a not-so-small-town corporation).  They knew I had no journalism experience when they hired me.  After four  months, I’m beginning to wonder if just anyone could do the job I do.

I’m not sure if what I do each day is what I had hoped it would be.  Often there is not enough time to write reflectively, and when there is, there’s no one qualified to critique it (in my opinion).

The answer is that there’s no answer, but you know I’m not going to stop there, right?

First off, I worked eight years for a small-town newspaper, the Martha’s Vineyard Times, in a succession of overlapping capacities: proofreader, features editor, features writer, theater reviewer, copyeditor. Reporting wasn’t my forte, but I did a little of that, mostly covering stories when no “real” reporter was available.

So I’m here to assure Stacey: The job you do can’t be done by just anyone, or by just any writer either. The fact that you’re wondering probably means that you’re good at it. You’ve got the knack. You learn fast. You’re able to apply your experience in other jobs to your journalism job.

Been there, done that. I wasn’t a journalist either when I got drafted to fill in for an editorial typesetter who was going on sick leave. I was scared to death I’d screw up, but I needed the work. I could type, I could proofread, I could write, and I had several years’ editorial experience. Short version: I loved it, I was good at it, and pretty soon the paper hired me as a part-time proofreader.

The tricky thing about job description “writer” is that it covers so many different kinds of writing. Reporter. Novelist. Columnist. Essayist. Poet. Diarist. Blogger. Biographer. Academic. Copywriter. Technical writer. And so on and on. No writer does all of them. No writer I’ve ever met wants to do all of them.

I know some crackerjack journalists who won’t cop to being writers. In their minds, writers write books, or fiction, or literary criticism. What writers don’t do is write for newspapers. You see the paradox here? If real writers don’t write for newspapers, then the writing in newspapers isn’t real writing.

Of course it is. If it isn’t, what the hell is it?

That's me, long before I knew what an editor was.

That’s me, long before I knew what an editor was.

In my teens and twenties, I assumed that a real writer had to know grammar and punctuation backwards and forwards and be a world-class speller besides. So I developed those skills. It wasn’t until I got a job as an editor in the publications office of a big nonprofit that I realized that in the real world these skills made me an editor. I hadn’t even known what an editor was. Some editorial skills belong in every writer’s toolkit, but you don’t have to be an editor to be a real writer.

Poets & Writers is a venerable organization that publishes a bimonthly magazine of the same name. Doesn’t the name imply that category “poets” isn’t included in category “writers”? It does to me. Plenty of poets either don’t call themselves writers or are semi-apologetic when they do: “I just write poetry. I’m not a real writer.”

Same deal as with journalists: If what poets write isn’t writing, what is it? And if the people who write it aren’t writers, what are they?

About her journalism job Stacey noted: “Often there is not enough time to write reflectively, and when there is, there’s no one qualified to critique it.”

This is true. Journalism means writing to deadlines, and deadlines don’t stand around waiting for the writer to get it perfect.

Deadlines don’t wait for editors either. Accuracy is more important than a perfectly crafted sentence. Spell a kid’s name wrong and her parents and grandparents will remember it forever.

Me, checking the boards at the Martha's Vineyard Times. You can tell it was back in the Pleistocene because the paste-up was pre-digital. October 1993.

Me, checking the boards at the Martha’s Vineyard Times. You can tell it was back in the Pleistocene because the paste-up was pre-digital. October 1993.

Working for the newspaper made me a better writer and a better editor in more ways than I can count. I learned I could write and edit with phones ringing off the hook and people bringing me press releases 12 hours after deadline. I learned that endings don’t have to be perfect because the last two or three inches of a story would often be lopped off when a late ad came in. I learned that writers who can turn out prose like yard goods may write sloppy sentences but they sure come in handy when a scheduled story doesn’t show or an ad gets pulled. I learned that in the work of novice writers the lead paragraph is often buried a third of the way down. I learned that I can turn out a coherent theater review even when I haven’t a clue what the play was about. (It was Beckett’s Happy Days, in case you’re wondering.)

I learned that “good enough” often is good enough, and it’s actually pretty damn good, though for sure you could do better at a writers’ retreat. For a congenital perfectionist like me this was huge.

So what makes someone a “real writer”?

Marge Piercy nailed it in “For the Young Who Want To”:

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

 

That’s the last verse. Read the whole thing. Read it often. You don’t have to be young.

Listen to Those Blocks

Creative blocks in rearrangement mode

Creative blocks in rearrangement mode

Ever notice how most of the stuff you learn about writing is stuff you already know?

I’m not talking primarily about grammar, punctuation, spelling, and all the nuts-and-bolts basics. I’m talking about the “how to keep going” part.

Last winter the novel I was working on, The Squatters’ Speakeasy, wasn’t coalescing or developing any momentum. I wouldn’t say I was blocked exactly, but the writing sure got sludgy. I procrastinated a lot before I sat down to write, and fidgeted a lot when I got there.

I also started this blog, and wrote an essay about a controversial statue that was in the news at the time. As I blogged back in April, in “Course Correction”:

 When I got up in the morning, I couldn’t wait to sit down in my chair and start writing. I finished the essay. I kept going with the blog. Whenever I thought about waking Squatters from its winter snooze, I was overcome by an irresistible urge to play endless games of Spider solitaire.

Procrastination was trying to tell me something. Finally I got the message. I put Squatters aside. About a year before I’d written a scene about a dog named Wolfie, a kid named Glory, and Shannon, a character from my first novel, The Mud of the Place. It didn’t fit in Squatters, so I put it aside. Now I pulled it back onto my lap and had another look. My imagination woke up.

Long story short: This blog now has more than a thousand followers. The novel, working title: Wolfie, passed the 50,000-word mark three days ago.

Here comes the bit about how writers keep learning what we already know.

Or, to put it in a slightly less flattering light: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” However, for some strange reason, it’s always easier to catch your friends doing the same thing over and over again than it is to realize that you’re up to your old tricks again.

Who, me?

Short version: My other blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, was wilting. Running out of steam. I was thinking of wrapping it up, or at least putting it in the indefinite deep freeze. At the same time, there were so many things I wanted to write about that I was thinking of starting another blog.

Sheesh. When I type that, it looks so obvious. I really must have been nuts or in denial or just plain dense not to see that I could do the writing I wanted to do in From the Seasonally Occupied Territories.

If you’re curious about the longer version, you can read it here.

Writers talk about writer’s blocks and procrastination all the time. Most of us have at least a passing acquaintance with both. Many of us have had long-term relationships with one or the other. We dread them, we hate them, we do endless rituals to keep them at bay.

I’m here to remind you — because I know you know this already — that often the blocks and the procrastination are trying to tell you something. Sometimes the back-seat driver is right: Either you’ve missed a turn or you’ve taken one you didn’t want.

The road you want is the one that keeps your pen moving across the paper or your fingers on the keyboard.

Creative blocks, rearranged

Creative blocks, rearranged

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.