R Is for Readers

Writers may write in solitude, but there’s nearly always at least one other person in the room. Maybe we see them. Maybe we don’t. Maybe we see them but try to ignore their existence. Maybe they’re in our own head.

Readers.

Editors are test readers of writing that hasn’t gone out into the world yet. Our job is to help prepare the writing for its debut. We’re hired because we’re adept in the ways of spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage, structure, and so on, but on the other hand we’re supposed to be professionally stupid: if the writing isn’t clear enough, if gaps and inconsistencies exist in the sentences and paragraphs we’re reading, we aren’t supposed to fill them in from what we already know. The writing is supposed to do the work.

This is fine as far as it goes, but sometimes editors forget that despite our expertise and the fact that we’re getting paid, we can’t speak for all readers. If an editor tells you that “readers won’t like it if you . . .” listen carefully but keep the salt handy: you may need it. Editors should be able to explain our reservations about a word or a plot twist or a character’s motivation without hiding behind an anonymous, unverifiable mass of readers.

readers at outdoor café

One of the big highs of my writing life was when my Mud of the Place was featured by the several Books Afoot groups who traveled to Martha’s Vineyard in 2013 and 2014.

Readers can and often do take very different things away from the same passage, the same poem, the same essay, the same story. At my very first writers’ workshop (the 1984 Feminist Women’s Writing Workshop, Aurora, New York), day after day I listened as 18 of us disagreed, often passionately, about whether a line “worked” and whether a character’s action made sense or not and whether a particular description was effective or not. It was thrilling to see readers so engaged with each other’s work, but also a little unsettling: no matter how capable and careful we writers are with our writing, we can’t control how “readers” are going to read it.

This is a big reason I advise writers to find or create themselves a writers’ group — and to develop the skill and courage to give other writers their honest readings of a work in progress. This may be the greatest gift one writer can give another.

I just came to “Teasing Myself Out of Thought” in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016 (Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2016), and what do you know, it articulates eloquently and clearly some of what I’m feeling my way toward here.

“Most writing is indeed a means to an end,” she writes — but not all of it. Not her own stories and poems. They’re not trying to get a point across: “What the story or the poem means to you — its ‘message’ to you — may be entirely different from what it means to me.”

She compares “a well-made piece of writing” to “a well-made clay pot”: the pot is put to different uses and filled with different things by people who didn’t make it. What she’s suggesting, I think (maybe because I agree with her), is that readers participate actively in the creation of what the story or poem means. Readers are “free to use the work in ways the author never intended. Think of how we read Sophocles or Euripides.”  What readers and playgoers have discovered in the Greek tragedies has evolved considerably over the last 3,000 years, and it’s a good guess that Sophocles and Euripides didn’t embed all those things in their works.

“A story or poem,” writes Le Guin, “may reveal truths to me as I write it. I don’t put them there. I find them in the story as I work.”

If this reminds you of “J Is for Journey,” it does me too. And notice where that particular blog post started.

And finally this: “What my reader gets out of my pot is what she needs, and she knows her needs better than I do.”

That’s a pretty amazing and generous statement, and one editors might consider occasionally, especially when we’re editing works that aren’t simply means to an end.

L Is for Literary

At first glance “literary” looks straightforward. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary starts off with this: “of, relating to, or having the characteristics of humane learning or literature”.

Move on to “literature,” however, and fault lines begin to emerge:

a (1) :  writings in prose or verse; especially :  writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest

The American Heritage Dictionary definition of “literary” progresses from 1., “Of, relating to, or dealing with literature: literary criticism,” to 4a, “Appropriate to literature rather than everyday speech or writing,” and finally 4b, “Bookish; pedantic.”

For “literature” AHD moves briskly from the inclusive — “1. The body of written works of a language, period, or culture” — to something less generous: “2. Imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value.”

In other words, value judgments lurk not far below the surface of both “literary” and “literature,” and it’s not hard to see how they stir up uneasiness and outright opposition.  In some quarters “literary” suggests not only bookish and pedantic, but pretentious, snobbish, affected, esoteric, incomprehensible . . .

As a longtime reader of fantasy and science fiction, I’m particularly intrigued by the way “literary” is used to characterize anything that doesn’t fit into a genre. This leads to grand generalizations, judgments, and arguments that generate plenty of heat but not much light. What it misses is that genres are primarily marketing categories developed by publishers in order to treat books as products. Categorize a novel and it’s easier to promote and sell. Writers aren’t stupid: if they want to sell, they’ll write what the publishers are buying.

Genres have been around long enough at this point that they’re embedded in readers’ heads. Audiences have developed for particular genres, subgenres, and sub-subgenres, and self-publishers who want to sell ignore this at their financial peril.

Writers who want to sell will often write to the specs of a particular genre, at least until (if they’re lucky) they develop enough of a following that their byline becomes the brand. Unfortunately, the byline brand can become as restrictive as a genre category, which is why some well-known writers who want to strike off in a different direction do so under a pseudonym.

Without market pressures, though, writing often doesn’t fit neatly into categories. A while back, in “Genres and Dump Dogs,” I wrote this:

Literary genres are like breeds — of relatively recent development, especially the notion that there are clear lines between them and everything has to fit into one category. “Literature” is more like those village dogs of indeterminate breed: it adapts to the climate and food sources available, and maybe it looks a little like this, a little like that, but you can’t say for sure that it’s a beagle or a foxhound (or a mystery or a romance). When you’re trying to tell a story, you scavenge and steal from whatever’s in the vicinity and if it works you keep it.

If “literary” came to mean “willing to scavenge and steal from whatever’s in the vicinity, all in the interest of the work,” that would be OK with me. The sky, or maybe the ocean, is the limit.

Dog at edge of ocean

Travvy confronts the infinite.

I Is for Italics

After reading “E Is for Ellipsis,” my friend the mystery writer Cynthia Riggs emailed me. “I can hardly wait until u get to I,” she wrote. “I, I hope, will stand for ‘italics.'”

This sentence is set in italics. In typographical terms, type that isn’t italicized is called “roman.” Most of this blog post – and most of most books — is set in roman type. For most fonts, roman is the default setting. Italics and bold are among its variations.

Cynthia is currently one of the jurors in a major mystery award’s first-novel category. The novels she has read so far are, to put it tactfully, a mixed bag. She went on:

The current book I am reviewing has alternate chapters printed in italics. ALL italics, page after page. It’s like reading someone’s handwritten manuscript. The chapters jump from one where I’m not even aware of the printed word, where the author’s voice goes directly into my brain, to a sudden slow-down where I must decipher each wiggly word and consider what the words mean when put together.

In another first-novel entrant, “each character’s words [were set] in a distinctive typeface so we, the readers, would know who’s speaking.”

Curious, I inspected these titles at the next opportunity, which arose PDQ because my Sunday-night writers’ group meets at Cynthia’s house. As I suspected, they were self-published. Self-publishing authors not only produce the manuscript; they also assemble the production team that sees it into print and markets it. Novice self-publishers often skimp on the professional editing and design that make a book readable.

A capable, experienced book designer knows  that in general the goal is to produce pages where, as Cynthia put it, readers are “not even aware of the printed word, where the author’s voice goes directly into [the reader’s] brain.” When the type calls attention to itself, it’s because the designer intended it to. In typography, less is often more. Any technique used to excess becomes, well, excessive. It loses impact and annoys the reader.

The digital age makes excess all too easy. Even the fairly basic options that WordPress offers bloggers include bold, italics, bold italics, strikeout, and lots of pretty colors. Word-processing apps like Word and LibreOffice offer a gazillion fonts in an array of sizes, most of which you would not want to read a whole book in, or even a short chapter.

Newspapers and other publications following the Associated Press (AP) stylebook have managed to get by without italics since forever. Before the age of digital composition, italics were hard to produce and couldn’t be transmitted by wire, which is how news stories were transmitted from the wire services to their subscribers around the world. However, as noted on the AP Stylebook‘s website, “Publications that adhere to AP editing style make their own decisions on graphics and design, including use of italics.”

That said, thanks to various widely accepted conventions,  italics do come in handy for conveying meaning, and good writers, editors, and designers learn to use them — and other typographical devices — wisely. Here are a few instances where the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS or CMoS) recommends the use of italics:

  • Titles of books and other full-length creative works. Short works, such as songs, poems, and short stories,  and the component parts of longer ones are set in roman with quotation marks. Example: “Natural Resources” is included in The Dream of a Common Language: Poems, 1974–1977, by Adrienne Rich.
  • Names of newspapers, e.g., the Martha’s Vineyard Times and the Vineyard Gazette. CMS  recommends setting “the” lowercase roman even when it’s part of the official title. Publications following AP style often initial-cap and italicize the whole official title, “the” included.
  • Foreign-language words that aren’t included in English-language dictionaries. For example, “raison d’être” comes from the French but is well established in English usage, so no italics. The Gaelic word uisge appears in one of my current copyediting projects. It’s not widely used in English, though the familiar word “whiskey” (also spelled “whisky”) is derived from it, so it’s italicized.

Many fiction writers use italics to indicate what a character is thinking, to distinguish it from what the character says out loud, which is set in roman with quotation marks on either side. Other writers stick with roman type but without the quotes. Either method can work, but keep in mind my friend Cynthia’s words. The goal is for the author’s voice to go directly into the reader’s brain. Typographical style can aid this process without calling attention to itself.

When writers rely too heavily on typography to get the point across, it’s often because the writing itself needs attention. Changes in speaker can be conveyed in words alone. Italics can be used to let readers know when a character is thinking to herself, but when the italics run on for a long paragraph or even a whole page or two, it’s time to take another look at the writing.

Sturgis’s Law #9

Some while back 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. As I blog about them, I add them to Sturgis’s Laws on the drop-down from the menu bar.

Guidelines are not godlines.

Is middle school (junior high for us older folk) particularly hazardous to future writers and editors? This seems to be when admonitions to never do this or always do that put down deep roots in our heads.

  • Never split an infinitive
  • Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.
  • Always use a comma before “too” at the end of a sentence.
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition.

Etc.

Plenty of us get the idea that written English is a minefield laid with rules they’ll never remember, let alone understand. When you’re afraid something’s going to blow up in your face, it’s hard to construct a coherent sentence. A whole story or essay? No way.

In the late 1990s, when I started hanging out online with more people who weren’t writers or editors, I often encountered a strange defensiveness from people I hardly knew. They apologized in advance for their posts: “Maybe I’m saying it wrong . . .”

My sig lines at that time identified me as a copyeditor and proofreader. I deleted those words from the sigs I used when communicating with people outside the word trades. And the defensiveness disappeared.

Those of us who work with words for a living eventually realize that language is not a minefield, but plenty of us have got a Thou shalt or Thou shalt not or two embedded in our heads. On the editors’ lists I’m on, it’s not unusual for someone to ask whether it’s really OK to break some “rule” or another. Generally the rule isn’t a rule at all.

English grammar does have its rules, and if you break or ignore them, intentionally or not, you may have a hard time making yourself understood. But many of the “rules” we learn in school aren’t about grammar at all. They’re about style. Style is more flexible than grammar — and grammar isn’t as static as some people think it is.

Sturgis’s Law #9 came about because even working editors sometimes confuse style guidelines with Rules That Must Be Obeyed.

Arbiters of style.

Arbiters of style.

Let me back up a bit. Book publishers, magazines, newspapers, academic disciplines, and businesses generally develop or adopt a style guide to impose some consistency on their publications. For U.S. journalists it’s the Associated Press Stylebook. For trade publishers and university presses it’s usually the Chicago Manual of Style. In the social and behavioral sciences it’s APA Style, developed by the American Psychological Association. And so on.

These style guides do deal in grammar and usage — Chicago has a whole grammar chapter — but much of what they recommend is discretionary. It’s about style. For instance, Associated Press (AP) style generally uses figures for numbers 10 and up; Chicago spells out most numbers up to a hundred. When I start editing a book manuscript, I can tell within a few pages if the author is accustomed to AP style.

I’ve been using Chicago since the 12th edition (it’s now up to the 16th). I can’t say I know it by heart, but Chicago style is my default setting. No way do I want to invent guidelines from scratch for every manuscript I work on, especially when it comes to documentation: the styling of endnotes, footnotes, bibliographies, and reference lists.

Default settings, however, can be changed as need or preference dictates. They really are guidelines, not godlines. Chicago can be useful for any English-language prose writer, but keep in mind that it was developed for scholarly nonfiction and the further you stray from that, the more leeway you should allow in applying its guidelines.

If you use different style guides, or move between American English (AmE) and British English (BrE), you’ll see plenty of variation in things like capitalization, hyphenation, and the punctuation of dialogue. There’s even considerable variation between dictionaries. When I’m working, I’ve usually got Merriam-Webster’s, American Heritage, and Oxford (the UK/World English edition) open in my browser.

Maybe the most important thing to remember about guidelines is that they aren’t landmines waiting to blow up in your face. They’re on your side. They help your words get across to readers the way you want them to. Following guidelines can be like automating routine tasks: it frees your mind to deal with the more important stuff.

They can also help establish your credibility with agents, editors, and readers. There’s nothing wrong with a manuscript that isn’t double-spaced in 12-point type with one-inch margins all around, but a manuscript that is so formatted will enhance your credibility with any publishing pro who sees it for the first time. And the further it deviates from “the usual,” the more likely doubts are to creep into the reader’s mind.

When Chitchat Takes the Wheel

Dialogue is a challenge. It’s got to sound real, but it can’t be too real because in real life people often go on at great length without saying much of anything. If your characters go on at great length without moving the plot forward in some way, your readers will zone out. (For some tips about writing dialogue, see “4 Ways to Write Better Dialogue” and “Monologue About Dialogue.“)

I recently critiqued two first-novel manuscripts. Both were rich with promising material, and both bogged down in endless stretches of what I can only call chitchat: the protagonist talking with friends, relatives, and casual acquaintances about things that had nothing to do with plot or subplot.

What to do when you come upon long rambling dialogue while revising your own work or critiquing someone else’s? Here’s an idea: Ask what the writer is avoiding. (The writer, need I say, can be you.)

In one of the manuscripts I was working on, the chitchat was occasionally interrupted by passionate monologues by different characters (rarely the protagonist). These monologues had plenty to do with the plot, but they read like position papers, not fiction.

Travvy tries to persuade a tractor to move.

Travvy carries on a one-sided dialogue with an offstage tractor.

These monologues did serve an important purpose, however: they made it clear that the characters disagreed with each other strenuously and eloquently on issues that were not only important in themselves but closely related to major themes in the novel. I knew that this material could fuel riveting, even dramatic dialogue — if only the writer would let the characters engage with each other.

It wasn’t hard to see why this writer was reluctant to do this. Both she and her protagonist are dealing with explosive issues that people have a hard time talking about without blowing up.

Writing takes courage. Often when we set out on a journey we don’t know how much will be asked of us. If we did know, we might not take the first step. But as we travel, we become braver, more willing to open closed doors and break new trail. Revision works the same way: in revision, we develop not only the skill but the courage to grapple with the questions we’re asking of ourselves and our characters.

In the other manuscript I was critiquing, the same symptom — endless chitchat on topics peripheral to the novel — had a different cause. The protagonist remembered nothing of her traumatic childhood and early adolescence, and she was so ashamed of her later adolescence and young womanhood that she wouldn’t talk about it even to her husband and closest friends. This gave her little to talk about besides chitchat.

Worse, because her repressive upbringing was key to the plot, it made her a sitting duck for the villain, who wasn’t hampered by amnesia or reticence.

Survivors of violent and traumatic events often repress memories of those events, but though it’s possible that someone might have no memories of her first 15 years, it’s certainly not inevitable. Most important, it wasn’t an interesting choice for this particular character in this particular novel. Interesting choices open up possibilities. This particular choice closed them off.

I suggested that this writer give her protagonist increased access to her own past and the willingness to share some of the grim details with those she trusts. At the very least, it will give the protagonist something to talk about, and greatly cut down on the chitchat.

Letting Go, with a Safety Net

cut-chapter-4This morning I deleted chapter 4. Selected the whole damn thing and zapped it. The old chapter 5 is the new chapter 4. Viva chapter 4!

When reading through the printout of draft #2, I couldn’t help noticing that chapter 3 segued nicely into chapter 5 and chapter 4 felt like an extended detour. At present Wolfie has two point-of-view (POV) characters. Chapters 3 and 5 were from the POV of the 50-something woman. Chapter 4 was from the POV of the sixth-grade girl.

When the timing is right, the POV switch works. The idea is to switch just when the reader wants to know what the other character is up to. This time it was more like a TV thriller cutting to a commercial in the middle of a high-intensity scene.

Another thing: When I wrote draft 2, chapter 4, I wasn’t a big fan of Felicia, the sixth-grader’s mother.  Dead giveaway: The woman won’t use linguiça in her kale soup because she thinks it’s unhealthy. In my world that’s a deal-breaker. But Felicia has become deeper, more sympathetic. She’s caught in the middle of a difficult situation, but she seems to be on her daughter’s side. So I was more than ready to jettison all evidence that I was underestimating Felicia.

So I did. I jettisoned the whole chapter.

However, I’ve got a safety net: If at some point I have regrets, or a vague hunch that there’s something in old chapter 4 that might come in handy, draft 2 remains on my hard drive, and it includes old chapter 4.

If experience is any guide, I won’t go back, but knowing that I can gives me permission to be ruthless. When revising, sometimes you really do have to be ruthless.

A bit of Wolfie, draft 2, chapter 1, with changes tracked

A bit of Wolfie, draft 2, chapter 1, with changes tracked

Recently I introduced a client to the wonders of Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature. Like many Word users, she wasn’t aware of its wonders. (As a longtime user of Word, I sometimes become so obsessed with its PITAs that I forget how wonderful its wonders are.) With Track Changes you can delete a word, a phrase, a sentence, a whole paragraph and see how your text reads without it. You can flip back and forth between with and without, or leave it to deal with some other time.

You can experiment. You can play with your prose. If ruthlessness is sometimes called for when you’re revising, so is playfulness. Revision is creative work. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Be ruthless. Be playful. Be brave. You can always go back to an earlier version, but if you’re anything like me you usually won’t want to.

Dead Air

I seem to have taken up semi-permanent residence in Revisionland. Not only am I working on draft 3 of Wolfie, my own novel in progress, my recent jobs have included two critiques of first novels and a line edit whose structure needs a little tweaking. Editor that I am, with a fair amount of reviewing experience under my belt, I love revising and rewriting and recommending what other writers might do to improve their current drafts.

Most mornings I begin my writing session by lighting a candle or two, then picking The Writer’s Chapbook* from the table on my right, opening it at random, and reading the first quote that catches my eye. This morning the book opened to the “On Films” section, and my eye fell on a lengthy quote by novelist and screenwriter Thomas McGuane. After noting that in the novels of William Faulkner (“who frequently had his shit detector dialed down to zero”) “wonderful streaks” often alternate with “muddy bogs” that need to be slogged through, he continues:

Everyone agrees that Faulkner produced the greatest streaks in American literature from 1929 to 1935 but, depending on how you feel about this, you either admit that there’s a lot of dead air in his works or you don’t. After you’ve written screenplays for a while, you’re not as willing to leave these warm-ups in there, those pencil sharpenings and refillings of the whiskey glasses and those sorts of trivialities. You’re more conscious of dead time. Playwrights are even tougher on themselves in this regard. Twenty mediocre pages hardly hurt even a short novel but ten dead minutes will insure that a play won’t get out of New Haven.

Me (right) in rehearsal, spring 1994, Vineyard Playhouse.

Me (right) in rehearsal, spring 1994, Vineyard Playhouse.

From the mid-1980s till the end of the 1990s, I was very involved in community theater, mostly as a stage manager, actor, or reviewer. (No, I did not review plays I was involved in. However, I often reviewed plays directed or acted in by people I knew. This taught me tact. Whole other subject. I’ve written about reviewing before — see “Reviewing Isn’t Easy” — and surely will again.) No surprise, then, that when I’m writing fiction, I often feel like I’m blocking scenes or directing them and that my characters are doing improv up on stage.

Both of the first-novel manuscripts I critiqued recently hold plenty of promise, but both are currently weighed down with loaded with dead air. In both cases, much of the dead air is dialogue. To both authors I suggested: “Imagine you’re watching these scenes on a stage. Read them out loud. How long before you start to doze off, fidget, or throw tomatoes?”

A novel might survive “twenty mediocre pages,” as McGuane suggests, but five pages of dead air might well be fatal, especially if they come near the beginning, and especially if you’re a first-novelist trying to get past one of the gatekeepers: agent, publisher, reviewer, or even readers willing to give unknown writers a chance.

Put your talking, puttering-about characters up on stage or on a movie screen. How long would you sit still?

* * * * *

*The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers, ed. George Plimpton (New York: Penguin, 1989). I’ve got the revised, expanded version of the first edition. A completely overhauled edition was published in 1999, including some of the original excerpts but also more quotes from more recent and more diverse writers. Both editions are out of print but used copies can be found. That’s how I got mine. Highly recommended.

Eulogy for a Novel

Word came earlier this week that a member of my writers’ group passed last Sunday night. Following a serious illness Allen was in an assisted-living place in the Boston area, so he’d missed several weeks’ worth of group meetings (which, coincidentally, take place on Sunday evening), but we assumed he would be back, sooner better than later, but later would do.

In the Sunday night group we’re all working on book-length works, history, memoir, or fiction. Each of us brings a chunk of the work-in-progress to each meeting, passes out copies, and reads it aloud (or has another member read it). Then we discuss it, mark up our hardcopies, and pass them back to the writer. Each week we hear a new installment of eight different works, history or memoir or novel.

Allen’s novel is set in and around Berlin in the early 1960s, a time of heightened Cold War tensions — the Berlin Wall went up in 1961. Its protagonist, Faust, is a young, idealistic army lieutenant newly arrived in Berlin and assigned as a press officer. His father is a small-town newspaper editor in the U.S. Midwest, but high-stakes Cold War journalism looks little like journalism back home. Gradually Faust learns the ropes, dealing with, among others, his superiors, a taciturn noncom who knows much more than he does, a CIA operative, and the international press corps. He falls in love with the civilian employee assigned to tutor him in German — she turns out to be a high-level spy for the USSR.

To say that we were caught up in the story is an understatement. Faust’s growth from naïve idealism into sober experience and the beginning of wisdom is well handled, and the setting, the evocation of the times — well, we kept wondering out loud how Allen knew so much, but Allen would smile enigmatically and a little self-deprecatingly and we would move on. As writers we all know better than to press too hard. (Faust’s war-correspondent friends would have pressed harder.)

And now — we know from the history books how the political crisis was resolved, but what became of Faust? How did he assimilate all he was learning and reconcile its myriad contradictions? Did he remain in the military, become a war correspondent himself, or perhaps return home to become a newspaper publisher like, and in some ways very unlike, his father? We’ll never know.

So I’m thinking of all the novels out there left unfinished, or finished and unpublished, by the death of their authors.

A writer friend of mine died suddenly last December. Don and I never met in person, but we’d been corresponding online for 17 or 18 years. When I was close to done with The Mud of the Place, we swapped manuscripts. His Summer Blues was based on his experiences as a gay man in the military stationed in Germany in the late 1960s, a politically turbulent time in both Europe and the U.S. It was quite wonderful. He submitted it to a couple of independent presses specializing in gay lit, got no takers, and set it aside.

My first thought after learning of Don’s death was for Summer Blues. The publishing world has changed considerably since the early years of the last decade. Would he have wanted it published? I suspected that yes, he would have, or at least he’d have been OK with the idea, but pretty soon reality reasserted itself. Transforming a manuscript into a book is hard enough, and costly in both time and money, but publishing also involves getting the book into the hands of readers. That means distribution and marketing.

I have been thinking the same thing about Allen’s novel. It’s not quite finished, but it’s publishable, and perhaps Allen had either reworked the problematic ending or left notes about what he was thinking?

But with Allen’s novel, as with Don’s, I looked myself in the eye and realized that I have the time and money and commitment for my own work (I hope), but not for anyone else’s.

Long time ago, 20 or 25 years ago, I worked with Virginia, a local writer, on her novel, which was based on her own life, growing up in Mississippi in the 1920s, living in New York in the 1940s, eventually moving to Martha’s Vineyard, losing a daughter to suicide. It’s beautifully written, moving, honest. This writer too made a couple of attempts to find an agent then gave up.

Not long after she died,  I was telling another writer about this wonderful novel I had on my hard drive that no one but close friends and family members even knew about. My friend shook her head sagely. “We all have one of those,” she said.

It seemed callous at first, even dismissive, but then I got it. Counting only the completed or nearly completed publishable manuscripts I’ve read, I’ve now got several, in head or heart or hard drive. For each one, we, the lucky few who’ve read them, form a sort of secret society: we’re privy to something special that no one else knows about.

For a few moments I’m overwhelmed with sadness at the loss.

Then Mother Jones’s famous words surface in my head: “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”

blank paper

On Selfish Reading

I’m pretty much self-taught as a writer. As an editor, I had a mentor who taught me to think systematically about the words, sentences, and paragraphs in front of me, how to recognize, diagnose, and fix problems. In my first editorial job, in the publications office of a big nonprofit, I had to clear every manuscript I edited with the person who wrote it. Often these people weren’t professional writers. They didn’t have long experience to fall back on. Some of them were downright touchy. They taught me the importance of knowing what I was doing and being able to explain it. I still do that in my head even when I have no direct contact with the author (as when I edit for big publishers) and when the author isn’t likely to ask me to explain everything I’ve done.

About writing, though — the downside of being self-taught is that though I can review, critique, and coach pretty well, I don’t have a clue about how to teach writing. My syllabus boils down to “Read lots of stuff. Keep writing.” This blog post from Brevity does a fine job of showing how and how much writers (and editors too, I do believe) can learn from reading.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

By Anna Leahy, adapted from the forthcoming anthology, What We Talk about When We Talk about Creative Writing:

Anna Leahy Anna Leahy

In Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose talks about reading as part of how writers learn, perhaps the most important way we learn such things as “the love of language” and “a gift of story-telling.” Of course, a writer must write, but Prose says, “For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, and, especially, cut, is essential.” That ability is cultivated by reading.

“I read for pleasure, first,” Prose goes on to say, “but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. […] I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each…

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Structured Revision: Keeping Your Novel on Track

I’ll almost certainly be starting draft 3 of Wolfie before I finish draft 2, so Alison McKenzie’s assurance that it really is OK to edit before you have a complete draft came at just the right time. Wrangling book-length works into shape is a challenge no matter what, but I’m intrigued by her “25K rule” and might try it with novel #3. If you’re working on a novel, novella, or book-length memoir, check it out.