Talking About Money

In “Why More Writers Should Talk About Money” Joseph Frankel of The Atlantic interviews Manjula Martin, editor of Scratch:  Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, just published by Simon & Schuster. I was so intrigued that I immediately bought the book.

monopoly-500

The interview seems to assume that being a writer means at least aspiring to make a living at it. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve probably guessed that I’m not that kind of writer. As I blogged a couple of years ago in “Write for a Living?” there are tradeoffs to be considered. I’m curious to read what the Scratch contributors have to say about this.

monopoly-100The interview does touch on the unbelievable whiteness of U.S. publishing. This means, among other things, that the gatekeepers — those who choose what gets published and how it gets published — are generally white or well trained in white ways of thinking.

I’ll almost certainly be blogging more about this book when I’ve had a chance to read it. Meanwhile, check out the Atlantic interview. A quick internet search turns up several reviews and other articles about the book. This is important stuff.

Mean Comments: When Your Self-Esteem Is at Stake

Wise counsel about dealing with criticism of the sort that only wants to tear you down, not improve your work. Writers are less likely than singers to be face to face with our attackers, but this still applies.

SongSmith

mean-commentsThe Drive of Being Heard

Art and music usually intend of making an impression or a statement.  Other people are inclined to voice their opinion when they’ve seen a play or heard a musical number that has moved them, whether the response is negative or positive. This drive for being heard and voicing our impressions has created an entire career; critics are paid to write or voice their reviews of various forms of art, whether it is food, movies, music, or visual.

Constructive criticism can be a great thing because it allows the artist to receive feedback that could very well improve its project. Even negative feedback can allow a creator to learn from its shortcomings and create even better work.

The Internet has become a helpful resource for artists in term of exposure, especially musicians and songwriters, as they are able to expose their work to a much larger…

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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.

Sturgis’s Law #8

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.

A funny thing happened when I set out to blog about Sturgis’s Law #8. I kept putting it off. It’s been months since I blogged about #7. A couple of days ago I sat myself down and said, “You can do this. Do it.”

But I couldn’t.

Out walking yesterday morning, turning Law #8 over and over in my mind, I realized that I didn’t like the way it was worded: “People tend to define problems in a way that makes them part of the solution.” It overlapped too much with Sturgis’s Law #18, “Everyone’s the hero of their own story.” (Don’t worry, I promise we’ll get there before the end of the millennium.) What Sturgis’s Law #8 should say is this:

People tend to define problems in a way that lets themselves off the hook.

It’s OK for me to do that, right? I’m Sturgis, after all, and these laws really are hypotheses based on my observations. Which is to say they’re subject to revision. (I really do have revision on the brain these days . . .)

This is what I was getting at. Think of how tempting it is for white women to assume that sexism is a bigger problem than racism, and for black men to think the opposite. Women of color get stuck with putting us all back on the hook, where we belong.

Wade into almost any discussion about the problems confronting the town, the nation, the world, and you’ll hear plenty of people insisting that the problems could be solved if only they would shape up. The they  changes according to the issue, the time, and the place, but the gist is usually that if it weren’t for them life would be hunky-dory.

brochure cover cropWhat does this have to do with writing and editing? I’m so glad you asked. As an editor, I sometimes hear editors complaining about writers who snark about their edits. As a writer, I sometimes hear writers complaining about the editors who butchered their manuscript and messed with their voice. Just about all of us have had occasion to bitch about agents, editors, and publishers who were too obtuse, lazy, illiterate, racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-genre, anti-literary, and/or obsessed with the bottom line to give our work a fair shake.

And sometimes we’re at least 90 percent right. But even then it’s worth considering the possibility that maybe as editors we were a little heavy-handed, or as writers we might be a little too touchy, or that our work isn’t as ready for prime time as we thought.

The paradoxical thing about this approach is that it’s empowering. It means we can do better and get better results. If the problem is all someone else’s fault, there’s not much we can do about it except bitch.

A Rule Worth Giving Up On | Arrant Pedantry

Jonathon Owen doesn’t post all that often, but his blog, Arrant Pedantry, is always worth reading. He brings clarity and good sense to style, usage, and grammar questions that hang a lot of editors and writers up. Here he takes on that hoary bugaboo “Never end a sentence with a preposition.” Click on the link to read the whole thing.

— sjs

A Rule Worth Giving Up On

A few weeks ago, the official Twitter account for the forthcoming movie Deadpool tweeted, “A love for which is worth killing.” Name developer Nancy Friedman commented, “There are …

Source: A Rule Worth Giving Up On | Arrant Pedantry

Readers Won’t Like It If . . .

“Readers won’t stand for it.”

“It’ll trip readers up.”

“Readers expect mysteries to start off with a bang.”

Hang around editors for any length of time and you’ll hear umpteen variations on the theme: readers demand this and they won’t put up with that. You may even hear it from the editor you’ve engaged to work on your manuscript.

Here’s why you should take generalizations about “readers” with about a half ton of salt.

When editors, agents, teachers, and other gatekeepers claim to speak for “readers,” they’re hiding behind an authority that doesn’t exist. Readers are not homogeneous. They do not constitute a godlike authority that must be obeyed and can’t be contradicted or even verified.

Good editors don’t need to hide. We’ll say things like “I stumbled over this bit” or “Given the conventions of [insert genre here], you might consider picking up the pace in chapter one.” Take your editor’s observations and suggestions seriously, but remember that the choice is yours —

Unless, of course, a desirable contract hangs in the balance. When dubious advice is backed up by threat, it’s often best to take it. It’s still your call. Most experienced writers have gone along with editorial decisions that we didn’t agree with. The work survived, and so did we. And sometimes in hindsight the decision looks better than it did at the time.

When an editor tells you that readers won’t stand for something, don’t be afraid to talk back and stand your ground.

My mystery-writing friend Cynthia Riggs was told by her editor that readers would balk at a character’s using the word “bastard” in Bloodroot, the forthcoming title in her Martha’s Vineyard Mystery Series. Not one to take this lying down, Cynthia created a table of the “naughty words” used in the (so far) 12-book series. “Bastard” has appeared 41 times in the series, and 14 of them were in one particular book.

naughty words

True,  Cynthia did once receive an email from a fan who wrote that she didn’t “enjoy the language used by the police.” This reader also noted that she had already read four books in the series and had started on her fifth, so the use of strong language doesn’t seem to have been a deal-breaker for her.

For sure it may be a deal-breaker for some. All of us have likes, dislikes, and expectations that will prompt us to put a book down or never pick it up in the first place. Editors can’t predict how “readers” will respond to a particular scene or character or word because “readers” as a generic category doesn’t exist.

Neither can writers. When we attempt to please all of the readers all of the time — or even all of the readers in a particular sub-subgenre — our writing tends to become formulaic and predictable. Fortunately, and whether we know it or not, many of us have a more specific reader in mind. That’s who we’re writing for. Often this reader looks at least somewhat like us.

Left to our own devices, writers are hard to pigeonhole. So are readers. So are books. Unfortunately, we aren’t left to our own devices. Books can be unique, unpredictable, hard to describe in 25 words or less. This makes them hard to market.  Widgets, in contrast, are easy to sell because, being mass-produced, they’re consistent and predictable.  Aha! thought the commercial publishers. We’ll treat books like widgets!

And for several decades they’ve been doing exactly that: sorting books into genres, subgenres, and sub-subgenres so that customers can — so the thinking goes — buy books the way they buy toilet paper. (For more about this, see “Genres and Dump Dogs.”)

In my bookselling days, I found this endlessly frustrating. Where to shelve books that fit into two, three, or more categories? Shelving a book in one place would make it easier for some readers to find, but what about the readers who wouldn’t think to look there? What about the readers who were convinced that no book in that section could possibly interest them?

The marketing departments have trained us well. Many readers make a beeline for [insert subgenre here] and won’t stray from it. Writers whose top priority is selling, maybe even writing for a living, ignore this at their financial peril — but if they heed it, what happens to their writing? Often it becomes predictable — like a good widget. If they want to do something different, they’ll often do it under a pseudonym, to avoid disappointing their widget-hunting readers.

So when an editor or an agent or a writer you admire tells you that “readers won’t stand for it,” they may mean well, or think they do. It’s still your call. Readers aren’t homogeneous. Write for the ones who are willing to take chances. Write for yourself.

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.

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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What Is Editing Worth?

Ask a bunch of editors what good editing is worth and they’ll probably reply that it’s invaluable, priceless, and indispensable.

Listen to us talk for a while and we’ll probably get around to the books we’ve read that were either abysmally edited or (probably) not edited at all. What’s the matter with those writers? we wonder. How can they put their names on something that’s so disorganized or riddled with typos and grammatical errors?

Being both a writer and an editor, I think about this a lot. “Value” is a shifty word in English. “Valuable” and “invaluable” mean more or less the same thing. Plenty of value can’t be measured in money, but when you have to pay for it, money has to be considered. Editing has monetary value to me as an editor because it pays the rent. For me as a writer, whatever I spend on editing is money I can’t spend on book design, cover illustration, and marketing. Besides, I can do it pretty well myself.

The inescapable fact is that editing can’t be automated. If some outfit promises to “edit” your 300-page manuscript for a dollar a page, you can be sure that they’re not doing much more than running a spellchecker and a grammar checker through it, and maybe cleaning up the formatting. In my book that’s not editing: it’s word-processing.

Depending on what level of editing is called for, editing involves going through your manuscript page by page, line by line, even word by word. This is not like reading for pleasure. It takes time. For a book-length work, it takes a lot of time. Hypothetical example: Take a 300-page,  75,000-word manuscript. (In publishing, a page is conventionally reckoned at 250 words.) If the ms. is well written and has no structural problems, a good copyeditor might be able to clock 10 pages per hour. That’s 30 hours’ worth of work. Say the copyeditor is charging $30 an hour. (Some charge more, some charge less, but you can get a good copyeditor for $30/hour.) That’s $900 right there.

A manuscript that, as we say in the trade, “has problems” will take longer to edit. At 5 pages/hour, that’s 60 hours. At $30/hour, that’s $1,800. If the problems are serious enough, you may have trouble finding an editor who’ll work for only $30/hour. There are few things more frustrating than being asked to copyedit a manuscript that has structural problems. It’s like frosting a cake that’s collapsed in the middle and didn’t taste all that good to start with.

I don’t know about you, but $1,800 would put a huge dent in my budget, even if I could pay it off over time. I’m never surprised when a writer has sticker shock at an estimate for editing. Editors can say that editing is “priceless” and “invaluable” because we’re not paying for it. When a service costs that much, “priceless” and “invaluable” go out the window. Writers who are paying out of pocket — and this includes me — are up against a harder question: “What is editing worth to me?”

It depends. It really is OK to say “not much” or “I’d love to hire an editor but I have to win the lottery first.” Here are some things to think about:

  • Do you want your work to be read by people who don’t have to read it? Do you want them to spend their hard-earned money on your book?

If the answer to these questions is no, you don’t need an editor, so editing may not be worth all that much to you. On the other hand, it might be. I spend my hard-earned money on things I don’t need. (Ask me about the two fountain pens I just scored off eBay. And don’t ask me how much money I’ve spent over the years on training and competing with my dog.)

If the answer is yes, or maybe, or “I’m not sure,” consider the following questions.

  • How good are you at spelling and punctuation?
  • How much experience have you got? How good are you, period? (Be honest now.)
  • Are you in a good writers’ group or otherwise sharing your work with competent and honest writers?
  • What are your plans for your work?
  • Is your work likely to bring in any money? Enough money to make editing worthwhile from a financial standpoint? (Be realistic here. If you’re writing fiction or poetry, the answer is probably no.)
  • What are your goals and priorities as a writer?

And here are some strongly held personal opinions on the subject:

If you aren’t a crackerjack speller and/or you aren’t confident with punctuation, you need help — especially if you plan to submit work to journals, agents, or publishers. These gatekeepers are swamped with far more submissions than they can use. They are looking for reasons to reject incoming manuscripts. Sloppy spelling and punctuation is painfully easy for a competent editor or agent to spot. You might be able to get the help you need from a talented amateur who won’t charge for her time. It depends on how talented and how generous your friends are.

An old printer’s adage: “Cost, speed, quality: Pick any two.” This means, for example, that if you spring for a low price and a fast turn-around time, the quality will probably be less than stellar. If you want a high-quality job done ASAP, expect to pay a premium price for it. This applies to writing too. If you the writer are willing to put in the time, in classes, writers’ groups, and/or self-study, you can get by with less editing. You will also be better able to choose the right editor for your work if you decide to hire one. Just sayin’ . . .

And here’s some free advice for anyone working solo on a book-length manuscript, fiction or nonfiction. Even if you’re cheap, even if your disposable income is barely in positive numbers — think seriously about hiring a pro to critique it. Critiquing costs a lot less than editing because the critiquer is reading your manuscript the way a reviewer might, not going through it line by line. The critiquer will identify both strengths and problems. She’ll probably have suggestions about fixing the problems — but it’s up to you to do the work.

I’ve read several novels in the last year or so that read like good first drafts. Lots of good raw material, but plot holes abounded. Characters did implausible things just because the author said so. Backstory was dumped here, there, and anywhere. Tantalizing leads were introduced — and then dropped. And so on. These are things that can be dealt with in revision, but these novels all went to press in various states of disarray. One of these novels, by the way, was published by a major trade publisher, probably on the strength of the author’s reputation in nonfiction.

Maybe that’s “good enough”? Maybe it is. But ask yourself: When you start reading a book and realize that the author has cut corners, do you keep reading? If you get through to the end, do you recommend the book to a friend? Do you write a glowing online review?

Good editing is expensive, but sometimes it really is worth the money. Your call.

 

No Need to Shout!!

99% of all editors, writing instructors, and experienced writers will tell you: “Use emphasis sparingly.” Emphasis includes ALL CAPS, bold, underscore, and italics. And exclamation points!!!

(OK, 99% is an unverified statistic. I made it up — you know, to emphasize my point.)

This is why our gatekeeper friends will relegate a manuscript to the slush pile if the first couple of pages include too many italicized, bolded, underscored, or ALL CAPPED words and phrases. Fairly or not, they’re leaping to the conclusion that the writer who relies heavily on gimmicks is not ready for prime time.

How many is “too many”? If they’re the first thing a person notices when she pulls your ms. out of the envelope or opens the file, that’s too many. Aim for “none” and you’ll probably get it about right.

“But,” you wail, “how do I show what’s important?”

Good question!

When we speak, we can emphasize words and phrases by speaking them more loudly, or drawing them out, or exaggerating their each and every syllable. We can use our hands and our faces to express our feelings or underscore a point.

You can replicate some of these methods in writing. You can describe how a character said something and/or what she was doing while she said it. Too much description, though, can slow a passage down when you want it to move right along. Lucky for all of us, written English offers some powerful tools to call attention to whatever you want to call attention to. and without using ALL CAPS, bold, underscore, italics, and other gimmicks. Learning to use them is part of the writer’s craft.

So how does one go about this?

Here’s where I advise even non-poets to read lots of poetry. Good poets make every word count. They have to: poems use fewer words than stories, essays, and full-length books. They read their written words aloud and pay attention to how they sound. Poets who work in traditional forms, like the sonnet, use meter and rhyme to emphasize important words. Words at the ends of lines and lines at the ends of stanzas get particular emphasis. And so on.

Prose writers use sentences and paragraphs the way poets use lines and stanzas. Words at the beginning and, especially, at the end of a sentence are emphasized. Likewise sentences at the beginning or end of a paragraph, and paragraphs at the beginning or end of a scene.

Have you ever confronted a paragraph that sits on the page like a dark gray lump? One sentence follows another with no break, maybe for a whole page or more. If the eye gives in to the natural temptation to skim through to the end, the mind is almost certainly going to miss something important.

But there’s no need to bold or italicize the sentence you want to call the reader’s attention to. If that paragraph belongs to you, try breaking it so that your key sentences fall either at the end of one paragraph or the beginning of another. If you’re reading it in a book, identify a place or two where author or editor might have started a new paragraph. (You may not find any such places. It’s possible that the paragraph really needed to be that long.)

I like long loopy sentences, but I also know that long sentences tend to lose energy. So I pay close attention to the words, phrases, and clauses that make them up. When I’m editing, I’ll sometimes break a compound sentence in two in order to focus more attention on each of its parts.

Here’s where the oft-repeated advice to “omit needless words” comes in handy. “Needless words” are the ones that camouflage or otherwise distract attention from the important stuff. What’s tricky is that you have to identify the important stuff before you can decide what’s needless, and this often doesn’t happen till a second or third draft.

The best way to develop your skill at emphasizing key points without resorting to gimmicks!! is by experimenting on your own work, getting feedback from editors and other writers, and giving feedback to other writers on their in-process work. Anyone out there have an example to share with other readers of this blog? Keep it fairly short, say 100 words or so. You can use either the comments link at the top of this post or the contact form in the “You!” tab on the menu bar.