X Is for Xanadu

The options for words beginning with X are so limited — even though X can stand for anything — that it’s tempting to go for a word that sounds like it begins with X: eXperience, eXpertise, eXpression, eXpurgate, eXcuses, and so on and on and on. Readers, I considered it.

On the brink of April, with the Blogging A to Z Challenge in mind, I had started an A-to-Z list in Onelook. At first there were several blank lines, but they filled in pretty quickly so by mid-month it looked like the screenshot at left. The options I actually decided to blog about are in bold.

With the end of the month, and the end of the alphabet, drawing relentlessly closer, eXperience and eXpertise were the best I could come up with.

Then, while I was out walking the other day, what should come to mind but Xanadu. (I’m not kidding about the power of walking, people — and when it’s eXacerbated by the power of deadlines you’re talking about potentially major magic.)

Once upon a time I knew most of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” by heart. The first five lines are as clear in my memory as ever, and the rest of it is so familiar as I reread it.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
    Down to a sunless sea. 

I also remember how fascinated I was by the imagery when I read it for the first time, in English class my senior year of high school. A history buff with a more than passing acquaintance with the Middle East, I knew that Kubla Khan was Genghis Khan’s grandson but that was about it. I went looking for more about the River Alph (which doesn’t exist in our world) and demon-lovers (which may or may not exist) and Mount Abora (which doesn’t exist, but Coleridge may have meant Mount Amara, which does) and, of course, Xanadu itself (Kubla Khan’s summer palace). And that got me to marveling at how the poet had created such a vivid picture of the forest, the chasm, the “mighty fountain,” while making it clear that this “sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice” was a more than physical place.

The vision, I learned, had come to Coleridge in a dream — some commentators thought he might have been under the influence of opium — so of course I also learned about the “person on business from Porlock” who famously interrupted the poet while he was transcribing his dream onto paper.

Was this person from Porlock real, or had Coleridge hit an internal wall, a failure of nerve or of imagination? We’ll never know, and in any case this Porlockian intruder has taken on a life of his own. We’ve all been interrupted at our creative labors by an infinite variety of Porlocks. Porlock may come in person, or by phone, or text, or email, or private message. We’ve all probably gone to the door or phone or computer when no one was there, maybe hoping that someone was?

For me “Kubla Khan” is complete as is. It may not represent Coleridge’s whole dream, just as he couldn’t “revive within” himself the “symphony and song” of that Abyssian maid and her dulcimer, but it doesn’t have to. How often does a poem, a story, an essay, a novel, do everything we hoped and imagined it would when we started? Rarely, at least in my experience. But we wrap it up, send it out — and go on to the next.

U Is for Undo

My possibilities for U didn’t inspire me at all — usage? uniformity? — then this morning while Tam Lin and I were out walking, “undo” popped into my head. (This is why W is going to be for Walking. Coming up soon! Watch this space.)

My next thought was “Doesn’t undo begin with Z?”

Muwahahaha. If you’re a Windows user who writes and/or edits for a living, you are almost certainly on a first-name basis with CTRL+Z, the keyboard command that will undo most of the awful things you just did. No, it will not bring back the document you accidentally trashed before you’d saved it, but after you’ve done that once, you’ll probably remember to name and save new files as soon as you create them, and tell your PC to automatically back up your work at regular intervals.

If you decide that the awful thing you just undid isn’t so awful after all, CTRL+Y will bring it back. I don’t use CTRL+Y nearly as often as I use CTRL+Z. That probably says more about me than I want generally known, but there it is.

Aside for Mac users: The Mac equivalent is COMMAND+Z. To undo your undo, it’s COMMAND+SHIFT+Z. I can’t verify this at home, but you can if you’ve got a Mac.

CTRL+Z is so much easier than its analog predecessors: erasers, Wite-Out, correction tape, etc. With those methods, undoing your undo was pretty much out of the question. And don’t get me started on correcting a master stencil in the heyday of mimeograph. In case you’re wondering why I wax rhapsodic about CTRL+Z.

If you use Track Changes — as I do when I’m editing, all the time, but not so often when I’m writing — it’s easy to flip back and forth between the original version and whatever you did to it. Even so, CTRL+Z saves my butt on a regular basis.

But really, people, this isn’t just about a handy keyboard shortcut. It’s a reminder that — at least until something’s published, and maybe even then — you can change it, rethink it, revise it.

CTRL+Z is a reminder that you’ve always got an escape hatch, a safety net. Feel free to take risks. Don’t worry about looking stupid to yourself 10 minutes later. You can always undo it.

And if you decide you had it right the first time, you can undo your undo.

Tam waits for me to get done with whatever I’m doing.

F Is for Freewriting

Freewriting is like brainstorming for one, though you can do it in the company of others. A writers’ group I once belonged to started each meeting with freewriting. We took turns picking a prompt, usually a word, phrase, or the beginning of a sentence, and a time limit, usually 10 or 15 minutes. One person set the timer and off we went.

We all wrote in longhand, on yellow pads or in whatever notebook we’d brought with us. The only rule was Keep writing. Put pen or pencil to paper and keep your hand moving till the bell rings.

You didn’t have to read what you’d written aloud, but all of us almost invariably did. Our stuff was amazing — funny, profound, startling, poignant — but what amazed me most was what I’d managed to put on paper in 10 or 15 minutes. Sitting at the computer it might take me an hour or more to write a paragraph I was satisfied with. Most of that hour would be spent staring at the screen with my hands nowhere near the keyboard.

That writers’ group experience and the “morning pages” I did while following Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way sold me on writing in longhand.

Maybe it’s because I was an editor as well as a writer, but I could look at a rough draft — my own or someone else’s — and my mind would be full of ideas of things to try: swap those two paragraphs, delete that sentence, expand this a bit, try this word instead of that one. A blank page, however, would provoke unease that could quickly escalate to procrastination, paralysis, and writer’s block.

Something similar often happened when I got stuck in the middle of something. It was like coming to the brink of a very high cliff. Seeing no way to proceed, I’d turn back and give up. Small wonder, then, that I wasn’t able to break the 40-page barrier: anything under that I could do, and pretty well, but I hadn’t been able to complete a novel, because novels are a lot longer than 40 pages. Some writers are able to jump into a novel or other book-length work and keep going till they finish. Not me. I’d get stuck, and because I didn’t have a deadline — no one was waiting for it — I’d give up.

Freewriting got me unstuck. I’d take pen and paper, leave my desk, and go somewhere else. When I was living close enough, I could walk into town, buy coffee and a muffin, grab an empty seat, and write. Often I’d give myself a prompt: “I can’t write this scene because . . .” or “[Character A] walks into the kitchen and sees . . .” The words would pour out. It might take a few minutes before the nugget would appear, the clue to my way forward, but it always would appear. Gradually I developed a deep faith in freewriting, and in writing in longhand.

Some writers freewrite their whole first drafts: no outline, no roadmap, no notes. If writers really can be divided into planners and (seat-of-the-)pantsers, they’re the pantsers. Most of us are probably a bit of both, depending on the project. Whichever, freewriting is a handy tool no matter how you use it: to warm up, to play, to get unstuck, or to write whole drafts.

Should You Quit Writing?

Maybe it’s because I’m closing in on the end of draft 3 of the novel in progress and my mind is already working on draft 4, or because I never stop wondering if writing is worth all the time I spend on it, but this blog post from Brevity has an awful lot of wisdom and encouragement packed into not very many words. Like this: “It’s not the writers who question their abilities who are in trouble.”

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

I feel GOOD about my work!

A writer asked me:

Have you ever in your work as the Unkind Editor told someone they should quit writing? Which may be another way of asking if you believe there may be those without the necessary abilities to write, to be published, or to be successful as an author; someone with delusional thinking who needs an unkind, direct encounter with this difficult truth.

I’ve heard versions of this question from writers at all skill levels and career stages, but especially from beginning writers who don’t yet have much outside validation and may not know enough other writers to trade work, get honest feedback, and gain a sense of their own writing level.

I feel like I suck at writing, like I’m never going to get better.

All I have are rejections. Should I stop trying to get published?

Nobody I know wants to…

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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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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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Editing Workshop, 5: Lead Paragraphs

Every work, long or short, fiction or nonfiction, has to start somewhere, but lead paragraphs are a major cause of writerly angst and even writer’s block. No surprise there: every how-to-get-published book out there is telling you that if your lead paragraph doesn’t hook the agent or publisher of your dreams, your manuscript will wind up in the slush pile.

Perfectionista — the inner editor who insists that only perfection is good enough — thrives on situations like this: Your entire future is riding on your lead paragraph and you can’t even get the first sentence right.

Take a deep breath and keep going. It’s often not till you’re well into a second or third draft that you know where the story starts and what that lead paragraph has to do. Perfectionista isn’t doing you any favors by insisting you get the first paragraph right before you go on to the second.

Sooner or later you’ll have a lead paragraph that does want you want it to do: lead the reader into the story. That’s the time to refine it and then run it by your writers’ group, writer/reader friends, or other guinea pigs.

This is where Arvilla of the Alphabet Story blog is with her novel in progress. “Below is the first paragraph of my WIP,” she writes. “While I know not to start with the weather, it sets up the scene in which she has problems driving, including a stalled car. She does get rescued.”

The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club. What a night, forced to drive her dad’s car. His cherished Nash, temperamental even in good weather, gave her problems. Taught to drive behind its steering wheel, she knew its intricacies. Her dad had patiently explained the techniques of driving and went on to teach how to change a tire and replace spark plugs. Bought used in 1944, it was still running after ten years, because of her dad’s constant tinkering. That it had complications did not lessen its value in his eyes. As much as he loved the car, she disliked it, though she had to admit a bit of admiration for the way her dad handled the Nash.

A lead paragraph’s #1 job is to whet the reader’s appetite for more, and this one whetted mine. I’ve just met Maggie, but already she’s got an immediate goal — getting to Bertie’s book and supper club on time — and two adversaries blocking her way: the weather and a cranky car. I’ve got a strong hunch that Maggie’s ambivalent relationship with the old Nash mirrors her relationship with her dad, and that this will be an important theme in the novel.

This lead also fixes the story in time: 1944 + 10 years = 1954. This sets me to speculating: Maggie’s dad taught his daughter basic car maintenance, but she didn’t inherit his passion for tinkering. Does she live alone? Who’s Bertie, and what role does the book and supper club play in Maggie’s life?

And yes, conventional wisdom warns against leading with descriptions of weather, or landscape for that matter, but when weather or landscape is an active participant in the scene, I say “Go for it!” I would suggest tweaking the lead sentence, however:

The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club that night.

It’s not April’s total accumulated rainfall that’s blocking Maggie’s way: it’s the weather that particular evening. Show it to me, what it looks like, how it sounds, then keep it front and center as the scene unfolds. How would she get to Bertie’s if it weren’t raining? How far does she have to go? Give me some hints about the location.

Try distilling the rest of the paragraph to its essence. What does the reader need to know right now? That the old Nash is cranky, that Maggie’s father was devoted to it, and that Maggie, though competent behind the wheel, drives it only when she has to. I’d like to see her in the car and turning the key by end of the paragraph, maybe watching rain pour down the windows and windshield. Work the rest in once she’s en route.

Here’s a suggestion:

The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club that night. What a night, forced to drive Her dad’s car. His cherished old Nash was temperamental even in good weather., gave her problems. Taught She had learned to drive in it, evenbehind its steering wheel, she knew its intricacies. Her dad had patiently explained the techniques of driving and went on to teach how to changed its a tires and replaced its spark plugs the way her dad had taught her, but she had never learned to love it the way he did. He’d bought it used in 1944, andit was still running after ten years, because of her dad’s his constant tinkering had kept it going for ten years. [MENTION HOW LONG IT’S BEEN SINCE DAD DIED OR STOPPED TINKERING.] But on a night like this, walking to Bertie’s was out of the question. It was either drive or miss it altogether. [WHY IS THIS UNTHINKABLE?] That it had complications did not lessen its value in his eyes. As much as he loved the car, she disliked it, though she had to admit a bit of admiration for the way her dad handled the Nash.

With the mess cleaned up, it looks like this:

The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club that night. Her dad’s cherished old Nash was temperamental even in good weather. She had learned to drive in it, even changed its tires and replaced its spark plugs the way her dad had taught her, but she had never learned to love it the way he did. He’d bought it used in 1944, and his constant tinkering had kept it going for ten years. [MENTION HOW LONG IT’S BEEN SINCE DAD DIED OR STOPPED TINKERING.] But on a night like this, walking to Bertie’s was out of the question. It was either drive or miss it altogether. [WHY IS THIS UNTHINKABLE?]

Now you can have at it — tinker away! Often a reader’s suggestions will shake something loose and you’ll come up with a better alternative. Thanks so much for sharing your lead paragraph. Good luck with the novel. 🙂

Dear Write Through It readers: Do you have a question, a comment, a sentence that needs unsnarling? Send it along and we’ll see what we can come up with.

 

Writing in Second Person

One of the perks of using pen and ink is interesting ink blots. That plum color is for Glory’s POV sections, and green is for Shannon’s. I can’t remember what I last used the purple (“amethyst” it’s called) for.

Near  the end of April’s A–Z Challenge I blogged “Y Is for You,” which got me thinking about writing in second-person point of view. I’d never done it, but I wanted to give it a try.

Opportunity soon came knocking. Wolfie, the novel in progress, needed a brand-new scene. When I add a scene in a later draft — the current draft is 3, or maybe 3 1/2, because after I take a scene from draft 3 to my writers’ group, I usually end up at least tweaking it and maybe revising more heavily — I have a pretty strong idea of what it needs to accomplish.

In this case Perfectionista and my internal editor teamed up and swore I’d never be able to pull it off. Since I was busy with the A–Z Challenge, several editing jobs, and revising earlier scenes in the novel, I managed to not-hear their ragging for several weeks.

Finally I was staring down the empty place where the missing scene had to go. I knew where it took place, I knew who was involved, and I had a pretty good idea of what had to happen.

What I didn’t know was whose point of view I wanted. Wolfie has two point-of-view characters: Glory, a sixth-grader, whose sections are all in third-person present; and Shannon, her fifty-something mentor from up the road, whose sections are all in third-person past. Perfectionista was full of advice about why neither one would work. The result was that I couldn’t get started.

If you can’t get started, your writing can’t teach you what you need to know. Haven’t we been here before? Yes, we have.

The way out of these jams is usually through writing in longhand, which is how I do virtually all my first-drafting. It takes the pressure off. Aha, thought I. An opportunity to play around with second-person POV!

The pressure was off: since this wasn’t “for real,” I could write the scene from both Glory’s POV and Shannon’s. I picked up my green-ink pen — green is Shannon’s color; plum is Glory’s. What flowed out of it was Shannon’s second-person POV in the  present tense:

You’re apprehensive about this visit without knowing why. Foresight is notoriously unreliable — hindsight is always 20/20. What you’re seeing isn’t a red light, however. There’s no dread in the pit of your stomach warning that this is a really bad idea.

Glory has been looking forward to this all week. She’s got her portfolio tucked under her arm — she’s apprehensive too. “Do you think he’ll like them?” she asked in the car. “He’s a famous artist and I’m just a kid.”

It felt right. My hand kept moving across the page, and the next page, and the next — seven pages’ worth. When I got to the end, I had a scene that did all I wanted it to do, and more. It’s the “more” that tells me I was tapping into the heart of the story, reasonably free of my authorial expectations and inhibitions.

Why did it work? As Shannon says, “Foresight is notoriously unreliable. Hindsight is always 20/20.” Once I had my scene, I could see why Shannon’s was the right POV because the key interaction takes place between the other two characters, Glory, her young protegée; and Giles, her artist friend, whose studio they’re visiting.

And I could see why present was the right tense, even though all of Shannon’s sections are in past: In present tense Shannon watches the scene unfold and doesn’t interrupt, doesn’t try to steer Glory and Giles’s conversation away from possibly portentous revelations. In past tense, her penchant for mulling things over sometimes gets in the way. In present tense, it didn’t.

Where was I in all this? Right behind Shannon’s eyes. It was as if she were a camcorder and I were — not the operator, but the viewfinder. In third person I’m an invisible part of the scene. This was different.

I’ll almost certainly translate this scene into past tense for the actual manuscript. A sudden shift into second-person present for a character who’s otherwise in third-person past would be too jarring, too gimmicky. But the shift into second-person present made the scene happen. I’m not going to forget that lesson anytime soon.

Here’s what page 1 of the experiment looks like. Good luck if you can read it. 🙂

H Is for Handwriting

My handwriting sucks. Here’s a sample:

This is why I do nearly all my first-drafting in longhand: because I can’t read my own writing unless I slow way down and focus on each word.

It took me a while to figure out why I’d sometimes get so blocked — paralyzed! — when I did nearly all my writing on the computer. Maybe it’s because I’m an editor as well as a writer, or maybe it’s because I’m a recovering perfectionist who has occasional slips, but sometimes I’d stare at those crystal-clear words on the screen and think, No, that’s not right, and then get stuck trying to fix it instead of moving on.

Eventually I figured out that the best way to break through these blocks was to grab a pad of paper and a pen and get away from the computer. At the top of the paper I’d writing something like “I can’t write this scene because . . .”

And out would flow whatever I needed to know, and eventually the scene itself.

This was also a handy way of getting to know characters better. Whatever I wrote in longhand on a yellow pad wasn’t part of The Manuscript. I loosened up. No pressure. I could write anything I wanted.

My messy handwriting was an asset. What the internal editor couldn’t read, she couldn’t edit. Without the internal editor looking over my shoulder, I could write write write, not expecting anything to be perfect, knowing that there would be a second or third or fourth draft to get it just right.

So why wait till I got stuck to bring out the pen and paper? Why not start out that way?

I tried it. It worked. It’s still working. I do most of my first-drafting in longhand.

Pretty soon, however, the scrawl of a ballpoint pen across lined yellow paper was looking rather dull. I started acquiring fountain pens and bottles of different colored ink. I’ve currently got about a dozen of each. It’s a little ridiculous, but I couldn’t live without them.

The bonus is that ink blottings on paper towels are really pretty. I use them as coasters for my tea mugs and my beer steins. They make me happy.

ink blot

 

F Is for Fact-Checking

Fact-checking is much in the news these days — or perhaps it’s the absence of it that’s much in the news.

It used to be, and may still be, that top-quality magazines had fact-checkers whose job was to go through every story accepted for publication and check all the facts. They weren’t responsible for the quality of the prose — just the facts.

Editing — specifically copyediting, which includes excruciating attention to detail — and fact-checking are two distinct tasks, but inevitably they overlap. Imprecise writing can lead to readerly misunderstanding, and those misunderstandings may have to do with facts. A trade publisher I’ve been working for regularly for many years directs copyeditors to check dates, the spelling of names, and anything that can be easily verified as long as it doesn’t add to billable time.

Before the World Wide Web, freelance copyeditors were limited to biographical dictionaries, atlases, specialized reference books, and such. Because these had been subjected to a rigorous editing process, they were reliable, but they were also limited in scope. Print references start going out of date even before they’re published, and the further your interests strayed from white male English-speakers, the harder it was to find any facts, verified or not.

In the Age of Google, you can find almost anything on the Web, but plenty of it hasn’t been subjected to either fact-checking or editing. As you’ve probably learned for yourself, verifying the attribution of a quotation is a particular challenge because misattributions seem to multiply exponentially — giving rise to memes like the classic at left (variations of which have also been attributed to Mark Twain, among others).

Copyeditors generally do our fact-checking on the fly and with the help of a search engine. We develop a sixth sense for determining the reliability of sites we’ve never visited before. (Hint: This often involves the quality of both writing and design. If the copy is riddled with typos and strange punctuation, I’ll move on PDQ. Ditto with any site that uses white type against a dark background.)

We also develop a sixth sense for what facts in a manuscript need to be checked. When starting a new job, I’ll fact-check a few names and dates to get a feel for how careful the author is. If the author seems reliable (as is usually the case in the stuff I work on), I’ll look up anything that smells funny and spot-check facts here and there just for the hell of it.

Ultimately writers are responsible for the accuracy of their facts, but a book-length work of nonfiction involves a myriad of facts, and it’s all too easy to transpose letters in a name or figures in a number and wind up with a goof.

Writers whose work is based on research do plenty of fact-checking while they’re writing. Written sources may contain errors, or contradict each other, or be superseded by later works.

I think the journalists have it hardest. Many of their sources are living people talking about events that have just happened. These informants bring different perspectives to the event, they see it from different angles, some are more observant than others — and some may be deliberately shading or hiding what they know, for reasons they’re unlikely to be upfront about and may even be unaware of. And the journalists are generally working on deadlines that don’t leave time for leisurely fact-checking.

Button: I never believe anything until it's been officially denied.In this age of spin and “fake news” each of us has to do our own fact-checking. Because we rarely have the time or inclination to check every fact, we generally focus on the source, the news outlet: if it’s got a good track record, it’s probably because its reporters, editors, and fact-checkers are on the ball. When they screw up, our faith is shaken. Was this an aberration, or are they going down the tubes?

At least in our wiser moments, good editors and writers know that 100% accuracy is impossible, but that doesn’t stop us from expecting it of ourselves and of those we respect, and from turning on anyone who doesn’t live up to our expectations.

In my weekly newspaper days I quickly learned that if we spelled the name of someone’s child or grandchild wrong, that person would remember it forever. Worse, it could easily become a cornerstone in that person’s conviction that the paper was careless with facts. It’s not hard to understand: misspellings and factual errors are easier to recognize than sloppy sourcing or sloppy writing, and they stick in the mind longer. It’s not fair, but there’s an upside to it: if you’re scrupulously accurate with your easy-to-check facts, your work will be more credible.

And when the liars, spammers, and misrepresenters catch on, we’re all in big trouble.