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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Writing as Discovery

I’ve got a new morning ritual. After I light a candle or two — currently it’s a Yankee Candle, because fat candles in glass jars last a lot longer than tapers in candlesticks — I open The Writer’s Chapbook at random and read a couple of passages.

The Writer’s Chapbook is, says its subtitle, is “A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers.” This is true. Organized into a couple dozen topics, the book consists of extracts from interviews conducted from The Paris Review from 1953 onward. Some extracts are aphoristic; others are full-blown anecdotes. It’s like listening in on an intense conversation among extremely accomplished and articulate writers, and because the writers in each chapter appear in alphabetical order, the likes of Anne Sexton, Georges Simenon, and James Thurber may show up on facing pages.

There are two editions out there. I borrowed the 1999 edition from the library and knew almost at once that I had to have it. Turns out it’s out of print and very hard to find: copies on BigBehemoth.com were going for $299 and up, and I dropped out of an auction on MegaMarketplace.com when the bidding sailed past $30 — that copy eventually went for $71. With a bit of persistence, I scored a used copy of the 1989 edition for less than $10, including shipping.

So this morning I opened to two pages in the “On Performance” chapter. On the verso (left-hand) page was this, from playwright Edward Albee:

Naturally, no writer who’s any good at all would sit down and put a sheet of paper in a typewriter and start typing a play unless he knew what he was writing about. But at the same time, writing has got to be an act of discovery. Finding out things about what one is writing about. To a certain extent I imagine a play is completely finished in my mind — in my case at any rate — without my knowing it, before I sit down to write. So in that sense, I suppose, writing a play is finding out what the play is.

And just opposite, on the recto (right-hand) page, novelist John Barth was saying this:

I have a pretty good sense of where the book is going to go. . . . But I have learned from experience that there are certain barriers that you cannot cross until you get to them; in a thing as long and complicated as a novel you may not even know the real shape of the obstacle until you heave in sight of it, much less how you’re going to get around it. I can see in my plans that there will be this enormous pothole to cross somewhere around the third chapter from the end; I’ll get out my little pocket calculator and estimate that the pothole will be reached about the second of July, 1986, let’s say, and then just trust to God and the muses that by the time I get there I’ll know how to get around it.

Travvy, on whom Wolfie is based but who has his own stories to tell

Travvy, on whom Wolfie is based but who has his own stories to tell

Wolfie, my novel in progress, is fast approaching its second birthday. All through the first draft and well into the second, I told anyone who asked “It’s about the rescue of a dog and the rescue of an eleven-year-old girl and how they rescue each other — oh yeah, and the dog is based on my Alaskan malamute, Travvy.”

Then one character told another the tale of how she’d failed to rescue her father, who had been devastated by the shooting death of his three-year-old grandchild. And my protagonist, who as a teenager fled a violently dysfunctional family, gets a phone call from the younger sister she couldn’t take with her. To make it more fun, no one is sure exactly what the girl needs to be rescued from, though it’s pretty clear to all that she needs rescuing.

So yes, Edward Albee: writing this novel is finding out what the novel is. And yes, John Barth, I suspected the obstacles were out there, but until I drew closer I couldn’t see what they were, never mind how I was going to get round them. If I’d thought too hard about it, I would never have started.

But I’m trusting the muses and my fountain pens, and the candle burning on the table to my right, to show me how it’s done.

Trust the pen, and the hand that holds it.

Trust the pen, and the hand that holds it.

How Many Is Too Many?

An editor was asking how to explain to a client that he was overusing a particular word.

Writers, even experienced writers, have our pet constructions, our favorite words. Often we don’t realize we’re overusing them. When I’m in revision mode, I’ll pause on a word and realize I’ve seen it pretty recently. I hit CTRL+F (that’s the Windows version — it’s COMMAND + F for you Mac folks), put the word in the search bar, and search upward. Recently I discovered I’d used “stage-whispered” twice in three pages. One of them wasn’t necessary. I got rid of it.

The editor’s query wasn’t unusual, but then the editor wanted to know if there was a “rule of thumb” for how many repetitions of a word was too many.

I replied that I went by the “rule of gut”: as an experienced editor and writer, I know that when something stops me in my tracks, it’s worth a second look.

Other editors pointed out that it depended on the word. Unusual words call attention to themselves. “Stage-whispered” isn’t exactly exotic, but as a dialogue tag it’s not all that common either. Twice in three pages struck me as once too often. Other words are so distinctive that if you encounter one on page 251, you may remember that you saw it a hundred pages earlier.

Aside: In my many years of editing on paper, without CTRL+F to fall back on, I developed a sixth sense for this. I also noted unusual words, variant spellings, and personal and place names on my style sheet, along with the applicable page number. When the Katherine on page 73 became Katharine on page 228, I usually noticed. CTRL+F has spoiled me rotten. I’m not as good at this as I used to be, but I’m still not bad.

The inquiring editor took all this in and finally asked how, if there was no rule, she could explain to the client that he was overusing a word. Had anyone done any studies on how often is too often? she wondered.

Then someone suggested telling the client that his readers would notice and not like it. Back in September I blogged about editors and other gatekeepers who hide behind “readers won’t like it if . . .” Editors who hide behind an “authority” that can’t be contradicted or even verified are treading on unsteady ground.

“Good editors don’t need to hide,” I wrote. “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.'”

I’ve learned over the years that anything that trips a reader up is worth a second look. Especially if the reader is someone whose opinion I respect and whose honesty I want to encourage. Perceptive readers who’ll give you their honest opinion about your work in progress aren’t all that easy to find. Encourage them by paying attention to what they tell you.

You don’t have to act on all of it: of course not. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned at the first writing workshop I ever attended is that readers are a diverse lot. One might love a turn of phrase that another finds trite or confusing. Two might interpret a character’s actions in one scene in two different ways — and have equally valid reasons for doing so. Readers bring their own unique experiences and expectations to your work. They aren’t going to read it the same way no matter what you do. Listen to what they tell you, then make up your own mind.

So back to the original question: “How many is too many?” Well, if someone notes that a particular word or phrase or construction comes up a lot in your story or essay, take a critical look at it. Use CTRL+F or COMMAND+F to find out just how often you’re using a word or phrase. Even better, read the passage aloud. The word “audience” comes from the Latin verb audīre, to hear. For many of us, repetitiousness is easier to hear than to see.

Learn what your own literary tics are. You don’t have to avoid them completely: just come up with some alternatives.

And keep in mind that repetition can be an effective device. Sometimes it’s 100% intentional. Here’s an example from my novel in progress:

Shannon knew what the message said. It had been playing when she walked through the door twenty minutes ago. She’d dropped onto the sofa and been sitting there ever since, as the room grew darker and both dogs gave up on being fed early. If she got up, she’d have to decide: play the message back or deep-six it, like she’d deep-sixed the last one and the ones before it.

The last deep-six had been on impulse and she’d been regretting it ever since. . . .

“Deep-six” occurs three times in two adjacent sentences, and in the third instance the verb has turned into a noun. Horrors! Is this too many? Should one of those deep-sixes be deep-sixed?

For the moment, no. I like the way the passage reads. The repetition suggests that Shannon is obsessing about what she’s done and wondering what to do next. Will it survive into the next draft? That I can’t tell you. What seems just right now may seem like too many tomorrow — or vice versa. That’s writing for you, and it’s why I trust my rules of gut more than other people’s rules of thumb.

 

Sturgis’s Law #6

This past spring I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #6:

Your writing will teach you what you need to know.

Every aspiring writer has heard it: “Write what you know.” It’s a terrible cliché.

Well, no, it’s not so terrible, because there’s truth in it. There’s truth in most clichés. The trouble with clichés isn’t their lack of truth. It’s the way they become ossified into conventional wisdom and, gods forbid, rules.

Think about it. If you write what you don’t know, people are going to find you out — unless your skill is such that you can persuade them that you do know it, even if it contradicts what they know, or think they know. This means that you actually know quite a bit.

You probably didn’t start out with all the skills you needed to tell that story either. You developed them on the way.

travvy in field

This is Travvy. The fictional Wolfie looks like his twin brother, but they’ve got different stories to tell.

Knowing stuff is great. Some imagery and a major plot thread of Wolfie, my novel in progress, has grown from what I know about dogs, specifically Alaskan malamutes, particularly Travvy, the Alaskan malamute I live with, on whom the title character is based.

Both Wolfie and my first novel, The Mud of the Place, are set on Martha’s Vineyard, which is where I live. Any plot can take place anywhere, but the places where it unfolds will affect how it happens and who the characters are. People are influenced by our surroundings, both past and present. The better you know your settings — both those that exist in real time and those you make up, and those that are a combination of the two — the more you’ll know about your characters.

On the other hand, when you set out to write a history of X or a biography of Y, you rarely know everything there is to know about the subject. I’ll go out on a limb and say you never know everything there is to know about the subject — and when the book is in print and getting great reviews (let’s be optimistic for a moment here), there’s still more to be learned.

The same goes for memoirs and novels. Memoirs are about your own life, and in fiction you get to make stuff up, so maybe you don’t have to know so much? Ha ha ha. There’s nothing like writing to show you how much you don’t know, and how much of what you do know is incomplete or not quite right or even downright wrong. So memoirists and fiction writers do what historians and biographers do to correct the errors and fill in the gaps: research.

Memoirists may interview family members, reread old letters, or cross-check remembered facts and dates with written records. Mystery writers don’t generally start off knowing a hundred ways to commit murder, or what a body looks like when it’s been shot at close range, or what police officers do at a crime scene. And so on.

Think of writing as a journey of discovery. Don’t limit yourself to what you know. Write what you want to find out, what you’re curious about. If you’re a “planner” — you like to plot everything out in advance — choose a destination that intrigues you. With my first novel, The Mud of the Place, I thought I knew where I was going, but that’s not where I ended up.

Wolfie started with a fairly simple “what if?”: What if a dog like Travvy was running loose in my town, hassling and probably killing livestock? That was answered pretty quickly, but not before it had segued into a question I’ve long been obsessed with but haven’t dared think too hard about. It goes something like this: Hindsight is 20/20, but what do you do when you begin to suspect something bad has happened and maybe is still happening, there’s no way of finding out for sure, and the price of being wrong is very, very high?

Well, I, like my characters, am still somewhat in the dark, and I, like them, have been drawn into unsettling territory: the powerlessness of children, the trickiness of memory, the barriers we throw up against what we can’t afford to know. I’m having conversations with teachers, therapists, and others who’ve been confronted with comparable dilemmas. I’ve read and reread many accounts of adults who have managed to survive similar situations.

Perhaps the strangest thing that’s happened so far is that one supporting character is an animator: he works on animated films with computer-generated graphics. Where the hell did that come from? I’m not a big moviegoer, and apart from a book I worked on some years ago about Pixar Animation Studios, I knew zip about animation. But I knew, immediately and intuitively, that the fact that this guy was an animator could be significant. So I’ve been reading up on animated films, and particularly what animators do.

No way am I ever going to be an animation expert, though I certainly know more about the subject than I did two months ago. I don’t know everything there is to know about Martha’s Vineyard either, but I do know it well enough to know what I don’t know. And that’s enough.

P.S. Here’s an article I turned up while procrastinating researching this blog post. Bret Anthony Johnston’s “Don’t Write What You Know” from TheAtlantic.com. It’s very good.

Recognition Rocks

bloggerrecognitionaward

Ordinarily I don’t do awards, but hey, recognition is good, especially when it comes from a fellow writer, so thank you for nominating me, Gavin Zanker. I recently started following Gavin’s blog, but already I get the impression that he’s making it up and figuring it out as he goes along, which is pretty much what I do. More power to us.

I have two blogs, this one and From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, about being a year-round resident of Martha’s Vineyard. As both writer and editor I’m mostly self-taught, which is to say I’ve learned a tremendous amount from my peers, a couple of mentors, and reading master writers but I haven’t gone to school for any of it. Write Through It is part of my attempt to give something back and keep learning at the same time.

Advice to bloggers, especially bloggers who do other kinds of writing: Your writing will teach you what you need to know. Just keep doing it — and be prepared for unexpected detours and forks in the road.

Here are my nominees, in no particular order. All these blogs expand my world, albeit in different ways. Some of these bloggers don’t do awards, but check out their blogs anyway. They’re special.

The TomPostPile • Tom lives up the road from me. I already knew he was a musician and a master sign painter, but until he started his blog I knew nothing about Wishetwurra Farm. Here’s your intro. He also takes wonderful photos of both here and “away” — sometimes as close as Woods Hole but other times considerably more distant.

Charlotte Hoather • Charlotte Hoather is a gifted young soprano pursuing her music studies in Scotland. She also writes wonderfully.

Cochin Blogger • I “met” Cochin Blogger on an international editors’ list we both subscribe to. His words and wonderful photos have introduced me to daily life in Kerala, which is where he lives.

The Immortal Jukebox  • Thom Hickey’s “blog about music and popular culture.” Every post is a musical adventure, complete with embedded videos.

Evelyne Holingue • Evelyne is a novelist who grew up in France and now lives in the U.S. She’s witty, observant, and perceptive, and she blogs in both English and French. Earlier this year she worked her way through the alphabet, looking for the English equivalents of common French idioms. Her readers joined in. It was wonderful.

The Glass Bangle • Thoughtful, perceptive, funny — this is my window into the world of a writer, poet, and avid reader in India who’s raising two daughters.

MV Obsession • Joan has known the Vineyard for longer than I have, but she sees it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t live here year-round. When I start getting snarky about “summer people,” I think about Joan and all the others who have their feet in the mud of this place too.

What Matters • Janee Woods doesn’t post all that often, but everything she does post is essential reading for anyone trying to understand how privilege works and why dealing with it is important.

Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors • Absolutely crucial for writers thinking of self-publishing, and for those who want to put their own experiences to good use.

Off the Beaten Path: Hikes, Backpacks, and Travels • Just what it sounds like. I’m a lifelong East Coast girl, and Cindy’s wonderful photos of wildlife, mountains, and places you can’t reach by car transport me to parts of the U.S. that I may never see in person.

Alex Palmer: Your Man in the Field • Sports is terra incognita to me, mostly by choice, but Alex writes so well that I might turn into a sports fan in spite of myself. He just launched this blog a few months ago, so check it out. P.S. Not only does Alex live on the Vineyard, he grew up in the same off-island town I did.

Those Pesky Details

Once upon a time I copyedited a novel set in 19th-century New England that had cranberries being shipped to market in May.

Uh — no.

cranberries

Cranberries

I grew up in Massachusetts and have lived here most of my life. When fresh cranberries reach the market in early to mid fall, I stock my freezer with them because they aren’t available earlier in the year. That’s true in the 21st century, it was true in the late 20th (which was when I copyedited this novel), and it was surely true in the 19th, when transportation, storage, and other technologies were a good deal less sophisticated than they are today.

That’s known in the trade as a “good catch”: I caught something that the author, the book’s editor, and everyone who had already read the manuscript missed. Copyeditors are always catching things that everyone else missed, but this was an especially good one. That’s why I remember it more than 15 years later. (Tellingly, I can’t for the life of me remember the title of the novel or the name of its author.)

We copyeditors quite justifiably pat ourselves on the back for these catches and crow about the best ones to our colleagues.

Readers crow about them too when they find what they consider a glaring error in a published book. “Where was the copyeditor?” they cry. “Where was the proofreader?” This is often followed by a lament about how publishing, the English language, and/or western civilization is going to hell in a handbasket.

Well, if there are several glaring errors in a book, coupled with infelicities of spelling, usage, and style, it may be that it wasn’t properly copyedited or proofread at all. But errors do crop up in even the most conscientiously written, edited, and proofread works. The overwhelming majority of them, thank heavens, are minor.

Think of how many factual details go into any book-length work, fiction or nonfiction. Pity the poor author, who must focus on the whole forest while remaining acutely aware of each tree in the forest, each branch on each tree, each twig on each branch, each bud on each twig. Say you’re an expert in a particular sort of bud. Chances are good that you’ll eventually catch the author out — “No, no, no! Those buds never appear before May in the Upper Midwest!” — but chances are even better that most readers won’t notice. It won’t, and shouldn’t, undermine the credibility of the work.

Unless, of course, the work is about trees in the Upper Midwest. Then you may have a case.

swans on the Mill Pond

There’s a lot more to Martha’s Vineyard than swans on the Mill Pond, but we’ve got that too.

I live on Martha’s Vineyard, a place that is so often misrepresented in both fiction and nonfiction that much of my own writing is devoted to countering those misrepresentations. At the same time, I know that some errors are more significant than others. I don’t care (too much) if someone has a ferry sailing from Vineyard Haven at 5:15 instead of 5:00. Recently, though, I reviewed a book that got some of the geography wrong and misspelled several names that could have been verified without much trouble. Editor fail, I thought.

I do get really, really angry when someone assumes that what they’ve seen on the news is the whole truth and nothing but; that everyone here is wealthy when our median income is one of the state’s lowest.

“Write what you know” is a truism quoted ad nauseam, but I don’t mind it when it’s accompanied by its obvious corollary: “And if you don’t know it now, do your research.

This is why I was so impressed when I was contacted a couple of months ago by a writer whose novel in progress was partly set on the Vineyard. Could he ask me a few questions? Ask away, said I.

His questions were the sort that would only be asked by someone who had at least a passing acquaintance with the place. The larger world wouldn’t notice if he got these things wrong, but many Vineyarders would. I was thrilled to be asked and impressed that he cared enough to get it right. I answered as thoughtfully as I could. (Note to anyone who’s writing about Martha’s Vineyard: Contact me. I’m not kidding. If I can’t answer your questions, I can probably put you in touch with someone who can.)

This has inspired me. If I didn’t mind answering this writer’s questions — hell, no! I’m glad to be asked! — other people won’t mind answering mine. I’m not going to get all the details right, and even if I do, some people are going to disagree with me. But if I get out there and ask the questions, I’m probably going to meet some cool people and get into interesting conversations.

It’s all good.

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.

Chicago Style

My library’s annual monster book sale was last weekend. Of course I went. Of course I came home with a stack of books, and all for $10.

The book sale takes place in the elementary school gym. All the sorting and shelving is done by volunteers.

The book sale takes place in the elementary school gym. All the sorting and shelving is done by volunteers.

The book sale is a browser’s heaven: tables and tables of books sorted, and occasionally mis-sorted, into general categories, and many with more books in the boxes underneath. I rarely go with a particular book in mind. I always find books I didn’t know I was looking for.

Or they find me.

Browsers cheerfully recommend books to total strangers, and sometimes get into spirited conversations about books they liked or books they thought were overrated. I was poring over one of the history-related tables, head cocked sideways so I could read the spines, when the fellow to my right handed a book to the fellow on my left. The book passing in front of me was The Chicago Manual of Style.

“Are you interested in this?” asked the fellow on the right, who I guessed (correctly) was the father of the fellow on the left.

My constant editorial companions. Clockwise from top: The Chicago Manual of Style, Words into Type, Amy Einsohn's Copyeditor's Handbook, and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.

My constant editorial companions. Clockwise from top: The Chicago Manual of Style, Words into Type, Amy Einsohn’s Copyeditor’s Handbook, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

I’ve been on first-name terms with Chicago since 1979, when it was still called A Manual of Style. Could I remain silent while my old buddy and sometime nemesis changed hands right before my eyes? I could not. “That’s the current edition,” I said. “I’ve got it at home. I’m an editor by trade.”

Dad let on that Son was an aspiring writer. Son seemed a little uneasy with the description. “If you have any interest in mainstream publishing,” I said, “that’s a very  good book to have.”

I don’t know whether they bought it or not, or what they paid for it. It was half-price day at the book sale, so probably not more than a buck or two. But if you have any interest in mainstream publishing, especially in the U.S., it is a very good book to have. Or you can subscribe to the online edition for $35 a year.

In U.S. trade and academic publishing, The Chicago Manual of Style is something of a bible. It contains almost everything writers and editors need to know about book publishing, along with extensive recommendations for further reading in various areas. It includes chapters on grammar, usage, and punctuation. At least half of its 1,026 pages are devoted — as its title might suggest — to style. 

What is “style”? Think of all the myriad choices you make when you’re writing and especially when you’re editing your own work, about capitalization and hyphenation, about the use of quotation marks, boldface, and italics. How to treat titles of movies or titles of songs, and words from other languages, and the English translations of those words. And on and on and on. Style comprises all the decisions made about how to handle these things. “Chicago style” is a collection of particular recommendations. If you italicize book titles and put song titles in quotes, you’re following Chicago style, maybe without knowing it.

Much of the nit-pickery that goes into copyediting is about style. Confronted with the plethora of details that go into Chicago style, or Associated Press (AP) style (widely used by newspapers and periodicals), or American Psychological Association (APA) style (widely used in academic writing, especially the social sciences), the novice writer or editor may find it hard to believe that applying a particular style makes things easier — but it does. Every time I embark on editing a long bibliography, I am profoundly grateful to Chicago for its documentation style and to the authors who apply it consistently. I would hate to have to learn or invent a new documentation style for every bibliography I work on.

That goes for other aspects of style too. Following a style guide in effect automates the minute details and frees your mind to deal with the more interesting stuff like word choice and sentence structure and transitions between paragraphs.

The Chicago Manual of Style came into existence early in the 20th century as the style guide for the University of Chicago Press. Then as now, the press specialized in scholarly works, and the early editions of its style guide reflected that. Now it’s widely used by trade publishers, independent publishers, and self-publishers as well as academic presses.

What this means in practice is that not all of its recommendations are well suited to every type of book, and the further one gets from scholarly nonfiction — say, into the realms of fiction and memoir — the more cause one is likely to have for ignoring some recommendations and improvising on others. This is fine with Chicago‘s compilers but not so fine with some copyeditors, who treat the book’s style recommendations as Rules That Must Be Obeyed.

I think of them as Conventions That Should Be Respected, and Generally Followed in the Absence of a Sensible Alternative. I also advise serious writers to introduce themselves to Chicago style and even get to know it. Automate the petty details and you can focus your attention on the big stuff. You’re also more likely to win an argument with a stubborn copyeditor.

Top 10 Writing Tips

These are good. Several are probably more applicable to fiction than nonfiction, but most apply to all kinds of writing. My favorites are 1, 2, 3, 8, and 9. And maybe 10. I’m not sure about the love or the fun part, but the wonder of words coming through my fingertips? Yeah, that’s a big one. Thanks to Charles French‘s words, reading, and writing blog for the lead.

Lynette Noni

A few months ago I was asked by the Gold Coast Bulletin to come up with a list of writing tips that they could publish in their newspaper. I really wanted to include those tips in a blog post back then too, but the Bulletin asked me to wait until they’d published them first, which is fair enough. I’d pretty much forgotten about it, but this week my wonderful publicist tracked down the link for the whole article that they wrote up on me back in May in the aftermath of Supanova, which means I can now share my tips with you all!

Top 10 Tips (Portrait) JPEG

Feel free to share the above tips if you find them helpful at all. And if you want to read the whole article (it’s an entire page, which is so cool!), you can do so by clicking on this link to find a screenshot JPEG of it here: 

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Readers’ Challenge

Charles French nominated me for a “readers’ challenge” award. The whole award thing in the blogosphere is a little weird. As far as I can tell, it’s circle-jerkery, with people nominating each other for awards and some people crowing about every award they get nominated for. I am intimidated by how many blogs some of these people follow. Don’t they have lives? Don’t they have jobs? When do the writers among them do their writing?

To hell with that. I like Charles French’s blog on reading, writing, and teaching, and just as important, the questions in this challenge/survey interest me, mainly because I don’t think they were directed at people like me who are in the word trades and don’t read all that much on the side. So here goes.

One of my two big bookshelves, freshly culled, dusted, and reorganized, and garnished with a few of my dog's Rally Obedience title ribbons.

One of my two big bookshelves, freshly culled, dusted, and reorganized, and garnished with a few of my dog’s Rally Obedience title ribbons.

You have 20,000 books on your TBR. How in the world do you decide what to read next?

No way in a million years I would ever have 20,000 books on my to-be-read list. I do have a dozen or so hardcopy books on the shelves at the head of my bed and several more on my Nook. How do I decide? Partly it’s what grabs my attention at the moment. If someone I respect recommends a book, it goes to the top of the list. I’m usually reading two or three books at once, but since I do most of my reading in the 20 or so minutes before I fall asleep, I don’t get through them very fast.

 

You’re halfway through a book and you’re just not loving it. Do you quit or commit?

Quit. Life is too short to waste one’s time reading crappy books. At the moment I’m about halfway through a nonfiction book that I expected great things of. I semi-promised to review it in my Martha’s Vineyard blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories. I’m probably going to skim through the rest and bail. No idea how I’m going to review it, because it’s very relevant to that particular blog and because the whys and wherefores of its failures are worth discussing.

I’m an editor by trade. When I start editing while I’m reading, it usually means that something has gone off the rails. This is the case with the nonfiction book I’m reading now. Where was the editor? I wonder. There probably wasn’t one, even though the publisher is legit and shows up fairly often in the bibliographies of books I copyedit. It’s two or three drafts short of done, and the factual errors are glaring and could have been prevented.

The end of the year is coming and you’re so close yet so far away on your GoodReads challenge. Do you quit or commit?

I dabble on GoodReads, but I don’t commit to anything.

The covers of a series you love DO. NOT. MATCH. How do you cope?

Well, I rarely read more than one book in a series, so I doubt I’d notice. If the series is good enough that I read more than one, I probably would have forgotten the cover of the first by the time I started the second. Here’s an interesting question: If books in a series were routinely marketed with non-matching covers and nothing to indicate that they’re part of a series, would anyone pick them up and read them?

Everyone and their mother loves a book you really don’t like. Who do you bond with over shared feelings?

I’m rarely reading what everyone else is reading at the same time they’re reading it. If I read it, it’s five years after they’ve forgotten it. So this doesn’t come up often. Sometimes, though, I’ll hear someone say that a book I didn’t like was overrated. I’ll jump in with a “Same here!” and if it leads to further discussion, so much the better. Ditto when someone says she loved a book that I think was widely overlooked. Bonding is good.

You’re reading a book and you’re about to start crying in public. How do you deal?

Doesn’t bother me at all. The big problem is that I rarely have a hanky handy, so I have to use my sleeve.

A sequel of a book you loved just came out, but you’ve forgotten a lot from the prior novel. Will you re-read the book? Skip the sequel? Try to find a summary on GoodReads? Cry in frustration?

If I really like a book, I’ll probably avoid any sequels unless I’m assured through the grapevine that the sequel is worthy of the original. If I’ve already forgotten a lot from the original, it probably wasn’t all that great. A good book stands on its own even if it’s a sequel or part of a series. In other words, I won’t worry about it.

You don’t want ANYONE borrowing your books. How do you politely tell people “nope” when they ask?

I no longer lend out books that have particular meaning to me, especially when they’ve been inscribed by the author, but I’m more than willing to lend anything else to anyone who asks. I live in a studio apartment. I frequently cull my shelves and donate the good stuff to my town library’s annual book sale. Good books are happier circulating than gathering dust on a bookshelf. All right, so the books aren’t happier — am. Good books have their work to do in the world, and they aren’t doing it cooped up in my apartment.

You’ve picked up and put down five different books in the past month. How do you get over the reading slump?

How is that a “slump”? When the right book comes along, I’ll stick with it. Till then I’ll find other things to do with my time.

There are so many new books coming out that you are dying to read! How many do you actually buy?

There are wonderful new books coming out all the time. I don’t know about most of them. This is a good thing. If the subject is of interest, if I’ve admired the author’s previous work, or if someone I respect recommends it, it’ll go on my mental “to-read” shelf. Maybe I’ll even put it on my GoodReads “to be read” shelf. I rarely buy a book until/unless I know I’m going to (a) read it, and (b) want to keep it around. Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia was one such. I’m also more likely to buy books from independent presses that I want to support. I bought Shade Mountain Press‘s first two books, Lynn Kanter’s novel Her Own Vietnam and Robin Parks’s story collection Egg Heaven. They’re both wonderful. (I reviewed them both on GoodReads.) I’m looking forward to their fall 2015 titles.

After you’ve bought a new book you want to get to, how long do they sit on your shelf until you actually read them?

I rarely buy new books, and when I do (see above) it’s because I want to read them now. And I do, though it usually takes me a few weeks to finish them. A couple of years ago I bought Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, which was first published in 1988. For years I was more than a little afraid of that book, partly because Atwood is a demanding writer and partly because the subject, so I’d heard, was girls’ nastiness to other girls. Then in late 2012 I copyedited an academic essay about the book that revived my interest in Cat’s Eye and assured me that it wasn’t just about girls’ nastiness to other girls. I bought and downloaded it right then. It was more than two years before I got around to reading it, but I’m very glad I did. It is demanding, but in all the best ways.

After you’ve bought a new book you want to get to, how long do they sit on your shelf until you actually read them?

See above: I rarely buy new books, period. When I got my Nook, my first e-reader, I did buy a novel on a friend’s recommendation, mainly so I’d have something to read on the road. That was three and a half years ago and I still haven’t read it — but I will, I will! I buy more books electronically than I do in print, mainly because the two bookstores within driving distance rarely have what I’m looking for. The downside is that my ebooks tend to sit around longer because I can’t see them, take them down off the shelf, flip through the pages, and decide “Yeah, it’s time to read this one.”

Nomination time

If you blog and these questions intrigue you, please adopt them and take them home with you.