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.

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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.

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.

I’m Sorry You Scare Me

Writing takes courage — and so does reading. This is a thoughtful post about daring and not daring to read works that may be too challenging, too difficult.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Elizabeth Gaucher Elizabeth Gaucher

For those on our email list, an unfinished version of this post went out yesterday, our fault, not the author’s! Please enjoy the full version.

A guest post from Elizabeth Gaucher:

“I think I have to apologize for something,” the message from my longtime friend read. “At first I thought I need to apologize for not reading your latest published piece, but I think I have to apologize for or admit to something deeper.”

I felt my brows rise. This was coming from one of my oldest and dearest friends, someone who is also a writer, and it felt like a warning flare. I took a deep breath and read on into the mysterious sin. She had in fact finally read my column about the writing life for an online nonfiction journal. She was really moved by it. She apologized for not reading it sooner, admitting she wasn’t…

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Reviewing Isn’t Easy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s a review anyway?

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

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

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

No. A thousand times no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Write for a Living?

I just finished a long and demanding editing job, right on deadline. For the last 10 days or so, it’s been taking up seven or eight hours of every waking day. I’ve learned over the years that my daily capacity for demanding word work is about seven or eight hours. Beyond that my brain goes on auto-pilot.

deadline miracleWriting and editing aren’t the same, but they both qualify as “demanding word work.” Over the last year or so, I’ve managed to maintain a pretty good balance: edit for five or six hours a day, write for up to two. The writer grabs the first two hours after waking, my absolute best creative time. (I’m an early riser, but my internal editor tends to sleep late. I’m also easily distracted by the events of the day once they start unfolding.)

So for 10 days or so, I’ve neither blogged nor worked on the novel. My writing has consisted of a few emails and the occasional post to Facebook. This is scary. The further I get from the practice of daily writing, the more certain I am that I’ll never get back to it. My writing, I fear, is like a fire in the woodstove. If it goes long untended, it will go out.

If only I didn’t have to work! I think. If only I could write for a living!

The same thought has probably crossed your mind. Maybe more than once. Maybe whenever life — specifically your paid job — gets in the way of the writing that you’d much rather be doing. Sound familiar?

When time-pressed writers imagine writing for a living, or at least writing as part of their job, they often aren’t thinking about going into journalism or academia. They aren’t thinking about writing lengthy reports for think tanks or government agencies, or how-to manuals for computer software and hardware. They definitely aren’t thinking of writing ad copy and jingles, although this may pay better than most of the other possibilities.

The fantasy is usually about making a living writing what we want to write. The big attraction is getting paid to do what we want to do.

I get it. Most of my life I’ve been able to make my living doing work that I enjoy, that I’m good at, and that seems useful to other people and sometimes even the world at large. It has nearly often involved the written word — but it’s rarely involved writing. During my several years working for a weekly newspaper, I got to write pretty much what I wanted to write — stories about interesting people and events — but my job description was “editor.” Editing has been my bread and butter, and occasionally my beer and chocolate, since the late 1970s.

If you’re determined to write for a living, or even for a substantial chunk of your living, I know I can’t talk you out of it. I’m not going to try. For sure some writers manage to do it. If you look closely, though, you’ll often see that other factors are helping them stay afloat economically: maybe a partner with a well-paying job, maybe a trust fund, maybe gigs teaching writing in one way or another. Take a hard look at your own resources before you even think of quitting your day job.

Think about this too: For me to make my living as a freelance editor, someone has to be willing and able to pay money for what I’m selling. The same goes for writing. The money coming into your checking account has to come from somewhere. It may come from a publisher. It may come direct from readers who are dying to read your books. It may come from newspapers, magazines, or online media that want to buy your feature articles and maybe send you off on assignment to write more.

These things are not going to fall into your lap. You’re going to have to hustle — to do all the research and self-promotion necessary to reach those willing and able to pay for what you’re selling, then to persuade them to part with their money. While you’re hustling, you probably aren’t writing what you what you write. You’re writing proposals, synopses, query letters, and press releases. Is it starting to sound like a day job yet?

Here’s another question: How often do you spend your hard-earned money on other writers’ writing? How often do you take a chance on a novel by someone you’ve never heard of? Will you do it for $9.99? for $2.99? for free? What would make people who’ve never heard of you take a chance on your book? This applies to attracting agents, editors, and publishers as well as to engaging individual readers in the emerging online marketplace. Perhaps even more so: If an agent, editor, or publisher takes you on, s/he will wind up investing far, far more than $9.99 in you and your work.

The real bottom line here is that if you want to make a living writing, you have to write what people are willing to pay money for, and you have to keep doing it. You’ll have deadlines that can’t be blown off. Your fallow periods and blocks will become even scarier than they are now because they’ll threaten your livelihood as well as your sanity and your sense of self-worth.

Writing, in short, will become your job.

And it may well get in the way of your writing.

In Praise of Readers

If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, did it make a sound?

I think it did. I also suspect that when we repeat the question, we’re not just talking about trees. Trees don’t care if they make a sound. They’re going to fall, and rustle, and crack, whether we hear them or not.

For me, writing is part of a conversation. I do want people to hear the rustling and cracking of my words, and more than that: I want to hear what they have to say in response. I’ve had three one-act plays produced, and I love giving readings. Nothing beats the thrill of seeing and hearing people respond to my words.

mud-cover-smIt’s a rare audience that will sit still for a book-length work, but I’m lucky: I’ve experienced what has to be the next-best thing. Last Wednesday and the Wednesday before, I got to sit down and talk with a group of women all of whom had read my novel, The Mud of the Place, and were interested in what I was writing about, the lives of year-round residents in a seasonal resort.

Minnesota Women's Press publishes a bimonthly newsletter that's all about books, writers, and readers.

Minnesota Women’s Press publishes a bimonthly newsletter that’s all about books, writers, and readers.

These women, who came from all around the U.S. and Canada too, were participants in Books Afoot, also known as Reading on the Road, a program of the Minnesota Women’s Press. As organizer Mollie Hoben described it in an email, “The basic idea is that reading and travel make a rewarding combination. We pick a destination, learn about women writers from that place (which always involves exciting discoveries), select books to read beforehand, then travel there with interested reader-travelers for exploration and book discussion. Participants come from all over the country.”

I first learned about Books Afoot a year and a half ago, when Mollie contacted me out of the blue. Three Books Afoot groups would be coming to Martha’s Vineyard in the fall, and my novel was one of the four “required reading” books. Would I be willing to meet with any or (ideally) all of the groups?

One of the 2013 Books Afoot groups, meeting in the outdoor café at a local bookstore

One of the 2013 Books Afoot groups, meeting in the outdoor café at a local bookstore

Would I?? This was a fantasy come true, and the reality surpassed my wildest expectations. (I blogged about it here.) I’d pretty much decided that writing a second novel was a waste of time. These women changed my mind.

This year we were joined by my writer friend Shirley Mayhew, whose wonderful Looking Back: My Long Life on Martha’s Vineyard came out early this summer — too late for the travelers to have read it before they got here, but plenty of them bought a copy to take home with them. Shirley moved here as a young bride in 1947; I arrived solo in 1985. Our books and our very different but overlapping experiences became gateways for the visitors to enter a place that many people know about but few actually know.

Last month I concluded a blog post, “Who Do You Write For?,” with this description of the kind of reader I’d like to be: “one who’s brave enough to venture into unfamiliar territory as long as she trusts her guide, and one who appreciates the effort that goes into the writing.”

When a book goes out into the world, does it make a sound? If it does, will I hear it through all the cacophonous competition? Having sat down and talked with dozens of such adventurous readers, I know you’re out there. I’m writing for you.

The 2014 Books Afoot women each picked a postcard from wherever they were from and wrote a favorite book recommendation or two on the back. Here are a few of them.

The 2014 Books Afoot women each picked a postcard from wherever they were from and wrote a favorite book recommendation or two on the back. Here are a few of them.