Saving a Beautiful History

On Friday morning, January 25, 2013, fifteen jihadis entered the restoration and conservation rooms on the ground floor of the Ahmed Baba Institute in Sankoré, the government library that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had taken over the previous April. For nearly a year, thousands of manuscripts left behind by the Ahmed Baba staff had been sitting in the open, stacked on shelves and lying on restoration tables, while the jihadis prayed, trained, ate, and slept around them.

Now, on the verge of being expelled from Timbuktu, the Al Qaeda fighters would extract their retribution. The men swept 4,202 manuscripts off lab tables and shelves, and carried them into the tiled courtyard. In an act of nihilistic vindictiveness that they had been threatening for months, the jihadis made a pyre of the ancient texts, including fourteenth- and fifteenth-century works of physics, chemistry, and mathematics, their fragile pages covered with algebraic formulas, charts of the heavens, and molecular diagrams. They doused the manuscripts in gasoline, watching in satisfaction as the liquid saturated them, and tossed in a lit match. The brittle pages and their dry leather covers ignited in a flash. The flames rose higher, licking at a concrete column around which the volumes had been arranged. In minutes, the work of some of Timbuktu’s greatest savants and scientists, preserved for centuries, hidden from the nineteenth-century jihadis and the French conquerors, survivors of floods and the pernicious effects of dust, bacteria, water, and insects, were consumed by the inferno. …

And yet out of this wanton act of destruction the curators of the Ahmed Baba Institute had managed to extract a small victory. [Seven months later] Bouya escorted me down a wide flight of stairs to the basement, leading the way by flashlight, since power had still not been restored to the city months after the occupation. He turned the key in the lock and cast his beam over black, moisture-resistant cardboard boxes neatly arranged on dozens of metal shelves, as tidy and ordered as the stacks of a university library in the United States. During their ten months of living at the Ahmed Baba Institute, the fighters had never bothered to venture downstairs to this dark and climate-controlled storage room hidden behind a locked door. Inside were stacks containing 10,603 restored manuscripts, folios, and leather-encased volumes, among the finest works in the collection. “All of them—untouched,” Bouya Haidara said.

In Bamako, Abdel Kader Haidara [no relation] saw the burning of the manuscripts as a confirmation of the jihadis’ intentions—and a vindication of his remarkable undertaking. Starting with no money besides the meager sum in his savings account, Haidara had recruited a loyal circle of volunteers, badgered and shamed the international community into funding the scheme by presenting it as an epic showdown between civilization and the forces of barbarism, raised $1 million—a tremendous sum for Timbuktu—and hired hundreds of amateur smugglers in Timbuktu and beyond.

In a low-tech operation that seemed quaintly anomalous in the second decade of the twenty-first century, he and his team had transported to safety, by river and by road, past hostile jihadi guards and suspicious Malian soldiers, past bandits, attack helicopters, and other potentially lethal obstacles, almost all of Timbuktu’s 377,000 manuscripts. Not one had been lost en route.

Joshua Hammer

Transcribed by me from pages 209–211 of my hardcover copy of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, © 2016, Simon & Schuster.

 

Tweet: Hundreds of amateur smugglers saved the priceless manuscripts of Timbuktu.
Tweet: An epic showdown between civilization and the forces of barbarism.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Books You Might Like | Tagged as: ,

To Google Docs or Not to Google Docs, That Is the Question

A while back I got this question from an author:

Do you need to have a trail of every iteration of changes—or could we put this on Google docs and always have a master at hand?

I’ll spare you the litany of #CrankyEditor thoughts that went through my head, and get right to the answer: no. Not no, but heck no.

Of course, being the second-guesser that I am, I first wondered if I was out of the loop. I mean, I work a lot, I have a process, and that means I am intimate with Microsoft Word and track changes. But it’s been a dozen years since I worked inside a corporate publishing house. Maybe something had changed? Maybe somebody forgot to tell me? If I can just email a manuscript back and forth, why would I need Google Docs?

I didn’t want to have to learn something new right then in the middle of multiple deadlines, and I didn’t want some whippersnapper to tell me how easy it is. I always look for new efficiencies, but learning new software isn’t my idea of that. So I asked around.

Editors, I asked on Facebook, have you switched to Google Docs from MS Word with track changes? Is that the way the publishing industry is going? What I learned was this: no, the publishing industry isn’t using Google Docs to edit. So I’m not obsolete yet. :)

I heard lots of complaints—buggy, crappy formatting, no true track changes—but I also heard that the bugs were being worked out every few weeks, that it is a much stronger app now than when it first came out. So I’m not going to badmouth Google Docs—I haven’t tried it. I believe it could a great tool if you’ve got several people who all need access to the same document—a meeting agenda, say, or a list, a spreadsheet, an itinerary. (Indeed, one editor told me her publishing company uses it for this sort of thing, “but never for editing.”) You could have a team of folks working on a project together, or just commenting on a company bulletin board. Songwriters batting lyrics back and forth. A brainstorming session. All of these types of collaborative efforts are suited to the Google Docs process.

But the most fundamental functionality of Google Docs—access for everyone—is antithetical to how book editing is done—which is to pass a manuscript back and forth, discussing and changing one pass (version) at a time. The time the MS spends with both editor and author individually (studying and actively thinking about it) is as important to the process of editing as the time the MS spends away from both author and editor (looking away, or incubation).

I can’t stress enough how vital it is for you, dear author, to walk away from the manuscript for a few weeks while it’s in my court. Let go, take a break, think about something else. If you have access to the document while I’m working on it—looking over my shoulder, in essence—you will inevitably continue to make changes.

I know how y’all are. :)

If the “latest version” becomes a moving target, my attention is divided. This isn’t the best use of my time and it’s certainly not the way to get my best work. I’ve always thought of editorial work as a collaborative effort … but there are many ways to collaborate. So I’m saying no to Google Docs.

I also say no to Apple Pages. I say no to editing on your phone or your iPad. I say no to copyediting a .pdf. And, again, I say no to Google Docs. I’m not going to apologize for any of this, because I know it is best practices/standard in my industry.

Now, let’s get back to work.

Tweet: There are many ways to collaborate. So I’m saying no to Google Docs.
Tweet: Google Docs’ fundamental functionality is antithetical to how book editing is done.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in The Book Biz, Your Editor Says … | Tagged as:

Short Saturday: The Art of the (Fiction) Con

Here’s a great article from author Elizabeth Sims about internal dialogue. (In most cases I would call it inner monologue, but that’s neither here nor there; I’ve written about it before.)

I particularly got a kick out of Sims’s pointing out pitfalls—

  • Making a character’s inner voice into a sarcastic wisecracker who won’t shut up. Such a voice can be entertaining, but only if used sparingly.
  • Head hopping. Reserve internal dialogue for very few characters. Many writers successfully do internal dialogue for just one character— their protagonist.
  • “… I thought to myself.” I’m on the alert for this construction, which screams rank amateur. Who but oneself does one think to?
  • Telling huge hunks of backstory via having a character “think about” or “remember” it.
  • Putting in anything that doesn’t serve the story. If it’s important that your protagonist dithers over whether to buy the store brand bleach, fine, but if it’s not relevant, just let him buy bleach and get on with it.

—because all are things I’ve written about elsewhere.

But there’s a lot more than that here. The list of things you can accomplish with interior monologue is particularly helpful too. Read on!

Tweet: What exactly is internal monologue—and what can it do?
Tweet: Here’s a list of things you can accomplish with interior monologue.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in The Writing Craft | Tagged as: , , ,

“Hostility Has Always Made Itself Loudly Felt”

In Britain, … [a] more common complaint is that British English is generally being tainted by Americanisms. As I have suggested, outrage at American influence was common among Victorian defenders of British English, and its volume increased as first American silent movies and then ‘talkies’ conquered the British picture palace. In a piece for the Daily Express in January 1930, Jameson Thomas wrote that ‘the talkies have presented the American language in one giant meal, and we are revolted’. This type of complaint was a journalistic staple from the 1920s onward. There were supporters of American words and expressions, such as Frank Dilnot, who described them as ‘like flashes of crystal’ and deemed American English ‘a potent and penetrating instrument, rich in new vibrations, full of joy as well as shocks’. But among the British the pro-American party has always been small. Neutrality is common enough, but hostility has always made itself loudly felt.

Of the more recent claims that American English is a menace, the most sustained I have come across is Edwin Newman’s 1975 book Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death of English? A distinguished American broadcaster, Newman claimed, ‘The United States may prove to be the death of English, but Britain … plainly wants to be in at the kill.’ Newman’s suggestion that the British are apt to hop aboard every American linguistic fad still earns eager approval. Meanwhile British newspapers routinely dismiss the particular vocabulary of American English with words such as ‘loose’, annoying’, strangling’, obscure’ or insidious’. There are also, so we hear, those pesky American pronunciations: putting the stress on the third syllable of advertisement and the second of detail, saying docile in such a way that it rhymes with fossil, the noticeably different soundes of depot, apricot, tomato, clerk and missile. There are the different spellings, too: ax, plow, color (the Webster legacy). But most repugnant, if you believe the detractors, are the little oddities of American vocabulary: semester, garbage can, cookie, elevator and, perhaps worst of all, math instead of maths. Never mind that buzz saw is more evocative than circular saw. Never mind that many words once condemned as rank Americanisms are now in everyday use in Britain: lengthy, mileage, curvaceous, hindsight. Never mind that there are more of ‘them’ than there are of ‘us’. Never mind that American English is now the most important of English’s many varieties. For, no, the vital thing is to resist and indeed repel the onslaught of Americanisms because they are, you know, wrong, man.

Henry Hitchings

Transcribed by me from pages 274–275 of the delightful and fascinating The Language Wars: A History of Proper English © 2007, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Note that Hitchings is British, and that my copy of this book is an American edition … which was copyedited primarily in the British manner—to wit, the punctuation tends to fall outside the quote marks. Except when Hitchings is quoting a book edited in the American manner. You see all of that in this excerpt, which I have been careful to transcribe as printed.

 

Tweet: American English or British English? That is the question.
Tweet: Hitchings doesn’t support the language war, he just reports it. :)

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Books You Might Like, Words & Language | Tagged as: , , , ,

Let Us Now Quote Famous Men

Your Editor spends a lot of time checking facts. Particularly the sorts of facts that can be stated in the form of a question: Really? Are you sure? Did Abraham Lincoln really say that? Because yes, I spend a lot of time researching (ahem) famous quotes. More than I’d like.

For example, an author whose manuscript I am working on suggests a quote from George Washington for chapter 3:

The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by our nation.

But the words our young people just leap off the page at me. Parsed separately or together, the idiom is simply too modern. I’m pretty sure folks didn’t talk like that in the eighteenth century. (Of course, as I’ve noted before, we don’t actually know how people talked two and a half centuries ago.)

I believe, too, that Washington wasn’t really thinking about veterans of earlier wars … because his United States hadn’t really fought but the one.* He was a forward-thinker, our George, he was, but not yet about our young people and our nation appreciating veterans.

All this goes through my mind before I even research it, and when I do, it’s easy: the folks at Mount Vernon have disavowed it, including it on their SPURIOUS QUOTES page. Now, I like this word spurious. The first meaning listed in my fave dictionary is “of illegitimate birth: bastard” (which is pretty much what I think of this quote). Spurious is a word that cuts no corners, pulls no punches, holds nothing back.

Not all quotes are spurious, of course. Some are just incorrectly credited. In the same week, different manuscript, an author attributes this gem to Mark Twain: “If I’d had more time I’d have written a shorter letter.” It doesn’t set off any internal alarms, but I’m suspicious of any quoted material, so I check it. And—you guessed it—Twain didn’t say/write it—it was the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. (My friend at Quote Investigator even has an article on it—“Mark Twain … did not use it according to the best available research”—and this guy spends a lot more time on these things than I do.)

I correct the manuscript, provide some links—including my earlier article on the spuriousness of BrainyQuote, ThinkExist, et al—and the author responds, “I’d always heard it was Mark Twain.” Well, yes, friend, I understand. But if there is anything at all I’ve learned in this business, it’s that what I’ve always heard or what I am certain I was taught or how I remember it … is very often wrong. So I check.

And that’s the thing—we have pretty good research materials available to us. We may not know how people spoke three or four hundred years ago, but they did leave us plenty of written clues, which—with rare exceptions—is where all these quotables come from anyway: their diaries, letters, books, speeches.** Men as famous as George Washington are well catalogued, and the catalogues are very often online. Wikiquote does a good job, too, of listing original source material. Check everywhere.

Related posts:

No, You May Not Use Brainyquote as Your Source
The Internet Can Be Unreliable
Someone Is Wrong on the Internet!
Falser Words Were Never Spoken
Watch Those Quotes!

* Oh, sure, there were those French and Indian wars, but they were actually European wars fought in North America. Different.
** Good luck with the Gettysburg Address, though.

 

Tweet: Let us now quote famous men.
Tweet: Really? Are you sure? Did Abraham Lincoln really say that?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Your Editor Says … | Tagged as: , ,

Short Saturday: A Whole World of Languages

You know I’ve had an abiding interest in travel … and the way we humans communicate. (I could go on and on …) I’m always astonished to hear a radio interview with someone from a far-off land who speaks English—and speaks it well enough that I, who speak only one language, can understand.

So I was delighted to discover this proportional pie chart of the world’s most spoken languages … which is the sort of thing I could spend a morning poring over:

There are at least 7,102 known languages alive in the world today. Twenty-three of these languages are a mother tongue for more than 50 million people.

Have a look. (You can find a link to see the full-size graphic here.) The twenty-three languages are represented in the large map, along with the number of speakers. (Thus Persian, at 57 million, just made the cut for this infographic.) And look at how some languages—Portuguese, Spanish, and English, of course—have migrated far from the source region. History will tell you why.

There’s a lot more here. While there are far more speakers of Chinese (in a macrolanguage sense), they are spread across just 33 countries, while English is spoken in 110 countries. English is also by far the most sought-after language to learn.

What an interesting infographic! The artist/journalist (really a graphic designer), Alberto Lucas López, had this interesting thing to say about infographics: they are JOURNALISM IN CAPITAL LETTERS. Yes!

Tweet: An infographic is “journalism in capital letters.”
Tweet: There is a big world of languages—more than 7 thousand of them.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Words & Language | Tagged as: ,

The Library and the Intellectual Life

An intellectual life often forms in the strangest, most infertile of conditions. The deep forests of those isolated [army] bases became the kingdom that I took ownership of as a child. I followed the minnow-laced streams as they made their cutting way toward the Trent River. Each time in the woods I brought my nature-obsessed mother a series of captured animals, from snapping turtles to copperheads. Mom would study their scales or fur or plumage as I brought home everything from baby herons to squirrels for her patient inspection. After she looked over the day’s catch, she would shower me with praise, then send me back into the woods to return my captives where I’d discovered them. She told me she thought I could become a world-class naturalist, or even director of the San Diego Zoo.

At the library she began to check out books that gave me a working knowledge of those creatures … By the time I had finished fifth grade, I knew the name of almost every mammal in Africa … [from] trips to the library, where I found a whole section labeled “Africa,” the books oversized and swimming with photographs of creatures with their claws extended and their fangs bared. … Books permitted me to embark on dangerous voyages to a world of painted faces of mandrills and leopards scanning the veldt from the high branches of a baobab tree. There was nothing my mother could not bring me from a library. When I met a young marine in the woods one day hunting butterflies with a net and a killing jar, my mother checked out a book that took me far into the world of lepidoptera, with hairstreaks, sulphurs, and fritillaries placed in solemn rows.

Whatever prize I brought out of the woods, my mother could match with a book from the library. She read so many books she was famous among the librarians in every town she entered. Since she did not attend college, she looked to librarians as her magic carpet into a serious intellectual life. … Whenever she opened a new book, she could escape the exhausting life of a mother of seven and enter into cloistered realms forbidden to a woman born among the mean fields of Georgia.

Pat Conroy

Transcribed by me from pages 3–6 of my first edition hardcover of My Reading Life, © 2010, Doubleday.

 

Tweet: The library and the intellectual life.
Tweet: The library nourishes a young boy—and his mom.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Books You Might Like | Tagged as: , ,

Titling Committee Fail

The title of a book is a big deal. It’s the first thing readers see, so it’s an important marketing tool. But there’s no magic formula to creating a good title. Whether fiction or nonfiction, the title should be catchy, interesting, unforgettable; it should get the attention of potential buyers.

And publishing companies have a system to title books they’ve contracted to publish. I counsel authors all the time to not get too fond of their working title, because it might well change—and they should trust their publisher, who has no small amount of interest in these matters.

So what is this system? It’s called the titling committee. Representatives from the editorial management team, the folks from marketing and sales—they’ve been around, have seen what sells, what doesn’t sell—gather together with the book’s in-house champions. They’ve already been provided copies of the book proposal and sample chapters (maybe even the entire manuscript), so they’re prepared. And then … they conduct a brainstorming session.

The new title (and possibly an alternate or two) is dropped into cover comps, and everybody looks and comments and admires. And sure, they run it past the author and the author’s agent, and the publishing team listens to feedback. Still, in the case of a tie (ahem), the decision generally goes to the titling committee.

But every once in a while the system fails. Here’s a little cautionary tale from the point of view of a book buyer. That is, me.

The Irishman is a sports fan. He’s a big fan of soccer, of course (football to him; Manchester United is his team), but he enjoys it all—basketball, tennis, car and bicycle racing, surfing, the Olympics, everything. Early in our relationship I took him to a Tennessee–Alabama football game in Knoxville’s Neyland Stadium (with, as they say, 100,000 of our closest friends); I love college football and the Third Saturday in October rivalry is historic. We spent several days of our 2015 honeymoon in Ireland watching the Rugby World Cup; I learned about the haka. We’re both fans of college basketball; March Madness indeed. Sports (particularly televised, often international) are a thing in this household.

So when I saw this book in the local bookstore—it was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2007— I picked it up: Fanatic: 10 Things All Sports Fans Should Do Before They Die. Sounded great. I did all the things I do: checked the title, skimmed the flap (“sports’ most iconic events”!), checked the back cover. It’s by Jim Gorant, a senior editor and writer at Sports Illustrated, so he’s clearly qualified, right? (Wikipedia says it was the first magazine with circulation over one million to win the National Magazine Award for General Excellence twice. Excellence! Twice!)

I bought it. Gave it to the Irishman for Christmas. He never read it.

Why? Because it is poorly titled.

Why do I think it’s poorly titled? Let’s take a look at the table of contents and you can be the judge:

1 The Super Bowl
2 The Daytona 500
3 The Final Four
4 The Masters
5 The Kentucky Derby
6 Wimbledon
7 Chicago Cubs vs. Atlanta Braves
8 Ohio State vs. Michigan
9 Lambeau Field
10 Fenway Park, Opening Day

See it? Aside from Wimbledon, these are all American sporting events. But the title makes no mention of that. The titling committee, in my opinion, gets a fail. (I do too: I should have checked the TOC. But … it was a busy season.)

Now, we could argue all day long about what events to put on a list of don’t-miss sporting events. Where are the Olympics? The World Series*? The Tour de France, the America’s Cup, the Boston Marathon (world’s oldest annual marathon), the Ryder Cup, the 24 Hours of Le Mans or the Monaco Grand Prix? Where’s the World Cup, for heaven’s sake? In point of fact, I think this title with this list of sporting events is remarkably tone deaf.

But that’s not my point. No, the title just didn’t do its job. Much of this publishing fail** could have been averted if the book had been titled more honestly. For me, this would have involved one word change:

Fanatic: 10 Things American Sports Fans Should Do Before They Die

Replace Wimbledon with another American sporting event (gymnastics, anyone? hockey?), and it all works for me. (The Irishman notes that American fans might well be interested in Wimbledon, and that perhaps a better title would be Fanatic: 10 American Sporting Events All Sports Fans Should Do Before They Die, but now he’s just showing off.)

Regardless, the current title doesn’t do its job. Remember this when you and your publisher are discussing titles for your book.

The titling committee wants a memorable title, something that will make it stand out from all the others on the shelf. About nonfiction titling, publishing expert Michael Hyatt says great titles “do at least one of the following: make a promise, create intrigue, identify a need, or simply state the content.” The subtitle is also a useful tool in nonfiction titles.

The approach to fiction titles is a little different (I’ve discussed it some here) but still the titling committee is going to consider names that are provocative, clever, meaningful in context, and/or that reflect the theme or the protagonist. Even rhythm gets consideration. Think about it!

So in spite of this little tale of woe, think of the titling committee as your friend. Now that you know how this business works, don’t get attached to any one title. Try on several; do some brainstorming with your readers. And watch out for the obvious.

* My international friends all want to know why we Yanks call a sporting event that only involves American teams—OK, and one Canadian team—a world series. It’s really, well, the North American Championships. A discussion of the American use of hyperbole is another post for another time. :)
** I have no idea, really, whether the book was a sales success or not.

Fanatic

Tweet: The title of a book is a big deal. It’s the first thing readers see.
Tweet: Titling committee meeting = a brainstorming session.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in The Book Biz | Tagged as: , , , , ,

Short Saturday: Your Protagonist’s Inner Journey

I stumbled on this article—“Understand Character Wounds: A List of Common Themes” at Writers Helping Writers—a few months ago, and I just love the way the writer drills down to character motivation.

The protagonist’s path is much like yours or mine–one that will (hopefully) bring him closer to lifelong happiness and fulfillment.

In real life, people strive to become something more, to be something better. But the wounds of the past never quite leave us. Old hurts, betrayals, and injustices stay in our memory. Worry that a bad experience could happen again causes us to hesitate, and sometimes readjust what we want, and what we’re willing to risk. In other words, fear gets in the way.

Just like you or I, a hero has wounds, a trunk full of scars he lugs with him wherever he goes. And like us, his determination to not repeat a painful emotional experience carries the high cost of lessening his feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment.

Because wounds influence a protagonist’s behavior so deeply (to the point he will do almost anything to avoid feeling such pain again), it’s important to have a good grasp on what emotional trauma from his past is now shaping his present.

This is only the beginning. From here we learn that …

Wounds change everything
Every wound contains a lie
Wounds cause character flaws
Use backstory to identify the wound

… and that common wound themes can be identified. Oh, it’s all very, very interesting!

Tweet: The past affects your protagonist’s future.
Tweet: Do you know your character’s psychic baggage?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in The Writing Craft | Tagged as: ,

Pay No Attention to the Reviewer Behind the Curtain …

Book reviews and book reviewers don’t require any appearances or performances from the author (unless, like Norman Mailer, you show up at newspaper offices to pick a fight with the book review editor—how many of those are left now?). But reviews definitely contribute to an author’s public image. Sometimes even a well-intended review will corral a writer into a cramped enclosure she chafes to kick down. For example, “While X’s characters will cut you up and eat you, Godwin’s characters will bring you casseroles.” I get which qualities the reviewer is trying to convey to her readers, I like those qualities, but please, spare me the casserole corral.

Toward the end of his life, John Updike said that he had come to believe his bad reviews and be suspicious of his good ones. That has resonated with me. I won’t go so far as to say criticism makes me feel more comfortable than praise, but criticism has often made me stronger. Harvey Ginsberg, my editor for A Southern Family and Father Melancholy’s Daughter, told me his rule for authors had always been “If a review makes you wish you had done something differently, file it away. If not, toss it.”

At cocktail hour, Robert [Godwin’s partner, a musician] and I sometimes competed against each other in our Waves of Boredom game, which involved dredging up memorized quotes from our very worst reviews. The game’s title derived from the lead of Robert’s awful review, early in his career, in the Boston Globe: “Waves of boredom swept over the audience when the opening notes of Robert Starer’s Concerto …” …

Robert and I found Waves of Boredom so much fun, I think, because it reversed the stakes. … In Buddhist practice, negative and aggravating people and events count as your important life teachers. Some of my lowest hours, review-wise, have become my teachers.

London, 1982: Robert and I are staying in the Primrose Hill house of my English publisher, Tom Rosenthal, who has planned a full day to celebrate the publication of A Mother and Two Daughters. We are to be driven to Cambridge for a booksellers’ luncheon and then a special tour has been laid on to show us parts of the university not everybody gets to see. But when I come downstairs to breakfast, Tom reluctantly hands over the reviews in London’s morning papers.

The four of us drive in silence to Cambridge. Editor Jane Turnbull at the wheel, Tom in the passenger seat, Robert and I in the back. Daffodils. Greening fields and hedgerows. Silence. Robert looks so sad. Tasty lunch with booksellers, one or two of whom make light remarks about the “silly” reviews. Robert and I are taken away by a lovely giant of a man in tweeds to look at Pepys’s handwritten diaries.

End of English spring day.

A Mother and Two Daughters became a bestseller in England and Ireland. The devastating phrase applied to it on that lost Cambridge day, comparing the book to an American apple, big and shiny with no taste, never won a single Waves of Boredom competition.

Gail Godwin

Transcribed by me from pages 173–75 of Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir, © 2015, Bloomsbury.

Tweet: “Some of my lowest hours, review-wise, have become my teachers.”
Tweet: Learn from book reviews but don’t let them ruin your day.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Authors & Other Writers, The Book Biz | Tagged as: ,