Copyedit Connected to the Thigh Bone … Er, Content Edit

I might not have been blogging last year but boy, have I been editing—content, line, copy, you name it. Fiction and nonfiction, too, which is what we’ll discuss here.* I love it all, and I’ve been very busy.

But I’ve noticed a disturbing trend: I’ve received several assignments from publishers to copyedit manuscripts that were clearly unedited. That is, they had not been through a content/developmental edit before they came to me for copyediting. I can only imagine these were cost-cutting measures, but there is just no substitute for a well-edited book, and the budget makers would do well to remember that too many costs cut might result in an unhappy denouement. (Just my two cents’ worth.)

Publishers: you need to edit these manuscripts before you give them to a copyeditor. If you continue to insist they have been edited, well, then, we’ve got a problem, because what I’ve seen is shocking. And shoddy. That’s what it is: shoddy. You’re expecting me to do both jobs, it seems, but only paying me for the one. Tsk, tsk. Your copyeditor can’t be expected to rethink and -write, look for redundancies, organization, logic, completeness, clarity in the writing, structure, and so on. That’s content editing. When I’m functioning as a copyeditor, I’m supposed to be checking syntax, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and all those things the Chicago Manual of Style dictates.

What makes me think a manuscript hasn’t been edited? Here’s a list of things I consider red flags:

  • I find margin notes left by the author stating he’s going to add stuff or rewrite stuff “in the next pass.” All that sort of thing should be done before we ever begin the copy- or line edit.
  • There is so much repetition and things that aren’t clear, that don’t follow, things that don’t support the thesis, things that—if I’d been the developmental editor—I would have looked after before it got to copyedit.
  • The author is proving to be an “unreliable narrator”—I question his data, his numbers, and the way he analyzes or presents them. When the author says “the shooter killed scores of innocent people” and when I look into it I learn that five were killed and six injured, I begin to mistrust the author’s conclusions. When the author uses “millions” a lot, I think perhaps he has a tendency to hyperbole. Yes, the copyeditor should expect to do some simple fact-checking, but a good content editor should get out in front of it by looking for these false notes.
  • I read statements in the manuscript that make me nervous. If I find myself sending e-mails to the in-house house editor that read, “Has legal seen this? Has legal approved this?” then I am pretty sure I’m the first person reading this content. You’d be surprised how often this has happened to me.
  • There are some really long paragraphs.
  • The footnotes—which are the author’s responsibility to supply—are an incomplete mess; the author should have been informed of this on the first pass of the developmental edit and asked to supply the information. The copyeditor cannot clean up what isn’t there. URLs for online sources should have been checked (they may have existed two years ago when the author began writing but are now broken links); all publishing information should be completed; and if the author is quoting something that came out of a video or radio program, we need to also note who transcribed the text.
  • Similarly, scripture quoting that does not identify the translation or version used is a red flag, something the developmental editor definitely should have asked for on the very first pass.
  • The introduction is really long and has a lot of repetition. It looks like it was a last, OMG-I-forgot thought. As a content editor I have tightened up many introductions; it is simply not the copyeditor’s job.
  • Lots of jargon and terms aren’t explained. Readers need to know this stuff!
  • Dots need to be connected. There are sentences and ideas that don’t make sense to a reader with no knowledge of this topic—and isn’t that why the reader picked up the book? The developmental editor should be reading for these problems and they should have been clarified and rewritten in the content edit.
  • Mention of people and theories that are not explained within the manuscript; acronyms that are used but not clarified. I have to ask for clarification a lot.
  • There are a lot of “talking heads”—people whose names are mentioned (“Joe Schmo says …”) but who aren’t familiar to the reader. Who is this person? Why should the reader trust this speaker? That this person has written a book isn’t enough for me. It doesn’t take much, just identify a speaker as a sociologist or an expert in early childhood education, or whatever. But a miscellaneous name floating around in a paragraph is meaningless and maddening for a reader.
  • The use of quotes, in general, is random. Quoting from a book or article on the topic under discussion is great. But just pulling a quote out of thin air (or Brainyquote) because it’s on topic (or on keyword) is less effective.
  • Lots of scare quotes.
  • I find myself questioning the author’s conclusions, sources, lots of things that should have been queried before we got to the copyedit.
  • Word use is odd or otherwise feels off; author clearly doesn’t know the meaning.
  • The presence/use of profanity in nonfiction makes me think twice. Generally it can be lived without.

When I do a developmental edit in nonfiction, I’m looking at organization, logic, completeness, clarity—and all the things we’ve discussed above. I check the facts, mark the awkward sentences, ask the author to explain what he meant, and show him why a thing is unclear. I point out the endless redundancy and the crappy sentences. I suggest ways to rewrite it. I ask the author to provide all the information for the footnotes; I ask for the specific scripture translations used so the copyeditor can check them. I sincerely try to make the copyeditor’s job easier.

By the time we get to the copyedit phase, the content should be fact-checked, approved and signed off on by the author, the acquisitions editor, and the legal team (if necessary). Ideally, a copyedit should be a straightforward process. But when the content edit is skipped, it opens the door for all sorts of problems that could leave author and publisher—and reader!—unhappy.

* It happens in fiction, too, of course; but in this post, I’m talking about non.

Tweet: Publishers: you need to edit these manuscripts before you give them to a copyeditor.                                                                                                                            Tweet: What makes me think a manuscript hasn’t been edited? Here’s a list of things I consider red flags.

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Guilty Pleasures and Smart Remarks

As you’ve read, I got a lot of great recommendations for light reading—which I am still pursuing as if my life depended upon it, because I’m pretty sure it does—and I truly enjoyed the first Jenny Colgan title I read, The Bookshop on the Corner. (Even though it was a mobile bookshop in a van, and not actually ever on a corner, as best I could tell. But, hey. I wasn’t the editor.)

But the second one, which I just finished—Little Beach Street Bakery—was … pretty silly. First, there’s a pet puffin. Yes, I’ll pause while you take that in. In the US and Canada private ownership of a puffin is illegal; in the UK—where the book is set—it’s illegal to trap them or rob nests, and that doesn’t happen in the book, so technically, I guess, this puffin thread of the story works (remember: possible, not probable) but—really? An uncaged puffin in the house (and it is) means, ahem, puffin poop in the house, as this hilarious piece reveals. That’s the reality of “pet” puffins.

The fictional puffin (a fledgling) is blown through a window into the house, breaking both the window and a wing in the process. It is nursed back to health and it and our protagonist bond. When it is healed, the puffin is released back into a wild puffin colony an hour’s drive away—but weeks later, the puffin finds its way back to our heroine! How sweet, right? I don’t believe a word of it.

(Also, I’m just philosophically opposed to the idea. Wild birds should be wild.)

There were some wild, unbelievable human characters too—hard to believe they were even able to keep themselves alive, since they were either epically emotionally damaged, rude, or just not particularly bright. And there’s head-hopping like you wouldn’t believe—a very unskillful POV altogether.

I could overlook that stuff but worst of all, there were two continuity errors that leapt off the page, and that’s what ultimately killed my enjoyment of Little Beach Street Bakery.

In one, our heroine’s phone rings, and her hands are covered in flour so she asks her bestie to answer it, and then some narrative is inserted, and by the time we get to the dialogue, it is worded in such a way that it’s implied she was the person making the call. (The incoming caller says, “Hi, what can I do for you?”)

In the second error, the love interest—who has run away (emotionally damaged, remember) and been gone for many weeks without calling or texting, until he and our heorine run into each other at a wedding—asks the heroine how her pet puffin (rolling my eyes) is doing now that it’s come back. But he couldn’t know this bit of information because the bird returned after he left. That one really bothered me.

For a second I felt like I should give this book the “How Did This Book Get Published?” treatment … but Now & Then was a special kind of awful that Colgan, with her happy characters and happy outcomes will just never reach (thank goodness!). So I’ll give her one more shot. Beach Street was written in 2015, Bookshop in 2016, and it was the better book, so I’ll try something recent. (That’s another red flag, of course: these books are coming out so fast* they couldn’t possibly be getting the editorial attention they deserve.)

I do realize I’m expecting too much, maybe, from my light reading. But Georgette Heyer’s editorial team didn’t make these sorts of mistakes. Just a thought.

* Starting in 2000 (when 1 was published), in subsequent years this is the number published: 2001 (2); 2003 (1); 2004 (2), 1 each in ’05–’07; 2008 (2); 2009 (1); 2010 (2); 2011 (1); 2012 (2); 2013 (2); 2014 (2); 2015 (2); 2 in 2016; 2017 (1). I’m not counting children’s books.


Tweet: I do realize I’m expecting too much, maybe, from my light reading. :)

Tweet: A pet puffin? An uncaged puffin in the house (and it is) means, ahem, puffin poop in the house. Just sayin’.

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Reading Saved Me

The last couple years have been … eventful.

Eventful, adjective: 1) full of or rich in events; 2) momentous.

He led a short but eventful life.

It was an extremely eventful period in American history.

I didn’t make that last example up, y’all; Merriam-Webster said a mouthful. It’s definitely been a wild ride here in the ol’ US of A. Some of us are shaking our heads. Some of us are wondering what hit us. Some of us are just wondering.

Some of us, when confronted with things we don’t understand, take to books for help with comprehension. You can see the progression of my need for edification on my reading lists for the last three years as I went from trying to understand the power of public media (and more specifically the power of anonymous—and sometimes not anonymous—public outrage) with Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed … to trying to understand the real people and the very real social problems that exist in my own community. (Sometimes it can feel like the Fire Swamp around here.) I read … and read … and moved from despair to empathy to scratching my head. I didn’t necessarily agree with all the conclusions drawn in the books I studied, but at least I felt like I understood the questions and the issues much better, and that’s the point, right? Reading saved me from unknowing. From ignorance.

As an adult woman making her way in the world for decades, I’d long understood the dichotomy that exists between men and woment in the workplace—what we might call male privilege. But there are other kinds of privilege, and though as a child of the ’60s I was firmly idealistic about the goodness of people in general, I’ve found recently I could be mistaken about that. (Gasp!). I thought I understood … well, I thought I understood a lot of things. But I had more to learn. By the time I was hired to work on Jennifer Harvey’s Raising White Kids: Bringing up Children in a Racially Unjust America last summer, I was well into reading about privilege and racism. (Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Margo Jefferson, even Trevor Noah got me riled up, and they’re just the big names.) Again, my reading choices helped me grow in ways it’s hard to calculate but the books I read have made me more articulate and braver about speaking up. Reading made me a better human. Reading saved me from complacency. And from apathy.

Also, perhaps, from the Cliffs of Insanity. :)

But there was more going on in my life. Some wonderful things like engagements and weddings but some hard things too. I had always read my way through whatever the day (or week or month) brought, reading whatever I’d thought I was in the mood for when I finished one book and opened the next. (Edification or entertainment? That’s always the challenge for me.)

But those hard things … were hard. One night I found myself lying in bed reading a novel—highly praised, well-reviewed and -awarded and not dystopian—that was unremittingly sad. (Why is so much literary fiction these days dark? Another post for another time.) The book was becoming a slog, I wasn’t enjoying it, and I lay there thinking that it simply wasn’t helping me relax or sleep or escape from the hard stuff that had to be dealt with and moved through.

So I stopped reading that book.

Instead, I opened a Regency romance by Georgette Heyer. You know how I feel about her, yeah? I’ve said this before: Heyer is a hoot. She’s witty, her dialogue is brilliant, and her details are well researched. She sets up a scene and then leaves it at precisely the right moment. Her vocabulary is exquisite. I fell in love with her romances in high school and have never, ever fallen out. I read and reread them, particularly during times of stress. Heyer is my comfort-food reading.

I’d been leaning on Heyer a lot in the last couple years, though, so the next day I asked my Facebook tribe—which consists of a lot of readers and writers and thinkers—for suggestions:

I need some ‘light’ (happy, funny) fiction, stat!

And they responded. Oh, how they responded! Everyone got into the act (some folks just to get ideas too), and the titles were being typed up faster than I could read the blurb and download them. A lot of them were women’s fiction or romance, which is not always where I turn for reading material (although over time I do sample everything on the reader’s menu). But I was happy to be led and encouraged to try new authors. And as I began to read these recommended stories, I did laugh. I did smile. As I had wished.

Reading began to save me from my overwhelming sadness. Reading saved me from the Pit of Despair.

When I finished the first, I opened the next. When I found an author I enjoyed, I downloaded another one of his/her stories. And in that moment, I knew I had to set aside all my earnest, edifying reading and just … let my pleasure reading carry me for a while.

I’m still reading light / romance / funny / happy. Oh, I’ll go back to the literary fiction I love (and the nonfiction too). I’ll finish that book I started last year and set aside. I’ll read the final (maybe?) Dave Robicheaux novel I bought on the day it came out. I’ll start that stack of nonfiction that awaits me. But for now, I’m laughing more and sleeping better. And I’m blogging again.

Reading saved me.

#MyReadingYear 2007–2014 / 2015 / 2016 / 2017





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My Reading Year 2017

My life is moving by at the speed of page-turns …

Kate Atkinson / A God in Ruins / LF

Rhys Bowen / Her Royal Spyness / GF

James Lee Burke / The Glass Rainbow / GF

Thomas Cahill / Heretics and Heroes / NF

Beverly Cleary / Ramona Quimby, Age 8 / YF

Ta-Nehisi Coates / We Were Eight Years in Power / ESS

Jenny Colgan / The Bookshop on the Corner / RO

Pia de Jong / Saving Charlotte / MEM

Tracee de Hahn / Swiss Vendetta / GF

Frank Delaney / The Last Storyteller / LF

Patrick DeWitt / The Sisters Brothers / LF

Patricia M. Gaitely / Robicheaux’s Roots / NF

Amy Gentry / Good As Gone / GF

Adam Gopnik / Angels and Ages: … Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life / ESS

John Green / Turtles All the Way Down / YA

Vicky Halls / How to Be a Cat Detective / NF

Kent Haruf / Plainsong / LF

Kent Haruf / Eventide / LF

Felicity Hayes-McCoy / The Library at the Edge of the World / LF

Amy Herrick / The Time Fetch / MG

Georgette Heyer / These Old Shades / RO

Georgette Heyer / Devil’s Cub / RO

Georgette Heyer / The Corinthian / RO

Georgette Heyer / The Talisman Ring / RO

Georgette Heyer / The Grand Sophy / RO

Georgette Heyer / The Foundling / RO

Gail Honeyman / Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine / LF

Kara Isaac / Then There Was You / RO (don’t bother, it was crap)

Margo Jefferson / Negroland / MEM

Jenny B. Jones / A Sugar Creek Christmas / RO

Bernard MacLaverty / Midwinter Break / LF

Hilary Mantel / How Shall I Know You? / SS (1)

Peter Mayle / The Vintage Caper / GF

Alice McDermott / The Ninth Hour / LF

Celeste Fletcher McHale / The Secret to Hummingbird Cake / WF

David McRaney / You Are Now Less Dumb / NF

Denise Mina / Field of Blood / GF

Liane Moriarty / Three Wishes / WF

Sheila Nevins / You Don’t Look Your Age & Other Fairy Tales / ESS

Trevor Noah / Born a Crime / MEM

Edna O’Brien / The Country Girls / LF

George Packer / The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America / NF

Nancy Peacock / The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson / LF

Stacia Pelletier / The Half Wives / LF

Louise Penny / Glass Houses / GF

Sara Pennypacker / Pax / MG

Rainbow Rowell / Attachments / WF

Emily Ruskovich / Idaho / LF

Karen Russell / Vampires in the Lemon Grove / SS

Maria Semple / Today Will Be Different / LF

Graeme Simsion / The Rose Project / LF

Curtis Sittenfeld / Eligible / LF

Curtis Sittenfeld / Sisterland / LF

Kimberly Stuart / Sugar / LF

J. Courtney Sullivan / Saints for All Occasions / LF

Sarah Loudin Thomas / Miracle in a Dry Season / LF

Ted Thompson / The Land of Steady Habits / LF

Sallie Tisdale / The Best Thing I Ever Tasted / NF

Armor Towles / A Gentleman in Moscow / LF

Armor Towles / Rules of Civility / LF

Abigail Tucker / The Lion in the Living Room / NF

Kali VanBaale / The Good Divide / LF

J. D. Vance / Hillbilly Elegy / NF

Aaron van Voorhis / A Survival Guide for Heretics / NF

John Williams / Stoner / LF


Total = 65

NF = 13

F = 52

Pace = 5.61

Did Not Finish, No

Sally Bradley / Kept / WF

Paula McClain / The Paris Wife / LF

Category Key

ESS = essays

FA = fantasy

GF = genre fiction

GN = graphic novel (or graphic nonfiction GNF)

HUM = humor

LF = literary fiction [very loosely defined]

MEM = memoir

MG = middle grade

NF = nonfiction

RO = romance

SS = short stories

WF = women’s fiction

YA = young adult fiction

YF = youth fiction

Just keeping my pledge to #ShowYourWork by showing #MyReadingYear !

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Your Philosophical Editor

Yes, I do know I haven’t posted any new material since this time last year. And since writing for Read•Play•Edit is my personal creative outlet—and I haven’t been writing for months—you can probably imagine my state of mind and heart.

I still have a lot to say. I have pages and pages of notes.

But the last couple years have been filled with a lot of non–work-related difficulties and distractions (real and imagined) that I’m not going to enumerate but which did definitely slow me down. It’s been like walking through deep water, y’all. I long for the normalcy of blogging. I miss that voice. I miss that me.

• • •

Today I found myself reminding an author (with whom I’m working on a third book and with whom I’ve developed a friendship) about the nature of our working relationship, and it occurs to me that it wouldn’t be a bad thing to repeat it here.

I’ve written a lot about my editorial philosophy. Ninety-five percent of my job is delivering what amounts to “extreme criticism”—and I have to do it in a way that makes the recipient glad to have it. In order for that to happen, I need to employ goodwill, respect, and a businesslike, professional attitude. To achieve that, I’ve learned that relationship is key; it builds intimacy and trust. As we work together as a team, we often create a friendship … and even joy.

But, as I reminded my author this morning, although I definitely consider myself your partner in this good (and often delightful) work we do together, I am always mindful that your publisher is the one who will cut my check. Thus I am the publisher’s eyes and ears as we work through the manuscript. If I am not sure how to answer an author’s question or where to draw a line about content or word usage or gathering permissions or anything at all, I will consult with your acquiring editor. My goal is to protect the publisher’s reputation—to keep them from lawsuits, controversy, and embarrassment. And you know how people are these days; sometimes the most innocent intention can be misinterpreted. I’m careful. :)

• • •

So that’s me, your philosophical editor, walking out of that deep water. I’ll have more to say about writing and editing and reading. I read some great books last year and they saved me. That’s probably where I’ll start.



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#GettingStarted Series: If You Don’t Know Where to Start, E-Mail Me

Letters, I get these letters. They go something like this:

I’ve been thinking about writing a book. What should I do next?

There are variations—Everyone tells me I should write a book, say, or I’ve been writing all my life—and usually some biographical information, but that’s the gist of it. Sometimes the letters are so vague I’m not sure what the writer is asking. I’m not sure the writer knows what he’s asking.

But here’s the short answer, dear ones. If you’re thinking about writing a book, you should …

Start. Writing.

Like, sit down in front of your computer, open your word-processing program, and start typing. Honest, that’s how it works. As an editor, I can’t help you until you’ve got something on the page.

Or you could start a blog, and see what happens. Lots of books currently in print started as and are derived from blogs, like Molly Wizenberg’s lovely A Homemade Life. Or Mike Hyatt’s Platform, in which I had a small editorial hand.

But you want answers, I know you do. More specific answers than Start Writing, although I can think of no better one. (Except, perhaps: Read.) So let’s see what I can rustle up. If you haven’t started writing yet, you should …

1. Consider your writing skills. If you are confident you know how to compose paragraphs in a coherent manner, start writing. (Don’t laugh! A lot of people really can’t compose sentences and paragraphs. It’s a lot different from talking.) If you’re unsure, seek out a creative writing course, for real. You can find writing courses at community colleges, at your county extension education office, at writers’ conferences, even online (caveat emptor, of course). You’ll end up writing some of your book for this class.

2. Definitely seek out a writer’s group and/or critique partners. I need to write a blog post about this someday (UPDATE: here it is); every author I’ve edited has been in a writer’s group, and I think it’s an important part of writing, this interaction with others. Your group can give you lots of editorial advice—and it’s free, aside from the investment of time. (Note that while in-person fellowship is nice, your group could just as easily be an e-mail group.)

3. Start reading the type of book you want to write. That is, do your homework. If you’re thinking about writing a memoir, you need to read memoir. You’ll see how they’re constructed, how they need to have a story arc. You’ll get ideas. Mary Karr started the recent trend in memoir, with her book The Liar’s Club—you could start there. I highly recommend it. I can give you a list of others, of course.

4. Make an outline. I can’t stress this enough. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, start jotting down the main points you want to write about, then break those down too. You can rearrange a dozen times ’til it makes sense.

OK, there are four really important things. It’s good that you asked. Now start writing. :)

Tweet: I’ve been thinking about writing a book. What should I do next?
Tweet: As an editor, I can’t help you until you’ve got something on the page.

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.”

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#GettingStarted Series: No, You May Not Use as Your Source (and Other Thoughts About Quotations)

Sure, it’s fun to google “quotes on compassion” or “quotes on sheep” or “quotes on interspecies love” (I’m joking) and see what you come up with. Especially if you’re an author in need of a nice epigraph. Something that will make you seem clever or well read. Preferably both.

But as your editor, I’d really rather these meaningful quotes be the product of … you know … your actual cleverness. Your actual well read–ness. I can tell if you’ve been visiting at fifty paces. Usually it’s because that quote just doesn’t sound like the famous person to whom you’re attributing it. Or because the grammar (or punctuation) is incredibly bad.

Classic example: google this little gem—“In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock”—and you’ll be informed that Thomas Jefferson said it.

Seriously, dude—Thomas Jefferson? The man who wrote, “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?

Read my lips: no. No, no, no.

I don’t know how people on the street spoke to each other in the 1700s, but we’ve got some really good records of how they wrote, and it sounds nothing like Thomas Jefferson. In point of fact, that line about style and principle appeared in a children’s magazine in 1891. (Read about it here, at a website you can trust.)

If you’ll look further than the first thing you see when you google a phrase, you may find the truth. But be forewarned, those stupid quote sites are going to be the first thing you see. (And they’re all copying from each other, thus mistakes—and they are myriad—get repeated, whether they’re misquoting or misattributing or both.) So don’t try to tell me that Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” He did not. (Read this and this.)

Nor did Winston Churchill say, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” (Have you read Churchill? I have. Honestly, it just doesn’t sound like him.) It was astonishingly easy to find this; I got a clue online and verified it myself. The quote appears in the “Red Herrings: False Attributions” appendix of Churchill By Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations by Richard Langworth. (If Amazon displays the “Click to look inside!” logo, you can do a keyword search. You’d be surprised how effective this is. See page 570 and then 578 in this particular case.)

Here’s a related problem. If you’ve had to research quotes as much as I have, you’ll have noticed that one little pearl of wisdom is often attributed to two or more different sources. I worked on a book recently in which the author quoted John Wooden, the legendary and much-beloved UCLA basketball coach. Wooden was renowned for his pithy, wise sayings, which came to be known as Woodenisms (in fact, a whole book has been written about them). The author of the book I was working on cited for this quote (an automatic out, in my book). And yet when I googled the phrase and moved beyond the quote sites, I found it attributed to both Harry Truman and Earl Weaver (a famous baseball coach) far more often than Wooden. (sigh)

Another problem I encounter is that quotes in isolation like this are very often so far out of context as to have lost their original meaning. There are certain ideologues who exploit this, of course. Which is why it’s so important to not only 1) get the quote right, and 2) get the attribution right, but also 3) determine the original source material. It’s one thing to use a quote as an epigraph but if you’re using it to support a claim you’re making, readers should be able to seek out the rest of the material. This keeps writers honest (or it should).

It’s not always easy to find the original source material; you might have to go to your local university library and borrow access to their LexisNexis account. Or, you know, check out a book or three. (Just sayin’.) I’ve been known to search through every single one of an author’s books on, using the look-inside feature. Again, this is why Your Editor would prefer you find your own quotes in meaningful material you’ve read yourself.

Yes, kids, the Internet can be used for good as well as for ill (I’m looking at you, Brainyquote et al). And remember: if I am your editor, you will not be citing a quotation site as a source.

Tweet:  Need a nice epigraph? Step away from Brainyquotes and no one gets hurt.
Tweet:  Thos. Jefferson did NOT say “In matters of style, swim with the current.” Trust me.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. 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.”

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#GettingStarted: You Get Three Wishes. Choose Wisely.

Our brains are wired to enjoy stories. At a very basic level, all human communication is narrative: we order our experiences and make sense of them through stories. (Here’s an interesting book about that idea.) So it’s no wonder a lot of people have a book they want to write.

And some of them do.

Then they ask me: “What will make my manuscript stand out?” or “What are agents/publishers looking for?” As natural-born storytellers, you’d think we’d understand the answers to these questions instinctively.

But making your manuscript stand out from the rest isn’t like printing your résumé on pink paper (not that I’ve ever done that!) or having an inside track because you know someone who works there. These aren’t the right things to worry about, really. Having an angle or working the percentages might work for some things in life (although I’m not sure what) but it does not work in publishing. You can’t game the system, kids. (And I’ve had enough of those rants about gatekeepers, so stop.)

What you should focus on is writing well and telling a good story in an interesting voice. I’m going to list these things again—

• tell a good story
• in an interesting voice
• using nice prose

—so you know this is all there is. Really. This is all you need to know.

Story is easy, right? Think of what is meant when reviewers call a book a page-turner. The story is so compelling the reader cannot help but keep reading because she wants to know what happens to the characters. The Harry Potter books are a great example of the power of story. Jodi Picoult’s books have strong stories that suck the reader right in. Kate Morton also whips up a pretty good story. Here are three more: Life of Pi by Yann Martel (a shipwreck, a lifeboat, a young boy, a tiger) and Peace Like a River by Leif Enger (an adored father, a sickly son, a brother on the run from the law). I loved Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife so much that at first I read as fast as I could, but then I began to ration myself because I didn’t want the story to end. That’s a powerful story.

Voice is less easy to grasp but is, essentially, the manner in which the story is told: a combination of narrative point of view, narrative tense (first person, third person, whatever), and narrative voice. (This is a very good article about voice.) It’s a little bit about style but you might have a style consistent across many novels, while I’d want your voice for each to be unique unless you were using the same characters. Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce stories (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and three others so far), set in 1950 and told in the unforgettable voice of an eleven-year-old English girl, are a great example. Here are other unique voices: Precious Ramotswe, another unforgettable protagonist (from Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series); Charles Portis’s wonderful novel True Grit; or the shy high school boy in Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.

Learning how to write nice prose is why you should be reading—you learn by example, because otherwise it’s a very subjective undertaking. As in music, you can be taught technique, but musicality is something you must feel. And so it is with writing. Here again it’s easiest to give an ostensive definition (that is, point to examples of great writing): Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Empire Falls is wonderful; so is the Pulitzer-winning Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, and anything at all by Kaye Gibbons. I once threw a Pat Conroy book across the room out of sheer jealousy of his wordcraft, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

So there is some homework for you. :) The only insider information I can offer is this: a manuscript strong in two of the three has a chance. A publisher will think, say, We can plug those plot holes in editorial. But any one on its own isn’t enough; it’s just too much work to fix.

Does it happen that a book fires on all three cylinders? Oh yes, dear ones. And when it does, it’s magic. Here are some examples:

Black Swan Green / David Mitchell
Gone Girl / Gillian Flynn
Cold Mountain / Charles Frasier
The Night Circus / Erin Morgenstern
Ellen Foster / Kaye Gibbons
The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster / Kaye Gibbons

Read them. You won’t be sorry. :)

Tweet: What you should focus on is writing well & telling a good story in an interesting voice.
Tweet: This is all you need to know about getting published. Really.

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.”

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#WhatImReadingNow: Heretics and Heroes

The high spirits of Renaissance Italy spilled over into other European lands, though the waves set off by so much gaiety sometimes landed elsewhere with a shock and might even be received with contempt. The Renaissance, as it appeared elsewhere, could at times look and sound quite different from its lively Italian manifestation. And though the humanists of Italy were generous in sharing their artistic and intellectual riches with other Europeans, they were quite certain that the great classical tradition was a uniquely Italian treasure and that Italians had nothing to learn from anyone else (except—when they remembered—from the Greeks, of course).

This attitude militated against the dissemination through Italy of the art of printing, where it was for years considered something concocted “among the Barbarians in some German city.” Duke Federigo of Urbino, an important collector, dismissed the invention out of hand, admitting that he “would have been ashamed to own a printed book.” No printing press was set up at Florence till Bernardo Cennini established one at last in 1477, a full quarter century after its invention in Germany.

So the miltiplication of copies of individual books in Italy continued to depend for decades on the ancient traditions of the scriptorium. But it was at such scriptoria as Lorenzo [Medici]’s that many scribes were employed for the sake of making many copies of many manuscripts, so that these might be distributed widely. (Even in their self-imposed cultural isolation, the Italians remained generous.) An it is thanks to these last scriptoria of Europe that you, dear Reader, can today read the book in your hands (or on your screen) so easily.

The thing that most put off the Italians from adopting printing was the monstrous appearance of the Gothic letters employed by German printers. Thick, heavy, overweight, very nearly sludgy, unattractive to the modern eye, these letters (whether in movable type or in earlier manuscript examples) reminded Italians of everything they disliked about the Barbarians.** (Madre di Deo, those letters looked like overweight people with inert bowels!) Instead, the Italians invented calligraphy, beautiful—and eminently readable—script. From this calligraphy, lean and swift, balanced and shapely, full of sweeping slides and lovely loops—rather than the stolid shapes of Gothic—were born the typefaces we still use today, roman, italic, and their derivatives.

**See Volume 1 of the Hinges of History, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Chapter I, for the original confrontation of taste between Italians and Germans in the early fifth century.]

—Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes (Doubleday, 2013)

Some thoughts about this book:

  • This is a short selection, but I could go on and on and on. Cahill makes every little twist and turn (the hinges) of history so utterly fascinating! It’s like sitting down with your old Uncle Tom, who knows simply everything about this one topic and tells it to you like a story, complete with humor and pathos and irony and the inside scoop. Except … Uncle Tom knows pretty much everything! Languages, for example (Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, Italian). Read his biography at Wikipedia, you’ll see. The success of this series of books, Publishers Weekly has said, “lies in Cahill’s ability to interpret and present a great amount of information and complex ideas in a manner that is both easily accessible and entertaining. In straightforward yet lyrical prose filled with humor, Cahill presents ancient characters—many of whom are not well-known—with motivations that we can recognize.”
  • I read, first (as it was intended), How the Irish Saved Civilization and fell in love with it. In quick succession I read The Gifts of the Jews and Desire of the Everlasting Hills. While I was waiting for the next book in the Hinges of History series, I read A Literary Guide to Ireland (written with his wife, Susan Cahill). There is one more book to come in this series. Mr. Cahill is seventy-seven years old, and I wish him excellent health for many, many years to come.
  • Here are the six current titles. Interestingly, sometimes the subtitles have changed with subsequent printings. These are from the books on my shelves:

1 / How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (1995)

2 / The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (1998)

3 / Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus (1999)

4 / Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (2003)

5 / Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe (2006)

6 / Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Changed Our World (2013)

  • The blurb: “In Volume VI of his acclaimed Hinges of History series, Thomas Cahill guides us through the thrilling period of the Rainassance and Reformation (the late fourteenth to the early seventeenth century), so full of innovation and cultural change that the Western World would not experience its like again until the twentieth century. Beginning with the continent-wide disaster of the Black Death, Cahill traces the many developments in European thought and experience that served both the new humanism of the Renaissance and the seemingly abrupt religious alterations of the increasingly radical Reformation. This is an age of the most sublime artistic and scientific adventure, but also of newly powerful princes and armies and of newly found courage, as many thousands refuse to bow their heads to the religious pieties of the past. It is an era of just-discovered continents and previously unknown peoples. More than anything, it is a time of individuality in which a whole culture must achieve a new balance if the West is to continue.”
  • I’d read other books about medieval artists (Michaelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, for example, and The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece) and knew about Martin Luther and Christopher Columbus—I’ve always had a thing for history, actually—but this book just pulled it all together: popes, kings and queens, monks, historians, artists, biblical translations. Oh my goodness. The Medicis were fascinating. As always, the book has many full-color pages of of art of the period, famous and less so. Highly recommended.

Tweet: I’ve always had a thing for history, and the Hinges of History series satisfies.
Tweet: On Heretics and Heroes: I wish Mr. Cahill excellent health for many, many years to come.

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.”

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#WordUse Series: I’m Over It! (These Words Have Got to Go)

I love slang as much as the next person. As a frame of reference, slang instantly conveys humor, sarcasm, or solidarity. Just think about the meaning occupy has taken on recently, and the myriad ways it’s been applied. Pop culture (that is, the world we live in) is a rich minefield for slang—I particularly love tiger mom and fauxdashian. (I see those eyes rolling!)

I’m less crazy about jargon, although sometimes it can be mildly amusing—say, late on a Friday afternoon when your boss decides to drill down so he can get your buy-in on a project to reach out to opinion formers who demonstrate thought leadership in the blogosphere. (He’ll want you to circle back on Monday to share any light-bulb moments you had over the weekend.) Sigh.

I even like a good cliché. If you write fiction, cliché is actually important to your dialogue, because that’s how regular folks talk. And the fact is a perfectly good word or phrase became a cliché because … well, because it works. Sweet spot, for example. We’ve all got one. Somewhere.

But sometimes these words get on my very last nerve. Sometimes I just want to scream, “Stop! Stop! For the love of the lexicon, stop!” Take these, for example. (Please.) I’m over them.

amazing (I’ve written about this one.)
baby mama
bandwith (“Does he have the bandwidth to take that on?”)
brain dump (Seriously?)
circle back
come alongside
drill down
fail (And the ever popular epic fail.)
light-bulb moment
man up
ninja (Like “he’s a rock star” only implies more talent.)
personal brand
reach out
road warrior
rock (Used as a verb: she’s rocking that bikini.)
share (It’s not a substitute for tell, people!)
take it off-line
take it on board
the new … (The new normal, the new black, the new thirty …)
thought leader
unpack it
viral (A cute cat video goes viral.)
visionary, vision-casting

I just complain about these things, but my friends at Michigan’s Lake Superior State University (go Lakers!) actually do something about it: they have an annual List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse, and General Uselessness. The 2012 list includes: amazing, baby bump, blowback, ginormous, man cave, occupy, pet parent, shared sacrifice, thank you in advance, the new normal, trickeration, win the future.

I bet you’ve got some words to add to this list too. Reach out! :)

Tweet: I’m over it! These words have got to go!

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.”

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