Short Saturday: “Every Line Has to Argue For Its Existence”

Time magazine recently ran an article called “Sting’s Shipyard Serenade* that I thought had an interesting line. Here’s the set-up:

As the superstar front man of the Police, Sting wrote nearly every song on the band’s five hit albums from 1978 to 1983. For the next two decades, as a solo artist, he issued seven more albums, scored 11 hit singles and won 10 Grammys. Then the songs stopped.

So many years had passed since he’d written his last notes that Sting began to wonder if his muse was gone for good. But rather than hang up his pen, he took on a new challenge in the face of writer’s block: creating a Broadway musical. “I had no interest in tailoring songs for Top 40 radio, for 14-year-old girls or boys,” he tells TIME. “I’m a 62-year-old man. Where is the arena to present my work? It’s not radio anymore.”

So, the article goes on, he met with some Broadway folks, including a producer who put together a creative team to help Sting master the form.

Sting, who admits he was used to being “more of a dictator in a band,” says the musical is the most collaborative thing he has ever attempted. And his creative partners found him open to their suggestions. “He liked being challenged,” Mantello says. “I said to him, ‘Every line has to argue for its existence,’ and he became a theatrical assassin.”

That’s interesting, don’t you think? I saw many parallels to what we’re doing here.

First, just because you know how to write a business letter or a legal brief or a personal essay doesn’t mean you are automatically equipped to write a novel. You have to master the form, learn the craft.

You can do that by surrounding yourself with a good creative team—people who can teach you what they know. Writing partners, critique groups, agents, editors. And though your writing may be done in solitude, editing is most definitely a collaborative effort.

Most importantly, I loved this: Every line has to argue for its existence. Yes, yes it does! (Every scene too.) We’ve talked a lot here about making every word count. I think in art—whether music, painting, theater, writing—you must distill the idea you are trying to convey. Take out the extraneous, leave the essence. Every line has to argue for its existence.

* I subscribe to Time, but you may not be able to see this article if you don’t, and I apologize for that.

 

Tweet: Take out the extraneous, leave the essence. Every line has to argue for its existence.
Tweet: Surround yourself with a good creative team—people who can teach you what they know.

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 Arts & Media, The Writing Craft | Tagged as: , , , , , ,

Who Ya Gonna Call? An Update on the Hachette/Amazon Brouhaha

It’s dragging out, folks, this impasse. And it seems to have dragged otherwise good people into a shouting match. (I thought only politics did that. But then, everything is politics, no?*) Even the delightful Porter Anderson—a journalist who follows the publishing industry—reports “a volley of abuse” for something he’d written. “This person and I will never regain the friendly working relationship we’d had before,” he says. And that’s a shame.

Since I’ve mentioned Anderson, let’s start with his fine article.

✱ Time to dial it back?

Anderson points out Leon Festinger’s 1954 concept of cognitive dissonance:

[It’s] still one of the most accessible ways to understand what happens when we’re confronted with opposing beliefs, assumptions, loyalties.

The Festinger theory suggests that when we experience the uncomfortable friction of a new “truth” that conflicts with an existing “truth,” we’ll attempt to convince ourselves that no conflict exists. We’ll rush to one side or the other of the issue, in other words, and tell everybody that “the truth is plain as day.” Rationalize away the conflict. Walk it off.

The old line “Do as I say, not as I do” is a wry evocation of cognitive dissonance.

This is what’s happened to those of us in publishing right now. There’s no player in this technological disruption who is all good, no player who is all bad. There are many issues facing the industry, and no agreement on how to address them. In the meantime, a very real problem—the Hachette/Amazon standoff—is making things painful for authors and consumers. And folks have chosen sides.

Anderson urges civil conversation in this strong article, which will refer you to several other excellent commentaries. (We run in the same circles so there’s some duplication.)

✱ Who’s the underdog, really?

Writing for Gigaom, digital publishing reporter Laura Hazard Owen also notes “the battle between Amazon and Hachette has come to seem symbolic of a lot more than a fight between two companies.”

The wildly differing rhetoric used on each side provides some insight into why the negotiations seem so momentous, and it is one explanation for why it can be so difficult for the supporters of each side to find any common ground. Some of the most outspoken leaders of the self-publishing movement have adopted Tea Party-like rhetoric benefiting Amazon that can make it difficult for those from the “elite” world of traditional publishing to sympathize. Those traditional publishers, bestselling traditionally published authors and literary folk, on the other hand, tend toward anti-Amazon arguments that the self-publishing movement finds preposterous.

Amazon, meanwhile, has capitalized on many self-published authors’ sense of disenfranchisement to advance the idea that it is the champion of the underdog, despite the fact that it is a multibillion-dollar corporation.

Amazon is a larger company than any of the publishers it works with. Its revenue in 2013 was $74.5 billion. By contrast, the revenue generated by Hachette’s entire parent company, Lagardere, was $9.8 billion in 2013, with Hachette’s U.S. revenue totaling about $640 million. Though it is a much larger company than the publishers it does business with, Amazon has nonetheless successfully portrayed itself as the champion of the little guy.

You can read the whole article here.

✱ All writers are created equal?

Owen’s article mentioned and led me to this, the so-called Indie Author Manifesto. And while I absolutely believe that all human beings are created equal, you will have a hard time convincing me that all human beings who decide to put pen to paper are created equal. I’ve read The Bridges of Madison County, so I have firsthand knowledge.

Do all writers have a right to publish? Of course. But then, they always have had. Twenty years ago self-publishing was more difficult and more expensive (because, you know: printing), but anyone could write up a book and have it printed if he had the dough. It’s easier now, for many reasons.

I don’t see the “right to publish” as the issue here. It’s the distribution system self-publishing authors crave.

✱ Is Amazon a monopoly?

That distribution-system envy leads me to this article from venture capitalist Fred Wilson. In his post “Platform Monopolies,” Wilson says,

[There’s] a very important question we have all been dancing around but will increasingly be dealing with. … The Internet, at its core, is a marketplace that, over time, removes the need for the middleman. That is very good news for the talent that has been giving up a fairly large part of its value to all of the toll takers in between them and their end customers. …

But there is another aspect to the Internet that is not so comforting. And that is that the Internet is a network and the dominant platforms enjoy network effects that, over time, lead to dominant monopolies … [and] Amazon is increasingly looking like a monopoly in publishing. … When a platform like Amazon emerges as the dominant monopoly in publishing, who will keep them honest? When every author has left the publishing house system and has gone direct with Amazon, what does that world look like?

The comments here are just as interesting as the post. Definitely worth reading.

This question about monopoly, is, of course, the thing that concerns me. “Books had a central role in getting Amazon started, but have now declined to very likely less than 10 percent of their revenue and far less of their operating margin,” says Mike Shatzkin in the next post we’ll discuss. “Books are strategic for Amazon, but not commercially fundamental.” And Amazon is not in the business of developing authors.

✱ Got an MBA?

I don’t think publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin does, but man, does he know the book biz. In his most recent post, he deconstructs a Harvard Business School review article, giving advice to another industry, to see if there’s any advice applicable for publishers in their struggle with Amazon. The four suggestions were—

1. Exploit the platform’s need to be comprehensive.
2. Identify and discredit discrimination.
3. Create an alternate platform.
4. Deal more directly.

—and Shatzkin addresses each in terms of the publishing industry. Here’s part of his discussion about the second point:

How about this scenario?

Amazon is well on its way if not already past the point where they sell more than half of the books Americans buy (combining print and digital). Book consumers are highly influenced by the suggestions made and choices surfaced by their bookseller, whether physical or virtual. That is: the process of buying books is inextricably linked to the process of discovering books. So Amazon is getting a stranglehold on recommendations which for many consumers also means a stranglehold on marketing and promotion.

The “damage” to society that results from results being gamed in fiction is probably minimal, and restricted to Amazon promoting either its own published titles, its favorite self-published authors, and books from other publishers that have paid to play. But, with non-fiction, the consequences could be much more severe and of real public interest.

Imagine a persuasive book arguing that the government should sharply increase the minimum wage and let’s also imagine that Amazon corporately doesn’t like that idea. Is it really okay if they suppress the awareness of that book from half or more of the book-buying public?

It’s not hard for me to imagine this scenario at all. This article is long, but if you are interested in the book business at all, I recommend it to you. In fact, I recommend you subscribe. :)

* Thomas Mann said that, in his novel The Magic Mountain (1924).

 

Tweet: There are issues facing the publishing industry & no agreement on how to address them.
Tweet: Hachette/Amazon: It has dragged otherwise good people into a shouting match.
Tweet: The Hachette/Amazon standoff is painful for authors & consumers. Folks have chosen sides.

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: , ,

The Language Metamorphosis

We’ve talked a lot here about how the language we use—the words, the grammar—is a constantly evolving, living, almost breathing thing. (And still, still we want to stop that process! Human nature, I guess.) I’ve written about it in various ways, from evolving spelling and compounds to singular they and even usage problems. We’ve talked about word use, literary devices, and slang too.

And—as with the word meme—I’m always a little fascinated when I see this metamorphosis happening right in front of my eyes. Such is the case with the word hack. It’s gathering a new meaning to itself.*

Not that it’s losing any of the old ones. But I was just looking at this article, “How to Hack the Habit of Creativity,” and realized we—users of the language—are developing a new meaning of the verb to hack.

There are already a zillion official meanings. (Zillion, of course, is a technical term. And by official I simply mean in the dictionary I use most, which is Merriam-Webster, both the Collegiate and the Unabridged. The following list came from M-W’s online version, to which I subscribe.)

• to cut with repeated irregular or unskillful blows
• to mangle or mutilate with or as if with cutting blows
• to trim or shape by or as if by crude or ruthless strokes
• to clear (a path or area) by cutting away vegetation
• to break up the soil and sow (seed) at the same operation — used with in <hack in wheat>
• to roughen or dress (stone or concrete) with a hack hammer (and a couple other things having to do with making walls that I don’t even understand)
• to kick the shins of (an opposing player) in rugby
• to achieve or manage <I can’t quite hack it>
• to put up with, tolerate
• to call out or give directions to (a bird dog)
• to enter (a gamecock) in a single match
• to disconcert and embarrass especially by teasing
• to cough in a short dry manner : cause short dry coughing
• to strike or hold the arm of a basketball opponent with the hand
• loaf, idle, knock — used with around <hacking around at the corner store>
• to make trite and commonplace by frequent and indiscriminate use <the word “remarkable” has been so hacked — J. H. Newman> first known use 1857
• archaic : to employ as a hack writer
• to use as a hack : let out (as a horse) for hire
• to ride or drive at an ordinary pace or over the roads as distinguished from racing or riding across country
• to become exposed or offered to common use for hire <was then hacked in the park for a year before going to stud — Dennis Craig>
• to live the life of a literary drudge or hack : do hack writing
• to ride in a hackney coach or in a taxicab
• to operate a taxicab
• to write computer programs for enjoyment and/or to gain access illegally to a computer or the data stored on it

It’s quite a list, isn’t it! But I don’t see hack as in “How to Hack the Habit of Creativity” anywhere on it.

Even so, you’ve seen this usage, I’m sure. You’ve also seen the phrase life hacks, which are how-to-do articles, usually with a creative way of doing something or fixing a problem. Look, there are websites, for heaven’s sake:

Lifehack
Lifehacker
1000lifehacks
Best Life Hacks

(I guess we all need a hobby.**)

In the article that caught my eye, hack is more about mastering something, but this meaning is still definitely related to life hacks. And nowhere in the list of Merriam-Webster definitions above is this sense of how to do, fix, remedy, or master some thing or some issue in a creative way.

Yet there it is. Fascinating.

The closest we come is the last sense: “to write computer programs for enjoyment and/or to gain access illegally to a computer or the data stored on it.” And sure enough, when I googled life hack, I discovered this new, un-dictionaried (I made that up) phrase has its origins in 1980s hacker culture, according to Wikipedia.

The term became popularized in the blogosphere and is primarily used by computer experts who suffer from information overload or those with a playful curiosity in the ways they can accelerate their workflow in ways other than programming.

“Life” refers to an individual’s productivity, personal organization, work processes, or any area the hacker ethic can be applied to solve a problem. The terms hack, hacking, and hacker have a long history of ambiguity in the computing and geek communities, particularly within the free and open source software crowds.

So there it is, scouts: the lexicological equivalent of the elusive headwaters of the Mississippi. It’s possible Merriam-Webster considers this usage to be slang, which could account for its absence. But I’d be willing to bet we’ll see it in the dictionary soon.

Once again, you are watching language change right in front of your eyes. And I totally dig it. :)

* I know because I checked. Remember, that’s what editors do: we check.

** And who could resist this?

 

Tweet: Hack this! Language metamorphosis in action.
Tweet: We—users of the language—are developing a new meaning of the verb to hack.
Tweet: This new, un-dictionaried (I made that up) phrase has its origins in 1980s hacker culture.

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: , , , ,

Short Saturday: Kill Your Darlings

I’ve been working through revisions with two authors who’ve both used the phrase “Kill your darlings” in communication with me about the revision process. Generally, when we say kill your darlings, we mean you have to be willing to let go of writing—a passage, a scene—of which you’re particularly fond.

You see this phrase a lot, often attached to William Faulkner. And you may think I’m getting ready to rant about using care with attributions (I am not a fan of Brainyquote.com). In fact, I had set aside this interesting article from Slate (“Who Really Said You Should ‘Kill Your Darlings’?”):

The new movie Kill Your Darlings, starring Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg and Dane DeHaan as Lucien Carr, takes its name from an old piece of advice sometimes given to aspiring writers. You have to learn, literary hopefuls are told, to “kill your darlings.”

In other words, you have to get rid of your most precious and especially self-indulgent passages for the greater good of your literary work. In reviews of the movie, the widely repeated saying has been attributed both to Ginsberg and to William Faulkner. Who really came up with “kill your darlings”?

Not who you think.

This article is short, interesting, and a good reminder, as it notes, to “check your sources.”

In the case of my authors, though, both are getting rid of actual characters. Murdering them, you might say. :) And when I was poking around on the interwebs, I stumbled upon this article, which really does flesh out the concept. (And, unfortunately, attributes the phrase to Faulkner.) Kill your character darlings, kill your prose darlings, kill your unnecessary darlings, this writer says, and I can’t improve upon that.

No matter how beloved, how dear to your heart, how closely tied to your story’s source of inspiration, if your darlings are not adding to the novel in a meaningful way, you MUST cut them.

Writer’s block is often the result of not knowing what happens next, but perhaps just as frequently the culprit is something you’ve already written. Go back through your pages. What is there because it needs to be, and what is there because you’re too attached to let it go?

So read up! And then don’t be afraid to kill your darlings.

Tweet: Working on revisions? Kill your darlings.
Tweet: Kill your character darlings, kill your prose darlings, kill your unnecessary darlings.

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: , ,

More #WriteTips for Beginners (An Update*)

While you’ve been at the beach this summer, I’ve been up here in the swanky second-floor office in the pink house with the recently painted green door, catching up on blog post writing and reminding you about important posts from my archives.

This week we’re discussing things every writer needs to know. Sometimes you learn the hard way … and sometimes you stumble on a piece of information that can save you hours—if not months—of work. Here are a few articles that should help you get on the right path.

✱ Why Agents Stop Reading

Earlier this year in my post “Too Many Beginners’ Mistakes,” we talked about six beginner’s mistakes that will land your manuscript in the no-thanks pile. Literary agent Kristen Nelson has six items on her list, too.

Two weekends ago, I attended the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, and I had a chance to not only do a read-and-critique session, but also my infamous Agent Reads the Slush Pile workshop.

Doing these classes always provides fresh insight into why I stop reading a submission. Here are the top culprits so you, too, can start thinking like an agent when you read your opening chapters. If you say yes to any of them, time to dig into a revision!

1) Does your opening chapter begin with action, but then stop abruptly so that your character can sit and think or reminisce? About 50 percent of the pages we tackled did just that. It’s a passive way to begin a story and means you’ve started in the wrong place.

The article is “Top Culprits for Why Agents Stop Reading”—and you should definitely have a look at them.

✱ Tips for Revising the Manuscript

Whether you’re looking at editorial notes, starting your third draft, or just revising before you send your manuscript off to your editor, you need to have some strategies for the rewrite. I’ve discussed the difference between the first draft and the draft you should submit in “Mistakes Were Made: The first Draft vs. Your Best Effort,” and in “It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Green” I’ve listed ten things to do in your self-editing phase.

But New York Times best-selling author Michelle Ule has a very fine article about how to start rewriting a novel. Here’s her first tip:

1. Accept the manuscript needs work.

For many of us writers operating on just a margin of ego that frequently slips away as easily as the sun, it’s hard to admit your project isn’t perfect. People use a variety of ways to write a novel: the meticulous plotter (essential for thriller and mystery writers), the general planner who waves her hands and says “something will happen here,” and the seat-of-the-pants writers who miraculous find their story as they write.

All the methods have advantages and probably are linked to the author’s personality, but one thing remains–we all need help at some point and our manuscript will often show it.

So, don’t be embarrassed, accept the fact and move forward. You can’t fix a problem if you refuse to recognize it.

The article is called “Four Tips to Start Rewriting a Novel.” As I was writing this, Michelle sent me a message I thought was pertinent to this discussion. “One of the hardest parts about making drastic changes is gathering the courage to do so,” she wrote. “Once you can see it, it’s easier, and an excitement builds and you gain confidence and are ready to hack.” Yes, exactly!

✱ Transitioning Your Scene Breaks

About a year ago I wrote “Time Passages: Chapters, Scenes, and All That Space” which was about whether or not to use a hiatus break. Now author Elizabeth Spann Craig focuses on transitions in her article “Passages of Time and Transitions”:

When I was writing my first book, I had a lot of trouble with getting characters where they needed to be. This resulted in a lot of really boring, pointless scenes where the narrative went something like this: Jenny decided to head over to the restaurant to find out more about what Thomas was doing the night of the murder. She found her keys and hurried out to her car. On the trip to the Italian restaurant, she mulled over what she was going to ask Thomas. Upon arrival at the restaurant … blah! Dreck.

It’s a great article, very succinct, and just what you need to clarify scene transitions. Read it!

That’s it for this week. Hope you’re having a great summer!

* Because it’s summer and because I am still positively slammed with work (not a bad thing) and because slammed with work means less time to write the kind of thoughtful blog posts I want to write, I’m writing a series of updates to reconnect you with my archives. Let me know what you think.

 

Tweet: #WriteTips for revising your MS, transitioning scenes, & getting an agent to keep reading.
Tweet: This week we’re discussing things every writer needs to know. Sometimes you learn the hard way …

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, Your Editor Says … | Tagged as: , ,

Reading Matters

I have always fantasized about having my own library, and my parents humored me in this. There were already a significant number of books in their home by the time I arrived in it (“and that has made all the difference”)—many of which now live with me. And they gave me books whenever I asked for them. Got me a library card wherever we lived.

I can’t imagine living without my personal library, but I know I was (and am) lucky. Lucky to be born into those circumstances with parents who valued books and reading. Lucky that I can usually afford to buy the books I want. Lucky that I can read them and that I wanted to read from an early age. I’ve long believed at a gut level that all that reading changed me. (Frank Bruni, writing for the New York Times, points out we have the data that proves reading fiction makes kids more intelligent. I absolutely believe it.)

Author Neil Gaiman does too. In a lecture he gave in London last fall for the Reading Agency, Gaiman says reading fiction (by definition, reading for pleasure) is vital for the survival of our society. I mean, when the prison industry in the United States can predict how many cells they’ll need on hand in fifteen years based on what percentage of today’s ten- and eleven-year-olds can’t read, I think we should all be a little worried. Can’t read? Go straight to jail. Do not pass Go, do not collect two hundred dollars.*

Why is that? We have some data on that too.

Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, says fiction is how we make sense of the world.

By letting us vicariously experience difficult situations and problems we haven’t actually lived through, story bestows upon us, risk free, a treasure trove of useful intel, just in case. And so back in the Stone Age, even though those shiny red berries looked delicious, we remembered the story of the Neanderthal next door who gobbled ’em down and promptly keeled over, and made do with a couple of stale old beetles instead.

We dig those stories, we like a little gossip, a little tale of the Red Berries of Woe—because we learn from them. We have an “intense interest in other people’s secret thoughts and motivations,” says Stanford English associate professor Blakey Vermeule, author of Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?. She says fiction “pays us back by giving us valuable social information. ‘Information that would be too costly, dangerous, and difficult to extract from the world on our own.’ Fiction allows us a rare insight into the minds and hearts of its characters, its people. An insight that we often wish for in real life.”

Those kids going to prison fifteen years from now aren’t getting this crucial information now, today, when they need it. (And think about it: if you can’t read, it’s likely you can’t write either.) Many of them come from unlucky lives. Poverty, abuse, dangerous neighborhoods—there’s a lot of distractions for kids like these. Television and the vast array of electronic distractions don’t help. Why read if you don’t have to, if no one encourages you to?

Because all this being in other folks’ heads, knowing what they think and how they react to good news or bad news is vital for young people growing up. Gaiman says,

Fiction … build[s] empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

We live in changing times. Bookstores are closing. Worse, libraries are closing. Gaiman, Bruni, and others are sounding an alarm, and as a society, we should heed it. This isn’t about changing technology; books, in some iteration or another, will survive. (If you don’t believe me, read Hamlet’s BlackBerry.) And we lucky ones will read them.

But what about the unlucky kids? We need to make sure they know how to read, learn to love books, and have access to them. Children who have books when they’re little … who have parents who read to them …who see their parents read for their own pleasure … who are taken to story hour at the library … these kids will develop a reading habit over time.

Sometimes you have to be patient. Sometimes you have to search diligently for that One Magic Book. Sometimes you have to be creative: comic books and graphic novels are just as effective, particularly for kids who might be intimidated by thick books or faster readers.

If you’re one of the lucky ones, you can support early childhood literacy programs in your community. Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library—which mails age appropriate books to kids’ homes, one each month from birth to age five—is one such program. (Dolly “gets” the connection between poverty and reading.) We lucky ones can support our local libraries or bookmobile programs. We can volunteer as tutors or in a literacy program.

Reading matters because, frankly, the future of the world depends on it. One kid at a time, one book at a time.

*To be fair, this conclusion is mine for the sake of a dramatic line. Gaiman goes on to say, “It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations. And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.”

Thank you to author Amy Parker, who helped me find my way out of this post. :)

 

Tweet: Can’t read? Go straight to jail. Do not pass Go, do not collect 200 dollars.
Tweet: Reading really matters. Our lives depend on it.
Tweet: #ReadingMatters — One kid at a time, one book at a time.

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 Miscellany | Tagged as: , , ,

Short Saturday: A Sense of Place

I’ve been reading nonfiction all year and one of my favorites so far is Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf from LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading.* (And by the way, here is a delightful review of the book from the New Yorker. If you’d like a shorter review, here’s the Boston Globe.)

In this passage, she’s working up to an introduction of the twentieth-century Austrian author Alexander Lernet-Holenia. “For Germans,” Rose says, “Austrian literature is regional. It is written in the same language as German literature, but it is different in subject and style.”

“Regionalism” is usually used as a term of dismissal, implying that a body of literature will appeal only to a reader who is interested in the language, customs, and characters of a certain geographic region. Realism, by contrast, is the honorific bestowed on literature about the region, however extensive, that is home turf to the literary establishment. In the States, where the publishing industry is based in New York, anything very far from New York is liable to seem regional: the Midwest (Willa Cather), the South (Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Lee Smith), distant New England (Sarah Orne Jewett)—all are regional. But the regional writer does not aspire to be regional, any more than the woman writer aspires to be a woman writer.

If in one sense “regional” is a term by which a dominant literary culture makes it unnecessary to be interested in a body of work, in another sense a great deal of literature is regional. Many people write in an effort to fit their world together, to make it make sense, and more often than not they start with what’s around them, either to distance themselves from it or to claim it. V. S. Naipaul writes the Caribbean into existence so he can leave it behind and become a British gentleman. Philip Roth creates New Jersey so he can move to New York and rural Connecticut. Lernet-Holenia creates a haunted Austria so he can resign in protest against the modern world. On the other hand, Willa Cather creates the midwestern prairies and the cliff dwellings of the Southwest so her imagination has fit places to wander in when she is, in fact, in New York City. Faulkner creates Yoknapatawpha County so he can still be home in Mississippi when when he’s in Charlottesville or Princeton. The banal advice of writing teachers is “write what you know,” but the truth is, you don’t know a place until you write it. “Write what you want to know” is more like it. Great fiction makes its location so real it appears to generate the work, rather than the other way around, but it’s an illusion.

Some say that the more fiction is particular and regional, the more of a chance it has to appeal globally. David Brooks, trying to explain how fifty-six thousand Spaniards at a Bruce Springsteen concert can shout “I was born in the U.S.A.!,” cites the notion of “paracosms”—detailed imaginary worlds that all children invent and that help orient them in reality. … Thus the Harry Potter books can be seen as a triumph of regional literature, taking the English public school and universalizing it by particularizing it at Hogwarts.

The Shelf is much, much more than a book about the books Rose has read. Writers, take note.

* I transcribed this from pages 153 and 155–56 of the hardcover first edition of The Shelf, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

 

Tweet: The Shelf is much, much more than a book about the books Rose has read. Writers, take note.
Tweet: “You don’t know a place until you write it. ‘Write what you want to know’ is more like 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.”

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Reading: It Does a Mind Good (An Update*)

It’s still summer—hot enough for y’all?—and I’m still working on some fantastic new blog posts. In the meantime, I want to revisit my archives and bring some new information to your attention. Let’s get started, shall we?

✱ Digital reading

This is a topic that’s going to become hotter and hotter as the data begins to roll in. I’ve got my own rudimentary data (“Sleep, Walk, Read: My Highly Unscientific Notes About My E-Reading Habits”) but folks a lot smarter than me have begun observing the way humans process what we read (“Give Me That Old-Time Religion”). E-reading is good for some things, not so good for others.

This is particularly true in a school environment, where “nearly 1 in 3 public and private school students in the United States now [use] a school-issued mobile computing device, such as a laptop or digital tablet,” according to this article (“Digital Reading Poses Learning Challenges for Students”) in Education Week.

Researchers now say that while many digital texts do a good job of motivating and engaging young people, such texts also pose a number of problems.

When reading on screens, for example, people seem to reflexively skim the surface of texts in search of specific information, rather than dive in deeply in order to draw inferences, construct complex arguments, or make connections to their own experiences. Research has also found that students, when reading digitally, tend to discard familiar print-based strategies for boosting comprehension.

And many of the multimedia elements, animations, and interactive features found in e-books appear to function primarily as amusing distractions.

A fascinating article in the November 2013 print issue of Scientific American (photocopied and mailed to me by a friend, but without the title page) reports:

Prolonged reading on glossy, self-illuminated screens can cause eyestrain, headaches and blurred vision. In an experiment by Erik Wästlund, then at Karlstad University in Sweden, people who took a reading comprehension test on a computer scored lower and reported higher levels of stress and tiredness than people who completed it on paper.

So don’t take those paper books to Goodwill just yet. :)

✱ Reading Well to Write Well

Another favorite topic of mine is the idea that you cannot be a good writer unless you’re a good reader (“Reading Up: A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats”). We learn so much (by osmosis, as my mother used to say) from reading the work of others that we’d be crazy not to do it. That’s why I was completely charmed by this post on Open Culture: “David Foster Wallace’s 1994 Syllabus: How to Teach Serious Literature with Lightweight Books.”

Wallace’s choice of texts is of interest as well—surprising for a writer most detractors call “pretentious.” For his class, Wallace prescribed airport-bookstore standards—what he calls “popular or commercial fiction”—such as Jackie Collins’ Rock Star, Stephen King’s Carrie, Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, and James Elroy’s The Big Nowhere. The UT Austin site also has scans of some well-worn paperback teacher’s copies, with the red-ink marginal notes, discussion questions, and underlines one finds behind every podium.

I include this link here strictly for your enjoyment. :)

✱ “Great Books/Big Ideas”

We’ve talked some about reading (or not reading) the classics (“Cars and Literature: A Classic Vintage”), about cultural literacy (“The World Should Be Your Oyster”) but here’s a beautiful story about two people who exemplified that life, taken from a piece by the New York Times’s David Brooks (“Love Story”):

Berlin and Akhmatova were from a culture that assumed that, if you want to live a decent life, you have to possess a certain intellectual scope. You have to grapple with the big ideas and the big books that teach you how to experience life in all its richness and make subtle moral and emotional judgments.

Berlin and Akhmatova could experience that sort of life-altering conversation because they had done the reading. They were spiritually ambitious. They had the common language of literature, written by geniuses who understand us better than we understand ourselves.

I’m not saying that reading the classics is going to reveal the love of your life. :) But you never know … and it’s certainly a way to enjoy your interior life. (Read Joe Queenan’s One for the Books and you’ll see what I mean.) And I’d be willing to bet you have had the experience of bonding with someone over the mutual love of a particular book or author!

* Because it’s almost summer and because I am still positively slammed with work (not a bad thing) and because slammed with work means less time to write the kind of thoughtful blog posts I want to write, I’m writing a series of updates to reconnect you with my archives. Let me know what you think.

 

Tweet: Digital reading, reading to improve your writing, & reading the classics—this week’s update.
Tweet: I’ll bet you’ve had the experience of bonding with someone over love of a book or author!
Tweet: We learn so much from reading the work of others that we’d be crazy not to do 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.”

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Jeepers Creepers, Where’d You Get … That Title?

A while back one of my readers* wondered how I felt about book titles. Specifically—ahem—pretentious book titles.

It struck me as an interesting idea. I mean, how have we gone from Pride and Prejudice and Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Daniel Martin—nice, straightforward titles all—to, say, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle? To …

A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon
The Wasp Factory
A Visit from the Goon Squad
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
Cloud Atlas

… titles suggested by my reader, who went on to say, “I just want them to have some tangential relationship to the content. Authors should want them to arouse the curiosity of potential readers, of course …” but some titles simply seem too random. Don’t they?

I must say the older I get the less patience I have for pretension in any form. Still, it’s possible I’m not the right person to answer this question, since I adore literary fiction, which is where this titling pretension seems to lurk, judging by the list above. (After all, A Is for Alibi and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone are reasonably clear, right?)

More importantly, I work in publishing, so I know how this titling thing works. To wit: publishers often—almost always—choose the titles. Authors have input, of course they do. But at the end of the day it’s a bunch of folks from editorial, marketing, and sales sitting around a table—the titling committee!—who choose the book’s title. This always comes as a shock to a newly signed author, who is horrified to learn his beautiful baby (at this point, probably a toddler) will be renamed by strangers.

It’s the truth.

Still, the comment by my reader really piqued my interest. I threw the idea up on Facebook and got some interesting remarks too. Other readers also think titles can be random, odd, confusing, twee, over the top. So I sat there thinking, Hmmm, The Remains of the Day … (applying the Pretension Test to every title) … no, that one’s OK. It makes sense in context.

I’m not convinced, though, there’s that much pretension going on. Is the titling committee for any given book trying to be clever? Symbolic? Intriguing? Yes. Is that pretentious? Maybe. But maybe pretension is in the eye of the beholder.

I continued to look to previous decades, to titles I loved. Let’s take Faulkner. The Sound and the Fury (published 1929) comes right out of Shakespeare: it’s Macbeth’s soliloquy in act 5, scene 5:

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

The content of the novel reflects this bleak outlook on life. Absalom, Absalom! (1936) is biblical, an allusion to a wayward son who rebels against his father, as Absalom rebelled against his father, King David.

My high school English teacher loved this kind of stuff. Teachable moments! Cultural literacy!

In the case of Anthony Marra’s lovely book (my review of it prompted this conversation), 1) it’s explained in the narrative that “a constellation of vital phenomenon” is the definition of “life” taken from a Russian medical book; 2) two of the characters are physicians (one Russian, one Chechen) who use to the medical book; and 3) while the story centers around trying to save the life of a young girl, it is also a lot about death. So the title is certainly meaningful in context of the story. It’s a nice dash of symbolism.

I confess I’m driven less by title than by reviews and recommendations from trusted sources. Regarding A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon, I’d come across three reviews and a little backstory about the author, which you’ve seen in my post about it. I knew I wanted to read it; the book could have been called Two Doctors in Chechnya and I still would have bought it—though once I started to think about the title in light of the discussion with my reader, the beauty of it was evident.

Once you’ve finished a book, what once might have seemed obscure comes clear. And that’s part of the fun of reading, isn’t it? In the rest of the list above, I’ve only read Haruki Murakami’s surrealistic The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which does have a wind-up bird toy in it. (That’s the best I can do, I’m afraid.) But I poked around a little and learned Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory refers to a clock in which the main character tortures wasps. A Visit From the Goon Squad is explained in this review of the book in the New York Times:

All the people in these three Lou-related stories have been mugged by the goon squad of Ms. Egan’s title. [She] uses goon as a synonym for time, as in: “Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?” Taking some of her inspiration from Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” as well as some from “The Sopranos,” she creates a set of characters … and lets time have its way with them.

These titles just weren’t good examples of my reader’s premise, I think, although David Mitchell’s discussion of the significance of the title Cloud Atlas is a little bit “out there” for me. So I switched to a more contemporary writer I love, James Lee Burke, who writes beautiful, evocative prose. The Dave Robicheaux series of crime mysteries, set in south Louisiana, has some interesting titles with interesting imagery—The Neon Rain, A Morning for Flamingos, In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, Pegasus Descending—but I’ve read these books, and the titles make sense, every one of them.

In the end, as intrigued as I was by the premise of this discussion, I couldn’t find titles to which I objected during my limited research period. Let’s face it, though: you’re talking to a woman who enjoys and employs obscure titles for her blog posts. And now you know about the Dread Pirate Titling Committee.

What do you think? There are, no doubt, off-putting book titles out there. Do you have a particular book title or three that you find a bit too la-di-dah? Is it pretentious to use a reference to Shakespeare in a book’s title? Or is that just symbolism? Is dramatic imagery pretentious, or just pretty words? Are you intrigued by a mysterious book title, or do you prefer a title that hints at what’s inside? I’d love to hear what you think.

*Thanks, Robin Chalkley, for having this discussion with me and stirring up my imagination. I thoroughly enjoyed thinking about and researching this topic. Keep it up!

 

Tweet: I know how this titling thing works. To wit: publishers almost always choose them.
Tweet: Jeepers creepers, where’d you get … that title?

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: The Power of a Novel

I remember reading about the fatwa (Islamic legal opinion; in this case, a death sentence) levied against Salman Rushdie when his fourth book, The Satanic Verses, was published in 1988 in Britain.

For a novel? I thought. It was shocking. (In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t read it; even then I was pretty good at assessing which books were for me, and I didn’t believe that one was.)

Twenty-five years have passed. Rushdie is still writing award-winning literary fiction. And recently Vanity Fair published an in-depth article (“A Fundamental Fight”) about the events of that time.

There are plenty of moments from 1989 when the world changed: the meeting of man and tank in Tiananmen Square, the release of the dissident Czech playwright Václav Havel, the unbricking of the wall in Berlin. But nothing shook the world of belles lettres like the moment when an Islamic dictator said an Anglo-Indian deserved to die for writing a novel. “When a book leaves its author’s desk it changes,” Rushdie has written, and the ordeal of The Satanic Verses presaged the ways the world would change. The big themes of the past quarter-century were previewed there: the rise of Islamist fanaticism; the inequities that sparked a growing rage toward Western values; the impact of media in a global epoch.

It’s quite a story. People did die for this book:

Bombs exploded in Cody’s bookstore, on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and half a dozen bookshops in the U.K. The novel’s Japanese translator was shot and killed, its Italian translator stabbed, its Turkish translator attacked. Its Norwegian publisher was shot and left for dead. (He survived.) Two clerics who spoke out against the fatwa—one Saudi, one Tunisian—were shot and killed in Brussels.

Under great pressure to withdraw the book, the publishing house (Penguin) stood by Rushdie, although the then-publisher, Peter Mayer, was forced to withdraw his young daughter from her private school; officials thought a death squad might arrive at the school and shoot the wrong student. (Yes, that’s what they said.) Although more than sixty people died in the controversy, none were Penguin employees.

Rushdie’s friends in the publishing community stuck by him, too, shuffling him from this one’s country cottage to that one’s apartment in the city, defending him in the press and, on one notable occasion, to Prince Charles. The ordeal changed them as well.

This is a strong story about the publishing industry, friendship, and the power of fiction to move people—in both positive and negative ways. There’s lots more here; prepare to be moved and surprised.

Tweet: This is a story about publishing, friendship, & the power of fiction to move people.
Tweet: Twenty-five years have passed. Rushdie is still writing award-winning literary fiction.

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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