Whole-Picture Editing

I’m a pretty organized/obsessive person when it comes to work. I have systems to keep track of current projects, to file work that’s finished, and to keep an eye on tracked changes (I save every version, both incoming and outgoing).

It helps me keep my sanity. I read a lot of manuscripts in any given month. And I jump through a lot of hoops to make sure you and I both meet our deadlines. I’ll even try to rearrange my production schedule to accommodate all sorts of changes on your end, both personal and professional. I know how this life thing can change on a dime.

But … no, I can’t send half your fiction* edit now. Even if I knew what that might look like, I cannot send an edit in pieces. Not a chapter at a time, not the first half, not everything but the last two chapters. It’s all or nothing, kids.**

Here are some good reasons why I can’t comment.

1 That big plot twist you’re saving for the end. It changes everything.

2 All that great foreshadowing I won’t appreciate until I get to … the event that requires it.

3 The timeline’s accuracy (or inaccuracy) may not be apparent.

4 The myriad times I scroll back to check details, revising my thoughts.

5 Some problems—continuity, repetition, lack of plot—aren’t obvious yet.

6 It’s difficult to see the nuanced development of theme in the early pages.

And that’s just the beginning.

The thing is, I read your manuscript twice before I even start writing up the editorial notes—the first read’s for story, the second’s for craft and structure. As I write up the notes for you, I’ll reread big swaths of the manuscript a third time, and then I’ll scroll through and check all those margin notes, stopping here and there to read again.

I don’t know how other editors do it; this is just the process that has developed at my desk over the last twelve years.

And this is what I’ve learned from my process: the beginning and the end are inextricably connected. I know, I know: Duh!—but I mean more than the obvious. Without that connection of beginning to end, I just don’t have the whole picture. Sometimes a manuscript is slow to start but is redeemed by what happens near the end; that slow start had a good reason I couldn’t see yet (or it can be tightened up). Sometimes a manuscript I am very enthusiastic about in the early chapters falls apart on the way to the end (but we can more than likely fix that).

There’s another part of the process, too, that I don’t like to rush: writing the notes. You’re a writer, so you already know the vast benefits obtained from putting pen to paper. Writing clarifies thoughts, sparks creative ideas, makes connections you hadn’t seen, helps problem solving, unlocks intuition. I am often astonished at what is revealed to me when I start writing down my thoughts and ideas about your manuscript. So if you ask for notes before I’m ready, you’re not getting the best I have to offer, because you’ve deprived me of thinking time.

Consider that.

If you’ve ever bugged me for my “initial reaction”—and I don’t mind; I get asked for that a lot—you’ve probably gotten a polite email from me that said something like, “It’s not my policy to comment at all until I’ve finished my second read. So just remember how much I love my job, and we’ll talk soon.” Process is a good thing.

It will be worth the wait.

* I really prefer not to send a nonfiction edit in pieces either. The specific reasons are different but the result is the same.
** Yes, I offer a first-chapter service, but I need your detailed synopsis in order to get that beginning-to-end connection.

 

Tweet: No, I can’t send half your edit now. I have a process.
Tweet: This is what I’ve learned from my process: the beginning & the end are connected.

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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Short Saturday: Error Is the Engine of Language Change

When I worked in the corporate world, there was a woman who reported to me who used ast when she meant ask and dest when she meant desk.* Now that I’ve read this article—“8 Pronunciation Errors that Changed Modern English” Now I know this is called metathesis.

It delights me to know this, and if this sort of thing excites you, too, read on. “Malapropisms and mispronunciations are fairly common,” writer David Shariatmadari says. “Error is the engine of language change.” For better or worse, I guess.

Check this one out:

A dark “l”, in linguistic jargon, is one pronounced with the back of the tongue raised. In English, it is found after vowels, as in the words full or pole. This tongue raising can go so far that the “l” ends up sounding like a “w”. People frown on this in non-standard dialects such as cockney (“the ol’ bill”). But the “l” in folk, talk and walk used to be pronounced. Now almost everyone uses a “w” instead — we effectively say fowk, tawk and wawk. This process is called velarisation.

This is an interesting collection of alternative pronunciations that have become standard usage—and a great vocabulary list for this week too. Enjoy!

* She was also very proud of the fact that she was related to writer James Agee, but I don’t think she’d read him.

 

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Tweet: If you can’t stand the morph, get out of the dictionary.

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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Looking for Good Writing

How much or how little “natural” ability anyone has is nearly impossible to gauge. When Emily Dickinson composed the lines that filled the pages she kept in her lonely desk, she could not know that her pure apprehension of the language, her immutable style and breathtaking line breaks would forever change the landscape of American poetry. She would never know that her unpublished meditations on life and love, with their bone-chilling observations about the human heart, would touch readers a century later.

I would like to believe that there are brilliant poems and novels tucked away in drawers and closets across the country. I would like to believe that there exist correspondences as rich and revelatory as those between Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo, from Rilke to his wife about Cézanne’s powerful influence, and between Flannery O’Connor and the woman identified only as “A” in O’Connor’s collected letters, The Habit of Being, which provides some of the most astute thoughts on morality and truth that one is likely to find anywhere. I would like to believe that there is writing, which may or may not see the light of day, that possesses genius and that the solitary figure behind its manufacture composed her prose because writing is what came naturally. This is what editors live in the hope of—that one day they will somehow uncover and bring to the world a piece of writing that will change the way we understand or perceive the world. …

Most editors will agree that the work of reviewing manuscripts feels like slow death. We keep reading, and although much of what we read is coherent, very little impresses itself on us. We begin to wonder if our senses have been numbed, if we’re suffering from burnout, if we will ever again read something that makes our hearts quicken and about which we will say, This guy’s the real thing. This one can write.

—Betsy Lerner

Transcribed by me from pages 45–47 of my paperback copy of The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, © 2000, Riverhead Books.

 

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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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Confabulation, Confirmation, and Connotation

Not long ago I posted a photograph of the Irishman and my (er, his? our?) cat on Facebook with this caption: Just now, in the man cave. And a friend of mine remarked that she wasn’t fond of the term man cave.

It was just a little banter among friends, but I was intrigued. I pay a lot of attention to words, after all. Was there something wrong—that is, inappropriate—with these particular words?

Now, the thing is, we bought this house specifically to get that room. (OK, there were a few other reasons.) When I met the man who would become my husband, I was living in a smaller home, working from a desk in my bedroom, and when the living room television was on, it could be heard everywhere else in the house. When we were house shopping, we knew we needed a place in which the Irishman could relax while I worked. We bought the house and furnished the room with comfortable furniture we picked out together; we had some shelves built. It’s a beautiful room. I am welcomed there. (Indeed, I have hosted my women friends at “movie nights” in it.)

And at some point both of us started calling it the man cave, in a fond, teasing sort of way. I’m completely indifferent to this phrase; it carries no baggage for me.

So what’s wrong with the term man cave? Is it sexist*? Or antifeminist? Hm. I consider myself a feminist. Quite emphatically so. Yet neither the phrase nor the concept bother me.

The first thing I thought of, frankly, was John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, which I read during my Intrapersonal Communication Improvement Phase back in the ’90s (also on that list: Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation). Gray puts forth the idea that when under stress, men “withdraw temporarily, ‘retreating into their cave,’ so to speak.” Under stress I tend to retreat, too—usually to a novel. So I get the concept.

Still, what’s wrong with the term man cave? I googled those very words. And oh my goodness. From a history of the concept to accusations of both misandry (hatred of men; first known use 1909, according to Merriam-Webster) and misogyny (hatred of women, first known use 1656) by users of the phrase, there’s a lot of emotion attached to man cave.

Indeed, when asked, my friend noted it was a gut reaction; when she’d seen it used it was in connection with a sort of man she generally disliked (super macho, misogynistic, and so forth). For me the term is value neutral, simply a shortcut—our family lingo—to say “that room with the big TV where the Irishman (and his dog and cat) hang out.”

In point of fact, young parents are counseled that private space is important for their children; it allows them “to have time and space … to themselves, free from the need to please others.” Often it’s the child’s bedroom. When we grow up, we decorate our first apartments, the desks in our cubicles, corporate or home offices … and sometimes that “room of one’s own” that Virginia Woolf needed to write. I bet you have one.

But we don’t have to call it a cave. I’ve been schooled, now, and so have you. For writers, here are some takeaway points:

  • It’s slang, it’s vernacular—perhaps a metaphor if you’re clever.
  • Thus man cave works great in dialogue. Depending on the character’s point of view, it can be spoken innocently or ironically or anything in between.
  • Remember that man cave is not a neutral phrase: it evokes a strong reaction in some. Be aware of that and use it to your advantage or avoid it if there’s no advantage to be gained.
Just now, in the man cave.

Just now, in the man cave.

 

* This young woman thinks so. And it’s OK, it’s OK. I mean no criticism. I just think there are far more important things to get worked up about.

Tweet: What’s wrong with the term man cave? I googled those very words. And oh my goodness.
Tweet: Remember that man cave is not a neutral phrase: it evokes a strong reaction in some.

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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Short Saturday: Sharpening Your Manuscript

There is so much good information in this article, I don’t know where to start. But how about here: just because you’ve got the novel down—and have polished the plot until it shines—doesn’t mean you’re done. “All of these things might have escaped your notice while you were dealing with bigger issues like plot and characterization—but they won’t go unnoticed by readers,” we’re told.

Cull these items from your manuscript to make it better. The writer of this piece calls this process “close revision,” which is an accurate description. And if you work through this checklist before you send the manuscript to your editor, you’ll free up editorial bandwidth for more important things. Think about it.

Here’s the quick list to check:

1 Adverbs
2 Dialogue tags
3 Everyday actions
4 Excess description
5 Info dumps and exposition
6 Overlong sentences or paragraphs
7 Passive voice
8 Redundant words and phrases
9 Pet words and phrases

There’s a lot of information here—honestly, I could make several articles out of this one—so take your time and digest it. Look for the tips, which tend to be alternate ways of looking at the point under discussion.

Enjoy!

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Tweet: Self-edits that will sharpen your manuscript.

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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Truth.

“Reading other people’s raw copy is like looking at your grandmother naked.”

When veteran reporter Rafael Alvarez was temporarily assigned to the metro desk, this was his verdict after his first week’s experience, and from this observation several conclusions can be drawn.

First, from your editor, as from your butler, there are no secrets. If you have allowed yourself to be lazy, careless, turgid, or sloppy, there is no concealing it.

Second, everyone—everyone—is capable of shoddy work, especially in the first draft. That is why writers need editing, not just self-editing, but editing from an independent set of eyes.

Third, humility should be the outcome. The writer should understand the human propensity toward error, and the editor should not assume some snooty sense of superiority for having ferreted out errors, because the editor is equally prone to them.

—John E. McIntyre

Transcribed by me from page 9 of The Old Editor Says, © 2013, Apprentice House, Loyola University Maryland.

 

Tweet: That first draft can be hard to read. Get some help!
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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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The Occasionally Cranky Editor Speaks

Dear Mr. Author:

There are a lot of errors in your manuscript. Not plot holes or lack of clarity, no. Simple things like typos, misspelled words, punctuation mistakes. What happened? It looks like a bomb went off in here.

I’m the content editor, so I’ve been looking past these things; it’s the copyeditor’s job to catch them when you and I are through. I’m not marking them—but I can’t help noticing them.

You should too. Given that there are dozens (no, really, dozens) of just this one thing—form/from errors—you should note what your other common errors are (your dialogue punctuation needs work, for example) and do a search-and-replace before you turn in the manuscript.

Best practices: you always want to turn in as clean a manuscript as possible. :)

Why? There are a couple reasons.

First impressions are important. So when you send in messy work, it makes you look sloppy. Or lazy. That makes it seem as if you don’t care about this project. It feels a little disrespectful, frankly.

Worse, it’s distracting. I’ve already mentioned that I can’t help noticing the mess. But your copyeditor will have to clean it up. If she is all caught up in finding and fixing the nickel errors—things you should have handled—she might miss the five-dollar errors.

Don’t worry—everyone on your editorial team knows how hard this work is. Nobody expects perfection right out of the box. But act as if you care, dude!

Sincerely,
Your Editor

P. S. I’ve written about this several times:

It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Green
The First Draft vs. Your Best Effort
Are You Ready for Some Editing?

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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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Short Saturday: Grab Those Passing Thoughts

Regular readers here know I pay attention to what’s going on over at Jane Friedman’s blog, and a month or so ago she featured a guest post from writer Nell Boeschenstein called “Why Writers Should Consider the Habits of the Flâneur.”

First I had to look up flâneur, so let’s do. From Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, then, this:

fla·neur noun \(ˈ)flä¦nər(‧)\
plural -s
: an aimless and usually self-centered and superficial person: such as
a : man-about-town, bon viveur
b : an intellectual trifler
Origin of FLANEUR
French flâneur idler, from Middle French flaneur, from (assumed) Middle French dialect (Normandy) flaner to saunter aimlessly (from Old Norse flana to wander about) + Middle French -eur -or (from Latin -or) — more at flan
First Known Use: 1854

Good to know, yes? And then the article:

Although the wisdom of it took me years to fully appreciate, the best writing tip I ever received branded itself onto my brain when I was an undergraduate studying poetry. One day, my professor—a tall woman with wild hair and a Louisiana accent—happened to mention that her best lines always arrived unexpectedly during walks alone around campus or with her dogs near her house outside of town. These lines rarely, if ever, she said, presented themselves while she was consciously writing. Rather, one minute her mind would be concerned with the grocery list and the next minute a fragment of imagery or insight would float through the antimatter of her brain on its way to oblivion. Ideas, she said, come as quickly as they go. It’s up to you as a writer to catch them while you can. If instead you put it off and vow to record a thought when you get home, nine times out of ten that thought will have dissolved into the ether by the time you remember to try to remember it. In other words, passing thoughts are precious things. I had my doubts. About both the preciousness as well as the possibility that any writing worth keeping could ever arrive or disappear so easily. My memory then was young and ignorant.

Oh, there is so much truth here. (In fact, we’ve talked about it before, here.) Bottom line: get up and walk away from the desk, y’all.

Good article. Read it!

Tweet: Bottom line: get up and walk away from the desk, y’all.
Tweet: Why writers should consider a stroll around the park.

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 Creativity | Tagged as:

Just Get a Job!

I never wanted to burden my writing with the responsibility of paying for my life. I knew better than to ask this of my writing, because over the years, I have watched so many other people murder their creativity by demanding that their art pay the bills. …

I’ve always felt like this is so cruel to your work—to demand a regular paycheck from it, as if creativity were a government job, or a trust fund. Look, if you can manage to live comfortably off your inspiration forever, that’s fantastic. That’s everyone’s dream, right? But don’t let that dream turn into a nightmare. Financial demands can put so much pressure on the delicacies and vagaries of inspiration. You must be smart about providing for yourself. To claim that you are too creative to think about financial questions is to infantilize yourself. …

Other self-infantilizing fantasies include: the dream of marrying for money, the dream of inheriting money, the dream of winning the lottery, and the dream of finding a “studio wife” (male or female) who will look after all your mundane concerns so that you can be free to commune with inspiration forever in a peaceful cocoon, utterly sheltered from the inconvenience of reality.

Come, now.

This is a world, not a womb. You can look after yourself in this world while looking after your creativity at the same time—just as people have done for ages. What’s more, there is a profound sense of honor to be found in looking after yourself, and that honor will resonate powerfully in your work; it will make your work stronger.

Also it may be the case that there are seasons when you can live off your art and seasons when you cannot. This need not be regarded as a crisis; it’s only natural in the flux and uncertainty of a creative life. Or maybe you took a big risk in order so follow some creative dream and it didn’t quite pay off, so now you have to work for the man for a while to save up money until it’s time to go chase your next dream—that’s fine, too. Just do it. But to yell at your creativity, saying, “You must earn money for me!” is sort of like yelling at a cat; it has no idea what you’re talking about, and all you’re doing is scaring it away …

I held on to my day jobs for so long because I wanted to keep my creativity free and safe. I maintained alternate streams of income so that, when my inspiration wasn’t flowing, I could say to it reassuringly, “No worries, mate. Just take your time. I’m here whenever you’re ready.” I was always willing to work hard so that my creativity could play lightly. In so doing, I became my own patron; I became my own studio wife.

So many times I have longed to say to stressed-out, financially strapped artists, “Just take the pressure off yourself, dude, and get a job!”

There’s no dishonor in having a job. What is dishonorable is scaring away your creativity by demanding that it pay for your entire existence.

Elizabeth Gilbert

Transcribed by me from pages 152–155 of my hardback copy of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, © 2015, Riverhead Books.

 

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Tweet: “Financial demands can put so much pressure on the delicacies & vagaries of inspiration.”

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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Possible … Not Probable

Some years ago in a weak moment I fell victim to some mediocre book marketing—“follow-up to the international best-selling Pillars of the Earth!”—and purchased Ken Follett’s World Without End, a one thousand–page historical novel. I’d read and enjoyed his early work*Eye of the Needle (1978), Triple (1979), The Key to Rebecca (1980), The Man from St. Petersburg (1982), Lie Down with Lions (1985)—and yes, I knew I was purchasing a historical novel by an author known for his spy thrillers.

But World Without End was quite possibly the worst book I’ve ever read half of. Why? Because it was so full of anachronisms (and ridiculous purple prose), that’s why. Nothing about it was real (probable). Set in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the characters have twenty-first–century attitudes and use twenty-first–century language. The women are independent and treated as equals; serfs and peasants act as if they have human rights. Yet these concepts were unknown to people of that era. And in a time when even kings were illiterate, average people read books—and own them.

A few years later I was hired to edit a historical novel set in a European country in the fifteenth century. Everything about it felt off, and I spent hours researching my hunch that the author had done no research whatsoever. It felt a bit like the Disney version of medieval Europe, with a handful of Princess Bride (or Southern Gothic) thrown in. In my notes I told the author, “Accuracy is nice, although I’ll settle for plausibility.”

There were problems with every part of the milieu, from religious observation to social class concerns to occupations of the villagers. But the thing that bothered me most was the image of a villager, a laborer, knowing how to read—and actually possessing books (and the time to read them). At this point in history, the printing press had only been available for some thirty-odd years. Books were expensive treasures available only to the nobility. In this manuscript the villagers went to the market and bought new books (and shared them around). No way.

I wrote up more than twenty pages of notes and emailed them off to the managing editor. Exclamation points may have been used. Later, that editor—a much more experienced editor than me—took me to lunch, and that’s when I first heard the phrase Possible, not probable. Not every detail in a historical has to be probable, the editor said. Just ask yourself if it’s possible.

It’s changed the way I think about editing. I’m a little easier now. Possible, not probable.

That said, I prefer probable, always. Details that “ring true” are what make fiction live and breathe for me, and when I edit, I still nudge the manuscript in that direction.

Sure, we can’t know, exactly, what the realities were for a particular community in a particular decade of a particular century, but we can research and extrapolate. Take this stock character, for example: the headstrong young woman. The headstrong young woman who … you name it, in any era before the 1900s. She’s an outlier, y’all. Ahead of her time. And yet we see her over and over again in historical fiction.

Take the headstrong young woman who marries for love in 1496. I’m always unsettled by love relationships in historical fiction: the concept of marrying for love alone is a relatively recent development. Men married women (and make no mistake: men were in charge of this) for a lot of reasons—convenience, proximity, money, parental arrangement, to have children, to get a business partner or a housekeeper or a babysitter—but well into the Victorian era, most couples didn’t expect love from their spouses. (And even then, women virtually belonged to their husbands.**)

Is the historical headstrong young woman probable? No. She wasn’t a common figure in the community. But is she possible? Yes. And so I’ll let her go, though I may suggest tweaks around her, to make her milieu more authentic, say. I like to keep things simple and in the realm of the very possible.

And yet … sometimes you just have to run with it. Take Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. I read it, and I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe a large corporation would send someone into the jungle who was completely unequipped for it. And there were quite a few other fantastical elements in this story that I had trouble accepting at face value.

But—it’s fiction. So in spite of my initial disbelief—and I don’t know how this happened, really—Patchett somehow sold it to me, me as a reader. The book was so very, very compelling; I lay awake reading long past the time when I would normally have fallen asleep. I can’t explain it. Was it the vivid layers of detail? The strange trees, the culture of the Indians, the dreams the protagonist had from taking the malaria pills? (Not to mention other things I will not spoil for you.) It was almost like fantasy or sci-fi, in which there is a whole other universe created, and it’s so deep and rich you completely believe it.

(It helps that Patchett writes so well. The writing is both unremarkable—and I mean that in the best way—and yet so agile that you see everything, you get everything. It’s completely transparent, like you just look through it as if you’re looking through a window at the scene itself.)

Nothing about World Without End was probable; not much about State of Wonder was probable, either, but the author made me believe it was possible, and that made all the difference. Think about that.

* I have no idea if I’d love them now. I am more discriminating, I think, and, of course, I’m annoyed with Follett and not likely to revisit them.
** I’m not going to use the word chattel. Oh, wait …

 

Tweet: Accuracy is nice, although I’ll settle for plausibility.
Tweet: Not every detail in a historical has to be probable. Just ask yourself if it’s possible.

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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