#WhatImReadingNow : Negroland

“Debi and Judi asked me if we know their janitor, Mr. Johnson. They think he lives near us.”

“It’s a big neighborhood,” Mother says. “Why would we know their janitor? White people think Negroes all know each other, and they always want you to know their janitor. Do they want to know our laundryman?”

That would be Wally, a smiling, big-shouldered white man who delivers crisply wrapped shirts and cheerful greetings to our back door every week.

“Good morning, Mrs. Jefferson,” he says. “Good morning, Doctor. Hello, girls.”

“Hello, Wally,” we chime back from the breakfast table. Then, one weekend afternoon, I was in the kitchen with Mother doing something minor and domestic, like helping unpack groceries, when she said slowly, not looking at me: “I saw Wally at Sears today. I was looking at vacuum cleaners. And I looked up and saw him—” (Here she paused for the distancing Rodgers and Hammerstein irony, “across a crowded room.”) “He was turning his head away, hoping he wouldn’t have to speak. Wally the laundryman was trying to cut me.” If this had been drama, she would have paused and done something with a telling prop—one of the better brands of an everyday food, or a nice-looking piece of flatware. Then she said, “And I don’t even shop at Sears except for appliances.”

Humor is laughing at what you haven’t got when you ought to have it—the right, in this case, to snub or choose to speak kindly to your laundryman in a store where he must shop for clothes and you shop only for appliances.

Still, Wally went on delivering laundry with cheerful deference, and we responded with cooler—but not intrusively cool—civility.

Was there no Negro laundry to do Daddy’s shirts as well or better? Our milkman was a Negro. So were our janitor, our plumber, our carpenter, our upholsterer, our caterer, and our dressmaker. Though I don’t remember all their names, I know their affect was restful. Comfortable. If a Negro employee did his work in a sloppy or sullen way (and it did happen), Mother and Daddy had two responses. One was your standard folk wisecrack, something like “Well, some of us are lazy, quiet as it’s kept.” Humor is laughing at what you haven’t got when you ought to have it: in this case, a spotless race reputation.

The second response was disquieting. “Some Negroes prefer to work for white people. They don’t resent their status in the same way.”

All right then, let’s say you are a Negro cleaning woman, on your knees at this moment, scrubbing the bathtub with its extremely visible ring of body dirt, because whoever bathed last night thought, How nice. I don’t have to clean the tub because Cleo / Melba / Mrs. Jenkins comes tomorrow! Tub done, you check behind the toilet (a washcloth has definitely fallen back there); the towels are scrunched, not hung on the racks, and you’ve just come from the children’s bedroom, where sheets have to be untangled and almost throttled into shape before they can be sorted for the wash.

Would you rather look at the people you do this for and think: I will never be in their place if the future is like the past. Or would you rather look at your employers and think: Well, if I’d been able to get an education like Dr. and Mrs. Jefferson, if I hadn’t had to start doing housework at fifteen to help my family out when we moved up here from Mississippi, then maybe I could be where they are.

Whose privilege would you find easier to bear?

Who are “you”? How does your sociological vita—race or ethnicity, class, gender, family history—affect your answer?

Whoever you are, reader, please understand that neither my parents, my sister, nor I ever left a dirty bathtub for Mrs. Blake to clean. …

Mother made it clear that we were never to leave our beds unmade when Mrs. Blake was coming. She was not there to pick up after us. When we were old enough, we stripped our own beds each week and folded the linen before putting it in the hamper for her to remove and wash.

Mother’s paternal grandmother, great-aunt, and aunt had been in service, so she was sensitive to inappropriate childish presumption.

—Margo Jefferson, Negroland (Pantheon Books 2015)

Some thoughts about this book:

• It was difficult to choose just one scene to excerpt. I have many others I’d like to share with you.

• Reading about the black elite in Negroland really opened my eyes to white privilege, which truly is a thing, in spite of those who continue to deny it. Long before I knew the phrase, I recognized that being born white in America in the middle of the twentieth century was a stroke of very good luck for me. “Those ugly stories you overheard or were taught by parents and grandparents,” says author Margo Jefferson, “these were part of the curriculum, stories that gave the lie again and again to public declarations that if Negroes would just prove themselves worthy they would be welcome as equals. Parents and grandparents told you some white people would dislike you even more if you were clearly their equal.” It seems counterintuitive, then, to say this book about well-to-do African Americans further educated me about privilege and societal class, but it did, and you should read it for that if for no other reason. (Though there are many—the fascinating glimpse of another world being just the tip of the iceberg.)

• Interestingly, Jefferson makes a distinction between privilege (what she had growing up) and entitlement (what white Americans are granted by, she says, history): “…white people, with all their entitlement. Not the entitlement a government provides, but the kind history bestows. This is your birthright, says history. Privilege is provisional. Privilege can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly and summarily withdrawn. Entitlement is impervious to the kinds of verbs that modify privilege.” A reviewer at the New York Times says, “I’ll put that another way: The visible narrative apparatus of ‘Negroland’ highlights its author’s extreme vulnerability in the face of her material. It also makes apparent the all-too-often invisible fallout of our nation’s ongoing obsession with race and class: Namely, that living a life as an exemplar of black excellence—and living with the survivor’s guilt that often accompanies such excellence—can have a psychic effect nearly as deadening and dehumanizing as that of racial injustice itself.” This is book that really makes you think—and maybe cry. I was alternately convicted and angry. I was enlightened. I loved it.

• Here’s the cover blurb: “At once incendiary and icy, mischievous and provocative, celebratory and elegiac—here is a deeply felt meditation on race, sex, and American culture through the prism of the author’s rarefied upbringing and education among a black elite concerned with distancing itself from whites and the black generality while tirelessly measuring itself against both.

“Born in upper-crust black Chicago—her father was for years head of pediatrics at Provident, at the time the nation’s oldest black hospital; her mother was a socialite—Margo Jefferson has spent most of her life among (call them what you will) the colored aristocracy, the colored elite, the blue-vein society. Since the nineteenth century they have stood apart, these inhabitants of Negroland, ‘a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.’

“Reckoning with the strictures and demands of Negroland at crucial historical moments—the civil rights movement, the dawn of feminism, the fallacy of postracial America—Jefferson brilliantly charts the twists and turns of a life informed by psychological and moral contradictions. Aware as it is of heart-wrenching despair and depression, this book is a triumphant paean to the grace of perseverance.”

Winner of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award (autobiography)
A New York Times Best Seller
New York Times: 100 Notable Books of 2015
New York Times: Dwight Garner’s Best Books of 2015
Washington Post: 10 Best Books of 2015
Los Angeles Times: 31 Best Nonfiction Books of 2015
Marie Claire: Best Books of 2015
Vanity Fair: Best Book Gifts of 2015
TIME Best Books of 2015
Chosen as a Book of the Week (2016) by BBC Radio 4

• Jefferson is just six years older than me, so we were growing up at the same time and experienced a lot of the same things. The civil rights movement, for example (I was also impressed with Dr. King), pop culture (the Rat Pack—including Sammy Davis Jr.—was popular in our house too), the confusing signals sent by the Black Power movement, and on and on. We read the same books, she and I, both in school and later for pleasure. I so identified with her discussion of what constituted feminine beauty, and how we all strived for it. We all wanted straighter hair and were willing to make sacrifices to get it. I myself slept with my hair rolled in tin cans, for heavens’ sake.

This review at NPR also includes highlights from an interesting interview with the author (you can also listen to the entire interview).

Tweet: This is book that really makes you think—and maybe cry. Negroland.
Tweet: I identified strongly with this author’s memories of the mid-20th century.

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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Let’s Talk (Again) About Plagiarism

Me, I’m an editor. And a writer. I’ve been earning a portion of my living as a writer for decades. I’ve been a self-employed editor for more than twelve years. I have a lot of friends who are editors or writers.

So when, back in January, Monica Crowley—an author and television personality—was forced to withdraw from taking a prestigious position with the incoming presidential administration when it was discovered she had plagiarized* chunks of her 2012 book published by HarperCollins, I posted a smart-aleck remark on Facebook for my audience of editors and writers and other smart-alecks:

Yes, this is a problem. (Not a political problem. A problem in publishing.) Shoulda hired me, HarperCollins. Just sayin’.

I know, I know. :)

But immediately, one of my editor friends commented, “I see small examples of this all the time from people who think it’s no big deal—‘Nobody will notice and nobody will care’ and that sort of thing. I am constantly trying to explain how it can come back to bite them.”

As it bit Ms. Crowley. She lost a job, HarperCollins withdrew the best-selling book from sale, and her reputation, her character, is irreparably, publicly damaged.

I wrote about this last summer, because I’d just been working on a project that engaged in this very thing—“little” things that “nobody will notice”—and it bothered me. It’s not true that no one will notice, because experienced editors do notice.

We don’t assume all writers are plagiarists. But we notice things.

It starts, sometimes, with fact-checking. The editor just wants to be sure, so she looks up something you’ve mentioned, and—oops—there’s a whole paragraph you copied from Wikipedia! No, just because Wikipedia says you can use, edit, and distribute its content, it doesn’t mean you can copy it and present it as your own in material you plan to sell for profit. (Here’s more from Wikipedia on this subject.)

Or it starts with quoted material. You quote and cite the online source; the editor checks to make sure the link still works. Then she eyeballs the quote to be sure your transcription was faithful, and discovers your segue sentences are remarkably similar to the original source. (This is called “close paraphrasing.”)

Now the editor’s suspicious. She notices a passage that doesn’t sound like your writing, googles, and—boom—plagiarism again.

Your Editor does all this checking by hand, but you know there’s software for this, right? Oh, yes:

iThenticate is the leading provider of professional plagiarism detection and prevention technology used worldwide by scholarly publishers and research institutions to ensure the originality of written work before publication. iThenticate helps editors, authors and researchers prevent misconduct by comparing manuscripts against its database of over 60 billion web pages and 155 million content items, including 49 million works from 800 scholarly publisher participants.

(Oops, HarperCollins.)

So don’t do it, y’all. Just don’t.

* It’s not the first time she’d been accused. Wikipedia says, “Her documented plagiarism involves her 2000 Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia University, her 2012 book … and a Wall Street Journal article in 1999.”

UPDATE: It appears our newest Supreme Court justice is also a plagiarist. Make of it what you will.

Here are some related articles:
Plagiarizing, A Quick Aside
The Book, er, Blog Thief
Be Careful What You Copy and Paste
Legal Issues

Tweet: Plagiarism: “little” things that “nobody will notice”? Not likely!
Tweet: Let’s talk (again) about plagiarism. Please.

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: The Word Factory

We’ve been talking about dictionaries—I always enjoy talking about the dictionary—and now a friend’s sent me this article from the New York Times: “A Journey Into the Merriam-Webster Word Factory.”

Oh, there’s just so much here to read! But here’s one little bit:

Which leads to an important point. Dictionaries are often seen as argument-settling arbiters of truth. But their job, Ms. Stamper notes, isn’t to say what something is, but to objectively and comprehensively catalog the many different ways words are used by real people.

Ms. Stamper has no patience for self-styled purists who quail at “irregardless”—an actual word, she notes. (She is O.K. with ending sentences with prepositions as well as—brace yourself—split infinitives.) But she also describes being caught up in some higher-stakes fights.

For example: “One chapter takes an uncomfortable look at the racial assumptions baked into a Merriam-Webster definition of the color term ‘nude.’”

Ha. THINK ABOUT IT.

Have a great weekend!

Tweet: A Journey Into the Merriam-Webster Word Factory.
Tweet: An interview with a lexicographer. Dream job!

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 : Pax

The fox felt the car slow before the boy did, as he felt everything first. Through the pads of his paws, along his spine, in the sensitive whiskers at his wrists. By the vibrations, he learned also that the road had grown coarser. He stretched up from his boy’s lap and sniffed at threads of scent leaking in through the window, which told him they were now traveling into woodlands. The sharp odors of pine—wood, bark, cones, and needles—slivered through the air like blades, but beneath that, the fox recognized softer clover and wild garlic and ferns, and also a hundred things he had never encountered before but that smelled green and urgent.

The boy sensed something now, too. He pulled his pet back to him and gripped his baseball glove more tightly.

The boy’s anxiety surprised the fox. The few times they had traveled in the car before, the boy had been calm or even excited. The fox nudged his muzzle into the glove’s webbing, although he hated the leather smell. His boy always laughed when he did this. He would close the glove around his pet’s head, play-wrestling, and in this way the fox would distract him.

But today the boy lifted his pet and buried his face in the fox’s white ruff, pressing hard.

It was then that the fox realized his boy was crying. He twisted around to study his face to be sure. Yes, crying—although without a sound, something the fox had never known him to do. The boy hadn’t shed tears for a very long time, but the fox remembered: always before he had cried out, as if to demand that attention be paid to the curious occurrence of salty water streaming from his eyes.

The fox licked at the tears and then grew more confused. There was no scent of blood. He squirmed out of the boy’s arms to inspect his human more carefully, alarmed that he could have failed to notice an injury, although his sense of smell was never wrong. No, no blood; not even the under-skin pooling of a bruise or the marrow leak of a cracked bone, which had happened once.

The car pulled to the right, and the suitcase beside them shifted. By its scent, the fox knew it held the boy’s clothing and the things from his room he handled most often: the photo he kept on top of his bureau and the items he hid in the bottom drawer. He pawed at a corner, hoping to pry the suitcase open enough for the boy’s weak nose to smell these favored things and be comforted. But just then the car slowed again, this time to a rumbling crawl. The boy slumped forward, his head in his hands.

The fox’s heartbeat climbed and the brushy hairs of his tail lifted. The charred metal scent of the father’s new clothing was burning his throat. He leaped to the window and scratched at it. Sometimes at home his boy would raise a similar glass wall if he did this. He always felt better when the glass wall was lifted.

Instead, the boy pulled him down onto his lap again and spoke to his father in a begging tone. The fox had learned the meaning of many human words, and he heard him use one of them now: “NO.” Often the “no” word was linked to one of the two names he knew: his own and his boy’s. He listened carefully, but today it was just the “NO,” pleaded to the father over and over.

The car juddered to a full stop and tilted off to the right, a cloud of dust rising beyond the window. The father reached over the seat again, and after saying something to his son in a soft voice that didn’t match his hard lie-scent, he grasped the fox by the scruff of the neck.

His boy did not resist, so the fox did not resist. He hung limp and vulnerable in the man’s grasp, although he was now frightened enough to nip. He would not displease his humans today. The father opened the car door and strode over gravel and patchy weeds to the edge of a wood. The boy got out and followed.

The father set the fox down, and the fox bounded out of his reach. He locked his gaze on his two humans, surprised to notice that they were nearly the same height now. The boy had grown very tall recently.

The father pointed to the woods. The boy looked at his father for a long moment, his eyes streaming again. And then he dried his face with the neck of his T-shirt and nodded. He reached into his jeans pocket and withdrew an old plastic soldier, the fox’s favorite toy.

The fox came to alert, ready for the familiar game. His boy would throw the toy, and he would track it down—a feat the boy always seemed to find remarkable. He would retrieve the toy and wait with it in his mouth until the boy found him and took it back to toss again.

And sure enough, the boy held the toy soldier aloft and then hurled it into the woods. The fox’s relief—they were only here to play the game!—made him careless. He streaked toward the woods without looking back at his humans. If he had, he would have seen the boy wrench away from his father and cross his arms over his face, and he would have returned. Whatever his boy needed—protection, distraction, affection—he would have offered.

Instead, he set off after the toy. Finding it was slightly more difficult than usual, as there were so many other, fresher odors in the woods. But only slightly—after all, the scent of his boy was also on the toy. That scent he could find anywhere.

The toy soldier lay facedown at the burled root of a butternut tree, as if he had pitched himself there in despair. His rifle, its butt pressed tirelessly against his face, was buried to the hilt in leaf litter. The fox nudged the toy free, took it between his teeth, and rose on his haunches to allow his boy to find him.

In the still woods, the only movements were bars of sunlight glinting like green glass through the leafy canopy. He stretched higher. There was no sign of his boy. A prickle of worry shivered up the fox’s spine. He dropped the toy and barked. There was no response. He barked again, and again was answered by only silence. If this was a new game, he did not like it.

He picked up the toy soldier and began to retrace his trail. As he loped out of the woods, a jay streaked in above him, shrieking. The fox froze, torn.

His boy was waiting to play the game. But birds! Hours upon hours he had watched birds from his pen, quivering at the sight of them slicing the sky as recklessly as the lightning he often saw on summer evenings. The freedom of their flights always mesmerized him.

The jay called again, deeper in the forest now, but answered by a chorus of reply. For one more moment the fox hesitated, peering into the trees for another sight of the electric-blue wedge.

And then, behind him, he heard a car door slam shut, and then another. He bounded at full speed, heedless of the briars that tore at his cheeks. The car’s engine roared to life, and the fox skidded to a stop at the edge of the road.

His boy rolled the window down and reached his arms out. And as the car sped away in a pelting spray of gravel, the father cried out the boy’s name, “Peter!” And the boy cried out the only other name the fox knew.

            “Pax!”

—Sara Pennypacker, Pax (Balzer + Bray, 2016)

Some thoughts about this book:

• Just rereading this bit almost makes me sob out loud, even though I’ve read the story and know it turns out just as it should. I loved this book. But it haunts me.

• Here’s the blurb: “Pax and Peter have been inseparable ever since Peter rescued him as a kit. But one day, the unimaginable happens: Peter’s dad enlists in the military and makes him return the fox to the wild. At his grandfather’s house, three hundred miles away from home, Peter knows he isn’t where he should be—with Pax. He strikes out on his own despite the encroaching war, spurred by love, loyalty, and grief, to be reunited with his fox. Meanwhile Pax, steadfastly waiting for his boy, embarks on adventures and discoveries of his own.”
The book was a longlisted for the National Book Award in 2016.

• Juddered. This book is intended for middle grade readers, but it is filled with absolutely delicious words for kids to discover and learn. Like juddered. And the writing, as you will have seen, is exquisite. Exquisite!

• It’s a very powerful story—about the uncertainties of war, about what happens when families are torn apart by death and duty, about the natural world and what we must do to preserve it, about friendship. But most of all, it’s about doing what is right. Publishers Weekly says, “It takes less than a night for Peter to become overwhelmed with remorse—by morning, he is hiking hundreds of miles to the spot where he reluctantly abandoned Pax. The aftermath of that separation is told in chapters that alternate between the fox and the boy’s points of view.” Pax will not leave you unmoved. One of the reviewers in this trailer says, “It is a privilege to be destroyed and rebuilt by this novel with every read.” That’s exactly how I felt.

• Writers in particular will find much to interest them in this interview with the author, Sara Pennypacker, in which she tells us that Pax is tightly structured along the classic Hero’s Journey plot.

• There isn’t a single wrong word in this book. It’s beautiful and perfect. Read it.

Tweet: There isn’t a single wrong word in this book. It’s beautiful and perfect. Read it.
Tweet: Pax is a powerful story about friendship, war, and doing the right thing no matter what.

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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Will This Fit on My About Page? (#MeetTheEditor Series)

I really enjoy About pages. They’re interesting, don’t you think? What folks choose to reveal, what they don’t. (Here are some I really like for various reasons: Fluid Pudding, Jenny B. Jones, Jane Friedman, Jennifer Loudin. I could go on and on.) But part of me thinks it’s insane to think people would read this much. The other part of me thinks I need to rewrite my own About page.

I’ve thought all along that I have revealed who I am in my blog posts, but I guess it really is insane to think anyone will read a dozen articles to get a feel for what kind of editor I might be and who I am as a person.

This was made abundantly clear to me recently when a writer with whom I’d been negotiating a project raised some questions about whether or not I was the right editor for her. I’d come highly recommended from a mutual friend who has worked with me in a professional capacity over a series of projects. (This mutual friend had even brought us together over a casual lunch.)

But then … this writer had other friends with other ideas, of course. That’s cool; I lean on my friends for advice too. To her credit, the writer brought up these questions and invited me to respond; she is absolutely one of the most professional people I’ve ever had this conversation with. “I’ve had various friends from the literary world give me conflicting advice,” she said.

My writing mentor chided me for considering spending money on editing; he says it’s the writer’s duty to work, rework, and rework until it’s just right, and then have a valued friend who knows your work give it a read—that’s it. (Easy advice from someone whose books have always been picked up by publishers.) Another encouraged me to go to New York for an editor, because it would give me more of a leg up in the process. I’ve also been advised to make sure the editor is a good fit, that the work they’ve edited is similar to what I’ve written. That feels like sound advice, and my novel is not faith-based, though much of your work is in that market.

All good points. So let’s talk about them. Not necessarily in order. :)

I got hands-on experience working for a faith-based publishing company (though not in New York, as you will have guessed by now). I started moonlighting for one of the editors—first reading book proposals (the so-called slush pile) and later proofing, copyediting, functioning as the last reader before the press, and, finally, content editing. I wrote hundreds of book blurbs too.

When my job ended (after several years), I had a network of publishing professionals scattered around the country at various publishers; and when I decided to try my hand at freelancing, I called these people, and many of them sent me work. They continue to do so. This is a good thing for a freelance editor. It has enabled me to work from home (in the swanky second-floor office in the pink house with the green door) for twelve-plus years. This is a not-insignificant amount of time to be self-employed, and I believe it speaks to the quality of work I deliver.*

Because of where I learned my craft, my experience, I do work on a lot of faith-based projects. I also work on a lot of projects that are sold into the general market. And here’s the takeaway on that: the things that make good writing good are the same no matter what audience the writing is intended for; the things that constitute a good plot, that make a plot work, are the same, no matter what the genre.

Most importantly, the things that make a good editor are innate, in my opinion. You can study and study and practice and practice and read and read and read (and I read obsessively), but ask around about this. You’ll often hear publishing professionals say it’s a gift. Some years ago I read Thomas McCormack’s The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist (he ran St. Martin’s Press for years) and he says the same thing (he calls it “editorial sensibility” and says you either have it or you don’t). I don’t mean to make too much of this but when I started editing (my late 40s) I realized I’d found my gift and my joy. I’m good at it, and I don’t know how to explain why, really.

I do hear about “fit” a lot. I’ve heard “What if you don’t like my book?” for example. The answer to this question is, No, I don’t have to like it, because I’m a professional, and I take my editorial duty very seriously. (Check the link; you’ll see.) I’m not convinced that fit is essential, though it has its moments. And I sometimes get people who ask for a “free sample” to make that call. Since I have yet to get work from any sort of example I’ve provided, you’ll understand why I haven’t set aside an hour every day to crank out free samples.

That brings us back to the insanity of my putting my thoughts on how I edit into blog posts (since it wouldn’t be ethical of me to send you someone else’s editorial notes). I have written many, many articles about my editorial philosophy. But you’re busy, just like I am. Perhaps, though, you’d be interested in this series? It’s about a book published by one of the New York houses that was so purely awful I just couldn’t resist giving my editorial opinion about it. These aren’t really editorial notes. (I’m much nicer in my notes.) But you will see the sorts of things I notice when I edit. I think I could have fixed this bad book. (ahem)

How Did This Book Get Published? 1
How Did This Book Get Published? 2
How Did This Book Get Published? 3
How Did This Book Get Published? 4
How Did This Book Get Published? 5
How Did This Book Get Published? 6
How Did This Book Get Published? 7

Now, should you hire an editor to help you get an agent or a book deal? As best I can tell, some agents are recommending their authors get professional editing before they shop the manuscript. Agents used to do this sort of thing (and many still do), but in the changing publishing landscape lots of them find they don’t have time. I sometimes get work from writers whose agents (or prospective agents) suggested they get editorial advice—and I’ve had several authors who ended up signing with agents after we worked on a project together. As competitive as the market is these days—not to mention how little editorial oversight some NY imprints are providing—I don’t think anyone will turn away a manuscript solely because it has been worked on before it got to the agent or publisher.

New York? Yes, you could certainly go to a New York–based freelance editor. I’m not cheap but a New Yorker definitely wouldn’t be (cost of living), and I’m not convinced it would help you** for this reason: I have had clients make this very assumption—that I can help them, once I’ve edited, find an agent or a publisher—but I am very careful to remind them they hired me to edit. My correspondence is explicit about what I am being paid for. My guess is a New York editor would feel the same. It’s about professional ethics.

Finally, I do have opinions about hoping to get actual editing assistance from a friend/reader who loves you, but … well, you know. :) You’ve already thought of that anyway.

So that’s how I feel about it. What do you think? Should I put all of this in my About page?

* Have I made everyone happy? No. But that’s a lot to ask.
** Though it could! It could! You never know.

 

Tweet: A writer raised questions about whether or not I was the right editor for her, and …
Tweet: What kind of editor are you? What kind of person are you? Not easy questions to answer.

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 : Swiss Vendetta

The old man’s face was pale gray and his eyes were closed. Agnes saw the glint of a long knife in Estanguet’s hand and she leapt forward. He saw her and flicked the blade toward Arsov’s throat. She halted, the element of surprise lost.

“He killed my sister,” Estanguet said. “Took the last family I had.”

The tiniest thread of blood appeared on the pale blue silk of Arsov’s pajamas. Agnes watched in horror as it blossomed across his chest. Agnes knew there was no time to reason with Estanguet. Arsov was too weak. She grabbed an antique bronze inkwell, took aim, and threw it. The metal struck Estanguet’s head, knocking him to the floor. The dagger flew from his hand. Seizing the opportunity, she lunged, but Estanguet scrambled to find his weapon and Agnes felt his hand come in contact with her ankle.

—Tracee de Hahn, Swiss Vendetta (Minotaur Books, 2017)

Some thoughts about this book:

  • Here’s the setup (from Amazon): “Inspector Agnes Lüthi, a Swiss-American police officer in Lausanne, Switzerland, has just transferred to the Violent Crimes unit from Financial Crimes to try to shed all reminders of her old life following her husband’s death. Now, on the eve of the worst blizzard Lausanne has seen in centuries, Agnes has been called to investigate her very first homicide case. On the lawn of the grand Château Vallotton, at the edge of Lac Léman, a young woman has been found stabbed to death. The woman, an appraiser for a London auction house, had been taking inventory at the château, a medieval fortress dripping in priceless works of art and historical treasures. Agnes finds it difficult to draw answers out of anyone—the tight-lipped Swiss family living in the château, the servants who have been loyal to the family for generations, the aging WWII survivor who lives in the neighboring mansion, even the American history student studying at the Vallotton château’s library. As the storm rages on, roads become impassible, the power goes out around Lausanne, and Agnes finds herself trapped in the candlelit halls of the château with all the players of the mystery, out of her depth in her first murder case and still struggling to stay afloat after the [suicide] death of her husband.”
  • I love a good mystery, as you probably know. And this locked-room mystery seemed to have promise. I wanted to like it. But, sadly, this wasn’t the mystery for me, for many reasons. Here’s the first one: Agnes Lüthi has just been transferred to the Violent Crimes division of the Lausanne Police Department from its Financial division. Right here, I’m already not believing it. Financial crimes are nothing like homicide! Her husband has been dead only a month, a huge snowstorm is in progress, and yet she is sent to the murder scene virtually alone (the village cop does manage to arrive to lend moral support, but he’s not a trained homicide detective either). Why?
  • Other problems I had: many characters, many names, many backstories, all sorts of odd plot threads (not all of which tied up, though most did). One of the “rules” of writing myteries is the reader should be able to follow along and solve the mystery with the protagonist, but I didn’t find this to be true here. I was still wallowing in Arsov’s long-winded backstory, pages and pages of Lüthi’s grief, and a revelation about her dead husband’s motives that bore absolutely no relation to the story. (A book blogger says, “Her husband’s death is a big plot point in the book” but, um, no. It’s backstory, it affects characterization, but it’s not a plot point. This is a projected series, and this … thing … about the husband could have waited until the second or third book. In fact, I would posit that it would have had more impact if left to simmer for a while.)
  • The dots just didn’t always connect. BookPage says: “Detective Lüthi’s insights are not always substantiated within the narrative, sometimes seeming to appear from offstage.” Exactly. And: “Coincidences abound,” Publishers Weekly says. (sigh) Elsewhere I saw it called a page-turner, but it took me way longer than it should have to read it because it wasn’t a page-turner—make of that what you will.
  • Surprised at such a short sample (144 words)? There’s still a lot to see in it, aside from the clunky, awkward writing. “She halted, the element of surprise lost.” That second clause is telling (as in: show, don’t tell). “Agnes knew there was no time to reason with Estanguet.” That looks like telling to me too. Don’t tell! “Seizing the opportunity”—also telling. Really, don’t tell. “She grabbed an antique bronze inkwell, took aim, and threw it”: and in those moments she was taking aim, he didn’t have time to duck or dodge? Golly, what a coincidence! I might have been been able to buy it if “took aim” were eliminated from the sentence. There’s one more thing that wouldn’t be apparent unless you’d read the book: in the seventy years since “He killed my sister” and “Took the last family I had,” Estanguet has not bothered to have a conversation with the old man, Arsov, or anyone else who might have shed light on what truly happened (there’s at least one other character who could have). Estanguet was four years old when he parted from his sister, who was not killed by anyone but died of tuberculosis. This just seems like a very weak set of circumstances on which to hang an entire plot. (Said the editor.)

Tweet: There’s still a lot to see in these 144 words, aside from the clunky, awkward writing.
Tweet: It’s not a mystery if all it takes to solve is to have 2 characters talk to each other.

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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How a To-Do List Is Like a Book*

I have been keeping a highly developed to-do list since I was in high school. Yes, long before you could sashay into Target and choose from dozens of decorated calendar notebooks, I had a yellow legal pad with a single day of the week scrawled atop the first seven pages.**

I can’t live without my daybook.

So I was delighted when I saw this article in Fast Company: “How Writing To-Do Lists Helps Your Brain.” The writer says there are at least three psychological benefits to making a list:

1 Writing makes your memory’s job easier
2 Planning turns abstract goals into concrete work
3 It helps you clear the weeds you couldn’t see

You can imagine my further delight when I correlated this to writing—outlining—a book. Think about it.

1 Writing makes your memory’s job easier

You’ve got a great idea for a novel. You can see it all in your head; you’ve been thinking about it for days. Sure, sure, some of the scenes are a little nebulous but— Stop. This is where you should start writing it down. Not only because you might forget some of it but because the very act of writing it down will solidify what you do know. You can fill in the nebulous stuff later. If you’re not carrying a sketchbook around with you everywhere you go, you’re missing a golden opportunity. Capture your ideas in writing. Sketch them out in a paragraph or briefly outline them. You will never regret this.

2 Planning turns abstract goals into concrete work

The abstract goal in this case is a finished manuscript—a finished novel with all the nebulous scenes filled in, a novel that goes from A to Z with every scene leading us to the next. Yeah, you’ve got to put your butt in the chair in order to accomplish this. And if you’ve already sketched and outlined, every moment your butt is in the chair will be a fruitful one—because you’ve already given it some thought, and because writing it down puts it on your brain’s creative agenda. Remember our discussion about process? Preparation (note-making, outlining) leads to incubation (thinking), which leads, ultimately, to the actual writing.

3 It helps you clear the weeds you couldn’t see

Some months ago I got an email from an author who was writing her synopsis to send to me for commentary. “Writing the synopsis is proving both painful and very useful,” she wrote. “It’s like climbing a mountain, looking down, and seeing everything in the valley. The synopsis made me see the plot for what it really is: ragged and full of holes.” Well, yes—and that’s a good thing.

I do this when I’m writing editorial notes too: I simply begin writing, and what I think seems to find its way out of the keyboard into the document. I can’t explain it, really, but I can attest that the physical act of writing something down (particularly an outline or a sketch) really helps clarify your thoughts.

Now, I know there are plenty of you who are already doing this. But I also know quite a few seat-of-the-pants writers who just … begin writing. I want to encourage y’all to give outlining a try.

You never know what good may come of it.

* OK, OK, like an outline. But be honest, would you have read it if I’d said a to-do list is like an outline? No.
** Paper works better for me. Most of my life is digital, but this one paper thing remains.

 

Tweet: Give outlining a try, y’all. You never know what good may come of it.
Tweet: I can’t live without my daybook. You can’t live without your outline. Truth!

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: My Dictionary Has Always Been Hot

You know how I feel about my dictionary. It’s the first place I go, not just for spelling but even for fact-checking. Everything starts at the dictionary (here’s just one example). Even the Chicago Manual of Style tells editors to defer to the dictionary.

So I was delighted to see this headline in the New York Times: “Move Over, Wikipedia. Dictionaries Are Hot Again.” Why? Because, it seems, people still trust dictionaries.

At a time when many are questioning the definition of common words they thought they understood, after years of the English language being degraded by text messages and hashtags, dictionaries have made a surprising comeback in the United States.

On dictionary apps and websites, “lookups” (which, according to Merriam-Webster, is one word) of words or phrases related to news events have precipitously increased. Bibliophiles are becoming social media stars. Sales of print dictionaries remain brisk and are a profit center for some publishers.

“Dictionaries are not regarded as sexy or interesting, but what dictionaries are known for is telling the truth,” said Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer and past president of the American Dialect Society. “Right now there are a lot of questions about what is true. We want clear statements about what things are, and dictionaries provide that.”

Some dictionaries are better than others (you can read my recommendations here), but you just can’t go wrong with a looking up words and definitions and etymologies. Remember that spellings and definitions change over time, so bookmark your dictionary and refer to it often!

Have at it, y’all!

Tweet: Dictionary: my handy-dandy argument settler and first source for fact checking!
Tweet: Dictionaries are making a “surprising” comeback in the United States. About 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.”

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#WhatImReadingNow : A Gentleman in Moscow

Five days later, the Count was pleased to accept a formal invitation to tea from his new acquaintance, Nina Kulikova. The engagement was for three o’clock in the hotel’s coffeehouse at the northwest corner of the ground floor. Arriving at a quarter till, the Count claimed a table for two near the window. When at five past the hour his hostess arrived … the Count rose and held out her chair.

“Merci,” she said.

“Je t’en prie.”

In the minutes that followed, a waiter was signaled, a samovar was ordered, and with thunderclouds accumulating over Theatre Square, remarks were exchanged on the bittersweet likelihood of rain. But once the tea was poured and the tea cakes on the table, Nina adopted a more serious expression—intimating the time had come to speak of weightier concerns.

Some might have found this transition a little abrupt or out of keeping with the hour, but not the Count. Quite to the contrary, he thought a prompt dispensing of pleasantries and a quick shift to the business at hand utterly in keeping with the etiquette of tea—perhaps even essential to the institution.

After all, every tea the Count had ever attended in response to a formal invitation had followed this pattern. Whether it took place in a drawing room overlooking the Fontanka Canal or a teahouse in a public garden, before the first cake was sampled the purpose of the invitation would be laid upon the table. In fact, after a few requisite pleasantries, the most accomplished of hostesses could signal the transition with a single word of her choosing.

For the Count’s grandmother, the word had been Now, as in Now, Alexander. I have heard some very distressing things about you, my boy. … For Princess Poliakova, a perennial victim of her own heart, it had been Oh, as in Oh, Alexander. I have made a terrible mistake. … And for young Nina, the word was apparently Anyway, as in:

“You’re absolutely right, Aleander Ilyich. Another afternoon of rain and the lilac blossoms won’t stand a fighting chance. Anyway …”

Suffice it to say that when Nina’s tone shifted, the Count was ready. Resting his forearms on his thighs and leaning forward at an angle of seventy degrees, he adopted an expression that was serious yet neutral, so that in an instant he could convey his sympathy, concern, or shared indignation as the circumstances required.

“… I would be ever so grateful,” Nina continued, “if you would share with me some of the rules of being a princess.”

“The rules?”

“Yes. The rules.”

“But, Nina,” the Count said with a smile, “being a princess is not a game.”

Nina stared at the Count with an expression of patience. “I am certain that you know what I mean. Those things that were expected of a princess.”

“Ah, yes. I see.”

The Count leaned back to give his hostess’s inquiry a more appropriate consideration.

“Well,” he said after a moment, “setting aside the study of the liberal arts, which we discussed the other day, I suppose the rules of being a princess would begin with a refinement of manners. To that end, she would be taught how to comport herself in society; she would be taught terms of address, table manners, posture …”

… “Go on.”

The Count reflected.

“A princess would be raised to show respect for her elders.”

Nina bowed her head toward the Count in deference. He coughed.

“I wan’t referring to me, Nina. After all, I am practically a youth like yourself. No, by ‘elders,’ I mean the gray haired.”

Nina nodded to express her understanding. “You mean the grand dukes and grand duchesses.”

“Well, yes. Certainly them. But I mean elders of every social class. The shopkeepers and milkmaids, blacksmiths and peasants. … The principle here is that a new generation owes a measure of thanks to every member of the previous generation. Our elders planted fields and fought in wars; they advanced the arts and sciences, and generally made sacrifices on our behalf. So by their efforts, however humble, they have earned our gratitude and respect.”

As Nina still looked unconvinced, the Count considered how best to make his point. … “An example,” he said.

Thus commenced the story of Princess Golitsyn and the crone of Kudrovo:

One stormy night in St. Petersburg … young Princess Golitsyn was on her way to the annual ball at the Tushins’. As her carriage crossed the Lomonosov Bridge, she happened to notice an eighty-year-old woman on foot, hunched against the rain. Without a second thought, she called for her driver to stop the carriage and invited the unfortunate soul inside. The old woman, who was nearly blind, climbed aboard with the footman’s help and thanked the Princess profusely. In the back of the Princess’s mind may well have been the presumption that her passenger lived nearby. After all, how far was an old, blind woman likely to journey on a night like this? But when the Princess asked where the old woman was headed, she replied that she was going to visit her son, the blacksmith, in Kudrovo—more than seven miles away!

Now, the Princess was already expected at the Tushins’. And in a matter of minutes they would be passing the house—lit from cellar to ceiling with a footman on every step. So, it would have been well within the bounds of courtesy for the Princess to excuse herself and send the carriage on to Kudrovo with the old woman. In fact, as they approached the Tushins’, the driver slowed the horses and looked to the princess for instruction. …

Here the Count paused for effect.

“Well,” Nina asked, “what did she do?”

“She told him to drive on.” The Count smiled with a touch of triumph. “And what is more, when they arrived in Kudrovo and the blacksmith’s family gathered round the carriage, the old woman invited the Princess in for tea. The blacksmith winced, the coachman gasped, and the footman nearly fainted. But Princess Golitsyn gracious accepted the old woman’s invitation—and missed the Tushins’ altogether.”

His point expertly made, the Count raised his own cup of tea, nodded once, and drank. …

Preferring to preserve his success, [he] opted not to share his normal coda to this delightful bit of St. Petersburg lore: that the Countess Tushin had been greeting guests under her portico when Princess Golitsyn’s bright blue carriage, known the city over, slowed before the gates and then sped on. This resulted in a rift between the Golitsyns and the Tushins that would have taken three generations to repair—if a certain Revolution hadn’t brought an end to their outrage altogether.

—Armor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking, 2016)

Some thoughts about this book:

  • Here is the setup: In 1922, after a bloody revolution that dismantles the peerage and monarchy of Emperor Nicholas II, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, age thirty-three, is sentenced by the Bolsheviks to house arrest (for life) at the Metropol, a prestigious hotel in the theater district of Moscow. He has been living there for some four years—in a posh suite surrounded by family heirlooms and antiques brought from his grandmother’s dacha—so this doesn’t seem like too much of a hardship until the Party apparatchiks have him moved to what was once a maid’s room on the top floor. The room is tiny, and the Count must choose carefully what to keep … Although the entire story is set within the confines of the hotel, this is a richly detailed historical novel.
  • I can say that because I started reading Russian fiction and nonfiction when I was twelve (Doctor Zhivago to start, of course). These were the Cold War years, the time of Anastasia imposters, spy scandals, and political and artistic defections; Russia held a fascination for Americans back then, and the publishing world did not disappoint us. John LeCarré started publishing spy thrillers in the early ’60s and really hit big with The Spy Who Came In From the Cold in 1963. I loved the George Smiley character, and I particularly loved The Russia House (1989), which remains one of my favorite novels ever. Robet K. Massie’s biography Nicholas and Alexandra was published in 1967 and I devoured it. I read Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment) and Tolstoy (the novellas, primarily) in high school, and that was about the time that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature, which set me on the Great Solzhenitsyn Lit Wallow of the 1970s (August 1914, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, Cancer Ward, The Gulag Archipelago, probably others). I even read the Arkady Renko mystery novels by Martin Cruz Smith (which began with Gorky Park). I could go on and on.
  • The person who copyedited this manuscript for Viking doesn’t understand the proper use of may/might. Might is the past tense of may, and this was consistently done wrong throughout the book. That’s my only criticism, but it’s a big one to me.
  • Read carefully. One reviewer I read said, “This story is a masterpiece of cleverly woven details.” And oh, yes, that’s it. I feel comfortable saying that every single thing in this novel has meaning. There are many twists.
  • If you want to read more about this novel, here’s an interesting interview with the author.

Tweet: Although the entire story is set within the hotel, this is a richly detailed historical novel.
Tweet: Read carefully. Every single thing in this novel has meaning. There are many twists.

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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A Lighter Shade of Pale (#WordUse Series)

We’ve got exciting times goin’ on here in the good ol’ US of A, with one political party making some pretty interesting claims and the opposing party reacting with outrage. (See how I did that?) My Irish immigrant husband has spent hours watching debates and newscasts and commentaries on the television. He also follows the news online, where he saw a tweet remarking that something a candidate had said was so outrageous it was “beyond the pale.”

The Irishman was surprised to hear it.

“Have you ever heard the phrase beyond the pale?” he asked. “Do you know what it means?”

Of course I do. My parents were wordies, remember? This is one of those phrases I grew up with. It means “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior.” Synonyms might be: unacceptable, unseemly, improper, unsuitable, unreasonable, unforgivable, intolerable, disgraceful, deplorable, outrageous, scandalous, shocking, exceptionable, uncivilized. You might say someone was out of line. You might say it just isn’t done.

The Irishman persisted. “Yes, but do you know what it really means?”

Oh, honey. I married a Dubliner, didn’t I? (I’ve made quite a study of Irish history, aided by the magnificence and sheer number of Dublin bookstores and my husband’s willingness to indulge me in them.) Yes, I know what beyond the pale really means.

It means, put simply, anything outside Dublin. Americans do know the phrase as “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior,” but I suspect many of you may not know from whence it came.

It all starts with the dictionary (as so many things around here do). Pale is most commonly used as an adjective or a verb, but there’s an older meaning, a noun:

1 a archaic : a palisade of stakes : an enclosing barrier : paling
b obsolete : a restraining boundary : defense
2 a : a pointed stake driven into the ground in forming a palisade or fence
b : a slat fastened to a rail at top and bottom for fencing : picket
3 a : a space or field having bounds : an enclosed or limited region or place : enclosure
b : a territory or district within certain bounds or under a particular jurisdiction
4 : an area (as of conduct) or the limits (as of speech) within which one is privileged or protected especially by custom (as from censure or retaliation)
<conduct that was beyond the pale>
5 a obsolete : a vertical stripe (as on a coat)
b : a perpendicular stripe in an escutcheon

The word is Middle English, from Middle French pal (a stake), from the Latin palus. It dates from the 1300s, and is a doublet of the word pole, which has the same Latin origin. So a pale, in the Middle Ages, was a wooden stake, often sharpened on the top, meant to be driven into the ground, often to be used (with others) as a fence or a boundary. Impale, you see, also stems from this word. (As a side note, the adjective pale, while just as old a word, comes from the Latin pallidum [pale or colorless], from which we also get the word pallid.)

So what’s that “anything outside Dublin” business? It’s history. The Norman invasion in 1169 brought Ireland under the control of English kings, but as time went on and the Anglo-Normans assimilated with the Irish locals, this control waned. (The English had a lot of infighting to look after on their own island.) By the Tudor era in the 1500s the English crown really only exerted power in and around Dublin—and they’d built a fence to protect it. Really, it was just a fortified ditch. A pale.

And the language, the vernacular, reflected that: the pale was “a defence, a safeguard, a barrier, an enclosure, or a limit beyond which it was not permissible to go.”

Beyond the pale, then, was anything outside the boundary. Wikipedia says,

Within the confines of the Pale the leading gentry and merchants lived lives not too different from those of their counterparts in England, save for the constant fear of attack from the Gaelic Irish. The idea of the Pale was inseparable from the notion of a separate Anglo-Irish polity and culture. After the 17th century and especially after the Anglican Reformation and the Plantation of Ulster, the “Old English” settlers were gradually assimilated into the Irish population … The term continues to be used in contemporary Irish speech to refer to County Dublin and its commuter towns, generally critically—for example, a government department may be criticised for concentrating its resources on the Pale.

See? My husband was a little surprised to find the phrase common parlance in this country, but he’s forgotten that the phrase came here with English settlers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—when the Pale would have been a thing—and it stayed here.

Tweet: Beyond the pale. It means “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior.”
Tweet: There’s an interesting linguistic history to the phrase beyond the pale.

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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