#WordUse Series: Lexicon Love

It’s not very often I’m stumped by which word to use—and frankly I kinda enjoy it when I am—but I came across a sentence in a manuscript the other day and had a little lexicological tizzy.

Here’s what I read. It was a story about an old man telling the events of his life. He had been all over the world and had many experiences, some good, some bad. He said, “My life has been divers and colorful.”

And I thought, hmmmDivers or diverse?

So I went to my handy-dandy argument settler and all-round first source for fact checking. That is, my Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (online version © 2013).

Main Entry: di·verse 
Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English divers, diverse, from Anglo-French & Latin; Anglo-French divers, from Latin diversus, from past participle of divertere
Date: 14th century
1 : differing from one another : UNLIKE <people with diverse interests>
2 : composed of distinct or unlike elements or qualities <a diverse population>
synonym see DIFFERENT

Main Entry: di·vers 
Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English divers, diverse
Date: 14th century
: VARIOUS

The online edition offers audio pronunciation, so I listened to that a few times: dy-VERSE and DY-verz. Then, of course, I began to overthink it. Diverse, after all, seemed to mean variety. And divers meant various. Oh, good grief—what did the old man mean to say?

When I posed this question to my Facebook friends, I got the answer quickly, although I didn’t realize it in the moment. “Divers: People in wet suits, masks, air tanks, etc.,” one friend typed.

Yes, but that’s a noun. I was talking about the adjective. And context wasn’t helping me.

So I checked the thesaurus:

Entry Word: diverse
Function: adjective
1. Synonyms: DIFFERENT, disparate, dissimilar, distant, divergent, unalike, unequal, unlike, unsimilar, various
Synonyms DISTINCT 1, different, discrete, separate, several, various
Related Word contrasted, contrasting, contrastive; contradictory, contrary, opposite
Contrasted Words: equal, equivalent, same
Antonyms: identical, selfsame
2. Synonyms: MANIFOLD, diversiform, multifarious, multifold, multiform, multiplex, multivarious

Entry Word: divers
Function: adjective
Synonyms SEVERAL 3, some, sundry, various

A little more research was in order, because these still seemed very similar. I found this: “The archaic adjective divers means various or manyDiverse means having great variety.”

That’s a little more helpful. It’s archaic, which is lexicon talk for past its sell-by date. Not used much anymore. Except, as the online OED says, “in legal and scriptural phraseology.” Or, probably, formal or poetic writing. Tolkien used divers in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, which is no doubt where I’d read it.

Bottom line: diverse, etymologically related to divers, has its own meaning (different) but it has taken on aspects of divers too (various). Divers has faded from use. It’s not likely you’ll need it. Most folks will see the word and think “people in wet suits, masks, air tanks, etc.”

Tweet: I came across a sentence in a manuscript the other day and had a little lexicological tizzy.
Tweet: It’s not very often I’m stumped by which word to use. Then, of course, I began to overthink 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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#WhatImReadingNow: Stoner

Two weeks after that conversation Stoner received a memo from Lomax’s office which informed him that his schedule for the next semester was changed, that he would teach his old graduate seminar on the Latin Tradition and Renaissance Literature, a senior and graduate course in Middle English language and literature, a sophomore literature survey, and one section of freshman composition.

It was a triumph in a way, but one of which he always remained amusedly contemptuous, as if it were a victory won by boredom and indifference.

XV

And that was one of the legends that began to attach to his name, legends that grew more detailed and elaborate year by year, progressing like myth from personal fact to ritual truth.

In his late forties, he looked years older. His hair, thick and unruly as it had been in his youth, was almost entirely white; his face was deeply lined and his eyes were sunken in their sockets; and the deafness that had come upon him the summer after the end of his affair with Katherine Driscoll had worsened slightly year by year, so that when he listened to someone, his head cocked to one side and his eyes intent, he appeared to be remotely contemplating a puzzling species that he could not quite identify.

That deafness was of a curious nature. Though he sometimes had difficulty understanding one who spoke directly to him, he was often able to hear with perfect clarity a murmured conversation held across a noisy room. It was by this trick of deafness that he gradually began to know that he was considered, in the phrase current in his own youth, a “campus character.”

Thus he overheard, again and again, the embellished tale of his teaching Middle English to a group of new freshmen and of the capitulation of Hollis Lomax. “And when the freshman class of thirty-seven took their junior English exams, you know what class had the highest score?” a reluctant young instructor of freshman English asked. “Sure. Old Stoner’s Middle English bunch. And we keep on using exercises and handbooks!”

Stoner had to admit that he had become, in the regard of the young instructors and the older students, who seemed to come and go before he could firmly attach names to their faces, an almost mythic figure, however shifting and various the function of that figure was.

Sometimes he was villain. In one version that attempted to explain the long feud between himself and Lomax, he had seduced and then cast aside a young graduate student for whom Lomax had had a pure and honorable passion. Sometimes he was the fool: in another version of the same feud, he refused to speak to Lomax because once Lomax had been unwilling to write a letter of recommendation for one of Stoner’s graduate students. And sometimes he was hero: in a final and not often accepted version he was hated by Lomax and frozen in his rank because he had once caught Lomax giving to a favored student a copy of a final examination in one of Stoner’s courses.

The legend was defined, however, by his manner in class. Over the years it had grown more and more absent and yet more and more intense. He began his lectures and discussions fumblingly and awkwardly, yet very quickly became so immersed in his subject that he seemed unaware of anything or anyone around him. Once a meeting of several members of the board of trustees and the president of the University was scheduled in the conference room where Stoner held his seminar in the Latin Tradition; he had been informed of the meeting but had forgotten about it and held his seminar at the usual time and place. Halfway through the period a timid knock sounded at the door; Stoner, engrossed in translating extemporaneously a pertinent Latin passage, did not notice. After a few moments the door opened and a small plump middle-aged man with rimless glasses tiptoed in and lightly tapped Stoner on the shoulder. Without looking up, Stoner waved him away. The man retreated; there was a whispered conference with several others outside the open door. Stoner continued the translation. Then four men, led by the president of the University, a tall heavy man with an imposing chest and florid face, strode in and halted like a squad beside Stoner’s desk. The president frowned and cleared his throat loudly. Without a break or a pause in his extemporaneous translation, Stoner looked up and spoke the next line of the poem mildly to the president and his entourage: “‘Begone, begone, you bloody whoreson Gauls!”’ And still without a break returned his eyes to his book and continued to speak, while the group gasped and stumbled backward, turned, and fled from the room.

Fed by such events, the legend grew until there were anecdotes to give substance to nearly all of Stoner’s more typical activities, and grew until it reached his life outside the University.

John Williams, Stoner (Viking Press, 1965)

Some thoughts on this book:

• A few years ago I read some article about the best book I’d never heard of, or some such thing. And I thought, hmmm. I like discovering unheralded gems. Then last year two separate reader friends of mine recommended the book, so I loaded it to my Kindle, and that was that. If you poke around on the interwebs, you can see plenty of raves of this best-book-ever nature—and they do say things like “You should seriously read Stoner right now” (New York Times). But I’ll be frank: I didn’t particularly enjoy it. That said, I didn’t give up on it, either, which I am very quick to do these days. So make of that what you will.

• The blurb: “William Stoner is born at the end of the nineteenth century into a dirt-poor Missouri farming family. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar’s life, so different from the hardscrabble existence he has known. And yet as the years pass, Stoner encounters a succession of disappointments: marriage into a ‘proper’ family estranges him from his parents; his career is stymied; his wife and daughter turn coldly away from him; a transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal. Driven ever deeper within himself, Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitude.

“John Williams’s luminous and deeply moving novel is a work of quiet perfection. William Stoner emerges from it not only as an archetypal American, but as an unlikely existential hero, standing, like a figure in a painting by Edward Hopper, in stark relief against an unforgiving world.”

• The story is moving, in spite of the fact that I didn’t enjoy it. Which is to say, it’s freaking sad. Heartbreaking. The reviewer in the New Yorker says: “Despite its pellucid prose, ‘Stoner’ isn’t an easy book to read—not because it’s dense or abstruse but because it’s so painful. I had to stop reading it for a year or two, near the middle of the book, when Stoner’s wife, Edith, undertakes a deliberate but unselfconscious campaign to estrange him from his daughter, the one person he truly loves. Later on, after his daughter has been lost to him, Stoner finds real love again with a young student, his intellectual equal—and once again an enemy, seeing his happiness, sets out to take it from him. Williams contrives to forcibly deprive his hero of happiness in his marriage, his daughter, his lover, even his vocation. It all feels grindingly inevitable, like the annihilating whim of the gods in Euripides.” That pretty much covers it for me. The protagonist never fights back (well, OK, once, as quoted above). He just accepts what comes to him, over and over, no matter how unfair. Yes, I understand that life is “unfair.” I just don’t necessarily think it makes an interesting story.

• It is beautiful prose, yes. The Guardian says the “prose is clean and quiet.” The novel “flows like a river, calm and smooth at the surface of its unruffled prose, but powerful and deep,” the reviewer at the Independent says. I could go on and on in this vein, but I’ll just say this is why I kept reading. There was a rhythm, a mesmerizing-ness to it. It felt like something written a hundred and fifty years ago—not fifty—and I mean that as a good thing.

• That said, it’s all telling. All narrative. Everything that is felt or thought by the protagonist is told to us, rather than shown. It is an unusual book.

• There were two things I thought a lot about as I read Stoner. First, that a lot of “my people” (that is, family) come from Missouri, in the area where the novel is set, and are there still. My father’s mother, furthermore, was of the same generation as William Stoner (born in the 1890s). And I don’t think the things that happened to this protagonist were all that unusual in that generation. So there is truth in this story. The second thing I thought about also had to do with truth—the truth of teaching as a vocation, how it was more respected in Stoner’s time, how difficult it is for academics now. (I have some personal experience with this, but this article in the New Republic encapsulates my thoughts on this topic. If you read any link at all from this post, read this one.)

• If the reviews or the blurb speak to you, if you think this book might be for you, then don’t let me talk you out of it. Clearly lots of readers have loved it. It just wasn’t for me.

Tweet: I like discovering unheralded gems. Stoner.
Tweet: There were two things I thought a lot about as I read Stoner. First …

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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Everybody Knows How to Write, Right?

A friend of mine recently asked me a question on Facebook:

I was browsing some business pages on FB and happened across this description: “We help our clients expose themselves at trade shows, presentations, conferences, events and celebrations.” Is it just me, or should this be worded a bit differently?

Um …

The smart-aleck response to this would be Get your mind out of the gutter! but let’s face it, that’s what you thought, right? It’s certainly what I thought. Yet the person who posted that to a company Facebook page didn’t even see it.

You’ve heard me say this many times, and it’s the truth: if you’re in the communication business—and if you use words at all, ever, you’re in the communication business—you need an editor.

And sometimes you could use a copywriter.

Some years ago (it was 2005, about a year after the launch of Facebook at Harvard), when I had just begun freelancing and was doing a lot of networking, I met with an active local chapter of a national business organization to speak with their members about why they should hire a professional copywriter (that is, me) to manage their written communication.

Big companies do. The have a “communications manager.” Or they hire a PR person. One requirement for either job is undoubtedly strong writing skills, with sides of creativity and self-editing experience.

For the presentation to this group I took examples of Yellow Pages ads, websites, client letters, pamphlets and brochures, and so on, all with communication mistakes like the one above. Some were obvious, some were less obvious. Sometimes I just showed them how the message could have been more clear. Or simpler, so the reader got the idea quickly. (A teacher friend of mine tells me that recent research shows that our attention span has fallen from twelve seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2015. Eight seconds, for pity’s sake.)

So if you want to grab someone’s attention, you’d better do it fast.

But my presentation didn’t convince anyone. These were all small business owners, and they were simply not interested in spending money like this. Pay someone to write? Every person at that table already knew how to write! They’d learned how to write in school. They didn’t need a copywriter.

I don’t mean to be insensitive. I have a small business myself, and I know businesses have to make budget allocation decisions. A professional copywriter has to be paid (though perhaps not as much a you think). But the person who wrote the post above likely didn’t even consider that he or she was writing copy. That’s how little people value words these days.

Still, I’d tell any small business owner that investing in a freelance copywriter is money well spent. And if not a copywriter, an editor to look things over (sometimes you get both for the price of one). An editor would have noticed that expose right away. That one sentence might have become …

We help clients put their best foot forward at trade shows, presentations, conferences, events, and celebrations.

Sure, best foot forward is a cliché, but when you only have one sentence (sixteen words!), a cliché will be understood by many. Or you could say …

We help our clients present their goods and services at trade shows, presentations, conferences, events, and celebrations.

It’s boring but does the job. Eight seconds, remember. Or …

We’ll help you look good at trade shows, presentations, conferences, events, and celebrations.

I’d go on, but you get the idea. A copywriter and/or an editor can save you time and face. Don’t expose yourself to ridicule!

Tweet: Everybody knows how to write, right? It’s debatable.
Tweet: Small business owner? Investing in a freelance copywriter is money well spent.

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 : Hillbilly Elegy

It was at this meal, on the first of five grueling days of interviews, that I began to understand that I was seeing the inner workings of a system that lay hidden to most of my kind. Our career office had emphasized the importance of sounding natural and being someone the interviewers wouldn’t mind sitting with on an airplance. … Our interviews weren’t so much about grades or résumés, we were told; thanks to a Yale Law pedigree, one foot was already in the door. The interviews were about passing a social test—a test of belonging, of holding your own in a corporate boardroom, of making connections with potential future clients.

The most difficult test was the one I wasn’t even required to take: getting an audience in the first place. … It was pretty clear that there was some mysterious force at work, and I had just tapped into it for the first time. I had always thought that when you need a job, you look online for job postings. And then you submit a dozen résumés. And then you hope that someone calls you back. If you’re lucky, maybe a friend puts your résumé at the top of the pile. If you’re qualified for a very high-demand profession, like accounting, maybe the job search comes a bit easier. But the rules are basically the same.

The problem is, virtually everyone who plays by those rules fails. That week of interviews showed me that successful people are playing an entirely different game. They don’t flood the job market with résumés, hoping that some employer will grace them with an interview. They network. They email a friend of a friend to make sure their name gets the look it deserves. They have their uncles call old college buddies. They have their school’s career service office set up interviews months in advance on their behalf. They have parents tell them how to dress, what to say, and whom to schmooze.

That doesn’t mean the strength of your résumé or interview performance is irrelevant. Those things certainly matter. But there is enormous value in what economists call social capital. It’s a professor’s term, but the concept is pretty simple: The networks of people and institutions around us have real economic value. They connect us to the right people, ensure that we have opportunities, and impart valuable information. Without them, we’re going it alone.

I learned this the hard way … [The last interviewer asked a question for which I was laughably unprepared. My answer wasn’t the smartest thing I could have said.] The interviewer looked at me like I had three eyes, and the conversation never recovered.

I was certain I was toast. I had flubbed the interview in the worst way. But behind the scenes, one of my recommenders was already working the phones. She told the hiring partner that I was a smart, good kid and would make an excellent lawyer. “She raved about you,” I later heard. So when the recruiters called to schedule the next round of interviews, I made the cut. I eventually got the job, despite failing miserably at what I perceived was the most important part of the recruiting process. The old adage says that it’s better to be lucky than good. Apparently having the right network is better than both.

—J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (HarperCollins, 2016)

Some thoughts about this book:

• Vance is young and brave and admirable in every way. He’s just six months younger than my own son, so in some ways I feel like I know him. My son was raised by a single mother too. (Though I hasten to add I have never been addicted to painkillers or heroin.) Vance spreads around a lot of thanks for his good fortune (his grandparents, his sister, four years in the marines, one of his college professors, his wife), but I give him a lot of credit for his own success.

• It’s a very provocative book, no matter how you’d solve the socioeconomic problems that exist in Appalachia and surrounding regions, which is where Vance’s story takes place. And he certainly doesn’t sugarcoat the failings of his family or the people group from which his family emanates, raising questions about personal responsibility and hillbilly culture as well as economic insecurity. These are tough times, and what Vance perfectly describes is despair.

• Some of the copyediting decisions (or were they simply mistakes?) bothered me, including goodbye (which should be good-bye).

• I could have chosen the sad section about the poverty of Appalachian hillbillies, or the one about the white working class, how hard they work. There were several passages I thought about using. But I chose this one about social capital because I’ve seen it in action myself. It’s an intriguing concept. This book is full of interesting ideas and things to think about. Definitely recommended.

Tweet: J. D. Vance is young and brave and admirable in every way. Read the book.
Tweet: Hillbilly Elegy: Vance doesn’t sugarcoat the failings of his family or people group.

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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Those Important First Pages

Sometimes you set out to do a thing for one reason … only to find it was so much more than you ever imagined. More than you could have actually planned. In this case, I learned just how much value can be wrung out of focusing on the first chapter and how it relates to the rest of the plot.

Months ago I donated a First Pages package to a national writer’s group for their scholarship* auction. In a First Pages package I ask for a one-page synopsis (500 to 1000 words) and the first chapter, about 3000 to 5000 words. In this case, I told the sponsors I’d take 8000 words for this special deal. I also placed a slightly higher value on it than I would normally charge to cover anything unusual that might come up. When it was all over, the committee put the winning bidder and me together via email. We communicated about scheduling and then we got started.

As it turned out, I had quite a bit of email conversation with the author who bought the package. We went round and round for days. Some days I waited impatiently for her next email.

My author’s manuscript was romantic suspense, but the premise threw a third person into the mix, a character who kept trying to run away with the plotline. We tweaked the synopsis and took care of that. As we did so, the author began to realize the third character had been masking the fact that her two main characters weren’t very interesting (her words and assessment), so while we allowed the third character to step backward into the periphery where she belonged, we added details to the two main characters’ backstories to make them more compelling. We didn’t actually change much about the scene in which we’re introduced to them—a little dialogue, a few facial expressions—but now the motivation seemed much more clear.

I also was a little unexcited by the first paragraph—the oh-so-important opening paragraph—so I suggested some ways to make it more active, less passive, and to start revealing character early on. The author grokked my thoughts right away and the next time I looked at that opener, wow, it was great. We continued to discuss and tweak the synopsis too.

And then we were finished. The author herself decided she’d gotten what she needed from our interaction, and she cut me loose, although I invited her to keep in touch.

Thank you so much for all of the excellent advice to improve my manuscript. I really like all of your ideas about where and how I can increase the romantic tension between my two main characters, and I appreciate your point that I need to focus on [male character] and [female character], rather then let [that other character] steal the story. You really are amazing. Rather than just offer a critique, you actually took the time to figure out what I needed to do to make the story work—even though I didn’t know it myself! You can add psychologist, motivational coach, and mind reader to your résumé.

It made my day.

But here’s the thing—this was fun for me. :) Fun! I’d say I had three hours of actual time in those nineteen pages, including detailed notes over three passes. It helped that this author “got” what I was saying and was able to run with it. I feel great about the work we did.

The first pages of your novel set the tone; introduce your characters, milieu, and motivation; set the story in motion; and—we all hope—make the reader want to keep turning the pages. Take special care with those pages.

I’ve always loved to read and write and talk about what I’m reading to anyone who would listen, so I guess it was only a matter of time before I managed to stumble into the work I was meant to do, even if that stumbling around in the dark took the first half of my life. :) I’m here now, wide-eyed and loving every minute of it. Next!

* Scholarships would pay for registration at the national conference, where aspiring authors attend classes; meet agents, editors, and other authors; and just generally marinate in the writing business for a few days.

 

Tweet: I learned just how much value can be wrung out of focusing on the 1st chapter.
Tweet: Take special care with those all-important first pages.

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 : 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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