April 7th, 2013
When I was teaching short-story writing to high-school students, the first exercises I asked them to do involved dreaming up a character. One assignment was to write a description of this character’s home (I also gave them the option of drawing the place, but few took me up on it). This assignment was amazingly successful–students wrote in great detail, especially girls. Some took it as a basically a shopping fantasty, stocking the fictional rooms with brand-name bling, but almost everyone was able to flesh out a setting to an extent that you could see it in your mind. I was impressed at how carefully they worked their way around a space, describing each piece of furniture in turn.
The reason I gave this assignment is it’s a good, concrete way to start developing character–showing the objects a character would acquire and keep close is a good way to start to edge in on who he or she is. If you were to realize that the only two items of furniture I contributed to the living room I share with my husband are an easy chair from my childhood bedroom and an end table my father got with green stamps in the sixties (like a prototypical Air Miles), you would know a few things about me: cheap, partial to nostalgia.
The problem was, I suppose, the leap I expected the students to be making when they did the exercises–I wanted them to use these bits of character development to guide the story they would write: a person who would dress like this, who would own furniture like this, would *be* like this and in certain circumstances… When it came time to put together a first draft of their stories, I said they could “draw on” any of the exercises they’d previously done. Mainly, this translated into a long, pointlessly detailed description of a room in every story.
I tried to explain that the room descriptions were for the *them*, the writers–a way to gain more insight into their characters. Once they knew enough, they could show the characters in tiny details a reader could absorb easily, and not need these towering stacks of details. If you know a character well enough, you barely have to describe him/her at all–you know exactly how to nail it down.
My students were pissed–the concept of writing for themselves, writing to make later writing better, writing that they got no marks for, all foreign to them. I could not convince most of them to remove these descriptions. Even when I suggested they didn’t need to replace it with anything, even when I said other character work elsewhere in the piece was strong enough to carry it, even with no word-count minimum, and my pointed comments that the description was making the story awkward and dull, they refused to take work they had done off the page.
Which is totally natural when you are 15 and never wanted to take a creative writing class in the first place. But it is a helpful reminder for those of us who are allegedly adults and writing for the love it, that just because I wrote it doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile, and just because it’s worthwhile doesn’t mean it needs to go *in* the story. I do a lot of writing *towards* a story–exploring backstory, motivations, minor characters–that seems to me as I write to in fact be part of the story itself. It will illuminate things for the reader, I tell myself, or else that this is part of the narrator’s thought process and should naturally be included. Then when I read it through, I realize I was just doing some kind of imaginative research in order to get to the point where i knew the characters well enough to write the scene and…chop, chop, chop.
It is too easy to leave that stuff in, because even unnecessary writing is hard and it hurts to kill something that took a long time to create. But it’s self-indulgent to do otherwise–ok for 15-year-olds, but not anyone who actually wants to be taken seriously.
I’m on this topic because I recently started researching clothing styles and brands. Normally, the characters I write about dress like people I know, so if clothing comes up I know how to describe it, and even if it doesn’t come up, I know how characters would react to, say, sitting on the floor, or spilled wine–I know what they’re wearing and how they feel about what they’re wearing. But I’m starting on a character whose clothes are a lot nicer than anyone’s I know, and they are important to her–important enough I can’t get away with a vague impression of silhouettes and shades. The Mighty J recommended a wonderful and addictive site called Polyvore. It’s basically paper dolls with current designer clothes, and it’s a wonderful way to make outfits for characters if you’re not too fashion-savvy and the characters are. It’s also SO fun playing matchup with unrelated clothes, and I’m saying this as a person who is currently wearing and orange skirt, orange tights, and one of her father’s dress shirts from the 60s.
Of course i spent a tonne of time playing around and I got to the point where I was able to imagine this woman’s clothes, her budget, her body issues, her brand awareness. I also had a couple nice outfits lined up and I knew where in the story she’d wear them. It is now *very* tempting to start putting brand names in the story, long descriptions of the exact sheen of shoe leather, the fit of a skirt. I need, largely, to resist this temptation. The character owns the clothes; she’s used to them, and not dazzled by how pretty they are because she has lots of pretty clothes. If I go all schoolgirl and start kvelling in detail about everything in her closet is, it undermines the character’s own take on things, which is much more arch and unimpressed. It will also take up a lot of space when the story isn’t *about* clothes; they’re really just a character detail that it was important to imagine correctly in order to imagine the whole woman correctly.
So, according to my 15-year-old students and sometimes my own interior whiny voice, I basically wasted several hours creating material–outfits–that can’t go in the story. Which is ridiculous–I couldn’t write about the character this well any other way. I’m guessing there are people in the world who are more efficient and don’t need to do this sort of research, and good for them, but I am learning to be accepting of my somewhat circuitous process. From talking to other writers, this is not so unusual, though they may be in the library, at an archive, or at a museum–it’s just hard to use most research most of the time. But it’s still really worth doing, I’d say (also, Polyvore=the funnest!)
September 29th, 2011
Monday afternoon, I went with the lovely Laura Boudreau to visit our shared alma mater, the University of Toronto’s Masters in English in the Field of Creative Writing program. Hosted by the always amazing Rosemary Sullivan, we got to read to the class, and then answer questions and chat about “the writing life.”
I love doing this sort of thing, but I should probably not over-indulge. When people ask me what I think and then I tell them while they silently write it down, it gives me inappropriate delusions that I am correct, and possibly a genius, when I’m just…talking.
Anyway, the class yesterday gave me a chance to expostulate on one of my theories about writing, and since no one contradicted me I am more convinced than ever that I am correct. But…perhaps not. What do you think? Here’s my theory…
Someone had asked if Laura and I wrote outlines before we began work on actually writing stories, and if we thought it would be a problem to just start writing and see where the story took you. I said that I never outline and probably can’t outline–I just go with some characters in my head, and a vague idea of what they might do. Usually they don’t do that thing at all, but 12 other small things, 7 of which I cut in later drafts.
But I think it’s ok. I think that there are two gifts that a writer could potentially have in her brain, and most people get mainly one, with perhaps a splash of the other thrown in. The first potential gift would be the ability to outline, to sketch and map and plan until all that remains is to write it! You hear people say that sort of thing, “It’s all in my head, I just have to write it down,” and largely they are crazy, but some people who have it “all” not in their heads but on notecards taped in an ascending line on the wall, might actually mean it.
But if you don’t get the outlining gift, then you are me and you get a different one–the revising gift! I am excellent at looking at the lumpy, twisty, incoherent mess that is almost all my first drafts and pulling something ressembling a story out of it. And I am excellent at reworking that second draft again (and again) until it even ressembles–sorta–a good short story. And then I ask other people what they think, and use their feedback to write yet another draft. And then maybe I stop…and maybe not.
No matter how long the process takes, I rarely lose patience with revisions–I figure they’re the price I have to pay for not outlining. And I hate outlining, because it’s more interesting to me to write the story not knowing how it turns out, and also because I am bad at it (I hate soccor for that reason, too). I figure outliners hate revising–they like writing the story complete and having it come out pretty close to done. I don’t think anyone writes a perfect first draft, but I do know folks who can get pretty close, and then just go back and “tidy up” in revisions. Whereas I wholesale deconstruct and rebuild.
If you can’t write an outline and you hate revising, you’re probably either a genius who just bang out a good story with no fore- or afterthoughts, or–more likely–someone who is not cut out for the writing life. I really think you have to be one or the other to write anything: an essay, journalism, academic writing, whatever.
But I could be wrong. Especially since I’ve never written a novel, or anything super-long. Maybe when something is 200+ pages, you *have* to outline. What do you think??
October 28th, 2010
Note 1: This post has been edited because, ironically, part of it wasn’t very clear the first time out.
Note 2: I’m not really that obnoxious in restaurants.
I could be accused of ranting about spelling and grammar in this space–I have no choice but to hang my head in shame. I’ve been making resolutions to stop it, to accept that language is fluid and evolving (well, I’m trying, AMT>) but every time I read certain things, I want to get back into the grammar ranting game.
On the weekend, I was thinking about about what sort of post I could write that would, a) help people care to some grammar rules and b) not come off as pretentious and bitchy. And then last night I had this magical dream (did you just stop reading this post? probably). I was eating a nice Italian restaurant called Lemon House (not real, but should be!) and having a really hard time deciding on what to eat. The waiter came over and we spent a long time discussing what I might like. For some reason, once I decided, I asked him, “What is a waiter’s job?” And he responded, “A waiter is your advocate in the kitchen.” (for the record, I got some fancy pizza that was excellent).
When I woke up, I knew the dream was about editors. Editors are readers’ advocate with the writers–they try to get good stories for readers the same way waiters try to get good food for hungry people. Really good editors take what the writer *wants* to say, and tries to help the reader understand–by removing excess words, replacing ambiguous phrases, tightening structure, and correcting errors. Editors also word towards “felicity”–work that sounds good and pleasing to the ear. But the definition of “felicity” is best left to the debate between the writers and eds themselves.
My point is, most editorial work is not about telling writers they are “wrong,” but helping writers get their ideas to readers in a way that will be understood and appreciated by the most people possible.
Which is why certain language “mistakes” can probably allowed to stand–though it kills me, spelling “all right” as “alright” probably confuses no one. Other sorts of error, though, I’m going to keep right on ranting about, because no matter how common they get, they still impede meaning.
Like what, Rebecca? is what I know you are asking.
Like using the posessive pronoun to modify a singular noun when a plural is meant. I don’t even know why people do this–typing that “s” is not that exhausting. It’s sadly common, and the results can be really baffling. Like this:
“I can’t stand that hipster couple. They both always park their car right over the sidewalk.”
So–was that hipster couple sharing a car, and whoever is driving it consistently parked over the sidewalk? Then the sentence above is correct. However, if a very common error has been made, there were two cars–each individually parked over the sidewalk by one person each (I think this is where the erroneous idea takes hold) but definitely plural in the sentence above.
In this particular case, you could eventually say “who cares? People are so mean to hipsters” unless you are a bi-law officer, in which case you could go look at the sidewalk and count the cars. But my point (eh?) is that if 10 pages later, the two hipsters have a head-on collision with each other, the reader has been prevented from making a clear picture in her head, and worse, drawn out of whatever the writer wants her to think about (evil hipsters) to wonder, “I thought they had only one car?” which in fact the number of cars shouldn’t matter at all.
This is a very small issue, but it’s only small when you make yourself perfectly clear, so the reader doesn’t think of herself as reading grammar, just a story.
Thank you, magic dream waiter.
May 29th, 2010
After yesterday’s “I’m right about everything” rant, I came across this in a story of mine that had unaccountably been rejected by yet another magazine: “undulant wave.” What does undulant mean? Why, wavelike, of course. So, what I meant apparently was “wavelike wave.” The generous editors sent me a bunch of feedback on pacing and dialogue, but I think we all know why this one was really rejected.
January 13th, 2010
Remember last week when I was miserable? I read a lot, and every time I came across some vocabulary error I went on a (silent) rant about whatever it was being basic knowledge and who were these writers who didn’t even know the definition of “savory”??
Of course, that’s nonsense–vocabulary’s hard, because once you think you know a word, why on earth would you look it up to confirm the definition? If the word is esoteric, you might not even use it in conversation often enough for someone who knows better to hear it and correct you. You are stuck with this erroneous impression for life, perhaps…
I’ve carried mistakes around unvoiced for years, only to be blown away when, for example, my TA couldn’t understand what I meant when I said “re-TOR-ick” and another student had to step in and say, “I think she means rhetoric,” as if I were an over-precocious child or perhaps a trained monkey. Er, ahem, that was a bad day.
Anyway, this is a (modestly) good day, and I am ready to assert some things about some words in the hopes that it’ll help someone and, if I get anything wrong, some kind commenter will step in quickly to set me straight and save me from years of further errors. You’d do that for me, wouldn’t you?
I’m going to skip over where I found these errors, as the works in questions were actually pretty good and I don’t wish to embarrass anyone (as that oblivious TA did to me!!)
You can’t call sweets “savory,” because they are sweet. Foods that are savory have a predominant flavour of herbs, spices, salt, or some combination thereof. They are what one eats for appetizers or the interesting part of main courses (the potatoes/bread/pasta are the bland part). When someone is having a potluck and realizes that all the guests are bringing cakes and cookies and they say, “We have too many sweets and not enough…not-sweets,” what they mean is savory. In this context, sweet and savory are opposites–fruits, candies, cakes’n'pies, etc. are never savory–the issue I came across was a fruit being described that way, which sounds horrid (imagine a salty spicy strawberry!) I think the confusion arises from the verb “to savor” , one definition of which is to enjoy a flavour. That flavour can be anything, sweet or savory, so you see how people could think anything worth savoring could be described as savory but, sadly, it’s not.
I’m using American spellings here, because those are the dictionary references I could find online. In Canada, it should really be “savoury” and “to savour”.
Bemusement means confusion, not amusement…or am I confused? I was taught ages ago that bemusement is a kind of gentle confusion, often with some ironic tolerance built in–you can be bemused by your toddler’s insistence on putting toys in the fridge, but you can’t be bemused in the chaos after a car accident (well, I can’t). But then while I was fishing for online definitions for this post, I came across this one, which seems to imply that bemuse *can* be a 50-cent synonym for “amuse,” as I often hear it used. Is this a commonly accepted definition–anyone know?
That which you choose, that or which, makes a difference. This one breaks my heart, because it is such a useful nuance of language and I’m pretty sure it’s going to die out. I recently lost an argument with a teenaged friend about why *not* spell “all right” as “alright”–my argument, because we already have a perfectly good way of spelling it and the new way does not add any new angle to the word, nor even save all that much energy not typing the second L and the space. His argument was, well, people often do, and are perfectly well understood. Then the example of “hoodie” for “hooded sweatshirt” came up, and that’s an evolution I rather like, as the slang word for a sloppy article of clothing seems so appropriate, plus the word reflects how people actually talk, and does save a lot of typing time.
So, fine, I accept “hoodie” as an addition to the language, and “alright” as at least not much of a subtraction, but losing the that/which distinction leaves us poorer, I think. And I do think it’s going, despite many people’s adherence, because fellow *editors* ask me about this one, and though they listen and even write it down when I explain, they always end by saying, “Thanks. I never remember that one,” as if it were impossible to learn and not much of a loss, anyway. But here it is, one more time, with feeling:
Use that with no comma to introduce a restrictive clause–thus, to limit the statement to being about some part of a larger group. For example, to say, “Lorna thought about the sex she had with Steve that was great,” is to say, she thought about *some* of the sex she had with Steve, the times that were great, but not the other, less stellar, times.
On the other hand, use which with a comma to introduce a non-restrictive clause–that is, a clause that adds extra information about *all* of the topic at hand, and doesn’t separate out a subsection as different. Thus, to say, “Lorna thought about the sex she had with Steve, which was great,” says to us that Lorna is thinking about all the times she and Steve had gotten together, and by the way, it was always great.
You see there’s a big difference here, right? Both for Lorna (and Steve!) and for the reader. If you run into this baffling construction–”Lorna thought about the sex with Steve which was great”–who the hell knows how good their sex lives are?
Sometimes I get the impression that people think grammar rules are just snobbery, like rules about what fork to use for the shrimp–a way for people who know to feel that they are better than those that don’t know. And frankly, on really tough days, sometimes the grammar that I do know (which is certainly not all of it) is all I have to cling to. In truth, when it comes to Latinate rules like not ending a sentence with a preposition, it really is just rules for the sake of rules, but when it comes to Lorna and Steve, I think sentence construction does matter and is worth thinking about!
I would love to know, oh Rose-coloured readers, does anyone observe the that/which distinction anymore? Don’t be afraid–it’s 21 C in my apartment today, so I can take the bad news if it happens that you don’t!
Thanks for reading–it felt really good to get all that off my chest!
December 2nd, 2009
The weird doppleganger-y fact that I work in book publishing and also myself wrote a book that was published has minimal impact. I was perhaps slightly calmer about certain aspects of the process because I already knew them from the other side, or at least from publishing school, and I already had some publishing friends when I started going to industry events. But that’s about it. Most my knowledge is about pretty specific types of books and situations, or else it’s the sort of fun trivia that doesn’t really help with anything.
But I am extremely fond of the book world, because it is my world twice-over, and because it produces one of the things I like best. So I like to talk about it, and encourage others to talk about it correctly. Statements like “Editing must be such a cushy job, just sitting around and reading” and “I should be an editor, because I always find typos in the Canadian Tire flier” always make me cringe.
So, though I don’t think any aspiring-to-be-published writer *needs* any of these terms below (everyone will introduce themselves with whatever title they prefer), all these jobs are interesting and knowing about them conveys respect for the work done. So:
What Happens to Books that Get Published, Who Does What, and Why
(note: this is book stuff only. If you are publishing in a newspaper, journal, magazine or on the web, the processes are substantially different).
At the very beginning of the publishing process, the book gets acquired by the acquisitions editor. That’s not a real exclusive position in most (all?) Canadian publishing houses–most books here are acquired by senior editorial staff who may edit some titles and pass on others to more junior staff. Publishers, editors-in-chief, and editors may all acquire. And then again, given the structure of a given house, some of these people may not acquire, or those positions might not even exist. And then there’s the exception to everything, college and university textbooks, which are often acquired by sales reps. It’s complicated.
Your book is substantively edited. This is what it sounds like: substantial changes like, “Should this character be a man? I think the third chapter would be a great ending–what do you think? And if possible the book should be about 150 pages shorter.” These changes can come from one or max two people–your book’s editor. Depending on how big the house and your book’s important, you could get someone with a fancier title, someone subject specific or, occasionally, a freelancer. Someone with the title assistant editor would edit books too, but likely smaller projects, and with some oversight.
Whoever is doing the work, these changes will come in the form of a conversation. Suggestions will be made–in person or over the phone, or else in a “notes” letter or email–but no one will rewrite your book. They will suggest how *you* could rewrite it, sometimes alot (or a little; often it’s more along the lines of, “Maybe combine chapters 2 and 3,” or “Could there be only a few cheerleaders described, rather than the whole squad?”)
Interestingly, this process *could* happen *before* acquisitions, if you happen to have an agent who is good at substantive editing. Most will have some suggestions, I think, before they are ready to take a manuscript out into the world under their name. But even after an agent has fine-tuned things, an editor is definitely going to have a go at the work.
This process could last a month or years, depending on your style, your editor’s style, and how much work the book needs. And remember, editors read every draft you send, carefully, and they are doing this for many books at the same time.
Some books are then line edited. Again, could be freelanced out or done by one of the in-house people above. A single editor really shouldn’t do two steps in the process because they lose the ability to see details, but given finances and deadlines, that might happen and likely it’ll be fine.
A line-edit is an interrogation of how the book is written, line by line. A line editor questions or sometimes rewrites (authors get a chance to approve) awkward, unclear, or infelitous sentences, deletes redundancies, questions continuity and factual errors, and cleans up cluttered prose.
Most “literary” books aren’t really line-edited–the words are supposed to be the *point* with literary novels and short-stories, and if there are a lot of problems with the prose, the house likely just wouldn’t take it on. But with an action thriller, a textbook, or a biography of a dead president, often the writer is very good at or knowledgeable about something necessary that is not writing. The line editor saves them from themselves, and they appreciate the efforts, while many literary authors would throw themselves on their swords if they received their manuscript back with many of the words changed.
Everything in prose gets copyedited. Poetry gets the substantive-edit conversations above and the proofread below–but no one actually messes with the words much. I think it’s assumed that poems are a bit too precise and personal for an editor to tinker with. They might suggest a new way of thinking about it, or *possibly* a new wording or structure that *might* improve things, but poets generally have few enough words that they are thought to have a firm bead on all of them.
Not so much us prosists. Copyedits are for spelling, grammar, house style rules, and, if there wasn’t a line edit, continuity and factual errors, as well as the occasional sentence that, in the cold light of day, doesn’t make much sense. Unlike the above processes, copyedits are (almost always) *not* a conversation. You should get to see it, mind, when it is complete, and veto any changes you disagree with, but copyeditors and writers almost never get to interact.
Either at this point or just before the copyedit (depending on the company) the manuscript has made the jump from the editorial department to production. Post-copyedit, the manuscript and those copyediting changes have any art, photos, illustrations, or other weird stuff added to them. Then they are passed to a page compositor or typesetter who makes that scribbled over manuscript into something that looks like pages of a book, only a bit sloppy and printed on 8.5×11 paper.
Then someone hires a proofreader (this is almost always freelance) to check the typeset pages against the copyedited manuscript to make sure a) everything got in, b) the pages are formatted correctly, and c) the copyeditor didn’t miss anything. Authors do not generally see proofreads, as no major changes are being made at this point, and likely the whole project is running late (well, usually).
Unless, of course, the author is asked to *do* the proofread, which happens often with scholarly books (both because the publishers lack budgets and because it is hard to get a proofreader knowledgeable enough in an esoteric fields (and when you are at the point of publishing a full-length academic book, all fields are esoteric). This is good and bad: good, in that the writer usually cares more about the project than anyone else possibly could, and will therefore be extremely vigilant. Bad, because the author knows his/her own material well enough to not really see typos–s/he imagines it is correct because the version in her/his head is what is actually being seen, and that is perfect. Also, most authors tend not to know too much about page formatting. But this usually works out.
A time-and-money saver is to postphone the copyedit until after the pages have been composed and then the copyeditor can check for format issues too. This will only work if it is a very light copyedit, as all altered pages are just going to have to be checked again. This is what was done with *Once*, which of course had very very few errors in it, so it worked just fine.
After this point, mainly, with many exceptions and irregularities, the computer files that constitute the book are checked in various ways and then sent to the printers (out of house, almost always), along with cover files. And from this, the printers manufacture an actual concrete physical item that is the book.
In an effort to make this post not insanely boring and of reasonably length, I’ve left out lots of people from this process: managing and production editors (that’s me!), interns, administrative assistants, and executive types. And there are legions of other folks at the actual print shop, and once it’s done, sales reps to get it stores, marketing people, publicity people, in-house finance and tech support and those guys who get the boxes from the warehouse. And the people who work in the stores!! It’s an amazing network, and even though yesterday I put some 11×17 pages around my head like a bonnet in an unconscious stress reaction, I am still proud to be a part of it. Mainly.
July 2nd, 2009
Strangely, this year the Toronto Fringe Festival runs from July 1 to 12, while the Scream Literary Festival will run July 2 to 13. Strange because these are both such amazingly awesome weirdy cultural events that appeal to so many of the very same people (both as attendees and likely as volunteers) that you’d think they wouldn’t want to compete. But who knows, in the world of schedules and venues, what hardships these two teams suffered from, so all we can do is thank our stars we at least have 2 weeks to jam in as much as we can.
If you held a gun/dayplanner to my head, I’d have to come out for lit over theatre, so I’ll be hoping to see you at Stet: Redacting the Redacted, the Joyland Joyathon (well, I’m participating in that!), and of course the big mainstage reading on July 13. But there should be world enough and time to sneak in at least 36 Plays about Hopeless Girls, if not a couple others.
Really, when you have to complain about having too many alternatives for fun, you are really scraping the bottom of the complain barrel. Oh, Toronto, you rule my heart!
Our home and native land
January 4th, 2009
I love it when everything I want to post about connects to a theme, and today’s theme is publishing as a team sport. You’ve heard about this from me before, but here’s some stuff from other people:
–at the Joyland Blog, Emily Schultz on “How I was Housebroken”. The piece is about learning to work with an editor. The article is so very wise and useful in urging writers towards the best-case scenario:
“Change can be scary, but presumably if you respect the publication you’ve sent your work to, it means you also respect the editor or editors.”
Any writer can learn and improve so much if they respect editors (good ones) as insightful professionals who know something about the writer’s work the writer herself doesn’t know: how it reads to someone who hasn’t spent several years living inside it. Emily shows beautifully how to make the most of that insightful person, without any sacrifice of art or ego. Really, it’s possible.
–Or then the worst-case scenario, in David Sipress’s cartoon. Everyone keeps pointing out that I’m so lucky this didn’t happen to me, and I know I am, but hell, if it’s typical even of the New Yorker set, it’s worth emphasizing.
“It is extremely well-written (and edited and published). Cudos to all who had a hand in it. Many are waiting to see what you will come up with next.”
Bless your body / bless your soul / pray for peace / and self-control