Category Archives: Writing

Becoming a professional writer

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The new cover!

The new cover!

A while ago, I decided that  one of my self-published books needed a new cover. I’d done the original, back in the days when I thought I could do it all. I have a little graphics experience. I thought I could make it work. But no. If my cover is anything to go by, I best leave cover design to the professionals.

So I commissioned a new cover, and then I thought—in for a penny, in for a pound. I’ll move it into print, too. Get it out onto more platforms. Go the whole nine yards. After all, I want to be a professional novelist, right? I have to act like a professional novelist.

To go into print, the cover needs a spine–the part of the cover that faces outward when the book is on the shelf. The spine width is determined by how many pages the book has. So then I thought, I should do a quick edit pass, take out one excerpt from the back, and make sure this book is as tight as it could be.

How much have I edited so far? Not counting the excerpt I deleted, I’ve cut 8,500 words from the original manuscript. I’m happy about it. The book is better, and readers will kill fewer trees when they buy it. Now I have a second edition, edited for conciseness and clarity. I feel that I’ve made a good professional decision in upgrading this book.

Not that my family gets it, exactly. What do you say when your friends and relations ask you what you do? Do you tell them you’re a writer? And if you say that you are a writer, how do you answer the follow-up questions? (Is there a lot of money in that? Where do you get your ideas? How do I get an agent? Can I give you this great idea, and then we can split the profits?)

Tom Coyne, a published author and creative writing teacher at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, reminds us that writing is about process, not perfection. See what else he has to say about calling yourself a professional writer.

http://magazine.nd.edu/news/49016/

Dumping Helga

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scissorsI’ve been revising my WIP for some weeks now. I have a lot of work to do yet—my last chapter is 15,000 words. Bad! There’s no escalation whatsoever from my last turning point to the end. Also bad. I’ve got a Dark Night of the Soul that’s written essentially as “Gosh, bummer.” (That would be my inability to write conflict.) I’ve got a final climax and triumph that’s essentially “Gee, great.” (That would be my inability to write anything, evidently.)

And now, I’m pretty sure I have to delete Helga.

Helga is the girlfriend of my antagonist, and she gives him depth. He’s crazy about her (in a good and healthy way, I hope). He calls. He writes. He buys her little presents. He’s texting her when he should be thinking of villainous things to do to the protagonist.

Helga reciprocates. She’s so worried about my antagonist that when she’s sure he’s gone off and done something stupid and wrong and just plain dangerous (good head on her shoulders, that Helga), she goes after him to dissuade him from whatever dastardly course he’s set on.

I like Helga. She’s focused and determined, cynical and practical. My critique partner wrote in one paragraph, “Love Helga!”—but then just one paragraph later, “I’m losing interest in this scene, and I don’t know why.”

I had to agree with her—I’d lost interest in that scene, too, and all the other scenes with Helga. Where was my protagonist? Antagonist? My hero? When were my heroine and hero going to kiss, for pete’s sake?

Helga has to go.

I read a dumb-ish article the other day about the 10 elements a good movie must have. Number three was “sense of camaraderie.” I realized that’s the first reason Helga has to go. She’s not part of the community. She’s not central to the story. She doesn’t come in until half-way through (nor should she), and at that point it’s too late to become part of the Scooby gang.

The other reason, and it’s probably the same as the first reason—she’s just not that central to the plot. What she does is peripheral. That doesn’t have to be bad, but secondary characters should interact meaningfully with the major characters, or (and) they have to reflect the story ideas, themes, or motifs.

Helga doesn’t do any of that.

It’s hard to say goodbye. Besides that I like her, and she occupies a fair amount of space—in the 5K–7K word count, maybe more. I’ll have to make that up somewhere. Not to mention the transitions I’ll have to write to cover her tracks.

But revising Helga to be more relevant, useful, and major isn’t the answer. I think the way to go is to delete her (sorry, Helga! Maybe another time) and build the action and consequences of my major characters. (Note to self: we’ve got a really lousy Dark Night of the Soul to improve and expand.)

I could be wrong. I have a long road of revising ahead of me, and I might change my mind. But right now, I’m thinking that Helga has to get off the bus.

We have to make room for the passengers who really count.

 

 

 

It’s in the eyes

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Photo of an ancient Egyptian funerary mask from the Papyrus Museum, Vienna, by Diana Ringo. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Photo of an ancient Egyptian funerary mask from the Papyrus Museum, Vienna, by Diana Ringo. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

I write contemporary romance novels with a strong secondary plot, or contemporary novels with a strong romance plot, depending on which agent or editor you’re talking to. Although I like reading and writing romance, making the couple’s interest in each other believable is difficult. Escalating the romance with the action plot is complicated, and how do you show that these people are right for each other? As a writer, you have to get past looks. What makes readers know that these two will survive lust and hang in for the long haul? And how can I show that on the page?

As it (conveniently!) happens, two University of Chicago neuroscientists have studied how people look at each other when they’re in love—or lust. John and Stephanie Cacioppo examined whether people look at others differently if they perceive a long-term companion, or a temporary sexual partner.

They showed heterosexual college students photos of persons of the opposite sex. The researchers asked subjects whether an image elicited feelings of romance or lust, and tracking software recorded participants’ eye movements.

The results, published in Psychological Science, aren’t shocking, or even surprising. The researchers found that people interested in the long haul focus on the eyes and face of the other person. But those who want a fling focus on the rest of the body. Both men and women engage in this behavior, but women are less obvious about it. The scientists speculated that this might be because women have better peripheral vision.

This study corroborates their earlier findings. The Cacioppos had already conducted brain scans that proved that love and lust occupy different parts of the brain’s insula—true love activates its anterior region, but sexual desire lights up its posterior. Posterior regions are involved in current, concrete sensations, feelings, and responses, according to the researchers, “whereas anterior regions are more involved in abstract, integrative representations.”

The study results seem obvious, but still good to know. As the researchers say: “Reading other people’s eyes is a valuable skill during interpersonal interaction.” And that’s got to be a good skill for romance—and any other kind of—writer to understand. When your heroine reveals her deepest secrets—that’s when the hero has to look into her eyes. But when they’re dancing and she’s wearing a short skirt—it’s all about the legs.

The eyes have it!

 

 

Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

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A great American writer has joined history. The message of the poem she wrote and read at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inaugural, “On the Pulse of Morning,” about how diversity enriches and strengthens us as a nation, stands in stark contrast to the actions of a young, disturbed madman in Santa Barbara recently.

Many others more eloquent than I have written about her themes of hope, love, inclusion, and dignity. If I can learn to write with one-third her power, I will count myself successful.

To hear her read the poem and find out what it meant to her, go here.

One million words and counting

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Michael Proffitt on the grounds of Oxford University Press. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Michael Proffitt on the grounds of Oxford University Press. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

I read recently that the next (third) edition of the Oxford English Dictionary would come out approximately in the year 2034. This seemed like a really long time until I read more. The first edition was proposed in 1858 as a 10-year project. Five years in, the philolgists were up to “ant.” They needed 70 years to pull the first edition together. It came out in 1928.

The second edition was started in 1933 (so they got a little vacation in there) and came out in 1989. The third edition, now underway, began in 1994. It will have one million or more words in it.

These facts were interesting to me because when I was a young editor, I decided that when I was old and established and could afford it, I’d buy a copy of the OED and keep it on a book stand. To me, the OED was like a badge to a cop or a tiara to a princess. It was an emblem of certification, of accomplishment: I’m an editor, see? I have the best dictionary in the world.

For one reason or another, I never bought it. And now it’s probably too late. When the third edition is finished, it will have 40 volumes if it’s published in print. But the current editor, Michael Proffitt, says that unless at the time of publication a market develops for the print version, the reference will be placed online.

The work is going slowly because new words are being added to the vocabulary at an unprecedented rate. Each edition has more words than the last, because once included in the reference, no word is ever taken out. “We can hear everything that’s going on in the world of English for the last 500 years, and it’s deafening,” said the associate editor Peter Gilliver in an interview with The New York Times. Gilliver spent nine months revising definitions for the word “run,” currently the longest single entry in the OED.

The current OED text contains, in addition to literary references, blog and Twitter postings, quotations from gravestones, and an inscription in a high school yearbook. The philologists want to find the earliest and most illustrative uses of a word—not certify a word as “proper English.”

I feel a little nostalgic that my first professional icon of editorship—that of owning a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary—won’t come to pass. Of course, I could still buy the second edition (20 volumes for about US$1,700), or I could buy an on-line subscription. I probably won’t, though.

But I do love a good reference book. What writer wouldn’t? When you’re looking for just that one perfect word, it’s nice to know that somebody has compiled a million of them for you.

So here’s a little quiz. The following entries are in the OED. See if you know when these terms first appeared in the language.

OMG, I Am, Like, Literally Unfriending You. Whatever!

OMG. The first recorded appearance of this breathless acronym for “Oh, my God!” comes in a letter to Winston Churchill.

1917 J. A. F. Fisher Let. 9 Sept. in Memories (1919) v. 78. I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis — O.M.G. (Oh! My God!) — Shower it on the Admiralty!!

LITERALLY. Examples of this inversion go back to 1769. Even Mark Twain did it.

1876 ‘M. Twain’ Adventures Tom Sawyer ii. 20 And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.

LIKE. Few words annoy the purist like “like.”

1778 F. Burney Evelina II. xxiii. 222 Father grew quite uneasy, like, for fear of his Lordship’s taking offence.

UNFRIEND. Facebook was born in 2004. Unfriending began earlier.

1659 T. Fuller Let. P. Heylyn in Appeal Injured Innoc. iii, I Hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Un-friended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.

WHATEVER. It’s not as old as “unfriend,” but it’s been around for a while.

1973 To our Returned Prisoners of War (U.S. Secretary of Defense, Public Affairs) 10 Whatever, equivalent to “that’s what I meant.” Usually implies boredom with topic or lack of concern for a precise definition of meaning.

 

 

Banned books are good for you!

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Huck FinnHere’s good news: A new study of Texas teens finds no connection between reading “edgy” books and mental health issues or delinquent behavior. By “edgy,” what the researchers meant was books that contain “violent, sexual, or occult” elements (would that include Peter Pan? The Wizard of Oz? Cinderella?)—books that typically are banned in school and public libraries across this great nation, including the great state of Texas.

But wait, there’s more! Here’s what the researchers also said: “Consuming edgy material … may provide teachable moments to discuss ethical issues between parents and children. Banning such material may be counterproductive in removing these teachable opportunities.”

The new research, conducted by Stetson University psychologist Christopher Ferguson,  and published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, suggests these “edgy” books may indeed have an impact on impressionable young minds.

A positive impact.

The study showed that South Texas teens who read “banned books” were more likely to be engaged in civic activities such as volunteer work. “[T]he influence of banned books on behavior are not worrisome, and may be positive overall,” Ferguson wrote.

Ferguson surveyed 282 students, aged 12–18, who live in a small, predominantly Hispanic Texas town. He gave them a list of 30 books that the American Library Association have identified as “commonly challenged…over the past decade because of content.” These books ranged from the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The youngsters read the books and responded to questions that were designed to reveal antisocial personality disorders about how they felt toward friends and family. The kids were also asked about whether and how frequently they engaged in three civic-minded activities: volunteer work, charitable giving, and elections/electoral processes. Their primary caregivers filled out a survey describing the student’s behavior and reported his or her most recent grade point average.

The results: “Reading banned books did not predict nonviolent or violent crime, or contribute to school GPA,” Ferguson reports, but was “positively associated with civic and volunteering behaviors.” Furthermore, “…reading challenging books may be eye-opening and move individuals to help others.”

Such works can prompt readers to ponder ethical dilemmas, or—better yet—to discuss them with parents or teachers. In this way, he writes, the books “may foster higher-level thinking about these issues and promote more civic mindedness, even if the material is dark.”

Furguson noted that a few kids showed a correlation in both the consumption of banned books and mental health symptoms. “It may be possible that youth with higher levels of mental health symptoms may select books that speak to them, offer them a chance for introspection, or a release from their symptoms,” he wrote. Although this correlation “may serve as a red flag for parents,” the study suggests that for the vast majority of kids, reading banned books isn’t harmful and may even contribute to emotional and moral growth.

I tried to find the list of 30 books that Ferguson used for this study, but could not—well, I’m sure the list is in the original study paper, but I couldn’t get past the abstract page in the database. The ALA publishes a new list of “commonly banned books” every year and bases its choices on a historical time line of challenges. This is the list I found, starting in 1982. It looks like it might be the one Ferguson used, or at least it’s close:

Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou (nominated, National Book award)

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker (winner, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction)

In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak (winner, Caldecott Medal)

Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson (winner, Newbery Medal)

Forever, by Judy Blume

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier

The Satanic Verses, By Salman Rushdie

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, by Alvin Schwartz

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck (Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962)

Sex, by Madonna

Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous

The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison (Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012)

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (winner, Pulitzer Prize. Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007)

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

All But Alice, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Daddy’s Roommate, Michael Willhoite

Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Myers (winner, Coretta Scott King Award)

Captain Underpants, by Dav Pilkey

Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

Harry Potter (Series), by JK Rowling

The Giver, by Lois Lowry (winner, Newbery Medal)

King and King, by Linda De Hann

It’s Perfectly Normal, by Robie Harris

And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, and Henry Cole

The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman (winner, Carnegie Medal)

Gossip Girl (Series), by Cecily von Ziegesar

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

TTYL, by Lauren Myracle

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (winner, National Book Award for Young Peoples Literature)

Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire

 

Remembering our Roots

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Today I was talking to a friend about how all the TV shows these days are reruns. Are they waiting for the Olympics? Sweeps month? Out of ideas? Or scripts? Or just cheap? What?

rootsTV legends are born

Then I came home and googled around for fun, and learned that on this date 37 years ago, a TV legend began: The first installment of the TV miniseries Roots, starring LeVar Burton and based on Alex Haley’s novel, aired.

The TV miniseries was, of course, based on a book that Haley wrote after he retired from his Coast Guard service. Dropping out of college at age 17 after two years (he’d graduated high school at age 15), Haley signed up in 1939 and made the Coast Guard a career. He was a highly decorated veteran: he received the American Defense Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal, National Defense Service Medal and an honorary degree from the Coast Guard Academy. A Coast Guard Cutter was also named in his honor: the USCGC Alex Haley.

The genesis of story

Haley wrote short stories while still in the service, and he became a freelance writer after his retirement. He wrote a hugely successful set of interviews with prominent African Americans before he decided to write Roots. He wanted to tell the story of his ancestors’ journey from Africa to America as slaves, and then their rise from slavery to freedom. He researched for 10 years on three continents. He visited his ancestral village, Juffure, Gambia, and listened to a tribal historian recount how Kunta Kinte, Haley’s ancestor and the protagonist of his book, was captured and sold into slavery.

Even so, Haley despaired that he could ever capture the essence of his story. He once said, “What right had I to be sitting in a carpeted, high-rise apartment writing about what it was like in the hold of a slave ship?” In an attempt to answer this question, he sailed from Liberia to America and spent his nights lying on a board in the hold of the ship in nothing but his underwear.

Book and TV miniseries made history

Doubleday published Roots—part novel, part historical account—in 1976. The book caused a national sensation and was published in more than two dozen foreign countries. More than 1.5 million copies were published in hard cover, and more than 4 million copies of the Dell paperback edition were sold. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

The television miniseries, first broadcast on January 23, 1977, still ranks among the 100 highest-rated programs. According to Nielsen Media Research, its eight episodes reached average audiences that ranged from 28.8 million households to 36.3 million households. Thirty-seven American cities declared January 23-30, the week the program aired, “Roots Week.” Television historian Les Brown wrote that the mini-series “emptied theaters, filled bars, caused social events to be canceled, and was the talk of the nation during the eight consecutive nights it played on ABC.”

Impact today

Haley died of a heart attack on February 10, 1992, at the age of 70. Today, he’s credited with inspiring a nationwide interest in genealogy and contributing to the easing of racial tensions in America. Time magazine called The Autobiography of Malcolm X, another of Haley’s well-known works, one of the 10 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Speaking of his writing’s impact, Haley once said, “To this day, people, particularly African-American people but white people as well, will just totally, unexpectedly walk up and not say a word, just walk up and hug you and then say ‘Thank you.’”

Thank you from me, too, Mr. Haley.