Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages. Geoffrey Chaucer said that about 600 years ago as part of the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, the first writing we would recognize as English. I believe it. What would life be worth if it weren’t a pilgrimage? Every day. I hope you will join my pilgrimage. I’m writing a book … well, several. Writing is pilgrimage, and I’ll need sustenance along the way. I hope you will follow along, comment, help lead me. C’mon, it will be an adventure …
It was a simple statement on a subject too often drowned in words:
Study of the Liberal Arts “is for developing the muscle of thoughtfulness, the use of which will be the greatest pleasure in life and will also show what it means to be fully human.”
It came from Anne Hall, a lecturer at Penn, as quoted in a New York Times column by Frank Bruni. He remembers being transfixed by her lectures on Shakespeare. His telling took me back to my undergraduate experience, where I, too, realized the power and depth of Shakespeare because of a gifted lecturer.
These days, I am greedy for examples of good writing. I see in this short phrase the brilliance of an analogy that packs a world of meaning into a few words. Would that we might often write with such clarity … and brevity.
Last week, I had one of those epiphanies that come when seemingly unrelated events collide and produce insight. In my case, three events gave me perspective my habit of (proudly) using big words.
The first was wife Beverly chuckling over a John Grisham short story, Fetching Raymond. It’s a wonderfully written story in its own right, relying on big words for humor (and, in the end, sadness).
The story centers on Raymond, a sorry soul on Death Row at Parchman Farm in Mississippi. The family fetching him is uneducated, but Raymond has spent ten years with a dictionary, so he lards his frequent letters home with the impressive vocabulary he’s acquired. On the way to Parchman, the family contemplates one of his letters explaining why yet another lawyer is coming to his defense:
“Not surprisingly, a lawyer of such exquisite and superlative yes even singular proficiencies and dexterities cannot labor and effectively advocate on my behalf without appropriate recompense.
“What’s recompense?” she (Inez, his mother) asked. “Spell it,” Butch said. She spelled it slowly, and the three pondered the word. This exercise in language skills had become as routine as talking about the weather. “How’s it used?” Butch asked, so she read the sentence. “Money,” Butch said, and Leon quickly agreed. Raymond’s mysterious words often had something to do with money. “Let me guess. He’s got a new lawyer and needs some extra money to pay him.” Grisham, John (2013-06-17). Fetching Raymond: A Story from the Ford County Collection. Random House Publishing Group.
Okay, so that exquisite bit of humor built on ponderous writing tweaked me. Surely, not my vocabulary, though. Right? My wife just smiled, which brought on the next act of realization: a vision of sitting long ago in my college writing professor’s office. He had asked what I was trying to say in a particularly tortured passage. I explained in much plainer English. He looked up from the paper, puffed his pipe and said, “Why don’t you just say it that way?”
The last event came at a meeting of a writing group. Tim, a fine writer, editor by day and thus person one listens to carefully, read out these lines from my work-in-progress, Skins and Bone:
It had started as a simple statement that as a good trader, he was simply trying to do the best for his company. Over a couple of days, it had morphed into a full-fledged tragic exposition. In Ross’s perfervid imagining, the judge would surely understand how Ross’s desire to do good had been taken advantage of by dishonest, ungrateful people.
“Perfervid,” he said. “Great word, but it drags the reader away from the character who’s speaking and reminds us there’s a narrator. You don’t want to do that.” But I love the word, a marvelous conflation by my cousin, Gamble, a consummate story-teller. You won’t find it in the dictionary, but it has a pretty clear meaning. However, Tim’s right — it’s showing off, and it weakens the passage.
I need to think simple language, or at least not orotund (oops!).
Yes, I know it doesn’t sound like writing. But it is. Music, that is. And my son Edward, not me. See a first review from the Berlin festival. Edward Rogers and Tony Morales wrote the music for this Netflix original by the creators of the enormously successful Damages.
No, I’m not turning this into an adults-only blog.
Last night, I finished presenting Novel #2 to my very helpful writing group. After the comments were finished, our grammar nazi and certified DFW (Damn Fine Writer), whose day job is being an editor, did one of those Ahems that often precede something heavy.
She continued, “You know, it being a thriller, editors are going to expect past tense.” Across the table from me, another editor and DFW was nodding agreement.
I summoned up my response, preparing an explanation that would be both incisive and erudite, “I dunno. It just came out that way.”
I’ve been churning on this for a day. Of course, the editors are right. But it’s not a small task to move from present to past for an 88,000-word work, so I have employed a variety of arguments, justifications and self-serving excuses. But I still come up with, “It just came out that way.”
So, why did it come out that way?
I have to blame the Oral Tradition. See, I came to writing from music. I’ve been telling stories and playing music for many years, and most of that is in present tense, so I guess I just naturally moved into the story-telling mode I was familiar with.
Present tense is pretty limiting, though. 88,000 words?
Sifting the massive quantities of fact-ish stuff from the opinion of the subject of self-publishing is tough (think fly specks in pepper). This seemed good to me.
Originally posted on Publishing Insights:
In the article Why You Need to Become an Independent Publisher, Geoff Livingston advocates writers to consider self-publishing; he also shares the valuable things that he has learned in the process. Livingston states that the trend of independent publishing is mainly due to “retaining artistic direction, a higher percentage of profits, and the increasing lack of editorial and marketing support offered by traditional publishing houses”. He offers suggestions on producing an outstanding manuscript and marketing the book after it has been published.
Meanwhile, Joe Belanger discusses the potential disadvantages of self-publishing in his article Self-publishing risks and rewards explored. He points out that independent publishing not only means that authors must be involved in the “creative aspect” of production, but they must also make “a series of business decisions”, which possibly takes up the time that could be spent writing and even leads to unwise decision making without seeking…
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Roger Cohen wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times about Israel a couple of weeks ago. He began by quoting a novelist. The quote is perhaps the best commentary I’ve seen on the process of writing. He said:
“(Writing) is like reconstructing the whole of Paris from Lego bricks. It’s about three-quarters-of-a-million small decisions. It’s not about who will live and who will die and who will go to bed with whom. Those are the easy ones. It’s about choosing adjectives and adverbs and punctuation. These are molecular decisions that you have to take and nobody will appreciate, for the same reason that nobody ever pays attention to a single note in a symphony in a concert hall, except when the note is false. So you have to work very hard in order for your readers not to note a single false note. That is the business of three-quarters-of-a-million decisions.”
Here’s a nice, straightforward discussion of Platform: 7 Ways To Build a Platform Through Your Online Community.
Can it have been a month since the last post?
Oh, yes. The holidays, perhaps the handiest excuse for inactivity.
My question to myself has been sitting there, sitting there, day after day: Self publish or traditional?
In favor of traditional publishing: It’s traditional. People have been making a living at it for pushing 600 years (not counting the monks working the vellum). Somebody out there knows the many-more-than a few hundred people I could contact by myself. Somebody knows how the business is done. Right?
Well, maybe not. I see randomness, chaos and poorly executed fundamental practices.
So, self-publish, right?
Umm … maybe. Amazon’s out there throwing business models on the wall to see if they stick. One can self publish, hard copy publish, audio-book publish, get reviews from other writers, offer up completed books for reviews … all on Amazon. I think of Amazon as an avuncular alligator, happily consuming writers’ products as long as market share keeps rising. As self publishing flattens, as it reportedly has, does the alligator tear off your arm for a snack? (Pardon my mutilation of metaphor.)
Dunno. A couple more contests coming up. More queries. Freshen up the platform (Ugh!) Who knows? Soon, I may get writing again.
Claire Cain Miller writes an interesting article in the New York Times titled, As Robots Grow Smarter, American Workers Struggle to Keep Up.
Yes, I know, we have been through what, three or four “computers are going to kill jobs” moments in the last half-century. Economists think those prior scares didn’t kill jobs. Miller’s article is worth reading, and it raises the issue of intellectual property.
Sure. The general thinking has been that computers/automation/artificial intelligence is stripping the repetitive, lower-skill jobs, so we all ought to go to college and get jobs that require more brain and less brawn, right? Create intellectual property, right?
Okay. Great idea. But consider the reality that intellectual property — songs, music performance, writing — is highly undervalued. And that seems to be a trend, one which seems to be exacerbated by — guess what? — the same forces of technology that are supposedly driving us up the intellectual content curve. Whether we are discussing musicians or writers or sports or (in the future) college professors, the new electronic media tend to make the few, the very top-notch (in public opinion), available to all. So the great jazzman that’s not famous struggles to make a living. Smashwords says that the average self-published author makes a pittance. The wonderful university professor’s lecture is trumped by the famous guy on TED talks.
I’m not sure what the solution is, but we’d better find one. Intellectual property really shouldn’t be free.
I have an exasperating problem. Here I am writing (rewriting, actually) an exciting novel, capturing great thoughts, basting it in the oral tradition, riding high. Except the quote marks keep coming out wrong.
There are two kinds of quote marks: straight up and down (like a typewriter) and curly. As the Chicago Manual of Style notes, straight up and down quote marks are ONLY for legal documents and philosophical treatises. I learned the difference right quick when my first edited piece came back marked up because my much-loved Scrivener software seemed to have salted my Times New Roman with straight quotes.
I won’t bore you with the details, but after about four hours and several pounds of expletives later, I know the source of the problem, and I think I know the solution. The reason is I found a wonderful site covering many aspects of the appearance of a printed work. The site is Butterick’s Practical Typography.
When your protagonist’s voice is clear and consistent, when the metaphors and similes draw gasps of appreciation from your writing group, when you have taken out the grammatical gaffes and turgid prose, then you need to resort to Butterick’s. Before you get shredded by your editor.