Real life and fiction (and some looong footnotes)

So, have you heard of the Battle of Rorke's Drift, which took place in 1879 in South Africa? That's the battle in which about 150 British soldiers hanging out in a "garrison" (read: old trading post with no real defenses) managed to survive a two-day attack by 3,000-4,000 Zulu troops. It's a remarkable story--I mean, yes, the British were pretty much doomed in South Africa and holding onto Rorke's Drift didn't actually help with that, but from a tactical perspective, it was pretty amazing.

And it was made into a pretty amazing movie called Zulu, which among other things made Michael Caine a star.

And yesterday I read the book Zulu: In Space.

OK, it wasn't really called that. But that's what the book was--a retelling of the Battle of Rorke's Drift in space with aliens. The Zulus were played by the really alien aliens, and the British were played by the humans and their allied aliens, and I just know we could have a long discussion about post-colonialism, post-post-colonialism, post-post-post-colonialism, and whether we should still be offended by this sort of thing or if we're all over it now.

But was it a good book? Honestly, I can't say--I didn't enjoy it nearly so much once I figured out it was Zulu: In Space. I have a good memory for stories (to compensate for my terrible memory for names, I guess), and once I realized what I was reading, everything became dull and predictable, especially because the book followed the (extremely memorable) movie very closely. So reading it was like: Oh, here are the two wounded guys who together make one soldier; oh, now the Zulus--I mean, the aliens--have gotten over the wall, that's going to suck; oh, now the British--I mean, the humans--are singing back, it's about time.

There was also the knowledge that surprises weren't going to come from certain sources. When the humans & friends find a pair of weird alien buildings on this weird alien planet to occupy, they wonder why the buildings are there and why they are arranged the way they are arranged. At first I wondered, too, thinking this was a set-up for some delightful or dreadful surprise, but of course the buildings were arranged that way because that's the way they were arranged in South Africa in 1879. What, you were expecting something interesting, or maybe just something germane to the story?

This doesn't just happen with books based on historical events--although I've read quite a number of fantasy/alternative-history/steampunk books that devolve into history textbooks (that I've already read, thanks). It happens with books based on earlier literature--when King Lear shows up, the reader is not exactly shocked when it turns out that Princess Cordelia is a peach but that her sisters are not so nice.

I think it's a matter of letting the tail wag the dog--it's fine to be inspired by true events/other literature, but if you're just retelling someone else's story, why bother? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is respected because it's not Hamlet: In Space or Hamlet: The Musical or Hamlet: The Version More Consistent with Tom Stoppard's Political Beliefs. Even something as fundamentally silly and commercial as the 2007 movie version of Beowulf isn't about a super-duper guy who fights a monster and the monster's mother, and then finally bites it facing a dragon--it's about how that legend came to be. (And now I'm reading the Wikipedia entry about that movie and realizing that it was written by Neil Gaiman. Ex ungue leonem!*)

(* Before you start thinking that's totally unwarranted praise given how noisy and over-the-top the Beowulf movie was, I studied Anglo-Saxon poetry for a year in college, and it's obvious that the movie was written by someone who is both familiar with the poem and with the language--there's a lot of clever transitioning between Modern English and Old English.** Considering that most of the time Hollywood produces laughably ignorant crap like "When you taught Beowulf, did you make the kids read it in the original Middle English or did you use a translation?"--which is not only dumb because Beowulf is Old, not Middle English, but also because unlike Middle English, Old English is incomprehensible to speakers of Modern English, even the alphabet is different, so getting snippy because a high-school teacher teaches Beowulf in translation simply indicates that President Bartlet is an overly-demanding asshole with a gigantic stick up his butt--I was pleasantly surprised.)

(**OK, this is hard-core geekery about the use of Old English in the movie version of Beowulf. Wikipedia says that Grendel (the monster) speaks Old English, but that's not quite true. Grendel speaks Old English words, but he does not speak Old English.

What do I mean? Well, let's look at a Modern English sentence:

Beowulf tore off Grendel's arm with his powerful hands.

You understand that, right? You know who did what to whose arm and with what he did it. And you know that because of the order in which the words appear. Word order is key to Modern English.

Word order is irrelevant to Old English. Instead, they used word endings to tell you what was the subject, what was the object, what was the indirect object, etc. An adjective like "powerful" would have a different ending depending on whether you meant that Beowulf's hands were powerful or that Grendel's arm was powerful or that Beowulf or Grendel were just generally powerful.

Assuming you gave every word the correct ending, you could mix up those words and not change the meaning of the sentence. In other words, in Old English:

Hands with arm his tore Grendel's Beowulf powerful off.

His powerful arm off Grendel's with tore Beowulf hands.

With his off Beowulf hands Grendel's tore arm powerful.

Grendel's tore arm with powerful off hands his Beowulf.

would all make total sense, and they would all mean "Beowulf tore off Grendel's arm with his powerful hands."

That's a big part of the reason Old English is so freaking incomprehensible to Modern English speakers--when a sentence begins "With and what weather with held he hot the that and the though," the speaker of Modern English pretty much throws in the towel. (And the Anglo-Saxons did that sort of thing all the time, because their poetry didn't rhyme, it alliterated. Since word order didn't affect meaning, it made perfect sense to organize their sentences by grouping together words that started with the same letter.)

What they did in the movie version of Beowulf was have Grendel use Old English vocabulary and Modern English syntax. So when Grendel says, "Mother, the man hurt me," it sounds a little weird ("Muther, tha maen hurt mea" or whatever--I'm not looking it up), but you can understand him. Which just goes to show how important word order is to us--if, instead, he said "Man me mother hurt the," you'd have a much harder time understanding him, even though those are Modern English words.

For the record, later in the movie there's a couple of minstrels who are speaking proper Old English (in fact, they're reciting the original Beowulf). It's not even recognizable as English.)

The current state of publishing

Joe Konrath's blog has a nice summing up of the world of publishing these days. It's mostly nothing that hasn't been said before, but it's a good, concise overview.

I especially agree with his annoyance at expensive "conventions that supposedly teach [authors] how to write killer query letters." The problem really is that the changes in publishing are happening very, very quickly, and so you still have people holding onto the old ways, because not long ago, that's what worked. Think of it: The people organizing the convention want to have a respectable one, so their expert guests are traditional publishing houses and agents, because up until a couple of years ago, self-publishing was a scam. The expert guests have a strong vested interest in maintaining the status quo in publishing for as long as possible, so they tell authors to go the traditional route. Of course, by the time the author gets that query letter together, another agency/publishing house/bookseller has gone under, and the chances that anyone will be in a financial position to traditionally publish a new author have become even more minuscule.

The really annoying aspect of it is that the defenders of the status quo have a ready-made explanation for why they aren't publishing: Your work just isn't good enough. Hear that? It's your fault. And sadly, authors are typically quite willing to accept this--often they're a little on the artsy-fartsy side, and they don't want to learn about long-term business trends or sully their minds with thoughts of filthy lucre or figure out how to read a financial statement. Good writers are all about the quality of their work--they're perfectionists--so when some authority figure says, We only publish the REALLY good stuff, the writer says, I guess mine didn't make the cut. They just swallow the notion of their own inferiority, instead of saying, Wait a minute--you're publishing sex tips from Kim Kardashian and the self-absorbed musings of some old lion who stopped trying 50 years ago, what do you mean you publish quality?

And the editor or agent or whoever might have a response to that, but they just got laid off because their company is in bankruptcy....

Still alive!

Yeah, I'm still around--not writing or anything, but you know, existing. We've got a relative visiting, and as a result, I've been spending a lot of time with the kids (not mine, but related), and honestly, I feel I should do that more during the summer. They're fun kids! I had a deadline in my head that I needed to have Trust ready for a friend of mine to read before the end of the summer (she's in education), but she says, naw, I can get it to her later than that and it will be fine. So that's a load off my mind....

Going dark for a bit

Just swinging by to note that it will probably be a while before I swing by again. I've got to take care of what will hopefully be the last of the house crap for a while (of course, the minute I have everything fixed, something else will probably implode), and then I've got family and friends visiting pretty much throughout the month of July.

I was feeling a little blargy about not getting stuff done (blargy is a word I made up for when you feel like, if someone were to ask you how you were doing, you would simply reply, "Blarg"), then I realized that if I look back over the past 12 months, I've overhauled Trust and published Trang, neither of which were minor undertakings. The 12 months before that I did absolutely nothing, because I was swamped with work. So there's some progress there.

In the past I worked on the novel in fits and spurts because I had to fit it in between freelance gigs. When I realized that I don't have to freelance any more, my thinking was that I'd be working on novels like a regular job--40 hours a week cranking out prose and whatnot. But the thing is, when I wrote for a living, I spent very little of that time actually writing--since it was non-fiction, most of the time was spent doing research. So, I guess what I'm realizing is that, hello, I actually write in fits and spurts--it's not just a pattern I was forced into. I don't know how I feel about that, except that I might as well stop beating myself up over it.

Dialing in to perfection

If you are a writer, it helps to be a mildly-obsessive perfectionist. If you are a perfectionist, writing is one of the few avenues you can pursue where you aren't guaranteed to drive everyone around you crazy.

Which doesn't mean that you won't from time to time. Yesterday the writers' group went over chapter 2 of Trust, and most people loved how I handled introducing the alien species. Nine species in two pages, and they didn't feel overwhelmed! They were very impressed.

And one was like, Well, I felt overwhelmed. I guess I'm just dumb. Of course that was the person I honed in on: How do you think I could improve that?

I'm sure the other people felt a little dissed. They were probably thinking, Hey! I LOVED it! And this person is taking the blame, so what's the problem? Doesn't my opinion matter? Do you respect that person more than me? Do you just tune out praise?

And I don't--it's not like I'm thinking those two pages need a major overhaul. But if I can slow it down just a notch, then maybe I can hit that sweet spot, that literary nirvana where no one feels like its too fast or too slow, where everyone is just captivated.

Does that point actually exist? NO--someone's going to hate what you write no matter what you do. But I try for it anyway, because that is the perfectionist in my nature.

Of course, the down side of perfectionism and having unrealistic expectations for yourself is that it's often hard to finish a project. I feel like I'm stalling out on Trust again--I just can't seem to get started on it. And some of it is that the house has been taking up a lot of my time (I have now put anything but the most necessary home-improvement projects on hiatus), but I think a bigger part of it is that I'm getting closer and closer to being done, and that can be a very intimidating thing. Being done is when you have to expose your work to the world, and that's just scary.

Let's play Follow the Money!

Barnes & Noble released quarterly and annual earnings yesterday, and I think that they are worth going over as people ponder both the company's future and the future of book sales. (Some background if you don't know much about corporate finance: Companies report their finances every three months (which is a quarter) and every year. The fiscal year, however, can be any 12-month period and may not end December 31. In the case of B&N, their fiscal year ended April 30.)

B&N as a whole lost $59.4 million for the quarter, significantly worse than the $32 million it lost during the same quarter last year. This is mainly because the company is putting a lot of money into e-books. Just like with people, there are two ways for a company to make money: Spend less, or earn more. B&N is spending way more on e-books in hopes that eventually it will earn enough on them to make a profit.

Is that working? Well, sales rose 4% overall, so maybe that doesn't look too promising.

Look at the company's individual units, though, and it's easy to see who the laggard is: Sales at bookstores fell 2.9% for the quarter. That was in part because of all the going-out-of-business sales at Borders, but even for the year bookstore sales grew only 0.7%, and B&N attributes that small growth to the fact that they are selling more non-book items at their bookstores.

While B&N still gets most of its revenues ($943 million for the quarter) from stores, not shockingly The Wall Street Journal reports that B&N is now planning to stop signing 10-year retail leases for bookstores, since it wants to be able to shut those suckers down at a moment's notice. Also, they report that B&N had many chances to buy Borders, and passed, because who wants more bookstores these days?

But look at the Web business, and--whoo-whee!--the growth picture is very different. BN.com had sales of $217 million for the quarter, 54% higher than the previous year. For the year, BN.com sales are 50% higher than the year before. And where's all that Web business coming from? E-books! E-books now outsell paper books on BN.com by 3-to-1! What with the Nook and its Web store, B&N now controls 26% to 27% of the e-book market--a market it entered only two years ago.

So, yeah, bookstores still represent the majority of Barnes & Noble's sales. But for how long? The growth trajectory is all on the side of e-books, and it looks very, very nice. Of course, it's possible that B&N still won't make it--after all, entering this market isn't cheap, and B&N still has those bookstores to worry about. But if they can get 50% growth in revenues every year without continually spending 50% more (which I would think is doable--it should cost less to update the Nook than to create the Nook, for example), they will eventually make money again.

What I have to do, what I want to do

I revised chapter 2 of Trust and gave it to a writers' group to look over. And it was fun!

I mention that it was fun because to be honest, I forget about that sometimes. I bother writing at this point in my life because I enjoy it. For whatever reason (overactive superego?), it's easy for me to lose track of that, especially for something like a novel, which is a big project with lots of deadlines. I mean, writing a novel is certainly a lot of work, but sometimes I forget that this is work I enjoy.

I've always written, and until quite recently I always wrote for a living. Things changed for me rather suddenly last year, and now I no longer have to write in order to survive. And my thought was not, "Now I don't have to write!" It was, "Now I don't have to write commercial stuff!"

There's still a lot of stuff I have to do that I don't really enjoy--I don't think you ever really get away from obligations in life unless you're an incredibly irresponsible sociopath (which, for the record, I am not). For example, right now, a hell of a lot of my time and mental energy is being taken up by my rain gutters. This follows a surprisingly lengthy and complicated campaign to get the smell of cat pee out of my living room. Neither is a particularly edifying or entertaining focus.

Although some of this is unavoidable, I think there's something to be said for what Unclutterer calls living as close as possible to your ideal self--i.e. trying to manage as much as possible to spend your time doing what you really like, instead of doing what you think you ought to do (or what you think you ought to like).

Which brings me around to marketing. I met a self-published writer the other day who has been marketing herself very aggressively to local media outlets--and with great success. So of course I felt guilty I wasn't doing that. And then I was looking at Goodreads and feeling guilty that I wasn't on there, plus I'm now following Dr. Grumpy on Twitter, which means that I'm not exactly focusing on Twitter's potential as a marketing tool, so there's some more guilt.

But finally I realized that I don't want to do all that! I really, really don't want to spend my time marketing and marketing and MARKETING AND MARKETING until finally I am so unbelievably sick of this whole book-publishing-and-marketing nightmare that I'd rather hang myself than crank out another fucking title that I will then have to go MARKET!!! And you know, if I were in a situation where I needed to sell a gazillion copies or I would starve to death, then I would certainly suck it up. But I'm not.

I think it's worth it to send out review copies (if only for the ego boost I get from a positive review), and once I get Trust out I'll noodle with pricing and some advertising. But those things are basically one-shot deals--you send out copies, set a price, and buy an ad, and then you pretty much forget about it. You don't have to run around constantly buttering a bunch of strangers up in hopes that they'll like you enough on a personal level to support you.

Non-alpha-male heroes

[This is an old post from 2007.]

I am reading Young Miles by Lois Bujold. Because the hero of my book is really not the alpha-male type (and in the current crappy state of traditional sci-fi publishing, that means the book is not a commercial book), I've been getting recommendations for other sci-fi books that don't feature alpha males.

The first book like this I read was Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh. The hero of that book is, like the hero of my book, a diplomat. But while Foreigner is quite good when things are actually happening, I found the hero to be just too damned passive. His life is in danger, he doesn't know why, and he is surrounded by people he can't trust. For roughly 200 pages there isn't a lot of plot action, and all the hero does is meditate on the fact that his life is in danger and wondering why that is, while the people he can't trust pass him around like he was a sack of potatoes. Their doing so only leads him to contemplate the fact that he can't trust them and that they may very well be passing him around like a sack of potatoes for some nefarious end (ya think?)--not that he's going to do anything about it. It's almost as bad as the movie The Pianist, which put me as close as I have ever been to rooting for the Nazis to kill someone, but at least Cherryh’s hero doesn’t take it for granted that everyone else will risk their lives in order to protect his, which is more than I can say for the pathologically self-centered "hero" of that movie.

Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan stories feature a different kind of non-alpha-male--Miles is seriously physically handicapped. But he’s extremely ambitious, he’s an enormous risk-taker, he uses what advantages he has (a title, some money) to their limit, and so far, Young Miles is a lot of fun. It's also more of a madcap adventure story than Foreigner, so in some sense it's probably not fair to complain that one hero is less enjoyable than the other, but at least I don't find myself thinking that maybe Miles deserves to bite it. Even the famously non-alpha, indecisive, sensitive Hamlet caused trouble in the court, drove his girlfriend to suicide, and left a trail of bodies in his wake. He didn't just sit there, moaning "What can I do?"

Stopping and thinking also have value

I've mentioned how taking a break helped me when I was stalling on Trust (not that you'll be able to tell this week that I'm not stalled--it turns out that there's some more end-of-school-year stuff to do). But I'm going to argue here in favor of taking another kind of break: Taking a break earlier in the writing process to figure out just what the hell it is you're going to write about.

What happens sometimes (and this is encouraged by things like NaNoWriMo, which is part of the reason I've never participated in it) is that people get extremely focused on quantity (50,000 words in a month! 2,000 words each day, minus five days off!) over quality. These people are very, very diligent and disciplined and work very, very hard churning out all these words.

And they produce a wad of directionless crap.

Now, I am all for cranking out a barely legible first draft and then fixing it. That's how I work. I probably threw out 30,000 words on my first revision of Trust. But I have NEVER produced anything of any substantial length without an outline. NEVER. I certainly came up with new ideas while writing Trust, but I did not start writing it not knowing what it was about, not knowing what the major themes were (spoiler: It's called Trust), not knowing who the main characters were, or not knowing how it was going to end.

I would never just sit down and write a long piece, because I think setting off half-cocked is a tremendous waste of time (and as a freelancer I got paid per article, so the quicker I could crank them out the more money I made). And the fact of the matter is, you have to have even more discipline to chuck stuff out after you've produced it. Once you've written something, it's easy to get attached to it, especially if you made this huge push and didn't sleep or socialize for the entire month of November in order to meet your 50,000-word quota. No one wants to hear, "Sorry, dude, back to the drawing board!" after that--it's like going on a huge diet and being very good and losing 80 pounds, and then having the doctor tell you that, no, you did it the wrong way, you need to gain back 70 pounds and then lose it again. But good job on those 10 pounds! The doctor really liked those, and he thinks you show great promise.

In other words: Writing is hard. It's hard! It is hard to write something well, especially something long. And that, fundamentally, is my problem with the whole "Be free! Get inspired! Just sit down and WRITE something!" line. I mean, yes, you do need to actually sit down and write if you're ever going to write anything, but it's not like jaunting off to Aruba for the weekend--it's work. It's hard work, and you need to be ready for that.

That was useful

I gave the first chapter of Trust to a writers' group and got the feedback today. As I've mentioned, with a second book you have so many Exposition Options:

Option #1: Character background
Option #2: Situation background
Option #3: What happened in Book 1
Option #4: What's happening now in Book 2

And it's basically impossible for me to figure out how much of what to put in. So this was really valuable, because it let me know that I had a maybe little too much of #1 and not enough of #3 and #4.

The problem with having a good feedback session is that you immediately want to go to LOTS of groups to get TONS of feedback, and the problem with that is that you have to give to receive (or at least I'd feel like a jerk if I didn't). In order to participate in a writers' group, you need to read a bunch of other people's work, ideally carefully and thoughtfully, and that takes time--time you aren't spending writing. So, while I do think it's worth doing, I also want to sort of ration my participation.

Anyway, I haven't been doing much work the past week because it's the end of the school year, which is a really busy time. But this upcoming week should be a little better.

Plugging along

I got more editing of Trust done today--nothing too exciting to blog about, although I definitely prefer this to back when I wasn't getting anything done.

To keep this post interesting, I'm going to outsource the entertainment to the Comics Curmudgeon archive of Pluggers cartoon. Because I used the word "plugging" in my title. See? It's a theme....

P.S. Today, I finally steamed the rug. I got around to it only because the cats were a little irresponsible while I was away.

So, what am I doing?

I was off on a trip to visit relatives, and now I'm back. It's amazing the amount of piddly chore-type crap that accumulates when you go away, right? Anyway, when I was visiting, I showed someone that essay on book production, and it turns out because I used some odd fonts as section heads, it basically looks like crap on anyone else's computer. Duh...so I fixed that. I also decided that that quote from the New Podler review would work best at the beginning of the book descriptions, so I went back and re-edited them all. I'm also going to give the first chapter of Trust to a writers' group this week, so today I polished that up.

In other words, I'm doing a lot of piddly crap!

I got reviewed in New Podler!

So, all that sending Trang out to review blogs paid off--I got a nice one by David Drazul on The New Podler Review of Books.

Ever since receiving a "magna plus!" on my senior thesis by someone who clearly did not even remotely get it (he liked it because he was the department's token Southerner--he wasn't the only Southerner, he was just the token one--and I wrote about Eudora Welty), I've distinguished between positive reviews and good reviews. In a way, it's more annoying to get a positive review that is bad ("I like Trang because this guy named Patch has weed tattooed on his arms. Wouldn't it be awesome if weed tattoos actually, like, got you high? And then you'd, like, be high all the time? Because tattoos don't wear off? That would be awesome. I really loved this book, man.") than a really insightful review by someone who, in the end, didn't like the work--I mean, I doubt the latter sort of thing helps sales, but at least you can respect it. (Actually, come to think of it, it might help sales anyway--I've certainly checked out things after reading negative reviews if the reviewer was made to think.)

Drazul's review, I thought, was both fairly positive (and it gave me a good pull quote, which I certainly appreciate--"Trang is a clever return to the social sci-fi days of yesteryear" is everywhere now), and it was good. He has my number: I'm not interested in how the technology works, and I have a main character who couldn't tell you even if I was. I put a lot of effort into the dialog (and, see--the cussing is important for purposes of story!), and one of the little underlying themes is that the Special Forces are almost as alien to Trang as the actual aliens. I was rather obviously inspired by the social sci-fi of Star Trek and Babylon 5--I love that kind of thing. (District 9, Firefly...ah.)

I also don't doubt that an editor or at least a real copy editor would have improved the book--that's true of everybody, and it's much, much easier to edit and proofread someone else's work rather than your own. (Although I don't think I'd do a hard-core edit at this point--I know people do that, because nowadays you can without too much trouble, but it seems weird to me to have two markedly different versions of the same book floating around.) Hopefully now that I'm poking around writers' groups I can connect with someone...well, apparently someone like me who isn't me who would be willing to proofread. We'll see.

Eh, might was well write off another entire genre.....

I haven't read much Stephen King--I read a couple of short stories in college, wasn't impressed, and never went back. I was feeling a little guilty about that (his novels tend to be very long, which always makes it less likely I'll risk a read if I'm not sure I'll enjoy it), so I recently read The Green Mile.

And you know, it was pretty good--definitely good prose--but I feel like it would have been better if it hadn't been written by someone whose name is pretty much synonymous with horror fiction.

I've mentioned that I'm not a huge fan of romance, and I have a similar ambivalence about horror. Some horror is good, but a lot of it is very formulaic.

For example, I had heard that Clive Barker is a top-notch horror writer, so I picked up one of his short story collections. And he is a fantastic prose stylist, but the plots of his stories could pretty much all be summarized thusly:

Story #1: Farmer John Works in the Field
I. Farmer John is working in the field.
III. Everybody dies.

Story #2: Dick and Jane Go to School
I. Dick and Jane go to school.
III. Everybody dies.

Story #3: Joe and Moe Go on Vacation
I. Joe and Moe go on vacation.
III. Everybody dies.

In other words, there was a certain sameness...to the degree that when I came across the occasional story where everybody did not die, it was very exciting. I don't think this is because I am squeamish--I loved Hyperion, and pretty horrible things happen in that book--so much as that I do get bored fairly easily, especially if I know exactly how something is going to end.

Also, if you look at those story summaries, you have two kinds of characters: The HORRIBLE MONSTER, and the cannon fodder. Is there going to be much character development there? Any kind of arc? No--HORRIBLE MONSTERS don't change, and cannon fodder doesn't matter. (Predictability and a lack of character development are also why I don't particularly enjoy plays like Into the Woods or movies like Reservoir Dogs where you just sit and watch the characters get picked off. Add a twist, like Keyser Söze, and things get interesting again.)

Of course, sometimes a noted horror writer like Stephen King produces a book like The Green Mile where everybody doesn't die. What to do then? Well, apparently the answer is to make everybody wish they were dead, because even though this isn't a horror book, for some reason we are still in the horror universe where nothing good can possibly ever happen. So you have a bunch of people murder someone, but it's OK, because the world is such a horrible place that he's better off dead, and then you have someone miraculously given near-perfect health and a long life, but that just makes him miserable, because the world is such a horrible place that he's better off dead. Where's a HORRIBLE MONSTER when you need one?

Seriously? Near-perfect health and he's complaining? What a whiner! Someone is in desperate need of a gratitude journal.....

What style is right for you?

See, to me a question like that should be about literary style--you know, does the person use long sentences or short ones, is their writing lyrical, that sort of thing. But if you are proofreading, style means, essentially, correct grammar, punctuation, and the like. A professional proofreader reads for style as well as spelling and typos--which doesn't mean that if your writing sucks, they'll make it better (unless it's obviously awkward or incomprehensible, in which case they'll suggest improvements).

Why people who write books on grammar like to call it style, I do not know. I assume it's because language is a human creation, so when we talk about rules of grammar, we're just talking about rules that people have agreed on. Different people prefer different rules. So, the English put commas everywhere--that is their style--and Americans don't. But it's not like there's some law of physics out there preventing you from using no commas or nothing but commas--you can if you like (just don't get all whiny when no one understands what the hell it is you're trying to say).

In the publishing biz, there are two dominant style guides: The Chicago Manual of Style and The AP Stylebook. Chicago style is used by book publishers, while AP style is used by newspapers and magazines. Actually, to be precise, Chicago preferred style is used by book publishers.

What am I talking about? Well, let me describe The Chicago Manual of Style: It is roughly the size a dictionary. It is a reference book designed for professional proofreaders--it is supposed to be on your desk at all times, and you are to look things up in it to see if they are correct.

Once you do, Chicago is going to give you the entire story surrounding your grammar conundrum. Wanna know if it's "Douglas' dog" or "Douglas's dog"?* Chicago will give you no fewer than three different version of the rules to chose among: One version says that "Douglas'" is correct, and two versions say "Douglas's" is correct. One of these rules ("Douglas's," unless he is actually Jesus or Moses) is their preferred rule.

So, really, you can use Chicago one of two ways: You can follow Chicago preferred style, or you can rely on Chicago to tell you the outer limits of what is acceptable ("Douglas's dog" or "Douglas' dog" but NOT "Douglas' came over for dinner," or God forbid, "Douglas's came over for dinner"). If you have some stylistic quirks that you are really attached to, take a look in Chicago--chances are that if it's even remotely acceptable somewhere, it's in there, and then you're covered.

The main problem I find with Chicago is that even Chicago preferred style is full of weird little exception (like "Jesus'" and "Moses'"), and as a result, it is hard to memorize. This is NOT true of The AP Stylebook. AP was written for reporters who cover breaking news. They can't carry around a damned dictionary, and they don't have time to look up some damned rule--they have a deadline to meet. NOW. Wondering about Douglas and his dog? It's "Douglas' dog," period. End of story. On to the next rule.

A lot of writerly types whine about AP style because they feel like it's less literate, less traditional, less booky, less beautiful, less individual, less whatever. But it's easy to learn, which is no small thing if you are trying to produce clean copy. When I worked in publishing, the only people who really knew Chicago preferred style were the copy editors. In contrast, I would say that just about everyone who works in journalism in any sort of writing capacity carries AP style around in their head--I certainly do.

Obviously, you can have your own preferences (I do--look at that footnote down by the asterisk), and if you are writing speculative fiction, or fiction about children, or fiction set in a community that uses non-standard grammar, you may have to make up your own rules, just as you may have to make up words. There's also a lot of drama to be had by deliberately breaking the rules (for example, when a character is breaking down under stress). But if you give the impression that you never had any idea what the rules were to begin with, that's a problem: You may think that you're so very brilliant that you don't have to follow the rules, but you shouldn't expect the same indulgence from readers.

* Bonus points if you noticed my random use of British style here! I like to put punctuation outside the quotation marks when it's not actually part of the quotation, which is not the traditional American way. I was kind of sneakily doing it before I read Eats, Shoots & Leaves (which is a very entertaining book on grammar by a Brit) and was thoroughly convinced that the British way really does make a lot more sense. Now I'm trying to set a trend....

Hiatus is over, baby! (At least for a little while)

Yeah, I edited the beejebus out of Chapter 1 today! Whoo-hoo! It's honestly a big help just to know that I'll be giving it to a writers' group, because it makes The Reader (specifically The Reader Who Hasn't Read Trang) more concrete.

I'm going to have to take another break in a couple of days because of some family obligations, but I'm happy just to be, you know, refreshed and recharged and ready to write. There's a scene in Mad Men where Don Draper says that, when you do creative work, the times of no productivity have to happen, otherwise the times of productivity don't. Since I've generally made a living as a writer and not as a bohemian or fashionably tortured artiste, I tend to look askance at that kind of thing, since it can be used to rationalize endless procrastination. But I guess sometimes ol' Don Draper is right.

E-readers and "print" media

This is a really interesting article from The New York Times. It's one of these articles that at first glance is about something really simple--chicks like to read their magazines on the Nook Color--but it also touches on some really interesting questions, like, Do people want a single-purpose simple gadget, or an all-purpose Swiss-Army-knife gadget? and, How will Barnes & Noble survive? (Apparently by selling a better gadget. I've said this before, but there's a lot of denial out there on the Interwebs, primarily by people who don't know squat about business, so I'll say it again: B&N is not even pretending that it can survive as a traditional bookseller.)

The thing that makes me happy is that a traditional print media now has a little electronic gadget that promotes its use. If you think of people trying to figure out how to spend their limited leisure time, print used to have this big advantage--you could pick up a nice, portable book/magazine/newspaper any time and get your story. But over the past few decades, a tremendous amount of technology has gone into making things like video and music easier to use: It became common to have devices in the home that let you watch or listen, and then it became possible to watch or listen whenever you wanted to, and to top it all off, music and video became extremely portable.

At this point, if you have the right kind of little device, you can watch or listen to whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you want, without expending too much effort (and it's only going to get cheaper and easier). Indeed, while print used to have the advantage of portability and interruptability (?? not a word, is that? I mean you can put a something you're reading down and start it up again whenever), it is now at a disadvantage--you have to make a special trip to a bookstore or library or newsstand to get something to read. But if you can get whatever reading material you want on some electronic device that you are already carrying around with you (like your phone), well, then, that's at least going to even the playing field. Given the size advantage of print files over, say, video files, it may even tilt it back toward print. This is why, although e-publishing is going to suck for people who work in traditional publishing, for people who write, or read, or just think everyone else should read more, e-publishing is not a bad thing.

You like to think of your talent as your own, but....

[This is another old post, from 2009.]

In my career, I've worked places where the best writing was encouraged, and in places where it was actively discouraged--where you were supposed to produce material that was bone-dry, or where sloppiness was encouraged, or where every story was supposed to follow the same format, no matter what. Not shockingly, the places I enjoyed working the most were the places where I produced the best writing. That was not simply because I like to win things or because I like to be challenged, but also because the people were just plain better to work with--they were smarter and more pleasant and didn't spend their time trying to kick everyone down to some allegedly desirable level of mediocrity. I remember when I applied to journalism school looking at the material I had produced during a fairly lengthy spell at a place where good writing was actively discouraged, and realizing that I would never send any of that material anywhere as a writing sample, because it was all God-awful. I also realized that, if I was interested in pursuing writing as a career, this would be something I would need to pay attention to--not just looking at a job as a paycheck, but looking at it as a source of clips. ("Clips," for the normal people, is a term used to mean the articles you actually write--and then clip out of the paper to show, say, your mom or potential future employers.)

Anyway, my point is that the place you work for can really affect the quality of your writing. I've recently discovered the Web site of a writer friend of mine who I have lost touch with, and this person has posted a lot of their clips on the site. A lot of this person's older work was for a publication that clearly put a premium on good writing, and those stories are quite good. But a lot of their newer work is for a publication that clearly does not--the newer stuff reads a lot like what is called "notebook dumping," which is what happens when a reporter just dumps everything from their notebook onto the page without organizing and pruning and massaging it into a proper story with a beginning, middle, and end, and all that good stuff.

I'm a little worried because this person is both a good reporter and a good writer, and they have a book coming out fairly soon, and I want it to be a good book that makes them more successful, not a clunker. The bad habits you pick up writing for kind of crappy publications can really screw you up (and the crappiness of a publication is not necessarily directly related to how much they pay, which complicates the issue even more when you're trying to make a living as a writer).

Who is The Reader?

So, the other day, I was schooling a new writer in the personality and quirks of a strange and ominous character known as The Reader.

Who is The Reader?

The Reader is the person who you write for. ("I write for myself" is code for "my writing sucks.")

Despite your dedication to The Reader, The Reader does not love you back--it's very unfair, I know. But The Reader has many, many other things to do with his or her time than read the work you've just bled out on the page to create. Tell The Reader, even subtly, not to read your work, and he's off watching professional wrestling and getting his girlfriend pregnant. Bore The Reader for a moment, and she's off getting pregnant, only to drop out of high school and wind up on welfare for the rest of her pathetic life.

The Reader is you when you were 10 years old, lying in the back yard, reading Jean Kerr and thinking to yourself, This is how you communicate with people.

The Reader is not educated. The Reader has no prior knowledge. But, although The Reader is utterly ignorant, The Reader is not stupid. Don't talk down to The Reader, s/he will resent it.

The Reader is an emergency responder. The Reader is taking the train home from an extremely draining job. The Reader has no need for your nonsense or issues. The Reader has no obligation to know or love the real you. But The Reader needs your book. The Reader need a world to enter, a way to enter it, and some escape. The escape may be simply a get-away; the escape may be a lesson in disguise; but your book must be, in either case, a genuine escape--easy to enter, diverting to be in, and hard to leave.