Sojourns in Publishing

Writing. Editing. Designing. Producing. Printing. Reading.

Three Errors That Spell Check Will Never Fix

Day 54/365

(Image courtesy Roxanne Cooke, Flickr Creative Commons)

Aside from the most obvious need for editing—that is, correction of spelling, grammar, and punctuation—there are a multitude of reasons for having a professional editor handle your manuscript. Lack of clarity, confusion over when to show and when to tell, and wrong information show themselves in virtually every manuscript I’ve handled. Below are a few examples inspired by projects I’ve worked on:

Lack of clarity:
The author may mean one thing but inadvertently say another:

Living near Woodbine Racetrack attracted some rough characters. 

The narrator lived near the Woodbine Racetrack and was exposed to some “rough characters”, but it certainly wasn’t his presence that drew rough characters to the neighbourhood; it was the racetrack itself (and the gambling that went on there) that attracted rough characters. Therefore, the sentence was changed to:

The Woodbine Racetrack attracted some rough characters to the neighbourhood.

Confusion over when to show and when to tell:
Sometimes an author will write dialogue when it should be narrative; at other times, the author may explain that the characters are speaking instead of showing it:

She phoned him and told him to meet her at the motel. He told her that he’d be there at noon. Then he told her that he’d be wearing a red carnation. She told him that sounded good, and that she’d be wearing a blue dress.

Now, it could be argued that it depends on the style of the storytelling, the context, and any other number of things, but with the above example, I wanted to try it out as dialogue. Which sounds better to you?

She picked up the phone and called him.

“Meet me at the motel,” she said.

“Okay, I’ll be there at noon,” he said. “I’ll be wearing a red carnation.”

“That sounds good. I’ll be wearing a blue dress.”

Wrong Information:
In a story set in 1990, the characters had smartphones, used lightweight laptops, and did detective work by searching information on Google. No, it wasn’t speculative fiction; these were anachronisms. The use of communication devices was important to the story, so with some research, feedback, and collaboration, the anachronisms were adjusted for improved accuracy.

Again, there are all sorts of reasons to find a trustworthy editor; having someone who isn’t your coworker, your daughter, your spouse, or your online sweetheart is important if you want the benefit of objective, helpful feedback. Your effort, creativity, and success are worth it.

Words Are Just the Delivery System.

Sometimes when editing a manuscript, I am struck by the intimate things that the author shares, either intentionally or unintentionally. Either way, the writer always reveals something about themselves that they didn’t intend. For me, it can be like seeing someone while they’re sleeping, or with their fly down, or their slip showing. It can be like watching someone when they don’t know they’re being watched, and witnessing them do something kind—or unkind—to a stranger on the street, or a waiter, or someone in traffic.

With every manuscript, I get a sense for the individual behind the words. Sometimes it’s cloudy, and at other times it’s clear. Aside from the technical aspect of the work, I’m always exposed to the personality and thought processes of another human being. It can be quite personal, even if we never see one another face to face or speak on the phone.

My current manuscript is a memoir, and the elderly gentleman who has written it seems to have no idea of how kind-hearted, charming, and lovely he is. He’s simply recollecting his life with gratitude and love, and I’m honoured to be able to work with his words—but not because he’s an incredibly eloquent or skilled writer; he actually needs a good deal of editorial support to deliver his message clearly. What makes this a pleasure to work with has everything to do with the beautiful spirit that’s shining through the writing. The words are just the delivery system.

On Getting Naked in Public

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“Nude Behind the Curtain” by Antoine Joseph Wiertz

Catharsis through writing is a wonderful, therapeutic activity; I cannot emphasize its value enough. You don’t even have to be a “good” writer to engage in this activity; everyone has the right to write. There are some things in my own life that I’ve only been able to work through by writing, and I’d be quite offended if anyone ever suggested that I shouldn’t.

However, from editing a good number of memoirs, I’ve come to believe the following:

  • Just because the story is important to you does not mean that it’s important to everyone else. Does it have to be the next triumphant or heart-wrenching tale that flies off the bookstore shelves, or must it lead to television/radio interviews? Will you be crestfallen if that doesn’t happen? If so, why?
  • If you’re motivated to publish your memoir specifically to have an audience be outraged on your behalf, or to punish those who have wronged you, prepare for the very real possibility that you will be disappointed in the response you receive from the public.
  • Purging yourself of terrible memories through writing can indeed be legitimate therapy, but if you find that you’re repeating yourself—especially if it’s rehashing and reinforcing decades-old pains and selective memories—it may be unhealthy for you (not to mention your editor and your audience).  There really is a time to just let go.

Don’t get me wrong—I firmly believe in the power of storytelling and the importance of both hearing and being heard; it’s a fundamentally human need. I fully endorse writing dark, messy, nasty, angry, frightening, violent, and even petty content. But when sharing this with the world, please consider the possibility that there’s a difference between telling a story that leads the reader somewhere and merely venting your spleen for the sake of pissing acid everywhere. It may sound cynical and unfeeling, but the reality is that just because something terrible happened in the writer’s life does not mean that an audience will care.

Lest anyone feel I’m discouraging them from ever letting their memoir see the light of day, let me reiterate that I do believe in the importance of writing and publishing our stories, both for the author’s sake and for the sake of the audience. If you wish to share your memoir with any audience, small or large, consider the following three steps:

  • Take some time to sit quietly and journal your reasons for writing the manuscript, who your target audience is, and why you think they will be receptive to your story. This doesn’t mean that you have to justify it to yourself or anyone else—it’s simply a grounding exercise.
  • When your manuscript is finished, proofread it and fix any spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors.
  • Have a few trustworthy individuals read it (friends, your writer’s group, or a professional editor) with the request to offer honest and constructive criticism without having to worry about wounding the author’s fragile ego.

Author Paulo Coehlo said, “Writing is a socially acceptable form of getting naked in public.” There’s getting naked (being vulnerable), and then there’s pure exhibitionism for the sake of attention alone. The choice, of course, is yours.

When getting naked in public, it’s a good idea to be clear about your motives, because people will look, and they will respond.

Transience

July saunters lazily towards August, perfectly ripe with the season, and well past the fresh exhilaration of June. Today, there’s a languid, sultry feel in the air, and it whispers with quiet insistence to savour that which is all too fleeting.Image

Don’t Abuse Quotation Marks!

Using quotation marks in your narrative should usually be restricted to depicting dialogue, or to attribute an unusually special significance—and even in the case of special significance, it should be used very sparingly, lest the quotations lose their power from overuse. 

When I read a manuscript where quotation marks are over-used, I get the impression that the author is someone who uses air quotes a great deal when speaking.

Words are words. They have their own significance, and that significance is strong enough to stand on its own, if it’s the correct word. The power should be inherent in that carefully-chosen word. Let it be what it is without having to dress it up.

Alcuin Society’s 41 best-looking books of 2012

Alcuin Society’s 41 best-looking books of 2012

Elvis Costello: Every Day I Write the Book.

Writer, editor, publishing pro and IRL friend Megan Radford (@MeganRadford on Twitter) mentioned this song today online. Took me way back to the ’80s. Because, you know, I like to date myself. I always dug this song.

‘Wee Little Book Review: Who Dies? by Stephen Levine.

Who Dies?Who Dies? by Stephen Levine

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Stephen Levine offers a gentle perspective that is inclusive, comforting, and lucid. I respected the lack of dogma and the introduction to the Buddhist perspective without feeling “preached to.” The writing and editing felt somewhat muddled at times, but the book delivered what I’d hoped. All told, it is a valuable read for those seeking to explore and expand a perspective on the dying process which we must all embrace in one capacity or another.

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‘Wee Little Book Review: Canada by Richard Ford

CanadaCanada by Richard Ford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ford is a master wordsmith. His skill is so subtle and smooth that my imagination was carried gently along, naturally easing me into the perspective of the protagonist. The characters were raw, imperfect, awkward, believable and clear without over-explanation. The narrative was fascinating and haunting, and evolved as the protagonist grew older. This was not a neat, tidy, or formulaic story. It had textures and colours that bled beyond the pages and into my non-reading moments. I wasn’t gripped or excited by this book, and I appreciated that he didn’t rush. I was comfortably pleased to read it, and felt tremendously satisfied when I was done. I will seek out more of Richard Ford’s writing as a direct result.

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Small Publishers, Big Substance

Small Publishers, Big Substance

Richard Olafson, founder of Ekstasis Editions, nestled here in Victoria, BC. A strong article about a quietly fascinating publisher.

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