The Seven Deadly Sins of Novelists (According to Editors)

A post with the above title was published on the Writer’s Digest bog on October 18, 2018.  I was interested because until recently I had not used a first class editor, and when I did, I found it to be an entirely different experience.  The authors of this piece are freelance professional editor, Pam Johnson and novelist Steven James, whose “award-winning, pulse-pounding thrillers continue to gain wide critical acclaim and a growing fan base,” his website claims.

Steven James and Pam Johnson

Their Seven Deadly Sins are:

1. Lack of Communication: Failing to specify expectations.

When I submitted my manuscript the editor, I highlighted my own concerns and reservations about the novel.  This gave him something meaty to work on.

2. Sloppiness: Not submitting your best work.

“Poor punctuation, grammar, spelling and so on is so distracting to an editor that she will struggle to concentrate on the story she’s been hired to edit.”

This seems obvious.

3. Stubbornness: Refusing to change your course of action.

The editor suggested a major rewrite which involved a change in the narration and a different role for a minor character.  It was, I admit, a difficult pill to swallow, but once I started on it, I could see what a huge difference it would make.

4. Impatience: Not realizing that writing a book is a long process.

I was certainly guilty of this when I started writing, and, unfortunately, the self publishing process makes it easy hurry things through to completion.  When an agent and the publishers editor are involved and both of them have a financial incentive to produce the best quality novel, the process becomes more thorough and careful.

5. Passing the Buck: Expecting your editor to write the book.

This expectation is lazy, wishful thinking.  With benefit of hindsight, I probably should have asked the editor to review the re-written manuscript, but I was hoping that the next edit would be done by my agent and the one after than by the publisher’s editor,

6. Testiness: Getting upset with your editor when she’s only trying to help.

Fortunately, my editor takes the view that ‘criticism is the enemy of creativity’, so he always had reasons for any major changes suggested.  This helped me to latch onto his point of view.

7. Throwing in the Towel: When the going gets tough, the author quits.

“Writing a book is a long, difficult process—and editing can be equally strenuous. You need to be patient and work hard. Even if your current book doesn’t make it into Barnes & Noble, you will learn so much from writing it. Maybe the experience will lead to a future bestselling novel. And the sense of accomplishment when you’ve completed your work truly is priceless.”

My view, as well.

Review: Before We Were Yours

I bought a copy of this historical novel written by Lisa Wingate.  Ms Wingate’s long bio reads, in part: “Lisa Wingate is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Before We Were Yours, which remained on the bestseller list for fifty-four weeks in hardcover and has sold over 2 million copies. She has penned over thirty novels and coauthored a nonfiction book, Before and After with Judy Christie. Her award-winning works have been selected for state and community One Book reads throughout the country, have been published in over forty languages, and have appeared on bestseller lists worldwide.  Booklist summed up her work by saying, “Lisa Wingate is, quite simply, a master storyteller.”

Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours is a historical novel written in two parts.  One part is set along the Mississippi River, near Memphis, in the late 1930’s and early ’40’s.  The second part, in Georgia,  is more contemporary.  The first part centers on a family of ‘river gypsies’ who live in a shanty boat on the river.  The parents are Briny and Queenie Foss; their five children are Rill, the narrator, a girl of twelve and the oldest, Camilla, Lark, Fern and Gabion, a male toddler.  The story begins with Queenie in the throes of giving a difficult birth to twins.  Briny takes her to the hospital in Memphis, leaving the children on the boat in Rill’s care.  All five children are abducted and taken into care by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, a real abduction and orphanage mill which made an estimated $10 million for it’s real owner, Georgia Tann, and was active from the 1920’s until it was shut down in 1950.  It made a habit of taking children into custody on false premises and placing them in wealthy, childless families.  Most of the first part deals with the hardships faced by the Foss children as they wait for a family to take them away: first Gabion, then Camilla is separated and disappears, then Lark.  Rill and Fern escape from the family that took them in, only to find that Queenie is dead in the childbirth and Briny is mortally crippled with drink.  Rill and Fern return voluntarily to their assigned parents.

The second part is told by Avery, single in her 30’s, who turns out to be the granddaughter of one of Queenie’s twins, who survived, and was also taken in by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and adopted.  The grandmother, Judy, now in her 70’s and suffering from dementia, is the widow of a Stafford, who are a dynasty of Georgia senators.  Avery is being prepped to run for the Senate, replacing her father, who is ill.  She meets May Crandall, who is in her 90’s and in a nursing home, during a pre-campaign visit to the nursing home.  May, we discover later, is Rill.  Much of the second part is taken up with Avery, being assisted by the grandson of a friend of Judy’s, trying to piece together her family history.

Ms Wingate is clearly a talented writer.  She describes her characters and the life on a shanty boat so clearly that they are real.  She is also a master at keeping the reader turning pages, a one suffers anxiety about what happens next.  The story itself is heart-rendingly captivating.

In my view, though, the novel has its flaws.  In the first part, there are too many chapters, with too much detail, about the hardships the Foss children endured, while they were awaiting adoption.  I think the story would be stronger if it were edited down,  In the second part, there are secondary issues that aren’t well enough developed to stand alongside the children’s story: the effect that disclosure of their real heritage would have on the Stafford name, and Avery’s decision about whom to marry.  There are also too many family events that do not really contribute to character development or the plot.  More rigorous editing would have made this a memorable novel.

Publishing Proverbs

A post by Paula Munier on the Career Authors website two days ago caught my attention.  It begins, “Publishing is rife with conventional wisdom but some of it is actually useful.”

Ms Munier’s website says, “My professional evolution mirrors that of publishing itself.  From my early days as a reporter to my latest incarnation as all-around content queen and bottle washer, I’ve reinvented myself as the publishing industry has changed—and keeps on changing. The only constant: My love of the written word. Over my 20-plus years in the business, I’ve conceived, created, produced, and marketed exceptional content in all formats across all markets for such media giants as WGBH, Fidelity, Disney, Gannett, F+W Media, Quarto, Greenspun Media Group, among others. ”

Paula Munier

Some of the publishing proverbs she mentions are as follows:

“1. The first page sells the book, the last page sells the next book.

I repeated this recently at a Zoom event and like an old dog full of old tricks I was surprised that so many writers there had not heard it. But it’s as true today as it was when I got my first job in book publishing some 25 years ago. The first page must grab the reader, the last page must satisfy the reader.

2. If there’s a gun on the wall in act one, it better fire in act two.

I’m paraphrasing Anton Chekhov here, whose classic advice on foreshadowing has become so beloved a dramatic principle that it’s now known as Chekhov’s Gun.

3. Don’t get it right, get it written.

I used to tell my reporters this when they were running late with their stories back in my newspaper days. I wasn’t the first to say it, but I do say it a lot, not only to those reporters but to authors when I was an acquisitions editor and to clients now that I’m an agent and ultimately to myself whenever I get stuck in my own writing. All you need is a first draft —and then you can fix it.

4. Writing is rewriting.

I repeat, writing is rewriting. Embrace the revision process and the advice of smart editors. Rewriting what separates the wannabes from the pros.

5. When in doubt, delete.

This is every editor’s mantra. So the next time you find yourself struggling to make some aspect of your story work, delete it instead. I learned this lesson again while revising A Hiding Place. . . . My editor suggested I lose one of my favorite clues, and I balked. I’d done all that research! But eventually I caved and the book is far better for it.

6. You can’t start the fire, but you can fuel it.

This is what the sales and PR and marketing people always tell you when you complain to your publisher that they’re not doing enough to promote your book. Which means that if the book doesn’t catch fire when it debuts, they’re not going to spend what they see as bad money after good trying to light up sales.

7. Hook, book, cook.

I heard an editor quote this just recently; apparently my swell fellow agent and author Eric Smith uses this phrase to describe the best way to pitch a project: 1) hook, as in high-concept premise; 2) book, as in what happens in the story; and 3) cook, as in you the author and what about you personally and/or professionally informs your work. A good formula for a pitch.

8. It takes a million words to make a writer.

When I was in my twenties, I joined my first writer’s group. The grande dame of the group was an erudite professor who was a far more experienced and successful writer than the rest of us. She regarded me as the neophyte I was and told me severely, “It takes a million words to make a writer.” She was correct, of course. A million words or 10,000 hours or just a hell of lot of writing and rewriting.

9. You can’t make a living but you can make a killing.

I first heard this attributed to James Michener, but many people have said it. And why not, since this is the unfortunate lot of artists, especially in America. Most artists can’t make a lavish living doing their art, but a lucky few find fame and fortune. Here’s hoping it’s you and me.

10. There’s no crying in publishing.

. . . I say There’s no crying in publishing. And then I quote the inimitable and prolific Jane C, Cleland, Agatha-winning author of nonfiction and fiction, who never complains about the vagaries of the publishing business. Rather, she says that she just tries to write a better book.”

I agree with all of the above, except for number 3.  I find that when I force myself to write at pace, as I did when I started writing, I produce too much cliché and uninteresting text.  This is particularly true when you’re trying to write a literary novel.  For me, it’s better to spend time trying to get it nearly right, an then go back and do some polishing.

Review: Authors A. I.

In my post the week before last, I introduced Authors A. I. as a new tool to help authors improve their fiction writing, and I said I would try it out.  Last week, I went on the Authors A I website, paid my $89 for a single review, and an hour later I received an email from Marlowe – the name of the persona who has the artificial intelligence – attaching her report on the draft of my latest novel, for which I’m seeking an agent.

Authors A. I. doesn’t permit subscribers to sent out copies of Marlowe’s reports, but they would be happy if I send out copies of graphics from my report.  Unfortunately, I can’t find a way to copy and paste the graphics, so, I’ll describe them.

The first graphic is a plot of narrative arc and plot turns against the percentage of the novel from 0% – the beginning to 100% – the end.  For my novel, the narrative arc in green is a complete sine wave, starting at its low point, going through a positive peak, a negative peak and ending on a positive peak, which is accurate.  The plot turns, in purple, starts very negative, goes through two positive peaks, turns negative and trends upward through twp peaks to end positive.  I don’t disagree with this but the commentary in this section is general and is not specific to my novel.

The second graphic is narrative beats, a series of ten fairly evenly spaced vertical purple lines, each marked with the percentage of the book at which it occurs.  Beats are turning points where conflict is resolved or introduced.  The commentary says that beats should be evenly spaced and about ten.  I have to confess that’s the way my novel turned out; not the way I designed it.  This section quotes from the text of my novel where Marlowe says the beat occurred.

The third graphic is pacing and shows the relative pacing versus the length of the book.  For my book, there are five peaks of relatively high pace and four valleys, two of which are very low.  Again, the peaks and valleys are marked with percentages, and the text at those points is printed out.  The commentary is general and not specific to my novel.

The fourth graphic shows the personality traits of four of my characters in terms of the top five of nine trails each character exhibits.  This section is useful in observing whether the characters are different enough from each other and are they as intended?

The fifth graphic is dialogue vs. narrative.  My novel is 58% dialogue in purple and 42% narrative in green.  This is heavier in dialogue than I would have wanted, but at least the dialogue is evenly spaced throughout the book.  A graphic of a multitude of purple and green lines shows how each is used throughout the book.  Two characters act as narrators in the novel, and much of the story is revealed between their quotation marks.

The graphic on major subjects in the book is disappointing.  It shows the most important subject – at 5.47% – as Important Decisions and it descends through nine other subjects to Description of the Body at 2.47%.  The major subjects of the book are: death/dying, faith, family and vocation.  None of these makes the list.

There is a section on explicit language.  I said ‘damn’ five times.  A section on cliches says I used ‘hands on’ five times.  Repetitive phrases says I used  ‘to be a’ thirty times.  This could be interesting data.

There is a graphic on sentence length vs. number of sentences of that length.  In popular fiction, most sentences are two to ten words long.  My average sentence length is 12.82 words.  Popular fiction typically has a complexity score of 2.0 to 3.0  My novel has a complexity score of  2.76, and my most complex sentence scores 7.19. My reading grade score is 7.18.  To put this in context, you need to have a look at https://contently.com/2015/01/28/this-surprising-reading-level-analysis-will-change-the-way-you-write/

The graphic on use of adverbs shows that I (disappointingly) used ‘very’ 121 times (out of 81,000 words), and similarly for adjectives, I used ‘good’ 149 times.  There is a graphic on verb choice and use of the passive voice.  This, though, requires use of the find function in Word to see whether ‘is’ is part of the passive voice.

There is a table which shows the frequency of various forms of punctuation.  There is no spell check in this version of Marlowe.

I feel that my $89 were well invested in at least provoking my thinking and stirring me to action on a couple of points.

Marlowe is under development.  Hopefully, later versions will produce more manuscript-specific comments on the metrics used.

A Ghostwriter Talks

An article, The Ghostwriting Experience, written by Melanie Votaw, appeared in the JanFeb, 2020 issue of the IBPA independent.  I found it interesting and quote from it below.

Melanie Votaw has been a full-time professional book author, ghostwriter, editor, and book coach for nearly 20 years. She specializes in self-help books and book proposals as a coach, ghostwriter, and developmental editor, although she has also written memoirs.

Melanie Votaw

Ms Votaw says, “As a ghostwriter, I’ve heard a lot of misconceptions about my profession. “What? You mean the person whose name is on the cover didn’t write the book?”

Or: “Oh, I couldn’t possibly use a ghostwriter; then, it wouldn’t be my book.”

I usually respond this way: Doesn’t it seem like a lot to expect someone to be an expert in their field and also an expert in constructing a book? After all, ghostwriter/editors like me have spent years honing our craft.

Of course, one of the reasons for these misconceptions about ghostwriting stems from another common misconception: that if you can write a good sentence, you can also write a book. Many authors are soon relieved of that notion, discovering that a lot more goes into writing a book than proper grammar and punctuation.

That’s what happened with one of my recent ghostwriting clients (I’ll call her Lucinda). “When I was starting to write my book, and I heard other people were using a ghostwriter,” she told me, “my impression was ‘Oh, then you’re not writing the book.’ So while I felt a little funny at first, you took my words, you found my voice, and you wrote it better than I would have written it. But it isn’t filled with your ideas; it’s filled with my ideas. At the end of the day, I feel comfortable it’s my book.”

Besides those who don’t feel equipped to write a book without help, there are authors who simply don’t have the time to do all the work. They still have to convey the information to the ghostwriter, but that’s less time-consuming than writing every word themselves.

Lucinda discovered, however, that it was more economical in the long run to work with a ghostwriter. “I have a girlfriend who’s written two books now. She does all of her own writing, but she has spent way more than I have on edit after edit after edit,” she says. Lucinda had one other editor review the manuscript after the ghostwriting was complete. “When I finally gave it to my publisher, she said she’d never seen such a clean manuscript,” she adds.

As Lucinda found out, a ghostwriter is more than “just” someone who organizes the information into chapters. They can help an author 1) determine if their book idea is viable, 2) devise an outline, 3) decide whether to self-publish or try for a traditional publishing contract, 4) create a book proposal, if desired, and 5) navigate publisher options, book covers, and marketing, among other services. They can also help an author stay sane during the exceptionally vulnerable process of putting their work on the line.

So, how do you choose a ghostwriter and ensure a successful collaboration? Here are some tips:

1. It’s important to thoroughly vet the ghostwriter’s background and testimonials, of course, but it’s also important to feel that your ghostwriter “gets you.” Do they understand your subject matter and what you’re trying to communicate? Are you simpatico? You can discern this through your initial discussions, but, more often than not, it’s a gut feeling.

2. Once you’ve made your choice, trust your ghostwriter’s advice. Be wary of defensiveness. You certainly don’t have to agree with every one of your ghostwriter’s opinions, but you’ve hired this person for their industry expertise. So, if you decide to go against their advice, make sure it’s for a good reason.

3. Don’t expect your ghostwriter to nail your voice right away. Give them some time to “sound” like you on the page, and allow them to provide rough, unpolished drafts in the beginning.

4. Be careful of the opinions you receive from people outside of the publishing industry. They know what they like, and they know if something they’ve read isn’t clear. But they don’t usually know how a book should be constructed or how to diagnose issues in a viable way.

. . .

5. Most of the time, the ghostwriter remains “ghostly” with perhaps only a mention within the acknowledgments (often described as an editor). Other times, a ghostwriter’s name appears on the cover as a coauthor, such as “By Dr. So-and-So and [or with] Ghostwriter’s name.”

Ultimately, the ghostwriting process is an opportunity for you to marry your expertise with the expertise of a publishing industry professional. There’s no shame in doing so, whether the reason is due to lack of skill or time. What’s most important is that you get an excellent book that represents you well in the marketplace and provides you with the ultimate outcome you’re after.”

Can Artificial Intelligence Help Write Better Novels?

In a post written by J D Lasica, the Chief Experience Officer and Co-Founder of Authors A. I., on July 9, 2020 on the Writers Digest website explores the above intriguing idea.  Mr Lasica is the author of Catch and Kill.

J D Lasica

Excerpts from his post appear below.

“Of all the sectors that artificial intelligence is disrupting—finance, health care, transportation—the creative art of fiction writing seems like the least likely candidate to be impacted by A.I.

But A.I. has arrived like a gift-wrapped box on the doorstep of the author community. Should we open it up? Or do we need to worry that what’s inside will put authors out of a job?

It turns out that a new fiction-savvy bot is not out to take the place of the next Hemingway, Steinbeck, or Atwood. Nor is it out to displace editors or other humans.

The A.I. program, from the tech startup Authors A.I., was built to help the next generation of authors write great books, attract large readerships and maybe even hit the bestseller lists. And, yes, to help authors’ own careers.

Many maverick fiction authors start writing their first manuscript thinking they’ll write a book that defies the rules and blazes a completely new path—wholly original, conventions be damned. They imagine writing a work of such staggering genius, as Dave Eggers might put it, that it could give birth to an entire sub-genre all its own.

Marlowe, the name the founders gave to the A.I., is adept at identifying the shortcomings of a fiction manuscript. She is programmed to send authors down the proper path. In the end, novel writing often involves a right way and a wrong way to tell a story. You don’t want to end your romance novel with a murder-suicide, no matter how brilliant your prose.

That’s where artificial intelligence can help. Marlowe won’t write any passages for authors. But she has studied a large number of books that hit the bestseller lists and she’s reverse-engineered the components of popular novels that resonated with readers.

The best novels are those that meet certain reader expectations for their genre while delivering the story in a fresh and original way. That insight is liberating, because it frees authors to write books that delight readers instead of wasting time raging against literary conventions or the strictures of traditional editors.

The first area where A.I. can help with storytelling is a sort of big-picture eye-of-God look at the plot structure and spine of a story.

Many of the best stories follow a certain playbook (“formula” is such a nasty word), with a beginning hook, an inciting event that propels the protagonist into the middle build, a midpoint shift that turns the story in an entirely new direction, an assortment of reversals and revelations, and a climactic buildup leading to an ending payoff.

Marlowe can identify these major plot points and tell at a glance whether they’re positioned correctly. She will point out the specific passage or line of dialogue where these major plot turns occur.

Authors who use Marlowe are running each draft of their manuscripts through her as they reposition chapters and major action scenes.

It generally takes authors time and dedication to master the art of pacing. A story ebbs and flows. Authors may start out their novel in media res, with a big action scene, or at a more languid pace, focusing on world building or foreshadowing or fleshing out characters.

But even veteran authors have a hard time assessing whether they’ve properly spaced out their peaks and valleys—the spots where readers turn pages quickly or slowly. The most successful writers vary the pace of their story to provide variety, and also to provide relief to the reader. No one wants to read a thriller with 60 chapters of nonstop action and no letup. One of Marlowe’s most popular features is a visualization of a novel’s pacing.

Marlowe takes the pulse of major characters and lets authors know if they’ve done a good job providing enough variety through the actions they take. (As Henry James said, plot is the act of putting characters under pressure.) Unlike feedback from critique groups, who are unfailingly polite, Marlowe has no hesitation in pointing out that a hero is too passive or a villain is way too much of a nice guy.

This A.I. breaks down the ratio of dialogue versus narration in a work and compares the percentages to that of bestselling novels. Several authors have found, after using Marlowe, that they hadn’t realized they had tipped too far into dialogue when narrative summary was called for.

It turns out that subject matter is a major determinant of whether a book becomes a bestseller—not the specific topic or theme of the book so much as the importance of streamlining the story so only one or two major subjects dominate instead of a lots of tangential side plots that dilute the main storyline.

This is a tendency seen in a lot of debut novels where the author is tempted to draw from life experience and cram everything under the sun into an overstuffed narrative. William Faulkner put it well: “You must kill all your darlings.” With that awareness in mind, Marlowe charts out top subject matters and their presence in the novel.

Her cliché finder tells authors about that bird in the hand, but it’s up to them to decide if they should avoid clichés like the plague or are striking the right balance for readers.

She plays copy editor, too, pointing out not just misspellings, but your authorial tics—repetitive phrases, overused adjectives and adverbs, as well as use of the passive voice—and provides the reading grade level and complexity score for the book.

Fiction authors have seen the marketplace change radically in the past decade with the dawn of ebooks, self-publishing and, now, a boom in audiobooks.

It’s time to add artificial intelligence to the list.”

Having looked at the Authors A. I. website, and checked out their pricing, I’m inclined to give the service a try.

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

On July 7, 2020, Harper’s Magazine has published a letter with the above title signed by over 150 writers and academics.  I would also have signed it, if I had been invited.

The full text of the letter and the list of signatories is below.  Harper’s says, “The below letter will be appearing in the Letters section of the magazine’s October issue. We welcome responses at letters@harpers.org.”

“Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.”

Elliot Ackerman
Saladin Ambar, Rutgers University
Martin Amis
Anne Applebaum
Marie Arana, author
Margaret Atwood
John Banville
Mia Bay, historian
Louis Begley, writer
Roger Berkowitz, Bard College
Paul Berman, writer
Sheri Berman, Barnard College
Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet
Neil Blair, agent
David W. Blight, Yale University
Jennifer Finney Boylan, author
David Bromwich
David Brooks, columnist
Ian Buruma, Bard College
Lea Carpenter
Noam Chomsky, MIT (emeritus)
Nicholas A. Christakis, Yale University
Roger Cohen, writer
Ambassador Frances D. Cook, ret.
Drucilla Cornell, Founder, uBuntu Project
Kamel Daoud
Meghan Daum, writer
Gerald Early, Washington University-St. Louis
Jeffrey Eugenides, writer
Dexter Filkins
Federico Finchelstein, The New School
Caitlin Flanagan
Richard T. Ford, Stanford Law School
Kmele Foster
David Frum, journalist
Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University
Atul Gawande, Harvard University
Todd Gitlin, Columbia University
Kim Ghattas
Malcolm Gladwell
Michelle Goldberg, columnist
Rebecca Goldstein, writer
Anthony Grafton, Princeton University
David Greenberg, Rutgers University
Linda Greenhouse
Rinne B. Groff, playwright
Sarah Haider, activist
Jonathan Haidt, NYU-Stern
Roya Hakakian, writer
Shadi Hamid, Brookings Institution
Jeet Heer, The Nation
Katie Herzog, podcast host
Susannah Heschel, Dartmouth College
Adam Hochschild, author
Arlie Russell Hochschild, author
Eva Hoffman, writer
Coleman Hughes, writer/Manhattan Institute
Hussein Ibish, Arab Gulf States Institute
Michael Ignatieff
Zaid Jilani, journalist
Bill T. Jones, New York Live Arts
Wendy Kaminer, writer
Matthew Karp, Princeton University
Garry Kasparov, Renew Democracy Initiative
Daniel Kehlmann, writer
Randall Kennedy
Khaled Khalifa, writer
Parag Khanna, author
Laura Kipnis, Northwestern University
Frances Kissling, Center for Health, Ethics, Social Policy
Enrique Krauze, historian
Anthony Kronman, Yale University
Joy Ladin, Yeshiva University
Nicholas Lemann, Columbia University
Mark Lilla, Columbia University
Susie Linfield, New York University
Damon Linker, writer
Dahlia Lithwick, Slate
Steven Lukes, New York University
John R. MacArthur, publisher, writer
Susan Madrak, writer
Phoebe Maltz Bovy
, writer
Greil Marcus
Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center
Kati Marton, author
Debra Mashek, scholar
Deirdre McCloskey, University of Illinois at Chicago
John McWhorter, Columbia University
Uday Mehta, City University of New York
Andrew Moravcsik, Princeton University
Yascha Mounk, Persuasion
Samuel Moyn, Yale University
Meera Nanda, writer and teacher
Cary Nelson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Olivia Nuzzi, New York Magazine
Mark Oppenheimer, Yale University
Dael Orlandersmith, writer/performer
George Packer
Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University (emerita)
Greg Pardlo, Rutgers University – Camden
Orlando Patterson, Harvard University
Steven Pinker, Harvard University
Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Katha Pollitt
, writer
Claire Bond Potter, The New School
Taufiq Rahim
Zia Haider Rahman, writer
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, University of Wisconsin
Jonathan Rauch, Brookings Institution/The Atlantic
Neil Roberts, political theorist
Melvin Rogers, Brown University
Kat Rosenfield, writer
Loretta J. Ross, Smith College
J.K. Rowling
Salman Rushdie, New York University
Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment
Daryl Michael Scott, Howard University
Diana Senechal, teacher and writer
Jennifer Senior, columnist
Judith Shulevitz, writer
Jesse Singal, journalist
Anne-Marie Slaughter
Andrew Solomon, writer
Deborah Solomon, critic and biographer
Allison Stanger, Middlebury College
Paul Starr, American Prospect/Princeton University
Wendell Steavenson, writer
Gloria Steinem, writer and activist
Nadine Strossen, New York Law School
Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., Harvard Law School
Kian Tajbakhsh, Columbia University
Zephyr Teachout, Fordham University
Cynthia Tucker, University of South Alabama
Adaner Usmani, Harvard University
Chloe Valdary
Helen Vendler, Harvard University
Judy B. Walzer
Michael Walzer
Eric K. Washington, historian
Caroline Weber, historian
Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers
Bari Weiss
Sean Wilentz, Princeton University
Garry Wills
Thomas Chatterton Williams, writer
Robert F. Worth, journalist and author
Molly Worthen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Matthew Yglesias
Emily Yoffe, journalist
Cathy Young, journalist
Fareed Zakaria

Institutions are listed for identification purposes only.

Moral Dilemmas Make Better Characters

Writer’s Digest has an article on making characters more impactful written by Steven James and dated September 1, 2016, which is quite interesting.

Steven James is the critically acclaimed author of thirteen novels. He serves as a contributing editor to Writer’s Digest magazine, hosts the biweekly podcast The Story Blender, and has a master’s degree in storytelling. Publishers Weekly calls him “[a] master storyteller at the peak of his game.”

Steven James

Selections from the article follow:

Give Your Character Dueling Desires.

Before our characters can face difficult moral decisions, we need to give them beliefs that matter: The assassin has his own moral code not to harm women or children, the missionary would rather die than renounce his faith, the father would sacrifice everything to pay the ransom to save his daughter.

A character without an attitude, without a spine, without convictions, is one who will be hard for readers to cheer for and easy for them to forget.

So, to create an intriguing character facing meaningful and difficult choices, give her two equally strong convictions that can be placed in opposition to each other.

For example: A woman wants (1) peace in her home and (2) openness between her and her husband. So, when she begins to suspect that he’s cheating on her, she’ll struggle with trying to decide whether or not to confront him about it. If she only wanted peace she could ignore the problem; if she only wanted openness she would bring it up regardless of the results. But her dueling desires won’t allow her such a simple solution.

That creates tension.  And tension drives a story forward.

So, find two things that your character is dedicated to and then make him choose between them. Look for ways to use his two desires to force him into doing something he doesn’t want to do.

Put Your Character’s Convictions to the Test.

We don’t usually think of it this way, but in a very real sense, to bribe someone is to pay him to go against his beliefs; to extort someone is to threaten him unless he goes against them.

For example:

  • How much would you have to pay the vegan animal rights activist to eat a steak (bribery)? Or, how would you need to threaten her in order to coerce her into doing it (extortion)?
  • What would you need to pay the pregnant teenage Catholic girl to convince her to have an abortion (bribery)? What threat could you use to get her to do it (extortion)?

Look for ways to bribe and extort your characters. Don’t be easy on them. As writers we sometimes care about our characters so much that we don’t want them to suffer. As a result we might shy away from putting them into difficult situations.

That’s the exact opposite of what needs to happen in order for our fiction to be compelling.

Force Your Character Into a Corner.

Don’t give him an easy out. Don’t give him any wiggle room. Force him to make a choice, to act. He cannot abstain. Take him through the process of dilemma, choice, action and consequence:

If there’s an easy solution there’s no true moral dilemma. Don’t make one of the choices “the lesser of two evils”; after all, if one is lesser, it makes the decision easier.

For example, say you’ve taken the suggestion in the first point above and forced your character to choose between honoring equal obligations. He could be caught between loyalty to two parties, or perhaps be torn between his family obligations and his job responsibilities. Now, raise the stakes—his marriage is at risk and so is his job, but he can’t save them both. What does he do?

The more imminent you make the choice and the higher the stakes that decision carries, the sharper the dramatic tension and the greater your readers’ emotional engagement. To achieve this, ask “What if?” and the questions that naturally follow:

What if an attorney finds herself defending someone she knows is guilty? What does she do? What if that person is her best friend?

Again, make your character reevaluate his beliefs, question his assumptions and justify his choices. Ask yourself: How is he going to get out of this? What will he have to give up (something precious) or take upon himself (something painful) in the process?

Explore those slippery slopes. Delve into those gray areas. Avoid questions that elicit a yes or no answer, such as: “Is killing the innocent ever justified?” Instead, frame the question in a way that forces you to take things deeper: “When is killing the innocent justified?”

Let the Dilemmas Grow From the Genre.

Examine your genre and allow it to influence the choices your character must face. For instance, crime stories naturally lend themselves to exploring issues of justice and injustice: At what point do revenge and justice converge? What does that require of this character? When is preemptive justice really injustice?

Love, romance and relationship stories often deal with themes of faithfulness and betrayal: When is it better to hide the truth than to share it? How far can you shade the truth before it becomes a lie? When do you tell someone a secret that would hurt him? For example, your protagonist, a young bride-to-be, has a one-night stand. She feels terrible because she loves her fiancé, but should she tell him what happened and shatter him—and perhaps lose him—or keep the truth hidden?

Fantasy, myth and science fiction are good venues for exploring issues of consciousness, humanity and morality: How self-aware does something need to be (an animal, a computer, an unborn baby) before it should be afforded the same rights as fully developed humans? At what point does destroying an AI computer become murder? Do we really have free will or are our choices determined by our genetic makeup and environmental cues?

Look for the Third Way.

You want your readers to be thinking, I have no idea how this is going to play out. And then, when they see where things go, you want them to be satisfied.

There’s a story in the Bible about a time religious leaders caught a woman committing adultery and brought her to Jesus. In those days, in that culture, adultery was an offense that was punishable by death. The men asked Jesus what they should do with this woman. Now, if Jesus had told them to simply let her go free he would have been contravening the law; if, however, he told them to put her to death, he would have undermined his message of “forgiveness and mercy.”

It seemed like a pretty good trap, until he said, “Whoever is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”

I call this finding the Third Way. It’s a solution that’s consistent with the character’s attitude, beliefs and priorities, while also being logical and surprising.

We want the solutions that our heroes come up with to be unexpected and inevitable.

Present yours with a seemingly impossible conundrum.

And then help him find the Third Way out.”

Putting characters into a difficult dilemma is a great way to add tension to a story and ramp up the reader’s interest!

Audio Books Continue to Mushroom

There is a press release dated 18 June 2020 from the Audio Publishers Association which tells an interesting story about the growth of audio books.

It says, in part:

“Audiobook sales and consumption continues to grow according to recently released results from the Audio Publishers Association’s annual sales survey conducted by independent research firm InterQ and their annual consumer survey conducted
by Edison Research. Based on information from responding publishers, U.S. audiobook sales in 2019 totaled 1.2 billion dollars, up 16% from the previous year, with a corresponding increase in units.

This continues the EIGHT-year trend of double-digit revenue growth.“Eight straight years of double-digit revenue growth is simply phenomenal,” says Chris Lynch, co-chair of the APA’s Research Committee and President & Publisher of Simon & Schuster Audio. “Even more encouraging are the continued upward trends in consumer listening behavior – both in how many titles they listen to per year and in their finding more time in their
day to listen.”

In addition to the sales increase, Edison Research’s national survey of American audiobook listeners ages 18 and up found that the average number of audiobooks listened to per year increased to 8.1 in 2020, up from 6.8 in 2019. The most popular audiobook genre continues to be Mysteries/Thrillers/Suspense. 57% of frequent audiobook listeners are under the age of 45; this is up from 51% in 2019. And audiobook publishers reported that there were 60,303 new titles produced in 2019, an 18% increase over 2018.

Other notable findings from the surveys include:
• Audiobook consumers place a high priority on quality of narration. Non-fiction and fiction listeners alike prefer a professional voice actor to the author as a narrator.
• For the third year in a row, more than 50% of audiobook listeners say they are making
“new” time to listen to audiobooks and consuming more books.
• A clear market for shorter audiobooks exists, with 43% of audiobook purchasers saying
they would buy an audiobook that is one to three hours long.
• The car remains the #1 overall place for listening, but the home remains the place where
people listen most often.”

From my point of view, I would agree with some of the survey’s findings.  My wife and I took a long car trip recently and we had downloaded some audiobooks.  One of the books was by Toni Morrison, but we couldn’t understand the author who was reading it.  In principle it seems right to have the author reading, but from a listener’s point of view, a professional voice actor is a better choice.  Instead, we listened to Wild Swans by Jung Chang read by Pik-Sem Lim.  Ms Lim must also be Chinese and her accent adds an air of authenticity, but her diction is clear and precise.  When I was doing a lot of travelling by car for business, I always had an audio book (on cassettes from the library).  Some of my favourites were the Flashman and Patrick O’Brian series

 

Books About Race and Anti-Racism: ‘Surging’

An article with the above title, Porter Anderson, appears in the June 16 issue of Publishing Perspectives.  Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair’s 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives.

Porter Anderson

Excerpts from the article are as follows:

“A demonstration of how responsive the US marketplace can be to a national crisis: Have a look at Amazon Charts‘ nonfiction listings.

Normally updated on Wednesdays, these titles are showing No. 1 and 2 in both the charts’ Most Sold and Most Read categories to be, respectively White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Beacon Press, 2018) and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (Penguin Random House, 2019), respectively.

Those two titles went onto the list two and three weeks ago, respectively just after, and one week after, George Floyd’s death for which former police officer Derek Chauvin now is charged with second-degree murder.

And just out a week ago, on June 9, Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America (Macmillan/Henry Holt) is the timely new release from Stacey Abrams on voter suppression.

On the list of potential vice-presidential candidates for the Joe Biden ticket, Abrams’ book arrived with eerie timing last week–just as Georgia (where she has run for governor) went into a primary-election meltdown of voting-machine failures and waiting lines between four and eight hours long.

More from the Amazon Charts, Most Sold in nonfiction–and the timing on many of these, most on the list for one or two weeks, indicates the drivers to which publishing’s content is responding:

I think it’s pretty remarkable the extent to which writers and publishers are responding to a national crisis as evidenced by the dominance of these non-fiction works on the Amazon Most Sold List.