Good Editing

I have had quite a lot of experience with editors – mostly copy editors, who were looking for errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation.  But three times now I have used substantive editors to look at structure, plot, characters, and organisation, as well.  The first two of those experiences were pretty horrible in the sense that their major comment was ‘cut’.  This was demoralising in that the editor gave no indication of understanding what the book was about and thought that a significant portion of my writing was worthless.

 

 

The third experience with a senior writing instructor in London has been altogether different.  The only time he used ‘cut’ was when I had used unnecessary commas.   When he thought that my writing had gone astray, he would say, ‘please think about the contribution this section is making to your novel.  Is it moving things forward?’  And I would think about it in terms of the three C’s: Character, Cause and Concern.  Is it developing the character, is it establishing an important cause of subsequent plot action, or is it heightening the reader’s concern for a character?  As a result of this review on my part, I rewrote some sections and eliminated others.

But his help went far beyond the value of portions of the writing.  Initially, I had some concerns about tension in the novel.  Was it keeping the reader fully engaged?  He assured me that I was producing literary quality writing, but my choice of narration in the first person by the central character was limiting the tension level.  He suggested that I use two narrators, who are related, but of different ages, genders and personality.  Rather than telling the story in chronological order, why not tell it by major events, so that intensity of each character’s involvement would be increased?  This change, while it ramps up the tension, tends to cause the reader to lose her sense of time, and I had to add time markers to indicate the sequence of events.

The editor made helpful comments about some of the language or actions of characters if they seemed out of character or threatened to reduce the reader’s interest in them.  Then there is the issue of emotion.  The editor says that novels are ’empathy machines’.  Often, I needed reminding to make a character’s feelings clearer.   This action should be as show rather than tell, where body language, tone, expression and setting are used evocatively.

As a resident in the UK for thirty-three years, I think I’m pretty familiar with the Queen’s English as opposed to American English, which is my native tongue.  The novel is set in today’s lower middle class London, and there were subtleties which I missed in my writing and which the editor caught.  Since the novel will hopefully go to a British publisher, it’s important to get the QE right.

Sometimes I was accused of using orthographic language which I understand to mean unnecessarily correct language which falls short of expressing a point.  Frequently this involved the construction of long sentences separated by semicolons.  (I admire William Faulkner’s ability to construct sentences that are half a page or longer.)  Finally, I learned that I use too many commas and semicolons.

For me, the bottom line, before you go to an agent, is to hire a substantive editor, based on seeing samples of his work or comprehensive testimonials.

Review: The Grapes of Wrath

I hadn’t read any John Steinbeck, but this title was certainly familiar to me as being about the ‘dust bowl’ and the ‘Okies’ of the 1930’s, at time with which I was only vaguely familiar.  So I bought a copy.

Wikipedia says: “John Ernst Steinbeck Jr (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) was an American author. He won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” He has been called “a giant of American letters,” and many of his works are considered classics of Western literature. During his writing career, he authored 33 books, including 16 novels, six non-fiction books, and two collections of short stories. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Grapes of Wrath (1939) is considered Steinbeck’s masterpiece and part of the American literary canon. In the first 75 years after it was published, it sold 14 million copies. Most of Steinbeck’s work is set in California. His works frequently explored the themes of fate and injustice, especially as applied to downtrodden or everyman protagonists.

“Steinbeck graduated from Salinas High School in 1919 and went on to study English Literature at Stanford University, leaving without a degree in 1925. He travelled to New York City where he took odd jobs while trying to write. When he failed to publish his work, he returned to California and worked in 1928 as a tour guide and caretaker at Lake Tahoe, where he met Carol Henning, his first wife. They married in January 1930 in Los Angeles, where, with friends, he attempted to make money by manufacturing plaster mannequins.  When their money ran out six months later due to a slow market, Steinbeck and Carol moved back to Pacific Grove, California to a cottage owned by his father. The elder Steinbeck gave John free housing, paper for his manuscripts, and loans that allowed him to write without looking for work. During the Great Depression, Steinbeck bought a small boat, and later claimed that he was able to live on the fish and crab that he gathered from the sea, and fresh vegetables from his garden and local farms. When those sources failed, Steinbeck and his wife accepted welfare, and on rare occasions, stole bacon from the local produce market. Whatever food they had, they shared with their friends. Carol became the model for Mary Talbot in Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row.”

Steinback was married three times and died in New York City, aged 65, of heart failure; he had been a life-long smoker.

John Steinbeck

This novel is set during the Great Depression of the 1930’s in Oklahoma, and, later in California.  Its principal characters are the Joads, a family of share-croppers whose borrowed 40 acres are devastated by the severe drought, which results in their decision to load their possessions and the entire family into an old car which has been converted into a truck. Tom Joad has just been released from prison after serving a term for manslaughter.  He returns to the ramshackle family home to find them preparing to leave, like so many others (300,000), for California, where handbills suggest that there is a great demand for farm labourers.  The family consists of his Ma and Pa, Grandma and Grandpa, Uncle John, brothers, Al and Noah, pregnant sister, Rose of Sharon, her husband, Connie, the young ones, Ruthie and Winfield, and an itinerant preacher, Jim Casy, who has lost his faith.

As the Joads drive west Grandpa dies and is buried; the family experiences hardships, but when the get to California, things get worse.  Grandma dies, it is very difficult to find work paying more than 5 cents an hour, police harassment of the migrants is a recurring problem, the large land owners unscrupulously drive down wages, and the local residents reject the ‘Okies’ as uncivilised beings.  Noah drifts off on his own.  Jim Casy becomes a union organiser and is killed by a deputy, who is killed by Tom, who then separates from the family for fear of being arrested. Connie departs the family and his wife who gives birth to a stillborn child.  Al finds a sixteen year old girl that he intends to marry and stays with her.  The campsite which the Joads – what remains of them – floods, and the remains of the family, Ma, Pa, Uncle John, Rose of Sharon, Ruthie and Winfield, are forced to take shelter in a barn with a boy and his dying father.

The story, which reflects the experiences of many economic migrants from the dust bowl to California, reveals the hopes, fears, resilience, and love of human beings under extreme stress.  It is difficult to read it without feeling pity for the thousands of migrants housed in makeshift camps around the world.  The characters, the setting and the circumstances are extremely real, and one keeps hoping to find some relief for the characters in the pages ahead, but none is forthcoming.  This is a tremendously powerful book!  It is long: 534 pages, but nearly impossible to put down.  I sometimes felt that some of the narrative could have been pared back, but even that extra narrative contributed to the story.  It is, for me, difficult to believe that twelve people could have travelled well over 1500 miles in a wheezy, small pick-up truck that was also loaded with mattresses, cooking equipment, and personal possessions, but the impossibility adds to the family’s evident predicament.

This is a must read novel!

 

Literary vs Genre Fiction

 

Goodreads says that literary fiction is “a term that has come into common usage in the early 1960s. The term is principally used to distinguish “serious fiction” which is a work that claims to hold literary merit, in comparison from genre fiction and popular fiction.”

But what defines ‘serious fiction’ and ‘literary merit’?

Wikipedia says that the characteristics of literary fiction generally include one or more of the following:

  • A concern with social commentary, political criticism or reflection on the human condition.
  • A focus on “introspective, in-depth character studies” of “interesting, complex and developed” characters, whose “inner stories” drive the plot, with detailed motivations to elicit “emotional involvement” in the reader.
  • A slower pace than popular fiction. As Terrence Rafferty notes, “literary fiction, by its nature, allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way”.
  • A concern with the style and complexity of the writing: Saricks describes literary fiction as “elegantly written, lyrical, and … layered”.
  • Unlike genre fiction plot is not the central concern.
  • The tone of literary fiction can be darker than genre fiction.

The Now Novel website says, “Literary fiction explores subtleties and complexities of language, theme and symbolism and tends to be character-driven rather than plot driven. ” and “Often, literary fiction makes more demands on its readers than genre fiction. This is because it merits a higher level of intellectual engagement. The themes and subjects of the text and its social or political and/or historical context are important to how you read literary fiction. This is especially true since a lot of books seen as literary were written in past centuries and societal taboos and beliefs aren’t static.” and “Literary fiction is also arguably defined by a kind of elitism. Although literary novelists may come from any number of backgrounds, literary fiction is mostly written and read by a privileged class. By and large, literary fiction is seen as work that is created and read by an educated middle and upper class while genre fiction, with its populist roots, is often seen as more working class.” and “‘Theme’ and ‘allusion’ can’t be forgotten when defining literary fiction. There are plenty of well-written thrillers, romance and science fiction novels with developed characters and page-turning plots, but in the end, the primary purpose of those books is to entertain the reader. They may have a message as well, but the message is usually secondary or is not particularly difficult to grapple with or tease out.  Literary fiction often presents more difficult or complex truths than genre fiction. It may offer few answers but instead simply make observations about human nature. Its purpose is seldom escapism, more often engagement with big ideas.”

This is, of course, a subjective question, but to my mind, the distinguishing features of literary fiction are:

  • the grappling with important, intellectually complex concerns: the functioning of society, politics, religion, philosophy and governance.
  • distinctive, well defined characters who struggle with internally generated problems
  • a less rapid pace than genre fiction, but without suffering a loss of tension; this slower pace enables more in-depth exploration of characters and their environment
  • considerable emphasis on the creative use of language to affect shades of meaning, tone and emotion
  • plot being a tertiary emphasis behind theme/message and characters
  • a strong sense of originality

Writing Stronger Characters

The Well Storied website has a post by Kristen Kieffer – ’33 Ways to Write Stronger Characters’ – that I think is quite useful.  She divides her advice into three categories:

  1. Fourteen things to give your character
  2. Six things to make your character, and
  3. Thirteen things to find for your character

Ms Kieffer, according to her blog “is an author of fantasy fiction and creative writing resources. At Well-Storied, she strives to help writers craft sensational novels and build their very best writing lives”.  Her website offers workbooks, podcasts, a newsletter, Scrivener Tutorials and free courses,, as well as copies of her books.

Kristen Kieffer

I have selected below some of her more interesting points:

Give your characters a fear: Fear shapes the human experience, creating doubts and insecurities that plague our actions, mindsets, and relationships. Add a little necessary realism to your story by giving your character a few fears as well.

Give your characters a flaw: To be imperfect is to be human. Write a human story by giving your character personality flaws that play into their relationships, fears, disappointments, and discontent.

Give them a history: Our pasts shape who we become. Give your character a rich history that affects both the person they are when your story begins and how they will handle the journey to come.

Give them a quirk: Everyone has their strange qualities or habits, and often times, being a bit strange is just as exciting or memorable as being passionate. Help your character stand out from the crowd by giving them a quirk or two of their own.

Give them a desire: Desires are powerful motivators. They can push your character to great deeds just as quickly as they can tempt them to take action they’ll regret.

Make your characters complex: Don’t stop at simply creating a well-developed character. Actively work to bring your character’s complexities to life on the page by putting them in as many diverse situations as possible.

Make them unique:It’s easy to fall into stereotypes and worn-out character tropes, but don’t give in. Work instead to create characters unique to your story, ones that readers will instantly recognize as your own.

Make them relatable: To relate is to create connection, to see others as just as human as you are. Making even the most evil of characters relatable in some small way can give your character some much needed humanity.

Make them fail: Failure is a springboard to growth. Allowing your character to fail gives them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and develop as human beings, creating excellent internal conflict for your story.

Make them suffer: Take your character from the highest heights to the lowest depths. By allowing your character to suffer (especially during the Dark Night of the Soul), you prove their mettle, endear readers to their cause, and define their growth as a result of their journey.

Find your characters’ identity: Understanding how your character defines themselves in life can help you better understand how they interact with and present themselves to the world. When defining your character’s identity, consider elements such as their gender identity, race, sexuality, religion, ancestry, and interests.

Find their refuge: When all seems lost, a safe haven can keep hope alive for your character. Allow your character to find this refuge when they most need it, so they can receive the respite they need to recharge for your story’s climax.

Find their redemption: Your character will screw up. They will make decisions that harm themselves or others. They will fail. It’s how they make things right that will define who they are at heart.

How Long Is My Chapter?

There is an article in Writing Craft, a section of The Florida Writer’s blog, written by Louise Titchener on 8 December 2018 that caught my eye, because I’ve been wondering about the ‘correct length’ for a chapter: my current project has chapters of 6-7 pages, while, in the past, my chapters are more commonly 15-20 pages.

Louise Titchener’s biography in Amazon says that she is the author of over 40 published novels in a variety of genres including romance, science fiction fantasy, and mystery. She has also published articles in leading magazines and written book reviews for The Washington Post.

Louise Titchener

Her article says: “Chapters of twenty to thirty pages used to be the adult fiction norm. When I started attempting to write novels, I crafted long chapters—and proud of it.

“Guess what. Nowadays I’m cutting those long chapters by half, thirds, and sometimes even by quarters.

What changed? I think technology transformed reading habits. When I was learning to write, transitions were a big deal. Writers were advised never to change a scene, setting, or time period without preparing the reader with a well-developed transition. Figuratively speaking, the writer had to take his reader’s hand and lead him down the narrative path so he/she didn’t get lost.

“Today—not so much. When I first became aware of this shift I was cleaning up in the kitchen while listening to a television show in the other room. Because I wasn’t actually watching the show, it dawned on me that the scenes were extremely short and the cuts between scenes lacked transition. Viewers were making the narrative jumps without help. Was this because transitions were no longer required? Are consumers of media so accustomed to sudden swings in narrative point of view that they no longer need guideposts to follow?

“I think technology has trained people to accept quick bursts of action and move right on to new themes and points of view with very little preparation. Nowadays viewers and readers are sophisticated consumers who can navigate non-linear plots, lightning fast scene changes and shifts in time and space with ease. Or, at least, that’s what they’re asked to do in our culture’s mass media environment, and it seems to be working.

“On the other hand, I think most consumers these days have very little patience for long drawn out scene and character development. They have become acclimated to mass media offerings that move at a pace an older generation might have found perplexing.

“So what is the takeaway for writers? The advantage of a long chapter is the slow and steady development of character and scene. The reader feels the writer isn’t skimming the surface of a story, but digging deep, offering insights that only come with a leisurely and thoughtful pace.

“The advantage of a short chapter is the reader knows he can move from one chapter to the next without feeling trapped by a lengthy narrative. In other words, keeping your chapters short make it easier to write a page turner.

“What’s the caveat? Short chapters can make a story feel chopped up. What’s more, they all need to end on a hook that makes the reader want to stay engaged with the story. If your chapters are only three-five pages long, that’s a lot of hooks. On the other hand, maybe writing in short cuts is a good exercise in keeping a story moving with action, dialogue, and heart-racing events.

“If you’re not into heart-racing, the uninterrupted, more detailed narrative might be more satisfying. Decisions, decisions. Well, there’s always the happy medium—short enough to keep things moving, but long enough to make it seem worthwhile.”

Her point about serious serials on television is a good one.  The BBC and Netfix are both offering items like the current MotherFatherSon, which seem chopped up into small pieces of only one or two minutes and in each of which a new issue, scene and character might be introduced.  One has to watch with patience, dropping each piece of the puzzle into place in one’s mind.

I don’t have that kind of situation with the novel I am finishing now.  Rather, it is a ‘diary’ of the major events toward the end of a man’s life.  I have to keep the chapters relatively brief.  As it is at the moment, it is 24 chapters – one chapter per year – for a total of 168 pages, which will yield a 280 page, 95,000 word book.  Longer chapters would make a longer book – probably unnecessarily long.

The Ethics of Characters

There is an article in the February issue of The Florida Writer, by Chrissy Jackson that caught my eye.  Ms Jackson is a member of the Florida Writers Association.  She graduated with high honours from Eckerd College in 20165, earning a behavioural science degree with a focus on non-profit leadership.

Chrissy Jackson

In the article, Ms Jackson urges authors to consider the ethics of each character.  She says: “Each character must be different from the other in a striking way. Not only in physical characteristics, but also in their moral compass which determines how they interact with others, decisions they make, and actions they take.

“Certainly, when thinking about the protagonist, ethics come into play as you craft the character. But even the antagonist takes some thinking when there are ethical choices to be made. It is important to allow enough room on both sides for growth and situational changes to impact each of them.  Just as in real life where no one is all good or all bad, so it is with your characters. No one is ethical all the time nor consistently unethical. For example, if the antagonist is a sociopath, who is manipulative and never considers the rights of others, one who sees their self-serving
behaviours as permissible, there might still be an ethical core way down deep in their personality that comes out if the situation is just right. A trigger, perhaps, that brings up a long-ago memory of something positive.

“Readers look for a twist in character development, the something that changes as the story builds and the character arc emerges, but as an author, you need to build it realistically so that ethical choices seem appropriate for each personality you develop, yet there is that little something that is unexpected. Perhaps your antagonist is one who tortures people instead of just murdering them outright. Maybe it started in their youth with puppies, rabbits and other small animals. Yet maybe it never extended to kittens because in the horrible life that passed for the youth of your antagonist, there was a lost, abandoned kitten that hid under the house and rather than seeing it as easy prey, it represented for your character something that cared about them in a way no one else ever did. That might drive his ethical choices when confronted with a person intended to be his next victim, but who is found playing with a kitten, much like he did when he escaped the adults and crawled under his house. Ethical memories may interfere with the killer’s plans, causing him to rethink his actions for a minute, and that may be just long enough for the planned victim to move out of the situation.

“Ethics are a moral sense of right and wrong, confusing overall, because rightness or wrongness can be seen so clearly and so differently by different people. While a drug-addicted mother may put her children in harm’s way through choices she makes while under the influence of heroin—and actually lose custody of them—the ethics of her situation are not lost on her when she is not high. As an author creating a rounded character, you know there is more her story than her physical cravings. You need to also weave in the love she has for her newborn, and the unconditional love that is returned.  Even small children are faced with ethical dilemmas.  Should Susie take Mary’s cookie off the lunch tray when no one is looking?  Who will know she did it?  And do not forget the judgement of the public against the protagonist. If he/she does something that turns out to be the “right” choice, the ethical decision, but does it for the wrong reason initially, is it still right? Who knows the real reason underlying the call to action? Who will tell someone else? How will it be portrayed? Does it change the public opinion about the protagonist?”

I certainly agree with Ms Jackson’s central points: that characters develop and change over the course of a story (the character arc); and that it is important to plan for and support those changes as the writing progresses.

Why Are Book Editors So Expensive?

There is an article with the above title in the IBPA Independent magazine, December 2017, written by Belinda Pollard which is of interest because I often wonder about the size of the bills I receive from editors, both structural and copy.  Belinda Pollard is a writer, editor, and publishing consultant based in Brisbane, Australia .

Belinda Pollard

She says: “In all my years as a book editor and chatting with other editors and authors, I’ve noticed two key misunderstandings about the whole process. First, editing a book takes longer than most people think. Second, an editor’s fee covers much more than their salary.

Good Editing Is Time-Consuming

Wikipedia tells us: “The average adult reads prose text at 250 to 300 words per minute. While proofreading materials, people are able to read at 200 wpm on paper, and 180 wpm on a monitor.”

So, let’s say someone is going to read carefully (not just skim) your 100,000-word crime novel at 200 wpm. That adds up to about 8.5 hours just to read your book once. A quality edit usually involves two readings, at least. At the 200 wpm rate for careful reading, we’re up to 17 hours for two passes through the manuscript.

Editors are not just reading, however. They’re writing, as well—jotting down changes as they make their way through the draft. Editors need to take the time to express themselves clearly in their notes to ensure the author will be able to understand the logic of their comments and have enough information to make well-informed decisions about the recommendations. A good editor will also take the time to express themselves graciously, present options, and show respect for the author. It takes much longer to write thoughtful, sensitive, useful feedback than to say, “I hated this part.”

A content/developmental/structural editor needs to read and think creatively, evaluating the book in terms of where it’s heading and where it could go to make it a stronger book. They can often read quickly because they are looking at the big picture rather than the small details, but the creative side needs some time to breathe.

A copy/mechanical editor needs to read every letter of every word on every page, along with every punctuation mark—no skimming. They might be required to check sources, depending on the brief. While they do all this, they need to think analytically, weighing not only correct versus incorrect, but also OK versus better. This applies to a range of areas, including spelling, grammar, punctuation, and expression.

About how many hours is that? The Chicago Manual of Style (16th Edition, p. 71) says: “A 100,000-word book manuscript, edited by an experienced editor, might take seventy-five to one hundred hours of work before being sent to the author, plus ten to twenty additional hours after the author’s review.”

So that’s averaging around one hour per 1,000 words of manuscript! Has CMOS gone mad? Let’s double-check against the Editorial Freelancers Association. They’re saying 500 to 1,250 words per hour for heavy copy editing. For basic copy editing, they suggest 1,250 to 2,500 words per hour, and 250 to 1,250 words per hour for developmental editing. Seems like they are in the same ballpark.

An Editor’s Fee Is Not Their Salary

The second misunderstanding I encounter is that people often compare editing fees to the hourly rate of their own wage or salary. Only a small portion of a freelance editor’s fee goes to pay their salary. It also has to cover a range of business expenses, and many unpaid tasks that are needed to run a business.

When I first started freelancing back in the late 1990s, I didn’t understand this. I worried that the rates recommended by my national association seemed too high, and that no one would pay them. I charged too little, and ended up working 60 to 80 hours a week for less than minimum wage, even though I had two university degrees and a significant amount of experience.

I burnt out, got cranky and depressed, and got a job at a company. They used to charge out my services to clients for $110 an hour (and this was about 10 years ago, so adjust for inflation). I was astonished. It seemed like a king’s ransom. Of course, they didn’t pay me $110 an hour. I finally grasped that the hourly rate they charged to the client needed to cover the whole cost of employing me.

Freelance editors need to do something similar. A freelance editor doesn’t have the large overhead of a big company, but they also don’t have lots of people to share the costs, or the tasks. Just one person has to bear all those financial burdens, and either do those tasks themselves or pay someone else to do it.”

(She gives a long list)

“For many freelancers this can easily add up to $20,000 a year or more, for someone working at a highly professional level. And if that isn’t bad enough, on average, freelance editors find that they can only spend half of the hours in the week actually doing what are known as “billable hours.” Those are the hours that are charged out to clients. The other half of the week is spent running the business, doing administrative tasks, interacting with clients and potential clients, and building the business.

I’ve had times when it’s taken me up to eight hours just to prepare a detailed proposal for a potential client—without any guarantee of income from it. So, out of only perhaps 20 to 25 “billable hours” per week, a freelancer has to pay their own salary plus many expenses.

If you find yourself thinking, “I shouldn’t have to pay for all those things,” the follow-up question is, “Well, then, who should?” It has to be shared around the freelancer’s clients; that’s the only way.

I’m not going to lie to you—I’d love to get someone to do a great edit on my books for a tiny price. Who wouldn’t? And I have found it a financial burden to come up with the editor’s fees on my own indie books. But, having been on the other side of the fence, I have to show integrity, and try not to be one of those people pressuring an editor to live in poverty. Editors are expensive, yes, but very few of them are overpriced. It’s just an expensive and necessary part of the publishing process.”

On reflection, I think the best solution for me is to find the right freelance editor who will do a more thorough and less expensive job than the workmanship I’ve experienced with agencies.

Why a Book Tour Is More Brutal Than a Political Campaign

There was an article written by Steve Israel in the New York Times on this past Tuesday with the above title.  I had to find out how this could possibly be the case, so I read it.  Steve Israel represented New York in Congress from 2001 to 2017. His most recent novel is Big Guns, published last April.  The Amazon website for Big Guns calls it, “a hilarious indictment of American politics, whose author knows from bitter experience how sensible laws almost never get passed by Congress.”

Steve Israel and his novel

He said, “During the course of eight successful campaigns for Congress in my Long Island district, I was called every imaginable name by unhappy voters, including, but not limited to, idiot, Communist, socialist, liberal (what’s worse than that?), Pelosi puppet, Obama lackey and Bush sellout. I was criticized as too progressive, too conservative, too middle-of-the-road. In 2010, when Tea Party fever swept through congressional districts, I sat in a slow-moving convertible, waving to crowds at a Memorial Day parade. People waved back, many with one particular finger.  I didn’t let any of it get to me. I brushed it off. In a swing district with about as many Democrats as Republicans — but all opinionated New Yorkers — dealing with voter rejection had become second nature.

So you’d think that I’d be inoculated against the indifference of some readers during the recent book tour for my novel.

Wrong.

In politics, one’s skin must be impenetrable to insult and even the occasional knife in the back. But sitting behind a pile of books at an Authors Night, watching people pick up your book as if it’s a piece of spongy fruit at the market, is sheer torture. Often, they frown sceptically, weigh the book in their hands, glance at a few pages and toss it back on the pile. All right in front of you.

In August, I participated in a signing to benefit a historic public library in Connecticut. I was one of only a few novelists in a tent filled with nonfiction authors. My book, a political satire on the National Rifle Association, sat in a pile that actually seemed to grow higher as the evening progressed. Among the questions I received were:

1: “Is this a novel?” (The words “A Novel” appear on the cover.)

2: “Are you pro-gun or anti-gun?”

And my favourite: “I shoot bear. Will this book help?”

Each question was deflating. I remember receiving a letter when I was in Congress telling me that my support for Obamacare was so odious that the writer was voting for my opponent, then asking who, exactly, my opponent was. I laughed. But in that tent in Connecticut, I had to restrain myself when a reader asked me if my passion for exposing the insanity of the N.R.A.’s influence in a novel (written in 90,000 words and taking over two years of my life) might improve his bear-hunting skills. “Dude, this book’s not for you,” I replied.

Then I sat down, jiggling my signing pen, watching the line get longer at Simon Winchester’s table.

There’s some solace in knowing that I’m not alone. The producer and writer Alan Zweibel recently shared with me his favourite story about the occasional solitude of the book-signing tour earlier in his career. Zweibel was one of the original writers on “Saturday Night Live,” and the author of numerous books. He’d been invited to promote his book at the Barnes & Noble in Paramus, N.J. The night before, he had appeared on “Late Show With David Letterman,” the kind of visibility an author or publicist craves. Anticipating a large crowd, the Barnes & Noble staff put out about 200 folding chairs. There was a crowd, Zweibel said — only they were rushing to the multiplex on the other side of the mall for the opening of a new movie. Zweibel made the best of it, gracefully taking his audience of five to dinner at the local Legal Sea Foods.

My presence at authors nights usually draws folks I call “political leaners.” They don’t lean to the ideological left or right. They lean forward. On my books. Blocking people who might actually buy my work while they fulminate about Mueller, Putin, impeachment, climate change, the obscure member of Congress whom they hate/love, the granddaughter who wants to go into politics or the president’s latest kooky tweet. Sometimes they want a handshake and a selfie. Then they move on. But so have the people behind them.

So how is it that rejection in politics rolled off my back while even one person’s rejection of my book sticks in my craw? For me, there’s a big difference between being snubbed in an election and being ignored on a book tour.

The maxim in politics is that “it’s not personal, it’s just business.” Maybe that’s the psychological armour every politician wears against insults and indignities. Someone’s going to run against you, lie about you, spend millions of dollars vilifying you — but it’s not personal. If angry voters spew, it’s not about you, it’s about that unpopular vote that you cast, or the tough political environment for your party or because they’re uninformed. Writing a book, on the other hand, is deeply personal. Politicians put on protective gear, fiction writers take it off — fully exposing their creativity, emotions, fantasies. It’s like unburdening oneself on a therapist’s couch, only every reader on earth is your therapist.

Plus, there’s the issue of space. At elections, people reject you in the privacy of a voting booth. It stings, but it’s distant and anonymous. At a book signing, the judgements are cast from a distance of a few feet and in real time. The response to you is immediate.

Thankfully, at each signing I somehow manage to sell a fair share of books. And although I left politics (undefeated and unindicted), political skill hasn’t completely left me. For instance, I’ve figured a way to rationalise setback. In an election, anything over 50 percent is a win. At a book signing, I’ve decided that selling over 50 percent of my book pile is also a win.

So I’ll continue, skin thin, signing-pen sharp. And the next time someone asks me if my novel will help him shoot a bear, I’ll let my political instincts take over. I’ll say “Yes!” Then I’ll suggest he take extra copies for other bear hunters.

After all, it’s not personal. It’s business.”

 

Types of Readers

The Atlantic had an on-line article 31/8/2012 which i found both interesting an humorous.  It listed the types of book readers.  Lest you conclude that this is a definitive list, I can assure you that there are as many different lists as there are book enthusiasts who like to categorise complicated subjects.

Here is an abbreviated sample of The Atlantic’s list:

The Book Snob. You are hard to impress. You only read books that are well reviewed by critics that you have determined to be of the highest caliber. You would never stoop to read something on a best-seller list, or something sold in a discount department store, or something NOT GOOD. Paperbacks offend you; you only touch hardcover—preferably, award-winning in some form or fashion. 

The Hopelessly Devoted. You stick to the authors you like, and you read them, pretty much exclusively, whatever they write, good or bad, regardless of reviews or the opinions of your friends or family. Everyone knows what to get you for your birthday or holidays. You are a true fan, and have been known to stand in line for a book signing from your BWF (Best Writer Forever)..

The Audiobook Listener. So, ya like audiobooks? That’s cool. There’s a place for you, person whose ears are essentially eyes. Not that we understand, exactly, but, hey, different strokes for different folks.

The Conscientious Reader. It’s nonfiction or nothing for you, reader! It should have a purpose, too, and be meaningful. You should learn something. There should be ideals! If it’s just fun, you can read it on the Internet, in your humble opinion. You like reporting, true tales, and journalism.

The Critic. Yes, it is easier for you to hate than to love, but when you love, you love deeply and in the most eloquent of fashions. It’s not a book if you don’t discourse about it, and so, discourse you shall! No one can stop you. You allude to metaphors and figurative language and concepts and conceits and plot points in daily conversations. You adore a spectacular conclusion as much as you do a foreword and an afterword. But especially, you love something that you can sink your teeth into and discuss. But only with those of a similar intellectual bent. You find book clubs too “mainstream.”

The Book Swagger. You’re the one wandering around book conventions with that acquisitive gleam in your eye and a pile of ARCs in your tote bag. If it’s free, you’ll take it, and even if it’s not, you’ll try to get it for free. Whether you read all this swag or not is really of little consequence. It’s not that you don’t love books, you do. But you also really, really love getting to see them before anybody else. And for free!

The Easily Influenced Reader. If someone says it, they must be right! You listen to everyone, from your mom to Oprah to the members of your book club to Michiko Kakutani, and you believe them all! There are so many books for you to read, you better get started. Don’t worry, you already know how to feel about the books you will read. You enjoy reading in group settings.

The Compulsive/Voracious/Anything Goes Reader. Wherever you go, whatever you do, there’s a book with you. It doesn’t matter what it is, really, so long as there are pages with words on them, or an e-reader with words on it. We can’t really suggested anything here because you took it with you to the grocery store or subway or library or laundromat or coffee shop, and you’re standing in line or sitting down and reading it right now.

The Sharer. You read something you like and you simply will not stop talking about it; you tell everyone you know, and you will not give up until they read it too. And then you want to talk about it.  If you are one of these, sometimes you loan people books, too, and that is a good quality. We like you, book sharer. We really, really do. You’re a giver, not a taker.

The Re-Reader. You know what you like, and instead of branching out and possibly finding something new that you don’t like, you focus on what you do. You read the same books over and over again, returning to them as if they’re old friends, which, pretty much, they are. Your book-reading motto is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The Hate Reader. Oh, you. You pretend to be curmudgeonly, you do, but you really just devour the reading you do in a different way. You’re loving it nearly much as you’re hating it, even as you complain the author can’t put two sentences together properly or that the book is dragging hopelessly in the middle and what kind of plot twist is that, even? An elephant in Act 3? These characters are so poorly drawn as to be comical! You call that a conclusion? Vampires, really? If you are a hate reader you will finish each hate read down to its very last word, and you may well close the covers and toss the volume across the room, but you will do it with a great, secret frisson of satisfaction because it feels so good. You may be an aspiring, disgruntled novelist yourself.

Delayed Onset Reader. You are without a doubt a book lover, and when you walk into a bookstore or any place books are available, you can’t help yourself, you buy one or many. When you get home you put them aside, often reverently, as if they were art, displaying them on a bookshelf or propping them up on your bedside table, pages ready to meet your eyes as soon as you have the moment. But you’re very, very busy, and days, weeks, or months may go by before you actually crack open one of these books. It’s not for lack of trying! When you finally do, you will be overjoyed by all the learning and emotional depth and humor and writing quality that exists in this book that’s been sitting within reach all along, and you will be amazed that you waited so long to ever open it.

The Multi-Tasker. This is the nice way of saying you are a promiscuous reader, but it’s not that you don’t finish reads. Instead, you just have a sort of hippie reading way about you, free love or some such. You might start the day out with a few pages from one novelist, then read something entirely different on the subway, and when you come home from work, another work as well. Your bedtime read, too, might be different, and all in all, when you count up the books, you’ve got quite a lot of irons in the fire all at the same time. Do you confuse characters or plots? Do you give more attention to some books than to others? Perhaps. The point is, you’re not ready for a book commitment just yet, and you’re doing a brilliant job dating them all in the meantime.

 

 

Review: Daemon Voices

Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman, master storyteller, attracted my attention because it is  collection of essays on storytelling.  I thought is might include some tips from an expert.  The book, when it arrived from Amazon turned out to be a hard cover edition of 460 velum pages.  The essays are mostly presentations given at various literary events, and compiled by Simon Mason, who writes for adults and children and his fictional works have won and been shortlisted for literary prizes.

Wikipedia says this about Philip Pullman: “Philip Pullman, CBE, and fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (born 19 October 1946) is an English novelist. He is the author of several best-selling books, including the fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials and a fictionalised biography of Jesus, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. In 2008, The Times named Pullman one of the “50 greatest British writers since 1945”.  In a 2004 poll for the BBC, Pullman was named the eleventh most influential person in British culture.

Philip Pullman

“The first book of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Northern Lights, won the 1995 Carnegie Medal from the Library Assocaiation, recognising the year’s outstanding English-language children’s book. For the 70th anniversary of the Medal it was named one of the top ten winning works by a panel, composing the ballot for a public election of the all-time favourite. It won the public vote from that shortlist and was thus named the all-time”Carnegie of Carnegies” in June 2007. It was adapted as a film under its US title, The Golden Compass.”

Daemon Voices contains 32 essays covering a wide range of topics: childrens’ literature, education, religion, science, folk tales, fairy tales, Pullman’s books, other writers, culture, the writer, and on the practice of writing.  Since most of the essays are oral presentations, they come across as informal, but learned and interesting.

There are many detailed references to particular stories, some of which is valuable and unique, but much I found myself skimming as it did not assuage my interest in technique.  What was of particular value to me were his remarks about stories in the present vs, the past.  (He prefers the past as it is less limiting, while I prefer the present as conveying a sense of immediacy).  He reveals specific instances of stories in a mix of past and present tense.  Also valuable were his thoughts on the use of various narrators, including devices where a character becomes a narrator.  Much of this is contained in his essay The Writing of Stories.

I took particular exception to his drum beating for atheism, particularly his essay, The Republic of Heaven: God is Dead, Long Live the Republic.  As I understand it, his atheism is based on there being no proof of God’s existence, and scorn for the evil deeds committed in the name of religion.  What this fails to recognize is that God can exist for a host of reasons without any proof of his existence, and that evil deeds committed in the name of religion (of which there are many, many) are actually committed by human beings, there being no necessary relationship between the evil acts and the existence, or not, of God.  It also fails to consider the enormous number of human beings (two of three billion?) who believe in God, and each of whom has a personal experience which accounts for their belief.

Daemon Voices is of particular interest to those who are fans of Philip Pullman.