With a couple of forthcoming books and other projects in the works, I’m sometimes asked how I manage to do this considering I have a day job, and a long commute to boot. So now — drumroll — I’m finally going to reveal my secret (but you might not like it).
I don’t watch much television. I’ve never seen American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, Jersey Shore, Mad Men, The Sopranos, Real Housewives of Wherever, Two and a Half Men, Lost, or a lot of other popular shows.
In her recent Sunset magazine article “Time Lost and Found,” Anne Lamott writes, “Time is not free—that’s why it’s so precious and worth fighting for…. Fight tooth and nail to find time, to make it. It is our true wealth, this moment, this hour, this day.”
One interesting thing about people is how they use their time. If watching television or playing computer games fulfills your needs, then great, go for it. But if you’re compelled to engage in some kind of creative expression, then you have to make time for it. And that is probably going to mean giving something up.
It’s your choice.
Image of a television left out in the rain from striatic’s photostream.
How does a hurricane move? It “barrels” and “churns,” to judge from the most popular verbs. “Lumbers” is the oddest verb choice, yet it is used rather often, I guess to convey a large scale (hearing it on the radio this morning led me to this investigation). But can a hurricane really “march”? I guess that’s to show inexorability. Can it “aim”? Here’s just a small sample of today’s journalistic prose at work.
- “Hurricane Irene … makes its way toward the US mainland.” –ABC News
- “Hurricane Irene [is] churning toward the New York/New Jersey area.” — ESPN
- “Hurricane Irene churned on a northwest track.” –Scientific American
- “Irene churns toward North Carolina.” — Bloomberg
- “Hurricane Irene … advances toward the East Coast.” — Ydr.com
- “Hurricane Irene may be hurtling menacingly toward the coast.” — Wall Street Journal
- “Hurricane Irene … barrels toward the East Coast.” — Technolog
- “Hurricane Irene barreled toward the region. — Boston Globe
- “Hurricane Irene made its way toward the region.” — Boston Globe
- “Irene continues to steam through the ocean.” — Boston.com
- “Hurricane Irene … roars toward the U.S. East Coast.” Los Angeles Times
- “Irene lumbered into the Bahamas.” — Patch.com
- “Hurricane Irene … bore down on the Bahamas.” — PBS
- “Irene … spins toward the Bahamas.” –WSBTV
- “Hurricane Irene slammed the Bahamas [and] heads toward the East Coast. — Washington Post
- “Irene takes aim at Long Island.” NY Daily News
- “Hurricane Irene aims its fury toward the North.” — brunswickbeacon.com
- “Hurricane storms toward Philly region.” – myfoxphilly.com
- “Hurricane Irene moves toward the Carolinas.” — Charlotte News
- “Irene continued its march across the Caribbean toward the U.S.” — Fox News
- “Hurricane Irene marched north.” — Wall Street Journal
When you attempt something ambitious you’re bound to make some mistakes along the way. I’m sure the book I’m working on will have its fair share (recently I realized I had confused the Mughal painters Bichitr and Bishandas). But sometimes a mistake is so stunning that it’s hard to recover from.
I was finding Charles H. Parker’s Global Interactions in the Early Modern Age, 1400-1800 generally interesting and credible. Then I came upon this sentence:
The lack of any indigenous pack animals, except for the llama, and the absence of a wheel meant that humans formed the primary source of portage in Mesoamerican trade.
Probably another reason Mesoamericans depended on humans for portage is that the nearest of their “indigenous” llamas was nearly 2000 miles away in the South American Andes.
This reminds me of a visit to the market in Chichicastenango in Guatemala a few decades ago. The blanket vendors all touted their blankets as pura lana, which means “pure wool.” At the market I met a foolish young Spanish-challenged gringo carrying a blanket he had bought. He’d paid a high price, but it was worth it, he assured me, proudly proclaiming it “pure llama!”
Image from felipe ascencio‘s photostream.
I have a month to polish up the book I’m currently working on, and I’m experimenting with a randomized editing process.
Most writers spend a lot of time on the beginnings of their books, and rightly so since they set the tone and either welcome or drive away potential readers. Endings get some attention as well, but authors and readers alike bog down in the problematic middle, especially around three-fifths of the way through.
In revising, you can start from the beginning and just go as far as you can, or all the way to the end, repeatedly, but this will likely result in a mid-book slump. You can also just identify the most important parts, or the parts that need the most work, and concentrate on them, sanding down the rough patches one after another.
If you’re working in short bursts — in breaks in your day job, for example – you might want to test the water by just dipping in here and there. But, if you’re like me, your dipping is not likely to be very random, so you’re not really doing a good test.
There’s a site called random.org, where you can generate a random sequence of numbers within a certain interval. According to the site, “The randomness comes from atmospheric noise, which for many purposes is better than the pseudo-random number algorithms typically used in computer programs.”
A random sequence, as opposed to a random set where numbers can be repeated, is like pulling numbers from a hat, where once a number is used it can’t be used again. So I’ve generated a random sequence of numbers between 1 and 384, and I’m reviewing pages in the that order. I’ll do this a few times with a few different random sequences.
Is this a good idea? I’m not sure, but I think it might be a helpful corrective, or at least complement, to the kind of directed attention that you’re going to give your manuscript anyway.
Jill Schoolman of Archipelago Books asked recently if I would be interested in translating the major twentieth-century Spanish poet Jose Angel Valente. As it happens I would, and I am grateful to her for thinking of me. Valente is a kind of platonist of the word, who seeks to ruthlessly strip bare received language and produce a vitalized text of absolute immediacy. (I’m far from an expert on twentieth-century poetry of Spain, so I’ll need to work at getting up to speed in better understanding his place in the scheme of things.)
I will select roughly eighty poems from his body of work. Unfortunately, I won’t have the sustained time to work on this project until I finish my work on 1616, but I’m looking forward to this challenge. Here’s a very preliminary example:
The wine was the indeterminate color of ash.
I drank it with residue of dark
shadows, shadows, a wet
body on the sands.
You came tonight.
The insidious depths of the glass
conceal an anonymous god.
You gave me
blood to drink
of the god drunk to the dregs.
By the way, I think I finally figured out how to keep WordPress from stripping out spaces when you have to indent lines in irregular ways like this. You can insert invisible characters, with this kind of code:
<span style=”visibility: hidden;”>++++++++++++++++++</span>
UPDATE: Looks like the hidden style attribute doesn’t work with RSS.
In the summer of 1634, Jean Nicolet (1598-1642) set out from the French colony in Quebec to sort out tribal conflicts on the Great Lakes that were threatening the fur trade, Canada’s small part in the world economy. Nicolet was also instructed to make his way, if he could, to the Mer de l’Ouest. Natives directed him to Lake Michigan, and over this Western Ocean, he was sure, lay China. Determined to make a good impression, he packed what he thought would be suitable for meeting Chinese. How he got his hands on a Chinese damask robe woven with flowers and multicolored birds we do not know, but by 1634 silks had been flowing from China to Europe for a century. He crossed Lake Michigan and put on his robe, only to find Green Bay.
– Timothy Brook, The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China
… William Shakespeare. Anyway, that’s what it says here. I was scrolling through my feeds and noticed a guy calling himself “Mighty Red Pen” ran a few of his posts through an algorithm that purports to analyze your writing — sometimes he wrote, it said, like Dan Brown, other times like Cory Doctorow, and once like Vladimir Nabokov.
I have no idea how the thing works, but I entered the second chapter of the book I’m working on and got the Will result (which seems appropriate since I’m writing on the early seventeenth century).
I think it’s best to stop now. How disheartening would it be to learn that my second chapter was written like William Shakespeare and my third in the style of Dan Brown?
Today I initiate what I am hoping will become a more or less weekly feature here at blog.rightreading.com — a report on book news from newspapers and journals around the world. (I say “more or less weekly” because I am currently working on a big project that is taking most of my time, and this has reduced my blogging, which had been steadily daily up for years until a few months ago; more on that project in time.)
I think I will eventually move this feature to Thursdays. My plan is to spotlight one interesting story selected from a variety of sources of world book news, include a screen shot linking to the original, and briefly recap or comment on the story. Please let me know if this would be of interest, and I would love to hear suggestions regarding international sources I should include when looking for stories (in my languages: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian).
Today’s story may be a little different from most because it’s more of an entertaining feature than news about book publishing or authors and books. It’s a fun story from the Guardian (London), which surveys a number of writers — Elmore Leonard, Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, PD James, AL Kennedy — and asks them to list 10 tips for writers.
When the ancients wrote books they were trying to get at reality and transmit spirit. But all they could convey was a general idea, in order to help lead people to the truth. Much of their spirit, their energy, their words and laughter and actions, could not be captured.
When modern generations write books they ape the form of the ancients. To show how clever they are they add false analyses and additions. And so they get farther and father from the truth.
–Wang Yangming, 1471-1529
I received the following e-mail:
Within the last few months, I sent you a query regarding my book, [title redacted], which you kindly declined to represent. In the interim, I have built my own website , and I’ve since had grown my audience to hundreds of enthusiastic readers. I’d like to invite you to check it out at [url redacted],
If you are interested in representing this book, then I would be interested in speaking with you.
Thanks for your time,
If anyone is interested in how to write a query letter, well, this is not the way.
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According to a study by diabolical psychologist Joe Forgas of the University of New South Wales, unhappy people make the best writers.
He did a series of experiments where he bummed one group out and cheered another up. “Trained essay raters” determined that the unhappy subjects wrote superior essays.
According to Forgas “mildly negative mood may actually promote a more concrete, accommodative and ultimately more successful communication style.” (Had he been a little more disappointed in the results he would have crafted a better sentence.)
Along the same lines, it has also been found that people do better work on cloudy days than on sunny ones.
Being in a foul temper may also be good for your love life. According to Forgas, “mild negative affect may actually promote a more concrete and more situationally attentive communication style in intimate relationships.”
So wipe that smile off your face.
A friend and colleague, Will Powers, died suddenly of a heart attack on August 25. I had worked with Will when I was at North Point Press, employing him as a free-lance copy editor and proofreader. He had worked previously as a typographer at Stinehour Press, and he brought a craftsman’s eye to the projects he worked on. About twenty years ago, Will moved to the twin cities, and for the past eleven years he worked as design and production manager for the Minnesota Historical Society Press.
Above, where I mentioned his work as a proofreader, I initially typed “proofreading” instead, and I was sorely tempted to retain that error, for reasons that will become apparent. Sometime in the past year or two Will e-mailed me the following poem, entitled “The Printer’s Error,” by Aaron Fogel. It seems a fitting memorial, and I hope the author will not mind me running it here in Will’s memory.
Right Reading passes along the following e-mail unedited (except for removing the publicist’s e-mail address). This is a typical form for a book press release. The brief personalized cover note shows the publicist is doing her job diligently. The writing advice is pretty standard for conventional mainstream fiction, and writers should be aware of these conventions before choosing to break them.
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“The submission process is like going to the DMV. It’s one of the great equalizers, and it tends to treat everybody like shit.” — Jess Mowry
Author Jess Mowry (Way Past Cool, Babylon Boyz, Ghost Train, Six Out Seven) has some helpful tips on preparing a manuscript for book publication. Let’s look at some of the things he says.
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Many years ago, as a graduate student in comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a focus in part on the linguistic model in literary criticism, I turned my attention to beyond-the-sentence topicality. Scholars have parsed the sentence since ancient time, but they have paid less attention to the way sentences connect to each other.
One of the applications of this line of research is for machine translation. How does the translation engine determine, for example, whether the word lead in a text refers to the heavy metal or to the concept of leadership?
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pillow shoulder sheet
monkey mind racing
Many great books begin on a quiet note — think of Tolstoy’s “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” or Ford’s “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” for example.
But some writers take the opposite tack. I just encountered this extraordinary opening sentence to chapter one of The Perenial Garden by Jeff and Marilyn Cox:
When the dynosaurs shrieked in the primordial night, and the world’s highest law was to eat or be eaten, there were no flowers.
You won’t find a sentence like that in many gardening books (he shrieked).
How long should a query be? Surely it depends on the nature of the work, competing editions and the book’s market segment, your publishing history, whether you know the agent or publisher, and things like that, right?
And it seems likely that queries these days would be shorter than they used to be, since new media, along with the decline in public education, has helped to bring about an age of information snacking, in which we have largely lost the habit of extended continuous reading.
But agent Nathan Bransford says it’s simpler than that. He recently did a survey of 180 queries he received. Looking at the length distribution of the queries, and considering the mss. he called for, he concludes that the “sweet spot” for query letters is 250-350 words.
So now you know.
BTW, I did a check of the last query letter I wrote, and it came in at 325 words.
Wordle is “a toy for generating ‘word clouds’ from text that you provide.” Words that appear more often are presented more prominently. The site will make word clouds from text that you provide or from urls or even from a del.icio.us user’s tags. It’s so pointless it almost becomes interesting.
What if some well-known American writers had become wordle poets? I fed six poems into the machine and accepted the default output (except in one case where I rejected a black background).
“The books we need are the kind that act upon us like a misfortune, that make us suffer like the death of someone we love more than ourselves, that make us feel as though we were on the verge of suicide, or lost in a forest remote from all human habitation — a book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us.” — From a letter of Kafka to Oskar Pollak.
via Book of Joe