concept to publication

Month: October 2007 Page 1 of 2

Books for writers wrap-up

A while ago I asked for opinions about helpful books for writers and got some good responses. Commentators included Alan Bernheimer, Benjamin Chambers, Carol Peters, Christine Thomas, DMS, Edward Champion, Gonzalo B from Saddlebums, Gordon Hurd from After the MFA, Howard Junker, John Roderick Clark, K.G. Schneider, Lee, Nion McEvoy, Robert Peake, Robin Jacobson, Texts and Pretexts Collective, and Zac from LitList. Thanks to all who contributed. Following is the list of recommendations. See the original post for the recommenders’ comments (the post, BTW, is still open for comments).

Recommendations included

  • Atwood, Margaret, Negotiating with the Dead
  • Auerbach, Eric, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature
  • Baxter, Charles, and Peter Turchi, Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life
  • Baxter, Charles, The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot
  • Behn, Robin, and Chace Twitchell, The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach
  • Bell , Madison Smartt, Narrative Design
  • Benedict, Elizabeth, The Joy of Writing Sex
  • Bernays, Anne, and Pamela Painter, What if?:Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers
  • Best American Essays introductions
  • Blythe, Will, Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction
  • Bradbury, Ray, Zen and the Art of Writing
  • Bringhurst, Robert, Elements of Typographic Style
  • Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Fiction
  • Burroway, Janet, Writing Fiction
  • Calvino, Italo, Six Memos for the Next Millennium
  • Cameron, Julia, The Artist’s Way
  • Cameron, Julia, The Right to Write
  • Cameron, Julia, The Vein of Gold
    Carlson, Ron, Ron Carlson Writes a Story
  • Chandler , Raymond, Raymond Chandler Speaking
  • Checkoway, Julie, Creating Fiction: Instruction and Insights from Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs
  • Collier, Frances Spatz Leighton, How to Write and Sell Your First Novel
  • Conroy, Frank, The Eleventh Draft: Craft and the Writing Life from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop
  • Curtis, Richard, How to Be Your Own Literary Agent: An Insider’s Guide to Getting Your Book Published
  • Dillard, Annie, The Writing Life
  • Dyer, Geoff, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence
  • Edgerton, Les, Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go
  • Eliot, George, Daniel Deronda
  • Epel, Naomi, The Observation Deck: A Tool Kit for Writers
  • Forster, E, M, Aspects of the Novel
  • Franck, Frederick, The Zen of Seeing
  • Gardner, John, On Becoming a Novelist
  • Gardner, John, On Moral Fiction
  • Gardner, John, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers
  • Gitomer, Jeffrey, The Little Gold Book of YES!
  • Goldberg, Natalie, Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft
  • Goldberg, Natalie, The Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life
  • Goldberg, Natalie, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
  • Gordon, Karen, The Transitive Vampire
  • Gornick, Vivian, The End of the Novel of Love
  • Gornick, Vivian, The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative
  • Gross, Gerald C., Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know About What Editors Do
  • Hagberg, Janet, Wrestling With Your Angels: A Spiritual Journey to Great Writing
  • Hale, Constance, Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose
  • Hall, Donald, Writing Well
  • Hansen, Ron, A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction
  • Heard, Georgia, Writing Toward Home: Tales and Lessons to Find Your Way
  • Hill, Brian, and Dee Power, The Making of a Best Seller: Success Stories from Authors and the Editors, Agents, and Booksellers Behind Them
  • Hoagland, Tony, Real Sofistikashun
  • Hugo, Richard, The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing
    King, Stephen, On Writing
  • Koch, Kenneth, Rose, Where Did you Get That Red: Teaching Great Poetry to Schoolchildren
  • Koch, Stephen, The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction
  • Kowit, Steve, In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop
  • L’Engle, Madeleine, Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life
    Lamott, Anne, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
  • Laux, Dorianne, and Kim Addonizio, The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry
  • Le Guin, Ursula K., Steering the Craft : Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew
  • Leebron, Fred, and Andrew Levy, Creating Fiction: A Writer’s Companion
    Lerner, Betsy, The Forest For the Trees
  • Levasseur, Jennifer, and Kevin Rabalais, Novel Voices: 17 Award-Winning Novelists on How to Write, Edit, and Get Published
  • Lodge, David, The Art of Fiction
  • Lott, Bret, Before We Begin: A Practical Memoir of the Writer’s Life
  • Lukeman, Noah T., The First Five Pages : a Writer’s Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile
  • Maso, Carole, Break Every Rule
  • Matthiessen, Peter, Zen and the Writing Life
  • McClanahan, Rebecca, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively
    McClanahan, Rebecca, Write Your Heart Out
  • McKee, Robert, Story
  • Metcalf, Linda Trichter, and Simon Tobin, Writing the Mind Alive: The Proprioceptive Method for Finding Your Authentic Voice
  • O’Conner, Flannery, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose
  • O’Connor, Frank, The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story
  • Oates, Joyce Carol, The Faith of a Writer
  • Oliver, Mary, A Poetry Handbook
  • Paris Review Interviews
  • Plimpton, George, The Writers Chapbook
  • Pound, Ezra, ABC of Reading
  • Prose, Francine, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them
  • Rico, Gabriele, Writing the Natural Way: Using Right-Brain Techniques to Release Your Expressive Powers
  • See, Carolyn, Making a Literary Life
  • Sellers, Heather, Chapter by Chapter: Discover the Dedication and Focus You Need to Write the Book of Your Dreams
  • Smith, James V, You Can Write a Novel
  • Stafford, William, Writing The Australian Crawl
  • Stegner, Wallace, On Teaching and Writing Fiction
  • Stein, Gertrude, Narration: Four Lectures
  • Stern, Jerome, Making Shapely Fiction
  • Strand, Clark, Seeds from a Birch Tree: Writing Haiku and the Spiritual Journey
  • Strand , Mark, and Eavan Boland, The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms
  • Strunk, William Jr, and E. B. White, The Elements of Style
  • Truby, John, The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller
    Tufte , Virginia , Artful Sentences: Syntax As Style
  • Turchi, Peter, and Andrea Barrett, The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work
  • Turchi, Peter, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer As Cartographer
  • Ueland, Brenda, If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit
    University of Chicago Press, The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers
  • Welty, Eudora, One Writer’s Beginnings
  • Wharton, Edith, The Writing of Fiction
  • Williams, Joseph P, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace
  • Wolverton, Terry, Mischief, Caprice and Other Poetic Strategies
    Woolf , Virginia, A Room of One’s Own

Leila and Massimo Vignelli on living by design

new york subway map by massimo vignelli

Massimo Vignelli has been an influential promoter on Swiss industrial graphic design — design that tends to expose an underlying grid and often uses only Helvetica for type. He designed, for example, the New York City subway map shown above, in which the grid is apparent and is effectively used as a means of clearly presenting essential information. In the video below, Leila and Massimo Vignelli discuss some of items they have designed for use in their living space.


Related: The gastrointestinal system as a subway map


The Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook

A classic skit on the perils of translation.

Google Translate, no longer using Systran software, goes head to head with Yahoo’s Babelfish

Systran software has ruled computer translation for years. It has been the technology behind both AltaVista’s Babelfish (now owned by Yahoo), and Google’s translation service, called Google Translate. But now Google has replaced Systran technology with its own translation software.

Google says their approach was to “feed the computer billions of words of text, both monolingual text in the target language, and aligned text consisting of examples of human translations between the languages. We then apply statistical learning techniques to build a translation model. We’ve achieved very good results in research evaluations.”

This approach sounds a bit naive on the face of it. Could it work? Let’s try a sample translation on both Babelfish and Google Translate. To keep things fair, I consulted my Yi jing page, which randomly produced hexagram 39, “Stumbling” (hmmm). The lines go like this (those after the asterisk are the commentary portion of the text):

Stumbling forth and strutting back
Porters stumbling under loads
Stumbling and turning about
Turning back to join with friends
Friends appear for welcoming
Stumbling forth and riding back


Water over mountain. Hard to get a foothold.
Choose the easier path.

Okay. We’ll translate into French and then back into English and then into German and then back into English. We’re using two languages that contributed heavily to the development of English rather than languages that are unrelated to it, so this should be a piece of cake, right?

Babelfish results first:

Stolpern in front and pavanement the back luggage cart-loads, those under the loads stolpern and turns around revolution again with stolpern, connects to the friends to assemble those the friends for the Stolpern of the admission in front and after looks * finished Montagne of the water. A balance strongly reach. Select the simpler way.

Gibberish, although I do like the way a Chinese flavor is creatively introduced by rendering “hard to get a foothold” as “a balance strongly reach.” Now let’s try Google Translate:

Stumbling block strutting back and forth
Owners stumbling block under strain
Stumbling block and
To return to connect with friends
Friends at the reception
Stumbling block fourth and riding back


The water on the mountain. Hard to get a foot.
Select the way.

Somewhat better — at least all of the words are English — although most of the sense is still wrong (how in the world did “forth” become “fourth”?). Still, while I’m not eager to add to the Google world information monopoly, it looks to me like the Google engineers have indeed surpassed Systran. The Google translation is not only a bit more intelligible and closer to the original but it also retains the format of the original. And the web interface was cleaner and easier besides. It’s not the result I was expecting, but I have to say, comparatively good job, Google.

With the caveat, of course, that both results are nearly useless. Bottom line: if you really need something translated correctly, hire a human.

Typographic illusions

typographic illusions: eights

Which eight from this group looks the most balanced? Most people whose eyes have been trained by long exposure to the conventions of the Western alphabet would probably choose the third from the right, or even the second from the right. But the third from the left is the one where the two component circles are the same size. To most people this 8 looks top-heavy because we expect the bottom element to be larger.

This is just one of the interesting typographic design considerations detailed at, apparently an Icelandic typography site, which is oriented to type designers. (The site’s one frustration is that it gives little information about its author, apart from the facts that “in 1996, [he or she] taught a short type design course at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen,” and that an Icelandic version is offered.)

How to design a book without special skills or software

bamboo baskets book spread

It is now possible for anyone to print a book fairly inexpensively, using services such as Lulu or Blurb. Of course, printing should be distinguished from publishing, which includes not just the book’s physical production but its promotion and distribution as well. The big problem with any kind of publishing is getting books together with their readers, and self-publishers should be aware of the formidable difficulties this entails.

But that’s a topic for another time. Today I want to explain how to make a book look good if you’re not a designer and the only tool you have available is something like Microsoft Word. Before we begin, please be aware that it is more difficult to design a book in Word than it would be to do so in a program designed for that purpose, such as InDesign or Quark. I would hate doing a whole book in Word. But sometimes you’ve got to go with what you’ve got.

I know, of course, that hardly anyone who could benefit from the advice that follows is likely to accept it. Simplicity in design is one of the hardest concepts to sell, at least to novices. There is always the urge to add one more flourish or embellishment to “dress up” the text and make the book look “special.”

Which is exactly the wrong way to go. Please believe this. The way to make your book stand out is to make it simple. If you do this correctly it will also be beautiful. Besides, what you want is for people to read the words, right? So your goal should be to keep the design out of the way of the words!

There is a principle in Japanese design called “wabi-sabi.” The term is often translated as “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete,” but the gist of it is unadorned simplicity. This will be our model. Specifically, if you observe the following guidelines I promise you people will compliment you on how professional your book looks. (Be sure to check with your print service in case they have particular requirements that override aspects of my advice.)

More fall color

fall color on taughannock falls walk

This photo was taken on the walk to Taughannock Falls near Ulysses, New York, in the Finger Lakes region. For more fall color, see the clickable thumbnails below.

The thumbnails are courtesy of Duane Storey’s Crossroads plug-in. I’m soliciting feedback — does this feature make the page too slow too load?

Tomorrow I’ll be talking about book design.

Cornell color

I’ve been on the road in PA and NY. Will return tomorrow. We’ll file this post under “photography.” It’s an image of a lake on the Cornell campus in Ithaca. The composition uses the principal of thirds, and the exposure is balanced for the trees.

The fall color seemed weird since the temperature was over 80. To local connoisseurs of fall color this is hardly a spectacular season, but coming from the San Francisco Bay Area I find it pretty extraordinary just the same.

Controlled chaos and blog journalism

El Blogador at Inner Diablog (whose interesting posts I often consult in the context of my Buried Mirror research) cites Samuel Pepys and Jean Baudrillard as models for bloggish prose. These writers, he says, “pointed towards to a new style of writing that consciously moves out towards the edge of discussion (or the long tail if you must) often adopting “controlled chaos” as the chosen idiom.” An excerpt:

In terms of both style and content, mainstream journalists and academics tend to be repelled by ‘edgy’ writing like this because they have been trained to move towards and assume control of the centre of the topic they are addressing.

Similarly, many people in the PR industry are perhaps more naturally inclined to the mass market side of communications rather than the long tail. They’d rather be a hub than a node, which is why as a group they tend to waste so much time on Facebook and why, in spite of an apparent knack for the construction of narratives, they have thus far met with mixed success in the new medium.

It’s a highly competitive workplace and the bestseller mentality, wanting to be one, and to work with others in that same category, may be preventing PRs from fully grasping the transformations in their industry.

Blogador’s follow-up post is here.

Carnage in the book world

That’s what Carole Cadwalladr, in the Guardian, is calling this year’s Frankfut Book Fair. Sounds about right (except that it misses the boredom element that is never quite absent at Frankfurt), and this is the best report from the fair that I’ve read so far. Click the excerpt to read the full article.

Visit the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest literary marketplace, and you might think publishing is only vaguely about writers – next to the carousing, the deals, and the piled-up ‘product’. And then, there’s the fabulous gossip, this year centring on the shenanigans at PFD, Britain’s most prestigious – and troubled – literary agency . . .

Sites we like: Galley Cat

Galley Cat is the blog to visit for insider news from the NYC heart of the publishing industry. I spent most of my career with independent presses outside of New York. Although I visited the city two or three times a year, I was never really a New York publishing insider. If you want to know what’s the latest from the belly of the beast, Galley Cat may be the best source — and you’ll get some pretty good analysis with your news as well. Click the screenshot to visit the site:

galley cat

Thinking with Type

Continuing our week of laziness link love while I’m on the road, I Love Typography has a review of Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton. I think you could say it’s a positive review. For example, “Thinking With Type is to typography what Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is to physics.”

thinking with type

Text decoration

Since posting is light while I’m traveling, I think it’s time to devote another link to Bibliodyssey, that great ongoing compendium of book arts through the ages. This link is to an anonymous early 16th century Spanish parchment manual featuring examples of text decoration.

early spanish parchment design manuscript

Flexible pricing or independent booksellers who pay for readings?

The chains’ dominance of the bookstore segment of the U.S. book publishing industry is a result of the value the country places on open competition. Would you be willing to give up bargain pricing if it meant a thriving culture of independent bookstores and a system that rewards authors with a comfortable yearly income? According to Critical Mass, that’s the choice that Germany made.

POSTING WILL BE A LITTLE LIGHT while I’m on the road.


Guide to Doris Lessing

Salon’s guide to Doris Lessing, by Laura Morgan Green.

Reading tomorrow at Litquake

I’ll be among a group reading translations from Latin American literature. The other participants include Elizabeth Bell, Michael Koch, Anita Segástegui, and John Oliver Simon. The event will be at Encantada Gallery, 908 Valencia Street. We’re in the 8:00-8:45 pm time slot.

Joyce Carol Oates on creating characters in fiction

Ms. Oates, rambling a bit, reveals that during “the first six weeks” of a writing project she is quite miserable. This is somewhat surprising to me, because I find beginnings exhilarating but bog down in the middles. Maybe she is working out the difficulties earlier on, and that accounts for how prolific she manages to be.

Book publishing debut — at 96

Harry Bernstein has published his first book, a memoir called The Invisible Wall (Ballantine), at the age of 96.

Find more videos like this on

International Herald Tribune review


What are the most helpful books about writing and publishing?

jost amman card of booksThe most popular pages on this website, in terms of sheer volume of visitors, are those in my guide to getting a book published. (They account for the site’s top eight pages by volume; my rendering of the Daode jing comes in at no. 9.) Compared to this blog, the guide is more oriented to people without a lot of experience in publishing. For them — but for others as well — I would like to offer some suggestions for further reading. I’ve begun a page — hosted by Powell’s Books — of books for writers that can be recommended in good conscience. (Disclosure: as a Powell’s affiliate, I get, in theory, a small percentage on sales generated through this site.)

The list focuses on the kind of extended prose writing that is the main commodity of publishing, so I haven’t included books about translation or poetry, although I would be interested in hearing what people would recommend. I have also left off a few often-recommended titles that seem to me overrated, as well as books I haven’t read. In the latter category, some possibilities include the John Gardner books, On Becoming a Novelist and Art of Fiction; Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life; Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Winning the Creative Battle; William Stafford’s books on poetry; and Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town. Can anyone vouch for these?

So far I’ve listed the following (in no special order):

  1. Elements of Typographic Style, by Robert Bringhurst
  2. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, by Erich Auerbach
  3. Six Memos for the Next Millennium, by Italo Calvino
  4. ABC of Reading, by Ezra Pound
  5. The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers by University of Chicago Press
  6. Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
  7. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott
  8. The First Five Pages : a Writer’s Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, by Noah T. Lukeman
  9. Steering the Craft : Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator Or the Mutinous Crew, by Ursula K. Le Guin

But that’s just a start, and I’m sure there are many excellent books that I’m forgetting that should be on the list. So, when it comes to the craft of writing and the art and business of publishing, which books would you nominate? What are your favorites?

Extended Live Archives | One year ago

ELA seems to be a pretty good WordPress plugin. I’ve never had an archives link on my blogs, because I don’t think it’s of much interest to most people. Still, one might occasionally want to check out what was going on b in the d. Extended Live Archives lets you create a dynamic archive page, so that instead of the usual list of years and months you only need to devote a simple link to the function. Once at the page you can view archives by date or category.

Let’s try it out. The link (“archives”) is in the group of tightly bunched links near the top of the left sidebar, between the right reading tagline and the drop-down categories menu. (The page links are separated with bold superscript periods.) So what were we doing last October? First, I see I was still mixing in the offbeat stuff that I’ve since moved to Frozen Culture (I should probably 301 redirect some of this); more recently I’ve been keeping this blog more focused on print and electronic publishing issues. I also see that I posted my piece on copyediting Shakespeare, which was picked up by the journal Rosebud; on a more serious note, I put up my Mercury House introduction to Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom; and I started my whimsical left face/right face project.

Download the plugin from Sons of Skadi and follow the installation instructions at 24Fighting Chickens.

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