concept to publication

Category: writing Page 1 of 4

“Writing” posts at

A few of my books

A few of my books.

Here you will find posts tagged “writing” on But really the majority of posts here pertain to writing.

For a page devoted to some of my own books, go here.

Best American Essays 2019 coverA bit of personal news: My essay “La Vie en Rose” was selected as a notable essay of 2019 in Best American Essays 2019, edited by Rebecca Solnit.

“One morning in 2016, keepers at the National Aquarium of New Zealand arrived at work to discover the institution’s inventory of octopuses unexpectedly halved. Mild-mannered Blotchy remained in his tank, his expression revealing nothing. But Inky, his bold erstwhile companion, was nowhere to be seen…. “

If I Only Had a Clue

I could pass a pleasant evening
Reading A. J. Liebling
Or Sartre or Camus
Getting smarter by the hour
I could be a Schopenhauer
If I only had a clue

I’d do textual exegesis
On Auerbach’s Mimesis
And Casimiro de Abreu
I’d read Gaston Bachelard
I’d know all the Communards
If I only had a clue

Oh, I could tell you who
Translated Du Fu
And Murasaki too
And then I’d parse
The Popul Vuh

I’d be quite the literatus
Like Nikos Kazantzakis
And Charles-Louis de Montesquieu
I’d know Flaubert’s semi-colons
I’d recite the Song of Roland
And I’d do it all for you
If I only had a clue

San Francisco Chronicle Sportswriting Strained Conceit Awards for May 12, 2016

road closed sign

People who skip the sports section miss some extraordinary writing.

Advancing to the Western Conference finals, a championship team will step up its game. And the San Francisco Chronicle sportswriting team did not disappoint. Today’s Sporting Green is an astonishing mix of strained conceits, purple patches, and semi-literate clichés. Let’s focus on the conceits. Here are our awards.


This award has to go to Bruce Jenkins, who writes:

Cruising a straight-line highway with another NBA championship in mind, the Warriors always knew there would be an intersection when the playoffs arrived. The signpost would read SAN ANTONIO, and everyone around the league was in on the secret. ¶ Well, it seems there’s a maintenance crew about ready to change the lettering ….

A highway sign that everyone knows about but is nonetheless a secret, which a maintenance crew is preparing to reletter. Riiiiggght. (What he means is “The Warriors expected to play the Spurs but they might play the Thunder instead.”)


A trumped-up story many writers got mileage from (on Bruce Jenkins’s straight-line highway?) was Dubs forward Draymond Green saying before the game that Portland was done in the series. It inspired Rusty Simmons to write this:

If their teammate was publicly going to out on a limb [sic] like that, they had to reinforce the tree.

Good thing a maintenance crew is already on the scene!


Scott Ostler’s conceit is not in the same category as these. It’s too good not to quote. He writes that last year’s Warriors team

were like kids on their first trip to Disneyland. This season they’re Mickey Mouse, taking a break behind the castle, removing his head to have a smoke before wading back out there to wave and thrill the kiddies.

Nifty shift from plural to singular there.

So there you have it. All of these guys must have read Raymond Chandler at an impressionable age.

I’ll resist the urge to introduce additional categories, such as the “BIG SAVINGS FROM LAYING OFF THE COPY EDITORS AWARD.” That’s a dull category in which there is competition every day. Today it could go to Simmons for writing “to out” instead of “to go out,” but I would give it instead to Ann Killion for “ Portland grew it’s lead to double digits.”


For more examples, from “he ain’t no one-engine pony” to “his ceiling is through the roof” to “I have to put my head to the grindstone and keep grinding” to “I’m going to turn this team around 360 degrees,” visit my Away with Words.


Image via

Beyond Shakespeare at The Critical Flame

"Beyond Shakespeare" at <em>The Critical Flame</em>

“Beyond Shakespeare” at The Critical Flame.

Thanks to Daniel Pritchard and the Critical Flame for publishing my short opinion piece on Shakespeare and globalism. I wrote the piece in conjunction with my participation in the 1616 Symposium held at Rhodes College in April.

The Critical Flame is a great online magazine devoted to encouraging “intelligent public discussion about literature and culture through long-form literary and critical essays covering a wide range of topics.”


ROI review

River of Ink coverA nice short review of River of Ink in my local paper:

“River of Ink: Literature, History, Art” by Thomas Christensen (Counterpoint Press, $35, 320 pages). The title of Thomas Christensen’s wide-ranging new history of literacy refers to the Mongol siege of Baghdad in 1258, when the invading hordes killed hundreds of thousands and destroyed the city’s Grand Library, described by the author as “perhaps the greatest repository of historic, scientific and literary documents of its age.” They threw so many books into the Tigris River, he writes, the water ran black with ink for six months. From that incident, Christensen, a Richmond resident who serves as director of publications at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, takes the reader on a world tour of literary landmarks from the invention of movable type in Korea to the “poetry of silence” of Spanish writer José Ángel Valente and the extraordinary tale of Pocahontas in London. The book is beautifully illustrated and Christensen writes with clarity, insight and admiration for these enduring wonders of the world.

Young writers

I quite often get e-mails from young writers interested in book publishing, and I almost always find them always encouraging. A young writer wrote today to say:

I read your article, “How to Get a Book Published”, and I thought I should email you about it. I am a young writer (still in high school) and I have been writing a novel for a little over a year now.

As a teenager, I have been through many phases of finding what exactly is my true passion. All of this of course leads up to what career I shall pursue after I get out of college. And it seems that writing has withstood through it all. Writing and reading have never been a chore for me, and I don’t really understand why my classmates complain about having to write an essay or read a school book. So, recently I have decided I want to pursue a career in the wonderful field of English writing and literature. (Before I had wanted to be a teacher, but I suppose dreams change.) More specifically, I concluded I want to be involved in publishing, whether that is novels or textbooks. You, I have discovered, are very experienced in the profession.

As I mentioned earlier, I have been working on a novel for a while. It is among one of the many projects I have been working on, but is by far the longest. It is that story that has brought me to your website and your article giving tips on how to publish a book. Now, I am not looking into publishing my novel yet. It is not in the slightest bit ready. I don’t think am ready, as a writer. But I suppose I was just thinking and wondering if I ever actually wanted to share my novel with a publishing company, how would I do so and who would I submit it to. I have to say, your article is very informative. It is much more interesting and candid than any of the other websites I visited. It helped me understand the publishing world much more, and I know now that if I want to publish anything ever, I know the steps to follow.

Thank you for writing the article. I will continue to write, read, and try to improve myself as a writer and reader. Your specific words, “the most common cause of failure in writing is dropping out,” cannot be truer. I almost gave up writing because I couldn’t stick with a topic and stick with my story. Fortunately now, I have found the perfect topic for me that I will never give up on.

And here is my response:

I’m happy you are committed to writing. (Maybe your parents read to you when you were little? That seems to make a big difference.) For most people it is not the most lucrative field (there are exceptions) but for those of us who love reading and writing it has many rewards. Maybe your feelings will change as you grow older, but even if you are doing something else you can still pursue your writing interests on the side.
Best of luck, and thanks for writing.

Hello world

“Hello World” used to be the first post of blog beginnings. Hard to believe it’s been nearly a year since I made a post. At one time I was a very active blogger. I posted almost every day to each of five or six sites. That’s not coming back, but I do think it is time to get back to blogging at least now and then. So hello again, world.

My River of Ink” Literature, History, Art has gone to the printer. Official pub date is December. A couple of blurbs came in.

“Truffle-rich, cumin-exotic, from Mutanabbi Street to Céline’s ballets, Gutenberg and the Koreans, a winged sphinx and an iron man and Nur Jahan — oh, and a beturbaned Sadakichi Hartmann — these world-trotting essays make one groovy box of idea-chocolates.”
—C.M. Mayo, author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire

“A world tour of cultural histories, a tour de force of eclectic scholarship, a relief map of the journeys of a restless intellect, Thomas Christensen’s River of Ink flows from ancient China to the current Americas with myriad revelations along the way. Christensen is a genial guide to little-known wonders with a wealth of information and a light touch.”
—Stephen Kessler, author of The Tolstoy of the Zulus

Thank you, Catherine and Stephen

River of Ink: the cover

river of ink cover

This is what I’m thinking of for the cover of my new book, a selection of my essays. We’ll see if my publisher likes it.

I’m happy again to also be the book’s designer/typesetter. The image is a photo I took of the Castel San Giogio, an early castle (ca. 1400) in Mantua, Italy. Mantua is built amid lakes rather like my old home town of Madison, Wisconsin.

For the cover I darkened the water, but not so much that it is just a solid color–it still retains reflections, although that is hard to see in this image.

Productivity secret

abandoned telvision

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.

Fun with verbs

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.” —
  • “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.” —
  • “Hurricane Irene … roars toward the U.S. East Coast.” Los Angeles Times
  • “Irene lumbered into the Bahamas.” —
  • “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.” —
  • “Hurricane storms toward Philly region.” —
  • “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.

Randomized Editing

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, 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.


image from kevindooley’s photostream


Another new book: Selected Poems of Jose Angel Valente

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 arrived,
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.


Great opening paragraphs: The Confusions of Pleasure by Timothy Brook

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

I write like …

I write like
William Shakespeare

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

… 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?

World book news: 13 rules for writers

10 rules for writers

Today I initiate what I am hoping will become a more or less weekly feature here at — 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.

On the loss of vitality in writing

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

Mailbag: A form query

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.

How to improve your writing (and your love life)

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.


Via the Web of Language


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