concept to publication

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Will Powers (1946-2009) and “The Printer’s Error”

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.

Mailbag: Press release promoting a resource for writers

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.

Preparing a manuscript for book publication

“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.

Topicality in literary writing, and its implications for web search optimization

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?


moonlight illuninates
pillow shoulder sheet
monkey mind racing

Overwrought openings

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).


What is the optimum length of a query letter?

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.



Six classic wordle poets

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 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

franz kafka on the books we need

“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


The key to being a writer

key to being a writer

Zachart Kanin in the New Yorker


How much of this page will you read?

According to Jacob Nielsen, in a post of nearly 500 words, such as this one, readers can be expected to spend an average of about 45 seconds on the page, an amount of time in which they might read some 187 words, or less than three-eighths of the content.

In a study called “Not Quite the Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use,” researchers at the University of Hamburg tracked twenty-five web users’ behavior as they surfed the web as normal. From this data Jacob Nielsen analyzed 45,237 page views of pages with more than 20 words in which the visits lasted longer than 4 seconds and less than 10 minutes. Since users average an additional 4.4 seconds for each 100 words of copy on a page after the first hundred words — an amount of time in which they could be expected to read about 18 words on average — the results suggest that 18 percent of the copy subsequent to the first hundred words is being read.

Nielsen references a scatter chart in making his case:

The following chart shows the maximum amount of text users could read during an average visit to pages with different word counts:

percent of text read

This is a very rapidly declining curve. On an average visit, users read half the information only on those pages with 111 words or less.

In the full dataset, the average page view contained 593 words. So, on average, users will have time to read 28% of the words if they devote all of their time to reading. More realistically, users will read about 20% of the text on the average page.

I think this analysis is flawed, because it aggregates different types of page visits. Some readers are looking for just one piece of information, for example, while others want to follow the full argument of the text. In other words, one interpretation would be that regardless of the length of the copy, a lot of people are only looking for some particular thing. It just takes them slightly longer to find it as it gets surrounded by more verbiage.

I think the lesson to draw here is not that all your web writing should be 100 words or fewer. Rather, it is that if you have items on your website intended for a broad audience — a list of blog policies, for example, or a contact page — you probably want to keep them brief to maximize the amount that will be read by the largest number of visitors. But longer articles could well be the most effective in some ways. With these you are reaching a small group of more dedicated readers.

Short page: many casual readers; long page: few, but dedicated, readers. Some go for brevity, some go for length. For myself, I like a mix of different kinds of content.


the whole brevity thing (audio clip)


via SEOMoz


Overblown prose for the ages

spirit of 1976, by thomas christensen

Overblown prose often springs up exactly where you would expect to find it. But shouldn’t this extraordinary opening by Peter Hartlaub to his review of Grand Theft Auto IV in the San Francisco Chronicle get some sort of award?

Cultural revolution often comes from seemingly imperfect people and unpopular places.

The most influential athlete was labeled a draft dodger. The man who helped bring rock ‘n’ roll to the mainstream grew a huge gut, wore sequined jumpsuits and then died in the bathroom. One of this country’s greatest defenders of free speech was dismissed as just a pornographer. But Muhammad Ali, Elvis and even Larry Flynt are remembered for their contributions – just as one day, the makers of Grand Theft Auto will be known as more than peddlers of video game sex and violence.


Shown: Spirit of 1976, by Thomas Christensen


Is our journalists educated?

This is pretty awesome. When Hillary challenged Barack to a “Lincoln-Douglas” style debate, Fox TV’s national news ran the following graphic.

lincoln - douglass debate

I guess they thought she said “Lincoln-Douglass.”

What a debate that must have been!


via Wonkette


Raul’s Lies

Lies I’ve told my 3 year old recently
By Raul Gutierrez

Trees talk to each other at night.
All fish are named either Lorna or Jack.
Before your eyeballs fall out from watching too much TV, they get very loose.
Tiny bears live in drain pipes.
If you are very very quiet you can hear the clouds rub against the sky.
The moon and the sun had a fight a long time ago.
Everyone knows at least one secret language.
When nobody is looking, I can fly.
We are all held together by invisible threads.
Books get lonely too.
Sadness can be eaten.
I will always be there.


via Swiss Miss


Draft titles

ms detail from joyce's ulysses

Some book titles feel so much a part of their texts that that the works’ draft titles seem like oddly fitted hats, discarded in the dressing room; others — including some forced on authors by their publishers — read like images aspired to but never quite met. And then there are the flat-out clunkers, to be files under “What were they thinking?”

It might be a curious exercise to gather together some of those discarded titles and parade them back out into the light. I can think of a few to get started, though I know I’m forgetting many.

  • Catch-18
  • Like Water for Hot Chocolate
  • Trimalchio in West Egg (The Great Gatsby; one of several discarded titles)
  • Ten Little Niggers (And Then There Were None, A. Christie)
  • The Snatch (The Moving Target, R. Macdonald)
  • Stephen Hero (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)
  • Slaves (“I Sing the Body Electric,” Whitman)
  • The Man Who Disappeared (Amerika, Kafka)
  • The Sisters (The Rainbow, Lawrence)
  • A Paean (“Lenore,” Poe)
  • A Prayer (The Power and the Glory, Greene)


Shown: detail of Joyce’s manuscript of Ulysses, via Anthony Cummins


Recently there has been an uptick in talk about semicolons. Witness:

arabic semicolon

What does this signify? I’m not sure. Could it be another sign of the trend to the literate class becoming a cultural elite, eager to differentiate itself from the hoi polloi?

Well, maybe that’s reading too much into what might just be a random flare-up of semi-colonitis. In any case, I like this exchange from the Colbert link above.

  • Tulugaq: Kurt Vonnegut’s take on it was a little less warlike and more of a mandate: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” Me, I like the poor semicolon and the colon alike, so I guess I just have to be a conscientious objector. Sorry, Steve Colbert.
  • The Ridger, FCD: How can a hermaphrodite be a transvestite? Do they dress like asexuals?

For anyone with market aspirations in today’s publishing climate, Vonnegut’s advice remains sound. But what would Flaubert be like without the semicolon as the hinge on which his crafty sentences swing?


Shown: Arabic semicolon from


Hexagram 26

hexagram 26: large farming

Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of good fiction writing

The first rule of good writing is that there are no rules. If Elmore Leonard had written Ulysses, or Metamorphosis, or Remembrance of Things Past, or Death on the Installment Plan, or other of the modernist classics I don’t know if college freshmen would be studying them today.

They’d probably be pretty good reading though. Leonard knows how to stay out of his story’s way, and I think writers should at least be aware of his techniques before deciding on their own paths. In case you haven’t seen them before, here are his commandments:

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Celine would have found no. 5 difficult. He would go for chapters with ellipses and exclamation points as his only punctuation. And where would Zola be without no. 8? And what about Perec or Robbe-Grillet and no. 9?

But that doesn’t make it bad advice, especially in today’s conservative marketplace.


LINK: The official Elmore Leonard website.


86 recommended travel books

the emperor, by Ryszard Kapu?ci?skiConde Nast commissioned a distinguished group of writers to nominate their favorite travel books. Participating authors included André Aciman, Monica Ali, Julia Alvarez, Tom Bissell, Geraldine Brooks, Vikram Chandra, Jim Crace, Jared Diamond, Linh Dinh, Anthony Doerr, Jennifer Egan, Stephen Elliott, Nuruddin Farah, Nell Freudenberger, Peter Godwin, Peter Hessler, Uzodinma Iweala, Sebastian Junger, Robert D. Kaplan, Mary Karr, Erik Larson, Rosemary Mahoney, Peter Mayle, Tom McCarthy, John McPhee, Adrienne Miller, Jan Morris, Stewart O’Nan, Francine Prose, Jonathan Raban, Graham Robb, Akhil Sharma, Matthew Sharpe, Jim Shepard, Darin Strauss, Robert Sullivan, Manil Suri, Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, Lynne Tillman, Luis Alberto Urrea, Gore Vidal, Sean Wilsey, John Wray, and Lawrence Wright.

The result is a list of 86 books. Looking at this list, the first thing that strikes me is how few of them I have read. West with the Night was our first bestseller at North Point Press, and we also published Ted Hoagland and M.F.K. Fischer. At Mercury House we reissued some Robert Lewis Stevenson as part of our neglected classics series. A few others I read here and there, but I haven’t read the majority of these books. Is it an especially peculiar list or have I just neglected my travel reading? Maybe a bit of both, but I think the list is a little odd because of the methodology of just collecting nominations — I mean, how can Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan not make a list of great travel books? Anyway, here’s the list. For more information about the nominated books, go to the CNT page.

Along the Ganges, Ilija Trojanow
Arabian Sands, Wilfred Thesiger
An Area of Darkness, V.S. Naipaul
As They Were, M.F.K. Fisher
A Barbarian in Asia, Henri Michaux
The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer, Eric Hansen
Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, Lawrence Durrell
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West
Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon
Captain John Smith: Writings
Chasing the Monsoon, Alexander Frater
Chasing the Sea, Tom Bissell
Cross Country, Robert Sullivan
Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux
Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville
Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell
Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff, Rosemary Mahoney
The Emperor, Ryszard Kapu?ci?ski
Endurance, Alfred Lansing
Eothen, Alexander William Kinglake
“Exterminate All the Brutes,” Sven Lindqvist
Farthest North: The Voyage and Exploration of the Fram, 1893–1896, Fridtjof Nansen
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson
The Fearful Void, Geoffrey Moorhouse
From a Chinese City, Gontran De Poncins
Great Plains, Ian Frazier
The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux
Hindoo Holiday, J. R. Ackerley
The Histories, Herodotus
The Impossible Country, Brian Hall
In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson
India: A Million Mutinies Now, V. S. Naipaul
The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain
In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin
In the Country of Country, Nicholas Dawidoff
In Trouble Again, Redmond O’Hanlon
Iron and Silk, Mark Salzman
I See by My Outfit, Peter S. Beagle
The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition
Journey to Portugal,
José Saramago
Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Condition of the North American Indians, George Catlin
Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile, 1849–1850, Florence Nightingale
Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain
London Perceived, V. S. Pritchett
The Long Walk, Slavomir Rawicz
The Lycian Shore, Freya Stark
Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, Suketu Mehta,
The Muses Are Heard, Truman Capote
The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, Matsuo Basho
News from Tartary, Peter Fleming
The Nomad: Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt
No Mercy: A Journey into the Heart of the Congo, Redmond O’Hanlon
Notes from the Century Before, Edward Hoagland
Old Glory, Jonathan Raban
The Pillars of Hercules, Paul Theroux
The Pine Barrens, John McPhee
Riding the Iron Rooster, Paul Theroux
The Rings of Saturn, W. G. Sebald
The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan, Winston Churchill
The Road to Oxiana, Robert Byron
Rome and a Villa, Eleanor Clark
Roughing It, Mark Twain
Arabia, Peter Theroux
Sea and Sardinia, D. H. Lawrence
Shah of Shahs, Ryszard Kapu?ci?ski
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Eric Newby
Siren Land, Norman Douglas
Skating to Antarctica, Jenny Diski
Slowly Down the Ganges, Eric Newby
The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin

Style Trends in Fiction

statistical data on style trends in fiction

For the past couple of years has been including a feature it calls “text stats” on many of its book pages. Among the statistics presented are “readability calculations” that estimate “how easy it is to read and understand the text of a book.” But there is also more raw data, including stats on the percentage of complex words (however that is measured), the number of syllables per word, and the number of words per sentence. For example, Alejo Carpentier’s The Harp and the Shadow (my translation, with Carol Christensen) scores in the 13th percentage for word complexity, a low 1.6 syllables per word (hard to believe), but a whopping 39.1 words per sentence, or one and a half times as much as Faulker, putting it in the top one percent of all books in the amazon sample.

I was curious to see if this feature could be used to identify any trends over time. My first thought was to compare best sellers across the years, but I quickly abandoned that idea as the list of books was simply too boring. Instead I chose Pulitzer Fiction Prize winners at five-year intervals, beginning with 1950 (the fiction prize was first given in 1948). Statistics were not available for all of these books, so I had to substitute by going a year forward or back in some instances. Here is the list of books I used in my test:

1950 The Way West by A. B. Guthrie, Jr.
1955 A Fable by William Faulkner
1961 To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
1965 The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau
1969 House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday
1976 Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow
1980 The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
1986 Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
1990 The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos
1995 The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
2000 Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
2005 Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

(For Faulkner’s Fable I had to substitute an edition called Novels 1942-1954.)

The results were interesting. One might assume that the style in fiction has been toward simpler language, but this is not what I found. For example, although the differences in word length aren’t great, it would appear from the results that words in fiction — at least, the fiction that wins Pulitzer Prizes — are clearly getting longer.

increasing length of words in fiction over the years

Similarly, there is a clear increase in the number of complex words.

increasing complexity of words in modern fiction

The trend in sentence length is unclear. There is a big spike with Faulker in 1955; otherwise, there may be a slow increase in this category as well.

increase length of sentences in modern fiction

Does this prove anything? Not really. My sample is very small, and a slightly difference choice of books might find something completely different. Moreover, the category of Pulitzer Prize winners is obviously a minute fraction of overall fiction, and Pulitzer judges might deliberately resist overall trends. More research would be welcome. At the same time, it is suggestive to find that in all three of the amazon statistical categories the trend in this sample of fiction has been to greater complexity and length over the past half century and not the opposite as one might have guessed. I would be interested to hear other opinions.

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