May 16

Last-Minute Edits

Finally, from experience I've formulated a rule of thumb:

Last-minute edits on a work that has been in progress for a long time, or a published work about to be republished, are mistakes.

Last-minute edits on a work you have very recently completed are likely to be good edits.

If one is "in the zone" of creation on a particular piece, ideas for revision rise from the same pool of thought, or, as they say, "are organic." After that work has been completed and set aside and another work commenced, that same zone simply never comes again. The author has changed or grown and can't step into the same work twice. I have longed to add a new insight to an old work, and did, and now that extra sentence in there jars me, and I am concerned that it might jar readers just as much.

One's old stories and poems can be rewritten or refurbished and turn out very well, but not if rewriting or additions take place at the last minute; say, a few hours before a contest deadline. It's like sewing a new sleeve on an old shirt. It might fit but it will be a slightly darker shade or nap or texture, and even if no one else knows, the author does. Is it too small a thing to care about? Not if you care about craft.
Oct 30

Random House and Penguin Merge

The other news from NYC today, besides Hurricane Sandy, is that Random House and Penguin, two of the "Big Six" publishers, are merging, and the NYT article adds that the remaining Big Four are considering mergers, too.

I predict that within a few years the two publishers remaining will issue and aggressively market 6 to 12 books per season. These and any other books they issue, whether electronic or paper, will contain ads or product placements and will be bundled with a related video game. This will allow the prices to be doubled. Ebooks and video games will collect the reader's personal information, and his or her reading and game habits. To read a book you will have to sign a privacy-policy agreement. Reader and gamer information then goes into artificial intelligence which will generate new books and games based on buyer preferences. Ultimately a novel will be a video game only, and the buyer will have the option of inserting himself as a character. People will dress and act like their favorite characters and many of them, given a fiction-writing template, will ultimately write spinoff books giving themselves further adventures.

Until the day that books are written entirely by computers, most writers will work really hard to copy this year's bestseller or prizewinner formula. Ultimately they self-publish, or publish with tiny independent presses, and rather than sell the book they mostly trade books with their self-published friends. These books become a form of business card or greeting card and almost nobody reads them, especially the fiction. Your true friends will be those who have read your book. Writers who still think stranger-readers are important will pay professionals or famous people to read and mention their books.

Then, regardless of quality, education, sales figures or status, everyone will become his own favorite writer, reading his own stuff wherever he goes, and writing more. I think everyone already is his or her own favorite writer. I hear lots of moaning about the death of the industry and the writing profession and quality going down the tubes, mostly from people who want to be other people's favorite writer. The time for that is just about up.
Oct 10

Words I Mispronounced

Words I mispronounced and the ages at which my pronunciation was corrected:

mail (8)
guru (12)
Datsun (14)
Karmann Ghia (16)
writhe (17)
fuschia (18)
Job (as in "Book of") (21)
Cambridge (22) (How was I supposed to know it was a long "a"?!)
persona (24)
patina (25)
Peugeot (26)
Anais (27) (AN-na-eez)
Yeats (29)
Proust (29)
Quattrocento (30)
vermouth (31)
W.E.B. Du Bois (32) (Du Boyce)
wastrel (40)
decollete (42) (deck-o-TAY?!?)
Simone Weil (45) ("Vay")
esophageal (50) (soft "g")
decedent (52) (deh-CEE-dent)
bas-relief (55) (That bass I caught felt great relief when I released it!)

May 28

Blue Material

cabaretPeople said hello and I briefly replied and excused myself to the rearmost room and its rearmost booth, where I sat quietly alone and ate a mozzarella stick for fuel to get through the 25-minute reading for Chance Operations last Monday night. The Chance Operations series run by St. Louis artists/poets Tony Renner and Chris Parr just celebrated its second anniversary. I had read there before and loved it; anything goes. So I had some risky / risque poems to read, work that, shall we say, painted with a broad brush, poems that normally would not see the light of day nor be aired. I didn't do "blue" material just to do it. The poems had actual content, and I am also interested in literary expectations and the boundaries between what is and isn't acceptable. Also at this point I have nothing to lose and for an artist this condition is ideal.

It went well. This entry is not about the work or how it was received (just fine!) but on the exceptional demands that "blue" material makes on the speaker. First I had to slenderize the poems so none of them sounded blue for blue's sake, making sure each line carried genuine content. At Chance Operations delivery really counts: Entertainment is valued. And real entertainers don't falter, shuffle through papers, get self-conscious, apologize for their material, mumble or mess up, and they care about timing and shadings in volume, speed and tone. They can't be worried about their clothes or looks, so I wore the simplest possible thing. I wanted first to have no patter at all before and between poems but saw I needed to give context at least twice but kept it very short. While rehearsing I kept revising, so the poems were not completed until the day of the reading. It was evening and I knew I would be physically tired before I even started, so I asked to "go first" and carefully geared myself up with a cup of coffee and protein, and sat alone to get focused and centered. It was going to take enormous confidence. I have never disciplined myself so severely for a poetry reading. The preparation paid off, though. Entertaining is no joke!

My co-readers on that evening were Eileen G'Sell and Gabriel Fried. The photo was taken by Tony Renner. Thanks to Chance Operations for the chance!
Apr 27

The 13 Most Common Errors on a Novel's First Page

Jane Friedman, e-book editor and publisher, wants to see on a novel's first page "an interesting character and the problem they face." She read a stack of opening pages aloud and told her audience at the Missouri Writers Guild conference about the red flags that tell an editor that a novel in manuscript is not yet ready to be published. She stressed that she reads at least the first 10 pages of each manuscript, but listed these as the most common first-page errors and cliches:

  • Over-explanation. This includes prologues. "Prologues are never needed. You can usually throw them in the garbage. They're usually put on as a patch."
  • Too much data. "You're trying to seduce your reader, not burden them," Friedman said.
  • Over-writing, or "trying too hard." "We think the more description we add, the more vivid it will be; but we don't want to be distracted from the story" we open the book for.
  • Beginning the novel with an interior monologue or reflection. Usually this is written as the thoughts of a character who is sitting alone, musing and thinking back on a story. Just start with the story.
  • Beginning the novel with a flashback. Friedman isn't entirely anti-flashback, but the novel's opening page is the wrong place for one.
  • Beginning a novel with the "waking up sequence" of a character waking, getting out of bed, putting on slippers, heading for the kitchen and coffee...a cliche
  • Related cliche: beginning the novel with an alarm clock or a ringing phone
  • Starting out with an "ordinary day's routine" for the main character
  • She sees a lot of manuscripts beginning with "crisis moments" that aren't unique: "When the doctor said 'malignant,' my life changed forever..." or "The day my father left us I was seven years old..."
  • Don't start with a dialogue that doesn't have any context. Building characterization through dialogue is okay anywhere else but there.
  • Starting with backstory, or "going back, then going forward."
  • Info dump. More formally called "exposition."
  • Character dump, which is four or more characters on the first page.

And, Friedman said, the "biggest bad advice" about opening a novel is "Start with action." She said she thinks, "But I haven't been made to care about these characters yet." Ideally, the first page introduces a character the reader feels he or she knows and understands.

Jan 02

Not Compromising on Candor

Believing that my candor was compromised in the past few months I felt unable to write here or anywhere. I want to forget that whole period. It had nothing to do with writing except to choke it off. When that happens, creativity backs up and assumes monstrous forms: worry, sickening fear, stress, insomnia, lack of motivation, negativity; that's the result of no freedom of expression. There was a gorilla in the room and I learned that there are some gorillas I just can't ignore, and that if another one comes knocking I should never ever open the door even a crack.

After being freed from that compromise I completed a draft script of the "Giving Voice" poetry project and submitted it to the group which plans to perform it with me February 28 at the Mad Art Gallery in Soulard. I enjoyed giving the 20 poems different "settings" to enhance the message and impact of each. It was like placing gems in the appropriate jewelry settings. These are poems their authors favored that somehow never got published. I am waiting for feedback on the draft. I hope intensely for the group's approval and cooperation but if I can have only one of those it'd be cooperation.

Next, I got my five best poems out in the mail. They went to Prairie Schooner, which had encouraged me to send again. They now have a brand-new editor after the retirement of editor Hilda Raz after 30 or so years. The policy is still "no simultaneous submissions."

After that I wrote a barrage of short articles that I'd put off, and then had some realizations. One, there is always still time to be great. Two, there is no point in compromising any more. I've already exposed in writing everything I am, and it's easy to find and judge. Like Whitman said, "I contain multitudes." Deal with it. Three, there is no point in making gestures just to be able to say, "Well, I made a gesture." I will either have to foresee an outcome in reality, or it is not worth doing, like applying for jobs 1000 other people are applying for.
Dec 14

Hating the Teacher

Frequently creative-writing students hit a phase when they hate the teacher. The mature students richly praised by former teachers don't like hearing that the way they're writing isn't already perfect for THIS particular class. They make stinging little comments, in class or out, about the teacher's "power" or "soapbox." The less experienced students simply hate having to work at their writing: doing things over, or in stages, or asking for help, or doing stupid exercises or worksheets, when they're used to one-step everything. Granted, it's tedious, and the natural target of their frustration is the person who makes them work. The younger ones might draft a poem about their torment or their tormentor, having no idea they are not the first to do this.

When I read or hear annoyed comments or get dark looks from students, any age, who are FED UP, who have worked ALL WEEKEND and, what, they're getting more criticism, and then there's a reading assignment and study questions--I know at least they are having strong feelings related to writing. Without strong feelings they would quit writing. Now is the time students dig in and say, "I'll show HER!" or "Okay, I will strip my writing of all the stuff that makes me look smart, this class can't appreciate it," or "Okay, I WILL just dump it all out on the page; so there!" It is much, much more important that they hate the teacher for a while instead of hating writing. And it won't be long until they get tired of hating, and -- magic -- they are at a new level. Everyone can see that. And I am relieved.