People do judge a book by its cover, by guest blogger Joel Derfner

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Hello again, campers –
This has been a star-studded month here at Author! Author!, hasn’t it, cram-packed with visits from illustrious literati? First, we heard from an exciting array of guest bloggers on the subject of censorship, up to and including my review of a new book on the subject by a bunch of Nobel Prize winners and short-listers. Earlier this week, award-winning mystery novelist Stan Trollip dropped by to give us a behind-the-scenes peek at how multi-book contracts work.

As if all that weren’t enough to fill our collective cup of joy to overflowing, memoirist Joel Derfner has arrived today to illuminate the opaque process by which book covers spring to life. Then, this weekend, you’re all going to send in your entries to the first periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence.

While I suppose I might take the cynical view that all of this is delightful because people other than me are doing most of the writing on the blog this week — not an inconsiderable boon, given that I’m still on retreat in France — I genuinely do enjoy alerting all of you when an author who deserves to make it big has a book coming out.

In case I’m being too subtle here: today’s guest blogger deserves to make it big.

In fact, speaking as a memoirist myself (and no matter what Amazon keeps telling people, my memoir is not in fact out of print — my publisher still has not released it, due to lawsuit threats), Joel’s current book, SWISH: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Happened Instead, represents some of the best memoir writing of the last decade.

For those of you not up on recent autobiography, the last decade has been a pretty great time for memoir.

So it was not by accident that Joel ended up as the last star to glitter in this month’s Milky Way, as it were. I’m really delighted to bring him to you today.

Am I still being too subtle? This is an author I genuinely admire, and one whose work I would very much like to see more widely known. Call me zany, but I think the book world could use more brilliance in these dark times.

All of you blog aficionados out there may already know Joel’s writing through his hilariously pointed blog, the Search for Love in Manhattan. Here at Author! Author!, he is better known as frequent commenter Faustus, MD. He’s also been generous enough to guest blog in the past on common mistakes writers make in contest entries — which might be worth a gander while you’re prepping for the first periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, since you’re going to enter, right? — and how authors obtain permission to use song lyrics in their books.

In answer to what lyric-lovers across the globe just thought: yes, you have to, even if you’ve used only a line, if the song is not yet in the public domain — and yes, in the United States, it’s typically the author’s responsibility to obtain permission for reprinted lyrics, not the publisher’s.

Hey, don’t take my word for it — ask Joel.

SWISH has had an honestly jaw-dropping publishing history — but wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the publisher’s blurb; see if you can pick up the faint subtext in this marketing excerpt about whom they expect to be the primary audience for this book:

Joel Derfner is gayer than you.

Don’t feel too bad about it, though, because he has made being gayer than you his life’s work. At summer day camp, when he was six, Derfner tried to sign up for needlepoint and flower arranging, but the camp counselors wouldn’t let him, because, they said, those activities were for girls only. Derfner, just to be contrary, embarked that very day on a solemn and sacred quest: to become the gayest person ever. Along the way he has become a fierce knitter, an even fiercer musical theater composer, and so totally the fiercest step aerobics instructor (just ask him—he’ll tell you himself).

In Swish, Derfner takes his readers on a flamboyant adventure along the glitter-strewn road from fabulous to divine. Whether he’s confronting the demons of his past at a GLBT summer camp, using the Internet to “meet” men—many, many men—or plunging headfirst (and nearly naked) into the shady world of go-go dancing, he reveals himself with every gayer-than-thou flourish to be not just a stylish explorer but also a fearless one. So fearless, in fact, that when he sneaks into a conference for people who want to cure themselves of their homosexuality, he turns the experience into one of the most fascinating, deeply moving chapters of the book. Derfner, like King Arthur, Christopher Columbus, and Indiana Jones—but with a better haircut and a much deeper commitment to fad diets—is a hero destined for legend.

Written with wicked humor and keen insight, Swish is at once a hilarious look at contemporary ideas about gay culture and a poignant exploration of identity that will speak to all readers—gay, straight, and in between.

Anyone manage to crack the code here? Would it help if I called your attention to a name that appears twice on the cover above to Joel’s once?

If you immediately exclaimed, “By gum, I strongly suspect that the target audience here is gay men and the people who like them,” give yourself a great big gold star for the day. Reading marketing blurbs is a magnificent exercise for an aspiring writer, as a means of learning how the publishing world thinks: for them, there is no such thing as a publishable book without a target readership.

Which is why, in case you’ve been wondering, blurbs seldom leave much doubt about the type of reader they’re trying to reach. This lack of ambiguity tends to be reflected in reviews as well — or at least in how they’re placed. Take a gander at some of the reviews of Joel’s memoir:

In a culture where we disguise vulnerability with physical perfection and material success, Derfner skewers heartache with Wildean wit . . . [Derfner is] the next Noël Coward.” —Out.com

“Searing.” —Washington Blade

“Derfner’s writing is perfect. . . . He’s your best friend. He’s your brother. He is you.” — EDGE Los Angeles

“Sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant, always clever, and unpredictable.” —Philadelphia Gay News

Again, seeing a pattern here? When SWISH first came out — it’s about to be re-released, for reasons that Joel will tell you all about below as soon as I stop yammering about book promotion and let him get on with it — the marketing focus was even tighter.

So if you responded by the pop quiz above by murmuring, “Hmm, it seems as though the target market here is people just like Joel,” you’re not far off; memoirs are very, very frequently marketed to the author’s own demographic — or demographics, as is often the case.

And while it’s not really fair to summarize SWISH’s first marketing campaign as aimed at humorous gay men with linguistics degrees from Harvard and graduate degrees in musical theatre, I do feel compelled to point out that even though I LOVED this book when it came out last year (if I hadn’t yet made that clear), I might not even have heard about it, because I did not fall into any of the targeted audiences.

Which is a little weird, frankly, as Joel and I have quite a bit in common, including an alma mater.

I’m bringing this up for a couple of reasons. First, first-time authors are frequently stunned at how specific book marketing tends to be, as well as how little say they have over it; while the writer is generally asked for input, the publisher’s marketing department makes the actual decisions about book promotion.

And about the cover, generally, and about the title. Give that some thought the next time you’re browsing in a bookstore.

Second, and more relevant to this particular author, having read SWISH, I feel very strongly that I was — and am — very much part of this memoir’s ideal readership, despite being straight, female, and some undefined number of years older than Joel. I think this book would speak to any woman, any person really, who has struggled with the paradox of attraction and desirability, or with the tension between wanting people to think you’re beautiful and wanting them to think you’re smart.

Which is to say: I think a huge part of this book’s audience is going to be intelligent women who love good writing — who, incidentally, tend to be major-league book-buyers.

So I’m going to be honest here: I was one of the naysayers Joel mentions below. Not only did I feel when the book came out that the original cover, while a lot of fun, was not an accurate representation of the book within; I felt very strongly that SWISH was being marketed to far too narrow an audience, pigeonholed because of its subject matter.

Yes, this memoir deals in what is euphemistically called gay subject matter, but at base, it’s a beautifully written, insightful memoir about working through a whole array of very human insecurities — about whether one is attractive enough, smart enough, lovable enough.

These are universal worries, and Joel’s memoir handles them in an unusually subtle manner. There are insights in this book that I’ve never even seen touched upon in print before — and believe me, people, I read a lot of books and manuscripts in any given year.

In short, it’s a great read, and I was pretty miffed that it wasn’t being marketed that way. SWISH should have been read by a broader range of people when it came out last year; it should have been nominated for awards.

Not being noted for reticence on such subjects, I believe I said so. About 500 times. As both Gore Vidal and I have been pointing out for quite some time now, there is no human problem that could not be solved if only everyone would do exactly as I advise.

Imagine my delighted surprise, then, to learn that a new, improved, updated and retitled SWISH is coming out in June. I’ll let Joel tell you all about it. However, in an industry that’s not exactly notorious for second chances, I think this re-release is something worth celebrating.

As is, however belatedly, the chance to dance in the streets, shouting, “I told you so!”

So please join me in congratulating a great author whose writing is getting the second chance it so richly deserves, Joel Derfner. Take it away, Joel!

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When Broadway Books sent me the cover for my memoir, Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever, I was thrilled, because it was hysterically funny:

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The ridiculous, over-the-top Spencerian quality of the script, the silhouettes of the posing bodybuilders, the pink thong — they were a perfect foil to the book itself, which started with ideas as shallow and stereotypical as these images and moved from there to (if I do say so myself) depth, insight, and humanity. So we both thought the cover was perfect. We suspected there might be some difficulty in navigating the marketing divide between humor and depth, but we figured that if we erred toward the side of humor we’d be okay, because, as I said to my editor, funny is always better.

So the book was released, perfect cover and all, and I was delighted, and then reviews started coming in, and I was even more delighted, because for the most part they were very good. But then I started to notice something, which was that almost every one said something along the lines of, “From the cover I thought this was going to be silly and annoying, but then I read it and I loved it.” Then people who had read the book started e-mailing me, and almost every one said something along the lines of, “From the cover I thought this was going to be silly and annoying, but then I read it and I loved it.”

And we started getting worried. If so many people who read the book had seen the cover and thought it was going to be silly and annoying, how many people saw the cover, thought the same thing—and didn’t pick up the book?

The answer, unfortunately, turned out to be “a lot.” The problem was that there’s a subgenre of gay literature that appears similar to my book on the outside—flashy, clever, shallow—and that is also flashy, clever, shallow on the inside (Behind Every Woman There’s a Fabulous Gay Man, for example, or How to Get Laid: The Gay Man’s Essential Guide to Hot Sex). Since I knew myself, and since my editor knew me, we got a kick out of the disjunct between the cotton-candy outside of my book and the rich center. Unfortunately, we forgot that the book-buying public did not know me. Seeing the unsubstantial outside, therefore, they assumed that book had an unsubstantial inside as well. It was awful.

The following things gradually became clear:

  1. Straight people thought the book would be interesting only to gay people, so they didn’t buy it.

  2. Gay people who liked good writing though the book would be interesting only to people who liked fluff, so they didn’t buy it.

  3. Gay people who liked fluff bought the book and then, quite often, got angry when it wasn’t fluffy. (Seriously. A couple reviews were like, what is this? Where’s the Cher? There are hunky guys on the cover, why is he telling us about his dead mother?)

(There’s also of course the possibility that the reason people didn’t buy the book is that it was bad. But in that case this post would be completely unhelpful, so let’s assume for the sake of discussion that this wasn’t so.)

During this time I also sent a few pieces around to magazines and newspapers, none of which expressed any interest. Again, it could be that what I sent was bad, or that it simply wasn’t what the people I sent it to were looking for, but I have to believe that when they saw the title of my book in a cover letter or e-mail it didn’t do me any favors.

My agent took me to lunch and told me that Broadway was planning to sell the paperback rights, which is very bad; it usually means that the publisher has given up on a book and wants to get out while they can still make some sort of profit. “This failure isn’t your fault,” she said.

“Failure?” I said, and wanted to die.

Then I got a phone call from Elton John.

He had read the book and loved it, he said; he also offered to blurb it or write a foreword or help in any way he could.

After I regained the power of speech—which, as you can imagine, took some time—I called my agent and told her, and after she regained the power of speech she called Broadway and told them, and somehow it didn’t seem quite as urgent that they sell the paperback rights.

After a long and undoubtedly agonizing negotiation (none of which I had anything to do with, thank God), Broadway decided that not only would they issue the paperback themselves, but they wanted to repackage the book entirely, with a new cover and a new subtitle. It took literally months to come up with them, but my editor’s assistant told me that I should see this as a good sign, because they wouldn’t spend so much energy on something they didn’t really believe in. (Then my editor got laid off, but her assistant stayed, so I felt I could still trust her advice.)

So the paperback is being released in a couple weeks. It’s called Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Ended Up Happening Instead, it has a beautiful cover that matches the material inside, and it’s graced with a foreword by Elton John. Of course I hope it will become a smash hit, but mostly I’m just grateful that the book has gotten a second chance.

And I’ve learned a valuable lesson for next time, which is that if I’m not careful, my work won’t reach my intended audience because they just won’t pick it up in the first place. Or, more simply put, that people do judge a book by its cover.

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joel_portraitSwish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and Gay Haiku author Joel Derfner is from South Carolina, where his great-grandmother had an affair with George Gershwin. After fleeing the south as soon as he possibly could, he got a B.A. in linguistics from Harvard. A year after he graduated, his thesis on the Abkhaz language was shown to be completely wrong, as the word he had been translating as “who” turned out to be not a noun but a verb. Realizing that linguistics was not his métier, he moved to New York to get an M.F.A. in musical theater writing from the Tisch School of the Arts.

Musicals for which he has written the scores have been produced in London, New York, and various cities in between (going counterclockwise). In an attempt to become the gayest person ever, he joined Cheer New York, New York’s gay and lesbian cheerleading squad, but eventually he had to leave because he was too depressed. In desperation, he started knitting and teaching aerobics, though not at the same time. He hopes to come to a bad end.

Reminder: the deadline for entry in the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence is Monday, June 1!

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This time, I mean it, people! Entries must be e-mailed to contest@annemini.com by midnight on Monday, June 1.

So whether you’re in the market for some ECQLC (eye-catching query letter candy), are in the mood for some fabulous prizes (including a free Mini-Consult, a one-on-one session with yours truly to talk over your writing career), are seeking that last credential to perfect your application for a college with a good writing program, are curious about whether you are applying the rules of standard format correctly (if you haven’t, the judges will let you know which rule your entry broke), or just want to thrill me and the judges with abundant evidence of your writerly brilliance, this coming weekend would be an excellent time to get on the proverbial ball.

How does one fling oneself on that rotundity? Well, I could just re-post the link to the rules, but since I know many of you are extremely busy people (and some are just lazy, here they are again, along with a slightly truncated explanation for why I am doing this at all.

And it appears before you, without your having to go to the trouble of moving your mouse or clicking anything. How’s that for service?

The Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence
Many years ago, when I first started teaching roomfuls of aspiring writers how to write query letters and give face-to-face pitches to agents, I noticed something: there didn’t seem to be nearly enough writing credentials to go around. As valuable as previous publications, writing awards, fellowships, residencies, rave reviews from Saul Bellow, MFAs, and recent New York Times articles on one’s work with orphaned children in war zones undoubtedly were (and are) in attracting the attention of those who read manuscripts for a living, the overwhelming majority of writers seeking to market manuscripts would, when asked for their credentials, just look down, embarrassed.

When I began teaching writers how to construct their author bios, the problem seemed even more acute, even amongst those who already had publishing contracts in hand. No matter how fascinating the previously unpublished were in person (to me, anyway), they seemed to regard not having been paid before for their writing as proof positive that they didn’t really have anything significant to say about themselves to an agent or editor.

So I decided that I was going to do something practical about it, in my own winsome way. Actually, I decided to do several things:

(1) Establish the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, as a helpful credential available for readers’ ECQLC;

(2) Establish the Author! Author! Awards for Junior Expressive Excellence for readers of pre-college age, as both future ECQLC and as a nifty credential that a gifted young writer could use on a college application;

(3) Focus the competition’s first writing contest on something genuinely important, a topic dear to writers’ hearts and one that I knew my readers would already have on their minds. This time around, the subject matter is going to be the same as our ongoing series of guest posts, with the winning entries forming the final guest slots on subtle censorship and how it affects writers.

In other words, make publishing credential part of the prize.

(4) Coordinate the announcement of the winners with the gala events surrounding my 1,000th blog post, sometime in mid-June. (I know; time flies.)

I’ll fill you in on how to enter in a moment. But first, the important bit: the prizes.

What winners of the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence will get, other than ECQLC
Obviously, undying glory and years of boasting rights. However, for those of you looking for rewards a trifle more tangible, there will be goodies, too.

Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence
1 Grand Prize: a 1-hour Mini-Consult, scheduled at the winner’s convenience, and publication of the winning essay at Author! Author!

A Mini-Consult is a telephone service I’ve long offered to my editing clients and students, an unbroken chunk of my professional attention and expertise devoted solely to the discussion of a writer’s work. (And yes, in case you’ve been curious, I am going to start offering this service on a limited basis to blog readers beginning this summer.) How you choose to utilize that time is up to you, as long as the discussion is limited to writing and marketing issues.

Past satisfied Mini-Consulters have used the time to have me help them to:

*narrow down a book category once and for all;

*ferret out the problems in their query letters, synopses, and first pages of manuscripts;

*come up with a book’s selling points;

*cull through a list of agents to figure out who would be the best potential fit for a project;

*brainstorm about low-cost book promotion ideas;

*iron out the kinks in a book proposal;

*discuss craft issues, and

*talk though some of their frustration and confusion over how the publishing world works.

2 First Prizes: a 1/2-hour Mini-Consult and publication of the winning essay at Author! Author!

3 Second Prizes: a fresh-off-the-press copy of the PEN America Center’s collection of essays on writing censorship, BURN THIS BOOK (HarperStudio), edited by Toni Morrison.

Author! Author! Awards for Junior Expressive Excellence
1 Grand Prize: a 1/2-hour Mini-Consult and publication of the winning essay at Author! Author!

2 First Prizes: a fresh-off-the-press copy of the PEN America Center’s collection of essays on writing censorship, BURN THIS BOOK (HarperStudio), edited by Toni Morrison.

How to enter
1. Collect your thoughts on the issue of censorship, subtle or otherwise
For the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, the brief is quite straightforward: address precisely the same question I put to the established authors in the subtle censorship series. So how do YOU think writers are discouraged from writing or publishing what they want or how they want, and how does that discouragement affect what’s available for readers?

For Author! Author! Awards for Junior Expressive Excellence, the question is more targeted: what limits are placed on young people’s written freedom of expression? How do you think restricting what the young can and can’t write affects public understanding of how those who cannot yet vote think?

Because I hate literary contests that contain hidden rules, I’m going to be up front with you here: creativity counts. Surprise the judges with the subtlety of your insight. Show us a take on the world we’ve never seen before.

2. Compose brilliantly for a maximum of five (5) pages in standard manuscript format
For both parts of the contest, you may choose how to make your case. A standard essay is fine; so is a short story, fully-realized scene excerpted from a novel, a play, or a poem. Heck, I’d love to see some graphic novel entries, but please, no photo essays. This is a prize for writing.

I’m quite serious about the 5-page maximum; feel free to make it shorter. If it is longer, the judges will stop reading at the bottom of page 5. Since I have been both a contest judge and editor for many years, trust me: I will notice and disqualify an entry that’s been shrunk to fit within the page limit.

Please submit only writing that has not been published elsewhere by the contest deadline, June 1, 2009. (See below for further details). You may, however, submit work that is currently entered in another contest.

3. Make sure your submission is in standard format
In order to render this competition as much about the writing as possible, only entries in standard book manuscript format will be eligible to win. To make this restriction fair to those of you new to the concept, I shall be spending the next few weeks going over precisely what that means.

Why am I being so draconian on this point, you gasp? Because I want to try to get a sense of how closely my readers are adhering to the strictures of standard format in their submissions; call it a sociological experiment.

Here’s a really, really good reason to enter the contest: if your entry is knocked out of the running for formatting reasons, I will tell you so. I’ll even tell you what rules your entry violated. (And yes, I am rather hoping that enough of you will enter that I will rue the day I said this.) So if you’re not absolutely positive that you’ve been submitting your work in standard format, this is a dandy way to find out.

For the purposes of this competition, standard format consists of the rules listed under the series following this post. (If you want to consult them sooner and in a less episodic manner, please see the posts under the MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING 101 category at right.) Graphic novels, plays, and poetry may be submitted in the standard formats for those types of writing.

Do not even try to make the argument that contradictory rules you may have heard elsewhere should be used here. Quibblers on the subject will be disqualified automatically.

4. Include a title page
This is actually redundant with the rules of standard format, but since I see so many incorrectly-formatted title pages every year, I want to reward those of you who have done your homework sufficiently to do it right. A great place to begin that homework: in the standard formatting series I shall be running over the next three weeks — or, if you’re in a greater hurry than that to enter, consult the TITLE PAGES category on the archive list at right.

Your title page (which will not count toward the 5-page entry limit) must include the following information:

Your real name

Your pseudonym, if you would prefer that your entry be published under that moniker

Your entry’s title

What book category might be applicable to it (Essay, Fiction, Poetry, Action/Adventure…)

Word count (real or estimated; if you don’t know how to figure this, please see the WORD COUNT category at right)

Your contact information, including e-mail and mailing address (so HarperStudio may ship the books, if you win one)

If you are entering in the Junior category, please include your age at the end of your contact information.

5. Before you submit, double-check to make sure the language in your entry is G-rated
Since the winning entries will be posted on this site and I have it on good authority that some of my readers regularly visit Author! Author! via school and public library computers that have content-blocking programs installed, I must insist that entries be devoid of profanity. The content is up to the entrant, but if the words would not be appropriate for the family hour, it will be disqualified.

Yes, this is its own form of censorship (feel free to write about that, if you like), but as this is a restriction I place upon all of my guest bloggers, I feel quite comfortable extending it to entries in this contest. Shock the judges with your ideas, not individual words.

6. Send your entry as a Word attachment to contest@annemini.com by midnight on
Please include the word ENTRY in the subject line of your e-mail. Since my readers are spread across many time zones, midnight in this context will be where you are, as shown on your e-mail’s date stamp.

And yes, those of you who are looking at these rules for the second time, having perused them before mid-May: the entry deadline did in fact change.

7. Please enter only once.
That’s fairer to everyone, don’t you think?

8. Wait breathlessly for the judges to make their decisions.

Something to ponder while you wait: if your entry is a winner, I shall contact you (thus the request for contact information) to ask you to provide Author! Author! with an author bio and photo to run with the award-winning entry. Since it takes most of us a while to find a snapshot of ourselves we like, I’m warning you in advance. If you want to get a head start on that author bio, please see the AUTHOR BIO category on the list at right.

Best of luck, everybody — and as always, keep up the good work!

Publishing – the good news, by guest blogger Stan Trollip, better known as half of the amazing writing team Michael Stanley

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Hello, campers —

Still on retreat in France, of course (and yes, the weather is precisely as gorgeous as you’re imagining, thank you very much), but I’m checking in quickly to introduce a long-anticipated treat: today, police procedural author and fab guy Stanley Trollip. Stan is best known as Michael Stanley, nom de plume of Stan Trollip and Michael Sears.

/stanley-trollip-small.jpgThose of you who were hanging around the Author! Author! virtual lounge may remember Stan from last year, when he was kind enough to visit with a very interesting guest post on collaboration, because who would know more about it than an author who has won some pretty hefty awards for doing just that?

What kind of awards, you ask? Well, the Los Angeles Times named their last novel, A CARRION DEATH, as one of the top ten crime novels of 2008 — a year that certainly wasn’t lacking in terrific crime novels, by the way. Some of the awards are yet to be decided, of course, but it’s currently a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, Strand Magazine’s Critics Award for Best First Novel, and Mystery Readers International Macavity Award for Best First Novel.

Yeah, I know: impressive, to say the least. I don’t wheedle just anybody to come and share his insights with you, you know.

Their new book, THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU, will be coming out June 2, but it’s already available for presale on Amazon Canada. It’s already in bookstores everywhere else in the world as A DEADLY TRADE.

Here’s the publisher’s blurb for THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU. While we’re at it, let’s take a gander at the cover (and title) you’d see if you happened to be browsing in a Canadian or UK bookstore:

deadlytrade cover Michael StanleyHow can a man die twice?

That is the question facing Detective David “Kubu” Bengu when a mutilated body is found at a tourist camp in Northern Botswana. The corpse of Goodluck Tinubu displays the classic signs of a revenge killing. But when his fingerprints are analyzed, Kubu makes a shocking discovery: Tinubu is already dead. He was slain in the Rhodesian war thirty years earlier.

Kubu quickly realizes that nothing at the camp is as it seems. As the guests are picked off one by one, time to stop the murderer is running out. With rumors of horrifying war crimes, the scent of a drug-smuggling trail, and mounting pressure from his superiors to contend with, Kubu doesn’t notice there is one door still left unguarded – his own. And as he sets a trap to find the criminals, the hunters are closing on him…

And that, boys and girls, is how to grab a reader in just a couple of paragraphs. Those of you embroiled in constructing summaries for your query letters and/or pitches might want to take note: see how the clever use of both telling details and a strong forward momentum makes you want to read this book? An agent is likely to react that way, too.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: never, ever forget that even the most tedious chore in book description is an opportunity to show what a good storyteller you are.

The Michael Stanley duo is extraordinarily talented at storytelling — but wait, you don’t have to take my word for that, do you? Here are some advance reviews from the most respected of industry sources:

Booklist, May 1, 2009
*Starred* Review! 
“ . . .. a brilliant sequel to last year’s Carrion Death… Stanley (the pseudonym for the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip) is not content with a single plot line, effectively juggling the murders with cross-border drug smuggling and the circumstances surrounding an upcoming African Union meeting. Kubu, a dedicated gourmand, is just one of many fully fleshed and charmingly realistic characters. From slightly annoying sister-in-law Peasant to Kubu’s intense and acerbic boss Mabuku to Scottish pathologist MacGregor, each character is memorable and adds depth to this tense and involving police procedural. Suggest to fans of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, who will appreciate Kubu’s laid-back style and happy home life, and to Henning Mankell fans, who will respond to the complex plots and palpable sense of place.”

Library Journal Reviews, April 1, 2009
“Following his spectacular debut, A Carrion Death, Stanley comes roaring back with an even better tale. Bringing a love of Africa similar to Alexander McCall Smith’s popular “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series, the author has created an excellent new venue for those who love to read about other cultures while enjoying a good mystery. Highly recommended.”

And that makes you curious about their multiple prize-winning first collaboration, doesn’t it, the one that the LA Times named as one of the top crime books of 2008? If so, then you’ll be pleased to hear that A CARRION DEATH is available Amazon, Amazon Canada, and Amazon UK.

I’m always delighted when I’m able to blandish an established working writer into sharing his views on the practicalities of the biz with you, dear readers, because the common writerly fantasies about what getting published and making a living as a writer entails tend to be, well, a bit fantastic. The write book/have agent show up on doorstep the next day/sell book to publisher in a week/quit day job immediately/appear on Oprah within a month scenario, while fun to think about, isn’t really the industry works.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying: if you’re even vaguely considering trying to make money by writing books, do pay careful attention to what Stan says here about advances, publication contracts, and book promotion. (And for more insight on both, please feel free to consult the aptly-named ADVANCES, PUBLICATION CONTRACTS, and BOOK PROMOTION categories on the archive list on the lower right-hand side of this page.)

Without further ado, then, please join me in a big Author! Author! welcome for Stan Trollip! Take it away, Stan!

Michael Stanley smiling with cat

The publishing world is full of bad news. Editors being let go; contracts not being honored; staff being laid off; fewer manuscripts being bought; less money for publicity. The list goes on. Everyone in the industry is depressed.

Or nearly everyone. I’m not depressed. Nor is my writing partner, Michael Sears.
We are actually having a ball and are in the midst of a worldwide tour promoting our second Detective Kubu novel, which is titled THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU in the States and A DEADLY TRADE in the rest of the world.

Despite the great distance to be traveled and living out of a suitcase, it is inspiring to meet people who sell books and people who read books. It is remarkable to see how passionate these people are about reading in general and about books specifically. And of course it is a thrill when we find a stack of our books in a bookstore or see people with one of our books in hand.

We are Stanley Trollip (that’s me) and Michael Sears. Collectively we write under the name of Michael Stanley. Six years ago, neither of us had any aspirations of being published authors. Today, our first novel, A CARRION DEATH, is published in the U.S.A., the U.K., Italy, and France (to be released in September). Our second novel is already out in the British Commonwealth and will be released in the States on June 2.

So what’s there to be depressed about?

Seriously, ours is a writer’s dream come true. We started writing for fun in mid-2003, fifteen years after we had an idea for a novel. In the mid-80s, I would load a small plane with friends and wine and head off to Botswana to watch game and birds. One day we watched a pack of hyenas demolish a wildebeest – bones and all.

Aha, we thought. If one wanted to get rid of a body, leaving it for the hyenas would be a great way of doing so. Fifteen years later we started writing our first novel, A CARRION DEATH, using the hyena idea as the opening. In the book, the hyena is interrupted in its meal, leaving the remnants of a corpse. The perfect murder wasn’t perfect anymore.

To our surprise, we found an outstanding agent in New York, who was able to get HarperCollins to make us a two-book offer for worldwide English rights. Not long after, they sold rest of the world English rights to Headline in the UK. Our agent,Marly Rusoff, then sold the manuscript to JC Lattes in France and Sonzogno in Italy. To us, the unbelievable had come true.

A CARRION DEATH has been critically well received, being shortlisted for three awards – two still to be decided – and being named as one of the Los Angeles Times top ten crime books of 2008.

Is A CARRION DEATH a best seller? No! Are we making money hand over fist? No! In fact, we still have a long way to go in paying back our initial advance. But we have had a great start, selling about 25,000 copies in various languages worldwide. More importantly, Michael and I have had an enormous amount of fun writing together even though we are often on different continents – Michael in Africa, and I in the States.

So how does it work having multi-book contracts and books being published in different languages? It is useful to understand some of the simple dynamics – something we knew nothing about when we started – in fact we knew so little that we didn’t realize that two people weren’t supposed to write fiction together.

Contractual stuff
I seldom read in blogs like Author! Author! how the contractual aspects of publishing work – let alone how an author deals with multiple publishers and multiple contracts. So I’m going to take a few paragraphs to describe, in simple, terms how this all works.

First, when you write something, you own all the rights (unless you have been commissioned to write the piece, and the person commissioning you retains the rights). So when we finished A CARRION DEATH, we owned all the associated rights.

We sold some of these (worldwide English rights) to HarperCollins in New York. They decided to retain only the English rights for North America, and sold the subsidiary English rights for the rest of the world to Headline in the UK. We then sold worldwide French rights to JC Lattes in France (due out in September 2009) and worldwide Italian rights to Sonzogno in Italy (published in October 2008).

We still hold all the other rights, including all other language rights, radio rights, and movie rights. (If you know anyone who wants to buy these, …!)

When we sold the worldwide English rights to HarperCollins, they bought them by offering us an advance against royalties – an amount of money, to be delivered in three parts (a third on signing, a third on acceptance of the manuscript, and a third on publication). An advance against royalties means that the publisher has advanced us the money, which we have to pay off through royalties on sales, etc.

From our point of view, the good news is that if our royalties don’t ever pay off the advance, we don’t have to fork out the difference. So the advance against royalties is the way a publisher acknowledges that writing is a slow process, and that writers need to live. They take a risk by paying these advances because they may never recover them.

So how do we pay off the advance? For each book sold we receive a royalty that ranges from 10% to 15% of the cover price. All these royalties start paying off the advance. Also, when HarperCollins sold the subsidiary rights to Headline, the amount they sold them for, less a commission, also went to pay off the advance.

Today the royalties earned by A CARRION DEATH sold anywhere in the world go to paying off our advance. And only when the advance is paid off will we see any more money.

In the same way, we received advances from our French and Italian publishers and are in process of paying them back through royalties from books sold.

In our case, it could be some time before we pay off the advances and see any further royalties. Indeed it is often the case that authors never see additional royalties. That may happen to us too.

Now we are about to release our second mystery, called THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU in North America and A DEADLY TRADE in the rest of the English-speaking world. For this book, the whole financial process starts again. We receive an advance in three installments and pay it off through royalties and the sale of subsidiary rights.

If very successful, we may see additional royalties in the future. If not, we can keep the advance.

You may ask why the book has two titles. Good question. Our original title was THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU, but Headline in the UK thought it sounded a bit too much like an Alexander McCall Smith novel and wanted something a bit snappier. After several weeks of brainstorming we came up with A DEADLY TRADE, which we like also.

Multiple editors
Another interesting issue that we didn’t anticipate was having multiple editors. We have a wonderful editor at HarperCollins – Claire Wachtel – who takes our manuscript and provides feedback such as “the pace falls off here,” or “move this chapter later to maintain tension,” or “take this character out – he doesn’t add anything.”

Despite the pain that we often feel when reading such comments, Claire is usually right, and we do what she says. It always improves the book. When she approves the changes, the manuscript goes to a copy editor who helps to improve language and often catches annoying discrepancies.

But what about the UK edition? Is it the same book?

For A CARRION DEATH, after the manuscript had been approved by HarperCollins, we translated it from American into English, then submitted it to our UK editor, Sherise Hobbs. Like Claire Wachtel, she read the manuscript and made suggestions, not as fundamental as Claire’s, but still extremely insightful and useful. After we finished addressing her concerns, the English manuscript was copy edited again, and only then went to printing.

So the US and UK editions are different, but only in minor ways, such as spelling, grammar, and some colloquialisms and culture-dependent references. For example a car has a bonnet and boot in English, and a hood and trunk in American. In English the past participles of lean and burn are leant and burnt. In American they are leaned and burned. American readers are more comfortable is dealing with distances in miles, yards, feet, and inches, while readers elsewhere typically use the metric equivalents of kilometers (spelled (spelt) kilometres outside north America), meters, centimeters and millimeters. The measurement of weight has similar differences.

From our point of view, we think we have two superb editors who improve our books immeasurably. Fortunately, they pull in the same direction, and we haven’t had to deal with any conflicts.

So far we have had little or no interaction with the editors of the French and Italian editions, mainly because neither Michael nor I have the language skills to make any meaningful input. However, we have been asked to comment on covers and titles. The Italian edition of A CARRION DEATH, for example, is titled IL DETECTIVE KUBU rather than a direct translation of the English title. The French title is still undecided.

To close
We have just started promoting A DEADLY TRADE and THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU and will come back to Author! Author! in a few weeks with a report on what it is like to launch a book in multiple countries.

THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU will have its worldwide launch on June 2, 2009 at the wonderful Once Upon A Crime bookstore in Minneapolis. Please visit our website for up-to-date news and information about upcoming events. There you can also sign up for our newsletter which comes out four or five times a year.

Thanks, Stan — that was hugely informative! Best of luck with the new book, and we’re all looking forward to seeing you back here again soon!

Michael Stanley smiling with catMichael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip.

Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business. They were both born in South Africa. Michael is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is a tournament bridge player. Stanley is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a pilot. He splits his time between Knysna, South Africa, and Minneapolis in the United States. He is an avid golfer.

Their first novel, A CARRION DEATH, featuring Detective David “Kubu” Bengu, was published in 2008 and received critical acclaim. The Los Angeles Times listed it as one of its top ten crime novels of 2008. It is a nominee for the Minnesota Book Award, Strand Magazine’s Critics Award for Best First Novel, and Mystery Readers International Macavity Award for Best First Novel.

Vrai et faux amis, or, the debate I would have had with Edith Wharton had she blogged

view-from-la-muse-library

For those of you who are tuning in late, I’m currently in residence at an almost mind-bogglingly beautiful artists’ retreat in Southwestern France — thus all of the photos of castles and cathedrals, in case any of you have been wondering if I’d suddenly gone mad for stonemasonry. Another major result of my being here, in case you missed my announcement earlier in the week: the new deadline for the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence has been extended to midnight on Monday, June 1.

You’re welcome.

Let me tell you, I’ve gotten some great entries, in both the Expressive Excellence and Junior Expressive Excellence categories. I’m really looking forward to running the winners here — and to hearing from more of you!

Okay, back to work. If I seem to be talking an unusual amount about cause and effect these days, blame it on the fact that this is my first retreat in a foreign land — at least in one that is not primarily English-speaking; I have retreated in Canada. I must say, I’ve been fascinated by the enlivening effect on the brain caused by switching languages between my writing time (somewhere between 8 and 12 hours per day, in case you’re curious) and out-and-about time (usually about an hour per day, with the occasional day of shopping and/or sightseeing).

While I must confess that one of the effects has been to unearth from the depths of my psyche the perfect word or phrase for the moment in Italian or Greek, another has been a much heightened awareness of how much people think while they’re speaking, even in their native tongue. It’s definitely affecting the way I write dialogue.

I’ve also become very conscious of what the French call faux amis (false friends), words and phrases that sound the same in another language, but mean something quite different in the one you happen to be speaking at the time. Take, for instance, actuellement — it seems as though it should translate as actually, doesn’t it? En fait (in fact, the phrase one uses when one means actually here), it means currently.

And don’t even get me started on the confusion if one refers to an ad as l’avertissement (warning sign) rather than as la publicité. Or if you speak of the book you’re working on as la nouvelle, which means short story, rather than as le roman, a novel.

Because so many English words are lifted from other languages, it is stuffed to the gills with les faux amis, of course, which is why it’s so difficult a language in which to become fluent. Something else a writer in English might want to take into account whilst constructing dialogue, perhaps?

Enough about false friends for the moment. Let’s move on to talking about true ones.

One of the great things about attending a formal writing retreat (that is, an ongoing one for which you apply) is seeing what other writers are reading. Not just the people who are in residence when you are — at La Muse, as at many retreats, that number is pretty small; actuellement, there are four writers, including myself, and two painters — but what those who have been there in the past were toting around in their bookbags.

The happy result: Boccaccio nestles next to Mary Renault and Somerset Maugham; Stan Nicholls abuts Günter Grass and Arundhati Roy. Gabriel García Márquez’ LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA stands tall next to many volumes of Isaac Bashevis Singer and an apparently misshelved copy of Adam Smith’s THE WEALTH OF NATIONS. Biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Bukowski jostle memoirs by Billie Holiday, Roald Dahl, and INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL, WRITTEN BY HERSELF.

Combine that with what the retreat’s organizers consider essential — here, both the complete works of both Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare, as well as many bound volumes of Paris Match, as well as masses of dictionaries in four languages, an extensive array of psychological theory, and mysteriously, a guitar — and you usually find yourself presented with a pretty eclectic collection.

Trust me on this one: you’re going to find something interesting that you have never encountered before. Take a gander at just part of what’s here for the reading:

library-at-la-muse

Yummy, eh?

As a direct and happy result of this kind of ongoing book accumulation, it’s generally well worth your while at an organized writers’ retreat to budget some fairly hefty time for reading. And not just for manuscripts in the library, either — you’re probably going to meet at least one writer with whom you would like to exchange work.

Lovely and rewarding, often, but still, time-consuming. Make sure to allot some time for it.

Truth compels me to mention, however, that actuellement, my opinion on the subject may well be colored by a fellow resident’s just having walked into the library with her thumb drive so I could download her just-this-second completed novel. (And no, this is not the first time I’ve seen someone do this at an artists’ retreat; people like to share. It’s wise to keep your writing schedule flexible enough to make field trips to admire freshly-completed sculptures and canvases upon which the paint is still wet, if you catch my drift.)

At this retreat, all attendees are asked to donate at least two volumes to the library, one that represented the kind of art we would be producing while in residence and one that reflected the part of the world that had produced us. Since I happened to know that a Seattle-based novelist had attended La Muse within the year, bringing with her the works of Garth Stein and Layne Maheu, I opted to dig deeper into my past and tote along VALIS, a largely autobiographical Philip K. Dick novel that happens to contain a scene set at my childhood home, right next to the hutch where my pet rabbits resided.

So if the moppet on the cover at the bottom right looks a trifle familiar, well, there’s a reason for that:

noras-book

Yes, I’m perfectly well aware that this photo is gigantic; I wanted you to notice that glorious volume in the middle. As you may see, my contributions paled in comparison to the absolutely gorgeous hand-made book one of the painters brought, but that’s to be expected, right? (If the book-lovers out there want to see more of Nora Lee McGillivray’s astonishingly beautiful individually crafted volumes, check out her website. It will tell you which museums to visit to see them in person.)

Since I’m currently working on a novel set at my alma mater, Harvard, I also imported (literally; I had to hand-carry it through Customs) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THIS SIDE OF PARADISE, his paean to Princeton. A fascinating novel, if you’ve never read it, the one that catapulted him to early fame. It’s far less polished than his later work, as first novels so often are; the value of repeated revision is not always apparent to the first-time author.

Which brings me to back to my subject du jour, the writer’s true and false friends, via the small miracle of having discovered in this very library a thin volume of rare nonfiction by Edith Wharton that I had never read before.

The front cover bills THE WRITING OF FICTION as “The Classic Guide to the Art of the Short Story and the Novel,” a contention which, if true, renders it even more surprising that I’d never even heard of it before. However, since the back cover’s incorrectly contends that THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, the novel for which our Edith won the Pulitzer Prize — the first woman to do so, incidentally — was her first, whereas if memory serves, THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY came out a good 7 years before, and the lovely THE HOUSE OF MIRTH 15, perhaps the claim of classicism is exaggeration for marketing purposes, rather than a statement of historical fact.

THE WRITING OF FICTION is very thought-provoking, however; it’s sort of what you would have expected a grande dame of letters to have blogged about the current state of literature in 1924, had blogs existed back then.

Yet quite a lot of what she has to say remains astonishingly applicable to today’s writers. Take, for instance:

The distrust of technique and the fear of being original — both symptoms of a certain lack of creative abundance — are in truth leading to pure anarchy in fiction, and one is almost tempted to say that in certain schools formlessness is now regarded as the first condition of form.

Now, the verbiage might be a bit old-fashioned, but this is a true friend. Not entirely coincidentally, it is also sentiment that agents and editors still express at writers’ conferences all the time. They’re perpetually receiving manuscripts that lack structure, either due either to deliberate authorial choice or a writer’s lack of literary experience.

Apparently structure-less scenes containing dialogue are particularly common. Proponents of slice-of-life fiction — an approach that tends to win great applause in short stories, and thus in writing classes that focus upon short works — will frequently make the mistake of trying to make dialogue in a novel absolutely reflective of how people speak in real life.

Why might that be problematic, you ask? Well, ride a bus or sit in a café sometime and eavesdrop on everyday conversation; it’s generally very dull from a non-participant’s perspective.

More to the point, it’s often deadly on the printed page. Real-life conversation is usually repetitive, cliché-ridden, and frankly, not all that character-revealing. It requires genuine artistry, then, to reproduce it well in manuscript form.

Or, as Aunt Edith might have put it, it takes technique. For some pointers on how to put that technique in action, you might want to check out the DIALOGUE THAT RINGS TRUE and DIALOGUE THE MOVES QUICKLY categories on the archive list at right.

For the moment, I want to return to what Aunt Edith was saying. Because I know that you’re all busy people, I’ll skip her comparison of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy (whose WAR AND PEACE, you may be amused to hear, Henry James once called, “a loose baggy monster,” speaking of structure) and move on to the next part that deals with technique:

…the novelist who would create a given group of people or portray special social conditions must be able to identify himself with them; which is a rather long way of saying that an artist must have imagination.

Not so fast there, Edith: this analogy is a false friend. I think you’re conflating empathy with one’s characters with the ability to imagine what it would like to be them, usually related but not identical phenomena. The first involves feeling for one’s characters enough to present them, if not sympathetically, then at least with fairness; the second can be purely a matter of conjecture, without necessarily involving any actual empathy with the characters at all — or, indeed, any information about how such characters in real life might actually feel or think.

Hey, if it’s purely a matter of imagination, why not just project your own feelings and thoughts onto them? Or, to fall back on my earlier example, to a reader who is already steeped in the culture you’re describing, it’s going to make a big difference whether a character within that culture says actuellement when he actually means en fait, right?

Here, imagination could lead a writer into a fairly major mistake. Another common mistake springing from relying too heavily on imagination alone — no, make that two: characters made up out of whole cloth tend to be prone to falling into stereotypes, and if the author doesn’t care about a character enough to empathize with him, why should the reader?

Ponder that last one a moment. I’ll wait.

The stereotyping problem is particularly rampant, and not just in terms of clichés. Think about how villains, or even just plain unlikable characters, tend to be portrayed in fiction — or in memoir and creative nonfiction, for that matter. One sees quite imaginative but essentially unsympathetic approaches to bad guys all the time.

And even to not-so-bad guys. Few writerly attitudes lead so surely to two-dimensional characters as the dismissive assumption that the reader isn’t going to like ‘em, anyway.

As it happens, I have a GREAT example right at my fingertips. Not long ago, a friend from my home town alerted me to the fact that a recent bestselling account of the rise and fall of a Napa Valley wine dynasty contained a rather odd reference to my late father, Norman Mini. Not all that surprising; he was, among other things, quite a well-respected winemaker descended from centuries of winemakers; it would have been rather difficult to write about enology in Northern California without at least passing reference to someone in my family.

Yet when I looked up the actual reference, it was quite apparent that his winemaking acumen had nothing to do with why the author had mentioned him: on the page, he comes across as that paragon of writerly false friends, the straw man who is mentioned only to be knocked down.

Speaking of phrases that wouldn’t translate all that well into other languages.

The funny thing is, enough of the facts in the story she tells are correct that you might actually have had to meet the man (or interview someone who had, as her website claimed she had done in some 500 instances) in order to realize just how far from the truth the book’s account is. How is that possible, you cry? Well, although the bulk of the anecdote about him is more or less as it happened, barring some easily-corrected factual errors (which is why I am not mentioning the book or the author’s name here, in order to allow her time to correct them in the next edition), the purport of the anecdote as folks in my former neck of the woods have habitually told it for the last 30 years showed him in quite a positive light, even a charming one.

As the anecdote is re-told in this book, however, he comes across as a quite sinister character.

I’m sensing some disbelief out there. “Just a moment, Anne,” come the incredulous murmurs. “Again, how is that possible, since the book in question is nonfiction? Isn’t the whole point of objective reporting to avoid this sort of contretemps? Just the facts, ma’am.”

Well, not having written the pages in question myself, I naturally cannot be absolutely sure how an ostensibly true story ended up untrue on the printed page, but my guess would be that the author relied on a false friend or two. A lack of authorial empathy, perhaps, combined with an incomplete set of facts, with the holes filled in by imagination.

What did that look like in practice? Actually, the misrepresentation was quite skillfully done: the author simply opened the anecdote by describing my father as a Napoleonic 5’4″ of bowl haircut aspiring to be taller, thereby establishing him as self-deluded. From there, all it took was some generalities about how his outspokenness rubbed a few people the wrong way to convey the impression of an abrasive, in-your-face lecturer. (Quoth my learned and soft-spoken father: “Never trust someone whom everybody likes. He’s got to be lying to someone.”) The author then went on to bolster the impression of thwarted power selective quotes from another source, something Henry Miller wrote about my father in BIG SUR AND THE ORANGES OF HIERONYMUS BOSCH.

Et violà! After such a set-up, what reader wouldn’t look upon the anecdote that followed with a jaundiced eye?

While I can think of any number of problems with this approach — up to and including the fact that I know from long extended-family experience that once a biographical untruth appears in print, it will be repeated elsewhere; lies are far more durable than truths, evidently — here are the three least contestable:

(1) my father was fully 6 feet tall;

(2) his hair was so curly that he could not possibly have achieved the haircut she described as integral to his character, and

(3) a full reading of even the page from which she had cherry-picked Miller quotes would have demonstrated clearly that the man I knew as Uncle Henry intended the passage she cited to create exactly the opposite impression in his book from what she was trying to convey in hers.

Since Edith Wharton was notoriously careful about checking factual details, I can’t believe that she would have approved, despite her quip above. Since neither my father nor our Edith are, alas, still around to defend their points of view, I naturally tracked down the author’s website and e-mailed her to point out — politely, I thought, given the provocation — that her book contained a few inaccuracies.

Her response was, at best, huffy. Her research for the book had been extensive, she explained to me so it was unlikely that she had made a mistake. In making her case that perhaps I was at fault, she cited by name three people known to me in my early childhood as The Nice Man Who Gave Me a Puppy, Mr. Bob, and That Woman Who Broke Up Mr. Bob’s Marriage as the most likely sources of, say, a misidentified photo, if indeed any misidentification had occurred. Although she was willing to believe that I hadn’t contacted her just to insult her, I really should have checked her book’s 800 notes before even considering contacting her, because any photo would probably (her word) have been cited there.

Yeah, I know — I seriously considered posting her answer in its entirety as the centerpiece about how NOT to respond to a question from a reader, ever. Simply thanking me for my note and telling me that she would look into it would have served precisely the same purpose — getting me off her back, me with my annoying propensity to regard things like height and incidents that occurred within my memory as matters upon which I have a right to express myself — without leaving me with an anecdote that any professional author would have expected me to pass along to at least a couple of other people.

The general rule of thumb for avoiding insulting one’s readers, in case you’re wondering, is that an author should ALWAYS be polite to anyone who approaches her about her book, even if she feels that the yahoo currently in front of her is being rude. Even if the author is in the right, bad word of mouth tends to spread much, much faster than “Gee, I met this author, and she was so nice.”

Human nature, I’m afraid. Just as an untruth in one biography tends to spawn repetitions in the next ten, a rebuffed reader can tell fifty potential book-buyers to stay away from that jerk — or 5,000, if he chooses to share the anecdote online. The rise of the Internet has made bad reputations much, much easier to establish.

In fairness to my rebuffer, I probably should have contacted her publisher directly about the quite easily verifiable factual errors, The extent of her research was something she also boasted about on her website, which should have placed me on guard that she might conceivably be touchy about it: as experienced nonfiction writers tend to assume that thoroughness is the minimum requirement for the job, not an additional selling point, it’s rare for the author of a nonfiction book on a not particularly contentious topic actually to list the number of interviews she conducted. In the bio on her website, no less.

All that being said, it would be easy just to write this situation off as poor research — I suspect what actually happened here is that she mistook someone else for my father in a photograph, and just didn’t bother to double-check. (There I go again, fact-hugging.) But let’s think about the writing strategy involved in producing the questionable impression on the page:

a) An author had a real-life character she wanted to use for a specific purpose in her book. In order to make that character come to life, she uses her imagination. I suspect all of us can identify with that, right?

b) Because that specific purpose was negative, she chose her descriptions (and, in this case, quotes) in order to bolster that effect — again, something most writers do.

c) In a search for telling details that would convey the desired impression — which, lest we forget, was necessarily a product of the writerly imagination, since the author never actually met the man she was describing — and because she was not approaching the character with empathy, she selected bits that conformed to her preconceived notion of the character. Again, this is a fairly standard writing practice.

d) Unfortunately, the research that provided those bits was insufficient, and she ran into trouble.

Obviously, this was an instance that annoyed me, as did her reaction to my pointing out the factual errors in this part of her book. (If I understood her correctly — and her response contained enough spelling and grammatical errors that I’m not sure that I did — she was trying to argue that my recollections of my father’s height were more likely to be mistaken than her research.)

But did you notice the narrative trick I employed in telling you this real-life story — one that I used to comic effect even in the last paragraph?

No? Let me be brutally honest about my writerly motivations: I was writing an anecdote about a person I have some legitimate reason to dislike, so I don’t have a lot of incentive to present her with empathy, do I? So while the facts in the anecdote are all true, my telling of them clearly reflected that dislike — and in order to make you, dear readers, dislike her, too, I used my imagination in order to create motivations for her.

Oh, all of the actions I described did in fact occur. But there is no such thing as a story that creates its own tone or word choices, is there?

Starting to get the picture?

If those of you who write memoir are shaking in your booties, you probably are. The fact is, for all of the blather about the desirability of objective distance from one’s subject, if a writer is trying to create an emotional response in the reader, objectivity is often not possible. Nor, especially in memoir, is it always desirable.

However, an ostensible just-the-facts presentation is sometimes a false friend to the reader — and to the writer as well. Yes, even in fiction: if a writer tries to scare up some empathy for even the characters the reader isn’t supposed to like, the result is usually more complex characters and better character development.

In other words, it’s a better means of creating three-dimensional characters.

Case in point: in the anecdote I told above, the characters were pretty black-and-white — the maligned late father, the unsympathetic writer. Yet had I exercised a bit more empathy toward the latter, I could have told factually the same story, yet conveyed the impression of a more well-rounded — and consequently more interesting, from the reader’s perspective — villain. Lookee:

An old friend pointed out to me that a bestselling book contained some rather odd assertions about my father. I checked, and it was true: the anecdote about him was told unsympathetically, and the physical description was so off-base that she could only have been describing someone else. She specifically said that he was eight inches shorter than he actually had been, for instance, with straight hair fashioned into a haircut that had not been fashionable since ancient Rome.

Puzzled, I contacted her and asked: was it possible that someone had misidentified a photo for her? Would she be open to correcting the factual errors in a future edition?

She responded so quickly that she must have received the message on her Blackberry. She was on a research trip for her next book, she said, and thus could not possibly check her notes to see if I was correct until she got back to her office; if my story did turn out to have merit, she would of course take steps to correct the minor errors in future editions. However, if I had troubled to check through the book’s 800 notes about her 500 interviews — a number that would have represented approximately 20% of my home town’s population at the time, incidentally — the photograph in question was doubtless referenced, so she doubted that she had any errors. She was quite sure, she concluded, that I hadn’t intended to impugn her journalistic credibility by implying that she hadn’t done her homework properly.

I was entirely mistaken about my father’s height, in other words; presumably, she had a source that had said so. Clearly, I owed her an apology for having brought any of it up at all, especially when, as the author of a single book that sold well, she is so important to the literary world that her research trips are times of well-advertised mourning in bookstores everywhere. At the very least, I should have waited until she got back.

Quite a different story, isn’t it? Yet in some ways, she’s a more effective villain in the second version than the first: by allowing some of her good points some page space, she comes across as having more complex motivations. (I also think this version is funnier, because it presents more of her response from her perspective, rather than mine.)

“Philosophy is not insensitivity,” as brilliant novelist, nonfiction writer, and inveterate fact-checker Mme. de Staël tells us. An authorial inability — or outright unwillingness — to empathize with her characters’ points of view does not always equal an admirable objectivity. Sometimes, it’s the result of a failure of imagination, rather than a surfeit of it.

But in order to create well-rounded, plausible characters, whether from scratch out of one’s imagination or lifted from real life, a good writer needs both empathy and imagination.

Okay, so maybe I wanted to tell this particular story — which, as you may be able to tell by how miffed I am about it, just transpired about a week ago — more than I wanted to engage in banter with Edith Wharton. As a writer, that’s certainly my prerogative: I have the power to focus my narrative in the direction that I find the most satisfying. And as a blogger, I also have the power to return to the debate with Edith in a future post. There honestly is a lot to talk about there.

Hey, the lady had some great insights into true and false friends.

Which brings me back to some semblance of my original point — believe it or not, I did have one throughout this long, wide-ranging post. First, it always behooves a writer to read widely, whether in doing manuscript research (cough, cough) or just to see how others have done what you’re trying so hard to do well. If you don’t have access to a thoughtfully-constructed, inspirational library like La Muse’s, start asking writers you respect for recommendations.

Most writers are book-lovers, after all. It’s a question that seldom fails to elicit a smile at a book signing, even from the most retiring author.

Second — and you’ve heard this one from me before — just because someone’s won a Nobel prize in literature (or has 800 notes in her bestseller) doesn’t automatically mean that everything she says in print is true. Use your own judgment, especially about writing advice.

Don’t be afraid to examine a gift horse’s dental hygiene before accepting it as your own, if you catch my drift.

Third, if you’re writing about real people, the false friend of ostensible objectivity is no excuse not to treat them with the empathy with which a good writer habitually approaches her fictional characters. Quadruple-check your facts before committing them to the printed page, and try to present even the characters you don’t like as well-rounded, plausible characters. You may even find that they work better as villains that way.

You also never know whose daughter is likely to blog about you, right?

Keep up the good work!

Yeas and Nays in the Bard’s World, by guest blogger Sandi Dollinger

ethel-merman

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
But now, heaven knows
Anything goes.

Back in 1934, when Broadway was belting out Cole Porter’s sassy lines, a new world was dawning, so it seemed. One where a playwright could saywhat she wanted without fear of reprisal.

When Porter penned his sassy lyrics for his soon-to-be Broadway hit, he did it with tongue in cheek, I’m sure. The twenties were over, dragging down with them that infamous cast of characters, which included bootleggers and those party-going recipients so willing to wallow in their booze, fling off their clothes and take baths in the bubbly while getting ready for the next round.

Yes, the Crash had sounded the death knell, a din which became louder and louder as gangsters like Legs Diamond got gunned down in the backs of boardinghouses. By 1933, it was curtains for Prohibition.

Americans had sobered up and just Anything did NOT go.

Porter certainly learned this lesson when he wanted a white woman cast as the call girl singing Love For Sale in 1930. He had to change the setting to Harlem and make the singer black, because of what the song was about. And again, in “Anything Goes,” he had to amend a number called I Get a Kick Out Of You. Remember that famous “Some get a kick out of cocaine” line?” When I got the script many many decades later, the line had become “Some get a kick out of champagne.”

But Porter was willing to do it.

It’s different when the essence of an entire script is challenged, however. And the challenge is subtle. What theatre calls the “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” syndrome.

I call it shunning.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. When I was in my salad days, back in the sixties and seventies, I thought censorship existed only in totalitarian societies, societies such as Soviet Russia or the Franciscan Motherhouse, which was my address at the time. I remember, as a nun, so desperately wanting to study theatre.

I even mounted a production of A Man For All Seasons, using nuns as actors (nuns showing their hair and wearing costumes, God forbid!) Eventually, I was pulled aside by Reverend Mother, who wanted to know if I was willing to sacrifice my religious vocation for the work of the devil.

You can well imagine the breath of freedom that went through me when I traded in my nun’s serge habit for a pair of hip huggers and a used eggshell blue VW.

It was the time when Leonard Bernstein’s Candide had opened in New York, along with Equus and all those anti-establishment pieces of theatre. I was on a high. I got my Master’s in Speech and Theatre from Marquette University and drove myself to the Big City.

I had a taste of playwriting in Milwaukee, adapting children’s books such as Tom Sawyer and Heidi for the stage. I was pretty avant-garde, but no one seemed to mind. (Not like people in the late nineties, who questioned me on one of my adaptations of Mark Twain’s classic, asking me why I wanted to expose young people to the anarchy of the Wild West.)

But to return to the late seventies. When I got to New York, I found a job at Henri Bendel’s collection agency. A hundred dollars a week kept me in popcorn and Rice Krispies for dinner and afforded the privilege of studying under a Cuban refugee. Andres was great with the Stansilavsky Method, but he didn’t want his actors selling their wares elsewhere. I did comic roles for Chekhov, Ibsen, and Oscar Wilde plays and then I wanted to move on.

I auditioned for Actors Advent and got a role playing Miss Margarida of Roberto Athayde’s one-woman play, Miss Margarida’s Way. The role was a
reaction to the fascist leadership of Brazil. It was about a teacher who behaved the way church and civil authorities were behaving in South American countries at the time. Miss Margarida informs her class that “Happy are they who obey,” while telling them to give up fornication. Not even kissing is allowed, even if they would like to kiss Miss Margarida.

Miss Margarida’s Way was loudly heralded in the off-Broadway theatres. It was comedic, darkly so, but times were different. They hadn’t become Teflon-ized yet.

Today, My Name is Rachel Corrie has found great trouble making its way to the New York stages. This play about a young activist-journalist in Palestine has met with great resistance. It finally got a booking, but friends of mine have had a great deal of opposition getting it produced upstate.

After Miss Margarida, I set my sails on provocative theatre and began collaborating on such plays as Stage Hands Never Wear Hawaiian Shirts, about a woman with an eating disorder-caused by the social mileu of the early eighties. People were looking more inward by then, and my friend Jimmy Rossi and I wanted to tell a story about a woman overwhelmed by the food world of gourmet consumption. We had a huge phallic-looking croissant swinging across our set.

Our Brooklyn audience was very receptive.

At around this time I began to write full-length plays and moved to Albany, New York. My first play, The Emancipation of Mamie Stutz, told the story of an older woman obsessed with seven locks on her door. At the play’s end, all the locks are broken. She leaves her dwelling with everything she owns in paper bags to sit in front of a library in Bay Ridge.

The college and the psychiatric center where the play was produced gave me good feedback, but I found on sending it out that I was having my first real experience with “shunning.” I was told the play had difficulties because of the language and the ethnic stereotyping. I felt it was something much darker –perhaps an older woman having sex? I wasn’t sure.

I went on to write another full-length, my current play, “Yours Till Niagara Falls”. This play has virtually written itself. I didn’t rein in my characters, and this is the story that wanted to be told. It’s a play about an older woman, as my earlier play was, who has kept a dark secret inside of her.

When I think back, storefront plays like Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free, along with other outrageous plays (Dario Fo’s, for example) have made me fearless in being sure I will not back down in what I need to say.

First of all, every play is about love, on some level. What I said about love in my play is that I believe there is something deeper than physical love which binds the hearts of two human beings, though the physical can be an expression of it.

The characters in my current play come from my own background: grandchild of Eastern European immigrants, and also a second family which claimed me — an Italian family ( also an immigrant family). The protagonist, Rosie, came to Ellis Island from Warsaw with her little brother, Mouse. She had virtually raised her baby brother (he was ten years younger), and now she was being sent to America to get married and raise money to send back to her relatives. The time period was prior to World War I.

When the play opens, it’s already the 1950′s. Rosie’s Italian husband, Shrimpy, has just passed. Rosie is left with a teenage daughter to raise. She is beside herself for Shrimp has left her with nothing but debts. They own a religious supply store called Heavenly Merchandise, but Rosie refuses to open it, lest sleazy characters wander in, claiming they are owed lots and lots of money.

Finally a neighborhood friend, Bettina, recommends Rosie see the parish priest to help her. Bettina, the priest’s housekeeper, promises to go over with Rosie when a visitor comes through the door — Rosie’s long-estranged musician brother Mouse! Bettina is overjoyed and leaves, but not before she flirts a bit with Mouse. As soon as she is gone, Rosie tells Mouse he must leave. But he has no intention of doing that. He explains he has been kicked out once, by her husband, and will never leave again.

As the play moves forward, we come to realize it is Rosie who has had her husband throw Mouse out. She could not stand to be with him as he grew into a man. Now she sees her feelings have only deepened and it frightens her. In the final act, Rosie’s brother invites her and her daughter to return to Brooklyn with him. Rosie begs a sign from the Blessed Mother.

The final moments of the play are a showdown between Rosie and Mouse, when Rosie is finally able to say what she needs to the man she has always treasured. It remains for Mouse to speak. All happens in the final moments, and then the play is over. Outside. the snow begins to fall. A heavy snow, but a silencing one.

When I first had my reading of this new play last December, I was encouraged by an audience member who asked if she might have a copy to submit to an artistic directors who seeks plays with one set, few characters, and heart. I really was encouraged, because some people I have given this play to have looked on me as some kind of ogre, some wicked, shameful thing who has violated all manner of political correctness.

But they are allowed their thoughts. I need not censor them. I just need to be attuned to those who find something there, who may make minor requests. Most recently a man named Wally Truesdell asked me for two more scripts. He said my play reminded him of a Polish Awake and Sing. (Clifford Odets)

Bet your dupa, Wally! I had the scripts out to him in the next hour’s mail.

Second, those writers– edgy ones — who have gone before me have given me strength to write about older people as main characters. I get a lot of negative feedback about this. The character in my new play, Rosie, a Polish immigrant, is sixtyish. I have gotten feedback that young audiences don’t like to look at old people — especially old women. They want eye candy.

But in both my plays, my characters are older women. I will keep them there.

I think I want to be real and will forge ahead. When Yours Till Niagara Falls was shown in an Arts Center in Troy last year, I had a very unique experience. Someone asked me for the script! She said it was a play with heart — and she really likes the main character! I am now sending the play out to theatres who respect women and their issues. I think it’s important for me to acknowledge their inner strengths and beauty.

I also got negative feedback about presenting plays with eastern European immigrants. But these exist in our country. They are people and have a right to have a voice. They have gone through much hardship — and shunning.

I want to encourage you to treat you dramatic “child” well, also. We have enough Grendels to last another century! (Remember that character who terrorized everyone — until a Beowulf stood up to him, and spoke to him in a whisper?)

Oh, we know anything does Not Go. But once in a while, something does! Tell a story — a real story with lots of heart. Get your character to a boiling point, don’t let her or him off the hook — and see what happens!

Some may say “Nay.” I prefer to say “Yay!” Just tiptoe like a mouse around the
nay-sayers — there’s a piece of cheese waiting on the other end. In theatre, 98% is work, even grunt work, but, oh – – that two percent of applause is of another world!

Always remember: don’t bury your head (or your writing) in the sand. When the curtain rises, history begins!

So break legs, as they say in the trade, writers!

Who said that? Wait, I did. Or was it Oscar Wilde?

hall-at-la-cite

All this week, I have been discussing the Frankenstein manuscript, the text whose author either kept changing his mind about the style he wished to embrace — or tone, or target audience, or book category — or just kept revising it so often that the narrative reads like a patchwork of different prose styles. Today, I would like to talk about the Frankenstein manuscript’s prettier and more socially-acceptable cousin, self-plagiarized repetition.

Where the Frankenstein manuscript varies substantially as pages pass, the self-plagiarized text merely becomes redundant: scenery described the same way, for instance, or a clever line of dialogue repeated in Chapters 2, 5, and 16.

Nonfiction writing in general, and academic writing in particular, is notoriously prone to redundancy. Once you’ve gotten into the habit of footnoting everything in the least questionable, it’s pretty easy to reuse a footnote, for instance, or to come to rely upon stock definitions instead of writing fresh ones every time.

Or, in a memoir, to tell the same anecdote more than once.

My point is, most of the time, self-plagiarization is inadvertent; a writer simply finds a certain turn of phrase appealing and forgets that she’s used it before. A great way to catch this sort of redundancy is — wait for it — to read your manuscript IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD.

Oh, had I suggested that before?

Sometimes, though, self-plagiarization is deliberate. If a line was clever once, the writer thinks, the reader will find it so the second time — and the fifth, and the forty-seventh. Deliberate redundancy is particularly common with humor: since situation comedies tend to rely upon repetition of catch phrases, many aspiring writers believe — mistakenly, often — that the mere fact of repetition will render a line funny.

On the page, it seldom works. (Sorry to be the one to break it to you sitcom lovers.)

Nowhere is the practice of self-plagiarization more prevalent than in the garden-variety political speech. And if you doubt that, tell me: do you think people would remember that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream if he had said it only ONCE in his famous March on Washington speech?

There’s a good narrative reason for that, of course: the repetition of an idea makes it memorable. The ideas — and usually even the actual phrases — of the beginning of a political speech invariably recur throughout, to drive the point home.

And, as anyone who has listened to two consecutive State of the Union addresses can tell you, political speeches often sound the same from year to year. No matter how fiercely THE WEST WING tried to promote the notion of presidential speechwriters as ultra-creative writers, if you look at speeches given by the same politician over time, self-plagiarization is of epidemic proportions.

On paper, phrase repetition is problematic, but in and of itself, it is not necessarily self-plagiarization. On paper, phrase repetition can be used for emphasis (as I have just done here). A lot of good writers choose to repeat phrases within a single paragraph for rhythmic reasons, which can bring a passage a feel of invocation. Take the ending of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from HENRY V, for instance:

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Now THAT’s a political speech.

Unfortunately, a lot of poor writers favor this device, too, so it tends to be a rather risky trick to try to pull off in a short piece, such as a synopsis, or even in the first few pages of a manuscript submitted for a contest or as part of a query packet. To professional eyes, trained to search for the repetition of a single verb within a paragraph as evidence of boring writing, “we few, we happy few” will not necessarily jump off the page for its rhythm. In an ultra-quick reading (as virtually all professional readings are), it may be mistaken for an incomplete edit: you meant to change “we few” to “we happy few,” but you forgot to delete the words you did not want.

Let’s see if you’ve been paying attention for the last few days: why would a savvy submitter not want to convey the impression of an incomplete editing job?

That’s right: because that’s the birthmark of the dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, the fish that Millicent the agency screener is only too happy to throw back into the sea.

Self-plagiarization tends to raise red flags with professional readers for other reasons, however. The writer may not realize that she has reused a particularly spectacular image from Ch. 1 in Ch. 3, but believe me, if there is repetition, professional readers will catch it. Remember, the pros are trained to catch redundancy; editors are notorious for remembering entire pages verbatim.

I am no exception: when I was teaching at the University of Washington, I was known for noticing when term papers resubmitted in subsequent quarters, even though I read literally hundreds of papers per term. I would even remember who wrote the original.

As you may well imagine, I quickly acquired a reputation amongst the fraternities and sororities who kept files of A term papers for their members to, ahem, borrow.

Which reminds me to tell you that paraphrasing what you’ve said earlier in the manuscript tends to be significantly less frowned-upon than outright literal repetition. That’s why, in case you were wondering, while very similar passages may earn you an ill-humored rebuke from a professional reader, generalized repetition usually will not knock you out of consideration if the self-plagiarized bits occur far apart, such as at the beginning and end of a book.

However, in a shorter piece, or in those first 50 pages of your novel that nice agent asked you to send for consideration, it certainly can cost you. Repetition sticks in the professional reader’s craw, nagging at her psyche like a pebble in a shoe, so it is best to do it as little as possible.

“Now wait a minute,” I hear some of you out there grumbling. “Oscar Wilde repeated the same quips in one play after another. It became his trademark, in fact. So why should I be punished for using a single particularly sterling line 150 pages apart in my novel?”

You have a point, of course, oh grumblers. You might also have bolstered your argument by mentioning that Aaron Sorkin reused not only lines and speeches from SPORTS NIGHTin THE WEST WING, but entire plot lines and basic characters.

Tell you what — after you make it big, I give you permission to establish a trademark phrase and use it as often as you like. Until you do — as I sincerely hope you will — all I can do is tell you what tends to annoy agents, editors, and contest judges.

All writers of book-length works have repeated themselves at one time or another; if a simile struck us as the height of cleverness last week, chances are good that we will like it next week as well. Each time we use it, it may seem fresh to us.

These little forays into self-indulgence are so common, in fact, that literary critics have a name for them: tropes.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a notorious troper in his short stories. A thwarted heroine’s sobbing out (usually with her face hidden by her hair), “I’m so beautiful – why can’t I be happy?” immediately before she does something self-immolatingly stupid to remove herself from the possibility of marrying the story’s protagonist occurs at least four times throughout his collected works.

Why our Scott found that particular line so very attractive in a pretty woman’s mouth remains a mystery eternal — it’s hard to believe he ever actually heard a sane female utter it, even in jest. But he did, and now it’s stuck to his name for all eternity.

Learn from his unhappy fate, I beg of you.

Usually, though, self-plagiarization is less obvious to the untrained eye than ol’ Scott’s outright line reuse. Spread out over an entire text — or as it often appears in the case of successful writers of series, once per book — self-plagiarization may be fairly innocuous, the kind of thing that might only bug someone who read manuscripts for a living.

For example, E.F. Benson, author of two delightful series, the Lucia books and the Dodo books, was evidently extraordinarily fond of using Arctic analogies for one person suddenly grown cold to another. To mention but three examples:

“It was as if an iceberg had spoken,”

“It was as if the North Pole had spoken,” and

“icebergs passing in the North Sea” must speak to one another so.

Admittedly, it’s not a bad analogy, if not a startlingly original one. The problem is, as a Benson enthusiast, I was able to come up with three of them without even pulling any of his books off the shelf. These repetitions, deliberate or not, stick with the reader, just as surely as repeated phrases stick with the audience of a political speech.

Here, yet again, is an awfully good reason to read your entire book (or requested chapters, or contest submission) out loud before you submit it. Believe it or not, just as dialogue that seemed fine on the page can suddenly seem stilted when spoken aloud, phrases, sentences, and images that your eye might not catch as repetitious are often quite obvious to the ear.

Another good reason to read aloud: to make sure that each of your major characters speaks in a different cadence. It’s substantially easier for the reader to follow who is speaking when that way.

Don’t tell me that all of Aaron Sorkin’s and David Mamet’s characters speak in identical cadences, as though they all shared one vast collective mind; to my sorrow, I am already well aware of that fact. Remember what I said earlier this week about the dangers of those new to the biz assuming that what the already-established have done, they may get away with as well?

Uh-huh. In a first-time author, it would be considered poor craft to have every character in the book sound the same. Not to mention poor character development.

While I’m on the subject, keep an ear out in your reading of your manuscript for lines of dialogue that cannot be said aloud in a single breath without passing out — they tend to pull professional readers out of the story.

Why, you shout breathlessly? Well, in real life, listeners tend to interrupt speakers when the latter pause for breath, so cramming too many syllables into an uninterrupted speech usually doesn’t ring true on the page. Remember to allow your characters to breathe occasionally, and your dialogue will seem more realistic.

Oh, bother; I’ve written past the time I allotted myself for blogging today; on retreat, one needs to adhere to a schedule. Oh, I’m so beautiful — why can’t I be happy?

Keep up the good work!

PS: to repeat a footnote from yesterday, the deadline for submitting entries to the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence is now Monday, June 1, at midnight wherever you are. Follow this link to the rules and descriptions of the fabulous prizes, and may the best writer win the ECQLC! (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, that is.)

The Frankenstein manuscript, part III: the monster always returns

la-cite-at-night
Yes, I really did take this photo myself — and yes, I really did take it within the last few weeks. Cathar country is positively rife with castles of various descriptions.

Not that one positively requires castles nearby in order to enjoy a productive writing retreat, of course. But I have to say, it doesn’t seem to hurt.

Well, I got sidetracked in my last post, didn’t I? I got you all excited about the Frankenstein manuscript phenomenon, promised to tell you how to work through it — and then wrote about other things for a couple of days.

Sorry about that; I’m back in the saddle today.

For those of you just tuning in, a Frankenstein manuscript is a work that — usually inadvertently — is written in so many different voices, styles, structures, and even quality of writing that it reads as though it had been written by a committee. Since I have literally never heard a single speaker at a writing conference address this very common problem — but have so often heard agents, editors, contest judges, writing teachers, and freelance editors complain about it in private — I wanted to alert my readers to it, lest the monster return again.

Because it will, you know. The first rule of horror is that the monster always returns.

In a way, a Frankenstein manuscript is a gift for a busy agent, editor, or judge, because it’s so very easy to reject. While I am generally very much in favor of writers doing everything they can, short of laundry or house-painting, to make their agents’ and editors’ lives easier, trust me, you do not want to be on the donating end of such a gift.

Seriously, from a professional reader’s point of view, it’s no-brainer rejection if ever there was one: clearly, Millicent the agency screener thinks, if the author herself did not catch the Frankensteinish inconsistency of the text, the book needs to go through at least one more major edit.

And believe me, this needs another editing run-through is not something you want Millicent to think while considering whether to pass your submission on to her boss, the agent of your dreams. Remember, in order to reject the manuscript, all she needs to think is, “While it’s an interesting premise,” (or voice, or style, etc.) “the author needs to work on craft, structure, and consistency.”

In other words: “Next!”

I know I say this a lot, but it bears repeating: aspiring writers tend to overestimate, sometimes radically, the amount of time and energy an agent will be willing to invest in their first books. Think about it: every moment an agent devotes to nursing a new client’s manuscript into a publishable state is a moment that he is not spending selling books. Or reading the new works of clients who have already made him money. Or, perhaps closer to the hearts of agent-seekers everywhere, scanning submissions from aspiring writers.

Contrary to popular opinion, agencies are very seldom charitable institutions, devoted selflessly to the promotion of great literature. Even agencies that do in fact represent great literature are in the game to make money. In order to do that, they need to sell books.

Which means, in case I’ve been too subtle so far, that they’re looking for manuscripts that they not only could conceivably sell to publishing houses, but sell quickly in the current market. By definition, a manuscript that needs a whole lot of work is not going to be ready to market as soon as one that does not.

Besides, agencies receive too many letter-perfect submissions to devote much time to fixer-uppers. They figure that the fixer-uppers will come back to them eventually, anyway, all cleaned up.

Without their intervention. The average agent’s faith in the tenacity of the talented is unbounded. He honestly does believe that his dream client can figure out what to give him all by herself.

So trust me on this one: you want yours to be the submission that causes Millicent to exclaim, “Oh, this one’s ready to go out to editors right now!”

A Frankenstein manuscript is virtually never going to provoke that last exclamation, because inconsistency of voice, vocabulary, tone, etc. is a pretty sure sign that the writer has not finalized the narrative. Oh, she may have revised it until she’s blue in the face, but she hasn’t yet gone through the entire thing and smoothed it out so it reads like a unified story.

Here’s a word to the wise: if you are working on your first novel — or any other writing project — over the course of years, do yourself a favor and check it for stylistic consistency before you submit it to ANY agent, editor, or contest.

If you find that your voice wavers a bit throughout, don’t despair. It’s actually quite rare that writers, even extremely gifted ones, find their specific voices right away; allow for the possibility that yours developed while you were writing the book.

Then embrace a two-part revision goal: find the voice, the style, the structure you like best, then make sure that every sentence in the book reflects it.

Incidentally, you simply cannot pull off Part I of that tall order by reading your work in screen-sized chunks. In order to make absolutely sure that your book hangs together cohesively, YOU MUST READ IT IN HARD COPY.

In its entirety. Preferably in a few long sessions, and, if you change narrative voice very often, out loud, to ascertain that your various voices remain absolutely distinct throughout.

Although that last piece of advice is unlikely to come as much of a surprise to long-time readers of this blog, I hear some of you grumbling out there. “But Anne,” the disgruntled protest, “I feel like I’ve been working on this book forever. I’ve revised it so often that I could recite huge chunks of it from memory. And yet you’re telling me to reread the whole thing — aloud, yet?”

Yes, I am. Actually, it may actually be more important for inveterate revisers to read their work IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD.

Why, you gasp in horror? Because the more you revise a novel — or any book — the more likely it is to turn into a Frankenstein manuscript. It is an unintended downside of being conscientious about honing your craft.

Allow me to repeat that: the MORE you work on a novel, the MORE likely you are to end up with a Frankenstein manuscript.

Think about it: over time, you move passages around; you insert new scenes; you add or subtract subplots, characters, dialogue. All of these inevitably affect other parts of the book. Can you really be sure, for instance, that you remembered to remove your protagonist’s sociopathic sister from EVERY place she has ever appeared, even as a shadow on a wall?

And no, in response to what two-thirds of you just thought: merely doing a search-and-replace on the sister’s name is not sufficient, because if a novel is complex and rich, the spirit of individual characters lingers, even when they do not appear on the page. Necessarily, you would need to write the consciousness of the sociopathic sister out of the psyches of every other character in the family.

And that’s just the fall-out from a single change. The vast majority of revision is minor — which does not mean that any given change might not carry resonance throughout the book.

See now why I have been harping on the necessity of sitting down and reading your manuscript in its entirety, in hard copy, AND getting unbiased readers to look it over before you submit it to an agent, editor, or contest? Yes, it’s the best way to catch grammatical, spelling, and continuity errors — but it is also really the only way to notice where a deleted character or plot point still affects the rest of the book.

While you’re reading, do be aware that It is far from uncommon for fledgling writers to incorporate the style, vocabulary, and/or worldview of whatever author they happen to be reading at the moment into their work. It’s sort of like catching an accent when you’re staying in another country: you may not realize that you’re doing it, but others hear and wonder why your accent keeps wandering back and forth between London and Brooklyn.

I’ll admit it: this is my personal Frankenstein bête noire. When I was writing the novel my agent is currently marketing, I was reading a whole lot of Noël Coward. An extremely witty writer; I enjoy his work very much. However, he wrote almost exclusively about (a) pre-WWII British people and (b) people who inhabited now-transformed British colonial possessions. My novel is about the adult lives of children who grew up on an Oregon commune, so obviously, my characters should not talk like Coward’s.

(Although it would have been amusing to try: “My dear, your hot tub attire is simply too killing!” “Reginald, I must implore you to desist from taunting the yoga instructor!” “May one inquire whether this tabbouleh is indeed vegan? The most frightful consequences may ensue otherwise.” “While your sincerity is charming on a multiplicity of levels, Felicia, I cannot fail to notice that you have once again evaded your duties in tending to the sauna’s controls.”)

I made a deliberate effort not to incorporate educated British cadences into my dialogue, and in self-editing, deleted any lines of thought that smacked even vaguely of 1920s urbanity. However, being a very experienced editor, I was aware that I would probably miss a few, so not only did I read the entirety of my novel out loud (much to the astonishment of my cats and neighbors), but I also passed it under the eyes of first readers I trust, with the instruction to keep an eye out for Britishisms.

And you know what? I had missed three in my on-screen revisions.

My point here — other than providing some fascinating footnote material for some graduate student fifty years from now who wants to write her thesis on Noël Coward’s influence upon American novelists — is that no matter how good you get at self-editing on a page-by-page basis, in order to avoid sending out a Frankenstein manuscript, you simply must take additional steps in screening your work.

Get used to it now: you will never outgrow the need. No writer does.

Partially, it is a focus problem. In the throes of the revision process – especially on a computer screen, which encourages reading in a piecemeal, episodic fashion not conducive to catching overarching patterns — it is terribly easy to lose sight of your book AS A BOOK.

This is where a writers’ group, a good writing teacher, a freelance editor, or even someone you’ve met at a writers’ conference with whom you can exchange work can be most helpful to you: helping you identify what in the finished book jars with the integrity of the whole. These sources are also great for pointing out continuity errors, such as when the sociopath is named Janet for three chapters in the middle of the book, and Marie-Claire for the rest.

Not only will dependable outside eyes weed out Frankenstein tendencies, but the mere fact of having to defend your authorial choices to them will force you to make all of your deviations from standard narrative conscious, rather than accidental.

Such discussions are also terrific practice for wrangling with your future agent and editors, by the way.

If you’re going at it alone, my advice is this. Once you have read through the whole manuscript, go back and read it again, projecting onto it the style and/or voice you like best.

Does it work? If not, pick another style or voice from the text, and project it through the entire manuscript.

When you find one you like, save the original manuscript as a separate file (so you have the option of changing your mind later; it’s been known to happen), and work through a separate copy, establishing the new style. Then, after you have finished, read the entire thing out loud again, for consistency.

Heck, yes, this is going to take you a lot of time. Honestly, it will take you far, far less time, in both the diagnosis and repair stages, if you take your Frankenstein manuscript on a field trip to other readers before you submit it to an agent or editor. If a writing group or class seems too time-consuming, consider hiring a freelance editor; if a freelance editor seems too expensive, join a writing group.

When you are making these calculations, do not forget to weigh the value of your time into the equation. If joining a group or paying an editor saves you a year’s worth of solo work, it might well be worth it.

Which brings me to the great question that loyal reader Pam submitted sometime back: how does one FIND a freelance editor like me?

Well, Pam, as it happens, I have established a rather extensive set of posts addressing that very question. They may be found collected on the archive list at right, under the startlingly original category title HOW DO I FIND A FREELANCE EDITOR? Those posts will give you a sense of what services an editor provides (not all of us do the same thing), what to expect to pay (which varies depending upon the level of editing), and what questions you might want to ask before you sign anything that looks even remotely like a contract.

For writers in the Pacific Northwest, another great resource is the Northwest Independent Editors’ Guild’s website. For each member editor, there’s a small blurb and contact information. You can search by geographic region, the type of book you want edited, even preferred style manual, or you can post your job for editors to see.

You’re going to want either to go through an organization or get a referral to find a reputable editor, because emotionally, handing your book over to a total stranger for criticism is a difficult thing; you will want to make sure in advance that you can trust the recipient. NWIEG verifies that each member has significant editorial experience — and believe it or not, we actually do argue about punctuation on our members’ forum — so you can feel relatively secure that any editor listed will have the skills and background s/he claims s/he does.

Do take the time to have a conversation or e-mail exchange with any freelance editor before you make a commitment, however. A good personality fit is very important, and it is perfectly legitimate to ask a potential editor whether s/he has ever edited your type of book before.

Just as no agent represents every variety of book under the sun, no freelance editor will have experience with every book category. While there are plenty of editors out there who are willing to take pretty much anything (for a price), working with someone who is intimately familiar with the particular demands of your book category in the current market is probably going to be more helpful to you than working with a generalist.

One more word on the subject: if you are thinking about asking a freelance editor to work on a tight deadline, do not wait until the deadline is imminent. Good freelance editors are often booked up months in advance, and if you want a careful, thoughtful, professional read, you need to allow time for the editor to do her job.

Thanks for the good question, Pam — and keep up the good work, everybody!

PS: in case anyone missed Monday’s announcement, the deadline for submitting entries to the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence is now Monday, June 1, at midnight wherever you are. Follow this link to the rules and descriptions of the fabulous prizes, and may the best writer win the ECQLC! (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, that is.)

The Frankenstein manuscript, part II: when you should be wary about following in the footsteps of the greats

moat-at-la-cite
Isn’t this a great horror movie castle? It’s the (dry) moat around La Cité in Carcassonne, a 19th-century reconstruction of a medieval walled city. Not just any medieval walled city, mind you — the one that used to be on that very spot.

It’s also, and probably more to the point at the moment, a half-hour drive from La Muse, where I am currently enjoying a particularly productive writing retreat.

Speaking of which: I begin today by repeating yesterday’s announcement about the new deadline for the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence: entries are no longer due yesterday. Although as those of you who are already working with agents and editors can probably attest, I need it yesterday actually isn’t all that unusual a request in the publishing industry (which seems to run on two speeds: delay and panic; alternate and repeat as necessary), as you may have heard someplace, I’m on a writing retreat.

In fact, I’ve decided to extend the retreat another couple of weeks. I’m writing up a storm, and where there’s such great support for writing AND magnificent cheese…

So l’m also extending the contest deadline. Entries are due via e-mailed by midnight on Monday, June 1.

Yesterday, I introduced you to the Frankenstein manuscript, the frightening entity that is presented as a book written by a single author, but reads as though it had been written by several, so different are the voices, perspectives, and even word choices throughout. To professional readers — e.g., agents, editors, contest judges, and our old pal Millicent, the agency screener — this kind of patched-together manuscript is a sign of a not-yet-fully-developed authorial voice.

And why is that, boys and girls? Chant it with me now: because a fully-developed voice is consistent throughout the entire narrative.

Unfortunately for those who like to experiment with multiple voices, such meandering manuscripts are common enough that tend to become profoundly suspicious of any manuscript that changes style or voice abruptly — at least, if those manuscripts were produced by first-time authors. With the super-quick readings that manuscripts generally receive in the pre-acquisition stage (and always get in the first round of contest judging), the Frankenstein manuscript and the manuscript genuinely setting out to do interesting things with perspective are easily confused.

There are many fine examples of good books where writers have adopted a Frankenstein format self-consciously, in order to make a point. If you are even vaguely interested in experiments in narrative voice, you should rush out and read Margaret Atwood’s ALIAS GRACE. In this novel-cum-historical account-cum narrative nonfiction book, Atwood tells the story of a murder, alternating between a tight first-person point of view (POV, for the rest of this post), straightforward third-person narrative, contemporary poems about the case, letters from the parties involved, newspaper clippings and even direct quotes from the murderess’ confession.

It is an enjoyable read, but for writers, it is also a rich resource on how to mix battling narrative styles and structures well; as one might expect from a stylist as gifted as she, Atwood constructs her patchwork narrative so skillfully that the reader never has to wonder for more than an instant why (or how) the perspective has just changed.

Which is, in case you were wondering, one of the primary reasons Millicents usually object to narrative shifts: in multiple POV manuscript submissions, it’s not always clear when the perspective switches from one character to another. It’s especially confusing if the different viewpoints — or worse, various narrators in a multiple first-person narrative — are written in too-similar voices.

Is everyone clear on the distinction I’m making here? A Frankenstein manuscript often displays unintentionally displays a multiplicity of voices, tones, vocabulary levels, etc. A well-written multiple POV novel, by contrast, presents each point of view and/or first-person narrative voice as distinctly different, so the reader doesn’t have any trouble following who is in the driver’s seat when, plot-wise.

Or, to put it another way, the Frankenstein manuscript is evidence of a lack of authorial control, consistency, and often, proofreading; a good multiple POV narrative is beautiful evidence of a sure authorial touch, a strong sense of character, and great attention to detail.

That being said, it is just a hard fact of submission that it’s a whole lot easier for an established author to impress professional readers with a multiple POV novel — or, indeed, any sort of experimental writing — than someone trying to break into the biz. I admire Margaret Atwood tremendously as novelist, poet, and essayist; I have spent years crossing my fingers as she hovered around the short list for the Nobel Prize. However, I suspect that even she would have had terribly difficult time marketing ALIAS GRACE if it were her first novel, at least in the current market, due to its arguably Frankenstein structure.

Ditto for the inimitable Mario Vargas Llosa’s AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER, one of my favorite novels of all time, and also a must-read for any writer considering playing funny tricks with narrative voice. Vargas Llosa is something of a structural prankster, folding, spindling, and mutilating the ordinary rules of storytelling in order to keep the reader off-balance.

The result, I must admit, might confuse a reader who wasn’t already in love with his writing from other books. One might be tempted, upon encountering the third or fourth startlingly radical shift in tone, vocabulary, and apparently intended audience, to conclude that this is just a Frankenstein manuscript by a writer who couldn’t make up his mind what the book is about.

Personally, I admire Vargas Llosa’s dash; when he was running for president of Peru (yes, really), he published an erotic novel, IN PRAISE OF THE STEPMOTHER, about…well, you can probably guess. (He lost the election, incidentally.) He, too, has been rumored to be on the short list for the Nobel Prize for an awfully long time.

But if he were trying to market AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER right now as a first novel…well, you know the tune by now, don’t you?

The moral here is this: once you’ve gained international acclaim as a prose stylist, you have a lot more leeway to mess with the conventional rules of writing. So please don’t kid yourself that just because your favorite author got away with an experiment, you can necessarily do so as well.

Heck, Alice Walker made up entirely new punctuation rules for THE COLOR PURPLE, and that won the Pulitzer Prize. In SEEING, José Saramago treated us to an entire narrative devoid of punctuation that I, for one, consider necessary to clear communication, and he won the Nobel Prize.

But that doesn’t mean you should try either of these things at home. It’s just too likely that Millicent will take one look at your fascinating experiment and exclaim, “Here’s another one who doesn’t know how to use a semicolon!” or “Criminy, what makes this guy think I’m going to read more than two sentences of a book without any periods?”

Sad, but true. In your first book, in the current market, you probably cannot get away with breaking more than one or two of the rules — and even those need to be immistakably marked, so agents, editors, and contest judges know that you broke them for a reason, rather than out of ignorance.

Trust me, no one on the Pulitzer committee seriously believed that Alice Walker did not know how to use a semicolon properly.

“Wait a gosh-darned minute,” I hear some of you exclaiming. “I take some liberties with narrative style, but it becomes clear over the course of the book why I’m doing it. By the end, it will seem downright clever to the reader. Do you mean to say that if it is not clear in the first 50 pages, or whatever short excerpt the agent, editor, or contest has asked to see, my innovative experiment in English prose might just get thrown into the reject pile because it will be mistaken for bad writing?”

In a word, yes. Next question?

Before you fret and fume too much about how the intense pre-screening of the current agency system prevents genuinely bold experiments in writing from reaching the desks of publishers at the major houses, take a moment to consider the Frankenstein manuscript from the point of view of the agent, editor, or judge who finds it on her desk one busy morning.

It’s not a pretty sight, I assure you; stitched-together corpses seldom are.

As a freelance editor, when I receive a Frankenstein manuscript, I have the option of sitting down with the author, having a major discussion about what she wants the book be, and helping guide the work toward more internal stylistic consistency. Basically, the process entails identifying and compiling a list of all of the battling styles, making the author come up with a justification for using each, and having the justifications duke it out until one (or, rarely, two) is declared the winner by the author.

It takes time, and it’s generally worth the effort. But had I mentioned that freelance editors are generally paid by the hour?

However, when a screener at an agency or an editor at a publishing house receives a Frankenstein manuscript — and yes, some manuscripts are so internally scattered that the problem becomes apparent in just the first chapter or first 50 pages — she is unlikely to have the time to figure out which voice and/or style is going to end up dominating the book. Even if she absolutely loves one of the styles or voices, her hectic schedule does not allow time for equivocation.

She must that she select one of two options, and quickly: either she commits to nursing the author through precisely the kind of boxing match I described above, or she can simply reject the work and move on to the next submission, in the hope of finding a writer whose book will not need as much tender loving care.

With literally hundreds of new submissions coming in each week, which option do you think she’ll select more often?

When a contest judge receives a Frankenstein manuscript, the choice is even quicker and more draconian. The judge knows that there’s no question of being able to work with the author to smooth out the presentation; in the vast majority of literary contests, the judge won’t even know who the author is.

Plop! There it goes, into the no-prize-this-year file. Better luck – and first readers – next year.

The moral, I devoutly hope, is obvious. If you are attempting to play with unconventional notions of structure or style, make sure that it is pellucidly clear in the manuscript exactly what you are doing. Don’t leave it to the reader to guess what you’re up to, because, as I’ve shown above, professional readers just don’t have the time to figure it out.

Also, consider making your deviations from standard structure and narrative rules bold, rather than slipping them in here and there. Experimenting with several styles within a short number of pages is decidedly risky – and perversely, the less daringly experimental you are, the riskier it is, because tentative attempts look to professional eyes like unfinished work.

To borrow E.F. Benson’s wonderful example, let’s say you were planning to paint a picture of a house down the street. The house has a crooked chimney. The novice painter would paint it exactly as is, unskillfully, and viewers of the finished painting would wonder forever after if the chimney had really looked like that, or if the novice just couldn’t paint straight lines. An intermediate painter would paint the chimney as straight, to rule out that conclusion.

But an expert painter would add 10 degrees to the angle of the chimney, so there would be no doubt in the observer’s mind that he had painted it that way intentionally.

The more deliciously complex and groundbreaking your chosen style is, the more clearly you should announce it. Unless, of course, you want to wait until you’re on the short list for the Nobel Prize before you start getting wacky.

Tomorrow, I shall talk about practical measures to keep your manuscript from falling accidentally into the Frankenstein realm.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The Frankenstein manuscript, part I, or, Puritans in the present?

puritan-family-painting

Yes, yes, I know: you were expecting a nice, scenic photograph of France, perhaps something in a medieval castle or a vineyard. But I’m on a writing retreat, people: I’m indoors, tapping away at my keyboard, not traipsing around the countryside with my camera.

Which is as it should be, of course. My work on my novel is going far more quickly than I had expected — hooray! — so much so that I’ve decided to extend my retreat by another couple of weeks.

All the more reason, then, to keep sitting here instead of wandering around outside.

And yet it’s a pity, because the weather is very nice, as nearly as I can tell from this side of my French (in every sense) windows. I’m getting quite a lot of revision done, the point of my being here, but every so often, that cartoon devil sitting on my shoulder does whisper that I could actually work on the novel anywhere, but how often am I in France?

By that same token, I do plenty of blogging back home, so I’m going to be posting some short ones this week, revising some craft issues rather than launching the promised new series on retreating. Because, really, how often am I in France?

Spending hours and hours revising my work, tinkering with voice and story, reminded me of a semi-magical moment a few years back, when an editing client of mine has just made a major breakthrough with her book. One day, after months upon months and chapters upon chapters of experimenting with different styles — writing which she did not perceive to be experimentation, incidentally, but finished draft — she suddenly stumbled upon precisely the tone and perspective that worked for the book, an engaging voice she could maintain consistently throughout the entire story. As happens sometimes, what had been a mess of words just suddenly congealed into something sharp and analytical and true.

Remember what I was saying last week about how the Millicents of this world just abhor inconsistency in submissions, whether those gaffes lie in the realm of format, spelling, grammar, story details, or tone? People who read manuscripts for a living are trained to spot and deplore unevenness. As a result of this necessary but rather pedantic focus, a manuscript whose voice is sure and consistent tends to strike Millicent’s tired eyes like the sight of a cool river on a blazing summer day.

(The view from the aforementioned French windows is really pretty spectacular. A river is involved.)

We writers don’t talk about voice nearly enough, I think, especially the fact that very, very few of us, no matter how talented we might happen to be, find our authorial voices the first time we sit down to write a novel. Voice is more than self-expression: it’s tone, level of detail, analytical perception, sense of humor, rhythm, and all of the other hyper-personalized ways in which one writer tells a story differently than another. Learning to wield these weighty tools to produce a consistent and seemingly effortless result takes practice, patience, and much trial and error.

Or, to put it another way: it’s a whole lot harder to write a good book than a good individual sentence, paragraph, or scene. Why? Because the alchemy doesn’t need to come together only once, as it does in a well-written sentence; it has to come together every time, and in a similar way.

Yet all too often, we talk about voice as though it were more or less synonymous with talent, as if it were something a writer is either born with or not. I don’t think that’s true. Oh, it’s true enough that talent can’t be learned, but craft can be, and many a great sentence-builder has missed becoming a great writer because she relied too much on the former at the expense of developing the latter.

Here’s a novel thought: consistent voice is almost always the product not of original inspiration, but of conscientious revision.

Let that one sink in for a moment. I’ll wait. I’ve got this pretty view to ponder.

On an artistic level, I’m always thrilled when a client (or any other talented writer, for that matter) finds her voice, but as an editor, I know that in the short term, it means a lot more work to come. Because, you see, once a writer discovers the right voice and perspective for the story he’s telling, he will have to go back through the rest of the book with a fine-toothed comb, to make the voice that now has emerged sound consistent throughout the entire story.

Which brings me, rather neatly, back to a topic that reared its ugly head last week: the Frankenstein manuscript, a book that meanders in voice, tone, perspective, structure, and/or style so much that it sounds as though it had been written by a committee, instead of an individual writer. All of these are cobbled together, like the body parts of Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, to create the illusion of a whole entity, but it lacks the spark, the true-to-life continuity of a story told from beginning to end by a sure authorial voice.

This is my personal nickname for such a book, but I assure you, every single agent and editor knows what it is, and dreads it – because they know, as I do, that its appearance heralds months and months of fine-combing to come.

The sad thing is, the Frankenstein tendency is almost always accidental, and generally goes entirely unnoticed by the writer. Writing a book takes a long time: as was the case for my editing client, authorial voices, preferences, and even underlying philosophy can change radically over the course of a writing project. As revision is layered on top of revision, many writers become too absorbed in the details of the book to sit down and read it straight through AS A BOOK – which, unfortunately, is the only way to recognize a Frankenstein manuscript.

Let me repeat that: there is no way to diagnose and treat a manuscript’s Frankensteinish tendencies without sitting down and reading the whole darned thing. Preferably IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, in as few sittings as possible.

If the prospect of improving artistically is not enough to set you running for your comfy reading chair, here’s an excellent marketing incentive to send you scurrying in that direction, manuscript in hand: unfortunately for writers of Frankenstein pieces, reading a manuscript straight through, at least the first part of it, is how agents and editors determine whether they want to work with an author.

Translation: if you don’t catch the problem, they will. If you have a Frankenstein manuscript, you are far, far better off recognizing the fact yourself before you submit it, because from the diagnosis of professionals, there is no appeal.

Sometimes, the pieced-together nature of a book is intentional, and its similarity to the standard Frankenstein tome will render it very, very easy for agents and editors to dismiss. If you are given to experimenting with multiple points of view, for instance, or changes in voice, or structural alterations in mid-story, you need to be very, very aware that professional readers may well be mistaking your conscious choices for symptoms of Frankenstein array of incompletely-realized narrative ideas.

Many years ago, I met Stan, a promising writer, at a writers’ conference. Stan described his novel beautifully: a coming-of-age story about a boy so engrossed in the messages of the TV shows and movies he saw in the late 1950s that he incorporated these styles into how he viewed his life. The result, Stan told me, was intended to be a picaresque account growing up from the kid’s perspective, real-life stories told as cowboys and Indians, spy thriller, spaceman adventure, etc.

Well, to be frank, I wasn’t all that enthused; it didn’t seem like a particularly fresh book concept. But being well aware that I am not the best audience for works about prepubescent boys, I gave him a patient hearing. Why am I not ideally suited for such stories, you ask? As someone who spent her formative years sitting through sensitive European films where an earthy older woman’s charms gently coax some suspiciously attractive and precocious young boy toward manhood, I become leery every time a young protagonist goes anywhere within five miles of the town bad girl, his best friend’s older sister’s window, or anybody’s mother but his own. But that’s just a fluke of my upbringing.

From a marketing perspective, I think that at this point in literary history, such stories are a hard sell to experienced readers, unless they are AWFULLY well told. There are countless films about 8-to-12 year-old boys learning important life lessons the hard way; if the age is so darned important, why aren’t there as many films from the perspectives of girls in that age group? (An important exception to this: Kasi Lemmons’ excellent film EVE’S BAYOU tells such a story from a young girl’s perspective amazingly well.) I think that if you choose to tackle such a well-documented age group in a work intended for adult readers — particularly if you want to stick to the well-worn ground of white, middle- or upper-middle class boys in suburbia or in small towns with swimming holes — you really have to come up with something startling to rise above the sheer volume of competition.

So as I say, I was leery, but we exchanged manuscripts, despite my trepidations. And lo and behold, long before 50 pages had past, his intrepid wee protagonist had grabbed his fishing pole and skipped his way toward the edge of town, where the local voodoo priestess/cajoler of young boys into manhood lived.

Imagine my surprise.

Yet the fact that I’d seen the plot, conservatively speaking, 2700 times before was not what put me off the book. No, the problem was the fact that each stylistic switch came as a complete and utter surprise — even to yours truly, who knew the premise of the book going in. Each episode was indeed presented in the style of some well-worn visual media style. Quite well, as a matter of fact.

However, since the writing style changed radically every ten pages or so, pretty much any reader was guaranteed to fall into one she disliked occasionally. And since there was no overarching framework to make this junior Walter Mitty’s account of himself hang together, it read like a collection of short stories, unrelated articles of clothing hanging side-by-side on a clothesline, rather than as a cohesive book.

It read, in short, like a Frankenstein manuscript.

Because I liked Stan and thought he was a pretty good writer on the sentence level, I wanted to help him out, so I worked up nerve to make a bold suggestion. “What if you set up very plainly in the first chapter that your protagonist sees life through a directorial lens?” (Sort of like Fellini’s 8 1/2, I added to myself, as a cinematic footnote from my childhood.) “That way, the reader would be in on the conceit right from the beginning, and could enjoy each switch as play, rather than leaving the reader to guess after the style has changed 6 or 7 times that you have a larger purpose here.”

To put it mildly, Stan did not cotton to this advice; it sounded, he said, just like the feedback he had gotten from the agents and editors at the conference, or indeed, every agent he had queried. (Again, imagine my surprise.) We all obviously, he said huffily, just didn’t like the fact that he was experimenting with narrative structure, doing something new and exciting and fresh.

We were, in his considered opinion, sticks in the proverbial mud. Well, we may have been, but we also evidently all knew a Frankenstein manuscript when we saw one, for the exceedingly simple reason that any professional reader sees so very, very many in any given year. So from that perspective, Stan’s trouble was not that he was trying to do something original; it was that his manuscript had an extremely common consistency problem.

But Stan was absolutely convinced that what was being critiqued was his artistic vision, rather than his presentation of it, so while he was perpetually revising to sharpen the differences between the segments, he never seemed to get around to sitting down with the entire manuscript to see if his critics might have had a point about the overall manuscript. Predictably, he continued to have trouble placing his book, because, to professional eyes, such a manuscript means only one thing: the investment of a tremendous amount of editorial time and energy to make the work publishable.

My friend with ambitions to rewrite HUCK FINN had constructed his creature self-consciously, but far more often, writers are not even aware that the style shifts are visible. Particularly in first novels, the stylistic changes are often the inevitable result of the writer’s craft having improved over the years spent writing the book, or simple inexperience in carrying a late-added theme all the way through a story.

In the most extreme cases, the shifts are so pronounced that the Frankenstein book can actually read as a sort of unintentional anthology.

I’m not talking about multiple-perspective pieces — although it is very easy for a book relying upon several storytelling voices to end up as a Frankenstein work, without a cohesive narrative thread tying it all together. No, in a good multiple-perspective novel, each voice and/or POV is sharp, distinct, differentiated to the extent that a reader familiar with each could open the book at any page and know within a paragraph who is speaking. THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, for instance, juggles multiple perspectives and voices beautifully, so that although the reader is treated to the overarching story in bits and pieces, the whole blends into seemingly organic coherence.

In a Frankenstein manuscript, no such organic coherence exists, even if the overall plot makes linear sense. The reader is jerked from writing style to writing style, as if the same story were being told on all available networks, but an indecisive child held the remote control, so the style of telling leaps from soap opera to broad comedy to PBS documentary.

It’s tiring to read, and often, hard to follow. It also says pretty clearly to anyone who reads manuscripts for a living that the author has not yet performed a thorough, beginning-to-end edit on the book. And this is a serious problem for the editor, as it is her job to strengthen the dominant style and muffle the rest, so the whole can stand as a unified piece of prose.

It is also a serious problem for the author, since it’s difficult to sell a piece that meanders stylistically. (Just ask Stan.)

Another extremely common manifestation of Frankensteinery is the text that hasn’t yet really decided which tense it is in, and so meanders back and forth between (usually) the present and the past. In fiction, the explanation for this is generally pretty simple: the writer thought at one point that it would be nifty to write the book in the present tense, realized part-way through that it’s darned difficult to tell a story that way (how does one handle events that have been in progress for some time, for instance?), and changed to the past. Only in the transition process, not all of the verbs got changed.

Oops.

And what does the end result look like to a professional reader like Millicent, everybody? That’s right: like an indicator that the writer did not take the time to sit down and re-read his work after revision.

Hmm, where have I heard before that such a course of action really isn’t the best strategic move? I’m sure it will come to me…

Sometimes, though — and this one is more common in nonfiction, notoriously so in memoir — the writer just thinks it’s cool to present past events in the present tense. It sounds more colloquial that way, she reasons, the way someone might tell an anecdote verbally.

The trouble is, flipping past actions into the present tense can quickly become darned confusing for the reader. To take a recent random (and kind of surprising, from so usually consistent a writer) example from Sarah Vowell’s THE WORDY SHIPMATES:

Williams in Salem is such a myopic researcher of biblical truth he doesn’t care who gets hurt. His intellectual fervor, coupled with a disregard of practical consequences, reminds me of nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, running his secret Manhattan Project lab in Los Alamos with a single-minded zeal, then quoting the Bhagavad Gita as the first test of his atomic bomb lights up the desert. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” he said.

Now, this paragraph makes perfect sense, on one level: an intelligent reader could figure out that the narrator is in the present, talking about Oppenheimer and Williams in the past. But quick, tell me based upon this passage alone: who was born first, Oppenheimer or Williams?

If you said Oppenheimer, you were probably following the hint given by the tense choices in this passage: since Oppenheimer is clearly speaking in the past, and Williams is presented in the present tense, the implication is that Williams is the more recent trodder of the earth’s crust, right? Perhaps even a contemporary of Vowell’s?

So would it astonish you to learn that Williams was obsessing in 1635, not 2008, when the book came out?

For some reason best known to herself, Vowell chose to describe the actions of Williams and his fellow Puritans in both the present and the past tense, sometimes within the same paragraph. Since her background is in radio (by definition a speaker’s medium), I am forcing myself to conclude that this was a well-considered authorial choice, not merely the result of a reluctance to re-read her own work (which she does regularly on NPR) or an editorial oversight.

The New York Post’s reviewer’s response was less charitable — and more, I suspect, like Millicent’s would have been had THE WORDY SHIPMATES crossed her desk as a submission from a previously unpublished aspiring writer. “As a whole,” the review comments dryly, “the book reads like an unedited manuscript.”

Like, in other words, a Frankenstein manuscript. Which is sad, because I really, really wanted to love this book. (I don’t take just any author’s work with me to read on retreat, you know.)

In Ms. Vowell’s defense, I can think of a number of strategic reasons the frequent tense changes might have seemed like a good idea. Casting so much of the Puritans’ story in the present tense might have been a deliberate attempt to draw a parallel with current political conditions at the time the book came out, for instance (which may be why the book already seems a trifle dated). Or perhaps it was an effort to make the lives of our long-dead forebears seem more immediately relevant.

But whatever the motivation, I don’t think it worked. As a reader, I have to say that I found the frequent temporal shifts jarring every single time they occurred in the book. I thought they made the historical tale she was telling significantly harder to follow on the page.

Now, I suspect that some of you out there may share the belief that writing in the present tense is inherently more grabbing than writing in the past. Certainly, those of you who feel this way are not alone: there has been quite a bit of literary fiction over the last 20 years that has embraced that notion that placing a narrative in the now is more immediate.

Personally, I don’t think it’s true, largely because anyone who reads on a regular basis is already well versed in the not-very-difficult mental process of becoming absorbed in a past tense story as though it were happening in present time. I think that a reader has to be awfully darned literal to perceive himself to be distanced from action simply because it is presented in the past tense. I also know from experience that writing an entire book in the present tense necessarily entails quite a few technical difficulties that may be avoided almost entirely by placing it in even the most recent of pasts.

However, tense choices are entirely up to the author –but if you’re going to write in the present tense, please do it consistently.

Again, if you’re not willing to heed this advice for artistic reasons, embrace it because it’s good marketing. Manuscripts that tense-flip for no apparent reason tend to get dismissed as poorly proofed, at best. Unless a reader has a pretty darned good reason to assume that your authorial choices are deliberate — like, say, Sarah Vowell’s extensive track record of excellent published writing — he’s likely to interpret tense inconsistency not as a matter of style, but as a mistake.

So you might want to save the major experimentation until after you’re already an established writer; first, cut your teeth on less radical ways to make English prose interesting. Or, to put it another way: José Saramago wrote an entire book devoid of periods; that doesn’t mean that a first-time writer could get away with it.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s unfair that the already-published should be judged by less stringent standards than those just breaking into the biz, but I’m not going to lie to you: that’s how it works. I honestly don’t think that THE WORDY SHIPMATES would have made it past Millicent had it been written by a previously unpublished writer.

Which would have been a shame, as it’s an interesting book with some wonderful insights and some very memorable sentences crammed into it. But plenty of interesting books with wonderful insights and memorable sentences don’t clear the first hurdle at agencies or in literary contests.

Why? Often, because those insights and sentences come across as flukes, occasional narrative bright spots not entirely integrated into the overall narrative. The voice is not consistent.

Cue the monster; he’s on again.

Don’t despair, however, if you fear your manuscript has Frankenstein tendencies. Tomorrow, I shall go into what happens to a Frankenstein manuscript when it reaches an agency or a publishing house — as well as methods you can use to catch and mend the problem before it passes under professional eyes.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

PS to those of you who intended to enter the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, but don’t think you can get your entry in by midnight (your time) tonight: go ahead, take another couple of weeks.

After all, I am.

Yes, you read that correctly: if you can get your entry e-mailed by midnight on Monday, June 1, it will still be eligible to win fabulous prizes. (Hey, I happen to have it on good authority that the primary judge is on a writing retreat.)

The Hilarity of Carnage, by guest blogger Jonathan Selwood

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Hello again, all — Anne here. For those of you who have found the ongoing Author! Author! series on subtle censorship a trifle, well, depressing, I have a great treat in store for you today: a guest post by Jonathan Selwood, in my humble opinion one of the funniest dark comedy writers currently drawing breath within the continental United States.

Who better, then, to share his thoughts on dark comedy with all of us here at Author! Author! — or to talk about the risks a writer takes by walking the thin line between outrageously funny and just outrageous? Or, frankly, to lighten all of our moods whilst enlightening us?

How funny a writer is Jonathan, you ask? Well, while reading his first novel, THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE (Harper Perennial), on an airplane, one paragraph started me laughing so hard that passengers in adjacent rows came tumbling out of their seats to come to my rescue, convinced that I was having some sort of fit that required immediate medical attention, if not actually turning the plane around. When I had caught my breath enough to apologize and read the relevant paragraph to my would-be helpers, their laughter kicked up such a din that two flight attendants came running. (They thought the passage was pretty funny, too.)

That’s right: parts of this novel are so subversively funny that they disrupt air travel. Take a gander at the publisher’s blurb:

pinball theory cover selwood

For years, painter Isabel Raven has made an almost-living forging Impressionist masterpieces to decorate the McMansions of the not-quite-Sotheby’s-auction rich. But when she serendipitously hits on an idea that turns her into the It Girl of the L.A. art scene, her career takes off just as the rest of her life heads south. Her personal-chef boyfriend is having a wild sexual dalliance with the teenage self-styled Latina Britney Spears. If Isabel refuses to participate in an excruciatingly humiliating ad campaign, her sociopathic art dealer is threatening to gut her like an emu. And her reclusive physicist father has conclusively proven that the end of the world is just around the corner.

Now, with the Apocalypse looming — and with only a disaffected Dutch-Eskimo billionaire philanthropist and his dissolute thirteen-year-old adopted daughter to guide her — there’s barely enough time remaining for Isabel to reexamine her fragile delusional existence…and the delusional reality of her schizophrenic native city.

Would this be the right moment to tell you that THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE is available for sale at Powell’s, Amazon, and other purveyors of fine books? Or that if you want to read more of Jonathan’s words of wisdom on the writing of startling comedy, you could also check out his earlier guest post on this very site?

Or that he’s recently yielded to popular demand and started a blog, Terminal Alienation? He describes it as n exercise in Evangelical Absurdism. Its goal is not just to support the billions of terminally alienated people around the globe, but to help snuff out the last flicker of hope in those still holding a tenuous connection to the culture at large.

All of which is to say: I’m overjoyed that he has agreed to guest-post. I hope that those of you who are planning to push the proverbial envelope in your writing pay close attention and come up with good questions, because it honestly is rare to be able to glean insights from a comedy writer this talented.

So please join me in giving a big Author! Author! welcome to Jonathan Selwood. Take it away, Jonathan!

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“An amateur thinks it’s really funny if you dress a man up as an old lady, put him in a wheelchair, and give the wheelchair a push that sends it spinning down a slope towards a stone wall. For a pro, it’s got to be a real old lady.” — Groucho Marx

1992 was the year I first read the novel Lolita, first saw the movie Reservoir Dogs, and first decided to dedicate my life to writing. The connection? Dark Comedy.

As far as literary genres go, Dark Comedy is usually considered something of a bastard child. While it can certainly sell well, it rarely rakes in the staggering sums of mass market blockbusters like Da Vinci Wears Prada Traveling Pants. And yet, it’s precisely its lunatic fringe position within the culture that makes it — in my unbiased opinion — the greatest genre.

Tragedy, in simplest terms, is the story of a character who falls away from society and its rules and therefore suffers — think Oedipus. Comedy is the story of a character who is initially alienated from society and its rules, but happily rejoins in the end, traditionally with a wedding — think Elizabeth Bennet. (Yes, I know these are gross oversimplifications, but bear with me.) Dark Comedy combines elements of both Tragedy and Comedy to critique society itself–think Humbert Humbert.

By its very nature, Dark Comedy has to be the bastard child. A comedic novel with a sociopathic child molester for a protagonist (i.e., Lolita) is always going to upset the mainstream, because it’s supposed to upset the mainstream. It’s hands-down my favorite novel of all time, and it even upsets me — particularly now that I have a child of my own. But given the truly deplorable state of the economy, the environment, and just about everything else in the world right now, WE SHOULD BE UPSET!

Lolita is not some sick attempt on Nabokov’s part to make us sympathize with child molesters, it’s an absolutely genius attempt to make us reexamine American society as a whole. There will always be “mainstream” people trying to ban Dark Comedy — from Catch-22 to South Park–precisely because it’s a very real threat to society and the “mainstream” they hold so dear. At the end of a Dark Comedy, there’s no tragic lesson warning us not to break the rules, nor is there a society-reaffirming marriage. But if the work is successful, it can expose the flaws in society itself.

As if that wasn’t enough, where a regular comedy (or, to be more derisive, a “Light Comedy”) will make you laugh, a Dark Comedy will make you gasp. The most obvious example is when a standup comedian tells a joke that’s right on the line. If it goes over, it will likely be the funniest moment of the entire show and elicit that bizarre “Ahhhhhh…” sound that humans produce when the laughter center of their brains suffer petite mal seizures.

Of course, that’s a big IF the joke goes over. Not only is Dark Comedy the funniest form of humor (again, in my unbiased opinion), but it’s also the most likely to flop. And while a standup comedian can quickly move on to the next joke and at least have a chance of making the audience forget, a novelist is most likely going to get his book tossed onto the bedside table for good.

So, in addition to being the greatest and funniest literary genre, it’s also the most risky. But hey, if you were a coward, you never would have thrown your hat into the literary ring in the first place, would you?

Let’s face it, people don’t make a “rational” decision to become writers. It’s an inherently irrational pursuit, and in the years since I decided in 1992 to be a writer, it’s only become more irrational. (If you’re a writer and don’t know what I’m talking about, than I think it’s safe to assume you require immediate hospitalization.) So if the pursuit is irrational in the first place, and we’ve already established that you’re not a coward, why not go all the way?

I invite you all to join me on the Dark Side…

Oh, and if you live in the Northwest (or anywhere else, for that matter), pre-order a copy of Portland Noir. Not only do I have an (unbiased, yada yada yada) masterpiece in there, but it’s really a great collection.

portlandnoircover selwoodExplore the dark, rainy underbelly of one of America’s most beautiful but enigmatic cities through brand-new stories by Gigi Little, Justin Hocking, Chris A. Bolton, Jess Walter, Monica Drake, Jamie S. Rich (illustrated by Joelle Jones), Dan DeWeese, Zoe Trope, Luciana Lopez, Karen Karbo, Bill Cameron, Ariel Gore, Floyd Skloot, Megan Kruse, Kimberly Warner-Cohen, and Jonathan Selwood.

From the downtown streets littered with strip clubs and gutter punks to the north side where gentrification and old school hip-hop collide, Portland, Oregon, is a place that seems straight out of a David Lynch movie. It’s a city full of police controversies, hippie artist houses, and overzealous liberals, where even its fiction blurs with its bizarre realities.

Portland Noir is an encompassing literary journey where your tour guides take you to the Shanghai Tunnels, dog parks, dive bars, sex shops, Powell’s Books, Voodoo Doughnuts, suspiciously quiet neighborhoods, the pseudo-glitzy Pearl District, Oaks Amusement Park, and a strip club shaped like a jug. Violent crime, petty mischief, and personal tragedy run through these mysterious tales that careen through this cloudy, wet city.

Portland Noir is sure to both charm and frighten readers familiar with this northwest hub and intrigue those who have never traveled to this proudly weird city.

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selwood-1Jonathan Selwood is the author of The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse. He also enjoys talking very loudly when intoxicated, composting kitchen scraps, excessively rolling his Rs when ordering burrrrrritos… using ellipses…