Franzen, Weiner, and Nuance

From Flickr User Gerard Stolk
From Flickr User Gerard Stolk

I’ve been planning my triumphant return to blogging.

Since I’m done with grad school (for now), I theoretically have time for this again.

What I planned was this confessional about how I’ve been in a shitty mood and fuck the patriarchy.

But then I got sidetracked by Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Weiner.

My writer friend, Beth Bates, pointed out this interview by another writer friend, Susan Lerner, with Jonathan Franzen.

Here’s the interview.

Read it. It’s great.

It also blew up the internet a little. You Go, Susan.

I’ve been noticing these past six months or so as a teacher and person-who-occasionally-reads-and-writes-emails-in-a-professional-setting and a person-who-has-relationships-with-other-people-that-sometimes-include-talking-about-important-shit, that people in general do not see nuance.

Roxane Gay, in her book Bad Feminist, agrees with me. I am obsessed with that book right now. It is saving and affirming my life.

But people are even less likely to be able to see and appreciate nuance if a situation is emotionally charged in any way.

I become a dreadful adherer to the divine principles of black and white when I am upset. We all do.

And therein lies some of the danger of the immediacy of internet publishing (tweeting, blogging, rocking out an essay for Slate, etc).

Discourse between Jennifer Weiner and Jonathan Franzen could be so interesting, complex, and helpful.

But because they both have the platform and freedom to reply in the heat of the moment, and because they are both super brainy people with big opinions, and because they genuinely rub each other wrong, they do a lot of name calling.

Jennifer Weiner’s not the only woman lobbying for equal representation for women in publishing.

Here’s a lovely piece by Meg Wolitzer, and another, from 1988, by Francine Prose that  could’ve been written last week. And let’s not forget VIDA in all its myriad glory.

Franzen is not the only grumpy white guy who is well respected in the world of letters.

You can find your own links for that–those dudes got enough of my time during my education.

It seems Jennifer Weiner is not the only thing Jonathan Franzen is grumpy about. He is irritated with social media. And lord knows what else.

But Jennifer Weiner is plenty grumpy about Jonathan Franzen, too. Read her rebuttal to the recent shit storm.

While punchy and entertaining, her remarks are defensive. She ignores the nuance. She sort of takes what JF said about her out of context. She writes as if he just randomly decided to say something else inflammatory about her.

That’s not really what happened. He was asked, specifically, about women writers and Jennifer Weiner. My girl Susan even mentioned VIDA.

Was he kind? No. Did he “slam” her? No. I don’t think so.

Something else he didn’t do? Slam all women writers.

I think he asked an important question, “Do we want Jennifer Weiner to be the spokesperson for equal representation of women’s writing?” to which I would add the following questions:

  • Why aren’t there many male spokespeople on this topic?
  • How is it not clear that crime novels and romance novels and other commercial novels have the same value as each other, and if some are reviewable, well damnit, so are they all?
  • Why does Jonathan Franzen get to ignore the fact that there are other spokeswomen on this topic, some of whom I’m sure he’s actually read? Some of whom probably also have a fraught relationship with Twitter!

These are important questions, all of them, and even though he’s a blowhard some of the time, Jonathan Franzen would be interested discuss. So would Jennifer Weiner.

Jonathan Franzen actually said *this is an important issue.* And the problem with the idea of Jennifer Weiner being perceived as The Spokesperson is that a) she is not, and b) she is not the only kind of woman writer. There are lots of us.

The bigger problem, as I see it, is that Jonathan Franzen (and many other white male writers) are able to live in a world of total ignorance of this conversation.

They just don’t know how many of us women writers are speaking out–on twitter, on our blogs, as teachers at universities, as public figures, sharing the VIDA count link every year, getting together with our lady writer friends and guzzling wine and talking talking talking about this very shit.

They don’t know because they don’t have to, because the stakes are very very low for them.

But who wants to pay attention to a conversation full of name calling, especially if they are on the long end of the privilege stick?

I like Jennifer Weiner. I heard her speak, shook her hand. She is funny and warm. I would have coffee with her without thinking twice. I bought one of her books for my mom for Xmas. New.

But these two are publicly quibbling over a VERY IMPORTANT ISSUE, that I doubt, when the rubber hits the road, they differ on much at all.

Imagine if these two leveraged the breadth variety of their audiences to raise awareness and !Action! on this issue? Weiner’s already made strides.

I think that Franzen must be ignoring information that is certainly at his disposal, since he claims “[Jennifer Weiner makes] no case for why formulaic fiction ought to be reviewed in the New York Times.

The thing people have seized about that statement is, “Jennifer Weiner makes no case.” (she does, it’s in her rebuttal)

I haven’t read anything that notes how Franzen’s got the wrong stick here. Nuance, anyone?

NY Times Book Review lets you search all reviews since 1981. I typed in Stephen King , got numerous hits of reviews both by him and of his books on the first page. Then I typed in the less-famous-and-way-less-notoriously-tight-with-the-intellectual-lefties, John Grisham, and the same.

Just for funzies, I typed in Anne Rice and got two articles. One from 2014, a year after Times Books’s controversial hiring of a female Editor Pamela Paul, and another, on the second page of results, from 2008. (I also found the review of Weiner’s most recent).

But Franzen says something else, too, in that interview. Something surprising. Something I think Jennifer Weiner would have to wholeheartedly agree with. He says what people read doesn’t have to be emotionally complex, that adults reading YA Fiction aren’t doing anything wrong, even though other Grumpy White Dudes think so.

I think Franzen would have to agree that fiction on par with Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Weiner, and Stephen King, is the same kind of delicious, ready escapism.

And some other day I will write about the problem that almost everyone mentioned in this little blog post is white.

So let’s all unbunch our panties, boxers, or dingleberries, shall we, and have an actual conversation. Let’s ask honest questions and discuss them after taking a break to scream, privately, into our pillows, about how much of an arrogant prick the question asker is, or what an entitled c-word.

Wanna?

Late 2012, or Self (Publishing) Help: How to Be a Baller Client

Flowers from Susan Norris
Flowers from Susan Norris

Late in 2012, I had the honor of working with two excellent writers.

These authors are not excellent because they and I share a bit of commonality in terms of literary goals and aesthetics, they were excellent because they were wonderful to work with.

The authors were REKTOK ross, author of YA Inspirational Romance, and Susan Norris, author of YA Agenda Fiction.

REKTOK’s book, Prodigal, had already been through a number of substantial developmental edits when I saw it. I did the copy edit, and I had some significant notes. Of course, though the author was tired and finished, was still willing to stay the course and make some considerable changes that made the story tighter, more believable, and ultimately, more marketable.

Susan Norris’s book, Rescuing Hope, was a mission from God. That’s how she tells it. She spent a lot of time on her knees before her maker, begging for an easier path. But in the end, she wrote it. About human sex trafficking.  And Susan’s book is only a sliver of her work on that important issue. You can get more information and links from the post just below this one.

If you’re considering self-publishing, I encourage you to be as much like REKTOK and Susan as possible.

Here’s How:

1. I’ve said it before, but Engage Professional Editors.

2. Listen to your professional editors. We usually have years of experience tweaking stories and have read more stories than most people. Susan and REKTOK were both incredibly easy to work with–and I’m sure they both had to beat their inner diva off with a stick from time to time.  In REKTOK’s case, I think it helped that I added a lot of humor to my comments, REKTOK chuckled while reading them to me over the phone when we were talking through some things.  But still. It is never ever exactly pleasant (though after a time, it becomes exciting and revelatory) to read comments, no matter how delicately worded, that ostensibly say “up your game, fool.”

3. Be a class act.  Understand that professional editors are perfectly willing to negotiate their fees.  Both Susan and REKTOK chose from a number of editing packages that I offered, and neither of them got my proposal and then ran away, never to be heard from again, which is the thing that happens more often. I suspect, if they’d opted to use someone else’s services, they would’ve let me know.

4. Pay when you say you will. As a freelance editor and writer, I am paid on all kinds of wonky schedules. I am always willing to work with clients to figure out something that works for them, but it is always a complete joy when a client says, “The check’s in the mail,” and I get it three, not thirty, days later.

5. You are paying for your editor’s time, so if you need a phone call or an extra email, or some clarification on some comment or another, ask for it. This editor is only too happy to oblige.  And I would a million times prefer to clarify something than to have a client run off and weep or whine or, worse still, post nasty reviews or troll.

6. Thank your editor. I am talking about a polite phrase here, not gifts or flowers like the ones above for my birthday, which happened in the middle of the project with Susan. I appreciated those flowers. I never understood about getting flowers before because they always came from some kind of obligatory social convention–prom, valentine’s day, being in a show–but those flowers from Susan were wonderful. They represented a vote of confidence, a kindness, thoughtfulness.  But your editor is not expecting flowers. I would be as thrilled to have worked with Susan with or without them. Your editor is not the enemy. She is can be your biggest cheerleader and greatest ally.  She is probably a writer, too.  She understands what you’re going through.  This is not Us vs. Them.  This is team work, sometimes friendship, and always giving the world better art.

Editors, what would you add to this list? Writers, what do you want from your editor?

A Baker’s Dozen Authors Who Made Me Want to Be a Writer, In Roughly Chronological Order

From Flickr.com via Scott Woods-Fehr

First, a note:  I don’t know if it’s true that these authors made me want to be a writer.  I think that any authors I read would’ve made me want to be a writer.  I think I already wanted to be a writer.  When I was too little to write, I knew it was what I wanted.  So while it feels true that these authors made me want to be a writer, if I had different parents or lived in a different place, this list would be different.  So what is probably more accurate is that these people influenced my young mind and made me want to write well.  But who would read a blog post with a title like that: Twelve Authors who Influenced My Mind?  Authors who made me want to be a writer is less pretentious, and I don’t think this list is too pretentious.  I didn’t have good guidance for choosing authors till college.  My parents are smart, creative people, but they’re poorly educated and not really into the kind of cultural awareness that doesn’t come from Rush Limbaugh or the Bible.

1. Roald Dahl.  Starting in maybe first grade with Matilda.  There are still a couple of titles I’ve not read, but I love how frank and funny he is.  Also, so began my lifelong Britophilia.

2.  Madeline L’Engle. I was so fascinated by those turbo-brainy kids and their secular, sciencey parents.  I read A Wrinkle in Time first, then the rest of the books in that quintet.  I didn’t read anything else by her.

3.  Wally LambI had a friendship with my fifth grade teacher when I was in fifth grade.  As an adult and mother, it seems strange to me, but I guess I’ve got a sort of old soul.  Right now, the people I consider to be the dearest friends are at least twenty years older than I.  This was in the early years of Oprah’s Book Club, and I borrowed Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone from the Bosler Free Library in Carlisle, PA.  It was much, much too mature for me, but I loved it with the love of a thousand cinnamon jellybeans.  I think, however, if I read it now, I’d be annoyed with Lamb for writing a fat lesbian.  I would feel like it was further patriarchal oppression.  Or something.  I haven’t read anything by Lamb since.

4. Sylvia Plath.  When I was in junior high, I read The Bell Jar at the recommendation of a slightly older friend.  This is another book that was probably just a touch beyond me, but I remember giving a report about the book in my sixth or seventh grade reading class and taking a very long time, and my teacher being visibly annoyed by the length of my presentation.  In college, I read some of Plath’s poetry, which I admire a great deal.

5. Paul ZindelI read The Pigman because my mom talked about it.  That’s really all I remember as far as the impetus.  Then I read all of the other Pigman books, and some of Zindel’s others, too.  I don’t remember anything about them now, except, vaguely, that they dealt with pubescent relationships.  I think they were like the throw-away fiction of my youth.  Still, for a time, I was fairly obsessed with Zindel’s books.

6. AviAvi’s been busy since my youth.  He had maybe five books out when I was in jr. high.  Now there are several dozen.  I read as many of them as I could, but mostly because I’d read someplace that he named one of his characters his real name backward, so I wanted to know, naturally.  I was twelve or something.  The book I remember, though, is The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.  I recommend it to other young women even still.

7. John Irving. It started with The World According to Garp, and then I read most of the others that were available in the mid-to-late 90s.  Irving was the guy who made me want to write sex, which is what I spent most of my college years doing.

8. W. Somerset MaughamOf Human Bondage changed my life.  I thought, “Literature is powerful!”  I am amused when people raise one eyebrow over the title.  If you’re doing that now, I promise you’ll be disappointed by the reality.  It’s a modern novel about a quest for self.

9. J.D. SalingerOf course, right?  I mean, who didn’t identify with Holden Caulfield and love him?  Ahem, some of the people in my high school English class.  I will say this: in high school English, I couldn’t stop reading at the end of the assignment.  It was pure pleasure to read, and I liked all of it.  Except I also had a job, so sometimes I would only read the assignment.  And one time, in the WHOLE academic year in 10th grade, and probably in all of high school, when we read Catcher in the Rye, I didn’t do my homework.  And somehow the English teacher knew.  I have never had much of a poker face.  And so she did this thing where she said, “move your desks forward if you have done your homework.”  I hadn’t done my homework, so I sat on the periphery of the discussion that day.  It was embarrassing and of course I was pissed that it was the ONE day I didn’t do my homework.  Then, at the end of the year, the teacher cited the day as evidence of my strong character. She said, “I know April wasn’t the only one who didn’t do her reading, but she was the only one who was honest about it.”  At the time, I thought that was incredibly cool.  I felt seen.  But I had a thing for strong-willed, vaguely abusive grownup women when I was a teenager.  I had a boss like that who I inexplicably loved.  Now, I’m not so sure what Mrs. Davis was trying to accomplish, who the lesson was for, and what possible pedagogical or theoretical benefit it could’ve provided.  Also, everything J.D. Salinger has written is totally worth reading.

10. Lorrie MooreGod, her writing is so smart it glows in the dark.  I’ve read all of her short story collections and two of her novels.  Her latest novel is on my to-read list.  Lorrie Moore was the first contemporary literary writer I read in college.  A slew have followed, and I’m kind of bummed that I can only pick two more based on my own rules.  The first time I applied to MFAs, I applied to UWisc Madison, strictly because of L.M.  If they’d taken me, I would’ve gone.

12. Amy HempelYou know, Amy Hempel is also brilliant.  I re-read The Collected Stories every year, and every year, one story stands out.  For 2010 it was, “The Most Girl Part of You.”  For 2011 it was, “Beg, Sl Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep.”  I keep that book on my desk at all times.  Whenever I’m feeling blocked or sad or stupid, I grab it up and read a passage.  It gets me right back on task.

13. Brock Clarke.  Clarke is a damn character genius.  He invents the most affectionately flawed, barely likable idiots, and I love them.   His observances about the human condition are acute, and his writing is totally without the frilliness of self-indulgence.  That is rare in a male writer.  (Forgive me, male writers, but ya’ll are far too culturally indulged.)

And just because I don’t like rules, even my own, I’m going to say one/two more:

14. Emily Bronte & George Eliot, a.k.a Mary Ann Evans.  I was so inspired that these women bucked the system to pen and publish the novels that lived within them.  Also, I love the antique diction of the Victorians & their melodramatic characters & plot twists.  Everybody’s always fainting and being martyrish.  Delicious.

Do Literary Authors Need a Social Media Support Group?

from flickr.com user pedrosimoses7

Whenever I am not sure where to take my blog post for the day, I spend a few minutes with Twitter before getting out of bed.

This is one of the many things on my smartphone that make my job as a writer better, easier, or more efficient.  This morning, my friend and former teacher Cathy Day tweeted about her female #amnoveling students being pissed about some things that were pointed out by a particular op-ed by Meg Wolitzer about women literary fiction writers, and differences between the ways books by men and women are publicized.

So of course, I Googled that shit right up.

And of course, it’s not shit at all.

It’s a beautiful essay.  It’s a thing I love about the New York Times (And the L.A. Times), the writing is just gorgeous.  There seems to be a pervasive notion among the newspaper set that the writing does not have to be good, it has to be fast.  But it’s nice about the digital age: the writing can be.  The web gives us our poorly-written, instantaneous news, and in the print media we can slow down a bit.  Thanks, New York Times (and L.A. Times) for understanding that.

And as I read the beautiful piece that talks about literary fiction like it’s something people talk about, I got sad, because it’s true that in the literary fiction world, it does seem like people are talking about it.  But even Jonathan Franzen’s popularity is nothing next to, say, Neil Gaiman’s or Stephen King’s or Norah Roberts’s or J.K. Rowling’s.

I was talking to Sari Wilson at The Wildcat Comic Con about how Literary Fiction is sort of atomized or ghettoized, and that there are all kinds of irritating preconceptions about it that are moshing around in the mass market.  Sari Wilson, though also an educational writer and collaborator with her partner Josh Neufeld, who is a graphic novel artist and author, is a literary writer herself.

So I offer that the unceremonious labeling of literary fiction by women as “women’s fiction” is probably the action of someone who’s noticed this odd ghetto and wondered, from a book-sales (not academic) standpoint, what could be done about it.

Enter the clumsy semantic.

And Wolitzer observes, rightly, that it’s problematic.  But she also acknowledges that women are the biggest consumers of fiction (all types), and that “as readers they are attentive and passionate.”  My friends who write romances experience this generosity. Plus, they are superstars.  Everyone in their world knows them.

But you know what about commercial fiction writers?  Something HUGE that’s different from literary writers?  They give back (to their fans).  I’m not talking about giving readings at colleges and signing books or answering questions after, showing up at AWP (though the commercial fiction writers I know do that, too, only with a different conference).  I’m talking about blogs–they do blog tours about their books, blog about their processes, their offices, their characters–they are active on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc.

I’ve linked to this piece from Justine Musk a million times, but she really says it eloquently.  She says that the world of publishing and marketing and authorship has changed, and that fans want to be able to connect with authors, online, immediately, without having to go somewhere or be a student.  Even readers of literary fiction.

It’s true that commercial fiction authors don’t often have mountains of undergraduate papers about killing the first buck to read, but they do often have other careers, children, partners, homes.  And oh yeah: book deals.  They’ve promised a publisher they can write four of them.  In eighteen months.

Of course, writing literary fiction is totally different from writing commercial fiction in terms of time.  Language does not make itself beautiful, and conflicts do not complicate or render themselves, and characters do not deepen without major intervention.   Probably the average literary fiction novel is about two to five years in gestation.

What’s the deal?

The thing that defines what you think about the literary fiction world is where you sit in relation to it.  If you are within it, there is nothing more important, even though the reading audience of literary fiction is much smaller than that of mainstream (or commercial or genre or whatever you will call it) fiction.  I can’t find any hard numbers on this, but go to a book store, and compare the number of genre labeled shelves with the contemporary fiction shelf and you’ll see how it just can’t not be true.

But if you’re outside of lit fic, there’s nothing less important.  It’s like this fuzzy blurb of hoity toity on the periphery of culture that the Amazon Bestseller list ignores, that the New York Times has a special bestseller list for, and that’s slowly getting smaller or getting absconded with by other genres.

For example, I read “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” by Kelly Link in an anthology of Zombie stories, fully expecting the poor writerly discipline I’ve grown accustomed to in commercial fiction, and was pleasantly surprised.  I can see it anthologized like “Trauma Plate,” by Adam Johnson, because it’s doing a similar sort of cultural commentary thing.  It’s asking why we value what we do, and when stuff is important, and maybe it’s even indicting the way we handle the mentally ill.

I wonder how many other little anecdotal literary stories and novels have been absorbed by the mainstream, that nobody in the literary world even knows about.  In my experience, the literary world is incredibly insular.  It, like its mainstream counterpart, posseses a great number of biases and misconceptions toward the mainstream literary world.

So we have a genre which is itself other, within which women’s fiction is acknowledged to be equal but is still other, and we wonder why people look poorly upon the academy which–as my friend Carolyn points out in the comments of my post about MFA vs. PhD–does within itself that which it proclaims to abhor.

I’m still concerned about literary fiction and I still think that something needs to be done to make it more visible to more people.  But what I’m starting to think, as I read and study this topic is that–while marketing and publicity efforts would surely help, literary fiction authors need to help themselves.

Like Cathy Day and probably a small number of other literary authors have done, they need to figure out Twitter and Facebook and Blogging and build themselves a platform.  I suspect that if they build it, their fans will find it.  And that will happen without additional effort.

But somebody needs to figure out how to put it in terms that are adequately academic such that they take notice and actually do it.  Jane Friedman’s blog is going a long way toward this end, but I don’t know if a blog is the medium that can get through to enough literary authors.

Maybe that’s the scholarly thing I’ll do for my MFA:  Social Media for Very Brainy People Who’ve Written Beautiful Books and Are Perfectionists And Who Think Social Media Will Ruin Their Lives (and It Might, but More People Will Read Their Books).

Who’s cooler? Creative Writing MFAs or PhDs in English?

Use with Attribution. http://www.flickr.com/photos/josefstuefer/ The Flickr user's name is josef.stuefer

In one of my earlier lives, the one before I knew that people don’t need accredited papers to make them worthwhile (though I loved the hell out of my education and would damn anybody who told me it’d wasted my time, not everybody is like me), the one before I had this blog, the one when I was only a mother in theory (which is the easiest way), I had a pretty successful round of applications to various MFA programs.

If you’re not in the know, the MFA is a terminal degree in the arts.  People can get MFAs (Master of Fine Arts) in all kinds of visual art, acting, film making disciplines, and creative writing.  A terminal degree is the last stop before professor-ville.  Another kind of terminal degree is a PhD.

I started an MFA program at Pitt a while back.  I loved a lot of things about that star-crossed semester.  Something I didn’t love was the antagonism between the PhDs and the MFAs.  PhD is Doctor of Philosophy.  Philosophy is knowledge love.  A doctor is more better than a master, at least by the general academic standard.

The main difference between the MFA and the PhD is the amount of time it takes to finish the degree.  The MFA is typically a three year program, a PhD generally takes eight (at least).

A while back on the internet, I read some defensive rant from some particularly bitter MFA about why the shorter time to get the degree is totally fitting for the artist, and how there’s nothing less rigorous about spending three years getting a terminal degree in arts than spending eight years and blah blah wank wank blah.  There was some stuff about apprenticeship.  Not entirely invalid points, but far too defensive.

This is a hotly debated topic in academe.

Should the MFA be a terminal degree?

The Englishey PhDs are pissed because the MFAs finish sooner, don’t often have to know another language, don’t always have to take the subject GREs (and sometimes no GRE is required) to get admitted to programs, and get to write fiction instead of intellectually rigorous scholarly analysis.  “MFAs aren’t intellectuals,” the PhDs say, “they’re alcoholic step children of the arts and academic worlds!”

Maybe that is sometimes true.  But it is arrogant and presumptuous to declare that creative writing is not intellectual enough, and that people who would pursue it are less worthy. And I ask you, PhD candidates in Victorian Literature, why wouldn’t you tackle the MFA and show up the silly, capricious, non-analytical MFAs?  How can you be so certain about your assessment of its intellectual or scholarly merit?

According to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate edition, here are the definitions of intellectual:

1 a : of or relating to the intellect or its use b : developed or chiefly guided by the intellect rather than by emotion or experience : RATIONAL c : requiring use of the intellect <intellectual games>
2 a : given to study, reflection, and speculation b : engaged in activity requiring the creative use of the intellect <intellectual playwrights>

Interesting that the second definition describes the creative writing process pretty acutely.

But all writing–even analytic writing–is creative.  So it would seem that the rhetorical flaws go both ways.

And maybe it’s not fair that a person usually has to spend eight years getting a PhD, when a person can kill a creative writing MFA in three years.  But here’s what I know about how creative writing obsessed people spend their undergrad years: In as many creative writing workshops as they can squeeze into their schedules.  Fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, essay, memoir, literary journalism, etc.

Most semesters I had two creative writing courses.  I took every one my university offered in fiction and in poetry, so the last semester of my senior year I got special permission to take the graduate novel writing workshop.

How many Victorian lit courses did you take, Mr. Victorian Lit PhD candidate?  Maybe two or three?  You might’ve done an independent study.  And wicked.  But that’s what, four semesters worth of study in your field?

You got yourself a good, broad, liberal arts style English Major education with a sampling of a number of literary periods, styles, regions, and critical modes.  Guess what.  I did, too.  And you decided you loved the Victorians.  I did, too.

Lifestyle differences

Storytelling is a craft, a discipline.  Academic writing, is, too.  But the level of mastery I would’ve achieved after only two or three creative writing workshops as an undergraduate would never have yielded my better-than-I-thought-possible MFA acceptance results.

Also, I have been writing since I was five.

And I’ve been studying story since before I knew that’s what I was doing.  I have been reading novels since I realized they existed.  I recall getting these pulpy YA novels from the grade school library and being disappointed that we only went once a week.

I didn’t start writing scholarly papers until college, and it seems fair to suspect that most people don’t start with the scholarly analysis till college, which means I’ve been practicing my craft for at least 15 years longer than the average PhD candidate has been engaged in earnest scholarship. That is, unless they were analyzing literary tropes on the playground.  Were they?  I won’t presume to understand their processes.

The breadth of reading a person has to do in order to be a proper expert on a particular obscure thing from Victorian Lit, including all the foundational stuff so you know what your colleagues are talking about when they rail on Barthes or Saussure, including the completely different habits of mind that scholarship demands, is no small task. Of course it takes Eight years!

This isn’t a value thing, this is a different pursuits entirely kind of thing.  One is not better than the other.

The Creative Writing people need to keep writing so that the scholars 100 years from now will have a record, something to study, a sense of our cultural assumptions, how our women and minorities were treated, what class was best educated, what we value–all the stuff those PhDs love studying about Victorian Lit.

In college, I was so busy taking creative writing classes that I didn’t have time to take French so that I could read Derrida in his native tongue.

Would I dig that?

Sure I would!  I love the French theorists and their special brand of abstruse.  It might help to be able to read them in French.

But what do I love more?

Hands Down: the socially and academically sanctioned schizophrenia of the creative writer.  I like to tell plausible lies in prose and make people up in my head who become so real that I can have conversations with them and they can help me realize stuff about myself.

So here’s the news I set out to give you before I ranted: I’ve decided to apply to a low-residency MFA for the fall semester.  I’ve waffled about it, but I feel a strong and wild call to it.  I think that for me it will be time well spent. And if I don’t get in, that’ll be occasion for another existential crisis (those are good material) and self-deprecating blog post(s).  And if you know me really well, maybe you’ll get to listen to me weep.

To my dear friends with PhDs, I mean no disrespect.  I love and envy you and your analytic pursuits.

The Reading Life: The History of My Body

The thing that struck me most about Sharon Heath’s The History of My Body is the deep authenticity of the protagonist’s voice.

The story is told in first person by Fleur Robins–daughter of an extravagantly wealthy fundamentalist nutjob politician father and alcoholic mother–who, at first, exhibits signs of being touched neurologically (never officially diagnosed, her disengaged parents and their far-more-engaged staff assume that she’s autistic).

Though we meet Fleur when she’s barely pre-pubescent, she recalls her early childhood for us, including her propensity for list making and journal keeping, her friendship with a small, imaginary man named Uncle Bob (from the phrase Bob’s your uncle), with her comatose grandfather, and with language and increasingly difficult books.

When she’s eleven, after her grandfather’s death, she gets a seventeen-year-old male tutor, called Adam, who is also the son of a politician and so a kindred spirit, who turns her on to physicists and philosophers and literature, and from there, Fleur’s life improves, with some wrecking ball detours that I’ll leave to you for the reading.

As the story unwinds, Fleur supplants her masochism with masturbation, finds a remarkable mentor, solace in Campbell’s Chicken Soup body odor, doubt, a relationship with her mother, and finally friendship with a girl her own age.

Somehow, the protagonist’s voice is so genuine that it manages to obliterate any potential pretension in her precociousness, or in her love and grasp of quantum physics, or in her references to Sartre and any number of other famous (and not-so-famous) philosophers, scientists, and authors.   Even as the story lands her a highly prestigious scholarly award at a very early age, Fleur is chronically sympathetic.

I will attribute this unlikely success to Sharon Heath’s unbelieveably graceful rendering of Fleur’s very believable cadence, even despite her unthinkable intellect and constant personal and social blunders–at least as she perceives them–, her unique personal lexicon which includes semantic doppelgangers such as tweeter, flapping, ugga-umphing, voidish, Sister Flatulencia, etc–endears her to the reader again and again.

Too, the vividness with which Heath conjures the emotional experience of being a young female is unfailing.  The book is often funny, even when dealing with the dull ache of adolescence, rejection, death.

Heath weaves in social issues like abortion and alcoholism and political issues like war and big oil with equal light-handedness.  The narrative never gives the reader a sense of being judged, nor does it indict anyone.  Heath manages to garner good will for parties on both sides of each issue (if not for each issue).

Fleur often finds herself personally sullied on both sides of issues, but she does not whine.  She introspects.  She wallows a little. Then she emerges stronger and just as clever.

Heath renders the crass and the philsophical, the olfactory and mundane with equal aplomb.  I have rarely read a book that was so consistently beautifully rendered, and I would implore you all to order a copy today.

Sharon Heath, image used with permission

I leave you with the following passage:

For the next week or so, I was forced to go about my daily routine with the handicap of keeping at least one hand covering my chest (which is not so easy to do when you need to eat, drink, pet Jillily, and wipe your poo and pee) just to make sure Grandfather’s ghost didn’t leak out and float over to Father’s house to haunt him forever for killing our tree–in some respects not such an unsatisfying prospect but for the fact that it would leave me with a chasm in my heart I could never hope to fill.

Sharon Heath is a Jungian analyst and novelist residing in California.  Visit her online at http://www.SharonHeath.com

This post is cross-hosted at http://www.billtownbluelit.wordpress.com

Self (Publishing) Help: Grammar and Influence Are Important!

First a quick note: I’m going to relegate fiction sharing to every-other Friday, possibly every third.  Partially because of Stanford’s advice at Pushing Social, and also partially because I’ve got a ton of helpful blog posts brewing, that are of use to you, and sharing Fiction every Friday feels narcissistic to me.   Onward.

What is Influence?

This image is much funnier when you know that these guys are blind. This is from http://www.publicdomainreview.org

One of the things I find to be most infuriating about artistic hacks is their insistence that they “shouldn’t” or “can’t” be influenced.

First of all, the assertion that real artists are above influence is both naive and arrogant.

Invariably, the person who makes this claim believes herself to be an artist, and regardless of her ability, believes that she is doing something original.  To make sure you’re with me: The claim is arrogant, and it highlights the speaker’s ignorance.

If an artist is actively avoiding influence, it gives her an excuse not to absorb other artists’ work.  Which is wrong and lazy.  Artists of all sorts need  to know, understand, and appreciate the artists that came before them.  I think classical musicians understand this best, because music must be a discipline before it can be an art.

So too with writing–though it seems that the notion that writing is a discipline before it can be an art has been largely lost to the masses, both educated and not.

So we’ll stick with the musicians for a moment: In order to play as well as Beethoven, one must play Beethoven’s complete work at least a thousand times, then interpret it with one’s own musical personality.

You still with me?

Fact is, folks, to quote my favorite dubious authority: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”  Ecclesiastes 1:9

Despite all the other absurdity that gets justified on the basis of that body of religious fiction, the notion of a collective unconscious is nothing new.

Here’s the secular authority, Jung himself in a document about his theory of the Collective Unconscious.  Jung’s thoughts on the topic are decidedly denser than those in Ecclesiastes.

My point: nobody is doing something original.  What we can and should strive for is authenticity, and a unique–or at least lesser-considered–way of filtering things.

And in order to do that, we must know what has come before, we can’t escape influence–nay, we must invite influence–and we must study our craft.

What is Craft in Writing?

My friend Jamie’s blog today talks about slang and some popular slang terms she’s personally tired to death of.  That’s what got me thinking about craft, and what it is, and why so much commercial fiction is so poorly crafted.

*Haters, remember the rules about trolls.  No personal insults just because you disagree.  I welcome your cogent, considered disagreement.  Comment away!

A lot of people who read genre fiction would agree, without really knowing what they’re agreeing about.  For example, I spoke to a woman the other evening who, after sheepishly admitting that she reads romance novels, said, “But I do it to escape.”

Awesome!  I want you to read to escape.  I’m a writer, after all!

Romance Novels and other Commercial Fiction are the literary equivalent of your favorite, mindless TV show.

But reading is healthier than watching TV, and being escape for the reader is no excuse to ignore craft, and intentionally not learn things that will make you a better writer!

Now here are some things that genre writers do super-duper well: plot, chase scenes, flashbacks, internal dialogue, tropes.

Here are some things they like to make excuses about not doing well: grammar, character depth; using sentence fragments, italics, em dashes, ellipses, and semicolons judiciously; spelling,  tense, varied language, point of view.

I spent five of my best years sitting in workshops and loving the hell out of getting critiqued, a process that I have internalized to such an extent that I am incapable of evaluating my own work because regardless of its quality, I am keenly aware of what makes writing good, and what is missing from mine.

Craft is a writer’s tool belt.  It is the larger concerns of story telling like narrative arcs and characters and settings, but it is also spelling and grammar and understanding how to use point of view and tense.

I am trained in the whole enchilada.

And knowing the difference between the following tenses: present, past, past perfect, present subjunctive, and past subjunctive does not “influence” or “interfere with” your art, it makes it better!

Restricting your use of punctuation & style short hand may be more challenging than actually writing the damn book, but it will make the book better.

Just like quality paints are easier to use and yield truer hues than their budget bin counterparts, quality writing–even when it is genre writing–is worth more to more people, and will be more clearly understood.

Novelist Wannabes?  If you are in a different career now, but “have always dreamed of being a writer,” great.  But take some classes first.  I offer them.  And private lessons.  But if you don’t live near me, there are probably courses that you could take at the nearest college or university.

Watch for my “Quick Guide to Tense: Reference Pages” sometime next month.

Being acquainted with the workshop environment will make you happier to take editorial advice when you get to publish your first book, and it will also make you a better writer and reader yourself.

Self (Publishing) Help: Show Me The Money!!!

This is from public-domain-image.com

Just because J.A. Konrath is standing up there on the rafters, shrieking down at all of us about the insane pile of cash he’s making as a “self-published” author does not mean that the gravy train is just waiting for you to step on board.

I would ask Mr. Konrath why the heck he’s still using a blogger site for his author platform if self-pubbing is making him so filthy stinking rich?

Like every other creative pursuit, if you are looking at it strictly as a way to get money, you should probably stop.  You should stop–not because you are not allowed to write, or because there’s 0% chance of success for you–because there are about a thousand easier ways to get money than by writing.

Take a sales job.  Car dealerships like newbies.  I would have made $70K my second year if I didn’t have this damn fool compulsion to write, write, write.  And of the sales jobs I’ve had (there’ve been four proper, career-type sales positions), selling cars was far and away the least invasive of my regular life.

Self Publishing Is Not Free

Self Publishing is more than just writing a book, putting it in a PDF, and posting it on Amazon for sale.

You need people to sell your book to.  You need a platform.  Building a platform is a full time job.  Writing a blog or tweeting or being consistent on any social media while writing, and doing whatever it is you’re currently doing to get money, equals two full time jobs.

Here is a short list of the main costs of self-publishing (if you want to be successful):

1.  Your Time: I spend at least 3 hours a day with my blog.  Writing a post, editing it, finding a public domain picture that works with it,  reading comments, replying to comments, and monitoring it on Facebook and Twitter and (less frequently) on LinkedIn and Google +, making notes about ideas for future posts, taking pictures of noteworthy life moments, etc.  I could spend more time because I love my blog, but I can’t because I have other stuff to do.

Self published authors must blog.  It is not optional.  They must also provide all the other marketing muscle: scheduling blog tours, soliciting reviews, scoring public speaking opportunities and preparing for these, researching and attending industry conferences (RWA for  Romance, SFWA for Sci Fi & Fantasy, AWP for literary authors, and many more) getting their writing and names in front of tons of people, plus all the numbers and stats grunt work of self-publishing (and self-employment in general).

Hazarding a guess, building enough of a platform to make the kind of bread J.A. Konrath likes to shriek about would take about a decade’s worth of full time work, and you couldn’t let up and coast.  Ask Konrath about that, would you?  Tell me what he says.

This is besides the hours upon weeks upon months upon years of toil that go into the writing and editing of a book.

2.  Your Ego: Ok, so you’ve written a book, and your lover, family, and handful of friends who like you enough to invest the time to read it have told you you’re brilliant, and you must get your book out there.  I’m willing to bet it’s not.  I’m sorry.  It’s just probably true.  The first draft of everything I’ve ever written has sucked, and my friends and family have told me what a damn genius I am.

You can’t believe what people who love you say about your writing.  How devastating would it be to write the book, put it up on Amazon, and after the first 20 copies your nearests and dearests buy, it just sits there, collecting proverbial dust?   This is why you have to get editors to look at your work before you take it public.

3.  Your Cash Money: Writer’s Market has a handy-dandy table called, “What Should I Charge?”  It amasses data from thousands of freelance respondents around North America.  Here’s a little run down on the minimum/maximum costs of the services you need to self publish:

Content (developmental) editing: High: $125/hour, Low: $54/hour

Copy Editing: 6 pages/hour x $46-100/hour OR: $1.00-$6.00/page (page is firm at 250 words, that’s double spaced, 1″ margins)

Proofreading:  $31-$75/hour, or $2-5/page (this normally happens in a single-spaced, publish-ready document).

Book Production: $67-100/hour, or $10-17.50/page (this could be a touch lower if you are not printing any copies, but it’s a safe estimate for all the steps between having a polished manuscript and having a book or eBook to send out into the world.  Print runs would cost separate money, and are widely available both online and probably in your town somewhere, and would probably start at $3,000 for 1,000 copies.)

Cover Design:  I’ve seen quotes as low a $300 for a digital cover design.  I’m sure you could pay as much above that as you wanted to.

Dues: All of the professional organizations and their conferences mentioned above cost money to join, and more money to attend the conference.  Self-published authors spend their own cash going to these events (I believe that most traditionally published authors do, too), and they are–again–not optional for self-published authors who want to be successful.  It would be easy to spend $3,000 a year paying dues and in the costs associated with attending conferences.

4.  Your Sanity:  You think I’m being melodramatic?  Penelope writes a lot about the startup life, the 100-hour work weeks, the blood, sweat, tears; the way your family will suffer.  Being a successful self-published author is like running a startup.  Buckle in and get busy.  It’s not a casual consideration.  I hear people say all the time, “I’m thinking of self publishing.”  Like they’re deliberating over the choices on a menu.  Yes, it’s true that the publishing world is changing, and this is a unique time for Authors.  But if Authors really want to take their successes into their own hands, they must realize that they are going to be holding a mountain of work.

Friday Writing: Scenes & New Promises, Honor the Process

from: http://www.public-domain-image.com

I’ve been under the freelance water these last couple of weeks, doing a ton of writing and editing and a “special” project for one of the papers I write for.  That’s all winding down early next week, but I haven’t spent too much time with my draft.  In fact, today is one week since the last time I did any draft writing.

This morning, however, I wrote around 1500 words in about an hour, and thought, “gosh, if I did this every day, I’d have a complete draft in no time!”

So that is my new promise to myself.  Write 1500 words a day.  No matter what.  I do feel a ton better about getting on with things.  It helps me to honor other people’s work and demands if I am honoring my own.

But that got me thinking about promises to readers.  As writers, we make tons of them.  We often make them without realizing that’s what we’re doing.

I’ve talked before about making a promise to the reader in terms of point of view and tense.  But you make a series of promises in scenes, too.  Props that are introduced will need to be managed either within the scene, or before the end of the story.  Sometimes–like with foreshadowing–the reader doesn’t even realize you’re making the promise if you do it well.

But these promises always start out as promises to ourselves as writers, the shorthand of our subconscious.  So be mindful of these notes to yourself once you have a full draft.  Sometimes, you give yourself something that’s better than what your conscious mind can do.

When you’re in the drafting stages, the best tack is to just write–do not think too hard about what your characters are doing or why they’re doing it.  Just let them.  Sometimes, you’ll make yourself promises too unwieldy or cliched or silly to keep.  But don’t evaluate the writing while you’re doing it.

When I was in high school, in art class, when we did drawing from observation or blind contour drawing, the teachers encouraged us to just shut off our consciousness and draw.

It’s kind of like meditation.  I’ve learned to do this while I’m writing, too.  I think it’s what Fiona Cheong was trying to teach her highly resistant graduate students when I took her workshop.  We began each class by meditating. Fiona would sound a gong, and we would start.  The practice would end when she sounded it again.  I loved it, but I think I was the only one.

In the scene (or parts of two scenes) I’m sharing today, the beer is a promise about a particular character’s behavior.  You get to see this character two ways: one having had too much beer, and one sober and maternal.

Also, last week, I said that my narrator, Paige, is the guardian of these friends?  I was wrong.  This is her book.  It will be her messy life.

I offer this to remind you that you have to stay flexible and keep your ego at bay as much as possible as you write and revise.

Scene/s

PUSS was Lauren’s idea, but most of the time, we felt relieved if she couldn’t show up.  She recruited me after I ran into her at a showing of Run Lola Run at the Lisbun Arts World Theater.  We were in the same Brownies troupe when we were kids, and I remembered her turning up her sleeves to hide a cigarette when we were eight.

She was always wild, and I was always intrigued in the way I was intrigued by a dead mouse in the bath tub.  When she was ebullient, she was fun.  She could be the perfect party host: sweet and accommodating and welcoming, all of it.  Her mom hosted our troop in their basement, but refused to participate.  She said Lauren had to do Brownies on her own, that she couldn’t be involved in all of her extra curriculars.

So, by the time we were thirteen, Lauren was sexually active and skipping girl scouts, but telling her mom she was going, expecting me to cover for her and getting her birth control from Planned Parenthood.

Part of me wondered how her parents didn’t know, or if they even cared.

Of course there was Leon, but Lauren seemed sad about him.  She seemed to sprint toward promiscuity to erase the memory or something. The boys ranged in name and character from Greasy Gerry who was sixteen and Lauren said “hung like a horse,” which meant less than nothing to me at thirteen, to Serene Samuel who had large brown moles on his face, sensitive eyes and a brillo of hair that was the precise color of milk chocolate.  Lauren said he demanded to touch her tits, and that it turned her on.

Even to my inexperienced ears, it sounded like she was putting on sex like she put on a winter coat, or a pair of leggings or ear muffs.

So it’s tourney time, and she’s slurping her 4th cocktail with that clumsy confidence that reminded me of junior high, and I am watching, watching her, tapping my toes against hope that she’ll meet a slow simmer and we won’t spend a day watching her smear her mascara.

Her phone buzzes.  I see Leon’s name in her black touch screen.  His digits flashing below it.  She hits ignore.  She turns it face down and eyes it, seeming to fear it, or to expect it to grow legs and hop up and touch her.

It buzzes again.  She flips it over and stabs ignore.  I can’t see that it’s Leon, but I know it is.

“I hate him.”

I wish I could ignore her.  This is Lauren’s in-comment, it’s the comment she always makes that tricks me into expressing empathy.  Once the empathy’s on the table, it’s supersonic to the Pity Lauren party ball.  Whenever we get in neck deep and I’m an accessory to her bitching, I picture myself wearing a lovely, black, Victorian taffeta gown, an updo that rivals the best 60s bee hive, and a tall, lean, dashing dancing partner who I know nothing of and owe nothing to.

She knows how to trick me, because she knows I can’t not empathize.  So I do, and in fewer than twenty seconds, I can see the racehorse of her misery’s tail end about half the way around the track. “He’s just so fucking lazy.  He won’t get a fucking job, and he spends all our money. He ignores the kids, and he won’t help with housework…” In my taffeta gown, I am regal, beyond the ether.  I weigh nothing.  I rest my tiny hand on my partner’s wide shoulder and he touches my waist with such honor.  I focus my gaze on the Grandfather clock that ticks seconds like a metronome in the corner of the gilded ballroom.  “Mm hmm.” I intersperse.

“You won’t believe this, but he called me a whore the other day.  He thinks I’m fucking my boss.” She does this when she thinks she’s losing your attention, she adds a spin that she perceives as extreme.  I know this is not true because I have heard Leon say that the only reason he stays with Lauren is that he knows she can’t cheat on him.  Not that she doesn’t want to, but she can’t. He says, “she doesn’t have time, and nobody would fuck her.  She’s too much of a fat shrew.”  I sweat in my fantasy.  I twirl in the gown, but as it gaps at my chest, I can smell familiar tang of my sweat, and I realize as Lauren talks that I’ve forgotten deodorant.  She prattles on, and I fish in my bag for the stick I keep in there.

“Excuse me, Lauren.  I have to go to the bathroom.”

“No problem,” she says, looking lovingly into her last sip of candied apple.

We’re not even through the first giro, and Lauren’s already drunk, Leon’s already calling.  We have five more giri, and I’ve got that heaviness in my gut that tells me we’re in for a drama fueled afternoon

In the bathroom, I look at myself in the mirror.  My dyed red hair in a sloppy pony tail, looking like straw on the ends, puffy under my eyes, my skin looks drier, older.  I sigh and concentrate on washing my hands.  I think about my own wasted youth and worry about my looming thirty-fourth birthday.   At least I can say I don’t have a child.  Or children.  I don’t want them.

And my current boyfriend is nice.  He’s troubled.  But nice.  I do a lot of Jedi Mind Tricks on him.  I suggest something that I want to do, and anywhere from 72 hours to three weeks later, it is his idea.  This works out ridiculously well for me.  I have always had a too-deep understanding of the fragility of the male ego.

His name is Chester.  I know. Shhh.  He’s sweet.  He loves going down on me.  Sounds shallow, maybe.  But it’s his way of saying he loves me.  It’s also his way of saying he’s sorry.  Or that he thinks I’m sexy.  I’ll take it.  He’s a lot better than the last one whose mother was a suffocating banshee, whose ex girlfriends tried to poison my mind against him while pretending to be pals, and whose general love of ferrets turned our apartment into a cheese stinking pit of shit.

I am not great at relationships.  Perhaps my barometer of Lauren and Leon’s is not to be trusted.  Still.  I can almost hear the tension building out there over the Aerosmith ballad.  I’m afraid to go back.  I do find it to be entertaining that no matter how long a pause in our conversation, Lauren remembers precisely the last thing she said, and can pick up without missing a beat.  It is eerily narcissistic.

I’m not even back to the table properly when she’s started back in, “So you know how I’ve been putting in extra hours at work?”

“mmhmm.”  I don’t.

“That’s why Leon thinks I’m fucking Chad.  Chad’s gay.  Besides, Leon spends all his free time with his bestie Noah.  I swear to Christ they’re gay for each other.”

“Wait.  What?”

“I think Leon’s gay.”

Leon is one of the most hetero men I’ve ever met.  He likes art, but only because he figured out young that arty girls with strange accessories are generally as hot as popular girls when they’re naked, and way more fun in the sack.  Lauren has regaled me with tale after tale of his college girlfriends who were all stringy and purple haired.

****

So I’m watching her tend to them in that deft, mothering way, surprised that my friend who was so fucked up for so long, who wanted this motherhood thing so hard, but who did it on dishonest terms, has fallen into step with herself as a parent.  I feel warm for a minute.  Then she looks at me with this face I’ve only seen her make one other time, it was when I picked her up from a car accident.  It was a pure version of her regular face, grateful and with the blinds open and the guard dismissed, a much prettier version of her regular face—like her blemishes disappear and she radiates light.  She says, “Sometimes I hate watching you and Chester together.  I’m jealous.  I know I shouldn’t be, but I am.”

I tell her, “Don’t be.  We’re just new.  Thirty percent of the time, I wish I was still single.  I would be if I didn’t like sex.  It’s not good because it is natural.  It’s good because we lie about it.  We show off.  We barely speak at home.”

Her face is back to normal and I wonder if I’ll ever see that other, nicer face again.  “Anyway,” I say, “your kids are great.  I’ve been thinking maybe I’m wrong to be so anti kid.  Watching you with these guys.  It’s elemental.  It’s beautiful.  I like how they smell.”

“We’re honest about this,” she says, “but me and Leon aren’t good.  It’s not going well.” She whispers t hat last part.  She says it with something that sounds like haughtiness, but that I know is shame and fear and helplessness.  She knows she’s too proud to do the work of fixing it.

Her kids are in their beds, and we’re standing sentry in the hallway, waiting to make sure they’re out before we go downstairs and crack our own beers, get dealt in on Blackjack.

Style is not Voice! 5 Style Rules to Internalize.

from: publicdomainreview.org/images

I do a lot of proofreading.  The two most popular manuals of this component of publishing, in fiction and most other trade publishing, are Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS, or CMS) and Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged (or Collegiate) Dictionary (Sometimes M-W).

I do not pretend to know everything, so I subscribe to both of these services online, and own hard copies, too, and I learn more nuances of our language every time I do a book.

Proofreading is the last step before publication.  In the golden days of publishing, books were proofread by a number of people, usually staff proofreaders, then reviewed by the author and editors.  Now, they’re proofread by a freelance professional (me), immediately after a copy edit by another professional (can also be me, but is never me on the same book), and then carefully checked over by a Production Editor.

Still,  the manuscript should be practically spotless, and I should only have to mark bad breaks and the errant misspelling.

I see practically published manuscripts all the time that wouldnt’ve made it in any of the intro-level writing courses I took in college (I took three, fiction, poetry, and composition).

So often, I get these manuscripts with edicts like, “don’t touch the voice!” when what the author (or editor) means is, “Please don’t unstack the stacks of fragments or call into question the special fondness of the ellipsis!”

Part of what’s at issue is a function of the books I proofread.  Most of these are trade romance fiction, and for a small press whose authors seem to be more prone to grammar/style Diva behavior than is strictly reasonable.

Some words about voice.

I did a new web search for “writer’s voice,” and I was surprised by the dearth of actual definitions.  So it’s no wonder people are confused.  A lot of trade paperback authors within the mainstream fiction market (genres like romance, sci fi/fantasy, crime/romantic suspense, etc) are on their second or third career as a novelist, and they did not attend or teach the ridiculous number of hours of writing workshops that I have, or that many professional freelance writers, editors, and consultants have.

A writer’s voice is a thing that’s cultivated carefully over 10,000 hours of practice.  It’s not something that can be faked, and it has nothing to do with punctuation, the use of fragments, or long, hyphenated, don’t-pop-until-you-can’t-stop adjectives.

The voice encompasses things like ethos, diction, cadence, syntax, semantics, rhetoric.  A voice is the music a reader hears while reading.  It is the difference between “I went to the store and bought eggs,” and “I went to market for eggs.”  Both of these are grammatical sentences that say the exact same thing, but they are written in two different voices.

And yes, voice can be augmented by the writer’s choices about punctuation–as in whether to offset parenthetical elements with commas, parentheses, or em dashes–but speaking purely, one has relatively nothing to do with the other.

I consulted one of my favorite reference manuals from college, M.H. Abrams’s  A Glossary of Literary Termstoo.  Abrams argues a larger role for ethos in the writer’s voice: the voice is not just cadence, it is the reader’s sense of the author’s selfhood, her morality, her credibility.  So too in that regard, the following are excellent rules to know, rules to internalize, and if you’re interested in publishing (self or traditional), following these rules will go a long way toward proving your chutzpah as a serious writer.

Pay Dirt

1.  Use Italics Sparingly.  I’ve written before about the need to trust one’s reader.  Using italics for emphasis is a trick that is often liberally employed by amateurs to ensure that their readers hear the exact same voice they heard while writing.  This impulse is a good sign.  It means the writer is engaged by her characters and in the process. However, italics for emphasis is almost never necessary, and should not be over-applied.

CMS says, “Use italics for emphasis only as an occasional adjunct to efficient sentence structure. Overused, italics quickly lose their force. Seldom should as much as a sentence be italicized for emphasis, and never a whole passage.”

Appropriate uses of italics: to demarcate internal dialogue, and when using the title of a longer work, like a book, play, or film.

2. A few overused punctuation marks that are to be scarcely applied, but that often riddle a manuscript like a plague of locusts. 

Each of these have a specific purpose, and like italics, lose their force when too liberally applied.

The ellipsis indicates trailing off in dialogue or thought or an omission in a quotation.  Ellipses should only be consistently used in a manuscript in dialogue, and have no place in prose.  They are not voice.

Em dashes work sort of like parentheses, to set off a phrase or incongruous idea from another within a sentence.  These, too, should be used sparingly.

Exclamation points are the literary equivalent of using a hammer to end a sentence.  Overuse of these can be off-putting (and harmful) for readers who prefer to experience a character via context and sentence structure.

CMS has this to say: An exclamation point (which should be used sparingly to be effective) marks an outcry or an emphatic or ironic comment

3. There are lots of rules about hyphenates:  Very specific ones for different parts of speech, but here’s a more-or-less fail safe crystallization to remember. When used before a noun, an adjective may be hyphenated (ass-faced baby, yellow-and-blue fabric), but words that end in -ly are not hyphenated either before or after nouns (badly drawn boy, person who is loudly dressed).

Chicago Manual has a whole table.  If you subscribe, you can download the PDF.  I always have it open while I’m editing.

4. Fragments make you look stupid, and they piss off your reader.  I am all for the carefully used fragment.  Sometimes, fragments can elevate prose.  Sentence fragments are sentences that are missing their subject, verb, or object.

Another amateurish impulse is to use fragments to indicate either high intensity or excitement in a character’s inner experience.  Usually, the writer doesn’t need to because they’ve painted a clear picture with precedent prose, and then this use of the fragment falls into the realm of the imitative fallacy.

Here’s an example:  Frederick pushed the animal under him to run harder.  Didn’t stop till Dixie.  Ate a sandwich.  Took a nap.

Again, an isolated use of this tactic can really sing.  But doing this to your reader once or twice per 250 words is just silly.  And it makes you look bad, like you only have one trick.  And it is not your voice.  Hear me?  It’s not your voice.

5. Use of any of these things together is nearly always a no-no.

Let’s re-write that example, and you’ll see what I mean:

Frederick pushed the animal under him…to run harder! Didn’t stop till Dixie.  Ate a sandwich-for-lunch–…took a siesta!

The point

Your voice is more than smoke and mirrors.  It is your essence, it can’t be manufactured; so work hard to develop it, and follow these five rules.