Archives or Compost Heap: Weeding Through Your Old Writing

I think Milton and I collaborated on this one, before he did Paradise Lost

This past week I’ve been sifting through old, very old and even cobwebbed articles of mine, prompted by a contest requesting an essay-collection submission. The winner will have their collection published, and will probably be knighted in a ceremony involving champagne baths and French horns. (There’s still time to enter if you have hoary archives of your own: check out the Monadnock Essay Collection Prize.)

It’s funny to go through old pieces of writing, because it’s like looking at old pictures of yourself: there’s one with a funny haircut, why in God’s name would you wear that, and were you really so fascinated by that dull place? And in the reading, you see that the adamantine habits in your writing that you’ve tried so hard to eliminate—say, using limp qualifiers like “just” or “very” willy nilly—began long ago, and like old scars, are still visible now.

But what really occurred to me in going through this dusty pile of hides in the cellar is that I’ve been doing this for a long time. The contest required between 50,000–60,000 words in the collection, and I had to throw away many candidates—with all the scribbling I’ve done over time, I could have put three collections of published material together. So, I’m lucky that way, because there was a lot of dreck in there, from which to winnow.

Cream Over Pig’s Legs

Looking at some of the material I wrote makes me thankful that a lot of the journals and outlets that published it have properly faded away—the old bones no longer smell. But it’s nice to have a history to sift through, because you can tuck a lot of the pieces that have pig’s legs to the bottom, which means that something—one hopes cream—rises.

It’s also fun—playing the publisher—to arrange the pieces, in some kind of loose thematic scheme: I found an introductory piece that opens up from a colorful memory of a trip to Vegas and it moves into a “what is the American character” flavor, which feels like a good way to gun the engine at the start. The concluding piece supplies a sense of “it’s a shaky cosmos, but we’re all in it together.” As an editor, that was a fun exercise in scaffolding and structure.

Scrivener Makes Them Toe the Line

Speaking of editing, I used Scrivener to pull all the essays together in bulk, and then its wonderful drag-and-drop sorting to instantly move them around. And around and around, since I was working with the first cull of between 50–100 essays, and tossed them all about in the compilation many times, eliminating many, changing some words in a few, fiddling with titles. Then I dumped it all back into Word for final formatting.

So, all of those muscle spasms I’ve had over the years at the keyboard were worth something. I doubt I’ll win the contest, but it was interesting to filter through the perspectives (and use of language) seen in my past pieces, and to see what were constants and what were flirtations. Who knows, I might use the collection as a freebie to induce the innocent to sign up for my email list, so I can torment more readers.

If you’ve been writing for a while, do you ever go back to your old stuff? Do you cringe or do you crow? I saw a fair amount of piffle, but there were some gems too. Enough to keep on writing and see if I can do better.

Editing Your Work: Very, Very Good Is Very Bad

The first documented Sasquatch capture. Actually, my hair, circa 1975, much in need of editing

The first documented Sasquatch capture. Actually, my hair, circa 1975, much in need of editing

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the very best thing you could do for your writing is to tighten it up, just a little. Still with me? With apologies to Jane Austen, the first sentence here that clogged your pores is a gasbag, a dirigible without a destination. Why? Because it’s filled with unnecessary words and phrases. It’s filled with air, not substance. But this is air that doesn’t breathe life into your reader’s lungs—it suffocates them.

Consider: any sentence that has a qualification, a dodge, is a sentence that whimpers. Words like “very” and “really,” which seem to be intensifiers, are the opposite. They are diminishers. They are the celery left a year in the cellar: no snap. And a clause or phrase like “It’s a fact …” or “just a little” might seem to refine a sentence, give it some razoring of thoughtful gradation, but instead it hobbles it.

Really, Just Very Bad

Remove some of the fluff, and you get a working-class sentence: “The best thing you can do for your writing is tighten it.” But wield the scalpel again, and you get something crisp: “Tighten your writing.” That sentence, which turns a key in a lock, implies that the tightening will improve the understanding, rather than making it bloatedly explicit.

Of course, if you’re an essayist, a fiction writer, a vaunted creative, you might chafe at the constraints. There are times when sentences need luxuriant branching, elliptical orbits to trace their flight across the heavens. But even then, the “verys,” the “justs,” the “reallys,” the “it’s clear that’s”—those blackguards rob your writing of vigor. Vigor = good. Languor = bad.

All Modifiers Are Not Created Evil

Sometimes modifiers can add nuance to a sentence so their absence is loss, not gain. “He took a few, halting steps, expelled a gust of breath and took a voluptuous fall.” If there is intent behind your diction, your use of “voluptuous” (and even “halting” in this instance) could serve a narrative purpose. At least it’s arguable. But the actually here: “Actually, I couldn’t stand him” actually, factually, does nothing. Same with “quite” and “rather”—something that’s “quite exciting” fails to excite.

I am very guilty of veritable volumes of verys in my writing; for me, “just” is also just a spasmodic touch-type away. One of my favorite Mark Twain quotes is, “Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Verily.

Adverbs Under Editing Threat!

There’s been a threadbare-but-broad blanket of denunciation of adverbs and adjectives thrown over prose the last few years, but that’s employing a squinty eye blind to when modifiers can add color and spark to a page. All of those urchin adverbs and adjectives aren’t bad—just the ones that are padding, or those that substitute for strong verbs and nouns. Used with discretion, they are ketchup with fries. (Or sriracha, if you need more kick.)

But when you have expressions like “loud explosion” or “violent vomiting” (or “loud explosion of violent vomiting”), you have redundant words that put a wrapper between you and the reader. Fewer words say more. Or as our lad Twain said (with a wink) in his evisceration of James Fenimore Cooper’s writing: “Eschew surplusage.”

Big Words, Big Deal

One category of surplusage is big words, the pomp-and-circumstance diction that declares that the writer is educated, sophisticated, and a wee bit smarter than the reader. But if you aren’t writing for your reader, you are writing for no one. I am the guiltiest of wordslingers here: I love words, love the chewy ones, love some with peacock flair or sly intimation. Sometimes the right word is the big word, but sometimes when you write fornication, you should write—oh, never mind.

I’ll let some stylists smarter than me put that in perspective:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

— Strunk and White, The Elements of Style

But gosh, is it tempting to gussy up a sentence or two. I can’t always resist.

Tools for Tightening

There are a couple of interesting online tools that can help with your editing: the Hemingway app highlights overly complex sentences, long words, and those cussed adverbs. The Natural Reader is an editing approach from a different angle—your ears. The software reads your work to you aloud, which lets you hear, sometimes painfully, sentences that plod, or wander, or die a slow death from pulling a bulging cart of wayward words.

A useful exercise is to take a 1,000-word piece of your writing and condense it to 700 words. It’s enlightening (and lightening) to take the frosting off your phrasings and get to the actual cake. And then take that same piece down to 500 words: the cake is still spongy and sweet, but denser, deeper. Chasing the “littles” and the “sometimes” and the “oftens” out of sentences—and putting some caffeine in passive-voice phrasings—removes fat and makes muscle.

But the most powerful tool is focus. Inspect your paragraphs and sentences for diction, flow, grammar and clarity: is the expression of your ideas crisp, cliché-free, clean? Do verbs have verve? Does a subject play hide and seek with its predicate so that even a sugary gingerbread trail of subordinate clauses can’t lead the way home to understanding?

Keep in mind that when you clean up your writing, you’re not scrubbing it of the voice that makes it distinct and delightful. You’re clearing your throat so that voice sings out strong and true.

Book Launching (Saggy Springs or Not)

Wait, is there a string attached? Photo by whiterussian on morgueFile

Wait, is there a string attached? Photo by whiterussian on MorgueFile

I’ve been bustling around (can’t you hear it?) this past week, trying to get my “how to find your writing voice” book together for publication next week, and it does make me wonder if most self-pub book launches—though mine might be more of a wayward toss—are as scattered and haphazard for other writers.

For instance, I’ve yet to fix my title, in my mind or on the page. It’s gone through a paddlewheel of possibilities, but my mind’s oar has cracked its handle here toward the end. Right now, it’s “Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See.” That’s all fine and good, and does capture some essentials of the book. But like any wavering candle, I’m subject to title-insecurity winds.

No, Can’t Be—ANOTHER Typo?
And my goodness, I’m a professional editor, and have the gall to charge people for things like proofreading. And yet, even though I’ve proofed this dang thing on the screen, proofed it in hard copy, and proofed sections on the screen again (I’m trying to sound Churchillian here: “we will fight them on the beaches …”) I’m STILL finding some typos and glitches. Gack!

There are umpty-trillion and one things you’re “supposed” to do to get ready for a book launch, but there’s not enough coffee in Kona for me to do them all (or even do most well). What I’ve done is:

  • sent out advanced copies to readers willing (I hope) to write a review
  • written sales copy for the Kindle description page
  • set up some guest posts on some relevant writing sites (which will appear after publication)
  • asked for a few blurbs from some writerly darlings I know (or know at least well enough to ask)
  • designed a landing page that still needs some guiding lights
  • and prepared cocktails on Fri/Sat/Sun eves for weeks on end

Oh wait, I always do the cocktail thing. But why break a good rhythm?

The Truth (and Good Help) Is Out There
There’s a bunch of other minor things I’m doing (eating more toast), and a number of things I’ll do post launch (eat less toast), but I won’t list them here now. What I do want to list is a few of the writers and their sites that I think give good guidance on book marketing and book launches.

Tim Grahl has a series of great (free) book launch posts and marketing lessons (like setting up an effective mailing list). And check out his good Your First 1000 Copies: The Step-by-Step Guide to Marketing Your Book

Joanna Penn always has great publishing industry/book marketing/book launching advice (in text, podcasts and video), much of it free.

Check out Sean Platt, Johnny Truant’s and David Wright’s Self-Publishing Podcast for info on how they’ve pretty much created a self-publishing empire, from tech tools to marketing to the ethos behind it all.

Naomi Dunford’s Itty Biz has all kind of juicy bits about marketing and product launching, and she’s quite funny too.

And my old pal, Joel D Canfield, has been there whenever I’ve asked some puzzler on publishing.

So, thanks to those folks for doing me solids. I’m rounding the corner on this launch stuff, and glad of it. I will probably continue with the cocktails though.

By the way, lately I’ve been making a real beauty: the Vieux Carré, an old New Orleans song of spirits that’s heady and just durn good. Note, this recipe shows it over rocks, but it’s great up as well, shaken or stirred. Maybe it will head the list at the book-launching party. Cheers!

Calling My Bookies

WritersEyes small

Good souls: I’ve been working on the contents of the book pictured above for a while, and am finishing up the final edits. I’m going to self-publish it on Amazon in mid-to-late May. The book is about how to see the world as a writer and how to take that vision to the page. It has chapters on how to cultivate your writing voice, working in various writing genres, and looking at how writing works at the word, sentence (and even punctuation) level. (Oh, there’s funny stuff in there too—I couldn’t help it.)

There are also chapters on getting the writing blues (and how to paint them a different color), how to cope with writing distractions, and a resource section directing you to who and what I think are the brightest eyes in the writing world right now, from idea sparking to freelance contracting to self publishing. Writer’s Eyes will end up around 56,000 words. Many of them are juicy.

Get Your Hot Hands on the Pulsing Pages
If you’d like to get an advance digital copy of the book, write to me at and specify whether you’d like a PDF, .ePub (Nook/iBooks) or .mobi (Kindle) version. What I ask is that you consider writing a review of the book and posting it on Amazon on the day I launch the book. Having a substantive number of reviews on launch day can be a big boost for a book’s early momentum, which can be a boost for its later momentum. (Right now there are multiple spots in the book that say “PHOTO?”—I’m still debating if I’m going to insert images.)

Of course you can say in your review you were given an advance copy of the book, and of course you can also say in your review something along the lines of what Dorothy Parker (who as a critic dubbed herself the Constant Reader) said on the use of “hummy” for “honey” in A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner:

“It is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”

I always caution my readers to have a hankie at hand, should they frow up.

Let me know if you’d like to see the book; I’ll remind you when the day draws nigh when I’m going to launch this puppy on Amazon.

Editors. Uhhh! What Are They Good For?

'2008-01-26 (Editing a paper) - 31' photo (c) 2008, Nic McPhee - license:

Over time, I’ve made a few preposterous videos (near page bottom from the link, under the “Editing: It’s Brutal” head) about the cruelties of editing, and how editors are the unsung heroes of the modern age. Or something along those lines.

But I’ve never explained, on a sane level, some of my editing approaches and processes. Since I do occasionally have bouts of sanity, here goes: I’m an editing ho of sorts, in that I edit both fiction and nonfiction, for businesses and individuals. I write (and publish) in both categories, I’ve studied the writing and editing of both, and though there are some differences in editing between the two types of writing, I can easily get into the proper mindsets of working with both.

I’ll briefly go over the three basic types of editing and some thoughts on how I approach it, with some thoughts on how to choose an editor. Here’s our big three (sometimes known under different names, but the song of the red pen is the same): developmental editing, line editing, and proofreading. I’m using book editing for the examples discussed below, but much of what I say applies to editing fiction or nonfiction of varying types and lengths.

Developmental Editing

Developmental editors work on projects in their earlier stages, perhaps when a writer has written their initial draft or second draft, and wants someone to assess a book’s high-level structure, chapter-to-chapter development and end-to-end logic. Writers need to be satisfied that those elements of their work are secure before they go on to any other editing level. A developmental editor might make substantive suggestions for change, such as the shifting about—or elimination of—chapters and the addition of consequential pieces of new material. For fiction, the editor could discuss broad issues of character, theme, voice and conflict—and make the same kind of broad change requests.

For a fiction project, some of the essential questions a developmental editor might discuss with a client could be:

  • What is the main story question, intention, or theme?
  • Does the story start (and end) at the right place?
  • What’s at stake for the protagonist(s), and is the tension behind that stake well developed, handled, and resolved?
  • Have characters and subplots been seamlessly introduced and developed, and do all of them expand/drive the narrative in some compelling way?
  • Is the point of view clear for each scene? (And do transitions between scenes work?)
  • Does the work employ vivid imagery, use strong verbs and nouns, and avoid clichés, melodramatic or flat characters and passive voice?

Sometimes a developmental editor will make specific suggestions on single sentences in a story, so the differences between line editing and developmental editing can overlap a bit there. However, those kinds of suggestions would only happen in sections of the book that the editor presumes will be little changed. No sense in editing something that’s going to be deleted or changed in a major way.

Line Editing (or Copyediting)

Line editing is related to straight proofreading, but it’s a more complex, fine-toothed (and interpretive) editing process. A line editor will make simple in-text corrections or suggestions where there are errors, but sometimes also suggest re-workings of sentences and entire paragraphs, in trying to mediate omissions in ideas or undeveloped ideas. Line editors both look at grammar and writing mechanics, as well as at the flow of the work, both its logic and expression. If desired by the client, some editors also directly rewrite some sentences on issues of syntax or other structural situations, or suggest in detail where they could use some bolstering.


Proofing comes into play when a writer is comfortable with everything about the book’s big-picture structure and its grammar/sentence structure, and he or she simply wants to make sure there are no typos, misspellings or format problems. A proofreader is the person who sees where you intended a “your,” but inserted an incorrect “you.” A proofer pokes the eye out of that pesky apostrophe—when an “it’s” is supposed to be an “its.” It’s not a proofreader’s job to point out deeper problems (though I sometimes can’t help it).

My Editing Approach

For a long document like a book, usually I have a phone conversation with the client to go over the basic exchange of information, procedures and anticipated milestones—and to see if we have a good feel for each other’s work. That’s critical: find an editor who you feel comfortable with, and who respects the work you’ve done, and won’t try to change your voice. Occasionally I’ll offer to edit a small sample of the document to demonstrate my approach. Most of the work from that point is done by email. Sometimes it can all be done by email.

I normally use Word’s Revisions/Track Changes tools to directly make changes in a manuscript, and also to insert comments or questions. The writer reviews my corrections, accepts or rejects them, and if so inclined, types answers to the comments/questions back into the manuscript. If requested, I then go over it again, or if my comments and questions are best answered by the author, the writer takes it from there.

In regards the minor corrections, such as inserting or removing a comma, most authors just review the corrections in Word, and approve them or reject them. It can get a little tricky to tell sometimes when it’s just a space removed or a period substituted for a comma, because the Track Changes tools don’t make it easy to see those small additions/subtractions, but you can always see the results of accepting the correction in the text.

The work can be completed after the writer has gone over the first round of suggested changes, or it can go another round. I worked on a five-book series with one author who essentially said “Great stuff. I’ll take it from here” on every book. I’ve had a couple of other writers do the same: They rewrote from my insertions and didn’t request further help. Many others have come back with their rewrites, asking me to proof their corrections and changes. And in a few instances, writers have put in new raw material with a rewrite request, and I’ve rewritten it to their instruction, but that’s probably not the best approach for fiction.

The Dough

I’m flexible in my approach to fees. If you do want me to re-check your edited material, that’s when I always charge an hourly; but on the first round, I will do a per-word or per-page charge, based on 12-point, double-spaced type (normally around 300 words a page). If I’m unfamiliar with the client, I will ask him or her for one-third to one-half up front (and if I need more candy and my piggy bank is low, I might ask for it even from my familiars). Should we dissolve our agreement before I’ve even reached that point in the work, I’d return the equivalent balance.

Per-page charges can really range, from $2.50 to $4.50 a page for line editing. The range is dependent on how I project the effort and depth of attention the work will demand—which means I need to take a look at the whole of the work. After the first copyediting round, I normally charge $30–$40 an hour to input any suggestions the author has made (which includes rewriting sentences or even paragraphs, if requested) and re-proofing. Or if the author wants to me to go over the manuscript that he/she has reworked, I can go back to the per-page model, which because the work has already gone a round, would be much cheaper.

One other consideration is that if a client wants to have a straight project fee—because the level of attention any manuscript needs is individualized—rather than an hourly/per-page, I can provide a bid after I take a good look at the work. However, if you are looking for a thorough copyedit, it’s likely that a book of 100,000 words will cost at least $1,000 on a bid. I am soon going to copyedit a 90,000-word novel from a client whose work I know from an earlier novel edit, and I gave him a $1,000 bid because I have a good feel about how much work I’d have to do; I’d have to check out any unfamiliar work a bit to get that sense. I know it sounds expensive, but doing a deep copyedit is a considerable time investment, and I’m good at what I do.

Editing Your Editor

Obviously, you don’t have to accept every (or even the majority) of your editor’s suggestions, particularly when it comes to slippery issues of “flavor” and tone. I often question whether a single word in a sentence is the word that does the best job, and I’ll suggest substitutes. But you should hold steady if that word carries the weight you wanted. Sometimes an editor’s job is simply to make the author consider if a character’s gesture or expression is really the one the author intended, to introduce the idea that on the very sentence and word level can rest the lasting power of the work. But sometimes the editor’s job is to question whether a character even belongs in the work. Asking an author to consider such a heavy structural issue (such a question should only be part of a developmental edit, to be sure) is asking a lot—but sometimes those questions need to be asked. And you as an author have every latitude to just say no. (or Hell No!)

You may do better with an editor that specializes in your genre. If you are a YA writer, you might want to work only with YA editors. I’ve edited a range of business books, mysteries, self-help books, literary fiction, nutrition books, and thrillers, so I’m all over the place. But it’s reasonable to consider seeking out an editor that is steeped deeply in your genre. I’ve been editing for more than 25 years, but all projects are different, as are the authors. One unifying thing is that it’s a deep pleasure to work with authors and see work improved—my work as well as theirs. Expressing oneself in words—and doing it well—can seem daunting, but there’s such satisfaction in making a strong effort.

Ask around writerly circles and groups (LinkedIn might help) if you are seeking an editor. The Bay Area Editor’s Forum is an organization about which I’ve heard a great deal of good. Obviously you want to work with someone whom you feel is credible, and with whom you’re comfortable.

OK, this has gone on WAY too long. But if you want to read some more musings on editing, download my Style Guide from the right-hand side of the page. Sure, you might have to read some stuff about grammar, but there are lots of jokes too.

May all your words take wings (and without any leaden feathers).

To Thine Own Self (Publishing) Be True

Leaded type

I finished a novel in late 2012. Titled Aftershock, it’s based in San Francisco, and the 1989 earthquake plays a central part in throwing—almost literally—some disparate lives together. Nobody’s particularly comfortable in the book, but that’s the prerogative of the author—we get to torture our characters, so that we can be better people ourselves. Or not.

But I don’t want to talk about my psychological problems. (Unless you swing by with a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s bourbon—I have ice on ice waiting for you.) I do want to briefly talk about publishing. Briefly, because talking about the changes in publishing is an industry in itself these days, and my adding to the din won’t land me any Oprah-time.

Bleary Queries

To this point, I’ve sent queries about my novel to 22 agents. Despite the publishing heavens being torn by demons, agents remain the middle defenders for those writers hungering for the traditional publishing route, with its still-credible distribution structure, now-flagging marketing support, and tarnished-yet-dimly-shiny “Look mom, some NY bigwigs bought my book” cachet.

Depending on the agent guidelines, those queries have included a couple of full manuscripts, a lot of 10-50 page excerpts, or just a synopsis and a prayer. So far, I’ve received 12 rejections; some of the queries are a few months’ old without response, so I’ll probably follow up on the best of those.

But the winds of change have blown their clichéd gusts through publishing’s doors, and floors. Self-publishing no longer has the “I wrote seven poems about grandma’s feet, and had them printed with a velvet cover” taint. I self-published my first novel, had a book of short stories published by a small press after that, and should no agent show real interest in my newest work in the next few months, I’ll go the self-abuse route once more. (I did always love the punchline for the you’ll-go-blind masturbation joke, “Hey, can I just do it long enough so I only have to wear glasses?”)

Resources: Self-pub Grub

I’ve been reading a good deal about the publishing industry and its earthquakes in the last year or so. Here are a few good books that have solid info on the publishing world, self-publishing and how to market your work:

APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur

The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published

Create Your Writer Platform

Sites with Insights

And here are some sites I read regularly that provide great resources and insights into the roiling new world of publishing.

Jane Friedman
The Creative Penn
Digital Book World

And if I do self-publish, this time I’ll have my book edited by some professional other than myself. Woe befalls the writer, even if they are professional editors, who edit their own work. That self-abuse could take the sight from any writer’s eyes, and I already wear glasses, so I know better now.

The Viking Origin of Editing

As a historian who relies exclusively on lies, only I can sufficiently explain that Vikings were the original editors. And effective editors they were.

Please view the film below, where I let the world know about the early—and brutal—days of editing, and how that has affected editors today.

Take a Punctuation Mark to Lunch

Question Mark

A comma, a period and a semicolon walk into a bar … oh, wait! I can’t finish the joke; I forget how it’s punctuated.

Wow, tough crowd.

But punctuation’s no joke, my friends—each punctuation mark has a grave (or acute) purpose: sometimes bearing a serious slant, sometimes swinging a strong, straight shoulder to torque the weight of words through thought rivers. Think of the cymbal crash of the exclamation point, the yearning intrigue of the question mark, the potential hidden menace of the semicolon.

But behind the sober, workaday faces of those little bits of pause and check, it’s not so black and white. Every punctuation mark has its own personality, much more idiosyncratic than that of a bland worker wielding the traffic signals of sentence flow. Like any of us, they appreciate the anonymity of a job well done, but at the same time, they don’t mind letting on that there’s a purple sash under the white cotton shirt …

But if you want to fully know the compelling reasons why you should take your favorite punctuation mark to lunch, you’ll have to go over to Writer Unboxed, where I finish up this exposé on both the sappy and the sordid aspects of those tricky lines, dots, slashes and dashes.

How Being Short Can Take You a Long Way

Being short, you’ll never have to worry about seeing all of that guck that’s on the top of your refrigerator. Me being the long, lanky type, so shamed am I when I spot that accretion of grime that I have to stop the speechwriting I do for the American Graham Cracker Collection Society, and clean it immediately. But here I’m referring to length, not height, where bigger isn’t necessarily better—in writing.

There’s a situation that brings this to mind: I’m going to the Writer’s Digest West writing conference in LA in late October, and there I’m going to engage in a frolicsome thing called a pitch slam. A pitch slam isn’t where you test your curveball to see if you can strike out Albert Pujols; it’s where a hoard of peevish, underfed literary agents listen to your strangled proposal for your book, and then press a button that puts you in a trash compactor, while you hear the waning sounds of their maniacal laughter.

The slam part is this: you have 90 seconds to pitch your book. Ninety seconds: that’s easily enough time for me sit in front of the agent, swallow my tongue, fall to the floor and writhe spasmodically. I have scanned the agents who are available for this particularly torture, and I see that I will have at least five chances to pitch—a fit—in front of them. Thus my writing exercise for the next month will be to put the novel I’ve just finished into a readily digestible pill: sweet, vivid and utterly condensed.

Brevity Is the Soul of Lingerie

I’ve written before on how challenging (yet oddly freeing) it can be to be forced to write with brevity. It’s refreshing, like ice in your underwear. For ballast, I’ll be checking out some information on pitching and synopses from the Guide to Literary Agents blog, where I’ve gleaned good information before.

Writing short is a useful art. A couple of months ago, I won a great MediaBistro Literary Festival conference pass just by tweeting what I judged to be the best sentence I’d ever written. (Never mind, with counting the hashtag, that my first three choices were longer than Twitter’s character count allows). As Dorothy Parker said, “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.” Thus, to display my lingerie, I just entered the Gotham Writer’s Workshop 91-word memoir contest, where you are supposed to deliver your biography in 91 words. Here’s my first half:

A Cardboard Fort, Conquered by Language
At six, long backyard hours in cardboard refrigerator-box fort, alone with clock, dinosaur books and languid time. At twelve, graduating to Hesse, Twain, Steinbeck, and hearing the sweet siren call of language. At twenty-four, English-degreed, writing crabbed copy for catalogs, questing.

You’ll just have to wait for the rest; I don’t want to reveal the part about my secret marriage to Doris Duke while the contest is pending. Have to run—have to figure out how to squeeze my multi-points-of-view tragicomic opus into 90 seconds, without including all the sighs, cries and lies.

(And hey, if any of you agents happen to read this, I don’t really think you are peevish or underfed. I will remember all your children’s birthdays forever.)

Bonus Material! Missing Teeth, Dangerous Drugs and an Unsober Man

And for a little comic relief, of the not-so-short variety, take a look at my guest post on the charming aspects of hysteria experienced in the dentist’s office. That minor play of neuroses is courtesy of Dr. Richard Wilson’s Bite Point blog; Doc Wilson is the author of many a toothsome tale, including the forthcoming epic, The Man Who Wore Mismatched Socks.