Words Are Sleeping in Your Keyboard—Wake Them!

Writing by Candle

I begin every working morning with a pre-dawn ritual involving ear-searing animal cries and a hobbled, bleary-eyed march through darkness. Yeah, before six am, I get up to feed the cat. And thus the day—and all days are writing days, aren’t they?—begins. Think of Gustave Flaubert’s approach: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

What Gustave was getting at is that some orderly routines and habits built around a writing practice can give you a sturdy bourgeois frame upon which to hang your original compositions: metaphorical puce feather boas and thigh-high disco boots. Flaubert’s frame is: first there’s breakfast, then the revolution. And no doubt I can be violent in my work: on many occasions, I’ve slashed a worthless “very” or a “just” modifier out of something I’m editing without considering if that errant adverb or adjective has any feelings at all. Take that, unnecessary word!

In that light of bringing the writing mind from sleep to wake, let’s take a candle into the darkened room of my own daily writing world, so that you can compare your animal screams with mine.

The Morning Harkens
Once that cat has done its rooster act in my ear, there has to be stimulants down the throat: coffee. But for me, caffeine’s sweet song is best heard right back in sleep’s chamber: I always bring the warm cups (one for my sweetheart too) back to bed, where we read for a half-hour or so, and dazedly converse.

By six thirty, I’m up just to get down: sitting down to a 20-minute or so morning meditation. I’ve written about this before—the months I’ve been doing this have really made a difference in my days, and in my peace of mind, which can be elusive. That window-washing of the mind is either followed by a quick run through email, answering those things that can be answered in less than two minutes (and sending to the black hole of deletion those mails most deserving).

I’m trying to develop the habit of not burying myself in mail right off the bat, but rather getting whatever writing projects are on for that day in position, whether that’s reviewing where I left off yesterday, or writing article notes, or even putting a bit of concerted writing time in. Then a decent breakfast. (I rarely add bourbon to my corn flakes any more.)

Getting Out of First Gear
Between 8:30 and 11:30 are probably my most productive hours, either delivering words by the count or harnessing ideas to spur that delivery. My work is always eclectic: this week I’m editing two books, one a children’s book and one a book on the history of our financial system (and how it’s bent us into an unbecoming position). We won’t let the children read that one yet. With my broad experience with weddings (more champagne, any one?), I’m working on a long magazine article on how Airstreams were incorporated into five different weddings. The process right now is assembling the interviewees’ answers into something that won’t prompt any divorces.

Pre-lunch Launch
Unless there’s a deadly deadline, I break at 11:30 for some kind of exercise. That could be a nice walk around our semi-rural neighborhood, a walk around one of the many pretty slough trails close by, a walk at the beach, a bike ride, shooting baskets in the driveway, riding the recumbent indoors bike if the weather is unweatherable—anything to move, man!

The freedom to get out and move is one of the greatest things about freelancing. It clears the mind, gets the body breathing, sings lullabies to the soul. And makes lunch taste all the better. What’s almost as good as the freedom to get out and move? The freedom to nap after. For me, twenty minutes in some kind of hypnagogic state after lunch returns me to this world in fine fettle. I really recommend it.

No Swoon in the Afternoon
Back at the keyboard at 1:30 or so, bolstered by another cup o’ joe. If I have a main project, I’ll put a couple of hours in there. When I have two fairly big projects at once, like the two books I’m editing, I’ll often split the time between, so that each work feels fresh. When the later afternoon hours roll in, say between 3:30 and 5, I’m usually all about the housekeeping: check/answer emails, send out article queries, check my calendar for upcoming projects, deal with money matters (where does it all go?), set up any existing projects that need a push for the next day. It’s also when I will work on my own personal writing projects.

But at 5, I’m done. Shut the Mac down, go in and do some stretches, maybe lift some light free weights. (I only want to stay toned enough to easily lift an Old Fashioned or two.) Of course, if I have a heavy deadline, or some project is really flowing, I won’t staunch that river. But I rarely work into the evening hours, because my productivity declines. There’s dinner, there’s PBS, old movies, an occasional inane show, reading—and there is feeling the world breathe and breathing with it.

I do get the iPad out at a couple of points in the evening to check if any client or potential client has asked me for anything, and I might answer a few emails or look at a video of cats teaching French to kindergarteners, but I don’t do heavy screen time after dinner. My life isn’t in startup mode, so I figure 8 or 9 hours of the electron bath is enough.

Do Weeks Ever Really End?
I do work on the weekends, but as a writer, I don’t look at that as work. I’ll usually put in some hours working on personal projects: articles, or fiction, or essays, or like this very Sunday minute, this blog post—but none of those projects pursued with any brain-banging sense of pressure and anxiety. (Well, maybe never is too strong a word.) Weekend writing is an expression of my life. Except for those weekends—and there are many—where we get out of town to see some sights. San Francisco beckons, as does Big Sur, and myriad other places to play. And don’t forget the travel articles that can come of that.

So, how about you? When you night owls are hooting, I’m snoozing. Are you a burner of midnight oil? And some writers I know will only work some prescribed hours, say 10am to 2pm. And then there are those folks out in the corporate wastelands who can only work on their writing after they return home from the cubicle.

That takes some dedication, and I admire that effort. Gustave would be proud.

My Year of Sneezing, Chipotle, and Fake Jon Stewarts

Old calendar

I’m not that big on end-of-year summation or highlight posts. When I read others, I’m reminded of how much I’ve forgotten over the year, or how much I missed. Or worse, who died, and how that makes me feel bad all over again.

If I’d thought of it, I would have kept track of something more arbitrary or offbeat, like “How many times over the year I sneezed more than twice in a row,” or “Which days at lunch I reached for the chipotle pepper and then thought better of it,” or “Day I once again was sure that I saw Jon Stewart at the airport, but it really wasn’t him.” Because sometimes those little forgettables are as much a notable moment as having published something in the NY Times.

Mostly I’m simply grateful for having made it through the year, without major losses. Many people didn’t.

However, in reading some of the advice given by Michael Hyatt on attaining goals, I did decide to put a few in writing for the coming year. He convincingly says that putting an intent down on paper (well, in this case electrons) solidifies it in your consciousness: it clarifies what you want and motivates you to take action, among other things.

In that spirit:

  • I will finish the content of my nonfiction “how to see through a writer’s eyes” book by the end of January [preparing it for epub will take a bit longer]
  • I will publish my second novel by the middle of the year [again, going to be a self-pubbed masterpiece—after I do some master-piecing on it.]
  • I will get an article/essay in a national publication by the end of the year [shooting for NY Times. The travel pieces I’ve had in the LA Times and my work in The American Scholar don’t count.]

And a couple of “soft” goals, which doesn’t mean they aren’t hard:

I’m going to try to be more of service to others this coming year. I can too often get in a crabbed, selfish state, which is fear based. As I recently wrote in a comment on a Jeff Goins post, “I spent too much time working from the poverty mindset last year: too much grasping and the hearing of repeated refrains of the tired song of “me.” This coming year I intend to be of more service to people and to stretch the kinds of writing I do.”

So, yes, giving and stretching—not playing it so safe. But still playing: I’m going to drink more unusual cocktails this coming year, because my sweetheart was given an eclectic collection of bitters—what’s better than adding bitters to make all of life seem a bit more sweet?

Hope you guys had a good year, and that this next is going to be a humdinger. And if you want to write a few of your goals in the comments, who am I to stop you?

Cat Hurling and Other Faulty Story Mechanisms

Malibu on Table 2

My cat Malibu, pretending it never happened

Warning, unpalatable opening paragraphs:
My cat vomited on the living room floor last night. Before she did it, she performed a comic/frightening backwards dance, reminiscent of something the dwarf in Twin Peaks would have been envious of. She scooted backwards eight feet across the floor on her belly, haunches rolling, and appeared to be reversing the peristaltic effect of a snake swallowing a goat: her skin seemed to ripple the length of her body in churning waves, back-humped in high ascent.

Never having seen this behavior, I was fascinated and appalled. It was only when she produced the cud of half-chewed grass and belly splooge onto the floor that I realized that she was vomiting; I thought she needed an exorcism. After she’d finished her performance, she calmly reviewed the results and then daintily walked away.

Because I regularly turn daily events into writing considerations, while I cauterized the floor with an acetylene torch, I pondered how dramatic scenes/plotlines work in stories. (I also pondered getting a goldfish to replace the cat.) I’ve been mulling over writing a new novel that would be a series of connected stories. The lead character is a frustrated writer with an alcohol problem that’s preventing him from success in his work and his relationships. (No, this is not an autobiography.)

The Deus ex Machina: Story Salvation or Story Sap?
I’d been considering some of the major life events that can bring a person—or not—to their senses. Or perhaps make them leap off the abyss. Things like deaths in the family, loss of love, loss of respect, both self and otherwise. But I was also considering “artificial” things, on a deus ex machina level: the protagonist loses an arm in an industrial accident, the family is heir to a previously unknown fortune, a main character discovers that she’s adopted, with blindingly harsh effects. Or a cat you’ve owned for a while exhibits a behavior thought possible only by aliens.

Stories by O. Henry often have a twist in them that for me sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. The times they don’t work are when you feel the author is trying too hard, where the plot device feels author-imposed or a kind of window dressing. But some stories work up to their explosions in a way that seems organic: the suicides of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary come to mind. When I looked at the entry for deus ex machina on Wikipedia, it cited Lord of the Flies, where the rescue of Ralph by a passing Navy officer seemed to rescue the author as well.

An unpublished novel of mine uses the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 as a catalyst for the coming together—for better or worse—of San Francisco characters who otherwise wouldn’t have had the occasion to converge. The earthquake is a frame for the story, but its extreme drama isn’t used as a prop. Seeing the cat spill her story onto the rug made me consider that authors can populate their stories with all kinds of exotic and peculiar entanglements, but if the entanglements aren’t threaded into a congruent, evolving tale—with characters that are much more than manipulated marionettes—then all you have is, well, vomit.

And don’t expect your readers to stick around to clean it up.

Pencil Me In: Writing Prompt for a Rainy Day

Inject your imagination with pencil possibilities

Inject your imagination with pencil possibilities


Remarkably enough, it’s raining today, which I thought was now illegal in California. So, instead of traipsing outside for any Saturday aerobic exercise, what about hunkering down inside with a writing exercise? Writing prompts are a good way to loosen up the creativity muscles, and they’re more fun than a spin class. (Argue with me all you want—the rain is drowning out your protests.)

I think simple is best for a writing prompt: let’s consider describing an everyday object from several angles, whether metaphorical or metaphysical. Enter the pencil.

Pencils in the Real World
It’s notable how plungingly deep you can go when you start to describe an object, particularly one you’d never bothered to focus attention on. With a prompt, you just let your mind and fingers fly, and don’t get out any red pencil to edit.

Thus, a physical pencil is:

  • A slender wooden wand capped with a metal ferrule topped with a rubber eraser
  • A short cylindrical spear with a soft end and a pointy tip
  • A soft, breakable wooden shaft
  • A balanced, effective, reliable writing instrument
  • A cat toy
  • A vehicle for advertising

 
Pencil as Metaphor

  • An insecure pencil won’t write polysyllabic words for fear of misspelling them
  • A heroic pencil has broad, defined shoulders just below the eraser
  • A husband pencil never takes out the shavings

 
Pencil Sensuality

  • The light but friendly heft of a pencil in your hand
  • The agreeable noise a pencil makes when scribbling words on paper
  • The sweet cedar smells when sharpening a pencil

 
Pencils in Irregular Use

  • Staving off boredom by flinging them up to stick in those soft-tile corporate ceilings when the boss isn’t around
  • Pencil as ear cleaner
  • Pencil as stand-in for conductor’s baton

 
Pencil as Pun
That’ll put lead in your pencil (ahh, my adolescence, it will never truly end)

Pencil as Iconic Object
Often seen behind the ears of old-school reporters, circa The Front Page era

Pencil as Ironic Object
Gigantic pencils occasionally seen in sculpture gardens

Pencil as Shakespearean Character
Think of a pencil separated from its twin, cross-dressing (alternating wearing manly tights with bosom-exposing dresses), caught in heart-pounding court intrigue, strumming a lyre whenever possible, and finally getting married amidst much fanfare, resonant huzzahs and beer.

Well, I won’t burden you with leaden prose any longer. But I think writers have an ability to look at the most common of things, and see a story there. So next time you look at your salt shaker, remember that from a different vantage you might think of it as your pet, your boyfriend, your accountant. Even your muse.

Besides, the rain is letting up—I’m going to take my pencil for a walk.

How to See Through a Writer’s Eyes: Listen—?

Glasses_on_book_101

I’ve been working on a short book that has the working title “How to See Through a Writer’s Eyes.” Maybe it’s because I wear glasses and only see so far, but I’m going to suggest you get a taste of that book by listening to me read the introduction.

My intent in writing the book is to help people see that the world is built of stories—and that with a little guidance on where to find and use those sentence-building tools, you can be one of the builders. More on the book’s progress later.

[Not sure why, but it seems you have to click on the play button twice. Moses and the rock, I suppose …]

Trolling the Thesaurus: Timely Tool or Woeful Crutch?

Thesaurus Lopper

Trimming Words Is More Dangerous Than You Might Imagine

Yesterday, I snapped the handle on this lovely old set of loppers by cranking too hard on a branch bigger than what the tool was intended for. That’s not my first inappropriate use of tools—once I tried to boot-bust a board angled on some steps and it snapped up and sliced my face like a cold cut. A colorful reminder that genius doesn’t run in the Bentley handyperson’s gene. But mangling the loppers made me think of twisting tools from their intended use, and being the metaphorical sort, the thesaurus came to mind.

Relying on a thesaurus to write an article or story can be like using a bazooka to clean a bit of dust from your cabinets—instead of blowing away the dust, you’ve blown out the wall. Here’s the trouble: You may have crafted a sentence with perfectly good words, but then writer’s anxiety sets in. Couldn’t this sentence have more kick? Doesn’t it need an alligator belt and lizard-skin shoes to really speak its piece? How can anyone sense the weight of my words if a few of them aren’t blacksmith’s anvils?

When a Crossbow Becomes a Crash of Syllables
Thus, the unwary writer might fall into a quagmire along these lines: She writes a fine sentence for an article on crossbow collecting:

The shrewd crossbow collector will seek multiple opinions before buying a 4th-century Greek crossbow.

But then she fidgets and thinks, Hmm, couldn’t I give that sentence a little more oomph by substituting a few synonyms? After all, I did say “crossbow” twice.

The transmogrified results go like this:

The perspicacious crossbow accumulator will solicit manifold perspectives before procuring an antiquarian armament.

Add Seltzer, Not a Grenade
Beautiful, eh? Now, inject a little embalming fluid in that sentence, and you can consign it to its rightful grave. But that’s just a brute force example of how to kill a sentence with good intentions (and bad language). For me, the occasional, judicious use of the thesaurus is not only useful, but fun. Using one can be like adding some seltzer to a piece, not a grenade. Take this sentence:

When she heard the rustle in the grass, she jumped to the other side of the path.

Now there’s nothing wrong with that sentence, but what if it’s not what you, the writer, is hearing in that grass, the thing that makes you and the character jump? What if “rustle” doesn’t have the sense of threat or menace that you seek, but another word doesn’t surface? Then you can go to the candy store of the thesaurus, because when you want a Kit Kat, and you only have a Snickers, you won’t be satisfied.

Checking out my electronic candy store (the thesaurus that accompanies the Mac OS dictionary), I see swish, whoosh, swoosh, whisper, sigh. Leaning my ear to that secret in the grass, I sense that “whisper” is the winner. Now you might think that’s adding artificial flavors to your writing, but not when you use the flavoring in this way: you are using the promptings of the synonym suggestions to season the sentence how you most accurately sense it. And like I said, this isn’t something you’d do to torture all of your sentences. Just the ones where you know there’s a better word, the word that makes your sentence intention glow. The thesaurus is just a light source—you direct it.

Tickled by Thesauri
So, a few ways that thesauri (gotta love the plural, something that sounds like it frolics in the ancient swamp with the diplodocus) can poke some quiescent writing:

  • Scanning synonyms for a single word change can often stimulate your thinking about a setting, character, conflict. Perhaps a full new paragraph, contributive to the work, might emerge.
  • The new word can refine a sentence, rather than burden it, or refine your thinking about how the sentence works in its larger setting.
  • And if you plain-out like words, it’s good fun to muck about in them. Take a word like “bungle.” Traipse around its synonyms and you play footsie with things like “botch,” “muff,” “fluff,” “flub,” and “make a hash of.” Tasty hash indeed.

Of course, you shouldn’t do much thesaurus trolling when you’re in the flow of your draft—let the words roll, and edit later. And don’t ever go into synonym rapture, where your sentences are so larded with fifty-cent words that they move like soggy dough. That ain’t writing—that’s bad architecture, where a story collapses of its own weak weight.

From my view, you’re no loser if you try to selectively fine-tune your writing by dipping into the thesaurus. Done with care, you’re still writing in your own voice; you’re listening to yourself with both ears pricked.

By the way, I’m going to see if I can get those loppers fixed. Good tools deserve a good long life.

Only Writers Fill the Real Barrel of Fun

Whiskey Barrel

The monkeys were already in the barrel

One of the books I’m reading is titled To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion. The book is a compilation of drink recipes based on cocktails mentioned in Hemingway’s works, or those known to have soothed Ernest’s throat during any dry spells behind the typewriter. From reading the book, you wouldn’t think Papa ever had a dry spell that he didn’t counter with a drink. Or four.

There’s a long history of associating writers with the sauce: Fitzgerald with his gin, Faulkner with his whiskey, Hemingway with his Definitivo (which combined equal parts vodka, gin, tequila, rum and scotch, bolstered with tomato juice and lime, a kind of Long Island Bloody Mary in Hell). So maybe this is associating Hemingway with any full bar—which he seemed to take as a challenge.

Literary Lights Liquored Up
Some literary pundits suggest that the liquor lubed their writing, giving it a flow whose force would be absent without the sweet succor of spirits. Heckfire, I’ve even put together a short video that shows how whiskey can improve your writing.

But that bit of legerdemain logic is tripped up by the old “correlation is not causation” adage: those guys just liked to get pickled, plain and simple. It probably didn’t improve their writing, but it did make them learn fascinating words like “jigger,” “muddling,” and “crapulous.” But that’s not to say that writers shouldn’t seek solace in pleasant refreshment. [Note to my business-writing clients: I never combine copywriting with cocktails. At least not at the same time.]

So, in the spirit of experimentation, thirst, and the quest to be aligned with my literary idols, I decided, along with the fair Alice-who-lives-in-this-place-we-call-home, to make some barreled cocktails. Barreling cocktails is a bit of a craze now: you take the ingredients of a standard charming cocktail, such as an Old-Fashioned, Negroni or Manhattan and put them in an oak barrel for a month or two, to take on some of the mellowing characteristics—vanilla, maple, honey, tobacco—that contact with toasted oak often lends to spirits. A number of hipster bars now offer barreled cocktails, the little darlings.

I’ll Take Manhattan(s)
Being a man believing no Manhattan should be left companionless, Manhattans were the clear choice. Thus, two nights ago, we alchemized the following:

⁃ 1.5 liters Bulleit Rye
⁃ 250 milliliters Bulleit Bourbon
⁃ 500 milliliters Martini and Rossi sweet vermouth
⁃ 3 tablespoons bitters: approximately half of which were Peychaud’s (New Orleans), half Rossard’s (Chile), and a generous splash of Fee Brothers West Indian Orange bitters (New York?)

Rye was the original right arm of a Manhattan, but I tend toward bourbon as the main kicker. But we had the jug of rye and proceeded thusly. We added the bourbon to lure the rye to sleep comfy in the barrel. No fancy vermouth here, just a basic, since we are relying on the barrel to bring the orchestra to tune. As for the bitters, I always like combining two bitters in a Manhattan, and the orange in volume is a bit too floral for me, but it added a nice top note to the combination. I wanted to put the aromatic combined bitterness on my hair.

As for the barrel of fun, that’s a nice 3-liter job (medium char) from Tuthilltown Spirits, makers of fine firewater, including the dandy Hudson Baby Bourbon. I bought the barrel for Alice’s birthday, for her efforts with moonshine (fun!) and the attempt to make our own bourbon (disaster!). We’ll shake up some of this barreled hootch into a couple of chilled glasses in a month or so, and get back to you on the results.

Or if you’re in the neighborhood, stop by and we can discuss what Hemingway really meant when he said: I drink to make other people more interesting.

Packing a Travel Writer’s Suitcase

'you can take it with you' photo © 2008, kelly taylor - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

The best thing to relieve the daily drumbeat of deadlines, projects, and pressures is travel. Bust out of your current coma conjured by daily tasks like these: replace the pepper grinder, check on the termite inspection guarantee, and because an evil editor refuses to respond, send a follow-up to your follow-up on your query follow-up.

Instead, flip your flip-flops into a bag and head for balmy climes where your biggest decision is the choice of an over-hopped IPA or a gentlemanly session beer.

If only it were that easy.

Travel is a happy habanero for me, but my no-account bank account often demands that I mix a little biz with my pleasure. Thus, I’ll be going to the Florida Keys for 5 days at week’s end, and not long after that, to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico for 3 weeks. But I’ll be packing my tokens of the writer’s trade along with me: The Florida trip is all about the writing, since the trip is paid for by a Keys PR bureau looking to have a travel writer pen some lyrical lines about the loveliness of the Keys. The Mexico jaunt is a house-sitting gig, where my girlfriend Alice and I will be basically working our regular hours—and I do keep regular working hours, despite the roguish look of my soul patch—while trying to catch the flavorful San Miguel sights.

Less Wool, More Woolgathering

When Alice and I packed for a year in Micronesia, I made some colorful mistakes. The first one that comes to mind is the wool blanket I packed. Now I knew that the temperature on that island rarely went below 85, and the humidity usually hovered at 90 percent or so. But what if an asteroid hit the planet and plunged us into the next Ice Age? The flannel pajamas I brought would surely help with that too. Uh, no. The blanket and pajamas slept untouched in the closet until we returned.

But, even if I think I don’t really need a defibrillator in my carry-on, I do want to make sure I have the fundamentals for fun and get my writing done. So, for these upcoming trips, some essentials come to mind:

Suitcase
For the Florida trip, I can get away with a carry-on. It’s six days/five nights, and I don’t want to have to do any laundry, but I can still get six shirts in there, and mostly short-sleeved casual ones at that. It’s going to be around 90 in the daytime, so shorts are essential, and a bathing suit (with bow-tie) as well—one of the venues will require some snorkeling to properly write about. (See how demanding these trips are?). But Tevas and flip-flops will do the heavy leg lifting, with one pair of all-purpose shoes and decent Levis, plus a light windbreaker for the rain, which can happen this time of year. No black-tie events scheduled.

For Mexico, a checked bag, because more time = more packing room needed, and more time out in venues where it could possibly be dressy (and dressy for me is just a buttoned-down shirt and clean pants.) Plus, we might throw in a couple of pounds of our favorite coffee, which isn’t available there, though it’s a fairly big city, so most things are available. No wool blankets or flannel pajamas needed on either of these trips.

Computer backpack
I have a decent but aging computer backpack that has a padded compartment for the computer, and plenty of compartments for charging cables, chargers, a mouse, cell phone and other accessories. It’s not the type that screams “computer inside!” though an educated guess would pin that down, so I am careful in airports and the general surroundings where I put it down. It easily and securely slips over the handle of the carry-on or regular suitcase, so I can move easily when my luggage is my load.

Computer
I’ll take my Macbook Pro on both trips. I try and type up notes for travel writing or blogs on the day that I took them, and my handwriting is execrable, so I have to translate it as soon as possible. I also need to keep tabs on email, because I usually have some article queries circulating and works in progress, and I want to be able to answer swiftly. I’ll be uploading some stuff to Dropbox or iCloud beforehand and during these trips, to ensure that I have backups of current projects if I do drop my computer into the Atlantic.

Keyboard/Monitor
I won’t take an external keyboard or external monitor on the Florida trip, though I always use both at home: they make for better ergonomics and multi-window computing convenience. Too bulky for a carry-on though. I may be able to use the external that’s at the Mexico house. I did take a 22” external monitor to a two-month stint in the Bahamas, and I’m glad I did, but it was a hassle in transit, and I sold it there before I left. I might take an external keyboard to Mexico—I’m a much more efficient typist with one, and they don’t take up much space in a checked bag.

Mouse
Even though my Mac’s trackpad works fine, I’ll still take an external mouse, the wireless kind that work with a USB transceiver. Again, my writing flows more freely (fewer mouse droppings) when I use a mouse.

Camera
Even if you’re only a middlin’ photographer, sometimes the images you take while traveling are the ones that best accompany a trip, iStock be damned. Your shots might specifically illustrate the points or places you describe in your article, and your editor will want them (or at least want to take a look at them). Any decent digital snapshot camera of today can take quality photos if you have a adequate eye for interest and composition. I’m no National Geographic photographer, but I’ve had lots of my photos published with my articles. And the camera has to fit easily in a pants (or in this case, shorts) pocket.

iPad
I might be tweeting from some of the venues in Florida, so I will bring my mini-iPad with me. I don’t use a smartphone because I’m on the ding-dang computer 10 hours or more a day anyway, and I don’t want to be lured by the siren of incessant email and text and Net by a phone—ever. But the iPad is a good compromise, and a good way to check email on the go if necessary (more likely back in the hotel room if I’m too weary to boot a computer). I’m a doddering fool on its virtual keyboard, but can make do.

Digital recorder
I’m bringing a tiny digital recorder with me in case I want to speak notes into it rather than write them while I’m on the move. This might alarm some of my fellow travelers, but these are the days when people talk aloud into space while on the move—some of them are even speaking to human beings; others are communing with the cosmos.

Notepad
I’ll bring a pocket-sized notepad on each trip. I often scribble (mostly unintelligible) notes while I travel that can come in handy later, and you don’t have to rely on not fully reliable technology. You will have to rely on the technology of the pencil or pen, however. But sometimes even a single word—macaw!—can bring back the full import of a scene you want to write about later, and notepads are great for that.

Of course there are a number of other incidentals a travel writer’s suitcase could contain (a world globe with a six-foot stand, maybe a javelin), but listed are some core things a writer might think about (and possibly forget) when they are planning a trip. If you need a wool blanket, let me know.

PS I am bringing toothpaste, so feel comfortable sitting next to me if you see me.

Editors. Uhhh! What Are They Good For?

'2008-01-26 (Editing a paper) - 31' photo (c) 2008, Nic McPhee - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

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.

Proofreading

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).

Breathing New Life Into Your Writing

SunriseWalk2
Sunrise, Kosrae, Federated States of Micronesia

A while back, I lived on a tiny Micronesian island for a year. I taught various English department classes to students at the junior college, and for several reasons, my stay there was flavored with some sour stints of depression and anxiety. But I like to think about the things there that soothed me: the extraordinary beauty of the waters, the dazzling, resplendent corals and marine life under that water, the tropical breezes that lightened the blazing hammer of the days.

But one of the things I remember so clearly is a sound (maybe because they didn’t have any of Proust’s madeleines there with which to tag my aroma memory). That sound was the bright, high, rattling tinkle of waves breaking and receding over the bits and chunks of coral at the water’s edge. There was a broad coral reef surrounding the island, and there was coral rubble of all shapes and sizes at the shoreline. When the waves brushed over that coral, it was as though a master—and eccentric, maybe like Thelonious Monk—pianist or perhaps a vibrant vibes player finger-danced over coral keys.

It’s challenging to describe a sound, particularly one that because of the variable tempo of the waves and the configuration of the coral was forever changing, but there was something so pleasingly calming about it; the repetitive sweep of the waves and its tinkling chime was an aural massage. After some particularly crappy days at the school, just coming back to our house and sitting by the ocean listening to the jangling chime of the coral was enough to bathe my bile in a sonic balm.

No Coral Concert? Just Breathe Instead

I bring up those island days because I’ve lately had some biting bouts with anxiety and depression again. Just the usual mishmash of feeling unaccomplished, that my writing work—both business and personal—was going poorly, that though it was sunny spring, there was a chill inside. And there aren’t any coral-chipped beaches for a few thousand miles from my Central California home.

I can conjure many reasons not to write: worrying that a button was missing off my shirt, wondering if that girl from high school really didn’t like me or just slashed my tires to get my attention, thinking I would work on my novel if there weren’t a section of the tax code online I should study for an hour or two—the list knows no end. No writers need to add “I feel like a deflated tire” to the long list of inanities that prevent them from applying the magic formula: put the time in, and the words will come.

So, for the past couple of weeks, I’ve started the morning with a simple meditation. I’m not going to get militantly woo-woo on you and tell you you have to do 1,000 Sun Salutes, an hour of chanting and then stare at the sun until God speaks, and that then your writing will flow like the mighty river. What I’m doing is simple: a 15-minute meditation that has been working for me like the sweet sound of waves on coral: a lightly stirred serving of now, and now again. This particular meditation is a guided one, though you certainly don’t need an iPad to sit and breathe. This guidance is served up by a modulated woman’s voice offering some thoughts on focusing on the present moment, then offering silence, then focusing on the ebb and flow of the breath, then silence, and on.

And it’s helping.

Breathing Through the Ping-Pongings of Your Infernal Mind

The meditation suggests that you look with kindness on the ping-pongings of your infernal mind, that mad monkey that goes from, “Are we low on milk” to “if the asteroid hits and destroys the earth in a week, I won’t have to make the payment on the flat screen tv.” Beginning my morning with a simple meditation, and reminding myself that any time throughout the day, I can return to a minute or two of acknowledging the rolling ride of my breath (rather than watch another YouTube video) has been liberating in some ways.

I bookend the meditation with some quick thoughts on things I’m grateful for. And these don’t have to be any complex or grandiose or self-aggrandizing things, like being grateful for the Apple stock split. No, it’s more like the “I’m grateful for the sound of waves on coral.” Ahhhhh …

My feeling about my writing has been better—it’s breathing some new life. And I’m doing a little more of it. I wish I’d found out earlier that writing is actually a breathing exercise.

A Little Bit Extra

I wrote a piece on getting a gun at a young age, and how that troubling time has stayed with me all my days: Taking Flight from the Trigger, published on Medium. Recommend it with that bottom button if you’re of a mind to.

And a Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers out there!