The Indulgence of Dictionaries

There is, I think, common to all the various species of writers (and I’m talking here about those who want to write, not necessarily those who want to be writers—there’s a difference) a love for the basic building blocks of the art form. To wit, words. The way painters enjoy a fresh tube of titanium white, or maybe how sculptors dig the smell of clay on their hands, this is how most writers seem to appreciate the way words look on a page, the sibilant slide of syllables, the assonance and alliteration of consonants and vowels. When you stumble across an unfamiliar grapheme, an unexpected way to describe an experience, and if you feel a thrill such that you immediately rewrite your last paragraph in order to include it, that’s when you know (to misquote Kipling) that, indeed, you’re a writer, my son.

The late and much lamented David Foster Wallace left, as part of his legacy, an American Heritage Dictionary, complete with circled entries. For our enjoyment and time wastage, he’s given us his favorite words, or words that he had aspired to learn, or words that had, at least, tickled his fancy. And while I might quibble with his choice of dictionary (I personally much prefer Webster’s), I’m delighted to find, in this inspiring, brilliant, often challenging author, a kindred, word-loving spirit. For someone inclined to parse through DFW’s personality, to analyze the nuts and bolts of the intellect that produced Infinite Jest, etc., one could do worse than spend twenty minutes with the words he deemed important enough to remark upon. (You can imagine, for instance, the day he came across “androsterone: a steroid hormone excreted in urine that reinforces masculine characteristics,” and how he felt a pillager’s delight, a thrill that he might then be able to use it to describe a distasteful character, a man who literally pisses machismo.

Writers are mostly shameless about how readily they co-opt someone else’s research and work. (For my money, this shamelessness is also a good indicator of the seriousness of intent. Stopping short, of course, of plagiarism, your first concern should always be for the quality of the writing—is it any good?—rather than how it came to be good.) With that in mind, I plan to appropriate, at first opportunity, DFW’s fine word névé, which is defined as the upper part of a glacier where snow turns to ice. It seems to me a perfect analogy for some-damn-thing.

After I include it in an appropriate sentence, however, I will take a few seconds to light a figurative candle to DFW, one of the great stylists of our age.

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Quote of the Week

A dream consists of little more than its setting, as anyone knows who tells a dream or hears a dream told:
We were squeezing up the stone streets of an Old World village.
We were climbing down the gangway of an oceangoing ship, carrying a baby.
We broke through the woods on the crest of a ridge and saw water; we grounded our blunt raft on a charred point of land.
We were lying on boughs of a tree in an alley.
We were dancing in a darkened ballroom, and the curtains were blowing.
– Annie Dillard

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road was bare and white except for the leaves.
– Ernest Hemingway

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Quotes of the Week

Only the best art can order the chaotic tumble of events. Only the best can realign chaos to suggest better the chaos and order it will become.
– Joseph Conrad

Let them think what they like, but I didn’t mean to drown myself. I meant to swim till I sank – but that’s not the same thing.
– Joseph Conrad

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Quote of the Week

Now lend me your ears. Here is Creative Writing 101:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time is wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story gets pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
— Kurt Vonnegut
vonnegut

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The Business of Writing

In idle moments – particularly now, especially in these angst-ridden days of e-book shifts and declining readerships – I’ve been thinking, in a bemused sort of way, about the massive complexity of the publishing industry.

The relationship that should concern most authors is that which exists between author and reader. We’re writing our books to be read by those who adore books, who browse a quaint corner store before stumbling across a neatly packaged labor of love. They’ll read the jacket copy, maybe dip into a page or two, then shell out twenty-five bucks to take it home, spend the next few days in a world you’ve uniquely created. To my mind, not enough has been made of the magic and mystery of this relationship. Individuals reaching out across miles and generations to touch another human being. It’s the essential gist of some damn thing.

But facilitating this relationship is a remarkable, complex machine geared with agents, editors, publicists, distributors, bookstore owners, marketing, book reps…For the aspiring writer, it can be an intimidating prospect, finding yourself awash in this confusing sea of often-competing corporate interests. After you’ve sent your book to a hungry agent, what should you expect to happen?

Every book is slightly different, of course (as is every company) but in general a few truisms apply. First, your agent. You have your book, which was not written (or should not have been written) with the market in mind. You do not know the market, although you think you do. You cannot predict what will sell, although you think you can. But your agent, who has (or should have) a figurative Rolodex filled with forty or fifty editors whose tastes she knows, whose brains she has picked as to the internal workings of their respective companies, will have a sense for the saleability of your book. She should have an ideal editor in mind after reading the first ten pages.

The acquiring editor is answerable to his or her publisher. The publisher is the faceless jefe, the head honcho, the man or woman who (in coordination with a committee of equally faceless VPs), hands down edicts, determines the nautical heading of the company. By and large, the publishers come from the business side of the business. While they may appreciate books as an art form, they are answerable to owners and stockholders, to silk-tied suits around a table, and as such have as their primary concern the bottom line. They want a book to make money. Your book was written out of love, but it will be largely be judged, by your publisher, according to its commercial value.

A good acquiring editor will take the publisher’s directives (“We need more novels that are set in Louisiana. The south is a good market for us right now.”) and communicate them with varying degrees of subtlety to the agents in his or own Rolodex. If your agent feels that the book fits into a publisher’s vision for a particular company, your agent will pass the book along. Hopefully, there will be an offer. The offer from the editor will depend on a variety of factors, including potential interest from other publishers, his or her internal budgets, and where s/he is on his own quota (every editor is responsible for acquiring a certain number of books per bi-annual catalogue).

Interestingly, the weak link in this chain so far (the first in a series) is the lack of communication between book store owners and agents / editors / authors. The on-the-ground booksellers, the ones who are in the most direct contact with readers, typically only communicate with the sales reps sent out by each company. The bookseller will tell the rep what people are buying, but that advice may or may not get communicated up the ladder. As an acquiring editor, I had very little productive contact with sales reps. I’m sure this is the norm rather than the exception.

After finding a customer (in the person of the acquiring editor), your agent negotiates a contract. Hopefully she’s managed to retain some portion of the sub-licensing, including paperback rights, foreign rights, first serial, and film / TV. If not, hopefully she’s managed extra compensation for any of the above. For the next six months or a year, you’ll be working with the acquiring editor almost exclusively, polishing the manuscript to his or her tastes. This process tends to be an intricate dance of quid pro quo. “I really want you to change this, but I only kind of want you to change this.” If you follow direction on the first you can keep the second. This can be an unusually satisfying process. It can also be very frustrating. If your editor is talented, and can see flaws you’ve previously overlooked, you get the opportunity to see your work bettered by another voice, the chance to see your own project through the lens of an intelligent, devoted professional. If the editor’s on the wrong page, you get to see your work potentially eviscerated by someone who doesn’t finally understand what you were trying to accomplish. (The good news: Most editors are so overworked these days, they rarely have a chance time to spend quality time with a manuscript. The bad news: Most editors are too overworked to spend time with your manuscript.)

When the manuscript leaves the acquiring editor’s desk, that’s when the real work starts.

The Process of Finding a Reader

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Quotes of the Week

The task of an American writer is not to describe the misgivings of a woman taken in adultery as she looks out of a window at the rain but to describe four hundred people under the lights reaching for a foul ball. This is ceremony.
– John Cheever

Longing on a large scale is what makes history. This is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd, anonymous thousands off the buses and trains, people in narrow columns tramping over the swing bridge above the river, and even if they are not a migration or a revolution, some vast shaking of the soul, they bring with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day – men in fedoras and sailors on shore leave, the stray tumble of their thoughts, going to a game.
– Don Delillo

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The Importance of Aphorisms

A few years ago, I heard Joan Didion read from The Year of Magical Thinking at the 92nd Street Y. A strong reading, but what has stuck with me most is a comment she made after the reading during the Q & A session. Someone asked (via slips of paper passed to the host) about the difference between writing fiction and nonfiction. She made a comment such that the problem with fiction is that you always have to wrestle with the question, Does the world really need another novel?

In my own work, I find that the background static of pop culture and its hundred thousand tendrils has the cumulative result of reducing the value of what I’m trying to accomplish. The world’s talking about everything except fiction. It’s much too easy to become disheartened by the final irrelevance of yet-another-damn-novel. In order to be productive at all, I find that I have to write entirely for myself (which, I think, compromises the quality of the work — if I’m the only reader, why polish a piece to readability?), or pace and drink coffee and read old favorites until I’ve convinced myself that, yes, fiction still does matter, still does hold a place in the public arena.

Two website stumbles have, recently and unexpectedly, helped a little in the daily struggle to feel relevant. Contrariwise is essentially a gallery of literary tattoos. A collection of aphorisms, excerpts, and one-liners that have mattered enough to a small handful of folks that they’ve etched the words into their skin. Fiction and poetry still speak to people, and often so strongly that they feel compelled to carry it with them through their lives. I find this strangely heartening.

Along the same lines, the Academy of American Poets has been hosting the Free Verse Project, asking contributors to write “lines from a favorite poem on a sandy beach, assemble twigs on a hillside, or chalk the sidewalk…” then submit a photo of their work. Some of the photos are right on the edge of brilliant. I find a new and unexpected melancholy, for instance, in the quote from Prufrock drawn into a spilled tablet of non-dairy creamer.

It’s something to aspire toward, I think. Writing well enough, and persistently enough, to finally come up with a line worthy of being drawn into a powdered food substitute.

From the Academy of American Poets

From the Academy of American Poets

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Quote of the Week

The fewer novels or plays you write—because of other parasitic interests—the fewer you will have the ability to write. The law ruling the arts is that they must be pursued to excess.

V.S. Pritchett

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A Few Thoughts on Book Covers

New authors are often surprised, working with a publishing house for the first time, by how little control they actually have over the final product. It’s their book, after all. Shouldn’t they have a certain amount of say-so over cover design? Type design? Sales and marketing? Alas (or not, depending on your perspective), it’s the rare publisher indeed who allows an author any meaningful input with regard to packaging or advertising (self-promotion, of course, is another matter — the more the author pushes his or her own book, the more the publisher will appreciate it…and the more likely they’ll be to offer another contract).

It’s almost impossible for an author to negotiate a contract that allows for control over cover treatment. But it is quite normal for an author to be allowed a voice. They can quite reasonably ask that a cover be run by them for feedback. (If this isn’t a part of the initial contract, you should ask for it during negotiations. The publisher will almost always grant the author the right to make non-binding suggestions.)

A recent website passed along to me by friends — The Book Cover Archive — provides an invaluable tool for new authors. You can browse books by genre, publisher, designer, etc., finding those titles that are most like the book you’re publishing (or maybe they just have drop-dead covers that you especially appreciate). It always helps the dialogue if authors can approach their publishers with examples, in hand, of what they would like to see in their book. That sort of feedback, so long as it is done politely and without ultimatum is always appreciated.

Always be aware, however, that there will always be internal company politics of which you aren’t aware. If the editor has a rocky relationship with the art director or designer, or if the designer has recently gained favor with the publisher and can do no wrong, or if the art director is especially intractable (and on, and on), there may not be much you can do. Best to offer your suggestions, with appropriate caveats, and then step back to let the process run its course. No one ever, ever, ever wants to be labeled a “difficult” author.

Art directors and designers are the (mostly) unsung heroes of book publishing. Their work populates our homes and covers our walls. Some of their covers are as familiar to us as the photos in our albums. Yet very few of us know more than a name or two. Of the designers represented in the Book Cover Archive, I particularly appreciate the work of rockstar designer Chip Kidd, as well as Henry Sene Yee and Darren Haggar.

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Quote of the Week

“Hard, hard work, excavation and digging, mining, moling through tunnels, heaving, pushing, moving rock, working, working, working, working, panting, hauling, hoisting. And none of this work is seen from the outside. It’s internally done. It happens because you are powerless and unable to get anywhere, to obtain justice or have requital, and therefore in yourself you labor, you wage and combat, settle scores, remember insults, fight, reply, deny, blab, denounce, triumph, outwit, overcome, vindicate, cry, persist, absolve, die and rise again. All by yourself! Where is everybody? Inside your breast and skin, the entire cast.”

Saul Bellow

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