The Perfect Write® Newsletter Archives, August 2015–Present

The Perfect Write® Newsletter, Vol 142, August 20, 2015
Pronoun Redux–More on the Importance of Eliminating Ambiguity

Hello Everyone,

Last month’s Newsletter set a record–and by a large margin–for the number of times links were accessed by subscribers. This is saying quite a bit since some of the past year’s broadcasts have resulted in record subscriber activity in this regard. Analyzing this metric lets me know what subscribers were/are interested in learning more about, and this is why I monitor link activity so closely. The Authors Guild article–on contract terms that all writers must be aware of–led the clicks, and I’m quite happy that so many subscribers took the initiative and accessed this material. I can’t think of anything more valuable for authors to study than this article, which clearly describes what the standard publisher contract entails.

And since there was such interest in this article, here’s a follow-up from the Authors Guild that covers the three main clauses it’s felt are most critical to fully comprehend. Once again, I’m strongly suggesting that every Newsletter subscriber–who has a book published by any outside imprint–should bookmark this material. The article discusses what I believe is the overriding bugbear in current contract wording, and this is determining what is the legitimate “end of life” for any book that has been inactive, since digital publishing essentially guarantees a book’s viability to perpetuity. Contract clauses pertaining to rights to perpetuity were designed scores of years ago and well before digital publishing was considered remotely a reality. Thank goodness the Authors Guild exists, as there is no other organization with nearly as much clout going to bat for writers. Again, please click this link, and bookmark it and the other link for future reference.

I mentioned attorney/writer Joan Johnston in last month’s broadcast, and I noticed that she just signed a new six-figure deal for three more of her books. She writes Historical Romance with a western flair, and I remember her mentioning some years ago that she earns $50,000 a month in royalties, and that she didn’t know how to spend all the money she was bringing in. I’m dead serious. I imagined at the time she wouldn’t have to say this in too loud a voice before she’d have a bevy of “helpers” at her door. The odd part was that she made this sound like anyone should be able to achieve the same result. I laughed, as developing an audience should only be as easy as “desire.” I like Joan, but she gave me another start when we got to talking about Nora Roberts’s knocking out a book a month.

I told her assumed that Ms. Roberts had a crew, as is the case with some other franchise authors (writing books based on outlines), and she simply signs her name once the manuscript is deemed complete. Joan said that Ms. Roberts is a workaholic and writes every one of her books. That brought another laugh from me, as I’m certain Joan believes in her heart of hearts that Ms. Roberts writes her own material. I, too, believe she writes her own material, just not every line, as I don’t believe it’s humanly possible to write a book a month. There simply aren’t enough hours. But, if Ms. Roberts has somehow converted the Evelyn Wood approach to writing, so be it. Still, I’m not buying into her not having some elves running around in various capacities, and this assistance is what allows her prodigious output.

The number of books published first in a digital medium continues to interest me, as the Romance and New Adult genres seem to be the leading categories, with the latter appearing to be residing almost exclusively in the e-book domain, something I’ve mentioned in several broadcasts of late. So for those subscribers who have mature-themed YA material, I strongly suggest closely monitoring the daily Publishers Marketplace reports to determine which imprints are publishing NA.

I believe that some of these imprints will be receptive to nonsolicited (read “unagented”) manuscripts, which means not having to fight the agent wars prior to submission. However, this does not mean that the executive editors with these publishing concerns are any less quality-conscious than a print company’s managing editors. Still, just like the agent who changes shop or the associate agent who has just been promoted and is looking to build a list, this is the best possible time I know to “strike.” Hence, for anyone writing NA material, paying attention to the digital-only publishers might not be a bad idea.

I’m always eager to support quality material in my Newsletter, regardless of whether or not the writer is a client. However, I’m of course proud when a client has done something I deem special, and Mike Hartner’s third installment in his “Eternity” series in my opinion hits that mark. I, MARY is another of what I refer to as Juvenile Fiction with a Picaresque/Historical Adventure subset. I’ve long advocated the Picaresque subset so critics don’t lambast historical inaccuracies in any Adventure novel, as leeway is almost always necessary to make certain timelines fit.

In the case of I, MARY certain events legitimately unfolded differently in English history as they relate to some of the story’s characters. However, as Mike says in his intro, if a child should find his references of interest and research, for example, the Black Plague of 1666 or the Great Fire the following year, this would indeed be a wonderful byproduct of reading I, MARY. That link will take the reader to Amazon; however, I, MARY’s opening chapter is posted both on my Critique Blog and my Personal Blog, should any subscriber prefer either site to the Amazon page. If you enjoyed I, WALTER (currently exceeding 1,800 copies sold) and I, JAMES, I’m confident that I, MARY will not disappoint, as Mary’s a strong yet sympathetic character who in this storyline becomes one of the youngest captains in the history of the British maritime fleet–and one of the few women ever to achieve this distinction.

I’ve often remarked that I never know just how subscribers will react to the material I write for my Newsletters. However, I assumed I’d lose a few subscribers as a result of what I wrote in my last broadcast, and I was correct. Each had been receiving my Newsletter for a very short-term (the longest was six months), and one person’s reasons for unsubscribing were what I expected: “Mr. Bacon, I don’t understand how someone who is supposed to encourage writers can be so negative about the industry.” First, I’m not supposed to do anything, ha ha, but if I didn’t explain the brutal truths about the business as I know it, most often from my personal experience and miscues along the way, why should anyone read my observations at all?

As I’ve said many times, what purpose might I serve by glossing over the facts that this is not a business for the faint of heart? It’s an industry in which one in a million hit it really big, and the odds are getting worse each day because the barriers to self-publishing are nonexistent. This “ease-of-entry” floods a market already swimming (read “drowning”) in material that serves no purpose beyond gratifying the egos of its authors, as the overwhelming majority have zero chance of attracting a following beyond friends and family. However, as I’ve also said, this penchant to see one’s name in print or on a computer screen in my opinion is not a bad thing, as self-publishing indeed provides a cathartic benefit for many folks. But material that would be deemed unpublishable by any credible standard is presented as marketable. And this is the rub, as any book, regardless of quality, “counts” as a number in what is now a scrum of what just a few years ago would have been considered unimaginable proportions.

Anyone who knows me or has worked with me as a client is aware of how much I encourage writing. But I support quality prose and not the theoretical scribbling of words on paper when the rhetoric has no merit. I can find something good about most anyone’s writing, and this is what I dwell on in an attempt to motivate a budding author to improve. Sometimes the prodding can be a gentle nudge and sometimes it can involve a good, old-fashioned shove, and sometimes I deem a kick in the seat of one’s pants as the only method to guarantee a positive reaction. However, I seldom get beyond tactic number two, and the overwhelming majority of my analyses are with an olive branch and not a boot in the fanny.

However, I have to be honest with the writer, and this means being honest with myself as well. I love literature and my client relationships mean everything to me, and this has zero to do with money, as editing, I can assure anyone, is not a field in which a person can get rich. People would rather spend $3,500 on a book’s cover than with an editor. I knew this going in, and I’ve never been offended. Likewise, I’ve always asked writers not to be upset if I’m not jumping up and down about some aspect(s) of what I’m sent to either critique or edit. And if I’m putting 150 or more hours into a line-edit–I’m certainly not doing this if I don’t believe in the story and its author.

For me, writing is not a hobby nor an avocation to while away my time during my retirement, as editing is where I spend most of my waking hours–and most often into the a.m. And I do this because I have a love for what letters provide, and I’m at an age that my work with writers is the one thing I can still perform at what I believe is a competent level, as I certainly can’t hit a golf ball or run 10,000 meters anymore. But I can read a client’s material and do my best to feel what that writer experienced in designing the narrative that’s now in front of me. Each sentence meant something to the author, and it means something to me in that I’m entrusted with that person’s material–and asked to make it better. This is what editing is all about, and only a love of literature makes the work not a chore but a privilege.

I am more positive about writing than I have ever been, but I’m older now and have learned what I believe will benefit writers who might not have had the same experiences. And if I can provide a shortcut or two along the way, and perhaps save folks from throwing away money on worthless concepts or downright schemes to steal their money, I don’t consider this as negative concerning any aspect of the craft of writing, regardless of the publishing medium involved. For me, it’s a simple case of getting from point A to point B as efficaciously as possible, and sidestepping the pitfalls along the way is certainly an advantage, even if this means discussing aspects of our industry that are not always pleasant to relate. I believe that most people would rather talk about negatives than experience them firsthand, and my hope is that my contributions enable writers to recognize certain problematic scenarios before becoming tripped up by them. This desire for clarity on my part should never be viewed as lessening my fervor for the profession I dearly love.

In the past I’ve discussed digital rights management (DRM) and its various ramifications for both writers and readers, and since plagiarism will always rear its ugly head I don’t believe the importance of attempting to protect content is an issue that can receive too much attention. Digital watermarking is something that most folks outside of IT personnel know little about, and while I don’t want to sully the material that’s out there with my layman’s drivel, anyone typing “watermarking in digital publishing” on a search engine will immediately come upon many links to material that explain digital watermarking in a way that is clear and relatively simple. This information is important for anyone who is self-publishing or considering this route, and the information will clarify why a DRM decision has to be made by any writer who is also considering a digital release of material via Amazon or anywhere else. Here’s one good (and short) article on watermarking and DRM in general that explains ways to protect content.

An aspect of DRM that must be understood is that it’s also used by firms as a medium for buyer sourcing. Hence, why we at times receive what can be considered either odd or propitiously timed advertisements in our in-boxes, which seem to come out of nowhere. I’m always getting requests to receive car insurance quotes, for example, with my Zip code and vehicle info to tease my interest. However, ignoring these petty annoyances, if a watermark can legitimately protect intellectual property to one degree or another, I have to lean heavily toward supporting the technology. Still, this should be an individual decision (as should everything involving publishing), and my goal in this section is solely to make folks aware of watermarking if they are considering or using a digital medium for book marketing, distribution, or sales.

E.L. Doctorow (not documented as be related to Cory) has passed away. He has always been one of my favorite writers, and my only complaint about him was that he once was the keynote speaker at a Melville Society gala. I’ve always held this against him, as MOBY-DICK is a book I loathe yet he went on for a half-hour extolling what he considered the story’s virtues. Regardless of my disdain for the literary company he kept (just kidding), RAGTIME is one of my favorite stories, and I found BILLY BATHGATE immensely entertaining. The problem with the latter is that the movie was so poorly cast (Dustin Hoffman as Dutch Schultz) that I’m afraid this kept a lot of people from reading the book.

If one can Ignore my bias regarding the movie BILLY BATHGATE, and please do, ha ha, RAGTIME provides a tremendously valuable model for building multiple threads and maintaining the conflict in each until story’s end (even though some plot elements weren’t fully reconciled). Much can be learned about the craft of writing from Mr. Doctorow, and his passing leaves a gap that in my little mind is right up there with losing Elmore Leonard not that long ago.

Today’s article is once again about pronouns, as the problem with the ambiguity they can create is not something] to dismiss, as anything that might confuse the reader is certainly to be avoided. Here is today’s drivel in this regard:

Pronoun Redux–More on the Importance of Eliminating Ambiguity

I recently looked of a draft of novel of mine that I’d written in the early-’90s, and I immediately spotted an instance of a pronoun that didn’t clearly refer to the correct antecedent. And as I began parsing the material further I discovered several instances of my not providing the reader with a lucid idea of to whom or what my pronoun was referring.

Why Beta Reads Often Are Ineffective

This particular manuscript of mine made all the usual rounds, and I remember being pumped up by the positive reaction from friends, relatives, and critique groups. But no literary representative wanted the story, and now, twenty-plus years later, I believe I know why.

If a client had sent me this book, I would have immediately told the author that the placement of pronouns–and the ambiguity they created–killed the readability of the story. Because of what I discovered, I frankly was embarrassed that this was my own work.

“Soft” reads in my opinion should be the bane of any writer’s existence, especially when starting out, as laymen, and especially friends and relatives, aren’t going to view a draft as to what hinders the prose in the way someone who’s trained will consider issues that can stop a reader.

Examples of Ineffective Pronoun Use

I’m often asked to provide more extensive examples in my articles, but this is one time when just a few pronoun miscues identify the problem in abundant terms. Check out these sentences:

Officer Nichols and Jonathan were engaged in a heated discussion when he pulled his weapon and shot him.

John and Mary’s relationship was already rocky, so the timing of Ned’s interloping made him very happy.

As the train with the politicians pulled away from the station, Don found it eerie that the few remaining stragglers stood so close to it.

Clarity or Confusion?

In the first sentence, Officer Nichols is logically thought to carry a weapon, but is it a given that he pulled the gun and shot Jonathan? I took this sentence from an actual vignette in a book, and Jonathan, who was a drug smuggler, pulled his gun and shot Officer Nichols.

In John and Mary’s short setup, John could be thought to be the happy one, but is that guaranteed? In the way this scene played out, John wanted to do anything to keep his marriage together, but Ned, who’d been interested in Mary for years, found this the ideal time to try to win her affection; hence, Ned was the happy interloper.

In the final example, is it the train or the station that the stragglers were standing near? One could say it wouldn’t matter, but in this instance it did, since a moment later a bomb blew up the train. Those standing had planted the bomb and were utilizing the station for protection from the blast.

A Noun Is Always Better Than an Ambiguous Pronoun, Even If It Repeats

It’s a writer’s challenge to constantly find alternate nouns to express the same person, place, or thing within a vignette or even lone scene. Each of the examples I chose offers an easy set of solutions:

Officer Nichols could be referred to as “the cop” instead of “him.”

Ned could be called “the ardent admirer” instead of “him.”

And “the building” can take the place of “it.”

In a long run of exposition, even if we believe that all the handles for a police officer have been utilized, saying that the “officer” was shot is still preferable to “him,” if the reader has no idea to whom “him” refers.

Anything So the Reader Keeps Reading

Some years ago, a very skilled professional reader at a library where I conducted my workshops pointed out a few areas in a story I wrote for which a pronoun should have been eschewed for a noun. I was delighted someone took the time to tell me this, and I hope that those who read this article will come away with the same enthusiasm. Yes, we’re taught not to patronize the reader by explaining too much. But designing text so our thoughts are clearly understood is a requirement for all good writing–and should never be considered pejorative or subjective.

The Perfect Write® Newsletter, Vol 143, September 15, 2015
Dead Words and Their Remedy–Part One

Hello Everyone,

Once again I want to compliment subscribers for assessing the links I provide with each broadcast, as last month’s totals exceeded the previous month’s, which had also been a record. Any writer who has the slightest interest in pursuing a mainstream royalty publisher has to understand the contract that she or he will be presented with if a book is signed. And nobody, and I mean nobody, beats these draconian instruments in court, at least that’s ever been made public knowledge. I’m beyond gratified that so many of you accessed the material on publishing terms that must be understood before signing a contract, but I’m also pleased that a substantial group of subscribers looked at the DRM/Watermarking information. The latter might not seem important–but it will be for any author whose digital material is pirated and sold by someone who receives payment but does not remit a royalty. That is ultimately why this matters.

Writers United, a group of 900 or so members and headed by Douglas Preston (a writer whose work I’ve not read) is calling for the Justice Department to investigate Amazon, essentially for operating a monopoly. I normally wouldn’t comment on this because it’s like saying that the Pope is a Catholic, but as I looked at the authors who make up this group, it’s formidable to say the least, since it includes Stephen King, John Grisham, Nora Roberts, Michael Chabon, Jon Krakauer, George Saunders, and Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket). Scott Turow, who’s long championed writers’ issues and was the president of the Authors Guild for several years, is also on board, and when the final proposal was sent some 600 authors had signed it.

I don’t know the answer to Amazon any more than anyone else I’ve listened to, but I made my decision to sell my book of articles and distribute and ship it myself, not from greed but because of the simple fact that by turning a book over to Amazon’s mechanism I have virtually no control over pricing. I find it ridiculous that Amazon can arbitrarily manipulate a retail price set by an author. For me, the strangest storyline involving Amazon in recent years is the Apple suit, as the latter was (and still is) the firm accused of price-fixing. I’ve always felt this was the most blatant case of the tail wagging the dog imaginable. Amazon ships approximately70 percent of all books sold in America, not Apple. And while what Apple did was obviously improper, in my lay opinion it’s a drop in the bucket compared to Amazon’s ability to control pricing.

Now Amazon executives are saying that their company will lose money this year–enough to wipe out all profits from the past three years–as a result of using its books as loss leaders. Come on! This is like when Scholastic showed losses during the HARRY POTTER heydays. If a company can’t make money with the single greatest franchise product in the history of contemporary publishing, what is it do when POTTER peters out? And hasn’t that happened, meaning that POTTER’s star on the book side has fallen? Yet, Scholastic—miraculously—has been able to keep its doors open.

My Newsletter would not be complete without another installment of the AuthorSolutions, Inc., saga. The court case filed in New York state was settled between the two plaintiffs and ASI under terms and conditions satisfactory to both parties. Of course the plaintiffs are prevented from discussing settlement terms, and the class action request was denied. The gist of the class action denial was that the case needed to be filed in ASI’s home state, which is Indiana. From the outset I never understood why the law firm representing the victims filed in New York. I questioned this decision further because every major case pertaining to intellectual property involving books seems to end up on Judge Denise Cote’s docket. And given this jurist’s unsympathetic history toward the plaintiffs with respect to these sorts of cases, I find it unfathomable that the law firm elected to file in New York. Now it will remain to be seen as to where this goes next. I continue to discuss ASI because this involves authors and the de minimus nature of their respective rights to restitution as seen through the eyes of our legal system. In not one case have I heard of price gouging as a contention, which leads me to believe there are no laws against this.

Since so many subscribers accessed the recent links to Author Guild articles, I’m providing another, in this instance regarding noncompete clauses in author contracts. I’ll let the article speak for itself and not reprint the text, but the salient issue is that the standard publisher contract requires a noncompete clause without chronology attached to it—which means “forever.” I know from experience in the healthcare industry that an open-ended noncompete clause (meaning, for a term of usage with no defined time frame) is invalid. But, as the article points out, what author wants to spend $150,000 and two or more years in court to get the clause invalidated, knowing that this negation has no impact on the rest of the contract. And if a writer sues a publisher and wins, she or he must still remain in bed with this same “contractor.” Most noncompete clauses I’m familiar with have a two-year term, which is the outside time limit the courts have found realistic. I’m of the opinion that this chronology should apply to the book business as well. Again, this pertains solely to noncompete issues, and to understand this a writer must become familiar with exactly what this means. And for most people this involves hiring a competent attorney who specializes in intellectual property and particularly with expertise in publishing (I’m told to expect a fee of around $1,500 for the review of a publishing contract, but from someone [me] who many times has shopped attorneys, which they hate by the way, that’s just a guide).

We’ve all read about the person who found this or that at a garage sale, bought it for five dollars, and it’s worth a half-million, and now the seller wants the item returned. The courts are all over the place on this, with respect to their rulings. I bring up this matter because of the ongoing court case in Australia involving the owners of the boutique literary agency that signed Erika Leonard (E.L. James) and originally sold the rights to the first GREY for one million dollars. With the book’s runaway sales numbers, and the sequels as well, the literary agency ended up with forty million dollars.

The agency was owned by four people, and as one might guess, the greed factor quickly entered the scene. One partner is suing for the ten million she never received, and while the judge has ordered that this amount is be set aside in an escrow account, the money supposedly has been spent, and now it appears that some real estate is sought to satisfy the claim. Good luck on that one. The funny part about this is, the agency owners were reported to have been beyond ecstatic to receive the original million. And I never understood how they were entitled to a dime more, let alone thirty-nine million. Does a lack of business acumen guarantee restitution? If it does, I know a lot of people who should be right up there with Bill Gates.

One of my favorite contemporary writers is Nelson DeMille. I’ve often discussed UP COUNTRY in my Newsletters and that I consider this a work of Literature, it’s that well written and thought-provoking. I don’t know of a writer who is better at holding a reader’s interest, which is no easy task in a book such as UP COUNTRY, which contains in the neighborhood of 200,000 words. I continue to marvel at how he kept the single most crucial plot element (in my opinion) “cloaked” until the very end. But I have a different reason for discussing Mr. DeMille in this Newsletter, and it’s because I picked up a copy of his latest book, RADIANT ANGEL—and while I bought Anthony Doerr’s ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE (I’ll be commenting on this book later in this Newsletter)—I was interested in the acknowledgments in RA, since Mr. DeMille switched book agents after being with Nicholas Ellison for as long as I can remember, and I wanted to read his remarks regarding ICM, the agency he’s now with.

As I was scanning the acknowledgments, I started counting the number of different editors he publicly lauded—and there were five. And he spent a year and a half writing and revising the text! There’s a “story” here, and it doesn’t concern RA. It’s that this fellow is a really fine writer, yet he’s willing to admit that his work benefits from other skilled eyes parsing his text. I use a copyeditor for almost everything I line-edit. And I utilize this person’s talents for my Newsletter, always making it clear to subscribers that any errors are almost always the result of my ridiculous tinkering after the copyedited draft has been returned to me.

In the world of fiction, in some quarters there’s a weirdly misguided stigma regarding editors. Or, I should say, needing an editor. It’s crazy, and there’s no other way to put it. Maybe one in a million writers possesses the skill to assess what should or should not be self-edited. But Joyce Carol Oates is the only name fiction writer I’m aware of who claims everything written by her is edited by her. And I put this right up there with Nora Roberts writing all her own books. If I’m wrong I’m wrong, but my experience dictates that none of us sees what we write in the same vein that we can see what someone else writes. It’s the nature of the way our minds work, and there have been all sorts of studies that explain what can be classified as a phenomenon of sorts.

I mentioned ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE earlier in this broadcast, and I found it a remarkable read; but, as with THE GOLDFINCH, not for the reasons routinely cited in the reviews. Many who hated the book said that the latter half of the narrative fell apart. One reader, who was particularly abrasive, even went so far as to reference the exact page (151) that caused her to put down the book for good. For me, ironically, up to page 151 or so, ATLWCS was perhaps the most boring book I’ve ever read. And I’ll admit that if the book hadn’t won a Pulitzer and made a number of other short lists, I likely would have quit on it. But, as with going against the grain with GONE GIRL—in that case a book in which the last half received the most reader vitriol—the narrative of ATLWCS started to pick up from page 151 forward (I’m kidding about the exact page, but it was around a fourth of the way through the narrative). I found the last half of the book to be excellent, and often even scintillating, so much so that I read the last 150 pages in one sitting, finishing in the wee hours of the morning

I’ve often commented on book reviews and how ridiculous they can be at times. One erudite chap who lambasted the story did so because a bridge Mr. Doerr alluded to in the story was not built in France in 1940, the timeline in which the reference occurred. I’ve previously discussed my favorite rebuke of this ilk, which involved a friend of mine who wrote about the fall of Pan Am Airlines, but in covering this company also provided a wonderful exegesis on the history of aviation. An elderly aviator and airline-history buff drove several hundred miles to tell my friend Bob at a book signing that he’d inaccurately listed the horsepower rating of an aircraft engine manufactured not that many years after the Wright Brothers’ original. The error, if it could be called that—since actual horsepower in those days was a suggested estimate at best—was something like fifty-three instead of fifty-one. Bob told me that he explained to the man where he’d sourced his empirical data, apologized for the horrific miscue, and promised to revise the text so that the correct horsepower rating for this early engine appeared in the book’s next reprint, should there ever be one. What else could he say? Poor guy drove all day to discuss a two-horsepower guess.

One of the primary criticisms of ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE was that the narrative contained too much detail. First, anyone who dislikes florid prose should never buy a work of Literature that’s 530 pages. Second, this is a book that chronicles the life of a girl who becomes blind at the age of six and must live through the horrors of the bombing of her small town in France during WW2. And that’s the least of her issues. I will not spoil the story, so this is all I’m going to say. However, isn’t this enough, as the liner notes also reveal the same information, to let even the most callow reader know that the story will contain enormous detail as the writer shows the world through this blind child’s mind until she reaches puberty and beyond? Imagine THE CALL OF THE WILD if Jack London hadn’t described Buck’s “thoughts”? It was the genius of the story—and it’s the same with respect to Mr. Doerr’s skill as it applies to this blind child.

However, I wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t admit that Mr. Doerr left himself open for criticism in a couple of areas. I often scratched my head as to why he chose to write the book via constant flashbacks and jumps forward and not simply in a linear chronological fashion. I found it maddening, especially toward the story’s finish, to have to constantly go back in the text to find out when something was happening (or had occurred). I’d love to ask him why he did this. My only answer, without his telling me, is that he didn’t find a perfectly linear narrative as gripping. I’m not about to rip the pages from the book and collate the narrative in correct chronological order, but it wouldn’t be a bad exercise as a means for me to truly determine if my supposition might have validity.

Mr. Doerr also made some of what seemed to be odd word choices early on in the story that had me wondering if this might have cost him some points with readers. He uses the couplet “anti-air” without including the noun this would modify (or should, ha ha). He does say “anti-air battery” later on, but the reader is constantly left to come up with “anti-aircraft gun” or some such completed expression. Early in the story he also defines a character who “gapes” as the result of an action. I thought he’d meant to write “gasps,” even though “gapes” can certainly serve as a verb. However, he writes “gapes” in the same context later on in the narrative to make it clear that this was indeed his word of choice in his earlier run. Regardless, I can’t get “gapes,” as in “he gapes,” as a good word selection. And Mr. Doerr, for all his brilliance as a writer, constructs a number of sentences with dangling modifiers. We all do, so it’s no great sin, but when a writer is so meticulous with a draft that he requires nine years to bring it to fruition, it’s hard to fathom that he would not have caught the danglers.

Another literary anomaly that anyone reading the book will notice (although it escaped those offering editorial mishmash to Mr. Doerr) was his alternating between standard and metric units of measure. I fouled up with this while writing an early novel of mine, as my American protagonist (an archaeologist) was working with a team in Nepal and Tibet and stumbled upon the cause of the HIV virus (the book was agented but never picked up by a mainstream house, so the manuscript remains in a box under a table in my office, should anyone be interested). I mixed up miles with kilometers, and it wasn’t until my twentieth reading of the story that I caught this inconsistency and consolidated the terms. I’m going to suggest that no Newsletter subscriber let Mr. Doerr’s success with this book provide the false assurance that it’s acceptable to use kilometers in one chapter and miles in another. A theme of a recent Newsletter was that Pulitzer Prize winners break all the rules, and this is another example.

In finishing up my feeble drivel on Mr. Doerr’s masterpiece, I believe that anyone who appreciates or wants to learn how to layer a story with multiple characters will find this book a wonderful template, right up there with USA, RAGTIME, and THE WINDS OF WAR (and its sequel). But perhaps ATLWCS is superior to the others I listed since everything is presented in short bursts via the minichapter approach that James Patterson seems to be responsible for perfecting (ad nauseam, I’m afraid, as way too many writers believe this is currently the only way to effectively pace a story). In ATLWCS, while the chronology issues I discussed will drive some readers up the wall, the pitch won’t, as Mr. Doerr understands word tempo at a marvelous level. The book is worth reading for this element alone. However, in my opinion, the book is much more; since, as with THE GOLDFINCH, which required about a decade of Ms. Tartt’s life to craft as well, Mr. Doerr’s narrative exemplifies the art of letters in addition to providing an enormously influential read.

It’s been my contention for several years that the large, stand-alone, brick-and-mortar bookstores, as well as those that lease space in major malls and strip-malls, will be forced out of existence. And I’m of the opinion that as copying technology becomes more efficient (read “faster”), less expensive (an Espresso Book Machine approaches six figures), and more user friendly (I’m told this is not a slam dunk, as it takes a few tries to get it right when printing a “personal” work), book-printing kiosks will spring up everywhere. My prediction is that the B&N/Starbucks model will be reversed, in that Starbucks will be the anchor for the book kiosks, and folks will have the current bestsellers printed before they can slurp down a latte.

I’m rehashing this because I want to make clear that I don’t predict the elimination of the small, independent bookstore; that wonderful institution in which I’m going to guess many who read my detritus routinely laze away an hour or two whenever possible. In addition to offering used books at ridiculously low prices, it’s in these stores that I’ve been able to purchase long out of print books by Harry Crews and Upton Sinclair and discovered great finds in original covers by Herman Melville (BILLY BUDD) and Agatha Christie (THE SECRET ADVERSARY), as well as a first edition of BURR (which a “friend” borrowed for two years, and I finally had to follow him home from a tavern one evening to get it back).

The small, independent bookstore is a fixture I never want to see die. This establishment with a bin of books out front with signs ranging form “fifty cents each” to “take one leave one.” Upon entering, we’re always greeted by a grotesquely overfed cat or a hound of noble breed that wouldn’t move no matter the strength of what’s attempting to incommode the beast (should it be necessary to reach the bookshelf it’s plopped in front of). Add to this the indescribable but unmistakable smell of book “mustiness” from pages being kept intact as if protected by this mysterious aroma, which I like refer to as the “scent of knowledge.” I view the small, independent bookstore the same as patina on a ship’s brass bell or the aging of the frame surrounding a portrait of the matriarch of a founding family. The faint cracking of the wood is like an age line on a beautiful woman, making her more stunning than at any other point in her life (think Annette Benning and Diane Keaton). Maybe that symbolism will motivate some folks to venture into that old bookstore that’s passed all the time on the way to the diner. And if it does I’ve achieved my purpose.

Still belaboring why the printed book matters, I required many years before I became comfortable with e-books, especially with editing material sent to me digitally. However, many who edit, agent, or publish today continue to demand printed drafts only. While I might have acquiesced (the best word choice I can make for my relenting and accepting e-material, ha ha), I want a hard copy in my library, no different from the professor whose office I’d walk into in college and see a wall of books behind her or his desk. I’m hardly a professor of anything, but I’m proud that I can display the shelves overflowing with the books I’ve read which have formed my opinions and given me the confidence to offer advice to others. I don’t think it would make the same impression if a client should visit my home and find me holding up an e-reader and proudly proclaiming, “Everything I discuss is in here.”

I find the force of the literal printed word undeniable, and this is why I’ve walked into small, independent bookstores and bought a book I already own and then placed it in the fifty-cent bin on the sidewalk outside the store. I believe that those of us who love writing have a responsibility to do in our small ways what James Patterson is doing in a major way. If nothing else, buy a couple of the fifty-cent books and then put them back later or give them to a friend. Either way, we are helping that bookstore owner pay the rent–and I’m of the opinion we should do whatever we can to see that it remains current.

Today’s article is about “dead words,” and this title is somewhat of a misnomer as the focus of this paper more accurately relates to words that don’t add to the message–and often even diminish the quality of the prose. This article will be in two parts, with the first dealing with what I consider the most common “offender.”

Dead Words and Their Remedy—Part One

I’m going to guess that the first question for most is, “What constitutes a dead word?” Let’s start with “was” or “were,” and consider what we’re taught the first day in English class in seventh grade:

John was in the park.

Which of course begs the question, “What exactly was John doing in the park?”

“Was” Is Indicating or Creating What Action?

Was John sitting, sleeping, walking, eating, talking to the birds, reading a book, or any of the uncountable number of actions, transitive or intransitive, that are humanly possible to create or experience in a park?

A writer could exhaust herself of himself considering the combinations, but what’s important is that a choice is made other than “was.” Hence, a scribe might consider “John slept in the park” rather than “John was in the park, sleeping,” should sleeping be his activity. Or, if a character is describing the action for the reader, “I found John sleeping in the park” is generally advantageous to “John was sleeping in the park when I came upon him.”

Fewer Words to Accomplish the Same Goal—and the Writing Is Better for It

If nothing else, the first syntax allows for fewer words to accomplish the same thought. However, this doesn’t mean that a writer’s style should be eschewed for substituting an action verb for “was” at all costs, lest the text become a staccato-pitched mess. My point is to attempt an action verb as a substitute for “was” whenever possible. This might be practical just a few times on every page. Still, I’ve found that in most cases a well-thought-out substitution for “was” can have a noticeable positive impact on a narrative overall.

Take a Quick Peek at Fitzgerald and Hurston (with a Caveat)

Anyone interested in how this applies in the real world of letters need only read the openings from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s TENDER IS THE NIGHT and Zora Neale Hurston’s THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD. (My copyeditor pointed out that both of these paragraphs I’m using for illustration are written in present tense, so to make certain my contention isn’t based on a false premise, I’ll be writing out the runs in past tense after each.)

Fitzgerald wrote: “On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about halfway between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-colored hotel. Deferential palms cool its flushed façade, and before it stretches a short dazzling beach. Lately it has become a summer resort of notable and fashionable people; a decade ago it was almost deserted after its English clientele went north in April. Now, only the cupolas of a dozen old villas rotted like water lilies among the massed pines between Gausse’s Hotel des Etrangers and Cannes, five miles away.”

In past tense, this could read as follows:

On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about halfway between Marseilles and the Italian border, stood a large, proud, rose-colored hotel. Deferential palms cooled its flushed façade, and before it stretched a short dazzling beach. Lately it had become a summer resort of notable and fashionable people; yet a decade ago left almost deserted after its English clientele went north in April. Now, only the cupolas of a dozen old villas rotted like water lilies among the massed pines between Gausse’s Hotel des Etrangers and Cannes, five miles away

And Ms. Hurston wrote: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by time. Time is the life of men.”

Here’s this brilliant opening in past tense:

Ships at a distance held every man’s wish on board. For some they came in with the tide. For others they sailed forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turned his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by time. Time, the life of men.

There’s a Reason for the Paucity of “Was”

In the opening chapter of TENDER IS THE NIGHT, one instance of “was” occurs in the entire run, and in my conversion to past tense there isn’t one occurrence of “was.” Ms. Hurston doesn’t utilize “was” once (again, since this is written in present tense, “was” wouldn’t appear in the syntax, but my illustration in past tense demonstrates the way “was” diminishes the quality of this extraordinary opening), and the verb doesn’t appear until two paragraphs later. No one can realistically be expected to write at the level of a Fitzgerald or a Hurston, but there is a reason both these authors are considered giants in the field of literature, and it’s not because I believe this to be the case or that I need to use someone else’s opinions to reinforce mine.

In all the years I’ve written articles to accompany my Newsletters, I’ve never presented my own material, but because I feel so strongly about what I’m suggesting, here’s something I wrote in 1996, for my second novel:

“Pea-size drops of perspiration had long since formed irregular salt circles on the cab driver’s thin khaki shirt so that each ensuing globule imbedded itself in incongruent anonymity. While his cracked fingers groped along the worn ridges of the steering wheel, he frowned as if he played a bulky instrument that emanated unpleasant notes. On the rare occasion when he could pass a vehicle, this provided little relief from the monotony of the infinite mechanical menagerie he found himself entangled with, since the backside of one canvas-covered, automated beast looked like every other.”

Killing Dead Words Takes a Lot of Work

Juxtaposing my material with the likes of Fitzgerald and Hurston is a grotesque insult to both these geniuses of the written word, but I wanted to provide my flotsam so it’s understood that syntax designed in this manner required one solid month of my time. On every airplane I rode in, and in each rental car as I drove to an account, I kept working and reworking those lines in that opening paragraph so I could eliminate the dead verbs “was” and “were.”

And I’m not going to lie. When I finished I was proud of what I’d accomplished, as I’d run that first sentence, by itself, around in my mind a thousand times (or two), starting with something like “Drops of sweat were creating circles on the cab driver’s shirt, and any perspiration that followed was soon going to be lost in what was coming after it.”

London Provides a Suitable “Real” Example

So no one might believe there’s not a great author who ever really wrote in the past tense and didn’t use “was” in an opening, here’s the beginning of THE SEA WOLF:

“I scarcely know where to begin, though I sometimes facetiously place the cause of it all to Charley Furuseth’s credit. He kept a summer cottage in Mill Valley, under the shadow of Mount Tampalpais, and never occupied it except when he loafed through the winter months and read Nietzsche and Schopenhauer to rest his brain.”

Should I substitute “was” in place of most descriptive verbs, this run now reads: Where was I to begin, though I sometimes facetiously place the cause of it all to Charley Furuseth’s credit? His residence was a summer cottage in Mill Valley, under the shadow of Mount Tampalpais, and was never lived in except when he was there in the winter months reading Nietzsche and Schopenhauer to rest his brain.”

Yes, London uses “was” soon after this opening, but what matters is that he eschewed “was” so he could show the specific action a particular verb depicted, which is the purpose behind this article. “Mary was at the beach” tells the reader one of millions of possibilities. “Mary lived at the beach” tells me more. “Lived,” while not providing depth, offers fabric that “was” cannot by itself. Suitable substitutions for “was” might seem simple, but it takes hard work to make the words fit, and this is why it’s convenient to succumb to the challenges and give in to “was.” My suggestion is try to avoid the temptation as often as possible.

Good Writing Happens for a Reason—and the Reason Often Involves Time

I really did spent a solid month on that paltry opening of mine, but the book was the first that a New York agent of note signed, and I have to believe that the “descriptive verb” technique helped attract attention. Most everyone is much faster than I when it comes to any aspect of designing readable prose, but if a writer will take the time to look at eliminating “was” and “were” when it doesn’t foul up pitch, I believe there’s a good chance that there will be a noticeable improvement in the quality of the material.

I’ll have Part Two of this article in next month’s Newsletter, as there’s a lot more to discuss about ferreting out dead words and selecting descriptive substitutes to enhance the reading experience.


The Perfect Write® Newsletter, Vol 144, October 20, 2015
Dead Words and Their Remedy–Part Two

Hello Everyone,

I want to lead this edition with a report on the status of my book of articles appearing in print, and to express to all subscribers my apology for the delay. Very simply, and I’m not making any excuses, there have been problems with the Index and some other layout issues. This print version of HOW TO WRITE WHAT PEOPLE WILL PAY TO READ! should have been out by late July. I wasn’t made aware of any bugbears until recently, and these gremlins have caused me to place the project on temporary hiatus. Again, this is not an excuse, as I should have been more closely monitoring the progress of the Index and other aspects of the general layout that were causing concerns. My current plan is to personally do the Index and attend to other layout factors during the holiday and New Year’s break. Once I’m finished I’ll give subscribers who posted a review on Amazon a firm date for when they can expect a free, autographed copy. I’m asking each of you who have a print copy coming to please accept my sincerest apology for taking so long to bring this project to completion.

On the date of the previous Newsletter’s broadcast, September 15 (hence the reason this information is a month old), Author Solutions, Inc., settled the lawsuit filed by the Indiana couple, without admitting guilt and restricting any comment by the litigants, effectively sweeping everything pertaining to this case under the rug. Why a class action suit wasn’t sought in Indiana court is a mystery, as the law firm representing the two plaintiffs requested class-action status in New York state, which the now famous (some say “infamous”) Judge Denise Cote refused to grant. At some point it would seem, should Giskin Soloratoff Anderson & Stewart proclaim success and ride off into the sunset with respect to this case, another law firm will someday believe that class-action viability exists and that Indiana is the correct venue since ASI is headquartered in Bloomington. As I’ve written several times in prior Newsletters, in my small mind I can’t understand what possessed the law firm, based in Indianapolis, to file in New York state, knowing that there was a strong likelihood this case would end up in Judge Cote’s courtroom. It truly baffles the senses. However, since the case was settled, and it’s reasonable to assume in a manner that was satisfactory to the plaintiffs (and their attorneys), perhaps other writers who have had comparable negative history with an ASI imprint will seek legal remedy.

A hugely successful Children’s writer, Cornelia Funke, has dropped publisher Little, Brown in the U.S. and its U.K. counterpart, citing editorial differences. Her publishing house editors wanted her to gear her stories more toward a YA rather than her established Middle Grade audience. Ms. Funke refused and is now going to publish her books via her personal imprint, something I’ve predicted for some time more name authors will do. In fairness to Little, Brown, Ms. Funke might not have needed much of an excuse to opt out, as she had her private imprint up and running and could have just been waiting for the right opportunity. Regardless, what’s also significant about this entire scenario is that Ms. Funke was able to get the rights back to her books. Subscribers will recall that I just discussed rights to perpetuity and other authors’ issues in recent Newsletters. If this author didn’t have opt-out language in her contract, she would have been left with either acquiescing to the publisher’s demands or discontinuing writing her series–neither of which I believe are very pleasant options for any author.

It seems that my Newsletter would not be “complete” without at least two installments devoted to Author Solutions. Right up there with the mystery of the Nazca Lines is why Bertelsmann allowed the merger of Author Solutions with their Pearson/Penguin/Random House megaconglomerate of publishing houses and legacy imprints. And, now, Author Solutions LLC has teamed up with Alliant International University. According to Andrew Phillips, Author Solutions president and CEO, “. . . the efficiencies of supported self-publishing to the university-press model could dramatically reduce barriers of entry, ultimately resulting in learning institutions disseminating scholarship for the greater good.” First, I didn’t know that any college, even in a third-world country, has a problem enabling its students to publish anything. With the digital world’s being what it is today, all anyone needs is a cell phone. However, ignoring Mr. Phillips’s rhetoric, the problem with utilizing any institution of higher learning as a backdrop for credibility is, in my opinion, deplorable.

I’ll reiterate, how difficult is it for a school to publish anything? As ridiculous as it might sound, and I realize (and respect) that I have detractors for the Espresso Book Machine I’ve touted for some time, all a school has to do, as my alma mater Kennesaw State University has done, is rent one of these copying configurations and immediately go into the publishing business. Academic books generally require a couple of dozen copies at most (okay, a half-dozen copies, and that’s a stretch at times), and then the material is archived. Academic papers can be run off any printer, and even the typing of term papers, theses and dissertations, literally a huge cottage industry in my day, is currently a mere vestige of what it once was. And with so many schools opting for the virtual textbook, is the virtual dissertation far behind–if not here already?

I’m not in any way desiring to impugn the quality of an education provided by Alliant International University, which was founded in 1969 and currently boasts an enrollment of 4,000 with strong ethnic diversity, which I applaud. However, if one goes to the school’s Web site, a plethora of N/A indicators show up after what I consider to be key metrics, such as graduation rates and even the number of students who graduate from the school each year (the institution’s cachet appears to be the confirmation of psychology doctorates for those who then practice in California, where the school was founded). After some close reading, I was able to determine that approximately 70 percent of the student body studies online, and while this is certainly an increasingly accepted practice these days, I’ve always looked at resumes from online universities with jaundiced eyes. I freely admit to my bias, but it’s founded on my having to consider if John Jones really did the work–or if it had been provided by Mary Smith under John’s name.

However, while I might not be fond of online degrees, I know of someone who earned an undergraduate degree from a Big Ten school and cheated on every term paper and book report and daily assignment. Yes, all of them! And, of course, had others take the tests whenever possible and affix this cheater’s name. And on the rare occasion when a test had to be taken by physically appearing in the classroom, had people in close proximity providing answers. This person graduated with a 3.0 and fortunately for society never had to “apply the degree,” as marriage to a wealthy person made the education–if one could call it that–nugatory. Still, even by giving everyone who graduates via an online program the same respect due any college graduate, I believe it’s fair to say that Alliant International University is not Stanford.

I apologize for belaboring my point, but I find it reprehensible, along with so much else that Author Solutions has foisted on the public, that the firm would use a college as a medium to gain credibility for its other services. And, rest assured, the ASI or AS LLC marketing team will use this affiliation to every conceivable benefit. But, it’s still the same wolf in sheep’s clothing, and all any of us who care about the integrity of the publishing business can do is to point out the issues so writers can make educated decisions. As I’ve said a hundred thousand times, I’m not the moral compass for this industry, but I feel an obligation to let folks know what’s real and what’s not as I see it. My opinions are certainly not any better than anyone else’s, but when a firm has a reputation among a huge percentage of its clients as “rip-off city,” why should it be assumed that a different wrinkle will somehow emerge when a new affiliation occurs? It’s my opinion that the Alliant relationship is solely a vehicle to add credibility to the oft-tarnished Author Solutions name. I have to think that Bennett Cerf turns over in his grave every time Random House’s name is mentioned in the same sentence with any ASI imprint.

A number of reputable sources have recently reported on the “surprising” downturn in e-book sales, and client and longtime Newsletter subscriber Ali Alebrahim sent me a wonderful article that succinctly explains what I too believe are the reasons for the softer numbers. As I recently said regarding my personal library, if I desire credibility from the perspective of at least showing that I possess the books I routinely discuss, showing a person into the guest room in my home that houses ridiculously overloaded bookshelves provides me with greater confidence than pointing to a digital reader. The printed book, for whatever reason, is sort of like holding a check in my hands rather than having the money deposited by PayPal. Probably both are ridiculous images to continue to retain, but I continue to retain these beliefs. I guess I just like turning the physical page as I finish reading it. I know, get with the 21st century, ha ha. My fear is that someday no one will know what a good steak tastes like, as everyone will be getting all nourishment from a pill, kind of in line with the Zagar and Evans tune, “In the year 2525.” Maybe by then all extant books will be on a chip inserted into each baby when the child is born. Then all arts and letters will be a process of assimilation. This puts Orwell’s 1984 right in line with the dinosaurs, and that’s not a joke no matter how sad I find the analogy. At least the lull in e-book sales shows a little hope for the literal printed word on a piece of paper, and I once again want to thank Ali Alebrahim for providing the article.

In the past few Newsletters I’ve included an analysis of a major bestseller, with the idea of giving subscribers some ideas of why the book was such a hit with readers. In some instances this involves rereading material, as was the case most recently with FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. I remember commenting to subscribers about the scene in the tavern when a group of fine middle-aged ladies discussed wanting to the read the second book in the series “just to see what happened to Ana.” And I have to admit, if I were on a long plane ride at the time the series was at its height of popularity, I might have purchased the second book for just the same reason. Anastasia Steele is a remarkable character because of her frailty. Super smart yet super naive, she comes sexually alive four years later than most, and this has nothing to do with her just graduating from college (or just about to receiver her degree, to be accurate). Erika Leonard does the spectacular in not only enabling Ana to release the pent-up sexuality she never knew she possessed (or at least not to the level she displayed when she ultimately gave herself to a lover), but the author also tapped into the reservoir that psychologists say everyone possesses. Some call it the dark side of sexuality and others simply say that everyone has a “wonder” that lives inside but is never discussed–and one in a million act out.

GREY has been classified by many pundits as “mommy porn,” and I don’t believe it needs the adjective, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t find it an entertaining, fast-paced narrative. Forget about Christian Grey’s being the king of kinkdom, who wouldn’t want to administer his fortune? And ignoring Ana’s strangely acquiescent acceptance of what Christian offered her, why wouldn’t a young woman like her exist? For many, she’s more believable than Christian, and if she had never met him, most men, at least the ones I know well, would have loved to have had a normal relationship with her. This, more than anything, is what I found captivating about the way her character was written, as she’s patently likable, even though it’s easy to accept the abuse heaped on her by critics of the story. The naivety that was so obvious in the beginning became less so with each ensuing scene. This was brilliant writing, and I want to discuss some aspects of the way Ana was presented.

A plethora of one-star ratings involved Ana’s juvenile utterances. Okay, they weren’t right up there with something we’d expect from Norma Kuzma in her youth, but considering Ana’s background, and the way a typical college-age person talks/thinks, is her language out of line? I don’t mean this in the “don’t write like a person talks, and don’t talk like a person writes” axiom; what I mean literally is this: How off base are her “holy cows”? Especially when a phrase such as this is subliminal? I still say “dad gum” or “dummy” when I do something stupid (hence, I use these phrases several hundred times each day). Most of us have pet phrases we say to ourselves that are childish. It’s for this reason that I’m giving Ms. Leonard a free pass on all of Ana’s expressions. As for the writing itself, I also find the book far from poorly written, and while it could use a bit of cosmetic editing, such as eliminating all the times he or she “murmured,” and there are some redundant lines, none of this is deadly to a book that’s designed to be a fast read–and arouse the senses.

So, in finishing my analysis of this story, it’s Ana who sold the book, and I accept the comment from the woman in the tavern who said she was going to read the second book in the series solely to see what happens to Ms. Steele. I do, however, have one question: What if E.L. James were not Erika Leonard but Erik Leonard? Would a publisher have even considered this book if written by a man? Granted, men write lousy sex scenes, but ignoring that guys dwell on the sexual and not the sensual, let’s say a man got this right, would a mainstream publisher have signed the book? A genuine bias exists related to who should write what, and while I find this genuinely abhorrent, I can assure everyone that it’s not make believe. So I ask again, could a man, as its author, have gotten GREY published? Also, if a male had written the book, where would the women’s rights and feminist groups be with respect to their positions? Frankly, if I were a woman I’d find the book offensive from the perspective of Ana’s “programmed” methodology for falling in love. Even if this is covered in a satisfactory way in the next two books in the series, readers are still left with what’s in book one. However, yes, this does make a reader of the first story want to learn more about Ana, so that’s indeed very clever writing. Although I have to wonder if Ms. Leonard, or any writer for that matter, is really this smart. I welcome subscribers’ comments on my drivel regarding this analysis, and I’m going to discuss THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO in next month’s Newsletter.

I want to also mention that I’ll be doing an analysis of the success of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, John Green’s humongous success, in an upcoming Newsletter. But until then, this article (it’s a long one, but any subscriber wading into my mishmash is used to this) is a must. The article explains Mr. Green’s history and is appropriately titled “The Teen Whisperer.” I won’t give away its substance, but anyone reading this biography will clearly understand why Mr. Green could have written a story titled “Let’s All Eat Dog Poo!” and sell two-million copies before the book is even out in print. The article explains why my remark, while a feeble attempt at humor, is also likely 100-percent correct. I believe that many subscribers will come away with several years’ worth of new ideas from just spending the fifteen minutes it will require to read the material in the article. These author “megastars” happen for a reason, and all of their successes, as I’ve often discussed, haven’t occurred as a result of great writing. John Green can certainly write, but his rise to the top explains why others of lesser talent have also had their books reach the literary stratosphere from the perspective of reader acceptance.

Over the years I’ve accepted the task of defending editing as a discipline necessary for any mortal with the intent of becoming published by a royalty imprint. Then as self-publishing became more common and eventually routine I championed the use of a professional editor as a means to design text that would be deemed readable, regardless of the medium. This of course wasn’t meant to imply that the self-published material would make it at the major royalty publisher level; instead, that the quality of the prose would in many instances be indistinguishable. Comparability was indeed a lofty goal, but as I’ve pointed out during my recent discussions on even Pulitzer Prize-winning material being patently flawed, the line between perfect prose and what readers accept–if the story is strong enough–can often be quite blurred. A section I read in a recent Publishers Lunch column motivated me to discuss the value of editors in this vignette, as it also goes to the heart of the oft-asked question regarding whether or not publishers edit for their clients.

In the PL section, it was mentioned that Mr. Lorin Stein, an editor with the Paris Review, will edit four to eight books a year by such authors as Ben Lerner, Richard Price, Lydia Davis, and Donald Antrim. Richard Price needs an editor, most will ask? Everyone on this planet except for Joyce Carol Oates (as dictated by her response to a question from the audience during a seminar) uses an editor in one capacity or many, including the guy who writes this Newsletter and is an editor by trade. No writer except Ms. Oates always sees what’s on the page that he or she has designed. (Those subscribers who have read my detritus for any period of time know my opinion of Ms. Oates’s remark.) No writer ever wants to admit to not writing perfect syntax, but using an editor is not something to be ashamed of, as the four brilliant authors Mr. Stein lists can attest, since I have to assume they gave him permission to publicly mention them as clients.

Today’s article involves more about “dead words” and here it is:

Dead Words and Their Remedy, Part Two

In the previous article, regarding what I refer to as “dead words,” I discussed what I deemed the biggest culprits: “was” and “were.” Not far behind, however, is a word that is just as bad, and it’s another verb, in this case “had.” But to be specific, the second “had”–as in “had had.”

“Had Had” Is a Killer Couplet Easily Fixed If Following a Pronoun

“She had had a bad day,” is first of all hard to read. Hence: “She’d had a hard day.” Anytime “had had” follows a pronoun, in almost all instances I’ve found it superior to use a contraction with the first occurrence of “had.”

What About the Second Had Not Following a Pronoun?

If we check “had” in a thesaurus, the word choices are virtually endless. For this reason, I strongly suggest a substitute to “fit” the message. Pages and pages of examples could be provided, but here are several ideas for this simple sentence: “Mary had had a bad day at the office.”

Mary had endured a bad day at the office.
Mary had survived a bad day at the office.
Mary had experienced a bad day at the office.
Mary had tolerated a bad day at the office.
Mary had expected a bad day at the office.
Mary had dreaded a bad day at the office.
Mary had predicted a bad day at the office.

Could any of these descriptive verbs better describe a writer’s thoughts for Mary? Perhaps, perhaps not, but prose generally becomes crisper when definition is added to a phrase. And not only crisper but clearer as well. Do not “endured,” “survived,” “experienced,” “tolerated,” “expected,” “dreaded,” and “predicted” tell the reader something unavailable via a second “had?” Look for a substitution for the second “had,” and I believe that in almost all instances dimension will be provided that also gives the writing a more polished appearance. Yes, there are times when “had had” is all that’s left, and in some instances this might be to maintain pitch, but these occurrences are indeed rare.

Then There’s “Go”

“Mary is going to the store” can become the following:

Mary is driving to the store.
Mary is walking to the store.
Mary is hitchhiking to the store.

A half-dozen examples aren’t necessary, as all we need to do is determine if Mary’s trip to the store would benefit from greater definition.

All Simple Actions Don’t Require Substitution

The purpose behind the examples is to suggest seeking options for words that otherwise don’t create imagery. As I’ve indicated, there are times when no substitutions apply or are even necessary. But if a writer will take the time to consider substitutions for the second “had” in past progressive syntax and ways to liven up “go,” in an overwhelming number of instances I’m confident that the prose will improve–and in some cases vastly.

The Perfect Write® Newsletter, Vol 145, November 20, 2015
Reading Material Out Loud–How to Do This Effectively

Hello Everyone,

I want to begin by welcoming the new subscribers who have signed up for my Newsletter during this past month.  I never know when or why there will be an upsurge in activity in this regard, but I can assure each and every person who reads my lunacy that your taking the time to do this is greatly appreciated. I’m always interested in topics that I believe might benefit writers at all levels, so I encourage suggestions, even if I’ve discussed the subject previously. New wrinkles always exist, so while in the past I’ve asked that prior articles be reviewed to eliminate repetition on my part, I’m discarding this thought and welcoming any and all ideas.  I’ll come up with something fresh, as writing fluent prose and the publishing industry yield inexhaustible content.

Amazon’s conversion to still another format for author royalties for material accessed via the Kindle Prime program once again has me scratching my head, as I couldn’t make any sense out of the previous metrics for payment distribution.  All of us utilizing Amazon (and we have so many choices) receive reader page counts, but how this translates to real money is beyond me.  My greatest complaint, however, is that a reference manual such as my book of articles is generally not read from cover to cover, any more than most people will read a GREGG or THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE.  I’m hardly placing my book at the level of either of these iconoclasts of scholarship, but I’m confident everyone understands what I’m implying.  Page count for a reference work simply doesn’t apply in the same way it does for someone reading a novel.

And since I made mention of HOW TO WRITE WHAT PEOPLE WILL PAY TO READ! in the previous section, I once again offer my sincerest apology for the print version’s delay.  I will address (read “attack,” ha ha) the Index over the Christmas/New Year’s period, and after the task is completed I’ll discuss a timeline for the print version’s coming to fruition and when everyone who kindly wrote a review on Amazon can expect to receive a signed copy.  The problems with the Index made a few weeks’ work turn into several months, and I fully accept the blame for not staying on top of this.  But a lot was accomplished, and for this I am most grateful, as it will ultimately make my job substantially easier.

The ruling in the ASI case filed by the Indiana couple came out just as I’d put the finishing touches on my October Newsletter, and the Hathi case (a different lawsuit) was adjudicated at a time that conflicted with this edition’s release, as well, and for all practical purposes the subject is closed.  I wouldn’t expect many folks to be aware of the Hathi lawsuit, but it has far-reaching implications since it involves the copying of material in compliance with Fair Use laws.  This suit was filed against Google for its extensive use of text without an author’s permission.  But since Google was trying to sell the author’s book in question–most would agree this hardly constituted a bad thing.  At issue, however, was that Fair Use allows a university to copy an entire narrative, with impunity.  And does this not enable a student to read the entire draft, with this having nothing to do with scholarly endeavors?  It doesn’t require an I.Q. in the range of Dr. Hawking’s to figure this one out, but it does once again go to the heart of what constitutes Fair Use, and therefore what an author is deemed to have placed in the public domain–which means material provided for all to read sans any form of royalty.

We could all go round and round with this for years and never reach a conclusion that would satisfy all parties (or any of the parties, for that matter), but the Hathi ruling once again begs the question regarding what is considered too much of an author’s work that can be provided for free.  I certainly don’t have the answer.  One could suggest a percentage. However, how can that be applied to a scientific work when each page is crucial to the whole?  Or a fixed page count, regardless?  But does that page count start from the beginning or pick up in the middle? or can the pages be taken out of sequence and used as long as they don’t violate the total prescribed by formula?  Again, I have no answer.  But I don’t believe that an entire body of work should be used, as desired, without some form of author compensation.  Perhaps an idea to consider would be to charge a college at a rate in line with what mainstream publishers charge libraries, but with a different metric.

The last time I checked, a standard library hardback was lent an average of 26 times before it was considered no longer serviceable, and libraries were charged approximately 4 times a book’s standard wholesale (hence, $64 instead of $16).  I’ve always believed that libraries should be given a break and not surcharged, but I’m biased toward this reader service.  Since more and more of what a college student reads is of a digital nature, hence there’s no reduction in resolution, etc., maybe the current number for copyright protection of 75 years should be applied to material used for free by universities.  At today’s wholesales for softcover, a college would pay approximately $1,200 for an author’s work ($16 times 75 years), and I suggest that’s not out of line, as this would allow for unlimited access by any number of students, and there would be no theoretical constraints regarding content–all of which is currently being done anyhow.  And, please, don’t write me about how this would raise college fees.  I’m sick of what students and parents are forking out today, but it’s the books that drive the tractor, and those who plant the crops need to be compensated.  No corn, no need for tractors–and this reality must not be lost in the translation.

A recent article in “The Atlantic” discusses Fair Use doctrine, an issue I’ve broached in a number of Newsletters during the past year or so.  To say that Fair Use is complex is tantamount to implying it’s easy to split the atom in one’s basement.  The article claims that the judge’s decision was ten years in the making, and that he still got it wrong (at least that was my take).  Yes, I can’t even decide on which side of the fence the article’s writer is sitting.  The gist is that if a something is “transformative” with respect to adumbrating the need to copy the material, then it’s okay.  The major impact of this is allowing Google to copy entire textbooks–and pay no royalty to the publisher or author–as long as just “snippets” are published.  However, it’s not that difficult for someone to request enough snippets to ultimately acquire the entire text.  At issue is what constitutes “too much material,” thus when a “snippet” of several pages of quoted material is considered excessive.  When someone answers that effectively, have that person tell me when I’m having too much fun.

I’ve recently had two outstanding works by clients rejected by agents I’ve worked with for many years.  I normally accept this as part of the business, but in these instances the books were niche-oriented and fit in perfectly with the boutique nature of both literary agencies.  I continue to dispel the status quo that it’s impossible to get a debut writer agented, but it’s indeed frustrating when a perfect vehicle (yes, this is my opinion and should be regarded as such) is dissed for no reason other than “gut feeling.”  I’m becoming more convinced that market potential is driving even established agents who heretofore have demonstrated a penchant for quality over commercial viability.  One aspect is certain, and it’s that Literature has to be a “big book,” and this also pertains to word count, something many agents deny is an issue but always consider.  I know, it’s a “go figure,” and I’ve discussed this often.  But can anyone show me a work of Literature by a debut author in the 75,000-85,000-word range that’s been printed by major imprint?  It seems as though the book has to be a tome in THE GOLDFINCH range to really get an agent’s attention.  I’ll be discussing word count in greater detail in upcoming Newsletters, as there is a definite bias that for whatever reason many agents refuse to admit exists.

Since the very first Newsletter six-and-one-half years ago, I’ve touted Publishers Marketplace and the daily Publishers Lunch that’s transmitted in the morning to its subscribers.  The current monthly cost for this publication is $25, and I continue to believe it’s the best money a writer on any level can spend.  For one thing, each day authors are provided with a snapshot of what genres are hot and those that aren’t.  And during this past year I’ve mentioned that YA (and particularly Children’s and its Picture Book subgenre) is where the action is, as well as the Thriller market.  Thriller titles seem to have waned a bit during the past six months but YA remains on fire.  And if any subscribers can illustrate and tell a preschool story, this seems to be the market with the easiest barrier to entry at the major-house level.

There are two schools of thought for Picture Book material, and one is that the author should also be the illustrator, or have one on his or her hip, or that the publisher–if the story is strong enough–will provide an illustrator after the book is signed.  My personal experience with the Picture Book market is limited, but I tried very hard to find an illustrator a couple of years ago for a client who, in my opinion, possesses a terrific premise.  My search ranged from free-lancers to a well-known newspaper cartoonist.  Alas, no one could meet the demands of my client, who eventually settled on a famous European illustrator.  Yes, it requires substantial wherewithal to do this, so a search of this magnitude is certainly not for everyone, but what I learned above all else is that matching up an illustrator is just as complex as finding the right editor; meaning, it’s also a horses for courses environment.  I had to charge a straight hourly rate for my time, as there’s no other way to do this sort of work, but I found it impossible to land a publisher for my client if the material wasn’t already illustrated, which is the point of this entire section.  Hence, any subscriber reading my comments on whether or not I feel that a Picture Book should be illustrated prior to submission now knows my sentiments.

However, ignoring the challenges presented by the Picture Book subgenre, YA, and Children’s material in particular, seems to be rolling along stronger than ever.  I wrote some years back that I believed that it would be difficult for the digital medium to take print books out of little kid’s hands, as the feely-touchy part is impossible to replicate in a virtual setting.  This might change over time, or it could become less an issue as even the littlest children become tech oriented, but until a fold-out or a bas-relief picture can be simulated and “touched,” I’m holding to my opinion that the printed book, especially in softcover, will continue to resonate with children.  Anyone parsing the daily Publishers Lunch genre listings will quickly understand why I’m making this statement.

Digital, in its own light, seems to hold substantial opportunity for New Adult (the 18-to-21 age group, and I hope I’ve got the years right–or at least close–ha ha) and Romance material, and there appear to be open doors for debut authors in both genres.  The advances might not be the $20,000 of old, but upfront royalties are being paid, so the royalty-imprint e-book option should not be ignored by previously unpublished writers of New Adult and Romance stories.  Publishers Lunch lists who’s publishing what, so this will enable authors writing in these genres to immediately hone in on potential publishers, and I’m noticing that some reputable concerns will accept unagented submissions.  Just be certain to do the proper due diligence before getting too excited, should an opportunity present itself. Publishers Marketplace does a fantastic job of ferreting out the wolves in sheep’s clothing, but this does not mean that their efforts are always infallible.  The scammers are clever and always working very hard to get trusting writers to open their wallets wide, so every author must remain alert and not get caught up in the hype that can sometimes follow a submission.

In the past Newsletter I said I’d discuss THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO next, in what is now an ongoing series on novels that have taken the public by storm.  I don’t have the slightest idea how long I’ll continue, but I’ve got a great many books to revisit, as well as some to read that I missed or avoided when they were popular.  I don’t have any special criteria for parsing a book in an attempt to assess why it was a runaway bestseller, except for always reading a spate of the one-star reviews.  Poor reviews generally follow a pattern, much the same as five-star accolades, and I suggest categorizing what’s being discussed most often in both camps.  However, I ask subscribers to my miasma to keep in mind that the purpose behind writing my analysis is solely to determine why a book sold millions of copies, not to dissect its faults.  THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO was particularly riddled with “issues,” so it’s the perfect vehicle for a discussion of that nature, but here’s why I believe it resonated with so many readers, regardless of its miscues:

Above all else, while the plot was at times (okay, often) convoluted and discursive, the two protagonists could not have been more disparate yet more alike.  I wonder if Mr. Larsson really planned it this way at the outset or if Mikael and Lisbeth evolved?  I have to believe the latter, as I’m not of the opinion that anyone is this smart “out of the box.”  Regardless, here is a story with an abundance of thin plot elements that hang together because of the two lead characters having to constantly overcome their personal struggles with just about everything they touch.  Humans understand this.  Folks also identify with the aspects of life that aren’t always–if ever–rosy.  For all of the marginal editing (that’s being polite) and difficulty with the translation from Swedish to English, a lot of men recognize male carnality (I’m not saying “accept” it, only recognize it as real) in Mikael’s dalliances with anyone female who can still fog a mirror, while I believe that a large percentage of women are somewhere between sympathetic to empathetic regarding Lisbeth’s inability to fit in with societal norms.  If we were to switch the roles, is it inaccurate to assume that some women look for physical attention wherever they can find it, as their everyday lives are so consuming that they have no time to build relationships?  Paralleling this, is it ridiculous to assume that a segment of the male population endures the same anguish as Lisbeth?

Is it also fair to say that everyone, regardless of gender, has felt like Lisbeth at one time or another?  How about often?  I don’t want to give away plot elements, should anyone wish to read the book, but while parsing Lisbeth’s intro is she really so far out in left field for a great many people her age?  Again, for either a male or a female (and why I consider the salient aspects of her personality issues genderless), haven’t most of us had to struggle with Lisbeth’s Syndrome, as I’ll now call it, at different points in our lives–sometimes subliminally and in other instances controlling all our waking thought processes as well?  It’s the balancing of these pushing and pulling facets of one’s psyche that determines who’s sane and who’s not.  I’m hardly capable of evaluating one or the other, but Lisbeth gives many readers a character to identify with.  And I found this as honest as anything I’ve read in a long while.  If this book had been written when Sarte was alive, I’d love to read his opinion of Lisbeth.

Once all the detritus is scraped off the deep end of the pool, the reader of TGWTDT is faced with a beautifully constructed jigsaw puzzle, not the least of which involves the way Mr. Larsson brings Lisbeth and Mikael together, no small task considering, again, the disparate nature of their characters.  And on the plotting side, once the mystery of not knowing who’s in the crowd during the parade is presented to the reader, how is it possible not to want to learn the answer?  I found this entire segment brilliantly developed, and the twists and turns surrounding this a major thrill ride.  Again, I don’t want to give away specific plot elements, but this was classic “I have to know” material.  In the latter fourth of the narrative, Mikael’s less-than-desirable–and now obvious–lack of ability to form anything but physical relationships with members of the opposite sex is evident.  Conversely, Lisbeth begins to display a “human” side.  Her “change” was not overdone, which I found incredibly well designed, as it would have been very easy to overwrite her transformation.

However, from a technical perspective, here is what I found most extraordinary about this work:  The story, which was strongly character-driven for three-fourths of the narrative, became plot-driven as the tale entered its final150 pages–and remained so until the end.  Yes, the entire corporate section–from start to finish–could have been eliminated, as it’s a separate storyline that added nothing to the “real” narrative, but this has little if anything to do with my contention, as it’s the other aspect of the tale (read the book, ha ha) that carries the reader.  I can’t recall another novel that demonstrates such a clear dichotomy from the perspective of presenting the character/plot argument.

As for flaws, the book is loaded with them.  Much can be attributed to translation, but some of the writing in TGWTDT, as well as plot elements, is glaringly weak.  To the latter, Lisbeth’s motorcycle ride at night reads as highly contrived, and Mikael’s venture into the woods goes beyond the silly.  Still, who’s who is powerful enough to spur on the reader, as I was willing to ignore these huge leaps of faith to wait for final resolution.  The pacing, whether orchestrated by character or plot, kept me flipping the pages, and what I wrote in this analysis (notice I’m not referring to this as a review) presents my rationale for why this otherwise quite flawed story was such a humongous success.  My suggestion is to ignore the slip-ups and concentrate instead on the salient features of the narrative that gripped the public.  How were the two lead characters developed, and what techniques were used to advance the plot until it ultimately controls the story?  I’m of the opinion that the elements in each are worth outlining, dissecting, and practicing.  I don’t believe I’m being ridiculous to suggest that working on what I’ve discussed can take writing a long way for a great many writers, including yours truly.

In next month’s Newsletter I’ll be discussing THE HELP, which in some ways is the best book I’ve ever read.  My opinions will once again go in the opposite direction of the gaggle of reviewers, whether they be of the five-star or one-star variety.  I certainly don’t intend it this way, but it’s what happens.

The article I’ve written to accompany today’s broadcast–on reading material aloud–is a topic I’ve discussed often in my Newsletters and touched upon in the context of other material I’ve provided over the years for subscribers.  It’s indeed difficult to office examples of an abstract issue such as reading aloud, as how can someone describe this, ha ha? But this exercise is so important that I’m attempting to do so in what follows, and I hope my effort, however feeble, will hold some benefit for subscribers.  This material is substantial, and its length is the reason today’s Newsletter is a bit short on overall substance.

Reading Material Out Loud–How to Do This Most Effectively

A recent discussion with a new client fostered this article, as we were covering the widely utilized technique of reading material aloud to determine fluency, and the question was posed regarding what to listen for in particular.  At first this confused me, as I’d always assumed that anything which stops the reader should be the obvious answer.  But then I was asked, “Does something that halts one person’s reading necessarily retard the flow of someone else’s?  This added a new wrinkle to the subject and got me thinking about a suitable response.

Of Course One Size Can’t Fit All

One quick read by the author–of the text he or she wrote–might well point out weakness.  And the operative word is “quick,” and this applies regardless of how rapidly or slowly someone reads, as it’s a relative term.  If the author of a line can read it aloud smoothly the “first time” (another key element in the process), this is the supreme test of narrative fluency.  Conversely, if the writer of the material stumbles–in the least–this is a signal to revisit the syntax. Naturally, if a writer can have someone read material that this reader has never seen before, it becomes the ultimate test; however, it’s important to find someone who’s not a professional at reading copy or who doesn’t possess a voice that can make the phone book sound good, as this won’t allow for an accurate assessment.

What Constitutes a Stumble?   

The “halt dynamic” is what caused me to scratch my head for an answer, because my client asked about a stoppae that might be caused by an external source, such as momentarily losing concentration or a physical issue such as swallowing, coughing, or even a hiccup, any of which can cause a person to quit reading.  How can someone equate these interruptions with choppy prose?  Oddly enough, I believe these externals often signify problems with the text, as do other annoyances such as dry mouth and stomach cramps.

Do people generally reach for the water glass, cover their mouths, look away, or say “ah” and “um” when they are comfortable–and hence fluent–with the material they are delivering?  If I’m saying “um,” it’s because I’m either thinking of something to say or considering a revision for what I was planning to say.  For most humans, this happens in a second of even a split second, and this can occur just as quickly when reading.  It’s the time it requires for our mind to regroup, even if it’s sometimes in milliseconds, that often makes an otherwise eloquent  speech sound anything but polished.  Writing fluent prose works under the identical parameters.

Whether London or Faulkner, the Result Is the Same

Jack London is not my favorite writer, but he writes the most fluent prose I’ve ever read. Here’s the opening sentence from THE CALL OF THE WILD: “Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have know trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego. Here’s the opening sentence from Faulkner’s ABSALOM, ABSALOM: “From a little after two o-clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that–a hot dim airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow sashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling of the blinds as wind might have blown them.

Here’s How the Material Becomes Not the Same for Both These Great Writers      

Now read each passage aloud with the alterations I’ve made to both:  “Buck could not read the newspapers, because if he had he’d have to know trouble was brewing, and just not alone for himself but for all the tide-water dogs strong of muscle and if they had warm, long hair, anywhere from Puget Sound and all the way down to San Diego.” As for Faulkner: “A little after two o-clock until almost after sundown of the real dead September afternoon they all sat in what Miss Coldfield herself called the office, because her father had also decided to call it that as well; a hot dim airless room of sorts that had the blinds all closed up tight and fastened shut for forty-three long summers. and from when she was a girl when someone believed light and moving air carried both heat and dark and was always cooler, and since the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house it was latticed with yellow sashes and full of dust motes which Quentin thought were the same as flecks of the dead old dried paint that was blown inward from the scaling of the closed blinds the same as the wind might have blown them as well.”

Is London’s bastardized passage not hard to read, when the original was pitch perfect? Faulkner’s material is of course almost always an event of mammoth proportions, but how far did you get with what I tap danced on the before stopping? I’m going to guess not very far.

Pay Attention to the Pitch of a Run–All of It

Creating good pitch is an art, and understanding it goes into another universe.  Sometimes a single word–out of place–can foul up an entire passage.  In some instances a semicolon is exactly what a sentence requires, while at other times the mark can stop the reader cold and effectively kill the entire run. And a semicolon can destroy fluency that a dash enhances. I integrated various words in both openings I’ve presented as examples, and I have to guess that it didn’t take anyone long to stumble on either of the revised texts.  Does this mean that I’m suggesting reading Faulkner aloud to understand his genius?  No, what I’m contending is that if we read our material aloud and make an honest assessment of what causes a hitch in the assimilation of our material, we will have a solid grasp of the fluency of our prose.

Any Hitch in the Delivery Indicates a Problem with the Text

Anything that stops the flow should point the writer to a potential problem area. Sure, a car backfiring or the cat coming in the room and causing us to sneeze can’t be controlled, but we don’t generally yawn if we’re excited about what we’re doing.  And this is my point.  My rule of thumb is that if my writing stops me as I’m reading, I go over what I wrote immediately.  I read the material aloud, and if I’m stopped again, I revise the text.  I do the same when I’m reading my revision, and this is why I suggest letting material sit for a few days after it’s “finished,” and then read it again.  And if I continue to have a qualm about the syntax, I’ll have someone read the material aloud to me.  Again, the key is to have this person read it for the first time in my presence, as this is one instance when familiarity is not beneficial.

A Closing Thought or Two

I generally don’t write an entire section such as this to finish my thought(s) on a topic, but reading aloud–and knowing what to listen for–is particularly hard to describe in a way that can translate to practical application.  I used to say that we shouldn’t fall in love with what we initially write, not from the perspective of the message but from the efficacy of the syntax.  This is a bit too simplistic, yet I continue to believe that if something stops the writer this will niggle the reader as well, regardless of the reason. And listening intently to what we design remains the best sounding board, and I mean no pun by this.


The Perfect Write® Newsletter, Vol 146, December 15, 2015
Book Reviews–The Plots Thicken

Hello Everyone,

My policy for the past few years has been to send out any month’s original broadcast two weeks later to all subscribers who hadn’t opened it the first time around. Statistically, there’s an average 20 percent “open” rate, so it’s been a worthwhile endeavor. Plus, I generally go through the draft another time and clean up whatever I might have messed up when I did any last-minute tinkering with what originally came back from my copyeditor. On Tuesday, December 1, I followed my normal procedure–I thought–only to find I’d sent the November 17 edition once again to “all” subscribers. My autoresponder changed the delivery protocols a few months ago, and while the process is simplified for rebroadcasting to those who hadn’t opened the initial transmission, the process can still be fouled up, as I proved on December 1. So, sorry for double-dipping those of you who opened my Newsletter on November 17 and received a copy of the same broadcast on December 1.

It was announced last month that next year a Harper imprint will be doubling its output of Sci-Fi titles to 90. First, it’s important to recognize that this is an enormous number of novels for a publisher to release for a single genre. Granted, this includes Sci-Fi subgenres as well, and these can be virtually limitless (the subgenre titles), with the range now extending far from the standards of Fantasy and Adventure, as the genre now “travels” to the Dystopian Parallel Universe as well as to Steam Punk, with a whole lot in between. Presently, there might be more Sci-Fi subgenres than what are listed for Thrillers or Romances. But of perhaps greatest importance relating to the Harper press release is that the genre is expanding and not contracting, with the latter sadly occurring with other genres such as Literature, Memoir, and Poetry. The takeaway from what I just wrote is that if a writer is crafting Sci-Fi, the odds for publishing success via a bona fide royalty imprint are more favorable than with many other genres. And to put the Harper numbers in perspective, the firm plans to release 90 Sci-Fi titles next year while Kensington will publish around 12 Thrillers via its Pinnacle imprint.

Granted, Kensington is nowhere near the size of Harper, but the title spread is significant to understand because Pinnacle has a score or more of established Thriller writers churning out titles, and this makes the barrier for entry with this imprint quite difficult for debut authors. As I’ve said often, Michaela Hamilton, the executive editor at Kensington, edited one of my first books when she was between jobs back in the ’90s. She’s always indicated she’s firmly behind me as a writer, but I can’t get a book signed by her–and I’ve tried three separate novels over a 12-year stretch. However, she still takes my phone calls and responds to my e-mails almost immediately. Michaela is a delightful person, and I’ve found this to be the case with most everyone I know personally in the publishing industry. Be nice to them and I’ve discovered they generally reciprocate in kind. I’ve learned that the main thing is to respect their time.

I have a great many clients I think a lot of, but none any more so than Sirena Gibson-Ross, an obviously misguided soul who started with me five or so years ago and has remained loyal. I’ve found her to be a wonderful talent with an imagination I envy, as I wish I possessed just a smidgen of what runs through that devilishly clever mind of hers. She’s recently brought out TROUBLE WITH ROBOTS, which is in the realm of Steam-Punk Sci-Fi with a noirish flair (I said, Sirena’s very imaginative). I’m discussing this book in the section, however, for a reason separate from the story content, as Sirena has given me permission to provide the cost breakdown and other issues involving her bringing out this work of short fiction via CreateSpace.

The first element that caught my eye was that CreateSpace uses a POD format, which meant that Sirena had no start-up costs with the company, and layout was available via a template that many other writers have also told me is easy to use. And, as Sirena points out, with the push of a button the book is available on Amazon. Her cost per book, and this includes cover, is $2.15, and a twenty count is sent to her for around a $15 shipping fee. Now, she’s in the Seattle area, and shipping rates of course depend on where a person lives, but this will at least provide a baseline. She sells the book for $6.99 for the softcover and $1.99 for an e-copy, but I’m going to suggest that subscribers buy a softcover if considering CreateSpace, as $6.99 (plus Amazon’s S&H fee) will provide a clear touchy/feely understanding or CreateSpace’s production capability. I’m placing a copy of the cover below, and once again providing a link to purchase TROUBLE WITH ROBOTS. I promise, you will not have read anything like this story, and you’ll see what you can get from CreateSpace in the process. Just keep in mind that this is short fiction, which generally implies 10,000 words or less in most quarters, so don’t expect something the length of WAR AND PEACE, ha ha.

Sirena also offered me some pointers to pass on if anyone should be interested in a “do it yourself” cover. The free Photoshop version is called GIMP, and she says that the best tutorial she’s found on image manipulation is on YouTube and titled “You Suck at Photoshop.” She mentioned one issue she had with her cover, and it was that most programs save at 72 dots per inch for Internet viewing, but that images for print will need to be at least at 300 dpi. I’ve been told that the CreateSpace staff is easy to work with, and I have to guess they are willing to advise authors about layout issues. And while I’m on layout, as I’ve discussed for several months, the print version of my book of articles has been delayed since summer because of issues with the Index. I was using one of Theodore Bernstein’s reference books the other day, and lo and behold there was NO INDEX. Since Mr. Bernstein was the long-time consultant to The New York Times, and knew more about writing in one toenail than I’ll ever know in my whole body, if I find I’m having trouble with the Index, which I plan to tackle over the Christmas/New Year’s period, I might just have the book printed without one. I, too, am tired of the delay, and I continue to apologize to everyone who was kind enough to write a review on Amazon for the hold-up in receiving a signed copy of the print version of HOW TO WRITE WHAT PEOPLE WILL PAY TO READ!

Sirena is providing the same spiff I offered, which means a signed copy of her book for anyone who will write a review and post it on Amazon. And since she already has her print copies in her hot little hands, I am certain any subscriber who responds to her request will indeed receive the promised print copy of TROUBLE WITH ROBOTS–and it won’t require a year and a half. (A way to kill two birds with one stone, should CreateSpace be of interest, is to buy an e-copy of Sirena’s book for $1.99 and post a review on Amazon. You’ll then receive the CreateSpace softcover for you to evaluate for its production quality, and as a bonus you’ll have Sirena’s incredible autograph to forever show off to friends, family, and passersby.)

I’ve often suggested that it can be of great benefit to parse dialogue runs written by excellent “dialogists” and analyze the exposition that adumbrates the exchanges. I discussed longtime Newsletter subscriber Elma Schemenauer’s mastery of writing exposition within dialogue–and notice I’m no longer lumping everything together as “interior monologue,” ha ha–and I’ve posted her opening to CONSIDER THE SUNFLOWERS on my Critique Blog, and in January or February I’ll repost this material on my personal blog. I ask subscribers to my wild ravings to please take a moment to read Ms. Schemenauer’s opening. It’s brief but in my opinion offers a wealth of knowledge, as she effortlessly takes the reader through a scene with both clarity and purpose. When most of us start out writing seriously, we break our runs with trites such as “he looked,” or “he scratched his chin,” or “she moved around in her chair,” or “she tossed her head,” and the world-renowned “he/she turned.”

Certainly there are times when characters perform mundane actions that add to the fabric of a vignette. But these trites tend to become overworked and morph into tics in a hurry. Developing a proficiency at writing exposition integrated into dialogue, which advances the characterization, in large measure separates text that might be considered amateurish from that which is deemed professionally designed. Again, please read Elma’s brief opening–it’s that good as it relates to what I’m discussing. In a separate note to me while we were discussing another matter, Elma mentioned what I’ll refer to as a “trick of the trade” that I want to pass along. She said she inserts the exposition after she writes her dialogue. I find this works best for me as well, and for any subscriber who is considering the best places to use exposition either for necessary pauses or to impart information to advance a scene, I fully support this approach. And if you should like to read more of CONSIDER THE SUNFLOWERS, you may do so via Chapters Indigo online or Borealis Press More information is also available at .

In the realm of “never say never,” The Washington Post recently listed a self-published book in its list of “Best of the Year” Romances. This might not seem like a big deal, but anyone who’s followed the Post over the years is abundantly aware of how staunchly their reviewer medium has railed against material published via vanity presses. Alisha Rai’s SERVING PLEASURE (Geez, I wonder what that could be about?) has broken through this glass ceiling. I was likely the only person more against self-published material at the outset, but in all honesty much of my vitriol was because of the staunch attitudes bandied about by those who wrote horribly conceived and poorly facilitated narratives and added the vainglory that editing wasn’t necessary (editors were right there with pond scum).

I’m quite serious about this, as my first experience with this mindset was when I actively participated in a “respected” blog ten or so years ago. I was not editing at the time and involved with the blog solely to understand more about what motivated other writers, and to see if the medium might enable me to gain traction for a book I’d just written. I was proved wrong on both counts, and sadly I spent the better part of every spare moment for a year “listening” to one malcontent after another pontificate about what he or she knew virtually nothing. And I’m being polite about this, and it remains the foundation for why I suggest to all subscribers that the world of writing is full of “experts” who know very little if anything about their area of purported expertise. I don’t claim to be an expert on writing, or even close to one, but at least I’ve spent more than 20 years studying and working every day in the field.

What really set me off, when I was trying to communicate ideas with “bloggists,” was how poorly read so many of them were, and this reminded me of the chap who said he aspired to be a great writer but didn’t like to read. Sure glad he didn’t want to be a doctor who didn’t like medicine. Let me say once again that the “right” book can make it, regardless of the medium in which it’s published. I have no idea if SERVING PLEASURE made The Post list because some reviewer–or set of same–enjoyed Erotica, or simply that the GREY formula via Ana’s “plight” continues to resonate. But I’ll likely read SERVING PLEASURE, and if I do I’ll offer my analysis, even though this book likely won’t sell in meganumbers. What I’ll try to offer is a realistic take on why the book rated a top-five choice by a newspaper with a quite lofty reputation, which heretofore refused to acknowledge self-published material as having any credibility whatsoever.

Random House and its co-head Penguin have settled on a price, beginning in 2016, to charge libraries and schools for e-books, and it’s $65 per title. And this is for use into perpetuity. This is right in line with the four-time upcharge for a print copy, with each book’s lifespan predicated on 26 “borrows.” I wonder if part of the decision hinged on the effectiveness of watermarking, not that libraries would ever attempt to game the system; instead, that hacking might make the current watermarking process virtually worthless. I don’t have a clue as to the right amount to charge a college for an e-book placed in that school’s virtual library, but this translates to an author royalty of around $10 to $12. For a book deemed worthy of clinical dissection by tens of thousand of students, is $10-12 bucks really equitable? Again, this is a sale that is final–and forever.

Barbara Meredith, a wonderful friend who enabled me to set up my creative writing workshops with The Palm Beach County Library System, sent me this article from The Wall Street Journal that discusses advances paid for Literary Fiction–and last year four were in excess of one million dollars. This article flies in the face of naysayers implying that Literary Fiction is perhaps the toughest genre of crack. First, it’s very hard for debut authors–but what genre isn’t? The other “issue,” if one can call it that, is that the really successful recent works such as THE GOLDFINCH and THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE–were labors of great love by the respective authors, as one required nine years to write and the other ten. One of my favorite books in the world of Literary Fiction published during the past couple of decades is THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, and if I remember correctly, Ms. Kingsolver said this book required ten years of her time. And if we look at the copyright dates before and between both WINDS OF WAR and WAR AND REMEMBRANCE, I believe there was a nine-year effort spanning the publication of each novel and its closest predecessor. Check how long it required Mary Ann Evans to write MIDDLEMARCH, and I believe it also required approximately ten years.

I’m certain there are some four- or three- or even two-year-or-less-year examples that someone can cite which pertain to Literature’s being published, as well as said books’ being well received by the public, but these take million-to-one odds and add a multiplier to the equation. I love it when a client of mine writes Literature, and I’m proud to say that I have worked with several writers who I believe have written brilliant material in the genre. Also, I know a few agents well enough who work in this genre that I can call them and they will read work I suggest, but I have yet to have one book in the category of Literary Fiction signed, and I’m almost of the opinion, as I said to a client who in my opinion wrote a fantastic roman a clef, that I believe the word count was simply not voluminous enough to be take seriously for material in this genre. This is how squirrelly I’ve become when trying to analyze Literature’s potential for publication by a bona fide royalty imprint.

However, while I’m discussing how difficult it is to debut with a work of Literature, a two-million-dollar advance was paid to Gary Risk Hallberg for CITY ON FIRE–and this was his first published novel. Hence, it can be done. And, yes, this book is a tome; actually a megatome, as it’s listed at 944 pages, and I have to guess it took more than 90 days of its author’s time to write. And to be clear, even though this was a debut novel, he has written for many august publications, including The New York Times, and he did have a novella published previously by a major imprint. So, as Paul Harvey used to say, this is the rest of the story. But, above all else as it relates to my theme for this section in my Newsletter, “big word counts” seem to be a major aspect of breaking into the Literary Fiction category. Again, my sincerest thanks to Barbara Meredith for providing me with The New York Times article.

So, as I’ve reported in this Newsletter, two long-standing contentions (or myths as the case may be) have been effectively challenged. One, a self-published work, and a Romance no less, has made a credible “Best Book of the Year” list. (Don’t write me, as Romance, and Horror to cite another genre that doesn’t generally hold much sway with the literati, are both categories I enjoy reading and editing when the material is well written. I’m also proud to say that I have several published authors who design quality material in both genres. I’m simply citing what I believe to be factual regarding how these two genres are viewed by the “experts.”) The other “issue” that’s been debunked is that a debut author can’t break in with Literature, and if this does occur the advance is de minimus. Recent history, in the areas I’ve discussed, proves the one adage about the publishing industry that’s indisputable, and it’s that nothing is chiseled in stone. However–and this is ultra important–in the world of Literature as a genre, if a writer’s current book does not sell well, I believe it’s accurate to say that this author will have a virtually impossible shot at getting a “next” work of Literary Fiction signed by an agent, as publishers have a tendency not to look past a current book’s numbers. Many rock bands have come back from a bad record or even a bad album, while writers of one poor-selling work of Literature–in the current climate–aren’t being given a second chance.

My bestseller “analysis” this month is for THE HELP, Ms. Kathryn Stockett’s treatment of love and hate and racial hypocrisy in the Deep South in the early ’60s. I mentioned in my previous Newsletter that in some ways I found this the best book I’d ever read. As always, my reasons for liking or not caring for a story seldom fit the model defined by the critical mass, one way or the other. However, the first aspect of the story I found spectacular was Ms. Stockett’s ability to write Black cant in a way that was patently readable. Yet while saying this I realize this opens up an enormous can or worms. First, Ms. Stockett is not a woman of color, and there’s a bloc that says she, like William Styron, no matter how well she or he might have written, should not be “considered capable” of expressing Black diction. When I was doing my research on THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, which I analyzed in my previous Newsletter, there were many complaints that Steig Larsson’s dialogue was horribly bastardized, and that no good Swede should ever accept what the holograph morphed into via translation. I say, get a life. And this goes for anyone who’s criticizing Ms. Stockett for her treatment of Black cant. Yes, I might feel different if I were of color, but what her style achieves is a text that’s easy to read.

What I liked about her treatment was the elimination of apostrophes, and I was immediately impressed by the ease of assimilating “gone” for “going” instead ” of “goin'” that’s popular among noted Black writers. The only way to understand this, and I’m not insinuating I do–but I can express what I found easiest to read–is to spend time with the great Black writers, taking in Mr. Ellison and others such as Ms. Morrison and Ms. Hurston. Then make a decision. And I ask any person of color to do the same thing, keeping in mind that not only are all these writers wishing to capture the essence of Black cant, they are also–each in her or his way–trying to write dialogue that’s patently readable. It’s not that easy, regardless of which heritage is writing about which heritage, whether it’s one’s own or someone else’s.

Now that I’ve beaten cant to death, one reason I believe THE HELP worked so well is that people of any color or background became immediately engaged with Aibileen. Then it was easy (again, that magic word that writers must understand if they want to attract a mass audience) to have enormous sympathy for Minnie and the other women who essentially worked in servitude for their white masters. THE HELP, and I’ve looked at it as closely as I’m capable, is a clear picture of the way many people continue to think–and what people can ultimately expect if they lie to those around them. And my opinion is that Ailbileen and Minnie and Constantine and the others were horribly lied to every day they came to work as servants. None of the white families respected their help in any way, and probably the only one whose true colors always came through was the abhorrent Hilly. I’m not giving away any of the story because my hope is that subscribers will read the material and learn from it in their own ways. It’s the brutal honesty of THE HELP that I think made readers talk among themselves to create the buzz that allowed this book to sell in the millions. But my reason for believing this book resonated the most with readers was because many people not only wanted to be like Skeeter, they were already a lot like her character but still afraid to admit it. And I believe Ms. Stockett modeled Skeeter in large measure after herself.

All anyone has to do is take in Ms. Stockett’s picture (on the inside cover of the hardback I own) to realize she has the characteristics portrayed by Skeeter. Long nose (I have one, as well, so this must be a fabulous trait), she’s tall, and Ms. Stockett appears tall as well. And Skeeter is described as being a bit gangly. Now Ms. Stockett can’t trip over her picture on the jacket of her book, but maybe she also wasn’t the most elegant at walking across a stage. I see Ms. Stockett, who lived in Mississippi–as of course does Skeeter in the narrative–experiencing firsthand the same injustice in or around her neighborhood as she depicted in THE HELP. There’s also something to be said for the lunacy of The Junior League at sending canned goods to feed the children in Africa when their own help works for two dollars a day–or less–and subsisted on turnips and collards and never owned a car that wasn’t ten years old in a day and age when cars didn’t hold up well after three.

And I wouldn’t be paying tribute to the ludicrous nature of naysayers of THE HELP if I didn’t go full circle and comment on those who grew up in America in the ’60s (this certainly doesn’t apply only to folks who were raised in the South) and “absolutely always” found their parents to treat their help with the utmost respect at all times . Any person saying this is lying or beyond naive, not having a clue as to what his or her parents were saying behind closed doors. I had an uncle, long dead now, who had a crew of Black men working for him as mechanics at a plant he ran in Chicago. He couldn’t have been nicer to them when they were in his plant, but around his house it was always this “N” did this and this “N” did that. I remember asking him, when I was ten or so, if he didn’t like these men working for him why he didn’t just fire them and hire all white guys. He said he couldn’t hires whites as cheaply, plus these “Ns” worked harder. I asked him how he could call them the “N” word after what he just told me. He said, “Because they’re ‘Ns.’ Don’t need another reason. Now go out and play or I’ll send you home.” I lost all respect for my uncle from that point on, yet in everything else he did around me or for the family he was fine. All except a horrible racial hypocrisy that he justified solely because of color. Ms. Stockett wrote about what I experienced in my own family but no one ever talked about openly, and I have to believe that millions of other people had the same “Uncle” out there somewhere, and exposing this family prejudice was a catharsis of sorts. This is why I believe the book sold in the millions and continues to be purchased.

The only person who knows if what I’ve said about Skeeter and Ms. Stockett is true is the author herself, and I’m certain she’s not going write me and say one way or the other if I’m correct in believing Skeeter autobiographical. Regardless, I commend her for spending a decade or more to develop this brilliant composite of race in a way that also depicts the beauty of the human spirit. Writing really can tell a lot more than just the words on a page, and THE HELP in its way really hit home for me, and this had nothing to do with our help because my family certainly never had any–except me, and I wasn’t very good.

I’ve discussed book reviews at various times during this past year, and a recent trend motivated me to write today’s article. On another issue, someone who seems to know a great deal about meta tags told me a while back that I’m “hurting” my reader potential because I don’t sync my article title with the header in my Newsletter that highlights the topic of the material tagged to the specific broadcast. I have no clue how this might affect my “viewer” results, but I’m willing to try anything ethical (at least I hope it’s honorable) to augment readership.


Book Reviews–The Plots Thicken

It’s impossible to understand what’s occurred with book reviews related to everything from relevancy to honesty without mentioning John Locke’s admission that he paid for somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 book reviews and found this perfectly all right. I’ve always believed that it’s easy to be enamored with something that’s successful, and by his apparent standard, since the book his “paid-for” reviews pitched sold a half-million (or is it a million?) copies that he self-published and shipped from his own firm, all is hunky dory.

The Not So Good

If this sort of “rigging” of the system were allowed to continue unabated, most anyone with the wherewithal could theoretically have guaranteed success, as 3,000 reviews, at an average of $10 each, which has been sort of the going rate for “the best book I’ve ever read” to “I can’t wait to see the movie,” will sell a lot of books. How many I can only guess at, but I tend to believe $30,000 could produce $200,000, or even twice that, and likely has in numerous occasions. But then came the software patrol. And they took no prisoners!

The Very Bad

What I’m referring to is both Panda and Penguin software engineering, by way of Google (Amazon will come later, so please hold on). These two Google programs in my opinion have virtually destroyed the ability to aggregate article distribution, and in accomplishing this–in such spectacular fashion–managed to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Hence, anyone who might have wanted to legitimately promote a book by having it picked by aggregators was pretty much left pounding sand. Worst of all, if caught using an aggregator, the author could end up having his or her site dropped from Google, which I believe most would agree is not a good thing to have happen.

The Really Ugly

Now Amazon enters the equation, as I have to think that Mr. Locke’s admission ruffled a few of the firm’s feathers, and I say this because I’ve noticed the reviewer numbers cut by as much as 90 percent in some instances. Although I haven’t done this with a book of my own, I see nothing at all wrong with giving a copy of a manuscript to someone and asking for an honest review. A number of ways exist to ethically acquire reviews, especially on the digital side, that won’t cost an author an arm and a leg. But the ability to send out a mass-mailing via a few of the aggregators who solely work with book clubbers (not the clubs themselves, but those who are legitimately voracious readers) has also become in many instances no less daunting than walking Death Valley. Services can be bought that do this, and they work, but they’re expensive.

The Grotesquely Ridiculous

I can’t say that comparing Google’s publicly stated algorithms to Amazon’s suspected software policing mechanics is a chicken or the egg scenario, but it seems to me that these monoliths have created a formidable barrier for writers who don’t already maintain a megablog, a la Meyer, Hocking, Howey, Green, and a handful of others and that’s about it. The real question in my mind is why any honest writer toiling to do her or his best, but who can’t spend 24/7 on a blog or hire a blogging team or possess James Patterson’s background as the CEO of the largest ad agency in the world or have personal deep pockets to nurture the review camps, can’t at least have a fighting chance.

I continue to say that I’m far from the moral compass for this industry. Frankly, I’m the first to admit that a zillion people are both more qualified and more capable than I to speak for an industry as nuanced as publishing. Yet I’m of the opinion that book reviews should be honestly acquired, and if someone is paying directly for a review, I’m of the belief this is not honorable. However, as I’ve said in a recent Newsletter, after reading the reviews published in the most respected newspapers and magazines in this country, I’m convinced that some reviewers never read the book they are citing. All anyone who has read THE GOLDFINCH needs to do is parse the reviews on the back of the softcover to understand why I’m making this statement. (Disclaimer: I loved THE GOLDFINCH and strongly believe Donna Tartt’s material worthy of The Pulitzer Prize for fiction. My remark is based solely on reviewers claiming a book’s excellence when their comments make it clear to me that these people did not read the book in a way that’s expected of a professional providing criticism; meaning, they scanned the material or used someone else’s review as a template.)

And, to add fodder to my contention that the entire review process is at a problematic stage like never before, how does one fit paying for a Kirkus Review–and other lesser but still well-known legacy names–into this equation? This scenario, in and of itself, makes reviews such a hard issue to get one’s arms around, as I don’t believe it’s particularly righteous to pay $400 for a review from an entity that seems to have been sold more times than Campbell’s has soups and whose founder died in the late ’70s. The current overall tomfoolery, as I see it, has caused a lot of legitimate options for reviews to become such a muddled mess that only a blogger team is capable of enabling a writer to accrue an audience “of size.” Maybe we all should hire a “brother” (or two or five) to do what John Green is doing, BEFORE pounding out the first word on a keyboard. I’m not impugning Mr. Green, as by all accounts he the real deal in every respect, but it this sort of effort is the requirement, Heaven help the rest of us, as prayer is all we have available.

The Perfect Write® Newsletter, Vol 147, January 19, 2016
Scene Description–Too Much or Not Enough?

Hello Everyone,

First, I want to wish a happy new year to every subscriber who reads my drivel.  This marks the seventh year of what I initially believed would appeal solely to a small group of stalwarts (19 to be exact) who endured a year-long series of creative writing workshops I facilitated (love that word–ugh) that was sponsored by The Palm Beach County Library System.  And I once again want to publicly thank Barbara Meredith, the emeritus Director of Reference at the West Boynton Branch Library, who graciously gave of her time to make my feeble efforts a reality.  It’s always easy to take credit for a project that achieves its goals, when in truth the workshops never would have got off the ground without Ms. Meredith’s deep regard for the world of letters.

While I’m discussing goals, the primary idea behind these Newsletters is to accede to the interests of my subscribers, and I’m always asking for topics for the articles I write to accompany each broadcast.  Longtime subscriber and client, Diana Krause, suggested that I discuss scene depiction, and what constitutes the balance between not enough and too much description.  I wrote an article on this topic for the April 12, 2011, broadcast (and titled it “Description in a Narrative–When Is There Too Much Information?” for my book of articles, “HOW TO WRITE WHAT PEOPLE WILL PAY TO READ!“).  I don’t believe this subject can be overworked, so I’m going to discuss it again and this time take an outline of general information and flesh it out both inadequately (in my opinion, ha ha) and too expansively.  Subscribers have at times suggested they’d like to see more examples in my articles, and I will try to be accommodating, as will be the case with what follows this Newsletter’s main body of material.

I often write about the importance of creating characters that are redemptive, and a recent article in The Atlantic–falling exclusively to female protagonists–“Female Characters Don’t Have to Be Likable,” could perhaps be construed to imply that an antagonist’s potential for acceptability is gender-related in some manner.  I found the material about as sophomoric as it gets, and I’m certain the author would determine my detritus to be even less inspiring, but to suggest gender with respect to one or the other capturing an audience, in my opinion, is ludicrous.  What about Hannibal Lecter or a plethora of Jack Nicholson’s characters?  The problem with the article, for me, is the word “likable.”  And as I look more closely at the word choice, I cannot help but believe that readers gravitate to characters such as Gillian Flynn’s and the others listed in the article because they empower self-actualization at its vicarious best.

To understand why I didn’t care for the female reference, deep down in the darkest recesses of the mind, Thomas Harris’s character(s) brought out the idea of the enormous vainglory inherit with ultimate hedonism.  Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of people have receptors in their brains that shut down at a certain point–and everything returns to whatever normal self-control happens to be for most folks.  But for a millisecond or two, it’s not unrealistic to believe that even the most soft-spoken, passive human being got caught up in Lecter’s or Buffalo Bill’s temporal invincibility.  It’s no different from buying a nice pair of deck shoes and walking down the docks at a boat show.  For a couple of hours, those 50-million-dollar behemoths are in reach, only to become as far-removed as the royal residence in TYRANT once we get in our cars and drive back to our nonpalatial homes, devoid of twenty staff and no helicopter on a pad out back.

Readers love vicarious thrills, and this is what quality writing is about.  The ability to create a patently unlikable character who engages the reader is pure magic.  In the most basic of explanations, it’s the character(s) who creates the conflict that sells the story.  And a protagonist can be just as evil as an antagonist can be pious, selfless, and non-offending.  Again, it’s a character’s ability to engage the reader that makes or breaks a story, and this “foundation piece” cannot be overstressed.  Also, a redemptive character requires constant massaging; can’t have bad breath, swear like a sailor, kick the cat, spit, or possess any of the uncountable traits people universally despise.  However, the reader can become engaged by a character who might possess virtually any flaw (regardless of gender or if a story’s protagonist or antagonist), as the more sinister the character the more the reader gets caught up in hating the image–and of course be unable to put down the book until finding out what happens to that awful character.  Ah, the beauty of it all.

One of my ongoing rants involves Amazon’s payout structure for books lent to its Prime customers.  I’ve contended that the author of a reference manual such my book of articles is at a decided disadvantage because most folks are interested in specific topics and will not be reading the entire body of articles.  A way to consider this is to ask people who bought a set of encyclopedias if they then read them from cover to cover.  (I started once but got only through “A”; Dick Cavett is the only person I’ve heard of who’s nerdy enough to have done this.  However, I did read all of THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE, as well as GREGG and a couple of dozen other well-known reference manuals, cover to cover.  And it seems that the whole world had to read STRUNK & WHITE in college, which at less than 100 pages in most configurations wasn’t that arduous of an English 101 requisite, ha ha.)  Oh, why did I write about the Amazon payout structure for Prime?  My December royalty check was 18 CENTS for the Prime component.  I immediately made a reservation at the Four Season in NYC for New Years and called NetJets.  Toughest thing was getting a valet to attend to my wife and me in the suite for three days on such short notice–and over the New Year’s holiday.  But the enormous royalty made all this possible.  If anyone might still wonder why I’m not enamored with Prime, subscriber after subscriber has told me that their royalties have dropped off substantially since the Kindle Prime Program was implemented.  And the next subscriber who tells me that he or she is receiving greater royalties since the format’s inception–will be the first.

I have often railed about what I consider ridiculous book reviews, in that it’s obvious to me by a reviewer’s remark that he or she never read the book (or closely or in its entirety).  Here’s an article by The New York Times Book Review editor in which a half-dozen or so questions are answered that I found quite interesting (read “amusing”).  The final remark that “no book reviewer can be truly objective” made me laugh.  How about a review’s just being accurate as it relates to a book’s content, regardless of the provider’s opinion?  I would hope that’s at least one criterion.  The Times Article also mentions that there are no specific requirements to become a Times reviewer, and that many are indeed freelancers.  There was a point in history when an avid reader could rely on a bevy of nationally respected newspapers to deliver quality review content.  The New York Times was considered the bellwether, with excellent support from other papers such as The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Boston Globe, The Atlanta Journal/Constitution, and a great smaller newspaper, The Sacramento Bee.  Other papers existed that also utilized excellent reviewers who could be relied upon to disseminate “accurately applied” information.  What I mean by this is that at least they read the books they reviewed.  This Times article, while brief, says a million words about the sadly laughable current state of the book-review medium at the legacy level.  In my opinion, in the present climate, a good-size segment of newspaper reviews have no greater credibility (other than to generate a book’s sales) than the purchased Kirkus Reviews–and subscribers know what I think of the integrity of this medium.

I’m particularly pleased when a reader of my hoodoo, whether a Newsletter subscriber or someone who picks up something I wrote that linked to a meta tag on the Internet, takes the time to correct me if I’ve erred or did not provide enough information.  The only way any of us who toil in this industry in any way can benefit is if we are willing to be objective.  I’m certainly not happy when I make a mistake, but I can’t get my feelings hurt either, so I want to point out one issue I didn’t adumbrate adequately, one in which I erred on a timeline, and another for which I simply missed the boat completely.

As to the first issue, I received a superb document concerning Bennett Cerf and Famous Artists that was sent to me by strong writers’ advocate, David Gaughran.  Subscribers who opened a recent Newsletter of mine might remember my remarks regarding Random House (via Pearson, et al.) developing a relationship with AuthorSolutions, Inc.  I made the comment that Bennett Cerf would likely be turning over in his grave if he could learn of this.  The article Mr. Gaughran provided enlightened me to the fact that Mr. Cerf was a financial benefactor of the Famous Artists/Famous Writers “schools” that were forced to close down in the early ’70s because of what were determined to be deceptive sales practices.  Essentially, unwary souls were promised various considerations if they signed with Famous Artists, often spending thousands of dollars for worthless hype (Gee, does that sound familiar?).  And while several thousand dollars is a lot of money in any economy, a new Lincoln (loaded) could be purchased in the early ’70s for eleven grand (I know, because I bought one in ’74).  Famous Writers bilked the public by making folks believe that a legitimate name author, or a publisher such as Bennett Cerf, would assist them in seeing their work make it into print with a legacy house.

And now the AuthorSolutions, Inc., affiliation with Random House, by mere association, possesses the same cachet to lead lambs to slaughter.  And I must be honest, if I were 25 and just starting out and knew nothing about the business, I can see how I might be influenced to believe that a book edited by an ASI staffer would have an enormous advantage with getting on Random House’s list or on one of its many imprints.  Again, my thanks to Mr. Gaughran, who has a wonderful site dedicated to writers who are solely interested in being published digitally.  He also spends a great deal of his time in his own Newsletter trying to keep authors from throwing their money away on useless ventures.  FLASH!  FLASH!  FLASH!  On January 5, it was announced that Random House sold its stake in AuthorSolutions, Inc., to an outfit named Najari.  This firm has been buying up political hot potatoes for some time, and it will remain to be seen if any of the investors in Najafi remain affiliated in any way with Random House.  At least Random House executives have distanced the firm from the ASI stigma–and even though the widely publicized lawsuit by the Indiana couple in 2015 didn’t attain class-action status–I have to believe the publicity was more than RH wanted to contend with on a daily basis.  Some black eyes can take a long time to heal, and often the scars never go away.  However, my opinion is that ASI’s damage to literary “skin” can never by repaired, no matter how much makeup is applied.  Via foreign entities, ASI still has it’s mitts in the fire with most of the legacy houses, but at least the flagrant RH tie is severed.

The second issue is an miscue I made regarding Mary Ann Evans’s timeline for MIDDLEMARCH.  In the prior Newsletter I cited this at ten years when it’s documented that Ms. Evans spent closer to five in putting the final draft together that ultimately became what we pick up today as the full work.  Newsletter subscriber Robert Dickhoff pointed this out to me, and I want to thank him publicly for taking his time to do this.  All great authors, and Ms. Evans is in my top-ten percentile of all time, have societies that virtually channel their respective work.  And I’m dead serious when I say “channel” because these folks are this rabid, as they analyze every line of each book these geniuses crafted–and exactly how long it required to write this or that material.  However, I hope my primary contention resonates, and it’s that marvelous tomes of literature aren’t knocked out in 90 days.

The third issue is a full-fledged foul-up on my part, and it was my citing of The Story Siren as a resource for gleaning a review for YA material.  I bit on some propaganda someone sent me without vetting the sender.  I have no way of knowing if it wasn’t Kristi Diehm, The Story Siren herself, who was caught plagiarizing six separate works, and after admitting what she did she continued to operate her site until finally succumbing to enough public pressure to close it down.  The brouhaha came to a head some time ago, but I failed to remember any on it until late last year, and it wasn’t until then that I removed her link from my Web site.  And even though her link was inactive for what amounted to a couple of years, its presence on my site could lead anyone to believe that I supported Ms. Deihm.  Nothing could be further from the truth, and if any subscriber got involved in any way with The Story Siren and Kristi Diehm, please let me know so I can issue you my heartfelt personal apology.

And before this fourth issue crops up, I’m going to head it off at the pass.  I reported (that’s a strong word for what I do, I know, ha ha) in the prior broadcast that a Romance, SERVING PLEASURE, was the first self-published book to make The Washington Post’s “Best of the Year” list.  Boy, did I miss on this.  Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post–and this book is a Amazon favorite.  Of course the coincidence could be ignored.  Come on!  The only good thing that can be said for this, in my opinion, is that at least his staff is pumping a book that’s listed on Amazon.  I guess that means that all the millions of self-published works will now have hope for national acclaim by a legacy newspaper.  I must tell all subscribers that I fell backwards in my chair when it dawned on me that Mr. Bezos owned the very newspaper–via his own private company–in which self-publishing history was being made.  This ain’t Bennett Cerf with Famous Writers–but it hardly passes the smell test either.

And the Amazon hits keep right on comin’, as the firm is purportedly adjusting its policy regarding “comments” posted on books if they are from activists (the posts, not the books).  First, these aren’t activists.  They are trolls: malcontents who claim to believe everything is a conspiracy.  How is something proffered by a legitimate activist the same as what’s posted by a true social misfit who has nothing better to do than get under the skin of a kind soul who will let this happen?  I can’t participate in writers’ blogs because I don’t even have the time for my own blogs, but I wouldn’t anyhow because of my experience ten years ago with clowns who profess everything and know nothing, yet have the time to let their sheer volume of words wear down neophytes who aren’t in a position to argue.  Obviously there is no possible mechanism to guarantee defining what’s accurate from that which isn’t.  But a troll is a troll–and calling one by any other name is absurd.

As an editor, of course my greatest delight of all is when a client of mine is published by a bona fide royalty publisher.  Unfortunately, in the overwhelming majority of instances I’m not able to discuss the material because of nondisclosure agreements.  These are particularly prevalent in fiction and a part of the business anyone who edits novels must accept or seek other employment.  However, I have been granted permission to showcase an engrossing, tightly designed Thriller by Pete and Judy Ratto, EVERYTHING TO LOSE.  Anyone who enjoys a solid storyline with lots of well-designed twists will find EVERYTHING TO LOSE a pleasure to read.  The narrative introduces an exciting protagonist, Lucas Holt, with a new wrinkle, as he combines his Delta Force training with his NYPD-detective sleuthing skills to aid in kidnap recovery, while working as an independent investigator.   Lucas’s character is all the more intriguing because he’s plagued by his own demons, as he’s continually haunted by the unsolved abduction of his own daughter fifteen years earlier.  The ending to EVERYTHING TO LOSE raised the hair on my arms, and I’m dead serious about this, as it was altogether unexpected and genuinely frightening.

I’ve posted the opening chapter of EVERYTHING TO LOSE on my Critique Blog (so I encourage Newsletter subscribers to click the link and read it), and I’ll be reposting it on my personal blog in February.  And for subscribers who like Pete and Judy’s writing, I’ll be working on the second book in their series later this winter, with a planned publication date sometime this summer.  One advantage of signing with an Indy publisher is that many of them can get material to print much quicker than the majors, which in many cases currently hold to a lead time as long as14 months.  Here’s the link to purchase the paperback on Amazon.

Straight from Publishers Marketplace, here are the bestselling fiction books for 2015 and the sales numbers.  Notice how easy it is to sell a million copies in the Fiction category–only four books hit that mark.

2015’s Top 15 Fiction

1 GO SET A WATCHMAN, Harper Lee (Harper; hardcover) 1,599,000
2 GREY, EL James (Vintage; trade paperback) 1,407,000
3 THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, Paula Hawkins (Riverhead; hardcover) 1,346,000
4 ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE*, Anthony Doerr (Scribner; hardcover) 1,014,000
5 THE MARTIAN, Andy Weir* (Broadway, trade paperback) 673,000
6 ROGUE LAWYER, John Grisham (Doubleday, hardcover) 576,000
7 TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD*, Harper Lee (Grand Central, mass market) 563,000
8 SEE ME, Nicholas Sparks (Grand Central, hardcover) 446,000
9 GRAY MOUNTAIN+, John Grisham (Dell, mass market) 365,000
10 THE NIGHTINGALE, Kristin Hannah (St. Martin’s, hardcover) 331,000
11 THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS, Stephen King (Scribner; hardcover) 322,000
12 THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB, David Lagercrantz (Knopf; hardcover) 306,000
13 THE GREAT GATSBY*, F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribner, trade paperback) 297,000
14 THE ALCHEMIST*, Paulo Coelho (Harper; trade paperback) 285,000
15 ORPHAN TRAIN*, Christina Baker Kline (Harper; trade paperback) 280,000

I said I’d review THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green in my January Newsletter, but this edition is already running rather long, and I want to devote adequate space to the subject of scene description that I discussed at the outset of this broadcast.  Hence, I’m going to hold my review of Mr. Green’s runaway bestseller until the February Newsletter, and I’ll apologize now to any subscriber who I might be disappointing by delaying my analysis of why I believe TFIOS was so successful.

Here, now, is my article on balancing scene description in a narrative, and once again I want to thank Diana Krause for the suggestion, and I encourage all Newsletter subscribers to offer ideas at any time for upcoming articles, even if I might have covered an aspect of the subject previously.

Scene Description–Too Much or Not Enough?

Some time ago I discussed scene description in general terms related to how much is too much, but I didn’t provide specific examples.  Now, however, I’m going to illustrate balance by writing what I hope is a decent scene with adequate description, then write it in a way that’s barren, and finally design it with patently bloated rhetoric.  My goal is to demonstrate that balance can be achieved, and after the three examples I’ll offer my idea of the best way to create the desired characterization.

Adequate Scene Description

The brutal wind blew the trees in one direction and then another, twisting some of the branches off small firs and junipers so cleanly that it appeared to be the work of a road crew.  Old Charlie Devereaux sat on his ancient tractor, which was about as old as he was and just as cranky, and wished the danged storm would go on and take down the entire barrier that copse of trees had been planted to provide.  Heck, if they’d be gone, during the winter he could forget about goin’ outside the century-old house he and Ma had lived in for o’er half that time.  He’d put away enough wood–and more than enough corn liquor–to make it through two winters, no matter how bad.  And his 85-year-old body was ready for a break.  Too bad it was not to be.

Inadequate Scene Description

The wind twisted the branches off the small trees as if a machine had done it.  An irascible old farmer, Charlie Devereaux, sat on his tractor and wished the storm would take down all the trees so he could stay indoors throughout the winter.  He needed a break and had enough firewood and “homemade” to tide him over.  If only.

Too Much Scene Description

The incredibly brutal Nebraska winter wind threw the more diminutive trees back and forth and in every direction in between, also bending and then twisting and turning the larger branches off some of the firs and junipers that had grown old–with such clean precision that a highway crew straight from Lincoln could not have done the job any better.  An old local farmer, Charlie Devereaux, sitting on the worn steel seat of his ancient red and gray Ford tractor–circa 1935 and almost as old as he was and about as hard to get along with–wouldn’t have minded it one iota if this gale wind that had been blowin’ for a full day now would knock down each and every single one of that row of trees he and his daddy had planted the first time when he was just a boy.  Trees put in the ground to create a natural barrier to keep the heavy snow off the long, potholed path leading down to the whitewashed barn and on out to the rusty mailbox on the one-lane road that eventually wound its way to the county seat, a full 20 miles away.  He and May, she from nearby Hastings and of Millwood stock on her daddy’s side, had lived in that ancient green frame farmhouse with its gabled roof and lightning rods for 52 years come the spring, and he could use a break from the hard winters that kept getting worse and worse it seemed.  Miguel and Tom, his farmhands, one as wide as the other one was tall, had chopped and hauled in enough oak and maple during this past summer–cutting down almost the entire row next to the bank at Evers Creek when there was nothing else to do because the crops had pretty much burned up with all the heat and lack of rain–to keep the normally drafty house heated for the entire winter.  And old Char, as the other farmers in the area reverently referred to him, had been making ‘shine since he was a lad, so he always had enough of it in brown gallon jugs holed away in the root cellar on the lee side of the house to keep him through at least one winter; this time, however, he could make it through two if he put his mind to it.  However, the break that Old Char hoped for, at least as he knew or expected it, was not going to come to pass, and no one would be more surprised than him when he learned the next morning what was in store for him during this winter of “rest” he desired.  The venerable farmer would wish many times over that he could get away from that old farmhouse–which was something he never thought he’d say.

Perhaps a Nice Balance

The Nebraska winter wind threw the trees in every direction, twisting the branches off the firs and junipers with the precision of a road crew.  Old Charlie Devereaux, sitting atop a tractor almost as ancient as he was, and just about as cranky, would not have minded if that wind took down all those trees that he’d planted at his father’s direction when he was just a boy.  The trees provided a natural barrier to keep the driveway to and from the house from drifting closed, but Charlie kinda hoped to get shut in for a change.  He and Ma both needed a break, and a good snowstorm might give them a chance to relax.  Heck, his farmhands had put up enough wood this past summer to last two winters, and he always had enough ‘shine in the root cellar.  But that break was not to be, as he’d find out the next morning, storm or no storm.

Write Too Much and Then Cut It Back

When writing a scene such as I’ve just toyed with, the question a writer must ask is, “How much information do I really want to provide for the reader?”  In this vignette, what’s important:  the characters? sure; the location? of course; the general physical description to set the scene? yes; what’s happening, definitely; the conflict? the most important facet of all.  Once the critical elements are outlined as I’ve just done, it makes the process much easier, especially should something be lacking.

I normally suggest erring on the side of volume when initially writing out a scene.  This works primarily with exposition, as dialogue generally benefits from the opposite dynamic (meaning, write out the dialogue and then decide about pauses, interior exposition, etc.).  But this paper is about exposition, and I’m advising more rather than less to start with, as it’s simpler to cut back–and faster–than trying to flesh out everything later.

Please try the technique I’m proffering, as I believe most writers will find that the extra work on the front end will save a huge amount of time overall


The Perfect Write® Newsletter, Vol 148, February 16, 2016
Who or Whom?–That Is the Question

Hello Everyone,

For reasons well beyond me, February has always been a bumper month for new subscribers to my Newsletter, and if the first couple of weeks are any indication, the uptick in folks who don’t know any better will once again prove exceptional.  So I’d like to welcome each of you for whom this is your first broadcast with the hope that you find at least a smidgen of what I discuss to be of some benefit.  I concentrate in each edition on issues that I believe will help writers design prose that will be deemed publishable at a mainstream level, and I spend considerable time commenting on the industry itself as I’ve come to know it during the past 20-plus years as both a novelist and an editor.  On occasion I also discuss the field of editing, and not just because it’s how I put food on the table but because I believe the service has value in the realm of the art of letters.

My copyeditor, Martha Moffett, whom I never have the slightest problem praising, sent me a lovely article by Lee Boudreaux, a young editor who has been given her own imprint at Little, Brown.  The article is not long, and I suggest that it’s worth every subscriber’s time who’s serious about becoming published or staying published–which I imagine encompasses everyone reading my hogwash–as it succinctly covers a myriad of important issues.  And I think that this one line, which Martha highlighted, is emblematic of what professional editing is all about:  “The editing process is asking every question that occurs to you and reading the manuscript as carefully as anyone is ever going to read it.”

“You” of course refers to the editor, and it’s why it can drive any writer bonkers when a seemingly insignificant issue elicits a couple-of-hundred-word exegesis.  I try to provide as much rationale as I can when I make an editing suggestion, and I’m not referring to punctuation or layout or basic syntax, as this is what I pay Martha to deal with.  My work, and why I often spend 150 to 200 hours on an 80,000- to 100,000-word draft, is primarily to assure a narrative’s transitioning and the “global” continuity in the storylines.  Along with this I have to look at the strength of the plot, and the depth of the characterizations and character dimension.  Then there’s the normal “stuff” I generally write out so the author can have an idea of the way a thread or scene or a single line or phrase or a single world could read.  It’s then up to the writer to decide if my rhetoric is a good fit or if it should be revised.  Either way I’ve achieved my goal, which is to get the creator of the narrative to modify the text, as it’s my contention it should be improved.

But how I–or any other editor–handle these responsibilities determines if a work will survive the sternest test of all: the reader.  Hence, we do look at things a bit deeper than perhaps some writers would like, especially since all of us who write believe the material we turn over to an editor is pretty darn good to begin with.  And if this wasn’t the case, I wouldn’t have accepted the writer as a client, but it’s at this point that the real work begins–for the writer.  It’s now when the author of GONE WITH THE WIND has to suck it all in and realize that he or she is just getting started.  Because no matter how well a manuscript might be edited, an agent is likely to suggest changes.  Then, most assuredly, the publisher will demand revisions prior to publication.  The modifications can be substantial, as it’s not uncommon that an entire thread will need to be altered, which means touching virtually the entire narrative.  Or a writer might be required to upscale or downgrade a character, which generally requires an extensive modification in the design of that character’s dialogue.  This can even affect the dialogue exchanges between this character and others.  Yes, the search for perfection can be exhausting and frustrating and seemingly never-ending.

Publishers are looking for what they believe will create the best market appeal, and if they’re taking on a project they’ll have particular ideas for a work’s “reach.”  If a Thriller is written around hijacking an oil tanker, for example, even though CAPTAIN PHILLIPS was a hit movie, the author shouldn’t be surprised if asked to change this major plot element to the hijacking of a drug shipment.  Something like this happened to a fellow I know who had a lot of success writing Police Thrillers.  It’s the nature of the beast, so any writer who says (as I did once–foolishly) that “I’m not doing any more revising” on this or that book had better keep his or her day job.  It’s truly important to fully appreciate Lee Boudreaux’s poignant remark I alluded to at the start of this section.  If editors don’t look in every nook and cranny, what good are we?  My position is that no writer can be given too much information, and if I’m paying for editorial advice, I expect no less myself, even though at times I might not like what I’m reading about my own work–in that it isn’t yet right up there with John Updike’s.

To change tacks, I’m just as befuddled by grammar anomalies as anyone, and I marvel, after all these years, at the oddities that still crop up to make editing interesting.  Olusola Akinwale, a longtime Newsletter subscriber from Lagos, Nigeria, who works as a research analyst in his country, asked about this line he’d seen, which a scholar challenged:  “I crack my knuckles, which produces silence.”  I looked at this for a while and once again turned to Martha Moffett’s 50-plus years of copyediting acumen for the answer.  She told me that “I crack my knuckles, which produces silence” is correct, in that “which” doesn’t have to refer to just the noun at the end of the preceding clause (knuckles)–it can refer to the entire preceding clause.  Thus, in this instance, the entire clause determines whether the verb is the singular “produce” or the plural “produces.”  It’s sort of like “I clap my hands, which stops the conversation.”  However, usually the syntax’s construction does refer to just that final noun, hence: “I crack my knuckles, which then ache.”  If it wasn’t for this stuff a lot of us wouldn’t have a job, and there’s no “ha ha” tagged onto the end of this.

Olusola’s short story, St, Pauli, was recently published in Western Post.  Olusola tells me that he sees writing as an opportunity to live another life through his characters.  Anyone who’s received my Newsletters for any time at all is aware of how often I discuss this very tenet.  It’s one of the primary reasons I stress the importance of writing protagonists with redemptive characteristics.  Please take a moment to check out Olusola’s short story, as learning about other cultures often shows us how much we are all truly the same philosophically, as truth, honor, and wisdom are universal, regardless of geography.

If there is one aspect of my work during these past seven years (for which my little sideline has routinely turned into 60- to 70-hour workweeks) that’s most gratifying, it’s the simple fact that writers have returned to me to edit additional projects.  I just did the numbers, and I have a touch above an 86-percent client-retention rate.  This past year, for example, every client but one was someone whom I’ve done work for in the past.  And I’m currently line-editing a fifth book for one client and I’ve a line-editing project waiting patiently in abeyance for a client for whom this will be a sixth book.  It’s with great pride that I also want to showcase the third book in a trilogy, all of which I’ve worked on for Dave Mallegol.  The story of “The Bronze Horsemen” is special for a number of reasons, and at the top of the list is the immense amount of effort Dave put into his research.  Good fiction requires great facts, and writers can never lose sight of this.  I’ve posted the opening chapter to HUNT FOR THE WOLF CLAN on my critique blog, so please do yourselves a favor and read it.  And here’s the Amazon link to this fine story so it can be purchased.  Any writer who is working on “period” material will find Dave’s story worth reading, as it clearly demonstrates how to deal with time and distance–as there was certainly no clear definition 3,000 years ago, ha ha.

I remain amazed at the way Amazon continues to arrange the playing field any way it likes.  I noticed recently that the firm is now going to “manage” the page counts on longer books, as well as on larger font sizes (I’m dead serious), so it’s not paying out too much via its Prime program.  Since I received 18 cents in December and 21 cents in January for my book’s page reads via the Kindle Prime format, I don’t believe I’m responsible for the new platform.  And doesn’t a book such as mine balance out those  of WAR AND PEACE length?  If this weren’t enough, it was just announced that Amazon is going to begin policing content, ostensibly to assure higher quality.  Sure they will.  What happens to the millions of unedited books that are already in the system?  Perhaps the same person who advocates the expelling of 11,000,000 illegal immigrants will take it upon himself or herself to read 11,000,000 books as well.  I thought one of the main tenets behind the self-publishing platform was the opportunity for free expression, even it if presented itself in abysmal rhetoric.

For some folks who for mental or physical reasons can’t aspire to anything beyond getting their name in print, this opportunity is a life’s blood to them.  So what does it matter if they don’t know a noun from a verb?  And this is coming from a man who earns his living trying to make writers as good as they can be, and anyone who’s ever hired me knows I’m a tough taskmaster.  But if seeing one’s name in print brings joy to a paraplegic or a 35-year-old suffering from autism, my goodness, can the world of letters produce a better outcome?  Oh, I suppose Amazon’s staff managing this program will offer dispensation for special circumstances?  This whole Amazon thing is getting beyond nuts.  Yes, Amazon does a lot of good, and I’m the first to say “Thank you,” but the firm has gotten way too big for its britches, in my opinion, and with Google constantly flexing its largess as well, we’re all going to be singing from the same hymnal pretty soon, whether we want to or not.

Sometimes I can’t spell “cat” correctly, so my apologies for misspelling Robert Dickhoff’s name in the previous Newsletter.  Mr. Dickhoff has been a longtime Newsletter subscriber, and I certainly appreciate his support and careful attention to detail.

As all of you longtimers are all too aware, I’ve been threatening forever it seems to get HOW TO WRITE WHAT PEOPLE WILL PAY TO READ! into a print medium, and I’m formally announcing that it is in the final proofing stages (I hope), so by next month I should start shipping signed copies of the book to all of you wonderful folks who bought a digital copy and were nice enough to write a review on Amazon.  I want to take a moment to thank two people who worked very hard in helping me get this book in order so it could go to print, as I had nowhere near the free time necessary to bring this project to fruition on my own.  Sheryl Dunn and Kimberly Hitchens, and in no particular order as each contributed in her own magnificent way, demonstrated why making friends in this business is so important at all levels.  Sheryl is responsible for the fabulous new cover and internal graphics, and she also spent uncountable hours putting the Index together.  And while I had to work on this a bit at the end, the template she provided was invaluable.  Kimberly, for her part, attended to all the intricate layout details and beat me with a whip so I’d personally do the Index.  Of course, now I’m an expert.  Ha!  Indexing is an art form, but the ability to create a basic Index (and Table of Contents) is a simple A B C project as long as one doesn’t get in a hurry, as it does require the patience of Job.

For anyone who might be interested in learning Microsoft Word the right way, which really helps if Indexing is the goal, Kimberly has provided this link, which is as comprehensive as anything could possibly be that pertains to this word-processing software.  The actual link is, and if a subscriber not already proficient with the nuances of word processing with Word is ever going to copy a link to anything, this is the one that’s a must.  And my experience is that a MAC isn’t going to make some of this any easier, as the layout issues will still present themselves even if there are fewer steps.  In simple terms, Apple users might well get to the stopping points quicker–but that doesn’t solve anything.  This material that Kimberly has provided is so good that you might want to tell her how much you appreciate it by dropping her a note at [email protected]  She’s one of a kind–in a very good way–and I’m firmly convinced that no one on the planet knows more about book formatting than she does.  I’ve discussed book Indexing with her, and if any subscriber is considering an Index, it might be worthwhile to contact Kimberly at and see what she can work out for you.  I also strongly suggest getting with her for any digital layout needs, as this is her cachet, and she and her staff are brilliant at what they do in this regard–and very reasonably priced for what they provide.

I do, however, want to offer two video links for tutorials on setting up both an Index and a Table of Contents, as I’ve found that a picture is indeed often worth a thousand words–or ten thousand.  And if you go to either link, there are scads of supporting YouTube videos with links on the right-hand side of the screen.  I found that the key was to stay away from anyone who claims to work for Microsoft, because as with their Word-embedded tutorials there always seems to be something missing or horribly unclear.  And I don’t care who doesn’t like that, I’m stickin’ with it.  I didn’t have Kimberly’s tutorial link at the time, and I spent four hours with the fine folks at Microsoft via their video workshops before stumbling upon the two links I’ve posted in this paragraph.  Five minutes later and I had Indexing nailed down to the extent that I could figure out the way to insert the pages.  It still gets to be a problem if material needs to be added after the Index or TOC is finished (at least it was for me, as I had to contact Kimberly), but if a person takes the time to learn style sheet basics this will likely make the issues I experienced nugatory.  Just remember the old adage from the ’70s about “garbage in, garbage out.”  If an extra space is left in or a period that’s not supposed to be there, a separate Index entry will appear.  And while these miscues of course can be fixed, the process is tedious and can eventually lead anyone to alcohol (to be frank, anyone attempting an Index is advised to have an adult beverage(s) handy).

I predicted a couple of Newsletters back that since the discovery of GO SET A WATCHMAN there would be a number of “remarkable” finds around the corner, and I noticed that a heretofore unknown Beatrix Potter manuscript was just discovered.  Again, there will be more, and I wouldn’t even doubt if the book by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John has a supplement, perhaps by David or Timothy.  Please don’t write me, as it could happen, especially since there are already lost books of the Bible in print (I own two of them).

Anyone who’s ever worked in a book-resale environment has heard of the “First Sale Doctrine.”  It essentially means that once the book has been purchased it can be resold without compensating the author or publisher.  There are wrinkles to the law, but that’s essentially what it means, and this is why your college sells old textbooks over and over again at five times what they gave us when we turned them back in for whatever we could get.  With digital books there is a new set of constraints, but I found it remarkable how the “Fair-Use Doctrine” fits in with this.  This law is one I discussed in detail via a past Newsletter article, and the primary focus is how much of something can be copied before it’s considered “too much.”  I know, define “too much.”  But “too much” is the issue, because if “too much” is adjudicated to be the case, a new book will need to be purchased and the author/publisher/distributor, and a few other entities, then receive compensation.

I bring up that matter now because the latest ruling applies to print only, with the brilliant comment by the jurist that the digital environment will sort of take care of itself.  I guess this really means that there is no way to determine how often something might be viewed digitally, in segments.  This might make sense for books in the public domain, but shouldn’t authors’ copyright laws still apply?  Watermarking can control distribution, and other methods will be developed to keep material from remaining on someone’s hard drive in perpetuity.  Anyone who’s smart enough to sidestep this is hardly interested in books, but I am, and I’d like to see some weight placed on authors’ rights, which seem to be getting trampled on at every turn these days.

One author who really got stomped on in unimaginable ways when one considers her contribution to letters is Zora Neale Hurston.  I recently watched a documentary and learned that her writing was initially funded by the Works Progress Administration under FDR.  During her lifetime, she was vilified for the oddest of reasons (in my mind), as she believed that her people should take care of themselves.  Of course she understood Jim Crow and all the horrible injustices of her era, but she still wanted equality based on effort and not entitlement.  She probably wouldn’t get very far today with that approach, and this has zero to do with skin color, as we have all sorts of strange conceptions about who should get what from those who work for it.  But I’m not a social scientist, and my sole purpose is to once again ask any subscriber who has never read THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD to pick up a copy.  My softback version came with awful, tacky green artwork on the cover, and if ever a book shouldn’t be judged by its exterior, this is the most suitable example I know.  Ms. Hurston is a genuine heroine, in my eyes, and of all the writers I’ve read–with Faulkner still leading the pack–she’s the one above all others I wish I could have met.  I have that much respect for her ability to tell a story in the most magical of ways while in the throes of what I believe it is fair to describe as enormous obstacles.

I mentioned in the prior Newsletter that I’d provide my postponed analysis of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS in this month’s broadcast, and here’s my take:  First, as I discussed a while back, if a person has a blog with two million acolytes, it does not require the skill of Truman Capote or Ayn Rand to sell a lot of books.  I’m not being facetious when I say that Mr. Green could write a book titled “Let’s All Step in Dog Poop and Show It to Mom” and it would sell a million copies.  Mr. Green and his brother have clearly done what Oprah has accomplished in creating markets.  These men are geniuses at working the blogosphere, and that has to be taken into consideration when attempting to understand how TFIOS sold several million copies, and it’s still going.  However, it’s impossible to ignore what Hazel and Gus bring to the literary table–and it’s a lot.

High on the list is enormous dignity.  Sure, some or even a great deal of it was self-serving to the storyline–and I’m writing this not to give away so much that no one will want to read the book.  Yet it was impossible not to feel good about Hazel and Gus and Isaac, as none of them let their handicaps overwhelm their needs for the things every normal, healthy person cares about.  Anyone lucky enough not to have a permanent infirmity has to feel something for these characters.  Likewise, but from an even more profound sense, I have to believe that many handicapped people found the protagonists in this story inspiring.  Maybe a bit fakey at times, as again I have to think that the commercial viability of the story couldn’t be far from the writer’s mind; yet, to the author’s credit he didn’t turn TFIOS into LOVE STORY even though the ending was indeed bittersweet and equally predictable.

TFIOS is hardly without its technical faults (no pun intended).  The prose is often glaringly weak, and Mr. Green loved to patronize his readers by placing all sorts of “obvious” material in parentheses, taking the annoyance factor through the roof at times.  And anyone who’s ever reviewed the book honestly has discussed the ridiculously stilted dialogue.  Instead of talking like 17-year-olds, Hazel and Gus conversed throughout the narrative as doctoral students rehearsing material for their dissertations.  But, if we look beyond this–and it might be the beauty of the entire story–Mr. Green perhaps wrote the dialogue exchanges as he did to demonstrate that a physical handicap is not the same as a mental deficiency.  And as I thought about this further, the idea gained more credence, since it’s easy to categorize a person “all in one basket,” even though not many folks will admit to this.  I’ve been guilty, especially when I was a kid, and later when I got to know the person I was ashamed.  Perhaps bigger-than-life geniuses like Stephen Hawking will help to correct societal ignorance (okay, stupidity) regarding the zero correlation between a physical and a mental handicap.

So, here’s a story that depicts pride and strength and love and all the elements that generate respect.  Yet these characters didn’t just have a toothache that would eventually go away.  They all had horribly debilitating conditions that they chose to “work around” rather than mope around.  I realize it’s not as simple as this, but Mr. Green handled this very subtly, and while he’s no Jack London in the realm of crafting prose, he handled the plot delivery brilliantly.  He positioned these characters in a way that didn’t have the reader feeling sorry for them but instead wanting to root for them as people and not invalids.  I found it impossible not to like Hazel and Gus and Isaac, as I wanted them to enjoy life.  And John Green showed that even kids with disabilities understand the consequences of unprotected sex and that first “encounters” aren’t always of the closest kind.  Love is not easy for any kid who cares.  And these kids definitely cared, which is another reason their characters resonated with readers.  Again, I have to think that handicapped kids respected them, and just like nonphysically impaired youths, lived vicariously through Hazel and Gus’s successes.

I also thought that John Green did a remarkable job  in bringing the curmudgeonly Peter into the fold.  He was a puzzle to me for most of the story, and then I realized his metaphorical relationship to the narrative, in that good things don’t always happen in real life to people who deserve breaks along the way.  Peter was “real life,” and this is all I’m going to say so I don’t ruin the story.  John Green gets a huge star for this character, as it was extremely clever to introduce him and then couch his actions as he did throughout the story.  I wonder if this was the author’s intention from the outset or if Peter just developed along with the narrative.  Regardless, his character added immeasurably to the fabric of the story.

I hope I’ve offered a reasonable opinion as to why this story was such a success.  It certainly transcends being a book aimed at the handicapped, as I don’t think that’s at all true, and I frankly find that offensive.  However, I can see, as I said earlier, that people with permanent disabilities might find the characters inspiring.  I have no way of knowing for certain, but I’d like to think that is true.

The grammar bugbears that have plagued me forever are “who” and “whom” and “lie” and “lay.”  I will likely never tackle “lie” and “lay,” but, alas, the time has come for “who” and “whom,” my second most evil of language demons–which are the subject of today’s article.

Who or Whom?–That Is the Question

When discussing “who” and “whom,” I’m always happy to mention that not that many years ago a group of what were considered many of the finest literary scholars of the day participated in a survey regarding the use of both words.  The primary focus of the questionnaire was to once and for all decide if “whom” should be eschewed for “who” except in the most obvious of phrases such as “to whom were you speaking?”  The group consisted of 25 grammarians, and when the final tally was made, 6 voted to keep “whom” sacred, 15 voted to do away with “whom” and 4 chose to remain on the fence.

Most Sentences Cited by Educators Are Too Simple

A wonderful and well-meaning copyeditor with The New Yorker, Mary Norris. who is billed as the “comma queen,” has produced a series of videos in which she discusses how easy it is to deal with what has most of us tearing our hair out, and “who” and “whom” are of course a part of her oeuvre.  In this video, kindly Ms. Norris tells the eager nincompoop (me) that all one has to do is separate the subjective case pronouns from the objective case pronouns, and use “who” with the former and “whom” with the latter.  What could be easier, and how can I have been such a fool all these years (please don’t ask my wife for the answer to that)?

Did Mary Check Her Own Biscuits?

Mary soon provides a list of the subjective case pronouns:  I, you, he, she, it, we, you, and they.  Then she offers the objective case pronouns:  me, you, him, her, it, us, you (again, but in this case to signify the plural usage), and them.  Does anyone reading this notice where there could be possible confusion, ignoring the dual instances of “you” in the objective case?  When I saw the set of words I grabbed my stomach, I found myself laughing so hard.  Sure it’s easy to figure out “who” and “whom,” all you have to be is a witch doctor.  If “you” and “it” are in both the subjective and objective cases, how is anyone supposed to know which applies to what?  Of course it can be analyzed once the sentence is correctly diagrammed, but how many people can do this when the syntax gets beyond the most basic construction?  Yes, copyeditors can do this–and this is why I hire one.

Examples of How Easy It Is to Determine If It’s “Who” or “Whom”

With a few modifications from the original text in which these illustrations appeared, since I didn’t have time to get formal permission, here are some examples with the answers posted at the bottom of the group.  Now that we all know how easy “who” and “whom” are to work with, see how many you get right.

  1. If you can’t trust John the butcher, who can you trust?
  2. Now I see who she laughed at.
  3. She was angry with whoever opposed her.
  4. Inherently apprehensive of her father, whom she supposed it was, she stopped at the curb.
  5. Jack, whom they say was killed tonight, is alive.
  6. The fellow whom they saw emerge from the house fired a shotgun.
  7. The fellow who they say emerged from the house fired a shotgun.

The answers are 1) wrong, 2) wrong, 3) right, 4) wrong, 5) wrong, 6) right, 7) right.

Theodore Bernstein and William F. Buckley, Jr.

It was Theodore Bernstein who (I hope this is right) got the group of scholars to respond to his query, and only a man of his stature could have pulled this off (in 1975, by the way), as participants included the likes of Jacques Barzun and William F. Buckley, Jr., the latter offering what I found to be the cleverest witticism of all as he responded, “Whom knows?”  And he and Dr. Barzun were among the 16 who voted to deep-six the hapless “whom.”  But the word lives on, albeit breathing heavy at times, and even Mary Norris relented at the end of her presentation by saying–when in doubt–opt for “who.”  Yeah, I know, all this for that.  Well, nobody said this would be easy, only sweet Mary Norris, and even she bailed.


The Perfect Write® Newsletter, Vol 149, March 15, 2016
Fused Participles and the Problems They Can Create

Hello Everyone,

I want to begin in my usual manner by welcoming new subscribers to this medium.  The purpose behind my Newsletters is to offer advice on writing material at a level that people will pay to read, and on the publishing industry as I’ve come to know it during the past 20-plus years as both a novelist and an editor.  In ’09, when I broadcast the first edition to a fine group of folks who had just completed a series of writing workshops I conducted, the premise in those days was to provide information on writing material that would appeal to a mainstream publisher.  And, to be frank, during that era I was skeptical of self-publishing because of what I viewed as industry bias that would forever blackball a self-published writer from ever being signed by a major imprint.  Indeed, times have changed, and legacy publishing houses now have staff routinely scouring the blogs for those who have achieved success independently.

A number of my editing clients have experienced book sales that often vastly exceed those of debut mainstream-published fiction writers.  I always hate providing this statistic, but three out of four (some say four out of five) debut novels published by Big 5 imprints fail to generate reader interest, selling between 1,200 and 2,000 copies.  It is not uncommon for a debut writer to sit for two hours at a major bookstore and sell only a couple of copies of his or her book.  Conversely, client Dave Mallegol’s latest installment in the Bronze Horsemen series, HUNT FOR THE WOLF CLAN, sold 44 copies this past weekend, of which 25 were paperbacks at $18, plus he received royalties for another 44.  I’ve discussed Mike Hartner’s success with his “I” series, and James Babb’s outstanding results with his two works of historical fiction, for which the first book, THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, was placed in the entire Arkansas school system.  As a pleasant aside to this, I’d like to believe that my showcasing of Dave Mallegol’s book on my “Books by Clients and Friends of The Perfect Write®” page on my personal blog helped sales, and I will try to display a fresh cover each month.

As everyone who’s read my hoodoo for any period of time is aware, I almost always include an article to accompany each broadcast that pertains to writing fluent prose or to the publishing industry, and I have FINALLY received a print proof I’m satisfied with of the compendium of these articles that I placed in book form and titled HOW TO WRITE WHAT PEOPLE WILL PAY TO READ!  This was done as an e-book initially and can still be purchased for $2.99.  The print version will be $18, and my offer remains in effect–that anyone who is kind enough to buy the e-book and write a review on Amazon will receive a free autographed paperback.  I’m going to be sending out the free books to those who wrote reviews shortly, and I’ll be facilitating this in the order in which these comments were posted on Amazon.  Many of my Newsletter subscribers are from foreign countries, so I beg everyone outside the States to please continue to be patient, as the international postage rates are high and I have to send the books by the least expensive way, but I will notify everyone, foreign and domestic, when a book ships, as I’ll also be verifying addresses since it’s taken me such a ridiculous amount of time to complete this project.  I want to express my sincerest heartfelt appreciation to each and every one of you who purchased my book and wrote a review, and I also want to thank you for your patience, as this legitimately ran a year longer than I’d anticipated, no different from the release date as if this print book had been signed by a mainstream publisher.

While I’m discussing my Newsletter articles, I wrote a short paper some time ago on what are referred to as “attributive nouns,” something I’ve since learned that many English teachers aren’t familiar with (or don’t remember from college, as the subject is obscure).  These are plural nouns that end in “s” and function as adjectives instead of possessives; e.g., The New York Times bestseller list; IBM General Systems Division; writers workshop, etc.).  Writers workshop can be the source of serious debate, but I’m of the opinion that a great many word amalgamations should fall into the “attributive noun” category.  I mention this now because today’s article discusses “fused participles” as they relate to the possessive, and while the basic definition is not complex, much of this subject’s trappings are clearly not incontrovertible.  I don’t want to “give away” the thrust of the article now, but I believe it’s fair to say that it will open some eyes wide, as once again the writer is not provided with absolute guidelines, no different from “writers workshop.”

An argument some writers proffer is that their publishers at times will either rewrite a story themselves or demand a revision so extensive that the new version only vaguely resembles the author’s originally submitted manuscript.  I’ve had clients believe I’ve overedited material, but I’d like to think the story has remained the same.  Nobody would like for a story to “hold up” exactly as submitted more so than an editor, and I can assure anyone that I’d rather spend 80 hours on a draft instead of 200.  But the life of an editor, if he or she has pride and wants to see a work have a legitimate shot at the mainstream level, doesn’t allow for many 80-hour projects, and this is just the way it is–at least via my experience.  Most of the the problems between a writer and an editor can be headed off at the pass if both parties communicate before beginning a project.  This is one reason why I won’t edit a book I haven’t critiqued first.  If a person wants to take the prose equation to another level, consider the difficulty if a Children’s author requiring an illustrator has one provided by a publisher–and there are no conversations once the text is handed off.  This is what occurred in the paragraph that follows, and it is cited as written:

“In her first interview since Scholastic withdrew the children’s book ‘A Birthday Cake for George Washington’ for potentially giving ‘a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves,’ author Ramin Ganeshram told the AP she expressed repeated misgivings about the production process and the lack of communication with illustrator Vanessa Brantley Newton, well in advance of publication. ‘”The public does not know that the authors (of picture stories) are not in full control of their books. The public feels if you write the book, the book is yours and you make the decisions. But in children’s publishing at least, that is entirely untrue. Authors and illustrators often do not speak, or interact. I never had a conversation with Vanessa, just a few tweets.”‘

I find this ridiculous, and I’ve had Children’s Picture Book authors at writing conferences explain their experiences.  One even boldly announced that all publishers provide illustrators. If a subscriber to my hogwash chooses to believe not one thing I’ve ever written about this business, please believe that all publishers don’t provide illustrators.  A writer of a Children’s Picture Book, unless already famous with a huge following, would likely have a better shot at becoming an astronaut than having a nonillustrated book signed.  However, the point of this section involves writer control.  And the primary reason many authors have opted for self-publishing is that it guarantees–for good or bad–the publication of what an author desires.  I’m not aware of a single aspect of the publishing business that isn’t a double-edged sword in one way or another, but self-publishing does enable a writer to control content 100 percent, and that is inarguable.

Continuing my discussion on author control and the publishing business, a number of clients have discussed self-publishing with me during this past year or so based on what they are learning about writing for the mainstream publisher once a book contract is signed.  It’s important to understand that this can be all over the place, as a publisher might ask that a thematic issue be restructured, such as the case of the Thriller writer I alluded to recently who had to change his main plot “driver” from oil and Venezuela to drugs and Colombia.  Truth be told, I asked a very good client of mine, Frank Geiger, to change a storyline from lawyers, guns,and money to drugs, guns, and money, and I will always stand by this suggestion (of course I asked for and received Frank’s permission before discussing this publicly, and I thank him publicly as well).  On the “lighter-work” side of this for the writer, an author might be asked by a publisher to harden or soften a character or a single plot element.  These issues are major components of any critique, and if this sort of advice is suddenly considered unacceptable, editors will no longer have a job.

To add to this discussion is this article by an author, Caitlin Kiernan, whose works I’ve not read but she says she’s written more than a dozen books that have been mainstream-published, and now she wants to go it alone so she can have complete editorial control. (With respect to this author, I have no idea if she uses an independent editor to polish her work; maybe she’s one of the few who can also go this alone as well–and if so I say more power to her.)  Echoing Ms. Kiernan’s position, I met a fairly well-known writer at a conference a while ago who told me he was going to begin publishing his own material, as he also was fed up with his publisher and wanted, in his words, “. . . to just be left alone to write what I want to write.”  I won’t mention this author’s name because he spoke with me in confidence, but what both of these good people may not realize is that the advice they are given might not be vainglory on the part of their publishers–but solid literary criticism.

In the case of Ms. Kiernan, she freely admits the royalties from her book sales have not been enough to support her and that she’s had to resort to asking “friends of her writing” (for lack of a better way to put this on my part) to kick in funds on a routine basis to keep her at a keyboard.  I give her all the credit in the world for creating such loyalty, but I have to believe this would be tough sledding and a lot of stale bread and sour milk for most writers who tried this tack.  I’m not being a wiseguy, but perhaps if she had a publisher who provided stronger advice–assuming of course that she’d take it–she might not need to resort to begging to keep afloat as a writer.  Maybe she should try to find a different publisher before doing it on her own.  Other than John Locke, I haven’t learned of many previously published major authors who have found self “everything” the panacea they envisioned.  Please feel free to write me of any instances in which this is apocryphal, and I promise to give it space in an upcoming broadcast.

To elaborate on this issue just a paragraph further, my Newsletter is written by an editor, I try to offer honest balance.  However, editing is hardly a catch-all that incontrovertibly answers all of any draft’s needs, and what I suggest to a writer at any given time might be in la la land with respect to getting that person published.  But most editors, at least the ones I know who care about the craft, try very hard to give advice they believe will benefit their clients–and more often than not the suggestions are based on personal experience with the subject.  In reality, often a lot of history with a specific issue goes into the advice that is given.  In my case, this is why I generally provide examples to justify my contentions.  Yet all the examples in the world do not guarantee the validity of an editor’s claim–no different from a legal or medical or accounting opinion.  All any of us can do is practice our craft to the best of our abilities and offer advice we believe applies to the specificity of a situation based on our experience, background, and interpretive skill sets.  When an author feels that his or her writing is being compromised–not helped–why wouldn’t that person make a change?  Choosing to eschew a mainstream publisher is generally done only when someone has a healthy bank account, so this is what appears different if not unique in Ms. Kiernan’s scenario, but I’m not writing this section to argue for or against her decision; instead, solely to offer perspective for each Newsletter subscriber to evaluate in his or her own way.

A fine gentleman named Luis Sastre was a participant in one of the very first creative writing workshop series I conducted in South Florida.  Luis is a veteran of the aerospace industry, and his continuing support for my efforts to help writers is always appreciated.  He sent me this material a short while back, and I hope Newsletter subscribers get a laugh or two while reading it.  I seldom have the opportunity to inject much humor in these broadcasts, so I enjoy it immensely when I can do so.  Under the tag LEXOPHILIA, here is the material Luis provided.  (He’s not claiming it as his, and I want to make that clear.  It’s being provided as public domain content)

  • How does Moses make tea?  Hebrews it.
  • Venison for dinner again?  Oh deer!
  • A cartoonist was found dead in his home.  Details are sketchy.
  • I used to be a banker, but then I lost interest.
  • Haunted French pancakes give me the crêpes.
  • England has no kidney bank, but it does have a Liverpool.
  • I tried to catch some fog, but I mist.
  • They told me I had type-A blood, but it was a Typo.
  • I changed my iPod’s name to Titanic. It’s syncing now.
  • Jokes about German sausage are the wurst.
  • I know a guy who’s addicted to brake fluid, but he says he can stop anytime.
  • I stayed up all night to see where the sun went, and then it dawned on me.
  • This girl said she recognized me from the vegetarian club, but I’d never met herbivore.
  • When chemists die, they barium.
  • I’m reading a book about anti-gravity.  I just can’t put it down.
  • I did a theatrical performance about puns.  It was a play on words.
  • Why were the Indians here first?  They had reservations.
  • I didn’t like my beard at first.  Then it grew on me.
  • Did you hear about the cross-eyed teacher who lost her job because she couldn’t control her pupils?
  • When you get a bladder infection, urine trouble.
  • Broken pencils are pointless.
  • What do you call a dinosaur with an extensive vocabulary?  A thesaurus.
  • I dropped out of communism class because of lousy Marx.
  • All the toilets in New York’s police stations have been stolen.  The police have nothing to go on.
  • I got a job at a bakery because I kneaded dough.
  • Velcro—what a rip off.

I found Romance e-publisher Scribd’s recent decision to eliminate its unlimited subscription service to be right up there with Amazon’s statement that the firm would now be monitoring page counts for books in its Kindle Unlimited program.  What makes Scribd’s action so egregious, in my opinion, is that the firm issued a statement that only a very small number of customers are affected.  If this is the case, then why limit the use?  Seriously, how many books can a person read that this can have a monetary impact on the cost of digital content?  It’s laughable.  What a policy such as Scribd meant was that people could have unlimited use of something–as long as it’s not too much unlimited use.  We live in interesting times indeed.

So many subscribers accessed the link to editor Lee Boudreax’s article that I’m reposting the link to it.  What’s noteworthy–in addition to her erudite comment on an editor’s responsibility to read “closer” than anyone else would look at text–is her clear explanation of the profession.  She’s really a special person, in that Little, Brown gave her an imprint of her own, and she’s just in her early 30s.  Her article is a short one, and I think it will benefit anyone who’s serious about becoming published, which I choose to believe is each and every person who subscribes to my Newsletter.  Hence, I’ve posted the link again for any subscriber who might have missed this material the first time around.

I’ve often commented on what’s hot and what’s not from a genre perspective.  On February 23, seven novels were published in the Sci-Fi genre, and I’m watching a positive trend develop in this category.  Granted, Sci-Fi is a broad genre, as it encompasses both a Fantasy and Adventure subset, thus covering an enormous literary canvas, but what’s important is that the field is expanding and not contracting.  I’m also seeing a great many debut novels published by the Big 5 in a variety of genres, which should give all writers seeking publication for the first time a good feeling.  I agree, not exactly the warm fuzzies, but at least the debut material illustrates that quality writing is acknowledged and it’s not impossible to make it with a mainstream imprint.  Before I step away from genre, while Sci-Fi and YA are as strong as ever, I have noticed a bit of a downturn in the Thriller category, and as always it’s virtually impossible to get any traction whatsoever in Memoir or Poetry.  I have constantly bemoaned the problem with memoirs, as unless the story is about someone who has gained national celebrity for whatever reason, or is a Holocaust survivor, the Memoir genre has a heavy lock on its door.

Poetry is simply too isolated.  Go to a book fair and observe how many people sit to listen to someone read his or her poetry.  It works well in a collegiate setting at the Rathskeller, but it’s hard to attract an audience outside of those who know the poet well or are in academia.  However, the power of poetry at the creative level cannot be overstated, as a client of mine told me about a best friend who was a Columbia law school grad who received a prestigious grant to write poetry–and this person quit the law firm where she worked to write poetry full time.  My client says that this person has never been happier.  This parrots in a way how I feel about editing.  I could never justify the hours I put into a client’s work if I didn’t love what I’m doing, as this definitely isn’t a profession to get into if someone expects to make a lot of money.  The gratification I receive when a client expresses satisfaction with what I provide is my real reward.

The flaws in bestseller lists at all levels have been routinely chronicled by me and others, and I don’t want to belabor this topic any more than necessary, because to say this medium is easily gamed is a blatant understatement.  For anyone who might still be unaware of the shenanigans that commonly occur, this article–for which the link was posted via Publishers Marketplace and I copied it–spells out the lunacy is spades.  The author of the article achieved “Number-One Bestseller” status with Amazon in five minutes–and by spending a total of $3  This article will likely prove to be a real mind-blower for many for another reason, as the fellow who gamed Amazon didn’t have a single line of text in his book!  I won’t give away the ins and outs of the process, as I’ll let subscribers read about this for themselves, but one statistic was presented that I didn’t know, and it’s that Amazon now sells a total of more than 33,000,000 different titles.  I was certain this total had exceeded the 25,000,000 number, as there were supposedly 11,000,000 titles in 2013, but I had no idea this total was growing at a rate of 10,000,000 per year.  This enormous number of titles could be off a bit, as Amazon doesn’t always post statistics in the most transparent fashion (how’s that for being polite?); but, regardless of the exact total, if this doesn’t illustrate why a writer can’t just post a book on Amazon and sit back and expect the money to rush in, I don’t know what could possibly better expose that fallacy.  For years I explained the problem with getting traction for a book listed by Ingram or Baker & Taylor when there is no marketing momentum behind the title–yet both of these distribution outlets list around 70,000 books at a given time.  Now multiply this 471 times to arrive at the Amazon metric!

Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to talk with many agents, including those who have represented me, about their individual criteria for signing a book. I always asked if a work’s literary merit would trump its marketability if the material might not be suitable for attracting a wide audience.  I found the agents I’ve spoken with to be remarkably candid, and while most said the quality of the narrative was the overriding factor in the decision they would make regarding representation, overwhelmingly they said that publishers all wanted the “next big book.”  Hence, these agents were “directed” by the same mindset.  However, I remember one agent, whom I sat across from at a private meeting, bristling at me when I brought up the “next big book” argument.  I went away rather humbled (okay, embarrassed), until I considered that person’s track record, as this agent had become wealthy in the profession and could afford to be extremely selective, not worrying about a book’s rank-and-file readership numbers.  When I analyzed this dynamic (meaning, “the big book” mentality) I came to the conclusion that the other agents who swore to this edict were also extremely successful (meaning, considered in most circles to be wealthy–as they had made many millions from certain literary properties they represented).

So it’s easy, at least as I see it, to be selective when one has a fat bank account.  Where I’m going with this is that most agents make a living, just as I do as an editor, and we have to look at work based on its marketability.  The big reason for the lack of vainglory is that no one knows for certain what the public will like from a debut author, which is the demographic I’m referring to in this section.  No one worries about whether or not Stephen King’s or John Grisham’s books will sell, as their respective name under a title guarantees an automatic megabestseller.  For someone trying to find an agent for the first time, and in turn a publisher, the dynamics are indeed quite different.  And this is where the “next big book” mentality crawls into the decision-making equation.  As I wrote earlier in this Newsletter, statistics dictate that only one out of four or five debut books make money for a publisher, which means somewhere around 75 percent don’t recover the upfront cost to get a book printed and distributed to the key markets (large metropolitan areas with an established book-buying population, such New York City, Miami, and Chicago).

In “the day,” when the $70,000 number was the norm, the debut author received the “standard” $20,000 advance.  Consequently, the publisher was trying to recover $50,000 in printing, administrative, and distributing costs.  I’m not including advertising in this, as debut material seldom had much money thrown at it (and still doesn’t), as most of the time reviews were the primary means for a book to gain support.  Good reviews were of course highly sought after, as there was no blogosphere in the “olden” days (essentially before the year 2000, but this “threshold” can of course be argued as this is solely a yardstick).  Today, with POD printing allowing an average-word-count trade paperback to be printed with cover for around $5 (in the covered-wagon days, a normal hardcover cost a publisher around $7 to get to market when tossing in everything, but a hardback also had a $16.95 retail; today the average is $27.95).  In days of yesteryear there was no POD option, so a book’s initial run was often several thousand copies.  If the book didn’t sell within the first few weeks, what remained was back to the publisher for credit–and a big loss and all sorts of creative bookkeeping then came into play.

Ten publishers can be asked, and ten different numbers will be given for all of this, so it must be understood that what I’m offering are ranges and nothing else. Therefore, someone can say my numbers are pure poppycock and have no relevance today, and I can’t dispute this, but what matters is that it’s hard to make money on a book by an author whose name is is not yet familiar to the reading public. Granted, publishers’ bookkeeping has been the source of much heated discourse, as their accounting techniques are legendary for the measures they have taken to couch the unfathomable as an expense tagged to an author.  But all one has to do is look at Random House’s recent numbers to recognize that without the latest GIRL book and the recent GREY add-on, the firm would likely have shown a loss for its past fiscal year.  Again, publishers have demonstrated amazing engineered accounting methodologies, but at some point profit or loss is a reality.  Thus, if Random House requires a book the scope of GREY, or HARRY POTTER in the case of Scholastic, to show a profit, how relative is the “big book” concept?  I’d say that every agent has to let this enter into the decision-making process, even those who say that literary value is really all they care about.

The American Booksellers Association is suing Amazon in all 50 states for price-fixing, and as I’ve commented for years this should be an absolute no-brainer, as a sea slug would recognize the firm’s monopoly status.  However, to be fair, Amazon does a lot of great things, such as what it offers via CreateSpace’s POD option.  But the line regarding monopoly status has clearly been breached, and those of us lucky enough to still retain some of our faculties are capable of recognizing this when we see how their arbitrary pricing model restrains the author’s ability to price his or her own material.  Yes, Amazon’s rights in this regard are clearly defined in the user agreement, but does this make it right?  When a firm controls 70 percent of all sales for a product category, in this case books, what other viable opportunities does a writer possess?  I’ll continue to repeat that I’m not the moral compass for this industry, as folks such as David Gaughran and Mick Rooney do an exponentially better job at this than I could ever hope to provide, but I believe that all of us have a responsibility to our industry colleagues to do whatever we can to state our experiences or even our educated opinions–as honestly as we are capable of–regardless of how this might play out.

While I’m on the topic of opinions, and I agree that most of mine are worthless, I read a discouraging article regarding Samhaim Publishing’s firing of a highly regarded editor because he refused to spend time on the Internet blogging for his clients.  Really.  This is a real head scratcher, since I thought publishing firms hired media types to do this and let editors deal with submissions and in some cases old-fashioned developmental- and even line-editing issues.  The one comment from Samhaim that stunned me more than any other (and the article contained many attributed to the publisher/owner that raised my eyebrows) was when it was suggested that editors needed to thank bloggers for their support.  I work a 12-hour day on average and enjoy a drink before I go to bed, usually around 3 a.m. each morning.  I know other editors who work the same long hours to meet deadlines and other author requirements.  And we should answer blogs as well?  I can’t even attend to my personal blog in a timely fashion, and I seldom if ever respond to Facebook unless something comes to my attention that is posted directly by a client.  There simply is not enough time.  I’d like to take a course in Word styles at a local college so I could really understand the formatting issues that caused me such grief while getting my book of articles in order, but where would I possibly find the time?

Editing is a labor, and there is no other way to put it.  And whether a person is a submissions editor or a developmental editor or a line-editor, time is each discipline’s greatest nemesis.  I effusively apologize for missing any client’s post, but I’d like to believe that my authors would much rather have me continue critiquing or editing their manuscripts than responding to blogs.  The Samhaim mindset in this regard really frosted me, and I’m glad that a good dozen or more of the terminated editor’s clients came to his defense, as each writer found his release, for the reason stated, reprehensible.  And if a disinterest in blogging was the only reason for his being fired, while I have no knowledge of this man’s abilities one way or the other–or the office politics that might have been involved–I find his dismissal equally disturbing.

Here now is today’s article, and I want to preface what I designed regarding my comments on the issue of fused participles.  This is an enormously complex topic, and when a subscriber to my snake oil formula finishes reading this material, I can readily understand the person asking, “Why did Rob go to all the effort to write this when clearly no one understands the topic?”  In reality, this wouldn’t be a correct assessment, as academicians and a few others of the seven billion who inhabit this planet understand fused participles, but applying the right treatment for them is a horse of a whole other color, as the experts are indeed all over the place.  I spent the time to research this topic so subscribers can see another reason why common sense has to enter into sentence construction, as there are times when the only sensible recourse is to revise the text.

Fused Participles and the Problems They Can Create

The first issue to contend with is the awful couplet “fused participles.”  When I saw the words for the first time, I immediately thought of going to the doctor when I was a teenager and being told, “Son, got a fused participle,” and my replying, “Oh, no, Doctor, not that!  What do I do?”  Or in physics class when Professor Ing says, “The first cohorts to factor into Wineblatt’s theory of fused participles require developing regression equations with standard deviations not more or less .0276, as long as this fits the paradigm established by Kobalsky at the ’09 conference in Helsinki that suggested a critical mass not to exceed the atomic weight of a bowl of Cheetos.”  Really!

The Meaning of This Evil Word Couplet

A fused participle doesn’t mean unfulfilled puberty or the Earth rushing into the sun if either tilts one-billionth of an inch, but it does mean that certain words we don’t always think of as possessive do require an apostrophe.  And if I told folks that I knew the specifics of this even a couple of years ago, I’d be lying, as it’s something that slid right by me, and it’s why I hire a skilled copyeditor to keep me on the straight and narrow.  As for the meaning of “fused participle,” this occurs when a verbal noun (a noun that functions as a verb; e.g., gerunds: walking is good for you; “walking” functions as a noun) is preceded by a modifier, whether a noun or a pronoun, that is not in the possessive (that’s right, no apostrophe s).  And if anyone might have forgotten, a participle is a form of a verb that is used to indicate a past or present action and that can also be used like an adjective.  Wineblatt’s theory is indeed easier to understand, but don’t run for the border yet.

Proper Names and Personal Names Preceding “Being” Require “Possessive” Treatment

All this means is that the proper or personal name before “being” requires an apostrophe s:  John’s being called in front of the class made him red-faced.  Conversely, nonpersonal nouns are not treated as possessive, hence:  The door being left open made everyone uneasy.  This was pretty straightforward until famous grammarian Henry Fowler came on the scene.  It would take pages of examples to discuss Fowler’s litany of arguments regarding fused participles, but if a writer will stick to proper and personal names preceding a possessive taking an apostrophe s, this will satisfy 99 percent of what’s out there.

What About When There Is No “Being” or Proper Name?

No stinking “being,” there’s got to be a “being.”  Not really.  In this sentence, we have no “being” and only a proper noun “son”:  Her own son’s eating with his fingers bothers Sally.  This can be correct if eating is what bothers Sally.  But this has a different connotation if written:  Her own son eating with his fingers bothered Sally.  In this instance it’s her son eating with his fingers that bothers her.  And, should it be wondered, “eating with his fingers” cannot be set off in commas, as this is a restrictive clause.  Yes, one can say that Sally is bothered by her son, so what has his eating go to do with it, and this would be correct.  However, his eating with his fingers defines the entirety of the action, and for this reason cannot be deemed a nonrestrictive clause to be set off by commas.  Perhaps a simpler way to view this is to read the sentence without the clause, thus:  Her son bothered Sally.  In this neutered context, the specificity of the sentence is lost, as Sally could be bothered by her son for an inordinate number of reasons.

There’s More

Indefinite pronouns such as “everyone” and “anyone” and “someone” do not require treatment as possessive, as we shouldn’t write “everyone’s leaving” as this will read that “everyone is leaving.”  A writer can generally defend a miscue with this sort of syntax by simply saying that the meaning was to treat the phrase as possessive, and in most instances this would be indistinguishable.  It is important to recognize one rather clear-cut distinction, however, and this is when using “your.”  Always write, for example, I appreciate your helping us, and not I appreciate you helping us.  I find an easy way to remember this rule is to drop the “ing” from these phrases, hence we wouldn’t write: I appreciate you help.

Writers Can Still Make a Mad Dash for the Border–There’s time

The rules for the genitive possessive (i.e., nouns, pronouns and adjectives used to express possession) with “being:–if it’s a person that’s modified–seem pretty much chiseled in stone, yet none other than Jacques Barzun didn’t always agree, as in SIMPLE & DIRECT he wrote:  “I don’t think there is much likelihood of Miss Fairfax being united.”  Following the rule, this requires that we write that “Miss Fairfax’s being united” is correct.  So, Dr. Barzun suggests revising the sentence while other grammarians simply advise dropping the apostrophe s.  If the legitimate (in my view) grammar experts don’t agree on this, what edict is a writer trying to do her or his best supposed to follow?  Dr. Barzun advocates letting one’s ear decide; saying, for example, that the “news of their investments’s being saved” is absurd, which I believe few people would dispute.

I am hardly the one to argue any grammarian’s contention, let alone something posed by Dr. Barzun, but over the years I’ve parsed SIMPLE & DIRECT more than any of the other 19 reference manuals next to my desk, and this brilliant academician provided as much subjective treatment of our language as anyone I’ve studied who’s considered an English scholar.  Meaning, he lets his emotions enter into his decisions quite often, and this is why one size doesn’t fit all, and the reason each of my clients has every right to refute any editing suggestion I provide.  Yes, some “things” relating to grammar are inviolable–but much isn’t.  And the latter is the reason “good sense” has to enter the literary equation–and correctness at times can be eschewed for what reads best.  Or, as some suggest, the rhetoric should be revised in a manner that makes it compatible with convention, regardless of its grammatical correctness.  Most assuredly a slippery slope (meaning: then why follow any rules?), but a revision is often the only suitable recourse to silence dissent–and modifying the syntax is one thing Fowler and Barzun both agreed on.

When I find something involving grammar nuance that is ridiculously confusing, I find it fabulous when the genius of Theodore Bernstein can be probed for answers.  My copyeditor, Martha Moffett–never do I praise her enough–offered this redact from the sage Mr. Bernstein, who advises us to use the possessive with the gerund whenever possible; e.g., He had never given a thought to its being illegal.  If it does not seem possible in a sentence, he suggests reconstructing the sentence as always an option.  Yep, rewrite it.  And if we have Fowler, Barzun, and Bernstein suggesting revising, it’s probably a good idea to take their advice instead of struggling with a 300-year-old hydra that isn’t likely to give up the ghost anytime soon.


The Perfect Write® Newsletter, Vol 150, April 19, 2016, SPECIAL EDITION The State of Publishing in 2016

Hello Everyone,

As always, I want to offer a big welcome to the latest subscribers to my Newsletter, and ask each of you to consider ideas for subjects pertaining to writing and the publishing industry that you’d like to have discussed in a future edition.  I particularly like it when I can utilize subscriber concepts for material for articles that I generally have accompany each broadcast.  The current edition, however, is one of those rare broadcasts when one topic is so dominant that I classify the Newsletter as a “Special Edition” and do not facilitate an article to follow, as I don’t want it to dilute the message.  I apologize if this sounds invidious (or stupid), but I find current publishing trends important enough to discuss in a way that is unencumbered.

I don’t believe many people have registered stronger opposition to Amazon’s monopoly status than I, as the firm’s reach extends to virtually all aspects of consumer commerce.  But I’ve also pointed out what I consider the positive of what the company has created with respect to entities such as CreateSpace, which I found to be an incredibly “open” environment.  Because of the TOC and Index in my book of articles, I’ve had all sorts of continuity and layout issues, the first with pagination and the second with respect to appearance, as Word didn’t convert to a PDF for CreateSpace as I’d hoped.  And for anyone who says that a PDF always converts exactly as it appears, I can assure that person that this isn’t correct.  “Bullets” create all sorts of problems, for example, and I had to resort to boldfacting a star symbol ( * ) in some text or I’d still be approaching another guru to help me.  As it ended up, four different experts helped with this project before it reached completion.

This would never had occurred if the TOC and Index had not been components of the book, and this goes to illustrate that I should have started over with the TOC and Index–completely from scratch–instead of playing catch-up.  However, in bringing this project to fruition, two customer service experts (and they are indeed experts with respect to CreateSpace) both spent several hours on the phone with me on two separate occasions so I could get everything in order.  And they provided a link to an application I’m gong to share with subscribers because I found it exceptional.  It is oddly named (in my opinion)  I say oddly named because what it provides is anything but small, in that the site offers a dozen options which allow the immediate and FREE conversion of a text from Word to a PDF–and back again.  And if I can do this, as those who have worked with me on layout issues will attest, anybody can.

I want to finish up this section on CreateSpace by acknowledging that the company’s tech support has its detractors.  And there are undoubtedly people who could have handled what CreateSpace’s techs did for me in a fraction of the time.  But I have to go by how people treat me, and the expense involved (yes, one can ask what my time is worth–and I would reply “very little,” so this makes that comment nugatory, ha ha), and for this reason I give CreateSpace very high marks.  I received a proof, with cover, in four days for around $4.50.  To my way of thinking it’s very hard to find fault with this.   And after a half-dozen “close calls,” I’ve finally approved a proof and ordered 30 copies as a trial run, and as promised I’ll be sending autographed copies to folks who were kind enough to post a review of HOW TO WRITE WHAT PEOPLE WILL PAY TO READ! on Amazon.  I’m sending out the books in the order in which the reviews were submitted, and I’ll be verifying addresses, as the postage and packaging is expensive.  Postage is especially high when shipping the book overseas, so I want to make certain the addresses are correct.  SPECIAL REQUEST:  As I’ve been preparing the mailing list to send out the print copies, I’ve noticed that the Amazon “name” is not one I can always match up to a subscriber who wrote a review, so if every person who’s posted on Amazon will please verify your mailing address, this will expedite the shipping process.  So please e-mail me your name and mailing address @, even if you have already done so.  My hope is to have all the autographed copies in the mail by the end of the month.

As it ended up, the book cost me $4.49 per copy to have it printed, and when I order 30 copies at a time, the shipping cost, including carton, to me is just $18, hence my total cost is $5.09. which is right at the $5 fee I had desired from the outset.  I’m not placing the print version on Amazon yet, so while the book will have an ISBN, it will not be priced.  I plan, however, to list it at $18 for print, and I’ve raised the digital version to $7.99, a modification I announced some time ago but have just now implemented because I wanted this price increase to coincide with the release of the printed book.  I really like the new cover (and since a number of people were not particularly fond of the digital cover, this should bring about a smile), and I once again want to offer my most heartfelt appreciation to Sheryl Dunn for designing it.  Sheryl also put together some neat graphics and font modifications, but I wasn’t able to use most of her efforts in this initial print addition because of my less than stellar layout skills, but I will incorporate her concepts when I do the next update.

Someone else I want to praise is Kimberly Hitchens, the founder of  I’ve discussed her work before, and while she specializes in digital content, I believe that anyone planning a book layout would be wise to contact Ms. Hitchens to assess if her services might save an enormous amount of time and aggravation.  I don’t get a dime for recommending, and I do so solely because of my confidence in her expertise and the way she and her staff worked with me on the e-book version of HOW TO WRITE WHAT PEOPLE WILL PAY TO READ!  She also spent considerable time assisting me with the print copy, and any miscues in it are solely because my diddling, as there was a lot of last-minute tweaking that can always create problems. In the “final,” I found a few spacing issues between words, but that’s about it.  Not making any excuses, but this is really hard to remedy when using a justified-text format and then having to manually hyphenate words at the end of lines so the text looks its most appealing overall.  Professional typesetters have software for this that I of course don’t possess, but I’m very proud of the way the book ended up, and I will fix anything missed when I add articles to what will be presented as the third edition.  One thing I will do is set up each article separately and not have any headers follow at the end of a previous topic.  I structured the current version this way so it wouldn’t end up at 400 pages, as at 308 pages I believe it’s bulbous enough already.  But aesthetics will win out the next time around.

I’ve often remarked how it disappoints me that I have to dedicate so much space in virtually every broadcast to industry lawsuits.  And while I continue not in any way to consider myself a moral compass of any sort for writers, if I don’t report on some of what I consider to be vital legal actions and decisions surrounding the book-publishing trade, I’d be ignoring a major aspect of what authors at all levels must contend with.  A decision was recently handed down concerning Writer Beware and America Star Books (formerly PublishAmerica, which has been very quiet of late from the perspective of public complaints against the outfit and its subordinate entities).  The result of the lawsuit brought by PublishAmerica against Writer Beware was that both parties reached a settlement that includes refrain from discussing the terms of the arrangement.  So, once again, nothing was accomplished that the rank-and-file PA author can utilize.

Writer Beware has done a lot of good, particularly early on, at protecting writers from scams, but I noticed a trend many years ago, primarily on the part of Victoria Strauss, one of the original co-founders of WB, to appear to accept writers’ complaints as fact and then run with them on her site.  I know of an incident involving her assailing an agent on the West Coast that was blatantly false. The agent’s author and I discussed this in detail, and I was able to verify she (the agent) was telling the truth.  Yet when confronted with the facts by the agent who was maligned, Ms. Strauss refused to admit she erred in her assessment.  Her forced denial, as I viewed it, became what I deemed an unacceptable pattern.  Hence, a half-dozen years ago I quit looking at anything coming from Writer Beware.

I’m routinely suggesting that subscribers pay attention to publishing trends; meaning, what genres are hot and which might not be sizzling away.  I write Thrillers, so I’m hardly happy about what I’m reporting, but during the last business week in March (March 28-April 1) just a single book in the Thriller category was listed as signed by a Big 5 house.  Yet during this same period 43 Children’s books found a home.  Granted, the Children’s category takes in YA, Middle Grade, and Picture Books (and perhaps New Adult, but since no NA material was cited, this mention is academic), but if this doesn’t point to the trend I’ve been discussing of late I don’t know what does.  Recognizing what’s selling is important because this underscores potential as much as anything writers have available to analyze.  For example, I don’t believe I saw one Memoir signed in the past month, which is why I continue to mention the lack of opportunity for material in this genre.  There’s also been a downturn in digital–but not necessarily in the Children’s subsets.

I said a million years ago that I can’t see youngsters (little kids) not wanting to touch a book, especially if it has foldouts and other eye-catching graphics.  Yes, much can be done with today’s fabulous electronic media, but if a person has the chance to touch a gold bar or look at it, which would most people desire?  I’d always wanted to run my fingers over a Van Gogh, just for the sensation of touching a painting by this master of masters.  Silly me, huh?

I have labeled today’s Newsletter as a “Special Edition” because of the space I’m devoting to publishing as it appears to have shaken out of late.  What’s occurred cannot guarantee future activity–good or bad–but some issues seem to be evident, and here are my observations:

First and foremost, for all that has been reported to have changed in the book business of late, I find that most everything–as it pertains to a debut author’s material being signed–is virtually no different from when I first began writing seriously more than 20 years ago.  It was extremely hard for a previously unpublished writer to break into the business then, and it’s extremely hard now.  Fifteen years ago I was told by an agent who had enjoyed a fine career placing fiction that he had now given up on the category, as it was impossible to place novels except by franchise writers.  And some of this agent’s clients’ books had been made into movies.  Comments like this could have made me give up on ever writing another novel, but I chose to continue in my insane ways and wrote five more works of fiction.

Before I go any further, I want to mention that a number of subscribers have asked me to clarify some of the terminology I use, as they aren’t familiar with certain industry-specific words and phrases.  With this in mind, I ask the indulgence of those of you who are more seasoned as I discuss the phrase “franchise writer.”  This is someone whose name alone will sell enough books to guarantee bestseller status and also whose gravitas as a writer can have a significant impact on a publisher’s balance sheet.  Robert Ludlum is the best example I can cite at present, since he passed away in 2001 yet his name is ascribed to a continuing series of books written by a bevy of authors.  According to a figure I’ve read and to my knowledge hasn’t been refuted, a book under his name has guaranteed sales of 300,000 copies–his fan base remaining that loyal.  The granddaddy of all the franchise writers of course is James Patterson, and when was the last book he wrote under his own name?  He’d been accused of using ghost writers for so long that I believe this is what forced him to ultimately acknowledge his “co-writers.”  Every book under his name is not only a bestseller, but it will lead The New York Times list, his following is this strong.

Substantial reader allegiance can be attributed to a list of “living” writers who include household names such as Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, J.K. Rowling, Nelson DeMille, John Grisham, Dan Brown, etc.  If a legitimate count could be arrived at, I imagine that somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 writers exist whose name alone assures massive sales.  So if a person infers from my remark that 100 authors pretty much control the industry, I’m of the opinion that this statistic isn’t far from the truth.  And it’s their sales that allow writers to enter the market, which creates the first problem, since four or five debut novels reportedly sell between 1,200 to 2,000 print copies, which does not come close to covering the administrative costs, printing, distribution, marketing (if there is any), and the author’s advance (however meager this might be in today’s literary climate).  It’s the franchise writers who make the mainstream publishing industry work, as without them no new author could break through.

By “mainstream publishers,” I’m referring to the Big 5 publishers, which currently consist of Penguin/Random House, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and HarperCollins.  Penguin/Random House is owned by Pearson which is owned by Bertelsmann, a German media giant.  Hachette is owned by French media giant Lagardere.  Simon & Schuster is owned by CBS.  Macmillan is owned by a German conglomerate with a name too long for me to write correctly.  HarperCollins is owned by News Corp., which encompasses Fox and all the other outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch.  Does anyone see a pattern in all of this?  Independent publisher Kensington maintains about a dozen imprints, but even when all the independent publishers are added in with Kensington, it’s fair to state that 90-plus percent of the industry is controlled by the five ginormous outfits.  And some industry pundits indicate that more consolidation among these five is in the offing.

In the realm of “imprints,” (an imprint being the name under which a publishing enterprise operates independently in various ways), Penguin/Random House controls more than 250 of these entities, many of which are gigantic names such as Knopf Doubleday, Penguin, and Crown.  Hachette’s imprints include Little, Brown and Company, as well as Grand Central.  Simon & Schuster’s holdings include Pocket Books, Scribner, and Atria.  Macmillan has, among many others, Henry Holt and Company, Tor/Forge, and St. Martin’s.  HarperCollins’s imprints include William Morrow, Avon, and Newmarket Press.  With what has to be an inordinate number of corporate types looking at the bottom lines of these firms, including mom-and-pop investors as well, is there any reason to doubt that it’s hard for a “new” author to break in?  To put this in perspective, imagine taking a product idea to Johnson & Johnson and having it make it into production.  Understand this and it’s not hard to fathom why becoming published for the first time is such a difficult endeavor, and why it requires tremendous fortitude to pull it off, which brings me to the next point.

It’s my belief that editors should do whatever is in their power to get a client’s book in front of a bona fide agent or publisher.  But it’s very hard on a editor if a writer believes after just a dozen rejections that it’s time to toss in the towel.  J.K. Rowling sent out a a dozen queries for her mystery and wasn’t signed until her Robert Galbraith pseudonym was disclosed by a publisher’s wife at a cocktail party (infuriating Ms. Rowling).  It was bandied about for years that Robert Pirsig’s classic, ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, required 137 queries before he landed an agent.  I sent out more than 50 queries before I found my first agent back in the early ’90s.  I sent out more than 70 queries before a book of mine was signed by another agent 12 years later.  I’m mentioning this because I’m seeing more and more instances of writers, and certainly not solely my own clients, who are sending out a handful of queries and calling it a day.  I understand the frustration, especially when all sorts of advice is given that can be easily misconstrued.  But if a writer is going to spend what quite often amounts to a year or two to craft a story, why wouldn’t at least the same amount of time be spent trying to get it published by a mainstream imprint?  It’s my opinion that authors owe this to themselves, but we are a society that routinely demands immediate gratification–which in and of itself contributes mightily to the problem.

So the question that looms is this: What is the true story about self-publishing?  I can only answer this by saying that–like most of what goes on this business–ten people will provide ten different answers.  However, it’s obvious by the enormous success of writers such as Amanda Hocking and Stephenie Meyer and E.L. James (Erika Leonard) that self-publishing is no longer the death knell for an author’s credibility with a mainstream house.  And writers such as John Locke and Hugh Howey (more on him later) have clearly demonstrated that people can thrive in a self-publishing environment–and in some instances solely in this setting.  But there are issues that any writer who chooses this route must understand, and I’m now going to elaborate on them.

Personal elements must be considered for any writer who chooses to self-publish and is expecting to sell books.  Very few mainstream-published authors beyond those at the franchise level (the mystical top 100) can quit their day jobs.  Hence, what are the chances a self-published author can make money writing?  I cited an author in a recent Newsletter who must depend on donations to keep her at the keyboard.  I don’t believe I’m out of line to suggest that most folks would have a hard time earning enough–by begging–to support a life as a writer.  This goes to the next point; which is how many writers are also outstanding salespeople and marketers, as both skills are mandatory to glean even a modicum of sales?  Every self-published writer I have as a client who has sold books in quality numbers has demonstrated excellent sales skills or marketing acumen or both, and to a person each author has exhibited an abundance of good old-fashioned persistence.  If we polled 100 people who self-published a book, how many would exemplify the traits I’ve outlined?  In many personal situations, financial, health, family obligations, and a myriad of other issues can cause a writer with the best of intentions to veer off track.  To another point, how many writers have a blog with 400,000 acolytes hanging on every word, which brings me to Hugh Howey.

Mr. Howey, of WOOL fame, seems to believe that anyone can successfully self-publish by following a few basic guidelines.  And by following his own pattern for success, he relatively quickly turned his $.99 book sections via Amazon into a $50,000-a-month income.  I say: Try it.  It will soon become obvious that without a huge blog following, as Mr. Howey developed, after friends and family run their course, the sales figures will likely become di minimis.  Although John Green is mainstream published, as I wrote in a recent Newsletter, with the two million people following the blog he and his brother facilitate, he could write a book on the various configurations of bird droppings and he’d sell hundreds of thousands of copies.  What I just wrote is not meant to denigrate work by either of these authors, but it’s my opinion that their true respective genius is in marketing and not necessarily in letters.

Self-publishing should not be viewed as a panacea for debut writers who aren’t yet able to find a mainstream publisher, but the category is also no longer the kiss of death for an author’s ever landing a “big house.”  However, it must be clearly understood that after the first go-round with friends and family–almost all sales will be the generated by the author’s personal efforts.  Anyone unprepared or unable for whatever reason to follow through on the marketing side of things will likely have little or no sales results after the initial burst of F&F activity.  The expense to the writer was why I fought self-publishing for so many years but relented when digital became a reality, and with print on demand via the likes of CreateSpace and Lightning Source offering paperbacks for less than five bucks for a single copy, I now have fewer concerns than ever that a personally published book is a bad thing.

The 800-pound gorilla in the past involved the vanity presses and weaving through all their machinations–and a minimum print run that required a writer to spend several thousand dollars, usually at least three and sometimes as much as seven or more; hence my sour remark that many a poor soul would eventually have to pay someone to haul away boxes and boxes of unsold books. Now, however, print on demand has made this a nonissue (or it should be), and a writer’s financial exposure for the physical book is now limited to layout and the cost of the cover design if outside assistance for either is desired (both fees can be quite modest).

I want to finish this section by discussing what I started with, and this is mainstream publishing and what I hope I covered clearly as some of the pitfalls. I read a piece not long ago that was attributed to Esther Newberg, one of the true industry giants, who plies her trade at ICM, a billion-dollar literary and talent agency on the West Coast.  Anyone unfamiliar with Ms. Newberg and ICM can get a full report on the Internet, as a tome of material is available.  What caught my attention in the Esther Newberg article was her comment that the big bookstores don’t help new writers, as books are kept on the shelf for a week or so and shipped back if not sold.  This caused me to recall an incident when I was trying to help a client via a Barnes & Noble in South Florida a couple of years ago.  I knew the person at the store responsible for ordering books carried by B&N distributors, so I asked if she’d stock a book by a client of mine, as I was planning to showcase the novel  in an upcoming Newsletter.  She agreed to bring in a few copies but made it clear that if there wasn’t activity within a week–the books would be returned.  One lousy week!  So I e-mailed her the day my Newsletter was broadcast.  A while later I asked for the sales figures but I was told they were proprietary.  I wanted to know because a couple of people told me they’d visited the B&N to buy the book but it was unavailable at that time.  They both told me they purchased later through Amazon, but who’s going to be this persistent if not prompted in some way–in this case to support a client of mine.

Since bar codes can also be used for inventory control, it’s easy–unless a slow-selling title (book) is misfiled, ha ha–for it to be snatched up and placed on the “out” cart.  I used to hear back in the dark ages that a book had 90 days to prove its market, but what I’ve just reported certainly flies in the face of this.  I’m of the opinion that if a debut author’s book doesn’t take off within a couple or weeks of its release, by month’s end the book and the author will be toast.  And without marketing, what are the chances the book will attract an audience?  Someone said to me once that book covers sell.  This is true, but aren’t most books displayed “spine out” in a bookstore?  A few years ago one of the chains experimented with “cover placement,” but this requires more space to display a title and I don’t see much of this (there’s a formal name for this sort of positioning in advertising lingo but I forget what it’s called).

So what conclusion(s) can anyone draw from what I just wrote?  It’s that things on the mainstream side really haven’t changed.  A small bloc of established authors control the market, and someone trying to break in has a tough row to hoe.  But the self-publishing side of the equation is now a free-for-all, as the barriers to entry are essentially nonexistent.  Anyone who’s computer savvy can hook up with a POD entity and have a book done digitally for no cost whatsoever (other than time) and on the print side for five bucks or so for an average-sized book (80,000-100,000 words), with the freight and packaging costing almost as much.

I continue to suggest that my clients pursue a mainstream publisher via an agent as the first option, as a dozen or more debut works are listed in Publishers Marketplace and elsewhere each week.  Hence,”new” authors do get signed, but it’s also important to understand that just because a writer is agented, this does not mean that his or her book(s) will ever receive an offer from a publisher.  Agents never disclose how many properties they hold onto or just how many books they took on but weren’t published in a given year, but please believe that every book signed is not sold.  Then add to the equation that just one out of four or five books by new authors is considered successful.  So it’s a tough business, but so is making a hit record or painting something that will sell; anything for that matter in the world of creative arts.  But we all do what we do because we feel that we can make a legitimate contribution.  This is the premise behind what I do, and I hope that every Newsletter subscriber maintains the same degree of confidence.  It’s truly what it’s all about.

As subscribers to my Newsletter are aware, most everything I’ve compiled for this presentation was disseminated in previous editions. However, I’ve recently received requests for clarification or further discussion of the various components, so I decided to offer everything in one “paper.”  My desire is certainly not to dissuade anyone from writing.  To the contrary, my goal is to suggest that–while the business has never been easy–options now exist which are no longer considered undesirable.  Today, any writer can see his or her name in print or in a digital format without having to spend what for many people is a substantial sum of money.  Yet with all this being said, success, if this is to be measured in books purchased, will still require a great many things to fall into place, and in all instances require–now more so than ever because of the sheer volume of people participating–the author’s sales efforts and marketing know-how to make it all come together.