“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” ― Mary Harris (Mother) Jones

Archive for the ‘From the Editor’s Desk’ Category

How to analyze the news, Pt. 2

Headlines Lie

When I worked at a flagship daily for a major media conglomerate, I covered the story of how one of the businesses on my beat managed to overcome a huge operating debt and become profitable. My city editor, however, had a personal grudge against that particular form of business; and when the story broke,  not only did the headline make it sound as if the business were still deeply in debt but he had rewritten the lede paragraph to support the misleading headline.

In these days when independent blogs and aggregator sites vie with the mainstream media for attention, one of the major elements used to try to trigger a viral response is to use a provocative headline. That’s because it’s an established that 40% of readers never make it past that headline. Another 20-30% may go so far as to read the first three paragraphs. If you want the reason why bad information gets spread so quickly, that’s it.

As an example, let’s take a story that broke on 5 May in Los Angeles. Democratic primary candidate Hillary Clinton was scheduled to speak at a small college. Prior to her speech, a fair-sized crowd made up of local Latino organizations and activists and Bernie Sanders supporters arrived to demonstrate. There was some shouting back and forth, but the protest was otherwise peaceful. In other words, it was a simple exercise of the right to assemble and of free speech.

TV station KNBC had a reporter on the ground and put the story on its website with the following headline at 5 p.m PDT.:

Protesters Gather Outside Hillary Clinton Rally

The following day, the internet news site Raw Story launched their version of the article, and for reasons I’m sure I don’t have to explain, the headline not only quickly had it circulating on social media but was rousing a slew of anti-Sanders and anti-protestor comment:

Hordes of Sanders supporters shut down Clinton event in LA: ‘She’s not with us!’

There’s only one thing wrong with that: it didn’t happen, as the video clip and the report on KNBC’s website make perfectly clear. Ms. Clinton’s speech went on as planned, and the demonstration was a bit too peaceful for the crowd to describe it as a “horde,” which carries a very warlike connotation.

To make matters worse, the author of the story said:

“The Democratic presidential frontrunner was repeatedly interrupted Thursday as she spoke to a largely Latino crowd in Monterey Park, where Union del Barrio organized a protest against Clinton over her immigration policies and opposition to a national $15 hourly minimum wage, reported KNBC-TV.”

In other words, the article at Raw Story is a hit piece in which the author took facts from the original story, embellished it with allegations for which no support is offered, then topped it with a misleading headline. I mean, does anyone seriously believe KNBC wouldn’t have mentioned if those protestors had forced Ms. Clinton to “cut short her scheduled speech,” as the story claims?

Still, anyone predisposed to be upset had already expressed outrage and passed the link along.

By Saturday, 7 May, at least one other clickbait site had embraced the shut-down fiction, which also showed up on social media. By then, even people highly favorable to Sen. Sanders were in speaking against the demonstrators over their alleged lack of respect for his opponent. The name “Trump,” of course, was quickly dredged up.

Why did so many otherwise thoughtful people believe a crowd of Sanders supporters had shouted down Ms. Clinton? Because none of them did what I did, something so simple it should be standard procedure whenever something with a provocative headline springs forth on Twitter or Facebook.

They didn’t click on the link to the original story.

One of the major problems for internet reporting is that, like their print and broadcast cousins, the media have to be self-supporting. Most of the time, that’s done by selling advertising, and for it to work requires getting as many clicks bringing readers to their sites as possible. Hence, the term clickbait. It’s often used in a derogatory sense, but it’s simply fact. If you can’t afford to pay the bills, you’re done; and if paying the bills means getting eyes on your site for your advertisers, any business is going to do whatever they can to ensure that happens.

People have been conditioned to react with outrage before they check on the facts. And some just don’t want to be bothered, especially if the bait suits their own opinions or prejudices. It’s time-consuming, because sometimes the sad fact is a provocative story may have been spun from milkweed and dewdrops. Worse, since Google is set up to show us search results based on our interests, as stored in their databases from our online activity, we may have to dig through a slew of results pages to confirm the facts.

Still, in this era of corporate-owned media, where the only news we get is what the people in charge have decided is what we need to know, falling for a headline specifically designed to trigger our reflex reactions means something important may be missed. And while there are plenty of reliable alternate sources for news, we must still be wary of believing everything we read.

I admire indie authors

I do. I can’t say I’m as happy about their insistence on referring to themselves as “indie publishers,” because those of us who have been publishing independent of the traditional model for the last couple of decades think we’ve earned the right to that name.

When you consider how much courage it takes to single-handedly put yourself and your work out in front of God and the world without the support a publisher provides, I would think there would be more cachet to being an indie author than an indie publisher.

I’m aware that indie authors are constantly being bombarded with sage advice. Some of what follows I’m sure they’ve heard so often reading it again will send them screaming. Consider that it’s is based on my personal experience both with self-publishers and the traditional industry, bearing in mind that I was active in ebook publishing before Harlequin and Amazon invented them.

This isn’t advice about self-publishing. These are my responses to what I experience on a regular basis, and I hope will explain a some things a few people seem not to be aware of. And in conclusion, I’ll tell you why so many manuscripts get rejected over and over.

  • 1. There are far too many books being published electronically that show a painful lack of editing–and I refer to NY published folks re-publishing backlist, too. You can’t trust OCR to be accurate, and you can’t trust Amazon or anyone else who scans your old print book to fix errors. Ebooks have been around since the mid-90s, so there’s no huge rush to get yours published. Take the time to do it right.
  • 2. I can’t review your books. Not even the good ones. I barely have time to read the manuscripts from my authors and the submissions samples I request plus stay abreast of what’s being published by my competitors. In addition, I’m a professional editor. When I see so many things that should have been fixed it distracts me. Your book may have wonderful potential, but I’m not giving it four stars when it’s riddled with problems.
  • 3. I respect your right to publish your own work. Please respect that other people prefer not to, and that doing so doesn’t make them idiots. As a corollary, we are not a way for you to self-publish without cost. If you have signed a contract for us to publish your work, you may not refuse to make reasonable changes when required, dictate your cover design, or inform us when your next book will come out. That’s our decision, not yours.
  • 4. My partners and I go out of our way to ensure our authors receive a proper return for their efforts. Making your ebook available for nothing does not make it a best-seller. It makes it a book that got downloaded a lot. Our ebooks are reasonably priced and DRM-free because we know that while you can always lower a price you can’t raise one–and that’s an economic fact, not an opinion. So, bombarding our authors with “advice” that they should demand we lower the price of their ebooks because they’ll never sell otherwise is insulting. Please don’t.
  • 5. You’ve self-published the first book in a series. Now you want me to pick the series up because you did fairly well with book one. My policy is to want all books in a series under contract to make it convenient for readers to find them. So, you’re asking me to publish at least two books: the next in the series and the one (or more) that came before. I will have to edit the books and pay for new cover art for the previously published, costs the previously published book may never earn back. Unless there are extraordinary circumstances in play, it’s likely not going to happen.
  • 6. Connecting with me via networks and social media will not provide you with a way around our submissions protocol. I’m delighted to know you, but if your Twitter stream is an endless commercial, I will not follow you back. Do not send me messages on LinkedIn telling me about your new book or asking me to review it. For one thing, I have an acquisitions editor who handles submissions. For another, I’m the one who established the submissions protocol, so I’m not likely to look favorably on someone who thinks it doesn’t apply to them. If you have a book you believe is worthy of publication and don’t want to do it yourself, the method is simple: read our guidelines, submit per instructions. The only way around that is to be referred to me by someone whose opinion I respect, and they need to contact me first, not you.
  • 7. If you published through a channel that provided you with an ISBN, that channel is your publisher of record. Any book you’ve sold through that channel and want me to consider would be a reprint. Reprints don’t sell. We do them as a courtesy to our contracted authors, and then only if we feel there’s a new market for them. I have rejected doing reprints of backlist titles by some well-known writers; backlist from unknowns is going to be a hard sell.

The above list doesn’t just apply to Zumaya Publications. Any legitimate publisher will tell you at least some of the same things, although there are exceptions, of course. Getting published is hard not because publishers are ignorant or uninterested in finding new talent but because they are professional organizations who expect professional behavior from writers seeking to establish a relationship with them. They don’t expect perfect manuscripts, but they do require something more polished than one you finished last week.

Yes, publishers do provide editing and copyediting. They aren’t, however, in business to teach you your craft, and if you can’t be bothered to learn that craft before you submit, don’t be surprised if no one’s interested. I would venture to guess that 90% of the manuscripts we reject are potentially good stories that are so badly written they would require months of editing to be even halfway ready for publication. So, before you buy into the myth that publishers are the enemy, be sure you aren’t your own worst one.

Getting there…or not

One of the writer’s tools the English language offers that enriches our prose and poetry is also, apparently, one of the most confusing: prepositions. Understandably, those for whom English is a second language find the nuances that distinguish one preposition’s meaning from another confusing; but it seems we native speakers also can have problems. I suspect some of that arises from regional colloquialisms and speech forms, but as writers we need to get past the way we’re used to hearing words used and fix on what they really mean.
One of the common errors I encounter in manuscripts is the confusion of at, to, and toward. A character will “glance to” another character. They will “walk toward the door and leave the room.”
The word to means “expressing motion in the direction of.” Toward also means “in the direction of.” The difference that requires you take care which you use lies in a nuance.
When you say someone goes to a place, the implication is that they not only moved in that direction but arrived there. Toward, on the other hand, implies that arrival doesn’t happen. “I was going toward the door when the phone rang.” When you read that, note how your brain automatically registers that your progress toward the door was halted by the ringing phone.
So, saying a character is going toward the door when they will actually be leaving the room is incorrect usage. You need to, because otherwise the reader will experience a tiny jolt without realizing why. Their unconscious is expecting one thing while the reality tells them something else.
By the same token, at means “expressing arrival or location in a particular place or position.” More important, however, is that English speakers have developed specific nuances for the phrases “look at” and “look to.” When we say we “look to” someone, we mean that we expect them to perform some act on our behalf: “He looked to the government to make sure he was safe.” When we’re talking about seeing someone, we look at them.
Just to further confuse the issue, we can also “look toward” someone. However, the suggestion that the act of looking isn’t completed holds here as well. “She looked toward John” carries a nuance of impermanence–she glanced at him but then moved on to looking at something else.
It’s precisely the subtleties of word meanings in English that make it one of the richest languages for writing in the world–and the most difficult to master. That very wealth, however, is why it isn’t enough to just look up a synonym for a word in a thesaurus and pick the one that looks cool. You need to understand precisely what each of those words not only means but implies. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

A Confusion of Voice

If the complaints I hear from writers are any indication, the only thing harder for them to get their heads around than show vs. tell is the concept of an author’s “voice.”



Voice is that unmistakable tone in a piece of written work that is unique to its author. No one who’s read Hemingway, for example, is ever likely to confuse him with anyone else. The brisk irony of Jane Austen’s novels is also readily identifiable. And this unique tone runs consistently through all their work.



I recently turned down a submission, citing the usual reason why I do that-—it’s not what I need. (There will likely be a mild rant on the subject of querying a publisher with material they don’te publish at a later time.) Ordinarily, I don’t send critique notes. For one thing, I rarely have time, although I wish I did. For another, all too often my attempt to help is…poorly received.

In this case, however, I did respond to something this particular author had written me, suggesting a change in a major element in the manuscript, advising I thought doing so would make it more marketable. I stressed the suggestion had nothing to do with my decision not to consider the manuscript.



This writer replied that I was rejecting her work solely because I didn’t like her voice. I’m still not clear where that came from, since I said nothing about it anywhere in the exchange. It did, however, remind me of when a writer under contract loudly protested requested changes in punctuation or vocabulary or sentence structure on the grounds I was “ruining their voice.”

One writer with whom I worked cried foul when I insisted her attempts to be clever by using wordplay that made no sense needed to go. She wailed I was going to destroy the book because this sort of thing was what her readers expected. It was her “voice.” Understand, when her wordplay worked, it was terrific, but sometimes it was painfully contrived, and those latter were the instances I requested she either revise or delete.



Both of these instances are cases of writers using mechanical means to achieve what they mistakenly believe to be their unique voice. Yet, neither has anything to do with voice. They are style matters, in the first case, and narrative structure, in the second.



Voice isn’t something you can manufacture. it’s a reflection of who you are as a writer. Dean Koontz and Stephen King both write in the same genre, yet given an anonymous excerpt from both men to read you would immediately know the two pieces weren’t written by the same person. That’s voice.



Writing an entire novel using simple sentences isn’t voice. It’s a style choice (and a bad one–your reader will be asleep by the end of page two). Clever wordplay is just that—-clever wordplay, not voice, and if your reader doesn’t “get it,” you’ve wasted your time. Refusing to use semi-colons has nothing to do with voice (and usually everything to do with the writer not knowing when to use them).



A beginning writer rarely has the experience and expertise to have found his or her voice. A writer who’s switching from nonfiction to fiction may have a voice but may also need to determine if the one they have is going to work in their new category. One of the most common problems I see with journalists and technical writers who essay fiction, for example, is that they can’t get out of “tell” mode.

 They don’t have any practice with being in a character’s head.

Hemingway brought the terse, spare journalistic style into his fiction, and for him it works. Likewise for Glen Cook’s Black Company fantasy novels. However, both use this style because it suits personality and content. However, the style is not their unique voice. No one will likely confuse Cook’s work with Papa’s, and not just because of the genre.



A good editor intuits the voice of a writer, and will do everything in his or her power to ensure it survives whatever stylistic changes are need to make a work as accessible to the reader as possible. A good editor also knows doing so rarely involves comma placement or repetitive sentence structure or whether or not there are dialogue tags.



Style is a tool. Voice is the vital part of a writer that sets him or her apart from every other writer. The first you learn, just as a pianist learns scales, and knowing the mechanics of the writing trade is as necessary as knowing which key matches which note on the sheet music.



But no matter how much you practice, you’ll never be Mozart. And aping Hemingway’s style will never give you Hemingway’s voice. Nor do you want it to. It’s up to you to discover the unique way of utilizing the tools of the writers that, combined with the intangible something that sets you apart from every other writer, creates writing that belongs to you and no one else.

“Self” Expression: Part 1

What’s wrong with this next sentence?



It’s odd Mary isn’t answering her phone, he thought to himself.



If you said “nothing,” you’re probably perpetrating one of the prevalent problems I encounter in manuscripts, that is, the incorrect or overuse of the “self” pronouns. In fact, it’s an epidemic of self.



What’s wrong with that sentence is that unless the speaker—let’s call him Norman—is a telepath, who else would he be thinking to, if not “himself”? The phrase “to himself” is redundant, but you’d be amazed how many people still use it when writing internal monologue.


Okay, how about this?



“Walking the familiar streets, John found himself outside the old drugstore where he had worked as a teen.”



Nothing wrong there, right? Guess again. 

The phrase “found himself” implies that the person doing the action lacks knowledge of either where he is or how he got there. It’s also weak wording. 

The nonrestrictive phrase that starts this sentence—“Walking the familiar streets”—says John both knew where he was and was there by conscious decision. There’s no ambiguity about his being outside the drugstore so he doesn’t, in fact, “find himself” there. He just is there.

Notice how using an action verb increases the strength of the sentence.

Walking the familiar streets, John stopped outside the old drugstore where he had worked as a teen.



Having people “find themselves” doing or thinking things instead of just doing or thinking them is what I refer to as lazy writing. It’s okay to use it in a first draft, but it should be replaced forthwith on the first revision, and it has no place in a manuscript you’re planning to send to an agent or editor.

Better yet, train yourself not to use it at all unless it exactly suits the situation. 

How might we phrase this sentence so that it not only eliminates the incorrect usage but actually provides more information than it already does (which is that John worked as a teen, a fact that we will assume is important either to our knowledge of John or to the story)?



“Walking the familiar streets, John discovered the drugstore where he had worked as a teen was still there, although now the logo of a national chain hung above the glass-paned door.”



What do we now know? We know that John worked in a drugstore as a teen. The use of discover suggests he’s returned to his hometown after having been away for some years. We also know that there have been changes.

Alternatively:



”The stores and buildings he held in his memory had been replaced by fast-food restaurants and flashy chainstore franchises. He was both surprised and delighted, then, to discover the drugstore where he had earned his gas money as a teen still nestled unchanged between a Pizza Hut and a Dollar Store.”



Lots more color and information, and John is now finding what he’s supposed to—the drugstore—instead of “himself.” 


Yes, there are times when it’s appropriate to have a character “find herself,” but they are very specific. If she is banged on the head and abducted, she might “find herself” in the trunk of a car. If she’s in a city she’s never visited before, she could go strolling and “find herself” on a little side street where a block party is going on. Or she might move into an ashram and “find herself.”



The problem is, the phrase is so overused it’s a cliché, almost to the point of parody. With the vast wealth of words available, there are always better ways to convey the same idea. Find one.

Show vs. Tell: It’s all in your point of view

Anyone with aspirations of becoming a writer has heard the cardinal rule of fiction: show, don’t tell. Based on manuscripts I receive, particularly from writers previously published in nonfiction, there is a good deal of misunderstanding about what that means.

But it’s obvious, you say. It means you should write active scenes, in which people are doing things, not “recite” the story as if you were sitting around a campfire. And, as far as that goes, that’s correct. What some people are missing, however, is that “show, don’t tell” isn’t a narrative issue but rather one of point of view.
In order to properly show your story, you must be in the active character’s point of view. This means getting to know those characters well, the method for which will be a good topic for the future. For now, suffice to say that if you aren’t fully engaged with your POV character no matter how much action you put in your narrative it will be telling, not showing.

Let me give an example of an opening paragraph:

John drove down the narrow street looking for the house. He had been sure he would recognize it, even after all this time, but he hadn’t expected the old neighborhood would have become a candidate for suburban renewal, the old Craftsman houses collectors items for Baby Boomers nostalgic for childhoods they may not even have had. Now, as dusk settled, he wondered why he was even here. He had traveled two thousand miles, spent more than he should on airline tickets and car rental, and he still didn’t know why he was here.

What’s wrong with that, you ask? Nothing, on the surface. Let’s try again:

As he strained to read the numbers on the houses in the gathering dusk, John told himself he was a fool for coming here. What did he hope to gain? And what had made him think he would find the old place just as it was when he’d left it?

The difference between the first paragraph and the second is two-fold. First, the second paragraph has what the first lacks—a hook to grab the browsing reader’s attention and make them read on. Who is John? Why is he here? Second—and I grant you it’s a subtlety beginners are likely to miss—the second paragraph is totally in John’s point of view. It’s showing. In the first paragraph, we’re being told what John is doing and what he’s thinking.

Let’s go on to that second paragraph. Should we explain what John is doing?

No.

Streetlights came on, and he realized the house numbers were painted on the curb, just faded enough he hadn’t seen them in the near-dark. There it was, 346 Carleton Street, a small house on a narrow street that had once looked like all the small houses around it. Even now, fancied up by some nostalgic Baby Boomer looking for a childhood they’d probably never actually had, there was nothing to show why he had dropped half his savings account on plane tickets and car rental and traveled two thousand miles to see it.

How is this description of backstory different from the first paragraph?

  • It doesn’t use tags like “he wondered.” If you’re writing securely in your character’s point of view, you don’t need to tell us he or she “thought” or “wondered” or “he saw.” That’s a given—we’re in his or her head. The moment you use one of those qualifiers you’re telling us what he or she is thinking or seeing.
  • It’s in the character’s voice instead of the author’s. It’s John who “dropped half his savings” instead of the author telling us he had “spent more than he should.”

Learning how to let your characters speak and act for themselves in one of the hardest things for a beginning writer simply because the dividing line between showing and telling is so narrow. You need to train yourself to recognize the difference. Watching out for those telltales—the “he wondereds” and the “she noticeds” will help; but the true trick is to close the distance between you as writer and the characters you create to tell your story. You need to know them well enough that living inside their heads becomes as natural as being inside your own. They have to be living, breathing human beings (or aliens, as the case may be).

One often suggested trick if you’re having trouble with this is to write your first draft in first-person. That forces you to identify with your POV character, to think with his/her mind and to act with his/her body. Try it—and watch how often you discover yourself writing “I wondered.” Then stop.

 

Stalking the Wild Adverb

Ah, adverbs. They are so very badly (yep, there’s one now) maligned in modern creative writing courses. To hear some people talk about them, you’d think using them resulted in either a severe case of acne or eternal damnation. Maybe both.

What is an adverb? It’s a word that describes a verb, adjective or even another adverb. They have some perfectly (look, another one!) valid uses and can enhance your writing when properly (okay, I won’t) applied and not overdone.

Where many beginning writers get into trouble is when they use adverbs in dialogue tags instead of a descriptive verb. I suspect this arises more these days because of the opinion in certain quarters that the only acceptable dialogue tag is the Associated Press model. They limit tag verbs to “said,” with an occasional “asked” permitted, although that last would seem a bit redundant given the question mark.

As a result, beginners who are told this is the only way to write (rubbish!) will tack an adverb after the “said.” So, you get ““I hate you!’ Jane said loudly.” instead of ““I hate you!’ shouted Jane.” Can you hear how much stronger the second tag is than the first? And Jane can scream, screech, howl, and each verb carries a different nuance.

Using an adverb in a dialogue tag is an outdated way to write, and in the sixties gave rise to a delightful and challenging word game making “Tom Swifties.” Swifties are named after the young readers’ science fiction adventure series, in which an adverb was included in many dialogue tags.

To make a swiftie, you select an adverb that plays on the dialogue and makes a pun, as in:

“I’ve struck oil,” Tom said crudely.
“Buy me something to drink?” said Tom dryly.
“I collect fairy tales,” said Tom grimly.

Try it—it’s harder than it looks.

But getting back to adverbs, another case where they are used to the point of excess is as qualifiers: obviously, certainly, seemingly, clearly, simply.

Let’s face it, if someone “obviously” does something, it’s—well, obvious. So calling attention to it is redundant. About the only place you can use the word “obviously” is with internal monologue, when your character is talking to herself. Even then, it’s best avoided. Same with the others.

Why?

Adverbs weaken your prose. Observe:

John walked quietly along the corridor, looking quickly from one side to the other. A door just ahead of him opened suddenly.

Let’s replace the adverbs:

John crept along the corridor, glancing from side to side. Just ahead, a door sprang open.

Both say exactly the same thing, but the second passage contains a much more dramatic tone than the first.

So, should you ever use an adverb? Of course, but like hot pepper in your soup you want to use just enough to season your prose. If there’s absolutely (<–!) no other way to express your idea, go ahead and find a great adverb then use it with courage and dedication.