Sunday, July 14, 2013

Where Books Come From--the Shocking Truth!

Recto. Verso. 

Intro. Extro. 

Front Matter. Back matter. (Gray matter, dark matter?) 

Kerning. Cropping. Half-title. Frontispiece. Colophon. Perfect binding. And my personal favorite, full bleed—which sounds painful and potentially fatal.

In the past few months, I’ve learned more publishing lingo than I actually wanted to know, while editing and designing a book "from scratch," just like Grandma's biscuits. 

You see, all this time, I thought that books just magically appeared on bookstore shelves, the way food magically appeared on the table when I was a child. Another illusion brutally shattered!

Now I know the shocking truth about where books come from--and, like childbirth, it's not pretty, Sister. They come from hard work and lots of it. They come from working day, night, late night, twilight, work days, and holidays--taking time “off” only to work on other urgent projects.

Like all such ACP’s (all-consuming projects), it kept expanding to fill the available space. I signed on to edit and compile the book, with no way of knowing that the professional who was going to do the layout and cover would suddenly become unavailable, leaving me to stumble blindly through the book production process.

If you have ever found yourself engaged in an ACP, you know how it goes. You wake in the morning, ingest large quantities of caffeine, fire up one or more computers, and desperately try to remember under what circumstances you actually agreed to do this.

I’ve got to quit drinking, you think. Or if like me, you don’t drink, you think, today is as good a day as any to start.

Of course, the upside of this particular ACP, was the pleasure of watching a good book take shape before my eyes. 

The book is Writer's Coffee House, and the authors are members of a group called The Writing Academy and a few special guest contributors. In this book, writers share their stories and struggles, their mistakes and successes, their experience and encouragement. 

I love the story Kathy Bolduc tells about a strange dream at a writing retreat and how that weekend turned into a lot less writing and much more retreat. Olga Williams talks about hearing T. S. Eliot speak to a group of English teachers and how this experience shaped her life of teaching and writing. Trust me--it wasn't in any way you could guess! 

And I'm always inspired when I read Patricia Lorenz's account of how her "Baggy Yellow Shirt" story circled the globe and launched her career. The yellow shirt story is so popular that you've probably read it in an email forward (uncredited, of course) and never guessed at the incredible story-behind-the-story.

My great hope is that this book will simply bring encouragement to writers. Encouragement and a sense of community. A reminder that though most of the time we wrestle with words alone, there is a vast fellowship of friends we have never met, yet who understand our struggles and want to cheer us on. 

And that is the concept behind the Writer's Coffee House. If you happen to know a writer who could use a little encouragement today, perhaps you could pass the word along.

Find out more at

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Rules of Writing (Cough, Cough!)

If you hang around writer’s workshops or read books about creative writing, you’re going to encounter “the rules.”

And by encounter I mean smash into, in a race-car-encounters-brick-wall kind of way.

  • Never end a sentence with a preposition.
  • Active voice is always better than passive.
  • Exterminate all adverbs.
  • Write your fiction from a single point of view—no head-hopping!
  • A split infinitive is a moral failure.
  • Never start your story with a prologue.

And these are only a few examples from a list that can span Ohio and half of Pennsylvania.

If you break these rules, you will incur the Wrath of the Rule-Keepers. (Note: you have to shout "Wrath of the Rule-Keepers" into an empty metal coffee can to get a menacing but really cool echo effect.)

The Rule-Keepers love to blurble on about why their writing is superior to yours because you--low-life that you are--broke their rules.

In all honesty, I never met a rule of writing I liked. Any time somebody gives me a rule, I immediately start thinking of exceptions. 

For example, one of the rules is that you’re not supposed to repeat words and phrases. You should bend over backwards to keep from writing anything like this: "Ivan held the priceless gemstone in his weathered hand. By some strange alchemy, the gemstone caught the hot fire of the sun and transformed it into cold fire, the beating rainbow heart of the gemstone."

My exception? Sometimes repetition creates lovely word-music. As in the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the pure in heart. . . . .Blessed are the peacemakers. . . .Blessed are. . . ."

My objection really isn’t to the rules themselves. They are generally good guidelines. Most of the time you should probably avoid passive voice and try not to end a sentence with a preposition, and yadda-yadda.

My problem is in setting these guidelines up as the Law of the Medes and Persians, which altereth not. In other words, as rules for everyone to follow in every situation.

For one thing, by this time next week, there will be a different set of rules. Someone will decide that we should replace all nouns with corned beef and cabbage or that you should do all your writing in second person. The grammar gaffs that English teachers rail against today may be standard usage tomorrow. And all their railing (and wailing) will have been in vain. 

When it comes to the rules of writing, take what you need and leave the rest.

And since I'm as qualified as the next hack to make up rules, here are the Stark Raving Mythopath's Rules of Writing.

(Oh yeah, you were supposed to shout that last part into the coffee can too.)

1. Write honestly, from your heart. Don't be afraid to tell the truth. You can decide later if anyone else should read what you've written.

2. Lighten up. If you aren't enjoying writing--at least some of the time--quit immediately. Find something else to do that you do enjoy.

3. Don't be a control freak. Allow yourself to be surprised by the words that appear on the paper.

4.T'is more blessed to connect with your reader than to write with perfect grammar or with perfect anything.

5. If you don't begin, you can't finish. If you don't try, you have already failed. Don't let the Rule-Keepers make you afraid to start.

My great fear isn't that I will break the precious rules but that I will fail to write anything worth reading.

Somerset Maugham said, "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are." For me, this whimsical quote begins to capture the mystery, the magic, and the fearful leap of faith that writing is.

In art, there are no rules. Or if there are rules, then unfortunately--or perhaps fortunately--nobody knows what they are.

DISCLAIMER: I just spent a few months editing an anthology and applying various rules to everyone's writing. The result? I have a new appreciation for just how subjective the rules of writing and editing are. In that book there wasn't a single paragraph--maybe not even a single sentence--that two editors couldn't clash swords about. This experience only served to reinforce my belief that "the rules" should serve the artist, not the other way around.