Thursday, January 31, 2008

Nail this to your monitor

Update: article link added
Rachel Donadio’s essay in next Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, “Waiting for It,” is something every expectant author should read. It lays out the timeline from when your agent calls you with the good news to when you can finally crack open the champagne. Self-publishing authors should read it, too. Because if Simon & Schuster can’t figure out how to publish a book successfully in less than a year and a half, the odds are you can’t either.

Sure, I can produce a book for you in six months or less—starting with your unedited manuscript and ending with printed books. But producing a book is only the tail of the publishing bulldog. If you want to see your book in bookstores, you need to plan for a much longer process.

This timeline doesn’t apply to all books, of course. If you are a speaker with a back-of-the-room book or if you are marketing the book some other way that doesn’t involve bookstores, you can compress the schedule quite a bit. Nonetheless, Donadio’s essay will give you perspective on your odds of success.

Timing isn’t everything, but it’s a major factor in whether your book ever makes you a dime.

Pick up a copy of Sunday’s Times and read the essay. Or click the link above (requires site registration before the cover date; should work without registration afterwards).

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Full circle

often expresses a sort of self-detached, ironic, meta-narcissism. What’s new here is that the performance artist is a robot. I’m both fascinated and repulsed, but mostly I wonder that anyone thought this a worthwhile thing to do.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Evildoers at Yale Rep

The Evildoers, by David Adjmi, directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman, is in its world premiere run at Yale Rep. With any luck, this will also mark its world finale run. The principal evil is inflicted on the audience.

As always at Yale Rep, the set is spectacular. And the acting is superb, with a seasoned, top-notch cast. It’s the play itself that sucks—surprisingly, given Adjmi’s credits.

The cast comprises two couples. The husbands were schoolmates, and yet one couple comes across as nearly a generation older than the other, setting up an inescapable sense that the first act is channeling the ghost of Edward Albee’s in tone and subtext.

If that description intrigues you, rent the movie (Who’s Afraid…) rather than attend The Evildoers. But if you feel a perverse compulsion to attend, at least have the good sense to leave at the intermission. You do not want to be around for the figurative and literal bloodbath that is the second act. Suffice it to say, I may never order tongue in a deli again.

The program notes provide a clue to where this train ran off the rails. If you read interviews with playwrights, you get the sense that an idea may kick around in the back of their heads for a long time, and perhaps there are a few false starts. But once the writing is well under way, it doesn’t generally take all that long to finish. For this one, though, Adjmi seems to have burned through about a dozen foundation grants and a season at a writing colony, which suggests that perhaps he was struggling a bit, do you think? On top of that, he acknowledges the contribution of nine, count ’em, nine dramaturgs. Normally a production involves one dramaturg or sometimes two. Burning through nine suggests, um, creative differences, perhaps?

In any case, there will not be a quiz later on The Evildoers.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Real life intervenes

Key phrases for the last four days: dinner for six on three hours’ notice; emergency meeting; water heater; house guests; vacuum cleaner; emergency room; car battery; book cover; phone call from (different, distant) hospital; four chapters due; other book cover; different emergency meeting; missed deadline on book design; letter of recommendation; discovered piracy on MySpace. No connections or commonalities among any of those phrases or events other than their temporal proximity. Too implausible even for a soap opera. Deep cleansing breaths. Back to work, Dick.

Monday, January 14, 2008

This could be your self-published novel

But probably not.

Thanks to Frank Wilson for the link to this article about a self-publishing novelist who struck gold.

And while yours may be the next novel that makes it to the show, wishing won’t make it so. The odds are stacked against all novelists, but especially against self-published novelists. You can improve the odds by not making any mistakes in the way you approach the production and marketing of your book, but no one can guarantee your success. Remember that before you start cutting checks.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Language vs. punctuation

Language—what linguists primarily concern themselves with—is what we humans speak. The very word language comes from the same root as the word tongue.

But what I concern myself with as an editor is not quite the same thing as our mother tongue. I work instead with the writing system, which is at best a mere shadow of the language—a projection of it onto the plane of paper or monitor, a flattening, to be sure, but also and inevitably a formalization and conventionalization of it.

What do I mean? I mean that writing is not a transcription of speech. And edited writing is not the natural stream of words that spews from the writer’s keyboard, let alone the writer’s mouth. Instead, it is an arrangement of formal symbols—the alphabet, some punctuation marks, various sorts of spaces, and so forth—that somehow evoke in the reader’s mind something akin to what the writer might be trying to say aloud were he or she in the room. And I mean that careful writers and editors usually try to follow some consistent set of conventions, embodied in a style guide, for the way those symbols are arranged. Readers don’t, as a rule, pay a lot of conscious attention to those conventions, but the conventions nonetheless help the reader glean meaning.

Conventions change over time. Pick up a book from as recently as fifty years ago and immediately the vocabulary, sentence structure, spelling, and punctuation will be noticeably different from that of a book published this year. This is independent of linguistic change—the change in the spoken language. It’s specifically about changing fashions among editors.

And at any given time, there are specific conventions in a state of flux.

One that came up today on a mailing list is the use of commas to set off a year or a state or country in constructions such as, “The Declaration of Independence is dated July 4, 1776, and was signed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by 56 people.”

Pretty much all of us editors agreed that those commas are necessary, before and after 1776 and before and after Pennsylvania. But we all have noticed that unedited manuscripts often omit one or more of them. It would not be unusual to receive a manuscript reading, “The Declaration of Independence is dated July 4, 1776 and was signed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by 56 people.”

So I proposed a test.

Here is a sentence you might read somewhere, perhaps in dialogue. It’s not a particularly graceful sentence, but that isn’t the point. The question is, if you were to encounter the sentence, would your reading be stalled, would your stomach churn? Rank these in order of preference—not how you would edit the sentence if you had the chance but how you would react upon encountering it in the wild.
  1. The last time I went to Boston Massachusetts was in the summer.
  2. The last time I went to Boston, Massachusetts was in the summer.
  3. The last time I went to Boston Massachusetts, was in the summer.
  4. The last time I went to Boston, Massachusetts, was in the summer.
This is not a question about right and wrong; it’s a question about the way conventions drift.

Responses in the comments, please.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Vote early. Vote twice.

The well-respected Preditors & Editors site conducts a poll every January, a statistically meaningless popularity contest that nonetheless has some promotional value for those who do well in it. The rules permit people to nominate themselves, and this year I’ve done just that, in two categories. Last year I finished in an ignominious tie at the bottom of the listing, and this year I’ve resolved to do better.

I’m asking for your vote. If presidential candidates can beg, so can I.

So please click on the book editor and writer’s resource polls and vote for me!

I thank you for your support.