Thank You, Dr. Leax, for Your Inspiration

It’s 1976. I have just been dropped off by my parents to this place in the middle of nowhere. Houghton College, Houghton, New York. The town doesn’t even have a stoplight. Go too fast on Route 19 and you will go right on by without realizing there’s a really wonderful college just up that two-lane paved road part-way up the hill. In the years since I was there, the college astutely placed a large brick entrance sign and widened that road so that it’s a little more difficult to slide on by. However, there is still no stoplight.

sign

I’m trying America back on again after spending my four high school years in Europe. We didn’t have American television so all these guys are going “Ehhhhhhh!” flashing a thumbs up and the explanation I get is that they’re imitating Fonzie.

“What’s a fonzie?”

Clearly, I am way behind the times.

My first writing instructor in college is a man named Dr. John Leax (pronounced “Lex.” He was fond of telling everyone not to make him more exotic with some sort of pronunciation like the French word for water, l’eau. It was just “Lex”). After we get that he’s pronounced “Lex,” I learn that although he’s John, his colleagues call him Jack. Sort of that “John Kennedy–Jack Kennedy” thing going on that I never understood. How does “John” become “Jack”? Well, it really didn’t matter anyway since I would never have called him by his first name.

It’s the required 101 basic writing class with whatever department call letters are used at the time. I am terrified. I’m in a new place in, basically, a new country; all of my high school friends are scattered (literally) all over the world; I’m hoping I can hack this whole college thing; I’m eight hours away from my parents and sister. 

Here’s what I remember about Dr. Leax’s class:

Our papers are turned in and then mimeographed (I don’t think we yet had photocopiers in the world) onto clear plastic sheets. Our names are blacked out, and each paper is placed on the overhead projector so that all of its electric-typewriter-typed glory appears on the screen so we can read through it as a class. Not everyone gets this treatment. I think he picks out the especially good or especially bad papers.

One day my paper is being projected onto the screen, and I sit as nonchalantly as possible to make sure no one can possibly think it’s mine. Dr. Leax is underlining sections, discussing them. At one point, he draws a line through a paragraph and sketches a little trash can in the margin. It looks something like this–much more simple and crude, of course.

garbage-1
Photo from “How to draw funny cartoons

That’s what he did for everyone when something just was . . . well . . . trash. Trash cans in the margins. Sometimes, if the writing was especially bad, he’d do this:

garbage
Photo from “How to draw funny cartoons

The squiggly lines above the trash can signifying the especially pungent odor of said writing . . . er . . . bad writing. I don’t recall ever getting the squiggles on my papers, although I know I got more than one trash can.

Later in my career, I discovered proofreading marks, and there are no trash cans.

But there should be.

Since I eventually declare a double major in English and Writing, I will have the privilege of studying under Dr. Leax for other classes. He’s a poet and an inspiration. From Dr. Leax, I learn about the value of good writing and how to spot poor writing. And he teaches me how to make bad writing better. He teaches me the value of words and of finding just the right word.

Thank you, Dr. Leax. You gave me the tools I still use today.

Who’s your inspiration? Is there a person in your past who helped inspire you to be the person you are today?

 

My Own EdBoWriMo

I don’t know how you novel writers do it. First, I am always astounded by fiction writers–people who can weave a tale, build a plot and sustain it, create believable and likable characters, keep the suspense going, and then end with a conclusion that satisfies.

Seriously. I admire you more than you know.

So as the month of November approaches, and with it NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I can hear weeping and gnashing of teeth from my Professional Writing students who are trying to decide if they can take on the beast that is NaNoWriMo.

If you don’t know, NaNoWriMo is when novel writers everywhere commit to writing 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. To translate, there are about 250 words on a standard double-spaced typed page. So 50K words = 200 pages, divided by 30 days = roughly 6 or 7 pages a day. That’s a day. Anyone who is a writer will tell you how difficult it is to sustain that kind of momentum for very long. Not impossible, but tough. Especially when you have, you know, like, a life. Like classes to take and homework to do and food to eat and sleep to enjoy.

My student Chrysa discusses her past experience with NaNo in her blog post this week. And Jessie is trying to decide if the commitment is worth it:

If nothing else, the commitment of NaNo helps writers see what is possible. Whether they get to that magic 50K number or not, they have discovered that setting a goal and working steadily toward it have their own rewards. Basically you just do it and see if, well, if you can do it. There are no prizes, no awards dinners. Doing the task is reward unto itself.

Only writers understand that.

Which brings me to EdBoWriMo.

I don’t write novels. Never have. Never will. I am content to be astounded by my fellow writers who do. However, as I shared last week, I’m under contract to write a book about editing. So I decided to join my novel writing friends in making a commitment to myself to make this “Editing Book Writing Month.”

And since I know my abilities, I’m not shooting for 50K words; instead, I think I’m going for a more modest 22,500 words, which works out to 750 words (or about three pages) per day.

you-canSo what about you, my fellow writers? Do you have something you need to work on, but NaNoWriMo doesn’t quite fit? Then create your own! Let’s join with our fellow novel-writing friends and commit ourselves to a certain number of words per day (or per week if that’s better). Create your own acronym. Create your calendar.

And on November 1, let’s commit to seeing how far we can finally get on that project.

So tell me, what could you work on this November? What languishing project could you breathe new life into? What project could benefit from your sustained attention during the month of November? Tell me about it in the comments below.

Great Editors: Faith Sale Works with Amy Tan

She went shopping with Amy Tan and Amy’s mother in Manhattan. She loved bargains, just as Amy does. When it came to finding the cheap deal, she and Amy were joined at the hip.

Her name was Faith Sale and she was Amy’s editor—the one who first saw the potential in a young business writer who began to write novels as a creative release from the doldrums of writing for corporate executives. Sale said in an interview that finding the novel about Chinese mothers and American-raised Chinese daughters was “the biggest thrill an editor can have.” Before she passed away in 1999, Sale had an editing career that spanned four decades, working with, in addition to Amy Tan, authors such as Donald Barthelme, Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Hoffman, and Joseph Heller.

In her autobiography, The Opposite of FateAmy described her relationship with Faith this way:

Whenever I gave Faith something to read, she’d ask me what I wanted from her as an editor. “Keep me from embarrassing myself in public,” was my usual answer. And she did keep me from exposing the glitches in my prose, but she also prodded me to go deeper, to be more generous in the story I had to tell, to not hold back, to show what was most important in my life and on the page. She had an unerring sense of what mattered—to me. She could help me find it, though there were many ways in which we differed in taste and opinions. (63)

Amy Tan’s first novel, The Joy Luck Club, published in 1989, hit The New York Times bestseller list and remained there for several months, winning both the National Book Award and the L.A. Times Book Award.

joy luckI appreciate that Sale paid her dues—working her way up through the levels of editing as she moved to various publishing companies. Beginning as a secretary at Knopf, she moved on to Lippincott in 1959 where she was an editorial assistant, then moved up to assistant editor. In 1963, she moved over to Macmillan as associate editor. After living out of the country briefly, she did freelance work upon her return—working for publishing companies, literary agents, and authors. In 1977, she was named senior editor at E. P. Dutton, and then joined Putnam where she was vice president and senior executive editor.

In an essay she wrote for Editors on EditingSale emoted about her love of being an editor. She saw good writing as “the highest form of art” (268), and she knew that she wasn’t someone who could accomplish it. Like Maxwell Perkins, she had no visions of being a writer; she was an editor through and through. She saw herself in service of the art by helping the writers.

What I try to be for an author is the smartest, most sympathetic reader of the manuscript. . . . This means I must earn the author’s trust, make the author feel comfortable with me and my perceptions. . . .

When I’m hooked, I’m unshakably committed for the long haul, regardless of obstacles. But I can’t fake it: my devotion to fiction is born more out of instinct than intellect, based more on emotional response than calculated judgment. The moment of connection is the moment I become a book’s (or an author’s) advocate—its nurturer, defender, supporter, mouthpiece, bodyguard. . . .

Having made the decision to take a book on, I must figure out how to convey to the author what I think could or should be done to make the book the best it can be. It never is—because I think it never should be—making the book into anything other than what the author has envisioned. In my role of the author’s best reader . . . what I mean to do is help the author to realize the author’s intention. (269)

She saw the editorial process as organic, working back and forth with the author, with both trying to take the raw manuscript, deepen and enrich what exists, sharpening the book and the plot arc and the characters. Then she shepherded the manuscript through copyediting, answering questions the copy editor may have that she knew she could answer on behalf of the author, discussing with the author if she didn’t. She wanted to “make sure that nothing is being done to harm the work in any way. I also look over the proofreader’s markings to ensure that the author’s style has not fallen victim to a by-the-book grammarian. And I follow along through the further stages of production so that neither the author nor I will discover any surprises in the printed book” (271-72).

A good editor doesn’t stop when the book gets sent to copyediting and then to proofreading. There has been so much communication with the author that the editor knows the book through and through. Authors may want particular things that go against the rules of grammar—and a copyeditor may make changes that the author would not want. The editor will know this . . . and keep it from happening.

Great editors know that the book belongs to the author, and they fight for it every step of the way. Faith Sale understood that. In The Opposite of Fate, Amy adds this:

[Sale] was . . . wrong in one thing about me as a writer. She believed for some reason that writing came easily to me, that words poured onto the page with the ease of turning on a faucet, and that her role was mostly to help me adjust the outpouring toward the right balance. That belief had so much to do with her confidence in me. And I guess that is the role of both an editor and a friend—to have that confidence in another person, that the person’s best is natural and always possible, forthcoming after an occasional kick in the butt. (64)

Confidence and a kick in the butt. And bargain shopping. Sounds like a perfect match.

Great Editors – Ursula Nordstrom and Harriet the Spy

Louise Fitzhugh’s brilliant story of Harriet the Spy drew cheers from some critics and groans from others. But the children took Harriet right to their hearts, and this book is now a best seller which seems destined for literary immortality.

So says the back flap cover of the dust jacket of my copy of Harriet the Spy. I impulse purchased it on Amazon a couple years ago remembering how much I had loved the book when I read it somewhere around age eleven.

harriet

I’m not sure where I first came across Harriet. Perhaps she arrived through a kids’ book club. Maybe I checked her out from the bookmobile that arrived in our subdivision every Saturday morning. But I recall being entranced by her. Harriet wore rolled up jeans and glasses and ran a spy route and wrote in her notebook her observations about the comings and goings and private discussions of the people she spied on. Outside under an open window, she listened to the Robinson family; from a rooftop skylight she peered down at Harrison Withers; sneaking into a dumbwaiter and pulling the ropes, she listened outside old Mrs. Plumber’s bedroom. I found it all fascinating. I wanted to be Harriet. I didn’t want to spy necessarily, but I did want to observe my world and I wanted to write.

“What are you writing?” Sport asked.

“I’m taking note on all those people who are sitting over there.”

“Why?”

“Aw, Sport”—Harriet was exasperated—“because I’ve seen them and I want to remember them.”

After the book arrived from Amazon, I reread Harriet’s adventures. Looking through my adult eyes, the story came across as a bit weird. Really? Sneaking into someone’s dumbwaiter in order to listen to private conversations in the bedroom (well, yeah, the woman was an elderly woman alone and on her phone, but still!). Climbing onto a roof? Writing unkind things about your closest friends?

Looking at the book through an adult’s eyes, I suffered from what Ursula Nordstrom understood all too well—adults too often plastering children’s books with their own adult concerns and thus totally losing the beauty of imagination.

geniusI learned about Ursula Nordstrom by reading a book of her letters: Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1998). She was publisher and editor-in-chief of juvenile books at Harper & Row from 1940 to 1973. She is considered the Maxwell Perkins of children’s publishing; in other words, as Perkins was willing to take a risk with an author, spot talent, and then coddle that author along by way of encouraging letters, Nordstrom did the same but with children’s books. If not for Nordstrom, we might never have seen books such as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, E. B. White’s Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur, and Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Nordstrom believed in children. She believed that if she could get the books past the adults who buy them into the hands of children, the adults could learn from the children how to enjoy and understand what was being done in a truly creative work.

Harriet the Spy was published in 1964. When Louise Fitzhugh arrived at the Harper & Row offices, she had a manuscript that was originally no more than the scribblings in Harriet’s notebook. Nordstrom’s senior editor, Charlotte Zolotow, wrote a report on the sample pages noting that they needed to bring Fitzhugh in to talk. Zolotow saw that it wasn’t yet a book, but it could be. Nordstrom wrote to her senior editor later, thankful that the two of them had “drawn Harriet the Spy out of Louise” (304).

The book managed to garner accolades as well as criticism. Nordstrom is credited with answering mail and constantly being willing to stand up for her authors. Regarding a complaint letter about Harriet, she wrote:

I still wonder what put you off so about Harriet the Spy. Was it the fact that she spied that disturbed you? I think most of us have forgotten the awful things we did or wanted to do when we were 10 or 11 or 12. I was brought up with the most stern drilling of what was right and wrong, kind or mean, thoughtful or inconsiderate, etc. etc., and never tell a lie no matter what. And to this day I would love to read other people’s mail and listen to their telephone conversations if it were not for this hideous conscience, well . . . But you are all for vigor in children’s books and Harriet seems to have such vigor and life. (229)

Nordstrom realized that it would sometimes take the force of her strong personality to help the publisher and the authors and then the librarians and teachers and parents read the books with a child’s eyes. To get rid of their “adult” concerns, open their imaginations, and enjoy what she called “vigorous” books. As she considered the sorry state of 1960s teen novels, she wrote, “The ‘rigid world of good and bad’ is infinitely easier to write about than the real world. Because the writer of books about the real world has to dig deep and tell the truth.”

As I reread Harriet the Spy, I fell into the trap. I found myself wondering if I’d have wanted my kids to read it. I saw the danger Harriet was putting herself in writing true observations, hurting her friends. But that was the very genius of Nordstrom—she realized that children liked books about kids who did bad things sometimes, who had to go to bed without supper, who weren’t perfect little angels.

charlotteWhile I read Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little and Where the Wild Things Are to my children, it never occurred to me that somewhere along the line an author had to get an editor to understand that—yes—a talking spider is a really great idea! A spider! And a kid spying on the neighbors and writing down everything they do—also a great idea!

Somehow Nordstrom and her team got it.

I’m thankful that Nordstrom and Zolotow did indeed help Fitzhugh create Harriet. Harriet became my friend. She got herself into scrapes but learned how to deal with them. She was herself—willing to be different from everyone else. I think that’s what I saw in her as I sat reading this book on a quiet evening baby-sitting my sleeping baby sister. Harriet made it okay to be alone, to be observant, to want to write.

Children’s literature is a special breed that takes special people to navigate it. It needs adult writers and editors who have enough of a child’s mind to be able to see the possibilities. To know that a talking spider can save a pig’s life. To know that a talking mouse can be born to human parents. To know that a little bespeckled girl with a notebook might just inspire another little bespeckled girl to become a writer.

What’s in Your Wallet?

The things we carry tell a lot about us.

In my Writer’s Craft class, we studied the value of details in our stories — you know, those little words or tiny descriptions that can make a whole story turn and give a complete description without having to say much at all.

To illustrate how this can work, we read part of the first story of Tim O’Brien’s work, The Things They Carried. This essay collection details some of O’Brien’s experiences in the Vietnam War. Published in 1990, twenty years after O’Brien returned from the war, the story still resonates with its gritty realism. Such a story could only be written by someone who lived it.

The titular essay describes the various soldiers in the 23rd Infantry Division with vivid descriptions mostly of — you guessed it — what each soldier was carrying. From these lengthy paragraph descriptions, my students and I could detail on the board the job each soldier had within the unit, what he cared about, and even a bit about what he was like (the things carried could be something like “fear”). Here’s just a taste:

obrien

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.

This first essay gives a brilliant picture of this group of men, together by necessity, bound to one another, trying to do the tasks assigned and stay alive.

So my students did a writing exercise. I asked them to dig into their backpacks or purses or pockets or wallets and list everything they were carrying. Then they did some free writing. My challenge to them was to write a couple of paragraphs describing what the things they were carrying revealed about them.

There’s the girl who was lugging around in her backpack papers that she didn’t even need (and she couldn’t remember what class they were from). There’s the girl with the detailed calendar. There’s the guy with the extra pens and the other who probably needs to bum writing implements. Almost all of them were carrying books (one read Shakespeare constantly!). The students carried pictures or other items that brought back memories.

I looked in my purse. First, it’s way too big, but I like a big purse when I need to carry extra — you know — stuff. I have a big make-up bag with extras of all the basics after one day a couple years ago when I arrived at school and had forgotten to put on any make-up! I vowed that would never ever happen again! I have a notebook like what I tell my students to carry so that they can write down brilliant ideas when they strike. It’s pretty much bereft of brilliant ideas, although I do use it to jot down names of books I want to read.

In other words, I’m carrying things I hope not to need (extra make-up) and things I hope to need (a place to write down brilliant ideas).

I have a wallet and three sets of business cards and too many pens. I like to be prepared. I have my datebook because I don’t have nor want a smart phone. I like to have lists and organization and for that I need my datebook.

My bag tells me a lot about myself. My students learned a lot about themselves by looking at what they carried. We talked about using such details for the characters in their fiction–how can what the character carries be part of the description of him or her?

So, what’s in your wallet? What do the things you carry say about who you are and what you care about?

 

.

Building an Author Platform–One Board at a Time

The students in my “Building Your Author Platform” class have been busy. We spent the first couple weeks of this class figuring out who we are as writers and who we need to be out there online. They thought about what they write, their interests in both reading and writing, where they want to take their writing, and who they want to meet out there and add to their “tribes.” I have a couple of students who write psychological horror/thrillers, several who write fantasy/sci-fi, a Star Wars fanatic, some YA writers, a student who doesn’t want to write but wants to promote books (bless her!), a scientific writer (she even has a moth of the month you can learn about!), and a couple who are also just multi-talented and still figuring it all out.

They then built their websites to go along with the sort of “brand” they’re creating of themselves. Then, following principles of literary citizenship, we’ve talked about how the best way to “network” is not to “network” per se but to simply to be interested in what other people are doing. They’re writing charming notes each week to someone they admire. They’re following and commenting on one another’s blogs and blogs of writers they admire and want to add to their tribe. They’re tweeting (and tweeting and tweeting and tweeting . . .).

I love it when a student stops by my office to say, “My tweet just got ‘favorited’ by my favorite author!” and they begin to realize that reaching out simply means a tweet, a retweet, or a kind comment on a blog. I want them to understand that, once they leave this college cocoon where they’re surrounded by likeminded writers who understand them, they will be out in the bigger world where, chances are, fewer people “get” them as writers. They will need that online “tribe” that continues to discuss the various virtues of the new Star Wars trailer or the plot line of the latest Brandon Sanderson book or whether their own character in the latest story is speaking in a believable way (“Let me just read you this . . .”). The tribe is a place where they can continue to join the conversation about things that matter to them.

Your platform--where is it taking you? How's the view?
Your platform–where is it taking you? How’s the view?

I tell them that they will need to attend a writers conference — hopefully once a year — to get recharged and reinvigorated. They will need to continue to buy and read books (that doesn’t seem to be an issue with this group).

This past week we also listened to the pitches of those students who have books in the works. I wanted them to both practice writing proposals and pitching those proposals to agents. Half the class is in that position, so the other half acted as agents and I gave the authors five minutes to sit down in front of an agent, give their book’s synopsis, and be calm and professional all at the same time. It was great practice for that opportunity they will have sooner or later to actually pitch that finished book.

Platform building isn’t all about me, myself, and I — which I think is why many people are scared of it. No, platform building is about building a network of likeminded folks both in your physical world and online — caring about them, sharing their work and their words, joining the conversation, and rejoicing with the successes that happen in the group. Then, one day, when success comes knocking on my students’ doors (as I have no doubt it will), they have a group ready to celebrate with them.

One board at a time. Reach out to your favorite authors in your genre. Thank them for something. Comment on their blog posts. Share your work and your thoughts on your own blog. Take your time, because it will take time. But the time to start is now–even if you don’t have a book to sell. Just go out there and join the conversation. You have something important to say.

Word Power

I tried an experiment in one of my writing classes this past week. We’re talking about the power of words and learning to, as Francine Prose writes in her book Reading Like a Writer, “put every word on trial for its life.”

We looked at the words used (and not used) in Cynthia Ozick’s ‘The Shawl.” (They were amazed to realize that the word “Nazi” is nowhere in the story, even though that’s what it’s about and they knew that’s what it’s about, even without that word and many others one might expect.) We studied the descriptions of place and people in Guy de Maupassant’s, “The Piece of String.” We watched how Flannery O’Connor chose words and led us along in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

Then I read them some quotes from one of my recent favorite books, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Here are some of the beautiful, lyrical lines:

When the train pulled into the Bahnhof in Munich, the passengers slid out as if torn from a package.

All was dark-skied and hazy, and small chips of rain were starting to fall.

In Liesel’s mind, the moon was sewn into the sky that night. Clouds were stitched around it.book thief

That was when a great shiver arrived. It waltzed through the window with the draft. Perhaps it was the breeze of the Third Reich, gathering even greater strength. Or maybe it was just Europe again, breathing. Either way, it fell across them as their metallic eyes clashed like tin cans in the kitchen.

<a scene of the Nazis burning books> The orange flames waved at the crowd as paper and print dissolved inside them. Burning words were torn from their sentences.

The cold was climbing out of the ground.

Snow was shivering outside.

The window opened wide, a square cool mouth, with occasional gusty surges.

Pimples were gathered in peer groups on his face.

I love how Zusak uses words, putting them together in surprising ways to make descriptions that are exact and yet so unusual and unexpected. It’s that very unexpectedness that delights me.

So we did an exercise in class. I gave students four small pieces of paper. On each paper they were to write a word — two papers would have adjectives, two papers would have nouns. Any adjective, any noun. I gathered the papers into two piles, shuffled them, and then each student chose one adjective and one noun and had to find a way to use them together in a sentence.

We got “chilling sun” and “soft children” and “shiny dream.” And the students wrote amazing new sentences, allowing these unusual pairs to work together.

In a weekly journal post, one of my students wrote, “I liked the adjective and noun game. Combinations like chilling sun made me think about the ways I described things throughout the week. Instead of relying on easy, conventional descriptions, I searched for different, more unusual word pairings that still made sense.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself!

What are some of the most lyrical, surprising, and unexpected sentences you’re read — and where did you read them?