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What are you reading?

My Goodreads account is making me feel guilty.

At the beginning of this year, I made a goal to read 52 books and, well, it is letting me know in its calm yet non-confrontational way that I am “21 books behind schedule.”

Yikes.

I could chalk it up to, I don’t know … writing my own book, finishing my thesis, reading the thesis submissions from my cohorts in the MFA program, and moving ourselves to a new house.

Or maybe I was just lazy.

That’s sad news for someone who regularly lists her favorite hobby as “reading.”

So now I’m attempting to make amends, although since we’re a third of the way through September, I’m not sure I’ll reach my 2017 goal. And it certainly isn’t for lack of books to read. In fact, as I mentioned, we moved ourselves to a house in a new town. That of course meant packing up our many shelves of books. As we packed, I attempted to organize the books into boxes so that unpacking and placing them on new bookshelves would be an easier categorizing process.

We purchased 5 new bookshelves. A few of them are here on our sunny landing where I also have my work office and an old library table that doubles as my desk.

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Then we bought a couple more shelves for our entryway:

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And we have shelves in our bedroom. I have one shelf that is now dedicated to my “to reads.” In other words, as I shelved the books from the boxes, I set aside all the books that I’ve been meaning to read for a long time — books that were purchased and then made their way to various nooks and crannies and promptly were forgotten.

Now, this way, I always have my “to reads” right in front of me. Here’s a picture of my shelf.

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It’s an eclectic mix of fiction and fantasy and memoir and nonfiction. There are 40 books on the shelf; reading half this shelf will get me to my reading goal.

But more than just meeting a goal, I’m excited to finally get through each of these books. They sit there in all their glory, promising so much.

Right now, I’m reading a book written by one of our Professional Writing graduates — a debut novel that won a prize from Simon & Schuster, was first an ebook, and then was released in paperback. I’m so proud of Chandler and what he has accomplished in his young life as a writer. It’s fantasy, so a new genre to me. I’m diving into The Facefaker’s Game.

After I finish that, then I’m on to another book on my shelf. No more looking around wondering what to read next. No more feeling at a loss. The shelf is there. When I finish one and move it upstairs to the other categorized shelves, I’ll have space to add another that I will inevitably purchase.

Because, no matter how far behind I get, I’ll just keep on reading.

What are you reading right now?

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This past weekend (August 4-5, 2017), we held the second annual Taylor University’s Professional Writing Conference at Taylor University.

Last year, 2016, we did our first conference. We started with zero dollars and hoped that we’d break even or perhaps have a little extra to have seed money to hold a second conference. We didn’t know if we’d make it or not … until about two weeks prior to the conference when a flurry of activity brought us above our minimum (100 attendees) and encouraged us that we were meeting a need and should hold another conference.

Which we just did.

And this time? We got to 120  … 130 … 140 registrants, plus 20 faculty and staff, and suddenly my behind-the-scenes self was worrying about having large enough rooms for breakout sessions. So I closed the conference registrations (and still let through about 10 more people who begged) and held my breath that we’d have enough space.

THEN, our main session room was determined to not be ready, so we scrambled for another room and another breakout room. Thanks to staff at Taylor U, we moved to another room (holds 190, so we were tight but had close fellowship), and located another large-enough breakout room.

Then our folks arrived. Sessions began, keynoters encouraged, faculty taught, one-on-one meetings went on in the Campus Center, books were bought, snacks were consumed, staff people ran around, and while I used the passive voice here nothing was passive at all. It was proactive, energized, encouraging, and … from my perspective … so much fun!

It’s always terrific to get to communicate and rub shoulders with authors and agents and acquisitions editors and editors in the industry — some I’ve known for years, some I’ve known of, and some I’m getting to meet for the first time. They prepare talks and handouts, they sit on panels, they talk individually to conferees in one-on-one appointments, they stay overnight in college dorm rooms — simply because they love writers. All of them are amazing professionals with a heart for helping and encouraging.

And conferees? We couldn’t do a conference without those amazing people who set aside the time and money to come to a two-day conference. These folks were appreciative, which makes it all worthwhile!

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In addition, I had wonderful staff (former Professional Writing students) who spent two days running (which, as writers know, is not part of our general activity). They helped me put together conference packets, they ran to the store to purchase 160-people-worth of snack items, they checked on technology in the breakout rooms prior to each session, they got water for speakers, they ran extra copies of handouts, they carried boxes … they basically did whatever I asked them to.

And they made me laugh.

I couldn’t have run this conference without them.

Thanks guys.

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The purple staff shirts say, “You’re in the write place.” And we all definitely were. These were my “purple people.”

If you’ve never attended a writers conference, get thee to one! They’re a great place to be with like-minded folks, discuss the craft, be encouraged, and fill your tank for a few more months of lonely writing. Conferences happen all over the country (and world) at all times of the year. Look here and here and here for some listings of conferences.

And, of course, you can always consider the 2018 Taylor University Professional Writing Conference. We’ll be here!

 

Back two summers ago (and Facebook reminded me with a photo I took of the dorm room I was staying in two years ago), I wrote a blog post where I discussed just getting started with this program here at Ashland University in Ohio. I talked then about how difficult it was to get started, to figure out what to write about, to discover my voice.

Well, it’s been two years and lots of writing. I ended up doing what I mentioned in my blog two years ago: “I’m experimenting right now with a series of essays talking about the whole process (and brilliance) of editing when it’s done well. I am thinking about tying in my research into the great editors (some of which I’ve begun doing on this blog) and extracting lessons from them.”

Indeed, that’s what I did. The final title of my thesis is Words with Friends: The Intimate Relationship Between Authors and Their Editors.

The struggles I faced in writing in the creative nonfiction genre were how to get a memoir out of my life as an editor and how to make that job an interesting read. As part of our study, we have to read similar books to help us understand the ways other writers approached what we are trying to do.

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Without Bonnie Rough, I might still be wallowing in despair. She helped to create a coherency and shape that made the writing process that much smoother.

From my own reading, I learned that editors, as well as folks in other seemingly mundane jobs, could write memoirs. Reading the memoirs of book editors such as Diana Athill and Robert Gottlieb, of a copy editor at The New Yorker named Mary Norris, and even a house painter helped me to understand that the power of such a memoir lay in the presentation of needed information (with a balance, not too much) and the ever-present interesting anecdote.

Even so, as I wrote I kept wondering, Is this boring? How can I possibly keep my reader fascinated enough to keep turning pages? Is the tone right? Have I found my voice? I didn’t have famous names to drop or fame in my own right or the cachet of working for a publication such as The New Yorker, as did many of the editor memoir writers I read. What I did have, however, was knowledge and longevity in my field (editing and publishing), a passion for words, and an understanding and respect for the power of words. What I needed to do was share that knowledge (just enough, not too much) along with anecdotal stories to illustrate and entertain.

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Joe Mackall, Tom Larson, and Steve Harvey honed the manuscript with me, asked the tough questions, and made me a better writer.

My theme is “the power of words.” Because words are so powerful, personal, and intimate, when we put our words into the world, we share a piece of ourselves. The special joy of being an editor is helping to shape words, sentences, paragraphs, and manuscripts by entering into that intimate space between the author and the work to help the author say what he or she really means to say. This requires a kind of familiarity and friendship with the words and the author.

I wanted to help my readers understand that if and when they enter the publishing world, the editors are generally there to be their best readers, their greatest encouragers, and their most strategic critics. The purpose is to help the writing be the best it can be—to help writers dig deeper, choose words carefully, and say what they really mean to say.

It’s all about the words.

Those powerful words.

 

 

The manuscript for Word by Word is nearing completion . . . but it hasn’t been easy sailing.

That first draft looked perfect! I felt an overabundance of self-confidence as I emailed those 49,000 hard-won words to the publisher.

And waited.

After several weeks, I received a loooooooooong email with the editor’s comments — some positive, some negative, lots of suggestions. I cried a bit and fell into a funk for about five days. Then I thought about how I would want my author to react if I, as editor, had sent such a letter (and I have sent a few in my day). Finally, when I got into the right frame of mind, I printed off the editor’s letter and dove in. Among other things, she wrote:

There are a number of issues in this manuscript that need focus and clarity. As I read your table of contents, my first thought was that you had nailed the content that needs to be in the project. But then I discovered that the actual content doesn’t quite deliver in some cases.

I had my work cut out for me. The biggest issue my editor pointed out was that my audience wasn’t clear. As I reread the manuscript, I discovered that she was right. Sometimes I was writing the book as a textbook for my students; sometimes I was writing to the person who already has a manuscript at a publishing house and is working with an editor; sometimes I was writing to people who are critiquing others’ manuscripts; sometimes I was writing to people who want to become editors. Only sometimes was I writing to the true audience of this book. I realized I had done more of an information dump about everything I know than staying true to my audience.

Other issues included some random items that made me think, I know better! Why didn’t I see that?

But then this:

Thank you for your hard work on this project. You are obviously knowledgeable and have a broad background of experience to enable you to write this book. . . .

I trust you will take the critiques as constructive and that you will be challenged to take it up with renewed enthusiasm. . . . You are a wealth of knowledge, Linda, and your voice is needed in this arena. I really really want this book from you.

Yes, indeed. And I really really want it published! So yes, I can and will do this.

My editor listed a number of fixes.

1)    Identify a clear picture of the audience.

2)    Set definite goals about the type of material you want to write.

3)    Prepare an outline (extensive) of each chapter and what will be covered in that chapter, as well as the primary target audience for that chapter.

4) Rewrite the manuscript using these tools and suggestions.

I pictured my audience and knew what I wanted to write. My target audience is that pajama-clad and coffee-fueled author who has just pressed the key for the period at the end of the stunning final sentence on the first draft of his manuscript. He’s finished! But in the back of his mind he knows he isn’t really finished. He knows that no first draft is perfect; he knows he needs to edit.

But he doesn’t know how to do that or where to begin.

My goal is to help that writer understand both the publishing process and the steps and keys to self-editing.

bookProbably most helpful was my editor’s suggestion to create a revised extensive outline. Internally, I balked a little. Why do I need an outline at this point? But forcing each section of my manuscript to prove why it was there, where it fit best, and how it helped my target audience caused me to be very focused and brutal. Doing the big-picture editing with a revised outline proved invaluable.

I set to work with scissors, tape, and a red pen. Cutting, moving sections, taping pieces together — following my new outline. After a complete restructure on hard copy, I made the necessary changes on the electronic document. I let it sit for about two weeks. Then, I printed it out again. . . .

. . .  and read word by word.

That’s where I am now. Reading and marking with my red pen. Suffice it to say that my manuscript is very red.

It will be better for it.

I am doing what I said everyone should do — in my book. The lesson is, of course, that no matter how much you go over your own manuscript, no matter how many critique readers you have, editors will still make marks and offer suggestions. They come at the manuscript completely objective. While an author sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees, the editor comes in like a surveyor and see the trees and how to create a clearing.

I’m thankful to have been on this side of the desk with an excellent editor who saw exactly what my book needs.

What about you? If you’ve worked with a professional editor, what has been the best advice he or she gave you in feedback on your work?

“Okay, this next sentence just baffles me.”

“We need to stop here and talk about this.”

“Let’s delete the word somewhat.”

“I found another fake swear word. Add it to the list.”

“Wait, how did they get to the woods?”

“I’m gonna go ahead and remove this whole paragraph.”

“Can your face curl in anger?” (question asked of class) “How about contort?” (someone says) “Yes! That’s it.”

“I don’t know what’s going on here.”

“Wait . . . .!”

“This sounds like a Tim Burton movie.”

“I like that!”

“Wow. Good description.”

These are just a few statements I’m overhearing as I listen to my student editors work on the copyediting part of this project. (You can read about the content editing part here.)

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It takes a village . . .

For this part, we revised the groups into three groups of four to focus on the three fiction manuscripts. The authors did what they could over the past month and sent us their full revised manuscripts. Now the new groups are diving into the copyediting phase. The manuscripts were moved onto Google docs where the groups can read together and comment along the way.

“This takes so long!”

Another comment.

They’re getting a real understanding of what’s involved at the copyediting level. It does take time to really consider every sentence, every word, every bit of punctuation. To make sure the facts are lining up, to make sure the reader won’t be confused, to make sure that the author is saying what s/he really means to say. (If my editors are confused, future readers will be confused. Now is the time to fix any concerns.)

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“Copyediting is hard,” he complained. (Dramatic effect.)

There’s new appreciation brewing for how hard editors work and why they work so hard.

I think mission accomplished.

We’re at it again. Last year, I taught a class in our Professional Writing program that exposed our students to the entire publishing process, “from manuscript to book.” We read and edited real manuscripts written by real people; the students took them through the content editing phase, the copyediting phase, and the typesetting and proofreading phase. We also worked with the layout and design class, which created cover designs for us.

This semester, we again have five manuscripts and four authors.

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Here’s our semester schedule.

You can read about the actual process on last year’s manuscripts through the hyperlinks above. This time around, we have three fantasy manuscripts and two nonfiction.

I want to tell you about this experience from the viewpoint of an author. One group of this class gamely took on my MFA thesis and my new editing book for Bold Vision Books, titled Word by Word, coming out this summer

I had this group work on both of my manuscripts because the word count added up to roughly the same as the manuscripts in the other groups (about 100K), spreading the work evenly.

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Fantasy manuscripts call for a lot of discussion . . . 

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. . . as the editors figure out the setting and characters and plot lines and, in fantasy, often the magic system the author created.

Here’s what happened from my perspective as an author. I had sent in the first draft of my thesis for review in my program. My MFA mentor wrote back with some excellent advice and good questions. One thing had to do with the entire premise. My thesis is about my life as an editor — it is more memoir-ish with research and other nonfiction elements. At first, I had the title “Superhero Editor.” My mentor challenged that, sensing that the metaphor didn’t really work. The editor doesn’t swoop in and “save the day”; no, it’s much more collaborative and intimate than that. He challenged me to try another metaphor.

I thought and thought and thought, coming up dry. Then, when I decided to give the project to my students, I offered them the challenge. And they came through.

They thought that the friendship angle would work better. They gave me the title “Friends with Words.” Then I realized that for the last month I’ve been playing on my phone every night with my mom — the Scrabble game “Words with Friends” (and, by the way, she usually smokes me!). We moved their words around, and I titled the thesis “Words with Friends” and went back and recast the entire thing to reflect the new tone of that kind of relationship between editors and authors.

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These editors made my manuscripts so much better!

I couldn’t have done it without my student editors!

After they finished my thesis, they gamely moved on to my contracted book, which is more of a textbook style (a book I will use in my editing classes moving forward). The full manuscript for this was due to the publisher on March 1, so I asked what I needed to do to improve this first draft.

I told them to put me through my paces and do what I’ve trained them to do . . . and they did. They pointed out my overuse of the word “So.” (When I checked it, Microsoft Word said, “There are too many instances to check. You use this word a lot!” Yikes!) They mentioned that I needed to watch for passive voice. They told me when I got long-winded (read: “boring”) and need to cut or revise some lengthy sections.

AND, they let me know what they liked, what was engaging, and what was helpful.

All the editing groups put together their editorial letters with suggestions and advice to their authors, who will do what they can with their manuscripts by our March 28 due date.

Stay tuned!

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Hammering away at a manuscript.

In Praise of Bookstores

You can spot a book lover. I mean, a real book lover. In a world where everywhere we look people are scrolling through backlighted pages on their phones, real book lovers are sitting on the bus, or in the waiting rooms of doctors’ offices, or in the corner of the office lunch room engrossed in the pages of an actual book.

And book lovers, by definition, are often bookstore lovers as well. This is what is celebrated in Lewis Buzbee’s little book, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, A History. The book celebrates the wonder and beauty held in your local bookstore.

When a bookstore opens its doors, the rest of the world enters, too, the day’s weather and the day’s news, the streams of customers, and of course the boxes of books and the many other worlds they contain—books of facts and truths, books newly written and those first read centuries before, books of great relevance and of absolute banality. Standing in the middle of this confluence, I can’t help but feel the possibility of the universe unfolding a little, once upon a time. (3)

Those of us who love bookstores—the smell of paper, the colors of covers beckoning us, the intense desire that we could just, somehow, read it all. (Except for the banalities, of course.)

bookshopBuzbee has spent a lifetime around books—working in small independent bookstores, visiting small stores as a sales rep, and, of course, as a reader. His love for bookstores is unabashed. Where else, he asks, can you go in and sample the merchandise in the way you can with books—sitting over your latté reading the first half of that novel before you decide to purchase? Where else can you purchase for a minimal price the wisdom of the ages (or, if you so desire, the wisdom of a Kardashian or two)? Where else can you be so alone as a shopper and yet so connected to the others in the store—simply because of your love for books? Where else is there absolutely something for everyone and someone for everything? Where else can you purchase something that doesn’t need any upkeep but promises hours of entertainment—and then willingly sits on a shelf for as long as you choose to keep it, easily accessible, ready with the same words in the same spot with, perhaps, the same effect as they had on you the first time?

Buzbee describes bookstores’ evolution—the stalls where a hawker sold his wares, the semi-permanent store, and the itinerant bookseller going from town to town with his wares on his back. Before the invention of the printing press, books were copied by hand, often by the bookseller himself. Sometimes booksellers acted as publishers, entering into contracts with authors.

It wasn’t until the expansion of the universities across Europe that books came to be more required and thus needed to be made more cheaply. A new class of copyists and the introduction of paper into Europe transformed the face of books and publishing. Then, of course, Gutenberg’s printing press was the game changer. “A printer could create in one day what it might take a single monk six months to accomplish. It’s estimated that before the printing press, there were 50,000 books in all of Europe; fifty years after Gutenberg’s first Bible, there were more than 20 million” (102).

Along came copyright laws and the rise of brick and mortar stores. One bit of information I found fascinating was that in early stores, books sat horizontally on shelves, just the pages bound in signatures (sets of pages), no covers. A customer would purchase the book, then choose the color and cost of the binding. (So that’s why all those books in the big old mansion libraries are all the same color!)

Those who get to frequent (or work in) today’s bookstores have a distinct advantage—the ability to work around things we love.

I can say we because, for a few summers after my college years, I was happily employed in my parents’ small Christian bookstore. I dusted shelves and shelved books. I watched my dad meet with the salesmen in the office in the back, my mom making a fresh pot of coffee, considering the books our clientele in the little rural town of Corry, Pennsylvania, would buy. I loved to see my mom putting together tasteful book displays in the front window. I loved to see my dad behind the counter with several Bibles laid out on the glass-top case, explaining the various features of each to an intent-looking customer. I loved that my parents would sell a Bible to a person who couldn’t afford it right away, but would allow them to take it, knowing that the person would be coming in with maybe only a dollar or two each week to pay off the purchase.

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The grand opening and ribbon cutting of Ye Olde Book Shoppe, 1980. That’s me second from the left.

Ye Olde Book Shoppe had been an institution in town for decades. The previous owner had it in a room of her home; when my parents purchased it, they moved it to a storefront on Center Street. The bookstore was always such a peaceful place – soft music humming through the speakers, sunlight through the windows, the smell of fresh books, and the opportunity to sit at the counter ready to wait on customers. When I wasn’t busy dusting, I could pick up the latest book off a shelf to read at the front counter or purchase it (at a discount!).

So as a reader and writer and publishing professional and former bookstore employee, I found the history in Buzbee’s little book fascinating. His description of the Paris bookshop, Shakespeare & Co., opened in 1919 by Sylvia Beach is itself worth the read. Not only was the bookshop the haunt of expatriate writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Pound, Beach also acted as publisher for Joyce’s Ulysses. Then the story of how she hid the entire contents of the store from the Nazis—well, that makes her a bookseller’s hero.

You reader friends will agree—there’s just something about a bookstore. Tell me your favorite bookstore story. What do you love about bookstores?

Buzbee, Lewis. The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, A History. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2006.
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