Wednesday, October 15, 2008

I suck at trip reports...

Home finally, and promise to start blogging again:

I just love England. I love that every mile there's some tiny village, and then there's another village with a similar name a mile later. (Over Wallop, Middle Wallop, and Nether Wallop... I have to say, Wiltshire is like a PG Wodehouse novel come to life). I love the incredible beauty of the landscape-- and I'm in the South, which has been settled for about 2000 years. It's a reminder that the human race doesn't have to be pestilential, that it can actually create beauty too-- I'm in love with hedgerows, which are so much prettier than the barbed wire we use in the US. It's all still farmland, which I'm pretty used to seeing, since I'm in the Midwest :), but it looks so angelic, really, so tidy and pleasant with those hedgerows.

And I love how suddenly history just rears up, like I was just tooling along on a highway and suddenly there was Stonehenge. Really. It's right off the highway. And from miles away, you can see the tower at the top of Glastonbury Tor, or the towers of cathedrals. And half the "sizeable" (meaning 500 residents in the heyday) villages have amazing churches. Such villages... I don't have a clue where the residents work, but they live in picture-perfect places. (And I'm sure those 4 century old houses are a pain in the neck to keep up, but that doesn't keep the price down... :) And the pubs can be so lovely, all that half-timbering and crooked plank floors. And the food is good, really-- I got to love all the pies and pasties. (But I should have been warned that "pork pie" is COLD and inedible by anyone not born in Great Britain.)

And I love all the old people-- the gentlemen and ladies who dress in sensible shoes but also suits and hats to walk down to the village, who volunteer at all the National Trust sites, who call anyone younger than they are "ducks". I want to grow old in England. It looks like so much more fun. I think I have to buy some wool suits though.

And the gardens! Even in October. You know, the garden stores get a bigger turnout than Walmart.

More evidence that there will always be an England:

I heard an old man give directions to his house for a computer tech:
"There's no number. It's Orchard House. But everyone in the village knows it as the old Carney house. It's about 500 years old, though some say it's only 400 years old. A big stone house, south of the village."
The young man techie said, "What is the nearest pub?"
"Well, it's equidistant between the Old Crown and the Hanged Man. Stop at either and ask-- they both know me well."

And everyone has such lovely accents-- such a variety, even in one town. I'm sure they don't realize they sound exotic. :)


P.S. The Wallops have their own website. Isn't that adorable?

Breaking Rules

At some point earlier this year, Alicia and I talked a little bit about lists and series. We talked about different methods for organizing information in lists. We talked about how people remember list items. We talked about rhythm and parallel structure and ending on strong notes. (Did we talk about shortest-to-longest? I can't remember.) Useful editing tricks.

But, as with all rules, there is a point where art transcends form and the rule no longer matters. This point has been brought home to me recently in a book I'm reading which both follows and ignores ignores all of the organizational principles for items in lists.


The things they carried were largely determined by a 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 the 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. By necessity, and because it was SOP, they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds including the liner and camouflage cover. They carried the standard fatigue jackets and trousers. Very few carried underwear. On their feet they carried jungle boots -- 2.1 pounds -- and Dave Jensen carried three pairs of socks and a can of Dr. Scholl's foot powder as a precaution against trench foot. Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried six or seven ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity. Mitchell Sanders, the RTO, carried condoms. Norman Bowker carried a diary. Rat Kiley carried comic books. Kiowa, a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father, who taught Sunday school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. As a hedge against bad times, however, Kiowa also carried his grandmother's distrust of the white man, his grandfather's old hunting hatchet. Necessity dictated. Because the land was mined and booby-trapped, it was SOP for each man to carry a steel-centered, nylon-covered flak jacket, which weighed 6.7 pounds, but which on hot days seemed much heavier. Because you could die so quickly, each man carried at least one large compress bandage, usually in the helmet band for easy access. Because the nights were cold, and because the monsoons were wet, each carried a green plastic poncho that could be used as a raincoat or ground sheet or makeshift tent. With its quilted liner, the poncho weighed almost two pounds, but it was worth every ounce. In April, for instance, when Ted Lavender was shot, they used his poncho to wrap him up, then to carry him across the paddy, then to lift him into the chopper that took him away.

From The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien.


Is there an organizing principle to this list? Not really. There are lots and lots of beautiful things he does in the prose, but we can't say that this list is organized according to any sterile central rule. It has tremendous emotional impact, though, and that's really what I'm talking about when I say that sometimes art transcends form. Art speaks to our emotions. Form is the container that holds the art. Sometimes the emotions are too big for the container or don't fit comfortably in a standard container. In those cases, function should trump form, as it does here.

But, of course, there's always a danger in breaking away from established forms. It's a risk. The best way to minimize that risk is to really understand the rules and the underlying principles that create them. And then, with that understanding to guide you, look at successful instances where others have broken the rules and examine how they've made it work.

So let's talk about the paragraph from the Tim O'Brien piece. (This is an exceptionally good book, by the way. Well worth reading even if it's not one of your usual genres. I'm not a big fan of 20th-century war books, but my sister-in-law recommended this one, and I'm so glad she did.)

Tell me what you see him doing, and why you think it works. Yes, I'm going to make you think about this. Pay attention, and think it through. Notice things like word choice, repetition, and the points where emotion is introduced or eliminated. Tell me in the comments what kind of impact those things have on you as a reader.

By the way, in case you were wondering about my recent absence, I wasn't wandering England with Alicia. I wish I had been. My family owns a small construction company and we're in the process of moving to a new location. I'm not deeply involved in this business, but I am deeply involved in the move. And it's no fun at all. But we'll get through it. We're in the home stretch now.


ps. Today is the birthday of P.G. Wodehouse, which makes me want to lay in bed, drink tea, and be silly all day.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

In the land of Shakespeare, who probably never had an editor.....

I'm in Wells. This is totally my spiritual home. Four bookstores on the main street, not to mention one of the great cathedrals. I went to Evensong -- I'm completely unreligious despite, or perhaps due to, being raised Catholic, but I do love Anglican choirs. Anyway, the dean of the Cathedral recited a Hopkins poem, which I am able to post because even in the countryside of England, there is wireless, and Google, and blogger:

Pied Beauty

    GLORY be to God for dappled things,
    For skies of couple-color as a brindled cow,
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
    Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls, finches' wings;
    Landscape plotted and pieced, fold, fallow and plough,
    And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
    All things counter, original, spare, strange,
    Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim.
    He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change;
    Praise him.
    Gerard Manley Hopkins
I so want to live here. I love Wells.

Of course, I'm pretending I'm Canadian, so that no one blames me for the economic crisis. Not that they'd hold me responsible, I hope. I don't even have a 401K.

I remember I actually had some editing thought to share... but too much ale, I fear. The pubs are national treasures here. There's a lovely local ale-- Great Spotted Hen. In the US, that name would be changed by the marketing people. :)

Okay, I think I wanted to ask, when do you decide that something is a thought (of the point of view character) and not just part of the narrative? Do you put it in italics? How about present tense? Examples, please?

The pound is exactly $2. So why do I buy something that's five pounds and think, oh, that's only five dollars? You can tell I haven't actually absorbed this new depression thing. Well, no one was talking depression when I planned this trip, so I'm going to spend like we're in a good economy.

Monday, October 6, 2008


With the National Novel Writing Month fast approaching, I'm willing to bet that many of our readers are gearing up to silence the editor and write, write, write.

Which poses a bit of a headscratcher for a blog about editing by editors.

I've posted a poll on the sidebar asking if you're planning to participate in NaNo this year. If a big enough portion of you are NaNoing, we might shift focus in November and look at some techniques for greater productivity. Otherwise, we'll carry on with our usual quibbles and random musings.

So please, if you usually read this on a feed reader, pop over to the blog and vote in the poll.

Speaking of Random Musings....

I'm contemplating restructuring our internal process for responding to submissions. As it stands, we have a first reader who mans (er, womans) the inbox. She reads everything and either sends out a form rejection or routes the manuscript to an editor interested in that type of manuscript. If she sends out a form rejection, the reply address is the submissions inbox address. If she routes it to an editor and the editor rejects it, the rejection comes from the editor.

And therein lies the problem. We've had some problems with folks who don't take kindly to being rejected, and who lash out against the rejecting editor. And because of our process, they have a direct address for that editor. I understand it's disappointing to get rejected. Really, I do. But allowing that disappointment to interfere with normal professional behavior is another issue altogether.

So as I sit here pondering whether to change our internal procedures to protect my editorial team from rejection backlash, I thought I would mention it to all of you -- and honestly, this feels a bit like preaching to the choir because I know how upbeat and professional our readers are. But this is a real problem on my side of the desk. We don't like getting yelled at any more than you like getting rejected. But the difference is that our rejection isn't personal, and frequently, the attacks we endure are entirely personal. We get called names. Nasty names.

None of you would ever do that, of course. But for the love of literature, if one of your writing buddies says they're going to pen an angry reply to a rejection, gently suggest that they ought to wait a month and then reconsider. Or a year. Or forever.

Because, honestly, the penalty for angry backlash isn't that the editor suffers. We don't. The penalty is that the writer burns a bridge, and the editor becomes ever more wary of interacting with unknown writers. You know, most of us like writers. Most of us want to talk to writers and hear about your projects, ideas, interests and lives. But we also know that a turtle is safer inside its shell, yanno?


Saturday, October 4, 2008

Modifiers = Change

Let's build off the ideas in my last post about present participial phrases and how to use them. In that post, we were mostly talking about placement issues. (Modifiers go next to the words they modify, right? Right.)

This time, let's take a look at a common mistake made with present participial phrases that signify an underlying weakness in the main clause rather than a technical problem with the participial phrase. Take a look at this sample sentence.

She danced alone in the empty ballroom, twirling and jumping as if nobody could see her.

What Is a Modifier?

We've already made the point that present participial phrases are modifiers which either function as adjectives (modifying a single noun) or as cumulative modifiers (modifying a clause in its entirety). But what about the present participial phrase in our sample sentence above? What, exactly does it modify?

verb, transitive
1. to restrict the meaning of a grammatical construction
2. to make minor changes in
3. to make basic or fundamental changes in, often to give a new orientation to or to serve a new end

Modifiers change the meaning of existing words or groups of words. Those changes can be big or small, but they are still changes.

So here's where we run into our problem. Sometimes a main clause is so inherently weak that a writer instinctively knows it needs more oomph, but instead of fixing the weak main clause, they tack on a present participial phrase that restates the main clause without really modifying it.

alone in the ballroom = as if nobody could see her

If she's alone in the ballroom, presumably nobody can see her. Unless they can see through walls? Or have some kind of hidden cameras? But then the sentence should be altered to reflect that.

She danced alone in the ballroom, heedless of the tiny security cameras mounted along the musicians' gallery.

Or, preferably,

Heedless of the tiny security cameras mounted along the musicians' gallery, she danced alone in the ballroom.

Now the modifying phrase adds a new dimension to the sentence rather than just restating the main clause.

For that matter, twirling and jumping really just restate danced. They're more specific and vibrant than danced, but danced is a perfectly respectable verb. I'm not sure that it needs that kind of restatement. Isn't twirling and jumping more or less implied in the act of dancing? Hmm.

In any event, we see sentences like that all the time, and the usual fix is to cut ruthlessly to eliminate the repetitions. Pick the action word that has more precision and the noun with more built-in description, and dump the rest.

She fell to the ground, dropping suddenly onto the hard earth


She dropped suddenly onto the hard earth.

(And we might cut the adverb while we're at it.)