Welcome to the blog of the Consulting Editors Alliance. This is our forum for sharing views on the wonderful, bizarre, enormously frustrating and satisfying (depends on the day) world of book publishing and our roles in it as freelance editors, writing collaborators, and ghostwriters. Please join the conversation!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Reading Reality

An interesting article by Dana Goldstein at The Daily Beast providing a fresh take on why American kids lack sophisticated reading skills. According to a recent study of what grade-school students read, fiction dominates school reading lists, while serious non-fiction gets very short shrift (with a handful of exceptions, like The Diary of Anne Frank). Among other problems, this may short-change boys, who tend to be more interested in the word of fact than the world of fiction. More significant, it gives students of both genders less opportunity to develop the analytical skills they'll need to master tough non-fiction reading in college and adulthood.

I personally find this argument very appealing, having always been a lover of non-fiction (as reflected in the kinds of books I work on today). When I was a kid, my favorite reading was two series of non-fiction books published by Random House, the "All About" books, which dealt with topics from science ("All About Dinosaurs" and the like) and the "Landmark" series, which covered history and biography ("Abe Lincoln: Log Cabin to White House").

I gravitated that way, in part, because I shared a bit of the widespread attitude that "story books" were for little kids and girls. As a result of that attitude, if my literary diet had been limited to fiction, I would have done a lot less reading than I did. I've since outgrown my childhood prejudice against fiction, but I think educators (and parents) would want to be mindful of the phenomenon when designing programs to convert kids--especially boys--into readers.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Evaluating a Fiction Manuscript

Here are some basic criteria that editors use in evaluating fiction:

l) Voice: Does the author have a distinctive, unique voice that captures your attention, or is her writing bland, colorless. Do you want to spend the next several hours with this author? Note that Voice is not the same thing as Style. Think of a thriller writer who might not be a particularly felicitous prose stylist, but keeps you on the edge of your seat with his breathless, perhaps even melodramatic voice.

2) Pace: The test here is quite simple. After finishing one page, do you want to go on to the next page? In fact, are you compelled to do so? That is, is it a page-turner? A good thriller writer, of course, must have an unerring sense of pace. But the pace of literary writing, drawing you deeper and deeper into ideas and feelings, is also irresistible.

3) Character: While you might think plot should precede character, the fact is that the best plots emerge from characters in conflict. So the question here is whether you are compelled by the characters and are you involved in what is happening to them? Do they come alive on the page? Do they surprise you with their complexity?

4) Plot: Whether the plot comes out of the characters' development or not--a good thriller writer might have one-dimensional characters, but that doesn't matter if his story is riveting--we're looking for a story that keeps us reading because we want to know what happens next. And if what happens is surprising--not just arbitrary but convincing--that's all the better.

5) Style: As already mentioned, here we're talking about the quality of the writing. And while we all probably respond to a beautiful style, and it may impel us to keep reading, yet in the end if the author says nothing, reveals nothing, creates no strong effect on us with her story and characters, then we're left unsatisfied. What the reader asks of the author is: Astonish me!

6) Verisimilitude: By this I mean not so much accuracy or true-to-life details as convincing invention. If the author can convince you that something is true, it really doesn't matter whether it's true or not.

Finally, you must ask yourself--and this applies to both fiction and nonfiction--whether the author has accomplished what he set out to do. You could think of this as the combined effect of all the elements, but it's a crucial question to ask. You can't evaluate a manuscript on the basis of what you want it to be.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Tastelessness Is a Venerable American Tradition

If you think the world of literature is going to hell in a handbasket, check out this fun piece from the art website Today's Inspiration, which offers excerpts from a 1953 Fortune magazine article about the horrors of paperback publishing. (This is the third in a series; to see the previous stories, which are equally entertaining, scroll to the bottom and click on "Older Post.") You will be convinced that the world of literature has actually been going to hell in a handbasket for at least the last sixty years, which I find comforting in an odd sort of way.

Novel or Memoir?

Last weekend, I attended a writers' conference, where I was asked to evaluate the book ideas of about 20 attendees. I listened while the writers read the "pitches" for their works-in-progress. Most were novels, but there were quite a few memoirs. I found myself telling some of the novelists that they should consider turning their novels into memoirs and telling some of the memoirists that they should consider writing novels. Why?

I can't say that there are any really invariable rules about why a story should be told as fiction or non, but we've all learned some things from the James Frey and other literary scandals of the past few years. If a story is too good to be true, then it's wise to put the words, "A Novel" on the cover. If you call it a memoir, but you've embellished a lot, you're mislabeling a product, and no consumer wants to be misled.

Sometimes a life story can be just too rich -- filled with too many characters or incidents -- to fit neatly within the category of "memoir. " Those stories can benefit from the kind of imaginative editing and reshaping that goes into creating a novel.

Readers will always be hungry for stories about the lives of others, whether they are real or invented. Sometimes the trick is discovering just what kind of story you are telling.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

NYC Teen Author Festival - Part 2

The festival is now over and it was a great success. (Kudos David Levithan, editor, author, and organizer extraordinaire!) As an author, an editor, and a reader myself, I found it valuable to attend for a whole host of reasons. I thoroughly enjoyed the reading I did at the library for about 60 high school students because of the astute, funny, and intriguing questions from the completely engaged kids. It also reminded me who I was writing for -- actual living, breathing teenagers. And it was reassuring too. When asked about how we deal with writing challenges, what we do first when we sit down to write, about our process at various stages, we all had completely different answers. That's right, folks. There's no one-size-fits-all approach to getting the manuscript written. You find what works for you -- no right, no wrong, just writing. Even the most seasoned writer needs to be reminded of this.

I also found the panels and other readings inspiring as well, as much for their content (really interesting info/discussions, great fiction) but also for the shared sense that reading and writing is to be celebrated. And what was also great -- all panels, signings, and readings were free and open to the public. Next time you hear about these kinds of events, I strongly urge that you attend! I know that I will.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ghosts, Mimicry, and Imitation in Book Publishing

Here are a couple of items book-lovers will enjoy. First, a column by my friend Peter Osnos about the peculiar challenges of being a ghost writer (or collaborator with celebrities), using illustrative stories of some of the writing partnerships he helped supervise as an editor and publisher over the years.

I like Peter's comparison of a ghost writer to a character actor who is able to adapt the voice and personality of many different people and somehow seamlessly convey a sense of their inner life through something more than mere mimicry--as contrasted with the star actor whose own personality is so intense he "plays himself" in every role, just wearing different costumes and uttering different lines. The true ghost finds self-expression through self-abnegation--paradoxical, but when it works, it works.

Second, just for fun, this archive of historical novels (and other kinds of books) in which the same work of art has been recycled once, twice, even several times to illustrate the covers of different books. If you think the jacket of some newly published book looks weirdly familiar, it's probably not your imagination . . .

Monday, March 15, 2010

NYC Teen Author Festival

Today, March 15th, kicks off the NYC Teen Author Festival. It looks to be a fun and informative week of events, with panels, readings and book signings.

I suspect it will be well attended, as it should be, by fans, authors, and writers interested in writing for the teen age audience. We all hear stories about the dire state of publishing, but the kids' market is a growth industry, with the success of blockbusters like Twilight, Percy and the Olympians, Pendragon, Gossip Girl, and superstar authors of individual titles (like Sarah Dessen), breathing life into the bottom line, and helping to support the quieter books by lesser-known writers. Publishing houses that have closed or consolidated imprints are often adding or expanding their reach to the young adult readers.

There are a number of reasons for this; partly it's just plain demographics -- there are a LOT of teens out there. But it's also because of a phenomenon remarked on in a recent article in the LA Times -- more adults are reading YA material.

Authors writing for teens or kids were sometimes viewed as "lesser than" and if you wanted to "cross over" into publishing fiction for adults your manuscripts were viewed with some suspicion. Not so anymore. Funny how those golden eggs change the perception of the goose...

I've always read books for kids and teens, long after the shelf-date on my adolescence expired. And it's what I write too. Not because it continues to be a growth-area in publishing but because the heightened life/death stakes of teenage lives appeals to me, because exploring the world through a teenager's eyes is exciting to me, and also because probably there wasn't any expiration date on my adolescence. I'm pleased to have been included in the festival -- I'll be reading from my YA novel Thicker than Water (which was included on the NYPL "Books for the Teen Age" list in 2006 and thankfully is still out in paperback!) at the Jefferson Market Library at 10 am, March 18th. And I'll be attending some of the panels too -- it's always inspiring and often reassuring to hear other writers talking about their process, since writing is a profession that can be very isolated. I suggest all of you with an interest in this area try to attend too!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Bookstore To End All Bookstores

Think about the most beautiful bookstore you've ever seen. Then compare it with the picture above and admit there's no comparison. It's in Buenos Aires and you can read all about it on the wonderful website Boing Boing.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Literary Criticism

Remember this? In college it was my favorite course. I'd burn through test books analyzing Kinnel; Barth; THE GOOD SOLDIER; John Knowles. What did this mean and what was the leitmotif and how was it exemplified?

What happened? Today, truthfully, I look at a novel and make sure the first thirty pages are fun to read as opposed to well written; set up good characters and make me hunger for more. Non-Fiction, Arnold has covered that. So what am I going to do to refresh my critical mind? I'm going back to the classics. Since I have zero memory of what I read last night, never mind forty years ago, I am thinking I will start off easy-THE CATCHER IN THE RYE Does that count? All I remember are the ducks.

Now I finally understand why there are book clubs and notes in the back of fiction. Duh. Took me one hundred years to figure it out. And that's another one: ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE-I don't remember a thing. I would love to take a year off and just read classics. Maybe when I retire that is exactly what I will do.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Evaluating a Nonfiction Manuscript

How does an editor make a publishing decision? My friend Dick Marek, one of the great editors, once listed the basic criteria he used in evaluating nonfiction. They are--and I'm paraphrasing him here--
1) The idea of the book. Is it original, new, different? Are there competing books on the same subject? How large is the audience for that subject, and is it an audience that your publishing house can reach effectively? And coupled with this is the expertise of the author to write about this subject.
2) Voice. Does the author have a distinctive, unique voice of his own, or is his writing bland, colorless, lacking pace and drama? We're talking here about the author's writing style, and how effective he is in presenting his ideas.
3) Facts. Has he researched the subject thoroughly and presented all the information needed to provide the most persuasive presentation of his thesis?
4) Organization. Has he found a way to put all this material together coherently and cohesively? One can imagine an author who is tireless in compiling research and information, but then doesn't know how to develop it all into a logical framework. Such manuscripts are usually hopeless as it would be an incredibly labor-intensive task for an editor to take such a manuscript and try to reshape it. But there are situations where a publisher might consider it necessary to do just that. In such a case, the publisher may call on free-lancers like the members of Consulting Editors Alliance.
5) Finally, has the author accomplished what he set out to do? I think of this as the combined effect of all the four other elements, and it's a crucial question to ask. An editor can't evaluate a manuscript on the basis of what he wants it to be. But of course if he doesn't agree with the author's objective, then the manuscript is probably not for him. On the other hand, if he does like the idea of the book, but feels that the manuscript has problems, then he must decide whether the author might be able to revise the manuscript satisfactorily or whether he thinks it could be salvaged with his own editing.
Arnold Dolin

The Word Crusades

I am on a lonely, probably futile, personal crusade to eradicate the use of “impact” as a verb throughout this planet. No book I have written or edited contains it (unless the author snuck it back into the manuscript when I wasn’t looking, or I dozed off—as I’m prone to do in the presence of such writing—and missed it).

Impaction is a medical condition that afflicts molars and intestines; “impact” as a noun may appropriately describe the unwelcome assault of a bomb, a car, or a punch; or in general the effect of one thing on another. But over the years I see it everywhere as a verb: “Always be aware of how your behavior impacts others,” “The marketing team hadn’t considered how the campaign would impact the budget,” “Women’s lives have been significantly impacted by the feminist movement.” Even if it’s correct, who could learn from writing like this, much less love it?

That’s my beef with “impact.” I think it’s a classic example of unthinking writing or (worse) intellectual timidity in which the writer fears to take a stand by choosing a word of true descriptive power. Call it a “speed bump word”—one a writer throws in there to quickly get over the mental speed bump of having to weigh more descriptive, hardworking options that could amplify the reader’s understanding; for example: affect, alter, increase, promote, magnify, extend, enlarge, broaden, sharpen, quicken, decrease, lessen, diminish, depress, erode, reduce, narrow, shrink, or devastate. Since we have such words in this marvelous language, why not paint with all the colors at our disposal?

I know, I know . . . get a life. But before I go out to find one, I have to ask: Is anyone else on a Word Crusade?

Copyright (c) 2010 by Toni Sciarra Poynter

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Getting Real About the Problem of Accuracy in Book Publishing

Today's New York Times has a story about the latest mini-scandal to hit book publishing in relation to inaccuracies in a non-fiction book. The topic is The Last Train from Hiroshima written by Charles Pellegrino and published by Henry Holt. It now appears that some of the stories recounted in the book are probably false, and some of the eyewitnesses quoted the author either didn't exist or weren't in the right place to have the experiences claimed.

For the umpteenth time in recent years, it seems, the general public is discovering what has always been the case--that book publishers generally don't do fact-checking. The truth is that, under the industry's normal business model, it simply wouldn't be feasible.

Think about it. A good-sized publishing house brings out several hundred books every year, sometimes more. How many people would it have to hire to do the exhaustive research needed to verify the hundreds or thousands of facts that appear in a typical non-fiction book? And spot-checking wouldn't do. No one is claiming that Pellegrino made up most or even many of the stories in his book--just a handful of them. To avoid a problem like the one Holt is now facing, a fact-checker would have to independently source, say, ninety percent of the information in the book, a task that, even in today's Googlified era, would take weeks.

The Times quotes an Iowa professor named Jeffrey Porter as being critical of Holt, saying, "Maybe the idea of a scoop was irresistible. But somebody should have been skeptical." I'm dubious. Once you accept the notion that accuracy is basically the province of the author, then the publisher can reasonably be expected to catch only egregious falsehoods. Was someone at Holt supposed to call the Australian university where Pellegrino claimed to have earned his Ph.D. to verify his credentials? Human resources people will tell you that most corporations don't perform such due diligence even when hiring an executive for a six-figure job. Are publishers supposed to do this hundreds of times every year?

We all like the idea that, when something bad happens, it should be possible to identify a systemic fix that would prevent similar things from happening in the future. This is why we have been endlessly re-jiggering our airport security systems since 9/11--we want to believe that, with a little extra effort, they can be made perfect. But I for one don't believe it. Nor do I believe that book publishers can reasonably be expected to recognize what is happening every time a credible, experienced author succumbs to the temptation to exaggerate his facts for the sake of an exciting story.

Friday, March 5, 2010

No, But I Read the Book . . .

Last weekend I saw The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski's film based on The Ghost, a novel by Robert Harris. Not having read the book, I couldn't compare the movie to the original, but I did find it a terrific entertainment. Afterward, I wondered if I had missed something by not reading the thriller itself. But reading the book after seeing the movie would mean that I knew the basic plot and (stunning) ending. Would reading the book still be worthwhile? I'm not so sure. Conversely, if I had read the book first, would I have enjoyed the unfolding plot nearly as much? Again, I'm thinking probably not.

And what about those films I saw after enjoying the book -- everything from Wuthering Heights to The Hours to Julie and Julia? If I really love a book, then I anticipate having the pleasure of rediscovering the work, seeing actors impersonate characters I had only imagined, and finding a new point of view in a director's vision. I guess it comes down to the richness of the original work -- Jane Austen versus Ian Fleming, for example. If staying on the edge of your seat is of paramount importance (as in the Polanski film), then reading the book first might actually interfere with your enjoyment of the film.

Then there are those films that have pointed me in the direction of a book and enriched my experience of it. I read Tom Jones as a teenager right after seeing Tony Richardson's brilliant film. I still recall the great pleasure I had in inserting Albert Finney into Fielding's deliciously unhurried picaresque novel. Sometimes movies don't replace books at all, but actually can bring us back to reading.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Keeping Things on the Straight and Narrow

This morning I was editing a manuscript for a book intended to be both practical and inspirational. The chapter I was working on focused on having spiritual belief. And I found myself in conversation (electronically, via Track Changes Comments) with the author, feeling unconvinced by the author’s discussion and asking questions readers might ask in order to “go there” with her.

That got me thinking about the editor’s role, which I believe is to reflect the reader’s unfolding experience to the author. The author is the expert on his or her world, but that very expertise can cause a blind spot about the reader’s world. The editor’s job is to align the worlds of author and reader so they can enter each other’s experiences. When things work as they should, both are enriched: most authors who are well edited say that the process not only improved their book, but also deepened their understanding of their subject, and satisfied readers extol the rewards of reading well-written books.

That philosophy of “being the reader” keeps me on the editorial straight and narrow: if an edit falls under the rubric of my personal preference (“I don’t agree with this,” or “here’s how I would write it,”) I consider it an invalid edit. If it falls under the rubric of reflecting the reader’s experience (“I’m confused by this statement because it contradicts the one just above,” or “I don’t understand the leap of logic between this paragraph and the next one,” or “I think there’s a risk of losing the skeptic in this section; here’s where the thread of logic seemed to disappear,” or “This is the first time we’ve seen this term. What does it mean?"), then it’s valid and worthy of the author’s consideration. It’s an approach that keeps the ego out of things and puts both the author and me squarely where we should be: in the service of the subject and the reader.

Copyright (c) 2010 by Toni Sciarra Poynter