Show Me the Money!

Occasionally, a prospective author will ask us at Lantern whether we give advances. Our answer is “no.” Here’s why.

An advance is in effect an interest-free loan to an author. It’s meant to provide them with financial resources to enable them to finish the book (if they haven’t done so) or as some kind of “thank you, we believe in you” (if they have). The advance is a loan because the money that’s given is “against” royalties. In other words, if the publisher gives you a $5,000 advance, it means that you won’t get any money from your sales until you’ve sold $5,000 worth of books, on the money the publishers get from the stores and other places.

A very large percentage of books never earn out their advances, leaving publishers, quite literally, at a loss. Unfortunately, too many authors and agents think that the best possible outcome for their book is to get the largest advance possible—with actual sales of the book, apparently, being almost an afterthought. These days, those authors who do get the big advances—just like the singers who get major recording deals or filmmakers who get national distribution—are in the small minority. But they’re the standards against whom everybody measures their success.

The simple fact is, with no advance, if the book does well, then both publisher and author reap the benefits. If the book doesn’t do so well, then publishers are somewhat protected against the investment they make in producing the book in the first place. Of course, authors who wish to make more money can self-publish: taking on the risk of production for a much larger portion of the sales.

At Lantern, we’re proud to have been in this business for fifteen years and we’ve been able to pay royalties to all our authors in every one of those years. Some of our authors have by now collected over $20,000: not enough to earn a living perhaps, but certainly a very respectable “advance.” Long may it continue!

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Reasons to Write a Book #3: The Medium Demands It

I’ve already touched on the compulsion one has to write and third-party credibility as a reason to write a book. Another, perhaps subtler, reason I like to give for writing a book is that it demands certain disciplines and constraints that may not be present in other media, which in turn will shape your argument, style, tone, and delivery.

For instance, a book can take its time and afford to be expansive in a way that a poem or a short story cannot. Film can offer a great deal of information in a glance or a scene, but words can offer an expansive role for the imagination and a more detailed description of internal thought processes than the visual arts. A book requires—or should—more time, more thought, more rigor, and more commitment than shorter prose forms, and it lends itself to arguments, visions, and explorations that, in turn, require more thought, rigor, time, and commitment from the reader.

So, if the book is what the work demands and you demand from your reader, then a book is how your thoughts should bring themselves before the public. Whether they choose to read it, however, is a whole other story.

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The Em-Dash, En-Dash, and Hyphen

Among my many faults as a writer, I tend to overuse the dash—the em-dash, that is. A colon would work just fine in beginning a list or creating a long enough pause to make the phrase or clause that follows resonant and conclusive. Parentheses (or brackets, to my UK readers) are perfectly adequate for signaling a subordinate clause. Dashes are very demonstrative orthographically, and in a cluster they can turn even the most elegant prose into Morse code. So, I’m working hard to keep my dashes to a minimum.

I’m also a sucker for compound adjectives, even more so than, say, the English poet Philip Larkin. All those adjectival clusters need their hyphens, except (so American English would have it) when one adjective is an adverb: for instance, “catastrophically decisive victory.” Whereas excessive use of dashes acts like a laxative on one’s prose, over-hyphenation has the opposite effect, leaving every sentence dense and clogged. Use only with care.

Last but not least: the en-dash. I have a fondness for these oft-forgotten prose stylists, perhaps because I’m an avid reader of The New York Review of Books and the editors at that esteemed journal seem particularly keen to fit at least one in each review essay. The en-dash has a set of specialized, but very useful skills, like the closer in baseball. These are:

1. When you have a compound adjective constructed out of a compound word. Thus “Civil War–era uniform” requires an en-dash, since “Civil War” is its own compound.

2. Dates: “1820–1885”: The en-dash here serves to signify “to.” This is also the case with direction: “Topeka–Chicago railroad.”

3. Words that are compounded in contradictory ways, also showing direction or time: “north–south divide,” “East–West conflict.” As you can see, the noun here indicates that these items are conjoined only in their dissension. The “Sykes-Picot agreement” caused a lot of conflict, but Mr. Sykes and M. Picot were working as one, and therefore are joined with an ordinary hyphen.

Ironically, Wikipedia thinks that these two imperial gentlemen should be connected by an en-dash, which only leads one to the sad realization that if we cannot even have concord over the length of the dash, then what hope for peace in the Middle East? Of course, a reasonable case could be made that the entente cordiale disguises the fact that these were two distinct persons, and not somebody called Fred Sykes-Picot. As you can see, therefore, a little less dash is sometimes a good thing.

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Editorial Pet Peeves #2: Have You Finished Yet?

I receive a lot of manuscripts that the author tells me he or she’s finished with. This is usually a very loose translation of one or more of the following:

1. I’ve written around 75,000 words and that seems to be about a good length for a book, so I must be done, right?

2. I feel a whole lot better having gotten all that off my chest, and if I feel good the manuscript must be good, so I thought I’d send it to you.

3. I can’t be bothered to work on it anymore, and you’re meant to be a writer/editor. You’ll fix it for me, won’t you?

4. I really have no idea what I’m doing, but if you work with me over the next several months and agree to read every one of my fifteen drafts, I’m sure it’ll be a bestseller.

5. I know there’s a book in here somewhere. Can you help me find it?

Here are my responses:

1. No, you’re not done. The number of words is no proof of the coherence or persuasiveness of your argument, or how appropriately you’ve marshaled and presented your data, or the accuracy and cogency of your writing. I would prefer 37,500 well-honed words than double the number of loose ones.

2. What you’ve got there, my relieved friend, is the necessary first draft—the part of writing where you get everything out and down. Now you have to edit, edit, edit to make sure that all that emotion and catharsis doesn’t crowd out the reader. It’s good that you’ve got this far, but you’ve got plenty of work to do.

3. Well, tough luck. Writing is hard; it should be hard. If you pay me enough money I might do your work for you. But if you don’t want to work, then why should I? Roll up your sleeves and pull down the shades, your dark nights have only just begun.

4. Sorry. It doesn’t work like that. We editors can fix some problems, but we just don’t have the time, the energy, or (frankly) the inclination to help you to say something. Of course, as with response #3, if you pay us enough money, we might consider it. But, really: figure out what it is you want to say before wasting your and my time by just throwing words around like confetti!

5. No. You built the haystack; you find the needle.

If in doubt as to the readiness or suitability of your book for publication, edit it until you find nothing to change, give it to trusted third parties for their honest feedback, and make their changes. Then put the manuscript away in a draw for a month or two, pull it out and read it again, and then edit it until you find nothing to change. Then it’s probably ready for submission.

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Editorial Pet Peeves #1: The Double Space After the Period

One of the first acts I perform when I receive a manuscript electronically is to find-and-replace double spaces with single spaces. It takes only a few seconds and it removes all those unnecessary gaps between words that will only irritate me and make me lose focus on the actual manuscript as I read through it. The double space after the period is a holdover from the days of manual typewriters, when it was somehow deemed necessary to show people that the sentence had come to an end and a new one had begun, as if the round splodge after the last letter of one sentence and the big capital letter beginning the next sentence weren’t enough. I consider the double space a relic of a more unhurried, and perhaps less literate age, akin to the pre-eighteenth-century custom of placing at the bottom of the page the first word of the next page (known as the “catchword“—from which we get our modern-day idiom), so that bookbinders would keep the pages in the right order. The double space following a period is particularly unnecessary, since not only is the book likely to be edited, thus potentially changing sentence structure, but the whole book is going to be retypeset, thus rendering the manuscript’s original typesetting moot. Justification of the text so that no text is ragged right or left will also render your attempts to control space useless. Double spaces after periods aren’t the only quirks of manuscript layout that are wholly unnecessary: 1. Providing page numbers in your table of contents. All the pages will change anyway. Just put “00” or “000” if you want to indicate that the page number should be inserted. 2. Macro “anchors” that take you from the table of contents to a particular chapter. This is very annoying to the editor who reads a manuscript electronically and a complete waste of time if the manuscript is printed out to be perused. 3. Wild and crazy margins, exotic and/or unreadable fonts in a range of colors, ridiculous point sizes for the text, and anything else showy and superfluous. The point of your submission is to make your manuscript as undemonstrative as possible to guarantee that nothing—and I mean nothing—gets between you and the editor’s meeting with your first sentence.

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Sometimes “Said” Should Be Taken as Read

When I was writing my zombie–P. G. Wodehouse spoof Bertie Wooster and the Lizard King, I decided to set myself the extra challenge of never using the verb “say” following direct speech. In other words, no “he said,” “she said,” etc. Instead people murmured, commented, added, opined, and employed a whole host of other methods to indicate they’d spoken.

That one can make it through a 50,000-word book without using “said” once might be considered something of a miracle—especially since when I read fiction now any repetition of “said” seems egregious. On the other hand, as a writer friend of mine put it, sometimes “said” is all the character needs to have done. The word is anodyne enough that the reader can get on with the business of concentrating on what was said and not that it was said at all.

Point very well taken. The exercise, however, provided a number of other insights that I’ve found particularly useful since:

1. It’s often not necessary to tell people that someone has just spoken something. The close quotes should do that, and the reply (assuming there is one) will affirm that sound was articulated and is being responded to.

2. Beware of juicing up your prose with adverbs. I’ve long been guilty of over-directing the reader, by telling her/him the tone of voice in which the statement is couched. It’s one thing to write: “‘You’re a complete and utter idiot!’ he said.” It’s probably excessive coloration to write: “‘You’re a complete and utter idiot!’ he bellowed.” And it feels like gilding the lily to write: “‘You’re a complete and utter idiot!’ he said, thunderously.”

3. It’s easily overlooked (and done by the best writers around) but some verbs that are used as “saying” words, um, aren’t: coughed, spluttered, snorted, sniffed, etc. As a rule of thumb, if you find it hard to complete the action being described while speaking the accompanying words, then the verb you’ve used is probably inappropriate. “Bellowed” might be one of them.

4. Gesture is often a great way to break up too many “he said/she said” conversations. The following scene may be dramatic, if physiologically challenging to the lady in question: “‘I never want to see you again,’ she said, walking through the door and out of my life.” But isn’t it more dramatic as well as a great deal easier for the aggrieved party to execute if the scene develops as follows: “‘I never want to see you again.’ [New paragraph] She walked through the door and out of my life”?

Unless, of course, the door is locked.

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The Wodehouse Estate (Or the Importance of Permissions)

In the spring of 2010, I was seized—if that’s the word I’m looking for—with the idea of a mash-up between zombie fiction and the works of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, the English-born humorist and creator of the loveably dimwitted Bertie Wooster and his savant-like manservant Jeeves. I found the conceit behind, if not necessarily the execution of, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea-Monsters delicious. Actually, I shouldn’t be snotty about this, since I’ve not bothered to read any of these Undead + Literary Classics portmanteaux, and I’m sure they’re brilliantly executed. But I wasn’t, truth be told, that interested in the exploits of creatures of the netherworld, having already experienced their charms on the New York City subway system. So I conducted the very minimal—and I mean, minimal—amount of research on this, as it were, continuously reviving genre.

What did intrigue me was the possibility of investigating what it was that made Wodehouse funny. All but one of the Wooster novels and short stories are written from Bertie’s perspective, and Wodehouse provides his narrator with an array of stylistic mannerisms that are instantly recognizable and frequently repeated, but are also what critics with nothing else to say would call “inimitable.” Actually, it’s in the conversations between Jeeves and Bertie that Wodehouse’s true brilliance lies, since the plots are perfunctory and the other characters, while vivid, are the standard tropes of English drawing-room comedy, if not folderol going back to Plautus and Aristophanes: idiotic leading men, brainy and scheming servants, terrifying matrons, red-faced military types, and an array of inept clergy, saucy secretaries, and dewy-eyed daughters of wealthy and intemperate industrialists. In shuttling between Jeeves’ formal, even pedantic speaking style and Bertie’s casual, upper-class argot, speckled with American slang and English nonce words, Wodehouse deliberately creates a kind of jazz of misquotation, shorthand, diversion, extended simile, and hyperbole that can lift ho-hum farce to dizzy comedic heights.

I tucked in to the task of composing a Wodehousian version of Night of the Living Dead with the glint of a particularly peckish cannibal’s eyes on sighting a cruise ship’s distress flare offshore. Like the captain of the metaphorical vessel, I knew there was a strong chance I’d land in trouble, since—unlike Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, or any of the other worthy literary titans whose work and characters had been disinterred to form these new forms of fiction—P. G. Wodehouse had only entered Elysium thirty-six years previously, and thus his literary estate and copyright were alive and kicking. I briefly flirted with the idea of changing everyone’s names and altering plot details, but that seemed about as fun as sticking the business end of a Number 2 pencil in my eye. Furthermore, I was having such a good time turning the drippy Madeline Bassett into a serpent-tongued monster and the reticent and herpetophiliac Gussie Fink-Nottle into a goggle-eyed Van Helsing that I decided to leave the trifling matter of plagiarism until I’d finished.

“Is that wise, sir?” murmured my conscience. “I believe the fashion these days is to eschew theft. One could develop a reputation.”

“Reputation be damned,” I retorted, with (I thought) an insouciance bordering on the debonair. “The creative juices must be satisfied.”

“Is that what they were, sir? Their identity was not immediately obvious.”

I dismissed my conscience, which can incline to the sniffy, and two months later I hit Command “S” for the last time, having composed a 50,000-word novel called Bertie Wooster and the Lizard King, in which Bertie, Jeeves, Gussie, Stiffy Byng, and the Rev. Harold “Stinker” Pinker, among others, take on a horde of zombies led by Sir Watkyn Bassett and Roderick Spode, a.k.a. The Lizard King—a specimen of utmost loathsomeness who threatens global domination. Feeling cocky, I decided to try my luck with the Wodehouse Literary Estate.

I’m fairly fatalistic about getting one’s work into print, which is no doubt a consequence of being a publisher myself. (In fact, I think it’s a mandatory quality for the book industry, right underneath “must be willing to work for nothing” on the job description.) Nonetheless, I wrote what I thought was a fairly persuasive letter, chock-full of bonhomie, stating that I was bringing PGW to a whole new audience, and was happy to split the royalties or give the money to charity, and so on and so forth. All I needed, I continued cheerily, was the thumbs up, and we were good to go. Off tootled said letter with the manuscript snugly contained inside.

The missive was addressed to Mr. Barrett Hobson at Widmerpool and Flatfoot, executors of the Wodehouse Estate—a dusty pile in Belgravia, where the only sounds amid the cavernous halls were the patient yet slightly censorious ticking of a grandfather clock and the shuffling of ancient retainers, padding about the joint fetching leaden tomes on copyright law and the occasional snifter for the hardworking legal eagles.

It was one such ancient r. who delivered—white gloves bearing a silver salver, naturally—my envelope to Mr. Hobson, who that day was to be found in his favorite nook in the Stuffington Library. He was encased in a chair so easy that the vice squad had been put on notice, quietly going about the essential business of refilling a burnished hickory pipe with some Old Virginian, and quaffing a restorative snootful.

It was evident to my fertile imagination that something was bothering “Hobby”—a feeling that the frisson that had once sped up his spine when asked to handle reprint rights, the catch in the throat when an anthology permission was requested, were no longer to be found. Not only had his ship sailed, he feared, but he wasn’t even onboard. Moreover, the passengers who’d gathered at the railings were waving at him with something less than fondness, and the words that drifted to the dockside from B Deck weren’t entirely kind.

A light “ahem” and a glinting tray awoke Hobby from his reverie and there was my discreetly addressed envelope. He was about to brush it away—it was all too late, too much had been lost—but a fibrillation of hope stayed his hand, an echo of forgotten opportunities sighing through the serried Proceedings of the Bar Association. He took the envelope, reached for the gilt-edged opener presented to him for twenty-five years (that long?!) of selfless service to Widmerpool and Flatfoot, and began to read.

Within minutes, Rumor sped through the venerable halls, and soon there emerged from the gloom scuttling servants and partners to huddle outside Swaffington’s imposing oak door. Either Mugsy the cat was in heat or Hobson—yes, even Hobson of the downcast mien and clouded brow—was laughing again. Cue general rejoicing, superannuated jigs for joy, and heavy shades thrown open to allow light and tears to stream once more down the shadowed corridors of the Wodehouse Estate.

Of course, it didn’t happen like that. Instead, Barrett Hobson cast a skeptical eye from the windows of Dimbleby and Dorrit that overlooked the Strand, and thoughtfully stroked his Ronald Colman mustache, wondering why Barbara Stanwyck—or a facsimile thereof—had never walked into his office to turn his life upside down. Instead, his colleague Fran, with her sharp a-line dress and severe command of grammar, strode through his ever-open door and tossed him my tastefully stamped envelope. “This is more your style,” she announced and marched out. There was a time, Hobson reflected mournfully, that the arrival of post addressed to him and him alone would have filled him with anticipation. Perhaps a BBC/WBUR Serial, or offers from a well-upholstered actor for audio rights. Now it was merely dread. He opened my envelope and started to read. Out of the depths, the Kraken of amusement stirred. A smile began to inch its way across his frozen features and the thin, sallow lips relaxed. Perhaps life wasn’t so bad after all.

No, it didn’t happen that way, either. In reality, there was no envelope, beautifully spelled or otherwise, but an email with the attachment of the manuscript that managed to avoid the filters for sexual supplements and pleadings from unjustly toppled African dictators to end its disinterested journey in the no-doubt multiply-foldered inbox of Peter Straus of the Wodehouse Estate. Unlike his fictional doppelganger, Straus appeared not to be transported, a conclusion I deduce from the following reply that arrived in my inbox a couple of days later:

Dear Martin Rowe
I shared your note with Sir Edward Cazalet.
I am afraid to say that the Wodehouse Estate categorically gives NO permission whatsoever for this usage at all. Please do not send me the manuscript and please do not pursue the idea.
Your faithfully
Peter Straus

Sir Edward Cazalet is the grandson of P. G. Wodehouse and a high court judge. But that is where my fevered imagination parted with reality. I saw him as an august, white-haired gentleman in his mid-seventies, possessed of a commanding nose, a withering gaze, and the bushiest eyebrows ever to grace Her Majesty’s bench. Sir Edward would have read Peter Straus’s email when it was delivered to him on a piece of crisp foolscap by his trusty secretary, Maud.

Sir Edward’s magisterial brow furrowed, his lips pursed, and an impatient forefinger tapped the mahogany desk behind which he was enthroned. Stern of manner, flinty of demeanor, and trenchant in sentencing though Sir Edward might have been, something didn’t seem quite right.

“Call Straus,” he rumbled into the intercom.

Soon enough, the telephone leapt to attention in the latter’s office—cutbacks long ago having forced him to forego the services of a secretary to answer it—and Straus heard the familiar but still intimidating bark of Sir Edward down the line.

“Now look here, Peter,” intoned Sir Edward, with the false chumminess that Straus found so irritating, “about this Rowe fellow. Completely understand you have to say no, and all that. But can’t you be a bit less . . . well, dashed unpleasant about it?”

“But Sir Edward . . . ,” Straus bleated. “Thin end of the wedge, I thought. . . .”

“That’s the trouble with you, Peter,” continued Sir Edward, not one for hearing more of a case than strictly necessary for a summary judgment. “Too much thinking in the old noodle. Never good for a man. Muddles things. Now you just send this Rowe fellow an e-thingy, and thank him profusely and say ‘Jolly well done, and glad you like PGW, but no can do, for obvious reasons, etc. etc.’ Got it?”

“Yes, Sir Edward.”

“Topping. OK. Carry on.”

There was a click and the phone went dead. A day or so later, another real email arrived:

Dear Martin Rowe
Sir Edward Cazalet has asked me to write to you to explain our position more fully and to apologise if my earlier e mail appeared a touch abrasive—especially as you may have spent much time enthusiastically involved with the work. Indeed I understand you may have gone to a lot of trouble to write this novel and would not want to dampen your ardour for the magnificent oeuvre that is PGW: however it is I am afraid our absolute unconditional policy that no one can plagiarise or imitate PGW whilst he is still in copyright. So you must not take our blanket position as representing any personal opinions about your work.
You will therefore understand when I state that this has always been our cast-iron policy in regard to any applicant, however brilliant, who may seek to step into Wodehouse’s literary shoes.
Best wishes
Peter Straus

So that was that. Except, as far as I was concerned, it wasn’t. I might not seek publication, but what was to stop me printing my book privately and disseminating it for free to all who might be interested? I produced one hundred copies, and placed the book on, where it sat alongside many sweaty bytes of heaving, pounding erotica. It had made its liberal acquaintance with five hundred readers when I received another email, this time from the promisingly named Andrew Boose of Davis Wright Tremaine, the U.S. branch of the Wodehouse literary estate, and an individual all too real:

Dear Mr. Rowe,
We are attorneys for the Trustees of the W. Somerset Maugham Trust, which owns all rights in the works of Somerset Maugham. It has recently been called to our clients’ attention that you have written and are distributing the above referenced work, which, as you have acknowledged, uses one or more of the characters created by Somerset Maugham, and which therefore constitutes a derivative work based on the Maugham works. As such it is an infringement of a significant number of copyrights owned by our clients. . . .
You must immediatedly [sic] withdraw the book and any portions thereof from the internet and from any means of distribution, and you must agree that it will not henceforth be distributed in any manner whatsoever. . . .
Until such actions have been taken and confirmed we must reserve our clients’ rights with regard to this matter.

I could see there was a major flaw in Mr. Boose’s argument, and unable to resist the trap I leapt in. I helpfully pointed out that I was ripping off P. G. Wodehouse and not Somerset Maugham, who was of no interest to me, since Anthony Burgess had made a perfectly decent fist of ad hominem satire in his widely published and admired Earthly Powers. In response to my email where I stated that “the work in question contains no references to, or characters from, any of the works of W. Somerset Maugham,” Mr. Boose sent me a reply:

Of course it doesn’t. We represent both the heirs of P. G. Wodehouse and the heirs of W. Somerset Maugham, and for some unknown reason I substituted the name Maugham for the name Wodehouse in the email I sent you. I apologize, and I am quite embarrassed. In any event, I will resend the email with the correct names, and I hope to hear from you soon after you receive it.

An honest mistake, you’d think. But in my imagination, the reason for “Snifter” Booser’s substitution was transparently obvious. It was incompetence of the highest order, and the man needed to be canned. He was a pencil-pushing Bartleby; a sniveling, pock-faced upstart on the lowest rung of the literary ladder, sending out misspelled, misapplied, and misbegotten emails, who wasn’t man enough to admit how wrong—how very wrong—he’d been. How dare he trample on self-evident literary genius, deny the world the gift of laughter and pleasure simply to satisfy his grubby, greasy-pole-climbing ambition?

As promised, I got the email with P. G. Wodehouse find-and-replaced in, and I ceased and desisted. I could, of course, rewrite Bertie Wooster and the Lizard King with changed names, altered dialogue, and no reference to other plots, but that would only remove what little Joy remains in the project, shove her in front of a brick wall, and shout “Fire” to the assembled and legally armed, if wholly fictitious Andrew Booses of this world. As to the book: If it is present in the world at all, it is only because it makes an excellent coaster.

(By way of an update, the Wooster literary estate has decided to get in on the plagiarism act by commissioning Sebastian Faulks to pen his own Wooster novel—to mixed reviews. Apparently, the Wodehouse estate wanted to bring Wodehouse “to a younger readership.” The obvious question, therefore, is: Who is copying who?)

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Much as I might wish otherwise, I am not perfect. (Say it ain’t so, I hear you cry.) As a publisher, I’ve brought into print titles that contained typos and errors of fact, that could have used more editing or more time and, certainly, more marketing before they came mewling into this world. As an editor, I’ve cut where I shouldn’t and not cut where I should, and let solecisms slide and participles dangle. As a writer, I’ve allowed a certain facility at writing to gloss over complexities that required more thought and less veneer, and have polished prose to such a high varnish that what’s revealed is superficial sheen and not the grain of consequential thought.

One unfortunate tendency I possess is to overuse the conjunctive adverb: moreover, furthermore, however, nevertheless, likewise, and so on. In moderation, the conjunctive adverb usefully knits sentences and paragraphs together, smoothing the flow of prose and binding the text’s argument. Used too often, the conjunctive adverb begins to weigh the prose down, making it pedestrian and overly explicative. In short, when employed at the start of each paragraph, the conjunctive adverb reveals an argument’s seams, allowing the reader not so much to follow the thread as to pick it apart.

In some fashion, overuse of the conjunctive adverb represents a failure of nerve, a refusal to trust that the reader will understand that juxtaposed sentences either reinforce or contradict each other without the need for the literary equivalent of a finger wagging in their direction. The tic is also a residue of a belief cherished by writers that, to be effective, “fine” writing must possess a high rhetorical color: the stentorian conjunctive adverb provides that dab of scarlet, azure, or aquamarine in an otherwise monochromatic verbal depiction. The skill lies in knowing when to stop bedaubing the canvas. Beware of conjunctive-itis!

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Tell Me a Story (Part 2)

When I think about it, writing a book is a lot like being like Coleridge‘s Ancient Mariner. The reader is the wedding guest, a guy who’s got his mind on much more fun things than to listen to your story, and who’s very resistant when you collar him and demand that he pay attention.

Your task as a writer, your curse if you will, is to grab the reader and hold him or her, if not literally, then with an arresting opening (“There was a ship”) and then not let go. As the poem attests, you can take the reader far afield from their usual experiences, but you’ve also got to go deep into the story and character. You’ve got to make them care about your protagonists and feel the protagonists’ struggle is theirs. The protagonist or the message may be complicated or unsympathetic. It may be literally incredible or fanciful. You can kill the lead character, you can weigh the protagonist down with guilt and horror, you can speak of the unspeakable and break any amount of rules and leave the reader feeling storm-tossed or becalmed. But you cannot betray their trust in the story-telling: you keep looking them in the eye and say, “Bear with me. The journey is not over yet. We will eventually get home.”

The result, if you do it right? Your reader will be a “sadder and a wiser” individual. That’s not to say your work has to be sad or wise; it doesn’t have to be as phantasmagoric or allegorical as the Rime. But the reader has got to feel the weight and satisfaction of a story coming to an end, that sense of having been taken some place else, the border-crossing between the land of your imagination and the mundane world in sight. And you have to do it each time, with every wedding guest. That is your obligation as the writer: to “travel the world” for the rest of your life trying to get people’s attention, grabbing one in three, or one in three hundred, and attempting to stop them from entering their much more attractive entertainments to hear your own. There was a ship.

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Tell Me a Story (Part 1)

Having accentuated the negative in a previous post about submitting a manuscript to Lantern, I thought it might be advisable to give some idea to would-be authors of what a successful manuscript might look like in my particular eyes.

First off, being a compulsive teller of tall tales, I like a story: I like characters, I like plot, and I like being taken from one state of mind to another (without the use of intoxicants). That doesn’t mean the tale has to be simple: the characters can be complex, the plot can be full of twists and turns, and my journey doesn’t have to be linear. But I like to feel that the author is being arcane and willful for a reason, and I’ll receive a good payoff at the end: that “Aha! I get where this was all going now” moment as you close your book and stare into space and feel that your life, if only for a moment, has just been transformed.

All of this is hard to pull off successfully, even though it’s relatively simple to establish the outlines. In non-fiction, you’re probably saying to yourself, it seems impossible. Yet, as far as I’m concerned, the skills required for one are applicable to the other. The best prose stylists, in my judgment, use examples grounded in reality. They allow the facts and interviewees/characters to speak for themselves. They give us a feel for the places where the events take place; and they coax us into agreeing with them rather than bludgeoning us over the head with their conclusions. They resist abstractions; they minimize hortatory paragraphs demanding this or urging that; and they recognize the explanatory and emotive value of detail, incident, and context. They zero in to provide color, dispense aperçus rather than sweeping generalizations, and cultivate an intimate tone and voice rather than the thundering rhetoric of the keynote speaker at an outdoor rally. Reading’s suasive power is subtle, interior, and personal. Your audience will only tolerate so much yelling in their ears before they walk away.

In short, tell me a story. Do the same, and you might just get published at Lantern.

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