Friday, October 24, 2008

Literary amplification: Creating bigger characters in NON-fiction

Drawing bigger characters in fiction is standard advice. Yet we academic nonfiction writers often forget that we're working with characters, too! In fact, every one of us is a character if we exist in the mind of another. All we are is cartoons in each other's brains, and often inaccurate ones at that. So if you're writing about someone who really lived, the challenges are in many senses the same. The only major difference is that you're dealing with a chronology and a world picture that you can't alter at will (although you can to a certain extent by choosing what to tell, what to leave out, and how to tell it, and therein lies great art), and you are stuck with what the person is known to have done and said... you don't invent it. But after that initial difference, the crafts become so similar.

My book is primarily about a woman, but I'm also writing a bit in one chapter about her father, who died in the late 1600s. He appears so faint to us now, hundreds of years away, so I'm using the tools of fiction to magnify him. It's like literary amplification -- adding color and sound where there was none previously to bring a once-vivid character back to life. Is it fiction? No -- he really lived, and I'm doing my best to work with the facts of his life as we know them. But it will benefit from many of the tools that make good fiction so fun to read.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A response to common writerly advice

If I hear one more writing teacher at one more conference say "murder your darlings," I'm going to commit a crime! Seriously, it's terrible advice, but it gets repeated over and over again simply because Faulkner or Elmore Leonard or Fitzgerald or somebody Important was supposed to have said it. It is unwise counsel from the same blather machine that gave us the Worship of Hemingway Style (spare, muscular prose, or at least supposedly so), and the Church of Strunk and White (a.k.a. "How to write like a terse New Englander").

Because of this proliferating nonsense, authors with glorious, Gothic, indulgent, magnificent passages set to work paring them back to leaner stuff that is a repudiation of everything that makes that particular author wonderful. Don't even get me started on writers' workshops where these same energetic authors go in with their own voices and come out parroting MFA program product.

I'll offer a counter-bit of advice. Nurture your darlings. If you love a passage, keep it! Lean into your own writerly indulgences, and enjoy them. Give yourself shivers, and then thrill when your readers get them, too. And don't listen to too many gurus at writers' worshops or conferences. If anyone ever gives you advice that makes you either feel depressed or like you did something wrong with your work, just blow them a kiss and walk away.

Indulge yourself, your subconscious, your impulses, your dreams . . . all on the page, all wonderful, all alive. And leave the best bits for me to read -- don't edit them out, please!

The courage to re-write, and even to re-think

Writing can feel overly precious at times. When you craft a passage you're fond of, letting it go or allowing yourself to re-think it can feel almost sacrilegious. Adrianna fell in love with a two-chapter sequence in her most recent book, but she also understood that they really should be combined into one leaner chapter. The first reason was balance -- if she devotes two chapters to one period in the life of the 19th century author she's writing about, that will inaccurately indicate to the reader that this period of the author's life is of outsized importance, and it isn't. The second reason was pacing. Although Adrianna loved her longer passages that detailed minutiae in the author's world, she also knows that readers by definition usually care less. She has devoted her life now to writing this book, but they are doing her a favor by giving her a few hours of their lives, and she can't take advantage of that by boring them, or they'll walk away.

So she combined the two chapters into one, and pared it down by fourteen pages. That felt painful at first, but she is comfortable with what's gone, and it passed a crucial test: upon re-reading, she didn't miss any of it.

The chapter still doesn't "work," however. It's not badly written, but it needs vigor and coherence. It needs pacing. I've advised her to lay it aside for now and move on to the next one, with the promise to herself that she'll return to fix it when it feels fresh again. She may have to consider actually re-writing part of it, or even re-thinking it at a fundamental level. Although words can feel inevitable or unchangeable once you've written them (Alastair Fowler said they tend to harden, like concrete hardens, if you write too soon), they're just words. You can re-state, scrap and start over, try fresh approaches, anything! And the re-write is usually faster than the original, because your mind now knows what it wants to say, so it's simply a matter of stating it in an engaging and accessible way.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Who will create your book's index?

Few scholarly authors think about the humble index, but it is a vital aspect of any book, and one that can become a serious issue in the later stages of publication. Indexing is a craft, not simply a clerical task, and people who index well can also bring it to the level of an art. Most people think of a too-skimpy index as the main problem, but in reality an overly inclusive one is worse. If an index leads you to every mention of a person or a thing, you'll be flipping back and forth in the book with little sense of the intellectual content behind each reference. A good index takes you where you need to go and makes sure you find every substantive instance in proper context, but without sending you to inconsequential mentions, low-content footnotes, etc.

Indexes cost money, and unless your university press contract specifically states that the press will pay for and provide an index, then you can be assured that the index is your responsibility. Can you create your own? Probably not; it is enormously time-consuming and it requires the above-mentioned professional skills. Also, it can only be created when the book is in galleys and the pagination absolutely will not change, which means you can't just press a button on your computer and make it happen from manuscript (that wouldn't work for other reasons as well... there is no such thing as a push-button indexing program and in many ways there can't be). I strongly recommend working with an experienced indexer, and expecting to pay about $4.50 per typeset page.

The secret to a good index is to initiate the conversation with your publisher early so that you know what is expected, review others from the same publisher so you get a sense of the preferred style, and ask for some names. Then do some research on your own, perhaps contacting other university presses to find out who they use. At Booklab we have certain indexers we love and use, but they tend to be trade secrets because we don't want them to become overwhelmed with other people's projects and have no time for ours. Your publisher may feel the same way, so look in the back of trade publications as well to see who advertises book indexing services. Insist on a list of books they have already successfully indexed, look at those books, and also contact the book's editor to see how it was working with that indexer.

Indexing experiences run all the way from heaven to hades and back again. You can make your experience a heavenly one if you plan ahead, do your provider research long before you need the indexer, and budget your money (you will almost always have to pay for this if you did not get an advance for your book, and especially if you paid a subvention). This blog post is also my word of appreciation to professional book indexers. Thank you for the important work that you do!