Monday, October 14, 2013

Editing, Reading, Writing, All That Jazz

I’ve been reading/skimming a lot of novels lately. Frankly I’ve always been an obsessive reader (as in, who needs sleep, food, showers, or fresh air when you have books?).* But lately I’ve been doing a lot more analyzing—something I rarely did in the past. (Which lack is not an impressive quality in an author-to-be. Which is not even remotely the point of this blog post.)

The point is that I’ve started noticing some things about a large number of these books—many of which have been self-published. Let me first say that I think self-publishing is wonderful in so many ways. This is by no means a disparagement of self-publishing. However, I have noticed that many of these particular books that I’ve been reading bear a few unfortunate commonalities.

The biggest of these is problems with story elements that simply don’t make sense, that never get explained clearly—things that are obviously a big deal to the characters but that I just don’t understand. For example, I recently read a novel in which the main character is cursed (in rhyming couplet and all). But the curse is so confusing that I never actually understood the peril, even after the character theoretically figured it out. In another novel, I couldn’t understand what the main character thought he was saving the world from.

Here’s what I think happened: It all made sense in the author’s head. It was perfectly clear. But somewhere between the brain and the keyboard, some of it just got lost, or muddled, or twisted around until it no longer made sense for a reader.

Now, I am a copyeditor. If you haven’t heard me mention that yet, here you go: I copyedit. I pick up the tiny details that no sane people care about (like smart quotes vs. straight quotes—oh how it burns me). This is useful stuff for an author. It means my manuscripts (once I have actually worked on them sufficiently) are quite clean overall. Of course I miss things; I’m human. But grammatically and punctuationally,** my work tends to be in good shape.***

So, onto my point.

Being a copyeditor isn’t good enough to make a good manuscript. It requires someone else to look at your book—someone else who hasn’t been swimming through it for the past many moons, someone who knows only what is there on the page. This is something every writer needs. This is why agents and editors exist (well, among other stuff). This is what self-published authors must get as well.
Last week I heard about this giveaway at Portable Magic Editing. What a great way to get started. Sign up, ye authors! Sign up! (Or maybe don’t, because that decreases my chances of winning.)

We authors need someone to tell us when we’re writing nonsense. Someone other than our angry readers.

* I both love and fear that I gave this obsession to my older daughter. Oh the pride that shines in my eyes when I see her walking in from the car, to the dinner table, and off to her bedroom carrying a book and reading as she walks. I remember those days so well (probably because they were just yesterday). Sadly, she has not yet developed the talent of looking where she’s going at the same time.

** Do you love how I’ve just told you I’m great with words and now I proceed to make them up?

*** Now I’m going to be severely embarrassed when it turns out I made some particularly dumb mistake in this post. Oh well.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Book Review: Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus

The Night CircusI was only maybe two or three chapters into this book when I realized that there was something magical about the book itself, not just the story within it. It took me a while to figure out what made the book so dreamlike and lovely. So far it certainly wasn’t the storyline—in the first several chapters we are treated primarily to an abusive/bordering-on-murderous father, a suicide, an incredibly out-of-place vulgarity,* and another father figure who adopts an orphan only to prepare him to fight to the death. So, not a lot of loveliness there.

But there are two hints that pull you through the ugliness of the opening story. The first is the opener, a truly brilliant page that uses the second person POV (“you do this, you do that”). It is an invitation to enter the Cirque des RĂªves (the Circus of Dreams) and come see for yourself, and it works like a magnet, pulling you in.

The other hint was something I had a hard time quantifying at first. There was something in the quality of the writing that made it beautiful, but it’s not as if there were many particularly beautiful sentences or paragraphs that I could point to. Eventually I decided that it felt like the cadence of the writing, the rhythm of the words, a little like a gentle lullaby or the soft rocking of a boat on calm water. It was like that quiet space of time before you fall asleep and dream, where your mind is suggestible and everything seems possible.

To me, that dreamy cadence is what made this whole novel work so well—beyond the fantastical world of the circus and the romance of the story, either of which would have made the book a success on its own. But it was that strange and lovely rhythm that made the book magic.

I would totally go to this circus.**

A side note: My book club met to discuss it, and we dressed in black and white with a splash of red, just like the fans of the circus. We ate black and white and red themed foods (which was really hard, by the way—there aren’t a lot of nondessert items that are really black or white). I lit cinnamon- and vanilla-scented candles and darkened lights, and I wished I could have hired a contortionist (okay, not really). It’s a good book club book, and it lends itself very much toward sensory experiences.

A content note: I’ve already revealed pretty much all the negative content. There is a little more violence, as well, but it is not graphic and does not glorify the violence. The only other content concern is a short, nongraphic sex scene. You can see it coming a mile away and easily skip the page.

* I recognize that in the writing world, I’m a bit of a prude. But even setting that aside, this particular swear word was so out of place in the story. It felt like a definite misstep for pure (and pointless) shock value. It was so jarring, so wrong for the diction, the setting, and even the character that I had to look it up to see when the word first came into use. It did, indeed, originate before the setting of this story, so at least it wasn’t anachronistic, but it still didn’t fit. There are so few critiques that I have to offer for this story, but I really think this one was a mistake.
** Plus, it doesn’t have clowns.