Just a had a guest post on editing published on the Book Elves blog. This is probably one of my favorite blog posts I’ve written. Enjoy.
This week I was on vacation in the D.C. area, and happened upon a book signing by someone who had some very prime real estate. By which I mean, the book was about fighter pilots, and he was standing in front of the gift shop at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. I was interested in the book, until I took a closer look and discovered that the summary on the dust jacket was riddled with typos – I caught three or four in about fifteen seconds. A minute or two later (after the author was done talking to me), I said, “I’ll think about it,” and I walked away.
- Proofreading – When you’re self-publishing your book, don’t hire a proofreader, hire seven. For the last book I edited, I performed 3 substantive edits and then hired a copy-editor, a pre-layout proofreader, 3 post-layout proofreaders, and 4 post-proofreading volunteer proofreaders. And they all caught different things. So spending the money on proofreading is absolutely worth it.
- Ellipsis - An ellipsis is three dots in a row: “…” So many self-published books will have their ellipses look like this: “I stood there … and waited … .” And it’s actually dead wrong. This error is supported by the fact that if you type in three dots in Microsoft Word, it will transform into a single ellipsis character. So although you typed this: “…” Microsoft Word is giving you this: “…”. You may not be able to tell the difference, but when you start playing with font types and spacing in between words (as in the example above), it starts to matter. The correct way to do it, according to Chicago style (which is used for most books, excluding academic publications), is to insert spaces between the periods, with an extra period before or after if it’s marking the end of a sentence: “This is right . . . as is this . . . . These are the right ways to do it. . . .” The distinction between the second and third examples (i.e., whether you include a space after the last letter in the sentence) is subtle, but basically it’s determined by whether the sentence is trailing off before the pause happens, or whether the sentence ends normally, and is then followed by a hesitation. It’s important to note that spacing it like this will likely result in occasions where a line breaks in the middle of your ellipsis. You correct this by forcing the line break either before or after the ellipsis. Which is why you should hire a professional to do your interior layout.
- Em-dashes, en-dashes, and hyphens - In my first book, a parenthetical phrase was offset by a space, an en-dash, and then another space, like this: “When we first started south – the direction of the mountain – the slope was quite shallow.” But this is incorrect. First, for the uninitiated, a few definitions:Hyphen: -
Em-dash: —See the difference? An en-dash is the width of an “n”, an em-dash the width of an “m,” which is why they’re called those things. Now, here’s how they’re used: A hyphen joins two words into a compound word: The well-made play, a low-budget movie, etc. An en-dash joins two numbers: He won by a score of 41–38, this school is for 12–16 year olds, etc. An em-dash (without spaces!) offsets a parenthetical: “When we first started south—the direction of the mountain—the slope was quite shallow.”
- Spacing after periods - One space after a period. Not two. If you type with two spaces after a period, get out of the habit now, because it’s wrong. “But why?!” You ask. “When I learned how to type, it was always two spaces after a period!” Well, the only reason you say that is because you (a) learned to type on a typewriter, or (b) learned to type from someone else who learned on a typewriter. Here’s your history lesson: For hundreds of years, typography has dictated one space after a period. But when the typewriter was invented, since it technologically has to move the same distance every time you strike a key, they had to create a special font where all letters were the same width. This led to the invention of Courier and other monotype fonts. Suddenly, an “m” and an “n” were the same width, as was an “i” and a period. This made it harder to distinguish between sentences, so people started adding in extra spaces, making it easier to read.But even thenm at the height of typewriter usage, when someone’s typewritten manuscript was turned into a bound book, the typesetter used a proportional font (where the letters are all different widths), and would remove the extra space after the period, displaying everything the way they had done for centuries (and the way that, quite frankly, looks better).
These are the big ones that I see on a regular basis. Don’t let these sorts of things be the reason someone just “thinks about” buying it. Correct them now, and have them know they’re going to buy it.
No, this post isn’t about selling out as a writer. And it’s not about sleeping your way to the top, either. It’s about procrastination.
“What?” I hear you ask. “What does procrastination have to do with principles or values?” I’m glad you asked.
Three times a week I have a conversation with my business coach where I make promises for the next time I see him. If I don’t keep my promises, I pay more … but none of the money goes to him. And last week was an expensive week. So naturally, there was a lot for us to talk about.
He pointed out that I don’t break my word when it comes to, say, not cheating on my wife. But when it comes to some lame-ass task that “needs” to be done, my word suddenly doesn’t mean much anymore. In other words, I have principles and values that have me honor my word in certain areas of my life, but not in others.
So I started looking at that. Where are the places that I honor my word religiously? Where don’t I honor my word, and what am I honoring instead, in those moments?
I’ve started a list:
- Enjoying life
- Honoring and respecting relationships
- Being admired
- Being an inspiration
- Providing value
- Not screwing people (I’m trying to come up with a way to say this that isn’t a negative, but right now this is what I got)
Any time I don’t honor my word in one place, it’s usually because it was supplanted by another one of my values (read: enjoying life). What’s powerful about this is that now, in those moments when I don’t want to do x, I can look to this list and stand in something that will have me do it.
My game right now is to be an inspiration in my career. And standing there (and refining my structures), I’ve been much more reliable for my word in the days since.
So what does this have to do with procrastination? Create your values, which would have you honor your word. Have them be real – look not just the values you “should” have, but also look at the ones that actually run the show, so you can be responsible for when they’re providing value, rather than just getting in the way.
When you do that, you may notice that procrastination, or whatever it is you’re dealing with, will start to become much easier to manage.
This is a common conversation among writers, though I don’t think they fight that battle any more than the average joe – it’s just more pronounced for us, since we have to solve it ourselves, rather than having someone come down our throats to make us get things done.
Tonight at 10/9c on NBC Smash premieres. And if you can’t wait, you can watch it right now on Hulu. Which you might want to do, because OMG beaver nuggets, this is a good one. Katherine McPhee exudes every iota of hometown innocence with jaw-gaping sexuality that you could want from an actress playing an actress playing Marilyn Monroe. The script oozes with conflict, thanks to the big egos and emotional decisions that go into this kind of subject matter, and it’s dripping with subtext, thanks in no small part to the manipulative (but very believable) villain. And although musicals always run the risk of coming off as cheesy (see Why I’m Giving Up on Glee), this one uses the music exactly as its designed: to further the story and to heighten the emotional stakes when dialogue just isn’t enough. The cheese is meant to be there, and the rest hits right at the emotional core.
I always get excited when I see shows that revolve around the entertainment industry. They always seem to have an extra spark, because the people making it really know what the hell they’re talking about, and they really care about it. And as someone who works in the industry, I get it. Of course, the same thing that appeals to me about these showbiz TV-shows – that I get what they’re talking about – may be the reason why they don’t always do so well. Studio 60 was awesome, but was doomed to a single season, mostly because the audience just didn’t quite appreciate it to the same level.
So let’s give it some love, and give Smash the opening night it deserves.
About a year ago I sat down with Owen Egerton, author of The Book of Harold, co-writer of the 2008 Black List screenplay Bobbie Sue, and Austin’s favorite author in 2007, 2008, and 2010. It was a great interview, but I got caught up in trying to transcribe the whole thing before uploading it, which was just a terrible idea. So here, a year late, is that most excellent interview about the life and art of being a writer.
For those that would prefer to read the abridged version, below are some highlights from the interview.
One of my writing instructors, Debra Monroe had said that as humans we want to often avoid conflict, but as writers we need to make conflict happen. Take two people that you’d never wanted them to meet, you’d never put them in the same room, you’d never invite them to the same dinner party, and force them together and see what happens. I find when I do that in writing, eventually they form some kind of family. Or they kill each other. But more often than not, they form some kind of family which of course slowly kills each other.
On the Role of Fiction
I find that the role of fiction is to expand the questions and to expand the mystery, not to pat ourselves on the back for our own opinions. There’s fiction out there that does that, that says, “Gosh, I think that was injust as well, I’m so glad that I got to see this movie that made me feel good about my own opinion. Racism is bad! I agree with the hero of the movie!” Sometimes what we need more is something that troubles us, something that takes us a place we don’t necessarily expect to go and leaves us there with some questions.
Working in comedy, there was always the need to collaborate, and always collaboration led to something better and grander than I could have come up with on my own. The analogy I used to use is like children playing blocks in kindergarten and each of the kids is only given so many blocks, and they all want to build a tower, each tower can only be seven blocks tall. But if the kids start working together, stacking each other blocks, then you’ve got a huge tower over twenty blocks tall. It’s a tower none of them could have built on their own. And that’s what I find when it comes to improv, or shows at the Alamo, or working with Chris and Russell, we collaborate in such a way, and we say, “Yes and” to each other’s ideas in such a way, and we’re loose enough with our own ideas that eventually a script comes out that there’s no way I could have written on our own.
There’s an interesting danger that happens in screenwriting where you’ve been working on a comedy script, and sometimes it can be a year that you’re working on it, and there’s some joke that’s still funny but you have to recognize that it’s funny because it doesn’t seem funny anymore. You have to have a craftsman’s eye for comedy, as opposed to a connoisseur’s eye.
On Instant Gratification
I was writing a novel which I knew was years away from being done, and longer away from being in print. At the same time I was writing sketches that I knew I could show my sketch group on Monday, we could rehearse it on Wednesday, perform it on Friday, and I was thinking, “This is immediate gratification.” And improv is even faster. I’ve gotta be careful, because I really want to do the novel, but I’m getting so much gratification immediately if I come up with something funny on stage.
On Job Security
I have some friends who have said, “Well, I don’t want to make the risk of going into being a full time artist,” whether that’s as a performing artist or as a writing artist, or whatever, “because I need the security of a job.” But if anything can be learned from the last few years of recession it’s that those secure jobs are not secure, and that’s a false security.
The advantage, I think, is the way these different genres of expression play off each other. The playfulness with which I approach improv comedy very much affects the way I approach the storyline of a novel or short story. Also my understanding of novel story structure has really helped me when I go to a screenplay. So I find they all bleed into each other and improve each other for the most part.
On Raising Children
There’s a greater gift to give our children than financial stability. There’s an example of striving to live a full life. There is the adventure of taking steps and not knowing where your foot’s going to land.
I’m pretty cheerful, but I don’t know that I’d call myself an optimist. I’m pretty disappointed in a lot of the world around me, and I see life can be a pretty dark, dark experience. But with all of that, I guess maybe you’d describe me as a pessimist with hope. That’s why I smile.
That’s it. I’m officially giving up on Glee. Although Season 2 sucked me in with it’s sitcomesque humor but dramaesque structure, and the fact that literally every song they cover seems to be better than the original, the impotence of the writing in Season 3 has left me bored, frustrated, and irritated.
Specifically, there are two things I’m reacting to:
- Plot Holes: As a musical, and as a TV show, there’s always an extent to which we suspend disbelief. The fact that there’s always a band ready to play every song is amusing, but it’s not something that bothers anyone who isn’t a douchebag. That’s not what I’m talking about here. Remember the episode that followed the Super Bowl last year? It involved a series of football games, where the players did things that people never do in football games. Like, for example, taking a shotgun snap when you have the lead in the final 30 seconds and are supposed to be in victory formation. They might have gotten away with it if we hadn’t just watched the biggest football game of the year. That was Season 2, and at the time I was willing to overlook plot holes like this, because I was absorbed by everything else. But this year there just seems to be so damn much of it. I’m talking about Sue Sylvester running for office against nine opponents, and then later in the election it turns out she’s running only against one. I’m talking about the fact that she loses that election to a write-in candidate. I’m talking about Sugar Motta being rejected from the Glee Club, which forms the entire basis for the season’s conflict, only to be welcomed in with open arms (and narry a word about her lack of talent) after the Trebletones lose at Sectionals.Any one of these by themselves I’d be able to overlook, but adding them all up it just bugs the crap out of me. It’s just plain lazy writing.
- Unsupported Character Changes: EVERY. ONE. Always. Comes. Around. And. Does. The. “Right.” Thing. EVERYONE. I love Blaine, and I’m super happy he’s part of the regular cast, but who leaves an expensive private school so they can be closer to their high school boyfriend? Michael Chang’s father, who hasn’t spoken to him in weeks, suddenly, after a pretty lame conversation, decides to come see him perform (not even his best performance), give a standing ovation, and then completely change his tune? I don’t think so. Finn and Rachel, in a five minute conversation with Trouty Mouth manages to convince him to give up the money he’s earning and come back to Ohio? And then he convinces his parents in another five minute conversation? Oh, come the f*** on. These are major life changes we’re talking about here, and I understand that these things happen in TV shows, but again, it seems like every five minutes someone is doing a complete 180 that changes either their whole character or their whole life.
So, for those reasons, I am officially ending my relationship with Glee. You had me for a full season, which is better than most. But it’s time for us to part.
I’ve finished Postville. Sort of. Since today is the deadline for two of the festivals I’m submitting it to, I’ve submitted it. But I’m still cleaning up a thing or two here, a thing or two there, as the deadlines for several other contests come up over the next couple of months. But I’m suddenly really anxious about it.
Winning a screenwriting contest has slightly better odds than winning the lottery, but not by much. And given that, you’re a fool if that’s your plan for retirement. So what, then?
I have contacts in the industry. Nobody who greenlights tentpole projects, but I do know some working writers, and some agents, and some lawyers, and some indie producers, and I’m terrified that if I send this to them they’re going to tell me I’m a hack. I don’t think that’s going to happen. No one at the reading said it sucked, and this particular group isn’t known for holding back on its criticism. I think at worst they’ll say “You have potential,” or perhaps “It didn’t really grab me in the first few pages,” or “It started off well but . . .”.
But is it really the next great thing? I don’t know.
I recognize this feeling. It’s a lot like the one you get after the end of a play’s run, or the one I got after I was done walking across the Alps. The best thing for it is to hop on another project. Feed the addiction.
It’s time to start another project.
A couple weeks ago I saw this article from Thought Catalog that included the line, “Being a poor writer sounded kind of romantic to me when I was, say, 18 years old. . . . It becomes less romantic when you’re 30 and can’t afford to buy a soda . . . .” I’d never felt so recreated in my life. Except that this whole conversion pisses me off. Doesn’t that turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy? The man who sold hot dogs? Doesn’t it make it okay to be poor, when really, that’s just something somebody made up because somebody failed at something sometime down the line?
I have a lot of evidence for being someone who has the potential to make it in the entertainment industry. My acting resume has a lot of lead roles, and a supporting role on stage in the West End. Last year, I was selected to co-author the follow-up to a New York Times bestseller. (Project still pending . . . .) In 2006, I was paid to develop an animated sitcom for a company in New York.
But you know what I didn’t do when that company in New York cut me my first check? I didn’t say, “Hey, this company is paying me for the creative writing I’m doing … I should go find more creative writing opportunities to get paid to do. Instead, I went, “Hey, I should start a career as a freelance writer and editor and write a whole bunch of Web content and edit people’s nonfiction books.
Where the hell did that come from?
It’s not that I don’t enjoy ghost writing or editing books, because I do. It’s just that I wonder why on earth I decided to become the sell-out version of what I really wanted to be, when I could’ve taken the creative route. That’s where I’m headed now, but I no longer have that “buffer,” that something to fall back on and an opportunity to spend six months failing before getting a job at the Kwik-E-Mart to make ends meet.
So to all you poor starving writers out there, screw the poor starving part and decide that you’re a rich, successful writer. Let’s see how that turns out.
Yours truly just had a guest post on the blog Procrastinating Writers. Check it out.