Literary Hub (coming April 8)

I agree there’s a need for the kind of site described below. Bring it on!

LITERARY HUB

There is more great literary content out there than ever—but it is scattered across the Web. Literary Hub brings it together in one place, a go-to daily source for all the news, ideas, and richness of contemporary literary life. With the help of its partners—a cross-section of the best in contemporary literary publishing—Literary Hub will feature original and curated content about books and the people who write them, read them, love them.

http://lithub.com

http://www.wsj.com/articles/literary-hub-is-a-new-home-for-book-lovers-1423169915

“Her,” and the stubborn keyboard

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Her

My wife and I finally got around to watching Spike Jonze’s “Her” the other night. The preview looked so awkward to me that I avoided it in the theaters (not that I seem to require an excuse not to get out to the movies these days), but I like Jonze and really admire Phoenix (such an odd duck, but I find him riveting), and the reviews were really strong, so we dialed it up via iTunes.

Capsule-capsule review: I thought it was a fine, funny, moving, very weird film. But I want to talk about the movie’s vision of our near-ish techno future, specifically the notion that keyboards appear to have vanished. Characters interact with their operating systems, at home and on the go, by simply talking, and hear back from them (in the Phoenix character’s case, via the super-charming voice of Scarlett Johansson) through a single earplug and a elegant little device that looks like miniature cigarette case.

Eager as I am to jettison my keyboard (not as eager as I used to be, before figuring out how to handle the tendonitis in my elbows), I don’t think voice recognition alone is going to do it. I could see it working for interacting with your phone (though Siri’s pretty underwhelming, from what I’ve seen), but not for getting any kind of work done. Especially my kind of work.

It matters how words look on the page, for one thing. Though maybe it doesn’t have to matter. I’ve been getting a lot of my pleasure reading done via audiobooks, and I have no idea how those words fall on the page. Everything is voice and story, and it’s a great, habit-forming experience. But will we ever get to the point at which we’ll just listen to stories? I don’t think so, if only because it takes a good deal longer to listen to a book than it does to read it, and I can’t see us devoting more time to reading. The larger point is that it’s just a different experience, ingesting words that way. Readers’ brains love and crave the activity of taking in printed text.

keyboard

Back to the stubborn keyboard: When my elbows were barking, I was forced to experiment pretty extensively with voice recognition software. Even just during the few years I used it, the technology improved a ton. Last time I dabbled in it (during my last elbow-pain relapse, three years or so ago), the new version learned my voice almost right out of the box. Very, very few errors. And yet, just about all I could compose with it were emails and some other business-related text. I know Richard Powers and others spill out whole, fat novels via voice recognition, but I was way too self-conscious, too easily distracted by the sound of my own voice to compose more than a paragraph or two of fiction. I’m a writer, not an orator or performer. I hear my voice “composing” something, and I can’t stop thinking, What the hell do you know? That’s Dave’s voice there, not the voice of whatever character or narrator I’m trying to bring to life. Editing was even more problematic. Way too cumbersome, having to call out commands to select and replace text or punctuation. I got all tangled up.

And yet the keyboard does feel anachronistic to me, even as I tap away on it. Something will replace it. I just can’t imagine what that might be. To work for me to write or edit, I think it’d somehow have to patch directly into my thoughts–and that would probably be dangerous as hell.

What’s bad for business is good for Dave

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I love staying put during holiday weekends.

Need to drive somewhere? The road’s open. The city shrinks to its actual size. We’ve taken four trips to the airport in the past 10 days, and every one of them was a breeze. Biking through the neighborhoods is such a quiet business, you can just listen for vehicular traffic as you glide along.

Bad news for business owners, I know, but damn it’s nice to just walk into a popular restaurant or pub and know you’ll get a table. Setting up in this morning’s coffee shop (Caffe Fiore in Ballard; yes, that’s my finger nudging into the frame on the left), I had my pick of tables.caffefiore

Especially bad news for pal Shea Wilson, co-owner of the U District’s College Inn Pub, but I especially like pedaling over to the University of Washington in the summer to take advantage of all that great space to work (on and off campus).

The clock’s running down on my 15-minute blog-burst. I was going to say something about how my love of relatively deserted urban spaces has infiltrated my writing. Now must just report that I’ve recently realized that summer holiday-vacated Seattle factors into four of my current novel-in-progress’s seven sections.

The Death of Pleasure Reading

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It’s all but died for me.

There. I said it.

And it’s because of the job that I love (and know very well I’m lucky to have).

Back when I commuted to downtown Seattle or the Eastside, I cursed the bus ride but regularly logged in 30 minutes of reading twice a day, five days a week. In those days, I read about 30 books a year. I know that because I keep a list of the books I read…no wait, that’s a lie. Before I became a book editor (the job that I love and am lucky to have) I kept such a list. Now it would be far too depressing.

Now that I edit about 30 books a year (each of which I read all the way through twice, once purely as a reader and then as an editor), I read maybe ten on my own.

Maybe.

At the end of a working day, it takes determination I can rarely muster to plop down with more text to consume. Even if it’s text I know I’ll love. Or would love, if my brain’s text-consuming gears weren’t stripped.

Thank God for Scotch

Yeah, I’m about as happy with that header as I thought I’d be.

What I mean by it: I’m in a Scotch Group that is also a book group. The uppercase and lowercase letters in that sentence are intentional. We are a group of nine or ten men who gather every couple of months to sample each other’s scotch, eat scotch-appropriate foods (heavy on the meat and cheese), and jabber on. Almost incidentally, we also discuss a book at each meeting.

Before a pretty well-known and very energetic novelist joined up last year (he’s a neighbor of a long-time member), our discussions were often…no, were almost always flat-out incidental. Sometimes…no, almost always we would devote more time to discussing soccer or politics or Natalie Portman (something of a group fetish) than we would to discussing the book. No more. Now we’re up to as much as a half hour of book-discussion before it all breaks down.

Anyway: The deadline posed by the need to prepare for the next Scotch Group meeting is sufficient for me to get one (almost always worthwhile) book read every other month.

Thank God for Audiobooks

This is turning out to be a pretty godly post.

OK, maybe not. In any event, I’m thanking God this time because what books I do manage to get read outside of my job are now almost all consumed as audiobooks, which I can squeeze in while walking the dog, driving around town or on road trips, or while slumped in the dark.

Takes me longer to get through an audiobook, but I at least do get through them. And some of them I think I’ve enjoyed more because I consumed them that way. Who knew Ethan Hawke would add such value to Slaughterhouse-Five? Really: I thought he did a fantastic job. And the gravelly-voiced dude who read Blood Meridian powered me through all that obsessive gore and elaborate language more persistently than I probably would’ve managed on my own.

OK, no time to wind up this rambling post with a proper conclusion. But I did post something, didn’t I?

Little victories.

Copy that: Nicholson Baker on the power of mindful copying

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Here’s a pretty powerful plug from the wonderful Nicholson Baker for making a habit of copying down (by hand, word for word) writing that moves you.

Something that also taught me how to write that I tell people — I’ve never been a writing teacher, but I say it because it was so helpful to me when I started doing it – is to buy a notebook or a spiral-bound book or something and get a ball-point pen of your choice. And sure people say, “You’ve got to carry around a notebook and jot down ideas” and that is OK, and I adapted that by writing on a folded-up piece of paper and carry it around in my pocket – that’s one thing. But this is different; if you’re reading along and you come to something that’s really beautiful, that really stops you in the eye with its prose, you see it’s true, then I’ll stop or make a note to stop later and open the notebook and copy it out, in quotation marks, of course, and write down – copy that out word for word, with full punctuation, in handwriting.

And the reason that’s useful is it slows you down and helps you understand the rhythm of the prose and how a person constructed something that opened up in your mind in just that way. So copying out in a commonplace book interesting bits of writing that you find inspiring or interesting is the only piece of advice I have. It’s the only secret that I have to pass on. I’m not a poet, but copy it out and you will be amazed at how much it helps you almost instantly. Instantly, it makes you a more thoughtful reader and possibly a better writer.

Here’s the whole article (actually, it’s more of an interview, hence the lack of Baker’s usual precision), which also hammers on the necessity of writing as close as possible to every day. But then, we knew that, right?

Be your own intern (getting started as a dev editor)

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I’m regularly asked for advice about how to break into developmental editing, and to date I haven’t had much of an answer. My own example isn’t exactly helpful: I fell into it three years ago because I knew someone who gave me the chance to do it, and I did what I could not to screw up the opportunity. One job led to the next until I’d built a track record and authors began asking for me the next time around (two out of every three books I’ve edited this year have been for authors I’ve worked with before, several of them many times).

While it’s true that the stars aligned for me — my benefactor was in a pinch (all of the dev editors he worked with were busy at the time) and, I think, he pitied me (I’d just been laid off) — I did have some qualifications: I have an MFA in creative writing from UW, taught fiction writing at UW Extension for 10+ years, and have been banging my head against the fiction-writing rock for almost 40 years (good God). Still, I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to prove myself if I hadn’t known someone who’d reached out to ask if I wanted to give it a try.

All of that said, from listening to other editors I’ve come to know at the Northwest Independent Editors Guild and from doing some thinking on my own, I actually do have an idea for prospective dev editors to consider:

Create your own internship program.

It’s unlikely you’ll find a publisher willing to let you intern as a dev editor to gain experience, improve your craft, and establish a track record. But you can launch what amounts to your own internship to achieve those goals, and fit it within whatever cracks your present day job might allow.

Here’s how I’d suggest you go about it: Find writers (friends and friends-of-friends who write, members of online writing communities and area writing groups, writers conference attendees, random authors scanning Facebook in coffee shops, that woman at the holiday party about to self-publish her memoir) who’ll let you give them feedback on their work in exchange for

  1. their own candid critique of your critique so you can build up your skills, and
  2. the right to list them as a reference, display a flattering blurb from them on your eventual website or marketing materials, and, upon publication of their book, provide a cover-image link on your website (what author would turn that down?)

Yes, you’d be doing this for free for at least the first few books. But you’d be willing to intern for free at a publishing house in exchange for the benefits outlined above, wouldn’t you? And this internship fits inside your current schedule, and is all about dev editing — you won’t be asked to answer the phones or go get coffee for staffers.

Once you’ve built up a list of clients who can speak for you, you can begin charging  for your efforts. If you’ve tracked the time you’ve spent on your first few projects, you’ll be able to figure out what you’d need to charge to earn, say, $20/hour for your time as you continue to build your portfolio and client list. After three or six months, bump up your rate, and then continue bumping it up every six months or so. When clients come back with new projects expecting the old low/non-existent rate, you can just say, “Three months ago I began charging new clients XX dollars/hour,” and that’s your new rate. Chances are they’ll pony up — you’re a known quantity, and you’ve proven your value.

Will this translate into a viable career for you? That’ll depend upon what you make of the breaks that fall your way; on your skills as an editor, self-promoter and businessperson; and on the vagaries of the publishing marketplace. There are certainly a lot of writers out there right now, and whether they’re intent on self-publishing or attracting the attention of agents and editors, more and more are waking up to the value of working with a good editor to separate them from the herd.

This “self-internship” gambit is by no means a sure thing, but I think it’s a viable way to see if you have a knack for the work (and really enjoy it!), and to at least start building a career.

Philip Roth on napping, and writing, and…

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Great, light little NPR piece loaded with good Roth-quotes. Looking forward to the PBS documentary on him coming up.

Here he is on napping, which I intend to get better at:

“Let me tell you about the nap,” he laughs. “It’s absolutely fantastic. When I was a kid, my father was always trying to tell me how to be a man, and he said to me, I was maybe 9, and he said to me, ‘Philip, whenever you take a nap, take your clothes off, put a blanket on you, and you’re going to sleep better.’ Well, as with everything, he was right. … Then the best part of it is that when you wake up, for the first 15 seconds, you have no idea where you are. You’re just alive. That’s all you know. And it’s bliss, it’s absolute bliss.”

Emmylou: Beautiful collaborator (and object lesson)

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EmmylouCame upon this nice NYT interview with the lovely (in every sense of the word) Emmylou Harris this morning. Love her closing lines: “You asked me if I have any regrets? I regret that it took me all that time to figure out I could have a dog on the road.” Turns out Emmylou runs a dog rescue out of her home in Nashville, where she lives with her 92-year-old mother, who “is doing very well, as they say, for her age.”

Sounds like Emmylou comes by her graceful-aging genes honestly. I’d be willing to bet, though, that one big reason for her artistic longevity is her career-long passion for collaboration.

If you have a keen ear or are a reader of liner notes (certainly tougher to be these days), you know that even at the height of her commercial appeal, Emmylou’s dreamy voice was everywhere on her friends’ records. And she clearly has lots of friends.

As she says in her interview, she started out as a solo folk act, a “Joan Baez wannabe.” It was Gram Parsons who pulled her into country music, almost against her will: “I started as a harmony singer, that was his way to kind of sneakily turn me onto this extraordinary body of music, and in singing country music I really found the place that my voice was supposed to be.”

Emmylou’s openness to influence and collaboration never stopped, and it’s helped her generate one of the most gorgeous and impressive bodies of work in popular music. And when her career appeared to be winding down, it helped her restart it:

WreckingBallI count on being inspired by other people. I mean, a big example would be “Wrecking Ball,” and the chance to work with Daniel Lanois and just go, “Well, the radio doesn’t play me anymore, the record company doesn’t know what to do with me, and it’s kind of up to me to jumpstart myself.” I don’t think either one of us had a clue as to what we were going to do, but he’s a fearless producer and musician and I tend to trust the people I work with. It broke up whatever creative logjam I was going through.

My point (and I do have one….)

If you’re “merely” a music lover or Emmylou Harris fan, feel free to move along at this point. Thanks for playing! Fiction writers, though, please read on.

Writers seeking writers

Fiction writing is a solitary, potentially isolating, business. Some of us sit in coffee shops or libraries to do our work, I suspect in large part so we can peer out of our bubbles every now and then and at least watch others interact.

Some team up with other writers to create. I did, many years ago, with pal Bill Clevenger, and probably the best part of the goofy juvenile entertainment that resulted—the long out-of-print The Kid Can’t Miss! (Avon Books), published under the name Russell Almon (our middle names)—was the terrific fun we had in our early morning, pre-day-job writing/editing sessions.

Others (maybe most?) maintain a community of fellow writers and/or beta readers to provide first and repeated-as-necessary responses to the worlds we’re trying to create—and, just as importantly, incremental deadlines to make sure we get them created. Many turn to graduate writing programs and one-off creative writing classes and workshops for the same reasons. I had a great time getting my MFA from the University of Washington, spent a decade in the same writing group, and still gather ad hoc little “short-track writing groups” to serve those functions.

And then there are the critical hours spent drinking beer and shooting the creative bull with writing buddies.

But “collaboration”?

Right. None of what’s described above (beyond my little co-writing adventure on that long-ago juvenile novel) approaches true collaboration. And of course that’s just how almost all of us want it. We write because we want to be heard, in one way or another, as individuals.

But I’d argue that a good editor can serve roughly the same collaborative function for a writer that a good record producer serves for a recording artist.

It never occurred to me to feel as though I was “collaborating” with my students during my 13 years teaching fiction writing through UW Extension, though now that I think about it, I began to move into the neighborhood during those years. Especially once I began guiding folks through the distance learning curriculum I developed there. All at once found myself in a more intimate relationship with the writer and the text itself. Using MS Word’s commenting and track changes functions, I was able to share with the writer much more fine-grained, nearly real-time responses to the moments being presented than I believe I would’ve working freehand. I’m just chattier and more coherent—and certainly more legible!—at the keyboard. (I’m guessing many, if not most, on-campus writing classes now operate with at least this much digital interaction built into them. But that’s only a guess, as it’s now been, impossibly, almost 15 years since I’ve taught!)

When I began my career as a book editor in September 2010, I was struck and, frankly, made a little uneasy by how freely and often authors spoke of enjoying our “collaboration.” I thanked them for the kind words, but hurried to assure them that the stories were absolutely all theirs.

And they absolutely were, and are.

But after working with upwards of 60 authors on upwards of 70 books, I’ve grown comfortable with the fact that yes, this is a collaboration. Or ought to be, when it’s working as it should (as it nearly always does).

The author is always by far the senior member of our little team of two. The book in question is no more mine than Emmylou’s “Wrecking Ball” is Daniel Lanois’. But I believe (and the vast majority of “my” authors would agree) that it’s always better for having the focused attention of an experienced, deeply invested collaborator.