Category Archives: books

Writing Is Art, Too

You know all those posts you see this time of year about how important it is to support artists and local artisans?

I have no quarrel with that. Artists and artisans need and deserve our support. Most of them contribute to the local economy and many are barely squeaking by.

But let’s also give some love and support to the writers. Writing, after all, is an art, too.

Let’s take painting as an example of an art. How, you ask, is writing like painting?

First of all, writing, like painting, takes practice, at least if you want to get better at it. Painters create works that they know they can never – don’t even want to – sell, especially when they are just starting. One thing they can do with these beginning pieces, though, is analyze them. What could I have done better? That section of the painting is muddy? What could I do to adjust the colors next time? That hand doesn’t look realistic. I need to work on painting people’s hands. I can’t just hide them in every painting.

Painters are often influenced by famous painters whose works they admire. They study these paintings. Some even try to paint in the same style or using the same color palette or the same type of subject matter. They may experiment with cubism, pointillism, art nouveau, impressionism, photorealism, or all of the above. They may imitate the style of Monet, Hopper, Cassatt, or O’Keefe. They’re not being copycats or attempted art forgers. They are acknowledging the greats and learning from those who came before them.

Writers, too, must study and practice, if they are to improve, and especially if they want to produce work that is saleable. Most writers have favorite authors and analyze what it is about those authors they admire. Does one a novelist write elegant description? Does a mystery writer use tight plots and exciting dialogue? Does a short story writer pack a wallop in a small space? These are qualities that can be learned and practiced. One writer of my acquaintance pores through her favorite authors’ works and highlights dialogue tags, for example, or sensory descriptions, or foreshadowing.

The next step for many writers is also to imitate the greats. A mystery writer may try to emulate Sue Grafton. An aspiring fantasy writer may study George R.R. Martin or J.R.R. Tolkien. A neophyte poet may be drawn to confessional poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton or to sonneteers like Shakespeare or Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

When it comes to supporting local artists, you can often find their work at local art festivals and craft fairs. Some conventions, such as science fiction conventions have art rooms with paintings and drawings for sale or auction and general merchandise rooms that feature handmade jewelry, glass blowing, and other arts and crafts.

But where do you find the work of local writers? It’s not like anyone’s selling poems door-to-door. Well, just as there are local art fairs, there are also local or regional book fairs, where writers rent tables and try to entice passersby with their works. Frequently, when you buy directly from the author at one of these events, most of the money is likely to go to the author and not to a far-off publishing company.

Readings at bookstores and even libraries are other places to meet local or regional authors and get a sense of their work before you purchase. If you like the writer’s books, but are unable to purchase one, call your local libraries and ask them to stock that title. An author is thrilled to make a sale to a public library and by encouraging that, you are helping that writer.

There are other things you can do to support writers as well. Leaving a review on Amazon – even a two word “Liked it” – is import to writers. Amazon really cares about the number of reviews a book gets. Goodreads is another excellent place to write reviews.

Most of all, show love for your local authors by talking about them. Word-of-mouth sales are still important, even in this digital age. It’s the same with local painters and other artists. The more you spread the word about how good they are, the more you are helping talented community members make a living so they can keep doing what they do best – making art.

Fun With Dictionaries. No, Really.

When I was a kid, I had one of those small, plastic record players that came with small, plastic records of children’s songs. One yellow plastic disk had a song on it about dictionaries. I still remember it.

“Oh, the dic-dic-dictionary/is very necessary./Any word that you can cook up/you can look up./Pick the book up.” It also included a verse exhorting children to look up the words “dromedary” and “estuary.” Or maybe “actuary.” The sound reproduction was not that great. Neither word is one that I needed to know until much later in life, but I went through childhood with them stuck in my brain.  For that matter, they still are.

Also stuck in my brain is a dictionary adventure from slightly later in my childhood. Like many – perhaps most – of you, I ventured to the fount of all knowledge to look up “dirty” words. I didn’t find them all (I didn’t know them all at that point), but I found one that made a distinct impression on me. To this day, I can quote the definition of “fart” word for word: “an anal emission of intestinal gasses, especially when audible.” In other words, what was called a “poot” in our household, though that was not listed as a synonym.

There was one dictionary in history that caused quite an uproar, and it was largely (though not exclusively) caused by a different four-letter word: ain’t. Webster’s Third was not the first to include “ain’t” – even Webster’s Second did that. But Web3, notorious for downgrading (or I guess upgrading) usage labels, no longer listed the word as “illiterate” or “substandard,” but merely “colloquial,” or usable in regular conversation, though not in formal speech.

Headlines abounded: “Ain’t Ain’t Wrong, Says Webster’s.” Lexicographers were incensed and language mavens had the vapors. Not to mention the grammarians, who really got their undies in a bundle. The only people not freaking out were the linguists, who considered “ain’t” “nonstandard,” which was their nicer way of saying “substandard.”

(Lexicographers, linguists, and grammarians are different species, whose nether garments bunch at different sorts of things. Let me know if you want to know the difference. I’m lots of fun at parties. But I digress.)

Speaking of parties, there is a nifty party game that can be played with a dictionary, if you’re trapped at a party with no drinks, food, or music. It’s called Fictionary and bears no relation to Pictionary, which at least can get raucous.

For Fictionary, one person, acting as moderator, wields the Webster’s and selects a suitably obscure word. Each participant writes an imaginary definition on a slip of paper, while the moderator writes out the actual definition. The papers are then collected and read aloud. Participants vote on which is the correct definition. If a bogus definition wins out over the real one, that player gets a point. Hilarity ensues.

(The secret to winning a point is to start your fake definition with “of or pertaining to.”)

And speaking of word games, there’s Scrabble (aka Words with Friends if you’re among the techno-literate, which if you’re playing Fictionary you’re probably not).

A fascinating book (for those like me who are fascinated by such things) is Word Freak – not my autobiography, but instead a searing look into the dark underbelly of competitive Scrabble. For those who never thought competitive Scrabble was a thing or that it had a dark underbelly, it is and it does.

Now, of course, dictionaries have been replaced by the computer and particularly the internet. Among the most useful and colorful sites is the Urban Dictionary, where you can find the definition of words like “yeet,” though not its past tense “yote.” (I still don’t know what the past participle is. “Yoten” is what I recommend, though I’ve never written or spoken a sentence where it was needed.)

The Urban Dictionary proved useful to me once when a character on House, M.D. (okay, it was House) used the term “squish mitten.” I pretty much got the meaning from context but felt a need to verify it, just for accuracy’s sake.

Actually, the internet is a good place to get your lexicography. The language changes constantly and rapidly, so the only place you can really keep up with it is online. Although I think it’s fair to say that “fart” hasn’t changed much, is still spelled and pronounced the same way, and still has the definition that made such an impression on me as a kid.

Why I Stopped Killing Trees

I’m a book lover. Have been all my life. I don’t even remember learning to read. So why am I now getting rid of most of my books?

Hint: It’s not that woman who says you should keep only 30 books. She also says that you should look at your possessions and ask whether they bring joy to your life. And all these books have certainly given me countless hours of joy, plus every other emotion you could think of. I couldn’t possibly pick only 30 that have affected me joyfully, or in some other way.

Nevertheless, my bookshelf now contains a mere 20 books. Oh, there will be more. But not nearly as many as there used to be.

Many – I venture to say most – were destroyed either by our recent natural disaster or by the incompetent salvage company that stored them in boxes which they left sitting on wet carpet for days. And then put the soaking boxes in a hot, lightless pod for weeks. Can you say “mold,” kids? I knew you could. Pages glued together? Plenty of that too. We’re currently going through those boxes and rescuing what we can.

Still, I’m discarding many more books than I’m keeping. The ones that are physically ravaged, of course, but lots of other books that are in relatively good condition. I’m not trashing those. I’m donating them to the Planned Parenthood Book Fair, where, to tell the truth, I originally got many of them. (That was the only place I’ve ever had to cross a line of protesters to buy a bag full of books. But I digress.)

What are my criteria for keeping and disposing, other than mold and water damage? I am keeping any signed-by-author books, ones that friends have written, a few books of poetry, and little else. Dozens of true crime paperbacks – gone. Dozens of hardbound as well as paperbound mysteries – off to Planned Parenthood.

I had hundreds of books. Maybe a couple of thousand. They filled three floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in my study, and spilled over into stacks on the windowsills and piles in the bottoms of closets, where normal people keep shoes. There were books all around the bed, in the bathroom, and on more bookshelves in the hallways and great room. There was even a bookshelf on the stair landing. More books than a person could read in a long lifetime. Though I had read my way through a fair percentage of them, I had a TBR pile tall enough to kill me if they tumbled over like a giant Jenga.

Now I’m replacing most of my books with e-editions. I like to think that I’m saving thousands of trees, but really my motivation is not nearly so lofty. I have nearly a thousand books on my Nook and I can carry them with me anywhere without being squashed and needing to have another back operation.

There are things I do miss about so-called dead-tree books: the solidity of them; the sensory touch of turning the pages; the colorful bindings, dust jackets, and covers; and, of course, the smell that takes me back to my days lurking in second-hand bookshops. And there are books that don’t do well in pixels, such as the Miss Peregrine books that rely so heavily on photos and hand-written notes.

Which brings me to why my husband is making the insurance company replace his books with actual, physical pages and bindings. He’s a very visual learner and had dozens of coffee-table-type books recording everything from the War in Vietnam to the legacy of the Grateful Dead to the latest fantasy art to Middle Eastern architecture. It’s actually kind of fun searching for them online, seeing if Amazon or ebay has the best price, and then stalking the mail carrier for a week afterward.

Anyway, books are books, no matter what form they appear in. I just dread the day when my e-book purveyor goes out of business entirely and I have to switch to a different dealer to provide my literary fixes.

Facebook, What Have You Done Now?

We all remember going to an amusement park or a store and seeing a rack of hats or keyrings emblazoned with people’s names. What a thrill it was for kids to find their own names, and how disappointing when your name didn’t appear or was spelled another way! (Now, of course, parents are wary of putting children’s names on their clothing because of potential kidnappers. But I digress.)

Custom printing can be a wonderful thing. It meant that I was able to order two t-shirts for my husband and me featuring the cover of my new book. (Shameless plug: Bipolar Me, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and in bookstores.) Friends of mine have ordered multiple copies of shirts with screen prints of albums or book covers or business logos to give or sell as promotional “merch.”

But custom printing is also getting a little bit creepy. I’ve seen ads on my Facebook timeline recently for t-shirts that say: I May Live in Ohio But My Story Began in Kentucky. Now, this is true: I was born in Lexington, KY, and I now live in Ohio. But I can’t believe that some company has t-shirts that feature every combination of states in America and sells them to anyone who finds them appropriate. It would take 99 sets of shirts to account for former or current Ohioans alone. If my math is right (which I don’t guarantee), that would mean nearly 5000 shirts for every combination of possibilities. And I can’t believe that a t-shirt company routinely stocks thousands of differently worded shirts against the hope that someone will buy one.

No, these are targeted t-shirts. I’m guessing that Facebook has sold my birthplace and current address info to some company who has a template they fill in with Ohio and Kentucky, if I should be so inclined to buy one. Until or unless I do, that shirt may never actually exist.

But with all the brou-ha-ha about Facebook selling people’s information, I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised. After all, I was silly enough to tell people where I was actually born and now live, just in case, ya know, someone wanted to make sure that I was the right Janet Coburn they wanted to contact, rather than the one born in Hawaii who now lives in Minnesota.

I don’t really mind when Facebook sends me ads for shirts featuring my favorite singers with a list of all their songs. I can believe that John Prine and Emmylou Harris have enough fans that might want t-shirts but can’t get to concerts. Someone could actually have pre-printed those shirts. But again, the fact that I liked them on Facebook sure seems as though the fact’s been plucked from my favorites listing and sold. I never get ads for shirts featuring Metallica’s greatest hits or songs by Justin Bieber.

So what else does Facebook apparently know about me? That I’m a science and science fiction geek and a literature lover and a word nerd and crazy cat lady. That info could easily be generated by the pass-alongs I pass along. So, of course, I get ads for Star Trek items and book-themed gifts and shirts about the Grammar Police and anything connected with cats.  I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I just saw an ad for cat book shoes. And I guess I’m fine with that too, although I wonder how much such companies pay Facebook for the use of their algorithms.

But the home state/current state shirts have me a little spooked. Am I going to start seeing ads with my high school’s name? My favorite quotations? My political associations (if I had been bold enough to list them)?

Frankly, I’d prefer to remain a little anonymous and just wear nightshirts that say I ❤ My Bed.

 

Getting Closer to a Real Book

book chapter six
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I’ve written before about publishing a book and how amazing it feels to get a response to a query from a publisher, a request for a complete manuscript, and an author contract.

There are even more joys to come, big things that make your book more and more real and smaller things that make you grin. Here are some of mine.

Being assigned an editor. Another person is now actually working on your book, helping to make it into something real and better.

Working with said editor. I’ve been an editor myself and know what it is like. It can be a game like chess by mail (or email, in this case). Your editor – in my case Aaron Smith from Eliezer Tristan Publishing – sends you a tracked manuscript with suggested changes and you accept them or not.

For my book, the great majority of editorial changes were right on, particularly in the matter of punctuation. I have a tendency to overuse commas, parens, and dashes. These are things that feel like my natural voice in writing but aren’t necessary or even correct. Aaron also helped me see where my writing needed to be fleshed out and where links to other sites were superfluous. Only one round of back-and-forth was needed before we both were satisfied.

Getting an ISBN number and barcode. If you’ve ever looked at the back of a real book, one you’ve bought at a store, you’ll notice the ISBN number and the barcode. The barcode, of course, allows someone to know the price and pay for the book. The ISBN number is what tells you you’re got a real book. Here’s an explanation from the International ISBN Agency: “An ISBN is essentially a product identifier used by publishers, booksellers, libraries, internet retailers and other supply chain participants for ordering, listing, sales records and stock control purposes. The ISBN identifies the registrant as well as the specific title, edition and format.” A real book!

The cover process. I understand that with large book publishers you simply take what you are given. My small, indie publisher, however, sent me a copy of what they came up with and allowed me to comment on it. It’s nice to be asked. They even gave me a do-over and a new designer when I didn’t like the first version.

The galleys. Or in this case, a copy of the documents laid out in spreads, like the open pages of the book it will be. I reminded the publisher that I wanted a dedication to my husband, suggested a way to make the table of contents a bit clearer, and pointed out when one essay title was in the wrong font. I don’t know if there will be final galleys after this, but if there are, I will read them thoroughly and promptly.

The bound books. I am not yet up to the point of this ultimate thrill, but I anticipate it with great incipient glee. When the box of 25 books arrives on my doorstep, I will, after my husband picks it up and brings it inside, rip it open, make high-pitched sounds of delight, and insist that many photos be taken of me posing with the books and in my Eliezer Tristan Publishing t-shirt and signing a book for Dan.

Then I will get to decide who gets an autographed copy and who has to wait for it to come to a bookstore near them.

The launch party. This is still theoretical at the moment, as I can’t afford to throw an actual party. Perhaps a local bookstore or library will let me do a reading and I can call that a launch party. Or maybe my friend Tom, who does online concerts, can coach me through an online launch.

The t-shirt. Completely optional. But my husband has said that he will take an image of the cover and have it printed on a t-shirt for us both to wear. Maybe we can call it advertising and take it off our taxes.

Then I can get to the really important stuff – promoting my book and selling it, which the publishers will also be doing. It takes a real book to be able to do that.

Writing: Other People’s Lives

cold snow person winter
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It is often recommended that writers write what they know. Unfortunately, this has led to a plethora of novels written by angsty professors about how an angsty professor finds renewed spirit via an affair with a ripe coed.

Writing what one knows is also difficult when one has led a basically boring life. Not everyone is Steve Irwin or Jack Ryan or Jacques Cousteau, after all. I for one have never climbed a mountain, thwarted a spy, or been a spy for that matter. Must I restrict my writing to the everyday adventures of a former English major who has two cats and enjoys crossword puzzles? What a snooze!

There are a few geniuses who’ve managed it. Most notable is Martin Cruz Smith with Gorky Park. Without having been to Russia, this superstar writer made us all believe in his snow-covered, KGB-infused vision.

For him, and for the rest of us, there’s research.

Obviously, a nonfiction writer has to rely on research – interviews with the biography subject, police files on Jack the Ripper, the diaries of Sir Ernest Shackleton. This does not, however, preclude adding a personal touch to the facts. Take Mary Roach’s work, for example. She may never have been an employee of NASA or gone to Mars herself, but her Packing for Mars is a masterpiece of factual research combined with first-person observation and idiosyncratic footnotes. For nonfiction writers, exploring other people’s lives is part and parcel of the genre. Even Rabid, a book about rabies, provides a glimpse into the lives of researchers, doctors, and victims.

For the fiction writer, research is a necessary evil as well. If you write a novel set in Victorian times, you can make it convincing only if you know what people then ate, how they dressed, what political upheavals affected their lives, and even how they used the English language. Even contemporary fiction requires research: What were the laws on the statute of limitations like in Ohio in the 2000s? What are the procedures involving releasing a person from prison? What does a meth lab smell like? These details may not add to your plot, but they can make or break the verisimilitude.

And of course the rule about writing what you know is right out the window with science fiction. You can research what is postulated about faster-than-light travel or colonies on Mars, but at some point you’re going to have to make that leap and write about a creature, a planet, a culture, a history that never existed.

It’s tricky when it comes to writing fiction about people. You can’t fashion every character after yourself (even if there’s a little piece of you in every character). And unless you want to be sued, you can’t write a villain as some specific person from your life, especially if they’re easily recognizable. Better to give that person a hook hand or a lisp, or make him over seven feet tall.

In my fiction writing, I give my characters small pieces of my life. I let my protagonist live in an apartment I once had and can describe in great detail. Another character gets a friend’s kitchen with the odd wallpaper border of ducks.

Then I do mashups for other characters. One gets the hairstyle of one friend, the hobbies of another, and the sexuality of a third. One has the appearance of someone I know and the lifestyle of a different person. Mashups keep me detail-oriented without borrowing too much from any one person. These imaginary amalgams allow me to visualize the characters clearly and not have to keep reminding myself whether the bad guy is tall and skinny or short and dumpy. I know how my model for his body moves, so I know how he moves too.

Until I can figure out a way to write an autobiographical novel about a middle-aged woman who hasn’t hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and hasn’t gone through astronaut training, I’ll keep doing my research and my mashups.

 

Beating the Rejection Slip

focus photo of yellow paper near trash can
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Writers fear them, yet they are inevitable: rejection slips. I’ve seen many a one in my life as a writer. (That’s what good about blogs. You never have to send yourself a rejection slip.) They can be cruel. They can be perfunctory, mass-produced and not even signed by a human being. An actual rejection slip may never arrive at all, leaving a writer to wait in anxious hope forever.

Rejection slips can be devastating. They can be empowering, too, in a strange sort of way. I’ve known writers who’ve defiantly papered their walls with rejection slips until they got a book contract. Once in a while a rejection slip comes that makes it clear the editor or agent has actually read the proposal or sample chapters. He or she may even provide helpful comments that can lead to improving your writing. Or the editor may say that your writing is good, although the book is just not for them. Those desperate for validation (most writers) treasure the first half of the evaluation.

Short story and nonfiction article writers and certainly poets get rejection slips, too. But the book rejection slip can be the most devastating because you may have spent literally years preparing your manuscript.

But here is a tale that may give you hope: I just beat the rejection slip. I have been offered an author contract.

How did I do it? I followed the rules. I gave up. Then I got lucky.

Since my book was a memoir (non-fiction), I knew that I had to prepare a proposal with sample chapters. (Fiction requires a completed manuscript, not just a proposal.)

Then I combed the Internet for agents that were accepting new clients and publishers that would accept proposals directly from authors. I sent out my query letters or proposals. I was very careful to send each recipient what they preferred and to make it meet their specs: query only, proposal only, proposal with three sample chapters, or ten pages, or whatever. I attached my proposal or pasted it into the email, whichever they wanted.

I tried to be at least a little sensible. I looked for people who wanted the kind of writing I was doing – nonfiction or memoir or mental health. I looked over their websites to see if there was one particular agent/editor who was more interested in my genre and addressed my query to that person. I never sent a “Dear Agent” or “Dear Editor” query.

I did this dozens of times. I kept a list of where I sent each and crossed them off when the rejections came.

And after a number of years and rejections, I gave up. I decided to abandon my book (by that time it was completely written) and move on to another book-length project in another genre.

While I was struggling with that manuscript, however (I still am), I noticed a new independent publisher who was looking for nonfiction books on mental health issues. So I said, what the hell? I was pretty much inured to rejection by then. I sent a query letter.

And I got a reply, within days. Did I have a proposal or a completed manuscript? Encouraged, I said that I had both. They asked to see the manuscript. And within a week, I had an offer. Given the length of my rejection list, I jumped at the chance.

I was a little wary of throwing in my lot with an indie publisher, and a start-up at that. But the founder was someone I had heard of, someone who was a noted expert and activist in the field of mental health. It was not a vanity press.

And now I have signed my author contract and been assigned an editor (I look forward to many fruitful conversations with him). They also introduced me to the intern who had picked my manuscript out of the slush pile, to whom I am eternally grateful.

I’m not a novice at writing. In addition to these blog posts, I have written and published nonfiction articles and children’s stories. But being a BOOK author is the best! The day I get my 25 printed copies I will indeed squee, long and hard.

Say hello to the next author from Eliezer Tristan Publishing – me!

 

The Artist and the Art

person with body painting
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How much do we owe the artist for creating art? And when I say art, I mean not just paintings and sculptures, but music and lyrics and books and films and podcasts and TV shows and more – you know, the things we can’t live without, according to a recent meme. What do we owe the people who create?

Respect. First, we should acknowledge that what they do is worthwhile. Life would be a lot less interesting – and meaningful – without all those things I just mentioned. And I’m not just talking Art with a capital A here. I’m including people who write trashy novels and sing pop songs and paint sad clowns. There are people who like those things and enjoy them. Who am I to judge? (I don’t include people who script so-called “reality” TV. Those people aren’t artists, even if their audiences love them. So I guess I do judge, some.)

Money. Making art takes time and as we all know, time is money. Making art takes skill, and we pay for that too. Making art takes practice, which is another expenditure of time.

Too many people try to cheap out on art. They try to haggle over price, or claim that they (or a monkey) could do it as well (then why don’t they?) or offer to “collaborate” and split the proceeds with the artist who does the work. Do you haggle with your plumber? That takes time and skill and practice too and makes your life more liveable.

Funding. Sadly, few people make a living making art. (I am lucky to know a few who do.) For the rest, there are few sources of income, other than a “day job,” which saps one’s energy and the time needed to make art. There are some sources of funding, such as the National Endowment for the Arts and not-for-profit outlets like National Public Radio and PBS. But when budget cuts need to be made, these public- and government-funded efforts are usually the first to be gutted. Let’s acknowledge that they serve an important purpose and need our support, even if pledge drives are annoying.

Absolution? Here’s the question. Do we owe an artist our attention if he or she has a quality or does something in personal life of which we don’t approve?

Of course, for example, if you don’t approve of swearing, you can choose not to give your money to novelists or filmmakers or comedians who sprinkle f-bombs liberally in what they create. You don’t enjoy that and that’s cool.

But what if you disagree with an artist politically, socially, or religiously? Does that make their art any less valid? Some of the people who make glorious, memorable art have done vile things or hold beliefs repugnant to some. How do we measure that against their art?

If an artist indulges in hate speech or racism or homophobia, that’s a perfectly valid reason to dislike him or her. But is it a reason to say that the person’s work no longer has value? Should a person’s vile behavior toward women or gay people (to use but two examples) end his or her career? Maybe. But does it devalue the work already done? There are certainly differing opinions and of course we must make our own choices about whom to support with our money or votes.

But is left-wing or right-wing ideology enough to make us boycott a person’s art? Do you go to see a film that has a person in it who disagrees with you politically?

Personally, I can no longer view the movie M*A*S*H with the enjoyment I once did because of the infamous shower scene, and I even squick at certain scenes in Young Frankenstein, one of my favorite films, because they make light of rape. But I can’t deny that they are great films and I don’t boycott the works of their creators.

What should we think about the flawed artist? Do we call them out for racism or sexism, for example, or continue to enjoy their art? Or somehow manage to do both? Perhaps we can no longer enter into that person’s art with the joy that we once did, or perhaps we might prefer not to expose children to such ideas (though they will surely encounter them in real life). But do we give a pass to someone whose work means a lot to us? Or do we hold everyone to the same ideal standards?

I think that it’s good that we are reexamining and discussing our attitudes about art and artists in the larger world, and examining our feelings about their behavior. But I still think that local, regional, and unknown artists deserve our support. We generally know nothing of their private lives and can’t judge them that way. Does the guy who plays guitar so well at open mike night cheat on his wife? Does the local food blogger sneer at her trans neighbor? Our communities don’t have the power of Hollywood’s searchlight. All we usually know of local creators is their art and whether we find it great, good, mediocre, or bad.

Even the making of mediocre or bad art is worthwhile. One can always get better with practice. And sometimes people can become better human beings with practice. Not often, perhaps, but I’ve seen it happen.

 

What Grade Level Are You Writing At?

Writing for children and writing for adults have some things in common. One is knowing what grade level you’re writing at.

Let’s start with adults. You may think, “Aha! Anyone who graduated high school, which is most of my typical audience, should be reading at the 12th-grade level.” Alas, that isn’t so.

The general rule when writing for adults of average intelligence – the ordinary readership of mainstream books, magazines, ezines, and blogs – is that the writing should be around the 8th-grade level, or at least somewhere between 7th and 9th grade.

You can speculate about the causes of this: the American education system, the fact that a large percentage of the population doesn’t read except for work and restaurant menus, the disappearance of not just grammar but whole parts of words in tweets and texts. Whatever, it has become the rule of thumb. Of course, if you are writing for an academic journal or a high-tech audience, you will likely be writing at a higher grade level.

Writing for children is more difficult. Yes, you can write at the grade level of the students you are trying to reach (or a bit below to include slow readers). The Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner is a big help with that. It categorizes words by what a child in each grade should or is likely to know.

If that sounds a bit formulaic, it is. But it can be worse. Producing writing or reading samples for textbooks is fraught with all sorts of perils. One can be asked to write at very precise levels – 3.1 to 3.4, for example. The change of a word or two or breaking a long sentence in half can make the difference. If your assignment includes using specific phonics or grammar requirements (diphthongs, consonant blends, irregular past tense verbs), you can be hard-pressed to write a story that follows the rules and is still enjoyable to read.

Fortunately, writing for children outside the classroom is somewhat easier. While it’s a good idea generally to stay close to the recommended levels for the grade level of your intended audience, skillful writers can break the rules at times. J.K. Rowling, for example, was able to use the word “sycophantic” because its meaning was clear in context from her description of Crabbe’s and Goyle’s behavior.

So, how do you know what grade level you’re writing at? There are various ways and a number of programs to help.

The most important of the measures of “lexile,” or grade level, is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test. It returns results matched with readability levels. The easiest place to find it is in Microsoft Word. You can turn on the feature when you set your preferences for spelling and grammar check. It provides two different measures of lexiles, but the Flesch-Kincaid is the easier to understand.

If you prefer, or if for some reason you’re not working in Word (such as working in WordPress), you can find various readability checkers online, which use a variety of measures of readability. I’d recommend the one at  http://www.thewriter.com/what-we-think/readability-checker/. Sign up for a free account, then run your writing through it. In mere seconds, you’ll have a lexile. Plus, there is a handy chart that tells what each of the levels means.

I ran this post (so far) through Word’s checker and The Writer‘s readability tool and got a grade of about 7th- to 8th-grade reading level, which corresponds to articles on The Writer‘s website up to some of President Obama’s speeches. (Also, only 2% passive sentences. Yay, me!) I’m right on target, according to the experts.

I wouldn’t check every piece of my writing against the readability scores, though you certainly can. But if I write a post that seems to read a bit stodgy or jargon-y, I might.

It takes only a few seconds to do and may improve your connection with your readership. Not to mention giving you a direction to go when you start revising.

Real Crime and Fake Crime

I am a fan of both kinds.

Perhaps I should say that I am a fan of writing about both kinds. Better known as true crime and mysteries, the two types of writing have made up a large percentage of my reading for many years – as well as science fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction that deals with science, nature, adventure travel, and more. (Think Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, and you’re in the right area.)

I first got hooked on mysteries when we were visiting my grandmother and I dipped into her collection of Agatha Christies and Rex Stouts. I can’t remember when I first latched onto true crime books, but it may have been around the time of Jeffrey McDonald’s Fatal Vision.

Nevertheless, the two are decidedly not the same and no one should – or could – confuse the two.

Let’s get the really fictional crime fiction out of the way first: cozy mysteries and animal mysteries. Cozy mysteries are the sort with no blood and guts and no actual detective (except perhaps as a minor character to be out-thought by the intrepid librarian, gallery owner, or suburban mom). There is no way to confuse these novels with real life. Sorry, but bed and breakfast owners, golfers, and caterers do not solve crimes (though they certainly can be the victims of them), and the CIA doesn’t recruit grandmothers (though I like Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax series because they contain little travelogues and are soothing when you’re in bed with a cold). In real life, talking animals do not solve crimes either, though dogs may occasionally dig up a bone and thus start an investigation.

The crime fiction that comes the closest to real life is the subgenre called “police procedurals.” They don’t seem to be as popular lately as the police-or-private-detective-identifies-serial-killer-murderer-and-gets-to-be-a-target-as-well ones. But there are definite gems. Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, is perhaps the best and the epitome of police procedurals. The main characters are police officers and the plots bear at least a slight resemblance to, well, police procedure.

In true crime, however, there is no tidy plot, nor a single detective (with or without civilian sidekick). Most real crime investigations involve dozens, if not hundreds of officers – unless they’re “cold cases,” when they might feature at least a handful. In crime fiction, the crime is solved neatly, with no or few loose ends unless a series of books is planned with a continuing arc for the criminal.

What happens in real life is nothing like that. There are crimes that are never solved. There are questions that will never be answered. There are “plot twists” that no editor would approve. In one true crime book I read, the serial killer was caught because he was stopped by a low-ranking police officer for a traffic infraction and was caught with a dead body in the back of his pick-up truck. That would be a crappy ending for a novel, but worked just fine in real life.

Of course, there are other crime-type books that are of interest. There are true-crime works like The Green River Killer (Jeff Jensen) that follow a complex investigation from beginning to end and Ann Rule’s books which read almost, but not quite, like fiction. And there are forensics-based fictionals like those by Kathy Reichs (which are nothing like the Bones TV show supposedly based on them), as well as forensics-based fact books like Teasing Secrets From the Dead by Emily Craig. Legal thrillers like the John Grisham novels also have wide appeal. Again, there are real-life legal cases that are comparable and have the added advantage of being true – Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi being the most famous.

I don’t watch much TV, but there are comparable forms of crime fact and fiction available there as well. Squeezing the cases into a scant hour may be preferable for people with short attention spans, but I always figure that they could, if they chose, read a book for an hour at a time and stretch out the fascination.

On the other hand, if you prefer cookbooks to “plucky baker solves crime” books, there’s plenty out there for you as well.