An actual professional editor called Pat Holt posted a big pile of crap on her blog purporting to be the inside scoop on what editors look for in manuscripts. It’s called The ten mistakes: ten mistakes writers don’t see (but can easily fix when they do), and I will deal with this misguided manifesto point by point.

1. REPEATS. She observes that “Kate White uses “quickly” over a dozen times in A Body To Die For“. Good God, that means she’s using the dreaded word every 33 pages or so! (It’s a 400 page book.) How did the copyeditor let that slip by? Holt reminds me of the girl in my creative writing class, years ago, who red-lined me each time I used “and” more than once in a sentence.

“Here are the documents.” says one character. “If these are the documents, I’ll oppose you,” says another. A repeat like that just keeps us on the surface. Figure out a different word; or rewrite the exchange. Repeats rarely allow you to probe deeper.

How exactly does repetition relate to “surface” and “depth”, I’d like to know?

2. FLAT WRITING. She gives a couple of examples of undeniably flat sentences, but makes no effort to identify what makes a sentence flat. The problem in these examples is not that the writer has “lost interest” or is “intimidated by [his] own narrative”, that he is “veering toward mediocrity”, his “brain is fatigued” and he has “lost inspiration”. The problem is that these are run-on sentences in which nothing happens. The simple solution is to break up the long sentence into short, punchy phrases.

3. EMPTY ADVERBS. Actually (there’s an adverb for you), adverbs are not inherently bad. Adverbs work when they describe the character or narrator’s point of view. Otherwise they can seem like unnecessary authorial intrusion. But I’m afraid Holt is one of those writers who demands adherence to The Rules without understanding them. She gets a nervous reaction every time she reads an adverb but she can’t say why, except that removing it makes the sentence “more powerful”.
(And “almost inconceivably” is not a bizarre tautology like “a little bit infertile”. A thing that is almost inconceivable may be conceived, with special effort or luck, but it remains exceptional.)

4. PHONY DIALOGUE. Holt correctly identifies the problem of “As you know, Bob” conversations, also known as “maid and butler” talk. She is also correct that character dialog needs to be individual and consistent with character. I’m not sure about this “avoidance of contemporary slang” thing, however. Where do you draw the line? Slang can, like clothing fashion, date embarassingly, but eventually slang and fashion serve the purpose of nice period detail. The trick is to use it, or any writing technique, with taste and moderation.

5. NO-GOOD SUFFIXES. This turns out to be a repeat of the REPEATS complaint, except now it’s words ending in “-ness” and “-ize”. As with the previous complaint, the best solution is to use these words sparingly and mindfully. Holt’s Rule against words ending in “-ly” again shows that she doesn’t know why these rules should be applied, and so is unable to explain the Rule’s exceptions.

6. THE “TO BE” WORDS. This is just the old saw about passive voice being baaaaaaddddddd. Again, she can’t explain the exceptions to the Rule, or even the Rule itself. Of the examples she gives that actually are badly written, the problem in all cases is simple repetition. Her initial examples (“I am the maid”, “It was cold”, “You were away”) aren’t passive voice anyway. (*See link below.)

7. LISTS. Yes, a flat list can be dull. Like any kind of writing, it needs to be created with imagination and flair to be interesting. The list itself is not the problem.

8. SHOW, DON’T TELL. Like the “no adverbs” and “no passive voice” rules, this is well-meant advice for a beginner, but a mere hindrance for a competent writer, who will show or tell as is appropriate to the story. Show, when you want the reader to see; Tell, when you want them to hear the author’s voice. But this is redundant, as Holt seems to misunderstand the whole issue. She thinks bland, generalised description is “telling”, whereas interesting, detailed description is “showing”. (The favoured Graham Greene paragraph is a “tell”, not a “show”.)

9. AWKWARD PHRASING. Yes, awkward phrasing is bad. Thank you for stating the bleeding obvious. How very helpful.

10. COMMAS. Here she is nice enough to correct the highly respected and best selling novelist Graham Greene. I’m sure he’d be grateful. The other example’s main problem is that it is a run-on sentence, not that it lacks commas (although it does). The rule should be that a comma can be omitted if the phrase it would precede or follow is short, and the sense of the sentence will still be easy to grasp.

 
Although point lists can be helpful, I think the best education for a writer is to read a lot. What to read, though, is the question. Most 19th century stuff is just too stilted to be a relevant model. On the other hand, I agree with Clive James, who said that “Fifty years ago, even bad books were well written” – the corollary of this being that the last few decades have seen a serious decline in editorial standards (see above!). I feel I myself have been disadvantaged as a writer by the “modern” education methods that came in from the 1960s…

 

*Please see the link below for a dissection of Strunk and White’s famous dictat, The elements of style.

50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice

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I found this article interesting, having just finished reading Watching the English, an examination of English manners by Kate Fox, which naturally spent a lot of time looking at class issues. (That book, incidentally, is over-wordy and repetitive, and I think underestimates the importance of understatement as a mode of being.)

Sandra Tsing Loh’s Atlantic article is interesting for the contrast US class archetypes make with the English types. It turns out the snooty yacht club is not just a feature of National Lampoon movies. Loh goes askew, however, when she attempts some original thought, based on Paul Fussell’s identification of the classless “category X”, which she surruptitiously conflates with the 1990’s “Generation X”.

She is correct to identify the rise of a Bohemian-identifying creative class in the US (she waves her original Ramones T-shirt as proof of her belonging to this elite, but then unwittingly proves herself a phoney by admitting she never particularly liked the band). Unfortunately, she fails to differentiate between what for want of a better word we will call “authentic” Bohemians, and those she spends half her article excoriating, who are, despite the casual dress and herbal lifestyle, mostly industry “suits”. What we used to call yuppies, in fact.

The real problem is that Loh identifies X clustering as a “problem”, which she ends up accusing of causing the current recession (or GFC, to use the vomit-making acronym). Here’s a quote:

In the relatively affluent post–Cold War era, the search for self-expression has evolved into a desire to not have that self-expression challenged, which in turn necessitates living among people who think and feel just as you do.

Does she really think that people wanting to live beside like-minded people is a new phenomenon brought about by the “self-expression” culture? Look at any society, any culture of the past, to see this is an obviously stupid idea.

Loh’s “Bohemians” “flee gritty Los Angeles for verdant Portland”, and she observes that “Portland is much whiter than Los Angeles, disconcertingly white”. Do you see what she’s doing here? She’s accusing the X’s of congregating in ghettos. Imagine if she accused a non-white group of this. Imagine if she observed that “Los Angeles is much more Latino than Portland, disconcertingly Latino”.

She carries on in much the same vein. “In Austin alone, the percentage of people with a college education went from 17 percent in 1970 to 45 percent in 2004.” She says that (pace Robert Putnam) “the highest-tech cities tended to have the lowest rate of civic connections” – and demonstrates this with an anecdote: she showed some keys she’d found to a guy in San Francisco and he said “I wouldn’t trust the police with those. Post a notice on Craigslist!” I hope I don’t need to point out to you that (a) believing the police to be untrustworthy does not necessarily demonstrate a lack of civic connection, and (b) the reference to Craig’s List actually demonstrates a new kind of civic connection, no less valid than the old, even if less physically tangible.

She quotes Bill Bishop writing “there was a surge of people who wanted to live in cities for what could only be social—or even aesthetic—reasons”. This is not actually a new thing, of course. People with money have always lived where they wanted to, and now more people have more money. It does not mean, as Loh implies, a new selfishness.

The great sin of the X’s is lack of diversity. Loh says “an over-clustering of educated people in one region is not always a social boon”, and obviously means that it is never a social boon. Why? Because, as Bishop writes, “education is presumed to nurture an appreciation of diversity: the more schooling, the greater the respect for works of literature and art, different cultures, and various types of music. … Education also should make us curious about—even eager to hear—different political points of view. But it doesn’t. The more educated Americans become—and the richer—the less likely they are to discuss politics with those who have different points of view.”

Now, Bishop is fudging here (and Loh is going along with it). If more educated people are less likely “to discuss politics with those who have different points of view” (a phrase which vividly conjures the blank banality of the survey question), so what? In any statistical analysis, one group is always going to be more something than another group. I doubt Bishop or Loh would try to assert from this that educated people are therefore less politically aware than other people, or less informed. They are probably more aware and informed. But they are not being diverse, you see (diversity being a virtue we should “nurture an appreciation of”, rather than a word meaning “consisting of several kinds”).

Thankfully, this awful situation will be brought to an end by the recession: “more Xers will have to start rubbing shoulders with The Other, living in truly mixed neighborhoods, next door to such noncreative types as Kohl’s-shopping back-office workers and actual not-yet-ready-for-their-close-up-in-Yoga-Journal immigrants”. Again, imagine if she was talking about a different group: “Urban blacks should move out of their ‘over-clustering’ regions and get some diversity.” She would be ostracised by her fellow hip-erati (oh God, did I just coin that?), and possibly shot, with some justification, for not minding her own business.

Oh, I almost forgot her big punchline. The rise of the Bohemian-identifying creative class has “brought shameful social stratification* and a consumer binge that our children’s children may well be paying off.” In case that’s not clear enough: “This economic catastrophe is teaching the Xers that their prized self-­expression and their embrace of personal choice leads to … the collapse of capitalism.” You see? Lack of diversity leads to Global Financial Crisis! Hang the whites! She provides absolutely no justification for this assertion, which emerges at the end of her article out of thin air, just as it has here.

So why this crusade against the Bobo’s? First of all, it is terribly fashionable, amongst the chattering classes, to knock white people (the fact that these chatterers are largely white is neither here nor there). Apart from goofy poor whites, and socially anxious middle-class whites, the best target is whites with an education and some money. You see, if you have money and education (and are white), you are “privileged” and “entitled”. You are, in fact, no matter how hip or “aware” you may seem to be, The Man, which means you are the cause of everyone else’s problems. You are the proverbial They, whom we all blame and hate.

Now, although Sandra would appear, by almost every definition, to one of the class she is criticising (urban, creative, educated, well off), she is part Asian, which means she’s not part of this “disconcertingly white” pariah group. (I can’t help wondering if childhood experiences of racial “otherness” helped foment her X-baiting resentment.)

So, Loh gets to have her cake and eat it. She can’t possibly lack diversity (the leading cause of economic meltdown) – because she’s not white. She is dressed-down funky (“I believe the true X philosophy is to try to destroy “hipness” wherever one sees it”), “edgy” (she said “fuck” on radio!), no doubt Twittering her fans about the details of her cool life, certainly ecologically “conscious” and globally “aware” – what in this description does not include her as one of the hip yuppies she so vilifies? And yet the blame rolls off her like water off a duck’s back. Lucky her.

 

* Because Xers invented social stratification, of course. Or maybe she means we used to have the good stratification?

My friend is alive

17 April, 2009

Following up on my last post, my friend was/is alive. She was taken to hospital with a severe asthma attack, and spent 8 hours in emergency. Her husband was less than helpful with my query about visiting her, but I managed to find her by myself. I visited her every day for a week. After a few days the novelty wore off 🙂
She should be home tonight, so presumably normal service will soon be resumed, i.e. hearing from her about once a month 😦

Is my friend dead?

9 April, 2009

Yesterday (Wednesday), I rang my friend to see if she was available for our regular Wednesday lunch. Her husband answered the phone, and said that my friend had had an asthma attack and was in intensive care. But he said not to worry.

Apparently, she’d had an attack in the middle of the night, and they’d spend 8 or 9 hours trying to get her breathing again. She was now in intensive care, with tubes down her throat. But he said not to worry.

I gave him my number, and told him to ring if anything happens. I asked about visiting, and he said she would be fine and I shouldn’t worry.

My best friend is in intensive care. I hope she’s not dead.

Despite the fact that I’m supposed to be saving to buy a flat, I caved in and ordered the following things:

ANIME [prices in US$]
First 5 items should be arriving soon.

Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars [series] $19.99
Moon Phase (Tsukuyomi) [series] $24.99
Hourglass of Summer Interactive DVD $14.99
Mobile Suit Gundam, Movie Pack $25.00
Comic Party [series] $14.00
FLAG [series] $23.99
Gundam 08th MS Team [series] $20.99

From Amazon.co.uk:

Lost In Austen [DVD] £7.98
The Mighty Boosh – series 3 [DVD] £5.20

Classic Frankenstein Triple – Frankenstein/Bride Of Frankenstein/House Of Frankenstein [DVD] £6.58
Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man [DVD] £4.98
Son Of Frankenstein [DVD] £4.33
The Ghost Of Frankenstein [DVD] £5.57

The Ligeti Project [5xCD set] £16.33
Hindemith: Orchestral Works [cond. Blomstedt] [3xCD set] £9.55

These are all bargains – but that doesn’t mean I can afford them!

I think they call it comfort-buying…

Details of What I’ve Bought

Shingu is a series about ordinary goings-on at a high school in a town where interstellar peace negotiations are happening.
Moon Phase is a story about an ordinary boy who gets involved with a super-cute (kawaii!) vampire.
Hourglass of Summer is a computer game/interactive novel adapted to be played on a regular DVD player. A schoolboy has no memory of the previous summer, during which his girlfriend died. If he can remember what happened, he might be able to save her…
Mobile Suit Gundam is the first series of the franchise, shortened into 3 two-hour movies. The series is alleged to be a classic, and supposedly the movie versions are good too. The movie Char’s Counterattack is also included, but this is related to the sequel series Gundam Zeta, which I don’t have and haven’t seen.
Comic Party has received mixed reviews. It’s about a manga fan club, so should be interesting, but probably not nearly as good as Genshiken.
Gundam 08th MS Team is often listed as one of the best of the Gundam shows – even people who disagree about Gundam Seed agree on this (but the opinions of people who loved Gundam Wing don’t count 😀 ). 08th Team is supposed to be more of a Real Robot show, which appeals to me.
FLAG is a gritty, realistic series about a photographer in a war zone. There is also a flag involved, apparently.

Lost In Austen, the fanfic version of Pride and Prejudice 🙂 , was surprisingly good, and emotionally affecting for reasons I don’t want to go into now. I worry the Australian release will have the problems of the early UK release (cut scenes, grainy picture) – plus it’s probably cheaper to get the import.
The Mighty Boosh – series 3. Got sick of waiting for the local price to drop to something reasonable. From what I’ve seen, this final series is superior to the patchy second series.
Frankenstein movies. I got the US complete set, but found the NTSC video quality really unacceptably poor (plus the disc programming was dodgy, and the flipper discs had some problems). I also wanted a copy of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, which wasn’t in the complete set. This purchase should mean I have the best of the 1930s/40s horror movies in my collection (inc. the wonderful Val Lewton films) (plus Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series – PAL format, of course).

Ligeti Project. I’ve been wondering about Ligeti’s music for a while now (he wrote the weirder stuff that was used in 2001: A Space Odyssey), and heard a bit of his Requiem on headphones at Fish records – extremely effective and surprisingly emotional. Compared with the 2001 soundtrack, I think these are better, more powerful performances, and certainly better recorded. Looking forward to five CDs of genius weird shit.
Hindemith Orchestral Works.
Hindemith is an acquired taste, and seems to be a mixed bag in terms of quality of work. His pre-1934 stuff, before Mathis der Maler, is clever but ultimately heartless stuff, and just not worth it IMO. I was disappointed by the DG set of music conducted by the composer, in terms of both sound and performance, and wanted better and more recent recordings of his symphonies, which I think are his best works (none of his concertos have worked for me so far).
I’ve been avoiding Blomstedt, after being extremely disappointed by his Dresden Beethoven set, but (a) his Hindemith set is widely recommended, (b) it’s much more cheaply available than Tortelier’s recordings (on always-expensive Chandos), and the Kegel recordings on Berlin Classics (plus, listening to samples of his Pittsburgh Symphony, the soft opening of the finale was mastered much too loudly). Also, I finally found some samples and was pleasantly surprised, particularly by the Swan Turner viola concerto, the Zimmerman version of which I find very unrewarding listening (thin tone; lack of feeling and convincing phrasing).
Seeing it so cheap on Amazon.co.uk, I had to grab it before the price went up again. Now I just need to find a cheap copy of the Symphonic Dances (Tortelier/Chandos).

Interesting interview with composer Gyorgy Ligeti here.

Two notable quotes:

The experience of extreme terror doesn’t lead to the creation of art.

I think this is extremely egocentrical idea, thinking the self-importance and thinking in the future… Wagner began this foolish way of thinking he’s the most important composer. He accepted Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, but now he will create a music of the future. What he created was a contribution to the Nazi Germany, in fact. I’m against it. And also Schonberg . Schonberg who taught with the method of 12 tone rows – “I made sure the domination of German music for the next 100 years”, well this is extremely pretentious and stupid.