Tuesday, August 14, 2018

AMERICAN READERS


As a writer I thought it might be interesting to get an overview of what my fellow Americans are reading. The first statistic is that 24% of Americans haven’t read a book or play in a year. Most of these folks are low-income workers, high school equivalent or less, or immigrant Latinos who can’t afford the money or the time for books. Gutenberg must be writhing in his grave. Of the remainder, only 30% buy their books from brick-and-mortar bookstores. Older classics like Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers are seldom seen in bookstores. These tomes are well over 1,000 pages and take up too much space on bookstore shelves. The rest of us buy our books online. Electronic books are popular, and 28% of us own an e-reader device, although the demand for print books is coming back.
Most Americans don’t read fiction, but younger people and women do. The Holy Bible has always been a best seller, but no one dares to classify it as either fiction or not. Men tend to read non-fiction and biographies, tales of travel or discovery are popular.
Fiction, primarily novels, is characterized by genre or sub-genre such as Chicklit, Westerns, and at least seventeen others. The most popular are Fantasy e.g. J.R. Tolkian’s Lord of the Rings, Sci-fi e.g. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling, Children’s Fiction e.g. other Harry Potter books, Suspense-Thriller e.g. The Davinci Code by Dan Brown, and Romance e.g. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. The Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer is popular with young women.
Poetry is not a big seller, however a surprising number of small presses offer volumes of verse.
Having considered all of the above, I might decide to take up rock climbing or skydiving.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

GUIDE DOG

         
I want to tell you about Ray, my guide dog. About fifteen years ago when we moved to the condo community in the Litchfield Hills, I experienced a major change in my life. I became blind. Something called Macular Degeneration. I still had some peripheral vision, but I could not see the food on my plate or the toothpaste on the brush. 
         I had led an active life, marketing, cooking, writing fiction, flying airplanes, gardening, fishing, and succeeding in a second career as an expert witness in microbiology and infectious disease. Suddenly, all that changed, and I became dependant upon others for basic functions and getting around. I could only write by dictating to a typist.
         Guide dog organizations in Connecticut and New Jersey rejected me because of my age, but Guiding Eyes in New York State accepted me after a year of tests. 
         Connie drove me to their Yorktown Heights campus. An instructor showed me to my room. The next day, she entered my room carrying a container of dog food accompanied by a handsome, black Lab on a leash. 
         “We think this is the best dog for you,” she said. “He is three, a little older than the others, but then,” she said with a smile, “so are you.” 
         How do they know he’s the best dog for me?
         “Let us know how you make out. His name is Ray.” She dropped the leash, turned and left me alone with the dog. 
         Ray walked over to where I was sitting, dragging the leash and wagging his tail tentatively. I detached the leash and patted him on the head. He sat and looked at me staring into my eyes. Was I getting a message? He was telling me something. If you want me I’ll take good care of you. 
         “Yes, I want you. I need you,” I told him. He thumped his tail rapidly on the floor and lay down at my feet. For the rest of the day, he and I interacted, each growing more trusting. 
         In the days and weeks that followed, Ray and I worked with the instructor. She showed me how to put on his harness and pick up his poop. We rode in vehicles together, worked on city streets learning when to cross, on country roads, in department stores with escalators, and in restaurants. Ray seemed to know all of the commands and responded as if he had done this before. When graduation day finally came, my family proudly watched as Ray and I sat for a photo. 
         At home, Ray quickly became a family member, but he was really my dog. He makes it possible for me to get around, leading me to the post office and on walks through woodland trails. Ray became familiar with the six miles of roads and three miles of trails of our community. After two years my vision worsened, and I am now almost completely blind. Ray sensed this change. I no longer need to use verbal commands for direction when we walk. I am still able to write by dictation to a typist. 
         Ray accompanies me into restaurants, doctor’s offices, ER’s and hospital rooms. He is infinitely patient. 
         Ray and I are very close. Although he has his own bed, he sleeps on the floor next to mine and wakes me gently in the morning with his nose against my neck. He loves when I massage him, rolling on his back with his legs in the air. He understands more than 200 words and phrases of English, responding with body language and his tail. Ray and I have grown closer than two humans. I love him like I love my children, and he loves me. Labs generally live seven to twelve years, and I hope that he will survive me. 
         
         

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

PUBLISHING TODAY

Why do writers write? A few in every generation decide early on they want to be writers, get a Masters in English or Creative Writing and hunt for a do-anything job in a publishing house. Many begin to write in the evening and, after a year or so, complete a novel or a memoir. Some are fortunate to have their effort read. However, only a few may actually get published. One of these writers may become the darling of a publisher, write a book every year, make the N.Y.Times Best Seller list, and live happily ever after. 

At the beginning of the 21stcentury the publishing industry experienced significant changes. Technology like e-books and Print on Demand became available, bookstores changed ownership, publishing personnel changed jobs, and new presses appeared. Men and women of all occupations with computers and printers decided they had a story to tell and wanted readers. Manuscripts from butchers and bakers, doctors and lawyers and even a professor proliferated like dandelions on a summer lawn, and thousands of unsolicited ones unread filled publisher’s waste paper baskets to overflowing.
            Surely, among those myriads of manuscripts awaiting the shredder, there must be a few gems, which will never be published. I think of a verse from Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyardthat goes,

            “Full many a gem of purest ray serene, 
             The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear: 
             Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen, 
            And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”
            
  Literary agents increased in number and self-publishing presses offered frustrated writers the opportunity to “publish” their work. For a healthy sum, such presses will accept a manuscript and produce printed copies of books for the author. Marketing of these books is left to the author who can use them to distribute to friends and family to satisfy his desire for readers. As my wife would say, “It is what it is”. 
            


Wednesday, July 4, 2018

FAMILIES

Connie and I recently attended a family party at my daughter Diane’s home in Westchester County.  She and Ronnie, gracious hosts as always, called her grown offspring to greet us. Two of them with their spouses presented their kids to me, my four great grandsons! The boys regarded me with a lack of interest and promptly ran off to play, leaving me to calculate that I was responsible for a family of 20 souls including six spouses.

I suppose the family first appeared among early humans when a few of them banded together for protection and support. In later eras, love and affection also became motives.

Admiral Richard E. Byrd had lots of time to think about his family while he spent many months alone beneath the Antarctic ice with only a radio for company. In his memoir Alone, he wrote:
At the end only two things really matter to a man, regardless of who he is; and they are the affection and understanding of his family. Anything and everything else he creates are insubstantial; they are ships given over to the mercy of the winds and tides of prejudice. But the family is an everlasting anchorage, a quiet harbor where a man’s ships can be left to swing to the moorings of pride and loyalty.
I wonder if the family will continue to exist in the distant future. Nevertheless, I expect that my family will continue to grow and I hope, to prosper. (I quoted Admiral Byrd in my novel Incident in Geneva.)

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

COPY EDITING

         
The past week has been a busy one. On the 21st, our planet decided to return closer to the Sun again, guaranteeing at least one more fall and winter for us. As an incurable optimist, I am looking forward to a fall with gorgeous foliage and a winter with moderate snow and temperatures for outdoor activities. Hopefully, by that time all the children on the Mexican border will have been restored to their parents. 

       Back to writing. Before sending a manuscript to a publisher, it needs a close review. Copy editing is the process of checking a document for spelling, capitalization, grammar, and punctuation, the nuts and bolts of writing. Almost anyone with a good basic education and a sharp eye can do copy editing. 

         Programs like Word and Pages include checking grammar and spelling. I often utilize a robot program called Edit Minion for copy editing. To use it, I paste the manuscript into the program, which illuminates weak words, preposition endings, unnecessary adjectives, passive voice, etc. in different colors, providing the opportunity for correction. 

         Copy editing is quite different from reviewing a piece of creative writing for style. The latter, called editing, involves a consideration of voice, cliché, plotting, character development, and other aspects of the craft. Editing requires considerable experience and as stated in my previous posts, is often best left to a professional.

Friday, June 8, 2018

A PROFESSIONAL EDITOR

I worked on my second novel, And Evil Shall Come, for more than ten years. It was to be a thriller about biological weapons. The protagonist was an enthusiastic young woman reporter, and I researched the storyline. Creative writing has become competitive with publishers discarding unsolicited manuscripts unread, so mine had to be good.

I revised the manuscript eighteen times with Strunk and White’s Elements of Style alongside the computer, but the story was still not right. It was interesting but leaden. I had never studied creative writing so I attended a few writing workshops. These were not helpful, and I spent my time trying to interest publisher’s agents in my work.

Among the many how-to books on writing, two of them by Sol Stein, Stein on Writing and How To Grow A Novel, were helpful. I read them cover-to-cover, highlighting important sentences, and I tried to incorporate the changes in my manuscript.

Finally, I decided to call Sol Stein and ask him for help. He told me he was too busy and suggested I call his sister Toby.

Toby Stein was a Barnard graduate and a professional editor and writer with a number of published books and novels. I called her and described my novel.

“Sounds interesting,” she said. We talked fees. “OK, send me the manuscript and a check.”

After a few weeks I received a package from Toby containing about fifteen pages. She had read and critiqued every chapter, paragraph, and line.

“You are a good writer with a remarkable talent for dialogue,” she wrote, “and we will build on that. You should consider minimizing the use of narrative summary to explain the story. This is a novel, not a textbook. Let the characters move the story on by their actions or by dialogue.”

Toby’s pages were filled with the craft of writing, and I still refer to them. She critiqued every line I had written, often suggesting elimination, substitution or modification. Occasionally she praised a sentence or paragraph and I glowed with pleasure. I learned a great deal from Toby as I rewrote my novel. I sent it to the publisher with feelings of satisfaction and pride.

I’d like to be able to say And Evil Shall Come became a blockbuster or a best seller, but this was not the case. Marketing books is more difficult than writing them and is itself an art or science.

I turned to Toby again as I wrote The Ebola Connection, and once again she provided excellent guidance.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

REVISING


“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

I am a compulsive reviser, but I must admit to having ambivalent feelings when I rewrite a manuscript. I find revision to be a constant challenge, in the absence of professional editorial input.

This is the way things used to be. When the muse was with me I could often write a first draft without stopping for food or rest. This could take many hours, but I usually finished with a sense of satisfaction that was short lived.

Writers are often advised to put the manuscript aside and let some time pass before revising it.  When I pick up the draft again, my emotions have cooled, my eyes have become jaundiced, and I recall Hemmingway’s dictum that “all first drafts are excrement.” Barnaby Conrad reminded us, “Books and stories aren’t written-they are rewritten!”  Irwin Shaw said that he rewrites, shows finished drafts to his publisher and a close friend, and then does a revision.
I yearned for criticism, but my sole critic, my roommate, pal, lover, and wife is inevitably away at work when I need her.  I endure the wait by removing unnecessary dialog tags, adverbs, and adjectives.  I try to replace narrative summary with dialog, I check tenses, search for clichés and stronger verbs.

The moment the door opens I pounce on her.  “Hi. I’ve written something.  I’d like you to read it.”

She insists on removing her coat and expresses the need to visit our facility first. Don’t they have bathrooms where she works? I thrust the manuscript into her hands and hover. Her typical response after a rapid perusal is “It’s good.”

Sol Stein maintains that when applied to a manuscript as a whole, such a response can be destructive.

“No,” I demand.  “Read it critically.”
“Can it wait until after dinner?”
“Could you just read it now?”  There’s a pleading note to my voice.
“I read it already,” she tells me as I follow her into the kitchen.  I’m hungry, but I need a critique like an addict craves a fix.
“What do you think?” I persist as she pours oil into a skillet.
“I told you, it’s good.”  She starts to slice an onion.
“I mean what do you really think of it?”

Criticism even when solicited is sometimes hard to accept and often provokes defensive explanations, but total deprivation of an analytical assessment can be frustrating.

Sometimes she makes a good suggestion that I incorporate into the next revision, but today she says, “Look, I’m not an expert.  What do I know?  You need an expert.” Further pleas and demands are futile.  She is totally absorbed in culinary activities.  Exasperated, I return to the computer with my oil-spattered manuscript.

I’m anxious to move on, to write more, eventually to submit something to an editor.  The work usually improves with each revision, but when does one stop There is always the risk that further revision will diminish the draft.  Each revision takes the story further from the original.

This is how things are now. “Never ask a family member or a good friend for a critique. This is as useless as tits on a boar hog. The inevitable response will be, ‘It’s good.’ ” Paul D. Ellner (1925-20--)