Literary Gruntwork

How many books have you read so far in 2019?  Five?  Ten?  Twenty?

I have read forty-six, and counting!

 

Though, “read” is not 100 percent accurate.  More to the point, I have proofread forty-six books so far this year.  I work in a freelance capacity for seven publishers–and have the editors at said publishers ever kept me busy!  Not that I’m complaining, mind you.  After all, one of my favorite things is, and has always been, reading.  Getting paid to do it is akin to a dream job.

 

That said, the nonstop assembly line of book after book does get rather challenging from time to time.  There are weeks when I need to get through three books in six days–long books, too!  Again, I am not complaining–it is work I enjoy and am grateful for.  And the literary menu is varied.  I proofread both fiction and nonfiction, novels that range from suspense to literary to romance, nonfiction about religion, politics, finance, philosophy, health, science, pop culture, humor, and more.  I can go from reading a 400-page tome on investing to a crime-suspense novel all within the span of a couple of days.  It is interesting, to say the least.

 

And it all began by accident.  Way back in 2001, not far removed from finishing graduate school, I was calling around, looking for employment.  One of the places I contacted was a small book publisher here in Vermont.  “We don’t have an opening,” they said, “but we can always use a freelancer.”  At the time, I wasn’t even aware that publishers often utilized the services of freelance proofreaders.  As a writer myself, a grammar nerd, and a former English major, I decided, “Why not?”  I gave it a shot.  And, right from the outset, I realized–this was a gig for me!

 

The work is flexible, I can do it from home, and it even allows me to (virtually) meet editors and professionals inside the publishing industry.  It also has, over the years, strengthened my grammar skills and honed my ability to edit and check my own work.  Admittedly, I have always enjoyed grammar, dating back to high school (weird, I know).  But after proofreading close to a thousand books since the turn of the century, my grammar eye has become sharper, more observant, more disciplined.  And that matters.

 

I’ll be the first to admit:  grammar and mastery of style are not the most important skills in a writer’s toolbox.  Especially when it comes to creative writing, what matters above all is the talent to weave a story, engage a reader, create three-dimensional characters, understand the rhythm of words and the art of pulling it all together.  Some of this can be learned, studied, enhanced through reading and practice (i.e., writing).  But some of it, too, is innate–an inborn ability to tell a tale, an untaught sense of where to begin, how to escalate, where to pull back, how to capture the dialogue and mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of your characters.  In short, how to captivate a literary audience.

 

Nevertheless, if a writer completely ignores grammar, or is indifferent to improving in this area, it can deep-six his or her ambitions.  If a writer litters their manuscript with dozens upon dozens of grammatical errors, even the most patient editors and readers may turn away, no matter how riveting the content.  If you have a story to tell, you have to be able to master the tools and precepts of the language you’re working in to tell it properly.

 

“I’ll let my editor deal with it,” is the lazy writer’s way out–not to mention, many of us don’t have the luxury of a full-time editor to begin with.  Granted, the “small stuff,” the gruntwork of semicolons and commas and em-dashes and dangling participles and subjects and objects and prepositions can seem not only daunting, but boring, and anathema to the creative process.  And I’m certainly okay with overlooking these stodgy tools of the trade–for a while.  No need to sweat it out during a first draft.  But at some point, in order to dress your creation up in its finest clothes, to make it presentable for the discerning eye of your readers, that grammatical toolbox needs to be opened and delved into. (Ah!  Did I just end the sentence with a preposition??  Well.  It’s important to follow the rules, sure, but also important to know when and how you can break them!)

 

For me, proofreading helps me to stay sharp with all of this.  It’s true–there are periods when the workload becomes so heavy, I cannot find the time to do what I most want to do–which is write.  I need to put my own stuff on hold until the deluge ends and a season of relative calm returns with my freelance schedule.  But it’s rewarding to be “the last line of defense,” so to speak, in the publishing process of the books I proof.  If I fail to catch errors, the readers will–and they will let the editors know about it.  In that way, for sure, as a proofreader, the best news is no news.  No news means no complaints.

 

Such is the way of literary gruntwork.  When done well, no one notices the effort.  Absent the grammatical blunders, they just notice the story.

And . . . isn’t that what every writer wants?

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Walk Across Upstate New York (Or, The Rewards of a Step-by-Step Process)

I’d been looking forward to it for weeks.  We had been talking about it since the early spring, and now, at the height of summer in western New York, the time had come.

It was 1995, I was still in college, and the prospect of a new century, a new millennium, was still five years into the future.  Cell phones were still mostly a novelty, and the Internet was a newborn, slowly gaining traction, just beyond the outskirts of the mainstream.  No matter.  As summer approached that year, I was excited, eager to partake of the adventure.

 

It wasn’t hard to plan.  School was out, we had cleared our schedules.  We had a full week to do it.  I had hoped to corral the entire gang–Rick and Joe and Matt and Andy, the neighborhood friends I had known for years–and also the people who inspired the protagonists in both The Eye-Dancers and its soon-to-be-released sequel, The Singularity Wheel.  But some of the guys backed out, citing potential dangers, scheduling conflicts, previous commitments.  That was okay.  We still had three of us going.

 

So it was that on the warm, humid morning of July 10, 1995, precisely twenty-two years ago today, my neighbor Rick (on the right), my cousin “Moose” (left), and I (center) set out on our mini-journey.

 

We would spend the next week walking across a portion of upstate New York.  I had long romanticized about walking across America.  This bite-sized facsimile would have to do.  We’d trek west from Rochester, traveling through remote, rural towns, experiencing the pastoral heart of the Empire State on foot.  And while our experience would only last a few short days, I knew, even before we started, that I would never forget.

 

The first day was the hardest.  We weren’t used to walking so many miles.  Our feet ached, we drank copious amounts of water, and we rested every few miles.  But we had a blast.  Walking mostly on the shoulder of the road, we traveled along both main thoroughfares and sparsely used back roads.  With our packs and gear, it was obvious to passing motorists what we were up to.  Some cars honked at us.  A group of college students sped past at one point, calling us “nerdballs.”  That made our day.  A middle-aged man in a straw hat, doing yard work at the base of his lawn, stopped us and offered us water.  We politely declined, letting him know were well stocked.  He asked us where we were going.  I’d like to say we were honest–just a weeklong walking trip across western New York.  Alas, we embellished the details–substantially.  Something about Colorado to Cape Cod, and back again.  What’s worse, the guy believed us.

 

“I wonder if we should have told him the truth,” I said, a mile up the road.

“Well, we’re walking across most of the country in spirit,” Rick said.  “So, I mean, it’s kinda, sorta the truth, right?”  That was good enough for us.  I have no good excuse to offer now.  What can I say?  It was a heady moment.  We were young.

That first night, we stayed at the farmhouse of a family friend just outside the small college town of Brockport.  Well, we didn’t spend the night in the house.  We slept out in the yard, in sleeping bags, under a sky dotted with stars.  We were tired–we had walked twenty miles that day, and had run through the wheat field out back behind the farmhouse that evening.  It took us a while to get to sleep, though.  We lay down, listened to the cries of hoot owls, the rustlings in the plants and shrubs that flanked the yard, the whispers of the night breeze as it shared its sacred, eternal wisdom.

 

We talked.  We joked.  We savored.

And the next morning, bright and early, we set out west again.  The walking was already growing easier, our bodies acclimating to the journey, adjusting to the rhythm.  It rained, briefly, and then the sun came out, a hot, large July sun that tested our stamina.  More cars beeped at us.  More insults were hurled.  More strangers stopped us, took a moment to chat.  For every derogatory remark we received along the way, we got ten more that were kind.

 

We walked through tiny, speck-on-the-map towns, with names like Clarendon and Holley and Albion, dotted with old capes and town squares and corner stores.  Interspersed between the towns, acres and acres of cornfields and dairy farms spread across the land like a luxurious green carpet.  We slept in cheap motels and ate convenience store pizza.  And then, on the fourth morning, we turned around, headed east, back to Rochester.

 

Suddenly, it seemed, the miles grew longer, the movements more laborious.  We had lost some of the spring in our step.  It was easy to understand why.  While we had journeyed west, away from Rochester, we were exploring new ground, in full discovery mode.  Sure, we’d seen many of these same towns before, but it’s far different zipping by in a car than it is taking the time to really look and listen and experience while walking.  Not to mention, a few of the smallest towns were in fact new to us.  We had never visited them prior to the walk.

 

Now, though, we were going back, covering much of the same ground we had just days earlier.  We took a few different roads, tried to change it up a bit.  But the truth was undeniable.  The return trip back was a known quantity.  We were heading back to the point of origin, no longer breaking new ground, no longer heading away, deeper into the unexplored.  The sun felt hotter, the humidity more taxing, the water supply less plentiful.  Even the pizza lost some of its zing.

 

As I reflect back on the experience now, two decades later, I realize the entire episode was not unlike writing a novel.  The walk away from Rochester was akin to the twists and turns and highs of creating the first draft.  You know where you’re going in a broad, general sense, yet the specifics of how to get there are shrouded in mystery and intrigue.  There is always a bend up the road, and until you take it, you can’t be sure what lies beyond. The euphoria of discovery is in the air as you boldly journey into the unknown.

 

Likewise, the return trip back to Rochester, plodding through familiar territory, was like the editing process, hashing over material already on the page, pruning, crafting, reshaping.  There is nothing new here.  The story has already been written.  This is the time to sharpen the focus, tighten the prose, and make sure the plot developments and characters and events link seamlessly together from front to back.  If Character X does this in chapter two, the reverberations must be felt in chapter twenty-seven.  The editing process can be tedious and slow–but it is a crucial aspect to completing a finished project.

 

And that’s where I am currently, in the process of finishing The Singularity Wheel.  I’m walking back to Rochester, as it were, through towns and streets and along back roads I have traveled along before. And yes, it can feel like walking uphill sometimes.  But I have to hope that the extra time and effort will help to shape the final product into something worthwhile.

 

One thing I do know for sure.  When we did get back home to Rochester that hot July of 1995, we felt as though we had accomplished something.  Sure, it would have been easier to hitch a ride back, shorten the journey.  But it wouldn’t have been the same, wouldn’t have meant as much.

 

That first evening back, the sofa had never felt so good.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

When to Leave a Comma in Its Place (Or, Stop Running into All Those Concrete Walls)

At one juncture in his autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last, legendary baseball player and manager Leo Durocher wrote the following:

“[He] might have been the best ballplayer I ever saw.”

High praise indeed from a man who saw, firsthand, many of the game’s all-time greats.  Who was he talking about?  Babe Ruth?  Willie Mays?  Ty Cobb?  Joe DiMaggio?

No.  He was talking about Pete Reiser.

petereiser

 

Pete who?

Durocher goes on to say about Reiser,

“He had more power than Willie [Mays]. . . . Mays was fast, but Reiser was faster.  Name whoever you want to, and Pete Reiser was faster.  Willie Mays had everything.  Pete Reiser had everything but luck.”

Call it what you will–luck, fate, poor decisions, destiny . . .  but Pete Reiser’s career is one of those classic “what-if” stories. What might have been if only . . . ?  Then again, what might have been is clear.  Because, from all accounts, Pete Reiser was the greatest natural talent ever to step foot on a baseball diamond.

In 1941, his first full season in the Majors with the old Brooklyn Dodgers, Reiser, then twenty-two, batted .343 with a league-leading 39 doubles, 17 triples, and 117 runs scored.

ebbetts

 

His .343 average was good enough to win the National League batting crown.  He was the swiftest player in the league, a brilliant outfielder with a powerful throwing arm.  He was such an accomplished outfielder, in fact, that opposing players would stop what they were doing to watch him catch fly balls and then fire them back into the infield during practice drills.  The future beckoned, surely rich with promise, World Series triumphs, awards, and, ultimately, an invitation to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

It was not to be.

When he played center field, Reiser would crouch into his defensive stance just before the pitch and think to himself, “Hit it to me.  Hit it to me.”  He wanted to make every catch, be in on every play.  He was the best athlete on the field, and he knew it.  Everyone did.

Not only did he play the game with grace, power, and supreme skill.  He played hard, and was known throughout the league for his diving, acrobatic catches.  This never-say-die attitude, however, became his undoing.

Pete Reiser was carted off the field eleven times in his too-short playing career.  Determined to get to every ball hit anywhere close to center field, he had a bad habit of racing into outfield walls.  He was even given his last rites once at the stadium.

The play that effectively ended Reiser’s career occurred in 1942.  Trying to flag down a line drive, Reiser slammed into the concrete center-field wall, head-first, at full speed.  Somehow, he managed to get up, retrieve the ball, and throw it back into the infield, before collapsing.  He suffered a severe concussion and a fractured skull.  Doctors told him not to play the remainder of the season.  But, four days later, upon his release from the hospital, Reiser suited up, and played.

He was never the same.  He played several more seasons, and had a couple of decent years, but he was a shell of his former self.  His career statistics are mediocre, easily ignored when flipping through the pages of baseball history.  What could have, and probably should have been the greatest player in the history of the game is now a forgotten anecdote, a small annotation in the bibliography of the twentieth century.

baseballenc

 

In many ways, it can be stated that Pete Reiser’s career was cut short because he tried too hard.  At first blush, such a statement seems ludicrous.  How can anyone try too hard?  Aren’t we supposed to try hard?

But Pete Reiser was reckless when he should have been wise.  An admirable trait, perhaps, but a self-defeating one nonetheless.

***************

Oscar Wilde once famously stated:  “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma.  In the afternoon I put it back again.”

oscarwilde

 

I think any writer can relate to this.  I know when I wrote The Eye-Dancers, there were days when I would agonize over the flow  of one lone paragraph, or the wording of a single sentence.  I would sometimes obsess over a word choice, the beat and rhythm of a sentence, the way one paragraph led into another.

novelediting

 

This is not a bad thing, of course.  Proofreading and copy editing your work is essential.  But it can go too far.  At some point, somehow, you have to be able to turn the page, literally, and say, “This page is done.  This chapter is done.  This story is done.”

No piece of writing is perfect.  We often say, “Make your writing as perfect as it can be before submitting it for publication”–but sometimes we overlook those four crucial words–“as it can be.”  Not “perfect.”  But “as perfect as it can be.”  Granted, we can spend a day as Oscar Wilde did.  We can hem and haw over every verb, every exclamation point, every semicolon.  We can spend decades editing our work-in-progress.  But eventually, you reach a point of diminishing returns, and your work can then actually suffer due to overwork and fatigue.

editing

 

It is the hardest thing for any writer (we are usually our own worst critics) to state: “It’s finished!  My story is ready.”  But these are words we have to be able to say.  When you know, objectively, that you have put as much effort into a story as you reasonably can, it is finished.  Will there be flaws?  Absolutely.  Hamlet has flaws.  The Great Gatsby is imperfect.  Everything is.  But–will it be well crafted?  Will it resonate and engage readers?  Move them, make them want to keep reading, make them care?  These are the questions that matter.

Working hard is one thing.  Taking the time to edit and re-edit and re-edit again is essential.  Generally speaking, when a story seems finished, it isn’t.  There is still work to do, mistakes to clean up, inconsistencies in character and plot to correct.  Settling for anything less, looking for shortcuts and end-arounds will sabotage the story and rob it of its potential.  No arguments there.

But if you find yourself debating the merits of a comma all morning long . . .

comma

 

. . . or sprinting headlong toward a concrete wall, there really is only one thing left to do . . .

stop

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Interlude of Silence

As the summer of 1975 approached, the world waited for Jaws.

jaws

 

Of course today, Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece–based on the novel of the same name by Peter Benchley–is widely considered one of the greatest movies of all time.  The suspense, characters, and drama of Jaws definitely place it in cinema’s upper echelon.  The build-up to the premiere was intense, more than anything the world had seen before.  In many ways, with its advertising blitz and lead-up, Jaws set in motion the Hollywood phenomenon of the mega summer blockbuster that we still see today.  And it delivered in a big way, becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time up until that point.  But what made it so popular?  What aspect of Jaws riveted audiences worldwide?  What, in short, propelled it into an instant classic?

Clearly, there are many strengths to the film, not just one.  But one of the reasons  it works so well is, oddly enough, the absence of the shark during the first two-thirds of the movie.  There are attacks, of course.  Swimmers are torn apart more than once.  But we don’t actually see the shark until the climactic hunt. when Chief Brody, Quint, and Hooper head out and try to find it and kill it.  One explanation for this is purely practical–Spielberg and his crew struggled mightily with the mechanical shark they employed to play the part of the Great White.  It malfunctioned on a daily basis.  Therefore–the less screen time for the problematic shark, the better.  But it was more than that . . .

In the opening sequence of the film, one of the most famous scenes in movie history, a young woman, Chrissie Watkins, decides to take a swim in the ocean, shedding her clothes as she runs along the beach, a young drunk guy trying, and failing, to keep up with her.  When she plunges into the water, she is alone.  Her friend has all but passed out on the beach.

jawsrunning

 

At first, everything is tranquil, idyllic, even.  Chrissie Watkins swims out a few hundred feet, enjoying the water, the freedom, the lack of crowds.  It is late in the day, the sun sinking low in the sky, partially hidden behind thick, billowy clouds.  A beautiful evening for a swim . . .

jawspeace

 

That’s when the camera submerges, and we see her legs kicking beneath the surface of the water.  And that’s when John Williams’ famous Jaws theme begins to play . . .

jawsunder

 

As an audience, we know something is coming.  We even know it’s probably the shark.  But questions abound.  Is it the shark?  Or another one?  If it is Jaws, how large is the shark?  What does it look like, exactly?  When will it strike?

Years later, reflecting on the scene, Steven Spielberg said he deliberately withheld the shark from the audience here.  While he acknowledges showing the shark could have made for a great scene, he points out that by doing so, the opening sequence would have been relegated to just another monster attack.  And we have all witnessed monster scenes at the movies.  Spielberg wanted something different, more primal.  By not showing the Great White, the audience is left imagining it–or blocking it out entirely.  The absence of the “monster,” in effect, creates a much more terrifying, memorable, and powerful scene.

It’s hard for me not to relate this principle to The Eye-Dancers, in particular, and writing in general.   When I finished the first draft of The Eye-Dancers, the word count was a whopping 119,000.  After doing a round of edits, that dropped to 105,000.  But it still wasn’t completed.  More rounds of snipping and pruning followed, and the word count now stands at a shade over 95,000.  Still a good-sized novel, but nowhere near as long as it had been initially.

It’s true, there are fewer jokes told by Ryan Swinton in the final draft than there were in the initial one.  There might not be quite as many examples of Mitchell Brant‘s tall tales now than there were originally.  Maybe one or two of Marc Kuslanski‘s theories didn’t survive the editorial process, and maybe Joe Marma throws one less punch in the final draft.  But hopefully these deletions enhance what remains, and help to create a richer, better-told story.

So often, what’s not included on the printed (or digital, as the case may be!) page is just as essential, and sometimes more so, than what is actually there.  It is the empty gaps between words, the white space between scenes, the lines and paragraphs unspoken that add meaning, nuance, and texture to a story.  The silences speak volumes.

This is something Steven Spielberg knows very well.  Let us return to that opening scene of Jaws . . .

The musical score stops, abruptly, and we see Chrissie Watkins still enjoying her swim.  Then, she suddenly jerks, shutters, as something unseen grabs onto her from the murkiness below.  Her head disappears under the water.  When it appears again, she is gasping, screaming, her shrieks cutting through the darkening twilight as she is flung about by the force of whatever lurks beneath the surface.

jawsfling

 

“It hurts,” she screams.  “It hurts!”  Temporarily she finds refuge at a buoy, holding on, hoping the attack is over.

jawsescape

 

It isn’t.  The unseen monster returns, pulls her away, and she screams again.  Perhaps she clings to a faint hope that her friend on the beach will overhear, and come to her rescue.  But he is oblivious.

She flails at the water, desperate, fighting to escape.

jawsscream

 

But she can’t.  And as she is pulled under, she is still screaming . . .

The next moment, the echoes of her screams fall away, muted by the depths of the sea.  All is quiet now, all is still.  The brutality of the attack stands in horrific counterpoint to the serenity of the ocean at sunset.  The buoy’s bell tinkles softly, softly.  We hear the gentle murmur of the waves as their long, restless journey finally ceases along the sandy shore of the beach.  That is all.  Nothing else can be heard.

And yet–everything can be heard . . .

In the interlude of silence.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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