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

“Outstanding”? (Or, The Delicate Act of Writing a Sequel)

It’s true.  For years, it’s been my dream to be a full-time creative writer, earning a living solely through the art of storytelling.  I guess every writer wishes for this.  But for most of us, we have day jobs that help us to pay our bills, forcing us to pursue our true literary passions in the early-morning hours, late at night, or on weekends–or simply whenever a moment arises where we can spare an hour or two and just write.

writewhencanstart

 

My day job is as a technical writer for a computer software company.  The material I produce in this capacity is, admittedly, drier than day-old toast, but it’s a comfortable environment, and the act of writing technical documents doesn’t drain any of my creativity, leaving me fresh and ready to explore the imaginary byways of my mind after hours.

toast

 

I got started in the technical writing field just as the specter of Y2K hung over the IT world like a giant, ominous shadow.  I was fresh out of college, unsure and uncertain what to expect, when I was hired by a large company in my hometown of Rochester, NY, into a department called Documentation & Publications, or Doc & Pubs for short–which consisted of approximately fifteen technical writers and eight publishers.  I was one of the publishers.  I hoped to graduate into the role of technical writer eventually, and I did, but for a different company and in a different state.

y2k

 

Being a part of the publisher group was good, solid experience.  The publishers, as the department manager told us more than once, represented “the last line of defense.”  Our chief responsibilities were to fact-check and proofread the material sent to us by the technical writers, ensuring grammatical correctness and subject accuracy.

lastlineofdefense

 

One member of the publishing team stood out to me.  John was two years my senior, with a flattop haircut, a mustache, and thick, retro 1970s-style Elvis sideburns.  And whenever anyone asked him how he was, or how his day was going, he would invariably say, “Outstanding!”  (The exclamation point was always audible.)  It didn’t matter if it was Monday, if the morning commute had been marred with blizzard-like conditions or traffic jams, or if he’d just had a run-in with one of the more particular or dour technical writers.  He was always “outstanding.”

elvissideburns

 

I asked him once about that.  “You’re not really ‘outstanding’ all the time, are you?” I wanted to know.

“Actually I am,” he said.  “It’s a choice I make.  I don’t want to be just ‘okay’ or ‘not bad’ or ‘fine.’  I want to be outstanding.  And so, I am.”

He made it sound so simple.

The documents came in fast and furious, every day.  A few were new, created from scratch as it were, detailing some new system or product.  But most of the documents we had to proofread were preexisting ones–voluminous, intimidating manuals in which the writers would add a section here or there, or, in many cases, simply add a sentence or a paragraph to the text.  Many of the changes to systems they documented were, in fact, minor tweaks, building upon the vast amount of material that had already been in place.

preexistingmanuals

 

“The trick,” one of the writers explained to me once, “is to be able to add to what we already have without being redundant.”

Little did I recognize at the time the parallels that existed between tweaking company manuals and the art of writing a sequel . . .

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

When I published The Eye-Dancers, I did not intend to follow it up with a sequel. It had been a rewarding project, and writing about four protagonists all inspired by friends I knew growing up was fun.  But I had no ongoing story line in mind.  I figured I would move on to something else, perhaps something vastly different.

That’s when an image struck me.  It came, as these things so often do, out of the ether, unasked for, unplanned.  I saw Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski standing at the base of a gigantic stone building, looking up at a sky the color of ash.  And then the sky changed.  The clouds dispersed, as if by magic, replaced by a pair of unblinking blue eyes that glared down at the boys with unmistakable ill-will.

eyeinsky

 

I resisted at first.  Did I really want to undertake a sequel?  But the image remained, beckoning, a window to a new story demanding to be told.  Before long, a fully fleshed adventure came into view, and the conviction to write it grew stronger by the day.

And so I began–attempting to write my first-ever sequel.  I immediately encountered issues I’d never considered or dealt with before.  How much information from the first book needed to be touched upon or referenced in the second?  Granted, a sequel should be able to stand alone, on its own merit.  But at the same time, to ignore pertinent bits of information from the first book seemed like a blatant omission.  The question was–how much was too much?  Or too little?  I remembered the discussion I’d had with that technical writer a decade and a half earlier–about building on a preexisting foundation without being redundant.  Somewhere in all this, there had to be a happy medium.

happymediumgoldenmean

 

Months elapsed, and the story progressed.  Then life would get in the way, inspiration would dwindle, and the pace would slow.  Every now and then, Mitchell or Joe, Ryan or Marc, or even Monica Tisdale, the “ghost girl,” would trip me up, forcing me to look at something in a way I hadn’t planned.  And sometimes the plot would take a sudden turn, away from the paved road I had mapped out, forging instead over unpredictable marshy swampland, through thick, canopied forests, or barbed-wired ravines.  Through it all, though, I have felt a burning drive to carry the story to its conclusion, to travel with the characters as they battle and discover and scratch and stumble their way on the path of self-growth and accomplishment.  It’s been a long, sometimes turbulent, but always interesting ride.

canopiedforest

 

The current status of the project remains–in progress, but with an eye toward the finish line.  Twenty-one chapters have been written, complete with numerous, laborious revisions.  Nine chapters are left to write.

nineleft

 

The goal is to have the sequel ready right around the time the ball is dropped in Times Square on that cold, dark winter night.  The characters, as they always do, are leading the way, and they are urging me on, eager to finish the race.  But it won’t be easy.  They are being tested more than ever this time around.

timessquareball

 

As I’ve examined and picked through what I have so far, I’ve been critical, doubtful, unsure.  Is the story any good?  Will readers of The Eye-Dancers enjoy this continuation?  Or will it flop, crashing and burning like a doomed meteor breaking through the earth’s atmosphere, reduced to smoking fragments of dust and debris?

meteor

 

I wish I knew.  Time will tell.  But as I round the bend and endeavor to complete the journey, overcoming the delays and potholes and moments when the sheer scope of the project and story line makes me want to pull out my hair at its roots, I will try, as best I can, to harness my inner John.

How’s the sequel going?

“Outstanding!”

outstanding

 

Thanks so much for reading!

Mike

%d bloggers like this: