Show-Business

I’m doing a book tour, of sorts!

I’m doing my best to set up lots of free, online author talks through libraries. Because they’re online, not only do I not need to worry about COVID-19, I also don’t need to travel. I’ve done one event so far. Several others are planned. I’ve contacted about a quarter of the libraries I plan to ask, so hopefully many more will be scheduled over the summer and autumn.

Online events are not that much different from in-person. You don’t need to travel. You do need to figure out where to park yourself during the Zoom so you will have a suitable background. You CAN sell signed copies, but only if you have some sort of online storefront. You’ll have to handle the logistics of shipping yourself.

So far, here’s what I’ve found out:

  • Most libraries don’t respond. Contact as many libraries as possible, and don’t wait for libraries to respond before contacting more.
  • If a library doesn’t respond, send a follow-up. Those who don’t respond to the first follow-up may respond to a second-follow-up, but they’re more likely to say no than the prompt responders.
  • A spreadsheet to keep track of all this is absolutely necessary.
  • Some states have libraries much more interested in online programming than others. Reach out to libraries in more than one state to increase your chance of getting yeses.
  • The library will do most of the publicity, but they’ll need a photo of you, the cover image of your book, and perhaps other information. Offer to post about the event on your social media, too.
  • Do not host the Zoom yourself. The library does that.
  • Ask your library contact to be a reference for you to other libraries in the future.
  • It’s useful to have an assistant who can take care of any problems (dogs barking, phone calls, etc.) that happen while you’re on the call.
  • Plan to sign on at least five minutes ahead of time, in case of technical problems.
  • Make sure the host knows your screen name.
  • Have a phone number you can call in case of a last-minute technical problem.
  • Consider asking to have the participants un-muted and visible (individual participants should still have the option to turn off their mikes and cameras if they want). I know that muting and/or hiding participants is standard for Zoom, but performing is very hard without any audience reaction. You need to know if they’re laughing, crying, or what.
  • You can totally put the text of your talk up on your screen and read your presentation. Just look at the camera sometimes. Your participants won’t be able to tell.
  • Did you remember to take the tape off your camera?
  • After the event, remember to thank your contact at the library and offer your services in case they need somebody in the future–if somebody cancels, for example. The idea is to build a relationship. That way, you’ll be able to talk there with your next book.
  • Expect to feel strange after the event. It’s natural to feel some anxiety–or some excitement–about the event. Afterwards, that releases, and it’s hard to predict what form that will take. I’ve been manic. I’ve been depressed. This past time, I simply fell asleep. The bottom line is, give yourself time afterwards to let whatever happens happen.

If you want me to come to a library near you, just ask.

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Getting the Jab

So, I got the first injection of my COVID-19 vaccine today. It was….interesting.

I don’t like needles. I’m not super-phobic about it, but it’s not my favorite thing, and usually when I know I’m going to get an injection I kind of drag my feet a little. Not so this time. I WANTED that needle in my arm. True, sorting out the details of getting the injection required some badgering on the part of my husband, but that’s because I don’t like bureaucracies, either. Once I learned where to go, I was happy to turn up at the walk-in site right when they opened the doors.

The whole thing was absurdly well-organized. Directional signs led me through the parking lot, past four uniformed soldiers all in a bunch assigned to tell participants to “turn left and then he’ll tell you where to park,” and then another soldier literally assigning parking spots. I pulled into my spot, took off my glasses (my mask fogs them up), and got out. The convention center loomed. More soldiers stood by to make sure I used the right door.

Over the loudspeaker blared the song, “Taking Care of Business.”

Inside, the line twisted here and there, with tape on the floor in various colors to indicate how far apart we should stand. There weren’t a lot of people ahead of me, and the line moved swiftly.

Four or five tables of soldiers in masks and face shields waited to check us in. When one of them was free, she beckoned. I gave her my ID, glanced over the information sheets she waved in front of me, and answered a couple of questions. Was I sick today? Had I been vaccinated already? Have I ever had a serious allergic reaction? She made me an appointment for the follow-up injection and explained my vaccination card to me. She sent me on around a corner and through a doorway. Upbeat pop music continued to play.

I felt absurdly excited. The vaccine! The vaccine! Today’s the day!

Inside the door lay the cavernous interior of the convention center, a space that felt a good deal more like a gymnasium than a theater. I saw Mannheim Steamroller here a year and a half ago and ended up unpleasantly overstimulated. One of these days I may learn to bring earplugs to concerts. I liked the space better without the noise and the light show, frankly.

A mix of soldiers and volunteers shepherded us along, asked the questions over again, and one of them gave me a yellow slip of blank paper without explanation. “Happy vaccination day!” one of them told me, beaming. They were all friendly and efficient.

There were rows and rows of tables, each with two people at it, one to do paperwork, the other to do the injection.

“I don’t like needles,” confessed. “I’m not gonna pass out on you or anything, but I don’t like them.”

“It’s just a butterfly kiss,” the paperwork-person assured me. I knew she was lying, but let it slide. “Don’t look. Breathe deeply,” advised the woman with the needle, more helpfully.

See, I know these injections hardly even hurt, it’s just the anticipation that–

“OW!” This one did hurt. Quite a lot, actually. I was surprised. Worth it, though.

“I guess I said a lie,” the paper-work-woman said. No, s___, I thought, but I didn’t say it.

“I’ve never been kissed by a butterfly,” I told her, instead. “So maybe you didn’t.”

I was then herded into a large area of socially-distanced chairs, where I found out what the yellow slip was for; had it been a red slip, I would have had to wait under observation for half an hour. With yellow, I only had to wait fifteen minutes. A pretty woman with a slight foreign accent I couldn’t place told us about the symptoms of allergic reaction and told us to call her if we experienced any. She also passed out information that I mostly already had, but maybe not everyone does. I spent my fifteen minutes looking around, watching the volunteers at the injection tables wave little green flags (to show they were available, I imagine) and trying not to convince myself I was having an allergic reaction–I don’t know about you, but if someone says “you’re not having trouble breathing, are you?” I start feeling strange right away.

When my fifteen minutes were up, I left, though the woman with the accent tried to get me to sit down again because she thought I’d just arrived (we must all look the same to her, after a while). As I exited the building, I once again noticed what song was playing–“Walking on Sunshine.”

Walkin’ on sunshine, yeah, and don’t it feel good?

Yes, it does.

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What I’m Up To

I began this blog with the intention of writing about my various professional activities–what was happening on my other blogs, where I was getting published, that sort of thing. The idea was that while my work might be scattered across a dozen different platforms, there would be one central location where you could find out about it.

Hence the name, News From Caroline.

That plan lasted about two posts. Talking about myself to people I don’t know (yet) isn’t really my thing.

But the original idea is still sound. I should tell you about what’s going on with me professionally, at least now and then. And today is the day to start.

Books

I write books. I like writing books. I write good books. Only, at the moment I’m not doing a lot of writing because a lot of my time and energy is going into marketing my books. I don’t want to be the tree nobody hears in the forest.

Sometime I’ll wrote a whole post about my marketing adventure, in case any of you find yourself in a similar situation, but basically I hired someone to talk with me about marketing, provide outside accountability and make suggestions on strategy. His suggestion is to contact hundreds, possibly thousands, of libraries and bookstores in order to set up free, online author talks. Only a minority will say yes, but that’s why I’m contacting so many of them. It seems to be working.

I’ll let you know about these events so you can attend some of them if you want.

Blogs

Currently, I have one other blog I’m actively posting to, The Climate in Emergency blog. Most weeks, I update it on Tuesday. I also use that site to curate a list of environmental action opportunities, mostly petitions and called to email Congresspeople, but occasionally other events.

The blog itself is a mix of science explainers, personal experience, commentary, interviews, and sometimes book reviews.

If you have a project you want me to cover, get in touch.

Other Stuff

I earn my living from free-lance writing. At the moment, none of my clients give me a byline, so it’s hard to really boast about any of it in any detail, but I’m mostly occupied by writing about birds, mushrooms, and sports. One of my projects is finishing up, so I’ll be looking for new clients soon.

I enjoy free-lancing. I enjoy having reason to learn about things I might not otherwise study, and I enjoy the variety that having multiple clients gives me. Staying on a single topic hour after hour, day after day, isn’t really my thing. You could call it a problem.

I call it my super-power.

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Eight Writing Tips for Me

Last week, I posted eight pieces of advice I wanted to offer new writings. This week I’m posting eight pieces of advice I’ve received and benefited from. It’s curious that the two lists are not the same, but the puzzle is simply explained: the advice I give is a response to the mistakes I see other writers make, whereas the advice I’ve received is a response to the mistakes I’ve made.

Not that there is anything wrong with making mistakes (not in art, anyway–neurosurgery is another matter!).

These are not, by the way, in the form that the advice was given to me. They are distillations of teachings that either stretched out over multiple conversations, came from multiple people in different forms, or depended on some kind of larger context to make sense. I’m not repeating my teachers’ words; I’m relaying what they taught me.

1. Don’t Invent Your Own Orthography

Yes, way back when, I capitalized all words with spiritual significance (which for me includes A LOT of words) and sometimes altered spellings on purpose for reasons I never quite bothered to define. That was artistically juvenile of me, which was quite appropriate, as I was then a very new writer. Artistically, I was a juvenile. I stopped when an editor told me to.

It’s not that you can’t use non-standard capitalization, spelling, and punctuation. Sometimes, in fact, you very much should. It’s that when you use non-standard stuff, it’s going to snag your readers’ attention, so you’d better only do it when you want their attention specially snagged, not as a matter of course. Distracting the reader is bad.

2. Don’t Quote Song Lyrics in Their Entirety

Well, sometimes you can quote entire songs. There is a time and a place. The thing to keep in mind is that if you want to communicate the feeling of listening to a song, quoting the lyrics won’t do it–and not just because the tune and so forth are missing. If you have a character reading a poem from a book and feeling deeply moved by it, quoting the poem in its entirety might not be the thing to do, even though it seems like you’d be giving your reader the same experience the character is having–reading a poem in a book.

The issue is that part of the character’s experience is not due to the song or the poem but instead depends on the inside of the character’s head. Your reader’s insides are different, so your reader will experience the song or the poem differently. If you want the reader to understand how the song makes the character feel–or how it makes you feel, if you’re writing personal non-fiction essays–it is the feeling and not the song you need to present.

Some quotes from the song can help present the feeling, if they’re carefully put in context, just remember that your objective is the experience the song triggers and not the song itself.

3. Remember Racism

I know you don’t think you are racist (or sexist, or homophobic, or whatever), and perhaps in most respects you are not, but you live in a society that very much is. You’re infected. And that means you are capable of saying, or more to the point, writing, the most shockingly horrible things when you aren’t paying attention. Stuff that comes in through your ears and eyes (and hands, if you read Braille) can come out of your mouth and hands whether or not you believe it.

So pay attention. Watch your similes, your character descriptions, your plot devices, and your assumptions for signs that you might be saying things you don’t really want to say. It is easier than you might think to goof up.

4. Remember Somebody Is Going to Read This

Writing feels safely anonymous and private. And, indeed, if you’re writing a private diary, it can be. But if you are writing for publication, you’re not in private anymore.

Are you writing sex scenes? Your mother is going to read those. Are you writing about some upsetting event from your childhood? The other people involved are going to read your side of the story at last. Are you writing a journalistic or scholarly piece about a public figure? Your writings will help shape their reputation and, indirectly, their life. What you write matters.

I’m not saying don’t write. Maybe you’re OK with your mother reading those scenes. Maybe the people who bothered your childhood should hear your side of it. Maybe that public figure has it coming. Just don’t let the safe, private feeling of writing trick you into telling the world things you don’t actually want to tell the world, yet.

5. Don’t Assume You Are a Great Writer

There is a certain amount of arrogance that is absolutely required for writers, particularly for novelists. Statistically, your chance of making it is very close to nil, but you’ve got to believe you are an exception. Your book is one in a million, one in ten million, which is why it’s going to be widely read when a million or ten million books aren’t. A hundred years from now, kids are going to be reading your book in tenth grade because you are that good. If you don’t believe it, you won’t be able to get out of bed in the morning.

On the other hand, if you believe you are already a great writer, you won’t bother to get out of bed. Writing well is very hard work, and if you think you’re already great, you won’t put in the effort to get better.

You may be naturally talented. You may be well-educated. You may have dedicated every waking moment and some of your dreams to honing your craft for the last 34 years. Good for you! But when you sit down to write the next book, the next article, the next click-baity thing your client has you doing so you can earn the rent, you’ve got to remember; you’re not good enough–yet.

Your best book is always your next one.

6. Don’t Mistake Style for Substance

You’re good at style. That is, you’re good at using language to present a feeling, idea, or message. But do you understand the message you’re presenting?

When I was three or so, my mother asked me what color I wanted my room painted.

“What color is it now?” I asked.

“Light blue with dark blue trim,” she replied.

“Dark blue with light blue trim,” I decided. And so my room was painted, and so it remained for the rest of my childhood. It looked good. But maybe you’re wondering why I had to ask the color of my room–didn’t I know what color it was?

No, I didn’t, although I had spent a lot of time there, had good color vision, and was actually standing in my room when I asked the question. The thing is that while I could probably have named the color blue if somebody had pointed at it and quizzed me, I could not yet understand color as a property distinct from the colored thing. The idea that my room had a color, and that it might have a different color, was beyond me. Also, I didn’t know what “trim” meant. On one level, I did not understand the question at all.

On another level I understood it quite well.

I understood that my mother wanted to change my room and that I had to tell her how to change it. And I understood the English language well enough that I was able to re-arrange the phrase “light blue with dark blue trim” to make a different but grammatically equivalent phrase, “dark blue with light blue trim.”

I can still do this. Some years ago, I was hired to write a series of buying guides to various types of fashionable women’s clothing. The problem was I didn’t know anything about fashion or, for that matter, women’s clothing. But I do understand grammar and linguistic style, so I simply read a number of other buying guides on the same topics and re-arranged them. I turned out multiple 500-word articles full of plausible, grammatically-correct phrases in a suitable order without ever figuring out why anyone would want to wear bedazzled jeans in the first place. The client liked it.

Making sentences I don’t understand is a useful trick, and I’m glad I can do it, but it is a trick. There was a time I did not know that. I thought, for example, that because I could write something that looked like a scientific paper (it had the same dry, pedantic tone), that I could write a scientific paper.

My advisor had a word for that: pretentious.

7. Semi-colons Are Not Actually That Cool, However

Neither are the words “however” and “actually.”

I naturally tend towards very long, convoluted sentences. It’s not more pretentiousness, it’s that my thoughts are long and convoluted. You know those Family Circus panels where the mother asks little Jeffy to go tell his father something, and then there’s a map showing all the places he went on the way? He does about six miles while making his way from the living room to the kitchen. Well, my mind does that. I’m glad it does. I have a good mind. It goes to lots of interesting places. But that doesn’t mean you, the reader, need to go to all of those places with me, just to get to the kitchen.

Less is more, as my wise advisor said. Repeatedly.

8. Don’t Mimic Bad Writing

Mimicry is OK, as long as you don’t cross the line into plagiarism (even plagiarism is fine for your own entertainment or as a writing exercise, you just can’t publish it). Doing what others have done is a good way to learn something of what they know, and while it’s important to develop your own style at some point, there is no reason to reinvent the wheel. If you like reading Ernest Hemingway, go ahead and use lots of short, declarative sentences. If you like reading Douglas Adams, go ahead and create slightly bent similes (referring to a beverage as “almost but not quite entirely unlike tea” is still one of my favorites of his. “It hung in the air exactly the way large buildings don’t” is another). If you really like Ursula K. LeGuin, go ahead  and use paired-down, minimalist descriptions to create the illusion that the imaginary thing you’re describing is not only real but familiar (what is a Hainish iyanwi? I don’t know, but the crew of the Shoby ate a delicate one with all seven sauces, and now I want some). Mimicking the masters is a tried-and-true step on the way to becoming one.

Just make sure the master in question is worthy of mimicry.

The problem is that a lot of very bad writing is either enjoyable, nearly ubiquitous, or both, making it hard to identify as bad. For example, as a kid I read a zillion Star Trek novels. I enjoy Star Trek, and I liked being able to find the same characters, the same world, the same kinds of scenarios repeated in as many books as I cared to read. The world of Trek is infinite! No, logic suggests it is not, says Spock. You just hush, retorts McCoy. It’s close enough. You’re both right, says the adult me, but the world of Trek in novels is largely (not entirely!) sloppy writing that wouldn’t appeal to a non-Trekkie. Melodramatic exclamation points, head-hopping, and villainous interior monologues abound.

Not that there weren’t well-done points to those books–that these writers were able to reproduce the characters (and the character) of Trek so dependably is truly impressive. By the same token, there are some truly masterful books that have major holes in their craft. For example, Lord of the Rings almost entirely lacks character development arcs. 2001: A Space Odyssey has a series of viewpoint characters that feel largely interchangeable because they all have the same voice. This isn’t about sorting the literary world into good and bad books–there’s no clear line between the two.

Then there are the mistakes that are hard to identify as such because they are everywhere.

The point is not to assume that everything other writers do, even popular writers whose work you like, is automatically worth doing.

Some is, some isn’t.

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Eight Tips for New Writers

Very occasionally, I’m asked for advice by new writers. More often, new writers go ahead and figure it out on their own–not really surprising, given that I’m not famous. Most new writers don’t know I exist. But on the off-chance that somebody does want to know, here are my latest suggestions on the craft of writing.

Note that all this applies to ANY kind of writing, from fiction to journalism to scientific papers, though the process is probably more straight-forward for some kinds of writing than others.

Also please note that while I put these in order for a reason, doing them in a different order can work, too.

1. In the Beginning, Ignore Advice

The first thing you, as a new writer, must learn to do is to trust your creative self–and let your creativity learn to trust you. That means just write. Write whatever you feel like writing, however you feel like writing it. Do not show it to anybody who can’t be relied on to shower you with praise (ideally your praiser will be honest but tactful, telling you where your strengths lie and just not mentioning your weaknesses yet. Lying and undeserved flattery can actually undermine your confidence). Assure your muse that you will faithfully write down anything and everything you are given to write. Enjoy yourself.

Eventually you will need to accept criticism and pay attention to the needs of the market (the rules of your genre, the demands of your client, whatever applies in your case). But do that later. And if you want to keep writing as your private hobby, it’s OK to stop here and just write as you please. Not everybody has to be a professional.

2. Read a Lot

There are a lot of reasons a writer should read, and they don’t all apply to all writers, nor do they all apply all the time. For example, if you were a bookworm as a kid and a teenager, you might find that continuing to read is largely unnecessary as you write as an adult. But you need at least to have read. A lot.

Here are a few reasons why.

To Get Yourself an Education

Writers’ groups on Facebook are full of people asking questions about what’s OK in fiction. Can a villain be the protagonist? Can the protagonist die at the end? Can the main character be an animal? Can the whole story turn out to be a dream? Can there be love stories that don’t include sex? Is cursing or slang acceptable in writing?

Most of these questions can be answered by reading a lot and playing attention.

It’s true even a diligent reader might miss something–I somehow missed the existence of epistolary novels and had to ask about them (no, I didn’t know to call them that)–but you’ll get about 90% of your questions answered before you even think to ask them if you just read a lot for several years.

This principle applies to writing in general and to specific types of writing, each of which has its own norms and guidelines. You should read the kind of writing you want to write (in addition to anything else you might want to read).

To Find Out What Others Are Writing

If you wanted to join a conversation at a party, how would you do it? You’d probably listen without speaking for a minute or so, right? Or else you’d ask what the conversation was about. You wouldn’t just jump in and start talking without listening first.

Writing works the same way. All published writing is part of conversations–between writers and readers, and also among writers. In scholarly writing, the requirement to listen first is explicit; among the first thing students in any scholarly field must learn is how to review the existing literature of their field. Without this grounding in what has already been said, they would not know what still needs saying. While fiction writers don’t have to do formal literature studies (not a bad idea, though), if they want to publish, they will need to find out which genre(s) their work belongs to, what topics and styles are hot right now, and which are over-done.

Not that writing strictly to meet market demand is a good idea, but if you want to sell your work, you need to know the lay of the land.

To Hone Your Craft

There is a tradition, in painting, of studying the masters. How did the really great painters do what they did? Paint a copy of the Mona Lisa, brush stroke by brush stroke, and you will learn a great deal about paint. Analyze the composition of the famous image, and you will learn how to compose your own images.

Writers can do the same thing. I have not, personally, done much with imitating the masters, but it’s not a bad idea. I’ve heard of writers who actually do copy over existing text, word for word, as practice, and deliberately mimicking the style of a favorite writer (without necessarily intending to publish the result) could be very useful. What I do is less mimicking and more study. How did the writer achieve this effect? What, exactly, is good about this piece? Why is it good?

Note that studying bad writers can be just as useful as studying good ones. I wouldn’t recommend ever mimicking a bad writer–the problems might prove habit-forming–but figuring out how it’s bad and why it’s bad and how to avoid being bad in the same way is excellent practice.

Not that “good” and “bad” are binary. There are excellent books that include grave mistakes, and truly awful books that do one or two things very well. Learn from all of it.

3. Be Obsessive

If you think I’m suggesting that you think constantly about the craft of writing even when reading for pleasure, you’re right.

While you’re at it, practice constructing clear sentences when writing off-the-cuff emails and shopping lists. Daydream about how you’d describe, in writing, every experience you have. Expand your vocabulary by thinking carefully about word choice in every conversation you listen to. Be totally obsessed.

Becoming an excellent writer takes a lot of work, and if you want to make significant progress (you will never actually be done becoming) before you die of extreme old age, you’ve got to devote most of your waking hours to the project. If you want to become excellent, you probably already feel yourself driven to do just that–you probably really like thinking about writing. You don’t need me to tell you to be obsessive, you only need me to tell you that being obsessive is OK. Keep doing it.

If you’re not obsessed with writing, though, please don’t take it as a sign that you’re “not meant” to be a writer. Do you mean to be a writer? Yes? Well, there you go. You’re meant. You may even end up as an excellent writer–I doubt you’ll be as excellent as you would have been, but that’s OK. You’re in charge, here. All I’m saying is that a little obsession can be very helpful.

4. Use as Few Words as Possible

Here, I don’t mean to keep your word counts low. I don’t even mean to cultivate a spare or laconic style (though you can, if you want to). I mean make every word count. Say as much as possible with very few words. Then add a few more words and say even more.

Less is more. More is good. Avoid filler, waste, and unintentional distraction.

5. Learn About the Real World

Even if you want to write fantasy, your writing must be grounded in the real world or the reader won’t be able to relate to it. That is, go ahead and write about a giant, flying dragon, but use your knowledge of the real world to figure out how the flapping wings sound, how the fire of its breath smells.

If you want to write about courtroom dramas, learn about the law. If you want to write historical fiction, study history. If you want to write political commentary, learn whatever you must to know what you’re talking about. Conversely, if you know nothing whatever of modern civics and don’t care to learn, go ahead and write about kingdoms of dragons. It’s totally OK to hide your ignorance through judicious selection of topic.

I do recommend learning a few basics as background. You want to avoid distracting bits of inaccuracy. For example, if your main character has a pet cat and you don’t, at least learn enough about cats to know that they don’t use their tails to point at things. If the cat is important enough to mention at all, it’s important enough to get right. And if you’re going to write about imaginary worlds, even if your main interest is in the social relationships of your characters, do learn at least a little about evolutionary processes, biodiversity, geology, and climatology. That way your made-up world won’t distract readers who care about these things. You might also find unexpected sources of inspiration.

6. Learn to Accept Criticism

You are not your writing. Your writing is not you. If you want to become a good writer, you simply must learn not experience professional criticism as an attack. You need honest feedback, and you are unlikely to get it if the people you seek feedback from are trying to spare your feelings.

This doesn’t mean you must accept criticism from everybody all the time. Do not allow anyone to bully you or to attempt to control your creative process. It’s OK to say you don’t want feedback yet, or to ask for feedback only on one aspect of your piece (“does the basic premise of this essay make sense? Please ignore the run-on sentences, I’ll fix those later” or “Just tell me whether the main character is likeable”). You also don’t need to enjoy being told you need to fix something. I don’t.

The point is that sometimes the kindest, most loving thing someone can say to you is “this isn’t good enough. Do it better.” You need to get yourself to a point where you can hear that and honestly respond, “OK, thank you for telling me.”

7. Hire Editors

That kind, honest person I refer to above? They probably aren’t working for free. Yes, there are all sorts of circumstances, from the casual and spontaneous to the very formal, where you might get some feedback for free, but there are limits. Professional-level editing should be paid, even if you happen to be friends with, or related to, your editor.

Look, I understand that you might not have much money. I also understand that you might be a professional editor yourself. Neither fact gets you out of needing to hire professional editors, and yes I pluralized that on purpose–there is more than one kind of editing, and while you might not need all of them, you do likely need more than one.

If money is tight but you’re going to splurge on something, splurge on hiring editors. They are worth the expense, and no matter how good you are at editing, someone else will be able to notice stuff in your work that you can’t.

If you really, honestly, can’t afford to hire someone, then you can’t. But understand that your writing will not be as good as it would otherwise be. Being poor is tragic, at times.

8. Have a Life

Don’t spend all your time writing, or you won’t have anything to write about. That goes for people who write about things completely outside their real lives, too (like dragon kingdoms). There is a inner richness that all good writing takes root in, and if you don’t have a life you will run out of richness and your writing will be bad.

Plus, you won’t have a life.

Have a life.

 

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On Field Guides

Note: I found this post in Drafts. It was an early version of something I posted in the last few weeks, but looking over my old drafts, I decided I like this version better. So I finished it up and here it is.-C.

Nobody, so far as I know, studies field guides in English class.

That is, they are not generally treated as books, as works that can be well-written or poorly written, as texts that can be read critically in order to glean insights to the author’s perspective or to the cultural moment that their creation represents. Field guide reviews often look more like descriptions of tools, and of course guides are tools, in a way.

But they are also books.

I want to use this post to begin to talk about them as books, to discuss what defines the genre and, perhaps inject into the zeitgeist a few thoughts on what makes a guide well done.

What Makes a Good Field Guide

Field guides, as many people know, are those little books designed to be carried outdoors in a pocket or a backpack and used to look up the identity of whatever birds or bugs or rocks or whatever else the reader finds along the way. Usually a field guide will have a fairly narrow topic, such as reptiles of the Northeast, and a durable, water-resistant design.

I own dozens of these things. Most of mine are about plants, though I have several bird books, a mushroom book, and a few others. I have my favorites (dinged up pretty badly from use), and I have a few I haven’t really gotten into yet. There are some that irritate me every time I look at them because they just don’t work.

Sometimes it’s a matter of personal taste. For example, I don’t like plant books that are illustrated with photographs, as I find the visual complexity makes it harder to tell what I’m really looking at. I prefer line drawings, like those used by Peterson or Newcomb. But I can imagine how some people might prefer photographs, and it’s possible I could come to appreciate photographs myself someday.

But then there are the guides that plain don’t work, usually because they are conceptually flawed.

Field Guides vs. Handbooks

The most common problem I’ve seen in otherwise well-made field guides, is that they aren’t field guides.

A field guide is for looking up the identity of things. That means the reader doesn’t know what the thing to be looked up is, right? So why does my field guide to birds’ nests list its entries only by the name of the bird? If I want to know what the nest of a purple finch looks like I can turn to the appropriate page and see a picture, but if I’ve got a nest and want to know what bird built it, I’m out of luck unless I want to sit there and compare it to every single picture in the book, hoping I get lucky.

A reference book for nests or feathers or minerals, or cloud types, or whatever else can be a very useful thing. Maybe you know this tree is either a black locust or a honey locust, and that the best way to tell them apart is thorn length–but you can’t remember which one has the longer thorns. Or you want to learn the field marks of the lovely male scarlet tanager, because you’ve heard one’s in your neighborhood and you want to know him when you see him. Or maybe you saw a Fowler’s toad this morning, and you know it was a Fowler’s, but you want to learn something about it besides the name. These are all good things to be able to look up–but the book you look them up with is not a field guide; it’s a handbook or an encyclopedia. And it should say so on the cover.

Handbooks masquerading as field guides are one problem. Another is the hybrids, books that are field guide-ish up to a point but then turn into handbooks without warning.

For example, a certain guide to trees and shrubs has a simplified key allowing the reader to use leaf and twig characteristics to place an unknown plant in a category. All the plants in that category are then illustrated on the same page or two, so picking which one looks right is easy. The problem is that one of the categories (woody plants with alternate, simple leaves) is very large, too large for easy comparison of pictures. So the author subdivides it into headings like “Magnolias” and “Moonseeds,” which is all very well and good if you know what a moonseed is, but I don’t, and this otherwise excellent book won’t tell me.

If I were queen of the world, I’d make sure that all field guides were field guides, and all other reference books were properly labeled.

What’s In, What’s Out?

Almost all field guides bite off more than they can chew. It’s unavoidable. There is just too much detail in the world to fit all of it into a field guide. Some guides narrow their topic enough to permit complete, or nearly complete, inclusion, but many seek breadth at the expense of depth—field guides to insects, for example, usually can’t do much more than indicate the major families, since there are way too many different kinds of insects to fit in a reasonably-sized book.

Even the best field guides can’t include everything. The important question is what to leave out?

Me, I’m reasonably satisfied with my wildflower guides. They do a good job of including most of the species I’m likely to find in my area, and the best of them are well-organized enough that I can find where a species ought to be in the book, and if it isn’t there I know it’s been skipped. I don’t have to wonder whether maybe I just couldn’t find it—and usually I can at least narrow it down and say the flower is “some kind of phlox,” or whatever.

In contrast, I’ve given up on the insect book my mother has. It’s strictly based on comparing photographs, meaning that if the exact species you’re wondering about isn’t in the book (and remember, most of them can’t be), you’re out of luck entirely.

A good field guide should include:

1) the means to put any given sample in a broad category, such as the right family, even if it’s not covered at the species level, and;

2) be easy enough to use that the reader can tell for sure that something isn’t in the book, as opposed to just lost in the pages somewhere.

Those that don’t are frustrating at best and can frankly turn a person off to a whole area of otherwise happy geekery.

In Praise of Ignorance

A good field guide is based on the principle that the reader does not know the identity of the thing being looked up. As already noted, a book that required the reader to know the name of a thing before looking it up isn’t a field guide at all. But there are genuine guides that still require readers to know too much.

For example:

I have a field guide to trees. It’s easy to use in most respects, and it includes all tree species within its range. Great! Except “trees” are defined as woody plants having a single main stem and capable of growing more than twelve feet tall–smaller woody plants count as shrubs and aren’t included. And there is no way to tell the difference between a young tree and a mature shrub if you don’t already know what plant you’re looking at. The problem is especially vexing given that the book focuses on leaf and twig characteristics as identification cues, meaning that if a plant is big enough that it’s obviously a tree, the leaves and twigs are likely too far off the ground to get a good look at. It’s the saplings I want to look up.

Of course, a book that included all woody plants, even over a limited geographic range, would be too big to carry into the field. The subject matter has to be divided somehow. I just wish it were divided in a way that respected the user’s perspective. For example, the book could include all woody plants except vines, subshrubs (those less than knee-height; they have a shape very different from a tree seedling of the same size), and species that only occur on shorelines and mountain tops. I may not know whether the plant I’m looking at is a shrub or a tree, but I know if I’m standing next to the ocean!

No matter how natural and important a categorical distinction might seem, it shouldn’t be the organizational principle of a field guide if it’s not evident to the reader who wants to look something up.

Field Guides, the Next Generation

I have a book that purports to be a “next-generation field guide,” meaning that it builds on the field guide concept to offer something new. It does not do a very good job, but it did get me thinking–what would a good next-generation field guide be? What might that phrase mean?

One possibility is that a “next-generation” field guide would not be a field guide at all but rather a handbook. You’d use a traditional field guide to find the name of whatever it is, and then look up the name in a handbook in order to learn about its ecological relationships, its behavior, its history, or some other, deeper aspect of its identity. In fact, such books exist–notably in two groups of three books each by John Eastman. One group is about birds, the other about plants.

The other direction to extend the field guide is into the digital age. Of course, this has been done–there are bird-watching apps, plant-identification apps, and so forth. However, those that I’ve heard of are either based picture recognition (snap a photo and your phone tells you what you took a picture of), or they are simply computerized versions of traditional field guides. What I’d like to see, and I have no idea whether this exists yet, is an electronic guide that takes full advantage of its electronic status to transcend the limitations of traditional guides.

Such an app could include every single plant species in North America, no need to leave anything out (or every bird species, etc.). A dichotomous key, still the best way to identify anything, could be made much more user-friendly as a simple series of questions whose answers automatically took the reader to the next question, without the need for confusing numbers and “if not, then go to” instructions. You could progress through several layers of identification, finding out, for example, that you had a warbler, before going on to learn which warbler you had. And you could get partial identifications–for example, if you didn’t get a good look or your specimen wasn’t in good condition, you might not be able to get a firm ID, but you could narrow it down to a couple of likely options. And separate identification pathways could exist for all variations, so that no matter the age, sex, subspecies, or color morph of your specimen, you could still find out what it is.

After having identified the thing, the app could then display links to articles on the thing.

The point is that there are ways to expand the field guide concept, perhaps in ways it has not been expended before.

Field Guides as Literature

A field guide appears to be a wholly objective item, simply a presentation of facts. Guides do not set out to make arguments, express opinions, or please the senses. And yet an objective presentation of the facts, in an absolute sense, is impossible. Field guides, like other books, are written by people and reflect the priorities, preferences, and biases of their authors.

I don’t mean to suggest anything nefarious or corrupt. I have never encountered a field guide that seemed to be pushing a hidden agenda, for example. And yet I have seen signs of their belonging to particular world views.

In some cases, this belonging seems benign. For example, a common category among plant books is the wildflower guide–although “wildflower” is not a botanical term. While “flowering plant” is a real botanical category, it includes lots of plants (such as grasses) whose flowers are not at all showy, as well as plants that can flower, but aren’t doing so at the moment. But lots of people like pretty flowers, so there are books for identifying pretty flowers. That preference is a bias that shapes the world of field guides. There are doubtless others.

Less benign is the fact that bird guides are often organized as though adult males were simply more important than females or juvenile males–they are featured more prominently, easier to look up, and described more fully. Since males are frequently prettier than females, this could simply be similar to the wildflower thing, but it probably also reflects, and contributes to, systemic sexism.

The bottom line is that the structure and style and area of focus of a field guide are not neutral. They are the result of human decisions, for better or worse. A reader can make better use of the book by thinking critically about these decisions, instead of simply accepting the results as given.

Maybe we should read field guides in English class.

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The Wreck of the Good Ship, Pivot

So I want to tell you about the whale. I’m not going to to talk about the craft of writing or any of my current projects, like I do for most of my posts here. It’s just that I saw a dead whale the other day, and I’d like to tell you about it.

I’ve seen other dead whales, plus a few live ones from a distance, but never before had I seen a so very nearly fresh carcass from up close. And never before had I known the name of the deceased.

Her name was Pivot.

Pivot was a humpback whale of the northwest Atlantic, one of the most closely-studied whale populations on Earth. Scientists catalogue these whales individually, recognizing them by the unique color patterns of their tails, and document their lives as individuals, by name. Pivot was first catalogues thirteen years ago, in the Gulf of Maine. I have not been able to find out how old she was then, but somebody knows. My husband thought he’d heard that she was three to five years old when she died, which she obviously was not, but perhaps that was her age when she was named–if so, then she was a juvenile back then, no longer with her mother but not yet sexually mature. Humpbacks have surprisingly rapid lives, for such large animals, growing up and growing old only a little more slowly than horses.

Pivot was often spotted in the Gulf of Maine. I’ve heard her referred to on the news recently as a “Gulf of Maine whale,” but really humpbacks are migratory. Seen or not, recognized or not, she often swam south, past my home in Maryland, to the Caribbean, to breed in waters warm enough for the comfort of calves. But there is no food for a humpback past weaning age in the Caribbean, so through the long months of her motherhood, Pivot did not eat, returning north to food only when her baby was old enough to stand the cold. After Pivot reached sexual maturity at around age five, she likely had a baby every two or three years–closer to three than to two in more recent years. Everybody knows whales eat plankton, but actually many of them don’t, and Pivot probably mostly ate small fish. Climate change has been making small fish scarce in the Gulf of Maine lately.

She probably spent much of her life hungry.

She died at sea. No one knows why, yet, though scientists have examined her body to try to figure it out. Her remains washed up on Assateague Island about a week ago. That’s where we went to see her.

Walking to See a Whale

When my husband and I decided to go see the whale, her body lay about half a mile from the State Park parking lot. Easy peasy. By the time we actually went, we knew she’d washed north another three miles. Less easy. We set out anyway.

Lest anyone think seven miles round trip shouldn’t be challenging for ostensibly outdoorsy folk such as ourselves, let me remind you that walking in sand is different than walking on a forest trail somewhere. The sand shifts, subsides, eating the energy of impact and bending the foot into unnatural positions. You don’t notice the difficulty covering the two hundred feet or so from your beach blanket to the water on a summer vacation, but do a couple of miles and you’ll find those miles a good deal longer than miles are anywhere else.

Plus there is the monotony. The view, though lovely, does not really ever change, nor are there any landmarks to remind you of your progress. It’s very easy to convince yourself that you’ve been walking forever and will continue forever to walk, when walking on a beach.

The day was lovely, cool and crisp but not cold, sky partly cloudy, sea blue and dotted with occasional whitecaps and mats of floating foam. The waves curled and curled and curled against the sandbar just offshore, then curled and broke again against the beach to run hissing up the sand, sometimes much further than expected, prompting Chris and I to run and jump like sandpipers. The wind pushed at our backs. The sand near the water lay flat and compacted by the earlier high tide, relatively good for walking on. We made good time.

We saw few living beings. A few small birds, sanderlings or dunlins, according to Chris. A few gulls, both adult and juvenile. The beach was nearly flat, punctuated here and there by washed-up tires from the ill-conceived Ocean City fishing reef, shells of whelks and false angel-wings, and pieces of horseshoe crabs. Up there on the North End of Assateague, there is some grass up on the dunes, dead stalks of last year’s goldenrod on the flats between, but few if any bushes. No trees. The salt spray blows across the narrow island and kills almost everything.

We kept thinking we saw the whale in the distance, but it wasn’t. It was always further on.

Sometimes a trunk full of park rangers would drive past, either on patrol or going out to or coming back from the whale. We would wave. They went on without speaking.

The plan was to move the whale corpse up among the dunes where it would be less likely to attract attention from the public. Dead whales harbor bacteria, just like dead anything else, and thus are dangerous to touch. Plus even the dead of endangered species are legally protected from souvenir-collectors . We knew the rangers were attempting the move that day, and we expected to have to follow drag-marks up the sand to find and visit with the body. Instead we saw the excavator and a flock of pick-up trucks coming towards us, leaving. We found the whale still at the water-line. They’d given up. Whales are hard to move.

We saw the whale. I will tell you about that shortly, but for now I am still telling you about walking.

We’d walked three and a half miles. We still had just as far to go to get back. We had no drinking water with us, since we had not known we’d be going so far when we left the house that morning. Now the wind was in our faces and the rising tide had covered most of the compacted sand. I am called Turtle by my friends for a reason, and I get even slower as I tire. I got slower and slower and slower. Chris got farther and farther ahead. Sometimes he stopped and waited for me. Then he got farther and farther ahead again.

It didn’t help that my hips were starting to hurt. I don’t have great hips. Chris told me later that my steps were getting shorter and shorter until by the end I was almost literally just putting one foot in front of the other. Maybe I was unconsciously trying to limit the swing of my hurting hips. No wonder I was slow.

But being slow, I noticed things.

A piece of oyster shell left from hundreds of years ago, when the whole island was farther east and these sands lay in the marsh behind the island. Its inner surface was smooth and black and almost iridescent. I carried it awhile and showed it to Chris next time he waited for me. A chip of quahog clam shell, likewise once living in the marsh, all worn away by time and accident except for an irregular piece the size of a quarter, brilliant purple and yellow. Wet from a tumble in seawater, its colors shone. An object I at first took for some kind of dried-up vegetation, perhaps a yucca leaf (yuccas can grow here, though I am aware of none on the island), long and twisted and fibrous. On closer examination I spotted two bulbous eyes at one end, the sweep of a shriveled tail fin at the other.

It was a skate or a ray, its body dried, its wings ripped away. The shape of the tail, delicate but definitely finned, not whip-like or rat-like, identified it as a skate. The tip of the head, yellowish and translucent, identified it as a clear-noted skate. It was about two feet long. Chris said they’re usually bigger, and that people catch them when surf fishing but leave the bodies on the beach.

“That’s wrong,” I said. “It’s very wrong to kill an animal and not eat it.”

The Whale

The whale wasn’t very big, for a whale, only about thirty feet long. Humpbacks get to fifty-five feet.

The reason I know how big humpback whales get is that when I was a kid one of my teachers decided we ought to have a life-sized model of a humpback whale hanging from the ceiling. She had a thing for marine biology and a somewhat impulsive nature full of grand and sometimes wonderful plots and ideas. And so we rolled out fifty-five feet of brown paper. I could draw well, and so I was asked to draw the shape of the whale on the paper–the fifteen-foot-long flippers, the broad tail flukes, the body that got wider and wider and wider until we needed three sheets of paper side by side to accommodate it, and still it wasn’t enough. Ann (the teacher) said our whale would have to be thinner than a real one.

We cut out and then stapled together two whale outlines, one for the top, one for the bottom, then stuffed the whale with wadded-up newspaper and painted the top black and the bottom white. Other kids helped, but I did all of the drawing and a lot of the painting. I don’t remember who hung the thing from the ceiling or how, but there it hung for two years until one day Ann decided to have the whole thing taken down and stuffed in the dumpster. Thus I learned both the size of a humpback whale and the dangers of impulsivity.

I wonder what has happened to Ann? I have not heard from her or of her in close to twenty years. She sent a written eulogy to be read at the funeral of my sister’s classmate, Emma, but nothing, all these years later, to my sister’s funeral. I assume she did not know of it. She might have already had her own funeral, for all I know.

If anybody has heard of Ann Brown, formerly of Newark Delaware, give a shout.

So, anyway, about the real whale, Pivot.

She was small, as I said, about thirty feet, and lying belly-down, longways against the incoming surf. Her tail moved freely, shifting when the wavelets came in, almost as if she were still alive. But her massive lower jaw was grounded, stuck immobile in the sand, the upper jaw oddly sunk into her own mouth. I suspect the jaw had become dislocated, possibly by the rangers’ attempt to move the body.

Her blow-holes (two, in baleen whales) were closed. Her eyes were also closed. Did anyone slip a coin under her tongue for the ferryman?

She was almost entirely black, what I could see of her, big around as a bus, mostly rubbery-smooth-looking, though the skin had been damaged in places, and the scientists had cut out a divot of a tissue sample to examine later back at some lab. The hole appeared pale pink, bloodless. She had a few small white patches, including some white circles on her lower face the exact shape and size of barnacles. The reason I know the shape and size of whale barnacles–which are much larger than those I find on rocks and pylons and the backs of horseshoe crabs along the shore–was that several remained on her tail.

I was trying to get a good look at her tail when Chris warned “ocean!” just as a wave sloshed around the whale, over the hump of sand that hand formed in her lee, and down into the low place scoured out around her tail. I leapt out of the way. I couldn’t get a good view after that, because every time I got close another wave would come in. The tide was still rising.

Chris said it was time to go–we had to get back by four, for various reasons.

“I’m not done yet!” I exclaimed, but eventually I bowed to the logic of the situation and compromised with my desire to stay by walking away while whining like a child.

We’d made it perhaps two hundred feet when I realized several things:

1) I had to go back

2) I had to go back with a definite objective so that once I’d accomplished my objective I would be able leave with a quite heart

3) to accomplish my objective (to answer several questions through close observation), I’d have to take my shoes off and stand in the rising seawater.

Yes, the water was cold.

I learned thus that the trailing edge of the tail looked nibbled-upon, rather than merely bumpy, a series of irregular indentations as though somebody had taken a giant hole-punch to the edge there–but that the edges of the nibbles were not open or raw. Either the nibbles were old, or that really was her natural tail-shape.

I learned that the barnacles on her tail flukes were not just much larger than the familiar kind, but that their outer plates were fused into a solid circle like a permanent, white sandcastle, and that two of them had open doors, their filtering organs hanging limply, obviously dead. 

I learned that the skin around pivot’s mouth was cracked, perhaps split by sun and wind, and that the wrinkled gray stuff in her mouth and beside her head on the seaward side, stuff that to me looked very much like the scummy foam that forms when boiling a pot of black beans, was almost certainly loose, detached skin. I could see no part of her body that was missing its skin, but perhaps those parts were underneath.

Observing became difficult. The rangers had left an orange float attached to her tail by a yellow strap, and as the waves came in the strap ends looped through the water and threatened to tangle up my feet. Water broke over the huge barrel of the body, streaming down the sides and jumping off otherwise invisible irregularities in the gradually degrading hide, making it look as though the body were spurting through pinhole leaks. Every time a wave struck, the whole whale except the grounded lower jaw would wobble like a waterbed. Was the body liquefied inside? Might it pop? I’ve heard of such things. I grew nervous.

There was almost no scent of rot, even from down wind. It’s February, and the low temperatures have kept bacterial growth slow. Maybe.

The thing I want to get across, aside from, or even in spite of, all these technical details of skin and flesh and damage, was that this body was largely intact when I saw it–it looked like a whale. Not a piece of a whale or a remnant of a whale, as with the skulls I’ve seen or the mass of flesh literally noisy with maggots that so fascinated me for some days years ago, but a whale. A real, recently alive, individual whale, that I saw up close just the other day. I could have touched her face. I saw the wrinkles of her tightly closed eyelids.

This was Pivot, wrecked like a ship upon our shore.

A photo of me standing near a dead humpback whale. The whale is about thirty feet long, mostly black but with long, white flippers, and looking a bit deflated but otherwise intact. I'm wearing a trench coat and looking unfortunately lumpy. The whale is right on the edge of the water, with waves breaking against the whale and kicking up spray. The sea is a dark, muted blue with white spray and foam, and the sky is covered by bluish cloud. It is a side view of the whale. I'm looking away from the camera.
The two images in this postMe standing near a dead humpback whale. The whale is about thirty feet long, mostly black but with long, white flippers, and looking a bit deflated but otherwise intact. I'm wearing a trench coat and looking unfortunately lumpy. The whale is right on the edge of the water, with waves breaking against the whale and kicking up spray. The sea is a dark, muted blue with white spray and foam, and the sky is covered by bluish cloud. The picture is mostly from the front. A round, orange float is visible near the tail. I'm looking away from the camera.

 

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Science, Fiction, and Football

We’re just over a week past the Superbowl, a football game that is a virtual national holiday here in America. Not only do all serious football fans watch it (whether or not they like either of the teams playing), but so do a lot of other people. They watch for the commercials. They watch for the spectacle. They watch because their family members are watching and joining in beats hiding in the basement.

I’m in that last group. I know very little about the game and care less, though I do think my husband is cute when he gets all excited and shouts at the TV.

But I do watch, and I’ve noticed something; all the pre-game discussion, all the commentary, all the associated televised events (Puppybowl, anyone?) is all predicated on the assumption that everyone in the viewing audience understands and enjoys football. There is no attempt to explain the game to the unfamiliar, no attempt to appeal to people who might be turned off by all that macho chest-beating, no attempt, in any way, to gain new fans from among those not naturally drawn to the sport–even though they must know there are people who don’t like football who are watching the game.

Why not?

I’ll hazard a guess. First of all, there are enough people who do like football. I’m sure advertisers would like a larger audience to work with, but it’s really not necessary. Second, and maybe more important, the Superbowl Sunday show is for football fans. It’s for people who know and understand football, who enjoy the game and the talk about the game and probably all that macho chest-beating, too. They want Superbowl Sunday to be full of football, not diluted by non-football programming that might appeal to the non-fans of the room.

I’m OK with this. Not everything has to suit my personal tastes, I like it when my husband has something to shout at the TV about, and I’ve got plenty of time on other days to watch Rachel Maddow or Star Trek.

So why doesn’t the same logic apply to science?

I’ve been thinking about this because once again intelligent and well-informed people are telling me by books are “too sciency” and ought to be altered to appeal to people who don’t really like science. I could have more readers if I chose a more popular topic, they say, and I may be able to turn some people on to science who don’t yet realize they might like it.

They may be right. I could have more readers if I wrote less obviously about science–but I wouldn’t have you readers, because you like science. That’s why you picked up my books, right? They’re sciency.

I’ve already explained to my allies and advisors that our marketing strategy must involve finding the people who do like what I write about, not trying to convince the people who don’t. I’ve also explained that science-based fiction by other writers regularly lands on the New York Times bestseller list, including Overstory, which became a #1 bestseller not that long ago. What might broadly be called science-based creative non-fiction does very well, too–everything from XKCD to Mythbusters testifies to the large size of the potential readership here. Sir David Attenborough is one of the most popular human beings on the planet. He talks about science.

But at the moment, I’m not talking to them. I’m talking to you.

You who probably like science. You who may in fact be scientists. You who have scientist heroes, scientist crushes, whole evenings devoted to discussing the finer points of mushroom identification (or whatever your current interest happens to be). I see you. And I remember that many of you have likewise told me that my books–or even your books are too sciency for “them” to enjoy.

As if we somehow do not count, even to ourselves.

Look, I get it. We’re geeks. We grew up being told that “nobody” likes what we like, that if we wanted to connect with or appeal to others, we would need to modulate, translate, or interpret ourselves. And indeed there is a time and a place for translation and interpretation–outreach to people who don’t yet understand, or even necessarily like, science is important. In fact, though I usually write for people who like science, I don’t assume my readers know very much about it. But it’s not true that nobody likes what we like–because we like it. And we’re somebodies.

Sportsfans are aware that not everybody likes what they like, and they’re OK with that. Most like and respect folks who don’t follow sports, and every one I’ve ever talked with has been happy to explain the basics to a curious non-fan. But they are comfortable with the legitimacy of their fanhood. They are comfortable talking to each other with the assumption of shared interest.

Science geeks aren’t.

It’s time we learned a few things from the sportsfans.

 

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From the Grumpy Editor Department: What Is–and Is NOT–a Field Guide

Alright, actually this is not me being a grumpy editor so much as a grumpy reader, but being an editor is what enables me to think carefully and critically about what the books that irritate me are doing wrong. I can then shake my fist and shout the literary equivalent of “get off my lawn!” with intelligent accuracy.

The current target of my ire? Field guides that don’t work because they aren’t real field guides.

What a Field Guide Is

Field guides are unusual (though not quite alone) among books in that they are not designed simply to be read–rather, they are tools developed for a specific use. While a field guide can also be good or bad in all the other ways books can be good or bad, the central criterion must be whether the guide can fulfill its function.

A field guide is a book (or an app or an audio recording–the medium is not really important) that can be carried out into the world and there used to look up the identity of some previously unknown thing.

There are good and useful books that don’t fit this definition, but they aren’t field guides. What irks me is they are sometimes sold as if they were, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether a book is a real field guide without reading it first. The best names in the industry (Peterson’s, Audubon), sometimes produce field guides that aren’t field guides. I end up paying good money for a book that is not the kind of book I want.

A good example of a real field guide is Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, by Lawrence Newcomb. You don’t need to know anything about a flower other than that it is a flower in order to figure out what it is using the book, assuming it is one of the species the book covers (no guide covers everything). Answering a couple of simple questions, such as whether the leaves are smooth-edged or not, gives you a three-digit number which takes you to a group of pages listing all the species that look vaguely like yours. Then you can read through the descriptions and find a good match.

Similarly, I remember a field guide to birds (I forget which one) that offered a series of stylized bird silhouettes. You picked the one that looked like the bird you were interested in, went to the right section of the book, and looked through pictures. You didn’t have to know a grebe from your elbow to use the book.

It’s not that guides are by definition introductory–there are guides that assume a fair degree of technical knowledge and even require the use of specialized equipment. But there is one thing no field guide worth the name can require the user to know:

The name of the thing you want to look up.

What Is Not a Field Guide

I have a book that professes to be a field guide to birds’ nests. It does, indeed, provide lots of interesting information on the nests and eggs of many different birds. But there is no way to look up a nest if you don’t know the name of the bird that made it–the book is organized by no other principle. It’s not a bad book. If you want to know what a white-throated sparrow nest looks like you can look it up here. You can also read the book through, learn its contents, and become a person who knows a lot about bird nests. But if you’re standing in the woods looking at a nest and wondering which bird built it, the book is close to useless.

It’s not a field guide.

I’d call it a hand book or a field reference, because it’s small enough to carry in a backpack. A lot of supposed field guides are actually handbooks. A non-field guide could also be a desk reference if it were too big to carry easily or if it relied exclusively on the use of lab equipment for identification. There are field guides in good standing that include information on microscopic or chemical features (these are important for mosses, liverworts, and fungi) but they can also be used in the field to make preliminary identifications.

I’m not sure why books that aren’t field guides get labeled as such, but the problem is not just words. I have a book, which I will not name, that purports to be a “field guide to birds, mammals, trees, flowers, and more.” Everything about its presentation suggests that it is equivalent to familiar guides from the same publisher on more narrowly-defined topics, like birds, and that it uses the same tried-and-true system that those other books do. BS, clearly. Obviously, no single field guide could cover birds, mammals, trees, etc., and in fact this one doesn’t–instead, it’s a guide to forest types, a topic that requires a very different approach (an approach that may or may not be properly called a field guide). The authors’ attempt to shoehorn forest types into a system designed for species identification results in a book that is unnecessarily hard to use.

Now, Get off My Lawn!

If you want to avoid irritating me, in future please restrict the phrase “field guide” only to actual field guides. Call other things something else. That way, when I go to buy a book, I get what I’m looking for.

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Size Matters in Fiction

The Polar Express is not a wholly bad movie.

It’s visually gorgeous, the characters are mostly interesting and sweet, and the premise (that there is a magical train that picks up certain lucky children on Christmas Eve and takes them to visit Santa at the North Pole) is wondrous. I’ve been known to more or less enjoy watching it. But I’ve also been known to spout off about the movie’s shortcomings for minutes at a time.

My negative reaction might seem surprising given that I like the original book without reservation. So what does the book have that the movie doesn’t?

Brevity.

In the book, the young narrator simply describes being picked up by the train, looking out the window and drinking hot chocolate with the other children, meeting Santa, receiving a gift, and returning home. There isn’t really a plot. There is no challenge to overcome, no source of tension to grapple with. It’s a small book, mostly occupied by gorgeous pictures, and its brief text offers no particular editorial take or philosophical position.

It takes less than ten minutes to read aloud, and a dramatization could conceivably be stretched to twenty, but no further. It would have made a cute and lovely short.

But for reasons unknown, somebody decided to make a feature film on this thing, putting the writers in the uncomfortable position of having to fill a huge amount of time. So there are fully-developed characters. There are musical numbers. There are moral lessons. There are multiple edge-of-the-seat crises involving caribou, a lost cotter pin, cracking ice, and a rail line that abruptly becomes a rickety roller coaster.

And there is a definite plot. In order to have a plot, there must of course be a problem to deal with, and there is one; the narrator is having a crisis of faith. He is struggling to believe in Santa Claus. The moral center of the movie is the importance of belief—not just innocent I-don’t-know-any-better credulity, but belief as a deliberate, willed act. The boy must decide to believe in Santa, and until he does he can neither catch a glimpse of the man (though everyone else in the crowded square can see him and is joyously reacting to his appearance) nor can he hear the bells of the magical sleigh.

OK, first of all, this boy boards an obviously magical train (it pulls to a stop on his front lawn, where there aren’t normally any train tracks) and goes to a city at the North Pole populated by elves, and he doesn’t believe in Santa? Why not? Under the circumstances, belief would seem to be the only rational option. Where else could the train be going? Why else could it be going by?

Fantasy is one thing, and can easily allow the impossible, but the unbelievable is something completely different and fatal to fiction.

But more seriously, I personally find the idea of a crisis of faith in Santa Claus offensive. The thing is, the adults who made the movie can’t possibly believe in Santa Claus themselves, meaning they made a movie about the supreme importance of a belief they themselves did not possess.

Did they simply have no investment in their movie’s moral at all, or did they sincerely hold that the object of belief doesn’t matter, so long as one believes something? No wonder the United States is having an utter failure of critical thought and scientific education.

To be clear, the book does make clear that people who don’t believe in Santa cannot hear the sleigh bells, suggesting that belief itself has a magical power to reveal some wondrous and otherwise inaccessible truth—a well-established trope and not entirely off-base. And while the narrator of the book never actually doubts Santa, as his movie counterpart does, the story does present belief in Santa as intrinsically important. The movie never actually contradicts the story presented in the book, it just offers a creative extrapolation. It’s an extrapolation many people seem to like, as the movie was popular when it came out.

But when extrapolating enough to stretch ten minutes of material into an hour and a half, or whatever the run-time is, it’s almost inevitable that the movie will become something the book wasn’t—something I, for one, do not like.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas suffered a similar fate. The animated version is about twenty minutes long, and is basically a dramatic reading of the book, plus some musical numbers and some extra visual jokes. The more recent live-action version is a full-length movie starring Jim Carey in the title role, and I’m not the only Dr. Seuss fan who’s not fond of it. I don’t have any philosophical objection, but the movie makes explicit that which the book leaves either implicit or actually mysterious (what is the Grinch? Why does he live up there?) and such explanations are almost never a good idea.

The reason I bring all of this up is to draw attention to an aspect of creative writing that seldom gets a lot of attention; the size of the story.

It’s possible to radically change the size of some stories; Isaac Asimov’s short story, The Bicentennial Man, morphed smoothly into the novel, The Positronic Man, and both Heidi and Black Beauty have been pared down from novels to little picture books without much loss of flavor. But by and large, size matters; as happens in biology, ecology and some aspects of physics, changing the scale of a thing beyond a certain point will often fundamentally change its behavior, and not always for the better.

When movie adaptations of novels fail, it’s often (not always) because the necessary reduction in size forced the elimination of something important. Apparently, expansion in size can be just as bad, if not worse. I’m not sure what this cultural obsession with turning everything into movies is, especially given that we have other formats that offer other size options—a novel that won’t fit in a movie format could do well as a mini-series, while short stories can make very good shorts. Perhaps money is involved.

In any case, the important thing to notice is that all stories have a certain structure, a certain function, and that size is part of that structure and function.

And if you’re going to try to change a story, you have to notice how it works to begin with. Skip that step, and you might have problems.

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